Though he would never admit it, Billy Harmond had always been a bit of a pushover. Sure, he had that macho exterior most guys in their late teens were sporting these days, but deep down, he really couldn't say no. Especially not to Linda. As she tugged playfully on his coat sleeve and peered up at him with her wide, imploring eyes, he didn't have the heart - or the balls - to refuse.
Recognizing his classic signs of submission, Linda showed her thanks with a toothy grin and began leading him towards one of the more brightly colored spectacles in the ocean of tents that was the annual Avondale Carnival.
"I know you think fortune telling is silly..." Linda reasoned as she dragged her boyfriend of eight-and-a-half months through the dry, crumpled leaves and the crowds of people. "And sure, maybe it is. But it's fun, Billy."
"Yeah, okay." Billy sighed. "If it means that much to you, we can let a crystal ball tell us what kind of car we'll be driving at forty-five."
Failing to see his sarcasm - or just choosing to ignore it - Linda gave his hand a quick squeeze and ducked inside the marquee. After a snort of would-be rebellion, Billy followed.
Inside the tent, it looked even smaller than it had from the outside. Pale beams of light forced their way through the folds of the heavy, hanging fabric which created the walls. Every support beam was adorned with purple and orange gauze intertwined with beads and trinkets. Tendrils of lemongrass incense snaked around the couple, delivering a musty yet strangely fresh aroma. Ten seconds in, and Billy was already thinking about turning around and leaving.
"Finally, some customers." The voice of a young woman cut through the thick silence, as the source emerged from behind a beaded curtain hanging in the back. "I thought I was gonna have to pack up early."
"You're the fortune teller?" Billy couldn't help inquiring; he was a little surprised to say the least.
The young woman - a brunette, as it turned out - put her hands on her hips, looking amused. "Let me guess. You were expecting an old woman in a shawl. Possibly sporting a peg-leg?"
Billy grinned. "You're close, but my money was on the glass eye."
The woman allowed herself another little laugh. "That would have been my aunt. Totally a horror-movie fortune teller, she was. It was almost cliché." After a moment, she snapped out of her tangent, realizing there were living, breathing, paying customers standing in her tent - not something she was accustomed to lately. She could already hear the 'ka-ching' of the cash register.
A welcoming smile broke onto her face. "Alright then, let's get started." She took up her usual position behind the card table, motioning for them to sit in the chairs opposite her. When they did, she retrieved a deck of cards from an ornately carved box to her left.
"How much do you know about fortune telling?" The woman began her sales pitch, slipping into the slightly misty voice she used when working.
"What, like Tarot?" Linda asked, noting the cards.
"Not quite." The fortune teller winked, showing them the deck. "While the principles are relatively similar, you'll notice that this is and ordinary deck of playing cards... not Tarot."
"How're you supposed to tell the future with those?" Billy asked, always the skeptic.
"Well, much like Tarot, each of these cards has a meaning." She continued to explain. "When I ask you to choose a card, your subconscious mind will draw you to the one which best describes the events manifesting for you in the near-future."
She'd said it like it was science. Billy's manners prevented him from speaking his thoughts aloud, although he did purse his lips a little too tight and raise his eyebrows a little too high when he replied "Uh-huh. Neat.". Which effectively translated into; This is a load of bullcrap.
The fortune teller smiled wryly, expertly fanning the cards out in front of her on the table. "Please, pick one. The first one you see."
Billy and Linda both reached forward and chose a card, flipping them around to examine.
"Two of clubs." Linda announced, showing the woman. "What does that mean?"
The fortune teller's brow knotted, and she sighed sympathetically. "Oh, honey... the Two of Clubs represents loss of a loved one."
"What?" Linda looked worried.
"I'm sorry. Are any of your relatives sick?" She continued to sell her act shamelessly, and in the other chair, Billy began to fume. It disgusted him how she could lead people to believe such terrible things as that for the sake of a few dollars.
"No, everyone in my family is really healthy..." Linda replied after searching her brain for a few moments. "Although, my Grandmother's getting on in years. She's 86 on Friday."
The woman reached forward and squeezed Linda's hand reassuringly, the way a doctor would after telling someone they had been diagnosed with cancer. "You may want to say goodbye to your Grandmother while you have the chance."
Linda looked shocked, and Billy growled. He'd had enough of this woman and her sick sales tactics. "That's bullshit!" He shouted, earning a disapproving glare. "You can't tell people crap like that."
"Let me see your card." The fortune teller didn't raise her voice.
Billy fixed her with a cold glare, considering storming out of the tent. He glanced at Linda, who smiled encouragingly, although still looking a bit shaken. Finally, Billy sighed and, grumbling, flipped his card over.
"Ace of Spades."
The fortune teller gasped, one bejeweled hand flying to her chest. "Oh my God."
Billy rolled his eyes. "Lemme guess... the plague? Locusts?"
The woman shook her head, gauze scarf flowing back and forth. "I'm... I'm sorry."
For a moment, the woman almost looked fearful. She quickly snatched back the card and shuffled it into the center of the deck, replacing them in the carved box. She looked at Billy for a long second before finally opening her mouth. "The Ace of Spades... is the Death Card."
"Billy, please stay at my house tonight." Linda begged, struggling to keep up with Billy's long strides as he stormed across the fairground. "I'm worried about you. Please!"
"Babe, it was a stupid five-dollar fortune teller." Billy grumbled. "It doesn't mean anything."
Billy left the fair and started down the sidewalk. The street was lined with the vehicles which hadn't been able to get a parking spot at the carnival. He looked around, trying to remember how far down he had left his car.
"They wouldn't say things like that if they weren't real." Linda insisted. "Billy, I don't want you to die."
Finally, Billy stopped alongside his mustard-yellow hatchback, and faced Linda. He could see that she was worried... really, really worried. On the inside, he cursed that woman for putting such horrible ideas in her head, but on the outside, he just smiled.
"I'm not gonna die, Linda." He slipped his hand into hers and intertwined their fingers. "And if it's that important to you, I'll stay with you tonight. But I promise, nothing's gonna happen to me."
Linda smiled, and kissed him, savoring the smell of his aftershave and the warmth of his arms around her. She knew he was right, of course, but that fortune teller had just scared her so much. She couldn't imagine a life without Billy.
"You promise?" Linda repeated, needing to hear him say it once more.
"Yeah babe, I promise." He gave her hand one last quick squeeze. "Nothing's gonna happen to me."
But poor Billy, he never was very good at keeping his promises. Just like the driver of the bus that was coming down that one-way street, speeding just a little, clearly wasn't very good at swerving. But Linda, poor, terrified Linda, as she watched the vehicle make impact and then heard the sickening thud and crunch that played like an echo, over and over in her head for years after, she was damn good at screaming.