As he let himself in, Aaron wished the apartment were less familiar. After the break up, he’d rearranged everything in his apartment, switching the silverware drawer, moving the stereo to the other side of the living room, so if Alice happened to come by, she’d be disoriented, unable to find her way around the place on memory alone. But, still, every now and then when he went to get a fork, he was gobsmacked by the memory of Alice delicately removing a pair of forks from that drawer when the Chinese had been delivered, neither of them quite as nimble as they’d have liked to be with chopsticks, or Alice naked at the turntable, dropping the needle on the A side of the Zombies’ Odyssey & Oracle to help him fall asleep.
Alice’s apartment hadn’t changed a bit, which made Aaron think there weren’t enough memories of him floating around her apartment that it felt cluttered to her, the way his did to him. The same tapestries, maybe a little more sun-faded, hung on the walls, the same drug paraphernalia and bric-a-brac scattered on the coffee and end tables. Her CD collection, still in no apparent order. Her students’ drawings and paintings on the fridge. Alice had pictures, although none of him. He took his time looking over them. They were mostly family, her parents, her nieces and nephews. A couple were of Alice with a group of people that might have been her colleagues at work, or a new set of friends she’d picked up since after they’d broken up. Then there were pictures of Alice and Jaime Aaron had never seen. He’d never thought about the two of them spending time together without him, but of course they had. It didn’t make him jealous, but made him miss them both.
On the couch, a hounds-tooth pattern picked up on a curb in their college days, were two pillows and a folded set of clean sheets. With as much grace as he could muster, Aaron made up the couch for himself and plopped down onto it, taking in the room with his chin resting in his hands. A sliver of light shot out through the bedroom door, disappeared after a second. Aaron stumbled over to the CD rack and scanned, finally finding a Zombies disc between James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and the first Tori Amos album. Careful to turn the volume way down first, he put it into the CD player and started it up.
Alice came into the room immediately.
“You’re a real fucker,” she said. She was wearing a faded Who tee-shirt, his.
“I’m sorry, I usually go to sleep with music on. You know that,” Aaron said.
“I know. I thought maybe tonight you’d pass.”
“I was feeling nostalgic.”
“No shit, Aaron,” she said. “Are you sober enough to have a drink?”
“Well, at least I don’t have to drink alone then.” She went to the kitchen in long strides and took down two glasses and a bottle of bourbon. “Hope you don’t mind brown liquor,” she said as she poured. She handed him a glass and sat down on the couch. “So what’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem,” he said. He sat too.
“There must be one or you wouldn’t be here.”
They both sat in silence, staring down into their drinks.
“Two FBI agents showed up at my office this morning,” he finally said.
“Something’s wrong and I’m not sure what it is.”
“The FBI showed up at your office and you’re worried someone at the bar called you a name?”
“It’s connected. I know it is. Something I can’t see yet, but it’s there already.”
“Do you think it has anything to do with Jaime?”
“No, this is hacker stuff. Jaime was never a part of any of that.”
“You never let him,” she said, which stung him. When he’d first met Alice, he’d tried to impress her with “hacker stuff”, babbling on about programs he was working on even though he could tell it bored her. Worse, it seemed the less interested she became, the harder it was to stop himself from talking about it. But Jaime had been interested, full of questions about programming languages and the nuts and bolts behind how InterEm worked. Aaron had waved these questions off, like a magician deflecting the audience’s cries of how did you do that? by showing off another trick, until at some point Jaime stopped asking, resigned to being on the outside.
Eric, of course, had never asked questions. Eric had never been concerned with how anything worked as long as it worked.
“It’s something else,” Aaron said, “but I can’t figure it.” He tried to avoid it, but his eyes fell on the wooden box lying on the end table. Alice followed his gaze, which he diverted to the ceiling as soon as he’d been caught.
“You can ask, you know,” she said.
“I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“You’re here and you’re tap-dancing around asking so I’ll insist on it. I’m not going to, Aaron. If you want me to do it, you’re going to have to fucking ask.”
He hung his head, lifted it to finish off his drink and said:
“Will you throw cards for me? And can I have another drink?”
Alice opened the box sitting and took out a deck of oversized cards, which she passed to Aaron. “You remember the drill. Think about what you want to know and shuffle the deck, then hand them back to me.”
Aaron furrowed his brow, trying to cut through all the smoke and booze and concentrate on the dots he was sure connected somehow. He shuffled one half the cards into the other, then, trying to bridge them, sprayed most of them onto the coffee table.
“Should I start over?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “pick them up and keep going till you’re done.”
Aaron gathered up the cards and continued shuffling until he felt he’d reached an endpoint. He handed the deck to Alice, holding her eye for a little longer than either of them wanted. Alice cleared a space on the table, then turned her attention to the cards. She dealt out one and then another across it, half obscuring it. Then she dealt out a card above, to the right of, below and to the left of the first two cards.
“I’m only doing a six for you,” she told him. “You’re too drunk for a ten card spread anyway.” Lowering her voice, she pointed to the first card, the one mostly covered by the second.
“So this is your present situation,” she said. “The Moon. It’s the path between two towers, a point A and point B. It’s waxing towards the right. Towards its goal. Generally taken to mean it’s gaining in mercy. I don’t know why. Matter of direction. See the two dogs there, howling at it? Actually, one of them is a wolf. They’re fears. They try to subvert the path. But the biggest thing here is this.” She pointed at what looked like a blue lobster, crawling out the water at the bottom of the card and up a path that intersected with the moon. “It’s something coming out of the depths, something unexpected. From the past. The other cards might say.”
She pointed to the second card dealt, laying across the first. Her voice was strange, fluctuating between her normal voice and something quiet and solemn. It was like watching an actor go in and out of character. “Eight of pentacles. The trophy maker at his work. Your job is the most immediate influence on you right now. But not necessarily in bad way. Craftsmanship is going to be related to your path from A to B.”
It was strange for Aaron to think about DIS as his job. He usually considered it as a combination of hobby and penance.
Alice pointed to the card above the first two. The words on the card struck Aaron before the image, and he thought immediately of Jaime, and that just because an idea was paranoid didn’t make it incorrect.
“Your goal,” she said. “The Hanged Man. Interesting stuff. Major arcana. Waite and Crowley disagreed on it. There’s a rumor even Levi didn’t know what to make of it. Check him out. He’s hanging, but by a foot, not the neck. The tree is living, you can see the leaves, so it’s not a cross. A lot of people think this card is about martyrdom, but look at his face. He’s not in pain, he looks comfortable. It might mean stasis. Contemplation. He’s also the card between Justice and Death, so there’s that to think about.” She looked up at Aaron. “It’s not Jaime,” she said.
She paused and Aaron could see she didn’t have an answer.
“The Two of Wands,” she continued, “for your distant past. Makes sense. He’s a king of some sort, looking out on his kingdom, but also contemplating a small globe. It implies having riches. Losing riches. Accepting the loss. Maybe even preferring it. See how he’s looking at the globe and not the kingdom?”
She looked at Aaron. “That’s you after everything with Eric. That’s you losing everything and never wanting to come back.”
She looked back to the card below the initial two. “Ace of Swords,” she said. “Your recent past is marked by excess, the hand out of the cloud holds the sword, thrusts it upward until it pierces the crown.” She glared at him. “Have you been fucking Ganesha?”
“Of course not!” he replied.
“Huh. You probably should.” It wasn’t the first time this had come up. When they’d been together, Alice often suggested Aaron would be happier with someone who gave a shit about his work, who had any interest in talking about it. Aaron sometimes thought the reason he’d never been comfortable around Ganesha was that he didn’t want to prove Alice right.
She turned back to the cards. “The last one is future influence. The Seven of Swords, the thief. Another one that’s pretty disputable. He’s carrying off five of the swords, but the camp is close, there’s the implication he’ll get caught. Plus, he leaves two of the swords behind. Could mean a couple things, especially in this spot. Either you’re the thief, and whatever you’ve planned is going to go south. Or you’re in the camp, in which case the two swords left are what’s important. Which could make sense. This could be about what hasn’t been stolen from you.
“I got cleared out pretty good,” Aaron said.
“Even the best thieves leave something behind. Eric didn’t take me.”
Aaron tried to decide what she meant by this. In the context of this conversation, it could simply mean that Eric didn’t take her from Aaron, that she wasn’t among the things he stole, in the end, even if he’d stolen her for the time before that. But he suspected she was saying something more sad, something about herself. When Eric left, he hadn’t bothered to take Alice with him. As if she hadn’t been worth stealing. He looked at the card, at the two swords left in the village as the thief ran off, and thought there were ways to lose things other than theft.
Alice stood up and went back into her room. The door whispered shut behind her. Aaron laid out on the couch, thinking he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but sadness has a peculiar soporific quality, and it was only a few minutes before he was asleep.
The next morning, the coffee grinder woke him. Alice was in the kitchenette, already dressed for work in one of the brightly colored dresses that bounced the sun onto her pale skin and gave it a pastel glow.
“I’m making you a cup to go,” she said as he sat up. “I’m running a little late, do you mind locking up when you leave?”
“No,” he said, “of course not.”
“Aaron?” she asked, staring rather intently at the coffee maker. “Don’t get yourself hurt, okay? I won’t be there to pick up the pieces of you this time.”
She snapped a lid onto a travel mug and left the apartment, the smell of fresh brewed coffee bright in the air and the tarot cards still spread out on the table.