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The Golden Hour

I push past the door—there’s no point in lingering to read the note she’s left me pinned there above a sprig of rosemary. I know what it says. I know that she doesn’t want to see me, that it’s too soon and she’s too fragile to handle the stress of it all. Still, I burst into the bedroom and find her, curled up under a mass of wrinkled white bedsheets, the golden light of the early morning sun streaming over her bare shoulder. She doesn’t look up. I sit down alongside her, not wrinkling the sheet or leaving a depression in the mattress, though I can feel the warmth of her skin through the sheets and smell the blueberry-scented lotion she always applies before she goes to sleep. I reach over to brush the bare golden skin with the tips of my fingers, but before I can, a tingling spreads up from my hands through my limbs and I can feel my muscles begin to seize up.

Not yet.
I clench my teeth and fight to move my stiffening body, but to no avail. As I relax back into my stationary pose, I see the world begin to fade back into the swirling blackness that I now notice has been accumulating at the edge of my vision. The light from the window reduces and narrows into one faint golden beam that flickers and blinks and then disappears, leaving me in the dark.

The business of providing communication between the land of the dead and the living is a lucrative one, though it is conducted only by a select few who keep their enterprise close to themselves and never share their secrets. Under the guise of a professional reiki healer, Marie-Claire had always maintained a strict scheduling policy which forbade any client making an appointment outside of her regular operational hours. Those sorts of rules, you may think, aren’t so strange for a woman whose voice is deep like the roots of an old oak and whose hands command as firm a handshake as any man twice her size. What was so bizarre was that it restricted all of her appointments to just two hours of the day: the hours just after dawn and just before sunset—the times that she called the golden hour.
When I asked her about it, shortly after I first met with her in her small, downtown home office, she flatly told me that no amount of negotiation could make her change her mind; her policy simply couldn’t change, for it was precisely what allowed her to stay in business at all. The golden hour was the only time when she was ever able to successfully manipulate the energy of our world, like a warm ball of clay in the palm of her hand—twisting and pulling and smearing and rolling—without risking that the tremendous forces that maintain the barrier might spin wildly out of control and shatter everything into millions of needle-like shards of glass.

I first came to Marie-Claire because she was an expert in her field. It had said so on her calling card. Printed on glossy card-stock with purple and yellow clip-art designs swirling all over it, it had been an eyesore even before the weeks spent in my jacket pocket. I’d put it there after it had been given to me by a friend during a long evening of drunken condolences over a number of beers. There had been no reason for me not to believe it, either. Still, it took me close to three months to gear up the courage to make an appointment. I had been sitting on the wooden stool next to the phone, another beer in my hand, the glass sweating in my palm, when I picked up my cellphone and dialed my home number for the—third, fifth, fifteenth?— time that night. The digital ringing had echoed through the empty house nine times before some circuit had fired and the loudspeaker on my answering machine had switched on.
My own voice had been first to pour out from the little plastic box. Hi, you’ve reached the Emory’s. We can’t get to the phone at the moment–
There had followed a short pause and a little shuffle, barely imperceptible on the recording, but I had known what was coming, and my clenched fingers slipped on the moist glass in my hand.
–so please leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks for calling!
I had leant forward and rested my forehead on the cork board in front of me as the tone sounded and the line machine went to record, a takeout menu creasing beneath the weight of my skull. She had been the one to come up with the idea of recording the message together. She’d been giggly the whole time, trying to coax some enthusiasm out of me. I could hear her dazzling smile in the lilt of her voice. I cursed myself for having been so taciturn. For not knowing that only seven months later, I would be sitting here in the kitchen, playing the short clip over again and again like a starving man.
I had then hung up my phone and slipped it back in my pocket, peeling my forehead off of the listing for General Tso’s and Sweet and Sour. The menu snapped back onto the board, causing a flutter of smaller bits and pieces wedged into the frame to come loose and spiral down around the legs of my stool. When I bent down to pick them up, the yellow and purple swirl caught my eye and I came face to face with Ms. Marie-Claire’s contact details once more.
So it was with gritted teeth and a determinedly open mind that I stood on the threadbare welcome-mat at the doorstep of her apartment complex and rang the little brass button next to her nameplate: Marie-Claire Liu, Healing Hands, LLC. Her deep voice was distorted so much by the speaker that by the time I had made it up the echoing staircase to her apartment, the little, dark-haired woman who answered the door took me by surprise. She did nothing except look me up and down and nod curtly, inviting me into the small, bare apartment.
I stood awkwardly on the step for a time, waiting for her to show me where I should sit down. It wasn’t obvious at first glance where she liked to conduct business, so I stayed still and awaited her direction. She stood at the small, immaculate kitchenette, flipping something brown over and over again in a small frying pan with two long bone colored chop-sticks. When I gave a little cough to clear my throat, her head snapped up and her scowl deepened. She huffed an irritated sign and pushed the pan off of the heat, snapping the dial to “Off.”
“What are you waiting for? Sit down already?” she gestured to the small kitchen table and its two chairs, stacked high with glossy magazines, printed in what looked to me like Chinese.
She was moving towards where I stood in front of the door, her arms swooping across her front in a shooing gesture. I ducked out of the way and went toward the nearest of the two pale wooden seats, lifting the stack gingerly and placing it neatly on the floor. She locked the catch on the door with a soft click and began flicking through what looked like a menu hanging next to the door.
“So what do you want? Massage? Acupuncture?”
“Umm, we’ll actually Ms. Liu, I was here about your healing hands business.”
Her hand stilled on the faded print-out and, for the first time since I had come through the door, she turned and looked at me in the eyes once more. Keeping her cool calculating dark eyes on mine she asked me much more formally than before, “How can we be of service to you, today, sir?”
Taken aback, I couldn’t help but stutter.”W-well a friend of mine told me… told me you could help put me in contact with someone.”
“And who do you need contacting, Mr…”
“Emory! Emory’s my name. I’m looking to contact my wife.”
Marie-Claire snapped out of her intense stare and walked over to the kitchen table where I was sitting, brusquely moving another stack of magazines out of the way. She sighed wearily as she took her seat.
“And how long has your wife been dead, Mr. Emory?”
“Just a few months. Nine, to be exact.”
“And how did she die, If I may ask?”
I paused, unable to keep myself from gritting my teeth slightly.
“It was in childbirth.” I snorted softly. “A little ridiculous, I know, in this day and age, but there was massive hemorrhaging from the before any of us even realized. It just happened too fast for the ambulance or anyone to prevent. She passed away en route.”
By the time I had finished my story, my jaw was fully clenched and I could taste my saliva flowing thick and fast beneath my tongue. Marie-Claire sighed once more.
“We’ll there shouldn’t be any problem contacting her, then. In my experience, it works best to jump right into it, and luckily, you can just at the right time.” She gestured outside at the darkening sunset. “However, before we begin I must warn you of three things.” She held up a small sinewy hand and rose on finger to the ceiling.
“First, the Transition can only be temporary. I will remove you from her world regardless of whether you want to or not, so you might as well not struggle. Secondly, the nature of what I do means that a barrier will be erected between you and your wife as soon as you enter her world, it is your task to find that barrier and break through it if you want to see your wife. Third and most importantly, you must be prepared for the fact that your wife may not want to see you. The process of recovery after death is much more difficult than you might expect. The barrier will be hard to get through and reflect the spirit’s unwilling participation, should this be the case. Do not force yourself on her.”
The idea of forcing myself in any way on my own wife was repulsive to me, but I nodded my understanding regardless. She gave me another searching look and then told me to take a seat on the couch below the window. I jumped up eagerly, surprised that we would be starting so soon, but unwilling to ask any questions that might make her think better of it. The prospect of seeing my wife’s smiling face once more was electrifying and in my haste I tripped over the tack of magazines by my feet. The glossy cover girls spilling over the linoleum floor, their dark eyes staring at the ceiling above.

The door is harder to get to this time, hidden beneath an overgrown thicket of pungent greenery—rosemary again, I think. I tear at it, cutting the palms of my hands on the rough bark, but I can hear her sobbing behind the door and I struggle to get through. I can hear the wood shuddering and banging against the doorframe with my efforts. With one last mighty tug, I wrench the clinging branches from the doorframe and go crashing through the entrance way. She’s sitting at the edge of the bed, looking out the window, her form hunched and shuddering. She braces herself against my approach and I feel a stab of pain deep within my chest.

After a few sessions with Marie-Claire, I began to develop the awareness to see others of her kind at work—tending to middle-aged women at mall kiosks or to world-weary businessman in airport lounges. I’d recognize them by the tingling and prickling on the periphery of my senses that signaled the transition. Each time that I felt it, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I set my alarm for four in the morning once more and made my way to the old leather massage chair in the middle of her living room.
My occasional visits quickly turned into a regimented schedule and I’d already been coming to Marie-Claire for months. Each time we talked less and less about what I was able to communicate but I got the feeling from the way she held pursed her lips and cleared her throat that she disapproved of how regularly I was coming to see her. It did make me feel a little guilty, but not enough to stop. I began to bring her payment in advance of the appointments, setting them neatly in the melamine tray on the kitchen counter where I knew she would see them. I lay back in the seat as she laid her cold hands on my bare skin and I closed my eyes on the papered walls of the apartment. I waited for the tingling sensation to come and go so I could open my eyes once more to the dove grey walls of the hallway outside the bedroom my wife and I had shared together fourteen months ago.

I pause several paces from her and watch as she does her best to pretend I’m not there, her eyes staring forward at nothing in particular. The neck of her gown is hanging open where and I can see a pale line of skin descending to her breast. I ache to hold her close to me. Her face is red and tired with dark circles under her eyes. I take another step towards her.
No. Her shaky whisper rips through the silence. No, I can’t do this, just, please, leave me alone. Leave me in peace.
I shake my head, she can’t mean it. The light streaming through the window is fading from gold to a pale shade that diffuses evenly through the room and softens the shadows around her face. The tingling sensation returns to my periphery. I open my arms and step up close next to her. She turns to me, eyes like fire, and screams.

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