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Places no one knows, p.10
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       Places No One Knows, p.10

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  And something else. Under my insider information about the access to confidential counseling, there’s a new cluster of graffiti. In three different pens, in three different hands, someone has written:

  Thank you.

  •••

  After cross-country, Autumn waits for me in the locker room, standing at the sinks while I brush my hair and take off my running shoes.

  “Hey,” she says suddenly. “What are you doing right now?”

  I glance up from the tangle of my laces, trying to parse the question. “Doing?”

  “Well, do you want to come over or what?”

  I zip my shoes into the side pocket of my track bag like everything about that sentence is normal, but my face keeps wanting to do strange things. A smile is working its way toward my mouth for no good reason. I don’t understand what’s happening. It’s like she’s just deciding to be my friend. “I can’t. There’s a meeting to discuss the dance budget.”

  “That sounds horrible,” she says brightly. “I should definitely come with you.”

  “Are you even listening? It’s a budget meeting.”

  “What, is it all secrets or something? Am I not allowed? You do realize you’re just making it sound funner, right?”

  I give her a sardonic look and shake my head. “If comparing discrepancies between spreadsheets is what does it for you, you have a weirdly specific definition of fun. Anyway, it’s not the kind of thing where you can just show up because you feel like it. You’re not on student council.”

  Autumn turns away, raking her fingers through her hair like she’s thinking about that. Then she looks up. “If you don’t even like your flawless little life, why bother?”

  “I do like it. Kind of.”

  She stares at me, her mouth tugging to one side. “God, you are so fucked up. I love it!”

  When I smile, it feels harder and grimmer than usual, like her attitude is catching. “The normalcy odds are kind of stacked against me. I’m the only child of an ad man and a shrink.”

  Autumn laughs, throwing her head back, hugging her sides. She’s pretty when she laughs.

  Her hair is messy, but a pleasing shade of burnt red that makes me think of foxes or fawns. Her willingness to just devote her attention to whatever comes along is fascinating. It’s refreshing—like with Autumn, there’s no such thing as in character, out of character. It’s all just a question of what next? and why the hell not?

  I put my hands against my forehead and consider what Maribeth might find acceptable. What she would call down vengeful thunder for, and what she would allow. What she wouldn’t be able to actively prevent.

  “You could,” I say finally. “You could come. Not to student council—it’s too late in the semester. But if you wanted, there’s a volunteer meeting at Maribeth’s next week. You could come help with decorations.” Then, because I feel a certain obligation to be truthful, I add, “You won’t like it, though.”

  Autumn gives me a patient smile. “Do you actually think I’m incapable of making my own fun?”

  Her cheeks are flushed, like this is all just some delightful game we’re playing, and a small, sensible part of me immediately regrets inviting her. The very idea of Autumn in the same room with Maribeth is alarming. But also just the tiniest bit thrilling.

  “Look, there’s something you need to understand. Maribeth is kind of…territorial. She takes this really seriously. You don’t have to actually care about homecoming, but you have to at least pretend.”

  “I don’t even know how to act like I care about letting Andrew Wiesman’s frog eat the dissection worms in biology last year, and apparently that’s going on my permanent record. Tell me more about this magical technique for faking your own feelings?”

  I press my palms against my eyelids and sit down on the bench, considering how I’d approach this scenario if I were in Autumn’s position. There are all kinds of ways to trick people into thinking you belong. “You’d need to seem deferential, but invested. Helpful. We still don’t have a theme for the dance, so you could suggest one.”

  “What, like Enchantment Under the Sea or Love Among the Stars?”

  “No. It would need to be a real one—not a joke, not from a movie. Also, it should have enough room for Maribeth to change the wording around and pretend it was her idea.”

  Autumn raises her eyebrows like I’ve just proposed something graphically offensive.

  Her reaction shouldn’t bother me, but still, I feel reproached. Overcome by a need to explain myself. It’s vital, suddenly, to make her see that yes, I might sound cynical, but my understanding of the social order is unparalleled. It’s supremely functional. It’s really not as ugly as it sounds.

  “Okay, I know this seems convoluted, but it’s actually pretty simple. You’d suggest something like A Brief Moment in Time, which Maribeth will love, but she won’t be able to use it because it wasn’t her idea, so she’ll change a phrase or a word, and then you’ll wind up with Romantic Times or Time Stands Still.”

  The underlying mechanism is self-explanatory, but experience has taught me that other people don’t always think about interpersonal dynamics the same way I do. “Or whatever. That part doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re making yourself into a commodity. Most of being socially successful is really just being valuable.”

  Autumn is still looking at me like she finds me vaguely traumatic, chewing on her lip, but all she says is, “So. If I was going to be palling around with the Future Corporate Overlords of America, I’d probably need someone to show me how to do this whole…wholesome look.”

  “Are you saying that by not giving the impression I applied my eyeliner with a shotgun, that’s a ‘look’?”

  “Of course it’s a look. Everything’s a look. Come on, it’ll be fun—we’ll hit City Drug and you can help me pick out a costume!”

  I’m supposed to be going over the party rental budget with Maribeth and Palmer in forty-five minutes, but most of the big-ticket stuff is already paid for, and calculators exist. They’ll figure it out. And anyway, it might be nice to go someplace with someone who doesn’t expect me to manufacture transports of joy over color-coordinated barrettes.

  —

  We walk across Detmer Avenue to the drugstore and I make a brief itinerary in my head, laying out a shopping plan for Autumn as we go.

  She needs new accessories and a different eyeliner. The one she has makes her look like a pissed-off raccoon.

  In order to occupy Maribeth’s immediate space, you can’t look like you’re faking it. Maribeth doesn’t fake things, and so—my own carefully crafted persona aside—she has a towering disdain for anyone who does. It is absolutely crucial that Autumn appear to blend seamlessly into the environment. Like she has always been there.

  Generally speaking, I prefer a sense of order. I like to have an agenda, but Autumn wanders the aisles completely unchecked. She’s a dabbler. She has to try every lipstick, every variety of powder and gloss, even the ones that are glaringly wrong. She spends fifteen minutes comparing eye shadows, layering the testers on in rainbow strata all the way up to her eyebrows.

  When she uses the little sponge to add a row of meticulous circles along her brow bone in Goldie Glitter, I finally intervene. “What are you doing?”

  “I’m a peacock,” she says, opening her eyes very wide and fluttering her lashes.

  The look on her face is priceless, and I laugh even though I don’t mean to.

  It’s sort of charming how entertained she is by lip stain and colored eyeliners. The makeup selection elicits far more interest than she has ever shown toward social customs or cross-country.

  While Autumn deliberates between powder eye shadow in Platinum Glow and cream eye shadow in Pearl Perfection—shades that look identical to the naked eye—I kill time an aisle over, uncapping different brands of men’s antiperspirant.

  It makes me feel a little like an abject loser, but I take a few minutes, comparing scents until I find one th
at reminds me of Marshall. It’s one element to his dark, complicated smell, and for a moment, I just stand there breathing it.

  When Autumn peeks around the end of the aisle I almost drop the stick.

  “What are you doing?” she says. She’s wiped off all the powder and the glitter and her face is pinkly bare. She looks kind. Like someone who could keep a secret.

  “Nothing.” I jam the cap back on and feign interest in the wide variety of whitening toothpastes.

  MARSHALL

  Sick

  The cough is nothing new, just a natural side effect of smoking. I’ve been working on it for months.

  Only somehow, overnight, it’s turned into a bad hacking mess.

  Now I’m home, sprawled on the couch with the TV on. The light is nice, as long as the volume’s down. The house is dark in unexpected places. Lightbulbs keep burning out and no one changes them. It’s weird how fast the little things start to pile up. Dead leaves and dead batteries and slow, creaking hinges. The house is falling asleep like a cursed kingdom in a story. We’re all just waiting for someone else to fix it.

  Since my dad got disability, some things are still normal. My mom still goes to work at the power and water building downtown, comes home again, turns on the shopping channel or starts knocking around in the kitchen. My dad used to pack computer chips at AgiTech, and after work or on the weekends, he’d play guitar or build shelves out in the garage, but now he’s on weekly injections and most of the time his hands shake too much to do anything fiddly. He sleeps a lot. Or else, pretends to.

  In the kitchen, I can hear my mom cutting stuff up, making some stir-fry with free-range chicken and vegetables from one of the health food stores we can’t afford, with no preservatives or dyes because she read on the Internet that chemicals are the reason people get sick.

  I want a glass of water. I want a blanket. If Annie were here, she’d find me one. She’d probably sit around and watch bad cop shows with me and talk about college football until I fell asleep.

  I want to be still and small, and not have to man up or act like everything’s okay, but the thing about living in a house where someone’s sick is, it’s like they have a monopoly on it. If one person is always needing things, then no one else is really allowed to.

  There’s a family portrait over the TV, the five of us posed against a marble-gray background. It’s from three years ago. Justin and my dad are at the back, matching baseball jerseys and matching sneers, while in front of them my mom pretends to be out of her mind with happiness and I work hard at being invisible. I stare at myself and wonder when my face got so hard, wonder when I stopped talking. Stopped smiling. Out of all of us, Annie is the only one just posing cheerfully like a normal person. In the picture, I look worried. Embarrassed by the fact that I exist.

  The quieter and stiller I lie, the easier it is to be someplace else. I don’t remember a lot about last night, but the part with Waverly is very clear, like it’s the only real thing that’s ever happened. I shouldn’t be thinking about her. Mostly, I shouldn’t be thinking how maybe, just maybe she’ll come back.

  I bury my face in the couch and picture her next to me, there on the edge of the tub. Her clean-smelling hair, her shoulder against mine. Ignore the other part—how she disappeared from Hez’s bathroom in less than a second. It makes me feel too crazy. My head hurts like a car crash. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the weight of her hand on my neck and how fucking hopeful I felt suddenly, like maybe everything was pretty bad, but it was going to get better.

  It’s weird, the way she keeps asking if I’m okay when it’s obvious I’m not. That night on the Captain’s porch, she sounded sad as hell, and I could feel a tight, waspy buzzing coming off her. Something in her voice hurt like a bruise, but the way she looked was so untouchable. I think I get it now.

  Asking someone if they’re okay has got to be some dirty kind of genius. If you can prove someone else is a disaster, you never have to let them see what’s wrong with you.

  Our dog, Chowder, hangs around because she seems to think that if I sit in front of the TV long enough, the petting will start and food will appear, but I’m not in the mood to eat anything.

  I take a couple NyQuil Cold and Flu and wait for them to work, to kill the pounding in my head. With my arm across my face to block the light, it’s easy to be nowhere. Nothing. I think about Waverly and don’t even care that I shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. It can’t. Because Jesus Christ, it’s not like it’s real.

  I fall asleep and dream that someone’s drilling into my skull with a power saw. When I wake up, it’s time for another dose of NyQuil. I’m still waiting for the first one to kick in.

  WAVERLY

  5.

  When I was eight, the woman who volunteered as the recess aide told me I wasn’t allowed to show people the dead squirrel by the trash cans anymore because it was scaring the other kids and if I kept talking about decomposition, I wasn’t going to have any friends and didn’t I want people to like me?

  I didn’t know how to answer. I hadn’t been trying to make people like me, but I hadn’t been trying to scare them either.

  As soon as I got home, I went into the study and told my mother what the recess woman said. Then I lay on the floor and waited for her to fix it.

  “You don’t have to stop thinking about autolysis and putrefaction,” she said finally. I stared at her bare feet, hooked on the rail of her chair, as I lay under her desk, chewing on a pencil. “But you might consider talking about it less.”

  The way she said it was businesslike. She had analyzed the problem; this was the solution.

  I pressed the pencil against my teeth, then bit down hard. “What am I supposed to talk about?” I said, but it sounded tiny and indistinct.

  My mom was quiet for a while. “Well, their interests, for example. I’m sure you can think of something.” She took a deep breath and then I heard her close her laptop. “You’re going to meet a lot of people, Waverly, and most of them just aren’t going to be interested in the decomposition process.”

  The way she sounded when she said it made a gleaming web of circuits in my head. It confirmed everything I’d ever suspected, but hadn’t been savvy enough to put into words.

  My mom scooted her chair back and peered under the desk. I had stopped rubbing my feet on the carpet. I had stopped breathing.

  “Sweetie,” she said. Her voice was softer now. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just ahead of the curve. You know that, right?”

  It was a phrase I’d been hearing since kindergarten, and I nodded, but now I knew the truth.

  I lay on my back, staring at the grain in the wood and sucking on the inside of my arm, even though it was something I’d mostly grown out of.

  If we were having this conversation, that meant something was either wrong with me, or it was wrong with everybody else, and I had a basic enough understanding of probability to know that the odds did not rest with an entire planet.

  —

  In the glow of the candle, with my heart beating swift and shallow, I close my eyes and start to count.

  The possibility that I’m becoming increasingly unsound—or else that the world is—should scare me, but it doesn’t. All evening, I could barely wait for night. For every obligation to be over so I could light the candle and see if I’d wind up someplace else. My brain might be failing, the world might be unraveling, but no, it doesn’t scare me. Because no matter how impossible, Marshall is the one place where I can be completely real and everything’s still okay.

  I can tell the truth, say all the worst, most honest things. I can scare everyone and never have to worry about the consequences.

  When I open my eyes, I’m standing in the doorway of a small, low-ceilinged living room. Marshall is in front of the TV, stretched out across a very plaid couch, and there’s a yellow dog staring at me with its head cocked to one side. That, along with a whole array of other landmarks, tells me
I’m not at his brother’s house.

  The light from the television is flickering bright and dark. He’s got one arm tucked awkwardly back behind his head and is staring at the screen like he’s not really seeing it.

  I stand in the door, just waiting, just watching. He looks tired. Abnormally young.

  A girl comes skimming past me, wearing a red convenience store smock. Her hair is yanked back into a ponytail. In the light from the TV, she looks blurry and kind. She’s carrying a stack of books, but the way she’s holding them, I can’t see the subjects. “Mars, go to bed.”

  He shakes his head, glancing at me, then away again. “Storage Wars is on. I think I’ll just hang out here for a while.” Then he winces and turns his face into the pillow, coughing hard.

  She drops the books in a careless spill against his shins, then yanks the smock over her head, revealing a plain gray T-shirt. “God, yuck. If you’ve got another respiratory infection, tell Mom to get you some antibiotics.”

  She brushes past me again and disappears down the hall, returning a minute later with a blanket. When she offers it to him, Marshall takes it and drapes it clumsily over himself.

  The gesture is weirdly tender and I have the sensation of a hook tugging at something in my chest. Then she scoops up the books again, juggling wallet and phone and car keys, nudging the yellow dog out of her way with her hip.

  When she’s gone, Marshall turns his head. “Hey, you. How are things in ghostland?”

  I want to make some snarky comment, some remark about how insomnia is better than typhoid, but in the end all I say is “Hi.”

  He jerks his head toward the couch and I perch myself on the edge, careful not to lean against him or touch his worn-soft blanket. He scoots back against the cushions to make room, but doesn’t rearrange his legs or sit up.

  I hunch forward, pinning my hands between my knees. “Looks like you decided to stay in tonight. Are you really that hungover?”

 
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