Luke Rykell Tries to Pull Kassandra Out of the Tarot

Chapter 40

This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.

A fierce wind gusted from behind, snapping the curtains shut and flicking Kassandra’s hair forward. She hooked the curls away and found herself perched on top of a narrow rocky pillar. The wagon had vanished. Only the curtains remained, fluttering loose in the air, no longer attached to anything. The nightingale struggled within the fabric, screeching as the curtains plummeted. 

“No!” The shout came out like a croak.

Kassandra darted to the cliff. Far below, waves surrounded every side, crashing into the base of the rocky column. As the curtains drifted nearer to the surf, the bird wriggled free and flew into the sky. It was safe.

Kassandra scooted back and exhaled. Wait. Where was the coughing? Another deep breath brought salty air. Her lungs worked effortlessly with no tightness in the chest. Feeling along the neck, she found the boil gone. At least the plague sickness had vanished. Things weren’t so bad.

Kassandra examined the patch of rock—hardly bigger than one of the lunch tables back at the school’s cafeteria. The only thing visible was a single red rose planted smack in the center.

Which card was this? She thought hard. If the next wagon over was The Magician, then this had to be the second card or the zero card. But she had no clue what either of them represented.

Kassandra needed to build one of those doors out of here. She had a rose. The rest of the rock was flat and barren. Scooting to the edge, Kassandra glanced down. The curtain hung along the rocks. She probably could’ve used that. 

The tide rolled in and out. Each wave brought another crash as the water battered the column, kicking up explosions of spray. The wind carried the drizzle up. Kassandra shut her eyes and took long, lingering breaths as the sea mist dappled her skin. It felt like the time Dad had let her drink champagne on New Year’s Eve, her mind light and bubbly. She’d wanted this moment to last forever. 

A gust of wind whipped by, rocking her body forward. Yes. She was ready. Kassandra leaned toward the cliff. Almost over the edge. Then her arms pinwheeled and she pushed away. Her heart hammered. Why had she zoned out? It was no accident. It felt like she’d wanted to go over. Something about this place. It affected her mind.

Someone giggled. Kassandra looked around but there was still nothing on this pillar of rock except the rose. There it was again, a muffled laughter. She looked up and saw the clouds bunching together to form a face. 

Luke.

“Hello, Kassandra.” His voice was wispy, as though the words were hardly there. “So that’s where you’re hiding out. I’ve been searching the cards for you. Pity you ended up in The Fool. I would have pegged you as a Hermit sort of girl. Or at the very least The Lovers.” He winked.

The muscles along Kassandra’s neck bunched up. He wanted to get her mad. And it was working. She took a deep breath and let the frustration drain out. Then she stared up into the clouds. “I saw her die.”

At first Luke looked confused—the clouds making up his face shifted erratically. Then realization settled in. He looked straight at her. “You and I are so alike. We’ve each lost someone close. But we can change things. Together we can bring them both back.”

“What? And destroy Auntie Jo’s soul in the process? Gabriel told me all about the Tower.”

“So you’ve met my brother.” The clouds darkened and roiled. “Maybe I should pluck you out of this card right now. Bring you back to this world.” 

He couldn’t pull her out. Not now. She was so close to his card. “I’ll never tell you where the final card is.”

Luke paused, contemplating. “You’re so right. I should leave you there a little while longer. Until apathy creeps in.” He glanced around. “Oh, by the way, this is a lovely house you have. I can’t wait to meet Mom again.”

“You keep away from her!” Kassandra’s teeth clamped together so tightly it hurt. She wanted to hurl something at him. The nightingale swooped up from below and darted straight into the clouds, momentarily disrupting his face. Luke seemed not to notice.

“Of all the cards to stumble into, you picked an empty one. No other soul is trapped there.” His face took on a somber look. “The longer you stay, the more you’ll bond with the card. Until finally there’s nothing left of you.”

Luke smiled, but it wasn’t one of his typical wicked grins. More weary. Like he wanted the whole ordeal to be over with. “Just remember. You can stop all of this.” The details of his face faded. Then the clouds broke apart and drifted away.

He was waiting at the house, but for how long? She had no idea of time in these cards. Mom could already be on her way home.

Kassandra looked back at the rose. It had to be important. Otherwise why would it be here? Gabriel said he’d left tools to make a door in every card. But what the heck could she do with a flower? She stared at the stem. The way it twisted from the rock fascinated her—the thorns poking out at odd angles. So beautiful. Kassandra blinked, as if waking from a nap. She was getting sucked in just like Auntie Jo with those floats.

“Okay, I know I need the rose.” 

Kassandra reached to grab it, but the thorns jabbed her hand. Inspecting the skin showed tiny dots of blood. Kassandra brought the fingers to her mouth to stop the bleeding, but hesitated. She wasn’t getting all weirded out by the blood. 

“It’s just a prick.” She chuckled. “That’s all.”

Looking at the rose, an idea clicked into place. The stem could be the wand and the rose blossom would be the cup. She had two. What else was there? Kassandra scanned the rocky surface and then laughed. Still nothing. No mini-mart popped up while she’d been daydreaming.

Gabriel had said each suit also represented an element. Kassandra had wands and cups covered. Did coins stand for earth or air? Earth made more sense. She had to dig in the ground to get gold and silver. Problem was, the ground up here was flat sandstone. Maybe with a knife or a shovel, she could gouge some earth out. Even just a handful. 

Kassandra scooted to the edge. The wind and water had eroded the rocky column, revealing stones embedded in the side. She reached down and pried one out. Bingo. The stone was even coin shaped. Albeit a really big one.

Now all Kassandra needed was something for swords. They represented air, but how could anyone capture that? She glanced up. Maybe a feather from the nightingale? The bird flew lazy circles. Clouds bunched together, blown around by the wind. A little concentration produced shapes. She squinted, her gaze darting all over the sky. 

Kassandra was doing it again. Zoning out.

She scooted over to the rose and reached out to grip the thorns. Another prick would focus her brain. But before jabbing herself, Kassandra noticed the thorns. They could represent swords. She twisted off the rose’s head and then broke the stem at the base. Finally Kassandra plucked off some thorns and set everything down on the ground next to the stone. Now she had all four suits. Take that Luke.

The wind picked up. 

“No no no!” 

Kassandra slapped a hand down and caught the parts of the rose before they flew away. Too close. She couldn’t let it happen again. Kassandra slipped the stem and thorns into a pocket. The rose flower was too big, so she tucked it between her legs.

There. Now she needed something to draw with. One side of the stone was thinner, forming a sort of dull cutting tool. Kassandra used this to gouge the lines of a rectangle into the sandstone.

The wind snaked up her shirt and goose pimples spread along her back. 

“What are you doing?” Luke’s face appeared in the sky again. The clouds clumped together, darkening to muddy grey. 

She didn’t want to talk to him. He was only trying to distract her. Kassandra hunched over the rectangle, so Luke couldn’t see it, and set out the items representing the Tarot suits. The rock went on the upper right corner for coins.

“Stop it.” His voice was twinged with worry. 

Kassandra set the rose flower on the lower right for cups, and then dug into her pocket for the stem representing swords.

“I think it’s time for you to come out of there.”

Something tugged at Kassandra’s shirt. The wind whipped, kicking up bits of grit. The items began to shift away from the rectangle. 

She yanked out the stem and hooked her feet and free hand over the sides. Using her body, Kassandra pressed down on the flower and the rock.

“Come on.” Luke’s voice slithered through the wind. “It’s time to leave.”

“No, I’m going to beat you.”

“It’s sweet that you try.”

Air whipped around the column in a fury of gusts and blasts, trying to lift her up. Kassandra shoved the stem onto its corner and then dove into her pocket, groping for the thorns.

A surge of wind lifted Kassandra away from the ground. It felt like a giant hand grabbing her around the torso. The stem skittered side to side and the rose flower began to roll away.

“No.” Kassandra strained, pulling down onto the rocky pillar.

She fumbled around in the pocket. Each muscle strained to pull flat against the rocky pillar. Then a thorn jabbed her palm. Wrapping a hand around it, she pulled the thorn out.

The wind thrust up again, but Kassandra clung to the sides, legs and arms screaming.

“Kassandra.” Luke’s voice was a blast of air in her ear. “You will exit this card.”

“Damn right I will.” 

Her palm slapped down on the last empty corner of the rectangle. The wind stopped and she collapsed onto the ground.

Kassandra scooted away from the rectangle, but no door opened up. Why hadn’t it worked? Luke’s face had vanished from the sky. At least it did that much. The rocky pillar rumbled. When she peered over the side, hundreds of other stone columns emerged from the waves. Bits of seaweed and chunks of coral dotted the tops as water poured away. The pillars surged upward, blotting out any view of the ocean. Each one rose to the same height as her rocky platform. Together, they formed a piecemeal landscape.

A dark shape darted between the columns of rock. Kassandra inched closer to the edge to see what it was. The rocky pillars snapped together like puzzle pieces, forming a smooth plain. Seconds before the last hole was plugged up, the nightingale swooped into the sky. The bird squawked as it circled overhead.

“Where have you been?”

Twee-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet. The bird zoomed up into the sky. 

She spun around, taking in the new environment. Was this the next card? Every direction was flat, flat, and more flat. Only the slapping of the fish brought up by the pillars broke the silence. Which way should she go?

Kassandra pointed toward a distant cloud. “That-a-way. It’s as good as any.”

She walked, leaving behind the rose and rock. After a few dozen paces, Kassandra couldn’t tell where she’d started. Everything looked the same—bits of sea moss drying under the blazing sun. One foot struck something sticky. Kassandra lifted it up and saw a tendril of gray snot connecting her shoe to the ground. Gross. What was this stuff? 

She stepped back. A whole line of the sludge headed off left and right, a sort of slime boulevard. Kassandra peered in each direction. Nothing to the left. Nothing right either. Wait. There was something there. A slight bulge in the otherwise flat landscape. She didn’t run—her legs were too tired. But she did pick up the pace.

After a while the thing on the horizon turned into a bulbous shape. Kassandra strained to make it out. It looked round at the bottom but with a rectangular section sticking up like a building.

“What the heck is it?” She tilted her head up toward the nightingale. “You’re way up there. You tell me what I’m marching toward.”

The bird flew across the sun, forcing her to look away. The afterimage created a black dot in the center of her vision. Kassandra kept looking down and blinked the image away. When her eyesight returned to normal, she glanced toward the horizon and saw a massive snail crawling along the flat plain. 

The creature was the skyscraper of snails. It made dinosaurs look like Chihuahuas. The shell shimmered in iridescent reds and blues. A tower jutted out of the top of the shell, built of glittering stained glass. Instantly, Kassandra saw the red and blue glass pattern from The Magician card.

So this was Luke’s home. He certainly won the prize for the freakiest house ever.

The Plague Infects the Tarot Cards

Chapter 39

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.

Luke stood on the grass, the scent of oranges and cloves strong in the air. Kassandra stared at him. Somehow he entered the cards. Came to get her.

“Prithee, kind lady. Might I have back my ball?” She gave the barest of nods and he scooped the leather ball from her hand. “Thank ye.”

He swiveled and slipped into the crowd. Kassandra blinked. What just happened? Luke was dressed like everyone else, wearing a red outfit with oversized puffy sleeves. A wicker basket, strapped to his belt, contained assorted orange peels and various herbs—the source of the orangey smell. This wasn’t the Luke she knew. He’d been time warped six-hundred years.

She hopped up and followed. People in the crowd glared at her jeans and Converse sneakers. Kassandra avoided eye contact, glancing down at her shadow. By now the sun had risen enough to shine over the wagons.

She located Luke standing on a stump, juggling the balls. A teen girl sat in the grass at his feet with long dark hair, braided at the back—Ezabell. Kassandra recognized the girl from the mirrors in the Hanged Man card. Luke bounced one of the balls off Ezabell’s head. She smiled and plucked them out of the grass. 

The nightingale swooped by, landing on the roof of one of the wagons, which had one side folded down to make a stage. Kassandra scanned the rest of the circle. All the carts were like this one, with movable platforms. One stage showed a man dressed in a skeleton outfit wielding a scythe while another depicted someone in a lion costume clawing at a girl who hammed it up. Each wagon represented a Major Arcana card from the Tarot deck. She inspected them more closely, searching for The Magician. Maybe she could use the wagon as a way to enter the card. 

Someone in the crowd knocked into her shoulder. “Pray pardon.” It was Gabriel, but now he bustled away in the crowd.

“Gabriel!” She caught up to him.

He turned, but bunched his eyebrows together in annoyance. “I did say pardon. Now let me pass.” He gave a little bow and then slunk off.

He didn’t know who she was. Kassandra glanced back at Luke, who giggled while deliberately sending the balls flying all over. No one was the same here. Sweat beaded along her forehead. She wiped it away and noticed the sun directly overhead. How could it be noon already? It was morning only a little while ago. 

Kassandra hurried after Gabriel, who stopped by a cart where the stage had been folded up. Leaning against one of the wheels, he took out a small leather book and sliver of charcoal and started to sketch.

She tried to see what he was looking at, but couldn’t make it out through the mass of people. Finally she hopped up and caught a glimpse of the juggling balls looping above people’s heads. He was spying on Luke and Ezabell.

As Gabriel whipped the charcoal around on the paper, the shadows inched across the grass by his feet. The sun was already slipping into late afternoon. Kassandra wished she had her watch from her purse. It seemed like an entire day might last less than an hour.

Gabriel snapped the book shut and walked off, a scowl twisting along his mouth. After he passed by, Kassandra stepped forward and glanced at the tree stump. Luke held Ezabell’s face and the two kissed. 

The sky shifted colors, filling with oranges, and violets. People raised the stages and latched them to the sides of the wagons. The cooking fire at the center of the ring glowed brighter in the dim light of dusk. A scream cut through the night air as an older woman fainted to the grass. A young girl knelt down, pressing her head against the woman’s chest and weeping.

Kassandra walked toward them, but a hand gripped her shoulder. She turned to see a man’s face drained of color. Blood leaked from his nose and mouth and a thick purple boil protruded from his neck. She struggled backward but the man’s grip was tight. He tried to say something, but only a dry cough came out. His fingers squeezed her shoulder before he crumpled to the ground.

Kassandra shuffled back, putting distance between her and the man. He clutched at his stomach and coughed, spattering the grass with blood. She scooted away as a cold sweat slicked her skin. All across the clearing, more people collapsed. One boy coughed hard enough to vomit. Those not affected were wailing and sobbing.

Gabriel and Luke crouched next to Ezabell, who had collapsed on the grass. Tears streamed down their faces. Luke held Ezabell’s head up, stroking one cheek, but the skin was chalk white. This was just like the scene Kassandra had seen in the mirror, a memory. All of it happened before.

With the sun gone, only twinkling stars and the cook’s fire gave any illumination. The temperature dipped and goosebumps erupted on her arms and legs. Even her teeth chattered. She wrapped her arms around herself. 

Kassandra stepped around the bodies, now littering the ground. Some squirmed in pain, while others lay eerily still. All had bulging purple boils on their necks and armpits, signs of the Black Plague. The one she’d always read about in books. But why was everyone getting sick at the same time? She glanced up and saw the Rykell brothers still tending to Ezabell. They weren’t affected?

Kassandra maneuvered around a person in the grass, but paused. She knew him. It was the old man who’d cooked her sausages. He stared up at the stars, tongue hanging out. She knelt down, reaching forward to shut the man’s eyes. She hesitated, noticing the blood leaking from his nose and mouth. Touching him might infect her too.

Kassandra edged away as something squirmed in her gut. She bent over and hacked up a long gob of saliva. A jackhammer throbbing took up residence in her brain. She was overreacting to the sick people. That was all. Kassandra looked around. No one moved. Everyone lay silent. 

“It should have been you.” Luke clutched Ezabell to his chest. He glared at his brother. “Why do you live?”

Luke glanced across the circle of wagons, distracted by something. Kassandra turned to follow his gaze and saw a man in a black cloak. He stood amid the bodies, unaffected by the sickness, his face hidden under a wide-brimmed hat.

A shudder passed through Kassandra and she slumped to the grass. Her skin shivered as if doused in ice water. She’d caught it. The Plague (or whatever it was) had found her too. She coughed again and this time dark blood spattered the ground. The sight of it only made her want to hurl again.

Luke walked directly in front of her, his shoes swishing the grass. At the far end of the circle, the mystery man lifted his hat and the firelight caught his face. Bristly white eyebrows exploded along his brow. Wrinkles crisscrossed the skin like a roadmap. Kassandra looked down and instead of feet, the man sported hooves. It was Donald Cloots, the creep from the room of mirrors.

He turned when Luke reached him and they both walked out of the circle together, disappearing into the night. Kassandra tried to swing back to look at Gabriel, but something felt weird about her neck. She searched along the skin and discovered one of those boils, like a gigantic pimple. But that couldn’t happen. Not to her. The Black Plague was something from her history book. 

Kassandra hunched over on all fours, panting. She was infected. What was going to happen to her?

The sky lightened to a pale blue, shaking off the stars. Someone moved off to the right. Kassandra managed a glance and saw the old man standing up. He wiped the blood off his face with the back of a hand and then shuffled toward the fire. 

Other people stirred. Each one seemed fine now. The color returning to their faces. All signs of those purple boils had vanished. Even their clothes appeared clean and new again. Everything was backtracking to when she arrived.

Then why did Kassandra still feel like crap? Bile inched up her throat. She held it back, dreading to see what might come up.

People unlatched the stages from the carts and folded them down. Everyone seemed wide wake, but Kassandra felt drowsy. If she could curl up and sleep, then everything would be great.

No. Lying down meant death. Kassandra pushed herself up. Her arms shook, but held. She needed to find a way out of this place. People bustled all around, blocking any view of the wagons. All she saw were legs. The smell of roasting sausages almost made her retch. The taste of grease from her previous meal was still strong. Her stomach did a somersault. 

The nightingale landed on the grass only inches away and hopped toward the right. Puh-twee-too.

Kassandra turned that direction and spotted a wooden pole jammed into the ground. She reached over, muscles searing with fire, and grabbed it. The bird chirped, hopping around. She pulled herself up, inch by inch, body quivering under the strain until another clench seized her gut. Now she was high enough to see the stages. One performer dangled on the edge of a platform, wearing a feathered hat and whirling a long staff. Maybe this was The Magician. She coughed, speckling her sleeve with red. 

The old man tending the fire glared at her, his lips curling into a scowl. “The witch has it.” He poked a gnarled finger toward Kassandra. “She has the plague.” People turned to stare.

Kassandra took one step away and everything spun. The thudding in her head felt like firecrackers going off. The crowd pulled back, creating a space. The wagon lay just ahead. She staggered forward and nearly tripped, finally smacking into one of the wheels.

The world blurred and Kassandra blinked, forcing her eyes to work. Applause erupted as the performer with the feathered hat seemed to float in midair. She couldn’t be seeing that right.

The man took one step off the stage and hovered a moment before swinging back onto the platform. He had to be keeping his balance somehow. But with the way her brain was working, it really did look like magic. 

She stumbled over to a set of stairs leading up to the stage.

Twah-twah-twah-too-weet. Her nightingale wouldn’t shut up. It kept chattering and chirping nonstop.

She concentrated on moving, one hand in front of the other, and crawled onto the platform. The people stopped laughing and applauding. Even the guy in the feathered hat leapt off and backed away. Kassandra coughed again, and this time pain jabbed her gut, like something ripped open. Each breath hacked up more blood and saliva. 

This was it. She was going to die.

Blue curtains hid the rear of the wagon. Kassandra reached for them, but then noticed the skin on her fingers had turned black. Needles stabbed the joints, but she forced her hand to grip the fabric. Almost there. 

The nightingale fluttered onto the stage. It hopped up and down, chirping and making a fuss. She jerked the curtain to the side and crawled into the dark beyond.

The bird pecked at Kassandra’s hand. She tried to shoo it away and caught sight of Luke Rykell. He was juggling again, but not at the stump. This time he stood on the platform of the cart next to this one. 

A cold shiver slid through her bones as she remembered Auntie Jo’s words. The original name for The Magician card was the juggler.

Kassandra had picked the wrong wagon.

Kassandra Reached the Origin of the Tarot

Chapter 38

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.

“I thought you didn’t want me to spin it. Now you do?” Kassandra tugged again, but her hand was stuck to the metal peg of the wheel.

Gabriel pointed to the Roman numeral one at the bottom of the wheel. “We seek Luke’s card, here. You must make the wheel land on exactly that spot.”

She examined the wheel. The numbers were in order like a clock but kept going from thirteen through to twenty-two.

“It’s only about half way.”

“You don’t understand. The wheel only spins clockwise and it must make a full revolution before stopping.”

At first Kassandra didn’t understand. The number one was right there at the bottom of the circle. Then it sunk in. A full revolution.

“You’re kidding me. You mean I have to spin it all the way to thirteen again, and then get it to stop exactly on number one?”

“That is why I wanted you to wait.”

“This is impossible. No way I can make it.” She stared at the wheel, working it out in her head. The spin had to be one and a half times around, almost exactly. If she missed, then it would land on any of the cards nearby.

“What does the green stand for?”

“It is not a card I illustrated, nor one of any Tarot deck.”

So she needed to avoid hitting the mystery spot. Kassandra sucked in a breath and gave the wheel a good push. Once it was in motion, her hand slipped off, no problem. The metal pegs struck the top arrow as the wheel raced past the first full spin making clickity clack sounds.

She hopped from one foot to the other. The wheel slowed as it passed ten. Seven. Five. It was going to make it. The wheel crawled past four on its way to three. Kassandra bounced up and down with glee.

Gabriel took a step back. “Do not wait for me.”

“Huh?” She turned to look at him.

“Each spin is for one person only.”

“What do you…?

Out of the corner of her eye, Kassandra saw the wheel passed Roman numeral one. It was going to stop at zero. The arrow struck the metal peg separating zero from the green section. Sweat prickled her skin. It finally clicked over, landing on the green section.

Kassandra glanced at Gabriel, but then a massive tree surged up between them. The platform rumbled as hundreds of trunks crashed upward, splintering the plywood floor. They shot up at super speed, reaching their full height in seconds. Trees sprouted all along the street as well. Several speared the float with the syringe, shredding the fiberglass construction. The crowd scattered as the asphalt crumbled and cracked apart.

After a moment, the trees halted their accelerated growth. She stood on the mangled viewing platform surrounded by massive trunks. Silence spun out. The street lamps were gone, but a dim light filtered through the newly sprung forest.

Kassandra scrambled around to the spot where Gabriel had stood, the plywood flooring wobbling unsteadily. Nothing. Only more of the fragmented platform. And of course, trees. The velvet chair was toppled, one leg falling through a crack in the floor. Auntie Jo had vanished. What was left of the street looked abandoned. Kassandra couldn’t see a trace of the buildings through the tightly packed tree trunks.

Twee-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet. Her nightingale swooped down and landed on a jutting branch. “Don’t go away. I need someone to stay with me.”

The scant light intensified. It felt like dawn. Somewhere in the distance she heard the clang of metal and a shout.

People.

Kassandra raced toward the sound, feet swishing through a mist hovering right at ground level. The nightingale zoomed ahead, zigzagging through the trees. Maybe she was out of the cards now and back in the real world. Forests grew all over the mountains around Arroyo Grove.

She ran into a meadow where a group of wagons formed a circle. Her shoulders sagged. These were just like the ones in the room of mirrors. So much for getting out of these cards. 

Kassandra approached the opening in the circle of wagons. A crowd of people milled about inside. Their outfits looked crazy, like stepping into a Renaissance fair. A few guys even had swords strapped to their belts. Then Kassandra smelled the food. Until now her stomach hadn’t made a peep. But the scent of roasting meat drew her through the crowd and up to a fire where a grizzled man fried sausage in a pan. The nightingale flapped down and balanced on a pole holding up a laundry line. The man glanced at Kassandra, face covered in soot, and offered up the blackened pan. A dozen sausages popped and sizzled inside. 

“Here you go…” He paused and stared at her jeans. “Lass?” The accent was some kind of old fashioned English.

Kassandra grabbed a sausage and nodded thanks. It felt like her fingers would burn away, but she bit into the meat anyway. Hot juice ran down her chin. It was so good. She don’t care. Kassandra kept gobbling until only a tiny nub remained. As she shoved the last bit into her mouth, a red ball bumped her Converse sneaker. It was stitched out of leather and about the size of a golf ball. Kassandra glanced around to see where it came from and then her body froze. 

Luke Rykell strolled through the crowd, a wicked grin plastered across his face.

Kassandra Spins the Wheel of Fortune

Chapter 37

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 shoved through the mass of people. The night air was sticky and a sheen of sweat coated her skin. She hustled forward. A break in the crowed showed a massive Mardi Gras float rolling through the street. It depicted a young black man from the waist up with an oversized syringe in one hand. The needle moved back and forth, in and out of the man’s arm with some kind of liquid sloshing around the cylinder.

It was Ronald, Auntie Jo’s son. Kassandra glanced at the men whooping it up in the crowd. They all resembled Ronald. Although some were as young as twelve or thirteen, none appeared older than the photo taped to Auntie Jo’s dashboard. Their eyes seemed unfocused, as if they weren’t really seeing what was happening. When one fist pumped the air, Kassandra noticed withered arms with track lines dotting the skin.

She had no idea he’d been an addict. Auntie Jo hardly talked about him.

As soon as the parade float passed, Kassandra charged across the street and clambered onto the viewing platform, the plywood and metal structure squeaking beneath her. Auntie Jo wore the apron with the all seeing eye from home. She sat in lavish purple velvet chair with the nightingale perched on one corner. 

Kassandra rushed up. “Jo, let’s get out of here.” Auntie Jo’s gaze was locked on the passing floats. Kassandra stepped right in front, waving her hands, but Auntie Jo simply leaned to the side to keep watching the parade. 

This wasn’t working. Kassandra needed something physical. She grabbed the woman’s shoulders and shook. All this did was send the tiny silver ankh bouncing. 

The nightingale squawked and snapped at Kassandra’s hand. What was going on with this bird? It jabbed, this time nipping one finger. She released Auntie Jo and stood back. A bead of blood oozed from one knuckle.

Kassandra glared at the bird. “I’m trying to save her.”

Puh-twee-too-ta-ta-ta-ta-weet. The chirping came from above. A glance up showed a second nightingale perched on a nearby lamppost. Two birds? When did that happen? 

Kassandra examined the nightingale on the chair. Even in the sickly yellow lamplight, the feathers looked like smudged chocolate. It wasn’t the right bird. Her nightingale flitted down, landing on the platform. So did the other bird belong to Auntie Jo? Maybe it was trying to protect her. Auntie Jo continued to ogle the passing floats, eyes looking dull and drugged. 

Kassandra sucked on the wounded knuckle to stop the bleeding. Enough with being nice. She was going to make this happen. Kassandra gripped Auntie Jo’s arm with both hands and yanked, managing to lift one shoulder off the chair. The other nightingale swooped down, all wings and snapping beak. Kassandra let go and stumbled backward to the edge of the platform, arms circling to stay balanced. The bird hovered inches away, its wings flapping furiously. Finally, her nightingale darted over and the two birds squawked and pecked at each other.

Kassandra regained her footing and toppled to the wooden floor. Auntie Jo’s nightingale retreated, taking its roost on the chair again.

This was pointless. She couldn’t save Auntie Jo and it was her fault she was stuck here. Out of the corner of her eye, Kassandra noticed a two-story version of Auntie Jo trundle down the street. The fiberglass arms extended out to hug Ronald. The mechanics had them moving back and forth, hugging and separating. 

The float rolled onto a side street. The next one in line was the float with the syringe. Was it a repeat or were there really only a few floats? Kassandra looked back at the hugging float. It disappeared behind a building. On the other side of the platform, a third float turned onto the street. This showed Auntie Jo again, standing before a mausoleum. Her cheeks were decorated with blue glitter, which sparkled in the light like tears.

It was like the hall with the mirrors, except here the parade showed parts of the past. Kassandra glanced from the float with the syringe to the one with the mausoleum. Then it struck her. Mom had always said Ronald died in some sort of battle. Kassandra never realized it was a battle with addiction.

She scanned the crowd of weeping women, each one with the same features. Auntie Jo blamed herself for not saving her son. No wonder she went ballistic with Kassandra’s cutting. She figured it was the past repeating itself.

Another float emerged, the hugging one again. So there were only three. They kept looping around, a constant reminder of Auntie Jo’s mistake. These cards were designed to torture their victims.

Kassandra noticed a massive wheel spinning farther down the platform. How had she missed that? She walked over to it, giving the chair and the bird a wide berth. 

The men in the crowd clamored as another float passed by. Kassandra thought she heard someone call her name. She paused and saw the men hollering as the syringe float wheeled past. No, it was just those guys again, whooping it up.

The click clack of the wheel drew her attention back. Slender metal pegs struck an arrow at the top, creating the sound. The disc was broken into sections of alternating colors, red and white, with one section marked in green. It reminded her of a wheel used on game shows or carnivals, or maybe a roulette wheel.

Roman numerals lined the edges, but it spun too quickly to read. She caught two sets of double Xs, which meant twenty and twenty-one. The numbers counted down to zero, and then there was the green section, which had no number.

Kassandra reached for one of the metal pegs. Maybe if she stopped the wheel, Auntie Jo would snap out of it. 

“Stop!”

She twirled around as Gabriel scrambled onto the platform. Kassandra sprinted forward, nearly knocking him over with a fierce embrace.

“I’m so glad you’re here.” She squeezed, feeling his damp clothes. 

“It is a blessing to see you again, too.”

Kassandra pulled away and he shivered in the cold night air. “What happened to you?”

“The portal led me to a frozen lake. I searched for you, but the land was deserted.” Gabriel rubbed the scar on his elbow. “Then the lion appeared.”

“Why was it under the ice?”

He frowned. “You could see me?”

She nodded, glancing away for a moment. “When I escaped, I saw your painting hanging with the others. But there was nothing I could do. It wouldn’t let me in.”

Gabriel ran a hand lightly over his face as though remembering something. “Perhaps each person must face the lion alone. On his own terms.” He blinked and looked back. “The lion was part of the ice, attacking my reflection and shredding it.”

When Kassandra had been in the forest, the lion went after her greatest weakness—cutting. For Gabriel, it attacked his reflection.

“Vanity.” 

He stared at her, startled for a moment.

Kassandra’s mind recalled the easel in the mirrored room. “That’s why you illustrated the cards. You said you wanted your illustrations to last forever.”

“Yes.” Gabriel flexed his arm, rubbing the elbow. “Everyone looked up to Luke. They expected great things of him, but never me. I wanted something that would outlast him, so years in the future, my name would be the one spoken. Not his.”

“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget.”

His brow wrinkled.

“It’s from a poem. I think we all want to be remembered for something.”

Wee-tee-tee-tee-tweet. This time it was Auntie Jo’s nightingale that chirped. It tilted its head, eyeing Gabriel to see if he warranted a threat.

“What’s with the birds? I have one and so does Auntie Jo.”

“When I awoke in my prison, I too had a nightingale like yours.”

“What happened?”

“Luke brought a cage and captured the creature. I still recall its cries when he took it from the room.” His face twisted into a pained expression. “That was many years ago.”

“When I first arrived, you said to protect it.”

Her heart sped up as she scanned the platform. Where was her bird? Did it fly away? Kassandra spun, searching everywhere. Finally she spied the tiny brown bird at the spinning wheel. It hopped up and down, letting out chirps and trills. Okay, message received. She needed to do something with the wheel. Kassandra walked over and Gabriel trailed behind.

Click clack. Click clack. 

The arrow struck the metal pegs over and over, showing no signs of slowing. She looked from the wheel to Auntie Jo seated in the chair. Stopping it had to snap her out of the trance. Kassandra snagged one of the pegs.

“Don’t.” Gabriel grabbed her arm. 

Too late. The wheel halted on XIII. Thirteen. She glanced back, but Auntie Jo still stared at the passing floats.

“How come nothing’s happening?”

Gabriel’s gaze fixed on her hand. “Do not move, or you will start the wheel again.”

“What do you mean?” She let go of the peg, but her fingers stuck to the metal, as if coated in super glue.

“What’s going on?” Kassandra jerked.

He gripped her shoulders. “You’ve taken hold of the Wheel of Fortune. Wherever the wheel lands, that is the card to which you will travel.”

“But I’m still here. And the wheel landed on thirteen.”

Gabriel shook his head. “You chose that number but the Wheel thrives on possibility.” He looked her in the eyes. “You must spin.” 

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.