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Contemporary Fantasy Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

[Sensitive content: Contains scenes of death]

If I told you it had all been a lie, would you believe me?

The future, she is fickle.” That's how I'll usually start with a new client. It's important for them to know she can change her mind on a whim. Also that she's a she. The “she” is important. It makes it seem like I have a real relationship with her. Then I'll remind them that in this great oneness, this vast, vibrating universe in which all the pieces are connected, no divinity owns our sovereignty. We are both creation and co-creator, and our choices can move the dial, shift the timeline, change whatever it is we're projecting or manifesting. And hell, that other people's choices can do the same. I cannot overstate how important these types of asterisks are. And how important it is to find the right one when the reading blows up in your face. Not that many have blown up in my face. I'm pretty good at this. But when they do, I'm also pretty deft at redirecting the blame. Sometimes there are “misinterpretations”, but I'm never wrong. A quiet air of dignified superiority, of enlightenment – even exasperation, is necessary to cement the proper dynamic for a successful reading.

Ariadne is third in line, and got here just in time. Customers pour in behind her. She sniggers quietly, thanks her clairsenses for pushing her out the door five minutes earlier than usual. She checks her bookings for the day to the whistle of steamwands and the percussion of portafilters. Tina again at 10:15. God, that woman is a mess. A few new clients, a break in the schedule around 3:00, and Rob at 4:45. She likes Rob. Rob is a good guy. She almost feels bad taking his money.

The man behind her keeps noisily clearing his throat, and Ariadne recoils at the sound. Like she's been spit on. She's just tossing a practiced and blistering glare over her shoulder when she feels it. Like squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the cap still on, and it's radiating across her chest. She rubs the tight knit of her ribbed turtleneck, just below her throat. It's the eggs. They were runny. She just needs her coffee, and then she'll feel –

– it is not the eggs. As the crushing sensation tears across her shoulders and down her arms, she realizes she's having a heart attack –

– but the heart attack is not hers.

The throat-clearing man hits the wood-look tile with a crack. His face is like a candycane beet, streaked violent magenta and white. They are both rasping for breath as a customer tells the barista to call 911; this man is having a heart attack. The world throbs in and out of focus as Ariadne stumbles against the counter, gripping it with hands that aren't hers. The customers who have begun chest compressions, the panicked barista, the warm wooden tables and their creased leather armchairs all pulse in vibrating swirls of color until the only thing she can see is throat-clearing man. His face is no longer the color of produce. It is no longer the color of any living thing. As the paramedics arrive and take over chest compressions, a breath like winter bites her lungs and they fill with a gasp and a sob. She can breathe. But he never will again.

It's easier than it used to be. Before, you had to take some stabs in the dark before you hit marrow. Although there are definitely themes you can lean heavily on. I call them the trifecta. Love, Money, and Death. If someone isn't wondering whether their neanderthal boyfriends is “the one”, whether they'll earn a living wage any time soon, or whether their dead cat or grandma has unfinished business, they'd probably have spent their money somewhere else. So Love, Money, and Death. Those used to be the first stabs. But with social media, all you need is an internet connection. If you have a few mutual friends? Even better. That profile picture with you and your son, well you can bet I'm sensing a child. A boy? Maybe seven, eight-years-old? It's always been psychic poker, but now the deck is stacked. And everyone has a tell. You don't need to read minds – just faces.

Ariadne stumbles up the stairs into her apartment, fumbles the keys in the lock, crashes through the door and against the kitchen counter. Her hands are her own again. She breathes deeply of the egg-scented air that lingers and shuts her eyes against what she saw – what she experienced. She remembers, and tries to forget, what it was like to die as she fills a cast iron kettle and sets it on the stove. She doesn't hear its shrill whistle or see the spew of steam erupting from the spout but knows, before she presses it, that Tina is at the buzzer.

Tina. God, that woman is a mess.

Ariadne buzzes Tina up, takes the kettle off, shakes her hands vigorously, and swings the door wide. “Tea?” she asks, steadying her voice into a practiced haze of mystic prescience.

“No,” Tina says flatly, leading the way to the reading room.

The reading room is tight, the size of a generous walk-in closet. Ariadne has convinced her clients, and herself, that this is necessary to engender the proper intimacy for a successful reading. There are crystals, of course, and the air is thick with white sage and palo santo. A rich, jewel-toned mandala tapestry is tacked above the narrow window that faces out onto a brick wall, and a thrifted hutch is adorned with tarot and oracle cards, fanned and displayed like artsy coffee table books. The round pedestal table was her Yia Yia's – the chairs too – and as they lower themselves into the rusty velvet seats, Ariadne asks for Tina's hands. Tina obliges, placing her soft, milk-colored hands into Ariadne's.

They burn like hot coals in her palms. She drops them, stifling a yelp.

“You're so angry!” Ariadne says.

“Well I should be,” Tina says. “Thom ghosted me. You didn't see that coming.”

Ariadne wrings her raw hands and presses her eyes shut. She opens them in a shabby brownstone. A family sits at a dated, honey-oak dining table shallowly incised with fussy scrawl work. Two boys, a little girl. A red-eyed woman carrying a casserole that Ariadne knows no one will eat. And a man. Thom. Penitence wafts off him like Tina's freesia perfume as he places a hand on the woman's shoulder.

“Well yeah,” Ariadne says, the mist burning off her voice, “He's got a family.”

“And you didn't tell me?” Tina asks. Her eyes are hot coals now, too.

“I... I didn't know.”

You never give a person everything they want. It shatters the reality. Think. If an author sent all your favorite characters to war and they all came back unscathed, you might be happy but you'd know it was fiction. Life isn't fiction, and the reading can't be either. To be real, it has to hurt a little bit. So maybe you give them the pay raise, but not the relationship. Maybe grandma reaches out from the beyond, but she scolds. A little pain is the price of knowing. And that pain is what keeps my clients coming back – what keeps the checks from bouncing.

Ariadne cancels the rest of her readings for the day. Except Rob.

“Please,” he says, “It's important. I... any other day, it would be okay. I just... I really need to see you.”

Reluctantly, Ariadne agrees. Rob is a good guy.

She senses he's arrived and buzzes him up. She opens the door wordlessly – doesn't even offer tea – and leads him down the hall.

The reading room feels too hot. She fusses her turtleneck, briefly grazing the hollow between her collarbones. She feels the squeeze of her ribs and the panic of neither inhaling nor exhaling. The endless pause between life and death. Throat-clearing man is etched on the inside of her eyelids and her hands still smart from Tina's reading.

The reading room feels too hot. She tugs the tapestry off the wall, sending a shower of pushpins bouncing like hailstones off the scratched hardwood floors. She cranks the casement window as wide as it goes and fans stale city air into the room with both arms.

The reading room feels too hot.

“Are you okay?” Rob asks.

“Yeah,” she says. Her voice trembles. She can't even pretend at dignified superiority. “Do you want to start with the cards, or—”

“Oh, matákia mu,” a spiced voice rumbles behind her. The rusty velvet chair topples as she spins to face it. “You've been doing it the wrong way for so long you don't know the right way when it hits you between the eyes,” the old woman says, flicking Ariadne's forehead sharply. “And my name? You use my name for, for this?”

“Yia Yia?”

“I don't... have a yia yia?” Rob says.

Yia Yia rubs her brow ridge and shakes her head, cursing in hushed Greek.

“I'm sorry,” Ariadne whispers.

“Are you sure you're okay?” Rob asks.

“Go ahead. Tell him.”

“My name isn't Ariadne, Rob. It's Lauren.”

“Not that,” Yia Yia scolds. “Lauren,” she says, tapping her own forehead, “Tell him.”

Rob begins to speak, but Lauren holds up a quaking hand to still him. The white room she blinks herself into is too quiet. It smells like all hospitals do – cold and metallic – and she hugs herself against the antiseptic air pouring from the HVAC. Shadows like puppets move across the gauzy curtain, but nobody is in any particular hurry. There is no merry orchestra of beeps; there is no piston hum of supplemental oxygen. Just the shuffle of Dansko clogs across linoleum.

“It's my sister,” Rob says. “Is she –”

“Yeah,” Lauren chokes out, silencing Yia Yia with a shake of her head. Rob is a good guy. “Yeah. She's going to be okay.”

If I told you it had all been a lie, would you believe me?

January 04, 2022 17:13

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4 comments

02:31 Jan 14, 2022

Hannah, this was a very cool story. The words flowed smoothly with strong transitions, in turn, making it very enjoyable as a whole. I loved the lines "She tugs the tapestry off the wall, sending a shower of pushpins bouncing like hailstones off the scratched hardwood floors." And "Like squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the cap still on." Amongst many others. The only thing I had to do was double check who I thought yia-yia was. Again, a great piece and well done.

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Hannah Barrett
17:32 Jan 16, 2022

Thank you so much for your feedback, Douglas! Yia yia was tough to write! I grew up in a community with an enormous Greek population, so I loved the idea of writing a no-nonsense Greek grandmother into one of my stories. I did, however, have trouble creating a solid character in the misty veil of the beyond (lol), so I will definitely revisit how I can make her relationship to Ariadne more clear. Again, thanks so much for your comment.

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Erin Olig
16:16 Jan 09, 2022

The pause between life and death, the shuffle of Dansko clogs across linoleum…I felt like I was there. Great story!

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Hannah Barrett
17:11 Jan 09, 2022

Thanks so much, Erin! I really, really appreciate your feedback.

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