A loud bang cracked, thick gray clouds blanketed the stage. When the smoke cleared, the man in the black silk suit showed three oversized cards to the audience: the Ace of Wands, the Seven of Wands and the Knight of Wands.
“Your cards, sir,” the magician said as he addressed the red-headed volunteer from the audience, “are all of the Wands suit. This indicates that you are a very active person … very energetic … self-reliant … you don’t let anyone tell you what to do. By the way your wife is laughing, I assume I’m correct?”
“Damn straight,” laughed the red-headed man.
The magician’s face grew concentrated. “I’m picking up something else,” he said. “It’s faint, but getting stronger. Oh, my God! Stand back!”
The magician jumped back and flames leapt to the ceiling from his outthrust hand. “I’d say you have something of a fiery temper, no?”
The crowd burst into applause, the magician bowed and thanked his volunteer, sending him back to his seat.
As the crowd left the theater, the magician said, “If anyone would like a private Tarot reading, I will be on the upper deck until midnight. Please enjoy your stay on Mercury Cruises!”
Charlie Corsair had psychically bent spoons, suspended bottles in mid-air and pushed cigarettes through playing cards at every port in the Caribbean. At least I’m not an office-bound wage-slave, he thought. Tonight, however—a warm February 29th—he was having a hard time focusing. He stared sleepily at the sea, rocking his bourbon and Coke back and forth to hear the ice clink against the glass.
A full moon spread silver dust across the water. A few more minutes and he would close up for the night, tomorrow they’d be back in Jacksonville and he would take a week off before performing on another cruise. February 29th, he thought. Thank God it comes around only once every four years, the night I left—
“Mister?” A youthful female voice with a soft Southern accent broke his meditation. “Is it too late to get a reading?” she asked.
He smiled up at her. Young, pretty, sandy blonde hair like his own—this is easy money, he thought. “Not at all. Please sit down.”
He chatted with her for a minute about her trip. She had just turned twenty-one and had gone on the cruise with some girlfriends, she told him her father was a magician, but he had died when she was a baby.
He was sorry to hear that and asked her to shuffle the deck.
“You’re from the South—Savannah, I believe?” He had lived in Savannah for a time and could recognize the local accent immediately. This was an easy way to impress, since most people can’t get that specific with accents.
She looked at him with astonishment.
She’s here alone at midnight, he noted to himself. “And I sense that relationships are an area you would like to explore.”
“Yes and yes,” she said. “Wow, you’re good.”
Charlie laughed. “I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive.”
He had her select three cards and lay them on the table.
The Devil, the Eight of Cups and the Three of Swords.
He was silent as he looked at the cards. Entrapment, abandonment and heartbreak. Just like—
“That looks pretty creepy,” she said. “What does it mean?”
He looked at her face and couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to abandon her. “Nothing,” he said, sweeping up the cards and shuffling the deck again. “Sometimes when I’m tired the cards are about my life, not the person I’m reading for. Let’s try this again. Pick three more cards.”
The Magician, the Lovers reversed and the Nine of Swords—a woman crying in the night.
What the hell? he thought. Tonight marked twenty years since he had left her, her and their child and why did the damn cards have to keep reminding him of it? It’s not like he had wanted to break her heart—or anyone else’s. He had just felt trapped and he was only twenty-five—too young to be tied down when the world held so much adventure. He had slipped out in the night, never looking back. Of course, his adventure had become little more than entertaining frivolous tourists. Punishment fits the crime, I suppose, he thought to himself.
“That woman is crying in bed—betrayed by her lover?” the girl asked.
Charlie snatched up the cards, shuffled the deck yet again. “Nothing to do with you,” he said, but he couldn’t control the annoyance in his voice. Who was this teeny-bopper to come along and him disturb him like this?
“Hold on,” he said. From the top of the deck, he pulled off three cards, nearly throwing them on the table. The Tower, the Moon and the Ace of Swords reversed.
“Is this one about me?”
“Yes,” he said without looking up. “You had a difficult childhood. It was hard to find people you could rely on. You felt lost, like you didn’t deserve to be loved. When you were a teenager, you struggled to appear normal and happy even though on the inside you felt different from everyone else, almost like you were from another planet. You’re still struggling with that now, still trying just to connect with another human being. Oh and you’re pregnant.”
It all came out of him so quickly, he couldn’t even control it. When he was finished he kept looking at the cards, waiting for her to get up and walk away.
She didn’t. He heard a couple muffled sobs and slowly raised his eyes. Her face was red and streaked with silent tears.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m way off tonight. Just forget all that. Don’t worry—”
“No, it’s all true,” she said. “It’s all true. I am pregnant and I don’t know if my boyfriend is going to leave me or not because of it.”
Charlie let out a long sigh.
“I’m sorry I’m crying. It’s just that this was the night—February 29th, twenty years ago—when my dad walked out on me and my mom. I never got to know him. And now I’m afraid my boyfriend is going to do the same thing.”
“You said your father was dead.”
“As far as I’m concerned, he is.”
She was—how had he not recognized her immediately? She looked just like her mother. “Layla, I’m so sorry.”
She looked at him. He was older now than in the pictures in her mother’s photo albums, but—now she saw who he was. “Oh my God.”
Charlie had left all those years ago because he didn’t want to have to prove himself. He didn’t want to have to prove he was a capable husband and father. Why deal with all that? But at this moment he felt very small—and he knew he wasn’t the grown-up he pretended to be. “Layla, I can’t ask you to forgive me for the past 20 years.”
She reached out and flipped over a card. Death.
“I feel like I’m falling into a giant hole,” she said.
“You feel like you’re falling into a giant hole.”
“I don’t feel like I’m strong enough to climb out of it.”
“You don’t feel like you’re strong enough to get out of it.”
She flipped over another card. Strength.
“You are much stronger than you know,” he said. “And your soul is much deeper.”
She flipped over another card. The World Dancer.
“I love to dance,” she said. “I competed in high school.”
“I would love to have seen that,” said Charlie.
She stood up. “Well, you didn’t,” she said. “Anyway, I guess I can take care of myself. Good-bye.”
“Layla, wait,” said Charlie. He scrawled something on his business card and held it out to her. “We can talk again—see each other again.”
She looked at the card and shrugged her shoulders, stuffing it in her purse. “Maybe,” she said. “But you’re not off the hook.” She walked a few paces, and stopped to turn around. “Thanks,” she said and walked away.
Charlie watched her walk across the deck, a mist from the sea enshrouded her receding body. The moonlight played on the fog, leaving a trail of silver on the breeze.