It was Saturday night. Emily’s funeral had only been a few days earlier and was, depressingly, still fresh in Alison’s mind. She was lying in her bed with the television on.
Several things were bothering her and she had nothing but the television to try and distract her from them. Emily’s death was one of them. The other things ranged from important to strange to probably not so important at all, including her encounter with Death at one end of the spectrum, and her disappointment with Josh at the other.
She ran a hand through unbrushed hair. Greg had wanted to keep her company but she had declined, telling him she didn’t feel well. Lifting the remote, she changed the channel. She wished she could think of something constructive to do but business had slowed down that week for the first time in months. She hadn’t had a job since she had gone to April Longstrum’s and exorcised the spirit in her attic.
To her surprise, her phone began to ring. Glancing over at it, she wondered who was calling. It was already past ten. Customers tended to stop calling after 8:30 unless it was an emergency so she doubted it was work-related. Leaning toward her bed stand, she snatched up the phone. Marissa’s name appeared on the screen. She picked up. “Hello?”
“Alison. It’s Marissa.” She sounded like she was crying.
Marissa sniffled audibly from the other side. “I’m just… I’m really upset right now. I keep thinking about Emily and how she died. I’m thinking about how I saw it in the cards… and I didn’t even say anything.”
“It’s not your fault she died,” Alison reminded her.
“I didn’t even warn her. I keep thinking… I should’ve said something to her. I wonder… I wonder if I could’ve kept her from doing it. It was such a shock finding out she killed herself. It’s been really awful.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” She had known that Marissa and Emily had been friends. She felt like she hadn’t realized just how close the two had really been.
“Now it’s too late. Her funeral was already… I don’t know what to do.” Marissa started to cry harder.
Alison felt uncomfortable listening to the younger woman’s emotional outburst. She wasn’t used to dealing with this sort of thing. Women didn’t call Alison just to cry on her shoulder. They called to have her come over their haunted houses and take care of unwanted spirits in their closets. This, however, was something Alison wasn’t normally exposed to. “Are you going to be all right?” She wracked her brain for something comforting to say. What did people do in these situations? “If you want, I can come over and keep you company,” she tried.
“Uh, yeah. I could do that.”
The woman sounded glad by the idea so Alison assumed she must’ve said the right thing. “I’d really appreciate that, Alison. Thank you. You didn’t have plans tonight, did you?”
“I usually don’t,” Alison admitted.
Marissa said, “Why don’t you come over then.”
Alison wrote down Marissa’s address and apartment number before hanging up. Tucking it into her pocket, she looked around her room absently. She supposed she should put on some decent clothes then. She had spent the last few days living out of her pjs.
Going to her closet, she dug out a beige top and a pair of jeans. She could only imagine what Greg would say if he caught her leaving. He’d complain that it wasn’t fair for her to say she didn’t feel like hanging out with anyone just to head over to someone else’s house instead an hour later. That was just how he was. The jealous type, even when he had no right to be jealous in the first place.
Once she was dressed, she headed down the stairs and outside. She locked the front door, taking several cautious glances around. Good. Greg wasn’t there. If she was quick enough, she could escape and he’d be none the wiser. She went to her car. The address was a street she was familiar with. Her job required her to find a lot of personal residences since her business was 100% house calls. Experience and far too many hours of getting lost had given her a rather good mental map of the city.
She began driving. It felt nice being able to do something for someone else once in awhile. She hoped her visit would help lift Marissa’s spirits, even if it was just a little. She had been on her own for so long that she never really got the opportunity to “be there” for people anymore.
When she got to the building, she parked in the lot and climbed out of her car. She headed into the building. Marissa buzzed her in and walked through the lobby, turning left down the hall. The woman’s apartment was a long, two-story building. Her room was on the first floor at the end of the hall. Alison knocked and Marissa let her in.
The room was decorated pleasantly if not simply. It reminded Alison of her own residence. Just the bare necessities. A grey and blue couch, probably bought at a garage sale, sat against the wall beneath a wide window. A small, flatscreen television was in the corner of the living room. The only other piece of furniture that Alison could see was a round, honey-stained dining room table. It also looked as if the couch actually doubled as Marissa’s bed too. There were blankets and a pillow balled up at the end of the couch.
“Thanks so much for coming,” Marissa said, wiping at her nose with a tissue. Her eyes were swollen and red.
“Not at all.”
Marissa gestured to the couch. “Go ahead. Sit down. Do you need anything to drink?”
“I’m fine.” Alison made her way to the couch. She pushed aside the pile of blankets and took a seat. “You feeling any better?”
“It kind of comes at me in waves,” Marissa replied. She sat beside Alison on the couch. “I think I’m all right and then it just hits me and I feel bad again. I’ve been feeling responsible for everything.”
“Don’t do that,” Alison said.
“It’s hard not to.”
“I know it’s hard but you can’t do that to yourself.” This whole thing had just been Linda’s death all over again. Marissa was reacting the same way Alison had when it happened. She blamed herself for it. “I know that actually… from personal experience.”
“My sister died when I was sixteen. That was when I started seeing spirits.”
Marissa nodded slowly. The light was turned on but the bulb wasn’t very bright, giving the room an amber hue. “I remember you saying something like that. At the coffee place.”
“I probably did. I tend to repeat myself.”
“No, not at all. What happened?”
“Right before it happened, I saw… I saw something that I don’t think I was supposed to see.”
“What was it?” Marissa asked.
“I think I saw Death. I saw him watching us from across the road. Actually, he wasn’t watching us, he was watching Linda. Linda was only fourteen at the time. I couldn’t make out his face. It was raining and he was standing in the shadow. He was wearing black. Even then, I was scared of him. I told Linda about him but she didn’t know what I was talking about. I was the only one that saw it.”
“What makes you think it was…” Marissa paused. “Death?”
“I didn’t know. I thought he was just a creepy guy. But I felt weird crossing the street. It was like I already knew something was wrong. I kept thinking what a bad idea it was to cross and be on the same side of the road as this scary man hiding in the shadows.” Alison sighed, resting her chin in her hand. When did she get to be so talkative? It seemed like lately all she did was tell people too much about herself. “You can stop me if I’m making you feel uncomfortable.”
“You’re not. Go ahead.”
“Well anyway. He did something then. When we were crossing, he… it was like he…. willed it to happen. He lifted a hand. And then… a car came. I didn’t know then but the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. The car came and hit Linda. She died. Instantly, I think. I don’t remember too well. I passed out afterward. Before I passed out though, I saw the man swoop down like a… like a vulture… and wrap himself around Linda’s dead body. I knew then. I knew that he was Death and he had killed her.”
“What did you do?”
“When I woke up again, I was like this,” Alison replied. “A big, giant psychic reject. It never went away so I had to learn how to live with it. I blamed myself for a long time when it happened. I kept thinking… if I had just stopped Linda from crossing at that time. If we had walked faster. If we had walked slower. You know, like, what could we’ve done to change it? To stop it from happening? I should’ve taken the bad feeling I had seriously. If I had, maybe Linda wouldn’t have had to die.”
“I see what you’re getting at.”
“I’m saying you shouldn’t blame yourself. It took me a long time to stop blaming myself, but I did it,” Alison replied.
Marissa shook her head. “The funny thing is, I thought you said you couldn’t see the future. Isn’t that what you did then?”
“I don’t think so,” Alison said. “I didn’t know she was going to die. I saw him before she died but I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Did it ever happen again?”
Alison didn’t reply, her lips pursing together thoughtfully. Had it? She had seen Death at Daniel’s house. The figure had come out of the mirror and said some nonsense about the Blessed and something about her being a messenger. She wasn’t sure she wanted to tell Marissa quite that much. “Actually, I’ve seen him before. A few times. Do you remember when that bridge collapsed four years ago?”
“Yeah. I remember.”
“I saw him then. I saw him right before my professor in school died too. And also….” She had almost forgotten. So much had happened that she hadn’t even thought of it. “I saw his face in Emily’s attic. It was when I first met her. I almost forgot about that one.”
“You saw him there?”
“I didn’t think it meant she’d die. But I thought something bad might happen. I… I told Josh to watch out for her. I told him I had a bad feeling.”
“So then, you see him every time someone’s about to die?”
“Oh no,” Alison said quickly. “It’s not like that. It’s really random. I hadn’t seen him for awhile actually. It just started happening again lately.”
“That’s so weird,” Marissa said. “Death, huh. I didn’t think Death was… a guy.”
“I don’t know what he is. I think he just… takes that form when he’s on earth. I don’t think he’s a person.”
“What is he then?”
Alison said, “I always thought of him as a force. A strong… really terrible, bad force. But who knows.” She looked down, remembering what Death had said to her in Daniel’s room. He had said he was just fulfilling his purpose and couldn’t be blamed for the things he did. “If he really is just fulfilling his purpose, then it’s not his fault, right? His purpose just happens to be to kill people.” Death was killing people. But, was he really killing them, then? If he was meant to kill them, then maybe he was just the image of their pre-destined death… personified into a physical being. Maybe he just represented what was going to happen to them. If all of it was already decided beforehand, was he just a messenger then himself. Could that be right?
“That’s a little too deep for my taste,” Marissa replied. “But I think about things like that too.” Her hands went to her purse beside the couch, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. She took one out, tempting Alison with the sight, and lit it with her lime green lighter. “I’d like to think we have total control over our… our fates, you know? That life isn’t all destined to just go one way or another.” She took in a breath of smoke.
“I end up thinking about this kind of thing a lot, actually,” Marissa admitted. “Because of my ability. When you see the future, there’s a lot of doubt in your head about just how much control we really have over our lives. You’d think that if there really was free will, then the future’d be ours to determine. Instead, the future seems like it’s already laid out in front of us in a neat little road that doesn’t let us get off. That kind of thing scares me. Thinking I have no control. Every time I see the future and it comes true, I’m reminded of just how little control we really have.”
Alison stared at the cigarette between Marissa’s fingers. It had been days since her last smoke. But quitting was quitting. She was determined to remain smoke-free for at least another week or two. “You don’t think we have control?”
“I’d love to think we do but I just don’t know.” Marissa’s eyes followed Alison’s gaze. “The smoke bothering you?”
“No, no,” Alison said quickly, looking away. “I smoke too.”
“Sorry ’bout that.” Marissa waved the open pack at her with her free hand. “Want one?”
“That’s okay. I’m trying to quit.”
“Why would go and do something like that?” She took another drag. “Sucks to be you right now, huh.”
“Basically.” Alison looked at Marissa again. “Anyway, I don’t think you should worry too much. Maybe you’re just seeing the results of our free will ahead of time.”
Marissa smiled. “Hey, I like that. It’s optimistic. I like optimism. But I don’t know. I really can’t tell. All I know is, somehow, the futures I see always come true.”
“What do you do when you see the bad ones?”
“Oh, that.” Marissa said, “I’ve come up with different ways to handle it. Something I’ve done for the past few years is treat my premonitions as if they already happened. Like… when you watch the news. They tell you a mom and her kid died in an accident and you’re sad for them but that’s all you do about it. You feel sad. It already happened. It’s not like you could’ve stopped it from happening. So that’s what I do. I treat it like it’s already done and over with. I make myself forget that it hasn’t happened yet. If it’s bad news. I feel bad. That’s it. But it’s not always bad. I see good futures too. Those are the kind I like.”
“Do you ever see your own future?”
Marissa shook her head. “No. I don’t see my own future. But since I see other people’s future around me, they can sometimes involve me in some small way. So, in that way, I do see bits and pieces of my future as a result of the futures around me.”
“Hold on,” Alison said. “I don’t get it.”
“Like, when I was little. I’d see my mom cooking in the kitchen in my dream. Then she’d turn and call me down and I’d see myself coming down. But from her eyes. It wasn’t actually my future but I can tell what’s going to happen to me based on her future.”
“I wonder why you can’t see your own future?”
“Did you ever…” Alison stopped, wondering if it was an appropriate question or not. She wasn’t trying to sound as if she were accusing Marissa of anything, but she was curious what it meant to know the future and know there was nothing she could do about it. “Did you ever actually try and change a future you saw?”
Marissa didn’t reply right away. She took let out a slow cloud of billowing, grey smoke from her mouth. After a few seconds, she said, “Yeah, I did. When I was little, I was always trying to stop the bad fortunes from coming true.” She looked at Alison. “You know what ended up happening?”
“My actions… even though I was trying to help… ended up being the cause for the bad thing that happened. I’d try and help and instead of helping, I just ended up hurting people. I made the bad fortunes come true. It would turn out that I was the one responsible for making it happen.” She laughed a little. “I stopped that real fast. Once I figured out what I was doing, I never tried to help again.”
“No wonder you don’t believe in free will.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe in it. I want it to exist,” Marissa said. “I just don’t think it does.”
“I know. It is morbid. I’m being really morbid right now.” Marissa sighed out loud, wiping her hands roughly over her swollen face. “I’m never normally this depressing. I promise. This is a one time thing only.”
“You don’t have to say that.”
“No, honestly. This isn’t who I usually am. I gotta make this up to you. Next weekend we’ll go out. We’ll get really drunk and meet some guys. It’ll be great.”
“Alright,” Alison said. “That sounds good.”
“Excellent.” She lowered the cigarette in her hand, hanging her head lazily in front of her. “I gotta stop doing this to myself. It’s not getting me anywhere.”
“I told you not to blame yourself so much,” Alison said.
“I won’t. I won’t. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve blamed myself for way too many things that I had no control over. I’m not going to do it anymore.”
“Good. Live and learn, right?”
“I hope so,” Marissa said. Letting out a breath of air, she stood up then, heading into the narrow kitchen. She stepped over the tiled floor to her refrigerator, the tiny cigarette hanging from her mouth. “Want a beer?”
“Yeah, I could use a beer.”
She pulled two out and started back to the couch, balancing a scratched glass ashtray along with the two cans. She handed one beer to Alison and sat down again, balancing the ashtray on her couch armrest and setting her smoking cigarette butt in it. Popping her can open, she took a sip. “Oh boy. What a day.” She glanced at Alison. “So how’s the business goin?”
Alison drank from her own can of beer. “Slow, actually. It’s been a busy season. I’m surprised no one’s called me for days now.”
“Uh oh. That’s never good.”
“Yeah, I know. I thought I’d want the days off but now that I have them, I haven’t done anything with them. I just keep hoping a customer’ll hurry up and call.”
“Hey, you should try advertising more. Like in the newspaper,” Marissa suggested.
“I don’t like to do that. I just stay listed in the phonebook.”
“Or you could make a TV commercial. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Alison laughed. “I’d be too embarrassed. I don’t like advertising how weird I am. I figure they’ll figure it out once they look me up. Besides, it sounds expensive.”
“But you gotta admit, it’d be great for business,” Marissa said.
“There’re talk shows you can get on too. If your story’s interesting enough, they fly you in for free. I’m sure they’d let you on. I bet they never get real, live psychics on their show.”
“No way,” Alison said, shaking her head. She took another drink of her beer. “That is way too much attention. I could never do it.”
“I’d love to get on TV,” Marissa commented. “I love acting. Ever since I was little, I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to move to LA.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t have the money. Everything’s really expensive there. My parents convinced me I should just stay home and go to college instead. Not like it did me any good. Making minimum wage for my aunt is not how I pictured my life.”
“It’s not like you have to work there forever,” Alison said.
“Yeah, I know. But I’m good at it. So I do it.”
That was how Alison felt herself. It wasn’t like being a spiritual exorcist had been her life’s dream or anything, but it was easy, and she was good at it. So she did it. Alison finished her beer and set the empty can on the floor.