“MYSTERIOUS ANSWERS, SÉANCES, POTIONS AND FORTUNES,” the neon sign spelled in large letters above the old-fashioned wooden door to Tina’s Tarot and Fortune Telling shop.
It was a late-summer evening just moments before the sun dipped below a light purple horizon when Tom passed by this sign––something he’d done almost every day of his teenage life. But now as a young adult he walked instead of flying by on a skateboard. He had always wanted to go inside the shop, but painted on the darkly tinted storefront windows was a bold disclaimer:
“Must be 18 years of age to enter.”
Tom had turned eighteen last month. Although never one to be a partier or use drugs, he was decisively bold in his nature regarding risk. By the age of sixteen he had broken a femur, his right arm, several ribs, his coccyx, and both wrists twice.
Pasketville was known for being the smallest town in the county, with only a minor hustle and bustle for the first hour past five o’clock. Transients populated the restaurants and fuel stations while commuting from the larger, neighboring metropolis, back to their outer lying suburban homes. Pasketville was a good little in-between town.
“Fuck it. Let’s do this.” Tom muttered to himself with a sense of boredom.
This was not a planned visit but rather a spontaneous culmination of years of curiosity and strict deterrence by a devoutly religious mother. After earning a full scholarship to the local university from a hard academic push during his final years in high school, Tom was able to afford his own rental home halfway between Pasketville and campus with only a part-time job. The decision to not make the financially smarter choice to stay for free with his parents on the other side of Pasketville was not without purposeful intent.
Tom was flush with a new sense of independence.
The old high-pitched metal bell clanged sharply in pairs of two as the rickety wooden door opened and shut when Tom pushed his way into Tina’s shop. The heavy door had resistance and the springs slammed it shut so quickly after giving up only enough clearance for Tom’s body to just barely slip through the entrance.
“Hey there! Welcome! Just have a look around and let me know if you have any questions.”
Behind the counter was a young woman in her late twenties. She had on blue fishnet stockings and wore a large, grey hoodie imprinted with the university’s acronym on the front. It served almost as a short dress, her short shorts vanishing beneath it as if she had nothing on at all.
“Okay, thanks!” Tom’s head turned abruptly to the woman at the counter at the far end of the long, narrow enclave inside the small shop.
Hung neatly on the wall were large movie-like posters of historically famous magicians; a taxidermized dolphin head; a few different glass display cases of the stereotypically imagined aliens you’d see at an Area 51 tourist shop. The shop was nicely put together and clean but contained an eclectic curation that seemed to be active and everchanging.
“Is there anything that you’re looking for in particular?”
“Uh, erm, no not really. Just always wanted to check this place out. Are you Tina?”
“No, Tina’s in the back. She does the readings. My name is Sara. Are you new to CYU?”
“Uh, yeah, sort of, I guess. I mean, I grew up around here but yeah I’m starting this fall.”
“Oh nice! That’s cool. I moved here last year to start my master’s in biology. What’s your major?”
“I don’t know yet. I figure I have a few semesters before I have to pick something. I think I’d like sports science, but I don’t really like math.”
“Oh yeah, I hear you. Well, there’s lots of good options that aren’t math heavy. Maybe criminal justice or sociology.”
The conversation tapered off into a three-second silence and Tom continued to pan around the room aimlessly.
“Have you ever had a tarot card reading?” Sara interrupted Tom’s shifting focus.
“No, I haven’t. I know what they are, though. I never really believed in that stuff. But it’s interesting. Kind of like horoscopes and astrology.”
“Oh, well no, actually.” Sara’s eyes lit up, revealing an underlying interest in the topic. “They are related but not the same. With tarot, you look to the astrol– “
“Well, hello!” interrupted an elderly voice. It was Tina bursting through a long set of colorful curtains that partitioned the small shop from its backroom. “Are you here for a reading?”
“Uh, I don’t know. I’ve passed by your shop for years and now that I’m 18 I figured I could at least come in and check it out.”
“Oh yes,” Tina replied, “I know you. You’re the skateboarder, right?”
A little taken aback, Tom, being an adult by legal definition only, was at a loss for words when the old lady knew who he was. To his simple teenage ego, it never occurred that other people might be observant of his presence.
Tom stayed frozen in eye contact with the old lady, who in her older age, sensed the awkwardness.
“Well let’s get you back for a reading today.” Tina broke the awkward pause.
“Okay, yeah!” Tom smiled with relief as he took a step towards Tina to go back behind the curtain.
“Oh no, wait here and Sara will get you set up while I prepare. I’ll see you in a bit.”
Tina turned swiftly and flashed through the long, silky curtains. She had asserted herself with such command. Now Tom’s eyes turned to Sara with bewilderment.
“Do you want the full reading or just the tarot reading?” Sara asked Tom without missing a beat after Tina’s departure.
“What’s the difference?” Pointing to a black chalkboard sign behind her on the wall, Sara recited the offers:
“You can get a tarot reading for $30, your fortune told for $50, or both for $75. Mysterious answers are usually $90 each but if you get both, the tarot reading and the fortune, then you can add any mysterious answer for just $50. And this is usually the most popular package.” Sara points down to the bottom of the chalkboard. “MYSTIC PACKAGE: Tarot, Fortune, One Mysterious Answer for $100.”
Tom looked it over with a mild excitement as he listened with intent to Sara’s pitch. “Let’s do the package.”
“Okay. So that’s the Mystic Package for a hundred dollars, and what would you want your Mysterious Answer to be?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can choose from these options.” Sara pointed to a section of text at the very bottom of the chalk board while reading aloud, “Fame, Disease, Wealth, and Expiration.”
“Huh.” Tom was perplexed. “So, will I be famous, have a disease, be wealthy… what’s expiration?”
“Oh, expiration is when you die. It’s the most popular one.”
“Hmm.” Tom shrugged. “Well, I guess let’s do that one. I don’t want to be famous. I suppose I’ll find out if I get wealthy in time, one way or another. Yeah. Let’s do Expiration.”
“Okay!” Sara popped back. “Let’s go right this way!”
She showed no regard for his decision. It was nothing but another sale for the day. After processing Tom’s payment, she guided him through the curtain towards where Tina had only previously vanished. No sooner than when the curtains first touched after parting for their new customer, Sara had returned to page 148 of her biology textbook to study for her upcoming exam at CYU.
The next morning Tom awoke at his parents’ home on the other side of Pasketville. He remembered what Tina had told him and immediately shrugged it off. But as he hobbled downstairs to find breakfast, Tina’s words replayed in his mind. He kept thinking of his own expiration date. Surely this old witch couldn’t be serious.
Never mind all that now. There was a plate of bacon and eggs waiting for him downstairs. His parents were eager to hear about how he was settling into his new rental home; they were eager to know about his new job and his upcoming classes. He was only staying for the day before heading back that evening. Tom stuffed his face with buttered grits and went home.
Tom finished college and moved on from Pasketville to become an investment broker in Pennsylvania. He described himself as careless. Most people described him as reckless. His twenties were a blur of high-risk behavior often inflicted on unwitting strangers. At parties, he’d occasionally pull out a revolver and play a game of Russian roulette. Sometimes he would fill two chambers to increase the anxiety he knew his onlookers had. The boldness with which he pursued daring stunts did not take long to manifest in the first year after his meeting with Tina.
One of the earliest instances was right after he started college, when he had not been paying attention as he tried to cross a busy street. The F-150 would have inevitably smashed into his body if not for a freak accident wherein the ball bearings allowed a wheel to fly off, causing the truck to skid just far enough off course to miss Tom by a mere one inch.
Then came a string of occurrences such as when a vehicle in front of him was smashed by a large tree limb that came crashing down after being suddenly hit by a bolt of lightning, killing the driver inside. Or when he tossed a lit cigarette butt over the back of his friend’s pickup truck, only to inadvertently ignite the fumes which were being expelled from a half-empty gas can that had been discretely sitting in the truck’s bed. His friend was burned alive before help arrived, but Tom was miraculously unscathed. He and a girlfriend had ordered the same dish from a local food truck but through a stroke of complete and utter happenstance, her dish had been accidentally laced with fentanyl by an incompetent associate who had been using it to cut cocaine for his side hustle.
All of these inexplicable tragedies that followed Tom gave him every reason to sink into a depression, yet to everyone else who knew him, he seemed quite content with his life. Nothing could bother him.
“Tom, you’ve got to stop that shit, man, please!” Eddie screamed. Tom was loading his revolver with three bullets this time. “Frida is going to want to leave if you don’t stop.”
“Aw come on, but she hasn’t even seen the trick yet!”
“It’s not a trick you idiot. It’s stupid. One day you’re going to fuck up and nobody wants to see that shit.”
“Listen, I’m a professional risk assessor. There’s no risk here.”
Eddie moved his attention to Allison, “Do you want to go? I know Frida probably wants to leave.”
The annual Christmas party had ended early this year, but as usual with every one of the company’s socials, this small cohort of work friends continued the afterparty at Donavan’s downtown condo that was within walking distance of the office. After hitting a late-night bar on the way, they would all come here to crash until morning. Frida was a new hire but fit in with the group swimmingly, so she was not privy to Tom’s drunken recklessness.
“Tom did you take that thing into the bar? You know that’s illegal.”
“Well, it was unloaded. Besides, it’s not for protection, it’s for my trick.”
“Again, it’s not a trick you moron.”
“What’s going on? Somebody’s playing tricks in here?” Donavan entered through the backdoor. He had been walking his dog.
“Yeah, Tom’s doing it again. Ugh.” Eddie groaned.
“What trick? Tom’s got a trick?” Donavan played silly.
“Yeah!” Tom rose up with the revolver that had been resting in his lap. “Watch this!” With that, Tom held the gun up to his temple and pulled the trigger.
“OH MY GOD NO!” Frida cried out in shock, with immediate tears swelling in her eyes.
“CLICK.” The gun sounded. But no sooner than Eddie screamed, “Goddammit, Tom!” the sound of the revolver’s chamber spinning filled the silent room as Tom didn’t miss a beat for his second act.
Donavan burst out with laughter. The women were in tears. Eddie left the room.
“Why would you DO that?” Allison scolded Tom.
“Relax, the first one was just for show, I set it on an empty chamber. The second one was the real trick!”
“Not cool, you asshole.” Frida was visibly shaken by this.
“Now the third one–“
“No. No.” Eddie interrupted as he charged back in the room. “We are leaving.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Frida breathed, “as long as he doesn’t do it again.”
“Well, I’m leaving,” Allison said. “Every fucking time he drinks whiskey he forgets that other people don’t want to see his stupid trick.”
Eddie, Frida, and Allison grabbed their jackets and purses and headed for the door. Tom was unfazed as to whether they stayed or left, still sitting in the chair with the revolver on his leg. As they opened the door and began to exit, Eddie first, followed by Frida, then Allison, Tom stood up, sheathed his gun and made his way to the door as well.
“I guess I’ll call an Uber, I should go home,” Tom said, “You guys can stay.”
“Do it again, Tom!” Donavan prodded.
“Hah,” Tom laughed, “No, I’m good. I’ve told you the story of how I can’t die, but I’m sure suicide would be an exception.”
“What the hell do you mean by that? You’ve got a death wish, dude.” Eddie had turned around from the front porch to shout back at Tom.
“Suicide?” Donavan asked.
“Well yeah,” Tom replied, I had four of the five chambers loaded. So I know the next chamber is full.”
“OH MY FUCKING GOD, TOM. That’s not how it works. It’s random each time.” Eddie said. “Bye Tom. Come on, ladies, I’ll walk you to the street and we can share an Uber. Don’t worry, that asshole is not coming with us.”
“See you Monday!” Tom shouted sarcastically to them as they left. As the group disappeared around the corner, Tom turned to Donavan.
“Well?” Tom said in a defeated beat. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, for sure. I’ll meet you there at 11am.” Donavan closed the front door. Tom decided to walk home.
The next afternoon Tom went BASE jumping with Donavan, who met an unfortunate demise after a panicked bird became entangled in the lines of the chute, causing the entire apparatus to malfunction in yet another freak accident in proximity to Tom.
Tom breezed through his forties with no regard to life itself. His actions got bolder, and his friends abandoned him as his tricks became more frequent. He had notably upped the ante after validation from his four-in-the-chamber incident at Donavan’s in his thirties. He was no longer surprised by the remarkably close calls as the days approached his expiration date. While limiting his antics to “no suicide attempts,” he was emboldened enough to live with extreme carelessness; never afraid to pick up a poisonous snake; eating raw chicken; taunting a lion once on an African safari; attempting to cross through the Gulf of Mexico from Pensacola to Tampa on a canoe – having to be rescued by a passing yachter in a stroke of luck after capsizing then losing his vessel. Tom tread water for no more than 15 minutes before seeing the boat on the horizon, calmly ignoring a 15-foot tiger shark that had been circling as he went aboard.
Throughout his life, his friends and family had called him lucky, but Tom pushed back on the phrase, insisting that he was a Master of Risk. After Donavan, he never told another soul about his meeting with Tina, except for one person. That person is me.
In his final days, Tom lived so haphazardly that nobody wanted to be around him anymore. He could not hold a job but was able to live off the winnings from so many stupid backyard challenges. Challenges that ranged from a thousand dollars to put his head inside a wild alligator’s mouth, to half a million for robbing an armored car – which he did at gunpoint using his infamous revolver.
During the last four weeks of his life, I was his only friend. I brought him groceries while he became a recluse inside his home, a self-imposed prison he created for himself.
One day he asked me to come over; he said he was having some mental issues and needed a friend. I was a little shocked, because Tom and I had never really been great friends. I had hired him at my accounting firm for a short time after he left Pennsylvania. He was a very creative investor. He managed to take his money from his stupid gambles and parlay them into several millions of dollars for his own nest egg. But as times changed, he was too risky with our investments, so we kindly parted ways. It was mutual. He understood. But we always kept in touch, as he would keep me posted on all his wild and crazy decisions regarding where he would invest his money. Everything always seemed to work out for him. I could never take the risks that man took.
He told me all about his meeting with Tina, and the crazy occurrences that started happening soon thereafter. He described to me how sure he was that he knew his expiration date, using one example after another as evidence that he was prescribed a specific day and time when he’d meet his end. He said over time that he began relying on this knowledge more and more, attempting to push the boundaries of life and mortality.
The day came, and he described to me how he had set the scene. He didn’t know what to expect; would it be a biological event, a home invasion, or just a freak accident? He feasted on his favorite meal. He watched his favorite movie. He had timed the days so that he’d finish his favorite book on his expiration date. He was set to have lived the perfectly planned life anybody could have ever imagined.
But as the hour approached, and the final minute, to the second, Tom’s expiration date passed. His face flushed with blood and a rage came over him that soon turned to embarrassment, followed by a sheer terror when he realized that over all these years, after all those revolver spins and stupid gambles, he had merely just been one lucky asshole. This fear swelled up inside. All of a sudden, he had no sense of reality; he had lost the free spirit that had given him the ability to live such a carefree life.
Tom gave up all his usual appointments and secluded himself inside him home; overcome with the anxiety of not knowing what could happen.
Leading up to his expiration date he would go BASE jumping on the first of every month at 11am, rain or shine. It was a trend he had started after Donavan’s last jump, but he could no longer handle leaving the house. He had been anticipating his expiration date with such confidence, that he never considered the possibility that Tina the fortune teller might have been full of shit.
I was on the way to his house to bring him another few days’ worth of food when an announcer came on the radio. I couldn’t believe the incredible news, there had been a terrible, freak accident. I didn’t think much of it until I turned onto his street and realized that it was Tom’s house which the small Cessna plane crashed into, killing him instantly at 11am, New Year’s Day.