The bayou’s as silent as a grave.
It was fitting since that's where I was headed.
My worn boots squelched in the mud. I trudged between gnarled cypress trees draped in wispy Spanish moss. The scent of decaying leaves and stagnant water should've been familiar, a remnant embedded in my DNA from a long time ago, but today, it tasted bitter on my tongue.
Because today, I’m burying my mother.
The woman who'd given me life and then abandoned me as a baby on the steps of a San Antonio, Texas, children's home was gone for good. An aching void in my chest grew deeper with each step toward her open grave. It ached for the things I’d never know.
My mother’s kiss. My mother’s hugs. My mother’s love.
The oppressive heat clung to my skin like a second layer, and the suffocating humidity made breathing difficult. I wiped the sweat from my brow with a shaky hand and a heart heavy in my chest. All around me, the mourners gathered. Many of them were strangers whose faces held more curiosity than grief when turned in my direction.
I don’t belong here, and they know it.
My mother's casket, draped in somber black, lowered into the dark embrace of the earth—a lump caught in my throat. I clung to the single red rose in my hand, its petals soft and velvety beneath my fingertips. As the pastor droned on about eternal peace and forgiveness, my thoughts drifted to the life I had left behind in San Antonio—a job, close friends, and an abusive ex-boyfriend. Maddie Lee, my best friend and confidante, had given me a tearful farewell not even twelve hours ago. She had helped me pack a few of my belongings in our shared apartment.
The sterile city life was never meant for me. Deep down, I craved a connection to my roots. Well, now, I knew where those roots led. Louisiana—the Bayou.
"Raven Sinclair, would you like to say a few words?" The pastor's voice, as rough and gravelly as sandpaper, drew me back to the present—to where I now stood in the little cemetery of Grosse Tete, a small village in the Iberville Parish of Louisiana.
I swallowed hard, nodded, then forced myself to step closer to the grave. The eyes of strangers burned into my back. Their judgment weighed heavy on my shoulders.
"Leanne Boudreaux was my mother," I began, struggling to find the right words for a woman who had never truly been a part of my life. "I did not know her well, actually, didn’t know her at all, but now that she's gone... I, um, I feel a deep sense of loss and longing for what could have been."
My voice cracked on the final words, and I tossed the rose into the grave—a final farewell to any chance of knowing the woman who had given birth to me. As the funeral ended and the crowd dispersed, I decided to make a new beginning in the Louisiana Bayou. It was time to uncover the truth about my past and the world of my kin that had remained hidden for far too long.
The drive through the bayou was a winding, introspective journey. Memories of my childhood summers flittered by—each spent with foster families, none of which had ever become my family—washed over me like waves, each recollection both comforting and painful. Glancing around, I longed to find solace in the arms of nature, exploring the bayou and its many mysteries concealed by the rustle of leaves and the hum of cicadas.
When I finally arrived at the small house I had inherited from my biological mother’s family, the Boudreauxes, twilight had cloaked the forest in shadows. The familiar scent of wet earth and decaying leaves whispered a welcome home, but something else lingered beneath it—an unsettling energy that sent a shiver down my spine.
Everything will be fine, I thought, but I couldn't quite ignore the gnawing sense of unease that clawed its way into my heart and consumed my mind.
As I stepped over the threshold and into the unknown, the bayou seemed to hold its breath, waiting for me to discover its secrets—and I wondered what price I would have to pay for them.
The moment my foot crossed the threshold, the heavy screen door slammed shut behind me, sealing me away from the outside world. I stifled a scream, my pulse racing as adrenaline coursed through my veins. The dim light filtering through the dirty, ancient windows barely penetrated the room's darkness. I chewed on my bottom lip, feeling the damp, stale air cling to my skin. The weight of the past saturated every inch of the old house.
"Raven?" A woman’s sultry voice cut through the gloom like a beacon, pulling me from my mounting panic.
My eyes found her standing at the entrance to the parlor, her warm smile a ray of hope in this chilling darkness.
“Coralie?” Her name flittered off the tip of my tongue.
“Yes. That’d be me.” From our phone conversations, Coralie Fontenot stood much taller than I had imagined. "You made it.” Her words hung in the room with a Cajun accent attached to them.
"Thank the stars," I breathed. My knees shook, but I managed to move closer to the relator. "You have no idea how relieved I am to see you."
Coralie pulled me into a tight embrace, and for the first time in months, I felt oddly seen—safe even. "It's great to finally put a face to the name," she murmured, her voice a soothing balm for my frayed nerves.
As we unwound ourselves from each other's arms, she brought me up on years of missed history, memories, and a few whispered confessions both the house and the bayou held tight to. The house creaked around us as if it had things to say. My mind wandered to the dark corners of this dimly lit place. It was a living phantom of a past—my ancestral past—a haunting reminder of where I’d come from.
"Your grandparents left you something special," Coralie said with a secretive smile, leading me down a narrow hallway.
“Me?” Her words took me by surprise. “But they didn’t know about me, did they?”
“They all knew about you.” Her words met my ears with a chilling caress. “We all did.”
“They?” My word hung in the dense air. “We?”
Shadows danced along the wallpaper. I followed on her heels, making my way to a small room tucked away toward the back of the house. A dusty lamp flickered to life, and I entered.
"Welcome to your family's legacy, Raven," she announced softly, gesturing at the walls adorned with artifacts and aged photographs that painted a portrait of my family's deep connection to the bayou.
"Legacy?" I queried, my fingers brushing over a dusty framed photograph of a woman that I assumed was my grandmother. But the woman in the picture cradled a snake in her arms—a large constrictor.
My mind raced with questions, leaving my heart to pound against my chest. Terror held me captive. I couldn't shake the feeling that these relics represented far more than a mere family history.
Is the bayou's grip on me, on my life, far stronger than I can ever understand?
"Your ancestors were... unusual." Coralie’s fingers drummed against a wooden box nestled at the base of a towering bookshelf. "Imagine how powerful you could be,” she whispered, “if you could embrace and control the darkness that sleeps within you."
“Darkness? Powerful?” Her words ignited a strange hunger within me.
My soul longed to unravel the secrets that hid behind every artifact in that room. But then, new darkness began to grow, like ivy strangling the walls of this decrepit house, only this time, the darkness had intertwined within me, making me shiver.
“Are you all right?”
“What?” A haze clouded my vision for a few seconds. “Oh, yeah.” I shook off the sensation. “I’m good. Just trying to take everything in.” My hand slid over the banister railing. “Skeletons and all.” My temples throbbed, making me wonder if a migraine would soon hit.
"Careful now," she warned, possibly sensing my trepidation. "We both know what happens when one delves too deeply into the shadows."
She’s right. I still bore the emotional scars—both real and imagined—from when I'd dared to venture too close to the truthful abyss of my existence, of where I’d come from. A question that had plagued me my whole life, and now, here in a family dwelling, answers waited at my fingertips for discovery. That primal truth, a powerful force, yearned to consume me whole once more and pull me under its thrall until it drained every last ounce of light from my being.
But there was something softer, too—a gentle whisper echoing through every room of the house. It was a quiet reminder that while titanic struggles were in store for me, an undeniable warmth and love remained beneath this surface of grit and shadow.
It seemed everything had changed since I arrived at this place, Grosse Tete—and yet, nothing had changed. This was to be my new home, my battlefield. Every corner of this house held secrets and stories, and it was up to me to pry them from the ruins to determine what was worth saving—and what must be buried in the earth forever.
“Raven.” Her voice once more cut through the hazy fog in my brain.
“Oh, uhm, sorry.” I held her questioning gaze. “What were you saying?”
“Just that I need to go.” She headed to the front door, her steps so light, they made no sound. “If you need anything—anything at all, you got my number.
“I do.” I nodded. “Thanks.”
She made her way to a four-wheel truck, and then, in no time, she backed out of the dirt driveway.
As I walked out of the house and closed the front door, the weight of the past clung to me like a shroud, but the promise of a new beginning spurred me forward.
The sun cast dim, gray light over the bayou, and the air was thick with the scent of something alien yet familiar. I set off to explore the property, my heart thudding in my chest like that of a trapped bird.
Soft, mossy ground cushioned my footfalls. A rustling in the underbrush drew my undivided attention. A small, black-furred puppy emerged. Its coppery eyes locked on mine with an intensity that took my breath away.
"Hey there, little one," I murmured, stroking its silky fur. “What are you doing out here all alone? Where are your people?”
His tail swished back and forth, and his pink tongue lobed out of his muzzle.
The closest house remained miles away, so I couldn't help but wonder how this sweet, innocent little soul had navigated the bayou alone and without protection.
“You’re a lucky little guy, aren’t you?”
He yipped and yelped and pranced on his hind legs.
Inspecting his neck didn’t reveal a collar or, more importantly, a tag.
“You hungry? Thirsty?” I asked the little furball. “Come on. Let’s head back, and I’ll get you something.”
He bounced down the dirt path, following me.
"So, what do I call you? Huh? Dog isn’t fitting.” A reflective sigh left my lips. “I think I'll call you Lucky."
Lucky wagged his tail as if in agreement, and an inexplicable warmth spread through me. Together, we continued our journey home, shadows swallowing us whole.
As we reached the water's edge on the way to the house, I spotted a tall, muscular man standing inside a boat out in the bayou. His deep green eyes bore into mine with suspicion and curiosity, and my heart stuttered in my chest.
"Who are you?" he called out, his voice deep and resonant like the rumble of distant thunder.
"Raven Sinclair," I replied, holding his gaze. "And you?"
"Jackson LaBorde. Be careful in these parts," he warned, his eyes narrowing.
He had short dark hair and the most piercing eyes I’d ever seen. A scar separated his left eyebrow, and a distinctive alligator tattoo on his right bicep drew my eye.
"A woman alone on the bayou invites trouble."
"Trouble and I seem to be fast friends," I shot back, my pulse quickening despite my bravado. Why I had said those words to a complete stranger surprised the hell out of me.
"Is that so?" Jackson's eyes flicked to Lucky, who stood protectively at my side as if sensing the brewing tension. Then, the enigmatic man gave the portion of the house he could see a once over. He looked as if unspoken words remained on his tongue.
"Look," I said, swallowing hard. "I'm just here to rediscover my roots, to learn about my family and the bayou. I don't want any trouble."
"Trouble has a way of finding you whether you want it or not," he replied cryptically, shaking his head slightly. "Don’t forget,” he paused a moment. “The bayou is a dangerous place, Raven Sinclair. Be cautious whom you trust."
His Jon boat, also known as a flat bottom from my prior internet searches, maneuvered well in the small space between the trees growing out of the water and the dock connected to the house's back porch. With ease, his experienced hands guided the boat. His arms flexed as he worked the oars to navigate around fallen trees and overhanging branches. The man was tall and muscular with sun-browned skin. Mouth-watering eye candy. His gaze remained sharp, scanning the water.
My gaze lingered in the direction he had gone long after he disappeared from view.