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Illustration by Lisa Occhipinti

THE SIX OF SWORDS. THE TOWERTHE EMPRESS.”

The words were said with such import, Jenna felt a little sorry they meant nothing to her. She didn’t know anything about tarot cards but she knew a lot about acting. The fortune teller was excellent, the kind of performance that was worth stopping for.

She glanced down at the cards. The Six of Swords showed a hunched and shrouded woman in a boat with a small child by her side, a ferryman in the stern, and six upright swords standing inside the boat. The Empress looked very, well, Empress-y. Kind of like Stevie Nicks. The last card was of a brick tower, its top exploding violently as figures leapt to their deaths.

That was the card Afa pointed to. “That doesn’t look so good.” She gave Jenna’s arm a small squeeze. “I”m not in the mood for bad. See you inside? I’m going to go find Crystal.”

“No, I’ll come with you,” said Jenna, ready to move on. “Thank you,” she said to the fortune teller before turning away.

The fortune teller’s voice was soft, but it carried as she called after them. “The Six of Swords. Grief, loss, a leaving. Something you must protect. The Tower. Collapse of what you thought was true. The Empress. Motherhood. A child that is yours yet not yours.”

When Jenna was in kindergarten, her best friend at the time—a small and sincere girl named Gwendolyn—had very seriously informed her that stepping on cracks would break her mother’s back. Five-year-old Jenna had contemplated this for a moment and said, with great conviction, “That’s silly.” She had then gone back to playing hopscotch on the highly cracked sidewalk and not thought about it again. She hadn’t changed much in the ensuing years.  Still, Jenna paused. A part of her, the same part that had wanted to run naked into the ocean, yearned to run back and beg the girl to tell her how it all ended. It would be so much easier to hand over your faith to a deck of cards. But try as she might, she had never done easier. Sometimes, she wished she could.

Jenna let Afa drag her to where Crystal waited to get into the big top. She let herself take one backward glance toward the fortune teller, who had already gathered the cards and turned to a young couple in matching leather jackets. She let herself be carried along with the crowd into their excellent seats, which were, as promised, a little ways back, dead center. She tried not to let herself think about Billy and Florencia and what might happen next. A child that is yours yet not yours.

The circus passed with exactly as much magic as each individual expected it to have. Jenna tried to get lost in the blur of beautiful, athletic bodies dressed in stunning costumes, in the dramatic music and lights, but instead spent much of the time reliving the moment she had told Billy she was moving to Los Angeles, the look on his face when he realized she was going for good. It was a month before graduation, in the field where they had first kissed. The distance between them grew charged and unstable, the tall grass rustling in a way that sounded like weeping. What she had lost seemed suddenly unbearable.

For Afa, the circus reminded her of when she was a little girl, watching women’s gymnastics on her parent’s tiny TV set. She had been spellbound by the strength and dexterity of the women in a time before she even knew what sexuality was, before the core of her being became a word attached to taunts and fear. It had been a time of safety and love, of not knowing that differences could wound. The pungent lime saffron smell of her mother’s trademark lamb recipe washed over her. And at that moment, even knowing that later there would be words, that she and Crystal likely wouldn’t make it to the next day, Afa felt her skin settled around her in a way that felt like coming home.

The circus finale consisted of aerial silks. Jenna held her breath as the winged man who had given her the rose spun through impossible feats of strength and dexterity. He was joined by a winged woman; they met in an airbound pas de deux. At the climax the woman hung suspended, wrapped like a chrysalis in her jet black silks, at the highest point of the big top. The man remained earthbound. In one stunning moment, the woman spiraled wildly toward the floor as the man flew upward toward her, pulled by an unseen hand. Just before they collided, the big top went dark. A great blast of air, as though from a very small and focused hurricane, pushed Jenna back in her seat and took her breath away.

Someone shrieked. Someone else laughed. Jenna grabbed at her hair as the lights blazed back to life. The stage was empty, but a movement from above caught her eye. With the rest of the audience, she looked up to see hundreds of red and white feathers drifting down from the top of the tent, coming to rest over them all.

Halfway across the continent, In the room she rented in Rose, Nebraska, Florencia started awake and sat up, somehow only mildly surprised to find her floor and bed covered with red and white feathers that smelled of sand and salt.

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