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The Immortalists
Author:Chloe Benjamin

‘I can’t do nothing if you don’t trust me,’ she says. ‘Take off your shoes. Then you can sit down.’

Varya slips off her saddle shoes and places them next to the door, chastised. Perhaps the woman is right. If Varya refuses to trust her, this trip will be for nothing, along with all they’ve risked for it: their father’s gaze, their mother’s displeasure, four sets of saved-up allowance. She sits at the folding table. The woman sets the mug of tea before her. Varya thinks of tinctures and poisons, of Rip Van Winkle and his twenty-year sleep. Then she thinks of Ruby. She knows things, the rishika, Ruby said. We can never repay her for that. Varya lifts the mug and sips.

The rishika sits in the opposite folding chair. She scans Varya’s rigid shoulders, her damp hands, her face.

‘You haven’t been feeling so good, have you, honey?’

Varya swallows in surprise. She shakes her head.

‘You been waitin’ to feel better?’

Varya is still, though her pulse runs.

‘You worry,’ says the woman, nodding. ‘You got troubles. You smile on your face, you laugh, but in your heart, you’re not happy; you’re alone. Am I right?’

Varya’s mouth trembles its assent. Her heart is so full she feels it might crack.

‘That’s a shame,’ says the woman. ‘We got work to do.’ She snaps her fingers and gestures to Varya’s left hand. ‘Your palm.’

Varya scoots to the edge of her chair and offers her hand to the rishika, whose own hands are nimble and cool. Varya’s breath is shallow. She can’t remember the last time she touched a stranger; she prefers to keep a membrane, like a raincoat, between herself and other people. When she returns from school, where the desks are oily with fingerprints and the playground contaminated by kindergartners, she washes her hands until they’re nearly raw.

‘Can you really do it?’ she asks. ‘Do you know when I’ll die?’

She is frightened by the capriciousness of luck: the plain-colored tablets that can expand your mind or turn it upside down; the men randomly chosen and shipped to Cam Ranh Bay and the mountain Dong Ap Bia, in whose bamboo thickets and twelve-foot elephant grass a thousand men were found dead. She has a classmate at PS 42, Eugene Bogopolski, whose three brothers were sent to Vietnam when Varya and Eugene were only nine. All three of them returned, and the Bogopolskis threw a party in their Broome Street apartment. The next year, Eugene dived into a swimming pool, hit his head on the concrete, and died. Varya’s date of death would be one thing – perhaps the most important thing – she could know for sure.

The woman looks at Varya. Her eyes are bright, black marbles.

‘I can help you,’ she says. ‘I can do you good.’

She turns to Varya’s palm, looking first at its general shape, then at the blunt, square fingers. Gently, she tugs Varya’s thumb backward; it doesn’t bend far before resisting. She examines the space between Varya’s fourth and fifth fingers. She squeezes the tip of Varya’s pinky.

‘What are you looking for?’ Varya asks.

‘Your character. Ever heard of Heraclitus?’ Varya shakes her head. ‘Greek philosopher. Character is fate – that’s what he said. They’re bound up, those two, like brothers and sisters. You wanna know the future?’ She points at Varya with her free hand. ‘Look in the mirror.’

‘And what if I change?’ It seems impossible that Varya’s future is already inside her like an actress just offstage, waiting decades to leave the wings.

‘Then you’d be special. ’Cause most people don’t.’

The rishika turns Varya’s hand over and sets it down on the table.

‘January 21st, 2044.’ Her voice is matter-of-fact, as if she is stating the temperature, or the winner of the ballgame. ‘You got plenty of time.’

For a moment, Varya’s heart unlatches and lifts. Two thousand forty-four would make her eighty-eight, an altogether decent age to die. Then she pauses.

‘How do you know?’

‘What did I say about you trusting me?’ The rishika raises a furry eyebrow and frowns. ‘Now, I want you to go home and think about what I said. If you do that, you’re gonna feel better. But don’t tell anybody, all right? What it shows in your hand, what I told you – that’s between you and me.’

The woman stares at Varya, and Varya stares back. Now that Varya is the appraiser and not the person appraised, something curious happens. The woman’s eyes lose their luster, her movements their elegance. It is too good, the fortune Varya has been given, and her good fortune becomes proof of the seer’s fraudulence: probably, she gives the same prediction to everyone. Varya thinks of the wizard of Oz. Like him, this woman is no mage and no seer. She is a swindler, a con artist. Varya stands.

‘My brother should have paid you,’ she says, putting her shoes back on.

The woman rises, too. She walks toward what Varya thought was the door to a closet – a bra hangs from the handle, its mesh cups long as the nets Varya uses to catch monarchs in summer – but no: it’s an exit. The woman cracks the door, and Varya sees a strip of red brick, a thatch of fire escape. When she hears the voices of her siblings drift up from below, her heart balloons.

But the rishika stands before her like a barrier. She pinches Varya’s arm.

‘Everything is gonna come out okay for you, honey.’ There is something threatening in her tone, as if it is urgent that Varya hear this, urgent that she believe it. ‘Everything is gonna work out okay.’

Between the woman’s fingers, Varya’s skin turns white.

‘Let me go,’ she says.

She is surprised by the coldness in her voice. In the woman’s face, a curtain yanks shut. She releases Varya and steps aside.

Varya clangs down the stairs of the fire escape in her saddle shoes. A breeze strokes her arms and ruffles the downy, light brown hair that has begun to appear on her legs. When she reaches the alley, she sees that Klara’s cheeks are streaked with salt water, her nose bright pink.

‘What’s wrong?’

Klara whirls. ‘What do you think?’

‘Oh, but you can’t actually believe . . .’ Varya looks to Daniel for help, but he is stony. ‘Whatever she said to you – it doesn’t mean anything. She made it up. Right, Daniel?’

‘Right.’ Daniel turns and begins to walk toward the street. ‘Let’s go.’

Klara pulls Simon up by one arm. He still holds the drawstring bag, which is as full as it was when they came.

‘You were supposed to pay her,’ Varya says.

‘I forgot,’ says Simon.

‘She doesn’t deserve our money.’ Daniel stands on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips. ‘Come on!’

They are quiet on the walk home. Varya has never felt further from the others. At dinner, she picks at her brisket, but Simon doesn’t eat at all.

‘What is it, my sweet?’ asks Gertie.

‘Not hungry.’

‘Why not?’

Simon shrugs. His blond curls are white beneath the overhead light.

‘Eat the food your mother has prepared,’ says Saul.

But Simon refuses. He sits on his hands.