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Douglas struggles with the concept of death. He realizes that he must die someday but will not accept that fact. He brings his brother Tom to see the Tarot Witch, a fortune telling wax dummy in the penny arcade. Douglas spends a penny to get his fortune and then tells Tom to do the same. Tom's fortune card is blank, and this is too much for Douglas. The witch has run out of ink. The arcade was a world that Douglas could count on remaining the same, unlike the real world. He decides that the witch must have written them a secret message. He lights a flame under the card and thinks he sees the French word "secours," which he knows means help, and also "Mme. Tarot." Douglas decides that the wax dummy must be the real Mme. Tarot, a fortuneteller from hundreds of years before.
Douglas convinces Tom that they must rescue the Tarot Witch from Mr. Black, who runs the arcade. Tom goes and plays one game many times until Mr. Black takes the pennies and goes and buys some liquor. He gets drunk, and is on the verge of crushing the witch when Douglas runs in. Mr. Black passes out, and Douglas and Tom take the witch. Tom asks Douglas why he wants to take the witch, and Douglas tells him that after he found out he was alive he found out he would die, and he cannot face dying. He believes that after he saves the Tarot Witch she can use her powers to help him live forever. At this point Mr. Black, who followed them, surprises the boys, grabs the witch, and throws her into the trash at the bottom of the ravine. Douglas tells Tom to go get their father to help them and he goes down into the ravine among the trash and searches for the witch. Their father seems to understand, and he helps the boys bring the wax figure back to their house.
Tom suggests that they cut the witch open, but Douglas says that must wait until after he frees the real witch trapped inside. He needs to learn the spells that will allow her to escape, and then after that the witch will be nothing but a wax dummy that they can cut into and examine. Douglas takes a card from the witch and tells Tom that he will put it in a box of chemicals overnight so that a message will appear in the morning. Tom asks his brother what the message will say, and Douglas tells him. The message will thank the two of them for rescuing the witch. It will predict that everything Tom and Douglas desire in life they will get, and they will live forever.
The escapade with the Tarot Witch is Douglas's response to his mortality. Faced with the inevitable conclusion that someday he must die, Douglas decides that he will find a way to avoid death. The arcade is a place full of machines that seem to always be the same, and when the Tarot Witch begins to malfunction, Douglas is crushed. Starting with the blank card given to Tom, Douglas concocts a fantastical story that he forces himself to believe because it is the only way he can avoid death. Douglas convinces Tom that the Tarot Witch really needs their help, and they attempt to save her. Douglas and Tom's wild adventure to save the witch is really Douglas's last-ditch effort to refuse the inevitability of his death. He resorts to stories and suggestions that even Tom finds ridiculous because Douglas is desperate. It is, after all, a matter of life and death.
The scene with Mr. Black shows how futile Douglas's efforts are. He steals the witch but is then caught, and can only watch hopelessly as the rightful owner of the wax figure throws her into the trash dump at the bottom of the ravine. Douglas is a twelve year old attempting to ensure his immortality, and he stands very little chance of succeeding. His father, however, seems to understand what his son is going through and so he helps the boys bring the witch home. Once they have the witch at their house, Tom is willing to face up to the fact that she is a machine with a wax body. That conclusion cannot work for Douglas, however, because he needs real magic—he needs the real Mme. Tarot to help him live forever.
By the end of the night it is clear that the Tarot Witch will not be able to solve Douglas's problems. He can pretend with his brother all that he wants, but Douglas is already mature enough to understand that death is out there. He will not be able to ignore the problem that he has uncovered. Although Douglas and Tom are able to enjoy one last moment of fantasy, Douglas must find some way to come to terms with his mortality. When he wakes up in the morning, the Tarot Witch will still be made of wax, and Douglas will have to admit that death cannot be cheated. He will have to try to find some way to keep life magical and accept what is inevitable. From early in the summer, when Douglas discovered that he was truly alive, to the day in late August when it dawned on him that he must eventually die, the entire summer can be viewed as Douglas coming to terms with life. In many ways, some subtle, some not, Douglas has been forced to begin viewing the world the way that adults do, and once is able to do so it is no longer possible to simply view things like a child. Death, just like life, cannot be ignored, and so Douglas must find a way to be comfortable with life without resorting to fantasies like the Tarot Witch.
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