Horla Fiction (January 2022)

 

A DATURA CRUISE

by STEVE BAILEY

 

It felt like she had been in my house forever. Like a stray dog, she followed me home from a bar one night and decided my house would be her new home. I can tell you she looked lovely, with long blonde hair that tumbled over her shoulders in curls and down the front of her black silk dress. Her eyes were the colour of the deep blue sea, and her engaging smile showed two rows of straight white teeth. I can tell you this now, but then I could not make out her features, and she was more of a sensation presence than a physical one. Her image in my mind shifted constantly, and I would forget what she looked like whenever I left the house. Later that would change.

We had no sexual relationship because anytime I tried to touch her, she would exhale smoke from a cigarette that would appear from nowhere and then become that smoke, drifting up toward a ceiling fan that then dispersed her around the room.

The events that led to this situation began in a bar I went to searching for a rebound woman, one who would help me forget the recent rough termination of a long-running relationship. I must have looked vulnerable because this blonde sashayed up to my table and struck up a conversation not long after my first drink arrived. I recall her telling me that she practised witchcraft and knew how to create concoctions from a nightshade flower called datura that would bring on hallucinations. Not believing in witchcraft, I found all this amusing and pointed out the poisonous nature of datura.

“Only for the untrained,” she replied. “My brew neutralizes the poison leaving only the fun. I have some with me if you would like to try it out. I promise it will not kill you. It has not killed me yet.”

She poured a green liquid into our drinks, and within an hour, I was tripping as I had never tripped before. The bar began to look like a Salvadore Dali painting, the patrons like the demons in Sandro Botticelli Eighth Circle of Hell, brown dragon-like humanoids with bat wings protruding out of their backs. I tried not to show fear when the waiter appeared to settle the tab, with multiple eyes and the tiny faces of five live babies on his forehead. 

I left the woman in the bar and started to walk home. The cloudy, starless night felt like an organic blob trying to swallow me up. I don’t remember whether I closed the front door when I got home, but a few minutes after I threw myself on the couch and watched snakes slither across the living room floor, she appeared. I thought she was a mirage, like the snakes, and then she spoke.

“If you are ready to stop your datura adventure, I have the antidote.”

She held a red vile in her hand and a cigarette in the other. I nodded, and she put the bottle up to my lips. I swallowed a liquid that tasted like charcoal and gin. Then, I faded off into a deep sleep, and when I awoke, I found myself in my bed. I had no recollection of walking into the bedroom, and I am sure I am too heavy for her to carry, yet there I was, under the covers.

I got up, dressed, and went out into the kitchen to fix some coffee. I figured the blonde witch had left, and I regretted not getting her name or her digits. But as I walked with my coffee into the living room, there she was, sitting on the couch where I had been watching imaginary ophidians the night before, still in her black evening dress.

“Hey,” I said as nicely as I could. “Last night was fun, and thank you for the unique experience, but you really need to go home now.”

“Oh, ” the mysterious young lady replied. ” I am home now.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked defensively.

“Just what I said. This,” she waved both arms dramatically, “is my home.”

The conversation became more absurd from there until I finally decided I would physically escort her to the door. That is when I first experienced the puff of grey smoke routine. I left, thinking maybe she would get bored in the empty house and go. Perhaps once she turned into smoke, she could not return to human form again. But, of course, this turned out to be wishful thinking, for upon my coming back into the house, I saw her, on the sofa in her black evening dress.

And that’s the way it was for weeks. When I came home from work, she would be waiting in the same black slinky dress on the sofa, sometimes with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I thought about burning the house down, but it was a family legacy passed down through generations. Besides, I would be locked up for arson and maybe worse if the authorities discovered I burned it down to get rid of a ghost, or witch or ghost-witch or whatever one would call such a pesky peculiarity.

One afternoon, overwhelmed by this situation, even to the point of contemplating suicide, I happened to walk by a travel agency and saw their ad for a ship cruise. It was one of those cruses with several Caribbean ports of call and loaded with canned fun. The vessel would be at sea for a month. By then, the apparition should have grown tired of being alone in that house and would find someone else’s to invade.

The next day I put in my request for a leave of absence from work citing medical circumstances, and following its approval, I went to the travel agency and bought my ticket. I felt light on my feet, buoyant, as I left the travel agency and proceeded home.

For the first time in weeks, I had my confidence back. I had faith this plan would work, and even if the bitch was still in the house when I returned, I would have had at least a month of distraction and would be able to approach the dilemma with a refreshed mind. I threw open the front door expecting to see her on the sofa.

She was there all right, only not in her slinky, black evening dress but a skimpy, hot pink bikini. She held an umbrella bearing Mai Tai, which she sipped in through a straw.

“This is going to be fun!” she called out excitedly. “I have always wanted to go on a cruise. Thank you for thinking of such a clever idea.”

“You are not going,” I responded angrily. “I did not buy you a ticket. One ticket for one passenger. Get it?”

She smiled. At least, I think she smiled, and from nowhere, produced a ticket for the same cruise.

“The staterooms are different,” she said nonchalantly. ” It would not be appropriate for you and me to share one, don’t you agree?”

Furiously I stormed out of the living room, retrieved my suitcase from the attic, and once in my bedroom, began to pack. There is no way, I thought, that she can get onto that ship with that phoney ticket.

When the time came to board the ship, I left by the kitchen door and took a taxi to the dock. I was sure the ghost-witch never saw me go, just as I believed she was bluffing about coming with me. I walked up the gangplank to the sound of a mariachi band and the sight of passengers dressed in colourful tropical garb. Waiters in white dinner jackets and black bow ties moved among this gaily attired and chatty crowd with glasses full of champagne.

Once I secured my belongings in my stateroom, I returned to this happy scene, and after a few of those champagne flutes, I began to sway in rhythm with the Mexican trumpets. It felt good to be out of the house, away from the ghost-witch who I believed could not haunt me on the ship.

For the first couple of days, the voyage was enjoyable. I had a lot aboard this floating theme park to keep me distracted. On the third day, I brought a novel up on deck and plopped myself down in a deck chair for a day of leisure reading.

I had almost finished the third chapter when I heard someone sit in the deckchair next to mine. I looked over, and there she sat, in her bright pink bikini with the umbrella drink in her hand.

“This is a lovely ship,” she said and took a sip from her drink. “I am having a wonderful time. “

I said nothing but took my book and raced to my stateroom, where I stayed for the rest of the day and all the next day. She had managed to get herself on board the ship, but she did not want to invade my stateroom for some reason.

After exhausting the limited room service menu, I decided to take a risk and eat in the dining room. As soon as I entered, I saw her, sitting at the captain’s table no less, still in her utterly inappropriate bathing suit.  A young man seated next to her engaged her in a lively conversation, and now and then, she shot the captain, a dapper man with a thin face and a pointed white beard, a flirtatious wink. I asked the waiter how the ship could permit the woman at the captain’s table into the dining room with such skimpy clothing. He glanced over at the captain’s table.

“The young lady is properly attired, sir,” he responded dryly.

Did people on the ship see her in a different form than did I?

I got up and walked over to the captain’s table, prepared for a showdown in front of everyone, but as I approached, two formidable stewards blocked my path.

“The captain does not like to be disturbed during dinner,” one of them said, “I am sure you understand. However, if you have a complaint, I suggest you take it up with our purser. You can start at the front desk.”

Creating a scene about a witch in the middle of a busy dining room would probably land me in the brig, a term I learned from watching maritime television shows. I assumed cruise ships had such jails, so I retreated to my table and hurriedly finished my meal.

After that, I began to see her everywhere, in the swimming pool, the lounge, playing shuffleboard with the same young man I saw at the captain’s table. I would see this young man with her on occasions and hoped that she might have been transferring her attachment to him. But as the ship continued to plough through the waters of the Atlantic, I realized if I continued to see her with her bikini and her Mai Tai, the haunted one was me and no one else.

Late one afternoon, I saw her alone on the deck, reflectively looking out at the ocean, as seafaring voyagers are prone to do. I decided this would be the moment to catch her off guard and pitch her into the sea. Stealthy, I came up behind her, grabbed her legs, and began to tilt her overboard. She turned her face towards me and laughed, a cawing sound, like a raven calling out for its mate. Then the cigarette appeared, she turned into the grey smoke, which the constant breeze from the ship’s movement quickly dispersed. Still, in a crouched position, my arms wrapped around the air, I noticed a ship’s steward looking at me perplexed.

“Is there something I can help you with, sir?” he said, not concealing his confusion at my position.

I stood erect and made up some nonsense about trying a new stretching exercise. Satisfied with that, the white-suited black bow-tied young man walked away. Any hope I had that the dispersion of the grey smoke removed my nemesis from the ship evaporated when I looked toward the rear of the vessel and saw her reforming, bikini, Mai Tai, and all.

Back in my stateroom, I lay on my bunk and stared at the ceiling, trying to think through what I could do next. My plan to escape the haunting via the cruise had failed. What now? A desperate idea came into my head. That datura concoction she gave me changed my reality, and she is of that new reality, a permanent hallucination. Perhaps a second dose would create a new reality that did not include this voluptuous spectre.

The idea had its dangers. First, I had to ask this ghost-witch to provide the drug, and if she sensed what I was up to, she could alter the beverage enough to make it fatal. But then I rationalized that I wanted this reality to end one way or another. Besides, I had contemplated suicide before, and if the datura killed me, then so be it. Second I had no idea what a second dosage would do to me.

I planted myself in the same deckchair I had used earlier with the same novel, and sure enough, the ghost-witch soon sat next to me, sipping her drink.

“Are you still having fun?” I asked, wondering why in the world I would start the conversation this way.

“I am having a marvellous time,” she responded. “This was a fantastic idea.”

I started in,

“I am sure” that you brought some datura with you on this trip. Could I get you to make up a batch of your special brew? I want to take a datura trip while on this trip.”

“Oh, I don’t know about your doing it a second time. There could be some unexpected consequences.”

“I’ll take my chances,” I responded. At this point, death did not scare me.

She promptly left.

That evening I heard a knock on my stateroom door, and when I opened it, I found a mason jar filled with the familiar green liquid on the floor in front of me. I brought it into the stateroom and set it on the nightstand by my bed.

For a moment, I hesitated. What did the blonde menace mean by “unexpected consequences?” Why did she do my bidding so willingly? Again, the suicide thought entered my head, and on the strength of the idea that the worse this second dose would do was kill me, I drank it all down.

I then went to the top deck where I could stretch out on a deckchair under the stars, which were soon moving around in the heavens, some leaving colourful trails behind them. Suddenly they began to rotate counterclockwise, creating a black circular vortex. Around this, they continued to move faster and faster.

Motion sickness overtook me, and I scrambled to the edge of the ship and leaned over the railing to vomit. I could see the white wake the ship created, and the ocean looked so peaceful I thought about jumping into it. Then I began to aspirate, choking on my vomit. I threw myself backwards, landing hard on the deck, the impact on my head causing me to lose consciousness.

I do not know how long I lay there, but when I opened my eyes and looked around, I was, as I had been earlier, alone. Remaining supine, I looked into the sky. All the stars were back where they belonged.

 I stumbled like a drunken sailor back to my stateroom, where I remained for twelve hours until hunger once again drove me to the dining room. A different crowd sat with the captain at his table. No ghost-witch was present in the room.

I strolled by the swimming pool after dinner and saw no hot bikinied blonde. I looked for her in the lounge and walked all the decks, and after walking from one end of the ship to the other, bow to stern in nautical terms, I concluded my experiment with datura worked. My new reality did not include the ghost-witch.

I began to engage fully in the activities the cruise provided. I rode the zipline that took me out over the ocean before bringing me back on board. Again, the deep blue sea looked inviting, but I shook off that feeling. I did not need to throw myself overboard now. I did get in the ocean, but that was to do some snorkelling during one of the ship’s stops.

Tanned, rested, and relaxed, I repacked my suitcase as the ship docked at the end of the cruise. It would be good to get home and reclaim that which the ghost-witch had so rudely expropriated.

Passengers crowded around the gangplank gate, and I positioned myself on one of the last deckchairs along the wall of that main deck. I would be patient and wait until the gate opened and the other voyagers started moving. The mariachi band played, but there were no flutes of champagne.

Suddenly the bodies in the crowd began shuffling about, and my heart jumped into my throat when I realized this commotion came from a young blonde woman. As she pushed her way through the crowd, I told myself it could not be her. But it was!

Her bikini and Mai Tai were gone; she appeared dressed instead in a pink and green floral dress. The arm of the young man I had seen her with earlier replaced the drink. I watched with horror as she pointed straight at me and said to her companion,

“There he is, sitting right there, in the last deckchair in the row.”

“Oh darling,” the young man replied, “There is no one in any of the deckchairs, including the last one. I am sorry. I had so hoped this cruise would push all your visions out of your mind. But unfortunately, I think you will have to go back to Dr Chapman.”

“No, Daryl. Please. He will want to put me back in the sanatorium, and I could not stand that. How about this, if I do not see that ghost in the house, then we will say what happened on the cruise was an anomaly.”

And then she looked straight at me and said with total assurance,

“I am positive he will not be in my house.”

The gate to the gangplank opened, and the passengers began to walk down toward friends and families and dry land. The woman and her escort joined them. I grabbed my suitcase and prepared to disembark, but the two stewards I encountered in the dining room blocked my way when I got to the gate. Other passengers went around us and then through us like we did not exist.  They are hallucinations of my new reality, I thought. I tried to push my way past the two white-uniformed young men, but they were solid.

“Let me off this ship,” I demanded. The stewards said nothing but shook their heads.

I moved away from the gangplank and tried to leap over the railing, knowing it would certainly either maim me or kill me. But, instead, some invisible force pushed me back onto the deck. I could see the woman below on the dock, and while her companion chatted with some friends, she turned, looked at me, and gave me a wave with a broad and happy smile.

 

***

 

 

Steve Bailey is a retired middle school teacher starting a second career as a freelance writer. During his teaching years, Steve wrote articles about using computers in the classroom. Earlier in life, he wrote stories for two English language newspapers in Panama, The Panama American, and The Star and Herald.

He lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife, Cindy. His two children and five grandchildren live nearby. There he writes fiction, creative non-fiction, long stories, and short. He has a novel long manuscript in search of a publisher. His blog is vamarcopolo.blogspot.com

Title photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction (it is, in fact, a highly innocent orange juice that we selected for the way it brings some colour to the page!)