by Simon Janus
"You’re not still thinking about that dumb fortune are you?” Lisa asked.
Nick was. It was hard not to. How had it known? How could it have known? No one knew, except for him, Rich—and Tina. Neither of them could have had anything to do with the fortune telling machine, especially Tina.
Nick and Lisa were still at the concessions area of the carnival, seated across from each other. Nick tried to enjoy the five dollar hot dog made with fifty cent meat. The food hooked in his throat with every chew despite how much soda he gulped down with it.
“Do you still have the ticket?” Lisa asked.
He hesitated before bringing the ticket out. It would be easy to lie, but he’d lied too much already. He handed it to Lisa, giving him an excuse to put the hot dog aside.
She examined the ticket, looking on both sides and feeling its edges as if it would give some clue to the truth, but it was nothing more than ink on thick, fibrous paper, spelling the word “Thursday.”
“What does it mean?”
“Nothing,” he lied. The fortune didn’t refer to this Thursday or the next or one in the distant future or distant past. It referred to two Thursdays ago.
“Then you’ve got nothing to be spooked by.” She tossed the ticket back at him. A gust of wind snatched it and Nick slammed his palm over it, pinning it to the table before it could escape. He couldn’t afford for the truth to fall into someone else’s hands. He curled his fingers around the ticket and pocketed it. Lisa followed his actions with concerned attention. He smiled to disarm her, but he knew how forced the smile felt on his face.
“Thursday does mean something, doesn’t it?”
He shrugged an answer and returned to his hot dog.
“Y’know, there is one way we can find out if Imelda the Magnificent can tell the future.”
Lisa produced a nickel from her pocket and a smile from her heart. “We ask her again.”
He screwed up the hot dog in its cardboard tray and pushed himself away from the picnic bench. He tossed the unwanted meal in the trash. “Nah, I’m not blowing another five cents on that piece of crap.”
“Five cents?” Lisa jumped up from her seat and swooped in to curl an arm through his. “I think we can afford to lose a nickel on this experiment. Oh, c’mon, you know you want to try again. I see it your eyes.”
What does she see in my eyes? he thought.
He tried putting up a fuss, but her mind was set and if he forced the issue, she’d know something was wrong. So he let her drag him over to Imelda the Magnificent.
The painted sign said, Imelda the Magnificent, but Imelda was no gypsy wannabe. She was an antique fortune telling machine. She belonged in a museum, not the county fair. Imelda the Magnificent looked the way all fortunetelling machines looked. An ornate teak cabinet came waist high with a three-sided glass case on top containing a fortune telling mannequin trapped for an eternity inside. Imelda herself was a gypsy stereotype. She wore a blue silk shawl and an Indian turban with ostrich feathers sticking out. The only thing that separated her from her countless sisters was the single teardrop on her right cheek. It was nothing more than a piece of cut glass, but it refracted the glare from dozens of spotlights just right and glistened as if it were real.
Naturally, in a post Xbox world, Imelda stood like a rock in a fast flowing creek. People raced past her on the way to one thrill or another. A creepy mechanical gypsy just didn’t cut it. Imelda served as decoration—carnival charm at best. Nick and Lisa would have ignored the sideshow anachronism themselves if it weren’t for the dumb crap boyfriends and girlfriends did for fun.
They stood before Imelda the Magnificent again. Lisa offered her five cents up to Nick.
“It doesn’t work that way,” the carnie interrupted.
This moment was private. Sacred. Nick was about to tell the minimum wage loser to butt out, but Lisa got in the way.
“It doesn’t?” she said.
The carnie crossed the trampled grass and leaned against Imelda’s case as if taking her side. “A fortune is a contract between the teller and the seeker of the future. That contract requires payment. The payment must come from the person who seeks the fortune and no one else.”
The carnie layered on the sideshow shtick a little too thick, but it worked all the same. He hadn’t kept his tone quiet and he’d drawn a crowd, albeit just a handful of kids and their parents. Still, it was big numbers for Imelda the Magnificent.
“Looks as if you’re going pay for your pleasure, babe.”
This was no pleasure. Not with the crowd waiting for him to perform for them. He could walk away. He owed these people nothing, but despite not wanting to go anywhere near Imelda the Magnificent, he needed to know. She’d told him nothing with her first fortune. Thursday could mean anything. For all her craftsmanship and showmanship, Imelda was nothing more than a magic eight-ball of her day. For all he knew, she was on a days of the week kick. The next fortune out of her would probably be Friday. But if she could tell him what lay ahead after the events of two Thursdays ago, then he’d gladly pay a nickel a day until the day he died. He delved in his pants pocket for a nickel and shoved it into the machine before he could change his mind.
Imelda the Magnificent went through her act. Her arms, nothing but rods and linkages, lifted and clumsily stroked the crystal ball in front of her. A scratchy recording failed to work in time with Imelda’s snapping jaw. Her words came from the cabinet rather than her mouth.
“Those that seek their fortune be it good, be it bad, come to Imelda the Magnificent. I know all because I see all. I have known fortunes good and fortunes bad.” Imelda’s right arm left her crystal ball and jerkily pointed to the brass plated slot and catch tray at the corner of the cabinet. “And I know your fortune.”
After a grind of gears and the smack of metal against metal, a ticket popped from the slot. Lisa reached for the ticket, but Nick beat her to it. He snatched it up and smiled.
“What’s it say?” she asked.
“Riches come to the good.”
Lisa grinned. “And you thought it would tell you something bad.”
The carnie eyed Nick for a moment longer than was comfortable and turned away. He’d seen through Nick’s lie. Nick didn’t care. The carnie didn’t matter. He swung an arm over Lisa’s shoulder and guided her away before the carnie could say anything.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said and screwed up the fortune ticket with its single word stamped on it—Thursday.
* * *
Nick drove Lisa home. Her parents, nice but pretentious people, weren’t home from the opera. There was time for a quickie, but he declined. Imelda the Magnificent had drained his libido. He needed to find out who’d talked. Who’d gotten to the machine?
He tried to leave, but Lisa caught his arm. “Nick, what’s wrong?”
Her question wasn’t as innocent as it sounded. He saw it in her eyes. She knew him too well and he’d given her cause to know him that well. She’d known the second his lust had switched from her to another. Instead of calling him on it, she’d fought to keep him. That was when he knew he loved Lisa. Even now, he didn’t understand why his let his dick do his thinking for him two Thursdays ago.
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s not like that.”
He saw she wanted to say something, but she kept it locked inside. He did nothing to release her angst and left.
He drove hard through the wet night. Cold, dank air blew through the gaps in the doorframe, but the two fortune tickets burned hot against his thigh. He needed to know what Rich had to say about them. It hadn’t occurred to him until he pulled away from Lisa’s that the tickets could be Rich’s work. The douche bag always had his fingers in something. He could see him setting this up to clear his name. Son of a bitch.
Nick killed the lights before he pulled up in front of Rich’s place. If Rich was up to something, he’d run at the first stink of trouble. He needed Rich boxed in before he would talk. It was shy of midnight, but the houselights were on. Rich didn’t have the problem of parents. Their deaths had provided him an environment without attachments. Nick pulled out his cell and called Rich.
“Yeah, man,” Rich said.
Nick kept his gaze on the house. “We need to talk.”
“It’s nearly midnight. I’m hitting the sack.”
“I’m outside. It’ll only take a minute.”
“If you’re outside then why not come to the door?”
“Like you say, it’s nearly midnight.”
Nick wound down a window and listened for a backdoor slamming shut, but heard nothing. Rich seemed to be staying put.
“Seeing as you’re here, come on in. The door’s open.”
“Thanks, man. This won’t take long.” Nick hung up and removed the box cutter from the glove compartment.
He found Rich in the living room. The house had been nice once. Rich’s mom was into interior design. Rich wasn’t. The place looked like a flophouse now. Junk was strewn everywhere. Nothing was cared for. Every room looked like a teenager’s bedroom. The only jewels amongst the filth were the plasma and the home theater setup for his sights and sounds. It had seemed like the coolest place in the world until two Thursdays ago. He tightened his grip on the box cutter buried in his jacket pocket.
Rich had prepared a smile for Nick, but it withered on the vine when he saw him. “What’s up?”
Rich sat up on the sofa. “Who?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know I haven’t told anyone.”
Why go there? Nick wondered. Turning rat shouldn’t have been his first port of call, but Nick had known Rich long enough to know he’d do anything to save his own skin.
“Man, I need a drink.” Rich sprang up and headed for the kitchen and Nick followed. Rich delved inside the fridge and brought out two beers.
“Why’d you say that?”
“That you hadn’t told anyone. I never accused you of snitching, did I?”
“But nothing. You shouldn’t be thinking like that. We need to stick together more now than ever.”
Normally, Rich had that cock of the walk thing radiating off him. It was what had drawn Tina to him. But the only thing he radiated now was fear. Not fear of what he’d done, but of what Nick was capable of.
“You’re right, man.” Rich cracked the tops off the bottles. “One hundred percent, you’re right.”
He held a beer out to Nick, but Nick slapped it away. The bottle shattered on the floor and beer fizzed in a puddle around it.
“You talked, didn’t you?”
Rich put his hands up and backed up. “No way.”
“Don’t lie to me.” Nick knocked the remaining beer from Rich’s hand and leaned into him, pinning him against a countertop. “You talked.”
Rich shoved Nick back. Nick slid in the spilled beer and broken glass.
“No, I didn’t snitch. No one saw us. We’re cool if we keep our shit together.”
Nick tapped the fortune tickets in his pocket. He’d lost his shit the moment they’d slid from Imelda the Magnificent’s grasp.
“What makes you think someone knows?”
Nick told Rich what happened at the fair, but didn’t show him the fortunes, too frightened by their meaning.
“You’re losing it, man. Losing it big time.”
It sounded ridiculous when he listened to himself. He pulled out a chair and sat down. Rich pulled out two new brews, set them down on the table and sat kitty-corner to Nick.
“Someone could have seen us,” Nick said.
“No one saw us,” Rich said, but his customary confidence failed to convince Nick.
Rich shoved his beer away. “I think someone’s been following me.”
Rich shook his head. “Cops would have dragged me in. This is someone else. I don’t know who. Whenever I feel I’m being followed and I try to catch the son of a bitch, no one’s there. I thought I was crazy until now. This fortune thing sounds like bullshit, but I’ve felt someone scoping me out, so I’m not dismissing it.”
“I want to check.”
“What do you think?”
Nick made Rich drive his car. He didn’t quite give him the benefit of the doubt. He knew how crazy the fortune tickets sounded, but Rich could be playing him, so he wanted Rich’s hands and feet occupied.
With honest and decent people tucked up in bed, the roads were quiet and it didn’t take long to find their spot, their crime. Rich turned off the road and into the wood. The car slithered on the soft earth and fallen leaves. He stopped deep enough in the woods that the car couldn’t be spotted from the road.
Nick popped the trunk and removed the shovel he’d taken from Rich’s. Dirt from its previous use still gripped the blade.
“We won’t need it,” Rich said.
Nick ignored him and closed the trunk.
It wasn’t hard to trace the path back. Nick’s senses had been in overdrive. Everything he’d done, seen, felt and witnessed that night was tattooed in his mind. He remembered every tree that circled his crime. They’d looked down upon him then as they did now—like disapproving parents, their shame so great they could never look up again.
“See, nothing’s been touched. It’s just the way it was,” Rich said.
Rich was right. The sight looked undisturbed. Nature had even done its thing. It had covered their tracks, smoothed over the rough patches and aged the freshly turned earth.
“Can we go now?”
“No.” Nick didn’t like the cocky tone in Rich’s voice. This was no place for that. “I want to see.”
Crazy or not, Nick stabbed the ground with the spade. It invaded the soil easily. The sensation left him queasy. It reminded him how weak flesh was against violence. He overcame his nausea by digging and digging deep.
Rich took over as Nick’s strength waned. He dug deep and hard, like a man wanting to get this unpleasantness behind him. For Nick, this unpleasantness would never end.
Rich’s spade hit something more resilient than the earth. It had uncovered a faux silk cami. Nick knew it to be lavender in color, but the moonlight and dirt stained it near black. Rich looked at Nick. Nick couldn’t speak. Instead, he took the spade from Rich. Someone who still cared needed to do this. He scraped at the dirt with the spade. He lacked the courage to do this work by hand. He worked his way up the body until he carefully revealed Tina’s face.
Nick uttered a noise that was akin to a sob. It hurt his chest when it slipped from between his lips. He wished he could claim the sob was for Tina, but it was for himself.
He’d been stupid. So stupid, it bordered on cliché. He’d gotten drunk. Every time he finished a drink, Rich replaced it with another. With their inhibitions doped into a coma, they’d picked up Tina, a good time girl thumbing her way to Los Angeles one ride at a time, one man at a time. The price for the bus money was some three-way action out by the creek. It was action Nick didn’t need with Lisa’s love as constant companion, but love is responsibility and some nights you just want to leave responsibility at the door, so Nick indulged. The sex was fun and frivolous, but somewhere along the line, it had turned mean. Tina made a crack in bad taste and Nick retaliated with a backhand blow. Nick closed his eyes as he remembered the sound his fist had made against Tina’s jaw. But one blow, like one drink, wasn’t enough. By the time Rich had torn him away, it was too late.
Tina had been pretty, but she wasn’t anymore. Moonlight and shadow distorted his violence and the rot to make her appear worse than she was.
“Christ, can’t you smell it?” Rich said.
Nick hadn’t. He’d been too lost in the moment to notice, but he smelled her now. It was a small price to pay for what he’d done to her.
“She’s still there. Happy now? Can we go?”
Nick turned to see Rich scrabble up the side of the grave. A rectangle of paper, familiar in size and shape, worked its way out of Rich’s jean pocket and tumbled into the grave. Nick picked up the ticket and read the fortune on the back—Thursday.
Rich had lied. Rich had cheated. Rich would pay.
Nick slammed the spade into Rich’s back, felling him with a single blow. He grabbed Rich by the collar, yanked him back into the grave and shoved the fortune in his face.
“That’s not mine.”
“You lied, Rich. What else have you lied about?”
“I know my fortune. Let’s see what yours is going to be.”
Nick bound Rich with the towrope from the back of his car and shoved a rag in his mouth to keep him quiet before stuffing him in the trunk. He left Tina’s grave open. There’d be time enough to make things right later and if Rich didn’t tell the truth, then he’d join Tina. It was his damn fault she was dead in the first place.
He pulled up in front of the fairgrounds with Rich kicking the trunk lid and screaming. He was wasting his time. The fair was long since closed. Its people were tucked up in their motel rooms or trailers. Only security lights gave the illusion of occupation.
He dragged Rich from the trunk. Rich tried running, but he’d been cramped up too long. Nick caught him without effort and ensured he behaved himself by pressing his box cutter against his throat.
He disabled the feeble padlock protecting the fairgrounds from thieves and shoved Rich over to Imelda the Magnificent. He thrust Rich to his knees before the fortuneteller.
“You’ve met, I believe.”
Rich mumbled something unintelligible into his gag.
“Imelda the Magnificent has told me my fortune, but let’s see if it’s changed.”
Nick produced a nickel, put it in the slot and waited for his fortune. He hated Imelda’s tedious spiel. He just wanted his damn fortune. He snatched the ticket before it had a chance to land in the brass tray. He smiled when it said Thursday again.
He showed the ticket to Rich. “See?”
Rich shook his head.
“Let’s see what your fortune says. You have a nickel? Gotta have a nickel.” Nick delved in Rich’s pockets for loose change, coins spilling out. “It can’t be one of mine. It has to be one of yours. For the magic to work, you have to buy your own fortune.”
Nick snatched up a nickel and shoved it into the slot. Out came the single word fortune he knew too well. He remembered his science teacher drumming into him that an experiment was never proven until it was repeated. He shoved another of Rich’s nickels into Imelda the Magnificent. The fortune was the same again. But this wasn’t science. This was something far more important. This was truth. And truth had to be proven over and over again. Nick shoved all of Rich’s nickels into Imelda and she told the same fortune again and again. When Rich’s nickels ran out, he gave his nickels to Rich then fed those nickels into Imelda. Nick held over a dozen fortune tickets in his fist.
“Who knows what we did? Who knows, Rich? How does Imelda know?”
Nick yanked Rich’s gag down for him to answer. “She doesn’t know. You’re crazy.”
“Crazy, am I?” Nick barked and drove the box cutter into Rich’s stomach. “How’s that for crazy?”
“Stop,” someone shouted.
Nick jerked the box cutter free and before he could use it again, an explosion split the air and an immense force felled Nick as if he’d been stuck by a brick wall. He collapsed next to Rich, both of them bleeding from their respective wounds.
The carnie came over, his finger still on the shotgun’s trigger.
“How did she know?” Nick asked the carnie.
“She’s Imelda the Magnificent. She knows all,” he replied proudly then more sedately, “She knows too much. It’s not everyone she weeps for.”
Nick craned his neck towards Imelda. The jewel tear he’d seen earlier was no longer there.
The carnie knelt at Nick’s side. He winced at the damage his shotgun had done.
“Do you know what day it is?” Nick asked.
The carnie checked his watch. “It’s after midnight, so it’s Thursday. Now take it easy. I’ll get help,” the carnie said and took off.
Thursday, Nick thought and smiled. His grip on his fortune slipped and the tickets fell from his open hand. The wind caught them and they fled his grasp. The wet grass slowed their escape until they all came to rest on the ground. Some lay with their fortunes face down while others lay face up, but not a single one said Thursday.
Simon Janus is the horror identity for thriller author Simon Wood. He is an Anthony Award-winner of four books as well as over 140 published articles and stories. Visit him online at www.simonwood.net.
Thanks, Simon, for such a great story!