The psychic’s house looked no different from any other home on the block, the same bland taupe siding, and shrubs encircled by heaps of mulch. The only difference was the sign plugged into the lawn, “Esther Carlton—Seer.” The letters were red on a blue background and seemed to sparkle in the afternoon sun.
The silence grew in the car between my mother and me. My thoughts were muddled, anxiety had rendered me sleepless, and in turns I was feeling either jangled or numb. “Please don’t make me go through with this.”
“Madeline, you promised.”
“These people are predators. They see where you are vulnerable and they make suggestions—“
“But you used to believe.”
Her tone struck the tender place between guilt and resentment that daughters of single mothers know so well. I clenched my jaw.
My mother and I had watched Unsolved Mysteries together from the time I turned eight. Robert Stack’s solemn narration had made it seem quite credible that people had been taken by aliens, that ghosts frolicked aboard the Queen Mary, and that missing children were located through the assistance of spot-on psychics. Once upon a time I was Fox Mulder. I wanted to believe alright, and I would cross-examine anyone on the playground who dared imply that the Loch Ness Monster might not be real. I swallowed hard, and opened the car door. Surely if I could still accompany my mother to church then I could endure this too.
We rang the bell and waited. My mother took my arm. She seemed to me like a child about to see Santa Claus. I envisioned Esther swinging the door open and declaring, “You lost your virginity to Randy White the day after your seventeenth birthday.” Then I could entrust her with my decision.
When the door finally squeaked open, Esther stood before us barefoot in a red pantsuit that looked like it had been purchased off an infomercial. She wore several gold-coloured necklaces that were tangled and slightly tarnished. Esther stepped forward and pulled me into her bosom. She smelled overwhelmingly floral. It reminded me of the air freshener in my grandmother’s nursing home.
“You must be Madeline,” she said pausing expectantly.
“You should know.” I stated flatly.
My mother’s grip tightened. “Don’t be rude.”
“Have a seat, over there, dear.” Esther said, her lips a thin plum line. The colour clashed with her pantsuit and was feathering at the edges.
The room was too warm and dim, heavy curtains were shut tight against the sun, and the walls were covered with pictures of Jesus and Mary tarnishing in their frames just like her jewellery. I perched on the edge of the couch surreptitiously rubbing my left temple, the pulse there was pounding viciously.
My mother reached into her purse and handed Esther several folded bills. It was one hundred dollars for the basic reading. I bit my bottom lip. That could have paid at least one deductible. Esther gestured to the chair across from us and my mother dropped into it, immediately leaning forward so as not to miss the sparks that were surely about to fly.
“Let me tell you how my gift works.” Esther said, plopping down next to me on the couch. “I hold your hand for a few minutes and images appear to me. I read your life as if it were a book, and like a book one has read some time ago there are elements that come to the mind quickly and others that are barely remembered. The longer we sit together the more that comes into focus. If you wish you may guide me or if you prefer you may stay silent.”
Guide you, then what are we paying for?
“Do you have any questions before we get started?” She asked.
I shook my head.
She picked up my right hand off the couch and held it between both of hers. Her hands were warm and soft. They were not the hands of a woman who laboured honestly. She’s going to take my mother’s hundred dollars and squander it on old lady junk from the Home Shopping Network.
“Relax, you’re tensing and that’s making it harder for me to read you.”
My mother piped up, “Madeline doesn’t believe in gifts of the spirit like she used to.”
“Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Esther scolded.
“Please, Maddy.” My mother added.
Recognising the pained expression on her face, I sighed. My eyes drifted shut, and I tried to lower my guard. I needed to reconnect with that little girl sitting next to her mother on the couch. The ghost segments on Unsolved Mysteries had terrified me. In one episode a child’s footprints had appeared in the dust on the floor of a decrepit plantation house. The camera followed the psychic who gestured to the stairs. “The boy is telling me he fell here and broke his neck.” The next shot was a computer generated ephemeral boy staring down the stairs dressed in Civil War britches, with Robert Stack’s baritone blending with the twinkly ghost music. I had curled closer to my mother and whimpered. I had wanted to hear her to say, “There’s no such thing as ghosts, honey.” Instead she had given me a squeeze and said, “It’s just like when I saw my Granddad standing by the window smoking his pipe, he’d been dead six months by but I could still smell his Prince Albert tobacco.”
“There.” Esther whispered, “Now it’s coming.”
My heart started to pound faster. In spite of decades of skepticism and rational denials what I wanted to hear Esther say was, “The doctors are wrong.”
I started to tremble, the same way I had on the couch with my mother all those years ago. I had peeked through the lattice of my fingers, certain that if I had turned my head, I would have been confronted by that old man glaring at me while he puffed away.
“Alright now, are you ready?” I heard my mother unzip her purse and knew she was retrieving her pad and pencil, always the secretary, ready to transcribe.
Slowly Esther intoned, “You are concerned about a man in your life. Worries about him are eating you up inside. You have—”
The absolute wrongness of it made my heart drop to my stomach. My eyes flew open. “What I have is brain tumour,” I yanked my hand from her grasp. “The doctors say if they operate there is a 25% chance I’ll die on the table.”
“Well, I—“ Esther stammered, “You didn’t let me finish.”
“That’s why my mother brought me here, you con artist. She wanted a second opinion.”
I reached out and poked her in the chest, the place where her heart would be, if she had one, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
The moment I touched her it was as though I’d touched a live wire. Electricity flashed across my brain like tin foil left in the microwave. My vision went white and on that blank screen appeared Esther as a child of five or six observing her mother from a doorway. The woman was standing at the sink in a red gingham apron, weeping softly while she scrubbed dishes.
Young Esther took a deep breath and announced, “I saw Daddy in my room last night. He wanted me to tell you he’s okay.”
Her mother gasped, and swivelled around, clutching the crucifix at her neck. “Is that all? Did he say anything else?”
The girl’s eyes grew wide. All she wanted was to make her mother feel better. She didn’t want to lie but—“He loves you and he’s sorry he had to go.”
Esther’s mother dropped to her knees and swept her into a hug, “You have been given a gift child, praise God.”
As the moment drew on in that too cold kitchen I could discern more, the hum of the ice box, the feel of the damp gingham against the girl’s cheek, and I saw the handmade curtains shift in the draft from the cracked kitchen window. Suddenly the scent of bleach wrinkled my nose and I knew that Esther’s mother always added a little splash to the dishwater to kill germs.
Then I went deeper still. The deep empty ache of grief flooded through me. It hurt worse than touching the burner of a stove, but I couldn’t pull myself away.
“Madeline, are you having another seizure? Answer me.” My mother had me by the shoulders.
“Should I call 911?” Esther asked.
I reached out and gently clasped Esther’s shoulder. “You poor thing,” I mumbled. “You still have her apron, don’t you? Red-checked gingham. And the bleach, even though you always hated the smell on your fingers you still splash a little into the dishwater, just like your mother always did.”
“Oh my God,” tears sprang to Esther’s eyes.
“It’s not your fault. You only wanted to make her feel better and you had imagined it a hundred times, hearing your father’s boots clomping up the stairs, your bedroom door opening, a kiss on the forehead as he pulled the blankets up under your chin.”
“Madeline, you’re not making any sense. We should go see Dr. Patel and have him run another scan just—“
“But after you said it, there was no way to take it back.”
Esther brushed my hand off her shoulder and stepped back..
“The lie just kept getting bigger.”
She wiped her eyes, “My sweet Jesus, you’re the real thing.” Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out the five twenties.
“No,” I pushed her hand down, “You keep it.”
Only then did the feeling of grief finally begin to fade, like a particularly bad dream after waking.
My mother guided me back out to the car, her face a mask of worry. “Dr. Patel said another seizure could cause brain damage or coma. I can’t believe I thought this would help, I shouldn’t have forced it. You were right Maddy. I’m sorry.”
“Please just take me home.” I knew then that when I finally lay down I would be able to sleep uninterrupted, and when I awoke I would know whether or not to have the surgery.
An eerie sense of serenity overcame me, and I relaxed back into the seat.
It would only be a matter of days before my phone rang, and a hopeful voice on the other end would whisper, “Esther told me to call.”
My mother was never going to let me hear the end of this.
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