The Rotunda clock chimed nine times. The echoes of the bells slowly faded.
Crisp autumn wind traveled along the streets of Baltimore City that morning. Sidewalks were still glitter-shocked with bits of broken liquor bottles from the night before. Stores were opening and the town was bustling. And both the sun and moon were visible in the sky; one to the east, the other to the west, like square dancing partners preparing for the next Virginia Reel.
Inside the library, ceiling fans whispered, scattering papers from an unsuspecting librarian’s desk. Beneath the shade of a row house awning, a pregnant teen puffed on a cigarette. She took in a lungful of smoke, then blew rings at a passing postman. A screen door moaned on its overworked springs as a toddler came out to kiss her on the cheek. On a cracked slab of sidewalk, a ferocious dog growled at the pair.
“God, I hate this town.”
Irene Atwater had spent her entire life in the city. The smells of garbage juice and vomit were not strangers to her.
She locked her car door and, leaving her paper coffee cup half full in the cup holder, muttered to herself, “As soon as I get enough money together I’m getting out of this cesspool for good.”
She walked across the parking lot.
“Good morning, Irene.”
Irene turned to face her boss, Wesley Miller, all in black, holding the front entrance door of the bank open for her.
She returned his salutation, juggling her purse and paper bag lunch as she fumbled putting on her name badge.
“It’s chilly out now but by afternoon the office will be stifling,” he complained. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I could get away with a short-sleeved shirt. But when I left the house this morning I could’ve sworn it was early December!”
“I know what you mean.” Irene heard another car door slam behind them, and she said a silent prayer in her mind, asking for the strength not to make a sour face at the car’s occupant. The wind whipped under her skirt, through her hair, and into her blouse with a furtive and unpleasant sense of violation.
“Good morning Mr. Miller. How are you today?” asked Stu Cullison.
“I’m doing just fine.”
“Irene,” Stu said with a slight nod of the head. Barely an acknowledgment, never mind a morning greeting.
Irene had been a part-time teller at the regional credit union for eight years. Each time that she had applied for a promotion she had been passed over. Recently, the position of loan officer was opened. Irene met all the qualifications. The only thing that stood in her way was Stu, who was a colossal brown-nose.
“Stu,” she retorted with the same cold head nod that he’d given her. Mr. Miller retreated to his office.
“Looks like you had a tussle with the wind. Might want to run a comb through your hair before you scare the customers away,” he said with an air of smugness. “Unless you’re trying to look like a witch.”
Irene felt her heart pounding fiercely as she plucked out small pieces of stray leaves that had nested in her hair. Her tingling fingers taking on the task of the comb that she’d forgotten at home.
“Good morning,” said Irene to no one in particular as she stepped inside, waved to several staff members, and walked to her computer ready to face the day.
Irene examined her watch closely. She focused in on the digital numbers. 4:59 p.m.
She saw a terminally ill Honda Civic turn and park in its customary spot outside of the foyer window. When the digital numbers changed to 5:00 p.m. Irene grabbed her things and met her friend Lori at the door.
“Hey lady, how was your day?” asked Lori.
“The same as every other day. I will be so happy when I get the money together to move to the country.”
“And miss all this fun,” said Lori as she eyed a pickpocket who had just been caught and taught a lesson by his intended victim.
The two women moved toward Lori’s car, past the homeless man urinating on the side of the building. What was she doing here? She didn’t really enjoy the prospect of becoming a loan officer. She didn’t even enjoy being a teller. But she had a dream of living on a secluded ranch with horses and hay bales.
“Tell me we are doing something fun tonight,” pleaded Irene.
“We’re doing something fun tonight. We’re going to the fall carnival.”
The sinking sun was as red as a pomegranate. The sky was an amalgam of different bruised shades of purple and blue. Orange leaves danced circles on the night breeze.
The air around them was sharp, thick with the scent of sickeningly sweet cotton candy mingled with the unwelcome stench synonymous with large crowds.
Tents gleamed bright red like the sun, ruby like the candy apples on a stick being sold for three dollars a pop. Flags snapped in the wind, fluttering above flame-colored canvas. Rickety booths boasted the Friday night smells of pizza and ales.
“Aren’t you glad I brought you along?”
“Thrilled,” Irene scoffed.
Lori pouted. “Don’t be such a party-pooper. We’re going to have tons of fun. Come on!”
The women marched directly into the midway. Sideshow posters flapped on poles revealing a cat woman, an illustrated man, a knife thrower, the world’s smallest living man, and a two-headed goat.
“Lori! Irene!” someone shouted from behind them. They turned around to face Lori’s long-time admirer, Gary. “I didn’t know you guys liked carnivals.”
“Who doesn’t?” asked Lori. Irene raised her hand.
“I love carnivals,” said Gary, a man so kind and considerate he was doomed to spend his entire life in the friend zone. “I’ll treat you ladies to some corn dogs if you agree to come with me to see Madame Endora.”
Before Irene could open her mouth Lori had agreed to the terms and was running headlong to the corn dog stand. Gary shoved the corn dog and a mustard packet into Irene’s hands.
“Cheer up, hon. They say that Madame Endora can predict the future flawlessly. They say that she’s never been wrong about anything.”
“Who is they?” she huffed.
“Oh, come on. Let’s just see for ourselves.”
The dimly lit tent smelled of musty earth and heady incense. In the center sat a withered almost elvish looking old woman behind a circular table covered in various cards, crystals, and candles. Irene had half expected to see a crystal ball at the old woman’s fingertips and was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t one.
Madame Endora looked the part of a gypsy fortune-teller. Her olive skin was as wrinkly as a used bed sheet. Her stringy gray hair fell down to her hips, several strands of which were coiled into intricately woven braids fastened with pieces of purple and red cords. Large hoop earrings hung from her over-sized earlobes and a red and purple bandanna was tied loosely around her head.
Her white flowing blouse rode up over bangle-covered wrists and each of her fingers was decorated with rings bearing large crystal stones of various colors. Irene had to admit, whatever racquet this old lady seemed to be peddling it was certainly working. The trio had to wait in line for thirty minutes before they were able to approach the fortune-teller.
“I am Madame Endora,” she said in a heavy Romanian accent. “Seer of seers. Which of you wishes to know something of your future?”
“Me,” Gary quickly asserted.
The elderly woman shuffled a deck of cards swiftly then passed them to Gary. “Please shuffle, cut, and select ten cards, sir. Pass them to me face down and I will foretell your future.”
Irene rolled her eyes. Quite a racquet indeed. She eyed the crystals curiously as Gary went about selecting and passing his cards to the fortune-teller. She knew that they held no true power but they were very pretty and would make lovely jewelry. She examined the other items in the tent while only half listening to Gary’s prediction.
To the right of her stood a long table draped in burgundy and gold cloth. It was covered with an assortment of statues, crystals, and herbs. Boxed up antique looking Ouija boards were surrounded by silver jewelry and obsidian mirrors. Books on the occult were stacked neatly beside images of dragons and fairies. And the people in line behind them strained to listen in on naïve Gary’s fate as Endora gave an exaggerated account of his future.
“The fool,” the gypsy bluntly stated, “symbolizes that you are foolish in matters of the heart.”
Irene examined the card carefully. She knew that tarot cards were a lot of nonsense but the artwork was interesting. The card depicted a young vagabond with a bindle over his right shoulder clasping a rose in his left hand. A white dog followed behind him as he approached the edge of a cliff surrounded by water, as if he were about to happily walk forward into the abyss. No wonder he was called the fool.
“There is a young lady that you love intensely. But she will never fall in love with you.”
At this Lori blushed. Gary’s face crumpled and Irene snorted.
“You find your friend’s misery humorous, domnişoară?” asked the gypsy.
“I just think this whole thing is a crock! You make a few educated guesses, tell people what you think they want to hear, or worse, what they don’t want to hear with the hopes that they will come back to pay you to advise them on how to get what they want.”
Lori elbowed her friend in the side.
“What? It’s true. Anyone in this tent can see how Gary has been making moony eyes at you since we walked in here. Something like that doesn’t happen overnight. Of course she’s going to tell him that he doesn’t have a chance with you,” Irene spat vehemently.
Lori touched Gary’s hand. He quickly yanked it away from her in embarrassment.
“Next I’ll bet she offers to sell him some overpriced love potion to slip into your lemonade when you aren’t looking.”
“Are you so certain of everything, domnişoară?” the oracle questioned.
Irene nodded curtly, sitting back in the uncomfortable metal chair, ready to leave as soon as this farce was over.
Madame Endora was unaccustomed to having her powers challenged. In the old country she was revered for her gift of sight. This skeptic would be made to pay for her display of disbelief. It was bad for business and even worse, insulting.
“Perhaps you are afraid of what the future holds for you. I could tell you right now if you would like.”
Irene shook her head impetuously.
“Look lady, I’m not shelling out thirty bucks so that you can fiddle with a few cards and take a stab at what you assume about me. I’ve got better things to spend my coins on.”
“Like a ranch?” replied Endora.
At this, all three friends jolted upright. How could she have known about Irene’s dream? This was not something that could have easily been guessed. The gypsy’s emerald green eyes narrowed as she smiled, displaying an array of cracked, crooked, and yellowing teeth.
“Then allow me to offer you a free sample of my chiromancy abilities, or palm reading as you might call it. Not as in-depth as a card reading. But enough to show you that there are powers beyond what you can comprehend.”
The old woman held out a wrinkly hand and cocked an eyebrow, daring Irene to take her up on the offer. She hesitantly placed her left hand, palm facing skyward, into her grasp. She had expected the woman’s touch to be cold and clammy, to feel cracked and rough like sandpaper. But Irene was pleasantly surprised that the gypsy’s hands were warm and soft like thin tissue paper. She remembered as a child how her grandmother’s hands had felt that way and it flooded her with a feeling of comfort that allowed her to relax.
The soothsayer traced the lines of her hand with one bony, long-nailed finger. “Your heart line indicates sadness and depression,” she began. “You have never known the love of a man.”
Irene stiffened, determined not to give herself away. The gypsy continued.
“You have a straight and long head line. That means that you tend to think realistically. Your life line is short and shallow. That means that you are easily manipulated by others. That might explain why you’ve never received any of the promotions you’ve applied for.”
At this, Irene jerked her hand backward but Endora held on tightly and continued her reading.
“I see that you have a fate line,” she said with a wicked grin “This is uncommon.”
Madame Endora held the young lady’s hand up to her face for closer inspection. She traced the line repeatedly with her craggily fingers to be certain that she could decipher its meaning.
“You are a self-made individual, or you will be soon,” she added. “Your hands are earth shaped. Their broadness and thickness tells me that you are sometimes stubborn and materialistic. You work with your hands and find comfort in the tangible.”
Irene yanked her hand away forcefully. “Lucky guess,” she spat.
“Then I will tell you this,” the fortune-teller replied sternly. “You will come into money soon. A promotion is in your fate. But before the week is out you will return to see me, more humbled than you are now.”
Madame Endora grabbed a small black crystal from the table, held it to her lips, and muttered something in Romanian before handing it to Irene.
“I saw you eying this crystal earlier. Please take it as a formal gift from me to you. For luck.”
Irene pocketed the jewel without so much as a thank you and left the tent swiftly.
Irene and Lori were waiting for her to come out. She was sitting inside the little tent with her fellow carnies, drinking dandelion wine, and she had been in there since the carnival had shut down two hours earlier. The way she held her head and laughed before taking another swallow of the moonshine seemed uncharacteristic compared to the serious air she gave off during readings. At the table with her, the woman with the cat’s eyes and a man covered from head to toe in tattoos argued over the last of the food that sat before them.
Four days had passed since Irene’s palm reading. Since then Stu had been caught stealing. He’d been fired and she had been promoted to full-time loan officer. As Endora had predicted, Irene returned to see her, more humbled and less skeptical than before, with Lori along for the ride.
On occasion the carnies’ voices floated on the wind and the pair waiting outside the tent listened carefully for their moment to enter.
“We should all pitch in money to buy Mega-Bucks tickets,” said the tattooed gentleman. “I heard on the radio that it’s a record jackpot. 1.3 billion just waiting for us to win it!”
The cat-woman flung her leopard skirt over her knee and climbed off of the bench.
“Ha! Fat chance of us winning if you are involved,” she jeered. “All you ever do is lose. Your numbers are probably all unlucky.”
The tattooed giant crossed his arms over his chest and huffed. “Why do you gotta be so mean all the time, Maya. You never used to talk like this when we were married.”
“Because I never realized how much of a fool I’d been until it was too late.” She kissed the goat on both of its heads, gave each one a pat, and exited the tent with a sashay.
The tent fell silent. Irene and Lori approached it apprehensively, hoping not to get thrown out on their ears for jumping the fence and prowling around in the darkness afterhours.
“Enter, domnişoară. You need not fear us,” came Endora’s raspy voice.
Inside, the tent smelled heavily of alcohol and burnt sage. At the table sat the old woman who was staring at her guests as she took another sip of the wine.
“You have come to apologize, yes?” she asked with a smirk.
Irene nodded. She was embarrassed by the harsh words that she had exchanged with the fortune-teller and now believed in her sixth sense since she had witnessed it firsthand.
“So here you are,” said the seer, “to offer your apology and hear what more I have to tell you.”
The oracle held her hand out to the empty bench, offering a seat to the young ladies who she knew would come to see her that night. Irene apologized and Endora accepted with the curt nod of her head.
Seeing that the gypsy was about to conduct business, the tattooed man made his exit followed by the world’s smallest man who was leading the two-headed goat out of the tent by a makeshift leash made of frayed rope.
She sat down the wine-filled mason jar, leaned back in her chair and said “Thirty dollars, please.”
The girls looked at each other, confused and unsure of how to proceed.
“You come for advice, yes? No more, how you say, freebies? Thirty dollars, please.”
Irene dug through her purse, located the cash, and placed it in her wrinkly, outstretched hand. The soothsayer stuffed it into the pocket of her flowing mulberry-colored skirt and then pulled a deck of cards from her bag.
“Mulțumesc,” said Madame Endora by means of thanks. She handed the deck to Irene. “Shuffle, cut, select ten cards. Hand them to me face down, please.”
She flipped the cards over one by one, laying them out in a strange geometric formation.
“The queen of wands represents you, alone in the world seeking a companion and riches. The ten of pentacles, wheel of fortune, ace of cups, and sun all represent riches and glory,” Endora explained.
Irene let out a sigh of relief. She feared that she would be greeted with bad news. The gypsy continued her reading, explaining that an opportunity would present itself and that if she were to take it, Irene would be rich beyond her wildest dreams. That everything she desired would then fall into her lap. If she missed this opportunity she would die penniless and alone.
On the ride home Irene became overwhelmed with thirst. The two friends made a decision to stop at the local convenience store to grab sodas before they called it a night.
At the counter Irene was greeted by a toothy cashier who seemed to be focusing on the television set behind her.
“Got your Mega-Bucks ticket yet?” he asked them.
“We don’t gamble,” Lori replied as he rang up their purchase.
“It’s a record jackpot,” he insisted. “Worth spending the two dollars on a ticket. You never know!”
The fortune teller’s words played through Irene’s mind. This had to be it. How else would she become rich beyond her wildest dreams? Without hesitation, Irene purchased a lottery ticket then rushed home to watch the numbers being drawn on live television.
She felt like a complete moron. The woman had made lucky guesses. That had to be it.
Irene was about to rip up her ticket when the numbers flashed onto the screen. When the last of the numbers popped up her hands began to shake. They were there! They were all there!
The room seemed to tilt and she was unable to catch her breath. Irene was officially a lottery winner and with that thought she passed out and fell onto the shaggy carpeted floor.
The next afternoon Irene made three stops. The first was at the lottery headquarters to hand over her winning ticket. She was the first billionaire winner in Maryland’s history. With no other winners the entire lump sum was hers. Next, she stopped off at the bank to quit her job and tell Mr. Miller what she really thought of him. Lastly, she visited Endora’s tent for one last reading.
Feeling generous, she paid the gypsy $100 for a tarot card reading.
“The king of swords,” she began, “represents a new man in your life. The two of cups, the star, and the princess of cups represents you in love.”
Irene could not believe her good fortune. Finally, everything that she desired was coming to fruition. Thanks to the guidance of Madame Endora.
“You have my word, domnişoară, that you will be with this man until the day that you die.”
She thanked the seer for all of her help and left her tent for the last time.
Darkness flooded over the sky like spilled ink. As Irene walked to her car she heard heavy footsteps behind her. Before she could turn around to discover who was following her, a large tattooed hand covered her mouth.
“I know you have money,” the illustrated man whispered in her ear. “I’m not greedy, I don’t want all of it. Just what you have in your purse.”
Irene tried to scream but his thick fingers muffled the sound. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Panic began to wash over her in tidal waves as she was on the verge of passing out.
Suddenly, the sound of wind and metal rang through the air and a large knife found purchase in the man’s tattooed hand. Irene never did see him run off. But when she was able to catch her breath and look up she was greeted by a man who she’d recognized from the poster they’d seen the first night they’d come to the carnival. The knife thrower crouched down beside her and lifted her into his arms like a small child.
His long black hair was as dark as coal and splayed around his face like grass around a post. His piercing green eyes held a hint of familiarity that made Irene feel an immediate sense of comfort. His handsome face and muscular body created a twinge of longing within her that she was unfamiliar with. He carried her back to his tent where he cleaned the dirt from her face and offered her a drink.
Six months later, after a whirlwind romance, Irene and Fane the knife thrower were married on a ranch that Irene had purchased with her lottery winnings.
The police cruiser plowed up dust in ocher plumes. Far away, the tent waited, a fire-red jewel in a field of brown, desolate earth. When they found Fane Cojocaru he was sitting with his mother, Endora, playing cards.
The old woman verified that her son had been with her for the five days following the argument that he’d had with his wife, Irene.
It was a shame that a young lady who had seemed so lucky had met such a gruesome end. The love of money had consumed her. She trusted no one, not even her beloved husband or her best friend, Lori. Irene had holed herself up in her walk-in safe, refusing to come out.
It was as if she’d been possessed, cursed for some unknown slight against an evil force. The madness had overtaken her. She was found locked inside her private vault, clasping the oversized phony commemorative lottery check to her chest, the black crystal clutched tightly in her hand. The poor dear had died of asphyxia.
But Endora knew the truth. She had guided her to this fate. After all, only a fool would taunt a gypsy without the expectation of reprisals. People thought that the lottery had been Irene’s undoing. That was the luck of the draw. But Madame Endora knew that it had been the curse she’d placed upon her with the black crystal. And now all of the lottery winnings belonged to Endora and her son.
Christina Durner is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and websites including Creepypasta, The Gunpowder Review, The Foodie Bugle, Examiner, and Fine Print. She also works independently as an editor. Christina loves to chat with readers and can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/