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Imaginary girls, p.2

Imaginary Girls, page 2


Imaginary Girls

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  It’s true that a town called Olive used to be in this spot before the water got flooded in; that’s in history books; that’s not just one of Ruby’s stories. Olive was one of nine towns buried because New York City wanted more water. The city bought up all the land and built its dam here. It dredged out this great big hole and gutted away every last tree. People’s homes and farms were taken over, then flattened. Olive was dismantled and swept out of the valley like it had never been here at all. Like it got erased.

  Ruby knew more about Olive than anybody. She knew things no one else did. She said the people in the town didn’t want to leave, that the city of New York tried to buy their houses, their churches and schools, their farms and storefronts, and the people of Olive wouldn’t sell. People in the other towns took the cash and scattered. It was only Olive that decided to stay. Only Olive that ignored the eviction notices, like that time we got a bright orange one pasted to the door of our apartment, and Ruby simply sliced through it so she could get inside. It was exactly like then, Ruby told me—except imagine if it looked like the world were ending because the city cut down all the trees and big machines roared and took the earth from under our feet and we had nowhere to go.

  Olive wouldn’t budge, even when the steam whistle blew for a full hour at noon on June 19, 1914, to show that the building of the dam was at last finished. It was only the people of Olive who stood in place on the land where they were born and waited for the water to come flooding in.

  “But they did go,” I remember saying to Ruby when she told me this story. “They had to.”

  “Did they?” was all she said then.

  As I swam over Olive, I wondered.

  Ruby used to say that, down in what was once Olive, you could still find the townspeople who never left. They looked up into their murky sky, waiting to catch sight of our boat bottoms and our fishing lines, counting our trespassing feet.

  They weren’t ghosts, she’d assure me when I used to shiver at her story; they were people still alive, having grown gills in place of lungs. They aged slower down at the bottom, where time had gone thick with all that mud. When I was little, she’d rile me up, saying they knew all about me, had noticed me the first time we poached a swim in this very spot. They knew me by my feet, she said, recognized me by the way I kept them kicking, and all they wanted was for me to act up, to throw the last tantrum she could stand, hoping she’d get tired and let them have me.

  If she pushed me in, right away their cold, webbed hands would come reaching out for my ankles. But don’t worry, she assured me, I’d have everything I needed down at the bottom. Reservoir ice cream was green, which made it mint, my favorite kind. Playing on the swings was way more fun underwater anyway. And having to remember to breathe took up so much time.

  That was years ago, when she used to threaten to throw me to Olive, and she never meant it, not really. Sure, when she was fourteen and I was nine she had to take me with her everywhere, and she complained about it sometimes, behind closed doors when she didn’t know I was listening. She told our mom that she should have been the one to teach me to tie my shoes, boil my boxed macaroni dinners, sign my permission slip to the dinosaur museum. She said all that, but it didn’t matter; I knew Ruby didn’t actually ever want me gone.

  Like now.

  She’d sent me out here, but she knew Olive didn’t still exist—she’d only been keeping things interesting, telling her stories. Letting me have the whole spotlight for once.

  She was on shore watching. I felt eyes keeping track of my movements, her eyes and her friends’ eyes, and then more eyes even than that, eyes from below.

  I looked back, or tried to, but all the water was in the way.

  Everyone probably thought I was still swimming. I wasn’t. I’d stopped—though I didn’t remember stopping, or even slowing. I was drifting out in the open expanse, my legs feeling their weight.

  The water was colder here, no denying it. And something was in my path, as if she’d made it appear there for me. A small rowboat bobbed in the water, unseen from shore in the deep night. I rested a hand on it, leaning my weight into its rusted side so I could catch my breath. The moon up above showed half a face; the stars could be counted till morning.

  I waited there, legs loose, hair swirling around me, and listened to her friends on shore. Laughing. Splashing. Dragging a canoe out of the woods. Breaking a bottle against the rocks.

  No one called my name.

  I wondered if they’d forgotten, if I’d taken too long. Or maybe they knew I never meant to do it. I didn’t do everything Ruby said, not every single thing. I did what I wanted. I did things and then looked back to see what she’d say.

  Maybe everyone knew this was a joke, a misdirection. Because surely she had to be joking—I did need air to breathe like everyone else; I did have only two legs and no fins. If anyone was a mythical creature here, it was Ruby, the one we all looked to and listened for, the one the boys loved and fought to be with, who couldn’t be captured or caged. The stories she told about me didn’t matter; the boys just wanted a chance to make up some stories of their own with her.

  I could hear Ruby, far off in the distance. Miles away, it seemed, miles and miles. I heard her laugh—I’d know that laugh anywhere—a laugh flat and dry and cut short when others let theirs last far longer. She only really found something funny when she said it herself, or if I did. She’d laugh for me.

  My stomach was sloshing with wine, my teeth chattering from the cold, my nose starting to drip and run. Why wasn’t she calling for me so I knew to give up and come back?

  I couldn’t hear her laughing anymore. I couldn’t hear her at all. It was as if I’d only imagined the sound of her laughter, imagined her on shore looking after me. Maybe, once I swam back, I’d find she’d shed her clothes, left my twenty folded up inside for safekeeping, and simply . . . vanished.

  I was about to let go and push back for shore when my fingers felt something strange. My arm was slung over the side of the rowboat, hanging down inside it. And whatever I felt at the bottom of that boat was far cooler than the water I was drifting in, and cooler than the mountain air. It was cold. Dead cold.

  As my hand patted around, trying to get its bearings, to see by touch, the thing took shape. It had a long, mushy stem, a flat soft section. It had five thin pieces spread out in all directions. It had—oh God, it had fingernails.

  Then I heard my name at long last. “Chlo!” Ruby was shouting. “Chloe! Chlo!”

  Normally my heart would have leaped, hearing her call my name like that, wanting me back so loudly, so badly, so everyone could hear—but my heart wasn’t even beating. I couldn’t speak, didn’t have the sound in me to shout back.

  There was an arm in that boat. An arm attached to a cold, dead hand.

  That’s when the flashlights came. Close enough to reach me—I must have not swam out as far as I thought. Flashlights all over me, beams covering my face and neck and shoulders, showing I was here in the water, hanging on, still alive. But that meant they also lit up what was inside the boat so I could see it. That other pair of shoulders, the long neck, the face that wasn’t mine.

  A girl, lifeless eyes staring up at the half moon. A girl who left her body here for me to find it. A girl with pale hair, pale cheeks, paler still in a bright white shirt.

  Then arms around me—bigger arms than Ruby’s arms, she’d sent the boys—holding me too tight at first until they caught sight of the girl in the boat, and then letting go, letting go and shouting, grabbing for the boat and letting me go.

  The face in that boat could have been mine; for a split second this thought rattled through me and then, faster than it’d come, it dropped away.

  Because it was her face again, the girl’s. The last thing I remembered were her two open eyes and her two closed, cracked lips. I recognized her. She was someone I knew.

  Her name was London, it came to me. London Hayes. We had seventh-period French together; she was the same age as me.
  After that, many more things happened, all too fast to make sense of.

  I remember the hard grip on my arm, pulling me back to shore. The shouts. The dragging in of the boat. Light, more light than was possible with even a horde of flashlights, enough light to drown in. I remember the chill that stayed with me, the ice in my gut.

  We tried to run, but they caught some of us. They caught me. And once they had me, my sister let herself be caught, too. We were cited for trespassing, held for questioning, since at first—before it was ruled an OD—they suspected foul play.

  No one would admit to giving London the drugs. No one would admit to dumping her body in the boat. Not one person had witnessed a thing.

  All I knew was how I kept on seeing her face, even after they lifted her out of the boat and carried her away. How I kept hearing the slap of the water, like there were people still swimming in it, even though everyone had been made to get out and stand far, far away.

  Then I was turning to my sister, who was there beside me in the back of the cop car, because suddenly we were in a cop car, and my sister, who never found herself in cop cars, wasn’t fighting it, or clawing at the cage, or making any attempt to break free.

  Her eyes were full of the night’s stars and her hair was glowing with the police lights and she acted as if nothing at all was wrong—until she got a closer peek at me.

  “What’s the matter, Chlo? You look so . . . scared.”

  I shook my head. I couldn’t put it to words. We were sitting in the backseat together, but part of me was wading that cold spot in the reservoir, hanging on to the edge of the boat, shivering like I was there still.

  She took my wet hair in her hands and wrung it out on the floor, to leave the cops a good puddle; and she brought my damp head to her lap, and didn’t care that I’d soak her skirt, and told me to close my eyes and sleep.

  I don’t remember much else after that. Or I try not to.

  That’s the summer I stopped living with Ruby. My dad in Pennsylvania took me, and then my hair grew out, and I lost my virginity in the back of a Subaru, and Ruby wasn’t there to tell it to. Ruby wasn’t there.

  Only sometimes did I call and get her voice mail and hear the sound of her telephone voice—nearly indistinguishable from my telephone voice—saying, “Leave a message if you dare.”

  I didn’t dare.

  I thought about other things instead. Like how I could have made it to the other shore, maybe, if I’d kept kicking and didn’t stop to catch my breath.

  How this could have been the story of that time I crossed the reservoir past midnight on a Thursday the summer I was fourteen. How I would have dove in, traveling underwater the entire way, a submarine in a mismatched bikini, a torpedo of hair and a flurry of kicking feet. Proof, she would have said, that I’m a creature built without need of lungs—inside me a safebox of air and scattered clouds: in case of emergency, break glass and breathe.

  In the water, my legs would have formed a tail, my arms fins. Ruby had seen it happen, she’d say, those times all those years ago when she’d been the one to give me a bath when our mother was at the bar. She’d seen the silvery flash under bubbles, the quickly shifting skin, seen it with her own two eyes.

  As Ruby wanted, I would have reached the cold spot and then gone deep. I’d touch my hands to the murky floorboards and abandoned roadways of the town no one could bear to leave, get my prints all over them. Then I’d come up with a piece of Olive in my fist: a rusted fork from a drifting dinner table, an algae-covered comb Ruby could rinse off and use in her hair.

  And no one would have believed it, no one would have thought it could even be possible, not till they shined their lights on the other shore and saw me standing there, waving the comb at them like I was someone special, mythical even—just like Ruby said.



  Ruby never said, “Stay.” Not out loud, not so I could hear. She came down to the curb as I was leaving for my dad’s and she simply stood there, eyes held back behind sunglasses, watching me go.

  She didn’t do much to acknowledge my dad, who’d come all that way to take me. She spoke only to me, as if he were a blot on her shiny lens that she’d wipe off when she felt like it—and until then she’d look right through the speck of him like he wasn’t there.

  All she said to me was, “I wish you didn’t have to do this, Chlo.” And then her voice got choked up and she backed away from the car and wouldn’t say one more word to me.

  Two dark lenses between us, a rolled-up window, a hard right into the road. Then miles of highway, the phones not ringing, then years.

  The dad I left with wasn’t Ruby’s dad. We have different fathers, so technically I’m her half-sister, not that we count in halves. She was there the moment I was born—literally, right there in the room, she’ll say and she’ll shudder. She saw me born at home on the futon, and though it may have scarred her for life, this means she won’t ever forget it. Or me.

  “I’ll never leave you,” Ruby used to promise. She’d cross her heart with me as a witness; she’d hold my hand hard in hers and hope to die. “I’ll never leave,” she said, “not ever.” Not like Mom, she didn’t have to say. Not like my dad, who left me, and her dad, who left her. No, she’d promise. Never.

  I guess we didn’t expect I’d be the one to leave her.

  Away from the town where we lived, I tried to forget the details of my life with Ruby. I had a new life now. Wednesdays, I no longer snuggled up on the couch to mock girl movies or laced on old roller skates to ride the ramps behind the Youth Center; I spent my hours alone doing homework. There were no weekend sprees for new sunglasses, no taking turns with the scissors to slice out fashion models’ painted lips and eyes from magazines to tape to our walls. After the last bell at school, there was no white car waiting for me—no detour down the old highway alongside the real highway, no windows open wide so the wind could dread my hair. I had to take the bus.

  But I thought of Ruby constantly. Of being with her, of what we did.

  How at all hours we’d lounge on the hard stone benches on the Village Green, which marked the dead-center point of our town, watching the cars go around, watching them watch us, and only now did I wonder if Ruby sat there just to be seen? Did I know how the universe revolved around the spot wherever Ruby happened to be, be it out on the Green or at home, or did I pretend I didn’t know, like a sun that’s gone lazy and slips down from the sky to lie out on the rooftop in her favorite white bikini only because she can?

  I tried not to think about that.

  I thought about our town. The exact blue of our mountains, the certain green of our trees. The Cumberland Farms convenience store where Ruby worked, pumping gas and filling in at the register, her hand dipping in the till, shortchanging tourists. Her apartment by the Millstream, her big, old-lady car. The store where she got her signature shade of wine red lipstick, how they held her color behind the counter so no one else could wear it. The rec field where we took to the swings, the spillway where we had parties. The reservoir, worst of all the reservoir. Every night I walked the unmarked path to Olive’s edge and couldn’t stop if I tried.

  Always, in my dream, it was dark. Always the stars above held the same pattern, because it was the same night, and time had wound back to let me take my place in it, where I belonged.

  I had the same aftertaste of wine coating my throat, could hear the same voices echoing from shore. My body made the motions to swim that great distance, even though I knew I’d come to the cold spot soon enough.

  Even though I knew I’d reach the boat. And her.

  But the cold surprised me each time. The fear felt new.

  Because there she was, the girl in the boat, drifting at the exact point in the reservoir where I’d stopped swimming the first night and stopped swimming every night I dreamed it since. Ruby always said she’d protect me, but I couldn’t keep myself from thinking the worst thing I could, since she wasn’t arou
nd to bend my mind her way.

  She didn’t protect me that night.

  The girl who’d been buried could have been me.

  The longer I stayed away from town the more I thought about the girl who sat in the last row of my French class, London Hayes. How she’d cut her hair right before the summer, chopped it off like a boy. How I’m pretty sure she had long hair before that, long and without bangs like so many of the girls in town because that’s how Ruby wore her hair. But now I remembered how London’s ears stuck out after she’d chopped it, like maybe she should have considered her ears before going ahead with that haircut and I guess no one thought to tell her.

  London once got called to the front of the classroom because Ms. Blunt, our French teacher, had spied what she was doodling in her notebook. She made London show the entire class: through a crosshatch of shaded scribbles, a naked girl with bloodthirsty eyes and sharp, serrated ribs, nipples dangling like extra fingers, toes black with disease.

  It was grotesque, offensive even. Ms. Blunt glared at the lined page, the blue ballpoint put down so hard it left gashes, and in her dramatically accented, overloud French she asked London, “Qui est-ce?” Violent pointing motions. Enunciation galore. “Qui est-ce?”

  And we all racked our brains trying to remember what that meant—this was remedial, not Regents-level French—but London knew the question and knew how to answer. She shook her head sadly and said, “C’est moi.” It’s me.

  Something was wrong with the girl—clearly.

  Other than that, I didn’t know too much about her. There was this rumor that she once took five hits of LSD and went to school on purpose, like a walking biology experiment, which I guess failed because she didn’t make it through fourth-period gym. She started drinking in sixth grade, people said, too, but that was mostly a compliment.

  I must have seen her outside school sometimes. She knew Ruby’s friends, could be spied in the backseats of their cars as they spun their way around the Green. Plus she was friends with Owen—I couldn’t help but notice—the boy I tried hard not to hold in my heart as he barely ever looked my way. Also, I’m pretty sure one time she borrowed my pen and never gave it back.

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