Dedicated to Frederic Tuten
Anouk’s cousin Hugo finds the exorcist in Woodstock.
“I think this lady is the real deal, Nou,” says Hugo. His handlebar mustache quivers. “She’s coming tomorrow morning.”
Anouk runs her palm over the kitchen wall, still pockmarked with silverware exit wounds. The cross on her necklace rests cold in the basin of her throat.
“I swear, shit like that doesn’t usually happen,” Hugo says. “Not this bad, anyway.”
The bridge of Anouk’s nose has begun to perspire, the way it does whenever she’s nervous, which is all the time. She adjusts her owlish glasses. “Sorry.”
“I didn’t say it was your fault.” He looks away. “We should go downstairs—it’s showtime soon.”
J. Barreau & Sons is a family business, but Hugo acts as if he founded it. Since summer began, Anouk has been staying in Hugo’s apartment above the parlor—more specifically, she’s been staying on his sofa bed. The tap water here has a foggy look to it, and the air conditioning is busted. Hugo sings Don Giovanni in the bathtub at ungodly hours. Still: until the haunting intensified, Anouk had been having a fine time. The business is housed in a brick colonial perched behind trim hedges, and Anouk gets to wear a satiny black pantsuit, pick up phone calls, and greet people at the door. As a therapist-in-training, she finds the bereaved customers quite stimulating. Last semester, she interned at an outpatient treatment center. Her supervisor wrote in a performance review that Anouk was “off-putting.” She’s been trying to fix that.
“What stage of grief do you think you’re on?” Anouk asks a balding man as she ushers him into the viewing room.
“Anger,” he says and shoulders past her.
“Give yourself permission to cry,” Anouk tells another mourner.
“Who asked you?” The woman deposits her sodden umbrella into Anouk’s hands.
This afternoon’s wake is for an elderly grocer. Anouk puts herself on tissue duty—she stands against the wall, smiling sympathetically and holding out a Kleenex box. Flocks of black-clad townies drift around her, opting to wipe their eyes and noses on their sleeves. Hugo is fussing over the daffodil bouquet again. He’s terribly precise about presentation, but Anouk respects his commitment to detail: the parlor looks better than it ever has. Over the past few years, Hugo has fine-tuned the ambiance just so. Candlelight waxes an amber sheen across the Victorian wallpaper, classical piano floats from hidden speakers, and a “Mountain Breeze” air freshener steeps the room in what might be mint. The scuffed hardwood gleams with a fresh coat of mahogany stain.
A sniffling woman approaches and jabs her chin toward Hugo. “You related?”
Anouk shares Hugo’s sharp-boned face, his hawklike nose, his hazel eyes. They have the same dark hair, though Anouk’s is wavy and usually bundled in a heavy braid.
“He’s my brother,” Anouk says. Lying is not a sign of grace. She knows this. But the word “brother” is tether-like—it feels good to claim someone is close to her. “Can I interest you in a Kleenex?”
The woman eyes her suspiciously. Whether it’s about the tissues or the lie, Anouk cannot tell.
At the service’s close, Hugo tells Anouk to stay put while he escorts the casket to the gravesite. Alone in the back office, she picks at a crossword puzzle and leafs through a stack of bills, drums her ballet flats against the carpet. Hugo doesn’t mean to be dismissive, Anouk reminds herself. He’s doing her a favor, anyway. Her plan to be a research assistant for the summer fell through, her roommate wanted to live alone, and her parents didn’t want her idling at home. This quickly became her best option.
Eventually, Anouk swipes Hugo’s flask from its hiding place behind a display of urns. Anouk doesn’t drink, so she never swallows the vodka—just swills it on her tongue and wonders how it would feel sliding down her throat. Maybe it would blur the memory of being pulled from her bed last night. The unseen grip cold and vicelike on her ankle. Turning to alcohol is not a sign of grace. At any moment, Christ could call up the souls of the faithful and leave the sinners behind on Earth. Anouk opens the window and spits out the vodka. Clear droplets fleck the grass. If Hugo hasn’t noticed the missing vodka already, he’s unlikely to notice the patch of lawn that’s gone brown since she arrived.
When Anouk turns around, a leather-bound book is clapped open on the floor: Grandfather’s Bible. As Anouk wonders whether it was already there when she walked in, a single page peels itself up and flips neatly over. She stoops down. Her fingers brush over the page, butterfly wing thin.
Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, for the time is at hand.
The exorcist waves shyly. She looks about Anouk’s age. Piercings glint in her nose, ears, and left eyebrow, and a constellation of black-inked tattoos weave down her arms. The designs blend into each other, but one appears to be a stingray.
“This is Cricket Zhao,” says Hugo. “And this is Anouk. My cousin.”
Anouk removes her glasses, wipes a sheen of sweat from her nose. “Thanks for getting rid of our ghost,” she says.
“Don’t thank me yet.” A small, gap-toothed smile.
Hugo holds out a rubber-banded wad of cash, but Cricket brushes it away.
“You can pay me when I’m done. Mind if I set up in your living room?” Cricket steps inside daintily, her Doc Martens printing down crusted mud. Hugo leads her around the corner, chattering in the bright voice he reserves for small talk.
It feels a bit vulnerable to have a guest up here. Hugo’s friends always hang out at bars, and Anouk’s few acquaintances in town never seem keen on visiting “the funeral apartment.” The privacy has almost begun to feel sacred. Everything of Grandfather’s remains untouched, but Hugo has added his own flourishes to the décor. It makes for a curious motley. The worn leather couch sits atop a sleek, geometric-patterned carpet; French oil paintings share wall space with abstract photography; the scrolled brass curtain rod seeps with champagne-colored silk. Anouk wishes she had folded up her sofa bed. She slept fitfully last night, questioning whether she should tell Hugo about the Bible. She settled on keeping quiet—the passage wouldn’t mean anything to him. Her palms itch, and she finds herself side-stepping as Cricket paces about. Hugo, though, seems at ease.
“I see what you were talking about,” says Cricket. “The air feels heavy. Like lead.”
“I guess a place like this is susceptible to hauntings,” Hugo says. “Hosting dead people is a risky business.”
“Common misconception,” Cricket says. “Spirits tend to linger where they’ve lived, not where they’re taken afterwards. Any paranormal activity downstairs?”
“No, actually. Just up here.”
Cricket hums. She crouches in the center of the room and lights a candle—she’s nudged aside the coffee table to clear space. Anouk watches carefully as Cricket lays down a ring of salt, crushed thyme, and rose petals. Her hands are small, fingers spindly and precise.
“What I’m doing,” she says, “is creating a casting circle for myself. An energy bubble, basically. It’ll give some protection for the banishing rites.”
Together, the ingredients give off the slight scent of a bouquet trampled underfoot.
“Where’d you learn all this stuff?” Hugo is perched on the kitchen counter, legs drooping off the edge.
“My college roommate, mostly,” Cricket says.
He nods knowingly.
When she’s completed the circle, she rises and drifts between rooms with a wad of smoldering sage. “Let this home be cleansed of all hostile energies,” she says. “Make room for only light.”
The apartment blooms with an herbal lull. Anouk imagines the wispy tendrils soaking into the apartment’s crevices, the bones of its furniture, dredging out a hidden darkness. Sunrise dapples the walls a soft orange.
“It feels better already,” says Hugo.
Anouk inhales slowly, trying to sense what “better” feels like. The unsettled tightness in her body still hasn’t eased.
“I need to cleanse your auras,” says Cricket.
Hugo jumps down from the counter. “Me first.”
Cricket circles him with the clump of sage, shrouding him in smoke. She retrieves a glass bottle from her knapsack and gestures for him to kneel. Hugo closes his eyes as she flicks beads of water on his head.
When she’s done, he drags his sleeve across his face. “Can you actually see my aura?”
“It’s orange. With a little bit of red.”
“Is that good?”
Cricket shrugs. “It’s just how it is.”
“What’s mine?” asks Anouk.
Cricket gives her a sweeping once-over. Anouk holds out her arms as if she’s being scanned by a metal detector, prompting a snicker from Cricket.
“Dark green,” she eventually decides.
Cricket wafts the sage around Anouk and drizzles her in water. Anouk is surprised to find she’s a good head taller than Cricket, and when she kneels, Anouk is eye level with her collar bones. She feels oddly childlike. The water drips down Anouk’s face. She tastes the ocean. When Anouk opens her eyes, Cricket is scraping a fingernail around the candle’s base, catching drips of wax.
“A protection charm,” she explains, and reaches out to blot the wax on Anouk’s forehead.
Before they can touch, the floorboards shudder in a violent seizure. The glass windowpanes quiver like rubber. Furniture slides, and Anouk, Cricket, and Hugo stagger. The candles tip over, bleeding wax as they roll across the room. Grandfather’s voice, unbidden, coils through Anouk’s thoughts: And in that hour there was a great earthquake.
The shaking stops. Hugo rubs a welt on his forehead. “I gotta go downstairs,” he says. “See what the damage is.”
Cricket props herself up from where she’s sprawled on the carpet. “That wasn’t supposed to happen. Sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Anouk says. “Right?”
“Might have been.” Cricket collects her bottle and begins sprinkling water into each corner of the room. She’s murmuring again, but her voice holds an intensity, an urgency that wasn’t there before.
Hugo’s footsteps clomp back up the stairs. He sways in the doorway, steadying himself against the wall. Anouk anticipates a smashed cuckoo clock and a collapsed chandelier; the formaldehyded bodies in the basement freezer rattled from their chrysalises.
“Everything is fine,” he says. “Nothing even moved.”
“I feel like I don’t have the full story,” Cricket says. Anouk is seated next to her on a velvet settee in the viewing room. Hugo is taking a phone call in his office.
“I don’t really know what Hugo told you,” says Anouk.
“Just that there’d been a lot of incidents since you moved in. Doors slamming randomly. You getting pulled out of bed. Hugo seeing shadows. Plates and silverware being thrown.”
“It’s pretty classic haunted house stuff, right?”
Cricket leans back and sips at the dregs of her coffee. Her short honey-brown hair scrunches against the cushions. “Can you tell me more about this place?”
Anouk fills her in on Grandfather’s founding of J. Barreau and Sons and of the sons who had no interest in it. She tells her that the building would have been auctioned off if Hugo hadn’t stepped in.
“Were you and your grandpa close?” Cricket asks.
Anouk nods. As a child, she spent weekends standing beside Grandfather as he ironed his simple black suit over and over. Sitting across the table from him with their Cream of Wheat breakfasts. Listening to him speak with clients in that soft, raspy voice curled in a light French accent—his mother had come from Toulouse a century ago and picked her way through the Hudson Valley.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Anouk says.
Cricket quirks an eyebrow. “But were you close?”
Anouk squints past the gossamer curtains. The village stores have their doors propped open to let their shuttered air mingle with the morning fog. A pickup truck ambles past, headed for the mountains.
“Is it normal for ghosts to warn you about things?” Anouk asks.
“Not unheard of.”
Anouk waits, listening to make sure Hugo is still on the phone, and tells Cricket about Grandfather’s Bible.
“Does that passage mean something to you?” asks Cricket.
“He was a French Calvinist,” Anouk says, and she’s grateful Cricket understands, or at least seems to. “He had this—this fixation with the Second Coming. When I’d visit, he’d teach me to look for the signs that it was about to happen.”
Pestilence. Famine. War. Death. The Four Horsemen contain the end, Grandfather had said. It will begin with a shaking of the earth. And darkness. Hugo didn’t visit as often as Anouk did. If he received the warnings, he never seemed to give them any thought, much less swallow them and let them fester. Anouk doesn’t believe in it anymore, although it feels wrong to admit it. The watching and the fearing had once been reflexive, habitual. So was her search for signs of grace, assurances that she would be among the chosen.
“Whatever’s in the apartment isn’t responding to my standard ritual,” says Cricket. Anouk is relieved to see that her expression holds no discernible worry. She’s stretched out over the length of the settee like a 1920s socialite, an arm draped over the crimson backrest.
“It’s too strong?” Anouk prods.
“Not all ghosts are spirits, you know. Sometimes, they can be emotions, fears.”
The tangle of bells on the front door jingles.
“Hello?” A slight man with thinning ginger hair wanders into the viewing room.
Anouk hops up and extends her hand. “How can I help you, sir?”
“My great-uncle passed away last night.”
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that,” says Anouk. “At least he isn’t suffering anymore.”
The man blinks. “Well, it was very sudden. He was hit by a bus. He actually had plans to go to Bora Bora next month.”
“What a shame,” says Anouk. “But maybe it’s for the best. I’ve read there’s a volcano on Bora Bora. Falling into lava is probably the worst way to go.”
Behind her, softly, Cricket laughs or coughs. Anouk can’t tell, but she hears Hugo clap the receiver down in his office. He emerges and strolls over.
The man turns sharply from Anouk. “I’d like to speak to someone about arranging a funeral.”
Hugo’s customer-service persona flicks on.
“Of course, sir. Right this way, please.”
The man shuffles after him into the office and closes the door. Anouk has never understood how Hugo can conjure up charisma at will, as easy as stepping into a costume, plopping on a mascot head.
“We should try something else,” Cricket says. She sits up and crosses her ankles, motioning for Anouk to join her. “A waterfall purification. There’s a spot I go to in the Shawangunks that has really good energy.”
“Would Hugo have to come, too?”
“I was able to finish his cleansing spell just fine. Yours was the one that got messy.” She licks a dried fleck of coffee from her upper lip and checks her watch. “I should take off—I’m opening the shop today. Give it some thought, alright?”
“Can we do it today?” Anouk blurts. The thought of spending another night in the apartment curdles cold in her stomach. She fiddles with a loose thread on her sleeve, jerking back when Cricket places a warm hand over her own.
For the first time all morning, Cricket looks flustered. “I didn’t mean—”
“You just surprised me,” says Anouk. “That’s all.”
“I’m done with work at four.” A smile flits at the corner of Cricket’s lip. “Bring a bathing suit.”
After Cricket leaves, Anouk traces the address scrawled on her palm. The ink is dark purple, and the words fade into her skin as they dry, decomposing to smudges.
Anouk laminates the final prayer card for tomorrow’s wake and places it atop the stack on Hugo’s desk. The front of each card shows an illustration of a haloed lamb, and the back is stamped with “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” It’s the stock design. Anouk favors personalized prayer cards. She’s saved one from each service this summer—she knows it’s a bit macabre, but she can’t help herself. In a way, it’s like collecting souls, accumulating guardian angels.
“I want to talk to you about this morning,” Hugo says.
“It wasn’t an earthquake,” says Anouk.
“No,” Hugo says. “I mean that guy who came in. Mr. Bennett. He was really put-off.”
Anouk busies her hands by straightening the stack of cards. Idleness is not a sign of grace. Nor is self-pity. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to upset him.”
“Of course not. It’s just that working at a place like this requires…delicacy.” Hugo’s gaze doesn’t leave the stack of prayer cards. “I’m thinking it might be best for you to stick to office work.”
“I know I’m not a natural—I get that all the time. But I really do care.” More often than not, Anouk feels like a living oxymoron. Maybe she wouldn’t mind being awkward if she didn’t like talking to people.
“Get the ghost out of here,” Hugo says. “Then we’ll talk.”
“Welcome!” Cricket steps out from behind the cash register and pulls Anouk into a hug.
Cricket’s shop is a cozy space of wood-paneled walls and winding stacks of New Age paraphernalia: tarot cards and crystals and dream catchers and incense. The windows are small and boxy, but they let in enough light for the hanging baskets to drip with ivy and succulents. There’s a pile of overstuffed cushions and a pot of complimentary green tea.
“This is really cool.” Anouk gestures vaguely toward the shelves.
Cricket beams. “Let me just grab my jacket.”
Anouk wonders if Cricket feels as self-conscious about her shop as Anouk did about the apartment. But she knows the answer: of course not.
If this is the end of the world, Anouk decides she wouldn’t mind spending it here. The thought lingers during their quiet drive to the mountains, lingers as they clamber out of the car, as Cricket bounds ahead and leads Anouk down a muddy trail. Fierce afternoon light needles through the pine boughs. A frog glugs somewhere in the underbrush. Its croaks reverberate in the muggy air.
As they hike, Anouk learns that Cricket plays the keyboard in an indie band called The Artichoke Hearts, that she’s double-jointed, that she used to do ballet, and that she’s “half Chinese and half Scottish or Welsh or something.”
“I broke it off with this guy from Rhinebeck a few months ago, so I’ve been flying solo,” Cricket says. “Before that, I was in a long-distance thing with an Italian girl.”
“Women scare me,” Anouk says. She scratches her nose, knocking her glasses askew. “I mean, I want to date women, but then I don’t know what to do around them.” It’s not quite what Anouk means, but a truer explanation feels beyond her vocabulary.
“Yeah, we’re hard to get a read on,” agrees Cricket.
Anouk studies the path of a meandering airplane. Its powdery chemtrails dissolve into the first trace of sunset. “Maybe it would be easier if I liked guys.”
“Why? Your family giving you a hard time?”
“They wouldn’t care,” says Anouk. Not the family that’s living, anyway. “But I do.”
Cricket hops over a fallen branch and kicks it aside so Anouk can pass. Anouk is startled by Cricket’s easy confidence, her comfortable assurance. There’s something about the way she holds herself that makes Anouk want to push back her shoulders and lift her chin.
“You’re in college, right?” Cricket asks.
“I’m working on my certification in mental health counseling.”
“I hope so,” Anouk says. A young buck toes through the cracking leaves, undisturbed by the intrusion of hikers. “I like people, but I’m not a people person. Or at least other people don’t think I’m a people person.” Anouk doesn’t know where the words are coming from, but she doesn’t want them to stop. “I feel for them, but I can never really reach them. Hugo doesn’t even want me talking to customers at the parlor anymore.”
Cricket stops walking for the first time since the trailhead.
“I can’t make you believe otherwise,” she says, “but, I think you’ll reach plenty of people—or customers.”
It’s dusk by the time they approach the waterfall. Tucked in a cove of dripping moss, water guzzles over a rocky ledge and into a clear pool. Anouk’s bathing suit feels baggy beneath her clothes, but the nylon straps dig into her skin. She tugs off her sundress and folds it carefully. She doesn’t know what else to do with her arms.
“C’mon!” calls Cricket. She’s already waiting at the foot of the waterfall, her jeans rolled up and her sandals abandoned at the water’s edge. Half of her face is curtained in shadow.
Anouk feels Grandfather looming just out of sight, always hovering at the edge of her blindspot. I hope God chose us to be saved. As a child, Anouk was terrified of being alone, not knowing whether the Rapture had come and everyone had ascended to Heaven, leaving her behind. All we can do is hope.
The water sears cold against Anouk’s bare legs, and she tries not to slip on the smooth stones. When she’s waded out to Cricket, Anouk says, “What if he’s right? My grandfather, I mean.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in it anymore.”
“I don’t,” says Anouk. “But I still want to find grace.”
The visible half of Cricket’s face softens. “You can.”
When Anouk steps under, the current swallows her headfirst.
“Purge me clean.” Her voice is drenched, but the words Cricket has given her vibrate true in her throat. “Purge me clean. Purge me clean.”
The sun ducks, colorless, below the horizon, and the air turns blue in its wake. Far above, fireflies blink themselves in and out of existence. The moon is waxing. Somewhere in the night, cicadas begin to hum.