by Lex Voytek
Back then, I had become agoraphobic. I was seventeen, and hadn’t left my house in weeks. I quit school and dwindled in weight and hope. After exhausting the medical system for answers, I turned to alternative solutions. A Chinese medicine doctor came by my house every week and talked about how my body was filled with “damp heat.”
I didn’t know how my body acquired the damp in my parched desert home of Albuquerque, but he told me to take some herbs and change my diet to rid myself of the damp heat. He told me that it would also improve my “mood.” I tried the bitter concoction of herbs for weeks, but my mood never improved. I still spent my days hiding indoors, considering the idea of just putting one foot in front of the other toward the door, and then I’d be outside again—that simple.
One day I gripped the keys to the Jeep my mother bought me the year before, a gift of freedom many teenagers would envy, and considered driving around the block. I had even enjoyed my freedom in the vehicle before the fear set in—taking my very first road trip alone to Arizona. I had spent hours alone in the car, without cellphone service, or a plan, or direction. I just listened to music until the speakers blew out and never considered danger or mortality.
So, I held the keys in my hand and tried to remember that version of myself. I opened the door of the Jeep; the air was hot and stale. The doors hadn’t been opened in months. I could see a thick, chaotic web where a black widow had taken up residence in the front tire well on the driver’s side. It was a wonder the vehicle started after so much neglect, but I imagined the Jeep was probably anxious, like everyone else, to see me get moving again.
I started to drive the Jeep around the block. Just as my house left my view through the mirror, my heart started to pump a bass line so loudly into my ears, I thought they would burst like my Jeep’s speakers had many months ago. I quickly turned into a driveway and made a dash back for home. My mother cheered as if I had accomplished something amazing when I walked back inside. It was a few more weeks before I would venture out again.
My mom was happy the day I told her I wanted to leave the house again. I needed her to drive me to the edge of town—Los Lunas, a town south of Albuquerque on I25. The interstate scared me—it was too fast—so I made her take the route on Old Coors Road. She didn’t ask me why I wanted a ride, or why I still couldn’t drive myself to an antique store a town away.
The week before, I had been desperately searching the internet for answers. My question was why? I was a bright teenage girl, I had been told. I was supposed to be the valedictorian, my teachers lamented. I was loved by so many, they assured me. My future looked hopeful, they promised. But, in one day I suddenly realized I was afraid. Afraid. Afraid of death, pain, my frailty, the outside, and even certain rooms of my house.
It wasn’t just fear, it was The Fear. I couldn’t sleep in my own bedroom. The last night I spent in my bedroom I had a dream that as I slept a dark figure came in through the window. He locked the windows and doors as soon as he got in. Then he pinned me down and suffocated me to death. For a moment I was sure I knew the figure. That was when I started to sleep in my mother’s room—like I was a toddler again, afraid of monsters under the bed.
Jeff said that he was a Shaman. I found his website in my quest for the answer. I didn’t think Shamans advertised on the Internet, but Jeff did. I called him and started to explain my situation. I told him the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me—that it was all in my head. I explained that the doctors just gave me high doses of sedatives and wrote me off as a “troubled teen.” Jeff told me not to tell him anything more. He already knew what was wrong, and he wanted me to trust his visions. He didn’t want me to spoil that trust by revealing too much. He said I should come to see him in Los Lunas. He owned an antique store and would be free to see me at my earliest convenience.
On the drive with my mother to Los Lunas I saw russet-colored hawks sitting along fence posts. They sat poised and dignified, like soldiers. I imagined that my dad looked after me through their eyes. When my dad was still alive, he would rehabilitate birds of prey. I still had a yellowed picture of my dad when he was a young man in the ‘70s. He had a leather glove on, even though it was summer in Phoenix—a place known for temperatures that could melt asphalt— and a small sparrow hawk perched on his hand. In the picture, he had a genuine smile on his face, with crinkled eyes and lots of teeth—nothing camera posed. This hawk was one of many wounded creatures my dad was able to rescue. Since my dad’s death my family has associated his spirit with hawks.
The further my mom and I went on this car ride to Los Lunas, the blurrier and darker the world seemed. It was late fall, which is normally a colorful time in New Mexico. The International Balloon Fiesta, which is held every year in Albuquerque, had already finished some time before, but there were still hot air balloons of all sizes and shapes—a bright yellow one with a red Zia symbol like the New Mexican flag, and even a zebra shaped balloon that dotted the deep blue sky. The breeze was spicy with the smell of green chile roasting in every supermarket parking lot; each one we passed I could see the fumes rising up through the sky, distorting the air.
As we crossed the Rio Grande, the Bosque was still lush with old cottonwoods that hadn’t lost their leaves yet. My vision was still dulled by my panic-induced dilated pupils. Eventually everything blurred into the same flat tan of the surrounding mesa. The half decayed and hollow cholla trees looked like brittle bones sticking out of the parched earth.
When we arrived at the antique store in Los Lunas, I didn’t have energy to acknowledge my mother’s narrowed face. She loved me. I knew that. She had already exhausted the whys and hows, with no adequate answers, long before we were sitting in the car that day. I told my mom to keep her cell phone close and to pick me up in an hour. She pointed across the street to a Starbucks and said she would be there reading a book. She didn’t like coffee—or Starbucks. I know she chose it because it was close enough that she could keep her hawk eye on me too. I was thankful.
Jeff welcomed me at the entrance of the store and my mom drove away. His face was pale and covered in a thick grey beard. His dress was “business casual,” with a turquoise bolo tie with dark braided leather chord capped with etched silver. Before he walked me inside, I noticed a chain-link fence that surrounded the antique store.
I could see through the fence that Jeff kept a pack of wolves. There were pups playing in the yard, practicing their future as hunters, I imagined. Most of my view of their activity was obscured by juniper bushes and elm trees. One of the wolves was standing with Jeff at the entrance. The wolf was bigger than I expected. It looked almost as big as a Great Dane, but perhaps his large size was because of his life in captivity.
I had always imagined wolves to be more like dogs—maybe with a lolling tongue hanging from their panting mouth and a look in their eye that said they were happy to meet you, but seeing this beast in person made me realize the wilderness was still deeply a part of it. The wolf stood, analyzing me with his severe eyes, and his onyx nose twitched. Jeff motioned with his hand and the wolf heeled at his side as they guided me through the shop.
The shop was filled with the typical American nostalgia and junk that was passed off as antique; old Coca-Cola signs and car license plates hung on the wall. A bowl of obsidian artifacts and beads sat at the old, but not antique, cash register. There was pottery, probably made by local artists, on many of the surrounding shelves.
Jeff’s wife, an older blonde woman with large wire-frame glasses, waited for us at the entrance to a secret room at the back of the warehouse-sized building. She helped him into a metal folding chair, like the kind used at potlucks and summer functions and pulled up a similar seat for me. The metal was cold against my legs as I adjusted to find a comfortable position. The wolf waited by the doorway—as if standing guard. Jeff’s wife was silent and clasped her hands in front of her like she was about to pray. She slowly closed her eyes. She was the only one that wasn’t watching me.
There was a ribbon of thick grey smoke that came from the corner of the room. It smelled like tobacco and herbs. The smoke filled the room and my lungs, but it didn’t feel like or taste like cigarette tobacco. It tasted peppery and floral, like sweet curry and hookah. Then Jeff grabbed my hands off of my lap and looked into my eyes. His hands were rough and calloused. His eyes were pale, like a blind man, but I felt his pupils focused on me.
“You nearly drowned when you were three,” he told me, suddenly and with conviction. “You were trying to help your sister to safety and you almost died. Was your sister in a boat? I see her on a scrap of wood.”
How could he know that? I thought. “Yes,” I answered. “She floated out on an old shipping pallet.”
“But your dad saved you. He pulled you out of the water. You were under for a long time, but you knew you weren’t supposed to breathe in. You were quiet and at peace while you waited to be rescued.”
“Yes. I remember not being afraid at all then. Even though I was close to death, I didn’t fear for my life. I wish I felt that way now,” I told him. “I remember that I counted to three over and over again. I was three years old, so I liked to count to three on my fingers. I still remember holding my hand up to the light through the water and cycling through closed fist, one finger, two fingers, three fingers, closed fist again.” I was not sure what I was expecting from our interaction, but I didn’t realize I was going to get a psychic reading done by Jeff.
“Your dad isn’t here physically anymore, so he cannot save you, but you can still communicate with him—through the animals—birds.” Jeff looked up, like his eyes were going to roll back and look into his own mind. “Your dad doesn’t approve; he’s worried about you.”
“The hawks watched me on the way here,” I explained. How could Jeff know all of this? I thought as I let him continue to search his mind.
Jeff’s eyes rolled back to focus on me again. “You were raped, recently,” he said with haunting certainty.
Aha, I thought, I knew he’d get it wrong. He just had some lucky guesses before. I hadn’t been raped. I could feel my palms start to sweat, but I had started sweating a lot more in the previous months. I was always clammy and uneasy. I couldn’t speak, so he continued.
“And you’ll be raped by him again,” he said. “Of course, you can take these herbs and my warning to try to rewrite that fate,” he said and handed me a blend of herbs—like the ones burning in the corner. The wolf shifted at the door, his nose still twitching and analyzing.
“Again?” I stopped him and asked. “How is that possible when it hasn’t happened a first time?”
“I forgot to mention that this is someone you think you love. A lover. But he’s much older than you—over a decade, so you see him like a guardian. Don’t trust him. The last time you had sex there was blood—lots of blood and your lover liked it. He liked the blood. You thought you were going to die. Was it alcohol? He kept you from the hospital for many hours. Why? To protect himself, probably. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he has already surrendered to darkness.” Jeff trailed off. He suddenly wasn’t talking to me—he was talking to something, or someone I could not see.
I was speechless. I was listening to a raving mad man. I looked down at the herbs he had given me. I didn’t know how these dried plants would protect me or what I was supposed to do with these bizarre revelations. I felt like I didn’t belong in that room. I considered running, but the wolf was still sharply watching me.
I felt eyes—visible and invisible, everywhere. But Jeff was right. I stopped leaving my house after that day—the day my lover waited to take me to the hospital. I thought I was going to die that day. There was blood. And alcohol. I barely remember what he did to me, but I woke up disoriented in a bed that was not my own and screamed for help. Before help arrived, I was aware that my body was weak and poisoned from too much alcohol. I lost consciousness for a while and woke up again with my lover hovering over me. I heard running water nearby—it was the sound of my own urine dripping from the bed to the tile floor below. I don’t remember what he did to me.
“That’s why you’re afraid. You are not sick. You are wounded—there’s a difference. And you’ll know that this is the truth someday.”
Jeff dropped his gaze and unlocked eyes with me. I felt the heat of all the eyes on me disappear. Jeff started to stand up just as his wife came to his side. The wolf heeled again at his other side. He started to walk toward the doorway and tripped. He fell to his knees, and his wife kneeled to help him back up. She turned to me, and apologized, “He’s blind, I’m sure he told you.”
I paid Jeff his fee at the cash register in the front of the shop—as if I had just picked up a silver bracelet on my tour through town. He handed me a receipt that just said “services” and then leaned in to give me a hug, like we were old friends. “Don’t trust anyone,” he whispered in my ear. If you say my name, or burn the herbs I gave you, I’ll be able to see you, wherever you are.”
My mom was waiting for me outside. Her eyes un-narrowed as I emerged from the shop. She didn’t say anything, she just started the car as I sat in the passenger seat and we drove away. She still had a full drink in the cup holder. I didn’t tell her what Jeff had told me. I did as Jeff said and trusted no one for a long time, but I never burned the herbs, and I didn’t say Jeff’s name again for many years.
About the author: Lex Voytex is a restless wanderer, and writing—and sometimes a good whisky—can remedy the inner chaos. She teaches English to Chinese students and tutors in math to appear well rounded.