Nebraska was underwater. A dense snowpack met with an unseasonable increase in temperature and near biblical amounts of rain to breech dams and levees and leave the landlocked state so inundated that the flood waters were visible from space. Early estimates of infrastructure damage were in the billions, the body count was rising, and the state’s two largest cities were unable to produce drinking water due to loss of electricity at wells and treatment plants. To top it all off, over one million head of cattle had drowned, ensuring the slow death of ranches that had been in families for generations.
Yet still her husband’s week-long party continued, its attendants inured to the struggles of those outside of their circle. The old manor stood in the sandhills in the western part of the Cornhusker State, on land purchased from Ted Turner—if Marlon’s odd boast was to be believed. And even though the rains had continued and dams kept breaking, the expansive villa was still bone dry, atop its hill which rose just above the waterline.
“It was going to be a hotel,” he’d told her on their honeymoon, three years prior, “but whoever was building it ran out of money.” Anna had been looking forward to getting away from her husband since the moment he’d married her, and the big empty manse seemed filled with opportunities to be alone. She’d accepted his proposal as a means of escaping the family farm. Marlon had to know that, even though they’d never discussed it aloud. What other reason could there be for a woman thirty years his junior to reciprocate his flirtations?
The mansion’s carpets were so soft and thick that Anna imagined they’d absorb even sound itself. The ceiling in the lobby was impossibly high and domed. Symmetrical, carved molding—the color of muted gold—crept up the cream white walls like ivy. The furniture was ornately detailed as well, with the same scrolling curves and cherubs and sculpted tree branches. Marlon described the décor as rococo, but the word meant nothing to Anna. To her, the manor felt like a church. One that venerated some strange, unfathomable god.
The east wing of the first floor consisted of a main thoroughfare lined with doors leading into parlors, game rooms, libraries, intimate music halls, and several dining rooms. The corridor terminated at a ticket booth with a pair of curtains on either side that led into a fully-featured auditorium. The west wing was a collage of bare brick walls, perpetually billowing sheets of plastic, paint-splotched ladders, unhung doors, and sheets of drywall dotted with spackling paste. There were no windows in the west wing, but the air moved in there—sometimes outward causing candles in the main hall to flicker, sometimes inward, producing a hollow aspiratory sound, as if the mansion itself were inhaling.
An elevator at the rear of the lobby led down to the wine cellar, the expansive food pantry, the kitchen, and the gun range.
Staircases with ivory banisters wound out of the lobby to the second and third floors. The sleeping chambers were all three-room suites with living areas, fireplaces, dry saunas and hot tubs.
One would suspect that as a farm girl used to working from sun up to sun down, Anna would have intimate knowledge of just how long a day could be. But after listening to her husband drone on about finances, Anna found herself longing for the salad days of tossing eighty pound hay bales, mucking stables, and removing stillborn calves from their mothers.
At twenty-one, she thought herself young enough to return back to her former life. Even if her family wouldn’t take her back. She could get brought on somewhere as a hired man, maybe with the Finneys. If Anselmo had survived the flooding.
But that was step three. Step one was getting out of that mansion and away from the throng of immaculately dressed socialites. Step two was filing for divorce.
And while she meditated on that burgeoning plan, the large, black grandfather clock in the lobby sounded midnight to the thunderous, intoxicated approval of Marlon’s guests. Earlier that evening, everyone had descended the stairs into the lobby dressed in their most provocative attire. And they all wore masks. Mardi Gras masks, Phantom of the Opera masks, Guy Fawkes masks. The level of anonymity they provided seemed negligible to Anna. Perhaps it was more of a symbolic gesture. For once the clock struck midnight, all of the guests had agreed to temporarily overlook their marriage vows.
Marlon insisted that the events of that particular evening were orchestrated merely to appease his many guests who had grown bored with their partners. He, himself, had no such desire for any extramarital dalliances. He wore no mask, denoting his abstinence from the festivities.
Anna didn’t care, wouldn’t care if he slept with every man and woman in the villa. She resented him no more than on any other day. The unwelcome attention from prospective suitors only reinforced her inclination to be anywhere else. Even underwater with the cattle.
So while the clock chimed and revelers toasted and cheered, Anna sat in a wingback chair near the flapping plastic of the unfinished west wing and glared at anyone who dared make eye contact. Across the lobby, Marlon sat at the head of a poker table, smoking a cigar that cost more than her first car. His stack of chips was the largest. “I can be beaten,” he was fond of saying, “but I never lose.”
As she continued to scan the room, she noticed heads turning in her direction, more and more of them, their mouths screwed up in disgusted snarls. Her nose was arrested by a wet, earthy rot. It was a smell she was familiar with—dead animal. A shadow moving in her periphery demanded her attention and she turned to see a nude woman emerge from the desolate west wing. Her skin was covered in mud and grease. Wet leaves were woven through her long, soaked, black hair, and they clung to her body like tattoos. Atop her hair sat a cow’s head that seemed to have been partially hollowed out so that it could be worn as a crown, though not fully emptied as its bloated black tongue hung from its mouth and its wide, dead eyes reflected the hundreds of pinpoint lights from candles arranged around the lobby. The bovine’s hide had been turned into an extended headdress that fell down around the naked woman’s shoulders and back. Its hooves clattered against the marble floor as she moved toward Marlon’s poker table. An unnatural silence fell as the celebrants parted and allowed her a clear path to their host. Anna stood and followed. If this intruder meant her husband malice, she wanted to see it up close.
Marlon’s usually confident smile faltered as the mystery woman approached the table. Anna thought that she could hear him swallow as he gazed at her.
“Buy-in is five thousand,” he said, his hand shaking as he gestured toward an empty seat.
The woman sat, her headdress draped over the back of the chair. Anna took care not to stand on the thing’s tail as she observed. The mystery woman slowly lifted the cow head with one hand, while the other reached into its hollow and produced a deck of cards.
“Let’s try a different kind of game,” the mystery woman said. Her voice was molasses thick and sultry. Marlon cleared the table as she shuffled the large purple-backed cards. Anna recognized them almost immediately as tarot cards—the design on the reverse side eerily similar to the set she’d procured at a flea market on her ninth birthday. “What knowledge do you desire?” she asked.
A hesitant smile crept across Marlon’s lips. “You’re going to tell my fortune?”
The mystery woman did not respond, merely continued her shuffling.
“Okay,” he said, grinning as if he’d been let in on some secret joke. “Okay. Here’s my question. What’s the point of all this? Existence? Our time on this planet? What’s the meaning of life?” In their three years of marriage, Anna had never once known her husband to be interested in anything so existential. She found this unfamiliar facet of his character somewhat alluring. It made her despise him a little less.
“I cannot answer such a broad question,” the mystery woman said. “All of humanity does not sit here before me. You’re just one man. Ask a question befitting your station.”
The grin melted from his face, replaced with anxiety. “What’s the point of my life?” he asked.
The mystery woman laid ten cards, face down, out in a pattern that reminded Anna of a strand of DNA. The spread she recognized as the Tree of Life.
“Hang on,” Marlon said. “You know me. When the stakes are high, I’m more of a Blackjack kind of guy. Keep it simple, get it over with fast.”
Anna was sure that he’d said something similar to her on one of their first dates.
“You’ve never played with stakes this high,” the woman said.
“Still, let’s not complicate this. I don’t need to know what kind of breakfast I’m going to have next week. Just the big stuff.”
The woman swept the spread back up into her hand and cut the deck into three, laying the piles out next to one another. “The fewer the cards in the spread, the less we can learn. But perhaps you’re only interested in past, present, and future.”
“What else is there?”
“So be it,” she said, flipping the first card. “Your past. The Chariot. You’ve had much success. Your will was iron and you knew how to make your dreams into realities. If there were things that you wanted, you got them.”
“Wow, how’d you guess that,” one of Marlon’s guests quipped. There was a small swell of laughter that was immediately neutered when the mystery woman’s piercing gaze found the joker. She slowly turned back to Marlon.
“The present,” she said, flipping the middle card. “The Moon. This is a time of great illusion. Things are certainly not as they seem. Those nearest to you are more duplicitous than you realize. Your fears will likely be made manifest if you make rash decisions.”
Marlon’s countenance changed. His shoulders slumped, his face dropped, and he was no longer sneaking glances at the mystery woman’s exposed, mud-covered breasts.
The woman reached up and tugged on her cow’s protruding tongue before flipping the last card. “The future. The Lovers.” She placed a finger on her lips and slowly traced it down to her chest. Marlon’s eyes were glued to it until it dipped below the edge of the table. “You’ll have the best sex of your life,” she purred. She stood and reached her open hand across the table. Marlon took it and followed her up the stairs.
Anna would never have imagined the tinge of jealousy she felt in seeing her husband march into a bedroom with another woman. She didn’t care about the man. Yet still, she felt slighted.
With the queer woman out of sight, life returned to the party. Liquor flowed, strangers paired off, and several men asked if Anna was looking for some company. She was not looking for company. What she was looking for, with a renewed vigor, was a way to escape the mansion. She couldn’t stand being there for even one more night.
She moved through the lobby and onto the back veranda. The view from this patio had been her favorite thing about the manse. The villa stood on a tall hill overlooking the ponderosa trees and the gently gurgling Niobrara River. However, on that night, the only view was of a shimmering blackness in all directions. Tree tops breached the surface of the water at regular intervals, like posts that had once held up some long forgotten dock. Lighting strobed on the horizon, silhouetting the brooding storm clouds and thunder growled like a complaint unaired.
A few party boats were anchored not far from the shore and the screams and laughter from those aboard sounded shrill and perverse echoing across the blighted landscape. A pack of Marlon’s college friends had transported their yachts to the flooded Missouri River in South Dakota, at which pointed they’d boarded them and set sail to the mansion. If you don’t arrive in style, one of them had said, why even bother showing up? Anna always seemed to be within earshot when they’d recount their journey across the South Dakota-Nebraska border at the Yankton Indian Reservation, how in the middle of Nebraska they’d witnessed helicopters air dropping hay bales for cows to climb on so that they wouldn’t drown, and how the cows climbed on top of each other to get on the bales and then died anyway from eating their lifeboats out from underneath them. This act of desperation never failed to get a rise out the audience, and the sailors quickly learned to end their story on a high note and excise the part about watching a panicked couple trapped in their car slowly disappear under the waterline.
Anna leaned against the stone balustrade and waited for one of the boats to return to shore. And while she did, she became entranced by the moon’s reflection on the tar-black water. This is a time of great illusion, the mystery woman had said. But what did she know? She’d read her husband’s final card wrong. The Lovers had been upside down—reversed. It didn’t mean that he was about to have the best sex of his life. It meant that his marriage was going to end.
She grew weary of waiting for the yachts’ return and decided that the helicopter on the roof was a more immediate solution to her problem. She’d seen the pilot in one of the gaming rooms, biding his time until the wealthy celebrants were too intoxicated to mind a person of his standing at their table. But it seemed that he himself was not immune to the charms of the fully stocked bars and when Anna found him, he could barely stand. Still, he claimed that he could be of use if she would assist him in finding the Hydration Room. To better facilitate week-long benders, Marlon had hired a staff of nurses to oversee the administration of IV bag fluids to his hungover guests.
Gleaming wooden bookshelves lined the walls of the library, packed with leather tomes that had been chosen solely for their aesthetic quality. The desks and lamps—purchased from the New York Public Library—had been moved into the basement storage area to make room for the reclining beds and white noise machines. Nearly every bed in the Hydration Room was occupied by guests wearing rubber Halloween masks, colorful African masks, and even a plague doctor mask. Silent nurses stood over them, afraid to speak and nullify their contracts.
When the pilot had been hooked up to a bag of fluids, he told Anna about his co-pilot, a young blond kid from California—working on the flight time requirement necessary for his licensing test.
“It wouldn’t be legal, so to speak,” he slurred, “but if it’s really an emergency like you say, he’s your best bet. He might need a little, uh, convincing though,” the pilot said, leering at her.
Before seeking the boy from California, Anna took the elevator at the rear of the lobby to the basement. She marched past the groping couple in the wine cellar, past the kitchen which was staffed day and night for the party, past the recently-constructed vomitorium with its slanted marble sinks and perfume dispensers and breath-freshening sprigs of mint. At the far end of the basement, she arrived at the shooting range. A pistol was all the convincing that the boy from California was going to get. She closed one eye and aimed a handgun at the cutout targets that Marlon’s guests had adorned with T-shirts—Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, and Trans Rights Are Human Rights. She squeezed the trigger, but nothing happened. She didn’t know how to check the gun’s ammunition let alone load more, but she didn’t plan on killing anyone that night, so an empty threat would have to do.
The elevator door opened to the lobby and Anna saw the mystery woman descending the main staircase, the fingertips of her right hand gliding just above the curving ivory bannister. She’d showered, or at least washed off all the mud. She now wore one of Anna’s dresses, the Coco Chanel number that was mostly black feathers and had been featured in some old black and white French film. In her left hand she held a knife with a rusty streak running along its blade.
“It seems we’re both up to no good,” she said to Anna, nodding toward the pistol that she held limply at her side.
“Some of us more than others,” Anna said, moving the pistol to the small of her back. “Did you enjoy your time with my husband?”
“I didn’t come here for your husband, Anna. I came here for you.”
“Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing that,” she said as she moved away from the staircase and from the mystery woman—who’d managed to learn her name somehow. She scanned the lobby for the boy from California. He wouldn’t be hard to find. He’d be one of the few people not wearing a mask.
“Don’t you remember me?” the mystery woman asked. She’d appeared at Anna’s side and was matching her quick gait with minimal effort—despite the limited locomotion that her dress allowed. “We met here last year.”
“I meet a lot of people here every year,” Anna said, entering the east wing and ducking her head into a gambling parlor.
“Do you promise every person you meet that you’ll run away with them?”
Anna froze and slowly turned to the mystery woman, really looking her over for the first time. There was something familiar about her face, about her piercing blue eyes, about her severe eyebrows, about the fine point of her chin.
“What’s your name?” Anna asked.
“Xavier,” she said.
“Xavier?” she asked, the disbelief leaking into her speech. “That’s what my parents were going to name me if I was boy.” Her poor parents—who’d been so sullen when she’d announced her intentions to leave home, to not pursue a college education, to move as far away from them and their ranch as possible. She should have listened to her father’s protests. Marlon was only after one thing, but so was she. It had seemed like a fair trade at the time. “Xavier, I don’t know what you think happened between us last year, but unless you know how to fly a helicopter, I don’t see how either one of us is getting out of here.”
“I know how to leave,” she said.
“The same way that I came in,” Xavier said, pointing with the knife toward the unfinished West Wing from which she’d made her debut. “Will you come with me?” She extended her empty hand. Anna took it. Of course Xavier would know how to get out of the manse and back to dry land. She’d gotten there somehow, after all.
All eyes were on the pair of them as they traversed the lobby, perhaps due to the weapons they both flagrantly brandished.
“Go back to your infidelity,” Anna commanded. Before her back was fully turned, one of Marlon’s old football friends—distinguishable by his large meaty frame—dashed up the stairs to the second floor, two at a time. Go on, Anna thought. Go tell Daddy on us.
Xavier pushed aside the billowing plastic sheet and lead Anna through corridor after darkened corridor, through doorways, past empty rooms and staircases leading down to dirt floors. There were intermittent holes in the façade of the building, allowing in light from the swollen pearl moon. A time of great illusion.
“You read Marlon’s cards wrong,” Anna said.
Xavier stopped and slowly turned her head, a wicked smile on her lips.
“Oh?” she said. “You read tarot? Perhaps you’d like to show me how it’s done.”
Anna blanched after looking into Xavier’s wild eyes.
“Not right now,” she said.
“I think it’s important,” Xavier said. “I’d like to know what we’re getting ourselves into. Wouldn’t you?”
“Can’t do a reading for two people at the same time,” Anna said.
“Of course,” Xavier said, that malicious smile of hers managing to grow a little more. “Just do one for me then.” She reached down into the feathery neck of Anna’s dress and produced her deck of tarot cards. Xavier placed her hand on the small of Anna’s back and guided her through another sheet of plastic, the point of the knife dangerously close to puncturing her side.
The room was as black as the water coursing just outside the villa. Until Xavier struck a match and lit a pair of candles—the light from which revealed the Californian co-pilot slumped against the wall, a trickle of blood running down his forehead, a gag covering his mouth, his eyes closed.
“Don’t worry about him,” Xavier said ushering Anna to a worn table at the center of the room. But she was worried about him, and the more she stole glances toward the incapacitated young man, the more details she noticed about the rest of the room—in particular the mound of military surplus ammunition canisters in which Marlon stored the bullets for the firing range. And then there were the rows and rows of red metal gas cans emblazoned with the ludicrous names of the yachts anchored a few hundred feet from the manse—USS Boostraps, Big Yachty, HMS Personal Responsibility. “Take a seat,” Xavier said, polite but firm. Anna did as she was instructed. Xavier finished shuffling the deck. She handed the purple-backed cards to Anna.
“What would you like to know?” Anna asked.
“What would you like to know?” Xavier repeated. “Anna, I would like to know how this night is going to end.”
Anna dry swallowed and whispered, “Very well.” She swiftly laid out ten cards in a Celtic Cross pattern, eager to be done with the reading, eager to escape the mansion, eager to be rid of Xavier. Anna reached for the first card, sliding it out from underneath the second card which lay on top of it, forming a cross.
“The Present,” Anna said. “The Empress. Reversed. “You’re giving everything away to other people.” All of the cards could be read in different ways. They didn’t mean just one thing. But Anna felt like she could pinpoint exactly what they meant for Xavier. Like she’d known for her far more than just an hour. Maybe she truly had run into the woman last year. And had made a promise to run off with her.
She flipped the second card, rotated it counter clockwise to see its facing, and then laid it back on top of the first revealed card, reassembling the cross.
“The Challenge. The Magician. Reversed. You’re having difficulty with…a plan. A desire that you can’t make manifest.”
Anna flipped the card to the left of the cross.
“The Past. What led you to find yourself sitting here at this table with me, plotting to escape? Why do you want to know how this night will end? The Seven of Pentacles. Reversed. You’ve sought…enrichment. Perhaps spiritual, though Pentacles would indicate it was material. You’re finding that the reward wasn’t what you wanted after all.”
Anna’s hand hovered over the fourth card, to the right of the cross. “The Future,” she said. “Not necessarily the immediate answer to your query, though it may be. This could also be something that will occur over the next few weeks or months.” She flipped the card, relieved to see it standing upright. The string of reversed cards had unsettled her in a way that she couldn’t put words to. “The Devil. You’re headed for a confrontation with your shadow, with the parts of yourself that you don’t let see the light of day. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You have free will. You don’t have to give in.”
Anna realized that she hadn’t been looking up to gauge Xavier’s reactions. She snuck a peek and then quickly refocused her attention on the cards. The woman wore the same menacing grin. The candle light burned in her black eyes, hungry and ferocious. And she sat completely still, as if she’d been paused. Anna wasn’t even sure that the woman was breathing. Her hand moved to the fifth card—which sat above the cross.
“Above. The best outcome to your query. How this night is going to end.” She flipped the card. “The Wheel of Fortune. A turning point in your life. What has been going around will come around. What has been sown will be reaped.”
She moved her hand to the card positioned below the cross.
“Below. Your subconscious. What really motivates you. Why you’re curious about how this night will end.” She flipped the card. “The Eight of Cups. Desire to escape from a disappointing situation. You’re spiritually or emotionally unfulfilled. And you’re ready to cut your losses and run.”
Anna’s sweat began to drip from her forehead onto the table. All of this was sounding too familiar. The intense rush of déjà vu swept her consciousness to the back of her mind, made her feel like she was dreaming, like she was watching herself from outside herself. She saw her hand move to the row of four cards aligned parallel to the cross. Her hand flipped the bottom card.
“Advice. Queen of Swords. Reversed. Be resentful. Be cold-hearted and ruthless. Allow your emotions to cloud your judgement.” She watched her hand move upward, to the eighth card. “External influences.”
Anna flipped the card and the déjà vu dissipated, despite her grip on reality loosening. The Devil. Again. Xavier’s black fingernails clattered on the table, just above the cards. Anna couldn’t bring herself to raise her eyes from the spread, or to speak the name of the card that had duplicated, and appeared again.
She flipped the ninth card—meant to represent the querent’s hopes and fears. “Death.” Upright it embodied endings but also the opportunity for change, transformation. Reversed it meant resistance to meaningful growth. The card began to flutter and then slowly, purposefully rotate, like the needle of a compass trying to find true north. The Death card reversed itself and then righted itself, over and over again.
From the faraway lobby, the din of conversation began to pitch with the falsetto of panic and Anna knew that someone had discovered her husband’s body.
She screwed up the courage to once more gaze upon Xavier, but when she looked up, there was no one sitting across the table from her—merely the cow’s head that had been mangled into a kind of veil, its black, bloated tongue resting just above the tenth card, and the knife—stained with dried blood, driven into the table.
Her shaking hands calmed and her ragged breathing abated as she flipped the final card—the outcome.
The Tower—a large building on a hill, surrounded by water, lightning striking its roof and setting it ablaze.
Anna, I would like to know how this night is going to end.
Chaos. The Tower meant chaos. And that’s how the night would end.
Anna stood and retrieved the cow veil. It fit perfectly atop her head, and the animal’s hide warmed her as it stretched down her back. She liked the way the bloody knife felt in her hand. It had a pleasant heft and was satisfying to swing and plunge.
The commotion from the lobby echoed down the unfinished halls as it reached a fever pitch.
Anna licked her fingers and snubbed out the candle.
Richard Cochnar was once told by a gas station cashier that he had a Steve-from-Blue’s-Clues vibe about him. He sought refutation from his friends and co-workers only to have them side with the cashier.