Prelude

Prelude

The whole carnival setting had not been her idea. The gathering of dizzying lights and sounds had been the brainchild of another, a ruse to get people to spend their money for a worthy cause and ride the rollercoaster till they got violently sick. Eager people in shorts and T-shirts stood in winding lines with impatient children and cups of flat Coke. The overpowering smells of hot dogs and funnel cakes and cotton candy were getting to her, attacking her brain like a perfume that was too strong. She considered the thought of leaving, but that was not a possibility. She had an image to uphold.

Where she was standing, she could see them. The reason why this was here. They traveled in a pack, like ravenous wolves, only they claimed that they acted much more humane. If you asked her, she would tell you that she didn’t think too much of the five women who were taking five dollar bills from people who were eager for a ball to knock a gorgeous blond-haired, blue-eyed young man into a pool of water. The tall one with the long raven hair said something funny to the man in the dunking booth and he responded by offering her a date with him. The other raven-haired one, a little smaller, remarked that he could only get a date under dubious circumstances. The other two, a small blonde and a willowy auburn-haired woman, counted out change and handed out balls. Another blonde announced the new contenders as they threw their three balls and had no luck.

Of course, the leader of the pack was the auburn-haired one. Her curly hair was left to flow about her head in wavy tumbles, framing a youthful face. She wore form-fitting jeans and a baseball jersey that brought out her startling eyes. From here, they were dark, but up close, they were a deep aqua.

Her fiancé knew the color of that woman’s eyes.

Her fiancé was standing in line at the moment. She had been asked to go get some drinks from one of the various refreshment stands in the large carnival and to meet him back in the line. Their friends were enjoying other parts of the large melee.

She watched as the auburn-haired woman took her fiancé’s ten-dollar bill. The woman’s face lit up as her fiancé told her a joke and she threw back her head and laughed, that glorious auburn hair bouncing back then forward. The auburn-haired woman punched his shoulder playfully, and he walked off a little ways. She drifted closer, eyes riveted on the scene. She didn’t seem to notice that the ice in the drinks in her hands was slowly melting.

“What—are you saying you can’t do it?” her fiancé asked.

The auburn-haired woman laughed. “Aw come on. Are you trying to call me a chicken? I think that it’s you that won’t be able to dunk our young Daniel Holmes into this water here.”

Daniel Holmes laughed nervously from his precarious perch, his blue eyes twinkling with mirth. “Please don’t give him any ideas. I like the fact that I’ve been dry thus far.”

Her fiancé looked at the blond man in the blue swim trunks and the white T-shirt, then back to the woman. “If I don’t get him in with the first two, then you can have my last ball.”

The woman shrugged. “Alright. That’s a bet.” She looked to Danny. “Batter up, Holmes.”

“Oh shit,” Danny muttered. He started to do a prayer. Everyone laughed, then held their breath in anticipation as her fiancé threw his first ball.

It came dangerously close to the bulls-eye. Not close enough.

“Praise Buddha,” Danny remarked to the sky.

“Try again,” said the woman, arms crossed over her chest. “Last one, Richardson.”

She watched as her fiancé frowned at the bulls-eye as if he were visualizing himself hitting it. She felt her own breath catch when he reared back to launch the ball. She wanted him to make it. She wanted so badly for him to make it.

But he didn’t. The crowd expressed their sentiment with a sorrowful, “Oh.”

The auburn-haired woman stepped up beside him and raised an eyebrow. He tossed her the ball, then made a great, gentlemanly gesture of stepping aside to let her have a turn.

The woman took no time to prepare herself. For that, she thought the woman was cocky and deserved to be taken down a peg or two. The woman reared back with the skill of a seasoned pitcher. The ball nearly whistled it was going so fast. Danny yelled something intelligible at the top of his lungs before he was dropped from his perch.

The crowd cheered. Her fiancé shook the woman’s hand. “You have a nice arm,” he commented.

“So do you. Though…” The woman smirked at him. “Your aim could use some work.”

“Oh really?”

She knew the signs of flirtation. Everyone did, even if they were not blessed with the skills for it. It was apparent that her fiancé was a very expert flirt, and this auburn-haired woman was a wonderful counterpart for the exchange. Perhaps too wonderful.

Weaving herself through the crowd, she walked up to the man she was planning to spend the rest of her life with and just stood there. It took a bit longer than she would have liked, but he finally noticed her.

“Kristin!” her fiancé exclaimed. “There you are. I thought you’d gotten swallowed up in this huge crowd. You didn’t have any trouble getting the drinks did you?”

“Oh no. It wasn’t any trouble at all.” Kristin gave her fiancé his Coke, all the while looking pointedly at the auburn-haired woman. She stared back at Kristin with an insolence that was her trademark. And an indication that she was not about to be intimidated.

“That reminds me,” the auburn-haired woman began. “We’re planning on having a celebrity benefit concert for the women’s shelter next month. Danie said she would be delighted to do it. Moonshine’s going to rock out for old times’ sake, and we’ve got a couple of others who are going to do some songs. Can I count you boys in?”

Before he could answer, Kristin squeezed his arm. “Kevin dear, I thought we already had plans.”

The truth was, the Backstreet Boys had some minor appearances, and they had room to spare. And Kevin Richardson had no concrete plans with his future wife.

“I’d love to do it,” Kevin told her. “Let me check with the other boys first and we’ll get back to you on that.”

Kristin was seething mad when the woman reached up and kissed Kevin on the cheek. Isidore Corcoran was now in the dunking booth and more people were lining up to drop him into the water. The woman told him goodbye and didn’t even bother to acknowledge Kristin. Ballsy bitch.

She glared daggers into the auburn-haired woman’s back as she resumed giving out change. It really was a shame that looks couldn’t kill. It certainly would have helped the situation.

Suddenly unable to control the fact that her anger appeared on her face, Kristin gave Kevin her drink and snapped something about going off to check out the rest of the carnival alone. Kevin didn’t get a chance to stop her because she had left so quickly.

Taking quick strides, Kristin walked away from the scene and didn’t bother to pick a direction. She just let her feet take her. The flashing lights, the squeals of laughter, the stench of fried food fell all around her but she paid no attention. She suddenly had no true focus. The edges of her vision were blurry, hazy red.

She didn’t know how she ended up there. Later, she couldn’t tell you how. Because later it wouldn’t matter, really in the face of it all.

It was a tent on the far side of the carnival grounds. Here, the air seemed still, tranquil. That was how Kristin liked to think of it. Eyes filled with wonder, Kristin stepped inside.

For a moment, she could not see because it was dark. When the flap lowered behind her, blocking out the outside, a candle flame flickered, dimly illuminating the small space. There was a round table with a red cloth, and sitting at the table was a figure in a dark cloak. Nothing betrayed its sex. With a slight movement of its gloved hand, it gestured to the seat in front of the table. Still full of wonder, Kristin lowered herself to the seat.

Kristin reached for her wallet, expecting that she was going to be asked for some form of payment, but the figure waved it off. She frowned, preparing to entreat the offer of her money, but then the figure reached out and shook one finger as if to chide her for doing such a thing. Kristin placed her hands on the table and leaned in.

“Are you going to tell my future for free?” Kristin asked.

The cloaked figure laughed, a grating sound. “Oh my dear,” it said in an androgynous voice. “Nothing in life is ever free. That you will see shortly.”

With enraptured eyes, Kristin watched as the figure placed a crystal ball on the table between them. For a moment, the ball merely reflected the light coming from the candle flame. The figure whispered something in a language Kristin did not recognize, and then the ball began to glow. The light dimmed, leaving behind a slew of moving images. She recognized herself in them, saw herself and the man she intended to spend the rest of her life with. She saw herself unstoppable with a power she didn’t quite understand, loved and adored by everyone around her. She was successful, well-known, and coveted.

Lastly she saw herself destroying the bane of her existence. Kristin got a thrill out of watching herself pulling that woman up by her curly auburn hair and throwing her into a brick wall. She didn’t even question from where she would have gotten that superhuman strength.

Her eyes were huge as she looked up at the figure. “Is this my future?”

The cloaked figure nodded slowly. “Your destiny lies here, in this ball. Touch it and all will be as it should be.”

Hand trembling, she reached for the glowing crystal ball. When her fingertips made contact, it was as if a lightning bolt had sliced through her. All of her muscles clenched. A white-hot heat seared her body and she willed herself to take her hand back. But her mind disobeyed.

Within an instant the heat was gone and she relaxed. Something was odd, and she didn’t know how to explain it. There was a new awareness in her brain…what did it mean? But the cloaked figure spoke.

“You know what you must do now,” it said.

“I do,” Kristin murmured, suddenly full of comprehension that she could not explain to anyone else.

Without another word, the cloaked figure gestured for her to leave. She stood from the chair and strode out into the night.

When she emerged, she was a totally different person.

homenext

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