Two dark-haired students wearing Brazilian-flag tee shirts undressed Jessica with their eyes. She tossed her red hair and turned her back on them. She’d arrived in Belgium from the States on Saturday, and this was her first day of a summer semester studying at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The orientation for new and reentering students had ended, and she weaved through French and Flemish conversations. She was in the square outside the arched portico of the Tower Library, a Gothic, gild-relief building. The sky was gray-smeared clouds.
A sandy-haired student wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a pink tie spoke in German-accented English to a fellow with a three-day beard and flowing blond hair under a black ski cap.
The German said, “Read Kafka. The meaning of life is that it ends. There’s no God.”
Ski cap said, “That’s arrogant.” He had an East-European accent.
The German’s eyebrows rose. “No one can prove God’s existence.”
“True. But certainty is hubris.”
“So, how do you reconcile doubt?”
“Pascal’s advice. Believe in God; if you’re wrong, you lose nothing. Deny Him, and you risk everything.”
“Faith isn’t mathematical.”
“Do amoebas believe in man? We’re all around, but the amoeba’s tiny brain can’t conceive of us.”
The German bristled. “I don’t have an amoeba’s brain.”
Jessica liked the sparkle in ski cap’s blue eyes. She stepped forward. “Amoebas think that God’s an amoeba.”
Ski cap laughed.
The German shook his head. “This becomes ridiculous. Marko, I’ll see you in class.” He stormed away.
Jessica and Marko introduced themselves.
Marko said, “An American. What’s your major?”
“Art History. KU Leuven is an ideal place to study the Flemish Masters, particularly Jan Van Eyck.”
“Ah, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.”
“Very good. Most know it as the Ghent Altarpiece. I believe it portrays the greatest landscape ever painted, unsurpassed in six-hundred years. What’s your field?”
“Religious studies. I’m interested in paranormal phenomena.”
“May I invite you for a beer?”
In a cobble stone alley, they sat at an outdoor café with wrought iron chairs. Marko ordered a kriek. He suggested a framboise for Jessica.
Jessica said, “Raspberry and cherry beer. I’m in Belgium a few days, and already I’m enjoying new experiences.”
“Want to try wostyntje, mustard beer?”
“Mustard?” Jessica wrinkled her nose. “Tell me about your belief in the supernatural.”
“After I accepted God, it was a short walk to miracles, visions, prophecy, occultism, and extra-sensory perception.”
“When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend, Roland. He was as real to me as you are now. That’s eerie.”
“A highly sensitive person. Roland was a spirit, and you saw him. Your nervous system can process input undetectable by most people, particularly paranormal phenomenon.”
“You’re a passionate person?”
“HSPs are passionate and enjoy a deep interest in the arts.”
“Oddly gifted. We must explore this.”
“I’m uncomfortable with the idea to conjure up spirits.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“There’s a fortune-teller I know. Let’s get a reading.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re not curious? It’ll be fun.”
The sign said, Violeta, Psychische. A hazy red candle glow bathed the room. There was the scent of incense. A young woman, was slumped face down over her arms at a wooden table. When the door groaned open, she lifted her head as if awoken from a trance. There was a glint of recognition, but the smile that tugged at her lips when she saw Marko disappeared at the sight of Jessica. The woman had penetrating hazel eyes. A large golden ring pierced her left nostril. She wore a black headdress with red accents over long dark hair. Two forearm tattoos were clinging vines. A cobra bracelet adorned each wrist.
Marko said, “Violeta, this is Jessica. We met at KU Leuven, and she’s HSP. We’d like a reading.”
Violeta shrugged a shoulder.
Jessica said, “How much?”
“Pay what you like, but Marko will be first.” Violeta shuffled cards. Her finger nails were jade green. A dagger tattoo pointed down her middle finger. “Tell me when to stop.” Her accent sounded like Marko’s.
Marko said, “Now.”
Violeta placed the deck on the table. She clasped her hands. “Are you sure you want to proceed?”
Marko said, “Why not?”
Violeta smirked. She turned the top card. A castle tower had been hit by a bolt of lightning that sliced off its crenelated battlement. Fire raged, visible through arrow slits. People hurled themselves to the ground to escape the flames.
Violeta’s eyes skewered Marko. “You’re planning a betrayal. There will be retribution.”
Jessica’s eyes widened.
Marko gulped. He gave a sideward glance to Jessica. “No more about me.”
Violeta spread her hands. She had a small smile. “I say what the card reveals.”
Jessica rose. “Perhaps we should go.”
Marko put his hand on her forearm. “Let’s see another card, for you.”
Violeta’s mouth pursed, and she reshuffled until Jessica said, “Stop.” Violeta snapped a card off the deck. She hesitated, then placed it onto the table. A skeleton in armor rode a white horse. A child at the horse’s fore hooves was about to be trampled. The word written at the top was, “Morte.”
Jessica blanched. “Dear God.”
Violeta sighed. “The reading is over.”
Violeta’s smirk returned. “There’s no charge.”
Jessica grabbed her head. “I shouldn’t have come.”
Marko’s voice cracked. “Violeta, tell her. It was a bad joke.”
Violeta said, “She’s HSP. She knows everything.”
Marko apologized all the way back to university.
Jessica’s face was pale, her stride quick.
Marko strove to keep up. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“If I’m alive.” Jessica left Marko and joined a knot of Brazilians laughing together.