Auntie Jo Breaks Free of the Tarot

Chapter 48

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 gust of wind swept through the open doorway, chilling Kassandra’s skin. She shivered, staring down at the cards piled neatly at her feet. Why hadn’t they scattered? Luke dropped them on the carpet. But there they sat in a tidy stack, ready to be plucked up and used again.

The damned things would come to her sooner or later, so did she really have to pick them up? Kassandra tightened her hands into fists. Auntie Jo was trapped in there. Lindsay too. And who knew how many other innocent people. Leaning down, Kassandra reluctantly scooped the cards up. They felt heavy as if weighted down by all the trapped souls.

“What’s going on?” Mom eyed the splintered wood clinging to the hinges. Gabriel ran up from behind. The door wobbled as she stepped on it, and Mom was forced to throw out arms for balance.

Kassandra clutched the cards and stood.

“Where’s Joanna?” Mom glanced around, looking for someone to blame.

Auntie Jo! Kassandra’s fingers flew through the cards. She didn’t want to examine them too closely and risk triggering a random one. The Wheel of Fortune was buried nearly at the bottom of the deck. A blindfolded angel stood in the sea, holding a massive golden wheel. Auntie Jo sat in a purple chair at the top.

“Are you listening to me?”

Kassandra shut her eyes, blocking Mom out. An image of Auntie Jo sprang to mind. Rain thrummed on the roof of the blue Beetle. Kassandra’s left arm lay bare, the scars plainly visible. Auntie Jo had flipped out because she blamed herself for Ronald’s death and saw Kassandra heading toward self destruction too.

A thought snuck in. What if the cards only triggered when Luke was around? She squelched the idea. Kassandra had released Luke from the deck. She could do the same for Auntie Jo.

“You need to start talking young lady!”

Kassandra peeked at the card. No change. The illustration was still there.

Gabriel tugged Mom back by the arm. “Let go.” Mom wriggled, but he wouldn’t give. “Who are you?”

Kassandra swiveled away from both of them and dredged up every memory of Auntie Jo. Roasting cactus pads in the kitchen. Wedging Amazon-sized hips into the tiny Beetle. The seeing eye apron and ankh necklace. Even those times Kassandra rolled her eyes when Auntie Jo claimed to be the reincarnation of Nefertiti. Something had to click.

A muffled thud came from the doorway. Kassandra looked at the card and her heart sank. Same illustration.

“Kassandra!” Mom stood directly behind her.

“What!” Kassandra spun around. “Can’t you see I’m trying to fix things?”

Mom’s expression shifted. She hadn’t expected shouting. “Who is that guy and what did he do to our door?”

Gabriel gripped his foot with one hand. Mom must have nailed him with a heel.

“I can’t explain right now.” Kassandra glanced down at the Wheel of Fortune. “Just give me a second to concentrate.”

“No, you’ll talk to me right now.” Mom aimed a finger. “You show up at Sam’s house. No explanation. Then run out into the streets.” She reached forward and gripped Kassandra’s wrist. “And what about these? Tell me what happened to you.”

“Really?” Kassandra yanked away. “Six months, and you didn’t see?” She whacked her arm, the skin beneath the scars reddened. “A real mom would have noticed.”

Mom’s hands quivered, forming and reforming fists—full out red-alert mode. Kassandra braced for another slap, but it didn’t come. Instead Mom glanced at the carpet. “Dad was the strong one. He held everything together. When he left…It all fell on me. Now I need to be the strong one.”

Kassandra shook her head. “I need you to be Mom. That’s all.”

Tears dribbled down Mom’s cheeks. Wetness filled Kassandra’s eyes too. She drew Mom into a hug. They both shook, squeezing each other.

“I’m listening.” Mom broke the hug and stepped back. “Whatever you have to tell me.”

Kassandra didn’t know where to start. Mom had never actually listened before. Kassandra glanced at the card. A blank spot appeared in the center the wheel. It worked. She’d triggered it without even thinking. Auntie Jo stood in the hall. Kassandra rushed forward and gripped her in a fierce bear hug.

“I heard you the whole time, calling me.” Auntie Jo pulled away, eyes distant and detached. “But I couldn’t say a thing.”

“Joanna, maybe you can tell me what’s going on here?”

Auntie Jo scanned the room, finally stopping at the front door.

Kassandra said the first thing that popped into her head. “Home invasion.” They both turned to look at her. “It was Luke. He wanted to rip us off.” Mom’s face twisted into an expression of utter confusion. Was she buying it? “Look what he did to our door.”

Kassandra jumped when Auntie Jo ran a finger along the scars. “We need to deal with this.”

Mom stepped forward. “Did you know this was going on, Joanna?”

Auntie Jo glanced down, not wanting to meet Mom’s gaze. “I was going to tell you.”

Kassandra marched over to the table and knocked over the teacups, locating the razor hidden underneath. As she returned, Auntie Jo’s gaze darted to the blade.

“Yes, I lied. This is the last of it. I don’t need it anymore.” Kassandra placed it in Auntie Jo’s hand.

“It’s not as simple as all that.”

“I know.” Kassandra looked at the Tarot deck. The nicks and scratches along the cards reminded her of the scars. She ran a hand over one arm, feeling the ridges. Memories leapt through her head. Facing the lion. The hall of mirrors. The paper doll girl. “I don’t want to be that person again.”

Auntie Jo touched the razor’s metal grip, flecked with rust.

“Don’t worry, I won’t end up like Ronald.”

Anger flashed in Auntie Jo’s eyes, but then she nodded. “Alright.” She curled her fingers around the razor and pocketed it.

Mom gripped Kassandra’s arm again, twisting it so the scars faced up. “Kassandra, I’m here now. Tell me. What made you do this?” Her voice was edged with genuine concern.

Fear seeped through Kassandra, cold and bitter. She stared into Mom’s eyes. “Dad did.” Her whole body tensed. “I did. I don’t know anymore.”

Mom drew Kassandra close. “There isn’t a second that goes by where I don’t think of him.”

“Really?”

“Listen, I know I don’t seem like the greatest of mothers some of the time.”

“All the time.”

Irritation flickered across Mom face.

Why did Kassandra say that? Mom was opening up. She didn’t need a snarky response.

Then Mom cracked a smile. “Yeah, the last couple of months haven’t been my best.”

“You threw everything away. Everything of Dad’s”

Tears collected along Mom’s eyes. “I couldn’t look at it anymore. Everything felt too much like Douglas.” She whisked one finger, brushing away the tears. “You know it hurts just to say his name.”

Kassandra nodded. “I know.”

“He loved us both so much.” Tears dribbled down Mom’s cheeks. More than she could wipe away. There was a real person inside there.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t cry.” Mom swept the tears away. “I need to stay strong.”

Kassandra pulled her into a hug. “No. It’s all right. We both miss Dad.” The two squeezed each other. Mom clenched Kassandra’s shirt and shuddered. Then gradually the crying subsided.

Mom pulled away, wiping her face clean. “Now, would someone mind telling me who he is?” She pointed at Gabriel.

He was dressed in one of those flouncy shirts and leggings, the type of clothes that went out of style with Columbus. Kassandra bit her lip. How could she explain Gabriel?

He stepped forward. “I am Luke’s brother. I was brought here to help.” Mom surveyed him, taking in the crazy attire.

Luckily Gabriel hadn’t mentioned being locked up for centuries. But what was going to happen to him? He didn’t have a clue about the world today. And there was no one alive who even knew who Gabriel was. Kassandra was it.

“Mom, he needs a place to stay.”

“Absolutely not.” Mom jabbed a finger at the door lying on the carpet. “Look at this place. How do we know he isn’t going to end up like his brother and rob us?”

At least Mom bought the home invasion story, though at this point Kassandra wished she’d thought of something better. “This isn’t your house.” Kassandra turned to Auntie Jo. “He deserves our help. You know what it’s like in there.”

Auntie Jo fingered the silver ankh. “Luke’s brother.”

Kassandra leaned close and whispered, “He helped me escape.”

“Do you trust him?”

Kassandra nodded.

Auntie Jo stood up straight, rubbing her chin. “Well, he’s not staying in Kassandra’s room.” A smile played at her lips.

“Joanna, you can’t be serious.”

“We can work something up in the garage. Meantime he can sleep on the couch.”

Kassandra rushed over and grabbed Gabriel’s hand. “You’re staying.”

“Joanna, is this a good idea?”

Auntie Jo shrugged. “I took you two in, didn’t I? I think we can handle one more stray.”

Mom tugged on her ponytail, inspecting Gabriel again. Then she slowly shook her head. “The clothes have to go.”

This was one of the few times Kassandra totally agreed with Mom.

Auntie Jo stepped into the center of the room. “Lord, this place is a mess. It’s going to take a whole lot of fixing to get things up and running again.” She grinned, turning toward the kitchen. “But we can’t do a thing on an empty stomach.”

Kassandra Accepts the Unthinkable

Chapter 47

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.

The Tarot cards sat on the table, so close Kassandra could reach out and snatch them. In a moment they’d zap back on their own. That was the plan. She stared at the pattern on the back. The ink was worn in places from hours of hands fidgeting over them. She needed to look away for this to work, but how could she stop thinking about the cursed things?

Luke focused all his attention on Gabriel. He wasn’t even turned toward the table anymore. Kassandra couldn’t wait any more. She reached for the deck, fingers grazing the edge of the top card. A hand slammed down.

One corner of Luke’s mouth shot up in a wicked grin. “Clever.” He scooped the deck off the table and fanned the cards out in one hand.

Gabriel lunged forward, but Luke brandished The Hanged Man card. “Care for a return visit, brother?”

Gabriel halted, his whole body slumping at the sight of that single card.

“That’s right. My brother is so predictable. When you dig deep enough, you’ll find a coward lurking inside.” Luke held out a hand. “My card please.”

Kassandra still clutched The Magician.

An engine revved outside as Mom pulled into the driveway. Luke glanced out the door, clicking the edges of the cards with one fingernail. “Where should I send Mommy?”

“No!” Kassandra shouted.

He snapped his fingers. “The card.”

She glanced outside and then at Gabriel. “Stop her.” He nodded and dashed out.

“He will only buy you time.”

Kassandra chewed her lip. He was right. Eventually Luke would get to Mom.

“You’ve run away from your destiny long enough.” He slid the Hanged Man back into the deck. “For years I’ve chased these cards. Never have I come so close. Don’t you see? You were meant to bring the deck to me.”

“No. That not true.” A tingle inched along Kassandra’s skin, spreading goosebumps.

“You yearn for one thing, yet never attain it.” He stepped forward and she picked up the scent of oranges. “What do you most desire?”

Dad.

Luke patted the deck. “He’s here. Waiting for you.”

Kassandra stroked The Magician card. What if Luke really could save Dad? Shouldn’t she let him help? Her body tensed. It felt like standing at the edge of a cliff, ready to dive off. With both hands, she held the card out toward Luke. The illustration showed an empty hole chiseled from the stained glass—the silhouette of a man ready to be filled.

Luke grasped the card and tugged, but her fingers wouldn’t release. Kassandra’s heartbeat rocketed. The card was empty.

Luke pulled, but she yanked the card back.

“Give it to me!” A scowl erupted on his face.

“No. I’m going to put you back where you belong.”

Kassandra scanned the table for the razor. It worked to free Gabriel. Maybe those memories could trigger this card.

Luke plucked one of the cups and dropped it over the razor, hiding it from view, chuckling. “Face the truth. You put me in there and you kill your last hope of ever bringing Daddy back.”

She ran a finger along the edge of the card, feeling the nicks and dents. Such a flimsy thing. It reminded her of the paper doll girl. The illustration of Ezabell had seemed so real at first. But the eyes were totally flat. Soulless. Kassandra pictured Dad’s face. How the skin around his eyes wrinkled when smiling. The smell of sawdust. That’s who he was. She needed Dad all the way back. Or not at all. Tears trickled down her cheeks.

“Let me help you.” Luke reached out a hand.

Kassandra’s eyes opened. Luke’s face was calm—no sneering grin or arched eyebrow. He truly believed. She shivered, the card shaking in her grip.

“You know I will bring him back to you.” Luke held out his hand as if to hold hers. “I promise you.”

She shook her head, hiccupping as the sobbing took control. “Dad is dead.” Kassandra squeezed The Magician card, warping the paper. “We had our time together.”

An image filled Kassandra’s mind—dinner at the old house in Seattle. Her, Mom, and Dad. Everyone laughing. She couldn’t even remember why. Dad took Mom’s hand and kissed it, and then turned toward Kassandra, winking.

She smiled. Tears streamed down her face and splattered on the card. The stained glass sparkled.

Luke’s body stiffened, legs segmenting into triangles and rectangles of glass. Each panel mimicked the color of his clothes. The process sounded like a windowpane gradually cracking. He let out a wail of pain as the crystallizing panels of glass spread up his body. The last to go was his face. Cheeks, lips and nose transformed into geometric shapes of colored glass. Then his eyes flattened into two copper-colored irises ringed with lead. He became a frozen mosaic of multicolored glass, his face an expression of astonishment.

Luke had been so sure of himself. He never imagined he could fail.

Minute fissures crackled up the glass, zigzagging through Luke’s body. One by one, segments split and tumbled to the floor, shattering on impact. The crash of glass was almost continual—more and more shards piled up. They left behind an empty scaffolding of lead. Then this too crumbled to dust.

Kassandra leaned down, holding The Magician card out. It acted like a magnet and the shattered glass flew toward the paper. She almost dropped it, afraid one would slice into her fingers but the bits of glass miniaturized, darting into the illustration. One by one, the pieces filled in the empty silhouette—forming an image of Luke Rykell.

The last chunk of glass held his eyes. They seemed to plead with her. Kassandra knew what he wanted. More than anything. But it was a thing no one could have. Kassandra brought the card closer and the eyes jiggled a moment before being sucked up. The illustration was complete. Luke was gone.

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 Clings to the Glass Tower

Chapter 43

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.

The front door squealed shut, the sound reverberating through the glass walls. Kassandra searched for a place to hide, but the options were limited. No way was she going to slip under the covers with paper doll girl.

Kassandra spied one more set of stairs leading up and scooped her nightingale off the floor. The prick of its claws against her palm created a tingling sensation. What would happen if she held it to her chest? The bird would probably leap inside like the one from the room full of cages. But what then?

Kassandra hurried up the stairs, her footsteps creating little clouds of dust. No one had climbed them in a long time. At the top, she emerged into an area only slightly larger than Mom’s room back home. This had to be the top of the tower. Even though the walls were composed of stained glass, it seemed darker. She ran one finger along the wall and pulled away a layer of soot. 

Squawking from the bird room echoed through the tower, the noise dampened only a little by the two floors of stained glass. A chill swept through Kassandra. It was Luke. He was chasing down the birds she’d set free. Corralling them back into their cages. 

The nightingale fluttered out of her hands. As it scuttled around the floor, the bird left tiny footprints in the layer of dust. Various bits of wood and stained glass lay stacked everywhere. The room swayed, boards squeaking as they shifted position, and she planted her feet to keep from teetering. After a moment, the floor swung back, tilting the other way. Bits of glass clinked together. It felt like a ship rocking back and forth over waves. Of course. The tower hitched a ride on the massive snail.

The door downstairs opened and she jumped. Luke was right below her. Any second, he would climb to this level.

She scanned the stacks of wood for a hiding place and spotted a thin ladder leading to a trap door in the ceiling. Several long planks blocked the way. Kassandra rushed over and began setting them aside.

Crash.

Her heart leapt. But she hadn’t made the sound. It came from downstairs. Then another crash along with glass shattering. Kassandra knelt down and wiped dust from a section of floor. Luke stomped around the room, flinging papers from the desk. 

The sound of wood scraping against glass alerted her and she jerked her head up. One of the boards had slipped, and was now sliding to the floor. Kassandra lunged for it, but too late. It thunked into a pile of scraps. The whole mess tumbled to the floor with a resounding smack, sending the nightingale shooting into the air. A glance down showed Luke running for the stairs. 

Kicking the last plank aside, Kassandra scrambled up the ladder and threw open the trap door. A blast of wind slapped her face. The sky outside was a perfect cloudless blue. She scrambled through the opening. The nightingale attempted to follow, but it was hampered by its crippled wing. It landed on the ladder, three rungs down.

Through the stained glass walls, she saw a distorted silhouette of Luke climbing steadily. 

“Come on,” Kassandra said in a sharp whisper. 

The bird launched off the rung and flapped up through the opening. She slammed the trap door shut, cutting off the room below.

Shards of broken glass and twisted bits of lead made up the parapet of the tower. Once it must have been gorgeous, but now the edges were hacked apart. This must have been where Luke salvaged all the chunks of glass.

The floor swayed with the motion of Monstro the Snail. Below, two massive eye stalks fixed forward as the creature continued its journey through the bleak landscape. The nightingale waddled around, pecking at the floor. The tower shifted to one side and it threw out its wings to hold its balance.

Kassandra scooted toward the edge for a peek down. The parapet would have provided a railing, but now the floor went straight to the edge. The tower tilted again. Thrown off balance, she grabbed for a twisted strip of lead molding. It snapped free and her feet flew off the side. Kassandra flung her arms out, clasping the remains of the parapet. The glass cracked, but it held. She dangled half over the edge. 

Her feet groped for a foothold along the slick wall. Kassandra wanted to haul herself up, but the more pressure she put on the thin sheet of glass, the more it fractured. A strip of lead ran along the edge, keeping her hands from being shredded.

A squeaking sound grabbed her attention. The trap door was opening. The nightingale scuttled to the side as the door fully opened. Kassandra tensed, preparing to face Luke. Instead Gabriel popped through the hole.

He rushed over, callused hands gripping her wrists with surprising strength, and heaved her up. Once on solid flooring again, she wrapped him up in a fierce hug.

“I thought you’d left me.”

“Never.” He squeezed her tighter. 

Kassandra picked up his musky wood scent again. “Don’t go again. This place sucks even more when you’re alone.”

“I know.”

She pulled away, realizing what a horrible thing she’d just said. This guy had been locked in the Tarot deck for centuries and Kassandra was complaining about a couple of hours. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

Gabriel squeezed her shoulders. “You have endured more of this cursed deck than most. You need not apologize.” The tower lurched to one side. “Let us go below.”

“Yeah.”

He let her climb first. Kassandra felt the whoosh of air as the nightingale dropped down. Then came a crescendo of chirping. Gabriel had brought up the other nightingale, setting the cage on a table with a sheet draped over it. Stepping off the ladder, she was drawn to this piece of furniture. Various objects bulged under the white sheet, creating odd shapes. 

Kassandra lifted the birdcage off and snagged a corner of the fabric. Pulling the sheet away released a cloud of dust right into her face. She stepped back, coughing and fanning the air. The dust cleared to reveal three brass cups and a small leather ball. They reminded her of the trick Luke had played with the bottle caps and the pea. The room swayed and the ball rolled on the table, leaving a little trail in the dust. Kassandra caught the ball before it plummeted off the side.

“Luke could have tossed these into the corner and torn up the table like the others.” She nodded toward the scraps of wood. “Why leave it?”

“This was Luke’s favorite trick. He loved fooling people into thinking the way he wanted.” 

Kassandra dropped the leather ball into a brass cup. It landed with a clunk and kicked up a puff of dust.

“This is just sleight of hand. No magic or wizardry.” Instantly she recalled what Auntie Jo had said about the original meaning of the card. “Luke is nothing more than a con man.”

“You’re wrong. The cards change you somehow. They amplify your natural talents.” 

“What? He’s an even better juggler now?”

Gabriel looked her straight in the eye. “Luke can read minds.”

A Paper Drawing of Ezabell Comes to Life

Chapter 42

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.

Ezabell stared at Kassandra, eyes never blinking. Then the girl sat up, creating a sound like the crinkle of paper. Hair stuck to the shoulders like paste. The nose seemed too flat. The lips too. What was wrong with this girl? Kassandra took a hesitant step closer and then the breath caught in her throat. Ezabell was cut out of paper. 

The girl wriggled her flat legs out from under the covers, the paper scrunching up like an accordion. Kassandra stumbled backward, knocking into Luke’s desk. The paper doll girl slithered out of bed, legs expanding to their full length. She looked like the drawings Kassandra used to cut out and then dress up with clothes. Except this one was life-sized. And moving. 

Paper doll girl stepped forward, one leg curling forward like the page of a book. Kassandra had a sudden urge to grab the thing and shred it, but something about the face made her hold off. Luke hadn’t created this. It was too detailed and lifelike—one of Gabriel’s illustrations. She remembered the easel in the Hanged Man card. 

The paper doll girl inched closer, body wobbling and dipping with each step. She stretched out with one hand, the fingers forever frozen together in the drawing. 

Kassandra batted the paper girl aside and sprinted to the bed.

The arm of the paper doll was crumpled and bent backward. Kassandra’s gut tightened. She hadn’t meant to hurt the thing. Paper doll girl slunk to the desk and laid the smooshed arm on the flat surface. With the other hand, she smoothed the crinkles out. 

“Hello. Can you hear me?”

The paper doll girl spun around, the expression on her face the same as ever—a vacant smile.

Kassandra snatched the covers up, tugging them free of the bed. The flat Ezabell inched closer. Of course it couldn’t talk. It was only paper.

“Stop.” Kassandra held the sheets up like a net. 

The paper doll girl kept coming, now only a foot away. It reached out with fingers drawn of pencil.

Kassandra tossed the covers and the paper silhouette crumpled under the weight. The fabric bulged in a few spots as the paper body struggled to free itself. 

“I’m sorry. But I can’t have you follow me around everywhere.” The nightingale hopped over to investigate the lump of sheets. “Plus, you really creeped me out.” 

Kassandra turned to inspect the desk. Half finished drawings of Ezabell, all in a clumsy scrawl, cluttered the tabletop. The corner of a book nosed out from under some pages. She pulled it free and flipped through. The first page showed a crude picture of a man with a bird flying out of his torso. These drawings were most likely Luke’s—each one only a step above stick figures. Beside it, he had scribbled two words: 

The Soul.

Kassandra rubbed her chest and glanced at the bird. “Is that what you are? My soul?”

The nightingale treaded close enough to peck at the sheet on the floor. A twitch from the covers sent it scampering back.

“Better not lose you.”

Fragmented writing filled the next page: 

Each trapped person brings a single soul in the form of a nightingale. These souls are simple to capture and cage. But what of Death? Everyone who dies lets their souls fly loose in the meadow. They travel in massive flocks.

She paused, thinking back to Dad and the garage door. The landscape outside had been filled with birds. Were those all souls? 

The faint clamor of the birds came from downstairs. Kassandra could just make out a few shadowy forms darting here and there through the stained glass floor. There had to be hundreds of cages. 

“What are you searching for?” 

Something dropped in the pit of her stomach. Luke was hoping one of those souls would be Ezabell’s.

“He locks you all up.” She glanced to the cage with Gabriel’s bird. It jutted its beak through the wood slats and nibbled on the paper sign. “Until he find the one he needs.”

Kassandra wondered: If Luke were still in the cards, would he cage her soul? 

She turned another page and froze. The drawing showed a rough sketch of a person, this time a girl, with a bird flying smack into her body. Kassandra reached for the spot where the bird had burrowed in the room below. What was it trying to do exactly? Hijack her body? If the nightingale was her soul, did that make her soulless right now? A hollow sensation expanded in Kassandra’s chest—the same way she felt when thinking of Dad.

Goosebumps sprouted along Kassandra’s skin. Maybe it wasn’t too late for Dad. If she could find his soul, then he could come back too. Just the possibility had her mind flying loops. 

The next page showed an incredibly lifelike drawing of Ezabell (obviously drawn by Gabriel). The illustration was pinned to the page, but it quivered and twitched, trying to escape. Luke had scribbled his own drawing of a bird and then written in the margin.

Not working. Is it the drawing or the soul?

Kassandra glanced toward the lump of covers and a shudder passed through her. Luke was trying to bring the drawing to life. Somehow turn the paper girl into the real Ezabell. Kassandra left the book on the table and lifted the sheets for a peek, causing the nightingale to skitter away. The paper doll girl twisted its head. The eyes, though colored to look real, were flat and lifeless. The illustrated Ezabell reached out with one wrinkled hand and Kassandra dropped the sheets.

Things would be different with Dad. Kassandra didn’t have a two-dimensional imitation of him. She’d seen the real thing.

The tower vibrated and a terrible screeching echoed from below. The front door. Her gut twisted into a tight ball. Someone was here.