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Unforeseen Circumstances by Richard J. Toon
published in Volume 3, Issue 2 on February 29th, 1996

Fay turned the oversized card face up to reveal the Queen of Pentacles. Deftly, she placed it in the complex pattern emerging on the kitchen table.

"That's good, very good," Fay said. "You were unlucky in love, I can feel that, but now your future is about to lead you somewhere new."

"I've always believed you make your own future." Ruth said. "What happened to free will?"

"Nothing is predetermined," Fay said, "you can always act to change it, but first you have to know what's possible. How can you exercise that so-called free will unless you know what the future could be?"

Ruth did not have an answer. She found herself studying Fay, trying to judge whether she was a fake psychic. It was impossible: she had no notion of the genuine article. She scrutinized Fay's false nails, the long floral skirt, the maroon crushed-velvet jacket, and assumed this was standard uniform for a "reader." Learning from Fay's face was also difficult. She was about Ruth's age -- early forties -- but whether her life was tough or easy, happy or sad, no signs were visible. Ruth glanced around the room at the cheap furniture and dated kitchen appliances for further clues. If Fay could see the future, why hadn't she done better than this dilapidated rented-house? Ruth was startled when Fay answered her unspoken thoughts.

"I can see how things will turn out for others, but I can't do the same for myself. Some psychics use a personal item, like a ring, but the Tarot cards work well for me. It's something for both of us to concentrate on."

Ruth blushed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply . . . I don't want you to think. . . ." She could see from Fay's puzzled expression that she'd made a mistake. She was getting carried away and for a moment confused a coincidental remark with telepathy.

Fay scooped-up the cards and handed the neat pack to Ruth, who shuffled them awkwardly and two fell onto the table. Fay picked them up again and said, "Think about the question you came with. Try to concentrate."

"I didn't come with a question."

"Yes you did. You just can't see it yet. Everyone comes with a question."

Ruth lived in New York. Divorced two years earlier, she still felt fragile and alone. There was work of course; but when she came home to the empty apartment, a sickly darkness would move in on her like a fog. She worried about how she would spend the summer this year. Staying in the city was out of the question. Yet, she couldn't face going out to the Hamptons where she might bump into Simon with his new woman. Luckily, her sister Mary suggested she join her in Nag's Head, North Carolina.

Mary and her husband Bill had retired to a beach-front property a year ago. The sale of Bill's real estate business made it possible for them to make the move while they were still quite young. They visited the Outer Banks when they were first married and always said they'd return. Ruth thought it an ideal solution, she could fly down every other Friday for a long weekend, and it might even cost less than the Long Island alternative.

The day before the "reading" Ruth and Mary were walking along the beach at twilight. On the horizon they could see the flat silhouettes of two large tankers. They merged head on and for a moment melted into a single shadow-puppet. Then they became two ships again. The line that marked where sea and sky touched, and the shapes of the ships, all were shades of muted grey.

"I've been to see a psychic, she's really good," Mary said.

"What do you mean 'good'?" Ruth asked. "Don't tell me you believe that stuff."

"I know what you think," Mary said, smiling, "but it's not like that. At first I only went out of curiosity, but she told me things. It was like therapy, only quicker. It was like seeing what I already knew. Instead of spending months struggling to talk out the issues with someone, she just told me about myself without asking a thing. It short-circuits the whole process."

"That's useful, given how much I paid for fifty-minutes of therapy on the Upper West Side."

"I thought you might like to see her. I made an appointment. She lives five minutes from here."

"I didn't say I wanted to see her." Ruth snapped. Ruth always resented her sister's arrangements, even when it was something she wanted. For her part, Mary was always trying to find ways to accept Ruth's moods, and so said nothing.

They finished their walk along the cold sand, close to the water's edge. The last of the light caught on the white-lined crests of the waves that roared continuously along the shore. To Ruth it sounded like a never-ending number four subway train entering Grand Central Station. Ruth knew that it would take time to leave the city behind. She really needed to relax, take it easy. As they entered the house Ruth asked, "What time did you say the appointment is for?"

Mary was waiting for Ruth after the session. She kept the car engine running for the A/C. Ruth emerged and shook Fay's hand on the doorstep. Fay noticed Mary waiting in the car and waved. Mary waved back but did not wind down the window, trying not to intrude on their parting. As Ruth climbed in beside her, Mary asked, "How was it?"

"Fine," Ruth said, "Fine." Mary knew this meant she shouldn't ask. It wasn't until the next day, on their long trip back to the airport, that Ruth began to talk about the experience.

"Actually, I don't know what to make of it," Ruth said. "It was weird. Fay seemed to know everything: from the pain I had when Simon left, to that stupid yellow paint job in the bathroom, the one you've always hated. She knew a lot of stuff. She surprised me. Maybe you gave her clues without knowing it. But it was more than that, she seemed to know me somehow. She told me I have some big choices coming up, that I need to let go of the past and get on with life. What else? That I am analytical. Oh yes, she said I should do something connected with water. She told me lots of stuff. I've been trying to write it all down but I can't remember as much as I would like. We'll see if anything comes true." Ruth looked out of the car window at the trees streaming past by the side of the highway.

"Well, maybe you should learn to sail Bill's boat this summer," Mary said, glancing over to her sister and smiling, "that's definitely connected with water. He always wanted a boat and now he's got one, he hardly ever takes it out. He needs someone to share it with and I hate boats. He'd love to teach you to sail."

"Maybe I'll do just that. Fay said that once you know what's in the cards you should grasp the chances as they come along. I have to admit it, she impressed me. Was it like that for you?"

"Yes, of course, that's why I suggested it, but how can she know that stuff? It's amazing."

Two weeks later Ruth was back in Nag's Head for the weekend. She told Mary she had spoken to Fay several times on the phone from New York and had arranged to see her twice while she was in town. Mary was pleased it worked out so well, but was a little surprised at Ruth's sudden conversion to psychic readings, although she didn't say so.

When Ruth was not visiting Fay, she was out on the boat for lessons. Bill had purchased the sailboat to explore the shallow waters around the tidal marsh behind the Outer Banks barrier island. Ruth was a good crew and learned fast. They would take the boat out from the marina under power, cut the engine, and unfurl the headsail. Bill put her through the series of exercises he had learned from expensive lessons the previous summer: stopping the boat leeward of a marker, turning head to the wind, and carrying toward the marker under the boat's momentum; and, jibing and tacking through a tight figure of eight. It was as if she were destined to sail: her ability to maneuver the craft, pilot from point to point, and read local charts, was soon better than his.

The summer rolled along. Ruth took the boat out for short trips around Roanoke Island, first with Bill and then alone. Bill said she was a natural. Mary no longer consulted Fay, she felt uncomfortable. It was like sharing a therapist. It didn't seem right to her somehow. At their last session Fay turned over a card called the Emperess and said, "You and Ruth are much alike, but she's more willing to entertain new beliefs." Mary didn't like the comparison and wondered if it was ethical to mention other clients. She dismissed the thought. What was ethical Tarot reading anyway? She didn't say anything to Ruth and Ruth never asked her why she stopped consulting Fay.

Ruth went to Fay religiously --twice each week-end-- but rarely mentioned what they talked about. One evening, while Bill was outside barbequing local fish for the evening meal, the sisters sat in the kitchen with glasses of white wine. They finally came around to talking about Fay. Mary didn't probe as much as she wanted to, but was surprised when Ruth said, "Something important is going to happen to me soon, something that's going to change my life. Fay, told me."

Mary and Bill lay in bed that night discussing Ruth. "Does Ruth seem different to you?" Mary asked.

"I don't think so," Bill said, "If anything she seems a little more sure of herself. She's really good with the boat."

"Does she ever talk about going to see Fay?"

"Not much. She knows I'm not into it. I leave that up to you two. I think she's wasting her money on those readings, but that's up to her." The bed groaned as Bill rolled over. Mary lay in the dark listening to Bill breath. Through the open window she could hear the ocean. The sounds blended into a steady rhythm which soon drowned her in sleep.

The Labor day weekend was surprisingly hot. On the Bay side, boats bobbed and jostled in their moorings. On the ocean side, dogs ran in the dunes, couples struggled coolers to the beach, and, overhead, screaming gulls rode the onshore wind. Hang-gliders in primary colors turned on invisible thermals, high against the clear blue sky.

Ruth took the boat out early morning and, passing west of Roanoke Island, headed south along Croatan Sound. She thought of the colony of over a hundred people who mysteriously disappeared somewhere near her spot over four hundred years earlier. She wondered where the Lost Colony was, the shifting sands had obliterated the island long ago. Her life felt just as ephemeral, just as shifting. A gust of wind could change it forever or simply blow it away. Fay had told her she needed to decide what to do with her life. She lowered the mainsail and let the boat drift. She would decide.

"I was worried about you this afternoon," Bill said to Ruth. "I thought when you didn't come back for so long that you might have had an accident."

The evening meal was over and they were sitting in the dark on the deck of the old wooden house. They faced the ghostly shapes of the sand-dunes, gazing toward the ocean. The night was clear and, with the house lights off, they could see the silver dust of the milky-way.

"I'm sorry, I was just thinking and lost track of time." Ruth said.

Bill was smoking his after-dinner cigar. All they could see of him was the end glowing red in the dark. "This is the life," he said.

"Is everything OK then Ruth?" Mary asked.

"I wish you wouldn't worry so much. I'm fine and I'm sorry I was so quiet at dinner. I've come to a decision I need to talk to you about. I've decided to leave New York. There's nothing for me there anymore. I need to leave that life behind, start another. I was thinking, could I stay here for a while? A few months maybe? It's so hard to leave the city and just set up somewhere else. I thought this could be a place to make the transition."

"I think that's a great idea," Bill said. He was feeling good and generous. "I don't know why anyone wants to live in the city. There's plenty of room. Take as long as you like."

Mary sat in the inky blackness feeling the warm night breeze on her legs. She felt a disquiet she could not put her finger on and said, "If you're sure that's what you want to do. I'd love it."

"I'm sure," Ruth said.

In just a few weeks, Ruth was back to stay. She'd managed to sublet her apartment, place her belongings in storage, and resign from the Soho gallery she managed. Mary suspected that Ruth must have already begun to plan well before she asked to move in, but she kept the thought to her self.

Whenever the weather was fair, Ruth took the boat out, sometimes with Bill, but more often on her own. She would also see Fay about three times a week and would be gone for the whole afternoon. The rest of the time was spent on long walks on the beach gathering shells. She showed no interest in the local tourist attractions: the Wright Brothers memorial at Kitty Hawk, the Elizabethan Gardens, or the Lost Colony exhibit on Roanoke Island.

Mary worried that her sister was brooding. She wanted to talk to her about it, but didn't know how to open the conversation. Mary considered she had a close relationship with Ruth, but thought there would be trouble if she interfered.

Late morning of the third Saturday in October, the phone rang while Ruth was out walking. Mary answered. It was Fay. They spoke politely, neither of them referring to the five-month interval since Mary had consulted her. "Could you tell Ruth there's someone I'd like her to meet? We're going to the new grill on Beach Front at seven-thirty tonight. I'd love it if Ruth could come." Mary said she would be sure to tell Ruth when she got back.

In her eagerness, Ruth arrived early. The restaurant was an establishment targeted to summer visitors. It hoped to hang on in quiet desperation through the off-season. Its decor was meant to recreate an Elizabethan tavern. In the entrance, they'd stacked wooden beer barrels in a pyramid. Olde English lettering ran across the top of the bar, proclaiming the names of import-beers.

A waiter showed Ruth to a booth with high, wooden-backed seating and an uneven wooden table. Seeing was difficult beneath the pale yellow glow from the ship's lantern that hung from a chain above the table. The large laminated menu had an insert that told of the "romance" of Sir Walter Raleigh and the "mystery" of the lost colonist's disappearance. Ruth read the menu's mythology in the half-light while she waited for the others to arrive. She couldn't see into the next booth, but was surprised to hear Fay's voice.

"Sure, I make enough money to get by. The woman you're about to meet tonight sees me three times a week, sometimes more. She's one of my best customers. She even moved down here from New York City." Ruth could hear a man's muffled laughter and it froze her.

"Look, I perform a valuable service. The world's full of lost, lonely people. They shuffle the cards and I tell them what they want to hear about themselves. They want to know if they should get another job, or take a lover, have a child, or travel the world. I tell them. But I don't tell them to do anything they don't want to do. They give me money to tell them what they really already know. But they need to pay me because if they didn't, they wouldn't believe it. That's a real service. She'll be here in a minute, so stop laughing and behave yourself. Ruth's very sensitive, so don't go ruining it for me."

Ruth rushed out, breathing heavily. She found her car and leaned her head on the steering wheel for a few moments, feeling dizzy. She recovered enough to drive slowly north along route twelve. She turned off at a side street chosen at random. She sat for a long time staring ahead with the engine running.

She felt betrayed, foolish, and humiliated. The emotions replaced each other in waves, swelling and subsiding. She recognized their tide from when Simon walked out. She'd thought those feelings were behind her, having slowly learned to trust Fay. But she found betrayal again. Eventually the moving ocean of her feelings subsided to a glassy still lake of anger.

Ruth slept late the next day. She managed to avoid Mary and Bill, who shouted into her room that they were driving to New Bern to visit historic houses, they would be back later. It was early afternoon before Ruth was calm enough to dial Fay's number. "I'm so sorry I missed your friend last night, I didn't get your message from Mary until it was too late," she said. Her voice sounded calm but she was jittery inside.

"That's a shame. I told him all about you," Fay said, "Jim's gone now, he left this morning, had to get a plane back to Colorado Springs."

"If it's still good weather tomorrow, would you like to go for a sail in my brother-in-law's boat? We could meet in the morning, say ten o'clock, I could pick you up." Ruth said. The boat was the one place left Ruth felt confident. Get her out on the boat and confront her, she thought.

"Sounds great."

"At ten then." Ruth's hand was shaking as she placed the receiver back on the cradle. The inner white pain obscured Ruth's anger at a world that could treat her like this.

A slight breeze was blowing as they left the marina. Without looking at her instruments, Ruth estimated the wind speed at less than eight knots. They headed north east toward Albemarle Sound. The sun shone on the granite tower of the Wright Brothers memorial behind them in the distance. Ruth turned due east and the wind picked up to moderate as the boat sliced through small white caps that began to form.

Finally, Ruth felt confident. She could see Fay was ill at ease, and, like most novices, had underestimated how cold it could be out on the water. Fay was shivering, hunkered down in the cockpit, the arms of her sweatshirt pulled down over her hands. Ruth had no sympathy. The wind on the water and the bright sky made Ruth feel reckless and wild. She was enjoying the feeling of power. She imagined it was the same joy Fay must have felt for all these months: the joy of exercising control over another person, of having a person's fate in your hands. Fay stood, steadying herself against the companion way. "Shouldn't I wear a life-jacket or something?"

"Yes, of course" Ruth said, "I should have thought of it when we left. My mind was on other things. You'll find them stowed beneath the bench." She pointed to the seating running along the side of the cockpit.

Suddenly, Ruth was swamped in anger. Her feelings were flowing free. Fay leaned over to lift the seating. Ruth uncleated the mainsail and pulled the tiller to windward. The boom swept swiftly across the boat and hit Fay a crushing blow, directly on the forehead. Fay lay motionless on the floor of the cockpit. Without hurrying Ruth centered the tiller and eased out the sail. The boat continued to slice through small white cap waves as Ruth struggled to hoist Fay over the side. Fay's arms became tangled in the lifelines close to the stern rail, methodically Ruth pulled them free and rolled the body overboard into the shallow weeds and water around the boat.

She sat clutching the tiller, breathing heavy. Now she had acted. Now she had chosen a path. Wasn't this just what Fay had demanded? Choose a course of action and finish it? The opportunity had flashed in front of her, just for a moment, and she had embraced it with all the free will she possessed. No turning back. No regret. No anger. She felt pure.

The boat glided into the marina. No one gave Ruth a second look as she fastened the dock lines. She played a sharp jet of water into the boat and washed away all trace of blood on the boom and the floor of the cockpit. She wound the excess rope into precise coils on the cabin roof. She examined the boat once before leaving: yes, everything was as it should be.

It was some weeks later and Mary and Bill were in bed discussing Ruth. They agreed that Ruth took the news of Fay skipping town surprisingly well. There was none of the usual dark depression. Bill said he was glad she was gone. Mary agreed, perhaps it was for the best after all. Bill said he had heard a story about it in the barber's shop. The old guy who cut his hair knew everything that went on and told him the "psychic lady" had skipped out owing three months rent.

The Realtor was holding her few belongings in case she returned. Some joker had left a sign on the door, it read: Psychic called away due to unforseen circumstance. Bill didn't know if it was true, but he chuckled himself to sleep that night. Mary listened to the wind buffeting the windows. Ruth seemed happier, that was the main thing, and Mary slept deeply with her hand on Bill's side.

Ruth told herself there was no need to fear, the body would never be found. She just knew it somehow. Indeed, it had been three months and no news. She was getting on with life and had applied to various colleges to study navigation. She eagerly awaited the mail each day. Then a letter came from someone in Colorado Springs. It contained a sheet of paper and an envelope inside addressed to Ruth. The envelope was in Fay's handwriting. The sheet of paper read:

"You don't know me. My name is Jim. A few months ago I met a friend of yours called Fay in a bar. I was in town for the hang-gliding competition. We got to talking and she told me a lot of strange things about how she was a psychic. She said she trusted me to look after an envelope addressed to you. She must be a good judge of character because here it is. She said that she had written down some predictions on a piece of paper and that I should post it to you in three months. I promise I didn't steam the letter open! I would be curious to know, though, if she got anything right, drop me a line if you want to. If I ever come to North Carolina again, I hope to see both of you."

Ruth tore open the envelope. It contained a note dated the day before the incident at the restaurant. It read:

"Dear Ruth, I know you have begun to doubt me of late and so I am writing this letter. A friend will send it to you. I have asked him to mail it after three months. Maybe this demonstration will make you believe in me again. You can check with Jim but I promise that I have not contacted him. I cannot explain what the message means,but I believe in following what intuition tells me to do.

"You will make a great discovery about yourself. You will use water to heal yourself of pain."

That night Ruth had a dream that she was washing her hands in her bathroom sink. She looked down into the basin and saw Fay's head floating in the water. Her hair moved in the water like green weeds wafting in the shallow bay. Ruth dreamed her fingers became entangled in Fay's hair and she could not get free.

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