Incense dripped from a holder hung high in the corner of the tent. The cloying scent filled his lungs, coating him with satin inside as well as out. He sank further down into the mound of pillows that had been arranged on the bench in the waiting area, a fuzzy mist beginning to settle over his mind. The silken material stuck slightly to his sweaty palms and to the undersides of his knees. The ceiling drapes and the curtained walls rippled as a cool night breeze passed the tent’s entrance, the fresh air tugging at the smoke. Another deep breath helped to clear his head, helped keep the slight dizziness at bay.
He strained to hear what was happening on the other side of the curtain. The woman who had entered before him had been in there for some time. That either meant a thorough reading or a fraud who knew that people liked to get their money’s worth. He silently hoped it wasn’t the latter. After all, this was no mere cheap shack. There was a sense of weight here that he hadn’t experienced elsewhere before. He knew that outside the fair was in full swing, with thumping music blasting from speakers and people laughing and screaming and shouting, but in here it was quiet. The tent commanded respect. The tent drew hushed whispers and wild rumours. People stayed well clear of the place or felt strangely drawn to it. This time felt promising.
At long last, the veil was peeled open. A mousy girl scurried under the arm that held open the doorway, a guilty look in her eyes as they flashed briefly past Paul’s, as though she had been caught in the act of something secret and illicit.
“Madame Selene will now part the veil for you,” said the woman in the doorway with a solemn nod and a stiff arm gesture.
She was swathed in an excessive amount of ruffles of the same mix of purple shades that made up the rest of the tent. Her painted brows arched a little too highly and seemed far too pencil thin for such a stocky woman. There was a mole on her chin with a hair that quivered gently as she spoke.
Paul stood a little clumsily and followed her.
The room beyond was bigger than he had expected, yet still somehow intimate. Rows of glass lanterns illuminated the space with a flickering light. A low table filled the centre of the room. With a gesture from the doorkeeper, Paul lowered himself to his knees before it and looked across at Madame Selene. She wore a simple shift dress of midnight blue under a kimono flecked with gold. A single dark curl spilled from beneath her headscarf and down her powdered forehead to rest above heavily made up eyes. Her cheeks were rouged almost as red as her crimson lipstick. Madame Selene smiled coyly at him, tilted her head. She held out a hand.
There was a small cough from behind Paul.
“Madame Selene will part the veil for five pounds.”
“Oh,” Paul stuttered, patting at his jeans for his wallet, “Yeah. Sure.”
He passed her the note. It disappeared somewhere into the folds of her sleeves.
“First,” Madame Selene said, her voice a velvet purr, “Your palm.”
Paul offered his hand, though he’d seen this routine time and time again.
“I see a long life,” she began, his skin tingling as she traced the creases of his palm.
“That’s what they all say.”
“A sceptic?” she raised one eyebrow, stared into his eyes, “No. No, a fanatic. And one so young. Tell me, what is it you seek?”
“Direction,” Paul said, his voice catching in his throat, “I seek the truth. I want to know...”
He hesitated under her dark stare. Her eyes bore into his, her gaze going deep within him.
“To know what?”
That head tilt again.
“Everything,” Paul said, leaning inwards, “I want to know what my future holds.”
The doorkeeper came between them then, stooping to fill two teacups. Madame Selene seemed undistracted by this. She peered back down at his palm. The scent of crisp peppermint mingled with the earthiness of the incense.
“I see many challenges in your life. You are at a crossroads. Do not be afraid. I see great things ahead of you, should you make the right choice.”
“What choice? What things?”
“You will know,” her fingers moved onwards, “When the time comes. A great opportunity will be offered to you if you are open-minded.”
“That’s not massively helpful,” said Paul.
“Madame Selene’s craft is an art, not a science,” intoned a voice from above.
Paul stifled a sigh. He went to reach for his tea with his free hand, but Madame Selene darted to place a palm over the cup.
“Tea leaves are extra,” she said.
Paul produced another note.
“Thanking you,” she said, snatching it away, “Now… what would you like to know more about? Your career? Your fortune? Love life?”
“I want you to tell me something real.”
She nodded a few times and picked up her cup, cradling it in her hands. Paul drank.
“I see a great sadness,” she said at last.
“When does it end?”
“Sooner than you think,” she gave a small shrug, “Longer than you’d like.”
“But what’s the point?” he urged, “Where is it all headed?”
She took his cup from him, twisted it three times. One corner of her mouth twitched into a grin as she looked into the cup. She held it up to him.
“You really ought to phrase your questions better.”
A lopsided skull stared back at him, the last dregs of tea oozing from its eye sockets.
The throat above was cleared once more.
“Madame Selene has now parted the veil.”
The curtain was drawn back to reveal a gaggle of teenage girls waiting in the anti-chamber. Paul got the sense that he was being hurried out. Reluctant to leave so soon and slow to stand, the curtain momentarily fell shut before he could reach it. He felt a hand from behind brush his arm.
“Wait,” said Madame Selene, “If you really want to know something real… come back later. Once the fair closes. I’ll wait out front, Paul.”
Before he could say a word, the curtain twitched once more and a firm hand yanked him through.
Paul didn’t recognise the girl outside the tent. She wore dark jeans and an oversized hoody. A mane of dark brown curls framed a face that was merely a regular shade of pale. The flamboyant eyeshadow was gone, though her eyes were still rimmed with the dregs of the thick layer of black Kohl. Her lips were thin and dry. A lighter flared in the near darkness and he realised that she was far younger than he had expected.
She waved her cigarette at him, screwed up her face.
“Stage name,” she explained, “It’s Sarah. Psychic Sarah just doesn't have the same ring, does it? It’s not mystic.”
“Earlier... You knew my name.”
Sarah tapped at her temple, smoke zigzagging above her head.
“I know a lot of things,” she said, taking another drag, “Madame Selene sees all.”
He’d checked his wallet afterwards to be certain. His driver's licence had been out of sight. He hadn’t spoken to anyone at the carnival, hadn’t mentioned his name. She had just known. She was the real deal, the fortune teller he had been looking for.
“Come on,” she said, heading towards the tent, “Mum’s asleep in the caravan so don’t make too much noise.”
The smell of ash clung to her. The heavy perfume of the tent had masked it before. He followed her into the back room expecting darkness and finding it bright with artificial light. The back wall of the tent had been lifted to reveal a caravan door, a window into a kitchenette behind.
Sarah sat down cross-legged on top of the round coffee table, boots scuffing the surface.
“You really want to see what I see?”
She held out her hand again.
“Thirty,” she said.
“Twenty up front,” she sniffed, “You might not like what you find.”
Paul looked at her for a long moment, then dug out the cash. She shoved it unceremoniously into the front pouch of her hoody.
“Alright then,” she jabbed one finger at the empty half of the table, “Sit.”
The table groaned as Paul clambered up next to her.
“What are you going to do?” Paul asked.
“This,” Sarah said.
And she prodded him in the forehead with one nail.
The inky blackness spread out before him without end. Faint swirls of silvery mist curled through the darkness, growing more tangible with each heartbeat, seeming to float into the void from some point behind him.
Sarah stepped into view, still smoking.
“What is this?”
“This?” Sarah flicked her cigarette, dislodging a clump of ash, “This is everything. All of time, from beginning to end. And that,” she pointed at a glowing ember floating away from her, “That’s you. Blink and you’ll miss it.”
He did not blink. He reached out, his fist closing around the tiny spark. It did not burn him and when he opened his hand again, it hung suspended in place above his palm.
“Hold onto it,” she told him, “Spend it wisely.”
“But...” Paul looked around. Bright as the tiny spark was, it didn’t even make a dent on the darkness.
“You want to look closer?” Sarah asked.
Without waiting for a reply, she flicked at the tiny ball of light. At her touch, it exploded outwards. Strands of light arced away from him, knotting and twisting into a complex web. It stretched on, expanding to the point where he could hardly make out the lines. Then Sarah reached up, catching the net and looping it around her fingers. She played with the strands of his fate as though it were a cat's cradle.
“See?” she said, pulling at a string, looping it back around her thumbs, placing a strand between her teeth, yanking it up into the shape of the Eiffel tower, spitting it out, “So many possibilities. So many choices to untangle, so impossible that… well… you may as well throw it and see what sticks...”
She span, reached back with one arm and launched the whole knotted bundle as though it were a shotput. But there was no wall for it to hit. There was nothing in the void- nothing but nothingness. Paul felt himself getting tugged along with the ball of light, felt the void shift around him and suddenly he was falling, faster and faster. The ball unravelled itself, like just so many strands of spaghetti flailing in the void.
“What do I do?” he yelled, a wind that shouldn’t have existed snatching the words from his mouth.
“Who can say?” said Sarah’s voice. It was coming from everywhere now, from inside his head perhaps.
He grasped for one of the writhing ropes that dangled around him, but it slid from his grip.
“Which one do I follow?” he asked.
A laugh. Deep and hollow and older than Sarah’s years.
“You think the void cares?” she said, “You think there’s a right choice?”
The choices around him seemed to be dwindling. The ropes came to abrupt ends or were flung far away from him.
“Then which one is certain?”
“Oh sweet child,” Sarah purred, “There’s only one thing that is certain.”
And then the last rope burnt away. Paul kept on falling. The darkness rose up, resolving itself into the curve of a dilated pupil. He crashed through the surface.
Sarah’s eye blinked.
Paul opened his eyes. It was still dark. He hugged his knees, curling inwards on himself.
The smell of ash and incense filled his nostrils. A figure moved towards him.
"Why do you do it?" he asked Sarah.
"Look into that," he gestured at the void, "Tell people lies."
She crossed her arms.
"Hey, a girl's gotta eat."
"Aren't you scared?"
A pause then. Silence. She took another drag and considered.
"No," Sarah said, "I'm not."
“But it's terrifying," Paul said.
“So take my hand,” she told him.
He looked up, stared at the hand that was offered to him.
“Just take it,” she rolled her eyes.
He reached out, felt her warmth beneath his frozen fingers.
“Now,” she said, one finger reaching out to trace the lines of his face, “Let me tell you a story about the way the world could be. A world of cliches and comfort. A world that makes sense of the chaos.”
His eyes locked with hers as she began.
“You are at a crossroads. And you are not alone. Everyone you meet is the same. And you will meet... ah yes... you will meet a tall, dark stranger...”