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Where There's Smoke
Jodi Picoult

SERENITY, 1993

When I was four years old, I kept telling my mother that the little boy in our house was stealing things. I should preface this by saying I was an only child—a precocious one at that. I also said I was going to live on the moon, invent glow-in-the-dark hair extensions, and marry Donny Osmond—so I understand why my mother didn’t believe me when I blamed an imaginary kid for my missing Barbie doll or the enamel snuffbox she’d inherited from her grandfather, which had up and vanished. As I recall, I may even have gotten a spanking for telling tales, when I knew damn well what I was saying was true.

Which was why, one day, when I peeked into my room and saw the boy—rifling through my bureau this time, his back to me—I tiptoed down the hall and dragged my mother to see with her own eyes.

I pointed through the open doorway at the boy. He was maybe six or seven, and he wasn’t dressed like me or any other kid I knew. He wore pants that ended at the knees and that seemed to be made out of the same black velvet as our Elvis painting in the living room; he had a lacy collar around his neck that would have gotten him teased for being a sissy if he set foot in my preschool class. “Hey,” I cried out, just as he pulled from the drawer a headband with pink daisies glued onto it, which happened to be my favorite.

His head whipped around. He looked me right in the eye. And then, when I blinked, he was gone.

“I told you so,” I said to my mother, but she wasn’t looking at the spot where the little boy had been. She was staring, wide-eyed, at me.

If this had been today, not the early seventies, I would probably have been shuttled off to a child psychiatrist and given some kick-ass medication. But my mother, who had the psychic ability God gave a sea cucumber, still was able to recognize what she had witnessed before in her own great-grandma, an Iroquois healer who had predicted the date and manner of death for every man she had ever courted. “Serenity,” she said, grasping my shoulders. “That boy’s not real.”

I just laughed at her. “He is to me,” I said.

That is how I sum up my career as a psychic. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean I don’t. I can’t explain it, I can’t understand it, and I can’t deny it.

So I sure as hell am not going to fight it.

I never meet the guests before the show. I have producers who make sure that they are comfortable, in greenrooms with elaborate fruit trays and a mini-fridge full of soda and fruit juice and mugs with the SERENITY! logo on the side, that they can take home as souvenirs. But I want the first interaction between us to be as undiluted as possible. This way, when I grasp the guest’s hand I get that first swirl of energy, that connection, and nothing else gets in the way.

Today, it is Bethany—the assistant to the assistant director’s assistant or some BS title like that—who knocks and sticks her head into my dressing room. She is small, mousy, and overwhelmed by everything from the line producer to the latte machine. She got this job through an uncle who’s an industry executive. When she opens the door, I can hear the buzz of the small studio audience. Unlike most talk shows, we do not just try to fill seats with the vagrants from Hollywood Boulevard. We give members of our audience Breathalyzer tests to make sure they’re sober; we do background checks. It’s the only way I could possibly do televised readings; the link to the paranormal world is all about energy, and if the energy in a studio audience is messed up because of drugs or alcohol, it’s harder for me to hear the spirits. Yet in spite of the hoops they must jump through to get in, we have a three-year waiting list of people who are dying to come to the show.

Not to mention a long list of those who are already dead.

“Sorry to interrupt, Serenity,” she says. “We’re five minutes away from filming.”

I glance at her reflection in the full-length mirror, where I am taking stock of my signature pink hair, piled onto my head (the higher the hair, the closer to Jesus), my matching shantung suit jacket, and my Louboutin spike-heeled platforms. “Bethany,” I ask. “What do you think of these shoes?”

I’m pretty sure they cost as much as her rent. “They’re epic,” she says.

“You don’t think the red on the bottom clashes?”

“No one’s going to see it,” Bethany says, blushing. She’s right about that. But I’ll know. I’ll also remember how, after my dad killed himself, my mother would have to declare Campbell’s weeks, when all we ate was canned soup, until she could get her next paycheck. I’ll remember that, and look at these shoes, and think of how fitting it is that this sixth sense I have is sometimes called a Gift.

I can feel Lucinda, one of my spirit guides, give me a psychic nudge, and I roll my eyes. “Bethany,” I say and—although I rarely do this—read unbidden. “You’re about to meet someone. He’s from Finland … Sweden … somewhere up there where it’s cold and there are herrings and stuff. It’s going to happen on a bus. When he asks you if you need help, even if you don’t—say yes.”

“I don’t take the bus,” Bethany says.

“Maybe you should,” I suggest. “And maybe between stops you can think about how it’s rude to look gift horses in the mouth.”

Bethany gapes at me. Then she swallows and backs out of the room.

Temper, child, Lucinda says. She’s a refined, elderly African-American woman.

My other guide is Desmond, a fierce, feisty gay man. I can hear him, too, laughing in the back recesses of my mind. Someone woke up on the wrong side of the broom this morning.

His thoughts immediately take me down a notch, which is—as usual—exactly what I need. He and Lucinda are my gatekeepers. I trust them to be guards, just like I pay Felix—who is roughly the size of Mount Everest—to be one here on earth. They’re psychic sentinels, so if a spirit comes up and says, I need to talk to Serenity, they can say, She’s not in. Without that, I’d have requests coming from both directions—this world and the next—24/7. I am willing to walk that dotted line between two metaphysical planes, but I need a filter. I don’t want spirits popping through walls all day long and saying, “Ooh, there’s my grandbaby, say hello for me.”

I believe everyone has spirit guides—but not everyone bothers to start a conversation with them. Spirit guides have lived as humans. They have a soul level that’s very evolved and have learned a lot of life lessons. (That’s the goal, you know—keep graduating to the next level, until you have a soul that is as pure as it can be.) Anyway, spirit guides are entrusted to help those of us on earth—not to tell us how to lead our lives, but to facilitate things between this world and the next. Desmond tells me all the time it’s not his job to advise me on whether or not I should do a prime-time special; he’s just here to pick me up when I’m thrown from the bucking bronco of life.

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