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Authors: Caitlin R. Kiernan

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BOOK: The Drowning Girl
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Rosemary never tried to teach me to believe in a god or sin, in Heaven or Hell, and my own experiences have never led me there. I don’t think I even believe in souls. But that doesn’t matter. I
do
believe in ghosts. I do, I do, I do, I
do
believe in ghosts, just like the Cowardly Lion said. Sure, I’m a crazy woman, and I have to take pills I can’t really afford to stay out of hospitals, but I still see ghosts everywhere I look, when I look, because once you start seeing them, you can’t ever
stop
seeing them. But the worst part is, you accidentally or on purpose start seeing them, you make that gestalt shift that permits you to recognize them for what they are, and they start to see you, too. You look at a painting hanging on a wall, and all at once it seems like a window. It seems so much like a window that an eleven-year-old girl tries to reach through it to the other side. But the unfortunate thing about windows is most of them work both ways. They allow you to look
out
, but they also allow anything else that happens past to look
in
.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Which means I need to stop, and go back, and set aside all this folderol about memes and ghosts and
windows, at least for now. I need to go back to that night in July, driving alongside the Blackstone River not far from the spot that inspired Saltonstall to paint
The Drowning Girl
. Back to the night I met the mermaid named Eva Canning. But, also, back to that
other
night, the snowy night in November, in Connecticut, when I was driving through the woods on a narrow chip-and-tar road, and I came across the girl who was actually a wolf, and who may have been the same ghost as Eva Canning, and who’d inspired another artist, another dead man, a dead man whose name was Albert Perrault, to try and capture her likeness in his work.

And what I said earlier about the girlfriend who puts up with all my weird shit…that was sort of a lie, because she left me not long after Eva Canning showed up. Because, finally, the weird shit just got too weird. I don’t blame her for leaving, though I miss her and wish she were still here. Regardless, the point is, it was a lie, pretending she’s still with me. I said there’s no reason doing this thing if all I can manage is a lie.

So I have to watch for that.

And I have to choose my words carefully.

In fact, I find that I’m quickly, unexpectedly coming to realize that I’m trying to tell myself a story in a language that I’m having to invent as I go along. If I’m lazy, if I rely too heavily on the way anyone else would tell this story—anyone else at all—it’ll look ridiculous. I’ll be horrified or embarrassed by the sight of it, the sound of it. Or I’ll be horrified
and
embarrassed, and I’ll give it up. I’ll stash it away in a disused suitcase beneath my bed and never reach the place that will, arbitrarily, turn out to be the end. No, not even the end, but just the last page that I’ll write before I can stop telling this story.

I have to be careful, just like Rosemary said. I have to stop, and take a step back.

 

It wasn’t raining the day I met Abalyn, but the sky was overcast with the deceitful sort of violet clouds that roil and rush by and keep you thinking that it
might
rain. It was windy, and there was definitely the
smell
of rain. So I was wearing my galoshes and my raincoat and carrying my umbrella that afternoon, which was two years and four months ago. I was walking home from the bus stop after work. It was one of those last cool days in June, before the weather turns hot and nasty. Below the clouds, the air was sweet, and the trees seemed almost too green to be real. Not too green in any gaudy way, mind you, not as if they were artificial, but as if they had achieved a greenness that was so very green, so lush, it couldn’t possibly exist in nature. Or if it did, human eyes probably weren’t meant to perceive it. I got off the bus on Westminster and followed Parade Street, flanked on either side by those great green whispering chestnut and oak trees. On my left lay the open expanse of Dexter Training Grounds, which is only a park now, despite the name. Ahead of me, at the southern edge of the Training Grounds, the Cranston Street Armory rose up like a fairy-tale castle, its high crenellated turrets and glazed yellow bricks sharply delineated against the clouds. The Armory, from which my neighborhood takes its name, isn’t actually an armory anymore. It occurs to me that a lot of things in Providence aren’t what they used to be, but no one’s ever bothered to give them new names, and names can mislead and confound you.

I passed my street, because I felt more like walking than going straight home. I walked another two blocks, then turned right on Wood Street. I left most of the big trees behind, trading them for the high narrow houses with their mansard roofs and bay windows, gingerbread trim and stingy, weedy yards. I hadn’t gone far when I came upon a disorderly mound of cardboard boxes heaped near the curb. There were DVDs, books, a few pieces of vinyl, and some kitchen utensils. There was clothing (mostly T-shirts, jeans, and women’s underwear) stuffed haphazardly into still more boxes.
There were two wooden kitchen chairs, a coffeemaker, a dinged-up nightstand, a floor lamp missing its shade, and, well, other things. I guessed someone had been evicted and their belongings tossed out on the street. It happens, though not as much on this side of town as over on College Hill. I was surprised there wasn’t a mattress, because there’s almost always a mattress and box springs. I propped my umbrella against a telephone pole and began picking through the boxes. A good thing it
hadn’t
rained, because then everything would have been ruined.

I’d long since learned that it pays to scavenge the castaway belongings of people who haven’t paid their rent, who’ve left everything behind and moved on. Half my apartment is furnished with castoffs, and I once found a first edition of
The Great Gatsby
and a stack of 1940s
Superman
comics tucked inside the drawer of an old chifforobe. A used bookstore downtown paid me almost enough for the lot to cover a month’s rent. Anyway, I’d just started sorting through the books—mostly science fiction and fantasy—when I heard footsteps and looked up. A tall girl was crossing Wood Street, her black boots clopping loudly against the asphalt. The first thing I noticed was how pretty she was, in an androgynous Tilda Swinton sort of way. The second thing I noticed was that she looked really, really pissed off.

“Hey!” she shouted when she was still only halfway across the road. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

She was looming over me before I was able to think of an answer. Abalyn is close to six feet tall, which means she has a good five inches on me.

“Is this stuff yours?” I asked, wondering if her short hair was really that black or if she dyed it.

“Hell yeah, it’s mine,” she said, and snatched a paperback out of my hands. I would say that she growled, but that might be misleading, like Dexter Training Grounds and the Armory. “What makes
you think you can come along and start rummaging through someone else’s shit?”

“I thought it was abandoned,” I said.

“Well, it’s not.”

“I thought it was just junk,” I added.

“If it was just junk, what the hell would you want with it?” she demanded, and I realized that her eyes were green. Not green like the trees along Parade Street, but green like shallow seawater in winter rushing over granite cobbles, like waves on the floating, shapeless oceans, or green like the polished lumps of beach glass that used to be Coca-Cola or 7Up bottles. A green that was almost, but not quite, blue.

“Well, if it’s not junk, then why’s it piled out here on the curb like it
is
junk?”

“Oh, my fucking god,” she said, and rolled her eyes. “Where does that get to be any of your business?”

She glared at me, and I thought for a second or two that she would either punch me in the face or turn around and walk away. Instead, she just dropped the paperback into a different box than the one I’d taken it from and dragged her fingers through that black, black hair, which I’d decided had to be dyed. Also, I’d decided maybe she was a few years older than me.

“Honestly, I didn’t know it was yours. I didn’t know it was still anybody’s. I’m not a thief.” Then I pointed up at the cloudy sky. “You know, it might start raining any minute, so you should probably take all this inside somewhere before it gets wet and ruined.”

She made that face again, like maybe she was going to punch me after all.

“I’m waiting on someone,” she said. “A friend of mine, he has a truck, and he promised me he’d be here two and a half hours ago.” She scowled and glanced down Wood Street towards the park. “I’m going to store everything in his garage.”

“So, where do you think he is?” I asked, even though she was right, and none of this was my business. I think it was the hair that kept me talking. The hair and the eyes together.

“Fuck all if I know. He’s not answering, and I’ve texted him like ten times already. Probably lost his phone again. He loses phones a lot, or they get stolen.”

“If it rains,” I said again, thinking maybe I’d spoken too softly the first time and she hadn’t heard, but she ignored me. So I asked what all her stuff was doing piled out by the curb on a cloudy day, if she still wanted it. She pointed across the street at one of the more run-down houses, one of the ones no one’s yet bothered to fix up and gentrify and rent to people who wouldn’t have wanted to live in the Armory just ten years ago. The paint job made me think of cottage cheese, except the trim, which made me think of boiled cabbage.

“You used to live there?” I asked. “Did you get evicted?”

“Yeah, in a manner of speaking,” she said (again, I would say she growled, but…) and sighed and stared down at her books and CDs and everything else. “Bitch whore of a girlfriend kicked me out, which I guess amounts to pretty much the same thing as an eviction. The lease is in her name, since my credit’s lousy, because I defaulted on my student loans.”

“I didn’t go to college,” I said. “My apartment’s only a couple of blocks over,” and I pointed off towards Willow Street.

“Yeah, and?”

“Well, it’s not very big, my apartment. But it
is
mostly empty, because I don’t have much furniture, and I don’t have a roommate. I have a car, though. It’s a tiny little Honda, so it might take us two or three trips, but we could get your stuff off the street. Well, the chairs might not fit.”

“Screw the chairs,” she said, smiling for the first time. “They’re junk. The nightstand and the lamp, that’s junk, too. You’re serious?
I mean, if I wait here another few hours, he might actually show up. I don’t want to impose on you or be a bother.”

“It wouldn’t be an imposition,” I told her, trying to sound like I didn’t care one way or another whether she took me up on the offer. I wanted her to say yes so badly I probably had my fingers crossed. “I didn’t have any plans for the evening, anyway, and it would suck if it rained and all your things got wet.”

“This isn’t even all of it,” she said. “The TV and computer and my gaming stuff, it’s still sitting in the downstairs hallway,” and she pointed at the cottage-cheese-and-cabbage-colored house again. “I wasn’t about to drag it out on the street, I don’t care how loud she screams.”

“I’ll go get my car,” I said. “You wait here, in case anyone else comes along and assumes it’s just junk.” And I handed her my umbrella. She stared at it a moment, as if she’d never seen an umbrella before and had no idea what it was for.

“Just in case it does start to rain,” I said. “Might at least help keep the books dry.”

She nodded, though she still looked kind of confused. “You’re absolutely sure about this?” she asked. “I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m India,” I told her. “Like the country, or India ink, but mostly people call me Imp. So you can call me Imp, or India. Either’s fine.”

“Okay, Imp. Well, this is wicked nice of you. And I promise, I’ll get everything out of your way by tomorrow night at the latest. And my name’s Abalyn, which is what everybody calls me. Just don’t call me Abby. I hate that.”

“Okay, Abalyn. Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

She looked worriedly at that low, worrisome sky and opened the umbrella. I hurried home and got my car. It wound up taking us four trips, because of the computer and the television and all her gaming
stuff, but I didn’t care. She said she liked my galoshes, which were blue with yellow ducklings, and if black hair and green eyes hadn’t already gotten me, that would’ve done the trick.

And that’s the day I met Abalyn Armitage.

“I think I’ve been telling lies,” Imp types.

Not that I didn’t meet my ex-lover on a not-quite-rainy day in June when the trees were very green. All that part’s true, and so is the part about her belongings being heaped by the curb. And me almost unintentionally stealing books. But I have no idea what we said to each other. I don’t think anyone could write that scene and
not
lie, recollections of a conversation that happened two and a half years ago. Still, I didn’t set out to lie, trying to write about how Abalyn and I met. Then again, I didn’t set out
not
to lie, either. That’s some sort of fine line I’m walking, isn’t it? Maybe I should cut myself some slack. How I wrote about Abalyn is true, just not especially factual, like a movie “based on” or “inspired by” actual events. I’m having to fill in all the gaps so this is a story, and not just a bunch of snapshots laid out in words instead of photographs. My memory’s not very good, which is why I was never able to learn the multiplication and periodic tables, or all the state capitals, or how to play the alto saxophone. And why I decided not to go to college. I felt like I was lucky to have graduated high school, what with this lousy memory of mine. Besides, I couldn’t really afford college, and at least I’m not in debt now, like Abalyn. Yes, that part’s both true
and
factual. And none of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

BOOK: The Drowning Girl
8.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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