“Nothing gives me the creeps like a fully-lit room with no one in it.” He squirms in his seat, his two-hundred-fifty pound frame creaking the chair’s old, poorly varnished wood. Despite his discomfort and his visibly shaking right hand, black from soot and other dirt particulate, he’s forcing a smile while brushing at his strawberry blonde goatee with his right thumb and forefinger in a V formation. “But only at night, when there’s no other reason for anybody to be in there. Then it gives me the spooks. In the day: fine, whatever. But at night...that's when that room upstairs...”
He often neglects to finish a thought. When he's finished speaking, his boisterous demeanor tends to deflate quickly; he now appears regretful he'd been so open moments ago. She wants him to stay open but realizes she's forgotten his name. She's trying to catch the partially obscured name tag on his shirt. He catches her and she's inwardly mortified but instead of calling her out, he proudly pats the name tag on his pin-striped work shirt: Rich. “Right. You should still call me Rick. No one calls me Rich. That’s what they put on the shirt and I didn’t make them change it, so...”
She nods gently. “And I'm Magdalene, like Mary.” She speaks so softly, Rick misses what she said but nods like he heard it. “Mediums ingest, process, and return your emotions, clear and pure as the heart that made them,” she shifts her slight frame like a ballerina at an audition. Her movements sell her work as much as her words, especially with guys. “Tell me what ghosts are.”
“Well,” he pauses. Again, he's worried that someone is listening, “I think that what we think of as ghosts are just projections from inside ourselves of people that we knew when they were alive.” His voice booms and reverberates throughout the living room which is more a function of its emptiness than his volume. The echo makes him twitch as though someone's stolen his voice. He speaks softer now, “I think they still want to talk to us.”
“But what about people we’ve never met in real life?” She ties her black curly hair into a bun and raises her legs, sitting Indian-style in the straight-back chair. “What about hauntings of people whose lives are separated by decades or centuries?”
Rick wags his finger and smiles, unselfconsciously bouncing excitedly in the creaky wood chair. “I thought about that, too. I did.” He licks his lips a few times as he mouths some of the more complex concepts shifting around in his brain, rehearsing them before he speaks. When he’d welcomed Magdalene at the door of this old condominium in Frazier Park, he was sluggish, sleepy even. Now, he’s enthused, lucid—his brain is making connections faster than he can enunciate them. “So when that happens, that’s just the spirit reconnecting with another person that fits the bill of the, uh…the last person that they had the, uh…unfinished interaction with. That’s what happens, you see—they’re pained cuz they have this unfinished interaction. And they need that closure so they're desperate—the ghosts I mean—desperate to close that gap with someone, anyone who looks even remotely like the person they knew. It’s all just…interactions in need of closure. Also known as: hauntings.” His lips moves, recanting what he just said. He grins, deciding that it all checks out.
“I know what you mean.” She extends a porcelain hand across the table and places it on his tree trunk-sized arm, its curled blonde hairs catching light from the evening sun. She casts a glance around the empty living room, at the high ceilings and the blank eggshell walls marked with the yellowed squares and rectangles of portraits and paintings that once covered them before settling on Rick's blue eyes which she stares into without blinking. “Tell me about this place.”
“There’s nothing special about it, really. Obviously, no one lives here anymore but I got some firewood and a little food and I think we’ll manage until we find what we came here for.”
“I want you to tell me again why we came here, Rick.”
“You don’t know?” He seems genuinely confused.
“No-no-no.” She comforts him with a pat on hands folded flat on the table between them. “Of course, I know. But it’s something we need to continually reaffirm. Do you know what reaffirm means?”
“No. No, I don’t.” Rick is suddenly overcome with peace at her presence, at her warm touch that seems to sink past his pores. “Tell me what it means.”
“It means to repeat what you know to be true over and over until it becomes reality.”
“Yeah.” Rick nods, his mouth slightly agape. “Yeah, that’s real. Okay.”
“So you'll tell me?”
“I said, okay, yes. I think, uh…that’s a good thing…what you’re saying.”
“Then say it. Not for me. For you.”
“Right.” Rick clears his throat. “We—you and me, that is—we are here to find my sister’s wayward spirit and tell it whatever it needs to hear so that it can rest.”
“And how will we do that?”
Rick snorts and shrugs. “That’s why you’re here, right?”
Eyes cast downward, Magdalene vigorously shakes her head, her tongue clicking against the back of her teeth in a repetitive tsk. “I can’t do something like that. You’re the one who accesses that thing you have—had with her. Think of me as a courier. You bring me that thing that connects both of you, and while you’re stuck in that pulpy place inside yourself, I carry it to her. Start by telling me what this place meant to your sister.”
Rick’s face goes blank. “Nah.”
“What if we did, like, a séance or something?”
“No, sweetie. I don’t do that. That’s what crackpots do. I’m the real deal.”
“So make it happen then.” He’s getting impatient. His temper flares quickly but he keeps it at bay expertly well. She takes everything back ten steps.
“You and I need some rest. Let me help you make a fire and we’ll just relax tonight. In the morning, we’ll have clearer heads and we’ll be able to tackle this whole thing better.”
“Yeah, okay. That’s a great idea.” He stands up with a grunt, his large 6’5” frame looking monstrous beside Magdalene’s wispy 5’4”. Rick walks her up to the next level of the condo. For some reason the stairs are carpeted leading to the second floor’s exposed hardwood floors. There’s two doors on the left and one on the right, all three closed. The lights are on behind the door on the right, a bright gilded monolith in the unlit hallway. Approaching it, his breathing becomes irregular. “I want her to feel at home. Even though it's...creepy.” Rick averts his gaze and rushes to open the last door on the left. When he opens the door, he breathes a deep gulp of air as though his oxygen had been held in here. There are two futons on the hardwood floor, set several feet apart. The room is lit by a low-hanging chandelier made of tarnished brass, four of its six teardrop-shaped bulbs still flickering in a bright honey glow. “I want us both to sleep in here.”
Magdalene nods hesitantly. “Okay, I can do that. Is there…” She tries to think of a polite way to request the privacy she explicitly was not offered. “Is there any way I could move my futon to one of the other rooms? I…” That look on his face, pregnant with enough vulnerability and worry to make a child blush. “Never mind. Where’s the bathroom?”
Rick takes a deep breath and smiles, “Down at the end of that hallway.” His bushy mustache blooms upwards, framing his nose. He sits atop his futon, removing his boots and preparing for sleep.
Driving I-5 earlier that day, the sun sat on the horizon and blinded Rick most of the way up. Somewhere around Visalia, he drew a big sigh and plucked the photo from his front pocket. She was in her choir uniform and looked very proud of it. Her shoulders rose up a full inch, nearly to her cheeks. Her hair looked like fine-spun gold, making her tanned skin appear bronze in comparison. She wore massive glasses with coke-bottle lenses and a thick black frame—as of this photo, she'd begun begging for contact lenses that she'd never receive. This is how he remembered her.
His lower lip trembled as he tucked away the photo and began to actively negotiate his attention back to the road. Rick felt cool tears hit his cheek as gravity yanked his gaze back to the picture, clutched between his fingers and thumb. Tears turned into sobs—his chest started to convulse. He cranked the AM radio and left the dial between stations, hoping the white noise would startle the emotion out of him like a blast of cold water. What happened was far worse than he expected.
He began to hear sounds within the white noise, very specific ones that triggered memories. It took some focus before he could place it. The ominous wash of audio was so dense that no one thing came to the fore: it was a cluster, an impossibly knotted tangle of sounds, all contingent, growing off of one another like a aural ecosystem.
The first sound he could distinguish was the broken glass. It was the timbre of it, clinking against metal and then wood, first loud and crunchy then soft like a pebble rolling down a staircase—unmistakable. There’s a very specific event in his memory attached to this sound.
Yet this wasn’t playing out how he remembered it. The sound was time-stretched such that this:
The rapid shattering of glass expanded, pulled like taffy and atomized into a series of micro-events, each with their own significance. Every one of these micro-events was now a world unto itself, a collective constellation of inanimate orphans each demanding more sympathy than one man can offer. There’s a gap in the middle, like a breath taken in the midst of an exhausting gesture of destruction.
The whole audio event was, however, precisely the same as it had been that night—no alterations in pitch, and neither lengthened nor otherwise appended—but merely stretched to allow Rick to lose himself inside it, incorporating him into its sea of sensations until he became a mere vibration in a moment that happened all too fast in real time so many years prior.
There was a hard tap on Rick’s windshield.
“Fill and wash?”
The attendant at the 76 station in Gorman, was a short Hispanic man in his early 40s with black hair, a goatee, and an eyepatch covering his left eye. His work clothes hung loosely around his lean frame, slight but muscled. Usually, his good eye drifts, perpetually seeking a new focal point or stimulus. Today, he's very much focused on Rick.
“Oh, sorry. I don’t even need gas.” The picture sat propped, simply and improbably, in a slat on the dash. “Sorry about that.”
The attendant shrugged and resumed his darting stares as Rick pulled away from the pump to a parking spot. By dint of subconscious auto-piloting, Rick had driven to Gorman, past his destination by a dozen miles or so. He had been too preoccupied by the picture's transmigration to pay much attention to the Hispanic man who was now mumbling something under his breath he could barely hear and anyway he didn’t understand Spanish. He hoped that the man wasn't mad at him for wasting his time.
Rick couldn’t help but feel like he’d missed something, like he'd been reading a book at a quick clip but missed a sentence twenty pages back. It was the kind of vague concern one had no choice but to shrug off, and so he did the moment the chimes above the convenience store’s glass door rang.
Inside the store, Rick picked up a bag of items for the house including a frozen cylinder of orange juice concentrate, a half-dozen eggs, cooking oil, four sandwiches from the cold case (two turkey, two egg salad), two ice cream sandwiches from the freezer, instant coffee, non-dairy creamer, and a loaf of white bread. He exited the store with these and eyed the Hispanic man, who was still busy with the pump and not regarding him at all. Rick thought to say something to him but opted not to.
The remaining few miles back to Frazier Park, he kept the radio off and his emotions at bay. He exited and headed west towards the sun—a broad band of purples and golds beneath the overcast dome in the sky—in as mechanical and careful a manner as possible before reaching the dirt access road which was still the only path to the condo. It's dusk but the tree cover along the road occluded the last few traces of daylight. Dangerously tight curves were obscured by a tight canopy, the forest still just as dense and only barely navigable to the wariest driver after all these years. He took the turns fast, though, confident in his muscle memory and invigorated by their familiarity. The roller coaster affect of the tumbling road was a serious high for Rick and he began to relax and even chuckle as he approached the old home place.
The chuckling stopped sour in his throat when he saw his destination: the skinny three-floored townhouse, its exterior burned to a crisp, exposing the fire-scarred gray walls to the elements.
On the top floor, there was one amber light on in the bedroom that was once hers.
Magdalene wakes up to an empty room, the morning sun catching her eye through the triangular window of the room’s east wall. The air tastes dry and her tangle of black curly hair is finger-in-a-light-socket frizzy, with so much expanded body, it dwarfs her slight frame and looks oddly beautiful.
The smell of coffee wafts through the upstairs hallway and guides her down to the small kitchen.
“Good morning!” Rick toasts with a huge porcelain mug that looks dainty in his hands. His smile is huge and infectious such that the disoriented and generally out-of-sorts Magdalene—someone who deeply cherishes her morning routine in her own home—can’t help but reciprocate with a smile of her own.
“Good morning, Rick. You slept well?”
“Fantastic!” He rises up to present her a plate of two eggs, sunny-side up, and two slices of toast. “I made a bunch of coffee, too.”
She squints at the plate. “Are these…organic? The eggs, I mean.”
“Oh!” Rick looks confused and then thinks better of it. “Well, the gas station in Gorman is, uh…They’ve got what they’ve got, you know?”
She nods. “Do you have any tea? Like, black tea?”
“I don’t…think so.”
“Green is fine, too.”
Rick looks crestfallen for a minute. She sees this and corrects herself. “You know what, it’s been a minute since I’ve had some coffee. I’m sure you make a great…pot.”
“Well, I don’t want to brag but it’s pretty good. Can’t go wrong with Folger’s usually.” Rick beams and shrugs, pouring her a cup. He begins stirring the white powdered creamer and Magdalene’s jaw hangs open in silent horror. He pauses. “Oh, sorry, you take cream?”
Magdalene snaps out of it and takes the cup. “That’ll be fine, Rick. Thank you.” She takes the plate and the coffee to the table and pours herself a glass of the orange juice Rick prepared. “This looks great.”
When she pulls out her chair, she flinches to find a bottle of pink perfume in an ornate crystal bottle with a white lace nightgown folded neatly underneath it. It’s too much—her body trembles and she bites her lip. She talks herself down a couple notches before speaking but her tone is still acrid.
“What’s the matter?” Rick stands bolt upright, a look of innocent shock on his face. “What did I—”
“It's okay, but, this isn't...” She decides not to say what she was about to say. “I want this to stay professional.”
“I…I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I mean this.” She snatches up the nightgown and perfume and slams them on the table. “You can’t be all flirty, okay? This isn't, like, a date. I just—”
“Woah-woah-woah.” Rick grabs the nightgown and the perfume. “There’s been a big, big, big misunderstanding, Magdalene. Don’t you remember what I said last night?”
“Refresh my memory.”
“About the dead recognizing their own?”
She nods, staring him down to make sure he realizes the burden of proof still rests heavy on his shoulders.
“This is my…this my mother’s stuff,” he squeaks. “I wanted you to wear it to draw my sister out.”
“Okay, Rick.” Her tone softens without fully retracting her suspicion. “Okay, I’m sorry.”
Rick flaps his hand dismissively. He looks back at her seeing how wounded she feels. He stops to consider for a moment whether he wants to mention anything—he’ll only be with her for two days—but decides he should. If for no other reason, it seems honesty is pertinent this weekend.
“Oh, and…I’m gay.”
“Really?” Magdalene flinches. “Oh. Okay, well, that’s…great.”
“So yeah: definitely no flirting. Okay?”
Finally sitting down to eat her eggs, Magdalene feels like a balloon emptied of air. She looks up at Rick with different eyes. He suddenly became this warm fuzzy creature, like an older brother she’d never had. He saw this look on her face and smiled.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” she’s lying. She pecks at the eggs; they are well-cooked but taste a bit off to her palate. “I’m excited.”
“To talk to your family.”
Rick can tell she’s lying too, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’ll wear the dress and perfume. He grins and scoops a large chunk of runny yolk onto a piece of toast, relieved that this weekend will be the end of it.
After breakfast, Magdalene fusses with the gown while Rick waits right outside the door, growing slowly impatient.
“Are you sure you don’t need any help?”
“It’s fine!” Between grunts, Magdalene gasps out a few words. “Almost…” She’s fussing with the last clasp, in an impossibly awkward location right between her shoulder blades that her short arms prohibit her from reaching from both the top and the bottom.
“I’m pretty sure my mother never got that dress on herself alone.”
“Ugh, shush! You’re distracting me! I almost had it. It's just a weird...” Her face pinches; she’s determined to sort it out on her own for reasons she doesn’t fully comprehend. “...angle.” After several more minutes of grunting and struggling, she stamps her foot on the hardwood floor. It resonates louder than she expected. She wants to scream but she doesn’t want a sound to come out of her mouth. Exhausted from the effort, she leans against the wall, and lets her body slide against the grainy wood, her tiny bony ass landing gently on the floor.
Pursing her lips tightly, she sighs, untwisting the lock on the bedroom door with her left hand. “Okay.”
Rick strides in, beaming in a way that annoys her. He helps her up and cinches the last clasp, without incident or comment. That his cockiness was in line with his effectiveness somehow diffuses her annoyance, at him and the whole incident in general. He leaves the room and returns quickly with the bottle of perfume.
“You forgot it after we finished breakfast.” Rick presents the perfume to her like a child with his first drawing. “You look very beautiful, Magdalene.”
Magdalene forms a thin smile and takes the perfume. It’s unclear how much she should play along. She feels a danger in getting too absorbed here and losing herself, a danger that doesn’t usually loom this heavily. There’s always a sense of separation, between her autonomy and the family dramas she must engage in order to commune; she realizes now that she feels that separation being compromised, and that it’s not usually something she has to acknowledge.
The air is thick—it suddenly feels like she’s inhaling cotton and she nearly gags. “Rick, can you please get me some water?”
Rick nods and gallops down the stairs to fetch her a glass of water. Alone in the room, Magdalene feels dizzy, almost faint. She stares out the window at the interplay between overcast and white sunshine illuminating the sheet of clouds a gray so bright, it makes her nauseous to look directly at it. She places her hand on the wall for support.
“Rick, I don’t know if those eggs are agreeing with me. Is there—?“ Her throat spasms. “Is there an organic restaurant in—?” It happens again and she tastes her breakfast again in her mouth followed by the distinct flavor of the cheap white sugar in her coffee. She sits and the feeling subsides. He hands her a tall glass of water and she downs it all in one sip, twitching at the metallic flavor of the unfiltered water.
“Thank you, Rick.” She grabs his hand, taken aback by the sturdiness of his tree trunk-like arms as they lift her effortlessly from the floor.
“Shall I apply the perfume?” Rick’s eagerness is palpable. Seeking another delay, Magdalene remembers something important.
“Yes, but first I need to know if you can pay me for my services now,” hearing the words come out of her mouth, she's struck by how cold they sound. “I always prefer to get that out of the way before we really become absorbed.”
Rick, clearly not offended, nods and removes his wallet. When she sees Rick remove a loose check instead of cash from his bill fold, Magdalene bites her lower lip. “What’s your last name, Magdalene?”
“It’s actually Lucy. If you’re writing me a check you should make it out to Lucy Sarkissian.”
“Armenian,” Rick notes, raising his eyebrows perfunctorily. “Cool.” She notices and feels compelled to explain.
“A woman’s name is forced upon her twice: once at birth, once at marriage. I wanted to choose mine.”
Rick nods once, unfazed by her philosophy and focusing on his carefully rendered signature. He presents her a check for $1450, an amount she quoted based purely on her pending living expenses.
“Rick, I’m sure you’re a trustworthy guy but I have to ask: this money will be available by the thirty-first, right?”
“Absolutely,” Rick smiles. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Magdalene ignores this and clears her throat. “Go ahead and spray.” She pulls her hair up to expose the nape of her neck.
With an awkwardness typically preceding one’s first kiss, Rick hesitantly angles himself around her in an effort to respect her space that is clearly prohibiting him from the task at hand.
“What’s wrong, Rick?” she asks impatiently.
“It’s, um…” He feels nervous asking her to do anything. Finally he comes out with it. “It needs to be on the front.”
“Yeah. On your neck, from just below your left ear across your neck and to the right one. Maybe five or six sprays.”
Still not facing him, she rolls her eyes. “That sounds intense, Rick. I don’t even wear perfume and I have very sensitive skin.”
“It’s just this once,” he’s suddenly adamant.
She sighs. “Alright,” She turns and presents her neck like a criminal awaiting an executioner’s blade.
Exactly as he explained, Rick sprays five times from her left ear across her neck to the right. “All done.” The damp perfume instantly tingles, a slight alcohol burn. The scent is like lavender-infused port wine—pleasantly archaic and complex but overwhelming in its intensity. The tingle doesn’t subside and Magdalene feels the burn spread.
“Rick?” She closes her mouth and begins taking deep breaths through her nose. “Is my neck red?”
Rick inspects her neck, feeling less nervous now that her eyes are closed. It looks misty from the still-wet perfume. Some of the areas where he applied the perfume look a bit pinker than her light olive skin’s natural color.
“I can’t tell, Magdalene.”
Her breaths grow faster, she’s convinced the burn is growing in intensity as she feels the sensation rushing from her neck down to her chest, she opens her eyes and, her entire body shaking, lets out a soundless scream from her reddened face.
She immediately runs to the sink, turns on the faucet and splashes water onto her chest. She rubs her wet hands roughly against every part of her skin singing from the perfume’s burn. Standing over the sink, her upper torso soaked and her neck and chest reddened, she looks up into the mirror to see a shocked Rick looking over her shoulder.
“Maybe let's take a break?”
Yesterday, on an unseasonably cold January day in Sherman Oaks, inside a tiny undecorated studio apartment, Magdalene cocooned herself under a blanket with a space heater and her flip phone (perhaps the last flip phone in a ten-mile radius) on the floor in front of her. She inhaled the warm air with greedy breaths, half out of nervousness, half out of the belief that actively inhaling the emissions will “heat up” her internal organs and slow her metabolism to retain the nutrition of her meager breakfast of rolled oats and the last scrapings of her honey jar. She faced the window so that the sunshine could penetrate the scrim of her blanket. Through the light, she could focus on the dazzling patterns of the needlework and realized then why her mother was so in love with it.
This morning-long reverie was her coping/non-coping ritual at the end of a bad month, soundtracked by the intermittent vibrations of her phone dancing across the hardwood floor. With each buzz the green LED shone with unrecorded phone numbers, most of which she recognized as people she couldn’t talk to at the moment. Almost all of these were people she owed money, for rent or utilities. There was an outstanding medical bill for a vomiting incident which she'd attempted to dispute on grounds of religious freedom (she'd claimed it was the physical outcome of a self-exorcism). She receives calls from the hospital in the South Bay that admitted her. They leave messages that are vague as to whether they concern her approved request or demands for payment. So: she doesn't answer.
Other than that, when she sees a number she doesn't recognize, she tends to answer it, hoping it's a new client. There was only one unrecognized number this morning which was, unfortunately, a collections agency calling about another bill (she owed her previous landlord a month’s rent for moving out suddenly and immediately when she decided there was black mold in her walls).
Shortly after what ought to have been lunch time, she saw a new number. It was local, 818—something that always piqued her interest. She felt confident that it was a client, and yet if it wasn't, she couldn't bear the alternative. Magdalene felt her throat dry up; she so badly wanted a cup of tea. Her lips trembled when she realized she didn’t have so much as a single bag. The possibility that this was a pay day won out in the end.
“Hello, this is Magdalene, medium and psychotropic guidance therapist. How can I help you free your soul?”
“Oh, hi. I didn’t think anyone was there.”
Definitely a client. And in immediate need. He sounded fragile. She steeled herself instantly.
“I’m sorry I was just finishing up with another client. It's my busy season right now!” Her voice rose a little. She felt more confident when lying; she didn’t doubt in the slightest that he believed her. It was in his voice.
“Oh, is this a bad time? I can call back.”
“No, please. I always answer prepared to help. What’s your name?”
“Rick. Richard, but call me Rick.”
“Okay, Rick, now tell me: what troubles you?”
“Uh…” He exhaled before entering the same pensive silence all her clients felt when they were preparing to admit to a total stranger, (1) some deeply private family drama, and (2) their belief in the paranormal. It was a bit like talking to a priest and a shrink at the same time without ever having visited either previously. “My sister’s a ghost and I need to tell her to rest. I tried to tell her but she won’t listen.”
“Okay, I can help with that.” It's important to keep it quick and matter-of-fact.
Rick let out a sigh, relieved at how casual she was with the subject. “Great. Well, my plan is to—“
“Rick, what do you do for a living?” She asked him this as though it was important for the task of communing with the dead.
“I work at a company called Fix-It-Qwik. I manage a small team of contractors. I’m sort of a remote foreman for our pr—“
She cut him off again. “And are you aware of my payment policy?”
“No. Should I be?”
“I’ll explain. I have a two-tiered payment system. One payment occurs before any work is done. It’s sort of like a deposit.” This 'policy' was on-the-spot verbal confetti she spewed while she calculated how much she owed and how much she needed right now for some food and gas. “It’s just $50. Can you send me that deposit right now as an e-payment from your bank?”
“Uh, yes. I think so. I’ve never done that.”
“Oh, it’s very straightforward. And the total payment for our session will be $1500.”
“Really? I haven’t even told you what we’re doing.”
Magdalene felt flush. She was way ahead of their conversation in her head. She cleared her throat. “I’m so sorry, Rick. Please, tell me what you have in mind.”
“You know where Frazier Park is?”
“I think so.”
“Meet me there Friday afternoon. I’ll email you an exact address and I’ll schedule the e-payment as soon as we hang up. I’ll pay you the remaining $1450 when you arrive.”
Without any malice or offense, Rick steered the conversation and saved Magdalene the trouble of appearing more crass than she already had. She nodded when he finished, forgetting that they were on the phone and he couldn’t see her.
“Is that gonna be okay, Magdalene?”
“Yes, Rick. Yes it is.”
She hung up the phone and refreshed her browser nearly two dozen times before she saw his email and confirmation of the payment of $50.
The next day she woke up at 11am to prepare for the drive to Frazier Park. She stuffed her small Guatemalan backpack with two changes of clothing organic shampoo, conditioner, and her prescription bar soap. She piled into her ancient two-door Honda Civic with just barely enough gas to reach the Shell five blocks away.
Once there, she happily filled the car with $30 worth of gas. She was even happier to realize that it took less than that and she picked up her $4.55 in change from the shop inside. Her engine restarted with a throaty and approving roar. Flicking on the radio, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” happened to be playing and she smiled about her good fortune. With a full tank, she merged onto I-405 North heading towards I-5 and Frazier Park.
Right around where traffic merges onto I-5, just north of Los Angeles County, the adult contemporary station that had been fortuitously playing favorites like Tracy Chapman, Sarah McLachlan, and Tori Amos began losing reception and mutating into white noise. The introduction of noise began during McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You,” derailing Magdalene's moment. Suddenly this uptick of good fortune felt trivial and the bleakness of her life returned with force. There was still nothing on her horizon and the unforgiving empty vastness of the short deserted mountain ranges lining the Grapevine physically represented this anti-epiphany for her.
It was then that she began picking sounds out of the static. Most prominent was a young girl’s voice. Her words were not discernible as they’d been somehow slowed down and drawn out such that they resisted any application of sense. They were just stretched phonemes without any enunciation, though it was clear by the rising pattern that the girl was repeating herself and getting more insistent, even shouting. Though the content was stretched along the axis of time, it retained the pitch of a prepubescent young girl, that unmistakably high timbre that pressed like a blunt nail against her eardrum, harder with each subsequent iteration.
The buildup broke with a glass-shatteringly high scream rushing out of the speakers and permeating the air, sustaining without rising or falling, but with a short trail at the end.
Then a breath, then another.
The second time, a rasp was audible, as though the strain of screaming began to shred her lungs.
(Oh god, is she falling?)
The third began but was abruptly cut off, which event coincided with Magdalene’s front fender scraping against the concrete bumper of her parking spot in front of the Lake Castaic Organic Market.
She hadn’t intended to drive here nor had she looked up the location. But this kind fortuitous occurrence isn’t particularly surprising to Magdalene; she chalks it up to good instincts (she's already feeling better) and she enters the shop.
Her basket, filled with quinoa, tea, organic eggs, tofu, apples, and hemp milk, sat on the motionless conveyor with a resounding thunk. Jimmy, a spindly young teen with braces, rung her up on an old register that didn’t look like it accepted credit cards.
“Perfect. Do you take cards?”
He nodded and swiped her card, waited, grunted, and then swiped it again. After repeating the process, he sighed and manually entered the card. Eventually his eyebrows turned up.
“Oh. It says declined.”
“What? That’s impossible.”
“No, ma’am. See here.” He showed her the taped-up, ancient gunmetal gray card reader whose green LED letters read, “DECLINED.”
“Well that machine is broken or something. I saw how you ran it a bunch of times. You probably over-charged me is what happened.”
“No, ma’am, that’s not—“
“You probably charged me for this three times! You overdrafted my account! I…I can’t believe this.” Before he could defend himself any further, she ran out, leaving the bag of groceries, and began pounding the numbers for her bank onto her flip phone’s keypad.
“Hi. Yes, that’s me. What? Oh. Really? $20? Well, how can I have any money if you guys keep taking it? I didn’t know I was under. Okay…okay…okay, bye.”
Magdalene ran back inside and used two dollars of the $4.55 in her pocket for a chocolate mint Cliff Bar which she took huge chunky bites out of to help stifle her sobs on the way to the Frazier Park exit.
It was dusk when she reached the snaky path leading to the townhouse, but under the canopy of trees, it was almost pitch black. She took the path with an egregious degree of caution, slowing to five miles per hour at a half dozen particularly sinister-looking curves. When she arrived, Rick's truck was out front as promised and her lights flooded the view of the pristine white townhome, so cleanly and oppressively beautiful, she felt compelled to turn on her high beams to get a better view.
Something good must happen here, she told herself. The virginal white was tempered by a single amber light from a cheap chandelier in one of the bedrooms on the top floor. A shadow passed before it, eclipsing the light completely, then revealing it again in a flash.
This home is beautiful. Something good must happen here. She took a deep breath and turned off the engine, sitting in the quiet cleansing darkness outside the white townhouse. In the darkness, the once-tiny amber glow emanating from the bedroom window now seemed positively oppressive.
Holding Magdalene’s arm out of consideration more than need, Rick escorts her outside the premises of the townhouse. She’s pale and barefoot, the faded pink dress damp and matted against her chest.
“I spent a lot of time in that tree imagining I was an android knight sent from the future to save…I don’t even remember what.” Rick chuckles inwardly. Magdalene’s bloodshot eyes skitter, glancing in the general direction he’s pointing. Nothing she hears or sees glues onto her mind at the moment. The outdoors are a sensual flood, a bouquet of overwhelming phenomena, of light breaking through Fall leaves and skunk emission and cherry blossoms. At the very least, it diverts her attention from the burning sensation spreading across her chest.
“You liked to pretend,” she notes, with a slight lilt in her voice. She is being obvious but focusing on a client’s personality is part of her method.
She smiles, noticing the pleasant faraway look in Rick’s eyes. “You don’t like being here do you?”
“What? No, I love it here. I grew up here. I spent summers here.”
“No, I mean here,” she laces her fingers and makes a motion like she’s pressing down towards the earth. “You don’t like being inside your body or the context you’ve been given.”
“I wouldn’t say that. I mean—“
“You prefer the world you made. That’s more your style.”
Rick beams. “That’s exactly it. That’s why I brought you up here. This is my world.”
“I can tell. Now who was up here with you when you visited in the summers?”
“Just my sister and my daddy. It was perfect.”
“And your mother?”
Rick turns on a dime from inspired and proud to sullen, turning his head down. “She wasn't really—.” His quavering tone betrays a childlike unwillingness to broach the topic.
“Oh.” She runs her finger along the lace gown. “And this was hers?”
Still looking down at the ground, he nods. She changes the subject.
“Well, I envy you. This is such a beautiful place, Rick. This is the perfect escape from the sociopathic greenhouse of LA. I just wanted—“
“Please.” His voice is gruff; it comes from somewhere else. “Don't do that.”
“Oh.” She hadn't intended to be condescending but concedes to him anyway. “I’m sorry.”
“The important thing is that we talk to her. That’s why you’re here. That’s why the dress and the perfume. That’s why everything. So whatever you gotta do…” He trails off, flustered and ready to abort this all if the magic doesn’t happen now. Magdalene straightens her spine. In the space of less than a minute, she’s gone from comforting an emotional child to having her skills as a paranormalist summoned like a dog doing a trick. Fortunately, managing erratic emotions was right up her alley.
“Alright, Rick, let’s get started. I need you to take a seat somewhere comfortable on the premises,” she is in business mode, gesturing broadly across the acre of woodland surrounding the brilliant white townhouse. “Pick somewhere that feels really familiar. If it’s a place where you and your sister spent time, even better. It'll have that energy.”
“How about over by this tree?” He points to the top of a great sturdy oak with a trunk five feet in diameter. “I spent a lot of time climbing to the top of this tree.”
“Fine. Go ahead and sit anywhere on the ground and we’ll get started.”
He lowers himself and she sits in front of him, cross-legged. “Now close your eyes, Rick.” She touches her forehead to his. “Good. Next, I’m gonna cover your ears with my hands.” She does. “Can you still here me?”
“Yes. Wait…can I talk?”
“It’s fine, Rick, but I’ll guide the spoken part in a second. I’m trying to restrict your available sensory portals so that you’re getting minimum input. You cover my ears now.”
He does. Their foreheads pressed and heads cast downward to the dirt below, they are in a kind of jury-rigged sensory deprivation tank. Magdalene takes deep breaths through her nose and instructs Rick to do the same. This goes on for several minutes and then Magdalene lets out a slow sensual exhale through her mouth.
“Rick? Are you thinking about her?”
He replies in a hoarse whisper, “Yeah.”
“Good. Just stay focused on her. Cuz what happens if we make a sudden movement?”
“She’ll get scared.”
“Yes, exactly. And then she’ll run off. Just let her do what she does. Tell me what she’s doing right now.”
“She’s at the back of the house. Waiting. She’s crouched down by the window.”
“Waiting. Waiting for what?”
“Waiting in case it happens again. So that she can catch it when it does.”
“Waiting for what to hap—?”
A scream ripples across the sky. It’s extraordinarily human-like but it’s only a bird, a hawk flying precariously low over them. They both shudder and look up at the uncomfortably bright sky.
“God, that’s loud,” says Magdalene. The sound echoes inside her skull, pinging from one ear to the other then drifting physically away instead of quieting. Her eyes follow the source of the sound, gliding through the surrounding trees until it’s obscured by the house, muffled and seemingly weary. That’s when she notices the figure standing in the window on the top floor.
His eyes are still cast downward. He doesn’t look up or respond. She taps him on the shoulder.
“Rick, who is that?”
“Don’t look,” he can barely enunciate the words.
“What? But I am looking. Why shouldn’t I look?”
“Can she see you?”
Magdalene looks again to see the figure, a backlit gray silhouette, pressed against the glass, framed by stabs of the amber interior light.
“I can't tell from here. Who is that?”
Rick starts to groan, a sad helpless sound like someone about to come down with a massive flu. And then the tremors begin.
The ground shudders periodically, with the rhythm of a heartbeat, albeit an infrequent one. The house is its epicenter, visibly shaking and rattling for several seconds without threatening its coherence in any clear way: mirrors stay intact and not a chip of paint nor a tile from the roof falls astray. Then it remains still for thirty seconds, long enough to make Magdalene wonder if the most recent shudder was the last. Inevitably it starts up again, its glacial pulse like some yawning behemoth shifting and stirring beneath the home. At last Rick looks up.
“We have to go.”
Before Magdalene can respond, he grabs her roughly by the arm. He’s very nearly dragging her away, her feet barely connecting with the ground.
“Rick, why do we have to go? Tell me what’s happening!”
Rick groans as he did before, but louder, like an animal caught in a steel trap. He drags her towards his truck, bringing them closer to the house. As they approach, Magdalene is terrified of glancing at the window on the top floor and attempts to avert her gaze. She can't help it; out of the corner of her eye, she can see the silhouetted figure rising, growing taller. Although she is unsure whether this is real or an illusion caused by her unfocused glance, she has no desire to confirm and strains to avoid a direct stare.
“Get in,” Rick opens the truck door and quite literally tosses her inside. Her left rib cage hits the black gearshift hard, knocking the wind out of her. She barely emits her first gasp before Rick is starting the engine and throwing it into reverse. The moment he looks over his shoulder another tremor begins. She stares disbelievingly at his blank face, the way he denies abject horror by focusing on the mechanical act of driving. He jerks the truck 180 degrees by its tail end then throttles into drive, tumbling onto the serpentine dirt path that leads back towards the main road. Rick stares disbelievingly at Magdalene, still lying across the front seat the way he threw her in.
“Dammit, woman, sit up and buckle up!”
She obliges without a second of protest. Though he negotiates each turn in the horrifyingly complex dirt road maze with ease, Rick's driving etiquette nearly chokes Magdalene with fear. Looking backwards is not an option; her glance nearly passes over her shoulder but freezes at Rick. She decides instead to focus on him, this strange man who becomes a degree more inscrutable with every passing hour. He catches her stare, looking tense but calm with his lips pursed, sighing quietly through his nose.
“It’s almost over.”
Another tremor bursts forth but this one ends abruptly with a great boom, like the sound of a ten ton cinder block dropped from the sky. Rick clears his throat and drives off the dirt road onto a rockier path that leads deeper into the forest behind the townhouse.
“Wait, why did you do that? What’s going on?”
“I gotta tell you a few things, Magdalene.”
Magdalene feels the blood leave her face. It hadn’t occurred to her to doubt a word of what Rick told her until now. She suddenly feels tremendously vulnerable.
“Rick, what’s going on?” The car tumbles over an outcropping of rock and teeters on its left side for a full five seconds before tumbling back onto both wheels. Magdalene's head knocks into the door frame, hard. “Jesus! Rick, you’re gonna kill us!”
“That’s not possible.” Magdalene feels goose bumps rise on her arm when he says this. “A few years ago, I was doin’ some time.” An unbearable stillness pushes any commotion out of frame. The truck continues careening wildly over tree stumps and hillocks but it’s all background noise. The most prominent sound she hears is the blood rushing between her ears and the void that surrounds it. “I did time because I resorted to violence to solve a problem in my life.” She feels the moisture in her throat evaporate. He doesn’t even need to finish the thought. “I killed someone.”
The truck tumbles towards a particularly dense thicket of trees obscuring shafts of blinding sunlight. The hood of the truck breaks the thin façade of interwoven Douglas Fir branches to reveal a clearing. Rick brakes immediately, causing them both to jerk violently.
“Oh, god! Oh. God. I didn’t mean for us to get so close before…”
But it's too late. The truck rests upon its axle at the precipice of a long cliffside drop overlooking Lake Castaic. The view makes Magdalene’s heart stop, alternating between the horizon at the opposite side of the valley sitting below the clear blue sky and the opaque lake below, shimmering and calm in the sunlight. The truck’s nose is jutting out and for the moment they are perfectly balanced, teetering over the edge of the precipice.
“I think she’s mad,” Rick’s head nods fervently. “She’s mad that I killed him. I should’ve found another way.”
“Rick! God, why—“
She doesn’t finish the sentence. A sudden and barely perceptible shift of mass sends the truck tumbling over the cliff, turning towards the driver's side before colliding with the majestic treetops below. Magdalene feels a row of pine needles scrape against her cheek, like the scruff of a coarse beard, just before everything turns black.
A tiny pinprick of light inside the blackness expands into a procession of flickering moving images, a zoetrope of the mind’s eye. Magdalene is a young girl of four, grasping her bare feet and rocking back and forth while her father, when his hair was still brown and his stomach still lean, reads her Buck the Truck, about a little truck that had to climb its first mountain all by itself. His green eyes light up, emeralds embedded within his contiguous shaggy Semitic beard and hair, as he finishes reading her the story for what must be well over the thousandth time. As anyone who's read something that many times can tell you, you can't help but have an epiphany.
“On this page, Buck is always worried about climbing the mountain. On this page, he’s always stuck just before the peak. And on this page, he’s always arriving at the base where his mother and father truck are cheering him to the finish.”
“It’s just a story, Daddy.”
“Yeah, but…there’s another dimension to it.”
The blackness persistently attempting to swallow the vision at last succeeds and Magdalene returns to the void. This is a memory, not a dream. That's how she knows she's still alive.
“There are many dimensions, honey. We learn more the more of them we consider. Like when we see outside of time, we see everything happening at once. It's all co-arising.”
Is that the scruff of her father's beard? She can feel it on her cheek. That's exactly what it feels like.
“It just means everything is happening all at once. The good and the bad. The losing and the winning. It's just, which page do you want to be on now?”
This is not the page I want to be on. There are so many other moments.
She smells the trees' fragrance. A sour pang of disappointment rises from her belly, signaling that it's time to leave.
I want to choose a different one. I want to rise over the peak. I want to rise over the peak for eternity.
Something good must happen here.
Magdalene awakens to find a turgid pine stick pressed like a bony finger against her trachea. She can barely breathe and persistently gags from the pressure against her throat. The stick is the terminal point of a tree that broke through the passenger side window, its full weight bearing down on her via this small ambassador. She wraps her hand around it; it seems thick and she feels weak. Paralyzed, a quick succession of gags seizes her.
“Breathe through your nose.” It’s Rick’s voice. Her eyes dart around but she can’t see him. She closes her eyes and begins breathing deliberately through her nose. Slowly, the pressure on her throat becomes less insistent, the sensation a bit lighter. She reaches out to touch and runs her hand along the branch lodged against her neck, its tip firm and unwavering like a steel skewer against her skin.
“You’re gonna be okay. Now close your eyes and brace yourself. I’m going to break this glass right next to your head. But it’s gonna be okay.”
She tries to respond but attempting to speak makes her gag again. She gives it up instantly, closing her eyes and bracing herself without the proper means to do so.
The first dull thud causes the vehicle to shudder, though the branch does not budge a centimeter. The next thud is stronger. With the third, she hears glass breaking but without the crisp tone of a shatter, as though it collided with a carpeted rock. The sound and warmth of Rick nearby comforts her; it reminds her of who she thought Rick was before this incident. Magdalene’s heart aches as she realizes how painful of a sacrifice trust can be. She has no choice but to accept what he will do next.
A pair of rusty gardening shears floats over her head. She nearly yelps. The shears close around the base of the branch, snapping it off in one clean movement. The branch falls beside her and Magdalene sits up to take a luxurious breath through her mouth. She feels her throat; a smear of blood covers her fingertips. She chuckles nervously at the benign piece of tree that held her life in the balance mere seconds ago, barely able to comprehend the chain of events that led her to its mercy. Inevitably, she does track backwards in her mind and without thanking Rick, stares back at him in disbelief. Rick gets it.
“I was trying to protect us.”
“Forget it. Just help me out of here, please.”
Rick nods, crawling in through the hole opened in the front window. Magdalene cringes when she sees streaks of blood on the flannel wrapped around his forearm. She wonders if she’ll have to brave the broken glass as well until, as if in response, Rick promptly stands inside the cabin and begins punching out more of the already spider-webbed glass with his cloth-wrapped arm.
“Okay, come on.” He motions her to him. It is at this point, that she realizes the car is on its side with the driver’s side facing skyward and the passenger window pressed against the ground below. She lets her legs fall sideways and she takes his hand, emerging from the cab of the truck, dazed but thankful.
Inside the townhouse, the light in the bedroom turns off and then on again.
Driving back to the townhouse with Rick was a foregone conclusion. There’s simply no other way back and by some miracle of design, his truck is completely functional, despite the shattered rear windshield. Still, Magdalene can’t help but steal glances at Rick, a confessed murderer and impulsive psychopath, maintaining a preternatural almost comforting calm as he cuts a path through the backwoods back to the property. Rick somehow navigates a surprisingly smooth path, driving slower than usual for her sake. Out of nowhere he lets out a chuckle, startling Magdalene.
“I just remembered: this is exactly the way I used to take back with her. With my sister. I’m like, ‘Why am I taking this way?’ Ha. She could tell, by the way. She saw us coming a mile away with that outfit and the perfume. She knew what we were trying to do. She was kinda offended.”
Magdalene stares disbelievingly at him as he strokes his chin thoughtfully, feeling the sunshine on the horizon warm his beard. Her reaction vacillates between various states of anger and disbelief.
“Rick, who do you talk to when I’m not here?”
“Who?” He repeats her words, horrified to think where this conversation is going.
“Yeah, Rick, I mean…” She dials it back a bit. “Is there someone you can reach out to, like a friend, a boyfriend, someone else in your family?” He doesn’t answer. He shuts down which seem to be his response to any kind of frustrating stimulus. She presses back, but gently. “Because when you don’t talk about what you’re feeling, your problems grow. They become real. They can—”
“Aren’t you alone?”
“Well. I mean…” There's no helping it; that comment stabs her. “How do you know that?”
“It’s kinda obvious.” He’s not trying to offend her—she can tell. “It’s ok. I get it. I know it’s more painful to be with someone than it is to be alone. The only downside is…” She hangs on the pause until she realizes Rick isn’t searching for the rest of that thought. He’s done talking.
Still dazed by his remark, she works over the events of the day, trying to assemble them into some kind of sense.
“Okay, Rick. I gotta go home. I can’t risk my life for fifteen hundred dollars, no matter how bad I need the money."
"N-no. Please come. You have to.”
“Rick, I didn't have to do anything.”
“I can pay you more." Rick remains calm, like he knows she’ll bite. She’s wary of his confidence and gets angry fast.
"Uh, no, Rick. I won't do that again for any amount!"
“Well, that’s a nice way to treat someone who saved your life.”
“Excuse me? Weren't you the one who put my life in danger?”
“Believe me, I was saving us from something much worse happening up at the house.” Rick doesn’t get the slightest bit exasperated. She’s puzzled as to what he means and angered that she's compelled to get to the bottom of this.
“Fine—how much are you paying me?”
“How much you need?”
“What?” The thought of naming a dollar amount that would satisfy her needs sends her mind reeling. She settles on a number somewhat arbitrarily. “Five…thousand…dollars?”
“Done.” Rick opens his flip phone and gets on the line with his bank. In less than half the time it takes Magdalene to speak to a rep about a bounced check or an overdraft, he’s presumably transferred the money. Her eyes widen when he requests that $6,450 be transferred to her account. He pockets the phone. “That’s in addition to the amount I already owe you.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll help me.”
“Okay.” She's about to rest her hand on his shoulder; there's something very appealing and comforting in the idea of touching him right now. For some reason, she opts not to, resting her hands on her thighs like a behaved child.
It’s dusk again when they return; the brilliant white townhouse is a citadel glowing in the twilight. Pulling up in front of the house, both Rick and Magdalene train their sights on Anna's bedroom window, golden light still streaming from between two pulled curtains. They sit in the parked car with the engine running. Neither moves, both barely breathing with their mouths agape; the rumble of the engine is conspicuously loud against their silence. Without exchanging a word, they mutually conclude that nothing's going to happen, at which point Rick turns off the engine.
“I killed my dad. I murdered him but I served my time. I paid my debt to society. Five years.”
“Five years isn't very long for murder, is it?”
He nods. “Well, there were some complicating factors. He had a temper. He had psychological issues and my lawyer pushed those. I had a really good lawyer. Our family had money; not from him, from my mom. Has money. Whatever. I should’ve gone away for a lot longer. It was murder. Like, cold-blooded murder.”
She almost wants to chastise herself for feeling more comfortable in the face of this, but his vulnerability is palpable and endearing. She senses he doesn’t have an ounce of the animus necessary to inflict harm upon her.
“Why did I do it? Cuz I think he killed my sister. I couldn’t prove it. I wasn’t there. He never hit her that I know of. I wasn’t there but I heard it. Well, I heard something.”
“What did you—” She hesitates as though some force outside herself is making her hold her tongue.
“That bedroom? That one with the lights on? That was my bedroom. Not hers. But that’s where she lives now. That's Anna's bedroom now.”
“What did you hear?” She nearly chokes on the words and shakes her head with incredulity at whatever imperceptible daemon is doing this.
“Oh god…” He rubs his face. This is clearly something that’s been hanging over him for decades, a wound that hasn’t healed but only stopped bleeding out. “So my dad…” He closes his eyes. “My dad used to see these women at the townhouse. He would only see them there for some reason. Well, I know the reason: it was the only place where he could be separate from us—not like our house in Granada Hills. There was another floor. He could be, you know, private.”
“Your mom knew? Or—“
“My mom was in a persistent vegetative state for a whole decade before she died. My sister was only two years old when it happened, so that's really the only way she knew her. But she always was adamant about treating her normal. We celebrated her birthday, we'd show her our report cards. Even though she wasn’t all there, we'd do it; that stuff was really important to my sister. To Anna.” Hearing the name spoken aloud sends shivers across Magdalene’s skin. “My mother, she came with us everywhere we went, even when we went to this house, on a chair in the master bedroom right next to the bed where my dad slept. My dad, he’d have women in there…with my mom. I knew, but Anna didn’t. She was probably just about to start figuring it out.”
“What has her name? Your mother.”
He waves his hand, dismissively. It's been years it's been since he's said her name aloud. “So that night, he’s telling her not to come upstairs. He was telling us at dinner. We were having dinner with him and his…friend. And she’s nice. She doesn’t talk. She’s Russian. Very young. Much, much younger than him. Barely older than me. I mean, she was hot. Even I knew she was hot.”
“Rick, why was he telling your sister not to come upstairs?”
“She was having bad dreams. I told her she could sleep in my room but she wanted her mom. She would sit by Mom and fall asleep, sometimes. He said tonight that couldn’t happen. She said tonight was different. Tonight she felt like something really, really bad was going to happen if she fell asleep alone. He told her again, don’t come up. You could tell he knew she wasn’t going to listen. That’s when he told her he’d lock the door.”
“So what happened?”
Rick shrugs. “I was downstairs so I never saw anything. There were sounds. An animal made a sound. It was a raccoon. Then there was the sound of glass shattering and I heard a scream. It sounded like her voice but not like any sound I’d ever heard her make. Then it stopped. My dad came in and he told me something had happened.”
Magdalene’s heart raced. Rick was sucking at breath trying to finish the rest of the story.
“She fell. The back porch is just one story up but she broke her neck. There was a lot of blood too. From the broken glass. My dad said it was an accident. He was so calm. I asked him how it happened and it sounded so...” He squints as he tries to recall details. “Something about a raccoon startling him and that's what jumped through the window. But then Anna fell because she was sneaking around on the porch, trying to see Mom through the backdoor window. And then the railing broke because it was eaten by termites. They proved that at the trial, too.”
His breath becomes heavy his nostrils flaring as he circles around the truth of what happened that evening, a truth of which he’s never been certain. “But his girlfriend—she was so quiet. She had this blank expression on her face. She was just standing there in her bathrobe with her arms folded like she was waiting in line for a movie. She said, ‘That was terrible accident, Ricky. So sorry. Believe or no, something like this happen to my sister when I was girl.’ She hugged me. And I cried.”
He’s weeping now as well, the quiet reluctant tears of someone who feels embarrassed to have mourned so acutely for so long.
“You knew he did it?”
“No, I believed him, mostly. I didn’t trust my gut feeling that it didn’t make sense. He seemed so convinced, I felt bad doubting him. But then she came to me. Anna came to me. Every night. I knew when she would come to me because I could feel this pressure.” He presses a closed fist into his chest. “Like someone resting a cinder block right there. She said the same thing to me every night.” Rick makes a few sounds like weak choking and then stops.
“What is it? What did she say?”
He squints. “You would think it’s ridiculous.”
“I think it’s ridiculous that we've gotten this far—you've gotten this far—and you’re not telling me. What did she say, Rick?” He twists his face, still stuck in that squinted expression. “Look, Rick, it’s like I said: anything you keep in your head gets too big to handle. If you let it out, it loses its power over you.”
He nods. Then, pinching his eyes shut, he allows himself to speak. “She wants to show me what happened. Exactly what happened. So I’ll know. For sure.”
“That’s good. Right? I mean don’t you want to know? Isn’t that the whole point of why you’re doing this?” Magdalene’s face twitches with incredulity. How can someone simultaneously chase and avoid something? She bites her lip hard, making sure to do so until she tastes blood—there’s no good answer to that question. A cold chill runs through her veins.
“I need you to force me to do it.”
They resume their meditative huddle from hours prior, with all the wisdom of two children sticking fork tines into a light socket a second time.
“Rick, I don’t care if fire starts raining down from the sky. You are going to stay locked in this séance with me, is that understood?” He nods slowly. It’s darker now but for that golden amber light from Anna's window. They don't look up as shadows shift around the room. They will not enter this house again. “If you need me to force you, then this is me, forcing. Now close your eyes.”
“Okay, but if the ground starts moving like that—“
“If Earth itself dissolves beneath our feet, I want you to keep your eyes closed!”
They interlock arms and heads and Magdalene resumes her introspection exercise. Knowing more than she did before, she pushes harder immediately.
“Tell me about what it was like for your sister and your mother. Did she talk to your mother shen she was in a coma?”
“It was a persistent vegetative state.”
“Right. That. What did she talk about?”
“I don't even remember. Just things that happened in her day. Nothing special, ever. Not that I remember. It calmed her down. Just talking to her, calmed her down.”
“Why couldn’t she talk to your dad?”
“He wasn’t good at that.”
“Did he hurt her? Ever?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I think. I mean…yes.”
“I don’t believe you.” He is about to draw out of the huddle but she pulls him back down, hard. “Now, I really don’t believe you.”
“It wasn’t hitting. It was grabbing. He did that a few times.”
“He hurt her.” She isn’t asking.
“I don’t think—”
“You saw where she was hurt.” She suddenly realizes she is now inside his mind in a way she has never experienced with any other client. She can answer the questions she's asking faster than he can. “You’ve seen it.” There are bruises on his sister’s wrist, on Anna's wrist. Her limp blonde hair covers small cuts from broken glass on her freckled skin.
“Those were accidents. I never saw them. I made sure that I c...I never saw them.”
She gasps when she finds the answer to her next question, shimmering like crystal in the black of their shared consciousness. As if brighter now, the light from the bedroom window shines through a sliver of a gap in their huddle. She presses her eyes closed and forces herself not to look. The glance will start trouble—anything that terrifyingly irresistible does. It’s a distraction anyway, and one that favors Rick's caginess. He trembles when he realizes the question she needs to ask next. She doesn’t want to cause him any more pain. She changes the question to a declaration.
“You couldn’t have stopped it.”
He weeps silently, staying huddled with her. The crystalline image of the sector of his consciousness representing that unanswerable question reminds her what ghosts really are. That’s when she hears the slow motion sound of breaking glass. It’s the sound that dragged through Rick’s mind on his way to Frazier Park via Gorman. That sound of breaking glass with what had been a silent break in the middle for silence. Only now, there was no break: there was a long uninterrupted scream, trailing off at the end.
Neither Magdalene nor Rick exists in this moment. From a perspective on high, they are a unified consciousness visiting a memory of the night that Rick’s sister, Anna, died from a fall off their third story balcony at the back of the house. It is a comprehensive sensory experience that belongs to no living human now represented as an experience unfolding in the present moment, entering their minds in a rush with the fullness of a carefully archived memory.
It's night. Rick is reading a Fantastic Four comic downstairs in his bedroom while Anna is upstairs, staring through the closed French windows at her mother sitting in a plush brick red velour chair. Her mother's feet are propped up on an ottoman, her eyes glazed in the direction of her husband, their father. He stands, sweaty and naked beside the bed, fucking his Russian girlfriend who is crouched on all fours at the mattress’s edge. He presses down on the small of her back and lifts a foot up onto the bed to gain leverage for thrusting from behind. In so doing, he rotates his body further away from his comatose wife's gaze as if he's effectively hiding what's happening from her.
She is in her chair, smiling as always, fixed in a rictus of seeming positivity. Anna is focused on her mother; she wants to look at her face. Her nose pressed onto the glass, she doesn't notice the raccoon scurry behind her. It emits a high-pitched trill to let her know it's near. It's not until she feels its thick fur brushing against her leg that she notices its presence. Looking down, she hears that trill again, louder this time; she closes her mouth to keep from screaming. As gently as possible, Anna pushes the bedroom window open and closes it behind her. It takes a moment for him to notice, but her dad sees her crouched beside her mother, his wife, still reeling from the raccoon that brought her inside. At this point, she remains unaware of him; the fact is, he calls her attention to him. He stares at her horrified, his dick still inside his girlfriend.
“The fuck are you doing in here?”
The moment she casts eyes on her sweaty, naked father, she forges about a half-dozen plausible lies, alibis for why he might be in this state. “I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t know.” She panics but she’s relieved to feel safe despite the scene in here. “There was a raccoon.”
“Why were up here.” He pulls out of his girlfriend who scurries to grab her robe by the headboard. “Why?!”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“What did I tell you?” Still naked and half-hard, he grabs her left arm. “Huh?” He grabs her right arm. She’s suddenly realizing how bad this is. “What did I tell you?”
“Don’t.” He shoves her hard against the window; she collides with a loud dull thud that rocks the wall. “Come up here. Tonight.” She winces at the pain on her back, holding back tears. He does it again. “Don’t. Come up here. Tonight. Not every night. Just when I say so. You should know better!” Anna looks over at his girlfriend now dragging on a thin cigarette, gaze averted, tuning all of this out. She looks at her mother, staring impassively with the same slight smile she always has. Anna’s last cogent thought is wondering what her mother sees when she sees this; her face is relief; it says everything is okay but that is demonstrably untrue...isn't it?
Her father grabs her wrists one last time. “So: did you learn? When I say don’t come up here, I mean: Don’t. Come. Up. H—”
The glass gives with astonishing ease. According to the forensics experts, there's a pressure point in these old windows that causes them to cave with a remarkably modest amount of pressure. (She was so small, though.) The banister snapped like a twig, its wood weak from a termite infection. Her father just stood there, paralyzed by what he’s done. From that moment until the day Rick ended him, his daily preoccupation is not why he pushed her, but why his instinct to dive for her hadn't kick in. That not a single muscle in his body propelled him forward troubles him to the point where he convinces himself that his crime was not killing his daughter; it was merely not saving her.
Rick and Magdalene pull themselves back from this crystalline archive of history, back into the blackness. Rick begins to hyperventilate. Magdalene, suddenly aware of their separateness, pulls away from the hold to find that it is fully night. “Rick, it’s okay.” She massages his shoulders, her eyes widening at the sight of the dark sky. It all looks so appropriately calm and still, she neglects to notice that the light in the bedroom has gone out. She smiles prematurely before Rick shocks her with his read of their vision. “It wasn’t his fault.”
“Rick. No. That’s ridiculous.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” he reiterates, like a machine. “He didn’t mean to do it. She was…small. He was embarrassed.”
“No, Rick.” She glances up at the window, unsure at what she's seeing. “The light is off, Rick. You figured it out. You were right all along. Your gut was right.”
“I should have…saved her.” At this, his face pinches and a single tear drops to his cheek. “I could have saved her.”
He weeps and convulses, louder and louder as each wave hits him harder than the last. “I could have saved her.” She grabs him and hugs him, not knowing what to say, her eye trained on the still-dark window, not fully convinced that the light won’t turn on again. She stares at it, praying she won’t blink when it does.
Back in Gorman, the short Hispanic man with the eyepatch stays up late that night looking for a priest. He finds one online. A Roman Catholic priest based out of Boston who does Skype confessionals. The priest is an intense, focused man, a young and healthy seventy years, his stoic yet handsome visage neither cheery nor glum. An erstwhile theologian, he determined there was no Biblical pretext for the traditional confessional booth setup. Retired to a tiny suburb of Massachusetts with a modest parish, he wanted a way to administer confessions more frequently—he felt this was the most important part of the job.
He offers both audio-only and video chats depending on the preference and comfort of his clients. The short Hispanic man opts for video. The moment the priest's face appears on-screen, he waves the sign of the cross.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”
“Good evening, my son. Is this your first time in a virtual confessional?”
“I hope you'll feel comfortable to confess in this manner. The key is communication, my son, not secrecy or any other manufactured ceremonial totems. We communicate with one another, openly and sincerely, as we do with the Lord.”
“It’s cool, father. I ain’t trippin'.”
“How long since you last confessed?”
“Oh, man…prolly not since I was inside. There was a priest there that I would meet with. So that’s about a year. It's trippy that it's easier to find a priest in the joint than in Gorman.”
The priest nods somberly. “It is an irony, to be sure. What troubles you, my son?”
“Well, I saw somebody from the inside the other day. And I feel bad, because I didn’t reach out.”
“Was there a reason you chose not to reach out?”
The Hispanic man takes a deep breath, tugging on his eyepatch like it’s itching him. “Yeah, sort of. I was kinda freaked out to see him, honestly.”
“What is your relation to him? He was a friend?”
“He saved my life.”
“You feel guilty. You are in this man’s debt.”
“Definitely. But this guy…he’s supposed to be dead.”
The priest arches his eyebrows. “Why do you think that?”
“So there was this fight, right? I was ready to get my ass whooped, you know? I had been talking a lotta sh—a lot of mess. And it was time. I wanted sh—things to go down, too. I was over it and I was lookin' at a lotta time, father. I wanted to die.
“There was the white power crew. They had three guys who, when they were together, someone was gonna die. So we were in line for dinner and they’re all three in a line, like, behind me, you know? I can see them but I ain't lookin'. But I know they’re coming after me and I’m gonna get shivved. I even told my boys to back down. I told them I got this. They thought I was crazy.”
The priest strokes his chin impassively. It's not his job to judge, just listen.
“Maybe I was. I ate my dinner and I was just chill, you know what I’m saying? I’m walking back to my cell and I hear their footsteps behind me and they’re getting louder and faster. My heart’s not even fast. I look ahead of me and I know I ain’t gonna reach my cell but I’m cool with it—I don’t know why. I got nothing to live for, maybe? My big bro died in there before I got there and he was all I had as far as family, you know? I didn’t have no girl, I hadn't had a mother and father for a long time.
“And then,” he chuckles to himself. “It’s kinda f—it’s kinda messed up to laugh about it but like out of nowhere, this guy body slams me. And it ain’t the white power fools either—they’re not close enough yet. It was this guy, man, this big blonde dude. He looks like Thor or something but like Thor who hasn’t worked out in a while—no muscle but still tough, you know? He just tackles me down. I mean, I was pushing and kicking and he didn’t give a fuck. Sorry, father.”
The priest waves a hand. “Continue.”
“He doesn’t care, man. He can take it. And I get it, so I give up. I look up at his face and he smiles at me. Just this…” He chokes up. “Just this sweet look like a baby to his mama and I’m thinking, ‘who the hell is this guy? Does he know me?’
“Then that first shiv came down and my eye went black. Blinded me. I had my hands over my eyes for the rest of the beatdown. I could feel every one of those stabs, though. I felt them but most of them weren’t even hitting me. They were hitting him. Thor, you know? I felt the pressure and the movement but I only took a few stabs. One here.” He lifts the sleeve covering his left arm. “One here.” He lifts his pants to expose his right thigh. “One here.” He lifts his shirt, to expose the left half of his rib cage, inches below his heart. “That don’t look too bad but when you get stabbed with a shiv, you really bleed.”
The priest does an expert job of listening, nodding slightly when the Hispanic man looks up at him without betraying his interior, as though he felt neither revulsion nor untoward fascination.
“When I heard the guards, the stabbing stopped. I mean, like that. But I still felt the weight of this Thor guy on top of me. Finally, I just take my hands out of the way. I can’t see out of this one, but out of the other one, I see his body lying on top of me. His eyes are bugged and he’s just covered in blood. We’re both covered in blood. It was…” The Hispanic man clears his throat and fidgets with the eyepatch again. “Anyway, he was gone. And that was the guy. Father, I saw him at my gas station in Gorman yesterday and I didn't know what to do.”
“You're certain it was the same man?”
He nods vigorously. “I mean, it’s a sign, right? I was ignoring a sign. Why else would he be here?”
“It’s possible this man paid the Earth a visit from beyond the grave in some form and was able to occupy a portion of your subjective reality. Perhaps he has a twin? Perhaps there's a man who so closely resembles him that you'd never tell the difference? Regardless, that resemblance was something you and only you were meant to notice. You were made aware of it through your tenderness and sensitivity, my son. This is part of what is meant when we say, ‘all things are possible in Christ.’”
“So, for sure it wasn't him?”
“That's not for me to say.” The priest remembers something in his past that he won't disclose at the moment. The memory makes him smile. “Souls transcend the flesh for reasons beyond what we can imagine for purposes beyond what we fathom. If you need to see this man again, he will return.”
Amidst strange dreams of unfinished business, Magdalene stands in front of the brilliant white townhouse and looks up at the window to see Anna’s face, clear as the day she died. Her mouth opens impossibly wide to let out an inhuman scream. Her face contorts, her mouth distended by the scream, and the color vanishing from her face. It twists as if along an axis and loses its depth, morphing into a flat, two dimensional image of black and gray ash splayed against the surface of the window, stuck in a never ending cry…
Magdalene startles awake, finding herself asleep on the floor inside the townhouse. Its interior is burned out; it smells as though it was set ablaze hours ago, the smell still fresh with tendrils of white smoke still dancing slowly along its surface. She looks up towards the hallway and just as she suspects, sees amber light through the thin slat beneath the bedroom door. She yelps quickly but cuts herself off immediately. Before any further sense experience can be processed, she jumps to her feet and runs out the door.
It’s mid-morning and the sun shines resiliently, temporarily blinding her. Looking back she sees the exterior of the house is burnt to a crisp yet completely sturdy and structurally uncompromised—its walls, windows, and portals are all thoroughly intact. Her old Honda is where it should be but Rick’s truck has vanished. She looks down and sees she’s still wearing the dress he gave her. Her brain struggles to reconcile these incongruent circumstances then stops. With a whimper, she piles into her car.
At first, she drives cautiously back towards the highway, then she accelerates far more liberally than she ever would. Neither relieved nor angry, she’s panicked but unafraid. She now knows what is meant by the word haunted.
Between short gasping anxious breaths, she looks at her phone and sees it has full bars. While leaves and branches whip past her windshield, she dials her bank to check her balance, a vouchsafe of reality. The same queasy feeling of relief tangled up with a nonnegotiable terror presses against her skin when she hears the machine state her balance:
“Six. Thousand. Four. Hundred. And. Fifty. Dollars. And. Sixty-one. Cents.”
She presses harder on the gas and navigates the terrain even better. Her lower lip trembles and she screams out, partly to comfort herself with the sound of her own voice, and partly because she believes she’ll get an answer.
“Rick, wherever you are I hope you find your peace, okay? I hope you find your peace! Please answer me if you can hear me, okay? Please answer me!”
The cacophonous crunch of dead leaves against her humming engine is the only reply.
“Rick, please tell me you found your peace! Whenever you can, just tell me. I’ll be here. I love you.”
The sound of the crunch transitions to a pleasant silence as her wheels hit the paved road. She presses yet harder on the gas, the green signage for I-5 South like a mile marker of salvation, a portal delivering her away from all of this and back into the comforting psychotic greenhouse of Los Angeles.