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Imaginary girls, p.6

Imaginary Girls, page 6

 

Imaginary Girls
 


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  I was almost up to the top of the other slope when someone stopped me. A hand drawn closed around my ankle. Pulling me down.

  “Chloe! I heard you’d be here!” some girl said. She was stretched out on the gravel slope with a few of her friends, and I guess we knew each other, or used to. Then other girls were there, and guys, and remember-this and rememberthat, and was I living with Ruby now? and really? and wow and, hey, did I want a beer?

  My pocket buzzed. Ruby again. ur here!

  She was somewhere in the dark—she could see me, but I couldn’t see her.

  Then another text: im SO thirsty

  And one more: meet me up at the keg xo

  Which was strange, because she didn’t exactly like beer—it fizzed. And maybe this should have been my first clue that she’d set me up. I should have known meeting her here had nothing to do with some party, because Ruby didn’t care about showing her face at parties, even her own.

  But all I could focus on was finding that keg in the dark, and, as I did, climbing over the people sprawled out on the slopes, trying not to step on anyone’s hand.

  It was up at the keg that my eyes finally adjusted to the low light. I could see where we were: either an old construction site or a place where gravel was stored. There was a crane in the distance, blocked off by stacks of concrete slabs. The air was thick with dust, brushed up by all these trespassing feet. The trees, they were everywhere around us, and the mountains, they were out there in the dark, pale imitations of the ones found in day.

  I could see clearly, and then I couldn’t.

  It felt like I was looking up at the surface from deep below. I was down under, and getting sucked deeper, covered in bubbles from all my thrashing, lungs blowing up tight with unbreathed air. So familiar, like I’d been there before.

  Time pooled around me, spun me in a washer, jerked to a stop. And I was back here, as if it hadn’t happened. I was here.

  And so, it turned out, was she.

  “Hey, Chloe,” she said. “Long time no see.”

  She was at the nozzle, controlling the flow of beer. I could see her hand holding the plastic cup she was filling, red plastic, the foam rising, white foam, the cup tilting to sift the foam, the hand holding it, the five fingernails on her hand.

  “Take it,” she said, passing me the red cup. “There’s not too much left in the keg anyway, so you may as well or the guys’ll hog it.”

  She wasn’t who I expected to find—not now, not here.

  But I didn’t say that. I took the cup, put the cup to my lips. Opened the lips. Held out the tongue. Tipped the cup back. Took one swallow.

  “See you later?” she said.

  “Yeah.” That’s all I said, all I could say. Because the girl who was talking to me wasn’t a girl I thought I’d ever be talking to again.

  Was I even at this quarry? Standing at the edge of this gravel pit? Holding this cup?

  I’d turned away, taken a step in some direction, because I wasn’t beside the keg anymore and now two familiar arms were around me, a familiar voice in my ear.

  “Chlo! You’re here!” Ruby cried. She pulled back to take a look at me.

  I must have been making a peculiar face because she laughed and snatched the cup from my hands and poured out the rest of my beer. “What are you doing!” she said. “You hate fizz.”

  Ruby looked just as I remembered, as she had three weeks ago, but she was a stranger to me all of a sudden, red-eyed in the firelight, weird.

  “That’s—” I choked out. “That’s—” I pointed toward the keg. I couldn’t get control of my mouth to make it say the name.

  “Pabst,” she said. “Tastes like puke before you’ve puked it, I know. Don’t worry, you don’t have to drink it.”

  “No, no. Not the beer.”

  “Oh no, that bus ride was worse than you texted, wasn’t it? Did you really almost crash? Did you get lost on the thruway? Did you hit like a whole herd of deer?”

  She was distracting me, trying to get me to tell a story about something else when the story was right here.

  London.

  But that couldn’t be London filling another cup of beer from the keg, I was positive. Not London talking to that boy. Not London with the stripes on her sleeves, a hand up to her mouth to keep from laughing. Not her hair chopped more uneven than I remembered, bleached closer to white than before, though still showing off both her ears. No. Not London’s laugh, though it sounded like hers, lifting up over the bonfire and echoing through the quarry. The dark night, the party noises were tricking me, the fire was making me see things, I was the one who’d gone all weird.

  Then London looked up and met my gaze. She smiled. And it was her—it couldn’t have been anyone else.

  London, who was buried close to two years ago, was somehow still alive and standing right here.

  I looked to Ruby to get her confirmation, but we weren’t alone anymore, so we couldn’t speak freely. “Petey,” she was saying, “watch it with the hand.”

  Pete was there with us. He was shaking out his hand, like he’d been slapped, saying, “A guy’s gotta try, right?”

  Ruby glared at him. “No,” she said, “not twice. Not with me.”

  “But, Ruby,” I said, and I wasn’t talking about Pete and where he put his hands.

  She knew. She was looking at the keg, too. Then loudly, for Pete’s benefit, she said to me, “You know that girl London from school, right?” Her mouth said those words, but her eyes said something far different. Her eyes had the red lights in them. Her eyes were telling me to not say what I wanted to say.

  I had the reins of the story then; I could have turned it in any direction I wanted. Back down to the bottom of the pit, or straight-flash into the bonfire, or up into the tallest of the tall trees. The story you choose to tell isn’t always the story you believe. So, out loud, I said, “Yeah, I know her from school.”

  And Ruby smiled, placated, and closed her eyes. All at once she seemed tired, a little wobbly on her feet like she had to sit down. Pete reached an arm out, even if he’d get slapped for it, as if she might need to lean on him. But she didn’t. Quickly she shook her head and opened her eyes to show the green I remembered, the green she was known for, her bright and searing green, and said, “That’s what I thought. You had French class together, right?”

  “Right,” I said, my voice faint.

  “So you want a beer?” Pete said.

  “Chloe doesn’t drink,” Ruby snapped, silencing him.

  She took a step closer to me. Her arms were around me again, her elbows and wrists and fingers slung tight at my neck to keep me with her. She could have put a hand over my mouth, but she didn’t have to; I wouldn’t say a thing.

  She hugged me close and I swear she breathed these words into my hair as she did, “See, Chlo? It’s just like it used to be.”

  And—suddenly, without any explanation or mystery needing to be unraveled from any undiscovered corner of the universe—it simply was, and I had no idea how.

  Because, look: There was London, like things were back the way they’d been before. Like it had never even happened. Just like Ruby said.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  LONDON DIDN’T KNOW

  London didn’t know she was supposed to be dead. Anyone who did wouldn’t be laughing so loudly, opening her mouth that wide and letting out those sounds. A girl in her grave wouldn’t knock back that Pabst like she didn’t care how it tasted, then smile so sloppy and let the beer dribble down her chin.

  She looked happy, in a way I didn’t remember her. She was near the fire with three other girls. She glowed, though I guess it was from the flames, because the girls with her glowed, too. We all did. She was alive, as alive as me.

  “I think I—” I started to say. “I think she—” But Ruby wouldn’t let me finish.

  “You thirsty?” she asked me, which meant we would discuss all of this later. “I’ll get you some water. Petey, keep an eye on my baby sister and don’t you
let her go anywhere near that fire, all right?”

  He nodded, and Ruby slipped away. There she was, crossing the gravel in boots that skimmed her shins, and then there she wasn’t, sundress swallowed by the night.

  Just as I remembered her.

  “I need to sit down,” I said.

  Pete hopped to attention and led me over to a slope of gravel. Agreeing to take care of me wasn’t entirely selfless. I could see how he was counting on some reward Ruby would never be game to give him, picturing that reward as he helped me to the ground, rewinding and playing it back as he reached out to pat my head, caught in freeze-frame as he missed my head by a mile and clocked me in the chest instead.

  There went his reward.

  “Crap,” he said. “Did I punch you in the tit?”

  He had, but I wasn’t about to acknowledge that. “Don’t worry about it,” I heard my mouth say. My eyes were still on the bonfire.

  “You okay? You sure? You’re not hurt?” His voice was dripping sap and concern like he’d just run over my puppy, but this concern was really only for Ruby.

  Ruby, who’d kill him dead if she thought he’d hurt me, no matter what history they shared. Ruby, who’d duct-tape him to a tree with his pants to his ankles and leave him there through the night to let the wood creatures at him. The raccoons and skunks, the black bears that climbed these mountains, the animals that came out only at night with their sharp claws and rabies-soaked teeth.

  Pete must have known all that. But I bet he also figured if he could get me on his side, he’d have a real shot with Ruby. That’s how it used to be: The way to Ruby’s heart, they’d all assumed, was through her little sister—it’s how I got my very first iPod. But I never did put in a good word for any of her suitors. It wouldn’t have worked. Ruby’s heart had room inside for me only.

  I realized Pete was watching me. “You look so much like her . . . with your hair like that,” he said. This was something he shouldn’t say, we both knew it, so he changed the subject, fast. “Jonah doesn’t deserve her, y’know? How’d he get so lucky?”

  This was the first I’d heard of any Jonah. Apparently, my sister had a new boyfriend.

  Pete kept talking, all dejected. “He just moves to town and gets my girl and—” He stopped short. “Don’t tell her I called her ‘my’ girl. I know she’s not.”

  I shrugged. “She’s not anyone’s.”

  Pete didn’t matter. My eyes kept going back to the fire—to the girl beside the fire—to London.

  “You see her?” I asked him. Ruby wasn’t there to stop me. She’d walked away.

  The fire itself was made of tree branches, built up to a pyramid with a hot burning center, arranged for inevitable collapse. A bunch of people hung around watching. I recognized some kids from when I last lived in town, the summer after eighth grade and before the start of high school.

  Names came from under water, bobbing up one after the other: Damien something. Asha something. Vanessa something. Allison and Alison; Kate and Cate. And, of course, London Hayes.

  My finger went to her, pointing so I didn’t have to let her name touch my tongue. “There,” I said, “there in the stripes.”

  Her stripes were black-and-white, horizontal. Prison stripes.

  He craned his neck to find them. “That chick London? Yeah . . . what about her?”

  “You see her?”

  “Uh, yeah.”

  “You see her? Tell me you see her.”

  “Dude, I said I see her. She’s right there.”

  Pete was still on his feet. High up above me was his talking head. Above that were the mounds of gravel, like mountains of glittering black-eyed coal. And above them the real mountains, the Catskills, unreadable and flickering in the night like static on a busted TV.

  This place had been a construction site. People had planned to build something here, in this patch of gravel where I was sitting; blueprints made and rooms measured, roads mapped out. I felt it around me in the night, what could have been. The walls and floors and windows taking shape, the roof closing in, the automatic doors automatically closing.

  Maybe this was meant to be a superstore, a Target. Or a hotel, a Radisson.

  In some other time line, the one where London kept to her coffin, this place existed. If I concentrated on it, I could feel the crush of feet on me, the people in that other reality walking on this spot where I now sat, never guessing how close they’d come to being nothing. A woman digging her heels into my liver. Kids skating the asphalt, landing tricks off the curbs. A man wheeling his suitcase over my ribs. Their missed lives thrown in the incinerator so I could have mine.

  Pete leaned down closer to me. He was going to say something, but I couldn’t concentrate on what.

  In the distance, laughter. In the distance, music. In the distance, fire and light and everything I’d left behind when I took off for Pennsylvania. I could go toward the light and the laughter and the music—I could find Ruby, and I’d be fine. But if I turned around and saw London still there, what then?

  Maybe she was about to disintegrate. Maybe I’d count to ten and look over at the fire and witness the air cyclone her to mist. I’d blink and see tree trunks straight through the solid space that had been her bones.

  Because girls can’t come back to life. Not here and not anywhere. Any second now we’d see—

  Pete was a breath away from me now, his clammy hand grabbing on to my knee. He gave an awkward shake to my knee and said, “Seriously, kid, you all right?”

  “You’re asking for it, Pete,” said a voice. A girl’s voice. As she stepped toward us, the light from the fire made more stripes blaze up all over her skin. “You know that’s Ruby’s sister, right?” London said. Then she added, “So how’s it going, Chloe?”

  I didn’t answer. When a dead girl says your name it’s shocking. A brick thrown at you, a brick through your bedroom window.

  The light was behind her, hiding her face. “You need some help getting up?” she asked. She put an arm out, dangling one of her two hands before my face. The hand was so close, I could see all five fingernails. Even in the dark I could see them.

  She locked her eyes on mine. (The whites of her eyes staring up at the half moon.)

  She cracked a smile. (Her lips drained of color.)

  I looked away. “Don’t touch me,” I heard myself say. “I’m fine.”

  “You don’t look fine,” she said.

  And you don’t look dead, I didn’t say.

  “Just let her help you,” Pete said. So he could see and hear her, too.

  The hand was still there, the fingers waggling. Her nails were painted a few different colors. Three were black, as they would be if left to rot in the ground. But three were magenta. Others were yellow. It was all so random.

  I grabbed the hand. Her warm, living hand. It grabbed mine back. As it did a hiss of vapor didn’t pass through my flesh to reveal I’d grabbed on to nothing; I didn’t fall facefirst into gravel and lie there spitting up rocks. I was definitely touching something. And this something used its weight to get me up.

  She was no ghost. She could be seen by others. She could be touched; she spoke full sentences; her breath reeked, but not with maggots, with plain bad beer. There was no smoke, no mirrors. If Ruby had made this happen, it was really and truly happening, not just to me but to every single person here.

  Ruby reappeared once I got to my feet. She was there for me to lean on, there as if she’d been at my side all along and always would be. The wind played with her hair, making it sway over her bare shoulders. Her lips were painted her color—without a smudge. Her eyes borrowed stars from the sky, or seemed to. Even the fireflies came to lend her their glow, blinking sweet nothings all around her.

  I wasn’t the only one staring.

  “Hey there,” Pete said.

  “Hi, Ruby,” London said meekly, eyes flicking to me as if she didn’t think she’d be allowed to tell my sister hi.

  Ruby ignored them both. “That
took forever,” she said. “I’m so sorry, Chlo.” She held out a water bottle for me and watched carefully as I twisted off the cap and took a long swallow.

  When I was done, Ruby grabbed my hand in hers, so everyone could see. Then she asked, projecting as if she were wearing a wire hidden inside her dress, “London, how are you? My sister was wondering. Tell her. Tell her how you are.”

  I was? But I was. Ruby knew I was wondering that and way more.

  London gave Ruby an odd look. Then she turned the same look on me, seeing as I could have asked her how she was myself, and said, “I’m fine, thanks.” Her words wavered, like she wasn’t sure. Like Ruby could say no, she wasn’t fine, and then she’d have to change her answer.

  “See?” my sister said to me. To London, her voice shifted and she said, “What are you doing over here with Chloe? What happened to the keg?”

  “It’s empty,” London said.

  “Damn,” Pete could be heard muttering behind us.

  London was shifting from foot to foot. “I should go back to the fire,” she said, taking a step toward her friends.

  “Should you?” Ruby asked this question with great concentration. Her gaze needled into two thin points, aimed with precision at London.

  I saw the stabs. Saw how London flinched and then in one last-ditch effort to defend herself squeaked out, “I told them I’d be right back.”

  “You did?” Ruby said. She had control of the conversation, tossing it high, bouncing it back and forth between her palms.

  London’s forehead creased up. She put a hand to her head, thinking. The fireflies seemed drunk, glowing haphazardly in downward spirals toward the ground.

  “I don’t know,” London said at last, her voice faint. “I don’t remember.”

  Something was going on here, something between this girl who’d come back to life and my sister, who’d maybe possibly had a hand in it, and I couldn’t figure out what.

  “Hey,” Pete called out, dumb to the world as usual, “is everyone high but me?”

  Ruby tore her eyes from London. “Yes,” she said, “everyone but you.”

 
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