Kassandra Battles a Lion with Razor Blades for Fur

Chapter 35

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.

This time Kassandra didn’t fall through the darkness. It felt more like stepping into a pool of black water. She held her breath and submerged into a cold, wet night. Around her, nothing. Not even a hint of the door she’d come through. 

Her lungs strained, clamping on to the tiny bit of air. She needed to find the surface. Right now. One direction held a slightly lighter shade of black. Kassandra paddled toward it. The water lightened and beyond, sunlight filtered through interlacing branches. She broke the surface and sucked in breath after breath, so glad to have air around again.

After swimming to the shore, Kassandra found herself in the middle of a forest. Trees lined the bank in both directions—a mix of evergreen pine and those other types that lost their leaves in the winter. Clumps of grass and shrubs clogged nearly every open space except directly around the pond.

The nightingale splashed out of the water, waddling onto the muddy beach. It held its wings outward, the feathers scraggly and soaked. The bird looked pissed.

Kassandra jerked her head toward the pond. Where was Gabriel? He’d stepped through the door first, but he wasn’t here. She sat up as water dribbled from her shirt and pants, the fabric forming an icy blanket. Was he still swimming down there, lost in the blackness?

Kassandra glanced along the shore. Dim light passed through the trunks and branches, a strange twilight, neither morning nor evening. Maybe Gabriel arrived here first and wandered off. But where would he go?

The bird shuffled around in circles, every so often flapping its wings as though trying to take off, but its feathers were too wet.

The hairs along Kassandra’s neck prickled. Something stalked those woods, just out of sight. Even the nightingale paused and cocked its head toward the trees. She grabbed a broken branch poking out from the water and held it up like a club. Her fingers slid along the slimy muck coating the wood. 

A twig snapped and Kassandra focused on the location. A few feet in, the forest dissolved into shadow, leaving patches of blackness between the slender trunks. Her mind filled these in with all sorts of strange silhouettes. She stepped toward the tree line, holding the branch like a baseball bat. The nightingale hopped alongside.


A guttural snarl rumbled back. The muddy branch quivered and Kassandra stumbled backward. A massive shadowy thing shouldered through the trees.

Ditching the club, she hauled ass toward an opening in the trees to the left. The creature pounced, missing her by inches. It pursued, crunching twigs underfoot. Kassandra risked a glance and saw a shimmer, almost like rippling water in sunlight. 

A branch speared her ribs, leaving a scrawl of blood beneath the torn shirt. She shot forward, but the forest closed in from all sides. Tightly packed trees banged her shoulders and twigs clawed at her face. Roots snagged Kassandra’s shoes, making her almost trip, but she didn’t dare stop. It felt like the forest wanted to stop her. Finally the trees gave way to a small meadow filled with knee high grass.

Kassandra spun around. Nothing moved. She held her breath, listening. Had she lost it? Her lungs raged, craving fresh oxygen, but hearing was more important. No sound except the grass swishing back and forth. 


Kassandra whipped in the direction of the sound. It was only the stupid nightingale. The bird perched on the branch of a tree. It flapped its wings, now mostly dry. 

A bone-rattling growl came from behind. She spun, facing the line of trees at the far end of the meadow. How had it circled around her? This time the silhouette was easy to pick out. An enormous creature on all fours bulldozed through the trees. The thing had once been a lion. Its golden fur now glinted with thousands of razor blades embedded into its skin. Pins jutted out from its snout, forming whiskers.

Kassandra’s arms itched. She scratched at the skin, but the pricking sensation seemed to run beneath the crisscrossing scars. Her fingers dug deeper, trying to reach the source of the irritation, but she couldn’t reach it. The pain was underneath. 

The lion padded closer, yellowed grass pushed to either side.

“Stop it!” she screamed, as much at herself as the lion. 

The lion walked within arm’s reach, its head nearly to her shoulders. The mane bristled with a mixture of real hair and wicked razor blades. It seemed to be waiting.

Kassandra continued to claw at her arm, a fingernail ripping open the skin. She needed to stop, but her hand wouldn’t listen. It operated on full autopilot. Finally she dove down and bit her wrist, yanking the hand away from the bloody arm. 

The lion bared its teeth and let out a roar. The force nearly knocked Kassandra over. Instead of claws, thin curved knives slid out. The creature lifted one paw and swiped. She held up the mangled left arm—a feeble attempt to block the blow. The knife-claws slashed her skin.

Her shoulder thumped as more blood flowed out of the wound. A chill swept over her, burrowing down into the bones. This was what dying felt like. Kassandra collapsed to her knees.

Her imagination pinwheeled through images until settling on Dad’s funeral. His polished coffin sat on a table at the front of the church. She stepped toward it and peered inside. The worry lines around his eyes were finally relaxed. But the face was so still. Kassandra wanted to grab his shoulders and shout: wake up. He would open his eyes if I only she wished hard enough. That thought cycled through her brain over and over, refusing to be silenced. There was only one way to switch it off.


Kassandra stroked the polished wood of the coffin. The scent of cedar filled her nose. Dad’s chest didn’t move. The laugh lines curled around the corners of his mouth as if etched there. No hint remained of the mischievous grin he’d always sported. Dad would never smile again.

He was really gone.

She opened her eyes and the lion loomed inches away. The skin along her left arm was tinged blue.

“He’s dead!” Kassandra shouted at the lion. It stared back—two pinpricks of black against amber irises. “Is that what you want to hear?”

She blinked, the world going blurry, and slumped to the ground. Dirt flew up into her eyes and mouth. Everything became dark as the lion leaned its head forward. This was it. The creature would finish her.

Something wet and sticky slid along Kassandra’s arm. She looked, not trusting her senses. The lion licked the wounded arm, and where it cleared away the blood, the skin was healed. Only the lines of scar tissue remained.

She was alive. The lion hadn’t killed her. But why?

Kassandra’s breath came out raspy, but steady. She reached up and felt the lion’s mane. The razor blades had vanished and her hand passed through coarse hair. Grabbing hold, she pulled herself up. 

The lion was different now. It had changed when she shouted at it. Kassandra glanced at her arm, still covered in white scars. This was a test. It all had to do with her Dad. The lion only attacked when she denied the truth. 

The lion led her into the forest. She staggered, leaning against the scratchy mane for support. This time a trail wound back to the pond. The nightingale followed, fluttering from branch to branch. At the water’s edge, the lion knelt down, depositing her on the muddy beach. It nudged, but Kassandra didn’t need encouragement. She drank until her lungs protested and then rolled onto the bank, gasping. 

Kassandra didn’t ever want to move again. Her body felt like a pillow emptied of stuffing. Sleep clouded her eyes and she let it come.

Sometime later she awoke, face crusted with sand. The lion was gone. A scan of the shore revealed a line of paw prints leading back into the forest. 

Puh-twee-too. The nightingale sat on a nearby branch.

“Morning,” she said spitting up some sand. Her voice sounded as if someone had poured gravel down her throat. Now she knew what smoking felt like. Everything ached. Kassandra inspected her left arm. The skin appeared normal again, no sign of the damage done yesterday. If it even was yesterday. Murky light filtered through the trees, the same dim twilight as before.

Shouldn’t she be hungry? Starving in fact? But Kassandra didn’t have the slightest desire to eat. Maybe people didn’t have to in this place. It would explain how Gabriel survived for years strung up in his prison.

She looked over to the pond. Her throat was still sore and the water looked cool and inviting. Scooting to the edge, Kassandra peered in. A door lay at the bottom of the water, as if someone ripped it off a house and let it sink down. It sure hadn’t been there before.

The door swung open and a cascade of tiny bubbles emerged. When the pond cleared, it revealed a room with marble floors. She hoped it didn’t lead back to the Hanged Man card. Although if it meant finding Gabriel, Kassandra was all right with that. She stood, but her leg muscles spasmed with cramps, and she twirled each foot to loosen them up. 

The nightingale flapped its wings.

“I don’t think you’re going to like this very much. But I guess you have to stick with me.” 

Kassandra sucked in a deep breath and then dove. The water was icy but perfectly clear. She swam down and grabbed hold of the doorframe, rooted in the sandy bottom and pulled herself through. The dim light illuminated a round room with a marble floor. Paintings covered the walls this time, not mirrors. She glanced up through the door, which was now on the ceiling. Beyond it, the surface of the pond rippled in the scant sunlight.

Now what?

As if in answer, the door began to swing shut. Her chest seized and a bubble of air escaped her mouth. Kassandra paddled upward. The door thudded closed just as her fingers reached the knob. With the light cut off, the room went completely black. Kassandra twisted and pushed. She’d come too far to drown in some crazy lake bottom room. The door held fast, refusing to budge.

Kassandra gripped the knob, not for escape, but to simply hold onto something solid. Her lungs tightened. In a matter of moments she’d need to take a breath. She was trapped in a swirling watery darkness. 

Kassandra Sees Every Fault Reflected in the Mirrors

Chapter 31

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 thick blackness churned around Kassandra, her feet dangling into the open void. No way to tell if she was falling or staying still. Nausea crept up her throat. She squirmed and reached out, searching for something solid. Her feet struck the ground and the darkness drained away, like water leaving a bath tub.

Kassandra stood in a hallway with mirrors on every wall with hundreds of reflections glancing back. What was this place? The world’s longest dressing room? Stepping forward, her Converse sneakers squeaked on the marble floor. The nightingale flapped down the length of the hall. At least she wasn’t totally alone.

Another mirror covered the wall behind her. Kassandra touched the surface—slick and solid. Her fingers quivered. No way back to Dad. He was still trapped. The far end of the corridor terminated in yet another mirror. At least she’d get plenty of time to stare at herself.

Kassandra started walking. Better check everything out before going into full panic mode. There had to be some way out of this room. Slender marble columns punctuated the spaces between the mirrors. The nightingale perched on one of the metal candelabras lighting the hall.

Kassandra glanced at a mirror and stopped. It didn’t reflect the corridor. Instead, it showed Mom’s room, complete with clothes cluttering up the carpet. A reflected version of her stood right next to the dresser, groping through all those bottles of nail polish.

Kassandra remembered this. She’d needed some cash and tried to nab some from Mom. 

One of the bottles tumbled to the floor and red polish oozed out. She stepped away from the mirror as the reflected Kassandra started yanking tissues out and dabbing at the stain.

This was freaky, like watching some whacked out personal movie. She’d really done a number on the carpet with the nail polish. Weird, watching it made it seem so much worse than when it actually happened.

The next mirror showed her room—bed in the center surrounded by Auntie Jo’s bookshelves. Mom was there, the empty nail polish bottle clutched in one hand. Kassandra’s cheek was flushed red from Mom’s slap. The mirror was silent, but Kassandra knew she’d just said something snarky. Mom’s shoulders sagged, all the energy drained. 

Mom trudged into the hall and the mirror followed, all the way to her room. A huge red blotch still stained the carpet. She stood right inside the door, eyes looking straight ahead as tears trickled down. Finally her hands came up to cover her face.  

Kassandra cringed. Mom never cried. She always came off as such a hard ass. 

Auntie Jo appeared at the door and Mom wiped her face. It’s the same move Kassandra had done when someone caught her crying. 

She backed away from the mirror. This is getting pretty strange. Moving on now.

Kassandra tried to avoid the next mirror, but a single glance stopped her cold. It showed a public bathroom with a bank of stalls on one side and sinks on the other. At first it looked foreign, but then a scruffy version of Kassandra crashed through the door. This was the school’s restroom. 

The reflected Kassandra staggered into a stall and slammed the door, but it bounced back open. She snarled and slapped it closed, fingers trembling as they fumbled at the lock. Then she pawed through the purse for the push pin. 

Kassandra tensed, wishing she could reach in to stop herself. 

The version of her in the mirror held out one arm, crisscrossed with white scars, the pin hovering above the skin. Finally it pressed down and blood beaded on the surface. Tears streamed across her reflected cheeks. Her nose clogged up with snot, creating a bubble with each breath.

Kassandra stumbled away from the mirror. She couldn’t watch any more of this. A glance down the corridor made her heart sink. Not even halfway through. What the heck was this place? 

The next mirror depicted her room back in Seattle. The door opened and a version of Kassandra entered wearing the dark blue dress from Dad’s funeral. 

A powerful flood of memories washed over her.

Dad had been laid out in a mahogany coffin so polished it seemed to glow. Kassandra could hardly look at him. His body was too still. More like a photograph than a man. Her mind slipped into an icy paralysis and nothing seemed to thaw it out. Not Mom screaming at the car doors that weren’t unlocking. Or even when Mom broke down crying at an intersection as cars honked and whizzed by. Kassandra was anesthetized, all emotions immobilized in rock hard ice. She needed to feel something to break free. Even if it meant pain. And the box of razors had been there on the workbench. Ready and waiting. 

Kassandra stared at the girl in the mirror. The room showed a very different version of her. A massive Waterhouse print, with Circe pouring a bowl of water, hung over the bed. A stained glass circle nestled in the window, casting kaleidoscope colors against the pale yellow walls. Miniature fairy houses and bottles adorned every conceivable nook.

Kassandra still had everything stowed away in boxes. Even though she’d been at Auntie Jo’s for weeks, she hadn’t unpacked them. It wasn’t who she was anymore.

The reflected girl sat cross-legged on the floor in a bra and underwear, the razor held over one arm. No scars yet. The bare skin looked too smooth. She glanced once at the locked door and then pressed the blade down. A half smile played at her mouth, oddly peaceful. 

Kassandra knew the feeling—total oblivion. Like nothing in the world could touch her. 

When the reflected girl lifted the razor away, a thin red slash marred the skin. But she wouldn’t cry. 

Kassandra could almost pick the girl’s thoughts out of the air. Crying was stupid. It couldn’t bring Dad back, so why bother.

Real tears trickled down Kassandra’s face as she backed away from the mirror. There was no point hiding them now. 

The reflected girl moved the razor to a fresh section of skin.

“No, don’t.” Kassandra reached out to the mirror. “Please.” The muscles on her arm tensed, feeling the phantom pain. She turned, not able to watch, and charged down the corridor. Mirrors flicked by, each showing another cutting scene. Some were close up, with just a view of the scars. Others focused on the face with that scary relaxed look. She finally collapsed at the end of the hall, eyes clotted with tears. 

“Why are they showing this to me? Make them stop.”

Kassandra yanked off the fishnet gloves and tossed them on the floor. More scars crisscrossed the left arm, mostly because she was right handed. She’d switched arms only when most of the available real estate had been used up on the left. The scars formed little bumps of flesh, zigzagging along the skin, her body’s attempt at healing. If only it were so simple. She couldn’t scab over a wound on the inside.

The tears dwindled to a trickle. Kassandra took a deep breath and steadied herself. She had to find a way out. Dad counted on her to help Mom.

Scooting away from the last mirror, Kassandra inspected it. This one acted the way a mirror should, the reflection shifting when she moved. Grease and muck coated her jeans from kneeling in the garage and her shirt was soaked in the front from crying. The skin looked puffy around the eyes and her cheeks were flushed red. She was a total wreck. A hiccup of laughter burst out. At least there were plenty of mirrors around.

Kassandra giggled, but it was a crazy nonsense laughter and it worried her. Was she losing it? After a moment, she reeled it in. 

“I have to stay in control.”

The nightingale caught up, landing on the marble floor. It pecked at the discarded gloves. 

“Help yourself. You can have them.”

Kassandra glanced back at the mirror and noticed something odd. She was reflected, and so was the nightingale, but not the hallway. Instead the mirror showed a door directly behind her. Maybe this was the way out. She didn’t dare look back. It would ruin the illusion. Reaching for the door knob, her fingers clunked into the glass, meeting her reflected hand. 

“Swift move. Now what?”

In the mirror, the door was behind Kassandra. Maybe if she reached backward… The round door knob brushed against her fingers. She gripped it and saw the mirror-image doing the same. The door swung open. But now what? Kassandra couldn’t walk forward because then she’d smack into the mirror. And if she turned around, there’d be just an empty corridor.

Kassandra took a step backward, away from the mirror, and the reflected image shuffled through the door. From the edges of her vision she still saw those mirrors. Only by focusing on the mirror in front of her, did she see herself pass through the door. The Converse squeaked as they slipped on something. The marble floor was damp.

She spun around and came face to face with a man, hanging upside down, a thick rope looped around one foot. Instantly, another image superimposed itself—a yellow rope strung up on the garage rafters. Dad’s body dangling right side up. But then it vanished. Only the man hanging from his foot remained.

Kassandra recognized him. This was Gabriel Rykell, Luke’s brother. She must be in the Hanged Man card. 

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. 


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.”


“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.


“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?”


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.”