If you missed Part II, check it out here
Fall floated in like rose petals making their way down onto the soft dew-soaked grass just beneath. Southeast Texas had never been famous for cool breezes and toasty brown or burnt orange leaves in October. The seasons, with no distinguishable characteristics, just kind of crept in with ease and rested for a bit. This one was no different. Temperatures were still well into the upper 80’s, and on this warm and humid Saturday, Cameron had come home from college for a weekend visit (and laundry trip). He and his mom talked about classes, and grades, and, of course, women. And in all of that, somehow the topic of Dwayne wiggled its way up to the surface. Cameron had dated, not seriously, but, dated nonetheless, a few girls in high school. One of which, he took a special liking to. Desire’. She was tall with lean muscles and a cinnamon complexion. Her skin was smooth with tiny brown freckles, and she wore her hair in a wild, curly afro, which Cameron admitted, was what had drawn him to her. Her natural and unrefined beauty. No make-up or frills. “Raw perfection in a sculpted frame” was what he had called her. His mom had met her only twice–once around Spring Break of their senior year and at prom when she’d been Cameron’s date, but Desire’ had made quite an impression. She was sweet and polite and maintained stellar grades. If a son had to have a girlfriend, she was definitely the kind of girl a mom would want to see her son with. They seemed to be a perfect little pair. So when he mentioned that they hadn’t spoken since the Summer and that she and Dwayne had been “talking”, Cameron’s mom lost all couth.
“What the hell do you mean, talking? How does one talk to a girl that his supposed best friend dated? She asked.
Cameron sighed. He’d know that her reaction would border just between paranoia and lunacy, which was why he hadn’t bothered to mention it before. “We weren’t really dating. We were just kicking it. He asked me if I’d mind if he talked to her and I said no.”
“Oh!” she blurted. “How kind of him to ask your permission first. I don’t know what your generation deems a relationship anymore, but at the old school where I’m from, talking, kicking it, dating—it’s all the same thing. And if you’re any kind of decent human, you don’t touch your friend’s sloppy seconds.”
“Ma, “D” is free to date whoever he wants. Desire’ and me were just cool and we both understood that once college came, we would need to focus on school. Plus, there’s so many fine girls on campus, why would I want to be tied down to one?” he laughed, arrogantly tugging at his shirt collar.
“I don’t like this, Cam. This boy…”
“Ma!” he interrupted. “I thought we agreed that I would handle “D”. Trust me, it’s not a big deal,” he added with a reassuring smile.
“Fine. We’ll change the subject, then.”
The room grew quiet aside from the background hum on the television. Both felt a weird awkwardness in the air. Cameron’s mom could not let this go. Even from afar, Dwayne was still a constant thorn in her side, even though he really hadn’t done anything to her directly. As far as she was concerned, though, he was messing with her only child, and that was just like messing with her. Cameron searched for a topic to pull his mom in a different direction. The two of them had been so close over the years, and they talked about everything. It pained him to think that maybe those days were behind them. Maybe he could no longer share everything with her if she would react in such an agitated manner. He considered the thought briefly before finally interrupting the silence.
“Did I tell you I finished the anime artwork that I am submitting for the exhibit at school?” he asked.
His mom’s eyes lit up instantly. Cameron had been a talented artist ever since he could hold a pencil, and was now pursuing an art degree in school. Nothing pleased her more than knowing that he was realizing one of his true passions. “Oh my gosh, Cam. You have to let me see it.”
He smiled, placed his water bottle on the nearest end table, and retreated to his bedroom. He returned with a heavy leather-bound sketchbook, flipped through to the sketches, and handed them to his mom.
Her eyes widened and he could see the pride bursting from them. “These are amazing. I’m sure you’re going to be recognized at that exhibit. This can be the catalyst that sparks your art career.”
Cameron grinned. He knew that moms always thought more highly of anything their children produced than was deemed normal, but he appreciated her verve nonetheless. “It’s not that great, Mom. I’m just hoping to gain some name recognition,” he said. “Hey!” he continued, “Did I tell you that…” He paused momentarily and his expression dampened. What he was about to say would bring up the topic of Dwayne again, which he’d just managed to move away from. He didn’t want to ruin the moment by allowing it to resurface, so he reframed his sentence. “I’m working on a comic book series?”
“A comic book series?”
“Yea. I joined a Japanese anime group on campus, and we’ve been studying some of the original art forms. I’m thinking about sketching my own comic and having someone write out the stories,” he explained, conveniently leaving out the part about Dwayne being a writer on the project.
“That sounds interesting, but will you have time for your studies, football, and a comic book series?”
“Yea. It’s just a little side project that I work on when I can.” Just then the doorbell rang. Both Cameron and his mom turned at the sound.
“Well, as long as it won’t interfere with school, go for it,” she encouraged.
“I’ll get the door, Ma,” Cameron said and made his way toward it. He returned seconds later with, of all people, Dwayne, and following close behind was Josh. Cameron’s mom placed the sketchbook on the sofa cushion and stood.
“I guess that’s my cue to leave,” she said, as she began her exit.
“How you doing, Mom?” Josh asked.
“Yea, what’s up, Mom?” Dwayne followed.
“Oh, nothing much, fellas. You know how it is,” she responded. Meaningless small talk was never her forte, but in this case, she’d promised to stay out of her son’s affairs where Dwyane was concerned. “How about you tell me what’s up with you dipping into my son’s leftovers. Can’t you find your own girl?” is what she’d wanted to say, but, out of respect for Cameron’s wishes, she refrained. “So what’s on the agenda for today?”
“Oh, we’re just going to grab something to eat, and hang out for a while,” Cameron replied.
“Well don’t stay out too late. You know you have to head back in the morning.”
“I know, Mom,” he said, pecking her on the cheek.
“Don’t worry, Ms. “J”, we’ll take good care of him,” Josh said gripping Cameron playfully around his shoulders. “He’s gotta be in tip-top shape for the game on Halloween weekend against LSU.”
Cameron’s mom stopped just short of the doorway and turned slowly. She could tell from the look on her son’s face that Josh had once again over talked himself. She said to Cameron, “You didn’t tell me that the LSU game was in two weeks. Is it home or away?”
Cameron glared at Josh, who was averting his gaze, before answering his mom.
“It’s away, Mom.”
“Away? And you didn’t tell me.”
“Nope. And you know why.”
“Cameron Aiden Jefferson! I can’t believe you!”
“Ma, please don’t,” he pleaded. He had purposely forgotten to tell his mom that his football game would be against their hometown rivals in Baton Rouge. He’d know that if she found out, she would burn up the phone lines calling grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins from every city between New Orleans and Lafayette to extend an invitation to the game. It was no secret that LSU was renowned in the college football arena, and he knew that his team would probably lose. The last thing he needed was the added pressure of having his entire family there in the stands to watch it.
“Please don’t what? Invite your family to support you? They’ve been asking about coming to one of your games for months. You should be ashamed. This conversation isn’t over,” she fussed and made her way out of the room.
Cameron heard the slapping of the soles of her sneakers, followed by a loud door slam.
“Damn, man, I’m sorry,” Josh apologized.
Dwayne was sitting on the couch thumbing through Cameron’s sketchbook that he noticed lying on the sofa cushion.
“It’s cool. I was gonna tell her eventually–like the day of the game–but the cat’s out of the bag now.”
“Hey, Cam,” Dwayne interrupted, “these some really good drawings. We should use these for the comic book!”
He replied, “Nah. Those are for my exhibit at school next month. I have something else I’ve been working on for the comic.”
Josh sat next to Dwayne to get a glimpse of the drawings. “Heeey, these are good, Cam. I agree with Dwayne. You should use these.
“Can we please get outta here?” Cameron asked. He walked toward the key rack but remembered that he’d left his keys in his bedroom. I’ll catch up to ya’ll outside. Let me grab my keys.”
“Hey, you think I should take a pic of these? I want to show them to Tony, the digital animation guy who has been helping us with the comic book?” Dwayne asked Josh in a whisper.
Josh shrugged. “I don’t see why not. This is what you need to be putting in that comic book. Ya’ll are about to blow up with these!”
“Mom, you’re not gonna believe this!” Cameron howled from the other end of the receiver. I am done with this dude. You were right the whole time.”
His mom sat up in the bed, trying to get her bearings. The phone call had awoken her at nearly midnight, and she still wasn’t sure whether or not she was dreaming.
“Cam, what’s wrong, honey?”
“It’s “D”,” he growled,” he got ahold of my drawings. The shit is all over social media.”
Now, fully awake, she stood. “Cameron…language! What do you mean got ahold of? How?”
Then, he began his tearful rant explaining how Dwayne had been a part of the comic book project and how he’d asked to use Cameron’s exhibit artwork for the comics. Dwayne must’ve somehow taken pictures of the work when he hadn’t been looking and submitted them to Tony. The worst of it was that Tony was the one who posted Cameron’s work. He’d digitized the drawings and was using them to promote his own portfolio, passing it off as his original work.
His mom tried to console him as best she could, but he was inconsolable. How would he use his artwork in the exhibit after it had already been showcased online under another artist? After what felt like an hour of talking, she convinced him to attempt to get some rest, and she explained that they would come up with a plan in the coming days.
When she awoke before dawn Saturday morning, Cameron’s mom began loading her SUV. She heaved the heavy luggage filled with blankets, toiletries, clothing, and other necessities for her trip to Louisiana. The game was scheduled to begin at eleven o’clock that morning and she didn’t want to miss a moment of it. And as Cameron had feared, both sets of grandparents and a host of other relatives would be in attendance. He’d arranged to stay with his mom at an aunt’s house in New Orleans as opposed to riding back with the team, so he could visit with family before returning to Texas. She glanced at her watch and drew out a long sigh. Five-forty-three. She despised tardiness. She’d known that she should never have agreed to allow Josh and Dwayne to make the trip with her, but she hadn’t really had a choice in the matter if things were to work out the way she and Cameron had planned. Actually, it had been mostly her plan. If Cameron had any idea of the extent of it, he would never have agreed. In addition to that, she hadn’t wanted to involve him any more than she needed.
A moment later, the twosome eased into the driveway and loaded their backpacks into the SUV. They each groaned a dreary, “good morning” before drifting back off to sleep within minutes. Relieved, she turned up the radio in the car and sang her way up I-10. Now, she didn’t have to pretend not to be totally disgusted with Dwyane with friendly conversation. Thankfully, both he and Josh slept for the duration of the five-hour drive, with the exception of a twenty-or-so-minute rousing when she stopped at a gas station midway.
Hugs and kisses abounded after the game. As expected, LSU had prevailed, but Cameron had several tackles and an interception to add to his stats. The gang all headed to his grandparent’s house nearby for a late lunch and catching up on all things Cameron.
“Oh, you’re getting so tall, and look at those muscles,” his grandmother had said, “I bet you can’t keep the girls off you.”
“That’s a trait of us Jefferson men, ain’t it, Cam?” His grandfather added.
Cameron hadn’t had more than two words to say to “D”. He’d avoided him over the past few days, ignoring his calls, and answering his texts with one or two-word replies. “D” could definitely sense a shift in Cameron’s usual friendly demeanor. When they left his grandparents’ to head to his aunt’s in New Orleans, he tried leaning in over his shoulder to tell some of his usual jokes from the back seat, but the most he got was a smirk. He’d tried questioning Josh, but he was clueless. There was no way Cameron would’ve told him anything about the stolen artwork knowing Josh’s habit, as innocent as it was, of letting information slip out. No, he wanted to get Dwayne face-to-face after everything settled to confront him.
Bourbon street was a sight to behold the night before Halloween. The boys peered out of the car’s windows as oversized trick-or-treaters carrying large containers of booze traipsed to and fro. Cameron had witnessed similar sights at Mardi Gras, so not much surprised him. The other two boys; however, gawked at the lit-up runway of partygoers wearing their weirdest getups dancing and parading around right in the middle of the streets. Tiny droplets of rain began to fall providing slickened walkways, but no one seemed to notice.
His mom pulled into an alleyway and announced that they’d arrived at his aunt’s place–Mama Lou’s Voodoo & Spirit Shop. It was a two-story house with traces of chipped and cracked white paint, which made it, for the most part, an ashy gray color. It boasted six huge windows, four on top, and two on the bottom, each covered in black shutters attached by strap hinges. There was a balcony, above which passersby could clearly see lights flashing the name of the place in bold red and black letters.
“What the hell, bro? Your aunt lives in a haunted house?” Dwayne asked in a hushed voice as they stepped out of the car onto the wet street.
“Seriously,” Josh added, obviously uneasy.
“She doesn’t live here. This is her business. We’re just stopping by to get the keys to her house a few blocks up the street,” Cameron replied.
“Her business? Your aunt a witch or something?” Josh asked.
She was not a witch, but a Voodoo Priestess. He wouldn’t have dared to try to explain that, so Cameron pretended not to hear his question as they walked toward the entrance.
“Hey, baby!” Aunt Lou shouted from behind the counter, ignoring all customers scattered about. She ran toward her sister and nephew and pulled them toward her in a tight embrace. Dwayne and Josh stood back each observing in quiet awe the many eclectic trinkets that surrounded them—wooden, painted masks, bones, crystal balls, beads, candles, feathers, strange-looking dolls that nobody’s child should ever play with. The place was enshrouded in ornamentals of all kinds.
Aunt Lou boasted, “Look at how big and handsome my nephew is. Oh, my gosh. I’m sorry I couldn’t make your game, honey. You know this is one of my busiest times of the year.” Her full, round cheeks jiggled when she talked, and her bright red lips seemed to move a mile a minute. She swung her voluptuous hips around to Dwayne, who was holding a mask in his hand. “And you must be Dwayne,” her voice boomed. She was loud if nothing else. Her thick south Louisiana drawl seemed to hang off every word.
“Y-yes ma’am,” he stammered. “How do you know my name?”
“I’m Mama Lou, sugar, and Mama Lou knows everything. And just so you know, if you break, you buy. Catch my drift?” she asked, eyeing the mask in his hand.
He hurriedly placed in back on the shelf.
“Hello, Joshua,” she said turning to Josh. “How you doing, baby?”
“Oh, I’m good,” he said with a nod, looking nowhere in particular. He’d been afraid to stare directly at her since they’d entered the place. He wasn’t sure if it was the afro-centric garb or the huge purple amulet that rested in the middle of her breasts that creeped him out, but he was definitely going to speak to Dwayne about springing for a room at the Motel 6 he saw on the way into town.
Mama Lou directed them to a small table and chair in the corner of the room. She had Cameron gather three more chairs from a table at the opposite end of the room, and everyone sat while Mama Lou tended to her patrons. They made small talk in between transactions, as customer after customer made their way in to buy various items. A few of them walked past the counter through a doorway draped with fancy wooden beads. The boys stared in wonderment. Where were they all going?
During one of the few lulls, Mama Lou reached into her bra, pulled out a set of keys, and said, “Here you go, Sis. I got a reading at ten o’clock. Whenever ya’ll are ready, you can go to my place and get settled in.” Cameron’s mom took the keys. “You boys planning on checking out the French Quarter tonight. Lots of partying out there. Got a party upstairs too, if ya game. Lots of girls up there,” she said with a smile and raised eyebrows.
Dwayne, who hadn’t expressed any emotion other than fear the entire time, perked up.
Mama Lou laughed, “Look at you. This the first time I’ve seen a smile since you been here. Now, you boys ain’t old enough to drink out there, but here, I might allow you a taste of my Party Punch, if my sister says it’s alright.” She looked at Cameron’s mom and winked. His mom gave a nod and Mama Lou pulled three shot glasses from under the counter, placed them on a tray, and handed it to her sister, who sat the tray on their table. Josh did not seem keen on the idea, but Cameron persuaded him to take a shot of the punch. A huge silver pitcher with a skull on its front followed as Mama Lou walked around to the table and poured the punch in each of the boy’s glasses. Josh and Dwayne stared at Cameron, waiting for him to drink the potion first. He smiled, shook his head at his friends’ cowardice, and took the shot, emptying the glass. The two reluctantly followed suit.
“Welcome and enjoy,” Mama Lou said. She stood at the beaded curtain doorway with one arm holding it open and the other welcoming the boys in. Dwayne was the first to race toward her, anxious to see what girls were inside. Mama Lou and Cameron’s mom laughed. “To be young and foolish,” she added.
“So, do you think it’ll work?” Cameron’s mom asked.
Mama Lou rested her chubby shoulder on the counter and looked into her sister in the eyes. “Now, Dana, when have my spells ever not worked? You know I’ve been cooking shit up since we were kids. We’ve punished quite a few line-crossers back in the day. You just make sure you leave that boy’s bus ticket on the kitchen counter, so I can send his trifling ass back to Texas when I’m through.”
They both chuckled as Cameron’s mom stood, reached into her pocket, and place a wad of hair onto the counter. Her sister dug into her bra again and excavated a tiny velvet bag filled with herbs and bone fragments, she took the hair and placed it inside. She took the small bag into a tiny room filled with candles where she did her readings and returned a minute later. She handed the bag to her sister. “Remember to keep the gris-gris in your left pocket. Do not remove it until bedtime and then return it to your left pocket again tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, upstairs, the boys had been having the time of their lives. The second floor of Mama Lou’s looked like something straight out of an eighty’s horror film. The room was dark, lit only by candle flames and a life-size lava lamp in each of its four corners. Colorful, hand-painted murals of what appeared to be spiritual gods stretched across the walls and ceilings, as instrumental, mystical music poured from wall-speakers. A strong herbal aroma hung in the air and clung to every inch of the room, and there was a fog in the air thick enough to slice. The revelers were dressed in everything from devil to wizard costumes. A shirtless man in the corner, who no one quite knew what he was dressed as, wore only socks, a pamper, and a boa constrictor around his neck.
Fortunately, Mama Lou’s Party Punch had mellowed the boys to the point where they couldn’t have cared less about much of anything. They sat on a small sofa in the corner next to a set of twins dressed as evil cheerleaders who Dwayne had been trying to put his moves on. Cameron decided this would probably be a good time to question him about the artwork. His defenses were lowered, as he was in the middle of his third shot of Party Punch, just the number of glasses Cameron’s mom had told him to administer. Cameron pulled out his cell phone and scrolled to Tony’s social media page where Cameron’s artwork was proudly displayed. He held the phone before Dwayne and asked, “Do you want to explain how this happened?”
Dwayne looked at the pictures and swatted the air, “Ahhh man, that ain’t nothing. I told you these drawings are what’s gonna put us on the map. If you wasn’t being so stingy with them in the first place, I wouldn’t’ve had to sneak to get them,” he slurred.
“Are you serious right now? Do you know that Tony is passing these off as his and now I can’t use them in my exhibit?”
Josh looked panicked. “What you mean, Cam?”
Cameron stood and tossed his phone on the sofa. “I mean this clown might’ve cost me my exhibit if I can’t prove these photos are mine and not Tony’s.”
“Oh dang, man, I didn’t know Tony was gonna try to steal your stuff,” Josh confessed.
“So, you were in on this too!” Cameron yelled. The crowd began to stare.
“I ain’t had nothing to do with it. I just saw him do it. Cameron stared in disbelief.
“Look, bro, my head is spinning right now. Can we talk about this later?” Dwyane murmured, as he stretched across the sofa.
“Hell no! We’re talking about it now. Take your phone out of your pocket so I can see the messages you sent to Tony!”
Dwayne snorted and said, “Who are you supposed to be? You think you all big and bad, Mr. Football-College-Art-Superstar. Cameron can do it all, huh? Get the girls, get the grades, draw, run, jump…” he paused for a moment and attempted to sit up, but failed, plunking back onto the sofa cushion like a bag of rocks. Instead, he pointed his finger at Cameron. “You know what, I’m glad Tony stole your pictures. Maybe now that you ain’t gonna be in the exhibit, it’ll knock you off your high horse!” He chuckled and nudged Josh for support, but he stood up next to Cameron, distancing himself from Dwayne.
Without thinking, Cameron lifted Dwayne from the sofa and dragged him across the room, pushing and shoving his way through the crowd. Then, when he’d reached the window, opened it, and slung him over the ledge and onto the balcony. Dwyane cried and pleaded for mercy, but his cries went unanswered. Josh galloped close behind begging his friend to take it easy, but his voice was nothing but a muffle in Cameron’s ears. It was too late. He had pushed his mild-mannered, amicable friend to the brink. In an instant, Cameron lifted Dwyane over the balcony, where onlookers gawked in astonishment.
He growled, “Now, do you wanna give me your damned phone?” His eyes were dark and hollow, and his voice sounded as though he was possessed by something evil. Dwayne fumbled through his pocket frantically, trying to find his phone, but when he didn’t produce it quickly enough, Cameron hoisted him over the side of the balcony, dangling him by one leg, and shook him until his wallet, phone, keys, and loose change came tumbling out.
Josh cried out, “Don’t kill him, Cam! Pull him back up!” A crowd was now encircling Mama Lou’s, summoning customers, Mama Lou, and Cameron’s mom out onto the sidewalk. Mama Lou’s sign shone bright red over the scene. Cameron’s mom smiled wildly. She stroked her pocket where the gris-gris was tucked away and tried to focus, as much as she could on her desired outcome—kill him, she thought, but then realizing this was probably the worst possible place for something like this to happen. Having her son commit murder in the presence of hundreds of witnesses was a terrible idea, so she loosened her focus and let her hand fall at her side.
“Cameron, baby!” she shouted. “Pull him up. Pull him up, please.” Then, as if awakening from a trance, he began slowly pulling Dwyane onto the balcony, and dropped his limp body onto the concrete. The room breathed a sigh of relief, as Cameron retreated to the downstairs quarters, sweat pouring from his body.
The next morning, on their drive home, Cameron surveyed the cracked phone. He now had the evidence he needed to prove that he was the original artist, and hopefully, he could still use his art in the exhibit. He and Josh each had scattered memories of the night, thanks to Mama Lou’s Party Punch; nevertheless, he’d not forgotten what Dwayne had said to him, accusing him of thinking that he was better than everyone else. How had he not seen before that Dwayne had never been a real friend, and only wanted to emulate him in hopes of being him?
“Are you okay?” his mom asked, glancing over.
“Yeah, I guess,” he said.
Josh slapped his shoulder playfully from the backseat. “It’s okay, Cam. You still got me and the rest of the crew.” They both smiled.
Back at Mama Lou’s, she stood over Dwyane’s outstretched body holding the bus ticket back to Texas. He’d spent the night in her Reading Room after she’d dragged him downstairs at the end of the night, and he still hadn’t awoken from his slumber. Maybe she would put him on that bus later that afternoon. Or maybe she would keep him around for a while.