Ms. Josephine’s, Deep Ellum.
She walked me in without saying another word. Instantly all of the smells of the outside—the trucks, the trash, the sweltering concrete and runny tar that filled in the cracks in the road—all of it was gone in a flash. Replaced with the spice of cinnamon, vanilla, jasmine, and even the faint hint of some kind of berry floating in from somewhere.
This store, if in fact it is a store, is dark and cramped. It seems like the only source of light is the flicker of an occasional candle here and there. You can almost see books and small sculptures. There are lanterns, sticks, straw hats, and other more difficult to describe objects. It could be located in Somalia, this tiny store. Or in some jungle in the Congo. Dallas was gone.
This was, if I had to put one word on it . . . voodoo. But even that’s not enough.
There were several rows of strange books and new-age objects. And as we walked by I caught some of the titles:
The Other World.
Land of Shadows.
Walking Among the Dead.
Yeah, all of it feel-good stuff. In the background, as we approached a round wooden table near the back of the shop, I noticed that there were lots of little trinkets. Pieces of wood and clay, bent into strange shapes. And Ms. Josephine must have sensed that I was curious, because she started, stopped, and nodded.
“Dose are spiritual barrier-markers,” she said in a soft voice. And there was just a very clear French accent in her words. Creole, maybe.
“Do you need those?” I asked. “I mean, why do you need those?”
She continued tugging me to the small round table. In the center was a metal ashtray of some kind. There were several small burning chunks of something, and lines of smoke rising gently, twisting and turning around each other until they dissipated above. I’ve never been in a jungle, but this is what I imagine it might smell like right before you meet the witch doctor. I half expected to see a bubbling cauldron or shrunken heads.
“. . . oh, we don’t ‘ave nothin’ like dat, ’ere, Jack,” she said as if my thoughts were something she could read out of the air.
I had this uneasy feeling that I would never look at the world the same way after this. Like I was crossing some imaginary line. A line that I would never be able to uncross.
“How do you know my name?” I asked, feeling a bit naked around her.
She sat down on a rickety old chair that looked like it was made by children. Blind children. She motioned her thick fingers for me to do the same. And when we were both down in our squeaky groaning chairs, she placed her hands—palms down—on top of the table.
“I bet you ’ave a lot of questions you want me to answer,” she said, blinking her big, liquidy eyes at me.
Strangely, I felt safe with her. Almost like she was a teacher, or a relative. Someone I could confide in. I’m not sure why I felt like this. But I sensed this warmth about her.
“Did Ricky tell you I was coming over, today?” I asked. “Is this some kind of little joke you guys will have at my expense? I don’t mind if it is. I like a good laugh like the next mental patient. This whole—”
“Jack,” she interrupted, “. . . you need to relax and listen to what I am goin’ to tell you.”
“I am relaxed,” I blurted anxiously. “I’m good. Ready to listen. Hundred-percent open to your explanation.” My eyes danced around at all of the ‘spiritual barriers’.
She tapped her hands on the table, raising her eyebrows at my hands. I sighed, and placed my hands on the table. At this point in the game, there was no point in playing the skeptic. I came here for answers . . .
“. . . and dat’s what you goin’ get,” Ms. Josephine said.
Again, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, her words answered my thoughts. I nodded. “Okay, okay.” I took a deep breath, and let my shoulders hang.
She smiled at me, “Good, Jack. You’re doin’ really good. Sometimes it takes people two or tree visits just to get demselves comfortable enough to listen. To see. Da way we goin’ do dis is simple. You ask one question. And if I can answer it, I will. Den I will ask a question. And you got to do da same. Dere are no secrets ’ere. And if you ’ide tings from me—”
“I won’t,” I interjected. “I mean, you’d already know anyway, right?”
She laughed, sending the thin lines of smoke tumbling in all different directions. “Alright, you first.”
I cleared my throat. Be smart. Be like Detective Todd Steele. Ask the most logical, most reasonable, questions first.
“How do you know my name?”
“Your friend, Ricky.”
I nailed that one.
She continued, “. . . ’e talked to me about you a few months ago. February, if I remember right. ‘e’s takin’ a likin’ to you. Really wants to see you get out of dis intact.”
Something about that seemed ominous. Get out of this intact? I nodded slowly. Okay, so Ricky made some calls. So far, nothing I can’t live with. He’s a young kid, and young kids seek answers in unlikely places. Idealistic youth and all that.
“Now,” she said. “My question. What’s your last memory . . . before it all went dark?”
I considered her question for a while, just staring at the lines of grey smoke as they wiggle and vibrate to unseen forces.
“Truth is, I don’t remember anything. I just, I’ve got this sound in my head. Like a . . . like a hammer smashing down on a large anvil. Or, a bat hitting a baseball. That crack sound. That’s it.
“And then it’s just darkness and flashes of bright light. Which, I’ve been explained by the doctors, was just bits and pieces of the medical procedures as I went in and out of consciousness. Probably some random neurons firing, too. Brain chemistry reacting to trauma.” I shrugged. “Just the noise. That’s as far back as it gets.”
Her fingers lifted and lowered as if she was playing the piano, or typing on some computer. She closed her eyes for a moment, and started to gently rock back and forth. I half expected the ashtray to spark up, or a bright flash of light, or something. But no. She just rocked back and forth for a minute or so and then opened her eyes.
She had beautiful eyes. Unique in a way that I can’t put into words. Like they had been drawn by a great artist. They were too vivid. Like there was a tiny universe inside each one of them.
“Okay,” I closed my eyes for a moment, “. . . can I ever get my life back? My memories? Are they gone forever, like the doctors keep telling me?”
“Dat’s many questions,” she said. And before I could reply she continued, “. . . but I tink I can answer you. Your memories, and your old life, dem doctors is right. Dey are all gone, forever. You won’t never get your old life back.”
That was just about the biggest letdown of the century. My body slumped forward, as my eyes lowered.
“But,” she added, her voice lower than before, “. . . just ‘cause somethin’ is lost, don’t mean we can’t find it in other places.”
I looked up, my eyes narrow and confused.
“You see, while your old life is gone, and your brain is broken, dat don’t mean nothin’ on da other side.”
Stay logical. Be an investigator. Remain objective about all of this. “So, my memories are all gone, but you can get them back?”
“I can’t do nothin’, Jack. But I can show you da way. But dat path, it’s a path dat is very dangerous. A journey dat you may not want to take. Cause it’s one of dose tings dat, once you start it, you can’t ever stop. Not until it’s all over.”
She nodded. “Okay, child, tink of it like dis. Your memories, dey’s like a computer. Your computer got broken a bit. Messed-up your memory. But when you were using it, all of dose times before your accident, you were sending copies out. So dere is another copy of your memory, somewhere.”
“Somewhere . . . where?” I asked, knowing that this was about to get uncomfortable.
“De other side,” she said softly.
“The other side?”
She leaned forward, placing her hands on mine. They were warm. And her touch—human touch—felt good. I could feel her trying to empathize with me.
“Dere is another place, between dis world and da next. Your memories, and da details of your entire life, dey’s dere.”
“Can you get them?”
“No, child. I can’t.”
“You can’t, like, channel them or something. I mean, you’re a psychic, right? You call up the dead and talk to them.”
“I’m a channel, yes. I don’t feel tings da same way as others might. But we’s different.” She lifted her fingers briefly, kind of shrugging with her hands. “Psychics are like professional athletes, we’re all playing on da same field, but we ’ave different skills.”
“What are your skills?” I asked, still unsure where this was all going. I hoped she wasn’t going to ask me for money. Not that I wouldn’t have paid, but that I only have a twenty-dollar bill, and what’s left over from the bus ride and a Double Quarter-pounder with cheese.
“What I do is commune wit da dead,” she said matter-of-factly. “I try to ’elp people dat are stuck in limbo. People dat can’t move on. I try to ‘elp dem. Sometimes it means talking to deir children or deir parents. Other times, I just listen to dem. Let dem explain tings dey could never admit when dey was livin’. I’m a friend to da departed who can’t transcend.”
I wanted to ask her so many questions, but the one that kept repeating behind my eyes was, “Where are they? These people who are stuck, where are they stuck?”
“Dey’s stuck in a place very nearby.”
She stared at me for a moment, and then a slight grin appeared on her face as she cocked her head to the side and squinted. “. . . ’Ave you started seeing dem yet?”
Them. The shadows. The things that run around when I’m falling asleep. The little creatures that form from the darkness, and lurk among us. I didn’t have to answer. Ms. Josephine seemed to already know.
“And when do you see dem?” she asked, her hands gripping mine more firmly than before.
My mouth and throat were suddenly quite dry. “When I’m tired, mostly. Right as I fade off to sleep, and sometimes when I’m waking-up. That’s when the hallucinations come.”
“Dose are not dreams, child. Dose are da dead. Da wandering souls. Dose dat can’t move on. And other, darker tings, too.”
I didn’t really know how to respond. I’m either going crazy, or she is, or we both are . . . or neither of us are. I actually hoped it was one of the first three. That I could deal with. I can stomach brain disorder. I can palate dysfunction based on severe trauma to the head. I can deal with stress-related dementia.
What I don’t want to hear is that the things I see are real. I want something I can take a pill for. I want an answer that can be cured by 20 cc’s of this, or three milligrams of that. Electroshock? Sign me up. You want me to stand in front of a group of strangers and tell them I was touched in inappropriate ways by my uncle? No problem. I’ll do whatever it takes to be rational. For this to be sane.
Anything but this.
There are no ghosts in Todd Steele novels. The dead don’t commune with the living. Shadows don’t jump out from behind doorways and gather around sick people, waiting for something to happen. Things that you can’t see don’t scream at you to look away.
No, none of these things ever happened to Todd Steele.
“Ms. Josephine,” I asked, “. . . can you see them, too?”
“No, child. Not like you can. Whatever ’appened to you, it opened a doorway to da other side. I can ‘ear dem. I can even talk to dem. But you . . . you can see dem. And my guess is, dey can see you too. Dey’s goin’ try and communicate with you, sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time. And when dey do, you ’ad better be prepared.”
“And how do I do that?”
She patted my hands several times and then backed away, standing slowly. I could tell by the way she stood, that she was aching.
“Are you alright?”
“Oh, dat’s just my old bones lettin’ me know who’s boss.”
She didn’t look older than forty. Fifty tops. And her skin was clean, her face energetic and powerful. She seemed healthy.
Again, with her parlor trick, she replied, “Oh, I’m much older dan fifty, child.”
She smiled as she walked to a small doorway that was almost hidden from the front of the shop. Several strings of plastic beads clicked and clacked together as she disappeared into another room. A minute later she appeared again, holding a dusty leather-bound book. It looked about a hundred years old, with yellowed pages.
“Much older dan dat,” she said as she laid it down in front of me.
I looked up. “What is this?”
“I want you to go back to da ‘ospital and read dis. I want you to understand what you’re gettin’ yourself into. When you’re done readin’ it, you bring it back and you can give me your answer.”
“I need to pursue this,” I insisted. “Nothing is going to change my mind.”
I told her how I needed to know what happened. Who I was. What I was. I told her that there might be a family out there—a mother, or children—looking for their father. People might be counting on me. And I suddenly disappeared. For them, and for me . . . I needed to follow this as far as it takes me.
“Read da book, child,” she said, patting me on the shoulder. “And when you’re done, we’ll talk about it.”
I opened the book and noticed that it was in some language I didn’t know. And actually, it was in a language I had never even seen before. “What is this?” It was all sorts of dots and swirls and scribbles. It looked alien, or nonsensically childish.
She laughed politely, “. . . you know dis language, even if you don’t remember it. Da pages read from bottom to top, and from right to left. Give it a little time and you’ll read it better dan da Dallas Mornin’ News. You’ve got da sight now. It’s your choice if you use it.” And with that she took me by the hand and led me slowly up and out of the shop.
This whole thing was such a whirlwind that I couldn’t tell if I was walking, or if we were both floating. Maybe the incense made me high. Maybe pot fumes were drifting in from the head-shop next door. Maybe all of the important connections in my brain were unraveling.
Retarded neurons banging their heads against the insides of my skull.
Lots of maybes and very few certainties.
When we got to the door she took my free hand between both of hers and placed my palm on her head. And I felt something. Almost electric. A vibration. Then she released my hand and her eyes locked with mine.
“Da shadows wit da burning eyes,” she said very seriously, “. . . ’Ave dey approached you?”
“No,” I said, a bit unnerved. There was something eerie in her words. “Who are they?”
“You don’t never talk to dem. Never. Do you understand me, Jack?”
I nodded, glancing down at the book that suddenly felt very heavy. As if the pages were made of lead.
“Dose . . . dey’s looking for people like you. People who can cross. People who can see. And dey . . .”
“What, Ms. Josephine? They what?”
She shook her head, her eyes glancing nervously around. “Don’t you never talk to dem. Dere are tings on da other side dat can be dangerous. Tings dat will do a lot more dan run around in da darkness of night. Da ones with da red eyes, you’ll ’ear dem by deir screams. ’Orrible screams.”
I swallowed deeply. “I’ve heard screams.”
“Den you don’t ’ave as much time as I thought.” She opened the door, rushing me outside, “Go now, Jack! Read dat book and come back to me da second you’re finished. Your world is about to change.”
And as I walked out into the street, the sun was gone. Clouds had taken over the sky. The temperature had dropped from the 80s, to what felt like the 50s. Night was only a couple of hours away.
And I didn’t want to be out when the monsters came.