Prologue – Sins Soaked in Absinthe
Sinful and forbidden pleasures are like poisoned bread; they may satisfy the appetite for the moment, but there is death in them at the end. ~Tryon Edwards
The day marked a macabre anniversary. Evie thought she’d prepared herself, but time failed to soothe her damaged heart. Her depression was ruthless, with guilt her only true source of nourishment. Although she’d evolved into a womanhood of striking beauty, she was also desperately alone.
How can I enjoy life when I killed my mother?
No one could understand her pain. Evie had committed matricide. Although in her defense, she had been guided by her spiritual Father, the God of her faith, Obatala. Once he’d been her beloved, but now she considered him a traitor.
The Transitioning ceremony had occurred twelve years ago, or had it been yesterday? Tears trickled down her brown cheeks as the pain burrowed deeper in her heart. She wished she could’ve used the ceremonial dagger to cut it out. If only she was braver. If only…
She wandered her bedroom as she relived the nightmare of watching her younger hands plunge the blade into her mother’s chest.
Grace hadn’t made a sound. Instead, she caved into the double-edged intrusion and quickly died. There was no final gasp or soulful scream of pain. In one brutal instant, her mother was gone, and Evie wondered if her likeness had burned in her mother’s retinas.
She had screamed loudly then, and silently now. She tried to resist the recurring memory of seeing blood dripping down the sides of the cold, white marble altar.
Suddenly, a shrill ringing shattered her self-imposed isolation. She stared at the princess phone sitting on her vanity table as if it were a giant spider. After twenty or so rings, the high-pitched sounds stopped. She breathed a sigh, only to have the jangling start up again.
Only one person would have the audacity to keep up the intrusion. She snatched the telephone out of its cradle and screamed, “What!”
“Hey Evie, let me guess what’cha doing right now. Sulking?” Her friend’s laughter was usually infectious. But not today.
“Leave me alone.”
Sissy had been her best friend since, well, since forever. But she never got it. After Evie’s mom had died—was sacrificed—her dearest friend gave a few lukewarm phrases of condolence, then avoided her.
Sissy had moved on with her life while Evie had turned into a ghost. She grieved alone.
“I have a secret.” Sissy said with breathless enthusiasm.
“Keep it to yourself.” As she plopped on the edge of her canopy bed, she wondered if Sissy was aware of the anniversary.
The curtains were drawn, but the sunlight filtering through them hinted of a glorious day. She wanted clouds to form and the sky to open up with a downpour to match the fierceness of her tears. She needed the world to weep for the loss of her mother and goddess.
“I knew it! Sulking.” Sissy sounded irritated. “I know you miss her. You always miss her. You can’t bring her back and if you hadn’t killed her, she would’ve gone batshit crazy. You had to put her out of her suffering. Don’t you see that yet?”
“Like a dog?” A tear rolled down her cheek as she whispered, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You never want to talk about it!” Sissy screamed. “I know you’re pissed at me because you think I ditched you, but Evie, every damn day it was ‘Poor me!’ After a couple of years, it gets kinda fucking old. Y’know what I mean?”
Evie slammed the princess phone back in its cradle. Seconds later it rang again. “What?”
After a long pause, “I’m sorry. I know you think what you were forced to do was murder. I get that, but Evie, would your mom want you to keep suffering or would she say, ‘Go down to Atlanta and give your best friend your blessings!’”
Then Sissy squealed, “I’m getting married!”
“What?” Jealousy curdled in her stomach like sour milk. Sissy had excelled during their teen years: an honor student who dated football or basketball players, depending on the season. She had joined the cheering squad and was crowned prom queen. She was now a sophomore at Clark in Atlanta. Rumor had it that she was doing well there too.
She was living.
“I’m happy for you,” Evie said. It was truth coated in envy.
“Good!” More squealing. “It’s Spring Break, so come on down. I can give you a tour of Clark—although everything is closed up—and then we’ll hit the Atlanta hotspots! What do you say?”
Evie’s voice was as cold as a tomb. “You said something about blessings.”
“Yeah?” The change in Sissy’s tone was immediate. “You’re my Orisha. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
She rose up with the rigidity of a stone. “How dare you call me on my mother’s death day and ask me to do that! I’m not Deity. I’m done with all that shit!”
“Yes, shit, shit, shit!”
She was primed to hang up the telephone when Sissy said, “Evie, it’s me. I want you to meet Brandon. I want you to give us your blessings. I love you as my friend and as my goddess.”
The envy roiled in her intestines, yet the ice wedging her heart melted. She couldn’t remember a time before the ritual when she and Sissy weren’t together. She’d called her Sissy because it was another way of saying sister.
“All right. Only because I love you.”
* * *
She was tossing clothes into her overnight case when the telephone’s ringing shattered the quiet, again. Her lips twisted into a snarl, but the insistent sound was an inconvenient annoyance she couldn’t ignore. She glared at the partially stuffed bag. Should she finish packing her belongings or waste precious time answering the phone and possibly missing her train?
But what if the caller was Sissy? What if her plans had changed?
“Damn it!” She tossed another shirt into the bag before running across the room to snatch the receiver from the cradle.
“Hello?” she barked.
She recognized his voice. Gawd, she thought. The man has radar.
“Why are you still checking up on me?” She’d hoped to skip town without him noticing. She tucked the phone between an upraised shoulder and ear as she opened a bureau drawer and flung a fistful of underwear into the luggage. She counted on her annoyance registering.
“I have to check up on you, Deity.”
She snarled. “I told you to stop calling me that!” Then she dialed back her anger. “We don’t have to do this. I’ve released you.”
“Only Obatala can release me. My family has been guarding the mortal orishas for centuries.” His voice intoned in a manner she’d heard a thousand times before. Reverence.
“Blah, blah, blah.” She mocked without humor. “Why are we talking? I thought you were in the police academy. I guess Obatala called you to do that too?” She regretted her words instantly.
Mason was a recent college graduate who had aspirations of pro ball. Naturally, Evie had wished him good luck, but during the last game of his senior year, torn knee ligaments squashed those dreams.
“Our Father speaks to me as he does you. I choose to listen,” he said.
She snapped, “Well, let me know when He tells you to carve up your mom. Then we can talk!”
She imagined Mason cringing at her blasphemy. Again, she was immediately sorry, not for her words, but for directing her anger at him.
She and Mason had grown up together, too. While they weren’t close friends, she did respect his service.
“How did you find out I’m spending time with Sissy in Atlanta?”
There was a pause. Then he said, “You just told me. I called because it’s the anniversary…where are you staying?”
Damn it. “Please don’t tag along. Aren’t you seeing the pretty doctor? Don’t you guys have plans?”
“You won’t know I’m there.” His tone was as hard as concrete.
* * *
As she stepped down from the train, the sight of her oldest and dearest friend rushing towards her lifted her spirits. Sissy bounced into her arms with such force that Evie dropped her bag. They hugged and screamed with giggly jubilance.
Sissy, with her cherub features, dreadlocks and full lips, appraised. “Girl, ain’t you a sight for sore eyes!”
Evie squeezed Sissy like a fresh tube of toothpaste. “You too!”
“Wait, wait, before we get all mushy I have someone I want you to meet.” Sissy propelled Evie–who had to scramble to retrieve her bag–to the broad-shouldered and well-groomed young man near the gates. He watched them with the corners of his lips uplifted in mild amusement.
“This is Brandon!” she squealed. Then she cupped her hand and whispered in Evie’s ear. “Isn’t he dreamy?”
Evie choked down a gasp. She hadn’t expected him to be such a delectable morsel of masculinity. Tall…god he is so tall…with a broad chest that tapered to a narrow waist. His features were chiseled, and he sported a deep dimple in his chin.
Sissy had boasted that he was a Morehouse sophomore majoring in Engineering.
Evie thought, sexy and smart. She gave Sissy an appreciative wink, while her best friend scooted behind Brandon and gave her a thumbs up.
As the pair stood side-by-side, Sissy couldn’t stop bouncing on her toes as she endured Evie’s inspection. Sissy’s tawny-hued skin, angelic features and expressive brown eyes sparkled as she linked arms with the well-groomed young man. Brandon’s chocolate skin was flawless, but the furrow of his thick brows made his look-over appear intense. They’re a handsome couple. They’ll have beautiful children. But as she was finishing the thought, a chill pressed along her spine. The sensation made her nauseous.
Blessings, she reminded herself. That’s expected. Evie mumbled some words in an old language, causing Sissy to coo with pleasure. Afterwards, she clapped appreciatively and kissed her beloved.
“Thank you.” Brandon clasped Evie’s hand and shook it warmly.
She was taken aback. Yes, he had a firm handshake, but his stare was too deep.
Did Sissy see how his attention lingered on my bosom?
She fought the impulse to hug her chest.
Brandon withdrew his grip, yet somehow his fingertips brushed a nipple.
“Sissy and I appreciate your blessings,” he said. Then he leaned in and kissed her cheek. Softly, he whispered, “You smell good.”
Evie was swamped by a host of unanticipated emotions: rage, embarrassment and heartbreak. It was the curse. Her African ancestors could make barren land yield abundant crops. The perversion of the gift made the mortal orishas supernaturally alluring.
Grace used to warn her about their pheromones as if mortal orishas were lowly animals. But her mom did have a sweet lavender scent which preceded her presence. To Evie, the aroma was as warm and as inviting as a spring bouquet. And she’d seen firsthand how some men had been overly attentive to her mom. After puberty, she’d experienced such devotion too.
Seeing Brandon’s reaction was heartbreaking. I need to leave. Now. “Sissy, I—I—I,” she stammered.
“I know that look! I won’t hear it! I’m not going to let you be chicken shit about this, dammit! You’re going to have a good time!”
Brandon took her bag and followed them to the parking lot as Sissy prattled on about their wedding plans.
Evie wanted to cry. If she left now, there would never be a mend to their relationship. She had no choice but to plaster on a cheerful façade as the trio arrived at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
She hoped to feign an illness that would keep her bedridden for most of the week and then go home. Sissy would protest, but at least she’d understand. Somewhat. Maybe? Hopefully?
“Hey, girl? Been to Atlanta before?”
“No,” Evie admitted. I wish I hadn’t come now. All I need is a little peace.
“We’re going to party! I know the best spots. Nothing touristy either. You’re here with the natives!” Sissy rambled on as they rode the elevator up to Evie’s suite.
“I can’t. No, really! My stomach hurts. Maybe it’s something I ate on the train,” she whined, and once inside her suite, she made a beeline for the bathroom. She locked the door and turned on the water.
Seconds later, Sissy knocked on the door and then tried the handle. When she failed to gain entry, she yelled, “Unlock this door! I’m not buying your shit!” Then she whispered, perhaps to keep Brandon from hearing, “Don’t do this. I’ve bragged about my goddess girlfriend. I’m not asking you to turn water into wine…although that would be nice…”
“I really don’t feel good.”
Sissy shouted, “I’m calling you out on your bullshit! I mean it. Why does everything have to be about you? This is my big surprise and you’re peeing all over it! Can’t we just have fun?”
“Okay.” What could she say? Don’t marry Brandon? Instead, she unlocked the bathroom door.
“Good! I knew you wouldn’t let me down!” Sissy exclaimed with obvious excitement. “We’re going to have fun, fun, fun!” She squeezed her in a bear hug. “Ready to go shopping?”
Shopping turned out to be a tedious and awkward endeavor, as she wondered several times during her ordeal how if Brandon’s love was true, could he have been tempted. Then she sneered, disgusted with herself for blaming the poor guy for her family’s curse.
Later, when Evie nursed a desire to burrow in the nice suite flicking through a hodgepodge of cable channels, she changed into a newly purchased party dress. A saucy gift from Sissy.
She hated the damn thing. The black dress was too tight and slinky. The black high-heeled shoes made her long legs appear even longer. She combed her dark hair into a stately bun and only dappled on a little lipstick.
The betrothed couple arrived late to her hotel room, which had buoyed Evie with the hope of a quiet evening alone.
“Now you’re a librarian? What’cha trying to do? Scare the men away?” Sissy said barging in and giving Evie’s appearance a disapproving onceover.
Evie’s cheeks grew warm. Only one man, she’d thought. Yours.
Sissy, attired in a champagne-colored dress with a low neckline and high hemline, was stunning. She glowed from happiness as well.
Evie smiled ruefully. Maybe the evening wouldn’t be bad after all.
The trio danced and drank from one loud-music-thumping nightclub to another. Finally, shortly before 2 a.m., they reached Sissy’s favorite spot. Evie thought it was a seedy dive, but Sissy boasted about the house specialty, glasses of absinthe.
Evie wasn’t much of a drinker. One glass of red wine was her usual limit if she drank at all. She sipped and crinkled her nose. Apparently, the green liquid was an acquired taste.
After a few more sips the absinthe began affecting her. She became uninhibited and danced with Sissy, or solo. Despite her growing intoxication, she was still very aware of Brandon’s interest.
He was the designated driver and his sobriety made him the brunt of their teases. He laughed with them, but the humor never reached his eyes.
“I gotta pee,” Sissy squealed after they polished off another round. This prompted Evie to laugh so hard they both admitted a visit to the ladies’ room was vital.
In fact, as they walked sideways to the ladies’ room, Evie had slurred, “Why are we laughing?” Then she erupted in more giggles.
Sissy couldn’t answer. She bolted into a stall and slammed the door closed. Chunky plops could be heard hitting water. The sound was enough to clear out the restroom.
“Girl, you sound disgusting. Need some help?” Evie chuckled.
Sissy’s only response was more retching and the sounds of vomit splashing into the toilet bowl.
“Stop it!” Evie’s stomach churned, and she struggled with the saltiness coating her tongue.
“Leave me alone,” Sissy garbled.
Evie couldn’t escape fast enough. She twisted her ankle as she emerged from the ladies’ room and meandered crablike to their table.
“Sissy…still in the bathroom,” she managed, and then she folded her arms on the table, mostly to avert his stare, and plopped down her head.
After that, Evie drifted in and out of a fog. She scarcely remembered Brandon leading them outside and seating them in his sleek, silver BMW. Distantly, she heard Sissy in the front seat jabbering somewhat coherently and giggling about nothing in particular. Eventually, she curled up in the backseat, dozed.
Evie sort of came to when she realized she was being carried. Her head was against Brandon’s chest. The sound of his heartbeat wove through her drunken haze and prodded her into semi-alertness. Her eyes widened in alarm as she tried to gain some clarity.
“Put me down.” Her demand came out as a string of jumbled words. She kicked her legs and one of her shoes flew off.
“Can’t put you down. We’re almost at your room.” Brandon crushed her close. He nuzzled her ear as he whispered, “We’re going to fuck and you’re going to love it.”
She tried to focus as her head bobbled on her neck. They were at the hotel, a few feet from her room. “Where’s Sissy?”
“At her apartment, sleeping it off. She won’t know I’m missing. We have time.” Brandon kissed the top of her head as he crushed her close.
When they reached the door, he propped her against the wall like a doll. She tried to escape, but she was pinned and unable to move. He fished through her purse and pulled out her cardkey, which he slid into the slot. The locking mechanism made a grinding noise before beeping an acceptance.
She tried to focus, to think clearly. After all, she was a mortal orisha, one of Obatala’s chosen. She had power, didn’t she? Had she ever tried to use it? Even once?
“Please,” she sobbed.
“I’m going to,” Brandon’s grin was triumphant. He rotated his pelvis against hers as he buried his face in her hair. “You smell like candy.”