Kassandra Risks the Final Card

Chapter 46

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 bright orange glow blanketed the sky. The evening air left a biting taste in Kassandra’s mouth. Each slap of sneakers on the sidewalk amplified into a miniature thunderclap. It all seemed so much more alive than in the Tarot deck.

Stumbling onto a familiar street, she jogged around the corner. Her stomach clenched up, demanding food. In the real world, she had to eat. Kassandra ignored the gnawing emptiness.

A bird chirped in a tree and she twirled, mind going to the nightingale. But it was just the sort of brown bird that flitted around any neighborhood. Kassandra ran a hand along her sternum. The nightingale was in her chest. Part of her again. She could almost feel it wiggling around.

Another few minutes and she turned onto her street. Kassandra stopped cold, spying the front door knocked to the ground. The splintered remains hung from the hinges. Luke had bashed it in and then he’d set loose the fire tornado from the Wheel of Fortune. Auntie Jo was stuck in the deck, watching parade over and over. She hadn’t asked for any of this.

Kassandra tiptoed up the path to the doorway. There was no sign of Luke. As she stepped over the fallen door, one shoe squished on the wet carpet. There was a red patch where Luke bled from the shotgun wound. A shudder went through her.

“Where are you?” The sound of Luke’s voice made Kassandra freeze. He hunched over at the couch, his back toward the door. All the Tarot cards lay scattered along the table.

She smiled. “I’m right here.”

Luke spun, eyes wide with shock. Then, his expression settled into its typical swagger. “You’re full of surprises.” He scooped together the deck and stood.

She stepped up to the couch. “I’m here to offer you the final card.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”

“But you have to win it.”

Luke stared at Kassandra. Was he scanning her thoughts right now? She tensed, fear coating her skin like sweat. He would figure out the plan. Kassandra shook off the doubt, concentrating on the snail tower and the ball rolling on the table.

“You truly think you can beat me.” Luke grinned.

He knew about the game from her thoughts.

“Grab three cups from the kitchen and we’ll find out.” Kassandra turned down the hall without waiting for a response. It felt nice to boss him around for a change.

She ducked into her room and headed straight for the collection of poems on the shelf. Reaching for the book, a shiver traveled along her arms. She had to use the razor. It was the only way to keep her mind busy. She slid the book from its sleeve and opened to the Keats page.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

The razor was stuck just below the last line. The image of the garage flickered through her mind—right after the funeral when Kassandra had taken this blade from of the box. Then she remembered the razor lined up with the cup, the match, and the washer. Both memories occupied the same space in her mind—reality overlaid with the world of Tarot.

Kassandra squeezed the blade in one hand until the corners poked into the skin. “I’m coming for you, Dad. Just hang in there.”

When she emerged from the hallway, Luke had cleared off the coffee table and set out three teacups from Auntie Jo’s collection. They were exactly the ones she’d pictured using. Her pulse quickened. He could read even the slightest image in her brain. Her thoughts touched on Gabriel, but Kassandra gave the razor a little squeeze. She summoned up the image of the flat blade with the rusty grip.

“The razor.” Luke raised an eyebrow. “That’s what you want to use?”

Kassandra smiled, revealing the razor. “Do you object?”

“No. Not at all.”

She sat down with the bookcase behind her while Luke lounged back onto the couch.

“Do you have the card?”

Kassandra wiggled The Magician out of one pocket, setting it face down on the table. “I’m thinking you can’t just take this card. I have to give it to you.”

He cocked his head to one side. “You’re quite observant.”

“Here’s the deal then. You win. You get the card.” She tapped it. “I win, the deck comes back to me.”

“Seventy-seven cards against one?”

“You need it, so that’s the deal.”

Luke ran one finger along an eyebrow. “Of course.” He placed the Tarot deck on the table, but drummed his fingers on the top.

Kassandra took a deep breath and stared at the three overturned teacups. Each one looked the same. It worked in her favor. But she should have practiced this game. Kassandra didn’t even know how to start.

“You don’t need to go through all this,” he said. She glanced up and met his copper-flecked gaze. “We both want the same thing.” Luke edged forward on the couch. “We can bring them back.”

The paper doll girl popped into Kassandra’s mind. “You mean playing house with a cutout doll?” His face froze.

She slipped the razor under the left cup.

Luke snapped his attention back to the table. Kassandra pictured the razor under the middle cup. He glanced between the left and center teacups. Next she imagined putting the razor under the right cup, and he flicked his gaze over there. Two could play at this game.

“You don’t know where it is, do you?”

He looked up. “It’s customary to show the object to the audience first.”

“The razor is right here.” Kassandra lifted the left cup for a moment and then set it down. “Unless I brought more than one.” She couldn’t help but smile. At this rate, Kassandra might beat him.

Luke stared at her, not blinking. “How much did Gabriel tell you?”

Just the mention of his name brought up an image of his face. Kassandra bit her lip to blot out the memory. She mixed up the cups, hoping it would scramble her thoughts.

“I know you freed him from his card.”

The skin along her arms and legs prickled. Did he already know? She held her hands above the cups clustered together on the table, poised to shift them again. What’s the use? He already knew everything.

“Are you done?” Luke absently sifted through the deck. He wasn’t even looking at the cups. So damn cocky. Kassandra want to smack him. As long as she knew where the razor was, he figured he could lift it out of her thoughts. He was counting on it.

She turned away and mixed up the cups without looking. Maybe Kassandra could jumble them so even she couldn’t tell where the razor was hidden. Then it really would be a game of chance. But every time Kassandra slid the cup with the razor in it, it clinked on the ceramic side. Why had she chosen something metal to hide? So stupid.

She pulled her hands away, leaving the cups in a crooked line. This was Luke’s game and he would always win.

“Do you need your razor back?” One corner of his mouth twitched up slightly.

Kassandra squeezed both hands into fists. He was spinning things back on her. She had to take the fight to him.

“Gabriel told me how you betrayed him. All for not going along with that Cloots guy.”

“I loved my brother.” Luke glanced away, removing his hand from the deck of cards. “You cannot understand because you have no siblings of your own. But there was love between us.”

“Until he didn’t do what you wanted.”

“No. He poisoned our relationship.” Luke held his finger up like a warning. “Only one card left. One. Then little brother decides to grow a conscience.” His eyes boiled with hate. “Donald Cloots used it to cancel the deal. I lost my best chance at bringing Ezabell back.”

“How did you get the final card? I mean, if Gabriel didn’t draw it…”

“Oh he did.” Luke winked, setting his hand back on the deck of cards. “After a time.”

Gabriel drew the last card? He hadn’t told her that. He’d made it seem like he was the victim in all this.

“I think I’ll choose this one.” Luke tapped the center cup.

Kassandra glanced down. She couldn’t remember where the razor was hiding. It might be the center.

“You sure?” She straightened up. “Because I know for a fact it’s under here.” She scooted the right cup forward, but didn’t feel the clink of the razor.

“You do catch on.” He smiled. “The center please.”

Kassandra reached for the cup and lifted it. The razor blade lay underneath. An empty pit opened up in her chest, sucking away what little hope was stored there. It was all useless. Everything she did was bound to fail.

“Don’t be upset. This was meant to happen.” Luke looked down at The Magician card. “You and I, we want the same thing.” He held out his hand. “Let me have the final card and we can begin.”

Isn’t this how she’d planned it? Make him think he’d won? Kassandra stared at the overturned card on the table. But Luke had won. He’d take the final card and then have the whole deck. How the heck could she possibly distract him? Kassandra lifted the card and caught a glimpse of Gabriel. She smiled.

A look of confusion flickered across Luke’s features. She flipped the card over, revealing the illustration. Luke stared at the figure, trying to make out what was wrong.

Kassandra fixed her attention on the razor on the table. A strong emotion. Something that bit into her and wouldn’t let go. She replayed the hundreds of times the blade pressed into her skin, cold and sharp. Now she needed the pain. Kassandra almost reached down and grabbed the razor, the urge was so real.

“Stop it,” Luke said, voice rising in panic. He jerked his head around, scanning the room. The figure faded from The Magician card, leaving an empty hole in the illustration. Gabriel Rykell stepped through the demolished front door.

“Hello, brother.”

Kassandra Face Plants on the Carpet

Chapter 45

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.

Mom’s eyes shot open. A middle aged Romeo gawked from the bathroom door, shirt half-unbuttoned and hair combed forward to cover a balding spot.

Kassandra pushed off a carpet reeking of smoke and Cheetos. Surging forward, she wrapped Mom up in a hug. “You’re safe.”

Mom tentatively returned the embrace. “How did you get here?” She pulled away and glanced down. “What happened to you?”

Kassandra checked out the state her wardrobe: a shirt shredded on one side by the lion and flecked with blood on the other, pants caked with mud and grime, and the once red Converse now stained black.

She looked away and spied the iPhone laying on the dresser. Mom had just set it down and would have forgotten it in a matter of seconds. Then the card stashed inside… Would it have zapped over to Luke?

Mom shook her head and eyebrows bunched in confusion. “Did you follow me here?” 

Comb Over Romeo’s face twisted into a mixture of surprise and annoyance. Obviously he had a different evening in mind. Something that didn’t involve a family reunion.

“I wasn’t following you. Please.” The muscles in Kassandra’s neck bunched up. “I could care less who you slum around with.”

Mom stiffened. “Kassandra Jean Troy. You will not speak to me that way.”

“How am I supposed to speak to you? You’re never around.” Why was she getting sucked into this? It was stupid. Kassandra leaned against the dresser. Stuffing one hand behind her, she groped until finding the phone. 

“Louise,” Comb Over said from the bathroom. “Maybe she should leave.”

“I’ll handle this, Sam. Give me a minute.” The man grimaced as if tasting sour milk. He stomped into the bathroom, closing the door.

Mom sighed. “You and I have to talk. I’ve put this off for too long.”

“Uh huh.” Kassandra edged toward the door.

Mom bit the corner of her lip. “I don’t know where to start with you. Am I that bad of a mother?” She stepped forward, brushing a blond hair out of Kassandra’s face. Mom’s gaze scanned down and then focused on the scars, naked to the world without the gloves to hide them.

“What’s this?” 

“I have to go.” Kassandra tried to move, but Mom clamped down on her wrist.

“Did you do this to yourself? How long has it been going on?” Mom’s jaw clenched, tears welling up. She let go and quickly wiped them away. “I should have kept an eye on you. I wasn’t looking. Too concerned with how to make a living. How to sell the damned house.” Mom waved her hands in spastic arcs as though batting invisible flies. 

Keeping the phone out of view, Kassandra peeled away the rubber protective case. It was empty, nothing but the slick surface of the iPhone. Her legs went weak. Did it already zap away? Panicked, she looked all around the room, finally seeing the card on the carpet. The Tarot deck was being sneaky. It wanted to ditch Kassandra. The cards knew they were close to being free. She squatted and grabbed The Magician. Gabriel now held the wand and stood in front of the table. He was even dressed in the goofy red outfit. It looked so weird to see him in the card. He resembled his brother too much.

“Is that a Tarot card?” Mom asked. Kassandra shoved the card behind her back, but Mom stepped closer. “What has Joanna been teaching you?”

Kassandra shook her head. It was way too much to even attempt to explain.

Mom reached onto the dresser and grabbed her purse. “We’re going. Right now.”

“You can’t.”

“I most certainly can.” Mom pulled keys out.

This was not happening. If Mom got anywhere near Luke, he’d suck her into the deck like Auntie Jo.

Kassandra snatched the keys and barreled into the hall. Mom shouted from behind, but Kassandra ignored it and hurtled around a corner, nearly colliding with the front door. Flinging it open, she dashed out to the driveway where Mom’s Nissan was parked. Kassandra considered the keys, but she didn’t know the first thing about driving. 

Mom appeared at the front door, screaming something. The Nissan sat bumper to bumper with Comb Over’s truck. Perfect. Mom wouldn’t be able to take his car either. Kassandra chucked the keys into the neighbor’s bushes and then sprinted down the street.

Her lungs huffed in and out. Thoughts about Mom and Dad and cutting all churned together. She had to clear her head. Focus on Luke. No, wait. Kassandra faltered, almost tripping. She should keep her mind mixed up. That way Luke wouldn’t how to read her thoughts. Kassandra began running again.

She was coming to save Dad. And Auntie Jo. Even Lindsay. Everyone Luke had ever imprisoned in the Tarot deck. 

Kassandra Clings to Her Last Hope

Chapter 44

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 wanted to be shocked, but it made perfect sense. She ran one finger along the rim of the brass cup. Luke always seemed to know just what to say and when to say it.

“My brother bragged about his new talent when he visited me. He recounted the many times he had played with young girls’ emotions, pushing them toward crisis.” Gabriel glanced at Kassandra and then stopped speaking.

“It’s all right.” She gave a weak smile. “I kind of figured that part out for myself. I just didn’t know he could actually read my every thought.”

“Luke cannot open your mind like a book and see what he likes. He can view only the page you are currently on.”

“So, what I’m thinking right when I stand in front of him?” 

Was there a way to turn it off? Shut the book so Luke couldn’t read anything? It would mean she’d have to think about nothing. Or something totally different.

Kassandra glanced at Gabriel. “The paper doll down there…” She pointed to the room below. “That was you, right?”

He nodded, eyes taking a far off look. “I had no idea what my drawings could do. If I had known what Luke used them for…” A snarl of disgust slithered across Gabriel’s features.

“It’s the deck, isn’t it? It let Luke read minds and it caused your drawings to come to life.” Kassandra turned to the table with the cup and ball trick. “How does this game work?” She picked up the leather ball. “What does he do to make the ball vanish?”

Gabriel shrugged. “No one could best Luke at the game. It was his favorite and he never shared his secrets.”

“He’s cocky, that’s for sure.” She set the ball back on the table and rolled it back and forth between her fingers. An idea bubbled up. “If I can get him to forget about the cards, even for a moment, then they’ll zap back to me. I’ve seen it happen before.” The experiment with The Magician card flashed fresh in her mind. The minute Auntie Jo ignored it, the card zoomed back to her. Only this time, maybe the whole deck might return.

Kassandra lifted one of the brass cups—it felt surprisingly light—and plopped it over the ball, making it disappear. Gabriel watched. This trick was mesmerizing. It made people want to find the ball.

“If I dangle the final card in front of him, he’s sure to give me his full attention.”

“No, you cannot let him have the card! Luke fears The Magician card. It is his prison, as the Hanged Man was mine. You must lock Luke back in the Tarot deck.”

“No.” The answer can automatically from Kassandra’s lips. “The cards make him powerful. Without them, Luke’s just some six-hundred-year old guy.” 

“You deceive yourself. Luke will never abandon the Tarot deck. He has waited too long.” Gabriel’s eyebrows bunched together. “What has he promised you?”

Goosebumps sprouted along Kassandra’s skin. She shook her head and grabbed a brass cup off the table. Distracting Luke would make the cards come back to her. It had happened before with Lindsay. She forgot about the Fortitude card and it zapped back. Only, would the one Magician card be enough to pull back the whole deck?

Gabriel snatched the cup away and held it up. “Luke plays with your mind. He tells you what you crave to hear.”

Kassandra turned away. “I can get the cards back. I know I can.”

“No.” He hurled the brass cup across the room. It slapped into a pile of wood, sending the whole assortment crashing to the floor. Both birds startled, chirping their displeasure.

Gabriel stepped right up to her face, inches away. His frustration hummed in the air between them, yet he tenderly gripped Kassandra’s chin.

“What has he promised you?” 

The words came out as a whisper. “My dad.”

A look of puzzlement crossed Gabriel’s face.

“He’s… like Ezabell.”

The name acted like a slap, startling Gabriel.

“You have succumbed to the very same illness as Luke. My brother has clung to that false hope for centuries. If there were a solution to be found, he would have solved it by now.” Gabriel grabbed her. “He would not listen to reason. I pray you will. There is no return from death.”

Kassandra had seen Dad before. Here, in the cards. It meant there was still hope. 

“I tried to get Luke to understand this. I refused to illustrate the final card.” Gabriel let go and stepped back. “In return, he locked me in here.”

An idea appeared in her brain, like a fogged mirror suddenly wiped clean. “You.” She pointed at Gabriel, who looked truly baffled now. “Luke has to know you’re gone from your card. And he totally freaked when I said I’d talked to you.

“I do not know what you mean.”

“Luke’s afraid of you. That’s why he locked you in here.” Kassandra turned toward the table with the cups again. “If I could make you appear in the real world, it would really throw Luke off his game. Then I could get the cards back.”

“You are mistaken. Luke fears nothing, certainly not me.” Gabriel glanced at the surrounding stained glass walls. “I am also not in my card. I cannot return to the real world.”

“Yes you can. Luke almost pulled me out of the Fool card, so it must be possible. Plus this is the only card he doesn’t have. So Luke has no idea you’re in here.”

“Kassandra. Do not fall victim to the same illusion that has plagued my brother.”

She ignored him, scanning the room for a way out. Kassandra scooped the nightingale off the floor, palms tingling as it fidgeted.

Gabriel grabbed her arm. “Consider for a moment. You have a friend trapped in these cards.” 

She remembered Auntie Jo stuck in the chair, watching the endless parade of floats. But Kassandra needed the cards to free her. It was the only way. 

“This plan of yours.” Gabriel looked her in the eyes. “Is it the best idea for your friend? Or for you?”

A heaviness filled her chest. Was she abandoning Auntie Jo to save Dad? Maybe there was a way to save them both. Kassandra held the bird up. It cocked its head. Was she being selfish? It fluttered its wings, testing the damaged one.

“I don’t know what I want anymore.” She glanced at Gabriel.

“I understand the temptation of Luke’s offer.”

Puh-twee-too.

Kassandra caught movement out of the corner of an eye. The bird’s claws momentarily gripped her skin and released. Then it was in the air, shooting forward.

“Gabriel!”

The instant the bird touched her chest, Gabriel and the tower burned away. Everything became pure white light. Muscles spasmed, each one pulled in different directions. An ache spread through Kassandra’s bones almost like they were stretching. A blast of air pumped her lungs open to the bursting point.

Then she smacked, face first, onto an icky grey carpet. This was not Auntie Jo’s house. Someone she knew leaned over her.

“Hi Mom.”

The Castle on the Back of a Snail

Chapter 41

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 caught up with Monstro the Snail, but had to power walk to keep alongside it. This close, it seemed even more ginormous. Maybe if she stacked a few stories on top of the high school gym, plus gave it a high carb diet, it might be the same size.

She glanced toward the stained glass tower perched on top. How did she get way up there? Running a finger along the shell, Kassandra felt the slick surface. Not going to climb that. She circled the creature, examining the undulating pattern on the snail’s shell. A bit of light reflected off the indentation of slender stairs etched into the surface. They mimicked the pattern of the shell, creating a kind of illusion. Kassandra grabbed the first step and clambered up.

When she reached the top, the nightingale greeted her from its perch next to the door of the tower.

Twah-twah-twah-too-weet.

“Easy for you to say.” Kassandra placed one hand on the tower wall and leaned down, panting. “You flew.”

The glass wasn’t smooth like the windows at home. The surface bubbled and wobbled. It almost felt alive. Thick bands of lead joined the geometric shapes of stained glass with no obvious pattern, just a mishmash of red and blue glass all the way up. How did this thing stay up? Nothing seemed to support it except the glass and lead.

Even the door was stained glass, though it was composed of tinier shards. Kassandra peered through one of the walls, but the glass was too thick see anything.

“Okay. This better take me someplace good.” Kassandra gripped the red crystal door knob and pushed. Metal hinges squealed, alerting the whole planet that she was here. So much for being subtle.

She shoved the door farther in, initiating another piercing screech from the hinges. The bird swooped through and zoomed into a room at least two stories high. The walls glowed red and blue, lit from the light outside. At the far end, stairs circled up to the next level.

The place smelled like oranges, reminding her of Luke’s cologne. A quick scan showed about twenty wooden baskets hooked on jagged bits of glass in the walls. She stepped closer to examine one. It was crudely built out of wood and twine, with dried orange peels and sticks of cinnamon stashed inside. Luke had the same sort of basket contraption strapped to his belt at the circle of wagons. She recalled reading about these things in social studies class. They were called Pomanders, a sort of medieval deodorant. 

Kassandra turned and her foot struck a discarded chair leg, sending it rattling along the floor. The wood had been hacked and splintered, with strips gouged out in places. A few more lonely chunks of wood lay scattered about. One looked like it once belonged to a table. When she took in the room as a whole, it appeared vacant, as if there should’ve been furniture. Luke must have dismantled it all. Maybe to build the pomander baskets. She lifted one from the wall, taking in the sharp smell of oranges. These were made with tiny scraps of wood. 

“Where did the rest of the furniture disappear to?”

Kassandra headed for the stairs, meeting up with her nightingale perched on a banister of glass and lead. From somewhere above came a muffled squabbling sound, growing louder as she climbed. A strong musky scent mixed with the sharp tang of ammonia drifted down. Kassandra pinched her nose. Whatever the smell was, it reeked.

The nightingale fluttered over and landed on one shoulder. So far, the bird hadn’t touched Kassandra, much less landed on her. The needlelike claws dug into the skin. Why couldn’t the bird find some other place to perch on? 

Kassandra rounded a bend to find a massive room filled, floor to ceiling, with bird cages—each one inhabited by a nightingale. There were hundreds of them, all screeching and flapping their wings. What the heck was Luke doing in here with all these birds?

Stepping into the room, Kassandra wished for one of those Pomander baskets. She needed something to mask the stench. Everything was caked in bird droppings. The cages. The floor. The stink was eye watering. As she moved farther in, the birds accelerated their chatter, all chirping at once. Bits of down feathers floated in the air and stuck to the gray sludge coating the floor.

Kassandra walked a slender path worn into the mounds of bird poop. Strips of wood and chunks of stained glass had been stitched together with wire to form the cages. This was where the rest of the furniture had gone. Luke must have smashed it up to make all these cages. The birds pecked frantically at the sides, their beaks clicking on shards of glass.

“I can’t leave them locked up like this. They’ll starve.” 

Kassandra leaned down to the nearest cage, where a strip of paper had been tacked to the bottom. It read: JUSTICE. Was that one of the Tarot cards? She couldn’t remember. Untwisting a pair of wires allowed the door to swing open. The bird shot out, flitting about the room.

Kassandra opened more cages and soon nightingales crisscrossed the air, searching for a way out. She surveyed the room. There were still hundreds of cages, all with squawking birds.

“There are too many. I can’t free them all.”

A bird zoomed by her face, missing only by inches. 

“Hey, watch it.” 

The other nightingales circled and swooped everywhere. How many had she let out? Kassandra’s nightingale scuttled nearer to her head, its claws needling the skin. Birds swirled around and one dive bombed, zooming for her chest. Kassandra swatted and it veered off course. But now the others got the idea. Soon there was a steady stream of birds turned Kamikaze pilots.

Kassandra clobbered three, knocking them off to the side. But the fourth managed to strike her chest. Instead of bouncing off or clinging and pecking, the bird burrowed straight through, as if her shirt and body were made of sand.

A numbing chill spread through Kassandra’s torso as the bird burrowed its head in. She staggered back, head spinning. Her hands groped for the squirming bird, but they responded as if drunk, grasping at empty air.

Her own nightingale leapt up and began pecking at the other bird, yanking out feathers. Finally the bird wiggled out of Kassandra’s chest, revealing its head and beak again.  The instant it was out, her gut twisted up.

The other bird flew away, pursued by her nightingale. But with her chest wide open, the rest of the birds resumed their diving runs. Kassandra struggled forward on wobbly legs, swiping the air wildly. Tiny bird bodies slapped into her hands. More by chance than actual aim.

“Get away.”

She spotted another set of stairs and dashed over, strength rushing through her legs again. Kassandra took the steps three at a time. 

The birds pursued, twirling around in the narrow stairwell and knocking into the stained glass walls. Many gave up and flew back to the room leaving only a handful, but these ones still dive bombed. One darted right in front of her eyes and she swatted at it. The bird pinwheeled into the wall and then crumpled to the ground. 

Another one swooped low and pecked at her hair. Kassandra shook her head and rushed up the stairs. Finally, the last bird gave up and flew away. She collapsed on a step, gasping for breath, sides aching from running. 

Kassandra sat up straight and looked around. Where was her nightingale? She stood, but had to stop from hurtling down the steps. That would only bring on another skull pecking. Kassandra edged down the curved stairwell and the sound of chirping and flapping wings grew louder. She stiffened at the sight of the swatted bird. It lay on the steps, one wing bent backward, its leg twitching. A shiver swept through her. Had she attacked her own nightingale?

As Kassandra crept closer, something caught her attention. A lone bird flew shakily toward her. It swerved left, nearly colliding with a mound of cages. It had the familiar light brown coloring of her own nightingale. 

The other birds zipped through the air, pecking at the walls and sparing with each other. 

Kassandra’s nightingale wobbled to a landing, nearly crashing on the stair below her. She leaned over and held out one hand.

“Come on.” 

The feathers in its right wing looked twisted. Some had been torn out. It flap-hopped into her hand.

A shriek came from the room. They’d been spotted. Kassandra cupped her fingers around the bird and bounded up the stairs. A mass of beaks and claws chased after. This time she had a head start and raced through the stained glass door at the top before they could reach her. Kassandra leaned on the door, shutting off the stairs. The birds clamored against the glass, searching for a way in. Her pulse rocketed, feeling the vibrations of all those squawking bodies. After a few moments, the pecking died down until they all fluttered down the stairs. She let herself breathe. 

Her nightingale quivered in her palms. “I’m so sorry.”  

Something else in the room chirped. Kassandra jerked her head up and instinctively cupped a hand over the nightingale. One of the other birds had slipped through. 

She scanned the room for the source of the sound. There was a desk and a bed, both pushed up against the curved walls. The covers on the bed were partly tossed aside. Luke had driven wire hooks into the lead molding forming a makeshift closet. Clothes swayed gently to the left and then back right, moving with the undulations of the snail.

Then Kassandra spied another of those cages cobbled together from stained glass and wood. A single nightingale sat inside with a tiny scrap of paper tacked to the bottom. As she walked over, her nightingale fidgeted. The paper at the bottom of the cage was chewed almost to shreds, nearly obliterating the one word: Gabriel.

Kassandra stared at the cage. This was Gabriel’s bird. The one Luke had taken away. She squatted down, setting her nightingale on the floor. Both birds chattering excitedly. 

“What?” 

They hopped up and down in a panic. 

In her crouched position, she was level with Luke’s bed. Something shifted under the half drawn covers. The hairs along her neck prickled. She reached forward. The sheets rumpled as something squirmed around. When her fingers brushed the fabric, both birds fell silent. Kassandra grasped one corner of the covers and drew them back. She saw hair. Then a forehead. Finally a face.

It was Ezabell.

Luke Rykell Tries to Pull Kassandra Out of the Tarot

Chapter 40

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. 

Luke.

“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.