A REAL GIFT
By Lisa Lepovetsky
Anita Lodge pointed to the blood red tent in the middle of the fairgrounds. "Go ahead Oliver. Try it."
Her husband tugged at the damp collar of his shirt, where his conservative maroon-striped tie remained tightly knotted. He felt as though he were strangling.
"A fortune teller?" he sneered. "It's bad enough that you wasted a Sunday afternoon dragging me to this shabby circus, mobbed with whiny children and their long-suffering parents. Why would I want to sweat in a smelly old tent and have some reprobate feed me a pack of generic lies?"
He suppressed a shudder, remembering his mother’s fascination with the occult. He’d been very superstitious and fearful of the unknown throughout much of his life, until his mother died while he was in college. Then he’d forced himself to give up his beliefs and his Ouija board and tarot cards.
Anita sighed. "In the first place, this isn't a circus; it's a fund-raising bazaar for the auxiliary of Winslow County Hospital – which, I might add, pays you a pretty good salary for being their administrator. In the second place, you wouldn't be sweating so much if you'd dressed in comfortable clothes, like I suggested, instead of that ridiculous suit and tie. What are you going to do when we're in the Bahamas next month for our anniversary?"
"Stay inside where it's cool, of course," he snapped back, "and drink mai-tais until I don't care about the damn heat anymore. That trip was your idea, remember?"
She grimaced and returned to her previous subject. "Anyway, the woman telling fortunes is Mark Castle's sister. I understand she's rather good at it – actually has some kind of ESP or something. She's raised quite a bit of money doing this for other benefits. They say she has a real gift."
At the mention of the chairman of the hospital's board of directors, Oliver turned his unpleasant scowl into something he hoped approached a smile. There was no point in passing up a chance to butter up the boss. He tugged at the lapels of his jacket, trying vainly to cover his expanding paunch, and nodded.
"Well, of course, if it's for charity..." he muttered, heading across the grass toward the tent his wife had pointed out. Above the bright red door flaps hung a roughly painted sign that read: MADAME CALIOSTRO KNOWS ALL, SHE'LL READ YOUR FUTURE IN HER CRYSTAL BALL – $5. Several screaming urchins ran in front of him, nearly tripping him, and he growled a curse under his breath. As he drew aside the bright red flaps beneath the sign, Anita turned toward the potpourri seller across the way.
"Aren't you coming in?" he asked.
"No, I'll just wait over here." She shrugged. "To be honest, that kind of thing has always given me the creeps. I'm afraid she'll tell me I'm going to be hit by a bus or something. If you like it, maybe I'll go in."
"Women," Oliver snorted. "You watch too many of those true mystery programs on TV." He bent slightly and entered the tent.
He had to blink several times as his eyes adjusted to the sudden dimness. The air inside the tent was damp and smoky, musty scented with the odor of grass and...something else, something sweet and a bit acrid that Oliver couldn't immediately identify.
"Approach, if you dare." The husky feminine voice came from the darkness before him. After a moment, he made out the form of someone seated at a table, silhouetted against the dark red fabric of the tent. He moved toward the table.
"So you're Madame Calisto, or whatever," he said jovially.
"Madame Caliostro," she corrected. "Please put your offering in the box beside you and sit."
A delicate hand moved from the shadows and pointed to the folding chair opposite her. Oliver pulled a five-dollar bill from his wallet and pretended to tuck it into the slot in the wooden box, smoothly palming it instead. He’d be damned if he was going to waste good money on such nonsense – it was dark enough in here that he was sure the woman hadn’t noticed. Oliver settled his considerable bulk carefully on the rickety folding chair. His shirt was already drenched beneath his suit jacket, and he felt drops of sweat trickle down his cheeks and forehead.
"Jeez, it's like a sauna in here," he said. "I don't know how you can stand it for a whole afternoon."
The veiled woman didn't answer, but fluttered her pale, thin-fingered hand palm-down through the air before her, and suddenly a glass globe on the table between them began to glow with a faint green light. It almost seemed to pulse in the heavy, smoky air. Oliver sniffed, and realized the scent he smelled over the grassy odor must be some kind of incense.
"Nice special effects," he muttered.
Again, the fortune teller chose to ignore him, waving her hand once more across the luminous crystal ball. "You have entered Madame Caliostro's aura with the mind of a skeptic. You scoff at the powers of darkness and light."
"Well, scoff is probably too strong a –" Oliver began, but the woman held up her hand.
"Silence," she hissed. "I must concentrate harder to overcome your scornful emanations." The small woman before him radiated a kind of quiet authority. To his surprise, Oliver obeyed.
Madame Caliostro gazed into the glowing sphere for a long moment, during which Oliver faintly heard the voices of children and festive adults outside the tent as though through a poor long-distance phone connection. He forced himself not to squirm on the uncomfortable chair.
When Madame Caliostro spoke, Oliver barely heard her. Her voice seemed to merge with the sounds outside the tent, barely distinguishable above them. He leaned forward slightly to hear.
"You will be going on a long journey to the pine forests in the land of the sunset," the deep voice murmured. "You and one other."
Sure, Oliver thought, that's an easy one. Mark Castle knows all about our anniversary trip, but you missed on the 'pine forests' part. He said nothing, though he suspected his face reflected his scorn. Smiling inwardly that he didn’t waste five dollars, he waited for her to begin again. The draped figure across from him didn't move for a long time.
Finally, the low, musical voice spoke again. "A letter will come a long distance to you soon – a letter from a relative," she said.
This time he couldn't keep silent, though he suppressed the sarcasm as best he could, trying to keep the face of his boss before him. "Can you be a bit more specific?" he asked. "Most of my relations live quite a distance away. Just how far will this letter have to travel?"
head rose, and Oliver could feel the woman's eyes on him, though the veils hid
her face. "This letter must cross a
distance no man can travel," she intoned dramatically, "the chasm
from the dead to the living."
"Do you mean to tell me I'll be receiving a letter from a dead person?" he asked. "That's pretty hard to believe."
"I only pass on what the crystal tells me," she answered calmly. "These messages are from somewhere outside our tiny universe, somewhere outside our understanding."
"Right." Oliver cleared his throat.
"Shall I continue?"
Oliver sighed inwardly. What the hell time was it, anyway? It seemed he'd been inside this miserable tent for hours. "If there's more, please do," he said, adding silently, and hurry it the hell up.
Her head bent once more, and once more the silence enveloped Oliver like a hot wet blanket. He felt as though his entire body were covered in a prickly heat rash. His buttocks were numb from sitting on the hard seat of the folding chair. Just as he was about to stand up and end this charade as politely as possible, Madame Caliostro spoke once more.
"You will have difficulty with a vehicle soon," she said, "a car. I see a car the color of the evening sky."
"A black car, you mean?" he asked, immediately sorry he'd been suckered into the question. But his car was black, and he didn't like the idea that somehow this woman knew that. He hoped maybe she'd assume he had another color car, since he was so interested in the color.
"No, not black," she answered, and Oliver hid a smirk. She'd fallen for it – some psychic. He couldn't wait to tell Anita how phony this broad was.
Madame Caliostro continued. "No, the car is a dark blue or purple color. I see you and a blonde woman inside, afraid on a lonely wooded road, waiting."
"A blonde woman?" Well, that was interesting, Oliver thought wryly, since Anita's hair was a dark reddish-brown. Maybe he was finally going to get some excitement in his life. "What are we waiting for?"
"I don't know. The crystal doesn't tell me that."
"Mmmm. Too bad." He made a show of looking at his watch and starting to rise. "Well, this has been real interesting, but I'd better –"
Suddenly, the pale small hand reached out and grasped his wrist with surprising strength, fingers cool and dry against his hot skin.
"No," the woman insisted, "don't go yet. There's more. It's important."
Oliver couldn't get the argument past his lips. He remained frozen, bent over, half-way out of his chair.
"You must beware the pills," she warned. "When the eagle flies no more, refuse the blue pills. You must remember – it will save your life. Someone close is trying to destroy you."
Oliver jerked his hand away, sputtering with annoyance. Boss's sister or no boss's sister, this was simply too much folderol. The woman was touched, that was it. Oliver hurried out through the tent flaps into the bright sunlight, squinting and panting, searching for Anita. He found her watching a basket-weaving demonstration not far down the row of tents.
"Well, are you ready to go home yet?" he said, his voice reassuringly loud and steady.
"You're finished already?" she asked. "I thought you'd be in there longer. It's only been –" she glanced at her watch " – five minutes."
He frowned. He'd felt as though he'd been in there for hours.
"How did it go?" Anita asked. "Was she everything they said? Should I give it a try?"
"She's nothing but a phony," he said, "just like I expected. Telling vague stories that could – and probably would – happen to anybody. Don't waste your money."
Anita shrugged and paid for a small blue basket. "Well, I'm sorry you wasted your time, but at least it will benefit the hospital." Oliver merely nodded and steered her past the tent by her elbow.
On the way home, Anita asked what Madame Caliostro had told him. "Just for fun," she said, "let's see whether any of it comes true."
"Just garbage," he grumbled. "The usual stuff – take a trip, letter from a relative, blah-blah-blah. Nothing that anybody with half a brain would take seriously." He turned the car into the long drive that led to their house. "By the way, did you get my grey suit from the cleaners yesterday?"
Anita nodded. "And I picked up the new prescription Dr. Neal phoned in to the drug store."
Oliver muttered, "That quack."
"He's the top cardiologist in the northeast," Anita pointed out. "And if you remember, he told you –"
"I'm not a moron," Oliver snapped. "Or senile. I remember what he said. Drop it, okay?" She turned away from him and silently looked out her window.
They got out of the car in the garage and went through the connecting door into the kitchen. "Grab the mail from the box, Anita," Oliver said. "I need a shower after traipsing around in the heat all afternoon."
"It was hardly all afternoon," she said. "We were there less than an hour." He ignored the remark.
When Oliver came back downstairs, Anita handed him the mail. "There's one from Seattle," she said. "Isn't that where your Uncle Wilbur lives?"
Oliver nodded as he tore the envelope open. "He's been in a nursing home for a month or so, I think. I don't pay much attention anymore. He's pretty old, and there's nobody else out there to call about what's happening with him. Actually, I've kind of lost touch."
He pulled the letter out and scanned it for a minute. "He's dead," Oliver murmured in surprise. "And I'm the executor of his will. I'm going to have to go out there and settle things. What's this?"
A separate paper slipped from the others, drifting to the floor. In contrast with the neatly-typed, crisp sheets from the attorney, this small page of blue stationery was a bit crumpled and covered with large, looping handwriting. Oliver picked it up and peered more closely at it.
"It's a note to me from Uncle Wilbur," he said. "He wrote it himself. He wants to make sure I take care of his properties so they don't fall apart before someone buys them."
"There's the mansion, just outside the city." Oliver frowned, trying to remember. "And I think he owns the house next door, too. He had quite a bit of money. If I'm not mistaken, there's also a camp or hunting lodge or something out in the woods, too. I suppose I'll have to hire somebody to close them up."
"Won't that be expensive?"
"Well, it won't be cheap," he muttered, visualizing Uncle Wilbur's funds dwindling rapidly. "Unless..."
"Unless I go out there myself and make sure everything's done correctly. I have three weeks off next month."
Anita's eyes widened. "But that's when we're taking our anniversary trip to the Bahamas, Oliver."
"Well, this has to be done. I'm afraid I can't put it off." As Anita began to protest, he raised his hand to quiet her. "Hey, we can make this trip our anniversary trip, can't we? It won't be so hot in Seattle this time of year, and we can stay out in the woods at the hunting lodge. We'll go to the Bahamas some other time, in the winter. How does that sound?"
"As though you're relieved that we won't be going to the islands." Anita snorted. "But I know there's no point arguing with you when you've made up your mind. I'll cancel the reservations."
"And while you're at it, reserve a flight to Seattle and a rental car." As she went to make the calls, Oliver was already making notes on the lawyer's pages, reminders of ways he could save money on Uncle Wilbur's estate – most of which he would inherit.
Less than a month later, Oliver waited impatiently for his wife at the USAir terminal in the bustling Cleveland airport. She had been running last-minute errands that afternoon, and he'd grudgingly agreed to take a cab to the airport and meet her at two, an hour and a half before their plane was scheduled to take off. Now it was – he glanced at his watch – nearly three. Anita was late as usual.
"What the hell have you done to your hair?" Oliver sputtered. "You've gone and bleached it."
"More than a little, I'd say," Oliver grumbled.
She grinned sheepishly. "Well, the hairdresser got a bit carried away, I'll admit. I know how you hate changes, but I'd noticed the grey creeping through, and thought for our twentieth anniversary, you might like something different."
"It's different alright," he agreed. "But I suppose it looks nice enough when you get used to it."
Anita was right; Oliver didn't like sudden changes of any kind. But he also didn't want her getting all teary in the airport; then he'd have to put up with her pouting all the way to Seattle. So, he hoped she believed the weak compliment. She seemed placated, and they walked together to the gate.
By the time they reached the car rental service at the Seattle airport, Oliver was completely out of sorts. The meal on the plane had been atrocious, the attendants sullen, and the flight turbulent. He told Anita to fill out the rental forms while he waited on the bench and let his stomach settle. He finally rose when she signaled that he had to sign as primary driver.
"Your car is in Lot A," the man behind the counter said, and gave them directions to the lot as he handed the keys to Oliver. "It's a dark blue Thunderbird – midnight blue, actually – all gassed up and ready to go."
As they pulled their wheeled suitcases along the cement walkway toward the rental car lots, Oliver grumbled. "I distinctly told you I wanted a big car, a Lincoln or a Buick, not a flashy rich-kids' car."
"I know, but it's a busy week, with the festival and all. It's all they had. We got a good price on it."
Oliver chose to ignore her last hopeful remark. When they reached the car, he asked, "Did you at least get directions to the cabin?" Anita had made him feel so guilty about not going to the islands, Oliver had finally conceded to head out to Uncle Wilbur's hunting lodge first, to kind of 'get started' on their anniversary trip before going into the city to settle the old man's estate.
"Of course I did," Anita said, pulling a sheet of handwritten notes from her purse. "It's out beyond the other side of the city. From what I can tell, it shouldn't take us more than two hours to get there from here."
"Two hours." Oliver snorted and looked at his watch. "It's after seven now, which my body says is actually ten. I'll be ready for bed in an hour, and I'll still have another hour of driving to do."
Anita opened a map and spread it across the hood of the car. "I'm sure there'll be someplace to stop on the other side of Seattle where we can stretch and get some coffee. That's almost halfway. I'll drive, if you want, and you can sleep. Come on, cheer up."
Oliver shrugged and got into the passenger seat, muttering, "You know I can't sleep in strange cars."
The next thing Oliver knew, they were stopped at a filling station/convenience store on the far side of Seattle. He got out to use the restroom; when he returned to the car, Anita was taking the nozzle from the gas tank.
"I topped off the tank. That way, we don't have to think about it again. And anyway, the engine was making a funny noise, so I thought I'd put some high-test in. Maybe that'll fix it."
"I didn't notice any noise," he grumbled. "You shouldn't put expensive gas in a rental car."
"I'm not surprised you didn't hear anything," she said. "You were asleep most of the time."
"I was just resting my eyes."
"Mmm-hmmm." Anita went to pay the attendant. Oliver got behind the wheel.
"I'll drive the rest of the way," he announced when she returned.
Forty-five minutes later, Oliver was standing beside the car on a lonely mountain road, peering helplessly under the hood with a flashlight he'd found in the glove compartment. The workings of automobiles might just as well be nuclear warheads, for all he could ever understand about them.
"Can you see anything?" Anita called from the passenger window.
"I see plenty, but I don't know any more now than I did when the engine died."
“Why don’t you call nine-one-one on your cell phone,” she asked.
“That’s the first thing I tried,” he said. “But there’s no reception in this god-forsaken place.”
The sun had set recently, and Oliver shivered in the chilly breeze that made the towering pines around them creak and groan.
Anita stuck her head out the window again. "Why don't you get in, Oliver, and we'll turn on the radio and wait until someone comes by. At least the battery's working."
Oliver said nothing, but slid into the car, slamming the door behind him. Anita's newly-bleached hair glowed like a halo in the light from the radio, and suddenly Oliver's stomach seemed to freeze. He realized he must have made a sound when Anita asked him what was wrong.
"Nothing," he managed to croak after a minute. "I just remembered something that stupid fortune teller said at the charity festival."
"It must have been a doozey to make you look like that. I thought you said it was all just garbage. What did she say?"
"First she said something about a relative's letter coming from far away."
Anita chuckled. "All fortune tellers talk about a letter from a relative. Chances are…it'll come true eventually."
"Yeah, but she even said it would be from a dead person. And Uncle Wilbur was dead when I got that letter."
"That's different. But even so –"
"And she said I'd be going on a long journey."
Anita sighed. "Oliver, that's another typical fortune-teller prediction. They all say that. I can't believe you're taking this so seriously."
"No, you don't understand." Oliver could feel fingers of panic squeezing his chest and took a few deep breaths to calm himself. "She said I'd be stranded in the woods, in a dark blue or purple car – with a blonde woman."
"Wow," breathed Anita. "That's pretty weird all right. What else did she say?"
Oliver strained to remember. "It was so hot in there, and there was all this smoke from the incense... God, I can't – Wait, yes I do. Something about someone trying to kill me."
Anita gasped. "I can't believe she'd say something like that at a charity affair. That kind of thing is completely inappropriate. Someone should say something to her brother."
Oliver was still trying to remember the details, but they seemed to scurry away the more he fought to capture them. "There was something about birds dying," he muttered. "Hawks or eagles falling or something..."
Anita pointed through the windshield just as the lights of an oncoming car flooded the inside of the Thunderbird. "Well, you can remember it later," she said. "Flag those people down, and see whether they can get us some help."
By midnight, they were pulling up to the A-frame lodge at the end of a long dirt drive. The driver of the car they'd seen happened to be a traveling salesman, and had sympathized with their plight.
"Been in just this situation myself," he'd said, "and I wouldn't let anybody else sweat it out like I had to."
The car rental company had sent a replacement for them, and promised they'd get half their money back on the rental fee. Oliver had been too exhausted to insist they refund the full fee. His head throbbed and he felt awful.
"It must be a beautiful place," Anita said as she and Oliver carried their luggage onto the porch. "I can't wait to see it in the morning."
"I can't wait to get to bed. By my biological clock, it's five o'clock in the morning. I haven't been up this late since –"
"Since our honeymoon," Anita murmured, kissing him on the cheek. He frowned and turned the key in the lock.
"Yeah, well, all I want to do right now is sleep."
The lodge was indeed beautiful – at least on the inside: thick oriental carpets, heavy oak beams, expensive overstuffed furniture. Oliver hardly noticed; up in the loft, he removed his pants, sport coat and shirt, and dropped onto the bed in his underwear. He was asleep in minutes.
He awoke five hours later to the scent of Anita fixing breakfast in the small kitchen downstairs. He still felt groggy, but knew he'd never get back to sleep now. He staggered down the stairs. Anita was humming an aria from "Madame Butterfly."
"What are you so chipper about?" he grumbled.
"It's a beautiful day," she said. "Just look out that big window in back of the house. Better yet, go on out onto the porch and sit at the table – I'll bring your breakfast to you. Service with a smile."
Oliver wasn't really very hungry, and didn't relish the idea of eating outside, with bugs swarming all over his food, but he felt too lousy to argue. His head ached and his chest felt like someone had wrapped him with tape. He'd have a glass of juice on the back porch, if the air wasn't too cold, and then go back to bed. Anita could amuse herself for a while.
When he opened the door, something metal rattled and clinked to the floor. He cursed and bent to see what it was. Anita hurried out.
He picked up some flat brass figures on a thin chain. "What's this?"
Anita took them from him. "Oh, it's a wind chime – brass eagles in flight. The chain looks like it rusted through and they fell when you opened the door."
Oliver gasped and his chest caught fire. He heard Madame Caliostro's voice as though she were standing beside him. When the eagle flies no more, refuse the blue pills. Someone close to you is trying to destroy you.
Anita's eyes were anxious as she put her hand on his arm. "Oliver? What's wrong? You look awful."
He tried to answer, tried to tell her he was fine. He didn't dare tell her the truth. Madame Caliostro was right. Somehow, she'd actually seen his future, and he knew he mustn't stay here with Anita. She was the only one remotely close to him, physically or emotionally. And she was trying to kill him. His mother had been right all those years ago.
But his chest was a blazing furnace, constricting smaller each second. All he could do was croak, "You...you're killing me. Get...away."
"Oh my God, what are you talking about, Oliver?" Anita's voice seemed muffled and far-away behind the ringing in his ears, though he could see she was still beside him – too, too close beside him. He tried to pull away, but only succeeded in sitting heavily on the floor.
"I'll get your pills." Anita ran into the lodge. A moment later, she was back, with the pill bottle in her hand. She shook out two blue pills.
Beware the blue pills, Madame Caliostro had said. It was all so clear now, despite this terrible pain. And his pills had never been blue before.
"Those... not my pills," he gasped, weakly pushing her hand away.
"They're the new ones, Oliver," Anita insisted, pressing them into his palm. "Remember, I told you I was picking up a new prescription from Dr. Neal. You have to take them, Oliver. You're having a heart attack."
"No." He shook his head. Madame Caliostro had told him to refuse the blue pills. That meant this wasn't a real heart attack. Of course Anita was worried – worried he wouldn't take the damned blue pills. But that was his only chance – he must not take those pills. With a huge effort, he threw the pills to the floor.
"What's going on?" Anita's eyes filled with tears. "Oliver, you'll die if you don't take those pills. Dr. Neal said you have to take them right away."
Then his heart clenched again, agonizingly, like a fist closing forever. Oliver suddenly knew he was dying. His vision blurred. He felt himself slip sideways to the wooden floor.
What happened? He silently asked no one in particular. I don't understand it – Madame Caliostro was right about everything else. Why not about this? I didn't take the blue pills.
Then he heard Anita's voice again, clearer now, but fading. She was obviously talking to someone on the phone. "It worked perfectly. God, I'm so relieved, I'm actually crying. The dark blue car I ordered, the sugar in the gas tank, my hair, everything worked. He even believed you were related to Mark Castle. Of course, if I hadn't steamed open that letter from his uncle the day before the festival, I never would have thought of how to do it. And your idea of putting out those wind chimes while he was asleep – it was a stroke of genius. I actually think that's what sent him over the edge. I owe you a lot – more than I'm paying you, that's for sure. More than the five dollars he was too cheap to pay you at the festival. You definitely have a gift."
Lisa Lepovetsky has been published frequently in anthologies and magazines, including EQMM. She holds an MFA in writing from Penn State University. She also writes and hosts mystery theaters under the name “It’s A Mystery!” and has published a novel, SHADOWS ON THE BAYOU.
Her short story, "Serenity," appeared in omdb! in September, 2014.
Copyright © 2015 Lisa Lepovetsky. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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