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Authors: Caitlin R. Kiernan

The Drowning Girl (7 page)

BOOK: The Drowning Girl
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I stare at the rearview mirror, and the brake lights have turned everything behind me red. I can see her, though, just barely. Standing naked at the side of the road, though she doesn’t appear to have seen me. What would a sane woman do in a situation like this? Would she keep driving, and think it’s better not to get involved? Would she call for help? Would she get out of the car, as I did? I can only know what I decided to do, though I don’t recall actually making a decision. So, I should say, instead, I only know what I did. I shifted the Honda into neutral, pulled up the parking brake, and opened the car door.

She doesn’t turn towards me, if she’s seen me. She doesn’t acknowledge me. She’s walking towards me, or she’s standing perfectly still.

“Are you okay?” I call out. She’s far enough away that I shout, even though, if it’s November, the night is very quiet. If it’s July, there are crickets and katydids and maybe cicadas. “Do you need help? Do you need a ride someplace?”

She turns towards me, glancing past her right shoulder, or she stops walking and looks at me.

“Are you okay?” I ask her again.

It’ll sound silly if I say her appearance was unearthly, but she was unearthly. Worse, it’s presumptuous, right? It presupposes I know everything that is earthly, and so would recognize anything
that isn’t. I don’t, of course. But that’s the way she struck me, standing there on whichever road on whichever night, my breath fogging or the air smelling like tar and wild grapevines. That’s the word that first popped into my head,
unearthly
.

She narrowed her eyes, as though the light from the car was too bright. I guess it would have been, after all that darkness. Her pupils would have suddenly contracted, and her eyes would have hurt. She would have squinted, maybe shielded her eyes with one hand. Later, I’ll see that her eyes are blue, a shade of blue that Rosemary Anne used to call “bottle-blue.” Except, if this is November, I’ll see that her eyes are a strange shade of brown, a brown that almost seems golden. Regardless, she narrowed her eyes, and they flash iridescent eyeshine, and she blinks at me. I think
feral
, which is much more appropriate and far less presumptuous than was
unearthly
. She smiles very, very slightly, so slightly, in fact, that I may have imagined it. She takes a step towards me, and I ask, a third time, if she’s okay.

“You must be freezing to death out here. You’ll get pneumonia.”

Or.

“The mosquitoes must be eating you alive.”

She takes one step and stops. If she was smiling, she isn’t anymore.

“You can’t keep having it both ways, Imp. You can have it one way or the other, but not both.” Her voice isn’t remarkable. Not the way her eyes are. It might be any woman’s voice. “I never meant it both ways.”

“But that’s how I remember it,” I protest. “That’s how it happened, twice, both ways.”

“You often distrust your memories. That trip to New Brunswick, for instance. Or finding a seventy-five-dollar bill on Thayer Street.”

“There’s no such thing as a seventy-five-dollar bill.”

“My point precisely. But, regardless, you remember finding one, don’t you?”

“If you only wanted me to remember it one way, you shouldn’t have let it happen twice.”

“Hasn’t it occurred to you that you’re supposed to make a choice? You can’t have it both ways. You create a paradox, if you try.”

“Like particle-wave duality,” I reply, and think to myself,
Checkmate
. “Matter exhibits the properties of waves and the properties of particles, depending how one examines it. There’s the EPR Paradox. I have a book on quantum physics, and I understand more of it than I thought I would when I bought it at a yard sale on Chapin Avenue.”

Eva Canning frowns and says, “Imp, you’re putting words into my mouth. You’re talking to yourself. This is you and you, not you and me.”

Right.

Also, I didn’t buy the book at the yard sale. I just stood there reading it, until the old woman who was selling stuff asked me if I
wanted
to buy it. I got embarrassed and told her no, I was just browsing, and put it back down. I did all my best to smile. Still, this
is
what I remember, that I met Eva Canning twice, once in July and again in November, and that both times were the
first
time we met. I’m going to proceed as if these are not false memories, though it’ll surely make telling my ghost story much, much more difficult. It does create a paradox, and, offhand, I don’t see how to resolve it and make a single narrative out of these conflicting recollections. Eva could not have come to stay with me in July and in November—not for the first time—could she? Because I only remember Abalyn leaving once, and that was definitely in August, and it was definitely
because
of Eva. I have multiple lines of physical evidence to corroborate this.

The scales seem to tilt in favor of July, and Highway 122, and
mermaids. Away from Albert Perrault and towards Phillip George Saltonstall. But…I have this sickening feeling that next time I sit down to write more of this, the scales will somehow manage to tilt the other way, in favor of November, and Connecticut, and wolves. That’s not just a turn of phrase, either—this sickening feeling. Knowing that may happen makes me queasy. Not quite full-on nauseous, but definitely queasy.

I’m going to go put the kettle on for a pot of tea, and maybe eat some toast or a crumpet with blueberry jam. And I need to get dressed, because I have to be at work in an hour. There isn’t time for a shower, though I need one, because I’ve been sitting here writing this ever since I woke up from a dream about Abalyn and Eva. Hopefully, if I use deodorant and wear clean underwear, no one will notice I need a shower.

My kitchen is the main reason that I rented the apartment at the east end of Willow Street. It gets the morning sunlight. The walls are painted a cheery sort of yellow, and in the morning the room is bright and, in autumn and winter and late spring, seems warmer than it actually ever is, which is nice. The kitchen puts me at ease after sleep. Sleep usually leaves me disoriented, my nerves jangling; I have dreams that are as bright, as vivid, as the eight o’clock sunshine off those kitchen walls, but there’s rarely anything cheery about the dreams. I didn’t used to have such bad nightmares—the dreams started after Eva. Grandmother Caroline always said that the kitchen is the most important room in any house (or apartment), and her advices have hardly ever steered me wrong.

The morning after the first night that Abalyn came to stay with me, we sat together at the kitchen table. I was having tea, a banana, and a crumpet—my usual—and she was eating Nilla Wafers with peanut butter. My tea was pale with milk, and hers was not. She was wearing a black T-shirt and black boxer shorts. I had on my gingham
nightgown, the one with blue and white checks. It had stopped raining and the sun was out, so the yellow kitchen was very, very yellow. These details are so clear to me, which strikes me odd, since so many far more important details are hazy or have been altogether lost.

My memory is almost like Caroline and Rosemary never died. It plays surrogate and tries to keep me safe. It selects and omits, saves and sorts and wipes clean. Often, I think it smothers. Not intentionally, of course.

“Do you always have Saturdays off?” Abalyn asked, using a spoon to spread a thick glob of peanut butter onto a cookie.

“Mostly,” I replied, sipping my tea. “But I wish I could get more hours than I do. I wouldn’t much mind working weekends. Do you have a job?”

“I told you. I write reviews of video games.”

“I mean besides that.”

She chewed and stared at me a moment or two. “No, not besides that.”

“It pays enough you don’t need another job?”

“Not exactly,” she muttered around Nilla Wafer and peanut butter. “That’s one of the things busted up me and Jodie. She kept nagging at me to get a
real
job.” When Abalyn said “real job,” she used her fingers to make sarcastic quotation marks. “You get paid enough at the art supply place for the rent on this apartment?”

“Mostly,” I said again. “And I have some money put away, some money that my grandmother left me. So, I make ends meet.”

“So you’re sort of a trustafarian,” she said, and laughed.

“No,” I said, and I think I said it a little angrily. “I just have a little money Grandmother Caroline left me and my mother. It’s a trust fund, but I work. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t have lasted half this long.”

“Lucky you,” Abalyn sighed.

“I’ve never thought of it that way.”

“Maybe you should start.”

Neither of us said anything for a while then. Abalyn wasn’t the first person who’d made a snide remark about my inheritance (my aunt Elaine is the trustee). It happens sometimes, and sometimes I explain there’s not all that much of it left. That it’ll run out in a few more years, and who knows how I’ll manage then, what with rent and my meds and all? But I didn’t go into that with Abalyn, not that morning. We talked about it at some point later on.

“Sorry,” she said. “I’m just a little prickly on the subject of money right now.”

“No. It’s okay.”

She told me about Jodie, how they’d fought a lot, usually about the finances. Jodie had a nine-to-five office-job-type job, and Abalyn said Jodie resented the fact that her girlfriend spent all day sitting at home playing video games. Abalyn said they’d get into arguments because Jodie would see something in an Ikea catalog, for instance, and remark how they could have nicer things if Abalyn was making more money. She also talked about how they met, out on the Cape, at a bar in Provincetown.

“I know. Terribly cliché. She was a little drunk, but I bought her another beer and we got to talking. She didn’t even realize I was a tranny until we were leaving to go back to my hotel room.”

“I haven’t said anything about Abalyn being a transsexual,” Imp typed. “She wouldn’t have wanted me to make a big deal out of it, and it never mattered to me. That’s why I haven’t really brought it up before now.

“It’s just part of who she was,” Imp typed.

“Did she get pissed? When she found out, I mean?” And I was thinking about that scene in
The Crying Game
, when Stephen Rea first sees Dil naked, then goes to the toilet and pukes. I didn’t tell Abalyn that’s what was running through my mind.

“As a matter of fact, she did. So, we didn’t go back to my room, after all. But I’d given her my card—”

“You have cards?”

Abalyn smiled. “Started out sort of like a joke. But they come in handy. Anyway, she had my card, which has my email and Facebook and everything, and she got in touch with me about a week later. Wanted to meet up again.”

“And you did? Even after the way she’d acted?”

“You will find I can be a very forgiving soul, especially when pretty women are involved.”

We talked a little more about her being a transsexual then. Not a lot, just a little. I didn’t tell her how I’d known right away, when she’d caught me rummaging through her stuff the day before. I thought it would have been rude to tell her that. She told me about going to a clinic in Bangkok for her surgery, and the guy she’d been living with at the time. She said, “He paid for almost all of it, but then we broke up right after. Turned out he didn’t like me afterwards. I’ve met a lot of guys like that. They have hard-ons for pre-ops, but they’re really just gay men with a fetish, so post-ops are a complete turnoff.”

“Did you love him?” I asked, though, in retrospect, I think it was an indelicate question.

Abalyn ate another cookie with peanut butter, and frowned slightly, as if it was hard thinking of the answer, or hard putting the answer into words.

“I believed that I did. At the time. But I got over it. I was grateful for what he’d done for me, and it was an amicable split. We still talk, every now and then. He calls me. I call him. Email. He’s a good guy, but he really ought to stick to straight-up cock.”

“This is more relevant than it may at first glance appear,” typed Imp. The keys jammed, and she had to stop to get them unstuck, staining the fingers of both hands with ink. “Duality. The mutability
of the flesh. Transition. Having to hide one’s true self away. Masks. Secrecy. Mermaids, werewolves, gender. The reactions we may have to the truth of things, to someone’s most honest face, to facts that run counter to our expectations and preconceptions. Confessions. Metaphors. Transformation. So, it’s very relevant. Not just a random breakfast conversation. Don’t leave out anything relevant, no matter how mundane it might feel.”

Hemingway said to write about the weather.

Imp stopped and stared at what she’d written.

“You’re a very beautiful woman,” I told Abalyn. Then I said, quickly, because it immediately occurred to me how that could be taken the wrong way, “Not that beauty matters. Not that it has anything to do with whether or not—”

“It’s okay. I know what you meant,” Abalyn said, holding up her left hand and interrupting me.

“You do?”

“Probably. Close enough.”

“Have you ever regretted it?” I asked, knowing I shouldn’t, but the words tumbling out before I could stop them from coming.

Abalyn sighed loudly and turned her head, looking out the window instead of at me. “Only once or twice,” she said very softly, almost whispering. “Not often, and not for very long. I doubt I’ve ever made a decision I didn’t regret somewhere down the line, but it was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do.”

I don’t want to write any more about this. At least, not right now. I’ll probably have to come back to it later, even though I’d prefer not to. I don’t like thinking of Abalyn this way. I dislike remembering how self-conscious and awkward she could be at times, and the expression she’d get whenever we’d be out and some asshole would say something hateful or inconsiderate. Or called her
sir
. I don’t like remembering the way that hurt her. Hurts her. I’m sure it still does; I’m just not around to see, and I don’t like dwelling on
that, either. That’s only normal. Missing people you still love, and not wanting to see them in pain and angry and humiliated.

BOOK: The Drowning Girl
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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