4,700 Words

When you ask most psychics why they don’t just learn the lottery numbers and play them ahead of time, they’re going to tell you that’s not how it works. You can’t just get the numbers.

Of course you can.

The real question is not whether you can get the numbers, but what happens to you when you get them.

Georgette Washington, an occasional policy player, got her numbers in 1973. Her husband had just returned from the war. They had two small children. And she felt certain that those numbers were going to be the key to her family’s happiness. They’d buy a house in a nice neighborhood with a good school. They’d put money aside for the kids to go to college. They’d have a car that didn’t need repairs they couldn’t afford. She wouldn’t have to take Mrs. Miller’s hand-me-downs and pretend to be grateful.

Put yourself in her position. Sitting there at your tiny Formica kitchen table, a pencil in your left hand, even though you, Georgette Washington, are right-handed, and a napkin with numbers scratched on it, the numbers that came to you so forcefully you felt them pushing against the back of your eyes, pushing like they might burst your eyeballs, pushing until, bam, there were the numbers, clear as day, floating out in front of you. And you wrote them down.

Salvation. Your gift from God comes through again.

You, you’re not Georgette Washington. You’re not a young black woman living in Nashville forty years ago working as a housekeeper for a woman you pretend to like, because you’re the steady income in your family while your husband goes to school. But you can know what it’s like to want so much to have a better life, to, at least, ease your children’s way.

You can tell what those numbers meant to her.

Georgette Washington had the gift. No fucking around. The Gift. She didn’t have to con people, didn’t have to cheat. She knew the future. She watched it swirl around, at first only suggesting itself, and then, as events snapped into place, solidifying into an inevitability.

She never played those numbers. Had them in her hand, held them for ten long minutes, during which she cried like these numbers were the worst news she’d ever gotten.

You don’t dare ask her about it unless you’re in the mood to listen to an old woman laugh bitterly.

But, sure, you want to know. Why didn’t Georgette play the numbers?

Look, there wasn’t any future she could see after she and her husband won the policy in which they didn’t get cheated out of their winnings. There wasn’t an accountant they could trust or, if there was, there wasn’t a tax attorney, or if they found an accountant and a tax attorney, Mrs. Miller claimed the money was hers and Georgette had stolen it, but she’d not press charges if Georgette returned it, and Georgette had no recourse. The money went to Mrs. Miller. That is, if the numbers folks even coughed up the money which most times, they didn’t.

Or turn your sight to Martin Flood, who had it, that same real deal, The Gift. You know he grew up just outside of Chattanooga, born just a couple of years after Georgette declined to win the lottery. And he could tell a horse race just by the sound of the horses’ names. Race after race, horse after horse, win, place, show. And he only ever bet a little, didn’t want to attract too much attention.

But where is Martin Flood now? That’s right. Encased in concrete under a parking lot in Lexington, Kentucky. You’d be surprised how dangerous it can be to tell a man that none of the foals born on his farm will ever win a race. Or I guess you wouldn’t. Turns out, no matter how careful you might be, knowing the future doesn’t let you maneuver safely through it.

Which brings us to Kayla Henson, who has already had her share of bad luck. Her father was long-gone before she was born and her mother left her with Jolie Washington and her gal, April Flood, when Kayla was just four years old. Once, when April had to work third shift, Kayla went into their bedroom, patted Jolie on the arm, and said, “It’s okay. Sometimes mommies don’t come home.” You have to sense that someone once comforted her with those same words.

It took some finessing, but Jolie adopted Kayla, and she and April raised her.

When Kayla turned fifteen, she got it—The Gift.

“Well, it makes sense,” Jolie said. “My mother has it and your uncle, rest his soul, had it. Having it on two sides? You were bound to get at least a little bit.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Kayla objected. She’d seen what life had done to her dear grandmother and didn’t want to be treated that way. “They’re not my re—,” she stopped herself before she said it. She never, ever wanted to hurt her moms like that. “We don’t share DNA.”

“The Gift runs in families,” April said. “And you’re in our family. It doesn’t work by science. It works because your dead folks give it to you.”

“You have your blood ancestors,” Jolie said. “They will always know you and watch out for you, even if you don’t know them. But, when you joined our family, you joined the whole thing. All of us, dead and alive, became your people, too. And they thought you needed this Gift.”

“Oh, well, thanks, then, I guess,” Kayla said.

She’d been to Lexington once a month since she was little. They’d drive up on a Saturday morning, have lunch at the McDonald’s next to the parking lot on top of Uncle Martin, and drive back home that afternoon. Georgette had sussed out that Martin hadn’t told anyone he had any family. No one knew they existed. So, they were careful to do nothing to draw attention to the fact that they knew not only that Martin was dead, but where.

After all, they also knew what the man who had killed him was capable of.

You can see why Kayla was less than thrilled with the present from her ancestors.

But the Gift is the Gift. You get it whether you want it or not and there’s simply not any giving it back. So, Kayla set out to figure out how she would foresee the future, what her method of divination was going to be.

She tried reading birds, but only saw the futures of those birds—all big skies, the crowns of trees, snug nests, and an infinite variety of deaths. Deaths from cats, deaths from dogs, deaths from immediately-remorseful kids with bb guns, deaths from larger birds, deaths from the front of semi-trucks, deaths from poison, deaths from hunters, deaths from quick hawks and silent owls.

Every story is a tragedy if you stick with it too long.

She tried reading tea leaves, but she didn’t like hot tea. If only there was some way to read sweet tea! Well, there probably is, if you ask Georgette, but Kayla couldn’t figure it out for herself and she didn’t think to ask her grandmother.

She tried Tarot cards, but she didn’t know what most of the words on the cards even meant.

“Hierophant? Is that like a pope? Am I even saying that right?”

And, though the worst card in the deck was supposed to be the Tower, she found the Devil upsetting. She didn’t like that card even being in her room. It felt like asking for trouble.

But, as Fate would have it, as she was floundering around for some way to tell the future, Georgette called out from the living room, “Kayla, darling, come play some rummy with me until Jeopardy comes on.”

And there it was, in the first run Kayla put down—all clubs, five, six, seven.

“It’s a forest,” she said, but her voice was dreamy. Kayla went on, “No, not a forest. What do you call it when there’s a bunch of trees on purpose?” The slight girl cocked her head and stared at the cards intently. “An orchard. That means change, and fulfillment.” She looked her grandmother straight in the face, but Georgette knew Kayla wasn’t seeing her. “Georgette Washington, you are afraid of what’s coming. But don’t be. Fate tends four gardens—one living, one dead, one formal, one wild. I will walk in each garden and tell you what grows there for you.”

Georgette waited for Kayla to slump over slightly. That’s how it had been for her, for many years, and she recognized the moment as it passed for the girl.

When Kayla seemed to come back to herself, Georgette threw the cards she held on the table.

“Quick, baby, what do you see?”

There they were—the Queen of Clubs, the ten and nine of Diamonds, the nine and ten of Clubs, the two of Hearts, and the three of Spades. Kayla put her hand over the cards. The trance took her back, but not so heavily.

“You have to decide, Georgette Washington,” Kayla said. Her voice was scratchy, like she’d been smoking, “if you’re going to dwell among the memories of your husband or give this new man a chance.”

“The Gift has made you awfully nosey.” Georgette worked up a half-meant scowl. “Just tell me something straight up. Don’t play fortune teller. Just tell me the future straight up.”

“You know next week’s Powerball numbers, all but the last one. And that’s fifteen.” Kayla said. “Those old number are going to hit again.”

“Should I play them?” But, this time, Georgette was asking her own Powers, and so Kayla stayed out of it.

And there it is, the chance for a do-over. The numbers. But this time, there’s a legal lottery to play. This time, Georgette is retired, so there’s no white woman to steal the money. This time, her daughter is an accountant.

You can’t get the winning numbers twice and refuse both times to play them. That’s just too much to ask. It goes against human nature.

But winning brings with it its own set of problems. You might turn on the evening news and catch a story about how a little old Nashville grandma won the Powerball and the camera might pan out so that you can see, just for a second, everyone who’s standing there with that grandma and you might forget to breathe when you see the tall, sandy-haired woman in the background, the spitting image of a man you had murdered a decade ago. You might, if you were Jimmy Campbell, and let’s hope you’re not.

So, there’s Jimmy Campbell, sitting in his living room just outside of Lexington, probably the only person other than the people standing there with Georgette who has any idea how it was she’d come by those numbers. And he got that guess because he recognizes poor dead Martin’s sister. Which maybe says he was haunted by what he’d done. Or says that he’s good with faces. Let’s not give him the benefit of the doubt.

Jimmy’s got it in his head that if April could pick numbers for that old woman, she could pick some numbers for him. Yeah, he picks the wrong woman, but he is right about what had happened. He figures then they’d be even—him and Martin. Now, to you and me, this doesn’t make any sense. In what world does April have any obligation to settle Martin’s debts? In what world does Martin’s death not make him square with Jimmy? In what world is Jimmy justified in punishing Martin for telling him the truth? Not in this world, but I guess in whatever world Jimmy is living in.

And here’s the other thing. It’s not like Jimmy even needs the money. He has a horse farm so beautiful it would make God jealous and an 8:45 tee time at the country club. He has enough money to pay a couple of guys he knows in Clarksville to drive down and kidnap Kayla, so he can hold her for ransom—that ransom being the lottery numbers which April would give him.

Here’s how it will happen, then. Kayla will walk home from the bus stop. One of her friends will have offered her a ride, but she’ll be pulling cards all day and it will always be the Ten of Spades she pulls for herself, which will make her feel like she’s being chased. So, she’ll want some time with just the noises of the city and the quiet in her head to try to make sense of what will be there for her in the garden Fate keeps wild.

The two men will be clever. When they find her, they will stop, and let her get about a block ahead of them. The quiet one will get out of the car and start after her on foot. She’ll be slow, lost in her thoughts, and he’ll be quick for a man his size. The driver will pull up next to Kayla, rolling down his passenger side window to “ask for directions.” But see how he’ll make himself seem safe? After all, it’s going to be a big old car and he’ll be clear over on the other side of it. If she puts her hands in her pockets before she leans over to talk to him, she’ll leave nothing out for him to grab hold of.

But when she bends at the waist, the quiet one will swoop up behind her and push her right through the car window. The driver will tuck her head down and there she’ll be, stuck with her hands in her pockets, upside down on the bench seat of a car almost as old as her moms.

“I’m so fucked, I’m so fucked, I’m so fucked,” she’ll say to herself. She’ll scream, but people will pretend not to notice. And later they’ll pretend they feel bad about that. Maybe some of them will.

They’ll shove her in the backseat and she’ll struggle with the doors, but she’ll be stuck. Stuck, but not stupid. What she’ll need is to somehow be where Georgette and her moms will look for her. The paths through Fate’s gardens fork, it’s true, but some trails are more obvious than others. Since she and her grandma can both see the future, all Kayla will have to do is steer events, as she can, to the future most likely to be the one Georgette will focus on.

Maybe that doesn’t make sense put that way. But, okay, think of it like this: say you have a grandmother and her favorite color is purple. I give you three balls—one green, one yellow, and one purple—and I ask you to choose which one your grandmother would choose. Don’t you pick the purple ball? Of course you do.

When Georgette sits down at the table and lets that pain crawl from the back of her skull, pierce through her brain, squeeze her eyeballs like grapes until, Pow, there’s the future in front of her eyes, three or four possibilities. She squints until one likely outcome comes into focus.

Here’s what Kayla knows about her grandmother: Georgette is resigned to a certain amount of insurmountable bullshit; she puts other people’s needs ahead of her own, even if it makes her unhappy; and she has a deep and abiding faith in Justice. Not in justice, not in bad guys getting caught and punished. She knows that doesn’t always happen. But in Justice, in Good eventually winning out.

So, Kayla is going to pull her cards and see three possible futures for herself—the Ace of Spades, which will tell her she ends up dead, alone, and undiscovered; the King of Hearts, which will be another card of desperate endings though maybe not for her; and the laughing boy, the Jack of Diamonds, which she’ll take to mean her dead uncle is watching out for her and that he might, indeed, be having the last laugh before all this is through.

She’ll throw her lot in with the memory of her uncle. She’s going to know her grandmother would, too. She’ll sit tight and wait for another moment in which augury seemed appropriate.

That won’t come until they’re clear to Lexington.

“You want some McDonald’s?” the driver will ask her, as he pulls into the parking lot. Kayla will have to fight not to smile. How many times has she eaten at this very McDonald’s? How many times has she sat facing the parking lot next door, the very parking lot her Uncle Martin lies under? Hell yes, she’ll take some McDonald’s. Of course she can count on Georgette and her moms to make their way to this spot. And, yeah, she will pull three more cards, see which path to take next.

All kings. All paths lead to the man in charge. This means that though she’ll be amazed when they drive out to Jimmy’s house, she won’t be surprised that there is, ultimately, some mastermind who bosses her kidnappers around.

“I don’t really understand America anymore,” he’ll say when he sees her. “She doesn’t look like either the Flood gal or her ‘partner,’” which he’ll say with a particularly obnoxious sneer. “Doesn’t anyone stick with their own kind anymore? Now you got everyone marrying everyone else, raising kids that don’t resemble either of them.” He’ll turn to her. “How do you even know who your people are? I don’t get it.” It will be mostly a question he doesn’t expect her to answer.

“What do you want?” Kayla will ask, because she won’t want to have to wait until she can be alone with her cards to find out.

“I want your mom to do for me like she did for your granny. I want some lottery numbers,” Jimmy will say. “I reckon they’ll trade me that to get you back.”

Kayla will spend most of the evening in the dark in a closet that, but for the lack of a window, is fancier than her bedroom at home. She’ll use the little light seeping in from the outer room to read the cards again. She’ll pull the Queen of Spades—a woman wild and unexpected. Maybe that could be her. Maybe that will be her, if she tries. She’ll pull the Five of Hearts, which, in the dim light will look to her like a gift to be given. She’ll pull the King of Hearts, the man to whom she should give the gift. This powerful asshole who will have her in a closet. And why not a fourth card, to see what’s at play in all four of Fate’s gardens? There he’ll be again, the laughing Jack of Diamonds.

Kayla has only recently learned to see the future and no one in her family had ever learned to read the past. But the past is going to come to her anyway. She’ll see that Jack of Diamonds, and she’ll get it—everything I’ve told you here. How Martin had read the future of this very farm. How he had not lied to Jimmy about that future, even though, surely, he must have known what would come of it. How he died, alone and scared, and how Jimmy couldn’t even be bothered to oversee it himself. How Jimmy had just sat alone in this big old house feeling certain he had prevented the terrible calamity that would have come from everyone knowing his horses couldn’t win.

But Justice comes. Georgette isn’t wrong about that.

“I could just show you how to do it for yourself,” Kayla will call out from inside the closet. Over and over. Until he bothers to come investigate the noise and to hear the offer.

“Do what?” he’ll ask, his breath will already be whiskey-tinged.

“Read the future in a deck of cards,” she’ll say.

He’ll let her out of that closet and sit her in a chair in the dining room. He’ll tie one hand behind her back and both legs to the legs of the table.

“I’m going to pee myself,” she’ll say, but he won’t care. He has women to clean that kind of mess up for him.

“Show me,” he’ll say. He’ll sit at her right hand, crouching over the card deck, like he both wants to touch it and is afraid to.

“Shuffle. When you feel like they’ve been shuffled enough, turn the first card over.”

“Ten of Clubs,” he’ll announce as he flips it. He’ll look at her, like he’s waiting for her to be magic.

“To me, the Clubs are on purpose, they’re the place where Fate tries different things, just to see what will come of it. It’s the most like gardens how we have them here,” she’ll explain.

“I don’t see that,” Jimmy will say.

“You have to kind of look straight at it and then try and see what else is there, like what things it reminds you of. That’s where the future shows up, at least for me, when I’m just letting my brain kind of run on with itself,” she’ll say.

Jimmy is going to pick up the card and study it.

“What do you see?” she’ll ask.

“A fucking card.”

“Okay, but what’s also in your head?”

He’ll study it some more and then he’ll say, “I think I get it. I mean, this kind of looks like a tree-lined pasture, right?”

“Okay,” she’ll say, nodding. That’s not what she’s going to see. She’ll see an orchard with something hidden in the middle, though what, she won’t yet be able to tell.

“But,” and now his voice will change. It’ll kind of soften, “there’s nothing in the pasture. This beautiful place and it’s empty. Not being used for the thing it’s supposed to be used for.”

Next he’s going to draw the Five of Spades. Kayla will start to explain to him what it means to her, but she’ll see on his face that he’s barely paying attention to her. He’ll hold the card out at arm’s length and then turn it up, so that it will catch the light from the enormous chandelier. He’ll draw the card closer to him and then, just as it seems like he might touch it to his nose, his face will change, his eyes will glaze over. He’ll go in some kind of trance.

He’ll sit quietly for so long Kayla will wonder if he was asleep. Then he’ll sigh.

“There’s no way,” will be all he says. Who even knows what he might mean? He’ll put the card face down in front of him and it’ll seem like he’s resolving to not think any more about it.

And then the third card—the King of Hearts, sword to back of head.

When Jimmy looks up at Kayla, she’ll swear she is looking at a different man. That’s how radical the change is going to be from the blustery tough guy who arranges her kidnapping to the drawn, pale man who’s going to turn his face toward her.

You figure there’s got to be some part of a guy like Jimmy that is just a pure, raw nerve of terror. What else could drive a man to build up all this wealth? And to do it on a pile of at least one dead body? There’s got to be a part of him that’s running for his life from something.

And what that look on his face is going to tell Kayla is that he’s not going to make it. That thing is going to catch up with him at last. Without saying a word, he’s going to get up from the table and leave the room.

As soon as he’s out of sight, Kayla will kick against the ropes that are going to keep her tied to the table, trying to shake something loose. She’ll reach back and try working at the knot that will hold her hand in place. She’ll feel like it is ready to give, like it just needs a little more encouragement, but she won’t be able to get a firm hold on it. Her hands will be sweating too badly.

Jimmy’s going to come back into the room. He’ll have something in his hand, but he’ll hold it just behind his back, so she won’t be able to see what it is. His face will be flushed, though, and she’ll see his free hand shaking.

“I had this fight with your uncle a couple of times,” he’ll say, when he sits back down again, next to her, in front of the cards. “Was I cursed all along and your uncle just pointed it out? Or was I fine and then he cursed me?”

“Mister,” Kayla will say. She’ll try as hard as she can to not look at the red King on the table. She won’t like the things it will suggest about how the evening will go. “Mister, I have never heard of a curse being real. It’s all in your head.”

“Like this?” he’ll ask and she’ll realize that what she thinks is sweat on his face are tears. “Isn’t thinking you can tell the future also some kind of con? And yet, here you are, sticking me with another terrible curse, like that’s just your family’s job, to run around and fuck me up.”

“What? I didn’t curse you,” she’ll say.

“You put this thing in my head,” he’ll say. “You let me see the future. The IRS. The FBI. All the rest of it.” He’ll drop his chin to his chest and Kayla won’t be able to tell if he’s passed out or if he’s building resolve.

“But that’s the point,” she’ll say. “If you know it’s coming, you can change it. You can step aside.”

“Exactly,” he’ll say, in a voice so calm it will give Kayla the chills. She’ll make the mistake of glancing down at the table, and so she’s going to know, a second before he puts the gun to his temple, a second before blood and bone splatter against her, and a second before she’ll swear the bullet goes tumbling right by her head, and since she’ll know, she’ll start screaming, so loud in her own ears that the thunder of the gun will barely register.

But that won’t be the worst part. No, imagine you just watched a guy kill himself in front of you. You’re a screaming, hysterical mess. You wet your pants, you’re so scared. But you can’t get loose. So you have to sit there, next to him, his wide-open dead eyes staring at you. You call for help, but I guess the kidnappers got the evening off. You sit there so long you watch his eyes go cloudy. So long you can’t feel your feet anymore. So long in the silence that you wish you could cover your ears just to keep from having to hear that there’s nothing to hear.

How are you going to survive that?

How will she?

“I knew you’d come,” she might say to her moms, as maybe they squat down next to her to untie her. “I knew you’d come.” She could throw her arms around both of them.

“In here,” Georgette may say to someone out in the hall. “Our baby’s in here.” The police and the paramedics would, in that case, swarm into the room.

“It’s okay, darling,” Georgette might say, perhaps squeezing Kayla’s one free hand, while, if she’s lucky, the cops and her moms will continue to wrestle with the knots.

If it goes this way, Kayla will be free and the paramedics will rush in to lift her up and carry her out. One of them will bump the pile of cards and send them flying.

“Careful,” a police officer might bark. “We don’t have any pictures yet!”

And maybe, in one of the pictures they could get of Jimmy, you might see the Jack of Diamonds face up, right by his hamburgered head. Is that Justice or just some joke Fate will have at Jimmy’s expense, payback for trespass?

I can’t say and Kayla won’t.

Betsy Phillips’s short stories have appeared in Betwixt, Beyond Borderlands, Eurynome, and Qarrtsiluni, as well as various anthologies. She is the author of A City of Ghosts and The Wolf’s Bane. Apex Magazine was the first place to publish her, a fact she has never forgotten. Neither have her detractors. She lives in Whites Creek, Tennessee with a mean cat, a grouchy cat, and a dog who recently tried to steal a truck.

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