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.

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.

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.

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. 

Gabriel Succumbed to the Sin of Vanity

Chapter 34

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.

Gabriel’s mouth tightened into a straight line as he touched his wounded cheek.

“Help me stop Luke.” Kassandra looked him straight in the eye. “Can you do that?”

“I want to help you.” He looked toward one of the mirrors, body slumping under the pressure of those images.

She grabbed his face. “Focus on me. Ignore the mirrors. They’ll show you everything you’ve done wrong.” Kassandra leaned close, pressing their foreheads against each other. “Close your eyes. Shut it all out.”

Gabriel did what she said. Except now he was back to square one—surrounded by these horrible mirrors and trapped in the middle. The room was still in control.

“Think. The mirrors only show your mistakes.” Kassandra glanced at the reflections. “What’s something you did right?”

“I can think of nothing.”

“No, I won’t accept that.” She scanned the room, settling on the easel. “Listen, you said you only drew the cards, right? Luke was the one who did the nasty part. He filled them with people’s souls, not you.”

Gabriel nodded.

“So what did you really do wrong?”

“Vanity. That was my bargin with Donald Cloots.”

She glanced at the mirror holding Mr. Creeps, still draped with the black cloth. Her skin prickled. Could he see her through the sheet? 

“I wanted my work to live forever. Now it is my curse.”

“Yes, but we have a chance to stop it. To stop Luke. Isn’t it worth trying?”

Gabriel opened his eyes and looked straight at Kassandra. “Pain and misery have surrounded me for these many years. Yet you…” He ran his fingers along her cheek. “You are filled with so much hope.”

Kassandra looked down. Of all the ways to describe her, hope would never be the word she used.

“Perhaps, I can atone for my misdeeds a little by helping you.” He leaned closer and she picked up the musky wood scent again. “Thank you.”

Kassandra smiled. Not something she’d done a lot of lately. 

“You say Luke has all the cards?” Gabriel flexed his right arm, testing it. 

“Except The Magician.”

“And you hid it?”

“Yeah, more or less.” Kassandra could picture the card wedged behind Mom’s phone.

“If we hope to defeat Luke, we must travel to his card to discover his secrets.” Gabriel picked up a sliver of mirror from the ground. He pulled off a shirt button and used the mirror to slice the thread. 

Wee-tee-tee-tee-tweet.

The nightingale chirped from its perch on one of the candelabras. The bird had done the same thing when she was gathering the supplies on the workbench. It acted like the world’s smallest cheerleader.

“We shall need a portal for our escape.” Gabriel set the mirror and button on the ground and used the rope from his ankles to create a thick knot. Then he spat into his hand. 

Kassandra made a face. He wasn’t going to make her shake his hand, was he? Some sort of friendship bond?

“Bring the mirror, the rope, and the button.” Gabriel scooted to a clear section of marble floor and squatted down. She gathered the items and brought them over. 

“Are you going to make one of those door things?” 

“Yes. The portal opens a passageway between cards.”

He dipped a finger in his hand, and then drew a watery spit line on the floor. After the first line, Gabriel had to spit again for more liquid.

“Okay, I get that the mirror represents swords and the button is coins.” Kassandra knelt down on the floor. “I’m guessing you knotted the rope to make it like a club for the wands suit. But how does spit equal a cup?”

“I cup my hand to hold it.” He dipped his finger again and completed the rectangle drawn on the floor. “In addition, each suit relates to one of the four elements. Water is the element for cups, air for swords, earth for coins, and fire for wands.”

Kassandra flashed back to the items the bird set out on the workbench. The match looked sort of wand-shaped. But it could also light on fire. Maybe it was the fire part that really made it represent the wand suit. 

The nightingale fluttered down and landed next to the rectangle.

“Each card is hitched to another in a series, like a caravan of wagons.” Gabriel waved in the direction of the mirrors. “You can see them there.”

Scanning the mirrors, Kassandra found the one with Ezabell. Behind her ran a line of covered wagons, strung together like a train.

Gabriel’s fingers brushed hers as he took the knotted rope, placing it in the upper right-hand corner of the rectangle. “We must reach Luke’s castle in The Magician card, yet ten cards stand between us and our goal.” He placed the mirror shard and button on opposite corners. “The Wheel of Fortune might prove useful to alter our course.”

“That’s Auntie Jo’s card. Luke used the card on her. Is she’s trapped in there?”

“Most likely, but…”

“We need to save her.”

Gabriel paused, thinking a moment. “You cannot rescue your aunt from inside the Tarot deck.”

“Now wait a minute, I cut you down. Why can’t I do the same for Auntie Jo?”

“If I glance away from the floor at those mirrors, I will become lost again in a world of my sins.” He glanced up at her once. “Your aunt will be overwhelmed by the illusion of the Tarot deck. She will not leave except by force.”

“Then I’ll force her.”

Gabriel gave a half smile.

So what if he thought Kassandra was nuts. She wasn’t about to give up on Auntie Jo. Not if there was even the slightest chance of saving her.

“So how come Luke said you betrayed him? It seems like you were both screwed by this Cloots guy.”

“I did betray my brother, though it was only to save his soul.” Gabriel rubbed his elbow where an old scar ran along the skin. “Once I learned of how he empowered each card, I refused to draw the last illustration, the Tower. Without a complete deck, there could be no deal with Cloots, and therefore no chance to save Ezabell.”

Kassandra looked at the mirror where Luke held the scraps of paper showing the creepy tower. He screamed, shaking the torn illustrations. She’d never seen him so angry.

“Luke would often visit here.” Gabriel pointed to the knocked over easel. “He made me illustrate Ezabell.”

“Why would you do anything for him?”

“So I could see her again. Not in death, but how she was in life. Luke would cover the mirrors and I drew from memory.” Gabriel took a long breath, letting it out slowly. “It was a serene moment in a sea of tumult.”

Kassandra glanced at the rectangle. Only three corners held items: the button, the knotted rope, and the mirror. “Wait. Isn’t there something missing?”

“I am the last symbol.” He cupped his hand again and rested it on the lower right corner. The floor rumbled. Then the marble inside the rectangle crumbled and fell away to darkness. 

Kassandra trembled. Going into the blackness last time felt like swimming through tar.

“First we must traverse the card of Fortitude.” Gabriel stood slowly, teetering a little. “Be wary of what you see. Although I designed each card, I have never been inside any but this one. I do not know what we shall encounter.”

Kassandra strained to remember the illustration from Fortitude. It was the card Lindsay had taken in the hall at school. And the one Luke used against her. Did people end up being trapped by the cards they chose? Auntie Jo said the Wheel of Fortune was her card.

Kassandra stared at the black rectangle in front of her. There was a lion loose in there. But also Lindsay. She swallowed. Which one scared her more?