“Things is bad in town,” Hattie said, staring out the window of her cabin and into the deluge of rain.
She watched as her familiar, Ol' Toothless, soundlessly slipped off the edge of Hattie's Island, and the giant gator's leathery back moved purposefully away. “Water's risin', and fever's come,” she continued under her breath.
It wasn't often that Miranda Priestly experienced true, gut-wrenching, primal fear. Oh, she experienced it, as has every mother the first time their children become sick or injured. Normally, however, any level of fear was alien to her emotional landscape. Primal fight or flight, life and death fear was, to her mind, an unnecessary distraction in the world of societal order in which she resided. Ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks were nearby in the event of any emergency. Such was the benefit of living in a nation state, which provided security, stability, and disaster relief when required.
Her ordered, twenty-first century world had not prepared her for the situation she found herself in. She had enacted a quickly concocted plan that had seemed reasonable at the outset. It was simple. Emily had rented a jeep for her use that was equipped for the muddy and water covered conditions of the swamp that Miranda was visiting. The vehicle had huge tires and a suspension that lifted it high up off the ground. One practically needed an extension ladder to climb up into the passenger compartment. She had been peripherally subjected to watching some video of a pastime called mudding one time when she’d chaperoned the visit of a young man with her daughter at the townhouse. The pastime involved driving vehicles equipped much as the one she had rented into extremely muddy conditions. It seemed to Miranda, at the time she had thought of this idea, as simplicity itself. She would drive the jeep through the swamp to Andrea's abode.
She had not anticipated getting lost; nor had she counted on getting the vehicle stuck in a pool so deep that the doors of the jeep’s passenger cabin were half submerged in the rising waters. The machine's big engine growled as Miranda tried to ease the vehicle back and forth, attempting to rock it out of whatever it was mired in below, only to feel her heart leap as the passenger's side tires sank deeper into the muck. She thought back to Andrea's warning of quicksand pool as they traversed the swamp together. She noted with trepidation that water was seeping into the cabin, quickly covering the floorboards and rising at an alarming pace.
The engine sputtered and died, and for a brief moment, the only sounds she heard were the rain and the cacophony of frogs. With the evidence mounting that the jeep was not going anywhere, save settling deeper into the muck under it, Miranda moved to act on the situation she found herself in. She struggled to open the cabin door to allow herself escape from the sinking vehicle. When the pressure of the water surrounding it would not permit the action, she rolled the window down and shimmied out, climbing up onto the roof of the mired four-wheel drive. The sky was black, and the rain was still falling in buckets, making seeing more than an arm’s length in front of her a near impossibility. Within minutes she realized her situation was far graver than she had realized. The platform that the roof of the jeep had created and which, for the moment, was serving as her only means of staying out of the water, was listing significantly to one side as the passenger side of the conveyance continued to sink faster than the driver’s side. With the smooth surface she was standing on rain slicked, her footing was becoming more and more treacherous. In moments she knew she was going to end up in the water. She wondered briefly if she needed to swim away from the sinking jeep, her fear being that it would pull her down as might a sinking ship. Her eyes opened wide as she realized that the pool she would soon be immersed in had a number of logs floating in it, any one of which, as she had learned during her journey through the swamp in Hattie's company, might be an alligator waiting in ambush.
Staring through the driving rain she could see two things that she could identify as 'gators. One, the smaller of the two, was closer to where the roof of the jeep she was standing on would soon submerge under the water.
The other, terrifyingly large one was farther out, but most definitely headed in Miranda's direction at speed.
The surface she was standing on shifted again, and for a brief second she was weightless as she fell and splashed down into the black water. She struggled to the surface and right into the open jaws of the smaller of the two alligators. She turned her head, closed her eyes, and waited for the inevitable clash of teeth. Something struck the smaller of the alligators, and by the time it snapped its jaws shut, Miranda was no longer within reach.
The larger of the alligators exploded from the water some ten feet from where Miranda bobbed in the liquid. It was majestic, rising to half its body length above the water's surface. A primordial sea monster erupting from the depths. Clamped in its jaws was the throat of the smaller 'gator. At the apogee of the big alligator's thrust from the water, it stretched and turned its body, slamming the body of the smaller alligator between its bigger mass and the surface of the water. There was a violent splash as the two combatants battled. For a moment, they were both underwater; then the larger of the two ‘gator’s tail broke the surface and slapped down, propelling the leathery giant deep under the water, taking the smaller 'gator with it.
The sound of the multitude of singing frogs had ceased. There was a moment of pregnant silence, disturbed only by the sound of the rain on the water and Miranda's fearful, labored breathing. Then, splashing, the big 'gator again broke the surface. It turned toward Miranda, and in seconds, it brushed close by her. Close enough that its cool hide rubbed against the wet clothing Miranda wore. Instinctively Miranda reached out and got a hold of the alligator as it swam by her. Frantic, blind, lizard brained, survival instinct informed her adrenaline fueled body that it was better to ride the monster rather than fall under its jaws. If she could hang on to the alligator's neck behind its head, then its jaws wouldn't be able to reach her. The big 'gator seemed to ignore the added weight clinging to it. It lazily straightened out its body and swished its massive tail. Miranda found herself being dragged through the deeper channels of the swamp. She hung on for what felt like hours as the beast moved with purpose, continuing toward wherever its destination was.
She knew she had to do something. Her future was in her own hands. Any chance of survival she had was down to the choices she made in the coming moments. Noticing that the 'gator she was being towed by had broken out of a reed choked canal and into a larger pool, Miranda held her breath and let go of the beast. It continued its course to the edge of an island some thirty yards distant. Glancing at the island, she immediately became aware of the illuminated windows of Andrea's cottage. The big 'gator climbed halfway out of the water where the shallows met the shore and stopped moving. Miranda, eyes never leaving the prehistoric beast of nightmares, swam carefully across to the island. Moving to where the dilapidated pier broke the water near the front of Andrea's cottage, she pulled herself up onto the land, crawling up to where she was completely out of the water. She collapsed, resting for a moment while attempting to get her heartbeat back to where it wasn't racing and to allow the sick feeling from adrenalin flowing through her overtaxed body to ebb.
She noted that someone knelt down beside her in the pouring rain. She looked up into the worried eyes of one of her daughters. Seeing her child safe, she gave into the stress and fatigue of the last few frantic days and promptly fainted.
The diner, the usual meeting place of the townspeople, was closed, dark, and locked, the owner not wanting to risk contagion. Those frightened townspeople still willing to gather in groups had retreated to whichever one of the two houses of worship where they normally attended on Sundays. Those two houses of worship sat opposite to each other across the small town square, close to the end of the sparely populated main street of Slippery Bottom. In the midst of that square, a few of the townsfolk met amid a very nasty sentiment. Fear had brought mob mentality to the usually peaceful town.
It was a stupid idea, but Doug was desperate. Lily had taken the fever. She was as sick as anyone Doug had ever seen in his entire life, and no one in town had any idea of how to deal with the outbreak. Several of the townspeople had already succumbed to the pestilence. No matter what, he wasn't going to let his best friend die. He didn't see anyone on the street during the walk from Lily's Blossoms to the slip where Lily kept the flat bottomed punt that she used for her forays on the waters around Slippery Bottom. Wrestling the waterlogged tarp cover from the small vessel, he glanced out into the dark foliage beyond the town. Making his way to Ol' Lucius' place would be tricky. The rain was hard enough that it might swamp the boat as he attempted the journey. He needed Hattie, however. At this moment in time, he hoped and prayed that the swamp witch would be willing to strike a bargain with him for Lily's life.
Miranda struggled up from the darkness toward the quiet voices of her two daughters and of her beloved Andrea. She hoped, in the depths of her seemingly endless well of sad loneliness, that it wasn't just another deceptive dream.
Suddenly she was standing on that gloomy little island where she had encountered Lucius Clay. The old man, in his less terrifying aspect, bent, ancient, in ragged and stained clothing, was down on his knees, his back toward her. He was digging barehanded in the sandy soil. A mason jar full of gold coins sat beside him. “Ya gots ta say it, ya knows.” His rough voice carried over the cacophony of bird calls, frogs, and other natural sounds.
“I believe.” Miranda whispered to the breeze that blew across the island.
“Ya gots ta mean it!” the specter insisted, not turning away from his work. “Iff’n yer gonna save yerself and save me, too, ya gots ta believe and mean it! Everythin' is going ta change fer ya! Iff’n ya does this, nothin' is ever gonna be the same!”
“I believe!” Miranda said, her voice stronger.
The old man turned suddenly and stood up. His aspect went from the old man that had been digging in the earth to something horrifying and terrible in less than the span of a heartbeat. The spectral monstrosity rushed at her, all chaos, wind, and storm. She closed her eyes, and her arms involuntarily covered her face. “I believe!” she screamed into the maelstrom that was buffeting her body. “I believe in Andrea! I believe in her power!”
She opened her eyes to a dimly lighted room, a single kerosene lamp, set low, burning on the small table by the bed she lay in. She couldn't see anyone, as the privacy curtain that separated the bed from the rest of Andrea's small cottage had been drawn. She could hear quiet conversation nearby. “Ye drinks all of it, Caroline,” Andrea's Southern drawl came sweetly to her ears. “Holds yer nose iff’n ya has ta. I knows it don't taste good, but it'll keep the fever from ya. Yer mama’ll be wakin' up soon. Then we'll see what there is ta see.”
Miranda cast off the light coverlet that covered her and rose from the bed. She stepped to the edge of the privacy curtain and pushed it aside. Her eyes fell on the beautiful woman that she had thought gone from her life, standing at the fireplace and stirring a small copper kettle that was hanging over the embers of a low fire. Glancing around the small cabin, she saw both of her daughters, apparently safe and sound. Tension that Miranda had been feeling for days seemed to flow out of her like water out of an overturned bucket. She felt tears well in her eyes. “Andrea,” she cried with relief, rushing into the young woman's open arms.
Andrea wrapped strong arms around Miranda, who was now openly crying, and held her close, as Miranda's face nestled in the crook between the younger woman's neck and shoulder. The woman from the swamp's words were soft and reassuring. “You's safe, 'Randa. You's been safe since ya came inta the Blackwater. Nothin' that swims, crawls, flys, 'r walks here is gonna be allowed ta hurt ya. This was sapposed ta be yer place.” The words spoken by Andy were gentle, but the twins could hear the pain the last sentence contained and could see the agony of loss in the swamp witch’s gaze.
“I want to go back,” Miranda whispered, raising her face from the protection of the warm, soft skin of Andrea's neck.
Andy unwrapped her arms and stepped back, nodding. She took a deep breath, evidently centering herself. “Weather 'll break. Then ye and yer girls can be on yer way.” she replied. “Back ta Slippery Bottom and from there ta yer New York City.”
Miranda shook her head, tears still tracking down her face. “No,” she whispered. “I want to go back to the orchid pool! Back to the beginning! I've been such a god damned fool!” She looked up at her Andrea. “It's not too late, is it?” she asked, her voice smaller than what anyone who had ever known Miranda Priestly had ever heard before. “Can I please have another chance?”
Andy looked at the woman before her, something akin to wonder in her eyes. “Ya wants ta stay here with me? Stays with me ferever and a day?”
Miranda nodded, seemingly beyond the ability to reply verbally at that moment in time.
“Get a hold of something, Caro,” Cassidy whispered urgently to her sister. “The world as we know it has just changed, big time.”
Andy shook her head. “Ye knows that there won't be no goin' back.”
Miranda nodded again, her composure slowly returning. “You told me one of the first times we met how that life was dying.”
Andy nodded, the joy on her face morphing into sadness. “It's already dead, 'Randa. The King of Swords has done seen ta that.”
Nigel hurried into the elevator and, punching the button for the top floor of the Elias-Clarke building, headed for a hastily called meeting with Runway's C.E.O., Irv Ravitz, in the man's executive office. When he arrived, Irv's executive assistant kept him waiting in the outer office for fifteen minutes, which Nigel experienced with growing dread. He knew something bad was coming.
Finally allowed into Irv's office, he found Irv seated behind his impressive desk, leaning back in his chair, a smoldering cigar in his mouth and a snifter of something amber on the flat surface in front of him.
“Ahh, Nigel, good of you to come,” the sleazy little man behind the desk gushed. Nigel knew immediately that it was way worse than he had anticipated.
“There were some rather momentous changes made at the board meeting this morning,” Irving continued, puffing self-importantly on his cigar. “Some changes which mean that certain individuals in our organization are going to have to make some decision on where their loyalties lie.”
"Board meeting?" Nigel asked, curiously. "I happen to know that at least two board members are out of the country at the moment. How did you have a board meeting without a full complement of the board members?"
"We had a voting quorum," Irv answered with a nasty grin on his face. "That's all we needed. Miranda is out. Her reign of terror is over. Jacqueline Follett is already in the air from Paris and will be the new editor-in-chief of Runway magazine the moment she sets foot on American soil."
"You stupid son of a bitch," Nigel grated, half rising from his chair. "Jacqueline Follett cannot do what Miranda does for Runway! Haven't you been watching the numbers for Runway France? They've been in decline ever since Jacqueline took over!"
"We can pay Jacqueline half of what we pay Miranda," Irv defended, sliding his chair backward a bit from the desk, retreating from the angry man in front of him. “She'll be easier to control. Do what she's told as far as following the directives of the board.”
"Jacqueline isn't worth half of what you pay Miranda! Jacqueline isn't worth a tenth of what Miranda is worth! She can't do what Miranda does!" Nigel ranted, unable to sit still, and pacing angrily before the desk. He struggled to modulate the volume of what he said, but his tone spoke of his rage. "You incredible, gutless coward! You waited until Miranda was gone, searching for her missing children! Then you called a rigged board meeting to get her fired! You stupid asshole! You've just cut the throat of the one publication that makes money for this goddamn company every month!”
"It's a pity you feel that way," Irv replied, his supposedly good humor now gone, his eyes flat and unfriendly. "Jacqueline was hoping you'd stay on board, at least for a while. You could've made her transition easier."
"I wouldn't work for Jacqueline Follett on the best day she ever had,” Nigel said, struggling to keep himself from shouting it in the smug little bastard's face. “She is a no talent hack who wouldn't know high couture if it bit her on the ass!" Nigel stopped pacing, and he stood before the desk at his full height, pulled down on the front edges of his suit coat, and took his time straightening out any wrinkles. He looked Irv Ravitz straight in the eyes. "If I am not fired, you have my two week’s notice, effective immediately."
"That won't be necessary," Irv said, smiling nastily again. "This little display of yours has shown exactly where your loyalty lies. The things you said to me are grounds for insubordination, and you're employment is terminated, effective immediately, for that reason. You have until the end of the day to clean out your office. Oh, and by the way, you can tell that little redheaded bitch who has been Miranda's lapdog that she's fired too.”
Miranda struggled to pull herself together, waiting for Andrea's reply to her request that they start over. Somehow it didn't surprise her that she was ready and willing to beg if it became necessary. The old Miranda Priestly would never beg, but a new Miranda Priestly was struggling to be born. She closed her eyes and, for a brief moment, her mind jumped to Emily. Her first assistant had a mantra. Miranda wasn't supposed to know that Emily would endlessly repeat, “I love my job, I love my job,” over and over again as a talisman against bad days at Runway. Now Miranda understood the power of such an act. Under her breath she began to chant her own new mantra. “I believe, I believe, I believe.”
Andy looked at Miranda for an endless moment that was comprised of only a few seconds of formal time as humankind understands it. She nodded, tears of joy coming to her own eyes. “Ye means it!” she said, her eyes filled with wonder as she focused them on the woman before her. “Yer gonna let it all go! Yer here with me now! Now and ferever and a day!” She caught Miranda up in a bear hug, and she wasted no time kissing the smaller woman all over her tear-stained face.
Doug eased the nose of the flat bottomed punt up onto the bank of Ol' Lucius' island. The rain was still pouring down, and he had done as much bailing as poling to get the little boat safely through the downpour. He'd had his hands full and little time to think what he would offer as payment to the swamp witch in exchange for his best friend's life. Lily was lying in her bed, in her apartment, behind Lily's Blossoms, alone, racked with the fever that had laid the town low.
He hadn't wanted to leave Lily alone, but there was no one willing to come into contact with someone that had the fever, unless that someone was a loved one. The sickness that had come with the rain was tearing the fabric of the small community apart. Soon it would be every man for himself. He stepped from the boat onto the island. He knew that he didn't own anything of any real worth. Nothing worth the life of one of the dearest people in the world to him.
Doug wasn't like those who were cowering in town. “You do for those you love,” he muttered. He had his guitar, his music, and his soul, and Hattie could have any one or all of them if she'd save Lily's life.
He quickly walked through driving rain to the small alter of stacked stones where locals left offering for Hattie when they wanted something from her. He set his guitar case down before it. “I needs yer help, Hattie,” he whispered to the breeze. The rain concealed the tears running down his face. He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “Hattie,” he prayed earnestly. “This here is the only thing I gots that's worth anythin'. It's the only thing I own that I care about. Lily is sick. She has the fever. Please…please take my guitar…take my music if ya must, or even m' soul, but please, please save my friend!”
“They're coming for you Andrea,” Miranda insisted. “They're forming a lynch mob. We need to get away from here!” Miranda, finally cleaned up from her adventure through the swamp, stood wrapped in the coverlet from Andrea's bed and glanced worriedly out the small window in the front of Hattie's shack.
Andy shook her head. She turned from the piece of Miranda clothing that she was diligently washing in a pot of water near the fireplace and nodded toward the window. “They may come inta th' swamp, but they won't gets nowheres near th' Blackwater. Not in this weather. ‘Sides,” she continued, “they knows better than ta makes Hattie angry. Bad things happen when they makes Hattie angry.”
“But you're Hattie,” Caroline said, confused.
Andy shook her head. “More ta Hattie than just me. My Momma was Hattie 'fore me, her momma 'fore her, and so on back. The Blackwater is part o' Hattie, and all that grows, walks, swims, flies, and crawls there is part 'o Hattie too.”
“Gaia,” Cassidy whispered, suddenly understanding. “Hattie is Gaia.”
Andy turned to her disciple and looked confused. “I don't knows no Gaia,” she said, curiosity in her tone. “Is she another wise woman?”
“Gaia is an idea, Andrea.” Miranda said, looking at her daughter and considering what she'd offered to the conversation. “In ancient Greek mythology, she was the earth. She was also the mother of most of the other gods and of the titans as well. It's where the idea of Mother Earth comes from. Nowadays, it represents the concept that all things that live and the very earth itself are all interconnected and actually make up one huge organism.”
Andy considered for a moment and then smiled and nodded her head. “I reckon that Hattie gots another name.”
Cassidy breathed in sharply and stiffened suddenly. Her mother turned in alarm and discovered her daughter's face slack, her eyes rolled up in her head, the same milky white that Hattie's had been when Miranda had encountered Lucius Clay's unearthly influence for the first time.“They've come into the swamp,” the girl said, turning her head as if she were listening to something a long way off. “There are a bunch of them. They're desperate and really afraid.”
Andy closed her eyes and took on the aspect of listening closely. She nodded. ”Iff’n they comes inta the Blackwater, God helps 'em. Ol' Lucius won't tolerate townfolk comin' inta the swamp with violence toward Hattie in their heart.” She sighed softly as she opened her eyes, her expression saddened. “He's likely ta kill 'em all,” she whispered.
“Maxie,” Cassidy called out, urgently. “Go! Now! Send them home, but don't hurt them! They shouldn't suffer because they're too scared to think straight!”
For a few brief terrifying seconds there was something electric in the air, and the temperature in the room dropped. Miranda shivered and could see her breath in the humid air. What she thought at first a trick of the light surrounded Cassidy. Then it took shape. A vague transparent outline of a girl about her daughters' age, in vintage roaring twenties clothing stood just before her unseeing daughter. The apparition nodded, acknowledging the instructions and changed, swirling into an angry indistinct storm swept mass before disappearing through the wall.
“What in the world was that?!” Miranda whispered, not completely trusting her voice.
Caroline had moved up beside her sister and caught her as Cassidy sagged. “That was Maxie, Mom. Get used to her. She and Cass are sort of a package deal from here on out.” She looked into her sister's now normal eyes. “Can I take the locket for a while? Let Maxie take what she needs from me?”
Cassidy nodded as Caroline helped her sister to the narrow bed that her mother had so recently vacated.
Andy was suddenly beside Miranda and placed a comforting hand on her arm. “Yer lil' bird 'll be alright,” she offered softly. “Her Maxie won't take no more 'n she needs, and Cassidy c'n take it. She's made o' stronger stuff than ya think.”
Ten residences of Slippery Bottom had been whipped into a frenzy of fear by the biggest blowhard and braggart in town, who now led them on their self-imposed mission. He had marshaled enough courage into them to risk the storm and take to boats with the intention of finding the swamp witch. Their plan was to hang her when they found her. For twenty or so minutes the small flotilla of four boats continued to pole deeper into the wilds beyond the town’s boundaries. What little light from the few street lights in town was quickly lost behind the screen of vegetation, and each small boat became its own lonely island of light in the expansive gloom of the swamp on the moonless rainy night. Suddenly every piece of the thick surrounding verdure was an ominous and threatening shadow.
An unearthly howl broke the pervasive noise of heavily falling rain. “What the hell was that?!” a man in one of the boats cried out.
A woman in the second boat shook her head wildly. “I ain't never heard nothin' make a sound like that!” she exclaimed.
Ear-piercing laughter that could only be called a cackle sounded across the water.
Those in the boats frantically looked in every direction, trying to determine where the sound came from.
Whispers ghosted the darkness all around them, and each of the individuals in the boats felt as if the sinister murmurs were directed to their very ears, meant for them and them alone.
There was a sudden noise from the third boat. “Look out!” a man's voice called out. A splash sounded, and the kerosene lantern the boat had been using for illumination suddenly extinguished. A second louder splash instantly followed. “Harley's fallen out of the boat. I can't see him! I can't see nothin!” a different voice called out urgently.
The unearthly cackling came again, louder, closer, but still indefinable as to where, exactly, it originated.
Another demonic howl sounded, and this one was followed by several answering howls in the distance. The close howl sounded again, as if responding to the cacophony of the group of howls, calling out to them, showing them the way. To the growing terror of those in the boats, the far-flung pack of howls sounded again, only this time drawing nearer. A woman in the forth boat screamed.
“Harley! Harley, where are ya!” someone called out.
“Get me th' hell out o' the water,” Harley's voice cried. “There's 'gators in here!”
“I gots him,” someone called out. “I'm pulling him inta my boat!”
“Be careful!” a man in a different boat exclaimed. “Ya don't want to capsize your...”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” the voice that said that he had Harley cried out urgently, and a second man cursed and a woman screamed, followed immediately by several contiguous splashes. The electric lantern the second boat had been carrying sank eerily beneath the swamp water, disappearing into the mud at the bottom. The uncertain play of light and shadow as it sank revealed the second boat upside down and four bodies splashing frantically in the water. The cackling, now identifiable as a woman's voice, sounded again, seemingly coming from every direction at once.
The woman in the fourth boat was so terrified she was gibbering now, nearly hysterical. The man in that boat yelled, “Fuck this!” Turning the boat sharply, he poled back toward town as quickly as he could manage.
“Coward!” the nominal leader of the group, the biggest windbag in Slippery Bottom, yelled from his place in the first boat to the retreating boat.
The third boat was among the people struggling in the water trying to offer aid, but with those already crewing the small craft, there just wasn't enough room to take in four additional bodies.
“'Gator!” Someone shouted. “’Gator in the water!”
“Get me out o' here!” another man screamed frantically. “I don't want ta die this way!”
The sinister laughter was everywhere now, drowning out the rain and the screams and the cries of the lynch mob.
“Swim fer it!” someone yelled. “Swim fer town!”
The third boat, with two of the men in the water hanging on to its sides, made a hard turn and, with both men in the boat rowing as if for their very lives, they set their course for Slippery Bottom. The other man and woman in the water started swimming frantically back towards town.
In the first boat, the braggart cursed and called out to the others, who at this point were in full retreat. “We have ta find th' witch!” he yelled. “Ya cowards!” The woman who was riding in the boat with him made a strangled sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan. He looked to her ashen face and then followed her line of sight. There, standing just above the prow of the boat, was a luminescent and transparent figure of a girl of about thirteen.
The apparition looked at him and smiled a hideous grin. “Get out!” she hissed.
The woman in the boat didn't waist even a second. She rose from her seat and, turning, dove cleanly off the stern, swimming for town as if all the demons of hell were chasing her. The braggart tried to back up, but there is only so much room in a small boat. He went ass over tea kettle into the water, capsizing the boat in the process. After thrashing around a bit, he, too, swam desperately for home.
Maxie, now floating over the prow of the capsized boat, smiled to herself. It had been a good few minutes of work. Her friend, Cassidy, would be pleased, and Hattie had gained two new boats to help make their family's life in the swamp easier.
Miranda stood, holding the threadbare curtain that provided some privacy around Hattie's narrow bed, aside. She watched her daughter Caroline soothingly stroke Cassidy’s forehead where the troubled girl lay. She turned to speak to Andrea and found her by the cottage door, placing a blanket, shawl-like, around her shoulders.
Andy looked at her. “I has ta go out,” she said guiltily. “I gots ta go inta town.”
Miranda looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. “Andrea,” she exclaimed. “You can't go into Slippery Bottom. The people there are terrified! They've become a mob, Andrea! And that mob wants to hurt you!”
Andy nodded solemnly and sighed. “Miss Lily's taken th' fever. I has ta go 'r she'll die.”
Caroline was behind her mother immediately. “If you're going into Slippery Bottom, we're going with you!”
Andy looked at the girl and saw the Priestly determination in her eyes. She sighed. “I c'n see yer mama's fire 'n yer eyes, sos I reckon that there ain't no use in arguin' wit' ya. Ya all 'ud just follow me iff’n I told ya ta stay here.”
Cassidy rose from the bed and quickly stepped up beside Andy. She nodded. “Maxie says the way is clear. Those that came into the swamp are hightailing it back to town.”
“Good,” Andy replied. “We'd best gets goin' then. Caroline, ya grabs that sack there by th' door, and Cassidy, you gets the washtub by the fireplace. There's a passel o' things we needs ta gather twixt here and there.”
The long and terrifying night, the darkest any of the town's residents could remember, had passed into a false dawn, the sky leaden gray and the heavy rain still coming down. The new day broke over a town that had lost hope. The townspeople huddled in their homes, those who had not yet come down with the fever praying for one more day so that they could attend to those that had fallen ill. More than three-quarters of the town was sick, and a third of that number was so ill that each required near constant care. The meager governmental infrastructure the town possessed collapsed completely when the last of the three elected officials and one of the two ministers who called Slippery Bottom home fell ill.
Other than Hattie's comings and goings, nothing stayed secret in the small town. Nothing went unobserved. It was common knowledge that those townspeople who had traveled righteously into the swamp to find and deal with the swamp witch had returned to town with their tails between their legs and considerably the worst for wear. Their tales of seeing the swamp witch's fury only became more magnified with each telling until the eleven who had poled out into the swamp were claiming that they had seen Hattie standing amid the fury of the storm and directing things straight from the gates of hell against them. The townfolk now believed that they had made Hattie even angrier and that there would be no mercy from the dark power of the swamp witch.
William Marstan had been Slippery Bottom's baptist minister for near twenty years. He had come to this small community straight from his training to become a priest. This morning he started the short walk from his house, just off the main street, through the small town square and to his church, as he had thousands of times during his tenure. This day, however, his progress was halted as he came across something in the center of the square that didn't belong. Seated on a smoldering low fire sat a huge black cast iron pot, it contents steaming. Fear ran through him. It's Hattie's doin', he thought to himself. She brought it here.
Considering, he realized that the caldron that sat on the fire did not, in fact, come from the Blackwater. It had only come from as far as Lily's Blossoms, a fair way down the street, its normal place outside the store's front door where it served as planter, decorating the shop's entrance. The heavy iron pot had somehow been emptied and moved into the square, and a fire built beneath it. As he moved closer to investigate what was bubbling inside the vessel, he noticed that two other members of the small town had also discovered the new addition to the square.
Within a mere fifteen minutes the great majority of the ambulatory population of Slippery Bottom stood in a ragged circle around the caldron. The gathered individuals whispered among themselves, as if speaking at a normal volume might disturb something that no one dared to disturb. It was clear to the minister that the consensus of the townsfolk believed the gurgling brew to be the product of Hattie's witchcraft, originating from the Black Bayou. There was a growing argument about what the witch's brew might be and what should be done with it. The man who had led the expedition into the swamp to lynch Hattie spoke out, his voice the first at anywhere near a normal conversational volume. “That Damned witch brought it! Dump the caldron and get rid of the poison!” he insisted
Doug, who had only recently left Lily's bedside, arrived in the square and spoke from his place at the back of the circle of onlookers. “He's right that Hattie brought it here,” he said to the assembled group. “But it ain't poison. It's the cure ta th' fever! Hattie gave some o' it ta Lily last night, and she's on the mend this mornin'!”
"Cure?!" a woman's voice asked. "All three o' my littles has the fever! The baby is really sick!" . Looking worn beyond her years, she weaved through the gathered people. "Get me somethin' ta put some o' this in!" she called out to anyone who might be listening.
A man standing nearby emptied what was left in a mug of coffee he had in his hand. "Here, Mildred," he said, handing it to her.
The woman stepped to the bubbling vat and scooped up a cup full of the viscous green liquid. She turned back the way she had come and moved off with hurried steps.
"Ya all can't be crazy enough ta drink that stuff," the man that had led the lynch mob shouted. "That goddamned witch brung it!"
The woman who worked as the waitress in the town's only diner hurried off and was back in a moment with a stack of plastic cups. She tore a cup from the top of the stack and handed the balance of her burden to the minister. She too ran the cup over the surface of the kettle, filling it. Raising the cup, she drank deep. She made a horrid face. "It tastes foul," she asserted.
"Ya all are crazy!" The leader of the lynch mob groused loudly. "Why would Hattie help us?”
Doug shook his head violently. "She's helpin' us ‘cause I called ta her. I made a deal. Lily would o' died otherwise!" He made an emphatic gesture towards the caldron. "I made a deal fer Lily's life, but Hattie came an’ brewed enough fer everybody!"
"Ya actually seen Hattie?" an old timer asked in wonder.
Doug nodded, his mouth suddenly dry. "Last night," he answered. “I was stayin' at Lily's bedside ‘cause she was so sick. I must o' dozed off. I opened my eyes, an’ she was there. She spoke ta Lily so gently. Whispered ta her that she was her only friend here as she spooned some o' that concoction inta her mouth. Then she noticed that I'd woken up." He shivered all over. "She told me that what's in this here caldron 'll cure the fever."
“Da ya believe her?” the old timer asked.
“Lily's a heap better this mornin'. Fever broke almost as soon as Hattie spooned some o' that inta her. Now she's sleepin' without tossin' and turnin'. The sweats are gone too,” Doug offered softly. “So, yeah, I believe her.”
A ripple ran through the group, and they crowded around the bubbling vat. Then the townspeople went crazy, grabbing at the stack of cups in the minster's hand and for anything else that could hold some of the precious fluid. A few even risked scalding themselves as they plunged cupped hands into the bubbling liquid. Those in the square all struggled to get their turn at the deep green brew and, after taking a sip themselves, hurried off through the driving rain to help friends and loved ones too sick to get away from their beds. Within an hour of finding the black iron kettle, all the residences of Slippery Bottom had sipped of the witch's libation.
Later that morning the rain stopped and by the next day the sky over Slippery Bottom dawned clear and blue. As the town came to back to life in the early morning, the streets filled. All those who had been as sick as they had ever been were again in the bloom of health. The diner opened, and as the residences of the town made their way to it for their morning coffee, an impromptu town meeting took place.
"Damn it," the mayor swore, "I'm tellin' ya that Hattie done saved this town!" He lifted his coffee cup. "If she hadn't come and brought that cure..."
Another man nodded resolutely. “We needs ta do somethin' fer her.” He looked to where Doug sat with Lily, making sure that she ate her breakfast. "You said ya made a deal with Hattie, boy. What did ya haf ta promise her?”
Doug sighed. “I had ta give her m' guitar,” he answered softly.
The man who had asked the question nodded as the minister who tended the town's evangelical congregation spoke up from where he sat. “If it weren't fer this boy's sacrifice and fer Hattie's mercy, I and several others here would likely being buried today rather than havin' breakfast.” He glanced out the diner's window toward the swamp. “Maybe it's time we changed things. Hattie's been livin' out there alone longer than livin' memory. Maybe it's time that we bring her inta town. Make a place for her here among us.”
The mayor nodded. “Ya all put tagether a party o' men ya trust ta go and see it they c'n fetch her. I'd do it, but I gots ta meet with that fat man that works fer that sum-a-bitch Potter. He's still tryin' ta buy up the whole damn town.”
The weather had cleared almost immediately after Andy, Miranda, and the twins had completed their clandestine adventure into town to brew the cure for the fever. Miranda had been surprised by the fact that she, Andy, and her daughters had functioned like a well-oiled machine, gathering the components that were needed for the medicine, sneaking into town, emptying and moving the heavy iron cauldron, finding enough dry wood to build the required fire, brewing the potion, and then sneaking back out of town just before dawn. The entire frightening, adrenaline-fueled endeavor had left her feeling more alive than she had in years.
Some time during that frenzied evening, she became aware, somehow, that the life she had lived in New York had passed into oblivion. She knew without question that she had been ousted as editor-in-chief of the magazine she had dedicated her life to. She was unable to get a cell phone signal out of the swamp and, on top of that, she had lost her own cell phone when she had abandoned the jeep as it sank in the swamp. So, for the moment, she couldn't verify what she instinctively knew. The next time she went into town, she would have to borrow one of her girls' phones and call Nigel to confirm what she felt in her bones. Surprisingly, although she would have thought that the lost of Runway would have destroyed her, she strangely found a sensation of peace in the knowledge that those labors were behind her now. She found herself feeling more relaxed than she could ever remember being, and there was a sense of bubbling contentment within her that she just couldn't seem to contain. She knew in the depths of her soul that, that part of her life was over and a new and more exciting adventure had begun.
Staying the last two days in Hattie's small cabin had been curiously domestic. The sleeping arrangements had been roughing it as far as the Priestly trio's experiences went. Hattie's bed was narrow and didn't really accommodate two adults comfortably unless they were spooned incredibly close together. Miranda found having Andrea wrapped protectively around her seemed to provide the most restful sleep she'd had for many months. The twins were making due with hammocks that Andrea had improvised.
As she had been during the first time she was in the cabin, Miranda was careful not to pay too much attention to what went into the fare that Andrea diligently prepared for meals. Her earlier suspicion was confirmed that most of the ingredients for their repast came from what Andrea hunted, fished for, and gathered in the swamp. The source notwithstanding, each meal was both filling and delicious, and the companionship around what she now thought of as the family table made each mealtime seem like a feast.
Miranda spent part of the time with her family studying the interaction between Andrea and her daughters. She could feel the closeness between her girls and her lover. Watching her twins negotiate this alien place was both entertaining and informative. Caroline was obviously out of her element, here in the wilderness of the swamp, but she was game to try and deal with the challenges it imposed. She tended to stay close to the cabin and close to Miranda. Cassidy, on the other hand, begged shamelessly to be allowed to accompany Andrea anywhere the woman went. It was obvious that a teacher/student relationship had come into being. Miranda found herself glad that her daughter was so interested in learning what her Andrea had to teach.
She realized that the line of thought she was following was rooted in the fact that she had finally come to believe in Andrea's power. Her daughter was as gifted as Andrea was, and Andrea was teaching her little girl to control her abilities so that Cassidy could use her gifts to greatest effect and still remain both safe and sane.
In the early afternoon Miranda stood on the small porch of the cabin musing that there was something indeed about this primal place that had completely seduced her. She, a woman of the twenty-first century, was going to leave that modern world behind to live here in rustic simplicity with her lover, and, for the moment, she was completely at peace with that fact. Andrea and her girls were at the other end of the small island, fishing for what they would eat for dinner, and she could hear their laughter and quiet conversation. It lulled her into closing her eyes for a moment.
When she opened her eyes, she found herself standing before Lucius Clay's shack, but this time, although dilapidated, it was not in ruin. For the first time that Miranda had been there, beams of sunlight cut through the tree canopy in places, making small islands of brilliant light grace the ground, dispelling the pervading ambiance of gloom she had encountered each of the other times she'd been there. The old man sat in a rocking chair on the porch. He looked at her with his too bright eyes. “She wants ta do right by ya,” he croaked in his rough voice. “An iffin ya let her, she's 'bout ta make the granddaddy o' all mistakes, thinkin' she's fillin' a need o' yourn.”
Miranda knew now that this was real. She was somewhere else, in the company of a dead man who, in his way, had Andrea's best interests at heart. “You know I'm new to this,” she said curtly. “So speak plainly. Make me understand what you see coming so I can help you help Andrea,” she answered.
The old man nodded. “They's comin' fer her. Them fools from town. Thinks they knows now that Hattie is one o' them. They's sendin' a delegation. Sheriff, Fire Chief, and the high muckety-mucks. Gonna offer her a place among 'em.” He shook his head, hacked, spat on the ground, and picked up a jug that was sitting on the floor of the porch by the rocker. He unstoppered it, took a long pull, and replaced the cork. “She'll go with them, thinkin' that ya needs people about ya. That ya needs their society. They'll offers ya both a place in town, and fer a while they'll try ta accept ya among 'em, but twon't work. They's too afeared o' Hattie, and they won't accept two women sharin' a lover’s bed. They'll drive wedges twixt ya and then drive ya out. It'll kill the happiness ya all are due.”
The sky dimmed suddenly, and the comforting islands of light disappeared. The sinister gloom that was Miranda's earliest impressions of the island returned. She closed her eyes and opened them to chaos. Agony was suddenly her companion. She looked down at her burned arms and torso, blackened with hot tar as jeering townspeople covered her in feathers. The mob cheered and ranted around her. She looked up from where she knelt and saw that they had stripped her Andrea naked and hanged her from the street lamp post. She closed her eyes again, denying the vision. Opening her eyes, she was again standing before the old man in his rocking chair. Miranda pursed her lips and nodded. “I won't let that happen!" she declared. "Tell me what I need to do,” she continued decisively.
“Stop em from findin' Hattie. Stop 'em from findin' her shack,” the old man said, grinning.
Miranda closed and opened her eyes again and found herself standing on the porch of Andrea's cabin. “Cassidy,” she called out. “Would you come here, please?”
In a moment Cassidy was standing before her. “You need something, Mom?' she inquired.
Miranda nodded. “Can you get me to town?” she asked. “There are a couple of things I need to do.”
Cassidy nodded. “I know the way,” she said. “Andy showed me.”
Miranda nodded. “I saw a big piece of paper inside on the shelf near the door. It’s old and sort of yellow. Get that and a piece of charcoal from the fireplace. Grab a nail from the can on the same shelf the paper is on. Also, bring your sister's cell phone. There are a couple of calls I need to make when we get to where I can get a signal. I'll go tell Andrea and Caroline that we're going.”
Doug looked at Lily and sighed. “I'm really torn,” he said to her. “Ya needs me here, and Nigel needs me back 'n New York. He's really stressing out over bein' fired.”
Lily nodded her understanding. “Late night bus runs from th' bus stop out on the highway at ten. It'd have ya in West Pam Beach before the mornin'. Ya could catch a flight and be with him by lunchtime.”
“But ya needs me here,” he complained, stamping his foot like a little kid. “That Potter fella is still tryin' ta take your store!”
Lily shook her head. “I ain't sellin', 'n neither is anybody else in town that I've talked ta. So there ain't much he c'n do. Ya needs ta go be with yer man.”
Doug hung his head. “I know ya don't approve...” he started softly.
She grabbed his chin firmly and made him look her in the eye. “Don't ya ever think that, Doug! Yer m' best friend fer as long as I c'n remember, and yer the bravest man I ever met. Ya never been scared ta be who ya are. Ya never been scared ta say ya are as ya are. Ya never let these narrow minded bigots that live here make ya say or act different. I wish I had that kind o' courage, that kind o' strength. I might be a whole lot happier than I am iff’n I did.” She sighed softly. “Ya needs ta go home ta your man and help him through what he's goin' through. Everythin' 'll be okay here.”
As Cassidy showed her the way through the swamp to Slippery Bottom, Miranda explained to her daughter what Lucius Clay had told her and what her intentions were. Finding a likely spot to enact her plan, she looked up the narrow canal from near where the trunk of a fairly substantial tree thrust far out and hung low over the water. A boat with men in it could just make it under the trunk if those in the boat ducked a bit. She looked at her daughter. “You're sure they'll come this way?” she asked.
Cassidy nodded. “If they’re coming by boat, this canal is the most direct route. It's also the route that they're not likely to run into Ol' Toothless. He likes deeper water,” she answered.
Miranda nodded and, holding the piece of paper against the trunk of the tree, began to use the charcoal to write on it. When she was done, she looked to her daughter. "Do you think that you can climb up that tree trunk and nail this out over the canal where they'll be sure to see it when they come by?"
Cassidy looked at what her mother had written and smiled. “Mom, that's perfect!” she exclaimed. “It looks like something Hattie would write!” She quickly scampered up the tree trunk as if born to do it and nailed the makeshift sign to it out over the water.
Later on, after she and her daughter arrived in town, Miranda made the necessary call to Nigel.
When he recognized her voice, he spoke hesitantly. “Miranda,” he said.
“Don't mince words, Nigel. I already have some idea of what's happening there. How bad is it?” Miranda demanded.
Nigel sighed. “The board voted the day before yesterday. You have been removed as editor-in-chief and Jacqueline Follet has been appointed the new editor-in-chief of Runway.
Miranda sighed. “Not unexpected,” she replied quietly. “What’s the collateral damage?” she asked.
Nigel was momentarily silent, apparently surprised by the question. “Emily and I were both fired the same day Irv told me about you being ousted. Serena handed in her notice the next morning. I've heard that Jocelyn and Lucia have also both put in their notice, but I haven't spoken with either of them directly to confirm that, yet. I've spoken with my lawyer and am already in negotiations with the board of directors to assure that Emily and I get a fair severance package. The board seems receptive to the proposal because they know that Emily and I have a pretty good wrongful termination suit if we choose to pursue it.” He hesitated for a moment. “Did you find your daughters? Are they alright? When are you coming back?” he asked, rapid fire.
“I'm with my girls, Nigel,” she answered. “They're fine, thank you for asking. As for when I'm coming back? Well, there doesn't seem to be any urgency for me to do so now, does there?”
Again, Nigel was silent for a moment. “Will you fight it?” he asked, his voice almost breaking.
“No.” Miranda answered. “My time at Runway is over.”
“What will you do?” he asked, concern lacing his tone.
“Contact my lawyers,” she replied. “They'll make sure that the board honors its commitments as far as my guaranteed severance package. I had negotiated quite a significant golden parachute to be added to my contract the last time it was up for renewal. It's going to cost Elias-Clarke a pretty penny to sever their relationship with me, I can tell you that.”
“But what will you do?” Nigel asked again.
“I'll take some time, decompress and regroup. Then, I'll decide what comes next,” she answered. “I'll call you in a few days. If you talk to Emily, let her know that when I am contacted for a job reference, she will have my highest recommendation, as, of course, will you. Please thank her for me for her loyalty. I need to go Nigel. I have several other calls I must make. Please know that your loyalty is also appreciated. That's all.” She disconnected the call and immediately dialed her real estate agent.
“Thomas,” she said as soon as he answered the call. “Do you have the information I wanted?”
“Yes, Miranda,” he answered. “You were right. There is a land grab going on. Somebody named Potter is trying to buy up the whole area. The scuttlebutt is that he's planning to develop the whole area southwest of Lake Okeechobee. He's pitching to foreign investors. He's promising it's going to be a discount Disney World.”
“Buy the land,” Miranda directed softly.
“Excuse me, Miranda?” Thomas asked, sure he must have misheard.
“Undercut this Potter character. Buy the land. All of it,” she repeated.
“Miranda, I know you are a wealthy woman, but you have to realize that even at the price that is being floated at the moment, with the amount of acreage involved, it would take everything you have to make the deal.”
“Put all the properties I own on the market. The houses in London, Vale, the Hamptons, and the townhouse in Manhattan. Sell the rental properties as well. I'll contact my broker and have him sell the content of my stock portfolio. My business manager will handle liquidation of the content of the different houses as well as the art I own. Other than my daughters' trust funds and their possessions, I'll liquidate everything. If the proceeds from what I have in the bank and selling everything I own won't cover the purchase price, I'll find the rest. I want every square inch of the land that this man Potter is after, except the properties in the town of Slippery Bottom. I have it on good authority that the owners there already do not plan to sell to the man. Go in at the asking price if it is necessary. If it becomes a bidding war, so be it. What is critical is that you get the purchase agreement accomplished before Potter can do so. There should be enough liquid assets to be able to make a significant down payment and seal the deal.”
Thomas hesitated on the other end of the phone. He had a fiduciary duty to Miranda who had been a long time client. He spoke what was on his mind. “Miranda, you do realize that the land is worthless,” he said worriedly. “It's swamp. Potter is running some kind of scam. The land can't be developed in any kind of cost effective manner, and as far as my inquiries go, there aren't any natural resources worth mentioning. You'll end up with a huge acreage of worthless swamp.”
“You don't understand, Thomas,” she answered. “This land is the most important purchase I'll ever make, and its monetary worth has nothing to do with whether I'll ever profit from it. I am instructing you, as my agent, to do this. If you can't or won't, tell me now, and I'll find someone who will fulfill my wishes,” she said firmly.
“No, Miranda,” he answered. “I'll do as you ask. I'll get on it right away.”
“I'll call my lawyer, business manager, and broker as soon as I'm off the phone with you. You will act as point on this, and I will tell them that they are to cooperate with you in any way you require. I'll call you in a few days for a progress report. That's all.” With that Miranda terminated the call.
Dialing the first of the other calls she needed to make in order to derail Mr. Potter's plan and facilitate the purchase of all of the swamp around Slippery Bottom, she wondered idly what it was going to feel like to be poor.