Although the day was sunny, she’d led me to one of the cafe’s darker corners, the small rectangle of scuffed wood between us holding our tea, a carousel of sugar packets and my elbows.
Hers stayed by her side, her hands, I imagine, folded neatly in her lap.
“Call my Lucky,” she said when I first approached her days ago.
Even though we lived on different streets, I’d seen her in the neighborhood, back straight, head held high, chin up. Her stride perfectly even and smooth. Regal.
Older, Asian and simply dressed, she carried with her a feeling of calm and, I suspected, a lifetime of stories. Not too surprising considering most who found themselves living in this part of town only did so after a lifetime of stumbles, reversals and outright disasters.
This short strip of cracked and crumbling concrete known as Eidolon Avenue was a place where you died or came to hide. There were no futures to be found here.
So I’d approached. Suggested an interview. Nothing big. Really just something to stretch those wannabe-journalist muscles in me, my brain eager to distance itself from homework and move closer to real life people with real life tales to tell.
It’d be one question, I’d explained. A simple one that, on the surface, seemed easy to answer but, once looked at, considered, turned over, pulled apart, became more complicated than it first seemed:
What’s your biggest regret?
Lucky grinned, her thin lips lifting at the corners, the wrinkles around her eyes deepening. Her gaze left mine to scan the narrow room. Drifted toward the two waiters lounging by the register. The ding-ding of the door as a man in a business suit strode in. The other couple who’d claimed their own dark corner, their voices whispers, their heads low as they lingered over coffees, thick porcelain plates picked clean and shoved to the side.
“My biggest regret,” she then said. Her eyes returned to me. I sat up straighter. Wanted to sip my tea but feared seeming impolite. She stared, pondering the question, I suspected. Sifted through the decades of her life to land on that one thing she wished she could change more than anything.
“Yes,” I watched her, hoping I hadn’t started off too bold. That the question wasn’t too nosey or offensive. “The first thing that comes to mind, if that’s okay.”
A nod from her. And then a pause, her hands lifting, fingers laced, to rest on the table. Her knuckles looked arthritic and swollen. Painful. The fingers thin and tapered, the nails clumsily manicured, the skin as pale as delicate paper criss-crossed with a faint map of light blue veins.
As if sensing my stare, the fists darted beneath the table and out of sight to rest again on her lap.
“When I was young-” she said before stopping. Her eyes watched the cup of tea steaming in front of her. The one she’d yet to sip. She shook her head. Her narrow shoulders lifted in a sigh.
“I’m sorry.” I leaned forward, my elbows still propped on the table. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t-”
Her raised hand, palm forward, silenced me.
“When I was young,” she said again, the hand slipping below to reunite with its twin, “I had a choice.” She looked at me. “I chose wrong.”
“What was the choice?” I said, the words spoken before Reason and Manners could stop them.
“I drank the tea.” Another grin. “Everything that followed – the devastation, the heartbreak, the callous cruelty, the evil, the theft of my beloved Samuel – all of that came because of seven sips of tea.”
“Evil,” I said. “You mean, like, ‘evil’ evil, right?”
“This was in Shanghai,” she said, the question ignored. “There was a woman, a very powerful woman. One with shocking, dangerous secrets. A woman of great wealth. I worked for her. Scrubbing floors that didn’t need to be scrubbed.” A long pause, the tea waiting in front of her. “I worked for her and she ended my life.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re young,” she said, giving the room another quick glance. “You’ve yet to see how dark life can get. Of how surprising it can be.” She watched the couple bickering. She pretty and meek, he handsome and brutish, both young, the shadow of their far corner stealing their words. “You’ve yet to see how a ‘yes’ or a nod or simply doing nothing can give birth to events you could never expect and never imagine. You’ve yet to see how horrible people can be.
“Even the tiny old ones who walk quietly and give you small smiles,” she said, smiling as, with a ding-ding, the door opened and the guy in the suit left, to-go coffee in hand.
Although I smiled in response, I felt my skin crawl. Felt my bones grow cold. My flesh grow heavy. In her eyes, just below the surface, I saw a different woman than I’d first assumed. One perhaps chained to her past in ways I couldn’t imagine. I saw the flicker of a dangerous flame. The sense of something deeper. Unimaginable. Of things seen that can’t be unseen. Of consequences and painful regrets. Of anguish and silent screams and pain without end.
“Have you been evil?” I heard myself saying.
“I chose,” she said. “I drank the tea. More sips than needed, I remember. The job done in three, I took seven. Seven quick sips. But in the moment – only a girl, really, hungry, orphaned, alone, my family having thrown me to the streets like a useless dog – in that moment I believed there was no other choice. That my options were few. Even nonexistent.
“In that moment I wanted what Madame had, what she promised. Her power, her wealth, her freedom.”
“If you sipped the tea?”
“And did you succeed?”
“I was powerful, for a time. A long time.” Her voice was quiet. Almost a whisper. “And I was feared. Legendary for my cruelty, not that there should be pride in that.” A small laugh. “And I was wealthy. Even loved, briefly.” She breathed deep. Exhaled slow. “But freedom? Never. My choice was a cage, you see. A lock with no key. A hunger,” she said, her words becoming a rush. “A need, an unstoppable obsession with no end, a thing I needed to do, I had to do, I was forced to do-” She stopped. “Forgive me.”
She nodded, her head ducking chin to chest in the smallest of bows, as she slid from the booth.
“No, please. I’m sorry,” I said, angling from the booth to rise as well. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“In the blink of an eye, they piled up, the bodies, one after another.” She took my hand in hers. “It happens so fast.” Her hand let go of mine. “And for that, there is no redemption, no matter how many times I confess.”
And she turned, leaving the cafe with a ding-ding as the door closed behind her, her cup of tea forgotten on the table, untouched.
Learn more about Lucky in Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast
“a great read…powerful and jarring” – Cemetery Dance
Ten Horror Novels That Will Stick with You – Horror Novel Reviews