“Lock up before you leave.”
I nod at Jay as he leaves the shop and then pull out the last few boxes of decorations. Mardi Gras starts tomorrow and we have yet to set up our decor for the festivities.
I set to work pulling out the various green, gold and purple feathered pieces that will hang around the room, trying to plan in my head where each piece will go as I take it from the box. The bar is big, but we have plenty of decorations to fill the space.
I look around.
It’s definitely going to be tough trying to outdo ourselves from last year. I’d better get to work.
A gust of wind blows into the vast space as the door opens.
I peek up from my spot behind the bar where I’m crouched, untangling gold string lights. A woman stands in the corner, shivering. She’s soaked through her dress and looks completely distraught.
I stand, pulling my hair out of my face so that I can see her better in the dark. Her auburn hair is just as soaked as her clothing. She’s barefoot and slightly dirty, but she looks familiar.
“Ma’am...are you okay?” I call out into the dim room nervously.
She turns her head to look at me and then shakes it slowly.
“No...I fell in the river running from a man...please, help me.”
Her words are monotone, not matching the urgency in her features as she speaks.
“The - the river?” I ask, confused. We’re blocks from the Mississippi. Surely, this wasn’t the first place she would’ve stopped.
“Yes.” She sniffles, taking a step forward. “Please, don’t let him come in here.” Tears gather in her blue eyes.
“O - okay. Let me get you a blanket and we can lock the door so nobody can follow you here.” I turn to put down the box in my hand and grab a towel from the bar. I grab my cell phone, just in case, and turn back toward the woman, but she’s gone.
“Hello?” I look around the vast bar, feeling unnerved, but the woman is nowhere to be found.
Cautiously, I tiptoe from around the counter out toward the main floor. The room is as silent as it was before she’d arrived. But I didn’t hear the door open. She couldn’t have left.
I walk back around the bar top quickly and grab the knife we use to cut limes. The last thing I need is to get robbed by some drunk tourist playing a trick on me.
“If you’re in here, come out.” I look over my shoulder cautiously as I walk toward the front door and lock it. I don’t want any of her friends coming in if this is a set-up.
Still no response.
What the fuck?
I dial Jay, hoping he hasn’t made it home yet.
“Well...there’s nobody here.”
Jay walks out of the stock room, turning off the light behind him.
“You’re sure you didn’t see her go back out the door?” He looks concerned as he surveys my face.
I shake my head.
“No. I’m almost positive. I heard her come in. I would’ve noticed her leaving.” I glance instinctively around the large room, still shaken.
“That’s really fucking weird.” He looks around again.
“Why don’t I just stay here with you and help decorate? Just in case she comes back?” His offer is sweet but I decline, feeling foolish.
“No, it’s okay. I don’t want to keep you here after hours. You spend more time here than anybody else as it is.” I start to unpack another box marked ‘Mardi Gras’.
He shakes his head.
“Let me help.” He starts to grab decorations from the box.
“You look shaken enough that I’m not comfortable leaving you here by yourself tonight.” He admits, hanging a painted mask directly above the bar.
“Thank you.” I whisper, turning away so he can’t see me blush from embarrassment. I’m twenty-two years old. I shouldn’t need a babysitter because I got freaked out in a dark building.
We work in silence, emptying the various cardboard boxes and hanging their contents throughout the bar. Jay whistles quietly as we progress, looking perfectly content helping. This I’m thankful for.
We finish quickly and lock up the shop. I accept Jay’s offer to drive me home, not wanting to risk running into that woman, or the man she was running from.
The voice echoes in the trees around me as I stumble over the roots.
“Please! Help me!” The voice grows louder, more urgent.
“I can’t find you! Where are you?” My words come hurriedly, panicked, as I barrel through. It’s impossible to see much in the tree cover and I can’t find my phone to light the way.
“Please! He’s coming!” The voice comes from directly in front of me now.
I stop. The woman from the bar is directly in front of me, just as soaked through and dirty as before.
“Who’s coming?” I ask, out of breath from chasing her through the trees.
The woman sobs softly and lifts one shaky finger. She’s pointing just behind me, a look of absolute terror masking her features.
“He’s here.” She whimpers and then disappears into the fog.
I turn quickly to face a pair of dark eyes. The man before me begins to laugh and then lunges, taking me into his grasp.
I wake with a start and realize, almost instantly, that I’m not in my bed.
Below me, the ground is wet, damp like it’s been rained on. I sit up, confused.
“What the - .” I look into the darkness around me, trying to make out where it is that I am exactly. But it’s impossible to see anything in the tree cover.
I fumble for my phone with shaky hands, fighting the urge to panic. I was at home when I fell asleep. How did I get here? Wherever here is...
Pulling my phone from my pocket, I turn on the flashlight and shine it quickly around me. There are only trees.
Shaking, I scroll through my apps until I find my Map Locator. I load my location, cursing quietly under my breath as it works. I only have two bars of service, so it’s moving slowly.
Finally it loads, pinning me right in the middle of Couturie Forest. I sigh. Thankfully, I’m only a few blocks from home. But how did I get here in the first place?
I look around again for any sign of another person. Surely I couldn’t have walked. But the woods are completely silent. Even the air is still, keeping the trees from shuffling. I’m here alone.
But that woman...I stand, looking around for the woman from my dream. It was the one from the bar again. Her face was so familiar... Even the first time I’d seen her, she reminded me of someone. But I can’t seem to pinpoint where I recognize her from.
And the man that was chasing her...those eyes. I shudder as I remember the pair of dark eyes staring back at me. They were so lifeless, but also so...angry.
I stand, wiping the dirt from my bare legs and head for the small path to my right. First and foremost, I need to get out of here.
I walk quickly, feeling vulnerable in the dark by myself. The path seems to go on forever.
Finally, the trees clear and I am at the entrance of the nature preserve.
I stumble out onto Harrison Avenue, feeling relieved to be out of those woods. I consider calling a taxi to get home, but I don’t have my wallet with me. Great.
I guess I’ll just walk.
I look back toward the trees behind me, feeling watched. It’s woman from my dream. She’s standing just behind the tree line, peeking at me from her hiding spot.
We lock eyes, and it’s as if I can feel her pleading with me to come back.
“Help me.” She mouths, and then disappears into the night.
“And it was the same woman from the bar?” Jay asks, rushing by me to make another drink.
“It was her. Same dress...same exact message. She was terrified of somebody.” I shake my head softly, pouring another mixer into the tumbler in my hand.
He stops pouring for a moment and leans against the bar, thinking.
“Is it possible she’s like, I don’t know...a ghost?” Jay whispers, leaning in so the tourists on the other side of the bar can’t hear our bizarre conversation.
“I thought of that...but, why is she haunting me?” I question.
“I mean...you did say she looked familiar. Maybe you’re the only one she knows who can figure it out.” He cracks a beer and hands it over the bar to a tall blonde.
“Maybe if you can figure out where you know her from then you can figure out why she wants your help.” He moves to the other end of the bar where a group waits to order, leaving me to my thoughts as I pour another drink.
Missing Woman. New Orleans.
I enter the search criteria and begin to scroll through the headlines.
There are pages of results. Line after line of articles written, but none of the pictured women resemble the one I’ve been seeing.
Who is she ?
“Please, Help!” The now-familiar voice echoes urgently over my shoulder, startling me from my search.
I turn quickly in my chair, and I am now face-to- face with the very woman I’d been searching for. Up-close her features are much more defined and familiar. But still I cannot pinpoint how I know her.
“I don’t know how to help you.” My voice shakes slightly.
The woman pouts, tears gathering in her eyes.
“Do I know you?” I question, grasping for straws. I have nothing to go off of, no way to help her. I need something more if I’m going to figure out what she needs me to do.
She says nothing, but reaches forward, touching her cold palm to my forehead.
There’s a flash, and suddenly, I am teleported out of my bedroom and into the bar on Bourbon Street.
“H - How did you do that.” I ask, feeling sick from the sudden change. The area around me is familiar, but different.
The woman says nothing, only looks straight ahead toward the bar.
I follow her gaze, in awe of the situation.
“One of our coldest local brews, just for you.” Jay cracks the top of a beer and winks at the woman across the bar from him. That’s nothing new. He’s known for flirting with the tourists. We all do it.
The woman smiles back at him and puts the bottle to her stained lips, taking a big gulp. Her Auburn hair is a stunning contrast to her white dress. It’s the woman who’s been haunting me.
I look quickly to my left where the same woman stands, staring at the scene before us. She points again to herself at the bar, but says nothing more. I return my focus to the festivities.
This was Mardi Gras last year. That’s why she was so familiar. This was my first year working here. The memories come back as the scene unfolds.
“Thank you.” She leans seductively on the wooden bar as she drinks, keeping her eyes firmly on Jay.
That’s nothing new either. Jay has girls who come to the bar only when he is working. He’s a big-time flirt and it pays for him to be. He gets the best tips I’ve ever seen with a guy bartender.
I watch as he looks over his shoulder for the second bartender. It’s me.
It’s a weird feeling to watch myself from the outside. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the woman beside me watching, what I would soon learn to be, the last few hours of her life unfold before her.
“That redhead in the corner is all about you.” I nudge Jay as he serves another group.
He only smiles but continues working.
What could she want me to learn from this?
After a few minutes, Jay leans over and whispers something in my ear before slipping away. I continue making drinks, unfazed. A moment later, the redhead woman disappears as well, exiting the bar through the front door.
The woman nudges me now and then exits behind herself. I follow suit.
We follow silently as she walks around to the alley entrance of the bar. Jay is waiting.
They approach each other and begin to whisper in hushed tones. As the speak, Jay looks behind him twice to check for anybody approaching from the bar. I begin to feel nauseous.
Please. I beg. Please don’t let him have anything to do with this. Please.
“Jay?” I ask, weakly, looking toward the ghostly woman beside me.
She only tilts her head in response, urging me to turn my focus back to the two of them talking. I do so with sweaty palms and growing headache.
The exchange is brief. Jay disappears back into the bar, but this gives me no relief. I remember now. He’d come in and told me that he had to go. Something with his family.
He returns and they leave through the alley, and get into his car.
Suddenly, we’re at the nature preserve. We watch as the pair embraces in the thicket of the trees. I want to look away, but I can’t.
They hook up in the grass and then help each other back into their clothes. Still, nothing happens.
“This is the last time, Jay.” The woman says, pulling on her dress.
“We can’t keep doing this. I could lose everything.” She says softly.
He laughs lightly.
“You say that every time.”
The woman shakes her head.
“But this time I mean it. If Mark finds out about us, my marriage is over.” Her eyes begin to fill with tears.
“This has been fun, but I love Mark. I can’t keep doing this to him.” She takes his face between her hands and kisses him lightly.
Jay steps out of her arms, head down.
“Fine.” He says, and then walks away, leaving her alone in the forest.
“What -?” I begin to question, but she puts her finger to her lips and nods at the scene ahead.
A man steps into view, taking in the sight of the woman crying in the grass before him. She stands quickly.
“Mark!” She looks shocked to see him.
“I can explain!” She stammers, fastening the remainder of the buttons quickly.
He shakes his head.
“I can’t believe you would do this to me again...after everything...” He begins to shake all over, advancing toward the petite woman.
She cowers, taking a step back.
“After everything!” He says again, and pulls out a gun.
He fires once and the bullet zips past her head, into a nearby tree trunk. Her eyes wide and she takes off through the trees, her husband close on her heels. He fires again as he chases her, missing once more.
I watch in horror as the chase continues toward the lake, the woman stumbling over the roots below her feet. The woman trips as she reaches the water, smacking her head off of the wooden railing, and falls into the river.
Mark stops, watching as she disappears below the surface of the lake. He seems unsure of what to do next, but surveys the water. It travels downstream to the Mississippi.
“They won’t find her.” He mumbles after a moment and then walks away, satisfied.
I turn to face the ghost of the very woman I just watched die. There are tears on her cheeks.
“Please. Help them find me. I want to rest and you’re the only one I can reach.”
I nod, wiping the tears that escape my own eyes.
“I promise. I’ll make sure they find you.”