TW: Death of a partner
Photo Credit: Parker Coffman for Unsplash
“Marcus? Are you…”
David felt stupid finishing the question. He let the words fall away instead, imagining his sentence as a Slinky slowly descending a set of basement stairs into dust and darkness and all forgotten things.
Lavender looked at him, her eyes a disconcerting shade of grey. David wondered if that was her real name. Probably not.
He half-expected her to jump in, finish the question for him. But psychics didn’t act like friends, and Lavender sat stoic, unmoving, letting the silence compound until David felt like his ears were stuffed with wax.
As he sat sweating, the silence took on an unnatural flavor. Lavender’s shop was draped in objects that ought to make noise. No less than three bead curtains separated this room from the front door David had stood awkwardly outside twenty minutes ago, trying to reason himself out of visiting Psychic Touch.
It was a drab little ex-ranch house wedged between a Subway and a cracked semi vacant lot, goldenrod leaning through the chain-link fence to brush his bare calves as he walked past on the sidewalk. The sidewalk was laid out like an afterthought, no more than a foot wide and undulating on the border between private and public property.
David had felt out of place the minute he stood beneath the sign for Scittery Gusset Ave. He’d driven past the street almost every day, the landmark that split his commute from his apartment downtown to Free Meadows Gardening Center where he worked. In his car he made a point of reading the name each day, imagining the way it was meant to be pronounced, and butchering that pronunciation with every conceivable deviation.
Marcus used to call it Scullery What’s-It, and Tittery Butt Lip. Simply Gossip. Scintillating Cuss-It. And once—David had laughed out loud, bending over the wheel as they drove past—Slip-it-in-me Precious, delivered in a passable Gollum voice.
Scittery Gusset was a seven-minute walk from David’s apartment, but he always drove past, going somewhere else. The street wasn’t near anything, really, except a bus stop that hosted infrequent buses crammed with college students riding from one campus to another.
Across the way a high school baseball field left its fleeting mark on the landscape, the distant hills dwarfing the outfield fence.
David had walked the seven minutes deliberately. It helped distinguish this day from the others. But he’d fucked up as soon as he stepped out into the 89-degree heat, his cotton button-up and shorts trapping him in a two-sided embrace, humidity pressing in and sweat straining out.
Nevertheless, he walked. He’d tried to ignore the merciless sun and the grit in his sandals. He’d tried to make today a pilgrimage, or some bullshit. Marcus would’ve laughed to see him overdressed and drenched, his neck already sunburned by the end of the seven minutes. Marcus would’ve come prepared, David knew, with sunscreen spread over his dark skin, an SPF twenty notches above the bottle David bought at CVS and forgot to wear.
“You’re gonna die from skin cancer,” Marcus would say as he spread aloe gel over David’s scorched pink skin. When the dead layers started to flake, David would lie on his stomach, Marcus straddling him and pulling the skin away in sheets, relishing in the experience. He’d lean down, his chest resting on David’s back, and David could feel the thrum, thrum of his heart. Felt strong. Healthy.
But it wasn’t.
Marcus always jogged along the side of Route 9. He passed Scittery Gusset Ave each day, twice. Once on his way out, again on his way back. When he got back to their apartment, he’d tell David another name he thought up on his run. Mystery Pundit. History Sunset. Slip It In My Butthole.
He left their apartment at 8:00 for his run. He always came back at 9. #
Lavender blinked less often than David would have liked. She hadn’t moved her hands from the planchette. It seemed like a cheap approximation of psychic powers, charging strangers $35 to use a glorified Ouija board to talk to the dead. David had almost changed his mind when she led him through the third bead curtain and he saw the ornate table, tasseled skirts lying still in the humid room, a wood and shell inlaid board resting in the center of a ring of crystals and feathers. Lavender was painfully white, her shop a mishmash of approximated Indigenous, Asian, and pagan trinkets to give it that feel.
“A Ouija board?” he’d asked, less a question than a confirmation of what he hoped he didn’t see.
“Spirit board,” Lavender had corrected him as she settled in a velvet chair that must have made her ass sweat big time in the heat. When she looked at him, her steady gaze reminded him that he’d already forked over the $35 CASH ONLY listed on the sign. He could now waste either his money, or his money and his time.
He’d already lost before he decided to walk Marcus’ jogging route this morning. He wasn’t really looking for anything. He knew where the heart attack happened—or at least, where Marcus was found as a woman pulled out of her driveway, her headlights sweeping along the sidewalk and catching the baby blue of his sweat soaked t-shirt. It was past Scittery Gusset Ave, 450 ft further north. David wasn’t sure how the day would’ve gone if he’d walked that far.
It was the street sign that stopped him, that made him turn off, only too happy— he realized as his sandals crunched onto the narrow sidewalk—to turn away from what lay 450 ft ahead.
Scittery Gusset, it turned out, was mostly residential. Moderately-sized houses converted into shitty four-apartment establishments for college students and millennials taking the first step away from their parents’ homes. Before the weed-infested lot, David had passed an empty auto-repair shop and the remains of a funeral home, the vinyl lettering curling from the faded sign.
He’d smelled Subway—dust and a thin trail of chicken cold-cuts being reheated. Deciding to go inside and cool off, maybe buy a Sprite before making the hell-hot trip back to his apartment, he had walked past Psychic Touch before his thoughts caught up to the dingy sign his eyes read out of habit, and he turned.
Lavender had no fans and no air-conditioning. The bead curtains hung silent while David waited for her to do this for him—whatever this was. Sweat dripped down his back, and his neck ached as the sunburn claimed his skin.
Staring at her, David couldn’t place her age. She could be thirty with bad skincare, or seventy with a diligent regime involving eye cream and moisturizer. Flakes of dried mascara dusted her freckled cheeks. He wondered if she lived behind the shop. A fourth bead curtain separated this room from another. David glimpsed a couch and a table with a box of tissues. Perched on the arm of the couch was either a cordless phone or a TV remote.
The silence began to push at him. He swallowed, imagining the air-conditioned Subway and a cold Sprite. He felt very stupid.
“Ten minutes left,” Lavender said, her voice disrupting his thoughts with unexpected force. David had forgotten that she sounded like that—low and tired. “Left?” he croaked.
“Of the half-hour you paid for,” she said, holding up her cell in its purple glittery case. The display read 11:23 for a second before fading into blackness, the screen smudged with fingerprints. David looked down at his hands. The tips of his fingers rested on the lacquered surface of the planchette. Lavender’s rejoined his, an answering bracket keeping the planchette trapped between them.
David thought about his question as his gaze drifted between the two words facing him on the board: YES and NO.
“Marcus,” he began again, his tongue clumsy in his mouth. “Are you—are you here?”
It was a stupid question, but the only one he could think of. With the words out, he waited.
Lavender didn’t look at the table or the planchette. She stayed staring at him, and eventually he stared back. With their gazes locked, the planchette crept forward.
Three stripes of fear kept David from looking down. Fear that this wasn’t real, fear that it was, fear of the space the planchette would land on. When the movement stopped, Lavender looked down. Swallowing, sweat gluing his shirt to his back, David looked down too.
The word was inked in black, bordered by some sort of iridescent shell inlay. David focused on the colors he could pick out—purple, green, blue, silver—and wished he hadn’t stopped at Lavender’s shop.
“Does it hurt?” He was aware of how the question pulled at his cheeks, the way his lips moved to make the words. He didn’t look up at Lavender this time as the planchette slid across the board, the wood moist with idle humidity. NO.
The rest of the question broke apart before his tongue could work it out, leaving him waiting for an answer that couldn’t come.
Lavender quietly cleared her throat. “Five minutes left. Another half hour will be $30. $5 discount for an additional slot.”
Marcus died two weeks ago. Two weeks ago on the side of Route 9, four minutes into his run. He was found at 8:15pm. He’d been dead for ten minutes, alone on the side of the road.
David tried to force his lips into a question worth $35. What did you ask the ghost of the person you’d imagined dying next to? What would make their death easier, your life bearable? It was selfish and pathetic, a cheap way to move on. Why had he come here?
When he died, Marcus had still been wearing the engagement ring.
David’s fingers slipped from the planchette and covered his face, grinding anger and grief and sweat into his sunburned skin. YES and NO. He lowered his hands. The alphabet arced over those two words, offering more.
It was impossible. What if he asked something Lavender couldn’t answer? Part of him was intent on the truth that she was a charlatan. The other part, the part of him that peeled sweaty bills from his pocket to pay for today, yearned to use the alphabet to prove something.
What had he forgotten to say?
“You remember…” Lavender’s phone screen lit up. 11:31. He didn’t expect the panic, the rush of memories.
“Do you remember when we went to that field beyond Bloody Brook? It was May. Do you remember, you packed a picnic in your Fjallraven backpack of moscato and ham salad sandwiches that got soggy on the way, but we ate them anyway, sitting in the long grass in shorts even though it was only in the fifties, so desperate for it to be summer? You pulled burrs from the hair on my calves and blew away the heads of dandelions, their seeds reminding you of jizz on the breeze. Do you remember what I said when we were lying on our backs, soaked through from the mud lurking under the grass, tipsy and covered in goosebumps?”
11:32. The planchette stuttered across the board.
His throat ached. “We said we’d go again, when it was warmer. Go back and dig up the memories, sealed in tinfoil leftover from the sandwiches. When the mud dried up, you’d bring a shovel, and…” Lavender’s phone lit up. She pulled one hand away from the planchette to tap the screen. “Wait,” David croaked.
She looked at him. She brought her hand back to the planchette. “Last question.” The words nestled between them, waiting to be captured in the planchette’s eye. Dehydration stuck in David’s mouth. “You…will you…if I go back…” He fought
the silence rising in his gums, sealing the words back inside before he got them out. “I’ve been over and over that field. I can’t remember the place. The exact place. Where did we bury it, Marcus? Where did we bury us?”
Marisca Pichette is a queer author whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, Room Magazine, Ligeia Magazine, PseudoPod, and Plenitude Magazine, among others. Her debut poetry collection, Rivers in Your Skin, Sirens in Your Hair, is forthcoming in spring 2023 from Android Press. Find her on Twitter as @MariscaPichette and Instagram as @marisca_write.