One mistake is what separated Nellie from the others—the “fakies” as she called them. Nellie was no Miss Francine, and she certainly wasn’t a part of the, even worse, Psychic Sisters Network. She told her eight-year-old grandson, Sam, to mute the television every time one of the Psychic Sisters’ cheap ads came blaring from the screen. Those old ladies and their stupidly written synchronized sentences. As if completing someone’s thought was enough to make a person a psychic—or any kind of clairvoyant for that matter. “Please,” she grunted to Sam, rolling her eyes. “Those women wouldn’t know a real psychic if one bit them on their collective ass.”
Nellie conducted her last session before her self-imposed retirement no differently than the hundreds of others that had come before. Sure, she was admittedly a little slower answering the door than the first time she’d welcomed a customer, but she still wore the same padded slippers to do so. Her familiar beige gown with faded black roses swept across the carpet the same way it always had, and, when she reached for the doorknob, her hands first had to fumble with her antique celestial headwrap in an effort to contain the gray hairs sprouting from beneath its edges. These were Nellie’s ways.
“Moira!” she announced before she’d even fully opened the door. She extended her arms to the young woman on her steps. Moira, with her perfect skin and shiny black hair, shyly stepped back and put out her hand to shake Nellie’s.
“I knew it was you before I ever saw you. I’m the real thing, you know,” Nellie said, trying too hard for even herself.
Moira smirked. “You already know my name. I have an appointment,” she said.
“Relax. It’s just a little psychic humor. Besides, I’m a psychic. I’m not in the fortune-telling business,” Nellie said. Moira smirked.
Nellie was quiet, fumbling with her rings. “You are even more beautiful than I imagined,” she said, shifting the conversation in a more cordial direction. Her body loosened when she saw Moira’s reaction.
The woman’s mouth opened at the compliment, and her crooked teeth gleamed in the morning sun.
Nothing could last forever, though. The smell of cigarettes and baby powers seeped out of the doorway and blanketed Moira. She fanned the air and spit into the sky. “Thank you,” she choked out, unable to ignore the compliment.
“Come, baby. Come. You are my last reading in this lifetime, so let’s get going. I have a retirement to enjoy,” Nellie said, with her hands waving in the air freely with clouds of smoke floating from her body. Moira still coughed. “Oh, it’s just a couple of cigarettes. Don’t worry. I put them out just before you got here,” Nellie said, while patting Moira on the back.
Nellie stepped outside and grabbed her new client by the arm. “Come on,” she said. When they were inside, she slammed the door.
Nellie ushered Moira down the hallway, past the dusty black-and-white photographs of her own deceased family members. She pointed to each one. “That one’s thriving on the other side. This one is busy. And this one is very, very wild. You wouldn’t believe it.” She turned to Moira and winked.
Nellie stopped and stood and a portrait of her grandmother. She held her hand to her chest. “I miss this one the most, but she’s happy—just like she was in life,” Nellie said. “He,” she said, flinging her arm up to the picture of her grandfather, “well, let’s just say that he’s not.” Nellie chuckled before she quickly grimaced and shook her head. “Oh,” Moira said as her eyes widened.
“Loosen up, girl. Don’t be so nervous,” Nellie said. “I’ll get you your answers. I’m not one of those fakies.”
Nellie led Moira into the reading room and pulled out a large wooden chair from the circular table. “Please,” she said, motioning for Moira to sit. Moira smiled and took a seat. Her eyes traveled around the strange room. The black ceiling. The red silk-draped walls. The candles on the floor along the walls. The crystal ball on the table. It looked ridiculous. Nellie knew as much; she hated it herself. But she didn’t have much of a choice if she wanted to compete against the fakies and their entire faux “medium” lives that popular culture had concocted and had, consequently, tarnished the entire psychic community’s once serious reputation since the ’90s. Colors. Candles. Crystal balls. Customers expected it. All of it.
Nellie, though, didn’t need anything other than a spirit—although, at her age, she did appreciate a sturdy chair. She could reach voices at the supermarket while waiting on her turkey to be sliced if she needed.
She moved to the other side of the cherry table and sat across from Moira. She closed her eyes and cleared her throat. “Are you ready to begin?” she asked.
Moira readjusted in her seat. “Is this going to hurt?”
“Hurt?” Nellie asked. “No, girl. This won’t hurt.” She stared at Moira, who didn’t seem very comforted. “Why?” Nellie followed up. “Did you think it was going to hurt? Did someone tell you it might hurt? Did you hear it on one of those fakie Psychic Sisters shows?”
“No, no,” she said, her eyes peering up from her thick, magenta-rimmed glasses. “It’s not that. I’ve just never done anything like this.”
Nellie wiggled her shoulders. “Oh, I see. No, it won’t hurt. Just relax.” Nellie clinched her hands and popped her knuckles. Her shoulders still danced about as she turned her head from side to side. “All ready,” she said.
She draped her hands over the crystal ball, holding her palms out.
“Okay,” Moira said hesitantly.
“Place your hands under mine,” Nellie said, moving to the front of her chair.
Moira slowly moved her hands to the table.
“Come on. You can do it,” Nellie said.
Moira sighed and gave Nellie her hands.
“Good. Now, just relax.”
Moira closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She moved her weight to the back of her chair, and she listened.
A blanket of silence suffocated the room. The flames from the candles popped, and wax slithered down into the candles’ cool holders. Each breath from the two women held power. Each soul drifting away into greyness, but, still, their bodies present—both searching.
Nellie’s mouth began to open. Slowly at first and then wider. Her throat loosened. Sounds gurgling. Sounds building. Sounds trying to break free.
Moira opened her eyes, and she watched Nellie. She’d heard that each psychic had her own way of contacting the other side. She wanted to see Nellie’s.
The psychic’s eyes rolled back into her head and her entire body shook as her mouth summoned a soul.
“Jackson?” Moira whispered. “Are you here?” she asked.
Nellie’s body violently convulsed. Then, the candles snuffed out. Her body was still.
“Are you here, son?” Moira asked.
“Mommie,” a soft voice said.
“Jackson,” she said. Her voice quivering. “Are you okay? Are you okay, baby?”
A rumbling interrupted the silence. The table rocked until it crashed, and a pair of small bare feet rubbed against Moira’s. They ran to the door and, then, through to the light in the hallway.
“Jackson!” Moira cried. She leapt from the table and chased the body that had escaped the room.
“Jackson!” Her voice echoed down the hall and outside into the yard. “Jackson! Jackson!”
The inside of the reading room was quiet again. “Mommie?” the tender voice called.
A few seconds passed. “Mommie?” the voice asked.
But there was no answer.
Nellie called Moira a dozen times from her bed the next day to apologize, but each ring lead to her voicemail—one with an impersonalized, computer-generated voice. There was no use, but Nellie still spoke at the command of the tone. She regretted what had happened. She was sorry. She was sorry. She was sorry.
But her apology wasn’t totally sincere. She hadn’t failed in the reading. Jackson came through. Nellie felt him. Moira spoke to him. He was in the room.
It was Sam who should be apologizing. Little Sam and his big curiosity.
Sam had lived with Nellie since he was three days old, and he’d grown up in her land of the dead. Her area of expertise wasn’t a secret. She taught him about spirits and the other side. For his fourth birthday, she bought him—them—a Ouija board. She showed him how it worked and laughed when they “conjured” spirits he heard, which were usually guinea pigs or unicorns. Sometimes, it was his mother that he spoke to, but Nellie quickly corrected Sam during those moments. “She’s not dead to the world, baby. She’s just dead to us.”
He spied from his bedroom at Nellie’s clients, but he never spoke to them. Nellie told him he was too young to be in the world of real grown folks. “Little boys do little boy kinds of things,” she said, but she never exactly explained what “little boy kinds of things” included. Besides, he wasn’t like most little boys.
Sam liked housework. He helped her with just about everything. He seasoned the food she made, dried the dishes she washed, and folded the laundry she cleaned.
He liked to clean Nellie’s jewelry. He would hold up the necklaces in the mirror and imagine they were his.
He kept Nellie’s schedule for her in a notebook. When she hung up the phone, she told him what to write, and he did. He questioned the empty dates, as they grew more and more. “Are we going on another trip, Nana?” he asked her.
“I’m too old for trips,” she said.
She told Sam she was retiring and didn’t say anything else. He would need to figure it out on his own, but he’d seen enough lunchtime stories to know what the word meant. Those same stories helped him understand a lot of what Nellie often talked about. But retiring—retiring was different. It was a word that didn’t quite fit Nellie.
Although Nellie advised him not to play with his Ouija board alone, that’s exactly what he did on the morning of her final session. After he woke Nellie up as he usually did, an hour before her appointment, he went to his room and sat on the floor.
At eight, he was more serious with his efforts to connect with Nellie on her level. That desire to reach her increased by the day. He began to wear her old gowns and a less extravagant—plainly black—turban to breakfast. “And what is this?” she asked him. “I’m going to be a psychic, too,” he told her. “Fine,” she said, sipping her tea. His clothing wasn’t mentioned again.
He was actually getting somewhere with his efforts. When he focused hard enough, the planchette slid over the board’s letters without any extra assistance. Something else began to happen, too. He could hear whispers if the house was totally silent.
On the morning Moira arrived, Sam listened for half an hour to the board, finally hearing the name “Jackson.”
The name meant nothing to him at that moment, but maybe it would to Moira, the final name Sam had written down in Nellie’s schedule.
Sam’s plan was in order. When Nellie went outside to greet Moira, he would slip from his bedroom and into the reading room, where he knew his grandmother would conduct the reading like she did all of her others. And he did.
He hid behind one of the curtains on the wall, but the shadows made his presence too obvious. The table was big enough to hide underneath. He ducked under the wooden surface and crouched against the center pedestal. When Nellie and Moira entered the room, he became like a statue. Still. Quiet.
As each chair moved, he pivoted. His body avoided contact, and he positioned himself against the table again. Nellie’s shaking caused his body to loosen, but her actions weren’t entirely unexpected. When she’d played with the Ouija board, she’d done the same.
He was fine until Moira said her son’s name. At the announcement of “Jackson,” he let out a gasp, but Moira was too focused to notice anything other than the words coming from Nellie’s lips. Sam had been right. He was hearing. He was connecting. He was psychic.
As Moira repeated her son’s name, Sam couldn’t contain his excitement. He fled.
Nellie waited until her stories were on before she said anything to Sam. The music swelled as the first scene opened straight inside Lorraine’s bedroom. Nellie feigned clearing her throat to block the words from Sam’s ears. But it wasn’t ending—at least not anytime soon. And it was getting worse. Everything was getting worse. She blurted, “Pause it! Pause it!” She flew up from the couch. “I can’t take it!” she said.
“I don’t want people thinking I’m one of those fakies. You know that. I’m Nellie. I’m not Miss Francine. And you know I’m for sure not one of those Psychic Sisters. You know this, Sam. You know it! You know it!” she said, with her voice rising with each sentence.
She continued, quicker, “I’m not a fakie! I’ve gone sixty-something years of reading after reading with no complications. None at all. I’m talking total perfection. I’m good, Sam. I’ve avoided all of the mumbo jumbo nonsense except for that hideous room. And now, what will become of my legacy? I’ll just be one of them.”
She sat back down, and dust blew from the couch cushions.
“I’m sorry, Nana, but I was excited,” Sam said, putting the remote down.
“Yes, and nosy. Very, very nosy. What do I always tell you? Little boys do little boy kinds of things,” Nellie said, her hands reaching for her pack of cigarettes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “But I’ve got to have two.”
Sam sighed. “Your doctor said you have to stop doing that,” he said.
“Do I look like I care what my doctor said?”
Sam ignored her. “I’m not so little,” he said.
“Eight is little.”
“But I’m psychic, Nana. I’m like you.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, lighting her smokes. “Your hands moved on a Ouija board.”
“No,” he corrected. “I heard a voice while I was using the Ouija board.”
“It doesn’t matter. That doesn’t make you psychic.”
“It might,” he said.
Nellie turned her head up to the ceiling and puffed. Thick smoke covered the room. She took another taste from her double cigarette. “Did you at least tell Moira that you were sorry?” she asked quietly.
Sam’s mouth turned crooked. “I tried, but she was crying too hard, and she slammed her car door in my face.”
Nellie shook her head.
“You could come out of retirement,” Sam suggested, leaning over to her and resting his head on her lap. “Maybe she’ll agree to another reading.”
“Not now,” Nellie told him. “Just hit play.” She didn’t tell him to cover his eyes.
Sam waited a week before he called Moira. Nellie told him that it was for the best, but that he’d have to call her eventually. She explained that it was his responsibility to apologize for upsetting Moira.
As he held the phone in his sweaty palms, the little device nearly slid right out. He shook so badly that he had to hang up and redial half a dozen times. He had a script in front of him. The voicemail would be enough time for him to say what he needed to say.
When Moira picked up on the third ring, Sam dropped the phone. It, like his plan itself, broken. He reached down and fumbled with it what remained intact, and, when he held the speaker back up to his ear, she was still on the line.
“Um, hello,” he said. “This is Sam—Sam, the little boy from Nellie’s.” His voice sputtered.
“I know who it is,” she replied.
The line was quiet.
“I—um—I,” Sam began, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you and all.”
“You didn’t scare me.”
“Oh,” he said. “I’m still sorry.”
Both were quiet again. Then, Moira huffed, causing the speaker to crack. “You didn’t scare me, Sam. You upset me,” she said slowly. “But, I forgive you.”
“You do?” he asked, perking up.
“I do,” she assured him. “But I was very, very upset. I think you can imagine why.”
“I can,” he said. “I really am sorry.”
“Thank you for calling to saying so.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “I called for another reason, too.” His voice perked up. “Nana will do another reading for free tomorrow if you are willing to come back.”
“Oh, she is?” Moira asked. “I thought she was retiring.”
“She did. She’s coming out for one reading only. She swears it’ll be her last one for real this time,” he said. Then, he continued, “I won’t upset you this time.”
“Okay. I think I will agree to that.”
“Good. I’ll put you down for nine o’clock tomorrow morning in Nana’s schedule.”
“Bye, Sam,” she said. “And thank you for calling.”
He hung up the phone and went to find Nellie. He had some persuading to do.
Sam waited until the very last credit rolled on Nellie’s stories for the day before he asked her. Her answer came slowly. Her hand crept over to the table beside her end of the couch, and she grabbed a pack of cigarettes. She slapped the box down on her legs and peeled back the top. She retrieved two slim sticks.
“Just light them,” she said.
The house was unusually quiet when morning arrived. No snoring. No rustling. No pages turning. Being a boy raised on the importance of ritual, Sam still waited until an hour before Nellie’s appointment with Moira before he went into his grandmother’s bedroom.
When he turned the doorknob and pushed back the door, he didn’t even have to go to her to know. The window was open beside her bed.
He ran to his room and grabbed the Ouija board from his toy shelf, ripping the box open and throwing the board onto the cold floor. His hands gripped the planchette as he closed his eyes. “Nana!” he cried. “Nana!”
The doorbell rang as his hands began to move, but Sam stayed on the floor. He focused on the board. “Nana!”
Then, the doorbell came again.
The sound echoed throughout the dead house.
Sam took the planchette and threw it into the wall. He ripped the board into pieces. It had always been only a game—just like Clue, but for dreamers.
“Nellie? Sam?” Moira called.
Sam closed his eyes, and he listened.
If she wouldn’t come to him on the board, maybe she would come to him like Jackson had to her. He turned his head to the ceiling. He shook.
When he opened his eyes, Moira was standing in front of him—him with his swollen eyes, him with his broken heart.
She was crying, too.
He leapt from the floor and grabbed Moira’s hand, hurrying her into the reading room.
He pulled out the same chair she’d sat in before, and she took it. He went to Nellie’s.
When he held out his hands, Moira didn’t hesitate.
They, as one, closed their eyes and searched—and they waited. They waited for those lives they loved to find them again.
When Sam came to, there was a woman in the doorway he recognized as the person he loved more than anyone. The same gown he’d seen her in so many times. The same headwrap that hid her age. But she wasn’t alone. She was holding the hand of a little boy.
“I’m okay,” the boy said. “Tell Mommie that I’m okay.”
Sam squeezed Moira’s hand, and she glanced up at him.
“I’m not a fakie,” he whispered.
“What?” she asked, her tears falling onto the table.
He shook his head. He’d not meant to say it aloud.
“I can see him,” Sam said, wiping away his tears. “He’s okay,” Sam said.
“He’s really okay?”
“And he will be,” he said, looking back at Nellie.
Sam nodded at Nellie, and they both smiled. Then, he turned back to Moira. He was ready for her next question.
Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His work appears at the Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories. For more, follow him @brad_sides or visit bradley-sides.com.