Randy died with his ring in his pocket.

On a dark and stormy night in August, on a twisty road on the way into Taylortown—where the speed limit goes from 50, then to 35, then to 25 miles per hour—Randy lost control of his matte black Mustang and crashed into a wooden utility pole, crumpling the hood of his car and severing his head. Randy left behind (according to the obituary) “his wife Dawn and four children, Patrick, Stephen, Johnathan, and Pamela,” as well as the usual collection of siblings, in-laws, and cousins a man of 46 years tends to accumulate along the way.

The kids had taken it particularly hard. Patrick, Stephen, Pamela, and Johnathan had all managed to live to the ages of 11, 13, 14, and 15, respectively, without losing so much as a goldfish to the reaper’s scythe. For them, death was something that happened to the people on TV; that is, until the sheriff had come to their door in the middle of the night with his hat in his hands. Now the boys refused to leave their rooms and Pamela dressed all in black.

Dawn, as one would expect, struggled with the sudden loss of her husband too, though she tried to struggle a bit more gracefully than her children. She cried, but only when she was sure there was nobody around. She cursed God for taking Randy so soon, but always waited until the preacher was out of earshot. In short, she played the role of heartbroken widow perfectly: pitiable, but not horribly unpleasant for the other mourners to be around at the pre-funeral viewing, the funeral proper, and the post-funeral luncheon.

As if the loss of a loving father and husband were not enough for them to bear, embarrassment had been added to the Cook family’s despair when the coroner, tasked with removing the late Mr. Cook’s clothes from his headless corpse, discovered a silver wedding band in the left hand pocket of Randy’s bloodstained khakis. Of course, this was not, in and of itself, proof that Randy had been unfaithful to Dawn, but it was enough to make her suspicious…and to get the ladies of Taylortown talking.

Now Dawn lay awake at night staring at the ceiling, imagining her Randy in a strange bed accompanied by a harem of even stranger women. Was it that Buddha-bellied bitch from Walmart that she had caught eyeing Randy at the checkout? The mousy receptionist with the black frame glasses from his work that liked all his status updates on Facebook? Or could it be their little nymphet of a babysitter? Dawn never trusted her anyway.

Sylvia came to know of all of this through a particularly long and rambling email from Mrs. Cook herself. An email that ended, as nearly all emails addressed to psychicreadingsbysylvia@gmail.com did, with a plea for help and a promise of payment. The concluding paragraph read:

…I guess what I’m saying is that I need closure. I loved Randy but I sometimes wonder if not maybe the girls at the salon are right. Maybe he was cheating. And I thought if only I could ask him point blank: were you? I saw on your site that you conduct seances. I need to know and I don’t know how else I could ask him.

—Dawn Cook

Sylvia sighed. Another dead spouse job. When she had switched from a career in finance to go into commercial spiritualism, Sylvia assumed that she would be distancing herself from the banalities of normal life. It had been an affront to her sensibilities to sit in a cubicle day in and day out—listening to her coworkers go on and on about their failing relationships and their idiot kids at the water cooler, putting numbers in spreadsheets—knowing that she could bend spoons with her mind, forecast the future, and commune with the dead. Sylvia didn’t want to be famous, she just didn’t want to be bored.

So she had quit, and with the purchase of a domain name, her 900 square foot downtown apartment above Margarite’s Antiques—with its leaky faucets and moldy furniture smell—became Psychic Readings by Sylvia.

But where had it gotten her? Her business, such as it was, had quickly become a Grand Guignol parody of the Maury show. Sylvia’s last three clients had been modern day Mary Todd Lincolns, looking to interrogate their late husbands about affairs and other indiscretions. Dawn was no different, but in the end, she had money and Sylvia had bills.

Sylvia wrote back, negotiating her terms (“$15.25 an hour as well as any additional fees incurred during the sitting”) and warning Mrs. Cook about the dangers presented by a seance. “I can’t promise that your husband will appear during our session,” she wrote, “and there is a distinct possibility that once I open myself to the other side, someone or something else may try to make contact.” This had never happened, but Sylvia liked to cover her bases.

Dawn, apparently unfazed by both the price and potential risk associated with Sylvia’s services, replied almost immediately, sending both her address and a list of dates that would work for her. After a few more emails, Sylvia and Dawn decided on the coming Monday at “around 7:30ish. That way, I’ll have time to cook dinner for the kids.”

That Monday, Sylvia set out for the Cook residence, aiming to be there closer to the ish than to 7:30. As she passed over a stretch of road where the speed limit goes from 50, then to 35, then to 25 miles per hour, Sylvia’s vision was suddenly shot through with flashes of white-hot lightning, her ears filled by the sound of crunching metal and thunder. And then, as quickly as they had come, the sensations passed and the road once again appeared in front of her.

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully, Sylvia’s Buick cruising past a series of increasingly decrepit Victorians as she drew nearer to her destination. The rambling, gothic behemoths stared down at her with window-like eyes. A block or two down, Main Street branched off to her right: home to the town’s two dueling dive bars, the post office, what passed for a library, and the old salon. Farther down lay the trailer park, where the bulk of the town lived. It was a town like a tar trap, the kind the girls with pierced septums and technicolor hairdos always talk about leaving behind but never do.

The Cooks lived in what was, by comparison, the nicer part of town. Their neighbors to the left and right were studious stewards of the earth, their yards cut to a reasonable length, their flowerbeds carefully groomed. The Cook house itself, like its neighbors, was unremarkable: white siding, black shingles, and square windows. Sylvia pulled her car onto the perfectly paved blacktop drive and began gathering the candles, notebooks, and pens she would need to conduct the sitting from the backseat.

“Sylvia?” A voice called from the front door.

“Hello! Dawn?”

“Yes. Come in, come in. I want you to meet the kids. We just finished up with dinner.”

Sylvia followed Dawn inside to the dining room, where the Cook children were standing, arranged from shortest to tallest.

“Sylvia, this,” Dawn said, starting with the shortest, “is Patrick, our—my youngest.”

“Hi, Patrick. How are you?”

“I’m…okay.”

It went about like that all the way up the gradient, all of the children offering up only saturnine, monosyllabic responses. Until Dawn came to Johnathan, the oldest and tallest of the Cook boys, who, before she could introduce him, asked:

“Why are you here?”

“Well, your mother—”

“Why don’t you kids go to your rooms for a while and relax? Ms. Sylvia and I have some stuff we’ve got to talk about down here.”

Not needing to be told twice, the quartet disappeared to their rooms. Dawn and Sylvia watched them go.

“You don’t want them to know what we’re doing?”

“I’m not even sure what we’re doing. They’ve been so different since Randy died, the last thing I want is to do something that’ll make this harder on them.”

“Okay. Do you have somewhere in particular you want to do the sitting?”

“Could we do it here, at the table? Will that be enough space?”

“Of course, that’s what I was going to suggest.”

Sylvia sat her bag down on the oak dining room table and removed three white candles, a lighter, a pen, and a yellow legal pad.

“That’s all you need? Where’s the Ouija board?”

“I thought you said you didn’t know what we were doing?”

“But, I mean…”

“Those are just props and the only people that need them are teenage girls and grifters. Sit down.”

“Oh, uh, okay.”

Dawn sat down and Sylvia flicked off the chandelier above the table, plunging the dining room into darkness. Sylvia lit the candles and took a seat beside Dawn.

“Take my hand.”

Dawn did as instructed, and Sylvia closed her eyes. She allowed herself to drift, the collective energy of everything that had ever been or ever would be slowly sliding past her. Soon, she found herself floating above an ocean of mercury, an endless void stretching on and on forever. She called out “Randy! Randy!” until a single hand emerged from the depths. Sylvia reached out and grabbed it, pulling with all her strength until an elbow, then a shoulder, then a neck had been liberated from the quicksilver sea…

Sylvia opened her eyes. The once empty seat to her left was now occupied by a headless corpse in western business attire, the candlelight throwing strange light over his mutilated form. The stump where Randy’s head should have been twitched and convulsed, producing a gurgling wheeze that Sylvia assumed must have been an attempt at speech. Dawn looked around frantically, evidently unable to see the spectral form of her husband. Small blessings.

“What was that noise? Is it him?”

“Hand me the pen and paper.”

“Why? Is he here? Randy? Randy, can you hear me?”

“He’s here and he can hear you, but he isn’t able to speak.”

“Why not? What’s wrong?”

Sylvia hesitated for a moment, looking at the headless specter sitting in front of her, the blood slowly spilling from his neck and down his perfectly pressed shirt, before saying;

“The connection is weak.”

“Oh, okay.”

Dawn passed the notepad and pen to Sylvia, who in turn passed it to what was left of Randy.

“Randy, Dawn and I are going to ask you some questions. Pick up the pen and write your answers on the paper. Do you understand?”

Sylvia watched Randy pick up the pen and Dawn watched the pen levitate. Slowly, Randy scratched out Y-e-s on the yellow legal pad.

“Oh my God! Randy! Randy!”

“Dawn, do you have anything you want to ask Randy?”

“Were you having an affair with that lady at work?”

Where am I?

“You’re home. Answer my question.”

What happened?

“You died. Answer my question.”

Are the kids okay?

“Yes. Answer my question. Was it the babysitter?”

I love you.

“Were you cheating on me with that girl from the store?”

I love you.

“Why weren’t you wearing your ring?”

I love you.

“Answer me, damn it!”

I love you.

“Dawn—”

“Make him answer me!”

And with that, Randy slipped away, back into that strange half-place between life and death, slowly becoming more and more transparent before disappearing altogether. That was when the candles began to sputter before finally snuffing themselves out. The dining room went from dim to dark, and Dawn wept. After a time, through her tears, she said:

“You said he would talk to me if you brought him here.”

“I’m sorry, Dawn.”

“Just go.”

Wordlessly, Sylvia stood and turned on the light. She gathered her candles and walked back out to her car, in her haste forgetting to collect her notepad, and, later that night, when they emerged from their rooms, the Cook children found a note on the kitchen table reading, in a script that perfectly matched the handwriting on every Christmas and birthday card they had ever received from their father, I love you. Four times: once for each of them.

The bill came in the mail a week later.