55 Word Story – It’s in the Cards

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers

“Tarot.  Ace of Pentacles, an opportunity offered,” the metaphysical store clerk explained.

I remembered.  I still carried his star-embossed coin.  Once I shuffled possibilities, dealt answers, and survived by stacking the deck.  He died anyway.

If he had something to say, it was in the cards.  I flipped the coin, then I stole the deck.

Noir #1 – Tia Atwater (Approx. 1500 Words)

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

“You got a job?”

I’m startled, dropping my keys on the worn carpet.  When I stand up I’m dizzy from either the sudden movement or the paisley swirls down our apartment hallway.  It’s 7 a.m. and a fair question.  My landlord sidles up and leans casually on the wall between the dusty sconces.

“No.  I’ve got guilt and I’m out of coffee.”

“You’re only two months behind on rent, nothing we can’t handle.”

I step away from my door and onto the creakiest floorboard, “you’re very generous.  Especially to be working so early.  You changing light bulbs?”

The sconce behind him shudders as he pushes off the wall and the light flickers.  “Joseph complains so much.  You know he woke me up when he left at 6:45 this morning.  Told me the screen is broken in the stairwell window.  He was worried about bees getting in.”

I glance down the hall, really needing coffee now, but he doesn’t take the hint.  He’s looking very closely at me, so I stare back hoping he’ll get to whatever it is soon.  For a split second the corners of his eyes squeeze tighter, he doesn’t like my direct look.  Then I see him dismiss it.

He even shrugs a little before saying, “I need you to do me a favor.”

I’m supposed to follow him down the hall and since it’s the way out, I do.  I see the broken screen on the way down the stairs.  The grapevines have taken over the front of the building, tendrils curling through the screen.  It is September and the weight of the thick leaves has finally pulled a gash open.  I fight the urge to touch the invading force of nature.

Dupont stops his descent and points to a first-floor door.  “I was working here when I saw Anna’s door.”

I see it is wide open and the empty threshold feels strange.  I wave my landlord on and take a deep breath.  Focus on Anna.  She’s friendly; we’ve walked back from the bus half a dozen times. The discord of the morning has me tense and when I follow him through her open doorway I feel the inevitable slide of fear down my spine.

“I know you don’t say it, why would you, but I know what you are.  I need you to take the case.  The police don’t get anything right.  She’s deserves more than that.”  Dupont spits the last statement out, white foam at the corner of his mouth from his perpetual cheap mint chewing.

Anna is dead, laid out across her tousled bed the blood dried and dark in her long blonde hair.  I tear my gaze away from her body, gulping at how fast the day has gotten dark.  “Why?  Why me?”

My landlord is agitated, unable to look at her or keep still.  He winces back and forth outside the bedroom door chattering, “someone killed her here in our place.”

“Call the police!”  I croak even as I hear the approaching sirens.

“Tia, please, I know what you are.  Just do me this favor.  Its Anna; its our home.”  My landlord swipes his mouth with a dirty sleeve and nods as if he’s decided for me.

Dupont darts out into the hallway to watch for the police, leaving me alone.  I’m not with Anna.  She’s dead, I’ve seen this before, and there’s nothing human in her cold and hardening leftovers.  No light, no smile, no breath, and no voice calling my name even if I hear it in my dreams and on my worst days.

I’m reeling and tug at my shirt, feeling like there’s a rope cutting off my air, unable to look away.  I fight to keep seeing Anna, to not let Maria’s face appear under her same dark hair.  I force myself to reason; my landlord isn’t trying to torture me.  He doesn’t know.  Dupont brought me in here to help him.  I take three deep breaths and think.

An inappropriate bubble of laughter pops in my throat.  My landlord thinks I’m a private investigator: odd hours, bad company, and admittedly too much drinking.  My friend from college is a criminal lawyer and helped the dude in 4A solve some unfortunate charges.  Cal also knows I’m always up for a drink.  And then there was Logan picking me up for late dates in his squad car.  He did have a couple of cases where my insight shifted everything towards the explanation.

Now I’m dodging into dangerous headspace, the worst symptom of unemployment.  I have nothing to do so naturally I’m casting around for anything I can do.  Like be a private investigator for my landlord in order to make up for two months of late rent.  Except there’s a dead body in front of me, and it’s Anna.  She is, was, two years younger than me.

Why would someone kill Anna?

I start looking around.  She was killed by a heavy blow to the back of her head.  There is nothing near her that could be the weapon, just throw pillows.  From the vivid image of her wound bashed into my mind, I’m looking for something heavy and just more than fist-sized.  Her one-bedroom apartment is hardly bigger than my studio and I stagger around looking for possibilities.

It occurs to me the killer wouldn’t put the murder weapon back neatly and nothing else is disturbed.  Also, I’m not a private investigator and I feel as if flood waters are closing in over my head.  The only thing I can see is that Anna was into Tarot cards.  One whole shelf is stacked with books on the subject with a beaten up notebook shoved in the corner.

I stop and breathe for a second before looking back in her bedroom.  Directly across from her bed, a Tarot card is tucked into a picture frame, covering up her boyfriend.  The Roman numeral VIII is etched at the top in gold and the figure below puts my stomach on ice.  A woman, blindfolded, stands in the middle of eight swords with her hands bound.  The illustrated sky is dark and foreboding.

“Get out, pretend you’re just walking by!”  Dupont appears, snatches my hand, and swings me into the hallway just as the police step up the front doors.  He hits the buzzer and leans on the doorway, blocking my view as I pretend to walk by.

I can’t solve the Tuesday crossword, much less a murder.  The only thought that will form is a blurry eyed memory of the crossword that stumped me a few days ago.  I have to calm down, stay calm so I concentrate on the first clue that stumped me, 23 down: Chaucer’s walking tour.

What kind of clue is that?  I rail inside my head and it has nothing to do with the crumpled puzzle any more.

It doesn’t work when I’m panicked.  I smooth out my breath and settle my face into a blank as I approach the police bottlenecked in our building’s tiny foyer.  I make it through the first set of squeaking doors and past the tight crowd scanning the mailbox names.  Then I’m outside and about to take a deep breath only to be stopped dead on the front steps.

“Tia Atwater.  I forgot you live here.”  Detective Larsen holds up his hands to block my way.

“She just walked past the scene, we haven’t questioned her yet,” a uniformed officer tells him.

“Perfect place to start.  Logan always thought she was a natural detective.  Almost a psychic.”  Then my ex’s old partner turns on me: “so you must have known what your break-up would do.  He got suspended, you know.  And now they’re transferring him.”

A tall, lanky man in a loose suit with a loose smile steps up to us.

Detective Larsen sighs.  “Meet my new partner, Detective Ramirez.  This is Tia.”

Ramirez smiles, this time at me despite recognizing my name.  “I just need to ask you a few questions before you go to work.”

Detective Larsen stops on his way in through the front doors.  “You got a job?  Case closed, boys, it’s the Apocalypse.”

I tell Ramirez that, no, I do not have a job.  I’m just heading out to buy a coffee.  He asks if I know who lives in apartment #209 and I’m honest when I say I only know her first name is Anna.  Then I can’t remember when I saw her last.  Off the bus, walking home, we passed on the sidewalk and she told me school was stressful.  That was maybe two days ago.  She’d mentioned a boyfriend before and seemed happy.  No, she wasn’t worried or scared and I have no idea if there was anyone who disliked her.  Our landlord loved her and checked on her often.   I’m just explaining how all I saw was Dupont standing in Anna’s doorway when Detective Larsen comes back out.

“Victim is Anna David.  Boyfriend’s name is Drew Thompson.  They’re picking him up now.”  He nods to Ramirez before pulling me aside.

“Something’s happened to Anna?”  I realize my eyes are wet when Detective Larsen frowns and loosens his grip on my arm.  I can’t help but reach up to my neck, an old gesture that doesn’t erase the cord marks I’ve seen.

“Anna was struck in the head,” he tells me because he remembers my past.  “It could have been an accident.”

That helps me fight off the dizziness of memories as I take a deep breath to spit out: “liar.”

“We’ll find out who killed her.”  Detective Larsen puts his hand on my shoulder, “Why don’t you sit down for a second.  You look a little pale.  Tia, sometimes we never know why these things happen.”

I slip out from underneath his concern and scowl, “but there’s always a reason.”

“And we, the police, will find out what it is.”  It’s a gentle warning, as irritating as a rock in a shoe.

Dupont’s right, the police will never get it right.

I force my grimace back into a blank face and fake a nod.  Detective Larsen steps aside though he has more to say and I hold my breath as I pass him.

Calm down.  23 down: Chaucer’s walking tour.

Pilgrimage.

It comes to me quick as I break away down the steps.  Chaucer’s walking tour is a pilgrimage.  They walk miles to see the relic of a dead saint, seeking favors, forgiveness, or God.  I walk away too fast down the sidewalk and wonder when I’ll stop.  It should be simple: all I want is a strong coffee and the truth.

Character Intro – Anna Abbey (Approx. 500 Words)

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

He had to step aside or she had to go through him.  As he snarled and gnashed his teeth, she considered her options: go home and watch her father play house with his new young bride; sleep in her car for another week; or let the police catch her.  The sirens blared into the parking lot and she took a step forward.

The Rottweiler lifted his lip again.  Seconds later his growl reverberated off the walls, and Anna wondered if she should count like people did between lightning and thunder.  She counted to five and hoped his stormy thoughts passed, hoped the hotdogs in the next aisle over tempted him, but mostly she hoped she had her mother’s stare.  If only Anna could reflect that cold dagger blade look full of insight without empathy, then the hulking dog would back away.

Car doors cracked open and terse orders were called across the parking lot.  Anna was seven feet from the glass case and a few long strides away from smashing her hand into the cause of her nightmares.  She was seconds away from silencing the sickeningly persistent call.

Or getting charged with breaking and entering.  Either or, Anna thought.

“Go home,” she said and realized she was talking to herself instead of giving the Rottweiler a convincing command.

The police were not at the back door yet.  The dog might chase her but Anna could be up the shelf and out the window before he lunged.  People left cars in pawnshop parking lots overnight all the time.  All she had to do was get away and come back in the morning.  The knife would still be under glass, glinting on a swath of green canvas, and tomorrow she could stop the visions it caused.

Anna knew it would not be easy; this object hit hard enough she’d abandoned her regular plan and broke in just to stop it.  The original plan was to buy the knife or at least ask a clerk to open the case so she could hold it.  One touch was usually enough yet here she was ready to steal it as the police shone flashlight beams over her desperation.  If she didn’t get a handle on this one it could carve out her sanity, drive her to suicide like her mother.

Just grab it now, who cares if you get caught? Anna thought.

The Rottweiler flinched away from the glass case as a frightened growl ripped straight from his throat.  It pushed through a rack of military overcoats and disappeared.  Anna knew the police would hear the breaking glass but she raised her fist and ran forward.

The vision slammed into her and knocked her breath out in one sharp cry.  The room went black and Anna fell into unconsciousness without another sound.

55 Word Story – Give & Take

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

She picked my pocket on the subway but only got a crumpled love letter.

“You never sent it.”  She beat me to the corner café and slipped the envelope back over my heart.

Her close perfume tripled my pulse.  “People change.”

“Maybe.”  She pulled out my wallet and smiled.  “Can I buy you a drink?”

Character Study – Noir Tarot Reader (Approx. 800 Words)

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved.  Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

I opened another beer first, empty-stomached and alone, and then turned to the tape-entombed moving boxes.  Maybe that’s why the top box tipped off the tall stack and sent a suicide splatter across the studio apartment floor.  I couldn’t believe it was anything but an accident, even though I felt the fall coming and stepped back, sloshing beer down my shirt.

Two funeral prayer cards, a handful of unused candles, a jar of collected sea glass, and my crumpled college diploma skidded to a stop by my feet.  I stepped over them as if those memories didn’t stick to my soul like spat-out gum.

The rest of the knickknacks were equally barbed but I felt better digging in the toppled box.  If this was that box then I knew I’d stashed a little marijuana in an old mint tin.  I swiped past used concert tickets, faded photographs, and all the flotsam of what was supposed to have been a good time.

Then I touched it.

The deck was larger than regular playing cards, wrapped in a silk scarf, and tied with a black ribbon.  The tight knot slipped as I plucked the Tarot cards out of the box with shaking hands.  There wasn’t any furniture in my empty shell of an apartment, so I sat on the scarred hardwood floor, kneeling painfully as penance.  Elephants paraded across the patterned silk and trampled into my lap.

“Only one way.”  I muttered.

Salt, now worn to dust, shook free of the scarf and a sliver of selenite clattered to the floor.  The cards slipped free in my hands and I fumbled through the memorized symbols.  One glance told me the shadow was still there, insistent on the face of certain cards.

“Of course.”  I snarled then switched to a mocking impression: “’You can’t outrun your shadow.’”

I strangled the Tarot deck, still angry at such condescending wisdom.  Moving back to my old neighborhood had been a mistake.  He was too close and it was only a matter of time, but I had nowhere else to go.  I couldn’t afford to run again.

The battered Tarot deck twisted and shuffled in my hands.  It felt, as always, that another stratum of my brain took charge, too eager to talk through the archetypal cards.  The edges of my vision darkened and all the nearby electro-magnetic frequencies increased their pitch.  My stomach churned and it took all my strength to uncurl my fingers and deal the cards.

The traditional spread took shape face down on the floor.  The shadow appeared, scattered at first, and then slipping into one mass on the back of the first card.  My body was stony, refusing to stretch my aching legs, while my mind thought now was a good time to run for the door.  Instead, I knelt outside the sunshine cast through my dirty third story window and stared at the shadowed Tarot card.  All my focus and threadbare faith couldn’t erase that ominous mark.  I held my breath.  Down in the neglected courtyard the dried leaves of an elm tree rattled.

“You’re long gone.”  I hoped aloud.  I had to try.

That rattle of leaves like a dying breath and then still silence.

I turned the first card and scrambled to my feet.  Stiff-legged I paced the far end of my five hundred square foot studio until the card’s familiar face cornered me.  There was no escape.  There had never been a chance for me.

The Tarot card held up two fingers, an insulting salute reminding me that higher powers held sway.  Powers he could harness; powers he had cursed on me.  If I bowed my head and bought in, then all my pain would slowly seep away.

“Stalker,” I hissed at the Hierophant.

I paced the short empty space again and again, sometimes giving the familiar card my own one-fingered gesture.  The rest of the spread didn’t matter.  It would be nothing but a series of failures and repeats.  Unless I faced him, I would stay stuck and I had promised myself no more wallowing.  That’s why I had returned and rented this ridiculously small apartment.  Seeing Jeremy was a necessary evil.  I shoved aside the rest of my unpacked boxes and grabbed my jacket.

On the stairs, I yanked my scarf out of my pocket.  I looped it over my head, jogged down the three flights, and then tucked it tightly over my heart.  It burned a hole in my chest how Jeremy was the undeniable reason I was in Uptown.  I pushed open the apartment building door and took a deep breath but the fresh air didn’t sooth me.  As much as I wanted to flee in the opposite direction, I headed up the block towards his shop.  At least Jeremy was better than some of the things I had left buried when I ran away.

 

 

 

Poem – Writing This Morning

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

Instead of defeating a deadline

I wake up in a late-night diner,

Al Green on the jukebox.

 

I am tired of being alone.

 

So, I scoot into a booth

and the plot-driving man opposite me

pulls a Tarot card.

He lays it facedown between us

and I reach for a menu;

 

There should be tension under small talk.

 

Our waitress confesses

she wants to be a singer

but, other than that surprise,

I see nothing beyond the steamed-up windows,

a highway-sided parking lot,

and weak streetlights unable to

illuminate the rest of the world.

 

There is only this scene:

the jangle of cheap cutlery,

a sizzling griddle,

the soft cough of inspiration

drinking coffee in the booth behind me.

 

I don’t know my date

but he tips a flask into his soda

sensing correctly

I am the femme fatale.

 

I put up the orders for the winking cook

who is somehow in on the joke.

I arrange the customers along the counter

and decide who is down on their luck.

I shove the tipsy kids, still content with their day jobs,

far in a booth in the back.

I admire the shift worker

with his Carhartts and mechanical Zen,

and I hope the scratch-off in his pocket

is a winner.

 

I can’t punch a clock

when I fall into scenes like this one.

 

Didn’t you hear the bell ring?

Orders up

 

and I can already taste the French fries.

Tarot Story: Draft #7

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

Tarot Stories are comprised of three cards I do as a special inspiration pull.  I then craft the cards into the characters and/or events of a short story.  See if you can guess the Tarot cards before you scroll to the end of the story!

High Priestess Happy Hour

She tipped the glass before the bartender could pour.  Too many drinks, too many wishes missed, she couldn’t stomach another sip.  The breaking stemware sparked a flash of blue in the bottles behind the bar, her synesthesia winking sharply.

The bartender went for a rag and she squinted where the fading flash touched a curve of clear glass.  If it was going to happen again at least she wasn’t alone.  She’d been wrong about the drinking, it hadn’t blurred out the odd trick of her eyes, and she still couldn’t face the wide darkened windows of her attic apartment again.

This was different, she hoped.  Just a trick of the light.

She stared into the bottle and the inverted image showed the framed vintage ad behind her.  The bar’s icon, a blue-shrouded seated nun, was gloriously upended and looked more like the boastful queen stuck in a starry throne than a studious devotee.

She thought about her own lack of spiritual discipline as she clung to the bar stool.  When the room stopped it’s slow spin her sight changed.

Her shifting eyes found the same bottle but now the blue folded into curtains that gave way to a door.  She reached for the brass door knob.  It was cool, cold enough to sting her fingertips, and she pulled back from the vision to see blood on the bar like a red flag.  The small cut sobered her and she clutched a cocktail napkin.  At least she didn’t have turquoise blood or something weird like that.  No one had to know what she saw.

The bar had filled up since she sat down and now it was crowded with comparisons to distract her.  The man with the Mercedes keys made more money.  The woman wearing pearls had better taste in wine.  The slouching man in the gray suit dedicated long hours to his career.  Who was she?

The word ‘clairvoyant’ made her cringe.  That’s why she’d spent all day looking up that other fancy word, synesthesia, but the colorful little glints of sound were not what made her want to drink to blackout.  Maybe she was just lonely.  She should get another drink, meet someone, and not worry about when or where she went to bed and what little flashes she saw along the way.  She could face her apartment again in full sun and forget that what she saw there might be something else altogether.

Indecision made her hands erratic, like flies over the broken wine glass.  The bartender swept up the shards into a trash bin and took her waving to mean she did not want another drink.

What did she want?  The secret hope for a super-power, the longing for a special talent, had always been there but now it had soured.

The man next to her held out a plastic sword stuck with garnishes.

“For me?”  She muttered.

His head was turned away, concentrating on clearer voices, but the sweet offering was obvious.  She steadied her hand, cleared her throat, and took the cherry on top.

“Thanks,” she said.  “You read my mind.”

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