Bottled Up by Yolanda DeLoach

“I can’t take this heat anymore,” I said, pushing back strands of hair that blew free from my headband. The open car windows did little to bring relief from Louisiana’s thick, oppressing air. “Might as well be holding a hair dryer up against my face,” I added for dramatic effect.

“For someone who grew up here, you sure complain a lot about the heat,” Daniel said. He poked me in the thigh.

“Well, we had this thing called air conditioning and it actually worked,” I said, returning a double jab to his thigh.

“Okay,” said Daniel, feigning defeat. “La Baff is up ahead. We can stop at a shop and see what they can do about the AC.” He reached over and grabbed my hand. “Anything for my sexy bride.”

“Ugh–You’re all sweaty,” I teased and pulled away my hand.

“Of course I’m sweaty. You have me all excited,” Daniel said, playfully panting.

“Just keep your eyes on the road, Dear Husband,” I said with a sly, side glance, quivering at the sound of the word, husband. Daniel. My husband. I quivered again which made my whole body smile.  

I watched the sign for La Baff come into view, its shape distorted through the rippling heat rising from the road.

“Population 1,456,” read Daniel. “Not sure what they’re gonna have here.” We each scanned the roadside. Dollar Store. White Castle. Waffle House. Virgil’s Gumbo.

“There!” I pointed to a lot loaded with cars in various stages of decay.

“Looks like that’s our only choice,” said Daniel as he pulled into the lot of Big Boone’s Auto Repair. The sign for Big Boone’s assured us that he had the best prices in the Bayou.

We entered the shop. An air conditioner churned in the window. I took a refreshing breath as the air cooled my skin. A wiry man with graying hair greeted us from behind the counter. I, at 5’6, stood inches over him. His name tag read, Boone. He was Big Boone? I glanced at Daniel. He raised an eyebrow and I knew he was stifling a laugh. I widened my eyes at him with my, watch yourself, look.

“What can I do for ya’ll?” Boone asked.  

“We’re heading to New Orleans and our AC is out,” Daniel grabbed my hand and added, “We’re on our honeymoon.” 

“Ain’t nuthin’ like young love. Well, hopefully your AC just needs fluid and you can be on your way” Boone said. I glanced up at a black and white photo hanging on the wall behind Boone. A ribbon cutting ceremony in front of the auto shop. In the middle of the crowd towered a hulk of a man, posed holding scissors. Boone noticed my gaze.

“That there’s Big Boone, my grandfather. He opened this here shop after he got rejected from the army back in ‘42. Flat footed, they said. And Paw Paw worried he’d be too tall. He stood nearly 6’8. I talk to him every now and then over at Zula Mae’s.”

I could feel Daniel’s glance, but I didn’t meet it. Instead, I gave him a quick elbow nudge, reminding him to be polite. Boone’s grandfather would have to be well over a hundred. 

“How amazing that your grandfather has been able to live such a long life,” Daniel said, as Boone glanced through his bifocals to write down our information. I cleared my throat and shot Daniel another warning look.

Boone laughed. “Oh no, Paw Paw died back in ‘98. I talk to him through Zula Mae. She’s got the gift,” Boone saw the confused look on Daniel’s face. “Ask her,” Boone said, nodding my way. “She’ll know.” My accent clearly gave away my heritage.

“Give me about an hour or so to take a look,” Boone said, picking up the car keys from the counter. “The Waffle House is down yonder if you want coffee. LaNelda always keeps it fresh.”

Daniel and I walked down the road towards Waffle House. The shrill of cicadas serenaded us in the midday sun. “What the heck was he talking about?”

“There are a lot of… practices… in rural areas here,” I said.

“Well the only thing I practiced in rural Indiana was basketball,” Daniel said, laughing at his own wit. “Hey look!” He pointed to a quaint shop tucked under the canopy of a sprawling Southern Oak draped in Spanish moss. Zula Mae’s House of Souls and Thrift, read the hand painted sign. “Boone said Zula Mae, right? Let’s check it out. It’ll be cool.” Daniel tugged my hand in the shop’s direction.

“No, really, we don’t want to be messing with that stuff,” I said.

“Come on, Coralee. Just because you have your grandmother’s name, doesn’t mean you have to believe that old stuff,” Daniel pleaded.

“Oh all right. It can’t hurt to look,” I conceded.

We passed under the cool shade of the oak. The moss fluttered in the breeze along with delicate windchimes singing out gentle tones. The oak’s outstretched arms must have offered many generations respite from the heat. Daniel pulled open the door and we entered the shop’s bright, airy space. “See, totally normal. Like a mini Goodwill,” whispered Daniel.

“Can I help you find something,” asked a slender woman in shorts and a tank top holding a white coffee cup. A rose tattoo climbed up one of her legs. Zula Mae?

“Oh no thanks. We’re just looking,” I said. She nodded and returned to busying herself behind the counter.

“Lots of cool, old stuff,” Daniel said as we browsed the aisles. I spied a row of decorative glass bottles and gravitated toward them. Glass bottles of all shades of blue, topped with corks, neatly lined the shelf.

“An exquisite collection, is it not?” The slender woman’s voice behind me asked.

I turned around. She stood close enough for me to smell coffee on her breath. 

“It is,” I said, unnerved by her presence. I glanced past her to see Daniel browsing through old sports memorabilia. “Are they empty?” I asked.

She smiled in response.

And I shivered.

“We really should be going and…”

“Here,” she interrupted and grabbed a bottle from the shelf, pulled off the cork and stuck it under my nose in such a flash, I didn’t know what to make of it.

The room spun and nausea hit me. A sensation that I didn’t recognize flowed through my body, almost as if my insides were tearing apart. I traveled through a black tunnel and emerged into a hazy blue world. Through the blue haze, I watched the slender woman standing next to another woman.

Me. She was standing next to me.

I saw myself through the blue color. How could this be? I’m here. But I see me out there. I pressed against the blue barrier. Stay calm. I’m just not feeling well. I looked down. I had no body. “Daniel!” I screamed, but there was no sound. I frantically watched the slender woman and me. “Here! I’m here! Help!”

Daniel came over to the me-woman, put his arm over her shoulder and said, “We should get that coffee at Waffle House before heading back to Big Boone’s.” They walked away. Daniel with the me-woman.

“No! Daniel! Don’t leave me!”

“Ya’ll have a nice day now,” the slender woman called to Daniel and the me-woman. Daniel turned, gave her a nod and said, “You too.”

Through the blue haze I watched the slender woman turn towards me. Her face came close and grew distorted. She smiled and said, “You make a nice addition to my collection.”    

Yolanda is a Wisconsin writer awaiting the January publication of her memoir about reclaiming her spirit on the Ice Age Trail. When she is not hiking or exploring, she writes stories about the odd and unusual. You can find her at Autumn Years Hiker on Facebook and Instagram