My mother’s voice sounded odd on the phone that evening. We live just round the corner from each other, but she’s good about giving me space and usually doesn’t get upset about anything. Tonight, she sounded worried.
“Di, can you come over now?” she said. “It’s Mrs. McPhee. I can’t explain on the phone. Please. It’s urgent.”
“Sure,” I said, staring at the phone. This was strange. Mrs. McPhee was my mother’s nosy old neighbor. I assumed it wasn’t a medical emergency or my mother would have called the ambulance
“Mom, how can you stand her?” I had asked more than once, exasperated by Mrs. McPhee’s habit of showing up whenever my mother had company, including me. My mother was a nicer person than I would ever be and never turned her away.
“Diana, she’s lonely. None of us know when we might need some company. Do as you would be done by,” my mother would say placidly, making me feel about five years old and two feet tall.
Mrs. McPhee could sniff out scandal faster than a pig finds truffles and was more reliable than the local paper when it came to news of doings in the neighborhood. I tried to be careful when I was in her vicinity. She seemed to have some weird telepathy and had been known to mortify me with comments about things that I was thinking, regardless of who was present.
“Diana, you’re exaggerating,” said my mother when I complained to her about it. “You’re one of those people with a face like an open book. It’s got nothing to do with Mrs. McPhee having supernatural power. She’s just tactless sometimes.”
“Is she still doing that fortune telling nonsense?” I asked. “She’s such a fraud.”
“Her version is harmless enough,” said my mother. “People meeting handsome strangers and traveling across water, that kind of thing. She doesn’t charge people. They donate if they want to. She has been right about a few things though.”
“If all her prophecies are as vague as that, she’s bound to be right now and then. A broken clock is right twice a day.”
“Don’t be so judgmental, dear. She makes a little money and makes some people happy. I haven’t heard anyone complaining about her other than you.”
I hurried round to my mother’s place. Mrs. McPhee was perched on the couch clutching a mug of tea as if it were a lifesaver. She was a roly-poly little lady, with chubby red cheeks and black, button eyes that were normally alight with curiosity. She always reminded me of someone's version of a grandmother from a children’s book. This evening, however, she was like a shadow of herself. I glanced enquiringly at my mother who looked concerned but shook her head.
“Thanks for coming, Di,” she said. “I’ll let Mrs. McPhee explain. I’m not sure I even understand it myself.”
She bustled off to get me some tea and I sat down in the armchair facing Mrs. McPhee, leery of getting too close. The old lady looked at me and gave a wan smile.
“Diana, I know you think I’m an old nuisance,” she said. I blushed. “I’ve told you before that I’m from Scotland?”
“Yes, you have,” I said, biting off any sarcastic comments about how often, or that Mrs. McPhee had been two when her family emigrated and had never been back since.
“That was decades ago, and I repeat myself, I know,” she said, as if I had spoken aloud. “They do say that some people in the Scottish Highlands have the second sight. They can foresee things that are to happen in the future. My own mother said her grandmother had it, though she considered it more of a curse than a blessing.”
My mother had returned with the tea by now and I found myself holding my own mug tightly. Mrs. McPhee continued; her gaze fixed in the distance.
“People wonder how I know so much about what’s going on. I’ve always been observant, and people will tell you about the most personal things without much encouragement, so that’s part of it. Fortune telling’s mostly common sense. If a couch potato slob of a husband suddenly starts going to the gym and buying new clothes, you can bet there’s another woman. You can give people a line that makes sense either way by what they’re like. If someone is bubbly and cheerful, you tell them they’ll have a mostly happy life with a little sadness. Glass half-full. If they’re mopey and pessimistic, you tell them life will be hard with occasional joy. Glass half-empty.”
“So, you tell people what they want to hear?” I said.
“Quite often,” she said. “Or they just want to be heard. There are a lot of lonely people in this world, despite all the smart phones and computers and what-not.”
She took a deep breath and continued.
“But occasionally I’ve had visions that I can’t explain. I saw Mrs. Davis’ son in the supermarket parking lot one day, standing in a shimmering pool of water. He smiled at me and vanished. I thought I was imagining things because I knew he was away at college and it was a beautiful sunny day, but next thing we got word that he had drowned in a boating accident.”
“Perhaps it was coincidence, or you did imagine it,” I said.
“It shook me up, I can tell you. But who could I tell? A few weeks later, I had a beautiful young lady come to me for a fortune telling. I was giving her my usual spiel. She was getting married soon and just radiant. But suddenly, every time I looked at her, she was bald. I rubbed my eyes and blinked, blamed my glasses. She probably thought I was crazy as well as clairvoyant. I wrapped the session up as quick as I could and hustled her out. She died of cancer within six months of the wedding, bald from the chemotherapy. Now you see why it’s a curse. There have been other times too, but I won’t go on.”
My mother broke the silence that followed, clearing her throat.
“This is interesting, Mrs. McPhee, but what is so urgent that you wanted to talk to Diana?”
Mrs. McPhee turned to me.
“Are you planning a trip soon? Flying or going on a boat?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” I said, puzzled. “I’m flying to a conference in Miami next week.”
“Please don’t go. Cancel your plans,” Mrs. McPhee entreated. She looked from me to my mother, clenching her fists in anxiety. “I have seen…I have seen a shadow over you. Tragedy is stalking you. I couldn’t warn other people, but I respect your mother. She has always been kind to me, and I thought you might listen to her.”
My mother looked flabbergasted.
“Well,” she said. “While I always thought your fortune telling was a harmless little pastime, I have no idea what to make of this. Diana, what do you think?”
“I think you are totally sincere, Mrs. McPhee,” I said, carefully choosing my words. “I also think you have had some very unsettling experiences and I appreciate your concern for me. I will have to think about this.”
Mrs. McPhee got to her feet, looking exhausted.
“I had to try to warn you,” she said. “Thank you for listening.”
After she left, my mother and I looked at each other in stunned silence.
“Maybe you’re right, dear,” said my mother. “Perhaps she’s gone off the deep end. And yet…I’m not sure.”
“My head is spinning,” I said with a grin. “I’m going home for a big glass of wine!”
Although I thought Mrs. McPhee’s warning was ridiculous, it kept coming to mind over the next few days. I wasn’t as sorry as I might have been when my boss cancelled the trip due to budget cuts. On the day of the conference, I was eating lunch in the break room. As usual, the television was on in the background. Some of the staff always caught up on their soap operas at this time of day and woe betide anyone who tried to change the channel. There were loud complaints as a news flash broke into some particularly dramatic moment. A plane had gone down in Florida, killing all on board. Suddenly unable to swallow my food, I realized it was the flight I would have been on. I rushed to call my mother.
“It’s alright, dear,” she said. “I already knew you were safe. Mrs McPhee called to let me know early this morning.”