beauty, fiction, short fiction, women

Until Dinner

‘Don’t you have a better set than this?’ she said.

Ingrid shook her head. Imogen took her hat off and sat down.

Imogen clutched her handbag close to her thin chest, eyes peering with a petulant light, as her withered hands gripped with enough force to turn her knuckles white. Two old women, chatting in voices made sharp with wit and bitterness on a lazy afternoon

‘This will serve our needs.’ she said.

Ingrid’s voice bore the sad weight of prophecy. She had faced the future, traced along the edges of the unyielding monolith in search of a flaw, a chance to crack it into pieces and find meaning for her entire life. She went on dates knowing the men would leave before dessert, she attended hospital appointments with friends and relations aware the results had come back malignant and aggressive, and her thoughts of suicide were comforting affectations over moves towards permanent bleak freedom. Telepathy was not a gift, more akin to a visible birthmark or a vestigial tail. She experienced most minds as unkempt gardens, festooned with passions and overgrown anxieties, capable of producing surprising turns of character and insights. Within the most innocuous people, she found tenets and decisions of unbelievable power and import. Her sister’s burden was to see the future.

‘You said it.’ Imogen said.

Ingrid laughed, but it lacked enthusiasm. Imogen was an accomplice to a foregone conclusion as she unfolded the magnetic set, designed for travel. Imogen found the continued sale of such items novel in an age of smartphones and tablets. Ingrid, permanent bystander to the crimes of the future, knew the features and brand names of their successors, which would render the former as quaint as the set sat between them.

Imogen focused until a point of heat began between her eyebrows. She visualised the process of telepathy as a slick, black rubber gland inside her brain, nestled like a suckling babe between her frontal lobes. She shuddered at the building sensation, a memory of an orgasm twice removed as she reached across the borders of self and outwards, into her sister’s mind.

Imogen closed her eyes against the distracting pull of surrounding minds. The homeless man asleep under a copse of bushes projected lurid dreams of his career on the stock exchange, clouds of cocaine dust and the tang of champagne kisses hanging around him like smoke.

The harassed single mother and the guilt she carried over holding a pillow in her hands watching her twitching toddler enjoy a sleep he denied her at every turn, promising she would buy him something nice when she got paid again.

Imogen yearned for a picture to look upon in a world full of books. The day was bright and clear, sun beaming down and reflected in the joyous disposition of thoughts around her. They liked the park, and their games drew less attention here.

Home was a mausoleum, thick with dust and bitterness. Father, ancient and unyielding would laugh at their affectations, ivory teeth revealed beneath lips turned purple and taut like strips of coloured leather as he recalled their glory days. Mother had not spoken since their collective exile but she would fix them with longing stares, thin veins pulsing at her temples in rhythm with her heartbeat. Imogen and Ingrid, appearing to be in their late fifties, had to play truant to enjoy any semblance of an inner life.
Ingrid placed the pieces on the board with care as Imogen offered a roll of soft mints, the paper worn to mush in places where she had held onto it. Her sister accepted without looking up.

Ingrid was a paved stretch of street, clean and precise. A set of instructions, a business presentation without vagaries or detours. Imogen would visit, with her permission, but she never stayed.

It was a rehearsal for death, without growth or motion.

A burden paid for knowledge of what was to come.

Imogen, having read about quantum physics, tried to argue Ingrid’s gift down as a projection imposed on an infinite series of decisions and coincidences. Ingrid just shook her head and told her she would be late for her doctor’s appointment due to a road traffic collision. The driver of the offending car would suffer a cardiac arrest, with his phone in his hand calling his mistress to tell he would be late. Imogen recalled her words later, dizzy from shock and the mingled stink of petrol and blood.

It was the last time she contradicted her sister.

‘Do we ever go home?’ Imogen said.

Ingrid snickered.

‘Have you looked?’ Ingrid said.

Imogen sighed and turned away.

‘You know I have. You, mother and father, even the automata.’ she said.

Ingrid sighed.

‘The automata bear father’s personality.’ she said.

Imogen tittered and blushed.

‘His predilections too. I don’t think I could eat the amount I wanted to throw up after looking into Seven.’ she said.

Ingrid put the last piece into position and removed her hat. She still had her hair, black as raven feathers, thick and unruly where it fell around her drawn features.

‘Did you think it would be like this?’ Imogen said.

Ingrid’s eyes fell to the board. Her tongue ran across her lips and she rubbed the circulation into her hands, seeing the rigid lines of the future set out before her.

‘No, I knew it would. What I think is irrelevant.’ she said.

Imogen tilted her head from one side to the other, easing the tension she carried in her neck and shoulders.

‘It doesn’t stop you dreaming about what might be, does it?’ Imogen said.

Ingrid picked up a pawn, moved it two places into the centre of the board.

‘No, but dreaming is pointless.’ she said.

Imogen winced and stared at her sister.

‘You’ve been practicing.’ she said.

Ingrid shook her head.

‘No, I’ve always been a far better player than you, my dear.’

Imogen chuckled and moved her pawn one square. Caution was her only defence against the inevitable strategies her sister wielded.

‘No, I can only see a few moves ahead now. The partition you’ve got is solid. Has mother been teaching you?’ she said.

Ingrid grimaced and moved the pawn again.

‘The only lessons she offers are what not to do. No, I’ve made it difficult for you.’ she said.

Imogen stopped, her hand hovering over a pawn as she looked at her sister.

‘Why?’ she said.

Ingrid smiled. She wanted to tell her, but Imogen would have revolted at the future she faced. The aptitude and talent were all there, but if she knew, she would fight to prevent it and fail.

‘I don’t want to make this easy for you.’ she said.

Ingrid looked at her sister, fought the prickle of tears in her eyes as a sharp pang of desperate, febrile love tore through her. This game would be the end of many things, but the start of something she knew Imogen needed.

‘God forbid, although I don’t like how the pieces look here. The games at home were a great deal more imaginative.’ she said.

Ingrid moved her pawn. Imogen would win in five moves, then four, then three.

‘Yes they were, but then so were we.’ Ingrid said.

They would play for two hours. Dinner, then they would read excerpts from what literature they had smuggled through the wormhole back in 1978.

The soldiers would arrive at three in the morning. Imogen would be awake, able to use the small access tunnel to get out to the river and escape.

Ingrid would be awake too, but she would stay to buy her sister some time.

She would not get time to tell her she loved her. She knew to tell her know would tip her off, and the resulting paradox would wreak havoc across the board.

Imogen scented the affectation, cut with melancholy and wondered what her sister had seen. Her hands brushed against Ingrid’s when she moved and Ingrid clutched her hand for a moment before releasing it.

‘How long are we playing for?’ Imogen said.

Her sister brushed her hair from over her eyes and smiled at her sister.

‘Until dinner.’ Ingrid said.

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