In The Cards

"What the hell are you wearing?" asked Sean, trying hard not to look at his friend's long, slim, panty-hosed legs. When answering the front door at one's home, one usually does not expect a girl in a French maid costume, beaming hard enough to split her face open.

"I'm Chii from Chobits," said Kady, squeezing past him and taking off her coat as he shut the door. "Don't you recognize the ears?"

She took off her coat to reveal a very short, frilly, black silk dress with an equally frilly white apron. Her long blond hair was unbound, except for one thin strand on either side of her head, fastened with black velvet ribbons. Her ears were covered by pink-and-white cloth triangles connected by a transparent plastic band across her forehead, like headphones. Those ears, the receptacles of Chii the cartoon robot girl's plugs and cables, were indispensable. Sean couldn't decide what to think of it: ridiculous, or too cute for words.

"You're crazy. In the best possible way. C'mon in." He stepped aside so she could drop her purse and maneuver her way through the pile of shoes in the entry hall. He followed her into the kitchen, where she promptly tore into one of the bags of miniature candy bars on the table and began unwrapping them.

"Hey, those are for the trick-or-treaters!" He glared at Kady from his seat at the kitchen table, pretending to be upset. "You'll get enough tonight anyway."

"Yeah, but that's three whole hours away! And hey, speaking of tonight, why aren't you dressed yet?" She sat down opposite him and waved an accusing KitKat at his baggy cargo pants and plaid shirt.

"I'm not going to the party. You know it's not my thing."

"But Halloween parties are so fun! Everyone acts all different because they're in costume. You wouldn't be geeky Sean anymore, you'd be, like, a vampire or a wizard or whatever you're going as."

Sean had a momentary vision of a dashing vampire in a tuxedo, waltzing slowly with a beautiful robot girl. He shook his head. They never played waltzes at high school parties anyway; most likely the playlist would be full of funny Halloween songs like Monster Mash or The Purple People-Eater.

"So you think I'm a geek, eh? Thanks very much."

He meant it to sound funny, but she must have seen something in his face because she put her hand on his arm and shook her head so wildly her robot ears slipped.

"No, no! I didn't mean it like that, it's just, everyone at school keeps saying it and it drives me nuts."

She looked so fierce, it made him smile in spite of himself. Kady tended to worry about his avoidance of social life; she had once said that 'she wished everyone in school could appreciate him the way they should'.

Suddenly she took her hand away, as if his skin was burning her through the fabric of his shirt. She adjusted the ears, moved her chair back, and in the silence that followed, began to nibble nervously at her candy bar.

"So, uh...how'd your fortune telling go today?" asked Sean, just to break the silence. Kady had volunteered to give Tarot card readings as a fundraiser for Unicef; Tarot cards were her newest craze and in spite of the occasional snide comment, she seemed to be quite successful with them.

"Oh, it was..." She screwed up her face and shook her head. "Everyone asked the same questions. Will I get a boyfriend or a girlfriend soon, will I pass the exams, all these really specific things. And when I couldn't tell them what they wanted to hear, they got mad. It's not like the cards are a direct fax to heaven that spell out your answers in black and white. You gotta think. You gotta interpret them. It makes me so effing tired...especially after pulling an all-nighter to finish that PowerPoint for Humanities...that I can't think straight."

She crumpled up the empty candy wrapper, stood up and tossed it into the garbage.

"And I could tell that most of them weren't taking me seriously anyway. They were like, So, am I going to meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger?"

"I thought it was supposed to be for fun," Sean put in, helping himself to a box of Smarties and thinking that even in an 'effing tired' state, Kady had more energy than he did on his best days. "A Halloween entertainment thing."

"I thought so too." She shrugged and threw up her hands. "Guess I got carried away. I mean, it's fascinating. Doing a reading." Her hands danced through the air as she spoke, clumsily trying to express what she felt inside. "You look at the cards, and you try to remember all the little shades and nuances of meaning that they have, and you look at the person and try to figure out what the underlying message is, or if the cards even have one. Sometimes..." She rested her chin on her hands, her eyes getting unfocused. "Sometimes I could swear that I'm connected. To some divine power, my own subconscious, something anyway. All the cards just click together and I know what it all means." She smiled, then shook her head and pushed a strand of hair away from her face. "But most of the time, I just have a bunch of contradictions - and Rochelle giving me evil looks because I can't say if she'll ever grow out of bra size A."

Sean snorted with laughter. "She asked you that? I thought you hate each other's guts!"

"I put on a veil and a fake Russian accent," Kady giggled. "She didn't know it was me!"

"And if you were like her, by now the whole school would know."

Sean emptied the Smarties box onto the table, sorted out all the brown ones and pushed them in her direction. With a nod of thanks, she picked one up and popped it into her mouth.

"I admit, the temptation to tell is awful. She doesn't look flat, does she? So, what, does she put cotton balls in her bra or something? I bet all the guys would love to find out."

The subject was making him decidedly uncomfortable; how had they gotten from the mysteries of Tarot to this? And did the neckline of Kady's costume have to be so low?

He could actually see a faint tan line from the bikini she had worn that summer...

"Hey, Kady?"

"Hm?"

"Would you mind doing a reading for me?" Anything to change the subject.

She blinked and moved her head back, looking startled. "I thought you didn't believe in this stuff."

"Maybe not, but at least I won't give you evil looks or ask annoying questions. I'll be the most perfect client you ever had." He put on his most charming smile.

"Oh. Well, okay."

"We can watch the movie later," he added, nodding in the direction of the hallway where her purse was sitting. Inside it was their regular Halloween treat: Sleepy Hollow starring Johnny Depp, the reason she had come over in the first place.

Kady stood up and came back with a pack of cards in a bright green cardboard box. "So...what kind of reading do you want? Celtic Cross, Horseshoe or Quick Fix?"

"Huh? What – "

"That's the patterns the cards are laid out in. The Quick Fix is my idea 'cause it's easier. It's three cards to represent your past, present and future."

"I'll take the Quick Fix then," said Sean, feeling oddly like a customer at a fast food joint.

"Okay. Here goes."

She slid the cards out of their box and cut them three times, with a deeply solemn, concentrated expression that was so out-of-character for her that he had to fight back a laugh. Slowly, one by one, she picked three cards out of the deck and put them face down on the table in front of her. They were the size of Sean's hands, rather battered, with a red and white plaid pattern on the back

"So yeah, this is the past," she muttered, turning over the card to his left. It showed a man in a medieval jester's outfit, complete with bells on the cap, about to step over the edge of a cliff into the blue sky. A little black dog was running along a path after him.

"That's the Fool," said Kady, smiling a little.

"It's me, right?"

"Yeah." She let out a nervous little giggle. What was she so nervous about? "It doesn't mean you're crazy or anything...it's more like...some people see the cards as telling a story, you know? And the Fool's, like, the main character. He's looking for something...himself, maybe. If you think this is stupid, we can stop."

"No, no. Go ahead. He's looking for something?"

"Yeah. He's a very intuitive sort of guy. He takes risks. See, he's jumping off the cliff to find out if he can fly. Since it's a story, gravity doesn't matter." She raised her eyebrows, acknowledging the fantastical elements of Tarot and her own enjoyment of them. "The dog represents, like, his instincts or his connection to nature. Next card?"

"Fire away."

The card in the middle unsettled Sean as soon as he saw it. It showed a figure in black armor on a huge black horse, facing a man who looked tiny by comparison. The horseman's helmet was open and the face was a white, grinning skull. He did not consider himself squeamish, but it was a relief to look up and see Kady whistle through her teeth.

"Two Major Arcana cards, eh? Wow."

"Two Major what?"

"Oh, the cards are in two sets. One's the Major Arcana, that's these ones with the pictures, and the other one, the Minor Arcana, has four suits. Like regular cards, but different. Anyway, this is Death."

"Looks like it. Does that mean I'm gonna die?"

"Sure. I mean, like, everyone dies. But I think this is supposed to be more of a metaphorical death...some big change...something new."

Sean noted that the message of the cards really was vague, like she'd said. It could apply to anyone. Thoughts of his upcoming graduation crossed his mind; could that be the change she meant?

"So I'm not gonna drop dead next week or anything."

"Don't say that!" She scrunched up her face and shivered dramatically, then opened her eyes and shot him an irritated look. "And what happened to being the perfect client? No smart-ass comments while I'm reading, got it?"

She shook her finger at him like a kindergarten teacher, making a silver bangle shine on her wrist.

"Sorry, sorry, couldn't resist. Now please, go ahead. No more comments, I swear."

She sighed, rolled her eyes at him in that almost affectionate way she had, and turned over the next card.

A small sound, halfway between a squeak and a gasp, escaped her lips.

"Okay...so...the Lovers."

Something about her voice was wrong. He couldn't say he felt quite right himself. The mood in the room changed in an instant.

The card showed two naked people, a man and a woman, standing opposite each other and stretching out their hands as if for a hug. In the background was an apple tree loaded with fruit. The symbolism couldn't be more obvious.

"You didn't – I – are you...are you in love with someone?"

Kady's voice was tiny; she looked and sounded like a little girl, twirling a strand of hair over and over in her fingers and avoiding his eyes.

Yes. Yes, of course I'm in love! Sean swallowed the words just in time and cast about for something that would change the mood, get her safely back into fortune teller mode and out of this...whatever it was.

"Isn't this card a metaphor like all the others?"

"Well, yeah. Sometimes." She looked up, then down again; were her cheeks pinker than usual? "Sometimes it just means a choice or, like, growing up or..." She picked up the card and turned it around in her fingers, over and over. "I just assumed..."

Suddenly her head snapped up and she fixed him with such a hard, bright, intense expression that it was his turn to look down. "Hang on – you didn't answer my question. Is there someone or not?"

"What is with you today?" he hedged, fidgeting in his seat. "Since when are you so nosy about my private life?"

"Since when - ?" Kady fell back into her chair as if she'd been slapped, then stood up so abruptly she nearly knocked over the chair.

"I knew it. I knew it! That's what they all say in the hallways. There goes Sean with his silly little sidekick. I thought we were friends at least and you could tell me anything, but no – the moment I want to know something personal about you, I'm nosy."

As she spoke, her voice lost its balance and began to wobble; she stormed over to the box of tissues on the kitchen counter and buried her face in one.

Sean was mystified. "Hey, I'm sorry! I didn't mean it like that, I just - "

"I know, Sean." She blew her nose and flapped a hand at him. "You're a guy. You can't help being clueless. I've been in love with you since freshman year, but did you notice? Nuh-uh. And I'm so sick of waiting that maybe I'll just go cold turkey on you. Stop hanging out with you. A girl can only take so much."

She made her way towards the entry hall to get her coat and purse. It took a few seconds for rapid, tear-choked volley of words to make sense in Sean's mind, but once they did, everything clicked into place.

If it weren't for the tragical slump of Kady's shoulders in front of him, he would have broken out into a little victory dance right there. Instead he jumped up from the table, hurried after her (almost slipping in his socks on the slippery kitchen tiles) and put a hand on her shoulder. She stopped and whirled around, her mango-scented hair whipping past his face.

"Don't you – please don't walk out on me," he stammered, and kissed her before his common sense could get in the way.

She tastes like chocolate, was his last thought before reason floated away on a sea of joy.

3

A few hours later, Sean's mother came home from work to find Kelly Clarkson's The Trouble With Love playing in the living room as the credits of a film – Love Actually, not Sleepy Hollow – rolled on the little flat screen TV. Sean and Kady were slow dancing on the carpet, or attempting to – "Hey, quit stepping on my feet!" said Kady, giggling and swatting him on the arm. Their class's Halloween party would be in full swing by now, and instead of painting the town red in her Chii costume, Kady was right there.

Both of them looked so happy it was easy to guess what had happened.

And about time, too, said Sean's mother to herself.