Auntie Jo Breaks Free of the Tarot

Chapter 48

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

A gust of wind swept through the open doorway, chilling Kassandra’s skin. She shivered, staring down at the cards piled neatly at her feet. Why hadn’t they scattered? Luke dropped them on the carpet. But there they sat in a tidy stack, ready to be plucked up and used again.

The damned things would come to her sooner or later, so did she really have to pick them up? Kassandra tightened her hands into fists. Auntie Jo was trapped in there. Lindsay too. And who knew how many other innocent people. Leaning down, Kassandra reluctantly scooped the cards up. They felt heavy as if weighted down by all the trapped souls.

“What’s going on?” Mom eyed the splintered wood clinging to the hinges. Gabriel ran up from behind. The door wobbled as she stepped on it, and Mom was forced to throw out arms for balance.

Kassandra clutched the cards and stood.

“Where’s Joanna?” Mom glanced around, looking for someone to blame.

Auntie Jo! Kassandra’s fingers flew through the cards. She didn’t want to examine them too closely and risk triggering a random one. The Wheel of Fortune was buried nearly at the bottom of the deck. A blindfolded angel stood in the sea, holding a massive golden wheel. Auntie Jo sat in a purple chair at the top.

“Are you listening to me?”

Kassandra shut her eyes, blocking Mom out. An image of Auntie Jo sprang to mind. Rain thrummed on the roof of the blue Beetle. Kassandra’s left arm lay bare, the scars plainly visible. Auntie Jo had flipped out because she blamed herself for Ronald’s death and saw Kassandra heading toward self destruction too.

A thought snuck in. What if the cards only triggered when Luke was around? She squelched the idea. Kassandra had released Luke from the deck. She could do the same for Auntie Jo.

“You need to start talking young lady!”

Kassandra peeked at the card. No change. The illustration was still there.

Gabriel tugged Mom back by the arm. “Let go.” Mom wriggled, but he wouldn’t give. “Who are you?”

Kassandra swiveled away from both of them and dredged up every memory of Auntie Jo. Roasting cactus pads in the kitchen. Wedging Amazon-sized hips into the tiny Beetle. The seeing eye apron and ankh necklace. Even those times Kassandra rolled her eyes when Auntie Jo claimed to be the reincarnation of Nefertiti. Something had to click.

A muffled thud came from the doorway. Kassandra looked at the card and her heart sank. Same illustration.

“Kassandra!” Mom stood directly behind her.

“What!” Kassandra spun around. “Can’t you see I’m trying to fix things?”

Mom’s expression shifted. She hadn’t expected shouting. “Who is that guy and what did he do to our door?”

Gabriel gripped his foot with one hand. Mom must have nailed him with a heel.

“I can’t explain right now.” Kassandra glanced down at the Wheel of Fortune. “Just give me a second to concentrate.”

“No, you’ll talk to me right now.” Mom aimed a finger. “You show up at Sam’s house. No explanation. Then run out into the streets.” She reached forward and gripped Kassandra’s wrist. “And what about these? Tell me what happened to you.”

“Really?” Kassandra yanked away. “Six months, and you didn’t see?” She whacked her arm, the skin beneath the scars reddened. “A real mom would have noticed.”

Mom’s hands quivered, forming and reforming fists—full out red-alert mode. Kassandra braced for another slap, but it didn’t come. Instead Mom glanced at the carpet. “Dad was the strong one. He held everything together. When he left…It all fell on me. Now I need to be the strong one.”

Kassandra shook her head. “I need you to be Mom. That’s all.”

Tears dribbled down Mom’s cheeks. Wetness filled Kassandra’s eyes too. She drew Mom into a hug. They both shook, squeezing each other.

“I’m listening.” Mom broke the hug and stepped back. “Whatever you have to tell me.”

Kassandra didn’t know where to start. Mom had never actually listened before. Kassandra glanced at the card. A blank spot appeared in the center the wheel. It worked. She’d triggered it without even thinking. Auntie Jo stood in the hall. Kassandra rushed forward and gripped her in a fierce bear hug.

“I heard you the whole time, calling me.” Auntie Jo pulled away, eyes distant and detached. “But I couldn’t say a thing.”

“Joanna, maybe you can tell me what’s going on here?”

Auntie Jo scanned the room, finally stopping at the front door.

Kassandra said the first thing that popped into her head. “Home invasion.” They both turned to look at her. “It was Luke. He wanted to rip us off.” Mom’s face twisted into an expression of utter confusion. Was she buying it? “Look what he did to our door.”

Kassandra jumped when Auntie Jo ran a finger along the scars. “We need to deal with this.”

Mom stepped forward. “Did you know this was going on, Joanna?”

Auntie Jo glanced down, not wanting to meet Mom’s gaze. “I was going to tell you.”

Kassandra marched over to the table and knocked over the teacups, locating the razor hidden underneath. As she returned, Auntie Jo’s gaze darted to the blade.

“Yes, I lied. This is the last of it. I don’t need it anymore.” Kassandra placed it in Auntie Jo’s hand.

“It’s not as simple as all that.”

“I know.” Kassandra looked at the Tarot deck. The nicks and scratches along the cards reminded her of the scars. She ran a hand over one arm, feeling the ridges. Memories leapt through her head. Facing the lion. The hall of mirrors. The paper doll girl. “I don’t want to be that person again.”

Auntie Jo touched the razor’s metal grip, flecked with rust.

“Don’t worry, I won’t end up like Ronald.”

Anger flashed in Auntie Jo’s eyes, but then she nodded. “Alright.” She curled her fingers around the razor and pocketed it.

Mom gripped Kassandra’s arm again, twisting it so the scars faced up. “Kassandra, I’m here now. Tell me. What made you do this?” Her voice was edged with genuine concern.

Fear seeped through Kassandra, cold and bitter. She stared into Mom’s eyes. “Dad did.” Her whole body tensed. “I did. I don’t know anymore.”

Mom drew Kassandra close. “There isn’t a second that goes by where I don’t think of him.”

“Really?”

“Listen, I know I don’t seem like the greatest of mothers some of the time.”

“All the time.”

Irritation flickered across Mom face.

Why did Kassandra say that? Mom was opening up. She didn’t need a snarky response.

Then Mom cracked a smile. “Yeah, the last couple of months haven’t been my best.”

“You threw everything away. Everything of Dad’s”

Tears collected along Mom’s eyes. “I couldn’t look at it anymore. Everything felt too much like Douglas.” She whisked one finger, brushing away the tears. “You know it hurts just to say his name.”

Kassandra nodded. “I know.”

“He loved us both so much.” Tears dribbled down Mom’s cheeks. More than she could wipe away. There was a real person inside there.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t cry.” Mom swept the tears away. “I need to stay strong.”

Kassandra pulled her into a hug. “No. It’s all right. We both miss Dad.” The two squeezed each other. Mom clenched Kassandra’s shirt and shuddered. Then gradually the crying subsided.

Mom pulled away, wiping her face clean. “Now, would someone mind telling me who he is?” She pointed at Gabriel.

He was dressed in one of those flouncy shirts and leggings, the type of clothes that went out of style with Columbus. Kassandra bit her lip. How could she explain Gabriel?

He stepped forward. “I am Luke’s brother. I was brought here to help.” Mom surveyed him, taking in the crazy attire.

Luckily Gabriel hadn’t mentioned being locked up for centuries. But what was going to happen to him? He didn’t have a clue about the world today. And there was no one alive who even knew who Gabriel was. Kassandra was it.

“Mom, he needs a place to stay.”

“Absolutely not.” Mom jabbed a finger at the door lying on the carpet. “Look at this place. How do we know he isn’t going to end up like his brother and rob us?”

At least Mom bought the home invasion story, though at this point Kassandra wished she’d thought of something better. “This isn’t your house.” Kassandra turned to Auntie Jo. “He deserves our help. You know what it’s like in there.”

Auntie Jo fingered the silver ankh. “Luke’s brother.”

Kassandra leaned close and whispered, “He helped me escape.”

“Do you trust him?”

Kassandra nodded.

Auntie Jo stood up straight, rubbing her chin. “Well, he’s not staying in Kassandra’s room.” A smile played at her lips.

“Joanna, you can’t be serious.”

“We can work something up in the garage. Meantime he can sleep on the couch.”

Kassandra rushed over and grabbed Gabriel’s hand. “You’re staying.”

“Joanna, is this a good idea?”

Auntie Jo shrugged. “I took you two in, didn’t I? I think we can handle one more stray.”

Mom tugged on her ponytail, inspecting Gabriel again. Then she slowly shook her head. “The clothes have to go.”

This was one of the few times Kassandra totally agreed with Mom.

Auntie Jo stepped into the center of the room. “Lord, this place is a mess. It’s going to take a whole lot of fixing to get things up and running again.” She grinned, turning toward the kitchen. “But we can’t do a thing on an empty stomach.”

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.