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Imaginary girls, p.19

Imaginary Girls, page 19

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  “I can’t hear you,” I said, which was true, partly. I just liked knowing that Ruby wanted to keep me here. She wasn’t ever going to let me go again, and I was glad of it.

  Also, the signal was cutting in and out. I checked my phone and I had all the bars; it must have been his phone that was losing service. His signal faltering, not mine.

  “You’re breaking up,” I said loudly.

  “. . . sister put you up to this . . . don’t . . . can’t . . . how dare she . . .” is what I heard and then I heard only quiet with the occasional chirping, which wasn’t my phone but the bugs and the birds in the night.

  I ended the call; it didn’t ring back. And I felt relieved, as if my phone sensed that I didn’t want to talk to my dad and made it so. It wasn’t even my choice, let alone my fault.

  My phone must have sensed even more than that—like how I wouldn’t want to hear his messages or read any of his texts—because right before my eyes I watched the count of missed messages spool down from 43 to 30 to 11 to 8 to 0.

  The last thing I saw before the message light stopped blinking was a view of what was right in front of me in the street: the traffic sign for the old turnpike. The weird squiggle on the sign’s face showed me how the road was about to curve, but I didn’t see the curve itself, because all light cut out.

  A voice sounded out in the darkness. “Hello?”

  “Hello?” I took a few steps toward it. “Is someone out there?”

  No cars had come down the road in either direction since I’d started walking. I’d walked as far as the edge of town, that sign we’d sped past, without realizing.

  “Hello?”

  I was hearing things, had to be. Though it sure did sound like someone was out there. It didn’t sound like a hooting owl; it was human.

  It seemed like the voice had been thrown from the patch of darkness I’d been walking into, darker now the more I got into it. The only light I had on me was my phone, and it still worked enough to allow its light to show my way. The road a foot or so ahead of me became visible, given a pale blue halo from the cell phone’s weak glow. I followed the double yellow line, gone sallow green in the light, and took a few more steps forward.

  Then something lunged right for me.

  My first thought was a car, but there were no headlights. Then I assumed it had to be an animal, something big that would maul me and leave me flayed on the road. A bear, as it was upright and moving fast. But then I heard it say hello again, in English, and I realized the thing was as human as I was, that it was a person, probably a murderer or a rapist, or both. I was about to regret every decision that had brought me to this moment. Only too late did I think how maybe I should turn tail and run.

  But the murderer knew me by name. It also had a cell phone and was aiming an orange-tinted light straight at my face.

  “Chloe!”

  “L-London?” She was blue in my light, and I was golden in hers.

  If I didn’t physically feel her arms around me as she hugged me, I would have been sure she was an apparition, come back to haunt me on this vacant road. Then again, in the car she’d been about to bite my hand off—and now she was embracing me as if it hadn’t happened. Had time wound back on itself and brought us both together to start over? Did she forget what she’d said about my sister? Were we friends again? Was she back, alive?

  “I thought you were a ghost!” she was saying. “I thought, That’s it, I’ve gone certifiable, I’m like totally seeing ghosts now. You scared the pants off me, Chloe! I almost peed right here in the road!”

  I had to ask: “What are you doing in the middle of the road anyway?”

  She was shaking her head in the blue halo, her tired eyes enormous, the circles under them deeper and darker than ever. Her bleached hair caught my light and had gone the color of the ocean. “I really don’t know what happened or how I got here or what. I totally blacked out again.”

  “Again?”

  “It happens sometimes. Sometimes I’m like doing something and then I look around and I’m in a whole other place doing something else. Or I think I’m heading somewhere and I forget ever getting there and I’m back home, like maybe I didn’t go at all, I just thought I did. Lots of times I wake up at night in the dirt, like I forgot to go to bed, so weird.” She shook her head again, her tinted hair poking out behind her ears. “It’s seriously screwed up.”

  “So you don’t remember . . . driving to a party?”

  “Did I say I was going to a party?”

  I nodded.

  “See? I must’ve blacked out. Do you think I have narcolepsy or something?”

  “I don’t know,” I lied, “maybe.”

  She stepped out of the road and onto a section of grass on the shoulder. She leaned on a mailbox, and in the light of my phone I could see that it said the name of our town’s local newspaper, which meant we were back inside, back where London was still walking around and talking, where I wouldn’t have to explain how she died all over again, where my sister’s illusion was in place. Where I was home.

  But this was London’s home, too. And in her home, she was walked on a leash by my sister. And even if she wanted to get away, she never could.

  I wondered what would happen if I pushed her over the line. If she’d disappear, like last time. And when she did, if she’d pop up on our side. I wondered what it would look like—a shock of light and smoke? Would the air ripple as if we were underwater? Would I blink and there she’d be, as if she’d been standing here all along?

  If she yelled, could they hear in the next town? If she threw her shoe over, would it ever land? The questions were endless.

  “But what are you doing in the road?” London said. “Did you black out, too?”

  “I was in a car I didn’t want to be in anymore, so I got out. And they drove away.”

  “Where’s Ruby?”

  “Home.”

  She didn’t ask me who was in the car, and I was glad she didn’t. It would have hurt to say it out loud. His name.

  “This is so freakishly bizarre that you’re out here, too,” she said. “This is like the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me, except for that time I tried to go to the Galleria mall in Poughkeepsie and I blacked out and all of a sudden I’m like standing on the bridge, you know that big giant bridge over the river . . . Man, that sucked! But . . . oh shit, Chloe, did you just feel that? We’re gonna get soaked.”

  As she said it, I felt the first drops. A scattering of rain at first, touching down one small splash at a time in my hair and on my bare shoulders. Then the rain thickened and fell in drips down to my toes. We made a run for it, huddling under the closest tree. Our clothes stuck fast to our bodies, raindrops pooled in our eyelashes and suspended from the tips of our noses. The sound around us was a rushing flood, but one come from above.

  “I should try Ruby,” I said, thinking of how to explain this. I lifted my phone and already the water was pooling into it; I was waiting for it to short out and go dark in my hand. I pressed a key and nothing happened. I pressed the same key again, and again.

  “It’s okay,” London said. “I called before I saw you.”

  “You called my sister? You told her where you . . . we are?”

  She shook her head. “I called someone else.”

  She perked up then when a pair of headlights appeared, coming our way through the rain. She leaped out from under the tree and lifted her skinny arms in the air, attempting to flag down the car but more like almost running herself into the fender before it skidded on the slick road to get out of her way.

  “It’s Pete!” she yelled to me. “Ruby always said you could call him and he’d do anything. I even woke him up, and look—he came anyway. Just like she said.”

  This was something Ruby had told me. Pete being willing to do anything for my sister, and by extension me, and how I could call him at any hour with any unreasonable request and his deep loyalty to her would make sure he’d get it done.

 
; I guess she’d given London that little tip, too.

  When the car came to a stop and I left the tree’s shelter to stand with London, the both of us drenched, he got a lopsided grin on his face. “A threesome?” he said, leaning over to open the car door. “Hells yeah. Get in.”

  “Don’t be disgusting,” I said, expecting London to also tell him to shut it, but she slid into the backseat, shaking out her short wet hair all over the leather, and let me take the front seat beside Pete. Which meant I had to be the one to talk to him.

  “You’re soaked,” he said, only half-approvingly. “If you two go and mess up my car, I’ll . . .” He tapered off before any threat came out, distracted by what happens to a girl’s shirt when rain soaks it through.

  I crossed my arms in front of my chest so he’d have to look me in the eyes. As I did, the rain enveloped the car for a moment, one thick sheet swirled around us to keep us from seeing out, and then it opened, and lightened, and stopped its pounding, and though it was still raining, at least we could see.

  “How’d you find your car keys, anyway?” I asked. I remembered how, it seemed so long ago, Ruby had lost them.

  “You knew where my keys were?”

  I shrugged.

  He let out a sigh and played with the ugly protruding tuft of his goatee, which he should have shaved, and stat, because Ruby hated unruly goatees or any kind of attempt at a beard, and you’d think he’d know that. He just said, “I looked. I looked everywhere. I had to order a whole new set of keys—for my car, for the garage, my house, everything. But that’s Ruby.”

  He said all that, and he didn’t even seem mad. He hacked up a cough, scratched at his old, wrinkly concert T-shirt for a band I’d never heard of, and swung the car around to drive us toward town.

  I kept peeking in the rearview at London, like she’d get more substantial the closer we got to town. Fleshier, harder to break. More real.

  But she was only herself. She was here, in another car, and this time she wasn’t trying to scratch my eyes out. She was leaning over the front seat, reaching for the stereo. She was rolling down the back windows even though it hadn’t stopped raining, letting the wind blow-dry her hair and the rain make it wet again. She was asking Pete if he had any smokes on him. She wasn’t any more real than she’d been before—the same girl, nothing different about her that I could make out, except that her anger at Ruby had disappeared and her memory had been erased.

  Pete went to drop off London first. He got us close to town and made the turn around the bend, coming up on the thicket of trees near where I remembered Ruby said London lived. Only, just the same as last time, we didn’t end up taking her all the way to her house. London thumped Pete on the shoulder and said she wanted to get out here.

  “What for?” Pete said. “I’ll drive you home.”

  “Nah, here’s fine,” she said. She whipped the door open into crushing rain and stepped out onto the road. She flicked a hand at me, barely an attempt at a wave, and then she took off for what looked like a patch of trees, disappearing into the storm the way she’d vanished from sight in my hands.

  Pete didn’t seem to care. He spun the car around to take me to Jonah’s and didn’t even suggest we go after her.

  But I eyed the dark thicket of trees, the shadows growing blacker as the rain came down. “Pete. She’s going into the woods.” I realized then how close we were to the flap in the fence that Ruby used as her own private entranceway. It was around that bend a little ways, wasn’t it? Maybe London had her own private way in, too.

  “Do you know what’s through those woods, Pete?” He’d been here before, tons of times. He knew the only thing out there was the reservoir.

  “She’s not going in the woods,” Pete said. “She’s walking home. Her house is just over there.” He pointed, but at nothing. It was too dark to point at much of anything.

  “She’s going in. Look.”

  He stopped the car on the slick road and looked back. We both did, though there was no light on anywhere to catch her.

  “It’s a shortcut,” he said at last.

  “Wait here,” I said, before he could stop me.

  I was running then, running through the rain and skidding in the mud in my sandals and scrambling over the gulley and into the trees. I was pushing through branches and stumbling over rocks, and there wasn’t a piece of me that wasn’t sopping wet and dripping.

  The waterfall of rain from my forehead to my chin kept me from seeing all I could. Even so, I was able to make out London slipping into the dark pocket of a sagging fence, her feet the last two pieces of her to vanish. I watched her go in and not come out.

  I went to the fence and saw what I knew would be there, glistening as black as oil on the horizon. The reservoir, which London had come out of just this spring. The reservoir, where I should have known she’d been spending her nights.

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  I CAME BACK

  I came back out of the woods after a while. When I returned to Pete’s car, he didn’t comment on how drenched I was. He opened the door for me and said, “Find her?”

  I shook my head.

  “Women,” he said. “Tell them not to do something, they do it anyway.” When I glared at him, too soaked to respond, he added, “Ruby used to wander off doing crap like that all the time. I’m used to it.”

  He jammed the gas and took us back the way we’d come. “You think she’ll be home when we get there?” he asked.

  “Yeah. But you know what, Pete? Maybe I shouldn’t go there yet. Maybe we should go into town for a while. I should call her first, or wait for her to call me.” I was thinking how she hadn’t texted. She’d told me to spend time out of the house but hadn’t yet said it was okay to return.

  “Can’t chicks ever make up their minds?” Pete mumbled. But he still coasted us on into the center of town, following my instructions without too much more protest.

  I pulled out my phone to make sure it still worked. It seemed perfectly fine—and no longer overloaded with messages—so I texted Ruby.

  u ok?

  I didn’t wait for a response before sending another: ok i come home?

  Nothing.

  Near the Green, Pete turned off the engine and muttered to himself, but he was still doing what I said. Then he opened his mouth and I thought he’d shoot out something perverted, but he kept his eyes up in the vicinity of my face and said simply, “Anything for Ruby’s sister.”

  It was all very heavy and hypnotic, like I’d been the one to bewitch him, but I couldn’t take credit, and, fact was, Pete never needed any bewitching. He’d follow my sister anyway, always had. It was thanks to whatever she’d done to him all those years ago, and ever since he’d walked around barely able to dress himself, caught up in the idea of her, even when she told him for the hundredth time to please go away.

  “Pete, why? Why are you like this? What’d she do to you?”

  “Who do you mean, Ruby?”

  I nodded.

  She’d broken his heart, that was a given. Maybe she’d done it with one hand, crushed it into a tight little ball. Maybe she’d done it fast, while it thumped in her palm, then ripped it out to keep in the back of her dresser and all this time he had no idea.

  He shrugged. “She was my first girlfriend,” he said. “My first”—you could see the gears turning opposite-wise in his head, like only with great effort could he keep this from being vulgar—“my first, uh, everything.”

  I nodded. No special effort needed. No bolts of lightning or hot sizzles of smoke. It was all so ordinary, and that was enough.

  “Thanks, Pete. Thanks for driving.”

  “Don’t thank me, I’m just the taxi service.”

  I tried to think of something to say to make that seem less pitiful, but he spoke again before I could.

  “I don’t mind. Really. Besides, you remind me so much of her, so if you need something, it’s like she needs something. And I kinda like that, y’ know?”

 
; “I know, Pete.”

  Now he was tilting his head, a hand over his eyes, squinting. People did that when they were making an effort to see a hint of her in me. Boys did. Boys did it all the time.

  “I see what my bro sees in you. Saw in you, I mean. His loss.”

  I blushed when he used the past tense.

  “You shouldn’t tell your sister,” he said.

  “I wasn’t planning to.”

  “Just, yeah. Just be careful what you tell her.”

  That’s the moment we were both startled by the pounding on the hood of the car. I looked out through the rains-pattered windshield, expecting to find the town crazy, Dov Everywhere, who’d been known to thump his sticks on cars if they parked in places he didn’t approve of. But the eyes searing through the glass didn’t belong to Dov. They were the pale, distant eyes of a woman. She was knocking on the hood with her bare hand.

  I turned to Pete. “What do you think she wants?”

  “You, obviously. She’s not my mother.”

  I wanted to deny Sparrow, say Ruby was more a mother to me than she ever was, that the word was meaningless, that the word shouldn’t be legally binding, and biology didn’t mean I had to be civil, but I also felt a tad sorry for her and wanted to get her off the car and out of the rain. I hadn’t noticed until now that Pete had skidded to a stop just outside the Village Tavern. We were practically on her doorstep.

  “Uh, I think she wants to talk to you,” he said, as she wasn’t showing any signs of going away. “Just go in with her. I’ll keep watch while I have a beer at the bar.”

  Soon after that, I found myself sitting across from the woman Ruby and I begrudgingly called our mother.

  Seeing her up close brought back patches of my childhood:

  Standing over her in a sheetless bed while she slept thirteen hours straight. Poking her in a recliner upon finding her passed out bright and early on a school morning. Pelting her with raisins from the packet of trail mix, since Ruby and I didn’t eat raisins even if they’d been dipped in chocolate first. Watching her conk out in a car, while she was at the wheel and the car was still moving.

 
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