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Imaginary girls, p.20

Imaginary Girls, page 20


Imaginary Girls

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  Most of my memories of our mom didn’t involve her being conscious.

  She looked frailer than ever. Her hair must have weighed more than the rest of her. She took in a ragged breath and said, “She know you’re here?”

  I shook my head. “No, but she’s going to text me back any minute and then I’ll have to go.”

  “I just wanted to see you. Without her.”

  “What for?”

  “Because you’re my daughter,” she said, but she said it so robotically, I didn’t believe her. I looked around at the place instead of at her—the Village Tavern was as dark inside as I’d always pictured it, a low-lit room with sunken ceilings, lopsided wooden tables filling up the space and a long bar against one wall where Pete sat with his back to us, slurping a pint. I was far below twenty-one and shouldn’t have been allowed inside, but no one from behind the bar was coming over to kick me out. The only person who’d stop this reunion in its tracks was Ruby—and she wasn’t here.

  This tavern was where our mother spent her time. Maybe the whole of the past two years Sparrow lived in this dark hole, forgetting what sunlight looked like and letting herself be forgotten. This was what happened when Ruby stopped paying attention. You may as well cease to exist.

  “Did you want to tell me something?” I said.

  She nodded. She was looking down at her hands. She wore numerous rings, eight at least, cheap flea market silver with grimy birthstones from months she wasn’t born in, the bands gone tight beneath her swollen knuckles. This was why Ruby said you should never wear a ring long enough to grow old with it—some people shriveled and some people swelled, and you couldn’t be sure which way your body would go.

  “She told me not to see you,” my mom confessed. “She said no visits. Not to call. Said she’d let me know when—” She looked up, and there was a flicker of fright in her watery eyes, and then she stopped talking.

  I didn’t believe her excuses. The idea of my mom wanting to see me all this time, all while living in the same town, was absurd.

  “Ruby didn’t tell you not to see me,” I said. “She would’ve said something.”

  The expression on her face made me think she was more sober than she let on, that if I said the right thing, asked the right question, she’d know exactly how to respond.

  “There was something not right with her from the beginning,” she said. “A mother knows when her child’s not right, she can sense it.”

  She must have been remembering a different Ruby, not the one I knew. Whatever she saw in my sister wasn’t what I could see. And wouldn’t want to.

  “What do you even mean by that?” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with Ruby.”

  “She has a way about her, ever notice that? Always did, since she was small. A way of getting you to do things for her. To get what she wants. Say what she wants you to say.”

  I shrugged. This was true, but what of it?

  “You couldn’t stop her. You couldn’t stop her if you tried.”

  I glanced up at Pete, wanting to mouth Help! and have him rescue me, but his attention was too caught up in his beer.

  “I should’ve been there for you, Chloe,” my mom was saying. “To leave you alone like that with her. I’m so sorry.”

  She’d said things like this to me before, about being sorry, about leaving me alone, always after she’d sobered up and had her meetings. It didn’t matter what I said back. I could hum with thumbs in my ears, or use an onion to cry. It was all so temporary. Only the things Ruby said to me could be counted on forever.

  Still, I realized in this moment that I wasn’t mad at her. Maybe another girl would be, to have this kind of mother, but what Sparrow didn’t know is that I didn’t need a mom, not when I had Ruby. My heart was already full.

  “How drunk are you?” I asked. “Will you even remember this tomorrow? That we talked?”

  “I remember everything,” she said. She enunciated very carefully, as if she wanted to make sure it sunk in. “Everything , Chloe. Every single thing.”

  The dark of the room felt dimmer as she said that. Here, I felt sure, this here was what she wanted to communicate to me. It wasn’t about regret or love or how bossy Ruby was—it was this. She saw what I could see, and she wanted me to know that.

  Out of everyone in town—even London—she was the only one who did.

  “Do you remember . . .” I started, expecting at any moment for a text from Ruby to come through to keep me from talking, expecting someone to ask for my ID, expecting Pete to run out of beer, expecting a blockade that didn’t come, “do you remember sending that box to me in Pennsylvania, when I first moved in with Dad?”

  She nodded gravely.

  “The feathers made a big mess on the floor,” I said.

  She waited. She knew what I was going to say next.

  “And the obituary,” I said. “From that newspaper across the river. Do you remember sending that?”

  The film over her pale eyes was impenetrable, stuck in place no matter how many times she blinked. A windshield so fogged, the wipers couldn’t clear the way to see. When I looked into those eyes, I had to assume she had no idea what I was talking about. There was no way she could know.

  Only, her mouth opened and these were the words it said: “That poor girl. Her poor parents.” She knew exactly what I meant.

  “I told you,” she continued. “I remember everything, even the things I don’t want to. I remember before, and I remember after, and I remember when it all changed. And now you’re home.”

  My spine was on fire. My fingers prickled with heat, hot static fizzing through my body from end to end. “But . . . how?” I asked. I lowered my voice. “No one else does.”

  “She lets me,” she said. “She’s always let me.”

  Our mother saw more than I’d ever guessed, because Ruby wanted her to. But imagine being a drunk, known in town for passing out in the supermarket and sleeping off benders in the town jail—no one would believe a thing you said then. Imagine how mad you’d think you were, to be cursed to remember. It was a cruel, bitter thing Ruby had done. I happened to think our mother deserved it.

  “You know what?” she said suddenly. “You shouldn’t’ve come in here. I shouldn’t have asked you. I shouldn’t’ve gone out to the car . . .” She stood. “You should go now.”

  And it was right then, on cue, that a buzzing sounded. It felt like a moth had found its way in from the rain and climbed my leg, beating its wings inside my jeans so I would let it out. My phone, set on vibrate. This was a text from Ruby—and she’d sent it now, at this moment, to show she knew where I was. And who I was with.

  The text itself said nothing about that, though.

  ok come home. u need to pack. can’t stay in this house. we’re out

  We were leaving Jonah’s? I guessed her talk with him hadn’t gone so well.

  I eyed our mother, the first person we’d ever picked up and moved out on, when Ruby was seventeen and I was eleven-and-a-half and we decided to live in our own filth instead of having to share filth with our mother.

  I texted back: r u picking me up? bc i’m not on green

  My breath was held when I got her reply:

  call Petey. u know he’s always good for a ride



  I’m the one who made it happen, but I wasn’t certain until then.

  It was when I slipped my toe in. When I did what Ruby said I shouldn’t—and more where that came from, with boys and rides out of town, with our mother, the last person Ruby wanted me talking to, all of what I’d done radiating from my skin like fever sweat once I stepped out of Pete’s car and into her arms. She knew something was wrong without me having to tell her. She’d sensed it before, and now for sure she knew.

  She wasn’t the only one who’d become aware.

  Something else knew now, too.

  I looked down to find it pooling up over my ankles, murky and thick, more brown than green
, churning with sticks and bits of leaves and scattered trash, its surface crawling with thick patches of slow-traveling mud. The reservoir had somehow made its way up here. The water was spreading its fingers over the gravel driveway and the dirt yard, no higher than ten inches in places, but risen up enough to hide all trace of ground and swallow shoes. The back porch was even with the water now, coasting at the same level across the whole yard.

  Ruby pulled me out of the floodwater to a high-standing stone, one of the few left visible from the walkway that had once led from the driveway to the front steps of the house. We stood together on the tall stone, teetering, our four feet and four legs locked together to become one conjoined person, except she was taller and tanner and had wading boots on, and I was only me.

  “It’s coming up,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s coming up from all the way over there, but it is.”

  “Yeah, but it’s stopped raining,” I said. “Maybe it’ll go down now.”

  “Maybe. Or maybe we’ll need to build ourselves a boat.”

  I looked back toward the driveway Pete had just coasted down—the one that had been slick with mud but still manageable—and I saw that already it was taken up by large stretches of water. You could see the water seep down to the end, wanting road. You could see Pete cursing and kicking at his swallowed tires. You could see how far the water had gotten, when it shouldn’t have—not with a hill and a highway and fences and concrete barricades in the way.

  The logistics of it were unexplainable, like so much of what had gone on since I’d been home.

  This flood of water was from more than the rainstorm, I realized—and being elevated on a hill hadn’t helped any, though it should have spared us. From our view on the tall rock, with all the lights from the house on, I could see how the hill where the house was built now connected straight across to the large expanse of the reservoir in the near distance. The water was a flat sheen, seeming the same height all across. There used to be a road—the two-lane stretch of Route 28—between us. No longer. Now there was no differentiating where the reservoir ended and the house began. Now it looked like we lived at the edge of a great, thrashing ocean.

  The reservoir water had crept in to wrap its cold fingers around us, expanding past its own walls and making it up here. It had gotten out.

  Because of me.

  Ruby balanced with me on the tall stone, trying to figure out what we should do. I was silent, and not helping by staying silent, but she kept a hold of me and made sure I didn’t slip. I thought of London down there, and hoped she’d gotten out. Then I remembered she wasn’t in any peril. She could breathe in the deep just fine.

  Pete would need a tow if he wanted to ever leave, and Ruby’s own low-riding Buick wouldn’t make it out of the drive tonight, either. Jonah emerged from the house saying water had gotten into the basement and he’d have to rent some kind of pump to flush it, but other than that the house was all right and we should go inside and get dry.

  “Are you telling me what to do?” Ruby snapped at him, her wit’s end having already been reached long ago and now whipping and snapping in the wind.

  “But it’s stopped raining,” he said. “The water’ll go down. Just get in the house.”

  Ruby shook her head defiantly. But when she looked around the shallow lake of the backyard, her veranda an island drifting in the midst of it, she changed her mind.

  “We’re going upstairs,” she announced. “Jonah, we’ll be out of here tomorrow. Make sure my car can get down the driveway.”

  Jonah squelched closer, his hair wet and dripping tears on his tattoos. He had no idea what he looked like to us, or what he sounded like when he opened his mouth. “Baby, you can’t be serious. You’re leaving, just ’cause of a flooded basement?”

  Here’s something I knew: My sister was not his baby. In fact, my sister didn’t allow herself to be anyone’s baby; she never had, not even when she was one. Anytime a guy called her a word like that, I knew it meant he’d lost her for good.

  “Oh, the basement’s just one reason,” Ruby said. “You know all the other reasons. Don’t make me say them out loud in front of my little sister.”

  Pete and I had clearly interrupted an argument. I tried to peel my eyes away, to be polite. But he looked on, to be rude. Then he spoke, to make it worse. “Hey, what about me? What about saying all this in front of me?”

  “What about you?” she said. “If you can’t get down the driveway, you can sleep in your car, can’t you?”

  She took her first step off the stone and into the shallows. The water couldn’t have been that deep, but it had gone opaque as the stone itself, hiding everything in its grasp, even her boot toes. She tried to bypass Jonah, but he wasn’t letting her through. He grabbed her by the arm and held her still.

  It was like seeing a daring, darting bug’s glistening, shimmery wing get wedged flat and stuck in place by a pin. She wiggled, he held fast, and then she stopped wiggling, and he kept holding fast, and I couldn’t watch anymore. I had to look away.

  “Ow,” I heard her say. “That’ll be a bruise.”

  “It will not,” he said.

  “Will so. Give it an hour, I’ll have an eggplant on my elbow. And I have two witnesses here to show how it got there.”

  Jonah was mumbling—groveling probably, apologizing up and down and sideways—and then there was some fumbling around, and wet slurping sounds, like Ruby was making full use of the slimy muck at her feet. I peeked back and saw them standing together in front of the house. His hands were on her arm, lightly now, like he was afraid to keep touching her and equally afraid to let go. There was mud on his shirt.

  “You can’t treat me like this, Ruby,” he said in a low voice. But I could hear. I had Ruby’s ears—the same shape and size, the same recessive earlobes. And Ruby could hear you chewing your fingernails from a floor away and would yell for you to cut it out, right now. She could hear the things you think if you thought them loud enough while resting your head on her shoulder. She could hear from across town.

  I could hear Jonah plainly, and what he said next was the most pathetic thing a grown man could say to my sister, the four dreaded words: “But I love you.” And worse was how he paused after saying it, then added, “Don’t you love me?”

  She didn’t answer right away. She didn’t answer for so long, I wondered if she’d forgotten they were having a conversation and that Pete and I were standing here witnessing. It was cruel how long she took to answer, awful and terrible and so very cool of her, something to aspire to.

  She removed his fingers from her arm and rubbed her elbow. She had his hand in her hand and took the whole lot and placed it on his heart. Then she let go, so all he had was his hand all by itself on his heart. Her own hand was far away.

  “What ever made you think I did?” she said.

  She began splashing for the house, signaling to me that I should hold still a moment. That moment was long, with me trying not to fall off the stone, with Jonah withered by what she’d told him, and Pete buoyed up wondering if he had another shot now—but she splashed back to my side as quickly as she could. She carried a pair of galoshes and slipped them on my feet one by one. Then she gave a last glance at the dark and stormy sea behind the house, like they’d won this one, but she’d for sure win the next, and we sloshed up to the front door, opened it by the hole where the knob should be, and tracked mud inside, leaving a trail for someone else to clean up later.

  I didn’t much care that she’d broken up with Jonah. Over the years, I’d witnessed many breakups, some quick and quickly forgotten, some slow and agonizing and needing restraining orders. Some breakups featured flying food products—or harder, more controllable objects like boots—lots had tears, and most, if not all, included the sight of Ruby being the one to walk away. Her turned back, her long, lingering trail of dark hair . . . That was her flourish of a signature, to remember her by, always.

  But this time, she seemed all sniffly about it. She
wiped at her eye, and I wasn’t sure if what she wiped off was a tear or a speck of muck. Maybe it was the house, as this was the closest we’d ever come to having one of our own. Maybe she was grieving her veranda.

  Now that we were alone, I wanted to tell her what I’d seen: London vanishing and reappearing in the road, then sneaking in to go sleep at the reservoir. But, if I went and told Ruby that, I’d also have to explain how we got ourselves past the town line. Plus I’d have to tell her I knew what happened when London crossed over. How it meant that everything my sister had done could only be found in here, in our small town.

  Which meant, if we left, it would crumble to nothing.

  “We need supplies,” Ruby said to me now, muddying up the kitchen. “We’ll stay upstairs all night, no coming down till tomorrow. Just in case.”

  She filled her arms with anything not yet past expiration. She grabbed bags of nuts, a heel of cinnamon bread, some slightly overripe bananas, a sprig of grapes, and somehow managed to wrangle up a clean bowl to hold it all. We were abandoning our diet due to a state of emergency. Then she swept me up the stairs with her, leading the way over the gate.

  I knew how her mind worked. Once, years ago, when our mother had company, Ruby led the two of us out a window onto the rooftop, then a tree branch, then over to the neighbors’ trellis and onto their porch, where we sought refuge till morning. This was because if she didn’t like a thing that was happening, she wouldn’t stand by to watch. Sometimes she’d leave before there was even a chance at a thing happening—she’d slip out of a car just before the kiss, anticipating the moment of denial before having to deny it. If there were still some visible parts of the road out there, we’d be speeding down Route 28 right now. As things stood, we’d wait and hope for morning.

  Upstairs, Ruby closed her bedroom door and turned on me. Now we’d talk. Now I’d tell her.

  But she said, “They know you’re back, Chlo. Explain to me how they know. You went swimming when I told you not to, didn’t you? You snuck in.”

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