I’ve been away for a while, failing to manage the work-life balance…Never been good at juggling. But I’m back! And while I used to scorn VD Day (yes, pun intended, from someone who used to do infectious disease surveillance) as syrupy Hallmark yuck, I’ve at least come to appreciate that it is a great excuse for a date with my husband at great restaurants. All holidays are all about food sooner or later. Food=love. Restaurants pull out all the stops on VD Day, with new menus etc. And my husband and I are both foodies. So yay! I can appreciate that level of capitalism at least, if it includes Second Breakfast, Elevensies, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner, and Supper…
And I have a VD Day story to share, full of kisses. Always beware when a horror writer tries to cover a Valentine romance story…
by Rachel Coles
Terry tried hard not to kick the side of the automatic door as it opened on an explosion of scarlet and bubble-gum satin and lace. The menagerie of heart bedecked stuffed animals crowded the aisles like a cupid-struck taxidermist’s fantasy, and Terry’s worst nightmare. The stacks of chocolate boxes waited, like Gretel’s witch in her candy house, to tempt her into a sugar feeding frenzy that would use up every drop of insulin in her diabetic body for the rest of her life. Valentine’s Day sucks! Fuck Valentine’s Day! she thought, as she savagely shoved the grocery cart ahead of her. It nearly careened into a stand of skimpy thong underwear with curly “I Love You” script littering the tiny triangle of fabric.
She tossed packets of lettuce and other veggies in her cart haphazardly, and then buried them under bags of chips and other snack food. Two minutes and counting, she thought as she reached for the rice cakes around a portly woman blocking the entire aisle with her cart. If I don’t get out of here soon, I’m going to shoot these people, she vowed. Two days until Venereal Day. I’m not going to survive this time without multiple homicide.
The woman giggled and grabbed a third box of frosty angelic white Valentine’s Day Little Debbie cakes. “Oh, I just love these things! I buy out a whole shelf every Valentine’s Day to decorate for everyone I know. I put messages on the top. They taste so much better than those chalky candy hearts, don’t you think?”
“Oh, well, no cakes for you, then!” She waggled a puffy finger at Terry. “I bet those rice patties would decorate up nice. Lots of room to write, ‘I wuv you’ on those! You can whip up a batch of sugar free frosting in a jiffy with that Splenda now.”
But I don’t love you, I hate you, and your little teddy bear too. “Thanks.” Terry grimaced, pulled a box of angel cakes into her cart and ran.
Her one-bedroom apartment smelled like stale cigarette smoke again, and her lungs tightened a little as she entered. She left yet another message with the landlord about changing out the ratty carpet that seemed to emit a growing smorgasbord of nasty scents every week. She took a puff of her nearly empty inhaler and opened her lap top and email. There was a message from her mother. When she opened it an e-card popped up and waited for her click. I’m a masochist, she realized as she clicked on it. It literally exploded in a shower of animated hearts and dancing bunnies singing something that she didn’t catch because she slammed the computer lid closed. Now it was probably broken. Another expense she couldn’t afford, but she didn’t care, as she sat, shaking in anger and staring at the empty space above the computer. That’s it, I’ve had it.
She stormed into the bedroom and grabbed the picture of George, her late husband, by her bed and went into the kitchen where the grocery bags were still sitting in the middle of the floor. She grabbed the angel cakes and opened a package and stuffed one of the treacle-sweet cakes in her mouth. She nearly gagged as she inhaled sugar glaze and crumbs, but she swallowed a giant gulp as she flung open one of the kitchen drawers and grabbed a lighter. It still had fluid, thankfully. She put the rest of the box of Valentine’s Day cakes in the sink, poured lighter fluid on the box and then lit them up. As she watched them burn, she put the picture of George next to the blaze, propped against a soap bottle. It was three years to the day that he had died in the car accident. He stared at the blaze with his playful blue eyes.
“I curse Valentine’s Day. To all the gods of Heaven or Hell, I offer this sacrifice of Little Debbies. May it and everyone who chases love and smothers people with kisses and hearts on that day be damned. May they be followed and haunted like I am, every time they look at one more stupid card or one more stupid fluffy bear with a stupid message on it that doesn’t mean anything except ‘Give me money.’ Fuck all you people! I’m done with you!” She swallowed the last dregs of cake, and looked at George. A tear rolled down her face and she swiped at it and flicked it into the fire. “You were the only one for me. You never gave me a card, and I never needed one with you. Fuck you too for dying on me.”
The smoke alarm blared, and she jumped. She grabbed the fire extinguisher and doused the flames and half the counter in foam. She put it down just as there was a pounding at the door. She went to the door and opened it a crack.
The landlord’s squinting eyes peeked through above the chain. “What’s going on in there?”
“Nothing,” she said as smoke drifted around her head and through the crack.
He sniffed. “Like hell. What you been smoking in there?”
“Nothing illegal. You going to replace the carpet?”
“Not if you’re smoking in there!”
“Then bye.” She shut the door almost on his nose.
He called her name outside the door for a minute, threatened to evict her, which she knew he couldn’t do, and then there was silence.
Sweat leaked onto the sheets in rivulets as she sat up with a start. The bedroom was dark, but she could see a shadow at the foot of the bed. She grabbed the baseball bat from under the bed and leaped at the form. Then she tumbled over the edge and fell to the floor, as she swung the bat. The momentum twisted her body in the air and she landed on her back with a thud. She stared up into empty space, expecting a gunshot or the slice of a knife from the intruder, but none came. She sat up, trembling with adrenaline, and looked around in the darkness. No one was there. She stood up shakily and climbed back into bed. She left the bat beside her near her pillow. What a horrible dream, she closed her eyes and willed her heart to stop racing. After an hour, she drifted back into dreams. They were filled with shadowy images and talking teddy bears.
At dawn, she woke up to pee. In the faint light, the tall shadow was back at the foot of her bed. She leapt up again with a shriek, bat in hand, but this time, the growing dawn illuminated the figure. It was a man. She got the impression of maturity, if not advanced age. His eyes were dark in his gaunt scar-pocked face, and his hair was long, black, and tied back. He wore a thigh-length tunic and leggings. She couldn’t tell the color of his clothes in the gloom. And then he vanished.
“What the hell!” She jumped off the bed and ran to where the figure had been, but no one was in the room. She ran into the hallway, and living room. Her door was still chained and locked, and the windows closed from the inside.
She sank down onto the worn mustard yellow couch and put the heels of her hands in her eyes. Then she got up and went into the bathroom to look at the side effects listed for the Celexa she’d been taking. They didn’t include hallucinations. She popped two pills and got ready for work.
“You look like shit.” Donna swung her head around the door of the stinky core room refrigerator.
The smell of something rotten wafted past her and almost made Terry gag. “Is anyone ever going to clean that?”
“It’s the exec department’s turn, according to the chart. We filled in for them last time. I’m not doing it again.” Donna wrinkled her nose. “I ain’t their mama. And stop changing the subject. Why you look like shit?”
“Bad dreams.” She edged around the stocky African American woman and wedged her lunchbag in on top of the mound of other bags.
Donna put her hand on her hips, displaying her elaborately painted nails. “Are you still going on about Valentine’s Day? You do this every year! Girl, you got to stop with that! Find yourself a friend with benefits, if you have to. You goin’ to drive yourself nuts. It’s just a national excuse to get candy and diamonds from your boyfriend. Work it! Or what about a girlfriend?”
Terry scowled at her.
Donna held up her hands. “Hey, I’m not biased. Whatever gets the job done.”
Terry glared around the room at the shiny foil hearts the ‘Cheer Committee’ had hung from the ceiling. She couldn’t even tear these ones down, let alone light them on fire, or she’d be branded a spoil sport at work, which translated into ‘not a team player’. She left the core room to go back to her cubicle.
Donna caught her look and followed her. “Hey, I thought you were seeing somebody about that, about you know, anxiety. You okay?”
Terry didn’t say anything for a few minutes, just stared at her computer screen. “It’s not that.”
Donna plopped onto the floor, pulled the cardboard divider across the entrance to the cubicle and whispered. “Well what is it?”
Terry looked up over the top of the divider and sat back down. She sighed, “I just had a bad dream. About a guy in my house. Nothing big.”
Donna’s eyes widened, “Shit, you check to make sure it wasn’t real? What if someone’s casing you out. That’s creepy.”
“To steal what, my million year old laptop?”
“No, your skinny White ass! What if he’s a rapist?”
“Thanks, I feel much better now.”
“You got to be careful in that neighborhood, woman!”
“It wasn’t like that. I—I could see, he wasn’t…real, and he wasn’t, like, from now. There was something about him, like he was dressed for another time.”
“So maybe you got a Ren Fair rapist.”
Terry rolled her eyes, and cracked a smile.
Donna grinned. “Feel a little less crotchety now? Why don’t you call the police about this guy? I got a date on V night, maybe he could bring a friend. He’s got some hot friends too. Once you go Black, you never go back, that’s what I’m sayin’. And I don’t like you sitting in that crappy apartment when you could be out eatin’ lobster and steak! The restaurants all have great deals on V Day!”
Terry nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
Instead of getting to her day’s debt collection cases, she stared at the screen and ruminated. How long before I get a call from someone like me? Her bills were piling up, the growing medical bills, and the funeral still had payments left, and interest. She’d footed the cost of that, since George’s parents were dead, and he’d been an only child. Every time she looked up on the screen, she could almost see her name, though her accounts weren’t for a lush department store.
Her thoughts strayed from her bills to the mysterious man. He wasn’t a rapist. He’d had no sexual intent in his face. Instead, his eyes had bored into her as though he wanted to talk to her. She shivered and picked up the stack of files for the day.
When she opened her eyes in the middle of the night, the dark figure was there, in the light cast by the closet bulb. She drew breath to scream and grab her bat, but he spoke first. His voice shivered through the air, a vibration of something harder than human vocal chords. He did not speak in English. She realized with a shock that the speech sounded faintly like Latin. Before she could wonder any more, the man advanced and touched her arm. She swung the bat, but it went through the man’s image. The pressure on her arm had been no more than a static electric buzz. When he spoke again, she understood his speech.
“You summoned me.”
She backed against the wall behind her bed, grabbed the blanket and pulled it up to her chest.. “Who are you? What are you? I didn’t summon anyone!”
“You called a curse. I exact the curse.”
She stared at him in horror. You mean yesterday? That was just, I was pissed. It didn’t mean anything!”
He gazed into her eyes. His own eyes were dark rheumy wells from which a nightmare peeked. “The curse had intent. You did mean it. All things that are meant persist. I will show you.”
She fell into those eyes and a scene unfolded in her mind.
George laughed and shoved her into a pile of crackling leaves as she swung the rake at his ruddy face.
“Look what you did, bozo! Now I have to rake it all up again.”
This only made him laugh harder. “Aw, I’ll help you babe! If you can dig yourself out!” He buried her under the two bags of leaves she’d set aside for the trash.
“Aghhh!” She burst out of the pile and chased him around the back of the small stucco house, grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked.
He whirled around and pulled her down with him into the pile of leaves she had collected in the back . And then his mouth was on hers, his hands sliding into her jeans. “Screw the leaves.”
“You mean ‘in’ the leaves.” She grinned and rolled him under her.
Terry relaxed into the memory and sagged against the wall, but the memory changed.
George stared up past her. His crystal blue eyes were blank. The tubes sticking out from under the white sterile sheets didn’t shift with movement. The lines on the monitors showed her that there was no one home in his head. He looked like a man-sized doll. She sunk down beside his bed, tears dripping onto the chrome bar, and realized that no matter what she said to this body, it wasn’t him. And unless there really was a beyond, he would never hear her.
“Fuck you! Who the fuck are you!” She hurled the pillow at the phantom, followed by the bat. A brief image appeared in her head of a gaunt prisoner kneeling before a burly man dressed in a tunic with a gold border. They stood in sand as the prisoner was bent to the man’s sandals in a Roman-style coliseum. The prisoner spat at the man’s feet, before he was yanked back by a soldier holding his long dark hair. The soldier swung his sword and opened the neck of the prisoner. Blood spurted across the sand as the prisoner collapsed. The soldier swung one more time and the head separated from the body.
Terry gasped and stared around the empty room. The man was gone.
Terry tried to keep the coffee from spilling all over the counter as she poured it into her travel mug. Her wrist shook, even when she braced it with her other hand. There had been no more sleep after her nocturnal visitor. She tossed her Metformin in her mouth, grabbed her coat and headed out to the car.
It was 9:00 before she made it to work. She slunk to her cubicle. As she pulled her chair out to sit down, a cascade of perforated mini-cards slid to the floor onto her computer mat, with the penned names of most of her office mates. On her keyboard was a mini box of chocolates. Everyone in the office knew she was diabetic. She growled and pulled the wrapping off the box, and opened it. There were four filled chocolates inside. One of them leaked nuclear pink fluff. She sighed and tossed the box in the trash can, gathered up the cards and displayed them carefully around the desk so that the senders’ feelings weren’t hurt seeing those in the trash can too. The folded paper notes took up most of her work space. One note was from Donna. In her neat curly cursive it said, “7:00 tonight, my place. We’ll go from there. Leron’s got a friend. Javeed, he’s yours. Dress to the nines.” Terry put her head down on the keyboard and closed her eyes.
She was interrupted a moment later by her annoying neighbor, Kendall, in the next cubicle.
“Happy Valentines Day, Terry! You got a hot date tonight?” His snaggle-toothed grin appeared around the wall of her cubicle, while he teetered on the edge of his chair. “I do!”
“I think Freud would have something to say about that kind of relationship with your mom,” she replied, not in the mood.
“Oh, Haha. It’s not my mom! I’m just helping her out with the mortgage, that’s why I moved back! I told you already!” His fair face flushed pink. “Boy, you’re in a shitty mood. You get dumped?” he shot back.
Terry opened her mouth to reply and then noticed a motion behind his head, a tiny shape that flitted from view as she stared at it.
“What?” Kendall ran his hands over his greasy thinning brown hair. He looked down at his shirt for stains.
Terry realized she’d been staring with her mouth open. “Sorry, just thought I saw something behind you.
He swiveled around to look behind him, and then turned back to peck at Terry again.
“You’re a grump, you’re like the scrooge of Valentine’s Day. Have a chocolate! It’ll make you feel better.” He flipped her a chocolate coin,
The coin he threw her fell to the floor after bouncing off her shirt. “I’m diabetic, asshole.”
He popped one in his mouth. As his mouth closed on the chocolate, a finger of gray reached up from under his clothes and tried to snake between his lips, but withdrew as he bit down on the sweet morsel. “It’s okay, they’re sugar free. I remembered you.”
She blinked, astonished first, that he had thought of her, and second, that he clearly hadn’t noticed the creature that had just tried to enter his mouth. “Uh, thanks!”
She turned back to her screen and put her head back down. I’m losing my mind, I’m seeing things now. I gotta get back to work before the boss comes by too.
A minute later, a string of drool seeped from the corner of her mouth onto the gel pad as she slept.
It had been a year now, since George had been buried. She sprawled face-down in the queen-sized bed that she’d wrestled into the tiny room. It was one of the only things she hadn’t sold with the house. It smelled like him. Her arm lay across the dip on his side, worn down by his butt. She crawled into his spot, curled up, and cried.
When she looked up from the mattress, the sheet beneath her was covered in filth and blood, and looked like stone. She scrambled to her feet. A soldier stood beside her. Chains in his hands clinked as he finished removing them from her wrists. He addressed her in a desperate tone. “Can you help her? She will never find a husband to look after her if you don’t cure her.” She blinked at him, trying to get her bearings in the strange dream. She felt herself say, “Bring her to me. If it is the will of God, her sight and hearing will be restored.”
The soldier went around the dark corner behind them and pushed a mousy teenage girl forward. He guided her so she would not stumble. Her eyes stared before her. She didn’t acknowledge anything around her. But her pupils were wide and dark. The girl saw.
“Leave us, jailer. I must speak with her alone.”
The rough man nodded and left.
When the sound of his feet faded, Terry-in-this-other-body spoke quickly. “I know you see, girl. And I know you hear me. Why do you trouble your parents so with this false sickness?”
The girl scowled and said nothing, only stared ahead.
“Do you wish to stay in your father’s house forever? And what will become of you when he dies? How will you earn a living? If you remain ‘sick’ your father may yet find you a husband, but it will not be a man of quality. Is this the life you wish? Think on it, the next time he brings home a match.”
The girl frowned, and was silent. Her father’s footfalls began around the corner at the far end of the hall. She screwed her eyes shut and then opened them wide, looking around her. She yelled, “Father! Father, your prisoner’s god has given me my sight back, and I can hear you coming too! I am cured!” She ran to him and threw her arms around him as he rushed around the corner.
He stared wide-eyed at her, and then at Terry in the dream. “Valentine!” he exclaimed. He stalked to her and put his hand on her neck and leaned to her ear, as he gazed toward the entrance. The roar of the crowd in the coliseum filtered in through the heavy iron and wooden doors. “I cannot save you from Claudius. But when the time comes, I will be quick, and I will see to your family, if you have any.”
The coliseum faded, and the voice of the jailer resolved into the voice of her boss, Thomas, as he stood in her cubicle. “Long night? I can’t really have you sleeping on your keyboard, so if you need to go home, just take a sick day.”
Her eyes flew open. “Oh crap, I’m so sorry, Thomas! I’ve just been having trouble sleeping.” She swiveled to face him, overshot in the spin and almost threw herself off the chair. And then she stared at him. There were a few gray blurry forms crawling on his cheeks. He just nodded, and walked to his office, calling over his shoulder, “Sick day is fine.” She kept staring after him. Before he got in, the department slut, Brenda, sauntered up to him, dressed head-to-toe in hearts and wearing a pink feathered tiara with red plastic heart rhinestones. She wore a red shirt that said ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ across the front. Terry wouldn’t have been surprised if the same words were plastered on her red pants across her ass. Dagmar Department Store’s own Holy Whore wrapped her arms around him and planted a loud sloppy kiss in the middle of his cheek.
Terry blinked and her mouth dropped open. As Aphrodite’s pink pearly lips left Thomas’s cheek, gray matter oozed from her lips and slid across his face to his mouth as Terry watched. The gray shapes. They came from the kisses. Did they only come from Venereal Girl, or was it anyone’s kiss? Then she shook her head and rubbed her face. This is insane. None of this is real. Kisses do not come to life as little gray life forms. I’m still dreaming. Oh, who cares! At least it’s something to think about other than the dreams. And well, good! Creepy things running around on V-Day. How damn appropriate. And not less creepy than some people on V-Day! She pointedly stared at Brenda from around the corner.
As Thomas detached himself and walked into his office, she meandered after Brenda, waiting for the floozy to give her another opportunity to observe the kissy creatures. She only had to wait about three seconds until another co-worker encountered Brenda in the hall between the cubicles. Terry watched as Brenda plastered a wet one on the man’s cheek. As before, a gray amoebic shape seeped out from between their lips and oozed across the man’s face and probed around his mouth. She watched Brenda a couple more times before veering into another hallway toward the water fountain, to avoid looking like a voyeur.
As she sipped the water, a young man and woman, interns, wandered by to the snack machine. Gray shapes teemed across their faces and upper bodies, like moving plaques of mucus. She stared at their backs while water dribbled down her chin. If they were the embodiment of kisses, she was going to be celibate for the rest of her life. But what were they, and what were they doing? They seemed to be reaching toward people’s noses and mouths as though they would crawl inside. If so, what happened when they got there? She shook her head and returned to her desk.
At about one-thirty, just after the Oh-God-I-Ate-Too-Many-Carbs-For-Lunch hour, a commotion began on the other end of the floor. Terry heard a siren’s blare come closer and then die just downstairs. She saw flashing rotating lights reflecting off the ceiling and went to the window. An ambulance was parking outside. She wandered down the hall as EMTs came up.
She didn’t want to disturb them in their mission, so she asked a fellow gawker, “Do you know what’s going on?”
The woman shook her head, “Not really. Guy stopped breathing, I heard.”
“What, like a heart attack?”
She shrugged, her pale blue silk shirt shimmering with the motion. “I don’t know. I hope he’s okay.”
“Who was it?”
“Jim Fenton, from financial. Do you know him?” She spared a glance for Terry. “Finally, someone else not decked out in red or pink.”
Terry shook her head. “No, don’t know him. Kind of chunky, tall guy with the kinky red hair? I’ve passed him in the hall a lot. Hope he’s ok.”
“Me too. He’s got three kids! My husband went college with him a long time ago.”
Terry opened the door back into the cubicle jungle, and indicated the woman’s clothes, “By the way, welcome, fellow hater.”
As she passed Kendall’s desk, his Space Invaders screen saver was pinging, and the soft buzz of his snore fluttered past his nostrils. A soft finger of gray seeped into his open mouth. As she stared, horrified, the rest of the small mass followed and disappeared into his mouth. She thought about shaking him awake. Even if this weren’t strange and wrong, the boss could walk by, and as irritating as Kendall was, he’d done that favor for her enough times.
But she stood, transfixed. Nothing more happened for a few moments. But then his chest started hitching, as if he were having trouble breathing. His brow creased, and his eyes flew open as he clutched his throat and began coughing. He whooped and sucked air as though he’d been choking.
Terry grabbed his water bottle and handed it to him. “Kendall! Are you all right? What the hell was that?”
He shook his head, his hands trembling as he took a frantic swig and then gulped more air. “I think maybe my sleep apnea’s gotten worse. It’s never gotten me like that during a nap though.” His eyes betrayed fear.
“I thought sleep apnea was only when you’re lying down?”
She stared at him while he downed the rest of the bottle.
“I gotta get back to work. Thanks, Terry.”
“Uh.” She backed around the corner into her cubicle and just sat for a minute. She shivered and rubbed her arms. A freezing chill slid down her spine as she thought of the gray shape slipping between his teeth. It had been the kiss. She knew that as certainly as she knew that Jim Fenton hadn’t stopped breathing because of a heart attack. She stood and peered over the sea of cubicles. Some of them clicked with the sound of keyboards, or rustled with papers moving. But what about the ones that were silent? How many innocent after-lunch snoozes would turn into the quiet choking she had just seen?
This is the curse, my curse. She sat down. It’s real. What the hell do I do? How can I tell people that they’re being choked by kisses?
She rolled her chair to the edge of the wall and poked her head around. “Hey, Kendall!”
Kendall looked at her, a swizzle-stick poking from his mouth.
“I know this is going to sound weird, but don’t let anyone kiss you, got it?”
“Right. Hot date, remember?”
“Tell her you’re a gentleman, pretend. That hot date will turn into many hot dates, trust me. It’s the new thing, for men to be chaste for the first few dates.”
He squinted at her. “Yeah, what makes you think that it’s supposed to be more than a fling?”
Terry looked him up and down and raised her eyebrows. “Do you ever want to move out of your mama’s house?”
“Listen to what I’m telling you then.”
He rolled his eyes and sighed.
“And Kendall? Be careful. Don’t fall asleep again with your mouth open.”
“I get it. I snore.”
“Damn right. Women hate that.”
She rose again, and went all the way out to her car. She got in, though no one was in the lot to see her talking to something invisible. “Whatever the hell you are, call off the curse. I never meant for people to get killed. I don’t want people to die. Call it off!”
A breath of air blew her hair, and a figure appeared in her rear view mirror on the back seat. She whirled around. A man sat. His neck dripped with blood, though his head remained on his shoulders. It was the man from her dream.
“Valentine. You’re Saint Valentine, aren’t you? You were killed by Rome for marrying people in the first church. I heard of you.”
His hollow dark eyes drilled into her. “No. I am merely a Christian. I did not refuse my God at Claudius’ feet, or show loyalty to the Roman gods. Some people thought I could heal them.”
“Perhaps I healed some people of foolishness, or anger, or other kinds of pain than that of disease. The disease of the soul.”
“Why did you come to me? Will you take back the curse?”
“I cannot. Only you can.”
“I don’t know how!”
A sharp rap at the window jolted Terry around to stare out of her driver side window. Donna stood there.
She cupped her hands and peered in. “Hey Girl, what are you doing?”
Terry turned back around. The back seat was empty. Damn!
She opened the car door. Donna backed up and let her out.
“Donna, listen. You have to help me. I screwed up. You’re not going to believe this, but I think I started something really bad, and it’s going to get a lot worse before the day is over.”
Donna’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”
“I…I made some kind of a curse, a Valentine’s Day curse. I was really pissed, and thinking about George, and I think I called something here that isn’t supposed to be here. Well, I know this sounds crazy, but kisses have been coming to life, and choking people when they fall asleep!”
Donna’s black eyes stared at her, flat. “Okay, girlfriend. I think you better check up on that medication of yours.”
“No! The guy in my apartment last night was a ghost, a really old one. It was Valentine, the Roman Christian saint guy. He said I summoned him with the curse. What do I need to do to get you to believe me?”
“I’m not sure. Are you listening to yourself?”
“Kendall, he almost choked while I watched him. I saw what slid into his mouth! You can ask him about the choking at least.”
“That oily guy next to you…choked on kisses. Whose kisses, Miss Thing? He lives with his momma.”
“Hers! I saw Brenda kiss Thomas and this gray thing came out of her mouth when she did it. And the same kind of thing crawled into Kendall’s mouth when he choked.”
Donna sighed and leaned back against the car behind her. “You nuts, woman. But I think, I guess it’s possible. My crazy grandma would believe you anyway. She always believed in weird things down in that Florida swamp.”
“What does she believe?”
“That thoughts you speak can come to life. If you speak bad thoughts, bad wishes, you make ’em real. That’s sorcery.”
“I didn’t mean it. How do I take it back?”
Donna shrugged. “I didn’t talk with her much about that stuff.”
Terry sagged against her own car.
“You really think you made a curse, huh? Okay, well, what you want me to do?”
“You believe me? You’ll help me?” Terry gazed at her.
“I believe that you believe, and I guess anything you come up with isn’t much crazier than she used to have me do. But I ain’t slitting the neck of no chickens!”
“Do I need chickens?”
“What do I look like, a voodoo priestess? How the hell should I know?”
“Well, can you think of anything your grandma used to do?”
Donna sighed, “You owe me for this, girl. I’ll get some info from her. But I got to call her, crazy bat! That’s why you owe me! I’ll come to your house after work.”
Terry spent the rest of the day roaming the cubicle halls and socializing wherever she saw a drowsy person. She generally made a pain in the ass of herself asking inane questions and speaking loudly to jar everyone out of any chance of sleepiness. She introduced herself formally to about ten different people in other sections. Since she was a classic introvert, it was exhausting. But there were no more calls to 911 that afternoon.
A half hour before quitting time, Thomas strode to her cubicle, just before she zipped off on another round of Wake Up.
“Oh, nice to see you at your desk. Decided to do a little work today?” he cleared his throat.
His face and head were swarming with kisses. Either Brenda or some other employee had been very busy, or he was having an affair. None of my business! She reminded herself. “You don’t have to be snide. I’m just trying a new program.”
He leaned against her wall and crossed his arms, and then almost toppled onto the floor as the flimsy wall moved back from his weight. “New program?”
“After Jim Fenton had his incident earlier, it occurred to me that not enough of us know each other. So I was introducing myself. Business might flow better if we all knew each other. You know, synergy.”
He stared at her. She tried to keep her attention focused on his eyes and not on the gray moving blobs. “Nice buzz word. Are you on something? You seem to be having trouble concentrating.”
“You’ll have to work on Saturday to make up for the time you spent on your new program.”
“Okay. Give your wife a big smooch for me. Happy Valentine’s Day!” Dickhead!
He turned around and headed back to his office with a wave.
On the way home, the radio news reported that there were strange incidents of respiratory failure during sleep, throughout Phoenix. Especially affected had been hospitals, day care centers, kindergartens during the nap periods, and adult day cares. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health had been notified and engaged in the investigation. The public service message urged anyone with sleep apnea or other sleep disturbances or disorders, to call the health hotline.
As she passed pedestrians, or stopped at lighst and peered into other cars, the kisses teemed everywhere. They crawled through people’s hair, probed gray wisps of matter into people’s ears, and danced tentatively around people’s noses, and mouths as they spoke or inhaled. One afflicted man sitting on a bus bench, scattered kisses across the pavement and garbage can near him, as he sneezed. But they swiftly slithered back to congregate around the holes in his face, shadows waiting for an unguarded moment to sneak in.
Donna waited in the parking lot of her complex when she pulled up. Her face was clear of the creatures.
Terry asked through the window, as she parked the car, “Why don’t you have any kisses on your face? Mostly everyone else does.”
Donna’s eyebrows rose in surprise, then she recovered. “Because I don’t want no one else’s nasty-ass mouth all over me, unless they plannin’ on going all the way. And then you better give me a nice dinner and chocolate! Otherwise, stay the hell away from me and keep those germy lips to yourself. I don’t know where they been.” She stared at Terry. “You really can see that shit, huh?”
“Yup. So do we have everything we need?”
“Yeah, everything that you’d want to do in an apartment with a deposit, anyway.”
They went up to the apartment. Terry closed the door behind Donna and followed her into the center of the living room.
Donna she pulled out pink valentine cards from her red leather handbag and pinned them around the walls of the room. In the blank center spaces of the cards, she drew a symbol with the strawberry stinky marker Terry had seen on the whiteboard at work. The symbol was an elaborate crowned heart with a staff and curlicues coming from the sides.
“Oh V-Day cards, really? Come on!”
“Shut up and let me work!”
Once Donna was done with her drawing, she pulled three silver rings off her fingers and gave them to Terry. “Put those on. But I get those back after, bitch, those are mine! And go get a piece of your jewelry that’s nice.”
Terry went and got a bracelet that George had gotten her.
Then she laid a pink cloth in front of the television. On it she put a couple of packages of Little Debbies, unwrapped.
“God, those things are everywhere,” Terry moaned.
Donna gave her an irritated look and pulled a long bottle of Irish Cream out of her bag, laid Terry’s bracelet on the cloth next to the cakes, and poured the cream on the cakes. Finally, at the head of the cloth, she laid a picture of a Madonna.
“What is all this?’
Donna nodded to all the symbols. “Grandma says you might have offended Erzulie. You’re just pissin everyone off today. She’s sort of like our version of a love saint. You’re a lot like her, actually.”
“No, I’m not. I’m the opposite of a love spirit, I hate this shit.”
“Yeah, but Erzulie is said to never get her heart’s desire: love and regret. You two will get along just fine.”
“You want my help or not! I should be gettin’ ready for my date, but I called that fine African man and put off my own shit, for you.”
“You’re right. Sorry. What now?”
“Well, I ain’t no voodoo priestess, so don’t expect results. Maybe you should ask Erzulie for help. And no whinin’. It’s called prayin’ respectfully. How long’s it been since you prayed?”
Terry thought for a second. “Long time. Every time I pray, I’m in my own head, someplace I really don’t want to be anymore. I just…went round and round.” She sighed, kneeled and gazed at the picture of the Madonna. Her face must have betrayed her dismay.
Donna interrupted, her voice gentle now, “Well, now there are other things in there with you, so you ain’t alone. Look, I know you had a rough time. Maybe this is what you need anyway. Just focus on what you want. What you want most? What’s in your heart?”
A tear slid down Terry’s face. “I want George to be alive.”
“Ain’t nobody but Jesus can help you with that, girl. Not until the end time. What do you want that somebody listenin’ can give you?”
“I don’t know.” She looked at the picture of Erzulie/Madonna. Tears streamed down her face now. She closed her eyes.
“Yes, you do.”
A scent of delicate perfume wafted through the room. It smelled familiar, but she didn’t think she had smelled it in a long time. Her own voice sounded strange, as though it came from a long way away. And the tone was different, a husky contralto that came out once when she had met George and was three sheets past the wind. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
The last evening light in the city faded into night. As dark fell, emergency response sirens blared to life in multiple places in the city. Terry didn’t hear them.
Valentine stood in the dim hospital room. The florescent light from the medical displays cast a washed-out light across his ghastly figure, making him look even more corpse-like. Next to him lay George, unmoving and white against the sheets. His flaxen hair silky against the pillow. “Why do you keep showing me this?” she screamed at the gory phantom.
“You wanted to say goodbye.”
“Not like this, he can’t hear me!”
“Not if you don’t talk.”
She sunk down to her haunches by the bed, sobbing. Then she slowly rose and stared into his face. His eyes were closed, and his face unlined by everyday cares, the cares of normal life. She wiped her face, leaned over and kissed his cheek, not caring what weird creatures came out of it. “I love you. I miss you.”
Something was behind her. She whirled around. It was George. He was smiling and his blue eyes were as mischevious as ever. Her jaw dropped open, and she swiveled back to the bed. The figure on the bed was gone.
“What—How did you…Oh God, George!”
He grinned. “Hi.”
“Are you real?”
“Are you in Heaven?”
“No, I’m here with you.”
“You know what I mean!”
“I know. There’s not much time, Babe. Only a moment.”
She put her hands on either side of his face and kissed him deeply on the lips. He kissed her back, and then pulled away, his eyes sad. “I’m sorry I had to leave. I have to go again. But I love you too, always will.”
She swallowed hard. “I know. See you next time around, maybe?”
He faded into the darkness, and his teeth flashed in a wide smile. “I’d chase your ass through the universe.”
The room was empty, except for the dark solemn figure in the corner.
“What about the curse? What do I do about that?”
“You lifted it.” Valentine said as the wall became visible through him. “Thank you.” Then he too was gone.
The room was dark, and Donna sat next to Terry, shaking her head. “Do you want me to get you some insulin or something?”
Terry felt something moist. She looked down on a pile of sticky crumbs in her lap. She’d eaten all the cakes covered in liquor. The bracelet twinkled on her wrist. She held her picture of George in her hands. “What the fuck?”
“Do you remember anything? Grandma says that when people are ridden, they don’t remember it. Erzulie likes sweets.”
“Well, I remember everything. Besides manging on enough sugar for a year, did I do anything weird?”
“You had a conversation. It sounded like there were a couple people in the room, and one of ’em was George. For a second it looked like there was a couple people in the room too, scared the shit out of me. One of them was right next to you. I almost grabbed a knife from the kitchen, but one, I was too scared to move, and two, for a second, it looked like it might be George, and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“So, is the craziness over now? No more kisses running around killin’ people? Can we get on with our lives?”
Terry nodded. “I think so.”
“Good, maybe we can still catch a V-Day burger at the diner. You coming?”
Terry shook her head.
“Oh no, Miss Thing, you are not gonna start that moping again. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place!”
“No. I’m not. I’m okay now. I just need to clean up.”
“All right, well, you meet us there then?” Donna grabbed the bottle of Irish Cream, stashed it back in her bag, pulled the rings off Terry’s fingers, and propped open the front door.
Terry nodded. “Give me an hour.”
Donna tapped her nails on the lintel and left. Terry returned to the altar, picked up the picture of George and sat for a while, smiling.
The diner was bright with florescent 50s colors as Terry found the table and sat down in the booth with Donna and Leron, and a tall muscular man. He spoke with an African accent that rolled off his tongue like music.
“I’m Javeed.” He extended his hand, politely.
“I’m Terry. Wow, Donna was right. You’re really hot.”
He grinned. “And you are also as lovely as she said.” His smile had a mischevious glint that reminded her of George.
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