The Tarot Cards Choose a New Owner

Epilogue

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

The bus screeched to a stop at the curb and the doors hissed open. Kassandra and Gabriel climbed on board. He had real boy clothes now. Auntie Jo had driven them by the Retro and Gabriel found some things that fit. They weren’t stylish—money was still tight—but at least he wasn’t wearing Mom jeans anymore.

Kassandra had ditched the Tarot-bought clothes. All of them into the trash. She was forced to pick up a pair of used jeans along with Gabriel. They were worn at the knees, but not ripped yet.

Scooting down the aisle, Kassandra tugged Gabriel along. “Okay. We have to go over your cover story.”

“Am I supposed to be your cousin?”

“Ew, no. That was Auntie Jo’s idea.”

Book Girl sat in the usual spot, her legs wedged against the seat in front with a paperback balanced on top. She glanced up, eyeing Gabriel a little too long.

Kassandra continued heading toward the back of the bus. “I’m pulling the plug on the whole cousin thing. I mean, what if I turn out to like you later?”

He scrunched up his face in confusion.

“Kiss. It means what if we end up kissing.”

“Oh.” Gabriel looked a bit embarrassed. “Courtship between cousins was not entirely uncommon in my day.”

“Well, these days it’s disgusting.”

The bus lurched forward. Kassandra managed to half sit, half fall into the seat, but Gabriel wasn’t so lucky. He stumbled to one knee before making it onto the seat.

“Sorry, I should have warned you about Driver Lady.” She pulled out the battered crocheted bag, searching for a pen and some paper. Next to the other purse, this thing was a cavern. “Let’s get some notes down so we both know your story.”

Something squirmed past her fingers and launched into the air. Gabriel snatched the slip of paper before it fluttered away.

“I should never have made this for you.”

“I like it.” Kassandra took the paper back. It was a drawing he’d made of the nightingale. She’d cut around the edges of the pencil sketch so it could move its wings. Even stuck back in the purse, the paper wings flapped back and forth, trying to fly. “You’ll have a heck of a time in Science class. Maybe let me do the drawings for cellular mitosis.”

“Do you still have them?” Gabriel eyed her purse.

He was asking about the cards. The way he did every five seconds.

“Don’t be so paranoid. Where are they going to go?”

But when Kassandra reached into the purse, they weren’t there. She started pulling things out, searching for the cards. The bus braked, throwing her forward.

“Where are they?” She stood and searched the seat, even stuffing one hand down the foam rip. Nothing. “They can’t disappear. They just don’t do that.”

Some of the kids twisted around to see what was going on. Kassandra had one final idea. She pushed past Gabriel and leaned down, scanning the floor under the seats.

“Sit down back there,” Driver Lady hollered, putting the bus back in gear. Kassandra balanced by bracing against the seats. Backpacks littered the floor. There was a forest of legs. Even if the cards were down there somewhere, she couldn’t see anything. Gabriel yanked her back into the seat.

“They’re gone.” Kassandra stared blankly forward.

She should be relieved. She’d wanted rid of those things since day one. But what about Luke? If someone let him out, he’d come straight for her. Just like Carol, the Clerk Lady at the Psychic Mind. Then another idea slipped into Kassandra’s mind. The first day she’d found the cards. Carol seemed so shocked. Maybe they’d vanished from her pocket.

Kassandra turned to Gabriel. “The cards. They’ve chosen someone new.”

Margaret

Margaret hiked her legs up, squashing it against the seat in front. What were these seats stuffed with—wood? It was impossible to get comfortable on one of these. She propped the book on one knee. With any luck, Ms. Sammers wouldn’t ride the brake all the way to school.

Cracking open the paperback, Margaret dug in. The hero, Billy, was shoved in a boxcar with plenty of other prisoners of war. The place seemed filthy and cramped. It reminded her of the bus ride.

After only a page, she swayed forward as the bus stopped to pick up more passengers. Great, here came the new girl. It looked like she traded boyfriend number one for a new model. Margaret watched them pass, poking her glasses up her nose. The first guy was cuter, though this one wasn’t half bad.

She tried to steer her mind back to the book and the boxcar rumbling through Germany, but the new girl kept chattering. The girl was way too perky today. Margaret liked her better before—all mopey and quiet. The bus lurched forward, sending the new girl on her ass. It served her right. If she hadn’t learned about how Ms. Sammers drove by now, she was hopeless.

Margaret snugged down in the seat, creasing the book open, but her heart wasn’t in it. The new girl would make an easy scapegoat, but truthfully, it wasn’t only her. Everyone on this bus wore Margaret down. They all went on and on, believing every word they said was vitally important when all it really amounted to was jabbering. These people didn’t know the first thing about life and how to live it. Margaret cracked her knuckles. She’d so like to educate them.

The bus jerked forward again and her face nearly mashed into her knee. The book tumbled to the floor. Mrs. Sammers was riding the brake again.

Margaret groped between the seats, but one hand brushed a stack of cards. She did a quick glance of the bus passengers and then scooped them up along with the book. The cards were oversized, meant for meaty hands and not her slender fingers.

A commotion erupted from the back of the bus. Twisting around, she saw the new girl was having a hissy fit. Enough with the drama already.

Margaret flipped over the top card and saw a stone pillar towering above an ocean. A single rose sprouted from the center of the rock. She tapped the person-shaped empty space right in the middle.

“It’s like someone forgot to finish the picture.”

The bottom read The Fool. “Now who on the bus fits this description?” She giggled. “Take your pick. Most of these folks tread water in the shallow end of the pool.”

Margaret flipped through the rest of the cards. The Emperor, Judgment, The Tower. This was clearly a Tarot deck. But the illustrations looked different from any deck she’d seen before. They had more life to them. Why were some of the cards blank, like The Fool? Had the artist skipped out before the end?

She paused at an illustration of a man wearing the most ridiculous red suit. The bottom said he was The Magician, but the guy looked more like a clown. Margaret was about to move on when the figure shifted. She blinked. It wasn’t her imagination. He really moved. One minute he was staring at the table. The next, he looked at her.

“Why do you look so familiar?” She tilted the card. “This some kind of hologram?” The image didn’t change this time.

The bus lurched, the wheels klunking into a pothole. Ms. Sammers was aiming to hit them all this morning. Margaret glanced back at the card. The man looked at the table again. Maybe it was only her imagination.

Margaret flipped the card back onto the pile and slid the Tarot deck into her backpack. She might as well keep them. They could be good for a laugh. The image of the Fool card popped into her head and she grinned. The blank spot was so begging to be penciled in. And Margaret knew plenty of candidates.

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.”

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.

The Surreal Terror of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis has a logical and scientific explanation. It’s a phenomenon where you partially wake up from sleep, but your muscles still remain frozen. A biological glitch in our bodies causing one part of us to wake from the dream, while the rest of the body is on lockdown. Perfectly explainable. Yet try telling that to someone who’s lived through it.

The experience can be terrible. You’re still dreaming and the things you see appear real. But you cannot move or speak or scream.

You are frozen in terror, staring up at the monstrous creations of your subconscious.

Sleep paralysis is actually a protection mechanism designed to keep you safe while dreaming. The images and scenarios in your dream are vivid and seem real. If a tiger leaps out, you scream and run. Your muscles are locked down to prevent you from flailing about or making a large racket (that would have attracted predators back in the day).

Even as we understand more about this phenomenon, there’s no denying the surreal quality it evokes—to see your dreams as real, right there before you. Photographer Nicolas Bruno has captured some of these images. He is a victim of sleep paralysis and his photos are a window into his subconscious mind.

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Bruno began to jot down notes about his dreams. He wanted to recreate them using recurring imagery (like gas masks, bowler hats, or lanterns) and compose them the way a painter would. His photos show a haunting world that Bruno describes as  “a bittersweet homage” to his dream-world life.

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Often times, dreams serve as a way to work through the events of a day. But dreams aren’t logical. They are an emotional outlet. You typically see your fears come alive, such as being buried alive. The fears don’t make sense. It’s your minds way of dealing with them.

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Because dreams mash up images, the result can seem surreal and downright strange. We move from place to place instantly.

The glitch of sleep paralysis has haunted humanity for thousands of years. Over that time, cultures created creatures that stalk us in the night as a way to explain the frightening sessions of paralysis. They myths center around nocturnal monsters or demons.

In the Amazon, we have the Boto, a river dolphin that transforms at night into a vaguely human creature. It wears a hat to cover it’s blowhole. In Africa, the night prowler takes the form of a bear. Known as the Tokoloshe, it slinks in at night and bites the toes off children as they sleep.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

The folks at the Sleep Paralysis Project, along with director Carla MacKinnon, have created a documentary about sleep paralysis. This both serves as an explanation and a terrifying vision of the phenomenon. Be warned, if you don’t suffer from bad dreams, you will after watching this.

The film Devil in the Room depicts the grotesque creatures alongside the scientific explanation. It was meant to evoke the feeling of sleep paralysis and I say it does a damn good job.

Tim Kane