It is four in the morning, the smoky aroma of brewing coffee diffuses from the kitchen onto the dining room, where a stack of unopened envelopes sits on the center of a rectangular table along with other pieces of mail addressed to Clare Raggson; a letter from the unemployment agency and a pink slip. The most recent job - the second one in seven months - was supposed to be a front desk position. Instead, she ended up re-stocking paper towels and toilet paper, taking thirty-minute lunches, and throwing away the garbage.
For over a week, Clare has been staying up all night adjusting her resume, job hunting, and unconsciously neglecting her water intake, the house, and appearance.
She is sipping coffee while looking out the window when she notices not the droopy leaves of her blue hydrangeas in the front yard but her neighbor's property instead; the verdant luscious, bold landscape and boxwood hedges around the impeccable 1938 three-story, stucco Georgian colonial house.
The neighbor, Ms. Wiley, is a former financial manager, retired from Wall Street and in her late seventies, has no children, and lost her spouse recently. Nevertheless, she splurges on designer clothing, owns other properties locally and overseas, drives a glossy burgundy 1936 LaSalle Convertible Coupe on the weekend, a black 1934 Packard Twelve Victoria on special occasions like her birthday, or when she meets with her Norwegian friends who visit her once a year, or the grey Jeep Wrangler Sahara to run daily errands.
Every two months, she gathers with a small circle of friends for private parties, but that does not stop the entire street from partaking in the celebration; everyone can hear the radio blasting with blues and jazz, a common ground with Clare, who enjoys some of Ms. Wiley's choices from; Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, to Louis Armstrong, Charley Patton, and Trixie Smith - the latter is her favorite.
Clare is daydreaming about driving one of Ms. Wiley's cars along the coast of California, the wind hitting her face, on the back seat a basket containing a bottle of Dom Pérignon, blackberries, and baby Swiss cheese, when the high pitch chime emits from her laptop interrupting her thoughts. She is about to ignore the message, but the subject says job offer, and she reads on.
"Dear Ms. Raggson,
Congratulations! After reviewing your resume, we would like to offer you the position of Guidance Counselor. No experience is necessary. WE PAY FOR YOUR TRAINING! Your job?: 1-suggest our services (explained during training) and 2-keep the callers engaged. That is it! Salary is hourly plus commission; rate starts at $25.00 and up, depending on experience. If you are ready to begin, hit the "I'm on board" button below."
But instead of clicking, Clare dials the number at the end of the message and finds herself calling a psychic telephonic service company, offering medium-ship, and angel readings, card readings, and free instant readings for the first five minutes charged at $3.99 per minute after that.
Clare is admiring Ms. Wiley's place again, when her doubts creep her mind, making her gears spin a thousand miles, shifting between made-up thoughts, bad break-ups, to that one time she cheated on the algebra test only to get an "F" like the dumb-ass she copied from, and lastly, childhood memories.
"Apple pie! Mimi's apple pie!" she shouts with excitement. "That’s my ticket to Ms. Wiley's."
Grandma Mimi made the best apple pies in town and even started selling them at one point, but word got around quickly, and business was booming so fast that she was asked to pay taxes higher than the profits. So Mimi stopped selling pies and kept the recipe secret for decades.
Clare is a terrible fryer but a fantastic baker. It was and is the fear of hot oil and fire that kept her from learning how to fry - however baking is different. She remembers her grandmother preparing casseroles, bread, and pastries, how swiftly she moved around the kitchen like a pro, knowing precisely what to do, with passion and love, and still made time to teach her to bake.
"I will never be as fast as you around the kitchen, grandma."
Mimi holds Clare's face between both her hands tenderly:
"My child, look at your feet, and look at mine. One day, they will grow to be this big or bigger! Then you too will move around the kitchen even faster than me". Those words gave Clare the drive to search for new recipes and make her own dishes.
A trip down memory lane opens her mind to appreciate her life and the blessings. The house she occupies is an inheritance from her parents, who sadly died, and the apple pie recipe from grandma Mimi who lived ninety-two years and went to rest peacefully on her bed surrounded by her loved ones. She asked to speak with Clare alone minutes before passing.
"Can you hear me?" Mimi said, her voice croaky, low, and shaky.
Clare holds her fragile, wrinkly, freckly hands: "Yes, grandma, I'm right here beside you. I can hear you".
"Bring the notebook and the pen from my dresser."
"Ok, grandma. What else do you need? How can I help you?"
"I need you to write the recipe. It is the only thing I have to give, and my wish is to gift it to you. Listen carefully".
When Clare is done writing, she rests her head on Mimi's chest and cries inconsolably.
Mimi caresses her head:
"I'll always be with you because I live in your heart. Whenever you bake a pie, just like I do, I will be there".
Following Mimi's recipe, Clare bakes a pie for Ms. Wiley, and excited to see her reaction, she goes over her place.
Ms. Wiley is not expecting any visitors or packages and asks her housekeeper, Lupe, to attend to the door while she stands behind it.
"Hello, I'm Clare, the next-door neighbor. Is Ms. Wiley home? I brought her something".
"Sorry, ma'am, this is not the best time. Ms. Wiley, visits are limited to family and close friends only, but I'll be happy to give her your...?"
"Oh, it's an apple pie."
Ms. Wiley blows raspberries, Clare hears her, and Lupe does not control her laugh.
"I'll be sure she gets it." The door slams and shuts on Clare's face.
Ms. Wiley whispers to Lupe, but Clare hears her:
"Is this woman for real, an apple pie? Who does that nowadays?"
Embarrassed and ballistic, Clare runs back to her house to continue job searching, rest and does leave the house for days.
Clare is so deep in her sleep she does not hear the bell or the door knocking or the calling her name repeatedly, but as much as she wants to ignore the situation, eventually she gives up and goes to see whoever is disturbing her peace. Clare sees a woman, wearing a white suit outfit and an oversized hat covering her face through the peephole. The woman rings the bell again and lifts her face.
"The audacity of this bitch! The fuck she doing here?"
Clare's dark circles, dry lips, and skin, indicators of poor self-care, reflect in the mirror close by the front door, but that is the least of her worries.
"Ms. Wiley. What brings you here?"
Ms. Wiley scans Clare from head to toe.
"Oh, dear! Are you alright?"
"Well!" Clare begins to say in a rather moody tone, "About the other day, let me tell you..."
Ms. Wiley gently places both her hands on Clare's shoulders:
"About the other day, I apologize, but lately, I receive visits from people I've never heard of before or don't even know."
"I am no stranger, I am your neighbor, and I don't see how that has to do with me and is no excuse for the way I was treated by your service personnel."
"I hardly see you. My friends and I wonder about you all the time, and we love company. I am sorry for Lupe's behavior; she has been with me for over 25 years and can be overprotective. I've asked her to keep everyone I am not expecting away from me at all costs, even if it means being an asshole".
"She plays that role very well!".
"Yes, she does. Lupe insisted on being the first to try the pie in case something was wrong with it. I paid first responders to stay with us during and after Lupe's test".
Despite feeling insulted (although Ms. Wiley intends to put Lupe on good terms with Clare), Clare continues with the conversation.
"Ok, Ms. Wiley, it is good to know someone has your back."
"I have no one else now that Thomas is gone. I would give anything to see him again, just one last time".
Clare feels sympathy for Ms. Wiley, but it does not stop her from seeing an opportunity.
"Oh, Ms. Wiley, I understand, and I can help you. That is why I went to your house the other day. I had to bring the pie with me as an excuse; after all, we barely know each other".
"I don't' quite understand, dear. How can you help me?".
"Is best if we go to your place. I will need a few things from Mr. Thomas, something special that belonged to him, a photo, and his hairbrush".
"His hairbrush? That sounds absurd!".
"Oh, you are telling me? Sometimes, the items required for these things can be alarming! So be happy this is all I need. Oh, and before I forget, I also need his birth certificate".
Clare walks with Ms. Wiley to her house.
"How can any of this help with Thomas?"
"Don't you worry about that, ok. Just please get me those items pronto. The sooner I get started, the sooner I connect with Mr. Thomas. So, the ball is on your court".
Ms. Wiley collects all of the items; meanwhile, Clare is inside admiring the luxurious decorations and rare paintings and ignoring Lupe's dirty looks.
"Here you go, a copy of the birth certificate, is that ok?"
"Yup, you got it!"
Ms. Wiley extends her hand and gives her a photo:
"Oh, my Thomas was so handsome and made me believe in love at first sight. He could have had any gal he wanted, you know, but he chose me". Her voice breaks with each word.
"Sorry about that," she says with teary eyes.
"No worries Ms. Wiley, go on."
"Ok, the rest is here; hairbrush and something special. How soon can you start?"
"Soon, very soon, Ms. Wiley...but I need to get paid first".
"How much is it"?
"Medium services start at $700.00, other services start at $500.00, and the price increases upon the complexity of the request. The charges include; medicine, electrolytes, and massages".
"Why do I have to pay for that"?
"Because I travel to different dimensions, and my body requires extra hydration, relaxation, and healing after each journey."
"That sounds intense!"
"Oh, trust me, you don't know the half of it. So do we have a deal?"
"Yes, deal. Do you accept checks?"
"Oh, Ms. Wiley, I wish I could, but I've been taken advantage of before, and I have bills to pay. Sorry, cash only".
"No problem, here it is. Please count; there should be $700.00".
Clare's heart rate is rising, but she keeps her cool as she realizes that now she can pay bills and buy groceries.
"Give me forty-eight hours."
She takes strands from the hairbrush and pays for a DNA test, the birth certificate to complete an ancestry test, the photo just to see what he looked like and to use as reference, and lastly, the special something that belonged to Mr. Thomas, a vinyl record from Trixie Smith that she does not need or use but keeps in the garage.
Clare tells Ms. Wiley about Thomas's dead relatives to make herself credible and pretends to contact him directly to deliver loving, humorous, and positive messages to Ms. Wiley, which bring her comfort. In return, she refers a few friends to Clare receives $500.00 per visit.
It is three in the morning, Clare's room is dark, cold, calm, and there is utter silence throughout the house when a rhythmical sound of a trumpet awakes Clare. She sits on the bed to listen:
"I'm going to strut, peck and Suzie Q, cause I'm on a bender... I'm so high and so dry, I'm sailing in the sky" - Jack I'm Mellow plays. Clare likes Trixie Smith, but there is one problem or two; Trixie's vinyl is in the garage, and Clare does not have a record player. The song re-plays again.
Clare hides under the sheets, and suddenly the music stops. She is panicking, sweating, her throat is tightening when something or someone begins to remove the blanket.
A translucent womanlike figure smoking a joint levitates by Clare's bed.
"You are doing it wrong. No more scamming, Ms. Wiley, or else all that you have will no longer be".
The figure vanishes, and Clare runs to the shower to change her soiled underwear.
Hours later, still early in the morning, Clare serves herself coffee and makes breakfast.
"Such a disturbing nightmare."
Ms. Wiley calls Clare to schedule the next meeting:
"Next week I have a doctor's appointment. Can we change it from Monday to Wednesday?".
She takes a sip: "Yes, Ms. Wiley, we can..."
The phone gets static.
"Clare? Are you there? I can't hear you."
"Hello? Hello? Ms. Wiley?".
The coffee spills, staining her blouse, burning her thighs and hands.
"I warned you, didn't I?"
Clare recognizes the spirit of Trixie Smith, and a warm musky scented liquid runs down her leg as Ms. Wiley barges in.
"Ok, ok, Trixie. I will stop, promise".
Ms. Wiley only sees Clare.
"Who are you talking to, dear?"
Clare continues speaking to Trixie:
"I will stop and bake the pies instead, ok. And I will tell her the truth".
Worried and horrified, Ms. Wiley gets close to Clare and shakes the shit out of her.
"Clare, Clare! Who are you talking to? There's no one here".
Clare apologizes to Ms. Wiley, confessing she is a fake and can not connect with Mr. Thomas. Ms. Wiley turns around, leaves, and Clare does not hear from her for weeks.
Is eleven in the morning, and Clare is baking Mimi's apple pies.
"Mmm, it smells like my recipe. Well done!".
"This is not happening!"
"I'm happy to see you, too."
"No, grandma. I'm sorry, I'm scared and happy and at the same time? But you are dead! This is not supposed to happen. But this is so freaky, and I promised Trixie...".
"That you would bake pies and stop scamming Ms. Wiley."
"How come I can see all you and Trixie? I hate this!"
"I need you to sit, have coffee, relax, and trust me. Tell me, what is here right now".
Clare points out all the appliances, the pantry, the dining table, and chairs when another figure stands next to Mimi, this time a male.
"Oh hell no! I am calling an exorcist. This is bullshit!"
"Now, Clare, I told you to relax and to trust me."
"Hi Clare, I'm Thomas."
"What...what do you want from me?".
"I want to thank you for giving me hope."
"Hope? But you are dead!".
"My Ruby, that is her name cries every night for me, and she needs you."
"Oh no, I can't be doing this. I don't want to see dead people for the rest of my life".
Mimi and Thomas convince Clare to go over Ms. Wiley's and make peace.
"What's in it for me?"
In exchange for Clare's actions, Thomas and Mimi would help her with anything she wanted; otherwise, they would call on other dead colleagues to hunt her.
"Oh, you again. Ms. Wiley does not want to see you. Bye!"
Lupe slams the door, but before it shuts, Clare holds the knob:
"I am not leaving like this time around. I have to see her. Actually, before I forget".
Clare calls for Thomas and Mimi.
"Bring your colleagues, and take care of her."
Clare points to Lupe, who screams in horror as her body floats two feet from the floor.
Ms. Wiley hears the commotion and meets with Clare.
"You have some balls. How dare you?"
"Ms. Wiley, I know what I did, and I apologize."
"You already did."
"Yes, but this time is different."
"How could you? And why?"
"Before your first $700.00, all I had was coffee, the pantry was empty, and all my bills late. I was hurt by your rejection".
Ms. Wiley goes to the kitchen and returns with the dish.
"I tried the pie and immediately called my friends, who called other friends, and the word got around fast. I must say, it was the best pie I've ever tasted in my life".
"Thank you, Ms. Wiley, and I'm sorry."
"I know my Thomas is gone for good. I kept going to see you and pay for your company, not your services, although they are very entertaining. I enjoyed the time, and my friends did too. We felt it was a chance to get close to you. Would you bake pies for us? As clients?"
Clare can not believe what she hears and immediately accepts. She is hugging Ms. Wiley; Lupe is still floating and screaming.
It is four in the morning, the smoky aroma of brewing coffee diffuses from the kitchen onto the dining room where Clare is sipping coffee while looking out the window admiring her neighbor's property, daydreaming of driving one of her cars.
The house is calm, quiet; there is utter silence when a rhythmical sound of a trumpet and the chime emitting from her laptop simultaneously sound off. She is about to ignore the message, but the subject says job offer, and she reads on.
"I'm sticking to baking!".