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Imaginary girls, p.1

Imaginary Girls, page 1


Imaginary Girls

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Imaginary Girls

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page




























  A member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa • Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2011 by Nova Ren Suma

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

  CIP Data is available.

  Published in the United States by Dutton Books,

  a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

  ISBN : 978-1-101-51613-3

  For my baby sister,

  Laurel Rose

  And for Erik,




  Ruby said I’d never drown—not in deep ocean, not by shipwreck, not even by falling drunk into someone’s bottomless backyard pool. She said she’d seen me hold my breath underwater for minutes at a time, but to hear her tell it you’d think she meant days. Long enough to live down there if needed, to skim the seafloor collecting shells and shiny soda caps, looking up every so often for the rescue lights, even if they took forever to come.

  It sounded impossible, something no one would believe if anyone other than Ruby were the one to tell it. But Ruby was right: The body found that night wouldn’t be, couldn’t be mine.

  We had no idea—this was before the blue-flashing strobe through the pines; the spotlit glare on water; the skidding over rocks; the grabbing of shoes, any shoes, of clothes, any clothes. Before we went running through the brush and the sharp sticks cut our bare feet. Before the heart in my chest went pounding, all the while wondering, Is this really happening? when it was, most definitely it was. Before all that—all we wanted was to go swimming.

  The boys surrounded Ruby at the edge of the reservoir, some closer than others, some with flashlights that they let dance far lower than her face, though Ruby didn’t smack them away when they did it—tonight, she didn’t feel like doing any smacking.

  In the distance were more boys, and a few girls, the group straggling along the edge of the reservoir and into the night, but this here was the beating center. This was where to find Ruby. She stood and stretched out the length of her foot to dangle one browned, pearl-painted toe in the water. She let the boys watch her do it. Let them watch her splash.

  I was there, too, watching, but no one paid me much attention until she said my name.

  “Chloe could swim this whole thing, there and back,” Ruby told the boys. She was talking me up, as she liked to. She was saying I could swim all the way across the reservoir—from our shore to the hazy shape of the one just visible in the distance—and she dared any of them to say I couldn’t. I’d swim it, she said, and more: I’d bring back a souvenir.

  The waterline was lower than usual that summer, since we hadn’t seen a drop of rain in weeks. If you knew where to look, the towns that had their homes in this valley were peeking through. Here where we stood was the edge of what had once been a village called Olive, and now Ruby was saying I could pay a visit while crossing the reservoir, that I’d plunge down to the bottom where the remains of Olive still stand, dig around in their abandoned dressers, and come back to shore draped in their jewels. If anyone could do it, Ruby said, her sister could.

  The boys laughed, but they should have known Ruby wasn’t making a joke of it.

  “I swear,” she said, “dunk her in and she turns half fish. She doesn’t need air like the rest of us. I’ve seen it. Who do you think was the one giving her baths when she was three?”

  She’s five-and-a-half years older than me, so she has memories I don’t, can put me in places I’d swear I’ve never been (Lollapalooza, Niagara Falls, the Ulster County Jail that one time, to visit our mother). If Ruby said I could swim all the way across, if she said I could dive down to the bottom no one’s ever put a hand to, find what’s left of Olive, touch the floorboards of the houses flooded in 1914, and come up kicking, a splinter of proof in one finger, then maybe I can. Maybe I have. Ruby could turn me from an ordinary girl you wouldn’t look at twice into someone worth watching. Someone special, mythical even.

  That’s what I got for being her baby sister.

  The more Ruby talked about me, the more the boys looked my way. She made me come alive when she said my name; her words gave me color, fluffed out my hair. You could tell by the way their flashlights fell on me, by where they fell, by how long they lingered, just what her words got them thinking.

  “Right, Chlo?” she said. “Tell them you can do it. Go on, tell them.” I couldn’t see her face as she spoke, but I’d know the smile in her voice anywhere. The tease.

  I shrugged, like maybe I could do what she said, maybe.

  I was on the lowest rock, the one almost submerged in water. I was down below the waterline, where I could sink in my legs and kick. Here at the edge, we might catch a glimpse of the old stone foundations, some still standing in places. A wall, crumbling. A cellar
doorway, left open. Maybe we’d spy a chimney poking up out of the water, a church steeple. From shore, the dark night made it seem like I could wade across, but that was only a trick, as the bottom dropped a few feet in. This reservoir was deep enough to bury whole towns—and it had. It had destroyed nine of them. Ruby knew this; she was the one who told me.

  So I could stay on this rock, getting just my feet wet, then my legs up to my knees, no more. I could do nothing and she wouldn’t be mad tomorrow. But what would we have to talk about then?

  I was fourteen, way younger than the boys poking at me with the beams of their flashlights. Hanging with Ruby’s friends meant I had to be careful of who was looking, whose bottle to steal a sip out of, who to let sit beside me in the dark where they knew Ruby couldn’t see. Less dangerous would be the reservoir itself, too large to keep track of in the night—an oil spill instead of a mapped and measured ocean.

  That’s why, when she stood tall on the bed of rocks and pointed out into the night to say I could swim it right now, this dark minute, I didn’t protest. She meant the width of the reservoir, about two miles across, but it looked like she meant the night sky itself, that there was a universe of time unknown and I could cross it.

  Most people weren’t aware of our reservoir’s history; they didn’t think about what had been here before. At night, it was just this indescribable thing without shape or color. This thing that could only be felt around you, when wading in, when you bent your knees and gulped air and let it swallow your head. Once under, all sound cut off. The water thickened the lower you sunk—with what, you didn’t think about, didn’t want to know. You had to watch your toes, because the jagged bottom could cut you, and hang tight to your clothes, if you were wearing any, because the reservoir was known to take what it wanted when it wanted it. Not just loose change and car keys but bikini tops and piercings come loose from decade-old holes. Ruby once lost a ring a boy gave her, a ring handcrafted by his father, given as a promise she never meant to keep. So for Ruby the reservoir took what she wanted, almost as if they shared an understanding. Everyone else had to be more careful.

  This reservoir didn’t belong to us, though it lapped into our backyards. It cut through multiple towns across the Hudson Valley; it lined our roads. It was there past the trees, behind chains and No Trespassing signs, dammed up and shored in, but still sparkling in every kind of weather, calling us to drop our pants and jump in. It was part of the watershed that supplied New York City—just begging us to take advantage.

  I loved swimming it, Ruby knew. We liked to think of them, the city people who assumed they had lives so much better than ours even though they lived stacked up tight in their gray city, locked in their boxes, breathing their canned air, taking their baths in the pool we just swam in.

  It was illegal to swim in the reservoir, but I did it anyway—we all did, and more. It was the water we puked into, when we were too drunk to keep standing; water we pissed in, secretly, in darkness; water in which some girls gave it up, thinking they didn’t need a condom; water where stupid girls did stupid things.

  I’d been coming here since I was a baby. Besides, I knew I wouldn’t drown if I tried to cross—Ruby said.

  So there I was, standing up, and clawing out of my shirt, and then I lost my shorts, and then I was wading into the water past my knees.

  I knew what she wanted: a show, for the rest of them. Ruby said I could do an impossible thing and all I had to do was act like I was about to do it, make them wonder enough to think it real. Her friends sure weren’t sober; they’d remember it however she wanted them to tomorrow.

  I pushed forward, plunging in up to my waist. She wound them up for me, saying, “Chloe’ll make it across, no problem. Chloe’ll bring us back something from Olive, just watch. Right, Chlo?” And some boys yelled, “Yeah, Chloe, think you can do it?” And other boys yelled, “No way!” and “Let’s see her try!” Flashlights dancing circles around me. My name on their lips, coasting across the water. My name.

  Everyone was watching, it felt like. The night was mine now, as if my sister had handed it over to me, simply curious to see what could happen.

  It had all started because Ruby had invited some boys to the reservoir, and then word had gotten out, as it always did, news of a party passed along from car to car at the Village Green, phones buzzing, messages flying, girls and boys we didn’t even bother talking to in daylight saying, “Ruby wants to go swimming. Did you hear?”

  I was only aware of how many kids had come when I looked back to shore. Then my eyes went to him, the one boy on the rocks who wasn’t yelling. I could see him up on the tallest rock, a shaggy silhouette showing how his mohawk had grown out, the hard angle of his chin turned away. A pulse of light as he sucked in on one of his brother’s smokes, then dark, when he ground it out, then no light. He was the one not watching. His brother was up there, and so was some girl in a white shirt, so white it was the brightest thing I could see from out in the water, and they were watching. Their heads were turned my way. Only his wasn’t.

  I stopped looking. I’d play along, since that’s what Ruby wanted.

  “Sure I could do it,” I called out to the boys gathered by the water. “Totally I could.”

  Ruby didn’t seem worried, not one bit. It was like I never had that Rolling Rock one of her friends slipped me, hadn’t chugged from her bottle of wine when she wasn’t looking. As if I were an Olympic-class swimmer and had done this before, diving down to ransack swollen dressers, as if any story she told about me or about the drowned towns at the bottom of the reservoir was true.

  “So are you going to or not?” one of Ruby’s friends called.

  “Yeah,” I said. “For twenty bucks.” And Ruby smiled the slight smile that showed she approved, then held out a hand to collect the cash.

  I could see Ruby lit up by a flashlight. This was the summer she was nineteen. She was beautiful, everyone said so, but that wasn’t all she was. Her hair was deep brown and long down the length of her back. She had a smattering of freckles, just enough to be worth counting, across her nose. She wore boots every day, even with sundresses; and she never left the house without sunglasses, the kind with the giant, tinted lenses that celebrities wear while lounging on some distant tropical beach. When Ruby slipped the glasses up on her forehead to keep the hair from her eyes, when she let you see her whole face, she got the sort of reactions a girl from a magazine might get if she flashed what was under her shirt. The stopped traffic, the stares. Ruby just had this light about her that can’t be explained in words—you had to see her.

  I was an echo of her. We both had the long dark hair, the sometimes freckles. We shared not just a mother, but also preferences in sugary-sweet foods and slow, sad songs; tendencies toward motion sickness and talking in our sleep; our knees went purple in cold; our hiccups could last days; and our telephone voices were nearly indistinguishable, so she could pretend to be me or I could pretend to be her if we wanted to fool you into leaving a message.

  More than that, we had the same recessive earlobes, identical pinkie fingers and toes. But those were inconsequential details. Who ever called a girl beautiful because of her toes? In reality I was a pencil drawing of a photocopy of a Polaroid of my sister—you could see the resemblance in a certain light, if you were seeking it out because I told you first, if you were being nice.

  Only then, all those eyes on me in the water, did I wonder if this was what it felt like to be my sister. To be looked at this way, always. To be seen.

  She was gazing down at me, down from a very long distance, but straight-centered into my eyes. “You ready?” she asked, and sent a smile that was meant for me only, understood to be mine. I’m not sure how she thought I’d manage to come back with a souvenir from Olive, but I couldn’t ask her, not now, not in front of everyone. I knew she was already gathering the pieces of the story she’d tell tomorrow—Ruby loved her stories—and here I was, the star.

  “Ready,” I said.

This would be the story of my crossing, and with the twenty bucks for my effort we’d ignore the overdue phone bill and buy dinner at the Little Bear.

  This would not be the story of how I drowned at the deepest point of the reservoir the summer I was fourteen—Ruby would never let it happen.

  “Okay, Chlo,” Ruby called to me, “show them you can do it. Bring us back something good! . . . Go.”

  The boys at the edge of the water were shooting waves in my direction, getting the current going, giving me my push. And they looked at me the way they looked at her, because it was dark, because it was late, because they were confused or high or drunk or all three, and I didn’t mind it, didn’t mind it at all.

  I started swimming.

  It was night, so I knew there was no way they could see how far out I’d gone. When I was moving this fast, there wasn’t a flashlight that could find me. I cast out quick past the point at which the rocky ground gave way, when I could touch my toe to the bottom and then when I couldn’t, when it felt as if there was no bottom at all. I moved out into the depths where no one could catch me.

  I could hear them back on shore, and then I couldn’t. I kept swimming.

  The water spread out all around me, familiar and warm. As I swam I didn’t keep my eyes open; I knew the way. And then I felt it, all at once, how as I darted forward the water turned cold, seeming at least ten degrees cooler than before, and I knew I’d gotten close to where Ruby always said we’d find the center of Olive. Its heart, she used to say, was in the middle of the reservoir, at its deepest, bottommost point.

  My legs got heavy as I kicked past the cold spot, as if the current had turned thicker there, a tugging downward pull.

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