The Automated Fortune Line

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“What did you come here looking for, Dorian?” she asked.

A rumble of thunder sounded outside.  And the rain seemed to thicken.  Instead of the quick but distinct droplets, there were now just splashes and slaps of water hitting the little house that had been converted into the psychic’s parlor.  The lights flickered.

“My friend thinks I’m being pranked, at best.”  I sat back, but my left arm was still stretched out toward the psychic, still laying in her palm.  “At worst, someone is playing some kind of mind game with me, maybe gaslighting me.”

“Trying to make you believe that your own perceptions aren’t real?”

I shook my head and glanced down.  “Not exactly.”  An involuntary wince crossed my face.  I started tapping my right heel on the floor.  “I stopped calling.  A week ago.  Maybe a little longer actually.  But it’s still happening.”  I winced again.

What is still happening?”

I looked up at her.  “My life is still following the path he laid out for me.”

Madame Granya frowned.  “Who?”

I stared at her.  I wasn’t really struggling with whether or not I should tell her.  I was just not telling her.  I had nothing on my mind in that moment.  I was…stuck, maybe.  And then I spoke.

“Me,” I said.  I laughed, a self-mocking laugh.  “Him.  The voice…on the phone.  The voice of me.”

Madame Granya released my hand for the first time since she’d taken it.  She stared at me.  Not at my eyes or at my face.  Not really at me at all.  She stared…around me.  Her mouth dropped open slightly.

I pull my left hand back and sat forward.  “What?  You just realized something.  What is it?”

She stared around me, her eyes roving up and down and around.  I didn’t know if she could actually see anything.  But I knew what she was doing.

Her gaze snapped back to my eyes.  She pressed her lips together in that kind of not-smile thing that people did when they were trying to be polite about revealing some unpleasant information.  “You know, when it comes to palm reading,” she said, “I’m pretty much a charlatan.”

She paused and her eyes narrowed a little.  It was as if she were waiting for my reaction, and expecting a specific reaction, for me to get up and leave.  Or maybe she was daring me to leave.

“I’m not even sure if that’s a legitimate practice,” she said.

I stayed put.

For the time being.

“For some reason,” she said, “most of the people who walk in my door find it believable that certain people can read palms the way a doctor, say, reads an x-ray or some other medical scan.  The average, untrained person sees only random lines and shapes.  But the trained expert can see meaning.  A stray thin line in an x-ray is actually a crack in a bone.  And a stray line in someone’s palm might be the love of one’s life who got away, never to be heard from again.”

She crossed her arms on the table and leaned toward me.  “They’re all the more convinced of my legitimacy and honesty when I warn them that I can’t predict the far future.”  She sniffed.  “I can only extrapolate what will be happening in their lives soon based on what is happening now.  The lines never change, but their meanings change as a person goes through life.  But the only change so much.  Those lines, they represent a person’s core self.  And that core self is going to direct the person toward certain paths again and again through life.”

She uncrossed her arms and sat up again.  “Sounds reasonable, right?  That’s what I would have told you too, if you hadn’t just laid down your twenties and stretched your hand out to me.”

“So…you can’t read palms.”  I had already figured it out, but the thoughts were slow making their way to my mouth, to my voice.

She nodded slowly.

“But whatever you tell people,” I said.  “You’re not making it up.”

She shook her head, slowly again.

“You’re reading their auras.”

“I sure am.”

“And…people don’t believe in auras.”

“It’s easier to disbelieve what you can’t perceive.  A hand, the lines on the palm, those are things that everyone can perceive.  People with sight can see the palm.  People without sight can touch the palm.  People can go home after a reading and stare at the lines in their palms, reviewing what I’ve told them.  They can’t do that with their auras, because they can’t perceive their auras.”  She pointed a finger at him.  “But I learned—a little by accident—that physical contact helps to bring the aura into focus for me.  It sharpen the edges a little, so I can see subtleties that I might miss without that contact.  It all works out.”

“So everything you told me during the palm reading you just did, that actually came from my aura?”

She nodded.  “But I did think it was weird that you seemed so on edge even though your aura was completely still.  So still it was easy to read.  But now…”  Her eyebrows drew down until they were creased, as if she were concentrating.

“What?”  I slid my left hand over to her, but she didn’t take it.

“It’s completely still.  I’ve actually never seen that before, even in people who are very calm.”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s frozen.  That’s what it looks like.”

I closed my eyes and noticed my right knee jigging up and down.  “But what does it mean?”

“I might be able to answer that question if you answer mine first.  Why are you here?”

I sighed and pulled out my wallet.  I pulled open the compartment where I kept odds and ends, mostly things that hadn’t gotten cleared out yet.  Like that movie ticket stub from three nights ago, or that folded up napkin with a friend’s recipe for a great pizza crust.  I found the sticky note, the pale blue sticky note that had the number written on it.  I pulled it out and lay it on the table.

“It’s in my handwriting,” I said, as Madame Granya leaned over to take a look.  She reached for it and then halted, looking up at me.  I nodded my permission for her to pick it up and take a closer look.  I wondered if she could see any aura, maybe like a residue left by the person whose number it was.

Maybe she could tell me what dozens of desperate internet searches could not.

***

I cleaned out my wallet every now and then, to get rid of old receipts, switch out expired cards, shake out any change that happened to end up in there.  The last time I did it, I found a folded up piece of a sticky note that looked like it was from work.  It was the same pale blue color that our office manager liked to order.  He didn’t like the yellow ones.  It wasn’t the first time I found a sticky note in my wallet.  I’d write things down at work sometimes—doc appointment dates and times, or reminders for stuff I needed to do at home.  Sometimes I used my phone.  Sometimes I used one of those sticky notes.

So I unfolded the one I found, and I saw a phone number written on it.

But that’s all I had written.  No associated name or other information.  That would have made a little sense if I’d written the number down in a hurry.  But my handwriting looked like it did when I was taking my time. I tried to guess what it could be, hoping one of my guesses would shake loose a memory.  It had been a few weeks since the last time I’d cleaned out my wallet.  The sticky note had appeared in that time.  So I thought about what else had happened in that time.

I’d gone to a few happy hours with co-workers, including one send-off and one work anniversary.  Maybe someone gave me their number and I wrote it down, but in typical fashion forgot their name.  But that didn’t make sense.  I wouldn’t have sticky notes and a pen with me at happy hour.

Was it the number of someone I should talk to about getting one of my projects off the ground?  But then why didn’t write down any more details?

I searched the company contacts database for the number.  Nothing there.

So I went wider and searched the internet.  Nothing there either.

I realized that I hadn’t checked my phone’s contacts to see if I’d already entered the number there, along with all the other information that I should have had, like a name for starters.  If I already had the number on my phone, it might explain why I just wrote the number on the sticky note.  Maybe I’d entered it wrong on my phone and got a correction from someone.  So I asked around at work, to see if anyone recognized the number, or if people could check their contacts.  Sometimes new contacts weren’t entered into the company database right away.

When I reached a dead end at work, I asked my friends and my family if any of them had given me the number.  Maybe someone had been trying to set me up and I hadn’t written down any other information out of defiance.

But I would have remembered making a move like that.

“I didn’t do all of this all at once,” I said to the psychic.  “I looked into it a little at a time, especially after I figured out that it wasn’t work-related.  That’s what I was worried about most at first.  That some disaster might happen and it would be my fault, because I didn’t call someone at that number.”

“Why didn’t you call it from the get-go?” Madame Granya asked.

I shrugged.  “I thought there was a chance it was a spam number or something.  Maybe I wrote it down as a warning not to call that number.”

“So, it was important but not that important.”

I nodded.  “But then the more I looked into it, the more it bothered me that I wasn’t finding any answers.  Sometimes I think that if I’d just dropped it from the beginning…”

Madame Granya arched one of her eyebrows.  “You’d gone too far to turn back?”

“Something like that.”

Thunder cracked, and the lights flickered again.  But we both ignored that.

“When all else failed,” I said, “I called the number.”

“And…he answered.”

I shook my head.  “It was an automated voice.  If it had any kind of gender, I’d say it sounded female, like, a woman.”

“What did the voice say?”

“I don’t remember that first one exactly.  I just…the gist of it was that by the end of the day I would receive a surprise from an old friend.”  I cleared my throat and shifted in my seat.  “And then it hung up.  So I hung up.”

Madame Granya exhaled.  “And did you?”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Receive a surprise from an old friend?” she asked.

“I did actually.”  I sniffed and caught a whiff of a scent, incense maybe or a candle.  It smelled soothing.  Sweet and musky.  But I couldn’t place it.  “I mean, it wasn’t that big of a surprise.  But it was a little unexpected.  An old college friend had gotten back in touch with me earlier this year.  He mentioned he might come out here to visit, and that he’d like to catch up.  We went back and forth a few times.  But then we dropped off.  And I hadn’t heard from him in a while.  But that day…I forgot about the call.  I told someone about it, and they said it sounded like some old fortune-telling number that was still operational.  I guess they had those back in the day.  But this kind of number was for people who couldn’t afford a dollar ninety-nine a minute with a real live psychic.  You would call, get a random fortune, and it would only charge you a quarter or something like that.”

Madame Granya nodded as if she knew about these numbers.  She looked younger than me.  We would have been babies when these numbers were in their heyday.  But maybe she knew of them because of what she did for a living.

“So the mystery was solved, right?” I continued.  “At least about what the number was.  That part was a relief.  But I still didn’t know how I got the number in the first place.  I kept thinking someone was playing with me.  Maybe a friend had slipped the number into my pocket or something, and I’d found it and put it in my wallet.  My handwriting isn’t so unique.  Someone could have copied it.”

“Do your friends play pranks on you often?”

A flash of lightning brightened the room through the gauzy curtains that were drawn on the side window.

“It’s been a while, but yeah, I could think of a couple of people who might have done something like that.  I planned on confronting them.  But the next morning, when I was getting ready for work, I…I don’t know, I just called the number.  Just on a whim.  Just to see.  What my fortune would be for the day.”

The same automated voice told me that I should prepare for stormy weather.  I thought it meant there would be a shake-up at work.  But it was an actual, literal storm.  I didn’t take an umbrella or wear a coat.  And I had a couple of errands I had to run.  I was soaked by the time I got home from work.

I took out the sticky note from my wallet that night and said, “I should have listened to you.”

The next morning, I checked the forecast, took an umbrella even though it would be clear, and got all the way to work before I felt that tickle in the back of my mind.  I pulled out the sticky note and dialed the number.  For some reason, I had gotten it into my head that I should manually dial the number, not save it in my contacts.

So I dialed, and the automated voice told me my talent with people would be called upon that day.  That wasn’t such a stretch, since I had a customer-facing job.

But the next morning, I called again, just to see.  And the voice said that if I wore yellow, I would welcome fortune into my life.  I had socks with yellow lining.  I wore them. That afternoon, I learned that we landed a client we’d been waiting on.  It was a coincidence.  Just a coincidence.

“But you called the number again,” Madame Granya said.

“I called the number again.”

And I couldn’t remember quite when, but the fortunes began to change a little.  To get more specific.

A tie with stripes would catch the attention of someone important in my life.

A broken bond would be mended over rocky road ice cream.

Tell your boss the secret you have been keeping today, and he will forgive you.

Do not tell your boss the secret you have been keeping today.  He will never forgive you.

On the way home from work, stay behind the blue sedan with the rainbow bumper sticker to avoid a collision.

I shifted in my chair again.  My neck felt stiff.  I rubbed it.  “And then, one morning, a few weeks ago, I called…and the voice that answered was not the automated voice I was used to.  At first, I just noticed that it was male.  And I thought maybe they were switching it up or something.  Maybe they put in a new batch of fortunes.  Or maybe I’d pressed a button and switched a setting, you know from female voice to male voice.”  I licked my lips.  “But after I hung up, I thought about it, and the voice wasn’t just male, it sounded like a real person.  It wasn’t automated like the female voice.  Anyway, he told me to avoid the salad for lunch because it had saffron in it.  I’m allergic.”

“Did anything out of the ordinary happen that day?  Or the day before?  Anything significant?”

I shook my head.  “I’ve been trying to think about that.  But, it’s nothing.  Nothing weird or important or different happened.  Nothing.  I searched my emails and phone calls and paper mail.  I checked my accounts to see if a statement came out that day.  I mean, anything I could think of.  But nothing unusual happened.”

Madame Granya folded her hands and lay them on the table.  “What about you?  Was there any change in you?”

I frowned.  “What do you mean?  Like, did I feel sick?”

“Did you…come to any decisions about anything?”

“Decisions?”

“Was there anything that you were unsure about before?  And did you…find certainty?”

I frowned some more.  “I feel like you’re trying to tell me something.  Or trying to get me to say something, but I don’t have a clue what that is.  What are you getting at?”

“I’m getting at the reason you’re here, Dorian.  I’m getting at the number.  Did you make any decisions about the number?  Or come to any conclusions?”

“Like what?”

“Every day you called.  And as each day passed, the fortunes become more specific.  And you used them as a guide, didn’t you?  The same way you would use a weather forecast.  You followed the advice given.  Speak to your boss today.  Don’t speak to your boss today.  Is that right?”

“Yeah, for the most part.”

“Was there ever a day when you got a fortune that you didn’t follow?”

“Yeah, it was something about wearing shorts.  I don’t even own any shorts.  I don’t wear shorts.  So I didn’t.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing terrible.  I got some ketchup on my pants.  But it was no big deal.  Not my favorite pants.  And I didn’t have to go into some big meeting with ketchup on my pants or anything like that.”

“So you called again the next day?”

I nodded.  “And that’s when I realized why the voice sounded familiar.  It was my voice.  You know how you can’t recognize your own voice in a recording at first?  But then, if you listen closely, you can hear it.  It was me.”

“And you kept calling?”

“Yeah.”

“Did the fortunes change after that?”

“They got even more specific, but other than that, it was the same kind of stuff.  Instead of saying that a friend would call that evening, the fortune would say a specific name, just the first name, of that friend.”

“Did that scare you at all?”

“Yeah, of course.  It was my voice and it seemed to know more and more about me.  I told people about it, and everyone told me to stop calling.  And one of my friends tried calling the number.  She got the generic automated voice, and she got a generic fortune that seemed to come true.  But only because it was so vague.”

“Did the fortunes ever ask you to do anything…unethical?”

I shook my head.  “No, nothing like that.”

“Are you worried that they might be headed that way?”

“I don’t know.  I can’t say I haven’t wondered about that.  But I don’t think…I mean if it happened, I just wouldn’t do what the fortune said to do.”

“Would it be hard?  Not to listen to your own voice?”

I felt a flutter in my chest and I laughed.  And I could tell it sounded like a nervous laugh.  “I feel like, like I’m at a therapist’s office.  What happened to the reading?”

Madame Granya didn’t respond.  I heard the rain pattering on the sidewalk, drumming on the window.  I could see the shadows of the water streaming down.  It was lighter now.  And I realized I hadn’t heard any thunder for a while.

“Yeah, okay,” I said.  I straightened in my chair.  “After a few days of listening to my own voice, I really, really started to feel weird.  The most harmless thing I could think of was that some company had an artificial intelligence engine working on gathering my information—my voice and whatever my online profiles showed, maybe even the private stuff.  So they were customizing the fortunes to me as we went along, to keep me coming back.  Or else it was a creepy supernatural thing.  Either way, the thing I was more worried about was that I was letting it make decisions for me.  My tie choice was one thing, but deciding when I’d talk to my boss about something based on what my fortune said that day…I could see that I was becoming…dependent.  I’ve never been addicted to anything in my life before.  I didn’t know if I’d be able to recognize it before it was too late.  So, I decided to stop.”

I took a deep breath and sighed it out.

“And you weren’t able to stop, were you?” Madame Granya asked.

I shook my head.  “Oh no, that’s the thing.  I was.  I didn’t call the next morning.  Or the morning after that.  Or the morning after that.  For a whole week, I didn’t call.  I was conscious of it in the mornings when I first woke up.  But I would forget during the day, at work, when spending time with people, and even when I was alone at home, watching a show or something.”

“It didn’t work,” Madame Granya said.  “Or you wouldn’t be here.”

I gulped.  “I got a missed call one day.  I checked and it was from that number.  I ignored it.  The next day, there was another one.  I blocked the number, but I couldn’t stop it from leaving messages.  I deleted the messages.  But every time I did that, I would get half a dozen more before the end of the day.  I listened one time, and it was the same fortune over and over.  I called the phone company to see what could be done.  They’re working on it.  And since I called them, the messages on my phone stopped.”

I wiped sweat from my temples with the back of my hand.  “So yesterday, someone forwarded a call to my desk at work.  So I answered without looking at the number, and my own voice started speaking to me.  And it told me not to go to a psychic.  And I hung up and saw that it was the number.”

Madame Granya stood up.  She took a quick breath in.  “Did the number send you to me?”

“No, like I said, it told me not to—“

“But was it me specifically who it told you not to go to?”

I shook my head.  “No, not you specifically.  Just ‘a psychic.’  I mean, it didn’t even say what type of psychic.  Palm reader.  A séance…person.  I was looking it up at the same time the call came in.  I knew that I couldn’t report anything since the calls stopped, but also just knew it wasn’t over.  I was searching for whoever could help me.  Psychics.  Ghost-hunters.  Whoever.”

“That’s how you found me?”

“Yes, you have good reviews, from people who sound reasonable and intelligent.”

She sat back down and held out her hands.  “Give me your hand again.  Both your hands.”

I placed my hands in the palms of her hands.  She squeezed them.  She peered at me.

“Your aura is definitely frozen.”

“Because of the phone calls?”

“I don’t know.  I never read your aura before the phone calls.  So I truly can’t say.”

“What should I do?  To unfreeze it?”

“Do you want to unfreeze it?”

“Yeah, of course.  I mean, it’s not healthy this way, right?  You said you’ve never seen anything like this.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  I do occasionally see things I’ve never seen before in someone’s aura.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

“Okay, but it could be.  And I think it is.  I think it’s frozen because of that number somehow.  And I want to unfreeze it.  So…what do I do?”

She peered at me.  “What do you think you should do?”

“Seriously?  Are you sure you’re not a therapist?”

“Dorian…”

“Okay, I know what I think.  I know.  I think that the number is fate.  And fate wants me to follow it.”

Madame Granya nodded.  “I think you’re right.  You’re up against fate.”

I gulped again.  “I could follow its course for the rest of my life, and maybe I would be fine.  Maybe I would be better than fine.  But maybe, I could follow its course all the way off a cliff.  Because it’s using my voice, I’ll think it’s me making decisions.  But it’s not me.  And I want it to be me.  At first, I thought of the fortunes like they were just extra information.  I could use them if I wanted to.  Or ignore them.  But the more specific they got, the harder they were to ignore.  And I thought that was the solution.  Defiantly ignoring the problem.  But, it feels as if fate is coming after me.  I’m really worried.  Actully, I’m really scared.  I’ve told some people I trust.  And they don’t know how to help me.”

Madame Granya was still squeezing my hands.  I found myself squeezing back.

“Do you think you could help me?” I asked.

“Do me a favor,” she said.  “Look at your hands.”  And I looked at my hands.

“Keep watching them,” she said.

I tried to blink as little as possible.  I began to see something appearing around my bare hands, and then my arms.  Layers of colored light, dim light, translucent.  I could still see my hands.  The layers of colors were static.  They weren’t moving.

“What does it look like?” she asked.

“Rainbow sherbet.”  I glanced up at her.  She was smiling.

“Yes, I can see that,” she said.  “So usually what I see is a rippling, or streaming.  It can be fast or slow.  Any direction.  And it can be still.  But not this still.  Not motionless.”

I glanced away, looking at other things in the room, looking at Madame Granya.  I didn’t see her aura.  I didn’t see any other auras.

“If you can see it now,” she said, “we can do this again in the daylight, somewhere else.  So you know it’s not some trick I set up ahead of time.”

“Okay, then what?”

“Then, I try to help you.  I try to help you help yourself.”

“I hope you can,” I said.  “I’d like to see what my aura looks like when I’m not being haunted by fate.”

Madame Granya smiled as she released my hands.  “It probably won’t be as spectacular as rainbow sherbet.”

“A boring old aura, huh?  I’m looking forward it.”

I took a deep breath, pulled out my phone, and set it on the table.  I was going to play previous messages for her.  But I wasn’t surprised—neither of us were—when the phone began to ring.

It was fate calling.

 

Copyright © 2019  Nila L. Patel

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