Pride and Punishment
Airports have to be the first places to go in an apocalypse.
From the plane’s window, I watch a five-year-old pick his nose a few feet in front of me before using those same wet, goopy fingers to grab the handrail as he and his parents exit down the rollaway stairs. I cringe, reach for the hand sanitizer attached to my backpack, and squeeze out a large dollop. I wrinkle my nose at the people swarming the aisle to leave the airplane, where they’ll be touching that same booger rail. It only takes one infected person and--bam!--mass contagion. That kid could be patient zero and within seconds everyone’s hungry for each other’s brains.
Instant zombie apocalypse.
Not that zombies exist, but a girl can’t be too careful.
Stepping through the rounded plane door, I blink at the thick, bleary heat blasting into my face at the top of the stairs. Holy melting Skittles farms, the Caribbean is hot. Not like bone-dry summer hot, but sticky, humid, take-a-dozen-showers-to-stay-cool hot. Already my armpits are sweating into the cotton of my tank top, and I’ve only just arrived at the destination indicated on the plane ticket tucked in the front pocket of my backpack.
Port-of-Spain, it reads, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.
Might as well say Port-of-Prison. Because that’s what Granny’s house will be--my jail cell for the next three months. It’d been her idea when my dad called her a month ago out of frustration. I had been written up for vandalism--again--though no charges had been pressed against me by my school, thank goodness. But I’d been royally grounded.
No phone. No drawing tablet. No anything.
I couldn’t text friends. I couldn’t sketch. I couldn’t even use my computer to game. And now I’ve been banished to another country for the whole summer without any of my stuff. To be fair, I knew this was coming--this was the last straw. Those words replay in my mind in Dad’s grim voice and my heart squashes in my chest. I could have done my homework, gotten better grades, stopped cutting school, and not drawn on public property.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Rika, I tell myself. Three months is nothing. Get over it.
Sure. Three months of trying not to die of boredom.
And who knows what Granny has planned? She is a weathered battle-ax who lives on an estate in the middle of nowhere, grows her own fruit in a massive orchard, sews her own clothes, and is just . . . weird. I used to think she was made of magic when I was younger--that she had eyes in the back of her head that saw everything.
She’d tell me stories about witchcraft that would have my spine curling and my blood crawling. Myths of monsters and jumbies, creepy lost children called douens whose feet faced backward, and a shape-shifting woman called la diablesse who came in the night to steal the souls of children, only she said it like “la-ja-bless.” I remember shivering in terrified delight when Granny teased that kids’ bones were always soft and delicious.
I used to live for her tales. But I guess they’re about as real as zombies.
Now, I can only think about the fact that Granny has no internet. I’ll be cut off from everything and everyone. And by the time summer ends, in this heat, I’m probably going to dissolve into a sad puddle of melty goo that no one back home will even recognize.
On cue, a hot gust steams into my entire body like it’s cackling in the face of my epic pity party, and I sigh. Even the weather is against me. I give a half-hearted wave to the airline representative waiting at the base of the rollaway stairs and force my legs to move. It feels like I’m moving through syrup in the heat.
“Miss Lovelace-Rose?” the woman says when I reach the bottom.
Mom always said names have power, and apparently ours does, so Lovelace-Rose it is.
I nod. “That’s me.”
Unaccompanied minor and future goo puddle.
Unwanted miscreant and trouble with a capital T.
“Welcome to Trinidad and Tobago,” she says, her accent soft and musical. Tania, her name tag reads. That starts with T too. I wonder if she ever got sent away by her dad to some strange place when she was younger. She’s beautiful, tall with brown skin several shades darker than mine and a red-lipped smile that’s so wide, it makes you want to grin back. I’m not ready to stop sulking, so I mumble noncommittal responses to her friendly questions about the flight and whether I’d been to Trinidad before.
“Yes, it was fine.” I don’t want to be here.
“Once, a few years ago.” My life officially sucks.
After we get through the lines in immigration, where my passport is scrutinized and stamped, Tania eyes me. “It says here in my packet that a Mrs. Lovelace will be meeting you?” she asks.
“Okay. Let’s get your luggage, then wait for her.”
This airport is much smaller than the one I left from in the United States, and the large open windows let in a warm breeze that smells of a rainstorm and fresh-tilled earth. Colorful brown-green foliage sways in the distance, a rise of darker purple-hued mountains looming behind it. A plump lizard sunning on one of the sills catches my attention.
No, not a lizard, more like a baby iguana. As long as my forearm from elbow to wrist, it’s a brilliant green with black tail markings and looks like a miniature dragon, without the wings. For an instant, its eye connects with mine until a long pink tongue slicks over it, which is somehow simultaneously gross . . . and kind of adorable.
Keeping my face stoic, I look away. I don’t want to be charmed by or like anything about this place--not the cool reptiles, not the fresh smells, not the friendly, smiling faces like Tania’s.
Last time I was here, I was nine. More than three years ago. Before Mom left. Before Dad got remarried to Cassie. Before my stepbrothers, Max and Theo, came. Before everything in my life went downhill.
I stare at my scuffed sneakers, feeling sorry for myself again, when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Shuddering and resisting the urge to rub my nape, I glance over my shoulder. My gaze instantly snags on a thin-faced but gorgeous woman, with her hair scraped back beneath a wide-brimmed hat, sauntering through the crowd.
My adrenaline spikes, like when you enter a pitch-black room and can’t find the light switch or right before the jump scare you know is coming in a scary movie. As she sails past me, her floor-length red gown way too fancy for the airport, my skin crawls.
Something about her feels off. A strange noise fills my ears, like a swarm of buzzing flies . . . or the faint rattle of chains. Stomach rolling, stark terror grips me in a giant fist. My breath stutters in my throat, and I drop my eyes. Don’t look at me, don’t look at me, don’t look at me, I chant silently.
On instinct, I shift so I’m hidden behind Tania’s ample form, out of the woman’s sight, though I can still see her. Her flowy old-style dress reminds me of a fancy ball gown and her face is so still it’s unnerving. Those wide-set eyes don’t blink and her mouth doesn’t move in that gruesome rictus. I narrow my gaze. Her chest doesn’t move either, for that matter. Why isn’t she breathing?
Is she dead?
When a pair of milky eyes sweeps in my direction, every muscle in my quaking body locks up. Oh my gosh, why can’t I move my feet anymore? I feel a sticky, soupy energy reaching for me like a dozen pairs of tentacles with long twisty feelers that are going to grab me and gobble me whole.
Trolleys clang behind me and I nearly jump a foot into the air.
I let out a small gasp, and that’s enough for her to swing around. My heart thrashes behind my ribs as the sensation of a hundred spiders scuttles across my skin, and fight-or-flight kicks in a half-second too late. Everything feels foul. I want to scream for help, call my dad and beg him to bring me home. Offer up anything--eternity in my room, babysitting duty for Max and Theo forever. I just want out of here.
But my shoes are glued to the floor.
My body is frozen in a trance, legs like iron weights, dread thickening in my throat with each manic thump of my heart. I stay close to Tania and try not to breathe or attract any more notice . . . but the sound of those chains rattling nears. Coming for me.
Suddenly, something bright green launches across my vision, breaking through the weird spell holding me in its webby grip. As my limbs gracelessly loosen from their corpselike hold, I see a familiar black-and-green–banded tail swish out of sight. My breath whooshes out. Thanks, little guy.
The slimy sensation eases as the woman strolls in the opposite direction, eyes probing the crowd, probably looking for her next meal. Waiting to strike when you least expect it, like a monster that hides in the closet or sleeps under the bed.
Monsters aren’t real, Rika.
But even after reminding myself of that rational fact a few more times for good measure, my pulse won’t quit racing. Reminiscing about Granny’s old stories and the shape-shifting spirit who eats people’s souls had gotten under my skin. I suppress a quiver. That woman had definitely looked like she’d enjoy a good soul buffet with a serving of soft, fresh kid bones on the side.
A snicker of nervous laughter bubbles up in me and I shake my head. “Get a grip, girl.”
“Did you say something, dear?” Tania asks.
“Nope,” I mutter.
“Flight 1214 from Denver, Colorado, on carousel two,” a nasal voice announces through the airport speakers. As we head that way, the ground beneath us abruptly starts to rumble. People around us shriek and Tania grabs hold of me, but the quake is over before I can fully flip out.
“What was that?” I yelp.
A man next to me with dark-brown skin and the longest locs I’ve ever seen clutches his arms to his chest and gives a loud moan. “Is because Papa Bois run an’ gone.”
I blink my confusion, more at the thick Trinidadian dialect than the words, but Tania sniffs. “Blame climate change for these earthquakes, not folklore.”
Curious, I ask the man, “Papa Bois?”
“King a de forest. The obeahman say someting wrong, an’ we payin’ for it.”
Tania tugs at my arm with a scoff. “Come, dear, don’t waste your time with him. Some people will say anything to explain away science.” She sucks air and saliva through her teeth, making a vexed sound that Granny says people here call a steups. “Is not obeah, is people killing the planet.”
But even with Tania’s logical explanation, I can’t help but shiver at the man’s choice of words. Now that I think of it, Granny had also mentioned Papa Bois, the protector of the woods who was a shape-shifter with horns and a beard of leaves. And even I know that the premonition of the obeahman, a master of witchcraft, is something islanders here take seriously.
My mind immediately hitches on the milky-eyed woman and whatever spell that had come over me. What if she was actually one of them? One of the folklore come to life . . . a monster in disguise, hunting in plain sight.
Or . . . maybe your brain needs a snack and a nap, Rika! Chill.
We head over toward the baggage carousel, and when my suitcase finally appears, I yank it off the belt, eager to put some distance between me and the eerie strangers in here.
“Okay I’ve got my luggage,” I tell Tania, my skin still crawling. “Can we leave?”
She smiles. “I bet you’re excited to get out of this crowded airport and see your grandmother. Let’s go.”
I swallow a snarky reply that I’d much rather get back on the airplane and go home to Colorado, then follow her in silence. While we make our way through the space jam-packed with people yelling about their bags and piling carts tower-high with suitcases, I make sure to keep my body angled close to Tania’s, just in case.
Thankfully, we pass through customs in a flash since I have nothing to declare. The only contraband I’ve stashed is a dozen bags of assorted candy for personal consumption. We hustle out of the airport into the waiting area beyond, and there’s my grandmother, front and center, with a huge smile on her weathered face, holding a big cardboard sign saying Welcome, Darika Lovelace!
Guess she forgot the Rose.
Despite last seeing her when I was nine, she looks the same: tiny, fierce, and striking. Her thick curly hair is tied back, her brown face open and kindly, dark eyes twinkling. She confirms her identification with Tania and signs some paperwork before turning to me.
“Hey, Granny,” I say, smiling at the old nickname as she gathers me into a rib-crushing hug.
The familiar scent of her--sweet spices, sunshine, and baby powder--is instantly comforting, making my eyes wet once more with stupid tears. Hesitantly, I wrap one arm awkwardly around her small frame. At least someone in my family wants me around.
“Come, let me look at you, doux-doux darling,” she says in that deep singsong voice I love, holding me in front of her by the sides of my arms and twirling me around. A smile tugs at my lips at the Trinidadian endearment for sweetie. We might not have seen each other in years, but she does call for my birthday and other holidays and makes sure Dad buys me presents from her every year. “Chile, you’re bigger than me now. How old are you these days?”
“Nearly thirteen,” I say. Hooray for an end-of-summer birthday, which always makes me the youngest in my grade. Not.
“You resemble your father, but I see my Dulcie in you, too.” She grins, the lines bracketing her mouth and eyes crinkling as she scans my hair and tugs fondly on an unruly lock that looks just like hers. Like my mom’s too.
Granny reaches for my suitcase with one hand and grasps my palm firmly in the other. “Come, come. Becks is waiting with the truck outside.”
“My foreman and handyman around the place. You name it, he does it.”
We head through the wide exit doors. Standing next to the truck is the biggest man I’ve ever seen, wearing a singlet tank top and faded overalls. His dark-brown shoulders are hunched slightly as though he wants to make himself smaller and less noticeable. It doesn’t really work--even his muscles have muscles, and his arms are as thick as my waist. “Miss Darika, pleased to meet you.”
Copyright © 2024 by Amalie Howard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.