Bad things were happening, he had started to think, more than usual. It had occurred to him that he was cursed for a long time at that point. In his first few decades on this planet so much had gone wrong. In his brain, it all ran like a list, all the many injuries that he had still not gotten past, that somehow seemed to inform his every move. Papercut that turned into an infection. A very long flu. Death of a cat. Neighbor molesting you. The floods. Father losing job. Earthquake. Broken arm. Flu. Ear infection. Bronchitis. Droughts. Failing math class. Unrequited love. Allergies. Death of a dog. Mother's mental illness. Getting lost in the woods. Not getting into university. Parent's finances gone. Grandparents dying. Fight with brother. A summer spent entirely in a mysterious illness. The government collapsing. Extreme weight loss. Favorite cousin in jail. Girl you love hit by a car. Suicidal ideation. Being fired from first job. The cicadas. Being fined for drunk driving. The worst job. Another girl leaves you. Heat wave. Father’s affair. Mother’s attempted suicide. Your siblings moving out. Loneliness. Depression. Poisoned crops. Pills not working. Insomnia. Mouse infestation. Getting evicted. Birds dying mysteriously. Unemployment. Weight gain. Father disappearing. Grandparents death. Pre-diabetes. Ant infestation. One night of homelessness. The mugging. Getting a disease from a girl. Drug addiction. Another bad job. Panic disorder. Hurricane. Mother in mental hospital. You in rehab. Constipation or diarrhea only. New corrupt regime. Lack of drinkable water. Constant anxiety. Blood in urine. Bankruptcy. Roof collapsing. Roaches. A close friend’s deceit. Too many diagnoses. Death of Mother. Record for coldest winter. Running over that fox. Wasp sting that results in hospital stay. Catatonia. Death of Father. More phobias. Failure. There was probably more that he had forgotten.
Failure seduces those most who have known it before, he read somewhere, maybe in a generic advice column.
So, when he heard this “Spiritualist” was coming to town and her specialty was in getting the unfortunate back to fortune he gave it some thought. Usually he would never consider such a thing, but then again usually he was very much seeped in bad luck. He tended not to believe in such things, the wisdom of the stars and planets, the echoes of ancestors and past lives, the meddlings of dead souls. But there was nothing in his life that told him he should proceed as he had before. He could not recommend his own ways any longer. Something told him things were worse than usual or about to be at least but he couldn’t pinpoint it either. And because the only not-unlucky thing that had happened of late was that he had a few extra hundred dollars in the bank—from selling a motorcycle he loved but knew would be the end of him, given how things went—he considered visiting “The Spiritualist.”
She had no name it seemed but “The Spiritualist” which was a term he had not heard before. There was no photo, just a description of her services and the number to call, along with a simple graphic of a dove flying in a sky littered with flowers.
He called the number and a woman answered.
“May I speak to The Spiritualist?” His voice sounded off to himself, shaking as it was and somehow higher, like a child’s.
The voice that spoke back was deep and rich. Every word was deliberate and firm. “Yes, this is she, The Spiritualist. What might I help you with?”
He paused. He didn’t know what to say. “Well, I could use some help to get back on track. My life, you see. . .” He paused some more. How could he put it? “It’s all been a mess.”
“I understand,” she said.
“You do?” he said, sounding a bit too excited for his own comfort.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “It’s part of my job. People rarely come to me when all is well, after all.”
He thought about that. It seemed right. But perhaps sometimes they would want blessings before a good occasion, a wedding, a birth?
“Of course, sometimes they want blessings before a favorable ceremony or life event,” she said, as if reading his mind, which he realized she probably could do.
“That’s just what I was thinking!” Again, too excited.
“Yes,” she said, but he couldn’t tell if that was a yes to knowing he was thinking that. “Anyhow would you like an appointment? I will be in your town on Sunday.”
“How do you know what my town is?” he asked, gasping.
“Your area code came up,” she answered.
He appreciated her honesty. She could have pretended it was her clairvoyance.
“Yes, I would like one,” he said, and he gave her his name and she gave him a time and the address and how much money he should bring.
“I only take cash,” she said. “So bring cash.”
“Of course,” he said quickly.
“Okay, I will see you then. Please try to get a full night’s sleep before then.”
He wondered how she knew he was having sleep problems. Maybe that was why he felt things were worse than usual. “Yes, I will be sure to,” he said, somewhat lying as he knew he could not count on it.
“Well, do your best.” She was, naturally, not so convinced. “Goodbye!”
That night he did not sleep at all, he was so excited by the possibility of turning his life right again. He did not worry about not sleeping though because it meant he would be extra sleepy the next night, and that was the night before his appointment. So at least he could keep his word to The Spiritualist with a full night’s sleep.
He had maybe expected a castle like a queen’s or a strange cottage like a witch’s or even a hut like a shaman’s, but it was just the basement floor of an apartment building in the worst part of town. An orange cat came to the door when he arrived, hissing at him from the other side of the screen. The door was ajar and he suddenly heard that same strong, resolute voice call, “You may come in!”
He opened the door carefully so as not to let the cat out, and just stood there in the middle of an unfurnished living room with somewhat dirty brown carpet. He felt relieved that his own apartment was nicer than this, but then he reminded himself that The Spiritualist was just a visitor to his town. She had probably just rented this for her sessions. It was probably cheaper than a hotel room, or maybe it belonged to a friend or client.
In the corner he saw a small table with a jug of water and some cheap plastic cups. He considered having some water, but the water looked a bit murky to him. The whole place smelled old, dusty, not tended to.
“Please come to the back room!” her voice rang out again.
He followed the sound through a long dark hallway that led to a single room, with a door only slightly ajar. On the door was taped a single green feather. It looked like a parrot’s feather.
“You may come in,” the voice inside said, aware of his body.
He slowly opened the door, suddenly fearful of what he would find inside.
He walked in and the room was similarly unadorned and dark and musty. There was a single desk—like the cheap wood kind you’d find in an insurance office—and a generic black office desk chair and on it sat who he assumed had to be The Spiritualist. He could only assume at best because the voice did not match the being.
She was tiny. A child, it seemed. A very pale, thin, brittle child, in an austere black cotton dress. Her sole adornment was a purple velvet ribbon that tied her brown her back. She had something in her hands she was playing with but it was unclear what. She looked at his with her giant grey eyes, the eyes of a cat, a wildcat perhaps. She could be no older than thirteen, he thought.
She nodded for him to take a seat. There was a black office desk chair, just like hers, across from her, on the other side of the desk. He sat.
“Hello,” he said, wondering if she should shake her hand but she did not offer.
“Hello,” she said back. Her thick, adult voice seemed so disorienting given her appearance.
“Well, you look. . .” he didn’t know what to say. He did not want to start off with an insult. “You are much younger than you sound!”
She nodded. “Many say this,” she said. “I am older than I look.”
He nodded. “That’s good,” he said awkwardly.
“It’s neither good nor bad,” she said, still staring deep at him. “It just is.”
“Did you find it easily?”
“Good,” she said. “It’s my first time in this space. It belongs to a client’s. It’s very different from my own space. I live her far away and my space is much more. . .”
She gestured her hand in a few odd flourishes but did not complete the thought.
“It’s nice enough,” he said, lying a bit but perhaps only a bit because he had lived in much worse.
“Let’s begin,” she said. “You have cash?”
He nodded and began to remove his wallet.
“No, you can give it to me after,” she said. “I’m not a prostitute. I don’t need to see it upfront.”
He smiled as if to laugh but she looked very stern and serious.
He nodded apologetically.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Let’s begin.”
He closed his eyes for some reason.
“You can open or close your eyes,” she said. “None of it matters. I just want you to tell me about your life, whatever you can.”
He looked confused. Was this therapy? Shouldn’t she already divine that? What could he say?
He went over this long list of misfortunes and thought to start there.
“Well,” he cleared his throat. “This is how I tell myself: Papercut that turned into an infection. A very long flu. Death of a cat. Neighbor molesting you. The floods. Father losing job. Earthquake. Broken arm. Flu. Ear infection. Bronchitis. Droughts. Failing math class. Unrequited love. Allergies. Death of a dog. Mother’s mental illness. Getting lost in the woods. Not getting into university. Parent’s finances gone. Grandparents dying. Fight with brother. A summer spent entirely in a mysterious illness. The government collapsing. Extreme weight loss. Favorite cousin in jail. Girl you love hit by a car. Suicidal ideation. Being fired from first job. The cicadas. Being fined for drunk driving. The worst job. Another girl leaves you. Heat wave. Father’s affair. Mother’s attempted suicide. Your siblings moving out. Loneliness. Depression. Poisoned crops. Pills not working. Insomnia. Mouse infestation. Getting evicted. Birds dying mysteriously. Unemployment. Weight gain. Father disappearing. Grandparents death. Pre-diabetes. Ant infestation. One night of homelessness. The mugging. Getting a disease from a girl. Drug addiction. Another bad job. Panic disorder. Hurricane. Mother in mental hospital. You in rehab. Constipation or diarrhea only. New corrupt regime. Lack of drinkable water. Constant anxiety. Blood in urine. Bankruptcy. Roof collapsing. Roaches. A close friend’s deceit. Too many diagnoses. Death of Mother. Record for coldest winter. Running over that fox. Wasp sting that results in hospital stay. Catatonia. Death of Father. More phobias. Failure. . . and there is probably more, but I have forgotten.”
Her eyes were closed, he noticed, and for a moment he worried she was asleep. She said nothing after he was done.
“That’s all,” he said to let her know definitively he was done speaking.
She nodded slowly, with closed eyes. “Many troubles,” she said. She opened her eyes slowly. “Do you know the saying, when the tide of misfortune hits even jelly will break your teeth?”
He shook his head.
“They say it in the villages,” she said. “It has a logic to it. Your life made me think of that.”
He nodded, feeling embarrassed suddenly. It never felt good to go through that list, to unload it all, especially in front of a stranger and now a spiritualist of all people. He briefly considered telling her he had to go and leaving.
“Now wait,” she suddenly said. “You have much ahead of you though, you must know this. You are forty?”
He was not. “Thirty-six,” he said. “Close, I guess.”
She nodded. “You are from the capital originally?”
He shook his head. He was from the second largest city, a southern port.
She nodded. “Give me your hand.”
He was a bit alarmed at this idea, extending this hand to this child-like figure, but she held her hand out and he took it.
Her hands were, as he guessed, very cold and thin. His were large, sweaty, and hot.
“You are low on money,” she said, with closed eyes again. “I mean recently you got some money but in general money does not come easily to you.”
“Do you play lottery?” she asked.
“You should,” she said. “Play these number this week: 11, 57, 41, 9, 6, 14, 23.”
He asked her to repeat it and wrote it down.
She opened her eyes.
“Let’s end there,” she said. “I would feel more comfortable taking your money knowing you had more. You can pay me next week. Same time, same place.”
He felt strangely empty after the session—a bit ripped off, if he were to be honest. Lottery numbers? That was not what he had hoped for. But that week he went to a corner store and asked for a lottery ticket. He did not know what he was doing, but he “played” those numbers.
“They will announce the winners on the radio tomorrow night,” the store owner said. “Good luck, I guess!”
He nodded and wondered if he had done it right, if it was the same national lottery, if he written her numbers down correctly. And what if she was wrong? Should he go back to her? He decided he would not. It would just be some odd free session he got and he would never think of her again and he would never trust such silliness again. He had to try though.
That night, he sat by the radio as they said they were announcing the numbers. He held his ear close to the speaker, even though the volume was very loud. He felt very nervous, suddenly, like he was about to be very ill. He held the piece of paper with the numbers before him and he noticed his hands were shaking.
Eleven, came the first number from the announcer’s mouth. The background music was giddy and outdated, comforting somehow, like the jingles of his adolescence before all had gone bad.
That was his first number, but of course he had many to go so he did not get too excited.
Fifty-seven, went the second number.
His stomach did a turn. The odds. He was no math person but this did seem like something noteworthy.
Forty-one, went the third.
His heart was racing.
Nine, the fifth.
Six, the sixth.
He suddenly got up to his feet, as if he’d have to run if it as indeed right, but run to where he did not know. How could this be happening?
Fourteen, went the seventh. And the last number is. . .
There was a drumroll on top of the jolly music.
Twenty-threeeeeeee!!! the man shouted.
He heard himself scream, so loud and so long he worried the neighbors would call the police.
He was a winner.
He had never won anything in his life. He didn’t even know what he had won, but he had won something and that was a lot already.
The Spiritualist, he decided like many before him, was actually real.
The thousands of dollars he won came to him in installments and made it easy for him to agree to a series of consultations with The Spiritualist. He did not know how long she’d be in town but it seemed indefinite now. One time he saw a vase with a single pink carnation in it on her desk and he thought she might be decorating as she was now putting roots down here. Otherwise, she looked exactly the same, the same black dress, the same purple ribbon, the same green feather on her door, everything was the same.
When he told her he won she had just blinked at him, not surprised at all. She’d asked for the money for the last session and he had given it to her with a big smile. He had thanked her and again she had said nothing.
“We will not play the lottery again,” she said. “Just so you know. Occasionally the winners want to prolong this.”
He nodded. “Wait, are the winners always your clients?”
She nodded. “Always.”
“Why don’t you play yourself?” he wondered.
She had on a small smile and just shook her head. No comment.
This time she closed her eyes and remained this way for some time. He didn’t dare say a word and eventually he closed his eyes too.
“You need to go to the restaurant closest to your house,” she said. “A small place. There is a waitress named Mina who works in the back section. Sit there and meet her. Ask her out. Kiss her and all that soon. Eventually marry her.”
He gulped hard. Was she kidding? This seemed a bit much although winning the lottery also seemed a bit that way.
“See me in one month,” she said. “Same place, same day and time. Bring cash.”
She saw him to the door and he thanked her and decided that he had no choice but to try at this point.
The restaurant was a country-style place. They served simple stews, soups, fresh bread and butter, coffee, tea and soda. There was nothing too great about it but nothing bad either. He rarely ever went, but he went that night. He walked right to the back of the restaurant.
A man came right up to him to wipe his table. “Are you my waiter?” he said fearfully. This was no Mina.
The man shook his head. “She is coming.”
And then he walked over to her, apparently this wife of hers. He was pleased that she was tall and thin though her face was very plain. But she looked good enough.
She mostly looked exhausted. “Welcome,” she sighed, handing him a menu. “I am Mina, your server.”
He nodded, pleased it was all going as planned. He ordered a fish stew quickly.
As he ate his bland stew, he wondered how he could get this all to escalate. He only had one month till he saw The Spiritualist again. He had to marry her soon, or at least she needed to become his girlfriend in a matter of days, he calculated. He imagined kissing her thin, pursed lips one day soon, as instructed.
“You are very beautiful,” he said, once she brought the check.
Mina blushed. “That is kind of you but I am not,” she said, shaking her head.
“No, I mean it,” he said. He had never been great with women, no expert at flirting. “Can I take you to dinner some time? Some time soon?”
She looked at him like he was crazy. She meant to shake her head but something made her nod. She was surprised at herself.
“Okay,” she said. “I work all the time. But after? It might be late.”
He nodded, pleased. “How about tomorrow night?”
She paused. What was she doing? But she heard herself say it: “Yes, okay, I could do that.”
He thanked her and put down double the tip he’d normally put down, especially for such a mediocre meal.
After two weeks, he asked Mina to be his girlfriend and she found herself saying yes. “Life is so odd,” she said. “I feel like a character in your dream, the way things are just happening so fast and out of my control, it seems.”
“Mina, do you love me?” he asked, taking her face in his hands.
She was not sure but she caught herself saying, “I love you very much.”
In two more weeks, the day before his session with The Spiritualist, he married Mina, her parents very pleased that a poor country girl like that was marrying the nation’s lottery winner.
On his third time to The Spiritualist, he said nothing, but extended his hand to show her the wedding band.
She nodded, no smile, nor words, nothing.
“Mina is a good woman,” he said. “I thank you for her, the money, everything.”
“It always works out well,” she said. “At least at first. All the marriages are happy the first few months but then they come to me with problems. They say the marriage rate is 50/50. I wish I could do better. Still they make kids and it is better than being alone, they say.”
“You’re not saying all married people come to you?” he asked.
He nodded back. He wondered if The Spiritualist was crazy. But her ideas were working. He knew he would have to know her forever at this point.
“What now?” he asked.
Her eyes were closed. After the usual too-long-a-time, she said “Now, a job.”
He smiled. He had wished she would do that.
“You will write a book,” she said. “The book will come out the same time as your baby.”
He gasped. A book and a baby.
She nodded. “Come back in one year. You will have a newborn and you will be done with your book tour. Bring cash.”
In ten months time, his son was born.
In evelen months time, his first book came out. A novel about a man who wins the lottery.
When he went to The Spiritualist, same day and time, just a year later, he was amazed to see the space had not changed. Same orange cat. There was even a vase with a pink carnation. Everything was the same, even the unpleasant nature of the space.
He wanted to hug her he was so thankful but she just blinked as he told her all she had predicted had come true. It made sense she would not be surprised, but still he wished she could show some reaction.
“I feel like I don’t want anything more,” he said. “I have money, I have a family, an occupation with this book. What more could I ask for?”
The Spiritualist stared hard at him. “Are you asking me?”
He paused and then nodded. What had not thought of.
“The end of the story is always one we will not like,” she said. “Illness and death.”
“Will it be soon for me?” he asked, anxious suddenly.
“Depends on what you consider soon,” she said. “In ten years, you will be ill. Do not take your medicine. Come back then. Bring cash.”
He was perplexed. Ten years. Well, she didn’t say he’d die. But what sort of illness? He had so many questions.
“I cannot say more,” she said, without him even asking. “Please go now.”
He was forty-seven when he got the ailment. At first, he had forgotten what The Spiritualist had predicted but once he got the bad news, he remembered.
“What’s wrong? Other than the bad news? You look like you suddenly saw a ghost,” his doctor said, handing him the prescription.
He took it in his hand and remembered her saying not to take it. He considered telling the doctor and then he began to. “I have this psychic, you could say, this spiritualist—”
The doctor laughed in recognition. “Ah, yes, we all do! She’s the best. I could not have had a family or this practice without her!” she chuckled and then got very serious and said, “Do as she says.”
He thought about saying that he could not take his medicine then, but he didn’t. He just nodded.
“Small world,” he said to his doctor but he didn’t answer.
In ten years, he found himself sitting across the table again from The Spiritualist. Some things had changed, but only minorly. The cat was absent or else hiding. She had a fan now in the room. And a paperweight that looked like a crystal ball. The feather at her door had come apart but was still there. She wore a simple grey dress, similar to the black, and her ribbon was brown velvet. It somehow relieved him to see some changes.
“I am ill,” he told her. “As you said I’d be.”
“I have not taken my medicine.”
“What now?” he asked.
She was, as usual silent with closed eyes for some time. He noticed she had not seemed to age much. She still seemed like a teenager at most.
She opened her eyes and said one word, “Death.”
He nodded, afraid she’d say that.
“That’s all that there is now,” she said.
He nodded. “But when?” he asked. “Hopefully not too soon?”
All his life with all his bad luck, he had hoped for an early death, but now with all his good fortune he wished for more.
“They always want to live longer when they get ill,” she said. “But I want the suffering to stop.”
“I don’t feel that bad,” he said.
“Your illness has just begun,” she said.
“Please,” he said and he did not even understand why.
She shook her head. “This is the last time we will see each other.”
He nodded. “But when will it come?”
She laughed or maybe snorted—it was an odd peal, like the sound of broken glass, not quite human. He’d never heard it from her before. “I can’t tell you. I don’t know.”
He grew upset. “But you’ve known everything so far! Lottery numbers, my child, the book!”
She shrugged. “You have time.”
“How much?” he asked.
“Enough,” she said. “Now please go.”
He refused to leave.
“I have many other clients,” she said. “So many. Everyone.”
He nodded. “Please.”
She shook her head and walked him out.
“Goodbye, Spiritualist,” he said and she said nothing in return.
He paused by the jug of water and plastic cups and took an empty cup as if as a souvenir.
Like many in old age, he grew mad. The disease they said progressed to the mind. They blamed it on him not taking his medicine, but sometimes he pretended to. His rantings and ravings grew more and more disturbing, they noticed.
“Everyone on earth goes to her!” he said. “I know this! You all know who I’m talking about! That little girl! The spiritualist child in that nasty basement office!”
Most people just blinked. Occasionally someone would nod knowingly and once in a while someone would say, “Oh yes, her.” But that was it. They never got into it.
He grew more and more angry the more unclear his condition seemed. He was in so much pain, but the pain in his mind was the worst. Mina and his son didn’t know what to do. His editor was very worried as well.
One day he found himself speed-walking to the bad part of town. He noticed he was going to The Spiritualist’s office. He remembered her saying that was the last time they’d see each other, but he wanted to know what would happen if he broke that pact. What if for once he did not do as she said?
He got to the door and again there was no cat, and no screen door open, no call from her to come in. But the door was unlocked. He went in. Inside: no more water and cups, but the same dirty rug and ugly lighting and the same bad air.
“Hello!” he called out.
Her door was closed but he could not hear her—she was not with anyone else. There was no feather at the door but the tape was still there, as if holding onto an invisible feather or the idea of a feather.
He knocked on the door. “Please!” he shouted. “I must see you!”
He was not the kind of man to break into someone’s space without an invitation but he knew this was what he had to do. He took a deep breath. He called out for her once more, as if to give her a chance. Another knock, another chance, and nothing.
He was very frustrated.
He had never disobeyed her orders before. He had no idea what could happen if he did.
He found himself weeping, tears suddenly pouring from his eyes. He could only do one thing now.
He found himself taking the greatest breath he could, filling his diseased lungs with more air than he thought was possible. With the exhale, he released the knob and walked right in where she was not.
Just black smoke or the idea of black smoke. Nothing, just nothing.
And before he could process what had become of him, of them perhaps, all the light in the world, past present and future, went out.