Kassandra Battles a Lion with Razor Blades for Fur

Chapter 35

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.

This time Kassandra didn’t fall through the darkness. It felt more like stepping into a pool of black water. She held her breath and submerged into a cold, wet night. Around her, nothing. Not even a hint of the door she’d come through. 

Her lungs strained, clamping on to the tiny bit of air. She needed to find the surface. Right now. One direction held a slightly lighter shade of black. Kassandra paddled toward it. The water lightened and beyond, sunlight filtered through interlacing branches. She broke the surface and sucked in breath after breath, so glad to have air around again.

After swimming to the shore, Kassandra found herself in the middle of a forest. Trees lined the bank in both directions—a mix of evergreen pine and those other types that lost their leaves in the winter. Clumps of grass and shrubs clogged nearly every open space except directly around the pond.

The nightingale splashed out of the water, waddling onto the muddy beach. It held its wings outward, the feathers scraggly and soaked. The bird looked pissed.

Kassandra jerked her head toward the pond. Where was Gabriel? He’d stepped through the door first, but he wasn’t here. She sat up as water dribbled from her shirt and pants, the fabric forming an icy blanket. Was he still swimming down there, lost in the blackness?

Kassandra glanced along the shore. Dim light passed through the trunks and branches, a strange twilight, neither morning nor evening. Maybe Gabriel arrived here first and wandered off. But where would he go?

The bird shuffled around in circles, every so often flapping its wings as though trying to take off, but its feathers were too wet.

The hairs along Kassandra’s neck prickled. Something stalked those woods, just out of sight. Even the nightingale paused and cocked its head toward the trees. She grabbed a broken branch poking out from the water and held it up like a club. Her fingers slid along the slimy muck coating the wood. 

A twig snapped and Kassandra focused on the location. A few feet in, the forest dissolved into shadow, leaving patches of blackness between the slender trunks. Her mind filled these in with all sorts of strange silhouettes. She stepped toward the tree line, holding the branch like a baseball bat. The nightingale hopped alongside.

“Lindsay?” 

A guttural snarl rumbled back. The muddy branch quivered and Kassandra stumbled backward. A massive shadowy thing shouldered through the trees.

Ditching the club, she hauled ass toward an opening in the trees to the left. The creature pounced, missing her by inches. It pursued, crunching twigs underfoot. Kassandra risked a glance and saw a shimmer, almost like rippling water in sunlight. 

A branch speared her ribs, leaving a scrawl of blood beneath the torn shirt. She shot forward, but the forest closed in from all sides. Tightly packed trees banged her shoulders and twigs clawed at her face. Roots snagged Kassandra’s shoes, making her almost trip, but she didn’t dare stop. It felt like the forest wanted to stop her. Finally the trees gave way to a small meadow filled with knee high grass.

Kassandra spun around. Nothing moved. She held her breath, listening. Had she lost it? Her lungs raged, craving fresh oxygen, but hearing was more important. No sound except the grass swishing back and forth. 

Twee-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet.

Kassandra whipped in the direction of the sound. It was only the stupid nightingale. The bird perched on the branch of a tree. It flapped its wings, now mostly dry. 

A bone-rattling growl came from behind. She spun, facing the line of trees at the far end of the meadow. How had it circled around her? This time the silhouette was easy to pick out. An enormous creature on all fours bulldozed through the trees. The thing had once been a lion. Its golden fur now glinted with thousands of razor blades embedded into its skin. Pins jutted out from its snout, forming whiskers.

Kassandra’s arms itched. She scratched at the skin, but the pricking sensation seemed to run beneath the crisscrossing scars. Her fingers dug deeper, trying to reach the source of the irritation, but she couldn’t reach it. The pain was underneath. 

The lion padded closer, yellowed grass pushed to either side.

“Stop it!” she screamed, as much at herself as the lion. 

The lion walked within arm’s reach, its head nearly to her shoulders. The mane bristled with a mixture of real hair and wicked razor blades. It seemed to be waiting.

Kassandra continued to claw at her arm, a fingernail ripping open the skin. She needed to stop, but her hand wouldn’t listen. It operated on full autopilot. Finally she dove down and bit her wrist, yanking the hand away from the bloody arm. 

The lion bared its teeth and let out a roar. The force nearly knocked Kassandra over. Instead of claws, thin curved knives slid out. The creature lifted one paw and swiped. She held up the mangled left arm—a feeble attempt to block the blow. The knife-claws slashed her skin.

Her shoulder thumped as more blood flowed out of the wound. A chill swept over her, burrowing down into the bones. This was what dying felt like. Kassandra collapsed to her knees.

Her imagination pinwheeled through images until settling on Dad’s funeral. His polished coffin sat on a table at the front of the church. She stepped toward it and peered inside. The worry lines around his eyes were finally relaxed. But the face was so still. Kassandra wanted to grab his shoulders and shout: wake up. He would open his eyes if I only she wished hard enough. That thought cycled through her brain over and over, refusing to be silenced. There was only one way to switch it off.

Cutting.

Kassandra stroked the polished wood of the coffin. The scent of cedar filled her nose. Dad’s chest didn’t move. The laugh lines curled around the corners of his mouth as if etched there. No hint remained of the mischievous grin he’d always sported. Dad would never smile again.

He was really gone.

She opened her eyes and the lion loomed inches away. The skin along her left arm was tinged blue.

“He’s dead!” Kassandra shouted at the lion. It stared back—two pinpricks of black against amber irises. “Is that what you want to hear?”

She blinked, the world going blurry, and slumped to the ground. Dirt flew up into her eyes and mouth. Everything became dark as the lion leaned its head forward. This was it. The creature would finish her.

Something wet and sticky slid along Kassandra’s arm. She looked, not trusting her senses. The lion licked the wounded arm, and where it cleared away the blood, the skin was healed. Only the lines of scar tissue remained.

She was alive. The lion hadn’t killed her. But why?

Kassandra’s breath came out raspy, but steady. She reached up and felt the lion’s mane. The razor blades had vanished and her hand passed through coarse hair. Grabbing hold, she pulled herself up. 

The lion was different now. It had changed when she shouted at it. Kassandra glanced at her arm, still covered in white scars. This was a test. It all had to do with her Dad. The lion only attacked when she denied the truth. 

The lion led her into the forest. She staggered, leaning against the scratchy mane for support. This time a trail wound back to the pond. The nightingale followed, fluttering from branch to branch. At the water’s edge, the lion knelt down, depositing her on the muddy beach. It nudged, but Kassandra didn’t need encouragement. She drank until her lungs protested and then rolled onto the bank, gasping. 

Kassandra didn’t ever want to move again. Her body felt like a pillow emptied of stuffing. Sleep clouded her eyes and she let it come.

Sometime later she awoke, face crusted with sand. The lion was gone. A scan of the shore revealed a line of paw prints leading back into the forest. 

Puh-twee-too. The nightingale sat on a nearby branch.

“Morning,” she said spitting up some sand. Her voice sounded as if someone had poured gravel down her throat. Now she knew what smoking felt like. Everything ached. Kassandra inspected her left arm. The skin appeared normal again, no sign of the damage done yesterday. If it even was yesterday. Murky light filtered through the trees, the same dim twilight as before.

Shouldn’t she be hungry? Starving in fact? But Kassandra didn’t have the slightest desire to eat. Maybe people didn’t have to in this place. It would explain how Gabriel survived for years strung up in his prison.

She looked over to the pond. Her throat was still sore and the water looked cool and inviting. Scooting to the edge, Kassandra peered in. A door lay at the bottom of the water, as if someone ripped it off a house and let it sink down. It sure hadn’t been there before.

The door swung open and a cascade of tiny bubbles emerged. When the pond cleared, it revealed a room with marble floors. She hoped it didn’t lead back to the Hanged Man card. Although if it meant finding Gabriel, Kassandra was all right with that. She stood, but her leg muscles spasmed with cramps, and she twirled each foot to loosen them up. 

The nightingale flapped its wings.

“I don’t think you’re going to like this very much. But I guess you have to stick with me.” 

Kassandra sucked in a deep breath and then dove. The water was icy but perfectly clear. She swam down and grabbed hold of the doorframe, rooted in the sandy bottom and pulled herself through. The dim light illuminated a round room with a marble floor. Paintings covered the walls this time, not mirrors. She glanced up through the door, which was now on the ceiling. Beyond it, the surface of the pond rippled in the scant sunlight.

Now what?

As if in answer, the door began to swing shut. Her chest seized and a bubble of air escaped her mouth. Kassandra paddled upward. The door thudded closed just as her fingers reached the knob. With the light cut off, the room went completely black. Kassandra twisted and pushed. She’d come too far to drown in some crazy lake bottom room. The door held fast, refusing to budge.

Kassandra gripped the knob, not for escape, but to simply hold onto something solid. Her lungs tightened. In a matter of moments she’d need to take a breath. She was trapped in a swirling watery darkness. 

Gabriel Wallows in Misery

Chapter 33

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.

“Kassandra!” This time it was Gabriel’s voice, but he sounded so distant, like shouting down a long tunnel.

She staggered back, turning away from the mirror. Her skin felt feverish and clammy. 

“Cover up the mirror.” Gabriel pointed to the fallen easel where a black cloth lay in a heap.

Kassandra staggered over and bundled up the fabric, the smell of rotting milk was everywhere. Something clenched inside. She was going to hurl. Staring only at the floor, Kassandra calmed her breathing until gradually her stomach muscles relaxed. Inch by inch, she moved closer to the mirror.

“I was there.” A whisper in her ear. Mr. Creepy was talking to her. “I saw the noose tighten around Daddy’s neck.”

She gagged, spiting up a thin line of drool. 

“I live inside your blood.” Hot rancid breath on her face. Even staring at the floor, she couldn’t avoid it. “With every cut, I bubble to the surface.”

“Kassandra.” Gabriel’s voice was clam and cut through everything. “Cover it up.”

She squeezed the fabric. Then a throbbing started in both arms. The tiny white scars seemed to pulse like a heartbeat.

“Do it now!” Gabriel shouted.

“Only Mommy is left.” The sour air slithered along her skin like a reptilian tongue. “I shall guide Luke to her.”

“No.” Kassandra hauled the black cloth up, hooking it over the mirror. Then she collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath. The foul stink vanished and she sucked in clean air.

“Who…was… that?”

“Donald Cloots. He is a true devil.”

“You mean like The Devil? As in from Hell?”

“Not the master of the realm, but one of its servants. When we met him, he was but a shade, a hint of his true form. We built the Tarot deck to give him power in the form of souls.”

“So when the Tower falls, does he get out?”

Gabriel nodded. “Yes, he intends to break free of the Tarot deck.” 

Kassandra shivered. If that creep escaped, the world would be done for. She lifted the bottom of the cloth only a little to reveal the cracked section of the mirror. One kick and shards scattered along the floor. Leaning down, Kassandra chose a large triangular sliver, but then caught sight of Mr. Creep’s feet. There was something odd about his shoes. Too short. Her pulse kicked up a notch. Those weren’t shoes. They were hooves. The dirt he stood on steamed, as if his feet scalded the ground. 

She dropped the flap of cloth, hiding Mr. Creeps, and gingerly picked up the shard of glass. Then Kassandra hightailed it back to Gabriel. Standing on tiptoes, she reached the rope securing his ankle. Several gouges marred the thick fiber as if someone had tried to tear at it. Kassandra pressed the glass shard down and began slicing.

“So why is the Donald guy here? I mean, I get the other mirrors. They’re your memories. But he seems different.”

“Donald Cloots is not a memory. He lives within the cards. His will drives the Tarot.”

Kassandra thought back to the accident in front of the bus. Then Lindsay’s dissolving clothes. Each time she used one of the cards, Cloots decided the outcome. Even Luke had said the cards needed to be tricked.

“Donald Cloots came to my brother and I the night Ezabell died. The plague took everyone but us. Only God knows why we survived.” Gabriel’s face scrunched up in pain, tears clinging to the corners of his eyes.

“You cared for her, didn’t you?” She paused cutting the rope. “That’s why she’s in the mirror. A mistake you wanted to undo.” 

“Ezabell is so close. I yearn to touch her once more.” Gabriel closed his eyes, turning his head in the direction of Ezabell. The girl in the mirror fell again, a rerun of the dying scene. Gabriel sobbed. Even without seeing it, the image of her death took control.

Kassandra had to make him think of something else. “So what did this Donald guy offer to make you create the Tarot deck?”

Gabriel blinked, tears still in his eyes. “To each of us he would grant our heart’s desire.”

Kassandra stopped sawing the rope. Her heart’s desire. If that were a wish, she’d have no trouble choosing. But, how far was Kassandra willing to go to get Dad back?

“Luke desired nothing more than to bring back his Ezabell. He believed she might return from death’s firm grip. Yet it is a devil’s promise.”

The rope snapped. She jumped back, but Gabriel didn’t drop. His body twirled under the now slender rope.

“This is going to be a nasty fall.” 

“Hand me the shard.” He held out a hand.

Kassandra passed it over. Gabriel bent at the waist, pulling himself up, and used the shard to saw at the remaining rope. After a moment he straightened to catch his breath. Gabriel huffed in and out several times, building up for another attempt. He surged forward, hacking at the rope as if holding an axe. Blood trickled from his cut hand.

Kassandra glanced away. It was stupid. She, of all people, should be used to looking at blood. 

Gabriel’s shoes clunked on the floor, sending the nightingale darting into the air. He stood, but wobbled as if suddenly seasick.

“You all right?” 

Gabriel leaned forward and Kassandra grabbed him. He had a musky scent, like some kind of wet wood. “The blood rushes away from my head.” Gabriel held the bleeding hand over his eyes and then swayed again, finally slumping to the ground.

“I am sorry. My legs cannot hold me yet.”

“Let’s take care of your hand first.”

Kassandra reached for the shard of glass, now broken into smaller pieces on the floor. Her fingers trembled—remembering the razor. She shut the memories out. No time for that now. Kassandra picked it up and jabbed the glass through her shirt, ripping off a strip of fabric. 

“Let me see your hand.” Gabriel’s palm was covered with rough callouses. It reminded her of Dad’s hands. She laid the strip of cloth over the gash. The fabric soaked up the blood, instantly red. She wasn’t sure how to do this. In the movies, it always looked so easy. Kassandra wrapped the strip a couple of times around, but then stared at the dangling end. What to do with it? She settled on pulling it tight and tucking the loose fabric into the wrap. It was the best nurse Kassandra could do.

“There, done.” 

Gabriel wasn’t looking. His gaze zeroed in on a mirror showing a version of him bent over a small wooden desk with a bottle of ink, scribbling something with a quill pen. The reflected Gabriel backed away to examine the work, revealing a line sketch of a rope stretching down from a wooden beam. The Hanged Man. So Gabriel drew the card he’d been stuck in all these years. It was like he built his own prison. No wonder he couldn’t look away. 

Kassandra grabbed his shoulder and gave it a little shake. “Gabriel.”

“I created all of this.” His trembling hands reached up to cover his eyes. “I am responsible.”

“You must go on. I am tied to this room and can never leave.”

Kassandra slapped Gabriel across the face. 

Kassandra Sees Every Fault Reflected in the Mirrors

Chapter 31

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 thick blackness churned around Kassandra, her feet dangling into the open void. No way to tell if she was falling or staying still. Nausea crept up her throat. She squirmed and reached out, searching for something solid. Her feet struck the ground and the darkness drained away, like water leaving a bath tub.

Kassandra stood in a hallway with mirrors on every wall with hundreds of reflections glancing back. What was this place? The world’s longest dressing room? Stepping forward, her Converse sneakers squeaked on the marble floor. The nightingale flapped down the length of the hall. At least she wasn’t totally alone.

Another mirror covered the wall behind her. Kassandra touched the surface—slick and solid. Her fingers quivered. No way back to Dad. He was still trapped. The far end of the corridor terminated in yet another mirror. At least she’d get plenty of time to stare at herself.

Kassandra started walking. Better check everything out before going into full panic mode. There had to be some way out of this room. Slender marble columns punctuated the spaces between the mirrors. The nightingale perched on one of the metal candelabras lighting the hall.

Kassandra glanced at a mirror and stopped. It didn’t reflect the corridor. Instead, it showed Mom’s room, complete with clothes cluttering up the carpet. A reflected version of her stood right next to the dresser, groping through all those bottles of nail polish.

Kassandra remembered this. She’d needed some cash and tried to nab some from Mom. 

One of the bottles tumbled to the floor and red polish oozed out. She stepped away from the mirror as the reflected Kassandra started yanking tissues out and dabbing at the stain.

This was freaky, like watching some whacked out personal movie. She’d really done a number on the carpet with the nail polish. Weird, watching it made it seem so much worse than when it actually happened.

The next mirror showed her room—bed in the center surrounded by Auntie Jo’s bookshelves. Mom was there, the empty nail polish bottle clutched in one hand. Kassandra’s cheek was flushed red from Mom’s slap. The mirror was silent, but Kassandra knew she’d just said something snarky. Mom’s shoulders sagged, all the energy drained. 

Mom trudged into the hall and the mirror followed, all the way to her room. A huge red blotch still stained the carpet. She stood right inside the door, eyes looking straight ahead as tears trickled down. Finally her hands came up to cover her face.  

Kassandra cringed. Mom never cried. She always came off as such a hard ass. 

Auntie Jo appeared at the door and Mom wiped her face. It’s the same move Kassandra had done when someone caught her crying. 

She backed away from the mirror. This is getting pretty strange. Moving on now.

Kassandra tried to avoid the next mirror, but a single glance stopped her cold. It showed a public bathroom with a bank of stalls on one side and sinks on the other. At first it looked foreign, but then a scruffy version of Kassandra crashed through the door. This was the school’s restroom. 

The reflected Kassandra staggered into a stall and slammed the door, but it bounced back open. She snarled and slapped it closed, fingers trembling as they fumbled at the lock. Then she pawed through the purse for the push pin. 

Kassandra tensed, wishing she could reach in to stop herself. 

The version of her in the mirror held out one arm, crisscrossed with white scars, the pin hovering above the skin. Finally it pressed down and blood beaded on the surface. Tears streamed across her reflected cheeks. Her nose clogged up with snot, creating a bubble with each breath.

Kassandra stumbled away from the mirror. She couldn’t watch any more of this. A glance down the corridor made her heart sink. Not even halfway through. What the heck was this place? 

The next mirror depicted her room back in Seattle. The door opened and a version of Kassandra entered wearing the dark blue dress from Dad’s funeral. 

A powerful flood of memories washed over her.

Dad had been laid out in a mahogany coffin so polished it seemed to glow. Kassandra could hardly look at him. His body was too still. More like a photograph than a man. Her mind slipped into an icy paralysis and nothing seemed to thaw it out. Not Mom screaming at the car doors that weren’t unlocking. Or even when Mom broke down crying at an intersection as cars honked and whizzed by. Kassandra was anesthetized, all emotions immobilized in rock hard ice. She needed to feel something to break free. Even if it meant pain. And the box of razors had been there on the workbench. Ready and waiting. 

Kassandra stared at the girl in the mirror. The room showed a very different version of her. A massive Waterhouse print, with Circe pouring a bowl of water, hung over the bed. A stained glass circle nestled in the window, casting kaleidoscope colors against the pale yellow walls. Miniature fairy houses and bottles adorned every conceivable nook.

Kassandra still had everything stowed away in boxes. Even though she’d been at Auntie Jo’s for weeks, she hadn’t unpacked them. It wasn’t who she was anymore.

The reflected girl sat cross-legged on the floor in a bra and underwear, the razor held over one arm. No scars yet. The bare skin looked too smooth. She glanced once at the locked door and then pressed the blade down. A half smile played at her mouth, oddly peaceful. 

Kassandra knew the feeling—total oblivion. Like nothing in the world could touch her. 

When the reflected girl lifted the razor away, a thin red slash marred the skin. But she wouldn’t cry. 

Kassandra could almost pick the girl’s thoughts out of the air. Crying was stupid. It couldn’t bring Dad back, so why bother.

Real tears trickled down Kassandra’s face as she backed away from the mirror. There was no point hiding them now. 

The reflected girl moved the razor to a fresh section of skin.

“No, don’t.” Kassandra reached out to the mirror. “Please.” The muscles on her arm tensed, feeling the phantom pain. She turned, not able to watch, and charged down the corridor. Mirrors flicked by, each showing another cutting scene. Some were close up, with just a view of the scars. Others focused on the face with that scary relaxed look. She finally collapsed at the end of the hall, eyes clotted with tears. 

“Why are they showing this to me? Make them stop.”

Kassandra yanked off the fishnet gloves and tossed them on the floor. More scars crisscrossed the left arm, mostly because she was right handed. She’d switched arms only when most of the available real estate had been used up on the left. The scars formed little bumps of flesh, zigzagging along the skin, her body’s attempt at healing. If only it were so simple. She couldn’t scab over a wound on the inside.

The tears dwindled to a trickle. Kassandra took a deep breath and steadied herself. She had to find a way out. Dad counted on her to help Mom.

Scooting away from the last mirror, Kassandra inspected it. This one acted the way a mirror should, the reflection shifting when she moved. Grease and muck coated her jeans from kneeling in the garage and her shirt was soaked in the front from crying. The skin looked puffy around the eyes and her cheeks were flushed red. She was a total wreck. A hiccup of laughter burst out. At least there were plenty of mirrors around.

Kassandra giggled, but it was a crazy nonsense laughter and it worried her. Was she losing it? After a moment, she reeled it in. 

“I have to stay in control.”

The nightingale caught up, landing on the marble floor. It pecked at the discarded gloves. 

“Help yourself. You can have them.”

Kassandra glanced back at the mirror and noticed something odd. She was reflected, and so was the nightingale, but not the hallway. Instead the mirror showed a door directly behind her. Maybe this was the way out. She didn’t dare look back. It would ruin the illusion. Reaching for the door knob, her fingers clunked into the glass, meeting her reflected hand. 

“Swift move. Now what?”

In the mirror, the door was behind Kassandra. Maybe if she reached backward… The round door knob brushed against her fingers. She gripped it and saw the mirror-image doing the same. The door swung open. But now what? Kassandra couldn’t walk forward because then she’d smack into the mirror. And if she turned around, there’d be just an empty corridor.

Kassandra took a step backward, away from the mirror, and the reflected image shuffled through the door. From the edges of her vision she still saw those mirrors. Only by focusing on the mirror in front of her, did she see herself pass through the door. The Converse squeaked as they slipped on something. The marble floor was damp.

She spun around and came face to face with a man, hanging upside down, a thick rope looped around one foot. Instantly, another image superimposed itself—a yellow rope strung up on the garage rafters. Dad’s body dangling right side up. But then it vanished. Only the man hanging from his foot remained.

Kassandra recognized him. This was Gabriel Rykell, Luke’s brother. She must be in the Hanged Man card. 

The Tarot Cards Can Bring Dad Back

Chapter 24

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.

Kassandra dreamt about the garage again. The lights were off and she could just make out the workbench a few feet away. A stale smell lingered in the air, like the place has been locked up for too long. As she walked, one shoe slipped on a smudge of oil left from Dad’s truck. The place seemed so much more real than any dream she’d had before. 

When Kassandra reached for the cord of the shop light, a fluttering sound came from somewhere off to the left. It darted around the garage, first above and then behind. She snagged the cord and the shop light flickered to life, rocking back and forth and casting crazy shadows like a lightning storm.

Kassandra scanned the garage for the source of the sound. Turning, she bumped into something. Instantly, her mouth filled with the taste of metal, cold and slimy. A pair of shoes dangling right at eye level. She jumped back. 

Dad! 

Kassandra saw him from behind, his feet tilted at an odd angle. A yellow rope cut into the skin around the neck and then ran straight up to the rafters. The body rotated. Kassandra’s arms trembled, the muscles twitching out of control. She couldn’t do this again. His face came into view—the color of blue chalk. Kassandra tried to scream, but only a throaty hiccup emerged, cut short by her terror. She needed to run—just turn and bolt as far away as possible—but her limbs had gone numb, forcing Kassandra to witness everything. Dad’s tongue jutted out, dried spittle crusting the edges. She shook, heart hammering inside her chest.

A pair of hands gripped her shoulders. “Kassie, take it easy.” 

It was Dad’s voice. Kassandra opened her eyes. (When had she closed them?) Dad stood by the workbench, the same salt and pepper hair as always. The rope and the body were gone. But she couldn’t have imagined them?

He smiled, thin laugh lines wrinkled together around his mouth, and then pulled Kassandra into an embrace. His massive arms folded around her slender frame, scenting the air with the smell of fresh cut lumber.

“It’s really you.” Kassandra collapsed into him, finally safe. 

“I’m sorry I scared you.”

Scared her? Why would he say something like that?

He broke off the embrace, holding Kassandra by the shoulders. “I didn’t know you were here.”

She frowned. “How come I can hear you? Last time you couldn’t speak.”

“All I know is that you’re here. Really here.” He gave her shoulders a little squeeze. “Before, you were more like a ghost.”

Kassandra, a ghost? It sounded strange coming from him. She wanted to giggle, but held off. One slip would tumble her into a fit of crying. She needed to hold it together.

The fluttering sound still came from the rafters—like someone flipping through pages in a book. Something small zipped around up there, but the shop light kept swaying, making it difficult to see anything for sure.

“I don’t know why you’re here, but you can’t stay.” Dad placed a hand on her shoulder. “This place isn’t for you.”

“Where is here?”

He stared at the glob of oil staining the floor. “After the rope tightened, everything went dark. Then, I just sort of woke up in this place.”

“Why am I here? I was in my room…”

Puh-twee-too.

Kassandra glanced up. The swinging lamp spotlighted a tiny brown bird perched on one of the beams. Washed out feathers looked like driftwood worn smooth by the tide. The bird leapt into the air, its wings creating the fluttering sound as it flew. It landed on the workbench just a few feet away, fixing Kassandra with one black eye.

Twee-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet.

The bird’s song reminded her of a tiny jackhammer, filled with whistles and trills. It was a nightingale, just like from Keats’ poem. Where exactly had she stashed all those pages from the red spiral notebook?

“It shouldn’t be in here.” Dad frowned. “The birds always stay outside.”

Outside? Did he mean out in the old neighborhood?

Dad tapped on the garage door with a metallic thunk. “The flock gathers sometimes in the meadow.”

Kassandra had no idea what he was talking about. The bird hopped around on the workbench, attracting her attention. It pecked at a small cardboard box. The side read: 100 Single Edge Industrial Blades. Her gut tightened. It was the box. The one she’d swiped the razor blade from. 

Kassandra remembered coming home from school. The house had felt oddly quiet. She’d slipped into the kitchen to fix a PB and J. Afterward, she went into the garage. There was no reason to go in there. She might have sensed it even then.

The lights were out. As Kassandra made the walk over to the workbench, jelly oozed from the sandwich and dribbled along one pant leg. She knelt to brush it off and heard an awful creaking—the sound of wood under too much strain, ready to snap. 

Brushing the jeans only smeared the jelly. Kassandra stepped over to the workbench and grabbed the cord with jelly-coated fingers. The only thing on her mind was how badly it might stain her jeans.

Then she’d turned on the light. 

Kassandra examined the cord over the workbench now. Bits of crusted jelly still clung to the string. A tightness filled her chest. This was no dream real. It was real.

She swiveled on Dad. “Why’d you do it? Why’d you leave me?”

He frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. “I was in over my head with debt. It would have pulled the whole family down.” Dad avoided her eyes. “I thought I was helping.”

“Things just got worse. Mom changed.” Those stupid tears threatened to break out again, but she stuffed them down. “I miss you all the time.”

“I’m sorry.” 

Dad drew Kassandra into another hug. His body felt warm and most of all safe. Nothing could go wrong with him holding her.

“I’ll find a way to get you out of here.” She squeezed him. “I promise.”

Dad pulled away, gripping her face with both hands. His calluses pressed against Kassandra’s cheeks.

“There is no way out.” He spread his arms to indicate the garage. “This is all I have left. This, and now you.”

Wee-tee-tee-tee-tweet.

The nightingale launched into the air, shooting straight for Kassandra. She raised her hands to keep it away, but the tiny bird slipped through, diving for her chest.

Kassandra burst out of bed, rolled onto the floor, and cracked onto one of Auntie Jo’s bookcases. Her forehead throbbed. She rubbed at it with one hand and looked around. Light streamed through the window, but it was different—not afternoon light. The bed sheets were still pulled up and the Death card sat propped up on the pillow. 

“Kassandra!” It was Mom’s voice, close by. Outside in the hall. 

Kassandra snatched up the card just as Mom barreled through the door. Of course she doesn’t bother to knock.

“You’re up, good.” Mom inspected Kassandra for a moment. “You need to do something with your hair.” She breezed past, diving into the dusty trunk-closet. “Let’s see what we have.”

Kassandra shoved the Death card into one pocket as Mom pawed through the new clothes. “Wow, you actually have some decent things in here.”

“Hello, Mom.” Kassandra injected enough sarcasm to kill a buffalo. Mom ignored it, dumping more clothes onto the floor. She must’ve really be in her own world. Normally a response like that would’ve sent Mom into a frenzy. 

The light outside the window looked more like morning than afternoon. Kassandra blinked. Had she slept the whole night? It felt like only a few minutes.

“We have to get you presentable. There’s not much time.”

“Am I late for the bus?”

“You’re walking today.”

Kassandra frowned. Since when did Mom make that decision? Or even care?

Mom held up a blouse. An impulse buy. Not really Kassandra’s style. It figured Mom would choose it. Then she plucked out those eighty-dollar jeans. “This should do. Now get changed, quick.”

“What’s going on?” 

Mom’s eyes widened, barely able to contain the excitement. “There’s a boy named Luke and he wants to walk you to school.” She reached forward and caressed Kassandra’s cheek. For an instant it felt like the old Mom again. The one who actually talked with instead of at her. 

“Now hurry up before he changes his mind.” She headed out the door. 

Ouch. Did Mom think Kassandra was so pitiful?

She surveyed the blouse. A little on the revealing side, but that was Mom’s secret to recovery. Find another guy and everything turned out peachy. Well, Kassandra wouldn’t replace Dad so easily. 

After dressing, she had to submit to a Mom session of lipliner and mascara. Kassandra didn’t dislike make up. It’s just Mom wore it like a badge of honor—always perfect, never smudged. After multiple reminders of the time Kassandra finally escaped more face painting. As they tromped down the hall toward the living room, Mom adjusted Kassandra’s ponytail. 

In the kitchen, Auntie Jo leaned on the counter, sipping a cup of tea. She talked to Luke, whose back was to the hall.

“Well, here she is.” Mom flourished her arms as if presenting a prize mare at a horse show.

Luke spun around. He wore another white T-shirt and jeans. No wait. The spatter of brown had to be the coffee from yesterday. So he didn’t change his clothes. That seemed a bit grungy.

“Hi,” Luke said and hit her with his grin. “Sorry to barge in, but I thought I could walk you to school.”

“Oh, don’t worry.” Mom flashed a smile. “She’s excited to go.”

Kassandra winced. Maybe Mom should ask him out. She seemed eager enough. 

Luke gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “We should get going.” He started toward the door. 

As they left, Kassandra caught a glimpse of Auntie Jo, who gave a weird look. Was there something she needed to say? 

But Mom hustled the pair to the door. “Bye kids. Be careful walking to school.” 

“Yeah, Mom.” Kassandra power-walked around the curb, putting distance between her and super-mom.

“You have a sweet family.”

“Don’t get me started.” Kassandra glanced back. Once they were far enough away, she slowed to a reasonable pace.

“Your mother seems to really look out for you.”

“And then some.”

“What about your father? What’s he like?”

Kassandra stopped, recalling last night’s dream. The details still clung to her like Mom’s cigarette smoke, everything vivid in her mind—the oil stain on the floor, the smile on Dad’s face. It felt like traveling back in time. Back home to Seattle. 

“You don’t have to say it. I can already tell.” Luke turned to face her. “You have that look.”

“What do you mean?”

“The look of someone who’s lost everything.”

Kassandra stared into his eyes. They were distant and detached—the copper flecks in his irises seemed dulled in the morning light. He’d lost someone too. 

“He doesn’t have to stay gone, you know.” Luke looked her dead on. “We can bring your father back.”

Kassandra Won’t Let Go of Her Dad

Chapter 23

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.

Luke accompanied Kassandra on the long walk home. They didn’t speak and didn’t hold hands. At first she thought it was the thing with Clerk Lady, but the farther they traveled, the more Kassandra realized it was probably her. 

He had opened up and risked everything with a kiss. And how did Kassandra respond? A big old blank expression. Yeah, she really blew it.

They turned a corner, Auntie Jo’s blue Beetle visible a few houses down. If Kassandra didn’t say something now, she might never get the chance. 

“Hey, I’m sorry about before.”

He shook his head slightly. “I pushed too quickly. It’s been a long time since I met anyone like you.” There was this strange quality in his eyes. A kind of sorrow. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and walked back the way they’d come.

Kassandra wanted to shout something like they did in those movies. Make him come running back to her. But she couldn’t think of a single thing. Luke kept moving farther away, rounded the corner, and disappeared. She wouldn’t be seeing him tomorrow. Except maybe sitting next to Lindsay. 

Auntie Jo’s was the only car in the drive. Mom was out with Bill or Frank or whatever his name was. Or maybe at the part time job. The smell of cooking filled the entire house. Auntie Jo was going for the fabulous family dinner idea, part two. Maybe Kassandra could pretend to be sick. It wouldn’t be too hard considering how last night’s dinner went. 

Kassandra carefully closed the front door and snuck down the hall. Her backpack thunked on the bed. She needed to get cracking on homework. The assignments were piling up. 

The book of poetry sat tucked on the shelf—razor wedged between the pages. A grin popped onto Kassandra’s face. She hadn’t thought about cutting. Not once. Not since… Kassandra furrowed her brow. Not since Luke arrived. She didn’t care what Clerk Lady said. Kassandra felt better around him, the kind of person she always dreamed of being.

Taking the Tarot deck out, Kassandra searched for the Magician, but it was still missing. Where had it gone? She racked her brain. Auntie Jo! Kassandra had given the card to her. Luke said the cards stayed with people who held onto them. It might explain why the card wouldn’t zap back.

In the kitchen, Auntie Jo hummed while zipping from counter to stove, where a pot simmered, bubbling up fantastic smells. Maybe Kassandra wouldn’t skip dinner tonight. She’d just keep her mouth full of food to avoid speaking.

“I didn’t hear you come in.” Auntie Jo tasted the simmering concoction with a wooden spoon. 

“Do you still have the card I gave you?”

She nodded. “I dug into my library for you.”

Kassandra froze. What if she’d looked at the books in her bedroom? She couldn’t recall if the dust on the shelf had been disturbed. Glancing up, Kassandra saw Auntie Jo stirring the pot on autopilot. This meant safe. If she’d found the razor, she’d be all over Kassandra by now.

“Let me show you.” Auntie Jo headed into the living room where several books covered the coffee table. Multiple holes dotted the shelves along the wall. She pulled The Magician card from one pocket and pointed to the border. “See this pattern.” A gold ribbon wound around the edges of the illustration. “It’s unusual. I haven’t seen it in any other Tarot design. And look here.” She pointed to one of the corners. “What do you see?”

Kassandra peered at the border and noticed a tiny wine glass woven into the design. “Hey, there’s a cup.”

“There’s a symbol for each of the four suits hidden in the border.” She pointed to each corner in turn. “Cups, wands, coins, and swords.”

“But that’s not a sword.” Kassandra pointed to what looked like a shovel in one corner.

“It’s a spade, just like on a regular deck of cards. It also stands for a sword.” Auntie Jo set the card on the coffee table next to a gob of melted wax. “It’s good to see you showing an interest in the Tarot.” She lifted one of the books off the table, which wobbled from the shift in weight. “Cards like these can center you. They let you work through your problems.” Auntie Jo hummed a tune while flipping through the pages. “This is how most decks portray The Magician.” 

An illustration showed a man in robes holding up a candle burning on both ends. He looked a lot more like the wizard type than the figure in Kassandra’s deck.

“Now look here.” Auntie Jo grinned and turned a page to a woodcut illustration depicting a group of people surrounding a small round table. One guy performed a trick with three cups and a ball while the others watched. Kassandra zeroed in on the cup game, mind flashing with the image of Luke scooting around the bottle caps.

“The card was originally called the Thimblerigger or Juggler. The kind of person who performs street magic, sleight of hand… that sort of thing.”

Kassandra wanted to compare this picture to the one in The Magician card, but when she turned back to the table, it was gone. Lifting various crystals and the covers of books revealed nothing.

“Where’d you leave The Magician card?”

“Right on the table.” Auntie Jo turned around to look. “Why?”

“No, it can’t be…” Kassandra pulled out the Tarot deck and thumbed through. Third card down. She held up The Magician.

Auntie Jo scratched her chin. “Puzzling. The card was in my pocket the whole day. This is the first time I’ve set it down.”

“It makes sense. You put it on the table. You didn’t possess it anymore.” The same thing had happened with Lindsay taking the lion card. At lunch, after everyone passed it around, it fell on the ground and zapped back.

Auntie Jo took the card and inspected it. “Let’s try an experiment.” She propped the card up on a chunky crystal. “Okay, turn around and don’t look at it.”

“What’s this going to prove?”

“Hush up and turn around, girl.”

Kassandra spun to face away from the coffee table.

“Now I’m going to go check on dinner. You stay right there.” Auntie Jo trudged off to the kitchen.

Kassandra’s mind drifted back to the woodcut illustration. Luke had been able to make the pea appear under any bottle cap. Then there was the quarter he made dance along his knuckles. It all seemed like magic, but it was only sleight of hand.

“Who-wee, it worked.” Auntie Jo clapped her hands. “Take a look.”

Kassandra turned around. The card had disappeared again. 

“Go ahead, check the deck.”

The Tarot deck had been in Kassandra’s hands the whole time. She turned over the top card—The Magician. She hadn’t felt a thing. Kassandra snapped the edge of the card with her thumbnail. This was no sleight of hand. This was real magic. 

Auntie Jo walked over. “I don’t think it works if you’re looking at the card. So long as I stared at it, the card stayed put. But the minute I turned and stirred the pot, wham, back to the deck it went.”

“Out of sight, out of mind.” Kassandra passed the card back to Auntie Jo. 

“Why are you giving this to me?”

“Call it a continuation of your experiment.”

Auntie Jo slid the card into the apron pocket. Then she eyed Kassandra. “We haven’t had a chance to talk yet about what’s going on with you.” 

Kassandra nibbled on a fingernail. This was the reason she’d snuck into her room. “I’ve been feeling a whole lot better.” She grinned. “Haven’t even thought about…you know…for days.”

“It’s not so simple.”

“Yeah, I know I won’t wake up and it’ll all be gone. But I do feel better.”

“You’ve never dealt with what happened to your father.”

An icy chill crackled through Kassandra’s limbs, frosting her heart. Why was Auntie Jo getting on her about Dad? At least she remembered him. “I’m not the one who isn’t dealing. Look at Mom.”

Auntie Jo waggled the spoon. “You refused to talk to Dr. Sheldon. Mom did and recovered.”

“No. She just dumped everything from our old life, like Dad didn’t matter.”

“You’re wrong. I know how much Louise misses your father. Before you moved down, she’d call me almost every night. Mostly just to cry about him.”

“Well, if forgetting Dad ever existed is recovered, then I’m just fine where I am.”

“You’re not. Can’t you see? You have all this pain inside you and you use the cutting to get it out.”

Auntie Jo was actually turning on her. Kassandra’s neck tensed up. She wanted to scream and cry all at the same time. 

“You have to come to terms with your father’s death.”

“But he’s not dead! I’ve seen him.” Kassandra stomped down the hall. 

“Honey…”

“Leave me alone!”

Kassandra kicked the door shut and then fell on the bed. Tears gushed out, slithering down her cheeks like serpents. She hated crying. One hand jammed into her pocket and pulled out the Death card.

“See? I’m not crazy. You are alive in there.” As if in response, the illustration of Dad’s head turned. One tear trickled around her lips, tasting salty and sweet. 

“Dad, you hear me, right?” Kassandra mopped her face with the bed sheet. “I need your help. I need you back here, in the real world.” She propped the card up against the pillow. “Or some way for me to get to you.”

Laying her head on her hands, Kassandra stared at the card. 

“I just need you.”