Ms. Josephine’s shop.
5 minutes, 17 seconds later . . .
Again, she met us at the door. And she looked bothered, like she’d seen something. “Come in quickly,” Ms. Josephine said, glancing out past us, to the street and beyond.
“The cops didn’t follow us,” Ricky joked.
“Child,” she says between clenched teeth, her eyes darting back and forth, “. . . I’m not lookin’ for da police.”
When we get inside the door she quickly slides the bolt into the metal threshold, shaking the door a couple times just to be sure. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but those familiar smells were thick in the air. The jasmine, the cinnamon, it was like we hit the replay button on last week.
Dallas was gone as this room of dark corners and flickering yellow candles illuminated our path to the small round wooden table. Ms. Josephine waddled past Ricky and I, her long black dress fluttering like the candles. About the only thing missing was a spooky soundtrack to finish it all out.
I pointed out the strange books as Ricky and I made our way past the book shelves to the table.
The Living Darkness
Ghosts of the Beloved
Dreams of the Demonic
“Just a bit of light reading, eh?” Ricky mused quietly.
“Different explanations for different people,” Ms. Josephine said as she brought out another rickety old chair that looked like it had been constructed from things that washed-up on the shore of the Hudson River. She set the chair near the small round table.
I leaned forward, placing the Book of Sighs on the table, and then carefully lowered myself into the chair.
Ricky didn’t look too confident in the chair, his eyes glancing down as they measured just how far he was going to fall when the chair collapsed.
“You’re way too skinny to break dat chair,” Ms. Josephine said, answering Ricky’s unasked question. She was good at that. The kind of good that makes you nervous to think around her. I’m glad there are no copies of Maxim magazine nearby.
Ricky, hearing her words, started whistling the first 8 bars of the Twilight Zone. I rolled my eyes, but Ms. Josephine seemed to find it amusing.
She sat first, her hands resting on the small table. As we all sat, the chairs groaning and squeaking, I noticed that there were now three small ash trays in the center of the table. The first time I came here, there was only one. In each tray there were several burning globs of whatever it is you burn to release the smell of the jungle. Little lines of smoke pointed at the ceiling as they lifted.
I wondered if all of this incense is something that I should be alarmed about. Does the amount of burning globs have a proportional correlation to the amount of deep paranormal shit that we are about to get ourselves into?
I feel like a kid at the doctor’s office, as we sit here. It’s like I’m waiting to get shots. Not that the shots are so painful, just the anxiety leading up to them. In your mind the needle is as big as a pencil. Well, this was just like that. Only, multiplied by about two-thousand.
Like a paranoia soufflé topped with creamed phobia.
If spiders descended from the ceiling wearing blond wigs I would not have been surprised.
“Tell me,” she started, “. . . what you ‘ave been seein’ lately?”
I look over at Ricky and I can tell he’s a bit uncomfortable. The ambiance of this place—the darkness, the smells, the strange voodoo motif that she had going on with all of the symbols and markers on the walls—it all kind of suffocates you at first. He’s feeling, now, what I felt last week, when I first came here.
And both of us are staring at Ms. Josephine, and those majestic eyes of hers. Something strikes me, just now. I realize a strange connection.
Her eyes, they’re eerily similar to the dead girl’s eyes. The girl who, even in death, is beautiful. The ghost who thinks my name is John. The phantom who thinks I can save her, and looks at me with a kind of insightfulness that I don’t understand.
Ms. Josephine’s fingers are dancing up and down again, doing that imaginary piano thing as she slowly rocks back and forth. Okay, second freaky thing. Her gentle rocking back and forth, it reminds me of the spooks, when they were staring at me in the apartment. She has the same cadence and everything.
If snakes and giant beetles made up the surface of the floor, I wouldn’t be shocked right now. If scorpions dance by doing the Tango, I’d barely pay them any attention.
“So . . . dey’ve seen you, den?” she says. That old parlor trick of hers.
I nod slowly.
“I don’t know if Jack told you about me, Ricky,” she says as she reaches for his hands. As they both clasp hands, the burning incense are sending thin, silky fingers of grey smoke around and between their wrists. It’s as if the connection between them is burning.
She smiles at Ricky, “. . . I’m a channel. I don’t read no futures, or bring pets back to life. I can’t make da voices in da attic stop, or keep da walls from bleeding. I just listen. My gift is to communicate wit da other side.”
“The Land of Sorrows,” Ricky says carefully.
She smiles, her cheeks lifting near her hypnotic eyes. “I see you two been workin’ together.”
“He’s been helping me a lot,” I try to explain. I hope she’s not mad.
“No, child,” she assured me. “Dat’s good. You need people dat you can trust on dis side.” She turned to Ricky, and then back to me, “. . . and on da other side.”
And I kind of knew where she was going with this. Despite what she could extract from my mind, I still hadn’t told her everything.
She then let go of Ricky’s hands, and turned to me, “Tell me, what ’ave you seen?”
I told her about the spooks, and how they had been very interested in the book. She glanced at the book as I outlined the different times they had come and gone. About what they had done at the hospital during our experiment on spook activity.
I tried to explain the Gatherers to her, and even though she knew of them in various voodoo texts and artist renderings, she was still quite interested in their physical appearance. First-hand accounts are always better than looking at black and white sketches.
While I watched the doctors trying everything to save Dr. Smith, I said, I also saw the Gatherers chopping away at his chest. And I saw them doing the same to me when I first awoke.
“And dat, if you don’t already know it, is why you can see both planes. Dey were comin’ to take you across. You were in da process of being removed from da Earth plane. But, somehow, you were stuck between both places just long enough to open up a passageway. You are one of da very few who can walk between both planes.”
“Where?” Ricky asked. Even though he had read the stuff at the library that Rupert—rest his soul—had researched for us, and studied my translations of the Book of Sighs, he still needed validation from an expert. Or, at least, the closest thing we were going to get to an authority on the subject of the undead.
Or the living dead?
Or those living after death?
Or those that can’t die?
I’m confused on the correct terminology. I guess I’m still a rookie spook hunter, just barely scratching the surface of the netherworld.
“Some call it Ginen. Descriptions vary depending on who or what you ask, but da basic principles are still da same.”
She leaned forward, her head dipping so that her eyes looked like two black saucers on large white spheres. Lowering her voice she said, “Da other side . . . I been ’eard it called, Deadside. Da Land of Sorrows . . . dat’s a biblical term for da place where da unjudged go.”
I thought that was purgatory.
“Da second hell, dey call it. Much worse dan purgatory,” she answered.
I could feel all kinds of shivers running down my spine. That Ms. Josephine, she knew just how to scare the crap out of a guy. It wasn’t so much what she was saying, but the conviction of her words. She wasn’t telling us things that might be, she was telling us how it really is.
To see something frightening is one thing. But to not be able to write it off as a delusion or a hallucination . . . well that’s completely horrifying. Full-on, creepy-crawly, unnerving.
That scary world beyond ours is supposed to be the fabrication of writers and story tellers, nothing more. The Land of Sorrows isn’t the kind of place that is actually real, except in movies and nightmares. But once you wake-up, or the lights come on, that should be it. A cheap thrill.
Ghosts are just an illusion, swamp gas, bad plumbing, or too much pain medication. Anything but real. Demons and Angels, the undead, all of that stuff is just fantasy. Imagined and pondered and rolled into enchanting stories that make you wonder. But they’re not supposed to actually exist.
“Why can’t you and I see these things?” Ricky asked, feeling a bit cheated. “Like Jack does?”
“We’s all different, child,” she explained. “We all ’ave gifts, just not da same gifts. Me, I can commune wit dose dat pass over to dis other place. With da Iwa, and da Anvizib. Either dey chose me, or I chose dem, I’m not certain. Jack ’ere, ’e can see dem, talk to dem. And . . . dey can see ’im.”
She patted her hand on the table, “Tiger Woods can play golf better dan anyone else on Earth, but ‘e can’t talk to da dead, or save people from dyin’ . . . like you can, Ricky.”
“Huh?” Ricky said, sitting forward.
“Dat’s right,” she nodded. “You got a gift, too, Ricky. Every one of us ‘as somethin’ dat we can tap into. But most of us go our entire lives wit’out every knowin’ what it is. You just ‘aven’t developed your gift, yet. Dat’s why you didn’t finish becoming a doctor. Your soul wasn’t ready. In da same way dat dose collectors steal away da souls, you can keep dem at bay. You’re goin’ to make a fine medicine man, one day. When de time is right.”
That’s a good thing, I said about Ricky becoming a doctor someday. Because I’m going to need gastric-bypass surgery after all of this madness is over. The constant stress of waiting to see the dead, and the monsters in between, is driving me absolutely batty.
I feel like a piñata about to pop. The spooks are like kids at a birthday party, taking random blind swings at my nuts. At any moment, I should be doubling over.
I’m like a blowfish on helium.
Then she turns to me, “For Jack . . . de time is now.” She took my hand into hers, slowly rolling it over so she could study my palms.
Do you see something? I ask her. Something bad?
She brings my hand to her face, taking a few sniffs. She raises an eyebrow, “You use aromatherapy soaps.”
That’s it. Now everybody knows. I’ll be the laughing stock of the entire Deadside. Spooks and all other little monsters will be snickering behind my back. They’ll be making gay jokes in languages I can’t understand. When I finally get to Hell they’ll make me room with J. Edgar Hoover.
“Jack,” she said. “You’re learnin’ to accept your gifts. Dis is just like learnin’ to ride a bike, or trow a ball. It takes time, and you ’ave to practice.”
And I’m not sure why, but at that moment, something clicks in my head. I thought back to our last visit together.
I ask her, how come she said she had been expecting me for six months, when we first met last week? But I haven’t even been awake for six months, yet.
She smiles, “I wondered when you were going to put dat together.” She sat back, letting go of my hand. “I don’t know da future . . . but dere are other tings, Iwa, dat speak of certain prophecy.”
“Jack’s a prophet?” Ricky blurts.
I’m a prophet? Little old me. Aw shucks.
Ricky was glowering at me, and I can see that he isn’t quite sold on the idea.
She laughed, “. . . not in da sense dat ‘e can foretell our futures. Nothin’ like dat. Jack is a piece of a seventeen-hundred year old puzzle. And only just now is all of dis comin’ together.”
And, as Ricky sits back to ponder the level of my importance in the universe, Ms. Josephine looks at me and says, “Now tell me about ’er. Da girl who calls you John . . .
“. . . What do you remember?”