Magdalene Rios cared not a fig for the suffocating heat of the desert. She longed for cold, cool, even just tepid, temperatures. But Momo Luci needed her pearl and milk glass rosary. And, of course, passing on at home in quiet Louisiana amidst the swamps had not been an option for her grandmother. Her grandmother would be extra even into the next life, it seemed. No, she had to go and rent a condominium on the beach in LA, with a room with a giant picture window facing the sea. Even though she was drugged out of her mind on morphine and probably thought she was floating through the cosmos already, she had expertly written out all the instructions, when she was still able.
The cancer had taken her quickly and with no mercy. It had started in her bowels and had quickly moved to every organ in her body, and some of her bones. Momo Luci had known how she would go, though. She had talked about it since she was a little girl. She knew that the "malignancy" would take her and she even said so in her will.
To my loved (and tolerated) ones,
The malignancy will be upon me and through me before any doctor or psychic could help, of this I am sure. God has, in his infinite wisdom, allowed me to know how I will pass from this life, though not when. A divine joke, I guess, to help Our Father pass the time. It's okay, though; it means I was more than just a little blip on His screen, for a time…
Momo Luci, of course, went on with instructions and who got what and who got naught, but only the lawyers and Aunt Rita knew the rest of it, at this point. That was written too. Only the golden child, Miss Rita, could keep her lips sealed, Momo believed, and so she had, and so she would until the day came, Magdalene guessed. Musing, Maggie (as she preferred to be called) pressed the button to send a shower of fine mist onto her windshield to clear the bugs and dust away. Driving from Louisiana to LA. Whose idea had that been? Oh, yes, Momo's, of course. She had asked for Maggie, in a croaky voice, and explained what she needed to have done on the telephone in the lobby of the hotel Maggie worked at. Why her grandmother had called the hotel and not her mobile, Maggie could only guess. That had been three days ago. Three days and now her grandmother was all but gone. She lost consciousness that night, after her phone call to the hotel and to Maggie, and had never regained it.
"I need you to bring me my rosary," Momo Luci paused to inhale a deep and phlegmy breath. "The pearl...you know the one!" The desperation and pain had been clear as a bell in Maggie's ear. She fought back tears as she answered.
"Yes, Momo. I know the one."
"Good," breath, "girl." Coughing came over the line followed by silence and Maggie thought that was going to be it. Then, "You'll need to drive it, Magdalene. Drive it across the desert and to me." Labored breath. "Do you hear what I'm telling you, girl?"
This confused the hell out of Maggie but judging by the sick, thick, mucus-filled breaths coming through the phone, it was taking everything her grandmother had just to relay these last wishes to her, and she damned sure wasn't going to argue with her now, in the midst of her own snot and tears.
"Yes, Momo Luci. I hear you. I drive the rosary to you, across the desert."
"Leave now, girl. Now!" A chill went up Maggie's spine and gooseflesh pimpled her arms as the voice on the other end grew weaker but no less vehement. "And be mindful of that sign...that sign...about them shorts. You mind it now."
Feeling almost as if in a dream, this conversation having taken such a turn into the twilight zone, Maggie could only agree, in hopes that her grandmother would tire enough and let her out of this weird exchange. "Ok. Yes. I will go pack a bag and head straight there. Just let me…" She had looked up, intending to tell Frank, the hotel's manager, that she had to leave and could he find coverage for her shifts, only to see him smiling sympathetically at her and waving her away. "Just let me fill the tank on the car and swing by your house. It's in the jewelry box, right? The one with the cameo?" She listened for her grandmother's reply but this time, none came. She waited, staring at a dust bunny underneath the maìtre d's desk, listening for her grandmother's breathing. Nothing. The line was dead, and Maggie cringed at the thought, knocking on the wooden top of the desk in a rush of superstitious caution.
And Maggie had done exactly as she had promised, pulling out some cash and checking her tires, ensuring that her spare and jack and whatnot were in the trunk. Then she packed a very light bag, two changes of clothes and a swimsuit (you never know, she may be able to take advantage of the change in landscape) and drove the 5 miles out of town to her grandmother's small colonial. The door creaked in a familiar voice as she entered the foyer. So many cookies, glasses of milk, and gin and tonics had been shared in this kitchen. With two olives! Never just the one. There was the staircase she busted her lip on (running in the house, tut, tut) when she was 10. She could still see the scuff marks on the banister. Sergeant yowled from the landing, his gold eyes glistening in the late day sun, and she patted him affectionately as she went by, knowing Momo would have made sure the maid or a hired neighbor boy would feed the spoiled thing until this affair was done.
She paused outside the door to her grandma's chambre, breathing a laugh as she recalled how Momo Luci was always calling things by their "proper" names. Speaking fancy into existence, Maggie always felt. To be fair, her Momo WAS fancy. But not snobbish. Genteel and feminine, old-timey. Not archaic, but elegant, both in her dress and her manner. When Maggie would spend long summers here as a girl, she would find that the syntax would meld into her speech, twine in like it knew it belonged there but only inside these walls. Only in this house. She reached out her hand and swung the door open. The nostalgic smell of potpourri and Skin So Soft made her smile widen, and she quietly walked to the boudoir and opened the jewelry box. Among the cheaper costume jewelry were a few pieces that would probably fetch a pretty penny, but although Momo had been fancy, she had not been flamboyant about her wealth. Maggie lifted out the upper tray and took out the embroidered wedding napkin, frayed and nearly transparent, that the rosary was wrapped in. It had been part of her grandmother and grandfather's most treasured wedding gift, an entire set with real gold thread, each made by hand and each with their initials entwined, and only this piece remained.
She folded back a corner, saw that the rosary was as it always was, wrapped tight in the napkin. She slipped it into the zippered compartment of her purse, being sure to zip it shut. Then she reverently closed the lid to the box and slipped out of the room, the door snicking softly shut behind her. Sargeant mewled a goodbye to her as she went down the stairs, and she chuckled. "Goodbye, Sarge. I'm sorry you'll be out of sorts for a while. Don't feel too abandoned, though." Her hand on the door, she chuckled to herself and shook her head. "He has no idea and he wouldn't care even if he did. So long as he continues to be fed, he will probably never notice she's been gone." She locked the door behind her.
This stretch of the drive, through the desert, she would never miss. If she didn't need her car, she would have flown back after this was done. The thought of returning to real life, but with that hole there, that knowledge that nothing would ever be the same, both relieved and scared her. She sighed and tried the radio, knowing damn good and well only static and doomsday preachers awaited her there. Sure enough, after a while, she clicked it off. BFE, her dad would have called it. Bum Fucked Egypt. Middle of Nowhere, USA.
The bell above the door let out a pitiful ding as she entered, and the weather mat crunched and squeaked under her sneakers. Abashedly, she looked around, but there was no one behind the counter. She could smell bacon in the air, though, so she knew someone was there. Removed from civilization it may be, but the screen behind the counter advertised free wifi and the best homemade ketchup meatloaf you could eat. She pulled out her mobile and took a seat on a cracked barstool. She looked up and smiled as an elderly woman with blue-gray hair wrapped up in a scarf approached her.
"What can I get you, today, hon?" The woman asked, with a slight drawl.
"Coffee. Black, please. Oh, and maybe something small. A cinnamon roll or a donut?" Maggie resisted the urge to twirl on the barstool in front of this woman. For some reason, being in her presence made Maggie feel like a child.
"We have donut holes, hon, but the rest of breakfast hasn't gone in the deep fryer yet."
"That's perfect," Maggie smiled warmly and pulled up the news on her phone. The woman, obviously knowing she had been dismissed in that casual way all those of this young lady's generation seemed to have, sniffed and went back into the kitchen. Maggie, deciding that the barstool was a little too out in the open for her liking (though open to whom or what she wasn't sure) went and settled herself into a booth, facing the door, confident the old woman could find her, since she was the only patron in the diner.
She must have slept. She was definitely tired. She had been on the road almost 14 hours straight. She was in a stretch of New Mexico where there was a whole lot of nothing and she had stopped because highway hypnosis had been threatening. A clunk brought her back to consciousness and she looked up to the wrinkled face of the waitress, who just smiled and winked at her.
"Long stretches out here with little to look at. You take care on that road and pull over next time you find yourself nodding off." She said as she set the donut holes beside the delectable smelling cup of coffee in front of Maggie.
"I...I will." Maggie felt herself color and grabbed her purse, looking for her wallet. "How much do I owe you?"
"Not a dime, Miss ma'am. You look like you're in a hurry and most things that require a hurry across our state aren't ever any good so you just take it on the house."
"Oh, but I couldn't!" Maggie said.
"Oh, but you can, because this place may say Daisy Dukes but I'm Marge and I wear the pants in here." She winked again, and Maggie relaxed.
"If you're sure, then. Thank you. Very much."
"You're mighty welcome, missy. Now, are you sure you wouldn't want a stack of pancakes to go with that? Wouldn't be any trouble to throw some on the grill."
"Oh, no, thank you. This will be plenty. I'm...I'm a light eater." Marge nodded and toddled back to the back room, and Maggie grinned at how cute the old woman was.
After she finished her donut holes, Maggie pulled out her compact to check her face, a habit she had learned from Momo Luci. Always check your face for crumbs, Momo would caution. You never know when prince charming will walk through that door and see you with something green on your chin. And she would wink. The back of Maggie's wrist brushed the zipper compartment and she flinched, remembering her task. Remembering this wasn't a vacation. She figured, though, that she might as well enjoy what she could out of this trip and sipped her coffee quite unhurriedly. She would deliver what Momo Luci needed, her rosary, and she would do it before the end.
Eight days after Maggie had been to LA and returned home to Louisiana, Marge's body was found back behind Daisy Dukes. She had been trussed like a hog, exsanguinated, and left for the vultures. The locals were not at all as shocked as they could have been, considering she ran that little diner out in the boonies all by herself. They all told of seeing an odd, huge bear of a man in a dark coat stopping in to get maps and gas late at night around that time. With a lack of any kind of evidence, poor Marge's case soon grew cold and the locals moved on to the next tragedy.
There were a few pieces of evidence though, they just somehow hadn't made it into the gossip circle like most things did. Never a secret in a small town. But this one stayed quiet. It was probably the horror of it, the slasher-film feel of the whole thing that made tongues not wag. There had been a compact left in a booth by the door. A fancy one, silver, hardly tarnished and with a cameo on the back of the case. And underneath where poor Marge had been trussed, a tiny, tiny funnel, like someone had taken a bit of...liquid...with them from the crime scene and stored it in a very tiny vial.