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Friday, July 4, 2014

One Hot Medium by Sarah Raplee

Psychic medium Cora Merryweather popped a couple of antacid tablets to quell the burning in her stomach.  Today’s one o’clock appointment will be a doozy for sure.
Limiting readings to locals might weed out the haters, but her bank account couldn’t afford to take that kind of hit. Half of Cora’s clients came from outside Iowa City, some from as far away as Waterloo and Des Moines. Like everyone else, mediums had to eat. And she refused to set her rates so high only the well-off could afford a reading.
                Cora’s sigh was cut short by a string of sneezes. Great, just great. She sounded like Typhoid Mary. How was she supposed to relax into a meditative state with her anxiety level rising like the temperature outside?
The sneezing fits had started as soon as silver-haired Mrs. Donovan, her morning client, had departed. After grabbing a box of tissues off the table, she’d settled down at her small desk and opened her old laptop. By lunchtime, she’d finished her record-keeping in spite of continued bouts of off-and-on sneezing. The persistent, unusual symptom made her suspect she was having a negative psychic premonition. She was normally an extremely healthy young woman. Besides, her negative premonitions had manifested as physical symptoms a few times in the past. When the chocolate protein shake she called lunch soured as soon as it hit her stomach, her fears had been confirmed.
The grandfather clock she’d inherited from Aunt Tillie along with the house whirred before emitting a single deep chime to mark the quarter hour. A shiver skittered up her spine. Fifteen minutes to show time. She reached for her blue plastic water bottle to wash down the last of the minty antacids.  The burning in her stomach had eased, but now she needed to pee. She plunked the bottle down  and drew her brows together in a deep, dark, heartfelt scowl.
No doubt her next client would turn out to be a hater. Why couldn’t the Doubting Thomases live and let live, the way she and most other mediums did? How would they like it if she barged into their places of business and accused them of being liars and con artists? Tried to ruin them?
She grabbed her neon orange cell phone off the desktop, paused to sneeze into a tissue and then texted her friend Joan at Discrete Security.
Is Owl on duty? The message was code asking if the security camera in the stuffed barred owl on her bookshelf was working properly.
Owl’s awake, Joan replied. Big Sister is watching. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.
            Cora’s lips stretched into a grateful smile. It helped to know someone had her back, someone who cared about her and believed in her unusual abilities.
On a computer monitor in her office across town, Joan had a clear view of Cora’s room through the wide-angle lens in Owl’s left eye. Her friend wouldn’t hesitate to deploy a pair of well-trained security officers if “Barry” flipped to the Dark Side.  No cops would be called unless Cora appeared to be in physical danger; Joan’s business wasn’t called Discrete Security for nothing. Plenty of business people whose clients expected privacy preferred to handle unpleasantness without attracting media attention. Lawyers, therapists, talent agents…psychics.
Knowing Joan had her back gave Cora confidence. She stood and waved at Owl before heading down the short hallway toward the bathroom.
Bring it on, Barry—or whatever your name really is!
She never asked for more than the client’s first name and phone number. Her job was to channel their loved ones to bring her clients healing and a measure of peace. In order for them to accept that she was the real deal, she had to be careful not to acquire any information about them or their deceased loved ones ahead of time. No last names, no checks, nothing.
Her lack of information made it relatively easy for the haters to get in to see her. The patient ones, anyway; she was booked up for months ahead because of her spotless reputation. Luckily most doubters weren’t that dedicated.
Unlike Barry, her one o’clock. She sneezed three times and shut the bathroom door.
Tom Chase twisted the bell key beside the red front door of Cora Merryweather’s blue Victorian house and schooled his face into a pleasantly neutral expression. The authentic antique bell sounded a lot like an old-fashioned bicycle bell, only louder.
         The smell of fresh paint permeated the air. Business must be exceptionally good if she could afford to hire house painters. He squelched a grimace that wanted to curl his upper lip. How many grieving widows did it take to paint a house, metaphorically-speaking?
         An indignant-sounding meow sounded at his elbow. He glanced down into the unblinking, deep-blue eyes of an enormous, long-haired white cat laying in the wide porch swing. A sunbeam highlighted the snowy whiteness of his fur against the red-checkered cushion  How could the animal stand to lie in a sunbeam when it was so damned hot? Tom’s oxford shirt was already sticking to his back, and he’d only been outside his air-conditioned truck for a few minutes.
       “Hello,” he said. He'd always liked cats. The cat’s tail tip twitched a warning. He turned away.
       A bee buzzed past his head and drew his gaze to baskets overflowing with sweet-scented, multicolored flowers that hung above the porch railing. As he’d gone up the front walk, he’d half-noticed the row of neatly-tended snapdragons that guarded the front of the house and the green, long-leafed hostas that encircled a young sugar maple tree.
He caught a whiff of the flowers’ perfume and clenched his teeth. This place reeked of hope.  He knew from hard experience that hope was a dangerously addictive emotion. He’d spent more than two years trying to break his own habit.
His eyes narrowed at two weathered wicker armchairs framing an equally dilapidated side table at the far end of the porch. A cluster of white spray paint cans peeked out from behind one of the chairs.
Tom frowned. Maybe business wasn’t as good as he’d thought.Or she needed to raise her rates.
On the other side of the red door, a clock chimed the hour. He glanced at his watch and then gave the bell key another impatient twist. The medium was late. He tried the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. Maybe she’d stood him up. His gut began to burn. He’d waited six months for this reading. She’d damned well better show up.
The knob rattled and then turned.  The door opened and a pretty, ponytailed blond wearing a short pink sheath that showed off her legs smiled up at him. The smile didn’t quite reach her clear gray eyes.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Barry.” If she’d had a tail, he was sure it would have twitched a warning.  
Even so, she nodded, sending her gold beaded earrings swinging in graceful arcs from delicate her delicate earlobes. She opened the door wider. “I’m Cora. Please come in, Barry.” She turned and walked away.
Eyeing the seductive swing of her hips, he followed.
They passed through a small, tiled foyer that was empty except for a coat rack and an umbrella stand. The large room they entered ran the width of the house. To his left, a comfortable-looking overstuffed couch and chair were grouped around a brick fireplace.  On either side of the fireplace, mullioned windows let in the light.
Cora moved to the right. “What kind of name is Barry, anyway?” she said.
“What do you mean?” He turned and watched her retreating ass. She didn’t seem to have heard him.
“Please, sit down.” She waved a casual hand at the square, polished wooden table, then took a seat. The wall behind her was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with books and a few knickknacks. 
Tom chose the seat across from hers. He wanted a clear view of her facial expressions while she “read” him.
She sat as if a she had a broom handle for a backbone and folded her hands on the tabletop. Her short, neatly-manicured nails were unpainted, probably because she worked in the garden.  A thick gold band etched with a raven totem encircled the middle finger of her right hand. Her left hand was bare.
His shoulders twitched. She made him uncomfortable in his own skin.
“Is Barry short for—what? Barold? Barney? Barrow?” The frozen smile had been replaced by a look of disdain.
Why was she fixated on the damned name? “I was named after my father.” That much was true.
Something flashed in her eyes. “I don’t doubt that for a minute. Your father’s come forward, you see. The problem is his name is Thomas, not Barry.”
Cora scowled when his earth-brown eyes slid away from hers. The skin under his fashionable dark stubble reddened. A muscle jumped in his jaw. At least he had the decency to be embarrassed at being caught in a lie.
When he shot to his feet, she realized she was mistaken. His voice dropped to a feral growl. “Where is it?”
She swallowed. He seemed to occupy a lot more space than he had a minute ago. Her tongue darted out to lick lips that were suddenly parched. 
A jumble of images flashed in her. Too many spirits vied for her attention for her to make sense of the mess in her head. Right now she needed to focus on the crazy guy in her living room, and he was very much alive.
Not now, she told the spirits. Later, I promise.
They pulled back their energy and left her to deal with Thomas on her own.
He squatted and ducked his head to look up at the table bottom, then stood once more and glanced wildly around the room.
Heart chugging like a runaway train, she rose from her chair. She had to tip her head back to catch his troubled gaze. Why had she bothered to bait this tall, dark and handsome nut job? How long would it take Joan’s minions to get here?

He flattened his hands on the tabletop and leaned in, looming over her with fire scorching the earth of his eyes. Cora felt very small and helpless as he loomed over her like volcano about to erupt.
Then a gentle child’s spirit touched her mind, leaving a single clear image behind.
“What’s the significance of the little brown teddy bear with the purple bow?” she asked him.
He stepped back as if she had shoved him. His face paled and his eyes frosted over. “Where did you find out about the bear?” he said through clenched teeth. “On someone’s Facebook page? Or did you go to the funeral home’s memorial page?”
She leapt onto her chair seat so they were eye-to-eye, teetered for a moment, and then straightened, fisting hands on hips. “How dare you try to intimidate me, you imposter! Get out before I call the police.”
His icy gaze slid down her body like a ghostly caress, stopping at her breasts, her hips, and the hem of her short skirt. She suppressed a shiver. His eyes darkened and then he bared his teeth in a caricature of a smile.  “How do you plan to call for help? A ghostly messenger?”
She felt the blood leave her face. Her dress had no pockets. She’d left her cell on the desk. If she made a dash for it, he’d be on her before she could make the call.
Had he seen her tremble? Climbing to his eye level left her very exposed in a precarious position. She wrapped her arms around herself and tried to think logically. She needed to keep him talking until the security detail arrived. “What do you want from me?”
“The truth,” he said. But something in his expression told her that, for the briefest moment, he wanted more. He wanted her.
She lifted her chin. “You can’t handle the truth.”
If he made a move toward her she’d grab her letter opener off the desk and defend herself. He wouldn’t expect her to stab him. She swallowed against a surge of nausea. There’d be an awful lot of blood. What if she hit a vital organ and he died? Would her Spirit Guides be able to protect her from Thomas? Or would he haunt her for the rest of her life?
Her vision blurred and her knees seemed to lose their strength. Her body stopped obeying her mind’s orders. She was falling. Then strong arms caught her and cradled her to a muscled chest. What seemed like only a moment passed before she was lowered onto the soft couch.
She squinted up at the hater’s worried face. He brushed her hair off her forehead with gentle fingers. Her eyelids fluttered shut.
Coming around to find him fumbling with her ears, she jerked her head back and forth while slapping at his hands. “Stop it! Get away from me, you pervert!”
He captured her wrists in his hands and sat on her thighs, pinning her legs down. She gasped and bucked, but he didn’t budge. This can’t be happening.
Her eyes burned with unshed tears. “My security guys will be here any minute.” Shouldn’t they have already arrived?
“Now who’s telling lies?”
What had been a distant wail grew louder. Joan must have called the police. Hot tears rolled down Cora’s cheeks.
The fine lines that radiated from the corners of his eyes deepened. He swore under his breath. “I’m not going to rape you. Promise not to attack me and I’ll let you up.”
She nodded her agreement. He released her, moved off her and sat in the armchair with his head in his hands. “I was sure you were wearing an earpiece to connect you to an accomplice who feeds you information.” He scrubbed his face with both hands and then gazed at her with weary eyes. 
Feeling the atmosphere in the room shift, she pushed herself up to a sitting position.
His eyes pleaded with her. “I’m begging you. Tell me how you work the con and I’ll go. I won’t give your secret away. I have to know how it’s done. I have to.”
She stared at him mutely. After all he’d done, he still thought she was a fake. Hardening her heart, she stood up, straightened her dress and gave him the look she reserved for when Sugar Cat crapped in her flower bed. A police car pulled up in front of the house.
Acting on intuition, she walked over to the hater and slapped his hangdog face. “You’re the only one with secrets, Barry. Consider this your get-out-of-jail free card. You only get one. I won’t press charges. Leave through the kitchen and out the back gate.” She crossed to the foyer. “Don’t ever, ever even think about coming back.”
The little sugar maple tree had turned bright orange before Tom found the courage to ignore Cora’s warning and return to try to set things right.
The wind brought the spicy scent of fallen leaves as He parked his car at the curb and studied her house for a moment, noting subtle changes. The snapdragons had been replaced with bold orange and gold chrysanthemums. A large un-carved pumpkin squatted beside the bottom step like a soldier guarding the castle gate.
The flower baskets were gone. A painted wooden sign hung on short chains from the hooks. A fairytale castle glittered at one end of the sign; a good likeness of the big white cat stared at him from the other. The words Do you believe in magic? If so, welcome. If not, go jump in the moat! filled the space between the artwork.
He smiled. The words were typical of his experience with Cora Merryweather. They gave him courage to climb out of his car and start up the short walk.
Although there was no excuse for the way he’d frightened and manhandled Cora, he owed her an apology and an explanation. She must have sensed there was more to the situation than she knew. Why else would she have failed to press charges against him? A statement from her would have ruined what was left of his life. He owed her thanks for that, too.
She believed he considered her to be a fake, a con artist. She damned well deserved to know the truth of the matter. It would take real magic for her to find it in her heart to forgive him, but she’d made him believe in magic.
Tom took the steps two at a time. A loud meow brought him up short. The big white cat lay on the porch swing cushion as if he hadn’t moved in all this time. Deep blue eyes squeezed shut and a purr rumbled from his chest. Tom stroked the big animal’s head with one cautious finger. The purr grew louder.
He desperately wanted to start over with Cora. At first he’d told himself she was only important because she was the one he’d been afraid to hope for, a person who could really communicate with the dead. Someone who proved life continued beyond this earthly plane, something he’d never believed until now. Someone who could help him say goodbye to his wife and little girl, tell them how sorry he was that he’d been unable to control the van when their front tire blew on the Cedar River Bridge. Tell them he would have gladly traded his life for theirs.
All that was true, but he found himself thinking about Cora constantly. The way her hips swayed when she walked. The way she’d climbed on her chair to make herself taller. The way her storm-cloud-colored eyes sparked when she was angry. Her flowery scent.
Taking the cat’s change of heart as a good sign, he squared his shoulders, faced Cora’s shiny red door and turned the bell key. The hollow sound jangled his nerves.
The door opened and a disheveled Cora blinked up at him. She wore faded jeans and a dirty pink Iowa Hawkeyes tee-shirt. A dusty rag was clutched in one hand.
She raised her arm and sneezed twice into her shirtsleeve. “I figured you’d turn up sooner or later. You’re not the type to leave well enough alone.” She looked tired and cranky and sexy as hell.
He felt his mouth stretch into a grin. “Has anyone ever told you you’re one hot medium?”
Her eyes widened and her brows lifted in apparent surprise.
He pressed the advantage. “Everything you told me that day was spot on. There was no way you could have known my real name, or about Gracie’s bear.”
When her gray eyes turned to velvet, he plunged into the apology he’d prepared, ready to shove his foot in the door if the shock wore off and she moved to shut him out. “I shouldn’t have lied about my name. I shouldn’t have scared you. I definitely shouldn’t have touched you.” He paused to clear his dry throat. “I was in no condition to approach you or any other medium. At the time I didn’t realize how far off the reservation I’d ventured.”
He plowed a hand through his hair. “I swear I’ve never manhandled a woman before. I can’t believe it happened. But it did, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.”
The silence stretched for what seemed like forever. Then she sighed and gestured toward the freshly painted white wicker chairs. “Let’s sit.”
A surge of elation lightened his footsteps. After they’d taken their seats on either side of the small table, he tried to explain the events that had driven his erratic behavior. “My parents were both scientists. They believed in the here and now, in living the one life that nature evolved for us the best way we can. That’s what I believed, too, until the accident that killed my wife, Evelyn, and our little girl, Grace. At first grief consumed me every moment of every day. Then I found myself talking to them at home. At times I had the overwhelming sense that they were still with me, that they heard me. At those times I found a small measure of peace. I was desperate to believe those feelings were more than just a part of the natural grieving process, more than just coping mechanisms to help me make it through the pain. But I knew reality didn’t work like that.”
He cleared his throat. “When I couldn’t shut those feelings away, I wondered if I was going crazy. Then a friend’s wife talked me into going to a so-called medium. I found myself hoping for proof, for validation of my experiences. The medium would demonstrate that there is life after death.”
The thud of the big white cat jumping down from the swing made them both flinch. They watched him pad over to flop at their feet. Cora leaned over to scratch the cat’s cheek for a moment. Then she turned sideways in her chair and met Tom’s gaze. “Please go on.”
“It was ridiculously easy to prove the first medium was a con man.” Tom couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice. “I didn’t know then what I know now. Hope is an addictive emotion.”
“Sometimes,” she said softly. Her eyes were full of compassion.
He nodded. “I found another medium. And another. And another. Some were smarter than others, but I always found a rational explanation for how they got the information they seemed to pull out of thin air. I went through half a dozen before the hope finally died. I made it my mission in life to discredit every medium I could find, and I was able to do so—until you.”
He shook his head. His gaze fell to her gold raven ring. He wasn’t proud of the fact that he went a little crazy trying to ruin her life. “While I was on your waiting list, I interviewed as many of your clients as I could find. Every one of them was certain you had a supernatural gift. Not one had a bad thing to say about you. You were warmhearted, kind, patient. Hell, your rates were even reasonable. And you knew things no one else could know, like how Mrs. Donovan had gone to her laundry room the morning of her reading and breathed in her dead husbands scent from his favorite sweatshirt. Crazy obscure knowledge that could only be explained by your incredible psychic gift.”
His laugh sounded bitter, even to himself. “The more I learned about Cora Merryweather, the more determined I became to prove you were nothing but a crook with a pretty face.” He forced himself to glance at her face to read her reaction.
She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear and gave him a tentative smile, a smile that lit up her eyes from within. A smile he didn’t deserve.
“I became obsessed with you. I spent hours every evening doing online research, sometimes forgetting to eat or sleep. I stopped going out except to work and buy groceries. Just before my appointment date, my boss put me on a leave of absence from work. I didn’t care.” Looking back on that time, he found it hard to remember the details of what he’d done.
“Grief can do strange things to a person,” Cora said. “It will tear you apart if you let it.”
His throat tightened. He couldn’t look at her.
“By the time the day of my reading arrived, I had nothing to work with: no evidence of fraud, no dissatisfied customers, only my crazy convictions.” Tom sighed. “I was terrified to hope again. Another disappointment would have killed me. The moment we met, my instincts told me you were genuine, a good person doing good work. But if I was wrong about that…” He looked away from her stricken expression. “I’m not proud of my cowardice.”
Cora slipped out of her seat and knelt beside him. He caught a whiff of her flowery scent and his blood heated. She cupped his jaw in her small, strong hand and forced him to meet her gaze.
“You are not a coward, Tom.” Her voice and eyes held conviction. “You’re here, aren’t you? You’ve faced your demons, admitted your mistakes, asked for forgiveness. You’ve changed your worldview in a way few people are capable of doing.”
Her faith in him gave him courage to hope. He turned his head and pressed his lips her warm, soft palm. “Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?”
Her eyes turned to smoldering charcoal. “That depends,” she said. “How hot do you think I am?”
He spent the rest of the day showing her.

 © 2013 Sarah Raplee  All rights reserved


  1. Loved it before and love it even more this time around! Thanks for starting my day off with a smile, Sarah!!!

  2. You're welcome, Judith! Thank you for your kind words. Happy Independence Day!

  3. Wow, I loved this story. I've written about psychics, have been to mediums, had some who are friends; so I loved how you handled this story. Good work!

  4. Paty, I'm so glad you enjoyed the story!