Authors: Jackie Barrett
Patricia's presence was becoming so intense, I found myself deliberately planning ways to elude her. One day, on the way to the dentistâthat's how desperate I was for some normalcyâI thought I'd try the farmers' market. I got off at the Fourteenth StreetâUnion Square station so I could walk through the stalls and lose myself in the crush of people.
This was what I loved about New York. Give us a space, and we'll make it happen. You could buy almost any kind of fruit or vegetable in that stretch. People jostled one another as they reached for the best fruit. Vegetables clanged onto scales as growers weighed their sales. Somewhere nearby, I could smell that someone was selling delicious apple-cider donuts. It was all packed together, tickling every one of my senses and making me feel safe.
I stopped at an apple stand, with half a dozen varieties piled high. I picked them up, one by one, enjoying the feeling of the fruit in my hands as I looked for the perfect apple to buy. The conversation of two women nearby washed over me. They were talking about work, and I smiled to myself. Ordinary life. One of the women looked over at me, and as she took a bite of her own apple, her companion's words and my surroundings started to fade away from me. I grabbed my head but couldn't look away from the woman, whose apple was covered in writhing maggots. Her features turned sharp and frightening as she laughed and licked at her disgusting corpse-delight snack.
My stomach heaved, and I threw up, right in front of the apple cart. When I straightened, there were no maggots; there was no evil. Just people staring at a sick woman who had fouled the farmers' market. I staggered away and slowly made my way to the dentist's office. I no longer felt safe. Even worse, I was starting to feel crazy. I did not know what to do.
Somehow, I made it to the big building in Midtown, where Rick, the doorman, greeted me by name, as usual. I came to my dentist pretty often. I confess that I'm addicted to teeth whitening. So everybody in the office, and Rick in the lobby, knew me quite well. It was a beautiful lobby, and interesting. It had two elevatorsâone big and one small. The small one was a tiny box that seemed to get smaller once you stepped inside. I hate cramped spaces. So, naturally, that was the elevator I got. I reluctantly stepped inside and sweated as I counted the chime for each passing floor. I finally reached the eighth floor, stepped out, and stopped short. My dentist's office should have been to the left in the hallway, just as it had been for years. But this hallway was covered with sheets of plastic and looked like it was under construction.
“Hello?” I called loudly. The plastic sheeting blew and snapped against itself, so at first I didn't hear the shuffling. It slowly took on the sound of a child's feet and then I heard a child's laugh. On the other side of the plastic, as if through a fog, I saw a little girl dressed in a yellow raincoat. She was skipping along slowly, chanting a nursery rhyme, and holding a red ball under her arm. I quietly parted the plastic to get a better look without her seeing me. I watched her hop along, clutching the ball with one hand and, under her other arm, a teddy bear. She couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old. She turned as though someone called to her, and I saw a man walking toward her. I could only see the back of his dark green uniform as he bent down toward her. I tried to walk forward to stop him but couldn't move.
“Don't be afraid,” he said, caressing her soft curls. “Do you like puppy dogs or kittens?” he asked. “I have lots of them. I spoke to your mommy, and she said you're such a good girl I could give you one.”
“You spoke to my mommy?” she said, in that pure child's voice.
“Yes, I sure did.” He pinched her cheek, trying his damnedest to gain her trust. Easy to do with such innocence. He told her to leave her toys. She would need to carry her new pet instead. He would come back for her toys later. “PromiseÂ .Â .Â . Cross my heart.”
She dropped her ball and teddy bear and took his hand. I know how these things end, but I refused to let this one turn out that way. Not on my watch. I wrenched myself away from the wall and flung myself toward them. They didn't hear or see me, and I ran right through them both. I stumbled and fell face-first into the opposite wall. I spun around and saw her toys, but the two of them were gone.
“God damn it! Where did you go?” I shouted as I ran down the hallway. “Give her backÂ .Â .Â . Give me that child!”
The elevator doors were banging open and shut so fast I couldn't get on. I ran toward the emergency stairwell and a shadow loomed behind the plastic closest to the door. It was the tall man in black. He spoke through the plastic.
“You can't stop the processÂ .Â .Â . We, too, have a purpose. I will eat your sins and take your soulÂ .Â .Â .”
I ran past, pushed the exit door open, and took the stairs down two at a time. I did not slow until the fourth floor, when I heard a woman's singing. I rounded the turn in the stairs and saw a large broken mirror on the wall. In front of it was that Patricia woman. I edged past her, hoping she wouldn't notice me as she stared at her own reflection. She didn't, and after I made it past, I turned to look. She was the one haunting me, after allâI didn't feel too bad about invading her privacy.
She stood in front of the mirror, fixing her lipstick, swaying her sultry body back and forth, making eyes at herself. She told herself that she was pretty and dabbed at her heavily made-up face, like she was getting ready to go search the night for some good-looking taker. I quietly backed away and ran faster than ever down the remaining steps and into the lobby.
Rick, the doorman, rushed over and grabbed my arms. I must have looked absolutely nuts as I babbled about a child getting taken and a woman in the stairwell and an entire floor of the building under construction.
“Jackie, calm down,” he said, still holding my arms. “You've been up there for more than twenty-five minutes.”
I hauled him into the elevator and pushed for the eighth floor. I had to prove myself to him. I had to prove myselfâto me. The damn box finally chimed for the eighth floor, and the doors slid open. Rick, like the gentleman he was, held it open so I could go first.
“Just drop the bullshit,” I snapped. “You go first.”
He walked out, looked around, and then spread his arms wide, as if to say, “See, not a thing out of place.” I slowly walked out of the elevator and looked around. I ran my hands along the walls for traces of plaster and work dust. Nothing. I swung open the utility-room door near the stairwell. Nothing but a broom.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked Rick.
He looked at me. He had known me for years. “Jackie, are you working on a homicide?”
“No,” I snapped again. “And if I was, what does that have to do with it? You think I've gone mad, don't you?”
He hesitated. “No. I think you saw something real bad. Real bad. I'm getting creeped out!”
“Yeah, me, too,” I said as I yanked open the door to my dentist's office.
“Jackie!” said the smiling receptionist. “Where did you go? We were looking all over for you.”
I stared at her in astonishment.
“You came in, sat down, and then just got up as though you were sleepwalking,” she continued. “I went out in the hallwayâyou were gone.”
I told her I would reschedule my appointment and walked out. Rick waited with me for the elevator.
“Hey, Jackie,” he said softly, “I believe you.”
It didn't matter. I rode down to the lobby without saying a word. I needed help.
Joanne was waiting for me in the lobby. My wonderful, beautiful grown daughter, who I always met with for lunch after my dentist appointments. I would get her all to myself for the rest of the day, and we would catch up on everything. It was one of our traditions. I had been so excited about it today. Before all of that had happened.
“Hey! You ready for our date?” She came over and kissed me on the cheek and then drew back. “You look awful. Did you have work done, or just a cleaning?”
I dragged her out of the building before I started talking. We walked and I talked. I confided everything. The woman who was following me everywhere. The man with the mask. The little girl. How did they all connect? What did they want from me?
We found a cafÃ© and ordered coffee. I described every detail I could remember. Joanne held my hand and listened until something I said triggered a memory and she spoke. The tall man in black with the slicked-back hair and the thin ponytail had come to our home a week earlier, she said. She had been working on my schedule when there was a knock on the door. When she'd answered it, a man fitting that description had handed her a sealed envelope and said it was for me.
I yanked my hand away and stared at her in horror.
“I told youânever get the door! Don't you ever listen? For the love of God, we work not only with the dead, but the ones who took their lives, too. These criminals know who we are! Don't you understand the danger? Get smart, girl!”
She grabbed my hand back. “People are looking!”
“I don't give a shit who hears me,” I yelled. “It could be your life!”
I tried to collect myself. I made her promise not to tell Will anything about it. I didn't want him worried.
Joanne glared at me. “For Chrissakes, Mom, we're all worried. You're on the streets at night. You lock yourself away and don't talk to anyone!” Now she was the one yelling. “And what's the sudden change in the way you're dressing and thatÂ .Â .Â . What's that you're wearing? And where in God's name did you get that color lipstick? Who are you dealing with? I'm your partner in work. I have a right to know!”
I stood up and threw enough money on the table to cover our bill and our disruption of the quiet cafÃ©. All I could think about was going home and finding that envelope. We rushed back together and began to tear apart my office, full of questions and fear. We sat on the floor of that room for hours, going through every file and looking at every stack of paper. We could not find the envelope.
As we ransacked my office, I began to think that there might not be any envelope at all. Maybe the whole thing had been a psychic vision seen by only Joanne. She had never been plagued with visions of demons like I had, thank God, but she did have the gift of sight.
When Joanne was four years old, her favorite story was one she'd made up about a long road in the California desert. She had never been to California, but she loved this road and once drew me a picture of her imaginings. It had a gas station and a tiny diner that she labeled “Little Jake's.” Fifteen years later, Will and I took a vacation to the coast and rented a fast little convertibleâit was California, after allâand then promptly got lost. We ended up out in the desert and stopped to ask directions at a roadside diner. We got the directions, and a couple of slices of the best pie I'd ever tasted. As we sat in our rented car and savored the pie, I looked up at the diner's sign. Little Jake's. Just like Joanne had drawn so many years before.
As she got older, Joanne began to realize that she and I were different from other folks. Another one of her pictures illustrated this. It was a whole menagerie of peopleâdifferent colors and agesâall standing in and around a crooked country house. I asked her who all those people were. All of seven years old, she took me through every single one. Some lived with usâin the walls or under the beds. Some were standing outside waiting to get in, and some were inside, wanting to get out. As she sat in my lap and explained her artwork, I looked across the front yard and could see her drawing materializing. She pointed, because she saw it, too. “Why can't we be like other people?” she asked. I knew exactly what she meant, and I knew she needed the truth. “We can't be anything we aren't,” I had said.
“I've got it!” Joanne yelled now, startling me out of my memories as I sat next to her on the office floor. I thought she'd found the envelope, but instead she started shouting about the security system and the camera right outside the front door. We both leaped to our feet and ran for the monitors. I couldn't believe we hadn't thought of it before.
We queued up the footage and began to watch the recording from that day. We saw several comings and goingsâthe mailman, delivery drivers, acquaintances, even people just strolling by the house and pointing. It's not like I live in witness protection. People know who I am, and are always curious.
Finally, we found it. It showed Joanne coming to the door, talking through the intercom, and then opening the door. I looked at the screen and then at her without saying a word. I guess the look on my face spoke for me.
“This is all because of you,” she snapped. “Telling me they always find us! Now I'm scared!”
I turned back to the monitor, which showed Joanne at the door, talking to no one. She reached out her hand and seemed to take something, although there was nothing there. She even looked down at her empty hand, exactly as if she were examining an envelope someone had just given her. Her days were long and full of work and her busy personal life. She had no reason to make this up, no reason to put on a show for me. And she hadn't. At the very end of her encounter at the door, I saw something on the recording. It was very slightâjust a movement of air, a shift in the atmosphere, as though the breeze had for a split second twirled like a tiny tornado. It was one of those things the normal eye wouldn't see. Couldn't see. But I could.