It was the screaming that woke Sarah Greene. Her screaming. Sitting up, she tried calming her jackhammering heart by using a breathing technique she’d learned from a psychologist years ago. A slow, steady breath through the nose… Hold for three seconds… Purse the lips and exhale slowly… Relax and repeat. That always helped, even though she’d felt Dr. Bates had been a condescending bitch. There’s no such things as ghosts, she had said through impossibly huge black designer frames and thin, pale lips that reminded Sarah of a Muppet. Did Muppets have lips?
Her bedroom was dark except for the glow from the colorful guardian angel night-light she’d had since she was a kid. The only reason she still used it was in case she had to get up in the middle of the night to pee. Or that’s what she told herself. Maybe the real reason was that her mother had bought it for her when Sarah was suffering from night terrors. What time was it? She switched on a light and grabbed her phone from the nightstand. Just after midnight. She’d only been asleep, what, forty-five minutes?
“Gary?” she said.
She heard a thump from somewhere far off. Then, the familiar rapid padding noise as her sleek, gray tabby with the broken black stripes and cool green eyes bounded into the room. The cat leaped onto the antique iron double bed and maowed. She brought him close. That always made his eyes squishy, while magically pull-starting the purr machine.
“That was a bad one, Gary.”
Realizing it would be hours before she could get to sleep again, she set the cat aside and threw back the sheet and duvet. She sat there, observing the goosebumps on the tan, muscular legs she’d developed running five miles a day. She didn’t recall why but she’d decided to sleep in the oversize Knicks jersey Joe had given her when they were first married. The man was a New Yorker through and through. Had she been thinking about her ex-husband again?
“Goosebumps aren’t sexy,” she said, lifting a bare leg and modeling it for the indifferent feline.
She talked to Gary a lot, she noticed. Pathetic when you stopped to think about it. But he seemed to listen. Sometimes. Eventually, though, he got bored and hopped off the bed, looking for something better—like a game of Duck, Duck, Goose.
Sarah remained on the bed, waiting for the inevitable after-images she knew would follow. That’s the thing about nightmares. They’re never over until the sun comes up.
And she’d been having this particular one—or variations of it—since she was fifteen. That was when her best friend Alyssa died in a car crash. Exactly one week later, she appeared in Sarah’s room. Sarah remembered she hadn’t been scared. Instead, she cried. A few nights later, she had The Nightmare for the first time.
Now years later, she felt the familiar tingling dread—a cloud-like gloom gathering behind her eyes. Then, a parade of stilted pictures appearing like something out of a demented slideshow organized by evil clowns with French accents. A flash grenade of white-hot light sent her hurtling into a roiling vortex of familiar images.
She was standing in a place she didn’t recognize, surrounded by dark, smooth walls. Though she was alone, she could feel a presence—something malevolent. Now, a whisper of wailing voices.
A dark, reddish light glimmered behind the walls, and she could see something moving. People. They were naked, their eyes filled with terror. She turned in a complete circle and saw that they were all around her. She could hear a deafening scraping noise as the walls began moving in on her. Thousands of hands tried to grab her. She opened her mouth to scream.
Coming out of it, Sarah could feel herself getting anxious again and decided to take another calming breath. Eventually, she pulled on a pair of jeans and made her way to the kitchen where she found the cat playing with a plastic bottle cap that had somehow missed the trash.
Now what? Coffee? No, she’d never get back to sleep. A drink? Hmm. She had a bottle of Talisker 25 Year Scotch Joe had given her on her thirtieth birthday. Pretty pricey for a guy who was famous for replenishing his underwear drawer once every decade, and only if Penneys was having a sale. Okay, maybe a quick one. That stuff needed to last until she turned forty, which was seven years away. Shit, forty…
She found a juice glass in the cupboard—she wasn’t big on formality—and was about to grab the bottle when the temperature in the room dropped suddenly and the lights flickered.
Seeing her breath, she looked down and noticed Gary staring intently at something. Turning, she saw it, too. The wispy image floating not ten feet from Sarah seemed solid at times, then transparent. Each time it tried to materialize fully, the lights dimmed.
Wordlessly, she dropped the glass, and it shattered on the floor, startling the cat and sending him skedaddling out of the room.
“Alyssa?” she said.
The last time she’d seen the girl, she came to warn Sarah—no, to prepare her—for her mother’s impending death from cancer. Then as now, Sarah felt a deep sense of longing she hoped she would get over after seeing her best friend in the world lowered into the cold ground on a wet January morning. Two years later she would return, only now the coffin would contain her mother.
Alyssa Cortez was wearing the dress her grieving parents had picked out for her—white with little pink rosebuds around the collar and the gold crucifix they had given her for Christmas. Her dark hair was long—exactly the way she’d been wearing it since second grade. She was barefoot and still fifteen. Sarah recalled how in high school they used to spend so many hours in her old room painting each other’s toes and scaring each other with made-up ghost stories. Outside, Sarah’s younger sister, Rachel, would try to horn in on the fun, but to no avail. That seemed so long ago.
“Sarah, you’re in danger,” the apparition said, its voice muted, as if she were speaking through a closed door.
“What? But how—”
“Be careful when you help the girl.” Her voice was clearer now. “I hope… I’d really like to see you again.”
Her image became unstable. Like a sigh, it faded into nothingness. Sarah reached out to her friend, hot tears streaming from her eyes.
But she was gone, and Sarah was alone.
* * *
The Cracked Pot was dead. Like Denny’s on Blue Monday. Only woozy denizens desperate for a caffeine fix could be found hanging out at that hour because it was the only place in Dos Santos that was open. And the coffee was good, though you had to wait forever for a refill because each cup was “crafted” by hand.
It was one-thirty in the morning. Sarah sat across from her ex-husband and current business partner, Joe Greene, with two cups of steaming Guatemalan Antigua separating them. The beans had been roasted out back in a little shed earlier in the day, which was why the coffee was so damn good. She took a sip. Screw it, she wasn’t getting back to sleep anyway.
Sarah thanked God Joe never complained whenever she called him up in the middle of the night to meet her so she could dump her latest problems on him. Come to think of it, he had never complained about anything—even when she informed him that she wanted a divorce. Hell, he’d been downright conciliatory about the whole thing and offered to help her find an attorney. She’d stayed mad about that for a long time. What? He couldn’t wait to be rid of her?
She added more half-and-half to her cup, watching Joe drink his black. She had decided to wear her white cashmere sweater with the skinny jeans. In the old days, Joe would always tell her how much he loved that sweater—the way it hugged her every curve. Damn him, he even looked handsome just having fallen out of bed: graying hair that he always wore short, beard stubble, lean muscles bulging through his black T-shirt from all the physical labor. A softer Henry Rollins, she decided. And hot—stop it, Sarah.
“So, what happened?” he said, clueless as to where her mind was at the moment. “The nightmare again?”
Coming down from her lustful feelings, she sighed dramatically and picked at a red spot on her cup that was in reality baked into the enamel.
“Sarah, you’ve had these before. It’ll pass.”
“I just wish I knew why, though.”
He noticed she was holding the St. Michael medal she always wore around her neck. “I feel like you’re not telling me everything.”
For a guy, Joe had loads of intuition. “What? No, I… Okay, fine.”
She lowered her voice, though the scruffy, tatted-up twenty-something server with the gauged earlobes was way over on the other side of the restaurant taking an order from that odd elderly couple she recognized from the local hardware store. They always seemed to be purchasing light bulbs, she remembered.
“Later in the kitchen, I, uh, I saw Alyssa.”
“Your dead friend from high school?”
“Uh-huh. She was there. Almost in the flesh. Gary saw her, too.”
Sarah never felt uncomfortable telling Joe about these episodes. They’d known each other for fifteen years—had it been that long?—and he had learned to accept that she was “special.” In fact, he’d once told her he was glad to know there was an afterlife. Said it gave him hope.
“Was it like the last time? Did she speak to you?”
“She told me I was in danger.”
“Kind of. Apparently, I’m supposed to be helping some random girl. I immediately thought of Katy, but then I wondered why Alyssa wouldn’t have come out and said my niece’s name.”
Joe drained his cup and spun it back and forth between his hands. Sarah knew he did that whenever he was mulling something over. One time, he’d tried it with a wine glass at a fancy restaurant. Disaster. It wasn’t a total loss, though. While a busboy cleaned up the mess, Joe proposed to her.
“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe one of Lou’s cases?”
“I don’t think the police chief will be asking for my assistance anytime soon, not after that last fiasco. Anyway, I got the feeling this is something else. That something’s going to—”
“Drop into your lap?”
“I guess we need to wait and see. You want another cup?”
“No, I’m good. We should go.”
They stood, and Joe looked around for the server but didn’t see anyone. He opened his wallet and threw down a ten-dollar bill.
“Isn’t that too much?” she said.
Outside, they stood in the October chill between two vehicles—her classic black 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 XL and his late-model gray Dodge Ram truck. It occurred to Sarah that she’d never seen Joe driving a regular car. And the only time he’d put on a suit was when they got married. She had worn a white dress her dad had bought her in Santa Barbara.
Though Joe was Jewish, he had agreed to get married at Our Lady of Sorrows, the Catholic church where Sarah had been baptized, received her First Communion, and made her Confirmation. She’d been so happy back then. Though she didn’t like to admit it—and she would never tell Joe this—sometimes, she thought the divorce might have been a huge mistake, especially since they were in business together again. But there was still the question of children.
“You gonna be okay?” he said, taking her hand. Though they were rough, she loved the feel of his calloused fingers.
“I don’t know.”
“Want me to stay over? I promise I’ll confine myself to the sofa.”
She wanted to but she didn’t. Technically, it would be a sin if they had sex again. She should know. Since the divorce, they’d found each other in her bed—or his—more times than she cared to remember. And each time in Confession, she promised Fr. Brian it wouldn’t happen again.
“I’ll take that as a no,” he said, and dug out his keys.
“Wait.” She took both his hands in hers and rolled her eyes at what she was about to say. “I’d feel better if I wasn’t alone tonight.”
And that was that.
* * *
As she swung open the front door, Sarah found Gary in the foyer, sitting on the hardwood floor and maowing. Sometimes, it irked her that the cat seemed to love Joe more than her. And it didn’t help that the guy immediately picked up the purring animal, scratching him behind his ears as Gary kneaded his paws in the air.
“Next time his litter box is full, you can change it,” she said, walking off.
Joe set the cat down and stepped into the kitchen. He knew where Sarah kept the scotch and brought it out along with two whiskey glasses. They both needed something to counteract the caffeine, he reasoned. He could hear her opening a closet and guessed she was taking out the extra bedding. Winking at the cat, he poured out two drinks and brought them into the living room where he found his ex-wife arranging the pillow and comforter on the sofa.
“I’d put you in the guest bedroom, but I’m using it for storage.”
As she turned around, he offered her a glass.
“Hey, I was saving that,” she said, snatching the glass from him.
“I can always buy you more.”
“So, when did you become Mr. Moneybags?”
“It’s a write-off.”
“I don’t think Rachel will see it that way.”
“It’s no problem. I’ll bury it in some construction costs. Your sister will never know.”
She shoved the comforter aside. They sat and, clinking their glasses once, tried the whiskey. Its warmth relaxed Sarah. She grabbed her phone and fired up some straight-ahead jazz.
“John Coltrane?” he said.
“Sonny Rollins. When are you going to learn?”
“I told you, I like country and western.”
“You do not,” she said, laughing.
Like an old married couple, Joe put his arm around his ex-wife as she laid her head on his chest and, playing with his ear, listened to Sonny pouring his heart out on “You Do Something to Me.”
“You need a girlfriend,” she said.
“So you can move on. Even though you’re never going to find anyone as sweet as me. And funny. I’ve been told I’m funny.”
“Are you kidding? That’s the only reason I let you hang around the office.”
“Excuse me?” she said, straightening up and fake-punching his shoulder.
“So, how come you haven’t moved on?” He arched his eyebrows, making her snort as she raised her glass.
“I’m…working on it.”
“It’s been two years, Sarah.”
“It has not.”
“The divorce was final in July. Then in September, we talked about doing that annulment thingie.”
“This is October. You’re thirty-three, so, two years.”
“Oh shit, you’re right.” She drained her glass and got to her feet. “I need another drink.”
She brought back the bottle and set it on the retro 1950s Italian coffee table she’d found in an antique shop in Ojai. The smooth metallic top was decorated in a series of inlaid gold squiggles that reminded Sarah of lovers embracing, which was why she’d bought it on the spot.
They each had two more scotches. Before Sarah knew it, they were making out on the sofa like a couple of high school kids after the prom. Soon, she was leading him by the hand to her bedroom. Gary was already positioned on the duvet. She gave him the stink eye, and he took off.
It was cold in the house. They undressed and slipped in between the cool sheets. Joe’s body felt so good to her—familiar and strong. As they kissed, she felt his rough hands all over her and no longer thought of the nightmare or the apparition. All she wanted was Joe—her friend, her lover. Her protector.
Afterward, they slept in each other’s arms, warm and dreamless. Tomorrow, Sarah would make the drive to Santa Barbara to see Fr. Brian. It was the loneliness, she would tell him. The awful, soul-crushing loneliness. And being the awesome priest he was, he would forgive her sins once again.