"This time of year," she said, her voice soft, yet possessing an alarming severity, "the curtain between the worlds is thin. Rips do occur."
"And those can be passed through," I replied, perhaps a bit too eagerly.
"They can be," she replied, seeming to stop mid-thought.
The name given to me was Lady Alyssa, yet I recognized her as having another name; one familiar to tabloid readers. Oh, and what the paparazzi might do with this scene. Her, clad, somewhat, in a gauzy black hooded cloak sitting in a lotus position, oblivious to the late-October chill. Her back yard ritual circle and altar, all protected by high security fences and tall pines. The slight wish that I had a camera phone entered my mind.
"Mister Powell, are you here in earnest," she asked, seeming to know my thoughts, "or just out for a thrill at my expense?"
"I need to do this," I said, embarrassed, shaking my head. "I'm sorry. And please, call me Mitch."
"You can skip with the formalities too," she said. "Call me Alyssa. I prefer my careers kept separate."
"I am sorry," I repeated. "Please go on."
"The year dies tonight," she continued. "Yes, the calendar gives it another two months, but those are dead times when it is easiest to enter the abode of the deceased."
I thought about the stern warnings given in the books I'd read, some mentioning elaborate, unwieldy rituals. "Why is all this considered evil?" "Do you think the dead are at your beck and call?" she asked, cordial disapproval in her voice. "They have their own affairs to attend to. By attempting to communicate with them, you are intruding into their world; places that should be avoided."
It had been five years since my Uncle Oliver died. In those years my wife divorced me to marry my former best friend, I was ill more often, and my once-healthy consulting service failed. Every attempt to improve the situation resulted in an even greater disaster.
And there was that indelible image: Oliver's face in my bathroom mirror, less than a week after the funeral.
"Look at me," I said, believing what I knew was improbable, that she had magical powers. "Look into me. What do you see?"
The witch gazed at me. Those same green eyes, I mused, that once dazzled some casting agent, convincing him to make her a star, Picking up on that cynicism seemed to anger her. I started to feel as though I was being impaled by a long, thick icicle. It quickly became almost unbearable.
"Why do you need to know the reason you were cursed?" she finally asked, the pain lessening. "It would be a lot easier just to break the effect it has on you."
I could only remember the kind old man who always seemed to appreciate my company. Even when drifting in and out of consciousness, he never appeared cruel. It was just during that one final moment, so mean and unexpected.
"You're badly hurt by it," Alyssa said, compassion in her voice.
I nodded my head, trying not to let it bother me.
She stood up and motioned for me to follow her inside. "What did your uncle die from?" she asked, entering a doorway.
"All the usual maladies of a 2-pack a day smoker," I replied, feeling uncomfortable mentioning the diseases.
I followed her inside. A moment later she handed me a cloak similar to hers, but this one was tobacco brown. "Bathroom's behind that door, change into this," she said, sternly. Then she smiled. "This is not as gratuitous as it might appear."
I looked at her for a second, certain she always included a "no-nudity" clause in her movie contracts. Not only was this far from street-legal, I was pretty sure my wearing it would be considered cross-dressing.
I entered the bathroom, closed the door, and spent the next few minutes stalling. It had been six months since I was forced to take an office job. It started off well, but my performance was beginning to slack off. Jenn, my supervisor, listened to my tale of woe. She suggested my uncle's curse, which I mentioned as an off-handed joke, might be real and the cause of my problems.
She then suggested I visit her friend Lady Alyssa. To be honest, when I heard the word "witch", I was expecting either some old, toothless hag, or some stoned, fat, overage hippy chick. I was not expecting a celebrity with an incredible body.
"Hey in there," Alyssa said, angrily, banging on the bathroom door. "I'm the one putting my psychic ass on the line here. Fuck modesty and get changed."
Okay, I wasn't paying her for this; apparently some sort of cosmic regulation against her charging a fee. She considered the bottle of wine and half-dozen donuts fair compensation for her services. Yet I couldn't help feeling she would be getting some sort of thrill seeing my penis silhouetted by the material.
But I relented, and moments later exited the bathroom, holding the cloak firmly closed.
OK, she said, taking her car keys from a small writing desk. "In what cemetery is he buried?"
"I'm sure the gates are locked," I said.
"A small matter," she replied.
"What if someone sees us like this,"
"They won't." She walked out and went around to her driveway.
Okay, so what was the worst that could happen? I'd be arrested with a gorgeous actress, both of us dressed this way, caught breaking into a cemetery. Okay, I thought, shrugging my shoulders. I could live with that.
She was right though, her silver-gray BMW glided through the city as if invisible. My main discomfort at this moment was from sitting so close to her. Her chuckle suggested she realized this.
When we got to the cemetery, the gates swung open as if ... as if by magic. I suddenly became afraid, realizing what was happening. This was real. I was walking on the left-hand path. I was about to enter the realm of darkness.
"Northwest Quadrant?" Alyssa asked, apparently familiar with the cemetery.
"Yes," I said, growing more apprehensive. I looked at the rolling hills, and the flat marble stones. She began muttering something, slowly and in a language I did not understand. Then the car stopped.
"Show time," she said, sardonically.
By the time I got to my uncle's tombstone, she was already there, right hand extended, again talking in the same strange language. "Come," she said, walking down the parkway.
"Where are we going?"
"To the front gate," she replied, the wind whipping through her hair, whipping through the thin cloaks we wore. "That's where we'll cross over."
Now I wasn't sure I wanted to cross over. The reality was sinking in deeper and deeper. I did not know the right word; blasphemy, heresy, or something of the kind? Whatever, I was doing it, and that bothered me.
And what about her? Why should she be willing to risk so much for a stranger.
"Jenn was there for me after my second divorce," she said, again seeming to read my mind. "She encouraged me to develop my powers as a way to take my mind off everything. Months of intense concentration, study, shutting myself off from the world."
I remembered the tabloid stories, suggesting she was having a substance abuse problem following that divorce. How different the truth was from the contrived journalism.
We got to the gates which once again opened for us as we passed.
"Okay," she said, as we turned around, "here's where it starts getting tricky.
"It hasn't been tricky already?"
"Hardly," she replied. "Your attitude and leering are only making things more difficult."
"I'm sorry," I said, realizing she was right. "It's hard to keep my mind focused."
"Never mind," she said, cheerfully. "First, I want you to look at me. Stare, gawk, focus on my boobs, ass, or whatever other part really turns you on. Now imagine you're touching me; licking me from head to toe, but focusing on that one area."
I did as she asked, not understanding the purpose, but rather enjoying the mental images.
"Now," she said, with a slight giggle, "think of the worst thing you've ever eaten. Something so awful that it still nauseates you to even remember."
At first, I drew a blank, being fond of unusual foods. Then I remembered my childhood and picking my nose. I started feeling hints of nausea.
"Now imagine my body covered in that, and you're still licking me. Keep looking!"
The lust I felt was gone, replaced by a strong feeling of nausea.
Her voice became loud as she began what I took as casting a spell. It was as though she was commanding to bowels of Hell to open. Her face became anguished, struggling with the cosmic forces that sought to keep the worlds separate.
And I did feel it; the jarring gasp of a vacuum being unsealed. I could hear the moans of the dead as a low rumble, like distant thunder. And I could see inside the cemetery; a different reality with ancient columns and chapels, their spires toppled. Passing through the gates, I felt a sharp chill. I knew that I was now among the dead.
The cemetery was much larger than it had been; the few dozen acres now extended for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.
I could hear a chorus of mournful wails; "Go back," they warned.
"Why?" I asked, meekly.
"Go back," was their only reply.
The witch walked with her arm extended, "We wish you no harm," she said, walking toward several angelic-looking spirits. "Please let us pass."
They complied. Then we came to a more menacing form, cadavers with their rib cages and parts of their skulls protruding through decayed flesh. I felt afraid; too afraid to go on.
Suddenly we were back at the gate.
"Your second thoughts brought us back here," Alyssa said, annoyed."
"What can I do?" I asked, afraid to go forward.
Think of the curse. Think of the questions you have for your uncle. "I'll get us there if you stop freaking out."
"I never even believed in any of this," I complained. "I thought we were going to get here, you would say some magic words, and that would be that."
Her face went red for just a moment. She stepped away for a moment, silently talking matters through to herself; her extended index finger punctuating her inner-conversation. She slowly calmed down and her softness returned. "Here's a little trick," she said, calmly. "Look at their crotch. Look at how pitifully decayed they are. Then look at your own. You're better than they are. Remember that."
Surprisingly enough, that worked. That I would someday be in that same decayed condition was a horrifying thought. But for the time being, and in a terribly superficial way, I was better than they were. I found myself pitying them more than fearing them. They stepped back, clearing the way.
I can't say I was calm at any point. But instead of being blinded by fear, it made me more aware. And I understood these attempts to dissuade me were simply out of kindness to my uncle.
Finally we came to his tombstone. There was the old man sitting contentedly, watching television and smoking a cigarette.
"I'll be at the gate," Alyssa said, walking away. "This is something you have to do alone."
I nodded my head and approached Uncle Oliver's ghost.
"Well, it's about time," he said, not entirely without warmth. "Knew you'd show up eventually."
"Why did you put a curse on me?" I asked, too worn for subtlety.
He laughed. "Sit down," he said, patting a spot on the tombstone next to him. "I'd offer you a beer, but the local brands don't agree too well with the living." He gazed at the TV, an old baseball game was showing in black and white. "You call that a strike?" he said, talking to a long-dead umpire.
I decided to wait for him to speak, which took the rest of the half inning.
"Mitchell," he said, softly, "how many times did you throw up visiting me in the hospital?"
"Five or six," I said, feeling a bit sick from that memory.
"I don't know," I said. "The smells, the thought of so many dying people nearby."
"And you being so afraid of dying yourself, right?
I nodded my head, ashamed to admit how afraid I was of my own mortality.
"I said those words to you so you'd come to realize that life does not end at death."
I did not know how to reply.
"You see," he continued, "when we die, we all get one chance to show our loved ones there is more out there. So I say I'm cursing you, kick off, and a week later you see me in the bathroom mirror; moments after finding out Gloria and Marty were screwing around."
"You scared the living shit out of me!"
The ghost laughed loudly. "Effective, don't you think?"
"So now," I asked, a little more angrily than I intended, "does my life get better?"
"That's up to you," he replied. "I just put the chill down your spine. Any misfortune you've encountered since then is your own doing." Then he smiled. "Tell ya what, though, play your cards right and you might have a shot with Miss Hollywood, down there by the gate."
Of everything I had experienced so far this night, that thought frightened me the most. I'm not sure if it was the witch part or the celebrity part; but there was something about that woman I found more than a little creepy.
I walked from my uncle's grave feeling both relieved and emotionally drained. He did it all out of love for me, and my business failings and health problems, not to mention my romantic issues, were all my fault. Yet for the first time, I could see where I had made my mistakes.
"Things settled?" Alyssa asked as I neared the entrance.
"Yes," I replied, nodding my head. "Thank you."
"Another satisfied customer," she quipped as we approached her car.
We climbed inside. "So what do you get out of this?" I asked, after closing the door.
A warm, knowing smile appeared on her face. She turned the key and the car roared to life. She turned to me, the smile still there. "Your life changed tonight," she said, softly. "You are now in the top one-one thousandth of one percent of human evolution."
"I am?" I asked, not feeling particularly more evolved. Yet, as I thought about it more, somehow I knew she was right. My life would be different from now on.
"I was born there," she continued, pulling out onto the road. "Let me tell you, it can be a lonely place. But every time I do this, every time I help someone find their way up a level, it feels like I've made a difference."
I couldn't resist; "More than your acting ever will?"
She laughed. "You know," she said, coquettishly, "I have wine and donuts back at home. You interested?"
After a long pause, I made some weak, ape-like acknowledgement, wondering if this wasn't another curse.