Hailey knew she turned heads. She also knew it wasn’t because she was a great beauty. It had more to do with the upward tilt of her chin; the confident lift to her shoulders. She had an air about her that seemed to say, “I’m confident in my own skin. Life is good and good things are going to happen.”
Today she strolled into the coffee shop, glanced at her watch and realized it would be another 15 minutes before Debra arrived. Choosing a table by the window, she ordered coffee with cream and let her mind wander back to the last time she had seen Debra, 20 years ago.
They had both been in Middle School, that tough in-between stage when teenagers are struggling to emerge from the cocoon of childhood. On their last day together, they were happy to let childhood win for a day. They had gone to the Middle School Fall Fest, a PTA fundraiser that gave them license to stuff themselves with cotton candy and hot dogs, throw darts at water balloons and finger paint at a crafts table geared more toward six-year-olds.
It was a superb day with a warm sun enhancing the blood-red brilliance of red maples lining the school grounds. Arm in arm, the two girls breathed in the intoxicating radiance of a perfect afternoon. On this Saturday there were no worries about not being popular enough or not finishing their homework. There was only the festival and their friendship.
“Let’s get our fortunes told!” Hailey said when they had visited everything except the gypsy’s tent, a makeshift hut of colorful, billowing fabric. Usually a parent or teacher dressed as a gypsy and told fortunes, but Hailey didn’t recognize the magnificent woman who called to them from the tent’s entrance.
“Come and discover your future,” she said in a thickly accented, raspy voice, gold bracelets jingling as she waved them forward. She wore a multi-colored, pleated skirt that swirled and swayed, and the sash around her waist was strung with small gold coins. A crimson scarf pushed back a mane of untamed black curls and gold hoop earrings dangled from her ears.
“I don’t know…” Debra hesitated but the gypsy, pointing a long, red fingernail at Hailey, said, “One at a time. You first.”
“Wait for me here,” Hailey laughed before ducking through a gauzy curtain into a room illuminated by the glow of two flickering candles. The gypsy indicated that she should sit in one of two flowery chairs pulled up to a small round table. “Tell me your name,” she commanded as Hailey settled into the chair.
“Hailey.” Hailey’s voice, a thin croak, was barely audible. She felt a thrill of expectation and a tiny thread of fear in this tent so far removed from the clamor outside. The gypsy had slipped into the other chair and candle flames sent dancing shadows across her heavily-rouged face.
“Ah, Hailey, I am beginning to see…” The gypsy’s eyes, black and lined with kohl, gazed intently into a crystal globe between them. She grasped Hailey’s hands and traced a fingernail lightly over one palm. “Yes, I see your future here.”
“What? What is it?” Hailey was entranced by the beautiful, frightening woman, the translucent globe and the sputtering yellow flames.
“Look! See for yourself.” But before Hailey could stare into the globe a sudden swoosh of air stirred the fabric walls and sent a flurry of leaves swirling around them. Hailey looked up at the curtained ceiling where an avalanche of blood-red maple leaves seemed to materialize from nowhere, as if the trees outside had dumped their leaves into the dim interior of the tent.
“Where did those leaves come from?” She gasped, mesmerized. She gasped again when she saw the message etched on one broad, red leaf twirling into her lap. “It has writing on it!” Grabbing the leaf, she held it close and mouthed these words: Hailey, You Are Next.
“What does it mean?” Hailey scarcely breathed as she examined the leaf.
“That’s it? You’re not going to tell me if I’m getting married, or if I’m going to be rich and famous?”
“The meaning of your fortune will unfold; it cannot be rushed. But you mustn’t speak of it to anyone, or you put your future in danger. Now go!” The gypsy’s black eyes bored into her, causing Hailey to flinch. She lunged from the tent and noticed with relief the red maple leaves still shimmering in the sun. She had half expected to see bare branches stripped of leaves and a sun grown dim as twilight.
The rest of the day was a vague jumble in her mind. Hailey remembered Debra entering the tent, then emerging pale and speechless. The two of them meandered around the school a little longer to see if there was anything at Fall Fest they might have missed.
Maybe if she had known she wouldn’t see Debra again for 20 years she would have ended the day differently; hugged her friend or at the very least said We’re best friends forever. Maybe she would have talked about the strangeness of a fortune written on leaves, despite the gypsy’s warning not to say anything.
But neither of them could have known that the next day Debra’s grandfather would die. They couldn’t have anticipated that Debra’s family would move away suddenly to care for a grieving widowed grandmother and there would be no chance for two middle schoolers to say goodbye.
As Hailey sipped her coffee and watched a flurry of red maple leaves drift past the coffee shop window, she thought of those fateful words etched on a leaf. You Are Next had become her mantra, shaping and informing her life.
Fulfillment of the prophecy had started right away. The morning after Fall Fest her heart had skipped a beat when her language arts teacher said, “Hailey, you are next!” The teacher was announcing that Hailey was the next winner of their school language arts writing competition, and Hailey immediately envisioned the gypsy’s long red fingernail summoning her forward to claim her certificate.
Those words, You Are Next, seemed to follow her wherever she went. In high school, Hailey somehow knew she would be the next homecoming queen, the next school valedictorian, the next candidate to get into Harvard. You Are Next floated into her mind, words on a crimson leaf, whenever something wonderful was about to happen.
In Hailey’s memory, the gypsy became less formidable and more beautiful. Hailey grew in confidence and finished college. She felt certain she would land her dream job despite a pool of candidates when the CEO opened his door, waved Hailey into his office and said, “You are next.”
Was it all because of the gypsy’s fortune?
Glancing through the coffee shop window, she didn’t immediately recognize Debra. The slump-shouldered woman scurrying toward her bore little resemblance to the Middle School friend who had been the prettier of the two. Lines of unhappiness etched her face. Her eyes, wary and hooded, darted about uneasily until, spotting Hailey, she allowed herself the briefest flicker of a smile.
“Hailey, you look great!” Debra seemed to brighten a little as she slipped into a chair across from her friend. “It seems strange to reconnect after all these years, but when I found out we were living in the same town, I had to get in touch.”
They chatted about inconsequential things for a while. Debra, guarded and subdued, lapsed into silence and shifted nervously when their conversation slowed down. Finally Hailey, consumed by curiosity and concern for her friend, spoke up. “Debra, what happened since we were in Middle School? You don’t seem happy.”
The insincere smile vanished. Debra’s look was so forlorn that Hailey ached to undo whatever unhappiness had caused this misery.
“Tell me,” she said gently. “Maybe I can help.”
“There’s nobody who can help,” Debra began, dropping her gaze. “It was prophesied. It’s my fate.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember the time we got our fortunes told? The strangest thing happened, but the gypsy warned me not to say anything. I was sitting across from her when all of a sudden leaves fell like snowflakes, filling the tent.”
Her voice, tinged now with hysteria, trembled slightly. “One of the leaves had my name on it! It said, You Are Next! When I found out my grandfather had died, those words haunted me. I knew I was going to be the next one to die!”
“But you didn’t die…” Hailey protested.
“Even when I wasn’t the next person in the family to die, I always thought I was going to experience the next terrible thing. If there was a random shooting, I thought of those words, You Are Next. If somebody flunked out of school, I thought, You Are Next. When layoffs began at work, I knew I was next. It’s ruined my whole life, the message on that blood-red leaf.”
Debra’s words had tumbled out in a breathless rush, but now she paused. “I’ve always wondered,” she began, staring curiously at her friend. “What was your fortune in the gypsy tent?”
Writing Prompt #31, a story about mysterious words on a leaf.