Short Story #1
A GRIM TALE
The Curse of the Doubloons
Set sometime in the Grim Hill world…
“We’re lucky to be here, Cat…” Clive waves his arm about, as if he is our king commanding us to look around Jackson Square. I stifle a giggle when his elbow catches in his Mardi Gras beads. Clive is all about dignity. Once his arm is free, he bids us, his subjects, to survey the kingdom.
A couple of weeks ago, I’d never dreamed of standing in the famous French Quarter of New Orleans with half my eighth grade soccer team. Bushy ferns festoon the fancy iron work balconies of the colorful pastel buildings. Shiny beads dangle from the galleries and jostle with Mardi Gras streamers of purple, gold, and green.
I’m about to take a slow sip of what smells like the most delicious café au lait I’ll ever taste in my life. I know I should be grateful to be here, but I badly wanted to take the deluxe swamp tour—not stand around staring at a bunch of stupid old buildings.
“I’m partly lucky to be here,” I say to Clive.
“Mom would not approve of you drinking coffee,” Sookie loudly points out.
“And I’m partly cursed.” I glare at Sookie. It’s because of my nine-year old sister that I’m stuck with the historical tour of the city instead of going on the cool swamp tour.
“Is that coffee, Miss Peters? I can’t have students drinking coffee. Dump it out and get lemonade instead.” Our teacher, Mr. Morrows, frowns at me until I do as I’m told.
“And Mom would not approve of you stuffing yourself with sugar,” I tell my little sister.
Sookie uses her blue shirt sleeve to wipe the white powdered sugar lavishly dusting her mouth and chin. She defiantly takes another huge bite of her beignet.
“I can’t believe Mom allowed you to come.” I shake my head. “Unless it was deliberate—because you are being a total snoopervisor.”
“My school was chosen for the Mardi Gras sports competitions, too.” Sookie stamps her foot.
Mr. Morrows pulls Clive’s little brother, Skeeter, away from tickling one of those living statue guys that perform on every street corner. Clive shrugs his shoulders. “I think our teachers might be regretting bringing the third graders.”
“Right now I could be on a trip to the swamp with Amarjeet, Zach, and Jasper,” I say bitterly.
“Which is why I chose the historical tour,” says my friend, Mia. She worries a strand of red hair between her fingers. “The last thing I want to do is look at a bunch of snakes.” Her boyfriend, Mitch, laughs, making it sound like he stayed back for Mia, but I have a hunch he’s not so fond of snakes either.
Sookie butts in. “I want to see the wax museum. Cat, it’s not my fault the teachers are making brothers and sisters stick together.”
If Sookie had stayed home, I’d be riding one of those air boats skimming on top of the water. We’d be gliding through dangerous bayous right now with our science teacher, Ms. Dreeble. She wouldn’t have made me dump my coffee either, because she wouldn’t have known I had coffee if my little snoopervisor wasn’t with me. There has to be some way I can still see the bayous. I stare at my watch. It’s not too late, maybe I can talk our teacher into letting us go on a shorter swamp tour.
“So what are the geographic boundaries of New Orleans?” asks Mr. Morrows. He peers straight at me even though there are six of us standing in front of him.
“Um, that water uh, over there,” I point past the square.
“Do you mean the Mississippi, Miss Peters? The mighty river is hardly referred to as that water over there…”
“It seems to me a boat tour would be a good way to learn more about New Orleans,” I can’t help mentioning.
“Do tell,” says Mr. Morrows. “What are the other waterways of this city?” Besides history, our socials teacher is all about geography. His moustache twitches and he leans forward, as if he’s dying to hear my point of view.
Waterways? “Um.” This isn’t going quite the way I planned. I try to figure out another way to bring up an extra swamp tour.
Clive jumps in. “While straddling the Mississippi, New Orleans is bordered by Lake Pontchartrain in the north and Lake Borgne in the east, which connects it to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Mr. Morrows nods in approval and begins walking again. No question why Clive voted for this tour—so he can show off. I should feel more grateful he just got me off the hook with Mr. Morrows, but I fume silently as we wander in the French Quarter. We stare at a bunch of boring statues and walk through a giant cathedral until my feet and back are killing me.
It’s funny how when I’m chasing the ball on the soccer field, my legs feel like they’re made of springs, but when I’m looking at historical stuff, my feet feel like I’m wearing cement shoes.
“Here we are at the last stop on the historical tour, the Musée Conti.” Mr. Morrows stands outside the wax museum.
The museum will only give Clive more opportunity to spout history and geography. If we were at the swamp, I could be reeling off the different animals that inhabit it. Science is my thing. But noooo. Instead we’ll be looking at boring old wax statues signing the Louisiana Purchase.
“Hurray.” Sookie’s blonde hair bobs as she jumps up and down. “The costumes at the wax museum will be amazing,” she babbles. Then spotting my frown she says, “Sorry, Cat, but the museum will be closed tomorrow because of Mardi Gras. This is our only chance to see it.”
I check my watch again. “Will this misery ever end?” I mutter.
“What’s that Miss Peters?” Mr. Morrows puts his hands on his hips.
“After the museum, it’s a while before dinner. Can some of us go on a shorter swamp tour?” There, I said it.
“I’d like to go,” says Clive. Sookie also puts up her hand. Skeeter practically waves his arm right out of his socket.
“I’d have to get tickets straight away for the final boat trip,” says Mr. Morrows. “I can’t do that and guide this tour, so you’ll have to settle for the museum.” Sighing, I resign myself to a bad time and enter the museum. It is stuffy and hot. We gather in the entry and a peculiar woman joins us.
“Byen venu, my chers. I am Miss Elisyia, your tour guide for the museum.” She has a Creole accent and sounds welcoming, but a chill crawls up my spine. She is dressed in a gold turban and caftan, and a purple mask covers her eyes. As if she reads my mind she says, “My mask is for Mardi Gras. Pa gen pwoblen, wi?”
“Pardon me?” I don’t understand her. She’s not speaking French. It must be Creole.
Miss Elisyia touches her mask with her long, slim fingers and says, “There eez no problem with my outfit is there?”
I shake my head.
“It’s superb,” says Sookie.
“Since there is a museum guide, Mr. Morrows, sir, we will be supervised,” Clive says. “Perhaps, sir, you have time to get tickets for the swamp tour?”
Can our teacher refuse his pet student? I shoot Clive a look of gratitude for still trying.
Mr. Morrows checks his watch. “Fine, but you have to stay together at all times. Meet me outside the museum in exactly sixty minutes. Then we will meet the science group at the river dock. Is that clear!” We all nod.
After our teacher leaves, I should be bursting with excitement. I’m getting what I want—well, almost. It won’t be the deluxe swamp tour, but it will be better than no tour. But for some reason I feel uneasy.
Our museum guide extends her arm and points her jeweled finger to a sign leading down a dark staircase – Haunted Dungeon. As soon as I step inside the stairwell, the temperature drops and I feel a cold rush of air.
I shiver. Something tells me it isn’t the air conditioning…
As Miss Elisyia leads us forward into the shadowy dungeon, grisly wax statues of spooky denizens leer back at us.
“Okay, this place is a liii…ttle creepy,” I say as we stroll past white-faced ghosts in eerie cobwebbed gowns and Voodoo zombies with white eyes, gaping mouths, and outstretched arms.
Sookie smiles in delight. “I bet New Orleans is filled with ghosts.” She says more quietly, “Do you think there are vampires?”
“No such thing,” I tell her. We turn a corner and a gruesome wax vampire with blood-dripping fangs looms, ready to pounce.
“Would all of you like a complimentary drink?” Miss Elisyia leads us to an open counter and pours a pink liquid into paper cups. The pink drink fizzes.
“What is it?” Mia reaches for the cup.
“A love potion.” The woman smiles and winks at Mitch.
Mia snaps her arm back, and her face turns redder than her hair. “Ah, no thanks.”
I don’t think she has to worry. That love potion looks suspiciously like soda. Mitch clears his throat, and I notice his face has also turned red.
“Come on,” Skeeter tugs Miss Elisyia’s billowing sleeve. “Can we see the pirate exhibit?”
“Wi, little mister.” She smiles and there is something unsettling about her grin. “That eez a very good choice.” Skeeter darts ahead and we run to keep up.
“That’s Jean Lafitte,” says Clive when we reach the first exhibit. He starts spouting off about how pirates like Lafitte used the gulf and the bayous to hide from the navy, but they also helped Louisiana in a war. “Back then men were men.” He grins wickedly, looks at me and adds, “And women knew their place.”
I roll my eyes and clap slowly. “Thank you for the great history lesson, Mr. Morrows, I mean, Clive.” Mitch snickers, but Clive glares at me.
Skeeter scratches his head. “Look at his frilly clothes. Our gran used to tell us stories about this pirate, but he doesn’t look so scary.”
“He has a mean face,” declares Sookie.
“You’re right about him being mean,” Skeeter declares. “Gran told us Lafitte was a pirate with a ferocious temper. He made people walk the plank if they didn’t show enough respect.” Skeeter gives Sookie a little push, “Arr arr, into the briny deep.” Sookie shrieks and starts making glugging noises like she’s sinking into the sea.
“Hey,” says Skeeter. “Gran said there’s even a legend he has buried treasure on an island in the bayou.”
“Cool,” I say. This is way more interesting than some war. Maybe this tour is not so bad after all.
Now Clive rolls his eyes. “Legends are rumors, not facts, so it’s not history.”
“Non, young man, I disagree.” Miss Elisyia catches up to us and shakes her finger. “Childreen, legends are very important. When history is not clear, legends can give us clues, non? No one knows exactly what happened to the pirate, Lafitte. There is one particular legend that says heez ship disappeared, and returns every full moon. His crew is forever searching for a treasure of lost doubloons. They capture any wandering souls and force them onto the ship. Those people’s fate eez most ‘orrible.”
Miss Elisyia’s eyes widen. “Tonight there is a full moon, and it is also Mardi Gras.” Her voice quavers. “Children must beware.”
Miss Elisyia’s face is so grave I do a double-take. It feels like an ice cube slides down my spine. She shakes her head. “Now isn’t that a legend worth knowing?”
Then Miss Eliysia cackles. Mia jumps. Maybe I do, too.
“Ha. Such serious faces, non?” Miss Eliysia grins. “This eez supposed to be fun.”
“This isn’t your usual museum tour,” Mitch whispers to Mia and me.
“Spooky tales make it less boring and more fun,” I say, but for some reason my skin breaks into goosebumps.
“That’s just an old story my gran told us,” Skeeter says scoffingly. “I’m not worried. I could beat the pirates in a sword fight.” Skeeter brandishes his arm as if it was a cutlass. Waving in the air he shouts, “Arty ahr ahr, take that matey.”
“Stop acting like a pirate,” Sookie says. “You don’t want to be a pirate Skeeter, not really.” Something in her voice makes me pay close attention.
“Yes I do,” says Skeeter and he waves his arm again.
Clive snorts. “Yeah, right. You’d beat the pirates like that.”
“This way, my chers.” Miss Eliysia crooks her finger at the Voodoo sign. We push through a curtain of hung garlic.
“See Cat, there are vampires,” mutters Sookie.
Strings of dried bats dangle in front of us. A wax statue of a woman in the center of the room has snakes entwined around her. Mia does a double take. “That’s fake, right?”
The large room is cluttered with small stone altars and African masks and drums. Dark eerie paintings of strange looking creatures hang on the walls. Potion jars in bright greens and yellows fill shelves along the wall. A human skull stares at us with hollow eyes from on top of a glass case filled with long strings of beads and decks of playing cards with creepy pictures.
Miss Eliysia stands behind the glass counter. “Here is zee souvenir section. I can help you with any purchases.”
I check my watch and suggest we keep moving. Skeeter is already buying a bandana with a skull and cross print, and Mia is buying candles.
“You’re spending all your money,” Clive warns his brother. “Don’t expect to borrow more from me.”
“I’ve got all the stuff I need to be a pirate.” Skeeter ties the bandanna on his head, but it doesn’t fit snugly around his curly black hair. He ties it around his forehead instead, and slipping his hand inside his backpack, pulls out a plastic hook. Skeeter tucks it under his sleeve so it looks like a pirate’s hook. He brandishes a new plastic sword in his other arm. “All aboard, matey.” Clive shakes his head.
Sookie joins us at the glass case. She is carrying an ugly-looking doll that is a cross between a mummy and a scarecrow. Only instead of being stuffed with straw, Spanish moss spills from its sleeves. Spanish moss—I know that’s a typical ingredient for magic—so not good. Sookie doesn’t need any influence in that department. My sister has had too many temptations with magic.
The doll is wrapped in a scrap of purple cloth in the shape of a fancy top hat and a coat with tails, has a white clay face with beady red eyes, and a tiny stick for a cigar is shoved in its mouth.
“I’d like to purchase this doll.” Sookie reaches in her purse and takes out the spending money Mom gave us to buy a souvenir.
“That thing is way too creepy,” Mia makes a face. “Why don’t you wait until we are at a regular shop and buy a pretty doll with cute clothes.”
“Or at least one that won’t stare at you from the shelf in your bedroom and keep you up with nightmares,” I suggest.
“How boring.” Sookie hands the doll to the woman behind the glass counter.
“Ah, a Voodoo doll it is for zee litttle girl.” Miss Eliysia holds up the doll. “You have chosen the Baron Samedi. His spirit has powerful gris gris.”
“Gris what?” I don’t like the sound of this at all.
Miss Eliysia leans forward and whispers in a strangled voice, “Gris gris is magic. Powerful blaaaack mageek.”