Just down Pontchartrain Beach’s boardwalk, across from the derelict remains of a Ferris wheel appropriately named the Big Easy, is a dilapidated husk once called the Jazz Burger Café. I can only imagine what they once served here, Cajun fries, sweet tea, and shrimp po boy’s no doubt. From the look of what is left, I wouldn’t want to eat anything coming off its’ grill.
“It’s in there.” Annette says.
The Brain and I both turn to find her pointing into the underbelly of the stilted building. Just out luck, the darkest part, but then these things never do like coming to the light. We exchange a look between us, before walking over to Annette.
“What do you see, Hoss?” The Brain asks me.
He knows I hate the name. I suppose it’s the curse of my last name: Cartwright.
I take a few minutes to clear my head. It’s the only way I can really tune myself into the sludgy underflow of stomach turning spirit. I take a deep breath, letting everything of me out, and emptying myself until I can feel it waiting to spill into my soul.
I open my eyes. She’s been here. It’s been here. Whatever it is, the same green-lit prints, glowing just beyond normal ken, pace in between the lattice covering the stilts.
“Yeah, she went through here.” I answer.
The Brain rolls his head side-to-side, bouncing lightly on his feet, like a prize fighter prepping to enter the ring against an opponent. I know with the rolling waves of aggression and impatience I’ve been getting off of him, and his jealousy of my relationship with Annette, that he’s itching for something to happen.
I pray he’s wrong. I hope the place is empty.
I let him lead the way. Pushing one section of lattice work to the side, opening up a gaping maw for the three of us to enter through. I half expect a blood-drenched sign proclaiming “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” , but it’s never that straightforward with this shit.
There’s a place, way down the 23, after it ends, turning into Tidewater drive and then a little dirt track called Dgs road. Pretty much after the Chevron station you need a four-wheel drive, a swamp boat or you’re hoofing it. It ain’t nothing more than a bunch of old shanties, built up on stilts, a bit like this café. I was down there, two years ago, looking for a little girl named Marie Cross.
Her parents, having fled the state after the storm, called me from Austin, Texas. I drove out there. Heard their story and went on the hunt for their little girl. I dug through her room, her toys, and her clothes. Everything I found pointed me back to the bayous of their former home.
I’ve known, ever since I first joined the Seekers, that there is something out there. Something just beyond our understanding, our ken. Like an oily film surrounding the earth that if you touch it light enough, you can sense the malice it has for us. Finding Marie Cross made me realize it’s more than a feeling.
I found that little girl and three others. Stuffed in old chicken coops, being fattened up on candies and other sweets. The family that had taken them, deranged, craven creatures, put up a fight that left me with a limp in my right leg I still favor today. I say this, so it is understood. This thing, this unknowable, indiscernible, unfathomable thing… wants something from us.
It twists our very natures, the good and the bad, into something that aches to supplicate themselves before its will. That family, hungry for a different life, was twisted into something that would draw innocence in and feed it to what is waiting beyond.
“Here.” Annette says, breaking me from my revere.
The underside, what goes for a basement, of this café, is a concrete slab, littered with the dregs of what was abandoned when the storm clawed its way through. Everything has been soaked to the core, dried out and left to rot in the humid, stagnant air.
Annette points to a small box, resting, just visibly, beneath a bucketful of muck and rotting food. At least I hope that’s what it is.
I look at Brain and give him a ‘well, it is your job’ kinda look.
He rolls his eyes and reaches down, brushing away the debris to seize the thing in his hand. It seizes him right back. His eyes roll back in his head. Only the stark, ivory-white balls showing through his lashes. His body goes rigid and trembles as if wracked by a small seizure. Annette reaches out to him in terror, but I hold her back. It’s best not to touch someone in its grip.
I watch as the Brain collapses to his knees in the dirt and the filth. It finally releases him and he empties everything in his stomach onto the floor amidst the rest of the muck. Looks like a double bacon cheeseburger, fries and a strawberry milk shake, or is that blood?
Once he’s stopped convulsing I let Annette go to him. She kneels down, oblivious to what he has just spewed about the floor. She cups his face in her hands and stares into his eyes. I can see the concern there, the love she has for him. I know that I’ve never seen her look at me like that. I know I never will, but it still gets under my skin.
“What did you see?” She asks him.
His eyes slide from her, across her shoulder and up to me. I can see something, a shadow, a glimmer of that unfathomable source play across his features. As William Faulkner once said, ‘When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.’ She helps him to his feet.
“She was here… she comes here. This is where she… prepares her meals.” The Brain says.
I glance about, taking the time to look harder into the muck and mire of this shattered beast. Pieces that I had assumed to be broken bits of wood, sticks, and debris, now focus, solidify, revealing their true nature. A skull here, a femur there, three ribcages, mixed together with dirt, mud and a thick olive jellied material that I can’t place.
“Let’s end this.” I say.
The other two nod, and follow me out.