I stepped into the fortuneteller’s parlor, irrationally worried that someone would recognize my car parked out front. The house was trimmed in a ghastly shade of pink against white wooden siding, and sported a huge sign that proclaimed “Kay’s Psychic Readings.” It screamed “loser” without apology; it advertised a place of empty consolation for desperate people who have run out of even straws to clutch.
That sounded like me.
The parlor smelled of a pleasant blend of sandalwood incense and coffee. I’d expected patchouli and pot.
“Be right there!” called a cheery voice from some back room.
A moment later, a woman came through the open French doors and smiled at me: mid-forties, pleasant face, dark hair with a single broad streak of white in it, tired blue eyes that matched her neatly-pressed jeans and denim vest. Hardly the bejeweled, bescarved, over-made-up harridan I’d expected.
“Hi, I’m Kay. How can I help you?” she asked.
She must have seen sarcasm on my face, because she interrupted before I could speak, her cheery smile marred by annoyance.
“Right, I’m the psychic, why don’t I tell you?” she asked. “I’m afraid that’s lost its punch for me. I’ve heard it too many—“
She stopped talking, and I watched her face go pale.
“Oh, my…” she said. Her mouth worked a few times.
“Look,” she said. Sweat gleamed on her lip. “I really can’t tell you not to do it, because it is your life. But I’d like you to wait until tomorrow. Please. Will you promise me that?”
My hands went ice-cold at her words. I’d spoken to no one about my plans. If she’d picked up that much from my face, she was good — awfully good. Or maybe she was the real thing.
“I… I…” I stammered like a guilty child.
“Just promise me you’ll come back tomorrow,” she said, insistently.
“Uh, sure…” The words popped out of my mouth before I could call them back — a promise made.
She rushed me out of her parlor, and said, “Tomorrow. Four o’clock. Eat a light lunch, early.”
Then I was standing on the porch, staring at my bright red Corvette. I blinked a few times in the hazy sunlight, as cars blurred by on the highway and exhaust and oil and dust stung my nose in the brutal summer heat.
Numb depression descended on me like the greasy smog that hung over the city. Even this roadside fortuneteller had thrown me out on the street, just like the doctors this morning — another sign that this world had no place for me.
“Just you and me, Bud,” I said to my car. That, and my good word, were the last two things I possessed. Once I’d fulfilled this last unintended promise, the Corvette would be on its own.
I decided to go get drunk.
My hangover had faded by four o’clock as I pulled into the parking area. The summer heat blistered the concrete highways again, but today the smog really pressed on the city. It burned my nostrils and lungs.
The parlor offered a welcome relief from the heat and the reek. The smell of sandalwood still hung in the air, but the coffee smell had been replaced by something bitter and unpleasant, like mold or rotting bark.
“You’re early!” Kay’s voice floated through the house. “Come on back.”
I stepped through the French doors and followed faint sounds until I found the kitchen. Kay slowly stirred a sauce-pot with a thermometer in it.
“Grab a seat,” she said, and gestured with her chin to the stained Formica-topped table and its array of cheap kitchen chairs.
“When did you last eat?” she asked.
“Lunch. A sandwich, around noon,” I responded.
“Good. This is almost ready, and then we can start,” she said.
“Start what?” I asked, but she ignored me and continued to stir. At last, she tasted the brew and nodded, then emptied the pot into a large mug. It looked like dirty grey tea with flecks of bark in it.
“We can talk while this cools,” she said as she seated herself across from me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Why do you care?” she snapped, a trace of anger in her voice.
I turned her question over in my mind. I’d kept my promise by coming here. Nothing more held me to this earth. Jasmine tea or rat poison or LSD, what difference did it make?
“Good point,” I replied, simply.
“Tell me why,” she demanded, and her tone was thick with anger. I hesitated, confused, and she went on. “Look, I really can see into the future a bit, and the past. But I don’t read minds. I know what you are planning to do, but I don’t know why. Tell me why.”
Her directness and urgency startled me.
I took a deep breath. “I have an inoperable brain tumor,” I said, quietly. “No treatment. My only chance is spontaneous remission, which is extremely rare. They can’t tell me how long I have — they think months, while my mind is eaten away a spoonful at a time, though it could come more quickly. I don’t have anything to live for, though. That’s all been eaten away, too. My family is long gone. I never married. I have no real friends. I spent the last ten years building a colossal business failure — now the business is in receivership, my employees have moved on, and I have nothing. The question isn’t why. It’s why not?”
Her angry glare softened.
“I see,” she said. “I could try to tell you this is a mistake, that you have a future, but I’d be wasting my breath. You wouldn’t believe me. You need to see.”
She pushed the mug toward me. “This should be cool enough, now. I’d recommend you chug it. It tastes awful. Drink down everything, even the bits at the bottom.”
I swirled the cup, took a deep breath, and chugged it. It went down easily enough, but it tasted like I’d swallowed a mouthful of dirt from a grave.
“Yuck!” I said, and made a face. “What was that stuff?”
She ignored me. “This is going to take hold pretty quickly, so come with me.”
She led me to a small, warm room with two psychiatrist-type couches side-by-side. One of the couches had wide-mouthed buckets on the floor on either side.
“Why two couches?” I asked. “You didn’t drink anything.”
“I don’t need to drink anything,” she said, shortly. “I’m already journeying.”
Her words made no sense to me. “So, what’s with the buckets?”
“The buckets are for when you heave up the stuff you just drank. It doesn’t stay down. It has a lot of alkaloids in it, and they’re—“
Talking about it triggered a wave of sudden nausea. I just made it to the bucket. When my stomach stopped cramping and I looked up, the room looked strangely off-center. Objects had started to glow.
“BEST GET ON THE COUCH,” I heard her voice say, slow and deep. She had already stretched out on her couch. I’d somehow grown larger than my skin, which felt tight, confining. Do as the nice lady says, I told myself. My own voice echoed in my head. ECHO…Echo…echo…, I thought. I want you to build an ark…ark…ark…. For some reason this struck me as hilarious, and I giggled uncontrollably as I lay back on the other couch and watched the stars painted on the ceiling dance away into the distance.
I regained consciousness after only a few moments. The vile taste still punished my mouth, but the psychedelic effects had vanished. Kay’s couch was empty, but I could hear her singing in the kitchen. She had a nice voice. I followed her voice back to the kitchen, and saw her washing dishes.
“Hey,” I said. She shrieked and dropped the pot she had been drying, then whirled to face me while the pot clattered against the floor tiles.
It wasn’t Kay. The woman appeared to be in her late twenties. Like Kay, she had short dark hair and bright blue eyes, but without the white streak in her hair. Perhaps she was Kay’s daughter. Her face went sickly-pale as she looked at me.
“Daddy…?” she whispered, her eyes wide.
What the Hell? I thought, the hairs on my neck rising. What kind of scam is Kay running here?
“Who are you?” I asked aloud. “And why are you calling me Daddy?”
She blinked and looked hurt, but then her face cleared.
“You’re so young,” she said. “You haven’t had me yet, have you?”
For the second time today, the words made no sense.
The girl slowly dried her hands on the dishtowel. She smiled at me with unshed tears in her eyes.
“You told me to keep an eye out for you,” she said. “It was always a little joke between us, but you seemed so serious sometimes. You told me that if I ever saw your ghost, I was supposed to show you something.”
She held out her hand and guided me into the parlor. She retrieved a wooden box and a photograph from the mantle of the fireplace, and then sat down with me on the love seat.
The room spun as I examined the photograph. It was a picture of me — an older me, probably in my forties with grey in my hair. I seemed fit and very happy. On a tricycle beside me sat a gap-toothed girl who sported an enormous grin — the girl beside me, but only seven or eight years old. My hand rested on her head.
The box contained a sealed letter, a letter opener, and an item that made my heart jump. I pulled out the item, a painted toy soldier, which carried one of my few memories of my father, who had died when I was six. He’d come home from a business trip in Germany, and he’d brought me a toy lead soldier. I’d dropped it once, and dented the base. I ran my finger over the familiar dent. How had Kay gotten hold of this?
The letter-opener had belonged to Grandfather. My hand shook as I carefully opened the letter, and read.
You are wondering how Kay faked the photograph, and how she managed to obtain personal items from your past.
It’s a little mystery for you to ponder.
While you are thinking, I want you to promise your daughter here and now that you will wait just one more day. I know your promise will hold you. After that, your life is your own. Do with it as you see fit. But give her one more day.
Return here at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon, and meet Kay on the porch. Your last doubts will be resolved.
P.S. — Watch out for the rotten board.
My signature appeared at the bottom. I re-read the letter four or five times. Then I stared at the girl.
This young woman could be a future daughter. She had my jaw and mouth. If Kay was scamming me, it was all far too elaborate to pass up the finale.
“Do you know what this says?” I asked. She shook her head. “The letter asks me to make you a promise. I’ve decided to play along. I promise I will wait one more day. Does that mean anything to you?” She shook her head again. “It doesn’t matter. It means something to me. “
I put everything back in the box, and handed it back to the girl.
“You can keep this,” I said.
As the box left my fingers, I felt a powerful vertigo grip me, and the next moment, I found myself bent over the edge of the psychiatrist’s couch. A thin dribble of saliva hung from my mouth.
I heard Kay move on the other couch, and stand up. She helped me to the kitchen, where she gave me a glass of water to rinse my mouth.
“What was that all about?” I asked, as I leaned heavily on the sink.
Kay smiled, nervously. “A reason to live one more day?”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why do you even care?”
Kay said nothing.
“Look, you can’t keep stringing me on, day by day. That was a sweet little post-hypnotic suggestion you gave me, or whatever it was, and you got me to wait one more day. But it stops here. Fantasies about an imaginary daughter don’t change my medical condition, and I refuse to end my life as a vegetable.”
Kay remained silent, but her tense shoulders relaxed and two tears tracked down her cheeks.
“What do I owe you?” I asked.
“Pay me tomorrow,” she said, her voice rough. I sighed.
I called a cab from my cell phone. I’d pick up my car tomorrow, too.
One more day.
It had finally clouded over, and rain fell fitfully and quenched the heat, the dust, and the smog. Cars crawled along the highway like angry beetles hunched against the rain. The cab came to the frontage road turn-off from the highway, and I pointed to my Corvette, just visible ahead. The driver stopped; I paid him, then got out of the cab and turned to find Kay.
I stopped, frozen, and stared in utter confusion at the house.
The pink trim was gone. The sign was gone. The building was there, a dilapidated farmhouse that stood amidst a cluster of abandoned buildings. A small, rusted real-estate sign stood in the front yard. The realtor’s phone number had faded.
I stepped onto the creaking wooden porch. It was the same house I’d visited twice before — through the dirty window I could see the familiar parlor, but empty, without a trace of furniture. I could just see the fireplace and mantle where the box and the picture had stood in my drug-induced dream.
I heard the crunch of gravel behind me as a small Toyota pulled to a stop next to my car. A dark-haired woman stepped out and popped open an umbrella against the rain that had become a gentle mist.
“Kay!” I called, and the woman waved back, and moved swiftly up the walk. She closed the umbrella as she came under the porch awning, and looked up at me.
“I’m glad you were able to meet me here on such short notice!” she said, energetically. “I think this will be the perfect location, and the price is right….” She trailed off.
I had never seen this woman before. In her early thirties, she had a very pretty face framed by shiny dark hair cut short, and her bright blue eyes could have belonged to the girl I’d met in my vision yesterday.
She looked at me curiously, and said, “I’m sorry. I thought you were the real estate agent.”
“That’s alright,” I replied. “I thought you were Kay.”
Confusion covered her face. “I am Kay.”
“I was supposed to meet another Kay on the porch —“ I said, and took a step back to look around. The porch shifted under me, and I felt as much as heard the crack of a board under my foot. I fell hard.
“Oh, dear,” she said, eyes wide with concern as she quickly knelt beside me. “Are you alright?”
“I think so,” I said. Nothing seemed broken, and I got slowly to my feet. I stared in disbelief at the broken board, the dry rot now clearly visible.
Kay breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll definitely need to get that fixed. I’m thinking of opening a business here, and I can’t have my clients killing themselves on my front porch.”
“What kind of business?” I asked, still distracted by the improbability of the rotten board.
She smiled. “I’m a psychic. I’d like to go at it full-time.”
“’Kay’s Psychic Readings,’” I whispered. She looked at me strangely.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s what I was thinking of calling it.”
She broke the silence between us. “I’m sorry, this is terribly forward of me. But now that we’ve met, I feel we were somehow supposed to meet today. I owe you for that nasty fall, at least. Could I buy you dinner, say tomorrow night?” She blushed.
In another decade, I’d be in my mid-forties. More than enough time to have a little girl with dark hair and blue eyes. Enough time to watch her grow to at least seven or eight and ride a tricycle. Enough time to write a letter and put a few items in a box. A good reason to live one more day.
“Yes,” I said. My heart felt lighter than at any time I could remember. “Yes, wherever you’d like to meet. I’ll be there. I promise.”
Kay leaned over the edge of the couch and retched into the bucket. She rested in that position, trembling. After a while, she stood and made her way to the kitchen, where she sat quietly at the table. She could see the single lock of snow-white hair that fell forward over her face, taste the bitter rasp of the drug on her tongue, and the sour burn of vomit in her throat. She felt exhausted.
I’m too old for this, she thought, as she stared at her hands. The drug is getting harder on me. But I think I found the right moment this time. Maybe. Maybe I can finally stop searching.
She walked into the parlor and stepped to the window. She took a deep breath, drew back the curtains, and looked out. Tears stung her eyes at the sight of the familiar high-speed commuter tubes, instead of the featureless grey mist that had surrounded the house since she’d become unmoored. Home. She collapsed into a chair.
Her eyes fell on the photograph of the man and the girl on the tricycle where it stood on the mantle. She retrieved the picture and gently ran her finger over the faces. So he was the key. She hadn’t even recognized him at first — he looked so much happier in the picture, and older. He had decided to end his own life, and that decision had wiped out an entire branch of the future. A branch that had included her.
I walk the paths of time, she thought, but I don’t understand them at all.
She had watched her clients make their decisions, guided by the journey-drug and her visions; she had seen thousands of potential futures evaporate into nothing. Children, grandchildren, sometimes even major historic events, would turn to mist and disappear, while new people came into being and shaped different events.
She’d always assumed those unrealized futures simply vanished. But she hadn’t vanished: instead, she’d come unmoored, drifting up and down the timelines, dragging the house with her like a mythical Grail Castle, the house that could be found anywhere, anywhen, but never twice in the same place.
It must have had something to do with her gift, she thought. So long as any possibility of amending the past had remained, she had existed as a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, half-real, half-imaginary, trapped in a featureless limbo. She couldn’t leave the house; the doors and windows could not be moved. But she could use the journey-drug to re-enter the time stream and anchor the house for a day or two in some piece of reality that still existed. She’d had to stab blindly into the past, trying to find the point where her existence had come unraveled.
She touched the face of the man in the picture, tenderly. He’d died when her mother was young, but not of brain cancer, and not a suicide. Her mother had spoken of him fondly as a cheerful man who kept his promises, and her namesake grandmother had always smiled when anyone mentioned his name.
She smiled and spoke softly to the picture.
“Thank you, Grandpa. Thank you for waiting one more day.”