Melissa walked for what felt like ages on the soft black sand. The stars impossibly moved through the cloudless sky as if to entertain her, but she never looked up to notice them. The sand felt pleasant on her bare feet and while she kept watch for an ocean wave to threaten the bottom of her pajamas, no sound of water was present, much less an actual ocean wave.
The more she walked the calmer she felt, and the more distant were all the events that were not present here on the black sand. Here there was no specter of a pandemic, no social posturing, no power plays of men attempting to control her life, and no ghosts from her past trying to ruin her present by predetermining her future. Here, there was just herself, a thickening peace, and a path that did not require eyes to see.
Melissa did not notice when she had stopped walking and had laid down on the sand. Did not notice that the sand had no temperature to it, that it was neither warm nor cold. Did not notice the one star directly over her head that never moved even as the lights in the sky smoothly rearranged themselves into constellations that were never recorded with motions that could never happen. She only noticed the numbing calm that felt like it was soaking into her from without even as it emanated from within.
Her last coherent thought was an acknowledgement that there was no sun in this eternally night sky which set off a slowly simmering panic that leeched from her bones into her consciousness until she sat up and stared at the glittering sky. She jerked her head this way and that as she searched for an indignant moon ready to place itself on the throne of her awareness again.
“Okay. He’s not here. I’m dreaming and it’s just me in this dream. Okay. It’s fine, all fine.” Melissa spoke softly to herself with a very calm tone as she distracted herself from the heated tears soaking her face.
She laid back down on the sand but could not recover the physical comfort that had cocooned her before. She gave up and crossed her legs as she sat back up. “So… Which judge is going to come out this time? I mean… I’m on the black sands and the stars are doing that weird thing and that one star is standing perfectly still overhead so… Guys? Judges? Hello?”
No apparitions formed to answer her. No shapes manifested to be held by her. No memories echoed in the absence in front of her. She was alone with herself, and this terrified her more than any possible encounter she could imagine.
“Okay… If I’m here, then it’s because of the cards. So…” She held her hands in front of her with her fingers spread. “Tens are about completeness.” She bent a pinky finger down. “Nines are about wanting to be complete.” Another finger was lowered. “Eights are about preparing for moving forward. Sevens are about being the most of whatever you are, I think. But sixes are about being in balance or getting into balance.”
She lowered one hand once all the digits had been lowered from her backwards counting. “So, I guess I’m here because of the fives. But what are the fives about?” When her question remained unanswered, she closed her raised hand into a fist and punched at the sand under her in frustration.
She was surprised that she wasn’t surprised when the impact caused a ripple in the sand around her. The perfect circle expanded a short way before the sand then shot straight up forming a perfect cylinder around her. The ejected sand rose smoothly and silently before the walls of the cylinder broke and reformed into four pillars. The four pillars quickly collapsed upon themselves to make four spheres of black sand that floated quietly around her.
Melissa looked around nervously. “There’s only four spheres here, but I’m on the fives.” She forced herself to remember how she first saw the spheres and how they moved to form certain shapes. She recalled the stability of the four spheres moving on the points of an implied square and how the fifth sphere changed the pattern by forcing itself into the…
She dropped the effort of thinking as instinct suddenly rolled her to the side and away from the center of the space formed by the four floating spheres. As she curled into as tight a ball as her body could naturally flex, she saw a shadow of movement descend from directly above where she was sitting just a moment prior. She realized then that not all of the ejected black sand had descended to form the four spheres, as the remaining sand plummeted into the sand now cooling from her body heat.
The ground shuddered from the violence of the impact and responded in turn by forcibly rejecting the invading sand as a counter action. The thrown sand pulled itself into a floating larger fifth sphere that now dominated the space bounded by the four floating spheres that shimmered and rippled in response to the invasion.
Melissa remained still and unmoving. She allowed herself to peek at the pulsing center sphere through the spread fingers of the hand covering her face. She did not realize she had whispered “shit” to herself and was glad she did so as quietly as possible in case the spheres were conscious and aware in the dream world.
After waiting long enough to ensure the spheres had not responded to her soft outburst, Melissa kept her body low and crawled out of the space bounded by them. She did not allow herself to raise herself too far off the ground until she was at least as far enough away from the spheres as she was tall. And even then, she only turned to face the spheres from a seated position.
She fully expressed herself with a mighty and solitary “FUCK!” and immediately regretted doing to as she clapped her hands over her mouth watching the surface of the spheres wrinkle from the force of her shout. “Oh Jesus fuck shit goddamn it can I die in a dream I don’t wanna find out the hard fucking way I can’t deal with this what the fucking hell come on one of you judges show the fuck up and explain this fucking bullshit… please.” Melissa struggled to keep her voice low as she watched the spheres for more signs of interaction and movement.
“Okay?” The spheres did not respond. “Okay, so, I guess like before, they respond to emotions here. Alright. So that was pretty… violent. And I guess I’m on my own here.”
Melissa looked around and saw a plain black small table where there had been nothing before. Seated opposite each other at that able were two judges. One wore her face and the other wore Rebecca’s face. They were facing something on the surface of the table and studying that something very intently.
Melissa tried to keep the five spheres and the judges’ table in sight together, but the moment she made the decision to do so, the dream changed so that she would be facing one but turning her back to the other. As wary as she was of the reactions of the violent fifth sphere, she was more concerned with the conscious actions of the independent judges.
She stood and walked to the table. Something like a checkerboard was made into the tabletop. Melissa quickly counted the squares and noted it was a ten-by-ten grid instead of the eight-by-eight grid that checkers and chess was played upon. In addition, each of the squares had a small divot or indentation, but there was nothing else on the table, not even the judges’ hands.
A large disc, resembling a tarnished coin or much abused token, was suddenly being placed on the game board. The disc filled the square enough to completely cover the indentation within it. “Don’t mind the little bitch. She’s dreaming and won’t remember a damn thing happening here.” The judge wearing her face smirked at her after speaking. Melissa was horrified by the visage as the judge’s mask mimicked her perfectly yet somehow there was such a complete absence of emotion that the sardonic expression was more horrifying than insulting.
A small globe of something like dark glass was placed in the square before the disc, as if to block the piece from moving forward further. The sphere filled the indentation, which was perfectly just deep enough to prevent the sphere from rolling away. The sight of the sphere settling into the space gave Melissa a sense of deep satisfaction.
“It is very rude to speak of her this way with her standing here watching us. In addition, she has advanced in her skill and will remember much more than you give her credit for.” The judge wearing Rebecca’s face nodded politely towards Melissa after speaking.
Melissa blinked and suddenly there were a total of five blackened discs and five shadowy spheres placed across the game board. The two judges moved pieces around on the board, but they appeared to be equally matched. Neither judge was able to gain an advantage over the other, or so it appeared to Melissa.
“So…” Melissa nervously looked back at the five spheres silently floating behind her before looking forward at the gameboard. “What’s the connection and what am I missing here?”
The judge wearing Rebecca’s face pulled their hand away from the board. “How about you catch us up with how you have been working through the cards so far? Sometimes you have to remind yourself where you came from before you can decide where to go to next.”
The judge wearing her face let a finger rest on a disc as if to move it the moment the other judge turned away. When the turning away did not happen, the finger was withdrawn without moving the piece and both judges sat with their hands in their lap and facing each other.
“Fuck you.” Melissa didn’t realize she had quietly whispered the words until the taste of them sweetened her mouth. “Really. Fuck. You. Both.” She looked at one judge, then at the other judge, then at the gameboard between them. She felt the urge to grip the edge of the table and fling it and all that rested atop it into the darkness at the edge of the landscape but a sudden fear of being judged by Jean kept her from acting on it.
She realized that Jean was not in the dream and stood in sudden confusion about why she would worry about what her older sister would think of her actions in dream. In the sudden absence of direction, Melissa’s fury trembled her hands as they flexed and gripped at nothing.
The judges remained seated and facing each other as Melissa lost control of herself and reached for the closest and easiest game piece to pick up with the intention of throwing it. As she closed her hands around a sphere, she felt a sudden deadness of space behind her. The memory of the five floating spheres hovering in a space now that felt wrong snapped Melissa out of her rage.
Tears silently blurred her vision as she released the sphere. Immediately, the space behind her melted back into something that felt normal even though she knew there was nothing normal in this lucid dream to begin with. She stepped away from the table and put her hands into the pockets of a hoodie that she wasn’t wearing before but was taking comfort in now.
“Okay. Fine. I’ll play this fucking game.” Melissa pulled the hoodie closer to herself. “What have I been working on? SURVIVING THE FUCKING PLAGUE! That’s what I’ve been working on!”
She stomped and barely noted that the ground yielded slightly to her pressure. “This isn’t like two god-damn months ago when all I had to worry about was just being a fucking disappointment like I always have been! THERE’S A FUCKING PANDEMIC GOING ON!”
She pulled one hand out of a pocket to wave wildly around her in gesture. She scrubbed away her tears with the back of her hand before tucking it back into the pocket. “And at least two people at work have died already. And I don’t know if I’m infected. And I don’t know if Jeannie is. And I don’t know how to keep Mom safe. And I suddenly have more money than I have ever been able to imagine… More money than I could even pretend that a single person could have, much less me… And not a single penny of it can buy the assurance that I will wake to see the morning, much less survive the pandemic at all.”
Melissa didn’t notice when her nose had started running or that her tears were outracing it. She looked at the judges and the gameboard again. “And you’re here, playing games, because that’s what tarot is, because that’s what tarocchi is, just a fucking game.”
She remained standing as still as the judges were sitting for a time. Behind her the spheres continued to float silently. In front of her the gameboard remained unchanging. Once her tears had ceased running against her dried nose, she spoke in a somber and tired voice.
“So, I started at the end, which apparently is going to be a thing with me. I started with the 10 of Coins and Spheres, and apparently, I’m also going through two sets of decks at once? One in the waking world and one in the dreaming world? It’s confusing and at the same time, it makes perfect sense. Of course, it makes sense here, I’m dreaming and all that is nonsensical is understandable.”
“So far I know that the 10 of Coins is about legacy and the 10 of Spheres is a contradiction in that it’s the end of things and the seeding of new things and there’s probably a pithy word that describes that but I’m neither aristocratic nor Aristotelian enough to know it.”
“The 9 of Coins is about increased wealth and the 9 of Spheres is about the audacious attitude it takes to even increase that wealth in the first place. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?”
“The 8 of Coins is about investing what you have so you can make space for the result of that investing to come through. And the 8 of Spheres is about the sense of self you have to have to make that happen. If you don’t know where you are lacking how are you going to make the space to fill it?”
“The 7 of Coins is about biding your time. But be careful that you don’t make being patient a full-time career! You’ll have to move eventually. The 7 of Spheres is about holding yourself in place, in statis, but it’s also a trap. You can hold still for so long that you forget how to move forward, or even that you should!”
“The 6 of Coins is about making restitution, paying for the damages you’ve done or being paid back for what was done to you. It’s not always about money, though money is the easiest way to do it. The 6 of Spheres pulls deeper though, because you can always pay a fine without admitting you were in the wrong. Being held to a reckoning means facing the full facts of what you did, what the consequences were, and what is expected of you going forward. It’s hard to face.”
Melissa looked at the judges and was unnerved to see they were facing her. She swallowed her fear and continued. “So now I’m at the fives. And I don’t know what’s going on with them. I don’t know tarot theory. I never took a class. Jeannie knows more about Rebecca’s favorite website than I do. I mean, I don’t even have a book to my name about it! And I don’t know where to go from here.”
The judge wearing Melissa’s face reached for a disc on the gameboard. They laid a finger on it and swiftly moved it around the sphere that was adjacent to it. “Well, what you could do is put that money to work, Lisa. I’m sure you learned some kind of self-preservation from your dear and patient Auntie, isn’t that right, Lisa? Don’t waste your newly gained resources trying to save others from themselves, Lisa. Protect yourself, Lisa! Pull back and settle in for what might be a long wait, but settle in what’s yours just the same, Lisa. This will blow over without you being in harm’s way, Lisa.”
The moment the judge lifted their finger, the judge wearing Rebecca’s face was quick to move the attending sphere back adjacent to the barely settled disc and even quicker to begin their rebuttal. “Hopefully, among the lessons you have learned from your Aunt Helen includes the consequences of having no compassion for anyone but yourself, Melissa! Remember that while you did the hard work of moving yourself out of her reach, it was still the generosity of others that allowed you to escape her! While I agree with my peer that this is the time for direct action, I posit that it is the time to put your resources to work in a way that not only benefits yourself, but others. Don’t forget that it was because of Bob Leifert’s daring and hubris to stand up to your aunt that you have the employment that you have now.”
The loudness of the other judge’s rebuttal surprised Melissa. “SHE DOESN’T NEED THE JOB! Lisa doesn’t need to grovel for money anymore! The so-called salary she has been promoted to won’t even count as a rounding error compared to what is available to her right now. Fuck ‘em! All of them! And fuck Old Man Jack especially! Isn’t that right, Lisa?”
They moved to pick up a disc from the gameboard, but their counterpart was quick to block them physically and verbally. “Are you trying to live Melissa’s life for her? Have you forgotten our purpose here? We are here to remark, to advise, to tell, and to guide. What moves we make are at her discretion. Allow me to note clearly that Melissa has not decided in what direction she will begin exploring the concepts of these two cards and as such, we wait.”
Melissa was too stunned after hearing a clear and direct explanation of the purpose of the judges to be angry anymore. She raised a hand to attract the two judges’ attention but was unable to say a word edgewise.
As it was, the judge wearing her face gave her no opportunity to recover. “Oh, I see, we wait for everything to fall apart like it usually does, isn’t that right, Lisa? We wait for her to sit on her ass and cry about not knowing what to do with her life, isn’t that right, Lisa? We sit here, dumb as a pack of cards, and observe as the flow of time hits her like a silent avalanche and dashes her to pieces again, isn’t that right, Lisa? For all that we could be doing, we do nothing, again, just like Lisa.”
“Now wait just a god damn minute.” A distant part of Melissa’s mind noted that the voice of the judge wearing her face and her own voice were at that time, completely identical in tone and dialect to her own internal voice. She knew that was a dire warning to pay attention to, but she was suddenly too angry to care. “I am doing something! I told Bob how to start preparing for teleconferences and to restrict employee contact and Gladys fucking agreed with me and backed me up! I told Jean to help me get a new car and when I wake up from this shit show, she’s going to do just that! I ordered the gear I need to start working from home and that’s going to arrive really fucking soon!”
“And to look at what’s in front of me right fucking now, I’m dealing with your sorry ass who is too busy trying to score imaginary points to realize that my name is not fucking Lisa! MY NAME IS MELISSA! USE IT OR GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HEAD!”
Melissa didn’t realize she was pointing away from the gameboard as if pointing to an exit until the pain of her fingernails digging into her palm pulled her attention away from the emotionless and silent judge wearing her face. She looked at the judge wearing Rebecca’s face, but their visage was stoic and silent as well. Melissa flexed her fingers for a bit to work feeling back into them before remembering that this was all a lucid dream. With a snap of her fingers, all physical discomfort was released.
“I’m done. With both of you. I’ll figure out what the fives are about after I go on with the more important concern of surviving a pandemic. Try to keep up but stay out of my way.”
Melissa looked at the board and noticed that one of the spheres was gone and disc that would have been beside it was now at the side of the board where the judge with Rebecca’s face sat. Tired of another gaming reference, she dismissed the observation as mere dream setting and turned away from the board to face the five floating spheres as if attendants waiting for her instructions. “You are dismissed. Go.” At her command, the spheres melted into black sand that quickly poured over and into the ground of the dreamscape.
Neither judge moved nor spoke as Melissa walked away from the table. With a snap of her fingers, she ended the dream and commanded herself to wake up.
Melissa woke up just as matter-of-factly as she had ended the dream. She looked at the ceiling without seeing it as she wondered what time it was. Just as she thought to reach for the clock on the nightstand, the alarm on her phone on the dresser loudly informed her instead.
The memory of the dream stubbornly remaining viciously vivid and unrelenting in her mind, she stared at the phone for a few seconds trying to make sense of the app notifications that greeted her.
There was a private message on Discord from an account she had never seen before. There were emails from Gladys about something new being activated. There was an email from a car dealership about her new purchase and the scheduled pick-up time. There were many text messages from Jeannie, many more than what her sister would normally send overnight.
There was an email from someone addressing her as “Dearest Cousin”. There was an email from Leifert Enterprises welcoming her as a new employee. There was an email from Bob Leifert to all employees marked urgent and requiring a confirmation of receipt. There was an email announcing a sale on cellphone accessories offering a shallow discount due to expire at the end of the day.
There was an excessive amount of visual noise on the screen and a demoralizing lack of coffee on the table, so Melissa made the adult decision to turn off any remaining alarms and to go immediately to the kitchen to begin the process of gathering her thoughts in a mug.
If she were still an intern, she would have two hours to get herself ready for work and call a ride-share. But after all that happened the day before, Melissa didn’t know what to do with herself. It was only five in the morning and regular working hours at the corporate headquarters started at eight.
Melissa made the coffeepot her immediate priority and kept her thoughts on it and the subsequent mug of coffee until the mug was emptied far too quickly. She felt too unsettled from the dream and the previous day’s events to eat, so much so, that she couldn’t bring herself to pretend to be interested in breakfast so she could delay reviewing the notices like a proper adult.
Jeannie’s texts were a livestream documenting her process of choosing a car for Melissa. Melissa found comfort in reading which aesthetic choices Jeannie made without thinking and which her older sister truly agonized over for fear of making Melissa think she was being ruled over again.
“Cloth or leather seats?” “Never mind. Cloth it is. Leather will burn in the summer and it smells funky when damp and sweaty. Just trust me.” “So red cards are not insurance hikes at all, so nothing to worry about there.” “After looking at red cars, no red for you.” “Who the hell thought light blue and white were good colors for a car? Are you trapped in a computer?” “Remember when all you wore was blue? Would it be too much now?” “If you’re up, you can text or call me.” “I remember. It was a good time. But you were a kid. No blue car this time. I’ll explain later if you want.”
Melissa didn’t remember until she saw Jeannie’s message and the characters unlocked a past that she had forgotten. She had insisted on wearing blue clothes so often, their father would say that she was a water spirit without a river to live in. Melissa pulled herself from the gentle past back to the harsh present and replied with a simple text of her own.
“I trust you. Besides, I can always replace it later if it bugs me. But I trust you.”
Jeannie’s reply was surprisingly immediate. “Good, because I’m on my way to get you. I want you to have your car before you have to leave for work. See you soon.”
“WHAT?!” Melissa cried out as she scrolled up to look at the recent text messages. Indeed, at a very improper and impatient hour of the morning, Jeannie had texted a link to a particular car with the announcement that the car had been purchased and the matter would be finalized prior to the beginning of Melissa’s workday.
Melissa tapped on the link in the message and made a quiet notice to herself that she should replace her old and struggling cell phone as well. The dealership’s website, full of visual gimmicks and banners that would be considered informative and required in by the marketing manager, demanded all of her phone’s processing power causing it to warm quickly and alarmingly in her hand. Enough of the webpage loaded that she was able to see only one clear picture of the car that Jeannie had picked out for her.
The car’s color had both a texture and a hue. The texture was metallic for sure. The hue seemed to change as she looked at it, even in the picture. Jeannie had chosen a four-door sedan that looked new enough to still have a gleam in the finish but wasn’t so new that someone from her past would have assumed that she stole it. The car’s styling was nice enough to be seen driving in, but not so spectacular that someone would want to bait her into showing off.
Just as the rest of the website began to load, the phone’s browser suddenly quit as an incoming call broke through Melissa’s inspection. Jeannie’s personal avatar jiggled on the screen as if Melissa wasn’t already paying attention to it and Melissa quickly stabbed at the screen to answer the call.
“Hey! Ring me in! I’m already parked in your spot!” Melissa didn’t recognize the joy in Jeannie’s voice, but she did recognize her older sister’s fervor. She quickly entered the touch tone code for the garage gate system to let Jeannie into the building, but forgot she was still in her sleepwear until the moment she heard her sister knocking at the front door.
Melissa ran to let her sister into the apartment and then ran to the bedroom to change. When Jeannie complained about not being properly greeted, Melissa yelled back that she should know better than to expect Melissa to be a functional adult before coffee.
“Besides, who the fuck goes car shopping at two in the damn morning?” Melissa’s tone betrayed her own increasing joy at the idea of having a car of her own. “And for that matter, you know better than to think I’m going to be going through text messages before coffee.”
Melissa came back into the front part of the apartment to see Jeannie standing over the tarot decks sloppily stacked next to the unpowered computer on the dining table. Her joy froze into a silencing panic as she watched her older sister reach out to some roughly gathered cards. In sharp silence, Jeannie softly nudged the barely gathered cards into a squared stack.
“I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to touch other people’s tarot cards, but that stack was one good sneeze away from falling all over the floor. And I think that would be the bigger insult.” Jeannie pulled her hand away from the table and turned to look at Melissa. Her soft satisfaction crinkled into dismay as they looked at each other and their reactions. “Oh. Did I go too far? I don’t know how these things go or what the proper protocol is. The more I tried to learn online, the crazier and more contradictory it got.”
Jeannie’s concern broke Melissa’s fear. “Uh. Wait. You… You thought I’d be offended because you touched them?” Melissa came up beside her and picked up the straightened deck. The delicate and entangling lace back of the Sweeney Tarot dared both of them to touch the cards further. Without warning, Melissa thrust the deck towards Jeannie’s chest in a way that forced Jeannie to clutch at the deck in blind instinct.
“Here! Look through them! This isn’t a special deck. These are paper and ink from a print-on-demand shop and they’re replaceable. Like you would actually intentionally damage anything printed, you bookworm. I’d like to see that.”
Jeannie held the slipping mess of cards as if they were shards of glass ready to slice her at the slightest movement. “But… What if I fuck up the energies?”
Melissa had moved past Jeannie to go into the kitchen to get something quick to eat but also to hide her deeply reddened face from her observant sister. Jeannie’s question settled the last of Melissa’s rattled nerves and she turned on her toes to face the unusually flustered woman.
“Fuck up the energies? Where the hell did you get that idea? Oh, that’s right, you went online.” Suddenly embarrassed at seeing Jeannie out of sorts for once, Melissa turned back to the fridge and began loudly raiding it. “I’ll tell you as Rebecca told me. Tarot cards are a game playing deck first and then whatever the hell you want second. Some people make a big fuss over their cards, wrapping them in silk and having special boxes made to keep them in. And some people play tarocchi and poker with them. And some people keep them as story prompts and art pieces and never do anything so crude as fortune telling with them. It depends on how you learned about them and how you want to use them and how you want to treat them.”
For all of the bottle shaking and container sniffing Melissa did behind the open door of the fridge, she finally stood up with only a pair of eggs, a jug of milk and a cooled face as the winning prizes from her scavenger hunt. “But for me? They’re just paper and ink. It wasn’t paper and ink that kicked my ass a couple months ago. It’s just that it was a deck that carried… what happened… to me. But now that I think about it, it was a shitty handwritten deck and a detailed artistic deck that I started with. So, if either extreme could do it, then any deck could do it, and it’s up to each reader what those decks mean to them.”
Melissa cracked the eggs into a bowl as Jeannie sat at the table to sort out the mess of cards that had spilled from her hands into an unruly pile in front of her. Jeannie pulled cards at random and examined their front art before starting to lay the cards into neat piles. “These are pretty. They do look like story prompts. You know I did a lot of digging into tarot and into the local occult scenes. I’ve heard about people getting messed up with these, but…”
Melissa put the prepared eggs into the microwave and paused before starting it as she took Jeannie’s silent prompting. “But what?”
“But you’re not. If anything, what’s going on with you is the complete opposite of my fears. Well, mostly. The way you sometimes look in the sky like you’re expecting a UFO worries me, but… everything else is an improvement. It really is.” Jeannie paused her sorting and stared at the card in her hand.
“What bothers me, Melissa, is that I don’t know how it did that to you.” The thin and elderly figure in the Sweeney Tarot’s Hermit card appeared to be studying Jeannie with the same side-eyed suspicion as she studied the figure with. “This is paper and ink, right? I could light this on fire with the only consequence being burnt fingers and your fury. There’s nothing magical here. But this is what caused you to change yourself to the point where sometimes I look at you and I don’t recognize the person I’m looking at.”
Melissa did not answer. She started the microwave and allowed the worn appliance to fill the space with noise instead. Her and her sister continued to keep their silence as Melissa stirred the half-cooked eggs before yielding the floor to the microwave for another forty-five seconds.
Melissa was quick to reclaim the point of conversation as she singed her fingers removing the bowl. “Is that so bad, though? That I’m not the person I was? That I’m not a filthy rat of a child anymore?”
“THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!” Jeannie’s loud response to Melissa’s quiet reflection didn’t surprise Melissa. That Jeannie permitted her concern to be measured in full, did.
“But it is. Aunt Helen didn’t want me to grow up and was willing to kill the adult in me if it meant keeping me captive and dependent. And let’s face it, I was feral as hell for a long time and that is what everyone was used to, including you. And what everyone is expecting me to return to any minute now. I wonder what’s the spread of my relapse and if we can put money on it because I intend to win at life no matter what it takes now.”
Melissa put a forkful of barely cooled eggs in her mouth to keep from chewing further on the bitter ire that had crept up on her. Jeannie, unsure of the sorrow that was flooding into what should have been a bright and joyous morning, turned back to the roughly sorted cards and looked at the card she had just picked up to sort.
Jeannie sat silently looking at the card longer than Melissa was comfortable using her quickly emptied bowl as an excuse to remain in the kitchen. Melissa put her bowl in the sink as she asked, “So what card are you holding and how are you going to use it as an excuse to change the topic?”
As Melissa had expected, Jeannie’s indignation blew away the previous discomfort. “An excuse?!” Jeannie held the Magician card from the Sweeney Tarot out for Melissa to view. “I’ll have you know that I’m sorting these cards and but also sorting out what kind of magician is this guy supposed to be. Besides, I assumed that you had spoken your fill and saw no need to drag out a settled matter any further.”
“And you say I have changed…” Melissa took the card. “Oh, yea, this guy. I haven’t a single clue who this person is supposed to be or any role he’s supposed to play other than the title of the card. He’s the Magician, and I guess just what kind of magician is his secret to keep. He has his own clothes to fit and it’s certainly not that of a busker.”
“Well, he’s not one for grand lodges either by the looks of it. Or for having long discussions about the hierarchies of spirits or whether Michael or Raphael is the angel of the Sun.”
Melissa kept a perfectly unresponsive and emotionless face as she slowly turned her attention from the memory of when that very card was last in Rebecca’s hand to the barely restrained and almost predatory eagerness that dominated Jeannie when the elder sister was filled with a boiling burden of knowledge that Melissa was sure to find completely unnecessary for life in general.
“No, we are NOT going to have a discussion about anything magic related at fuck-dawn-o’clock. Just because I have had some coffee doesn’t mean I’m aware or even adult enough for this conversation! No! We are NOT going to discuss tarot magic because that’s not what I have the cards for and aren’t we supposed to be picking up my car this morning?”
Melissa threw the card onto the partial stacks of cards before she noticed they were separated by suits. “Wait, you’re really sorting them?! Oh, hell. I guess. I suppose I could have lost a card. I’ve been shuffling them a lot lately and they still slip out of my hands at times.”
Jeannie moved the Magician card to the stack on the far left of the row. “So, that’s what I have been hearing in the background when I call you. I thought so. Do you shuffle the cards to keep your hands busy? Does it help keep you settled?”
Melissa remained standing over her sister, frustrated that she had walked so neatly into one of Jeannie’s analyses again. What had previously been a weeping of sorrow suddenly became an itching of rage and Melissa found herself wanting nothing more but to slap the victorious thin-lipped smile off her elder sister’s face.
Jeannie’s lips pressed tighter into a straight line of concern. “Melissa? Did I go too far? I didn’t think you were into all the superstitions about the cards, and you said yourself you’re not a card reader so I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
Melissa didn’t answer as she realized she was clenching her teeth to the point of making her jaw cramp. She was also suddenly aware of how severely tense her body language had suddenly become. This wasn’t right, she thought. Sorting her cards was a step too far, for sure, but not so far enough to deserve a violent response, she thought.
No, responses are thought out. This was a reaction and one that nearly completely bypassed her self-control, she thought. She needs to collect herself before something else triggers her, she thought.
A cold hand touched hers as a distant voice called out a name.
“AHH!” Melissa jerked her hand away from Jeannie and nearly fell as she stumbled backwards. “DON’T CALL ME THAT! MY NAME IS MELISSA!”
Jeannie remained seated crossways in the simple backed chair. Her hand stretched in the empty space where Melissa’s had just been. Her eyes were open in surprise and her mouth closed up what Jeannie was originally going to say. After a breath, her mouth opened to say something else.
“I know, and that’s what I called you. Melissa. You were suddenly distant and…” Jeannie turned away from her to face the table completely. “We have time before we have to leave for the dealership so you’ll get to work on time. The sorting has already started so I’ll just finish this quickly, so it won’t be hanging on you as someone else’s half-done work. And I apologize for making assumptions about what’s okay for me to touch. I’ll ask clearly if I want to touch them again.”
Jeannie began to move quickly through the remaining cards. She did not bother to inspect each card beyond determining which stack it belonged to. She continued to speak to Melissa without turning around in low toned words that moved with deliberate measure.
“You know, as much as I’m glad to see you maturing, I still have to get used to the fact that you are maturing at all. You don’t need me to inspect your purse each morning anymore. I guess I have been so used to making sure that your socks match that I have forgotten that you are not a doll to be put on show.”
Melissa had withdrawn to the couch and half sat, half laid along its length in horror and renewed sorrow. She was thankful that Jeannie wasn’t facing her now and dreading the moment when her older sister would face her again. “Jeannie…” She pulled a cushion free from the couch and clutched it as if to shield herself from Jeannie’s rebuttal or to hide herself from Jeannie’s disappointed view.
After a mote of silence from Melissa, Jeannie began to speak to fill the gap. “No, you’re right to be upset. I can see where your hands have worn the edges of the deck, and I can understand why even a mass-produced set of cards could become something deeply personal and private. You’re not a child for me to trick into a confession whenever I want to know something. And certainly not for something I have no right to demand an accounting for. I have to let you be who you are right now, and whomever you eventually become after.”
Jeannie started to turn around to face Melissa, paused, and held up a thin stack of cards instead. “Okay, I sorted the suits from Ace to 10, then Page to King. And I sorted the Major Arcana from Fool to the World. Any particular order you want the suits ordered or is it okay to stack them as Majors, Wands, Cups, Swords, then Coins?”
“Um…” Melissa squeezed the cushion to her face harshly to soak up the silent tears. “Um, that order is okay. I’ll be shuffling them later anyway. The important thing is that I’m not missing any cards. Thank you for checking. And you’re right, the shuffling does help me think.”
Jeannie lowered the stack in her hands and quickly assembled the deck. She placed the completed deck on the table with a soft tap. “We should get going. I’ll wait here while you get yourself together. Or would you be more comfortable if I sat on the couch away from the cards?”
Melissa looked up. She knew how she would have answered the question six months ago, even though she would have had nothing as personal as what the tarot decks had become six months ago. She realized she was reacting in fear and had a good guess at where that fear came from.
The desire to rage itched into her being once more. After all, who was Jeanette to go through her things again, she thought. Jeanette could role play like a professional, perhaps she tricked Melissa into giving verbal permission, she thought. Jeanette had already confessed to investigating Rebecca and the local occult scene, she thought. So, fuck yea, she had a right and a duty to get mad, she thought. So, let’s indulge that madness right now, she thought.
But before she could act on the runaway thoughts, she felt something cool and soothing rise from her heart. “Yea, I want you over here, please.” Melissa heard the words crush through her mouth, but they felt like someone else was speaking. She had no idea what would be the next words that flowed from her mouth but gave herself over to the coolness just the same.
Jeannie stiffened briefly. As she relaxed, she spoke acknowledgement of Melissa’s demand. Melissa kept her sight on her sister as she stood from the chair and turned around to face her. The sight of Jeannie’s legitimate surprise to see Melissa’s damp face reminded her of that day when she defied Aunt Helen.
Melissa kept the cushion in her hands as she moved herself to make room for Jeannie to sit stiffly with her hands clasped in her lap. Melissa waited for Jeannie to stop moving before throwing the cushion out of the way to lean on her sister. Melissa’s movements visibly disturbed Jeannie further.
“Apology accepted. I’m sorry I was an ass. Some things have changed, but some things haven’t, and some things I still don’t know what even the hell they are. And yes, I’m fucking livid that you sorted the cards, but I don’t know why so I need to understand that before I act on it. And yes, I’m still waking up so I guess I’m not all here so I’m doing more reacting than responding so I guess I still have more growing up to do? And yes, I’m glad you’re here with me still so can we get the hard words out now while I still have time.” Melissa thought a bit before quickly adding, “Time to speak a little bit more before we go to the dealership, and I make you regret getting me a car.”
The look Jeannie gave her as she spoke revealed only that Jeannie was good at hiding her emotions after being startled. “… Okay. If you think we have time, I’m here for you.”
Melissa wrapped her arms around Jeannie’s tightly. She closed her eyes and allowed her full weight to bear on her sister. “I don’t know how to be angry in a way that’s right. I am angry with you for sorting the cards, but I don’t know how to express that anger in the right way. There’s a lot to being a mature adult that I only have Aunt Helen as an example for, and I’d rather not become a younger version of her.”
“Oh.” Jeannie pulled her arm slightly out of Melissa’s grasp, so that she could turn her body around to face her sister better. “That’s fifty percent bullshit, and there’s something else bothering you more than a bad temper, but I’m going to leave that something else alone now that I’ve called it out.”
Jeannie used her free arm to pull her sister closer. “You’re handing it in a mature way right now. You’re talking about it. You’re acknowledging that you’re angry in the first place. You’re enforcing your boundaries. And you’re willing to examine how much effort is needed to do so. That’s pretty mature, and nothing like how Aunt Helen would have responded.”
“I have several guesses why you’re angry with me, but if I tell them to you, I’ll be telling you how to be an adult according to my ideals. This time, Melissa, you’re going to have to tell me why you’re angry with me, and even then, that’s if you want to. The important thing is that now I know the cards mean something special to you and even though you have mass-produced decks that are technically replaceable from any online retailer, these in particular have a sentimental value that makes them not mine to inspect as I please.”
Melissa closed her eyes and relaxed into Jeannie’s hug. Rage at possibly being manipulated itched into her skin again, but the coolness that came from knowing her relationship with her sister was still intact softened that impulse into an easily ignored irritation.
After a few moments, Jeannie nudged Melissa into sitting upright. “My turn to be mean. Wake all the way up and let’s go get your car. I even have the insurance ready for you. All that’s needed is you, a valid driver license, and your promise that you’re not going to go into ride-share!”
Melissa stood and stretched. “That’s an easy promise to make and keep! Lemme get my purse and we’re off!”
The drive to the dealership was quick as it was exciting. Melissa thought she knew all the hidden ways to avoid the main traffic routes, but the turns Jeannie were making carried them through areas Melissa would never have dared to even look at before her life changed.
Seeing the finely sculpted exteriors and the precisely optimized road construction did not impress Melissa. Jeannie’s ability to enter gate-bound communities without stopping and the way she gleefully drifted through certain intersections in those communities, did.
“You’re worried about me driving a ride-share, I’m worried about you spinning into someone’s yard!” Melissa was never so happy to be back on poorly maintained public streets again. “Was that a chunk of the Parthenon back there?”
Jeannie’s laughter came from deep within her and forced Melissa to smile despite her attempt to be concerned. “A replica of a chunk, and a poorly made one at that. He replaces it every year and brags about the cost of the replica being so cheap when he’s spent more on replacing it than he would have had to get a better made and longer lasting one instead.”
“Alright! Here we are!” Jeannie pulled into car dealership and made her way to the brightly marked guest parking. Melissa exited with intent to go straight to the dealership office and was immediately restrained by the need to stretch out all the tension that Jeannie’s driving had knotted her up with.
As Melissa looked around to force her back muscles to relax, she noted that while this was a used car sales lot, all of the vehicles looked perfectly new and appropriately pricey, and there were none of the gaudy banners and foil balloons that the website had attempted to scroll across her phone’s screen. “Is this the same lot you linked me? It’s actually respectable. This place looks too neat. Don’t we have some cousins in the used car business? I don’t want to owe any favors.”
“Oh, stop. It took a bit, but I was able to find a dealership that isn’t tied to Aunt Helen. That’s why I was up so late sorting through what was available and tracing connections. And yes, we do have some cousins in the business, that I want to avoid entirely. This dealership is two degrees away from the family as a whole, and four degrees away from Aunt Helen, specifically.”
Melissa moved to face Jeannie and stopped. “Oh. I didn’t think that… I mean… I was just kidding… but… oh.”
As footsteps began from the glass walled building in the center of the lot, Jeannie glanced over Melissa’s shoulder to observe the person now approaching but spoke anyway. “There’s a bounty of sorts on our heads. Everyone in the family knows you bucked Aunt Helen and that you did it in the way everyone else that wanted to wishes they could. Aunt Helen wants your head on a silver platter and would grant what she considers grace to whomever delivers your downfall to her on bended knee. That Bob Liefert has taken a liking to you is protecting you in a way I never could, but I’m not about to lean on that forever or be foolish enough to assume that there isn’t always someone desperate enough to curry her favor that they won’t take advantage of your naïveté.”
Jeannie’s last word poured fuel on a resentment that Melissa was surprised to find she was still nursing. But before her rage could tap into it, the footsteps stopped behind her and a small voice attempted to envelop them.
“Ladies! Welcome to Platinum Prism Motors! May I assume that you are the sisters Ms. Jeanette and Ms. Melissa Arroyo?”
Jeanette beamed with joy as Melissa turned around cautiously. Before them stood a short man in a loose gray suit. A yellow tie, as wide as it was bright, hung low against the unsmoothed lumps collecting the underlying white shirt. His smile was genuine, but Melissa quickly recognized strained fear showing through the creases in his face.
“Hello, Jeremy! I hope you haven’t been waiting for us long! And thank you for coming so early so we could pick up the car!’ Jeanette’s enthusiasm was unusually bright and far too chipper for Melissa to accept. Jeremy responded with a sudden burst of fiddling with his suit.
“Ah, well, it is early, but sometimes one has to do what one has to do. You must be Ms. Jeanette, yes?”
With a start, Jeremy stepped forward and extended his hand to Jeanette. As they shook hands, Melissa noted how soft they appeared but also how bruised and chewed his fingernails appeared.
“Please, just Jeanette. It is far too early in the morning to be stiffly formal.”
Jeremy pulled on his suit coat again as he stammered a thankful agreement. Jeanette introduced Melissa as her sister and the intended owner of the car.
“Ah, yes! What a wonderful gift I have for you, Melissa! Everything is settled except for a few formal signatures required by the tax man, the state and, by our respective insurance companies, and then you can move on with your day! I understand you have at most an hour before you have to leave for work, so I’ll do my best to make these last matters go as quickly as possible.”
Jeremy’s attempts to have a booming voice only made him sound small and squeaky. The shrillness this introduced irritated Melissa and she found herself disliking the car salesman more and more. When he mentioned his intent to get her to work on time, she felt Jeanette had said too much about Melissa’s personal affaird and turned to confront her sister.
“What did you tell him about me?”
“Huh? Only that you needed the car for your morning commute today and that we were pressed for time because of it. Why?”
“So what other game are you playing and are you using me to play poker or checkers, because it certainly isn’t smart enough to be chess!”
Jeanette blinked in sudden confusion as Melissa’s equally sudden change in demeanor. “Whoa, Melissa, slow down. There’s no game here.”
“No game? Jeremy here is about to vibrate into another dimension if he can’t keep up his appearances and whose business is it when and where I need to be for work, anyway! And besides, you know damn well that I’m working from home today! Come clean with me, dammit!”
Jeremy took a step back before thinking twice about his posture and stepped forward again. “Ladies, it is early. I have coffee and donuts, if you like. It’s not a lot, but I find that a bit of carbohydrates can settle more than just an empty tummy.”
Melissa turned her attention to the small man with the small voice and sought to chew him with her own. “Did she pay you to play salesman? Did she rent out this space and that ridiculous suit and tell you what words to say? What the hell kind of name for a used car dealership is Platinum Prism anyway!”
“Melissa…” Jeanette’s cheer and Jeremy’s surety was evaporating into the fog descending around them. Jeanette’s voice became flat under the pressure. “You’re having a moment and working yourself up. Stand still and hold silent for a bit, will you. Jeremy is not working for me or for Aunt Helen. I am not playing any games and this is not a ruse to get you committed to something you don’t want.”
At the mention of the Winston matriarch, Jeremy blanched and closed his eyes. “Oh, you’re that Melissa. Okay. I get it.”
Melissa’s fury reddened her face to a terrible shade that only darkened when she yelled, “What the fuck do you mean ‘I’m that Melissa!’ Out with it!”
Jeremy’s voice squeaked from the stress but he held his ground. “I had heard that one of her nieces had walked away from the family and I don’t think I need to explain what the gossip blogs are burning up about and the only thing all the rags probably have right is your name, but your sister is correct. I am not working for… that woman. If anything, I’m just as much a target for her fury as you are. I’m not related to you or to her family or anything, but I did a thing that went counter to what she wanted for someone close to her and as a result, I had to be extra careful with anyone and anything around me for a while.” He pulled at his oversize suit again. “I still am. But that’s all there is in common between us.”
He took a practiced step back and to the side while gesturing towards a car parked in a display spot. “See that car, that Sentra? That’s the car that your sister bought at two o’clock this morning. I had no idea it was for you. I mean, she put your name as the buyer, but to me, you’re just another buyer. Just so happens that you’re a buyer with a sister that cares enough about you to grill me to pieces about the car’s history and maintenance records. That’s the only thing that ties you to me, Melissa, and in a bit, that tie will be broken when you drive it off the lot. That is… if you still want the car.”
Melissa’s fury still pushed her to lash out at Jeremy for being an uncomfortable lump of a man and at Jeanette for being an overprotective sister and at the world for allowing Aunt Helen and her machinations to exist in the first place, but she recognized that her ire was a fire of her own making and it was her responsibility to prevent it from becoming a devouring conflagration.
Swallowing her anger squeezed undesired tears as her eyes closed and she did not know how to respond to her realizations or the audience of her victims. Instead, Melissa just stood still in the damp morning. Her fists tight against her sides. Her face buried under boiling emotion. Her mind lost in anticipation of reprisals.
“Would you like a distraction?” Jeremy’s mismatched voice shocked Melissa back to the parking lot. She opened her eyes to see the rumpled man standing in front of her. “If I say I recognize Trauma Face, would that be too much? The car isn’t going anywhere, and I dare to say that your sister will be just as immovable for the immediate time, anyway. Come inside. We don’t have to do anything for a while. The donuts are fresh from this morning and I have regular and decaf coffee if you want.”
Jeremy gestured towards the glass walled building that was the dealership’s main office. Melissa looked at the small edifice then back at the small man. “Why? Why are you being nice to me now?”
Jeremy’s smile was sincere and sorrowful. “Oh, I’m not being nice. I’m protecting a sale. Come on, let’s go inside. This brooding fog is only going to make this scene more dramatic and I think our collective memories of Winston meddling doesn’t need any more help in smothering us again.”
Melissa meant to say something sharp and cruel, but her stomach sounded off before her wit could collect itself. Silently she pursed her lips and stormed off to the dealership glass doors. Behind her, Jeremy smiled at Jeanette and gestured for the elder sister to follow the younger. Once the two were walking tandem, he pulled on his suit coat to straighten out the collected folds and walked behind them with strong and secure steps.
Melissa interrupted her second donut to state that now she had laid eyes on the chosen car, that she was happy with it and would be signing the last necessary papers. When Jeremy offered to allow her to take it for a test drive, Melissa quietly stated that she trusted Jeanette’s research and that any car that passed Jeanette’s examination was good enough for her. She was so focused on not dropping any sugar on herself, that she missed Jeanette’s brief glance of vulnerable pride. Jeremy for his part, said nothing but left to get the paperwork.
The final papers were brought to the snack table and the three of them concluded the purchase of the car with informal solemnity. Each time Melissa signed her full legal name, the same name that she used in casual conversation now, it filled her with a quiet joy to see it.
The joy gave her the distance to regard why Jeremy’s mere presence filled her with unease. There was something off about the man as far as she was concerned. But she did not see any signs of distress from Jeanette. If anything, it seemed to Melissa that Jeanette was actually flirting with Jeremy, if only on a superficially and socially amiable level.
It still bothered her.
She distracted herself from the present distress by focusing on another: Why was she raging so much, so suddenly, so furiously? Seemed like she started the day off on the wrong side of the world, if not just the bed. Everything was hitting her one last nerve and setting her off.
Jeremy’s only sin was just being Jeremy. That he understands Melissa’s position in the family only made her ire worse. Jeanette’s sin was that Jeanette does as Jeanette is, that is to say she is a concerned older sister who continues to use her resources to watch over Melissa. That Jeanette is accepting Melissa as an adult in her own right should be celebrated, protested.
And then there’s Melissa’s impatience with herself. After so many years of being treated like a child, should it be no surprise that she doesn’t know how to be an adult? But she’s trying, and trying to do the right thing for the right reasons, at that. So why should she be as cruel and demanding to herself as Aunt Helen has been? Why this sudden need for violence if not from her, then upon her?
If life is but a game then I wanna talk to the developer. Some of these game pieces don’t fit the board and the rules are bullshit, Melissa remarked in her thoughts, and in doing so, unlocked the full memory of the dream that had preceded the day.
She recognized that she had been using violence as a way to isolate and protect herself from anyone that appeared like they had become too close for comfort. That she had been using violence as a way to avoid admitting that she needed help with anything and to justify her actions regardless of their effect on herself or others.
But with that recognition she also remembered the game piece that had made it to the far side of the board in her dream and which judge had scored a point by doing so.
It would be so easy to say that she was under external influence again, that Aunt Helen’s diviner had found a new way to control her, but the same flash of memory had also laid bare that the judges could not control her and were limited in how they influenced her life. This violence, this hubris, was entirely of her own design and as such, there was no fault involved but hers.
“Melissa?” She blinked and looked at Jeremy who had just spoken her name in that too-high pitched voice of his. “You have Trauma Face again. Is there anything we can get for you?”
She looked at Jeanette whose facial expression was a flat as the table between them, which told Melissa that her sister was suddenly gravely worried.
“Eh? No more donuts, that’s for sure. Trauma face, is it? Hey, Jeremy, I might start crying, but you didn’t do anything, okay? I just… It’s just that… I’m going through a lot.” She lifted her coffee to her lips to keep from speaking too much.
“Melissa, it’s clear to me that you are a lot, and that’s okay. As long as you don’t start trying to crawl up the walls you can take all the time you need. I just had them painted and footprints will bleed through.”
Jeremy’s absurd reply did as it was intended. Melissa almost spit her coffee over the papers on the table as Jeanette stared at him with silent questioning.
Melissa’s laughter released the tears and tension she had been holding and she allowed herself to just be in the moment for the first time since waking up this morning. She accepted the tissues that Jeremy held out to her and enjoyed the sensations of being alive and awake.
“Melissa. We need to finish up. You’re gonna be late.” Jeanette’s quiet concern reminded Melissa of their mother’s gentle prodding when they were children. If Jeanette was following her example, then there would be one more quiet reminder before all hell breaking loose.
“Jeanette, you forgot something.”
“I’m working from home today. I still have another hour before I even have to log in! We did all that rushing for nothing and Jeremy could have stayed in bed another hour!”
The sight of Jeanette’s frustrated face prompted Melissa into another series of deep laughter. Jeremy, relieved to be in the presence of joy again, joined in the laughter with his own high-pitched chuckling. Jeanette only sighed and shook her head at them both.
“Yea, well laugh, because it’s going to take you an hour to get back the long way. You can’t cut through the neighborhoods that I did. Now, let’s go, you menace. I know your phone is shit so I printed out the route for you to get downtown. I assume you know how to get to your apartment building from there.”
Melissa nodded, full of glee that she managed to get one over on her sister.
“But wait, ladies! There’s still one more thing!”
The two sisters wailed at the sudden delay.
Jeremy reached into his suit and pulled a small weight from an interior pocket. As he held the weight with one hand, he straightened out the coat with the other, and to Melissa’s eyes, suddenly he wasn’t as uncomfortably lumpy as he was before.
“Ms. Melissa Arroyo, may I present to you the keys to your car.”
Jeremy held out a keychain in the shape of a long and faceted prism. The clear acrylic housing revealed a removable flash drive had been installed within it. Attached to the metal ring of the keychain were two electronic keys and one manual key.
“Once you take the keys, the car is truly yours, and I wish you many pleasant miles of commuting, vacationing, and traveling. Please don’t think you were a bother today. If anything, look at what happened this morning as one more step away from her and one more step towards yourself as you have always been.”
Melissa took the keys and started crying again. This time Jeanette did not attempt to hide her emotions from anyone and permitted her happiness and joy to be evident to all by joining her. Jeremy just sat back smugly and tugged on his suit.
Missed a chapter? Go to the A Deeply Planted Seed Masterpost or use the navigation links to read chapter by chapter.