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Marianne Waters knew she could not change the future. God help her, she knew, but sometimes even a lifetime of experience could not keep her from wanting to try. Sometimes it was too personal to ignore.
"Mom, what's wrong? What did you sense?" Gabrielle, Marianne's sixteen-year-old daughter, asked.
They had been talking about the party Gabrielle planned to attend that evening until Marianne's violent shudder brought the conversation to a dead halt. Gabrielle must have recognized the tell-tale shudder. She would know as surely as Marianne that something had sparked a sign. In this case, it was a spoken name: Rebekah Thompson.
"Nothing yet," Marianne said. A name was not much to go on, but she had a feeling this would end badly. That particular feeling had no truth to it, but was the understandably paranoid result of so many years of experiencing true feelings.
Marianne could predict the future.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the signs showed Marianne the future, for she did not seek them out. They fell upon her, manifesting as an electric tingle that ran up her spine and made her shudder, sometimes violently.
"Was it Rebekah or Melissa?" Gabrielle asked.
Marianne shuddered again the instant Gabrielle finished forming Rebekah's name, which seemed to be answer enough for Gabrielle. She peeled herself from the antique sofa in their formal living room and dashed to the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" Marianne called after her.
"I have to tell her," Gabrielle yelled back. Marianne could hear her punching buttons into the phone.
"Tell her what?" Marianne rose from her Chippendale chair and followed Gabrielle into the gourmetkitchen.
"Something bad's going to happen to her tonight," Gabrielle said. She placed the phone against her ear.
"How do you know? I could end up finding out that she's going to win the lottery."
"She doesn't play the lottery."
"Then maybe that she'll get a dog."
"They already have..." Gabrielle stopped abruptly. "Hello? Is Rebekah there?"
"Sh, I'm on the phone."
Marianne gave up. She left the kitchen to seek out her prediction journal, which she kept in a secret room under the garage. She had commissioned the secret room when the house went up twelve years ago. Gabrielle knew about it; Marianne had told her when she discovered their shared curse, but Stephen, Marianne's husband, still did not know. Ex-husband, Marianne chastised herself. He was her ex, her ex, her ex. Six months after the divorce was final she still could not quite accept it. Her plea to him that she had changed had been too little too late, even followed by her seeing a psychiatrist, volunteering at the local church, beginning an exercise program, and losing thirty pounds.
Marianne entered the secret room beneath the garage by means of a lever hidden in a wall sconce. The room itself, windowless and black, had a truer source of darkness than that of the missing sunlight: a large leather-bound tome that rested on a pedestal at its heart. A single incandescent bulb lit when Marianne flipped the switch, illuminating not only the book, but also shelves of forgotten charms, herbs, spell books, potion ingredients, and other magical paraphernalia she had borrowed from sources ranging from modern Wicca to ancient African lore. None of it had worked, but Marianne kept it around, hoping to find something that might help her take charge of her curse.
She opened her journal to the first empty page and wrote the date, August 19, 2005, in large black letters at the top. The signs did not always neatly pack themselves into one day, but the date of the first sign was as good a marker as any for keeping the predictions in order. She always made one prophecy before the signs started showing her another.
Marianne described, in as much detail as possible, everything she could remember about the moment she had felt the shudder:
1. I was seated in the living room on my Chippendale chair. Gabrielle sat on the couch. She was talking about the party she will attend tonight. I felt the tingle the moment she said, "Rebekah Thompson." I felt the tingle again when she said, "Rebekah" a few seconds later.
Marianne felt certain she had pegged this one right. As a matter of fact, she had only misunderstood a sign once, and that had happened when a series of signs scared her into failing to wait for the accompanying electric tingle. If it looked like a sign and sounded like a sign, it still might not be a sign. She had learned that the hard way, and did not wish to repeat the incident. Since then, her journal entries had become much more detailed.
Marianne closed the book. She did not want to dwell on the past, particularly the past that involved the mistaken sign. That had been the same weekend she caught her husband with Cheryl. No, her ex-husband, and now Cheryl was his girlfriend.
"Mom, you in here?" Gabrielle stuck her head in the secret room. She dared not come fully into her mother's private place without permission.
"I'm just leaving." Marianne did just that, closing the door behind her by placing the wall sconce back in its original position.
"Rebekah thinks I'm nuts," Gabrielle said. "She doesn't get it."
Rebekah wasn't the only one, but Marianne refused to say so out loud. Her daughter would have to learn about the signs in her own time and her own way, just as Marianne had done. If only Marianne had ever finished that learning, then maybe she could help Gabrielle now.
"What did you tell her?" Marianne asked.
"That she shouldn't go to the party tonight, that I had a bad feeling something was going to happen."
As warnings went, it was ambiguous enough that it might have worked. A feeling differed from a prediction. Everyone had feelings that bad things were going to happen from time to time. They could relate, they could understand, they might even opt out of a party for an evening. A prediction was voodoo, it was weird, and it made the predictor a nut.
"There's no use trying to do anything else until we figure out what the prediction is," Marianne said. There was no use doing anything else even then, but she did not say so. Rebekah was Gabrielle's best friend, and Gabrielle would naturally want to do something. Marianne could not count the number of times she herself had failed to heed that most important of warnings: that the future could not be changed.
Gabrielle seemed to want to argue. She opened her mouth but closed it again and began playing with her long auburn hair, as she did when she was nervous. She twisted it around her finger over and over again.
"Come on, let's get some lunch," Marianne said.
After lunch, Gabrielle went to her room and Marianne read the paper. She lived in fear of the newspaper, knowing it almost always held a sign, but she read it every day. The signs could get violent if she ignored them. She had said something like this to her psychiatrist, whose answer had been to put her on anti-psychotic drugs. The prescription lay forgotten and unfilled in her nightstand drawer. He had not believed her, despite all the proof she had offered. The contrivances people came up with to explain away the truth always amazed Marianne.
Stephen had made those excuses. He had believed her, and not believed her, and then believed her again. His fickle mood toward Marianne's curse had been his contribution to the breakup of their marriage. Once, he had suggested to Marianne that she might be a statistical anomaly.
"Everyone ends up predicting the future once in a while," he had said. "We constantly think about what might be and one time in a thousand we're right on the money. Maybe you're just lucky so often that you can trust your predictions."
At least it had been creative, Marianne thought as she scanned the headlines. She saw that a fire she had predicted came to pass. In other news, a small private plane had crashed nearby, killing the pilot.
Marianne shuddered. Then she froze. She knew she had just felt a death sign. "Don't jump to conclusions," she said aloud. She had been reading a headline about a plane crash; the sign could have been for any number of things: the pilot, the plane, or the crash, not just for death.
Marianne scanned more headlines, looking for some means to clarify what she had felt. A local radio personality had died of a heart attack; again she felt the shudder. Now she had no doubt, for the only thing the two headlines had in common was death.
She put the paper aside and closed her eyes. It never got easier, no matter how many deaths she predicted, especially when the victim was her daughter's age, not to mention her daughter's best friend.
Marianne turned to her prediction journal again, hoping to keep the reality at arm's length for a time. She snuck downstairs, so Gabrielle wouldn't know she had found another clue in the unraveling mystery of what would happen to her friend. Gabrielle might try to stop the death from happening, possibly putting herself in danger in the process.
She managed to make the entry without interruption. When she went back upstairs, she stopped in the kitchen to make herself a bowl of ice cream. She knew she should not let the prediction drive her to emotional eating, but she could not help it. Mechanically, she got the carton from the freezer, grabbed a bowl, and scooped out a sinful scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough. She had been working on that with her psychiatrist as well, although it would help if he believed her about the signs. How could he help her relieve the stressful source of the eating from her life if he did not acknowledge its source? As Marianne reached into the refrigerator to get the chocolate syrup her hand brushed against a strawberry daiquiri wine cooler. She shuddered.
"Oh no." She suddenly did not feel hungry anymore. She dumped the ice cream down the garbage disposal and ran it, wondering if there was any other interpretation of her latest sign than the obvious: that Rebekah Thompson's death would relate to alcohol. One sure way to find out would be to start digging through the liquor cabinet. Marianne looked at it, not wanting to find anything inside, but knowing that she would be better off learning the truth than trying to ignore the signs. They would find a way to get their point across.
Marianne opened the cabinet and began pulling out bottles. She felt a tiny tingle when she touched each and every one.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked.
Marianne jumped. She had not heard her daughter enter the kitchen. She put back a bottle of rum and braced herself to tell Gabrielle the terrible truth. "Gabrielle, is there going to be alcohol at the party tonight?"
Gabrielle's face reddened a bit and she cast her eyes at the ground.
"Please, Gabrielle, it's not like I wasn't ever a teenager. You're not going to get in trouble, but I need to know if there will be alcohol there."
Gabrielle nodded mutely. Then she looked up. "Is this about Rebekah?"
"Is she going to get into an accident or something?" Gabrielle asked. "I'll be the designated driver; it's not a problem."
Marianne's heart nearly missed a beat when she considered the implications. "The future can't be changed by you or I," Marianne intoned. Her grandmother had taught her the silly little rhyme ending in those words, and it did help her to never forget. If Gabrielle were in the same car as Rebekah it would not save her friend. It would, however, put Gabrielle at risk.
"I don't know if it will be a car accident or not," Marianne realized. Her mind had leapt there, logically enough, but alcohol also had the power to poison. Perhaps Gabrielle would not be in danger. Still, she feared for Rebekah's life. No, it was more than fear, for she was certain that a young life would soon end. She felt helpless, completely and utterly helpless.
"What good are these stupid signs?" Marianne asked for the umpteenth time. She shoved the door to the liquor cabinet shut and kicked it as she stood.
"Mom, we have to do something," Gabrielle said. "There has to be something we can do."
"There isn't." Marianne wished there were.
"There's nothing we can do." It would hurt more if they tried; it would rub in how helpless they really were.
"She's my best friend."
"No matter what you do..." Marianne began.
"Stop saying that!" Gabrielle started tugging at her hair.
Marianne fought back tears. She thought of Rebekah, really thought about her, for the first time since she had started receiving the signs. Rebekah was an intelligent, black-haired beauty who attended the same private school as Gabrielle. They were also both on the cheerleading squad. Over the summer, the two had spent many afternoons together with various other friends, taking turns at each other's houses. Rebekah had last been at Marianne's home on Tuesday. She, Gabrielle, and Melissa had practiced cheers, giggled about boys, and watched chick flicks. She had helped Marianne bake cookies and had been polite enough to offer to help with the dishes. None of Gabrielle's other friends did that.
Marianne realized that she was thinking of Rebekah in the past tense, as if she had already died. Had she really become so numb to impending death?
She thought about all the death she had helplessly foreseen in her life. I have to be numb or I'd go crazy.
"Mom," Gabrielle said, her eyes wet with tears.
"Give me a call when you're ready to leave tonight. I'll do anything I can."