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Imaginary girls, p.18

Imaginary Girls, page 18

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  “I . . . I wasn’t going to.”

  “Like you shouldn’t tell London and you shouldn’t tell your sister, or you know, anyone else.”

  “Your friends, you mean.”

  He nodded. “Mostly your sister.” For a second, he looked scared. Then he hid his eyes with his hair so I couldn’t see.

  “What do you think she’d do?” I asked.

  He wouldn’t answer. “We should get back. Before they think something’s up.”

  I had this image of him—gone before I blinked—him, belly-up under a night moon, broken and not breathing. Or better yet, the same moon and him, but this time he’s sinking into deep water and there’s no boat to hold on to. Then I shook it away and I wasn’t thinking anything violent that involved him, nothing that would get me sent to prison.

  “What?” he said. He saw I wasn’t moving.

  That’s when we heard a horn honking and spotted the red car at the edge of the field. There was London, leaning out of the window, arms out. The car she was in was filled with boys and smoke; their sound and smell leaked out to us from across the grass.

  “O! Chloe!” she yelled, trying to get our attention. “You guys coming or what?”

  Owen didn’t need more than that. He was in the car, taking shotgun without anyone fighting him for it, and I was soon crammed in the backseat beside London. We took up one seat, with two other guys in with us. It happened fast, that’s what I’d have to tell my sister, it happened so fast that I didn’t realize we were headed out of town until we made the turn onto Route 28, and the car veered away from the reservoir, not toward it. I didn’t realize until I looked up and saw us speed under the traffic lights. We were leaving town and I’d promised my sister I wouldn’t—I’d promised her London wouldn’t leave, either.

  “Where are we going?” I asked London.

  “That party,” she said, like I knew.

  “What party?”

  “You know. The one at the cliffs in High Falls. Why’d you think I texted? We may as well drive out there now and start drinking early.”

  Everyone in the car seemed to know where we were headed. The guy driving was someone I didn’t know but who seemed to know me by the way he asked after my sister. I’d call her when we got there, I told myself. I’d tell her then.

  I had London’s elbow in my side, could feel her hip bone cutting into mine. When I touched her, she was hard ice, and even skinnier than she looked, as if her one layer of skin was her only cushion.

  Our town had a small center, but the township itself stretched up the mountain and down into the valleys that touched the mountain’s edges. It spread out along the reservoir, which had once held the town of Olive, and also other towns, though I’d never bothered to know their names because Ruby never bothered to tell me.

  This party we were headed to was beyond the town limits. The town of High Falls was in a whole other school district. It wasn’t a place Ruby went to often, if at all.

  As we drove, London whispered: “What’s going on with you and O? Are you hooking up?”

  I averted my eyes.

  “Are you?” she said, loud enough to be heard over the music.

  I shushed her, but Owen hadn’t turned around. He hadn’t turned around in his seat up front even once.

  It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about right there, with Owen close by, but before I could think up a good answer, I realized the conversation in the car had turned when we weren’t paying attention. Even with the music up and the wind rushing in the open windows, I could hear the guys talking about her, my sister.

  “—saw her the other day,” the guy driving was saying, “it was sweet.”

  “—swear she was naked—” said the guy squeezed in beside me.

  The wind kept clipping their words; I couldn’t catch it all.

  “—told her to come out of the water—” the guy near the far window said, adding a few recognizable hand motions.

  Owen’s voice was noticeably absent; he stared out his window at the passing trees. He wasn’t defending her, but at least he wasn’t talking about how he wanted to get in her pants. The others, though—they showed no signs of stopping.

  The wind tossed their laughter around the car, shoving it in my face.

  “Are you talking about my sister?” I yelled over the wind.

  They didn’t deny it. “You can’t blame us,” one of the guys in the backseat said, “she’s smokin’ hot.”

  “I heard she’s a freak in bed,” another said.

  I covered my ears, hummed out the nasty words and the nastier pictures drummed up at the sound of them. The lies. The lies and lies and lies.

  I was used to guys saying they loved her, confessing how they wanted her to marry them and have their babies, mushy things you didn’t expect guys to admit to, but this was only physical. They made her sound like an ordinary slut, nothing special about it. And Ruby was many things, more than any of them could know, but she wasn’t that.

  “Shut up!” I yelled. “Stop it!”

  The boys stopped, but when London saw how upset I was, she came alive in a way I’d never seen her. Her eyes had a whole new light in them, and a cruel smirk touched her lips. She spoke in a low voice right up against my ear. “Haven’t you ever heard anyone say that? They say that kind of stuff about her. They say it all the time.”

  As she admitted this, some of Ruby’s own words entered my mind, slithering inside me as I felt London’s cold lips at my ear. “Stay in town,” Ruby had said, me and London both. “Don’t go anywhere else.”

  Was this why? Outside my sister’s influence, did London turn into someone else, someone closer to who she was inside? Someone mean?

  And the boys, too? Did everyone, absolutely everyone, turn against her?

  I couldn’t get away from London’s mouth if I tried; the car was too small.

  “Why does it bother you so much, what they say about Ruby?” London was saying, getting louder now over the wind. “Everybody in town hates her, don’t you know that?”

  “Not true.”

  “It is true.” I barely recognized her, lit up with lies about my sister, spouting them out of her skinny face. “She’s all up in my shit constantly,” she said. “You have no idea what she makes me do. She’s ruining my life. Sometimes I hate her, too.”

  That’s when I said what I shouldn’t have said.

  “She could have sent you back,” I said. “You don’t want that, do you?”

  “Back where?”

  “Back to . . .”

  She held herself very still, waiting for it.

  “. . . rehab,” I finished.

  She laughed. “She couldn’t do that.”

  But I kept going. “You can’t hate her. Without her, you wouldn’t even be here.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “You’re not supposed to be here, London!” I shouted at her. “You should be kissing Ruby’s feet right now. You should be thanking her and calling her a saint. You’re not even supposed to be alive.”

  London didn’t get it because all she said was, “Thanks, bitch,” and then she was laughing, like this was a huge joke the whole car was in on, and then she was saying what a ho I was for hooking up with Owen, and how everyone knew, and everyone said so, and I was just like Ruby except barely half as pretty, and then I lunged at her and grabbed her by the mouth and told her to shut up, not because she said I was half as pretty but because of what she said about my sister, and I thought she was going to bite me, but she just started screaming.

  The guys yelled beside us, egging us on. The wind was rushing through the open windows, throwing my hair in my face. The guys in the back were telling us to stop fighting and go ahead and make out already. Even Owen was involved, looking at me for the first time since we’d gotten in the car, asking what the hell was going on.

  I couldn’t be sure myself. I happened to look out at the road we were speeding down and I recognized the sign for the old turn
pike. It had a weirdly bent squiggle on it to warn drivers how the road curved, but in the quick flash that I saw it and lost it, it showed me how far we were from anything I knew, so far I worried I’d never find my way to Ruby.

  And maybe it happened then, maybe it was in that instant of passing the sign and entering the next town when her screams went quiet and her cold, bony face was no longer smashed against the palm of my hand, this moment when I couldn’t feel her anymore and I fell back onto the seat and found it empty beside me.

  I wasn’t clutching her mouth any longer; there was no mouth to clutch. There was no one in the seat but me.

  When I turned, the boys in the car were arguing over what CD to slip into the stereo. Owen had his back to me, his eyes out the window. High Falls was maybe ten, fifteen minutes away.

  I patted at the seat. I sat up and stared at my reflection in the rearview.

  All I knew is that we’d crossed town limits and the girl crammed into the backseat with me, the girl whose mouth I’d just been squeezing shut, whose name I’d been cursing, London—was gone.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  STOP

  Stop!” I shrieked at the top of my lungs. “Stop the car!”

  The guy at the wheel swerved to the right and we landed on the shoulder with a jolt. I felt my arms still attached to my hands, my head on my shoulders, my body intact as it should be. I looked around the car wildly—she wasn’t in the seat beside me, not in the front, and not in the back, which was jammed full of the enormous speakers. I twisted in circles, looking at the empty expanse of road behind us. Had she . . . leaped out the window when I wasn’t looking?

  Because there was no other place she could have gone.

  The music had been shut off and all four boys were staring at me. Over the silence you could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the trees, a calm yet hair-raising hush of a noise, and every once in a while this low whimper, this terrified and truly awful sound, and it took me forever to realize it was coming from down in my own throat.

  “What the hell!” the guy driving shouted.

  “What’s she on? What’d you give her, O?”

  “I didn’t give her shit. Maybe she took something, how am I supposed to know?”

  They talked about me as if I wasn’t there.

  “Why’d she scream? I think she busted my eardrum.”

  “Dude, what’s wrong with her?”

  I finally spoke up. “Where are we?”

  “Outside Rosendale, I think,” the driver said, eyeing me warily. “Stone Ridge maybe.”

  We’d driven a few feet over some arbitrary line outside town, and London had vanished. And not one of them was acknowledging it.

  Why wasn’t anyone else shocked into a stupor over this? Wondering where she’d gone? Wondering if she was hurt and bleeding on the road? Wondering how a girl could disappear right before your eyes? Why weren’t we all screaming?

  I had to ask it. “Where’d she go?”

  “What? Who?”

  “London!”

  The driver threw up his hands. “Where’s the closest psych ward is a better question.”

  I turned to Owen. I reached out, whispered it. “She was sitting right here.” I indicated the empty sliver of seat next to me.

  He wouldn’t even meet my eyes. He was looking north and to the left of my forehead when he said, “This is a joke, right?” He hesitated. “Right?”

  I looked them all in the face. No one had seen her vanish; no one had a clue.

  “Yes,” I said. “Sorry. It wasn’t funny.”

  One of the guys in the backseat laughed awkwardly, and the other guys went along with it. Except for Owen.

  “No,” he said, his eyes dull. “Not so funny.”

  So much of it made sense to me, right there in the back of the red car, perfect sense. If she wasn’t lying in the two-lane road, then I’d know for sure. If she hadn’t jumped out the open window, she’d disappeared instead. Almost as if she’d ceased to exist once we left the confines of our town.

  Exactly if.

  I opened my door and stepped out onto the asphalt. I looked for a body, but there was no body. Of course there wouldn’t be a body—because here, outside town, London wasn’t alive. Here, where the car was splayed crooked across the road, where my door was gaping open and I was looking for any trace of her, she lived only in my imagination. She died two years ago, out here.

  I couldn’t get back in the car. Who knew what would happen if we kept driving and made it to High Falls. How far was too far? The farther we got, I couldn’t be sure what else would start to crumble. Flashing through my mind were images from a zombie flick, fingers and ears and noses and other bits of protruding flesh rotting off when we moved, hair shedding in clumps, arms and eyes coming loose from sockets, tongues fish-flopping on the ground. Would that happen to me, to my tongue? I couldn’t risk it.

  “I don’t want to go anymore,” I called back at the car.

  The driver leaned out his window, all fed up, like now I’d gone and done it. “You can’t be serious,” he called to me.

  “I’m going to walk home,” I yelled back. “Or call my sister to come get me.”

  The car went in reverse and pulled up beside me. “Get in the car, Chloe,” the guy driving said. I looked past him at Owen, but Owen wasn’t the one saying it.

  “I don’t think so,” I said.

  I waited. Owen was about to open his door. He was about to step out onto the road with me, help me figure out how to get home. To at least make sure I was okay.

  The driver turned to Owen, as if expecting the same thing. But Owen was staring out the windshield at the road ahead. “Fuck her,” he said. “Just go.”

  I watched the car speed away, watched it as long as I could, until it went around the bend of trees and I didn’t see it anymore.

  It would be a long walk back, but I was thinking I might have to do it. Ruby didn’t know where I was. She’d dropped me off on the Green; I hadn’t told her I was leaving town. And worse—how would I explain what happened to London?

  I paused in the road, there for the flattening if any cars sped my way.

  Darkness was falling. It had been evening when we’d left, but now it was undeniably becoming night. At some point a car would drive past, heading north. Maybe in it would be someone I knew, someone who knew Ruby. At some point or another, hopefully before Ruby texted to check in, someone would have to drive this road and give me a ride back to town.

  For now, I was outside town limits, by myself, in the growing dark.

  But then a light flashed. My phone was blinking—and the small screen on it was bursting with a series of missed calls. The notices kept coming: calls and texts and voice mails, scrolling fast across the screen. My cell phone was acting like it had been jammed for days and was now spitting out every piece of communication in a breathless rush before final detonation.

  Clearly the thing was broken.

  I was about to pull out the battery, to see if that would help, when my phone lit up once more—this time with an incoming call. I answered immediately—expecting Ruby. But I hadn’t checked the caller ID. If I had, I would have seen it was a call from Pennsylvania.

  “Chloe! I can’t believe it, Chloe, is that you?”

  It was a woman’s voice. She seemed distantly familiar, like a television character from some long-canceled show, someone I swore I knew but couldn’t come up with a name and place to fit to her. My mind searched for recognition.

  Then the woman said, “Your father’s been worried sick! You’ve given him an ulcer. What were you thinking, Chloe!”

  Then it came to me: my stepmother. That’s who was on the phone.

  “Sorry,” I said. “I—”

  “Your father’s been trying to reach you. We thought something happened! You never answer your phone!”

  “I didn’t get any messages . . .” As far as I knew, I never even heard the phone ringing. But had all those missed calls eating up the mem
ory of my phone just now been for real?

  “We’ve been calling this number, Chloe. This number. Your father called. And I’ve called. Your voice-mail box ran out of space. We would have contacted the police if your mother hadn’t been in touch with us to tell us where you were.”

  “You talked to Sparrow?”

  “Yes. She called us. You know I don’t enjoy talking to that woman, but at least she could pick up a phone.”

  Ruby must have forced our mother to call and be my alibi, that was all I could figure.

  “Sorry,” I said again.

  “There must be something very wrong with your phone, Chloe,” my stepmother said. “Your father was terribly worried.”

  “Really,” I said. For sure I didn’t believe it. Even though my phone was being difficult now, it had worked fine in town—there were no problems with the service, at least before tonight. Clearly he was only pretending to call me. He must have been relieved to have me off his hands all summer, not cluttering up his lawn with my life.

  “Yes, really,” my stepmother said. “Don’t be so sarcastic. Stay right where you are; I’m running to go get your father. Do not hang up, Chloe. He wants to talk to you.”

  As I waited, I sucked it up and decided to start walking. Eventually this road would hit a more trafficked road, like a highway, and I’d come upon a car willing to take me the rest of the way into town.

  Town. Where girls didn’t disappear, at least for forever, and where no one could die, maybe ever, unless my sister wanted them to. Even if it was all in my head and I’d erased London permanently by letting her leave our borders, I wanted to be back inside. Where my sister had control over what was happening. Where things made sense.

  My dad came on the phone and jumped straight into it: “You are not staying in New York. Your sister does not have the authority to enroll you in school, and I don’t know what imbeciles are running that high school, but they can’t . . . when you come home . . . don’t even know this Jonah . . . called that house . . . don’t even have an answering machine . . . tell your sister I said . . . not allowed to . . . sorry excuse for a mother . . . listening to me, young lady?”

 
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