The Psychic’s Apprentice

Fiction by Esmé Kaplan-Kinsey

The boy needs a job. It’s unfortunate, really. Really, what he’d like to do is sit on a park bench and watch the leaves change from green to ghost. But this foolishness is out of the question, so the boy gets on his computer and loads Craigslist recent job postings.

The first post the boy sees is for an apprenticeship at the office of a psychic. There is a graphic of a watercolor sun and the text reads: 

Wanted: apprentice. Quick learner.
Willing to apply with almost no information provided.

The boy is curious and slightly desperate. He is twenty-two and still thinks of himself as a boy because he has not yet found his calling. At the restaurant, he fumbled the wine glasses and mixed up the entrees; at the construction site, he found himself unable to drive the tractor except in wobbly circles. And he has always been good at reading people, better than the average person at it, really. He thinks this to himself as he replies to the post.

I am interested in becoming a psychic’s apprentice, he writes, and receives a response quickly.

Hello. Happy to learn of your interest/existence. I foresee your arrival at my office at 9 a.m. Monday.

The psychic’s possible apprentice asks, does that mean I’ve got the job?

The possible apprentice cooks himself dinner, a grilled cheese, burned on one side. When he has finished, a response is waiting. Don’t ask questions so obvious you make me change my mind.

Unsure if he is being had, the boy devises an experiment. He leaves his house before the sun rises—if he hurries, he might arrive at the psychic’s office well before nine. He is not sure why he is doing this, other than that he does not know what to believe, not in this situation or ever, really. Perhaps if the psychic’s prediction is wrong, he will have more evidence to point him in one direction or another.

He waits for the bus in the clear cold of dawn, smoking a cigarette. The bus is late, and then there is construction on the freeway ramp, and right before his stop someone has crashed their pickup truck, and half the road is cordoned off with blinking lights and orange cones. He arrives at the psychic’s office right as the clock tower rings out nine in the morning. Just like that, he has acquired a little piece of information, and all it took was a car accident and some faulty scaffolding and a bus driver who couldn’t find his left shoe in the early darkness of his apartment.

The psychic’s possible apprentice does not know what he was expecting, but he is not expecting the psychic. She is young. Perhaps not many years older than he is. Big-eyed and solemn. Patched jeans and an oversized black t-shirt with a giraffe on it.

Good morning, Craigslist boy, she says, and her voice is like walking down a gravel path into the fog.

She takes a very long look at him, until he starts to squirm. This apprenticeship may not be what you’re looking for, she says, finally.

What do you mean? the boy says.

Fate is tricky, says the psychic. Not that fate is real. But it’ll take everything from you.

I’ve got nothing to lose, the boy thinks, and she beams at him as if he has said his thought out loud and says, Maybe it’s exactly what you’re looking for.

The sign above the psychic’s office says:

palms + ghosts + cards
Venmo @son_of_a_witch

The office is dark and full of stars. She glides between them. Like a mere mortal, he sits in their shine.

She wants to know what he can do. He says he is good at reading people. She says, you don’t believe that, do you? And he says fuck, you’re good. And she says, you’re hired, I guess.

When he stands up to shake her hand, he knocks a crystal ball off the shelf with his elbow. It shatters on the floor. The psychic’s apprentice leaps back, apologetic, but the psychic is only grinning. Look in the closet, she says. He opens the door and crystal balls come rolling out. The closet is filled with them.

Rule one is that nothing is ever an accident, says the psychic. Behind the door is a broom and a dustpan. She sweeps meticulously, the psychic’s apprentice standing awkwardly near the wall, trying not to do more damage. When she dumps the milky shards into the trash bin, he hears the glass tinkling down onto other glass.

The psychic picks up a ball from the floor and puts it on the shelf and nothing at all has changed.

We’ll start with palms, she says.

He tries to read her palm for the better part of an hour, until she becomes frustrated with his slowness. No, that one is the lifeline. No, not that one, that would be a disaster. Look how short that one is.

The psychic’s apprentice is frustrated too. She has not taught him anything, but every effort he makes is mocked. Show me, he says finally. Show me how to do it, if I’m doing it so wrong.

She flips his palm over, holds it steady against her knee. The psychic’s apprentice has wide, rough hands. A scar crosses his right palm, jagged as a fault line. He had torn it open on a barbed wire fence when he was ten.

Scars are good luck, says the psychic. Scars mean your body knows how to heal.

I know my past, says the psychic’s apprentice. What can you tell me about myself that I don’t know?

You have the hands of someone with no clue what to do with their life. Someone who lives without direction.

I know that too, says the apprentice. I thought you might tell me where I could find my direction. Or when I will get married, or when I’ll die. Something useful like that.

I can tell you that you’re going to stub your toe getting out of the shower tonight, said the psychic. That’s all I’m picking up at the moment.

With his training underway, the psychic’s apprentice rises to head home for the day. His mind feels uncomfortably jumbled, as though his head is a room into which the psychic has come and picked up a few thoughts and put them back in not quite the right places. He boards the bus and does not remember a minute of the ride. When he arrives at his apartment, he is unsettled by the suddenness of his homecoming and he thinks for a moment of going somewhere else—a bar, a movie theater, the fields on the outskirts of town where he could run through the dusk in grass up to his waist—and then he doesn’t. For dinner, he makes himself grilled cheese. He thinks to himself that he would like to learn how to read palms properly. He examines the charred lines on the back of his sandwich. The lifeline, the heart line, the…he cannot remember. He takes a bite out of the lifeline, cuts it short. Prophecy, fulfilled.

When the psychic’s apprentice takes a shower, he stubs his toe and bleeds from the cuticle all over the gray tile. It hurts like hell, which he finds moderately convincing. He smokes a final cigarette out of his bedroom window and is lulled into sleep by the warmth of it, like a blanket from the inside out.

In the morning, he tells the psychic, I think I’m starting to understand. That nothing is an accident.

Then you’re ready for rule two, says the psychic. Rule two is that everything is an accident.

She sits him down on the floor, next to a low table covered by a purple cloth and lays out the cards. The fool, the mountain, the skull of death. The psychic’s apprentice is not offended, but he wonders if he should be.

You’re not a very lucky person, are you? says the psychic.

The psychic’s apprentice thinks of this morning, when he slipped on a lone patch of ice on the sidewalk and bruised his tailbone. And, he thinks of his birth, premature, and his parents and their general dissatisfaction and moneylessness, and of the time in high school when he ate an expired yogurt cup and vomited in front of his history class.

Not really, he says.

That’s good, really. Lucky people don’t understand how lucky they are. But unlucky people know just how unlucky they are.

She shuffles the cards.

Now you, she says, for me.

The chariot, the sun, the hanged man.

What does it mean? he asks, and the psychic says, you tell me.

The chariot is travel, he guesses. A transition. The sun—must be some sort of warmth. But not a permanent one. Something that comes and goes. And the hanged man—now that’s unlucky. That can’t be good news, can it?

What if the hanged man is not me, said the psychic, but my adversary?

Then that would be luckier, says the psychic’s apprentice, but I’m telling you, and nothing and everything is an accident, and how could this one be about anyone but you?

She smiles and shuffles the cards. She is very, very good at it; the cards seem almost to float between her fingers. You’ve made a lot of progress today, she says, you can go home early if you want.

Can you teach me to shuffle like that? he says. When I do it for clients, I want to look like I know what I’m doing.

She looks at him and squints. Okay, she says eventually. He is awful at shuffling. He cannot position his hands right.

As he pauses in the doorway, the psychic catches his sleeve. Don’t take the bus, she says.

What’s going to happen if I take the bus? he says. But she is already back in her office and drawing the gauzy curtains.

The psychic’s apprentice has no other way of getting home, so he walks to the bus stop. He sits on the bench beside an old man and lights a cigarette. The man sits with his elbows on his knees and his face on his hands and stares out into the street.

As the psychic’s apprentice smokes, he is overcome by a craving that feels unlike his own. It belongs to the old man sitting next to him. He has not turned his head, but the apprentice can hear the man’s want like a song stuck in his head.

Would you like one? he asks the man, extending the pack of cigarettes, and the man, who the apprentice knows was hoping for just this, nods without surprise, pulls a smoke from the pack with two trembling fingers and shoots the apprentice a grin. You read my mind, kid, he says.

That’s my job, said the psychic’s apprentice, and it is true. At least it will be, as soon as his first paycheck arrives.

And speaking of arrivals, here is the bus. He climbs aboard, and so does the old man. They get one good, calm mile. Then a truck comes careening down the wrong side of the road, and the bus, swerving to avoid it, spins off the side of the highway. The crush of the psychic’s apprentice’s chest is very nearly painless. The EMTs will say that he died on impact, but that’s not quite right. He had time to think, are you kidding me? Just when I was starting to figure this living shit out. The old man, pulled shaking from the bus’s smoking wreck, is the only survivor.

After the crash, the psychic’s apprentice wanders around in the dark for a while. For the life of him, he cannot figure out where he is. Eventually it dawns that the life of him is no longer really relevant terminology, a quip that would have made him laugh if he had a throat to laugh in. He seems to have no body in this mist, but his thoughts still spin somewhere. In a clearing of the darkness, he watches himself loaded into the back of an ambulance, a sheet pulled over his bloodied face. He knows then—he is not upset, but merely sure of what has and will become of him. It is not a feeling he has ever felt before.

Then he hears the psychic speak.

Have you arrived, apprentice? she asks.

And the psychic’s apprentice knows then, at last, what it is to be certain.

Esmé Kaplan-Kinsey

Esmé Kaplan-Kinsey is a California transplant studying creative writing in Portland, Oregon. Their work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Beaver Magazine, JMWW, and Gone Lawn. They are a prose reader for VERDANT, a mediocre guitarist, an awe-inspiring procrastinator, and a truly terrible swimmer. They can be found on X/Instagram @esmepromise.