“That girl means to kill me,” whispered Annie, once her daughter-in-law had left the room.
Whispering was the best Annie could do; anything more led to fits of coughing, leaving her gasping for breath and beet-red with exertion.
“That’s crazy talk. Maddie’s as sweet as they come – sweeter than you deserve. Lord, the way you bad-mouth her all the time!”
Annie watched the door, her eyes big as saucers. “Loretta, I tell you that girl wants to kill me. She watches me all the time, like she’s waitin’ on me to die. Steals my stuff, too.”
I sighed. “What’s she stolen?”
“My favorite dress – the one with red roses on it.”
“What would she want with your dress, old woman? That pretty gal ain’t got no need for any of your tents!” I could talk that way to Annie and get away with it. Annie and I go way back; we raised babies and grandbabies together. There wasn’t much the two of us couldn’t say to one another.
“You’re always talkin’ bad about Maddie. You better watch yourself, old woman! Charles is crazy about that gal – you want to find yourself out on the street?”
Annie was a good woman, but she had one weakness: she thought the sun rose and set on her son. No one was good enough for him. That included Maddie, the girl Charles met and married while in New Orleans on business.
Maddie was half his age and people were surprised when forty-year old Charles came back home with such a young thing on his arm. Pretty girl – black hair that fell in thick waves around her shoulders, large sea-green eyes, and a complexion as smooth and milky as fresh skimmed cream.
Sweet girl. Respectful. It was always ‘Miss Annie’ this and ‘Miss Annie’ that. She could’ve saved her breath. Annie was determined to dislike her, and referred to Maddie as ‘that white trash girl from some backwater swamp.’
“You’d best watch yourself, Annie; Charles loves that girl,” I repeated.
Annie massaged the skin at her throat. “This hurts somethin’ awful.”
About a year ago, Annie developed a little cough. At first, it seemed a trifling thing, a temporary nuisance. But weeks, then months passed, and it refused to go away. Instead, it got worse. Soon Annie was coughing every few minutes, saying it felt like something was stuck in her throat.
Sometimes she’d cough so hard and so long, it was scary to watch. Sitting in my living room one day, she coughed into a white handkerchief. We stared with horror at the scarlet traces of blood on the white fabric.
That’s was the beginning of Annie’s ride on the medical merry-go-round. Tests. Biopsies. Exploratory surgery. Doctors couldn’t find anything growing in Annie’s throat, nothing to account for her belief that something was stuck in there. So they did the reasonable thing; they sent her to see a psychiatrist. Annie coughed out her life story to the stern-looking woman in the wire-rimmed glasses. In the end, the woman told her she had ‘mother issues.’
Annie told that doc she was full of crap; it wasn’t mother issues she had, but coughing issues.
“Oh, Loretta,” she said raggedly, “I feel like I’m gonna choke! Somethin’s stuck in my throat! I don’t care what those doctors say… I know somethin’s there. That girl put it there!
“She’s a witch! And she’s stealin’ my stuff, I tell you. She took my dress with the red roses and cut it up. What’s she want with my clothes? I tell you what: voodoo. Them folks from New Orleans, they practice all that voodoo stuff. How you think she caught my boy? Now she wants to get rid of me. Voodoo!”
I said nothing, sure it was the medications causing her paranoia.
Voodoo? Good Lord…
A month later, Annie was dead.
After the funeral, some of us went back to Charles’s house to share memories of Annie over coffee and cake.
Maddie sat on a kitchen chair, her face pale and drawn.
“Poor Miss Annie, she fought so hard to live. God bless her… I hope she’s at peace now.” Her vivid eyes shimmered with unshed tears. “She said such terrible things at the end. I always tried to be nice to her, to love her like she was my own mama.”
Charles leaned over, and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “Hush, darlin’ – Mama didn’t know what she was sayin’. It was the pain and drugs talkin’.”
I reached over and patted her hand. “Don’t worry, Maddie; we know you loved her.”
My eyes began to tear up as I thought about my old friend. Excusing myself, I went in search of my purse. I found it with my coat in a back bedroom, and pulled out my lace handkerchief, wiping tears from my eyes. I was about to join the others when I paused outside the room that had been Annie’s. Quickly, I went inside, and knelt by the side of the bed, offering up a brief prayer.
I started to rise, but something under the bed brushed up against my knee. Curious, I reached under the bed and withdrew the object.
Ten inches long, made of burlap, it sported a crudely drawn face. A long needle protruded from its neck, and inked near the corner of its large mouth were rust-colored droplets.
But it was the doll’s dress that stunned me: red roses.
Horrified, I dropped the doll, watching it land at my feet.
“Miss Loretta, you got everything you need?”
Turning, I saw Maddie standing by the door, her sweet smile intact. Her eyes drifted down to the doll at my feet, but the look on her face didn’t change. “We’re about to cut some cake to go with that coffee, Miss Loretta. You’ll want to come now… it’s mighty good cake. You want to make sure you get yourself a piece.”
Maddie looked slowly around the room. “Poor Miss Annie. Felt she was choking all the time.” Her eyes then met mine. “You know, that woman said terrible things to me over the years. You ‘spose people can choke on their words, Miss Loretta?”
I said nothing.
Maddie smiled again, and taking my hand, we joined the rest of the group for cake and coffee.
It’s a funny thing how life goes round.
Annie’s been dead almost six months now. I miss her more than I can say. Sometimes I see Maddie in town, and she always makes a point to come up to me and give me a kiss.
And ask me how I’m feelin’.
Truth is, I ain’t been feeling so well lately. I get a terrible pain in my throat sometimes. I get to coughing.
And I have trouble speaking… it’s like the words have dried up inside of me.
My girl, Janie, wants me to see a throat specialist.
I don’t see the point.
I know what’s wrong with me. You see, that day I was in Annie’s room… well, I dropped my handkerchief when I saw that doll. Dropped it and forgot about it.
But someone else didn’t forget about it. And I ‘spect we both know what’s become of it.