Suddenly startled, Lisa opened her eyes and looked around. She was worried that she would sleep through the arrival of her grocery delivery. The sun had set not too long ago. The sky outside was pinkish as if it was stalling the arrival of night. The temperature in the apartment had dropped slightly. She would need to put on another layer of clothes soon. The screen was dimmed from the screensaver but she could see the bright red Netflix logo waiting for her.
Everything looked right, but she felt completely wrong. Lisa stared at the red logo for a few seconds before getting up and looking for something printed to read. She suspected she was dreaming again. The dreaming studies she did for her psych class taught her how to test for dreaming. No matter how lucid and/or vivid the dream was, any printed material would be either backwards or impossible to read. Instead, the dreamer would unknowingly rely on the meaning of the text as delivered in the dream.
She sorted through the mail on the kitchen counter. Unfortunately, the printed addresses and envelope marks were proper in their place and direction. She told herself that she’ll look at the overdue bills later. She still had the sense that something was still very wrong.
She looked at several apps on her phone. She realized that she hadn’t really interacted with anyone since Jean brought her home after seeing the subtext of increasing concern in the messages from the few people who were missing her. That some folk actually gave a shit about her was heartwarming, but that discomforted sense remained.
She looked up at the drab popcorn ceiling before turning around in the living room and studying everything. All held the appearance of being right until she saw the tarot cards sitting on the table. The decks were face down and stacked on each other with the smaller deck on top.
“That’s not how I left them.” Lisa approached the table carefully, expecting a judge to appear from any direction at any moment. “They were face up. And side by side. It’s the Sun’s turn…”
Lisa looked out the window. Night had inevitably won the struggle for dominance of the sky. The creeping darkness chilled her and she wished she was back under the sun’s unblinking stare again.
“Okay… I’m dreaming. Either someone came in here, moved the cards, and touched nothing else, or I’m dreaming.” She looked around again and gave everything in sight a second and third look. When she came back to the table, the two decks were now sitting side by side, but they were still face down. “Ah, fuck me. COME ON OUT WHICH EVER FUCKING JUDGE YOU ARE! LET’S FUCKING GO!”
“Let’s not, Lisa.”
In one moment, there was no one seated at either of the table’s chairs. In the next moment, the judge that wore Lisa’s face sat calmly in the chair beside the table. They raised their black gloved hands in a sign of surrender. “I had to be that bitch earlier, Lisa. You understand, of course, Lisa. We all play a role, and I am your antagonist, Lisa. But that card is done, and so am I, Lisa. Let’s stop, Lisa.”
The judge pulled the empty chair out as a silent request for company. Lisa sat down to be polite, but moved the chair a little further away from the judge with caution. She addressed the judge firmly. “Stop with the bullshit? Okay, I can work with that. Let’s go to the next card, then. Let’s get through this.”
“No. Let’s not, Lisa.” The judge took the two decks and moved them away from Lisa. Lisa saw that the direction of the folds of the torn list of meanings meant the paper was face up, but the paper itself was completely blank. “Let’s stop the bullshit, Lisa.” They folded their hands on the table.
“Listen, Lisa. Rebecca did not lie to you, Lisa. This is a cycle you are going through, Lisa. And once the cycle ends, so does your world, Lisa. Those parts of your life that you are comfortable with is recoverable, but only if you don’t complete the cycle, Lisa. Stay here, Lisa. Don’t go to the next card, Lisa. Keep what you know and go no further, Lisa.”
The judge’s face mask showed no emotion whatsoever. The judge’s voice pleaded its way past Lisa’s conscious defenses. Lisa felt like she was listening to her younger self pleading for her mother to stay home again. Each time, her mother would tell young Lisa that life was not fair and because of that, she would have to leave. When Lisa cried, her mother told her that when Lisa grew up that she would understand not only how unfair life is, but that all grownups have to do what they do to survive.
“It’s… it’s not…” Lisa took a deep breath and forced herself to speak. “It’s not right.” Lisa pulled herself away from the memory and the judge’s words. “I don’t know how, but you’re lying to me. You don’t want me to go to the next card, but I don’t know why. And since you’re wearing my face, you’re probably representing everything shit thing I’ve ever done to myself. Including lying to myself.”
She reached for the tarot deck. The judge raised their hand to block her. “No, Lisa! Think, Lisa! Do you even know who Rebecca is, Lisa? Do you know what she does, Lisa? How the hell does someone hold fucking court in public like that, Lisa?”
The judge touched Lisa’s hand to push her away from the decks. It was a glancing touch but the coldness of the judge’s hand seemed to pull nearly all the warmth out of Lisa. She fled the chair, shouting from the sensation as she did so. She backed away from the judge until her back hit the kitchen counter behind her.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU?! THERE IS NOTHING NATURAL ABOUT YOU!” It was only as she shouted that she realized her teeth were chattering.
The judge folded their hands in their lap in a perfect mimicry of Lisa’s posture when Aunt Helen was yelling at her. “I am as I am, Lisa. And I am trying to save you, Lisa. You cannot undo what has been done, Lisa. But you can stop the cycle, Lisa. Don’t go to the next card, Lisa. Stay here, Lisa. You know enough to make your life better without destroying it, Lisa. Don’t put yourself further into Rebecca’s hands, Lisa. End it here, Lisa.”
The judge’s constant use of her name as sentence punctuation was drowning out the surface understanding of their words. Lisa had the sense that there was something not correct with what the judge was telling her, but she did not know how to explain her unease or what was it that the judge was wrong about.
Seeing her face, however emotionless as it was, on a body seated in that humiliated posture further disoriented her. Was she standing in the kitchen, or was she seated in that chair and dissociating? Who was she yelling at? Herself? Or someone in her imagination?
“Come, Lisa. Let’s sit down, Lisa.” A hand so bereft of temperature that to call it cold would be too warm a description touched her arm. Lisa shied away from the shock. The touch happened again, and Lisa was herded back to the couch and prompted to sit down. She did so obediently.
“The groceries will be here soon, Lisa. Then you can watch your show, Lisa. And you can stay here for as long as you want, Lisa. And nothing will hurt you again, Lisa.” She nodded after each mention of her name. She smiled and sighed with relief after the last sentence. A shadow of a hand passed in front of her face and her eyes closed. The surrender of her awareness was complete.
The knock on her door startled her awake. She stood from the couch and looked around with concern. Another knock, more deliberate and louder than before, snatched her attention from the fading memory of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. As her phone joined in the confusion by ringing, she heard a faint dialing sound from beyond her front door.
“My groceries!” She opened the door to greet the delivery agent. The agent slid the bags and boxes to just inside the door and handed her a tablet to acknowledge delivery. She did so and asked the agent to wait.
“No time, lady!”
“Lemme give you your tip in cash!” She ran to her wallet, pulled a twenty dollar bill from it, and ran back to the door. “At least while I have the money to do so. Here, this is yours. I tipped a dollar in the app so you wouldn’t get flagged but I know you won’t get it, so here.”
The agent visibly warmed and smiled. “Thanks. I appreciate it. You’ll want to get the milk in the fridge ASAP. Traffic was thick getting here.”
In Lisa’s hurry to put the perishables away, she completely forgot all about the dream. She remembered that there was something urgent she was supposed to do, but whatever it was, it could wait until after she had something to eat.
Her microwave dinner ready, she took the plate to the table and stared at the stuff cluttering it in confusion. What money-making scheme was she trying to get into this time? Cards? A ripped paper? Who did she steal the paper from? This was all in the way of her plate.
Any other time, Lisa would have swept the blocking material onto the floor and worried about making any sense of it later. This time, the short decks of cards struck her senses as blocks of granite bolted to the table’s surface. She was afraid to touch them, afraid to examine them, as if they held a terrible story and if she were to brush against them, that story would devour her whole.
Lisa turned away and placed her plate on the living room table before the couch. She saw that she had not chosen a show to watch and started idly scrolling through what was available. Nothing really interested her so she left the screen on the selection menu and quietly ate her dinner in peace.
As the night deepened, the ambient temperature in the apartment dropped and the darker the world seemed to be outside. Even though it was still several hours before Lisa should go to bed for the night, the light outside her window was greatly dimmed and indistinct. She went to that window and looked. A dense fog had rolled in while she was eating. The fog was such that it completely obscured the ground far below her and the sky high above her. She suddenly felt very isolated, very alone, and very small.
It wasn’t until she went to wash up her dishes that she noted the time on the stove had been reset. Now that she was aware of it, so had the time on the microwave. She never used either to check the time so she wasn’t sure when the power blip had happened. She just mentally filed it as a random occurrence in the totally normal world she lives in and let it go.
She took the phone and sat back on the couch. There were literally hundreds of missed messages and voicemails to sort through. The messages that were filled with curse words and threats Lisa took as a perfectly normal reaction to having missed out on the pleasure of her perfect company. The messages that were filled with concern and care, she immediately distrusted. No one ever cared for her before, why would they care for her now.
The remaining messages annoyed her with all that mushy stuff. She opened her email app and started to clear that out instead. The confirmation of an online payment to her electric utility account confused her. She didn’t have an online account for her electric bill, much less the money to actually pay it this month. In fact, wasn’t it overdue?
It was by two weeks. But the electric company would have cut off the power by now, Lisa thought. In fact, now that she was looking at the calendar, the power would have been cut off for nonpayment… yesterday… at noon… while she was stuck in a jail cell. And apparently it was, as the online payment was made shortly before Jean had picked her up, and the power was confirmed to be restored while Jean was parked at the diner.
The conclusion was clear. Jean had paid off Lisa’s overdue electric bill. The driving to the boonies wasn’t to have a conversation away from anyone friendly to Aunt Helen, it was to give the electric company time to turn the power back on so Lisa wouldn’t be walking into a dark apartment. This also explained why the food went bad in the old and struggling fridge. The heat from the motor would have given everything a head start to spoilage.
Lisa started to feel queasy and uncomfortable. She had just started to settle into her new world, her pleasant world, a world of her making where she could determine what was the best way to let her live her life. The idea of someone paying off one debt only to put her into another unsettled her.
Her world had been rocked enough already, she thought. She just wanted everything to remain static and comfortable, she thought. Rebecca and her cards have already ruined so much, she thought. Maybe she should have thrown the cards away like she started to, she thought. Maybe she should throw the cards away right now and stop the cycle, she thought.
Maybe she will, she thought.
Lisa picked up the trash can on her way to the table. It was her intention to sweep everything off the table into the can without trying to sort or save anything. She placed the trashcan half under the table to catch everything and reached for the tarot decks.
The cards were face up, just as she left them.
Even though it was dark outside, even though the only light in the room was from the television and one floor lamp on the other side of the room, even though her shadow was falling across the cards, the decorated Sun card and the plain Sun card seemed to glow as bright as sunlight. The glare hurt her eyes.
Lisa winced as if something had struck deep within her. That something caused her to feel warmth in her chest as if she had stepped into a shaft of sunlight. That warmth caused the sensation of pins and needles to develop in her hands and feet, bringing to her attention just how cold she was all over.
No, not just cold, numb.
Lisa started crying but she did not understand why. She felt like she had just been savagely rebuked by Aunt Helen again but there was no one in the room but herself. Something was nagging Lisa to ignore the memories and to be rid of the tarot cards immediately, but Lisa was too deep into the memory of how good it felt to be in sunlight earlier that day to listen to so dark a command.
She picked up the card. The twisted image on the decorated card no longer bothered her. Lisa found the figure comforting, welcoming, and warming. The feelings it raised in her were like a light in the darkness, she thought.
A light in the darkness. That’s what Rebecca had told her in the coffee house. That Lisa was collecting the cards as she went and that they would be a light in the darkness. Fear flushed fresh tears from her eyes as she looked at the list of meanings. What if she wasn’t under the Sun card’s influence anymore. What if she was under a different card, one that hid light as well as the Sun gave light. What card would try to trap her and stop her progression?
Lisa kept the Sun card in her hand and looked at the card that was now face up on the decorated deck.
“XVIII” “THE MOON”
Lisa held the Sun card close to her chest. “The Moon? Luna. From which we get the word, lunacy. Oh.” She shoved the trash can to the side with her feet as she sat down at the table. The list of meanings vaguely declared that “Dreams are necessary.” But the deck’s listing card gave illusion, anxiety, and the unknown as the card’s keywords.
The decorated card’s figure’s legs were monstrous and the face was partially obscured by small wings, but otherwise the figure looked like any other naked person. As long as you didn’t mind the halo of darkness isolating the figure or the barbed wire wrapped about ice-blue hands. Thick clouds obscured the landscape behind the figure, as if being blinded and deprived of free action wasn’t isolating enough as it is.
Lisa wanted to cry in great heaves and sorrow. The now fully summoned light of the Sun card had revealed to her the dream of the encounter with the judge and how the entity had used her traumas against her to trap her into inaction and self-destruction. She wanted to scream to the walls that it wasn’t fair that she had become what other people had forced her to be. It certainly wasn’t fair that now that she was trying to fix herself, that other people were now doing their best to keep her broken.
Lisa picked up the Moon card with her free hand. “Look, bitch, you got me for a moment, but I’m awake now. I’m aware now. And while I don’t know why Rebecca gave me the deck and connected me with Tarot, capital T, I do know that so far it has been to give me what I need to fix myself, so I’m going to keep going with that until it is clear as fuck that I need to do otherwise.”
She slipped the Moon card behind the Sun and placed both at the bottom of the deck. “I’m done with this lunacy. What’s next?” She stared at the next decorated card, “XVII”, “THE STAR”. All she could understand from the image was some kind of space whale? And it was carrying space eggs in its back? And it had feet but was also being attended by some kind of space urchin for a black star?
The paper list gave a catchphrase of “Understanding, not hope” for the Star. This settled Lisa and gave her a deep sense of relief that she did not understand. She wanted to talk out her feelings about the phrase, but did not want to risk any of the judges pulling her into a vision or a dream to answer her. Instead, she resolved to punch the judge wearing her face as a mask the next time she saw them.
She stood up and shivered. The temperature really did drop in the past several hours. She straightened the deck of cards on the table and put the trash can back where it came from. After making sure that the phone’s alarms were set for tomorrow’s job (and she assumed that she did indeed still have that second job), Lisa turned out all the lights.
After a few tense seconds, she turned the kitchen light back on so she could see her way to the oven to turn on the range hood light. Now assured that the front of the apartment would not be in complete darkness, she turned off the other lights and went to bed.