The Imogen Effect

by Jason Fischer

'You have a self-defecating sense of humour,' Raoul the minotaur tells me. 'It's a real problem.'

'Don't you mean self-deprecating?'

'I'm serious. Your jokes are shit.'

Raoul is working out, almost all he ever does. Near as I can work out, the weights on his barbell are heavier than me.

Raoul is my tutor. He thinks that hard work will keep me from dwelling on Imogen. Says I'm only making things worse.

'It's a cliché that the mind is a muscle, but an accurate one. You are being lazy. I've seen that shit you keep in your bookcase, spotted your DVDs. They are the equivalent of junk food.'

I don't tell him that Imogen picked those DVDs. It's not worth getting Raoul started up about her.

'If you want to write humorous essays, you need to learn from the masters. Read the classics, not popular contemporary. Watch Peter Sellers. Everything better be different next time I'm over,' and of course this has a double meaning. He sets me homework, an essay on the nature of free will, and a comparative piece which must examine three comedic works written before the Industrial Revolution.

I love Raoul, and I love to visit, but his place is really starting to stink. He eats meat despite a digestive tract that can't handle it, and he never cleans his bathroom. It smells rotten in there. The place is foul with rubbish and empty bottles, and I can't see the coffee table for all the dirty dishes. The walls are lined with stacks of mouldy books.

'You eat the maid, Raoul?' I ask. 'How you get women to visit I'll never understand.'

'Easy,' Raoul grins. He puts down the weights, sluices off his sweat with a rag. He could tear apart a car with his bare hands.

As he towels the inside of his legs I can see his great veiny phallus, hanging like a plumb rule. It's almost a caricature of a cock, and I'm sure you could beat someone to death with it.

My friend is a monster, in each and every way.

'I'm surprised they let you in,' Lisette says. 'They've gone all Lord of the Flies over here.'

Lisette is my sister. At the moment, she's all the family I've got left. Like many other things this could change, but it's a firm fact for now that I have a sister and she is Lisette.

She's hooked up with a mob of survivalists. They've convinced themselves that it's the apocalypse, though they can't quite agree on what's going on out there.

'Are you infected?' a man is screaming at me. He wears the tattered remains of a firefighter's outfit, spattered with blood and singed through in places. The man is a great, looming brute, broken knuckles wrapped around a wicked-looking axe.

'I'm not infected. There's nothing out there,' I say, but he blinks, walks away. Today they're in an old school, and there're desks and lockers jammed up against the doors and windows.

'They won't listen,' she says. 'It's their everything, this final-days bullshit.'

I see her fella, Harry. He's a police chief, a hard-eyed man with dark rings under his eyes. He's barking out orders, and people scurry.

'Well he's moved up in the world,' I say, but Lisette looks a little vague. I could have sworn he wasn't a cop last time I saw Lisette. And after a moment, I'm not so sure that I'm right anymore.

'I've got to get out of here—you should come too,' I tell her, but she shakes her head.

'I love him,' she says. 'And I know they're a bit mad here, but they've got such noble spirits, such camaraderie. They're really sweet.'

Something is slamming against the doors, and the barricade begins to buckle. There's shouting, and people are bracing themselves against the furniture and trying their best to hold the monsters out. One man is surfing on the heaving school desks, shotgun barking through the gaps in the door and into the night.

'How's Imogen?' Lisette asks.

'Good,' I say. If I hang around much longer, catch whatever fetish this mob believes in, I'll never leave. I try really hard to think about the homework Raoul set, and it helps a little.

'Didn't she leave you?'

'No,' I say, frowning. 'We're still living together.'

There's a man rolling around on the ground, screaming. He's clutching his arm, begging and pleading. The other survivors pry his hands loose, and the man's been hiding some sort of nasty festering wound.

Harry lifts his service pistol and puts a mercy round through the man's head, and then they're back to holding off the unknown as if nothing had happened. Then the noises stop, and everyone is relieved and laughing.

'We did it!' someone says, and they're all hugging and sharing a water canteen. It's all I can do not to rush over there and join in, and I know that this place is a trap for weak minds.

'Come with me now Lisette,' I demand, but she's wrapped around her Harry, and I know I've lost her. She's found her forever.

Imogen can leave, whenever she desires. I can make her stay, again and again. A powerful contradiction, enough that Raoul himself is monitoring the situation. As far as I'm concerned, Imogen doesn't know what she's doing.

I tell Imogen about my homework, and then she wants to go bookshopping. It seems that now we are only housemates, the spark of attraction is between us, but nothing has happened yet.

I'm irritated, and I'm sure it's Lisette that has planted this seed of doubt regarding Imogen. There's a part of me that knows we've done everything a boy and a girl can do, but it slips away as things often do. We were engaged once?

'I want to try this place,' she says, and we're in the foyer of an opulent hotel-cum-library. There must be every book ever printed in here—in fact I know it to be so.

I look back to see what Imogen is doing and find myself staring, dumbfounded as she slips out of her dress. She folds it into a neat little square and lays it just inside the front door. After a long moment of hesitation she takes off her panties and bra to add to the pile.

We've always done the prudish sharehouse thing, but for some reason now she's comfortable being nude around me. There's nothing sexual about this manoeuvre, and I understand that it's part of the new rules for us.

'Don't stare,' she says, naked and pale. I can't believe my eyes, and self-consciously I shed my own clothes, knowing that to shop with clothes on will break the logic of this place. I know there's been some sort of reversal in our relationship, and that if I don't go along with this she might leave me.

Or worse.

We are naked and alone, witness to acre upon acre of book shelves, tables festooned with books. Books that never were, books that were thought lost. There're scrolls, cuneiform tablets, books on tape, the whole box and dice.

'You understand that this, all of this, it's the Tree of Knowledge,' she laughs. 'That's why . . .' and she gestures at our wobbly bits.

'I get it,' I say. There's absolutely no shame in what we're doing. We even hold hands as we walk through the books, innocent as children.

I find a stele describing the life and afterlife of an Egyptian notary. It's interesting enough, but the stone tablet is of more use as a place for Imogen to stack the books and scrolls that I want.

There's an original telling of Theseus and the slaying of the minotaur. Thinking of Raoul, we take the flaking document. He loves this stuff, and I've often teased him over his nostalgia.

'Just because something's old doesn't make it good,' I'll laugh, and Raoul will dismiss this with an angry snort, whether he's drawing back on a bong or pumping iron. He himself is old, very old. Or younger than anyone thinks and a hell of a liar.

We're walking back out of the Tree of Knowledge (and I can read that on all the signs now—I thought it was a Borders or something before, but the signs changed when we weren't looking). We're almost all the way out when Imogen catches sight of her clothes, neatly folded just inside the door. And she remembers.

'Oh no!' she shrieks, dropping her books. Her hands dive to breasts and groin, to cover herself. And still I look at her body, my pure innocence fading a second after hers.

'Don't look at me!' she says, and then I'm acutely aware of my own genitals, shaded by a great stele. I do not have a free hand, and I'm forced to gently lower the stone tablet before I can cover my own shame.

Now there is a stream of customers crowding through the doors, hooting and hollering at our nudity. Someone nicks off with Imogen's clothes, and I only just rescue my boxer shorts from a cackling old woman.

We leave, and Imogen is in tears, the streets alive and full of traffic, buses full of pointing children, a policeman talking into his radio and crossing the street towards us. He reaches not for handcuffs but for a camera, and laughing, he photographs poor, naked Imogen, orders her to stand against the wall in various poses. Finally he tires of this and drops the camera into a trash-can, telling her this was just "a warning."

'You can wear my boxers if you want,' I offer, and hook a thumb under the elastic.

'It's too late,' she sobs. 'This is all your fault.' And I'm not sure why, but I know she's right.

My cell rings, caller unknown. Turns out it is Lisette—somehow she's managed to patch a call through from an emergency radio.

'Get here, quick as you can,' she is screaming, voice all faint and crackly with static. 'If you're hurt, we can send a team out to find you.'

I blink, put down my sandwich and look out through the window. There is a chariot race on the street below, the sky above bobbing with brightly coloured blimps that are at war, but otherwise it is a very ordinary day. I can hear someone screaming from the other end of the phone, hear gunshots.

'You're sick, Lisette,' I reason. 'There's nothing wrong outside. Your mob is going ape-shit over nothing.'

'Imogen is dangerous. You don't belong together.'

'Enough, Lisette. I love her. You're all the family I have, and all I ask is that you be happy for us.'

'Let Imogen go. Find us, we have the cure for infection,' Lisette starts, but then my hands are holding nothing. I can hear Imogen laughing in the bath, and pushing the door open a crack, I can see her wrecking my cell-phone, stretching it out like plasticine.

'Silly girl. She's right though,' Imogen says, and she's moulded the phone into a towel. She wraps herself in it, hiding her nudity from me, and steps from the sudsy bathwater.

'That wasn't necessary,' I protest, but Imogen has pushed past me into the house. I was sure that we slept together last night, but it was a cruel prank on her part, nothing but a strand of her hair and a certain word whispered over an ice carving of herself.

I still feel a chill, and not just from waking alone on a mattress soaked with melt-water. She just isn't home most nights. As always, she thinks she wants something else.

'I'm losing patience with you!' I shout, and somehow our humble house has become a showroom full of beds, each little cubicle a facsimile of a bedroom with the side-tables and dresser and what-have-you. Every bed contains an Imogen, tousle-haired and writhing. A thousand Imogens that beckon me to bed, open-mouthed and panting.

We're fighting over my latest faux pas. Turns out I've slept with other Imogens before her, and I keep getting confused between them all. I've openly reminisced over holidays I spent with other women, called her dog "Bindy" instead of "Tess." I've misplaced their preferred sugar/milk ratios for coffee, favourite movies, anecdotes they've told me, the whole lot.

I've thoroughly blended them in my head, and now that I think of it this is why the last Imogen left me. She couldn't understand why I was obsessed over this Imogen, who I hadn't even met yet but knew everything about.

I make another phone and call Raoul, who doesn't believe in phones. It works like this: he has a battered old note-pad on the counter, propped up against a lava lamp. The one with his biro sketch of a giraffe on the cardboard backing.

If you phone him, your words will appear on the page. He can then take the notepad, wander around his squalor and think for half-an-hour or more of what to say, and then he writes a suitable reply underneath your words.

Somehow this comes over on the phone as if he has said the words himself, and the pacing of his speech seems quite normal as we repartee back and forth, but he has the advantage of hours of thought, a chance to reference his various books, or the means to outthink his various lady-friends if one of them happens to call and he is with someone else.

It gives me the shits. Raoul always has the perfect thing to say. That minotaur has been known to spend days on a single phone conversation.

'Raoul,' I say.

'Have you done your essay? I can't wait to read your erudite examination on the nature of free will,' and he knows full well that I haven't even started it.

'Raoul, I need your advice,' I say.

'If it's Imogen, let her go. If it's Lisette, ditto,' and I throw the phone into the kitchen sink. I'm not in the mood for his chains-of-logic and snide references to incest. No doubt he was reaching for a text-book on Oedipus when the phone hit the water.

I take a boat ride, and by a boat-ride I mean I assemble a bunch of Vikings into a long-boat, and just for kicks I rig up surround sound all over the deck. I've got Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" on repeat, and they are into that shit.

We land and are struggling through the foam with axe and spear when we are confronted by none other than Raoul, the minotaur clad in black leather harness and a kilt. He sweeps a great hammer back and forth, and with one roar sends my favourite Scandinavians packing.

'It's very rude to hang up on someone,' he says, and I nod. I look down at my Viking get-up and feel faintly ridiculous, and we both laugh, which is good. I'm not sure if Raoul could kill me, but I know he could hurt me a lot if he wanted to.

We take a walk through my pseudo-England, and he listens to me. I talk about my inadequacies, about my fears of Imogen leaving.

'That girl has left you a thousand times,' he says. We're giants now, striding across a patchwork of fields and terrifying the villagers who are less than ants from up here.

'She never left me,' I say. 'We fight, but Imogen never left. She always stays. I want her to stay.'

'And here we come to the crux of your problem. You have free will. You also have certain liberties regarding the universe, correct?'

Again with the free will.

'You know it,' I say, casting bolts of lightning across the landscape. You would have done it too if you were there. Then Raoul seizes me in a fist, and I'm nothing but a little bag of meat in his hand, and he is crushing me.

'These liberties, when imposed on others, negate free will. You must redress this imbalance.'

And I am Theseus and the maze is unending darkness and my lamp-light a mere interruption. I'm holding a sharp sword, but then it becomes a butter-knife, and then nothing. The string in my hands is limp and broken. I hear the bellows of Raoul's lungs, the thump of his heavy tread, and then the minotaur looms above me, a dark killer born under a different sun.

'The problem is you. You have to let Imogen go.'

Try as I might, I can't leave or change anything, and I begin to guess at the nature of Raoul. I understand very clearly the choice he is offering me. He would sooner keep me here forever, bound in this nightmare, than see me keep Imogen trapped.

'Yes,' I whisper. 'I will let her go.'

'I'm sorry about Imogen,' Lisette says, tousling my hair. We're scavenging through a bombed-out building, looking for food. Harry calls out from a shattered doorway, holding a can up in triumph.

Lisette's something like my mother or step-mother at the moment, and Harry is her robot lover from the future. They still get off on this apocalyptic stuff, but their little group had a falling out. It's just these two, and me for now.

'You guys didn't work out, and she needed to leave,' she says. 'You were really hurting her, hurting yourself.'

Raoul is hiding Imogen. Whenever I call for her, there is nothing but the static hum of the universe. If there's such a thing as an unlisted number for our kind, Raoul has given her one.


Jason Fischer is based in Adelaide, South Australia. He attended the 2007 Clarion South workshop, and is a recent Finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. He has a story in Jack Dann's anthology Dreaming Again and stories in Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Aurealis Magazine (forthcoming). Jason likes zombies and post-apocalyptic settings, and when he's not writing he wishes he was. He can be found online at http://jasonfischer.livejournal.com/, and is a contributing member of the Daily Cabal and Last Short Story projects.