This is the first chapter of my debut book in the Poppy Blue paranormal fantasy series. It is available as an eBook and in paperback on Amazon.com. I hope you enjoy!
A SMALL WOMAN bearing a big burden walked into my shop on the first night of Autumn Daze.
She wanted her palm read. No problem there. That’s what I was there to do.
Usually when I looked at a person’s hands, I saw more mundane, as in nonmagical, matters. Most folks – not all, but most – sought insights on money matters, love and health. Typical everyday concerns.
What her hands showed me was something else entirely.
Now, as I stand on some godforsaken country road after driving a tow truck into a ditch and hoping I don’t run into a certain sulky ghost – I realize, I never saw any of this coming.
EVERY THURSDAY after the Labor Day holiday through the week before Thanksgiving, a few blocks in Sault Sainte Marie’s tourist district are blocked from traffic.
Being located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, our summers are incredibly short, so our city’s philosophy is to pretty much throw on a sweatshirt – and later a parka and snowboots – and keep on keeping on with our lives. We may already have frosty mornings and trees that are turning red, orange and gold – soon to be scandalously naked – but that was no reason to end the festivities, even though the majority of the tourists we’d see this year had already packed up and gone home.
Our city’s population would soon wane for the next few months, as some locals would head south, to winter in warmer climes. I was one of those who stayed all year.
Now we had Autumn Daze to look forward to. The downtown area of our small northern city was decked out with seasonal decorations, with the chamber of commerce organizing activities to attract both young and old alike.
Pubs and eateries offered specials, primarily of the fried food and boozy varieties. I like to say we’re storing up body fat – like some great black bear – for the long winter ahead. That’s my excuse, anyways.
A band or a deejay frequently played songs. Occasionally folks would cut a rug. More often they shuffled around once they were tipsy enough, or they broke out a few line dancing moves or tried to see if they could still do a passable Running Man. Often I wasn’t sure who they were entertaining more – themselves or the spectators – but who can argue with someone dusting off an eighties or nineties dance move?
Many businesses stayed open late and held raffles and drawings. These were mostly for gift cards to buy more of the aforementioned fried foods and cocktails, but there’s a reason why every bar serves burgers and chicken fingers, so why interfere with success?
Children could have their faces painted or vie for prizes. That would give them happy, innocent memories before they turned into line-dancing adults, or whatever dance craze they’d be slightly nostalgic for once they had a few beers and several years in their rearview mirrors – the Nae Nae or the Whip, maybe?
I participated in the weekly event by extending my magick shop’s hours and conducting palm readings.
The lines in people’s hands appeared far from random to me. When I concentrated, they became maps of their psyches or sometimes morphed into snapshots of their lives. I could tell what was worrying them – though to be honest, no one ever sought a reading when they were truly happy – and offer some soothing words or a bit of guidance. Sometimes people just wanted someone to whom they could vent their concerns. Plus, what I offered was cheaper than therapy.
Since many viewed what I did as some parlor trick, you’d be surprised what people were willing to divulge. Let’s just say if I wanted to get into the blackmail business, I could rake in some serious dough. But I’m nice – or I try to be, and professional – so I keep my lips zipped.
Not long after this year’s Autumn Daze festivities began, a woman came into the shop. She was petite – a few inches shorter than me – and her frame was delicate.
My employee Vanessa Morgan, a shapely blonde with doe eyes, greeted her as I watched from a quiet corner. I had sparkly velvet curtains partially pinned back – which I would later close to ensure privacy while doing readings – and stood partly concealed while I observed.
The woman had wavy dark blonde hair with a few highlights. It was cut into an angled bob that just skimmed her shoulders. Something about her carriage made me certain she was old enough to be my mother, but the freckles dotting the bridge of her nose made her appear younger.
She had an air of confidence. Her clothing fit her well and her handbag was name brand, but it wasn’t ostentatious – just good quality.
I picked up a bit of nervous energy about her. My guess was she’d never visited a palm reader before.
I inhaled deeply and could scent a question hanging. I also could smell two perfumes.
The dominant one was clearly hers, as it was more grownup and redolent of salt water, coconut milk and ylang-ylang – maybe even a hint of bergamot. I liked her taste.
The second fragrance I was sure was tied to whatever question or concern she would pose. It was a girly brand I remembered from my days in junior high, and it drifted in my direction in small, infrequent waves.
Vanessa spoke with the woman, making polite small talk and answering a few questions. I heard the request for a reading and emerged to greet her, ushering her to the table I had set up.
She sat and bounced her gaze on the candle that burned off center while I pulled the curtains shut so I could concentrate on her and she could question me in peace and with a veneer of privacy.
“Hello. Welcome. My name is Poppy. Poppy Blue,” I told her, reaching out to shake her hand.
“Ah, so that’s why this place is called Blue’s Boutique. I’m Marie.” Her voice wavered slightly.
I smiled to try and set her at ease.
“Um, is there anything you want or need to know before we start?”
“Let me just look at your palms first. We’ll see what they have to say and go from there.”
She was quiet as I put a few drops of an oil I’d blended on my palms and rubbed them together in front of the candle burning on the little round table. I then held them out, palms up, and instructed her to place her hands on mine.
I closed my eyes and concentrated for a moment. Something felt familiar about her. Or maybe not her. I wasn’t sure, but suspected I’d heard something of what was disturbing her, but it wasn’t yet clear.
“Have we met before?” I asked. “I feel like I should know you – or something about you – already.”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “I have seen you around town, however. Your hair is very striking.”
That’s how people usually described my cherry red locks when they were trying to be nice and not make a joke about it – the usual witticisms, such as asking when I’d left the circus or joshing that the color was so loud that they could hear it.
I looked at her face. Her eyes were a pale sage green, which looked more gray when the light hit them just so. Her smile was genuine, and I could tell her compliment was, too.
“Thank you. Calling it striking, that’s one way to put it,” I smiled.
“I think my son would like it. He likes red-haired women.”
“Even this red?” My goal was to keep it ruby red or brighter. I always leaned toward being a redhead, and the last couple years I’d decided I wanted my locks to match my first name. Not everyone – my mother included – was a fan of the bright red color.
“Then I like him already, based purely on his good taste,” I joked.
She smiled warmly in reply, but I noticed a hint of sadness lived in her eyes.
“I’m going to turn your palms up and look at your lines. Think of the question you’d like answered or what it is that you’d like some clarity on.”
Her face grew serious and I could see she was focusing. I thought I could use a bit of marigold for this reading. It’s an innocuous and common flower, but also uncommonly good for enhancing communication with the beyond. I let her hands go, telling her to continue concentrating as I pulled a flower from a small vase I had on the side of the table and rubbed a few petals in between my palms, until they turned saffron orange. Then I ran my fingers over her palms, clasped her hands and waited.
A moment later the secondary perfume I’d first picked up – I was certain it was Love’s Baby Soft – began to dance around us, growing stronger. I looked around and saw the green velvet curtains begin to shiver. Small leaves of ivy emerged from the fabric and slowly marched across the material. I’d never seen anything like that before. I blinked and the leaves vanished.
“Excuse me,” Marie interrupted. “Are you wearing perfume?”
I nodded. “Yes. It’s 4711.”
The corners of her mouth turned down. “That’s kind of a citrusy-floral, isn’t it?”
She smiled. “That’s odd. That’s not what I’m smelling. Maybe it’s your chemistry.”
“You’re smelling Love’s Baby Soft, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Yes. You can smell it, too?”
I nodded. “I think this is tied to why you’re here this evening, correct?”
She bobbed her head up and down.
“You’re worried about someone.” I closed my eyes for a moment and saw a flicker of two shapes, one male and one female. It was more like an afterimage one gets after looking at a bright light, but I could catch flashes of someone who seemed young and impulsive trying to get a rise out of someone who seemed more sedate and focused. The image flickered away and I trained my eyes on Marie. “Actually, you’re worried about two people.”
I looked down into her palms. The lines told me she was married and had two children. I looked closer. There were actually three lines for the children, but the most recent one was faded and cut off. She’d lost a child, I realized. I gulped, choking back the uncomfortable feeling. That’s probably why I felt I should be familiar somehow with her story. I’d probably read something about it in the paper. I couldn’t remember any recent stories, however.
“You lost someone very dear to you – a child – some years ago.” I paused as I felt a wave of the sadness she carried with her tumble over me. “I’m sorry.” I inhaled through my nose to collect myself. “And you’re still very sad about that loss. You always will feel that loss, too, but time is healing the wound, though it will never erase the scar.”
Her eyes watered a bit. She glanced away to collect herself, focusing on the marigolds by the candle.
I looked down at her palms again. The first child line was strong but forked. That was odd. Usually a person’s own life line might be forked if they were facing some significant life event – a move far away, a health crisis, a career change – but that much detail rarely appeared for one’s offspring.
“Right now you’re more concerned about someone else. Another loved one who is very sad, and you fear that they’re … how can I put it … they’re stuck.” From the length of the split, this issue was not a recent development.
She gave a quick nod.
“And this makes you fear,” I paused, struggling to phrase it correctly, “that you in reality have lost two people instead of the one.”
“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m worried about. Is there anything I can do?”
“Well, normally I’d say time will take care of things, but this sounds … extreme. Have you experienced some things that you can’t easily explain?”
“I have. My daughter died in a car crash many years ago, and while I miss her every day, my oldest son, he’s never really let it go.”
“He’s trapped in his grief.” I spoke more to myself than to Marie.
“Yes. And sometimes I’ll smell the perfume my daughter wore, but lately I’m noticing other things.”
“Oh, you’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Marie, look at what I do for a living. I’ve been called crazy – and seen crazy stuff – more times than I care to count. You came here with a problem, so why not fire away. I don’t ‘palm’ and tell. If I was a gossip – and this town is full of them – you’d know. I don’t want to spread stories about people either. Especially since my family has been the subject of talk.”
Marie was quiet for a moment. “You’re Fiona’s daughter, and Tom Wheeler is kind of your stepdad, right?”
“I do know about your family being the subject of gossip,” she agreed.
“You’ve no doubt heard about a certain St. Patrick’s Day incident. For starters?”
“So go on.”
She fidgeted with the rings on her fingers as she collected her thoughts. “Lately I’ve been noticing the perfume my daughter loved to wear. And there has been no reason for it be around.
“I’ve been on walks out in the woods and will smell it,” she explained. “Sometimes, especially around my oldest son, the one who took Ivy’s death the hardest, I notice a fragrance that smells like the flowers from Ivy’s funeral, hanging so heavy around him that I could choke.
“I also notice the air gets icy cold around him sometimes, or there’s an off smell, like burning hair or plastic. For some reason it makes me think that’s what anger smells like. That sounds insane, doesn’t it?”
I shook my head. “Not at all. Anyone with certain sensitivities can pick up on emotions through their eyes, ears, nose, fingers or even taste buds. You might see flashes of unexplained color, or notice odors that have no logical origin, or hear things – like a low, persistent hum or a sharp whine – when something outside the realm of our five senses is present,” I explained. “I’ve come to believe that we commonly think of as our sixth sense is actually some sort of extension of one of the classic quintet, though often supercharged.”
Marie’s shoulders relaxed, and she continued. “I got to thinking after I saw a show about hauntings on cable, and they mentioned strange smells and cold drafts of air, and it got me wondering…” she paused. “Well, I guess I don’t know what to say or think.”
I mulled her comments.
She exhaled, running her fingers through her hair. “My husband says I should just get on some Zoloft or Paxil. Maybe he’s right.”
I shook my head. “I can see where he’s coming from, but it sounds like your son hasn’t let Ivy go, so to speak. For most people, when someone they love has died, they are sad for a while and then they cross some kind of emotional bridge. Occasionally there are reminders of that loved one that live on. One woman I know who lost her son when he was a toddler, she notices the scent of roses every year on his birthday, and it’s kind of a ‘hi from beyond’ thing. These kinds of things happen more than we realize. But what you’re experiencing, it’s prolonged. Can you tell me, what do you feel or sense when you notice these smells or feel the chill around you?”
“Usually it’s just utter despair. For a moment I feel completely hopeless, like I’m sinking into a cold, damp pit.”
I started feeling a bit unmanageable myself. A restless energy nipped at nerves and the urge to start touching my ear grew strong.
“Do either of your sons notice or do anything odd?”
“Well, Wyatt seems fine,” she said. “He moved on. He’s kind of in a bubble, where he’ll just not dwell on things – which is both to his benefit and detriment, I think. But life is just a party to him. Roger, however, when I bring it up to him he actually shuts down more.”
“He was closest to his sister,” I murmured.
“He doesn’t want to let things go. I think he wants to,” Marie corrected. “I think he just feels he shouldn’t.”
“Like he’s punishing himself for surviving?”
“I think that could be it. What bothers me is he seems to be putting his life on hold over this. Sure, he has a job and friends, but …” she struggled to find the right words. “It’s like after the power goes out, and it returns, but only halfway, and everything is sort of dimmed. That’s what his life looks like to me.”
“A brownout life.”
“Is there anything that could be done?”
“There’s almost always something that can be done. How long ago did Ivy die?”
“Eight years ago.”
Oh, boy. Now I really wasn’t sure what I was up against. “That’s an awful long time to grieve. No immediate solution comes to me.”
“Do you do spells or anything? I’m not sure if I believe in that sort of thing, but at this point, what can it hurt,” she said.
“Not formally,” I admitted. “I’m more instinctive.”
“What do your instincts tell you to do?” She leaned forward, her eyes hungry for answers.
I thought for a moment. “Honestly, they tell me there has to be more to this than meets the eye. More than even you are aware of. They also tell me to keep my eyes and ears open. Usually if I throw it out there that I’m in need of something, answers will come my way.”
Marie nodded. She suddenly gave me a strange look.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“You’re fiddling with your ear. Just like my daughter used to do.”
I knew I’d felt the urge to follow through with the tic, but didn’t realize I was doing it. I promptly stopped and gave Marie a polite smile. She gazed around the room and back at me.
“I know I told you I didn’t believe in witchcraft and ghosts and things like that, but there is something … other … about you. I’m confused by it, but I like it. I also like you.”
“I like you, too,” I confessed.
I stood up and shook her hand. As I led her out of my shop, I gave her one of my business cards and wrote down her number. That way I could reach her should any potential resolution or questions occur to me.
I waved goodbye and watched her walk down the street. The question now was, how did I get someone to forgive himself and rejoin the living? And if there was more to it than that, how would I uncover those truths?
Fortunately, I knew someone who had shuffled off this mortal coil and who had opted to linger around. Hopefully he’d have answers.
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