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Imaginary girls, p.3

Imaginary Girls, page 3


Imaginary Girls

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  I knew she was at the reservoir that night, even though she wasn’t invited.

  That’s all I knew.

  Just weeks into living at my dad and stepmother’s house in Pennsylvania, my mom mailed me a package. She was sober again and must have realized she should show a stab at missing me, for, I guess, my sake. But the box was no attempt at amends. It was more a junk drawer than a care package: a spilled cache of feathers and beads from the craft store in town where she worked weekends; a rock from, I figured, the Millstream, dusted in our town’s dried mud; some menstrual tea (seriously?); a dog-eared book on power animals (hers was the sparrow, she said, which she’d also taken on as her new name; Ruby said it was actually the vampire bat); and nothing whatsoever from Ruby.

  You might say my mom was harmless if you didn’t know any better. Hair down past her waist like she was going for some world record, beaded necklaces, gypsy skirts. She really did force people in town to call her Sparrow. But that was only the role she liked to perform for whatever audience hadn’t slipped out the back; it was her aria in the shower for whoever needed to pee and got stuck listening.

  In reality, my mom had a hard side, made of tin and pounded flat to deflect all emotion, thanks to the poison she poured down her throat. That’s why, in the care package, she’d also included one last thing: the obituary. Like she wanted to make sure I didn’t forget.

  Ruby would have shipped me the severed tip off her own finger before sending that. She would have guessed about my reservoir nightmares: the rowboat bobbing, knowing that at any moment the floating inhabitants of Olive could pull London down to their waterlogged Village Green by her rotting, black toes, and then my toes, and then me. We didn’t need to talk about it for her to know the last thing I’d want was a reminder.

  My mom barely knew me. If Ruby hadn’t witnessed me come out of her body, I would’ve thought I’d been picked up on the side of Route 28 in the spot where we found that couch.

  The obit had been neatly scissored out of a newspaper from the township across the county line. My mom had gone out of her way to get this one for me special, going so far as to cross the Mid-Hudson Bridge to check the papers there. In it was a photo of London with her former long hair and the complete absence of a smile. You couldn’t see her ears. The text about her was short and vague: lost too soon, mourned and by who, in lieu of flowers donate to this cause, the usual. No mention of how she died, or where.

  It didn’t say what kind of drugs she’d been on; that was tacky to tell the world, I guess. It was also tacky for my mom to send it to me.

  Ruby, she would have torn the obit to shreds and burned it in the fireplace. She would have cranked up the stereo to forget it, played something vintage, like Rick James or 2 Live Crew, something raunchy and loud and undeniably alive to get those words out of our heads. She would have, if I’d stayed.

  That was the last I heard of London for a long time. My mom didn’t send another care package—she slipped off-radar, as she tends to—and Ruby’s sporadic text messages filled me in on other subjects entirely.

  dreamed we rode wild horses dwn the mntain. u lost yr hat but i found it don’t worry

  dreamed we shared a phantom boyfriend & his name was Georgie. cute but made of vapor. smelled like lemons

  dreamed we lived in a big blue blimp. the clouds had berries for snacks & u were always hungry

  my boots miss your feet

  my head misses your hairbrush

  my car misses your warm butt

  And sometimes, deep in the middle of the night when she had to know I was sleeping, she texted a simple two characters: xo

  I missed her, too.

  My dad never spoke of what propelled me to move in with him after all these years. Still, he’d look at me sideways sometimes, as if waiting for the first sign of mutation. Like at any moment I could hiccup, have a spasm, pop out an extra head, and then he’d have one more mouth to feed. There was therapy, for a while—the freebie kind with the school guidance counselor—and there were chores. Taking out trash. Cleaning the garage. Dishes, landfills of dishes. Distractions, all.

  The physical labor worked for a time, though when I was elbows deep in soapsuds, scrubbing at a stubborn pot, I was reminded of Ruby’s way of doing dishes—leaving them piled in the sink and on the stove for a week at a time until there was no other option but to crate them over to the bathtub for a good soaking. Then how, after we gave the dishes a bath, we’d sail them like Frisbees to the couch, and if any dishes broke in the tossing that was just fewer to have to wash next time.

  This would have been my life. At my new school, I was nobody special; I wasn’t even related to anybody special. I could have stayed there, gotten mostly Bs, the rare B+, studied through study hall, dodged balls through gym, blanked out on my locker combination, passed Algebra I, passed Earth Science, six points away from failing art. Sat on the bleachers and didn’t dance at the Halloween dance, stood in the corner and didn’t dance at the homecoming dance. No story worth telling past next Tuesday.

  And soon enough, as time passed, I let myself forget the details of that night. Why I’d ever been so scared. Even why I’d left town in the first place.

  That’s when she made a move.

  One day, Ruby reached out and shook me. Even from across state lines she could.

  The day it happened began like any other (bus stalled on the way to school; pop quiz in first period; ball to the face in gym), but then the stars shifted. The backdrop got picked up and moved offstage for the scene change. That must have been when she decided it was time, the weight of her decision sailing out of our town in the Catskill Mountains, beyond the reach of our river and our roads, finding me in this flat valley of highways and fast-food signs built taller than the treetops, this new town where I’d come to live.

  Because this wasn’t a day like any other day.

  During lunch, a random cheerleader smiled at me. My art teacher called my lump of clay “inspired.” My locker popped open on the very first try.

  It was late afternoon when I stepped out of Music Appreciation to find the boy in whose Subaru I’d left my underwear, a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.

  We hadn’t talked for weeks, yet, after all that time, here he was. Waiting for me.

  The way he looked at me—it was as if I’d stepped into Ruby’s body, slipped on her longer legs, her greener eyes. As if I’d taken possession of her, or she’d taken possession of me.

  “Hey, Chloe,” he said.

  The rest of my classmates streamed out around me, leaving me alone in the music hallway. He moved closer, and I moved away, and soon he had me backed up against the wall. Was this sexy? Was I supposed to go with it, arch my back and part my lips a certain way? I tried to channel Ruby, but I lost her for a second there when his eyes took hold of mine.

  “Long time no talk,” he was saying.

  I was going to say, “I know.” Say, “So how’ve you been?” Dumb things to say, dumb, dumb. I don’t know what would have come out of my mouth had the thought of Ruby not turned me. Because what I said instead was, “Really?” Like I hadn’t even noticed how long it had been.

  It was as if she stood beside me, whispering deep into my ear. Don’t tell him how you waited by the phone for three weeks, she breathed. Don’t say how you cried.

  I thought of that windy February night up on Cooper Lake Road when her big white Buick ran out of gas. How we’d never run out of gas before in that car, even when the needle got stuck on E for days and we had no clue how much gas was left, so that was strange enough. But stranger still was how Ruby insisted we go on foot to the closest gas station—like she wanted us to really feel the cold. I thought of how our legs under our long coats prickled at first from the biting air, then burned. How, the longer we were outside, trudging through old snow, the sooner our thighs lost all feeling and went perfectly, senselessly numb.

  In time, it felt as if we were hiking the road beside the icy lake on two sets of beating wi
ngs. We could barely tell we had legs at all.

  It felt like we could have made it to the station in seconds, flown there and back with a canister of gasoline, our eyelashes glistening with frost, our bones weightless from cold. But then a truck stopped for us—some guy Ruby knew. And the heat in the cab brought our limbs back to life, stopped our teeth from chattering. We would not have to amputate our fingers due to frostbite; neither one of us would lose the tip off a nose.

  We were grateful for the ride, but there was something to be said for the bodiless feeling that came after the cold. Something I would always remember. When you forget how bad it hurts, you feel so free.

  This was what I was thinking as I stood there in the music hallway. I made my heart go numb, listened for the wind, and on it what she’d want me to say.

  “You didn’t call,” he said.

  I kept listening.

  “You said you’d call,” he said. And then—the cinder-block wall at my back slick with its own sweat, or with mine—I remembered. Maybe I did say I’d call. Maybe he said he’d call me, and I said no, no I’ll call you.

  Anyway, that’s something Ruby would have done.

  He was still here, blocking my exit with a clutter of music stands and an old bassoon.

  I surveyed him as Ruby would, had she been there across the corridor, near the cracked viola and crate of dusty sheet music, taking stock. Definite points on the hair: It was cut crooked and fell into his eyes. But his pants were too tight and slung too low. And his shoulders were set too cocky; he thought having me that one time meant he had me still.

  He was talking, saying I’d been the one to ignore him, not the other way around. Acting like it’s the boy who’s supposed to stop talking to the girl after unmentionables are traded in the backseat of a car, not the girl. He’d obviously never met anyone like my sister.

  “What’s the matter?” he was saying. “Didn’t you want to?”

  I shrugged one shoulder. (Ruby, should I say I did?)

  “You didn’t say you didn’t want to,” he reminded me.

  I shrugged the other shoulder. (Ruby, should I say I didn’t?)

  “So.” He took a breath. “What’re we doing tonight?”

  That’s when my phone vibrated from inside my pocket. I was able to slip out from under his arm, through the jumble of music stands, past the bassoon, into the center of the hallway, to freedom. I checked my phone to find a text.

  don’t get too comfy. im here 2 spring u. ps what’s up w yr room? where are the wheels?

  It was Ruby—and somehow she’d figured out where I was sleeping at my dad’s: a tiny camper without tires set up on the back lawn, bed cavity overtop the steering wheel that looked out onto the flower garden, a net between me and the bees. It was pretty convenient; I’d even strung an extension cord from the garage so I could watch TV.

  I wasn’t sure how she knew, and wondered if she’d been talking to my dad, or my half-siblings, or my stepmother, to find out that once the weather turned warm I’d vacated my room in the house in favor of the camper.

  And what did she mean she was going to spring me? Was she here?

  My answer came immediately after, with another text:

  my pink glasses! been looking 4 these 4ever chlo!

  No one had told her about the camper. She was inside the camper, going through my stuff. She must have found the sunglasses I’d swiped the summer I left—the ones with the pink-tinted lenses that she said made a person happy to see through, like a drug you could wear on your head.

  The boy—his name was Jared—was eyeing my phone suspiciously, with a protectiveness he didn’t deserve. “Who’s that?” he asked.

  “I have to go,” is all I said, because Ruby was here.

  I didn’t know how things could be the same for anyone, how we could still be having this conversation, how anyone could be having any conversation, didn’t know how I could pretend to be content living my days in this ordinary life, in this ordinary hallway, with this ordinary boy, now that she was here.



  Ruby tried to convince my dad. She tried in all the ways she was used to trying: her eyes staring him down until no light could escape and there was nowhere else to look but straight at her.

  She tried with misdirection and misleading topics of conversation, with the subterfuge no one ever saw coming until days later, when they went searching for their wallet and thought they remembered it opening wide for one quick moment in Ruby’s hand. She tried talking low; she tried talking loud. She tried being sweet; she tried being mean. Behind the closed door, where I couldn’t see, I know she tried.

  I waited outside his home office with my stepmom. She wasn’t anyone special—if Ruby and I ever happened upon her in conversation, we avoided calling her by name.

  She had two children who, since we had the same father, carried half my blood in their veins, just like Ruby did, the exact same amount, though I didn’t feel connected to them in any real way.

  They were like any two people I might pass in the halls at school. One boy, one girl. You see them and wave. Maybe you have on the same color sweater and you’re like, “Hey, look. We’re wearing the same color sweater.” But there’s nothing else to be said beyond that, so you each keep moving. You know you’d barely give it a thought if you never saw them again.

  This is how I know blood is meaningless; family connections are a lot like old gum—you don’t have to keep chewing. You can always spit it out and stick it under the table. You can walk away.

  Ruby was my sister, but she was so much more than that. She loved me. She loved me more than anyone else in the whole entire world loved me. More than Mom, more than Dad. More than friends. More than any guy ever had, because no guy had. No matter how far apart we’d been these past two years, there was no question she did.

  My stepmom cleared her throat. She did things like that, she had to, or else I’d forget she was there. “Are you sure you want to go away with this Ruby?” she said.

  “Ruby is my sister,” I said. “She practically raised me.”

  “Well, this is the first time I’ve ever seen her.”

  I didn’t feel like explaining how Ruby never left the state of New York, let alone the confines of our wooded county. Mostly she stayed in our town, where everyone knew her, where all you had to do was say her name and anyone in hearing distance would snap to attention, wondering if she’d been sighted around the corner and was coming this way.

  Not just the boys but the girls, too. Did Ruby like this song? Then everyone had to hear it. Had Ruby worn this jacket? Then everyone wanted to slip arms into its sleeves.

  Back at home, I got used to people knowing about Ruby, peppering me with questions about her, saying how this one time they talked to Ruby about really old French movies and did she say anything about it, do you think she likes Godard? How Ruby pumped their gas last Tuesday; how Ruby bummed their smokes, but they didn’t mind; how years and years ago Ruby saw them play live at the old Rhinecliff hotel, and how, after the show, they let her bang away at their drums.

  Pennsylvania was a strange state. No one knew who Ruby was.

  “It’s odd that she didn’t visit all this time and now here she is,” my stepmom said.

  “Yeah,” I said. “I guess. But that’s Ruby.”

  “We invited her for Christmas and she didn’t come.”

  “She doesn’t like Christmas. She says it’s too obvious. Plus she hates all the red together with the green.”

  “Besides the fact that she never calls . . .”

  “Ruby has this thing with her ear. Telephones make it buzz. I don’t mind if she texts instead of calls. I know all about her ear.”

  Defending her came naturally. Usually no one asked such questions about Ruby, but I guess I had some answers lying in wait in case they did.

  My stepmom, though, wouldn’t let it go. “All of a sudden she drives out here, without warning, lands on our doorstep, weari
ng . . . I’m sorry, but was that a nightie? Did she even bother to get dressed this morning? And then she marches in to tell your father she’s taking you with her. Just like that?”

  “Yup. Like I said, that’s Ruby.”

  “Did she even ask if you wanted to go?” my stepmom said, pushing.

  (She hadn’t.)

  “Didn’t she think there was a reason you came to live with us in the first place?”

  (There was . . . but what was it?)

  “And why now? Why today?”

  (I hadn’t asked Ruby that, either.)


  Ruby wasn’t here to tell me what to say or remind me of what I wanted. Maybe she should have coached me before going in to talk to my dad.

  All I knew is she’d landed in Pennsylvania so suddenly—appearing in my camper, hoodie sweatshirt on over summer negligee, a new freckle I didn’t recognize on her nose, the pink sunglasses I’d stolen and she’d stolen back perched on her forehead, standing there sucking down the bottle of tropical fruit punch she’d found in my minifridge—and I hadn’t had a chance to decide how I felt about it.

  If I wanted to go with her.

  If I was allowed to go, if I even would.

  But, before I had a chance to answer, Ruby emerged from my dad’s office. This was down in the basement of the house, wood-paneled and lit with dim, dull bulbs so it looked like we were lost in an alien forest, walled in on all sides by flattened trees.

  She walked out and stood before me and my stepmom near the jaundice-colored couch. She didn’t sit. It wasn’t the kind of couch she’d ever sit on.

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