20 Things to Do, by Dina Leacock (short story)

This story was previously published in Siren’s Call in 2013


Sheila put down the cards and looked out the window. She’d done three readings already and all predicted sadness, regret, terror and the world ending in a flash of brilliant light.

She shuffled the cards again wondering how and when the world would end. She wasn’t ready to die, her children definitely weren’t ready and the human race would never be ready.  Why … why … why … echoed through her head and she struggled to understand what she had seen through the tarot cards. It wasn’t that the cards actually told her things, she never learned how to read them. Rather the cards gave her images to decipher and she was rarely wrong when she interpreted them.

A shiver ran down her back, like the dead walking on your grave her mother, another woman in her family plagued with being psychic, was fond of saying.

Sheila rubbed her eyes, wishing her mother were alive. But the burden had been too great for her mom, the gift of second sight viewed as a curse. Sheila shuddered again as she remembered the day her cards told her that life was about to change forever and that she would suffer a hole where once there had been love. When the police came by that day and told her about the accident, Sheila knew that it hadn’t been an accident at all.  Poor Mom couldn’t live with the knowledge of things to come.

She wiped at new tears as she remembered Randi stopping by for coffee and a reading just an hour earlier. Randi, her best friend, stopped by every morning for caffeine, gossip and her horrorscope, as she liked to call it, and every day Sheila read the cards and told her what to expect. But the vision that had burned into Sheila’s head this morning was cataclysmic. Nothing specific, just a bombardment of anger, grief and horror. She had shut her eyes but that didn’t stop the onslaught. When it finally subsided, she said, “Be careful today and oh yeah, be sure to avoid the midnight beach killer.

Randi smiled and shrugged, “Not possible, I’m never up past eleven-thirty, he hasn’t killed anyone in over a year and anyway he likes ‘em in their teens. Your powers are slipping.”

Sheila smiled back, forcing her lips into an upturned curve.

After Randi went home, Sheila called her sister, Brenda. She dealt the cards as they talked. Again she read sadness, regret and unbelievable fear.

“Sheila,” Brenda blubbered as soon as she picked up the phone. “I’m scared.  Something terrible is going to happen, I can feel it.  Can you?  I don’t want to die! I don’t want anyone in my world to die!”

“Shhhh,” Sheila soothed. “Maybe it’s not what we think at all.” She wished they didn’t live five states apart, that they still shared a room. “Tell you what, let’s both go out and do twenty things totally fun and totally out of character. Then we’ll touch base tonight and laugh about it.”

Half an hour later, she read her own cards again and her fate was sealed; mankind’s fate was sealed. Visions of darkness and pain, such unbearable pain, and primal fear that felt like it was turning her stomach inside out. Staring out the window at the cloudless blue sky, she listened to the birds chirping in the trees outside her kitchen and thought, so little time, should I take the kids out of school, make Rob come home so we can make love?

She emptied the coffee pot into a cup, no need to worry about too much caffeine now and drank the bitter, hot liquid as she tried to gather her thoughts.  Taking the kids out of their classes would only upset them, no they were better off not knowing, and so was Rob. She wondered how many others knew what was coming besides Brenda and herself.

She picked up the phone and dialed.

“Hi Honey, when you come home from work tonight don’t forget to get gas in my car and oh yeah, you know I love you right?  Fine, now tell me you love me too. It doesn’t matter why, just humor me.”

She dumped the dregs of the coffee into the sink, started to wash the cup and  began laughing. No, she wasn’t planning to waste her last hours on routine housework. Instead, she grabbed a beach chair and walked the twelve blocks to the beach. Trudging up the ramp and crossing the wide boardwalk she walked down the stairs onto the beach. She glanced back at the darkness behind her and shuddered.  Funny, she thought, I loved playing under the boardwalk when I was a kid, but then she remembered how her mother had lectured her long and hard about the dangers of dark, scary places and things little girls should never do.

Now she lectured her own children the same way.

Plopping her chair at the water’s edge, Sheila sat and watched the ocean, listening to the sounds that had always been a comfort. She loved the waves crashing, the gulls crying to one another. She reached into the pocket in back of her chair and pulled out a tattered book.  She opened it to the bookmarked page about halfway though then decided it just didn’t matter. She pushed the pages forward and read the last chapter.

Finished, she wondered what to do next. She ran into the ocean feeling more alive than she ever had as the cold water made every nerve sing.  When she couldn’t bear the chilled surf anymore, she went back to her things and reached for the sunscreen. The sun was shining so brightly but she realized she probably wouldn’t need the protection anymore.  After a short time on the warm beach, she walked up to the boardwalk and watched the roller coaster. “Why not?” she muttered and because the pier was just opening, got a front seat. The chains clanked and with each chink of the cars being pulled to the apex her stomach tightened.  She gripped the bar in front of her like her life depended on it and then the torturous climb ended. Like the best sex, like the moment she saw her children for the very first time, like the very highlight of her existence, the car hovered momentarily at the peak and then plummeted down turning her world upside down, causing vertigo and euphoria. She laughed breathing in the joy of death defying speed and then it was over.

“Well, if it’s all going to end today, at least I’m on number three already. That leaves only 17 things to do before the end of the world.”

Sheila wandered the boardwalk eating pizza and ice cream and fudge and even bought a pound of salt water taffy. Holding the box, she ate all the chocolate and lemon pieces and threw the rest away.

Finally, she felt exhausted and returned to her chair on the now crowded beach.  Crying again, tears on her cheeks and the sun in her eyes, she began to mourn. She’d had her denial, but the truth was sinking in, the world was going to end in a flash of light. She squinted through her tears and looked directly at the sun. Had it already happened and we don’t know it yet, she wondered, or will it just explode and that would be that instantaneously. Wiping her eyes, she looked down at the book she’d been reading  before and thought, there are three more books in the series.

Sheila got up again, trotted to the bookstore two blocks away and bought all three at full price and a bit more. It didn’t matter. Returning to her chair, she saw the sun directly overhead and decided that if the world didn’t end by 2:00, she’d go home to make the kids their favorite treats, then take them back to the boardwalk for the rest of their lives. Maybe she’d even call Rob and ask him to meet her. The cards hadn’t given her a timeframe and being psychic wasn’t an exact science.

Grimacing, she thought bitterly about the irony of it all, how she’d waited for her last day to finally starting enjoying life again. “I swear that if for some reason the cards are wrong, I swear that I will live like this every day.”

And Please, she added praying silently, please let the cards be wrong, let my family live.

She turned to each book and read the last 30 pages. The story was never meant to end, it was an ongoing cash cow for the publisher and the author, but it was coming to an end anyway. She really was reading the last chapter.

Finally putting the reading down, she looked at the endless waves and the glistening white sand and thought how she’d always figured that the world would go on long after the human race had finished ruining the environment.  All the beauty would be lost forever, all the other living beings, the animals, the plants would be gone and all she could do about it was live until it ended.

Sighing, she decided she needed to get home right away. She got up and left the beach taking the shortcut under the boardwalk. She frowned at the dark that smelled of stale urine and hurried to get through to the other side.

Funny, neither the dark, the smells, nor the windblown trash had bothered her when she snuck under the boards at dusk to make-out with her boyfriend, fifteen years ago. But now she looked around with discomfort when she saw movement to the side. Rats! she thought just before the pain ripped through her head.

Waking, awash in nausea, she realized she was still under the boardwalk, beneath the pier. The sunlight, glittering like painful lasers on each side of the darkness, created small stripes of luminescence shining down between the slats above. The slivers of light danced to the rhythm of footfalls as people walked overhead.

She screamed but the rides overhead made it impossible to hear her own voice.

What was going on, she thought with panic, then the man came into view. She struggled to rise, tried to push herself off the cold, clammy sand, but a fist seemed to come out of nowhere and slammed her back in a shower of star-filled agony. Terror filled her, pain enveloped her. Sheila sobbed as a tiny portion of her brain was dumping random thoughts faster than she could recognize them:

I want to go home!

The killer is back!

My children!

Doesn’t he know the world is going to end?

Why is he doing this?

She couldn’t see his face; only his form against the distant wash of golden light at the sides of the pier.

Agony. He never spoke a word as he hit her again and again, each blow stealing her strength.  Explode, damn it, she prayed, make this agony endSomeone, something help me!

She desperately tried to command her body to move, her muscles to respond. She had to get to her knees and crawl to the light. She had to get away and spend the final moments with her family. Let Rob and the kids fill up all the rest of her 20 things to do list with her.

Nothing happened, her body was paralyzed by the pain and the terror. She wept, the tears running from the corners of her eyes and soaking softly into the sand.

Laughter, throaty, sinister laughter and then he grabbed her by the hair. Surprised that she could react all, she gasped in pain. Oh Mom, if you saw this happening why didn’t you warn me?

He snapped her head back, raised his arm and Sheila saw the blade flash brilliantly in a slit of golden light from above. “Oh my God!” she croaked as she realized in that last fraction of a second that the cards had been right, but she had been wrong. It really was the end of the world, but only her world.

Dina Leacock writing under the name  Diane Arrelle has sold more than 200 short stories  and two books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories. She recently retired from being director of a municipal senior citizen center and resides with her husband, her younger son and her cat on the edge of the Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).

Posted on July 19, 2016, in Issue 18: Mark My Words: Prophesy Signs & Portents and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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