Thursday night Sarah was slow with her steps, savoring the town. She turned from Washington Street and wandered between Front and Derby, past the old-fashioned Salem Marketplace where people window shopped through the narrow lanes, gazing at the painters and sculptors in Artists Row, imagining what it must have been like living there centuries ago. She continued to the watery expanse of the bay where the breeze blew lazy laps in the water, postcard perfect along the natural coastline beauty. Rising above the water, towering above the sailboats, was the 171-foot-long, three-masted ship the Friendship, an emblem of Salem. She saw the white lighthouse, waiting patiently, beckoning sailors home. She stepped onto Pickering Wharf, a harborside village of gray-blue buildings with white trim, the hubbub of local seafaring activities, and she paused to admire the slick boats parked in neat little rows. She breathed in the wholesome air, exhaled, and relaxed. She felt comfortable, as if she had found a childhood friend after many years. More than anything, she loved the peace she felt. Her thoughts had been congested so long, the ten years she spent in Los Angeles, to be exact, and with every step she took she felt her muddled worries clearing away, lifted from her shoulders by the sauntering wind.
The Witches Lair, Jennifer’s mother’s shop, was located on Pickering Wharf, tucked in alongside the clothing, gift, and antique boutiques. Sarah arrived before everyone else since she was still on an L.A. schedule where you had to leave an hour early to get through the traffic to get anywhere on time. A tinkling bell rang as she pulled open the door, and when she walked into the shop she said hello to the woman behind the counter and glanced around. The Witches Lair was a perfect name for the store since it was stocked with any accoutrement a witch or wizard might need: altar supplies and incense, aromatherapy oils and diffusers, cauldrons and tarot cards, crystals and gems, and books about subjects ranging from the kama sutra to kabbalah and from magick and spells to dream interpretation. It was dark inside, with dim overhead lights and flameless candles in the sconces on the walls, the shadows adding to the mystical ambiance.
Sarah paused by the bookcase, searching the titles. She was intrigued by one, about dream interpretation, and as she scanned the back cover she wondered if the information inside could help her unravel the dreams that plagued her. There were nights when the images were so intense that when she woke up it took some time to distinguish between the scenes in her head and the reality in the world outside. With the book forgotten in her hands, she remembered her latest nightmare, the one that staggered her awake the night before. She was so lost in thought she didn’t notice the older woman beside her.
“Would you like a psychic reading, dear? I can read your palm, or perhaps you’d prefer a tarot card reading?”
“Oh no.” Sarah returned the book to the shelf. “I’m waiting for Jennifer Mandel. We work together at the library and she invited me here tonight.”
The woman clasped her hands together, and she smiled in warm greeting. “You must be Sarah. I’m Olivia Phillips, Jennifer’s mother. Welcome to the Witches Lair.”
Olivia looked like a fortune-telling gypsy with her hoop earrings and peasant-style skirt. Her steel-gray eyes and the wisps of silver in her close-cropped red hair were striking. Sarah and Olivia shook hands, and Sarah gestured at the store around her.
“Your shop is fascinating. I’ve never seen one like it.”
“Shops like these are a dime a dozen around here. Everyone in Salem thinks they’re a psychic or a mystic or touched by the supernatural somehow.” Olivia waved her hand in a firm dismissal of those who would think that way. “Jennifer tells me you’re new to Salem.”
“That’s right.” Sarah began to explain about her divorce, but Olivia held up her hand.
“You don’t need to explain, dear. I have four ex-husbands myself. But why Salem?”
“I’ve always felt drawn here. When I was growing up in Boston I asked my mother to bring me to the Halloween festival, and we lived so close, but somehow we never made it. My mother always had one excuse or other to skip the trip. Just the thought of this place made her shiver.”
“Has your mother ever been here? There’s nothing to be afraid of, at least not for over three hundred years. These days it’s more of a tourist town than anything.”
“I’ve told her that, but she still won’t come. I thought she’d want to know more about our ancestor, but she’s not interested.”
“When I was a girl my great-aunt told us that someone in our family died as a victim of the witch hunts, but my aunt didn’t know anything else about the woman, not even her name. I started working on my family tree when I was in L.A., and I thought if I were here I could do more research at the Danvers Archival Center. At least I’d like to know her name.”
“A mystery to solve. I love it.” Olivia looked at the book Sarah had slipped back onto the shelf. She turned to Sarah, her face fixed, like a detective gathering clues where no one else thought to look. “Jennifer tells me you have dreams.” She took Sarah’s hand and patted it in a motherly way. “Would you like to tell me about them?”
Sarah shook her head. She had never told anyone. Nick, her ex-husband, knew, but only by default. He would yell and bitch and moan whenever she woke screaming in the night, clenching her jaw tight until the bones popped in her ears, her muscles like sailors’s knots. He told her she was weak for giving into the internal heckling, but they were her dreams. She couldn’t control them. They would have their way with her, picking and pulling at her, though she didn’t want them to. Because of Nick’s impatience, and her own disappointment with how easily she was jolted awake by the clear-as-day images, she kept her dreams a secret from everyone else. Instinctively, she felt she could trust Olivia, that Olivia might be someone she could confide in about the teasing games her subconscious liked to play when she was sleeping and defenseless, waking her with nervous, earthquake-like tremors. She had the clothbound notebook where she recorded her dreams there with her in the Witches Lair, in the canvas bag hanging from her shoulder. She could have pulled it out to show Olivia. But she didn’t. She shook her head again.
“Whatever you wish, Sarah. Just remember, I’m here should you change your mind. And my friend Martha, you’ll meet her tonight, is excellent at dream interpretation. She’s an expert at past-life regression as well.”
“You’re very kind, but you don’t need to trouble yourself over it.”
“But dreams are our subconscious whispering truths in our ears, Sarah. You should pay attention. You’d be amazed at what you could learn.”
Olivia gripped Sarah’s hand tighter and led her past the bookcases and displays to four cubby-sized rooms separated from the rest of the store by black velvet curtains.
“Come. I’ll give you a reading for free. Any friend of Jennifer’s is a friend of mine.” Sarah tried to protest, but Olivia wouldn’t be swayed. “Really, dear, everything will be fine. Perhaps I can help you understand your dreams.”
Sarah relented, telling herself she didn’t believe in psychics, extrasensory perception, mysticism, or anything like that, so the reading didn’t matter. And she did like Olivia. There was such unconditional warmth in the older woman’s manner. Besides, in a tarot reading didn’t they just pull three cards from the deck and make guesses about your life based on the pictures? She would humor Olivia, pretend to be startled by the revelations, then join Jennifer and the others.
Olivia pulled aside the curtain to the cubby on the end, fringed with more black velvet. Inside there was only enough space for a small round table covered with white linen and two folding chairs while a candle and spiced incense burned on a shelf. Olivia sat in the chair behind the table and gestured for Sarah to sit across from her. She took Sarah’s hand and looked at her palm.
“Have you had a psychic reading before?”
“Once, when I was in college. I was taking a religious studies class and one of our assignments was to have a psychic reading and write about our experience.”
“And what was your experience?”
“She seemed very young, the psychic, just college age herself, and I wasn’t impressed with her predictions since everything she said was generic and could have applied to anyone.”
Olivia dropped Sarah’s hand to study her. Again, that detective seeking clues look. “What did she say?”
“I was getting ready to move to Los Angeles where my fiancé had a job in the film industry. She told me moving away would be a mistake because L.A. was not my home. She said my husband was not my husband and I was not who I thought I was.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I’m Sarah Alexander.”
Olivia was in deep thought as she considered.
“Yes, well, let’s see what else we can learn.”
Olivia took Sarah’s hand again and stared deeply into her palm, as if her eyes were x-rays and she could see through the layers of skin past the veins, the blood, and the muscles to the truth within. Her eyelids shuddered as she went into a trance. Her head bobbed in a rocking motion, and she breathed loudly, exhaling from her mouth and wheezing in through her nose. Sarah became nervous when Olivia seemed to expand to twice her size, though it must have been the flickering candlelight playing tricks on her sight.
“Yes,” Olivia said, her voice a whisper. “Yes, I am beginning to see. You are hard to read, there are many layers to you, but I am beginning to see.” She was silent again, though she kept nodding. Sarah’s head began to bob along, like when you’re on a boat and your body sways in time with the rhythm of the waves.
“Who you are is not yourself. The secret to the puzzle is there. The other psychic you saw was very good. Very good. She could see that who you are is not yourself. Yes, I can see that he will find you. He is here and he will find you.”
“Who?” Sarah asked.
“He will. The one who is waiting for you. He has been waiting for you for oh so very long. You will be afraid. He is not what he was. You will find your way home again.”
Sarah tried to pull away, but Olivia kept a tight grasp. Sarah leaned forward, not breathing, struggling to understand what Olivia was saying because her words sounded like they should make sense but they didn’t. Suddenly the black velvet curtains scraped against the rod as they were tossed aside, and Sarah jumped. Jennifer, in a flowing black robe, stood in the fluorescent light shining in from the store, one hand on the curtains, her other hand on her hip.
“Mother! I asked Sarah to come to the Harvest Moon ceremony to introduce her to some people. We’re about to start.”
Olivia pulled away from Sarah, covering her face with her hands until her breathing slowed. The overwhelming psychic who had expanded to twice her size was gone. When she opened her eyes she looked as she did when Sarah first saw her in the store, friendly and motherly. After Olivia composed herself she smiled.
“I’m sorry, Jennifer. I lost track of time.” She stood up from behind the table and pulled the curtain aside for Sarah. “I hope I didn’t frighten you too much, dear. I should have warned you that I go into a trance when I’m in tune with the spirit world.”
“I wasn’t frightened at all,” Sarah lied.
“Good. Now did I say anything that made sense? Sometimes when I’m with the spirits I begin speaking in tongues and no one can understand what I’m saying.”
“She’s a great psychic,” Jennifer said. “Her clients don’t understand her half the time, and she can’t help them because she never remembers what she says.”
“I’m in a trance, dear. What do you remember from your trances?”
“Nothing. Just like you.”
Olivia turned to Sarah. “Did I say anything that helped you understand your dreams?”
“No,” Sarah said. “Nothing.”
“I’m sorry. Perhaps we can try again another time.”
Sarah looked through the store to where the sliding glass door was open. In the courtyard outside she saw a grotto with rose trellises, scented lavender shrubs, and a cherub water fountain spitting in an arc in the air. There was a covered altar set against the brick wall and about twenty people in black robes mingling while drinking tea and eating cakes. Sarah stopped suddenly, her feet leaden, as if there were iron chains around her ankles.
Jennifer grabbed her arm. “What did my mother say to you? Sarah? What did she say?”
Sarah looked at the people in the grotto and realized she didn’t want to go out there.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t feel well. I think I should leave.”
“What did you say to her, Mom?”
“I don’t know, Jennifer. I wish I could remember.”
As Sarah walked home, passing the same historic sights she had seen on the way, she was oblivious to everything but Olivia’s reading. She was unnerved by the whole experience, seeing what had happened to Olivia, hearing that someone, some man, was going to find her. Olivia didn’t say what would happen once she was found, and frightening visions flashed behind her eyes, images of being stalked. Attacked. Or worse. Slowing her steps, forcing herself to think logically, she reminded herself that she didn’t believe in psychics, extrasensory perception, mysticism, or anything like that. She didn’t understand why Olivia’s words struck her so deeply.
Once Sarah was home she was exhausted, though she wasn’t afraid any more. Being away from Olivia, away from the cryptic message, helped her feel better. Sarah knew she wouldn’t be getting another psychic reading any time soon. Olivia brought up too many uncomfortable emotions, and Sarah had moved to Salem seeking peace. She didn’t need the headache of illogical puzzles in her life then.
When she woke up at three a.m., she turned on the light by her bed, grabbed her clothbound notebook and a pen, and wrote about the dream that had tapped her awake. This was a pleasant vision, one she was happy to write down, unlike some of the more frightening nightmares she had been having. It was hard to write those down even with the lights on. But this one she was glad to remember.