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Imaginary girls, p.11

Imaginary Girls, page 11

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  I wore a navy one-piece, and I’d left my new sunglasses in the car.

  “Hi, Ruby,” London said, wading through the water to reach us. “Hi, Chloe.”

  I tried not to look at her bare arms and legs; even in daylight her skin had a sickly sheen of blue, as if she couldn’t breathe and was standing here drowning and we were made to witness it.

  I mumbled something about doing laps. At the deep end, I dove in, the tips of my fingers cutting through the warm water first, then my face, and then my shoulders and the rest of me with a smooth, enveloping splash.

  The pool wasn’t empty, but I was easily able to avoid people as I went from the deep end to the shallow, then back again into the deep. From underwater I could see their legs kicking as they, too, tried to swim. I could feel it, the motion they made, the wind. If I stayed under, I could hear them screaming from far off in the distance, like from behind walls and locked doors, houses and whole towns away.

  I was still under, at the far edge of the deep end, when I decided I didn’t feel like doing laps anymore. I took hold of the filter and stayed there, drifting. Seconds passed, though they felt like minutes. Minutes like hours.

  And, really, I could have stayed down there till nightfall, couldn’t I?

  Ruby used to say I could.

  I wondered if my sister could make anything happen, if she put her mind to it. Like, right now, here I was skimming my hand along the bottom of this dirty public pool. Maybe I could stay under for the rest of my life, or at least the whole summer, never needing air to breathe. I’d scavenge for supplies to make it through—like if someone dropped a stick of gum, I’d retrieve it and it would be cinnamon-flavored, and it could sustain me for years. It wasn’t reservoir ice cream, but it would do. I’d adapt, the way the people of Olive adapted after their town was taken away. Ruby would make it so.

  Maybe I really could breathe down here, become whatever she wanted, even some impossible creature long still alive when I shouldn’t be . . . like London was.

  It was when I let my eyes come open again underwater that I saw her.

  London Hayes.

  She was down here with me. She’d swum the length of the pool to share the deep end with me, far enough away from Ruby so she couldn’t see. London skimmed the bottom of the pool closer to me. There were her thin legs drifting. Her skin so pale as if rubbed in blocks of ice. I noticed that she had a small scar on one knee. I watched the short, bleached strands of her hair reach with electric intensity for the surface. Her eyes blinking and on me.

  She stayed still, limbs floating, mouth pressed closed.

  Were we seeing who could stay under the longest?

  I held my breath, held it till my lungs burned. I kept my hand locked to the filter, not letting myself up though all the rest of me begged me to go. I forced myself to believe in it, in my sister, to stay down at the bottom, to stay.

  I didn’t want it to be me, but my body wouldn’t listen. My lungs were about to burst with the effort—I had to break free to the surface. I needed air.

  It was here, before my all-too-human body took over and flung me upward, gasping and spluttering and spitting up chlorine, that London opened her mouth. She breathed without struggle. She stayed under like she could, easily, for years.

  She let me see her do it. She wanted me to know.

  What is she? my mind screamed, needing answers, but then I was up, unable to think anything more, up in the air choking on the edge of the pool, and she was still down at the bottom.

  She didn’t come up for air for the longest time.

  CHAPTER TEN

  I COULDN’T FORGET

  I couldn’t forget what I saw in the pool. Ruby and I were in her car not too much later, driving back to the house, and all I could picture was London opening her mouth underwater and letting me see her breathe. Ruby had misled me when I’d asked if London was alive again.

  She was more than alive. She might outlive us all.

  Ruby, though, hadn’t seen London in the deep end. She’d run over in a panic when I’d emerged, choking, at the edge of the pool, and she was still admonishing me over it.

  “Why’d you scare me like that!” she shrieked as she skidded through a red light and narrowly avoided a four-car collision. “How could you do that, Chlo!” She was more frightened by the idea of me holding my breath in the pool than she should be. She was acting like I’d taken a running leap off a cliff.

  Then she said the strangest thing. “How do you think I felt, having them pull you under like that? When I was too far away to get to you? When I couldn’t even barely see!”

  “Wait,” I said. “Them who?”

  She shook her head as if shaking herself from a trance. “There were too many people in the pool, Chloe. I couldn’t see past them. Don’t pull a stunt like that again.”

  We’d turned onto the road that led to Jonah’s house when Ruby slammed the brakes without warning. I lurched forward and was kept from flying through the windshield by the seat belt, which I had absolutely no memory of putting on.

  “What the—!” I cried. I checked to make sure she was okay—she was—and checked to make sure I was okay—I was—and checked to see if we’d hit anything, like another car or an animal, and that’s when I saw her, standing in the road with her thumb out, having stumbled directly into traffic as if she were begging to be run over.

  Ruby threw up her hands and said to the car’s ceiling, “Hitchhiking?! Sometimes I wonder if certain people are just meant to die.”

  Before I could ask what that was supposed to mean, she’d leaped from the car and was dragging the girl out of the road. Just in time, too. Ruby moved her out of the way seconds before a truck took the blind turn and barreled straight over the spot she’d been standing in. It was so sudden, I didn’t know what to make of it.

  All I knew is it looked like my sister had saved London’s life.

  Again.

  London was trying to explain how she ended up out there after her swim at the pool. She was talking fast, saying she’d left the pool and was driving her parents’ car home and it got a flat. She was only hitching because there was no spare and no one had stopped to help and her cell was dead and she had to pee—and because she was an idiot, Ruby broke in to say. It was only a coincidence, London swore, that she was on the road not a mile away from Jonah’s house, where we happened to live. Just as it was a coincidence that Ruby had leaped out in time to save her from the speeding truck. That Ruby was there whenever London needed her, as she used to be solely for me.

  I watched from my window as Ruby talked to Jonah and London out in the driveway—Ruby whispering in London’s ear, Ruby plucking off a leaf that had gotten stuck to London’s shirt, London letting her—and then I left the window and waited on my bed for Ruby to come upstairs.

  “Is she okay?” I made myself ask, once Ruby appeared in my doorway.

  Ruby thought some. Then she said, “I don’t think she was ever ‘okay,’ even before, do you?”

  I shook my head. I wanted to tell her what I saw. But, more, I wanted to know if she had a direct hand in it.

  “Why’d you do it?” I asked, fishing to see how she’d answer that question—if she knew what question was being asked.

  If I even did.

  “That truck would’ve flattened her,” Ruby said. “She would have had a set of tire tracks permanently etched on her face.”

  Her expression softened and she stepped inside to come closer to me. She lifted a hand, as if to pick something off my shirt, but then hid the hand behind her back, as if I wouldn’t want her doing it. Nothing had changed and yet something had—in the form of that living, breathing bleach-haired girl. “So,” Ruby said, “I told Jonah to go out to the highway and fix the flat.”

  I knew she could have fixed it herself, if she felt like bothering, and I liked that she’d opted not to bother, and stay with me instead.

  “London went with him,” she continued. “We have the house to ourselves.
Wanna go up on the widow’s walk? Let your wet hair air-dry? If you want, I could do it up in braids like I used to when you were little? Remember? Then we could stay up there till the sun sets?”

  The widow’s walk was Ruby’s most favorite part of the house, even if it wasn’t a widow’s walk, not technically. She’d had Jonah build the tiny platform of a porch as high as he could on the slope of the roof, reachable only through a window at the top of the last set of stairs. She could see everything from up there, she’d told me. She even had a straight view, over the treetops, into the heart of town.

  “Sounds good,” I said.

  She led the way down the hall, moving so fast she’d made the last turn before I reached the first one, and she was all the way up the stairs before I’d even started climbing.

  That was when I caught sight of myself in the mirror she’d returned to its spot on the wall. The mirror was hanging crooked in a dark corner, and the face bobbing in the glass startled me. With my hair all one length and down to the middle of my back, and sixteen now to her almost-twenty-two, I resembled her more than ever before.

  I stepped away, unable to look anymore, and climbed the stairs. Everything seemed brighter now, drenched in sun. And the brightest point was beyond the three last steps leading up, at the top, on the widow’s walk. Out there in the light were two browned feet. The feet, attached to Ruby, wiggled in greeting when I came close, then snapped out of view, indicating that I should crawl through the open window to join her.

  She had a lawn chair waiting for me beside hers and beckoned me to sit in it.

  “I’m so glad you’re here with me, Chloe,” she said. “It’s how I promised it would be, isn’t it? The way it was before? Just like it?”

  She wore only her bikini, black on bottom and white on top, and the gold anklet she had on at the pool. Her hair hung down to the curve of her hip, and around her wrist was a single hair elastic. Her face was clean, not a dab of makeup, her nose shiny since she hadn’t powdered it. She looked stunning. She looked real. She looked all the more stunning because she was so real.

  Somehow, I didn’t want to answer her question.

  I turned from her and looked out over the railing. We were at the highest point that we could get on the house, short of climbing to the peak of the roof and stretching out our limbs like two weather vanes. And there it was, beyond the dirt patch of the backyard and the half-built wooden deck, past trees and across road, where the land broke open and the water flooded in, exactly where it had been when I saw it my first day home.

  Except this time I could see the entire expanse of it, a bird’s-eye view of the whole living, breathing thing.

  “What are you looking at?” she said, knowing full well what.

  “It looks bigger,” I said. “Since the last time I saw it.”

  “That’s just from up here. It makes even the mountains seem bigger, see?”

  I saw the blue humps of the Catskills, there in the clouds where they’d always been. They didn’t seem bigger. They seemed closer from here, not as tall as they appeared from the ground. I turned back to the water.

  “No, really,” I said. “The reservoir. It looks . . . deeper than it used to. Like, look at those rocks. They used to be way out on shore and now they’re almost completely covered in water. Isn’t that weird?”

  “What rocks?” She shot over to the railing, balancing her weight on the tips of her toes. I heard her take a breath in, surprised by what she saw, I thought, but then she said, “Those are different rocks, Chlo. You’ve never seen it from this angle. You’re confused.”

  I wanted to argue it—as if I wouldn’t remember the rocks on the shore I’d been visiting since I was a baby—but then a small crinkle showed in her forehead, midway between her eyes, and she rubbed at it and rubbed at it and seemed to forget all else.

  “I’m getting a migraine,” she said. She returned to her reclining lawn chair and moved it into a patch of shade.

  “Has there been a lot of rain?” I asked. “Is that why the reservoir looks bigger?”

  “Nope,” she said, “I can’t remember the last time it rained.” She swiftly changed the subject. “Hey, Chlo, don’t you love this widow’s walk? I told Jonah I had to have one, like in the olden days when the husbands went away to sea in pirate ships and the wives kept watch at home. After like a year apart, the wives would see the Jolly Roger out on the horizon and wave the ship into port. Though if I’d been alive back then, I bet I would’ve been the pirate and made some guy wave for me at home. You think?”

  “I don’t think widow’s walks were built for waving to pirates . . .”

  I was noticing how haphazard an addition this so-called widow’s walk was to the house. Boards were jutting out where they shouldn’t, the platform supported in a way that seemed to have no support at all. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole thing gave out from our weight and skidded down the side of the house.

  Ruby was still talking.

  “But you’d wait and wait up on the widow’s walk and you wouldn’t see any skull and crossbones on the water, not for years. And that’s because they weren’t coming back, the pirate husbands. They used to drown at sea—which is what happens when you don’t take swimming lessons.” She shook her head. “In the end, I guess a wife could only hope his ghost would decide to come home and keep her company. She’d go up to the top of her house, and when she saw her husband on the wind, she’d catch him like a firefly and keep him in a jar, on the windowsill, forever. And that’s why widow’s walks were built on houses.”

  It was Ruby’s favorite kind of story: where the boys lost and the girls won and got a souvenir in the bargain. It was also factually inaccurate and made no sense if you thought on it too hard.

  “I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” I said.

  “I didn’t say I’d catch my husband and keep him in a jar,” she said. “If I ever even have a husband.”

  “Besides,” I said, pointing out at the water. “That’s not an ocean.”

  “I know that,” she said softly.

  The widow’s walk had been built, clearly, because she wanted to keep an eye on the water, ocean-size or no. Here, she could watch over what she said lay drowned at the bottom, as this spot was the best view in all of town.

  “This patch of land used to be in Olive,” Ruby said, jolting me by saying its name aloud. “Before the suits in New York City said there was no such place anymore because they were erasing it. Right up this hill and halfway down the driveway: Olive. Not anymore, of course. Can you believe we’re standing in Olive right now, Chlo? Isn’t it funny how you’d never even know?”

  “I guess,” I said. Each time she said its name—Olive—I felt a sharp tug. I had to step away from the railing, sure I’d tip over. Sure I’d fall.

  She’d forgotten about doing the braids in my hair like she used to when I was a girl. Instead, she began another one of her stories, telling me again about the people who wouldn’t go. How the city bought up their land and forced them to tear down their houses and move someplace else—and some people, they refused. Because who says? Who says they could come up here with their bags of money and make our town their bathtub? She was getting worked up now, saying she understood why they wouldn’t leave.

  None of this was new and yet, somehow, with the reservoir at my back and the wind spooling out my hair, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. Really hearing it.

  Her eyes glimmered at the idea of the loyal people who refused to abandon the town where they were born and raised. These were Ruby’s people. This was practically her town. She wouldn’t have been a pirate gone off to pillage vast oceans; she would have been one of those who stayed.

  She startled me by telling a part of the story I’d never heard before. Maybe she was making it up, right here, on the spot. Inventing it piece by piece, and girl by girl—for me.

  “Back then there were these two girls,” she said. “One was the big sister and one was the
baby sister, and of course the big sister was the one who took care of them both, because there was no one else to do it, you know?” I did know. She kept going. “The people of Olive didn’t understand how close the sisters were. They were jealous. Most people don’t have another person who’d do anything for you. Anything. Most people, in the end, really are all on their own.”

  “Didn’t the girls have a mother?” I asked.

  “I’ve got no idea,” she said dismissively. “Probably she died. Consumption. Fever. Mountain lion. I don’t know.”

  I kept quiet.

  “The sisters had the same dad though. That’s why they looked so much alike. Their dad . . . guess who he was. Someone important. The mayor of the whole town.”

  “Really?” I watched her warily. “Who was he?”

  “You know Winchell’s Corners, on the way to the high school?” That was a lone intersection on Route 28 made up of a pizzeria, an antique store that I was sure had closed, and a traffic light. Ruby tended to ignore all existence of the traffic light, so we always sped right through.

  I nodded.

  “That was named for him. Mayor Winchell, the last known mayor of Olive. He died before the town got demolished, and no new mayor came after. Once he was gone, the two girls were left all on their own. No one in town would help them—jealous, like I said. The big sister knew she had to take care of her baby sister, because no one else could be trusted to do it.”

  “And she had to take care of herself,” I added.

  Ruby waved that away, unconcerned. “All the sisters had to their names was their house in Olive. And when the city came with bulldozers, that house was supposed to get flattened with the rest. The girls were supposed to follow—even though they had nowhere to go and no one left. But the big sister had another idea.” She smiled here, waiting for me to say it.

  “She didn’t go?”

  “No, she refused. She and her baby sister—they stayed.” She was filled up to glowing at the idea. “Those girls were some of the ones who stayed till the very end, Chlo.”

 
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