Margot propped herself up on one elbow to get a better look at the illuminated dial of the clock on her dresser. It read 4:30. Her thoughts had been chasing around in her head like squirrels in mating season and she wasn’t sure if she had been up all night, tossing and turning, or if she had finally slipped into a fitful sleep. What she did know, however, was that her sister, Mary, had been living in her brain, rent-free, for the past month. She lay there, staring into the dark until she accepted that going back to sleep was not in the cards. She carefully (and, she hoped, quietly) rolled out of bed, trying not to wake her husband Ethan, who was still fast asleep, if his soft snoring was any indication. She shuffled over to the bedroom door, (taking care to avoid accidentally stepping on Tucker the Dog) and slipped out of the room.
She put a pot of coffee on the stove and while she was waiting for it to percolate, put away the dishes that had been left overnight on the drying rack. Ethan padded into the kitchen when she was halfway through her first cup and still perseverating about her mother and Mary
“Ethan, what are you doing up? I tried not to make any noise.”
“No, it wasn’t that. It was the coffee. Smelled too good to just stay in bed. Besides, I had to get up soon anyway. I’ve got two cases on the surgery schedule this morning. ” He poured himself a cup and sat down at the table with Margot. “So,” he began, “why don’t you tell me why you’re awake at this ungodly hour? Wait … let me guess. It’s your mother’s birthday party next week. Are you still obsessing about that?”
“Of course I am. No matter which way I add this up, the answer comes out wrong. You know this is a big 0-birthday for Mom. She’s turning 70 and keeps calling to remind me how much she’s looking forward to having all her kids there – having the whole family together again. But I’m really not interested in seeing my sister. We have nothing in common and nothing to say to one another. Hell, we don’t even like each other. I’m starting to feel like I’m in one of those traps they use to catch wolves and the only way out is to chew off my own foot.”
Ethan took her hand and noticed her ragged cuticles. She had been picking at them, something she did unconsciously when she was overstressed. “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time, hon. I know you and your sister don’t get along but you shouldn’t turn this into a Tennessee Williams play. It’s Jewels’ birthday, for heaven’s sake. So you go, you smile, you tell Sister Mary how happy you are to see her again after, what’s it been, eight years? Then you vamoose. It’s not like you have to move in with her or anything.”
“Jesus, Ethan, I know you’re trying to be helpful but you just don’t get it, do you? You’re an only child and didn’t have to put up with an older sister who was ‘the smart one’ while everybody said you were ‘the nice one’. That was the fucking family joke – me. Mary was the smart one. Mary was the talented one. I was the nice one, as if I was some Barbie doll. It was Mary who all the teachers fussed over, Mary who got to go to college, Mary who became a lawyer. All the time I was growing up, I felt like I was invisible, as if Mary had her life but wasn’t satisfied and took over mine too. No wonder I’m obsessed.”
“Margot, you are nice, a genuinely good person and damn smart to boot. You were smart enough to marry me, weren’t you? Mary is book smart, but she’s a cold fish. Her emotional IQ is down in the bottom ten percent of the class and yours is in the summa cum laude range. She knows from Griswold v. Connecticut, but you know people. You have nothing to be ashamed about and nothing to apologize for. Personally, I think your sister is jealous. You got married and she got a career and Mary probably thinks you got the better deal … and I think so too. Especially on cold winter nights, if you get my drift. Or do I have to snow again?”
“No, you don’t have to snow again, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the prospect of arriving at the party by myself, since you won’t be going with me, will you?” the edge still in her voice.
“Margot, let’s not start this again. Please. I don’t want to get in the middle of another one of your family’s verbal battles. I’ve been there before and I’m not going to go there again. I am not going to be in the position of trying to negotiate a peace settlement while the countries around me are lobbing mortar rounds at one another. Uh-uh. No thank you. Better I should go to Hanoi and talk to Ho Chi Minh about ending the war. “
“So you’re really going to let me go by myself?”
“Well”, Ethan said calmly, in his best white-coat doctor voice, “this is not about me. Your family, and especially your mother, never did like me and you know it, so I don’t imagine any of them are going to be heartbroken if I don’t show. No, this is about the overheated sibling rivalry between you and Mary. She’s been a thorn in your paw that you can’t pull out and can’t forget because every time you look in the mirror, you’re seeing her instead of yourself. You need to take some time to think this through. You don’t owe Mary or your mother or your brother anything and if you don’t want to go to the party, then don’t go. I can write you a doctor’s note if you want”, he added, trying to lighten the mood a little.
She could see Ethan was trying his best to help, and was probably right that she needed to work this out for herself. Although she was piqued by his refusal to go to the party, she could hardly blame him, considering some of the other family get-togethers he had been to and she really didn’t want to fight with him about this anymore, so she batted back the softball line he had thrown her.
“If you’re going to write me a doctor’s excuse, aren’t you going to have to examine me first?” she asked with a crooked smile. Then she got up and gave him a peck on the cheek before pouring a second cup of coffee.
Margot had passed the place dozens of times without really seeing it. But this time, driving past the tidy Cape sitting on a side street just off the Old Post Road, she was brought up short by the sign out front.
Psychic Readings – $3
Specializing in difficult relationships
Get in touch with your authentic self
You know how marketing people say you don’t read advertisements for tires until you need tires? That’s how this was. Like most people, she didn’t believe in fortune tellers – thought the whole thing was a scam. But she did think psychic readers probably were good at understanding people’s motivations and she needed a sympathetic and unbiased ear. She wanted to talk to someone other than Ethan, but it wasn’t the kind of problem to talk about with friends (who she figured were probably tired of hearing about her and Mary), so she thought an inexpensive alternative to a psychologist might be just the thing. It was only 3 o’clock – still plenty of time to go to Mercurio’s and pick up a box of spaghetti and some sauce for dinner and three dollars wasn’t going to break the bank. And so, it was decided, just like that. She made a quick right into the driveway, parked and walked up the steps to the front door, which was painted a red-orange that noticeably clashed with the pastel blue house. She tentatively pushed the doorbell button and heard chiming in response.
When the door opened, Margot’s first thought was “What the hell am I doing here?” and she stood rooted to the spot, still as a summer afternoon, wondering if she should turn around and walk – or run – back to her car. But before she could do it, the woman at the door smiled and said “Come in, please. I’ve been expecting you. My name is Astrid, and if I’m not mistaken, yours is Margot.”
Astrid was not at all what Margot had expected, although, in truth, she wouldn’t have known what to expect. She had never before been to a psychic and had only seen them in movies and on TV. But Astrid was no old gypsy woman with a gold hoop earring, gold front tooth and a headscarf. She was tall – six feet or a little more – with skin was like bone-china and long, white-blond hair twisted in a single braid that came halfway down her back It was hard to tell exactly how old she was, but Margot guessed somewhere around thirty. She would have been fashion-model attractive, except for the faded stellate scar that spilled across her forehead. As it was, she had the look of a hippie-goddess, completed by her outfit of an embroidered peasant blouse, long skirt and dark Roger McGuinn-style granny glasses, which she wore because she also happened to be blind.
Margot stepped into the entryway of the house and could see a sunlit sitting room off to the right furnished with two angled high-back wing chairs flanking a fireplace and a small side table for each chair. The lampshades were covered with orange scarves tossed over them. “Nice touch,” Margot thought sarcastically. “They go perfectly with the door.”
“Please, go in and sit down”, Astrid said, motioning toward the sitting room.
“What do you mean, you’ve been expecting me? How do you know who I am?” Margot said, astonishment and curiosity mixing in her voice.
“Please, sit down Margot. Can I get you something? Some wine or coffee? Tea, maybe?”
“No, I don’t want anything to drink, thank you. I want to know how you know me.”
“But I don’t know you. I only knew that someone named Margot would be coming to ask me something, and here you are. What is it that you want to ask about?”
“But how could you know my name? And how did you know I was coming here? If you knew those things, how come you don’t know why I’m here? None of this makes any sense to me. And what’s with the orange lampshades?” She was getting a headache and feeling a little queasy, like the morning after too much to drink and too little sleep.
“I’m sorry,” Astrid said softly, moving her chair a little closer. “I suppose all of this must seem very strange, sort of like side-slipping into an episode of The Twilight Zone. I forget how
disorienting this can be for people. Why don’t we have some tea? It’ll make you feel better and I can tell you my story while we drink it. It’ll just take a minute to put the kettle on the boil.
Margot just nodded, and then realizing she was nodding “yes” to a blind person, croaked out ‘yes” from a dry throat.
Astrid got up and easily made her way to the kitchen where Margot could hear her filling a kettle with water, rattling teacups and spoons and fussing with the stove. In a few minutes, she was back with two cups of steaming tea that infused the air with the scent of cinnamon. She gave one to Margot, took the other for herself and leaned back in her chair.
“I wasn’t always blind, and I wasn’t born with what I think of as The Knowing. My parents were from Denmark, but they came to America in 1939 when they saw what was happening in Europe. I was born here, two years later, and had a very ordinary childhood until just after my tenth birthday. It was a Sunday afternoon and my parents and I had gone to visit my aunt and uncle in New Haven. On the way home, a car smashed head-on into ours. The other driver had a heart attack and lost control of his car. Both of my parents were killed. So was the driver of the other car. I was thrown against the windshield. That’s how I got the scars on my forehead. I was barely alive when I got to the hospital and was in a coma for many days. When I woke up, I was blind. The trauma to my brain, what they called a contrecoup injury, had damaged a region of my primary visual cortex, the part of the brain that lets you see. But the crash did something else to my brain. Re-wired it or maybe woke up some part of it, because after I came out of the coma, I started “seeing” things, not with my eyes, but with my mind. The doctors called it blindsight. They said it happens to some people who have cortical blindness. But a few months later, I also started Knowing things, ‘seeing’ what was going to happen before it did and no one’s been able to explain that. It’s not something I can control. Just sometimes, I don’t know why, I dream about someone who is troubled and I know they will show up here sooner or later. I don’t always know what their problem is, but being here with them, being able to hear their voice and touch them makes the connection stronger. So, incidentally, does the orange light. The doctors think maybe it’s because the last thing I saw before the accident was the orange setting sun coming through the windshield of the car. There isn’t much more to tell. I was raised by my aunt and uncle – the ones we had visited that day. Money wasn’t a problem. My parents made a lot of money after they moved to the States and their life insurance provided more. Enough for me to live on pretty much for the rest of my life.” She paused, picked up her teacup and took a sip of tea and then, with one hand, pressed her fingers and thumb into her temples like she was squeezing a headache out of her head. After a few seconds, she dropped her hands to her lap and said, “Well Margot, now you know about me. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”
Margot wasn’t sure she believed any of the story she had just been told and felt sort of foolish being here at all. But at the same time, she couldn’t explain away the fact that Astrid had known her name even though they had never met. Plus, there was something different about Astrid, something that seemed slightly off and a little other-worldly. In any case, what did she have to lose? She took a slow, deep breath and told Astrid about the birthday party, how she didn’t want to disappoint her mother by not showing up but just couldn’t deal with having to spend the evening with her so superior sister. By the time she was finished talking, there were tears in her eyes, but rather than feeling foolish, she felt unburdened. She let out a sigh, perhaps one of relief, took a sip of tea and said, “My mother tries to cover everything over with potato salad and chocolate sheet cake, but there are some things that can’t be covered over with chocolate.”
Astrid, who had not said a word or asked a question, now cupped Margot’s face in her hands, moving her fingertips over her features. It was so quiet Margot could hear the clock in the kitchen ticking off the seconds and she could swear the orange light suffusing the room got brighter. What little color there was left Astrid’s face, making Margot think of the song ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. Dropping her hands into her lap, Astrid said in a shaky voice, “You must not go to your mother’s party. If you do, you’ll die.”
“My sister is going to kill me?” Margot asked, incredulous.
“No, no” Astrid explained, shaking her head. “There’s going to be an accident, a blowout on the Merritt Parkway, just before Pound Ridge, near the exit for your mother’s house. You lose control of the car and it goes off the road. Runs over an embankment. Turns over. You’re unconscious, bleeding but no one sees the car. It’s dark. It gets dark so early in December and
the car’s hidden from the road, lying in a ditch on its side. You’re alone, no one else in the car. No one to stop the bleeding or get help”.
The two of them sat there, not moving, not speaking. Finally Margot asked “Are you sure? Are you really sure?”
“Yes”, Astrid answered solemnly and without hesitation. “There was glass … blood, but I could see your face … clear as day.”
Instead of stopping by the grocery store, Margot drove to Penfield Beach, parked the car, turned the radio off and sat there in the silence for a moment.“This is crazy,” she finally said to the empty car, as if talking to herself out loud would convince her that what had happened wasn’t real. “Some blind, probably stoned hippie tells you you’re going to die on the way to your mother’s birthday party and you start to believe it? You can’t be serious!”
“That’s all well and good.’” the voice in her head answered. “Very rational. But explain this. How did she know where your mother lives and that you would be taking the Merritt Parkway to get there? I don’t remember you telling her that. How did she know your name when you just showed up on the spur of the moment? Huh? Go ahead, tell me how that works.”
She didn’t have an answer and didn’t want to think about it anymore, at least not right then, so she turned the engine over, turned the radio back on, put the car in gear, and headed for home.
Ethan was late getting home. (“Thanks heavens”, she thought). It gave her time to throw something together for dinner but more importantly, it gave her time to think about whether she was going to tell Ethan about her afternoon with Astrid. She didn’t want to, but keeping it a secret from him didn’t make a lot of sense. So, after they finished dinner, accompanied by a bottle of wine (to make the story go down easier, she hoped), she told him the whole story from beginning to end. He didn’t interrupt and he didn’t laugh, but he did do that raising-one-eyebrow thing of his that meant “I don’t believe a word of this”.
“So, let me get this straight,” he said when she had finished talking. “A blind girl with a tragic childhood looks into her crystal ball, sees you getting killed and this is the reason you’re going to miss your mother’s seventieth birthday? Is thatwhat you’re going to tell your mother? Your brother? Personally, I think you must have said something to the psychic that let her know you didn’t want to go to this shindig and she conveniently told you what you wanted to hear – an iron-clad excuse for staying home.”
Margot finished the wine that was left in her glass in one long swallow and fixed Evan with a slightly boozy stare. “Are you done?” she asked, her tone making it clear that he was done. “You can discount this all you want, but how do you explain her knowing my name and what road I would be driving to my mother’s house? I should have known better than to try talking to you.”
Ethan’s face fell and he ran both hands through his hair slowly before he spoke. “I’m sorry Margot. I really am. I know you’re upset by all of this and I had no business pooh-poohing what you’re going through. I wish there was something I could …” and he stopped mid-sentence. “Wait. She said you were alone, right? There was no one else in the car. Well, suppose there was someone else in the car? Suppose I was with you? That would change everything, right?
“What are you saying?” Margot asked even though she was already considering the implications of Ethan’s offer. “Are you telling me you would go with me after all?”
“I’m telling you that I love you and I’d go through hell for you. Being in the same room with you and your sister is worse than hell, but yes, I’ll go with you.”
“Oh, thank you sweetheart! Thank you! I love you too. You’re not such a bad guy after all,” she added with a grin of relief.
The week passed uneventfully, taken up by the usual activities of daily living. There were no more conversations about psychics or car wrecks, but thoughts about the approaching party hung over both of them like a fog over an ocean of icebergs waiting to sink some unsuspecting ship. Sunday arrived and brought with it a cold drizzling rain that didn’t want to let up. As the evening approached and they were getting dressed to go, Margot finally asked the question that had been on her mind for days. “Ethan”, she said, “there’s still time to back out of this. Are you sure we should go?”
“I’m sure”, he answered. I don’t believe in ESP or The Knowing or whatever you want to call it, and even if I did, we’re going to alter the future she conjured up. And just to be sure, I had the tires checked at the Texaco station this afternoon and Bob says they are in great shape, nearly brand new. We are going to be fine.”
“If you say so”, Margot replied, a little uncertainly. “Let’s just finish getting dressed and go already. I’ll be a lot happier when this is all over with.”
The drive was a piece of cake. There wasn’t much traffic on a Sunday evening and Ethan kept the speed carefully under the limit. Even so, as he neared the Pound Ridge exit, he slowed down even more and Margot noticed that he was white-knuckling the steering wheel. She noticed, but didn’t say anything since she wasn’t any less nervous, gripping the sides of her bucket seat with both hands like a first-time flyer, waiting for the sound of the tire blowing and the lurch of the car careening off the road. But it never happened.
By the time Margot and Ethan arrived, the whole family was there. Everyone but Mary, that is. Margot made small talk with her relatives, had a glass of wine, then another. Still no Mary. “Well,” she said to no one in particular, “Mary’s late again. As usual. I guess she wanted to make the GRAND ENTRANCE (sweeping an outstretched hand over her head) and be the center of attention.”
Teddy, her older brother, shook his head slowly in exasperation. “Come on, Margot! Can’t you let it go for even one night? “
“Can’t you be on my side for even one night, Teddy? It’s bad enough that I have to put up with her bullshit! Do I have to get it from you too?”
As often happened, Teddy was about to become collateral damage in the War of the Sisters, but before the next shot could be fired; Margot was interrupted by the doorbell.
“Saved by the bell” Teddy joked, trying to defuse the situation with a little humor. Very little as it turned out. Wanting to escape the situation anyway, he went to get the door. When he opened it, two Connecticut State Police were standing there, hats in hand.
“Is Mrs. Shannon here?” the taller of the two inquired.
“That would be my mother,” Teddy answered. “What do you want with her?”
“Can we come in for a minute, please?”
“Yes. Come in,” he said tentatively, trying to figure out why there were policemen on his mother’s doorstep.
“Mom,” he shouted in the direction of the kitchen. “Could you come out here? There’s two policemen who want to talk to you”.
His mother hurried into the living room, wiping her hands on her apron and looking suddenly much older than her seventy years. “What’s this all about? Is there something wrong, Officer … Donofrio?” she asked, reading his nametag.
“I’m afraid there is, ma’am. There’s been an accident. It’s your daughter, Mary. Her car had a blowout and she lost control and crashed. I’m afraid she’s been killed. Your name, address and phone number were in her wallet in case of an emergency.” Jewel broke down in tears and , at a loss for anything else to do, Joe Donofrio took a clean white handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her, adding “ I’m very sorry, Mrs. Shannon.”
All the time Donofrio was talking to the mother, his partner, Dennis Yost, was just staring open-mouthed at Margot. He knew he was being rude, but he couldn’t help himself. Never taking his eyes off of her face, he walked over to where Margot was standing, holding Jewel’s hand while Teddy had one arm around his mother.
“I apologize for staring Miss, but you look just like her. Exactly like her. Forgive me, but it’s like I’m seeing a ghost.”
“We were twins, she said softly. “Identical twins. We looked so much alike no one could ever tell us apart.” And as soon as she said it, she knew. The mistake Astrid had made. It had never been her that Astrid had seen in her mind’s eye. Not Margot, but Mary, her identical twin who Margot couldn’t get out of her head. And now that Mary was gone, gone for good, why did she feel suddenly like only half a person?