Paint flakes floated down from the ceiling in the dying light of the early evening. They coated the furniture in a fine gray layer of decay. The effect went well with the musty drapes hung over the windows, drapes that seemed on the verge of disintegration. Mold in all the corners of the room spread noiselessly and invisibly out toward a more encompassing embrace of the surroundings, mutely testifying to the living nature of entropy, if such a thing could be possible. The air, so still and humid, might as well have been congealed… a solid, spongy substance. Visible banks of tiny drifting particles never seemed to reach the ground, but they disappeared with the light as darkness reclaimed the world for the night.
The last glimmer of light illuminated a young woman propped motionlessly against the wall. She was barely breathing, and the slits through her nearly closed eyelids betrayed a hint of heavy glaze behind them. The young woman remained in that exact position for a couple of hours, and then the drug began to wear off. She slowly stirred, leaned forward and worked the muscles in her legs and arms. She brought her hands up to her face and massaged her eye sockets. Then she pulled back her hair and pulled herself together.
The young woman groped about on the floor for her worn old purse. It was a brightly colored, shoulder bag hand-woven by Indians in the Guatemalan highlands. From a pocket in the bag the young woman pulled a small cellophane packet containing two pills, one blue and one yellow. She produced a small bottle of water from the bag and took the pills. Her purse had a lot of room inside.
Hidden behind a thick inner lining inside the purse was a Mississippi Driver’s License that belonged to her. It gave her name as Sondra Jenkins, and accurately described her as a white female with brown hair and hazel eyes who stood 5’8” tall and weighed one hundred twenty pounds. Her home address was listed as 1202 Ocean Breeze Avenue, Gulfport, Mississippi. That address was not accurate. There was no longer any such thing as Ocean Breeze Avenue in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her social security card was hidden behind the driver’s license, and behind that was a useless apartment key. It fit the lock on Sondra’s front door on Ocean Breeze Avenue, a door that was probably halfway to Cuba, along with everything else she owned.
Sondra stood up and felt her way out of the decaying living room and into the house’s foyer. She had squatted in the abandoned house for three months, so she knew her way around in the dark. She turned right and took five short steps, then reached out her hand, unlocked and opened the front door. The door creaked on its rusting hinges. Sondra imagined the sound could be heard from a mile away. She stepped out into the world and shut the door behind her.
It was an overcast night outside and there was no moon, so outdoors it was almost as dark as the inside of the house. Sondra made her way out into the middle of the street, the only place she was certain all of the debris had been cleared away, and started walking for the French Quarter. After a few minutes her eyes adjusted to the minimal starlight filtering down through the partial cloud cover, and she relaxed a little. Sondra reasoned that as long as she could see she could hide, and being able to hide made her a lot safer.
Six blocks from the abandoned house the sound of an approaching car penetrated the darkness, long before the headlights could be seen. Sondra darted off of the street and crawled through the shattered windshield of an upside down car protruding from under the second story of a two-story house, both of which straddled what used to be a sidewalk. From the dark recesses of the wreckage she watched as the headlights approached the nearby street corner and turned in her direction. She could tell from the configuration of the lights that it was the New Orleans Police.
In Sondra’s mind the police were more dangerous to encounter than gang members or other criminals. The police would undoubtedly arrest her for breaking the area’s curfew, and depending on the arresting officers she might be robbed or raped as well. In that case the cops might even kill her “in self defense,” in order to cover their tracks. Nobody knew how many people the police had murdered during and after Katrina, but a lot of the bodies discovered were victims of police violence. The NOPD contained within its ranks the most secret and dangerous criminal gang of all. The police terrified Sondra in a way that street thugs could not, no matter how brutal the street element might be.
The car passed by without incident, but it left Sondra breathing heavily and with blood pounding in her ears. She recalled a line she heard somewhere about the police watching the people instead of watching over the people. She stayed in place long enough to make sure the car wasn’t going to double back, despite her concerns about rats and bugs residing inside the overturned car. A few minutes later she crawled back out into the street and resumed her trek. As she walked she thought unhappily about the chain of events that led her to that place.
The weather forecaster at KLOX in Biloxi cheerfully reported the progress of Hurricane Katrina to residents along the Mississippi Gulf Coast for days, before it became apparent the gigantic storm would directly threaten the region. After that a mandatory evacuation order went out for people living anywhere near the coast. Sondra left, like everyone else who had good sense. In retrospect she wished she had met the storm surge on the beach.
For the first few days of her evacuation Sondra stayed in a Holiday Inn Express in Hattiesburg. She didn’t know her evacuation would be permanent until news reports included aerial photographs of the Gulf Coast. The first footage she saw showed the total devastation in the area. Later she found out that not only had her residence vanished into the Gulf, but so had her friends’ residences, her job, and everything else in the area.
Sondra left Hattiesburg as soon as it became obvious her stay there would not be a short one. She didn’t have any reason to stay there. Indeed, she had only gone there because it was the easiest thing for her to do at the time. When she left she traveled south, seeking to be closer to the only home she had ever known. She was not allowed to return because the conditions were too horrific, so she drove to Slidell, Louisiana.
Slidell always provided a home to a wide variety of criminal enterprises, not the least of which was illegal drug trafficking. After Hurricane Katrina the small city swelled to ten times its original size, and the drug trafficking exploded. Sondra fell into drinking at bars in the area because of her depression, and it was there she met the crowd that used heavy drugs. She didn’t feel that she had anything to live for, and drugs helped ease her sense of emptiness.
Sondra Jenkins came into the world in August of 1980. She was only twenty-five years old when Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home, but that was far from the worst thing that had ever happened to her. Four years earlier her parents died in a car accident on Highway 90 in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Sondra’s grandparents died a few years before that, and her only aunt died when she was still a little girl. Her parents’ passage left her without any family at all. The darkness that engulfed Sondra threatened to never let her out.
Sondra stumbled through her life in a daze in 2001. She only survived because of her friends. After Katrina not only was her home and her job gone, so were all her friends. The ones who survived were scattered to the four winds. Sondra managed to get in touch with a few of them in other states, but everybody was completely devastated by the event. There was nobody left to look out for Sondra Jenkins. That was when the bottomless pit formed inside her.
In just four months Sondra went through her entire life savings. It was only a few thousand dollars, but it was all she had in the world. Sondra didn’t care at all. She discovered the wonders of opiates and benzo’s, and never looked back. She sold her car to stay high and pay rent on a dilapidated trailer. When the money was gone she got evicted from the trailer she had rented.
Sondra didn’t try to salvage her dignity by getting cleaned up and finding a job. Instead she set out to ruin herself the rest of the way. She posed as a prostitute to con men she saw as marks. She managed to rob almost a dozen unsuspecting johns before her plan fell to pieces. She found herself pinned down on the back of a Buick, taken from behind for the cost of a tank of gas. She felt dirty for about two minutes of the experience, but then she closed her eyes and pretended she was with a man who cared.
Sondra decided she had found her new calling. She stayed high, and that made it easy to pretend there was nothing wrong. In fact, as long as Sondra was loaded she remained happy. She experienced an artificial happiness that wore off every few hours, but happiness nonetheless. She medicated all the self-loathing and emptiness right out of herself. Turning tricks allowed her to do that, so she set out to make a career of it.
Sondra found it increasingly difficult to dodge retribution for her earlier actions in Slidell. Several times she almost ran into men she had robbed. She knew she couldn’t turn tricks while looking constantly looking over her shoulder, so when New Orleans reopened she decided to relocate. Her drug associates in Slidell told her how to score in the big city. That was all the information Sondra needed. She caught a ride with the first person she found going south.
That morning Sondra stepped out of a stranger’s car, onto Decatur Street and into a different world. All she had to her name was the old purse and a backpack full of clothes. She didn’t take much time to look at the French Quarter. Instead she set out walking north and east, looking for a place to squat. When she got to Gentilly the vibe struck her as appropriate. The old neighborhood appeared to be completely deserted, yet some of the houses looked almost habitable. A few blocks from Elysian Fields Sondra found exactly what she had been looking for.
The two-story house had big windows and an airy front porch, but it wasn’t architectural features that drew Sondra to the house. The house didn’t seem damaged at all. The front door appeared to be sturdy. All of the windows she could see had burglar bars over them and drapes behind the glass. Most importantly, the place gave every indication of having been abandoned for years, probably since long before the hurricane. Looking at the house gave Sondra a feeling of security. She felt even safer after she had to spend two hours to break into a window at the rear of the house in order to make camp inside.
Every now and then Sondra stopped to think about the long path that led her to the place where she was. On rare occasions she couldn’t score. Then the dope sickness and the memories would ravage her awareness. Self-hatred and depression gripped her in an inescapable fist in those times, and she prayed for death. At times she wished for more than death; she wished that she didn’t exist at all. She wished that she had never existed and that none of her life had ever happened. Such yearnings helped pass the time it took for her to find the medicine she needed to make everything go away.
As Sondra walked out onto Elysian Fields she could see the light of the recovering districts in the distance. Sometimes crashing in a house that had no lights or water got to her. She made certain to always keep a bottle of drinking water, but months without a proper bath had taken their toll. She washed up and made herself presentable in the bathroom of a convenience store near the interstate. All of the cashiers knew Sondra. Sondra was hardly the only person staying in a part of the city that still had no utilities. She wasn’t even the only person who used that convenience store to get cleaned up every day.
The young Hispanic clerk nodded to Sondra in greeting when she entered. Sondra attempted to smile at him, but he had already buried his face in a magazine. Sondra sighed and made her way into the bathroom. Inside the broad mirror and the bright fluorescent light combined to show her exactly what she looked like. Sondra’s face was dirty from sleeping in the dirty old house, but the dirt didn’t hide her true beauty. She had French and Spanish ancestry on her mother’s side, and that gave her an almond shaped face with delicate features. Sondra’s shoulder length sandy blonde hair looked matted, and her hazel eyes looked tired. She hoped to fix all that with hot water.
While the hot water ran Sondra stripped off her blouse and splashed water all over her self. She took a small towel from her purse and dried off. She put on deodorant and perfume before exchanging the blouse for a skimpy halter-top. She frowned when she saw how much space the blouse took up in her bag, but then shrugged. Her only other alternative to a full purse was carrying a backpack around, and she wasn’t about to do that. She worried enough about getting robbed as it was.
The hot water made Sondra feel almost human when she stuck her head under it. She savored the feeling for a moment, then shampooed her hair quickly and rinsed it out. She towel dried her hair furiously and haphazardly worked some leave in conditioner into it. Sondra did not want to wear out her welcome at the convenience store bathroom, so she always went as fast as possible. She dropped her pants and panties to her knees and splashed hot water onto her crotch. She sprayed a little perfume into her underwear, pulled up her pants, stuffed the wet towel back into her purse and prepared to leave the gas station. The whole ritual took less than five minutes.
When Sondra exited the bathroom she looked like a different person. She didn’t look homeless. The person that came out of the bathroom was a 5’6”, twenty-six year old knockout. Whatever problems Sondra had, being unattractive wasn’t one of them. The cashier looked up from his magazine, but he was unable to go back to reading after he saw her. The halter-top accented her perfect breasts in a way that drives men crazy. She smiled at the clerk, and this time he gave a great big smile in return. He almost managed to get his tongue working before she walked out into the night, but he was a second too late.
By the time Sondra made it to Claiborne Avenue three cars had pulled over to offer her a ride. She turned them all down. Women disappeared from New Orleans all the time, and nobody ever saw them again. Sondra already lived a dangerous life playing the barfly on Bourbon Street. She refused to tempt fate by getting into cars with strangers, and besides that she enjoyed walking at night.
The alprozolam and oxycontin Sondra swallowed before leaving the house took full effect as she walked. Sondra felt great physically, and mentally she felt prepared to take on the world. When she was high she never worried about reality. Deep down she desperately wanted to change her situation, and she often daydreamed about ways to do that. Unfortunately Sondra had discovered it was easier to hustle and stay loaded than to change her life. Thinking about her life was the last thing she wanted to do. Instead she looked forward to the night. She hoped she would meet someone who would really care about her, but she would settle for someone who really wanted her.
Sondra turned right on Rampart, and fifteen minutes later the balconies of the French Quarter silently welcomed her back to the New Orleans nightlife. An exuberant crowd jammed Bourbon Street, which was an unusual occurrence for a Wednesday night, at least since the hurricane. Sondra decided to skip the tourist bars. She sashayed the few blocks down to Decatur Street with a spring in her step, heading for her favorite local hangout, The Monastery.
The doors of The Monastery were wide open to the world. Until Hurricane Katrina they had stood open for thirty years. The hurricane only closed the bar down for twelve hours, but in the days following the city government declared a curfew. Once New Orleans never closed and never went to sleep, but the police changed all that. Now The Monastery, and all the other bars, shut their doors at two o’clock in the morning. The worst storm in Gulf Coast history reduced New Orleans nightlife to a shadow of its original glory.
Sondra didn’t care how late the bars stayed open. She didn’t need more than a few minutes to pick up a man. As she slunk into the dark, cozy recesses of The Monastery she surveyed her options. She noticed three couples sat in the back end of the room, and a gaggle of college guys, most likely fraternity brothers from Baton Rouge, congregated in the middle of the room. At the end of the bar closest to the door sat a handsome, well-dressed man. He appeared to be in his early forties. A sly smile crossed Sondra’s face.
Sondra took a seat as far from the well-dressed man as possible, on the opposite side of the room and directly in his line of sight. She ordered a Tom Collins from the old bartender, and then sat back and passively observed the establishment. The first thing she noticed was that the well-built gentleman had turned his attention to her. She smirked inwardly, and pretended to be uninterested.
At times like those she almost wished that she smoked, because it would give her something to do and make her appear all the more nonchalant. She considered it a nasty habit, ironic as that might be, so she sipped her drink meekly and hummed. A hymn from her childhood tromped through her head unbidden, and she gave it just enough attention for a little sound to escape through her lips now and then. It was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Sondra only knew part of the tune, and none of the words. Before she knew it the good looking man sat down right next to her.
When viewed at close range the man did not appear normal at all. Sondra could see that his suit cost a fortune, but she wasn't sure how she knew that. She thought it might be because it fit the man perfectly, and definitely radiated the well-tailored look. Beyond that, Sondra had to blink her eyes a few times because the man's face cast off a dark glow. Blinking did not dissipate the aura, which she noticed also emanated from the exposed skin of his hands and wrists.
At that point Sondra looked directly into the man's eyes, and lost herself for what felt like a very long time. He had beautiful bright green eyes, but they contained within them several patterns that shifted slightly as the light caught them from different angles. The cunning intelligence Sondra saw inside them reminded her of a large predatory cat. Sondra knew the little pills she took wouldn't cause her to hallucinate, and for a brief instant she was frightened.
“My name is Saul. Can I buy you a drink?” the man asked in a tone that betrayed none of his internal workings.
Sondra, with curiosity winning out over fear, responded, “Be my guest. I was hoping to find someone to talk to anyway.” She appraised the man's haircut as she spoke. She decided she imagined the glow and the patterns in his eyes, probably because of his intoxicating presence.
Saul held up his right hand to beckon the bartender. As he did so his shirt sleeve pulled back slightly to reveal a gold Rolex, a detail Sondra did not miss. She subconsciously twirled a lock of her hair around the pointer finger of her right hand as she studied the man next to her. She existed totally in the moment, a state she spent a lot of time and money attempting to achieve. When Saul turned his head and smiled at her a thrill ran through her stomach, disturbing a bunch of little butterflies she didn't know lived there anymore.
“What's your name, young lady?” Saul inquired pleasantly.
Sondra tried to pull herself together, but when she said, “My name is Sally,” her voice sounded like it belonged to a giddy school girl. She also hesitated before she told him. She noticed Saul caught the tiny pause. The outside corner of his eyes tightened ever so slightly.
“I mean, what's your real name?” he inquired again, and the second time his voice sounded somewhat less playful.
“It's Sondra,” she blurted out, “and I'm sorry. It's just not always a good thing to tell people your real name. There's all sorts of characters loose in the city.”
Saul pulled back his upper lip and showed his teeth in an odd sort of half smile. Sondra saw the outside edge of his iris flash upward ninety degrees in relation to a center ring that did not move. It happened so quickly she didn't know what to make of it, but his eyes looked perfectly normal again afterwards. She suddenly realized he had done something with his eyes on purpose, in order to gauge her reaction.
“All sorts of characters are loose in the city, Sondra. You are absolutely correct,” Saul said with a wink, as if they had just shared a private joke.
“I'm sorry, but who... or rather, what are you?” Sondra questioned with a genuine desire to know, and without alarm.
“I'm not a what, I am a who, though I'm not exactly from the same gene pool as most of today's people. I've been around a very, very long time. People have changed a great deal since I was born. My own kind generally do not exist anymore, and my name is Saul, as I've already said,” he told her without any hint of impatience or unkindness.
“This has got to be some sort of practical joke. You're another creep who likes messing with people's minds, right?” Sondra asked, but she didn't believe that was the answer. The way he looked, the way he moved and the way he felt told her that Saul was genuinely different from everybody else. Her mind raced with the excitement of stumbling onto something new and out of the ordinary.
“I came to meet with you, Sondra. I felt your presence here in this place... this ruined city. If only you could see and feel what I do, you would appreciate what I'm talking about,” Saul attempted to explain, “As it is, I'm afraid it's going to take quite some time before I can make you understand.”
“Who the hell are you? Don't just tell me your name again either. What exactly is going on?” Sondra demanded firmly but politely.
“I'm something you wouldn't understand, Sondra. People think different things when they think of my kind. I can't explain it to you in words. I came here to find you, because you're special. You're like me, which makes you the first of my kind born in over two thousand years. I'd like to take you somewhere more comfortable. I have a great many things to share with you, and you need to learn these things.”
Sondra burst out laughing. Her mirth was genuine. For a moment nothing intruded upon her awareness but the idea that what she had just learned was very, very funny. When she opened her eyes she saw Saul looking at her with a completely detached expression, and no amusement in his eyes. She rapidly regained control of herself.
“I'm nothing special, Saul, or whatever your name is. I'm not even close,” the words came out laced with bitterness, and tears appeared in the corners of Sondra's eyes.
“I'm telling you the truth, and I can make you believe it faster than you could ever imagine. Come with me, Sondra,” Saul told her. He stood up and started walking for the door. Sondra shook her head and weighed the situation for just a moment before she stood up and likewise went out the front door.
Outside the early autumn night felt refreshing and invigorating on the heels of the first cool front of the year. It was quite a change after months of extreme heat and humidity, and the myriad of human discomforts that come with those things. Sondra only had a moment to appreciate the wonderful weather. After stepping into the street she realized Saul hadn't waited for her just outside.
Sondra had to break into a sprint to catch up to Saul, who was already close to a block away. Saul moved toward St. Louis Cathedral with the speed of an Olympic runner, yet somehow still projected the air of someone out for a leisurely evening stroll. He stood just outside the front doors of the church when Sondra caught up to him three blocks later.
With her chest heaving for air and her heart pounding from the sudden exertion Sondra couldn't do anything but place her arms on top of her head and breathe. Saul didn't appear to have exerted himself at all. He just stood there patiently waiting for her to catch her breath. It didn't take her very long. Sondra once more felt grateful that she had never liked smoking, and also that they hadn't gone very far. She thought humorously to herself, “Thank God the cathedral isn't far from The Monastery.”
The time it took to regain control of her respiration allowed Sondra to take another look at Saul, which she had been doing constantly ever since she first saw him. She got the feeling she could look at him forever and never want for anything else. The almost imperceptible glow she glimpsed in the bar had grown far stronger and noticeable now that they were outside in the night. Sondra had time to study it, and she believed it actually leaked out from inside his perfect suit. She decided that the glow wasn't just in the visual realm either. She believed she could feel his aura in the tips of her fingers, and smell his essence beyond the range of cataloged odors. She mischievously wondered what he tasted like, but the way he looked at her right then derailed her train of thought.
“Come here and place your right hand on the door knob,” Saul instructed her without any fanfare.
Taking two steps forward, Sondra placed her hand on the knob of the massive oak door of the ancient cathedral. Heat emanating from the knob surprised her. She almost pulled her hand away before Saul placed his right hand on top of hers. Warmth exploded inside her flesh, and visions raced to the forefront of her awareness.