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Imaginary girls, p.12

Imaginary Girls, page 12


Imaginary Girls

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  “How do you know all that?” I asked. “Did you read it somewhere?”

  “Hmm?” she said, distracted. “We wouldn’t’ve left, either. We would’ve stayed put until the last day, till they finished building the dam and the machines went quiet and the workers got sent back to wherever they came from. Till it was time.”

  “Time for what?”

  “Time for the flood, Chlo. Time to take away our everything.”

  “What would we have done?” I was almost whispering, but still she heard me. I wasn’t sure anymore who she was talking about—the two Winchell sisters, the older one who knew what to do or the younger one who followed, or us, real or unreal, alive or dead, catalogued in history or completely made up, the four of us confused and washed away on a wave together.

  “What do you think we would’ve done?” Ruby said. “We would’ve climbed to the highest point of our house. And waited it out, just like those two girls did. The big sister led her baby sister up there, and they perched on their chimney and waited. Because when the dam was opened, they couldn’t be sure how high the water would get—it’s not like there was a line drawn in a tree trunk to give a heads-up or anything. All the trees had been chopped down.

  “But before the water came, there was this sound, so loud you could hear it for miles. That was the only real warning they’d get. Last chance, run while you still can. . . . Know what it sounded like?”

  She pursed her lips and let loose a shrieking hiss, like some instrument had its holes plugged and then broke apart, bursting with noise. Awful, painful noise. Ruby—it wasn’t known by many, or else they all ignored it—was actually tone-deaf.

  “A steam whistle,” she explained. “But imagine that it played on and on—for an hour. A whole hour to give everyone time to get out. Then it stopped, and it was so quiet for a few seconds, you could’ve heard birds chirping in the trees . . . if, you know, they hadn’t burned down the forest and killed the birds. The steam whistle stopped. And the water gushed in. And you and I know what happened after that.”

  “And those girls?” I asked.

  She let her eyes go to the water, and I let mine follow. That was her answer.

  “So the big sister lost her little sister after all that,” I said. “Didn’t she?”

  “What do you mean?” Ruby said blankly. “Weren’t you listening?”

  I was. I was trying to hear—and understand.

  I returned my gaze to the reservoir, and now a shiver ran through me as I studied the calm, smooth surface. You wouldn’t think there was anything living underneath, not even fish. But my sister and I knew better.

  When I looked back at Ruby, something had changed in her face. Her skin still glowed, her lips flushed without need of her lipstick, and her eyes taking on the green of the trees, but that was only what she was showing on the surface. Underneath, there were things she wasn’t letting me see.

  Things involving the reservoir, I felt sure of that. Things involving Olive.

  “Why are you telling me this, Ruby?” I asked.

  “I only wanted you to know,” she said innocently.

  “What does all this stuff about Olive have to do with us?”

  She opened her mouth. Then she closed it because we could hear voices down below in the yard. Jonah had come back, with London.

  Ruby went to the edge of the widow’s walk and called over the railing, “Did you fix the flat?” They spoke some, and then she turned to me.

  One thing she’d forgotten to bring up to the widow’s walk was a pair of sunglasses, so she covered her eyes with a hand while she looked at me. That way, she could see me, but I couldn’t see all of her.

  “Lon said she’s driving in to town to hang out with her friends, those girls, I can’t remember their names,” Ruby said. “She wants to know if you’d like to go, too.”

  “Me?” I said.

  “Yes, you. She invited you.”

  “Did you tell her to?”

  She didn’t answer that. “Maybe you should go. Like I said before”—she tapped at her head—“I do feel a migraine coming.”

  She lifted the hand from her eyes and gave a faint smile. When the light hit her face, all at once she did look a bit ill, which was odd, as she’d looked close to perfect before.

  “You sure?” I said.

  “Yeah, yeah,” she said.

  I doubted her story of the headache. She kept flicking glances at the reservoir, acting like she and it had some business to take care of. But to do so she needed me well out of the way.

  Ruby leaned over the railing. “Who’ll be there again?” she called to London.

  I heard London rattle off some names. Vanessa, Asha, a Cate or a Kate.

  “Okay, then, that’s all right,” Ruby said.

  I took a step to go downstairs and join London, but Ruby wasn’t done with me yet.

  “Chlo,” she said, “could you do one thing for me? Keep an eye on her?”

  “Why?” I wasn’t about to explain what I saw in the pool. She probably wouldn’t believe it; no one would.

  “Because I asked you to,” she said.

  “Okay,” I said, slipping a leg through the window. “I’ll keep an eye on her. Are you sure you want me to go out?” I was hesitating, hovering at the windowsill, knowing I wouldn’t argue if she called me back.

  “Yeah, I’m sure. Oh wait. I thought of a second thing. Stay in town, you and London both. Don’t go anywhere else. Promise me.”

  “I promise.” I put my other leg through. She didn’t call me back. “You’re not staying out here, are you? Not with your migraine and all?”

  She shrugged. “I like it up here. I’ll probably be in this same spot when you come home.” To prove it, she reclined the lawn chair and stretched out, as though she wouldn’t just sit up as soon as I was gone.

  Still, I felt her watching me as I balanced along the boards of the hallway and went down the stairs. I felt sure she wanted to call after me, take it back, all of it: telling me to go with London of all people, distracting me with stories about the reservoir of all places, making up that story about that Winchell girl and her little sister . . . But she didn’t call for me, and it wasn’t until I was in the passenger seat of London’s parents’ car, window rolled down and my hair ratting up in the rushing wind, that I realized this was my first real moment apart from my sister since I’d come home.

  I wasn’t sure who I was without her anymore. Now I’d find out.



  Without Ruby, I turned quiet next to London and her friends.

  It was London’s idea to go to the graveyard—to get high. If we smoked up in the car, she said, the cops or someone’s parents could drive by and see. This sure wasn’t what Ruby had in mind when she sent me off with London, I knew that, and yet I was reluctant to text my sister and fill her in.

  I was left standing in the parking lot as they set off in the direction of the old cemetery. I looked across the road back at the newer cemetery, the one with the tall iron gate and the neatly mowed lawns, the one where London herself would have been buried if time had gone another way.

  “Chloe! Aren’t you coming?” That was London, shouting from across the road.

  More of London’s friends were there, climbing the hill. Asha and Cate. Vanessa and Damien. Some boy whose name I hadn’t caught. And then Owen, here though London hadn’t said he would be, here and not having spoken a word to me yet.

  “Chloe?” London called, and then she turned and started climbing without me, so I crossed the road and headed up the hill before I lost sight of her.

  This old cemetery was the one without a gate to mark its boundaries, with the stones so weathered, they sunk at odd angles back into the earth like they didn’t want you remembering them after all. Anyway, making it so you couldn’t even try.

  Also, it was more private than the newer cemetery across the road. There was a raised mausoleum facing away from the sidewalk, and back
there were two stone benches and a long-dead fountain, so you could fit a whole group of kids—five, six, seven, with me there, eight—and do whatever you wanted, having full confidence the town’s lackluster cops or occasional lurking perv wouldn’t be able to see. It was also a fantastic place to hook up with your boyfriend, or so I’d heard.

  The mausoleum was gray stone, pitted and murky like it had been left at the bottom of a pond for a thousand years and then dredged up for some sun. I’d been here before. Ruby used to let me color with crayons over the engraved, locked door.

  Before the private perch of the mausoleum there was a rising hill littered with the cracked and withered headstones of the people who didn’t matter enough to have their own house in which to spend their eternities. These people were so long gone, none of their relatives even lived in our town anymore. No one left flowers or came to have picnics atop their dirt beds on passing birthdays. No one tended the weeds here, so the hill was really all weeds now, far more weeds than stones.

  The gravestones themselves were thin and plain. Many were chipped and blackened with mold, some growing mushrooms. Even now, one of the boys, Laurence—I heard someone call him by that name—did a running leap and knocked over a thin, tall stone under which no one we knew still lies, and he didn’t even go back to pick it up.

  Laurence and Asha and Cate and the rest of them weren’t thinking of dying, not while they were racing up this hill. They didn’t know how close one of them had come. The taste in her mouth when it happened, the last sight of the stars overhead seared on the backs of her eyes.

  Maybe London herself remembered—though how could she? The mind stops printing new memories once they’ve been flatlined away.

  Before that night at the reservoir, Ruby and I used to talk about dying—about how it might happen, what we’d do if it did. She had a whole plan for her afterlife, which involved haunting certain blood relatives, playing poltergeist on former landlords and schoolteachers, and playing chicken with cars. She’d have a road in town named for her, or better yet a bridge, and leave me every last thing she owned in her will. She acted like she would stay forever the way she was, never marrying and never having kids, and surely never leaving our small mountain town, and that I’d be the only one left to remember her, though really everyone would, I told her, especially if she got her name on a bridge.

  Ruby wanted me to know that her headstone should be pink granite, even if it cost extra. Pink or no headstone at all. And she’d already written out the inscription, handed over to me a long time ago for safekeeping:


  Beloved Sister of Chloe

  Gas Station Attendant

  Phenomenal Kisser

  (ask anyone)

  Lies Here

  For those leaving flowers, she wanted a small directive added at the bottom, to show her preference:

  Poppies Only, Please

  She was very specific in letting me know what her headstone should say, but she didn’t like it when I tried to figure out what I might want for mine. I couldn’t pick a color, and I couldn’t tell her what should be written on it, because she never wanted to read those words, not in this lifetime, and not in our next lifetime, if there were such a thing as multiple lifetimes, which Ruby happened to think there were.

  Up at the mausoleum, London’s friends were passing around a joint. I accepted it when it came my way for politeness’ sake, and took the tiniest puff of a hit before passing it on. I didn’t know if Ruby would have let me go if she knew we’d be smoking and sharing spit up on this hill full of headstones like we were, that I’d be coughing out smoke longer than anyone, unable to get that dry tickle out of my throat. Ruby smoked weed, but that didn’t mean I could. She did a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to imitate. She did them in the room with me, but I guess she expected me to look away.

  I was here now, without her, and I wasn’t looking away. My eyes were starting to come clear.

  That’s why I found myself staring at London.

  Her friends acted like she was nothing unusual. But, to me, she was a shrill and shrieking fire alarm in a quiet library, and not a single person seemed to hear it. Were they deaf? Was everyone?

  “Right, Chloe?” someone was saying—I hadn’t been paying attention.

  “What?” I said.

  “Your sister drew that, right?” Cate asked.

  “Yeah, guess so.” Only a single glance told me it was one of hers.

  Because there it was—a masterpiece à la Ruby—covering an entire side of the mausoleum. She’d used chalk, the kind made to scribble slogans on sidewalks, the kind that washed away to nothing when it rained. She liked to scrawl her name to show she’d been somewhere. Practically our whole town was tagged. But this mural was more of a mark than she usually bothered to leave. In fact, it was enormous.

  “I love it,” Vanessa breathed.

  “It’s, like, really beautiful,” Asha said.

  Cate nodded. “That’s you, isn’t it?”

  And there I was—I mean, anyone would assume it was me—a chalk stick figure in blue, since Ruby said that was my color, and with my hair in bangs, since Ruby had always liked my hair in bangs. I didn’t look like that now, so clearly she’d drawn me as she remembered me before I went away.

  In the drawing, my stick hand was holding the hand of another, far taller figure. This one was drawn to be the size of a mountain in comparison to me—with a head made of swirls and enormous green orbs meant to be her all-seeing eyes. Her hands alone dwarfed my stick body, dwarfed the yellow smudge of the sun. Her feet in tall boots walked the water, touching only the tips of her toes to the blue squiggles meant to be undulating waves. She carried me above it all, my toes touching only air. Her dark hair made a long, flowing cape behind us both.

  The drawing was Ruby by Ruby. And below it, so you could make no mistake who was responsible, etched out in red chalk, it read:


  For some reason, she wanted her mark there, and she wanted no one to forget it.

  I dragged my eyes from the chalk mural to find Owen glaring openly at it. He hated what she’d done to the mausoleum, this showed clear in his face, but maybe his hate went deeper than her drawing ability. Maybe he hated the one person in the world who I loved.

  I knew that art wasn’t one of Ruby’s talents, but no one seemed quite willing to point this out. So I said, “It’s sort of”—surprising myself as the word found my mouth—“hideous, isn’t it?”

  Owen had been leaning on the bench across from me, toking up, but when I said that, he stopped slouching and paid attention.

  “Oh no,” said Vanessa. “It’s not. Not at all.”

  “It’s not hideous,” Cate said sharply, as if she herself had drawn it.

  Did they think I was trying to trick them?

  I stepped closer to the mural, touched Ruby’s bulbous head. “She looks deformed, don’t you think?”

  Damien laughed, then choked on the laugh, then pretended he was only coughing. Laurence cracked a grin and didn’t bother hiding it. London, who hadn’t said a word about the mural yet, had a look of grave concern on her face, as if she were watching me step out too far on a patch of ice. If it cracked, I had no way of knowing if she’d reach out a hand to pull me back in. Ruby wasn’t here to see if she didn’t.

  “I wouldn’t say deformed . . .” Cate said.

  I watched her, waiting to hear what she would say.

  “It’s like a, like a”—waving her hands now, trying to talk faster than the thoughts would come—“like a Picasso or whatever,” she finished.

  Most everyone murmured in agreement.

  There was a chill in the air, one that couldn’t be explained by the wind, because it was summer and we were all sweating. A chill not even explained by the fact that we were in a graveyard where a bunch of dead people were buried and some of us were maybe sitting on them. A chill that, I guess, was explained by me.

  Or by London.

  She w
as breathing like she had two working lungs inside her, as any living person would, but that’s not what was in there, was it? I couldn’t keep my eyes off her chest, the rhythmic rise and fall of her ribs—the simplest thing and yet so wondrous of a thing, too, because it was her, and I didn’t totally believe in her yet. There was a time not too long ago when I didn’t think I’d ever again see her breathing.

  I still questioned if she was really here. I could turn to pass the joint, skipping over myself and giving her the next drag, and there’d be no hand to take it. No fingers reaching for my fingers. I’d hold it out for her, bright and burning, and she’d be gone.

  But while I watched her, what she was watching was my sister’s picture. She kept her eyes on it like it could come alive at any moment and step off the wall onto the nearest grave, chiding us for what we said. What I said.

  Like, somehow, it knew.

  “What do you think, London?” I said, startling her. “About the picture.”

  Would she lie to me because I was Ruby’s sister and everyone always only told me things they thought Ruby wanted to hear? Acting like my ears were on her head, or my mouth was in her ear? Would London say it was like a Picasso?

  Before she could answer for herself, Damien said, “Don’t ask her, she probably helped draw the thing.”

  “She did not,” I said automatically. Then added, “What do you mean she probably helped?”

  “London and your sister were like this,” he said, twining his two fingers together to make one twisted lump of a finger. “All spring.”

  “You were?” I asked London. No matter what she said, there was no way two people could be close the way Ruby and I were close, not if they weren’t sisters. It went beyond biology, beyond years spent together, beyond secrets kept. It wasn’t possible.

  Vanessa spoke up. “It’s not like that. It’s far more pathetic than that. Right, Lon?”

  London looked uncomfortable now. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. She coughed, though the joint wasn’t even near her.

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