I am walking along the boulevard with Marie and Emil when we see the top of the tent, quietly nestled in the bottle strewn backyard of the pub. It is a strange place for a tent, and an even stranger place for a pub, considering that this part of the city is lauded for its elegant atmosphere. The streets are cobbled, the lamps are polished, and the signs swing crisply on their hooks. That someone, somewhere, considered it a wise decision to install this crumbling, grimy faced bar which stands before us is somewhat remarkable.
Even more astonishing is the presence of a backyard, the entrance to which is guarded by an appropriately rusted iron gate. It is through this gate that we have spotted the tent. There is a flag pole attached to its top, upon which a thin strip of cloth flutters weakly in the breeze. As we near it, the tent itself mirrors the state of the flag. The cloth, bright red from a distance, is in fact worn and heavily patched. The walls sag inwards, and the doorway, lacking its original curtain, has been taped over with a garbage bag. Four badly cut yellow stars, stitched haphazardly into its ceiling, immediately dampen what remains of the intrigue. We agree the end result is humorous, if not rather pitiful.
"It's actually quite genius," Marie says suddenly, as we watch a heavily intoxicated man stumble out beneath the garbage bag. "Being drunk makes them vulnerable. Of course they'll want to know their fortunes. They've probably come here to drink their problems away in the first place." She pauses, her eyes surveying the man now crawling slowly through the gate, a bottle still in his hand. "Most of them are probably gamblers," she adds, her eyes glinting.
"Or they're university students, bored and disillusioned with life," Emil comments, raising his eyebrows bemusedly at Marie's imaginative take on events. "I'd have to agree, it would be fairly useful knowing whether the extra credit math course I'm taking will in fact add anything substantial to my life twenty years from now."
Marie snorts, and punches him lightly in the arm.
"Fortunes?" I question interestedly. I had not, up to this point, seen any signs indicating what curiosities the tent offered. Emil motions to a small cardboard sign that has been pinned to the left of the garbage bag. I lean forward, and squint my eyes.
Fortunes, ten dollars
"A bit pricey isn't is?" I question. "Didn't is used to be twenty cents or something in the old days?"
"It's not the old days," Emil responds seriously. "Con artists have got to make a living too you know. It aint easy."
Marie laughs. "He's got a point," she agrees. "So, shall we support this con mans vacation fund?"
"I hope he goes somewhere nice," Emil says ruefully, pulling a ten dollar bill from his pocket. "It's not easy parting with my cash, you know. We have a very close relationship."
Marie rolls her eyes. "You've only complained all summer about being bored. Entertainment costs money, or did you forget?"
"Yeah, yeah," Emil grins. He looks at me. "Do you think they'll take American?"
I glance down at the American bill in my own hands, and turn it over thoughtfully.
"No idea. It's worth a try anyway."
"Is this really worth it?" Marie asks doubtfully. The man with the bottle has crawled to the front steps of the bar, and is attempting to raise himself upwards. I noticed that there is confetti stuck to his clothes.
"Having a good time?" Emil shouts at him.
The man looks up at the sound, and breaks into a smile when he sees us. He raises the bottle, and yells something in French.
"What did he say?" I ask.
"All I got was the word birthday party," Emil grins. "I assume it's been a blast." He turns to Marie. "That also answers your question. Yes, it's worth it."
Marie wrinkles her nose in distaste as the noise of the bar spills out through a window someone has just opened. Loud, raucous music pours into the street.
"Are you sure?" She says again, her eyes lingering on the dilapidated tent, and the gently billowing garbage bag sealing the entrance. "I mean, romantic adventures in Paris aside, this does seem a bit shifty to me."
Emil snorts. "Oh come on, there's a boulangerie next door. If it's shifty, they picked the worst possible place to do it. Nothing can go wrong when the worlds greatest sugared confections are being manufactured right beside you."
Marie considers this, and appears assured. "Let me just call Miss Adams then, to let her know we won't be touring the museum with the rest of the class today."
"Are we even allowed to ignore the itinerary?" I wonder out loud.
Emil shrugs. "The whole trip was under funded to begin with. I doubt we're missing much. Paris isn't ideal for planning either. It's better explored and spontaneous. Less rules, more action."
"She said it's fine," Marie interjects, snapping her cell phone shut. "But we need to be back by four."
Emil is already walking ahead, ignoring her. Marie makes a small huffing sound, and hurries after him. I follow, stepping gingerly over the discarded broken bottles which line the entrance. Within the backyard, the noise from the bar is deafening. Marie clamps her hands over her ears as Emil surveys our surroundings. The tent itself is quite small, and what little free space surrounds it is covered in gravel. The backyard is cornered on all three sides by the brick walls of the surrounding buildings, resulting in air which is cool, and slightly moist.
"Ready?" Emil smirks at Marie, who is still childishly holding her ears. She sticks her tongue out at him, and then we all duck under the garbage bag.
Inside the tent, it is pitch black and utterly silent. I attempt to assign a solution to this impossible phenomenon. There is certainly no way canvas tent walls would exclude the noise pollution outside. I strain my ears for a remnant of the music, but hear nothing.
"It's so quiet," Marie whispers, echoing my thoughts.
"Boo!" Emil says, poking her in the ribs.
"Ow!" Marie says, jumping. "What is it with you?"
A light flares before us. I realize a candle has been lit. "Names?" A low voice asks.
"Diane," I say immediately.
There is a pause, and then Emil says: "Aubrey Finklsteen."
Marie attempts to muffle a laugh. Then she says: "Arabella Banana."
I feel a strange twitch in my gut, and a sudden surge of anger at their stupidity. Could they not have been serious for once?
It seems the voice has chosen to ignore their blatant lies. It requests our money next.
"Where should we put it?" Emil asks. The candle is still the only light source, and it appears to be sitting on the floor.
"Drop it," the voice responds.
"What, on the ground?" Marie says.
"Drop it," the voice repeats.
I drop my money. Instantly, the tent burst into light. I immediately look down, and see that my money has vanished.
"Oooh, clever," Emil smirks. "I like this guy."
To my complete surprise, the tent is empty. We are standing on the same gravel which covers the backyard. Two light bulbs hang on a precarious string of wire from the ceiling, and the candle, now unlit, is a melted pillar among the stones.
The only clue as to a possible hiding area is a flap of blue cloth which has been tacked to the opposite wall of the tent. We look at it, and nod knowingly at each other. Clearly, this is where the fortune teller is speaking from.
"Who will go first?" The voice asks.
Emil grabs Marie's hand, and forces it into the air.
"Hey!" She protests.
"Be a man," Emil says sternly.
"Will you be first?" The voice repeats, as though aware of her reluctance. I realize there must be a peephole in the blue flap.
"Yes," Marie sighs in defeat.
"Pick up a stone," it commands.
Marie picks up a stone.
"Close your hand," it continues.
Marie closes her hand.
"Open it," the voice says.
She opens her hands. The stone has turned red.
"That's cute," Emil remarks. "But where's the fortune part?"
"Pick up a stone," the voice commands again. Somehow, everyone is aware she means Emil.
He picks one up obediently and closes it before the voice tells him too.
"Open it," the voice says, after a pause.
The stone in his hand has also turned red.
"Interesting," Emil says politely, though I can tell he has grown bored.
"Take her stone," the voice commands me. I look up in surprise, then accept the stone Marie drops in my hand. There is another pause. "Take his stone," the voice continues. I take Emil's stone. We wait, but nothing happens. The silence drags on. The stones are cool within my hands, and I trace them gently against my skin. The sensation is pleasant, though puzzling. They have to begun to feel almost like ice.
Suddenly, Marie emits a scream. I turn, startled and see that she is grabbing desperately at her left arm. When she pulls back, I feel my stomach lurch. Her arm has been cut at the wrist, and the stump which remains leaves no trace of a hand.
"Make it go back!" She yells, horrified. "Make it go back!"
"Wow," Emil says, impressed. "Those are some high end computer effects."
"Effects?" Marie shrieks. "I can't feel it! It's not there!"
"Relax," Emil assures her. "There's a projector around here somewhere. Maybe it's like a 3D green screen." He pauses. "That would be awesome."
I turn quickly away, unable to look at her hand. I admit the trick is an impressive one, but the location of its execution sets me on edge. Shouldn't that sort of talent be taking place in a real circus? Not behind a bar, under a garbage bag?
I press the stones tightly between my hands, attempting to regain a sense of self-control.
"It's hot in here," Emil complains, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Too hot," Marie agrees.
I open my hands again, and one of the stones rolls loosely over my palm, landing on the ground with a faint clink.
Emil turns to say something to Marie, then releases a deep groan. Within seconds, he is on the ground, his arms curled around his knees.
"What's wrong?" I gasp, dropping swiftly down beside him. My pulse quickens as I watch the red seep through his pant leg, pooling on the ground beneath him.
"Emil, what did you do?" Marie cries out, attempting to move his arms aside. I realize his pupils have dilated and there are bruises blossoming across his temple. I yank up the leg of his jeans, and feel myself gag at the sight of the mangled limb beneath it.
"This is sick!" Marie shouts at the blue flap. "Stop it!"
My head is whirling, as I struggle to staunch the bleeding, my stomach clenching in an iron fist which doubles me over. "Marie," I say quickly. "Marie, can we carry him between us? If it's all projections, we just need to get him outside." I don't mention the fact that the blood in his clothing is warm, that it smells exactly like the day I broke my arm falling off my bicycle and cried over the pain. The panic in my mind refuses to question where such a substance could be bought, and artificially implanted into a visitor. Because that situation does not make sense. There is nothing in the tent, nobody there to place it. This whole situation is spinning out of my control and I can feel the nerves inside me begin to fray, battling the ability to accept this as reality.
Marie struggles to lift Emil with her remaining hand, and I see that tears have begun to course down her cheeks. "Make it stop," she sobs, over and over. I grab the upper half of Emil's torso, and we awkwardly carry him toward the garbage bag flap. When we have ducked under it, Marie screams.
We are back in the tent. Confused, I turned my head back to the flap. Again, we carry Emil underneath it only to re-enter the room we have just left.
"I can't, I can't do this," Marie says, her breathing choked. "I can't…"
"It's a mirror trick," I say soothingly, though inside my heart is pounding. I feel suddenly as though I have fallen into a very long, dark tunnel, the ending of which is nowhere in sight. The hairs on the back of my neck begin to rise, and I turn, only for the tent to plunge instantly into darkness.
To be continued.