TWA #7 – Short Story “What Must Be Done” by Amber Keller

What Must Be Done

Let me ask you this, if you lost the love of your life, what would you do to get them back?

The answer for me was anything.

Five days ago life was different. Julie and me were happy, preparing for the wedding, excited about our life, then the driver of a black BMW changed all of that.

Julie hadn’t made it through the accident. Her spine had almost severed. They said she didn’t suffer. My head wound left me with most of my hair shaved off and a long, black scar that wrapped almost from ear to ear, crudely stapled shut.

We were supposed to get married next month, have some kids, get old and die holding each other’s hands. I couldn’t go on without her.

Now the days were long and the nights were longer. I only ate when the pain in my stomach refused to let me ignore it, and I didn’t sleep anymore. Instead, it was more of a stare-at-the-TV-until-I-don’t-remember-anything-for-a-few-hours routine. I had taken time off at work, but that was all gone and I would have to return soon. For days I had searched for the Doc, nearly getting killed in the process. The Doc’s my last hope in getting Julie back. If he couldn’t do it… Well, he had to.

This is what has me stomping through swamps in the middle of the night, searching for someone who may or may not help me undo this mess. My paid guide had left over an hour ago, refusing to go any further. He had simply pointed and told me to keep going in that direction. I felt sure if I kept walking much longer my legs would give out, but the thought of Julie, of her smiles and her laugh, propelled me.

***

This is stupid.

This is ridiculous.

This’ll never work.

It can’t be.

I had pushed these thoughts out of my mind so many times these last few days. I was mad at myself for letting them back in. Grumbling out loud about my doubts as I plod along, the sudden warm glow of a fire ahead cleared my head. As I neared I could see that it was a ramshackle camp. At a good vantage point, I sat and watched. There was a large tent, and an old, grungy pop up. Slow and low I stepped in. There were chicken carcasses hanging from their legs, no heads at the bottom. When I stepped out into the clearing, the crunch of my foot on the underbrush beneath me signaled a slew of whoops and yells that erupted from all directions.

A small number of people, their hair wild and entwined with leaves and twigs, filthy, ragged clothes trailing behind them, were coming for me. I turned to run but stumbled on a thick root and fell hard on my chest. Hands fluttered around my legs, torso and shoulders, lifting me in the air and carried me around the fire accompanied by a chorus of odd sounds. They led me to the front of the tent and put me down on my feet, holding onto my legs up to the hips. Once I was steady they grew silent. The green fabric of the tent shuddered, and the flap pushed open. Out came an older man, folded over. He straightened himself as he stood in front of me. An old wound that left a silver scar running the length of his face sliced through his right eye creating a horrific patchwork quality. His teeth were long, stained and yellowed. He was wearing cut off blue pants and sandals. This was the Doc.

“You seek me?”

“Yes,” I nodded.

“Not many come for me these days.” He sneered as he looked me over, his hands on his hips. “What do you want?”

“I-I mean my wife…”

His arm rose and he waved his hand as if he were shooing flies. “I don’t do baby potions anymore. Too risky.”

He started to turn around and go back in the tent. I tried to follow him, but the hands on my legs stiffened.

“No. No, please! I didn’t come to you for a baby. I came… I came because my wife is dead.”

He stopped and turned, looking at me once again.

“I am sorry for your wife, but there is nothing I can do for you here.” He started to leave again.

“Please. PLEASE! I know you can. I want her back. I want you to bring her back for me. Please!” My words turned to sobs as I pin wheeled my arms, trying to break free.

He didn’t come any closer, but he didn’t go back in the tent.

“Please. I’m desperate. I’ll give you anything.”

The Doc walked toward me, stomping his feet. He was closer to me this time and didn’t speak until my eyes met his.

“You know nothing.” He huffed and spat at my feet.

I closed my eyes and cried.

“You think you can come here and get your wife back. Think it’s easy as that.” He snapped his fingers. “The Loa don’t take kindly to the ignorant.”

“Please. I just want her back. I can pay you.” I handed my wallet out to him.

“Your money is no good here. It’s not wealth that gets you in the favor of the spirits, no, no, it’s much more than that.” Doc turned and faced the tent, arms still by his side. “Do you really want this?”

“Yes I do. More than anything.”

“And you’ll give me anything for it?”

“Yes. Anything.” Fear stirred deep inside of me, but I pushed it away.

Doc paused then spun around, at the same time reaching into his back pocket and retrieving a cigar that he put in between his teeth. “Then it shall be done.”

Hands fell away from my legs and the group joined in an eerie, jerking dance. As they moved, black tuxedoes bearing black and purple silk squares in the pockets replaced the rags they wore.

Doc fell down on his hands and knees, growling and drooling. It was as if he was a bucking bronco, trying to throw an unseen enemy from his back.

The haunted amalgamation was steadily growing in volume and speed. Doc’s back was bending in angles not possible and I feared his spine would snap. The veins stood out on his throat as he turned his head upward and howled into the dark sky.

Doc’s high-pitched howl changed into a low throaty laugh. He rolled over onto his side, a few feet from me, his laugh becoming sinister. I was surprised to see the cigar was back in his mouth and lit this time. Doc suddenly stopped, rising smoothly, and strode toward me with a different walk, no hands on his hips this time. The crowd around us stood still.

“You are the one who dared to summon me?” His voice was deep now. Doc was staring into my face, but his eyes had turned milky white. The skin on his face slowly faded to a pale, bone color, becoming shadowed with lines that resembled a human skull. Irritation grew on his face in the shape of a snarl. I was afraid to respond.

“Answer me, weak human!” Cigar smoke burnt my nostrils and made my eyes water.

“Yes, I’m sorry, I mean I need you…”

His laughs broke into my stammering sentence, but his face was still locked in a scowl. “You seek entrance into Guinea. I am the only one who can let you in. You willing to travel with me?” A wide grin inched across his sharp face, his eyes narrowed to small slits. I thought I saw eyebrows wiggle, but there weren’t any. I had no idea what he was talking about but thought it better to agree with a nod.

“Now we do things my way.” He leaned in and blew a handful of sparkling powder into my face. It felt like something was being pulled from my mouth. He clapped his skeletal hands over his head once. “Ghede, do my bidding.”

No more words were spoken, but the crowd gathered and held me high once again. I heard a loud rumble and soon saw there was a hole forming in the ground – a long, deep, slender hole. A grave.

The darkness that surrounded me was warm and it made the hairs on my arms stand on end like static does when you drag sock feet across carpet. With no real way to discern direction I moved forward. A dim, sepia light began to spread, revealing that I was walking on a road with a broken yellow line. Black surrounded the road, and I could only see a little ways ahead, the road forming while I advanced. The road soon expanded and turned into a fork and I could see a figure in the middle. It was the same person that Doc had turned into, only now he was fully a skeleton in the face, save for the same cloudy eyes. A black top hat stood high on his head, a cigar tipped precariously out of his mouth, and he was shining an apple on his black pants. A buttoned vest covered much of his chest, his ribs leaving soft lines against the fabric. He was much shorter than my six foot frame.

“I am Papa Ghede. It was my brother Baron Samedi that you met up there,” he jerked his head upward as he spoke. “He’s not as nice as I am.” The skeletal face gave a chilling grin.

I swallowed in a parched throat, resulting in a squeaky gulp.

“You really want this girl, don’t you?” A crisp bite of the red apple left juice running down his teeth and jaw.

“I love her more than anything.”

“I know you do, or you think you do. No matter. Love is an illusion anyway.” He stopped to spit out the stem and bit down on the core, chewing and swallowing. “The good part is I know where she is; the bad part is you have to cross the Lake of Death to get into Guinea, and the Lake of Death is no fun for a mortal.”

An icy chill shot through my neck and scalp.

“You do not need to worry, just stay with me and I will take you there. But you must stay with your guides while you are in Guinea. There are things there that desire living flesh.”

***

Instantly the scene changed to a tall field of grass. In front of us was a large body of still water. Coming to the waters’ edge, the surface looked like smoked glass. No signs of life were present.
Papa Ghede walked out onto the water and the surface held him.

“Come along. You will not fall through. Yet.” I could hear a smile in his tone.

I timidly stepped onto the water and it was solid.

We walked out for a long time. No land was visible when Papa stopped.

“In order to go into the afterlife, you must be accompanied by the Loa. Do not worry, they won’t leave you. You have my word.” His deadened eyes sparkled.

The Loa began rising out of the water for as far as I could see. Their shriveled and shrunken bodies were aged and twisted. Pools of liquid splashed around their feet but I was still steady. They landed on the surface, which was solid once again, and walked toward me. Their arms guided me to come with them and the surface became liquid, pulling us down.

I could no longer breathe. Cold water filled my lungs until they burned, starved for oxygen. I clawed at my throat, fighting the urge to pull the water into my lungs. Just when I thought I could hold on no more, we broke through the surface and were flung onto an embankment.

The Loa were walking ahead, and I gasped for air, struggling to get back on my feet. The Loa didn’t wait.

It was gray here. No color anywhere. Trees held no leaves, and grass didn’t grow. A white orb hung in the sky, but it didn’t feel like our sun.

People, or rather shells of people, were wandering around everywhere. They parted the way for the Loa who were still silently guiding me. A few times I thought I recognized someone. Speeding up, I made my way to the front of the Loa and past.

The people started to snap out of their haze and look at me, one by one. Suddenly one of the Loa pulled me back into their crowd and hissed out, “They want your essence, your mortal life.” Its mouth never moved.

We came upon a tree that drooped toward the ground. Underneath it sat a woman in a dirty dress, her head resting on her folded arms that held her knees to her chest. Long, brown hair cascaded over her arms and down toward the ground.

I broke through the Loa and sprinted toward her.

“Julie!” I slid in next to her and pulled her onto my lap, rocking her gently and kissing her neck through her hair. “Julie, baby, it’s ok. I’m here.”

“You have her now. Let us leave.” A collection of voices answered.

***

We made it back through the Lake of Death and found Papa Ghede standing next to a very beautiful, black haired woman.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” There was that dreadful smile again.

“Now,” he walked toward me. “Where’s my payment?”

I groped for my wallet while balancing Julie on one thigh. I held it out to him in whole and he pushed it away with a laugh.

“Money is no good here. Try your other back pocket.”

I knew I hadn’t put anything in there, but I obeyed and found a cigar – a long, smooth, incredibly fragrant cigar. I held it out to him and he practically pounced on it. His tongue flicked out over his teeth as he sniffed its entire length twice.

“What? We all have our weaknesses, don’t we?” Papa winked and with a flick of his wrist, the Loa were gone.

“It’s time for you to return.”

***

Back in the camp I found myself face to face with Baron Samedi.

“You got the girl. Then again, I knew you would.” He gestured at Julie with the cigar, which was now a nub.

“Go on, take her home. I will be back for you some day. You can count on it.” He laughed so loud and deep that I hustled out of the camp, looking back over my shoulders more than a few times, if only to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

***

As the days passed, Julie wouldn’t eat and only sipped water. She mostly cried, but when she didn’t, she only stared at the ceiling. I needed help, but our friends and family knew Julie to be dead. With no one to turn to, I went back to the Doc.

When I reached his camp, there was no strange group of people to greet my arrival.

“What brings you back so soon?” His voice over my shoulder startled me.

“Something’s wrong with Julie. I can’t get her to eat. She won’t talk to me. All she does is cry all day and night. I don’t know what to do.”

Doc walked around the burned down fire. “You only wanted her back. You didn’t say how she had to be.” Doc put his hands on his hips once again.

“I didn’t know I had to!” I was starting to yell, so I backed off a little and pinched the bridge of my nose, taking deep breaths to help calm me down.

“When someone comes back from the grave, it’s a nasty affair. Their mind can’t cope with the living world again.”

“But she’s alive now, isn’t she?”

Doc shook his head. “No. She’s in the living world, but she doesn’t belong here.”

“You didn’t tell me this!” My fists pumped as my body tensed.

“You didn’t ask,” he said, laughing at my anger.

“How can I fix her? I want her back the way she used to be.”

Doc came to me and rested a hand on my shoulder. “This can’t be stopped. I am sorry.”

“What? Why? What do you mean you’re sorry?” Tears were stinging my eyes.

He started laughing wildly. His hands went up to the sides of his face, rubbing harshly, then up to his hair, clutching wildly at the short, graying mass.

I stood there watching, confused, scared and helpless. “You’re crazy. They were right. You’re just a crazy old man.”

This sent him into more bursts of laughter, his body contorting as if in pain.

Doc disappeared into the trees, leaving behind a faint echo of his laugh.

***

On my way back home I found myself in an alley I used for a shortcut. Something large moved in the darkness beside me.

Adrenalin pumping and with a yelp my fist rose in a quick reaction. My body froze as the person in front of me materialized. A top hat sat tall on a head full of black curls. Milky white eyes peered at me curiously as the face changed from female to male then back again. This strange morphing cycled a handful of times, and finally the face settled on a terrible, skull-like appearance, one I had seen before.

I backed up a step and sucked in cool air.

How did Baron Samedi get here and why?

“You ask some good questions,” he said, looking particularly pissed.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You don’t have to.” He pointed to the side of his head and tapped. “I’ve come to take her back. Her soul is rightfully mine, and I do like my souls,” Baron said with a grin.

“What? What do you mean?”

“Once a person dies, their soul is bound in my world. The soul no longer inhabits the body. It stays with me. When you asked to get her back, a deal was made, but she can’t last on earth without a soul.”

“Wait. That’s what’s wrong with her? So I can’t fix her?”

“You can’t fix the dead.”

He watched me fight tears. “Oh, it’s not fair is it, pigeon.” That same menacing smile was back. He picked at something between his teeth with a long, pointed pinky fingernail. “You humans are quite comical with your entitlement and assumed privileges. In death, there are no privileges. There is no help for her. At least nothing these mortals can offer. Come let’s get her now before she can suffer anymore.”

This was when I knew what must be done.

“But you can, can’t you? You can help her.” I dug my heels into the pavement to stop him.

Baron watched me closely.

“I was tricked. I never gave permission for this.” I ruffled his vest, cautiously.

“But you must understand that everything has a consequence,” Baron said.

“You have to take a soul back, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes.”

I gulped. “Then take mine. Take mine and give it to her.”

Baron thought for a moment.

“I see no reason why I couldn’t trade your soul for hers. She’ll come my way eventually. They always do. Until then, you’ll take her place.”

“Wait. One more thing.”

“You certainly are pushy,” Baron pushed a hand against my chest playfully and I staggered against his surprising strength.

“Will my soul fix her? I don’t want her to suffer anymore.”

Baron smiled. “A soul will fix what ails her. Come on. Now we leave.”

He wrapped his arms around me and we fell back through the concrete as it turned into a freshly dug grave. Next, I was on the planes of Guinea, sitting under a tree, maybe the same tree I had found Julie under. Baron was standing in front of me.

“You want to see her so badly, don’t you? Here, I will give you a gift.”

With a flick of his wrist, I could see a misty form of Julie in front of me. She was crying and reaching out to me, mouthing help. Her body was thin and sickly, her hair hung in strings. She was hurting.

“You said you would make her better,” I yelled, running at the Baron. An invisible force held me from him. He only laughed.

I gave up on the Baron and tried to go to Julie, but her form melted away and I fell through her.

Turning around I could see she had materialized again, still beckoning for me.

I sat down on the ground, staring at this hazy image of Julie, feeling shock, feeling nothing.
Baron walked away, disappearing into the crowd of souls, leaving me forever with her.

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: TWA #7 – Long Lost Love Battle Thread - The Writer's Arena

  2. Let me take a moment to catch my breath. That was epic, and I enjoyed reading it very, very much.

    There is so much I loved about this story:

    First off, it sets the stage well. As the prompt was about testing the limits of the heart, asking how much one would be willing to sacrifice for the one they loved, it was pretty clear from the get go that the protagonist was in for some pretty serious stuff.

    And the journey begins…oh and what a journey it is. With greater complexity at every stage you really become aware of the increasing dread of the unfortunate circumstances.

    With balanced measures of “Constantine” and “Pet Semetary”, “What Dreams May Come”, plus a little bit of “The Serpent and the Rainbow” I was drawn into the story primarily through the use of detailed descriptors for each scene, each expression, and each line of dialogue. (Not just a cigar, but an incredibly fragrant cigar, etc.) Amber Keller has a true gift for adding unique details that make a scene come to life so effectively.

    But I was also challenged by two aspects of this narrative, and in the context of constructive criticism, I offer the following:

    1.) This story begs to be longer. It seems that the intent of the story was to demonstrate the levels-deep sacrificial journey that was taken in an attempt to win back the soul of this woman, but at the same time it felt a bit constrictive as to how long (or short) this short story had to be. And so in touching on all the way-points of this journey some of it felt a bit rushed and at times I felt just a little bit conceptually lost. The author has such a gift with words, I think it would have felt even more rewarding if some of the scenes were given a bit more room to breathe…..but then I guess at that point it would perhaps no longer be so much a short story.

    2.) I didn’t feel as connected as I would have liked to the protagonist’s sacrifice, and I think it’s because I didn’t come to know much of anything about Julie, the woman for whom he was willing to give so much – so while the story naturally begins after her death, the person he remembered her to be was the overriding, all-encompassing reason for him to take this journey in the first place, and I would have liked to perhaps familiarize myself with that aspect of his pursuit – perhaps through flashbacks or something like that. Otherwise, the only picture I have of her in my mind is of a quietly waning soul in despair, which did not engender in me the sense of the person she was to him in life.

    Other than that, though, I applaud the author for so entertaining and creative an entry into the arena. And I very much look forward to seeing more of her work.

    It’s pretty awesome.

    • Funny you say that it should be longer. The contest restricted her. The real version is right around twice as long. She might send it to you if you ask nicely.

      • Yeah, I kinda felt like it was being cut here and there to conform to the restriction. Yes, I think that I will most definitely ask very nicely if she will be willing to let me peruse the words of the full version. If this condensed version is any indication, it must be a most savory read indeed.

  3. Oh how I love anything voodoo related. I wish I knew more about to say if it was accurate or not, but the world was so awesome. The underworld specifically. I loved how it looked, how it worked. I loved the Loa, and the heartbreak.Some might not call this traditional romance since it isn’t quite a happy story, but screw that. Romance to me isn’t about ‘love conquers all,’ its about getting jerked around until you die.

    Wait, I’m not quite that cynical.

    Anyway, I really dug this. Thank you so much for joining us, Amber. It’s been awesome to work with you.

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