Over the last several days, I’ve spent time in the quiet of a house without internet due to hurricane Zeta. I fully intended to post a different story at the end of this Halloween, this very unique and in many ways unprecedented Halloween of 2020. But in my “quiet time” I reconsidered. I thought about the journey we’ve all taken this year and wanted to leave you with something a little different to think about. I’ve never posted this story anywhere else except for the collection of short stories where it first appeared, The Left Palm. I hope you enjoy and know I wish you all peace, the most important commodity I believe that is available.
The Left Palm
Fear, a manifestation of fear, certainly this was it. It was the only explanation, the one that made any sense she could live with.
She looked outside the bedroom window of her apartment onto her small secluded concrete patio. Hopefully, this time it would be gone. Shakily peering through the blinds, her heart clutched in her chest. It was nearly midnight, but the nearby streetlamps still illuminated the enclosed space, reflecting off its thick black coat. It turned its face toward her, unmistakably a pure, black wolf with eerily pale blue eyes.
She stepped back, allowing the blinds to snap back into place.
Again, it feverishly crossed her mind to call the police, or the SPCA or the fire department — frankly anyone. But each time she moved to pick up her cell phone, a paralysis crept in. Something inside her refused, absolutely refused to follow through.
Silently, she crept back onto her daybed, pulling the covers tightly around her. In the morning, it would be gone. It always was. After all, this was the third night in a row she’d seen it.
It was summertime, unbearably hot and humid in the city. But she made her way to the college by the lake where she was taking one graduate course in Victorian Literature. It was a nine o’ clock class. After lunch, she would head to the French Quarter for the rest of the day where she worked oddly enough as a Tarot card reader at a small shop on Chartres Street.
Granted, it was an odd profession but one that she literally fell into. She’d been working at a gift shop on Decatur Street and feeling the pinch of inflation began looking for a second job. There was a sign, boldly taped on the door of The Left Palm, “Looking for Part-Time Help.” Seeing it, she just sort of drifted in with no idea of what she was getting into. The front of the store itself was filled with books, candles, and even clothing, so quite naturally she’d assumed that it must be a sales position.
The lady that greeted her from behind a glass counter was older, at least late fifties. She had substantially long black hair, dramatically streaked with gray, which was piled up in a low bun behind her head. Quite a striking image, she wore some sort of electric blue caftan dress and an ornate oriental scarf draped across her shoulder. But when she’d met her eyes there was no smile, rather an almost suspicious expression reflected through her intently plucked black eyebrows. “Yes,” she’d asked nearly sternly.
She breathed in deeply, suddenly feeling as though she’d like to slink off somewhere and forget the whole thing. “Well,” she hesitated, quelling a bizarre combination of panic and curiosity, “I saw your sign outside, about a job opening.”
The slim dark woman who’d been leaning over the glass counter in front of her now straightened up. It was difficult not to be struck by the regalness of her bearing. “You’re looking for a job?” She asked flatly.
“Yes, I am.”
She nodded, feeling amazingly uncomfortable, “Yes that’s fine.”
And then she outstretched one of her hands that were ornamented by very long, bright red nails, and placed it flatly on the glass case in front of her. “So, you’re a reader.”
She hesitated, “A reader?” asking with surprise.
“Yes, we need a Tarot reader.” Suddenly Claudia glanced around the store and took it all in — crystal balls, new age paraphernalia. Of course, now she understood. It wasn’t a sales position at all. Again, the woman repeated in low tones, “You are a reader.”
And Claudia with great confidence met her dark eyes and answered quite directly, “Yes, I am.”
Actually, prior to working at The Left Palm, it had all been a hobby, an eccentric interest. She’d done Tarot readings since high school for friends, relatives, but never herself. Long ago, she’d recognized that she simply couldn’t read for herself. It was too personal, rather she was always searching for something. And it was frustrating, because more than she wanted to know anything, she wanted to understand about herself. She needed to know why all her romantic entanglements ended disastrously; if she’d ever finally finish her degree; if she’d stop having to work so much; and if her life would ever settle down. But The Left Palm had proved to be more lucrative than she imagined at first. The pay was largely commission, and before long she had developed a clientele. The work itself, at times, she’d found less than rewarding, and at its worse completely draining.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, the money was too good to relinquish. Even with an assistantship at school, there were too many bills to pay. So, Claudia continued to read people’s fortunes, all kinds of people.
And on the early morning drive to school in late July, she wondered if there was some connection in this, in her work and the black wolf that had prowled her patio for the last three nights.
It had rained earlier in the morning, which increased the humidity to an almost stifling extent. She’d always loved this city but did not love the summers. She yearned for the fall again, when it would be easier to breath.
As she entered the English building, hearing her sandals lightly tap on the stone floor, it struck her suddenly how deserted everything seemed. Granted, the summers were a quiet time around here, but this morning seemed exceptionally quiet. When she’d arrived, she’d noted a few souls wondering about in the parking lot and then sitting on the steps of the library as she passed by, but the English building now was virtually empty.
Then, as she finally reached the door of the classroom, she understood at least one of the reasons why: A note on the door, “Class Cancelled.” She thought longingly of how she could still be in bed catching up from another largely sleepless night.
Her thought was to go home, try to catch just a few more hours, but such a fatigue suddenly filled her that she couldn’t even muster the effort. So, instead she wandered outside and sat down on the first bench that came along. Just a few minutes, she thought, only a few to regroup. She leaned back against its wooden frame and closed her eyes, trying to draw energy from anywhere.
It was some moments before her eyes flickered open again, before she noticed that a rather substantial shadow had fallen over her. But when she did, she instinctively straightened up in a jolt. It was quite unexpected. Not a cloud passing over, but a man standing in front of her. a man dressed in a black suit, standing a few feet away, just watching.
The sun shone directly in her eyes. With one hand, she attempted to block the glare, trying to get a clearer glimpse of this stranger. Bearded, dark, possibly black hair, but skin fair. She straightened up a bit more, expecting something from him, some sort of conversation, but nothing.
“Umm, can I help you with something?” she asked in puzzlement. And then, an unnerving wide smile spread across his face. Suddenly, a flash of sunlight stung her eyes so painfully that she quickly squinted. But more disturbing than that was that when she reopened them the stranger was gone. She bolted up, quickly scanning in all directions, but seeing no one that even remotely resembled his form. He’d simply vanished. An unexpected chill of fear traveled up her spine and spread out making her skin feel like ice. She quickly began heading back to her car, moving so fast that it nearly felt like a run.
“You look awful.”
After an hour of sleep and a quick shower, she had somehow managed to drag herself into work for noon. Madame Christina stood behind the front counter with a bit of a frown on her face. Over the year that Claudia had been working at The Left Palm, she’d come to a plateau of understanding with the shop-owner. Christina Duverje rarely smiled, had a sour disposition, and was profoundly psychic. Once you accepted all these facts about the woman, life working at the French Quarter shop could be bearable. “No sleep,” she murmured as she crossed the threshold. “Any appointments today?” she asked, secretly hoping that there were none. Between the wolf literally at her door and the disappearing stranger at the University, her nerves were frayed to the point of unraveling. What would be most medicinal would be a nice quiet, uneventful afternoon.
“No, my sweet,” the older woman commented. “Just a few stray walk-ins this morning. Wednesdays, as you know, are notoriously slow around here. But I do have some new stock you could put out on the shelves while I go to lunch.”
Claudia nodded. Just for a passing moment, she thought about confiding the recent bizarre occurrences in her life to her boss. But something kept her silent. Somehow talking about them felt as though it would become more real. Madame Christina had already gathered her things from a locked drawer beneath the counter. “You can ring me on my cell if things get too busy. Marguerite will be in at one. And I probably won’t be back for a while. I’m meeting an old friend.”
Claudia smiled with distraction as her boss noiselessly exited, except of course for the delicate chiming of the bells positioned strategically over the entrance. She breathed out a deep sigh of fatigue. It would be an hour until their very high energy palmist swept through the door, hopefully a quiet hour to regroup. She sat on a stool behind the glass counter at The Left Palm and attempted to clear her mind. It was stress that she felt all over her, crawling over her skin, sapping her strength. She should have simply called in sick, but the truth of the matter was she didn’t want to go home. The memory of the black wolf last night prowling her patio left a fear wrapped around her heart. It was clear that whatever was happening couldn’t continue. She needed help, but exactly what kind of help was the ultimate question.
Claudia was deeply lost in thought when the bells at the doorway of The Left Palm chimed to signal the entrance of someone. She came to her feet quickly, but in the next moment stood literally rooted to the spot as a man rounded the corner of a book display. Her breath caught. There was no mistake, the black suit, pale face, and now, as he approached the counter, she could see very clearly the ice blue eyes.
He stood in front of her, not unlike he had done earlier at the University. But there was no hint of expression on his face, just a calm appraisal. They stared at each other silently, and then, almost against her will, the words slipped out, “What do you want?”
Now, there was a smile, the kind that didn’t touch the eyes. He spoke in a low voice with a clipped British accent. “Why, I think I’d like a Tarot card reading.”
They were like booths, partitioned with long red curtains at the back of the store. Madame Christina had set up the first one in particular with a slim sightline through the curtain to the front entrance. Business wasn’t booming enough that there would always be more than one person working at a time. So, this was a way to alert a reader if there was another person in the store. Within each booth, there was a card table covered by a soft white, silken scarf and two chairs on either side. They were actually very nice padded, armchairs that Christina had obtained from a friend at a nearby antique store. It was all very atmospheric, which was necessary, given that they charged sixty dollars for only a thirty-minute reading.
And today, Claudia was giving that reading to a man who called himself simply “Neil.”
She had no idea why she was doing this. It was crazy. It was crazy. A thousand excuses, a thousand lies had flooded up to her mind the moment he asked for a reading. But she seemed incapable of uttering even one, just stood there staring at him blankly, as though he had just asked to clean out their cash register. And then he’d asked quite calmly, “Is that all right?”
And she answered too quickly on its heels, “Yes,” without paying any attention to what her brain was screaming at her. The man himself was calm, collected, and showed no indication whatsoever that he’d ever laid eyes on her his whole life. And then, the doubts crept in. Perhaps, it was her. Perhaps, she’d had some premonition of their meeting. That was why she’d seen him before. But why and what did it mean?
And now, here she was only moments earlier feeling content and pleased to have the shop to herself, and now literally counting down the minutes until Marguerite flew in the front door like a tornado. Blessed tornado, for once in your life please be on time.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
She glanced up at him, again entertaining the gaze of those strange, blue eyes. She’d tried to avoid looking at them too often. They were pale, disturbingly pale. She had tried to somewhat gage the man’s age, but found it difficult — late thirties, early forties, hard to say. And that suit, that was one of the oddest things of all. It was a nice suit, but so unsuitable for this time of year — so heavy, so hot. Then again, maybe he worked in a funeral parlor. She started to shuffle the oversized Tarot deck in her hands and leaned back in her chair. “No, everything’s fine. Have you had your cards read before?” she asked, her eyes still downcast, concentrating on the cards.
“How old are you?” She looked up; a bit surprised at the question.
“I’m twenty-four,” she answered a bit guardedly.
He nodded, “Seems young.”
She stopped shuffling, and perhaps a bit too abruptly placed the cards on the table. “If you’d prefer a more seasoned reader, Madame Marguerite will be back in this afternoon.”
“No,” he murmured. “That’s not what I meant. And yes.”
She looked at him with puzzlement, “Yes?”
“You asked if I have had my cards read before.”
She looked down again, nervously picking up the deck. “Oh yes, well is there anything in particular you’d like to know about?”
Again, he answered “Yes,” rather quietly.
She glanced up. He was watching her again with that odd curious expression, as though he were expecting something. “Well, then as you shuffle the cards, you should concentrate on it.”
She reached over handing him the deck and feeling the brush of his fingertips as he did. The contact was startling, disturbing. The only way that she could describe it was electric and cold at the same time. She pulled her hand away feeling an absolute numbness in her fingers now. Instinctively, she glanced through the slim opening in the curtains toward the front door, nothing, no movement. And then she glanced at her watch, forty minutes until Marguerite. Murmuring to him, she said, “We’ll begin now.”
She glanced up, noting that he’d stopped shuffling the cards. Suddenly, she realized she’d neglected to pull out a significator. “I’m sorry, I forgot—”
But then she stopped in mid-sentence as the man who called himself Neil was holding out a card to her. “It’s all right,” he said. “I pulled it myself.”
She hesitantly took the card in her hand and flipped it over. “The Hermit,” she read. “That’s an unusual choice. I mean for someone whose—”
“Not old?” he finished. She looked up again. He was smiling that slight odd smile as though he was somewhat amused. “Well, I might be older than you think.” And then he handed her the deck.
“You really should cut them three times.”
Slowly, he shook his head, “Not necessary. They’re fine.”
She nodded hesitantly, placing the Hermit in the center of the table as she began the spread.
“You have a strange style.”
It was her job interview or rather her audition as a Tarot card reader for Madame Christina Duverje. At the time, she’d smiled back at the dour older woman feeling without question that there was no way in hell she was getting this job. She had no professional experience as a Tarot reader, and this woman, well, she oozed experience in so many spheres.
She continued driving home her point, “You’re very weak on specifics.” She glanced at her over the Tarot spread that Claudia had just boldly read for her. Naturally, she had given her all, hadn’t held back. It wouldn’t do, she thought, to appear hesitant. After all, she’d believed that these people were seventy-five percent theatrics anyway. But now, her potential, and she used that word shakily at best, boss was glowering at her. Christina Duverje eyed her critically, slowly shredding away any feigned confidence that she’d brought with her. “You know,” she went on, “Clients like specifics. The man they’re going to meet, who’s going to have a baby, illnesses, even who’s going to kick the bucket.” All of this she delivered with a straight face, as those these were only the facts of the business. And then she pointed one of her menacingly long fingernails at her, “But you, you’re too vague.”
She nodded, mentally considering what her next plan of action would be. Maybe a job at a mall, although she did hate the really late hours. And then Madame Christina had completely surprised her. She had reached out with one of her elaborately manicured hands and placed it atop Claudia’s. She looked up, into the older woman’s dark eyes. “But you know, I really think there’s something there. With a little coaching, you could do this.” She literally couldn’t believe what she was hearing. And, good to her word, she had coached her, albeit briefly, just enough to get her up and running. But today, this day, in front of this man, she could literally feel all of that confidence that she’d built up over the past year slowly melting away.
She swallowed on a dry throat as she finished laying the Celtic spread, her hands hesitating over the cards. Again, it was crazy. This not only seldom happened. This never happened. It was all major Arcana cards. The first twenty-two cards of the Tarot, the most powerful cards in the deck, and this guy had ten of them, plus of course the hermit that they’d started with. “Umm,” she started, just stunned. “Are you sure you shuffled these well?”
“Yes,” he answered pointedly, “as did you.”
She nodded. That was right. She had shuffled them. And she did see him do so, or at least she thought she did. “This is just very strange.”
“Really?” he answered, with little emotion.
She glanced up, “Would you like to redo it?”
“No,” he stated flatly.
She frowned, “Okay,” distractedly placing the rest of the deck down on the table.
“Do you read palms?” he asked.
She looked up, “No, our palmist will be arriving very soon if—”
“No, I was just wondering if you did.”
She forced a smile and shook her head, “No, sorry. No, just the cards.”
“I wondered, because of the name of your shop — The Left Palm.”
“Madame Christina does read palms as well,” again seized with the hope that their interaction will be cut short.
“Do you know what that means?”
She stared at him blankly. “I’m sorry?” she said with genuine confusion.
“The Left Palm, do you know its significance?”
She shook her head slowly, “No, not really,” feeling that chill sweep over her again, the one that she’d felt at his fingertips.
He spoke slowly and deliberately, “The left palm charts the path of the spirit. Did you know that?” he asked with deliberation. Again, she shook her head, feeling greatly unnerved by this turn in the conversation. And then, he placed both of his hands face down on the table in front of her. “I’d like to show you something. So, you can get an idea of who I really am.” She stared at him with confusion but unable to utter a sound, just like before. And then slowly, he turned over his left hand, and in that moment time just, truly seemed to stop. Her eyes blurred over in disbelief at what she was seeing. His hand, his entire palm, had no creases, no lines in it at all. It was entirely blank.
“Oh God,” she finally managed to mutter brokenly.
“So, now Claudia, I would like to spend these last minutes we have together not reading my cards, because, as you might have guessed, I know exactly what they say. But instead, having a little talk that is long overdue.”
It began when her grandmother died. She’d been ill for some time and had stayed with her family at her parent’s home toward the end. She’d even briefly shared a room with Claudia, which had made the little girl, who was only eight, somewhat uneasy. It wasn’t the recognition of her grandmother’s failing health or even that particular sensation of agitation that seemed to surround the older woman at the end. It was as if her soul was fighting the change. It created a discordant feeling between the body and the spirit that felt the pull to escape. Of course, all of this, she didn’t recognize at eight. But she did see them — all around, and in the end all the time. Some were spirits that looked like a bright glow of light, and others came in more tangible forms, people moving around the room, talking to her grandmother — whispers all the time whispers, and then, the last night, right at the end, the angels. Beautiful lights, white, gold, long robes glowing, when they took her with them. When her grandmother did pass on, it hadn’t registered at all to Claudia that there was still a body there. She had already left with the angels, and there remained a disturbing emptiness once they were gone.
She breathed in deeply, deep painful breaths of fear. “Oh God, what do you want?” she asked.
He smiled coldly, so coldly. “Now, we get down to it. There’s no reason to panic.”
“The wolf,” she whispered.
“A messenger to let you know I was coming. But I see you didn’t quite get that did you.”
She glanced around, looking to the door. Still no sign of Marguerite, and it was ten to one.” She’s going to be late,” he stated flatly. “Late enough for us to finish this.”
“Finish what?” she snapped out.
“I need a promise.”
“You’re out of your mind. I’m not signing anything.” She almost yelled emphatically.
He laughed softly, leaning back a bit in Madame Cristina’s antique chair, “You’ve seen too many movies. No, my dear, you’re not important enough for that. I just want a promise.”
“What kind of promise?” she knew that she shouldn’t have asked. She knew she should have run, run like crazy to the nearest holy ground. But instead, she asked what should not have been asked.
She stared at him blankly in bewilderment, “What?”
“What I need is less complications.”
“And I need a vacation, what’s your point?”
He smiled, “Actually, you’ve hit the nail on the head. You need a vacation, and I need less complications. All I ask from you is that you live your life, a nice life, a comfortable life perhaps but stay out of my way.”
She stared at this strange aberration of a person in complete confusion. “What?” was the only response she could think of, “What does that mean?”
His pale face seemed to harden a bit. Evidently, she wasn’t giving quite the expected answers. “Let me paint you a picture my dear. One life, things go smoothly. You finish college. You get a nice job. You get a house, a car. You marry a nice man, have children, live quietly, peacefully, sound nice?”
She shrugged. Did he really want an answer?
“Another picture,” he continued in a silky low voice. “A life of struggle. Takes a while to finish school, not enough money. Not so easy to land a job, things interfere, unfair things. You continue to work, sometimes several jobs. No house, not enough money. Maybe no husband, maybe no children. Always a battle, always some impediment. Sound nice?” he asked with an edge of sarcasm.
“So, you’re saying if I stay out of your way, I get the first life. And if I don’t?”
“The wolf will always be at the door,” and then he smiled coldly, “So, to speak.”
Her heart thudded loudly in her chest. Her head was spinning. Was this real or some sort of deluded dream? Impossible, how could it be?
And then the answer came to her softly, almost silently, in a whisper — angels. She remembered now from back then. She’d told her mother about them, expecting, completely expecting her to say she was crazy, or that she had imagined them.
“You didn’t,” she’d said. “It’s a gift that you could see them, and they’ll always be there for you when you need them.”
And she had. She’d seen them again five years later, when her mother died unexpectedly. She knew then that she was right. It had been and was now a gift.
For a moment, the coldness seemed to lift enough for her to think clearly. So, she reached out slowly and gathered the cards together quietly glancing down at her watch. She met his ice blue eyes and said calmly with confidence. “Your time is up.”
He frowned explicitly, “Are you sure you’re making the right decision Claudia?”
She nodded with assurance, “Yes.” And kept him in her sight until he left.
Copyright © 2019 by Evelyn Klebert