The phone is ringing.
It lay in a black messenger bag, the ringtone muffled, having filtered itself to the bottom, supporting the contents within – a thermos of coffee, a self-help book for relationships, numerous notebooks, the pages still blank. I fish the phone out impatiently and notice it’s looking a little battered.
“Braydon, I don’t want to talk about this,” I say without preamble.
I stop short on the street; someone bumps into me and mumbles an apology.
“Oh, hi Dad.”
“Something wrong between you and Braydon?”
“It’s nothing,” I say. “What’s up with you?”
“You know what day yesterday was?” he asks.
“It was your mother’s birthday.”
“Is that right.” I wave at a driver kind enough to wait for me to cross the street and hurry as fast as my heels will let me.
“Look, Dad, I’m at work right now. Can we talk later? Oh, Amos is calling. I have to go.”
He calls my name once more. I hang up anyway.
“Amos,” I say, trying to forget the disappointment in my dad’s voice.
“London. Where are you?”
“You’re early. Good. Get your ass up here.” The line clicks.
I smile. Amos only calls early when he has something good.
The office smells like burned coffee and ink. I love it. Like some kind of newspaper-flavored incense. I nod my head at the other early-rising writers. They’re like me. Real reporters. The ones that understand that the news can’t wait. It comes first, before things like sleep and breakfast. Before boyfriends and parents.
I push Amos’ door open without knocking. He’s already on his second cup of coffee, reading glasses on. He likes cream and sugar but when he’s distracted he forgets to add them. He’s old school reporting. Watergate and rotary phones.
“Damn shame,” he says when I come in. I notice what he’s reading.
“That the student who was killed?”
“Yeah. Found the body last night. She was supposed to get married yesterday. God rest her.” He crosses himself dramatically. Amos is big on God and Jesus and all that. I don’t really understand it. Coming into his office always feels like going back in time to when reporters used typewriters and believed in God and smoked because they didn’t know better. I bet he still has a typewriter at home, resting dustily on a desk below a cross.
He looks at me, scrutinizing. “You’re in a good mood.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Fight with the boy toy?”
“God, don’t say ‘boy toy.’ Amos, are you putting me on the murder case?”
“What? No. What gave you that idea? Larry’s got it.”
I hate Larry.
“I have something else for you, London,” he says, spinning his chair around. He picks up a small box, the parcel paper ripped off. He offers it to me. Inside is a flat little kettle, painted white and blue like a Victorian teapot.
“What is this?”
“Read the note.”
I only scan the name at the bottom. “Who’s Miko Hisoka?” The name is heavy with unfamiliar syllables.
“She’s some kind of Jap psychic.”
“Don’t say Jap, Amos. It’s racist.”
“Still? I thought it was like saying black instead of African American. Never mind. The psychic’s all yours.”
“Nope. She owns a shop downtown. Some of the guys from church mentioned her. Swear she’s never wrong. Then I got this.” He motions toward the teapot.
“You think she predicted you doing a story on her?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never spoken to her.”
“Come on, Amos. A psychic? Does Jesus allow you to believe in psychics?”
“Don’t be sacrilegious, London. Used to be all black people went to church.”
“You’re such a racist.”
“Jesus forgives me,” he says, unconcerned. “I want you to check this woman out. Get a reading. Talk to her clients.”
“This is a fluff piece. You said you wouldn’t give me this bullshit anymore.”
“This isn’t fluff. You said you want investigative work. Here you go. Find out if she’s for real. I want your skepticism for this one.”
“Thanks,” I say, taking the address he wrote down. He doesn’t appreciate the tone.
“You really want to end up like Paul Avery?” he asks.
“Avery’s my hero.”
“He drank himself to death.”
“He had emphysema,” I say.
“Don’t be a smart ass.”
“If it turns out to be a scam, can I make this an exposé?”
“Fine. Have fun with your exposés and your murder cases.”
“Sorry to disappoint, Amos.”
“You’re not. Now get lost. I don’t want to see you until you have something. Something good.”
I leave the office, taking my bag and the address of the psychic shop. I can’t believe I let him talk me into this. I could only hope that she would turn out to be a fake and I could keep her from taking any more money from gullible housewives and old cat ladies.
I cross the street to Starbucks, where the kid behind the counter recognizes me and immediately begins preparing my usual. While I wait, I ignore three phone calls – two from my dad and one from Braydon. Braydon’s message is short and apologetic only in words. I consider calling him back, swallowing my pride and admitting fault. It will only get worse if I don’t.
My coffee is ready. I think the kid must have bypassed half a dozen customers to do mine first. “Thanks,” I say. I could swear that he turned a little red. Cute. Maybe if I was a few years younger, I think pleasantly as I walk back to the office. Maybe if I marry him he would make me fancy drinks every morning for free. Braydon never makes me coffee.
I spend the day on the Internet, researching tricks that fake psychics employ to convince clients. Most of it is straightforward, like using leading questions and telling people what they want to hear. Whether the coffee or the challenge, by the end of the day I feel like I could take on any fake psychic in the greater Sacramento area.
I leave for home an hour early, hoping to manage pork chops before Braydon gets off work. I even pick up his favorite beer. Anything to keep the peace. I’m not a chef by any means, but somehow by half-past five, I have the pork chops in the oven and collard greens on the stove. Miracle.
I open a beer while I wait for the timer, flipping through the latest New Yorker, mentally critiquing the articles and wondering if I’m good enough to reach that level of writing. I tell myself that some day I’ll get there, but it’s a something I hear too often.
The timer goes off, distracting me from my negativity. I imagine Braydon coming home to a real home cooked dinner with a real smile on his face. It’s hard to imagine. The phone rings as I pull the cookie sheet from the oven. I glance at the caller ID.
Why the hell was she calling me?
Pain sears up my arm as I stare. I pull away, the cookie sheet connecting violently with the beer on the counter. It goes over the side, shattering in slow motion, amber foam flooding the linoleum. I drop the pork chops and hurry to the sink, feeling a shard of glass in my left foot. I ignore it long enough to get my arm under cold water.
“Hi, you’ve reached Lakeisha London. Please leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” Beep. Click.
I knew she wouldn’t leave a message. She had to know I wouldn’t answer.
A thick red line is drawn where my wrist touched the oven door. It pulsates heat and intense pain, but I don’t think it’s enough to go to the hospital. I glance over the kitchen. Beer pooled on the floor, blood speckled tile, glass everywhere. At least dinner is okay, I think, and then I see that the collard greens had boiled over and my entire world falls apart.
Braydon chooses that exact moment to walk in.
“Whoa,” he says, stopping in the doorway. He surveys the damage calmly, raising an eyebrow at my tear-streaked face. “Babe, you know you’re not very good in the kitchen.”
“I know,” I whisper. My arm throbs.
“Ah, come on. Don’t cry. You aren’t still upset about this morning, are you?”
I shake my head.
“It’s okay, Babe.”
“I…I wanted to make it up to you. I know how much you love pork chops…”
“You didn’t have to do that,” he says, giving me a quick squeeze. “I stopped by the Lotus Bar.” He holds up the take-out. “You should have called me.”
“Yeah. I should have called. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, kissing my forehead. “Once you get this cleaned up, you can have a beer with me, okay?”
He leaves with the take-out and the beer, leaves me with my arm in the sink and my foot slick with blood. I hear football on TV. For a moment I can see with perfect clarity, and the ugliness is too much. I leave the kitchen, limping to the bathroom and to wrap up my arm and foot. Then I simply fall into bed, too exhausted and pained to face the rest of the evening. I find my iPod and stuff the buds into my ears, using the music to drown out the day and the thought that the Lotus Bar is very out of the way for mediocre Chinese.
I wake up feeling like shit. Twenty minutes before my alarm goes off. My arm aches. I roll over and find Braydon gone, unusual for him. He never gets up early unless he’s being rewarded. I smile, thinking about how he used to get up two hours early just to have breakfast with me. We had just started dating then. I feel the smile fade.
The kitchen is still a mess. I knew Braydon wouldn’t clean up but I’m still somehow disappointed. It takes me an hour to scrub the floors and peel congealed collard greens from the stovetop.
The last thing I need today is some psychic telling me how to live my life.
The phone rings. God, I am beginning to hate that thing.
I frown at the phone. I haven’t spoken to her in months. She knows better. How can Dad stand up for her after all these years? I should tell her so. I should tell her exactly what I think.
The answering machine clicks on just as I pick up. Dial tone. I sigh, uncertain what I would have said. I know she won’t call back right away. She never calls my cell phone. I don’t think she even knows the number.
Two hours later I’m sitting in my car in front of the shop, a mess of emotion. What am I even doing here? I hate this kind of thing. I have a suspicion that Amos gave me this on purpose. Setting me up, trying to force some belief in the supernatural down my throat. Slimy old bastard. I bet he even fed this woman information about me so she could “reveal” them back to me.
Easy, London. You’re being paranoid. Deep breath.
I calm down and scribble down some first impression notes. The shop is a meek little thing, barely more than a hole in the wall, faded yellow paint and curtained windows. A big white sign boasts purple writing: The Oracle. I wonder if this woman has ever seen The Matrix.
I’m in a shady part of town, rundown churches next to gang-owned convenience stores. I suddenly hope that my Macy’s-clearance-rack-dress-up looks exactly like that.
A sign on the door reads, “Come in, we’re open.” I let myself in, not sure what to expect. It’s a lot to take in for such a small space. At center stands a round table, complete with stereotypical white lace cover. Against every wall are bookcases filled to bursting, and where books don’t fit on the shelf, they find a home anywhere else. Mismatched mythical objects are everywhere; I see the usual crystal ball and tarot cards, as well as an Ouija board.
“Hello?” Somehow I don’t find the place as strange as I should. It’s cozy.
“Yes, hello!” a woman’s voice replies. She sounds more British than Japanese, but when she appears I have to change my mind. She is the epitome of a Japanese stereotype; she has dark, straight hair and seems to be wearing a kimono. She even stops in the doorway and bows.
“Good morning!” she says, and then she looks at me and pauses. “Oh, my. You’re the blackest person ever to enter my shop.”
“Oh,” she says with a blush and a laugh. “Your aura, dear. I think for a moment I said something quite wrong.”
So she’s crazy, I think, but I’m a little amused.
“Have you come for a reading? I pray I can alleviate some of your darkness.”
She’s also very kind. I didn’t call ahead to warn her I was a reporter. I thought catching her off-guard would expose her easier. Now I feel bitchy for it.
“No, actually,” I say. “My name is Lakeisha London. I’m a reporter for – ”
“Oh, so he sent you after all!” She sounds delighted. “No wonder you have so many questions! Oh, Amos is a dear, isn’t he?”
“Do you know him?”
“Only what my visions tell me,” she says, as simply as discussing the weather.
“Do you have time for an interview?”
“Oh, yes – no appointments all morning. But I suppose that’s just hitsuzen.”
“The what now?”
“Hitsuzen. It’s difficult to translate – like fate or coincidence.”
“Oh,” I say, even though the two are utter opposites. “Is Japanese your native language?”
“Oh, no, I don’t speak a word of it. Would you like some tea?”
Yeah, she’s crazy, I think as she scurries off and returns with a teapot identical to the one she sent Amos. But hell if she isn’t interesting.
“It’s jasmine,” she says, pouring the tea into a little ceramic cup. “Cures headaches and heartaches alike. Now, Miss London, I am at your service.”
Our interview begins, some of my doubts already alleviated. I start with the easy questions: How long has she had these powers? All her life, she says, like all magic-users – yes, magic, she repeats. How do your powers work? Visions are the clearest, but of course they are random and unreliable. Most Seers – that’s capital S-e-e-r-s – use whatever medium they prefer. Which do you prefer? Tarot gives the most details, but runes the most depth. How do you mean? Well, details are useful in circumstance, but for true psychological value…Does that Ouija board really work? Oh, no, it just adds so much atmosphere to the room…
I find myself wanting to believe her. Fake or not, she really believes in what she does. Eccentric rather than insane.
Have you ever read your own fortune? Oh, you’re really not supposed to, but just once…Care to reveal what you saw? Soon I will become engaged. Congratulations. Thank you. Does he know he’s going to propose? I don’t think so, but it will be lovely. And then of course I’ll disappear. Disappear? Only from this world, dear; don’t look so concerned. Do you mean you’re going to die? Well, of course I will, but that’s not what I mean. I mean I’ll be going home; I’ve expected it to happen for some time.
She begins to explain a theory of alternate worlds and it’s so sincere that I simply listen. It isn’t until she mentions Schrödinger that I have to interrupt.
“You mean the physicist?”
“Yes, dear. Traveling between worlds is easiest explained through physics.”
“I thought it was magic.”
“Oh, it is, but just because something is done by magic doesn’t mean it can’t be explained by science.”
I am under the distinct impression that is exactly what magic means.
“Perhaps we should stop for today,” she says. “You have that weary expression of a skeptic reserving her opinions for too long.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“Oh, no,” she says with a light laugh. “I assure you I am accustomed to doubt. You will return soon?”
“Is Thursday good?”
“Thursday is fine. I will be here. Good afternoon, Miss London. Oh, and here.”
She offers me a lace handkerchief. I reach out automatically, puzzled.
“Trust me,” she says. “You can return it on Thursday.”
I admit I’m intrigued. I place the handkerchief in my purse. “Thank you,” I say, and she smiles as I leave.
I arrive back at The Oracle by nine in the morning. The street is still and silent, and the sound of my car door is jarring. My head aches. I march up the steps and push open the door.
“Good morning, Miss London,” Miko says. She is sitting at the table, tea prepared. From under the sleeves of her floral kimono her white hands flick through a stack of tarot cards.
“I’m sorry for coming so early. I didn’t know what time you opened and I couldn’t find a phone number listed anywhere.”
“That isn’t surprising,” Miko said, placing a card face up on the table. “I don’t own a phone.”
“Then how do you know…”
She smiles at me and I drop the question. “I usually open at ten,” she says.
“You knew I would be early?”
She raises a card toward me. I squint. Ten of swords.
“My dear,” she says, “you told me.”
I don’t know what it means and she doesn’t say. I sit down and she pours me a cup of tea.
“Shall we?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, pulling my pen and notebook from my purse. I flip to a fresh, unmarked page and position the tip above it. “We discussed so much on Tuesday that I never thought to ask you how you obtained your…powers.”
“I thought I mentioned that I was born with them.”
“Yes, but do you know how you came to be born with them?”
She presses her lips together. “That is a deeply religious question.”
“Religious? Like God-given?”
“God-given if you mean god-given. No capitals.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There is more than one god, of course.”
“Not according to every major religion in the world.”
“In this world.”
I sigh and put down my pen. “Miko, what does the ten of swords mean?”
“It is a darkness, a death. Miss London, what has died within you?”
All at once I feel tears pour over my face. I stammer an apology as I fish out her handkerchief from my bag, dabbing at my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say, noticing the mascara stains. “I washed it yesterday and now I’ve…”
“It’s fine,” she says, reaching her hand over mine.
“It’s not,” I say. “I’ve cried myself to sleep all week.”
She pats my hand affectionately, waiting for me to continue. I fall silent.
“Let me help you,” she says quietly.
“I don’t know you,” I say, growing angry with myself for this breach in my professionalism. “I don’t even believe in this!”
“Then let me listen, if nothing else.”
I breathe deeply a few times. Calmed, I regard her offer.
“My boyfriend is cheating on me,” I say at last. “That’s what’s dead.”
“How do you know?”
“Little things here and there,” I say. “When he’s screwing around he uses certain phrases and excuses for his absences.”
“Then he has done this before?”
“Not – not to me. He was engaged once, and I – I broke them up.”
There is no change in her face. No judgment. Somehow I’m offended by this.
“It’s not like she deserved him,” I say, pulling my hand away from hers. “If she couldn’t keep him happy, she couldn’t have him. She was weak and selfish. She didn’t deserve him,” I say again, crossing my arms.
“And you do?” Miko asks quietly.
My eyes fill again. “I do now,” I say. “Miko, is there such a thing as karma?”
She takes a long breath, eyes roving up toward thick lashes. “In my world there is a thing called justice. It is not the police, exactly. There is a god who exists to balance the world. Sometimes this is done through what you call the justice system. Sometimes it is the teaching of ethics. This is what you call karma.”
“You don’t understand,” I say. “I grew up in Wyoming, in the middle of nowhere. My family was broke, but we were happy. My mother – my mother grew tired of being a housewife and wrote a book. Then suddenly we were moving to California because she wanted to. My dad gave up his whole life for her, but it wasn’t enough. She didn’t have time for us anymore. So when my dad met a woman who loved him enough to be with him, my mom freaked out, like it was his fault.”
“Look, I know you can do both. I know I can have a career and a husband. I just…I just spend too much time at work. I’ll cut down…I don’t really need to make it to crime news anyway…I just…”
“Lakeisha, that’s not true.”
“I don’t want to be like her!” I cry.
Miko’s arms wrap around me lightly, as though I might break.
“I’m just not strong enough,” I say as she tries to hush me. “I know you can have both…”
“You can,” Miko says. “But only if he wants it too.”
I quiet down, my hands playing nervously with the handkerchief.
“Let it die,” she says, and I think this is the most perfect advice I have ever heard.
I get home late. The lights are on in the apartment when I unlock the door. Three empty beer bottles on the table, next to a greasy fast-food bag. I remark sarcastically to myself about Braydon bringing dinner home and drop my bag on the sofa.
I hear the shower running in the bathroom and breathe deeply. I’m not sure I can do this. I’ve lived with him for three years. It’s all I know. I think about all the things Miko told me. After my meltdown she suggested lunch. I amended it to a noon happy hour.
“I do not mean to say that you are perfectly innocent, Lakeisha,” she told me during our second beer. “You betrayed Braydon’s fiancée and yourself when you became involved with him.”
“So I do deserve what I got.”
“You deserve it only so long as you put up with it,” she said.
Braydon’s cell phone rings. I find it under a napkin, one of those gaudy phones with the mirror on the front. Two hundred bucks. I flip it open and don’t recognize the number. I look up toward the sound of the shower and push the answer button.
“Braydon?” A woman’s voice. My jaw tightens, my stomach turns to steel. I remember being this woman.
“Who is this?”
“He’s not here,” I say, amazed at the calm in my voice. “May I take a message?”
“This is his girlfriend. Who the hell are you?”
I think about what to say. What would have kept me away from Braydon?
“His wife,” I say. The girl swears and quickly hangs up.
“Babe, you talking to someone?”
Braydon is in the doorway, toweling his hair. He smells like Aqua Velva. I’ve always hated Aqua Velva, but his father wore it and Braydon always seemed to think his dad’s opinion of his scent mattered more than the woman sleeping with him. He sees the phone in my hand and the vaguest sense of alarm crosses his face.
“Who was that?” he asks.
“Your ex,” I say.
He says nothing. He doesn’t look scared or ashamed. He looks resigned. We’re both too tired of pretending to care anymore.
I go to the door and open it and toss the phone outside. It misses the balcony and I hear it smash on the pavement below.
“Get out,” I say.
It doesn’t take him long to go. Everything is mine anyway, except his clothes, the laptop, and the Aqua Velva. Once he’s gone, I throw the relationship books in the trash, rip the sheets from the bed, and begin to cry when my mom’s name appears on the caller ID.
On Friday The Oracle is open for real business. I had squandered days of investigation for personal issues, and once those wounds were inflicted, I resolved to spend my healing time doing what I did best – my job.
Miko readily allows me to sit in on her clients’ readings, and after I promise not to reveal their names, most customers welcome me. I remain quietly in the corner, listening and writing without comment. Without thinking I already know the angle of my story. No exposé or spiritual revelation. I no longer care about either. Psychic or not, Miko is helping the people who come to her. That is the truth. That is my angle.
She closes up shop at five-thirty after her last client, a young woman struggling with her homosexuality, leaves in relieved tears.
“So,” Miko says when she’s gone. She disappears for a second and returns with a couple of beers. “How is the single life?”
“I don’t know. Awesome. Awful.”
“That’s normal enough,” she says, wiping foam from her lips with an elegant fingertip.
We’re quiet for some time.
“I’m going to write the article tonight,” I say. “I want you to read it before print. Make sure there’s nothing in there you don’t like.”
“Oh, it’s a lovely article,” she says absently.
I decide not to correct her tense. I’m well beyond belief of what this woman can do.
“Lakeisha,” she says, and pauses, like she’s choosing words carefully. “I wish I had met you sooner. I feel we could have become very good friends. But I suppose that it’s all for the better. It will be hard enough for me to leave as it is.”
“Leave? What do you mean?” I feel a little panicked, like I’m losing something even more important than Braydon.
“I told you that I may vanish from this world someday. I did not expect it to be so soon, but my world needs my presence and I cannot in good conscience ignore that.”
“But…but what about this world?” I sputter. “What about me?”
“Oh, you don’t need me anymore.”
“Even if that’s true – and it’s not – I don’t want you to go!”
“You know I’m only a substitute,” she says.
“I don’t care! I don’t even know what that means!”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
I swallow back tears. I’m so confused that I can’t think.
“When?” I ask.
“Tomorrow,” she says, and it’s like a slap in the face.
“Will…will you ever come back?”
She doesn’t answer immediately. She taps the empty bottle against her leg. “If what I have Seen is true – that my endeavors in my world will be successful – then I may be able to return some day.”
“You had better!” I say angrily. “If you don’t, I’ll…”
“You had better,” I repeat, my voice turning surly. “I don’t care if I’m eighty. You come back and see me and my gorgeous, faithful husband and my brilliant writing career.”
She laughs. It hurts me.
“The coffee shop boy?” she asks.
I laugh and cry and don’t care if she’s a psychic or a stalker.
“I’m sorry, Lakeisha,” she says again.
I leave soon after. Once the subject is breached it’s too hard to keep up pretenses and I no longer have the desire to lie about anything ever again. I go home and when I walk in the door I feel suddenly empowered by Braydon’s absence, and thoughts fill my head about new paint and furniture and sheets to cover the bare mattress in the bedroom.
I write Miko’s article and order a large pizza for myself, half of which I eat with a few of Braydon’s beers and I watch Pride and Prejudice and tell myself that after I get over Braydon for good and lose the pizza weight that I’m going to ask out the coffee shop boy because he kind of looks like Mr. Darcy.
“It’s good, London,” Amos says over burned-smelling coffee. He’s on his second cup but he was reading my article while he poured it and forgot to put in sugar and cream. I can translate the body language.
“I didn’t edit it yet,” I say.
“Don’t touch a word of it,” he says. “Carol! Take this down to print. I want it in the Sunday paper.”
“You serious?” I ask, watching his secretary take the file.
“I had my doubts, London,” Amos says, sitting back. “Didn’t think you could write on something you didn’t respect.”
“I didn’t either. Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me,” he says, noticing his cream-less coffee at last. “That Hisoka woman told me to do it.”
“You know her?”
“Nope. She asked for you specifically in the note she sent with the teapot.” He taps a pen against his lips. “You think she read up on you? Studied you to sound legit?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Turned you into a believer?”
“Doesn’t matter. If her clients get real help from her, why should it matter how she does it?”
“Softening you up, London?”
“Don’t push it.”
“All right, go on. Take a couple days. Maybe when you get back I’ll have something else for you.”
“The Easter bunny?”
“I was thinking something more violent.”
“Get out of here, London. I don’t want to hear your eternal adorations just yet.”
I float downstairs and onto the street. I want to talk to someone. I want to talk to Miko. I have a copy of the article for her and as I drive toward the little shop I already know she won’t be there.
The shop is empty. I get out of the car and lean against the door, smiling resignedly to myself. The sign is gone, the windows are missing the scarlet curtains. I walk up the stairs and peer in. The room is bare. No sign of life. I return to the car feeling just as empty.
I remain in front of the shop for a few more minutes, trying to gather my thoughts. I feel every word Miko ever told me.
Just a substitute.
I dig out my battered little cell phone and punch in a stranger’s number. The line connects quickly.
I barely recognize her voice, but my own is hoarse and unfamiliar when I can finally word a reply.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.