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Imaginary girls, p.9

Imaginary Girls, page 9


Imaginary Girls

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“Yes, Ruby,” I said from my side.

  “G’night then,” she said, choking it out almost, like she had a dry, scratchy spot in her throat. Like being here with me again, tonight, was making her feel emotional.

  I waited for her to say more, but she didn’t. She had her back to me, but after some long moments her arm reached out, and her hand tapped my hand to be sure it was still there. I tapped back.

  Then we both went to sleep and let my first night home dissolve into day.



  Ruby slipped over to my side of the bed and wouldn’t budge, though I tried and tried to wake her. The clock showed that it was morning, and far later than I usually slept, but Ruby was still deep under. Her long hair trailed across the tangled sheets and reached down for the shadowy dust bunnies kept beneath the bed. Her arm circled one of my pillows, and her legs had kicked aside my legs.

  “Ruby?” I said, removing a lock of hair from her cheek.

  “No, don’t,” she said in response. Then she rolled over onto her stomach so I couldn’t see her face. She was only talking in her sleep.

  Sometimes, I knew, if I spoke to Ruby while she was dreaming, she’d speak back. We could have entire conversations, ease out her hidden thoughts, the ones she didn’t even know she had. I wondered if any boyfriends ever knew about this.

  But I didn’t want to wake her, though it was long past breakfast and she must have been starved. I slipped my legs out from under the sheets and that’s when I felt it: something cold and crumbly, down near where we had our feet. I peeled back the sheet to see the dirt spilling out all over the bottom of the bed, as much on my half as on hers. Her legs were covered in it, streaks of dried mud almost to her knees. Her feet were crusty and brown and you couldn’t even see what color her toenails were painted.

  I was positive her feet had been clean when she’d gone to bed.

  “Ruby?” I said, poking her hip. “Did you go outside while I was sleeping?”

  “You can’t go,” she mumbled, eyes still closed.

  “Not me,” I said. “You. Where’d you go?”

  She sighed a nonanswer, making it clear she wasn’t getting up, not yet.

  The house wasn’t quiet any longer. There was noise coming from somewhere downstairs, a gasping, choking, whinnying roar . . .

  The buzz saw, as promised. Had to be.

  But Ruby still didn’t get up. She could sleep through smoke alarms and neighbors’ house parties. She’d once slept through a storm that almost took out our apartment, using a hundred-year-old oak as a wrecking ball, and she might have stayed sleeping, even while it crushed her, except she woke to make sure I was okay, because being crushed was one thing, but she couldn’t live with herself if she let something crush her sister.

  Going down to the first floor was difficult to manage even in daylight—there was no banister on the stairs and no walls, and I had to hold on to air. There was no breakfast in the kitchen, and the dishes in the sink had a week-old glow.

  I found Jonah in the backyard and watched him for some time. I peeked around the corner of his house, my back flat against his unpainted siding, fingering his splinters.

  He had black hair; it curled. And tattoos, all up and down his arms.

  He was skinny but strong, in that ropey way Ruby liked on a guy. From behind, you could see his shoulders working as he used the buzz saw, ripping through a block of wood, pushing his weight into it.

  I could see why she’d been drawn to him. He was her type, physically. But there had to be something more to him—something I wasn’t seeing. If Ruby called a guy her boyfriend it meant she found him interesting enough to spend time with him beyond the stretch of one weekend. It meant Monday mornings, and underth.ings tangled together in the same washing machine, and spit exchanged on sidewalk corners where every single person in town could see. It meant the guy was worthy.

  It was a rare occurrence, practically unseen in our town, like a comet, or that time Pete swore he saw a live lynx sprinting through the rec field and went around telling anyone who would listen, but we knew he’d only been drinking.

  I was far away, across the dirt lot that I guess was Jonah’s back lawn, shrubs and a spindly tree between us, but when he turned to face the house it was impossible not to get a good view of his eyes with those safety goggles on. They magnified his eyeballs, making them seem far larger than real life. His irises were a watery blue that seemed all wrong, innocent in a way you knew he wasn’t. Alarming.

  He caught me looking and stopped the saw. The sudden silence was enough to jolt me out from behind his house, losing my footing in the dirt of his lawn.

  Slowly, he removed the goggles and let them hang around his neck.

  “So it’s the famous Chloe,” he said. “The one who took my bed.”

  I didn’t deny it, but I did come closer, close enough to see the bright red ovals suctioned around each of his pale eyes. I wondered how long they’d stay there, and if Ruby could kiss him when he was all deformed like that. She probably made him wait for his face to go back to normal before she’d get close.

  He straightened his back, cracked it, then wiped sawdust on his pants. Two handprints, fingers splayed wide, were left on his skinny thighs.

  “You look like her, you know,” he said. “Bet you hear that a lot.”

  I shrugged. Before last night, I hadn’t heard it in awhile.

  “So how do you like the house?” he said.

  “It’s fine, I guess.”

  “Just fine?” he said, seeming amused. “It’s not finished, but you could probably tell.” He thumped the block of wood he’d been sawing. “This’ll be a veranda. Ruby said she wanted a veranda, so I’m out here making her one. Really it’s a back porch. She wants it all the way out to the edge of the property, as far out as we’re allowed to build.”

  “You always give her what she wants?” I teased, because of course he did. The guys she spent time with always did. What would be the point of them otherwise?


  “And this is what you do all day? Make stuff for my sister?”

  “No.” He seemed offended. “I work. I have a job. This is my job.” He indicated the shed, scattered with half-assembled furniture and haphazard stacks of wood.

  “You build tables,” I said, unimpressed.

  “And dressers, armoires . . . other shit. I sell it. I work on the house on the side.”

  I walked over and pulled open a random drawer in a random dresser. Inside I saw written in wobbly smoke-gray lines likely sketched with an eye pencil:

  Ruby says hi.

  I closed it before he could look in.

  “Nice,” I said. “You’re not from here, are you?”

  “I’ve been here a couple years . . .”

  “So no, then.”

  “No. I’m from—”

  “It doesn’t really matter. How’d you meet my sister?”

  “She pumped my gas at that convenience store in town. I was driving through, and my tank needed filling, and there she was. And, she’s, damn . . . she’s something else. I’m sure you hear that enough about your sister, so you don’t need me to say it. I’ve been places. I’ve been around. But I saw her at the pump, and . . .” He laughed, like this was funny. He laughed like she hadn’t reeled in a guy off the road before.


  “And I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. She filled my tank, said she’d knock back the price because she liked me.”

  I wrinkled my nose. “She does that to everyone, you know. It’s not special.”

  He smiled, faintly, like he was remembering some other part of the story he wasn’t about to tell me, one that could prove she did like him.

  “Then—what is it, a week later?—and I’m buying this land and moving my whole business out here and starting work on the house and that girl at the pumps, she’s my girl now. All because I stopped for gas.”

  He probably thought that was romantic. “How
old are you anyway?”

  “Twenty-seven. That all right with you?”

  “We’ll see. It might be too old.” I let out a sigh. “Truth is, Ruby barely told me anything about you,” I said—and I said it because I had a feeling he wouldn’t like that. He needed to know his place in her world, now that he was living in it. He needed to know what he was here for, and what to expect. “Ruby doesn’t talk about you at all.”

  He looked down and wiped more sawdust on his pants. Then he looked up into my eyes.

  “Do you make her breakfast in the morning?” I asked.

  “Some mornings.”

  “And iced coffee the way she likes it?”

  “Yeah, sure. Sometimes.”

  “Do you answer the phone when it rings so she doesn’t have to? Do you make her popcorn on Wednesdays? Do you do her laundry and hang out her dresses to dry?”

  He stepped away from the buzz saw and a little closer to me. “Do you do this with all her boyfriends? Ask them questions until they crack?”

  “You don’t look like you’ve cracked.”

  He seemed to think I was only teasing.

  “It doesn’t sound like you take good care of her,” I said. “You’re not doing any of the things you’re supposed to.”

  “Listen, I’m in love with your sister. That’s what you want to hear, right?”

  It wasn’t, actually. It was sad to hear. It’s not like I hadn’t heard it hundreds and hundreds of times before, enough times to blur in my mind so all their mouths mushed together and it sounded like they were talking at me with cheeks stuffed full of leaves and fish-tank pebbles and driveway mud.

  When Ruby said the words back to one of them, then maybe I’d care.

  He tried again. “That make you happy?” he said. “That I love her?”

  “I’m happy for you,” I said politely.

  I checked the windows of his house, hoping to spot her. Her bedroom faced the backyard. Maybe she was there at the glass, observing.

  He saw me looking and said, “She still asleep? She sure was up late last night.”

  “Yeah, I know,” I lied, because what I knew was that she’d gone to sleep with me, and there was no way he’d have a clue of how late that was or wasn’t. Then I thought of the streaks of dried mud on her legs and I gave myself away by going, “Hey, you didn’t see her out last night, did you?”

  “You mean when she went for a walk?” He indicated where that walk had taken her.

  He pointed into the distance and I noticed the bright green snake wrapped in fat coils around his arm. The tattoo was so faded, he must have gotten it before puberty or done it homemade, jailhouse-style, with ink from ballpoint pens mixed with spit.

  Where he was pointing was out toward the edge of the hill, to the view Ruby had showed me the night before. Pete’s car was still there, but Jonah didn’t mean the car. Between the gap in the shrubs, a path ran down the hill to the road. And across the road, the reservoir waited.

  “She went down there?” I asked.

  “I think so. Any reason you weren’t with her?”

  I shrugged. “Didn’t feel like it, I guess.”

  When I turned back I found him staring at me, simply staring. I had on a tank top and a pair of boxers that had belonged to one or another of Ruby’s ex-boyfriends. She liked to confiscate them and use them in lieu of underwear after they were gone. We both did. We also occasionally made use of exes’ button-down shirts and Visa cards.

  Or maybe these were his boxers. Maybe that’s why he was staring.

  “I should go wake my sister,” I said. “And get dressed while I’m up there.”

  “You should,” he said. He was in dangerous territory, looking at me like that.

  I stalked off, but I didn’t get far before a horn was honking from the driveway. Pete leaped out of some random car, looking dazed, as if the Tums he’d swallowed the night before really had been laced with something exciting.

  “There’s my car,” he said, pointing at the car Ruby had swiped from the party.

  Someone else was getting out of the car, someone Pete must have convinced to drive him here. But there was another person, too—Owen—and, seeing him, it occurred to me that this was not the time to be wearing some other man’s boxers out on the lawn.

  I was about to sneak back into the house, but Pete was coming straight for me.

  “Why’d you have to take my car?” he whined.

  “I didn’t take your car,” I said.

  “So why’d your sister have to go and take it then? Do you have any idea how I got home last night? You think this is funny, Chloe? It’s not funny.”

  “We got a ride.” Owen stepped in, practically defending me. “That’s how we got home last night.”

  Pete glared at him. “I should’ve called the cops.” Then he softened and his eyes went all wonky and he added, quickly, “I would’ve. If it was anyone other than Ruby.”

  At the sound of her name, Jonah stepped up, listening. The other guy with them looked out at the house, as if expecting Ruby to appear there, on the crooked front steps, to open the door that didn’t have a knob and welcome them in. She didn’t. Even if she was awake she wouldn’t have bothered.

  I turned to Pete, filling up with a kind of confidence I used to have from simply being her sister—because I still was that; more than ever I was. “You gave her your keys,” I said. “You told her to take your car, remember?”

  He froze. “No, I didn’t.”

  “You don’t remember?” I tried to give him the eyes like Ruby would, but I wasn’t sure if my eyes worked the same way as hers did.

  “Yeah, I dunno.” He glanced at his brother, then at his friend, then at Jonah, who didn’t look pleased by any of this. “Maybe,” Pete said at last. “Maybe I did.”

  “Man, who cares?” his friend broke in. “Just get your keys and let’s go.”

  They all looked at me. “You mean from Ruby?” I said. “She’s not up yet.”

  A beat of silence as everyone waited to see what Pete would do. Jonah, especially, seemed interested in what Pete would do—would he barge into the house, stomp up to the room Ruby slept in, grab her on the bed and shake her awake until she went looking for the keys? Would he go through her pockets? Would he make Jonah do it, or me?

  That was when I felt the chill at my back. The sense of her, close by, eavesdropping from behind a tree maybe, idly twirling sausage curls into her hair as we talked about her.

  Maybe she was trying to tell me something.

  She used to come up behind me and whisper a little missive, then sneak off, leaving the words to drift in my ears like dandelion fluff. Stick out your tongue, she’d tell me—and, bam, I’d get in trouble with the bus driver. Or she’d feed me lines: There wasn’t any No Trespassing sign up on the gate. I swear on my mother, Officer.

  She was here somewhere, sending over the words for me to say. I felt them tickle at my earlobe. She and I had been apart for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like to use my mouth to talk for her—how she did it for me, and I did it for her, and no one ever knew the difference.

  But I was also aware of Owen, who met my eyes—once—and then, fast, dropped his gaze down to his boots as if he’d gotten stung.

  “I’ll do it,” I told Pete. “I’ll go find the keys. But don’t move. Wait right here.”

  Ruby didn’t want him in the house. She wanted me to go around the side of the house where the boys couldn’t see. She also wanted other things besides, like toaster waffles, but I figured that would have to wait till after we dealt with Pete.

  I went around the house, which, like a tree, grew out from itself, branching off at all angles and teetering up into the sky.

  She was inside, through a sliding glass door, wide awake and choosing between waffle flavors, sundress and boots on. Her legs were gleaming and I couldn’t see any trace of dirt. The memory of caked mud was so out of place now, I wondered if I’d dreamed it.

  “Buttermilk o
r blueberry?” she asked me. “You get first pick.”

  “Blueberry,” I said without a second thought. “So did you hear? About the keys?”

  “I heard.” She popped two waffles into the toaster and watched the coils go red. She pushed aside a stack of shoe catalogs and unopened envelopes on the table so I’d have room for a plate. She somehow wrangled up a clean fork, but only one, so one of us would have to eat the waffle with our fingers.

  “I wish I could give Pete his keys,” she said, “since that would get rid of him faster.”

  “Why can’t you?”

  “Because.” She held out her fists to show me. She opened each one to reveal her palm. On which, in both cases, there was no key.

  “They fell,” she said. “The keys. They’re gone.”

  “Fell where?”

  The toaster gave a sharp ping, and at that Ruby turned to retrieve the waffles. Mine, she put on a plate; hers, she nibbled at from the empty palm of one hand, her mouth soon stuffed so full, she couldn’t possibly answer.

  I ate my waffle and decided not to push further. I didn’t want her to say it, didn’t want to know for sure where she went out walking last night.

  Finally she stopped chewing and said, “I wonder what he’s going to do about those keys.” She licked some crumbs off her fingers. “Poor Petey. He was one of my very first boyfriends—you remember. The first of them all, actually. Maybe I should go apologize or something. Make nice.”

  I nodded, though she didn’t move for the door.

  “Speaking of boyfriends . . .” she said. “I guess you met Jonah?”

  I nodded once more but didn’t comment.

  “He’s good with his hands, huh?”

  I made a face.

  “He’s useful, Chlo. Don’t you go and be mean to him yet. So who else is out there? I don’t want to let them see me till I know.”

  “Some guy, Pete’s friend, I dunno. And . . . and I guess, uh, yeah, I saw Pete’s brother, Owen, out there with them, too.”

  The heat of my cheeks warmed the kitchen, like she’d left the oven on. I wasn’t sure if she noticed.

  Ruby never got this kind of heat in her cheeks. She didn’t have to stop short inside a doorway to catch her breath after she’d been standing near someone. Didn’t pause longer than she should, wondering if he’d followed her. Pause a long time wondering, until it was clear he wasn’t following, because why would he? Boys didn’t follow me the way they did my sister. A boy once followed her around town for miles, tailgating her car and trailing her cart in the supermarket, and when she whirled around to ask what he wanted, he said he only wanted to say hi.

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