A lot went into the two days between point A and B. The morning after the DJ Danceparty—where I saw a dreary Wren take a passed out Autumn home—was punctuated by the swirling butterfly wings of change. I felt its breath.
She slid in easily enough. Between thoughts of work and clientele, between thoughts of Autumn’s unwelcome behavior and Wren’s peacock dress, Olivia wrapped her arms around my back, scraping her teeth against my neck, and pushed muscle against muscle. Her eyes were lures of green in the dark. Her mischievous mouth invited me in and through. She filled me.
Yet she stepped away as quickly as she had come, dipping low and leaving me alone at the front door of my house like some high schooler after a dance. It was our way; our trust, though strengthening, swirled around possibility and my paranoia, her secrets. She, the jealous one. Me, the uncertainty.
Stumbling groggily through my large, hand-me-down house, I grabbed a banana from the kitchen. It was as active as ever: Lady Grinning, a six hundred year old residual, tended a fire that burned a foot beneath the floor; the recent addition of a red-headed boy peered around the hallway door; Rustic Man’s cigar smoke permeated.
They, the enlightened dead. I could spend a chapter discussing energy, here, but I won’t. I’m tired of trying to explain this to everyone. Nobody believes me anyway.
Regardless, I see the dead, and their energies. It is a gift given to me by an enigmatic creature by the name of Malchus Porphyry of Tyre: once a man, now a shade with centuries of knowledge. Jack.
The shade lurked around here somewhere.
My head slightly swimming, I walked a wide berth around Lady Grinning’s fire and descended the stairs to the house’s half-finished basement. The other half, an untended crawlspace and mounds of dirt divided by a dungeon-style, ancient oak door. Lights never worked properly, so I used candles. The morning sun did not wake me with its insistent light; I woke to an alarm, or naturally around seven. Plus, I had grown paranoid.
And paranoia came with a cost.
In a bout of honesty, a few months back, Olivia shared a secret: she was a demon.
Every human has the capability of being demonic. It’s a clarification that speaks on the nature of the person: the philosophy. Any person can live in Fear: that isn’t to say the person is afraid. To the contrary, the person prefers Fear as a tool for accomplishing goals instead of Love.
Unfortunately Olivia spoke of the religious kind. Before Christianity overwhelmed societies—before it was cool to be a part of the Catholic Club—it was a many-faceted diamond much closer to Eastern religion. Demons weren’t all evil. They were like elementals: they existed with as many different personalities. Sometimes, as people. Angels and Demons were the same, with names like Eudaemon and Cacodaemon.
I had no idea which one Olivia was. She didn’t divulge, saying instead that she was as much a demon as I. She had a point: if she wasn’t a true demon, which was also possible, I was sacrificing a potentially very awesome relationship with a very awesome person for the sake of this odd paranoia. So we stepped around each other like dancers.
I wanted her here in my bed. I wanted her curving, sweating body throwing the covers off from on top of me. I wanted oil. I wanted lit candles. Incense burning. I wanted the entire touch of her whole body. Her everything. I wanted Malchus out of the bedroom. I had been pulled taut for nearly four months by her teasing, her physical promises of things to come. Something had to give. Something had to break. She drove me crazy.
I think I drove her crazy, too. I hoped.
Whatever. I still slept alone, despite the games.
Sleep came to me on chariot wheels of exhausted sexual expectation and alcohol.
She woke me in the morning with an apology. Wren, not Olivia. She had a way of moving, like some kind of curious kitten, though she didn’t talk like one. She woke me by yelling down the stairs of the basement at eight o’clock sharp, “Hey! Sorry about Autumn last night. Did you get any?”
“Good!” She slammed the door and I fell back to sleep.
I awoke a second time to a killdeer’s chirp. This time, it was the squeaky door leading to the basement, opening by wind, or the dead, or gravity. I rubbed my face, preparing myself for a shower, breakfast, and lots of water. Lots, lots, lots of water. I didn’t want to get up. My head moved faster than my body, all the tension of the tether between my brain and my neck aching.
The kitchen, bright, with Wren preparing a batch of candles for the day. And cookies. She liked making cookies in the morning. She said, a long time ago, that it felt like home. “Hey sunshine. You’ve got some bills on the table. I picked up some Kale. Because, well, I hear it’s awesome.”
I rubbed the back of my neck again. “As long as it’s not drenched in sugar and baked into ‘chips.’ Why—” I stopped. I heard that chirp again. The microwave turner squeaked due to a broken wheel. “I was about to complain. Nevermind me.”
“Complain away,” she said, reading through a coupon book. “I can take it!”
She nodded, then pulled her hair back. She looked as sober as ever, acted like she’d had twelve full hours of sleep. No symptoms from the night before. “It’s kale, you know?” I asked. I didn’t know how to say it. “Why must we slather it with disgusting crap?”
“To sell it. Money, ‘Fisher. Money money money.” She circled something in the newspaper. “I’d like some, someday.”
I watched a murder of crows flap about on the fence outside, all simultaneously trying to balance on a clothes line, little feet swerving back and forth. Then, a bird on the ground. Brown. White stripes on its legs.
“Ever seen a snipe?” I asked.
She glanced up, confused, default smile inching up her cheeks. “Snipe? Isn’t that a fake, um, bird?”
I pointed out the window, filling a cup with water from the sink. She stood beside me. It sat and chirped as if someone were too close to its nest of eggs, and it fumbled around on my back porch as if it had a broken wing. The crows cawed, most too busy balancing to take notice. A few stared down, heads cocked to one side, wondering what the strange outsider did. I felt its pain.
“That’s also known as a killdeer.” She nodded.
I shrugged. “I’ve heard it for the past few days.”
“Why is it acting like that?”
“Nest must be nearby.”
It was unobtrusive enough. Yet the whole thing felt… haunting. I felt ill-at-ease. Uncomfortable.
Symbols often had ways of making me wake up and take notice. That little bird’s cheep permeated everything.
When I was six I spent a summer playing with the nest of one of those birds. To draw me away, it feigned injury so I would chase it instead of its nest. It had made the nest in my grandparents’ gravel driveway, and my Aunt eventually ran the nest over. On accident. The bird didn’t recover so well.
“I just have a few questions for you,” Wren fake-cheerfully said in the front room. I realized she’d left for a customer while I thought about the past. I filled my glass again. She talked to a prospective client of mine, a woman that sounded in tears. “Full name including middle names and nicknames of importance.” The woman replied. I heard an um somewhere. “What is your totem? Or totems?” she asked. The woman gave a surprised reply I could not hear. “Oh these are just a simple set of questions to figure out your affiliation and focus. Astrological sign? Okay. Religious affiliation? Spiritual affiliation?” There was a pause when the lady asked another question. “They rarely do, Miss. Major fears? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Do you have any items you put a lot of faith into, even for personal reasons?” The lady said something. “Necklaces, bracelets, rings, uh, books of importance, antiques, anything religiously related, paintings, family heirlooms. Things of that nature?”
I enjoyed her questioning. Most of the list she thought up herself as a pre-screening process, mostly because I had asked her those questions when she started coming to me with people asking for help. Most people in average society had little idea how much a word, totem, or anything would tell about a person. I mostly looked for people with intense focus in certain areas, while also keeping the more general beliefs in the front of my mind.
Answers to those questions were also a key to understand their symbol base: their cryptic.
“Tattoos?” The lady sounded nervous in her laughter. Wren asked a few more questions.
The killdeer continued flipping about on the back patio. The more I watched, and the more it continued to focus on me, the more unsettled I got. I decided to humor it by stepping on the patio. The crows took flight immediately. The killdeer, on the other hand, jumped back, closer to the grass beyond, and started squawking its shrill sound. I slid toward it again, and it jumped back a little further. I walked straight out, moving right at it at a steady pace and it simply leapt into the grass and started running on its little striped brown feet. I chased it a few hundred feet until it took wing and returned to the patio to peck at something in the ashes of my little fireplace.
I wondered if Olivia had a pair of killdeer wings on her wall. She had many. I wished…
It seemed entirely uninterested in me until I returned and sat on some of the patio furniture.
“Soren? Someone to see you,” Wren said with a half-smile. She seemed to have no interest in the little brown bird. A magenta summer dress nearly fell off her shoulders, though I wouldn’t possibly consider her scantily clad. A corduroy jacket she decided not to wear in this Indian summer heat draped over her chair in the store.
She grinned nearly imperceptibly when she saw I looked a little too long and handed me her interview sheet. I wondered what she thought of last night.
Whatever. A woman stepped out, middle-aged with short-cut, curly-permed-and-dyed hair. She smudged her glasses somewhere along the line. Her blouse didn’t fit right. She recently lost a lot of weight. The paisley color didn’t match her striped slacks, which also didn’t fit her properly. The heels on her open-toed flats were scuffed. She wore a silky shoulder-cover that served as a half opened vest, half scarf. Her eyes were red around the corners, her palms had bruises on them from her nails cutting in too deep, and she had extra baggage on her face in little pouches.
The edges of her screamed of long-term self-destructive abuse.
“Good afternoon,” I said, offering her a chair on the back porch. The killdeer chirped wildly. “What can I do for you?”
She sighed heavily, trying to ground herself, although I wasn’t sure she knew that was what she did. “My son. He’s been missing for nearly a week. He’s only three years old.”
I nodded and waited for her to continue. Even her voice sounded like she didn’t listen to it anymore. Resigned, dejected, without intensity.
“I last saw him in Hyde park. He wore a little blue and green ballcap, bib overalls and a t-shirt. He wore Nike shoes.”
She looked at me expectantly, and then she looked away in a twitch. She hid something. Her fingers moved as if she held a cigarette. Her mouth frowned and twitched again. She looked at the bird screeching. She brushed at her hip as if someone tugged on it.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you, miss. I’m a healer, and I help you to find your center. I don’t find missing children. I know you’ve already done this, but the police can help.” It was entirely understandable for a parent to exhaust every possible resource when faced with a missing child. The police would do whatever they could for the child.
She stood, saying, “I can pay. I’m certainly happy to pay. Please.”
I shook my head. “I can not find your child.” Something else happened here. I watched the ticks, the actions-of-hiding, and I wasn’t about to get involved in it. “I can help you find peace.”
“I don’t want peace,” she growled, teeth clenched. “I want my baby back. Nobody is willing to find my boy! My sweet, sweet boy! I lost my husband to this! I have nothing in this world!”
It pained me. “Miss. I offer peace, and centering. I offer self-discovery. I can’t find your son.” She sniffled. I escorted her to the front door and out to her car. She carried a small bag of tealights from the shop.
“We could have helped,” Wren said quietly, touching my shoulder. She scratched at her waistline in a distracted way, mimicking the woman’s movement.
“Her son is dead.”
Wren gasped. “You don’t know that!” She watched the woman drive off down the drive, slow and deliberate. “Do you know that?”
I stopped, mouth half-open, trying hard not to be cold to her. “I could have helped, after a fashion. Wren, she knew he was dead. I imagine he’s been dead a long time. I imagine they’ve already found him. She wasn’t all here; she was too far beyond the veil for me to help.”
Wren’s frown grew deeper. “So. You’re saying she’s haunted?”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so. If she was, I could have done more. She wanted him back, alive and well, and in her arms. I couldn’t do that for her; nobody can. I had to send her on her way. I imagine she’s been to a few places like this before, and every one of them has failed.”
Wren nodded solemnly. “Gotcha, boss.”
I smiled a little. “Stop calling me boss.”
“Gotcha, ‘Fisher.” She looked smug in her humor. On the third day of working with me, she gave me the nickname Kingfisher. Uncannily enough, my full name was Soren Thomas Fisher Gahiji. Instead of calling me the full word, she abbreviated it to ‘Fisher. She only knew my first and last names. “So would you screw her?”
“That lady?” Then I caught myself. Of course not. “Autumn?” Wren, the blunt. I liked that about her. “Absolutely not. But I enjoyed last night in spite of her. I haven’t had a night out like that in a long time.”
“Have you screwed Olivia?”
My smile dissipated. She didn’t break eye-contact with me. “No.”
“Aw,” she said with that same half-smile. “Just wondered.” She swayed back and forth, in thought, looking across the back porch and patio. “Juust wondered. Y’know. She’s dangerous.” I knew her game. “We’ll have to go out again. Sometime. And make sure Autumn leaves that fake ID at home.”
“I’m dangerous, too,” I whispered. She looked at me, then looked away.
The killdeer still flapped about outside, chip chipping away as if I had stolen an egg and slowly poured its gooey yolk into my mouth. I mentally shooed it away.
The day shaped up to be a slow one, but pretty carefree. I got into the habit of hanging out on the back porch, squandering the day’s light to meditate and contemplate, and walk the roads of the city. It soothed me. I also handed out pamphlets for the business, talking to people who passed by. Some, as usual, came up to me and offered advice, messages, requested assistance. The homeless mostly, although again, I couldn’t help. The walks allowed me to deepen my center, something that I hadn’t done for more than four years.
I returned home around three in the afternoon.
Olivia came by, throwing me some basketball shorts and a wifebeater t-shirt. “Hallo Shepherd,” she said lightly. Everyone had a name for me. And, subsequently, I had a name for everyone else. It wasn’t so much a game but a mark of respect.
In the Astral plane, people had many names.
We were going to do tai-chi in the back yard. Before that, though, she pulled up a seat beside where I planned my upcoming week and crossed her legs over my calendar. “I almost punched that tart in the back of the head,” Olivia said. “What was her name again? Winter?” I shook my head. “Yeah. Inappropriate.” Olivia licked her lips in thought. “When’re you going to start helping everyone?” She squinted in the glare of the sun. “You keep telling me you want to be a healer. What’s holding you back?”
I looked at the fireplace coals. “Don’t know. I’m trying. That part of me takes time to come out.”
She glanced into the building, making sure Wren was out of earshot. “Sounds just dandy. Let her down, Soren. Let her down easy, but let her down so she doesn’t float for much longer. That girl’s been through enough.”
Her eyes flashed decide, asshole!
Another direct, to-the-point woman. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have to do anything, least of all decide on something that didn’t matter. She had no stake on me. I leaned forward. “She followed me through hell. And where were you? She’s got miles of my trust. You have my curiosity. When you choose to waste some serious time on me, you will get to tell me what to do. Understand?”
She hooded her eyes, though she smiled her quirky smile. Scrunching her shoulders forward slightly, she whispered, “So you wait for me to prove myself. Don’t forget what I did in your little misadventure.”
She did exactly what I wanted to do, for someone else. She soothed, calmed, assisted with the inner violence. She dove into me and pulled me to center, when I fought like a panicked child against the darkness. She did what I should have, for someone who never showed up. I shrugged. “No. I won’t forget.” I scratched my bald head. “She’s got the nightmares. We got the memories. You? Keep playing it safe and see where it gets you.”
Olivia nodded. “Do you love her?”
Love. Before I answered, a door slammed. “Hey! People!” It was masculine, powerful, aggressive, uncomfortable. Someone mumbled to someone else. I heard several sets of feet walking around to the back of the house.
My hackles rose. Rule one. Protect this house. They’ll be lucky if I didn’t call the cops on their trespass. I couldn’t afford to turn down business, I knew, but I also couldn’t afford to remove the layers of defense. Protect the house: as within, so without.
I stood while Olivia remained sitting, legs crossed and causal. The killdeer flew into the rolling hills behind the house. Six people appeared around the corner, led by a taller man in a bowler hat and a tight black muscle shirt. Built like a sensible brawler, with long, lean muscle and swagger to his step, he walked heavy with baggy jeans. I saw a single tattoo on his wrist—a knight chess piece—and he smoked a home rolled cigarette; Golden Virginia. I smelled it like incense, and it tasted amazing. Behind him, another man had a large production-style camera trained on the smoker’s back.
The wind blew just enough for his face to cloud over in a roil of smoke every time he breathed. He didn’t look like he even inhaled.
The guy in front jerked his head up in greeting as if he wanted another shot from the bartender. His smile was thin-lipped and aggressive, as expected, and he threw his hand at me. I shook it, and he embraced me in a “bro-hug,” his steely frame like rock. I wondered what he did in his free time.
“Hey,” he said with the slightest hint of smoker’s voice. “Seth.” Alpha Male, I added.
He stared at Olivia, who stared right back. I was unimpressed. “My property,” I said.
He winked at her. “Yeah, ‘bout that. Listen.” He flashed a full-toothed smile at Olivia and not me. “Sorry. Opened the front door and thought we was in the wrong place. Candles n’ shit. I was looking for a Soren. The ghost guy. Thought maybe he sat around back, doin’ séances and whatever.”
A month after I exorcised a nearby church, the local news did a big article on Wren and me, giving me some publicity while downplaying the murder of a father and daughter by a very unkind demon. The news called me “ghost guy,” as if that was what I did for a living.
“I’m Soren Gahiji.”
He grunted, giving me the once over with his eyes, then winked again at Olivia. “You don’t look so foreign,” he said, seemingly surprised at the last name. “Why don’t you change it to something a little more respectful. Like, Smith. Or something.”
“Or Maccabe!” someone else chimed in. He sneered. I guess he thought it passed for a smile.
I took a deep breath, nodded slightly, and said, “You know your way out.”
I turned my back on him and sat back down beside Olivia. She cocked her head to one side. One of the two women in the entourage said, sagely, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. They aren’t doing anything for us.”
I didn’t have time for prejudicial, careless people. I recognized him instantly from some of the stuff I’ve seen around town. He stood center as the leader of a group of paranormal instigators that called itself STIFS, or Supernatural Targeting Investigators From Syracuse, a group of six or seven people that walked around sensationalizing the paranormal by filming supposedly haunted places at night and making the most out of their meager acting skills by slapping each other off-camera, jumping at random times, and sending some runner around making spooky noises. I had no interest in validating their fake investigating. Also, their name brought about endless pervy jokes during the filming process.
“Yo yo! Yo wait up!” Seth yelled from three feet away. I didn’t swivel in my chair. “I didn’t catch your name,” he said with a sneer to Olivia, extending his hand.
She looked at it as a cat looks at sour milk, and shook her head. She wanted nothing to do with him. She observed him with distant aloofness, and had no problem simply staring.
To his credit, he kept his mouth shut.
“I will call the police,” I said without looking up at him.
“Wrong guy, then,” he said. “We were looking for a badass.” He stomped around the side of the house to his entourage.
I have never been a social person. I’m surprised I decided to be a healer in the first place. I wanted to help. I really, really did. But because of that exposé on the whole Church thing, I got more daredevils and séance-seekers than my expected clientele. Lots of haunted families. Lots of haunted places. A few local attractions had contacted me to do a reading, or a walk-through, to try and “find” the ghosts. As if they needed any help.
The Church expose had been the wrong kind of publicity, and it slowly killed my business. The faster that article disappeared the quicker I could move on with my life.
Plus, in spite of what Wren or Autumn or anyone said, I was not in the right mental place to be doing much of anything.
Like clockwork, the phone rang. Autumn. She sounded groggy and entirely abashed at herself. She apologized several times for the night before, even though I clearly heard I wish you had liked it in her voice. She annoyed me. Classic Midwestern girl playing belle, then macho.
She asked for a second chance. What? I glanced at Olivia, who grinned slyly as if she overheard it. I told the phone no. Autumn sighed uncomfortably and asked for a game of chess instead. I said, unequivocally, no. “I only play chess with one man.”
Nearly a minute later the crew stomped through the shop. Wren talked excitedly to Alpha. Four looked around. I imagined the fifth still followed with his camera eye. Alpha with the camera. I hoped he didn’t break anything.
One of the candle stands crashed to the ground. “Oh! Sorry, man. I’ll pay. Twenty bucks alright?”
Olivia rolled her eyes and tapped her wrist with a grey-painted fingernail. “Want to go do something?”
I shook my head. Not with the Pack in Wren’s shop. Wren’s shop, in my house.
Wren flew through the dining room in an instant, her eyes shining. “Okay. We gotta talk. We’ve got a camera in the store. More publicity is always good publicity. They’re the STIFS!” She tried to keep her composure but she jumped around like a schoolgirl. “They’re possibly going to buy some candles! Hey! Maybe they’re here to get help from you. Like, on a case or something.” She leaned in and whispered, “I would love to do that.”
Olivia stared long.
I shrugged. “Just get them what they need and get them out as soon as you can. I don’t want a disaster.”
The glitter dissipated. “You mean.” She looked into the house. She wanted to ask a few questions, but instead turned around and disappeared with a sullen, “Yes, boss.”
I went into the house with Olivia behind me. I prepared some food for her and me to eat, and while we sat at the table, we talked about the oddity of the killdeer. But the conversation inadvertently went back to the STIFS crew. “They won’t go away easily,” Olivia said quietly, playing with her honeydew.
“I know. I’ll call the cops if I have to.”
After all, the cops were at the end of my driveway: being implicated in a murder meant being watched by the police for six months. Six months of paying some guy to sit in his car and watch. I didn’t know it was possible to waste so much money and so many man-hours.
I wasn’t a fan of being put on display, and I figured Alpha wasn’t a fan of being turned away. Especially given his nonchalance about staying around. He talked to Wren for a while, flirting with her, until they left without buying anything.
The stand wasn’t broken. No harm done.
While we ate, I scratched another note on a sheet of to-do paper on the table. The calligraphic painter would come sometime later in the week, a commission that I’d pay in trade; I would do my work on his body while he did his on the house; he was an incredible Muslim calligrapher, and I had requested he paint a besmellah in the Bible room the shape of a thick-trunked tree. I’ve seen his work around town, and was quite impressed. Apparently he was impressed with my work, as well.
Or he was just testing it out to see if it’d work out for him.
The back door tap-tap-tapped with someone daintily knocking against it. I sighed, avoiding Olivia’s frown, and prepared for Alpha’s third tactic.