Prom Nights from Hell (Chapter Two)

Gee, thanks, Madame Z, I thought. Could we dig a little deeper here? Give me something to work with?

"But is he-I mean, the person-going to act on his passion?" I was brazen, despite my knotted stomach.

"To act or not to act… that is the question?" Madame Z said.

"Yes, that is the question."

"Ahhh. That is always the question. And what one must always ask oneself-" She broke off. Her eyes flew to Will, and she paled.

"What?" I demanded.

"Nothing," she said.

"Something," I said. Her message-from-the-spirits performance wasn't fooling me. She wanted us to think she'd been suddenly possessed? That she'd had a stark and powerful vision? Fine! Just get to the bloody answer!

Madame Z made a show of pulling herself together, complete with a long, shaky draw on her cigarette. Looking dead at me, she said, "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one's there to hear it, does it still make a sound?"

"Huh?" I said.

"That's all I've got. Take it or leave it." She seemed agitated, so I took it. Although I made cuckoo eyes at Yun Sun when Madame Z wasn't watching.

Will claimed not to have a specific question, but Madame Z was oddly insistent on relaying a message to him anyhow. She waved her hands over his aura and warned him sternly of heights, which was curiously appropriate as Will was an avid rock climber. What was more curious was Will's reaction. First his eyebrows shot up, and then a different emotion took over, like some secret anticipatory pleasure. He glanced at me and blushed.

"What's going on?" I asked. "You have your sneaky face on."

"Exsqueeze me?" he said.

"What are you not telling us, Will Goodman?"

"Nothing, I swear!"

"Don't be stupid, boy!" Madame Z harped. "Listen to what I'm saying."

"Oh, you don't have to worry about him," I said. "He's a total Mr. Safety." I turned back to Will. "For real. Do you have a fabulous new climbing spot? A brand-new shiny carabiner?"

"It's Yun Sun's turn," Will said. "Yun Sun, go."

"Can you read palms?" Yun Sun asked Madame Z.

Madame Z exhaled, and she was barely engaged as she traced her finger over the plump pad below Yun Sun's thumb. "You will be as beautiful as you allow yourself to be," she told her. That was it. Those were her pearls of wisdom.

Yun Sun seemed as underwhelmed as I was, and I felt like protesting on all our behalves. I mean, seriously! A tree in the forest? Be careful of heights? You will be as beautiful as you allow yourself to be? Even with her somewhat convincing touches of atmospheric creepiness, the three of us were getting cheated. Me in particular.

But before I could say anything, a cell phone on the desk rang. Madame Z picked it up and used a long orange nail to punch the talk button.

"Madame Zanzibar, at your service," she said. Her expression changed as she listened to whoever was on the other end. She grew brisk and annoyed. "No, Silas. It's called a… yes, you can say it, a yeast infection. Yeast infection."

Yun Sun and I shared a glance of horror, although-I couldn't help it-I was also delighted. Not that Madame Z had a yeast infection. I mean, ick. But that she was discussing it with Silas, whoever he was, while all of us listened in. Now we were getting our money's worth.

"Tell the pharmacist it's the second time this month," Madame Z groused. "I need something stronger. What? For the itching, you idiot! Unless he wants to scratch it for me!" She twisted on her swivel chair, pumping one Juicy Coutured leg over the other.

Will looked up at me, his brown eyes wide with alarm. "I will not be scratching it for her," he stage-whispered. "I refuse!"

I laughed, thinking it a good sign that he was showing off for me. The Madame Z experience hadn't gone as intended, but who knew? Maybe it would end up having the desired effect after all.

Madame Z pointed at me with the lit end of her cigarette, and I ducked my chin contritely, like Sorry, sorry. To distract myself, I focused on the strange and varied clutter on her shelves. A book called Magic of the Ordinary and another titled What to Do When the Dead Speak-But You Don't Want to Listen. I nudged Will with my knee and pointed. He mimed choking the poor deceased bastard, and I snortled.

Above the books I saw: a bottle of rat poison, an old-fashioned monocle, a jar of what looked like fingernail clippings, a stained Starbucks cup, and a rabbit's foot, claws attached. And on the shelf above that was… oh, lovely.

"Is that a skull?" I asked Will.

Will whistled. "Holy cannoli."

"Okey-doke," Yun Sun said, averting her eyes. "If there really is a skull, I don't want to know about it. Can we leave now?"

I took her head in my hands and pointed her in the right direction. "Look. It still has hair!"

Madame Z snapped her cell phone shut. "Fools, every one of them," she said. Her pallor was gone; apparently talking to Silas had shaken her out of her funk.

"Ahh! I see you found Fernando!"

"Is that whose skull that is?" I asked. "Fernando's?"

"Oh God," Yun Sun moaned.

"Wormed his way to the surface after a gully washer, out in Chapel Hill Cemetery," Madame Z told us. "His coffin, that is. Crappy wooden thing, must'a been from the early nineteen hundreds. No one left to care for him, so I took pity on him and brought him here."

"You opened the coffin?" I said.

"Yep." She seemed proud. I wondered if she'd worn her Juicy Couture during the grave robbing.

"That's gross that it still has hair," I said.

"He still has hair," Madame Z said. "Show some respect."

"I didn't know dead bodies had hair, that's all."

"Skin, no," Madame Z said. "Skin starts to rot right away, and believe me, you don't want to smell it when it goes. But hair? Sometimes it keeps growing for weeks after the deceased has made his crossing."

"Wowzers." I reached down and tousled Will's honey-colored curls. "Hear that, Will? Sometimes the hair keeps growing."

"Amazing," he said.

"What about that?" Yun Sun asked, pointing to a clear Tupperware container in which something reddish and organlike floated in clear liquid. "Please tell me it didn't come from Fernando, too. Please."

Madame Z waved her hand, like Don't be ridiculous. "That's my uterus. Had the doc give it to me after my hysterectomy."

"Your uterus?" Yun Sun looked ill.

"I'm going to let 'em toss it in the incinerator?" Madame Z said. "Fat chance!"

"And that?" I pointed to a clump of dried-up something on the highest shelf. This show-and-tell was proving far more enjoyable than our actual readings.

Madame Z followed my gaze. She opened her mouth, then closed it. "That's nothing," she said firmly, although I noticed she had a hard time tearing her eyes from it. "Now. Are we done here?"

"Come on." I made praying hands. "Tell us what it is."

"You don't want to know," she said.

"I do," I said.

"I don't," Yun Sun said.

"Yes, she does," I said. "And so does Will. Right, Will?"

"It can't be worse than the uterus," he said.

Madame Z pressed her lips together.

"Please?" I begged.

She muttered something under her breath about idiot teenagers and how she refused to take the blame, whatever came of it. Then she stood up, pawing the top shelf. Her bosom didn't jiggle, but stayed firm and rigid beneath her top. She retrieved the clump and placed it in front of us.

"Oh," I breathed. "A corsage." Brittle rosebuds, their edges brown and papery. Sprigs of graying baby's breath, so desiccated that puffs of fiber dusted the table. A limp red ribbon holding it all together.

"A peasant woman in France put a spell on it," Madame Z said in a tone that was hard to decipher. It was as if she were compelled to speak the words, even though she didn't want to. Or, no. More like she did want to but was struggling to resist. "She wanted to show that true love is guided by fate, and that anyone who tries to interfere does so at her own peril."

She moved to return the corsage.