Imaginary girls, p.13

Imaginary Girls, page 13

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  “London’s like her little pawn,” Vanessa spilled out. “She does whatever your sister wants, whenever she wants it. Ruby’ll text her at two in the morning, and London’ll fly out and like get her a lemonade or whatever. She’ll drop everything if Ruby wants her. If Ruby says she can’t do something or go somewhere, or I dunno who knows, Lon just says okay. Like it’s God talking.” Vanessa snickered at this and then shut up when no one else joined her.

  London only shrugged. She didn’t try to deny it.

  “People act like that with Ruby,” I said, going on the defensive. “It’s not her fault. She just . . . inspires it, I guess. I mean, half the people in town are, like, in love with her and she never asked them to be, you know?”

  It wasn’t out of the ordinary, someone following my sister like a shadow and keeping her in lemonade—it happened to be summer, and my sister happened to get thirsty. Ruby always had followers. Look at Pete, look at Jonah, look at any number of her exes and acquaintances and the Ruby-wannabes with the long hair and short dresses and tall boots who filled our town. London wasn’t special.

  Except for the fact that she was.

  “Yeah, but London’s not in love with her,” Laurence said. “I’m half in love with her—no offense, Chloe, your sister is fine—and even I don’t go all zombie-slave in front of her like Lon does.”

  “It’s not like that,” London said. “You guys, you just don’t know. You don’t know, okay? You don’t know.”

  Not one of her friends said a word.

  “She’s been looking out for me,” London said quietly. “Ever since I got home this spring.”

  “You got home this spring?” I asked. “From where?”

  “Rehab,” she mumbled. “I was there . . . a while, and when I got out of rehab I guess she, y’know, cares enough to keep an eye on me.”

  I couldn’t tell if she was lying for everyone else’s benefit. That’s what she thought happened to her . . . rehab? Maybe she didn’t know as much as I thought she did.

  “She OD’d,” Cate shot out helpfully. London glared at her, but Cate kept on going, oblivious. “She totally almost died at some party out at the reservoir. What was it? Two summers ago? It was, like, really awful. I mean, I heard it was awful. I wasn’t there or anything, but yeah.”

  Asha sighed and made a sad face. “I never knew anyone who had an overdose before,” she said randomly. “Did you get to ride in an ambulance to the hospital, Lon?”

  “I . . . I don’t know,” London said. “I don’t really remember if I did or not.”

  She did; at least her body did—only, it didn’t end up at the hospital.

  Owen was extra quiet during this conversation. He’d been there with London that night—he just wasn’t revealing that bit of information.

  I thought of what Ruby had asked of me when I’d left her up on the widow’s walk to go with London. Keep an eye on her, she’d said.

  Ruby was acting as if the girl were about to combust. As if this thing that was happening—the breath coming out her mouth, the beat thumping in her chest, whatever bit of science or imagination was keeping her alive—wasn’t permanent after all. But none of us had any idea what London was made of now and what she might do.

  I was trying not to think of her lying belly-up in the boat, trying not to see her blue and OD’d and dead. I was focusing on her mouth moving, hearing the words come out—and she was undeniably still here.

  “I—I’m sorry,” I said to London. There wasn’t much else I could say.

  “Yeah, that’s why I was away for so long,” she said. “But I’m way better now.”

  I didn’t say a word about the joint she’d been smoking, as, technically, that wasn’t something you were supposed to run off and do after rehab, even if you shared it eight ways with friends. I wondered if I should have stopped her, if that was part of keeping an eye on her like Ruby wanted.

  What London didn’t seem to remember was how Ruby had saved her. How, somehow, my sister had turned back the clocks and grabbed her from the swirling, sinking fate she’d gotten herself caught up in and flipped time another way. Ruby had done this wonderful thing and given her this second chance, and here was London, having no idea of any of it.

  But I knew.

  I knew that Ruby, my own sister—she’d done this.

  When something big happens, you don’t immediately point the finger at one person. A bridge collapses, and maybe that’s what people call an act of God, not of the little girl in the backseat of a passing car wishing something would happen to keep her from having to stay the weekend with her creepy uncle. A plane loses its propellers and crash-lands on water, and no one blames the guy sitting in 13B who can’t get a date and wants to die over it and doesn’t care if he takes the whole damn plane with him.

  No human being could take credit for changing fate.

  Except for Ruby.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  I’LL TELL YOU

  I’ll tell you what happened if you want,” London said. She’d taken a few steps from the group and was lying on the ground just outside the stone platform of the mausoleum, playing with the grass surrounding an unvisited grave.

  “Okay,” I said. I stretched out, too, and let the setting sun warm my face. I kicked off Ruby’s boots and put my toes in the cool grass.

  “I don’t remember any ambulance. But I do remember these really weird things.” She hesitated. “I think it’s all right to tell you. Ruby said I shouldn’t tell anyone, but . . .”

  “Ruby said?”

  That’s when we heard yelling. It had been so slow, the afternoon gone in a haze, but now there was commotion on top of the hill. Stomping. Shrieking. A heady, musty scent billowing out from somewhere up above.

  Asha called down an explanation. “Laurence kicked that tomb thing open. There’s a whole room inside!”

  Soon we were all up there, pushing in to see for ourselves, and just as soon, we were vacating the small, dark space filled with cobwebs and reeking of mildew, nothing worth stealing that anyone could find. But it was then, as I was the last to leave, that I saw the words etched on the inner wall.

  Dust tried to hide them from me, but I could still make them out.

  Beloved Mayor of Olive, the words seemed to say, the dates below showing 1851–1912. The name itself was partly crumbled out, some letters lost to the years, but when I carefully dusted it clean, this is what it read:

  W lt r Winchell

  Rest in Peace

  Mayor Winchell, the last mayor of Olive before the town got itself drowned, according to Ruby. Now his name was known for marking a streetlight.

  I returned to one word, putting my finger to it to wipe decades of grime away, tracing the O and the live, the name of the town I’d never pictured existing above the surface, though it had, before the reservoir wiped it away. Ruby had said so, but now I knew for sure: The person in this tomb had lived in it.

  I was rubbing at my eyes, wondering if I’d smoked too much, how even if I hadn’t, it must’ve seeped into my brain anyway, that I’d breathed it, that all along I’d been breathing it, because now I was hallucinating. My mind was carving words into the walls and my eyes were duped into reading meaning into them.

  I touched the words once more and noticed London hovering in the tomb’s doorway.

  She moved slowly through the dusty air like it was thicker than it felt, a plodding, ceaseless bobbing nearer and nearer to me. And once she stood beside me, as near as I let her get, I felt the chill of her, the creeping cold radiating from deep inside her icy bones.

  I remembered how she looked at me at the bottom of the pool. How she wanted me to know just what she was made of.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked, though she had to know, she had to. Now her long, thin finger was tracing the name of the town the way mine had. Her finger was bitter cold, stinging my hand before I moved it away.

  She read the word and didn’t blink.

  “That’s the town,” I found
myself telling her. “The one at the bottom of the reservoir that Ruby always talks about.”

  “I know,” she said.

  “You do?”

  “I know things,” she said. “Ruby tells me stuff.”

  She slunk back against the wall, and as she did it seemed that the shadows were moving all around her, crouching low as if they had a hold of her by the legs. Maybe we weren’t alone in here; maybe we had company who’d come out to listen.

  My own legs were getting heavier now. I felt it at my ankles, the familiar tug, and before it could fully bring me back—to that night, the night London remembered differently—one of her friends poked a head in.

  “You guys, we’re so bored!” Asha shrieked, breathless. “You know what we should do? Go on the swings! In the rec field!”

  Vanessa ran up next. “We totally should. What do you think, Lon?”

  “Sure,” London said, her face expressionless. Maybe what she really wanted was to stay back alone with me, in this darkened tomb, just the two of us, but she ended up giving in and following her friends.

  I couldn’t get my heart to stop thumping for minutes after.

  We left the mausoleum to find that, outside, dark was clearly falling. For a moment, I wasn’t sure how long we’d been inside that tomb. It was here when I thought to check my phone, to see if maybe Ruby had texted.

  The light was flashing, and Ruby’s texts went on for a whole screen:

  dreamed we ate mushrooms growing on ceiling & u

  had only 4 toes

  4 toes ON EACH FOOT not only 4 toes! omg what if

  u had only 4 toes????

  did u hide the good cereal? want frosting chlo

  migraine gone away. u should come home

  come home now. miss u

  starting 2 worry. y not answering? y not home yet?

  worried

  worried

  worried

  think i need new boots we shld go shopping

  btw could u bring home cereal?

  “Wow, are those all from Ruby?” Asha said, leaning over.

  “I should call her,” I said.

  “Please don’t,” Cate said quickly, then she had her hand over her mouth to show she hadn’t meant to say that, not out loud in front of me.

  Vanessa started talking for her, trying to ease the damage. “What she means is, maybe you don’t want to call her right now? Maybe we should go across the street to the swings first? And you can call her after?”

  “I should at least text her,” I said, pulling up her number on my phone.

  But then Damien had my phone, then Vanessa had it, then Laurence, then Damien again.

  Owen wouldn’t have anything to do with my phone—or me—and stood at a distance, hands behind his back so no one would make him catch it, but then he opened his mouth, and he said some words in my general direction: “Do you have to tell her every single thing you do? She’s not your mother.”

  “No,” I said. “I don’t have to.”

  I never had to. Her hand wasn’t at my throat forcing me to open up and spill so she could know all. She never dug around inside me, grabbing secrets to pull out; she didn’t have to go digging, since she knew them already.

  “Good,” Owen said.

  Owen had never seemed enamored by Ruby. Sometimes it felt like a typhus epidemic had taken out an entire village but spared one lone person and that was him. Not even I had the immunity. It made me distrust him, but somehow, against my better judgment, which meant against all words of Ruby-wisdom in my head, it made me like him more.

  “Okay,” I said, and didn’t ask for my phone back, and soon I was following everyone down the hill, headed for the rec field across the road. It was night now and I was crossing the dark street, free of traffic, and running across the lawn to reach the swings. I was well aware of the chain-link fence just beside us, on the other side of which was the newer of the two graveyards, the one that maybe, if I’d only known where among the headstones to go searching, would have revealed an empty plot in the grass that should have been London’s grave.

  Asha, Vanessa, and Cate already had the only three swings, so the rest of us were left standing in the grass.

  “This is lame,” Owen said. He made a move as if to walk off, but I must have startled him when I saw the light flashing, because he stopped and turned back.

  The light was coming from inside Damien’s pants pocket—my cell phone. It wasn’t a new text message from Ruby, it was an actual phone call from Ruby, an event that was really quite rare.

  I grabbed for his pants and answered her call. “Ruby?”

  “Chloe!” she shouted. “Did you want me to think you got kidnapped? To call out the dogs? Send an APB? What were you thinking, Chlo!”

  “Ruby, I’m okay, I’m fine, really . . . what’s an APB?”

  “I dunno, something cops do. Whatever, Chlo, it doesn’t matter, I was worried!”

  “I’m okay, I swear.”

  I could hear her take a long, deep breath to calm herself. She held it in, then let it out and said, “You have all your legs?”

  “Both legs,” I said, smiling.

  “And toes? All ten?”

  “All my toes. How’s your head?”

  “Fine now. You sure you’re okay? No one tried to—”

  I stopped her before she said anything we didn’t want said. “No one tried anything, Ruby. I’m here with London and, uh, you know, Vanessa and Asha and . . . Cate. We lost track of time, that’s all.”

  “That’s not all of who’s there,” she said, and she said it as if she were watching the scene right now from a hiding spot concealed in the trees.

  “And Laurence,” I mumbled. “And Damien. And . . .”

  “And?”

  “And O,” I said. “Owen’s here, too.” His face was unreadable as I confessed him being there; I couldn’t tell if he wanted her to know or not.

  There was a long beat of silence on the other end of the line as she took this in. She could have yelled, and everyone would have heard, and I would have been mortified. But she saved her true response to that for later.

  “I see,” she said. “So what’re you doing that’s so interesting you lost track of time and couldn’t text your sister even though I know you have a clock on that cell phone?”

  “Nothing,” I said.

  “Where are you then, doing this nothing?”

  “Just”—I eyed London and her friends—“no place really.”

  “Are you at the reservoir?”

  “Why would you think that? No, we’re not at the reservoir.”

  “You sure?”

  “I swear.”

  Everyone was looking at me now. “We were in the cemetery,” I whispered. I walked away to the fence.

  “Okay,” she said. She didn’t seem the least bit surprised.

  “The old cemetery.”

  And, here, before I had the question on my tongue, she was saying, “The one that used to be in Olive. My favorite one.”

  “So you knew about that?”

  “Sure. Parts of Olive got moved before the water was flooded in. Roads got rerouted, and some houses were picked up and stuck somewhere else, and then there were the cemeteries and what they did with them . . . I’m sure I told you before. What did you think, all this time we were swimming on people’s graves?”

  “I—I don’t know.” The way she’d told it, maybe I had thought that.

  “Oh no,” she said. “All the graveyards were relocated first. Sometimes people did their own families, and could you imagine? One of us having to dig up our mother?”

  “No,” I said. I couldn’t—didn’t want to—imagine that.

  “So you were in the graveyard,” she said. “I’m glad you two stayed in town like I told you.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “But when I was up there . . . I saw . . . the mayor.”

  “What do you mean you saw him?”

  I turned and caught everyone still eyeing me. They could
n’t know what we were talking about. Maybe they thought I was inviting Ruby here, or that Ruby was inviting herself. Their eyes said something I couldn’t quite decipher because none of them were Ruby and I wasn’t used to reading anyone’s eyes but Ruby’s. Something about . . . about how I should try to keep Ruby from coming if I could.

  “Ruby?” I said into the phone.

  “Don’t worry, Chlo. I know what you’re thinking, and stop it. I don’t want you scared. Because there’s nothing here that could hurt you. I made sure.”

  Just hearing her say that made me think she’d once thought something here could. Hurt me. That this had been a real and viable worry in her mind and, without warning me first, she went ahead and found a way to be certain it couldn’t.

  “Is Lon still there with you?” she said.

  “Yeah.”

  “You’re keeping an eye on her like I asked?”

  “Yeah,” I said, immediately annoyed. “I’m looking at her right now. She’s fine.”

  “At least there’s that,” Ruby said. “As for you, Chlo, we’ll talk later, after London drives you home. Your curfew is midnight. I’ve never believed in curfews for myself—like I would’ve listened if our mother gave me one.” She laughed, sharply, and I held the phone away from my ear as she did. “But,” she went on, and I pulled the phone back, “I’ve decided I now believe in curfews for you. Midnight.” And at that she cut the line.

  I turned around to face everyone. “I have to be home by midnight, London.”

  “No problem,” she said. “Ruby knows I’ll drive you.”

  London took a step forward now, like she’d been voted the one to speak.

  “So,” London said, as I walked closer, “does that mean Ruby’s not coming?” She suddenly looked so fragile, as if I could knock her over into the dark, damp grass with the tap of a finger and she wouldn’t have the strength to pull herself back up.

  “She’s not coming,” I said.

  “Sweet,” Laurence said.

  “Good,” Owen said.

  But Asha said, “Know what was weird? Your sister like totally freaked when she thought we were all at the reservoir, didn’t she?”

 
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