“You’ve lost someone close to you – that much I can tell.”
He was a stocky man with a heavy drawl that stuck like maple syrup in my ears. He wore a bowler hat with a ragged old suit that smelled like he’d taken it right off a corpse. There was something black stuck in his front two teeth, and I hated him the moment I set eyes on him.
Unfortunately, I observed all this from a vantage point behind my mother, who had opened the door. She seemed to be looking through the short man into the heart of what he was saying, what he was offering.
“Yes, yes, someone here has died…ah! But not left. No, ma’am, they’re still here, just as surely as you and I.”
“How… can you know that?” Those were the first words my mother had spoken to the man, and as soon as he heard them, he grinned.
“Mr. Cartwright, at your service. My position is somewhat unique: I am a traveling medium. I seek out troubled, suffering souls like yourself and lend a hand. And I always leave my customers satisfied.”
I closed my eyes and prayed that my mother would slam the door in his face. Had the situation been reversed and my father answered the door, he’d have laughed the grotesque con all the way out the neighborhood.
But my mother and father are two very different people. She opened the door and ushered him inside.
I sat next to my mother at the kitchen table and glared at Mr. Cartwright sitting across from us. The more he prattled on about spirits and communicating and blurred lines, the more I hated him. I watched as he successfully romanced my mother – she would do anything, believe anything for just one more chance to talk to my father. And somehow, Mr. Cartwright had sensed that.
After a while, I grew weary of all the bullshit. “So how much does it cost?” I asked, wanting to know how badly he was trying to swindle us.
His eyes twinkled as he turned to me. “Why, that’s the best part! You can decide how much the service is worth after I’ve provided it – my fee is entirely up to you. You can send me away without a penny to my name if you are unsatisfied.”
With that, my mother was thoroughly convinced and agreed to let him attempt to contact my father. I remained irritated and skeptical. After all, if it sounds too good to be true…
Once my mother gave the green light, Mr. Cartwright opened the filthy carpetbag that he had brought with him, pulling out a number of strange and ridiculous items, each more absurd than the last.
First, he took out a candle – one made in the shape of a skull, with two wicks protruding from the eye-sockets and winding together. Then, he pulled out a piece of blue chalk, with which he drew several strange symbols on our kitchen table – it’s a testament to how much faith my mother held that she didn’t stop him from dirtying her favorite table. Finally, he took out a ruby amulet set in silver and hanging from a heavy chain. My muscles tensed as he leaned across the table and placed it around my mother’s neck.
My mother had me switch off the kitchen lights – which I did with a display of utmost reluctance – and Mr. Cartwright lit his strange candle. The wicks hissed as he lit them, and it seemed to me that a strange light began to glow from within the skull candle itself.
“And now, I need just one more thing from you, my dear.” I hated how he called my mother ‘dear.’ “In order to summon his spirit to us, we need just a little blood.”
My mother blanched at the prospect, but the grotesque man was quick to assure her.“Just a pinprick, using this needle I’ve brought. By smearing it on the amulet, we will be able to communicate more freely with the spirit world. That is how we will find your husband.”
My mother hesitated, but she had come this far and wasn’t going to back down at the last moment. Still, her trepidation was obvious as the man pricked her finger and touched it to the red stone around her neck.
Once that was completed, he sat back, as though greatly satisfied.
“What was your husband’s name?” He asked.
“Thomas,” she answered.
With that, Mr. Cartwright instructed we all hold hands. His hand was cold and clammy in mine. I wanted to draw my hand away, but a sharp look from my mother advised against it. I wanted to stand up and scream, put a stop to all this, but I was barely more than a child at fifteen years old. What was I supposed to do?
Once we had joined hands, Mr. Cartwright began to speak.
“We wish to address the spirit residing in this house, one who goes by the name ‘Thomas.’ Thomas, if you’re there, come to us, speak to your family through me.”
My mother and I were silent as we watched Mr. Cartwright’s eyes close, the rapid movement behind his lids making it seem as though he was searching for something within the darkness of his own body.
“If a spirit can hear me, make yourself known. Show yourself to us. Do not be afraid!”
Over the next 10 minutes, Mr. Cartwright spoke various reiterations of these phrases, calling out to someone that I knew wasn’t there. The stubborn cast to my mother’s features told me that she, too, was beginning to believe that this was a scam, but there was a shine to her eye that told me she was still so desperate to believe, it would be incredibly cruel for me to stop this now. No, she had to see that my father was really gone. If this was how it had to be done, by God, this is how we’d manage it.
We were just about to hit minute 15 when the air in the room changed.
The temperature dropped and the air seemed thinner, and it quickly became difficult to breathe. A strange smell began to perfume the air – it wasn’t unpleasant, at first, but as it grew stronger it reminded me of something foul, something rotting.
The skull candle burned out and the light faded, leaving us in darkness. Mr. Cartwright had fallen silent, and neither my mother nor I dared speak.
And then, it came. It was a soft sound, just a gentle whisper from the corner of the room.
My mother’s name. I tried to convince myself that it had come from Mr. Cartwright, but I couldn’t seem to recall my mother introducing herself by her first name.
It took me several long moments to open eyes that I didn’t remember closing and turn them towards the direction of the voice. It was still dark in the room – much darker than should have been possible, given that it was still the middle of the afternoon – and very little was visible. And yet there, in the corner of the room, I saw a shadow, just a touch blacker than the rest of the darkness around it, reaching for my mother. Next to me, my mother opened her eyes and sobbed.
“Oh my god, it’s… Thomas! It’s Thomas!”
She threw herself towards the figure and a terrible sense of dread filled my body. I scrambled up from my chair and lunged towards the light switch.
I just barely managed to illuminate the room before my mother reached the terrible dark figure.
As soon as the light came on, the shadow was gone. I was already mentally bracing myself for my mother’s screams and tears, but I didn’t care, I knew I had done the right thing. We were messing with something we didn’t understand, and I had to put a stop to it.
Instead, my mother crumpled to her knees in the corner of the room, hugging herself and alternating between laughing and crying.
“Anthony! Anthony, I can hear him! He’s speaking to us, right here, next to me! Oh, Anthony, he loves us, he misses us, he’s here with us…”
My mother babbled on for a long time as Mr. Cartwright watched us, triumph etched into his features.
Once my mother managed to calm down, she gave Mr. Cartwright all the money we had in the house – quite a sizeable amount, I assure you. All the while, she could still hear the voice of my father, following her every move, keeping close to her as he so often did in life.
Since his death four years ago, I’d never seen her so happy.
As my mother sat down to continue to “talk” with my father, she asked me to see Mr. Cartwright to the door. That was just fine with me – I had a few words for the man, myself.
Which is how I found myself standing between him and the door, staring him down and demanding answers.
“That thing in there is not my father.”
Mr. Cartwright smirked at me and said, “You’re a smart boy, aren’t you? If that isn’t your father, then what do you think it is?”
Unexpectedly, I was at a loss for words. It was almost as though speaking aloud my fears would make them come true, and in that moment, I hardly wanted to know what was in the house with us, whispering in my mother’s ear.
“I… don’t know.”
He hummed as he stepped around me, letting himself out of the house.
“You might want to start thinking on that, not that it will help you – not now.”
I watched as he ambled down the walk, whistling to himself. He was just at the gate, about to walk out of our lives forever, taking all his answers with him, when I called after him one more time.
“You aren’t a door-to-door medium, are you?”
He paused, and then turned back to me. His smile was all teeth.
“Why, I’m not a medium at all, foolish boy. I don’t bother speaking with human spirits. I’m more interested in summoning. Can you guess what it is I summon?”
And with a laugh, he walked out of our lives for good, to the sound of my mother chattering on with whatever he had just welcomed into our home.