She's in the foggy place between sleep and consciousness when her phone beeps. Karen groans and turns over, catching herself just before she falls off the edge of Jessica's far too small couch. She gropes around the floor for her phone, expecting the text to be from her mother. She'd described Jessica's neighbourhood to her parents using words like 'lively' and 'diverse'. Unfortunately, Google Maps had done away with any creative spin she'd put on her current living arrangements. Now she gets texts at least twice a day to check that she hasn't been murdered.
Her fingers finally locate the phone and she picks it up, forcing her eyes to open and focus in the crisp morning light, filtered to a soft rose by Jessica's red curtains. Her stomach plummets; the text is not from her mother. The name on her screen is one she never expected to see again. The message beneath is short and she has to read it three times before she even realises that it's an invitation of sorts.
Bryant Park. 1 o'clock.
It's so very Ivy. A command that is expected to be obeyed. Well, she's out of luck, because Karen's not going. She drops the phone and turns over, facing the back of the couch and closes her eyes again. She's not going to let Ivy Lynn come back into her life and boss her around. It's the last thing she needs. What she needs is to find a place to live and get her life back in order.
She's definitely not going.
"But what do you think she wants?"
Karen concentrates on her laptop, scrolling through Craigslist and trying not to be too disheartened by the huge numbers next to the dollar signs. She wishes she hadn't mentioned the text to Jessica.
"I don't know what she wants." She clicks on a listing in Queens. Manhattan is out of the question. "And I don't care." She's never been a good liar, even to herself.
"Shut up." Jessica throws a cereal bar at her, which she fumbles and drops. "Like, no-one's seen or heard from her since Boston and out of the blue she texts you to meet her and you don't care?"
She tries hard not to roll her eyes, but doesn't quite manage. Sliding off the kitchen stool, she picks up the cereal bar and nibbles on it, considering her feelings towards the text. Ivy has always provoked strong emotions in Karen. Fear. Intimidation. Awe. But underneath all of them is a kind of protectiveness that Karen doesn't fully understand.
It emerged when she saw Ivy fade into the background as her mother took the spotlight. It was stronger as she watched the other woman's erratic behaviour onstage at Heaven on Earth. It was there in full-force when Derek started sleeping with Rebecca. At times, Ivy seems so young and Karen just wants to hug her and tell her that everything's going to be okay. And the rest of the time she's...she's Ivy. Or the Ivy that she wants the world to see, at least.
Shaking her head to clear away the unwelcome thoughts, she reminds herself that Ivy slept with Dev. Ivy made it her business to push Karen to the side at every opportunity. Ivy didn't want her friendship or her concern. She's made that clear.
Karen glances over at Jessica, who's waiting for an answer.
"I'm still not going."
She manoeuvres her way through the crowded subway train looking for a nook to fit herself into. Subways used to terrify her when she first arrived in the city. Now she feels like a native as she pushes through the crowd, swaying easily with the movements of the train. Once she finds a door to lean against, she pulls out her phone and scrolls to the text. The words haven't changed since she last looked. Or from the dozen other times before that.
You don't have to go, she reminds herself. You can get off at the next stop and just not go. The train comes to a halt in a station. The doors open and people stream out and are replaced as quickly as they are gone. And Karen stays where she is. The train moves on.
Thanks to the vagueness of the invitation, Karen needs to look around for a while before she spots Ivy, hunched over one of the many chess tables set up in the park. She's hesitant as she walks over but squares her shoulders and puffs out her chest in an attempt to look at least half as intimidating as Ivy manages with a mere smile.
"What are you doing?" she asks warily. If Ivy's startled or at all surprised by her entrance, she doesn't show it. Just continues to line up the small plastic pieces.
"Setting up the game, what does it look like?" Ivy speaks in that too-sweet voice, the one that causes the hairs on the back of Karen's neck to raise. That too-sweet voice never gives any indication to whether or not it's going to be followed by a vicious barb or an insincere piece of advice.
"You know what? This is stupid. I shouldn't have come down here."
"Then why did you?" It's fired back immediately and accompanied by Ivy's unreadable gaze. She really is the better actress, Karen muses. If you want to beat someone, you have to understand their strengths and weaknesses. And Ivy's strengths definitely outweigh her weaknesses. Ivy once told Karen that she didn't want the part of Marilyn enough. Maybe Ivy's biggest weakness is that she wanted it too much.
Karen has no answer to her question. She doesn't know why she ended up here, after telling herself that she wouldn't. Because Ivy asked her to. No, told her to. Maybe she came because, even after everything, Karen still wants to figure out this enigma. Maybe she even still wants to be her friend. They were on the cusp for a while. Before...before Boston.
Reluctantly, she takes the seat across from Ivy, wrapping her coat a little more tightly around herself as if it would offer some protection from whatever the blonde was about to inflict on her.
"Do you know how to play chess, Karen?" Ivy asks, her eyes dropping again to finish setting up the pieces.
Hearing Ivy say her name sounds strange, but she's not here to be toyed with. "I really don't feel like playing a game right-"
"Do you know how to play chess, Karen?" Blue eyes meet her own again, hardened by rejection and betrayal. Sometimes Karen thinks that she and Ivy aren't all that different. Just that Ivy has a lot more practice at being jaded by this city.
"I know a bit. My grandfather tried to teach me when I was younger."
"How about I give you a refresher, then?" Her offer isn't chaperoned by one of her too-sweet smiles but by the same steely gaze she had been holding Karen's with. It leaves Karen with the impression that she doesn't have much choice.
Of course you do, she inwardly berates herself, you could get up and leave. She's done nothing to earn your attention, there's nothing at all keeping you here.
Nonetheless, she gives an almost indiscernible nod and watches as Ivy reaches over the kings and queens closest to her to grab one of the eight identical little black pieces lining the second row.
"Pawns. They're supposed to represent peasants, you know? Peasants, infantry, whatever. They're weak. Easily the most disposable players in the game if they're not used right, especially if they get in too deep on the other side of the board without any backup." The blonde seems to be contemplating something as she twirls one of the black protectors around on its square. "If they want to, they can move two spaces right off the bat. Some are better off taking it slow and steady. Or staying behind altogether."
It sinks in, later than she'd like to admit, that this lesson in chess isn't going to be about chess at all.
"But some pawns like to reach beyond their limits, slip their way past all the defenses that are too busy protecting that useless king. If they make it all the way to the end, the pawn can become another queen. Just like that." Ivy stops spinning the piece between her fingers, her voice having taken a somewhat bitter edge to it. She pauses for a moment to regain her composure, then continues on, all the while Karen watches, guard up, waiting.
"Rooks... rooks, I like. They can move forwards and back, side to side. They're the most reliable pieces in the game." Her hand moves to one of the castle shaped pieces in the corner of the board, and just like that, there's a warm lilt to her voice again. "Strong and dependable. Did you know that they're what you use to distinguish a new queen if a pawn has made it to the end? If a rook has been captured, that is, you swap out that little pawn, grab a rook and turn it upside down. Then play it as if it were another queen. Rooks... I like rooks."
The smiles slips from her face as she replaces the rook, her forefinger lingering in the battlements for a moment as she moves on.
"Bishops," Ivy continues, pulling one out of its assigned space to set it in the middle of the board, while Karen is still stuck trying to figure out what this all means, "move so awkwardly, in-between spaces like they can't choose a side... it's hard to depend on them. It's like you never know when they're going to actually be helpful. Which brings us back to knights..."
Ivy's eyes flicker up to hers for the first time since her intense gaze had dropped to the board between them, though she had moved one of the pieces in question two spots up and one over. "Well, we all know how fickle knights can be."
She should slap her. Karen's not stupid enough to not know that all this deep psychobabble about chess is about them, about the people around them, and Ivy is looking at her as if she's waiting to be slapped. Waiting for any kind of reaction. But Karen knows Ivy's lost her knights, too. That she's lost everyone. Karen can't forgive her, though. Not yet.
"Then, of course," Ivy continues when Karen gives no reply, "we have the royal couple. It's a little silly, isn't it? That all these pieces should bow to the mercy of the king, do whatever they need to to insure he survives." Even Karen could figure out who she was talking about then, but she's somewhat distracted as she watches Ivy thumb and forefinger slide up and down the stem of the queen. "He's as useless as a pawn though, and a hundred times more vulnerable. But still, he's the one they bow to."
"But it's the queen who has all the power, really. I'm sure you know that. She's replaceable, undoubtedly, and by a pawn no less, but you have to knock her down first."
"I get it, you think I'm a pawn," Karen sighs in exasperation; fed up of these barely veiled insults. "You think-"
"The thing is, Karen," as she interrupts the brunette Ivy's eyes turn icy, though her voice is now practically a warm purr. "Even if you," she takes a white pawn then - Karen's pawn - and marches it across the board, square by square, "get past the row of pawns and get lost in the commotion; even if you should bypass the bishop and sidestep the knight; even if you trick your way beyond the reach of those steadfast rooks, and somehow manage to become a queen," she leans over the board, voice dropping to a whisper, "the original will still be there."
The words hang between them, heavy with meaning, gilded in threat.
"Well," Karen lifts the white Queen, examining its shape and testing its weight. She places it in the middle of the board and meets Ivy's challenging stare. "Long live the queen."
Karen's never been so satisfied with something she's said in her entire life. She is still the queen. Of the red hot mamas, anyway. She got Marilyn. Even if she was a pawn, even if she did just slip in and get the role, she made it past everybody and became the queen. And she'll fight just as hard as Ivy to keep the role. She stands and gathers up her coat, walking away with no intentions of looking back.
"Karen." She almost doesn't turn around, almost continues on her way. If this were a movie, she wouldn't look back. The camera would shoot her from the front, with Ivy out of focus behind her. Maybe there would even be a tear in her eye as she kept up her stride. But this isn't a movie and she she can't help but turn, can't help but respond to this girl who is sometimes friend and sometimes foe. Ivy looks almost impressed, though it's hidden behind a smirk as she resets the pieces to their original spots. "White goes first."
So maybe she's the pawn who became queen. But she knows Ivy's right. The original is still there. Still defiant. Still perfect for the role. As queen, as Marilyn. Whatever. And who is Karen to deny her the opportunity to play? If she's really honest with herself, Karen might admit that competing with Ivy makes her try harder. Makes her want it more. Makes her better.
Karen takes her seat one more. She looks down at the board and chooses a pawn, brushing the tip of her finger over its head. She meets Ivy's eyes and moves forward; two places. She sits back and gestures to the board. "Your move."
Ivy grins. Game on.