The fortune-teller looked back at the children happily watching their video and singing along with the voice of Vincent Price, then pulled in a deep breath and released it in a series of staggered bursts.
"Jesus," said Fran. "If you want my attention, you got it."
"Have you talked to your husband since moving to the shelter?"
"What's that got to do with--?"
"Once--okay, twice. The psychologist says it's good for us to call our husbands or boyfriends, let them know we're all right--if they care--and to get things off our chests. The shelter gets part of its funding from Catholic Services, so they're kind of big on aiming for reconciliation if it's possible."
"Do you think there's any chance you and Ted will get back together?"
Fran shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. If he gets his ass into counseling and does something about his temper and his drinking, if he admits that there're emotional problems he's been carrying around and stops treating me like--okay, okay, please don't look at me like that.
"Maybe. Maybe we'll get back together."
Ariadne took Fran's hand in hers, examining it. "You still love him?"
Fran shrugged. "I suppose."
"Sounds like you wish you didn't."
"Sometimes I do wish that, but--" She pulled her hand away. "Why do you need to know?"
Ariadne pointed at the screen. "When a Conic hand has a direct intersecting of the Line and Mount of Saturn, and when that intersection is marked by stars, it has only one meaning, and it's never, never wrong: death by violence."
Deep within Fran McLachlan, at the center of her interior world where all hopes, regrets, dreams, emotions, experiences, and sensations coalesced into something beyond articulation, a crack, ever so slightly, appeared, threatening to spread and bring everything crashing down.
Very quietly, words carefully measured, heart triphammering against her chest, Fran managed to get it out: "Say it."
"Ted's going to kill Eric. I knew it the moment I held his hand."
"No! No, no, he wouldn't...wouldn't do something like...like that--"
"On purpose, no, probably not. But you know what happens when he loses his temper--"
"He doesn't think, he just--"
"--he just lashes out at what- or whomever happens to be in his path, which is you and Eric--"
"--don't know how many times I've told him that he should just stay in his room when Daddy gets that way, but he won't, he doesn't like it when Ted hits me--"
Ariadne cupped Fran's face in her hands. "Fran? Look at me. Look at--there you go. Take a deep breath, hold it, hold it, now let it out. Good. Do you trust me?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do."
Fran looked into the face of the woman before her, and saw there nothing but concern, kindness, and deep, abiding compassion. "Yeah, I guess I do."
"Then you believe what I'm telling you?"
"Oh, God, I don't know!"
The fortune-teller looked over her shoulder and called, "Sarah? Honey, would you come here for a minute?"
"Aw, they're just getting to the part with the clock!"
"You've seen it before. Just come here for a second, okay?"
She appeared a few seconds later.
"Sarah, I'd like you to meet Eric's mother."
The little girl held out her hand. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
As Fran took Sarah's hand in her own, she noticed for the first time how badly burned were sections of the little girl's hand and forearm.
Then she noticed the patch of scar tissue on the left side of Sarah's neck.
Looking down, she saw small patches of scar tissue on both of the little girl's legs, and wondered how many more such scars existed underneath the dress she wore.
"Sarah," whispered Ariadne, "would you tell Eric's mom about what happened to you?"
Sarah's look was equal parts impatience, sadness, and fear. "Do I gotta?"
"If you want Eric to stay with us, you do."
Sarah's face brightened considerably at this, and when she spoke her words came out quickly, excitedly, like an adult who'd survived a horrible experience and could now recount it with humor.
"Mommy and Daddy, they got, they got killed in a car wreck when I was five, an' you know what? The judge said that I was gonna have to stay with my aunt and uncle. They were mean. They used to punish me for things I did wrong. I took a cookie one time, way before dinner an', an', an' you know what? My uncle, he put some water on the stove and he boiled it up and put my hand in there and held it in the water annit hurt real bad but he said, he said it was 'cause I was a bad girl and they didn't really want me, they only took me 'cause of the 'surance money an' when I did bad things I was gonna burn for it here so's I wouldn't burn in Hell later after I died. See my hand? That's the one he put in the water. An' my neck--you know what? My aunt did that to me 'cause--"
"That's enough, honey," said Ariadne, stroking Sarah's hair. "Go on back and finish watching your movie."
"'Kay." Sarah patted Fran on the shoulder as if consoling her. "'S'okay now. I got a new Mommy an' she loves me." She smiled at Ariadne, then leaned in toward Fran and whispered, "She's gonna take me to Disney World in July but it's a secret, 'kay?"
"Okay," whispered Fran.
"Just a second," Ariadne said, pulling Sarah close to her. She put her hand against the scar tissue on Sarah's neck and said, "That's looking better."
"Be all gone soon?"
Ariadne smiled. "Soon enough. Sorry that I interrupted your movie. Just for that, I'm buying pizza for dinner tonight."
"Pizza! Oh, boy!" And Sarah surpassed the speed of light once again to bring this most marvelous news to Eric.
As she ran past, Fran noticed that the scar tissue on Sarah's neck covered considerably less area than before.
"You did that, didn't you?"
"Did what?" asked Ariadne.
"Healed part of that burn scar."
"Little by little, it's getting done. But there's a lot of it. Her aunt and uncle weren't the most, how shall I say?--restrained Fundamentalists ever to grace the planet's surface."
Fran continued staring after Sarah. "She sounds so much younger than she looks."
"Every so often they'd break up the routine by cracking her upside the head with a cast-iron skillet. She's got some minor brain damage. We're working on that, too." Ariadne released a short, nearly-bitter laugh. "You should've seen what she was like when I first found her."
Fran looked at the fortune-teller--having now decided that the woman couldn't possibly be human--and said: "What, exactly, are you?"
Ariadne released a long, nervous breath, rubbing her eyes. "I don't know that I can give you a satisfactory answer to that, Fran."
Ariadne bit her lower lip, sighed, then nodded her head. "Understand: Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus's shield, protecting them from Medusa's deadly power. Everything is amplified."
Fran spoke through clenched teeth. "That's got nothing to do with what I asked you."
Ariadne held up her index finger, anxiously wagging it back and forth in a silent command: Patience. "Have you ever seen the way a child cries when it gets hurt? There's an initial shock when it doesn't quite know what's happened, then it pulls in a deep, hard breath, sucking in air for all it's worth, its face almost imploding from the pain, turning red as the oxygen fills its lungs and the pressure builds. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Yes," replied Fran, softly.
"If you listen closely," Ariadne said, "you can hear a sound coming up from the back of the child's throat, a sound somewhere between and scratch and a squeak before it lets fly with an ear-splitting scream. You've seen it happen with Eric, of course. Every parent has experienced a moment like that--a badly scraped knee, a sprained arm, a deep cut, then the child realizes something bad has happened because there's an awful sensation clawing through their system, and when it finally releases that second, terrible scream because the pain is so big to them, it turns and looks back at you. That moment, when the child screams and looks back at you, is where I came from, it's what made me." Ariadne shrugged her shoulders as if in apology. "That's the only explanation I can give you, Fran, take it or leave it. But I assure you I am the only being who can read the warning signs. I will spend eternity trying to ease what sadness and pain I can.
"Maybe you won't ever reconcile with Ted, I can't say." Ariadne massaged the back of her neck, suddenly looking tired. "What I do know is that there are six stars on Eric's hand, one for each year that he will live, and the stars are in the Patriarchal Configuration--meaning the danger will come from Eric's father. I can't tell you for certain when, exactly, it will happen. Maybe he'll do it after you guys get back together, maybe he'll do it after your divorce when it's his turn to have Eric for the weekend--hell, who knows? He might come by Eric's school and take him, he might snatch him from your backyard when you get your own place--it's secondary to the fact that somehow he will kill Eric and you can't prevent it. But I can.
"Which is why you have to leave him with me. Take Eric with you, and he won't live to see his seventh birthday."
Fran rose from the chair, feeling light-headed as she fought back the panic. "You know, you really don't give a person a chance to catch her breath."
"There's not much time. What else can I do to convince you?"
Fran glared at her. "Jesus Christ! Do you know how much I don't want to be one of those neglectful, abusive mothers you read so much about these days, those ignorant, self-absorbed little bitches who hurt their kids, who beat them to death or torture them or drown them in cars or abandon them because they just don't want to bother with them anymore? I've seen too many women--women, hell!--girls who had children too soon and then realize they pissed away their youth so they take it out on the kids. I don't know how many stories I read in the paper or see on the news about mothers who dump their kids, or worse. I don't have a whole helluva lot going for me, but the one thing I do have, the one source of pride that no one can taint or take away from me, is that I am doing everything I can to be a good mother to my son! What kind of a person would I be to abandon him to a stranger? You ask me what can you do to convince me? I don't know, but it's going to take more than having poor Sarah tell me about how you got her away from her worthless aunt and uncle!"
Ariadne looked very sad. "Have it your way, then."
The fortune-teller closed her eyes and folded her hands on her lap. Almost at once a vein in her forehead began to throb and the cords in her neck began to strain.
Fran began to speak but then heard a sound, a very faint, very weak sound from behind her.
She turned around.
Eric was lying on the floor a few feet away from her, his body curled in the fetal position. He was wearing different clothes than those he had on today. He was covered in sweat. His face was redder than any human being's ever should be. He spasmed painfully.
Fran went to him, knelt down, and began to touch him.
"--ahmeee...I want my mahmeee...Mommy--"
Fran placed her hand on his forehead--
--and felt an iron hook sink into her stomach and rip its way down through her pelvis, and there was something leaking, leaking, fire leaking through her system, spreading everywhere, searing her internal organs, charring every section of tissue in its path, cramping her with pressure and agony, filling her head with smoke until it felt like her skull would explode and every move, every sigh, every breath, twitch, and swallow summoned forth new and more powerful bursts of anguish that consumed her, crippling her body and will beyond articulation, but the worst part wasn't the pain, oh, no, it was the loneliness, the helplessness and fear because no one would come when she tried to call out, when she tried to scream but managed only to whimper, when she kept crying for Mommy to come and get her take her home because Daddy was mean, Daddy was bad, Daddy had knocked her down and beat her face and then kicked her in the stomach over and over and over until she felt the leaking fire and then Daddy threw her in the corner and turned off the lights and shut the door and left her here in the darkness with only the hurt the hurt the hurt--
--Fran pulled her hand away and crumpled to the floor, only to feel Ariadne's hands pull her to her feet a few seconds later, guiding her, dazed, shaken, crying, and aching, to a chair.
"It's all right, Fran," whispered Ariadne, "there, there, shh, it's okay, take a deep breath, in, out, there you go, it's all over now, shh, there, there, I'm sorry I had to do that, I'm so sorry but you left me no other choice, there you go, deep breaths, good girl, now look over there, go on, take a look..."
Fran wiped her eyes and looked at the spot on the floor where her dying son had been lying only moments before.