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Imaginary girls, p.15

Imaginary Girls, page 15


Imaginary Girls

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  It was like she’d given London up for sacrifice—but for what?

  What more was Ruby not telling me?

  “Chloe!” she snapped. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

  “I . . . I just can’t believe what you did.”

  She grinned, openly. “That’s nothing. You can’t even imagine what else I’ve done.”

  And I couldn’t—imagine it. Not then, and not for a long time. All I knew was that for the first moment in my life, I felt truly frightened of her. The heavy pull in my legs wasn’t a fear anymore of Olive or London or anything I saw in those bad dreams I had in Pennsylvania . . . it was dread.

  Were people only allowed to wander our town at the whims of my sister? Could she rub anyone out, and blow the chalk dust away?

  If you’d asked me in that moment, standing in the wind on her widow’s walk, I would have put my hand to my heart and swore that, yes, in fact she could.

  And, more, I wondered what my sister could possibly do next. Wondered how far she’d go. And if I’d ever need to stop her.

  In the house, a few thumps sounded. Someone was coming upstairs—Jonah. She slammed the window closed so he couldn’t come out. “I’m glad we can talk about everything now,” she said.

  She walked to the other end of the widow’s walk, the side facing the driveway and the road toward town, the side where, with our backs turned, we could forget the reservoir even existed.

  “Chloe, come and look,” she said.

  The helium balloons on their bright red ribbons reached for the sky, but she’d knotted the ribbons tight enough to the railing so that none could escape, though they tried. It was windy up here, close to the water, windier than anywhere else in town except for the very top of Overlook Mountain.

  I followed and sat on her reclined lawn chair. “What are these for?” I said, careful with my words, now that she’d told me what she’d told me and I was suspecting there was still more to tell.

  “Guess,” she said.

  “Are we having a party?”

  She feigned a delicate gag into her hand. “And invite people over? People from town? Here? So we’d have to talk to them and feed them our food and wash all their mouth marks off the glasses after?” She looked stricken.

  “So no party then?”

  “No, thank God. But the balloons are sort of for them in a way . . .”

  “Where’d you get the balloons anyway?” I asked.

  “The store, where else? You can rent a tank to fill them up and everything. Seeing the ones at the rec field gave me an idea.”

  When Ruby’s hair caught the sun, the henna in it shone through. She blazed up, looking far warmer in day than she did in the dark, wild practically. Her eyes had a fever in them that I wasn’t sure could be blamed on the bright light.

  She was about to do something impossible again—I could sense it, as if she were at the very edge of something dangerously high and she were about to take a running leap.

  “Look,” she said, still indicating the balloons.

  That’s when I noticed that the balloons were tagged already with her neatly penned messages. She’d spelled them out in delicate letters, using a thin-point Sharpie. They weren’t little innocent greetings like Ruby says hi, the way she’d written inside Jonah’s furniture, or even Ruby was here, like on the brick wall of the town credit union. They were tiny directives:

  bring me a milk shake

  bury $8 in your yard and mark it w/ a red ribbon so i can find it

  leave a good book on your doorstep for me to take

  ask me to dance and let me say no

  call me at midnight and tell me you love me

  don’t wear that dress again, i want it

  tattoo me on your body (make it nice)

  cook me lasagna

  try as hard as you can to make me cry

  “What’s all this?” I asked, holding up the orange balloon demanding lasagna.

  “Do you ever read self-help books, Chlo?”

  “Not really.”

  She grabbed the lasagna balloon from my hands, untied its ribbon, and let it fly. We watched it take to the clouds like a small, runaway sun, a blazing tail of fire spouting out behind as it went.

  Next she untied the green balloon wanting eight bucks, about enough for a pack of cigarettes, which she shouldn’t be buying anyway because I didn’t want her to smoke, and we watched it rise.

  “Well, I read in some self-help book that you have to ask for what you want, or no one will know to give it to you,” she said.

  I laughed, but she was serious.

  “You know what I want?” she said. “Something fun for a change. I want people to do the work for me, instead of me always working so hard for them.”

  Was she joking?

  No. She was absolutely not smiling now.

  Her face obstructed my view of the balloons. She was talking very close, so close her nose was a pale, blurred blob. I was struck by how symmetrical the freckle on her cheek was, a true circle, as if her maker had drawn it on with the world’s tiniest compass and hadn’t messed up even once.

  “Right now I want something for me and me only,” she continued. “Well, you can have some lasagna, too, Chlo, but you know what I mean.”

  Did I? As far as I could tell, my sister always got whatever she wanted. And, if she didn’t the first time, she went back and she took it and there was no one strong enough to stop her.

  That was one piece of her magic, the way everyone melted and let her take and keep taking; it was her charm.

  But, for some reason, this was no longer enough for her.

  She clapped her hands and made me jump. “I can’t wait to let all these balloons go!” she shrieked. “I can’t stand to see them tied up. Stuck like they are. It’s pitiful.”

  She quickly untied a red balloon and let it drift.

  “Now you,” she said. “You let one go, too.”

  I did what she wanted; I didn’t even question it. I held a turquoise one up to the sun. “You want someone to ask you to dance and then you’re going to tell them no?”

  She nodded, so I unwound its ribbon and set it free.

  “I like to be asked,” she said. “And I might not say no. Depends on who’s asking. But if they assume I’ll say no, they’ll be surprised if I say yes, and isn’t that nice?”

  “If you say yes.”

  “You’re right, I’ll probably say no.” She smiled, tucked my hair behind my ears even though it didn’t need tucking. She was happy with me now. I was doing what she wanted. “You know me better than anyone knows me in the whole entire world, Chlo. You could write a book about me. If you were standing before the firing squad and they said they wouldn’t shoot you in the head only if you could answer one question and it was a question about me, you’d keep your head, Chlo.”

  Now I smiled at that, couldn’t help it. She knew I liked to hear that I was the only one who really knew her. I liked to be reminded.

  I watched her let the other balloons go. Watched her unwind their tails to leave them untethered. Watched her step away. Watched her watch each red ribbon take its leave and rise up out of reach even from her.

  Soon they were all gone. I looked up into the sky, and her balloons were everywhere, it seemed, the air marred with bloody streaks and littered with demands, and nothing and no one could stop them from coming.

  I felt her at my side, bristling with the power of it. The possibility. The rush.

  Something in her had come undone just like the balloons did.

  Now nothing could contain her.

  The sky was hers.

  That’s when the thumping from inside the house made itself known again. Jonah was knocking on the window. Pounding.

  Ruby watched the window idly, as if a bomb could shatter the glass at any moment and she was curious enough to stay and get sliced.

  “Are you going to get that or should I?” I said.

  “Go ahead. And while you’re at it, te
ll him to go back downstairs, please.”

  I was already at the window when she said that last bit. In a low voice I said back, “But it’s his house . . .”

  “I don’t want him upstairs,” she said. “Upstairs is for you and me.”

  I turned to face the window. The glass wasn’t shaded or anything and I could see Jonah right there—my face inches from his face, one thin, translucent sheet between us. He could see us, and he could probably hear us, too.

  I undid the latch and pulled up the window. Before I could open my mouth, Ruby called from the railing, “Tell him I didn’t put the gate up for nothing. Did he step right over it like it wasn’t there? Ask him.”

  The gate? She put up a gate?

  I asked, my voice faltering. “Ruby wants to know . . . Did you, um, step over it?”

  He nodded. There were wood shavings in his hair, little flecks, so many he’d have to dunk his head in the shower to get them all out, and some scattered and got on me when he moved.

  “She says . . .” I started, trying to find the words, polite words, words that wouldn’t make him hate me, seeing as I was his guest, technically, eating his food and sleeping my nights in his bed. But I couldn’t finish that sentence. I turned back to let her do it. “You should tell him yourself,” I said.

  But Jonah said, “No need, I got it.”

  He slammed the window shut, almost on my fingers. Then he retreated down the stairs and I saw the gate there—a barricade, really, one made from two dresser drawers stacked up and propped across the floor, plus the long handle of a kitchen mop, stretched across, plus a picture frame with no picture in it. It looked like something a child would build, to keep a dog out. But Ruby used it on Jonah.

  “How long has that been up?” I asked.

  She shrugged and her expression didn’t soften. “He has the couch to sleep on.”

  “He’s mad,” I said. “I think he’s really, really mad.” Never before were we in the precarious position of making a boyfriend mad who we still had to face the day after. Previous boyfriends we could kick out. Or drive away from. Previous boyfriends didn’t live downstairs.

  “He’s fine. He can’t get mad,” she said. “Not at me. Besides, he’s not the one we have to worry about.”

  Her bright, glowing green eyes flicked out at the water in the distance, the water hiding what had once been Olive. But then her eyes weren’t on the water at all, they were on the sky, on the clouds, on her red-tailed balloons making their way toward town.

  I believed in her. I even believed in those balloons.

  I’d seen what she could do, hadn’t I?

  For barely a flicker of a second I thought otherwise. I thought about how maybe this wasn’t happening at all, except in some locked-off part of my mind where sane people retreat only when they’re dreaming or doped up on cough syrup.

  It could be that somewhere off Route 80 in Pennsylvania you’d find a trailer propped up on cinder blocks and in it a girl who’d lost her mind. She’d be forced to stay out there because her dad wouldn’t let her in the house. Her trailer door would be padlocked from the outside. But if you found that trailer and peeked in through the peephole you’d find her eye staring back. An eye darkly circled, sunken. A crazy eye. That girl would call herself Chloe. She’d say her sister was magic. Her sister brought people back to life, made them into more than people, made them something other. Her sister could force you to do things and think things and bend to whatever she said. This Chloe had seen it; she was watching it happen right now. She’d scream this at you and claw at the trailer door and you’d do the smart thing and run away.

  Because this was impossible. Ruby was, and London was. And yet, somehow, here we all were, as Ruby decided we would be.

  And now the balloons were on their way.



  Ruby still said there was no reason to worry about Jonah. See? There he was down in the yard, building up the railing around the back porch so she wouldn’t slip off. Hammering hard at it. Measuring to keep it straight. Sanding it smooth.

  There he was ignoring the real, paying work he had in his shed so he could keep remodeling the house for her—because he knew it was what she wanted.

  Ruby was dressing for her evening shift at Cumby’s while keeping an eye on him out the window. She was dropping a short black vintage slip over her head and dipping bare feet into motorcycle boots, combing out her damp hair and letting it air-dry into loose curls down her back, coating her lips in wine, her favorite lipstick color and her favorite drink, then pressing her lips on the small white square of a store receipt to blot them dry. She looked like she was going out dancing rather than to restock and restyle the candy aisle by color (white, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown) and fill a few gas tanks. Every other employee wore a uniform smock to work at Cumby’s; Ruby wore the smock once, on her first-ever shift, said it pinched, and never put one on again.

  She dropped the receipt in the general direction of the trash can, but it missed, fluttering to the floor, the flower print of her lips captured for always.

  “I’m forty minutes late,” she said, glancing at the time. Even so, she didn’t rush. She took a moment to observe herself in the mirror over the dresser—mostly checking for food in her teeth, as we’d feasted on a tub of roadside-stand blueberries and whippets of whipped cream for dinner. Then, as if in preparation for the harsh fluorescent lights in the store, she perched a pair of sunglasses on top of her head and left the room.

  I followed her out into the hallway and climbed after her over the gate. “What if I went with you?” I said.

  “What, to work? To help me at the pumps and tell people to take-a-penny, leave-a-penny, though all anyone ever does is take? I know you love me, Chlo, but you’d be too bored and I couldn’t do that to my baby sister. I’ll be back later tonight, with treats.”

  Ruby didn’t go to her job often, and she rarely worked through the hours of a full shift, but she never seemed to consider quitting. She’d made it clear to me that a girl should always have a job, gainfully employed boyfriend or no. A girl needs her own money, just like she needs her own car. But I was sixteen this summer and still didn’t have my learner’s permit or my first job. The difference was, I had Ruby. That’s what she told me. When she was growing up, she had no big sister. Imagine that.

  Downstairs, I could see the full reach of the porch. It ran to the bank of the hill, and if there wasn’t a fence and city property in the way, I was sure it would have bunched up into an arching bridge over Route 28, then climbed down, step by step, to the water’s edge. Now, it stopped where it stopped. It made it so you could walk from the house to the hill without touching your feet to earth.

  “He’s been good,” she said, eyes out the window. “They’ve all been so good.” She meant the other guys out there helping under the falling sun, as Jonah wasn’t the only one. Other guys from town had been coming over, some who were former exes and some who’d maybe become future exes. A couple of guys were way too young to become her exes; they were boys my age, boys I used to know from school. One of these boys was Owen, but she made no comment about that. It’s not like she would have noticed any one boy among all the others.

  “There’s a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge if you want to bring it out to them,” she said. “I made it from a can.”

  I watched her long white car chug out of the driveway, muffler groaning unchecked because she seemed to like the noise it made, and then she was out of sight.

  I went out with the pitcher and some glasses just as Jonah decided they were done for the day. No one felt compelled to keep working, now that Ruby had left.

  Or maybe it was that she’d taken her influence with her off the property and down the road—as if the radius of her charms had gotten smaller and more concentrated, and she had to give up the guys at the house so she could shine a spotlight on Cumby’s, casting her spell over coworkers and regulars and innocen
t tourists.

  I’d assumed the house had cleared when I almost walked into him on the landing. “I thought there was another bathroom up here,” Owen said, “but all this junk’s in the way.”

  “That’s, you know”—thinking madly of how to explain the gate without making my sister sound cruel—“we haven’t gotten around to moving that stuff yet. Just step over it. The bathroom’s right there.”

  He stepped over the gate and leaned against the wall, in the shadows, so I couldn’t decipher what he was thinking from his face. And maybe it was better that way. Ruby told me it didn’t matter what a boy was thinking about you, so long as you had a good hold on what you were thinking about him. But for some reason I couldn’t figure out, he was still here in the house, though his ride must have gone away because there was just one vehicle left in the driveway and it was Jonah’s pickup truck.

  Owen took a step toward the bathroom and then stopped. Backed up, came close. “Hey, Chloe? Could I ask you something?”

  Then I knew. Or thought I knew. I’d gotten caught up in my sister’s fog, but all the while Owen had been piecing it together. He’d noticed something off about his friend London, too.

  “Yeah, sure,” I told him, waiting for it. Maybe all it took was one other person to say it aloud for everything to shatter. The walls would come down first; they were flimsy enough. The ceiling would collapse in and crumble. In the sky the sounds of balloons popping, then a rainbow of brightly colored carcasses and limp red ribbons as they fell.

  But all Owen said was: “You mind if I take a shower here?”

  I had no ready response for that.

  “We were working out there for hours,” Owen was saying, “and it’s so hot. . . . You don’t mind, do you?”

  I shook my head. “Use the blue towel,” I said. “It’s clean.”

  I went to my room and closed the door—or, really, moved the door to the closed position and let it lean.

  I sat on the edge of the bed and thought some as I heard the shower running. I thought how my sister was gone, and wouldn’t be back for hours. I thought how, ever since Jonah had come up to talk to us on the widow’s walk, he hadn’t crossed the barrier. I thought how all the other guys had left. How Owen and I were alone, practically.

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