Second-Best Medium

By: Ash Dylan

Chapter 1

Keya Jayaraman was the second-best medium in Seattle, which is a nice way of saying she was the worst.

If someone wanted help communicating with the spirit world, Venus Jackson was the obvious way to go. She was talented and personable, charming and intelligent, happy and not at all bitter. She was recognized throughout the city from her popular web series—excitedly titled Readings!—in which Venus conveyed messages of the departed to unsuspecting strangers in public. Clients came to her with grief and left with comfort. She was expensive but worth it.

Venus was the best.

As for Keya, public opinion was divided. Some found her thoroughly unpleasant, while others hadn’t met her yet. If her clients felt better after a reading, it was only because they could say, “At least I’m not that unhappy.”

She had the barest website imaginable. On one graphics-free page, she included her booking info, which was just an email address, and complete biography: “Keya lives in Seattle and offers medium readings, for entertainment purposes only.” The website looked like she had paid a child to set it up in five minutes, when in fact Keya had set it up herself in ten.

Despite her steady stream of two-star write-ups, Keya had a long waitlist. Word of mouth was that her readings were surprisingly accurate. Damn near—and people hesitated to say this—supernaturally accurate. Appointments were scheduled using only a client’s first name. With just that information, without fail, Keya could describe in great detail those who had passed and what message the spirits would like to convey.

Which was great.

But a two-star review seemed appropriate when the message was conveyed with a level of impatience and hostility that was more befitting a surly teenager arguing about being unjustly grounded than an adult being paid to provide an important service at an emotionally sensitive time of someone’s life.

The truth is, Keya didn’t even bother to look at the first name before meeting with someone. Keya was so good, she didn’t need to prepare. And she gave so little a shit, she didn’t want to prepare anyway.

It wasn’t that Keya lacked joy in her life. Keya loved drawing, and she loved women, and she really loved drawing women.

She just hated her job so very, very much.

Everything changed one day when an unexpected client walked through Keya’s door.

Keya was at work, so she was grumpy. Keya lived for the moments in between her appointments. Some days, it was the only way she could convince herself to go to the office.

Keya was alone, so she could do exactly what she wanted. Her palm laid flush against the woman’s skin. Keya traced her fingers along the bare legs. They were lean and muscular, tucked under thighs on a couch. Keya’s fingers delicately traced a line along the hip, ghosting across the tight stomach, moving up, leisurely tracing the outline of the firm breasts, teasing the pert nipples.

Keya stalled. Something wasn’t right. She shook her head. She’d figure it out later.

Keya moved up, her fingers caressing the defined clavicle, the graceful curve of the neck, taking a moment to pause at the rosy cheeks, which complimented the glow in the woman’s eyes. Her mouth was slightly agape, like she was starting to feel the surge of warmth course through her body. Her back was starting to arch, her limbs tightening in anticipation.

Keya knew what was missing.

Someone knocked at her door, disrupting her focus. Keya swore under her breath.

“In a minute,” she barked.

A minute? Who are you kidding? You need more than a minute.

Her sketch was nearly complete. The body was perfect, just as she had envisioned it in her dreams. But something in the flush in the cheeks seemed out of place. The hair was wrong. Keya would have to remember that for later, when she’d have a chance to finish. For now, work called.

She closed the sketchpad and tucked it away in a drawer inside her desk, along with the customized leather packet of colored pencils that she imported from a relatively obscure company in the Netherlands. After years of searching for the best materials, she discovered that these pencils fit her tiny, chubby fingers the best, and their fine strokes could not be beat.

She pulled out a sketchpad falling apart at the seams and a small plastic pouch of generic colored pencils and plopped them on the table. She went to Target every month and bought whatever was on sale to replenish her work stock.

There was work, and there was pleasure. There was no overlap.

“Come in,” she said.

Keya didn’t open her door for customers. Her work philosophy was that if people wanted her help so much, they could let themselves in.

Keya hadn’t bothered to look up as her next client walked in. She was busy flipping through her pad to a blank page. She found a sheet with a small doodle in the corner. She hadn’t needed the whole page for that customer, because she realized almost right away what the vision was. It’s your mother. She wants you to be happy. Thank you. Goodbye. She briefly debated using the rest of the page but decided that would look bad.

She grudgingly turned to a fresh page. When she was ready, with black pencil in hand, she looked up.

This was usually the part where Keya summarized her services and waited for the person to respond with what they’d like.

Not today.

Today, Keya was quiet.

Her new client was tall and lean, with dark brown skin and short, kinky hair that playfully bounced as she pulled her chair in close. Her eyes were kind but intense, so striking that they almost distracted Keya from noticing her full lips, which were accentuated by a very kissable green shade of lipstick.

She wore expensive, form-fitting designer clothes: purple pants and jacket, with a green shirt underneath that matched her lipstick. Keya didn’t know clothes, so she didn’t recognize the material. Whatever it was, it was shiny. The clothes shimmered and announced themselves to the world. “Look at me,” they said, and Keya did.

Keya used to wear what she thought other people would assume a medium would wear. Baggy dresses, hoop earrings, elaborate head wraps. Keya even had a mystical voice she had practiced, an overacted imitation of her parents’ lilting accent. Keya dropped that act when she realized her customers never seemed to care, and if they didn’t care, then Keya didn’t either.

Keya usually wasn’t self-conscious, yet seeing her new client made her painfully aware that she was wearing jeans and a baggy hooded sweatshirt and didn’t look much like an expert deserving several hundred dollars an hour. Her hair was tied in a long braid, which she lazily draped over her shoulder. Keya’s ears were like a catalogue of all the different piercings one could have. With her barbell, hoop, drop, and snug earrings and dangling jhumkas, Keya looked like she had gold question marks on each side of her face.

Keya silently watched as her client gracefully pulled a chair to the table, adjusted it, toed off her shoes, and tucked her legs under her thighs.

The pose was teasingly familiar.

Without the clothes, she could be the one I’ve been drawing.

Without the clothes…

Keya tried and failed to look at her new client without envisioning her naked. Not a good start to a reading.

A bangle hugged Keya’s left wrist. The gold was weathered and scratched, but Keya didn’t wear it because it looked nice. She wore it because she had to. She fondled and twirled the bangle with her right hand, her usual reaction when she was nervous.

When have I ever been nervous with a client?

Probably the last time I had a client who looked like this.

Which was never.

Without the clothes…

When it became obvious Keya wasn’t going to initiate conversation, her client spoke.

“I’m Venus.”

Her voice was deep and resonant. It was comforting. Keya liked her voice. She had never liked her own, which seemed gruff and curt by comparison.

Keya knew why she was nervous. The competition had come for a reading. And the competition was fucking gorgeous.

Of course she gets good reviews. Her face is worth five stars alone. Hell, I’d pay her just to sit for one of my sketches. Maybe I should pay her to model for me. Maybe that’s what my sketch is missing.

Keya was quiet, which wasn’t unusual, and staring, which was. She couldn’t take her eyes off Venus’s gloriously unruly hair. Keya wanted to run her fingers through that hair and get them lost in Venus’s tight curls.

Still waiting for a response, Venus averted her eyes and took in Keya’s “office.” It was a leased space in an office park that featured a coffee shop, a second-hand toy store, and a seemingly unoccupied community newspaper office that Keya had always assumed was a front for something illegal. She didn’t care; it made the rent cheap. There was no sign outside that indicated Keya worked there. It looked like she had taken it as-is.

The room was set apart from the entrance by the cheapest partition Keya could find. A ceiling light cast a muted red tone over the sparsely decorated room. There was the desk, a chair on each side, and a cabinet against the wall that looked like it had been left by the previous tenants. The room looked like Keya felt: dark and alone.

After an uncomfortable moment, Keya finally replied.

“You came?”

That sounds grumpy. Try again.

“What can I do for you? I can’t imagine you need me for anything. Professionally, I mean.”

Venus placed a piece of paper on the table. “I got this coupon in the mail. Someone purchased a complimentary session for me and scheduled it for this time.”

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