Art went out for beer and came back with a vintage Barcalounger. It was a wingback rattan recliner (spray painted gold) with orange Hawaiian print cushions (an obvious reupholstery.) Gwen recognized it immediately. She called her sister and said, “He found the goddamn chair.” Lanny said, “Shit, not this again,” and they hung up—what else was there to say? Gwen went to help her husband wrestle the chair out of the bed of his truck and into the house, hoping to drop it, maybe snap its legs off before it had a chance to work its magic. No such luck.
“Where’s the beer?” Gwen said, hoping to distract Art from his find. It was caked with grime, wicker wrappings unwinding at joints, and the orange cushions sported Rorschach-style stains and cigarette burns. Art beamed at it as if it were his first born, all pink and shiny and new.
“Got this instead. Can you believe someone dumped it on the side of the road? And we were just talking about me needing a new chair for the den. A little spit and polish and it’ll be perfect, right?”
Gwen’s lips flattened. She forced them into a smile when Art glanced her way. It cost her, but she managed to say, “It has potential.”
It was little things at first. Art ate more meat, drank less, stood straighter—osteoporosis in reverse. He lost a couple of pounds, the planes in his face sharpening like the steel in his eyes. His voice deepened, carried more. And as Art improved, so did the chair. Its bindings tightened, the spray paint flaked off and the cane shone as if freshly polished—a natural golden color, like sunrise. Stains disappeared from the fabric, holes knitted, cushions plumped. Guests commented on its beauty.
Gwen hated the rattan monstrosity. She liked her husband the way he was and the chair, that freakin’ throne, was about to undo decades—lifetimes!—of hard work. This Arthur—pre-Barcalounger Art Tintagel—was sloppy but sweet: granite eyes bleary from too much booze, belly rounded from fast food and sedentary evenings in front of the television—more Santa Claus than warrior. He did little things around the house, kept the lawn mowed, weeded the herb garden, even washed a dish once in awhile. He was agreeable. Lovable. He listened to her; for God’s sake, he treated her the way a queen should be treated. In fact, Art joked amongst their friends that “Gwennie’s queen of our little castle. I just do what I’m told. Ha, ha.” Art had a great laugh, always had; he just had the tendency to lose it—and the Barcalounger increased those tendencies that Gwen had worked so hard to eradicate.
Lanny said not to worry, not just yet at any rate. But it was easy for Lanny to say that. Lanny never had to live with Arthur. She didn’t have to worry about that witch in the lake. Lanny got to have children. Sure, the vasectomies were Gwen’s idea, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want children. It was just safer without . . . for everyone. Once, the Tintagels had tried adoption, but that turned nasty quick. Children sped up the cycle somehow. Out with the old, in with the new, Gwen supposed. But she, or modern medicine, had bested that process. Now if she could only beat that goddamn Barca.
“Be thankful it’s not the sword,” Lanny said as she and Gwen grabbed shopping bags from the backseat of Lanny’s SUV. “If it was the sword, then I’d be concerned. But it’s not. And as for that bitch, there’s no pond, lake or river anywhere near us. All the water’s underground. We’re safe. C’mon, you think he’ll pull a sword out of the toilet bowl?”
“I just thought I was done with all that king bullshit.” Lanny didn’t say anything, but both sisters were remembering the prophecy. The problem with ‘once and future’ was it was an incestuous cousin away from ‘forever and always.’ “Things were really good this time.”
“They still are good.” Lanny opened the door and held it for Gwen. Gwen shook her head and, even though it was her house, made Lanny enter first. She’d had it with courtesy, which was nothing but the lingering bastard child of ‘courtly’ and ‘chivalrous.’
“Elaine!” Art called from the kitchen. “Did you bring my Gwennie back? Come, see what me and the guys found. It’s a surprise.”
Lanny glanced at Gwen. They dropped their purchases and moved slowly down the hall, Lanny leading, Gwen covering, feeling ridiculous, but treating her home like a castle under siege. She bumped into Lanny’s back at the edge of the kitchen.
“Stay for dinner, Elaine.” Art never used Lanny’s nickname, which was good, it meant he was still forgetting. “I’ll fire up the grill and we can feast. No more bumping elbows at the counter. We’ll be able to look into one another’s eyes. Isn’t it great?”
Gwen nudged her sister deeper into the kitchen and peered over Lanny’s shoulder. Crammed into the small space in front of the bay window was a dining table that could comfortably seat eight. It was round.
“We better find that sword before he does,” Gwen mumbled and Lanny nodded.
The fight started over—what else?—the chair. Gwen shuffled into the kitchen, glared at the ghastly table—the only round thing in her entire house; she’d spent hours patiently purchasing only square or rectangular things without attracting Art’s attention to that little peculiarity of hers (try finding a non-round coffee mug, then see who’s grumpy in the morning)—and noticed the Barcalounger lording it over the rest of mismatched chairs Art had collected to grace their dinner table.
He came running. (Running. That didn’t ease her anxiety. He wasn’t even a little bit out of breath. She was huffing like a freight train.) “What? What is it?” he said. “Snake get in?”
Gwen pointed. “Recliners do NOT belong at the table.”
“You don’t like it? I thought it made a statement.”
It did. And Gwen was not happy about the statement it was making. The chair was sticking its tongue out at her, it was mocking her. Because it wasn’t the shape of the table that mattered; it was who had the biggest chair. Round was a sop to equality; the throne that graced it left no doubt who the Big Kahuna was. (Lanny would say she was mixing her eras, but Gwen didn’t care. Her meaning was clear enough.) “No. I don’t like it. It’s ugly. It’s dirty. It doesn’t belong here. Drag that thing out of my house.”
“Your house?” Art arched his eyebrow. She yelled, Art bellowed and, in the end, Gwen packed a bag and went to stay with her sister.
“It’s happening so fast this time.” Gwen took the glass of water from Lanny. She frowned at the ice cubes as if expecting to see her nemesis’s smile encased within one.
Lanny sighed, pulled out a small bottle of liquid water enhancer and squirted some into Gwen’s glass. It invaded the water, staining it red. “Probably because it started late this time. We’ve had a lot of good years. Maybe our best lives yet.”
“We were so careful. I thought we’d won.”
“Fate isn’t something you can outsmart, Gwen.”
Gwen glared at her sister. “This isn’t fate. It’s a curse. And curses can be broken.”
“If it ends, we might end.” Lanny looked away, stared out the window. Her voice was low when she spoke next. “Is this really so bad? Would it be so horrible to just accept your life as it is? Look upon it as a blessing?”
This too was familiar: Lanny switching sides. Or maybe, Gwen thought, Lanny never switched. Maybe Lanny was always on her own side of this shitty triangle; stayed faithful to her own agenda, Art and Gwen be damned. Gwen couldn’t believe it had taken her this many lifetimes to realize that. She stared her sister down. “If you give him that sword, I’ll cut your goddamn arms off. In this life and everyone we have after. You know how it corrupts him. You’ve seen what he can be without it. I can’t believe you’d even suggest we sit back and do nothing. Some fucking knight you are.”
Art apologized, of course, and Gwen moved back in after only ten days at Lanny’s. The chair was gone from the kitchen and back in the den. So was the table. “I could tell you didn’t want it in your kitchen. Made the space too small.” Gwen pretended to be pleased. Then, in an effort to make it up to her, he suggested they go away for a couple of days. “We could go to Hawaii,” he said. “Sun, sand, surf? What do you say?”
Gwen said no. Hawaii was a bunch of islands. Islands were surrounded by water. As if Gwen was going to let witchery win that easily. Art could sit on orange Hawaiian print cushions all he wanted; only place she was vacationing was a desert. “How about Vegas?” she said and he looked disappointed.
“I thought you didn’t like gambling.”
She could see why he thought that. She’d vetoed any suggestion of a poker night, but that was more about keeping him from gathering a circle of knights. Not that she could stop it, but she slowed it down as much as possible. Gwen laughed to keep from crying. She said, “My whole life’s a gamble.”
Vegas was a nightmare. Gwen hadn’t counted on all the swimming pools and fountains. Luckily, none of them contained a sword.
Gwen wasn’t surprised when Art’s friends convinced him to run for town supervisor, nor that he won. Next time, she’d get him drunk and keep him drunk and see what a little thing like a DUI could do to fix any political aspirations. The night of his victory she went home and smashed the Barcalounger to bits with a sledgehammer.
Art and Lanny walked in, arm-in-arm, as she was tossing the bits into a garbage bag. They were smiling and laughing and Gwen had the urge to run them both through with a sword. She was mad at herself for thinking that. Why couldn’t she ever want to shoot him dead? Or knock him over the head with a shovel? Because, she thought, the magic’s screwing with me, too. She wondered if Art had seduced Lanny yet. Maybe they weren’t interrupting her, maybe she was interrupting them.
They stopped laughing when they saw her ankle deep in metal springs and wicker kindling. Stopped smiling, too. “Gwennie? What—? I told you, I’d move that into my office at Town Hall if I won.”
“Oh, Gwen,” Lanny said, tears in every word, “this won’t change anything. You know that.”
Gwen wiped the sweat off her forehead with the sleeve of her shirt. “Yeah, but it gave me a few moments pleasure. And isn’t that the only thing of worth in this world? Isn’t that the most we can ask for?” Those words were from the past (paraphrased but close enough that they echoed) though it wasn’t Gwen who usually said them. And Gwen knew destroying the chair wouldn’t stop the juggernaut barreling down upon them—it never did. The Barcalounger was naught more than a symbol, a road sign—and a sledgehammer might knock a sign off its post, but that didn’t change the road. But if she could keep Art and the magic apart; prevent him from finding the sword, then he might slip back into his old Tintagel skin—the one Gwen preferred.
“Lanny, can you give us a minute?” Art said and Gwen flinched, wondered if he even noticed his casual use of her sister’s nickname. Lanny didn’t look shocked, which meant it had been going on for awhile. She left the room and, moments later, Gwen heard the front door close. Gwen picked up more pieces of chair and stuffed them into the liner. “Why are you doing this?”
“For you, Arthur. I’m doing this for you.”
He sighed. “A leopard can’t change her spots, Gwennie.” Nor a king his crown or a knight her questing, she thought, but it was up to one of them to try.
When Art announced he was planning a hunting weekend with the boys, Gwen cornered Lanny and said, “Did you suggest this?”
Lanny’s sad eyes implied Gwen was losing her mind. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened, but Gwen brushed off Lanny’s concern (which felt laced with a heavy dose of condescension) and focused on Art wanting to go off and play with weapons, maybe kill things. “Gwen—” Lanny used the same tone she once used to calm spooked destriers.
Gwen grabbed her sister’s arm. Hard. “I swear to God, Lanny. Did. You. Tell. Him. About. The. Sword? Does he know?”
She let go of Lannny, stroked her sister’s sleeve to smooth the crush of wrinkles. Because the chair was worrisome, but the sword was a nightmare. With sword in hand, Art could resurrect Camelot—the last place on Earth Gwen wanted to go. As much as she hated this merry-go-round her, Art and Lanny were on, she liked now better than then—and wasn’t willing to trade it. Turned out, Gwen actually liked Art (when he wasn’t busy being Pendragon); she liked who she became; she even liked poor, mixed-up Lanny who had trouble staying faithful, but who tried so damn hard to atone. “Lanny? You remember you promised me the sword, right? You wouldn’t break your oath, would you?”
“We’ll never find the sword. Arthur’s path is the only one it ever crosses.”
“But you haven’t changed your mind about never returning to Camelot, have you?”
“No, Gwen. I’ve no desire to return to the site of my great failing.”
“So we’re still a team?”
“Of course,” Lanny said. But—of course—they weren’t.
The night before he went off to war—Gwen caught and corrected herself, shoved the past back where it belonged: behind her—before he left for his hunting trip, Art suggested they all go out for drinks. “You’ll come, won’t you, Gwen?”
She nodded, plastered on a smile. Her throat was tight with unshed tears. This was it: the end. Art was going to go off and become his Pendragon self. Might even find his stupid sword and drag them all back to his stupid castle. She could feel the weight of prophecy on her shoulders. It danced, sing-songing, You’re too late, too late.
This time, she’d lose gracefully. Small changes in one life paid off in big changes in the next. Look how far Lanny had come. Maybe next life, Lanny would free herself from Art and Gwen; complete her quest. Gwen pinned all her hopes on her sister because she saw the least growth in her and Art. The two of them seemed doomed to repetition. But Lanny had changed. Gwen wouldn’t be surprised if Lanny hadn’t slept with Art this go-around. Lanny believed in Art so much, it was almost impossible for her not to stand by him—no matter how much she loved Gwen—and Art took advantage of that, especially in Pendragon mode. Yet Lanny had learned how to separate love and sex so maybe this time she’d learned how to rein in her libido. She wasn’t pregnant (that Gwen knew of) so that was a plus.
They walked into the bar, Art flanked by Lanny and Gwen. Gwen vetoed the small round tables dotting the place and insisted they sit at the bar. “Gwen likes everything in nice, neat rows,” Art said. But he didn’t laugh. Gwen missed his laugh.
Lanny said, “Gwen would’ve made an excellent general.” Gwen looked at her in surprise. Lanny had never said anything like that before. Maybe Gwen would bring herself to sit at a round table yet. Hell, she was as competent as any knight. She wanted to say something nice back, she wasn’t sure what, but the bartender came over and asked what they wanted to drink.
Lanny got a vodka rocks (Gwen frowned at that, all that clear liquid and blocks of ice), Art ordered an Old-Fashioned (That too, struck Gwen as ominous), and Gwen ordered a Mai Tai. “We’ll bring Hawaii to us. What do you say, Art? Join me?” But Art stuck with his Old-Fashioned. Figured.
Gwen’s drink was decorated with a pineapple spear, a cherry and a floating flower of some sort, maybe an orchid. A tiny umbrella shaded her fruit garnish. She plucked it and offered it to Art—a gesture of peace. He took it and smiled at her—a small smile, thin but heartfelt.
He looked at his drink, but it didn’t come with an umbrella. His orange slice and cherry were speared together with a dark colored pick. Its handle was oddly shaped, maybe the bar’s logo? Gwen peered closer at it. Not a logo, a pommel. She heard Lanny gasp, realized her sister had just noticed it, too. Art’s cocktail pick was a mini black sword—and he was about to yank it free of its garnish.
She felt cold and hot, like a spring lake with surprising depths. Stop him! a little voice in her head screamed. No, no, nononononono, another sputtered. Gwen’s hands reacted. They pushed past Art’s fingers, headed for his cocktail. Nearly spilled it in their zest to wrench the garnish from the glass. There was a zipping ting! as the sword came free of its fruit; a splash as the orange and cherry tumbled into the bourbon. Art and Lanny stared at her, wide-eyed. “My lord,” Lanny whispered, a fist rising to thump her heart. Gwen stared at the sword in her hand.
Her hand. Holy Mother of Merlin.
• • •
Copyright © 2016 H.L. Fullerton