Mike squirmed in his seat. It was warm in the university auditorium, and his wife had already nudged him in the ribs once when his head ended up resting on her shoulder.
He tried to concentrate on the names the woman on stage was calling out, but, bottom line, he wasn’t interested in anything she had to say. Didn’t understand why she was called a medium. That was a sweater size, not a person.
His eyes closed and he let them. If Wendy jabbed him one more time he’d remind her, loud and long, how he hadn’t wanted to come in the first place.
Mike smiled, his eyes still closed. He’d known an Olivia a long time ago. Dark blonde hair, sweet and funny, in her first year of college. She used to babysit him when he was — what? Eight? Nine? Somewhere around there. Twenty years ago. Definitely before his tenth birthday because that’s when he went to live with Grandma Mandy, his dad’s mom. Come to think of it, Gran’s birthday was this Sunday, he had to remember to get her…
This time Wendy’s jab was punctuated with a hiss. “Mike! Clara’s talking to you.”
He jerked awake and fumbled to sit up. “What? Who?”
The woman, medium, Clara, whatever, was standing to his right, glaring down at him. “Rhonda,” she said.
“Yes?” Mike was instantly alert.
“She’s loud, is Rhonda. And very upset.” Clara spoke with a slight brogue. “Do you know her?”
Shouldn’t she already know that? Mike cleared his throat. “Um, yes, my mother.”
“Well, yes, I know.” Mike tried a small smile.
His smile tightened. “Never proven,” he said, but doubted anyone heard.
The woman didn’t move. Lingered, as if debating with herself, then gave a small shrug and continued up the stairs. “Marlene,” she said.
They had tried to pin it on his father, but he’d had an airtight alibi. Rehab. Dad picked up a nasty dependence on cocaine shortly after Mother sacked Olivia in a hushed but vicious confrontation. No one ever told Mike why she was fired. He remembered desperately hoping it wasn’t something he had done.
“No, lad,” Grandma Mandy assured him shortly after taking her only son’s child to live with her. “It was neither you nor my boy at fault for that lass leaving. It was more to do with a dirty mind and a suspicious heart.”
Mike hadn’t understood, but didn’t care. As long as it wasn’t his fault.
And then Olivia was found in the university parking lot, three months after losing her job, with what our local newspaper called an old-fashioned letter opener stuck in her heart.
“Bashed in the back of the head first,” Grandma Mandy had read aloud, apparently unconcerned of how this information would affect a young boy still recovering from the loss of his first adolescent crush. Olivia’s death devastated Mike. But it was nothing compared to what it did to his dad.
“That was exciting,” Wendy whispered in his ear. “You have got to tell me more about your mother.”
Not a chance, Mike thought, as he slouched back down in his seat. What was there to tell? Four months after firing Olivia, his mother had quit her job at the post office. To stay home with her son was the assumption, since her husband’s visits to rehab were happening more often and lengthening in duration.
But, no. She joined a gym. Spent so much time there, they made her an instructor. It was almost laughable, until the day his mother dropped him off at his grandmother’s house and never came back. And that was fine. He loved his Grandma Mandy.
Then the hospital started calling. Grandma never took him to visit his dad, even when he pleaded with her. “No, lad. He’s not the man he was.”
She did take him to visit his mother though. One time. One last time. Then he, or anyone else for that matter, never saw Rhonda again.
Mike’s eyes opened, slowly, reluctantly. Clara had returned. He didn’t respond.
“She’s quiet,” the medium continued, “but I hear her plain now.”
Mike’s breath caught. He locked his eyes on Clara’s, trying to read them, looking for clues. How much did she know?
“Olivia says you did right, you and your granny.” Clara stood for a moment longer, her gaze never wavering. “And, thank you.”
Mike didn’t want to answer. Didn’t want to engage with this — this person — any longer than he had to. But he would have given Mother’s life insurance back for one more day with Olivia.
The woman waited. “You’re welcome,” he whispered, and Clara continued on her way. “Rebecca,” she said.
A. J. Capper lives in Northern Ontario with her musician husband and their incredibly intelligent mutt, Maple. Her debut novel, A Bother of Bodies, is now available through her publisher Divertir Publishing, as well as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and The Book Depository.