The terrifying dream haunted Willow at night and stalked her by day. As time worn on, she fought against an incessant weariness that pressed against her eyelids, fearing the nightmare would return the minute she succumbed to sleep.
She had begun dreaming after the accident; always the same dream. Trapped in an underground chamber, she was startled by the screech of tires, the pounding of feet on pavement. As bustling people pushed past her, she felt like a small fish struggling to swim upstream. Someone knocked her down and she was trampled under the crush of heavy boots.
Bolting upright to escape the nightmare, she gasped for breath. Then she fell back against her pillow, blinking into the bottomless black hole of two A.M. She fought down a desire to creep down the hall to her mother’s room. When she was six years old and had been afraid of the dark, her mother never failed to comfort her. But she was eighteen now, too old to be frightened by her imagination.
When the memory gradually slipped away, she was able to sleep for a few fitul hours. But the dream returned to hover over her by day, wrapping her in its tentacles the minute she cat napped. Sleeping pills didn’t keep it at bay and only made her groggier.
Soon she was falling asleep in class and unable to concentrate. It galled her that she had paid tuition for a full course load at the local college and was flunking all her classes so she announced to her mother, “I’m dropping out.”
Her mom looked disappointed.
“I’m just dropping out for the semester,” Willow said to placate her.
Crossing her arms, her mother said,”Going to school was your job. If you quit school, you’ll have to find another job to cover your room and board.”
Willow’s jaw dropped. Why was her mother being so unreasonable? Didn’t she appreciate that the accident had traumatized her?
“Fine! If that’s the way you want it—” Willow spat out the words. Spreading the newspaper’s classified ads across the kitchen table, she meticulously circled job prospects, interjecting sporadic sighs of martyrdom.
Her mother was all business.”I’ll drive you downtown for any job interviews you line up.”
Willow bristled. She had expected sympathy so she could lick her wounds, not an occasional ride downtown to look for work. “No thanks, I’ll take the bus.”
The next day Willow got off at a bus stop in the old town historic district where several job opportunities had been advertised. Up and down the street, newly renovated brick storefronts stood shoulder to shoulder with dilapidated buildings begging to be repaired.
She walked past one particularly tatterdemalion storefront with large cracks crisscrossing its stucco facade. Glancing at the window, she noticed a “Help Wanted” sign hand printed on a dog-eared piece of cardboard. The sign stood out as the only relatively new item in an otherwise dusty collection of curiosities: faded tarot cards, a stuffed owl, a bottle of shark’s teeth, a gazing ball, and several bouquets of withered herbs propped up in vases of carnival glass.
Stepping back, Willow read an inscription above a shredded awning that had clearly been mishandled by too many malevolent winds.: “Séance Parlor—Spirits Summoned.”
A feeling she couldn’t describe drew her to the door. As soon as she touched the grimy knob, she stepped back and wiped her hand on her skirt. But a macabre fascination kept
her rooted to the spot. Pulling her jacket sleeve over her hand, she turned the knob gingerly. An overhead bell clanged cacophonously to announce her arrival, then the door slammed solidly shut behind her.
The dusty interior was hung with shadows thick as spiders’ webs. As Willow’s eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, a velvet curtain covering a doorway near the back of the shop stirred as if brought to life by an errant spirit. Gnarled fingers brushed the curtain aside and an old woman hobbled to the front of the store.
Willow had never seen anyone who looked so ancient before. The woman’s face was heavily lined in folds and wrinkles. Her thick brows knitted together in a scowl over her large, bulbous nose. She might have been kicked in the face by a horse, her nose was so disfigured. After tucking a miscreant tuft of gray hair back under the red scarf wrapped around her head, she adjusted a tattered white shawl with tangled tassels over her stooped shoulders and appraised Willow with cold, flinty eyes.
“You’re here for the job, are you?” the old woman asked in a gravelly voice. Without waiting for an answer she cackled,
“You’d like a séance, wouldn’t you? And you’re hoping you can work in exchange for payment—”
Unnerved that the old woman had read her mind, Willow stammered, “How … uh … how much does a séance cost?”
“A thousand dollars.”
Willow gulped. Since she also needed to pay her mother room and board, she would have to work for months to raise that kind of money.
Peering up at her, the old woman said, “You can barter your time for a session. We’ll use minimum wage as the hourly base.” She nodded to a dust coated case filled with unidentifiable objects. “You can start by cleaning that display.”
Willow was repulsed by the filth, but at the same time mystified by this strange old woman who claimed she could conjure spirits. Swallowing her trepidation she asked, “Do you have any cleaning supplies?”
“Back room,” the old woman nodded to a closed door. Then she seated herself in a rocking chair by the front window.
Fumbling in her purse, Willow found her social security number and held it out.
The old woman waved it away. “We’re bartering services. I don’t need it.”
Willow still felt uneasy. When she opened the broom closet, the door groaned as if it had been a long time since anyone had taken out a mop. But at least it was well stocked with sponges, buckets, and cleansers.
The rational half of her brain still yammered for her to get out.How could she possibly work in this dilapidated shop? But an irrational voice in the back of her head insisted she needed this séance. It was the only way to put the dream to rest.
Hanging up her jacket, Will wiped the layer of dust from the display case. Then she cleaned and arranged its contents, sorting out curios and charms from small vials shimmering with phosphorescent liquids. Odds and ends like animal paws, bits of shell and the skins of desiccated frogs were relegated to the lowest shelf. Cleaning this one cluttered case took the entire day. When five o’clock arrived, the old woman pulled a piece of cardboard out of her pocket and wrote down Willow’s hours minus the fifteen minutes she had taken to eat a granola bar for lunch.
Willow almost protested that she was entitled to two breaks and a lunch hour, but she wasn’t sure if the same labor laws applied to the bartering system. Before she left she confessed, “I can only work half days. My mother expects me to pay her rent, so I need to find a second job.” She also understood why the old woman couldn’t afford to pay her. Not a single customer had come through the door the entire day.
“There’s a taqueria down the street. They always need extra help for the morning shift,” the old woman said.
Willow stopped at the small restaurant and got an application as well as a taco to eat on the bus ride home. Her hands still felt gritty although she had washed them three times in the women’s restroom. When she reached her house, she took a shower but still felt like she was covered in soot.
The next morning Willow turned in her application at the taqueria before reporting for work at the seance parlor. She spent the day scrubbing the linoleum floor, gradually coaxing a mossy green color out of successive layers of smeared dirt. Around noon a middle aged man wearing a three piece suit cautiously entered and engaged the old woman’s services.
Willow tilted her head, listening intently as he explained in a paucity of words that he was desperate to contact his dead wife.
After asking for payment in advance, the old woman counted her money then ushered him through the velvet curtain. Willow edged closer to the cloistered room to eavesdrop. A few minutes later she heard a muffled voice. It sounded nothing like the old woman’s; this new voice was high and sweet.
The hair stood up on the back of Willow’s neck as the businessman burst through the curtain, tears streaming down his face. Embarrassed at her intrusion, she scurried into a corner as he ran for the door.
The little bell rang raucously as the door slammed shut behind him.
Moments later the old woman pushed back the curtain and stepped out. “That’s why you ask for your money up front,” she told Willow then nudged her rocking chair into a puddle of sun near the front window and sat down. After a while her head nodded over her sagging breasts and she began to snore. Willow started cleaning again, swirling her mop in slow, concentric circles. What would happen when the old
woman contacted the spirit who was troubling her? Would she also run out of the store in tears?
A shudder ran through her entire body. Mopping was too monotonous and she was desperate to occupy her mind. After dumping the blackened water in the alley she took a dust rag and began to work on the shelf of curios behind the front counter. But her thoughts drifted as she polished a large copper bowl inscribed inside with letters in an alphabet she didn’t recognize.
All of a sudden the old woman sat up abruptly. “Just polish the outside of the bowl. Don’t rub the letters.”
“Why, what’ll happen?” Willow asked.
“You’ll summon a demon and he’ll be your problem.” The old woman wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and went back to sleep.
Ever so carefully, Willow set the bowl back then concentrated on wiping the front window clean. All the while the old woman snored softly in her rocking chair apparently unconcerned that the spirit she had summoned might still be sequestered behind the velvet curtain. That possibility made Willow’s hands shake. Taking care not to jangle the doorbell too loudly, she crept outside to clean the window and basked
in the comfort of warm sunshine. Through the streaked glass she could see the old woman sleeping peacefully in her chair. She seemed so small and withered, no more remarkable than a bag lady wandering the streets in her black, shapeless dress, patched white shawl and smudged red scarf tied over iron gray hair.
A month went by. Willow worked mornings at the taqueria before immersing herself in the dusty grime of the seance parlor.
When her mother complained about her paltry paycheck, Willow hesitated to tell her the truth, that she was bartering half her days for a seance. It was easier to fabricate a story and say she was working on consignment in a small boutique and that business was slow. Her conscience pricked her for lying, but she feared her mother would be horrified to learn that Willow planned to contact HIM.
Her mom looked far from mollified. “You need to look for another job, Willow. You can do better than this.”
“I know, and I will … I’m still looking. But I need some kind of experience I can put on my resume.” That much was true.
The following evening as she was leaving the Seance Paror, Willow got a text on her cell phone. As she tapped out an answer she stepped absentmindedly off the curb.
A minibus honked as it swerved around her. Stumbling back to the sidewalk,Willow fell on her knees sobbing brokenly.
She finally got control of her emotions and ran to the bus stop, but it was all she could do to hold back her tears on the long ride home.
Before reporting for work at the taqueria the next morning, Willow stopped by a pawn shop and sold her computer. After her shift at the restaurant was over, she hurried to the Seance Parlor and slapped her money on the counter in front of the old woman.
“Add this to the hours I’ve worked. I figure that should cover the séance,” Willow told her.
The old woman dug the piece of cardboard out of her apron pocket where she kept track of Willow’s hours. She meticulously counted up the scratches and rubbed her chin as she made her calculation. Finally she pushed the untidy pile of money back toward Willow.
“Work till the end of the day and we’ll call it even. I’ll perform the séance.”
“No! I want the séance now!” Willow believed her near miss with the mini bus had been an omen. The old woman merely closed her eyes and settled back in her rocking chair.
“Polish the brass spittoons,” she muttered before she fell asleep. “Then clean up the store room.”
The mindless drudgery dulled the edges of Willow’s anxiety as she scrubbed grime from the shelves and swept the floor.
As much as she wanted this seance, she also dreaded a confrontation with HIS spirit. She grew apprehensive as the wall clock chimed five bells, tolling the end of the day. The old woman roused herself from her sleep, locked the front door with a skeleton key, then beckoned for Willow to follow her into the mysterious room behind the velvet curtain.
Willow had never mustered the courage to peek behind the curtain and had been explicitly ordered not to clean here. She had expected to see a crystal ball set on a covered table, or a pentagon etched into the floor. Instead she found two mismatched armchairs. The old woman plopped herself onto the more comfortable one and produced a piece of cardboard and the stub of a pencil from her apron pocket.
“Here,” she said as she thrust the cardboard at Willow. “Write down his name.”
“How do you know it’s a “him?” Willow asked but the old woman only snorted. Sitting gingerly on the edge her chair, she wrote down the name she could never forget.
The old woman didn’t look at it. Instead she tossed the cardboard into a copper brazier filled with red cedar shavings, then lit a match.
A pungent incense swelled the air as tiny flames sprang to life. Willow coughed as thick smoke filled the room. Gripped by a rush of terror, she shrank back in her chair.
All of a sudden the old woman twitched violently. A man’s voice spilled out of her mouth.
“I’m sorry, gal,” the voice said.
Willow had never heard HIM speak. How could he, lying there dead on the pavement in front of her?
“I’m sorry.” Words flowed out of her. “I didn’t mean to run over you!”
“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I saw you coming and I had time to get out of the way.” The voice choked back a sob. “It was a cowardly thing to do but I ran forward, in front of your car. I thought I needed to cross over…” Another sob.
“I didn’t think you’d take it so hard.”
“I killed you! How did you think I would take it?” Willow shrieked.
“I’m sorry,” the voice was fainter now.
“I was an innocent bystander, minding my own business—” She waited for HIM to answer.
When the smoke dissolved, Willow found herself staring at a bowl of ashes. Looking up, she was terrified to find that the old woman had collapsed in her armchair. Her mouth gaped open, her hands were flung out as if she had suffered a heart attack.
Willow fumbled in her pocket for her phone. Just before she called 911 the old woman opened her eyes.
“Did you learn what you needed to know?” she asked in a parched voice.
“Yes, thank you,” Willow whispered. The old woman got up, unlocked the front door and held it open. After Willow left the séance parlor, she heard the skeleton key click in the lock. She ran to the end of the block, stopping only when her side ached and she had to catch her breath.
The aroma of roasted chiles wafting from the taqueria where she worked in the morning reminded her that she had been too agitated to eat lunch. Going inside, she ordered a taco and almost told the manager she was available to work more hours…
No, she would continue to work mornings so she could take classes in the afternoon. Surely she could get a good night’s sleep from now on. She instinctively felt that after HIS confession, HIS spirit could finally rest in peace.
Published in Stories