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Imaginary girls, p.21

Imaginary Girls, page 21

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  I denied it. Barely tapping the water was not the same as plunging into it. One touch of a toe wouldn’t, couldn’t cause all this. Could it?

  The more I said my denials, the more I felt something in the house with us. It had followed us upstairs. Its smell had seeped into the furniture, the wood now sweating with it, drips of condensation running down. The air in the room was growing cold, too cold for summer, and too cold for the surface. It felt like we were deep under with the rest of Olive, their telltale chill seizing hold of my bones.

  I thought of what she’d said. She’d said they. So she felt them here, too.

  I brought the question to my lips. “Do you think they got in the house?”

  Her face chilled, and the temperature of my skin dropped even more degrees, and I took a step back, and was up against the big canopied bed, and then I was crawling into the bed to make sure my feet didn’t touch the floor.

  The walls looked down on us, knowing who we were talking about, yet not calling them out by name. Shadows in the paint made grave faces at us, eyes as large and serious as my sister’s, but without lashes, and without the mechanism to close. Toes curled and went black; nipples dangled to the floor like extra fingers. The lamplight turned murky, the shadows green and strangled around a taut, drowned neck.

  You’d think that the people of Olive torpedoed up to the surface to wait for us to start talking. That they broke free and choked out their first earthbound breaths in a near century all so they could hear what she said about them. They crawled the hill, slithered down the porch, suctioned sticky hands to the walls. They braved splinters. They found the widow’s walk. They pressed damp ears to the window screen and listened in.

  Maybe they did. Maybe they were.

  “Have you seen them?” I asked.

  She nodded faintly.

  “Has London?”

  “Of course.”

  I confessed the way the girl had turned to air in my hands, but Ruby barely blinked at that admission. I said I saw where she sleeps.

  She didn’t say a word about it.

  “You could have drowned, and it would have been all my fault,” she said instead. “You’ve never had a baby sister, so you can’t know how it felt. How it still feels. How every morning I wake up and think of what I almost let happen.”

  “Almost,” I whispered.

  “Almost,” she agreed. “I’d do anything for you—anything. I have. Want to know what happens when you let your baby sister get hurt? What that feels like?”

  “What?”

  “You want to die. You want to curl up under the wheels of a truck and let it run you over as many times as it takes to flatten you flat. You want to throw a hair dryer in the bathtub when you’re in it. You want to do anything to take it back.”

  And here she smiled. And the eyes in the walls and the eyes looking through the window witnessed this and could do nothing to stop it.

  “So,” she said, “I did.”

  A shiver ran through me.

  “I did,” she repeated. “I kept you from drowning. I gave them her instead.”

  When she said that, the truth of it all came tumbling down on me like a waterfall that falls and falls and keeps falling long after you’ve been swept up in it. I was beginning to remember. Swimming—and not making it—across. The body in the boat hadn’t always been there to keep me from sinking in.

  Ruby didn’t realize I was remembering it, though. She said, “And now I’m tired. Look at the bags under my eyes.” She lifted her eyes, and I did see bags beneath them, two purple and puffy foreign objects on her face. I saw how her hair frizzed out. How her elbows had dry spots and how a crinkle had set in deep above her brow. I saw how it had taken its toll, all of it. The effort of keeping this up was leaving physical strain on her body.

  “We should sleep now,” she said. It wasn’t long before she fell deep in, drifting so far that I couldn’t rouse her.

  In sleep, her face darkened. She didn’t sleep-talk at all.

  We spent our last night in that house together, Ruby clinging to me like we were afloat on a raft in the boundless ocean—but we’d long run out of food and one of us would have to let go soon; one of us would have to go under before we ate the other.

  I didn’t dream that night. What I did was remember. I remembered a night two years ago, on the rocks at the edge of the reservoir, a night I’d stuffed up in a paper bag crumpled up inside a sock that I’d balled up and shoved far in the back drawer of my mind, where the worst things go.

  It was illegal to swim the reservoir, but we did it anyway. And it was impossible to swim across in the middle of the night, but I started to try. My sister would have propelled me all the way to the other shore—like she held a hand under my stomach, propping me up where no one could see she was doing it—except she thought too much of herself sometimes. She thought she didn’t have to help. She began to think I really could swim down to the bottom and grab hold of a souvenir.

  Then I felt the water turn cold and, as the chilled spot enveloped me, the downward tugging pull.

  A thought bubbled up about Olive. Had they sent an emissary for me—a cold pair of arms to put me in a sleeper hold and drag me down? Is that what was happening? Is that why I was choking on water and couldn’t get air?

  Ruby is right, I was thinking. Because I felt their eyes on me, the eyes of Olive, heard them calling me, heard how they already knew my name.

  And she was right about me, too. I didn’t need to breathe, the closer I got to Olive; there was enough air in my lungs to last me years.

  That would have been the moment I drowned.

  Because then there was dark.

  Then there was nothing.

  Not because I died, but because I didn’t. I didn’t die because my sister had a way to bend the world to her bidding, a talent of hers since she was small. In a panic, she did the first thing she thought to do: save me, even if it meant sacrificing someone else.

  In a heartbeat, she lifted me up out of that cold, deep water. She’d sent something for me to hold on to, that rowboat drifting there at just the moment I needed to catch my breath.

  I didn’t sink down to Olive, I remembered this for sure now. Someone else took my place so I could be here.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  DON’T GO

  Don’t go,” I would have said, if she’d only woken me up first. But what I woke to was the sun on my face and bright, shadow-free walls and an enormous expanse of bed, rumpled sheets tossed about like a windstorm, the room empty except for me.

  It was morning, and she was gone.

  On the pillow beside mine was a glistening strand of hair. Ruby and I shared a hair color, no thanks to having two different fathers: the same exact shade of deep dark brown, enhanced with equal parts henna used to bring out the red. But this strand of hair didn’t match our color. It was white, like all pigment had been stripped out in one suck. And when stretched out to flatten its curl, it reached, end to end, as long as my arm.

  The unread text on my phone—I could picture her there in the room, messaging me from inches away instead of shaking me awake to tell me in person—said simply:

  brb xo

  Wherever she’d gone was yet another secret she was keeping from me.

  I checked the windows first, to see if we were still flooded in, but all that was left in the yard were scattered puddles and shallow slicks of mud. The reservoir wore an innocent face across the way, waterline still high, but not near enough to engulf the road.

  Down in the kitchen, I could hear both Jonah and Pete being all perplexed about where she was, too. When I peeked in, I saw how they kept eyeing each other like they’d kick the table aside and scrap with their bare hands if she came back and said she’d pick only one of them.

  “Her car’s gone,” Pete said.

  “I saw,” Jonah said. “She took all her shit from the living room. And who knows what she got from upstairs.”

  “The water’s down,” Pete s
aid. “Guess she didn’t need any help getting out.”

  “Guess not,” Jonah said.

  They both stared as I stepped all the way in but didn’t utter a good morning.

  “She left Chloe here,” Pete said, as if I wasn’t digging out some sugar cereal from the cabinet two feet away.

  “All I know is she’s not taking off and sticking me with a fifteen-year-old kid,” Jonah said.

  “Sixteen,” I said, eating cereal out of the box.

  “Sixteen-year-old kid,” Jonah corrected himself.

  “Don’t look at me, dude,” Pete said. “She can’t stay at my place. I live with my parents.”

  “Well, she can’t stay here,” Jonah said.

  “Stop it,” I said. “She’ll be back for me. She told me.”

  And she would; it was only that I didn’t know when.

  The day deepened and she didn’t answer her texts. The night swept closer and she didn’t pick up when I called. The white Buick didn’t roar back down the driveway. When Pete got his car out of the mud and said I could get a ride with him, I went into town looking for her. No one had seen her all day.

  Coincidentally, no one had seen London, either.

  It was on the Green, standing there with some of London’s friends, that I realized I needed to go back. I needed someone to drive me. Now.

  I made an excuse. “It’s so hot out,” I said, sounding so innocent. “I feel like swimming. Let’s go to the reservoir.”

  Cate, Damien, Asha, and Vanessa liked the idea and said sure.

  “So, you gonna swim across this time? Like you did that one summer?” Cate said to me, oblivious or stoned or both.

  “I thought you asked if she was going to swim across time,” Asha said.

  “Wow,” Cate said. “That would be impossible.”

  “Yeah like completely impossible.”

  And they didn’t wait for an answer—if I’d swim it this time, if I ever even had. We went for the car, but everyone had stops to make first, and at each stop someone new was told and the group got larger. Soon there were snacks and smokes gathered and flashlights and cheap beer from the place in town that didn’t card. Word had gotten out and the handful of kids wanting to swim had expanded. There were more kids going than I could count. Some, I didn’t even know. I’d accidentally instigated a party.

  When we hit the rocks on shore, I could barely look at first—at the water. I kept my back to it, took the first beer handed to me, though it was warm and shook-up from the walk in the woods, tried to go for a sip, and sprayed myself with foam instead. Behind me, voices in the water seemed to whisper imperceptible mumbles of things, hardly words at all. I saw how the water was edging closer to the trees than I’d ever seen it, and it seemed somehow darker in the night, if that were possible, and so deep there wouldn’t be just a lost town down at the bottom but a long highway leading down and down, until someone who didn’t need lungs to breathe could find herself emerging with a splash in another lake on the other side of the world.

  I didn’t go in. The last time I’d stepped all the way into this reservoir, I’d found a dead girl floating in it.

  Tonight, so far, there was no trace of her. Or of my sister.

  “Don’t!” Cate shrieked from a pool of darkness, startling me. But she was only goofing off with her friends, saving herself from being thrown in at the last second. She was talking to her friend, not me.

  Damien dove in first. Asha made a splash like she weighed three hundred pounds, though she weighed a third of that and no one could figure out how such a big splash had come from her. Vanessa fussed with her bra strap. Some girl I’d never seen before stepped out of her clothes and jumped, and then I couldn’t see her anymore. There was a boat being pushed in; there was a jumble of shoes on shore.

  So many people were there—too many.

  I got caught up in it. My shoes came off, then my shorts and my shirt. I could cannonball down from the high rocks into the water below; the plunge would have more force that way—I’d hit and sink fast toward bottom. Once under, I’d stay down as long as I could stand it. I’d hold my mouth closed and hope the air lasted. I’d open my eyes and hope to see someone. Maybe a person from Olive would tell me where my sister was.

  I was at the edge when a voice rang out, echoing off the water and the rocks and the mountains framing the stars and moon above. Coming from everywhere and from one place only. From one person.

  “Chloe!”

  Everyone froze. The night slipped to mute, the sounds of splashing wiped clean away, so all that could be heard was the hush of the reservoir as it breathed in and then out again, in and then out. I realized that everyone was looking up at me. Then we heard her slosh as she waded out from a blind spot veiled by rocks and trees, and now everyone was looking at her.

  She had her flashlight on high, one of those industrial-strength models that investigators use when fishing through a crime scene. The light found Asha and Cate, Damien and Vanessa. It showed them without clothes, dripping wet and covering what they could. It held tight, revealing them shivering in the suddenly harsh and bitter night.

  I spoke up. “Hi, Ruby. I’m up here.”

  The beam of her flashlight cast its way across London’s friends one last time. Then it trickled across the other kids who’d joined us, some I knew and some I didn’t, some in the water and some on the rocks, more faces to count when you could see them. It was like everyone from town had come, only because I’d suggested it.

  Ruby lit up each face until she reached mine, then she lowered the beam to show everyone my black bra and blue-flowered panties, mismatched and cotton on the bottom, like a little girl.

  “You forgot a bathing suit, Chlo,” she called out. She stepped onto shore and waved at the spot beside her, to show I should take my place in it. “I have one for you, in my pocket. Just come down here and get it.”

  I could see her smile. I wished I hadn’t, because it was the kind of smile she never gave to me. It was a smile for a boy who wanted to know her and never would. A smile for a girl who wanted to be like her and never could be. A smile for a perfect stranger.

  I climbed off the rock and went to her. I felt everyone watch me go. Then I felt everyone look away before I reached her, as if they weren’t allowed to keep looking anymore. I patted her pocket, right side first. She wore jeans with the cuffs folded up to her knees; it was strange to see her in jeans. And only the bottom half of her legs were wet. She’d been in the water, but she hadn’t been swimming.

  In her right pocket was a rusty nail, a quarter, a nickel, a penny, her naked hula-lady lighter, a loose strawberry candy, and a smashed pack of cigarettes with one left inside. I confiscated that; she knew I wanted her to quit.

  She shrugged, kept smiling.

  I tried her left pocket, and in it I found a bottle of violet nail polish, a tube of wine lipstick, and her car key. Really, I don’t know how she kept so much in her pockets. Her jeans were pretty snug already. Still, I didn’t find any bathing suit.

  “Where were you?” I whispered. “Where’d you go?”

  “Keep checking,” she answered without whispering.

  She turned, and poking out the back pocket of her jeans was a bathing suit. It wasn’t one of mine though; it was hers. It was her favorite white bikini, the one she’d never before let me wear.

  “I said I’d be back,” she said, her voice low. “You should have stayed at the house.” Then, once I’d pulled the bathing suit from her pocket, she spun around to face me. “But, since you’re here, that’ll look cute on you. Sorry it took me forever to get here, I got pulled over.”

  “But how’d you know we were here?”

  “You can’t do anything in this town without me hearing about it. You should know better than that, Chlo.” She shook her head, disappointed. “But it’s adorable. I mean, look at all the kids who showed up.”

  “I didn’t . . .” I hadn’t meant for all these people to show. But I realized what she’d sa
id before. “Ruby, did you say you got pulled over? Like by cops?”

  She sighed. “No, polar bears. Yes, cops. One cop. A mustachioed state trooper who told me I was driving too fast. He untucked his uniform and pulled up his shirt to show me his tattoo—I don’t like that I was naked in it, but I did like the colors and I liked my hair—so I thought he’d let me go. But then he was all business and took his time writing up this little piece of paper for me and it wasn’t a love note or anything.”

  “So it was a ticket.”

  She shrugged.

  “A cop with a tattoo of you gave you a ticket and you . . . let him?”

  She saw where I was going with this, how in the world where Ruby lived, where I thought we still lived, she didn’t get speeding tickets, or, for that matter, white hairs. She didn’t have problems the way normal people did. She lived the way a dream might, if it grew legs.

  “It wasn’t a very nice tattoo,” she said, and sighed. “Just go put that bathing suit on, Chlo. I almost got arrested driving it over here.”

  She pointed into a thatch of trees, where I’d have some privacy. Then she smiled, the wide and dazzling kind that was all teeth. Something was very wrong and she wasn’t telling me what. Instead she was showing teeth. When I looked up beyond the dazzle of the smile, she moved the beam of flashlight away so I couldn’t see her eyes.

  All everyone else had noticed was that smile. I sensed how they responded to it, visibly relaxing and going back to the party. As if they now had her permission.

  I went to go get changed. It didn’t matter to me, swimming in my underwear, but for some reason she wanted me to wear this bikini. It took a long time to get the suit untied from the knots that held it together and longer to get it on my body. It wasn’t until I had the white bottoms on and was tying the strings that held together the white top that I thought about it. I’d expected her to tell me to go up to the house, and instead she was dressing me in her clothes and letting me stay.

 
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