Wet sand between his toes, but his face was warmed by the driftwood fire. The waves he couldn’t see lapped up against the beach, probably just inches from where his toes dug their trenches, wriggled in. Lying on his back, his face bared to the nakedness of the stars, he made angel wing patterns with his hands, just as he had done in his youth, growing up in Indiana, in the wet and chilly snow.
His fingers brushed the soft flesh of a sweet Georgia peach, and she giggled. “What did you say was the point of this?”
He laughed in return, a burst of pure, barking pleasure. “We’re making angels.”
“You said to scissor my legs. You’re not. You’re wriggling your toes in the sand.”
“I like the feel of it. I’ll do the skirt later.”
“I am so drunk, Markus.” She burped, and he laughed at that, too. She’d brought dandelion tea to the picnic. He’d brought the last bottle of strawberry wine his sister had given them for Christmas.
Dandelion tea was not what either of them thought it would be. Not even the dog would drink it, and he had an established reputation for consuming anything seasoned with refined sugar.
He would have liked to roll to her, to plant a wet and sloppy kiss against her lips, but she wasn’t the only one sloshed. Part of him realized that if he rolled, he’d squash her, probably suffocate her beneath his weight before he could get himself flipped back over. Not a romantic way to end the evening, especially this evening, the one for which they’d scrimped and saved and battered their savings account into compliance for the last three years. The first night in the house just above that rise behind him. That one, with the bay windows in back, facing the water, it’s paint salt scarred and peeling, the gutters falling off, the deck all but unsalvageable. Yes, the one with the peeling wallpaper in the dining room, the clotting scrubweed gardens on either side of the driveway, and the god-blessed certain dry rot eating up the footers on either side of the front door.
But also the one with the private stake to this stretch of beach on the isolated Georgia coast. No neighbors except at shouting distance, no superhighway rattling the window panes, no thumping stereo upstairs and gunshot spattered drug transactions down in the parking garage.
A view of seaweed breakers and child’s eye combers and a sky that rolled on for goddamned ever and ever.
The movers would come tomorrow with the trucks loaded and tottering down the gravel drive. Boxes to unload, dishes to cabinet, linens to store. A busy, hectic, dreaded day came with the sun. But they’d brought their bed this afternoon by wedging the frame and headboard into the trunk of her Subaru and bungee cording the mattress and box springs to the roof. And when you’re young and lithe and strong with romantic, erotic happiness, the bed is all that’s needed to make it home.
He was not going to spoil the promise of that bed for anything. The first night in your dream house comes only once, and that only if you’re lucky.
Instead, they lay there together, their fingers just touching, the smell of the ocean in their nostrils and the cool of the sand against their backs.
And he thought then, and remembered later, months afterward in the days when he was still a young man in years but felt ancient in his soul and hadn’t yet learned to manage that disparity, I will never love as I do now. I will never feel loved like I do at this moment. The world will never be as harsh a place as it was now that I know this, but it will never be as kind and gentle and full of promise, either. Here, now, isolated but connected, I have ascended to a radiant height. I am at the pinnacle of my existence.
“Those stars, Markus, those stars go on forever,” she said to him. “We never had stars like that in the city. I’d forgotten them, and now they don’t seem to be the same stars I saw as a child.”
At some point, initiated by him or her, he couldn’t ever get it straight, they came together. Hungry, panting, arms and legs churning the sand, stuck in clothing, battling for purchase on the sand. And she moaned in his ear, which made the dog howl at him, which led to laughter and was not just drunken, but beaming with joy. A swim in the frigid Atlantic waters, naked flesh puckering like lemon thoughts, retracting like timid turtles, then warm by fire again, swathed in the picnic blanket with the dog happy in their laps.
Brett woke for a moment, less than ten seconds. He had been crying in his sleep. He had been, hadn’t he? The pillow was wet, so were his cheeks, and there was that helium balloon of aching emptiness swelling in his chest.
But the dream, that was something he didn’t remember, and he was glad.
He rolled onto his side, pushing the stained pillow to the floor as he lulled himself once more away from waking.
Ritter dealt the cards onto his bedside table once more. He sat on his bunk, his pointed knees spread around the dented edges of the nightstand, his ponderous and thin chest hunched forward at an angle that knotted aches in the small of his back. The glare of his reading lamp cast out the room’s shadows, at least from the playing surface. It wasn’t an ideal location. The table was too small. He had to keep shifting the cards so that they’d fit, overlapping the left column head to toe so he wouldn’t lose the top or bottom cards off the edge if he brushed them.
A bead of sweat rolled along his forehead, then down his nose leaving a prismed rivulet just inside the right lens of his glasses. He ignored it, his brows furrowed, his hands trembling with fatigue and confusion. At times, his mouth would work noiselessly as though he sought to form words he could not speak.
It was coming on toward morning now, and nothing had changed. It was impossible, or at least highly improbable, but he had re-proved the probabilities better than a dozen times.
He shuffled again, taking care to rearrange, recombine at least one hundred times before dealing the spread. That which Covers. That which Crosses. Crown and Root. All ten cards in the correct order, murmuring their names as he let them fall with thefthwap that couldn’t help but remind him of Icky and his auras and his sexual fantastical delusions.
Brett’s victory in the game had been wrong. Ritter felt that on an almost molecular level of consciousness. The irrectitude of it had settled like lead in his bones, filled his head with a greasy miasmic film. Brett didn’t understand the game. He didn’t understand theresponsibility of casting the future, of daring to make a world. With his glib irreverence and his mocking, grinning idiocy, he’d forged the weapons of disaster. Brett had called down the fire of heaven on Persia Station, then raised himself to the mountaintop, his arms wide and greedy to accept a gift from the hands of hostile gods.
And so Ritter had come here, back to his cell of room, to cast that future again. Perhaps not to change what had been so foolishly scrawled upon the next day, but to mitigate the harshness if he could. He came with the intention of scrying an individual reading for every man and woman in the station, assigning to each a method, a possibility, a simple damnable hope of averting the end Brett had created for them.
Only it wasn’t working. Impossibly, it was not working at all. That which Covers was invariably the Four of Staves. Crossing always the Five of Cups. Tomorrow’s forecast, The Moon. A complete correspondence from Brett to every other hand Ritter had dealt himself, down to the Death card as the electrifying, stomach churning epilogue.
It had shaken him the first time. The probability of duplicating a ten card set in the same order on consecutive hands from a seventy-eight card deck was something along a magnitude of 4.57 x 1018 to one against. He had sat, holding his chest, his eyes blinking and his mouth hanging. . .and his mind racing as he considered thoughts of destiny. Predetermination. Then dismissed them. Perhaps he’d forgotten to shuffle.
So the second time, he had shuffled vigorously, calmly, calculating as he did so that the chances of duplicating the previous results in a third consecutive hand was approaching 2.09 x 1037 to one against. An immense figure. His eyeballs ached just trying to imagine a number so large.
Now on his fifteenth iteration, he had stopped computing the odds. To a large extent, he had ceased to expect any further outcome.
He continued because he couldn’t help himself. Every time he looked at the final lay of cards, they were the same. Every time he shuffled just a bit differently. More shuffles, less shuffles. Crammed together in wide chunks, fanned and interlaced. He had even performed the restricted bridge. And it didn’t help.
He ignored the throbbing in his back, the dry crackle in his throat when he swallowed, the heavy, burning pressure on his eyes. None of that was significant. Only this, this desperate endeavor he had undertaken.
This battle which he approached with all the intensity and rigor and thoroughness of a scientist.
The cards did not lie. Anyone who believed in the Tarot understood that. Faith meant that once a lay was performed, the diviner did not duplicate the question to prove himself wrong with a different answer. If someone else did so in the name of scientific debunking, you explained to them slowly and carefully that the second glimpse was either similar but nuanced, or reflecting another dimension to the issue under investigation. The weight of history demanded such an explanation. But even the most rabid proponent, the most faithful cartomancer did not expect and would not believe that a drawn hand would be duplicated.
But here it was, proved over and over, and Ritter could do nothing about it except stand back in dreadful awe.
Because Brett had given them all a future inscribed on tablets of stone.
Ritter took up the cards again, aligned them in his hands and began his shuffle. He could not stop until he found the Moses, that one who would dash the commandment tablets to dust on the side of the mountain. Or a massive Sisyphus who would roll the boulder of fate along another trajectory that did not end in ruin.
Somewhere in the station’s roster of personnel there would be a difference. He believed that. Someone would not be bound by Brett’s casting, even if it was merely a minute difference. One card out of place, one eleventh draw that was not Death–someone who could bring the entire edifice down around them and carry salvation to the lost.