Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Me again! In my last post, I introduced you to Gene, the title character of HAWNT. In this post, I'm going to introduce you to the leading lady. Marti is a tough-as-nails teenager who also happens to be a psychic medium. She's a survivor with an understated confidence that brings out the best in Gene. As I was fleshing out Gene's story, I realized that I could hear her voice equally as strong and that it, too deserved a spotlight. This is why I made the decision to tell the story from dual points of view, and I feel the novel is all the better for it. Hopefully you agree.
Martine Montgomery knew she was going to die.
Maybe not today, or tomorrow. But she’d die sooner than later. Mama didn’t think she heard the chatter between her and Gramma, or the phone conversations, but she did. Marti always had hearing like a hawk, with one side effect being that you sometimes learned more than you wanted to on accident.
She’d been sick for as long as she could remember. Lately it had gotten worse, and no one wanted to be around a sick person. Not even Carrie Brown, who was supposed to be her friend.
“Why are you crying?”
Startled, Marti looked up at the source of the voice, whose owner was peering down at her. It was a girl, and Marti figured she must have been close in age. The stranger wore a sky-blue dress and hugged a dirty teddy bear to her chest, face dotted with freckles, feet bare and caked with mud.
The yard bumped up against a small patch of woods, but where were the girl’s parents? Had she wandered through the woods by herself? That seemed beyond comprehension to Marti, because she was never allowed to go anywhere alone. In fact, she was sure Mama was watching her through the kitchen window at that very moment, wondering who the strange, barefoot girl was. Marti had the hearing of a hawk; her Mama had the eyes of one.
But if her hearing was so good, how had she not heard the girl’s approaching footsteps? The thought troubled her, but she pushed it aside.
“Aren’t you cold?” Marti asked, sniffling and pulling her jacket tight around her body. Louisiana often stayed warm and muggy clean through November, sometimes well into December. It was a couple weeks before Christmas then, and the first chill had just begun to set in. None too soon either, as it forced the ever-present mosquitoes to finally go back into hiding. It didn’t quiet the crows though, who cawed, disturbed, from atop a nest of Spanish moss in the mighty oak overhead.
The girl shrugged. “The cold doesn’t bother me. Not anymore.”
“It bothers me.”
“Is that why you’re sad?”
Marti shook her head and swiped her nose with the back of a hand. Her nostrils were sore; they probably looked puffy and red too. “I’m sad because I can’t have any friends.”
The girl cocked her head, rust-colored strands brushing over her bare shoulder. “Because they can’t see you, either?”
“No, because I can’t play with them. I’m not healthy, and they don’t understand. It’s easier to just not have friends.” Marti paused and her eyebrows crinkled. “What do you mean they can’t see you?”
“No one can see me. Not even my parents. Not since the accident,” the stranger said with a shrug.
“But I can see you.”
The girl's lips curled into a smile. She was missing one of her front teeth and made little whistling noises through the gap as she spoke. “I know. I could tell you’re different. That’s why I came to you.”
“Oh.” That didn’t make sense to Marti, but she didn’t want to sound stupid. Instead she said, “I like your dress.”
The girl flashed her gap-toothed smile and grasped the hem of her dress between two fingers, seeming pleased as she waved the material back and forth. Marti’s mama always told her that people loved compliments. That seemed like a good one.
“Your hair is pretty too.”
The smile faded. Had Marti gone too far? “Mine is stringy. Pierre said so,” the stranger said.
She grinned and pointed at her teddy bear, who’d seen better days. One ear was half torn off and once-white stuffing poked out at the spot. “He’s very honest.”
“Sounds very mean for a teddy bear.”
That was met with a loud, high-pitched laugh. The girl was odd, sure. But then, so was Marti.
“Anyway, your hair is better. It’s so much prettier.” The girl held the bear up to her ear as though listening intently. She nodded in agreement. “Pierre said so, too.”
Marti touched the mass of curls atop her head and giggled. Odd or not, she liked this girl. Hopefully she lived nearby. Maybe they could be friends? Carrie Brown didn’t want to be her friend anymore, but she was never that nice anyway.
Marti’s head whipped around. Her mother swung open the porch door, crossing the yard toward where Marti played with knotted-haired barbie dolls forgotten at her feet. Mama’s curly hair was swept up in a terry cloth turban. She wore a thick robe with pink flowers on it, pulling it tight over a thin body.
Her mother suffered from what she called “Toothpick-Leg Syndrome,” and Marti thought she took right after her, down to the knobby knees.
“Who are you talking to, baby girl?” Fuzzy-slippers crunched over yellowing crab grass as she neared the spot where her daughter played.
“The girl,” Marti called back, realizing she’d never gotten her strange new friend’s name.
Mama stopped about ten feet away. Her head darted back and forth as a puzzled look clouded her features. “Who do you mean?”
“She’s right there!” Marti pointed, exasperated.
“Have you taken to imaginary friends now, baby girl?”
Was she blind? So much for eyes of a hawk.
Lips set, Marti turned back to face the mystery girl and roll her eyes at the silliness. . . but gasped instead. Somehow, the girl had changed. She was different.
Mouth gaping, Marti fell back into the grass, half crab-crawling away. Her hand came down on a stray barbie, sending a jolt of pain up her arm. Vaguely, she heard Mama calling her name. But she couldn’t speak, couldn’t tear her gaze from the horrible sight in front of her.
The girl was missing an eye. Where the second eye used to be was now a hollow, wet socket. Blood pooled like strawberry jam and trailed down, down, completely hiding the right side of her face and staining her sky-blue dress, which was nothing more than a tattered rag. Her head was half smashed, like an overripe peach someone had pressed their thumb into.
“I told you no one can see me,” she said, staring down at Marti with the remaining blue eye. She smiled with teeth that were half gone, jagged and coated in red. “Do you want to play with me?
Please, Martine? I’m so lonely.”
A dripping hand reached toward Marti. She threw her arms over her head and screamed. Her heart spasmed. Chest tightened. The world spun . . .
“Martine! Wake up, baby girl!”
Marti’s eyes shot open to see her mother standing over her. That face looked much the same as it had in the memory-dream, only her eyes were now punctuated with dark purple circles, forehead and mouth spotted with a few more lines. The nine years that’d passed since that day hadn’t been kind to Mama, but she would always be beautiful to Marti.
Her hands were on her daughter’s shoulders. She released them as Marti sniffed and wiped a spot of drool from her chin.
Yuck. Must’ve dozed off on the couch, she thought.
A book was open in her lap. She guessed it was probably her fifteenth reading of The Hobbit. Maybe she couldn’t live a fantasy life herself, but she could live one vicariously.
But wait, something was missing. Marti stood up.
“Shit, where’s my bookmark?”
“Language, young lady!”
“Sorry, Mama.” Determined not to lose her place in the book, she set it face down and looked under one couch pillow, then another, careful to put the fluffy squares back in the same position she found them, or else Louie would have something to say.
“Just fold the page.”
“Dog ear the page? I’m not a savage.”
Triumph behind the third pillow. Nestled there was a midnight blue bookmark with the words “Hold fast to dreams” etched in delicate italics. Marti placed it in the page and flipped the book shut. It was still early in the story; Gandalf had just convinced Bilbo to go on an epic quest.
“You were dreaming again, making awful noises,” Mama said.
Oh, right. That.
“Was I?” Of course she was. She always did when she dreamt about the past.
“What were you dreaming about?”
Marti knew her mom knew, and Marti also knew Mama knew she knew she knew. She just didn’t feel like talking about it. Instead she shrugged and said, “Can’t remember.”
The older woman's brows furrowed, deepening the crease between, but she didn’t press further.
The dreams about the past were growing more intense. It was a part of herself Marti tried to forget; it was the past and things were so different now. But it still haunted her. Just like the angry-looking scar on her chest that would be with her until the day she died. Without thinking, her hand drifted to the raised line right over her breastbone that marked where a scalpel sliced her open, insides exposed to the world; a vertical, puckered ridge she could still feel through the thick cotton of her t-shirt.
“Where’d you go, baby girl?”
Marti realized her mom had been talking to her, and she’d been staring off into space like she did so often. Sheepish, she blinked and forced a smile. “Sorry. You know my derpy brain.”
“Ain’t nothin’ derpy about your brain.” She tucked a curl behind Marti’s ear and sighed. “You’ve grown into a beautiful young woman. I—" Her voice caught in her throat.
Translation: she’d never expected her daughter to make it to sixteen. Even though she was almost an adult and her condition had made a complete one-eighty, Mama still handled her with kid gloves.
Now, her mother’s face displayed the familiar, kind concern Marti had grown accustomed to over the years, with mouth drawn up at the corners and eyes glinting with unshed tears. To her surprise, she felt a hot tear prickle in her own eye. Maybe it was because Marti hadn’t seen this side of Mama in a while—the open, honest, warm side. It was a rare private moment they didn’t often get anymore, and Marti felt compelled to make it last.
“I miss this. Mother-daughter time.”
“Things are just so different now.” A welling tear escaped, and Mama’s hand lifted to swipe it from her daughter’s face. “Why don’t we go do something, right now? Just the two of us.”
The hand dropped. “Oh. I would love to, baby girl, but—"
“Oh boy, what now?”
Her stepfather’s interrupting voice was the opposite of music to her ears. It was more like someone smacking gum while screeching their nails down a chalkboard and dragging their squeaky shoe across a tiled floor, all rolled into one. Mama met Louie over a year ago—at church, of all places. She’d clung to him immediately, for reasons Marti couldn’t comprehend. She’d said he was, “Charming.”
“Bad dream, that’s all,” Mama answered.
Marti swiped her remaining tears away with hasty knuckles, trying to hide them from Louie. He had been nothing but an intruder to Marti ever since he came into their lives.
“Aren’t you a little old to be cryin’ over dreams? You’re old enough to have a job. Should have one, now.” Louie walked into her line of vision, face a stony mask. His features were all just a bit off. Nose slightly too sharp, blue eyes too piercing, eyebrows a hair too low. To unsuspecting people, he might come across as handsome. A little scruffy—with salt-and-pepper stubble and matching, slicked-back hair—but handsome nonetheless. It was a face that fooled many; though Marti knew him for what he was.
“I put in my application at the bakery,” Marti said, tilting her chin up at his towering form. “But we’re moving, so I figured there was no point following up.”
It was true. Louie’s job was moving two hours away, and so were they. She would have to leave her beloved New Orleans behind. They might not have lived in the most prestigious area of the city, but it was still her home. Always would be.
“I’m not appreciatin’ your tone,” he said. Marti could smell the alcohol on his breath, and it wasn’t even noon on a Saturday. Whiskey fumes tickled her nostrils, mixed with the spicy cologne he bathed in that did nothing to disguise the evidence of his unfortunate habit.
“Ready for the market, darlin’?” he asked Mama as his tone switched to melted butter. She was perfectly capable of grocery shopping herself, but Louie didn’t let her go anywhere without him. Except for work at the one job he let her keep—part-time at a call center.
"Yes," her mother replied in the mousy voice that had become her default. She was always meek around him, and Marti hated that. "We’ll be back soon. Girl time later?" Mama winked conspiratorially, but Marti knew the promise was empty. There would be no girl time. Not with her stepfather around.
"Don't burn the place down while we're away, huh? Maybe do some laundry while you're at it," Louie added, giving Mama's shoulders a slight too-tight squeeze as they shuffled out the door.
Just like that, Marti was left to her thoughts. Alone in the quaint house where she’d grown up, the very one whose backyard she'd met the strange ghost girl in, with her half-smashed head. The one with its creaking floorboards and crumbling porch steps. Ok, so it wasn’t perfect. But it was the place where she’d laughed with Mama and Gramma over countless holidays and birthdays. Where she and Mama binge-watched their favorite shows while stuffing their faces full of popcorn, and where Gramma taught Marti so many important life lessons before she died. The home Louie now invaded, and the one he would be taking from them.
Marti sighed and lamented her predicament. Though her thoughts turned back to when she was seven-years-old. To a little girl with half of a head.