Flames Engulf Auntie Jo

Chapter 28

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.

Flames slithered up Auntie Jo’s arms, setting the clothes ablaze. The fire burned different colors as it siphoned little bits of her away. 

Luke clasped one hand over the wound, blood drizzling down his shoulder. With the free hand, he fumbled through the deck, finally pulling out a card. Slapping it on the shoulder, blood gushed around the card, drenching the paper. But then everything reversed. The blood flowed back into the wound. When Luke removed the card, it was blank, the skin below the torn shirt healed. 

Kassandra seized Auntie Jo’s shoulder, but the searing heat forced her to jump back. The blouse turned to a dull gray ash, drained of color. Bits of it flaked to the floor. 

“Get away!” Auntie Jo screamed as the blaze charred her skin.

“No!” The flames pulsed with pure heat, keeping Kassandra at a distance. 

Luke stood up beside the shattered front door. “This didn’t have to happen.” The Wheel of Fortune card lay on the carpet, a miniature tornado of flame spinning out of it. Auntie Jo slumped to one knee as the fire enveloped her entire body. Kassandra couldn’t look away. If she blinked, Auntie Jo would disappear forever.

Luke stepped forward. “Please, give me the cards.” 

Kassandra felt tension build up inside, ready to burst.

He extended one hand. “I need your help.”

She pulled out the Death card. Was this what he wanted? Screw him. He could get it full force. She spun the card so the illustration faced Luke. Auntie Jo’s voice came to her, raspy and choked with ash. Kassandra squeezed her eyes shut. She had to focus on Auntie Jo’s pain. Use it to trigger the card.

Luke chuckled. She opened her eyes and saw the bastard grinning. 

Almost nothing remained of Auntie Jo, only a wispy charcoal outline. 

“Just stop this. Stop it now.” Kassandra jabbed the Death card forward as if it were a knife.

His smile faded and a look of concern settled across his features. “I’m sorry Kassandra, but you don’t understand. Death can’t capture a soul like the other cards. It holds all the world’s souls.” Luke pointed to the card. “How do you think you found your daddy? The Tarot deck showed him to you because it knew that’s who you wanted to see.”

Kassandra’s legs felt weak. Her thoughts spun back to the day in the Psychic Mind. All the cards had spilled onto the floor, yet only Death had landed face up. She looked down at the card with the picture of Dad, a perfect image. Was this another one of Luke’s tricks? Or were the cards messing with her head? She didn’t know anymore.

“Give them to me, Kassandra. Then all this can stop.”

The flames sputtered and died. Only a husk of Auntie Jo remained. 

Kassandra couldn’t stop the tears from coming. “Why are you doing this?” The card bent in her grip. 

“Tell me, what would you sacrifice to have your father back?”

She turned the card over and stared at it. Dad’s face was there, like always. Kassandra imagined his arms around her. Squeezing. That was where she wanted to be. Safe.

The room began to darken. 

Luke’s face pinched in a look of confusion. The murkiness swelled out, until the sofa and walls became only vague outlines. The card still appeared vivid and real—the only thing left with color.

Kassandra’s muscles quivered as though contracting all at once. Something pressed down from all sides, forcing her to gasp for breath. The sharp taste of copper bit into her tongue, like sucking on a mouthful of pennies. The room vanished. Luke. Auntie Jo. Everything. Only the card, glowing bright, existed. Then it too faded as blackness enveloped Kassandra.

The Tarot Cards Kassandra Trapped

Chapter 21

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 fire truck blared onto the scene and firefighters drenched the burning car with water. Meanwhile paramedics loaded the driver of the truck into a waiting ambulance. 

Bang. 

A burst of flame billowed into the air just beyond the bus’s windshield. “Wow!” several kids said in unison, standing up to peer at the street.

A hollow feeling filled Kassandra’s chest. If the cards did this, then she needed to lock them up. But one look at the deck reminded her how pointless this idea was. They’d zap back, meaning she was stuck with them.

Soon a tow truck hauled the wrecks away, clearing the road. Driver Lady tromped down the aisle and corralled students back to their seats.

As the bus grumbled to life, Kassandra sorted the deck so the suits were in order, but found many of them already blank. How many had she used so far? 

“Why do the illustrations vanish?”

“Because you can only use each card once. That’s the rub.”

“But not with your card.” Kassandra sifted through the stack of Major Arcana cards. “Everything’s there except you.” She frowned. The Magician card still wasn’t there.

“Something wrong?”

“It’s missing,” Kassandra switched to the suit piles, hoping it had somehow gotten misplaced. “I don’t see how…” Her hand froze. Auntie Jo. She’d given the card to her. It should’ve zapped back, but somehow it didn’t.

“You gave it to someone, didn’t you?”

Kassandra nodded as the bus rolled into the school parking lot. Kids sprang up, tossing backpacks over shoulders.

“You’ll have to get it back from her,” Luke said, scooting out of the seat.

“What did you say?” 

He shrugged. “The cards stay with people who possess them. Whoever you gave it to will have to give it back.” 

He started down the aisle, but Kassandra stayed put. Luke had said “her.” Did he know she gave the card to Auntie Jo? How could he?

Luke turned halfway down the aisle. “You coming?” 

Kassandra snapped her head up. “Yeah.” She tossed the deck into her purse and exited the bus. Kids swarmed the campus, switching classes between first and second period. So much for slipping in unnoticed. 

People eyed them as they trekked the halls. At first she thought they were staring at her, but then Kassandra glanced at Luke. Maybe his coolness trumped her massive faults. He was equipped with the broad shoulders of an athlete, but without all the bulky muscle. Yeah, kids were ogling him. And then wondering why he hung out with her. 

Kassandra clenched as they neared her locker. The sign would be there, dangling from the yellow noose. But as she rounded the corner, no crowd of kids hovered in the hall. The locker looked just as plain as all the others. She hurried over and twisted the combination into the lock.

“Hey Seattle.” Lindsay’s voice. 

Kassandra’s spirit sank. 

Lindsay strolled forward from the other end of the hall. Only one of her flock tagged along—Alexxa, the chunky one.

“Looks like you forgot your sign.” Lindsay pulled something from behind her back. “I made you a new one.” Another computer printout with a noose made of white string. 

Luke snatched the sign away.

“Hey, give it back.”

“No one should have to look at that.”

Lindsay threw a pose, hands on hips, strawberry curls tossed back. “I’ll just put up another one.”

Kassandra stepped forward. “I don’t get you.”

Both Lindsay and Luke swiveled to stare, neither expecting Kassandra to butt in. She stepped up to Lindsay. “You’re a total fake.” A grin flew across Alexxa’s face. “I don’t think anyone wants to be your friend. They just stick around because you think you’re in charge.”

Lindsay’s hands slid off her hips. 

“My advice…” Kassandra grabbed the textbooks and shut the locker door. “Leave me alone.” She clicked the lock into place and then strolled down the hall, Luke close behind.

Kassandra had actually stood up to Lindsay Barker. It was the kind of thing she always dreamed of saying, but usually the words never escaped her brain. Did the Tarot cards spur her new found confidence or was it Luke? She didn’t care. Kassandra would never go back to her old mute self again.

When lunch rolled around, she snatched an extra helping of what passed for tacos. Luke spotted some empty tables past the overhang. The sky might’ve been clear, but puddles covered the tables—a leftover from yesterday’s storm. They hunted for a dry one, finally settling on a table swamped in the middle but with the edges only dappled. He stretched out the corner of his T-shirt and wiped the surface clean. There were still tiny droplets of water on the bench though, and when Kassandra sat, the seat of her pants got wet. Perfect, now she’d need to stick her butt under the hand dryer in the bathroom.

Kassandra chomped into the hard taco shell. The meat felt refrigerated. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, what’s up with your brother?”

“Would you like to be introduced?”

She nodded as bits of lettuce tumbled out of her mouth.

“Take out the Hanged Man card.”

Not more with the cards. “Can’t you just call him or something?”

“I am.” Luke grinned.

Kassandra glanced around the lunch arbor, but then stopped. Why should she care who saw? They were just cards. She set the deck on a napkin to keep it dry and located the Hanged Man. When Luke took the card, a broad smile crossed his face. He scooted around the table and slid next to Kassandra, holding the card so they could both view it. The illustration showed a guy hanging upside down by one foot.

“Let me introduce my brother, Gabriel Rykell.”

She glanced at Luke and then back at the card—just a picture of a man with long blond hair. Maybe he looked a little like Luke. Then the eyes blinked. Kassandra jerked away, nearly slipping off the bench. It moved. Just like Dad.

“He’s only allowed to animate when I hold the card. Not to worry.”

“Can he see me?”

“Oh yes.” Luke waved. “Hello Gabriel. Having a good time?”

The face on the card scowled. Then the figure glanced at Kassandra. Even though they were the size of pinpricks, his eyes seemed to plead with her.

“That’s enough fun for now.” Luke turned the card face down on the deck. 

“You really are from the Tarot cards.”

“Just like I said.” He tapped the deck. “Time you learned to use these.”

“Now?” 

“Yes, let’s start with the ace of cups.”

“Nuh uh. I don’t want a repeat of what happened on the bus.” The image of the burning car smoldered in her mind. Kassandra wouldn’t hurt anyone.

“If you don’t practice, you’ll just keep triggering cards accidentally. And this card is harmless. It’s just about food.”

Reluctantly she flipped through the stack of cups and snagged the ace. It showed a silver goblet with a fountain on top. The stem twisted, morphing into various fruits and vegetables. It looked like the cornucopia thing Mom dragged out every Thanksgiving. 

“Now don’t think about what’s on the card.” Luke tapped his fingers together. “That avenue is a dead end. You need a strong emotion to activate it. Dredge up something you’re afraid of. Or maybe think of someone you love.”

“Can it be someone who bothers me?” She imagined Mom texting last night at the table. Getting no response, Kassandra glanced up. He was lost in thought.

“Luke?”

“Yeah.” He blinked and then looked at her. “Any emotion will do.”

She gripped the card on both sides and closed her eyes, remembering dinner last night. How Mom spent the whole time texting the new boyfriend—probably some middle aged dude with a horseshoe ring of hair. Kassandra looked again. The illustration of the cup was still there.

“Why didn’t it work?”

Luke rubbed one eyebrow, thinking. “This might help.” He grabbed their lunch trays, marched over to the nearest trash can, and dumped the contents in.

“Hey. They charge for seconds, you know.”

“Call it motivation. Now channel your anger into the card.”

This time when Kassandra concentrated, her stomach issued a pang of complaint. It knew she’d have to survive another period before it could be fed. Her mind locked on dinner again, seeing an empty chair. Had Mom given up on their family? Or maybe it was only Kassandra she wanted to forget.

Clunk. A boy had plunked his tray right in front of Kassandra. She started getting up to let the kid sit.

“No.” Luke grabbed her arm. “You’ll want to see this.”

The boy wandered away, leaving the tray there. More kids dropped off trays. Some left their brown bags. Even the lunch lady trudged over with a mound of fresh tacos. In moments, a pyramid of food piled up on the table—cookies, chips, sodas, everything—most of it soggy from the swampy middle of the table.

“What is all this?” She whispered to Luke as the stream of kids walked past.

“It’s what you created using the card.”

The image of the cup had vanished, leaving only the border.

“What did the ace of cups mean?”

“Feasting.”

The Tarot Cards Operate on Love, Hate and Fear

Chapter 20

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.

Everyone stared. 

Kassandra slinked down the bus aisle as kids’ gazes dissected the girl with the dead daddy. Someone whispered “Suicide” loud enough for her to hear. She winced. The gossip wasn’t going to vanish overnight. This was high school, after all. The story about the new girl with the suicidal Daddy would blossom until even the teachers figured things out. Then Kassandra would have to face the counselors. 

If only Luke were here. 

Book Girl sat with legs propped against the seat. When Kassandra shuffled by, the girl snapped her head up and smirked. Kassandra continued down the aisle, plopping onto the seat with the ripped cushion before the bus kicked into gear. She stared out the window, avoiding the other kids’ stares. Dinky clouds dotted an otherwise turquoise sky. Yesterday’s storm had left town. Perfect weather for a miserable day. 

She pulled out the Tarot cards and flicked through the deck, searching for Death. It wasn’t there. Kassandra patted down her jeans and felt the edge of the card nose out the front pocket and relaxed. She’d shoved it there after the nightmare. Setting the rest of the cards on her lap, she tugged Death out. Why did this card hang out in her pocket while the others zapped back to the deck? Did the rest of the cards want to kick Death out of the club for being such a freak?

Kassandra had blown Auntie Jo off this morning, but there might have been some truth to what she’d said. There was a truck load of drama jostling around her brain these days. New in town and starting school. Plus, she’d be known as Suicide Girl for the next two years. Maybe Kassandra was reading things into the cards. Total endorphin overload.

Driver Lady hit the brakes and everyone in the bus swayed forward. 

Kassandra scrutinized the heads illustrated at the bottom of the Death card. True, one looked a little like Dad. But it wasn’t moving. Just a picture. She could add going nuts to her list of defects this week.

“You look glum. Someone run over your cat?” Luke Rykell stood in the aisle. Without even thinking, Kassandra slapped a hand over the cards.

“It’s a joke. Supposed to make you smile.”

She tossed up one of the toothy grins reserved for Mom.

“Sit down back there!” Driver Lady hollered.

Luke slid onto the seat. Kassandra detected the orange scented cologne again. The smell seemed to be infused into his clothes.

She glanced down at the Tarot deck, still clutched in both hands. If Kassandra could slip one peek at the Magician card, she’d know for sure…What? That Luke somehow popped out? Didn’t she just tell herself this was all in her head?

Luke wore pretty much same outfit as yesterday—white T and blue jeans. Guys could get away with not changing clothes.

“Hey, isn’t that a Tarot deck?” He pointed at the cards.

Her fingers squeezed the deck.

He cocked a grin. “Now are those the garden variety type or are they the special kind of cards?”

Kassandra’s blood froze, thoughts spinning with the memory of Lindsay and the disappearing wardrobe. Hold on, he hadn’t mentioned any of that. It was only her brain making up stuff again.

“What do you mean, special?”

“Special like…” Luke rubbed his chin. “Like causing someone’s clothes to melt away.”

How did he know? Her hands slipped away, revealing the gold patterned backs of the Tarot cards.

“Ah, you do have them. I thought so.” Kassandra caught a gleam when Luke stared at the cards. 

“How do you know all this?” 

“You already have that answer.”

Kassandra’s head buzzed with questions. How could she possibly know anything?

“Who do you think I am?”

The image of the guy from the Magician card sprang to mind—all decked out in a flouncy red suit. “It’s kind of stupid.” She shrugged. “Probably something I made up.”

“Try me.”

Kassandra glanced around. The rumble of the bus drowned out the chatter of the other kids, so no one could hear them. “The Magician from the Tarot deck.”

“What if I said you were right?”

If he was really from the deck…  Kassandra looked down at the pile of cards. She needed to find The Magician. Just to see it.

“That deck,” Luke pointed at the cards, “has been my home for a very long time.”

“How?” It was all she could get out. Kassandra wanted to know how Luke knew what she was thinking. But also, how he came from a deck of cards.

“Let’s take one thing at a time. You needed help, and that’s why I’m here. To teach you how to use the cards.”

“But what are you?” She meant to say who, but it came out as what. 

“Don’t be afraid.” Luke took her hand and squeezed. A tingle skittered up Kassandra’s arm. “See, I’m just as solid as you. Just as human. And I’m not going to bite.” He winked. “Unless you like that sort of thing.”

He was flirting. She pushed a strand of hair back. Not the time. Too many questions right now. “So, how do you get into a deck of cards?”

“Before I was trapped inside, I was normal, everyday, Luke Rykell.” He leaned back. “Now, I’m somewhat different.”

Kassandra looked into his eyes. Bits of copper flashed in the morning sun. “Trapped, huh? So you’re a genie?”

Luke shook his head. “I can’t grant wishes. Sorry. But I have learned a little about how the deck works.” He scooted closer. “Other people have brought me out, like you, and I’ve seen how they used the cards.”

She ran her finger along the cards. So he’d been pulled out of the Tarot deck more than once. Did he return on his own or was he forced back inside?

Luke tapped on the cards. “They never seem to work when you want them to, do they?”

“Tell me about it. And then, when I want to be left alone, they up and do something really weird.”

“Frustrating, isn’t it. You can’t tell the cards what to do. But you can trick them.”

She frowned. He talked like the deck was alive or something.

“The cards want to be used.” Luke ran a finger along his eyebrow. “They’re just not…predictable.”

“So you’re saying I can’t make the cards do what I want.”

“It’s like solving a riddle. The power is hidden in the symbols.”

“Translate for me.”

“Pick a card.”

She turned the deck over and revealed the five of swords.

“What do you see?” He edged closer to her.

The illustration depicted a man lying under a tiny Greek-looking temple, sucking on a hookah pipe, totally oblivious to the columns falling apart. Any second now, the whole place would crash down.

“It looks like the guy is going to get smooshed. But he doesn’t care.”

“Not bad. The crumbling building is a symbol for destruction.” 

Kassandra needed to read some of those books in Auntie Jo’s library. She knew nothing about what each card meant. She shifted to the next card just as the bus lurched around a turn. Kassandra smacked into Luke.

He turned to her. “You okay?”

Oh yeah. The one time in her life she didn’t mind riding the bus.

“I’m good.” Kassandra was now squished shoulder to shoulder with Luke.

Head cocked, he looked at the next card in the deck. “Very interesting.”

The new card showed men lying next to these massive logs. The bottom read: nine of wands. 

“Is there something wrong with this one too?”

“Do you really want to get to school on time?” 

Tension crackled through Kassandra, picturing yesterday morning. People had stared as if she were some zoo animal on display. “I’m in no rush.”

“Then let’s create a little delay.” He pointed to the card.

“What are you going to do?”

“It’s your deck. The cards listen to you.”

Auntie Jo had paid for them, so they should’ve been hers. But that wasn’t true. They felt like they belonged to Kassandra. They chose her.

“Look at the illustration.” Luke tapped the picture. “See the nine fellows there. They’re supposed to be working, but they’re almost asleep.”

She examined the card. A couple of men tilted bottles to their mouths. It looked like the end of an all night party. “So if I use this card, it means we’re going to lie around all day.”

“That’s the literal meaning. You have to think in symbols.” Luke griped her hand, his thumb on the card. “Imagine something preventing us from getting to school on time. The bus breaking down or a string of red lights.”

Kassandra tried, but could only fixate on the kids staring in the halls, everyone whispering about Dad. Then there was the note, the one with the printout of a suicide victim.

A wicked smile spread along Luke’s face as he placed a hand forward to grip the seat in front. Tires screeched from somewhere up ahead. The bus jerked to a halt and Kassandra sailed into the padded seat in front of her. The cards scattered along the floor.

Kassandra’s face felt raw. “What happened?” 

“Go see.” Luke nodded toward the front of the bus.

Other students sprang out of their seats, crowding around Driver Lady, who shooed them back while trying to talk on the radio. Kassandra only caught glimpses of the street. Black smoke billowed up as flames clawed the morning air. 

“There.” Luke smirked. “You got what you wanted. We won’t be at school anytime soon.” 

She stood, neck craned, just able to view a compact car with its hood scrunched up like a wad of paper. Fire blanketed the engine. A truck lay next to it, knocked on its side with the wheels still spinning. The driver crawled out of the cab, red blood coating his face.

“I didn’t ask for this.”

“Are you sure? You wanted to stay away from school. Maybe you don’t mind if a few people get hurt along the way.”

Did she want to avoid school so badly? Kassandra chewed on a fingernail. She certainly wasn’t ready to begin her stint at Arroyo Grove High School as Suicide Girl. 

The bus shuddered and a puff of inky smoke exploded into the air from the car wreck. 

“No.” she shook her head. “I wouldn’t ever wish for this.”

“You’d be surprised what you’d do when you really want something.”

Kassandra glanced down and found the deck of cards seated on the edge of the ripped vinyl. They came back. Of course they did. She picked up the nine of wands. The illustration of the men and the logs was gone. Only the title and the border remained. The same thing had happened each time before. Except in the library. There, she’d practically pounded the card into the desk and got nothing. “How do I make the cards work when I want them to?”

Luke raised an eyebrow. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”

Kids pulled out their phones. Some snapped pictures while others called or texted about the accident. Sirens wailed in the distance.

“You can’t think the cards into action.” Luke hefted his tattered backpack over one shoulder. “They run on emotion. Love, hate, or fear. The stronger the better.”

Kassandra tried to picture when the seven of coins had gone blank. It was in the hallway when Lindsay had cornered her. She’d been afraid, but also pissed off. Did Kassandra set the cards off without even thinking about it?

“What about you? What were you thinking about just then? I saw you smile.”

The edges of Luke’s mouth curled up, giving just a hint of a smirk again. “I thought about my brother.”

The Death Card Sucks Kassandra into the Tarot Deck

Chapter 19

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’s lungs felt pressed flat, making it hard to breath. A stale smell, like a room sealed up for too long, lingered in the air. There was a light suspended above a workbench—the old garage up in Seattle. 

Dad stood on a wooden ladder, tossing the end of a yellow rope over one of the beams. But this was wrong. The ladder should’ve been kicked over, his feet swinging over bare concrete. 

He turned to look at Kassandra, his face grooved with worry lines. There was something not right about his eyes. The wooden ladder wobbled as he descended, each step creaking.  Dad said something, but it came out as a faint hiss, like steam escaping a radiator. Gooseflesh sprouted along every inch of Kassandra’s skin. Her heart beat so hard and fast, it felt like it might burst through the ribcage.

Dad shouted the same thing over and over. She heard the words as if traveling over miles of empty expanse. It took a moment to decipher it.

“Be careful.” 

Kassandra’s eyes snapped open. She was back in her room in Arroyo Grove. A layer of sweat drenched her shirt. Had she passed out? 

The Death card sat propped on the pillow, same as before. The illustration so resembling Dad was there too. She frowned. He’d told her to be careful. Careful of what? Kassandra glanced back at the card and saw Dad’s head swivel. The eyes even blinked. He mouthed the words again: Be careful. 

Kassandra stumbled out of bed, banging into a shelf and knocking books down. That did not just happen. Couldn’t have. She was still dreaming. 

Even so, when she approached the bed, Kassandra grabbed the card and shoved it in her pocket. She couldn’t see him move again. Enough was enough. 

Auntie Jo owned more books on the occult and the supernatural than most libraries. Still, none had any answers. Of course there was no chapter titled Kassandra’s Dad and How It Relates to Tarot. But these books only went on about how to do readings. Nothing about what it all meant. Feeling her jeans, the Death card poked out the top of one pocket. The rest of the deck sat in the purse at her feet.

The hall light flicked on. Kassandra stood, but her thighs throbbed from being in a crouched position for so long. Then she noticed her bare arms, the gloves left back in the room. She eyed the couch, contemplating hiding, but indecision kept her frozen.

Auntie Jo strolled out of the hall, dressed in a Tibetan robe. She frowned. “What’s wrong?” Her gaze landed on the scarred arms. Dashing over, Aunite Jo wrapped Kassandra up in a monstrous hug, rocking back and forth.

“Honey, honey, honey.”

“It’s okay. I just couldn’t sleep.”

Auntie Jo backed away.

“It’s these cards.” Kassandra nudged her purse. “I need to figure them out.”

“You know I did some research myself last night.”

Kassandra relaxed. Maybe Auntie Jo had more information than these books. 

“Most of the websites say cutting is a reaction to internal pain. It’s a way to make it physical.”

“What?” Kassandra’s mind was anywhere but cutting. “No, the cards.” She held up the book she’d been reading. “I had a nightmare about these stupid things.”

“It could be endorphins.” Auntie Jo had a serious look on her face. “They say adrenaline is released every time you…you know…cut.”

“This isn’t about me!” Kassandra slapped her arm. “Cutting has nothing to do with it.”

“Cutting what?” Mom appeared in the hall wearing a matching pair of pink sweats.

Kassandra’s stomach flipped as raw panic jolted through every nerve. She shoved her arms behind her back, concealing the hashmark of scars. 

“Uh, nothing mom.”

“Don’t you nothing me. Are you cutting classes?” Mom headed into the kitchen and started making coffee. “Is that why you left school early yesterday?”

“Yeah.” Why had she blurted that out? So stupid. “I met this guy.”

This snagged Mom’s attention. She pivoted, coffee carafe filled with water. “Really? What’s his name?”

“Luke.” 

Mom surveyed Kassandra as a prospect for dating. “You’ll have to tell me about this guy.” She yawned as the coffee machine wheezed to life. “But first you need to get ready for school. Come down to my room. I can do your makeup. Boys like that.”

“Thanks Mom, I will.” 

Mom shuffled down the hall, finally disappearing into her room. 

“Who’s Luke?” Auntie Jo knit her brow.

“Hard to explain.” Kassandra fished through the purse for the deck. “It all goes back to these.” She located the Magician card and pulled it out.

Auntie Jo stepped forward. “Isn’t that one of the cards from your reading?”

Kassandra nodded, passing it over. An empty silhouette lay at the center, surrounded by stained glass.

“What happened to the illustration?” Auntie Jo took the card.

“I think I triggered it or something.”

“When?”

“Yesterday.” An image sprang to mind: crouching down on the toilet seat in the girl’s bathroom, pricks of blood along one arm. “At school.”

Auntie Jo inspected the card again, running a finger along the missing picture. “This didn’t go totally blank like the others.” She was talking more to herself now, spinning toward the wall of books.

Kassandra wondered if she should ask for the card back. But why bother. The thing would zap to the deck soon enough. 

“Kassandra!” Mom blared from down the hall. “School.”

“I know!” Kassandra turned to Auntie Jo, who tugged a book off the shelf. “Just figure out what’s going on. I think the person from that card is out.”

Auntie Jo snapped her head up. “What do you mean?” 

“He’s the guy I met. Luke.”

Mom is Gaga Over Her New Crush

Chapter 18

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.

The blue Beetle pulled into the drive and Kassandra and Auntie Jo burst through the front door to escape the rain. The iPhone sat charging on the counter with no sign of Mom, probably holed up in her room. She was kind of like Bigfoot. There was proof she existed, but sightings were rare.

Auntie Jo kept Kassandra busy in the kitchen, cleaning up olive pits and tomato scraps, and wiping down the counter. The knife was off limits, even though Kassandra had chopped veggies hundreds of times before. Did Auntie Jo really think she’d pull down her gloves and get started right there? But there was no room to complain. At least Mom was still in the dark.

With dinner ready, Auntie Jo called everyone to the table. Kassandra cringed. Mom hardly ever joined in—usually opting for the room service option. Auntie Jo must’ve hoped for a family meal bonding experience, where everyone shared what they did that day. All smiles and giggles. Well Mom revoked her family card the day she dragged Kassandra to this crummy town. 

Mom waltzed in, phone in hand, and flopped into a chair. Not the least bit hungry, Kassandra curled one noodle around her fork and popped it into her mouth. Maybe she could chew this for the rest of dinner and not have to talk.

“The rain’s really coming down, wouldn’t you say?” Auntie Jo smiled, hooking the apron on the chair and sitting.

“Uh huh.” Mom positioned the phone next to the plate as if it were a new addition to the settings: spoon, fork, phone. If Kassandra tried the same thing, she’d find her phone locked up. Of course, she didn’t even have one to lock up. 

A new message popped up with a chirp. Mom inspected the screen and giggled. She was texting her boyfriend—Jim or Mat? Shouldn’t that be a Kassandra thing? She was the teenager here. But if Mom stayed distracted, then there was hope for surviving dinner. 

“How’s the pasta?” Auntie Jo smiled a little too wide. “I got the recipe from one of my clients.” 

Kassandra enthusiastically chewed the one noodle in response.

Mom nodded. Though she could’ve been responding to the text. Her gaze was glued to the tiny screen.

This wasn’t how dinners used to be. When Dad was around, Mom wouldn’t shut up. She’d go on and on about her day. Sometimes it really bored Kassandra, but now she missed it.

“Everything we’re eating is fresh.” Auntie Jo mixed the sauce into the pasta. “Since Kassandra left school early, we rolled by the Co-op.” 

Kassandra’s stomach twisted into new and interesting pretzel shapes and she shot Auntie Jo a look. Why had she let that slip? 

Mom surveyed the dinner table as if it were some new restaurant. “Why’d you leave school early?” She wasn’t angry yet, but a motherly tone infected her voice. “You should have called me.”

Kassandra nearly laughed. Like Mom cared. “It’s nothing. Just got sick is all.” 

“Oh. Must be this cold weather.” Mom forked an olive and popped it in her mouth. “You need to wear a jacket.”

Yeah, that was it. Because Kassandra didn’t know cold coming from Seattle. She liked Mom better when she didn’t pretend to care.

Mom twisted toward the phone, fingers making clicky noises as they tapped on the screen. 

A wave of tension crested inside Kassandra, peaking at the base of her skull. What was Mom typing? Wish you were here? No, probably the other way around. Something like: I’m stuck here with my stupid family. 

Normally Kassandra tuned Mom out, but tonight it felt like an insect burrowed just beneath the skin. Every time the phone clicked or binged, the bug dug an inch deeper. 

“Would you stop that?” Kassandra tossed her fork down. Mom whipped her head up. “It’s ridiculous. You’re too old to be all gaga over some guy. Give it a rest.”

Mom stiffened. “I don’t believe I asked your opinion.”

“Listen guys.” Auntie Jo flashed Kassandra a look. “I know no one’s feeling top notch tonight.”

Kassandra squeezed the fork until the metal dug into the skin. “It’s rude. We’re having dinner and all you can do is text.”

Mom slapped the table causing her silverware to clank against the bowl. “Why can’t I have anything for myself? I work hard…”

“Yeah right. And who bought you that new toy?” 

“Now Kassandra…” Auntie Jo tried to assume a parental tone.

Mom gave Kassandra a look that sizzled the air between them. Then the phone buzzed and Mom glanced down.

“Jesus, Mom. Did you just forget Dad?”

“Kassandra!” Auntie Jo half stood out of her seat.

“I’d sure like to get over him as quickly as you did. Can you give me your secret?”

“Go to your room!” Mom’s whole body trembled.

“Not a problem.” Kassandra shoved her chair out. “Dinner was great Jo. Save me some.”

“You’ll go now!” Mom jabbed a finger down the hall.

“What’s the point trying to talk to you? It’s not like we’re even a family anymore.” Kassandra marched down the hall and into her room. 

Leaning against the door, she sucked in a long breath. It did nothing to calm her. Kassandra’s body felt tense and jittery. The argument with Mom jabbing at her brain. 

She spied the purple Doc Martens in the corner and knelt by them, pulling out the sock. Red lines marked the places where blood had stained the fabric. She cradled the razor in her hands. Such a small thing. Yet it had caused so much trouble. The handle of curved metal was flecked orange with rust. Kassandra held the blade over her arm. No intention of actually cutting. Just a familiar action, long ingrained in her memory. The length of the razor seemed the perfect size for the scars peeking through her fishnet gloves. 

Kassandra looked at the door. Auntie Jo had been too gung-ho about dinner to search in here yet. But it was only a matter of time. Just as soon as Mom left red alert status.

“I need to stash this.”

Options around the room were limited. There was the bed, the massive trunk coated with dust, and the books lining the walls. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She should have thought of a place earlier. Everything looked so obvious. Kassandra glanced at the door, fingers rubbing the handle of the blade. Just a few minutes was all she needed.

Back to the book shelves again. Auntie Jo hardly touched them since Kassandra moved in. Though she’d probably tear the place apart during school tomorrow.

Dust caked most of the shelves, but some spots were disturbed where Auntie Jo had removed books recently. Kassandra kept scanning until finding a section blanketed in dust, and spied three books on poetry, nestled on the end of one shelf. Two were thick anthologies, but the third was a slim volume tucked into a cardboard slip case. Perfect. The case could hold the blade during inspection. Unless Auntie Jo decided to tackle the books page by page, the razor would be safe.

Kassandra gingerly lifted the book out without disturbing the dust and then slid it from the case. Flipping it open at random, Keats’ name appeared smack at the top of the page. Only the last two lines of the poem were there, but it was one Kassandra had read hundreds of times: Ode to a Nightingale.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

       Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

A trembling sensation spread into Kassandra’s arms and legs. Everything felt mixed up now, like a nightmare, except she was wide awake.  It all used to be so simple. Poems weren’t loaded with meaning. And she had been a normal girl. Back when Dad was alive.

Kassandra wedged the razor near the binding. Just before snapping the book shut, she noticed some red from the blade rubbed off on the page—a scrawl underlining the last line. She wiggled the book back into its slip case and positioned it on the shelf to match the dust footprint. 

Then the sock went straight into the purse. Kassandra couldn’t risk throwing it out here. She’d have to toss it at school. Her hand brushed the Tarot deck. In a moment, she had the deck out and found the Death card. Lying on the bed, Kassandra set the card on the pillow. It was good to see Dad, even if it was only a picture that looked like him. 

“I wish you were really here,” It felt weird saying this out loud. Kind of like she was speaking to a person and not some rectangle of paper. “When you were around, Mom was still Mom.”

Chin settled on the bed, she stared at the illustration, waiting for Dad’s head to move again. Drowsiness curled around Kassandra, willing her eyes to shut. If she was patient enough, Dad’s head would move. 

Her fingers tingled as if falling asleep. But then the tingling picked up in her toes too. She tried to shift positions, but couldn’t let go of the card. Her arms prickled as if someone had dragged a comb lightly along the skin. Sleep tugged at her eyelids. The world faded away and her mind switched off.

Just before Kassandra dissolved into slumber, something shifted on the card. The room darkened, but the illustration glowed. A bitter coppery taste filled her mouth. Then Dad turned his head to stare.