Irene Luna turns 13 today, and Marco Luna, Irene’s older brother, is taking her to have her tarot cards read. The Lunas will visit three separate readers in three separate shops that sell candles and talismans and incense. It’s family tradition, this triple reading at 13. Irene’s dad took her siblings, but he is not here for Irene. Irene’s parents have been fighting. There was a fit of shouting, a storming out. Dad called this morning to wish Irene a happy birthday, to apologize for his absence with no further explanation.
Marco is driving the family’s Ford pick-up, which is gray with a stripe of lighter gray on its side and a black fiberglass shell over its bed. The truck is old, its interior red and musty. Irene picks at the upholstery and glares out her window. The dregs of a vanilla birthday shake from McDonald’s are melting in a cardboard cup beside her. The stereo plays AC/DC, Guns N’Roses, Van Halen. Marco recorded the songs from the radio to a cassette that Irene has heard so often she knows which tracks end with a DJ talking. Marco is home for summer from a university up north, where he’s on scholarship, studying broadcast journalism. He dreams of reading TV news out in LA. Everyone says he has the look. Irene’s Dad is a cameraman at a local station, a veteran of a thousand crime scenes who raised his oldest son for the business.
Marco turns the music down. “You’re better off without Dad here.”
Irene has been waiting to lash out, all through her silent birthday lunch in a hard red and yellow booth, where she ate a handful of fries and a bite of fish filet.
“Stop treating me like a little girl. I am an intelligent woman, almost.”
“Apologies,” says Marco, confident and robust, as if already a news anchor. “Listen, sissy, my 13th was rough. Dad got the idea for these readings, and kept telling the readers he wanted us to grow up knowing the higher truths of our journeys. You know how Dad tries to be.”
“So?” says Irene.
“Well, Dad stood there waiting, staring at these people, awkward, until they said his idea was magic and all that. He straight up told one lady, ‘I’m a great dad.’ It was embarrassing, but my 13th wasn’t as bad as Rachel’s. Dad took Mom on Rachel’s.”
“I think I remember that,” says Irene. “Wait, do I remember that?”
“You’d have been 7 or 8. Anyway, I guess before each reading Mom kept saying tarot was the work of the devil, real loud, but then she wrote down every word the readers said, so Rachel would have a record—forget all Mom’s rosaries and Saint medallions and candles. She traded Jesus for tarot that day. Of course, the next morning Mom acted like it never happened.”
Marco laughs hard, too hard, trying to lead his sister into a lighter mood, but Irene refuses to follow. Irene stays quiet. Marco turns the music up. Soon they stop at a light, where an old man with a veiny bulb of a nose is selling roses wrapped in newspaper from a thatched basket on the corner. The man wears a loose wool suit that looks heavy, as if it has been rained on, with a fedora showing puffs of silver hair beneath. Behind the old man is a fountain and a two-story bank made of brick and beige plaster. This is the town’s nicest building, not counting the hospital. The Lunas come from a place of desperation and palm trees, of Spanish and English mixed, of ghost stories and Catholicism, of ghost stories about Catholicism, of Border Patrol jeeps, of telenovelas on grainy taquería TVs, of accordion blared from outdoor speakers at night, of flatlands thick with brown vegetation, of air so humid it seems to demand urgency from those seeking fame or romance.
Marco beckons the rose man to his truck with a wave and lowers a window. The light turns green. Marco negotiates as traffic passes, outraged the roses cost $5. “They aren’t even healthy, c’mon!” The light turns red and then green again, more traffic passes. Some guy honks, and Marco and the rose man flip him off, together. A spirit of cooperation takes hold and lasts until a deal is reached. Marco buys a red rose for Irene for $3.
“Still a rip-off,” he says. “Cheer up, sissy. You’re Dad’s favorite, probably.”
Marco Luna bops his sister on the head with the rose and drops it in her lap.
“Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame,” he sings along. “Play my part—oops—love a bad name!”
Irene reaches for the dial and turns the music up. “I love Bon.”
“I know,” says Marco. “No secret about that.”
Irene mouths the lyrics, thinking Bon has been hurt by a world short on true romance. Irene Luna puts a hand on her own heart, wanting to soothe its anxious beating.
The first two readings are identical, not word for word, but close. The readers tell Irene someone has cursed her future and barred her from finding love. For $95.99, the readers say, a candle and a séance can fix this. Marco says no thanks.
The last reader is north of town in a mini mall along a four-lane highway, where sparse traffic passes fast. The mini mall is between a gas station and a citrus orchard. An orange lies smashed on the pavement beside the space where Marco parks the truck. The mall is split into three storefronts, one of which is empty. Another is occupied by a liquor store with a banner tacked where a sign should be: CASA KEVIN, BEER Y LIQUOR. Irene sees blurry bottles inside and a man (Kevin?) standing at a register in a cage. The third shop has tinted windows with a painted-on crystal ball and white letters spelling YERBERÍA Y TAROT – READING $15. The one is squeezed between the dollar sign and five, clearly added later.
Marco holds the door for his sister. Inside the shop is spare, with a section in back blocked by a dark curtain. Gently melted candles sit on bamboo drip trays atop knee-high wooden tables flanking the door like palace guards. A glass case is against one wall, with a cash register and empty metal holder for business cards on its surface but nothing inside. A dusty gumball machine stands crooked beside the case.
Irene hears distorted television voices speaking Spanish. The TV is turned off, and a woman emerges through the curtain, sipping a white and blue can of Pepsi. The woman is old, using makeup to cover time. Her skin is pale, her hair bleached and tied by a black bandana. Her nails are painted purple. She is heavy and confident. A burgundy cotton dress clings to her ample bosom, going blousy at her waist. Irene envies her breasts. Irene’s legs have lengthened, her hips grown wide, but her chest is still flat, like her mother, her sister, and one of her aunts.
“Here for a reading?” says the woman.
“I’m paying, but my sister’s the one seeking truths,” says Marco, reaching for his wallet. “It’s her birthday. Um, is there anywhere for me to sit?”
“No,” says the woman. She takes the cash and counts it. “Happy birthday. One second.”
The woman goes behind the curtain and returns with a rolled-up rug beneath one arm. She fans this rug over white tile between herself and Irene. The rug is thin, its surface patterned by a chaos of scarlet and turquoise. The woman goes behind the curtain again and returns with a deck of cards, not bothering to dim the florescent lights, or burn incense, or enhance the ambiance at all. She sits cross-legged, her dress flowing in a sea beneath her. Young and wiry, Irene squats on the other side of the rug. She hears Marco pacing behind her, plus the occasional whoosh of a truck outside. The woman hands the cards to Irene.
“Go on, shuffle.”
The cards pass through Irene’s fingers. The cards are heavy, longer and wider than those she has used to play crazy eights, and the cards won’t bend, forcing a clunky version of Irene’s usual shuffle technique. The pattern on the back of the cards matches the rug between the reader and Irene.
“Stop. Place the cards down and put a pretty hand—just one—over the deck, covering as much of its surface as possible,” says the woman, firm. “Think, think, think of what truly moves you, your small concerns, your grandest desires.”
Irene puts a hand on the cards. She pictures Bon, she pictures Dad with his video camera, she pictures Mom leaving alone at night when Dad is working. Irene does not know the nature of her parents’ separation, but Irene is angry, angry at Dad. In time, her anger will blur and swallow both sides. But today she rages at Dad only, a macho as cocky as he is vulnerable. You know how Dad tries to be, Marco said. Irene stiffens her right hand and pushes on the cards until her forearm cramps. Her last thought is of a faceless someone—a best friend, a lover, a son—who can bring her future into a glittering focus.
The woman says, “Think of what you long for.” She repeats this, again and again.
“You awake, Irene?” says Marco.
“Quiet,” says Irene. “It’s my reading.”
Think of what you long for. Irene Luna thinks of the rose Marco gave her, recasting it as a gift from a boy at school, a boy new to class, enrolled late because his family fled Spain for political reasons, a quiet boy, a loner speaking Spanish with a lisp, never mingling English, a boy who fights bullies and wins but does not gloat, a boy who bears a mysterious love for Irene, a love from an astral plane of stars and comets, a love that ignites two young bodies into one, a love normals know only from songs and movies.
Irene hears the door open and turns to see an old man entering the shop.
“Perdón,” the reader says. She steps out with him and soon there is shouting. Irene keeps her hand on the cards. Minutes pass, the shouting stops, the woman returns, her lipstick smeared. She sits and brushes each side of her face, smooths her dress, reaches to take the cards from Irene, placing them in the rug’s center. “Now then.”
She tells Irene to lift a card and lay it face up, repeating this seven times, pointing at spots on the rug for each selection. Irene sets three in a central column and two to each side, as if the central column has wings. On the cards Irene sees a wheel in the sky held by angels, a prince in a chariot pulled by black and white sphinxes, the devil, the moon, the sun, the stars, and, furthest away, a man and woman nude beneath an angel with flames for hair.
The woman says, “You will have much success, Irene. You’re so young, so young and so healthy. Relax, I see greatness.”
“And then?” says Irene.
“Then what? You’ll get whatever you decide to want from life.”
“Which card showed you that?” says Irene.
The woman shakes her head, smirking. “Here’s a secret: these cards are a show. I see your future in your demeanor, Irene, your reactions. You’re strong. You’ll have some failures, sure, we all do. Even me. Look around.”
Marco snorts. “Is that it?”
The reader shrugs. “I could say she’s cursed and try to sell you candles, but not on her birthday, c’mon.” She looks at Marco. “You better go. My guy is still around, and he’s insecure. Men always are.” She looks at Irene. “You have to water their egos, like a plant.”
In the truck Marco says, “That lady was weird. I think her place was a front for money laundering, probably owned by narcos.”
Irene taps her rose twice against the window. “I liked her.”
“I think she liked me,” says Marco. “What was that stuff about her guy being insecure?”
Irene pokes her brother in the cheek with the rose’s stem. “You and your ego. You’re all like plants.”
Zack Quaintance lives in Northern California. His fiction has been published by Tin House Flash Fridays, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and The Austin Review.