Running isn't healthy.
Tarot knows this as well as anyone else, yet as she stares into a steaming mug of overpriced coffee, she doesn't know what else she is supposed to do.
The Starbucks coffee shop she sits in now is bustling with life. A group of girls with Vera Bradley handbags and shorts almost too short for the name stands around one table, chewing gum, sipping lattes, laughing at something they're discussing. Across the room is a man with a brown scarf and glasses and a laptop propped in front of him. In line is a person speaking sign language to the barista. Tarot blows some steam out of her face. The shop is so, so normal, and she just wishes that she could take part in it.
She glances down at the hauntingly beautiful necklace hanging from a smooth golden chain. They've gone quiet for now, and the silence in her head is music to her ears. She purses her lips and takes a sip from her still hot coffee. It won't last long; best to savor it while it lasts.
She wipes her mouth with her pink sleeve. Part of her wants to know who will talk first. She hopes Anastasia does; she likes Anastasia. Anastasia actually is nice to her, giving her choices about her actions, unlike the others. Especially Nikolai. Tarot shivers and sips more coffee. An icy pit of anxiety has opened in her stomach just from thinking about the bloodthirsty ghost. She hopes the coffee will quell it.
It doesn't. If anything, it makes her want to throw up. She forces the bitter liquid down and hopes she doesn't look too uncomfortable. She doesn't want anyone to notice her right now, or ever, but particularly right now. When the ghosts come back, she might hurt someone. Again.
She sighs, taking another sip of coffee, and stares down at her necklace. It's a beautiful gold pendant embedded with a color changing gemstone. She picks it up and runs her thumb over the stone. Currently, it's a dull gray-blue. She sighs. It won't stay that way for long. That she's learned from experience.
Speak of the devil -- the pendant is heating up in her hand. One of the ghosts is waking up again. Tarot bites her lip, praying that it's not Nikolai, not Nikolai. She watches the pendant turn brighter, brighter, then yellower…
It settles on green, and Tarot realizes she was holding her breath. It's not Anastasia, but it's not Nikolai either. It's Irene, one of the ghosts who isn't the best, but isn't the worst, either. Tarot drops her pendant to her chest, fidgeting with her sleeve, and waits to hear the ghost's gravelly fifty year smoker's voice.
Hurry up and finish that coffee, girl, Irene hisses. We're getting restless, here.
She shuts up.
Tarot sighs. She isn't ready to run again, but whatever the ghosts say, she must do. It's her curse, her cross to bear, and she has her grandmother to blame for it. The necklace hangs heavily. Tarot wishes that she could just take the pendant off and throw it far away, or better yet destroy it, but she can feel the ghosts' resistance bunch up in her muscles every time she dares to think about it. She curls her hands into fists, tears pricking at the back of her vision. She's frustrated, depressed, but mostly tired. There isn't a day that goes by without them.
She folds her arms on the table and rests her head on them. She can push Irene's warning for a little longer.
She is about to sink further into her internal monologue when someone clears their throat in front of her. "This seat taken?" a girl says.
"Go away," Tarot replies, hoping that the sulk in her voice is enough to drive her away.
The girl clicks her tongue. "See, I can't do that, hon," she says. Tarot notes that she has a thick Southern accent -- odd, since they're in North Dakota. The girl taps the table. "We have something in common, see."
"Not interested," Tarot says, burying her face deeper into her arms. "Please, go away."
"No can do."
The girl's tenacious, Tarot gives her that, and some company would be nice, even if she can feel the ghosts churning in her head, telling her that this is a mistake. She lifts her head, blows a strand of her orangey blonde hair out of her face, and does a double take as she meets the gaze of the most beautiful girl she's ever seen.
"I, uh, suppose you can sit next to me," Tarot mumbles, scooting over to give the girl some room. The stranger obliges and sets down next to her, resting an empty plastic water bottle and an untouched bagel on the table. Tarot watches her carefully for multiple reasons. Part of her is suspicious -- what could the two of them possibly have in common? The other part of her is simply taking in everything about the girl's face.
She has rich, dark skin, smooth and practically blemish free. A sparkling stud gleams from her nose. Her eyes are brown and glittery like chocolate diamonds, framed by long lashes, and her hair is in tight braids. A worn red cap with the words Make America Gay Again written on it in rainbow writing rests on her head and she has on a faded red jacket with off-white stripes. Small gold earrings curl around the top of her right ear.
Tarot snaps herself out of her trance. "What do you… You want with me?" she says, swallowing her stammer.
The girl picks a crumb off of her bagel and shrugs. "You have ghosts," she says bluntly. "Never thought I'd meet someone else." She pops the crumb in her mouth and glances at Tarot.
Part of Tarot deflates. Another part lights up. "You-- have ghosts?" she hisses. "I mean… What?" She blinks.
The girl nods. "Just one right now. God, she's the worst thing to ever happen to me." She shivers, picking another piece off her bagel.
"Oh. Well." Tarot shifts. "That's… Yeah." She takes a sip of her coffee and sighs. "I wish I could say the same." She puts the coffee down, and looks at the girl. The girl raises one of her eyebrows. Tarot holds up her hand. "Five. Five bloodthirsty, monstrous…" She shudders. "I'd rather…"
"Five," the girl repeats, slowly. "Wow. That's quite a load." She stops picking at her bagel and picks up half of it. "You're quite the unlucky one." A thoughtful look enters her eyes as she takes a bite of it.
Tarot nods. "I can't really talk about it," she says, coughing awkwardly. "I'd… Love to, really, but…"
The girl covers her mouth with her hand and whispers, "I'm on the run as well, hon. It's alright." She smiles, swallowing the bagel, and Tarot shivers.
"If you're really on the run, how do you look--" she stops short, trying not to be too obvious. "You know, like… Good?" Running a hand through her blond hair, she hopes that isn't interpreted the wrong way. "I've been, in this same jacket for…" She stops, looking at stretched out sleeve of her old pink jacket. "Way, way too long."
The girl snickers. "You think I look good, hon? How far have you been away from civilization?" A grin stretches across her face, and Tarot wonders why she's laughing. She looks away awkwardly.
"Too long," she mutters into her hand. "Who are you, by the way?"
"December," the girl -- December -- says, although she says it with acid. "I hate that name. But I don't have any other. And you?"
"Tarot," Tarot says, turning back to December. She looks at her and decides it doesn't fit her at all. She doesn't say anything about that. "You know, like the fortune-telling cards."
December nods and takes another bite of her bagel. Tarot drinks some of her coffee. On her chest, her necklace is growing warm again, and with dread, she glances down at the gemstone. It's turning green again. She thanks whichever god is out there that it isn't Nikolai, but she knows she has to move, and fast. Irene can get cranky when she isn't obeyed.
Tarot pushes away from the table. "I gotta go," she says quickly, picking up her coffee. "Really sorry."
December stands as well. "Where to?" she asks.
Tarot blinks. "You… No! You're not coming with me." She plays with the frayed edge of her shirt. "You can't do that. And I barely know you. I don't want to…" She trails off, as if afraid of speaking it into existence.
"Hon," December chides, "we're in the same boat. At least until one of us actively puts one another in danger, I think we can work together." She twirls the other half of her bagel around her finger like it's a huge ring.
Tarot shakes her head. "I don't think that's a good idea. Besides, what if…" She stops, trying to think of the right word. A thousand, a hundred thousand different scenarios seem to pop to her attention at the same time, and she doesn't know which one would be the most likely.
"What if…?" December repeats, waiting for a response.
Tarot shrugs pitifully. She knows there should be at least one good response, but part of her doesn't want to scare December off. She's been traveling alone for almost three months now; she'd be grateful for the company. She ducks her head to avoid meeting December's gaze, scratching the back of her neck. "I don't know."
December is grinning. Tarot can hear it in her voice when she speaks. Is that a good thing? "Think about this, hon. We could find more people with ghosts. More people with this… problem. Or better yet--" she reached forward to tap Tarot's shoulder, and Tarot sees that her nails look bitten-- "we could find someone who could, you know, get rid of them."
Tarot glances up. "Get rid of them?" she asks. "You know someone."
December shakes her head, her lips in a line. "Unfortunately, not yet, but…" She shoves one of her hands in the pocket of her red and white jacket and shrugs. "If there's people with something, there's bound to be some way to get rid of it." She stops, recalculating, and tries again. "At the very least, there's bound to be a way to work around it. If there's two, there's more." She shrugs again. "Even if there's not, we could learn more about ourselves to help other people who come later."
Tarot thinks for a second. It's enticing, but she still doesn't trust herself to not hurt someone. Her pendant warms again, and this time, Irene doesn't hesitate in speaking.
What are you doing, you stupid girl? Leave. Now. We've been here too long.
Tarot feels Irene dig into her palm and tug her away with strength unbefitting for an old woman. Her talon like nails dig into Tarot's skin. Tarot shudders and stumbles after her. "I'm, I'm sorry," she stammers, unable to stop being dragged after her.
December moves to follow her. "She's dragging you, hon. I can see it." She grabs the same hand Irene is as well, then drops it suddenly. "Ah, sorry." She wipes her hand on her pants.
Tarot blinks. "You didn't have to--" she feels Irene tug on her hand again, coupled with a hiss from the old woman-- "say-- I gotta go!"
Even Tarot hears the rise in fear in her voice. Irene's claws are going to make her bleed at this point; imagine how that would look to the people watching her, bleeding from nowhere. Irene hisses again and pulls, and Tarot stumbles. Come on, stupid girl. Or I'll send Roman to fetch Nikolai.
Tarot shudders. "No, please, I'm going," she breathes, inching away.
"Who's Nikolai?" December asks, falling right into stride with Tarot.
Irene digs her claws into Tarot's wrist in surprise. Eh? she rasps. The black one can hear me?
December stiffens. "And see you," she mutters. "She'll leave on her own." She stares directly at the gnarled old woman, her chocolate diamond eyes meeting Irene's flint ones. December looks the quintessence of bravery, but Tarot can see the slight hitch in her breath.
Irene releases Tarot's hand and slithers closer to December. The ghost hasn't bother to fully form and bits and pieces of her flicker in and out of existence. She clicks her tongue. Does she now? And does she know what Irene does to little girls who talk out of place? she says, curling her fingers together.
Tarot swallows. Is it possible for one of her ghosts to injure someone else? She doesn't know. She doesn't necessarily want to find out. She steps forward. "Irene, please," she whispers. "I'm leaving, let's just…"
Hush, girl, Irene snaps. What does the -- Tarot blanches at the word she uses -- want to do?
December juts her chin out. "The black girl--" she speaks with venom, as if she's used to this (Tarot feels like she probably is)-- "wants you to leave her alone for now." She plants her feet. "She'll leave when she wants to." She takes a deep breath. Tarot wonders if Irene can see the shaking of her hands.
Irene scoffs. She repeats the name she called December before - is frightened. She is scared of Irene. An eerie, wheezing laugh leaves the phantom, sending shivers down Tarot's spine. Smart little girl, to be frightened of Irene.
"What are you going to do to me?" December challenges.
Tarot looks around. People have started to stare, wondering who the crazy girl is speaking to no doubt. She swallows. "December just, let me go," she says, staring at the ground. "We're going to get kicked out at this rate. People are staring."
People stare? Irene suddenly whirls around. People stare at Irene? She spins around, her flintstone eyes jumping from person to person. No! Irene cannot do anything when they stare. She shudders. Irene hates their stares… She trails off, focused directly on December.
December takes a breath. "Stage fright," she says, more like a statement than a question.
Irene growls. Stupid little girl. She flickers out of existence for a second. Irene hurts little girl like you.
She reappears right next to December and slashes her face with her talons. Lucky little girl for now, she hisses, before fading out of existence for good.
Tarot and December stare at each other. "You're… You're bleeding," Tarot whispers, gesturing to the three slash marks oozing blood on the other girl's cheek. "She hurt you."
"She did?" December says. She brings her fingers up to her face. "Oh. She did." She rubs her cheek with her thumb. "I didn't think that--"
"I'm so sorry." Tarot cuts her off. "See, this is what I meant. I really, really don't want to hurt anyone--"
December wipes her face again. "Relax, hon. It's… technically my fault," she says. "I antagonized her." She sighs. "It could be worse, hon. Coulda been you."
Tarot bites her lip. "Well, yeah, but… But." She stops talking again, trying to think. December is right; Irene probably would have hurt her if she hadn't just gone. It could always have been worse. Tarot fidgets with the edge of her sleeve. "Thank you, I guess," she says, staring at the floor. "You shouldn't have, though."
December shrugs. "Hon, stop. It happened." She sighs. "Right now, I need a Band-Aid. Or three." She glances around the Starbucks, and Tarot follows suit. The few people who were looking at them have turned back to whatever they were doing. December whistles. "Sometimes I forget that not everyone sees 'em," she says, shaking her head slowly. "What do you think they're thinkin' right now?"
"Hm, what are those two girls smoking?" Tarot says. "Or someone call the police, there's two psychos in the room?" Something about the ridiculousness of those statements in comparison to what actually happened strikes her as funny. She giggles.
December starts giggling too, and then the two girls share a moment of just laughter. "God," December says after a moment,
"What's so funny?" She wipes more blood off of her face, but not the grin that's started to spread. Tarot melts a little bit.
"Nothing at all," she replies.
They start laughing again, peals of giggles escaping them, until December is laughing so hard that she must sit down.
Tarot sighs when she can breathe again. "I… Wow," she says, shaking her head. She looks down at the ground and catches a glimpse of her pendant, which has reverted back to its blue-gray. Something about the sight of her necklace sends a shiver through her. She swallows. "I still have to go now," she whispers.
December stands up. "I do as well. Need to find a Band-Aid." She stuffs her other hand in the pockets of her jeans. "Come with me?"
Tarot blinks. "To… find a Band-Aid?" she asks, tilting her head. When December nods, she moves to protest, but stops again. It's futile; December's won, and despite Tarot's fears, she also just managed to hold off Irene. That's certainly something; Irene is a close second to Nikolai -- when they're alone. Tarot nods. "Sure, sure," she stammers.
December nods. "Let's go, hon. Maybe a security guard can get me a Band-Aid for free?" She shrugs, picks up the last half of her bagel, and offers it to Tarot. "Here. Not hungry."
Tarot takes it. "Thanks," she says. December nods again and wipes her face, strolling off into the rest of the mall. Tarot watches her for a second. On her chest, her pendant heats up again, and she risks a glance at it. It's in the process of changing to a deep red. Tarot exhales. Anastasia.
I did not know we could touch others, Anastasia whispers.
"Neither did I," Tarot replies, fiddling with the bagel in her hands.
You should follow the other. You told her you would.
Tarot glances down at the bagel. "I did…" she says. She pulls a crumb off of the bagel.
Go, miss. Let's meet up with her again. Tarot feels Anastasia's little hand on her shoulder pushing her. Before Nikolai wakes up.
Tarot shivers. "Yes, let's… Yeah," she says. Ahead of her, December has stopped and is waving her hand for Tarot to catch up. Tarot runs to meet her, feeling the heat leave her pendant. She tucks it under her shirt as she runs. Nikolai would appear eventually, but for now, a security guard is riding past on a two-wheeled Segway and the newfound pair are running to catch him. Maybe he does have a Band-Aid.