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.”

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.

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.