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.
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.
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.”
“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.”