Chapter 53

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Dvorak allows Zandra to leave after reciting a few more instances from her files. He takes great delight to re-read the most damning passages.

Just wait, Dvorak. I'll write one with your name on it.

Zandra's next stop is at Amanda's apartment on the off chance the student is home. No luck. Her absence is made all the more unusual when a neighbor asks whether Zandra knows of Amanda's whereabouts.

"Haven't seen her in a while. No one has," the neighbor says. "Are you her mom?"

Zandra decides not to answer. She shuffles back to the taxi waiting in the parking lot instead and instruct the driver to return to Sneak Peek. She tips the driver twice the regular amount, figuring he's the only half-decent SOB left in Stevens Point for putting up with her, then finds herself surprised by who waits for her outside Sneak Peek.


"Do you have a minute?" Diana says. She's slightly more put together than she was earlier, enough not to look out of place on the street. Most noticeably, there's a light in her eyes that wasn't there before.

Missing, though, is Herman. If he isn't here there's only one alternative.

The police picked him up. Sorry, Herman. Your sigil worked a little too well.

"Of course, child. I sensed your presence on the way over," Zandra says and unlocks the front door to Sneak Peek.

"Really?" Diana says as Zandra invites her to take a seat at the oak desk.

You're making it too easy.

Zandra nods and takes a seat. She hacks into her sleeve and says, "I hope you're not here to tell me you changed your mind. Confronting William is what your son wanted."

"Actually, it is about that," Diana says. She hoists her purse onto her lap and places both hands on top.

You better not back out of the showdown, especially when you're my trump card. When I call your name to come up on stage, you damn well better get up there.

"You can tell me anything, child," Zandra says.

"It's that I...I...I can't get over what happened earlier today. I can't just go back to being in that house, alone, and waiting for this confrontation you mentioned," Diana says. She opens up her purse, pulls out a $100 bill and places the money on the oak desk. "Is this enough? I know someone with your reputation doesn't work for free."

Now you're talking my language.

"Enough for another reading with the ghost box? It's a little below my usual amount, especially given I already performed a gratis reading earlier today, but for you, child, I will make an exception," Zandra says and pockets the money.

Depending on how things turn out, I might need those 100 bucks. Never let ethics get in the way of pragmatism.

"You're so kind. I can't thank you enough," Diana says. A tear wells up in her eye. "You have no idea what it means to me to be able to talk with my James again."

No idea? No idea!? If this bullshit actually worked, don't you think I'd use it myself? Does she think she's the only one who's experienced the pain of losing a loved one? Or two? Clients can be so selfish, expecting a miracle to occur on demand just for them. What makes them so important?

Fuck, I miss David.

"It's nothing, child. The energy radiating from the connection to your son, it's so intense. It's like a phone constantly ringing, begging someone like me to pick it up," Zandra says. She keeps her distance emotionally with the "someone like me" comment.

"Will he answer if you do?" Diana says, the desperation spilling from her voice like puss out of an untreated wound.

"Let's find out, child," Zandra says and produces the ghost box.

After a few minutes of dramatic breathing and rubbing her temples, Zandra turns on the ghost box.

"James, are you there? It's me again, it's mom," Diana says, her words shattering as she cries out to the ghost box.

Nothing but static and a few warped oldies stations comes through. And then, after an unusual pause of silence, there comes a watery reply. "Om."

Did it just say, 'mom?' Or did I fill in that blank myself?

"Oh, my sweet baby, mommy's here," Diana says, gasping. "Is everything alright where you are? I can't wait to see you again."

The ghost box blurts out nearly simultaneous "C" and "U" sounds.

Should I ask for David instead? It's so clear.

"That's right, baby, mommy wants to come see you soon," Diana says between sobs. "I never got to say good-bye to you or tell you how much I love you. You got in that awful wreck and then in that coma and you basically died alone and I should've said something about you on that motorcycle because I just knew something bad would happen and I can't live without you knowing that I'm sorry and I love you and miss you so much. Parents aren't supposed to bury their children, James."

Zandra can barely hold the ghost box in place without breaking down. She digs out a box of tissues for Diana and says, "Don't stop, child. Let it out."

Diana's words become lost in her grief. The ghost box ceases to churn out anything but noise and the occasional bit of music. Zandra switches it off, explaining how spirits can only manifest through electronic devices in spurts. Piercing the veil between this world and the next requires enormous amounts of supernatural energy.

"Your son must really love you to manifest twice in one day," Zandra says.

Will she be able to keep it together for the showdown? Will I?

"Thank you, Zandra. I needed that," Diana says after she calms down enough to talk. "He must be doing OK on the other side, right?"

"Of course, child," Zandra says in a whisper. She needs a moment, too.

"I mean, he's not in hell, right?" Diana says. "He's not in pain?"

"I trust your James waits for you in heaven," Zandra says, although she rarely considers heaven and hell anymore in her personal or professional life. She found little comfort in the thought David could be in hell after he died, so she crossed out heaven in the process. Christianity, with its rigidity and dogma, seemed worlds apart from her experience, even silly. The world of the metaphysical drew her in with its pragmatic claims scrubbed from the intersection of science and the spiritual. Now, at Diana's mention of hell, she realizes what a 360-degree move that turned out to be.

Same pig. Different lipstick.

"I can't wait to see him again," Diana says, dabbing her cheeks with a tissue.

Zandra takes Diana's hands in hers. "You will, child. I promise."

There are plenty of atheists and believers out there, but damn near everyone believes there's more to reality than meets the eye.

Diana leaves without another word. She only pauses at the door of Sneak Peek, turns and smiles at Zandra.

If being unsatisfied with what we're presented as reality is innate in nearly everyone, why should the truth be so hard to find?

Zandra watches Diana stroll onto the sidewalk and peer down the street like she's waiting for a vehicle to pull up. She turns and smiles once again back at Zandra through the graffiti stains on Sneak Peek's large window. Zandra returns it with a wave.

Diana's still smiling when she steps out from the sidewalk and throws herself in front of a city bus. The sights and sounds of her mangled body scraping the pavement while the bus brakes hard knocks the wind out of Zandra.

Maybe there's a reason we're not supposed to find out.

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