by Travis Moore
The thief sat waiting beneath a tall tree. The relentless heat moved toward his withered body, falling from the sky without mercy. He was hiding in the only piece of shade for miles; however, it was no escape from the brutal heat waves that washed over him. A fresh bead of sweat trickled down his forehead, sizzling into one of his deep wrinkles.
A card table, draped in a dusty purple cloth, lay on four flimsy legs in front of him. It had at its center a mysterious crystal ball, sleeping beneath a white sheet.
He wore an assortment of faded color, plastered to the bones of his malnourished frame. It looked as though he’d never changed his clothes and would have to peel them off if he ever wanted to get rid of them. Colors could not survive on him. They eventually melted and appeared dull. He wore strange rings of silver, copper and gold on every finger and thumb.
If someone were to take two parts bizarre and mix in one part odd, his appearance would lie somewhere in the middle. A mischievous desire beamed from his starving eyes despite the sweat accumulating beneath his dark hat. A single flowing stream of perspiration poured down this time, baking in the hollow of his black eyeball, releasing a small cloud of steam vapor.
He sat in the middle of a quiet dirt road. He existed to meet people who had lost their way. He wore a coal-black hat, tilted to one side of his head to hide a sinister grin that he could not get rid of. It raged and snickered in the dark shade offered by his hat. His skin was charred to a deep, rough tan.
The thief had been sitting at this lonely table for the past fifty years. He had come down this same road as a young man and never left. He was on the receiving end of a most unusual curse. No one really knew that he existed, except for a lost traveler here and there. He lived on a small sliver of land that had been paid off long ago.
The thief came into town once in a while, always late at night. He gathered supplies and then scurried back to his little shack in the dark like a self-sufficient roach. He cared nothing for people except for the ones that sat down at his table. For these, and only these, he had a use.
He was the permanent fixture on the edge of a small town, disregarded by any travel map. People met him by accident; his appearance stuck to the walls of their minds like posted notes of pure oddity. They were never the same afterwards.
The faint outline of a stranger approached in the distance. The person appeared mirage-like and shaky through the thick heat waves. It had been a full week since a single soul had walked past him. He had not uttered one word since then. An uncontrollable excitement began at his feet and exploded up through his entire body, possessing him like an adult sugar rush.
The thief could almost taste the dirt clouds kicked up by the stranger as each step drew nearer. He licked his lips like a hot lizard and wiped at his forehead with the back of his hand. He began to look busy to mask his ever-growing excitement, rising to an almost visible buzz around his entire body.
He tried to tone it down so as not to appear suspicious and reached beneath the tablecloth into the depths of a rusty chest where he kept a unique collection of cards among other mysterious knick-knacks. He dumped the cards on the table and began to shuffle them.
A young man could be seen now, emerging into the thief’s realm, the realm of the permanent detour. He introduced himself with a naive handshake. He had a backpack on and explained that he had lost contact with the small group he had been hiking with.
The old man extended his arm. His long, bony fingers unfolded like a poisonous flower. He grabbed at the young hand and could sense what he was looking for; his many metal rings heating its innocent surface.
A fresh smile materialized on the normal half of his face; the other side was still buried in the shadow. If the young man happened to glimpse that eerie grin, hiding beneath the hat, he would find himself in a state of desperate panic as he scrambled to escape, forever trying to shut a newfound window on an insane wind. He cast a solid stare on the young man. “I’d be glad to help you find your way back to your friends. Why don’t you first take a seat and relax.”
The young visitor was taken back by the sharp expression embedded in the visible half of the old man’s face, an expression that looked to have existed for centuries in its determination.
“Um, well I guess so. I am pretty tired. What exactly do you do out here anyway? It doesn’t look like there’s any sign of life for miles around these parts.”
“Well, my young friend, I am so glad you should ask. I happen to be a fortune-teller. I can tell you things you would never discover on your own.” The lines in the thief’s face were maze-like and pulled you into his bottomless eyes.
“Really? Like what kind of things?”
“Anything and everything. There are no boundaries. Wherever your interests lie, well then, so do mine.” The thief explained himself with a convincing quickness of speech as if he were salesman of the month at some used car lot in a town that everybody looked down on from the freeway but never exited into. He then pulled the white sheet away from the crystal ball like a magic trick.
The young visitor became fascinated as the thief spoke. He was old and mysterious and displayed a charisma that infected. He was like a strange treasure that existed in the middle of nowhere.
The visitor’s interest soon grew for the things that were resting on the table. “I want to know. Can you tell me something? How much does it cost?”
“The money I require is minimal compared to what you will receive. Five dollars ought to cover it. I would like to help you and for me to do that I need you to do something for me first.”
“What do you need from me?” The young visitor’s face was locked on the crystal, as if being pulled into it, his voice calm and distant. The thief fanned out his deck of cards across the whole table. He pointed to a card that was completely blank.
“I need you to write your name down on this card for me. This is the best way and I am the best at what I do. I have never been wrong in fifty years.”
“Of course. I can do that. This one right here?” The young man put his signature down without even looking, as if he were carelessly signing off for a ninety-nine cent purchase at some convenience store.
The concealed half of the thief’s face celebrated in secret. It almost moved into the young man’s view but the thief fought it back with everything he had. “That’s a good boy. Keep your eyes on the crystal and all will be revealed. Keep looking. Deeper, deeper, deeper...”
The thief shuffled his new card into the deck while the young man remained in a heavy trance. He then got up and left the table, escaping to the privacy of his little shack.
The young visitor woke up after some time and left the table in a bizarre state. He wandered off into the distance and had no recollection of why he had ever sat down in the first place.
About halfway down the road his posture fizzled and slumped with a drooping fatigue. A sense of heaviness settled in above his shoulders. He was not the same person who sat down just a short while ago. An odd image was now stuck in his mind, that of a most peculiar man with many rings and strange cards, although it felt more like a dream.
The thief emerged from his little shack when all was quiet and the young visitor had long since vanished. He crept back to the table and settled down into his old wooden chair beneath a sky full of sparkling stars. He rocked back and forth on the chair’s back two legs. The signed card was in his wrinkled, long-finger grip. His rings had all cooled by now and appeared as one metallic blur beneath the diamond drenched sky.
He stared at the card, oblivious to the outside world, oblivious to the empty space all around him. The card was going to change soon. He could barely stand it. The anticipation was painful and cruel; the thief felt like a victim in a neglected waiting room.
By midnight it was there. The picture had formed. Somewhere in the distance something was lost and right here, rocking back and forth in an old wooden chair in the middle of nowhere, the thief had earned his name.
He never actually disclosed any real fortunes or predictions to any of his visitors, but strange powers were in his possession. He had disposed of the original fortune-teller who ran this strip of road fifty years ago.
It was long ago when the thief had stumbled upon this lonely road. The old fortuneteller sensed something sinister about the thief and refused to read him a fortune — just simply refused and would not budge — not once, despite the thief’s wild threats. He quickly asked the thief to move on and didn’t want him anywhere near his table. That was when the thief pulled out a sharp knife and pushed it all the way into the old man’s side.
The fortune-teller managed to curse him right before he died and the thief had never been able to leave this spot. He had tried to, many times, but this prison, albeit invisible and wide open, was more real than anything in his life, defining him in its nothingness.
All the fortune-teller’s supplies went haywire in the thief’s hands. The crystal became a dark hypnotic charm and there was an endless supply of blank cards in the chest beneath the table that used to have great pictures on them; they were ancient Tarot cards that went mad in his hands. The fortune-teller’s body was dumped in a hole that the thief had spent all night digging in a nearby graveyard.
A face had now appeared on the card in his hand. It was the same face that belonged to the young visitor that sat down at his table earlier that day.
The thief existed to meet people who had lost their way, although he sent them off more lost than they could ever imagine. His card collection was unique. Every single card displayed a human face, real people who at some time had sat down with the old man. There were plenty more blank cards in his chest, waiting for fresh young faces to define them.
The thief had lost something when he killed the fortune-teller, that fateful moment when he stabbed him and left his contorted body in an anonymous hole. He was cursed to this spot in the hot sun for the remainder of his days; his ability to dream was no more. Since then his head had been an empty nest where nothing ever grew. His thoughts cracked like dried up branches and his memory became fine sand spilled through a huge sifter.
To be completely honest, and not exclude any fatal details from this horrific illness, his entire identity had been erased. He existed in an insatiable state of hunger for the next visitor’s energy. That’s what kept him running. He was like a sick old battery that always needed a jump. That’s what he captured from them when they decided to sign their names on one of his wicked cards — their faces forever locked in an old chest.
He existed as a shell that could temporarily feel things at the expense of his unsuspecting visitors. He was a warped old fisherman, casting his line into the dirt, trying to reel in anything else but himself. A few days had passed and the thief was once again lost in a desperate stare down the endless dirt road. The energy from his latest card had faded; he carelessly tossed it into the old chest like a dead piece of bait. The thief was left like an empty bottle in the middle of nowhere again, desperate for a new face to fill one of his cards.
When he wasn’t feeding off energy, there was an eerie quietness inside his mind that bore no resemblance to a peaceful silence. It was similar to an abandoned landscape but far worse. Incomplete statues of ideas stood beneath trees of ash. Fallen rainbows rested on crumpled rocks, sucked dry of their color by a warm vacuum that swept throughout the flat lands like a life-eating snake. Cobwebs and thick piles of dust strangled off any possible recollections that might pop up out of the ground and lend themselves to a happy memory.
He was restricted to a “viewing only” pass in regards to this reality and could not do a damn thing to change it. This was his scenery, a default setting of sorts that slowly fought past his latest fix and crept back into his mind, scraping all the chalkboards in his head with terrible nails of paralysis. A silhouette could be spotted in the distance, approaching nearer through the dense heat waves. The thief licked his lips, cleared his throat and tilted his hat to hide his true identity. The warped side of his face exploded in hideous celebration.
He set up the table and struggled to contain his composure, shaking in his old chair. The cards were fanned out and of course a blank one was set aside for the poor traveler. The dirt clouds kicked up by the stranger drew closer. His face started to take shape. The sun shone down as if angry at the world.
The thief could never imagine that the one person headed directly toward his table actually shared something in common with him. The outline of a man became clearer, vaguely familiar and sparking a loose memory to form in the thief’s mind. This recollection fought past thick cobwebs and dense dust, struggling to perch on one of the branches of the thief’s withered thoughts.
When he realized who it was, he reached beneath the table into the deep chest and pulled out all his blank cards. His frail body was trembling and overcome by a sudden seizure, his many gaudy rings clanking and jingling on his sweaty hands. He extended his long skinny arms towards the approaching man, as if surrendering, and then his heart gave out. The thief died right there, bent over on the table.
The stranger grabbed all the cards from the thief’s lifeless metal hands and threw them into the chest. He then lit a single match and dropped it over them. A fire burnt wildly inside the old chest, freeing every trapped face that had been in the thief’s possession for so many years.
The smell of burning flesh rose into the air as the flames engulfed the flimsy card table. The fortune-teller headed down the long dirt road, back to his grave. He pulled the long sharp knife out of his side and let out a howl of a laugh. A fifty-year curse had come to an end.
Copyright © 2008 by Travis Moore