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Imaginary girls, p.7

Imaginary Girls, page 7


Imaginary Girls

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  Pete looked down at his feet, crushed. It was so easy to hurt him.

  “Oh, Petey,” Ruby said, softening, “c’mere.” She pulled him into a hug for a few lingering seconds. When she pushed him away, he seemed placated, so caught up in the moment and in her that I thought he might keel over—and then she did him one better.

  “I have one hit left,” she told him sweetly. “And I’m warning you, Pete—Petey, look at me so I can talk to you—I’m warning you . . . you’ve never had anything like this. You might not know where you are when you come out of it. You might lose your head.”

  She had him. “You don’t want it?” he said. “You sure?”

  She nodded.

  Pete’s eyes widened in anticipation as she slipped a hand into one of the small pockets sewn at the hips of her sundress. The pockets were triangular, meant for decoration. They could hold maybe a stick of gum if it was folded in half, or one key, if it was a small key for a small lock. But she took her time rummaging through that pocket as if it sunk deep down the length of her leg.

  Then she pulled out her hand, keeping the treasure hidden from sight in a closed fist. “I guess you can have it,” she told Pete.

  “Awesome,” Pete said, though as far as he knew it was a pill of lint.

  Ruby pulled the fist close to her ribs as if considering keeping whatever it was for herself. But then she smiled.

  “All right, Pete. Here you go.”

  He opened his mouth and dangled a flabby pink tongue. Ruby, ever so careful not to touch the tongue, dropped the pill onto it and told him to close his mouth. He did, and swallowed. Then he hacked up lung for a minute and swallowed some more.

  He was so trusting, so simple when it came to my sister. He’d do whatever she wanted, always had. Pete was the only one here acting like himself.

  “Tastes sort of . . . chalky,” he said once he got it down. “What was that?”

  “You’ll see,” Ruby chimed out. “Go over there, Petey”—she was pointing at a rusted bulldozer parked away from the fire, so far off that the flickering light barely reached—“put your head back and close your eyes. Wait a while. Think happy thoughts. Open your eyes. Then you’ll see.”

  “Sweet,” Pete said, and stumbled off into the dark to follow her instructions.

  Ruby sighed. “Sometimes I have to distract him.”

  I motioned at the bulldozer. “Think he’ll be all right?”

  “Do we care?” Ruby said.

  “No,” I admitted. “Not really. But what’d you give him?”

  She pulled it out of her tiny pocket: the leftover rind from a roll of foil-wrapped Tums. “For desperate situations,” she said, “and dire emergencies.”

  And we laughed, knowing Pete was exiled at the bulldozer, eyes sealed shut, waiting for a thrill ride he wouldn’t get on any antacid. Laughed, seeing the deep night filled with fireflies and fire smoke. Knowing it was our night, and I was back now where I belonged, we laughed and kept laughing.

  I didn’t know why I was laughing, but I couldn’t stop.

  We laughed at everyone down in the gravel pit. Laughed that the keg was already empty. Laughed at the whole show Ruby had arranged for my first night home. Laughed the way we used to, for no reason and every possible reason, Ruby and me.

  It was here that I realized someone else was still with us, and she wasn’t making a sound. London wasn’t laughing or even smiling, but she drifted at the edge of our small circle, like she wanted us to make some room so she could come in.

  She was the hot center spot in a lightbulb; when looked at directly, she burned. And even when I turned away, I couldn’t not-see her. She was etched onto the backs of my eyelids, there undeniably if I could face it or not.

  Ruby was talking to her, asking if she was tired, asking if she wanted to go home.

  And all at once London was yawning, as if on command, lifting a hand to cover her gaping mouth. “What time is it?” she mumbled.

  “Late,” Ruby said. “Really, really late.” She said this without checking the time on her cell phone. In reality, I think it was only ten o’clock. It was like she wanted London to leave and, simply by wanting it, she was well on the way to making it occur.

  London’s eyes drooped closed. I wondered what would happen if she went to sleep right here, in the gravel at our feet, if she’d ever wake again. Maybe only one of us was dreaming, and the one who got to wake up would see the truth come morning.

  “You should go home then,” I told London, my eyes on the toes poking out of her sandals instead of on her face, “if you’re so tired, I mean.”

  “I . . . I will.”

  The night shut up for a beat. The fire stopped its crackling. The kids beside it stopped talking. The wind stopped spitting up gravel and howling at the trees. You heard ground crunch under your shoes if you couldn’t keep your feet from moving, but other than that you heard nothing. Then, breaking up the absolute stillness, you heard a breath in and a breath out. You heard her.

  London, alive and breathing: Ruby’s inexplicable gift to me.

  “Lon,” Ruby said, “don’t worry. We’ll drive you home.”

  My sister cast her eyes out at the rest of the party, as if testing to see if it was still worthy. I did, too, trying to see what she did. But then my gaze went somewhere else. It fell off track of hers and dropped to rest elsewhere.

  She wasn’t looking across the way at the figure in the dark, but I was. I found him there without searching. She scanned past where he was standing with his friends, so she didn’t notice, either, how his head turned in response to mine, how our eyes met, somehow leaping the distance, how for some reason, with the length of two train cars between us, he was acknowledging my existence for real for the first time that night.

  At least, that’s what it felt like. I was too far away to be sure.

  All the guys in the distance, girls, too, had a clear awareness of Ruby, touching her legs and back and mouth and the plunging scoop at her neck with their eyes at random moments, as if they couldn’t help it. Wherever they were, whatever they were doing, they checked back on her, to see where she was and what she was doing. Owen, though, treated her like a black censored box over the screen, impossible to see past so he’d just ignore it. She was standing at my side and I swear he was looking at me.

  No one showed much interest in London. I couldn’t decide what was stranger.

  Then Ruby’d had enough and told me so with the purse of her lips and one quick, dismissive shake of her head. This party could last all night and be the talk of the summer. It could have—until Ruby decided she didn’t care anymore.

  She turned her back on it and as she did I saw how dull it really was. The drained keg. The fire with the black, hissing smoke. The gravel dust. The kids sitting in dirt.

  This party was done. We came, we saw and were seen, and now we’d go.

  Only, not alone. It seemed we were taking London with us.



  Ruby led us away from the party. Her hand was in mine, and she was pulling me toward the trees. Her other hand had taken hold of London’s striped elbow, but only to steer her in our direction. Once we reached the path, she let go and had London follow us, handless, away from all her friends.

  We didn’t say any good-byes. We simply ditched the party and raced through the woods that skirted the quarry, Ruby and I never once losing our grip on the other, not tripping or slamming into gaping branches or getting a shot of firefly to the eye. It was just the two of us again, except for the girl trailing a few feet behind.

  We reached the cars in no time. And in as little time, Ruby was opening the driver’s side door of Pete’s car, since he hadn’t bothered to lock it, and telling us to make ourselves comfortable. My bags and suitcase were where I’d left them in the backseat.

  “Where’s your car?” I asked Ruby.

  “I left it at the house.” When she said that—the house—it stuck out at me, as we’d neve
r lived in a whole house before. This house was simply one more thing, along with the girl who’d climbed into the seat behind me, that was different this summer.

  I took shotgun, my reserved seat in Ruby’s car, no matter who was riding with us or whose car it actually was. In a flash the engine was on, and I turned to her, shocked. “Did you hot-wire the car?”

  She eyed me oddly, as if I’d chosen the wrong thing to be so surprised about. “I’m no criminal mastermind,” she said. “I swiped Pete’s keys.”

  She peeled out, punching the gas so we practically skidded sideways through the knot of parked cars. The way out was downhill, sheets of gravel cascading behind us as the tires spun, and the way she drove was with abandon, like it used to be when she steered another car, during another summer, taking charge of this same road.

  Ruby adored night-driving. She loved letting the wind have our hair, no matter how ratted and tangled it got after, often breaking off our brush bristles, and she loved running every red light she could find. Sometimes, back when I was little and before she’d technically taken the test to secure her license, she’d wake me in the middle of the night and carry me to our mother’s car to go driving.

  The thing is, we never went anywhere special. For all the hours spent driving, we could have made it down to the city and back—we heard Times Square stays lit up all through the night, unlike our town, which mostly closed up shop by seven o’clock—but Ruby was happy simply driving the rounds of our village. She’d take us as far as the wooded outskirts, loving narrow, twisting roads and steep mountain passes, speeding the bridges across the reservoir, then cutting swift U-turns to speed right back, but that was as far as she’d go. There was a point on the thruway she didn’t like passing. There was a line only she knew about that she considered too far.

  The road we were on tonight was a road we’d driven often. If I shoved my head face-out into the wind—drinking in the distance as she tested the limits of the speedometer, letting the wind tear up my eyes, those tears drying before they hit my cheeks—I could be nine again. Or eleven. Or even fourteen.

  Except I wasn’t.

  Except something hovered in the car with us, chilled and unspoken. This summer wanted to be like all the others, but it was another thing entirely and no amount of wind in my face could cover that up.

  I peeked back at London every mile or so, noticing things about her that I never did the first time she was alive:

  How long her arms were, so long she must have been taller than I remembered, or else she grew.

  How she twitched in her seat, unable to stay still.

  How when she drifted off, resting her cheek on my suitcase, she drooled, and how innocent she looked as she did it.

  “Is she, y’know . . . okay?” I asked. There was no word for what she really was. I couldn’t fathom a way to ask it.

  Ruby clucked her tongue. “She’s as can be expected, I guess. I mean, how do you think you’d be if you came back from—” She cut herself off with a tight glance at the rearview. “She’s fine.”

  “Do you think—”

  “Yes, I think we should stop and get lo mein after we drop her off,” Ruby said, as much to herself as to me. “A big family-size tub, one set of chopsticks for me and one fork for you. They always used to forget the fork. Only . . . the Wok’n’ Roll won’t be open so late, will it?” She glanced at me.

  “I don’t remember what time it closes.”

  “We’ll talk about lo mein later, Chlo,” she said now, as if I was the one who’d brought it up. “I don’t want her getting any ideas.”

  “She’s sleeping,” I said. “Look at her. She totally passed out.”

  “You can still hear when you’re sleeping. Sleep-walls are thin, so voices seep in, like how before you were born I talked to you up against Mom’s stomach, told you who I was so you’d know me. Every day I did that. And then when you came out you loved me more than you loved her.”

  “But I don’t remember any of that.”

  “Some deep-down part of you does.”

  London twitched some more as I watched her, like my eyes held little pointy pins and I kept sticking her with them. Then when she sat up and met my gaze I wondered if she’d been listening the whole time.

  “Are you feeling okay?” I asked London. “Did you drink too much?”

  “She’s fine, like I told you,” my sister said for her. “Just leave her be.”

  We were heading, I thought, straight into the center of town, and then to wherever it was that London lived, but Ruby veered a sharp left over the footbridge and headed a way I didn’t expect.

  “Where do you live, London?” I asked.

  “I don’t, I . . . It’s, um . . .” She trailed off. Was she so drunk she didn’t even recall how to find her own house?

  “I know where to take her,” Ruby said. She was acting so protective of the girl, like we had to tiptoe around her now, though just before this Ruby had been all about taking care of me.

  We’d been driving for a short while when Ruby stopped the car, not near any house that I could see but on a darkened stretch of road running alongside a thick embankment of tangled trees. I knew where we were, but I wasn’t about to acknowledge it out loud.

  London seemed to live not too far from the place where she died. It was the reservoir that would be found if you pushed through that thicket of trees and went running. Did she have an inkling of this? Did she remember?

  Ruby had turned in her seat to face London. “Here good?” she asked.

  London opened her mouth and then closed it. Maybe she did have an inkling. Maybe she remembered it all and didn’t know if I did.

  “I said do you want to get out here?” Ruby repeated.

  “Yeah, okay,” London said. She drew a curtain over her face that showed me nothing. “I can walk from here.”

  Something unspoken was hovering between them, but before I could ask what was going on, London shuffled out of the backseat and the door behind me was swinging open and then smacking shut. London stood for a moment on the asphalt, wavering there like she wasn’t sure which way was home. One of her feet was bare, as if by crawling out so quickly she’d lost a sandal and didn’t feel like going back in to scoop it out.

  I turned to my sister. “We shouldn’t drive her all the way home?”

  “Nah,” she said. “She wants to walk. It’s not far.”

  London nodded and echoed that. “It’s not far. It’s just over there.” She pointed into the black night and maybe there was a driveway; I couldn’t see beyond where she was standing. Maybe she liked being dropped off in the middle of the road so she wouldn’t disturb her parents.

  “But your shoe,” I called to her.

  She shrugged. Then she started walking.

  I was mystified by her. Part of me was waiting for her to dissipate into a puff of smoke and leave behind a sandal and a striped shirt and whatever coins and junk she had in her pockets and then for my sister to run over her remains in the road.

  But Ruby only waved and drove off.

  “You wouldn’t let me walk home with one shoe,” I said.

  “You’re you,” she said. “She’s not.”

  I twisted around in my seat to look after her, but the dark had swallowed her up entirely.

  “Forget the lo mein,” Ruby said, as if I’d just brought it up. “I have to tell you two things before we get to the house.” She was headed away from town now, away from the Millstream Apartments where she used to live, and away from the Wok ’n’ Roll where she’d wanted to pick up dinner. She was heading a way we didn’t usually go.

  “One,” she said, “Jonah is perfectly harmless, even if he gets noisy with the buzz saw, and I’m warning you now, in case it ever wakes you.”

  “The buzz saw?”

  She nodded.

  “About Jonah . . . he’s your new boyfriend?”

  “That’s what he calls himself.”

  “So you’re like . . . living with him?” May
be other people moved in with boyfriends or girlfriends, but in all the years I’d known Ruby, which happened to be my whole entire life, she’d never lived in the same physical location with one. That would make a guy think he had a claim on her. It would be harder to string someone along, push him away, pull him back, push him away, if you toasted your toast in the same kitchen.

  “Sure, I live with him,” she said. “Technically it’s his house.”

  I let this sink in.

  “Is that all you wanted to tell me?” I asked.

  She was tapping her fingers on the steering wheel now. Her nails were perfect gleaming ovals, not needing a drop of polish to shine brighter than the moonlight.

  “No,” she said. “There’s still that second thing.”

  She jammed the pedal to the floor like she wanted to bust the engine out of Pete’s car and leave us riding on fumes. Over the rush of wind she said, “Do you trust me?”

  I trusted her, always, blindly, forever. She used to ask me that question before she’d lift me up and fling me into Cooper Lake by my fingertips, not ever letting go because she promised she wouldn’t. I trusted her then, and I trusted her now.

  I trusted her, though I’d come all the way from Pennsylvania and she hadn’t bothered to meet my bus. I trusted her, though she’d shown me a walking dead girl tonight like it was no big deal. I trusted her; she didn’t need to ask.

  “You trust me,” she said, “like with your life?”

  The road ahead was perfectly dark, seeing as she’d cut off the headlights, but she didn’t let the car slow.

  “Ruby, what are you doing? Put the lights back on!”

  “Do you trust me, or do you trust me? Close your eyes.”

  “Only if you put the lights back on.”

  “Close your eyes and I will.”

  I snapped them closed and it felt like we moved over the road as if through time. Centuries draining past so if only I’d looked out I could have seen my own future, my babies’ babies’ babies’ babies forgetting who they came from in their space-age sun-panel tattoo-thin clothes.

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