The gym Mia worked at had its fair share of regulars. Some were polite and friendly, some were demanding prima donnas, and some were just intriguingly odd.
One wiry old Cajun lady, especially, always piqued Mia’s curiosity and made her days more interesting. She and the rest of the staff held the woman in something akin to holy reverence. “Louisa,” they called her, short for “Louisiana,” because they’d never learned her real name. She didn’t actually hold a membership, but no one had ever really considered asking her to leave, for a couple of reasons: first, she could bench press 300 pounds, and second, there was something crazy in her eyes that made you shiver every time she looked at you.
The woman never smiled, not that any of the staff had seen, but there were creases around the corners of her eyes that suggested she used to.
Louisa had a routine. Three days each week, generally Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, she would show up exactly half an hour before sunset (Mia was the one who had first spotted the pattern) and spend 45 minutes completing a rotation through the gym’s strength training apparatus. She always hit the same stations in the same order, like clockwork, and for some strange reason she never seemed to have to wait for someone else to finish.
As she moved around the gym, Louisa carried with her a dusty cloth purse that bulged at every seam. When Mia and the other staff were bored behind the front desk, they would sometimes play a game where they tried to guess what she kept in there. The running theory was that the purse was magical, like Mary Poppins’, that it was bigger on the inside than the outside. The only things anyone had ever seen Louisa take out of her purse, though, were an old cell phone and a pair of black leather gloves.
One day, Mia saw Louisa’s routine get interrupted.
Mia was working alongside Karl that day. Karl was a wannabe bodybuilder who came in for one shift a week, just so he could work out for free. He’d arrived late again, and forgotten his name tag. Business as usual.
Louisa was about halfway through her rotation that evening, doing curls with a set of free weights, when her phone buzzed in her purse. That got Mia’s attention right away: no one had ever seen Louisa get a call or a text before. Louisa looked really annoyed as she put the weights down and fished around in her purse. Mia saw one of Louisa’s gloves fall to the floor as she pulled the phone out, but Louisa didn’t seem to notice.
The Cajun woman’s shoulders slumped as she read whatever message she had received, and she rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue. Throwing her phone back into her purse, she stood up, stretched, and bustled out through the lobby. She was out the door before Mia had a chance to alert her to the dropped glove.
Karl was checking on some equipment near the free weight area, so Mia got his attention: “Hey, Karl, Louisa dropped her glove. Bring it over here. She might come back for it.”
He picked up the glove, flashed a sarcastic smile, and stuffed it into the pocket of his shorts as he came back towards the desk.
“What are you doing?” said Mia.
“Holding onto it for her,” Karl replied.
“I can keep it here at the desk.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. It’s coffee break time for you, isn’t it?”
Mia didn’t like the look in his eyes, but it was just a glove, so she popped into the back, grabbed a can of apple juice out of the fridge, swung her feet up onto the break room table, and tried to forget that she still had three long hours left in her evening shift.
A few minutes later Mia heard the bell above the lobby door ring, followed by Karl’s arrogant drawl. “A glove?” he said. “Sorry, ma’am, we haven’t seen one. If you’d like to look in the lost and found…”
The bell tinkled again.
“Karl,” called Mia, “was that Louisa?”
He appeared in the doorway. “Yeah. Ever heard her voice before? She sounds like a voodoo lady. That woman gives me the creeps.”
“Did you give her the glove?”
Mia sat up straight. “Why didn’t you give her the glove?”
“Hey, I told her she could check the lost and found box, but she just left.”
“You had it in your pocket,” Mia snapped.
“Oh, right,” said Karl, in mock surprise. “Look at that. It’s still there.” He fished it out and tossed it on the table.
“I can’t believe you’re such a jerk.”
“Hey, no big deal. She can get it later.” Grinning, Karl added, “I’ll bring it to her myself, next time she’s here. Maybe I’ll get a peek inside her purse while she’s putting it away.”
Mia made a disgusted sound in her throat, grabbed the glove, and shoved her way past Karl towards the door to the lobby.
“Hey,” said Karl, “where are you going?”
“To provide some half-decent customer service.” Hurrying through the lobby, Mia stepped out onto the sidewalk and scanned left and right. Across the street, through a gap between buildings, she could see that the sun was nearly down, throwing red-orange light across the clouds.
Louisa was standing there, in the middle of the sidewalk, facing the sun. Her legs were spread apart, feet firmly planted, her hands were raised in front of her, and her arms were shaking, as if she was straining against a tremendous weight. It looked like she was doing some kind of crazier-than-usual yoga.
Other people on the sidewalk were staring at her and giving her a wide berth. Mia saw a few people in a car pointing as they drove past.
Mia waited for a break in traffic, then jogged across to the other side. “Louisa!” she said, then caught herself, remembering that the woman probably hadn’t heard the nickname before. Holding the glove up, Mia walked up beside the woman. “I found your—”
“Back!” Louisa barked. Her voice was heavy, deep, and thickly accented. Mia couldn’t help agreeing with Karl that it brought the “voodoo lady” stereotype to mind.
Without questioning the order, or even really thinking about it, Mia took two small steps backwards and fell silent.
Louisa held her stance. While Mia waited for Louisa to be done whatever weird thing she was doing, she began to realize that something truly unusual was happening. Louisa’s teeth were clenched, and beads of sweat were standing out on her forehead and dripping down into her eyes. Mia had never seen her sweat that much during her workouts. Her hands were formed into an “O” at the level of her eyes, like she was gripping an invisible softball, and her fingers were trembling. She was wearing one black glove on her left hand, and the leather was faded, peeling, and cracked. The other hand was bare, and the woman’s skin was… red. The skin of her palm, normally a creamy brown, was blistering and peeling, even as Mia watched, as if she was clutching something incredibly hot.
Mia looked up at the sun, its lower edge just beginning to touch the horizon. If she held her head in a certain spot, it almost looked like the burning orb lined up with Louisa’s hands. No, thought Mia. That’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense.
For several minutes Mia just stood there, her attention captured by the exertions of the Cajun woman, whose hands were circled in front of her, pulling, straining, pressing, slowly, slowly, the skin of her hand continuing to char and boil. Then, finally, the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, the light had faded, and Louisa slumped to the ground, cradling her hand in her lap.
Suddenly Mia was aware of herself again. “I, um… I brought your glove,” she offered, weakly.
Louisa looked up, panting. “T’ank you,” she said, between breaths.
“Are you alright?” Mia asked.
“I’ll be fine. Dey done it barehanded for centuries before me.” Louisa looked at her raw, peeling hand and clucked her tongue. With a hint of a twinkle in her eye, she added, “I grown soft, girl. Very soft.”
“Then were you really…?” Mia trailed off. Somehow she couldn’t bring myself to say the words. It seemed too insane.
“Well, somebody got to,” said Louisa, matter-of-factly. “Sun don’t go down all on its own, you know.”
“But you’re at the gym during sunset three days a week. If you’re there, then how does it…” Hold on, thought Mia. This is ridiculous. Of all the questions you could ask, you’re wondering about her schedule?
“I’m not de only one, of course,” said Louisa.
“There are others?”
Mia tried to wrap her mind around what she was being told. “So on the days you come to the gym, someone else is…” Pulling down the sun? Absurd! “Then why did you have to come out here today? Shouldn’t someone else have been doing it?”
“Should have,” said Louisa with a shrug, “but Saundra never been de most reliable. I always said so.”
“That is something I can sympathize with,” said Mia, thinking of Karl. “Are you sure you’re okay? There’s probably something in our first aid kit for treating burns.”
“Ah, t’ank you, chil’. Could you help an old lady to stand?”
Mia helped Louisa to her feet and picked up the woman’s purse, wondering how on earth she was going to explain this to Karl.
“Can you check de time on my cell phone?” Louisa asked, suddenly. “In my purse, please.”
Mia paused, then opened up the purse. The cell phone was sitting on top of a mound of black leather gloves, many of which were charred, cracked, and peeling, like the one Louisa was still wearing. “It’s seven thirty-six,” said Mia.
“T’irty-six already? Seven minutes late,” Louisa sighed, and clucked her tongue.