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The Immortalists
Author:Chloe Benjamin

Don’t look around like that,’ Daniel hisses. ‘Act like you belong.’

The Golds hurry up the stairs. The walls are covered in chipped beige paint, and the halls are dark. When they reach the fifth floor, Daniel pauses.

‘What do you suggest we do now?’ whispers Varya. She likes it when Daniel is stumped.

‘We wait,’ says Daniel. ‘For someone to come out.’

But Varya doesn’t want to wait. She’s jittery, filled with unexpected dread, and she starts down the hallway alone.

She thought that magic would be detectable, but the doors on this floor look exactly the same, with their scratched brass knobs and numbers. The four in number fifty-four has fallen sideways. When Varya walks toward the door, she hears the sound of a television or a radio: a baseball game. Assuming that a rishika would not care about baseball, she steps back again.

Her siblings have floated apart. Daniel stands near the stairwell with his hands in his pockets, watching the doors. Simon joins Varya at number fifty-four, rises onto his tiptoes and pushes the four back into place with his index finger. Klara has been wandering in the opposite direction, but now she comes to stand with them. She is followed by the scent of Breck Gold Formula, a product Klara bought with weeks of allowance; the rest of the family uses Prell, which comes in a plastic tube like toothpaste and squirts jelly the color of kelp. Though Varya scoffs outwardly – she would never spend so much on shampoo – she is envious of Klara, who smells like rosemary and oranges, and who now raises her hand to knock.

‘What are you doing?’ whispers Daniel. ‘That could be anyone. It could be –’


The voice that comes from behind the door is low in pitch and gruff.

‘We’re here to see the woman,’ Klara tries.

Silence. Varya holds her breath. There is a peephole in the door, smaller than a pencil eraser.

On the other side of the door, a throat is cleared.

‘One at a time,’ the voice says.

Varya catches Daniel’s eye. They have not prepared to separate. But before they can negotiate, a bolt is pushed to one side, and Klara – what is she thinking? – steps through.

Nobody is sure how long Klara is inside. To Varya, it feels like hours. She sits against the wall with her knees to her chest. She is thinking of fairy tales: witches who take children, witches who eat them. A tree of panic sprouts in her stomach and grows until the door cracks open.

Varya scrambles to her feet, but Daniel is faster. It’s impossible to see inside the apartment, though Varya hears music – a mariachi band? – and the clang of a pot on a burner.

Before Daniel enters, he looks at Varya and Simon. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says.

But they do.

‘Where’s Klara?’ asks Simon, once Daniel is gone. ‘Why didn’t she come back out?’

‘She’s still inside,’ says Varya, though the same question has occurred to her. ‘They’ll be there when we go in, Klara and Daniel both. They’re probably just . . . waiting for us.’

‘This was a bad idea,’ Simon says. His blond curls are matted with sweat. Because Varya is the oldest and Simon the youngest, she feels that she should be able to mother him, but Simon is an enigma to her; only Klara seems to understand him. He talks less than the others. At dinner, he sits with his brow furrowed and his eyes glazed. But he has a rabbit’s speed and agility. Sometimes, while walking beside him to synagogue, Varya finds herself alone. She knows that Simon has only run ahead or dropped behind, but each time, it feels as though he’s vanished.

When the door opens again, that same fraction of an inch, Varya puts a hand on his shoulder. ‘It’s all right, Sy. You go ahead, and I’ll stand lookout. Okay?’

For what or whom, she isn’t sure – the hallway is just as empty as it was when they arrived. Really, Varya is timid: despite being the oldest, she’d rather let the others go first. But Simon seems comforted. He brushes a curl out of his eyes before he leaves her.

Alone, Varya’s panic swells. She feels cut off from her siblings, as if she is standing on the shore, watching their ships float away. She should have stopped them from coming. By the time the door opens again, sweat has pooled above her upper lip and in the waistband of her skirt. But it’s too late to leave the way she came in, and the others are waiting. Varya pushes the door open.

She finds herself in a tiny efficiency filled with so many belongings that at first she sees no person at all. Books are stacked on the floor like model skyscrapers. The kitchen shelves have been stuffed with newspapers instead of food, and nonperishables are clumped along the counter: crackers, cereal, canned soups, a dozen bright varieties of tea. There are tarot cards and playing cards, astrological charts and calendars – Varya recognizes one in Chinese, another with Roman numerals, and a third that shows the phases of the moon. There is a yellowed poster of the I Ching, whose hexagrams she remembers from Klara’s Book of Divination; a vase filled with sand; gongs and copper bowls; a laurel wreath; a pile of twiglike wooden sticks, carved with horizontal lines; and a bowl of stones, some of which have been tied to long pieces of string.

Only a nook by the door has been cleared. There, a folding table sits between two folding chairs. Beside it, a smaller table has been set with red cloth roses and an open bible. Two white plaster elephants are arranged around the bible, along with a prayer candle, a wooden cross, and three statues: one of the Buddha, one of the Virgin Mary, and one of Nefertiti, which Varya knows because of a small, handwritten sign that reads NEFERTITI.

Varya feels a pang of guilt. In Hebrew school, she heard the case against idols, listening solemnly as Rabbi Chaim read from the tractate Avodah Zarah. Her parents wouldn’t want her to be here. But didn’t God make the fortune teller, just as He made Varya’s parents? In synagogue, Varya tries to pray, but God never seems to respond. The rishika, at least, will talk back.

The woman stands at the sink, shaking loose tea into a delicate metal ball. She wears a wide cotton dress, a pair of leather sandals, and a navy blue headscarf; her long, brown hair hangs in two slender braids. Though she is large, her movements are elegant and precise.

‘Where are my siblings?’ Varya’s voice is throaty, and she is embarrassed by the desperation she hears in it.

The blinds are drawn. The woman pulls a mug from the top shelf and places the metal ball inside it.

‘I want to know,’ Varya says, more loudly, ‘where my siblings are.’

A kettle whistles on the stove top. The woman turns off the burner and lifts the kettle above the mug. Water pours out in a thick, clear cord, and the room fills with the smell of grass.

‘Outside,’ she says.

‘No, they’re not. I waited in the hall, and they never came out.’

The woman steps toward Varya. Her cheeks are doughy and her nose bulbous, her lips puckered. Her skin is golden brown, like Ruby Singh’s.