Publish Date: June 28, 2012

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, untied the silvery tendrils of the scarf and pulled back the four corners, one by one, to reveal the Tarot. She let the scarf drop next to Ivy on the smooth marble steps and began shuffling, deep in meditation, oblivious to the second-period bell and the jostle of Westmont Academy students pushing into Candler Hall. She cut and rejoined the deck, then flipped the top card.

         “Holy shit, Ivy, it’s the Tower again.” Harper Reeve’s gypsy persona, like many of her passions, could be a fleeting and volatile thing. “That’s like the fifth time this card has thrown itself at me. Freaky, huh?”

         “Freaky,” Ivy agreed, pulling her collar up against the winter chill. She was freezing her ass off, using up a free period when she should have been preparing for her chemistry final, and all just to indulge Harper’s newfound penchant for cartomancy. Harper insisted on doing the readings outside; the winter air helped Madame, her temperamental alto ego, concentrate. Harper was the kind of girl who could insist on such things; Ivy was the kind who did not put up much of a fuss. Not when it came to Harper, at least. Out on the bone cold steps, or buried in the swampy clang of the school’s boiler room, what did it matter? An hour alone with the most beautiful girl in the senior class who had for reasons unknown chosen her as a sidekick: Who was Ivy to question the cards?

         “So,” the recomposed Madame said, “Your reading begins with zee Tower. Interesting.” She bit her lower lip in concentration, pushed a vagabond strand of her long black hair behind her ear, no doubt trying to remember the cheat sheet that came with the Tarot deck. “Tower ees significator. Where you are in life now.” She peered into the image, trying to get a clue. “Madame sees beeg change ahead . . . cataclysmic change for you, Ivy Novotny.”

         Is she messing with me? Ivy wondered. “Hey, don’t I get to pick my own card?”

         “Madame alvays pick significator.”

         “So, I’m stuck with the Tower?” Should she laugh this off or look concerned? She could never quite figure out when Harper was serious and when she was joking. Misreading the tone of their interactions seemed to be her chief fault in Harper’s eyes. Harper would turn in a quick second if she thought Ivy got it wrong. Lighten up, she might say, or the equally unexpected converse, for once, Ivy, just be serious.

         “Cataclysmic change,” Ivy tried. “Could be a good thing, right?” Sometimes she screwed it up on purpose, because she liked the delicate tension of annoying Harper coupled with the promise of more time together, as she tried to earn her way back into favor.

         “Quit fooling around.” Harper tapped the deck. “Pose a question for the reading.”

         The Motherpeace Tarot cards were circular instead of rectangular, which made them as hard to handle as they were to interpret. Harper had developed a loping shuffle; she would arc them from hand to hand, almost as if were juggling. Ivy had not known quite what to say when Harper gave them to her a few weeks earlier. Not for her 18th birthday, which she’d already missed, but far too early for Christmas. A gag gift, then? Or something more personal? The $16.95 price tag still on the shrink-wrap made Ivy err on the serious side. Awesome, she had said, rippling off the plastic. Wanting to please Harper could make her overplay. “These are amazing cards. I love fortune telling.”

         Even if the gift began as an amusement, Harper now read the cards with a convert’s intensity. Silence. Madame Sosostris speaks. Well, if she was all about Tarot this month or the rest of senior year for that matter, so be it. Always intriguing to have her arrange the spread, turn over each card and reveal her feelings about life, about Ivy, on a given day. She could be so generous, old Madame S, seeing beeg love, and verrry long life, rolling her r’s dramatically whenever she felt openhearted. She could also switch into a mean old bitch. Cataclysmic change.

         Ivy shuddered in her corduroy jacket. Trees around campus held their quivering gold leaves, feeling lucky to be so bestowed and knowing that a strong blast at any moment could strip them of their worth. Her mother’s scarf, fallen on the marble step, was made of the thinnest cotton; strands of tinsel thread crisscrossed the fabric. Ivy picked it up, held it to her nose: cigarette smoke, dust, a scratch in the back of her throat. She had purloined the scarf from a basket on the floor in Mom’s closet, she kept the silky wraps she wore on her teaching days at the university. Such luxuries could be liabilities when Ivy’s younger brother Benjy was around. At fourteen, he still had the mental ability of a two-year-old. He would stretch and shred anything pretty, then stiff it in the toilet, just for a laugh. Even though Benjy was away now (for however long the latest in a long line of group homes might last), Mom kept all her silks and jewelry hidden, like love letters from an old boyfriend.

         Ivy tied the scarf around her neck for some warmth and a little magic, too. Maybe she could absorb from it some of Mom’s ethereal beauty and do to Harper what Harper did to her.

         “Come on then, Madame S., tell me what my future holds.”

         “Just a second, Novotny; you’re a total mess.” Harper’s concentration broke again as she leaned into Ivy, took the scarf ends, tied them together and rearranged the fringe. “There . . . much better. Now . . . the Tarot. You are the querent, so you must pose the question. Place your hand on the deck. Focus.”

         Ivy studied the significator card hunting for clues. A thin naked woman with fire coming out of her heard sat on a tower. Her hair was long and wild, streaked with gray, and there was fire blazing in the background. Lightning bolts shot down from the sky as if at her command. Did Mom sometimes wish that lightning could strike her family, once, twice, thrice? Strike one without question would be for Benjy. He’d been kicked out of six group homes already; who knew how long number seven would last? When Dad came home from work at night and said, Looks like we finally figured it out, huh? Mom looked as if she could spit. Her second bolt of lightning had to be for Dad, then. Dad, the relentless optimist who wouldn’t or couldn’t give up his crusade to find a permanent placement for his problem child. And the third and final strike? No contest was there? Hugo, Ivy’s other brother, the middle child, was stoic and beautiful, rose early every day, rode his bike to the Westmont campus, changed in the varsity locker room, and then launched his body off the diving board, over and over again, whipping and chastising his physical self into perfection. Hugo—his name even meant “good soul”—would have been any mother’s dream son. Strike three, then, was for Ivy. Chunky of body, sharp of tongue, and as Mom had started to suspect, unnatural in desire. With Harper beside her, Ivy knew that she could never be who her mother wanted. She probably couldn’t be who Harper wanted either, but she did want Harper. So, screw Mom, and screw the flaming Tower card, and screw me too for being too chicken-shit to ask for what I need.

         Madame tapped her foot and said, “Come now, you vant to ask about a boy, yes?”

         Ivy tugged at the strangling scarf. Whose idea of fun was this? Where had Harper bought the damn cards? Scratch that—why had Harper given her the cards? No. Not that either. The honest truth . . . the questions she really wanted to ask . . . Could Harper ever feel the same way? Did she ever find it hard to sleep at night because of Ivy? But these were not the kind of questions Harper wanted; for all her flirtations with the dark and dangerous, Harper remained a conventional Southern girl.

         “Ask.” She insisted now of Ivy.

         “Okay. Where’d you buy the cards?”

         “Little Five Points,” Harper flashed her super-white teeth. “I already told you that.”

         “I don’t think so. I would have remembered.”

         They’d found the funky neighborhood together during a long, slow run one afternoon in the fall. The location and atmosphere were as far away from Westmont Academy and Atlanta’s moneyed Buckhead neighborhood as Ivy could have hoped to go: Long-haired guys kicked around a bean bag in a rubble-strewn front yard; rainbow flags hung from bedroom windows. A girl with a black-faced guitar sate on the hood of a pick-up and strummed chords. No one watched as they jogged past. Later, they had talked about venturing back one weekend. They could shop at some of the strange stores, maybe grab lunch at that place: Eat Your Vegetables. Ivy loved the name; she loved to be bossed when it came to food. And love. But now it seemed that Harper had returned to L5P alone. Or worse, not alone, but without Ivy. She stared at Harper, willing her to confess. A sense of doom stirred in her gut. The Tower cried out cataclysm, cataclysm. She pulled her feet out from under her but. Pins and needles in her toes. Harper owed her a confession. Ivy flexed her heels and asked again.

         “Where exactly did you get the cards?”

         Madame dealt nine, face down, in a circle—the Motherpeace spread, the one described in the instruction booklet—then looked up at Ivy defiantly. “All right. I went back there last month.”

         “By yourself?”

         “I wanted to get you a present. I thought I could find something . . . kind of quirky. Like you. So yes, I went back. Alone.”

         Harper was lying. Her tell was the way she tossed her hair between each choppy sentence. She dealt three final cards face down beneath the circle; they would reveal proximate, distant and final outcomes.

         “How’d you get there?”

         “Is this a fucking federal investigation?”

         Ivy waited her out.

         “Dan drove me, okay. Is that want you want to hear?”

         Ivy’s neck burned, blood rising up her cheeks. Dan. Dan Lauderdale: Class-President- Yearbook-Editor-Christian-Life-Leader-Wresting Co-Captain. Lately, he had been tagging along with the girls’ cross-country team because he said it would help him make his competition weight. 154 lbs. He spit every few yards, trying to shed extra ounces. Ivy was such an idiot to believe the runs were part of his regimen; she could spit on herself for stupidity. Did Harper have to rub the final three cards in her face for her to finally understand. Dan. Harper. Little Five Points?

         “Now ask the goddamn question for the reading.” Harper was not fooling around.

         Ivy was lousy at finding one. It was a skill, just like tying a scarf or smoking, that required a measure of femininity unattainable to her. Some people—Mom, Harper—never had to worry about such things. They could wear a scarf, inhale, know the right questions.

         “Ask,” Harper said, “or I am so out of here.”

         Like that she could lose her. Ivy untied the scarf from her throat and scratched at her neck with stubby, bitten fingernails. Harper had climbed into Dan’s car voluntarily and given him directions to Little Five Points. Did she lead him into the restaurant, Eat Your Vegetables, whisper that command into his ear, rest her hand on his thigh? Did she buy the Tarot just to tantalize strait-laced Dan? How excited he must have been, walking through the odd community with a gorgeous girl, just crazy enough to explore the dark arts.

         A gust of wind blew hair across Harper’s face and she pushed it back impatiently as she began to gather up cards from the steps. The trees held tight to their leaves, but winter was coming. Ivy saw what she was not yet ready to lose; knew what would have to be enough. For now. Maybe for the next few years. She cleared her throat and found somewhere deep within exactly the type of question Madame wanted to answer.

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