Fifteen year-old Steve Collins tottered into the living room, where his mother was making some final adjustments to her witch costume for the Halloween party to which they had been invited.
“What do you think, mum? It’s not finished...”
His mother cut him off mid sentence. “What do you think you look like?” she demanded.
He stared at her in disbelief as she berated him for his choice of costume. “You said you wanted me to go in fancy dress. After I found this stuff in the attic, I decided I’d go as David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust. What’s wrong with that? I thought you might help with the makeup.”
“Makeup?” She almost blew a gasket right there on the spot. “I think not! You’re a young man, Steven. You should consider acting like one. What will people think?”
“Who cares?” he said with indifference. “It’s a fancy dress party for God’s sake. This was all the rage when you were my age. Anyway what does it matter what they think?”
“Who cares?” she asked. “I care. I’m not having you going out dressed in my clothes and makeup and that’s final.”
“But mum,” he whined. “It’s not like I’m going to dress like this all the time, is it?”
“That’s not the point. I thought you’d choose something like a pirate or something vampirish - not going out looking like a prancing poof.”
“But everybody dresses like that. It’s usually either those or cavaliers. I wanted something different.”
She was adamant that his choice was out of the question and would hear no more on the subject. “Makeup? Whatever next,” she muttered.
His choice of ‘costume’ was born out of the discovery in the attic of a pair of knee-high platform boots in pink leather, some skin-tight satin jeans and a white satin blouse. The jeans were a bit on the tight side, crushing his whatsits into his groin, but after a few minutes, he kind of got used to it. After looking at himself in the mirror, he considered it was alright, or would be with the application of makeup.
He was confused that she should have taken such a stance in light of what the party was about and all the grief she’d been giving him about going in costume. All in all, he felt quite dejected as he went back upstairs to change into everyday clothes.
Once he returned downstairs, he was sullen and unresponsive. Having taken so long to pluck up the courage to assemble a costume he was actually going to wear, he felt let down after his mother’s outburst. It must have shown as his mother took one look at him and gave him a stern talking to.
“You’d better not ruin this party or there’ll be hell to pay,” she said, gathering her bag and car keys. “I wasn’t sure about letting you come, but Lynne insisted. I don’t suppose she’ll be overly impressed with the fact that you haven’t gone in a costume.”
“But I had a perfectly good costume...” he began.
“...Don’t even go there, young man,” she said gruffly.
She drove them in silence to the party where Lynne, the hostess, greeted them at the door. She, too, was dressed as a witch and thanks to her rather prominent nose and the green face paint, she looked really convincing too, though he thought his mother was probably the real thing - all things considered.
“Hi, come in… Er, where’s your costume, Steve?”
“Sorry. I couldn’t get one in time…” he lied.
His mother shrugged. “You know how teenagers are these days,” she observed, deprecatingly as the two of them followed Lynne into her house.
Inside, few had turned up, but Steve saw a girl on the sofa in the lounge who caught his eye, although he didn’t have the confidence to talk to her. She was about his age and quite pretty, dressed in a Little Red Riding Hood costume that made her look incredibly cute.
He sauntered over to a large table which had been piled high with snacks of one form or another, giving her a sideways glance en-route, but within milliseconds, his interest in the girl had been replaced with a sudden need to attempt the decimation of the entire spread as he grazed on the goodies before him.
“Hello,” she said, suddenly standing close.
Steve turned round sharply, his mouth full of crisps, nuts and some of those really nice bits of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks.
“’lo,” he managed, his hand flying up to his mouth as crumbs of salt and vinegar flavoured potato slivers fell from between his lips.
Fortunately, she giggled and as they looked at one another, something passed between them, unspoken and yet almost palpable.
“Steve?” called his mother.
“Uh?” he replied, smiling at the girl, whose name he hadn’t even had time to ascertain.
How embarrassing. There he was doing his level best to look cool - which probably would have been easier had he been wearing that really cool get-up he’d discovered in the loft - and might have been doing alright had he not nearly sprayed the poor girl with a mouthful of masticated savouries. If that wasn’t bad enough, his mother calling him over like some kind of child did nothing to improve his chances.
“You know you’ll have to pay a forfeit, don’t you?” said Lynne, with an evil glint in her eye.
“Yes. That’s where the party pooper does something he or she doesn’t want to do, because he or she didn’t do something that he or she was supposed to do. In this case, it’s a costume - or lack thereof...”
“I know what a forfeit is,” Steve retorted, sullenly.
“Yes, well. Just in case there is any confusion, you’re the party pooper. Anyway, it’s nothing really,” Lynne admitted with a shrug. “Just a bit of fun.” Her face however, showed the disappointment at his not wearing any form of costume and his mother pointedly looked away from either of them.
Lynne led them downstairs into the cellar, which had been done out with little glow-in-the-dark skeletons, witches on broomsticks, coffins and skulls that hung from the walls and ceiling. At the foot of the stairs sat a circular table and on it, a purple silk scarf had been draped. On top of the scarf sat a small glass ball and a pack of cards the like of which, Steve had not seen before.
“What’re these?” he asked.
“Oh, they’re Tarot cards. I bought them at one of those old curiosity shops in town. They’re supposed to be antique, but you know what those traders are like, they’ll tell you anything to get a sale. The trader that sold me those was actually only too pleased to get rid of them. He said there was something bad about them, some sort of story that went along with them, but I don’t believe in all that rubbish anyway. I thought they’d be perfect for tonight and they do lend some authenticity. Your forfeit - if you haven’t already guessed, will be to tell people’s fortunes.”
“But I don’t know anything about fortune telling. I know a bit about Tarot, but not enough to read them.”
“You don’t have to. There’s a crystal ball there too if you prefer… actually, it’s plastic, but it looks the part, doesn’t it? So, I don’t know, just make something up. Like I said, it’s only a bit of fun. Meanwhile, we need to get you ready.”
“Eh?” said a somewhat startled Steve.
A few moments later and…
“Perfect!” said Lynn after she had applied some garish eye-makeup; lipstick and rouge to his face, draped a shawl around his shoulders and tied a scarf about his head. “At least you have some sort of costume now… Welcome to Madame Mysterio’s Mystic Parlour,” she said dramatically.
He did however see the funny side; the irony in the fact that whilst his costume had been colourful, he was depicting a male celebrity, whereas here, he was playing the part of a woman. His mother’s face was a picture and she probably only went along with this charade as Lynne seemed to think nothing of dressing her son as a woman - at least his top half.
* * *
Steve sat at the table, the cards packed in their box. He picked them up, turning the box over and over. They seemed perfectly alright - ordinary even… as far as Tarot cards can. They were just an old box of cards. He’d had no experience with Tarot cards. He knew the card of ‘Death’ - everyone knew that one and also ‘The Lovers’ as depicted in Live and Let Die; the old James Bond film.
“Good evening,” he said as a youngish woman approached, getting into character. “What can Madame Mysterio do for you on this most auspicious of nights?” His accent was appalling, probably based on half of Europe, flitting between French and Italian with a bit of Eastern European thrown in for good measure.
Most auspicious of nights? he asked himself. What was that supposed to mean?
“Shouldn’t you be telling me?” the woman said with a bit of a giggle. “After all, you’re the clairvoyant, aren’t you?”
Steve looked at the woman. Probably in her early thirties, petite with bubbly blonde hair and a penchant for tight, short skirts that left little if anything to the imagination. “As you say,” he intoned and before he knew what was happening, he’d taken the cards out of the pack and shuffled them. He didn’t even remember bending down to retrieve them from under the table.
“What is your name, miss?” he asked.
“Miss?” she remarked, giggling irritatingly. “That’s nice; I like that. I’m Nancy.”
“Would you like to cut the cards, Nancy?”
She cut the cards with hands that had impeccably manicured and painted fingernails and again, Steve started laying them out. He could feel a strange tingling sensation as he held the cards in his left hand; a tingling that seemed to get stronger each time he lifted a card from the deck and placed it in the spread.
That was another thing.
Without even being told, reading any instructions or anything, he knew exactly where to put the cards. The first went down with the second across it - forming a cross. The third went below those two and the four above. The fifth and sixth cards went right and then left, level with the first two and then the last four went up the right hand side of the others. This bothered him, but he just put it down to perhaps having seen the spread in a film or something.
“Let me see…” he said in that mysterious way, adding a few “oohs” and “ahhs” for good measure. He put the remaining cards down and passed his hands, palms down over the layout.
He knew instinctively that there were seventy-eight cards in the deck; twenty-two of which were known as the Major Arcana and the rest the Minor Arcana and what was more, he knew what each of them meant, whether they were upright or inverted and how they interacted with one another. In Nancy’s case, he could almost see her life spread out before him; the acrimonious divorce that had just been finalised; the fact that she had done very well out of the settlement and worse…
Her husband was not a nice man and from the cards, Steve could see that his style of retribution was on its way. Over and over in his mind he tried to work out whether or not she should tell Nancy about her husband’s plans, but the more he thought about it, the less plausible it sounded.
The whole story as the cards were telling him sounded like something out of a gangster movie, her husband playing the part of Al Capone and getting one of his scar-faced henchmen to do the dirty so that the police could find her, feet firmly entrenched in a concrete block at the bottom of the river or something.
His young mind turned it over. It surely was a conundrum and from what science fiction and horror films he’d seen, there usually wasn’t any way of escaping what was on the cards, as it were. Whatever she tried to do, could be precisely what would bring about her death - whether her ex-husband was involved or not.
“I see a tall, dark stranger,” he began and rattled off a whole load of gibberish in the hopes of placating the woman.
“Huh!” she snorted. “Some clairvoyant you turned out to be. Couldn’t you have been just a little bit more original and told me something about my ex and his murder plot.”
“You know about that?” he asked, astonished.
“Of course I do!” she retorted.
“Oh. I am sorry. Perhaps I should have told you the truth.”
Nancy’s eyes narrowed. “You knew about my husband’s plot?”
“Yes and I saw that it happens soon. I thought maybe he’d had the brakes on your car tampered with or something. I don’t know. I just got the impression that your death and your car were connected.”
“You can actually read those things?” she queried, pointing at the ten cards on the table.
“Apparently, yes,” he replied with a shrug. “It’s more of a shock for me than it is for you, I can assure you.”
“Wow. I’m impressed. Thank you,” she said as she tottered up the stairs on those impossibly high heels.
He sat back at the table, thinking about the reading. It was a real surprise to find out that he could do this and it wasn’t fluke either - Nancy had proved that and to say that he was pleased with himself was a drastic understatement. He sat back, the cards in his hands wondering whether he would get another customer.
Within moments, another woman came down the stairs. “Can you read the cards for me?” she asked.
He didn’t even have to think about it and he smiled, shuffling the cards and as soon as he did so, he noticed how much stronger the tingling was, but he put it down to his imagination.
Four more readings were performed and by the last one, the tingling had become so pronounced that he was actually trembling as he dealt the cards. As soon as he put the cards down, the tingling stopped. He was loath to stop as this was something he found he was actually good at, but the tingling sensation wasn’t just in his hands as it had been before, but was all over. At times it even tingled in his stomach which made him nauseous.
Perhaps it was time to call it a day. He’d read five people and considering it could take over half an hour to read each one, he thought enough’s enough. It was time he had a break anyway and if he didn’t soon, the whole of that table of food would have been eaten and that would have been a travesty.
He placed the cards on a stand on the other side of the room and when he turned round, there was Little Red Riding Hood.
“Hello again,” he said.
“Can you do me too?” she asked.
“I mean, can you do a card reading for me too.”
He sat down opposite her at the table. “I’d rather not,” he said quietly. “I’m not really feeling all that right now,” he explained.
“But you’re so good at it,” she countered.
“I really don’t know anything about it - honest. Besides, I only got the job because I didn’t come in costume.”
“Your costume looks fine to me,” she said. “Suits you.”
“Oh thanks a bunch.” He pouted theatrically. “You can go off people, you know.”
“I didn’t mean it,” she said sincerely. “Would you please read the cards for me?”
“I can do a crystal ball reading if you’d like,” he offered, hoping that she’d change her mind, but before he knew what was happening, there were the cards, on the table before the rather startled-looking girl.
“Weren’t those…” she asked worriedly, pointing towards the stand on the other side of the room.
He looked before him at the cards, neatly piled and sitting in readiness for the girl to cut them.
“They can’t have been,” he said quickly. “Anyway, if you’d like to cut them… er… what is your name?”
“Elizabeth,” she replied.
“Well, Elizabeth. I don’t suppose one more go will hurt,” he said, feeling her eyes on him and hoping she didn’t take them off him again. “If you’d like to cut the cards.”
The tingling feeling was stronger, radiating out from his hands as he took up the cards and started laying them on the table.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Yeah, like I said, I’m feeling a little strange.” He continued to place the cards on the table and when he’d finished, his vision was starting to blur, like he was looking at things through moving water.
“So what do you see?”
“Um,” he said, but he was having trouble focussing on anything. It must have shown on his face because the expression on Elizabeth’s face was one of concern.
He could feel his mouth moving and words coming out, but seemed powerless to stop it. Not only that, but he sat, elbows on the table, cards in his left hand, but unable to move anything - not even his eyes.
He tried hard to move - any part of his body - but for some reason, he was powerless. He seemed to sink into this… this… whatever it was and as he strained and strained to try and move something… anything, he could move nothing.
He started to panic, feeling as if things were moving around under his skin. First it was over his face then it spread. Things could be felt moving over his ribs, his arms, legs; then everywhere.
More and more he tried to fight it, but fight what?
Suddenly before him was an almost transparent apparition of a woman. Her nose was large and hooked with a large wart on one side. Her hair was a steely-grey colour, lank and lifeless and her eyes sparkled with an unearthly light.
“Don’t struggle, my pretty one,” she said.
Pretty? he thought.
“I must say, you’re not what I was expecting,” she said critically, eyeing him up and down. “I had expectations of someone, more… well… female. Oh well, I suppose you’ll have to do. You are very pretty though - even for a boy.”
Steve was aghast and had he been able to move, he probably would have given some sign that what the apparition had said, was not what he’d wanted to hear.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth had rushed up the stairs. Hopefully, she was off to get help. Whether they would be able to do anything was another matter, but at least he didn’t feel so much like he was on his own.
“W-w-w-what do you want from me?” he asked.
“Your body, boy,” she said, with a cackle.
“M-my b-body?” he stammered. “W-w-w-what could you possibly want with that?”
“Like I said, it’s not what I ideally would have chosen, but once it’s been polished a bit, I think it will do fine. You have a good mind, you’re really pretty and that will do nicely for me.”
“I’m not pretty!” he said through virtually gritted teeth.
Although she had told him not to struggle, he couldn’t help it, but no amount of straining had any effect whatsoever. It was bizarre.
Then it dawned on him. If she wanted his body, what would happen to him? “What about me?” he asked.
“What about you?”
“What happens to me while you’ve got my body?”
“Who cares?” she said, laughing a horrible maniacal laughter that sent shivers up and down Steve’s spine. “All I want is to take my rightful place upon this Earth; to finish what I started - um… what year is this?”
“2009,” Steve supplied.
“Really? Goodness me; how time flies when you’re in purgatory. Anyway, where was I?” she pondered, turning to face him with dramatic flair. “Oh yes… I want to finish what I started five hundred years ago.”
“What stopped you back then?”
“Zealous, puritanical nit-wits,” she said, with a lofty expression. “Thought I was a witch.”
“Might be,” she said, pouting slightly and thrusting her nose in the air. “Anyway, that’s beside the point. I’ve been stuck in that pack of cards for nearly half a millennia. Purgatory. You’ve no idea how stuffy those cards can be. The lack of decent conversation was… well, anyway...”
“So why me?”
“You’re here - simple as that. No-one else has touched the cards. Well, there was one, but he was older than dirt. Didn’t want him.” She shuddered, which made her already insubstantial image waver and shimmer.
“So… let me get this straight. You want my body so that you can carry on with whatever weirdness you were doing five hundred years ago?”
“Weirdness? I haven’t heard it called that before, but that does about sum it up, yes.”
“And the polishing?”
“Ah, yes, well it is perhaps a little more complicated than just polishing.”
“I need to change you into a woman.”
“You’re g-g-going t-t-to what?” he shrieked, which was an odd sensation, under the circumstances.
“I’m going to have to change you into a girl,” she explained. “I really don’t think male would look at all good on me and I really like the idea of being what you now call a teenage girl once again.”
She was so off-hand about the process and made it sound as easy as making a cup of tea, but he was sure it wasn’t that simple. Even if it was, he wasn’t ready for that kind of change. He redoubled his efforts to get away, but whatever she’d done to him meant that his brain was no longer connected to his body and no matter how hard he tried, he got nowhere.
“You probably felt the first stage of the transformation a few moments ago. Anyway, if you don’t mind, the witching hour approaches and I have to concentrate. Quiet please.”
His mind raced as the witch began chanting, gesticulating, with her voice rising and falling, speeding up and slowing down. As non-corporeal as she may have been, it didn’t mean that she was any less capable of casting spells.
As she chanted, he could feel things happening, things he couldn’t explain, but they weren’t pleasant.
“Stop! You don’t want me. I’m a boy. You’ll have to go through all that trouble of changing me only to find I’ll be no good!” he shouted, trying hard to distract her, hoping that by making things awkward, she would perhaps turn her attention to someone else.
“I said quiet!” she snarled, angrily and with a flick of just one finger, Steve found himself unable to utter anything at all. “Now I’m going to have to start all over again.”
She restarted the chanting and quickly Steve’s body began making all sorts of cracking noises at the same time as his throat started to contract. He tried to reach up with his hands to his neck, but couldn’t move.
Then the pain struck as his ribs cracked, sounding more like someone striking a glockenspiel, which forced the air from his lungs in one big “whoosh” and his eyes ran rivers of tears. Inside he was screaming, yet outside, he was still sitting at the table, his elbows resting and in his left hand, the cards rested.
He remained completely unaware of what was happening outside his body as inside, the pain was growing second by second as the next thing to change was his hips as they began spreading.
His head started to swim, the pain in his hands and feet as the minute bones within both pairs, began shrinking was excruciating. As he sobbed his heart out, trying to compartmentalise the feelings he could not have been prepared for the final onslaught.
His testes rose, pulled up inside his body, constricting and making him feel as though they had been hit by something hard, while his penis felt as though it was being turned inside out across course-grit glass paper as it reformed. It was the last thing he remembered before he passed out.