(published April 2017)
With enough practice, a person can convince themselves of almost anything. Like square pegs stuck in round holes, they force themselves into identities that don’t fit and they pretend they’re happy. Humans lie constantly, especially to themselves.
“Is he saying anything?” the young woman leaned forward in her chair. Her eyes were glistening and she looked quite pretty, despite the circumstances.
“He’s really upset, I can feel it. He’s burdened, like he can see something that he wants to fix, but he can’t do anything. Is this making any sense to you?”
The young lady nodded hesitantly, then begun to cry. Susan made a sympathetic noise and reached across the dining table to take the lady’s clammy hand.
“Oh, hon. I don’t want to upset you. Do you want me to carry on?”
The lady wiped her tears away hastily, like she was angry at herself for the display of emotion. She nodded again, this time with purpose.
“Alright, love. Well, he’s with you more than you know. He loves you, but he wishes that you were happier. He knows about the issues you’ve been having, he sees when you’re sad. Does that mean anything to you?”
The young lady blew her nose, and Susan noticed how red and puffy her face had suddenly become (it wasn’t flattering). “Yes, it does. We’ve been having problems with money… to be honest, it’s been coming between me and my husband. Dad always used to tell me I worry too much.” She swallowed a sob and Susan nodded knowingly.
“He wants you to know that it’s not worth the worry, hon. He wants you to calm down, take a breath and concentrate on that lovely little family of yours.”
The young lady smiled sadly and glanced at the crumpled photograph lying on the table between them. It had been taken just a year prior, and yet the carefree version of herself grinning in the glossy print was almost unrecognisable. She wiped away the tears that had fallen onto the photograph, blurring the faces of herself and her family.
Susan didn’t charge her the full thirty-five pounds for the session. They’d cut it short by twenty minutes, so it didn’t feel right to take the full amount off her. She embraced the young lady as she was heading out the door, and reminded her to bring a fresh photograph the following week.
That evening, Susan plodded through her typical routine. She flicked on the electric fireplace in the sitting room, then heaved herself up the stairs (which was no mean feat with her arthritis – at her age she could really do with a bungalow, but the council didn’t seem to care). A few minutes later she returned, dressed in slippers and ill-fitting pyjamas, and she shuffled into the kitchen to boil the kettle. Finally, she trudged into the newly warmed sitting room and eased herself into her favourite armchair, balancing her cup of tea on one arm rest and the cordless phone on the other.
She dialed her favourite number, and waited. She was about to give up, when the fifteenth ring was cut short by a breathless voice.
“Alfie, STOP! Hello?”
“Oh. Hi, Mum. It’s actually not a great time, we’ve just finished dinner and I’m trying to sort out baths – Alfie, leave your sister alone!“
“Lucy, I haven’t seen you in weeks. You don’t have five minutes to chat to your dear old mother?”
She swore she could hear her daughter sighing down the phone. “Fine, five minutes.”
As usual, their conversation was strained. Susan asked after her grandchildren and was suitably interested, until Lucy went off on a tangent and begun talking about people and situations that were totally alien to Susan. She decided to gently steer the conversation back to an interesting place.
“…and so now I need to have this report finished by Thursday. I think I’ll get it done, it’s just a little-“
“Oh, I need to tell you about this client I saw today!” Susan trilled. “This girl, her dad had passed away recently and she’s still really struggling with it all, poor thing. I could feel his spirit and he had such a strong presence! It went really well, I reckon she’s going to become one of my regulars!”
Susan’s stomach twisted unpleasantly, but she brushed off the feeling. She still hadn’t realised that it was her body’s natural response to Lucy’s trademark murmur of disapproval (she was, after all, quite good at ignoring uncomfortable things).
“She’s coming back next week, so I think we’ll try and have a longer chat with her dad then.”
“I helped her a lot today.”
An uncomfortable pause stretched down the phone line. While Susan was struggling for a new topic of conversation, her daughter put an end to their previous one.
“Look, I’ve got to go before Alfie tears the house apart. Bye.” The line went dead.
Susan took a sip of tea. The trace of whiskey was comforting, and would no doubt help her to sleep later.
That night, she couldn’t sleep. She lay awake, replaying in her head snippets of the conversation with her daughter. Hours seemed to pass before her eyelids finally began to feel heavier and the ambient sounds of her home drifted further away.
She was almost completely asleep by the time the voices in her head started talking. They had the cadence of speech, yet the words were strange and unfamiliar. For several minutes the voices whispered in her mind like a pleasant sort of white noise, until the last ebb of consciousness in Susan’s mind realised what it was hearing.
She sat bolt upright in bed.
“Hello?” she cried. “Can you hear me? I can hear you!”
The voices paused momentarily, then resumed their conversation. The sound of the chatter was exhilarating – these were actual voices belonging to real spirits residing somewhere on Earth or beyond, piping directly into her mind. Lucy and everybody else were wrong; she really was psychic! She’d always known she was!
And yet, something was different.
The rhythm of the conversation was unpredictable and each spirit’s voice was distinct. They mumbled, shouted, and cut each other off so much that Susan wouldn’t have been able to follow the conversation even if it had been in English, much less invent it. The realisation hit, and it was tragically obvious.
None of the spirits she’d heard over the past two decades had sounded like this. Their voices had been wispy, uncertain, and they’d usually said what Susan expected them to say. Was it possible… could it have been her, all along?
Well, that certainly was embarrassing.
But these spirits were real.
“Answer me, please answer me! Who are you?”
The voices didn’t react at all to the second interruption, and instead carried on with their increasingly loud argument. Susan scrambled out of bed (in her haste tripping over the masses of blankets that were necessary to keep her warm at night) and hurried downstairs to find a notebook.
She wrote for hours, transcribing the argument in her head as best she could. She had to write the words phonetically and her handwriting slipped into a scrawl as the voices of the dead sped up and overlapped, but she filled page after page with words that hopefully meant something, that felt important somehow. After an hour, her hand was cramping and the voices had begun to give her a headache. It was only after another two hours had passed that she accepted defeat. The argument seemed to have ended, anyway.
Birds were singing outside of her window as she climbed back into bed. She laid there for a long time, thinking about all the marvellous fortunes that would fall into her lap now that she could really speak with the dead. The dreaming soon gave way to nothingness, and she slipped into a deep sleep.
When Susan awoke in the early afternoon, she was energised.
“God, is that the time? I’ve wasted half the day!” she wittered, glancing at the miniature grandfather clock hanging in the hallway. She bustled around the small house, grabbing her old address book and making a hasty cup of tea before settling into her armchair.
By her own estimation, she had a very productive afternoon. She managed to speak to almost all her clients, even the ones who’d insisted they were working and it really wasn’t the best time for them.
“I won’t keep you long, love. I just need to let you know that I’ve recently gained the ability to actually talk to the dead, so I’ll be raising my prices a smidge.”
None of her clients reacted very favourably (some of them even demanded a refund!), which Susan simply couldn’t understand. Before the events of the previous night she had genuinely believed that she’d had a gift, so of course it had been fair to charge for the service. But now her clients would be getting the real thing, and surely that was worth more than whatever it was she’d been offering before!
They just need some time to process the news, she reasoned. It’s understandable. They’re probably a little bit jealous.
She leafed through the yellowing pages of the address book and paused upon a name. She picked up the receiver and dialed one last number.
“Lucy, I have the best news!”
“We agreed to one phone call a month. We spoke yesterday, Mum.”
“We did? Oh, it doesn’t matter! I have wonderful news!” Susan told her the whole story, and when she was finished there was a short silence on the line.
“So… you’re actually admitting it?”
“Admitting what? I’m telling you that I have genuine psychic abilities now! Isn’t this exciting?”
“Mum, you’ve just owned up to it! You’ve just told me that you’ve been faking it for the last twenty-whatever years!” Lucy laughed in disbelief. The moment didn’t feel as good as she’d expected it would.
“Oh, just stop it Lucy! You’ve gotten really judgmental over the years, you know that? Something amazing has happened here, and all you can do is nit-pick. The way you act, anybody would think I’m sitting on the roof with a hat made of tin foil!”
“Can you hear yourself when you talk? You’ve just admitted to lying and conning your way through your entire career! Not that I’d call it a ‘career’, though.”
“Oh, for god’s… just shut up, Lucy!”
Parents aren’t supposed to snap at their kids, even when the kid in question is forty-two years old with a nasty superiority complex. Lucy hung up the phone in disgust and proceeded to spend the remainder of the evening in a bad mood.
By contrast, Susan’s evening turned out to be rather eventful.
There was no time to contemplate the argument with her daughter. Within minutes the voices of the dead slowly returned, and it felt like a volume dial was being turned up inside her head. They’d finished their argument and were now speaking casually, albeit at a slightly uncomfortable decibel level.
Susan stood in the centre of the sitting room, arms outstretched in a wholly unnecessary and completely self-important imitation of Jesus.
“Speak to me spirits, speak! I can help you!”
The volume of the voices continued to rise, reaching an uncomfortable level and persisting. They were getting closer.
Susan’s outstretched arms soon faltered. She and her ego crumpled onto the carpet, and she clawed at her temples in a desperate attempt to rip the voices out of her head.
Suddenly a large object tore through the ceiling, narrowly missed Susan and crashed into the mantelpiece, leaving a somewhat enormous hole in the ceiling. In the space of a few seconds the sitting room had been given a strikingly post-modern view of the bathroom directly above, which had a similarly lovely view of the sunset. The toilet had been torn away from the wall and was for a moment teetering on the edge of the hole, before it inevitably fell into the sitting room and smashed to pieces on the carpet, spraying dirty water all over.
Susan had been meaning to clean the damn thing for weeks. It probably didn’t matter much anymore.
The noise in her head was unbearable; the voices were pressing against her eardrums and threatening to burst them. She could do nothing but lie on the sodden carpet in the fetal position, tearing helplessly at her ears and hoping to die.
A warm hand touched the back of her head, but she couldn’t react. She could feel somebody embracing her and she let it happen, leaning into the forgotten comfort.
There were too many things happening all at once.
And then, nothing. No, not quite nothing – the voices were still in her head, just much quieter, like a microphone had been snatched away from them. She could barely hear them over the hiss of snapped water pipes and the hush of the evening breeze coming through the hole in the roof. She hoped the voices wouldn’t stay quiet for long.
Who did that? She wondered, and then her gaze fell to the enormous vehicle half-buried in bricks and mortar. Is that a spaceship?
Foreign words rasped close to Susan’s ear and made her jump. In all the confusion she’d forgotten about the warm embrace, though as the stranger’s grip tightened around her she abruptly realised that she wasn’t being hugged – she was being restrained.
She struggled, but the stranger was deceptively strong. His body was gangly and awkward, yet he only needed one arm to hold Susan down, leaving the other one free to wave a small silver device back and forth in the air.
He spoke for a second time, strange alien noises that may or may not have been words.
He was hurting her. Susan twisted her body and managed to free her elbow, which jerked backwards and hit the stranger in the throat. His arms fell open, he dropped the device, and Susan wriggled out of his grip.
She stumbled to her feet, panting heavily and holding a stitch in her side. She was too old for this rubbish. The stranger rolled on the floor, coughing and gasping for breath. He was dressed for travel, in a lightweight flight suit and a dark helmet which had fallen off in the struggle, revealing a haggard grey face with two squinting eyes and a tiny mouth. His skin was tough like a rhinoceros’ hide, and pulled tight around his minimal features.
The alien was Professor Volstrumnt, a rather average cybernetic engineer from a small planet in a neighbouring galaxy. The flight suit and the space ship were quite misleading –- the truth was Volstrumnt had been a committed non-driver until that morning, when he’d stolen the flight suit from a colleague and set about cleaning up the mess he’d made.
Like all messes, it had begun with good intentions. Volstrumnt and his small team of junior engineers had been developing a piece of technology that would revolutionise life on his home planet – a private telepathic network. It was exactly what his species needed; for some reason the evolutionary process had skipped over their jaws, which were severely under-developed and difficult to operate. Eating was a nightmare, but speaking was worse. Their throats were made of the same thick, scratchy material as their skin, which lead to a guttural voice and a constant tickle in the back of the throat. It was awful.
By comparison, a telepathic network was luxurious. A private network could be created in minutes, simply by scanning the brain waves of the desired members and typing some code into the computer. The result was an entirely telepathic conversation between colleagues or friends that surpassed the need for physical speech.
It had been working splendidly until Iddu, the work experience kid, had accidentally sat on one of the computers and added the brain waves of just over three hundred people from an online public database to the now-not-so-private network. He’d even managed to lock the settings, meaning they couldn’t be removed remotely. And just like that, the team’s conversations began broadcasting to the minds of hundreds of different species across the universe.
Susan wasn’t aware of any of this, and she wouldn’t have cared either way. She wasn’t bothered that there was an alien on her floor or that his spaceship had destroyed her house; all she wanted to do was sit in a quiet room and listen to the spirits. Could she just ask the alien to leave? She probably didn’t need to worry about being polite now that they’d assaulted each other.
Reluctantly, four figures stepped out of the spaceship. They wore uniforms identical to Volstrumnt’s, but possessed none of his intensity. They seemed quite adolescent in their posture, particularly the small one lagging behind the others.
A voice called out in Susan’s mind (quietly – the volume was still turned down). Volstrumnt, seeming to hear it, staggered to his feet and looked at his team. A gruff voice responded inside Susan’s head, and the team saluted in attempted unison.
It would appear that they’d been instructed to repair the damage to Susan’s house, but they were clearly a terrible team. They sauntered around the room, tossing around broken knick-knacks and parts of furniture seemingly at random, only occasionally bothering to look at anything long enough to repair it.
Luckily for them, Volstrumnt was too preoccupied with Susan to notice them attempting to plug up the hole in the ceiling with her sofa.
He spoke again. The words were gruff, each one clearly a struggle.
A cold fear washed over Susan. Every word the alien spoke aloud was accompanied by a tiny echo inside her head. Those voices were supposed to be spirits, not bloody immigrants!
Had she really fooled herself again? Was she really that gullible, that desperate?
No, of course I’m psychic. For god’s sake, I’m a professional medium! This is just a mental break, that’s all it is, just a mental break, because I’m stressed, I’m over-worked, I haven’t been eating properly… I need a little lie down, that’s all.
Volstrumnt moved towards Susan. She bolted, hurried up the stairs as fast as a woman of her age could and slammed her bedroom door behind her.
Volstrumnt was losing patience. Over the past two days he and his team had traced at least fifty of their mistakes, and it had always been a quick fix. They’d gone in, Volstrumnt wrestled them to the ground, knocked them out with a spritz of his patented Slumber Spray (one of his simpler inventions from his early career), scanned their brain waves and hey presto! They were removed from the network.
He had other planets to visit and this was taking far too long. He ordered his team to keep working on the ceiling, and bounded up the stairs after Susan.
He found her in her bedroom, curled in a ball of blankets and talking to herself. He ripped the covers away and before she could react, he’d plucked a small spray bottle from his pocket and squirted purple liquid in her face (it was, disappointingly, the wrong bottle). He barked angry words at her which, rather curiously, slipped into English mid-sentence.
“…some damn respect and let me do my job!”
“You’re speaking English!”
“No, you’re just hearing in English. Now stop messing about and let me have a look at your brain!”
“No, no, no! Leave me alone!” Susan kicked furiously at the alien, who stumbled backwards and was overcome by a coughing fit. He hated speaking aloud, but he refused to use his network to talk to a Neanderthal.
“My brain is special, it can hear spirits!”
Volstrumnt rolled his eyes and grabbed the Slumber Spray from his pocket (this time taking a brief moment to check the label on the bottle). Wishing to avoid any more alien chemicals in her face, Susan snatched the brass alarm clock from her bedside table threw it at him. It caught him on his shoulder, making him groan in pain and drop the spray.
Her mind was working overtime. She knew that the voices belonged to spirits, not aliens, but at the same time she knew that if Volstrumnt got near her, the whole thing would be over.
“Just leave me alone!” Susan sobbed. “You’ve got the wrong person!”
Volstrumnt paused. He put the chemicals back in his pocket and approached Susan carefully, like one would a wild animal.
“I’m sorry,” he croaked. “My team made a mistake, but I can fix it. Just let me scan your brain. Quickly.”
Susan grew hysterical. She babbled about psychic abilities, spirits and mediums, but Volstrumnt didn’t know what any of these things were. He held her tenderly, until her heaving, ugly sobs turned to tearful sniffles.
When he felt her relax in the comfort of his arms, he sprayed her quickly in the face and she slumped into unconsciousness.
“Stupid mutt species.” He tossed her heavy body back onto the bed and grabbed the small silver device from his pocket. It was a brilliant gadget, capable of scanning an individual’s unique brain waves, cross-referencing them with the network and then deleting them, but it appeared to be impossible to get a signal on Earth.
“Professor! We’ve finished repairing its house!” Iddu yelled up from the bottom of the stairs.
For the last time, Iddu – you don’t need to shout. Use the network!
Sorry, Professor. We’ve finished repairing its house.
Did you remember to move the ship outside before you started this time?
Volstrumnt glanced at his watch, then back at Susan. He stood up from the bed and let her unconscious body fall to the floor. He held the device in the air and paced impatiently around them room, but it was impossible to get a signal. He really, really didn’t have time for this.
It’ll be unconscious for a while… I suppose we can try again on our way back.
He heard a loud crash from the sitting room, and sighed. He’d had enough – it was time to leave this dingy little planet behind. He rushed downstairs, ready to drag his team out of whatever new mess they’d just created.
He left Susan alone in her bedroom, her mind still trapped in the aliens’ private network, now with the ability to understand their conversations.
He never returned.
Susan never told anybody about her evening with the aliens. She didn’t think it was worth mentioning; after all, it had probably just been a dream. Even if it hadn’t been, anybody can encounter an alien. It takes a special sort of person to speak to the dead.
J.L. Corbett is the editor of Idle Ink. Her short stories have been featured in MoonPark Review, Paragraph Planet, Schlock! Webzine, TL;DR Women’s Anthology: Carrying Fire, The Cabinet of Heed, STORGY Magazine and others. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much.