My grandmother was a medium, semi-professional. Semi-fraud, too, like so many. She did hear real spirits once in a while, she told me once. They never had much to say beyond This tea is too hot. This tea is too wet. Get me my boots. She said they all had prairie accents, long and flat, the wind whistling down the nose. She was hoping for British, or Cherokee, or maybe a Viking. The ability came to me too. But does it go down the track you want it to? No. I got voices and smells. I never heard from my grandmother once she died, although I named my only daughter after her. Emily Lorraine. Lorraine was a name I liked.
I was the kindest mother in the world. Remember that, Emily, and don’t say no. I always had you and your brothers dressed and fed, even when things were tight. I never cared where your father had gone. It didn't matter, he was that type who’s nice until he’s had enough, like a cat. And we were a little unit. I used to trundle you all downtown in the wagon to the second-hand bookstore. You’d watch the boys picking out library rejects while I went and did the grocery shopping or had a little sit-down in the park. You were happy. You were.
Those blurry photographs of stolen children in the newspaper, or waxed onto milk cartons. Those, I could hear. Find me, find me . I would shake the milk at the kids at breakfast and say, Do not let this happen! Do not let it happen to you!
I told all my children, but Emily I told over and over. I was always very careful with my daughter. If someone takes you, scream: This is not my parent! Avoid getting into a vehicle. Shout your name and age. Scatter the contents of your school backpack in the street.
Her schoolbag was in the shape of a bee, a purple stinger pricking out of the bottom, a lucky find at the Bibles to Missions thrift store. She’d practice throwing it, or get in the shower and scream obligingly, her wetted-down ball of hair plastered to her cheeks: Not my parent! My name is Emily, I am six! I do not know this person!
She was one of those easy kids. An angel at school, her teachers said, always helpful without being asked. At home she watched the boys, standing on a stool to cook up macaroni with hot dog slices and peas while I was talking to my psychic clients. She liked to cook. I felt the calm humming in her body as I closed the kitchen door. I felt her thinking Peas peas, hot dogs, peas .
When she was about eight, business dropped. I don’t know why. There were more internet psychics, ones who’d give it away free, even if it was the same fake reading for everybody. People love free. My head stopped working right. I’d always been able to pick up the occasional phrase out of the air, but they’d slowed down. I had to get a part-time job cleaning a fancy daycare. Washing cloth diapers and no-fun wooden toys. I got tired of the parents, their questions about organic products and allergens. Their brains were full of affairs and getting their old bodies back. Not hard to read. They never phoned, though I handed out cards. The rich and their big cars. Emily liked the cars. After school, she’d come and crouch on her heels in the parking lot, staring at the hubcaps. Sometimes she polished them with her breath and fingertips until I told her to knock it off.
On weekends I got her to answer any client calls on the living room phone. Her voice turned low and professional. Hello. We’re here to help . She’d slip it off and go back to her normal voice when she’d call me to the phone. It was sweet. I liked that then.
There’d been no calls all weekend on the Sunday afternoon she came to get me out of bed. She said we could all walk down to the old bookstore, even though it was cold. The boys were driving me crazy, drumming with spoons on the cupboards. I wasn’t getting any spirit hints there under the blankets. Nothing. Not even a whiff beyond my own. So I got up and dressed, and we went out into the chilly air, with Emily leading the way and the boys whining. Once we got downtown, I sent them to the bookstore and went for a coffee. When I returned to the book place, I had to swat the boys away from a tatty stack of old Playboys . They laughed like maniacs and ran out to the sidewalk. They were already beyond my reach. I didn’t care, honestly. I’m an honest person.
I couldn’t see my girl. I walked the perimeter of the place, but she wasn't there.
My heart started skipping. I had nothing. The coffee cup was burning my fingers. I went up and down the aisles, and went outside to ask the boys where the hell she was, but they shrugged and went on laughing. Finally, on my second time through the store, I found her at the end of an overstuffed aisle that had books piled like pillars on the floor. She was kneeling, half-hidden behind a stack, with a crusty paperback in her hands. It was open to the section of black-and-white photographs. The people in them looked like they knew they’d been trapped. Sly-eyed or startled. Murderesses and murderees. True crime. I thought she knew not to look at that stuff.
Emily , I said next to her head. Up close, I nearly didn’t recognize her, the nearsighted way she was looking at the pictures, her puffball hair shielding her face. She’d never needed glasses. No vibrations at all came off her. Just cleanness.
She flicked a glance up at me and said Hi , in her usual way, her usual voice. I had plenty to say about this kind of reading material, but it made me wilt, the way she was looking at me, or through me, with her eyes narrowed still, like I was too close, or too far away. Like I was one of those photos. She sniffed. I handed her a tissue and turned to look over the shelves and take a slug of my coffee. The old paper smell started up the familiar psychic knocking in my ribs. Thank God. I said, Come on, give me a bag. She always had a plastic one with her. She held it while I loaded it with paperbacks, shiny covers and crumbling pages. Killer parents and so on. I suppose I thought the stories would get me even closer to other people’s lives. The anonymous former owners, as well as the criminal types.
A thin yellow book of poems slipped in. Emily pulled that one out on the table at home. John Donne. It flapped open to one where he gets romantic over a bug on his lover’s privates. I took it away from her. I didn’t think about it, at the time, and she got out the pots to start dinner, and all I got from her in the kitchen was Peas peas .
Don’t forget it was me who taught you to read. And who taught you to really know what people are like, what they are capable of. To be psychic, okay. I made you sit holding my hands as I shot thoughts at you. I let you read all those paperbacks. I thought they’d help. But you weren’t psychic. You just thought too hard about different lives, a different life. You looked too long at the hubcaps of the rich. And I tried too hard, quizzing you all the time. Smug in my love, which I reminded you of often. Some children's mothers didn't love them like that. Look at those kidnap victims, or the ones who grew up to murder their neighbors.
But everything got muddier for me. I couldn’t read anybody, on the phone or in person. The true crime books made it worse. Emily kept going back to the second-hand store for more. She left them around in heaps. My mind got to be a blender of murders. Murder soup. I couldn’t even talk to my last couple of loyal phone clients without anything they said getting interrupted by victims’ last words. Help, no, help, no no no no no . Although maybe they were only last words I imagined. I couldn’t even tell. Sometimes I had to smother the books with eggshells and pancake batter, and poke them to the bottom of the kitchen bin. Sometimes Emily resurrected them, I think. Her room smelled faintly garbagey.
I tried to turn my thoughts to important events of the day, to keep my head clear. When they found Saddam Hussein hiding in that hole, I tried to get into his mind. There he sat, sweating like it was his job, filthy and bearded and blinking in the day, his thoughts running like rats. It was hard, with the language barrier and the distance. Emily caught me crouched in front of the living-room TV, staring and mouthing sounds I thought I was getting from him.
Behind me, she said in her calm way, He might as well be dead. Why bother?
I know that, I said, but he's not dead yet, he's still here.
I heard Emily go to the front door and start putting on her shoes. Of course I called after her, If you’re going out, be careful. But it was automatic, I will admit. And of course she said, I am careful.
She left at fifteen with one of the fancy daycare fathers. Matthew. Matt . She still looked like a kid, with her round face and puffy hair. I don’t know where they went, though Matt’s flexible tanned wife and I had a meeting, and there were tears and accusations. A search. Posters. They’d stopped with the milk carton ones by then.
You’re just gone. Left the face of the earth. A puff of smoke, a breath of air. You went without a look back, as though you had always known what was coming in your life, as though you had always known you would get there. Not my parent. Not my parent .