"The Hanged Man," Elise breathed as she turned over the last card. "Not much of a surprise."
"What? Why do you say that?"
She shook her head, smiling a little at his affected nonchalance. "Well, you're not the most relaxed person I know," she said. This was not an understatement. The man sitting across the card table was still in a three-piece suit, disregarding whatever license eleven p.m. might bring, collar pin and watch chain sparkling relentlessly in the dim light. He shifted a little in the chair as she continued to look at him through her lashes.
He sighed. "Are you going to finish my reading or talk about my shortcomings?"
Her smile widened. She let her eyes flick across the greater pattern and deepened her breath. "The Tree of Life, Thomas. It's an overview, a set of guidelines. Not something you can plan your life around." She pointed at the top right card and began reading down and to the left. "The point of your exercise in belief, the point of coming to me instead of going to mass or synagogue or learning to handle rattlesnakes for Jesus? It's lost unless you pay attention to the things I tell you. Your mind is open to the idea of things you don't understand, but not so open that you actually believe me when I give you advice. Your company is fine. Your home life is, well, adequate. For now. Your future is uncertain," she said, frowning a little at the cards, "but so is anyone's, I guess. Free will, you know. The only certainty," she finished, pointing at the Hanged Man again, "is here."
"I don't get it. What does that even mean? It doesn't look like a very positive card," he muttered.
"The Hanged Man is packed full of so many symbols it could take me days to completely explain it, but the high points are the most important here. The subject is suspended by one foot, but look at the blissful smile on his face. He is bound to a tree, with a crown of light on his head. His number is twelve, same as the wheel of the year. You were born on the twelfth, weren't you?"
"Huh. December twelfth. But hanging? Still not seeing the positive aspects of this card."
"Acceptance, Thomas. One of the most misunderstood cards. It's an important one, too. Inner harmony coming from a new point of view. I think it's a lesson you should consider." She swept the cards into a pile, destroying the pattern and shuffling them back into the deck. "Same time next week?"
"Yes. I'll be here. I'll need to give this session some thought, it seems." He smiled, finally, his face opening a little. "Thanks for being patient with me. I know it might seem kind of weird, but this helps."
Elise stood to see him to the door, helping him maneuver between the velvet curtains and the card table, holding his coat in a conscious reversal of chivalry as he shrugged into it. They clasped hands for a moment, his fingers wrapped around her delicate wrist, lingering against her soft skin. She stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek, blushing a little more than usual, and he left her studio with a smile that held more than a tinge of blissful confusion. He tugged his hat down a few degrees and shoved his hands in his pockets, his face settling into its comfortable stern lines as he contemplated the evening's discussion. His bootheels made authoritative sounds on the nighttime sidewalk, sirens in some other part of the city figuring only distantly in his thoughts, other sounds registering not at all.
When the pack had him surrounded, the smallest one moved in from behind, the knife gleaming in the poisonous yellow of last generation's streetlamps. It was a reach, considering the difference in their heights, but the blade was long enough that it didn't really matter. The others moved closer to pick over his body, snarling, fighting over his coat and shiny accessories, but she crouched, slender haunches settling to the ground just beside his face, fastidiously avoiding the spreading pool of blood. She picked her way around the mess, nestled in the curve between his outflung arm and his ribcage, and set the knife aside. Then she leaned in close, breathed in his last sputtering exhalation, watched his eyes slowly lose focus, wondering at the smile on his face.
Elise isn't much of a psychic, hmm? Oh well. This week's Indie Ink challenge prompt came to me from A Lil Irish Lass, who instructed me, "Select your favorite quote. Do with it what you will." My challenge went out to Alison Newton, whose blog has a name that invites me to slap on a trigger warning. So, unless you have euphemistic food problems like me? You should click that little link to read her reply.
What's that? You want me to tell you the quote that inspired this story?
"You may wonder about long-term solutions. I assure you, there are none. All wounds are mortal. Take what's given. You sometimes get a little slack in the rope but the rope always has an end. So what? Bless the slack and don't waste your breath cursing the drop. A grateful heart knows that in the end we all swing."
--Stephen King, "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet"