It rarely rained in the brightest spot on the planet, but when clouds did appear, they were the stuff of artist’s fantasies: white puff balls like the fake ones airbrushed onto the fake sky ceiling of the Forum Shops at Caesar Palace.
Close to the boundary for Mountain Time Zone, the sun rose early in Southern Nevada. Las Vegas had been a hard sell for Jolie during her first lonely summer there, and her opinion hadn’t changed with the onset of winter. She had to admit, though, that spring was pretty great: except, of course, when the wind kicked up knocking over everything that wasn’t bolted down, and sandblasting your eyeballs. You didn’t need to use exfoliants to lose a layer of skin in Sin City; all you had to do was stand outside on a windy spring day.
But on a good day, like today, when the morning air kissed your skin like lips cooled on a frosty glass, it was heaven.
As the day aged from early promise to a glorious maturity and the temperature warmed, people began to shed their clothes like pagans at a festival. Bare shoulders, arms, legs, and toes appeared perfectly trimmed, buffed, and painted, as if their owners were born that way.
Las Vegans, both natives, and transplants donned their shorts and sleeveless shirts with glee, hiking, biking, and bragging about the weather to their East Coast relatives, who were still shoveling snow. None of them talked about the price they would pay for this early season preview when the heat of July, August, and September melted tires and sucked the moisture from everything it touched. That came later. Today, they were living in the moment.
Jolie walked home oblivious to the spring day, or the cars and kids that passed her, lost in her own concerns. Her mind jumped from problem to problem: the upcoming Geometry test, the Chem reading she needed to finish, her mom’s bad boyfriend addiction, passing Driver’s Ed, and saving up for a car now that she was sixteen. And then, of course, there was the dilemma of what to do about Skateboard Boy. None of her peers interrupted her or tried to drag her into their little dramas. Their interest in Jolie had peaked last winter when fate declared that it was her turn to be the center of their derision. Now that her notoriety quotient was back in the single digits, she intended to keep it that way until she graduated.
Jolie had goals. She had priorities. High school was an obstacle course she was forced to run. She did not have to like it.
And so, ignoring the abundant sunshine that would have melted a Midwestern winter, Jolie Figg walked home, wrestling with the ethical question of whether it was possible to alter the course of someone else’s future, and if so, did knowing that future mean you were required to do something about it?
Jolie watched a lot of television, including a lot of old movies. In the movies, when someone tried to change the future, things got messy. People who were meant to die died no matter what you did, and the universe punished those who had interfered. But that was Hollywood, and simple repetition of a fantasy like the Tooth Fairy did not make it true.
Jolie had learned a lot about life from movies, but she also recognized that there were things that were real and things that weren’t, and it was important to know the difference.
No one would even know that Jolie had seen someone else’s future unless she told them and Jolie had no intention of doing that. So, if she didn’t tell anyone, then no one would judge or blame her, whatever happened. Still, she would know, she reasoned. She might not know much about how her gifts worked, but she knew that her visions were real. The question remained: could an action taken by one person permanently change another person’s future? Would just making that person aware of the possibility of a problem be enough to change the outcome, or did you have to physically be there to pull them back onto the curb?
“A person’s path is always changing, Jo.” Faith had reminded Jolie more than once. “We have free choice.”
Jolie hoped that her mentor was right, but if she wasn’t, and there was going to be some mysterious karmic repercussion for interfering and stopping Skateboard Boy’s death, Jolie figured she would just have to pay it because she couldn’t do nothing.
Jolie remembered a day when she and her grandmother, Mem, had been outside working in the vegetable garden at Mem’s big house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Her grandmother’s arthritic hands pulled up a clump of multicolored carrots and rinsed them under the hose.
“What do you think, Cherie? Shall we try to figure out why some of these carrots are orange, some are red, and others are white, or do you just want to eat them?”
“Eat them,” four-year-old Jolie announced without hesitation.
Mem handed her granddaughter a blood red carrot. “It seems like a waste of time to fret over why a carrot is what it is. Some things you just have to experience. Just bite it.” Mem crunched down on her own chosen prize. “You’re bound to learn something, even if it’s only that you don’t like carrots. There are some things you just have to accept, Cherie. Over-thinking life will make you crazy.” Mem winked. “It’s like family; you have to love them, so it’s best not to hold them up to too much scrutiny.”
During the ten years since Jolie’s mother, Jessie Lynn had snatched Jolie away from her dad’s family in New Orleans, Jolie had thought of a thousand things she wished she had asked her grandmother back then, but she had only been a little girl. The Boulette clan had underestimated Jessie Lynn Figg’s penchant for self-destruction, and Mem had passed away not long after Jessie and Jolie disappeared.
Mem had been gone now for twice as many years as she and Jolie had shared together, but Jolie still missed her kind generosity every day. Only since Solstice, when Faith had taken Jolie into her close circle of friends, had Jolie begun to feel like she could trust someone enough to ask the heavy questions that weighed on her.
“Do you think that what you see are hallucinations, Jo?” Faith’s paper thin skin wrinkled more deeply when she smiled, her white cotton candy hair wisping around her head. “Like it’s some trick of your brain--a psychotic episode or something? Is that what you think?”
Jolie bit her lip. “People who have psychotic episodes are as convinced, as the rest of us, that what they’re seeing is real. How do I know that what I see is any different, Faith? If I’m going, to be honest with myself, I have to ask that. Maybe I’m not psychic. Maybe I’m just crazy.”
Faith chuckled. “You’re not crazy, or even mentally ill, Jolie. Your brain just works different. An artist’s brain doesn’t work like a mathematician’s; a savants doesn’t work like an accountant’s. We’re all different. Being gifted doesn’t make you mentally ill.”
“It might in time,” Jolie quipped sardonically. “I just don’t want to be one of those people who makes decisions about their life based on a flattering lie, and then desperately holds on to their specialness, like some three year old in the deep end, clinging to water wings shouting look at me swim. I don’t have a mysterious destiny. I’m just a kid who sees and hears things she shouldn’t--and I don’t want to. If I could give my gifts back, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But genetics will prove out, right?”
Faith leaned back, relaxing onto her pillows and closed her eyes.
“Genetics are a fascinating field of study. Have you ever considered that field?”
Jolie made a face. “Are you kidding? That stuff’s for the smart kids.”
Faith raised an eyebrow. “You seem pretty smart to me.”
“There are kids at school who ace tests without even trying. I just work hard.”
“And it pays off. I’ve seen your grades, Jolie. You do well--better than just getting by. I understand that there’s a comfort in believing that our choices aren’t important because we aren’t important, but I hope you will see more worth in yourself than that. I do.”
“No universal variant in the cosmos is hinging on whether I take calculus next year or not, Faith,” Jolie said with her usual sarcasm.
“And yet every decision you make affects the next one, connecting you to all sorts of possible outcomes, sending you along a uniquely personal path.”
“You should teach philosophy or something.” Jolie shook her head.
“I’m just saying that you are smart, you’ve proven that you can succeed when you work hard. Embrace that. A whole new world could open up for you,” Faith argued, sweetly.
“I am going to graduate high school. After that, I’ll find a job and try to live without hurting anybody. That’s good enough for me.”
“What about college?” Faith asked, not letting up.
“People like me don’t go to college, Faith,” Jolie answered, her face becoming tight.
“Your mom didn’t, but what about your dad? Did he go to college?”
Jolie looked away. “Yeah, he was like a biologist or something.”
“And your grandmother, Mem, she seems like a smart woman. I’ll bet she had an education.”
“I don’t know,” Jolie admitted. “The subject didn’t come up when I was five.”
“Education is the path to a better life,” Faith stated.
“You sound like a friggin’ billboard.”
“I believe in you, Jolie. So I’m not going to give up on this. What are you worried about, that you can’t handle the work, or that you can’t afford it?”
“Look, Faith, I know you’re trying to help, but I can’t wait to get out of school. It’s a hell hole for someone like me.” Jolie threw her hands up in the air. “Why would I sign up for another four years of voluntary torture?”
“College isn’t like high school, Jo.”
“Bigger campus, bigger classes; same kids. It sounds the same to me.” Jolie paused. “Anyway, I don’t have any idea what I’d study. I don’t know what I want to do.”
“Genetics?” Faith teased.
Jolie made a face.
“Well, you know what you don’t want,” her friend pointed out. “That’s a good starting point.”
“You mean being a cocktail waitress?” Jolie joked.
“You are taking Driver’s Ed like we planned, right?”
“It’s on my schedule,” Jolie assured her friend. Once Jolie got her license, she’d be able to run some of the errands that their friend, Iris ran now for Faith, freeing Iris up to have more time for her own affairs.
At eighty-seven, Faith was mentally sharp and focused, but she had never fully come back after her heart attack last winter. Once everyone’s part in the Solstice debacle was known, and Faith’s daughter-in-law, Mae’s betrayal was revealed, there had been no question of them continuing to live together.
“You know, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore what I did for a living, or how much I got paid,” Faith reminisced. “The clothes, the cars, the houses.... All the things we spent so much energy on. What is still important to me, is that I’m comfortable with who I am, I’m near the people I love, and I know that they’ll be okay after I’m gone.”
“I don’t think they teach that in college, Faith.” Jolie leaned forward and kissed her friend’s forehead. “But if they did, I’d sign up.”
Faith took Jolie’s hand. “It’s hard to be an old soul in a young body.”
“No harder than being a young soul in an old body,” Jolie teased back.
“Isn’t that the truth?” Faith seemed to drift off, not saying anything more.
Jolie got up, thinking she should get started on her chores.
“If you are nothing special, Jolie, how do you explain saving those people on Solstice?” Faith asked, surprising her.
“I can’t. Not even to myself,” Jolie replied. “What happened that night doesn’t sound real in any world that people accept.”
Faith opened her clear blue eyes and studied her young friend.
“A little too Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole?”
“More like Night of the Living Dead.” Jolie bugged her eyes.
“My question stands, though, sweetie. What do you think would have happened if a certain plucky teenager hadn’t been there?”
“I think that a certain plucky old woman would have figured something out.”
“I did. I figured out that a young person with untapped strength appeared in our lives just when we needed her, and I got her to help when no one else could have done the job. And for that help, I am eternally grateful.” Faith reached out and squeezed Jolie’s hand. “This old woman owes you a great karmic debt, Jolie Boulette.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Jolie said embarrassed.
A clever fox-look glimmered in Faith’s eyes. “You do know that you can’t say no to a heartfelt gift, don’t you?”
“Is that like some old Wiccan rule or did you just make it up, so you won’t lose this argument?”
“I saw Pay It Forward,” Faith announced.
“And The Sixth Sense?”
“It was like seeing my life story up there on the big screen.” Faith chuckled.
“Only I was a girl, not a boy,” they both said, at the same time.
Like Mem, Faith believed in Jolie, and she did it in such a big way that it was hard for Jolie not to believe in herself at least a little bit...at least for a little while.
Jolie was approaching the entrance to the apartment complex where she and her mom lived. There has to be a way to change Skateboard Boy’s future, she told herself, coming back to her present problem. If there wasn’t, what was the point of being given visions? If visions were just some accident of the brain, like Radio Woman’s faulty fillings picking up radio stations, then they were a sick trick of nature.
Jolie noticed a sun-faded El Camino cruising slowly past her. A greasy feeling slipped over her. She clenched her teeth at the familiar sense of wrongness that accompanied her mom’s skanky ex-boyfriend.
“Shit,” she swore under her breath.
As a sideshow to the close of the ill-fated Solstice celebration, Jolie had banished Rick from their lives. She hadn’t planned it or studied up on how to make a spell. She’d just spontaneously let her righteous anger go and commanded Rick to stay away from them. To Jolie’s surprise, it had worked. She and her mom had quietly moved from the trailer park to the new apartment, and they hadn’t seen Rick until now.
Was Rick’s ability to get this close a sign that the effects of her spontaneous warding were wearing off, or had the sleaze-ball finally worked up the courage to look for them?
The self-proclaimed reincarnation of Simon Magus, historical wizard, was not the kind of guy who took “no” well. He and his devil-worshipping friends were dangerous, and if he was snooping around looking for Jolie and Jessie, they needed to be careful.
Jolie went past the complex’s entrance without looking at the sign and continued walking down the block.
“Hey, Jo! Wait up!” a voice called out from behind her. Rebecca Grolund was a brainy girl with a love of all things computer and a loathing of activities that made her sweat. It was turning her teenage baby fat into an adult weight problem.
“I thought you were going home?” Becca let her backpack slip off her shoulder, sweat beading on her forehead.
“I was, but...” Jolie checked the street for the El Camino. He had turned around and was at the light on the corner. Rick had slowed down so that he would stop at the red light. “I changed my mind,” she finished simply, trying to work out some plan that did not include telling Rebecca that she thought Rick was stalking her.
“Did you see the table set up in the Quad where you can nominate people to run for Student Council?”
“I guess I missed that. Why? Do you think I’m a shoo-in?” Jolie stepped back and kicked Rebecca on the butt. They both laughed and for a moment it was like the old days before the snarky shark girls had recruited Rebecca to help demolish Jolie’s reputation at school, before Solstice, when Rebecca had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and gotten in over her head. In the beginning, they had just been two lonely girls hanging out together, making each other’s lives a little easier.
“Megan Washburn’s running for class president,” Rebecca announced. “Doesn’t that just fry you?”
Jolie shrugged. “No. I really don’t care.”
“But she’s cheating. You have to have a three-point grade average to run for office and the only reason she has that is she’s got that kid, Hugo, doing her homework.”
“I doubt that. Hugo’s not an idiot.”
“Well, it started out as tutoring, but Megan’s been bragging about how she’s got him wrapped around her little finger.”
Jolie didn’t like the sound of that. Quiet kind Hugo did not deserve to be the subject of malicious gossip. “Hugo would never cheat like that.”
“Are you kidding? He’s so into her; he’d do anything. He’s like in love with her. Everybody knows about it.”
Everybody but me apparently, Jolie thought.
“So, are you going to Faith’s today?” Becca changed the subject.
“No. That’s Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Jolie was considering walking over to Faith’s now instead of going home because of Rick. It felt safer to be where there was someone else, and if she had still been naïve enough to believe that the adult world followed a set of rules designed to keep kids safe, she might have given in to the impulse. But Rick had been close to Rory, the jerk responsible for the dark events surrounding Solstice, and he carried a grudge. He would have no problem convincing himself that his grudge included Faith and Jolie, and she was not going to be responsible for leading him to her friend’s new house. She checked the street.
“Walk with me,” she told Rebecca. Her friend hoisted her backpack up and fell in alongside Jolie.
Jolie had tried to warn Rebecca that it was not safe for her to go to the Solstice ceremony, but they had still been working through Rebecca’s lapse of loyalty at the time, and Rebecca had stubbornly not paid attention to Jolie’s warning. Becca had arrived all excited to see live witches and be involved in something really magical like she had stepped into a scene from her favorite fiction book.
The reality that unfolded, however, had been beyond Rebecca’s sheltered understanding. After Solstice, she had become troubled, distracted, and unable to sleep. Her parents had sent her to a shrink who gave her a hefty bill, a bottle of pills, and encouraged her to return to her family’s traditional values; in adult speak: “Go back to church, be a good little girl, and all will be well with the world again.” That was bullshit, of course, none of what had occurred on Solstice would have been solved by going to Sunday school, but as long as Rebecca didn’t examine the hypothesis closely, it seemed to be working for her; at least at the moment.
Jolie took Rebecca’s arms and steered her onto the sidewalk of the corner mini-mall. The cluster of neighborhood stores bordered the east end of the apartment complex where Jessie Lynn and Jolie had moved. Jolie waited, and as soon as the El Camino turned the corner, she pulled her friend into the first shop door.
The cloying smell of cheap incense hit her like a mud ball.
“Can I help you?” a dark-eyed Latino woman parted a bead curtain at the back of the room. The short round-cheeked woman with a mass of colored bead necklaces hanging over her shelf-like bosom examined the teenagers with heavy-lidded eyes. In the curtained room behind the heavy woman, Jolie could see Tarot cards laid out on a table.
“No. We’re just--” Jolie searched for an acceptable lie. “How much does it cost to get your fortune told?” As soon as she’d said it, Jolie realized the problem with her impromptu ad lib. “Do you have any money, Becca?”
Rebecca’s eyes bugged. “Are you nuts, Jolie? No, I do not!” Rebecca now espoused the school of zero interest in the occult. She had found religion.
“I just thought maybe since you were having bad dreams--” Jolie explained, lamely.
“And you thought having my fortune read by some scam artist would help?” Becca’s lip curled in disgust. “After what happened at Christmas, I would have thought you’d know better. You are just so lost, Jolie.”
The bells on the back of the shop’s door jingled angrily as Rebecca and her righteous indignation swept out of the shop.
Jolie bit her lip as her friend strutted across the parking lot. She liked the Rebecca who saw the hand of divinity in an elegant computer program. That Rebecca had been as close to a friend as Jolie had at school. This one was different. Friendships were expensive. They cost time and energy, and Jolie wasn’t sure that either of them could afford the price of this one anymore.
“Is she right, your friend?” The shopkeeper’s words were thickly accented. “Are you lost?”
Jolie spun around. The woman had moved closer, stepping from the scented darkness into the shop’s moody half-light.
Her mid-length cotton skirt and brightly colored blouse were vaguely coordinated in an outrageous boho way, her dark eyes lined with a hard black pencil.
“I am Yanna Maria,” she introduced herself. The Latino woman reverently stroked her many colored necklaces. They were not just costume jewelry, Jolie realized. They had significance, and she wore them proudly. “You don’t need to hide from me. Yanna Maria feels your spirit.” The woman licked her lips like Jolie was a particularly delicious looking cupcake. “Your friend says you are lost. You think she is wrong, but she isn’t. I feel the confusion inside you. We have met for a reason, you and me, because I can help you.” A cold smile widened the woman’s full, brown lips. Her pudgy ring-laden hands opened and closed as if she were folding the space between them, trying to draw Jolie to her.
“I didn’t mean to come in here,” Jolie backed away. “It was an accident. I was--.”
“Trying to hide?” The woman arched a brow, knowingly.
Yes, Jolie thought, silently. The sense that this woman was about to open her up like a can of tuna fish was terrifying. She turned and ran.
Safely outside, Jolie stopped to catch her breath, feeling foolish. It was stupid being so frightened by the fortune teller. The woman was probably just a charlatan with no gifts at all, just a bunch of tricks and mind games.
Jolie checked the street traffic. Would Rick’s car come around again, or had he given up when she disappeared? She closed her eyes and sensed the greasy feeling once again drawing near. With her eyes open she rescanned the mini-mall shops, looking for another door to use as an escape.
Marching past the fortuneteller’s big front window, Jolie passed a Thai restaurant and an insurance office before choosing the discount mattress store.
Compared to the tightly packed knick-knackery of the fortune teller’s dungeon, the mattress store looked empty. The stark white walls, pale gray linoleum floor, and strict straight aisles between rows of white beds reminded her of a hospital ward, sterile and uninviting.
An East Indian man with a bad toupee stood behind the counter and sized up her customer potential.
“May I help you?”
Jolie saw a restroom sign at the back of the store.
“I, uh, just need to use your bathroom,” she lied quickly.
The man’s eyes went squinty, and he pointed to a sign.
“For customers only. There is a sign.”
“That’s okay.” She pointed at the parking lot, her heart stopping as Rick’s truck drove in and parked a few spaces away. “My parents are right behind me.” Rick’s door was opening. “They’ll only be a minute,” she promised the shopkeeper. “I’ve just got to pee.” She hurried through the store and out the back door into the alleyway behind the shops. The apartment complex was on the other side of the block wall. Jolie ran for it and scrambled over.