Kassandra Visits the Death Card One Final Time

Chapter 49

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.

“We need another fork.” Gabriel arranged the silverware on the table. He was dressed in one of Kassandra’s oversized T-shirts and a pair of Mom’s jeans. They didn’t have any real clothes for him—not in a house of girls.

“Got it.” Kassandra hustled into the kitchen.

The scent of cactus gumbo filled the room. Auntie Jo stirred the pot on the stove.

“You sure it’s going to taste good?” Kassandra frowned as she peered at the brown sauce.

“Trust me child, your stomach won’t be large enough.”

“I’ll take that on faith.” Kassandra took the fork back to the dinner table, placing it at the fourth setting.

Mom swept in, munching on a carrot while typing one-handed on the phone. Maybe texting Comb Over.

Kassandra didn’t know and didn’t care. “We’re eating in fifteen. No phones allowed.”

Mom flashed a look and then retreated to the counter to finish the text message. Kassandra shrugged. As long as Mom stowed the phone before dinner.

“Gabe, come over here.” Auntie Jo backed away from the stove. “I’m in need of some of those muscles.” He headed into the kitchen to help wrestle the massive pot off the burners.

With everyone occupied, Kassandra slipped down the hall, sneakers padding softly on the carpet. She shut the door and plopped on the bed. The Tarot deck only barely fit in the front jean pocket, but she managed to wriggle it out. The same card sat at the top—Fortitude.

“Where did you go?” Kassandra stroked the empty space next to the lion.

Maybe Lindsay had escaped and was wandering the deck. At least Kassandra hoped so. The alternative was a lot more bloody. She wanted to examine every card, to spot Lindsay in one of them, but there wasn’t enough time right now.

The next card lay face down for a reason. Kassandra took a quick peek. Luke was dressed in the red monkey suit, stuck in his stained glass castle. His illustration somehow looked sullen. She flipped him back over. There was nothing he could say worth listening to.

The third card was Death, still showing Dad’s face at the bottom. “I may not be able to bring you back, but at least I can visit.”

Kassandra closed her eyes and summoned up an image the garage. She wanted to focus on something positive, like all those times Dad worked with the table saw or just puttered around. But that wouldn’t be enough. Instead, she focused on the ladder tipped on its side. The yellow rope stretched taut. His feet above the concrete, the laces of one shoe dangling. There was a twinge at her gut. Then a flutter, like wings beating. The air grew colder. Kassandra felt something mash her chest flat. A spike of pain jabbed at her with each breath.

Then, all at once, the pressure vanished. She was back. The nightingale flapped over to the workbench. Dad stood at the open garage door, staring out at the grassy meadow. Sunlight streamed in, coloring the concrete floor golden.

“Dad?”

He turned and smiled. She ran over and hugged him.

“I waited for you.” Dad gave a final squeeze before letting go. He glanced over a the meadow. “It’s time.”

“No.” Kassandra grabbed his arm, but he shook his head.

“I need to do this.” He gripped the side of her face, one calloused finger rubbing her cheek. “As long as I’m stuck here, you will be too.”

“I risked too much to get you back. Can’t you just enjoy that we’re together?”

“I am.” He wiped a tear from Kassandra’s face. “I made the choice to leave you and Louise. Now I have to see it through.”

The tears gushed down Kassandra’s face. She seized his hand, squeezing hard enough to crush bone. “This isn’t fair.”

“I love you.” Dad somehow managed to pull free. Or maybe Kassandra had let go. She couldn’t tell.

He stepped into the meadow and a burst of warm air washed into the garage. The wind picked up, sending dried leaves spiraling into the air.

Kassandra edged closer, yearning to rush after him.

Part of Dad’s shirt peeled away, transforming into a leaf and fluttering into the meadow. Gradually the color of his skin darkened, turning brown and brittle. Then piece by piece, he was blown away, his body splitting into hundreds of leaves, until only a small brown bird remained.

“Don’t fly away. I still need you.”

The horizon darkened, stained by a massive flock. Their squawks and chirps emanated from across the meadow. Dad’s nightingale hovered for a moment, looking back. Kassandra reached out with one hand, her fingers quivering.

“I won’t ever forget you.”

The bird darted away, flying toward the flock.

Kassandra stood at the edge of the grass, her breath raspy and uneven. Dad’s nightingale shrunk to a black speck among the thousands of other birds.

Finally, she marched to the workbench. The box of razors sat in the same spot as always. Kassandra snatched them up and returned to the meadow. The box felt so small now, like a kid’s toy. She hurled it in. The box flew a long arc and then disappeared in the tall grass.

“Goodbye.”

Kassandra backed up and pressed the button. The garage door shuddered, squealing as it lowered. She kept watching until the last of the sunlight vanished and the door thumped into the concrete. Only her own nightingale remained, staring from the workbench.

Kassandra Steps Through a Painting

Chapter 36

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.

In the dark, Kassandra ran one palm along the solid weight of the door. Her chest shuddered, needing air. One hand clawed at the wood, frantic to escape. Then she snatched a breath, head popping up above the water. The air tasted stale and moldy. Kassandra kicked to stay afloat as the water gradually drained from the room, lowering until her feet touched the marble floor. A series of candelabras sputtered to life with a crackle, illuminating the area. The last of the water sluiced through the cracks along the perimeter. Rivulets streamed down her shirt and pants to puddle in her shoes.

There were no doors, only five oversized paintings. It figured. A door would be too easy. The one in the ceiling remained, taunting her. As if she had any chance of reaching it again.

She heard a muffled chirping and turned in the direction of the sound. It came from a painting of the pond and forest. There were even the lion’s footprints leading away. Then the nightingale popped out of the painting into the room. 

Wee-tee-tee-tee-tweet.

“Yeah, I know. You’re dry.” Kassandra wrung water from her soaked shirt. The bird circled the room before perching on the corner of a picture frame. “Glad you’re happy about all this.”

She faced the painting of the pond again. “Okay, if this is where I came from, then one of these others must lead out.”

The next painting depicted a hallway filled with mirrors—definitely the Hanged Man card. She didn’t want to go there again. 

The next one presented a night scene of New Orleans with lights reflecting in the rain slicked boulevard. A parade of floats clogged the street, surrounded by crowds of people—a Mardi Gras celebration. Kassandra stepped closer and examined the picture. Layers of oil paint shimmered in the candlelight. She scratched her head. What did New Orleans have to do with the Tarot deck? Then she noticed something printed at the bottom of the frame. A single letter ‘X’. That seemed random. Was she looking for buried treasure now?

The painting with the mirrored hall had three letters below it: XII. Of course, Roman numerals. The Hanged Man was number twelve. Which meant Mardi Gras was ten. Maybe it was the next card.

Since there were still two more paintings, she decided to check them out first. The next one showed a vast desert. Craggy rocks filled the foreground and the landscape receded into windswept dunes under an intense blue sky. Nothing else. Pretty boring.

Kassandra was about to switch but caught a flicker of movement. A distant figure hurtled through the dunes, still too far away to tell exactly what it was. Then a second shape followed the first, but this one blended into the sand, making it hard to see. 

Kassandra squinted, leaning closer to the painting. A girl scrambled across the dunes and the shape following was…The lion. It was back! Kassandra spun and looked at the painting of the pond, half expecting to see the creature there again, glistening with razor blades and needles. But the scene looked the same—trees and water, nothing else.

The nightingale had flown right out of there. Maybe she could enter into the paintings. Kassandra looked back at the desert. The girl clambered up a dune, close enough to see her strawberry curls bouncing. It was Lindsay.

Kassandra chewed on a fingernail. All she had to do was step inside. Yet she didn’t move any closer to the painting. The nightingale was oddly silent up on its candelabra perch. It cocked its head.

“What are you looking at?”

Lindsay neared the clump of rocks in the foreground, eyes wide with fear. The lion pursued, its mane nearly blending into the sand. She screamed, although no sound made it through the painting.

Kassandra looked away. The final painting showed a winter scene with a frozen lake. The glassy ice reflected the clouds above. A figure skidded along the slick surface, trying to run. It was Gabriel. Instantly she reached for the painting, but her hand clunked against the canvas. No way in. Kassandra glanced back at the desert. She hadn’t even tried to help Lindsay. What did that say about her?

Gabriel floundered along the frozen lake, trying to escape something, but the landscape was barren. A blond shape flashed along the ice. Kassandra leaned in, but still didn’t see the lion. Gabriel was almost full size now, his face drenched in sweat. He whipped around to look at the empty lake.

Then she saw it. The lion wasn’t above the water. It was reflected in the ice. It swiped and clawed at Gabriel’s reflection, only a few feet behind.

“Hurry!” Kassandra shouted, though he didn’t seem to hear.

In another instant, Gabriel hurtled past the border of the painting and vanished from sight. The lion followed. Kassandra slapped the canvas, causing the picture to billow. Was this some kind of torture? She could see him but couldn’t help.

Kassandra stepped over to the desert scene. No sign of Lindsay. But what if she could enter this one and not Gabriel’s? She shook her head. Didn’t matter. Kassandra reached forward, but bumped into canvas again. Still a no. 

Okay, with five paintings, there had to be an exit. She glanced around the room and counted. Now there were only four.

Kassandra turned, pointing at each one: the icy lake, the desert, Mardi Gras, and the hall of mirrors. What had happened to the pond? There wasn’t even an empty space on the wall. It was like the room shrunk, or the paintings grew. The four remaining painting hung evenly spaced along the wall. 

Her chest clenched up. Would more paintings vanish if she didn’t make a choice soon? Neither Gabriel’s or Lindsay’s were an option. Plus they both had the lion running around, same as by the pond. She hooked a strand of hair over one ear. Maybe that was the trick to this card. People had to face the lion on their own. Kassandra examined the icy lake. It would explain why Gabriel hadn’t show up with her by the pond. He’d gotten sucked into his own confrontation.

That left only two paintings—the mirrored hall and the Mardi Gras. Not a choice really.

She stepped over to the painting of New Orleans and examined the scene. It had to be the smallest parade in history, all concentrated on a single block. People jammed together, cheering the floats as they passed. Hadn’t Auntie Jo lived there?

Kassandra inspected the scene and spotted a small viewing platform on one side of the street. A single person sat on top, watching the parade. She wore a purple apron. A shiver ran through Kassandra. It was Auntie Jo. 

Turning around, both the desert and icy lake landscapes showed no sign of Gabriel, Lindsay or the lion. What if she couldn’t enter the Mardi Gras painting. Then she’d be stuck here. Or worse, have to go return to the Hanged Man card.

Kassandra turned back to the New Orleans painting and reached forward, fully expecting her fingers to thunk the canvas again, but this time they dipped into a cold slimy goo. She jerked her hand back, fingertips smeared with fresh paint. Rubbing them together only smudged the colors into a mucky brown.

This was going to be messy. Kassandra stuck her whole hand in and paint swirled around the arm, a few drops dribbling down the picture. It felt gloppy, like reaching into a bottle of grape jelly. She pushed the other arm and right leg into the painting, trickles of color dribbling down her skin. Finally Kassandra pushed off with her left leg and shut her eyes. 

Paint oozed up her nose and into her ears. It trickled down her back and along every inch of skin. Finally, it settled, seeming to mold to Kassandra’s body. Panic erupted inside her. What if she was trapped this way? Like in some sort of wet coffin. 

She waved her arms and they swung freely. The gooey resistance had vanished. Kassandra’s eyes sprang open to find a deserted street in New Orleans. She spun around. No door, meaning no way back.

Chirping caught her attention. The nightingale sat on an iron railing. Kassandra jogged toward the corner and heard the whooping sounds of a crowd. The sign on the lamppost read: Bourbon Street. She rushed down the rain dampened asphalt. The multicolored buildings on either side looked uninhabited. Everyone seemed to be attending the parade.

Kassandra reached the crowd. They swarmed the street, all shouting and hopping up and down. As she pressed through the mass of people, an elbow whacked her in the face.

“Hey, watch it.”

The guy didn’t seem to notice. He was too intent on the parade. Then she spotted the girl next to him, hands held over her face to mask the tears streaming down.

Kassandra stepped closer, but then noticed another lady, this one Mom’s age. She was crying too. In fact, lots were. Some openly, some with their faces covered.

The men jumped and shouted like this was the best party ever. Only the women were crying. They looked familiar. Some were old and withered, and some were young. Then an icy chill slithered down Kassandra’s spine. Every woman looked like Auntie Jo.