A wedge of light was visible on the other side of the partially open door to his apartment. Peering inside, Jeremy angled himself to see that the dining room, kitchen, and living room lights had all been turned on. A dense, cloying odor of something being burned hung in the air. The clatter of heeled footsteps moved around inside. Someone was inside, and it sounded as if they were walking around in the kitchen or dining room. Everything surrounding the lock and door frame was still intact. They picked the lock?
The footsteps were softer now – farther away. Whoever it was, it sounded as if they were moving down the hall. Seeing an opportunity and hoping there was only one person inside, he pressed his hand to the face of the door and pushed it slowly open. No one was in view, but every light was on. Every visible curtain, shade, and window had been drawn open. The place hadn’t been this brightly lit in a long time. The person had moved down the hall, and it sounded as if they were slowly pacing between the bedrooms and guest bathroom.
With the intruder at that side of his apartment, he knew he wouldn’t be able to make it to his gun. If he could just make it to the kitchen, he knew there was a knife out on the kitchen counter. He struggled to hear where the other person was as his heart hammered against his chest. His mouth was bone dry. It had to be someone connected to the asshole on the motorcycle who had tried to run him down.
Jeremy crept into the apartment, his eyes wide as he took in his surroundings. Even with the patio door wide open, the unusual stench in his apartment was nearly suffocating. Halfway to the kitchen counter, he was convinced there was only one person in the place with him. Each step he took across the open space was deliberate but urgent. He stared down the hall as he moved, mentally preparing himself for the coming confrontation.
Seconds later, the kitchen knife was in his hand. It was the only one that was not in a box or drawer – a six-inch chef’s knife. It would have to do. He stepped away from the kitchen counter, his hand wrapping around the synthetic, textured knife’s handle – his thumb braced over the spine of the blade. Thankfully, the intruder’s steps seemed to be louder than his own. It reeked as if something was on fire in his apartment, but there was no smoke, and the smoke detectors were still silent.
Was that humming he heard from down the hall? As he moved toward the hall, the sound carried from his bedroom, and a feeling of heavy dread washed over him. If the intruder didn’t already have a gun, he hoped they didn’t find his. Who the hell hums while they are breaking into someone’s house?
A shadow grew longer around the edge of the hall from his bedroom, accompanied by footsteps of the approaching intruder. They were coming back down the hall. With only a moment to react, he quickly shifted his footing and moved back along the wall of the dining room, which formed a corner with the main hall – concealing himself from the corridor. His movement was off-balance and perhaps due to lingering water on one of his shoes or due to sheer clumsiness – his last step ended in a high-pitched squeak. Shit!
The footsteps halted after turning down the hall. The humming stopped. There was only quiet now as if the whole thing had been in his imagination. His pulse thundered in his ears as he strained his hearing and waited along the edge of the wall – ready to attack. It wasn’t fear that held him in place – the anger and frustration that had been building inside him was primed to react. It was a voice other than his own that finally broke the silence.
“I know you’re there. Come on out.” The voice called from down the hall.
It was a woman’s voice – vaguely familiar with a thick southern accent. Unable to immediately place the voice, he held his position – waiting in silence.
“If you don’t put that damn knife down, I will shoot your Ethan Hawke-looking ass,” the woman warned in a low voice. “With your own gun.”
The threatening tone, the bold attitude, and the accent – he knew the woman and knew her well. Josie! The tension of his body lessened as he lowered the knife to his side and stepped out into the hall. As he set the knife back down on the kitchen counter, he met the fiery glare of a shapely ebony-skinned woman standing at the opposite end of the hall.
“Josie, what the hell are you doing here?” Jeremy asked. He glanced quickly at her hands and was happy to see she did not actually have his gun. She was holding something in one hand, though – a small wrapped bundle that was smoldering along its edges. Whatever it was, it was now clear it was the source of the smell that permeated his apartment.
“Hello to you too,” Josie said with a smile. She quickly walked up to him, her arms flung wide as she wrapped him up in a firm hug. Her jet-black dreadlocks were pulled back away from her face into a ponytail, and as Jeremy returned her embrace, he could feel her hair hanging down to her waist. As she let him go, she took a step back and was careful not to burn him with the item in her hand.
“Yeah, no. I’m sorry. It’s good to see you too.” Jeremy struggled to find the right words and his breath. He could see now that it was incense and herbs wrapped and bound together, and it smelled even worse up close. He held his breath for a second as he stepped backward from the acrid fumes. Josephine Broussard – Josie – was an old friend of Nicolette’s from long before he had ever met her. The two had been close and spent time together regularly until a year ago when Josie abruptly moved back to Louisiana. Nicolette had, on more than one occasion, likened her to a sister.
Josie moved around him and set the fuming herbs into the sink. She lifted the handle, and a stream of water caused a quick hiss as the burning array of herbs and incense were extinguished. She leaned back against the kitchen counter, and her foot tapped a crumpled piece of paper, sending it behind one of the still unmoved boxes.
“Please tell me you didn’t actually move my gun,” Jeremy began. “How did you know I had a knife?” So many questions floated around in his head.
“I know where it is, just like I knew you had the knife,” she replied. “Don’t worry, I didn’t touch it. I wouldn’t need it.” Her lips broke apart into a soft but confident smile.
“So, what? You came all the way from Louisiana to burn stuff in my apartment?” Jeremy nodded his head toward the sink.
“I’m not just burning stuff,” she said and raised her hands to her chest – feigning offense. “It’s a cleansing, Jeremy. This whole place has got darkness all over.” Her index fingers gestured in large circles while she spoke.
“A cleansing?” Jeremy asked. “Thanks. My apartment smells horrible.” He leaned against the kitchen counter and grabbed two clean glasses in one hand and a recently opened bottle of scotch in the other. He lifted both up as an offering to Josie.
“I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, but you’ve left yourself wide open. This was to cleanse your home of evil.” She nodded that she would have a drink and moved over to the small table in the dining room and took a seat.
“Really, Josie? Right into the new-age shit?” Jeremy had always known she was a little strange, and more than once, he had overheard her talking to Nicolette about spirits and dreams.
“It’s not new-age anything,” she began. “I’m just trying to keep my promise.”
He already knew he was in danger and doubted someone would randomly try to run him down, but how did she know? He joined her at the table, moved all of the papers and drawings to one side in a pile, and poured them both two fingers of scotch. “What promise?”
“I promised Nic I would do what I could to look out for you.” Josie reached out and took the glass in her hand.
“It’s been six months since I’ve seen you. You don’t need to look out for me.” Jeremy almost laughed. What the hell is she talking about?
“That may be so, but Nicolette said you were in danger now. So I came here.” Josie tipped the glass up and gulped half of its amber contents down and put it back down on the table.
“What?” Jeremy blinked and leaned back in his chair slightly, his hands still resting on the bottle and his glass. “We already said goodbye. There’s nothing left to say after that. ”
“That doesn’t mean she can’t still reach out if she needed something bad enough,” Josie said as she looked down at her glass for a moment.
“That’s not funny,” Jeremy said as he poured her glass back up to two fingers and then set the bottle down. He pulled his glass up to his lips and poured the amber liquid down his throat. He could already tell he was going to want to keep drinking around Josie – her being here was bringing up old memories of Nicolette that he tried to avoid. “We both watched her get put in the ground.”
“Jeremy, I mean this in the nicest way,” Josie paused to take another drink. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she took one of Jeremy’s hands in her own. “You have no idea what that girl was truly capable of or what she gave up for you.”
Jeremy didn’t know how to react to that. He could feel furrows drawn across his brow as he stared at her – waiting and wanting to know more. He finished off his drink and poured himself another. “Tell me.”
“You’re going to have to be a lot more open-minded if we’re about to have this conversation,” Josie warned. “Hear me out, or else I will have to show you… and I don’t think you’re ready for that.”
Jeremy began working on his second drink as Josie spoke.
“Have you had any dreams of Nicolette recently? It would be something vivid and strange to you.”
Jeremy stopped and set his drink down on the table. His mouth was half-open, and he started to respond but didn’t know how to explain his recent dream about Nicolette mouthing words to him and crying. He managed to nod.
“You didn’t get the message, did you?” Josie squeezed his hand gently – reassuringly.
He took a minute to compose himself as he struggled not to break down while thinking about the dream. “It was a couple nights ago. She was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear her.”
“Listen to me,” Josie replied. “Nicolette was strong, and she foresaw something horrible happen to you. She gave up a part of herself so that it wouldn’t come to pass. My only guess is that you’re still in danger, and she is trying to warn us from the other side.”
“It was just a dream, Josie,” Jeremy began.
“No. It wasn’t.” Josie interrupted. “You may not believe much in this world, but believe and remember my words. Nicolette was a witch… like me. Not the ugly, horrible, and evil type from movies, but she was a genuine, magically-gifted woman.”
“Stop, Josie. You have clearly lost your damn mind.” Jeremy began to sit up straight to end this conversation and stand away from the table. He didn’t know what sick game Josie was playing, but it wasn’t funny. He was done listening.
“We don’t have time for this,” Josie said as she quickly moved back from the table and stood up. She picked up her glass and gulped down what liquor remained. A fleeting grimace crossed her face right before she slammed the glass back down onto the wooden table. She began to utter words – reciting something in a language that Jeremy could neither understand nor recognize. Her arms stretched out toward him and her hands flattened with the palms facing each other.
“What the hell are you doing?” he spoke louder this time with growing irritation. He struggled to think back to languages he had studied in high school and college but failed to recall anything of substance. Was that Latin?
“Hold onto the bottle,” she added as her words echoed softly throughout the space of the apartment.
Instinctively, Jeremy reached out and grabbed the bottle in one hand. The intensity of the lights wavered, flickering for an instant as a low vibration in the air began to grow in volume. The soft wavering sound shifted to a hum and then a deep, discordant pulse. Jeremy couldn’t tell if the sound was coming from the woman before him or some other unseen source, but it made every hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He moved his chair back from the table.
Josie motioned her hands slowly to the left, a single gesture, and the deep pulsing sound staggered and was gone. Everything in front of her in the dining room began to drift from where it was positioned. The dining table and chairs – including the one Jeremy sat in, began to move. An unperceived force, slid the furniture slowly across the floor until it all rested along the wall of the room.
Somewhere deep in Jeremy’s mind there was a dull, jabbing discomfort as if a worse headache were on its way. He didn’t fully understand what had just occurred or how, but his dining room furniture had just shifted several feet sideways. Dozens of questions began to spring into his mind as he stood up from the table and backed away from Josie.
“Calm down, I won’t hurt you,” Josie began as she held her hands out to her sides as a sign of peaceful intentions. “That ache in your mind will go away. I just had to cut through everything and show you. What you know about the world is not everything. Magic exists along with far darker things to be concerned about.”
Jeremy stood rigid, staring at her with wide-eyes and his arms out to his sides as if he could fall over at any moment. No words came from his gaping mouth. What he had witnessed was impossible. The questions continued to spring into his mind and tumble about, but each time he tried, he found himself unable to decide which to ask first. He needed a minute and another drink.
“Nicolette was stronger than most witches I have known, but it came at a cost. She was cursed to dream about the fates of her loved ones – including you and me.”
Jeremy’s stance softened, and a shakiness washed over his mind as if he were standing on a boat at sea. He did the most natural thing he could think of to balance himself and sat back down at the table. This has to be a bad dream.
Josie remained standing but gave Jeremy time to pour himself another drink before she continued. “She couldn’t see everything, but she saw her loved ones die before it ever happened. To Nicolette, it was never a gift. She told me that one day if I stayed in this city, I would die. It hurt her to glimpse, but she told me what she saw happen to you was worse. It haunted her.”
“This is real?” Jeremy called out as he glanced around in disbelief. He was aware now that he wasn’t dreaming. It was an alarming experience, but he was awake and he knew it.
“Yeah, honey. I’m sorry, but it is.” Josie replied glumly.
“Did what she saw come true?”
“Every time, unless the person made a drastic change,” Josie answered.
“How do I die?” Jeremy asked. His voice was a dry, raspy whisper as he lifted his drink up to his lips and took a small sip. Had Nicolette known what would happen – that Jeremy would kill himself? The sensation of waves rolling around in his mind slowly subsided as he stared blankly at the wall.
Josie walked over to the table and held onto the back of her chair with both hands. Her chocolate brown eyes still held back tears as she studied his face. “Are you sure you want to know?” she asked.
Jeremy looked up at her and slowly nodded before gesturing for her to sit once more. What was real had changed for him, and he was still trying to wrap his mind around what he had just seen. There was so much more he wanted to know – so much he needed to know.