Isabella or Penelope by Edward Sheehy

Cassandra’s Unisex Hair Salon and Psychic Palm Advisory occupied 700 primo square feet in a renovated strip mall fronting Columbia Pike just minutes from the Pentagon and a nine iron shot across the Potomac River to the District of Columbia. The highway was a clogged artery, carrying over a hundred thousand vehicles a day endlessly driving in and out of DC as if condemned to a concentric circle of commuter hell. The turnpike itself dated back to 1807 when toll takers charged farmers twenty cents to bring a team of hogs into the city for slaughter. I remembered this last tidbit from a divorced docent I’d recently met on one of those dating websites. A firehose of historical minutia, she barely paused to take a breath while I sipped my third margarita. I said I’d call her but never did and now I was attempting a left turn across turnpike hell during rush hour to surprise Cassandra at work.

Unlike the docent, Cassandra and I had hit it off immediately. The first time I’d laid eyes on her was at the coffee shop when she’d breezed in to take out. Her brightly colored caftan reached sandal tops encrusted with jewels and stones. Raven hair pulled back in a tight bun gleamed with perfumed oil. An ebony complexion glowed with lotions of aloe and jojoba. When she spoke to the barista, her Creole accent rose and fell like birdsong. Intrigued, I initiated a conversation that led to happy hour drinks at a Tex-Mex joint with live Mariachi and a fajita with lobster tail that would make your eyeballs salivate.

Over beers and lime, Cassandra confided that her real name was Betty Vegas and that she’d emigrated from Trinidad. She took my right palm and traced my heart line. The tickle of her polished nail uncorked a torrent of blood rushing to fill every available chamber. She identified the shape of an X that crossed my lifeline. A warning sign, she said, but not something to worry about for now. I didn’t worry about it since I didn’t believe it. We’d been hooking up on a semi-frequent basis ever since. When I walked in, a young woman stylist with dreadlocks was sculpting an intricate Lakers logo into a boy’s scalp. “Is Cassandra around?” I said.

The stylist’s eyes remained focused on the logo. “She’s finishing a webcam reading. She’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Sirens and squealing brakes punctuated the hip hop playlist. I grabbed a celebrity magazine and parked in the salon chair next to the boy. I’d almost caught up on a pop diva’s colonic cleansing ritual when Cassandra appeared in the door frame. Her black tank-top dress with Rasta stripes of red, yellow, and green clung tight to a willowy frame. Bangles of copper and silver circled her wrists. She flashed a high beam smile and hooked a finger toward the backroom of the salon. I followed her into the office. The webcam on a laptop screen showed an empty chair behind a desk. On the wall, a multicolored tapestry depicted the seven energy chakras in the human body.

Cassandra motioned me to sit. She swung a chair around, so we sat knees-to-knees. Her hand hovered above my forehead. “Your aura is like a sunspot,” she said. “A black splotch against a yellow radiance from your electromagnetic field. You’ve got blockage.”

“Could be,” I said. “I had Mac and Cheese for lunch.” 

Cassandra responded with a gentle love slap. “Why do you come here if you don’t believe?”

“Because you believe. And I believe in you.” 

Cassandra exhaled and stretched her arms. “I’m exhausted. I had back-to-back appointments all morning: a spiritual energy evaluation, a chakra reading, then an aura cleansing.”

Her face brightened as if a cloud had passed. “Good news, though. I picked up a new sideline, psychic stock picks. I already have over a hundred subscribers. 3-D manufacturing is booming. Commodities are doing well, although meat and dairy may slow.”Cassandra leaned forward and whispered, “Jeremy says you wouldn’t believe the money pouring into the cannabis sector.”

“Who’s Jeremy and why are you whispering?”

“A lobbyist for legalization. He comes in for a trim every two weeks and keeps hitting on me.” 

Competition. I signaled my displeasure. 

“Relax. He’s not my type.”

Which made me wonder what type I was.

“Anyway, Jeremy gives me a tip, hoping I will go out with him. Gold Leaf is a global cannabis company about to go public. The company is partnering with a German brewer rolling out a line of infused beverages that will totally dominate the market. Plus they have a franchise model that will put McDonald’s to shame. Jeremy can get me shares at the low IPO offer. He claims the stock will skyrocket. We’re talking major windfall.”

Franchise? Now she had my attention. I ran franchise ops for Yo-Yo, a new chain of botanical frozen yogurt shops alongside a hot yoga studio. Royalties pouring in kept the suits at corporate, and me, extremely happy. A global company with deep pockets might need an experienced hand to help with franchising. Maybe Cassandra’s client could put in a good word for me. 

I whistled. “Wow! And you trust this guy, what’s his name?”

“Jeremy—a lobbyist, so about what you’d expect. But I talked him into letting me read his aura. He had an imbalance in his manipura.” Cassandra indicated her tummy region and giggled. “An excess of gas. Another reason why he’s not my type. But his Ajna, what we call the Third Eye chakra,” she pointed to a spot between her eyebrows, “checks out indigo. He’s not bullshitting about Gold Leaf.”

“Interesting,” I said, still mulling the franchise angle. “Let’s get something to eat. My treat.”

“I’ve got something better.” She walked over to the fridge and retrieved a plate of cold jerk chicken and two Red Stripes. We balanced paper plates on our knees and dug into the leftovers and beer. Our small talk hit a lull, and just out of curiosity, I nodded toward the chakra tapestry, and asked Cassandra when she first discovered she had psychic powers.

Her lips pressed tight in a line. “You’ll laugh.”

I held up three fingers. “Scout’s honor, I won’t laugh.”

“You were never a boy scout.”

I scooted closer to her chair and put my lips next to her ear. “Promise I won’t laugh.”

A woman’s voice called out from the salon. “Cassandra, I’m leaving.”

“Okay, Glendale, thanks, ” Cassandra replied. “Please turn off the music and remember to lock the door.”

I heard the front door slam and latch. Cassandra dumped our paper plates with the chicken bones in the wastepaper basket. The only light in the office filtered through a rectangle of wire security glass in the backdoor, casting the room in a grayish pall. She lit a scented candle and scrunched down on the floor on a large throw pillow and patted a pillow next to her. “Grab another Red Stripe while you’re up.” 

I lowered my creaking joints onto the pillow. Cassandra rested in a lotus position; her shift gathered in folds. Candlelight shadows danced upon the walls. For the briefest of moments, I would have sworn she levitated. Then she began her story:

“As you know, I was born in Trinidad. When I was a young girl, I loved to spend time at a nearby lagoon known for its habitat of butterflies. Once, when I was ten years old I walked to the lagoon and brought an overripe banana in my knapsack. I mushed the fruit into my palm. Very quickly, one butterfly, then another, gently landed on my hand to feed. I stood motionless as more and more butterflies fluttered to my hand—Sippers and Monarchs, Swallowtails and Peacocks, and Tiger Wings. It was so amazing! Soon my hair, arms, and legs were encased in a magnificent cocoon. I was covered head-to-toe in butterflies. The tremble of wings tickled my face. It was all I could do to keep from giggling. Slowly, I had a sensation of being lifted. Then, my feet floated off the ground entirely. I rose higher and higher, above mangrove swamps, and white sand beaches, then over the tidal flats and rainforest. Looking down between my feet, I saw the mottled shell of a hawksbill turtle skimming below the ocean’s surface. The butterflies turned inland and lowered me gentle as a feather into my own backyard. I ran inside to tell my mother about the magical experience and found her asleep in bed, a radiance emanating from her flat belly. I don’t know how I knew, but I just knew with absolute certainty that my mother was pregnant with twin girls. Sure enough, eight-and-a-half-months later, my mother delivered two baby girls. And wait for it—the names my mother chose for the twin girls just happenedto correspond with two native butterfly species—Isabella and Penelope.” She paused. “Which reminds me. I must get back to Port of Spain soon. I haven’t seen my mother or sisters in years.”

After a moment’s pause, chin out and wide-eyed, Cassandra said, “Well, what do you think now, Mr. Don’t Believe Anything.” Her glare pinned me like a moth to a specimen tray.

What could I say about a story like that? A hawksbill turtle, you say. Are you sure? 

Cassandra pounced on my silence, as if I’d missed the obvious point. “Don’t you get it? The butterfly is the universal symbol of magical transformation. It starts out as an egg on a leaf. Then it becomes this incredibly hungry caterpillar.” Cassandra’s pearly whites chomped up and down by way of demonstration. “The when fully grown, the caterpillar forms itself into a pupa or chrysalis, and finally emerges as a beautiful butterfly. See, that’s exactly what happened to me. A personal metamorphosis. And now I have this amazing gift, to read chakras, and help others transform into their inner butterfly.” 

Tell the truth, I wasn’t much interested in my inner pupa, but I was captivated by how Cassandra positively glowed as she related this fantastic fairytale.

“Now do you get it?” she asked as her hand finger-walked to my belt buckle.

What I got was the biggest load of crap I’d ever heard. But what I said was, as I reached over and snuffed the candle, “That is one beautiful miracle!” 

* * *

I was in LA conducting sales seminars for Yo-Yo franchisees but all I could think about was that evening at the salon with Cassandra. Our previous encounters had never been anything like this. She’d slowly, and expertly maneuvered us into the Yab-Yum position—the Buddhist posture symbolizing divine union—a tantric unification of the masculine and feminine. Cassandra sat upright in my lap, legs wrapped around my waist, forming a circuit she said, to facilitate the flow of electrons between our chakra energy centers. Foreheads touching, we gazed inward at the Third Eye point, our breathing and movements synchronized. A low level current buzzed up my spine, from my Muladhara  (tailbone-scarlet red) to my Sahasrara  (crown-whitish violet)with intermediate stops at every color-coded vertebra along the way. It’s hard to put the climax into words but it was as though the top of my head exploded and a rainbow river of chakra energy gushed out like a burst dam. An exchange of electrons never felt so good. All I know is that the release left me feeling supercharged, and ready to go again—and again. Forget what I first thought of Cassandra and her butterflies, I was definitely a believer now. Chalk it up to tantric afterglow; my chakras firing on all cylinders. 

Before leaving for the west coast, I liquidated a sizeable portfolio and handed over a six-figure sum to Cassandra to pass on to Jeremy to go all in on the Gold Leaf IPO. Jeremy’s insider trading tip was illegal, but I didn’t care. I’d been checking the market every day since Gold Leaf execs rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and announced a new derivative to counter a recent outbreak of colloquiums. Sure enough, the stock shot up like Jeremy had predicted. A week later, while waiting for my flight back to DC, a headline in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. The SEC was investigating Gold Leaf for trading irregularities. Indictments pending. Five paragraphs down, Jeremy’s name was mentioned. The stock cratered. I called the salon, but the number was not in service. Email and text messages to Cassandra bounced back as undeliverable. My chakra energy nose-dived along with Gold Leaf stock. I slammed the armrest with my fist. What a sucker I’d been. A dupe. I pictured Cassandra and Jeremy on a tropical beach enjoying pina coladas at my expense. At that point, all I thought I really knew about Cassandra, aka Betty Vegas, was that she longed to visit her mother and two sisters back in Trinidad. If any of that was true, I knew where I had to go to get some answers. A few minutes on my phone and my flight arrangements were changed.

* * *

As soon as we touched down at Piarco International Airport, I was the first passenger to muscle my way out of the hatch and clear customs. My only luggage was a shoulder bag containing clean underwear and socks. I was powerwalking out of the terminal to get a taxi when I heard my name. I turned at the sound of the voice but did not recognize anyone in the crowd. Then I picked her out. Instead of a slicked-back bun, her hair was frizzed out in a supernova of tight curls. She wore oversized sunglasses and a sleeveless yellow dress. I was stunned to say the least, but then remembered I was supposed to be angry.

Cassandra lifted a finger to her red lips and hushed, “Not now,” as she threaded my arm and led us to a Mini-Cooper with the top down that looked brand new. She slid behind the wheel, cranked up “Jammin” and blasted out of the airport complex and onto the main drag, heading south. Miles of mangrove swept past. Cassandra stared straight ahead, eyes on the road, her profile a quick sketch of line and shade. The wind and Marley howled so loud Cassandra had to shout to be heard. “There’s an envelope in my handbag.”

I rummaged in her satchel and found an envelope marked Barclay’s Bank of London. Inside was a check made out to me for triple my Gold Leaf investment. 

“I pulled your cash out before the SEC stuck their nose into Gold Leaf.”

I had a million questions, but the one I started with was: “How the hell did you know I would be on that flight today?”

She turned and flashed that high beam smile. “A little butterfly told me.”

I had to laugh. “Which one,” I asked, “Isabella or Penelope?”

Short stories by Edward Sheehy have appeared online in the Boston Literary Magazine, The Write Launch, Frontier Tales, and the Book Smuggler’s Den. His novel, Cade’s Rebellion, was released by Dog Ear Publishing (2018). He lives in Minneapolis on the west bank of the Mississippi River.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *