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Crossroad Blues; First Chapter; Logline--A woman makes a deal with the Devil in the Deep South in the 1920s to save her sister from being murdered

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Crossroad Blues
by Ariel Elaine Slick

As the pallbearers lowered my sister’s body into the warm, rich earth, I wondered whether any change would have made any difference. Did any of us have the slightest control over the situation—except him? Perhaps it was useless to think so. Every tiny detail led me here, and I had a feeling, would keep leading me here, no matter what I did to stop it. 
Because I did try to stop it. I really did. 

Chapter 1

The devil's gonna git you
Oh the devil's gonna git you
Man the devil's gonna git you
Sure as you're born to die
-Bessie Smith

Azoma, Louisiana, 1924


The Victrola player hissed snakelike before the brassy notes of the horns blared through the speaker. My fingers were sticky with the sweet, piney resin of the hemp leaves as I rolled a cigarette, almost as sticky as the air, which clung to us as fervently as a lover. 
Agnes, my sister, perched on a box of canned goods I had yet to unpack, fanned herself but failed to make even the slightest improvement in the heat. I licked the ends of the papers just barely, my tongue as dry as kindling and reached for the box of matches to light up. 
“Christ, it’s hot,” I said, holding the edge of the paper to the flame. 
“You shouldn’t swear, Beatrice,” replied Agnes. Her hand ceased its fanning, the energy too much for too little reward. 
A wicked grin spread across my face. “Hottern’ the devil’s—” I began. My words were cut short with a fan flung in the general direction of my head. It clattered across the room harmlessly. Agnes tried to shoot me a disproving look, but her eyes held a provocative spark to them. Instead, she reached for a newspaper, and I pushed it toward her. 
We currently escaped the wrath of another southern summer in Corbin’s Mercantile and Fine Goods, the store our daddy had built himself with nothing but a couple of bottles of whiskey and sheer cussedness. It was humble thing, not much more than a tin roof and four thin walls, much like my house, and my parents’ house before that which my daddy built with old wood filched from the local lumber yard and used railroad spikes from derelict box cars. 
The only light that came through was from the large windows that faced front. It made the store dim, but I’d take darkness over heat. The rest of available wall space was crammed with floor to ceiling shelves that held, at any given moment, oil, lanterns, soaps, medicines, farm tools, cotton, linen, muslin—silk when I could get it—sewing notions, guns, cartridges and bullets, cigars, cigarettes, canned goods, cured meat, leather work gloves, hats, denim pants, nails, screws, hammers, and wrenches. And toothpaste. 
Along the floor crouched stout barrels full of flour, cornmeal, feed for cows, pickles, potatoes, dried corn, and dried beans. Once my customers wound their way through the labyrinth of barrels, and avoided the ropes, lanterns, pails, and harnesses that swung from the rafters overhead, they walked up to the counter. I made sure to put the peppermint sticks, licorice, jelly beans, horehound, rock candy, and lemon drops right at eye-level for children. The space between the tobacco jars and the cash register left just enough room for me to wrap up the purchases. Behind the counter were a couple of shelves where I kept liquor for those who knew how to ask. At present I had three bottles, but one was not for sale.  
I inhaled, savoring the sweet smoke in my lungs, and the aroma of leather and tobacco that always permeated the store and offered the cigarette to her. Agnes only shook her head. “Pastor Dixon says it’s the devil’s plant.”
“Pastor Dixon says that about everything. ‘Don’t ride in cars; they’re the Devil’s playground. Don’t listen to jazz; it’s the Devil’s music.’ Tell me, how would he know what the Devil likes?”
Agnes tried very hard not to smile. Beads of sweat clung to her upper lip. “I’ll give you this, I disagree with Brother Dixon on the music,” she said. She waved away the cigarette. “Truth is, tea makes me feel floaty.”
“That’s the point, Sister.” I inhaled again, already feeling the relaxation settle into my bones. “How’re we supposed to fly to heaven if we don’t practice first?”
Agnes did not respond, but she did not have to. The song humming through the record player was filling up the room just fine. I tamped out the cigarette butt and let the sounds of a swinging band lift me up as I reached for the inventory sheet.
Just then, Agnes sat up straighter than a toothpick in ice. “You ain’t gonna fly nowhere if you’re in prison,” she said. “Sheriff Arceneaux’s marching over, and he’s looking meaner’n a snake.”   
“Goddamn it.” I hadn’t pegged him for a liquor raid for at least another week. 
“Quick, quick!” hissed Agnes. 
I grabbed the three bottles of bourbon from beneath the counter, then hastened toward the back of the store. 
“How close?” I called over my shoulder. I yanked the line that was attached to the trap door that led to the attic. I shifted all three bottles to one arm and gripped the stairs with my right. 
“About ten seconds from lighting your behind on fire.” 
In that single moment that I have struggled to absolve in my mind, my fate, and that of my sister’s, was sealed. I rushed up the stairs, and one bottle—my Daddy’s bottle, the one he used as collateral, the one he told me never to sell because an old witch doctor woman told him if he never sold it, the store would be blessed, the one that had given us salvation from starvation—slipped from my grasp. 
It smashed against the dry hardwood floor. 
For a moment, I didn’t breathe. Then I rushed up the stairs and set the two bottles in the attic. I grabbed a tin box full of turpentine, unscrewed the cap, then dumped it all on the floor as well. The bell over the door tinkled. 
“Mornin’, Agnes,” said the Sheriff. Sheriff Beauregard Arceneaux was a handsome fellow, or so all the girls gossiped at the soda fountain, with a chiseled sort of face, a strong jaw, and golden curly hair that made him look cherubic. He once took me on a date to gig frogs, and he tried to gig something of mine, but the smell of sweat and beer breath didn’t appeal to me much, so I hopped on my merry way.
I briefly considered dumping turpentine on myself to mask the smell, but this was my mother’s dress, and I couldn’t bear to lose two parts of my family in the same day, so I left it. As I composed myself, Beau and Agnes continued talking. 
“Where you coming from that you look so hot and sweaty?” said Agnes. 
“Getting a coupla nigger boys and the Dupres kid out’a tight spot. They was playing down by the dam and one of ‘em got hisself stuck ‘tween the lip and the pipes.” 
“Well, that was right decent of you.” 
“Whooped all three of their a—, I mean, took a switch to their behinds, iffen you take my meaning. Don’t wanna cloud the sweet air around you with foul words.” 
“Now, Sheriff Arceneaux,” giggled Agnes. “You can’t talk like that now that I’m a married woman.” 
“What? Can’t I tell a woman how beautiful she looks?” 
I appreciated how much my sister distracted Beau, but I had to wise up sooner or later. Lifting my chin and squaring my shoulders, I took a few deep breaths to steady myself. Blood thumped in my wrists. I sauntered up to the counter. As soon as I did, Beau locked his eyes on me. 
“Morning, Ms. Corbin,” he said. His eyes drifted over everything. “Whatcha got going on in this store?” 
My heart danced the Texas Tommy as I looked him dead in the eye. “Clumsy hands of mine spilled some turpentine in the back.” 
Just turn around and leave.
Beau sniffed. “Don’t know no turpentine what smells like an 1899 Old Forester.” 
It was an 1891, but I’d let that particular slide like cheese off a biscuit. 
“Mind if I take a look around?” Statement. Not a question. 
Agnes lifted up a hand and set it on his arm. “Now, Sheriff Arceneau—Beau— that ain’t necessary and you know it. My sister ain’t running no speakeasy. ‘Sides, you know Prohibition is a joke by the long, overreaching, greedy arm of the federal government.” She let go of him. 
“That’s for da—you have done hit the railroad spike on the head.” Beau lifted one of the cannisters of hard candies and plucked one out. Watermelon. He unwrapped the wax paper around it. Then he eyed some of the pharmaceuticals I had on the counter. “Now, what about this marihoo-wanna?”
I shrugged. My spine was as tense as an old guitar string. “It’s a cough syrup, Sheriff. And the leaves are good in a tea.” 
He popped the candy in his mouth. “I seen plenty’a Greasers smoking it in the fields. Ain’t no good can come of something like that.” Crunch. 
Far as I knew, it was just a plant that grew in clumps by the side of the road, same as tobacco or Devil’s claw. Plus, it was the only thing keeping me calm at the moment. 
He glanced at Agnes, then lifted a finger to me. I considered biting it off. “For the love I have of your kid sister, I’ll be on my way. But if I was you—” Crunch. “I’d use the two remaining gears in my brain to grind themselves together and not do anything extra-judicial.” Crunch. “At all.” 
Thumpthump. Thumpthump. 
“Y’all have a fine day now.” He left the wrapper on the counter. 
As soon as the bell tinkled overhead, Agnes let out her breath in a whoosh. 
“Jesum Crow, Beatrice, what happened?” 
A particularly painful lurch in my chest. “Accidentally dropped Daddy’s whiskey,” I mumbled. I slumped down onto a barrel. I would have happily traded a night in jail if I could have Daddy’s bottle put back together. And if I had known what trouble dropping it would bring, I would have spent the better part of my life rattling my tin against the iron. 
“Shit.” Agnes bit her lip and came down and sat beside me on another barrel. She rubbed my back. “At least it’s one less bottle you have to hide.”
“Beau’s a busybody anyhow.” 
“Come on, Beatrice, he was just doing his duty,” she said. She lifted a newspaper and gestured to the headline. “‘Axman kills again,” she read aloud, not bothering to hide the disgust in her voice. “Can you believe it? Murdering over music or some such.” She rattled the pages in indignation. “Aren’t you glad we don’t live in the city? Nothing like that ever happens around here. Beau keeps us safe.”
I took the newspaper from her and turned it to less sanguinary tellings. “Lookee here—a band is coming to town. Says here they’re supposed to be pretty hot. They’ll be here in a week or so.” I looked up at her. “Come with me.” 
She took the newspaper from me and eyed the dark face blowing an axe near a flower. “‘Honey Dripping Blues,’ she read. “‘They’re the Honey Drippers and what a sweet thing is in store for Azoma. Just one taste and you’ll buzz right over. With a hot piano-trombone-cornet accompaniment, they’re here for one night only. Always fly, never sticky.’” She glanced up at me. “A married woman doesn’t need to go to all that. Sounds like too much sinful rubbing.”
I kind of liked the sound of that. I had a need that was growing, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I liked a little rubbing now and then. Just couldn’t tell anyone around here you did like it. 
“Please? I can’t go alone. You know how quick the barflies and Baptists will wag their tongues about my virtue being lost if I go alone? ‘Sides, don’t you wanna listen to some good music?”
Agnes glanced at the address. “Beatrice, the bar is on the west side of the tracks, in the Negro part of town. Isn’t it…dangerous?”
“You’ve been listening to Mary Ellen Dixon too much.” I grabbed a broom to sweep up the broken shards of glass and the rest of my dignity but stopped when I felt Agnes’ eyes drilling two holes in my back like the oil pumps in Texas. “Listen, ain’t no danger in listening to good music. No one’s gonna make trouble lessen it’s me.” 
The record slid into another song; it was hard to argue in the midst of really good music. 
“I’ll think about it,” she said in a tone that said she had already made up her mind. 
I let it go for now. I was content to let life go on forever like this: just my sister and I, listening to music, talking about nothing. Time bent and warped under the smoke, and I liked it that way. Time could stand on its head, for all I cared, for all that I wanted anything to change. When I was done cleaning, I flipped through the advertisements in the back, searching for the next great record, when Agnes cleared her throat. 
“You just gotta get yourself married. Then you won’t be so lonely, wanting to go off to jazz joints and such.”
“I ain’t lonely.” That was only half-true. And that statement was only half-true, too. 
The record player changed tracks. I loved the delicate sizzle between each song, the tiny space that contained infinity. Then, for just a moment, something changed in the music. It was like a jump, a halt. A whisper, then nothing. Despite the heat, a chill crept down my spine. I ignored it. The haints wouldn’t get to me, today. 
“When do you think you’ll get married?” she asked, softly. 
“As soon as you stop asking that question.” I kept my tone lighthearted, to let her know I was joking. 
However, Agnes remained serious. “I worry about you, you know. Living in the house, alone. Day after day.”
“I’m not alone; I have Pecan.” 
As if summoned, my brown, fluffy cat came to sit beside me. As I stroked her, she chirped once, then started to purr. I rescued her as a stray, when she was rail-thin and mangy. 
“You know what I mean, Beatrice.”
“As soon as I find someone who I love more than Pecan, I’ll marry them.” Pecan rolled onto her back, exposing her soft, belly fur. She only let me touch her belly when she was deeply relaxed, much like I was feeling now. I had the two persons that I cared about most deeply in the world with me –and a cat’s a person; I don’t care what anyone said. They were all I needed. 
 “Plus, I would lose the store, which is something that I’d like to avoid, thank you kindly.”
It wasn’t the only reason why I avoided marriage, but it contrived a good portion. If I ever got married, all my property would become my husband’s, and I would have not a whit of legal recourse. It was the only connection to Mama and Daddy I had left. 
Especially since you were a damn fool and dropped the bottle, I thought savagely. 
“Well, I should get back to the house. Tim’ll be there soon, and I need to start lunch.”
“Just give it until the end of the record. It’s too hot to move, anyway.” 
And so, we did, just listening to the snazzy sounds of the new jazz music, feeling as though time would forever be on my side. I wish that record had played forever.  


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Hi Ariel,

I really enjoyed the start of Crossroad Blues.

I like the use of dialogue and the vibe of the small town that you set up. I could really visualize the little store and the heat.

The thing that I couldn't visualize were the sisters. I was craving some physical description of them.

I am guessing they are in their twenties from the way they converse, but it's the 1920's so they could easily be 18, since women married younger. Or is one in her teens and one in her thirties? What's the age difference? Who is older? It seems that Are they short or super tall? Slim? Curvy? The stores seems shabby so are they poor and do they dress/look shabby? Agnes seems more proper. Does she dress to reflect that?

I kept trying to picture them and I couldn't and not being able to picture the protagonists distracted me from the story.

There was lots of great foreboding with the starting lyrics from Bessie Smith and with daddy's whiskey being dropped. Because of the great job you did with that, I knew something was going to happen and was curious and anxious about it the entire time. I loved that. Due to that though, I felt the prologue actually took away from the mystery and wasn't necessary.


I didn't understand the following:

"blowing an axe near a flower."

Swinging an axe?

Also, this part confused me:

“I ain’t lonely.” That was only half-true. And that statement was only half-true, too."

When you say the first time, That was only half-true, aren't you talking about the statement? 


Thanks for the great story. I would love to read more and figure out what happens!








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Hi Marlena! Thanks so much for your feedback. 

Oh my goodness! I didn't even think about character descriptions. I think they come later, but you're right, they give the reader something to visualize. I've heard to avoid the "MC stares into the mirror" trope of describing herself--what would you suggest? 

Also good catch about defining their age differences. I'll have to fix that. They're about four years apart, give or take. Yes, Agnes is young--only about 18 or so. 

"Blowing the axe"--1920s slang for playing a musical instrument; hmmm, I'll have to noodle that to see if I should delete it. I was trying to establish the historical setting, but maybe the slang didn't work as well as I wanted. 

"The ain't lonely" bit--I think what I was trying to get at was that the narrated statement "That was only half-true" was also false. In other words, she was lying to herself as well. I should probably cut that. 

Thanks so much!!

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