My line blinks red, so I press the button on my headset to answer. A woman’s whisper I don’t recognize says my name, my real name. For liability purposes, we’re not supposed to use our real names. The operator probably goofed and let it slip when transferring the call. It happens. Leaning back in my chair, I contemplate hanging up. It’s Monday, and I get the same hourly pay if I pick up or not. Plus, it’s tough going into a reading cold. When I can’t get into character first, I have trouble taking everything seriously. The whole back-and-forth feels like an elaborate prank call.
“Eric?” the woman says again, my hand hovering over my ear.
“I think you might have dialed wrong, miss. This is the Mystical Medium Hotline. There’s no Eric here.”
“I’m the Mystical Medium,” I say, imaging the woman checking the number on her phone despite being connected to whom she expected. “If you want a reading, it’s seven dollars a minute for the first five minutes and four dollars a minute after.”
Like an echo, I hear my coworker in the cubical next to mine repeating the hotline’s pricing.
“Yeah, I want a reading.”
As I type her name, Evelyn Smith, and credit card information into my computer, I conjure my version of the Mystical Medium. Everyone who works at the hotline has their own idea of what the Mystical Medium looks like and how he or she might act. Mine’s a thin, goateed man dressed in a black suit who speaks like Vincent Price.
“Now that we have the unimportant stuff out of the way, Evelyn, why don’t you tell me about yourself, why you’re calling.”
Evelyn emits a tiny grunt like someone has just poked her with a needle.
“Aren’t you supposed to already know that?”
“A bit of background helps me better be in tune with you spiritually,” I say, fingers linked and staring at the water-damaged ceiling, channeling my Mystical Medium.
“Okay, well, I’ve been struggling in my romantic relationships.”
She sounds like someone divulging a secret in a room full of eavesdroppers. I press my headset into my ear and ask her to speak up.
“Sorry, I’m at work and have to be quiet since this isn’t exactly work-related. Anyway, whenever I get into a relationship and think things are going well, my partner discovers a flaw and I’m alone again.”
I start humming. A lot of my coworkers think the humming is a bit much. To them, this job is just another gig, which it is to me, too, but I want to provide the caller with an authentic performance, want them to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. I’m envious they have someone to tell them what to do, is all. And maybe if I make them believe me, I’ll believe myself, as well.
“Don’t fret, Evelyn. I see you and your soulmate crossing paths soon.”
“Thank you for—oh, crap, I have to go.”
Then the line went dead.
After work, I join a few coworkers for drinks at Sweet Spirits, a dive bar a couple of blocks from the hotline’s office. The whole place smells like urine mixed with desperation, and the epoxy floor is like walking on Velcro, but we come for the joke. “The sweet spirits are speaking to me,” one of us will say, head flung back, possessed by ABV. “They’re saying, ‘it’s time for shots.’” If you can’t find any humor in the job, then you’ll never make it. Pedaling easy answers isn’t what any of us thought we’d be doing for a living. This job is just that, a job.
My coworkers down their beers and disappear in a hunt for quarter slugs to play the pinball machines in the back. I stay behind to mope about another repeating day. I remind myself nothing in life is permanent, but these types of sentiments never manage to cheer me up much, especially when they come from me.
A bartender drops a tray of mugs, and as I watch him clean up the broken glass, I notice a woman sitting alone across the bar. She has soft features and wavy, brunette hair. She’s wearing jeans and a beige sweater. She spots me staring, and I glance away before thinking screw it and approaching her table.
“Hi, I’m Eric. Can I join you?”
“Sure,” she says, and I pull out a chair. “I’m Suzan.”
We shake hands.
“So,” Suzan says, rotating her cocktail in tight circles, “what do you do, Eric?”
“I’m an actor,” I say, feeling it’s not a complete lie. “I’ve only been in small stuff, though.”
“That’s cool. I used to be in drama in high school.”
“How about you?”
“I work at an accountant’s office. It’s pretty boring.”
“I bet it can be rewarding at times.”
Quiet seconds tick by, and I drum the edge of the table, blowing my chance.
“Hey, do you want to get out of here?” Suzan asks.
Suzan drops a twenty on the table and leads me to her sedan in the parking lot.
“So, where do you want to go?” I say, shutting the passenger’s side door.
She leans forward and kisses me. I kiss her back. Then she whispers my name into my ear.
“Evelyn?” I say, and she pulls away from me.
“How do you know that name?”
“I, I just—”
A sharp pain throbs inside my stomach. I glance down and see an inserted knife. Blood blooms under my button-down. Suzan or Evelyn or whoever fishes keys out of her purse, spilling multiple driver licenses with different women’s faces and names printed on the lamination.
“This always happens. I knew that psychic hotline was bullshit.”
She sticks the keys into the ignition, and the car roars to life. She turns onto the street. Fading, my body hunching forward, I wonder how I, the Mystical Medium, hadn’t seen this coming.
Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in trampset, Versification, Unstamatic, (mac)ro(mic), Ghost Parachute, Serotonin, Defenestration, Rabid Oak, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.