Life was meant to come with some surprises. Science had made it easy to predict certain things, like the gender of an expected baby, the potential spread of cancer, the risk of any number of genetic diseases, the likelihood of someone being able to survive a car crash. It often seemed easier to predict the bad than the good. For Clark Monaghan, that statement couldn’t have felt more true. He had a listing in The Black Pages, the directory for everything magical, mystical and fantastical. It was revised from a former position he had once had, and by its nature was more popular. He sometimes wished the book never existed.
Clark could never beat his customers to work. He arrived every morning with a cup of hot coffee to a crowd. Not an orderly queue, but a mob waiting for answers. He knew he didn’t need to show up early for them – they didn’t get in until he’d had his coffee – but he figured if he couldn’t beat them, he could at least beat rush hour traffic.
His first customer was an electrician. The demographics of Clark’s customers would reveal a pattern of dangerous occupations, and often some scepticism. “Does it really work?” the man asked.
Clark nodded. “I don’t list myself as the Misfortune Teller for nothing,” he explained. “But I can only tell you one thing. The same thing I tell everyone else.” The man nodded. “Before we begin, you must know that this can be incredibly distressing. The information you receive today, it will change your life. Morbid curiosity is not enough to justify this expense. You will know that which humankind was never meant to know. Do you wish to continue?”
The man nodded again. “I have a daughter. She’s only five. I have to know.”
They held hands. The electrician was, by Clark’s gauge, only slightly uncomfortable with it. He had seen worst reactions. He had seen some people enjoy it perhaps a bit too much. But the holding of hands was an essential part of Clark’s process, a process that was as entirely unique as Clark’s gift.
He closed his eyes. Every living being had an aura. Clark could sense it. That wasn’t special, at least not for The Black Pages. But within that aura, Clark could find something else. He reached for it, in a way only he could, through space and time, around logic and reason and winding through intelligence. He avoided madness and chaos, and eventually reached that one, powerful piece of information that only he had so far managed to locate within an aura.
He opened his eyes, picked up a quill from the table beside him with one hand, and pricked the man’s arm that he still held firm. The man flinched, but stayed still as a trickle of blood began to write upon his arm. A date, a time, and nothing more.
The man looked at it uncertainly and began to cry softly. Clark noted that he was a quiet crier. Tears, but not snots. “That’s quite a long time to go,” he told the man. “Your daughter, she’ll be nearly sixty by then.” He smiled warmly at his customer. He did not know the man’s name. He didn’t like to read about his customers in the obituaries. He tried to avoid their names within their auras, too, and was sometimes successful.
“That’s really when I’ll die?” the man asked. Clark nodded. Sometimes, it wasn’t such a misfortune. He was maybe falsely advertising to some people.
“The date can be washed off at your leisure. I advise doing so before heading to work or speaking to your family.”
It went that way for everyone. Not necessarily with the same results; a lot of the people who came to him had shorter lives ahead of them than they had intended for themselves. Many of those tried to fit as much life into that time as they could, which often resulted in a terrible, deadly accident at the exact time Clark had given them.
Life was surprising that way.
A woman with only a few weeks to go asked him the question that many of those with short lives had on their minds. “How do you know?”
Clark knew she was smart. He knew she knew about the magical world once so magically hidden from everyone else. “I used to be a Grim Reaper,” he explained. “Then, I was in a terrible accident, after I’d left the job. Lost my head, quite literally. A necromancer put me back together, which didn’t much please people. I think those two things, and the fact that my mother used to work in this very room gave me something of a unique outlook on life.”
He smiled at her. She smiled back. “Maybe we’re lucky to have you,” she said quietly. He would have liked her to live longer. He thought maybe he could fall for her. She was half his age, not that he was keeping track anymore. He didn’t know her name, only that of the type of cancer she had. She knew she would die soon. She just need clarity, she’d told him.
“Maybe I’m lucky to have people like you. Death is often unwelcome. There aren’t many like you who are so aware of how inescapable it is.” She left, her imminent date still imprinted upon her arm. She was his last for the day. He needed more coffee. He always wondered if going alone looked at weird to other people as it did to him.
He did not go for coffee.
Instead, he grasped his hands together. His aura flared up within his mind’s eye. It was complicated and jagged, sometimes threatening to throw him out. No one liked Clark’s aura, not even Clark himself. Whether through the guiding of souls or the replacement of his own, his aura had become something of a menace.
And whether through his own failure, or a lack of an ending, he could never tell when he himself would die.
And that, he thought, was just one of the many ways life could be cruel.
The Misfortune Teller is part of a collection of stories about a magical phone book that exists within the supernatural community – The Black Pages. These stories related to my new book, A Death in the Family, which launches at K-Con on April 1st. Read about the book below:
Benjamin Cooper is about as close to death as someone can get, without actually dying. Literally.
In the wake of the Worst Year of the Century, the Coopers are visited by a man straight out of folklore, Death himself. Ben is forced, by way of fulfilling a supernatural debt, to take over the mantle of Reaper.
But life as Death is more complicated than Ben could ever imagine, and perfectly executing every order is rarely an easy task.
A Death in the Family is a tale of paying for others’ decisions, seeking to understand dying, and falling hopelessly in love.