By Michelle Ann King
There are at least 20 of us here, hanging around in a living room that would feel overstuffed with half that number. More loiter outside too, waiting in the hallway or sitting on the stairs. He's popular, this bloke.
'Come right on in, Pat,' Laura says, holding her hand out to me. 'Make yourself at home. I know it's a bit crowded, but don't worry, we can always make room for a few more.' She gives the old man a brilliant smile. 'Isn't that right, Reggie?'
Reggie. Sounds like he should be a tough guy, an East End bad boy. Or maybe I only think that because of the Krays. Does anyone else think of the Krays these days, or was it all too long ago? I find it hard to remember just how long it's been, sometimes.
I'm wrong, anyway, because the old boy looks more like a granddad than a gangster: white hair, swept back and not entirely in place. A generous nose, on the ruddy side. Two shaving cuts, one underneath his jaw and one on his neck, both covered with wisps of pink toilet paper. A slightly shop-worn granddad, not entirely respectable.
Laura clearly reads these thoughts on my face.
'If he looked too smooth, people wouldn't trust him. They'd think he was a fake, just in it for the money. A real medium is supposed to look a bit scrappy. A bit distracted. Don't you think? I mean, this isn't supposed to be fun, is it?' She grins at the old man again.
To be honest, I don't really care whether he's real or not. There's no one I want to talk to. But it's not like I've got anywhere better to be, so when Laura gestures for me to sit down, I do.
'I want to talk to my husband,' says the old biddy next to me on the sofa. 'My Malcolm.'
'I know, Mrs B,' Laura says. 'Don't worry, Reggie won't forget. I'll make sure of that.' She leans closer to me and lowers her voice. 'Mrs B's one of our regulars. Bless her, she never gives up. Some do, of course, which is a shame, but there's plenty more where they came from. Reggie's always in demand.'
As if to prove her point, the doorbell lets rip. We all jump.
Mrs Brubaker twists around in her seat. 'Is it Malcolm?'
'Let's find out, shall we?' Laura says. She stares at the old man. 'Come on, you can't leave them out there. It's rude.'
He doesn't look happy about it, but the bell clearly isn't going to let up. Eventually, he hauls himself out of the armchair.
After a muffled conversation on the doorstep, he comes back inside with a stocky middle-aged man and a little girl of maybe five or six.
There's a moment's silence while everyone stares at the newcomers, followed by a collective sigh of disappointment.
'Not Malcolm,' Mrs Brubaker says dolefully.
The man drops heavily onto the sofa, straight on top of her, and spreads himself out. He doesn't even flinch.
'Really, love?' Laura says. 'Some people, honestly. Sensitivity of a brick.'
The man reaches into his pocket and comes out with a fistful of scrunchy twenties. Reggie looks mortified and starts flapping his hands, as if he can't even bear to look at the cash, let alone have it handed to him.
Laura nods approvingly. 'He doesn't do it for the money,' she says. 'He's not like them charlatans you see on TV, all about the book deals and public appearances. It's not a career move, for our Reg. It's a gift.' Her smile widens. 'Or is it a curse?'
'Hello,' the little girl says. 'My name's Emily, and I'm six and a half.'
'Hello, Emily,' Laura says. 'It's nice to meet you. I'm Laura, these nice people are all my friends, and that's Reggie. He's going to talk to your daddy.'
The girl turns shining eyes on Reggie, and he responds with a tremulous smile.
'My daughter,' the man sitting on Mrs Brubaker says. 'She—' he breaks off then, maybe because he's remembered you're not supposed to give out too much information up front.
If Reggie feels slighted by the hesitation, he doesn't show it. He runs a gnarled hand through that white, wavy hair, and says, 'Your daughter, yes. Emily. She was six and a half, when—' he breaks off, too. Maybe it's catching.
Emily's dad scrapes bitten fingernails down his grey-stubbled cheek. It makes a rasping noise.
'Emily,' he says, nodding. 'She's here?' It comes out like a sigh.
Reggie briefly closes his eyes. The skin underneath them looks like black crepe paper. 'Yes.'
He takes a deep breath. 'She wants you to know that she's well, now. Happy. She knows you love her.'
I don't mean to snort quite as loudly as I do, but I can't help it. 'What a load of old bollocks.'
'Daddy?' Emily says, but it's the old man she's looking at.
'I need to know she's not in pain,' her father goes on. 'That it doesn't hurt anymore. They say it's a release, so…' he trails off, and swallows hard.
The little girl edges closer to Reggie's chair. 'I don't like it here,' she whispers. 'It's all weird. Can you please tell my dad I want to go home now?'
Reggie can't meet her eyes. 'Emily isn't suffering,' he says. 'There's no pain. She's at peace.'
I snort again. 'Seriously? She's well, she's happy, she loves you? Could you come out with anything more bland and pointless?' I glance at Laura. 'I thought you said he was the real thing? He's a liar.'
She shrugs. 'Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, Pat.'
'I'm scared,' the kid says, trying to grab at his arm. Poor thing clearly hasn't learned how it all works, yet. 'Please, can't you tell my daddy to take me home?'
'Emily's not in pain,' Reggie says. His voice falters, and he can't look at any of us now. Maybe he does have some shame, after all. Does that make it any better? I don't know.
Her father scrubs his hands over his face and lets out a huge whoosh of air. 'Thank you,' he says, and leaves the crumpled twenties on the coffee table.
Reggie looks like he's going to throw up.
To be fair, I suppose he didn't technically lie. The girl's not suffering, at least not in the sense her father means – physical pain doesn't translate. But it's hardly the same thing as being at peace.
She starts to cry. 'Make him come back,' she sobs. 'I want to go home. I want my mum.'
'I want my mum,' someone else says, and that sets the lot of them off.
'I want my son – my father – my wife – I want to tell him – I want to ask her – I want to say – I want – I want – I want— '
Reggie moans and puts his hands over his ears.
Mrs Brubaker stretches her legs, clearly pleased to have the seat to herself again. 'I want my husband,' she says. 'My Malcolm. I want to say—'
'I know,' Reggie says, wearily. 'I know what you want to say – what you all want to say. You're lost. You're miserable. You don't understand what's happening to you. But I can't tell people that. Don't you see? I just can't.'
Laura pats his shoulder. He looks at her hand and shudders, as if he can feel it.
'There, there,' she says. 'But don't forget, Reg, that's not the only thing people might want to say. They might, for example, want to remind the person who killed them that they hate him, they don't forgive him, and they're enjoying every minute of watching him suffer. Don't forget that.'
Reggie closes his black-hollowed eyes and nods. 'No, Laura. I don't. I never forget that.'
I stare at her, then at Reggie, then back again.
'Oh,' I say. I'm surprised I didn't see it before; the resemblance is actually quite striking.
She looks at me and smiles. 'You got it. He's my dad. I kept my looks better, though, don't you think? I suppose that's one good thing about dying young.' She turns her head to the side, showing me her profile.
'What happened?' I say. I can't believe I never asked her how she died. How rude. You start to forget the social niceties, after a while.
'It's an old story, you'll have heard it before. He was a drunk, back in the day. Got in the car when he wasn't fit to drive. I tried to tell him, but he wasn't big on listening, back then. That's why he used to drink, to try and shut out all the voices.' She grins. 'Ironic, isn't it? But we have good chats these days, don't we, Dad? He listens to me now.'
'I'm sorry,' Reggie murmurs. 'You know that, Laura. If there was anything I could do, I would do it. I would have done it a long time ago.'
He looks at me. 'I haven't driven a car in 40 years. Haven't had a drink in nearly that many. I try to help people who come to me, because I don't know what else to do. I don't know what else I can do.'
He spreads his hands, as if in appeal. I don't say anything. I don't know, either.
'You can suffer,' Laura says, still smiling. 'That'll do to be going on with.'
'Excuse me?' says a new voice, behind us. 'Hello?'
We all turn round and see a young fella hovering in the doorway. 'Am I in the right place?' he says. 'Only I heard there was someone here… a medium… a real one…'
'That's our Reggie,' Laura says, holding out her hand to the new boy. 'He'll listen to you, don't you worry. I'll make sure of that. Now, come right in and make yourself at home, my love. I know it's a bit crowded, but don't let that put you off. We can always find room for a few more. Right, Reg?'
Reggie lets his head drop into his hands. I think he might be crying.
The youngster edges inside, looking around uncertainly. I budge up on the sofa, and make a bit of room.
Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her short stories, which have appeared at Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Podcastle, are being collected in the Transient Tales series – find more details at www.transientcactus.co.uk @MichelleAnnKing
Enjoyed this story? Sign up to Unsung Shorts and get a new short story delivered to your inbox every fortnight.