Improbable Futures by Kami Garcia

  Copyright © 2012 by Kami Garcia


  No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  "Improbable Futures" was originally published by Random House Childrens Books in the anthology Foretold: 14 Tales of Prophecy and Prediction, edited by Carrie Ryan.

  Cover image © lassedesignen / Dollar Photo Club


  When I was six years old, my mom sent me to school for a month. It was the first and last time I ever set foot in a real school. My mother said she was tired of moving around and decided it was time to settle down and “plant some roots.” Even at six, I knew it wouldn’t last, but I was willing to take what I could get. That’s what you do when you don’t get much.

  On the first day, I wandered into the classroom holding my mother’s hand like all the other kids. I was wearing a brand-new blue dress. I looked like a regular kid on the outside, which is the only part that counts. It’s the face the world sees, the one you can change as many times as you want. After lunch, the teacher, Mrs. Hale—I’ll never forget her name—called us to the rug in the front of the classroom. It was Share Time, and she asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I had no idea. I spent most of my time thinking about what I didn’t want to be.

  Hands flew up. The girl with the brown pigtails wanted to be a ballerina. The boy in the orange shirt, a garbageman. Hands kept raising and more jobs floated around the room, until the boy next to me called out, “I wanna be in the circus.” A hush fell over the group as the idea circulated like a virus. After that, almost everyone Mrs. Hale called on decided they wanted to be in the circus too.

  When it was my turn, I didn’t say a word. One thought threaded its way through my mind: Who would want to work for the circus? There was only one place worse—a place where the big tent was replaced by dingy trailers and cheap amusement park rides. Where you paid to see fortune-tellers and a bearded lady instead of trapeze artists and lion tamers. The place my mother had worked my whole life, and the one I was sure we would be returning to eventually, because she never left for long.

  Once a carny, always a carny.

  I slip out of my jeans and reach for the peasant top and ankle-length skirt balled up on the floor of the trailer. It has tiny bells sewn around the hem that chime when I walk barefoot across the lot. Between the skirt, bare feet, armload of bangles, and tangle of necklaces laden with mass-produced charms from the mall, I’m supposed to look like an exotic gypsy. It’s beyond cliché, but that’s what the marks—I mean the customers—want. The illusion I’m a mystical fortuneteller, who can watch their futures unfold through a glass ball I bought online for $29.99.

  Two years ago, on my fifteenth birthday, Mom offered to let me have her old crystal ball as if she was passing down a priceless heirloom, instead of the diversion I used to con people out of their money. I ordered my own the same day. There should be some honor among thieves. Even if the thief is your mother.

  It’s just after dark, and by the time I leave the trailer, the lot is already packed with skanky girls in tank tops and cutoffs, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. They’re crowded around the entrance to the Freak Show, flirting with Chris. I call him CR because he’s a shameless cradle robber. He’s twenty-five, but he looks closer to my age, which is the reason Big John makes him work the Show. The girls line up by the dozens, spending five bucks a pop to flirt with CR for thirty seconds before they check out the two-headed snakes and the Devil Baby—a disgusting silicone “alien” fetus floating in a glass jar full of murky liquid that passes for formaldehyde. CR said Big John bought it from a special-effects studio in Los Angeles that specializes in custom body parts for horror flicks. Between the flat snubbed nose and the curled claws, the Devil Baby is beyond horrific even if it is silicone. The Freak Show tent is really dark inside, but you’d still have to be an idiot to believe that thing in the giant pickle jar is a demon baby.

  This whole place runs on stupidity.

  Everyone knows the games are rigged, the rides are rusted death traps, the hot dogs aren’t made of anything that ever resembled a cow or a pig, and the silicone fetus isn’t the devil’s spawn. That’s why my mom and I, in our belled skirts and bare feet, are so important.

  Fortune-tellers are the reason people ignore the rest of the cons at a carnival. We’re the one thing they actually believe in. Even the nonbelievers. They climb into the trailer, part the silk curtains, and tell you how they know everything you’re about to tell them is a lie. Until you tell them the one thing they want to hear. The thing that makes them believers.

  We’re the ultimate grifters.

  Because after we reveal the secrets your future holds, we go back to our trailers, take off the hoop earrings, and throw those bell-covered skirts on the floor until tomorrow.

  When I get to the trailer with “Fortune-Teller” written on the side in cheap pink paint, there’s already a line outside it. Good. Let them wait.

  It only makes them hungrier for the crap I feed them when they get inside. I push past the couple standing at the base of the steps watching me expectantly. “Follow me.”

  Let the games begin.

  I scoop up my skirt and climb the makeshift stairs, a splinter cutting into the bottom of my foot. I bite the inside of my cheek until I taste blood. The tiny sliver of wood is like all the other painful things inside me that I will never be able to dig out.

  I close the door behind my customers and turn the knob on the glass oil lamps, bathing the room in dim reddish-yellow light. The walls are lined in colorful silk fabrics my mother artfully attached with a staple gun. More fabric is draped from the ceiling, twisting above the small table where my glass ball waits to decide their fate.

  The two of them are holding hands, giggling and whispering. “What do you think she’s going to say?” the girl asks.

  “That I’ll love you for the rest of my life,” he says.

  I steal a glance. They aren’t much older than me, but I know right away the girl is nothing like me. She’s happy.

  “Please take a seat.” I gesture to the chairs in front of the shimmering un-crystal ball. “What is it you desire to know this evening?”

  They sit down, hands still tangled together. “Aren’t you a little young to be a fortune-teller?” the guy asks.

  Of course I am.

  I should be in school, holding hands with a boy, picking out a dress for some stupid dance. But that was never the future my mother saw in her own crystal ball.

  “I come from a long line of mystics and my gift manifested early.” I pause, as if the ridiculous way I’m speaking isn’t dramatic enough. “Which means I’m very powerful. I assure you that whatever your futures hold, I will see it here.” I wave my hand over the ball with a flourish.

  The girl leans forward in her seat expectantly. She has long, wavy black hair just like mine. “What do you see?”

  I don’t see anything, because I’m staring into a hunk of glass I bought online for thirty bucks. But I can’t tell her that; I have to say something profound. Something that will change her life—at least for a few days.

  I frown, the muscles in my face tightening in mock concern.

  “What’s wrong?” The girl’s po
sture changes, stiffening to mirror mine.

  “I cannot get an accurate read.”

  “You saw something.” Her boyfriend is watching me carefully, aware that I’m hiding something. I can tell from his expression that he thinks it’s the truth. He’s half right. “Was it bad?”

  I look away. “I don’t want to say.”

  The girl inhales sharply and her boyfriend puts his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. “You have to tell us. Please.”

  “Are you absolutely sure you wish to know?” The question hangs between us, sucking the air out of the room.

  This is the moment.

  The one that determines whether or not I’ve played my part well enough—jingled those bells on my skirt with enough resolve. You have to give a moment like this space to breathe and time to take hold.

  The black-haired girl nods without taking her eyes off me.

  I have her.

  I can tell her anything now and she’ll believe me. If I were my mother, I would weave a tale of a bright future, ticking off the number of children she and her boyfriend will have by counting the lines on the edge of her hand. I try to imagine it for her, but I’m not my mother.

  The knot in my stomach tightens, born from fear and shame. The pressure and pain build, splintering into a thousand shards of glass that tear apart my insides. There’s only one way to stop the pain.

  I have to release it one tiny shard—one vicious fortune—at a time.

  “Enjoy what little time you have left,” I say. “You won’t be together by the next waxing moon.”

  “I don’t—” The girl shakes her head, confused.

  “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Her boyfriend sounds angry, but I can tell he’s afraid. Fear is the easiest emotion to read.

  I cover the ball with a scarf, as if I can’t bear to look at it myself. “I’m so sorry. The eye never lies.”

  I don’t need any help with that.

  “But we’re getting engaged,” the girl pleads. “Right, Tony?” The tears are falling now, leaving pale streaks in the foundation that’s too dark for her natural complexion. “It has to be a mistake.”

  I don’t respond. At this point, silence is more powerful than anything I can say.

  Tony stands up, knocking over the chair. He pulls the girl out of her seat, his knuckles white as he grips her hand. “This is a load of crap. You can’t see the future! We’re getting married. Aren’t we, Heather?”

  Heather nods, but I see the doubt spreading across her features. Tony doesn’t take his eyes off me as they back out of the trailer. He reaches the door and pauses for a second, offering me the chance to take it all back—to see another future for the two of them. When I don’t, he slams his hand against the door, sending it flying open.

  I lift the scarf off the ball, polishing it so I’ll be able to read the unfortunate future of the next person who steps inside.

  I don’t know how many people I see tonight. A woman with the cheap blond dye job and the pink lipstick smudge on her cigarette who wanted to know if her boyfriend was cheating—he was. An old man who had gambled away his life savings asked if he was ever going to win big at the races—of course he would. Two bad breakups on the horizon for the drunken girls showing too much cleavage, an unwanted visitor for the quiet brunette in the red sweater, and a few promises of impending bad news. There were more, but I forget most of them five minutes after they leave the trailer.

  That’s the way it is when you see twenty or thirty people every day for two weeks straight, until you pack up and head for the next town.

  It’s always the same. Only the fast-food joints change.

  The carnival is winding down. It gets quiet, the whir of the rides and the rhythm of the screams from the midway fading into a loop of eighties heavy metal songs. My line started thinning around eleven. But if Van Halen isn’t blaring from the speakers, it’s midnight by now.

  Enough tears for one night.

  As I make my way back to the trailer I share with my mom, I see the familiar orange glow of a cigarette in the darkness. I know exactly who it belongs to. I also know he’s waiting for me.

  Big John steps out of the shadows and into the lights of the midway. The rides aren’t running anymore, but the neon bulbs of the Scrambler are still flashing. I look down at him because he’s half my height. Big John is a dwarf, but his nickname isn’t a joke. This is a fence-to-fence operation, which means he owns everything here—the rides we work, the trailers we sleep in, and the food we eat. He owns us too, and he’s an evil bastard. He calls himself Big John to remind everyone that he owns us and his stature doesn’t affect his ability to hurt us.

  I should know.

  “You little bitch,” he hisses between gritted teeth. “You think I don’t know you were chasing my customers away again?”

  He grabs my wrist, twisting it until I fall to my knees. What Big John lacks in height, he makes up for in strength. The pain shoots up my arm, but I barely feel it. All I can think about is the way my skin crawls from the feel of his skin against mine. And how many times he’s touched me before.

  The first time was four years ago, but it feels like it’s been going on forever. Like nothing existed before that day and nothing could exist after it.

  I can’t exist after it.

  He steps closer, his pockmarked face inches from mine. “Need me to teach you a lesson? ’Cause it would be my pleasure.” He presses against me, and there’s nothing but the smell of stale cigarettes and sweat. Nothing but a thousand more nights like this in my future. Unless I want him to leave my mom and me in one of these crap towns, with nothing but the clothes on our backs.

  I wouldn’t care, but this is the only life my mother knows.

  I remember the month she spent as a checker at the grocery store when I was in kindergarten, trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. She told me it was the longest month of her life. She missed the dizzying lights and outdated music of the midway, the bells on her skirt that made her feel like she was something special, and the rush of predicting futures that would never come true.

  “You listening to me, Ilana?” Big John’s pinched red face stares back at me, anger coming off him in waves.

  I don’t respond. Anything I say will make him angrier, and my own rage already threatens to eat me alive.

  Finally, he releases me and I can breathe again. Big John flicks his cigarette at me as he walks away. “Remember what I said.”

  As if I can ever forget.

  My mother believes that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But she’s wrong.

  When evil unthinkable things happen, they don’t make you stronger. They keep killing you over and over again. And you don’t forget. You relive them, trapped in a continual loop that never ends. She swears you can make it stop by forgiving and moving forward. I’m moving forward, but I’ll never forgive.

  The light is on inside our trailer, which means my mom already cashed out for the night. When I open the door that never stops squeaking no matter how many times we grease it, she’s unbraiding her hair in front of the mirror. My mom is beautiful, my polar opposite in every way. She’s fragile and delicate looking, the kind of woman men automatically allow to walk through doors first. I’m not beautiful or delicate, or even ugly.

  I’m nothing.

  My mother turns to face me, and I know Big John has already been here. I can see the disappointment in her eyes. She gives me a moment to offer an explanation, even though I never give her one. She senses tonight is no different and plunges in. “Ilana, why do you keep doing this? Big John is going to kick us out if you keep this up.”

  That’s what I want.

  She puts her hands on my shoulders gently. “You’re hurting people. You know that, don’t you?”

  I laugh, and it sounds as bitter and vicious as I feel. “And you’re not? We lie to people for a living. You don’t think that hurts them?”

  “Yes, we lie. But these poor
souls come to us for hope—to hear their lives will get better. You promise them they won’t. We may not be able to predict the future, but we can influence it.”

  I’ve heard this before, but it never stops sounding ridiculous. “You honestly believe that?”

  She picks up a miniature crystal ball sitting on the corner of her vanity. “Do you know what they used to call these?” She turns the ball between her fingers. “The witch’s eye. People believed that only a powerful witch could see the future. We may not be able to alter the hands of fate, but the power of suggestion is very real. We affect people’s lives. And we can choose to make their lives better, even if it’s just for a few minutes.”

  There is no way to make her understand. I’m not capable of making anyone else’s life better when I can’t even change my own.

  “I can’t lie with a smile on my face. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” Now I am lying and she knows it. I’m a better grifter than my mother any day of the week.

  My whole life is a lie.

  Tony was pissed. He’d spent the last two hours with Heather, trying to convince her that he wasn’t going to change his mind about getting engaged, while she cried her eyes out. All because of some stupid fortune-teller at a cheap-ass carnival.

  Tony knew it was crap. He wasn’t going to change his mind. He was crazy about Heather. He’d already bought a ring, one of those fancy ones from the jewelry store at the mall. Tony had saved for six months to buy it, and now it was burning a hole in his dresser drawer. After what happened tonight, he almost told Heather about the ring.

  But that wasn’t the way he wanted to propose—with his girl freaked out because of some second-rate psychic.

  Maybe he should’ve given it to her.…

  Tony shoved his hands in his pockets, distracted. He was still thinking about it when he stepped off the curb. He never saw the car coming.

  Jeanie unlocked the front door. The town house was quiet, a relief after the never-ending noise of the carnival. Loud music, even louder rides, and the voice of the fortune-teller she couldn’t forget.

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