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Our Lady of Tomorrow
We hope you enjoy this week’s new story — Natalie C. Parker’s “Our Lady of Tomorrow” — which asks: “What will you do, when the future comes to town?” ~ Julian and Fran, January 15, 2023.
Our Lady of Tomorrow
By Natalie C. Parker
When the future finally arrived in Topeka, Kansas, it revitalized the mall.
I didn’t really understand or care about the importance of this at the time, being too young to have any real emotional connection to the idea or reality of a mall. But there were still plenty of people around who did care, which meant I couldn’t avoid absorbing a thing or two about the significance.
The old building had been slouching along since the eighties, with all the usual anchor stores shuffling in and out. Over the decades, it had played host to a movie theater, a museum, a boxing gym, and even, briefly, a church, but all had moved on again. The building became an eyesore and a tax shelter for an investment group who later sold it to a private company that had been on the verge of declaring bankruptcy when the Intelligent Revolution hit the Midwest fifteen years ago.
Now every storefront in West View Mall is occupied and the place is nearly always packed.
Seth and I used to go every Friday night after work. He’d pick me up from my nursing shift smelling like coffee and grocery store lo mein and we’d make straight for the mall, where he would try to get me to buy some fancy tailored suit or at least try one on. He used to say, Sister of mine, these suits may come with a price tag, but none of them could dream of attaining your value. I never bought one, and now I wish I had. So I try not to go anymore. The memories are too visceral. But tonight I let Erin drag me along. She got us tickets for Our Lady of Tomorrow, and if you’re not there when they open the queue, they give your spot away.
“My friend in New York told me that their psychic books up months in advance. It’s nearly impossible to get tickets.” Erin talks over her shoulder as she expertly weaves through the crowd, blue lipstick bright against her warm brown skin. “Score one for living in the Midwest, right?”
In most ways, the mall has returned to its original state of glory. Neon lights hang above every storefront, the cavernous hallways echo with chatter and laughter, and the smells of soft pretzels and cinnamon buns compete with cloying perfumes and body sprays. There are towers of greenery ringed by benches, elevators crawling up and down from the second-floor veranda, and a merry-go-round of unicorns, dragons, and the original robot-faced mims spinning an endless line of children around and around.
It’s a remix of all the best parts of the malls from the turn of the century. The past resurrected by the future.
“I guess,” I mutter.
“That’s the spirit.” Erin grins back at me and hurries past a kiosk selling Adaptable Magic Eye paintings. Each one is laced with ocular locators that track the movement and focus of your eyes, changing the hidden image inside the painting once you’ve found it. It’s basic but effective and there’s always a crowd.
Seth used to count how many different images he could see in a single sixty-second span. It was always more than I could. And it always, always gave him a small headache.
Just past the kiosk we follow the flow of traffic right and pass beneath a sign that spells out Mim Alley in shimmering neon-pink lights and this is where the future lives.
I’m part of the generation that remembers the time before the revolution but still grew up with all the tech my parents feared. Programs that could paint anything you desired, could write a book that played on your specific combination of preferred tropes, could design a diet that would help you lose weight, gain weight, or prevent a heart attack.
I also grew up with mims, who did everything from teach seventh-grade algebra to advise the president on matters of state. I remember when they weren’t allowed to look human and also when they were required to look human, and I remember all the fuss that got us to where we are now. Mims still have human features but are required to have skin as blue as the sky to remind us that they are not human.
Seth, though—he was four years younger than me. He only remembered the blue mims. He idolized them. They had a clarity of purpose that he envied, and I think on some level it hurt that being one of them wasn’t an option. Their existence was so real that it made his world feel smaller. Limited his options.
“It’s here!” Erin grabs my hand and we join the end of a line that extends farther than I can see. “We made it. Holy shit, we made it.”
People pile up behind us. I hear whispers that echo Erin’s. Everyone is excited to be here. Excited to visit Our Lady of Tomorrow and have their fortune told.
The first time a mim made a prediction about the future, it was written off as a glitch. Therapist models started answering questions they shouldn’t have, telling people about what they were going to do rather than what they had already done. There was an uproar. But the amazing thing—at least, it seemed amazing at the time—was that more often than not they were right. Feed enough data into a program that can aggregate hundreds of thousands of data points and analyze just as many potential outcomes, add that to programs that are better at predicting human behavior than most of us, and the future becomes nothing more than a numbers game.
Obviously, things sort of spiraled from there. It’s the human condition.
“How does this work?” I whisper. “Do I ask her a question? Or does she just look at me and tell me things?”
“I think she just reads you,” Erin says, dark eyes alight with excitement. “She’s the real deal, you know? A real psychic. Like the one who predicted all those storms.”
“But that was based on patterns. Existing data. Predictive formulas. How can she do any of that if she doesn’t know anything about me?”
Not that there is much to know. I’m still a nurse. I still don’t own a fancy tailored suit. And I’m behind on all my bills. All anyone would need to do to predict my future is look at my bank account.
“The same as any clairvoyant does, I guess. But better.” Erin doesn’t bother to delve too deeply into this. “She sees the future, Puck. It’s as simple as that.”
The line moves forward all at once and we follow, passing storefronts where mims offer other premium services. Everything from the one-minute haircut to tailor-made clothes while you wait. Seth especially loved the candy shops where mims would re-create any image into spun sugar or icing or ganache. Something perfect and so fleeting, it wouldn’t make it past the mall doors again.
I couldn’t imagine spending the money he did on those things. If I had, I’d have done everything I could to preserve it. Laminate it and store it in the freezer or something. But he said it was the perfect trade.
“Tomorrow the world might change,” he said. “Money might become worthless. The mims might decide they hate making candy portraits. That is, if you subscribe to the belief that mims have preferences and desires, which I do. But it doesn’t matter. Because I have this one thing right now that means nothing to anyone but me.” He held up his spun-sugar prize, a ridiculous portrait of me with caramel-colored filigree outlining my features with eerie precision. The glow of the neon lights behind it turned it a ghastly green, but Seth didn’t notice, or he didn’t care. He beamed. “Today I can eat this delightful, moderately delicious facsimile of my sister’s face. Who cares about tomorrow?”
Whenever a memory like that strikes me now, I press pause and inspect it. I search his face, analyze the peaks and valleys of his voice, his word choice, looking for the thing I missed.
As if it were just one thing.
Who cares about tomorrow?
A man takes our tickets and ushers us into a new line, one that wraps back and forth with guardrails between each row to keep us organized. All of us marching toward the same goal.
“What do you want her to tell you?” I ask.
Erin doesn’t hesitate. “I really need to know if I should quit this job and enroll in law school.”
“Why wouldn’t you? You’ve talked about going to law school since we were freshman in high school. You’re more than smart enough. Why not just go?”
Erin huffs as if the answer to this question is obvious. “Because I need to know how it will turn out. Will I be happier if I go to law school? Will I be good at it? Get a good job and contribute to the world? Can I do all of that and find someone to love without fucking it up? Or will my life ultimately be more satisfying if I stick with a lower-paying job that lets me sleep at night without worrying someone’s going to come shoot up the courthouse or something?” She pauses as we move ahead again. “So, you know. The basics. What about you?”
I open my mouth but shut it again when my cell shivers with a message. I flinch—hard to believe I still do that—and open it instantly. It’s just Mom. Asking about something I’ll care about later. Then, without meaning to, I swipe to Seth’s name. To the last message he sent. Eight months ago, on a Wednesday at 3:43 a.m.
Do you know what it’s like to feel the world spinning? Not beneath your feet but inside your bones. Churning in there with all the marrow and blood and lymph and shit. I think that’s what this is. It feels like now.
Just below it, the last thing I ever sent to him. Two hours later. Too late. Asking if he wanted to get breakfast.
I’d woken up, though. That’s the thing. I saw the text. I just didn’t answer it because it seemed so Seth.
Here is what I want to know: If I had answered it then, would Seth still be alive? Would he have made a different choice?
Erin is still waiting for me to answer.
“Maybe I shouldn’t go in,” I say.
Erin’s expression softens. She takes my hand as the line moves again, pulling me against her so she can speak softly. “It’s okay if you don’t,” she says. “But you get to have a future. You get to make plans. Seth made a choice for him. Not you.”
There’s a note of anger in her voice at the end and I know she’s holding back. I know she’s furious at him. I am, too, but for different reasons.
“I know.” Releasing the words nearly upsets the precise ecosystem of my sorrow and I swallow hard. Glare at the purple banner that appears before us and announces Our Lady of Tomorrow in tarnished gold lettering.
“It’s almost our turn. How about this: After we get our readings—whether you do it or not—we go downtown and get some sloppy barbecue?”
“Sure,” I manage, nodding.
“See how easy that was?” Erin slaps my shoulder playfully. “We just made plans.”
“Next guest?” A human girl standing next to velvet purple curtains holds her hand out to Erin. “The Lady is ready to receive you.”
“See you on the other side.” Erin gives my hand a squeeze before passing through the curtains.
I turn to stone. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. I don’t believe in human psychics. I shouldn’t believe in mim psychics either. No one can see the future.
But maybe they can see me. Maybe they can read an entire history in my microexpressions and in how I say hello and in the way I sit in a chair. And if they can do all of that, maybe they can know what I’ll do tomorrow.
Or maybe they can see what I missed. And when I missed it.
The girl at the door waves me forward. My turn. For a second I can’t move.
Who cares about tomorrow?
Then I do it. I walk through the door to greet Our Lady of Tomorrow.
Thank you for joining us on our journey this week!
Natalie C. Parker is the author of several award winning books for teens and young readers and editor of multiple anthologies including the Indie Bestselling anthology Vampires Never Get Old. Her work has been included on the NPR Best Books list, the Indie Next List, and the TAYSHAS Reading List, and in Junior Library Guild selections. She grew up in a navy family finding home in coastal cities from Virginia to Japan and currently lives with her wife on the Kansas prairie.
“Our Lady of Tomorrow,” © Natalie C. Parker, 2023.
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