The Thrift Store Deck

Veronica McMillen

Senuna watched Calvin spread the legs of a tripod, digging the three points into plush, off-white carpet. He fiddled with the expensive looking beast on top of it, content once the red light on the side blinked to life. It pulsed, steadier than her heartbeat. 

She knew what Calvin’s videos were like. He liked to visit homes of mystics and healers and psychics. He liked to go digging in their things when they turned their backs, looking for false bottoms to tables and noisemakers that clicked once for yes and twice for no. He liked to smile at the camera when he found what he was looking for, a child proud of helping put their napmates in time-out. 

Her throat spasmed—she looked away from him. Her gaze wandered to the cards laid bare on her dusty reading table.

Senuna’s tarot deck was an old thing. It had been a two-dollar find in a dusty, forgotten thrift store five years ago when she’d had only the clothes on her back and a multicolored car on the brink of dying waiting in front of the shop. She’d found it, on a lonely shelf tucked behind a worn paperback titled Hand-Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder. It had been tied together with a fraying rubber band. She’d purchased both. 

The deck itself was printed. The gloss coating the cards peeled back in spots, yellowed with age. It revealed the matte cardstock underneath, less vibrant where exposed, and the corners were frayed and soft, more malleable than the cards’ bodies. The backs were wrinkled from shuffling them thousands of times—crease lines ran across the cards where they wished most to return to their former existence as a tree with dark, coarse bark. Senuna ran her fingers over the back of a card. She could almost see the pine it had been once. Tall. Rugged. Growing peacefully among others like it, stretching for the sun. 

Until it had been cut down. Felled where it stood with no one near to hear it scream.

Ten cards sat in front of her, spread in a straight line on the right and a cross on the left. The simple colors looked harsh under the lamp’s yellow glow. This story was dark and bleak, full of swords and false kings, greed and change. A story that, when remembered, set alight an ache deep within her chest as it gnawed on her rib bones. A memory of hands ghosting over her mouth, her neck. The humiliating burn of guilt. Aching thighs. A rolling stomach.

She looked up at the man who sat down in front of her. He stared back, green eyes bright and unapologetic as they took in the cramped and hectic space of her living room around them. He had tired circles under his eyes, but his white button-up shirt and neatly-groomed blond hair said, I’m put together anyways. She took a sip of her black tea—bitter and unsweetened—and asked him to shuffle the deck again. 

He obliged, but did so with an eyebrow raised. His long, spidery fingers handled her deck with an ease that suggested his muscles remembered decks more than his mind did. Senuna drew the top three cards from where the new pile lay across the table. Carefully, she spread them out in front of her tea cup. These ones crafted more the story she wanted to tell rather than what anybody else needed to be told.

She took another sip.

“Well?” Calvin asked. “Are you going to do my reading?”

“Why?” Senuna asked. “You already know the card meanings.” 

“That’s not the point of this,” he said. “I’m here to prove you’re a liar like the rest of them.” The words “rest of them” left his mouth without venom. They were just a fact to him—everyone lied.

“Do you really need to prove yourself this badly?” Senuna asked. 

“It’s nothing personal,” Calvin said. “It’s just business. I want my clients to know I’m dedicated to them.”

“By tracking down other psychics like a witch hunter?”

“By tracking down liars like a witch hunter. I won’t let anyone con them.”

Except you, she thought.

Senuna looked past him and his metal monster with its blinking eye. The gauzy white curtains hung, limp, between the window and her table of plants. Outside, the sky was slipping from the lovely blue of daytime into the guarded gray of dusk. Shadows blurred on the edge existence, clinging to their objects even as the sun vanished from the horizon. Calvin’s black sports car glinted in her craggy driveway—a colorless bird poked at the sleek tires. Just beyond them, an unmarked black road snaked past thin white aspens into a yawning canyon. Brown leaves danced across her yard, swirling and tumbling over themselves. 

Something heavy and stiff settled in her spine. 

Senuna pointed first to the card sitting in the center of the cross. A crowned king in a red, flowing robe sat on a mighty throne, holding aloft a lengthy broadsword in one hand and a golden scale in his other. “Justice,” Senuna said. “Reversed.”

Meanings of the card flashed through her consciousness: a child sneaking sweets, her mother screaming while holding an old necklace, standing outside a house looking in on a family’s dinner. Dishonesty, unfairness, unaccountability.

“And?” Calvin asked. “I’m aware the card is reversed.”

“The position symbolizes you, the querent,” Senuna said. “What are you lying about?” 

Calvin scoffed, but Senuna only smiled politely. She moved on before he opened his mouth. She jabbed the card below Justice. 

“Queen of Pentacles, reversed.” The obstacle. Self centeredness, jealousy, neglect. “You’re selfish. Jealous.”

Calvin reared back. “I’m what?”

Senuna ignored him. “King of Pentacles, reversed.” She jabbed the uppermost card in the cross, his consciousness. “You’re greedy. Overindulgent. Look for sex where you shouldn’t.”

“Excuse me?”

“Three of Swords,” Senuna pressed. Causing confusion, past injury, and darkness. “You hurt someone. Your subconscious knows this even if you don’t.”

“What the hell?” Calvin asked. “This is bullshit. You aren’t doing anything but repeating the card meanings to me. I know these. I do this shit for a living. World famous psychic here, sitting right in front of you.”

It was Senuna’s turn to scoff. “Psychic?” She shook her head and pointed at one arm of the cross. “King of Swords, reversed.” Manipulation, cruelty, weakness. 

“I know, what the fuck—”

“It manifested because you’re the fake, Calvin.” 

His eyes narrowed.

“Don’t try and lie to me,” Senuna said—the card stared up at them, tiny black eyes locked on the two of them. She thought it followed her face when she shifted to see it better. “It’s here because you aren’t a psychic, and you know it. Nobody else has been willing to call you out on it, but I am.”

“I don’t know what you expect me to say.” His jaw worked while he stared and stared and stared at Senuna.

“Nothing,” she said. She pointed to the other arm of the cross. “But something big is coming for you.” 

The card was honest. It depicted a fortress at night, sky black and empty. It sat atop a craggy cliff, alone and proud. Crimson fires burned out its windows, each inferno licking up the stonework of the fortress’s exterior. Lightning struck the top, a bright explosion rocking the building. Two men, one in red and the other in blue, leapt headfirst from the armaments and careened wildly away from the destruction at the cost of tumbling off the gray cliff.

Thick text at the bottom read THE TOWER. 

Sudden upheaval, broken pride, disaster. 

“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” Calvin snarled. “But you sound like the biggest fake I’ve met to date, Senuna.”

“Am I now?”

“Yes,” he said, “you are.”

“But I really don’t think a fake would know your third child is going to be a girl.”

Calvin’s bright green eyes went dull and cold. “How the hell do you know that?”

Senuna only smiled at him. “Your wife—Bethany, right?—found out today. You don’t even know because you were too busy at a book signing this morning to go with her to the ultrasound. She’s a little resentful, by the way, but grab her a few flowers on your way home and that’ll make her forget it for a little while.”

Calvin opened his mouth to speak—

“Calla lilies are her favorites aren’t they?” Senuna asked. “Get a bouquet for her.”

His jaw worked. Senuna took another sip of her black tea—bitter and unsweetened. Her chest, swollen and heavy, felt warm under his gaze. She reveled in his silence. 

Finally Calvin asked, “Who are you?”

“Don’t you recognize me?” Senuna asked. 

“Should I?”

“I do look a lot different now,” she conceded. “I used to box-dye my hair black. It was a lot longer then. Wore dresses I hated. Didn’t wear my glasses like I should have.” 

She took a sip of her tea. “I went by a different name then, too. Joan.”

Something sticky and hot and satisfying rose in Senuna’s chest as she watched the color drain from Calvin’s face. His Adam’s apple bobbed once, twice. 

She knew that look—he was doing damage control. She had done the same thing for five years: a fresh-faced runaway with a multicolored car and $163 to get her as far away from her family as possible. To run from the Catholic schools and the name-calling and the conversion camps and the scalding water and the weekends without food.

“I didn’t do anything,” Calvin said, low and gravely. His voice snapped her back to the table.

“You know you did.”

“No, I didn’t,” he said. His eyes flicked towards the blinking black camera. His face was greasy with sweat under the ugly, yellow light. 

“Yes, Calvin,” Senuna said. “You did.” Phantom hands ran over her body, the memory ghosting across her skin. 

“I don’t know what you think I did to you,” he said, “But you blaming me just to get something from me is ridiculous. What do you want? Money? You won’t get it.”

“I don’t want anything from you,” Senuna said. “Nothing but your honesty. I just want you to admit you did it.” She wanted to beg, Please, all I want is an apology! Nothing more!

Just tell me that you’re sorry, Calvin. 

Calvin leaned across the table to snarl it in her face, “You can’t go to the police. I’ll… I’ll tell them you’re lying. You consented. Y-you didn’t even fight back!” 

“Jesus Christ, I’m not lying, Calvin. I didn’t consent to anything! They’ll see that. I didn’t just imagine what happened to me. What you did to me.”

“I don’t know what the fuck you think I did—”

“You assaulted me!” Senuna cried. A single tear slid from the corner of her eye. Five years later, and she still couldn’t say that goddamned word. It twisted itself in her chest and sank its claws into her throat. It wouldn’t come out. “I went to you with all the money I had begging you to use your psychic powers or whatever it was to save me. To tell me it would be okay. You knew what home was like.”

Calvin jerked backwards in his chair. 

Her fingers tingled with an electric energy. She finally felt awake. After years of reliving those moments—her palm on the cool handle, the scent of salty floral lotion, sticky fingers forcing her chin up, an itchy brown blanket under her hips, the taste of hours-old chow mein, scarfed in seconds—she had surfaced back into reality. 

“I was starving and scared and desperate and alone and you saw how vulnerable I was. I was eighteen! A child, Calvin! And all you could think was how hard I made you. I changed my name because all I could hear when anyone called me Joan was you whispering it in my ear in that fucking hotel room.”

The silence was a weighted thing. It felt thick. It pressed against Senuna’s chest, bowing her ribs beneath it. 

Calvin broke it. He spoke slowly, chewing on his words as they left his mouth. “If you go to the police, my children won’t have a father anymore.”

She stared at those damn green eyes—the ones that told her they would grow old together. That they would never want for anything. That she was beautiful and special and they could do anything as long as they were together. The ones that crinkled in the corners when she remembered what the Five of Swords meant or brought him a coffee with three sugars early in the morning before his wife woke up. 

His wife. His children. 

Her stomach dropped to her toes. She… she hadn’t thought of them. She hadn’t thought her justice would extend past him. She didn’t understand how she didn’t think of his family, what they would experience. 

How much they would loathe her for doing this to their father.

Of all the realities she had imagined, him being honest with her wasn’t one of them. 

She moved to take a sip of her tea but the cup was empty. Her mouth tasted bitter. “I think it’s time for you to leave,” she said.

“If you say a goddamn word,” Calvin hissed as he stood, “I will make sure you go to prison for defamation. My name is on the line. If you go forward, I’ll make sure you’ll be so caught up in legal fees and fines you won’t be able to breathe without paying for that too.” 

Senuna stared at the cards she hadn’t interpreted for Calvin. The ones that told her he was an arrogant creature—Six of Wands, reversed—that his attitude was bred from his competitive and isolating life as a child—Five of Swords—that he craved luxury and admiration—Nine of Pentacles. His threat wasn’t empty.

She stared at the three in front of her empty cup that she’d begged the deck to show what her life was to him. The lone figure in a black cloak, mourning under an abysmally gray sky. A cartoonish wolf snarling at a dog between two pillars under a massive yellowed moon. A regal ruler in blue and gold clutching matching chalices in each hand. 

“I just want you to apologize,” she whispered. 

But he was already gone, camera gone with him. Light flooded the room as Calvin’s headlights flipped on, but darkness slunk back in while she listened to the whine of the engine fade. Night had fallen thick over her tiny, cramped house, a noose choking the inhabitants.

She piled the cards laid across the table and shuffled the deck. It took the pins from her fingertips and deflated the stiff bubble burning just under her breastbone as she shuffled, over and over and over and over again. 

When it felt right, she stopped, cut the deck, and drew the top card. 

Death. End of a cycle. A choice. 

She got up to make more tea.

She stepped through the doorway leading into the kitchen as a raven landed on the sill of her open window. It pecked at the dried fruits and nuts Senuna left out for it. “Hello, silly bird,” she whispered. It stopped picking through the raisin pile long enough to rasp out a quiet aah aah. Her lips turned up at the corners. 

Instead of reaching for a tea bag and her kettle, Senuna leaned against the tile counter next to the window and crossed her arms. Moonlight made her arms pale where the light touched them. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. 

She wasn’t sure if she was saying it to herself or if she was saying it to the silky black bird. It was bigger than her head and was fighting to shimmy its way inside the window that wasn’t open nearly wide enough for it to fit through comfortably. 

It rasped at her again.

“Well do you have a suggestion?”

It took off in a flurry of black feathers. Senuna followed it back to the reading table. The raven hopped around, pecking at the cards in her deck. It spilled half of them on the floor, but finally settled on snapping one up. It hopped to the entryway table before she could pry the card from its beak. 

The raven dropped the card. It fluttered to the ground where it landed with a quiet fwop. She could see the illustration from where she stood, frozen at the reading table.

“I don’t know how,” Senuna whispered to the bird. 

It cawed at her, aah aah, and picked up her car keys. 

Senuna slid the card the raven had dropped into her back pocket. “Will… will this help me?” she asked. She took the keys from its beak. 

The raven ruffled its feathers and shook its body out. 

Outside, the thinnest sliver of a moon glowed silver at the edge of the night sky. Cars whistled past on the main road not far from her home. The ancient sycamore in Senuna’s front yard swayed gently in the nighttime breeze. If she listened hard enough, she thought she could hear the forest trees whispering quietly to each other. 

Senuna looked past the wispy curtains and rows of plants, past her splintered driveway and crooked mailbox. The dark road twisting up into the canyon’s mouth whispered to the keys in her hand. The phantom hum of an engine rumbled through her chest.

She tightened her fingers around the ring. The raven cocked its head at her, appraising. “Thank you,” she said. 

When she opened the front door, the raven leapt into flight, crying out for her, before it disappeared into the night. 

“I’m going to let him go,” she whispered.

The card in her pocket burned: The Star. Hope, rebuilding, healing.