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Paper valentine, p.10
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       Paper Valentine, p.10

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  “Did you ever think about boys?” I say, staring up into the dark.

  The shape of Lillian looms over me. If she were a live girl, I’d be able to hear her breathing.

  “There wasn’t room,” she whispers, and her voice is unbelievably sad. “At first, after Connor, I was just waiting. I was going to get a new boyfriend soon—as soon as I was prettier or better, more perfect. But after a while, there was no room for anything else. If I thought about kissing, or sex, I just started feeling ugly, too awful for anything good.”

  Above her, the galaxy of stick-on stars stands out in pale specks, but the glow is faint, losing all the light the stickers soaked up during the daytime. I never really used to get too philosophical about things like existence and free will and mortality, but since the murders started, I keep thinking more and more about how hideous it is that someone can just take your entire life away from you, at any second. You won’t have a choice.

  “And it was still worth it?” I whisper to Lillian in the dark. “Not to have the laughing and swimming pools and movies and the kissing? How could you just give all that up?”

  “Because you want to have a real, normal life and be okay, but even more, you want to be beyond it and not want anything. You’re always thinking two different things.”

  So am I. The pattern alternates between Lillian died from a bad disease and Why the hell didn’t she just decide to get better?

  CIRCUS

  CHAPTER NINE

  In the span of a weekend, everything has changed. By Monday, there are public service announcements running on TV every hour, telling parents to keep their kids inside as much as possible and to watch their neighborhoods for anything suspicious.

  I spend half of Saturday afternoon on the phone with Angelie, talking about the murders and how crazy everything is, how our parents are dealing with it and what new rules we each have to follow.

  “This whole thing is just so out of control,” she says with a weird little shudder in her voice. “I mean, I was so freaked out when I heard about that second girl. Weren’t you so freaked out to hear about it?”

  I nod into the phone. The way she says it is loud, almost theatrical, and I want to tell her that it’s not a contest, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to say. Because maybe for the first time since Lillian started that whole stupid thing two years ago, it would actually be true.

  My mom is nearly hysterical over the fact that there’s been a second murder, and there’s a very tense twenty- minute period after breakfast where she decides that I’m not allowed to go out after seven, or go farther than the end of the street, or spend the night at anyone’s house.

  Even after Decker takes her into the kitchen and talks to her in a soothing voice for so long that they’re both late for work, she still seems like she might be on the verge of a meltdown. I have to make a million promises not to get in anyone’s car or go anywhere secluded or talk to strangers, just so she’ll let me walk the three blocks from Harris Johnson to Quality Photo without making Jessica or Angelie come with me.

  When I get to the shop, Kelly is sitting at the counter with her calculator out, glaring down at the price schedule. She doesn’t even glance up until I’m right in front of her, and when she finally does, she squeaks and drops her pen.

  “Sorry,” I say, propping my elbows on top of the register. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

  “Trust me,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Nothing startling about you, except for maybe that dress.”

  I’m wearing a yellow sundress with a little white petticoat underneath. The dress is vintage, worn soft at the hem, and the petticoat flares out just enough to give the whole silhouette a slightly fifties look. I tilt my head and drop a curtsy, holding out the hem of my skirt. Admittedly, the fabric is very bright.

  Kelly sets down the calculator, then spins on the stool, looking into my face. “Hannah, I want you and Ariel to be really safe, okay?” She says it like someone’s squeezing her throat, but she’s determined to get the words out anyway. Kelly has never been a sentimentalist.

  “Yeah, I know. My mom already gave me a whole speech.”

  “Still, you should listen to her.” Kelly clears her throat and mumbles the next part down at the counter without looking at me. “I worry about you guys.”

  “We’re fine,” I say, sounding bright and airy. The back of my dress pinches me when I breathe in, the zipper teeth digging into my skin.

  And even as I say it, I’m thinking that we’re not. We’re not fine. Nothing is fine. I’m thinking, This isn’t how Ludlow is supposed to be, that the whole awfulness of this is not safe or right or fair, just ugly.

  When Boles and McGarahan come in with their bag of film, Boles dumps the whole thing out and begins to pick through it, separating out three rolls and setting them aside. “We need these ones ready this afternoon—as soon as you can get them. It’s our dead girl number two.”

  McGarahan gives him a warning look and shakes his head. He glances at me, but carefully, like he’s trying to do it without me seeing. I don’t bother to tell him that I already know. It was all over the news all weekend. Everyone already knows.

  “My God.” Kelly shakes her head and takes a little step back, like by leaning away from the bag of film, she can avoid the ghostly touch of a dead girl. “I can’t get over this. It’s just crazy.”

  McGarahan nods, looking anxious, younger than he usually does. He leans closer, speaking in a low voice just under his breath, but I can hear every word. “We won’t know anything for a few more days. We’re still waiting on forensics, but everything’s pretty consistent. We’re almost definitely looking at a serial killer.”

  Behind the counter, Lillian jabs me and I don’t flinch. I twist my hair around one finger to make a limp curl. I try to keep my expression mildly curious, but it keeps feeling horrified instead.

  McGarahan turns to me. “You know,” he says, in that way grown-ups do when they have something crucial to say, but they don’t want to scare you by letting you see how important it is. “I’m sure your parents already told you to be careful about talking to strangers and not to go places alone, right?”

  I nod, peeling a stray piece of tape off the counter. The number of times I’ve been told this in the past twenty-four hours is beginning to rival the number of days the ther- mometer at the bank has broken a hundred. Days when the sun sits over the city, blindingly white and baking everything to a hard, brittle crust. The nights when I let Lillian’s ghost in bed with me, because maybe she’s cloud and vapor and not really real, but the dry chill of her next to me is still better than empty silence and brutal, unrelenting heat.

  Officer McGarahan’s eyes are full of a deep, troubling concern. It scratches my throat like sand. “Look, just be careful. There’s someone dangerous out there, and it’s not smart to go thinking that because you’re young, it’s the same as being immortal.”

  I open the junk drawer for a rubber band and look up at Officer McGarahan. His face is steady and sad, like he’s seen it all before. Like he’s thinking of some other dead girl—one he couldn’t save with his friendly neighborhood warnings. The unsuspecting victim.

  Lillian was always so good at treating everything like a test, like some kind of game where the prize was shiny and untouchable. Perfection. She wanted me to back off, butt out, stop trying to control her life. And she wanted me to save her.

  There are all kinds of things in the world that can happen to a person. Terrible, unpredictable things. Suddenly, the world seems very random, full of freak accidents—killers and bird viruses and pinch points.

  Maybe she thought she was immortal, but I don’t.

  * * *

  Kelly spends the rest of the morning pacing back and forth between the printer and the door. Every time she sits down to work on an order, she gets maybe three frames in
and then jumps right back up again. I don’t know if she’s doing it on purpose, but it’s nerve-racking.

  I’m beginning to think there’s no way I’ll ever have a chance to slip into the back and get a look at the photos of Hailey Martinsen before I have to pick Ariel up from band, but then Mrs. Price comes in with Connor to pick up her enlargements.

  I don’t like Mrs. Price, because she has this way of treating everyone like they are much, much stupider than she is, and once she yelled at me for touching her prints without gloves on. Also, every time I’ve been over to the Prices’ house, which is easily fifteen times in the past three years, she always looks at me like she’s never seen me before and I don’t belong in her living room.

  Or maybe that’s just how she feels about anything she didn’t put there herself. Her whole house is full of Tiffany floor lamps and velvet upholstery and faux-Victorian bookends shaped like cupids, and is always featured in the Ludlow Home Decorating Tour, which is something she never gets tired of mentioning.

  Today, she goes straight up to the counter without even glancing at me, but Connor comes over to the sink, where I’m washing a big stack of plastic leader cards. “What up, Twinkie?”

  I shake the water off the card and set it on a towel. “Not a lot. I’m just here till I have to go pick up Ariel from band. What are you doing here?”

  Connor makes a face and lets his shoulders slump. “I need to get a new set of screw-ins for my cleats, but my mom didn’t want me to go by myself, so now we’re running errands.”

  At the counter, Mrs. Price is flipping through her order. “You printed this one blurry,” she tells Kelly, holding up an eight-by-ten.

  Kelly’s standing with her elbows propped on the shelf behind the register, and the look she gives Mrs. Price is frighteningly patient. “No, I didn’t.”

  Mrs. Price pinches the enlargement between two fingers and holds it out, giving it a little shake. “Are you really going to look at this and tell me it’s not blurry?”

  Kelly takes it from her and makes a big thing of examining it. “Yep, that’s blurry all right.”

  “Then you’re going to reprint it free of charge.”

  “No, I’m actually not.”

  “It’s not a machine error,” I say before I can help myself. The way Kelly just announces things without explaining always makes me feel so agitated, like I need to jump in and translate for her. “Matilda Braun uses an optical lens, but it’s stationary. As long as the lens is clean, there’s no way for it to be us.”

  Mrs. Price turns on me with a fierce, uncomprehending stare. “I just looked through fifteen perfectly clear shots, so don’t tell me that it’s not your machines.”

  “Mom,” Connor says, looking kind of mortified. “God, calm down.”

  “Don’t you dare talk to Hannah like that,” Kelly says, snatching up the photo. “I was standing right next to you last week when you picked out your enlargements on that light table, and you told me that you had to have this shot. And when I said that all the exposures of your giant, tacky-ass mantelpiece were soft, you told me you couldn’t see anything wrong with them. Well this? This is that thing you couldn’t see.”

  Mrs. Price is leaning forward, eyes narrowed. Sometimes, mostly when she smiles, she looks a little like Connor. Right now, though, the resemblance is nonexistent.

  “Let me explain something to you, missy. I don’t have to bring my business here. I don’t have to put up with your language or your disrespect or your laughable customer service. Although honestly? I don’t know why I’m even surprised that you have no idea how to run a business, considering this is coming from someone who has children working in their store!”

  Connor snorts into his hand and gives me an incredulous look, like Can you even believe this? “Mom, she’s not ‘children.’ Hannah’s in my same grade at school.”

  With her face arranged in a perfect icy mask, Kelly takes me by the shoulders and turns me toward the back. “Hannah, why don’t you go straighten up the supply cupboard?”

  I give Connor a little wave and head for the back.

  As soon as I step into the office, I find Lillian standing in the shadow of the supply cupboard, looking gaunt.

  “Quick,” she says, motioning me toward the desk. I cross the room and crouch down to open the safe.

  The homicide close-ups are in the third envelope. I stand with my hand resting on the desktop, almost like I need to catch my balance. The way my head feels is light and dizzy, like this is all taking place in my imagination. Just some dream I’m having, and soon I’ll wake up and go downstairs and everything will be fine.

  But it isn’t a dream and nothing is fine. I can feel the shock at the base of my skull, throbbing to the hum of the air conditioner.

  Hailey is one of those girls that everyone just liked without even knowing why or having to think about it. You can see it, even as she’s lying in the tall grass above the culvert. Even with her T-shirt torn and her hair bloody and tangled. Her absolute goodness is everywhere, right down to the orange polish chipping off her fingernails and the spray of freckles on one cheek.

  Around her, lying in the grass like spilled candy or Easter eggs, are the toys. The pattern seems to be random, just like with the things that littered the ground around Cecily Miles.

  I immediately notice an assortment of candy—squares of Bazooka gum and red-and-white striped Starlight mints. Then a rubber pencil topper shaped like a slice of watermelon, liquor store keychains and plastic whistles and a Hello Kitty compact with a broken latch. I spend a long time squinting at one of the close-up shots, trying to figure out what I’m looking at. I finally have to turn the print upside down before I recognize the thin, twisted shape. A purple crazy straw.

  The riveting thing, though, is the valentine. It’s placed carefully, propped against the curve of Hailey’s shoulder. It’s bigger than the one that was lying near Cecily’s hand, and more complicated, made of two interlocking hearts and decorated with little clusters of concentric circles, alternating pink and red. The scalloped lace around the edges is dusted with a sprinkling of pearl-colored glitter, and in the close-ups I can see where the glitter landed unevenly and the glue beaded up, making lumps along one side.

  I stand with my back against the counter, flipping through the entire set, then going back to the beginning, looking over all the evidence a second time. Every time I get another look at Hailey’s face, I have a painful, electrified feeling in my chest.

  I keep thinking Lillian will at least say something, but she just stands against the supply cabinet with her hands cupped over her bony shoulders and her teeth working at her bottom lip.

  I don’t know what to do or what I should be looking for. I can make out twenty-eight different police markers in the grass right around the body, and there are another five or so scattered farther in the weeds, denoting objects, but I can’t tell what they are.

  “This is trash,” I whisper, glancing at Lillian. “It’s, like, party favors from third grade and the world’s crappiest candy. I mean, what is this?”

  Lillian doesn’t answer. She’s chewing distractedly on her pajama cuff, watching my finger as it hovers over the photo, following the trail of police markers. I squint down at the photo and shake my head. There’s a thought squirming in the back of my mind, but it’s tangled up with all these other thoughts and I can’t quite make it come into focus.

  Lillian’s still chewing her cuff, but she isn’t looking at the photos anymore. She glances up and starts to speak, but just then there’s a scuffling noise from the doorway, and she opens her eyes wide and points frantically behind me.

  I whip around, expecting Kelly, and almost gasp out loud with relief. Connor is leaning around the doorway to the office, peering at me curiously. Quickly, I jam the photos back into their envelope, then shove the whole stack of orders inside the
safe and close it.

  Connor gives me a look of mild surprise. “Wow, what were those?” Then he grins, wiggling his eyebrows. “Wait, were you looking at something dirty? I bet you were—I bet you’ve got something completely filthy in there. Come on, let me see.”

  “Pervert,” Lillian says, folding her arms across her chest and staring at the ceiling, but she’s biting her cheek like she’s trying not to smile. And I know that for all her disdainful comments and her eye-rolling, there’s still this tiny, sentimental part of her that never really stopped liking him.

  I shake my head, then motion Connor into the office so I can whisper. “It wasn’t anything like that. It’s just . . . We print the police photos, but I’m not supposed to look at them, so I was . . . That’s what I was doing.”

  If I ever admitted something like that to Angelie, she’d probably tell me I was disturbed, but Connor looks frankly impressed. “You get to see the crime-scene photos? How come you never told me you get to see crime-scene photos? I thought your whole job was just to put up with unreasonable, high-maintenance ladies like my mom. That’s actually cool.”

  I shrug and try to casually steer him back toward the front of the store, hoping he won’t ask me to show him the pictures, because then I’d have to tell him no. It’s one thing to sneak a quick look when I’m alone in the office, but it would be totally unforgivable to show them to my friends. Except Lillian, but that’s different because she doesn’t really count.

  Connor looks back over his shoulder like he’s going to ask, but just then, there’s the hurried scraping sound of Mrs. Price gathering up her things, and Kelly says, “Thanks for choosing Quality Photo. Come again,” in a bright, clipped voice.

  Connor claps his hand on my shoulder and gives me a shove. “Looks like the Price family five-ring circus is on the move. Next stop: Silver Spring Cleaners, and if her slacks aren’t ready, look out! Because that show is going to be super-spectacular.”

 
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