A whirlpool of wind made a crackle of thunder sounded and soon the spinning action took Dean around with it. The jump rope laced at his feet dug in deep, refusing to release, as he dangled, leg first, helpless to get out of the way of whatever was coming. Dizzily he spun, body whipping against the secure nature of his fastened, now wrenching leg. "Get it off! Get it off! " He felt his leg start to pop, crying to break free from his socket and a shattering sensation lancing up his right thigh.
The persistent grinding at his bone joint grew blinding hot as flashes of black and purple begun to form. Spots formed permanent resident on his eyes, stealing vision and inducing nausea. The only sensation he registered was pain- throbbing, aching, and burning. The rest of his leg quivered with torture, and blood and perspiration collected, pouring down his leg.
4 Months earlier............
Not even the grumbles of his annoyed daughter could spoil Jalil Chamani's mood today. A smile of supreme satisfaction swung upon his lips as he proudly strutted through his family owned toy shop. His dream of one day passing The Toy Box to his daughter lightened his mind for the first time in what seemed like years. For a time, that dream washed away in a literal storm. He never thought he would see the toy store threatened, but Hurricane Katrina had ravaged their business like so many others, leaving bits of broken dreams and shards of a past life under layers of mud, muck, and flood water. As hard as it is to believe, he had been lucky that day. He and his sweet, Nadiya,made it through of the storm. His little shop, unluckily, had not been as fortunate. He shuttered thinking about what they went through that day and the many friends and neighbors they lost, letting himself linger in the painful memories. Shaking away the past, he only wanted to focus on the future now. He was a survivor, after all.
However bleak, he never gave one thought about not rebuilding. This store was his home-his life. His life could start again, even if it was in some bastardized way. Part of him felt betrayed as his daughter stocked the shelf with manufactured toys, always priding himself on hand-making all of his toy creations. But, times being what they were, he had to compromise. Hand-made toys were not as in demand as the bells, beeps, and electronic toys of the day. Plus, the cost of rebuilding was more than any assistance they received and the store was already mortgaged before the storm came. They had used every bit of insurance and federal money just to get restarted. He would be picky later, when the banks were less forgiving and not breathing down his neck as if they were about to crawl under his skin. Now, was the time to survive. If it meant a little commercialism, he would have to shallow his pride this once.
"POPS! Earth to Pops!" Nadiya yipped for the thirteenth time.
Jalil sheepishly snapped back to focus on his daughter, who had taken the year off from Tulane University to help him scrape back a life. He didn't know what filled him with more glee: his daughter going to college on a full scholarship or the incredible size of her heart. Yet, neither pride nor love stopped him from teasing her as he watched her struggle with a Teletubby display. "It's a sign chere... dhose dhings be creepy to begin witdh. Now, tdey jump off the sdhelves tdemselves."
"Pops, I need your help 'ere! Not chore mumbo jumbo!"
Pops laughed harder as an avalanche of rainbow colored, talking, plushies spilled over his frustrated child.
"Oh... you tdink dis is funny."
"F'sure. It's cute as a bug in a rug when ya loose da control and speak with chore native tongue. Be proud of chore heritage, Chere."
"I am proud of my heritage. And I do not have an accent." Nadiya controlled her speaking in a slow and steady rhythm.
"Whatever you say, Chere, but one day... ya may not mind where ya come from." He mocked his daughter's careful unaccented tone as best he could. "Ya Mamma would say da same if she were 'ere."
The last of the rainbow toys fell from the rack and Nadiya screamed. Her father just chuckled.
"You tdink... you think you are funny!" She snapped playfully at her father.
"I tdink I am damn funny! All part of da chawm I have cultivated fir years... "Chew gonna clean dat up, 'r what?
"Charm! Charm... my as…"
"Now, now…" Jalil's mind had many more sardonic quips to lob back and forth to his daughter, but no more would be said that day.
The front door swung open as widely as it could, yet a portly man still had to turn sideways to enter. Jalil would recognize the girth of Louis Teinturier anywhere. Of course, it was hard to miss the massive, sweating man. New Orleans was always balmy to say the least, but the lack of central air in most places sent a man like Louis in sweating fits. Jalil never had a problem with the large or obese, but Louis gave fat a bad name. Hell, Louis, gave humans and bankers a bad name. Somehow, Louis fit the stereotypical thought of a greedy banker. In truth, Louis had more money and spent too much time eating typical New Orleans cuisine.
"Ughhh..." Jalil grumbled not quite under his breath.
"Pop!!!" Nadiya stressed in a forceful whisper.
Reprimand or not, Jalil had little taste for men like Louis Teinturier."I'd say he wer a bottom feeder, but dat be an insult to tdem."
"Pops!" Nadiya mouthed a bit louder.
"Jalil, my friend…" Louis exaggerated, still pulling his ham chop of a leg in the door.
"I'm not chore friend, Teinturier. You da banker. A banker have no friends."
"Jalil, you cut me to the quick. Now, I come down here personal like to help you out. I know today is the grand opening and you would not want to be late with your loan payment."
"I see de blood suckers don't always come out dat night."
"POPS!" Her patience ran thin with her father. "Pfhh…..sorry…Sorry, Mr. Teinturier. Pops got up on the wrong side of de bed this morning." Although she pretended to be calm, the subtle showing of her accent, screamed she was not amused with the banker's presence either.
"You could learn some manners from your daughter, Jalil." The sweating man wrapped his one massive arm around the svelte woman, much to her dismay.
She shifted uncomfortable, removing herself from his arm. Under the ruse of getting his payment, and quite thankful of being out of the banker's grasp, she distance herself as far as she could. Her tiny hand stretched out fully, waving the check. Her feet stretched on tiptoes to extend the payment as far from her torso as possible. "Of course, we have de payment and we were on our way to de bank to pay. But, since you come all tdis way, I guess we can thank you for savin' us de trip." Nadiya handed over the check with a satisfaction almost as large as her father's was earlier.
"Thank you, my dear…" Louis snatched the paper, scrunching it at the center. Pulling it close to his sweat drenched face, practically salivating like a starved child in a candy store.
Jalil swore that Louis even sniffed it like it was honey suckled ham instead of a printed piece of paper. However, if it got him out of their hair on this day, he would ignore the man's greed.
"My… my... my… you seem to have forgotten something…your payment is a little short."
"It's de exact amount and chew know it!" Jalil screamed, no longer in the mood to play nice.
"Now, now… mind your ticker. You see, you signed a variable rate agreement and now the payment has increased. It goes up depending on the market. I am afraid you don't have enough to cover it with this."
"HOW MUCH MORE DO CHEW WANT BLOODSUCKER!"
"The payment needs to be $5000.00 more."
"You know we don't have tdat." Nadiya attempted to reason with Louis.
"Then, I am Afraid….afraid you will default on your loan then."
"Chew can't do TDIS!"
Regardless of the injustice of it, Louis had played the system well and he felt no need to justify his actions. Instead, he turned and shuffled sideways out the door. "I expect you to be out as soon as possible."
"Teinturier, chew Bastard!"
The tubby man waddled away, ignoring any desperate pleas of Jalil and Nadiya.
Later that night….
The wind twisted, swirling street debris into the alley directly behind the Toy Box. The grunge of the alley a far cry from the light-hearted playfulness Jalil created inside the store. Just beyond the alley, the sweet sounds of Ella Fitzgerald singing "Mood Indigo" played in a little jazz dive a few doors down. Her melancholy voice overshadowed the tourist noise of the French Quarter just a few streets away. Jalil found it fitting to hear sweet Ella's voice telling him that he "ain't been blue until you've had that Mood Indigo". Tonight, he was bluer than indigo, feeling the sense of impending doom at his door. A day that began with a celebration of living thorough adversity twisted into a day that saw all of it slip back away from him. Even if he sold all he owned in the store, he could not make enough to pay the debt.
So, he returned to his beloved store on the darkness night of his life to call upon his heritage. In truth, he was always a believer of the Vodun. He had moved away from the religion when Nadiya called it Mumbo Jumbo. Tonight, his heart full of sadness and need, he did the only thing he knew to do- Ask Papa Legba for assistance. He knelt at the backdoor of his shop, the best place for an altar in his mind, hoping the Loa would see his way to assist him.
The crooked, aged hands carefully lit two pillar candles: one black and one red. A small hand- woven small doll, crafted as lovingly as his toys, was placed in front of the two flickering pillars. To an outsider of the Vodun religion, they would be waiting for him to stick pushpins inside of the straw figure, giving Louis what he deserved. However, this representation was not mean to harm anyone, only to invoke Legba's protection. The straw limbs and torso supported a black face with hand-painted white features. A tiny straw hat perched upon the tiny figure's noggin.
"Odu Legba, Papa Legba, open the door, Your children are waiting. Papa Legba, open the door, your children await." Jalil chanted, speaking aloud. Then, he knelt quietly, meditating on his fondest wish to save The Toy Box. Gingerly, he placed offerings to Legba- candy, cigars, and tobacco, and then sprinkled palm oil over his make impromptu ceremony. "Odu Legba, Papa Legba, open the door, chore children are waiting. Papa Legba, open the door, chore children await."
The aged man sighed and rubbed his chest. He kept speaking to Legba, ignoring his aching chest. "Please Legba. I feel my very heart breaking." Something wasn't right. Jalil felt odd-no, his body felt odd like all his pep flittered away. The sensation made him miss the massive form, along with the few of New Orleans' finest, coming down the alley.
"Jalil!" The boisterous, demanding voice of Louis Teinturier boomed. "Officers, I want him arrested. He is trying to burn down the store... Just look at those candles and that satanic hoodoo he is setting up."
"Teinturier, chew an' idyot. Tdis is not burn..."
"You have to face facts. And being a desperate man is not going to help you. It's only going to get you in a world of trouble."
The air of smugness that clung to Louis set Jalil's blood to boil. "Louis…chew going to burn in de hell one day. Mark tdese words."
"Officer, did you hear him threaten me."
"Okay... let's remain calm. I am sorry sir but you have to come with us. The taller officer requested.
"LOUIS TEINT….ughh." Jalil staggered back and walked slowly, propping himself against the wall of his store. He swayed when he took a tiny painful step and grasped his arm."Jalil? JALIL, what's…"The two men stood in front of each other, waiting for someone to make the next move. The stalemate ended when Jalil staggered and collapsed inside of Louis' arms.
"JALIL!" Louis wobbled down to the brick street with Jalil, and cried out his name.
The pallor shifted to almost ivory underneath the sweaty skin. Jalil felt an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing in the center of the chest. Then, all feeling ceased and a gurgling final breath hissed out.
TWO MONTHS LATER….
Oblivious to the sounds of his partner in life and now in business, the clean-cut, well-dressed man eyed several bins of the left over toys.
"HAROLD!" Josh was about fed up with Harold's lack of interest in helping today.
"I didn't rent this place to have you gawk at toys all day."
"Hey, what can I say, I am a big kid."
"Mom said I shouldn't marry you!" Josh laughed.
"You didn't marry me…I had the good taste to say NO!" Harold teased.
"That is so... SO... not funny! Now, help me clean some of these up. We have to get started on making our boutique."
"Whatever you say Josh, dearest love of my life." Harold's condescending tone dripped with sugar sweet sickness.
"Stop it! You only do that voice when you know you have pissed me off. And it only pisses me off more."
Harold chuckled. "But, you love me."
Josh just sighed and started carrying boxes into the back. "We can donate these things to charity tonight, if you move your ass." The voice trailed off in the distance with Harold still procrastinating and staring at a wooden carved toy soldier.
Suddenly an object moved upon his foot and he jumped back, holding back what Josh would call a girl scream. And, to scream would have made Harold feel tremendously foolish. A tiny toy racer, about the size of eyeglass case, annoyingly noised and bumped into his shoe. "HOLY SHIGGLES!" He would never hear the end of being frightened of a bunch of plastic, batteries, and lights. Josh had just stopped mentioning the time he thought the TV remote was a cellphone.
As Harold imagined what taunts this one could have caused, the little racer stopped. The lack of flashing lights and little whirls allowed him a moment to chuckle at himself.
"HARLOD!" Josh huffed from the back room.
"Okay… okay…" Harold turned from the car, kicking it against the far wall. He shook his head and took a few steps towards the counter. His eyes were drawn to another yellow racer upon the glass checkout counter with lights flashing and a small horn tooting. "Josh….didn't you clean the counter already."
"Yes!" The sing-song, exasperated voice floated back to the main part of the store.
"Okay...weird." Harold muttered and looked back to his original toy racer, but the toy was no longer against the far wall. "Okay… I am losing it... I just thought one of these toys moved. "
"Do dee do dew, do dee do dew…Twilight Zone. You have lost your little mind, Har..."
A huge sigh later and a head scratch, Harold admonished himself for feeling so silly. But, when he turned, the little car was gone. "Okay... very funny…Josh."
"What!" Josh's golden locks flung around the corner before his head peered beyond the door beam.
"That car…. I get it...I'll help."
"I don't know what dust bunnies you have been snorting…BUT…..When you get done with…" Josh flashed the air quotes. "Imagination Station… you can get those boxes and carry them in here." Josh popped back into the storage area, leaving Harold in his bewilderment and annoyance.
"Fine! Don't believe me!" Harold yelled, and then began to mutter. "… drama queen... pranking…why….do I put... up with…" As the maddened man took a step, the tiny toy racer whirled and smacked his foot again.
"Okay, Mr. Smartass. Let's see you remote control this thing without batteries." Bending down as if to tell Josh to kiss his ass, Harold flung the car from the floor, flipped it over, and yanked the battery door open. Huffily he turned, putting the batteries and car back on display at the counter as a trophy of victory. "See how you like those apples."
Then life got really weird, the racer started up again. Harold turned to the counter towards the sound.
As his eyes locked to find the toy he just disassembled. Only the car was nowhere to be seen. Yet the noise continued- hollow as if the sound locked inside Harold's ears. The thoughts of Josh practical joking faded and a sense of dread took over. Joke or not, this was freaking him.
"There's something wrong here… something VERY WRONG..." Harold hollered, already moving to join Josh. Somehow, if they were together, maybe the hairs on the back of his neck would go away. His eyes darted about the room, looking for the source of the sound.
He walked backwards into a case and snapped around to see a teddy bear at eye level. The small bear's head turned, eyeing Harold. He jumped back more frightened, trying to find the scream he suppressed earlier. As he took that horrified step, the ball of his right foot found a presence, which sent him flying head first. The yellow blur jutted out from under the shoe as Harold crashed head first into the glass counter.
The smashing and crunching glass as his skull broke the fine plate glass and his groan of pain mingled. The momentum of the smash still allowed his head to snap back, reeling him towards the floor. The whoomp landing caused several toys to fall from the shelf.
"Harold, what in the world are you doing out here..." Josh playfully spouted before he saw Harold splayed on the floor, blood seeping from a laceration on his head. A yellow car whirled and bumped into the side of Harold's face, flashing lights at Harold's closed eyes. "HAROLD!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
"RrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrr...RrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrr... . "RrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrr... "RrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrr..."