Malefic Machinations

Submitted into Contest #152 in response to: Set your story in an oracle or a fortune teller’s parlor.... view prompt

48 comments

Drama Crime Urban Fantasy

Juanita raised the crystal ball above her head, the bangles on both her arms tch-king, and then spiked it at the floor with a primal scream. It slammed into the scuffed linoleum with a doof, neither bouncing nor breaking. It just rolled an inch and stopped, a dead eye glaring up at her.

“No!” she wailed. She tore at her bandana, at her hair. “You can’t!” Her raw voice cracked. “Not him!” She sunk to her knees, her bead necklaces clacking a riot. “Not Andrew!” She drowned her face in her hands, overtaken by airless sobbing. Through a forest of fake inch-long crimson nails, she saw the ball.

Slowly, the crystal misted from within. The mist swirled, a tempest, and when it finally parted, there he was: Andrew. In a car, gripping the wheel, his eyes wide. It was dark, and then suddenly it was bright, everything lit by unseen headlights.

And then the other car slammed into him.

***

They met, really met, during his second reading.

When Juanita emerged from her tiny kitchen, holding a tray of what she called “spirit tea” – a bulk-bought black, with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of cinnamon – she saw Andrew admiring her parlour shelves. She carefully curated a collection of pawn-shop charms, eBay totems, and mass-market fetishes, interspersed with community-college portraits of Baron Samedi and other loa. The candles were real, though.

He scrutinized a (plaster) skull, and she scrutinized his broad shoulders. His every motion was awkwardly delicate; discipline masking an intoxicating beast. Could she see his aura – if such things existed – it would surely shiver with masculine power, radiating heat. He was a bull, but she was no delicate china shop.

She sashayed through the bead curtain and he startled.

“No reason to be nervous,” she said, setting down the tea tray. She donned her work accent, the one that sounded suitably foreign but couldn’t quite be traced to any particular people or place. “Come, sit, darling. Madam Anastasia not bite.”

He chuckled – and damn if that smile didn’t almost make her spill the tea – and then sat down, at the round table dominating the parlour. It was a plastic disc on gaunt metal legs, but all that was obscured by a voluptuous aubergine cloth.

“You don’t seem surprised to see me again?” he said.

She went to her credenza, dug out a match. “Madam Anastasia know you will return.” She arched her back, leaned down, and took her time lighting some incense. “Madam Anastasia know all.”

“You know,” he said, when she came back to the table, “I still don’t think I really believe in this stuff.” She lit a pair of candles at the table and then shuttered the blinds. Dialed the mood light down to business.

“And yet, here you are.” She sat opposite him.

“How did you know my boss’s favourite colour was blue?”

She smiled. “You get promotion, yes?”

He chuckled again, touched his chin. Looked away, bashfully. “Yes. I–oh, sorry!” Their feet touched under the table.

“No harm done,” she said, her voice as steady as her heart wasn’t. She took a sip of tea and he did the same. “Come, you ask question now, yes?”

“Okay,” he drew out. “Is… is this stuff real?

“Very. All of it. This is real magic. I… am real woman.”

He raised an eyebrow. Whoops! Perhaps she was coming on too strong. He was, after all, a customer. Currently, just a customer.

“Hmm,” she said, waving her hand over the crystal ball. “But what is this? I see something in your future.” Her many bracelets tch-ked hypnotically. And she did see something. The ball misted, and she felt giddy. How did it work? She still had no idea. But what luck that she had the only real crystal ball in the world.

There was Andrew, and there was another man, in a suit. Then the other man at a strip club, then a gym. Then watching the game. At home? Shouting at a wife? He was a strong man. He gave orders in an office, making others miserable. A boss? No, not Andrew’s. Ah!

“I see meeting with important man. Important… client?”

At once, Andrew’s face grew tight, and his breathing shallow. “You… what? But, I have a…”

“Yes, Darling. Madam Anastasia know.”

He placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. “It’s with Cartwright, and the guy’s a notorious hardass. Can you tell me anything about it? Do I get the contract?”

In the mist, Juanita saw Andrew getting fired after pissing off Cartwright. She scowled and waved her hand. The mists shifted. She saw them at the club, with the strippers, getting drunker than drunk. Andrew quits and works for Cartwright–no, she didn’t want Andrew working there. Another wave of the hand, another shift. She saw their first meeting, and Andrew stepped in and grabbed Cartwright’s hand and squeezed hard. Cartwright shrunk. Intimidated? Respectful? Andrew got the contract.

She resisted scowling. Were men really this easy? Whatever, this was the right future.

“I see difficult meeting,” she said. “You must show strength.

He leaned in even closer.

***

Juanita wiped her face on her sleeve. It was already night, but maybe there was still time. Maybe she could change things. She stumbled to her feet and tried to call him, but kept getting a busy signal. After the third time, she swore, grabbed her purse, then doubled back for the black velvet bag with the gold cord.

She scooped the treacherous crystal into the bag. It had gone blank again, and she dared not activate it. Not now, anyway. But she couldn’t leave it behind either. No, it was much too useful.

She flew out of her apartment and hailed a taxi.

“Where to?”

She swore as she dug her phone out of her purse, looked up the address.

Once the cab started driving she snuck a peek into the black velvet bag, but the mists still showed the same scene playing out.

***

Things changed after his third reading.

“I do not know how you do it,” Andrew said. His eyes darted from the crystal, to her face, to the flickering candles, never settling on anything too long. He was grinning like a schoolboy and his hands didn’t know what to do. “You are absolutely amazing. Everything you say keeps happening.”

“Madam Anastasia know this.” She smiled her enigmatic smile, weaving her hands through the air.

He chuckled. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Is why you are here, yes?”

“Madam Anastasia,” he repeated. Met her eyes, made it hard for her to meet his. “Is that really your name?”

She bit her lip, felt her cheeks grow warm. You’re not supposed to reveal secrets of the trade to customers, but there are exceptions to every rule. “My name’s Juanita.”

“Whoa,” he said. “Accent’s gone.”

“Yeah,” she pouted. “It’s good for business, but it’s not me. But the readings are real.”

“Yeah,” he said. “You don’t have to convince me. Well, your secret’s safe with me, Juanita.”

She rested her chin on her hand and grinned. “Good. I’d hate to have to cast a hex on you.” She wiggled her brows nefariously, and they both laughed. Then the laughter faded into silence, and the silence yawned. Her heart raced and it took all her effort to keep still and maintain the illusion of control.

Finally, Andrew cleared his throat. “Um, listen. I don’t know if this is okay, but… I figured, I wanted to thank you for your help last time, and, um…” He ducked under the table and unzipped his backpack, and then produced a bottle of wine.

Her heart almost skipped a beat. They shared the wine. They shared the evening. They broke fast.

All, as she had seen in the mist.

***

She threw a handful of bills at the driver and was out the door before the cab had fully stopped. Andrew lived in a quiet suburb and she spotted him on his driveway. He was illuminated by the garage light and he was packing a suitcase into a car. The car in the mist.

“Andrew!” she shouted, running. It wasn’t too late.

He turned, surprised. “Juanita?”

“Andrew! Oh my God, I’m so glad I caught you!” It wasn’t easy running in heels. “Don’t go! Don’t get in!” She threw herself into his arms.

And his expectant hands caught her by the shoulders. “Jesus, what the hell are you doing here?” he hissed.

Then the door to the house opened, and a woman stepped out. “Andrew? Who’s that?”

***

During the first reading, Andrew and Vanessa had come together.

They wanted advice on which house to purchase. It was going to be their first, and they narrowed it down to three cozy locations.

“We want to start a family,” Vanessa said, beaming at Juanita. Beaming at Andrew. Her disgusting hand always on his, always pawing at him. Like he belonged to her.

It took Juanita a lot of effort to keep up her business face. She asked them for the addresses and decided to fake this consultation as fast as possible. But when she waved her hands over the crystal – a mass-produced piece-of-junk she got at Walmart for $89.99 – it actually did something. It worked.

And not only did it show the future, it showed several versions of it. She picked the house and the fate she wanted them to have. And kept the address, just in case.

***

“Is that her?” Vanessa said, stepping onto the driveway in slippers and a bathrobe. “Oh my God! Is that her, Andrew!?”

“Stop shouting,” he said. “The neighbours might–”

“–might what? Find out you’re a cheating son-of-a-bitch?” Vanessa turned to Juanita. Her eyes widened, and then narrowed. “You? You!?” She shook her head, completely at a loss for words, and then rounded on Andrew. “You throw us away for some goddamned psychic whore? What’s wrong with you!”

“Jesus,” Andrew growled. He threw his case into the car and stalked to the driver side door.

Juanita rushed after him, grabbing him by the arm. “No, don’t–”

He pushed her away and she fell on the lawn, winded. The ball fell out of its bag and rolled a few feet away. Then Andrew was inside the car. The door slammed, the engine roared, and the tires peeled.

“And don’t come back!” Vanessa shouted after him, standing in the middle of the street.

“No…” Juanita whimpered, struggling to get to her hands and knees.

***

Their twenty-something’th reading, Juanita was alone.

It was early noon, and Andrew had already left. He was distant. Said he didn’t want to keep betraying his wife. That they’d have to end this sooner or later. Sooner.

The thought of losing him made her sick, and this dogged loyalty to that dog frustrated her. But he had a point. A man should be loyal to just one woman.

“How can I make him mine?” she asked. “Mine, and mine alone.” No clients today, just her and the crystal. “Show me the quickest way to my man’s heart.”

The crystal ball misted, and the mist swirled.

Night-time. She saw their house. The driveway, and the car. She saw herself. Under the car. She was doing something, cutting something. Juanita didn’t know what it was, but she watched unblinking, committing the deed to memory.

And then the mist shifted. Bright morning, Vanessa driving. Sudden panic, a horn. And the other car slamming into her.

A lovely funeral, a consolable widower, and abracadabra: she had him.

***

They saw Andrew speed towards a stop sign, only he didn’t stop. A garbage truck blared its horn but it was too late. It rammed into him, sending his crushed little sedan spinning.

“No!” Juanita screamed.

Vanessa shrieked and crumpled to her knees. Any hopes of reconciling, any dreams of forgiving, of family – gone.

“It was supposed to be you!” Juanita hissed, but Vanessa didn’t hear.

Then the crystal misted up.

Juanita snapped to it, though she could barely see it through her bleary eyes. It showed Vanessa, distraught, on the phone. Then a police officer, inspecting Juanita’s sabotage. Another officer speaking with Vanessa, and Vanessa pointing the police her way. Then a jail cell–

“No,” she said, hoarse, shaking the crystal. The mist shifted.

And showed her a way out.

Juanita rose to her feet, steadying her breathing. She’d have to mourn Andrew later. She saw Vanessa in the street, blubbering, still on her knees, and fumbling in her bathrobe pockets for her cellphone. Then struggling to hold it in her shaking hands, failing to unlock it.

Juanita approached her, calmly. Quietly.

“It was supposed to be you,” she whispered. She stood right behind Vanessa, undetected.

Juanita raised the crystal ball above her head.

June 28, 2022 23:56

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48 comments

Ashley Brandt
21:31 Jul 06, 2022

Good story! I enjoyed the spin on the fortune teller. You took the mystical theme and gave it a unique spin. The only critique is the overall flow of the story, the transitions were a little abrupt from one scene to the next, but I understand that when you’re working with a word limitation, it’s difficult to incorporate everything! Good story!:)

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Michał Przywara
02:48 Jul 07, 2022

Thanks, Ashley! Yes, that 3k limit creeps up on you. I'm glad you still enjoyed it :)

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Carolyn Brown
22:18 Jul 05, 2022

Interesting approach, delivering characterization in layers as Juanita plays Choose Your Own Adventure with her crystal ball. The dramatic beginning drew me in immediately, and one line was particularly expert: "she drowned her face in her hands". I definitely had the image of Maleficent there, because of the title, so I was continually surprised as her character devolved at each reading. Oh, poor Juanita, mislead by a crystal ball from Walmart. So funny!

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Michał Przywara
23:05 Jul 05, 2022

Thanks, Carolyn! Whoops, I didn't actually realize there was a character/movie called Maleficent. I'm chronically behind on films. I hope that wasn't too misleading! But yeah, I think you got exactly what I was going for. I don't think Juanita was necessarily a bad person, she just had needs and wants, and suddenly, supernatural opportunity. A bit of power lead to a slippery slope, and here we are. I'm glad you found the funny in it. It wasn't strictly a comedy, but I think even dark topics give us all sorts of opportunities for humour :)...

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Carolyn Brown
04:30 Jul 06, 2022

Thank goodness we can't all get a working crystal ball at Walmart! Juanita was just an ordinary person, like all of us. Definitely dark humour!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
20:30 Jul 03, 2022

Michal! Twistier than a coiled spring! I love that you got us to really invest in her before revealing what terrible lengths she has gone to to get what she wanted. What's even better is that you managed to get us sympathetically investing in a charlatan! I daydream about everyday magic being a real thing, so this really appealed. It has a great pace and each twist ramps up the tension. Great job a always. :)

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Michał Przywara
22:22 Jul 03, 2022

Thanks, Jay! You got exactly what I was going for, with the sympathy for a charlatan :) I think sometimes I write characters who are a little too passive, so this time I wanted one who *wanted* things. I also daydream about everyday magic. Maybe it won't happen, but it sure does lead to story ideas :) I appreciate your feedback!

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Riel Rosehill
12:01 Jul 03, 2022

Oooh what a wild ride, this one! Excellent plot twists, too. This was a very enjoyable read: First, I was just thinking how lovely, she falls in love with a client, and maybe it's going to be the tragedy she'd foreseen but maybe she can alter the outcome. Then we learn he was married. Then we learn, Juanita cut t he breaks. Makes me see the first part in a totally different light, and I love these sort of reveals. Well done! And to even take it one step further and have Juanita raise that crystal ball as a murder weapon... She was definitel...

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Michał Przywara
16:12 Jul 03, 2022

Thanks, Riel! You got exactly what I was going for :) A somewhat misleading first impression, and as we learn more about her as time goes on, our understanding grows. I guess how first impressions often go -- useful, but rarely 100% accurate. Just like Juanita's first impression of the crystal perhaps, as a helpful, friendly thing. Regarding her just happening to buy a working crystal ball: that was actually the seed for this story. I thought, "what if a fake fortune teller found a real magical device?" It seems like there's infinite ways...

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Sharon Hancock
01:23 Jul 03, 2022

Don’t mess with Juanita! I forgot I was reading this went so smoothly. Very interesting storyline and I loved the intensity you gave it. Her description of him is my favorite: ” she scrutinized his broad shoulders. His every motion was awkwardly delicate; discipline masking an intoxicating beast. Could she see his aura – if such things existed – it would surely shiver with masculine power, radiating heat. He was a bull, but she was no delicate china shop.” Loved the twists and the ending was perfect. 😻

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Michał Przywara
16:02 Jul 03, 2022

Thanks, Sharon! "I forgot I was reading this went so smoothly." -- Wow! That's high praise :D I'm so glad you enjoyed it :)

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Vera Vuscoe
20:15 Jul 02, 2022

This was amazing, I loved all the twists, and the grammar and word choice and everything was equally amazing. Great read that wasn't too short or long, I didn't get bored of it. And, I loved the ending. Thanks, Michał, for always making stories that I know will be good. Keep writing! May the goddess smile upon you, Starlight

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Michał Przywara
21:15 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Starlight! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Aesha Amin
19:35 Jul 02, 2022

I could've never predicted the ending. Michał, this is so good! I'm not as good at commenting as you are, but I can't not say anything about this story. I loved the prose and the plot twists were so satisfying to read. Thank you so much for sharing!

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Michał Przywara
20:03 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Aesha! I'm very happy the twists were satisfying. They were certainly fun to write :) I appreciate your feedback!

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15:37 Jul 02, 2022

Wooooooow Michal! This piece was so suspenseful and haunting! I was very intrigued by Juanita, and her talent for telling the future. Seeing her drop her persona with Andrew was a very sweet moment, I was so sad when I found out he was married! the ending was chilling, but in a satisfying way! Great job!

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Michał Przywara
15:56 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Hannah :) I think in another life they might have made a good couple. But in this one, things played out differently, and then the insincere crystal showed her how to get what she wanted anyway... for a time. Thanks for the feedback!

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Rebecca Miles
11:28 Jul 02, 2022

What I love: amazing opening auditory imagery;Juanita's idiolect and how she teasingly drew Andrew with her questions, then the switch mid point gave me a good hint that she might have a bit of a manipulative side that was borne out by the end. Oh that ending was sinister, brilliant visual image was all you needed and a damn good circular structure. Enjoyed this one.

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Michał Przywara
18:44 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Rebecca! The structure was fun to play with. Our opinions of someone are rooted in how we see them, but we never really see the whole picture, do we? Thanks for the feedback :)

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Aeris Walker
03:54 Jul 02, 2022

So. Good. I love how you bookended the story with the raised ball in the air—just perfect. Even with the plot being broken into multiple segments with imbedded visions and variations of visions, it read absolutely smoothly, drawing you in from beginning to end. The first line is grabbing, your characters’ motives are believable, and your writing is as concise and eloquent as always.

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Michał Przywara
20:22 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks so much, Aeris :) I'm very pleased that their motivations came through believably. This week, I wanted a character really driven by desire -- and of course, being a story, it drives them off a cliff :P -- so I'm happy that comes through. As always, I appreciate your feedback!

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Cindy Strube
01:30 Jul 02, 2022

Ah, the visuals… we’re there in that room. The Walmart crystal ball that somehow works is pretty cool! And not only does it work, but it offers options. Your portrayal of Juanita/Madam Anastasia is really good - you get us to sympathize with her, even though she’s up to some pretty nasty deeds!

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Michał Przywara
04:28 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Cindy! That's exactly what I was going for, with the portrayal. Sympathizing with the unsympathetic. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Scott Skinner
23:36 Jul 01, 2022

Excellent! Love the structure of it and how you teased out the story bit by bit. It made me wish I had a magic crystal ball. Your writing is superb. Like in the beginning when you described her "forest of fake inch-long crimson nails." I also liked the onomonopia's you used in that section as well. Then when you described Andrew being an intoxicating beast and ger not being a "delicate china shop." It was all just really interesting to read/unique. Although the story of a cheating man is a common one, this all felt very fresh to me and was ...

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Michał Przywara
05:45 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Scott! Yeah, you're right, a cheating husband is no new story, so I'm glad this take on it came across fresh. I didn't want the infidelity to be the focus, even though it ultimately lead to the finale, so the intro focused instead on the (side) relationship. I appreciate the feedback :)

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Tommy Goround
12:46 Jul 01, 2022

Oopsie. I forgot to clap and thank you for a lovely story. Juanita is ...very intense. She knows what she wants. haha Stay beautiful.

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Michał Przywara
05:32 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Tommy! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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04:33 Jul 01, 2022

Love this Michał, one of my favourites from you! The hook was cleverly done, the twist worked, and the ending was brilliant. I want to point out this paragraph in particular that I loved: "He scrutinized a (plaster) skull, and she scrutinized his broad shoulders. His every motion was awkwardly delicate; discipline masking an intoxicating beast. Could she see his aura – if such things existed – it would surely shiver with masculine power, radiating heat. He was a bull, but she was no delicate china shop." Such a novel way of showing attr...

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Michał Przywara
23:02 Jul 01, 2022

Thanks, Shuvayon! I'm a fan of your writing, so that means a lot. With so many stories being submitted each week, this is definitely a good site to learn from. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I wish you luck this week too :)

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Zack Powell
20:30 Jun 30, 2022

I'm waaaay behind and still have to leave you a like and a comment for your story from #151, but OMG, this comes first! Wow, this story. Yeah, I'll say it: This is my favorite Michał Przywara piece. (It helps that "Urban Fantasy" is my favorite Reedsy genre, but still. Love, love, LOVE this. Wish I wrote it.) Great technical-level stuff as always going on here. I especially love the structuring of the narrative, and how we're initially shown the second reading, then the third reading, and THEN the first reading. The story is a lot stronger ...

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Michał Przywara
21:45 Jun 30, 2022

Thanks so much, Zack! I have an early weekend this week, and this comment is an amazing way to start it :D You picked up on all the things I secretly hoped would come through, like starting with the second reading and the first/last line parallels. I wanted a sympathetic Juanita, even though I knew she was up to some very unsympathetic things. You've got a great eye for details and structure, so I'm thrilled that impression came through. > the "destructive" potential of adverbs Ha, the community's not entirely wrong :) I definitely used ...

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J.C. Lovero
01:25 Jun 30, 2022

Hi there Michał~ Really nice opening sequence here. You gave us enough to be intrigued, ending with some dud getting hit by a car. You did a great job in the scene where Juanita and Andrew flirt a bit, where she revealed some truth to him. It was really cute and you hit all the beats so nicely with the back and forth between them! And what a TWIST! Once we got invested in these characters, you reveal the new thing that makes us upset, both because of the situation and also because we sympathize with Juanita as the POV character who fell i...

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Michał Przywara
21:06 Jun 30, 2022

Thanks, J.C! Very happy that the setup and the twist worked out. I've been fascinated by making normally unlikeable protagonists likeable, and I think this might be a way. Show us what they want -- something we can understand, something we can relate to -- and then we're in a better place to accept why they do what they do. As always, I appreciate your insight :)

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Ace Quinnton
21:34 Jun 29, 2022

No words, only awe for this one. You hooked me at the beginning when Juanita was having a meltdown over Andrew's car crash. I absolutely love the story. Everything about this is incredible. Color me interested to know what made you come up with this fantastic idea?

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Michał Przywara
22:02 Jun 29, 2022

Thanks, Ace! I appreciate the feedback. As for the idea... It was an iterative process. I had about six ideas for the prompts this week, which is another way of saying nothing really grabbed me. But I've always liked the idea of fake things or imagination becoming real, and that seemed to lead naturally to a fake fortune teller that discovers her crystal actually somehow works. And then what do you do in that situation? Help the world? Nah. Exploit it for personal gain, of course :) But I don't think the crystal in this story was actuall...

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Ace Quinnton
15:11 Jun 30, 2022

You know, that would be interesting if you were to make a backstory on how Juanita even found the crystal ball. Or those supposed 'fake vendors' using internet platforms to sell stuff. Why did Juanita even want to become a phony fortune teller? Sure, because us gullible humans are desperate for guidance through the hardships of life, and we'd pay any amount of money to get a sliver of knowledge or wisdom to get by. But is that the ONLY reason? What if she were to check her sources, and ask them about how this is real when it's fake? That w...

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Michał Przywara
21:11 Jun 30, 2022

That's definitely a neat idea, yeah! Maybe I'll revisit it some day. I initially pictured her as only doing this as a side gig to put herself through school, but the the money actually started rolling in -- and it's probably a cash only kind of thing. I could also see her in the future, always on the run, a trail of destruction in her wake, addicted to the beautiful lies of the crystal.

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Ace Quinnton
14:20 Jul 01, 2022

No passion, only cash. She's one going for the gold, eh? People say that money can't buy happiness, but I have some solid proof of quite the contrary... Eventually she'd have to face the music and see the ugly truth for what it is. Slimy, foul, absolutely DISGUSTING, but it's real.

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Wendy M
17:16 Jun 29, 2022

I didn't expect that, obviously didn't look in my crystal ball before reading. Hmm, can you see the lottery numbers, please?

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Michał Przywara
21:35 Jun 29, 2022

Heh. I've got lots of lotto numbers, unfortunately I don't think any of them are the winning ones :P Thanks for stopping by, Wendy :)

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08:14 Jun 29, 2022

“I see many likes in your future” I replied, typing my message from a distant country while sipping a chai tea that was bought in bulk from a discount retailer and keeping an eye on the crystal bell in the top right corner for signs of yellow dots

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Michał Przywara
21:28 Jun 29, 2022

Heh :) Thanks for stopping by, Scott. Let's hope for many yellow dots all around :)

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Zelda C. Thorne
06:33 Jun 29, 2022

Hi Michal! I loved this. So great the way it was all revealed, very twisty. I gasped when she was the one cutting the wires, sabotaging herself. Great story!

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Michał Przywara
21:26 Jun 29, 2022

Thanks! I'm very glad the twists worked out :) I'm also digging the new name :)

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Zelda C. Thorne
06:28 Jun 30, 2022

Thanks😁

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