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Imaginary girls, p.24

Imaginary Girls, page 24


Imaginary Girls

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  “Only problem is they get wet,” I continued. “The pages get all stuck together and it’s pretty much impossible to read that way.”

  London threw up her hands. “I know I should feel sorry for you, but I can’t anymore. You put on this show, to get people to pay attention to you, but guess what? It’s not working.”

  She said it with her back to the water—oil-black in the blacker night—close up to it, nearer than Ruby would have wanted me to stand on my own, the heels of her feet practically inside.

  She shouldn’t have done that. She was close enough to push.

  But before I could do a thing—before I could even let myself think it—an answering splash came from the reservoir, close to the rocks now, right where we stood. It could have been a fish, or a rustle of wind, anything really. Still, I wasn’t expecting it and the noise startled me, but it shocked London—she jumped and skidded, almost belly-flopping into the frigid shallows, flashlight and beer bottle and all. The shriek she made hit the water and burst back up in our faces. It echoed against the rocks here and the rocks across the way. It flew through the sky. It filled our town and escaped to the next county.

  So much noise, all the people down in Olive would have had to hear it—no one could have slept through that. They’d have gathered on their Village Green, boys and girls, moms and dads, the mayor’s daughters—the oldest Winchell sister who still looked after the youngest, like I pretended Ruby kept on doing with me—eyes cast up toward their watery night sky that hung below our airy one, to the surface, to London’s spindly legs, her bony ankles in striped socks well in reach.

  Months ago, Ruby had said something I’d kept thinking about. Balance, she’d said, it’s all about balance.

  Give and take, push and pull, this girl for that girl, one thing for another.

  If not me—Ruby would never, ever let it be me—then would London do? Had they changed their minds and would they take her back now? Would it work if I threw her in? If I did, then would someone I wanted to see more than anyone in the world come walking out in her place? Someone wearing a sundress in the night, drenched through and showing blue shaking knees, a braid of seaweed for a toe ring, hair longer than I’d ever seen it, a new freckle I’d get to know on her nose? Was it wrong to wonder these things? Could anyone blame me if I did?

  But London had distanced herself from the water; she wasn’t even on the rocks anymore. She was on flat, dry ground, closer to the bank of trees, as if about to make a run for it. She whipped around, eyes skittering. She was hyperventilating and couldn’t speak.

  “See something?” I asked her.

  “I thought—I almost thought . . .” Then she was shaking her head, shaking it away. She wasn’t going to say it out loud, wouldn’t let me have it, not this one little thing.

  A sound came from the woods—one of the boys she’d come here with, shouting her name.

  She snapped out of it. There was a party to go to, Owen’s party. He could walk again; everyone who was anyone in town would be there.

  “Gotta go,” she said. And she took off, stepping fast into a trot, a trot that turned into a full-out run, unapologetically running away from me, as if I’d spooked her.

  I could hear her crashing through the woods. Tearing past trees, pitching herself up and over the fence. In the near distance an engine roared; tire skin got lost on asphalt as they hit highway, and I was left alone, here at the edge of Olive.

  Alone with Ruby.

  I took a step closer to the water. I was always hesitant at first, careful. There were the hands that might make a grab for me, and I knew how strong the people were down at the bottom, how their weight got doubled by the water, but how fast they still were, faster than you’d think.

  All it took was one tug.

  Then you’d fall.

  Imagine tumbling through a dark tunnel, its walls made of mud and nothing to hold on to, nowhere to climb. Imagine distance was measured in cupfuls, and someone just poured in a whole lagoon. Imagine being so drenched, your bones got soggy. Imagine the cold.

  It’d be wet like nothing I’d ever felt before, not even that time our mom left me too long in the bath and Ruby came home to find me pruned and greased up with soap, splashing a tidal wave over the bath mat.

  Falling would last a day and a night and part of the day after that—the reservoir was deeper than anyone who dug it in 1914 even knew. And when I hit bottom, I’d look up and up, and there’d be muck in the way—leaves and scum and tire goo, and junk like old sneakers and bottles people threw in—and that’s all I’d see of sky from then on.

  All that, Ruby used to tell me.

  Now, I stood at the edge. I didn’t call her name; I wasn’t deranged, not like people said. She wouldn’t have been able to hear me if I did, not with all the water in the way.

  I thought about what happened. She’d tried to save me—twice. The first time, when I almost drowned, she reached out to find someone to give instead and it only happened to be London. But the second time, the worst and final time, she jumped in herself to take my place. I would have gone instead, if only I’d known.

  If she could hear me, that’s what I’d tell her.

  I climbed out to a rock I often sat on, the one that jutted past the others, half-submerged. I felt like one of those kids with a relative in prison, counting off their sentence until the day they got out. A wall of glass separated them, and armed guards were always watching. No touching, not ever. They could bring gifts if allowed: magazines, and pictures to paste on cell walls, but everything would have to be searched first. And once they left, they couldn’t send texts.

  I was luckier. I didn’t have to wait for visiting days—I could come anytime, though that didn’t mean I’d get to see her. And I could stay all night if I wanted to. I lived with my mother, reluctantly, and even though she was sober again she wouldn’t care how late I was out, even on a school night. Maybe she knew who I came to see.

  I fanned out the magazines and laid out some strawberry candies from Cumby’s. I put out one cigarette—just the one; because once she was back, she could have one and then she was officially quitting—and her naked hula-lady lighter. I was careful not to get any of it wet. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen in winter, when the reservoir froze over. We didn’t have enough time together as it was.

  Then I waited.

  Sometimes the time passed quickly, and before I knew it the alarm was going off on my cell phone to let me know I should drive back home, since I had school the next morning. But, other nights, time felt light-years long, like how a star spied through a telescope on Earth is really a sun that could have died already, years ago, and it took that long for its light to reach our eyes down here.

  That could have been the way with sound in Olive, too. How I could call for her one Thursday night in November, and three Novembers from now she’d finally hear me. I hoped it wasn’t, but I worried it was.

  If you want something badly enough, it can come true—you just have to make it that way. By believing. I think she told me this once.

  This was what I believed: That one night, it would happen. She’d see me on this rock, see me waiting for her, and she’d swim up.

  Maybe she’d make a play for my ankles, get me to shriek. Or she’d try to catch my attention first, like I’d find her in the beam of my flashlight out in the middle of the reservoir, there where the light could hardly reach. But more likely she’d just walk out as if she’d been lounging about down there, wishing for a tan all this time. She’d keep it casual; she wouldn’t want to upset me.

  She’d climb up on the rock. She’d look the same as always, except her hair would be longer, swirling past her waist. Once up at the surface, she’d be cold, surely; I should remember to bring a sweater. Other than that, she wouldn’t look any different—just paler. But if I put a hand to her chest, I wouldn’t feel air filling her lungs, now that she’d grown the gills.

  She’d be homesick, she’d have to be. I knew s
he missed me, but I bet she also missed other things, like dry boys she could keep an eye on, because reservoir boys had to be slippery. And things you could only get up top, like fried foods and red wine, and sunglasses, because it would be too dim down there to need any. I knew she’d miss driving in her car down a long, flat road, the kind she used to speed down with headlights off. I’m sure she’d miss sleeping in a bed with an actual pillow, as algae must get so sticky and clump up your hair. She’d miss things I took for granted: sunshine and rainstorms and horribly catchy pop songs, even if she’d heard them a thousand times before. And stupid things probably, too: like getting an eyelash stuck in her eye, or doing laundry and having to fold it after, or the annoying way nail polish chips and you can’t get it all off unless you buy the special remover. Things like that.

  There was so much she couldn’t have down there. She’d want to come back up for good.

  It could happen.

  All I knew was that she couldn’t be down in Olive this long by choice—they were making her stay, punishment for all the things she did. She got too powerful up here on the surface, she stopped being careful, and the people of Olive just didn’t like that. I knew that if it were up to her, she’d already be up here, with me.

  Even if it took her forever to make it to the rocks on shore, I hoped she knew I’d be here when she got out, holding a bag of dry clothes, her blue boots maybe, or her black ones, and glasses, dark-tinted, to keep out the glaring sun. I’d help her get steady on her legs again. I’d walk her back through the trees, if she forgot the way.

  Her car would be parked where she always parked it, and I’d open the passenger-side door for her and say, “Back to town, Ruby?” and she’d say, “Where else, Chloe?” And she’d take a tug on my hair and say, “I know you finally got your license and all, but are you gonna let me drive or what?” and I’d smile, because I couldn’t stop myself from smiling, not with Ruby around, and I’d hand over the keys.

  That’s what would happen, when she got out.

  But the reservoir was quiet and still—no splashing, not again. So I decided to wait on the rock a little longer; it wasn’t that late.

  If I closed my eyes, I could almost feel her playing with my hair the way she used to. Her light touch at my forehead, either her light touch or the wind’s. Her fingers as she did the braids she used to put in my hair when I was a girl, working slowly, methodically, at a rate that might take a hundred nights to finish, more nights than I could guess at counting, more nights than she’d want to say.

  I felt so sure of it: her fingers moving lightly through my hair, my eyes closed to the wind, the reservoir at our backs, leaving us be. So sure I’d open my eyes and find my hair in braids, and the strawberry candies all taken, and there on the rock, Ruby, my big sister, saying what should we have for dinner, pita pizzas or mashed potatoes, and what day was it anyway and were there any good movies on TV?

  It sounded impossible, something no one would believe. Yet I was so sure that at any moment I’d open my eyes and see her. I’d open my eyes and see.


  My brilliant agent, Michael Bourret, somehow saw the potential in my pages and supported me through every difficult and dramatic moment to reach this point. I was once advised that working with him would be the best thing to happen to my career; time and again, this has been proven true.

  My phenomenal editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, pushed me to new heights I’d hardly dared imagine with this manuscript. This novel needed her to edit it. It absolutely would not be what it is without her vision, her deep understanding of its characters, and her belief that its author could actually pull through. I’m in awe of what she can do and beyond lucky for the chance to have her skill and attention shine my way.

  Grateful thanks to: Lauri Hornik, Linda McCarthy, Steve Meltzer, Rosanne Lauer, Lisa Yoskowitz, Liza Kaplan, Elena Kalis for the stunning cover image, and everyone at Dutton and Penguin Young Readers Group; Lauren Abramo at DGLM; the Writers Room; Think Coffee; the Corporation of Yaddo; the MacDowell Colony; Aimee Bender, and her Tin House workshop the summer of 2008; Sigrid Nunez; Molly O’Neill; Micol Ostow; Mark Rifkin; Courtney Summers; my brother, Joshua Suma; and my Woodstock friends who swam the Ashokan with me, especially Esme Breitenstein and Christine Gable, and in memory of Carlena Hahne, who was lost too soon.

  Thanks for encouragement from: Kate Angelella, Joëlle Anthony, Hilary Bachelder, Jim Berry, Bryan Bliss, Marc Breslav, Cat Clarke, Erin Downing, Annika Barranti Klein, Will Klein, Yojo Shaw, Erin Swan, Christine Lee Zilka.

  My beloved mom, Arlene Seymour, has so much Ruby magic in her she’s the reason I was able to become a writer at all. And my little sister, Laurel Rose Purdy, was the best gift my mom ever gave me and the inspiration for the heart of this story. Rose: I hope this reminds you every day just how much I love you.

  Regional history was altered for the purposes of this novel, but acknowledgment must go to a book of true history, The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir by Bob Steuding.

  And finally, I’m endlessly grateful to my other half and my love, Erik Ryerson, who found a way to take a couple of characters, a crazy premise, and a flimsy plot and help to magically bring it all to life one night in a back booth on Bleecker Street—and then read and edit drafts of these pages so many times I lost count. This novel simply would not exist without him.



  Nova Ren Suma, Imaginary Girls



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