Claire

Part One: WATER



Chapter 0: The Fool


Tuesday. The bus climbs the long hill into the countryside where the trees are bare and the corn fields stubble. It’s not yet winter, but the morning is cold — smoke rises from the chimneys of farm houses along the highway, and frost glitters in the fields from the low sun. On the bus we are nervous but warm. Someone behind us is peeling an orange. We smell it, and someone else is about to eat a hard-boiled egg. We hear the shell crack. Two girls across the aisle are whispering about their grandpa, wondering if he has died yet, and a man in a gray hat is telling the woman beside him about the horse he no longer owns. Appaloosa, he says. You could see it a mile away. Beside me, Claire is shuffling her Tarot cards, hand over hand, card over card, the shadow of her hand like a bird on my leg. We are on our way to see the president — in three days Claire will show him the future. She believes it is a matter of life and death.

Card over card, hand over hand.

The little girls’ mother hushes them, the man in the hat is sorry he sold his horse — the only thing he ever owned that was worth a damn — and everywhere is the odor of orange and egg and now the coffee someone is pouring into a cup. The sun rises, the stubbled fields thaw, and Claire shuffles her cards. The bus driver glances at us in his mirror — foolish kids, his eyes say. But Claire is an expert. She knows her cards and their symbols, as sure as clouds mean rain, as sure as the sun means heat. But she worries that we are too late, that catastrophe has already struck. So she eases one card from the deck, slowly, carefully, and turns it over to get a peek at the future.

The World.

“Oh, man,” she whispers. “The most important of the major arcana!” She puts her arm around my neck and laughs because the future appears so undeniably bright. She sees it in the wands, the laurel, the beautiful, naked woman, and for those few seconds, Claire is as happy as I have ever seen her. But the card is turned — reversed, she calls it — so she flips through her Tarot book, mumbling about the misery of reversals. She finds the entry — fixity, inertia, stagnation, permanence. “Oh, no,” she says, and the driver looks at her in the mirror. She reads the meaning again, settles on the one word she considers positive — permanence — and says, “Like us — forever.” And so it seems, but she has the connection to the cosmos, not me. She’s the future girl.

We roll on as the bus swirls with the smell of breakfast, the stories of dying old men and missing horses, and Claire agonizes over the tragedy of the future. “Morgan,” she says, “it’s The World, the best card of all — can it really be bad?”

I don’t know, but even a fool can see it’s upside down.



Life was simple until Claire Cunningham moved next door. The house had been empty for months, ever since Mr. Fitch was arrested for stealing auto parts from the salvage yard, and it looked abandoned — dirty windows, peeling paint, missing roof shingles. My dad said it was an eyesore, said someone should call the cops. But no one did, and now, finally, it would be occupied. A man in a pickup waited with the engine idling while Claire and her mother carried their belongings to the porch. They had a dozen liquor boxes packed with stuff, and when it was all unloaded the man in the truck drove away and Claire and her mom sat among the boxes to smoke cigarettes. They looked beat.

My little sister, Annabelle, and I watched from the living room window. “Weird people,” she said. “I hope that’s not a real cigarette.”

It was. Claire was fifteen, a skinny, serious girl with red hair, freckles and a limp. Her mother was the opposite. She had bleached-blond hair and wore stylish glasses — a Marilyn Monroe type. Half way through her cigarette she dug through the boxes for a bottle of vodka and poured herself a drink. What a sight. She sat with her elbow on a box, a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, her skirt hiked up because of the heat.

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Claire spent half the time on the porch, smoking and playing cards. If she went anywhere it was to limp off toward the store or to drag the trash to the alley. Once she glanced at me when I went by on my way to a baseball game, but that was it. Annabelle thought something was wrong with her — deaf, mute, or maybe just antisocial. Annabelle was four years younger, but she was the brains in the family. She even lugged her own dictionary around and read it for fun. She showed me the definition of misanthrope, said, “What do you think?” but I had no idea yet how damaged Claire was, and we could only guess what happened to her — polio, broken leg, or maybe she was born that way, some unfortunate twist of fate.

#

They had lived in the Fitch house almost a week when a thunderstorm blew in and my simple, happy life got rattled. At first it was just a line of clouds beyond the trees, then some rumbles, and finally the sky turned black and the trees swung back and forth and leaves blew through the street. And then the rain. I had never seen it rain so hard, but with all that — the storm of the century — Claire only scooted back from the edge of the porch to keep her cards dry. Her mother came out, barefoot, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, and held one foot in a stream of water from the porch roof. But the next time lightning struck, she jumped back and laughed — probably happy she wasn’t dead — then sat with Claire and they played cards. Claire even took a few sips of her mother's vodka.

“Look at that,” Annabelle said. “Drunk. Both of them. Intoxicated. Inebriated.”

The rain finally stopped, Claire and her mother went inside, and I found my glove and ball and went out with baseball on my mind. It was cooler after the storm, and the air smelled good. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, trying to decide if I should go see my friend or look for a game, when Claire came back to the porch. “You look lost,” she said.

“Me? I’m just thinking.”

She spread a blue cloth on the porch and smoothed it with the flat of her hand.

“You’re lucky lightning didn’t strike you,” I said. “I saw you with those cards.”

“And I saw you and your sister peeking through the curtains. How old are you?”

“Fourteen, but it was a huge storm. I never saw it rain so hard. And that lightning — ”

“I knew it was coming,” she said. “The Ace of Cups adjacent to The Tower.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she held up one of the cards and said, “Tarot. I can see the future — if you’re not too chicken, I’ll show it to you.”


 


She was a pale, skinny girl, and up close she had more freckles than I thought. She also had scars all over — her knees, her legs, a few on her arm, and one on her chest at the top of her blouse. A gauze bandage on her left wrist was oozing blood. “What happened to your arm?” I said. “It looks like it’s still bleeding.”

She looked right at me, her eyes a brilliant green. “Does it bother you?”

“No, I just saw it. I guess it was an accident.”

“Actually, I was nicked by the arrow of time.”

Whatever that was. I tossed my ball into my glove a few times.

She began to shuffle her cards, hand over hand. They were big cards with strange pictures, Tarot cards, she said, but that meant nothing to me. All I knew about fortune telling was Gypsy women with dark robes and crystal balls. So I had my doubts. I thought she was pretending. I tossed my ball into my glove.

“Put those toys down and pay attention so I can show you the future,” she said. She was still shuffling her cards but looking at me. I folded my glove around the ball and put it beside me on the porch. “I need to know who you are and what’s unique about you,” she said. “All the details. Scars, broken bones, missing teeth, deformities, tics, — “

“Ticks?”

“Facial tics,” she said, and winked at me a few times.

I leaned forward to show her the small scar on my forehead.

“That’s it?” she said. “Any moles, warts, bunions, cavities, astigmatism?”

“Some moles. Everybody’s got moles.”

“Can I see them?”

“No.”

“Will you point to them?”

“No. What’s all this for, anyway? It sounds like nobody’s business.”

“I need to know what makes you different from everyone else. Everyone gets their own tiny spot in the universe — otherwise you’d have the same future as someone else.”

“How do you know all this?”

She held up her Tarot book. “I need your history, too,” she said. “It’s part of the arrow of time. It began at the Big Bang, sailed through space for a few billion years, then goes through your spot and flies into the future. Your history helps make you who you are.”

I pointed next door. “I’ve lived right there my whole life.”

“You still have a history, all the things you remember. Accidents, big baseball games, deaths in the family, best friends, girlfriends, good grades, bad grades, sexual encounters.”

I laughed.

“If you don’t tell me, your future won’t be any good.”

Like I cared. I picked up my glove. “Well, I’ve got to go,” I said.

“I knew you’d be a chicken about it.”

“I’m late for the game,” I said, and took off for the school and the crappy baseball diamond behind it. Sexual encounters. Ha! I played catch with myself on the way, which was all the baseball I got because the field had turned into a lake. I snuck home down the puddle-filled alley and in the back door.

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Copyright 2018 by Philip Tate