I’m a fraud.
She repeated it over and over like a sacred mantra. Pulling her sweater over her bare shoulders she watched the ash-coloured clouds looming towards their stoop. A crisp chill hugged the summer breeze; reminding her of the approaching autumn. Time waited for no man.
She thought about the past, the sunshine times when the world seemed to be at her feet. She went to university for a Fine Arts degree; she dreamed of becoming the next Judy Dench. But life rarely worked as planned.
It was like the day her sister Cassy got a Ouija board for her birthday, instead of the new gaming console. But like most events in life disappointment bred an interesting opportunity.
They used to sneak downstairs and spent hours talking to spirits. Upon reflection it was more likely her sister moved the pointer to spell out the last words of the dead. But it didn’t matter; from that moment forward they became citizen ghost hunters.
She cherished those memories but as like most things; life changed. They grew up and forgot about the Ouija board. Cassy got married, had her nephew, and never thought of the supernatural again. For Elise; life, a few wrong relationships, and a hectic school schedule pushed aside her dreams of ghosts.
Education saddled her with a grim debt. Between auditions, waitressing, and babysitting she formulated a plan. She channeled her childhood fascination and bought a deck of tarot cards. During the lucrative tourist season she read fortunes at the waterfront.
She honed her theatre skills and made some laundry money on the side. From there she started booking bachelorette parties and a table at the wiccan craft fair.
But I was acting.
She read their body language and told them what they wanted to hear to entice them to pay her inflated prices. But it all changed after a request for a home reading. A suburban housewife heard from a friend of a friend that she ‘predicts the future.’
That Tuesday afternoon would alter her prospects forever. As she pulled into the smooth asphalt driveway, a young thirty something woman greeted her with a smile.
Wayward baby toys littered the living room couch. A half-eaten sandwich sat on the kitchen table beside a pile of papers and a notepad. The bulky kind with a magnet, like the one her mom would stick to the fridge.
Maneuvering past the bedtime teddy bear, she makes herself comfortable on the couch. As she sets her cards on the coffee table, Courtney, explained she was a new mom. And adds her husband worked real-estate downtown. She volunteered that she recently joined a mommy yoga club the week prior and it was what she called a ‘life saver.’
But the longer Elise stayed the more she noticed the cracks in the façade. The bags seeping through the layer of foundation. The exhaustion hung over her. It felt heavier than simply a ‘busy mama.’
She shuffled the cards and asked what she was seeking. She said it was important to the card layout. The client chewed her bottom lip and confessed.
“Jared, my husband, is up for a promotion. I’m hoping you could tell me if he’ll get it.”
Seemed simple enough. She placed the cards face down on the table. She always started with a happy card; a loving family and marriage, something generic and sentimental. Then came the twist: some secret that usurps the blissful lie.
In Courtney’s case: financial trouble. She threw the word debt in there for good measure. But she wasn’t pulling at straws, or so she told herself. The papers on the kitchen table were folded in thirds. As a broke university student, Elise recognized a stack of bills when she saw them.
From her experience people who live in nice houses, usually consult their accountants for money concerns. Not the university graduate with tarot cards she found on the internet. But if she did let it slip then others would know her secret. Is she (or both) hiding a spending habit? (Elise was the equal opportunity type).
Either way the client was desperate for a ‘sure thing’, extra income to solve their problems. Either way when Elise mentioned debt, Courtney’s body retracted; pulled in on itself and she stared at her hands.
That was when she pounced; the grand reveal of the not-so-secret secret. Once Courtney believed fate revealed uncheck spending, unpaid bills, and a struggling marriage; the walls she built crumbled.
It was the moment when the clients, figuratively of course, lay all the cards on the table. Then the magic happens, they confide in her. With Courtney; it was a new baby, credit bills and a dose of keeping up with the neighbors.
In her aged wisdom Elise bestowed the wise words from the Golden Wok Buffet menu: positivity in the face of adversity is a measure of success. Courtney seemed to absorb the words, sitting back in her chair pondering life through the venetian blinds.
It wasn’t a lie, she told herself. Everyone talked about how the real estate market was booming. Judging by the size of their house Jared was doing something right. But she added a comment about debt consolidation before leaving; as a good measure. She considered the matter solved until she received a new message in her inbox a week later.
‘You’re the best, Jared got the promotion! I’m recommending you to everyone!’
She scrambled to her boardwalk tourist readings with a pep in her step. The possibility of teatime bookings in her future danced in her mind. The saltwater breeze carried her spirits for the rest of the afternoon. That was until he appeared.
A man in a disheveled suit holding a conspicuous paper bag in his left hand. He grumbled as he walked past, eyeing her as he claimed the bench a few meters from her. Whether he was a drunk or a good guy having a bad day she didn’t deserve the taunting he served.
Fraud. Witch. Satan worshipper. She heard it all before. As he gulped from his bag, he added other colorful words. At one point he leaned too far over and almost fell off the bench. He wasn’t a threat, his insults bounced off her skin like pelts of rain.
But it was watching the potential customers stagger away that enraged her. His visceral reaction was interrupting a pleasant afternoon and tourist gave both of them a wide berth. Each look of disdain from a passerby was lost income. Her hard-earned money walked away as he laughed from his broken perch.
“What can I say that will make you go away?”
“Read my fortune,” he slurred, pulling a crumpled lottery ticket from his pocket. “Tell me the numbers big shot. Or are you a fraudster?” His cackle of a laugh made her skin crawl.
But his hairy lips slap shut when she rhymed off random numbers. The wild look in his eyes as he typed feverishly on his phone lingered after he wobbled away.
The next time she saw him, he strolled along the boardwalk scanning the area with hawk like eyes. She busied herself with shuffling her cards, hoping to avoid him, but he called to her before she could hide under her table.
Unwilling to go a second round she gathered her deck and shoved them in her bag. But he dashed over to her, smiling of all things, and slapped his hands on the table.
“Don’t leave, I want to thank you. I won.” He beamed, motioning to his pressed suit and polished shoes.
“Wait, you did?”
“Sorry about being an ass to you before.” He pulled his wallet from his coat pocket and selected two one-hundred-dollar bills. “I was almost homeless, until you came along. So, thanks.” He handed her the money, shook her hand, and left with a skip in his step.
She slumped in her chair staring at the bills. He won with her numbers. Her random, pulled from nowhere numbers.
Can I really predict the future?
There was only one way to find out.
No matter how many times she did it, each reading was the same. But it had to be wrong, the prediction was too…hopeful. The deck predicted a chance encounter with an old flame from the past.
She didn’t believe it. She rationalized her desperate heart was misinterpreting the reading. There wasn’t any chance, anyone from her past would want anything to do with her. Who wants a poor over worked twenty something in hand me down clothes?
Then Derrick from twelfth grade chemistry walked into her coffee shop. He ditched the varsity letterman’s jacket, cut his hair, and now ordered a venti latte americano, while checking his expensive watch.
Butterflies squirmed in her stomach as she recalled the fantasies that distracted her from molecules and equations. A younger self imagined an entire life with a house, Sundays reading the paper, trips to wine country, all before the teacher walked into class. But that was a dream and the reality was; Derrick ordered his coffee, checked his phone, and left.
She felt invisible with each passing day; watching him walk out only reiterated the obvious. It was useless to put faith in tarot cards, she of all people should’ve know that. There was no chance encounter, no happy ever after.
The twinkling bell above the door announced Derrick’s entrance. Same order and the same perfect smile; her sweaty hands fought to not drop his drink. A thank you, a grin, and he was gone. Until he spoke to her on the following Wednesday.
“I know you, don’t I?” Her mind which had rehearsed every possible conversation fell silent. “Elise?” he read her name tag, “the same Elise from Francis High?”
“Mr. Wahlberg’s twelve grade chemistry.” She mumbled trying not to stare at his smooth lips.
“I knew it! How long were you going to let me walk in everyday and not tell me? What are the chances, wow? What are you up to?”
And just like that, she was flung back to high school; an awkward stammering mess. He was an accountant who worked around the corner. He was everything she remembered he was. Funny, kind, and charismatic. By Thursday they had made plans for drinks and to catch up.
Soon Fridays became weekends at his place. Drinks at a club became Sunday brunch with poached eggs. It felt like a happy ever after had arrived at last. But the cards had a different plan. One night while he slept, she sat at the table and pulled the cards from her purse.
She dusted them off, caressing them like an old friend. Their pull tugged at her fingertips with a sinister grin. That night she was the happiest she had ever been in her life. And that worried her.
She got the romance she desperately wanted. But now the cynic inside needed to know the next move. She flipped the cards and read what they foretold. It can’t be, she thought. She repeated it three times, but no matter how she shuffled it was always the same. Her heart pounded in her chest. Of all the cards, she didn’t expect to see death. And the others revealed: a date.
In three weeks.
The red from her face drained and with a shaking hand she pushed them off the table. Like feathers, they floated to the floor. Hundreds of thoughts swam through her mind, but one thing was certain; her life was on the cusp of change. But how was the real question.
I’m a fraud. She repeated, as Derrick locked the front door.
He wore a mischievous smile as he slid the keys into the ignition. A mysterious date, at a fancy restaurant on the other side of town. He made small talk while she watched the encroaching storm.
It was tonight, the mystical date foretold by the cards. Without words she sensed her life was on the brink. The snakes in her chest swallow the butterflies in her stomach. The pitter patter of rain against the windshield silences the rumors of a diamond ring.
Clouds so thick it turned a summer evening into the dead of winter. All she can think about is his smile and the scent of his cologne. It’s going to be okay. The tires speed over the asphalt highway, splashing the tumultuous puddles. They’re just silly cards. The windshield wipers whirl as the rain obscures their vision. She doesn’t hear Derrick’s words, just the honking of the car horn. As the blinding headlights cross the yellow line, death’s grinning smile flashed before her.
I’m a fraud.