I woke up to a crisp, cold autumn morning and wondered how the seasons changed without my noticing. Annie had been gone a year already. I wiped away the condensation on the bathroom mirror so that I could see my tired reflection as I shaved. Over the course of one year I had aged at least ten.
The universe mourned with me. I barely skirted a dead bird on the side of the road as I walked my dog that morning beneath skeleton trees that reached up to scrape a dark, overcast sky. Now, at work, I lined my pencils on the desk while I tried to come to grips with reality and study the case before me. Veronique Fournier may as well have been a ghost except that last check, she’d overstayed her visa in the US and had managed to upset the wrong people. Now it was my job to send her back to France where she belonged.
A few quick clicks and the computer screen brought up the image of an attractive woman in her mid-thirties. No husband, no kids, no family as far as I’d been able to determine, but otherwise ordinary enough if it weren’t for the haunting look in her eyes that held me spellbound.
I jumped at the sound of my name and turned sharply, hoping that my face did not reflect the strange horror that lived inside me.
Mary looked me over with sharp eyes before handing me a folder, presumably the paperwork I’d requested on Veronique.
“She’s an odd one, isn’t she? Knee-deep in the occult from what I can tell. She makes a living ripping off people who come to her to speak to their dead relatives.”
“Shit” I said snatching the folder from her hands. Why did I always end up with the psychotic weird-o’s of the world?
Mary glanced nervously at her feet and I could see there was something else on her mind, speaking of the deceased. I decided to cut her off before she could wade into territory we’d both regret.
“I’m fine, Mary, really. I’ll be even better when I get this Fournier woman on her way back to France where she belongs.”
“Of course,” she said with a sigh. I watched her turn and leave the room, my gaze lingering briefly over the way her pencil line business skirt hugged her hips. Then I shook my head and took another sip of my coffee. Mary had made it clear on more than one occasion that she wouldn’t mind making our business relationship a little more personal but I still couldn’t bring myself to be with another woman after losing Annie.
I arrived at the small house positioned at the end of a cul-de-sac on Marker Street. A large purple sign tucked in the bay window advertised Mademoiselle Fournier’s questionable services. Behind the sign, thick black drapes offered no peek inside and probably darkness inside with which to conduct her shady business. I knocked three times and waited. The door opened and my breath caught in my throat. For a moment I would have sworn it was Annie. I shook my head slightly and refocused on the slender, dark-haired woman staring back at me.
“Veronique Fournier? My name is Benjamin Miller.”
“You are here for the seance, oui?” she said to me in a thick accent.
Dumbly, I nodded, forgetting my professional obligations as visions of Annie swarmed my mind. I allowed Veronique to lead me into the dimly lit entryway where we paused so she could take my coat. The air inside the house was thick and hazy and I quickly recognized the source as patchouli incense. It had been one of Annie’s favorites. My head swam with memories. I cleared my throat and reached into my breast pocket to find my badge but something stopped me.
Veronique took me by the arm and led me to the main room where a round table covered in a dark blue cloth took up most of the space. On top of the table three lit candles offered the room its only source of light and around the table sat seven guests, each shifting in their chairs to look back at me with hope and expectation as if they knew something amazing was about to happen.
“Veronique,” I said clearing my throat, “I am here on official business.”
“Have a seat, Mr. Miller. We are grateful to have you with us. We have been waiting for you.”
I found myself being pulled toward the table by some magnetic force. Her eyes beckoned me so I acquiesced and took a seat directly across from Ms. Fournier, determined to keep my attention on her so that she could not easily escape the room.
An elderly woman seated to my left wept softly into a handkerchief and then dotted at her puffy red eyes. I avoided eye contact, knowing all too well the feelings of grief that consumed her. Anger flared in me suddenly, hot and bright, at the cruelty of nature and the fragility of life. I squeezed my eyes closed as Veronique instructed that we all take hands and bow our heads. Quiet music filled our senses as Veronique addressed the spirits, welcoming the deceased to communicate. The old lady next to me wept openly now and I suppressed the urge to make this foolish seance stop. Instead, I shifted in my chair and dared one eye open to happen a glance on my beloved Annie even though I knew it was impossible.
“There is one among us who does not believe,” Veronique said catching my gaze, her pointed stare daring me to say otherwise.
“Forgive me, Mademoiselle, but as I’ve said, I am here on business. If you are finished with your show, may I ask to speak to you privately?”
“I know very well why you are here, Mr. Miller, and so does she.”
I let go of the hands I’d been holding and leaned back in my chair with a heavy sigh. I didn’t want to encourage Veronique to take matters any further but I waited, letting the silence fill the room heavy in its wake. My heart thumped heavy in my chest, the incense seeming to drown me.
“Annie is here.”
I made a sound in my throat caught somewhere between a gasp and a hiss as I bent forward. “Stop this charade, Veronique.”
A vague smile played on Veronique’s dark red lips as the candles flickered wildly between us. With a gesture of her hands she indicated the dark space around us. “She has come, just as you hoped she would. She has a message for you.”
“No,” I whispered, “It isn’t possible.”
Veronique’s eyes rolled into the back of her head. “Benny, darling,” she cooed, losing the French accent, “I have missed you.”
I shifted in my seat and glanced at the others. All eyes were transfixed on Veronique as though they were lost in a trance. I, myself, felt as if I’d stepped into a nightmare. Any other day I might have been grateful for a connection to my lost Annie, even if only imagination, but tonight, on the anniversary of her death, my heart was filled with too much sorrow and despair to take it. I pushed back from the table, the chair tumbling onto the floor behind me, as I stood.
“How dare you prey on the innocence of these people in their time of grief. Veronique Fournier, I am with Immigration and Border Control and I am here to take you into custody. You are scheduled to be deported back to France at the earliest convenience. It is my only hope that the authorities there deal with you in a manner that is appropriate to the crimes you have committed abroad.”
“I watch you while you’re sleeping,” Veronique continued as if she hadn’t heard a word I’d said, “Sometimes I slip into bed next to you wishing I could wrap my arms around you one last time. It shouldn’t have been goodbye so soon.”
I tried to make my way to Veronique but the others were suddenly blocking my path, even though I hadn’t noticed them get up from the table, and no matter how I tried to shove them out of my way, no one moved.
Thousands of tiny icicles blew through me then. Someone screamed as a vase from one of the end tables flew into the air and crashed into the opposite wall.
“You’re making her angry,” the old woman said in a hushed, reverent tone. I wanted to lash out at Veronique, to beat the life out of her for choosing to prey on my emotions. How she could have known what I was going through, or have details of my dear Annie, I didn’t know but the hurt it caused deep inside needed to be sated and I wouldn’t find comfort until my fist hit something to silence the raging storm.
“Let me pass,” I said in a desperate attempt to shrug off the hands that held me back.
“Death is cold and lonely,” Veronique said, “Why did you let me go?”
“Annie,” I whispered as fear locked around my heart and held me firm in its cold grasp. I tried to shake off the foreboding that filled my senses but all I could do was look into Veronique’s eyes and see my beloved Annie stare back at me.
“What’s happening?” I heard someone say but his voice sounded too distant to comprehend. I managed to break free at last and grab hold of Veronique. Her black dress swayed around her as she swirled almost weightlessly at my feet. What was wrong with this woman? I shook her slightly, making her moan.
“You killed me,” Veronique said. My face flushed warm with anger and I squeezed her wrist tightly. “Stop this madness at once. Someone, turn on the lights! I have had enough of this game.”
“Oh my,” the old woman said. She came up behind Veronique and I could see the panic in her face, “She’s been taken by the spirit. If you turn on the lights now, I don’t know what it will do to her.”
“Turn on the lights now!” I demanded, louder this time. Around me shapes in the darkness, haunted faces reflecting the candles murmured and chanted but not one listened to my desperate pleas. I began dragging Veronique toward the doorway but she planted her feet into the ground and began singing a song I thought I recognized from my wedding day. I resisted the urge to reach out and slap her.
“Why did you kill her?” the old woman asked. Her face was so close to me now as though she were trying to see into the depths of my soul to determine if it was true. I shook my head, refusing to listen to any of them. The murmurs amongst them grew louder.
“It was an accident,” I said, “I never wanted to see my Annie die. I have regretted the choices I made that night every day since.”
A collective gasp from the others as they circled me made me realize what I’d admitted for the first time since the accident. I blamed myself. The thought that Annie blamed me too didn’t make me calmer. I loosened my grip on Veronique’s wrist. This time I saw her clearly, my Annie with her sun drenched hair standing before me in her wedding gown, so radiant that she appeared to outshine the sun. My heart ached with guilt and grief as I reached out to stroke her cheek with the back of my hand. She held it.
“What do you want with me?” I said, feeling the trembling through my limbs as I fought to stay upright.
“Why do you get to live while I die?”
“Oh, Annie,” I said, my voice broken with emotion as I looked at the shining of her eyes, the sadness that I put there with my careless actions. I’d had one too many drinks that night and lost control of the car on our way home. It rolled several times before breaking through the barrier and smashing into a tree crushing the passenger side. She was right. It should have been me.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. I would have given anything to trade places with her now.
The group moved in closer, circling, and closing in on me as Annie seemed to drift soundlessly outside the perimeter. I held out my hand to touch her but she was beyond my grasp. Angry screams broke through the mob. Annie’s head split open and blood poured down the side of her body while her eyes lulled into the back of her head. I screamed but the people around me pushed closer until their collective weight crushed me. I tried to break free and catch my breath but I couldn’t form the words to speak.
“Annie,” I whispered as the scene faded. I closed my eyes and willed the pain to stop until finally there was only stillness.
When I dared to open my eyes, I saw a sky filled with stars that stretched into forever. I lay on the cold ground unable to take my eyes away from the wondrous sight. I heard footsteps tread softly on the grass until eventually a face peered down over me.
“Passport, please,” the man said to me.
I looked up at him in confusion. It must have been a dream I told myself as I struggled to sit up and get my bearings. “Where am I?”
“You have reached the border between heaven and earth.”
“I am dead,” I said with a gasp.
“Seems so,” he said, unimpressed by my revelation. I looked around frantically searching for some trace of Annie but I couldn’t see her.
“She’s up there,” the man said as if he understood. I looked up at the infinite heavens where he pointed. It was a place fitting for a woman as lovely as Annie.
“How do I get up there?”
“Let me stamp your passport and you’ll be on your way.”
“I don’t have a passport,” I said, confusion and anger mingling in my despair.
“That’s a shame. No passport, no entry.”
“But… that doesn’t make sense. I’m dead. Why do I need a passport?”
The man stood up straight and shrugged. “I’m afraid that’s the way it’s done. Have to keep the borders safe, after all. You can appreciate that, right, Mr. Miller?”
I watched in disbelief as he walked away.
I thought of the seance and Veronique and realized I’d been tricked, beaten by a taste of my own medicine. Somewhere in the distance I could almost hear Veronique laugh as the old woman leaned over to say, “I knew there was something shady about that one.”