Melissa sat precariously on a plastic chair sized for bodies far smaller than hers and her back filed a constant complaint about the stresses annoying her. But when one is invited to a child’s tea party, one takes the pain so the child can take the joy. Across from the fruit themed plastic tablecloth, a strange amorphous shadow was constantly pouring itself over a similar child-sized chair. The shadow moved indistinctly, and Melissa pretended to pour from a bowl-sized plastic tea kettle.
To her right, a small girl sat neatly in her chair. She clapped happily to see Melissa interacting with the shadow and her joy eased Melissa’s pain. To Melissa’s left, a teddy bear almost as large as Melissa herself was propped carefully in the remaining chair. It did not move as Melissa then offered pretend tea to the giggling girl.
The shadow across from the table released a blob into the space over the table. Melissa watched the blob be drawn back into the shadow that released it. The girl tapped Melissa on the arm. “He wants to know why you are still afraid. There are many people who want to help you stop being afraid and he is worried about you.”
Melissa looked sadly at the girl. She then looked up at the shadow and her sorrow deepened. “Tell him that I’m afraid because there is so much I don’t know and what I do know is terrifying. The people who want to help me don’t know all that is happening to me right now, and none of them will believe all that has happened already. I don’t want to get hurt by asking for help because no one will believe what I need help about.”
The girl held the empty tea kettle over Melissa’s empty teacup and asked her with a very serious face if she would like some tea. Melissa responded with an equally severe voice that yes, she would like some tea, thank you very much. The girl tipped the empty tea kettle and filled her and Melissa’s teacups with hot amber-hued tea.
Melissa nodded her thanks and lifted the cup. As she sipped the neutral flavored tea, the girl spoke to Melissa again. “Sometimes you have to get past the fear of being hurt to prevent hurt from happening. And if you don’t work to get past the fear, then you will be hurt and you won’t have any choice in how you’re hurt.”
The tea soured in Melissa’s mouth as the truth in the girl’s words stung her pride. After she swallowed both the tea and her pride, she realized what emotion had been burnt. Why should her pride be involved in being afraid to be hurt? She looked across the table to the shadow and realized that she was not afraid of the shadow.
“Excuse me. Do I know you?” The shadow pulled itself into a smaller form after Melissa addressed it. Melissa looked to the girl with a questioning look on her face.
“Do I know him? He doesn’t scare me. I’m more comfortable having tea with him than I am at the idea of asking for help. Can he help me?”
The girl looked at the shadow and held still as if listening to something that Melissa couldn’t hear. She then turned back to Melissa and answered. “He can’t. Not yet. But he wants you to know that he thinks you’re able to ask for help. And he wants you to know that you’re more grown up than you think or what other people think. You just have to push yourself to act as grown up as you are and now how people expect you to act. He’s very proud of you pushing yourself this far and he wants you to know that while you should push yourself a little more, that it is possible to push yourself too far.”
Melissa felt very warm and happy to hear the message relayed by the girl. She absentmindedly took another sip of tea and this new sip was sweet and warm and filled her with comfort. She suddenly felt very sleepy.
“Speaking of, Melissa, you’re pushing yourself too far right now. You should go all the way to sleep.” The girl took all the teacups and turned them upside down. Melissa’s cup, which still had tea in it when she set it down, was suddenly empty when the girl picked it up.
“Um, can’t I stay here? It’s comfortable here. I’m not afraid of anything, not even of him and I don’t even know who or what he is. This is a nice place.” Melissa’s voice was whiny and tired. She wrapped her arms around herself as the area started to chill.
“It’s comfortable because it needed to be so he could be here. But he can’t stay here and neither can you. So say goodbye to him for now because he is going to go back to his place soon.”
The girl turned to the shadow and waved. Melissa lifted a hand with renewed sorrow and waved at the shadow. The shadow shimmied and shivered for a moment before dissolving into the indistinct background around them. Melissa felt like crying but she didn’t understand why.
“And now it’s your turn to go, Melissa. You need to get some deep sleep. Staying here doesn’t give you as much rest as you need.”
“But why…” Melissa realized she didn’t know the girl’s name. “Um, excuse me, but what is your name? I need to be polite at a tea party, after all.”
The girl laughed and Melissa felt a little better. “I don’t have a name. You haven’t found a name you’re comfortable calling me yet. Maybe you should sleep on it.”
“But it’s safe here. He can’t reach me here.”
The girl looked at Melissa without comment. Melissa looked back at the girl with fear and deeper sorrow. “Melissa… Go to sleep.” The girl took the empty tea kettle, lifted the lid, and placed the kettle on the table upside down. As it descended onto the table, the chair dissolved under Melissa and she fell away from the scene and into a deeper sleep.
Melissa woke up gently in her bed. She stared at the bright glow sneaking through the window curtains with silent gratitude. That bastard diviner didn’t sneak into her dreams again, of that she was sure. But all she could remember of her dreams was another tea party with a strange girl, a ginormous teddy bear, and a shapeless shadow that should have been the seed of a terrifying nightmare but instead gave her such a comforting feeling that she was more sorrowful that she couldn’t have more time with it.
Her bladder received the memo that it was now daytime and pressed upon Melissa about the need to fulfill morning obligations. After she begrudgingly completed those obligations, she thought about going back to bed, but the thought of having a nightmare after all diverted her attention to making breakfast and coffee instead.
As the scent of brewing coffee continued to pull her awareness fully into the waking world, she remembered that the girl in the tea party dream was the apparition of Death. Rather than be concerned about this, Melissa was more annoyed that the apparition did not have a more familiar name for her to use.
Thinking on what kind of name would suit the spirit reminded her that she also did not have the name of Aunt Helen’s diviner who was still dogging her dreams. She wanted to continue to keep faith in Rebecca and whatever her friend was doing to limit the effect of his magic spells or workings or whatever they’re called, but the constant fear of him reasserting some control over her life was exhausting.
She also wanted this obsession to stop. Which obsession? His obsession with regaining control in her life, of course. Why would she obsess over him? She wants nothing to do with the bastard other than the opportunity to shank him with a rusted chef’s knife. Is that so much to ask?
Realizing that her thoughts had refocused on the intruder angered Melissa. She had already tried digging through the social media accounts that were dedicated to detailing the Winston family excesses, real or imagined, with hopes of finding the diviner’s name or at the very least a picture of him. Instead she found confirmations that Aunt Helen had a magician on retainer, but no two blogs had the same name for him, and chances are, what names were leaked to the public were stage names at that.
She turned her attention back to the idea of giving the spirit of Death a more familiar name to use. The girl child had already rejected the name “Jesus” to use, even thought Melissa never had any intention of using it. With that line of thought, she then reasoned that the use of any name of a god or goddess would not be accepted by the girl child either.
Coffee came to the cup, but breakfast never came into being as Melissa sat down on the couch with her tablet and the hot mug. Forgetting just how hot the coffee could be, she singed her tongue as she first looked up baby names for girls. Looking up names she was used to hearing in the general public, she was surprised how many popular names were originally epithets or alternative names for deities.
Halfway though the now satisfactorily warm mug of coffee, Melissa changed her search terms for how to use magic or divination to determine the name of a spirit. Instead of unending lists of names and meanings, she found unending lists of correspondences and rituals. Most of those rituals that did not require any new to her to be bought relied on dream interpretation to give the shape or the meaning of the desired spirit’s name.
Melissa wasn’t too eager to use ritual dreaming for anything and dropped the tablet onto the couch as she finished off the cooled mug of coffee. “How do I name something that doesn’t exist? How do I give shape to the formless?”
Sundays meant no available intern shifts at Leifert Enterprises and no evening shifts at the call center. The kiosk job was still “under investigation” for whatever that means to lawyers in suits, but what it meant for Melissa was a little extra money to stay home and do whatever.
She stretched out on the couch and attempted to relax and be lazy and allow whatever rose in her thoughts to pass as quickly as it appeared. Instead, she kept tensing up and worried about not being productive at anything and kept trying to avoid the fact that she was still not able to protect herself from The Diviner.
That’s what she called him in her thoughts: “The Diviner”. Sometimes it would be “That Fucking Asshole Bitchy Bastard Diviner”, but once she had exhausted venting her hatred of him, it was just “The Diviner”.
The few nights she slept without a nightmare featuring him was either the nights she dreamt of a never-fully-remembered tea party or the new series of the judges, the tarot spheres, and the expanse of black sand under a starry sky.
She didn’t understand how he kept intruding into her thoughts. He was persistently present there just like the constant reminder of her failures as a young adult. But where she was making progress in dealing with those failures and moving past them, he just entrenched himself deeper into her mind. Such that on a blissfully comfortably lazy day such as today, she felt compelled to do something, anything, to occupy her mind to the point where he could not find a single stray point of entry to insert himself at all.
She looked around the room and saw the stack of books pressing the flowers that she saved from the diner. All these thoughts of coins and wealth in the past several days have reminded Melissa that she really didn’t know the first thing about maintaining wealth, much less increasing it.
As she went to the stack and crouched down to reexamine the book titles, she admitted to herself that she was jealous of Jeannie’s detailing of how her older sister had managed to not only keep the main portion of their parents’ trust out of Aunt Helen’s hands, but had increased the net worth of the investments. Melissa was comfortable with the idea of Jeannie continuing to advise their mother about the more fluid accounts, but she was no longer comfortable being ignorant of how to take care of her own.
She took the topmost book off the stack. The title read to her as a random collection of buzzword bingo that many self-help books use to distinguish themselves from all the other buzzword-titled books. She looked at the author and recognized the writer of the book as one of her distant cousins. Not close enough to be considered part of the Winston clan, but close enough that a Winston would buy a few dozen, if not hundred, of copies to boost the sales rankings of their favorite cousin and then turn around and donate them to a library network for the tax write-off.
Well, Melissa reasoned, any advice has to be better than her current savings plan of saving a roll of twenties in the toe of her least-favorite boot.
Three chapters into a twenty-chapter book, Melissa discovered that yes, there is advice that is worse than her current savings plan. Either the author of the book had never had to work a day in their life or they were using the book as part of a multi-level marketing program, but either way, the advice could be summarized as giving up all control and access to your funds to an account manager affiliated with a certain well-advertised lifestyle, and let them take care of you.
She closed the book and looked at the back cover again. This time, she took care to read the endorsements. She was initially surprised to see the same financial guru that her coworker at the call center had begun to follow religiously. When she remembered that book coaching, publishing, and sales were part of that same multi-level marketing program, her surprised mellowed into resigned acceptance.
She put that book to the side and picked up the next one. Another title strung from financial buzzwords. Another endorsement from and for the same program. As was the third book. As was the fourth book.
Thumbing through all of the books gifted to her by her cousins, Melissa realized that the interior of the books was all laid out the same. They all started with the idea that financial management was an unreasonable skill for the common person, continued with a collection of wild and inaccurate statements about the stock market, and concluded with an exhortation that only someone with certain financial training had the wherewithal to learn and assist with investing one’s wealth.
Of course, the author of each book claimed to be the best at doing exactly that. Melissa silently mocked each cousin contributing to the pile of nonsense and declared them all to be the best at being suckered.
She stacked the books back over the packets holding the pressed flowers. It was good to know that the books weren’t worth her time, but now she was back to the beginning of her train of thought. She considered calling Jean for advice on how to learn about money management but thought twice about calling her so soon after making an ass of herself at their mother’s apartment.
She went back to the couch and sat down as her tablet chirped about a new notification. Apparently, some strange flu-like disease was laying waste in China and some talking heads were concerned. She dismissed the notification and looked through her social media feeds for entertainment and further distraction.
Vapid gossip blogs were no longer entertaining, so she switched to searching video sites for lectures aimed at money management beginners. Melissa found one that looked good in the thumbnail and had a reasonable summary, so she selected the video and began to play it.
By the narrator’s fifth monotonous sentence, she was fast asleep on the couch.
Melissa wandered around barefoot on the soft and warm black sand. She looked up with wonder and awe at the continuously shifting starry sky. This was a comfortable place, and she was glad she had found it.
After walking around aimlessly for a while, she stopped and started to dig. Melissa had no reason to do so. It just felt like the right thing to do at this right time. The black sand slipped around and through her fingers and soon she was seated on the sand with her legs sticking out. A small hole had been excavated in front of her and she played happily with the edges of it.
When she realized what she was doing, she filled the hole and smoothed it out so that if anyone had come across her, they would never have known that she had played here. She stood up and unnecessarily dusted herself off. Understanding where she was again, Melissa turned around slowly expecting one of the tarot judges to come into view.
Black sand extended in all directions to meet the infinite expanse of stars at the far horizon. No judges appeared to make their acquaintance. Melissa felt sad about being in a moment of peace and quiet and wished she could encapsulate that sadness into something she could remove from her for a while.
A sudden weight on her chest made her lean forward. She reached up to catch the weight and caught a small sphere of something like black glass. She held the sphere up to better examine it in the sparkling starlight. Though her hand stopped once the sphere was at eyelevel, the sphere kept going.
It rose over her head and would have settled behind her except Melissa had quickly turned around to follow its descent. As it settled just out of arms reach, its direction changed so that it was orbiting Melissa.
She thought of her unspoken desire just before the sphere appeared. As the sphere moved in front of her, she reached out to it. The sense of sadness, which she had already forgotten about, started to return to her and she pulled her hand back.
This annoyed Melissa. When she recognized that she was annoyed, she thought of encapsulating that feeling of being annoyed into a new sphere. She reached to her chest and pulled a second sphere from her chest. As this sphere slipped out of her hands to join the first in moving around her, she realized that she was still annoyed. But she wasn’t as overwhelmingly annoyed as she was before.
After some thought, she also realized that she was still sad, but not as overwhelmingly sad as she was before. It was as if these two emotions had been poured into the spheres now orbiting around her. Coming to these realizations made her happy almost to the point of giddiness.
So much so, that she through caution to the wind and a third sphere to join the first two. Encapsulating her happiness in this way gave her literal distance to the emotion and allowed her to examine this new scene she was engaging in under the starry sky.
Her happiness now removed from her; she became afraid. And after becoming afraid, she dealt with that fear by adding a fourth sphere to those already orbiting her. While the sight and sensations of the four spheres moving in silent procession around her was comforting, it was also enraging. She funneled that rage into a fifth sphere.
These were base emotions, Melissa thought. Could she do the same with more abstract concepts that also threatened to overwhelm her when she experienced them?
Wonder filled a sixth sphere. Joy filled a seventh. Comfort filled an eighth. And as eight spheres as dark as obsidian floated around her in perfect precision, Melissa felt a sense of accomplishment and closure.
Here, between the black sand that inhaled light and the starry sky that exhaled it, Melissa felt surrounded by those emotions she felt most often, and she was at peace by it. At any time, she could reach out to a sphere and take it, and by doing so, take back the emotions it carried. But because she didn’t need to, she was content to allow the emotions to circle her.
“And how does that make you feel? To be surrounded by your emotions but to still be at peace with them?”
Melissa looked up and saw the judge wearing Rebecca’s face. Melissa was glad to see this judge even though she knew that a challenge was now imminent.
“I feel… okay. It’s been a while, but I feel okay. I don’t understand why or how, but I’ll take this peace while I can.”
The judge moved forward to stand just beyond the orbit of the spheres. “You recognize that your current state is temporary. Good. Take advantage of the distancing that creating these spheres has made available to you.”
Melissa stood in thought for a moment. The spheres moved further away from her and those feelings that usually got in the way of her thoughts felt just as distant. She felt wary but not to the point of paranoia. She felt calm, but not to the point of negligence. She understood that she was looking at something very important, but she did not recognize what that something was.
She was looking at the judge without really seeing them. She watched one sphere wander past nearly brushing against their robes. Right behind it was another sphere that wandered past but at a further distance to the judge and a closer distance to Melissa. This difference in paths captured Melissa’s attention.
She watched at the next sphere just barely missed touching the judge’s robes, followed by a sphere that gave the judge a sphere’s width of space. As the spheres continued to follow this pattern, she began to map out their paths and the shape they made in relation to each other in her mind.
“It’s a square! The spheres aren’t moving in a circle around me. They’re moving in a square! And there’s eight of them! This is the Eight of Spheres! And the judge with the blank face said that tarot couldn’t help me!”
The judge wearing Rebecca’s face was suddenly not in front of Melissa. As their voice, identical to Rebecca’s, came from behind Melissa, she turned to keep the judge in view.
“We can’t, Melissa. We can be a lens with which to view yourself. We can be a recorder of the merits of a decision. We can be a source of entertainment. But we do not do the work required for you to be helped. You still have to help yourself, even if that means accepting the help of others more knowledgeable than you. But that is not what I am here for at this time and at this place.”
Melissa felt her annoyance rising again. Rather than give in to it, she reached out to the spheres as they passed in front of her. Once the sphere that held her annoyance was in sight, she seized it and pulled it close to her. As she did so, her annoyance rose to the point where she felt that she would erupt into rage at a moment’s notice.
“This isn’t supposed to be how this works, right? I thought if I held the sphere that it would take the emotion it’s already filled with and attuned to, right?”
The judge turned their head as if to examine Melissa’s gripped sphere. “You are the one holding on to the idea of being deeply annoyed. If you do not want to be, perhaps you should let it go.”
Melissa looked at the judge then looked at the sphere. She released her hold on the obsidian and it floated back to its position in the now stilled procession. Once it had settled into place, all eight spheres resumed their slow orbit around Melissa.
Melissa’s extra annoyance was gone, but now she was filled with confusion and doubt. With no spheres left to fill with those two emotions, she felt overwhelmed by them and unable to interact further with the tarot judge.
“Here is a question, Melissa. It is not one to be answered here and it is not one that I require the answer to: What are you surrounding yourself with such that when it is imbalanced, it leaves you at a terrible disadvantage with others and yourself?”
“Look at what you have distanced away from you and what you are still holding tight within you. Are you able to move them? Are you able to rebalance them?”
Melissa noticed that the judge had a veil of light on their head and that the veil streamed like starlight from one particular star high above their head. She was so intent on observing the stream, that she didn’t notice the hole she had previously dug had reopened again at her feet until she and the eight spheres orbiting her had fallen in.
As the black sand swallowed her up, she descended into a deeper sleep.
The nearly thirty-minute video was now showing the ending credits as an early 80’s electronica tune loudly shouted from the speakers. The precise chords punched at Melissa’s last nerve and she quickly stopped the video. She rested in the bliss of silence and reflected on the dream she just woke from.
Her first thought was to stop calling them dreams, because what dream is so consistent between episodes. Visions, Melissa reluctantly accepted the name. She is having visions of tarot cards and the spirits that embody them. Instead of being afraid for her mental state, Melissa just shrugged and left the couch to get her notebook.
She wrote the vision dutifully and without getting fountain pen ink anywhere else except the paper that was meant to receive it. As she wrote the judge’s closing question, she found herself unable to write the final question mark. The judge’s question required an answer to close the record of the vision, but she had no answer in mind. Yet.
Melissa did not think she would be spending her free day having to decide between contemplating the nature of her mind or the nature of being a banker, but she had to admit to herself that compared to other thoughts she has had to wrestle with lately, these were the easy conundrums to be puzzled by.
“Fuck it. Lemme text Jeannie. Besides, it will make her feel better that I’m asking her for advice.” She reached for her cell phone and saw a notification from her service provider. Her cell phone bill would be due in three days. Would she like to make a payment now to prevent any complications later?
Melissa stared at the notice with a flash of panic. The panic melted into hot embarrassment as she had to remind herself that she wasn’t trying to make twenty dollars function as if it had the purchasing power of a hundred dollars anymore. Two months ago, she would have been plotting which of her partying friends would she have the most luck getting some money from, or better yet, guilting them into paying her phone bill for her.
But now that her mother had returned and had restored Melissa’s income from the trust, she was set to receive more money than she could comprehend each month. Jeannie told her to spend only as much as necessary this month because the older sister was going to help Melissa pay off her debts, recorded and otherwise. This still left Melissa with more money sitting in her checking account than she ever had pass through it coming and going in the entire year prior.
Melissa thought about sending a text, but texts usually mean something is happening right now and an immediate response is needed. So, she switched to email and sent a short message. “I’m not strung out, kidnapped, in love, in a cult, or anything like that. But do you have any pointers for me to start learning money management? I’m bored and our cousins’ books are full of stupid.”
Melissa put the phone down and started to go to the kitchen with the intention of having something decadent for lunch like a double-decker roast beef and bacon sandwich when the email notification sounded pulling her back to the chair.
“I was worried about you until your last sentence. Our cousins’ books are full of fraud and if they’re still piled on the flowers, then being dead weight is the best use for them. Unless you intend to go into managing your investments, the best thing to remember is to spend less money than you have and go into debt only when you need to. Until all your debts are paid off, I wouldn’t worry about anything else. Oh. And Melissa, I love you dearly, my sister, but you are not capable of investment management anytime soon, even if you did read our cousins’ books after all. Will catch up with you later. Jean”
Melissa laughed at Jeannie’s observation and agreed that she didn’t have the head for any number larger than ten at the moment. She saved what passed for a short email from Jean and got up to make that lunch she had promised herself.
Melissa didn’t understand why she had a problem understanding money when she grew up with it as a child. It was only after she graduated high school that there were suddenly money problems as Aunt Helen had taken control of her income at that point. Four years shouldn’t have been enough time to change her outlook, right?
As she caught herself weighing whether or not to use all three slices of bacon because what if she won’t be able to get more bacon later, she understood when the damage had been done. Growing up with money wasn’t the same as learning how to manage it.
The years that she should have spent with Jeannie learning the value of budgets, strategic spending, planning for emergencies, and when to use credit were instead spent trying to forget that she existed as much as possible lest she be reminded by Aunt Helen’s punishing instruction again.
She had thus learned two lessons that were bone-cracking accurate and sorrowfully false: Spend what you have because there’s no promise you’ll have this chance again. And if it has any value, hoard it, because there’s no promise you’ll have this chance again.
As she laid the third slice of bacon on the sandwich, she realized that both lines of thought were incomplete but when you literally don’t know what you will have later, incompleteness was the only environment to be in.
One decadent roast beef and bacon sandwich now prepared, she wondered if this was nutritious enough to satisfy Jeannie’s inspection if she were here. As she bit into her lunch, she also realized that she was using contemplation of the sandwich to avoid contemplation of the cell phone bill.
Old habits die hard.
She left the sandwich on the plate and went to sign up her account for automatic payments while the sting of the notice was still fresh in her mind.
As she lounged around her apartment, still dressed decadently in her pajamas, eating what would have been a decadent meal if this were two months ago, and having just committed to a relatively minor bill payment that raised uncomfortably major feelings, she realized two things: She didn’t have an answer to the judge’s question and she didn’t have a name for the apparition that was the embodiment of the Death card.
Melissa sighed and went to the bedroom to get dressed. It was clear that her conscience would not permit her to be comfortably decadent today. As she dressed herself properly enough to answer the front door without embarrassment, she wished that she could separate herself from uncomfortable feelings the way she did in the dream. How easy then would it be to better balance her sense of self if she didn’t have to deal with all the ways other people have dictated what her sense of self should be and the shame for not meeting their expectations.
She came to a stop with one arm poking awkwardly through her shirt’s arm hole as she was preparing to shove the rest of the shirt over her head. “Wait. I have emotions, I am not my emotions, and in the dream, uh, the vision, when all the loud emotions were around me instead of in me, I could see… Me. Who I am when I’m not… a hot fucking mess.”
She pulled the shirt away from her head but kept her hand in the arm hole as she sat down quietly on the bed. “That’s the answer to the judge’s question. I’m holding the wrong emotions tight that shouldn’t be tight and pushing the wrong emotions away that need to be kept closer. My sense of self is unbalanced.”
She closed her eyes and thought of all the ways that she had to force herself to react how other people expected her to react, regardless if it was good for her. Most of these memories were dominated by Aunt Helen and the way Melissa was nothing more than a whipping post and scapegoat for her aunt’s hatred. Some were teachers in high school that wouldn’t even try to teach her anything because Melissa is a Winston, who needs education when one has money to buy their way out of the consequences of acting dumb?
Parties and bar crawls. Galas and clubs. Even without Helen’s Diviner pulling her strings, Melissa realized that she had taken on other people’s perceptions of her as the reality of the moment to get through and as a result, had lost sight of who she really is. Even now, as she is attempting to rebuild her life, her anguish over how many slices of bacon to put on a sandwich was revealing how much of her behavior is automatic responses that have been engraved in her and how much is conscious thought.
As such, she made her next thought to be as conscious and as self-determined as possible even though it tore at her pride to speak it out loud. But if she was going to be the Magician of her life, it had to be said.
“I need help.”
She finished getting dressed and went back to the dining room table and her laptop. Dismissing social media notifications and emails from party pals wanting to reconnect, she logged into Leifert Enterprises Employee Portal and selected the Human Resources information page. Though she was a part-time employee, Bob made sure that she had access to all benefits as if she were on the rolls as a full-time employee. He wasn’t the only person in her life to tell her that the sudden changes of the previous month would cause her some distress. However, he was one of the few people who privately pointed out that her medical benefits included mental help and that accepting that help would be truly private and personal.
Melissa still had a hard time believing him because of Aunt Helen’s prior manipulations. But she reminded herself that he was helping her in spite of Aunt Helen and that he was someone who hadn’t given up on her despite all commands to do so.
The least she could do was to see what was available to her because of his generosity.
All of the options on the website assumed that Melissa was having a crisis of some sort and gave information on how to get emergency care and how to apply for leave to get emergency in-person treatment. But none of the options gave information on how a person not in crisis could even ask for treatment, much less find out what kind of treatment would fit their circumstance.
As she put her head in her hands, a sudden noise came from the kitchen. Was that a plate shifting in the sink or did she fall asleep again and now the Diviner was attempting to break into her psyche again. She looked at the time on the laptop then to the bright day revealed out of her window. To be safe, she attempted to pinch a glob of light from her chest and was relieved when the reward for her effort was a scratch from a chipped fingernail.
“I need help that’s going to take more than one person to give. It’s like living in two worlds, one with spirits and one without. How long can I keep them separate? Fuck, I need help.”
Of the two people who were aware of Melissa’s adventures with tarot, Rebecca had already made it clear that she would not be able to help Melissa and Jeannie knew there was something unusual going on with tarot cards but was still ignorant of Melissa having interactions with spirits and dreams of archetypal judges.
Melissa realized that if she was going to ask her older sister for assistance to find the right kind of help, it was very likely that she would have to tell Jeannie everything.
She realized she was suddenly greatly interested in money management and investment strategies again, which she recognized as an intentional distraction away from whatever she had just been thinking about. Acknowledging that the first step to getting help is admitting that help is needed, she responded to Jeannie’s last email.
“Instead of catching up, I’d like to have an hour of your time, maybe two? There are some things I need to talk to you about. Money management is one of them, but I think I’m in over my head about some things and I don’t know how to ask for help to get out.”
Melissa had just made up her mind to get up and clean the kitchen after her decadent lunch when the phone rang. Jeannie’s full name was on the screen along with the icon that Aunt Helen had picked out for her. Her sister was calling from work.
“Are you safe and where is the vase?” Jeannie’s voice was so low and so short and so to the point so quickly, Melissa thought her ear would bleed.
“I’m safe. The vase is on the table and I’m at home. No emergency, honest. But what I want to talk about is going to take some time and should be done in person.”
“Okay. Save tomorrow afternoon for me. I’ll call you when it’s time to go.”
Before Melissa could respond in agreement, Jeannie had already ended the call. Melissa smiled at the Jeannie’s abrupt manner. She knew her sister wasn’t mad at her and that this was how Jeannie was when at work: Pointed enough to draw blood. Paralegals have to be, she supposed.
As she got up to clean up as she had previously started to, she realized that her shoulders weren’t as tense as they were before. Did just reaching out to another person pull some sense of herself into alignment? Or was she looking forward to dumping the entire matter in Jeannie’s lap and making her sister clean up after herself again? The latter now felt as likely as hatching a toad from an egg in the fridge and Melissa sighed remorsefully at all the times Jeannie did have to clean up after her.
“I don’t think I can tell her everything, but I can at least tell her about the dreams. After all, anything can happen in a dream so there won’t be any arguments about what can and can’t happen.”
As she washed up the kitchen, she realized that she would have to come up with a name for the apparition of Death before telling Jeannie about the spirit to make the topic easier to talk about. Assuming that she is able to even bring up the topic at all. Melissa thought of all the ways that she could introduce that she was seeing the image of the girl who died next to her as a child, oh, and by the way, it’s not the ghost of the deceased child, but really the apparition of Death summoned by the tarot card of the same name.
Melissa giggled at the absurdity of the thought and almost dropped the plate. No, she reasoned, it’s one thing to admit to her sister that she’s now using the tarot cards as prompts to reflect on her life, but another thing to admit how much Tarot, Capital T, has inserted itself into the same.
There were no more plates to wash up in the kitchen. Laundry had already been handled and no online orders were due to be delivered today. She thought about amusing herself with social media again, but the thought of interacting with people who didn’t even know she had begun to change much less who she was before was exhausting just to consider it.
So exhausting, Melissa thought, that going back to bed for a nap would be a good idea and a proper way to spend a proper day off. As she started for the bedroom, she reminded herself to prepare to jump straight into lucid dreaming so if The Diviner attempted to take advantage of her, she would be able to fend him off.
Suddenly, napping was no longer a good idea.
She sat back at the dining room table with her laptop and her tarot decks. Taking up the handwritten deck that Rebecca had made, Melissa shuffled the cards a few times before flipping them onto the table absentmindedly.
The first card to land face up was the Death card. Melissa looked mutely at the card before throwing the rest of the deck on top of it. The cards slid from the impact, leaving the Death card still within her sight.
“Fine. I’ll look up names. Fuck.”
Melissa opened the laptop, started the web browser, and stared at the simple home page. Just how does one name a spirit, anyway? She decided that would be a good question to ask the internet and typed the question just as she thought it into the search bar.
Even without clicking on any of the search results, Melissa knew that this was not going to be how she determines what name to give to the apparition of Death. Classes offered easy workshops to discover the names of her spirit guides, but only if the seeker was willing to purchase certain material goods to go with the class. A website offered to seek the advice of angels for the those seeking names of spirits, though even in the snippet of text on the search results, it was clear the website was seeking to convert otherwise unaware seekers.
Books were offered at a reduced rate “at major online retailers everywhere” that would teach the reader not only how to find the name of any spirit they desire, but also to find the secret plan that God has for them. Melissa wondered if any of her cousins had decided to branch out from mere money management.
But the search result that made Melissa slam her laptop closed in disgust was the advert from an online aggregator for crafters that offered the very best and unique spirit guide names selection from the custom handmade offerings diligently crafted by participating site members. She muttered about how well money can buy appearances.
Melissa wondered how names for people came about. While names derived from gods and pantheons were quite plentiful, so were names from places and occupations. From sights in the sky and sights in the landscape. Even from animals and…
Melissa opened her laptop again and started a new search.
“Girl Names From Flowers”
That first night when the apparition of Death talked at length of her love of flowers, she didn’t settle on any one type or plant as her favorite. She loved all flowers and went on and on about the merits of them all.
Knowing this and knowing that the spirit would accept whatever name that Melissa wanted to use meant that the flower she was going to name the spirit after would have to mean something special to Melissa.
She didn’t want to use the super popular names like “Rose”, “Lily”, “Blossom”, “Violet”, “Jasmine”, and “Daisy”. Mostly because they were so popular that they didn’t feel like proper names at all but titles and nicknames to use when the name on the birth certificate is too embarrassing to use in public.
“Pansy” meant something unpleasant in slang. “Carnation” reminded Melissa too much of the milk brand. She was surprised to find that “Anemone” was a plant and the sea animal was named after it. “Peony” sounded too much like a name she would hear at one of Aunt Helen’s social soirees, and there was no way Melissa would apply what felt like a slur to the ancient spirit.
“Hyacinth” is certainly an uncommon flower name to give to a person. Too uncommon and clunky for Melissa to say without feeling like she’s trying to summon more than just the apparition of Death. She doesn’t like the smell of gardenias and so the name of the flower was immediately dismissed for consideration.
The picture served for the petunia flower certainly reminded Melissa of the intensely red flowers on the Acacia Tarot’s Death card, but the name of the flower has been used in poor taste by comedy hacks to the point where it too was dismissed. And she remembered her father fussing about how inconsistent magnolia flowers smelled, even those growing on the same branch! If he didn’t like them, then neither would she.
One by one, Melissa’s excitement at finding a long and plentiful list to take her sweet time exploring cooled and calcified into a hard nugget of determination. She didn’t think naming anyone would be this hard and wondered if her parents had the same trouble naming her. Only if there was something that could give her a sign that she was on the right path.
She stopped scrolling at the aster flower. The image given for that name was something like a daisy with many royal purple petals and a deeply golden core. The flower itself wasn’t very striking or unusual. She had seen similar flowers used to fill out a floral arrangement when the key flowers were hard to find or just too expensive to have a large bundle of.
But the name itself pulled at her. When she clicked through to the information page about the flower, she found that the name was derived from the Greek word for “star” and that type of flower had been named as such long ago because of the flower’s appearance.
“Aster.” Melissa quietly spoke the name to herself. “Hmm. It’s certainly not a name you expect to hear every day. Is it girly enough for her though? Wait. Lemme stop myself right now before I actually dare to ask the embodiment of Death what’s between their legs. As if they have legs. Or a body. Welp, I guess there’s no gender rules for this one.”
Melissa practiced saying the name a few more times and envisioning the spirit seated next to her. She closed her eyes to better immerse herself in her imagination and pretended to be saying the name as if introducing herself to the apparition of Death for the first time.
“Hello, Aster. My name is Melissa. How do you do?”
“Very well, thank you! Is that the name you picked for me? Did you know it’s the name of a flower? Did you know that asters are called that because they look like brilliant and sparkling stars? It’s an old name for a flower and not too many of them have kept the name they started with but here we are thousands of years and many more thousands of miles away from Hellás and they still have the same name!”
Melissa opened her eyes and was more surprised about not being surprised that the spirit was now seated at the table in a chair that did not exist. The monochromatic girl-child held her always present oversized teddy bear closely. Her tight grip around the body was clearly from excitement though her happy jumping in the chair also transmitted the emotion just as well.
Melissa could not help but be happy as well as the girl-child’s excitement infected her. She rested in the emotion for a moment before realizing that she didn’t understand the spirit’s reference.
Melissa chose her words carefully and began to speak with the same care. “Um. Two things. Is ‘Aster’ okay for me to use as a name for you?”
Before Melissa could take a breath to ask her second question, Aster interrupted with happy bounces. “Yes! Yes! It’s wonderful! You gave me the name of a flower and I really love flowers and I know you thought about this for a while and it must mean something to you, too, and it makes me really happy that you’re not sending me away like I was scared you would because you were very quiet and sad and I don’t like seeing you like that but you named me ‘Aster’ like the flower and the flower was called that like the star and it’s really pretty and I really really like it because it means you haven’t given up and you’re still trying your best and that makes me even more happy! Yay!”
Melissa felt winded just listening to Aster and had to hold out a hand to catch her breath before asking her second question. “Well, I see you’re okay with me calling you that, so ‘Aster’ it is. My second question, Aster, is what is helyas?”
Aster stopped bouncing in the chair and looked blankly at Melissa for a moment. “Oh. That’s right. Some names have changed after a while, haven’t they. ‘Hellás’ is what the people of what you now call Greece used to call themselves before the Roma changed the area to Graecia and the people to Graeci.”
Melissa wanted to be upset at Aster, but the spirit’s appearance as a very young child kept disarming her temper. “Okay. Now you’re showing off. I don’t have thousands of years to keep track of the flow of civilizations, you know. I’m lucky just to keep up with myself.”
Aster grinned to brighten even her empty eye sockets. “So, does that mean you’ll be keeping up with your sense of self and how interactions with others affect your mood now that you’re aware of it?”
Melissa stared at Aster with a mix of shock, fury, and humility. Every time she forgets what Aster is or what access the spirit has to her psyche, the spirit always moves to remind her with brutal precision. After a few moments of silent reflection on the reminder of the moment, Melissa breathed and relaxed.
“I had that coming. And to answer you, yes, I am going to try to keep up with my sense of self. See if I can choose which emotions to put in the spheres and which ones to hold close to me. Remember you said I needed help you couldn’t give? Yea, I get that now. I’m going to meet with Jeannie tomorrow to talk about that and see how I can get the help I need.”
Aster clapped with enthusiasm. “Good! Like some flowers, some things in life drag on long after they should have settled and gone to seed. You’ve been through a lot, Melissa, and I’m glad to see you starting to settle things. And I’m glad for my name! I really like it.”
The two talked more about flowers for some time. Melissa started to feel cold despite the comfortable afternoon in the apartment and excused herself. Aster understood that Melissa had not prepared herself for the spirit’s visit and began to say her farewells.
“Wait.” Melissa held up a hand to gesture and noted her fingernails were started to have a blue tint to them. “How did I summon you, anyway? I didn’t exactly call out to you when I was trying out your name.”
“Are you upset I was here already?”
“Already?” Melissa was confused. “But I was alone in here all morning.”
“You’ll find, Melissa, that the world is thick with spirits. All the time. But most people, most humans, don’t see it. Which is kinda good because most spirits don’t want to deal with people anyway. And then there’s spirits like me, who do want to deal with people, and sometimes, with one person in particular. I would like to be your friend, Melissa. And not just because you gave me a name or because it is a tarot deck that connects us.”
Melissa shivered slightly as she nodded with some comprehension of what Aster just said. Aster smiled and squeezed her teddy bear as she continued.
“We can talk about that another time. You have a very important job to do today before you meet with your sister tomorrow.”
“Oh, and what job is that, Aster?”
“To do absolutely nothing and enjoy your day off! Bye!”
Aster reached for the handwritten Death card still lying face up on the table. Melissa moved to lay a hand on the card first to tease Aster. When she looked up to the space where the spirit was seated, Melissa looked into an empty space as it should have been. She realized that Aster had tricked her into looking away so the spirit could make her exit.
“Fine.” The room warmed noticeably though it took Melissa some time to warm up. She gathered the scattered cards, assembled the deck according to Rebecca’s order, and put the deck next to the others.
Rather than take a nap as she had once planned, Melissa instead decided this would be a good day to relax in front of the TV and started up her Netflix queue.
The next morning when she reported to Leifert Enterprises for the morning’s assignment, Melissa was surprised to find that Director Cargill had requested that she be assigned to the Document Department whenever available. Gladys explained that directors can always request that certain interns be assigned, or never assigned, to their department, but it was up to the intern whether or not to accept the long-term assignment.
Holding on to interns in this way was a method that some directors used to test out potential permanent hires to their department without the chore of going through the hiring paperwork for one. How lucky Melissa was to have a director pull her in so soon into her internship.
If Gladys was surprised that Melissa turned down the exclusive assignment, she kept it well hidden. Melissa wanted to explore other possible career paths before deciding where to focus her attention and any possible secondary schooling.
She took the morning assignment in the Document Department, anyway. Melissa understood that there will be many difficult meetings in her corporate life, so might as well start getting used to them now. Sorting mail beside Julie, the director, and a random yet quiet intern was a mentally light task that suited Melissa just fine. She had far too much on her head to begin with and having a few hours of menial work gave her just enough distraction that she was not able to dwell on how worried she was about her afternoon appointment with her sister.
It was only after arriving back at the apartment and changing clothes that she realized she had no idea what she was going to say to Jeannie. How does one describe holographic spheres plucked from one’s chest and filled with everything from arrogance to sorrow to hubris to light? Melissa wasn’t sure how that subject would come up, but she was sure that the topic of tarot cards in general would be on the table.
If so, she reasoned, then why not literally? Since she was experiencing the suit of coins, then why not take ten coins with her to serve as physical examples? She rummaged in her change jar until she found ten quarters to serve as prop pieces and pocketed them. She looked at her meager collection of tarot decks and took the Sweeney, the Acacia, and the handwritten deck that Rebecca had made for her. As she was deciding if to take the notebook holding her dream notes, her cell phone announced she had a new message to read.
Jeannie was waiting for her downstairs in the garage.
“I reserve the right to take your phone for the next two hours if it means having your full attention.” Jeannie was trying to be humorous as Melissa buckled her seat belt.
“Yea, well, it’s not the phone you’re going to have to be worried about. It will all depend on what come up and what I’m able to talk about.” Melissa’s nervousness expressed itself in the way she held herself very still. As if to avoid attention.
“Oh. Well. Anything you want to start talking about now while I’m driving and can’t throw anything at you?” Jean noticed Melissa’s stiffness and heard what sounded like the clinking of coins as her sister settled into the car.
“Probably not. Work went okay. Was back at the Mail Room with Director Cargill but Janice wasn’t there. It was a different intern this time.” Melissa folded her hands in her lap and held still.
“Okay. I won’t push it.” Jean turned over the engine and let it warm up a bit. “Was thinking of going back to the diner if you have the stomach for it.”
“If? I’m ravenous! I didn’t have lunch because I didn’t know where you were going to go!”
“Okay, but stay off my french fries this time.” Jean’s tone was an audible warning as she put the car into gear and moved to quickly exit the underground garage.
Melissa’s rebuttal met the challenge. “I’ll stay off your french fries only if you bother to eat them, this time!” Jean glanced at Melissa who had tilted her head towards her older sister as if to challenge her for an imaginary plate of fries right then and there.
Jean tried to engage Melissa in conversation during the drive to Barbara’s Diner. It was clear that something was deeply bothering her younger sister as even those topics that would normally result in Melissa talking Jean’s ear off and away was now getting a sentence of mere acknowledgement before she resumed her sudden and brooding silence.
Jean pulled over into the empty dirt lot before crossing the intersection to the diner. Melissa looked at her in surprise but said nothing as Jean maneuvered the car so that Melissa had full view of the diner and Jean, but Jean could only look to one at a time.
Jean turned away from Melissa to face the diner. “Four weeks ago, I pulled over here on the way back from Aunt Helen’s house. You had that talk with Bob Leifert. I had watched you mature before my eyes. And then right here, you saw something that completely changed your entire attitude and demeanor. I know you wanted to talk about money management, but I know you better than that.” Jean turned away from the diner to face Melissa. “There’s something else you want to talk about and what you saw here is part of it.”
Melissa scrunched her face as she looked across the street and remembered seeing Aster interrupt a heated discussion between the sisters by appearing at the diner and making a big show of smelling the flowers before running through the closed door. While Jean’s supposition was correct as it should be, Melissa still wasn’t sure how to even open the topic for discussion.
“Maybe. We’ll see. It’s going to be hard for me. I mean, yea, I should talk about it with someone, but I don’t think for that part, it’s going to be you.” She focused her attention to her older sister’s face. “What I’ve already set myself on talking about is going to be hard enough as it is.”
Jean watched her younger sister carefully. It was clear that Melissa was remembering something, but precisely what that was still opaque to Jean. When Melissa settled back in the seat without speaking further, Jean knew that this tactic would raise no further results. So, she put the car back into gear and drove the short distance across the intersection and into the parking lot of Barbara’s Diner.
The bougainvillea had been trimmed neatly to follow the brick exterior of the building. The branches of the many plants fastened to the brick and trained to run along the mortar between the bricks. Four weeks ago, the two sisters had crashed the fading end of a remembrance service for the same Barbara that the diner was named after. Today as they entered, they were swept up into a big hug by the same waitress who had served them that day.
“Oh, bless this day! Look at you! You two need to come back some more! Obviously neither one of you are getting enough to eat! Don’t tell me you’re going to try to share a plate! You both need your own plate if we’re going to get any meat on those bones!”
“Hello, Ms. Susan!” Melissa was the first to regain the ability to breathe after Susan tight and encompassing hug.
“Yes, hello, Susan.” Susan’s fixed stare of exaggerated displeasure speared first Melissa, then Jean, into standing still. Though neither sister showed any fear, but giggled at the waitress’s annoyed expression.
“Though both of you are young enough to be my kids, neither one of you are. Just call me, ‘Sue’, sweeties. Life’s too short to be formal. What can I get for ya and do ya want a booth or a table?”
Melissa remained quiet to allow her older sister to answer. “If we can, Sue, may we get a booth, preferably away from foot traffic and as far in the back as we can get?”
“Oh.” Sue looked at Jean, then to Melissa who silently nodded, then back to Jean who returned Sue’s questioning glance with a sober stare. “It’s going to be like that, today. Not a problem, girls. But it will mean sitting under Barbara’s portrait, and not many people are comfortable with that table because of it.”
Jean started to mumble a request for an alternate table when she looked at Melissa and stopped. Her younger sister was staring at the noted table and giving whatever she was imagining there her full attention.
Melissa blinked before looking back at Jean and was surprised and embarrassed to realize that Jean was watching her. “Your call, Jeannie.”
“No.” Jeannie kept her voice as level as her face. “You had that look on your face. The one that tells me that this is your call, and to hell with what I may have thought otherwise. Is that table appropriate for our discussion?”
“Um…” Melissa glanced nervously at Sue who tried to nod affirmatively as subtly as possible and failed. She glanced back at the table, but Astra was no longer there to see. She looked back at Jeannie. “Yea. It will do. I mean, consider what we first walked into? I don’t think sitting under Barbara’s portrait would be a problem, unless it would offend any of her friends that came by.”
Sue walked to the hostess side of the payment counter to fetch a pair of menus. As she led the two sisters through the mostly empty restaurant to the noted table, she remarked that this was the table that Barbara sat at the most after she retired from being active on the floor.
Not that Barbara really retired at all. When she couldn’t run plates, she supervised those who could. When she couldn’t stand on her feet, she sat at this table and watched over everyone. But when someone needed a quiet place to sit, to read, to do homework, or to just be with themselves and their memories, Barbara would always offer her table first and make sure whoever sat there had the peace they came for.
“So, no, sweeties, no one would be thinking that you’re acting out of turn by sitting here and taking care of each other.” Sue placed the menus on the table and waited for Melissa and Jeannie to seat themselves on opposite sides of the booth. “If this table was available that first day y’all stopped by, this would have been the table I would have sat y’all at. It’s a good table for having good talks, and it looks like there’s going to be a long one. Just lemme know when you’re ready to order or if you just want water.”
Melissa didn’t touch the menu but mumbled that she would like some water while she looked for something small. Her stomach sounded a disagreement with her choice of portion sizes that the two other women silently agreed was never heard.
Jean flipped the menu open and asked for an appetizer tray and a glass of water with a slice of lemon while she also looked for something more substantial to eat. When Sue asked what specific appetizer she wanted, Jean asked for whatever is best eaten with fingers but to leave it to the chef to decide what to serve.
“So. I know what you said you wanted to talk about, but is there anything else that you wanted to get out of the way first before talking about money?” Jean looked at the fork before using it to pierce the lemon wedge in her glass.
Melissa held the glass with both hands. She was afraid to look up lest she see Aster seated at the table. The idea of seeing the apparition of Death here and not being able to hide from Jean that she was seeing anything at all made Melissa feel vulnerable and exposed.
“I have a lot that I want to talk about, but I’m not sure if I’m going to able to even approach the subject today, so let’s get the easy stuff done and over with.”
“Excuse me, ladies! Easy eats to share!” Sue had arrived unnoticed with a large plate of deep-fried mozzarella sticks, deep-fried jalapeño poppers, deep-fried onion rings, and nachos balanced on one hand and a small plate with several smaller ramekins of different sauces in each one. “The chef couldn’t make up his mind, so he put together a little bit of everything. You won’t hurt his feelings if you don’t like everything. Sampler plates are for sampling, after all!”
Jean looked over the large offering. “And you’re going to charge us for the four appetizers here, right? Which I am committed to paying, but you’re not going to forget to ring anything up, right?”
“Oh, sweetie, I love arguing with you. It’s such an easy win!” Sue smiled with the assurance of a seasoned fighter and left just as quiet as she had arrived. Jean kept silent for Melissa’s sake. Melissa waited until Sue was out of sight to chastise Jean for her honesty.
“If you don’t say anything else, you’re gonna get free food! Each appetizer is seven bucks on its own and if you get charged for each one, you’re going to spend the lunch money before we even get to have lunch at all!”
Jean was surprised at Melissa’s sudden shrill and near-panicked tone and replied calmly. “So, I guess we’re going to talk about money first. Okay. How much do you budget for lunch?”
“… I… don’t.” Melissa looked up from the plate to her sister, who suddenly decided that having nachos to nibble on was the best thing ever. “I mean… Before Mom came back, I… couldn’t. I could never find a lunch that kept me going at a price that meant I could have dinner, too. So, I usually skipped lunch unless someone else was buying.”
Jean mostly kept her concern hidden. What she could not hide was not seen by Melissa as the younger sister kept her gaze fixed on the glass of water in her hands as she continued speaking.
“You know, I originally called you about helping me with money management because I have more money available to me than I ever had in my life and I wanted to know how not to fuck it up. I mean, isn’t there some sort of investing I’m supposed to be doing? Or at least a high-yield account, what’s it called? A CD! A high-yield certificate of deposit! I have no idea what those words mean. But now that you’re watching me have a panic attack at a twenty-eight dollar tab, I guess I have a different problem with money, huh.”
“Jeannie, I don’t know how to spend it. I don’t know what’s reasonable and what’s too much. When I’m being taken advantage of and when something is too good to pass up. I’m scared to turn the heat in the apartment to something comfortable because what if it makes the gas bill skyrocket again and I can’t pay it? I don’t know what to expect! I don’t know what’s okay to spend so I’m afraid to spend anything at all.”
Jean picked up a fried mozzarella stick and was surprised when the breading remained intact under her fingers. She scooped a large amount of marinara sauce to take a larger bite than was polite. As she chewed on the cooling cheese, she took the time to prepare her answer.
“So… the groceries you’ve been buying, aren’t just because they’re what you’re used to, but because you’re afraid to spend more for something better than you’re used to?”
Melissa nodded, still holding and staring at her glass.
“Oh.” Jean noticed that Melissa had not released her glass since she started talking. Jean gestured at the plate. “I didn’t get this only for me. This is your lunch, too, you know. I can’t eat this by myself. Have at it!”
Melissa took a stuffed jalapeño and started to nibble on it. Jean waited with obvious expectation for Melissa to react poorly to the heat of the snack. Melissa noticed and wrinkled her face. “What? You call this spicy? I’ve had onions that would make this green ancho cry.” She shoved the rest of the jalapeño into her mouth to make her point.
“Well at least you’re eating. Okay. Melissa, there’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t think I’ll be able to help you with what’s going on under the surface, but I can at least help you learn how to spend your money carefully.”
At first, Jean did all of the talking. Melissa asked questions rarely but as she absorbed the lesson, she began to ask more pointed questions.
“How are you able to make managing money sound so easy? Do you know how long I’ve been trying to find this information on my own, online? And how much bullshit is available online?” Melissa reached for another stuffed jalapeño and found that corner of the plate to be empty.
“Well, it is easy. Put aside what you can each month. Round down when you’re estimating how much money you have. Round up when estimating the bill you have to pay. Aim to spend less money than you have each month and put away the difference. What makes it not so easy is when you have unavoidable bills that take up what you have available to spend. Why didn’t you tell me that Aunt Helen wasn’t giving you the allowance?”
Melissa grabbed an onion ring and took her time nibbling on it. When it became clear that Jean was going to settle in and wait for an answer, Melissa swallowed the onion and her pride and spoke truthfully.
“Because she was. Technically. She said I should be able to live on just nine hundred dollars a month because that’s what our cousins can live on. Maybe it was just bullshit to force me to grow up.”
“Melissa, your allowance was three thousand dollars a month. I saw the disbursement records.”
Melissa shrugged. “Yea, well, just because the money went in Aunt Helen’s hands doesn’t mean it flowed into mine. Like, yea, she helped me get a job to cover bills, but it really wasn’t enough, and I took on the others. And then, well, let’s just say that I didn’t make good choices until recently, and it always seemed like I never had enough money no matter what I did. So now that I do, I don’t want to slide into that again.”
Melissa’s hand reached for the mozzarella sticks but that area of the plate was empty as well. So she devoted her attention to the remaining nachos while Jean nodded her head in thought.
“Okay. First thing we should do is put together a budget to find how much money you have available after bills and split that between things you want to have, things that are nice to have, and your savings account. Just because we have the trust now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an emergency fund at hand.” Jean looked back at her sister. “Hey, you okay?”
Melissa was staring at the plate with the chosen nacho chip in her hand. At Jean’s prompting, she looked up at the older sister with a vacant look before blinking and returning her awareness to the table. “Yea. Yea! Okay. I guess this was going to come up eventually, so… hang on.”
Jean watched with obvious concern as Melissa stuffed the nacho in her mouth to free her hand. The younger sister dug into her purse and one by one, pulled out and counted ten quarters on the table. Melissa arranged the quarters first in an equilateral triangle made with four rows. “Okay, that’s Legacy.”
Melissa moved one quarter to the side and rearranged the remaining nine quarters into a three by three square except she turned it so it was a balanced diamond from her and Jean’s opposite perspectives. “And this is Acquired Wealth.”
“Stop.” Jean’s quiet command nearly drove Melissa into a panic. Melissa couldn’t look up to see Jean’s judgmental face so when the older sister’s hand came into view, Melissa snatched hers back in fear. “I thought the Nine of Pentacles was about self-sufficiency. At least, the website Rebecca printed for your handwritten majors said so.”
Melissa forced herself to look up to her sister. “You… looked it up?”
“Damn right I did. What you do with your life is up to you, Melissa, but I reserve the right to check up on what you’re doing in case I have to haul your ass out of trouble again. I knew your experimentation with tarot would not end with just the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana. Not with Rebecca being an influence in your life. Not with what those twenty-two cards did to you. So, tell me, where did you get the title of ‘Acquired Wealth’ from?”
Melissa seemed to melt in the booth as she let go of the breath she wasn’t aware she was holding. “Oh. Well. Um. I’ve been doing some reading, and it turns out there is no one master list of tarot meanings. Just a few lists that everyone agrees on for reasons that make even less sense than tarot does.”
“So, well, I’ve been exploring what the minors mean, and I’m starting with the suit of coins, because I’m not going to go witchy and the whole pentacles thing is so overrated and overused anyway, so why not just go back to coins like it used to be and… Oh. I’m rambling.”
Melissa had turned her face to look at the coins when she started to explain but when she caught herself, she silenced herself and looked back at Jean expecting her older sister to be greatly disapproving.
Instead, Jean wore a warm smile and her eyes were damp and the older sister looked happy to be seated there as the younger sister was about to launch into an avalanche of words as she described something that gave her joy to get into.
“Ramble more. I’ve looked up a few things, and yes, I prefer coins over pentacles, too. So. You’ve been exploring the minors…”
Melissa moved the nearly empty appetizer plate to the side to better push the coins into Jean’s view. “Just three cards so far. Right now, I’m on the Eight of Coins, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought because the…” Melissa almost mentioned the dreams and visions of the spheres and the endless black sand and the wide expanse of the infinitely starry sky and caught her tongue. While it’s good that she can talk about tarot to Jean, she thought that speaking about the judges and tarot spirits might be too much for now.
Melissa took a drink of water to give a reason for the break in her speech. “Been giving it a lot of thought because if the tarot is supposed to be something personal to the reader, then wouldn’t it make sense for me to have a personal understanding instead of trying to make a hundred year old list fit me? Like, what the hell does a crusty man from a century ago know about what I’m going through today? If the meanings don’t fit, then it’s time I find some that do, even if I have to make them myself!”
Jean tapped at the now slightly smooshed diamond. “Before you start on the Eight of Coins, tell me about the Nine of Coins. It’s supposed to be ‘Self-Sufficiency’, but you’re calling it ‘Acquired Wealth’?”
Melissa moved the coins back into the balanced diamond shape. “Yea, I gave it some thought, and while being self-sufficient does fit, nine is kind of an ambitious number. So, if you’re self-sufficient, you’re really not going to be motivated to go get more of anything. You have everything that you need. But if you’re in the process of acquiring wealth, then you’re going to want to keep acquiring wealth, and that feels more ambitious to me.”
Melissa turned the diamond so that flat sides were facing her and Jean. “But now I wonder why would someone be in a position to continue to acquire wealth in the first place. What would set them going to seek to expand their holdings?” She looked up at Jean who was studying the layout of the coins until she noticed Melissa had stopped speaking and was watching her.
Melissa reached over the three by three square of coins and removed the central coin. “They started with a good Investment. All the time you’ve been talking about money management, I realize that investing is about more than just CDs, stocks, and bonds. It’s about using what you have at hand to gain what you want to have. See how this pattern of eight quarters have a hole in the middle? See how the outside shape is very stable? Because the outside is stable, the inside can be grown in to become the nine. It could happen in a flash. It could take a lot of time. But the Legacy of the ten is because the Acquired Wealth of the nine was put to use. And how did that wealth be acquired? A good Investment of time and money.”
Melissa sat back looking smugly pleased with herself. “And that’s the Eight of Coins and I hope I remember it so I can write in my notebook when I get home.”
Jean sat back in her seat, obviously impressed with Melissa’s process and conclusion. “Wow. You have been putting thought into this. So, numbers have shapes?”
Melissa deflated slightly and glanced at the other tables. “Yea, but I don’t want to get into that here. Just playing with the coins in public makes me nervous. There’s enough people online that swear us Winstons are up to black magic or some shit and I don’t want to give anyone a picture that would back that up.” Melissa continued looking at the other end of the restaurant where most incoming patrons were being sat this afternoon.
Melissa glanced away just in time to miss Jean wincing at being called a Winston. Jean pushed the coins towards Melissa, ruining the pattern. “Okay. Put the coins away, then. Are you ready to talk about the more difficult topic that you mentioned when you called? Because before you do, I want to order actual lunch and make myself comfortable.”
Before Jean could finish raising her hand, Sue had come to the table with a pitcher of water. As she topped off both glasses, Melissa zipped up her purse holding the ten quarters and looked over the menu one last time while Jean studied the matronly waitress and quietly noted how quick she was to attend the sisters.
Melissa ordered grilled chicken breast with a side of mac and cheese and some green vegetable of the day that she’ll likely forget to eat. Jean ordered an apple walnut salad with balsamic vinaigrette topped with diced chicken.
Melissa’s eyebrow raised at Jean’s order. “A salad? All that fuss about ordering actual lunch and you are ordering, like, a salad. Jeannie. What the hell?”
Jean met Melissa’s raised eyebrow with her own level response. “It is a well balanced salad and the vinaigrette will help my stomach deal with all the deep-fried mess that I have indulged in today.”
Melissa rolled her eyes with an over-exaggerated gesture. “Oh. My. God. Listen to you. Eating healthy? I thought paralegals ran on blood and alcohol.”
Jeannie laughed. “Oh, that’s only on the big court dates. Haven’t had one of those for a few weeks so I have to masquerade as a human until it’s time for me to rise and feed once more upon fools and charlatans.”
As Melissa’s laughter drowned her previous nervousness, Jean excused herself from the table to take care of physical needs. Melissa watched her older sister walk away with a swirl of joy and trepidation. She had not expected Jeannie to so easily accept her further investigations into tarot but knowing that she had one more person in arm’s reach to talk to was comforting.
Melissa wasn’t sure if her older sister would be so accepting of the second of the two topics she had committed to. The longer she sat alone at the table, the more she was sure that somehow Helen’s Diviner was working to insert his will into the weakness she was about to expose. The blinds were closed next to her, but she could tell that it was late afternoon. The headlights of a car turning outside traced across the blinds and for a moment Melissa thought it was the full moon rising to seize the crown of the sky again.
“AH!” Melissa flinched and jerked away from Jean’s light touch. She whirled to fearfully face her concerned sister and barely kept from allowing the collecting tears from dissolving her resolve. “Sorry.” She wanted to reach for the water to take a calming drink, but her fear kept her hands tight to each other. “Hang on.” She forced her hands to release themselves so they could grip the side of the table instead.
Melissa closed her eyes and thought of where the sun would be at this hour. Even though she didn’t know which way was north, much less up right now, she still felt something like an echo of sunlight in a certain direction. She placed her attention towards that direction.
“The sun is there.” Her words were more the movement of her mouth than a whisper of air. She did not see Jean fix her sight on her mouth to understand what Melissa was saying. Instead, Melissa moved her attention from where she felt the sun was to the earth literally under her, her seat, the diner, and everything.
“And I am here.” Melissa took a big breath and let go of the table. She lifted her hands slightly as she spoke the third part of the affirmation. “And here I am.” She opened her eyes to meet Jean’s steady and attentive stare. Melissa felt fully present, without fear of an imagined full moon, without fear of the work of another magician, without fear of being deemed worthless by her sister. Melissa felt present and it felt good.
So when she spoke, she surprised Jean with an unexpected steadiness in her voice. “So, well, welcome to the other reason I wanted to talk to you. I’ve been going through some shit, and I need help to deal with it. I’m sorry you saw me have a panic attack like that. But I’m also not sorry, because you know bullshit when you see it, and you know I wasn’t bullshitting just now.”
Jean slowly nodded twice. “No, you weren’t. You looked like you were about to have an episode. And now, you don’t. I haven’t heard those phrases before. Something Rebecca taught you?”
Melissa wanted to be angry at the subtext of Jean’s question, but she conceded that Jean had a right and a duty to question Rebecca’s influence on her younger sister. “Yea, but it’s not magic. It’s some psych trick to take my attention away from whatever is fucking me up and to put it right here where I am.”
“You’ll have to teach me. If three short phrases are all it takes to keep you from running out into the street, it might help me when I’m ready to take a swing at one of my peers.” Jean placed her phone on the table. Melissa could see that a messaging app was open and the three phrases she had whispered had been entered there and sent.
Melissa felt a sudden chill as she realized that Jean was reporting on her to someone. “I want to be mad with you, Jean, but ya know, the person I was before… Yea, you’re still justified not to trust me to know my head from my ass. And lately, I’m not so sure myself. Do you want Rebecca’s number? I don’t think she’d mind if I gave it to you.”
Jean’s phone buzzed and the app’s display moved to show the response. Without looking at the screen, Jean spoke quietly. “She gave me her number at the masquerade. I just never thought to actually message her until after Mom revealed that she was her eyes on you. I wanted to give you space and after I vetted her enough to know that she wasn’t a predator of some sort, I didn’t inquire any further about her.”
Jean lowered her eyes, read the screen, and continued speaking without raising her sight. “However, Rebecca is worried about you and she asked me to have a sit with you about helping you find… and I quote… ‘Help that neither I nor the cards can give.’ I’m guessing from your near freak-out just now, that the two of you are asking about professional mental help.”
Melissa took a breath to sigh, looked back to Jean’s phone, and held her patience. “So, since we’re confessing things to each other, who are you sending my words to?”
Jean attempted to smile. The expression did not reach her eyes. “Rebecca. I needed to know from her if what she taught you is really some psych trick or if it’s a magic trick. Because you’re going to have to be very careful what you tell a psychologist about what you’re doing and how you came back from hell. I haven’t forgotten what happened the last time you were in therapy.”
Melissa relaxed and released the tension as a long sigh. As the sigh ended, her stomach sounded off its own opinion of the matter. An opinion that was immediately attended by Sue’s arrival with their lunch.
“I’m so sorry, my dears, but the kitchen took longer than I thought it would so both of you have a little larger serving of everything than we’d usually plate. Wouldn’t you believe it, we had someone put in an online order ahead of you that damn near cleaned us all out of chicken! We got it all taken care of, but some folks are getting their late lunch at early dinner times. Just let me know and I’ll knock off the price.”
Melissa watched Jean’s eyes narrow at the explanation and knew that something about Sue was setting off her older sister’s bullshit meter. But when Sue mentioned comping the meal, she watched Jean change mental gears from challenging the waitress about whatever had raised her suspicion to making it clear that she was not going to take advantage of Sue’s good will.
Melissa watched the two banter back and forth while she took the bowl of mac and cheese and played the part of the amused spectator. Melissa realized that Sue was playing some game but found nothing that would cause her concern. As the waitress walked away from the table full of cheer, Jean turned to face her lunch that had been bestowed a basket of sourdough rolls and Melissa recognized where she had seen Sue’s behavior before.
Jean gestured to the basket. “When did these get here? Lunch doesn’t come with bread… Now wait a damn minute… Sue!”
“Leave it, Jeannie. She’s giving us space, and this is how, okay.” Melissa’s mirth annoyed the strict paralegal.
“No, I won’t leave it. Wait. How do you know?”
“Because I worked in a restaurant, d’uh! The timing of everything? Yea, she’s keeping an eye on us, but the floor is damn near empty so the table doesn’t need to be turned, and she’s using the food to give us breaks between topics and to keep us feeling comfortable enough to keep talking about whatever it is that we’re talking about.”
Jean glanced down the aisle then back at Melissa. “Yes, she’s keeping an eye on us for sure, but she’s a waitress and that’s her job. Is she keeping an ear as well? I thought this was a safe place to talk, but…”
Melissa calmly interrupted. “It is. There’s none safer except in the car.”
Jean stared at Melissa with the same inspecting stare that Melissa imagined Jean would give a suspicious witness at a disposition. Melissa looked away and closed her eyes as her confidence faded. “I can’t explain how I know this is a safe place or why I’m comfortable with Sue eavesdropping on us. Not yet. But, the same reason I am is the same reason why I’m asking for your help to help me find a shrink that I can talk to. Because I haven’t forgotten what happened in therapy last time, either, and if I can’t get professional mental help without putting myself back in Aunt Helen’s hands, then I’ll just have to find another way of getting through this shit. But I need your help to even figure out how to even find help in the first place.”
Melissa opened her eyes to see Jean starting to silently cry. The sight terrified her, and she started to reach across the table, the plates, and whatever else she didn’t notice that was in the way of touching her sister’s hands. Meanwhile, Jean’s hands couldn’t decide if they wanted to accept Melissa’s own or if to hide the relentless advance of tears conquering her usually stoic face. Finally, one hand held one of Melissa’s while the other roughly scrubbed at her face with coarse napkins to banish the unauthorized release.
“Sorry.” Jean’s strained voice was barely heard. “I’m sorry. I just… Oh, Melissa, you don’t know how much it means to me to just hear you ask for help and not because you were forced to! You don’t know how long I have sat and watched you fall apart and there was nothing I could do and now you’re sitting here with me and asking for help not to stay out of jail… or anything like that… but to be… whole. To be okay. I never thought… I couldn’t foresee… I’m sorry, but for the past month my little sister has been coming back from hell and each time it’s really you and I don’t know how to handle it!”
The two held hands until one hand slipped and was baptized in vinaigrette. They laughed with each other and at each other and at the circumstances and at having come through years of what neither one thought was survivable. Without further conversation, an agreement was made that there was to be no further heavy discussion on their now empty stomachs and their early dinner was enjoyed in peace under the approving gaze painted into Barbara’s supervising portrait.
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