Eye of the Beholder
Thomas Grant Bruso © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“What do you see?” I asked.
I was sitting across from Madame Petri at the oval-shaped table in the dimly lit backroom of her business, Spiritual Crossings.
The devil-white glow in the medium’s iron-gray eyes pierced through me. “A dead body,” she said. Her bloodred nails were sharp and pointy like talons and wrapped around the cloudy white edges of the crystal ball.
I bit back the sour taste of Cote Rotie from an art exhibit event I had hosted earlier in the evening. All I wanted was a reading of my future, I had told myself after closing the gallery and walking three blocks to Madame Petri’s Spiritual Crossings. Now, I turned to the neighborhood medium and shuddered, my gut clutching.
Some of my art friends had recommended her to me.
“You’ll like her,” one of them had said. “She’s colorful and full of spirit.”
“Go in with an open mind,” somebody else had told me.
Maybe I need new friends.
Clenching the border of the velvet-soft tablecloth, I leaned forward to see if I could glimpse what she had seen in her crystal ball.
There was a bright light in her gaze when she noticed me rising off my seat a few inches to get a better look at the dead body in the cloudy glass ball. But I was drawn back to my chair with a hand clutching my shoulder from behind and pushing me back into my seat.
Blackness swallowed the light in her eyes as if a switch had been turned off inside her, and her gaze fell back to the crystal ball, which was dimming like the low lights in the room.
A steely silence engulfed us.
Balls of sleet smacked against the front glass window in the outer foyer, and the soft sound of thunder rumbled around us. Lights flickered overhead, and a cold draft snuffed out some of the burning incense candles in the dark alcove behind me. A murmur of fear climbed the back of my throat, and I let out a mousy squeal.
When I looked up at Madame Petri’s waxy face, her expression froze.
I clenched my teeth, biting down hard on the cloying taste of cigarettes in my mouth.
Over Madame Petri’s shoulders, I noticed shadowy movements in the other room, and beyond the half-open velvet curtains, the drifting clouds of smoky incense danced like ghosts in the pallid light.
A pale, narrow face stared back at me from the inky blackness: decrepit, deathly white.
I shouted and rose from my chair, breaking the medium’s stern concentration.
Madame Petri stared up at me, her firm grip on the white glass ball unmoving. Her eyes were wide and frightened.
I sucked in short, tight breaths, glancing behind Madame Petri to the outer room, to the far wall where an abstract painting of a haunted face of an old man glared back at me.
I heard my name and froze. Looked around. Let out a deep, shaky breath.
A trick of the light, that’s all it was, I thought. I adjusted my eyes to the dense grayness and took my seat across from Madame Petri.
“I’m sorry,” I said, wiping my clammy palms on my jeans. “I thought I saw something.”
“You saw it too,” Madame Petri said. The lights in the room dimmed and died and came back.
My mouth was cotton dry, and I shook my head, staring into the still deadness of the medium’s eighty-year-old eyes, thick and hazy with cataracts.
“Saw what?” I stared over her shoulder again at the dark slashes of color in the evocative painting hanging askew in the foyer. It looked like one of the paintings hanging on the walls of my art gallery.
“Death,” Madame Petri said, a crackle in her voice. She raised a jewel-encrusted finger and pointed at me. “Somebody is going to die.”
I rubbed my arms to ward off a chill and heard the harsh warnings of my partner in the corridors of my mind, ridiculing me for shelling out a day’s worth of work to talk to a psychic. How much did it cost you this time to have your future predicted by that phony would-be clairvoyant?
Then the sound of somebody whispering evoked a troubling memory of dead voices. Their small screams floated in the dark like distressed spirits.
“What was that?” I asked, clenching the arm of the chair.
Madame Petri looked around the room and then over at me, a web of wrinkles bracketing the edge of her small mouth. Her tangerine-orange lips stretched into a wide, clownish smile. “The spirits, dear. They’re coming.”
I rose to leave. As I pulled out two twenties from my wallet, Madame Petri reached across the table for my hand. Her fingers were dead cold, and I felt a tremor of electricity when she touched me. “Be careful,” she said, flipping over the Death card from the pile of her tarot cards and tapping it with a black, pointy fingernail. “He who opens the gate must shut it.”
I jerked my hand away and tucked my wallet back into my pants pocket.
The lights flickered again and went out.
Panicking, I stayed still in the dark, calling out for Madame Petri, and hearing movement ten feet from where I stood behind my chair.
“Madame Petri,” I said. “Are you there?”
The heightened smell of decay and burnt flesh and cigarettes aggravated my senses, and a spark of strong pain ignited in the back of my mind.
I heard movement at the other end of the room, somebody bumping into something, and a vase falling and crashing to the floor. Glass shattered.
When I called out Madame Petri’s name again, there was no answer.
I navigated in the dark to the foyer, staying close to the edge of the room and reaching out for the wall to help guide me to the front door.
At the opening to the velvet curtains, lights flashed and turned on in the adjoining rooms. My heart was pounding, my breath short and raspy.
I went to the rain-smattered front door and pushed it open, turning around once at the sound of a door creaking open behind me down the hall, its hinges squawking in protest. I called out Madame Petri’s name, but there was no response. I couldn’t see her anywhere in the semidark hallway through the hazy tendrils of smoke from the blown-out incense candles, but my gaze drifted to the far wall where the painting of the decrepit face of an old man was mounted.
“Madame Petri,” I called out. I reached into my back pocket for my half-smoked pack of Salem’s and my Bic lighter. Flicked it a few times, my hand shaking hard, my heart pounding.
A cold, wet rain blasted me on the back of the neck, and I shivered from the early evening chill.
I lit the end of my cigarette, barely managing to work the lighter, and inhaled a lungful of smoke before shoving the pack of smokes and the cigarette lighter back in my pants pocket.
Then quickly, as if a bolt of lightning flashed through my jumbled thoughts and illuminated my worst nightmares, I glimpsed the haunted painting again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. The man in the painting was gone, the canvas blank.
Animalistic, ghostly murmurings in throaty growls awakened down the hall.