There were nicotine stains on the hypnotist’s fingers, which I should have taken as hint that he wasn’t on the level. I was a believer in the extraordinary, though, and I had accepted his claims on their face.
After passing it once, I’d found his office tucked behind a shuttered IGA supermarket in a lot that was cattycorner to a liquor store. I decided I’d stop there after my session, grab a little something to celebrate the new me.
His building looked well maintained, with that understated landscaping common to doctor’s offices and hospitals—little trees and shrubs that communicated human mastery over nature via their manicured shapes. You’re in good hands, that landscaping said, this is a place where errant behavior is tamed.
“Are you Mona?” asked the man behind the reception desk. “You’re late.” His head was shaved and when he stood, he was an inch or two shorter than me. He led me down a hall to a slightly too-warm office, then directed me into a Lay-Z-Boy recliner. When I was settled into the chair, he reclined it himself by leaning close to me and pulling a lever on its side. Rain sounds pattered from unseen speakers, and I felt the dull urge to pee. “I’m John,” he said, “the therapist. What are we knocking out today?”
“Anxiety,” I said, after a preparatory breath, “and nail biting, but I think that’s probably the same thing. Your website says hypnosis can take care of that.”
“Hypnotherapy,” he said.
“Oh, right. Whatever.”
“It’s a valid therapeutic practice,” he said. He was standing at my raised feet, staring down at me, and the affect was scolding.
“Great,” I said, “I could use it.”
“What makes you feel anxious?”
“God, lately? Everything.” My fingers worried the small bulge in my cardigan pocket. “Can hypnotists make you forget about pandemics and failing democracies?” I meant this to be lighthearted, but John was unamused.
“Hypnotherapists,” he corrected, raising a hand for emphasis and revealing those yellow finger stains.
“Okay,” he repeated like the matter was settled. He walked behind the Lay-Z-Boy where I couldn’t see him. “How long have you been dealing with anxiety?”
“Since forever, really. For as long as I can remember.” The room dimmed, and I decided to just come out with it: “I think, though, that it’s only become a problem since my husband died.”
“Well,” John said after a pause, “that would do it. Let’s get started and see if we can crack it.” A strobing light effect began around me. “Hey,” he called in what seemed to me like an afterthought, “you’re not epileptic, right?”
The doctors wouldn’t say precisely what had caused Nick’s illness, but I didn’t need to be told. Our paranormal investigations had taken us to countless abandoned houses and derelict churches and hospitals, all teaming with asbestos, surely, or God knew what other types of poisonous dust. True to his nature, Nick didn’t accept that a natural toxin was killing him. Rather, he blamed some malicious spirit he’d picked up along the way. “That Charleston West Virginia house,” he’d said. “Remember, I got those scratches on my arm?” Or, “What about the Sandusky Asylum? The energy there was so dark.” I never asked him what made him think that spirits were carcinogenic. I only every hummed like, I don’t know, but maybe that’s it. I was a believer, as I’d said, but that didn’t mean I thought every tap or knock or lymphoid cist was a ghost. I let Nick believe it though, because what did it matter?
When we made the announcement on social media that he was terminal, we got thousands of sympathetic comments, a despicable number of which encouraged him to go out live streaming. The truth was, Nick barely had the breath to walk from our bedroom to the toilet, let alone crawl around dilapidated buildings. And as frail as he got by the end, he could have looked in the mirror if he wanted to see a ghost.
“Hey,” he said to me from our bed a few weeks before the end, “we should do one more investigation together.”
I laid down and wrapped my body around his. There was a familiar spark in his eyes that had become less frequent lately. “Your lips look dry,” I said. “Do you want me to get you some Chapstick?”
“No, I want to talk about this,” he said. “We’ll do it once I’m able.”
I kissed those dry lips then lifted onto my elbow so that I could stare down at him. “And when do you think that might be?” I asked.
“After I pass,” he said, like it was obvious.
I threw myself down on the bed. “Nick!” I protested.
“No, really,” he said, pawing until he found my arm to squeeze. “Like Houdini and Bess, how they tried to prove the afterlife when he died.”
“But they couldn’t do it,” I said. “They never did prove an afterlife. And we’re cool, babe, but we’re not Houdini and Bess.”
Nick paused for a coughing spell that left his voice thin when he finally continued, a voice like a creaking door or an attic chest with rusted hinges. “We have a hundred livestreams proving ghosts are real, that’s not what I mean. The only reason skeptics don’t believe is because they can point to frauds and say, ‘this is clearly fake, so it all must be.’ The frauds are the problem. I want to go after them.”
“You mean, the way Houdini exposed mediums?”
“So, your plan is like a mash-up of Houdini’s greatest hits?”
“It’s a pretty cool plan,” Nick said.
“Okay,” I said, “tell me.”
I never agreed to it—not that day, and never during the remaining weeks of his life—but, as he wheezed and coughed his way through his plan, I found myself grinning with privilege for the closeness I was allowed to the crazy mind of my lovely husband.
“Mona?” a voice was cooing. “Come back to me, Mona.”
I shifted my body. The recliner snapped shut, and I awoke with a start.
“How do you feel?” John asked me. He was at the arm of the Lay-Z-Boy, leaning into me.
“Did I do it?” I asked. My heart was thudding from being startled, but my brain had that cottony feeling of having just woken up.
“You did,” he confirmed. “And I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.”
“Oh, great,” I said, wiping away a short trail of drool from the corner of my mouth.
“Just take a moment to collect yourself. But, before you do, will you be paying with cash today, or with a card?”
“Visa,” I said. My fingers found the card behind the sandwich bag in my cardigan pocket. “How much, again?”
“One hundred and seventy-five dollars,” John said, accepting the card from me. “I’ll just go up front to run this, and I’ll bring you a receipt.”
Alone in the office, I stood and stretched. I felt much the same as if I’d been awoken from an unsatisfying nap, which was an underwhelming follow up to an experience that was supposed to be life changing. I’d never been hypnotized before, though, so for all I knew, this was exactly how you felt after.
In the distance, I heard John whistling while he tended to my payment. Not so long ago, I would have found one hundred and seventy-five dollars to be an appalling cost for something as potentially frivolous as hypnosis. Even now, I had the phantom fear that he’d come back frowning with the news that my card had been declined. I had Nick’s life insurance, I reminded myself. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough that I didn’t have to worry. Not for a while, anyway. It was then, thinking about the constant struggles with money in our short marriage, that I realized I was biting my nails in my old familiar habit.
Shit, I thought, because I’d really wanted this to work.
I sighed, then cast my eyes to the ceiling as I squeezed the sandwich bag in my pocket, like I was confirming that Nick was with me in both body and spirit. Acting quickly, then, I removed the bag and looked around the room for an appropriate place. There was a potted plant in the corner of the office, and another on the office desk. Either would have been fine, but when I saw the mini Zen garden on John’s bookshelf, I knew that it was perfect. I hurried to the shelf, unsealing the bag as I went, and then I dumped the teaspoon of dust from the bag into the garden sand. I’d just smoothed it and plucked out a larger piece of bone, when I heard John come into the office behind me. I turned, caught.
He stopped and regarded me. I saw him register that I was holding his garden’s little rake. “Oh,” he said, “Yes, isn’t that fun?” Then he smiled and held out my credit card and receipt.
Nick and I used to discuss the rules that ghosts were bound by. Why were some invisible and others able to appear as full bodies or floating orbs? Were they forced to haunt the place they died, or could they choose, instead, a place they’d loved? I wasn’t convinced by his theory that he could manifest anywhere I left his ashes, but I still waited for a time in parking lot, hoping to hear John scream. “Just sprinkle a pinch of me on every fraudster you can find,” Nick had said to me that day in bed, “and I’ll spend my afterlife scaring the pants off all of them.”
I knew, too, that a scam hypnotist wasn’t technically a paranormal fraud, so I was bending the guidelines a bit. But the man had stolen forty-five minutes of my day and one hundred and seventy-five dollars of my money, and I knew Nick would approve.
I waited in the car a moment longer, until I was convinced that John wouldn’t be running from the building to escape the ghost of my dead husband, then I reached and opened the glove box to retrieve my phone. A sandwich bag of Nick’s cremains fell to the floorboard. I removed the phone and grabbed the fallen bag, and then I placed it back in the glovebox with the others.