I knowed her before her awakenin’ when she was dreamin’ ‘bout comin’ out though I never did uncover the sadness she kept secret. What little I can tell you I found out in bits and pieces when Chérie felt like talkin’, an’ after she left when I went snoopin’ in the place where she’d come from.
Chérie’s family were a bunch of nobodies, I’ll swear to that. Her older step-brothers were rat-mean like their pa. Her own pa took off when Chérie was a bitty thing, after he got her settled down with Lucille, who tol’ anybody who’d listen the speck a’ baby girl was hers ‘til there weren’t nobody sayin’ different.
For better or worse, Chérie growed up on the wrong side of Marlboro where mailboxes hang crooked attached with scrap wire to long wooden rails, and run-down shanties stand haphazard on dusty patches of land where nothin’ grows straight or clean for long.
I heard different stories ’bout Chérie bein’ gone. Some say she left the summer of her 18th birthday with a battered suitcase in hand and her angel tits and fine nose high in the air, swearin’ she’d never come back ’til the upright, upstandin’ town daddies hung a glitterin’ banner with her name in scarlet letters over Main Street, proclaimin’ her queen a’ the May. They owed her that much, she said, though she weren’t expectin’ nothin’ ‘cept misery from them fine folk who stomped her down.
Jake Picould had sumpin’ else to say ‘bout Chérie after she went missin’. She weren’t movie star shiny but she was the purttiest piece he’d ever saw. That’s how Jake started when I aksed him what he knowed, and he were right. There weren’t nobody in Marlboro who didn’t think Chérie weren’t a beauty. Then Jake ‘membered how Chérie went silent sometimes. Peculiar, he called it. Though he said that when she smiled she could lift a man where he stood.
Chérie had blue-as-the-sea eyes that a soul could drown in when she weren’t squintin’ at what she couldn’t see. But that weren’t the best part ‘bout Chérie. Every afternoon when school let out he’d watch her come strollin’ down Main Street. She’d saunter toward the diner with the sun at her back, the bright shinin’ through her blonde hair so he’d swear there was a halo ‘round her head.
She weren’t no angel though. That’s the rest of what Jake said. Too many boys buzzed ‘round her on account of the way she was poured into her clothes. He smirked and grinned dirty recallin’ Chérie had a wiggle in her walk purely as God intended. He tol’ me he paid her more than he gave the rest waitin’ his tables because he weren’t the only one who liked watchin’ Chérie come on.
Chérie got by on her wits, learnin’ fast how to please and faster how to hide when bad turned wicked. Her hands were quick and her touch was soft. Her fingers could pick a man so slow and sly that he never knowed he was pinched ‘til she was long gone. That’s what her shiftless brothers said. They was proud a’ her that way.
I ‘member her darin’ the world, swearin’ she’d have what she wanted. We was young then—she was fifteen and I was older. I seed it with my own eyes, the time she first danced with the devil who would do her in.
Chérie pinched his wallet and then slipped into the crowd without givin’ a second look. I watched how she relished the exhilaration that came from the con, but I knowed her mouth was nerve dry ‘cause this devil was different. I could tell by the way she licked her lips and risked a quick backward glance.
The white suit was exactly where she’d left him, his eyes fixed on her. Then she smiled an’ I heard him whisper. ‘Someday, Chérie baby.’
Chérie knowed straight off this one weren’t gonna go easy which is why she wanted him bad. She laughed as a bubble of pleasure escaped her sweet mouth. And it weren’t only the adrenalin talkin’ after she made a good nab. It was the thrill of the chase that Chérie adored. It was the touch and flow, movin’ fast, but not too fast. It was the risk and the gettin’ away that elated her.
Like Jake said, Chérie weren’t no angel.
Jake spit mean ‘bout Bennet so I figured he held a grudge against the man for turnin’ Chérie’s head. He swore Bennet ruined her with sweet talk an’ touchin’, rubbin’ an’ polishin’ her sumpin’ fierce like she was his diamond in the rough.
He had speculatin’ to offer ‘bout Bennet’s disappearance and ‘bout why Chérie left town sudden the way she did. Jake figured she ran off to get away from sumpin’ bad. I understood that so I left the rest alone.
Chérie’d been four years gone when Lucille started jabberin’ and carryin’ on ‘bout her sittin’ pretty, her honeypot snaggin’ the gold ring. Tellin’ folks how life smoothed over good once Chérie left Marlboro. The sour, boozy stink on Lucille made the talk unbelievable. Weren’t true anyways, leastways not for long.
Chérie’d hit the jackpot smack on. Lucille got that right. But the jackpot had fists hard as hammers and a poundin’ prick meant to make Cherie cry. She stayed caged-up an’ fearin’ ‘til he hurt her one time too many. Then she started figurin’ a way out.
When chance happened Chérie was gone, fast as a skedaddlin’ mouse desperate for a hidey-hole. She succeeded believin’ she’d set herself free but fearin’ she was hunted she kept searchin’ for a haven.
Chérie stayed tucked away until the day she stared into flamin’ eyes blazin’ evil at her through the tinted glass of a black limousine; slow an’ stalkin’ like a panther passin’ her by. Right then she knowed she was caught and that he’d have her when he wanted.
She ran meanin’ to fly far away.
Grit and pluck greased Chérie’s way, an’ for a heartbeat she breathed easy when chance brought the rickety plane to a nowhere place. Perdition, the pilot said. Hunched and cold in the deserted terminal, Chérie counted herself lucky. This was bad but she’d knowed worse. Turnin’ ‘round she shouted but nobody was there. Before there’d been a crowd a’ weary folks pushin’ an’ shovin’, an’ a harried custodian with a rollin’ garbage can gatherin’ up the overnight trash, but now there was just Chérie.
“Oh no . . .” she pleaded, whimperin’ the way she did when she were a scrawny thing an’ Lucille was usin’ her nasty. Erratic thumpin’ started wild an’ fierce where her heart hid in the dark. “Pretty please, mama . . .”
Much later when I coaxed Chérie into talkin’ she rang odd, clatterin’ like a wind chime jangled by a storm. She kept lookin’ over her shoulder whisperin’ bits of jibber. She cried as I listened, an’ I figured her fixation with him was crazy. She’d been vulnerable and he’d knowed how to mesmerize. Like Svengali, she tol’ me. I understood what she meant, but by then it was too late.
“Is anybody here?” Chérie screamed, her fingers fumblin’ madly with the keypad. “Can you hear me?” She slapped at the silent receiver tossin’ it away as fear iced her bones. Rakin’ tremblin’ fingers through her hair, she paced the dark hall; nervous as a cat on a high wire needin’ to jump an’ lookin’ for a place to land.
‘You want out of here, do you?’ she heard his echo.
Chérie spun ‘round, her panicked gaze skitterin’ into dark corners, her skin shrinkin’ tight an’ her blood runnin’ cold as his voice resounded off the glass and concrete. He surrounded her coilin’ like a python an’ snakin’ her legs to slip inside, up an’ up fillin’ her head.
‘Nothing but a fool with her demon, isn’t that so, baby?’ His voice chided. ‘Hello, my angel. Daddy’s here.’ His words scoured her soul. Then he slithered close and licked her while his whispers kissed her ear. ‘Where you goin, baby?’ he hissed softly, pettin’ her quiet. ‘You know you’re mine.’
Chérie closed her eyes and arched her neck, givin’ over, lettin’ him as she knowed she must. He covered her, his dark force pulsin’ inside her, his roilin’ thunder comin’ louder and louder inside her head.
“You owe me, bitch—”
Not him but another loomed over her when she came awake. Chérie saw bloody scratches on his face when he came at her; his fist curled and strait-jacket in hand. He slapped her hard, snappin’ back her head, leavin’ his mark raw and red upon her cheek. She was bent, her head hangin’ loose an’ crooked, her arms bound and her legs sprawled wanton upon the dusty floor when he slammed the door shut an’ fixed the bolt.
A long time passed ‘fore Chérie felt sunshine on her angel face again.
Story by: Joanna Wyndham
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