Imaginary girls, p.5

Imaginary Girls, page 5

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  Back home, though—that would be another story.

  That night, my dad wouldn’t budge, and my stepmom—not like we cared—backed him. On hearing the definitive decision, Ruby wouldn’t set foot in the house again. But she didn’t leave the state yet, either. She said she’d go when she was good and ready and how’d my dad like that?

  All that happened that night was Ruby and I drove to the Wendy’s, then to the KFC, because there isn’t much in the way of dining options off Route 80 in Pennsylvania, and then we drove back to the camper to drink our milk shakes—we’d both ordered chocolate—plus spoon each other mouthfuls of mashed potatoes because we figured they were liquid enough to keep Ruby cleansed. We spent the night in the camper with the screens wide open, listening for mosquitoes instead of bees once the dark had fallen, and by morning she was gone: a wrinkle on the sheet and a long strand of hair, like I’d imagined her.

  I wouldn’t have believed she’d come at all if I didn’t get this text:

  look under yr pillow xo

  And there, under my pillow, like how all those years ago she’d snatch and reward my teeth, she’d left probably every cent she’d had in her purse: six twenties, two fives, eleven singles, seven quarters, ten dimes, one nickel, and twenty-seven pennies, totaling up to $144.07. Not enough to rent a hot-air balloon, but more than enough for a bus ticket home.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  I WANTED

  I wanted to skip the good-byes entirely. Skip all the hours of every night that came after, skip the entire three weeks.

  Time sped up, calling me closer to Ruby, but it wouldn’t run fast enough. Back in my dad’s house, it felt like she’d never been there at all. She was a hazy vision in boots and jam-stained slip, guzzling down my bottle of juice. Only the wad of cash in my pocket let me know she’d come for real.

  I wanted school to end so I could go. To skip the math final, the science final, the final count of all our sit-ups and pull-ups in gym.

  I would have skipped the fight about my grades in the kitchen, definitely. The half-siblings—one boy, one girl—knocking on the door to my camper, asking why won’t I come inside the house to eat. The moment Jared did or didn’t call eventually and if I made like Ruby and tried not to care either way.

  I’d skip the last night in the camper, propped up on cinder blocks, unable to sleep. Skip sneaking out over the fence the next morning.

  Skip the longest bus ride of my life—please.

  Skip all thoughts of London, or try to.

  I would have, if I could have.

  Far easier was avoiding thoughts of my mother, because who knew where she was spending her nights these days, and it’s not like I felt like calling to tell her I was coming home.

  I landed in the Port Authority terminal in New York City, to change buses. That meant I was less than three hours from Ruby.

  I wanted to skip the layover. The woman taking a bath in the sink. The hours spent in the basement level of the bus depot and the pretzel vendor who tried to grope me. The free pretzel when I threatened to scream.

  Then the Lincoln Tunnel, which cuts through the Hudson River to escape the city. Skip the worries of being trapped in that tunnel, the gush of relief at seeing the light at the end.

  Skip the entirety of New Jersey.

  The New York State Thruway at night even though that’s the best time to drive it.

  The familiar turn to exit 19.

  The traffic circle, where Ruby once got pulled over and convinced the cop not to search her and then laughed maniacally when he let her go.

  We were getting closer.

  The bus turned onto the first highway that led toward town and passed the spot where Ruby blew a tire and got three guys to pull over and offer to fix it, though she ended up fixing it herself, while they watched, and then let them watch her drive away. The bus turned onto the second highway, where Ruby liked to ignore all signs noting speed limits and, sometimes, if there were no trucks coming, jammed the gas and raced with headlights dark, fingertips guiding the wheel.

  The bus took the left turn toward town.

  There was the tattoo shop where Ruby got her eyebrow pierced, then decided she didn’t want her eyebrow pierced and instead got her nose pierced, then decided she really didn’t want anything pierced, not even her ears.

  Cumby’s, open twenty-four hours a day. Even so, there was no point asking the bus to stop there, since Ruby’s car wasn’t parked out front.

  The rows of storefronts, shuttered and dark, and how Ruby could walk into any one and come out with whatever thing she wanted on layaway, which to her meant getting to take it home with her and never bothering to come back and pay.

  Soon, the bus was pulling up to the Village Green, the center of the town where I was born and where Ruby still lived. The bus doors were opening and I was climbing down the stairs with my bags and retrieving my suitcase. The bus doors were closing and I was left standing on the Green with my bags at my feet. The bus was pulling away.

  It was a Saturday night, late June, and there was absolutely no one here.

  I texted Ruby: guess where i am

  No response.

  I texted Ruby the answer anyway: im here

  almost didnt survive bus ride

  bus driver had rly small head. wondered if he cld even see road

  drove us off bridge

  I waited for some time, then tried again.

  kidding abt bridge. u still live @ Millstream?

  want me 2 go there? or u pick me up???

  My phone was silent, not a beep or a buzz to let me know.

  When I last lived in town, our mother had a place back behind WDST, the local radio station, but Ruby said the classic rock the deejays insisted on playing filled her head with near-total boredom, and had on occasion put her to sleep while standing, which was terribly dangerous, like when she was getting the mail at the curb and “Stairway to Heaven” came on again. So that’s why she rented her own place on the opposite end of town, near the stream—that and the fact that she couldn’t stand our mother. My school papers said I lived at my mom’s, but all my things were at Ruby’s. Or they had been.

  The Millstream Apartments weren’t far from the Green, but I had my bags and my suitcase and there was that hill.

  So I waited for her to pick me up. She’d be here. She knew tonight was the night. It was her idea, after all, that I come home.

  I sat on a prime bench in the center of the diamond that made up the Green and took it all in: these trees, that sidewalk, this place imprinted on every surface with thoughts of Ruby as if she’d gotten her greasy hands all over everything and trampled the lawn and dirtied up the benches with her muddy boots.

  Only, it was too quiet. I’d never seen the Green empty in warm weather, not once, not in my life. On summer nights, there was always someone out: a random townie tripping too hard to operate a motor vehicle; some tie-dyed tourist who hitched here all the way from burning things up at Burning Man to camp in our shrubs; a few kids from the Catholic high school the next town over who never got invited to our parties but still came here hoping; or that guy Dov Everywhere who lived somewhere out in the woods, no one knew where. He took care of the town’s stray dogs, collected sticks to walk with, and always gave fair warning when it was about to rain. He also barked for no reason and threw his sticks at cars, so you had to be careful on what night you caught him.

  Not even Dov was there on the Green that night.

  I would have thought time had stopped completely, leaving the town untouched since I’d left it—if the wind didn’t snatch the stub of the bus ticket out of my hand and shoot it across the Green, plastering it against the window of the empty pizza place, then flip it back down the stairs to flutter and gasp at my feet.

  The wind would have stopped, if time had. Time would have had to stop for Ruby not to come meet my bus. So where was she?

  My suitcase rolled itself too fast down the hill that led to the Millstream, and I had to run to k
eep up. I knew where to find Ruby’s key, as she tended to use the one hidden on the windowsill more than the one on her key ring, but when I got the door to her apartment open, I saw an empty room with takeout menus for the Wok ’n’ Roll and the Indian buffet scattered over the floor. The windows had no curtains and the sink had no dirty dishes. There was a mattress left behind in her bedroom, but it had no sheets.

  It was like a home abandoned before the floodgates opened and the water came spilling in. She’d gone away and wasn’t coming back. She’d gone away, and she didn’t tell me where to find her.

  I saw the few things she must have forgotten: an orange zip-up sweater bunched up on a hook behind a door; a toe ring in the sink drain; a book of matches blotted with the dark pressed smudge of her lips, one full row of matches left to burn.

  Dusky impressions on the carpet showed where her furniture had been. This here a table, that there a couch. The air was stale, unbreathed. The refrigerator had been pulled from the wall, fat black cord dangling. Inside the fridge was a perfectly preserved plum, petrified around the marks of her teeth to show where she’d taken one small bite, then let the plum be, like it might get sweeter in a day or two. She often sampled fruit this way, even in the supermarket.

  “Ruby?” I called out. Her name echoed through the empty apartment, bouncing back at me from the ceiling, and when I looked up, I saw her scrawl:

  Ruby

  Like anyone could forget she’d once lived here.

  That’s when I heard the screech of tires outside. A car had come to a sharp stop in the parking lot below. I stepped to the edge of the second-floor walkway outside Ruby’s apartment, my heart beating fast, but the car wasn’t an old rusted Buick on its last legs; it wasn’t even white and she wasn’t in it. Then I recognized the person lurching out of the driver’s side door bellowing my name.

  The guy was one of Ruby’s ex-boyfriends, and there were many. This one, Pete, had shaggy hair, a scraggly chin, and wore a pitted Pixies T-shirt so old I could see through to the sweat shining on his skin. Years ago, Ruby had dumped him as she’d dumped all the others, but he never did seem to get the hint and go away.

  “She said to look for you here if you weren’t on the Green,” he was saying. “She said to drop you at the party and she’ll meet you there.”

  “Ruby sent you?” Still, I started down the stairs.

  “Thanks,” he said once I reached him, “thanks a lot.”

  “Why didn’t she come get me herself?”

  He waved that question away as if it were a puzzle he sure couldn’t answer, one of those mysteries of the universe that scientists chase after their whole lives, like the Big Bang and if it really happened, or life on Mars.

  “You know Ruby,” he said. “C’mon, get in the car. The party’s way out at the quarry and we’d better get there before the beer runs out.”

  I did know Ruby. I knew her better than anyone could possibly know her, the way no guy could come close to knowing, no matter how long he was with her and what, behind closed doors, he thought they did.

  I’d seen her in ways no one else had. I’d heard the names she called every boy she’d been with, names that would haunt them forever if they knew. I’d seen her happy. I’d seen her sad. I’d seen her when we both hennaed our hair, the mud mixed with paprika and egg yolk that dripped down her scalp and turned her ears orange. I’d seen her laugh so hard she peed a little. I’d seen her so mad, she punched a hole in the wall. And I’d seen her after, her knuckles scratched and swollen, but her eyes clear and wide open, when she said it didn’t matter—nothing mattered but her and me.

  Yes, I knew Ruby. But even I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t there to meet me and had sent some random ex in a sweaty nineties T-shirt instead.

  It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized someone else was inside the car, sitting shotgun in the shadows.

  “You remember Owen,” Pete said, motioning at his younger brother. “Aren’t you guys in the same grade?”

  “Not exactly,” I said, eyeing his silhouette. “He’s a year ahead of me.”

  “Same difference,” Pete said.

  I felt it as soon as I piled my bags in the backseat and scooted over to sit behind Owen. That intense craving to be in his orbit, close enough just to see him—even around a corner would do. I felt the hope crawling under my skin. The thrumming pulse. The hot stars crowding my eyes and tightening in a lasso around my head.

  Oh, Ruby.

  Did she have anything to do with this?

  She must have. She’d sent Owen’s brother, Pete, to pick me up, figuring there was a good chance Owen would be in the car. Though I’d been careful not to say it out loud, how I felt about him, I’m guessing she’d always known. No secrets could be kept from her, not anymore, is this what she was telling me?

  She had to know I’d be inches away from him for however long it took to drive to the quarry. That maybe I’d have to talk to him, that maybe he’d talk back. I could see the shape of her smile hovering in the seat beside me, so very smug and amused.

  Only, there was something Ruby didn’t know: Not even she could make Owen like me.

  “O,” Pete said, “you remember Chloe. Ruby’s sister.”

  Owen took a second to respond. He let out a breath, which I didn’t know how to read—a sigh of annoyance or a grunt of acknowledgment; it could have gone either way—and then with great effort he turned a millimeter in his seat and said a word to me, just one, “Hey.”

  He didn’t turn any more than that, so my only view was a partial profile and the back of his neck. In the time I’d been gone, he must have given up on another mohawk and let it grow in again, because his hair was sticking up, longer in some spots than others. It was too dark to see what color he’d dyed it now.

  “Hey,” I said back. Then his brother gave the car some gas and pulled out of the parking lot.

  Ruby would want a story of the drive to the quarry; she’d expect it. What she’d want was something fantastic: an action-adventure moment to get our hearts pounding.

  I had to imagine one, there in the car. Imagine something worth telling.

  First, we’d have to get Pete out of the picture—a given. Ruby wouldn’t want Pete in the story, so maybe we could stop for gas and he’d take forever to pump it. Or we’d be driving along like normal, but then we’d hit this patch of road where the sky opens up and this shadowy, flapping thing we wouldn’t know what to call would swoop down and pull him out by the throat, and Owen would have no choice but to take the wheel. Something impossible like that, pure fiction. Something to hold Ruby’s attention.

  Pete would be long gone, who cares how, and I’d slip up into the passenger seat next to Owen, the only things between us the Big Gulp in the cup holder and the stick shift.

  It would be when we were speeding down Route 212 that Owen would look at me, like really look at me, for the first time since forever. Maybe he’d remember how he ignored me in school, and he’d feel bad about that.

  I knew I shouldn’t care. I was like my sister, wasn’t I? I was made of her snide comments about what all the boys were after and her brick walls built up and up to keep the boys out. I should act the way Ruby did with a boy she no longer wanted, like her heart had crawled up inside her rib cage to die, and you’d never know it was up there, as it had climbed so far in, you couldn’t even smell it rotting.

  But I didn’t want that.

  If this were a story I was telling, if it were my story and Ruby let me tell it, Owen would turn in his seat and he’d say—

  A buzz sounded. I looked down to find my phone blinking.

  didnt forget you chlo. just wanted u 2 come see

  See what? I was in the backseat and Pete was still driving and all I saw of Owen was the back of his head.

  When we reached the quarry, Owen leaped out as soon as we stopped. A jumble of cars crowded the gravel lot out of sight of the main road, but Ruby’s big white Buick wasn’t among them. Knowing her, she’
d volunteered some poor sap for the position of designated driver and secured us a ride.

  There was smoke in the air—faint, I could feel it in my throat—and a flicker of warm light filtering out through the woods. A bonfire.

  I left my bags in Pete’s car. I had to: The party was deep in the quarry and the only way to reach it was down a freshly trampled path through the trees. Pete led the way, with me close behind, and then Owen. I stopped short once, and Owen, who was nearer than I expected, stepped on the back of my shoe.

  “Sorry,” he mumbled.

  “Sorry,” I mumbled back.

  And in the night beneath oaks and pines and other trees I’d never bothered learning names for, he and I were closer than we’d ever gotten, close for three, four, five countable seconds, until he stepped away and went slipping past and his arm brushed my arm and he smelled like cigarettes and I wished he smelled different and he was gone.

  I’d lost Pete, so I walked the rest of the path with my arms out, feeling my way until the trees broke open. My feet found gravel and the noise hit and I started sliding down the declining slope toward the bottom. It was a pit, a cavernous hole filled with people I used to know. Or people who knew Ruby, so they had to at least pretend they knew me because I was her sister. Here, back home, that’s the first thing I was.

  Ruby was near—somewhere. I could sense her in the dark.

  I reached the bottom of the pit and looked up at the other slope, a gleaming red crest in the night to show where the bonfire was burning, and where I’d find her.

  Waiting for me.

  Waiting to hear about the cold shoulder I gave the state of Pennsylvania. She’d ask, I’d tell, we’d be in sync again, and then the summer would get started, picking up where we left off two years ago, on a warm night like this one, before it all went so wrong.

 
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