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Imaginary girls, p.14

Imaginary Girls, page 14


Imaginary Girls

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  I tried to be nonchalant about that. “She’s protective. She worries.”

  “Was she worried about Lon? ’Cause of what we were talking about before?”

  “No, she just doesn’t want me swimming there, that’s all.”

  Asha wouldn’t let it go. “But why would she worry about you swimming in the reservoir? That makes, like, no sense.”

  I didn’t get it.

  “Yeah,” Damien called from a dark spot in the grass, “didn’t you swim all the way across back in the day?”

  “In the middle of the night,” Asha said with awe in her voice, “from one shore to the other and then back again—everyone talks about that night.”

  “The night I tried to swim across,” I corrected her.

  “Yeah, right,” she said, as if I were being modest. “I heard it was amazing. Everyone says so. Ruby said you could swim it, and no one believed her. But Ruby was like, ‘Just watch.’ And so you dove in. And you went deep under. And you made it to the other shore and everyone saw and you waved and then you came all the way back across with, like, proof or something, and it was amazing, everyone says.”

  “What proof?” I asked.

  Her face went blank. “I dunno. You were there. Don’t you remember?”

  People in town remembered what they did because that’s the story Ruby told them. It’s the story she wanted everyone to remember, so she must have recited it again and again, jamming their ears with it till they knew it by heart. Until they thought it true.

  “How old were you?” Asha said.

  “Fourteen,” I said quietly.

  “Wow,” she said. “You know no one’s ever done that, before or since?”

  I could say, It was no big, act like I could do the butterfly stroke back and forth across the giant expanse of the reservoir if I wanted to—and more. Pretend like I could swim to the end of the Hudson, slip into the bay, circle the Statue of Liberty, cross the ocean, backstroke the English Channel, come home kicking with a Mediterranean tan and an armful of undersea shells for souvenirs.

  But I didn’t. I shrugged off any more talk of the reservoir and took my turn at the swings. We didn’t stay in the rec field for much longer—the guys got bored fast—but I gathered up enough speed on the swings to rise as high as I could before I had to jump down and follow them to the cars.

  All I kept thinking was that I was Ruby’s sister. In this town, I could do whatever crazy and impossible thing I wanted. Everyone already believed I had, simply because Ruby had made it so.

  And if she could do that, she could make them believe anything.



  What London remembered was being asleep for a week. Eyes crusted closed, limbs too heavy to lift, she slept until she couldn’t sleep another minute and then she woke up.

  The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes were curtains. She remembered those curtains, blue she said, or green sometimes, one day one color, one day the other color, some days both colors at once. The curtains moved, she remembered, always, caught in gust after gust of wind. Besides the curtains, she remembered being cold all the time and that her sneakers squished. She remembered how she had trouble hearing anything anyone said to her. How at first it was only lots of mouths talking at her, and hands with fingers pointing, and then, one day, her ears popped and she could hear fine.

  This was rehab.

  It was now close to midnight, and London was driving me to the house, back to Ruby.

  I’d figured “rehab” would be this blank, cavernous space of time in London’s mind, like how when someone overdoses they’re not yet dead but the next step to it, and so there’s nothing to remember. But London remembered. Did this mean she hadn’t ever been dead?

  Some things she’d said were sticking with me.

  The moving colors.

  The ears popping, like water had gotten in them.

  And then there was the lack of clocks.

  Ruby used to say that time stopped down in Olive—that there was no point in trying to keep track. The poor people of Olive couldn’t even wear wristwatches, since the hands got glommed up and the thick, murky water leaked in. There was a clock on the old Village Green, she said, and it always read eleven past two, the exact point in time the flood levels reached the clock face, so forever after in Olive that was the time, day or night, eleven past two for eternity.

  Ruby also used to say how cold it was down there. How the people of Olive shivered so, their knees knocking, chattering their algae-gummed teeth. Their liquid sky was too thick to let in more than a hint of sun, so in their underwater village they grew paler, and their hearts grew colder, and the memories of their surface lives drifted up and away.

  London was turning the car onto the road that ran alongside the reservoir—the same road that led to Jonah’s house—but she didn’t steal a peek through the trees. We drove past the reservoir without a word about it, as if it were any other thing: a garbage dump or a gas station or the guy who sells roses out of a bucket on Route 375.

  “Ruby said I shouldn’t tell anyone about rehab—it’s not good to dwell, she said—but it’s okay to tell you, right?” She’d asked me this before, but I hadn’t answered.

  Now I said, “Right,” even though I was lying.

  “So I don’t know how long I was there,” she was saying as we came even closer to the house where Ruby and I now lived. “It was only when I got out that I knew how long. Ruby was there, and she drove me home, and she said everything was back the way it used to be, and—”

  “Wait,” I said, stopping her from saying more. We were in the driveway now, long and winding and carved out of gravel and dirt, seconds from having to stop this conversation, and I wanted to be sure I had it right. “Ruby was there when you got out? She picked you up?”

  London drove slowly, thinking at the same slow pace. “I remember her there,” she said. “I think.” She shook her head and the car made it around the last curve and we came to a stop. “But it’s weird because I also remember going swimming that night, like before I even saw my parents. I must have been really out of it to go swimming first, right?”

  The door of the house was coming open. The light inside showed Ruby, as if she’d waited at the hole where the doorknob should have been, peering out of it like a peephole. She wore a thin, pale dress, her hair down to cover where it was see-through. The headlights were so bright, they about illuminated her insides.

  “My parents used to wait up for me like that,” London said. Her face had drawn in and closed up, and I could see she regretted telling me about rehab. She must have realized that telling me was just like telling my sister, but with a ten-second delay.

  “They don’t wait up for you anymore, your parents?”

  She shrugged. “Everything’s different since I got back,” was all she said.

  Ruby didn’t come out to the car. She simply held the door to the house open, knowing I’d be right in. “See you later, London,” I said, so casual, as if she were a regular girl and not something entirely other. Something I had no name for.

  Ruby hugged me close when I came through the door, and we watched London until she backed out of the driveway, watched until the car slipped around the bend and there was nothing to see. Ruby sniffed my hair and knew all, at once, without me having to confess to it. Her green eyes had gray in them and her mouth had gone grim.

  “Look at the time, Chlo.”

  I glanced at my cell phone to see that the display read 12:02.

  “It’s midnight,” I told her.

  “No,” she said, “it’s after midnight. It’s twelve-oh-two.”

  “But I—” She shook her head, so I stopped talking.

  “Did you leave town?” she asked.

  “No, I told you where we were.”

  I stepped into the lamplight of the living room, and when I did she saw what I was wearing, a mistake because she saw my feet.

  “Hey, those are m
y good boots,” she said. “You took them from my closet.”

  I denied it—but only the part about the closet. The boots had been jumbled in with the mess on her bedroom floor, one by a window and one under the bed.

  She changed the subject. “Chloe, you should have told me boys were going to be there. You never said anything about any boys being there.”

  “But I didn’t know.” I was utterly confused at how she was acting—like she was tallying up all the things I’d done wrong, and I’d only gone out without her this one night, and it had been her idea to send me. Was she being a parent now? What would she do next, ground me?

  “Did that boy touch you? Don’t look at me like that, you know who I mean.”

  “Owen? No! He barely even came near me.”

  “I’ve never known a boy who didn’t at least try to touch me.”

  “But, Ruby, you’re you.”

  “And you’re you,” she said.

  She sighed, and I sighed, and we both couldn’t fathom what the other was trying to say. Something inside her had come unhinged while I was out, and it was running wild, cornering me near the standing lamp in the living room and blathering ridiculous things.

  But then she gathered herself together, gave me space, and said, “It’s only that I want what’s best for you. Only that I know things you can’t know.”

  “What things?”

  She shook her head. Slowly she lifted an arm to point up the stairs.

  I started upstairs, but she stayed down at the bottom. “Aren’t you coming up?”

  “Not yet,” she said.

  I climbed to the landing and looked down, teetering at the edge where, in a finished house, there’d be a railing so you couldn’t fall through and break a leg. She kept to a dark spot in the living room, hovering in a gap of space where I had trouble seeing her. There was also a giant fern, a tall chair, and a love seat in the way.

  “Go to bed, Chlo. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

  “Why are you treating me like a child?”

  “Because you’re acting like one. Getting stoned—you reek, FYI. Not telling me where you were. Not meeting your curfew. Not to mention filching my boots—those ones with the heels are almost my favorite pair, Chlo. Like my second or third favorite.”

  I tried to protest, but she had a hand raised. A shut-your-trap hand, one like she’d never raised up to me before. Just like we’d never had a fight before. Not ever before this, not even once.

  “This isn’t why I wanted you home,” she said. “You won’t turn into her, Chlo. I won’t stand here and let it happen.”

  “You’re the one who told me to go!”

  “I did,” she said, more to herself than to me. “It seems like everything I do has consequences now. I do one thing and something else falls apart. I fix that and”—she heaved a sigh—“never mind. Go to bed, Chlo. Tomorrow we’ll have dessert for breakfast and breakfast for dinner. Tomorrow we’ll talk. All right?”

  I nodded.

  I left her then, half hidden behind the love seat and the chair and the towering fern, but I watched from the window in the hallway upstairs as she went outside and walked the section of porch Jonah had been building for her. Watched as she walked it like a runway, the wind billowing up inside her translucent dress and spooling out her dark hair, making it seem like she was the one we should really be keeping an eye on. Watched as she walked to the end, studied the stretch of darkness for some minutes, poised as if she were about to do something fantastic and I’d be the only one awake to witness it, then watched as she turned around and walked all the way back.



  It’s time we had the talk,” Ruby announced. We were out on the widow’s walk again, the sky swollen with clouds and bursting blue, the hammer and tap of Jonah down below traveling up to us as he worked on the latest addition to the porch, and Ruby herself, apparently no longer mad at me, glowing and smiling and patting the lawn chair so I’d come close and sit.

  “What talk?”

  I took my seat and noticed the batch of helium balloons tied to the far rail. They were big and round and came in a variety of colors, much like the ones we saw at the birthday party in the park, but Ruby’s balloons were tied tight with red ribbons, knotted in a bright bunch to the wooden post. She must have had nothing else to use for strings.

  Though my sister was smiling, and all the gray had drained from her eyes, she still sounded serious enough.

  “The talk, the one we didn’t have last night. There are things you can and can’t do, and we need to talk about them.” She counted on her fingers, repeating all the things she’d already told me. The phone, I shouldn’t answer it. I shouldn’t leave town, I shouldn’t eat raisins in front of her (this was new, but I should know that raisins sickened her, and who’s to say they don’t grow back into grapes once they’re swallowed?), I shouldn’t go to the reservoir, she didn’t want me smoking even if she sometimes did, no drugs and no drinking, obviously, and she didn’t think too highly of Owen and if I wanted to like a boy I should make an effort to find another.

  This was where I stopped her. “Why? What’s wrong with him? He’s Pete’s brother. You were with Pete.”

  She shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”

  “Then what?”

  “Owen is too pretty,” she said. “There’s something ugly about a pretty boy who knows he’s pretty and assumes everyone else knows it, too.”

  What a funny thing for her to say.

  But she was only getting started. “He can’t decide on a hair color,” she said. “And then he lets it grow out because he’s too lazy to put in a new color. That says something about the state of his heart, Chlo.”

  I let her go on. “He wakes-and-bakes, he’s stoned constantly . . . think of the lost brain cells, Chlo, they don’t grow back, so it’s worse than the hair. And he won’t look me in the eyes. He’s always been shifty like that, ever since he was a little kid.”

  I shook my head; she was being silly now.

  “I want you to cut this out today,” she said. “That nobody with the bad hair . . . You don’t like him anymore.”

  “I don’t?”

  “You don’t. I won’t let you.”

  She was acting like she could forbid me from having an emotion. She could shove a hand down my throat and wiggle her fingers as far as they’d go, plucking out stuff she didn’t want in there, like she did when we got up the courage to clean out last season’s moldy takeout containers from the fridge. She’d do it fast, and didn’t even hold her nose.

  “Good,” she said. “Now tell me about London. How was she last night?”

  There was something in the way she said it, something unsaid more than said, and I looked down to where Jonah was in the backyard to make sure he wouldn’t overhear—only to find the backyard empty.

  I chose my words carefully. “She told me all about rehab.”

  “Did she now?” Even though I was her sister, she was playing games with me. We may have played games with everyone in town, including passing tourists, but we shouldn’t with each other.

  “I know where she was, really.” Then I added, “Even if she doesn’t.”

  Ruby waited. She wanted me to say it.

  “I thought she was dead. I saw her. But she wasn’t ever dead, was she?”

  “She was,” Ruby said softly. “You saw what you saw. But we got her back, didn’t we? You wanted everything the way it was before—and that meant getting London out. Even if it took longer than I thought. And the wait was worth it, because you’re here.”

  “All that time . . . she was down there?”

  “I wanted her back before you got home, Chlo. So you wouldn’t want to go away again.”

  “I went away two summers ago,” I said. “I was at my dad’s for two years.”

  She hung her head. “I told you, I tried sooner. I tried last spring.”

  I couldn’t make sense of what she was telling me.

  “Chlo, you left and I was brokenhearted. Before I knew it, it was fall, and getting colder. And then winter—and ice covered the whole reservoir, so there was no getting in, and there was no getting out.” She eyed me especially here. “But when I came back in spring, they wouldn’t let her out then, either.”

  “So how did you”—I didn’t know how to put it—“change their minds?”

  “I waited, very, very patiently.” Her eyes glimmered. “And then I tricked them.”

  There was an awkward silence. The weight of the reservoir could be felt at our backs.

  “Why?” I asked. A better question was How? but that word wouldn’t cross my lips.

  Ruby kept her eyes shaded from view with a well-placed hand. “Why did I work so hard to get her back? Because she went away and you were sad,” she said simply. “Maybe sad’s not the right word. Maybe messed-up-in-the-head is a better word, only that’s not one word. You left, Chlo. Because of that girl, you left! And I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t stand it. So I fixed it. Now that London’s here again, so are you.”

  I let that sink in. She’d brought London back from the dead—for me. For us.

  Inside my sister was some kind of inexplicable power. She could decide what lived and breathed. Who could stay and who should go. She controlled everything that happened in this town. She really was more than anyone who’d ever said they loved her could have dreamed.

  But then she kept talking, trying to explain herself.

  “Is it so wrong, Chlo? Can you blame me for taking back what I did to her, for making it right, even if it was a tiny bit selfish?”

  What she did to London.

  A coldness crept into my bones as I realized what she’d admitted. How she needed to make it right. Because what she’d done was so wrong in the first place.

  She’d conjured up the girl I found dead. Worse, she’d conjured her into the rowboat in the first place.

  It wasn’t only that my sister had brought London back—it was that London’s body found its way to the boat that night because Ruby put it there. London spent all that time in Olive because she was sent there. By my sister.

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