“So, describe this guy to me again?”
Mary groaned and flopped onto her back on the bench. Why had she mentioned Cy?
From school, Mary had come straight to the park to meet up with Rachel Pillar, her best friend. Rachel always skipped the first day of school. She said it started the year off on the right foot, but even though she disdained from going to the first day of classes, she still wanted to know what everyone had worn, how people had changed, and if anyone had gotten any interesting piercings or tattoos. Mary had made the mistake of mentioning Cy.
“He looked normal, but not overly preppie,” she said. Mary knew that she should never have mentioned him to Rachel. She may have been her best friend, but Rachel could get annoyingly obsessed over the smallest little things, and her full attention was now on Cy, and Mary didn’t feel right picking him apart to the atomic level.
Rachel sat planted on the ground, dissecting dandelions while Mary lounged on her back watching clouds. At the other end of the park, young mothers watched their children play on the jungle gym.
Rachel decided to give the topic a rest for a while and asked, “Did Landa call you in today?”
Mary rolled her eyes and nodded. “Uh huh, he gave me this spiel about how he was hurt that I didn’t talk to him over the summer.”
“Now that man seriously needs to get a life,” Rachel said. She threw her ravaged flower to the ground.
Mary sighed. “Tell me about it.”
“So what’d you tell him?” her friend asked with a knowing smile.
“The usual. I drank pig’s blood and partied with bikers.”
"I bet he was jealous.”
“Yeah, but I’m getting tired of that shtick. I need to come up with some new material.”
“How about you become a Bible beater? You could rave that everyone is going to burn in the fires of Hell, the four horsemen have been sighted, and Armageddon is upon us!” Rachel’s voice had slowly risen with every word until she sounded like she was raving. Several of the young mothers looked across the park at the two girls.
Mary smiled at her. “Maybe I should start sending you in for me. You’re more inventive.”
“Nah, you’re more believable.” She threw another dissected dandelion away. Her fingers had turned green from her dissecting. Mary doubted that Rachel wouldn’t be any less ‘believable’. She’d made dysfunctional into an art form. Her hair was a new color every week. Her ears were pierced a combined total of eleven times plus her right nostril. She was an avid shopper of the Good Will. If there were a psychedelic, mushroom-patterned, polyester dress, Rachel would be wearing it proudly the next day, but her father was a well-to-do lawyer, and no one wanted to earn his wrath by suggesting his daughter was unbalanced, which she was—but just a little. That’s why Mary liked her.
“Back to Cy. Was he cute?” Rachel bounced up and down, fixated once again.
Mary squirmed. “Haven’t we worn this subject out?”
“No. You said he seemed normal, and he didn’t like Hicky, which means he’s very smart, but you didn’t really tell me anything about his looks.”
“Um.” Mary was getting a little embarrassed. Why did his looks matter? “He was, I guess, kind of cute...”
“Really?” Rachel said becoming more interested.
“Let’s talk about something else.”
“Do you think he’s really cute?”
She shrugged her shoulders to mask her sudden unease. “I wouldn’t go that far. He’s not Quasimodo, but he’s no one to pursue like the Holy Grail either. Anyway, Vicky has set her sights on him.”
“Oh, Vic-ky.” Rachel’s head cocked sharply so that her hair bounced like a valley girl. “You give me the word, Mary, and I’ll set my sights on her. I wonder what she would look like bald. If we’re lucky, she’ll have an ugly birthmark, like that guy—Gorbachev. She’d be known as Gorbie for the rest of the year. We have to think of a song now to make fun of her with! What rhymes with Gorbie?”
Mary shook her head. She wasn’t about to encourage this plan for a second because that’s all it took for Rachel to rush to the drugstore buy whatever hair removal was on sale, swap out Vicky’s shampoo, write a song to ridicule her with, and for Mary to land in ISS for three days. “Why do anything to Vicky when old age will do all that for us?”
“Oh, let time do all the dirty work. The perfect slacker revenge.” She began to pull apart another dandelion. “But I still think we should ask your grandma to throw a voodoo curse on the Vickster. Think of all the fun we could have with one of those voodoo dolls. We could stick pins in it, twist its limbs in ways God never intended, set it on fire, flush it down the good old commode, pour hot wax--” Mary put her hand over Rachel’s mouth to cut her off. If she didn’t, she may very well not get a word in until Rachel passed out from lack of oxygen and then what she had to say wouldn’t matter, seeing as how Rachel would be unconscious.
In a slow, clear voice, Mary reminded her, “Gran doesn’t do voodoo. She’s a good witch.” Remembering the time, Mary dropped her hand and looked at her watch.
"Speaking of, I’ve got to go. She’s probably fixing dinner, and I should set the table.”
Rachel jumped up and began vigorously brushing herself off with a pout on her lips. “I knew it! You won’t let me Nair bomb Vicky, you won’t show me how to make voodoo dolls, and you always remember to do your chores! You’re not really an outcast, loner, anti-establishment teenager at all. You’re really a secret agent, sent by my father to instill a good influence on me, aren’t you?”
Mary solemnly nodded. “Yes, you’ve found me out. Under this latex, I’m actually a 35 year-old man from Nova Scotia whose interests include polka music, macramé, and professional dog racing.”
Rachel tilted her head and winked. “Really, do you have a girlfriend?”
Mary lived with her maternal grandmother. Her parents had died in a car crash when she was three. Mary’s grandmother was her only living relative. She and Gran hadn’t had an easy life. Gran was a fortuneteller by trade, but trade hadn’t always been forthcoming. Mary could remember some months being very tight. They’d never gone hungry, but theirs wasn’t a name brand lifestyle. None of this had mattered too much to Mary. She loved her grandmother and considered her the center of her world. She’d do anything for her. Plus the fact that she shuffled Tarot cards, read palms, and made charms had made her the coolest grandmother in the world.
They lived in a two story house. Gran and Grandpa had bought it in their twenties. It wasn’t glamorous, and it may have a few drafts and a touchy hearter, but it was the only home Mary had ever known, and she loved it. She let herself in through the front door and called out, “Gran, I’m home!”
Nobody answered her. She set her book bag down in the living room and walked to the back of the house. The curtain to Gran’s ‘office’ was drawn. Mary stared at the length of cloth in puzzlement because she didn’t recall a client being scheduled for that hour. As she pondered the curtain, goose bumps erupted up her arms as a cold prickle ran down her spine. There was an otherworldly presence in the next room. Spirits often manifested like alien air currents like the one Mary felt now, and Gran was channeling it. Mary inched forward to listen in, but all she caught were a couple of indistinct voices before the alien air current shifted and enveloped her in its presence.
“What the--?” she stumbled back and fell down with a thud. The voices behind the curtain stopped.
A hand swept the curtain back, and Mary looked up at her wild-haired grandmother. She always teased it up for the clients. She had on her Gypsy clothes as well. They weren’t Gypsies, nor were the clothes a part of Gypsy culture, but the clients preferred she wore a long, patchwork skirt and ruffled blouse rather than a floral embroidered track suit. They wanted her to look ‘authentic’. Gran was willing to wear a rubber nose and tutu if they paid her fees without grumbling.
“Mary! You’re home!” Gran’s face cracked into a huge welcoming smile. She leaned down and helped her up off the floor. Mary was about to ask Gran what she’d been channeling when she saw the client over her shoulder. Her mouth snapped shut, and her eyes widened.
A chubby woman with short, curly, brown hair and wearing small round glasses peeked out from behind the curtain. She clutched under her arm a small, stuffed, black dog, not the plush toy kind but the taxidermic kind. Mary stared with incredulous eyes. It had been a Scottish Terrier when alive, now it was a furry paperweight with his mouth permanently open in a happy pant, and his tail raised in a frozen wag. It was beyond creepy. Mary slowly turned to Gran for an explanation.
Gran performed the introductions. “Mary, I’d like for you to meet Mrs. Polk. She’s here to contact her deceased pet Chowder. Mrs. Polk, this is my granddaughter Mary.”
“How do you do.” Mrs. Polk hefted the dog higher under her arm to extend her hand.
Ignoring the outstretched hand, Mary turned to her grandmother. She pointed at the dog under Mrs. Polk’s arm. “Chowder?”
There was another bark.
Mary jumped and looked down at her feet, though there was nothing there to see.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” Mrs. Polk gushed, patting the head of the little dog.
“You could say that,” Mary replied. The canine ghost jumped up on one of Mary’s shins with small invisible paws, wanting the teenager’s attention. “Get away from me, mutt,” she muttered, shaking her foot.
“Chowder? Are you here, boy?” Mrs. Polk called, staring at the ceiling. The little invisible presence stayed at Mary’s feet, totally ignoring the voice of his mistress. Mary grimaced at the floor. She wasn’t a fan of living dogs, let alone dead ones.
Gran could see her discomfort. She moved to Mrs. Polk’s side and took her arm. “No, I believe he’s gone now, Mrs. Polk.”
“But he was here. I could almost feel him,” she said as she squeezied the stuffed dog. Gran nodded and patted Mrs. Polk’s arm. “Yes, he was here, and his spirit is strong. I’m sure that at our next session, we’ll be able to contact him again.”
“Oh, I can’t wait. I so miss my little Chowder.” Mrs. Polk kissed the dog’s head. Mary had to swallow hard to keep herself from gagging at the sight. Chowder began to whine and jump at Mary’s feet again.
“Heel,” she whispered at the small ghost at her feet.
“What?” Mrs. Polk asked.
“Nothing,” Mary quickly lied.
Gran gently pulled Mrs. Polk’s arm. “Let me show you out.” They disappeared behind the curtain. Gran’s office had its own outside entrance. Chowder whined one last time at her feet but reluctantly followed his body out of the house.
Mary was in the kitchen chopping vegetables while a pot of water boiled on the stove when Gran came back in. She sat down in a kitchen chair with a heavy sigh.
Mary’s lips twitched. “You were channeling a dog.”
“I wouldn’t say channeling, more like taking out for a walk,” she said as she walked her fingers walk the table.
Mary snickered. “Did you know she’d actually bring ‘Chowder’?”
“I did tell her to bring a few of his things,” Gran trailed off as she began to chuckle.
Mary’s body shook as she tried to hold in the laughter. “I guess his body is a thing, and it was his.”
“If you could’ve seen your face when Mrs. Polk came out.”
“I know, and could you feel him dancing at my feet? It was all I could do not to kick the air.”
“He didn’t become a distinct presence till you arrived,” she commented.
That sobered Mary up fast. “Yeah, I guess that’s how it goes.”
Gran got up and hugged her from the back. “Oh Mary, I honestly didn’t think you’d be home before I was done with Mrs. Polk.”
“You know I don’t like you channeling. Why can’t you just do fortunes?” It was an old argument that didn’t hold any real fire anymore, but she still couldn’t help expressing her anxiety.
Gran sighed. “We’ve had this discussion. Fortunetelling isn’t as popular as it once was. I have to do this to pay the bills.”
Mary’s head drooped. No, fortunetelling didn’t pay the bills, but it was several degrees safer. “I guess I don’t have to worry too much if Chowder is the worst you get. Just be careful. I don’t want to come home and find you doing a Linda Blair.”
Gran squeezed her shoulders. “Don’t worry about your old grandma. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I have yet to run across a spirit I couldn’t handle.”
Changing the subject, her grandmother asked, “How was your first day of school?”
“How do you think?” Mary chopped the potatoes harder.
“Maybe this year will be different. I have a feeling,” the old woman said as she combed her hair with her fingers.
“Or maybe you need some Alka Seltzer.”