“Hello, this is Roger Hammond. I’m away from the phone just now, so leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”
“Roger, hi, it’s Ellen. Again. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I’d really appreciate a phone call, text message, smoke signal, something. Can people still send telegrams? Probably not, but if it isn’t obvious yet, I’m getting desperate here. Look, even if it’s just to say you don’t want to see me anymore, please get in touch. I don’t want to worry anymore. I’m too young for crow’s feet.”
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I snapped shut my phone and tossed it onto the passenger’s seat of my Ford SUV as though, by relinquishing my grip on the device, I could likewise escape responsibility for what I’d said.
I’d be lucky if Roger didn’t run my twenty-odd voicemail messages to the nearest police station and apply for a restraining order.
My car’s dashboard clock reminded me I had only three minutes to shift my focus from Roger to the new client whose driveway I now occupied. I scrubbed my face with my hands and cast a resentful glance at my phone.
A smarter girl would already have forgotten his number, burned his photographs, and consumed a gallon of Rocky Road in the ceremonial goodbye, dirtbag ritual observed by jilted women the world over. Clearly, I was no Mensa candidate.
In my defense, however, I’ve always enjoyed the benefit of better-than-average instincts. Mediums are naturally intuitive, and we learn from an early age that the gut never lies. Mine was telling me that Roger was in trouble.
Monday morning, he had called to arrange a date for that evening. I’d arrived at our favorite little Italian bistro right on time, and secured our usual table in the back of the dining room. After five glasses of iced tea and countless pitying smiles from the waitress, I’d summoned what remained of my dignity and gone home. That was five days ago, and I hadn’t heard from Roger since.
I glanced at the clock. One minute left until my appointment.
Unwilling to turn it off entirely, I scooped my phone from the seat next to me and set the incoming call alert to vibrate. Then I switched off the ignition, climbed out of the SUV, and started across a neatly trimmed lawn to the front porch of my client’s single-story rancher.
Beige HardiePlank siding. One oak tree in the front yard. No flowers. The house was almost indistinguishable from those on either side of it. The front door featured a high transom window, and centered below the peep hole hung an ornate wrought-iron wreath.
I slung my purse over my shoulder and reached out to knock. The door opened before my knuckles could make contact with the wood.
I stepped back in surprise. “Hello,” I said. “Umm, my name is Ellen Tigert. Are you Mrs. Kranz?”
On the other side of the threshold, a tiny, silver-haired woman offered me a half-hearted smile. “Anita,” she corrected in a voice no louder than the shuffle of a sheaf of paper. She extended one skeletal hand.
I shook it, though not with my usual enthusiasm. I worried too hard a squeeze might reduce her bones to dust and splinters. She was probably no older than forty-five, but grief and stress had aged her fifteen years. Her bright blue eyes provided the only splash of color against her slender body’s otherwise neutral palette: chalky skin, bloodless lips, tan pantsuit, flesh-toned sandals.
Like Anita, the house seemed devoid of life. Even from the front porch I detected an emptiness waiting inside, the same vacuity prevalent at wakes and estate sales. The void left by a recently departed resident.
Anita stepped aside just far enough to grant me entry, then closed the door behind us. She withdrew a wad of Kleenex from the pocket of her linen pants and pressed it to her nose.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said. “How long were you married?”
“Eleven years,” Anita said as she tucked the tissues back in her pocket. “He was only forty-eight, but my sister keeps telling me it was ‘his time’. I don’t know exactly what that means.”
I laid a gentle hand on her slender shoulder. “Most people think it’s an empty sentiment, but he’ll never really be gone,” I said. “In my line of work, you learn that pretty quick.”
An odd expression flashed across her face — a tightening of her lips, a narrowing of her eyes — but before I could get a better read, it vanished.
Maybe she was more dubious about my gift than she had let on during our telephone conversation yesterday morning. That would complicate my work, but it was expected. For every believer I met, I encountered at least ten skeptics. Questions about the veracity of my work were not unfamiliar territory, and I no longer took those suspicions personally.
Anita led me through a shallow foyer into the family room. From the adjacent kitchen wafted the aromas of melted cheese, grilled chicken, seared beef, and whole-grain rice. The casseroles prepared by loved ones for the grief-stricken widow.
She sat down on the burgundy leather loveseat, and I took a brown club chair on the other side of the coffee table. We chatted for a few minutes about the weather — unseasonably warm; the price of gasoline — exorbitant; and the best ways to keep carpenter ants out of the house.
Unlike many women who have lost a spouse, Anita had not neglected domestic chores. Drag marks in the eggshell-white carpet indicated she had vacuumed recently, and no dust motes clung to the surfaces of end tables or shelves. Perhaps she took comfort in the mundanity of housework.
She said, “Do you do this often?”
“Help people contact the dead?” I nodded. “Three or four times a week, I guess. Sometimes more frequently, depending on the time of year.”
“That’s good to hear,” she said. Then, cheeks flushed, she corrected: “Not good that your work is needed so often, but good that I’m not alone. I don’t feel so silly anymore.”
I noticed there were no photographs of the late Mr. Kranz on display, nor were there any signs a man had ever lived in this house. No golf clubs leaning in the corners, no beer steins or animal antlers as décor.
People deal with loss in different ways. Some surround themselves with material representations of their loved ones, while others eliminate all reminders of the deceased from their homes. Anita Kranz obviously fell into the latter camp.
“Are you married?” she asked as she absently smoothed an unwrinkled throw pillow with her right hand.
The question stung. Roger’s face appeared in my mind’s eye: thick black hair, strong jaw, gentle eyes. I was embarrassed to admit it, but I had imagined our wedding on more than one occasion since our first date six months previously. He was almost twenty years my senior, but the difference had made him more, rather than less, appealing. He had seemed so steady, so safe.
“No, I’ve never been married.”
“That’s a shame.” Anita twisted her gold wedding band around and around her left ring finger, an unconscious habit that had probably sustained her through every bad day over the last eleven years. “Marriage is God’s greatest gift to us, a sacred blessing.”
“My parents have been together thirty-two years. They bicker like siblings, but they’re also best friends. I would love to experience that someday.”
“That’s what I had with my husband,” Anita said. “We used to stay up all night talking and laughing. He knew what I was thinking before I said it.”
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. “That’s really beautiful.”
“Are you in a relationship now?” Anita asked.
The question might have seemed intrusive given different circumstances, but because I shared such personal experiences with my clients, I had grown accustomed to reciprocity. “I just got out of one, actually,” I said. “I thought we might walk down the aisle someday, but I haven’t heard from him in days. He just sort of — vanished. I guess he was too much of a coward to tell me it was over.”
My lower lip trembled on the last word, so I clamped it between my teeth. I could share my story with Anita Kranz, but I could not burden her with my pain
Anita’s expression did not change, but I sensed in her a spring-coil tension, a pressure that sought release despite her desire to repress it. “Well, that’s terrible. Was it a long relationship?”
“Just six months, I guess, but it seemed like forever. I really thought he could be the one.” I wiped at my eyes and smoothed the creases out of my floral-print skirt. Heat flooded my cheeks. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, Mrs. Kranz. My love life troubles are nothing compared to what you must be going through. Please, forgive me.”
She nodded stiffly. “Of course.”
“Well, you called me here for a reason, and I want to help. Are you ready to contact your husband?”
Another nod. “What do I have to do?”
I pushed all thoughts of Roger out of my head, determined to focus on the widow Kranz. Never previously had I allowed my personal life to interfere with my work, and I could not make an exception just because some guy had decided he no longer wanted me.
A voice arose in the back of my mind: He wants you. He loves you. Something is wrong. He needs your help.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, lest Anita mistakenly think my derision was directed at her rather than at myself. I might have been a medium, but nobody is immune to the pitfalls of romantic entanglements. I was just as vulnerable as anyone else to misreading a lover’s intentions.
“It’s simple,” I told Anita. “All you have to do is focus on your husband. Picture him in your mind. See the color of his eyes, the lines of his face, the profile of his body. Imagine he’s sitting right across from you, reading the morning paper, asking about your plans for the day. Close your eyes and imagine he’s here in the room with us.”
Her eyelids fluttered and fell, and her hands went slack in her lap. Lines appeared across her pale forehead as she concentrated on her memories.
“Listen for his voice, Anita. Smell his cologne. Hear his favorite catch-phrases, or maybe the pet name he reserved just for you. Bring him back to life in your mind.”
This was the hardest part. Grieving spouses often found it difficult to conjure in their minds perfect replicas of those they had lost. It took strength and iron will to make it through one of these sessions, and more than a few of my clients had given up before making contact, unwilling to subject themselves to the pain.
Anita, however, seemed inordinately tough despite her small stature and quiet voice. She projected an air of fortitude and conviction, of faith and power.
When I was certain that she had done as I asked, I closed my own eyes and stilled my thoughts. Contrary to popular belief, it is impossible for a human being to empty his or her mind. The brain operates regardless and irrespective of desire; it can be focused but never silenced.
Consequently, I never attempted to empty my mind during a session. Instead, I focused on the person for whom I was performing the reading, just as that person focused on the individual with whom she hoped to speak.
Anita materialized behind my eyelids like a frame projected onto a movie theater screen. I saw the curve of her shoulders, the harsh part down the center of her hair, the sharp angle of her jaw.
The longer my eyes remained closed, however, the more uneasy I became. It usually took no longer than a few seconds to make contact with the spirit plane, but today my mind resisted the connection.
My discomfort grew with each passing moment, and I struggled to calm my nerves. Perhaps my disappointment over Roger ran deeper than even I had realized. Maybe I had invested too much of myself in my feelings for him. For a moment, I worried that this doomed relationship had somehow altered my psyche, stripped me of my gift. Was that possible? Could the intensity or nature of certain emotions divest me of this inexplicable ability, this talent that had become a defining aspect of who I was? If I could no longer serve as a medium for the bereaved, who would I be?
I could not allow my insecurities to interfere with my work. Anita needed closure, an opportunity to say all the things her husband’s untimely death had robbed her of the chance to tell him. If I failed in that, my gift was rendered worthless anyway.
Frustrated, I redoubled my efforts to concentrate, and after a few seconds, I felt the familiar floating sensation that indicated I had established contact with the spirit plane. My body became lighter, less cumbersome, and I was suddenly less aware of my skin, my bones, my blood.
A voice rose in my head: Familiar, yet foreign; rough, yet affectionate. “Anita?”
“He’s here,” I said. My voice sounded distant, muffled, as though I were wearing a pair of ear plugs.
The voice: “Tell her I forgive her. Tell her it’s all right now. She did what she had to do, and I’m at peace.”
I frowned. Usually spirits communicated messages of love, of devotion. Rarely did they mention any transgressions from their mortal lives — whether committed by themselves or by loved ones. “He says you’re forgiven,” I told Anita. “He wants you to know he’s at peace.”
The voice again: “Tell her I know how much I hurt her, but she doesn’t have to do this. She’s gotten her revenge, and she won’t gain anything by committing another vengeful act.”
His voice became increasingly familiar as he continued to speak, and I found myself focusing more on the quality of his tone, on the nuances of his speech, than on the words themselves.
“He’s urging you to give up on revenge,” I said. “He wants you to realize it won’t bring you any comfort.”
“Remind her about that day on the beach,” Mr. Kranz said. “The day I asked her to marry me. Remind her of what I said about commitment, and tell her I still mean all of it.”
“Anita,” I said, “he wants you to remember the day he proposed. He’s sending me images of a sandy beach, a rickety lifeguard stand, a big blue-and-green umbrella. He says he still means what he told you about commitment.”
Mr. Kranz had projected into my mind his recollections of that day on the beach. As though I were recalling it from my own memory, I could see the gentle curl of the waves as they rolled toward shore. I could smell the salty air and hear the flutter of seagull wings. Next to me, a younger Anita stared into my eyes — her future husband’s eyes — with a smile full of giddy anticipation. She looked thirty years younger. Free. Unencumbered. Relaxed.
“He’s urging you to move on with your life,” I said as I struggled to maintain the connection. It was disjointed, unstable, like a television interrupted by static. “He wants you to forgive yourself and he hopes you’ll forgive him. He wants you to know that you’re a good person.”
It was the strangest message I had ever conveyed from a spirit to a client. I had relayed sentiments about love and sex, about experiences too personal to mention in polite company, but this felt somehow more intimate, as though I were eavesdropping on a conversation I had no right to hear.
The dead did not cling to grievances as was common among the living. They had moved on from the mortal coil and left behind all the baggage accumulated over a lifetime of mistakes and disappointments. Rarely did they mention petty disagreements or stress-induced bickering. Occasionally the living wished to apologize to the dead, but I had never seen it happen the other way around.
Suddenly the voice became louder, clearer: “I’m sorry for you, too, Ellen. I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. But right now you have to listen to me, okay? Run. You need to run!”
The connection snapped. Mr. Kranz’s voice disappeared, and the mortal world rushed back to me in a flood of noise and motion. I opened my eyes, momentarily paralyzed by surprise, then leapt to my feet.
On the other side of the coffee table, Anita Kranz had stood up, as well, and in her slender hands she held a pistol that looked too heavy for her frail arms to support. Her eyes, previously a crystalline blue, had turned as cold as the steel around which her fingers were now wrapped.
“Nothing else? Roger’s got no more sweet nothings to whisper in your ear? Nothing he’d like you to pass along to me, his wife?”
Roger. Of course. The voice had been his. Soft, mellifluous, like honey poured over warm bread.
My hands shook as I contemplated the gravity of my situation. This information was too much to process, and I found myself shutting out the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me. Not only was Roger married, not only had he lied to me throughout our whirlwind courtship, but he was also dead. Gone. Never coming back.
My eyes drifted around the living room in search of a weapon, an escape route, a distraction. Anything to even the odds with Anita’s gun. Although she did not move toward me, I sensed her emotional advancement. She was losing the ability to control the pressure she had struggled to contain since I walked through the door.
“Hammond,” I said. “He told me his name was Roger Hammond. Not Kranz. Hammond.” As if repeating his fictitious surname over and over might convince her she had made a mistake. “You killed him. You killed Roger because…because of me?”
The gun. The ice-cold eyes. “Go to the head of the class. I thought mistresses were supposed to be airheads. Bimbos. You don’t strike me as either.” Her eyes traveled the length of my body, though the gun never wavered. “Heck, you’re not even blonde.”
Her comment on my hair color struck me as so bizarre that I nearly burst into laughter. Pressure of my own built inside my chest until I thought it might explode.
“Why did you invite me here?” I asked. “What was the point of all this?”
Anita replied, “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you are an idiot. I brought you here because it takes two to make an affair. One — “ she pointed at the ceiling, as though to indicate the heavens — “And two.” She pointed at me.
Somewhere outside the house, a diesel engine rumbled. A visitor? Friends and family members often visited unannounced in the days following a loved one’s tragedy. If Anita’s brother or neighbor or college roommate dropped by, perhaps I could escape the house without acquiring a new orifice.
I listened for the slam of a car door or the clomp of footsteps on the front walk. Nothing. Of course.
Her fingers curled more tightly around her weapon, the perfectly manicured nails gleaming in the shaft of late-afternoon sunlight that pierced the window to our left. “You’re psychic, for God’s sake. How did you not expect this? If you’re this lousy at your job, I guess it’s okay that I’ll never pay you for your services.”
“I’m not psychic! I’m a medium. I can communicate with the dead, but I can’t see the future!”
Anita shook her head. “Not my problem.”
“Look, I know how you feel. It must be a terrible betrayal when your husband is unfaithful. I can’t imagine the pain you’re in, and I hate that I took part in causing it. But Anita, I’m not the enemy here. I came here to help you. Nothing else.”
The back door was about twenty feet away, the front door thirty feet in the other direction. I didn’t know the exact speed at which bullets could travel, but I felt confident in the assumption that they were faster than I.
What if I rushed her? Just leapt across the coffee table, wrapped my hands around her throat, and took her down? Maybe the gun would fly out of her hand. Then I could easily overpower her.
This was happening too fast. I couldn’t think.
Anita said, “My sister was right. It was his time. And now it’s yours.”
She took one step closer to the coffee table, centered the pistol on my chest, and pulled the trigger.