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Imaginary girls, p.22

Imaginary Girls, page 22

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  When I got back, she wasn’t where I could see. Then I spotted London. She came out from behind the same trees that had hidden my sister, her legs and feet muddied, her clothes as soaked through as when we’d stood together under the falling rain.

  Had she gone off again with my sister when I was conveniently out of the way?

  She had. I could tell by how she was looking at me. All her friends were there asking where she’d come from and how long she’d been out there and yet she looked only at me. She said to me, “Thank you,” like I was doing something for her now. It sunk into me only as she thanked me for it.

  She’d taken my place once, and it was my turn now to take hers. My turn originally and my turn once again.

  She’d gone off with my sister when I wasn’t looking and something had changed.

  Then she pattered across the rocks toward her friends, and they enveloped her and left me there to gaze out at the water alone.

  Soon, Ruby walked out of the water, from the same shadowed spot that London had come from. She was motioning me backward with her hand, like I should stay where I was on the rocks and she’d come to me. There was ten feet of water between us—dark and dank and seeming deeper than it was, if it only came up to her knees—and then there were a few inches between us and then she was on dry land.

  “I don’t know how to say it,” she started.

  She pointed at London, who’d plunged in already with her friends, unafraid of the water. London, who splashed and screamed in delight, naked and drenched to the bone and dipping her whole head in, and she didn’t even care.

  Ruby’s eyes were brackish black without a hint of color in them. The night had swallowed all color up.

  “They don’t want her anymore, Chlo,” she said. “They want what they had before, Chlo. They want what I wouldn’t give them.” I could tell she was helpless now, more helpless than I’d ever seen her. “Chlo, don’t you understand? I tried to give her back, but it didn’t work. They knew I’d been tricking them all this time. What they want is you.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  RUBY KNEW

  Ruby knew what to do. She told me to go, now. Go to the house, pack whatever stuff I wanted from our rooms. Or, better yet, head straight to her car, since it was parked in the brush over the fence, sit on the hood and wait for her there. Never mind my clothes scattered on the ground and wherever I left my shoes, just go.

  But we couldn’t leave, I protested. We couldn’t leave town.

  She ignored me and pulled off her shirt, and I saw the bathing suit she had on underneath, a plain navy one-piece I recognized as mine.

  “Aren’t you coming?” I asked.

  “I can’t,” she said. She said no more, but I felt sure she was staying because Olive wouldn’t let her leave—as if they’d reached up and tied a rope around her ankle to keep her at bay. It was a thick rope, heavy and wet from lying for ages in coils at the bottom of the reservoir, and not even my sister could free herself from its knots tonight. She was barely even trying.

  She was letting go of my hand and I was stepping away from her toward the trees—away from the body of water at our backs, the one that plunged deeper than usual due to the rain, leaking far from its normal shoreline, covering rocks and rock walls the way it never had in other summers, even bigger than I remembered, too big—when I grabbed back and got hold of her arm and said, “I think I should stay.”

  She had this way about her, my sister, this innate talent at getting people to do what she wanted—to leave cash-register drawers gaping open, to tattoo her likeness like a Madonna across their ribs. How many times had I been witness? So I should have known how it felt to have her do it to me.

  She locked my eyes up in her eyes and secured the deadbolt. She caressed my arm, her touch softer than air. “Chloe,” she said, my name music on her tongue. “You don’t want to stay, do you? No. No, you don’t. That’s right, Chlo. I know. I know, I know, I know”—her hands in my hair here, her whisper in my ear—“you want to go.”

  I did as I was told. I must have. Because, before I knew it, I’d found the white Buick parked beneath the tree cover and I was sitting on the slope of its hood, waiting for her to come out and say it was time to go. Then two things happened that brought me back. The first was when Owen stumbled through the trees.

  He slowed and let his friends go ahead. “What are you doing?” he called to me, not getting close. “I thought there was a party.”

  “There is,” I said, and we heard it sounding out in the night, and he wanted to run to it, I knew, but still he stayed because maybe I had some magic in me, too.

  I was about to get him to do something terrible to himself, like stab a stick in his eye, or bash his head with a rock, to see if I could, the way Ruby could, just to see, when he said, “Don’t look at me like that.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like I did something to you. Like you cared. Like I’m the asshole.”

  “But you’re the one who—”

  “Guess what?” he said, cutting me off. “I did. Like you. I used to. But you’re not who I thought. I imagined you were . . . someone else.”

  “Who am I really, then?” I said. Because I was sitting on the hood of my sister’s car in her favorite white bikini, the night stars peppering my skin, and though I had no idea where we’d be living tomorrow, I knew that the one thing I did have in the universe was Ruby, and that Ruby had me.

  “You’re just like her.” He spat it out like an insult. “Guess I’ll see you out there.”

  He pushed through the trees and was gone, and I had no influence over him, none whatsoever. I hadn’t even had the chance to tell him I once liked him, too. I used to. But now I never would—not him, and not anyone—not again. For the first time, I felt truly like my sister. My heart had grown and twisted into the exact same shape as hers. We were mirror matches, on the inside.

  That’s when the second thing happened.

  I heard the whistle blow.

  The sound of it was faint at first, hard to discern from the wind. Then when I turned my ear to it, when I concentrated and sought it out, I heard it clear. The hiss of a steam whistle. A faint, faraway, years-buried scream.

  It was coming from the direction of the water. Where my sister was.

  When I reached the rocks, I found her where I’d left her. The air had quieted, no whistles carried here on the wind, and something in Ruby had turned calmer, colder.

  I noticed Owen catch sight of me, stop, then walk straight for the rock where London was perched, as if he’d been heading for that rock the whole time and hadn’t at any point in history been heading for me.

  Ruby spoke up. “So London told me something I refused to believe. A rumor. A lie. You and Owen. Do you know the one I mean?”

  I nodded.

  “Is it a lie?”

  I was careful not to make any sudden movements. “I guess that depends on what she told you.”

  Her neck snapped to where Owen was with London and this was how, with my sister’s hand now lightly circling my wrist, the hush of water at our feet, I happened to see what he looked like kissing someone who wasn’t me. How his mouth got on hers and then ran down to her neck, and how his hand pushed through her pale scratchy hair, and how he didn’t want me at all, even if he said he once did for like two seconds.

  I turned around, physically, to face the water. And I guess that said to my sister all she needed to know.

  I didn’t realize then how this changed everything. Her attention was diverted now, the spotlight wobbling over to center on me.

  “I’ll be right back,” she said from behind me. She didn’t tell me to go sit on the hood of her car and wait for her there, not again. This time, she let me stay.

  After she left, I felt it. How something was slipping. The moon pulsed in a perfect half, begging to be punctured if you only had fingernails that were sharp enough and long arms to reach.

  I sat on a log, away from the water, near where so
me boys tried unsuccessfully to build a fire. While they rubbed sticks in the dirt, grumbling about a pack of wet matches, Pete took a seat on the log beside me and slung an arm around my shoulders. It was too dark to see him, but I knew what I’d see if I could. A guy Ruby had and didn’t want anymore. A guy who loved someone who’d never love him back.

  “What do you want, Pete?”

  “Just saying hi,” he said. “Chill.”

  “Hi.”

  “Guess your sister’s back.”

  “She was always coming back.”

  We sat there in awkward silence until he said, “Hey now, I saw that before. Sorry about my brother. He’s a dick, what can I say. Here, have some of my beer.”

  I grabbed it, though Ruby could have been out there watching, and I took a swig, downing more than I should. Not even Pete’s spit on the mouth of the bottle stopped me.

  “Thanks, Pete.”

  He patted my leg.

  “Listen, you don’t really like my brother. Between you and me, he’s a loser. He wet the bed till he was nine. The kid’s selfish as shit. Take, for example, tonight. He’s got a stash in his bedroom like you wouldn’t believe, and he won’t share a little with me?”

  I shrugged and still he kept talking.

  “Not to mention that he left you on the side of the road. I heard about that.”

  His hand, as he said this, kept patting its way far up above my knee.

  “Um. Pete. If my sister sees, she’ll bite that hand off.”

  He snatched it away.

  “You know something?” he said, slurring just enough to let me know he was about to say something uncomfortable. “In this light, you look just like her. Did I ever tell you that?” He leaned in and took a sniff of my hair. “You even smell like her.”

  I stood up.

  I’d heard Ruby. Something about wine. Something how everyone knew she didn’t drink beer, so why didn’t they bring wine? How self-centered of them, how rude.

  She was mostly teasing—and of course she didn’t mean me—but she wouldn’t drop it. I edged away from the shore to listen.

  “Go get some for me, Lon,” she was telling London.

  But London didn’t seem to be at my sister’s beck and call any longer. “Tell Pete to go,” she told Ruby. “You know he will.”

  “Petey’s trashed. He’s about to pass out.” As Ruby said it, Pete wobbled on his seat on the log. He was drunker than he’d seemed only minutes ago.

  Ruby set her sights on Owen.

  “How about you go, O?” she said. “And none of that gas station wine either. Nothing in a box. I want something good and red and worth every penny. Here, take a ten. You can cover the rest, right?”

  “I’m baked,” Owen said. “I can’t drive.”

  “London has her parents’ car—she’s got it parked on the other side of those trees,” Ruby said. “She can drive. Can’t you, Lon?”

  “Yeah, but I don’t have fake ID,” London said. She stood there, near Ruby, her mouth open as if she wanted to protest more, but then she caved. She caved as my sister knew she would. “But I’ll drive,” London said. “If someone’ll go with me.”

  Ruby gathered up a sigh, like she was beyond exhausted by this conversation and about to let go of the idea of wine, and break up the party while she was at it, and maybe slash a few tires on her way home, but then she lifted her head, and I knew she wasn’t done yet. I felt the heat in her eyes even from where I was standing.

  She took her time looking around the circle—from Owen, who was trying to bum a cigarette; to Pete, so falling-down drunk he seemed about to somersault into the newly blazing fire; to a kid tending the fire with a big stick; to London, who was standing there in a shirt as white as the bikini I had on and you could see the fire reflected in it, making it appear like she had a chest full of flames. Then Ruby’s eyes landed back on Owen, where she’d started in the first place.

  “London, you’ll drive. Owen’ll go with you. I know he has ID. I’ve seen it when he buys beer at Cumby’s. Says he’s twenty-five and some guy named Dave from Georgia. Dave’s a Sagittarius. Isn’t that right, O?”

  His head nodded up and down like she had it on a string.

  London, too, was stuck on a pin, legs dangling. The flames covered her stomach, fanned into her face. “All right,” she said. “There’s barely any beer left anyway. But where? Nothing’s open.”

  “That place east on the highway will be,” Ruby said. “Phoenicia Wines. It’s open twenty-four hours.”

  “All the way out there?”

  “Yes,” Ruby said. “It’s not far. Fifteen minutes to get there, tops, if you speed.”

  I expected Owen to argue, but he only nodded, put his arm on London’s shoulder. “Yeah, whatever. Let’s just go.”

  “I’m driving,” London insisted as they walked toward the trees.

  At first, I thought Ruby wanted Owen out of my face so it would be less painful. But then why didn’t she just tell him to leave, and take London with him?

  It wasn’t until Owen and London were in the trees and couldn’t be seen anymore that it hit me. Maybe Ruby didn’t know what she’d done, how dangerous it could be to have London in the driver’s seat if they were headed outside town.

  Ruby must have not realized.

  I turned to tell her. I turned and saw she knew already. I was sure she did, by the air around her, the heat of it, the energy crackling in it. By the way she stood beside the fire, watched it grow. I knew in the way I knew all things about my sister—without her having to use words to say. She knew exactly what would happen when London drove across the town line into Phoenicia. Hadn’t I told her I’d seen it with my own eyes?

  I grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the crowd, toward the water. The reservoir beside us sucked in a breath, listening. “Why’d you do that?” I hissed. “Owen could—The car could—You could kill him.”

  “I couldn’t kill him,” she said, palms up in innocence, “I’m not the one driving.”

  There was glee in her answer, undisguised delight.

  “But—”

  “He did something he shouldn’t have, Chlo. He should have known better. He hurt you. No one hurts you. Did you think I’d just let something like that be? Just walk away tonight and do nothing? If you think that, you don’t know me at all.”

  “You shouldn’t have let him go.”

  She looked at me as if she could see me quite clearly in the dark. “If you’re so worried about him, then why didn’t you stop them, huh?”

  “Because . . . because you said.”

  “You don’t always do what I say,” she pointed out. “You didn’t wait for me by the car, did you?”

  I shook my head.

  “And if I told you to swim across the reservoir right now, and bring us back a souvenir while you’re at it—would you?”

  We both looked out for the other shore across the way. It was too dark to find it, and the moon had dimmed to nothing and wasn’t helping, but it was out there, we knew. If I swam a straight line from here to the void of blackness ahead, if I stayed down, and kept kicking, I’d make it there sometime. If they didn’t swim up and catch me first.

  “No,” I said. “Because you wouldn’t ask me to. Not again. It’s too dangerous.”

  She didn’t respond. I took the flashlight from her hands and turned it on toward her face. I saw how she watched the water, warily, as if expecting a serpent thing to come coil a tentacle around her leg. Yet her eyes sparkled at the same time, and her bare leg was out and waiting, as if daring it to grab her, taunting it to try.

  She gave me a nudge. “Move back, Chlo. You could fall in.”

  I climbed off the rock to the one next to it, farther away from the water.

  After a while, she called for me.

  “Chlo?” She was only one rock away, but she sounded distant. “What time is it? How long have they been gone?”

  I pulled out my cell phone to check the time. Maybe a half hour h
ad passed since Owen and London had left, I wasn’t sure. I told her the time.

  She concentrated for a moment on this, and then her eyes shot closed. She sunk down on the hard, cold rock, spent.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

  “I don’t feel so good,” she said. “I’m very, very tired.”

  I knew she’d been trying to do something right then, a psychic burst of energy to warp the world her way. But it looked like the strain of it would kill her first.

  “Ruby, stop. Sit up.”

  She pulled herself up slowly, as if it took great effort.

  “Look at my eyes, Chlo. I think I’m getting lines. Can you get wrinkles when you’re only twenty-one? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

  She aimed the flashlight beam at her face. It washed her out, bright as it was, but there were visible lines I hadn’t noticed before. She’d never looked this tired.

  “What’s going on?”

  “Balance, Chlo . . . Give and take. Push and pull. You for her, her for you. I think they’re mad that I tried to have it both ways—to keep you alive and her, too.”

  “But what’re they going to do?” I said, getting scared now.

  “Do I have to chop off my own arm and hand it over?” she said, speaking nonsense. “Because I’d do that, I would. If you could keep yours.”

  “Okay,” I said. “But what are you talking about?”

  She lifted her arm slowly, the arm still attached to her shoulder, and pointed out at the trees in the distance. “Look,” she said. “It’s too late to take back.”

  She was the one to notice it first, but then, all at once, everyone noticed, and they were running toward it, and shouting. Ruby stayed put. I hesitated for a second, and then I, too, started running. We were all converging on a figure in a bright white shirt.

  She looked ghostly as she emerged from the trees, her body birch-white, her short hair almost the same color as her clothes, as if she’d rolled around in baby powder to give us a good scare. The palms of her hands were up in the air, waving.

 
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