Imaginary girls, p.16

Imaginary Girls, page 16

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  I thought about how he wasn’t worth liking. No. How he wasn’t for me—I knew it as well as if he had those three words Not for You eye-penciled across his chest in Ruby’s distinctive handwriting. Ruby said no, and I always did what Ruby said.

  But Ruby had never asked me what boys she could be with. Ruby took for herself the things she wanted, and she didn’t wait for anyone’s permission. This summer was proof of that.

  Then I heard my name. Owen was calling my name from the shower.

  The door was cracked when I approached, steam pooling out. It was a hot day for such a hot shower, but I was glad for the steam—it made it next to impossible to see inside. “Yeah?” I said into the white. “Did you call me?”

  “There’s no soap,” he said.

  “There is, it’s up on the shelf.”

  Through the fog I saw his hand reaching out from the shower curtain, a blind hand with fingers splayed, totally off-target. I took hold of it, my fingers guiding his fingers, leading them up for the shelf, to the bar of soap. When his hand found it, I let go. He pulled the soap into the shower, but not before I saw inside. Saw a glimpse of him in there, saw him seeing me.

  I retreated back to my room, my skin slick with sweat, my lungs brimming with hot steam, forced to catch my breath on the end of my bed.

  I was still there, breathing, when he came in. He’d dried off and put his clothes back on, but his chest was still damp—his T-shirt stuck to it—and his hair dripped darkening spots onto his shoulders.

  “Thanks,” he said.

  “No problem.” The voice that came out of me wasn’t one Ruby would use in front of a boy. Ruby wouldn’t offer him her one clean towel and let him use her bar of eucalyptus soap, the same one she’d used on herself that morning. Ruby wouldn’t sit on the bed staring at her hands. Ruby wouldn’t be turning pink, right there with him watching—to her, that would be like racing him up a mountain and trying with all my might until the very last second, when I slowed to let him win.

  I was giving myself away. Boys should be left guessing, Ruby always told me. Boys should never know how their night will turn out, because you—here, she’d tap me in the chest, dead center—you hold the power. It’s your night, not his.

  But, with Owen, I’d lost control as soon as I let him step over the gate.

  His hair hung in his face, mostly brown today. He didn’t know how long I’d liked him. Since before he had the mohawk, since before he grew it out into the fauxhawk, before that one time he shaved his head. I liked him when his hair was all brown, plain as could be, and maybe he didn’t remember how far back that was, but I did. I liked him when his hair was green. When it was red, then when it faded out to pink. Now the tips of it were blue again, the palest blue, like it had been dyed a long, long time ago but had mostly washed out. Like in the two years since I’d been gone he’d dyed it blue and didn’t bother to redye it—like all the time I’d been gone was written right there in his hair.

  “Should I call my ride?” he asked. “Or . . .”

  I shook my head, meaning he could stay.

  “Should I . . . close the door?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “It doesn’t lock, but, yeah.”

  Soon he was wedging the door into the frame to keep it closed, looking back at me to be sure it was okay. Then he ruined it by sitting beside me on the bed and pulling out a bowl, packed full of weed and ready to light. For a moment, I saw him for who he was—this big nothing, thinking he was something—and then I blinked and saw what the younger me had seen, this beautiful, careless boy who acted like he needed no one and how I’d always been drawn to that for some reason, wondering what could have been.

  “You want some?” Owen asked, holding out the bowl and the lighter.

  “Nah,” I said, all casual, though I felt anything but. I needed my head clear so I could be sure of what was going on. To know what this meant. What he was thinking. What he felt. What he wanted.

  When he was done, he turned to me and it wasn’t any clearer.

  But then he was kissing me, or I was kissing him, and his mouth tasted like a whole bunch of things (iced tea, smoke, a hint of eucalyptus soap, and something sweet past all that, which was maybe just how he tasted), and his hand that snaked up my shirt was still warm from the shower, warmer even than me.

  Yet I became aware of something tugging at me, something in the shape of my sister, and her voice, or an exact impression of it, cutting into my thoughts saying, Get that boy off your bed, Chlo.

  I turned my face and in my other ear she said, Haven’t I taught you anything! Don’t you dare let him—

  And, fast, I turned my face again and this made her shut up.

  Because then it was quiet. Then we were tangled together, and it was all so fast, all before I could think on what I was doing, and if I did would it even matter? Because hadn’t I been wanting this? Isn’t this what my sister did?

  I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell my sister. We’d have to keep it secret. Owen couldn’t tell a soul. Unless he became my boyfriend, all official, in which case we’d go before Ruby and confess. But right now—his mouth moving down where in all my life there’d never been a mouth—she absolutely could not know.

  I sat up only once and said, “You sure the door’s closed?”

  And he said, “Shh, stop talking.”

  I should have known that a closed door was no defense against Ruby. Walls and miles of road between us wouldn’t matter in the end. She’d find out. But I wasn’t thinking straight. I felt like I had no legs, like there was nothing beneath us, like we were floating somewhere without names or faces together, and I forgot about her because what I felt was everything. Absolutely everything.

  All at once.

  In a way Ruby never told me.

  After, we got ourselves together and I walked him downstairs. He’d called a friend to pick him up and we waited on the front steps. We both watched the driveway, unsure of what to say, until his knee tapped against my knee and he said, “I swear I never thought that would happen.”

  I admitted, “Me neither.”

  “Because Ruby would’ve killed me.” He said that, and didn’t laugh.

  “Not if it’s what I wanted, she wouldn’t,” I said.

  “You so sure about that? Who’s to say she’s not going to jump out from behind that tree and slit my throat right now?”

  We both eyed the tree, a large oak that could hide the lean, curvy body of my sister easily behind its trunk, shadowing her movements as she crept out under the dark leaves, legs gleaming bare, a sharp kitchen knife secured in her grip.

  Even though I could picture it, and vividly, I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Who do you think she is?”

  He mumbled something under his breath that sounded like, “More like what she is,” but then he covered it up by raising his voice and going, “So if she wanted to kill me for—you know, upstairs—she’d have to ask you first?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “We always ask before killing off each other’s boyfriends.” I quickly snapped my mouth closed after that last word, mortified, but he didn’t even chuckle and play it off like a joke. He stayed completely silent, for a long time.

  Then he said, as if I wasn’t there to hear, “I don’t know what I did. Hooking up with Ruby’s sister. Damn.” He put his head in his hands and stared at the gravel at his feet.

  What I needed was Ruby here to coach me, show me how to lure him in, and keep him dangling. Make him want to stay and let him think he can, then be the one to shove him out the door and say go. I had a feeling I’d maybe done things backward.

  Owen cleared his throat. “Your sister . . .”

  Perfect. She was all he was thinking of, too.

  Knowing that felt like falling full-tilt off the old fire tower on top of Overlook Mountain to the sharp crags of rocks below. Guts to my knees, just like that. He’d come up to my room because he liked my sister. I’d always assumed the opposite, but I should have known.

 
. . . you look nothing like her, you know?” he finished.

  I wasn’t sure what to make of that comment, except to take it as an insult—obviously. “Thanks,” I said dully.

  “I meant that’s a good thing,” Owen said. “Everyone says you look like her, but I don’t think you do. I kinda like that.”

  What a terrible thing for him to say. I wanted to go back inside, leave him to wait out in the driveway all by his lonesome, even if it took an hour for his friend to show.

  He stood up. “There’s my ride.”

  The car stopped halfway down the driveway, at the wheel one of his boys, one too lazy to even pull all the way up to the house. Owen waved and went for the car, and I wasn’t sure how long I sat out on the steps. I knew he wouldn’t be back. And it was only just getting dark—Ruby wouldn’t be home from work for hours. But I sat, very still, my knees pressed together, my chin balanced on them, my eyes open for as long as I could stand it and then my eyes closed.

  In time, I became aware of it behind me. How it held there in the distance, heavy, breathing over my shoulder. How it had been there all along, keeping track of everything I did.

  I was walking around the back of the house when I heard it. The voices carrying. Somehow, from the edge of the reservoir and across the road, then up the hill and into the yard of the house, I could hear the voices.

  Jonah came out of the shed when I started walking down toward the water.

  “Owen left?” He stood in front of me so I’d have to circle around him to get past.

  “We were just talking,” I said. I took a step to the side and he took a step to the other side and then I was free and clear to take the hill.

  “I thought you couldn’t go down there,” he called after me. “Ruby told me that.”

  “I can do whatever I want.”

  “Clearly,” I thought I heard him say.

  I spun, searing my eyes at him, or where I thought he was, but he must have slipped back into his shed, out of sight, and I ended up glaring at a tree.

  I crossed Route 28. Down at the reservoir, I found the path without anyone having to tell me where to look. There was a flap hanging loose from the chain-link fence and I crawled in easily. The voices carried through the trees; the bright orange No Trespassing signs practically lit the way. I followed the voices as they trickled out from down the shore, getting farther and farther away from the house. When I was close enough, I crept behind a large rock at the edge, ducked down, and listened.

  I heard Ruby before I could see her. I heard a whisper in the wind, then a splash.

  “Who cares if you’re naked? No one can see you, Lon. God.”

  Another splash.

  “Hear anyone down there, Lon? See anything?”

  “It’s . . . cold here, Ruby. This spot right here is really cold. Why’s it so cold?”

  My sister sighed, showing her impatience. “What do you see?”

  I peeked up over the rock and caught sight of Ruby. Her arm was stretched out into the growing night, one finger pointing. The middle of the reservoir hovered, glimmering faintly under a sliver of moon, completely still though it was fluid and should have been moving in the wind. My sister was on the very edge of the waterline, on a pile of rocks that had once been an old town wall before the reservoir was flooded, keeping careful not to dip her boots in. London was down in the water, in up to her waist, her pale hair a daub of light in the deepening darkness, her arms crossed to hide her bare breasts.

  Afraid she’d see me, I ducked back down.

  “Aren’t you gonna come with me?”

  “Not me, just you tonight.”

  “But I’m cold. Can you throw my shirt back? I—Okay. Okay. Okay, I’m going.”

  The splashing became even then, in strokes, as London made her way into the deep. She went so far, I couldn’t hear her. Not at all. She was out there for way too long without any sound and I was starting to get worried, so I peeked back over the rock again and there was a moment—long and drawn out, as my sister stretched on shore, arching her back and reaching her arms, as if this could take a while and she was getting comfortable—where I couldn’t see London in the water at all. Where I thought she’d vanished, got herself sucked down to the deep crater of the bottom and wouldn’t emerge again in this lifetime.

  I was about to stand up, to call out, when I caught a pale flash in the water and realized it was London’s bleached head.

  She came swimming out, dripping and shivering once she reached the shore, looking paler and skinnier than ever before, and my sister quickly threw her clothes at her to cover up.

  They left soon after, following a different trail lacing through the trees. Two red lights—the brake lights on Ruby’s white Buick—pulsed and then snapped off as the car pulled away.

  I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Had London just gone down to pay a visit to Olive while my sister sat there watching?

  The phone in my pocket buzzed then, as if her eyes hung like stars in the night to record my every move through her town.

  Her text said: wrk sucks. home soon. hope u want ice pops! bringing some for dinner

  My fingers went to the keys of my phone to text her back. But what could I say—i saw u. i know ur not at work? Lie and make pretend and just go, ice pops for dinner yum?

  I slipped the phone back in my pocket without a reply.

  I crept out from behind the rock, fully intending to head back up to the house and wait for her to return home from “work,” thinking how I’d love an ice pop, hoping she brought back cherry, when there was a splash at my back. I turned to find the water settling, as if someone had shot up and plunged down before I could catch them.

  I stepped closer to the water, until I was too close, until I was right there, the soles of my sandals up against its mouth. It was breathing.

  Ruby had been clear when she said she didn’t want me swimming; I wasn’t going to defy her and dive in. I sure wasn’t going to come back up to the house all wet and have to explain how that happened, in case she got home before I could dry off.

  All I did was slip one foot out of my sandal and dip in a single toe.

  I let it touch the surface. I let it hold there, and I didn’t take it away.

  The water was cold, as I’d heard London say, colder than you’d expect on a hot summer night. I let my foot dangle, the chill creeping up the length of me. Then, quick, I pulled my toe back and slipped on my sandal and stepped off the rocks.

  Nothing happened tonight. Nothing I needed to tell Ruby about. Nothing with Owen. Nothing having to do with the reservoir. Nothing.

  I was waiting to cross the road, letting a truck pass, when I heard the sound coasting through the trees. A low, creeping whistle choking and hissing and coughing out from the darkness.

  I turned around to face the trees, and it decided to take that moment to stop.

  But when I crossed the road, it started up again—growing fainter, the more distance I put between me and the reservoir, but still wanting to be heard. It reminded me of the shrieking hiss my sister had made when she was trying to imitate the old steam whistle. It sounded almost like that.

  If it was a trick of my ears, it lasted all the way back up the hill, down the long length of porch the guys had been hammering at all day, and into the house, ever so faintly there even when I closed the door behind it, the sound seeping in through the window screens along with the chirps of the crickets.

  I was still listening for it in the living room when my sister came in.

  When she found me, her eyes narrowed. London wasn’t with her—maybe Ruby drove her home first. Her motorcycle boots were dripping with mud and her hair was partly wet and so was the hem of her slip and she smelled of it, the reservoir, she smelled of deep, dark things and untold secrets and all of what she was keeping from me, the first being that she never had a shift at Cumby’s. But she was the one to look at me all suspicious and say, “What are you doing, Chlo?”

  “Nothing,” I said. I watch
ed her carefully to see if she could hear it, too, but she made no mention of it, the wheezing, whining hiss seeping in through the window. It was growing fainter now, letting the crickets drown it out.

  “Did something happen while I was at work?” she said. “You look different.”

  “No, of course not.” I immediately thought of my room upstairs. If any evidence of what happened was in there . . . if she’d been upstairs, if she’d seen. “Did you just get home?” I asked, thinking fast.

  “Yeah, did you?”

  “No, I mean, yeah, I mean I was only outside and I only just came in.”

  She circled the love seat, coming closer.

  “I think I’m ready for bed,” I said, going the other way and heading for the stairs. “I’m tired.”

  “But the ice pops. They’re in the freezer.”

  “It’s okay. I’ll make sure to have one for breakfast.”

  She eyed me as I walked the stairs to the landing. She eyed my legs as they climbed. She eyed my back and, through it, my beating heart. I turned at the landing before the next set of stairs, before I’d leap the gate and slip back into my room to check my sheets. I said, as casually as I could, “I think I’m gonna sleep in my room tonight.”

  All week, we’d been sharing the big bed in the master bedroom, lounging up on the high mattress like royalty, if overheated royalty, since there was no air-conditioning and we had to use electric fans. Sleeping in that room was one of the perks of having the gate up and making Jonah stay downstairs.

  Ruby lifted her eyes to mine and said, “Okay, if that’s what you want. I got you cherry. And there’s tropical fruit, too. Ice pops, I mean.”

  “Thanks.”

  I turned away. I couldn’t hear the whistling anymore, but I could still smell Olive. It was in the house now, in the air, rising up to the top floor, trapped inside with the rest of the thick summer heat.

 
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