Beyond and Begone
Lois Cloarec Hart
My thanks, as always, to my wonderful beta readers, Betty, Mom and Day, who catch the missing commas, uncooperative conjunctions, and the occasional contradictions, and inevitably make my stories more readable.
If you would like to comment on the story, you may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The sound of the back door creaking open sounded through the quiet house, and Erin looked up from her book with a smile. Her best friend and roommate had arrived home from a visit to their small, nearby hometown.
“I’m in here,” Erin sang out, forestalling Mariel’s holler by a millisecond.
Mariel bounced into the living room, her ever-present grin firmly in place. “Of course you are. Where else would you be on a beautiful, sunny Sunday, my bestest buddy?”
The words were said affectionately, but Erin couldn’t repress the inner wince. During the past four years, her pronounced preference for solitude had occasioned many discussions between the old friends. Erin knew Mariel was only worried about her self-imposed seclusion, but she felt that she really had been making significant progress over the last several months.
Oblivious to any emotional undercurrents, Mariel tossed her overnight bag at the couch, missed her target, then flopped onto the soft cushions with a deep sigh and closed eyes.
Erin’s inquiry was met with one opened eye and a weary nod. “You know how homecoming is in the metropolis of Traversville. Every man and his dog that ever graduated from T-high had returned for the weekend.”
“Uh huh.” Erin could predict the answer to her next question, but she asked it anyway. “And anyone of interest in that crowd?”
“Funny you should ask.”
Erin smothered a smile as Mariel sat up and winked at her. “Let me guess—you met The One. So what’s the count up to now—he’d be about the fifty-third ‘One’, wouldn’t he?”
“Hey, I can’t help it if a disproportionate number of men have feet of clay.” Mariel scowled half-heartedly at her friend, but the expression was unnatural for her and quickly vanished. “You’re lucky, you know. You don’t have to deal with all that.”
“You think there aren’t a lot of women with feet of clay, too?”
“Maybe, but it’s not like...” Mariel’s voice trailed off, and an uncomfortable silence dropped over the women.
Finally Erin broke the tension. “So, tell me who this new man is.”
With a small, grateful smile, Mariel accepted the diversion. “His name is Rylan Murphy and he’s gorgeous. I first saw him at the Friday night meet and greet. We hit it off right away, and ended up spending the whole weekend together.”
“Did you check for a tan line on his ring finger?”
Mariel rolled her eyes at Erin’s wry question. “Once! I made that mistake once... Well, twice, maybe.”
“Mike Aden, Luke Pagette, Carl—”
“Okay, okay, three times, and that was all years ago, but the point is Rylan’s never even been married, let alone still married.”
“Are we sure he’s straight?” The mischievous gleam in Mariel’s eyes answered her question. Erin just groaned and held up her hands imploringly. “Spare me the details. I’ll take your word for it.” She laughed as Mariel stuck out her tongue. “So, how did this perfect specimen slip past your radar in high school? I don’t remember any Rylan Murphy in our class.”
“Like you had eyes for anyone but my sister anyway.” Mariel’s eyes widened as she realized what she had said, but Erin spoke quickly to put her friend at ease.
“You’re right. From the first moment that I saw Gwen when she came home from college that time, I knew she was the one for me. I can remember praying night after night that she’d wait for me to grow up.”
The friends exchanged sad smiles, before Mariel said softly, “And she did.”
“Yes, she did.”
Mariel’s new inamorato forgotten, this time the silence was reflective and filled with unspoken shared memories of the woman they had both loved so deeply.
“I went out to see her, Erin.”
Erin only nodded, the familiar lump in her throat.
“I took her roses. I told her they were from both of us.” Mariel gave Erin a wan smile. “Mom and Dad and Tony went with me. We were all surprised at what you’d had done to the headstone. I mean, it’s not a surprise that you plan to join her there some day—not too soon, mind you, but I guess we figured that you’d have had the date engraved from the start if you were going to do it that way. When did you have it done, anyway? I didn’t even know you were thinking about it.”
Erin stared at her in puzzlement. “What are you talking about? What date?”
It was Mariel’s turn to look puzzled. “Your birthdate, of course.”
“Yes, you know—with the space left to fill in the rest of the equation when the time comes.”
“Mariel, I have no idea what you’re talking about!” Erin could see that her friend was getting perturbed, but she genuinely had no idea what Mariel was referring to. In the four years since she had buried her partner, she hadn’t been able to force herself back to the cemetery. Trying to tease away the other woman’s growing agitation, she suggested lightly, “Hey, maybe you were just mooning over Rylan and not seeing straight.”
Indignantly, Mariel grabbed for her overnight bag and dug out her digital camera. Turning it on, she clicked through a number of photos until she came to the one she was seeking. “Here, look at this! This is what I’m talking about.”
Erin felt a shiver run down her back before she even accepted the camera. The atmosphere in the room seemed to have thickened perceptibly, and her hands trembled as she stared at the small screen. The picture was small, but the clarity was sufficient to make out the details, which she already knew by broken heart.
Gwendolyn Christine Crane
March 26, 1965 - Oct 11, 2001
Taken too soon, and ever missed
Squinting, Erin saw something unexpected below her name. May 4, 1972 —
“What the...?” She sputtered to a halt and looked up in shock.
Mariel’s indignation turned to concern. “You mean you weren’t the one who had the date engraved?”
“No! At the time it seemed too...macabre, I guess. It was hard enough arranging for Gwen’s dates.”
“I know.” Mariel knelt beside Erin’s chair and hugged her. “I know, sweetie. That was a terrible time for all of us, but for you... Hell, there were many days when I didn’t think you’d survive.”
Erin accepted her friend’s embrace gratefully. “If it weren’t for you and your family, I don’t think I would have.”
Mariel’s arms tightened. “We’re all still there for you, Erin. Mom and Dad miss you like crazy, and Tony wants to introduce his new girlfriend to you. He thinks she might be the—”
“The One?” Erin pulled back with a watery smile. “You and your brother are peas in a pod. I’m just glad Gwen was more like your folks.”
A gentle hand pushed Erin’s long, dark hair back behind her ears and wiped away the tears on her thin, angular face. “Aw, sweetie, if Tony or I ever found someone that looked at us the way you two looked at each other, we’d stop looking too.”
Erin dried her eyes on her sleeve. “I take it Rylan isn’t looking at you that way yet?”
Mariel laughed and rose to her feet. “Hon, I doubt Rylan would ever look at me like that.”
“So, not so much The One, as the ‘one right now and right there’?”
“Hey, you labeled him The One, not me.” Mariel shrugged off the teasing good-naturedly. “Though I do think I might talk to Zahra and see what she thinks.”
Erin rolled her eyes at the mention of Mariel’s psychic. Her friend swore by the woman, but Erin had little use for such things and always refused her friend’s urgings to have a professional consultation. The reference did tweak her memory however, and she picked up a piece of paper from the end table.
“Speaking of your spooky friend, she called yesterday and said that it was urgent that you see her. She wanted you to call as soon as you get in, and she said to tell you that she was holding a spot open for you after work tomorrow.”
“Hmm, I wonder what that’s all about.” Mariel accepted the message, scanning it several times. “I’d better call her right away.”
She turned to leave the room as Erin muttered under her breath, “She’s probably just short of cash or something.”
“I heard that!” Mariel’s voice vibrated down the hallway as she disappeared into her bedroom.
Erin shook her head. They had had almost as many heated discussions about Zahra as they had over her own self-imposed exile from the world. Erin hated the thought of anyone taking advantage of her overly credulous friend, but she couldn’t refute Mariel’s triumphant and argument-ending contention that Zahra had never steered her wrong. Mariel had ended up in scrapes over the years, but usually because her hormones took precedence over everything else, including Zahra’s counsel.
Firmly setting aside the unpleasantness, Erin picked up the camera again and retrieved the picture of her partner’s headstone. After long moments of study, she decided that she would contact the administration office at the cemetery. There has to be a good explanation for this. It’s obviously a bureaucratic bungle of some sort, one that can easily be explained. She hadn’t decided if she would insist on the headstone being replaced, or leave it as it was, but it certainly merited some investigation.
The following evening, Erin was putting dinner together when she saw Mariel’s car pull into the driveway. Glancing at the clock, she was surprised that it was only half an hour after her friend’s usual arrival time. She had delayed dinner to allow time for Mariel’s appointment with Zahra, and hadn’t expected her for at least another hour.
Hands filled with the head of lettuce she was cleaning and tearing, she didn’t turn around when Mariel opened the back door. “You’re home early. What happened? Did Zahra give the thumbs down on your new boy-toy or something?”
“No, that wasn’t it...”
Erin turned in surprise at the worried tone of her friend’s voice. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“She wants to see you.” Mariel stared at her intensely. “She said I have to get you to come see her. She won’t charge you or anything.”
Erin snorted and turned back to her task. “Bloody right, she won’t, because you couldn’t drag me in there with a team of horses!”
“Please, Erin. She said she’d free up her schedule anytime—that you just need to call. I can even come with you if you want to go tonight.”
“No. Not going to happen. Besides, I have a date with Sherry tonight, and after all the heckling you’ve done to get me out in the world again, you’re the last one who should be urging me to break a date.”
There was silence behind her, and Erin couldn’t repress a small grin. She knew that Mariel’s feelings about Sherry were much the same as the way she felt about Zahra. She could only attribute it to some deep residual resistance that her friend had to seeing her with anyone but Gwen, since Sherry had never noticeably done anything to offend Mariel.
Sherry was the first woman Erin had gone out with since Gwen’s death, and only the second woman she had ever dated. At fifteen, she had fallen in love with Gwen, and then been with her partner since she was nineteen. She had spent the first three years of widowhood convinced that she would never date again. Until she had met Sherry, an off-duty police officer, during the course of a minor fender-bender at a local grocery store. The man who had backed into her car had been defensive, then pugnacious as she insisted that they exchange information. The situation had rapidly escalated, until Sherry stepped in. Though not in uniform, it had only taken one flash of her badge to cool the man down.
Erin had been grateful for the assistance, and much to her own surprise, had accepted Sherry’s invitation for coffee in the aftermath. It had taken Sherry months of relentless wooing before Erin would accept anything but occasional mid-day coffee dates, but eventually she had worn the reluctant woman down. For the past two months they had been dating casually, though Erin was still resisting Sherry’s invitations to stay overnight, or spend a weekend away.
When Erin finally introduced Sherry to Mariel, she had expected her best friend to be happy for her, but that hadn’t been the case. Mariel’s initial coolness had turned into outright hostility, and they had come to an unspoken pact not to discuss Sherry.
Erin didn’t worry about the situation overly much, as she didn’t think her relationship with Sherry had much long term potential anyway, but her friend’s attitude did puzzle her. For the first year after Gwen’s death, Mariel had abetted her solitary retreat, but in the three years since, she had steadily tried to coax Erin back into seeing people, to no avail. With the exception of her best friend, Erin shunned everyone, particularly anyone who reminded her of Gwen, even Gwen’s parents and brother. She had sold the house they had spent years working on together, moving in with Mariel as quickly as possible. Thanks to her late partner’s insurance, she had even been able to leave her job at a marketing agency and content herself with mostly solitary freelance market research. Sherry was the first one to break through the walls she had built to keep the world out. She wasn’t entirely convinced that she had made the right decision to allow the policewoman in, but ironically it was Mariel’s cajoling that had prompted her decision to date again.
“Okay, if you’re busy tonight, then how about tomorrow night, or Wednesday or Thursday or...”
Bemused, Erin turned to face her friend. She started to tease Mariel, only to stop when she saw the look on her face. “You’re really serious about this.”
Mariel nodded grimly. “Please, Erin. I know you don’t believe in Zahra, but you believe in me, right?”
“Of course, but you know she’s just taking you—”
“No!” Mariel shook her head vigorously. “She’s really not, but she knew you’d think that, which is why she assured me over and over that she wasn’t asking anything of you except that you listen. She just needs to talk to you, and the sooner, the better. Look, I’ll take you to her door; I’ll wait outside in the car for you—whatever you want. Just promise me you’ll give her a chance, okay?”
Erin was on the verge of refusing again, but something in Mariel’s determined stance convinced her that her friend wasn’t going to give in on this issue. With a sigh, she nodded. “Alright. Make an appointment for tomorrow evening, but you’re driving me there, and then you’re taking me out for dinner at Hennessy’s afterwards, got it?” She was astounded at the relief that flooded over Mariel’s face at her assent.
“Absolutely. I’ll call Zahra right now.”
Mariel hurried away before Erin could change her mind, leaving the woman to wonder what she was getting into. As she finished making the salad, she pondered why it was so important to Mariel, and to Zahra for that matter, that she see the psychic. Surely the woman knew how little regard Erin had for the whole supernatural claptrap. Mariel had to have told her why Erin had repeatedly refused the offer of a complimentary session.
Finally, calling Mariel for dinner, she resolved to put it out of her mind. She would just regard the session with Zahra as a necessary annoyance to restore her friend’s peace of mind. She was determined to stay alert for any scams, however. She had no intention of being taken for a ride by some con woman, and maybe, if she was lucky, she might even figure out a way to undermine Mariel’s faith in the psychic and extricate her friend from Zahra’s clutches.
“Did you enjoy the movie?”
Erin looked up at Sherry and smiled. “Jodie Foster...how could I not?”
“And it won’t make you nervous about flying the next time?”
Flashing back to the last time she had flown—when she and Gwen had gone south to the Mexican Riviera five years ago—Erin was surprised that the reminder didn’t stab at her this time. Instead of the pain that had haunted her for years, she felt only the poignancy of old, sweet memories—memories that returned to her now in the colours of that last vacation: crystal clear waters and white sand, garishly bright tropical drinks, the vivid hues of a sunrise they had forced themselves out of bed for, and Gwen’s eyes darkening to a midnight blue as they made love with sea water still wet on their bodies. But this time she could picture Gwen’s laughing, loving eyes without feeling the agony of watching those eyes close for the final time.
“Hey, where did you go?”
Erin returned from memory lane to find Sherry regarding her quizzically. “Um, sorry. Just thinking about...a trip. A long ago trip, that’s all.”
Sherry shrugged. “Okay. Well, here’s my car, anyway.” She unlocked the door and held it open for Erin, then went around to the driver’s side and slid behind the wheel. “Do you want to go get a drink, or a bite to eat?”
Suddenly weary, Erin shook her head. She knew what would come next, and she didn’t feel up to dealing with it tonight. Sherry started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, her rapid acceleration, as always, making Erin uncomfortable. Still, she couldn’t deny that her date handled the big car with smooth competence.
“I’m off work until Thursday.”
Erin stifled a sigh, irritated as much at herself as at Sherry’s less than subtle persistence. But she limited her reaction. “That’s good. You could use a few days off.”
“Yeah. Well, I was thinking that maybe we could go for a drive out to the lake tomorrow. You know, take in the fall colours and all. Maybe stay at my cousin’s cabin for a couple of days, take the boat out one last time. What do you think?”
Resisting her initial negative response, Erin looked out the window at the passing houses and thought about it. She knew what Sherry was really asking. It had become an unspoken bone of contention between them—Erin’s unwillingness to advance their relationship after two months of dating. She didn’t entirely understand her reluctance herself. She had literally jumped on Gwen when her partner had first shyly confessed her feelings, and they had been enthusiastic lovers from that day on. But even with the passage of time, and with both her heart and her mind insisting that Gwen would never have wanted her to live a celibate life, it still didn’t feel right to sleep with Sherry.
Then she remembered the appointment that Mariel had talked her into for the next evening.
“I’m afraid I can’t, Sherry. I’ve got plans with Mariel tomorrow evening, and two projects that I have to finish by next Monday, so I think I’ll beg off this time.” Erin watched Sherry’s lips tighten into a thin line, and knew that at some point she was going to have to make a choice—either overcome her reluctance, or break things off. It wasn’t fair to Sherry.
The rest of the ride to Erin’s home was quiet, and Sherry didn’t try to kiss her goodbye after she had pulled to a stop at the curb. Troubled, Erin laid a hand on her date’s arm, only to have it shaken off.
“Good night, Sherry. Um, thanks for the movie. Give me a call later this week?”
A grunt was her only answer, and Erin climbed out of the car, barely having enough time to close the door before Sherry roared away. Sadly, she watched the taillights disappear down the street as she mentally castigated herself.
For God’s sake, Erin, get yourself together. You’re a thirty-three years old woman, and you shouldn’t be acting like some scared kid on her first date!
Despondent, she turned toward the house and started up the steep stairs to the front door, where Mariel had left the light on.
Several hours later, her restless sleep troubled by a deepening headache, Erin got up to seek out some aspirin. Returning to her bedroom, she ruefully surveyed the twisted jumble of sheets and blankets. She pushed her bedroom window wide open to let in the cool night air, then straightened her bedding before sliding between the sheets. A quick glance at her clock told her it was nearly three a.m. She had barely closed her eyes when she heard the sound from outside her window of footsteps coming up the front stairs.
It was a familiar, even comforting sound. Her bedroom faced the front yard, and she slept with her windows open as much as possible no matter what the season, so that she often heard the paper carrier making his early morning rounds. Up the stairs and down, seven days a week, he was as reliable as an old farm rooster.
“At five thirty, not three in the morning!”
Erin’s eyes snapped open and a burst of adrenaline set her heart pounding. The sound of the footsteps had just stopped and there was no sound from outside her window. Whoever had walked up the stairs hadn’t walked down again. As she lay straining to hear any sound, she tried rationalization to calm her fears.
“Maybe he walked back down to the street on the grass...or maybe it wasn’t the paper carrier, maybe it was one of the neighbours coming home late and he just got the wrong house. He could’ve cut across the lawn and I wouldn’t have heard it.”
But the grass would be wet with dew by now, and being on a corner, a street ran by one side of their house. On the other side, their elderly neighbours would be unlikely to have midnight visitors.
When logic failed her, Erin eased out of bed and threw on a robe. She pulled back the curtains just enough to see outside, but could see nothing in the soft illumination of the street lights. And with her sightline to the front stoop blocked, she couldn’t check to see if a newspaper had been deposited there.
Steeling herself, she walked to the front door. There was nothing unusual to be seen through the peephole, so her hand fell on the door knob. Before she turned it, she quickly considered waking Mariel, but her roommate had mentioned needing to be in to work early, and she didn’t want her to lose any sleep. After reminding herself that the screen door was locked too, providing an extra modicum of security, she slowly unlocked the door, opening it just an inch.
There was no one there. Nor was the daily paper on the stoop. Opening the door further, she looked around, but there wasn’t even a stray cat or dog on the street. Shaken, but determined, she unlocked the screen door and stepped outside. The gates on either side of the house leading to the back yard were still latched and the dual security lights hadn’t come on, indicating nothing had passed near them in the previous ten minutes. Completely baffled, she stared at the steep steps leading to the street.
Earlier, after Sherry had dropped her off, she had scuffed disconsolately through the leaves as she mounted the stairs, making a mental note that it was almost time for seasonal raking. The stiff evening breeze would have blown more leaves onto the stairs in the hours before she had retired, but the night air was perfectly still now and there was no evidence that the leaves had been disturbed at all since her return home.
Feeling a shiver crawl down her spine, Erin abruptly turned and retreated into the house, locking both doors securely behind her.
“Come on...you’re just imagining things,” Erin told herself firmly as she returned to her bedroom. But as she waited for the adrenaline to subside enough to allow for sleep, she knew she hadn’t. She had been wide awake, and she had heard the footsteps. She just didn’t have a good explanation for them.
Erin scowled as Mariel turned onto a street of neat, older bungalows set back in large, well-tended lots. She was tired, testy, and not at all in the mood to humour her best friend, no matter what she had promised her the previous evening. She had tried to beg off from the appointment with Zahra, but Mariel had proved unexpectedly obdurate and had practically dragged her out to the car. Grimly she decided that she wouldn’t respond to anything the so-called psychic had to say. The woman could say her piece, then she was out of there, and God help Mariel if she gave her a hard time about it.
Even in her current mood however, Erin found it hard not to blink in surprise as Mariel pulled to a stop in front of a pale yellow house with white trim and the proverbial white picket fence. Large beds of mixed shrubs and flowers edged the yard, and several bird feeders surrounded a copse of spruce trees in one corner. It wasn’t at all what she had imagined Zahra’s place would look like.
“Go on. She doesn’t bite, I promise.”
Mariel’s voice was gently weary, and Erin felt a quick flash of guilt. She had been arguing and complaining about this appointment from the moment Mariel walked in the door after work, and she wouldn’t have blamed her friend for just abandoning her to her black mood. In many ways she wished that she had, but even her current sullenness couldn’t outweigh her gratitude for her friend’s steadfastness. “You’ll wait?”
“I won’t be long.”
Mariel patted the book nestled between them. “Take as long as you need. I brought this to read, and I’m not in any hurry.”
“You could come in, you know.”
“I know, but I don’t want to distract you...or talk for you. It’s best you do this solo.”
Erin grimaced, but knowing she couldn’t put if off any longer, slowly opened the car door. With a deep sigh, she got out and started up the walkway. The front door swung open as she approached.
If she had been surprised at the house, she was even more surprised at the woman who awaited her. For some reason she had pictured Zahra as much older than the blonde, forty-something woman at the door. And she had certainly expected something far more flamboyant than the tailored, charcoal-coloured suit and crisp, white shirt that clad the psychic’s tall, heavy-set frame.
Zahra extended a hand, and Erin shook it automatically.
“Erin, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Won’t you please come in?”
Erin stepped into a foyer that smelled pleasantly of jasmine as Zahra waved at Mariel, then closed the door.
“We can talk in here,” Zahra said, her hand indicating the living room around the corner, “Or go back to my office, if you’d rather.”
“Where does Mariel see you?” Erin wanted to see exactly what her friend was exposed to when she came to see Zahra. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but the living room was far too cozy and comfortable for a psychic’s lair. If any good was going to come out of the encounter, then she needed to see the whole picture.
“The office it is, then.” Zahra led the way down the hall. Her smile told Erin that none of her reactions had been missed. The psychic ushered her into a large, airy room with a profusion of houseplants scattered in front of gleaming blond wood walls and a skylight bringing in the last of the day’s light. She turned slowly, taking in the big, solid desk, the comfortable chairs and couch, the tall bookcases, and most astonishing of all, the framed professional certificates on the wall. Reading them, Erin blinked in amazement. “You’re a psychologist?”
Zahra nodded. “That is my day job.”
“But...why...I mean, you’re supposed to be...”
Zahra took one of the easy chairs and gestured Erin to the one opposite. “Both my fields involve human behaviour and ways to help people. Are they really so diametrically opposed?”
“Well, yes! On one hand you’ve got science, and on the other...”
Erin blushed at the amusement in Zahra’s voice. “Um, I was thinking voodoo or something like that.” She looked around her. “Shouldn’t you have a crystal ball or, I don’t know—something to set the atmosphere?”
Zahra laughed aloud. “I’m so sorry to disappoint you. I sent my cobwebs and bat wings to the dry cleaner just yesterday.”
Erin couldn’t help an involuntary chuckle at her own expense. “Okay, I apologize for the stereotypical expectations, but Mariel really wasn’t very forthcoming about your practice. I thought you were some sort of clairvoyant.”
Zahra drew her long legs up under her and regarded her visitor steadily. “I am a sensitive, Erin, though I haven’t worked formally in that field since my university days. For the most part I find my gifts help me in my practice, but I don’t advertise that fact. It tends to unnerve people.”
The psychic nodded.
“So am I seeing you as a shrink or an occultist?” Erin knew her voice was more pugnacious than she had intended, but Zahra’s low, calm voice and professional demeanour had shaken her resolve to confront and expose a charlatan.
“We’re off the clock here, Erin. I’m simply someone who may be able to help—who would like to help, if you’ll let me.”
“Why would you want to help me? Setting aside whether you could help me—or whether I even need help—why me? Because of Mariel?”
Zahra’s eyes were a fascinating shade of mulberry, and Erin found herself wanting to look away, but unable to. For a brief panicked moment she wondered if she was being hypnotized in some way, and she was relieved when Zahra casually broke eye contact as she stood.
“May I get you some tea, Erin? Or something else if you prefer?”
“Tea’s fine.” She watched as Zahra went over to a small counter situated between two of the bookshelves. There was an electric kettle still steaming, as if it had only recently been unplugged. An old teapot with unmatched cups stood nearby on a tray, and the psychic quickly filled the pot with water. Returning with the tray, she set it down on the low table next to Erin’s chair.
“Let it steep a few moments.” Zahra settled back in her chair. “You want to know the why of it all, and quite understandably. The truth is that I’d have liked to talk to you years ago, but the time wasn’t right.”
“And the time is right now?” Erin watched the psychic closely, and was startled to see uneasiness on her face.
“It’s critical now.” Zahra drew a deep breath. “Some of what I need to tell you, you’re going to dismiss out of hand. I understand that, but I do ask that you hear me out, and that you keep as open a mind as possible. Will you do that?”
Erin wanted to scoff. She wanted to sneer, to savage the woman with a cutting reproach for perpetrating a long-lived scam on her best friend. Instead, she found herself nodding and settling back in her chair.
“It won’t come as any surprise to you that I know a fair bit about you and your life, including the tragedy of losing your partner to a hit and run driver four years ago.”
It didn’t surprise Erin. She knew Mariel had found great solace through Zahra in the aftermath of the accident that had devastated both their lives. It was only reasonable that Mariel would have spoken about Erin, too. Thirty minutes ago she would have resented that fact. Now it seemed not only acceptable, but desirable. Though she had only been in the woman’s presence for a short time, many of her defences had been disarmed and she was very curious as to why Zahra had been so insistent on seeing her.
Zahra appeared to be choosing her words carefully, as if she were dealing with a skittish colt, afraid that it would bolt prematurely. “Erin, I know how you’ve suffered with the loss of Gwen. I know that it’s taken you until just recently to even contemplate moving on. Moving on, beginning to rebuild your life, these are good things—things that Mariel and I—and Gwen have desired.”
As much as she thought she had prepared herself for this encounter, armouring herself with cynicism, rationality, and anger, Erin couldn’t stop the shock that echoed through her mind and body at the casual way Zahra referred to Gwen—as if she had just been chatting with her late partner an hour ago. She stared at the psychic, unable to stop the tears that gathered in her eyes, but helpless to form the stinging rebuke she wanted to fling at the woman.
Zahra’s eyes were apologetic, but she didn’t pause to acknowledge Erin’s sorrow. “I know this is hard for you to accept, Erin, but Gwen is trying to contact you. She has done so before, but was unable to penetrate your grief. But she is so desperate that she reached out to me because of my relationship with Mariel, and my ability to accept and understand her message. She wants me to be her conduit to you.”
Erin jumped to her feet, wanting nothing more to bolt from the room and leave this woman with the strange eyes behind her. But Zahra instantly rose to her feet too, and blocked her exit. Reaching out, she took Erin’s hands and, holding them firmly, spoke quickly.
“You promised to hear me out, Erin. You promised to listen to what I had to tell you.”
Erin stared at the hands enfolding hers, wanting to wrench away but unable to move. “You’re lying! I don’t know why—I don’t know what’s in it for you—but you’re trying to scam me!”
Zahra sighed, then reached out one hand to tip Erin’s face up. Meeting her gaze firmly, she shook her head. “I’m not lying, Erin. I could swear on everything you believe in, but you don’t know me and have no reason to trust me. So I’ll just ask you—have there been any unexplained or odd events in your life in the last few days?”
Erin felt the strength leave her legs, and she collapsed back into the chair. Zahra knelt in front of her, still holding one hand, her thumb gently moving across Erin’s cold flesh.
It took Erin a few minutes, but she finally composed herself enough to challenge Zahra. “Mariel told you, didn’t she? That’s how you know. And now you’re using it—”
“Mariel hasn’t told me anything of this nature, Erin. You can ask her yourself. Our session yesterday was very brief, as I told her that we had to focus on you and Gwen for the moment. And I really don’t want anything from you except to pass along Gwen’s warning.”
Erin hadn’t told Mariel about the unexplained footsteps from the previous night, but she was surprised that her friend wouldn’t have told Zahra about the odd case of her birth date ending up on Gwen’s headstone. Reluctantly, she admitted, “There have been a couple of weird things happen, though I’m sure there are perfectly good explanations for them. I’m just not sure what they are yet.”
Zahra smiled as she rose to her feet and returned to her chair. “Ah, yes, the old ‘perfectly good explanation’ rationale. People have been dismissing actual explanations with that justification for as long as I’ve been doing this.” She held up her hand to still Erin’s protests. “Not that I blame them. We all naturally fear the unknown—whether that be what’s around a dark corner, what the doctor’s x-rays will show, or what lies beyond for all of us.”
“I’m not afraid!”
“Aren’t you? I would be in your shoes, Erin. Though if a loved one was trying to reach me from beyond the grave to warn me about something, I’d definitely want to know why, and what it was all about.”
Erin wanted to scoff, but Zahra’s imperturbable bearing made that difficult. “Alright, say that maybe there is some substance to what you’re saying—what exactly are you saying, anyway? Why is Gwen trying to reach me?”
For the first time, a frown creased the psychic’s forehead. “I wish it were as easy as reading a spirit’s letter to you, Erin, but it’s not. I can only interpret the signals I’m getting, and what’s coming through loud and clear is that Gwen is worried about you.”
Erin shook her head in confusion. “Why now? If anything, I think I’m doing much better now than I have been.”
Zahra closed her eyes in concentration. “Is there someone new in your life? Someone that perhaps you have doubts about? Someone that might not have your best interests at heart? Because Gwen is projecting a sense of darkness in this area.”
“No, I...” Erin trailed off as she realized that there was a new person in her life. “Well, I mean, I have started dating someone recently, but I really don’t think that Sherry would ever hurt me or anything.”
“Sherry. Yes, Mariel mentioned her. She doesn’t seem to think too highly of the woman.” Zahra flashed a wry grin. “Mind you, Mariel doesn’t really think anyone is good enough for you.”
Zahra nodded. “Except Gwen. But don’t worry about it too much, Erin. Once you’re happy, Mariel will be too. She just worries about you.”
“I know.” Erin shook her head in affectionate bemusement at her friend’s protectiveness, then recalled the subject at hand. “But back to Sherry, I just don’t think she could be the one Gwen’s worried about. I mean, we’re not even that close.”
“Are you lovers?”
“No, not really. We’ve been dating for a couple of months, but it’s nothing serious.” A thought occurred to Erin. “Hey, is it just that I am dating again? Would that upset Gwen?”
“You tell me.”
It didn’t take Erin more than a moment of consideration. “No, no way. Gwen would want to see me happy again. In fact she’d kick my butt for withdrawing for so long.”
“And does Sherry make you happy?”
Erin shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. We’ve had some fun and all, I guess, but sometimes I really have to force myself to say yes to one of her invitations when I’d rather stay home with Mariel.” She had the distinct feeling that Zahra had slipped on her professional hat as the other woman regarded her intently, hanging on every word.
“You said that you’re not lovers. It that a source of strain between you?”
Embarrassed to admit how much of a strain it was, Erin didn’t answer, but that in itself seemed to confirm something for Zahra.
“Erin, I want you to think about this carefully. You don’t have to come to a conclusion tonight. I just want you to spend some time giving this some consideration. Is Sherry pressuring you in ways that make you uncomfortable? If she is, why are you allowing her to do so? Do you feel it would endanger you to break things off with her? Is there something in her nature that you’re sensing unconsciously that may have you on the defensive?”
“So you are telling me that Gwen is warning me against Sherry? That she thinks Sherry will hurt me?” Erin found that hard to believe.
Zahra leaned forward, and patted her on the knee. “I don’t have enough information yet to make that determination, but I would feel a lot better if you’re more alert to the possibility. Maybe talk it over with Mariel. You might find that her antipathy towards Sherry is rooted in much the same reasons as your own doubts are.”
Confused, Erin looked away from the psychic’s sympathetic expression. She had not only accepted Zahra’s assertion that Gwen was trying to communicate with her, she was now considering if her own judgment was so deeply flawed that her partner had been forced to try to reach her. It left her feeling off-balance—as if she could no longer trust her own instincts and decisions. Glancing at the clock, she realized that Mariel had been waiting out in the car for almost an hour and she rose to her feet. “Look, I’d better get going.”
Zahra nodded and stood to escort her to the door. “I hope I haven’t upset you, Erin. At this point we don’t have too much of substance to go on, and normally I wouldn’t have bothered you. However, the strong sense of urgency I was getting from Gwen compelled me to contact you. If I learn anything more, may I call you?”
Erin just wanted to leave. “Alright.”
“And please feel free to call me too, Erin. If I can be of any help at all, I know I’d be working in accord with Gwen’s wishes. She loves you very much, you know.”
It was only when Erin was almost out to the car that Zahra’s present tense reference sank in. Gwen loves me. She still loves me. She could almost hear Gwen’s loving retort—Of course I do, silly sweetie. I always have, always will—you know that. It made her smile and eased some of the tension that had settled over her. Seeing Mariel sound asleep where she reclined behind the wheel, the opened book across her stomach, anchored her smile, and she stood quietly for a few moments watching her friend’s peaceful face before tapping lightly on the window.
Mariel woke instantly and unlocked the doors. She rubbed her eyes as Erin slid into the seat. Yawning, she asked, “How did it go?”
Erin considered that. While her antagonism to the psychic had disappeared, she hadn’t come away with a sense that much had been accomplished beyond vague warnings. “Alright, I suppose. She’s an interesting woman.”
“Not what you’d expected?”
“No, not really.” Unsure how much she wanted to tell Mariel, she added noncommittally, “She certainly has lovely eyes.”
Mariel shot her a quick glance before starting the car, but all she said was, “Hennessy’s?”
“Yes, please, and don’t spare the horses. I could use a stiff Manhattan.”
“That makes two of us.”
Erin briefly wondered what lay behind Mariel’s cryptic comment, but her friend offered nothing more as she pulled away from the curb. “How did you meet her, anyway? Did you go looking for someone to read your palm one day or something?”
“No, actually she came up to me at a party we were both at and introduced herself. It was about five or six months after Gwen died—not long after you’d moved in with me. We ended up talking for a few hours—you may have noticed how easy she is to talk to...”
Erin nodded. Whether by training or because of her gift, Zahra projected a deep and engaging empathy.
“When the party ended, she gave me her card and told me if I ever needed her, to give her a call. I held on to the card for a long time before I called, but when I did, she remembered me right away.”
“What finally made you call?” Watching her friend, Erin could see Mariel swallow hard, and for a long moment she didn’t think she would answer.
“That first anniversary. I didn’t know the best way to support you—what to say, what to do. Because one of Zahra’s specialties is grief counseling, I thought she might be able to help.”
Erin’s eyes fluttered closed. The first anniversary of Gwen’s death had been absolutely hellish, and her only clear memory of it was sobbing in Mariel’s arms for what seemed like endless hours. Obviously she had scared her friend as badly as she had scared herself. Then her eyes snapped open.
“Wait a minute! You saw her as a psychologist? But I didn’t even know she was a psychologist until today. Why did you tell me she was your psychic?”
Mariel chuckled uneasily. “Well, I always found it kind of funny that she’d put herself through university by working as a psychic, and I didn’t want you to know that I was seeing a shrink because I didn’t want to worry you, so initially I let you think that’s why I saw her. She does do a little bit of that for her friends—she jokes that it’s to keep her sharp in case she ever needs to win a lottery—so it wasn’t a complete lie. I just didn’t want you to feel like—”
“Like I’d driven you to the brink of despair. Oh, Mar, I’m so sorry.”
“No! That’s exactly what I was trying to avoid. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. I was doing it for myself, just so I could learn how to cope.”
“To cope with me.” Erin closed her eyes wearily. What have I done to you? Like you didn’t have your own sorrow to deal with. Some friend I’ve been. She was overwhelmed with a sense of failure.
“Stop it!” Mariel’s hand fell on her forearm and shook it hard. “Don’t be thinking that way.”
“Blaming yourself. I know you. You’re going to try to take this all on yourself, and there’s nothing to reproach yourself with. Zahra has helped me a lot in dealing with Gwen’s loss, and if I learned how to help you a little too, then that’s a bonus. I love having you live with me, and I’d be happy if we lived together until we were two little old, grey-haired, cat-loving ladies.”
Erin smiled weakly. “We don’t even have one cat since Riko ran away.”
“So, we’ll get another kitten or two. Don’t change the subject.” Mariel took her eyes off the road long enough to shoot Erin a stern look, but it was only a matter of seconds before she snaked her arm around her passenger’s shoulders for a quick hug. “I love you, I love our living arrangement, and I’m perfectly content with the way things are. Are we absolutely clear on this?”
“Clear,” Erin promised, though she knew she would be doing a lot more thinking about what Mariel had said than about Zahra’s amorphous warnings. Already she could feel the doubts surfacing. Was she the reason Mariel hadn’t found a nice man and settled down? Was her friend too vested in looking out for her to look out for her own interests? Did she feel like she would be letting her older sister down if she weren’t always around to help Erin? Was it well past time she stopped relying on her best friend so much and struck out on her own?
By the time they had reached the restaurant, Erin had forgotten all about Zahra’s warning and was completely focused on Mariel and what she could do for the friend who had spent so many years caring for her. Knowing better than to bring it up though, she decided to wait until she had made her decision, then present it as a fait accompli. Mariel would take it better that way...she hoped.
“Damn it! Where are my keys?” Mariel searched frantically through the stack of papers on the kitchen table.
“Did you check the top of the fridge? I thought I saw you toss them there last night when we got home.”
Erin watched in amusement over her morning coffee as Mariel engaged in her usual morning ritual. Keys and her best friend did not get along well, and she was constantly misplacing them. Sometimes she was convinced that Mariel simply thrived on the adrenaline rush of racing the clock to make it to work on time.
“I can’t find them! Can I borrow yours?” Even as she asked, Mariel grabbed Erin’s keys off the hook she always hung them on. “You weren’t planning on going out today, were you?”
“No, help yourself, but if all you get for supper tonight is a can of beans, it’s because I couldn’t get out to pick up groceries.”
Mariel hugged her quickly and started for the door. “Not going to be home for supper tonight, anyway, Erin. Phil booked off and I’m the only one available to cover his late shift. I’m working a double today, I’m afraid.”
Erin frowned. Double shifts in the Radiology department always left Mariel exhausted, as much from the stress of dealing with her patients’ underlying fears as from the long hours. But Mariel was flying out the back door toward the garage before she could voice a protest.
Draining the last of her coffee, she turned off the pot and made her way to their den. Mariel had downloaded the pictures from her camera the previous night, and Erin wanted to get an e-mail off to the Traversville Cemetery administration this morning. She planned to append pictures of Gwen’s headstone from the time it was erected and from the previous weekend, to prove that non-requested alterations had been made.
Opening Mariel’s picture file, Erin scanned through until she came to the photos from the previous weekend. She lingered over the pictures of Mariel’s brother, Tony, and a young woman that she assumed was his new girlfriend. She felt her eyes moisten as she viewed the pictures of Gwen’s parents. They had once been as close to her as her own parents before they had passed on, but she hadn’t seen them since the funeral. She could see the changes that time and grief had wrought in the lines of their faces and the greying of their hair.
“Oh, Gwen, I’m sorry. I let them down, too, didn’t I? They lost two daughters that day—I just never thought of that. You were always so much like them that I only knew it hurt too much to see them.” Her whispered words hung in the air. “I’ll go see them soon, love. I promise. It’s time.”
And at some very deep level she knew that it was—time to return to Traversville; time to visit her in-laws; and time to resume living. She didn’t have a plan of action yet, but she had formed the intent, and that was enough for the moment.
Scrolling down, Erin stopped at the pictures from the reunion, smiling as she recognized many of the faces of the people with whom they had gone to school. She was curious to see what Mariel’s weekend fling looked like, but though her friend appeared in many group shots and was obviously having a good time, there was no gorgeous man that stood out as a possible Rylan.
Well, they do say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe she was beholding him after a couple of bottles of wine.
Erin grinned at the thought. She rarely met any of the men Mariel dated. She had initially thought that her friend was being discreet on her behalf after she moved in, and she felt badly that Mariel didn’t feel comfortable bringing dates home to her own house. However, when she brought the subject up, Mariel just laughed and brushed off her concerns with a joke. Erin had tried a couple of more times, until Mariel ordered her to stop. She had finally decided that her friend must simply be slowing down in the game of l’amour, because she rarely even stayed out all night anymore.
Returning her attention to the matter at hand, it didn’t take Erin long to compose the polite enquiry and attach the pictures. She still fully expected that it would be a routine bureaucratic snafu, but she knew she would feel better once she had confirmation of that. As an afterthought, she printed both pictures and left them next to the computer for future reference.
Once the e-mail was sent, Erin opened the research she had been compiling for her employers. She hadn’t lied to Sherry. These projects were due the following week, though it wouldn’t take her much longer than another day or two to finish up. The phone rang several times during the morning, but she ignored it, allowing the machine to pick up in the living room while she focused on her work.
When she finally broke for a late lunch, she checked the messages, immediately discarding the first three solicitations. The fourth message was from Sherry, and she frowned as she listened to it.
Hey, Erin, it’s Sherry. I was hoping to catch you at home, but I guess this isn’t my lucky day. Maybe later, though. It’s a gorgeous day—perfect for being out at the lake. There’s even supposed to be a full moon tonight. Can’t beat that, right? Anyway, the offer is still good, if you’re interested. If not, maybe I’ll see if Nanne is up for an adventure instead. Give me a call when you get this, and if I’m out, I’ll catch up with you later.
“Subtle, Sherry, very subtle.” Erin wasn’t sure what annoyed her more—the implied assertion that she could be easily replaced with a more compliant companion, the assumption that she would give in to Sherry’s advances because of it, or the fact that Sherry hadn’t even acknowledged their parting on less than amiable terms two nights before.
Angrily she stabbed at the delete button. Whatever decision I make, I’m not going to be pressured into it!
After a quick sandwich, she returned to the den, polishing an apple on her sleeve. It was almost seven before she finally closed down her work and checked her e-mail, to find that a response from Traversville Cemetery had already arrived. The letter was brief, and contained an attachment. As she read it, an increasingly familiar shiver rippled through her body.
Dear Ms. Sable,
In response to your inquiry, we checked our records and found no indication that the headstone you purchased, had engraved, and installed in October, 2001, has been altered in any way. The attached picture was taken this afternoon, and clearly shows that the details match our records for plot #3284. May we suggest that perhaps someone is playing a rather tasteless joke on you?
If we can be of any further service, please feel free to contact this office.
Traversville Regional Memorial Cemetery
She stared in disbelief at the picture attached to the e-mail. Clearly time stamped at 2:43 p.m., September 21, 2005, the picture was only hours old, yet it showed only smooth granite below her name. There was no indication at all that a date had ever been etched into the stone.
Fingers trembling, Erin printed a copy of the e-mail’s attachment, then lined it up next to the two earlier photos on the desk. There was absolutely no doubt about it. Her birth date, clearly evident in the photo taken only four days ago, had disappeared in the latest photo.
For one brief, agonizing moment she wondered if Mariel was playing some kind of sick joke, then instantly discarded the notion. Mariel would never do that to her, nor would any of her family. So the question then was, would someone else go to the time and trouble to do this, and if so, to what end? Who had anything to gain? As far as she could see, there was simply no sense to it all. Maybe someone who knew them all well might have figured out that Mariel and her family would visit Gwen’s grave over the homecoming weekend, but how would they know that Mariel would take a picture this particular time? She occasionally did when she wanted to record the seasonal changes around Gwen’s final resting spot, but it was by no means a routine matter, and it seemed like long odds for a prankster to play just for the slim chance of some sort of laugh.
Her first thought was to call Mariel, but knowing her friend was already well into the second leg of a double shift, Erin was reluctant to bother her with the matter. There would be time enough for them to talk it out later.
Gathering all three pictures together, Erin took them out to the living room, and laid them side by side on the coffee table. After studying them at length, she impulsively picked up the telephone, and before she could stifle the urge, pressed Mariel’s speed dial entry for Zahra.
“Dr. Bromley’s office.”
“Erin, how good to hear from you again. I didn’t expect a call quite so soon.”
“I know... Um, I hate to bother you, but something’s come up.”
Instantly the psychic’s voice became all business. “Tell me.”
Erin recounted the story of the series of pictures with the evidence of the disappearing date, then, since she already felt slightly foolish, threw in the tale of the footsteps in the night for good measure. She was relieved when Zahra was neither amused nor smug.
“I’m glad you told me this, Erin, and I’m not surprised at all. I told you Gwen was trying to get your attention, and this may well be the means she’s invoked. Look, if you’re open to a suggestion, I have an idea.”
“Right about now, I’m open to anything that will make some sense.”
Zahra chuckled softly. “Okay, how does this sound? Let’s you and I go for a drive to check things out for ourselves. I suspect I’ll get much clearer readings from Gwen when I can see her headstone, and then I can judge for myself what’s been going on and what she’s trying to communicate.”
Erin tried to consider the idea rationally, even as her emotions ricocheted between apprehension, pessimism, and hope. Finally she forced herself to set aside her misgivings. “When?”
“Why not right now? I’m free for the evening, and I can be over to pick you up within ten minutes.” When Erin didn’t respond, Zahra added gently, “I know you haven’t been back to Traversville since it happened, dear, but I really do feel that this is something you need to face. I’ll be right there with you—I promise. I won’t let you go through this alone, and together I think we can solve the mystery of Gwen’s warning. Just think, within hours, you could be ready to move on. You could finally be at peace, and this whole matter would no longer hang over your head. Can you be that strong, Erin? Can you do it for both of you—for you and Gwen?”
Despite Zahra’s softly cajoling words, a wave of dread and despair swept over Erin. She battled them fiercely, as the logical part of her mind sternly issued orders. God damn it! Do it for Mariel, if you can’t do it for yourself. You need to deal with your fears so you can quit being such a millstone around your best friend’s neck!
Zahra remained silent, as if aware of Erin’s raging internal conflict. When she was finally able to choke out an affirmative response, the psychic’s voice was warm and soothing. “I’m very, very proud of you, Erin. I know how much courage this is taking. Gwen would be so proud of you, too. You’re doing the right thing, and you’ll soon see that. Now, you get ready, and I’ll be there shortly.”
After the psychic hung up, Erin sat quietly, breathing deeply as she tried to calm her nerves and overcome the doubt pounding in her heart. She reminded herself over and over that it was only the previous night that she had realized what her self-indulgence was doing to her best friend, and that she was the only one who could make things better for Mariel. Finally the panic subsided a little, and with a start she realized she only had a few minutes until Zahra would be there.
She was in the process of writing Mariel a brief note to explain where she would be when the front doorbell sounded. Quickly she scrawled “Love, Erin” and tore the sheet off their note pad. They both knew to check the kitchen table when either was unexpectedly absent, as they had been communicating this way ever since the night when Mariel had come home and Erin was nowhere to be found. Erin stubbornly resisted getting a cell phone, and though she had only gone for a long walk—the first since she had moved in with her best friend, she had come home to find Mariel panicked about her whereabouts and thinking the worst.
Leaving the note, Erin hastened to the front door to admit Zahra. “Hi. I’ll be ready in a moment. I just need to use the washroom, and grab a jacket.”
“Make sure it’s a warm one. It’s pretty cool out there tonight. Fall has definitely arrived.”
As Erin moved off down the hallway, Zahra called after her. “Do you mind if I get a drink of water?”
“Not at all. Help yourself. Glasses are in the cupboard next to the fridge.”
By the time Erin returned, Zahra was waiting for her at the front door. Courteously she held the door open as Erin exited, buttoning her pea coat against the night air, then closed it firmly behind them as the lock engaged.
It was unseasonably cold, the clear, darkening sky allowing the day’s warmth to dissipate rapidly. The full moon was brightly visible over the city, and Erin suddenly had a premonition that she would be grateful for the added illumination once they reached T-ville. She shook her head wryly at the insanity of going to a graveyard by the light of the moon. “At least it’s not Halloween. Freddie and Jason should be keeping their distance.”
Zahra glanced back over her shoulder at Erin’s muttered words. “I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
Blushing at her ghoulish flight of fancy, Erin shook her head. “I was just thinking that it’s a good thing you offered to drive since Mariel took my car today and I haven’t had time to look for her keys.”
“I always prefer driving, anyway.” Zahra gave a self-deprecating laugh. “You can interpret this any way you like, but I get nervous when anyone but me is driving a car I’m in.”
“Control freak, eh?” Erin teased lightly as they reached the base of the stairs.
Zahra responded in the same vein. “Goodness, I hope not. I’m quite sure I abandoned all my psychotic tendencies in my youth.”
“Just not the psychic ones, right?”
Zahra laughed as she opened the car door with the remote control. “No, I hung on to those.”
As they drove away and turned onto a wider thoroughfare, Erin caught a glimpse of a familiar looking car. She glanced in the side mirror, then twisted for a better look, but the large, dark, older model sedan had lagged behind and a pick-up had pulled between them. That’s not...is it? No, c’mon. You’re just being silly. There are lots of cars like Sherry’s around. They’re practically a dime a dozen. Besides, she was going out to the lake with Nanne, remember? They’re probably already in bed.
She examined the last thought more closely and found it didn’t bring her even a twinge of regret. It was definitely time to bring their stagnant relationship to an end. If she was truly going to move on, it wasn’t going to be with Sherry. She knew that for sure now. Nonetheless, when the dark sedan turned at the next set of lights, she was relieved. Returning her attention to the road, she realized where they were.
“Hey, you missed the turn-off. The exit to Route 41 is just back two blocks.”
Zahra frowned. “Darn! Is there another turn-off ahead?”
“You could take the old Browning road, though it’s not as good. Hardly anyone uses it anymore, but it’s not that much slower as long as you don’t mind potholes.”
“Potholes are why I always buy big cars, Erin. I decided long ago that I’d cheerfully trade fuel economy for comfort.”
Erin patted the side of the big leather seat she was enjoying. “I don’t blame you. This is definitely a smooth ride.” She peered at the logo on the dash. “What is this—a Cadillac?”
“A 2002 Lincoln, actually.” Zahra signaled her turn and smoothly took the Browning Road exit.
They quickly left the illumination of the city behind as they made their way down the old, circuitous country road. Erin hadn’t been this way since before Gwen died, though the partners had often used this route in good weather when they traveled from T-ville to visit Mariel.
“You’re very quiet, Erin. What are you thinking?”
Erin sighed. “I was remembering some of the trips Gwen and I took.”
“Tell me about that day, Erin. Tell me what you remember about the accident.”
It was a command—a softly voiced directive to be sure, but an order nonetheless. Erin briefly considered ignoring it, she had never spoken of that day to anyone, not even Mariel, but suddenly the urge to unburden herself took over.
“It had been a week of Indian summer days—one last brief gasp of warmth before the cold days took over. We had this favourite ice cream place that we went to all summer. It was actually where we’d gone on our very first date.” Erin let her mind drift back over the years. “I even remember tasting mint ice cream the first time she kissed me.”
“That is a lovely memory, Erin. Hang on to it.”
Erin smiled ruefully. She and Gwen had made hundreds of wonderful memories, but they had all been wiped out in one sickening second on a beautiful fall evening.
“Go on, Erin. Tell me.”
“We’d barbequed that night after work, because it had been so warm all day. And it only seemed right, after dinner, to go for ice cream. We were determined to recapture summer, if only for an hour. She insisted we had to do dishes first, so we didn’t get away until it was dark, but it wasn’t that far away—only about five blocks from our house, so we walked. We always walked everywhere that we could. I remember we were goofing around, tossing fallen leaves at each other and arguing over who had to do the raking that weekend. Someone had piled leaves into a heap at the corner boulevard where we had to cross, and she pushed me into them. Then when I got up with leaves hanging all over me, she danced away from me, laughing. The car...”
Erin closed her eyes, fighting down the nausea. She felt a warm hand close over her cold fingers, and drew strength from Zahra’s compassion. Taking some deep breaths, she continued.
“I don’t know if the driver didn’t see her, or what. She’d barely made it out into the crosswalk and she was looking back at me, when he came roaring around the corner. I think he tried to stop...I remember the sound of brakes squealing hard, but mostly I remember the sound of the car hitting Gwen dead on. I couldn’t even scream as I saw her thrown through the air. She landed not far from that pile of leaves. I ran to her. She was looking at me, and she tried to say something to me, but then her eyes closed and she stopped moving.” The tears were running freely down Erin’s face and she made no attempt to stop them. “I don’t remember things too clearly after that.”
Zahra dug in the side pocket of her voluminous jacket and came up with a package of tissues. Handing them over, she asked gently, “Were you able to help the police with a description of the car or driver?”
Erin shook her head as she dried her face. “No. I think it was big and dark, but I really didn’t get a good look at it or the driver. He was long gone by the time the police and ambulance arrived. There was only one other person on the street when it happened, and she was so shocked that she wasn’t much help either, though she did call 911. She also said later that she thought it was a local plate, but that’s about all.”
“I’m so sorry, Erin. It was such a terrible accident, and no doubt it ruined the driver’s life, as well. If he had any conscience at all, he has to have suffered terribly in the years since.”
A flare of anger pushed Erin’s sorrow aside. “I hope he has! I hope he rots in hell for what he did that night! She was in the crosswalk, and he didn’t even slow down! Didn’t stop to see if he could help! Just ran like a fucking coward!”
She was panting with emotion, and Zahra said nothing until she calmed down somewhat.
“I am very sorry for what happened to you both, Erin. It was terribly unfair to all involved, but regrettably, accidents do happen—even to the most virtuous people. That’s just a simple fact, but I am glad that you spoke of it tonight. I believe it will help you resolve your issues in the long run.”
Erin felt a flash of irritation at having her life-shattering loss referred to as ‘an issue’. However, she reminded herself that Zahra had been trained for dispassionate analysis, and it wasn’t surprising that she reverted to her professional language in the presence of an emotional client. Not that she was a client, or intended to become one, but she did appreciate Zahra’s kindness so she bit back any further invective against the man who had destroyed her life—and her love.
They were mostly quiet for the rest of the drive, until they reached the outskirts of Traversville.
“The cemetery is just west of the town on RR 9. You’ll have to go through T-ville to get to it.” Erin wanted to shut her eyes to avoid seeing any once-familiar places, but she needed to guide Zahra. For the next ten minutes, she managed to navigate them along emotionally neutral and lightly traveled streets, then came the direction she had been dreading. “At the next light, turn left.”
“By that school?”
Unable to take her eyes off the school, Erin nodded. Gwen had taught there for over ten years. Most of her students, past and present, had shown up for her funeral, though Erin at the time had been unable to appreciate all their awkwardly kind words. When Zahra took the turn and moved past the middle school, she closed her eyes and slumped in her seat. It was only when she felt the car turning again, that she sat up.
“Whoa, you’re not supposed to turn for about five more blocks.”
“Oh...I thought I saw a sign that said RR 9 this way.” Zahra started to slow the car, but Erin shook her head.
“No, you’re right. You can get to it this way. I’d forgotten about this route. Keep going, and when you come to a T-intersection, take the right branch. About two miles past that, we’ll cross a creek, then we hang a left onto RR 9. The cemetery is about four miles down that way.”
They left the limits of the small town behind them and were following a narrow, twisting, gravel road overhung by skeletal trees, bleak and leafless against the moonlit sky. Erin wondered why the town would put up a directional sign to the route that only locals used, but her musing ended as they turned left on RR 9. They were only minutes away from the cemetery and her heart began to race. She cast a quick glance at Zahra, but the psychic appeared as calm as if she were driving to the grocery store. “I guess this is nothing new for you, eh?”
Zahra took her eyes off the road long enough to smile at Erin. “Well, I don’t generally make midnight house calls at a cemetery, but if you mean dealing with the unexplained, then yes, I’m familiar with that.”
“Does it ever bother you? Do you get scared?”
Zahra cocked her head, as if considering Erin’s question thoroughly. “Certainly there are things I’ve encountered that unnerve me, but events rarely unfold as they do in the movies. Usually there’s a very simple and often prosaic explanation for so-called supernatural events.”
“And you think that’s what is happening here? That there’s a logical explanation for all this?”
The psychic sighed and slowly shook her head. “I wish I could assure you that would be the case, Erin, but as I’ve told you, Gwen is becoming more and more urgent about contacting you. I do think by the end of tonight, however, everything will be resolved. Wait and see.”
Erin wasn’t sure she took much comfort from that, but she reminded herself that she wasn’t the expert in such matters. She would take her direction from Zahra. “There it is—up ahead.”
Zahra nodded at Erin’s quiet words and began to slow the car. They turned into a large gravel parking lot. A chain was across the road leading into the cemetery, but it could be easily by-passed by pedestrians. They parked near the entrance way, and got out. Zahra came around to stand by her side.
“Do you remember how to get to Gwen’s grave?”
Gwen’s grave. Yes, she knew how to get there. Every step of her lover’s final journey that cold and windy autumn day was burned into her memory. Stiffly, she nodded. “Follow me.”
Unerringly, Erin followed a long path past the older headstones to a newer section situated in the back corner of the cemetery, and led Zahra directly to Gwen’s grave. The flowers that Mariel and her family had placed the previous weekend were still resting at the base of the headstone, and the engraving read exactly as it had appeared in the photo taken that afternoon. There was no date under her name, but that was now secondary to Erin. After four years, she was again standing in the spot where she had numbly watched as they lowered Gwen’s body into the ground.
Leaving Zahra standing on the path behind her, she walked up to kneel by the headstone. Tracing the letters of Gwen’s name, she felt an unexpected peace settle over her. You know I’ll always miss you, right? But I know you’re gone, and nothing is ever going to bring you back. I loved you so much, but I don’t want to live like this anymore. You’re probably ticked off at me that I took this long, aren’t you? I’m sorry that—”
“I’m sorry, Erin. I really am. You don’t deserve this.”
Zahra’s words startled Erin out of her reverie, and she was about to turn when she saw something begin to emerge on the headstone. Under “Beloved Partner” a series of letters and numbers were swiftly etching themselves into the granite.
Erin stared, dumbstruck. May 4, 1972 -
But this time the inscription didn’t stop.
May 4, 1972 - Sept 21, 2005
“What the hell!” Erin jerked away from the headstone, ending up on the grass next to the grave. “Zahra! Did you see that!” She turned her head and her mouth dropped open in shock. The psychic had a small handgun leveled at her.
“Zahra! What are you doing?” Slowly Erin rose to her feet, her gaze flickering from the unwavering muzzle trained on her to the oddly vacant expression of the woman holding it. “What’s this all about?”
“It’s her fault, Erin. I can’t take it anymore. She just won’t leave me alone! What does she expect from me, anyway? To turn myself in? What good would that do?”
Erin shook her head in confusion. “What are you talking about? Turn yourself in for what?”
Zahra went on as if she hadn’t heard a word. “I haven’t had a drink since that night, you know. Quit cold turkey—no rehab or anything. Surely she must appreciate how hard I’ve worked since then, all the good I’ve done and all the people I’ve helped. My patients need me! Does she expect me to turn my back on them? That would be so wrong.”
The pieces fell into place. “Oh my God! You were the driver that night. You hit Gwen!”
Zahra looked annoyed. “It’s not like I meant to! I was here having dinner with some friends and I was on my way back to the city when it happened.”
“You didn’t even stop! Why didn’t you stop?”
“I couldn’t. I hadn’t had that much to drink, but I couldn’t take the chance I’d be over the limit. I could’ve lost everything.”
“I did lose everything that night!”
Zahra’s voice took on an eerily remote coolness. “It was an accident, Erin. As I told you earlier—accidents do happen. There’s simply no getting around that.” Her tone changed, becoming terse. “Why can’t you two see that? Why won’t she let it go?” She began to shift, her body language increasingly agitated as the gun wavered up and down. “Four years…four years! She haunts me, even now! I can’t get away from her. I thought if I could help her loved ones, maybe she’d finally leave me alone.”
Erin’s eyes narrowed. “That’s why you approached Mariel.”
Zahra’s head jerked in a nod. “And I did help her, too. And I would’ve helped you too, if you’d have let me. But you wouldn’t come to me; you wouldn’t come out in the world at all, damn it! And it only got worse. She only got worse! Waking...sleeping...it doesn’t matter. She’s always there...hovering at the back of my mind...goading me...punishing me.”
“That’s just your conscience,” Erin said scornfully.
“No, no, no! It’s her!” Zahra trembled visibly, then drew a deep breath. “But it’s going to stop now. I’m going to make her happy, and then she’ll have no cause to bother me.”
Erin was quite sure she wasn’t going to like the answer to her next question. “How are you going to make her happy?”
“By sending you to be with her. I know that’s what makes her angriest—being parted from you. And if that doesn’t work, then I’ll send the rest of her family along too. When she’s got no loved ones left on this plane, then she’ll have no reason to linger here.”
Erin’s body tensed, but she kept her tone even. “Zahra, that doesn’t make sense. Think about it: you want to find peace, but you’ll never find peace if you kill more people. You’ll be caught, and it will ruin your life on both planes.”
“I didn’t get caught last time; I won’t get caught this time. I would’ve liked more time and more meetings with you, though. It would’ve been perfect for this to happen on the fourth anniversary of her death. Everyone would’ve been sure it was suicide then, especially when I told them how depressed you’d been, but when opportunity presents...” Zahra shrugged, and gave Erin a ghastly grin.
“Zahra, listen—please! People will have seen us together tonight.” Then realization set in. “That’s why you took Browning Road and the old back route to the cemetery—no traffic, no witnesses.” Desperately Erin tried to reach the psychic. “You won’t get away with it. When I don’t come home, Mariel is going to raise the alert. She knows where I’ve gone and who I’m with.”
Zahra reached her free hand into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “You mean your note? I took it off the kitchen table.” She gave a short laugh at Erin’s crestfallen expression. “Mariel’s been coming to me for three years now. I probably know more about what goes on in your household than you do. I know about your habits, your work, your music, your books, your food likes and dislikes. I know how oblivious your grief has made you, and I know that you’re absolutely clueless about how Mariel feels about you.”
“Mariel?” Erin shook her head in confusion. “She’s my best friend; she loves me. I know that.”
“Like I said...clueless.”
Zahra raised the gun, then cried out as something hurtled out of the darkness and hit the back of her head. Before Erin could act, a man tackled the would-be killer and wrenched the gun out of her hand.
“Tony? God, Tony, am I ever glad to see you!!”
Erin stumbled toward her brother-in-law, who reached for her with one hand as he held the gun on the moaning psychic with the other. He hugged her tightly, and kicked away the baseball bat lying beside the prone woman.
“How in God’s name did you know to come?”
“Long story, Erin, but in one word, Mariel.” He shook his head as she opened her mouth. “Not now, sweetie. We gotta call the cops and have this piece of trash picked up.”
It was almost an hour later by the time they told the police their story and Zahra, her head wrapped in a blood-stained bandage courtesy of Tony’s Louisville Slugger, was taken away in handcuffs. He told the police that he had gotten a frantic call from his sister, which had led him to the cemetery. Because of Mariel’s fears, he had taken his bat with him and had seen the two women talking over Gwen’s grave. When he saw the psychic pull a gun, he used the cover of tombstones to get close. He had heard enough in the still night air to second Erin’s account of Zahra’s confession and intent to kill her.
Zahra’s own erratic demeanour and disjointed ramblings were enough to convince the police that whatever had happened there that night, it bore further investigation. As they were leading the woman away, Erin and Tony heard her mumbling.
“She’ll follow me, you know. She won’t leave me be. She never does. She never will.”
“Jesus,” Tony said, staring as Zahra was herded into the back of a police car. “She’s really gone off the deep end!”
“Tell me about it!” Erin responded with heartfelt agreement.
“Do you think it was just her guilty conscience?” Tony turned to Erin with a troubled look. “Or do you think Gwen really was trying to get some sort of retribution.”
“Conscience...and an unbalanced mind.” Erin was certain of that. “Alive or dead, Gwen would never torment anyone that way, you know that.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Of course she wouldn’t. Gwen was the biggest mush ball around.” They exchanged a grin. “So, you don’t think she was trying to contact you then?”
“I don’t know, Tony.” Erin couldn’t forget the sight of that inscription being emblazoned into the granite. She had sneaked a peek at the headstone while standing in the shelter of Tony’s arm, and was relieved that it now stood innocently devoid of any inscription other than the one she had originally ordered. “If she was trying to contact me, I expect she was trying to warn me because she knew Zahra had reached the breaking point.”
“I could kill Mariel for introducing you to that nut job!” Tony growled as Erin winced.
“God! Don’t say “kill”, and don’t blame Mariel. I was completely taken in too. Zahra was very, very believable.” The two began walking to Tony’s car. “Besides, maybe there was a good reason that it had to happen this way.” And remembering what Zahra had said, Erin had a good idea of what that reason might be. “Now...I want you to tell me everything about how you came to be here tonight, and I do mean everything!”
They had almost reached the car when another car came roaring into the parking lot and, brakes shrieking, skidded to a stop in front of them. Erin broke into a smile as she saw Mariel leap from the car, leaving the door wide open. Mariel jumped both of them, and they staggered back under the impact of the sobbing woman.
“Shhhh, Mariel, it’s okay. We’re okay. I’m okay,” Erin soothed her best friend. Some how she ended up with her arms around Mariel, looking helplessly over her shoulder at Tony, who shot her a bemused grin.
“Hey, sis, it really is okay. Thanks to you, I got here in time.”
Mariel lifted her head from Erin’s shoulder and sheepishly backed away, wiping the tears from her face with her sleeve.
“And he was just about to tell me the whole story.” Erin handed Mariel one of Zahra’s tissues. “So, how did you know, Mariel? For that matter, what are you doing home from work already?”
The three of them ended up leaning on the hood of Tony’s car, as Mariel began to fill them in.
“It was the weirdest thing. I was at work, and out of the blue I started feeling deathly ill. Randy took one look at me and ordered me to go home. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary, that if I just sat down for a few moments I’d be fine, but I guess I must’ve looked like hell, because he didn’t even want me to drive myself home, though I finally convinced him that I could. But even weirder, as soon as I got in the house, I felt fine again. Well, not exactly fine, because I had this kind of...I don’t know...uneasy feeling eating at me, like something was really wrong and I had to do something fast. And when you weren’t there, and there was no note on the table, that feeling got even stronger, but I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do.”
Mariel leaned against Erin, as if seeking comfort from her presence, and Erin wrapped an arm around her waist.
“Then I saw the pictures you’d laid out on the coffee table. I was looking them over, when the last one—you know the one with today’s date on it?” Erin nodded. “Well, it started to change—right in front of my eyes!”
“Let me guess...It added my date of death as today, right?”
Mariel took Erin’s free hand and rubbed it between her own. “Yes. But that wasn’t all. All of a sudden, I saw your handwriting overlay the photo. It said, “Strange things happening. Gone with Zahra to visit Gwen. Will explain when I get back later. Love, Erin.” She looked at Erin fearfully. “I swear! I saw it happen.”
Erin hugged her harder. “I know, hon. I believe you. Wait until I tell you what happened here tonight.”
Tony interjected, “That’s when you called me, right?”
Mariel nodded, then with a sudden burst of righteous indignation, shook her finger in Erin’s face. “You are getting a cell phone, missy! And you’re going to carry it everywhere you go! I’m never going to lose you again!”
Erin laughed teasingly, but Mariel’s words kindled a warmth in her that had been absent for too many years. “Are you sure you don’t just want to put a GPS chip under my skin?”
“Don’t tempt me!” Turning serious, Mariel stared into Erin’s eyes. “I’ve never been so scared in my life. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I couldn’t get here in time to stop whatever it was. I called Tony...”
“Yeah, and I thought she was insane!” Tony rolled his eyes. “She kept babbling about pictures and headstones, and that you were in trouble and I had to save you.”
Erin grinned at him. “My hero.” She laughed aloud as he squirmed. “You are my hero.” She raised a hand to touch Mariel’s face, and her voice softened. “You’re both my heroes. If it hadn’t been for you...”
None of them completed her sentence; they didn’t need to. And Erin decided not to tell them that they had been next on Zahra’s insane hit list. If it came out later, fine, but for now they had all had enough for one evening. As if in unknowing agreement, Tony pushed off the hood and pulled his keys out of his pocket.
“Well, ladies, if you will excuse me. I think my work here is done. Melanie awaits me at home, and no doubt I’ll be up for a few hours explaining why I ran out of the house like a madman with my old bat under my arm.” He looked at Erin hopefully. “Do you think you might come by and meet her some day? I’d really like that.”
“I’d really like that too, Tony. I promise I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”
“We’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” Mariel corrected firmly.
“We...right,” Erin agreed with a smile.
They stood together, watching Tony drive away. Then Erin linked her arm with Mariel’s. “Walk with me a bit.”
Mariel looked over the rows of headstones doubtfully. “Here? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Erin steered her friend down a different path than the one she had taken earlier that evening, and they walked in companionable silence as Erin thought about everything Zahra had said. Finally, amusement evident in her voice, she said, “Rylan doesn’t exist, does he?”
“No.” The admission came in a small voice.
“And Mike, Duane, Bill, Luke...?”
“Luke does. We dated for about a week, two years ago.”
“Mmmm. So, why the charade, Mariel? Why tell me all these stories about the men you’re dating, and supposedly sleeping with? Why bother?”
“I have a reputation to maintain?”
Erin shook her head. Stopping, she turned Mariel toward her, sighing when her friend wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Hey, this is me, remember? We’ve known each other since we ate paste together in kindergarten, and we’ve been best friends ever since Trent Beeson stole my favourite red crayon and you made him give it back.”
Mariel didn’t answer. She looked everywhere but at her friend, until Erin gently cupped her face and stilled her movement. “No more hiding. No more lies, no more avoidance...for either of us. Talk to me. Tell me why, hon.”
“Because I can’t be Gwen, and I couldn’t bear to be less!” Propelled by an emotion that had been stifled for too long, Mariel’s words burst out. “It was easier to let you think I was still the ditz I’d always been...let you think I was living a ‘Sex and the City’ life.” She pulled away from Erin and paced furiously away down the path.
Erin gave a small whistle as she watched her friend go. She wasn’t really shocked, as many pieces of the puzzle had already fallen into place that night, but her whole outlook had just been shaken up and she needed time to think.
She followed Mariel slowly. Her friend was right—she wasn’t Gwen. In many ways, the sisters were as different as night and day. Gwen had always been the responsible one—sober, mature, with her feet solidly on the ground from a young age. Mariel had been the grasshopper to her sister’s ant, rarely worried about practicality, taking life on its own terms and loving every moment of it. Gwen and Erin had been content mostly with their own company or just with family; Mariel made the whole world her friend, and her sunny optimism pulled people to her everywhere she went. But the sisters had also shared some of the same family traits—kindness, loyalty, emotional generosity.
What do I do, Gwen? How do I handle this? I can’t lose her—I can’t even imagine life without her, but I don’t know if I can be who she wants. And I wouldn’t want her ever to think she’s a second best substitute for you.
Vignettes from their years growing up together flashed through her mind, and underlying each of them was love and laughter. Then she thought of the years following Gwen’s death, when Mariel often seemed like the only thing anchoring her to the world of the living. She thought of how her friend instinctively knew exactly what to do—when to distract her, when to get her out of the house, and when to just hold her and let her cry. She thought of the nights when she just didn’t think she would make it through to the dawn, nights when Mariel would quietly slip in and offer her comforting presence. She recalled the fleeting peace she had always felt waking up in Mariel’s arms after those particularly bad nights. Often she would open her eyes and tilt her head back to find her friend watching her.
She stopped short as she remembered what she had seen in Mariel’s eyes on those mornings—mornings that had become very rare over the last two years—mornings that she missed acutely, but didn’t know how to ask for again—mornings that had made the night’s agonies bearable.
She looked at me like you used to, Gwen, and I didn’t even see it!
That wasn’t entirely true. She had seen the love, but she had automatically attributed it to their friendship. Whether consciously or unconsciously, she had ignored the longing in Mariel’s eyes, but now she let the memories flood back. And with the memories, came the thought of what her friend must have endured over the last few years. She had been in love once in her life, and Gwen had returned her love in magnificent measure. She had never once considered how it must feel to love, and not only be unable to speak of that love, but have to deal with the pain of suppressing it day in and night out.
For a brief second, she wondered which of them had endured the most in the years since Gwen’s death, but she dismissed the speculation as irrelevant. They had both suffered, and they had both found succor in each other. And what was important now, was what they could find together.
God, I was blind! Erin could almost see Gwen nodding her head in amused agreement, and she smiled too. No, I just wasn’t ready to see clearly then. Then, making a decision with surprising ease, she picked up her pace. But I am now.
Erin wasn’t at all surprised that when she finally caught up to Mariel, it was because she had stopped at Gwen’s grave and was sitting by the headstone, disconsolately leaning her head against the granite, her eyes closed. Erin stopped at the foot of the grave and watched her friend.
“I’m an idiot.” Mariel’s words could barely be heard.
“No, sweetie, you’re not.”
“I was never jealous of her…I want you to know that.”
“I know, Mariel.”
“I loved her. I loved both of you. I loved you together.”
“I didn’t expect to fall in love you.” Mariel’s eyes opened and she gave Erin a rueful grin. “You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when I finally clued in.”
Erin smiled at her and held out her hand. “Come here.” Mariel looked at her apprehensively, and for a long moment Erin didn’t think she would move, but then she rose to her feet and took a few steps. Erin met her halfway and took her hands.
“I can’t be Gwen,” Mariel repeated, her breath coming in short puffs in the cold night air.
“I would never ask you to be. I only want you to be Mariel—my Mariel.” Erin slid her hands around Mariel’s waist and gently pulled her closer. She had never seen her friend so tentative, and she knew this time it was up to her to take the lead. “I don’t exactly know when, but somewhere, somehow, things changed, and I fell in love with my oldest and bestest friend. I’ll never stop loving Gwen, but she’s my past—you’re my future...if you’ll have me.”
The moon could have been hidden behind dense layers of clouds and Erin still couldn’t have missed the way Mariel’s face lit up. They had kissed before—casual, affectionate, careless kisses—but as Erin met Mariel’s eager lips now, it was so very, very different. This was laughing, sensual sunshine at midnight, and pure, undiluted, unmistakable Mariel.
And when they finally broke apart, eyes shining with the excitement of discovery, they heard a faint sound from the headstone. Still locked in each other’s arms, they turned their heads to see a new inscription blaze into the granite, before it slowly faded from sight. Laughing, they read the message together:
Author’s note: Truth, always stranger than fiction, can also be a progenitor to fiction. The disappearing date on a headstone and the mysterious footsteps in the night that were the impetus for this story did occur this summer. I haven’t figured out the explanation for them yet, but sometimes it’s better not to try.