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Imaginary girls, p.23

Imaginary Girls, page 23


Imaginary Girls

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  London had come back—alone.

  She was a blinding bright spot against a backdrop of dark trees and then she was surrounded. By the time I reached her, there was a small crowd. A friend was propping her up. You could see bits of gravel on London’s hands and blackened skid marks on her knees as if she’d crawled down the road and through the woods to reach us.

  Questions were thrown at her: “What happened?” “How’d you get here?” “Where’s O?” “Omigod are you hurt?”

  London took a step away from the crowd, it seemed toward me.

  “I must’ve blacked out again,” she said.

  I glanced back at Ruby, but she hadn’t left her spot at the edge of the water. From this distance, she looked like any other brown-haired girl sitting on a rock under the stars. All that sky overhead made her look small.

  “I think there was an accident,” London said. “I think. I mean, I don’t remember. Where’s my parents’ car?”

  Then more questions, and London’s friends surrounded her again, and I couldn’t get to her, I couldn’t see her face or hear what she was saying. I thought of when I found her in the rowboat, and then when everyone knew, and everyone saw, and you couldn’t think with all the yelling and the splashing and the need to get away.

  I could see the accident as clearly as if I’d been in the car as it happened, in the back, watching. Speeding down the dark road, no cars ahead, no cars behind, and then the blur of a traffic sign to the right, the town line crossed, and the girl at the wheel gone. The car would keep going even without her frail weight on the gas pedal. The wheel would veer even without her hands there to make it turn.

  Owen wouldn’t know what was happening at first. He’d shout, “Watch the road, Lon!” The windows would be down, so his ears would fill up with wind. He wouldn’t be wearing his seat belt.

  When he realized the driver’s seat was empty beside him, it would be too late to jump in and take over. Far too late to hit the brakes. He wouldn’t know how to stop the car. The last sight through the windshield would be the thick, oncoming trunk of a tree.

  Then, inexplicably, by some kind of cruel miracle, the girl would reappear, but outside the car, dozens of yards away.

  She’d be back inside the town line, a town—she wouldn’t know this—she couldn’t ever leave.

  Her parents’ car gone.

  Her friend with it.

  And she’d have no idea how.

  If you were driving on Route 28 late that night, you might have seen the girl in the middle of the road, looking like she’d dropped from the hatch of a low-flying plane and only just got to her feet after the fall. She would have been dazed. She wouldn’t have moved out of your way, so you would have pulled up near her, rolled down your window, called out, “Are you all right? Do you need a ride?”

  “I blacked out again,” she would have said, and run off—a streak of white into a dark nest of trees.

  That was how I pictured it.

  Now Pete was rushing to his car, off to find his brother. And Asha was frantically trying to reach Owen on the phone. Damien was crying like a girl. And Vanessa was peppering London with questions. Cate was staring into her flashlight, and Kate, who I’d forgotten was there, was trying to find her shoe. Others had phones out searching for signals, and a boy I didn’t know was saying, “This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening,” though it was, most definitely it was.

  Ruby wasn’t there at all.

  I turned around, toward where she’d been sitting on the rock. Did she see what she’d done? Did she regret it? Would she wind back the clocks to set it right like last time? Could she? Was there something wrong with me that I believed she could?

  Only, she wasn’t on the rock anymore. She wasn’t on the shoreline or near the fire that was puttering out to nothing. She was gone.

  My eyes went to the reservoir. And out there, drifting somewhere in the dark middle, was what may or may not have been a rowboat, with a person hunched over in it, a person who may or may not have been my sister.

  Her arm moved. For a second there, I thought she may have been signaling to me.

  If there was anyone in the world I knew, it was my sister. Ruby, who’d been there the day I first opened my eyes. Ruby, who’d raised me. Ruby, who kept all my secrets even if she didn’t reveal all of hers. Ruby, whose bathing suit I was wearing right then so I looked more like her than maybe ever.

  Balance, she’d said. Something about balance.

  Sometimes you look at someone and, if you know them well enough, like really know them, you can be sure to guess what they’ll do before they do it. You may not understand why, may not ever understand it, but you don’t need to know the whys and the hows of things. Sometimes you only need to stop them.

  I dove in. I was swimming like Ruby had told me not to. Swimming so far, I lost track of shore. If you’d been watching from the waterlogged streets below you may have seen the white blur of my sister’s bikini—easy to spot against the dark reflected night.

  Ruby used to say I’d never drown, that I couldn’t, my body wasn’t built that way. Slip me under, and I’d emerge with fins for feet. Water turned to air once it reached my lungs. That was one of her stories and we’d all heard it a hundred times.

  Another was the story of Olive, one of the nine towns flooded to make this reservoir. What was it that made the people not want to vacate it for some other surface town? What tethered the two girls from her story here and made them have to stay? She’d never explained that.

  And after the steam whistle sounded out, did the girls stand with backs straight and eyes closed while the dams were raised and the water rushed in, steeling themselves for impact and then letting themselves get washed away when the wall of water hit? I imagined so. And, after, did they ever wonder what was up here, ever think of climbing out? These were things I’d never know.

  All I knew was to keep swimming.

  When I finally reached her, she looked into my eyes, which were almost like her eyes but barely half as green, and she opened her mouth and she said, “I’m really going to miss you, Chlo.”



  They asked me why she did what she did. Only, when I told them, they refused to believe me.

  The people in town, they just kept asking, again and again, for weeks and weeks afterward, what happened, how did she get in that boat, how’d she go under? They never found a body; they never found a reason. No one would hear me when I told them about the hands that got hold of her ankle and pulled her down.

  No one believed.

  I guess maybe they never had. No one in town had ever really trusted the stories about Olive, about the long-lost people still wading its flooded streets. They’d never heard the whistle, or sensed the eyes keeping track of their trespassing feet. The graveyard up above was any other graveyard. The shards of old teapots that sometimes washed to shore after a storm were any old trash and not valuable artifacts, antiques.

  So, later, when I told everyone what had happened to her—her friends and my friends, who couldn’t meet my eyes; Jonah, who skipped town soon after; Pete, who tore her picture from his wall for what she’d done to his brother, then secretly put it back up; her ex-boyfriends; her admirers; the guys at the gas station; the girls who kept her in sunglasses; our mom, at the bar; our mailman, at the corner; the cops, the news, the homeless guy who barked like a dog in the street—they all refused to believe.

  They forgot who she was:

  Something fantastic we could never explain. Someone better and bolder than every one of us. Someone to paint murals and build bridges for. Someone worth every ounce of our love.

  Someone powerful, but in the end not powerful enough.

  When she went under, no one would believe she thought it only temporary.

  That she couldn’t drown.

  That it simply wasn’t possible.

  Not her. Not us.

  How, when the cold hands got a good tug on
her ankle, she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll just have a talk with them.”

  How she said, “Don’t worry, Chlo. You know how everyone always does what I say.”

  How she was wearing my bathing suit, and I was wearing hers, so, maybe, for a moment, they were fooled.

  How she went under and how her breath bubbled up like tiny, translucent balloons cut loose from their strings, and how her arms reached out, and how her hair turned electric, and how her mouth mouthed not to worry, she’ll be back in time for breakfast. And then how the reservoir took her, and I tried to get her back, but her fingers slipped from mine, and how I sat there in the boat under her stars and her moon, gated on all sides by her mountains, watching the last bits of her breath float up and away.




  I said I’d stay in town, even after. I’d stay, though I heard how they talked about me, in the months that passed, the things they said. I couldn’t help but hear. With Ruby around, I used to find it easy to go deaf to anything anyone else uttered—it happened with barely any effort, like I’d been listening through an empty water glass held to a wall and all I had to do was step away.

  But, without her, every word seeped through.

  I heard them in the school stairwells and behind my back in trig and in chem; in the upstairs girls’ room, in the downstairs girls’ room, by the coolers in Cumby’s, on the Green as I drove by in her enormous white car, on the track while running laps in gym. They said things they’d never say out loud, if Ruby were here.

  They called me “disturbed.”

  They called me “hopeless.”

  They said I needed to get over it, move on. They said she was gone, and that was the worst, when they said she was gone. They said if I couldn’t face the fact that she was gone, someone should lock me up, like on that psych ward in Kingston where they put the cutters and the nymphos and the kids who talked to animals and thought they talked back. They probably would have said far worse, if they knew where I spent my nights.

  The thing is, everyone was wrong. There was no need to pump me full of sad-girl meds or fire up the electroshock machine. There weren’t enough talks in Guidance to convince me to let go of Ruby, to stop acting like she was around, because what no one in town could seem to face was that she was still here.

  Soon it was late fall, and I’d just turned seventeen, and the nights were longer than they’d been in summer, which I didn’t mind, since it meant I could make my visits with Ruby far earlier.

  I parked her car where she used to park it, and I found my way to the rocky shore without needing a flashlight. I’d walked the path enough times that my feet could find footing before my eyes had time to adjust.

  No one went swimming here anymore—it was too cold. But kids from the high school would come sometimes, for the thrill of jumping the new shock-fences, getting the electric buzz kicking up through their toes. They took the long way in, with the running leap and the high climb; they didn’t know how to find Ruby’s way, how it was there as it used to be, how all they needed was to seek out the flap in the fence, duck down, and crawl through. I knew, but I didn’t tell them.

  They’d spill out of their cars, parked where even the laziest cop could spot them, then stomp through the woods, cracking branches off trees, making a mess of the shoreline with their discarded trash.

  If I heard them coming, I’d take cover in the trees. But one night they were quieter than usual and caught me out in the open, near the rocks. And worse—London was with them.

  She walked differently, with Ruby not around. She walked like she owned the place, had carved her initials in all the tree trunks, then sucked the sap out with a straw. She was reckless, taking hits of E at school. She was sloppy, with her boyfriends on benches on the Green. She was nothing like my sister.

  She’d stepped out of the woods with her friends—three boys. They carried bottles of beer and flashlights, which bounced to me and then away from me. As soon as they saw who it was, the lights went far, far away.

  Only London came close. The beam of her flashlight revealed the collection of items at my feet.

  “What are you doing, Chloe?” she hissed.


  “Hold on. You’re not going to—”

  She stopped short when a boy called over to her, some boy I didn’t know. “What’s she doing?” he said; he wouldn’t come see for himself. There was something about me that scared people now, like they could see through me to what I carried around inside my heart, that lit and forever-flickering flame. You’d think they were afraid I’d try to burn them with it.

  Or maybe they just saw me at the reservoir and thought I was about to jump in.

  “She’s here to talk to her dead sister,” London called out, laughing as she did. The boys didn’t laugh; they couldn’t believe she’d said it.

  I had no reply. I didn’t—wouldn’t dare—deny it.

  London was cracking up. She laughed and she laughed and the way she laughed told me she didn’t care about anybody, especially not herself. I knew this from how she laughed at me—Ruby didn’t have to tell me.

  Even the boys told her to stop laughing. It wasn’t funny. I could tell they didn’t want to stand in the dark before the depths of the reservoir; they wanted to go, to get away from me and from it. Now.

  Then we heard the splash.

  It came from deep in, too far from the rocks on shore to pinpoint. It could have been anything, could have come from anywhere.

  We were all looking out after it when one of the boys stepped up. He squinted into the dark distance. “Is that a . . . boat?”

  The rowboat was white, or it had been, but with rust it looked reddish gold. Burnished by our eyes, roughed up from being out in the open, it drifted there, bobbing in the wind, going nowhere.

  “That wasn’t there before,” the boy said.

  “That’s some creepy shit right there,” another boy said.

  Then all eyes on me, and with the eyes came flashlights, and beams of light up and down my body, like I could somehow explain it, had some kind of remote in my pocket that could direct the night and the wind and every free-floating object from here to the Hudson. Like I was somehow in control, someone they shouldn’t mess with.

  London pulled her light away. “She’s just screwing with us,” she said.

  “I’m not doing anything,” I said, holding up my hands to show empty palms. The reservoir curled quiet at my side, not giving itself away.

  No one would say her name out loud, though I knew they were thinking it. You couldn’t not-think it, not here with her breath on the air, her eyes glowing from the tree branches like owl eyes, her face on the crater of the low-hanging moon.

  “O’s having that party,” one of the boys said. “Let’s go.”

  “Yeah, let’s get out of here,” another boy said.

  A beer bottle was tossed in, but it was empty, so it didn’t sink at first. It rolled along the surface of the water without even a message inside it.

  “Yeah, the party,” London echoed.

  No one asked if I wanted to come. Without Ruby, I wasn’t invited to parties anymore. I’d heard Owen had gotten his casts cut off and was throwing a party because he could walk again, but no one at school said, Hey, Chloe, O’s having a party, you should go.

  The boys took off, and London started to follow, but then she paused at the tree line, and I saw her shadow waver, her short stick-up hair and her telltale stick-out ears. Did she know how close she’d come to not having this party to go to? To not having these boys to follow her around?

  Is this what she did with her life, since Ruby had given it back?

  “Hey”—she was stepping closer to me now, talking nice to me, now that her friends couldn’t see—“Chloe? Are you, like, okay?”

  “I’m fine.”

  “How could you be fine? You’re not fine. Obviously you’re like the furthest thing from fine.” She looked do
wn at the pile of stuff at my feet. “Are you gonna burn all that up or something?”

  “What? No!”

  “Then what? Bury it?”

  “Why would I bury her stuff?”

  It was dark, and London had her flashlight held low, but enough of her face was illuminated so I could see that I was making her uncomfortable.

  I picked up a magazine. I collected them during my shifts at Cumby’s.

  That was my after-school job now—they let me take over my sister’s old shifts; I barely had to ask. I worked behind the register, carding kids for beer and selling instant cheese pockets, and I’d learned to pump gas the way Ruby used to, keeping the weight of the hose balanced on my hip.

  If I nicked a few magazines off the rack while at work, no one docked my pay, but it wasn’t due to some kind of powerful sway I held over the guys in the store. I saw how they looked at me when I pumped a tourist’s tank—nervous that I’d crack and take hostages. The only person who came on purpose during my shifts to get his tank filled, and looked me in the eyes when I was filling it, was Pete.

  I’d kept it secret so far, but there was something about London that made me want to tell her what I was doing here. To hint at least.

  I wanted to see if she remembered.

  Here we were, on the edge of the body of water where I’d found her that night. That boat was her boat.

  London slept nights at her parents’ house now, and she was back the way she used to be before that summer, but she was still more connected to this than she realized.

  And besides—I wanted to talk about Ruby; she was all I wanted to talk about.

  “She likes to read magazines,” I told London, “glossy fashion ones. The fat, fall ones are her favorites.” I flipped through the thick, bright thing in my hands, fanning out its happy pages like it didn’t twist me up to do it. “You know, fall fashion—boot season.”

  “Liked to,” London corrected me. “Liked to read magazines.”

  “Likes,” I corrected her.

  I looked past her at the water beyond us both, the water that seemed to have no end in the night, and there was no reason to think you could swim it—no one could.

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