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The Immortalists
Author:Chloe Benjamin

‘Ilya.’ Klara was embarrassed to realize she was crying. ‘I don’t know how to thank you.’

‘Just use it.’ Ilya waved a hand and hobbled to the back room with his cane – ostensibly to restock the shelves, though Klara suspected he wished to mourn in private. Klara carried the box home in her arms and filled it with her tools: a trio of silk scarves; a set of solid silver rings; a coin purse full of quarters; three brass cups with an equal number of strawberry-sized red balls; and a deck of cards so worn that the paper is flexible as fabric.

Simon knows that Klara is talented, but her interest in magic unsettles him. When she was a child, it was charming; now, it’s just strange. He hopes it’ll fade once they arrive in San Francisco, where the real world will surely be more exciting than whatever’s in her black box.

That night, he lies awake for hours. With Saul’s passing, an old prohibition has lifted: Arthur can run the business, and Saul won’t have known the truth about Simon. How, though, to account for his mother? Simon builds his case. He tells himself that this is the way of the world, the child leaving the parent for adulthood – if anything, humans are pitifully slow. Frog tadpoles hatch in their fathers’ mouths, but they hop out as soon as they lose their tails. (At least, Simon thinks this is so; his mind always drifts in biology class.) Pacific salmon are born in freshwater before they migrate to oceans. When it is time to spawn and die, they journey hundreds of miles, returning to the waters where they themselves were born. Like them, he could always come back.

When he finally sleeps, he dreams he’s one of them. He floats through semen, a glowing coral egg, and lands in his mother’s nest on the streambed. Then he bursts from his shell and hides in dark pools, eating what matter comes his way. His scales darken; he travels thousands of miles. At first, he is surrounded by masses of other fish, so close they brush sleekly together, but as he swims farther away, the pack thins. By the time he realizes they started home, he can’t remember the way to the old, forgotten stream where he was born. He has gone too far to turn back.

They wake in early morning. Klara rustles Gertie awake to say goodbye, then soothes her back to sleep. She tiptoes down the stairs with both suitcases while Simon ties his sneakers. He steps into the hallway, avoiding the plank that always squeaks, and carefully makes his way toward the door.

‘Going somewhere?’

He turns, his pulse leaping. His mother stands in the doorway of her bedroom. She is swaddled in the large, pink bathrobe she’s worn since Varya’s birth, and her hair – usually set in curlers at this time of day – is loose.

‘I was just . . .’ Simon shifts from one foot to the other. ‘Going to get a sandwich.’

‘It’s six in the morning. Funny time for a sandwich.’

Gertie’s cheeks are pink, her eyes wide. A glint of light illuminates her pupils: small knots of dread, shining like black pearls.

A shock of tears springs to Simon’s eyes. Gertie’s feet – pink slabs, thick as pork chops – are squared beneath her shoulders, her body taut as a boxer’s. When Simon was a toddler, and his siblings were in school, he and Gertie played a game they called the Dancing Balloon. Gertie set the radio to Motown – something she never listened to when Saul was home – and blew up a red balloon halfway. They boogied through the apartment, bopping the balloon from the bathroom to the kitchen, their only mission to make sure it didn’t fall. Simon was nimble, Gertie thunderous: together, they could keep the balloon in the air for whole radio programs. Now, Simon remembers Gertie lunging through the dining room, a candlestick clattering to the floor – ‘Nothing broke!’ she bellowed – and stifles a hiccup of inappropriate laughter that, if released, would surely have morphed into a sob.

‘Ma,’ he says. ‘I gotta live my life.’

He hates the way it comes out, like he’s pleading. Suddenly, his body longs for his mother’s, but Gertie looks out at Clinton Street. When her gaze returns to Simon, there’s a surrender in her expression that he’s never seen before.

‘All right. Go get your sandwich.’ She inhales. ‘But go to the shop after school. Arthur’ll show you how things are done. You should be going there every day, now that your father –’

But she doesn’t finish.

‘Okay, Ma,’ says Simon. His throat burns.

Gertie nods gratefully. Before he can stop himself, Simon flies down the stairs.

Simon imagined the bus ride in romantic terms, but he spends most of the first leg asleep. He cannot bear to think any more about what happened between him and his mother, so he rests his head on Klara’s shoulder as she plays with a deck of cards and a pair of miniature steel rings: every so often, he wakes to faint clinking, or to the flapping noise of shuffling. At 6:10 the next morning, they get off at a transfer station in Missouri, where they wait for the bus that will take them to Arizona, and in Arizona they catch a bus to Los Angeles. The final leg takes nine hours. By the time they arrive in San Francisco, Simon feels like the most disgusting creature on earth. His blond hair is an oily brown, and his clothes are three days old. But when he sees the gaping blue skies and leather-clad men of Folsom Street, something inside him leaps like a dog into water, and he cannot help but laugh, just once: a bark of delight.

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