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Imaginary girls, p.17

Imaginary Girls, page 17


Imaginary Girls

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  “Are you sure nothing happened, Chlo?” Ruby called. “Nothing I should know about?”

  “Nothing, really,” I called down.

  “I’ll find out, you know . . . if something did.”

  I kept walking, all the while knowing she would. She was Ruby, after all. She’d dig you up and spread you open and see what she wanted to see. In this town, she was the only one who thought she could have secrets. Everything was hers. Most of all, me.



  I woke up past midnight to a ringing phone, one I felt sure had been ringing for a while.

  It wasn’t my cell. I moved the door aside and peeked into the hall. The phone was close, out there somewhere, its bleating ring bouncing off the unfinished walls and wire-exposed ceiling. Ruby’s door at the end of the hall was closed, and a phone cord was wound up the stairs, over the gate, past my door and past the bathroom door and past the closet that didn’t have a door to within inches of her room. It was the kitchen phone, so archaic it wasn’t even a cordless, and that was as far as it reached.

  It rang and rang. If Ruby was in her room, she wasn’t coming out to answer it.

  I guess I could blame the fact that I was half asleep for why I answered it. I picked up the phone and said, “Hello?”

  There was a gush of breath, and a voice said, “Finally. Took long enough.”

  “Excuse me?” The person on the other end must have thought I was Ruby; not too many people could tell us apart, even still.

  “You need to get voice mail. Or an answering machine. Or something.”

  “Who is this?”

  Another sigh. Then the voice mumbled, “I, uh . . . really love you.” And the next I heard was click, as whoever it was hung up.

  That was the first.

  The other requests Ruby had penned on the helium balloons filtered in, sometimes more than once, as if a balloon had landed in one spot only to blow away to somewhere else. By afternoon we had two large pans of foil-covered lasagna in the fridge, though it was too hot to run the oven and my sister said she wasn’t in the mood for lasagna after all and what she really should have asked for was a homemade cake.

  The balloons were answered, one by one, and Ruby didn’t seem at all surprised. In her universe—which encompassed the fuzzy, far-reaching boundaries of our town, skirting up mountains and dredging the lowest point in the valley, dipping into the reservoir and running off on the rapids of the Esopus to other small towns that looked much like this one—she’d gone and asked for what she wanted and every single person here would try to give it to her. As if it was their duty.

  Toward the end of the day, when I found a dress folded up on the steps—white eyelet to show bits of skin—I carried it up to our floor.

  I found her at the mirror in an odd pose. She’d spotted a gray hair and was stretching out the strand to take a closer look in the light.

  “I think this is for you,” I said, leaving the dress on the bed. “There’s no card.”

  She glanced at the dress. “Nice,” she said absently. “It looked better in the dark, I think.” She returned her attention to the mirror, crinkling up her brows in concentration. “Look at me carefully, Chlo, and then please tell me you don’t see it.”

  “I don’t see it.”

  “But you do see it. You’re looking right at it.”

  “You told me to say—”

  “Do you see it?”

  I nodded solemnly. The gray strand stood out against the rest of her dark hair. I also saw what may have been a second strand behind her ear, but I didn’t point it out.

  “Get the tweezers. We’ll have to pull it out at the root.”

  We performed the operation together and then carefully wrapped the long strand—up close I saw it wasn’t gray but perfectly white from root to tip, and glimmering at all angles, like a hair pulled from a royal Persian cat—in tissue to discard in the toilet. She flushed and watched to make sure it went down, then she flushed again to be safe, as if we were getting rid of evidence of a crime before the FBI stormed in.

  After it went down, she sat on the floor and spoke.

  “Something’s wrong,” she said.

  “It’s just a gray hair,” I said.

  “I feel like I’m fading. Like I’m so very tired from all this effort and that”—she pointed at the toilet, where we’d flushed the long strand—“that’s just the start. And what’s next? Sunspots?”

  “What effort?”

  She glanced at the dress. “Everything takes at least an ounce of effort,” she said cryptically. “I’m not magic, you know.”

  I couldn’t tell if that last part was a joke.

  She continued. “I’m exhausted. It’s like we just climbed up to the very top of Overlook Mountain—we used to skip school and do that, remember?”


  “Remember how we’d get to the top, finally after climbing forever, and catch our breath and look down and we could see the whole entire town from up there?”

  I nodded.

  “I feel like that. Like we’re up at the top and I should be able to see everything. Only, the clouds have come in, and now it’s raining or whatever, and I’m not seeing town like I should. So we climbed all the way up there for nothing. And I’m too tired to climb back down. That’s what I feel like. Something’s in my way and I don’t know what it is.”

  She met my eyes, and this propelled me from the room and away from her, afraid of what she’d see. Maybe the words revealing what I’d done were written on me from the inside out, like a phantom finger pressed to a fogged-up car window.

  Anything was possible around my sister, I was guessing, if balloons could summon her clothes to wear and food to eat.

  I went downstairs; she followed. We bypassed Jonah in the living room, didn’t waste a word on him, and wound our way into the kitchen.

  I went to the fridge; she drifted to the table and played with the salt shaker. The dirty cereal bowls in the sink towered to great heights. There were no clean spoons anywhere in the world, it felt like, and there never would be, so we’d have to learn to slurp cereal without.

  Knowing she was hiding things from me—while I was hiding things from her—made us dance around each other. It was almost time for dinner, so I took a cherry ice pop and she took a tropical fruit ice pop, which was blue, though we didn’t know why, and she unwrapped hers and I unwrapped mine, and we each took a lick off each other’s out of habit, and left the room through separate exits.

  It wasn’t long before she was knocking on my door. Ruby never knocked and waited for an answer; she just knocked and went right in, which defied the logic of knocking. She knocked, and then moved the door aside.

  “Hey,” she said, and perched on the end of my bed. I had a chunk of ice pop in my mouth and couldn’t talk back until I swallowed. When I looked up, I saw her lips were blue from hers. “Are you going to tell me?” she said. “Or am I going to have to wrestle it out of you with my bare hands? I’m strong, you know. And extremely flexible.”

  She was joking, and stuck out a dyed tongue to prove it, but I couldn’t know anymore what my sister could accomplish once she set her mind to it.

  And I did want to tell her about Owen. Or maybe she was the one making me want to reveal it, and it wasn’t what I wanted at all. Getting the words to climb up my throat by command, jostling into position behind my closed teeth—she was doing that. I kept my teeth mashed together. My cherry-red tongue intact.

  Normally she didn’t have to force a thing from me. Sisters told each other every last thing; especially the younger sister. The youngest sister couldn’t have secrets. She was who she was because of who came first.

  She waited for me to say it. She knew there was something.

  And if that was all that stood between us—some boy—maybe I would. But someone else was blocking the way. I could see her in the room even if she wasn’t here in the flesh. I couldn’t help but picture her skinny legs
, one long arm bent at the hip. Her veins showing through, blue as Ruby’s ice pop. Her hair with the bleach left in too long and her ears sticking out.

  So I said only half the truth: “I’m worried about London.”


  “She seemed so out of it last time I saw her . . .”

  Ruby took a long lick, considering. “Really? How so?”

  I shrugged. “I don’t know. I keep wondering”—Ruby’s interest was piqued—“what if she goes away?”

  “She’s not going to go away.”

  A cool hand slithering its fingers around her knobby ankle, pulling her down and in, making it forever this time. It was a nightmare come to life this summer, and my sister was the one wearing the ski mask.

  Ruby made fast work of her ice pop, digesting what I’d said. “Sometimes I do wonder about that girl,” she said. “The drugs, you know. The trouble she gets herself into . . . things I’d never let you do. I wonder if some people are meant to hang on and others, y’know, aren’t.”

  “She’s sixteen,” I said quietly. “Like me.”

  “Exactly,” Ruby said. “Exactly like you.”

  There was a threat in there, somewhere.

  “She won’t go, okay?” she said. “I told you I played a little trick to get her out—I said it was just for a visit, a day trip. But she goes back all the time to say hi. So much so that they barely know she’s even away. And, besides, she spends her nights—Oh my God, Chlo, your lips are bright red! It’s like that time you lost a tooth and I thought someone punched you and that I’d have to beat up a first-grader! I about got out my brass knuckles and everything.”

  I wiped at my mouth, but the cherry stain wasn’t coming off. She kept telling me little bits of things and then distracting me with others. Where was London spending her nights?

  It was here that my phone began blinking. “Someone’s texting you,” Ruby said. There was a slow-motion moment, extended to thick liquid, when I wanted to reach out and get the phone before she did, but she got to it before me.

  Owen, I thought. Please don’t say anything my sister shouldn’t see.

  She read the message without expression. Then she hummed to herself and clicked off the phone.

  “Who was it?” I wanted to take my phone from her, but she had it in her lap.

  “Someone’s thinking about you, too, if you were wondering,” she said.

  I’d have to explain, reveal what I’d let happen while she was out, which would open up the floodgates and show she couldn’t trust me. I’d have to—

  “Don’t look so freaked, it’s only London. Who’d you think it was?”

  She smiled and tossed the phone to me. “I thought it was your dad, too. But he’s old. He probably doesn’t know how to text.”

  The message read: Come to town. On Green. Can u get ride?

  “What do you suppose they’re doing on the Green in town?” she said.

  “Hanging out, like usual.”

  “I’m thinking you should go. For a bit. Just don’t stay out too late tonight.”

  That wasn’t what I expected her to say.

  “It might be a good idea for you to get scarce for a few hours tonight. Have you noticed Jonah loafing around doing the mopey eyes? I get the sense he wants to talk to me. Do you get that sense, too?”

  I nodded.

  “Text her back. Tell her I’ll drive you over soon.” She wandered to the window. “Chlo, look! Outside . . . Is that a balloon?”

  She pointed out there, where in the thicket a bright pink helium balloon was perched in an outstretched bouquet of thorns. It had landed there so delicately it hadn’t even popped.

  “Think it’s one of mine?” she asked.

  I could see a peek of her handwriting. “Definitely.”

  “I guess the wind decided to shift in a different direction. Stupid wind. Who said it could do that? I didn’t give it permission.”

  She must have seen the look on my face, the one that revealed how, inside, where I loved her unconditionally no matter what she did, where in fact she could do whatever she wanted and I’d never hate her for it, I believed everything she said. I’d just taken her statement quite literally. I thought she really could control the wind.

  She started giggling.

  “That balloon’s for you,” she said. “Go out and get it.”

  “What . . . now?”

  “Yes, now. I’ll drive you after you go get the balloon, Chlo.”

  Before I knew it, I was leaving the room, as if on command, heading downstairs, past Jonah, who really did seem to be moping, and outside to the pricker bushes to rescue the balloon. The farther I got from her, the more clear my head became. She was a field of static, but I’d reached the edge. I was stepping onto smooth, flat ground beneath a clear blue sky. I couldn’t see her at the window anymore.

  Not even Ruby could control all the elements of the world we lived in. Something had to slip. Someone had to get punched in the mouth.

  I pulled the pink balloon from the thorns, careful not to pop it. In faded permanent marker, the command said:

  try as hard as you can to make me cry

  This balloon was for me, she’d said, as if she knew already what I’d do.



  Ruby didn’t hesitate to drop me off on the Green. She kept checking her hair for white strands as she drove and looking out for red ribbons on the lawns we passed, in case anyone had happened upon that particular balloon and saw fit to leave her money.

  She let me out, reminding me that London and I should stay in town, saying she’d be right back here later, and I wondered what she’d do without me, with Jonah stewing in the house, wanting whatever he wanted from her. I wondered if she’d let him upstairs when I wasn’t home. Into her room, onto our bed. I wondered and then I forcibly stopped myself from wondering.

  London and her friends were nowhere in sight, so I took a perch on Ruby’s favorite stone bench—the one dead center on the Green, there for the looking and to be looked at. If you were sitting in this spot, you were near impossible to miss.

  Town was filled with tourists and locals hawking their rainbow-painted garbage to tourists, and the sidewalks were crowded enough for me to miss her at first.

  But the next time I looked up, there she was, my mother, across the street outside the jewelry store, a few doors down from the tavern. She called herself Sparrow now, I reminded myself; I didn’t even have to think of her as Mom.

  She was pretending to look into the display window, but when I caught her there, her head turned and I had a full view of her face. Her hair wrapped down around her shoulders like a shawl made of hair and not hair itself. She never used to wear makeup—Ruby once tried, and failed, to teach her how to put it on—and I guess she still hadn’t learned, so her lips were paler than her cheeks, her eyelashes nonexistent from this distance. She made up for the washed-out face by being all color everywhere else. Her long skirt was woven in shiny, multicolored threads and the summer tank top she had on was bright pink and way too tight, like something a girl my age would wear.

  It was impossible to not see her there; I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t.

  She lifted a hand and gave a tight-lipped smile. She motioned to indicate something down the street. My eyes drifted, following the path, and landed on the glowing light advertising beer. She wanted me to meet her in the bar.

  Then I heard, “Hey, Chlo!” And London was rescuing me by sidling up and collapsing on the bench. “What’re you looking at?”

  She scratched at her lanky arms and followed my eyes to . . . the spot of sidewalk in front of the jewelry store. There was nothing blocking the glass case; no one was there.

  “That place sucks,” London said. “They jack up prices for the tourists. But I bet Ruby’d get you something from there if you asked her. . . .”

  “Nah,” I said.

  I knew I should be feeling some kind of emotion—that flurr
y of color and hair retreating down the sidewalk was my mother, biological and all else. I wanted nothing to do with my dad, so if I didn’t have Ruby, she was really all I’d have.

  She wanted to see me; I should want to see her.

  “So everyone’s at the rec field now, c’mon,” London said.

  She had me by the hand, and I realized how my hand turned colder just by being in hers, the joints in my fingers locking up. She led me away from the Green, and from my mother, who I didn’t want to talk to anyway, and we’d already reached the rec field before I got up the guts to ask who “everyone” was.

  Then there was my answer: Owen, who stood huddled with his friends.

  I remembered then that the rec field was where kids often went to hook up. Ruby said you could come here on any summer night, walk up the softball field to the dark tiers of the bleachers, and hear the sounds of sucking face in tune with the crickets.

  Maybe that’s what Owen was thinking; maybe he’d asked London to get me here for this reason. With his back to his friends, he flashed a grin, like he assumed I’d be up for it, like even though it wasn’t dark out yet he expected to slip with me under the bleachers and not talk about what it meant and what would happen tomorrow.

  Maybe he thought I was someone other than me. Maybe I’d given him the wrong impression.

  Ruby wouldn’t have suggested I come to town if she’d known about this. I was treading on dangerous territory—the kind Ruby wouldn’t want me stepping on. But she didn’t know how far I’d gone already.

  “Hey,” he said, walking over and getting me at some distance from everyone else. “I wanted to talk to you.”

  “About what?” We were near the gazebo now, a favorite place of my sister’s. I thought of how she’d talk to boys, how she’d barely have to utter a word and how they’d follow. Any boy would do. Sometimes she’d pick the ones she shouldn’t. She’d swoop in, pluck them from their girlfriends, and then set them back down after, heads full of fog.

  But Owen didn’t go inside the gazebo. He stopped, and glanced back at the guys, then said, “What I wanted to say is, we shouldn’t tell anyone what happened.”

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