“Someone close to you is about to undergo some health trials. I’m getting an ‘S’…Sophia?”
“My sister! Should I be worried?”
“I guess that depends on how you feel about your sister.”
Justine cringed as she listened from beyond the purple velvet curtains Tabitha cordoned off her reading area with. She could see the way Tabs would be lifting one shoulder indifferently as she spoke that last flippant statement, immune to her own lack of tact. The curtains smelled strongly of weed, even though Tabitha did not partake. She had bought the curtains off of Facebook marketplace and the smell would not abate no matter how much Febreeze she assaulted them with. Justine was fairly certain that Tabs couldn’t smell it anymore, too long spent in the monkey enclosure and all that.
After the customer had fled the shop, tears standing in her eyes, Tabs emerged from the weed curtained enclosure. She stood behind a little counter that had once held an ancient cash register, but which now simply served as a place for her to perch and watch the passerby, twisting heavy costume rings off her fingers and plopping them into a dish she kept on the counter. They pinged against the ceramic, and Tabitha seemed to relax as she shed them, each one a representation of the façade she assumed for her customers.
“Isn’t family stuff kind of beyond the remit of your standard palm reading?”
Justine was trying to lounge on one of the stiff, high-backed chairs that Tabitha had gotten for free from a pizza joint that went out of business. The pizza people had certainly gotten them from some kind of event hall, Knights of Columbus, church-basement-type-shit. Tabitha rolled her eyes.
“Her life was so…” She waved her hands in a circular motion at shoulder level and stuck her tongue out while rolling her eyes to the ceiling. Justine took this to indicate ‘lame.’
“They don’t pay you to give your opinion on their lives.”
“Well, they kind of do. The reading is through my awareness and perception so, it’s never really going to be objective.” She untied a sparkling, fringed scarf that she’d thrown around her body as a drapey, pseudo-dress, concealing rather sensible mid-rise denim shorts and a cotton tank top. That too was tucked under the counter.
Justine heard the rasp of foam against the thin, shitty carpet as Tabs scuffed on her flip-flops. Being barefoot was the one aspect of the reading that was part of Tabitha’s actual process, though Justine didn’t think it actually affected her abilities. She just preferred to read barefoot.
Justine had not believed in mediums or psychics before she met Tabitha, and she still believed that anyone other than Tabitha claiming to have abilities was likely bullshitting her. Tabitha’s talents were solidified for Justine in that she sought to live off them, but not thrive off of them. She could do better than a shitty shop just off a Jersey Shore boardwalk, but she didn’t have the desire. Tabitha was also comfortably aware that she was unlikeable at best, and rude at worst, which is not what anyone seeking a celebrity medium (or really, any medium) was hoping for. People wanted a soothing bedside manner in the person who was delivering information about their future. Tabitha did not care to cultivate amiability.
The cluster of dollar store Christmas bells that hung over the shop’s threshold jangled as the two women stepped out. Tabitha dug in the back pocket of her shorts for her key and quickly twisted it in the lock, eschewing as always the final door pull of a cautious person. Sometimes Justine wondered if Tabs would care if the shop were broken into or vandalized, or if she’d just shrug it off. There was nothing worth stealing in there, Tabs did not take cash.
They strolled down the cracked sidewalk, Tabitha’s drugstore flip flops scraping and sighing. Justine imagined the little rolls of foam being exfoliated off of their bottoms by the unkempt concrete. Justine was wearing new, bright white sneakers that reflected the glaring midday sun. They were part of her uniform at her new job, which also included the forest green polo shirt with the name of the day-spa chain embroidered over her left breast in white, and the tiny little khaki shorts that kept trying to crawl up her ass.
“I kind of expected them to dress you more ‘zen’.”
“Well I’m not a masseuse or a facialist or anything. They wear white uniforms. I’m just the receptionist.”
“Masseuse,” Tabitha repeated, drawing out the hissing “s” sounds in the word, testing it out as if she’d never heard it before. “Don’t they call them massage therapists these days?”
“I don’t get the impression masseuse is diminutive or anything. It’s not like ‘stewardess’ vs. ‘flight attendant.’” Tabitha nodded seriously as she yanked open the door to the deli, hitting them with a frozen food aisle caliber cold front. Tabitha never wore a bra and her nipples hardened to sharp points under her tank top, causing the shiny-faced adolescent behind the counter to shift uncomfortably. Justine resisted the urge to dig her shorts out of her butt crack. Tabs ordered their usual, an Italian sub with mayo on one half, oil and vinegar on the other, while Justine grabbed two cans of Diet Coke out of the humming beverage fridges lining one wall. They brought their lunch out to the boardwalk and Tabitha delicately unrolled the sandwich from its paper wrapping while Justine cracked the cans and divided their stack of napkins in half.
Tabitha handed Justine the oil and vinegar half of the sandwich, frowning.
“That kid goes really heavy on the ham. There’s like a core of ham.”
“He was too busy thinking about your tits.” Tabitha took a big bite out of her sandwich half and spoke around the food in her mouth.
“He came in for a reading the other day.”
“No shit! He must’ve tracked you down, he’s been wilting in your presence all summer.”
“He had like, half a hard on the whole time.”
“Oh, gross. Why didn’t you tell him to get the fuck out?” Tabitha held her hands up and lettuce bits rained from her sandwich.
“He’s what, fifteen? Do they even know how to control that shit at that age?”
“He should know enough to fucking hide it. That’s disgusting.”
“His reading was more interesting than most, at least.”
“Did you see if he’d learn to control himself in public?” Tabitha set her sandwich back down on the paper in her lap and took a swig of her Diet Coke. She turned toward Justine and gave her a look that made her stop with her sandwich halfway to her mouth.
“We’re not going to see him at the deli again.”
“Is he going to get fired for being a little creep?”
“No. He’s going to die.” Justine fumbled her half of the hero and cursed as a tomato slid out and hit the boardwalk with a slap.
“That’s fucked up Tabs.”
“It’s not the whole story, either.”
“I mean, in your own time I guess.”
“We’re going to be involved.”
“In killing him!?”
“In the circumstances surrounding it.”
“Jesus, Tabs.” Tabitha inhaled the rest of her sandwich half and then looked over at Justine’s, which she was holding in her lap, barely nibbled. She handed it over to the psychic who tore into it.
“I don’t know how you can eat, thinking about shit like that.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve seen that people were going to die.”
“Yeah but it’s not like you ever ended up involved in those deaths, right?” Tabitha licked oil from her bottom lip and didn’t answer. The sun had shifted slightly so it was beating against Justine’s bare neck and baking her back in the dark, thick polo. Sweat began to form between her breasts and under the band of her bra.
“So, we just avoid whatever…whatever you saw, right? We just stay away from it?”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Then please enlighten me because I’m freaking the fuck out and it’s fucking with me how calm you are about the whole thing.”
A police siren sounded somewhere nearby, and a toddler lounging in a stroller being pushed by a sleek woman in all black workout gear tried to imitate it, his high pitched whine startling some of the people on the boardwalk. The woman did not tell him to stop. Justine tried again.
“Did you see when this is going to happen?”
“But you know we won’t see that kid again so, it has to be soon right? We go to the deli almost every day.” Tabitha did her single shoulder shrug as she polished off the rest of the sandwich. Justine wanted to ask how Tabitha could be so calm about this, but she already knew the answer. Tabitha had foreseen every bad thing that had ever happened in her life, and lots of the lives around her. Eventually she had become immune to shock or horror, or at least she appeared to be. She had always been this way, since Justine had known her. She’d just never been involved in one of Tabs’s predictions before. She would not read Justine, no matter how many times she’d asked.
Tabitha balled up the paper the sandwich had been wrapped in and lifted it, cocking her elbow back and looking toward the nearby metal barrel that served as a garbage can. She then lowered her elbow and got up, walking the few steps to the barrel instead and dropping the paper ball in, along with her empty soda can. Justine wondered if she had seen herself failing to make the shot. She got up and met Tabs at the barrel.
“So what do we do?”
“About the deli kid, Tabs!”
“Oh, yeah. Nothing. There’s nothing to be done. Just keep living. I can’t really know exactly how things will flow.”
“You could be wrong?”
“No.” Tabitha turned and walked down the boardwalk, back in the direction of the little alley where her shop was. Justine checked her phone, she only had fifteen minutes of her break left, and she need to drive back to the spa. She made a solid $3 more an hour than she had at her last gig, and she didn’t want to fuck it up. She felt the seconds of the few remaining minutes rushing by as she stood fuming on the boardwalk, watching Tabitha get farther away, her long dark hair swishing back and forth across her lower back as she walked.
Throughout the rest of her workday, Justine wrote out and erased text messages to Tabitha, and tried to convince herself that her friend was wrong, despite her gut awareness that this was a lie. Justine had met Tabitha one alcohol soaked night a few years ago when her ex dragged her into the shabby shop to get their palms read. Justine refused, calling it all horseshit, but sat next to the ex while Tabs read his palm, though she seemed to always be making eye contact with Justine.
“You’re a person who has trouble with the rules. You don’t do well with authority.” Tabitha drawled, her fingertips hovering over the ex’s sweaty hand, her half-lidded eyes studying Justine’s reaction.
“See Jus, she knows. I’m no follower.”
“You’ve left a lot of heartbreak in your wake. You are not yet in the place in life where you will find your soulmate.” The ex snorted, a self-satisfied smirk pulling at his lips. Justine already knew he was cheating on her, and she wasn’t surprised that he looked like the type to do it. She rolled her eyes. Tabitha’s eyes snapped up to the ex’s face.
“You’re luck is going to run out soon.” Justine could swear the woman was trying hard not to smile, like she was thinking of some private joke. “Those who you think are loyal to you are not. You may regret things you have done to them in the past.” The ex was losing interest, and deciding this was a waste of ten bucks. He pulled his hand away from hers.
“You got a bathroom?” She swept her hand to the right, and he bumbled through the curtains to the back of the shop. They could hear him pissing through the door. Justine folded her hands on the table and addressed Justine.
“The deal he’s planning, it’s going to go bad. Whoever he thinks he’s fucking over, that person is going to flip on him, or already has. He’s going to go to jail, and it’s not going to be for a misdemeanor this time. I think it kind of goes without saying but, you could do better.”
The ex was a small-time weed dealer who wanted more, but didn’t have a fucking clue. The week after the reading, he did indeed get arrested. He’d been arranging a bogus deal that he thought would make him a lot of money and fuck over a lot of other people, but he’d made the deal with an undercover cop and his best friend who had recently turned informant. The ex had apparently fucked every girlfriend said best friend had ever had.
She’d gone back to Tabitha’s shop after that, saying she had come for her own reading. It was the early afternoon on a winter Wednesday, and no one else was there. Tabs had led her into the curtained area, but hadn’t asked her to pay first, like she had with the ex. They sat opposite one another and Justine squirmed in her seat, waiting for the psychic to prompt her, but she was cool and quiet. She laid her hand on the table, stretching out her fingers.
“I’m not going to read you.” Justine drew back her hand like she’d been burned.
“You can ask me whatever you want, though.”
“How did you know what was going to happen to my boyfriend? Do you know someone who was part of that?”
“No.” Justine waited for further explanation. Tabitha smiled a surprisingly warm smile full of crooked teeth. “I’m a psychic. I saw it.”
Justine had expected the woman to tell her how she knew the informant or the cop or any of the many other people who had apparently known he was about to get busted. She had not expected her to double down on the medium shit. She shoved her seat back from the table.
“This isn’t a fucking joke to me.” Tabitha gave Justine her first taste of the one shoulder shrug.
“I can’t prove it to you, and you certainly don’t have to believe me. I told you specifics about what I saw because your relationship with him doesn’t serve you, and I thought you deserved to know.”
“So why don’t you read me now, tell me about what’s going to happen to me and then I can see if you’re right.”
“I don’t read people I like.”
Justine had left in a daze. The ex-boyfriend got the book thrown at him by a judge who’d he’d annoyed one too many times before, and they broke up. Justine started holding down a steady job as a waitress at a place that stayed open all year for the locals instead of sending her life into orbit around another man, but she felt a pull coming from the direction of Tabitha’s shabby little shop. The psychic was not surprised that she kept coming back, nor did she ever ask Justine why. While Justine could pinpoint the start of their relationship, she couldn’t remember the moment when it crystallized into a friendship. They did not have much in common rather than their love of deli sandwiches and Diet Coke and their twin reluctance to move away from the shore. If pressed, Justine would likely tell you that Tabitha was honest with her, and that one statement would tell you exactly what all of her previous relationships, familial, friendly, and romantic, had lacked.
In the few years since they’d met and her toxic ex-boyfriend went away, Justine had managed to only change jobs when she found a better one, move out of her grandmother’s apartment, and quit drinking. She didn’t chase guys. She thought more and more seriously about going back to school. She’d also seen enough proof of Tabitha’s abilities to know that her friend meant what she’d said on the boardwalk bench about the boy in the deli.
Justine shivered in the frigid, air-conditioned store front of the spa, pulling on the approved, company-branded sweatshirt. It was early Fall and no longer hot enough for such an aggressively low temperature. Her thighs jiggled gently as she bounced her knees to the mind numbing “soothing” music pumped into the space. The tourist traffic had petered out and they only got a few locals and the occasional creep trying to subtly ask if they provided secret off-menu items, or asking if they could specifically request her services. She enjoyed informing them that it was not that kind of outfit and that she was not a licensed massage therapist, just a receptionist. Today, no one approached, and the appointment calendar was sparse. Justine’s boss, the owner of the franchise and a thick, imposing woman who looked like she could snap a person’s spine with a flick of her wrist, emerged from the back with a regular whose muscles she had just pummeled into submission. Justine set up the woman’s next appointment and watched her skip out to the parking lot, the sheen of absorbing oil still glistening on the back of her neck and arms.
“How many left today?”
“Just Ada’s 5PM acne facial.”
“And the new stock?”
“I unpacked it and organized it this morning. There wasn’t much to fill on the floor.” Her boss nodded, taking in the shelves of skincare products, untouched by any of the day’s customers.
“You can take off, no point in you waiting around for the last one,” when Justine did not immediately respond positively, she added, “I’ll pay you for the day, don’t worry about it.”
“Get out of here before I change my mind.”
She sat in her car for an abnormal handful of moments, one hand on the wheel and the other holding her car key in her lap. She was assaulted by two simultaneous thoughts: that she should drive over to Tabs’s shop and check on her, and also that she had made plans to work on her college applications that night. Tabitha knew she was doing apps and that they weren’t meeting up. What she had told Justine over lunch floated to the forefront of her mind.
Just keep living.
She started the car and backed out of her parking spot. At the exit of the lot, she turned right when the traffic opened up, toward her apartment, instead of left, toward the shop.
Justine had an extra bounce in her step the next morning. She woke up an hour before her alarm, completely refreshed. She was having a great hair day. Her work polo felt a little looser than it had felt a week or two before; making her own healthy dinners seemed to be paying off. The sky was clear blue, not a cloud for miles. She had electronically sent off a few applications the night before, and she was feeling hopeful, and maybe just a little smidge proud of herself. She treated herself to a sugary coffee drink on the drive to work and wondered if she could convince Tabitha to try a different kind of sandwich at lunch later. She’d heard the deli’s chicken salad was good.
It wasn’t until she was rounding the corner into the sad little side street where Tabitha’s shop lived during her lunch hour that Justine felt anything shift. She wondered for a long time after why she hadn’t woken up knowing, why she hadn’t had any indication of disaster. The only explanation that she could come up with was that Tabitha hadn’t wanted her to know until it was too late, when all she could do was accept it.
The glorified alley was jammed with vehicles. Police cars sat with lights quietly flashing. Caution tape cordoned off most of the block. The owners of nearby businesses, with nothing else to do in the off season, gathered around, chattering. The owner of the deli stood off to the side, smoking a cigarette with tears on his face. He saw her and dropped the cigarette, crushing it underneath his sneaker before scurrying away. Cops were coming in and out of Tabitha’s shop. Someone in a white disposable jumpsuit and blue latex gloves examined the door jam. Panic began to rise in Justine’s throat. She shoved aside the people hovering just inches from the caution tape and tried to scramble under it, into the roped off scene. A uniformed officer caught her by the shoulders as she stood up.
“Miss, no one is allowed past here. This is a crime scene.”
“That’s my friend’s shop! What happened? Is she okay?” Justine was screaming at him, trembling underneath his hands. A tiny crease appeared between his unkempt, salt and pepper eyebrows.
“What’s your name?”
“Justine West.” His eyes widened and he called over another officer to watch her. He consulted other people, and a woman with dark hair and matching dark eyes looked over at her, her mouth tucking itself into a grim line. Justine felt her scope of awareness narrowing in, focusing only on this woman as she strode over, never ceasing eye contact.
“Detective Alvarez,” she said, by way of introduction. She held out a sheet of ordinary yellow lined paper, torn from a legal pad and folded once in half. Her full name was scrawled on it in Tabitha’s pointy, aggressively right sloping handwriting. “Does this mean anything to you?”
Justine took the paper and opened the fold. Across the fold were written two short sentences.
I changed the flow for you. Be good.
Justine shook her head. It wasn’t entirely a lie.
Later, after they questioned her and everyone else, she found out that her ex, out on parole, had gone to Tabitha’s shop looking to find out where Justine was, and to exact revenge. He was convinced the two women had something to do with the bust that had caught him. He’d shot Tabitha multiple times, but not before she’d fought him hard and managed to stab him with a knife she kept in the little counter. The boy from the deli had been walking down the sidewalk, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tabs idling away in the shop, when he saw the struggle. Turns out he hadn’t been a creep after all, at least not all the way. He’d dashed inside and the ex shot him until he dropped, and then rushed out the door. He, the ex, hadn’t gotten far from the scene before he collapsed. He died in the hospital.
The cops didn’t let Justine have the note, but she didn’t need it. She held the message always close to her, though she decided not to mess with any more psychics. She understood, finally, why Tabs wouldn’t read her friends.
Aimee is a graduate of Gettysburg College with a BA in English and Philosophy. Her work as appeared in Epiphany Magazine’s ‘What We’re Reading Now’ web series, Delay Fiction, and Litbreak Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works as a marketer for an academic publishing company and is writing her first novel.