Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
"I CAN'T BELIEVE that just happened," Willard said, his hands shaking but his voice remarkably calm, given what we had all witnessed not a half-hour earlier.
"Oh, you better believe it," Adam replied in that honeyed voice of his, the one that talked us into this epic cluster. "Your eyeballs did not deceive you, and the best thing we can do now is put as much distance between us and That Which We Shall Never Speak Of Again. Now, who's got the room key?"
Four sets of hands patted down pockets, and an awful shared truth hit us as we locked eyes. The key card we needed was back there, where we had —
"Don't even think about it, Davis," Adam barked, interrupting my thought. "You were about to think about it, and that's just as bad as speaking of it. There are rules to this particular trip, and we all remember what Rule No. 1 is, don't we?"
"Shit is gonna get real," Willard said, the same five words we had each intoned on Friday night, as we crossed the Causeway and beheld the city before us.
Friday night. Thirty-six hours ago. Shit had gotten real, and in a hurry. We would be lucky to ever make it out of here alive, much less back to Missouri. But hey, as Adam also said on Friday as we sauntered through the Quarter — who wants to live forever?
THE IDEA OF THE TRIP had started with the best intentions, way back in the spring. I was looking for a way to not be in town when The Girl celebrated her birthday, and New Orleans seemed like the perfect memory eraser. Besides, Lauren had never been to NOLA and it was her birthday month, too. Adam was from Louisiana, and our mutual friend Willard was living there. It would be like The Mod Squad, with an Asian along for the ride.
I should have known there would be trouble when the topic of bail money came up and Adam asked Lindsey if we could count on her to answer the phone — you know, just in case we needed to call in a lifeline in the middle of the night. That's when Katlyn said something about this sounding like a recipe for disaster. Adam and I scoffed but there was something in Katlyn's eyes, a flicker that almost passed for precognition. I would have reason to remember that look.
The summer slipped past in a pool of sweat. Lauren tripped to Malibu and called from the Seacrest Party to fill me in on the celebrity sightings ("Yeezy's here!"). Adam made the news when he tackled a Marshals Most Wanted suspect during an interview. Willard worked on his mad saxophone skills. I did my best attempts at zazen, so I could think of not thinking.
Katlyn stopped by my desk one morning in early October.
"I know I can't talk you out of your trip," she said, "so all I ask is that you stay aware of the rougarou."
"What the what?" It sounded like she was saying roo-gah-roo.
"Rougarou." She paused, bit her lip. Then: "Are you Catholic?"
"Catholic convert, on strike," I said. "Why?"
She shook her head. "Never mind. I've said too much. Just remember the word." And then she was gone.
I didn't see Katlyn before October 11. By then I had forgotten what she told me. Pity, that.
"BY GOD, WE NEED more alcohol." Adam's voice cut through the crowded street like a cannon. "And we're a whole 10 steps away from the closest bar. Lauren, what is wrong with you?"
"Huh?" She, like I, was agog at the spectacle. Even though I'd been to New Orleans a dozen times in my life, every trip is a reset. The evil, fetid smell is always fresh. The con artists and street preachers are always a revelation.
We had hit the Quarter just before 10 p.m. and now it was four hours later. Sometime around midnight I drunk-texted back to Springfield and got that most delightful of responses: I don't want to hear from you. Please stop texting me. Glad I got that cleared up.
"Good news from back home?" Lauren asked. The look on her face told me she knew the answer to that question.
"Fuck it," I said, steering her and the rest of the Mod Squad into a kitschy gift shop. "Let's buy some masks."
"AND THEN SOME MORE ALCOHOL," Adam bellowed. "CAUSE WE ARE DEFINITELY IN NEED OF MORE LIQUID REFRESHMENTS." Willard and I exchanged a look above Adam's head: This is when the going gets weird, and the weird turn pro.
The shop looked a lot larger on the inside, with corridors that seemed to go back for miles. Quiet, too. Once we slipped through the door the street noise seemed to fade almost immediately, and I felt the temperature go up about 10 degrees.
"So you want to see some masks?" a voice drifted in from a back room. "I have the perfect masks for my four new friends. Just perfect."
She came out from the dark room and even Adam suddenly became still. The woman was tall and willowy, her eyes a curious grey, her hair a splendid mass of curls, and a snippet from a J.D. McClatchy poem swept through my brain: A woman with planets in her hair, the gravity / Of perfection in her features — oh! her hair.
"It is good to see all of you," she said, favoring each of us, one at a time, with her gaze. "A night such as this one requires special masks to match the occasion. You have planned this journey for some time, yes?"
"Months," I nodded.
"And you wish to erase from your head the thoughts of where this journey began." It was a statement, not a question. "For you I have this — " and she handed me a white mask, smooth at the forehead, with huge black eyes and no mouth. "You will remember nothing from before, see everything from now, say nothing when the time is right."
She turned to Willard. "This is yours." His mask was purple, with a wicked nose. "You will smell the dangers and save your friends, and for the rest of their days you will be royalty in their eyes."
"That's what I'm talking about," Willard murmured in approval.
"For you, blonde girl, there is this one — " and we all gasped because the mask looked just like Lauren, right down to her tiger-colored eyes. "Is it a mask, or the real you? Or is the mask the real you? So many questions for the one from the 'bu, yes? And so little time for answers."
Finally, to Adam, the oddest mask of them all: big eyes that seemed to glow, even under the shop's dim lights, and fur on the cheeks.
"Rougarou," the woman intoned. "Rougarou." From her mouth the word sounded familiar, almost seductive. Where had I heard it before?
Adam slipped his mask on. "Well, fine lady," he said. "What do we owe you for these works of art?"
I SHIVERED IN THE NIGHT AIR. Adam's question had just left his lips but we were no longer in a kitschy store — we were back on Bourbon Street, surrounded by thousands of our fellow libertines, and none of us had masks.
"Now what the fuck was that all about?" Willard asked. "Hoop, did you slip something into our drinks?"
Adam shook his head and made a sign with his fingers that looked like a cross between a shocker and a Vulcan greeting. "Scouts honor, even though I was never a Scout, or even a Weblos. I think the swamp folk might say we just experienced a shared hallucination of mysterious origin. Sorta like a trip without the acid."
"Rougarou," I said. "What does that mean?"
"It means time to drink," Adam said. "TIME TO IMBIBE LIQUID REFRESHMENTS. RULE NUMBER ONE, BOYS AND GIRLS — SHIT IS GONNA GET REAL!"
SATURDAY, NOON. Sometime before dawn we stumbled back to our hotel room and collapsed into our beds — I think I remember that correctly, though when I woke up we were all on the floor, face-up, with our heads together and our feet facing the four points of the compass.
I sat up. So did Lauren. Putting a finger to her lips she tiptoed into the bedroom. I followed suit.
"OK, you promised this would be a weekend I would never forget, and so far it's lived up to the hype," she said, closing the door. "But tell me what is going on. How did we all end up out there? What was up with that woman in the store? And — hello — I don't know if you noticed, but Adam looks like he hasn't shaved in two weeks."
I opened the door, gave a peek to our sleeping friends. She was right. Sometime in the past couple of hours, Adam had grown a beard.
"I don't know about you, rondavis, but there is some seriously freaky shit going down in this city," Lauren said, "and I don't think it's going to get any less weird today. Not unless we get out of town, now."
"Is that what you want?"
She shook her head. "Yes. Which means no. It's an adventure, like Alice down the rabbit hole. I have to see how it ends. I have more questions. And I'm in serious need of a shower. Me first, then you, then let's get something to eat."
By the time I was out from under the hot water, Willard and Adam were starting to come 'round. It was almost comical to see the Hoop scratch his face like a puzzled, grizzled miner. But he didn't shave. I think he knew it wouldn't do any good.
Lauren and I bounced to grab some food, telling the boys to meet us at 4 in the lobby. We had some exploring to do, starting with the mask shop ...