Growing up in Ithaca, he’d seen the shops on the Commons. He’d never set foot in one; never had the time; but he’d always wondered if it was all just the money-making hokum that most people thought it was, or if there really was a grain of truth in what these ‘psychics’ said they could do.
The guy behind the counter seemed normal enough: dressed as casual as any college bro, with the pendant around his neck the only outward sign that he was anything other than Christian. Kent had requested the appointment for before they normally opened as a favor, not wanting photos of him coming or going to wind up on Instagram if he could help it, and the fact that the reader was another man seemed at once wildly unusual and oddly soothing.
“Just let me lock up the front,” the guy told him, smiling politely. Kent nodded and waited near a display case filled with stones and bronze-colored statues, vaguely aware that these were the kinds of things his sister collected. She would know all of the meanings without needing to read the cards; Kent made note of a few pretty ones that she might like for her birthday before the owner came over to lead him back into a room behind a long dark curtain.
The room itself seemed to defy Kent’s expectations. It was small but comfortable, with a few pieces of art hung on walls painted navy blue. Two chairs sat on either side of what looked like a card table covered in a brown table cloth, and there was a shelf unit nearby with bags and boxes in neat order.
“Have you ever had a reading before?” The reader’s voice was pleasant, his tone light and gentle. He gestured for Kent to choose which chair he wanted, his light blue eyes studying Kent carefully as the blond picked the one closest to the door.
“No.” Kent took a steadying breath as he sat down, wondering why he felt so jittery. “Not really sure why I’m here now, to be honest. Just... wanted to see what it was all about for once, y’know?”
The reader made a soft humming sound, then turned and selected a box from the shelf and sat down across from Kent. From inside, he withdrew a bundle of rich indigo silk wrapped around a deck of cards. “Well, hopefully, you’ll get something out of this. You paid for an hour, so I’m just going to set a timer, but I’m not recording this session. You can if you want, as long as you record the cards and not my face, okay?”
Kent nodded. “No problem.” He wasn’t interested in recording anything about this. It was either going to be so stupid that he wouldn’t want to remember it... or something was going to happen that he wouldn’t forget on a bet. He honestly wasn’t sure which at this point, but the way the hair on his arms kept standing up, he wasn’t taking chances.
There was a standard disclaimer to sign, of course; the kind of thing that protected places like this from anyone taking things too seriously and suing the Hell out of them later. Then the reader, whose name was Robert, handed him the cards he’d unwrapped out of the silk. “Shuffle them until you feel like you should stop,” he instructed. “Don’t bridge them; they don’t like it. Think about a question you want answered while you’re doing it. When you feel like you’re done shuffling, draw three and set the rest aside.”
Momentarily taken aback, though he wasn’t sure why, Kent hesitated. “Can I look at them?” he asked carefully.
“Sure, if that’ll make you feel more comfortable.”
Turning them over in his hands, Kent looked over the deck. The artwork of them was really beautiful: all muted greens and deep plum purples and warm oranges and yellows. Each card had a title at the bottom, and the pictures were more detailed than Kent might have expected. He didn’t know much about art styles, but there was something about the images that was almost comforting, that made him want to study each one in turn.
But he was burning his hour, and so he put them back in a pile and shuffled. It was almost hard to control them; without being able to bridge and snap them, cards seemed to keep trying to jump out of his hands. Finally, not sure whether it was frustration with the way they kept leaping out while he was trying to shuffle them neatly or if he was ‘done’, Kent set the deck down and pulled three cards off the top, sliding them to Robert without looking at them as if dealing a hand of poker.
With a small smile, Robert turned each one over and laid them out left to right facing Kent. “It’s okay to look at them; you’re supposed to, in fact.”
Kent shrugged, glancing down at the draw and reading the titles at the bottoms of each one: Ten of Pentacles. The World. The Tower.
There was something unsettling about the last card. Kent swallowed quietly as he stared at it, taking in the lightning that was striking the top of a massive tree and setting it ablaze. The other two cards were peaceful by comparison, and it caught his eye that the first card showed the sun in one corner and the middle card showed the full moon in the opposite. He liked those cards; they probably meant things he’d want to hear.
But the last card made him nervous.
“The first two cards are going to sound pretty obvious to you,” Robert told him. “They mean you’ve achieved worldly success and financial stability, through no small amount of hard work. You’re enjoying your success, and everything right now feels very still and perfect and good.
“Now the Tower card tends to scare people, because it looks like destruction. It’s not a bad card, and it doesn’t mean something terrible is going to happen. But it does mean that there’s a disruption coming. It’ll be sudden, and it’s going to push you to re-examine things you’ve held onto for a long time in a not-very-gentle way. This is usually a warning that you need to make a clean break from something: either something from your past that’s holding you back, or of a fantasy that you’ve held onto for a long time that’s keeping you from moving forward.”
Yep. Didn’t think I was gonna like that one. “Any way to know what it’s talking about?”
Robert gestured at the deck. “Go ahead and reshuffle; then cut the deck wherever you feel like and draw another card.”
Feeling a growing unease, Kent did as he was told. But before he could finish, another card jumped out of the deck and landed on the table. Robert held up a hand before Kent could return it to the deck. “When cards jump out at you, it usually means that they’re important to the question you’re asking. Set the rest of them down; we can go back into the deck if we need more.” As Kent did so, Robert reached across and drew the card up to lay it out where the others were.
A hooded figure, bearing crossed swords, blocking a path. A long-necked bird perched in a twisted tree, a heart-shaped pendant hanging from a branch. Across the bottom: Two of Swords.
“You’re in a stalemate with someone,” Robert told him. Kent almost felt like he was shaking, though his hands were still where they rested on the table. “You both know the truth, but you won’t talk about it because you refuse to compromise. Neither one of you is willing to give ground, but the result of stubbornly refusing to acknowledge what’s right in front of you is that nothing can move forward or backwards. And your heart grows still in the meantime.”
The knot that tied itself in Kent’s throat was the only thing that kept him from speaking Jack’s name aloud. Without being instructed to, he reached out and cut the deck, drawing the top card from the pile still on the table and laying it out. This one looked like a figure in freefall, a great swath of red like a cloak sweeping up away from her shoulders. Ten birds flew around her, the trails of their flight like great curved blades. The caption read “Ten of Swords”.
Robert nodded. “Something happened that sent everything spiraling out of control. Something that no one could have stopped from happening. There was nothing you or anyone else really could’ve done; the only thing to do was ride it out and pick up the pieces when everything finally became still again”
“Okay...” Kent took a breath. He was glad the room was well lit; what shadows there were felt too close. “Okay. So... the first set... the Tower card there... you said that hasn’t happened yet?”
Robert nodded. “In a three-card spread, the third card always represents the future.”
“So how do I know what it’s supposed to be?” Kent asked, trying not to sound like he was afraid of the answer. “And more to the point, how do I keep it from being like... like the Ten of Swords thing that happened before?”
Without answering right away, Robert reached out and picked up the cards, dealt and undealt, tucking them neatly back together again before handing them back to Kent. “Ask them.”
Kent did as he was told. This time, when one of the cards jumped, he set it aside and kept going until he felt like he couldn’t anymore, then drew the top three cards and laid them out next to the jumper-card.
Nine of Swords. Three of Wands. The Devil. Seven of Swords.
The last two cards came out upside down; Kent moved to reverse them so they were facing the right way, but Robert motioned and Kent’s hand stilled. “Inverted cards come out that way for a reason. They’re fine as they are.”
“What do they mean?” Kent asked carefully, fighting down the jittery feeling in his muscles.
“Guilt is what’s keeping things locked in place. Guilt and fear. Whatever event your Tower card represents, it’s going to leave you feeling vulnerable to your own inner demons. You have the strength to break free of them, especially if you take a leap of faith, and when you do, you’ll be able to take a path you didn’t even know was there; expand your horizons beyond what you can see right now from the stalemate you’re locked into.
“You’ll be tempted not to; it’s easier where you are, and to listen to the parts of you that say you can’t. That what you’re looking at right now is all there is to see. But with the breaking of illusions that will come with the Tower event, you’ll have a chance to see those inner demons for what they are, and to gain independence from them. And when you do, that’s when you’ll find someone you can trust. Someone who owns their part in the way things play out and expects others to do the same. Someone honorable, and honest with themselves as well as with others.”
Kent’s eyes finally tore themselves away from the cards. He felt winded, almost like he’d been running at full speed. This was all hitting a little too close to the bone. And since he was the one shuffling and drawing all the cards, he couldn’t imagine any way that Robert could be rigging them.
Besides, all the rumors about he and Jack had only and always ever been that: rumors. No one had ever known for sure, and most people had quit repeating them years ago. There was no reasonable way for this man to know anything about what had really happened between he and Jack even if he’d followed hockey obsessively for years. And, Kent reminded himself again, Robert wasn’t dealing the cards.
“You’re still not sure about this, are you?” Robert asked shrewdly. “I know that look.”
“This just seems a little...”
“On the nose?” Robert finished with a smile.
“Impossible,” Kent corrected, though there was none of the snark in his voice that would usually be there.
Robert shrugged. “We’ve still got time. Gather up the cards and shuffle again. Ask a different question this time. Something unrelated to what you asked before.”
It took a moment for Kent to decide what he wanted to ask. Outside of Jack, and whatever turmoil the cards were predicting on that score, there was really only one other thing in Kent’s life that meant anything: hockey. And so he concentrated on his team. The team he’d earned the trust of. The team that had made him captain and that he’d led to victory so very many times. Will I get to stay with them? he asked, shuffling the cards and almost shaking off his self-consciousness about doing so. Or am I getting traded someday?
He wasn’t sure what he wanted the answer to be as he laid out three of the cards. After all, it wasn’t unreasonable that he’d be traded someday; it was always a possibility in professional sports, no matter how good a player was. But he was comfortable here, and it seemed as far removed from anything related to Jack as he could possibly imagine.
Three of Swords. Five of Wands. King of Pentacles.
The first card almost hurt to look at, the imagery was so sad: three swords and a dying swan, with a bleeding heart in the air above them. The center card was bright with movement: a covey of foxes leaping and running around a man with a staff. And the last card was only a man: standing straight and strong as an oak with his arms stretched out to his sides, wearing a crown that looked like a great golden sun-disk with a star in the middle.
“This,” Robert started softly, tapping the top edge of the Three of Swords, “represents abandonment. Isolation. Betrayal. Whatever you asked, there’s a great loneliness at the heart of it, and you feel like there’s no one you can rely on.”
Kent swallowed hard. That didn’t bode well at all.
“But you’re going to get through it anyway, because when everything starts piling up against you and it seems like you’re going to be swarmed under? That’s when the core of you kicks in. That hit of adrenaline that makes you fight back right when it looks like that fight will be impossible. And when you come out the other side, you’ll find that you have the support that you were looking for all along. Something or someone that’s stable and steady, and you’ll be able to draw from that until you can get your feet under you again.”
Without really thinking about it, Kent folded the cards back into the deck and shuffled again. He wasn’t sure how long was left in this session, but he hoped the cards, which had been way too on the nose for him to feel like he could ignore what was happening, would answer one last question. Or at least, give him a clue to the answer.
“Draw just one this time,” Robert told him as he set the deck down, as if knowing exactly what it was that Kent was asking as his final question.
The card he flipped was striking in its imagery: a merman swimming amongst a school of fish. Powerful. Masculine. Graceful. There was such a sense of motion in the card, as if the merman would complete the dive he was half-poised for as Kent watched. But the impression went away in a blink, and Kent read the bottom caption: Nine of Cups.
“You wanted to know how to recognize him, right?” Robert’s voice was kind on the guess, and when Kent nodded, he went on. “That’s a little more intuitive than the rest of these. But you’ll know him when you see him by his exuberance. His joy. Whoever he is, he’s a passionate man and not afraid to express it. He’ll be what you’ve needed all along.”
“How can you be so sure?” Kent asked suddenly, the words breaking free. “How can you be sure that they’re right?”
“None of us can be sure of anything,” Robert replied sagely. “The cards tell you what they see, but the future can change with a single choice made by someone you don’t even know; what people call ‘the butterfly effect’. But what I can tell you? Is that the cards can read your past and present energies far more clearly than they can foretell the future.
“You’re happier and lonelier than you’ve ever been in your life, and you’re stuck in place because of it. It’s not a stretch to predict that something will eventually happen to break you out of that stasis if you don’t do so by your own choice, because nothing in the universe can stand still and unchanged forever. What happens from there...” Robert shrugged. “Well, that’s up to you.”
Taking a long, deep breath, Kent glanced back down at the merman on the card. Poised over a cup, ironically enough. There had been a time when he’d have automatically assumed the card would represent Jack. Now, after everything else he’d drawn, he wasn’t so sure.
It took another moment for Kent to realize that Robert was making note of something, the scratch of pen on paper finally registering. “I’ve got all of the cards you drew today written down for you,” he told Kent. “You can take it with you. And I’m happy to schedule you for more sessions, discreetly of course, if you decide you’d like to come back.”
Blinking, as if to clear his vision, Kent took the page when Robert handed it across the table and folded it into his pocket. “Thanks... maybe I will.”
Robert quirked a smile. “I may not be able to keep my husband away next time, though,” he cautioned wryly. “He wouldn’t tell a soul, but he’s a big Aces fan.”
It felt good to laugh a little, to dispel the heavy atmosphere that had come with the truths the cards had told. “It’s all good, man. You got something I can sign for him while we settle up?”
Robert grinned back. “I think he left his Aces cap in the office.”
Kent stood up and fished around in his pockets for his Sharpie. It’d become a habit to carry one everywhere, because Kent had never been able to deny anyone an auto as long as they weren’t an asshole about it. “Perfect.”
* * *
But he couldn’t help seeing the hooded figure in his dreams, blocking his path with crossed swords beneath the twisted tree with the heart-shaped pendant hanging just above his reach. Nor could he help that in his dreams, the face beneath the hood was one that he’d once traced with lip and fingertips. One that had once borne smiles only for him, like secrets whispered in the shadows.
He couldn’t help the way he sit bolt upright, chest heaving and sheathed in sweat, after a nightmare of falling endlessly amidst a flight of birds, knocked over the edge of a great cliff by a blast of lightning splitting a nearby tree in two, accompanied by thunder that sounded like a man’s voice telling him something he’d never expected to hear.
It did and didn’t get easier after that game against the Falconers, either. The dreams still came, with Jack’s blue eyes even more vivid and the heart no longer a jewel but Kent’s own, torn from his chest, and Jack refusing to let him have it back despite no longer wanting it for himself. The great storm that rent the trees around him in two sent him careening from the top of Taughannock Falls, and when he plunged into the water below, there were strong arms waiting there to catch him, a voice with Slavic inflections muttering in his ear beneath the roar of the undertow.
A dozen times, Kent almost went back for another reading. Caught himself fingering the business card before putting it back in the bedside table drawer and grabbing his lube for a quick morning jerk before practice. Glanced out the window as he drove through the streets of cities he’d skated in a dozen times before, wondering if he could get away for an hour to get an anonymous reading from someone Robert couldn’t possibly know, just to see…
But he never did. He couldn’t afford it, he told himself: not the time, not the emotional investment, not the additional turmoil that would come with getting messages from unseen forces that couldn’t just spell out the exact who, what, where, when and how of what they wanted him to know. He needed to focus on the season, and on trying to position the Aces for another run at the Cup. On keeping Jack from getting his hands on it in his rookie year.
Except luck wasn’t on his side, and the Aces failed to make the Final. And so he concentrated on Kit, and working out, and organized team outings to Sip ‘n’ Tip so they could watch the Final games and cheer the Schooners on.
Which was how he came to be sitting at a table on June 12, 2016, nursing a vodka tonic with lemon, on the night of Game Seven. The bartender, responding to the shouts from the rest of the Aces, had turned down the sound after the third period ran out. Swoops and Scrappy and Carl were clustered around him, and Kent was doing his best to remember that serious drinking was best done at home, where he wouldn’t have to use his celebrity status to try and wiggle out of getting slapped with a DWI. His phone was buzzing with alerts. He was ignoring it.
“Uhhhh…” Scrappy’s voice was low and careful, almost too quiet to even be heard over Carl and Jeff. He was holding up his own phone. “Hey, Parser: you see this?”
“It’s all over the screens, Scraps,” Kent replied, trying to not sound too bitter about the impossible run of luck that Jack had been gifted since signing with Providence. Further proof that no matter the price that came with Bad Bob’s legacy, Jack had it easier than Kent ever would…
“Naw, look: it’s all over social.”
Scraps held out the phone to Kent after thumbing it unlocked. Kent took it from his hand, surprised at how steady the other man’s seemed compared to his own. Looked at the clip being retweeted almost faster than the numbers could spin on the counter below it.
And knew in that moment what it meant to be struck by lightning.