Melissa knew that the shorter Rebecca’s answer, the more resolute Rebecca was about whatever she was answering. To throw a tantrum now in public would only entertain the card reader further, Melissa was sure.
“Hey. I need you to trust me for a bit.” Melissa did not realize she had turned away from Rebecca until she was spoken to. She turned her head slowly back to her friend. “Good. This is a very important anti-stress technique. I’m not saying it could also be an act of magic, but we magicians do all sorts of strange and arcane rituals. Now, are you ready?”
Confused, Melissa nodded and felt her wet face cool from the movement.
“Good.” Rebecca nodded as well but with more stability. “Now, when I gesture, I’m going to start counting to ten, and you’re going to take a big breath in while I’m counting. Okay? Ready?”
Melissa resettled herself to better face Rebecca and be prepared for what action would follow the breath.
“Right.” Rebecca held up her hands and started counting with her voice and her fingers. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Now hold your breath but not too tightly, you have to be ready for the next part.”
Melissa had followed Rebecca’s instructions and was holding in a slightly stuffed breath.
Rebecca smiled with a gentleness that comforted Melissa. “Now. Fart.”
Melissa coughed in surprise and then sneezed as her body expressed her confusion. “Wha–” Another sneeze. “What the fuck, Rebecca! Are you mocking me?”
Rebecca remained seated and only the bouncing of her shoulders revealed that she was chuckling as quietly as she could. She held up her hands in surrender and waited for Melissa’s awakened fury to subside.
“I told you it was strange. Didn’t expect that, did you? You were starting to lose yourself there and I’m not going to walk away from you like that. I did not lie, the ancient technique of Bypho was taught to me in a similar situation to much the same initial effect.”
Melissa, while still disappointed in being denied what she wanted, grudgingly admitted to herself that she was feeling better and that she felt more present on the patio than she did just a few moments before. “Bypho? Is that a magic word?”
Rebecca’s chuckling resumed without any attempt to hide her mirth. “Did I not just tell you that I wasn’t going to teach you magic? Besides, it’s not a word, it’s an acronym. B. I. F. O. Breathe in, fart out. Works really well at forcing my attention back into my body. And sometimes, depending on how spicy my diet had been, it works on clearing out whoever is in front of me giving me stress in the first place!”
Melissa recognized Rebecca’s use of distraction to help her from being tied up with worry, panic, and disappointment. She allowed herself to start laughing at the absurdity of the Bypho technique but was unable to prevent the release of mirth to segue into a release of sorrow.
She flailed her hands as she tried to wipe away the new rush of tears while hiding them from Rebecca. When the older woman pulled her into a comforting hug, Melissa was unable to hold back the sorrow any further and quietly yielded to the demanding emotion.
“You can’t go on like this, my dear.” Rebecca moved to shield Melissa’s face from public view and to whisper so only the tired woman could hear. “Even the most resilient beam has a breaking point, and the cracks are now visible. I don’t know why you are reluctant to go to a therapist, but please don’t let it be shame. When my life changed, I fell apart and therapy helped me understand why and how to put myself back together. It is a tool, just like tarot. But unlike tarot, I cannot help you seek it.”
Melissa did not speak for a few moments. She felt embarrassed that she was crying in public. Embarrassed that Rebecca was comforting her as if she was family. Ashamed that she could not be as open with her mother as she is with the card reader.
When she pushed herself away from Rebecca, she felt some tissues being shoved into her hands. She mumbled with tones of gratitude and wiped at her face, hands, and neck. When she looked up, she realized she had leaked body fluids on Rebecca’s sweater and scarf.
The card reader recognized the wide-eyed look on Melissa’s face and waved her concerns away. “You think you’re leaky? If you get at reading tarot for others, I’ll have you sit in as an observer at some public events. There’s a reason why everything I wear is machine washable and easily replaceable!”
“There was that one time I read at charity fundraiser for the study of bees and bee diseases. So, everything was bee themed. Which meant there was honey EVERYWHERE! Remember what I said about easily replaceable decks? Let me tell you, I had no idea that the honey could seep into the cards through the edges! Oh my god, I didn’t think I would ever stop smelling like honey. I was about to shave myself bald because the smell was in my hair and I all but boiled my head in vinegar to get the smell out and even then–”
Melissa had placed her hand on Rebecca’s shoulder to still the animate woman. “Enough. I’ve hung around you reading publicly enough that I can tell when you’re throwing words out for the sake of the sound of them. I appreciate what you’re doing, but enough.”
Rebecca smiled with a pained mix of care, worry, sorrow, and hope. “Okay. You’re back here with me now, so I’ll stop.” She removed her scarf and dabbed at the still wet spots with one of the few remaining tissues. The mirth melted from her face leaving her looking after her clothes with severity. “I’m serious, Melissa. Not just about not teaching you magic, but that you’re not anywhere prepared to deal with magic at all.”
She draped the mostly dry scarf around her shoulders in a way that hid the dampness. “I told you already, leave Helen’s pet to me. You focus on your recovery and advancement. Reconnect with your mother. Strengthen your bond with your sister. And take advantage of your medical benefits. You don’t have to tell everything about your life, you know. Boundaries are critical. But get the help that I can’t give.”
Melissa nodded. Suddenly chilled, she looked up and saw that the building’s shadow had been looming over them for a while. While it was still at least an hour before sunset, the weather had already begun proclaiming the coming night. She turned to the east and studied the sky for any hint of a swiftly rising moon.
“Hey.” Rebecca’s voice captured her attention once more. “There is something I want to teach you, but it is not magic. It’s something I was taught to keep me from spiraling into a panic attack like I’m watching you start to do. Do you want to hear it?”
Melissa tried to speak sarcastically but her voice cracked in fear as she spoke. “Does it involve another gross out?”
“Heh. That’s fair.” Rebecca’s voice held mirth that was not reflected in her face. “No. It’s worse than a gross out, it involves science.”
Melissa wrinkled her face. “If the choice is between panicking and sciencing, I’m not sure which to pick, but okay, if I can walk away having been taught something, then I guess I can count that as progress.”
Rebecca had Melissa face her squarely. “Without turning your head, close your eyes and point to where the sun is. Not the tarot card in your purse, but the angry day star.”
Melissa snorted at the sun’s epithet, closed her eyes, and sat in thought. In an act of faith, she raised her hand and pointed in the direction she felt was correct. She opened her eyes and turned to face her chosen direction. Though the office building was in the way, the reflection of the sun off adjacent buildings was enough to inform her that she had the right general direction after all.
“So, humans have a general sense of where the sun is if we hold still long enough to listen to our senses. It’s stronger during the day than at night, but even inside a building, we just know. You know the sun is going to out last you. It was here when you were born, and it will remain here long after you have passed on.”
Rebecca pointed to the sun behind Melissa. “The sun is there.”
She then pointed to Melissa. “You are here. Even if your mental state is frazzled and you’re having difficulty recognizing who or what you are, your body is still here, with you. Even if you are lost in the mall or just lost in your thoughts, you are here.”
She spread her hands in conclusion. “And here you are. Once you locate yourself in space, you can locate yourself in time. Here you are, right now, this spot, right here. And once you have that footing, that surety, then you can look around at what is also with you here and recognize more of where and when you are.”
Rebecca closed her eyes and nodded at her memories. “It’s a simple thing to say. There’s no magic in it at all. It’s just three simple phrases strung into an affirmation. The sun is there, and I am here, and here I am.” She opened her eyes and looked at Melissa. “Now you say it.”
Melissa suddenly felt very silly and childish, but she repeated the words as instructed. “The sun is there, and I am here, and here I am.” She held her breath for a moment and waited for something to happen. “Nothing happened.”
Rebecca’s mirth stung the younger woman. “Nothing is supposed to happen. That’s the point! You’re fixing yourself in space and in time. The sun is a marker of the hour, after all. Now, I want you to say it again, but before you do, feel for where the sun is. So, when you say ‘the sun is there’, put your attention is where ‘there’ is.”
“Okay…” Melissa felt even more silly and childish, but she closed her eyes and listened with her whole body for an indication of where the sun might be. After a moment, she had a general sense for where the sun was, to the point where she wondered of the spirit of the Sun card was standing behind her.
“Okay, I feel where the sun is, so… The sun is there.” She pointed behind her again. “And I am here.” She pointed first to herself but thought about the gesture and pointed to the ground under the bench.
“And here I am.” Now she raised her hand and pointed to herself. “Oh. That works. I feel really here for the first time since we sat out here. How?”
Rebecca shrugged. “It just does, and that’s enough for me. Now then, it won’t be long until sunset and we both have other mischief to be up to tomorrow. I hope I have been of help to you.”
Melissa stood up and stretched. She stopped trying to fight the yawn that came with it and indulged herself with the movement. “Ah, that feels better, too. And I know what that end sentence of yours means. You’re trying to shoo me away.”
Rebecca contracted a yawn of her own and made a shooing motion at Melissa while held captive to it. “Ah! No, I’m not trying to shoo you away, I am shooing you away!”
“Fine! I’m going!”
“Good! Get gone!”
The two women stared each other down for a few seconds before smiling and laughing at each other.
“Fuck, I’m a mess. I’m sorry, Rebecca.”
Rebecca didn’t answer with words but pulled Melissa into a tight hug that the younger woman did not react to at first but soon embraced with a clinging grip. Only then did Rebecca speak. “Yea, you are. But there’s a way out of this, too. It does not involve magic. Not yet. Get your footing before you try to climb, okay?”
Melissa kept her face turned away. “I won’t ask you again.”
Both women knew what was truly being said and both made the silent decision not to speak upon it. They cleaned up after themselves, said their farewells, and left the coffeehouse in different directions.
Melissa locked her apartment’s front door behind her and crudely dropped herself and her purse on the living room couch. While glad to have had the time for a conversation with Rebecca, she was upset that Rebecca obviously didn’t understand the pressing importance that Melissa be taught the skills needed to properly counter her aunt’s hired mercenary of a magician.
Rebecca had said to leave dealing with him in her hands. Was the card reader really doing anything if Melissa was being tormented by nightmares every night? She opened eyes she did not remember closing as she realized that even after all that had happened, she still did not know his name!
Names are important, as she had learned the hard way. And among magicians and occultists, names were weaknesses according to all the internet posts she had read. The more she thought on what Aunt Helen’s magician’s name could be, the more she realized she had never heard Rebecca mention him by any name or epithet, only by generic labels and positioning in relation to her aunt.
Could Rebecca be hiding him, protecting him? Melissa laughed to consider it. No, more like protecting Melissa from herself. Some of the internet posts implied that once she had his name, if she failed to banish him, she would wind up summoning him and installing him deeper into her psyche instead.
Her stomach grumbled a complaint about the scarceness of the day’s meals and her bladder impressed upon her an obligation she could no longer ignore. After taking care of the latter she went to the kitchen to find something to take care of the former. Along the way, she passed the empty red vase that the diner staff gave her.
The flowers that were initially with the vase had been removed from their stems and were now being pressed in layers of paper towels under the weight of books that had been gifted to her by distant cousins at the direction of Aunt Helen. She had kept the books out of spite. As she placed them on the flowers, she took a new look at the different titles. She conceded that the works regarding money management may now be of use.
As she pulled something from the freezer and placed it in the microwave, her attention did not stray far from the vase. The rattling hum from the appliance reminded her of the subtle rattling that was part of the diner’s ambiance. She and Jeannie had been back to the diner twice more. Each time, the staff greeted them as long-lost cousins, with joy and happiness.
But as Melissa sat down with a dinner that was now too hot to eat up right away, there was no gaiety to the memory. While the words spoken to Jeannie about initially going to the restaurant came out of Melissa’s mouth, the idea was originally spoken by the apparition of a small girl child holding a ginormous teddy bear that only Melissa could see.
After the shock of Melissa’s mother returning from what might as well have been the grave or beyond had settled, Melissa found herself less able to bear the presence of the embodiment of the Death tarot card. She remembered dreaming about the spirit in the setting of tea parties, but even the memory of those dreams has been smothered by the regular, smothering, and deepening nightmares.
The reflection stalled her for enough time for her dinner to be cool enough to eat while still hot enough to enjoy. Well, for as best as one could enjoy a microwaved burger, anyway. She distracted herself from thinking about the vase by thinking about how disappointed Jeannie was when her sister examined her grocery choices.
Melissa had explained that ordering cheap food was the best way to stretch the money Jeannie had given her. Just because she could afford better brands and better quality wasn’t an excuse to increase her spending to match. Not when at the time, no one was sure if she was going to make it through to the end of the week, much less have her entire life rewritten.
Jeannie had accepted that line of reasoning, the first time. The second grocery run earned her a threat of having a nutritionist come to critique Melissa’s choices and help her make better food choice decisions with her now much increased budget.
Though no balanced or well-decorated plate would ever be as filling or as soul-mending as the burger and plate of fries she and her sister had shared at the diner that day.
As the memory of that day at the diner slipped back into the forefront of her thoughts, she attempted to avoid the uncomfortable sensations they rose by focusing on something even more uncomfortable.
She went to the dining table where her tarot decks were stacked against the wall and picked up the Acacia Tarot. Pulling out the Sun card from the thin ordered deck, she thought of Rebecca’s anti-panic attack, totally not magic phrase. Rebecca had her focusing on the location of the physical sun. Melissa wondered if the phrase would work on a mystical one.
Standing beside the table, she held the card out at arm’s length, facing her. “The Sun is there and I am here and here I am!”
Her voice echoed slightly in the room, but she remained the only person in the space. No warmth poured from her chest. No preternatural light brightened the space around her. She remained standing in the same position as she started, holding a decorated card out at arm’s length while her body was deciding if to laugh or cry.
Remembering Rebecca’s questioning of her interactions with the spirits of the tarot cards, Melissa placed the Sun card on the table and soon had placed the Star and Death cards from the same deck beside it. “Sun, if you have any favor towards me, please shine your revealing light upon me. Star, help me not to sink into despair, but to have understanding to guide me through this night. D–”
Her voice cracked and she found herself unable to speak any further. She looked away and coughed to clear her throat. The action left her mouth dry so she turned back to reach for the glass of water beside her half-finished burger.
A small girl in a striped gown was sitting in a chair that wasn’t there when Melissa had turned away. She clung to a teddy bear so large that it dwarfed her even as she squeezed it to her tightly. She was frowning in a way that was very adult and this bothered Melissa more than the empty eye sockets that somehow were focused squarely on her.
“Hi.” She coughed again. “Gimme a bit.” Melissa took up the glass and drank half of it before she felt forced to breathe. “Ah, that’s better. Hello.”
“No.” The girl’s voice carried the implication of a foot stomp as if the girl’s feet were able to reach the floor.
“No? Not you, too. Rebecca already broke my heart today. What about no?”
“No, I’m not talking to you!” The girl child squeezed her teddy bear even more.
Melissa tried to laugh. She could only make a noise that some might interpret as a pained sigh, instead. “And why aren’t you talking to me?”
“Because you haven’t eaten your dinner and now it’s cold!”
Melissa looked at the plate between them. “Well, it wasn’t a good burger anyway, so…”
The girl loosened her grip on the teddy bear so she could dramatically regrip it again. “Then throw it away and get something better to eat! You’re not a shadow that only needs light to be. I’m not talking to you until you eat dinner, and it has to be a real dinner!”
Melissa winced at the mention of shadow and light. “Okay. Sheesh. You don’t have to be mean about it.” When the girl child remained in silence, Melissa got up to throw away the unfinished burger. “It won’t be a lot though. I don’t have the appetite for much tonight.”
Melissa’s new dinner was eaten with silence as a companion. The apparition remained seated and watched Melissa in the unnerving way that children do when seated in silence. Unprompted, Melissa cleaned up after herself once she had eaten enough for the night. After drying and putting the dishes away, she sat back at the table in front of the tarot cards and beside the chair that didn’t exist.
The girl child pouted and for a moment Melissa forgot this was the apparition of a spirit of death. “Not really. But at least you had something to eat.”
Melissa did not reply.
The two sat in mutual silence that held witness to the chilling of the apartment in the late autumn night. No one spoke until Melissa started to shiver.
“You should turn the heat up. Or put on a sweater.” The girl child’s face held the same mix of care, worry, sorrow, and hope as Rebecca displayed earlier in the day. To see the concern written so clearly on the apparition’s face nearly pulled Melissa’s tears to the surface.
“I will. In a bit. I need the cold to remind me that I’m not dreaming.” A shiver shimmied her. “I’m never cold in the dreams. Or the nightmares.”
“Okay. What did you want to talk about?” The girl child held the teddy bear to her face and hid behind it.
Melissa thought that was a good question. Just why did she summon the spirit after over a week of intentionally avoiding her? What was it that Rebecca reminded her of that she didn’t want to admit to anyone else, much less herself?
“Are you happy that your mommy is back?” The child’s voice sounded happy enough for the two of them. The question was enough to remind Melissa why she had been avoiding the spirit.
“Yes.” Melissa looked at the girl who quickly held the teddy bear in front of her again. “I’m happy my mommy is back.” She looked up at the ceiling to allow gravity to pull her tears out of her eyes at last. “I only wish my daddy would come back, too!”
She lowered her face and turned to face the apparition. “You can embody other people’s memories! That’s what you said you could do! That’s what you’re doing right now! You could make Daddy appear like he never… like…” Her voice broke apart into deep sobs that took root deep in her chest and would not be moved until their fruiting was done.
“I want to help you, Melissa…” The girl child’s voice was very quiet and very aged.
“THEN GIVE ME BACK MY DADDY!”
The girl child hid behind the teddy bear. “… That would not help you and would only hurt you more. Remember what you said when you understood what I am? That sometimes the way a person needs to be helped is not the way they want to be helped.”
Melissa wrapped her arms around herself and tried to turn away from the spirit. She held her breath to keep from crying more but doing so also kept the words she wanted to scream inside her as well. After a few moments of captive sobs wracking her from within, she finally nodded in acknowledgement of her words.
“If I embodied his memory, you would know the moment that his appearance touched your eyes that it wasn’t him in front of you, and the pain that would come from that will cut you deeper than any cure can reach. I don’t want to hurt you, Melissa. But I can’t fix what’s hurting you.”
Melissa rocked and held herself even tighter as she tried to ignore her understanding of the apparition’s words. She knew better than to argue back. Each point she wanted to throw away wrapped around her heart. She wanted to jump up and scream that it wasn’t fair, and while it was certainly not fair in the least, she could not get around that the matter was how the matter is.
The flow of her tears slimmed to a sporadic weeping as the memory of her father’s funeral returned to her. She had been seated next to her sister, who was seated next to Aunt Helen, who whispered coldly to the girls not to cry or to make a scene because no one wants to be reminded how ratty they were and it’s not like crying would do anything useful because if crying could raise the dead, then the graveyards would be empty.
“I know.” Her whisper was thinner than the apparition’s appearance. In the quiet, Rebecca’s words at the coffeehouse patio returned to her. “It’s not like there’s a magic word that will make this all better.”
“Did I tell you that I asked Rebecca to teach me magic?” Melissa forced herself to sound chipper even as sorrow cracked the edges of her words. “Of course, she said no. And she said much the same as you, that I was hurting in a way that she couldn’t fix. That magic couldn’t fix.”
She glanced at the apparition but couldn’t bear the look on the girl child’s face. A face that young in appearance shouldn’t bear a look that weathered and worn.
“She said I should… well… she said some things that were very hard to hear, and now that I’m sitting here and talking to what still might be a figment of my imagination, is probably accurate as hell, but it still hurts to hear it.”
She forced herself to look at the girl child. “She’s right. I need help. Did you know that Aunt Helen said the same thing after Dad died? And that she got me to someone that said they would help? And that the only reason I survived that is because I learned really quick to shut the hell up and keep my wounds covered?”
“I don’t know who I can trust after that. Aunt Helen has so many ears… Hey… What’s your name? I mean, I know you’re a spirit of the Death card, and that you can look like anyone who’s… passed… but, like… you’re still your own person in a way and… like… What’s your name?”
The spirit held her teddy bear tightly and pouted as if she was holding back tears of her own. “I don’t have one. And you’re dodging something.”
Melissa wiped her face with her hands. She expected the apparition to be gone when she uncovered them. The spirit remained in the chair that wasn’t there. “No, I’m not. I’m avoiding something, there’s a difference.”
The girl child laughed with an adult’s indulgence. “And what’s the difference?”
Melissa looked at the spirit’s empty eye sockets without fear. “The difference is I know what needs to be done and I’m trying to do everything else possible to avoid facing it even if it means turning away from my goals. Did I tell you why I asked Rebecca to teach me magic? It’s because Aunt Helen’s pet bastard is still in my dreams trying to fuck my head up. How am I supposed to go to therapy when it’s possible to break someone’s head by sending bad dreams? Could you imagine me talking about that? I barely avoided being thrown away the first time.”
The spirit hid behind the teddy bear again. “Are you sure that it’s him?”
“YES! WHO THE FUCK ELSE COULD IT BE!” Melissa recognized the girl child’s body posture and regretted raising her voice. “I mean, who else could be in my head all the damn time like that?” Melissa watched for the spirit to show her face again.
“I’m sorry, uh… you know, this would be an easier conversation for me if you had a name I could call you by.”
The spirit tilted her face a little from behind the bear. “I told you, I don’t have a name. You name things, and I am not a thing. But if you want call me by a name, you can do that! Try not to use a name that already carries a lot of things. I’m not important enough to have an important name.”
“Not important? You’re DEATH! That’s important, you know. Can’t live without you.”
The two sat in silence as Melissa reviewed how her life came to be that she would be sitting having a conversation with Death. She remembered the moment when the current of her life changed and was inspired.
“Could Tarot, Capital T, help me?”
The spirit hid her face behind the teddy bear again. “Help you with what?”
Melissa reached for the bear but just before her hand touched the apparition, she felt a cold wave on her hands so intense that it felt like burning and she snatched her hand back. “Shit, forgot about that. No touching. Uh, help with everything!”
The spirit’s response was immediate. “No.”
“NOT YOU TOO!”
The spirit peeked from the other side of the bear. “Well, it would help if you knew what you were asking for. So, what are you asking for?”
Melissa took a breath to argue and found herself without words or ideas. As she let the breath out slowly, she looked at the three tarot cards still sitting on the table: The Sun, The Star, and Death.
“Hope. No, not hope. Understanding. You already know what I was hoping for, and yea, you’re right, that would have broken me deeper than anything Aunt Helen ever did. I have my life back and I don’t know how to live it. I don’t know how to be an adult, and all this magic and tarot business isn’t helping. I need to understand what it is I need to do to not just keep living, but to live well, and to be able to do what that needed thing is. That’s what I’m asking for.”
The girl child smiled and for the first time all day, Melissa felt warm. “Then you’re asking the wrong person. I’m Death, remember?”
Melissa’s warmth blazed into fury. Before she could stammer out a rebuttal, the girl child pointed to the middle card. “You want to talk to the Star. Because you’re in the middle of a very dark night and while the Sun can help you stay warm it’s not going to be able to reveal anything new. But you know what can guide you through the night? The Star.”
“There are many stars in the sky, Melissa, and not all of them will guide you to what you are looking for. Test what comes, learn from what works and from what doesn’t work, and walk your way through a step at a time.”
Before Melissa could put together enough thoughts to reason why she shouldn’t take strange advice from spectral children, the girl child reached over the table and tipped the Death card so that it fell face down before the other two.
Melissa’s eyes suddenly hurt and she covered her face with her hands. When the pain stopped, she uncovered them and found herself seated alone in her apartment with no extra chairs beside her. On the table were her tarot decks. Three cards from the Acacia Tarot had been pulled from the deck. Two cards, the Sun and the Star were propped up against the wall. A third card was face down beside them.
Melissa started to reach for the third card to verify that it was the Death card, the apartment’s central heating activated and a gust of warm air blew down over the table. The two standing cards were thrown to the table to join the prone card.
Melissa wrinkled her face at the timing of the gust. She wasn’t sure how long she had been seated at the table and not sure if she had been awake the entire time. It was possible that a previous gust had tipped the third card over and she never noticed while in the depths of her sorrow.
Vision or not, she agreed with the conclusion. It was time to find a Star to lead her out of this night.
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