THIN TRAILS of smoke snaked upward from the burning bundle of sage and wound their way toward the ceiling of the small shop, filling it with a bitter, woodsy aroma. A single lamp, perched on an antique desk in the corner, burned with a low-watt bulb and suffused the room with dim light that compounded the aura of evening that had settled outside with the waning autumn day. The haunting sound of harmonious female voices chanting Celtic hymns drifted out from an old portable stereo on a shelf above the desk.
With a smooth arcing movement, Jake Parker pushed his hand through the gathering cloud of smoke, dispersing it throughout the room. He walked around the space, holding the smudging stick in one hand and an abalone shell in the other hand underneath it, careful not to let any bits of burning herb come in contact with anything flammable. The store, which he had christened the Witching Well, had an impressive stock of books that covered a wide range of spiritual, metaphysical, and pagan topics. As he wove his way through the aisles, his hand swaying back and forth through the sage smoke as he spread it to the far corners of the shop, he passed by shelves assigned to life after death, spirit communication, Wicca, and Egyptian myth until he reached the back and came to a stop.
He stood between the display of crystals and a rack of cloaks and allowed the sage to burn for a moment undisturbed, his eyes following the gray plumes as they wafted upward. When he felt the area was sufficiently infused with the protective herb, he turned back down the aisle and made his way around the perimeter of the store. Under his breath he repeated the words of the ritual:
I call upon the elements to cleanse this space;
This herb of earth and water offered with grace.
As air turns it to fire, in the smoke I shall see
The return of peace and balance, so mote it be.
As he uttered the final word, he stopped in front of the glass counter of the display case and set down his tools, the sage bundle placed carefully inside its shell. He glanced around and sighed contentedly as he felt the familiar calm that always settled within him after completing a cleansing ritual. He reached for the damp cloth he had left on the counter and wrapped it loosely around the sage to make sure the smoldering herbs were truly out.
He left it to sit inside the shell and glanced at the clock: seven thirty. Only half an hour left before it was time to close up for the day and head home, which for Jake meant locking the front door and climbing the interior stairs to his cozy one-bedroom apartment above the store. He wandered over to the desk and absently flipped open his appointment book to check his schedule for tomorrow; he wrinkled his nose in displeasure when he saw that he had a reading scheduled bright and early at nine. Most days he didn’t open the shop until eleven o’clock to allow for time to schedule readings, but he still wasn’t a fan of early morning work. That meant he would need to be up by seven thirty so he had time to center himself and prepare.
Jake’s second-in-command at the shop was Jessie Hall. She was a part-time grad student on the verge of graduation, and though her hours were usually afternoon or evenings, her schedule was fairly flexible. She gave her own readings, and if Jake couldn’t be there to mind the shop, Jessie usually had it covered. He contemplated locking up right then and heading upstairs to compensate for his early start the next day when the tarnished brass bell over the entryway announced the arrival of a customer.
Jake had his back to the door, and he rolled his eyes. He knew any plans for calling it quits early had just been scrapped. He turned around slowly, expecting to see some teenagers clad in black making their way to the display of herbs used for spells and rituals, or a young thirtysomething woman heading toward the kitchen witchery section in the hope of turning her spaghetti sauce into a potion that would make Mr. Right materialize in front of her electric range. Had he bet on either of those possibilities, though, he would’ve lost.
The heavy door whooshed shut, and a lone man, over six feet tall from the look of him and toeing the line between slender and skinny, skulked into the shop. He hunched his shoulders as he walked, as if he were trying to fold in on himself to disguise his height, or maybe even his very existence. Jake watched as he stopped a few feet inside the door, raised his head, and sniffed the air, no doubt smelling the sage, before he let out a sneeze that sounded like it came from somewhere down around his ankles.
Jake couldn’t help but smile at the man’s scrunched-up face as he wiped his nose across the sleeve of his gray woolen coat. “Sage,” Jake offered.
The man jerked his head up, his eyes wide as though he was surprised to find someone actually staffing the shop. “Hmm?” It was more of a grunt than a word.
“The smell. It’s sage. I had some burning just a few minutes ago.”
The man stared at him blankly for a moment and then barely nodded as he shifted his gaze to the floor and started up the nearest aisle. Jake shrugged, scooped up a pile of mail still waiting to be sorted, and set to work, determined to at least be productive if he was going to stay open for the remainder of the evening. He flipped through the envelopes and separated them into three piles: junk, might read, and must read. When he reached the last piece of mail, he looked down at the piles and frowned at the height of the must-read stack. While paperwork and bills came with the territory of running your own business, it was his absolute least favorite part, and he had no trouble deciding that the pile could wait until tomorrow. Or the next day.
He sighed and glanced up at his solitary customer. From the looks of it, the guy either wasn’t finding what he was looking for or didn’t know what it was, because he was wandering aimlessly through the shop, steps slow and deliberate, barely stopping in front of any one thing for more than a few seconds. The clock now read seven forty-five and Jake had no intention of staying open even one minute past eight o’clock so he walked casually over to where the man stood. He stopped in front of an endcap display entitled “Life After Death?” with an array of books on the subject lined up neatly on the shelves below.
“Is there something I can help you find?” Jake asked, his friendly customer-service smile in place.
The man cut his eyes to Jake only briefly before looking back down at the shelf. “Uh, not really” came the mumbled response. Up close, Jake could see that despite the hunched, shadowy way the man carried himself, he was really quite handsome. His slightly overgrown blond hair hung down in loose waves and framed a strong jaw. His light brown eyes reminded Jake of the caramel apples he loved so much this time of year. A smattering of freckles across his nose added youth to his appearance, though Jake guessed he was probably in his early thirties, give or take a few years.
Not easily deterred, Jake stuck out his hand in a greeting. “My name’s Jake Parker. I own the place.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the man reached out to grasp Jake’s hand. “Eric.”
“Nice to meet you, Eric.” Jake shook his hand, holding on just a bit longer than necessary. Eric’s hand felt warm and surprisingly smooth despite his weathered appearance. There was something strangely familiar about the feel of Eric’s grip and the energy that passed between them with the contact. Jake released him finally and plowed ahead, as was his usual style. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can help you find? I know where everything is in this place, and if I don’t have it, I can probably get it.”
Eric shifted his weight from one foot to the other, awkward and uncomfortable. “Mmm. No, I uh… don’t think so. I just, uh….”
Jake wasn’t sure if it was his sixth sense kicking in or a simple process of elimination, but he knew at once why this shy, towering man was standing before him. “Did you come in for a reading?” As soon as he said it, he felt the vibration in the room ratchet up a notch or two, and he knew he’d hit the nail on the head.
“A reading? I, uh—you really do that?” Eric asked, holding Jake’s gaze this time.
Jake opted to keep the conversation moving forward and decided against mentioning the ten or so signs in the store windows that advertised readings via Tarot, palm, mediumship, and psychometry.
“Yes, I do.” He smiled reassuringly. His previous thoughts of rushing the man out and closing up shop had vanished; if there was a force strong enough to lure this unwilling customer into Jake’s shop, he knew he had to do it. “What did you have in mind?”
“Umm, I don’t really know. Never did anything like that before.”
“Well, do you have specific questions, or were you thinking about a more general look at your life? Work, goals, love, finances—that kind of stuff?”
“Uh, general, I guess,” Eric replied, obviously unsure.
“Okay,” Jake said with a nod, “we’ll start there. Follow me.” Jake flipped the sign on the door to “Closed” and led the way to the small room off the main store where he conducted his readings. He grabbed his well-used Rider Waite Tarot deck as he passed his desk. He pushed the curtain in the doorway aside and let his new client enter. The room was sparsely furnished, with only a table and a few chairs in the center. Jake kept the lights dim to create a calm atmosphere conducive to relaxation for both his client and himself. The table, covered in a black velvet cloth that hung nearly to the floor, stood next to a small stand that held a variety of crystals, along with two white candles.
“Have a seat.” Jake gestured to the side of the table that had two chairs, and Eric settled himself in one of them. Jake lit the candles, took the seat across from Eric, and shook the Tarot cards free from their velvet pouch. He was quiet for a moment as he took a few deep breaths and sifted through the cards. He looked up when he was ready and saw Eric was watching him intently. “Okay, first, I need you to try to clear your mind. But if there’s a specific area of your life you want information about, focus on that.” Eric nodded. “I’m going to shuffle the cards, and I need you to tell me when to stop.”
“How do I know when?”
“It’s just a sense you’ll have. Whenever you feel they’ve been shuffled enough.” That was the standard answer he gave to customers who often asked that question. People seemed to understand what he meant without requiring an in-depth explanation on the inner workings of the Tarot deck. Eric nodded again, and Jake began to shuffle the cards.
After the deck had been reordered several times, Eric said quietly, “Okay, stop.”
Jake stopped shuffling and set the deck in front of Eric. “Now I need you to cut the deck.”
Eric complied wordlessly and divided the deck in two. Jake placed one pile on top of the other and fanned the deck out facedown across the table. “Pick ten cards.” Eric looked over at him and he nodded in encouragement. Slowly Eric drew ten cards from the deck. When he was done, Jake scooped the remaining cards into a pile and set them aside. He took the ten chosen cards and began to lay them out in a traditional Celtic Cross spread. “Now I don’t want you to give me any information as I’m reading. Just let me know if what I’m saying makes sense to you or not, okay?”
When the spread was complete, Jake took a moment to study the cards. One area jumped out at him right away: Pentacles paired with Wands. “Looks like you’ve had some real success with your work.” He looked up at Eric, who nodded in confirmation. “It’s not just regular success either. This is something pretty big… big, like, widespread. Reaching a lot of people.” Eric nodded again. So far, so good.
Jake was about to move on to the card that represented past events from Eric’s life when he stopped short. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he felt a chill, telltale signs that they were no longer alone in the room. He dropped his hands to his lap and closed his eyes, trying to focus on whoever was trying to get through to him. He relaxed his posture and tried to open himself to the energy, and with no further effort on his part, his mind filled with images that were not his own. He saw Eric, smiling big and holding somebody close. Phantom laughter echoed in his ears as he saw Eric raising a wineglass in a toast with someone, and then the image changed abruptly to a broken and crumpled Eric, sobbing on the floor of an unknown room.
“Who are you?” Jake asked quietly, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. “What’s your name?” Letters flashed in his mind, and he went with his first instinct—a woman. “Do you know someone named… Ann? Or Andrea, maybe?” It didn’t feel right, so he opened his eyes and looked at Eric who shook his head, his expression confused. “Give me a second,” Jake said and closed his eyes. Again, the letters “AN” flashed before his eyes. As he racked his brain for other “An” names, he saw the image of a man. The face was blurred, but it was a distinctly male form and he understood where he’d made his error. He focused on male names beginning with those letters and he knew the correct one instantly. His eyes flew open, and he looked straight at Eric. “Do you know an Andrew? Someone who’s passed over?”
The color drained from Eric’s face until he was as white as the candles that flickered beside them. “How do you—” His voice was choked and hoarse. “It… it says that in those cards?”
“No.” Jake shook his head emphatically. “This is something else. It’s someone in spirit form. He comes through very strong, almost… panicked, like he has to talk to you.” Eric had gone from looking pale to downright unwell, but Jake couldn’t hold the energy back. He closed his eyes again to let it come. “He’s showing me a—no, wait.” The images and sounds came too quickly to hold on to without context, but Jake picked up what he could. “He says… over and over…‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ Do you know wha—” Jake opened his eyes just in time to see Eric’s retreating back as he bolted from the room. Jake looked down at the table and saw a crisp fifty-dollar bill tossed carelessly across the spread of cards in the hasty exit.
As soon as Eric was gone, the spirit energy retreated, and Jake was left alone. “What the hell was that?” Jake asked out loud. As much as he’d have liked to just chalk the whole experience up to a reading gone bad, he knew that wasn’t the case. The connection between this Eric character and the spirit who tried to come through was way too strong, and Jake had a sneaking suspicion that wasn’t the last he’d see of either of them. He got up and went back out to the main store to lock the door, dropping the fifty dollars on the desk. He felt slow and heavy as he made his way up the interior stairs to his apartment, exhausted by the energy he had expended. A short ten minutes later, as he was climbing into bed, he silently prayed for restful sleep; he had a feeling he’d be needing it.