Dani Lock wants to feel something. She has no family. She struggles with attachments. She’s never been in love. That is until she’s literally pushed into change when Calvin Whitman saves her from being hit by a taxi van. Instead of blaming her for the accident, the Whitmans embrace Dani, and she finds friendship and love like she’s never known—unfortunately, she doesn’t believe she deserves it.
Somewhere along the way, I lost all sense of direction. Life’s become this mundane, necessary task, and I’m growing tired. My brain is fuzzy; I lack enthusiasm. Most would say I’m depressed, but it feels more like I’m running out of steam.
So here I stand, sneakers melting to the cracked sidewalk. I rode my bike through the remorseless heat and am soaked with sweat. Up a set of dilapidated cement steps sits a blue house surrounded by a chain-link fence, in which three tiny dogs with pointed ears run in circles. I stare up at them, grimacing. I hate small dogs. A white, weathered sign hangs from the porch roof, the text worn with age reading “Penelope Willis—Psychic.”
What am I doing here?
I’m asking myself the same thing.
Yes, I should probably be in therapy, but I don’t want to talk about the emptiness pervading my spirit. I want either instruction or a glimpse forward. I want to know if there is a bright spot in my future, or if what’s in store for me is more tasteless toast in the morning and days filled with scheduling, canceling, and rescheduling appointments with Dr. Shelly McNamere, PsyD. Come to think of it, maybe being a receptionist in a psychologist’s office has turned me off the therapy route.
I leave my bicycle lying in the grass and take the precarious steps with caution. As expected, the dogs begin yapping as I start my ascent. I mutter some not-very-nice things about the rodent-like creatures. Before I reached the top, a black woman in a purple turban appears.
“Mulberry! Juniper! Willow! Tut, tut! Inside, please. Now!” She—Penelope Willis, I’m assuming—looks down at me. “Are you Danielle?”
I nod and wipe sweat from my forehead. “Dani, yeah.”
“Come on in. I’ll put the little ones in their room.”
I try not to judge, but I’m so bitter lately, it’s an impossible task. Dogs with their own room? Interesting.
By the time I make it through the fence, Penelope and her dogs are gone; the barking fades into silence. I wait for her in the foyer of her home, my eyes zeroed on the room off to the right, the threshold framed in sheer, purple curtains and rust-colored beads. I guess that’s where I’ll be spending the next thirty to forty-five minutes. The hardwood floor is battered and creaky but adds to the true charm of the house. The outside leaves a lot to be desire, but inside, it’s bright, colorful, and warm, with antique, eclectic furniture. I try not to stereotype, but this is a stereotypical psychic’s home.
Penelope appears from the kitchen on my left.
“Sorry about the dogs. You’re a few minutes early.”
Aside from her turban, Penelope is dressed normally and not like you’d expect after seeing the inside of her home. She looks to be about forty-five, with dark, freckled but smooth skin, and eyebrows that put mine to shame. She wears tight blue jeans and a long-sleeved beige top, and she’s barefoot. Her pedicure makes me glad my own toes are hidden in my Skechers slip-ons.
“Okay, Dani,” she says. “Follow me. Let’s have a chat.”
Her voice is raspy, like she’s a smoker, but she doesn’t look like she’s smoked a day in her life. The sound of it warms my insides. It seems unfair, that some people are blessed with voices that can disarm someone in an instant. For all I know, Penelope could suck, but for now, I trust her without explanation.
We duck through the beads and curtains into a small room. There’s a window that faces the street, but the blinds are pulled, allowing only soft light through instead of the beating sun. In the center of the room, there’s a small table with an upholstered dining chair on either side atop a rich, red-orange area rug. Instead of candles, which I was expecting, there are a few mismatched lamps set about the room, along with a wall of bookshelves—some shelves containing books, others containing decorations and artifacts that I don’t recognize. My eyes linger on a glass orb, like a snow globe only empty—a crystal ball.
I’m beginning to question my sanity.
“You can have a seat.” Penelope gestures to one of the chairs.
I take a swig from my water bottle before setting my backpack just inside the door and then sit down. Penelope is looking at me, seemingly deep into my soul or right through me based on the expression she wears. Her eyes are narrowed; she’s focused.
“You need to wake up,” she says, more to herself than me. “Lemongrass,” she mutters, opening a box and retrieving a slim, wooden stick, black nearly to the tip. She lights the tip of the incense stick, waits, and then blows a gentle breath, extinguishing the flame. A glowing ember is left, and she places the stick in a rose-pink ceramic dish filled with sand. I’m transfixed, watching the thin trail of smoke twist upward. Seconds later, notes of citrus and earth mix in the air.
“The smoke isn’t good for you.” Penelope’s tone is matter-of-fact. “But breathe deep anyway. You won’t be here long, and you need it.” She demonstrates, taking a very deep breath, gesturing from her lungs to the top of her head, then dropping her hands as she exhales. When she starts again, she gives me a look, and I join in. Normally, I’d feel ridiculous, but I feel so lackluster lately, even taking deep breaths with a psychic has little effect.
“Let it invigorate you,” she says, drawing out her words. They weave through me like the lemony smoke. “You must be awake today.”
My fingertips tingle, like my nerve endings are being roused by the incense and deep breathing. It might be placebo. I don’t take much time to wonder. My eyes are closed, but I don’t feel like sleeping, which is my default setting most of the time I’m not at work. Maybe Penelope is already mending me. When I open my eyes, she is sitting across from me, just two feet away. She’s looking at me fondly, like I’m someone she knows, someone she cherishes. It occurs to me that maybe I should feel uncomfortable under her honey-eyed stare, but I don’t.
“Good.” She smiles. “Now, I need to know why you are here.”
“I need help.” It comes out like a reflex—like she tapped the spot for honesty, and I complied involuntarily.
She makes an agreeable sound deep in her throat. “Why do you need help, Dani?”
My eyes are caught up in hers; I swear she’s peering into my very being. For a moment, I believe this is all for show, that she can already see what’s wrong with me.
“I feel blank,” I say. “And alone.”
“Family?” She says the dreaded word like a question. Maybe she can’t see inside me after all.
“Orphaned. Never adopted. Aged out of the foster care system.” I’m twenty-seven years old and the words still sting.
Penelope nods. She’s definitely not a therapist, I note, as she lets sadness fill her gaze. It loosens her cheeks, and they slide down her face. There’s nothing cold or objective about her.
“I’m kind of a loner.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t have the stamina to maintain my college friendships, and now I’m just a loner.” The words are slipping out of me.
“Okay. And you feel ‘blank’?”
I nod and shrug, as if that’s all there is to it, but Penelope presses me with raised, expectant eyebrows. “Things feel monotonous, and kind of pointless.”
“Nothing ignites emotion in you,” she says and crosses her arms across her chest, leaning back and waiting for my confirmation that she put me in a nice little nutshell.
“Yes, exactly.” I nod more times than necessary. My eyes feel wider than they have in weeks. It must be the lemongrass.
“So what do you need, Dani?”
The use of my first name would sound condescending in any other scenario, but when Penelope says it, it has a motherly texture; though, I don’t have any basis for that observation.
“I just want to know…” The desperation in my tone surprises me; it’s not “blank” at all. I’m not on the verge of tears—I think I’ve actually forgotten how to cry—but the words still get stuck in my throat.
“Go on,” she says, encouraging me to hand over my inner demons.
“I just want to know that I can feel or will feel. I want to know if there’s something good out there for me, or something different, at least.”
She nods and lays her hands face up in the middle of the table, resting her forearms against the wooden tabletop. “Give me your hands.”
I guess this is a psychic reading sans tarot cards or crystal balls. For the first time, I’m on edge. I can’t recall the last time I touched someone else, aside from the brush of a fingertip when handing someone’s insurance card back to them. I saw my friend, Mollie, from college at Subway sometime before Christmas last year. We hugged.
I place my hands in Penelope’s, and she grips them. She rubs the backs of my hands with her thumbs for a moment, but I don’t think that’s part of her reading. I think she knows I’m starved for human contact. I’d be embarrassed if she wasn’t the epitome of maternal tenderness.
Her eyes are closed now, but I think she can see me through her eyelids. I feel more like she’s staring at me now than I did when she was actually staring at me. I drop my gaze, focusing on our clasped hands. If I remember correctly, it doesn’t take long for sweat to ruin the moment, but there’s no slick wetness trying to force our palms apart. I wonder if Penelope powders her hands before a reading.
“I need to you to be inside yourself,” she says, her voice jarring in the quiet. That’s another thing; I expected some binaural beats to be playing softly in the background. Instead, it’s utterly silent. I’m no longer covered in sweat, so Penelope must have air conditioning, but it doesn’t make a sound, and wherever Mulberry, Juniper, and Willow went, they seem to know that a reading taking place means absolutely no barking.
Her voice comes firmer this time. “Don’t focus on the external.” I truly think she knows I’m thinking about palm sweat and wondering where her dogs are. “Breathe deeply. Think about yourself. Look forward.” Easier said than done—I’m here so she can look forward for me.
More minutes pass; I didn’t expect so much of the session to be filled with silence. Also, I’m realizing that I had many preconceived notions about psychic readings.
“Dani,” Penelope chides. “Work with me.”
I cringe, close my eyes, and give it my best shot.
Soon, Penelope fills the quiet with some mmms, ahhhs, huhs, and hmms. I feel like I’m under a microscope instead of in her mind’s eye.
“I see red,” she says suddenly, and my eyes flutter open to find hers still closed. Her forehead is wrinkled with effort, and the skin between her brows is pinched. She’s squinting, even with her eyes shut, like she’s peering into nothing. “Pain is rattling my brain. I see a line of red.”
She squeezes my hand, and I get the gist that my job is to remain quiet.
“There’s a spurt of panic. A stagnant heart pounds. Then, guilt.”
For once, I don’t know what I was expecting, but this seems to be off to a bad start.
“Everything is too bright, brighter than ever. Anxiety, guilt, fear.”
I wince at all of the bad words.
“It all fades into waiting and more waiting, but there is a mother’s touch and a dazzling smile. There’s a hand to hold—a reason to wake up and be aware. There is tension, sadness, but also laughter. It’s blue outside; that’s good.”
Penelope smiles now, her skin smoothing. Her eyeballs move rapidly beneath the thin skin of her eyelids as if she’s dreaming.
“Yes,” she whispers. She rubs circles into the backs of my hands again and cocks her head to the side, like she’s listening to something far off. I’m statue-still when her eyes open.
“Interesting that you came here today,” she says, her eyes focused on me instead of something distant. “Your life is already on course to change. Dramatically.”
Chills graze my skin. I was sweltering hot twenty-five minutes ago; now I’m covered in goosebumps. The part of my T-shirt that’s damp with sweat now feels cold against my back. I try to relax, be casual. I’m an easy target for a phony psychic, but again, without explanation, I believe Penelope.
“Your concern was feeling ‘blank,’ yes?”
I nod, unsettled by the slight smile on her plum lips.
“You will feel everything but. From burning pain to blinding relief and true joy. While it’s sad that you have lived without family, Dani, this has allowed you to live without emotional vulnerability.” Penelope’s voice has taken on a rhythmic tone. “Vulnerability opens us up to a world of hurt, but also, a world of love and light. Prepare yourself for that. Someone comes from the peripheral and crashes into your world. They’ll show you a new way. Through their imprisonment, you will open and blossom.”
The words swarm my brain, and I try to memorize each one, even though some of it sounds like preachy nonsense. I’ll have to try to make sense of it later. I’m thinking hard when I realize Penelope is no longer speaking. Instead, she’s smiling at me with that foreign fondness.
“You’re strong,” she says. It doesn’t sound like encouragement. It sounds like she knows better than I do.
“So…” I don’t know what to say now. Do I ask a question? Do I say, thanks, everything is crystal clear now? “The outlook is…?”
“That wasn’t your question, remember? You asked me if you’d have reason to feel. The answer is yes. As far as the outlook, for you, it’s bright, even if it doesn’t seem so at first.”
In some ways, she’s telling me what I hoped to hear. On the other hand, I’m worried. What were the words she used? Panic, anxiety, guilt, fear. All things I don’t feel now and would prefer very much not to.
“That’s… okay.” The words are unsure.
“You will be okay.” Penelope smiles again. At least she’s not looking at me with some version of pity or worry. That’s got to be a good sign. “That’s all for today, Dani. If you need further direction, you can come back, but the window has closed. You need to live a little before I can see more.”
That either sounds reasonable or like a ploy to create repeat customers. I shrug it off and pull out my wallet.
The terse psychic message cost thirty dollars, which wasn’t bad compared to most of the services I found online. I paid Penelope one dollar a minute. Now, I’m heaving my bicycle out of the weeds and standing it upright. It’s still afternoon, and the sun feels even closer and more menacing. The thought of pedaling home makes me feel weak all over. I could schedule a ride, but riding my bike is free.
I try to be enthusiastic about my reading and pedal with gusto, but the heat presses down on me, and I decide that I’ll try for enthusiasm after I’ve had a cold glass of water and a shower. I try to separate my mind from my legs, which are left pedaling on autopilot as I travel from the southern outskirts of Deltin into Downtown. Did I just pay thirty dollars for someone to make up a vague, semi-uplifting message for my sad-sack self? I didn’t have the care or energy to be skeptical when I arrived at Penelope’s, but now that the reading is over, it seems that I have the task of deciding whether to take anything from it or write it off as illegitimate.
She mentioned a “mother’s touch,” and it repeats in my head on a loop. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t have a mother. Maybe she was just feeding into my tale of loneliness. What else did she say? A dazzling smile, someone crashing into my world. It sounds like falling in love to me, but how would I know? My romantic history doesn’t extend further than a college boyfriend and a handful hookups.
I guess a lot of people go to the psychic to find out if they’ll ever find love, but that actually hadn’t crossed my mind. How could I make someone else happy when I embody unhappiness on the daily? When I asked Penelope if I would feel something, I didn’t mean for someone else.
And what else did she say? Lots of scary words and the dreaded mention of “vulnerability.” A world of hurt and a world of light. I cringe; it sounds corny.
Run-down, outdated houses are replaced with brick and cement as I ride deeper into the city. Pedestrians increase from none to difficult not to run over. It’s 3:30 on a Friday afternoon, and it’s clear that plenty of people have employers who value a work-life balance and set them free early on Fridays to jump-start their well-deserved weekends. I don’t have room to talk. Dr. Shelly McNamere’s office is closed on Fridays altogether, hence why I spent mine pedaling to and from a psychic’s house.
I’m periodically shielded from the sun by tall buildings, but my T-shirt is still soaked through with sweat. The stifling heat seems to be circulating between the buildings, unable to get free and blocking fresh air out. My temples throb, and my tongue feels gummy. This is verging on actual torture. I should probably stop for water, I tell myself. I’m in Central Deltin now. The four-lane main street is divided with well-tended flowering trees. The sidewalks are lined with black, hip-height gates, protecting pedestrians from stepping out into traffic.
My eyes fixate on a hanging sign for a convenience store up ahead. I’m only about ten minutes from home, but I need a drink desperately. Surprise catches in my throat, and my gaze is ripped from the sign as something slams into my back. I suck in a breath, the force making it impossible to control my bike. I’m pushed forward a few feet before my arms twist and the handlebars turn all the way to the right, causing the bike, and me, to tumble to the ground.
The pavement scrapes my bare knee and shin, and I land hard on a storm drain, my head just missing the next sidewalk I had been pedaling toward. Tires screech.
“Wha—” I groan, the entire left side of my body aching from the fall. Fear gradually filters through the haze. I try to lift myself to look around, my legs still wrapped around my bike. There, behind me, in the middle of the street, is a man. He’s dressed in a light blue button down and khaki pants. I stare at his unmoving body, lying in the street in front of a taxi van. It’s yellow-orange, and the sun glints off the surface and into my eyes, so bright I squint.
“What—” I try again. Pedestrians from both sides of the sidewalk run into the street, some crowding around the man, some coming to my aid.
“Let’s get her out of the street.”
“Here, lift the bike.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Can you stand?”
Questions hurtle at me, but by the time they reach my brain, they’ve lost all meaning. Someone lifts my leg, and soon, my bicycle is pulled away. Arms wrap around me, and I’m stumbling to the sidewalk, then I’m lowered down to sit on the curb.
“I think she’s mostly shaken. I see some cuts and bruises, but I think she’s okay.” It’s a woman’s voice, but I can’t look at her. My eyes can only see the man in the street. He still hasn’t moved.
Now that I’m sitting upright, the fog of confusion begins to break. My heart pounds so hard, I have to draw breaths in through my mouth.
“It’s okay, sweetheart.” It’s the woman again. I feel her beside me; her shoulder presses against my own. It must be her arm that’s wrapped around my back, holding me steady.
“Oh my God,” I manage to say. It’s not what I meant to say, but it’s what I feel. Then, “What happened? What just happened?”
“It’s okay,” she says gently, squeezing me in reassurance.
The lack of information fuels the panic rising up in me.
“Tell me what happened,” I say, trying not to sound weak and injured. I feel her eyes on the side of my face, and she sighs.
“You pedaled into the street without the right of way. That man—he’d been waiting on the curb for the pedestrian signal when you rode past—followed you into the intersection and pushed you out of the way of that taxi.” She points a finger toward the van. Her hand looks aged, and somehow kind. She’s wearing a dated, gold wedding band and engagement ring. I stare at it, hoping that maybe this is a dream, or maybe near-death. Maybe I was hit by the taxi van. Maybe I’m unconscious.
“Oh God.” I hear the words before I decide to say them. My voice is separate from me, acting on its own. “Oh no.” The sound coming from me now is crack and strangled. I press the heels of my hands into the curb and push myself to stand.
“Honey, no. You need to stay seated until the ambulance arrives. You could be hurt too.”
If I was a whole, coherent person right now, I’d scoff. I could be “injured too”? Did that really mean anything when a man was lying half-dead—I hope—in the middle of the street because of me? I ignore her protests and shuffle into the street, my sneakers making pitiful dragging noises on the pavement.
The crowd has migrated back to the sidewalks now, giving the man in the street space. A few people stay by his side—two women, one of them in scrubs, and one man. The woman in scrubs braces my arm as I approach. I must look even more unsteady than I feel. I expect them to chide me or direct me back to the curb where my babysitter sits, but they don’t. The man remains kneeling at the man’s side, touching his neck with two fingers. I hope harder than I ever have that he feels something there.
The woman holding my arm says to me, “The ambulance should be here very soon.”
The man in the street—the one who saved my life—has dark hair and a strong nose, from which a single line of red blood trickles from it. I stare at it, bright against his fair skin. A dark, sick feeling swells inside me, and I grip my ribcage, trying to hold myself together.
I seem to hear the sirens before anyone else, turning to face the main street running perpendicular to this one. I look back at the man’s face, this time noticing the scrapes on the side of his face and the blood on the pavement below his head, before three police cars and two ambulances arrive, parking haphazardly, blocking the opening of the street and part of the main street. The lights—red, blue, and white—are blindingly bright, even in the daylight, and I squint against them.
Men and women in uniform rush the scene, and the woman in scrubs coaxes me away from the man in the street and off to the side where a pair of paramedics can attend to me. I give in and let go, watching as more paramedics swarm the man on the ground in my periphery. They tip his head back and open his mouth. I squeeze my eyes shut.
The others touch my limbs, ask me questions to which I nod or shake my head, and soon, I, too, am being loaded into an ambulance, even though I think I need more help with my mental state than my scrapes and aching muscles.
Inside, I try not to be sick from lying in the back of the rapidly moving vehicle. Panic, guilt, and fear comingle from my head to my toes; the concoction turns my blood to liquid anxiety. A paramedic places an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth.
“Just breathe,” he says.
It’s harder than it sounds.