art by Eleanor Bennett
by Jeff Stehman
Her first customers of the day were teenagers, a brother and sister. Too young to remember the one they sought.
Dolores kept the curtains drawn in her little shop, not for atmosphere, but for the privacy of her customers. From these two, however, she expected no tears, no weeping. They were here on a lark. Their chairs close together for courage, they fidgeted and shared frequent smirks and giggles. Probably ditched their parents in another part of the memorial village.
"I'll need the full name of the departed," Dolores said as she lit the candle. "But don't tell me anything about yourselves or your family. If I make contact, I'll ask the departed to provide verification. Once you're satisfied, we'll move on to your questions."
The candle wasn't for atmosphere either. Her shop had little of that. Nor was the flame part of a ritual, at least not in the traditional sense. Lighting a candle was her way of letting the dead know she was ready for them. She had been overwhelmed at times before working out a way to signal when she was off duty.
"Is it dangerous?" The girl seemed to be having second thoughts.
"Not at all, my dear." Not for anyone their age. But if the ghosts had blamed them, they'd have been dead long before reaching this shop. It had happened three times in the history of the memorial. All three had been Dolores's former coworkers.
The girl took a deep breath, making her decision. "We want to talk to Mary Louise Baumgartner. She was--"
"That should be all I need, thank you." Dolores opened herself to the others who peopled the village and repeated the name. She didn't have to wait long. A young woman, just a few years older than the kids, slipped into the empty chair. Dolores looked at the flame so as not to see that look from the ghost, a mix of sorrow and kindness.
I know them, Mary said to Dolores. She has my sister's face.
Dolores relayed what she was told, identifying first the teenagers, though they had been toddler and infant when Mary had known them, and then their father. When she spoke of their mother, Mary's older sister, she went on at length until the boy stopped Dolores mid-sentence.
"All right, we believe you!" Brother and sister looked at each other wide-eyed. "Um..."
"Did it hurt?" the girl asked.