This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.
A fierce wind gusted from behind, snapping the curtains shut and flicking Kassandra’s hair forward. She hooked the curls away and found herself perched on top of a narrow rocky pillar. The wagon had vanished. Only the curtains remained, fluttering loose in the air, no longer attached to anything. The nightingale struggled within the fabric, screeching as the curtains plummeted.
“No!” The shout came out like a croak.
Kassandra darted to the cliff. Far below, waves surrounded every side, crashing into the base of the rocky column. As the curtains drifted nearer to the surf, the bird wriggled free and flew into the sky. It was safe.
Kassandra scooted back and exhaled. Wait. Where was the coughing? Another deep breath brought salty air. Her lungs worked effortlessly with no tightness in the chest. Feeling along the neck, she found the boil gone. At least the plague sickness had vanished. Things weren’t so bad.
Kassandra examined the patch of rock—hardly bigger than one of the lunch tables back at the school’s cafeteria. The only thing visible was a single red rose planted smack in the center.
Which card was this? She thought hard. If the next wagon over was The Magician, then this had to be the second card or the zero card. But she had no clue what either of them represented.
Kassandra needed to build one of those doors out of here. She had a rose. The rest of the rock was flat and barren. Scooting to the edge, Kassandra glanced down. The curtain hung along the rocks. She probably could’ve used that.
The tide rolled in and out. Each wave brought another crash as the water battered the column, kicking up explosions of spray. The wind carried the drizzle up. Kassandra shut her eyes and took long, lingering breaths as the sea mist dappled her skin. It felt like the time Dad had let her drink champagne on New Year’s Eve, her mind light and bubbly. She’d wanted this moment to last forever.
A gust of wind whipped by, rocking her body forward. Yes. She was ready. Kassandra leaned toward the cliff. Almost over the edge. Then her arms pinwheeled and she pushed away. Her heart hammered. Why had she zoned out? It was no accident. It felt like she’d wanted to go over. Something about this place. It affected her mind.
Someone giggled. Kassandra looked around but there was still nothing on this pillar of rock except the rose. There it was again, a muffled laughter. She looked up and saw the clouds bunching together to form a face.
“Hello, Kassandra.” His voice was wispy, as though the words were hardly there. “So that’s where you’re hiding out. I’ve been searching the cards for you. Pity you ended up in The Fool. I would have pegged you as a Hermit sort of girl. Or at the very least The Lovers.” He winked.
The muscles along Kassandra’s neck bunched up. He wanted to get her mad. And it was working. She took a deep breath and let the frustration drain out. Then she stared up into the clouds. “I saw her die.”
At first Luke looked confused—the clouds making up his face shifted erratically. Then realization settled in. He looked straight at her. “You and I are so alike. We’ve each lost someone close. But we can change things. Together we can bring them both back.”
“What? And destroy Auntie Jo’s soul in the process? Gabriel told me all about the Tower.”
“So you’ve met my brother.” The clouds darkened and roiled. “Maybe I should pluck you out of this card right now. Bring you back to this world.”
He couldn’t pull her out. Not now. She was so close to his card. “I’ll never tell you where the final card is.”
Luke paused, contemplating. “You’re so right. I should leave you there a little while longer. Until apathy creeps in.” He glanced around. “Oh, by the way, this is a lovely house you have. I can’t wait to meet Mom again.”
“You keep away from her!” Kassandra’s teeth clamped together so tightly it hurt. She wanted to hurl something at him. The nightingale swooped up from below and darted straight into the clouds, momentarily disrupting his face. Luke seemed not to notice.
“Of all the cards to stumble into, you picked an empty one. No other soul is trapped there.” His face took on a somber look. “The longer you stay, the more you’ll bond with the card. Until finally there’s nothing left of you.”
Luke smiled, but it wasn’t one of his typical wicked grins. More weary. Like he wanted the whole ordeal to be over with. “Just remember. You can stop all of this.” The details of his face faded. Then the clouds broke apart and drifted away.
He was waiting at the house, but for how long? She had no idea of time in these cards. Mom could already be on her way home.
Kassandra looked back at the rose. It had to be important. Otherwise why would it be here? Gabriel said he’d left tools to make a door in every card. But what the heck could she do with a flower? She stared at the stem. The way it twisted from the rock fascinated her—the thorns poking out at odd angles. So beautiful. Kassandra blinked, as if waking from a nap. She was getting sucked in just like Auntie Jo with those floats.
“Okay, I know I need the rose.”
Kassandra reached to grab it, but the thorns jabbed her hand. Inspecting the skin showed tiny dots of blood. Kassandra brought the fingers to her mouth to stop the bleeding, but hesitated. She wasn’t getting all weirded out by the blood.
“It’s just a prick.” She chuckled. “That’s all.”
Looking at the rose, an idea clicked into place. The stem could be the wand and the rose blossom would be the cup. She had two. What else was there? Kassandra scanned the rocky surface and then laughed. Still nothing. No mini-mart popped up while she’d been daydreaming.
Gabriel had said each suit also represented an element. Kassandra had wands and cups covered. Did coins stand for earth or air? Earth made more sense. She had to dig in the ground to get gold and silver. Problem was, the ground up here was flat sandstone. Maybe with a knife or a shovel, she could gouge some earth out. Even just a handful.
Kassandra scooted to the edge. The wind and water had eroded the rocky column, revealing stones embedded in the side. She reached down and pried one out. Bingo. The stone was even coin shaped. Albeit a really big one.
Now all Kassandra needed was something for swords. They represented air, but how could anyone capture that? She glanced up. Maybe a feather from the nightingale? The bird flew lazy circles. Clouds bunched together, blown around by the wind. A little concentration produced shapes. She squinted, her gaze darting all over the sky.
Kassandra was doing it again. Zoning out.
She scooted over to the rose and reached out to grip the thorns. Another prick would focus her brain. But before jabbing herself, Kassandra noticed the thorns. They could represent swords. She twisted off the rose’s head and then broke the stem at the base. Finally Kassandra plucked off some thorns and set everything down on the ground next to the stone. Now she had all four suits. Take that Luke.
The wind picked up.
“No no no!”
Kassandra slapped a hand down and caught the parts of the rose before they flew away. Too close. She couldn’t let it happen again. Kassandra slipped the stem and thorns into a pocket. The rose flower was too big, so she tucked it between her legs.
There. Now she needed something to draw with. One side of the stone was thinner, forming a sort of dull cutting tool. Kassandra used this to gouge the lines of a rectangle into the sandstone.
The wind snaked up her shirt and goose pimples spread along her back.
“What are you doing?” Luke’s face appeared in the sky again. The clouds clumped together, darkening to muddy grey.
She didn’t want to talk to him. He was only trying to distract her. Kassandra hunched over the rectangle, so Luke couldn’t see it, and set out the items representing the Tarot suits. The rock went on the upper right corner for coins.
“Stop it.” His voice was twinged with worry.
Kassandra set the rose flower on the lower right for cups, and then dug into her pocket for the stem representing swords.
“I think it’s time for you to come out of there.”
Something tugged at Kassandra’s shirt. The wind whipped, kicking up bits of grit. The items began to shift away from the rectangle.
She yanked out the stem and hooked her feet and free hand over the sides. Using her body, Kassandra pressed down on the flower and the rock.
“Come on.” Luke’s voice slithered through the wind. “It’s time to leave.”
“No, I’m going to beat you.”
“It’s sweet that you try.”
Air whipped around the column in a fury of gusts and blasts, trying to lift her up. Kassandra shoved the stem onto its corner and then dove into her pocket, groping for the thorns.
A surge of wind lifted Kassandra away from the ground. It felt like a giant hand grabbing her around the torso. The stem skittered side to side and the rose flower began to roll away.
“No.” Kassandra strained, pulling down onto the rocky pillar.
She fumbled around in the pocket. Each muscle strained to pull flat against the rocky pillar. Then a thorn jabbed her palm. Wrapping a hand around it, she pulled the thorn out.
The wind thrust up again, but Kassandra clung to the sides, legs and arms screaming.
“Kassandra.” Luke’s voice was a blast of air in her ear. “You will exit this card.”
“Damn right I will.”
Her palm slapped down on the last empty corner of the rectangle. The wind stopped and she collapsed onto the ground.
Kassandra scooted away from the rectangle, but no door opened up. Why hadn’t it worked? Luke’s face had vanished from the sky. At least it did that much. The rocky pillar rumbled. When she peered over the side, hundreds of other stone columns emerged from the waves. Bits of seaweed and chunks of coral dotted the tops as water poured away. The pillars surged upward, blotting out any view of the ocean. Each one rose to the same height as her rocky platform. Together, they formed a piecemeal landscape.
A dark shape darted between the columns of rock. Kassandra inched closer to the edge to see what it was. The rocky pillars snapped together like puzzle pieces, forming a smooth plain. Seconds before the last hole was plugged up, the nightingale swooped into the sky. The bird squawked as it circled overhead.
“Where have you been?”
Twee-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet. The bird zoomed up into the sky.
She spun around, taking in the new environment. Was this the next card? Every direction was flat, flat, and more flat. Only the slapping of the fish brought up by the pillars broke the silence. Which way should she go?
Kassandra pointed toward a distant cloud. “That-a-way. It’s as good as any.”
She walked, leaving behind the rose and rock. After a few dozen paces, Kassandra couldn’t tell where she’d started. Everything looked the same—bits of sea moss drying under the blazing sun. One foot struck something sticky. Kassandra lifted it up and saw a tendril of gray snot connecting her shoe to the ground. Gross. What was this stuff?
She stepped back. A whole line of the sludge headed off left and right, a sort of slime boulevard. Kassandra peered in each direction. Nothing to the left. Nothing right either. Wait. There was something there. A slight bulge in the otherwise flat landscape. She didn’t run—her legs were too tired. But she did pick up the pace.
After a while the thing on the horizon turned into a bulbous shape. Kassandra strained to make it out. It looked round at the bottom but with a rectangular section sticking up like a building.
“What the heck is it?” She tilted her head up toward the nightingale. “You’re way up there. You tell me what I’m marching toward.”
The bird flew across the sun, forcing her to look away. The afterimage created a black dot in the center of her vision. Kassandra kept looking down and blinked the image away. When her eyesight returned to normal, she glanced toward the horizon and saw a massive snail crawling along the flat plain.
The creature was the skyscraper of snails. It made dinosaurs look like Chihuahuas. The shell shimmered in iridescent reds and blues. A tower jutted out of the top of the shell, built of glittering stained glass. Instantly, Kassandra saw the red and blue glass pattern from The Magician card.
So this was Luke’s home. He certainly won the prize for the freakiest house ever.