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Imaginary girls, p.10

Imaginary Girls, page 10


Imaginary Girls

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  Come to think of it, maybe that had been Pete.

  Ruby headed for the door and slipped out. She was gone for awhile. She was gone long enough for me to shower and get dressed and put on a dab of her lipstick and make myself a second waffle. She was out there for so long that I wondered if maybe she wanted me to join her and I’d missed the signal or something.

  But then I looked out the great window in the living room, a window as wide as the room itself and showing the full expanse of the reservoir as if our whole world was made of it. There, in the backyard, were Pete and Pete’s friend and Pete’s brother and Jonah, and they were all working together, lifting boards of wood in an assembly line, apparently inspired to do some work on the veranda.

  My sister had her back to me and was caught standing in the dirt, the wind playing with the hem of her dress, tossing it like wild rapids around her clean, bare legs. She must have felt me looking because she turned then, to give me one of her smiles. A smile for me and me only. No boys had ever seen this smile. They thought they were close enough to my sister to be loved by her, but they couldn’t, wouldn’t ever get that close—not in the way I already was.

  She came in through the sliding glass door and said, “It’s Wednesday. We should watch movies.” Because on summer Wednesdays that was what we used to do, and the day after, Thursdays, we did laundry, but only if we felt like it, and on Fridays we’d do some shopping and make a pit stop at the town pool.

  For now, we sat on pillows beneath the ceiling fan and flipped on the cable.

  “I forgot to tell you,” Ruby said. “I don’t like you going in the backyard when it’s still light,” she announced randomly. She lifted her face to the ceiling fan, which was on high, and let it cool her cheeks.

  “Why?” I said. “Afraid I’ll get sunburned?”

  “No,” she said, “though good point, you do burn easily, your skin is so much fairer than mine—I bet you my dad was Latin, like from Panama or Puerto Rico, didn’t Sparrow say he spoke Spanish? I bet he went back to whatever country he came from and it’s so gorgeous and sunny down there so that’s why we haven’t seen him since. And your dad speaks only English and he’s as pale as a newborn rat.”

  “Are rats pale?”

  She shuddered. “They live their lives in the dark, don’t they? Just don’t go in the yard in the daytime. Anyone could see you out there. And you know what? If you go out there at night, do me a favor and stay on the veranda. You could step on a nail. Also, I don’t like that boy, why’d he ask if you were coming back out? I told him it’s Wednesday and Wednesday’s the day we watch movies so, no, you were not coming back out. Plus, please don’t answer the telephone. Let it ring like I do. And”—here, a glance at the sundress I had on, a short blue one I’d helped myself to from her closet—“you look cute in that dress. It’s yours. I want you to have it.”

  “Thanks,” I said.

  I was still stuck on the thing about the boy who’d asked for me. But she didn’t bring him up again.

  She just said, “Got it?”

  And I said, “Yeah,” though I wasn’t sure I understood even half of it.

  And then she rested a cold hand on my arm, and the air whipped up by the ceiling fan made it even colder, and she said, “It’s Wednesday, Chlo. What movie should we watch?”

  That was how life returned fully to what it once was, this summer like other summers. The only difference was our vantage point in town. When I got up to make the popcorn—on Wednesdays, when we watched movies, we also microwaved popcorn—I could see the water, never still, always moving, if faintly, in the near distance. I could see it from every window downstairs, from each room in the house except the room Ruby called my bedroom.

  And, who knew? Maybe down at the bottom, where my gaze couldn’t reach, the people of Olive were living out their own summer, seeking a breeze on the current, then running to play catch with Pete’s lost keys.



  London didn’t exist for a couple days. We never left the house, so it was easy to forget her out there, doing whatever she was doing, wherever that was.

  Or, no—it was like she existed the way she used to, two years before, when I’d never considered leaving town, especially not without my sister, and when I knew London Hayes as the girl in the back of my French class and not much more. When she was just a girl, one I saw around, on the Green or in the backseats of Ruby’s friends’ cars, and when I did we didn’t even say hello to each other or anything.

  Knowing she was around somewhere was enough to keep the memories at bay.

  By Friday morning, London was barely a thought drifting through my mind. Instead, Ruby had filled my head with pancakes at Sweet Sue’s, as we’d decided that for the rest of the summer we’d eat only breakfast foods, then skip the two courses in between and go straight for dessert. We went all out and ordered the “red monkey” special, pancakes made with strawberries and bananas, since Ruby said twice the fruit was healthier.

  On the way back from Sweet Sue’s, we drove past the public high school—where she said I’d go for my junior year, once she convinced my dad to give me up for good—and we made sure to take the familiar detour down the old highway alongside the real highway, windows down so the wind could dread our hair.

  And everything was the same—except Ruby hadn’t cut my bangs yet, so my hair got in my mouth and I had to spit it out to keep from chewing on it and puking it up like cats do. And I noticed, too, how the car was running on empty the whole way there and back, and either her gas gauge was stuck on E for good, or she really had been lifted to another plane of existence where she could drive a car with the power of her mind, in the way she could direct a man to build a house for her, staying up all night to hammer and buzz.

  In town, Ruby sailed through red lights like they meant go. The other cars let her pass, and no one even honked when she took the wrong way down the road and almost caused a collision. As we drove alongside the Green, we saw kids hanging out on the benches like any summer afternoon, and all eyes went to our car, like we were part of a caravan carrying a celebrity or the president; in Ruby they had that person combined into one. But when anyone saw for sure she was in the car, they looked away fast, like they didn’t want to be caught staring. It was a wave of snapped necks, eyes averted to street signs and lampposts. If Ruby noticed, she didn’t say.

  Ruby cut the brakes near the candy shop where she used to buy me the swirled cherry-mint sticks to suck on. This was our routine: candy first, then shopping for sunglasses. Then we’d lounge on the hard stone bench dead center of the Green, where Ruby would flirt with locals and tourists and curious squirrels. We always made sure to avoid the Village Tavern, a bar across the street that our mother was known to favor, which meant holding our breath when we passed, like the superstitious would beside a graveyard. Then, if we got hot enough, we’d do a few laps in the pool. Well, I would do the laps, and Ruby would stretch out her legs in the shallow end and watch. After that we’d go home.

  But now she said we should skip the candy—we weren’t ready for “lunch” yet—and, this time, she’d buy me my own pair of sunglasses to keep me from borrowing hers.

  We left the Buick with the windows down, as no one would ever dare touch it, and crossed Tinker Street for the boutique that had the best selection of sunglasses in all of town. The store had appeared to be open when we’d driven past, but once we got up close we found the glass door locked, the lights down, and a misspelled hand-scrawled sign that read: Closed for Inventry Sorry!

  Ruby was not pleased.

  She pounded on the glass and in seconds two salesgirls appeared, all apologies, one glaring at the other as if she was the one responsible for the sign, and the bell on the door was tinkling as it opened for us. We went in and minutes later emerged with our purchases: a dark-tinted pair à la Breakfast at Tiffany’s for me and a pair of flashy gold aviators that Ruby wore perched on top of her head. The sunglasses cos
t fifteen each, but Ruby suggested two for five, and so that was what she paid.

  Ruby was silent as we returned to the car. She didn’t want to lounge on the Green, and she didn’t want me to try on her aviators. “Everything is supposed to be perfect,” she said. “I don’t understand it. What’s up with today?”

  “It is perfect,” I assured her. “Everything is.”

  “Do you think I’m trying too hard?” she asked, dropping the aviators down over her eyes. “With these?”

  They were gold-rimmed, polished up to searing in the sun—and too big for her head. But she was everything and more, even with those glasses marring her face. That was the magic of my sister.

  “You can tell me,” she said.

  “I . . .”

  “You hate them,” she said, but she kept them on as if to punish herself, and clicked her blinkers, to merge the car into the lane. Then she clicked the blinkers back off, the car staying in park. “Do I look mean with these on? Sorta psychopath?”

  I nodded, if reluctantly, since it wasn’t exactly the kind of compliment Ruby was used to hearing.

  She gave a grin and said, “Then I’m going in.”

  “In where?” With my new dark glasses on, I could barely see the sign across from the candy store for the Village Tavern. It could be that I was used to not-seeing it, used to imagining instead a sinkhole taking over that spot on the sidewalk.

  “Yeah,” Ruby said. “In there.”

  “But what if she’s, y’know . . . inside?”

  “Oh, but she is,” Ruby said. “Don’t you recognize the heap of junk over there?” She waved a hand at the brown hatchback parked at the corner. One taillight was busted in, and I knew how it happened: Ruby’s foot and a single, well-aimed shot of her pointy black boot.

  Inside me, something sunk. I’d been back in town for however many days since the bus ride, and I hadn’t run into my mother yet. She hadn’t called; it was possible she still assumed I was in Pennsylvania. All this time, Ruby had been shielding me from her. Now she was yanking off the curtain and shoving me in.

  “But—” I started.

  I didn’t have to say it. Ruby knew the patterns my thoughts made before the words left my mouth. She knew even before the first syllable. She shook her head and, softly, told me to stay put. Only one of us was going in.

  She crossed the street and stepped inside the tavern, out of sight for a few minutes. I don’t know what she told our mother, how she broke the news that I was home, but she must have found some words for it. Maybe she said I was in the car and not coming inside to talk and, ha, how do you like that, woman-who-calls-herself-Sparrow? Ruby must have said something good, though, because when she hopped back into the driver’s seat, she had the most delicious smile on her face, like she’d witnessed a thing of beauty and would remember it forever and always. She didn’t explain it, though—sometimes a perfect memory can be ruined if put to words. Ruby taught me that.

  As we drove away, the door to the tavern opened and a person stepped out. A warm, blinking sign for beer illuminated this person in patches, on and then off again, face aglow and then not. This person watching us go for a few seconds. Then this person giving up and heading inside. I felt so detached from this person who happened to be my mother.

  Ruby didn’t tell me what she’d said in there. Instead she told a story, as usual.

  “Did you know I used to walk around town saying you were my baby?”

  “Yeah?” I didn’t stop her; I liked when she told it.

  “What was I, seven? Eight?” she said as she sped the car down the street and made the usual turn toward the rec field, where we’d find the public pool. “All I know is I was small, and I’d wheel you in your stroller and people would stop me on the street. They’d say, ‘How cute!’ Or, ‘You two are soooo adorable!’ But then they’d always have to ask, ‘But where’s your mother, little girl?’ And the thing is, I didn’t want to say she was doing shots at the bar. Or, last I saw, she was in some-dude-we-never-met’s truck. I mean, I wanted to say our mother was right there, like in a store buying earrings, right? Our mother was at the library. Our mother was at the Laundromat. Someplace mothers go.” She sighed.

  “But,” she continued, cutting around a slow car, “if I was going to lie, I figured I may as well make it fun. So I’d say, ‘What do you mean where’s her mother? I’m her mother.’ I’d tell them different things, depending on who asked. Like I married young and now I’m a widow. Or I got knocked up in Girl Scouts, when I was out selling cookies. Or, you know, if a church person was asking, that Jesus gave you to me. People get all weird when you talk about Jesus. Like unicorns can’t exist, but Jesus did—ridiculous.” She shook her head. “Anyway, I said you were mine. And sometimes when you say a lie enough times, it’s like it’s true. Then you’re not even lying.”

  Ruby’s stories changed when she told them—the tales grew more impossible physically, and legally, like how she said she picked me up at school in our mom’s car while sitting on a Webster’s unabridged dictionary so she could see the road. Like how she said we lived for a whole summer at sea, barely emerging from the bathtub. But no matter what miraculous way of surviving she chose for us, our mom was always conveniently out of the picture. It was better than the truth, really.

  Ruby parked the car in the rec-field lot and removed the gold aviators. I thought we were going to get changed for swimming—we had bathing suits on under our clothes, so all we had to do was pull our dresses over our heads and find the beach towels—but something was holding her attention across the wide, grassy lawn. She couldn’t tear her eyes away.

  From where we were parked, all I could see was the stretch of the rec field. The swings, the sandbox, the jungle gym, the slides, the great lawn beyond, and past that the softball diamond. A game was going on, but Ruby didn’t like sports, so it couldn’t be that. Past the softball field was some kid’s birthday party, marked by a bouquet of balloons tied to the gazebo and fluttering wildly in the wind.

  “What?” I said. “Do you want some birthday cake or something?”

  “I wonder . . .” she said, frozen where she sat.

  “You wonder what?”

  A piece of her expression was unnerving me. Maybe it was the glassy green of her eyes. The hard set of her teeth. Maybe it was her knuckles, gone white on the wheel even though the engine was off and there was no reason to hold it for steering anymore.

  “What do you think those people would do,” she said, “all the kids there at that birthday party, all the moms, the dads . . . what do you think they’d do if I walked over there and just let them all go?”

  “Let who go, the kids?”

  She shook her head. What she was staring at was the collection of balloons, watching them fiercely as their long tails whipped against the gazebo post, their brightly colored heads rising as high as they’d reach. It really bothered her to see them tied up like that.

  “The red ones first, I think,” she said. “If I cut their strings, ripped them off, and let them fly? What do you think?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “You might make the kids cry.”

  She didn’t seem to care about that; she only looked off into the distance, absorbed in something I couldn’t decipher, as if living out some fantasy rescue mission in her mind.

  Or maybe she was trying it right now. Trying to break them free by wishing for it.

  But of course the balloons remained where they were, and no matter how hard the wind got—and it did seem to get a bit stronger, somehow; as Ruby held her eyes there, a few paper plates went sailing off the picnic table and some little kids lost their cake—but still, no balloons went free. They were tethered there and would stay put, forced to be guests at that party until someone cut them off after, or popped them and let them die.

  “Ruby?” I said.

  At the sound of her name, at my voice saying her name, she shook herself out of it.

  Before I knew it, she was pulling her dress ov
er her head and slamming the car door shut. “Let’s go for a swim. Do your laps. I’ll make everyone get out of the pool so you can have the whole place to yourself if you want me to.”

  “Don’t do that,” I said. The wind had calmed as we walked the lawn—and as we got closer to the fenced-in outdoor pool, I saw we had company beyond the usual townie kids who came here to cool off on summer afternoons.

  She was here, too. Her pale head could be made out in the shallow end, where she stood waist-deep, shivering in the sunlight. She was so thin, I could count her ribs.

  “Does she know we go swimming on Fridays?” I asked. “Did you tell her?”

  Ruby shrugged. “I may have mentioned it.” She called out, “Hey, London. Watch out, my sister’s gonna do some laps.”

  When the townspeople at the pool saw Ruby coming, they cleared away from the stairs in the shallow end to make room for her. They knew she liked to sit there, letting the water pool up to the knobs of her knees, splashing at the surface with her fingers, letting the sun warm her face while she watched me swim. No one seemed surprised that we were here again, after a long absence. No one asked me where I’d been.

  Like always, Ruby took to her perch on the descending steps and stretched out her long, bare legs as far as they’d go—which was far. She wore an anklet that glimmered as gold as her aviators in the pool’s bright, reflective light. Her bikini was black and white today, the top white and the bottoms black, and her aviators were drawn down over her eyes to keep just anyone from seeing in.

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