The Death Card Sucks Kassandra into the Tarot Deck

Chapter 19

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’s lungs felt pressed flat, making it hard to breath. A stale smell, like a room sealed up for too long, lingered in the air. There was a light suspended above a workbench—the old garage up in Seattle. 

Dad stood on a wooden ladder, tossing the end of a yellow rope over one of the beams. But this was wrong. The ladder should’ve been kicked over, his feet swinging over bare concrete. 

He turned to look at Kassandra, his face grooved with worry lines. There was something not right about his eyes. The wooden ladder wobbled as he descended, each step creaking.  Dad said something, but it came out as a faint hiss, like steam escaping a radiator. Gooseflesh sprouted along every inch of Kassandra’s skin. Her heart beat so hard and fast, it felt like it might burst through the ribcage.

Dad shouted the same thing over and over. She heard the words as if traveling over miles of empty expanse. It took a moment to decipher it.

“Be careful.” 

Kassandra’s eyes snapped open. She was back in her room in Arroyo Grove. A layer of sweat drenched her shirt. Had she passed out? 

The Death card sat propped on the pillow, same as before. The illustration so resembling Dad was there too. She frowned. He’d told her to be careful. Careful of what? Kassandra glanced back at the card and saw Dad’s head swivel. The eyes even blinked. He mouthed the words again: Be careful. 

Kassandra stumbled out of bed, banging into a shelf and knocking books down. That did not just happen. Couldn’t have. She was still dreaming. 

Even so, when she approached the bed, Kassandra grabbed the card and shoved it in her pocket. She couldn’t see him move again. Enough was enough. 

Auntie Jo owned more books on the occult and the supernatural than most libraries. Still, none had any answers. Of course there was no chapter titled Kassandra’s Dad and How It Relates to Tarot. But these books only went on about how to do readings. Nothing about what it all meant. Feeling her jeans, the Death card poked out the top of one pocket. The rest of the deck sat in the purse at her feet.

The hall light flicked on. Kassandra stood, but her thighs throbbed from being in a crouched position for so long. Then she noticed her bare arms, the gloves left back in the room. She eyed the couch, contemplating hiding, but indecision kept her frozen.

Auntie Jo strolled out of the hall, dressed in a Tibetan robe. She frowned. “What’s wrong?” Her gaze landed on the scarred arms. Dashing over, Aunite Jo wrapped Kassandra up in a monstrous hug, rocking back and forth.

“Honey, honey, honey.”

“It’s okay. I just couldn’t sleep.”

Auntie Jo backed away.

“It’s these cards.” Kassandra nudged her purse. “I need to figure them out.”

“You know I did some research myself last night.”

Kassandra relaxed. Maybe Auntie Jo had more information than these books. 

“Most of the websites say cutting is a reaction to internal pain. It’s a way to make it physical.”

“What?” Kassandra’s mind was anywhere but cutting. “No, the cards.” She held up the book she’d been reading. “I had a nightmare about these stupid things.”

“It could be endorphins.” Auntie Jo had a serious look on her face. “They say adrenaline is released every time you…you know…cut.”

“This isn’t about me!” Kassandra slapped her arm. “Cutting has nothing to do with it.”

“Cutting what?” Mom appeared in the hall wearing a matching pair of pink sweats.

Kassandra’s stomach flipped as raw panic jolted through every nerve. She shoved her arms behind her back, concealing the hashmark of scars. 

“Uh, nothing mom.”

“Don’t you nothing me. Are you cutting classes?” Mom headed into the kitchen and started making coffee. “Is that why you left school early yesterday?”

“Yeah.” Why had she blurted that out? So stupid. “I met this guy.”

This snagged Mom’s attention. She pivoted, coffee carafe filled with water. “Really? What’s his name?”

“Luke.” 

Mom surveyed Kassandra as a prospect for dating. “You’ll have to tell me about this guy.” She yawned as the coffee machine wheezed to life. “But first you need to get ready for school. Come down to my room. I can do your makeup. Boys like that.”

“Thanks Mom, I will.” 

Mom shuffled down the hall, finally disappearing into her room. 

“Who’s Luke?” Auntie Jo knit her brow.

“Hard to explain.” Kassandra fished through the purse for the deck. “It all goes back to these.” She located the Magician card and pulled it out.

Auntie Jo stepped forward. “Isn’t that one of the cards from your reading?”

Kassandra nodded, passing it over. An empty silhouette lay at the center, surrounded by stained glass.

“What happened to the illustration?” Auntie Jo took the card.

“I think I triggered it or something.”

“When?”

“Yesterday.” An image sprang to mind: crouching down on the toilet seat in the girl’s bathroom, pricks of blood along one arm. “At school.”

Auntie Jo inspected the card again, running a finger along the missing picture. “This didn’t go totally blank like the others.” She was talking more to herself now, spinning toward the wall of books.

Kassandra wondered if she should ask for the card back. But why bother. The thing would zap to the deck soon enough. 

“Kassandra!” Mom blared from down the hall. “School.”

“I know!” Kassandra turned to Auntie Jo, who tugged a book off the shelf. “Just figure out what’s going on. I think the person from that card is out.”

Auntie Jo snapped her head up. “What do you mean?” 

“He’s the guy I met. Luke.”

Death Plays Golf in the Garage

Chapter 8

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 metallic taste filled Kassandra’s mouth. Her hands reached into the soupy blackness for support. An amber light glowed a few yards ahead, illuminating a workbench. It was Dad’s battery charger. This meant she was in the garage of her old house in Seattle.

A creaking came from somewhere in the darkness, sounding like a squeaky door opening and closing. Kassandra toggled the light switch. Still black. Did she really think the lights would work? 

Creeping forward, the scrape of her sneakers on the concrete seemed to stretch into every corner of the room. The sharp smell of gasoline filled the garage. Dad always kept a can in here for the lawnmower.

The creaking grew louder, sounding like a wooden beam flexing under weight. Creeeak. Pause. Creeeak. Pause. 

Kassandra scurried to the workbench and gripped the wooden rim. Solid. It felt good to have something to hold on to. The instant she touched the cord for the shop light, the creaking stopped.

Each breath filled her head, the sound amplified in the sudden silence. Kassandra’s fingers tightened on the cord. Not alone. A chill squirmed up her spine. Someone else was in here.

One yank on the cord and the shop light flickered to life. A slimy coppery taste coated her tongue. It felt like someone stood inches away. Kassandra’s gut clenched. The garage had to be empty this time. No shoes dangling next to the ladder.

She stopped breathing, focusing on even the slightest sound. Nothing. Her eyes squeezed shut, Kassandra decided to turn on three. One. Heartbeat thundering. Two. A bead of sweat slithering down. Three. 

She spun around. 

The garage was deserted. Pools of black marked the spots where oil had dripped from Mom and Dad’s cars. A line of boxes sat shoved against the far wall, teetering and ready to collapse. A glance up showed the barren wooden rafters. What had made the creaking sound? 

Something seized her left leg—a chalk white hand punching up through the concrete, its fingers chilled like chunks of ice. The floor fractured as dozens more hands surged upward. Kassandra shrieked, trying to escape. Then it was there—a life-sized version of Death from the Tarot card. She jerked back, but the hands from the floor locked her foot in place. 

The skeleton grasped a seven-foot scythe with a curving blade on one end. The handle, built of human vertebrae, created a black stripped pattern where the bones fused together. The creature raised the weapon high as if to split her open. The blade glinted under the fluorescent bulb of the shop light. 

Kassandra’s gaze zeroed in on the weapon. The scythe swooped down, aimed at something on the ground. Three human heads lay on the concrete, the same image from the Tarot card. The skeleton whacked the point of the scythe through Dad’s skull. 

Kassandra screamed.

Bed sheets clung to her sweaty skin. The digital clock read 4:17 a.m.

On the pillow next to her lay the Tarot deck, stacked in a neat pile. She leapt off the bed, butt thumping on the floor. Those cards had been on the shelf last night. Kassandra knew it. The top card was askew. Her fingers trembled as they reached for it. Flipped the card over. The skeletal gaze of Death.

Her stomach lurched and she flung the card across the room. 

“Get a grip. It was just some crazy dream.”

Kassandra rolled away from the deck, but could still feel them. The Tarot cards were watching her.

Kassandra never touched the cards again, abandoning them on the mattress. Before leaving for school, she scoured the Internet, printing out anything pertaining to those creepy things. Yet when she shoved the papers into her purse, there was the Tarot deck again. 

Kassandra ignored them for the whole bus ride, but at school, she ditched the cards in a trash can. They’d come back, of course, like a bad rumor. Swerving through the halls, Kassandra held the purse open and stared in. If they were going to keep turning up, then she wanted to witness the weirdness first hand. So far it was only the usual junk jammed in her purse. Then she slammed into someone.

“Hey, watch it,” a lanky boy said, smoothing his untucked designer shirt. 

The girl next to him, a member of Lindsay’s clique, did a quick pan of Kassandra’s clothes and muttered, “Come on Marco. New girl’s obviously been dumpster diving.” She grabbed the boy’s hand and tugged him down the hall.

Kassandra glanced down—the same ripped jeans as yesterday and a mangy old T-shirt. A new outfit hadn’t even crossed her mind this morning. Everyone in the halls sported the latest and greatest. Distressed jeans. Flirty tops. Kicking shoes. It was the first week of school after all. Kassandra looked like someone who should be toting a cardboard sign and begging for spare change.

Head down, she turned toward her locker and twirled in the combination. The door stuck. Rust coated the hinges. A swift yank jarred it loose, spilling English Comp and Science books onto the floor.

So much for this day getting better. 

The culprit was the wire shelf left there by the previous owner. The weld had snapped on one side, making it wobbly. She couldn’t endure a book-alance every time the locker opened. Fishing through her purse brought up a lone paperclip. Three guesses what she’d planned to use it for. Kassandra unbent the wire until it was straight, and then wrapped it around the snapped weld, twisting to make a tight fit. She pushed down on the shelf. The paperclip wire stretched but held. Good enough.

Scooping up the fallen books, Kassandra spotted the Tarot cards hiding underneath. Her first thought was to leave them here. She sighed and grabbed them. Better to know where they were than have them pop up someplace strange.

In class, everyone claimed the same seats. The only empties were on either side of The Browless One. Book Girl, who’d been reading on the bus, was noticeably absent. Once again, Lindsay and the social elite inhabited their bubble of coolness. The dark haired girl from the hall lounged against the lanky boy-toy, Marco. 

Mrs. Beehive lectured on the difference between tone and mood and then told the class to partner up and analyze a short story in the textbook. Without the card system, everyone snapped up the nearest friend. Kassandra glanced at The Browless One, who ignored her and flipped open his textbook. After a quick survey of the class, Mrs. Beehive settled down to coffee slurping and paperwork.

Kassandra slid out the Internet pages, laying them over the open textbook. Most of the websites claimed some mysterious and mystical origin to the Tarot, like Egyptian gods and secret societies. Some mentioned the cards evolving into playing cards like Auntie Jo had said. One site proposed a link between the Tarot and something called the Dance of Death. As far as Kassandra could tell, this was some sort of walking play designed to teach people why they needed to have their souls saved. Mostly propaganda to get folks into church.

She nibbled on a thumbnail, trimming it down beaver style while scanning the page. “The plague of the Black Death brought the idea of dying to the forefront of every man’s mind. Death was seen not as a destroyer, but a messenger of God. The Dance of Death showed all members of society, from The Pope down to the beggar, being led to the underworld by dancing actors dressed as skeletons. A popular phrase of the Dance was ‘memento mori,’ meaning ‘remember you shall die.’”

Kassandra frowned. How did skeletons dance? They always seemed to live in cages or hang around on hooks. She dove into the purse and pulled out the deck. The first card showed the black, lifeless sockets of Death. A chill squiggled through her. 

“Hey, that looks cool.” Marco appeared by the desk. He reached for the card in her hand, but she jerked it away. 

“I just wanted to see it.” He scowled. “Don’t get all touchy.”

The dark haired girl sauntered up, a smirk smeared across her face.

“No gossiping,” Ms. Beehive announced from her desk.

The girl spun, instantly assuming doe-like eyes. “We wanted to discuss how the tone affects the main character.”

Beehive nodded and went back to her coffee.

The boy snatched the rest of the cards off the desk. “Can I look at these?” 

Kassandra was about to say no, but then hesitated. Didn’t she want to get rid of those cards?

“Hey, check it out Diana.” Marco shoved the card in the girl’s face. “There’s a couple of naked chicks riding a fish.” Diana frowned, glaring at Kassandra. 

The card showed two girls straddling an enormous fish. Yeah they were naked, but you couldn’t really see anything. Hair, elbows, and fins blocked all the naughty parts. One girl had her hands cupped over her face, crying.

Marco twisted the card out of view.

“What’s with these? They’re so freaky.” He squinted and shook the card. “Hey, what the heck? Are these some kind of trick cards?”

“What do you mean?” Diana pulled his hand over.

“It went blank.”Kassandra’s whole body tensed. Not again. She leaned forward to view the card again. Only the border and the title remained, everything else was white paper. A chill settled at the base of her spine. What had she done this time?

The Tarot Cards Choose Kassandra

Chapter 2

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’s heartbeat stormed inside her head. She swiveled, tensing for a confrontation, but there was no one there. Just the bookcase. What was going on? 

Something thunked to the floor and Kassandra nearly screamed. Whipping around, she saw a man reaching down to pick up a book. Just a glimpse of his face caused her throat to clench as if hands squeezed her windpipe. All Kassandra managed were short, raspy gasps. 

“Dad?”

She stumbled backward and fell to the floor, legs spayed at awkward angles. The crocheted purse flopped open. Coins rolled everywhere.

“Hey, you all right?”  It was the man with the book, but not Dad anymore. How could she have ever thought…? 

He held out a hand to help her up. “You have to watch your step.”

“Yeah.” She grabbed his hand. The grip was smooth and soft, not at all like Dad’s callused skin. After Kassandra stood, the man knelt to gather the coins, dropping them into the purse with a clank. 

“There you go.” He handed over the bag, his expression fluttering a moment before settling on a polite smile.

“Thanks.”

This released him. The man grabbed the book and practically jogged for the register. Great, now she was scaring random strangers. Time to go.

Kassandra slid the Death card into the deck. The bookshelf where they came from was crammed with books on metaphysical geometry and ufology, but no other cards. This wasn’t the right section. It felt wrong to leave them here. 

She marched toward the clerk, who was bent behind the counter unpacking a box.

“Hi,” Kassandra said.

Clerk Lady popped up and smiled, showing off a sweet round face that would be at home on a box of cookies. 

“I found these…” Kassandra held up the cards, “…back there.”

The woman stared at the cards, her expression curdling. “You have the cards.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know where you keep the rest of them. Can I leave them with you?”

“They’re yours.” Clerk Lady scooted back from the counter, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “You’ll have to go. I’m closing up.” She darted toward Auntie Jo without waiting for a response. 

The clock on the wall showed eleven. The place just opened. How could it be closing? This lady had some serious customer service issues.

Kassandra set the cards on the counter and traced one finger along the side, nicked and torn from multiple uses. The gold pattern on the back looked like a sky filled with stars, bringing back a distant memory of the Washington mountains. It’d been a rare night when the clouds had retreated. Dad stopped at some café after a drive to the forest. On the walk back to the car, Kassandra could see every speck of a star out there. So many, the constellations had become lost in the sequined glitter of starlight.

“Looks like they’re closing up for lunch,” Auntie Jo said, arriving at the counter.

“What?” Kassandra blinked, her mind still in the mountains. 

Auntie Jo handed a twenty to the clerk, who rang up the book. “Oh, you found a Tarot deck? Marvelous.”

“Your change.” Clerk Lady shoved the wad of bills and coins across the counter. 

“Did you want those?” Auntie Jo asked. Without waiting, she pushed forward the change and dove into her purse for more bills. “We’ll take the Tarot cards too.”

Clerk Lady stared at the money. She finally tugged a five from the pile. 

“That’s all?” Auntie Jo smiled. “Such a deal.” She turned to Kassandra and flourished a hand over the cards. “Your first Tarot deck.”

“I know you’re into the supernatural stuff, but this really isn’t my thing.”

“Nonsense.” Auntie Jo scooped the cards up, holding them in both hands as if cradling a delicate flower. “They chose you. There’s a greater power at work.”

“Greater power” was an Auntie Jo saying. Except it was a big fat lie. When something went wrong, it was either blind luck or a personal screw up. Plain and simple. 

Clerk Lady managed to shoo them to the front door. 

Kassandra halted and turned around. “Hey, why the rush?”

The woman’s gaze flitted left and right as if the answer might come from somewhere on the street. “Family emergency. You’ll have to go.” With one final push, she shut the door and locked it.

“She was weird,” Kassandra said. 

“Clearly ruled by Mars.” Auntie Jo wrestled into the driver’s seat and coaxed the engine to life. 

Kassandra looked at the Tarot cards, now set between the seats. She reached over, but paused before touching them. A chirping sound caught her attention — another of the little brown birds that lingered around the town. The wind had died down and now it cocked its head, inspecting Kassandra. Something startled the bird and it leapt into the air and vanished. 

Kassandra glanced at the shop and saw Clerk Lady peering through the blinds. The oddest expression crossed the woman’s face. Maybe fear? 

The blinds flipped shut.

Away in a Manger: A Christmas Tale of Terror

There is a place, so dominated by nativity scenes, that the you often feel like the tiny figurines are watching you. I am tormented by this idea. Irrational fear or no, it haunts me.

My best friend’s house, the one I visited all throughout childhood, is just such a place. Every other month of the year, it’s a typical suburban home. But come December, the nativities creep out. Figurines, pillows, throw blankets, ornaments, you name it. One year we counted over 100 in just one room. So you can imagine what this did to my fertile imagination. Yes, that’s right, straight to horror.

I wondered what would happen if they came to life one night. Would these ceramic figurines be benevolent, or out for blood? What followed was a delve into Christmas terror. And I wasn’t alone in my horrific machinations. The folks at Grinning Skull Press also share a penchant for the creepy at Xmas. I’m happy to say that “Away in a Manger” appears in the 2019 edition of Deathleham. The proceeds of this publication go to charity, so please download or purchase a copy to support the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

And my apologies to the wonderful family, so bedecked with nativities. You should know better than to feed my imagination.

Tim Kane

Love, Death, Betrayal and Giant Snails

As a kid I experimented with Tarot cards. I think many of us did. That sort of rampant curiosity that comes with being a teen. The occult didn’t escape my attention. The mysterious Tarot cards, so iconic as a tool of prophecy, drew me in.

snail

Years later, this dabbling turned into downright research for my first published novel—Tarot: The Magician. I didn’t just want a story about evil Tarot cards. That felt too simplistic. Something the Syfy channel would whip up as their movie of the week. Instead, I delved into the history of the cards and how they started as the Dance of Death (see my article on it here).

Three of the Major Arcana cards particularly influenced me: The Magician, Death, and the Hanged Man. These not only became themes for the novel, but characters as well.

The Magician Becomes Love

The title of the novel revolves around a man named Luke Rykell (you can read some of his history here). He helped create the cursed deck. His reward: being trapped inside. But he was no magician.

The history of the card dates back to more of a con-artist or street hustler. One name for the original Magician card is Thimblerigger. Those were the sorts of fellas who tricked people with the three card monty. Their sleight of hand seemed like magic, thus the name of magician.

Here the "Magician" is shown with his most famous trick: the cups and ball.

Here the “Magician” is shown with his most famous trick: the cups and ball.

For most of the history of the tarot, the Magician was simply a street performer and con man. In fact the card’s name was the Juggler or the Trickster. This all changed when the occultist Éliphas Lévi redesigned this card. He depicted the Magician holding one of the card suits (usually a wand) with the others lying on the table (these items replaced the cups and ball trick). Later, Paul Christian (a devotee of Lévi) renamed The Juggler as The Magus, and the change was complete.

How does this relate to love? For most, the Magician represents skill, creativity, and free will. Yet when this card pops up with a romance question, the meaning shifts. It indicates that the time for a new romance is at hand. The moment is now.

Death is the Ultimate Change

Most folks are frightened when the Death card appears in a Tarot reading. They shouldn’t be. The Death card represents change—clearing out the old to make way for the new. Think about a forest fire. As destructive as this process is, it burns away brush that is clogging out new growth. Only with this destruction can the forest revitalize itself. Even after the Black Plague that scoured Europe, the survivors were stronger for it. New evidence suggests that the disease targeted weaker and more frail people, leaving a stronger populace in its wake.

Visconti-Sforza_tarot_deck._Death

In the story of Tarot: The Magician, there is a death in our heroine’s past. Right now, this loss weighs on her, and prevents her from moving on with her life. She needs to deal with it, and clear it away in order to grow.

The Hanged Man has Betrayed You

The man hanging my one foot represents a traitor (the original Italian name was Il Traditore, the Traitor). May believe this represent Judas Iscariot, and the fifteenth century Rosenwald deck shows the figure clutching a small bag in each hand. This might be the thirty pieces of silver.

mshangedman_med

Another argument suggests that this figure is Muzio Attendolo, who had been given a high position by the the Pope and then chose to speak out against him. The offended Pope ordered pictured painted of Muzio Attendolo upside-down and suspended from one foot. This type of art was called shame painting. The Pope displayed these paintings all over Rome.

In both cases, the men hanging upside down were traitors. And that’s the meaning used in Tarot: The Magician. The brother to Luke Rykell is Gabriel and he was tasked with illustrating the cursed deck of cards. Only when he reached the final illustration, he balked—not ready to doom his soul to eternal torment. His betrayal led to the entrapment of Luke inside the Tarot cards themselves.

What Does a Giant Snail Have to Do with All This?

The fact that Luke lives in a tower attached to a snail is not a mistake. While researching the aspects of the magician card, I wanted to hone in on the idea of the will and the mind (both traits associated with the Magician card). This led me to the spiral of the snail’s shell, and how it winds in on itself. This is a common symbol for expanded consciousness. In sacred geometry, the spiral follows the Golden Ratio.

spirala

So the home for Luke was both a way to expand his magical powers of intellect, but also a prison that spiraled in forever. It also wasn’t lost on me that in Christian symbolism, the snail stands for sloth. Although Luke is far from lazy, he does linger in his card for hundreds of years and this plays on his mind.

There are many stories attached to the Tarot cards. The symbolism is rich and goes back centuries. The more you dig up on the Tarot, the more they will amaze you.

Tim Kane