New York January 11, 1998
I parked near the woods that surrounded the funeral home. Wind shook the thin trees. Long shadows were beginning to move across the asphalt. It would be dark in a few minutes.
Sighing, I laid my head on the steering wheel. When my friend had called me two days ago, I had managed to keep my voice steady until Linda and I said goodbye. Rita had been run over while taking her evening walk! The police were looking for the driver. I had sat for hours rocking back and forth in my small apartment wondering what to do.
"Rita's dead," I whispered. I had always believed she was invincible.
"What will happen to me now?" I whispered, knowing I was being selfish. But I was too frightened to care. "Please don't let it start again."
It can't happen again, I vowed. I won't let it. I was eighteen-years-old and vulnerable in 1967. That was the year I had been terrorized. I'm a grown woman now. I've been married, became a widow before I was twenty, and have taken care of myself for years. People are always telling me how independent and gutsy I am. They can't all be wrong. Besides, the man who was the source of my terror has probably forgotten all about me.
A car pulled into the empty space next to where I was parked. I moved as far away from the driver's door as my seat belt would allow. Through the foggy windows, I saw the car was a station wagon with two people in it. I sighed in relief. I watched the elderly couple get out and walk hand and hand to the building. Several other vehicles circled the parking lot. Their headlights flickered in and out as they drove through the lanes, looking for a place to park.
I took a tissue from my purse and wiped the tears from my eyes. Then I used the tissue to get rid of the condensation that had accumulated on the car's front windshield. I peered upwards through the partially cleared glass. The clouds looked as if they would burst any minute. I couldn't procrastinate any longer. I had to go inside and pay my last respects to Rita.
Funeral homes always give me the creeps. Glancing up as I walked toward the entrance, I saw what looked like an apartment on top of the white building. I'd rather live on the streets than a penthouse apartment in a funeral home, I thought, shivering.
I opened the heavy front door and stood in the carpeted hall. The walls were the color of fresh cream. Along the edge of the mauve rug, three overstuffed armchairs in mauve print were positioned in strategic places. Tasteful, but still a funeral home.
People in dark clothing milled around the hall. Several woman were heading toward the stairs where a sign said the restrooms were located. Walking down the long hall, I saw that there were two other occupied rooms. It appeared to be a busy day for wakes. At the end of the hall I found Rita. In the front row with his head bowed sat her husband. The other chairs in the row were empty. Rita didn't have any children.
Sitting in wooden chairs in back of Gene were a sprinkling of people. In Rita's line of work people weren't too eager to acknowledge that they had gone to her for help.
Rita's husband looked at me with red-rimmed eyes. I hadn't seen him in over thirty years. Many things had changed in those years but Gene's hair had stayed the same. His too-full toupee sat like a Cheshire cat on top of his head.
I never liked Rita's husband. It wasn't anything that he did or said that turned me off. It's just that the man always reminded me of a parasite living off Rita's talents. I wondered what he would do now that his meal-ticket was gone.
I nodded to him and knelt in front of Rita's coffin. Near the closed casket sat a small table with several pictures on it. One photograph was of the couple on their wedding day. Gene looked smug and pleased with himself. Rita looked homely.
Rita had married late in life. She must have been close to forty in the picture. Rita's billowing lilac dress made her look heavy and ungainly. Resting on her shoulders were several strands of limp black hair. The camera caught all the bulges and hollows that had made up Rita's face. But in between the folds and wrinkles shone two bright blue eyes--eyes that could see the past and the future.
"I'm sorry you were killed," I whispered, bowing my head. "I wish I could have helped you the way you helped me." Don't let him harm me, I silently begged. Keep protecting me from him and myself. I knelt there for several minutes, hoping Rita could hear my thoughts. Could she still help me beyond the grave?
I made the sign of the cross and stood up. Rita's husband still sat with his head bowed. Gene's palms were turned upwards and hung between his knees. He probably wouldn't remember me but I had to at least say a few words to him. "I'm Theresa Fortunado," I said, leaning down to touch his shoulder. "I knew Rita years ago. I'm so sorry she died."
"She cancelled her insurance policy six months ago," Gene said, looking around the room as if he were in a daze. "I just found out when she died."
"That's too bad," I said, withdrawing my hand before it actually made contact with him. I turned away before he could see the look of disgust on my face. I found a seat near the back of the room and sat down. In another fifteen or twenty minutes I would say goodbye for the last time to the woman who had saved my sanity and my life.
Staring at Rita's casket, I thought of myself as the teenager who had gone to her for help in 1967. Rita had told me then that, if I allowed my psychic ability to develop, I could do everything she did and more.
Since my first meeting with Rita, I had grown from a naive girl who thought marriage was the only option she had to a woman who not only could take care of herself but enjoyed being free and independent. I had also grown to accept the psychic ability she had sensed in me.
But there was one thing I had never accomplished. Even after all these years I couldn't forget the dark things that had happened to me when I was eighteen. And I couldn't be sure they wouldn't happen again.
Rita's death brought it all back. Suddenly I was eighteen again.