Las Vegas, present day
“You’re not long for this world,” the old woman wheezed.
Roxanna jerked her hand away. “Seriously? What kind of fortune is that?”
She clamped both hands onto the edge of the small table between them. “You take my twenty bucks and then tell me I’m going to die? I want my money back.”
The old woman didn’t draw back, just gave a wry smile and shook her head. “I didn’t say you were going to die.”
Roxanna glared at her. “So I’m going into outer space?” she asked, thinking that it was hard to stay mad at a woman in a purple turban. It’s not like she didn’t know they were all charlatans.
The woman smiled wider, turning ribbons of wrinkles into canyons on her face. “Give me back your hand.”
Roxanna complied with a groan, and the woman – Madame Fortuna – stared once more at the lines on her palm. Unlike Roxanna’s usual psychic, Madame Fortuna had foregone the crystal ball, making her one degree less cliché. But the other required elements were all there – the flickering red and white candles, the purple tapestries with gold celestial designs, and a round wooden table. Only Madame Fortuna’s table wasn’t covered with a garish satin table cloth, and it clearly hadn’t come from Tables-R-Us. Round and about three feet wide, it was made of a dark wood and carved with shapes that did look like some sort of ancient symbols. It also looked old – with worn grooves giving the impression that thousands of elbows had rested where hers did right now. Also out of the ordinary, opposite her chair hung a painting of a young woman in a flowing, transparent robe, carrying a cornucopia overflowing with gold coins. She’d asked about it and been told it was the Roman goddess from whom Madame Fortuna had taken her name – the keeper of destiny; she who brings – a classy story for which Roxanna had given her some credit – until she’d gotten such a crap fortune.
“There is already magic at work,” Madame Fortuna said, drawing Roxanna’s eyes back with the bobbing of her head. “Yes, magic seeks you, but as yet it is unfocused.” She looked up, staring into Roxanna’s eyes, and for the first time Roxanna noted the old woman’s seemed to have a bit of a glow. It was disconcerting, and she put it down to a clever placement of candles.
“But it will focus,” Madame Fortuna continued, “and when it does, it will find you and pull you to the seeker.”
“This isn’t a very good strategy to use with a first time customer,” Roxanna pointed out, pulling her hand back. “Long for this world or not, I’m hardly going to come back for more of this sort of thing. Don’t you know you’re supposed to make people feel better about the future? Why do you think we come here? We’re not all suckers, you know. I don’t actually believe this stuff.” She fought back a sigh. “I just like to hear it.”
“Because you feel adrift, without direction. And I tell you that fate is about to find you. That it may not be exactly what you hope for or what you expect – well, that alone should tell you I speak the truth.”
Roxanna made a steeple of her clenched fists and dropped her head onto them. “Unless it involves winning the lottery, I’m not in any mood for the unexpected. I’ve had quite enough of that.”
“You’ve had a lot of disappointment. I never said you’d be disappointed.”
Roxanna looked up. “True – just that I’d be pulled into some magical realm. Do I have that right?”
The old woman nodded. “More or less.”
“You’re batshit crazy, you know that?”
The old woman laughed.
“Oh, wait. Let me guess. You have some spell or potion to help me avoid all this. And how much is that, exactly? Is that your game?”
The woman shook her head. “You overestimate me, I’m afraid. I only see what my mind shows me. I can only prepare you for what’s to come.”
“Sorry to put it so plainly, but this was a total waste of my twenty bucks, and I won’t be back.” She stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder.
“No, you won’t,” the old woman said.
Roxanna didn’t hear if she said more because she was out on the busy street as fast as her anger would carry her. Outside, she was immediately bathed in the red glow of the neon “Palm Readings” sign in the window behind her.
She didn’t know why she came to these places. All her friends – all two of them – made fun of her for it, but the predictable reassurances of romance and fortune made her feel better about the direction of her life. Tonight she’d taken a different way home, not passing her usual stopping point at Madame Theresa’s, and she’d thought she’d give Madame Fortuna a try. Big mistake.
She rounded the corner and made her way to her old Corolla. It had been red once; now it was a sour shade of burgundy with patches of paint peeling off the hood. But it ran and didn’t cost her a fortune to maintain, and that was what mattered, because Vegas wasn’t cheap.
Two nights a week, she sang at Lucked Out, a dive lounge off the Strip, but her boss had limited her to 1960’s folk music, which neither uplifted the patrons nor showed off her vocal range. The rest of the week she tended bar. Carrie, the other bartender, and Tessa, the weekend cocktail waitress constituted her circle of acquaintances. It hadn’t broadened much since she’d come to Vegas two years ago, but Carrie and Tessa were good friends. She told herself to appreciate quality over quantity.
Which she did, most of the time. Her semi-regular trips to her fortune teller were just a little shot in the arm to take the edge off her down days. She’d had fewer of them since coming to Vegas, but the blues still got to her. For the first time in her life she felt like she was doing what she was meant to do – sing – but she worried she was headed in the wrong direction or, worse, no direction. Maybe she should have stayed in L.A. But gigs were harder to get there, especially with no experience. Her mother was a walking example – always a waitress, never an actress.
She’d considered Tennessee. With her dark-blonde hair and dark eyes, she could pull off the look of a country singer. But she didn’t care for country music, and her accent was California and completely devoid of twang.
Which pretty much left Vegas. So when she’d dropped out of community college, this was where she’d headed – with her Corolla and two month’s rent she’d saved up from waiting tables at the same restaurant as her mom.
Every now and then, she kidded herself that she should follow in her father’s footsteps. She hadn’t seen him since she was five, but she knew he sold used cars. He’d married her mother right out of high school, gotten tired of her in a few years and taken up with…another waitress. He could have at least traded up, she thought.
But she imagined boatloads of self-esteem seemed would be required to hustle people into used automobiles, and the only time she felt sure of herself was when she sang. The rest of the time…well, the rest of the time she was just directionless, lonely, screwed-up Roxanna Collins.
Her Corolla got her safely to the studio apartment she called home. It was a bit of a drive, but it was all she could afford, as her lifestyle didn’t really allow for roommates. Even now, as irrational fear from the old woman’s words coursed through her, she felt the familiar urge. If anyone knew, they would tell her to see a shrink – that what she was doing wasn’t good for her.
They were probably right, but nothing worked so well as pain to crystallize her thoughts. Her life was a mess, and sometimes she just couldn’t bear it. Uncertainty and doubts darted around her brain like gnats, and the only thing that quelled their incessant voices was pain. Pain helped her sort things out, see things more clearly. The only time she never needed it was when she was singing; when she sang, she was transported. She wasn’t confused Roxanna. She wasn’t ‘what am I doing with my life?’ Roxanna. She could borrow the razor-sharp emotions of the songs and make them her own. Audiences seemed to appreciate it, whenever she could manage to sneak in a decent song, and she did have a nice voice. She knew that. Actually, it was better than nice.
Offstage, though.... She supposed some people used booze or drugs to take them away from their lives. The straight razor was her distraction. She was a cutter.
That was one of two things she knew for sure. She was a singer, and she was a cutter. She needed to sing, and she needed pain when she wasn’t singing.
Inside, she dropped her bag on the floor next to the ratty orange couch on which she practically lived. Her bedroom wasn’t big enough to be a bedroom, no matter what the landlord said, so she used it to store her clothes and her boxes of song books. Along the far wall, under the window, on a desk she’d gotten at a garage sale sat a refurbished five-year-old laptop she’d scored for a good price on eBay. Now the laptop sat unused, mocking her.
Six months ago, she’d gotten it with the idea of trying out internet dating. For weeks, she’d come home from work looking forward to finding the perfect mate via luck and mathematical precision. It would be just like poker. Once the right hand was dealt, the math would find her a mate.
Only it didn’t appear all the great guys had plopped themselves into the online sea. She got construction workers – who inevitably worked days, guys who weighed more than twice what they should, middle-aged losers – more or less like the ones who frequented the bar where she worked, and some non-losers looking for a sweet, young, thing to take care of – which, to her, reeked a lot more of payment in kind than of any sort of relationship.
The last one had been a cross-eyed fireman. She’d given him a point for putting up an honest photo. He wasn’t un-attractive, and she scolded herself for not wanting to give him a chance. How shallow was she? As a fireman, he might even have compatible hours.
So she’d answered his email. And within two replies discovered he was dumb as a post. She hadn’t turned the laptop on since, and told herself the myth was exactly that – a great guy, true love, commitment…that whole fairy tale was just so much garbage. Look at her mother. That was what believing in the fairytale got you – pregnant and dumped.
Opting for a long t-shirt and panties as sleep wear, she went back out into the living room to settle onto the couch before turning on the tv. It wasn’t flat, but neither was it so old it didn’t have a remote. She tried to be thankful for the little things.
A late-night cartoon distracted her with a raunchy gag, but when the first commercial came on, she hit ‘mute’, grabbed the razor from the bottom shelf of her coffee table, and flipped it open. She turned, putting her feet flat on the other sofa cushion and sliding down so she was almost eye-level with her thighs. Her left thigh was smooth and unmarred, but her right thigh was criss-crossed on top and down the outside with fading scars and healing cuts. She took a deep breath, focused on a patch of smooth skin, and exhaled as she dragged the razor slowly across.
The cut wasn’t deep, but the slow surge of pain burned into her brain, searing away her doubts and fears. She was a survivor. She could survive pain, and she could survive the great, poverty-stricken unknown that was the life that stretched before her. She could be strong. She felt the muscles in her shoulders unclench, and she took a slow, deep breath. For that one moment, everything was right in her world. Pain and pleasure merged into one, and she floated on a cloud of what she could only describe as bliss.
“I tell you, I smell her in my dreams,” Darren explained for the third time.
And for the third time, he got the same reply. “But you don’t dream.”
“Well, I do now. It’s not impossible, as far as I know.”
“Yes, well, what you know wouldn’t fill a tea kettle. You didn’t know about me for years.”
“Not entirely my fault.”
All he got in response, at first, was a frown. Finally, Andrew spoke again. “And now you want some girl?”
Darren smiled. As they’d been speaking, Andrew’s form had taken on more definition, and he now faced his mirror image – his own dark eyes looked back at him, his dark hair was in need of a trim apparently, and his features were as chiseled as they had been over a hundred years ago. The only difference between them was that Andrew was slightly transparent.
“So you’re jealous,” he teased. “Of yourself.”
“It’s not like that, and you know it. And yes, I suppose I am a little jealous. I’m your soul, and you’re my body. You depend on me for guidance, and I depend on you for my at least somewhat corporeal existence. Which is rather nice to have on occasion, when one has made the decision to stay in this earthly realm. Mark me for a fool for wondering how things will turn out for me if you start developing an obsession.”
“It’s not an obsession,” Darren objected. “It’s curiosity. Nothing more.”
“But you want me to find her and bring her here.” Andrew’s tone was dry, almost self-mocking, though Darren was never sure which of them Andrew was mocking when he took that tone.
“Yes, that’s what I want.”
Andrew shook his head. “I don’t know how to find a complete stranger. My abilities are not without their limits. It’s not like finding a missing handkerchief.”
Darren pulled back the billowy cuff of his white shirt, exposing his wrist. He bit into it, making two deep punctures. “Feed from me. Feed from me, and I’ll show her to you.”
Andrew glided forward, his eyes on the pooling blood. “Even if I see her through your eyes,” he said, “that doesn’t mean I can find her.”
Darren nodded. “But it means you can try.”