Imaginary Girls, page 8
The car flew. Trees stepped aside for us. The mountain split open. There were no lanes here, no cars coming, nothing to stand in our way.
And I guess I could have come back to town only to die in a horrible car wreck, like the girl who found herself wrapped around a tree when I was in elementary school, and everyone in town left flowers in the tree roots, and stuffed turtles because I guess she had a thing for turtles, and Ruby and I would have our own tree, and what would people in town leave for us? What stuffed thing would hold our memory for eternity?
I’d never know.
The car had stopped, the engine down, the wind still. I peeled open my eyes.
Ruby wore a grin. “You do trust me,” she whispered.
Lights from a house showed me her face. She had even more freckles than I remembered—at least three more.
The house itself was pale wood, unpainted, and set back away from the road. This was the house where she lived now, where I lived now, where we’d live together.
She pushed the wind-warped hair out of my face and tucked it safely behind my ears. Victory in her eyes, speed still pinking her cheeks, she pulled away and said, “The second thing is this. Go ahead, look.”
I was looking—at the house. But she didn’t mean the house. She meant what was behind the house.
What was seeping into the distance, blotting out trees, erasing mountains, leaking up into the night with no dividing line on the horizon to show where it ended or if it ended ever at all. The shapeless, formless thing that took a breath in as I was watching it, then let out a breath when I looked away. This thing I’d been avoiding. This thing I ran away from. There before her outstretched arm, lit up from the headlights, was the reservoir.
The one I never did swim across.
OLIVE WAS HERE
Olive was here, below the hill. Across the two-lane stretch of road and through walls of trees, far enough away to keep their distance, the people of Olive had come up to watch, called to the surface by the car’s headlights.
Ruby might have told me this to send a chill up my spine, but I knew they were down there without her having to say. I felt them.
It was simply something I was aware of, like I’d be aware of getting wet if the night turned to rain and I was out with no umbrella. Down deep in the reservoir, under the water where no one would think to look, was the other town, and the people who’d once walked its streets could be found wading through what was left of them still.
My sister didn’t have to say so. She didn’t have to make up some story; I could make it up myself. I was doing it right now, imagining them, the people of Olive, bobbing up under cover of night.
They waited for the late hour to do their looking. Tonight I wondered how many of them were here. Maybe they formed a chain from the rocky bottom, locking webbed fingers to slippery wrists, lifting the lightest one to the top, where the water broke open and the air got them gasping and Pete’s car could be made out on the hill.
I wondered if they knew who was in the car. If they spotted her, and sitting next to her, me.
If the lookout then dipped back under, to let the rest of them know. If they burbled whispers, playing telephone from one waterlogged ear to the next, all down to the end of the line. She’s back. She’s come home.
While I was away, the reservoir had stayed put. Close to a hundred years it had been there, the towns it swallowed far longer even than that. It had been here before I was a thought in this world. Before my sister was a thought, and our mother was a thought, before the mother of our mother’s mother, who I never even met, before anyone who looked anything like us had set foot here, this reservoir had existed.
And it wanted us to know. This was apparent in the wind batting up at us from the water below. The wind that rushed in through the windows, cold hands at our throats, colder fingers angling down our shirts.
But when I looked over at Ruby, she let the wind off the reservoir touch her anywhere it wanted and she didn’t do a thing. She had her eyes on the water, not the least bit intimidated.
She was an ant before a bear. She was a girl before a speeding eighteen-wheeler truck. And yet she didn’t act like it. Here was the second deepest reservoir in the state and she showed none of the awe most people did when they gazed at it. She didn’t let out a sigh and say what a beautiful treasure it was. She acted like it was a challenge, like she was waiting to see who would break eye contact first. She looked on as if it would wither up in a dry spell and she’d go down there and celebrate by stomping around in its dirt.
Then, when I felt sure something was about to happen, she turned her face away.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you,” she said, as if we’d never paused in conversation. “The reservoir. It’s so close.”
“You could walk to it,” I said.
When we lived in the heart of town, the reservoir used to be a ten-minute drive; we’d have to stow the car somewhere secret before going on foot through the trees. But this new house where Ruby lived had been built to be as close to the water as possible without trespassing on city property. The city of New York still owned the water and the land surrounding it, though they weren’t here to keep an eye on it. Ruby was.
“It looks closer than it is,” she said. “You have to cross the road to get to it—you just can’t see. There’s a hole in the chain link, and there’s this little path I know of over the rocks, but—” How serious she grew here. How cold her hand was, now that it grabbed mine around the wrist, her skin chilled to the same temperature as the wind. “But, Chlo, don’t go down there. Just don’t.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You won’t go near it,” Ruby announced. “You won’t. C’mon, let’s show you the house.”
We left Pete’s car where she’d parked it, inches from toppling over the hill. The subject of the reservoir was closed and tucked away, as were other subjects as far-reaching as mothers we were avoiding and girls come back to life. The night was filled with strange things, but what wasn’t strange was being together with my sister again. That was the one thing that felt right.
We followed a path of stones to the house, with Ruby leading the way, saying, “Watch where you walk, step only on the stones, that’s why they’re there, no, don’t walk on that one, walk on that one, that’s right, that stone there,” until we reached a series of short, squat steps and then a door. It was unlocked, and unpainted, and had a hole where the knob should be. Even so, she opened it wide and ushered me in.
Indoors, with a few lamps on to see, the house was revealed to not exactly be a whole house yet. It was a house in progress, one being built up around us as we stood inside. The walls and floors were half-completed, formed from scraps and panels of wood, electrical wires for who-knew-what gaping out from above. And yet furniture was arranged in the room—a table and chairs, a love seat on one side, a couch opposite. It looked like someone had insisted on moving in too soon. Or that the furniture was planted here first, and then the walls of the house were put up around it.
Ruby made no comment on the state of the house. She took a practiced step over a hole in the floor, indicating where to put my feet to avoid falling in, and then gave a quick tour of the downstairs: kitchen to the right, living room and den to the left, bathroom through this hall and around that bend. There were more doorways than it seemed there should be, if the only rooms downstairs were the ones she mentioned, but when I asked where the extra doors led, Ruby smiled and said sometimes you need more than one way to reach the outside.
There was no introduction to Jonah, the new boyfriend, whose house Ruby treated as her own. She said he was around somewhere, but she didn’t feel like looking. I’d meet him tomorrow, she said. She’d get him to make us breakfast or something.
Up a set of stairs, turning sharp corners without a banister to hold on to, we reached the second floor, where a hole in the floor meant for a ceiling fi
“This one’s yours,” Ruby said.
I went to the door, but it didn’t swing open. It was propped there, leaning against the frame and not secured by hinges. A single push, and it could topple.
Here, for the first time, she acknowledged the state of the house. Maybe she was getting worried, now that she could see my reaction.
“Jonah’s going to build it up to something great,” she said. “He is. It takes time, I guess. But I told him. I told him, ‘My sister’s got to have her own room.’ And so he made sure. He should’ve gotten this door working first though.”
“Thanks,” I said. But I was thinking how Jonah knew about me, building this room for me before he ever met me, and tonight was the first I’d heard of him.
“I wanted you to have a room that’s all yours, Chlo. There’s a bathroom up here and everything. And it’s bigger than your old room at the Millstream, too. And your old bed’s in there, and your furniture.”
She picked up the door in both her arms and moved it aside so we could enter. She made a motion that I should go in first and then hovered behind me, close enough to step on my heels if I backed up even one inch.
“I know this room isn’t like that little truck-thing you were living in at your dad’s, but you weren’t thinking of leaving just yet, were you?” she teased. She’d practically whispered this up against the scalp of my head, so I couldn’t see if she was smiling as she said it—though I felt sure she was. Smiling.
Then she backed up and continued, cautious now, timid even. “You won’t leave because things are just like they were . . . that summer. Before . . . everything. Right, Chlo?”
She meant London was back the way she was, because she sure couldn’t mean the mysterious new boyfriend and the slapdash house.
“Is she alive?” I said, bursting out with it. “Can everyone see her?”
“Pete saw her,” Ruby said. “You saw her, I saw her, everyone at the party saw her.”
“Then she’s alive.”
Ruby opened her mouth and let it hang for a second too long—but she didn’t end up denying it. “She’s not a ghost, if that’s what you’re saying. You know we don’t believe in ghosts, silly.”
“How?” I said.
“How what?” she said.
“How is she alive?”
Right then, Ruby held up a hand to stop me from saying more and shot her gaze over my shoulder, to the open doorway behind me. There was a thump coming from out in the hallway. Then another as a heavy weight was dropped.
Was that Jonah?
I stayed very still as she checked outside the room.
But when she returned from the darkened hall she held in her arms a framed mirror that must have slipped down from the wall—and somehow didn’t break.
“Maybe we do have a ghost,” she teased.
“That wasn’t Jonah?”
She shook her head. “It’s the house settling, that’s all.” She held the mirror facing out at me and for a brief moment it caught a bare corner of the room and I didn’t see myself in it—like I was the one whose existence we should be questioning. But it was only the angle. When I shifted, I was back in frame and made a reflection as usual. She plunked the mirror on the floor, careful not to get a crack of bad luck in it, and asked me what she’d asked me before.
“So,” she said, “you’ll stay?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Of course.”
How could I leave? Now back, I couldn’t picture anywhere else. Literally—like my mind had been wiped clean of all other towns clear from here to Route 80. Places that weren’t this place had lost their names. Here was home, because Ruby was here.
“And didn’t you notice?” she said. “I decorated. You like?”
Tacked to the walls in random spots were photos of the two of us. We grinned and pursed our lips and dangled candy-colored tongues over the electrical outlets. We posed with faces mashed together, nose to nose, or cheek on cheek, the flash deviling our eyes, on a windowpane. There was one of me in her lap posted halfway up a wall, but I wasn’t a baby, I was twelve years old. There was one of the two of us in her bright white car, sunglasses on and lenses reflecting white-hot sun, above the light switch. There were no boys in any of the photos. And it went without saying that there were none of Mom.
The last of the photos was taken the summer I was fourteen. There we were, cooling ourselves off in the Millstream, Ruby at the edge of the frame with a diamond-shaped fleck of mud on her nose, and me in the center, too many flecks of mud on my body to count, about to splash her.
That was the most recent photo—missing from the walls were the two years we’d spent apart, a time left unphotographed and unrecorded. Neither of us mentioned that.
“It’s perfect,” I told her. “I love the pictures.”
“We’ll bring up your suitcase later,” she said.
Suddenly I remembered what I’d wanted to check. I was propelled to the window. The room she’d had built for me was at the front of the house, and the view out the window displayed only the driveway. Nowhere, from any spot in that room, could I see a hint of the reservoir. Which meant it couldn’t see me.
That answered my question.
“Are you going to show me your room?” I asked her.
She nodded and led the way.
The “hallway” to reach Ruby’s room was a set of plywood planks running from one side of the house to the other. I could look down and see the first floor a story below. Walking the planks was like performing the trapeze in a dark circus, only everyone’s gone home already and they’ve taken the net with them, so if you fall, the hard ground is all that’s there to catch you.
Ruby balanced on the planks without looking down. She didn’t put a hand to the wall to keep steady. Once in her room I could see that her clothes were scattered about, and a chair was set up in the middle of the floor to hold only sunglasses, and her dresser drawers spilled out more than they held, all of which was like her, explosive and full of color and impossible to step over unscathed because she was everywhere.
The room itself was small, but the bed she slept on was grand, with four tall posts and a place to hang a canopy, though it only held a few T-shirts and a gypsy skirt. The bed was high off the ground, as if a stepladder was needed to get up on it, but I didn’t see a stepladder, so I imagined Ruby doing running leaps to reach the bed, nosedives and somersaults from off the chair of sunglasses to the mattress beyond. She’d do it, too—it was something we would have done together, had this been our bed.
I went to her side of the bed, where on the tangled sheets was last night’s nightgown, skimpy and dotted with bloodred ladybugs, and one white sock.
On the sock, she’d penned a note to herself at the ankle:
cocoa pebbles dish soap
A shopping list. She always used to write them in the strangest places.
I stepped around to the other side of the bed, the side where I figured this new boyfriend of hers got to sleep.
I could tell he shared this room. His stuff was all over. There on the dresser, a man’s wallet and a bulky ring of grime-encrusted keys. Hanging over a chair, a pair of work pants, the kind with pockets running up the legs and you can’t imagine how anyone would need all those pockets, but I guess her boyfriend, Jonah, did. Those were his discarded boxers on the floor. Here was his wrinkled half of the sheets.
It bothered me to imagine him sleeping on that tall bed beside my sister. To think of some guy I’d never met peeling off his pants in front of her and putting his head on a pillow beside her head.
I tore my eyes away from the bed and checked the room again, taking it all in.
“You’re quiet,” she said. “What’re you looking for?”
“Nothing. I don’t know.”
What I was looking for made no sense, not even to me. Something magical had happened, and London was apparent living proof of it, and maybe I thought there’d be some kind of evidence in here. Like Ruby might’ve dropped a clue out of her pocket. She could be clumsy like that.
Like if I lifted up my foot, all explanations would be right here.
I did notice that Ruby had two huge windows in her room—looking out behind the house in the direction of the reservoir. They were dark for now, since it was night, but when the sun came up, there would be no curtains or shades to keep the water from showing clear.
“You’ll sleep here tonight,” she announced. “With me. But take that side, the one near the wall, not the windows.”
Jonah’s side, she meant. She said those words and clapped her hands together and it was done, without informing the boyfriend first, because why would we?
It was decided and, soon, it was happening: my first night under my sister’s new roof. Soon, we were on the bed, divvying up the pillows, and she was so close I could feel her elbow in my side and her knee crushing my elbow. We had each other again, and there was nothing and no one that could get between us.
Everything was as it should be—except for the one thing.
The girl at the keg, the one we’d dropped off in the middle of the road.
The dead girl who was no longer dead.
That’s the one thing that prickled at me.
Somehow, while I was gone, she’d been reanimated, blown full of air so she could take her breaths again among us. My sister was connected to her now—which meant I was also, if my sister was.
London was back, as I was—and she shouldn’t be.
“Comfortable, Chlo?” Ruby’s voice rang out from her side of the mattress—as if she knew right then on whose face my mind had been lingering.
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