“You getting out?” the taxi driver asked.
Tessa glared at the man through the rearview mirror, her gloved hands gripping a black leather handbag, a gift from her late grandmother. “Where I come from, a driver opens a door for a young lady and helps with her suitcase,” she said.
He snorted, wiggling his blonde moustache. “I see no young lady here,” he said in a thick Southern drawl. “Now, you gonna pay me or do I have to call the cops?”
Tessa raised her brows, shrugging her shoulders. Fine. Be an uncultured pig. She removed twenty dollars from her purse and dropped the bills onto his sweaty, outstretched palm.
“I want all my change back.”
The taxi driver grunted and returned three crumpled dollars.
Tessa swung open the door to step outside and slammed it shut. She stomped on gravel to grab her suitcase from the trunk, slamming it, too. The car sped ahead, tires squealing, leaving behind a plume of exhaust. She coughed and swiped away the fumes stinging her nose and lungs.
Eyes closed, she heaved out a breath and clomped on the path to one of Louisiana’s oldest mansions, the Buras Estate. The house was unremarkable; others might admire the French colonial design, but she expected mental health patients to come running out of the enormous cage at any second.
On the front porch, facing mahogany double doors, Tessa patted down her floral dress and tucked the stray curly hairs into her green suede hat. She rang the doorbell and waited, turning her neck to inspect the property. Her eyes widened at a giant oak tree; its thick branches stretched like the crooked fingers of giants clawing the clear blue skies.
The birds stopped chirping, and the autumn leaves no longer caressed the air with their gentle rustling. Startled by the silence, she dropped her purse and suitcase, gaze pulled upward. Heavy and threatening rain, dark clouds gathered across the once blue sky. A gust of wind knocked off her hat, and it tumbled down the wooded white stairs over to the tree. Tessa chased after it and stopped to pick up the hat resting at the base of the great oak.
Black shadows, the shape of long spaghetti strings, raced from the bottom of the tree, falling on top of each other, to the tips of the branches. The center of the tree rippled like a disturbed pool, and a hand of black smoke emerged from inside the hypnotizing swirls. The spidery fingers rotated, palm up, mimicking the gesture of a beggar.
Tessa held her breath and stumbled back to the porch, kicking up dirt and grass with her loafers. She rammed her back against a white pillar, gaping at the shadowy hand.
The front door opened. A petite young woman gazed at Tessa with half-closed eyes blacker than charcoal, frizzy red hair in a ballerina’s bun. Her pale skin possessed a grayish tint, reminding Tessa of a corpse resting in a coffin.
Mouth opened, Tessa blinked at the young woman and turned to the oak tree. No shadows blanketed its giant frame, the creepy hand at its center gone. The clouds parted, sun rays piercing through them. The birds resumed their singing, and the leaves crinkled from the wind sifting through the trees.
“Good afternoon, I’m Amelia, the head maid. Are you Tristesse Bien-Aimé?” the redhead asked, her face bored and deadpan.
Tessa took deep breaths to calm her racing heart. In her six years of hunting demons, loup garou, and other sorts of monsters with Grand-mère, Tessa had yet to encounter a cursed tree, or rather, a portal. She had spoken about gates to other worlds, but her grandmother had said they were rare.
“Good afternoon, I’m Amelia, the head maid. Are you Tristesse Bien-Aimé?” the young woman repeated.
Tessa coughed into a fist and wished she could ask the redhead to call her a cab, but she had no destination. Although Grand-mère left her the New Orleans apartment after her death, Tessa couldn’t fight the landlord who sold the building and forced her and the other residents into the streets with only fifty dollars for their trouble. This new job provided both shelter and money, along with a salary higher than every other post she had researched.
“Yes, I’m Tristesse,” she finally said, grabbing her purse and suitcase from the floor.
Amelia nodded. “Good. We were expecting a Tristesse Bien-Aimé.”
“Please, call me Tessa.” She gazed at the tree, curiosity picking at her brain. “Have you ever noticed anything strange about the oak tree over there?”
The head maid side-eyed the great oak. “No.”
Tessa furrowed her brows.
Amelia stepped aside and raised her arm. “This way, please.”
Tessa followed the head maid into a vast foyer, walking on a beige Persian rug set over hardwood floors. Hunting paintings, five-foot canvases of hunters shooting stags and geese, adorned walls covered in red and yellow wallpaper. Tessa cringed at one painting of seven dogs overtaking a stag, their jaws sinking into the deer’s body, its tongue slipping out of a gaping mouth.
She and Amelia entered a circular reading room. Heavy drapes dressed towering windows, and a golden chandelier hung from the high ceiling. Books filled wooden shelves lining the walls. Tessa’s fingers itched to grab one and devour its words. Distracted by the library, she almost missed the tall woman in a black turtleneck dress standing in front of her.
Amelia lifted a limp hand toward the woman. “This is Lady Eunice, the stewardess of the Buras Estate.”
The woman’s face was long and ageless, her graying hair wrapped in a tight chignon tugging the skin on her forehead. Her eyes were black. Not dark brown, but pure black, the blackest Tessa had ever seen.
Tessa shivered and tightened her grip on her suitcase’s handle.
“Tristesse Bien-Aimé?” Lady Eunice asked. Her straight lips could shame a ruler.
Tessa nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Your résumé impressed me. A high school education. A strong reference letter. Excellent for a nineteen-year-old. Do you plan to attend college?” Lady Eunice’s voice possessed an eerie softness as she enunciated every word.
“Yes, as soon as I’ve saved enough money for my education.”
The stewardess dropped her eyes on Tessa’s suitcase. “It’s bold to presume the position is already yours.”
“That may be, but I’m intelligent, motivated, and a hard worker. Honest, too. My intentions are good. You’d be pleased if you hired me,” Tessa said.
“You sound convincing enough, but can you keep a house clean?”
“I did most of the cleaning in my grandmother’s apartment.”
Lines creased on Lady Eunice’s forehead. “An apartment and a mansion are two very different things.”
“Yes, but with all due respect, ma’am, dust is the same everywhere, and I can get rid of it.” Tessa trembled inside from the stewardess’ penetrating gaze but she forced her body to stay upright.
“Very well. I will give you one month’s probation at three-fourths the normal wage. If I find your work satisfactory, you can stay and expect a full salary. Do you agree to these terms?”
“I do,” Tessa said, alarmed and excited she fought to make this strange mansion her new home.
“Then I welcome you to the Buras Estate.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Lady Eunice turned to the head maid. “Amelia, show Tristesse her quarters and help her get settled. See she finds a uniform her size.”
Amelia bowed and gestured toward the door. “This way,” she told Tessa.
“Do not disappoint me, Tristesse,” Lady Eunice said, raising her brows. “I expect much from you.”
Tessa shuffled one foot back. “I don’t plan to…ma’am.
The stewardess nodded. “You may leave.”
Tessa took one last glance at the stewardess and followed Amelia out of the room toward the main staircase. It split in the middle, curling at the end like two arms ready for an embrace. An imposing grandfather clock’s face drilled down on her, but the glittering crystals from the grand chandelier above astounded her with their elegance and shimmer.
Amelia said nothing as they walked. Servants padded out of rooms with dirty linen, some vacuuming rugs and animal pelts. Others dusted and wiped furniture, ceramic vases, and African statues. Not one woman or man threw a curious peek at Tessa. No one talked or whispered. Sound escaped only from the hustle and bustle of their work. The silence contrasted the cacophony of New Orleans, and Tessa almost drowned in a wave of homesickness.
Not one woman or man threw a curious peek at Tessa. No one talked or whispered. Sound escaped only from the hustle and bustle of their work. The silence contrasted the cacophony of New Orleans, and Tessa almost drowned in a wave of homesickness.
A young maid with big hazel eyes and her hair in two pleats smiled at her. Chest swelling with the hope of a new friend, Tessa smiled back and stopped to ask for her name, but Amelia stepped in between them and shook her head.
“Do not disturb the others,” she said.
Tessa searched behind Amelia for the young woman, but the pretty maid had disappeared, perhaps entering one of the many rooms. She sighed, hoping to see her again.
Upstairs, the head maid took out an iron key from her apron’s pocket and opened a white wooden door. The room contained six beds, three lined up on opposite sides of the walls. A chest of drawers and a wooden desk and a chair flanked each bed, and two corners of the room had a sink and mirror. There was only one window.
Amelia pointed a finger. “Take the last bed to the right. Meet me downstairs in ten minutes, outside the reading room. We will find you a uniform that fits.”
“When will I get a key? Will the door lock on its own when I shut it?” Tessa asked.
“Yes, it will. Your key comes after we get your clothes. Do you have any more questions?”
“No, that’s all.” Tessa walked over to the window and dropped her suitcase at the foot of her new bed. She peeked outside. The large oak tree stared back at her. It stood larger and more foreboding than the first time she had laid eyes on it. The hairs on her skin stood upright at the thought of shadows swarming the tree again.
Amelia closed the door, and the sound snapped Tessa’s attention away from the great oak. Relief spread over her at the pleasure of being alone again. She unbuckled her suitcase and opened it, staring at the folded clothes and shoes, too exhausted to unpack. She sat on the bed and removed her hat, smoothing down her French braid. Tessa kicked off her loafers to stretch out her toes and reached for her pen and pocket calendar from inside her suitcase.
She circled the date: September 17, 1954, her first day at the Buras Mansion. A year ago today, she sat in her apartment’s kitchen with Grand-mère, prepping for a late night hunt. Tessa had only supported her grandmother with the equipment, cleaning the crossbows and their silver arrows, sharpening daggers, and mixing the ingredients for stun bombs.
Grand-mère had sensed her death and buried her monster hunting gear, along with the poison vials and bags of herbs, behind a mausoleum at the St. Louis Cemetery. It pained Tessa to leave her grandmother’s treasures behind, but she couldn’t pack all of it. She brought only Grand-mère’s favorite dagger.
Tessa’s hands dug for a bundle of black cloths in her suitcase and took them from between her trousers and blouses. She unfolded the bundle, revealing a dagger with a leather braided hilt. Tessa slipped off the black sheath and admired the curved blade made of pure silver.
Despite hours of training with her grandmother, she had never killed a monster. But before Grand-mère passed away in her bedroom, Tessa had promised her grandmother to take her place as monster hunter, to preserve her family’s legacy as destroyers of evil. But Tessa hadn’t expected her first test to happen so soon.
Light crawled out of the room. She looked up from her calendar, gripping the edge of her bed. Tessa took tiny steps to the window, and her finger reached for the sill, eyes closed. She counted down from ten and looked.
Swirling shadows wrapped around the oak tree, and five robed spirits stepped out from within it, one after the other. They wore long, pointy hoods with no holes for the eyes, nose, or mouth. They shuffled across the grass, dragging the long hems of their flowing smoky robes.
Tessa ducked beneath the window with her arms outstretched against the wall. Her breaths rapid, she raised her head to catch another peek of the robed shadows. One of them trailed the others. It stopped and turned to Tessa, raising its hand, ready to receive. Her body surrendered to multiple tremors. What does it want?
Someone else stood outside. It was the pretty maid who had smiled at her earlier. Standing still, she held a large woven basket in her hands and stared at the hooded spirits.
Tessa abandoned the window and slipped her loafers back on. She rushed out of the door, closing it, and raced down the stairs to the main floor, past the reading room.
“Where are you going? We must get your uniform,” Amelia called out.
But Tessa ignored her and burst through the front door. The wind hit her heated face, sun rays beating on her perspiring brows. Flustered, she stepped left and then right, scanning her surroundings.
Everything had returned to normal once again; the shadowy robed spirits had disappeared. She gathered her courage and approached the oak tree. Her hands groped the rough bark, unsure of what she wanted to find.
“You saw them too, didn’t you? Those dark creatures that look like giant black Klansmen, right?”
Tessa turned to the pretty maid behind her. “What are they?” she asked.
The young woman shrugged. “I don’t know. At first, I thought they were demons, but they’re something else. Still evil though. Anyway, it’s nice knowing someone else can see them, too. I’m Denise Johnson.” She adjusted the basket onto her right hip and held out a hand.
Tessa shook it. “Tristesse Bien-Aimé, but call me Tessa.”
“What a lovely name. Beloved Sadness. Sounds poetic. Are you Haitian?”
“My grandmother was, but I was born in New Orleans. And thank you.” She switched back to the dark creatures. “Do those shadowy creatures always leave this tree?”
Denise dropped her hazel eyes to the ground, shoulders shaking. “Yes. That and more.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll find out tonight. You should go back inside. See you around, Tessa.” Denise walked away, leaving her alone.
What would happen tonight?
Tessa let her eyes linger on the oak tree, curious to know its secrets.
Enjoyed this snippet? You can read the rest here!
And if you have any comments about this sample of my work, please let me know! Would love to hear your thoughts and feedback.