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A Twisted Ladder
By Rhodi Hawk
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 Rhodi Hawk
All rights reserved.
NEW ORLEANS, 2009
SOMETHING MOVED BENEATH THE kitchen wallpaper. Madeleine was holding the phone to her ear as she tapped the spot with the back of her wooden spoon, half-expecting some kind of response under there. A skitter, perhaps, or another shift. But no. She just stared and listened to nothing while Marc waited on the line.
"It's all in your mind," he said.
She laughed and turned back to the stove, shouldering the phone to her ear so she could use both hands to stir the couche-couche. "Could be a mouse in there."
"No, it ain't no mouse," he snapped.
She paused, startled by his tone.
He said, "I'm telling you it's in your mind. You can't trust it."
Marc gave a laugh of disgust. "When you think about it, the whole damned kitchen's an illusion. What's a kitchen anyway? It ain't the walls. It ain't the floor you're standing on. It ain't even the pots or the fridge or the stove or any of that. What's a kitchen? It's air. What's any room? Air. Sectioned-off air. Trying to close off a little mess of space so you feel like there's something real there. Ain't none of it real."
Madeleine had halted in midstir on the couche and was listening, lips parted.
"You think there's something under there? You ain't gonna find it unless you do like you're putting stars to sleep. And then you'll wish you never looked."
"Putting stars to sleep?"
He was silent.
His breathing sounded tense through the Nokia. She'd never heard him speak like this before. He was a simple guy, made his living wiring houses, and had strong opinions about whether you get more action baiting redfish with shrimp or with mullet cutbait. (He would swear by the former.) Marc liked to talk about those sorts of things. Not sectioned-off air.
Finally, he said, "Yeah."
"You all right?"
A sharp sigh through his nose. "I want you to listen to me Madeleine."
"I'm listening. I'm here. Please tell me what you would like to say to me."
"Don't you start talkin' like a shrink now. I ain't one of your patients."
She let go of the wooden spoon and the end of it fell to the side of the pan with a soft clang. "All right, I didn't mean to sound that way. I'm just listening as your sister. OK?"
When he didn't reply she added, "Mudhead?"
Another sharp breath, possibly a laugh, but it sounded more like a snort of frustration. She stared out the steamed window, nothing but vague shapes moving on the city street beyond the porch. Beads formed and chased trails of clarity down the glass.
Marc said, "I just want you to hear me when I say there ain't no goddamned mouse in that wall."
"OK. I hear you honey. Is there something else?"
He didn't reply.
She said, "Marc, why don't you tell me what's going on?"
"I want you to come on out here to Houma."
"You got it."
He released his breath, but when he spoke again his voice sounded more resigned than satisfied. "OK. OK. That's good. What're you cooking anyway?"
"Same old. Couche-couche and boudin."
"Should've known. You always do breakfast at suppertime, and dinner in the morning."
"You want me to bring you a plate? There's lots."
"Made extra, did you? In case Daddy shows up with a bunch of tramps off the street?"
"Tramps gotta eat, too. If they don't show up hungry now it's just a matter of time before they do."
She picked the spoon back up and gave it another stir, the smell of sausages filling her nose. Must have filled Jasmine's nose too, because the little white terrier padded in from the living room and cocked her head at the stove.
Marc said, "Well go ahead and eat. But hurry. Then come on out if you would. Don't bother with making me a plate."
"You sure you're all right?"
"It's fine. Just fine."
He was lying of course. Marc wouldn't be talking this way if things were fine. But she saw that some of the shapes through the window were looming closer, and though she could see only his outline, Madeleine recognized her father's jaunty gait.
"Speak of the devil. Daddy's coming."
"With a bunch of tramps off the street?"
She squinted. "Can't see but it looks like he's got at least one."
Madeleine said, "Look, I'm still gonna head out there to Bayou Black, OK?"
"All right, don't let'm talk you into dawdling."
"Love you, baby."
"Love you, too."
She set the phone on the counter, waiting to hear the front door open, wondering. She turned and looked at the bubble in the wallpaper again. Swollen and bloated from rot in the walls. This wasn't the first time she'd noticed movement — or at least a sense of something between the framing boards and the bulge on the old Victorian print. Once she'd even put her stethoscope to it, but had heard nothing.
"One last room to restore," she said to the wallpaper bubble, and she thought of Marc's strange words about illusions of rooms.
Trying to close off a little mess of space so you feel like there's something real there.
Jasmine barked and ran for the foyer. The front door opened.
* * *
BAYOU BLACK, 2009
THE SOLUTION WAS SIMPLE: He would kill his sister. Simple, not easy.
Marc kicked the documents to the side, causing them to tear beneath his foot as he cleared the wood floor. He spread the quilt. A riot of triangles, squares, and circles, all in competing colors. He turned it over so the patterns faced the floor and the barren underside of fabric showed. The cloth now lay clean and white.
He smoothed out the corners and upon it, began to disassemble his shotgun, neatly laying each black piece in a row.
Marc and Madeleine had always protected each other before. This is how he would protect her now. He checked the clock. They'd spoken an hour ago, and the drive from New Orleans would take her about that long. Assuming Daddy didn't keep her, she'd be arriving soon. He twisted the lid from the bottle and dabbed fluid onto a cotton cloth.
"Just talk to her," the other one said. "You're acting insane."
Marc hunched his shoulders and almost laughed out loud at that one, but he was shaking too hard and needed to concentrate. A tricky matter, this ... what do you call it? He thought hard on the word for killing your own sister. Your own beloved, ruined. ...
And the other one said, "Don't you think this is a little extreme? Chrissake, talk to her first."
Marc did not respond, a habit he'd been striving to perfect. To be able to ignore the other one, truly ignore him — if only he could. He focused on the tools in his hand and the motion of the cloth through the barrel.
"I don't get it," the other one said. "You electrocute somebody who doesn't even die, and that bothers you. That you had a problem with. But you think you can kill your own sister and yourself, and that's supposed to be poetic?"
"Shut up, shut up!"
A memory of the shuddering transformer. He'd very nearly killed his own journeyman electrician — caused him terrible agony — and it had been no accident. And yet it had seemed right and just. What would Madeleine think if she knew the truth? Was she, too, capable of such a thing?
Marc forced it all out of his mind: the memory of the electrocution, the staring motifs in the records he'd read. He shoved all of it aside to the corners of his mind. He tried to ignore the other one's taunting prattle, and the damn chattering of the birds and insects outside that never, ever ceased. The metallic scent of cleaning fluid bit at his nostrils.
Marc removed even the tiniest speck of dust. The gentle movement of the cloth through the barrel. The way the parts lay cleanly organized. The trigger. The spring. The firing pin.
"You're pathetic, you know that? A stupid, sniveling —"
The words tumbled away under a sudden thunder of music. Marc hadn't moved toward the radio on the counter. Hadn't even set down the barrel brush. A pinch in his mind, and the radio came on.
But it didn't help much. The words kept coming.
"Marc, listen to me. What makes you think she's like you, anyway?"
God, those words, they keep coming and coming. The radio hadn't stopped it. The voice skipped past the filter of Marc's ears and lodged inside his mind.
"What if you're wrong, Marc? Did you ever think of that? What if you're wrong about her and you kill her?"
Marc squeezed his eyes shut, increasing the sound of the radio until it reached maximum volume. Music crackled and vibrated throughout the sinew of the tiny house. But not enough. Like a worm swaying in an ear of corn, the other one's words stood out, insisting to be heard.
"She's your sister, Marc, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's the same as you. She's different."
Not different enough, Marc thought. He had to save her, spare her what he'd gone through. Was going through now.
One by one, he fit the pieces of the .12 gauge back together. He checked the clock. A full hour since he had called — plenty of time for Madeleine to get here. Adequate time to shake his resolve.
He looked at his hands, trembling, capable of murder. Those hands were familiar with this process. He'd used them to close a circuit that sent twenty thousand volts through a human body. But he'd not yet successfully completed a kill. He'd failed, and he didn't even know whether that failure was a good thing or a bad thing.
He'd grown so weary of this oil slick in his gut, this chronic uncertainty. Wanted to be clean of it. Even the very tools that had helped him build his livelihood as an electrician — honest tools, solid and otherwise devoted to constructive work — even they had become stained. God, he wished they could be clean again.
Maddy would never know this feeling. He would save her. He could spare her this.
He would take her to the womb of the Delta. They would lie down under the gray silken depths and give their bodies to the creatures of Bayou Black, sleeping on the broad, soft bed of clay that lay beneath the forest.
"This doesn't make sense, Marc. Just talk to her."
Marc said, "Sororicide. That's what you call it when you murder your sister."
But his words were lost under the blare of the radio, and his hands kept moving as if they could guide his thoughts. Each part of the shotgun clicked into place until it once again formed a single unit. So clean now. Marc stood, fingers shaking, and loaded the shells, half of them dropping into a snowdrift of papers. He folded the quilt, allowing the geometric shapes to glare back into the room again. He walked to the front room and checked the window.
Still no sign of her. He wasn't sure how much longer he could wait like this. Perhaps he should get out his tools, try to scrub away the killing truth in them.
"Ah, Maddy," he whispered.
For all those years, Bayou Black had given them sustenance. Fish, crab, snakes. Growing up, Marc and Madeleine lived like orphans, and could not have survived without hunting and fishing. Now they would lay down their own bodies to this cycle. They would take the boat out into the bayou, to a sacred place they once shared with their childhood friend. A special place. A secret place known only to them.
He would end it for her first. He would spare her any fear. Then he would turn the shotgun on himself while the creatures waited in the shadows. Together they would honor the cycle.CHAPTER 2
BAYOU BLACK, 2009
Madeleine Sped South Toward Houma. She tried yet again to call her brother, but he still wasn't answering the phone. She felt a spark in her jaw and realized she'd been grinding her teeth.
The city shrank back into the haze, an occasional wink in her rearview mirror, and the swamp-rimmed highway drew her deeper into the land of her childhood. She would tell her brother about the joke Daddy played on her.
Her mind flashed an image of Daddy Blank's mischievous expression; she barked out a laugh. Yes, she'd tell Marc how their father had gotten her good.
Daddy's bloodhound sense must have told him he'd find couche-couche on the stove. But this time the friend Daddy'd dragged along wasn't just some street tramp.
"This is Ethan Manderleigh," Daddy'd told her, and she'd regarded them both with restrained impatience.
She'd ladled up two plates of couche-couche with cane syrup, tucking in some steaming links of boudin, and set them on the kitchen table.
"I gotta head out," she'd said, which was the stupidest thing she might have done.
Telling Daddy you're in a hurry was like showing a year's bank statements to an RV salesman, and she'd seen his eyes alight at the opportunity to bait her. Too quick to light, in fact. She resisted the urge to start in on him: Have you been taking your meds, Daddy? With the upcoming testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, he'd darn well better be taking his meds.
"Oh, we don't wanna keep ya," Daddy'd said, but his devil-tail smile was already on the curve. "You don't have any sweet tea in the fridge, do you darlin?"
She didn't, but it would only take but a minute to throw together.
She cut a look at Daddy's new captive, Ethan Manderleigh, who fidgeted like a duke forced to share a farmer's table. Like Maddy, he was dark-haired and approaching thirty. But while Madeleine's eyes were blue, his were hazel, and Madeleine suspected the only blue in him would be found in his blood. She belonged to a family of mixed race: mulattos. He looked the opposite: purebred white, old money New Orleans. He leaned over and petted Jasmine under the table.
Daddy's collection of people always proved eclectic. He could play poker with the governor at lunch and drink from a brown paper bag with parolees by supper. He'd explained that Ethan had joined the Historic Preservation Society, confirming Madeleine's suspicion that he was some spoiled trust fund recipient. Tall, square-jawed, no doubt self-absorbed and stifling. Madeleine actually preferred when Daddy brought home street people.
But to his credit, Ethan Manderleigh seemed embarrassed at having intruded.
"It goes against my upbringing to take advantage of someone's hospitality," Ethan had said. "Come on, Daddy Blank, let me treat ya at Willie Mae's. And then we can treat your daughter here another time."
"It's all right," Maddy had said, mollified. "I'm just going to put out some sweet tea and then I'll leave y'all to it."
And that's when she discovered a tree frog in the sugar bowl. Nearly broke the china when the thing leapt out at her.
Daddy'd guffawed and slapped his leg. She had no idea how he'd managed to slip a frog in there without her catching him. But once she regained composure, Madeleine had given in to a good laugh herself. Poor Ethan, unaccustomed to Daddy Blank's antics, looked positively ashen — like he feared Madeleine might swoon. As if she was some fainting belle who had never worn pigtails and caught tadpoles in the mud flats.
The shock on Ethan's face, that appalled get-the-smelling-salts-and-begin-the-rites-of-contrition look of horror, had sent both Daddy Blank and Madeleine into shuddering, tear-streaked, belly-cramping hysterics.
Daddy'd abused his chance to score a glass of sweet tea, but Maddy did pour some Coca-Cola for all of them, and had even ladled herself a plate to eat alongside her father and Ethan Manderleigh. She'd settled in, thinking a few minutes' indulgence wouldn't hurt.
"Well, at least you're not afraid of toads," Ethan had said.
"Gray tree frog, actually," Madeleine replied. "Hyla versicolor. Or so the field guide calls it."
Ethan raised a brow. "A woman who knows her amphibians. You sound like you have a scientific mind. Are you in that line of work?"
"Actually," Daddy said as he slipped a piece of boudin under the table for Jasmine, "you two are kind of in the same business. Madeleine's a head shrinker and Ethan here is a head cutter."
Madeleine looked at Ethan. "What on earth is that man talking about?"
Ethan said, "I'm a neurologist."
"Oh. Where do you practice? One of the hospitals here in town?"
Ethan shook his head. "On staff at Tulane."
"I am too. In the Department of Psychology."
"So I heard. I also heard you're an activist."
Madeleine smiled. "Not really. Daddy and I are gonna testify before the House Ways and Means Committee, but it's hardly activism. Just trying to get funding for a special cause."
"What cause is that?"
She'd shrugged, but Daddy said, "It's all right honey, he knows."
Madeleine said, "It's what I call cognitive schizophrenia. The same condition Daddy has. But the testimony will be broader. We're just trying to get as much support as we can for our organizational affiliate, the Association for Psychological Discovery."
"Cognitive schizophrenia," Ethan said. "You know, I've actually read about that. There was an article in The Window Inside a few months back."
Madeleine nodded. "That was mine. I've been trying to get the word out as much as possible before the testimony."
When they'd finished their sausage and couche (and Maddy'd rinsed the wretched frog and put him 0outside by the courtyard pond), she'd been surprised at how much time had passed since she'd hung up with Marc.
Excerpted from A Twisted Ladder by Rhodi Hawk. Copyright © 2009 Rhodi Hawk. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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