“What would you like to see?” Nerissa’s gaze followed the languid path of the three bubbles as she read the iridescing futures.
The rangy man in old jeans and T-shirt sitting across from her, said, “What are my options?”
“You only get one.” The filmy spheres swirled and settled onto the pan of soapy water. In the first pearlescent orb he stood on the street begging for money. That could be a temporary problem or long term. She really had no way of determining length of time. In the next bubble, wearing a nice suit, hair well trimmed, he opened two briefcases filled with hundred-dollar bills, and the last did not have him in it. Or rather, Nerissa saw an arm and a knife. It looked like his hands; he was grabbing a scarf, the knife stabbing forward out of the bubble’s scope.
Nerissa’s skin chilled and she glanced up at him. He twitched at a gold cross at his neck. With a future like that she wanted him gone. It was obvious which one to go with.
She said, “You will come into a lot of money.”
He clasped the cross, then released it. Rubbing his nose, he sniffed and looked at her through sunglasses. “Yeah, right.”
“Seriously. More than you can imagine.”
“Well.” He stood, dropped a ten on the table and pointed at her in a way that unnerved her. “Let’s hope you’re right.” He swaggered out, letting the screen door bang shut.
Ten. Maybe that’s how he’d come into money, by being cheap. Nerissa sighed. It looked like she needed to put more of that Gypsy charm into reading if she wanted to make it worth her time. The allure pulled her, being able to direct a person’s path subtly and it left her feeling heady. But had she? What if she had chosen the bubble that showed him begging? Would he have come across the money anyways, or would it have evaporated, a chance gone?
A couple of weeks back Nerissa had blown bubbles for Shelagh’s four-year-old. Instead of seeing just the coolly shimmering surfaces that to her had always represented something ungelled and changing, she had seen shifting, turning, twisting scenes. At first she thought them daydeams, overactive imagination, but she decided to buy her own hoop and bubble supply just to find out. From that day on she had always seen something in the bubbles.
Nerissa bit her lip. The last thing she wanted was a career in the shady art of fortune telling and she’d seen enough of that growing up. Like she needed her friends rolling their eyes and calling her Madame La Zonga or something. She had left the ridicule and suspicion behind even if her family still clutched at mystery like an heirloom. Let them have it. She wanted to fit in, not be a freak.
That first week, though, had been like changing channels on a TV, a hodgepodge of opalescent scenes until Mrs. Larkin had bustled over, talking in a tight voice. “Hello, Nerissa. I was wondering if you’ve seen Fraser. I can’t find him anywhere.”
The moment Nerissa thought of Mrs. Larkin’s dog she had seen his brown fuzzy form swirl through each coalescing ball. Four bubbles drifted away on invisible strings. Fraser appeared, dead at the edge of a curb; in another a child pet him; the next showed him nosing in a garbage can, and in the fourth, Fraser was in the dog pound.
Nerissa had replied automatically, “I think I saw a child petting him a few blocks from here, towards Maple Street.” The elderly, well-postured woman thanked her and strode off in search of her dog.
It had turned out as Nerissa predicted. She had danced with elation. But had she changed the future by choosing the one bubble? The vortex of playing a gimmick, fooling the gadjo, creating mystique, all of this waited to hungrily suck her into the old ways where nothing ever changed. Nerissa had had enough of being a Gypsy child always on the road, playing games in the cities, like trying to sneak on buses. And somehow, people had always been able to tell that they were different, outsiders. Nerissa wasn’t sure if “damn Gypsy” was a general curse for anyone misbehaving or had been thrown accurately at her people. She’d hated it, hated the family structure that still followed stilted traditions, hated the expectation that she would adhere to the same roles.
But the questions and curiosity remained and Nerissa couldn’t deny the strong sense of purpose she had when she made predictions. Why now? Not mirrors, not crystal balls. Of course, she had always shied away from the mystical gobbledy gook no matter how the compania had badgered her. Yet the Rom ways had tracked her down in soapy spheres. Bubbles were light and airy but they weighted Nerissa with a headache.
People thought Rom lifestyles were free and easy but all Nerissa had ever felt was the oppression of succumbing to superstition, of being a cog. She’d ignored fortune telling, wasn’t very good at dancing, nor interested much in playing music, and didn’t want a brood of children. So she left the compania behind in a storm of ill will and moved to Freehaven, landscaping for the past two years. And now, now she played at the games she’d forsworn.
A rattle at the door alerted her to the next customer and she let a man in from the porch. Her Craigslist ad had given her enough initial clients, after she’d screened out the nuts. He looked like a praying mantis, all elbows and knees, perched on the edge of a straight-backed chair. This guy twitched like he couldn’t settle into his ungainly limbs.
She smiled and asked what he wanted to know.
“Oh just, um, whatever, if there uh, what the future holds.”
Nerissa decided to add a few dramatic embellishments, and blew the bubbles from the thin hoop, moving her hands over them. The man’s eyes didn’t see the glassy bubbles as he glanced quickly at the pictures and windows draped with colorful shawls and hanging crystals that danced rainbow shards over the walls.
Her dramatic sigh caught his attention. She looked deep into his faded green eyes. “I can only tell you about your immediate future,” she stage whispered.
“Yes?” His head bent forward on a scrawny neck and he pulled in his shoulders, as if to wrap his heart. “What do you see?”
The bubbles were small, almost hard to see. There were more than four but only four scenarios showed over and over. He worked in a retail store, drove a truck, was hiking in high mountains, and was hit by a vehicle. Nerissa glanced up at him and he looked wobbly even sitting. He probably had some boring job and needed something memorable, to say his life wasn’t wasted.
She threw in some Rom charm and spoke. “You will go someplace foreign.” That sounded safe; besides, she hadn’t seen anything tragic in that particular bubble.
“Really?” He clasped his hands sincerely and leaned farther forward, his brow wrinkling. “Where will I go? What am I going to do?”
“I’m sorry; the bubbles don’t show me a lot. I could see you hiking in mountains. Maybe the Himalayas or the Alps.” The breeze weaving through Nerissa’s bungalow toyed with her curly locks but barely moved the man’s damp looking hair.
He spoke so fast that his words ran together. “Weren’t there other bubbles? What did they show?”
No one ever wanted to know that disaster and tragedy lay ahead. She chewed her lip and shook her head. The Madame La Zonga routine just wasn’t her. “Fate allows you only one path. The other bubbles were much the same.”
The man thanked her, left a twenty, then slipped out the door, chimes tinkling in his wake. She frowned at the soapy water. What if she chose all the destinies she saw? Would they happen whether she mentioned them or not? She tapped the pan with her fingernail. What was the point of having the ability though; to help people, to make money or was it to take control? And though she hated to admit it, there was something she really liked, maybe too much, in being able to make people’s lives better.
Over the next few days, when a few friends came to visit, Nerissa had them ask simple questions about the next day or week, such as: “What will I find tomorrow?” or “Will I be meeting anyone?” Nerissa perceived small pockets of time-to-be, and what she spoke always became the truth. She could direct the future and that left an icy sweat between her shoulder blades.
Nerissa stopped playing with prophecies for a couple of weeks. Why it bothered her was as slippery as a bubble’s residue. She continued landscaping; the feeling of dirt on her hands, working in good solid earth was tangible and real. She could see the changes she made to the land and it wasn’t ephemeral like the foamy aftermath of cleaning. But…maybe she could make differences to people’s lives too.
Then a postcard depicting a Himalayan mountainside arrived in the mail. She sat on her overstuffed plum couch, flipped it over and read the jerky handwriting from the scrawny man.
The first week in Nepal was amazing but then the bus I was taking was in a collision. I’ve had the nurses mail this from the hospital. They said I may not walk again. My adventure certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.
Nerissa stared at the card, her stomach dropping like a boulder. Her palms clammy, she shivered, tossing the card to the table and watched the shadowplays the sun performed through the leaves of her potted plants. The walls almost looked alive with the passing shade. The images had been like pearls on a necklace, a string of destinies following an arcane path. Her power was to see and order them, but they were predetermined by each person’s past. Should she have warned him? The sun, ignorant of the black cloud over Nerissa, was kissing the sky pink and gold when she finally pushed herself off the couch, grabbed the blue jacket draped over a curtain rod, and keys from the protruding tongue of the cast-iron imp on the wall. Dusk wrapped around her like a caul. The patchy rust and yellow VW Bug in front of her home looked like a rotting lemon.
Grandma was the one who had embraced fortune telling by reading the Tarot or palms. Nerissa had always considered the mystical mumbo jumbo as nothing more than charade. Nerissa had to talk to someone and maybe Grandma knew something more.
She sat in the car gripping the steering wheel, then started to open the door again, then shut it. Turning the ignition, the Bug coughed to life, and Nerissa felt that as she sped off into the swelling night she was plunging herself into darkness.
Half an hour later she bumped along a dirt road, framed by flat farmlands and low mist rising off the ground. The Dewdney Trunk Road had always been a maze, winding through nondescript strawberry, squash and vegetable fields, with no other roads or signs. It was as if Nerissa drove back through time to a place between worlds, passing the mosaic of Cadillacs and other large outmoded vehicles. Next were a few trailers with people sitting or standing around a bonfire, faces illumined and looking wizened as the mist rose like wraiths in the fields. At the center were a few tents put together with scraps of board, metal and bright cloth. She stopped a couple of feet off a road no better than a beaten foot-track, and walked towards the fire that burned back the dark. The smoky smell brought memories of childhood and covered the fecund ripeness of cattle. No matter where the compania moved she could always find them through symbols marked on trees and fences.
Violin music, clapping and laughing reached Nerissa before the people materialized. Uncle Corwin, Chelsea, and Olaf sat around the fire, as well as half a dozen familiar faces.
“Eh, long time no see, little Nerissa,” laughed ruddy Corwin, his crinkly silver hair catching the firelight.
She bent over to kiss his cheek. “I keep busy, Uncle, you know.”
“I know. You try to forget your roots and live the gadjo life.”
Already it began. “You forget, Corwin, I am half gadjo. But I’m not here for this. I need to see Tinka. It’s important.”
“Pfft! You need your tea leaves read, love?” Chelsea, sturdy and squat as a toadstool, asked between puffs of her cigarillo. “Having problems with one of your lovers, hmmm? You come back only when you need help, after nearly two years away?”
Nerissa’s jaw bunched as the fire shadows capered over her. “I was here last year.” But Chelsea had hit a nerve. She had only come back because she needed help.
Uncle Corwin rumbled, “A year’s a long time away from family.”
Chelsea sipped a beer and muttered. “We’re only good enough when you want something. Just becoming another typical gadjo.”
“Yeah,” Nerissa snapped back. “And you’re just typical gypsies.” She used the gadjo word instead of “Rom,” hoping to sting them. They were always the same, every time she returned. Like some bizarre circus, denying the world was changing around them. Always deriding her for having left the Rom way. She unclenched her fists and took a deep breath. “Look, I don’t want to fight. I need to see Tinka.”
The crackling fire gained volume over the silent group until Corwin nodded toward a small tent. She turned her back to the warmth and their cold stares.
Pulling back the flap, she saw Tinka sitting quietly in lantern light, a black and white ball of a kitten nestled into her arms. Swathed in a big blue sweater and the full Gypsy skirts of old, Tinka looked up from her cushions, and smiles creased her eyes.
“Ah, Nerissa. It is good to see you, child. You don’t come often, but I know how it is. The tribe grows thin and the younger folk want to experience the new ways; the old ways change. Even this,” she said patting the kitten. “In the old days we would never touch a cat or a dog. Taboo.”
Nerissa bent to kiss Tinka’s wrinkly but soft cheek, then seated herself on the worn carpets. “Tinka.” She wasn’t sure how to go on. “I—I’ve been telling fortunes… through soap bubbles. It could be… I think I might be meddling in people’s lives.” Nerissa cheeks grew hot and she stared down at the carpets’ designs.
Tinka’s eyebrows rose over her gold-brown eyes. “Oh? You never showed any power before.”
“I never believed it was real.”
Tinka patted her hand. “Sometimes it’s all for show, but many of us have had power to see past or future, even the present in other places.”
“It’s more than seeing; I can direct them, choose.”
Tinka grabbed her hand and turned Nerissa’s palm face up. Nerissa jerked back, feeling chilled. Her scalp tightened.
“Hush,” said Tinka. “It won’t hurt. Palms have people’s destinies etched firmly into them, though they can change too.” She grunted and dropped Nerissa’s palm. “Your life has a split ahead, a little unclear.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Depends on what you do.”
She looked into her grandmother’s knowing eyes. “You used to say I’d meet a handsome Rom man. Was that really what you saw?”
Tinka shrugged and rubbed under the purring kitten’s chin. “Oh I saw a few things, guessed at others, wished for some. It’s what we usually do.”
“Do?” Nerissa frowned. “Do? Do you play people like puppets on strings?”
“Nerissa, if you’ve read anyone’s future and you really have the gift, then you probably know they don’t always want the truth. They want a dream.”
“So you tell them what works for you.”
“Or tell them what I think they want to hear.” Tinka tapped her head. “It’s what’s here that makes a difference. You don’t even need the power to know that.”
Nerissa grew hot with anger but she didn’t know if at Tinka, the Rom or herself. Wasn’t that what she’d been doing? “What if they get hurt?” Nerissa stared at her hands, not feeling she could even trust her grandmother’s words.
“Do you hold a gun to their heads?” Tinka pulled an olive-green blanket around her stooped shoulders. “The power of a god is no small thing, Nerissa. This gift is not that big, but to not use it would be a waste of a special talent. Not many get the choice.”
Nerissa clenched her fists. “Even if it brings pain? Should I use it if it shows tragedy?”
With a sigh, Tinka said, “It’s up to you to decide but life is filled with pain and joy. Let your instincts guide you. That’s all you need.”
She whispered, “I hated the way we were treated when I was growing up.”
“Because you cared what others thought. We couldn’t keep you though.”
“Because I have my own path.” She hugged the old woman “I better go. It’s getting late.”
Through the tent flap, Tinka called, “I’m always here if you want to talk. And Nerissa, you can’t change the past, only the future.”
Nerissa stuck her head back through the flap and forced a smile she didn’t feel. “Bye, Grandma, thanks.”
She heard the quiet farewell, “May o Del walk with you, child.”
The next morning Nerissa awoke to the calling of children and dogs barking on the street. The mist in her head was soon burnt off by sunlight brushing across her room. She stretched, dressed, wrapping a green silk scarf around her neck, and went into the living room. The black pan lay empty, books and papers piled in it on the little wood table; the urn waited silently on the floor.
She stared at the items, then looked away. Tying her kinky hair up into a ponytail she leaned against the door frame and gazed down the street thinking time never acted the way people wished. It was as elusive as a bubble; no firm grasp. Yet she could watch time float by.
Lighting a stick of cinnamon incense, she moved into the kitchen and sat down to a piece of bread with homemade, black currant jam. Resting her elbow on the table, she watched the birds in the back yard. I need to cut the grass and do things, she thought, then looked over at the dishes heaped in the sink. There was a lot she could do but it was soap bubbles that floated through her mind.
Brushing crumbs from her jeans, Nerissa left the small kitchen and went into the living room. She picked up the pan and the thin silver hoop beside it. She smiled at the thought of doing dishes and reading a thousand futures in the dishwater. Back in the kitchen she and put everything away, then opened the back door to let a breeze through.
She could tell the future and dig up the past; find kidnapped people—or murdered children. And she could very well be alone when people realized what she did. Being an outsider for half her life had been enough. Freehaven held her new roots.
A month of normal life passed without any fortune telling but Nerissa felt guilty wondering if she wasted something important. And yet, temptation always lay in being able to manipulate someone, to try and help them. She was still undecided about her talent and what it meant. But she feared the mire of family traditions waiting to suck her back in.
A short, sharp rap sounded on her door, making Nerissa jump. She answered, peering through the screen and felt she examined a photograph etched with time. The man behind the screen was stark—black hair, ragged pale features, black and white clothes.
“You read my fortune a couple months ago. What did you do to me?”
“Do?” She remembered his hungry look even though he’d worn sunglasses. There had only been three bubbles. She’d picked the one she thought he’d wanted, the one with all the money. Nerissa shivered. “I didn’t do anything; just said what I saw.”
He glanced over his shoulder, then yanked screen door open, snapping the clasp and blocking the entry with his body.
Nerissa jumped back, her heart thumping but her body was confused, slow to realize the danger. “What are you doing!”
The man moved toward her, towering, his hands clenching menacingly at his sides. “Your reading… I…I got more money than I can count. But it’s no good. Something went wrong. Now, I…I owe people, the wrong people who—” He stopped, his mouth moving but no words escaping. He glanced jerkily about the room, then glared at Nerissa.
Nerissa rubbed her arms, prickly with goosebumps. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know it would go wrong. I only see one image.” A lie, or the truth filmed over. She backed slowly away, toward the kitchen.
He sprung like a striking snake, grabbing her about the throat. She clutched at his hands, pulling to loosen the choking hold. “It’s your fault. Change it, make a new reading.”
“I—I can’t,” she gasped. His fingers pressed into her flesh, bringing darkness to the edges of her vision. “It’s your destiny. Killing me will change nothing.”
His nose nearly touched hers and spit hit her face. “Read again, damn it! Read again or I’ll break your neck. Tell me what’s coming.”
Nerissa bit her lip. She was the doomsayer, the bubble burster. She nodded and he let her go.
He let her gather the supplies from the kitchen but didn’t leave her side. Nerissa sloshed water as she walked back to the living room. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket, flicking it open and sat close beside her on the couch. The blade scored her neck. “Tell me my options,” he growled.
She flinched but said, “You’ve got to give me space, to read properly.”
He moved across to a chair, the blade still in his hand. Nerissa glanced nervously at him, rubbing her neck, and uncapped the ceramic urn, pouring soapy water into the black pan. She pushed paper, books and pens aside. But before she dipped the hoop she tried to take a few deep breaths. Tinka’s words came back to her. Use what you know.
Calm settled over Nerissa like a white blanket and she truly looked at the man, sweating, obviously terrified and he didn’t think he had any choice left. He was grasping at straws. Obviously he didn’t want to die but how could she direct him? She remembered the cross about his neck, and the bubble with him stabbing off screen, grabbing a scarf. A green scarf like the one she wore.
She blew through the hoop. Two oily, ponderous bubbles emerged and wobbled down into the pan. She caught the images before they shattered in a wet burst. He was stabbing forward, her green scarf in his hand; the other had him begging on the street. How could she direct this?
She swallowed past a thickness in her throat and decided to try something new. What if that was the only outcome he could see? Maybe she could appeal to his instincts and his sense of right. Nerissa dipped and blew as second time, asking as the bubbles settled, “What if you gave the money back?”
“Not possible,” he snapped.
But she’d had time to see two bubbles; one revealed him dead at the feet of a man with a briefcase of money. The other showed him stabbing at her. The visions had changed but they both might still happen. “Do you still have the money?”
Her shaky hand pulled the hoop through the water while she visualized his choices and blew. “What if you gave it away, or to the police?” He started to answer but she shushed him.
Three soapy bubbles of varying sizes wafted into the air. The options were increasing. Nerissa’s gaze greedily took in the visions. She swallowed, feeling the hard tip of the blade although it was nowhere near her.
“I…uh, you don’t have great options but if, if you follow this one choice, you’ll live.”
“You give the money up to the police, turn state’s witness, and end up with a new identity but alive.”
He stood. Nerissa refused to cower but the blade swung in his hand.
“You couldn’t see all that. Lie again and you’re dead. Now what do you see?”
If she had more time, she could probably manipulate the bubbles better. “Two men kick down a door, and…they shoot you. Next, you are begging on the street. And you, uh—” She stopped, the sweat soaking her shirt, giving her shivers.
“All of them.” He leaned forward and grabbed her scarf, pulling it tight about her neck.
“You stab me.” Her breath came out in short gasps. “You kill me.” It would happen now that she’d spoken it. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see her end, imagining him begging instead.
The scarf pulled tighter and Nerissa tensed—a loud crack made her jumped, and she waited to feel the pain bleed through her. The screen door banged and another loud thump came from the porch. She slowly opened her eyes, looking around. He was gone. Then she saw the knife skewering a paper to her table.
As a car screeched down the street Nerissa walked to the door and looked out. There was a black suitcase on her porch and when she looked inside she saw stacks of cash. Bringing it inside, she set it down, then wriggled the knife free from a paper. A short list of names was scratched onto it.
She touched her neck. He had stabbed as she had seen but it hadn’t been her. Predictions could be subjective and only if she saw him again, which she hoped never to do, would she know if that last bubble was true. He’d made his choices, no matter how she had interpreted the bubbles. But they weren’t finite. Time was a moving line and many events took place after the images she saw.
Tinka had been right. Nerissa couldn’t change the past, but she could affect the future. Every choice a person made in life, whether they took someone else’s advice or not, directed and shaped their destiny.
She used the reward money to expand her landscaping business, and she used her fortune telling abilities, honing them to track down the gangly man in physical rehab. She offered him a job, driving a truck for her. That made another bubble in his fortune true.
Fortune telling would not rule her destiny; it was only a tool to master. The compania had tried to manipulate her and fill her with dire warnings of the gadjo because they had cared and were scared. She didn’t need to ignore them, nor follow their ways. Her world involved Freehaven, and even her family. It included good and bad, the power to see the future, and the power to affect some lives, beyond just spouting visions.
Bubbles are always shifting, changing, like a person’s life. Every decision directs a path in one way or another, leaving a long, well-marked trail of what has been and an unmarked land of what will be.
Colleen Anderson’s nearly 200 pieces of fiction and poetry are in such venues as Chilling Tales, Evolve, Exile Book of New Canadian Noir and Cemetery Dance. She has been an Aurora nominee, received honorable mentions in the Year’s Best anthologies and is in Imaginarium and Best of Horror Library. New pieces are coming in Nameless, Our World of Horror, OnSpec, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Pantheon. Her reprint collection “Embers Amongst the Fallen” is available at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/209663.