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Paper valentine, p.11
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       Paper Valentine, p.11

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  As he leaves the room, I think I catch a wistful look wash over Lillian’s face, just from the corner of my eye. But by the time I turn toward her, her expression is back to normal.

  “God, I hate her!” Kelly shouts as soon as Connor and his mom are out of the store. “How did that wretched, wretched woman ever even find someone to procreate with?”

  I still have to finish washing the leader cards, but I don’t go back out to the sink right away. There’s a word going round and round in my head, tripping all over itself, and the word is circus. I stand perfectly still, staring into space and trying to work out why that word is stuck in my brain, because it’s not the right one, but it’s sort of close in that maddening way that’s right on the tip of your tongue.

  Lillian is standing by the supply closet, hugging herself. “Not a circus,” she says softly, almost like she’s talking in her sleep. “More like a trashy neighborhood carnival. Or a tragic, seedy shrine to something.”

  And suddenly, the thing I’ve been trying to find words for slips into place, and I freeze in the doorway with my hand pressed flat against the wall.

  All those cheap toys and broken party favors? Not a carnival, not a circus. It’s bigger than that. They might look like trash, but what they stand for is childhood.



  The sun is beating down by the time I leave to walk over to Harris Johnson, so bright and hot it makes my eyes ache. I have the unsettling idea that I can actually feel the heat thudding up from the pavement like a deep, constant drumbeat.

  The bank clock on Evans says it’s 102 degrees Fahrenheit and 1:37 pm. My lipgloss feels slick and sticky on my mouth, like it might be melting. I’m way too early to meet Pinky and Ariel, but it’s better than being late. Since the discovery of Hailey Martinsen, the school has put out a new flurry of safety bulletins, and none of the kids are allowed to leave unless someone’s there to pick them up.

  I probably should have stayed and finished out my shift, but I had to get out of the shop. After Connor and Mrs. Price left, I went out to the front of the store like nothing had happened. I washed the rest of the cards, rinsed them carefully, and clipped them on the wire rack to dry. I did it without moving too fast or too slow, without attracting attention, and if Kelly noticed anything weird about my behavior, she ignored it, or maybe just chalked it up to Mrs. Price shouting at me and calling me a child. When I asked to leave early to go pick up the girls, she acted like it was the best idea I’d ever had. Then she hugged me, which isn’t something Kelly does, and reminded me twice to be careful.

  I walk the three blocks to the school slowly, like if I’m not careful of every step, every tiny movement, I will lose my grip on gravity and go flying up into the stratosphere.

  It takes almost the whole walk to stop feeling like the world is tilting every which way, and I have to focus on each breath, telling myself I’m fine, that I won’t come unstuck from the earth, because the staggering heat will hold me down. That the soles of my flimsy, cloth ballet flats are heavy, unmovable. I imagine myself sinking into the ground, anchored there by fabric and rubber and gravity. I’m here. I’m okay.

  But as soon as I come around the corner of the school, the vague, floating feeling rushes back in, making me hold out my hands like I need to catch my balance.

  Finny Boone is standing by the east doors, looking tall and brown and Clorox blond. He adjusts his grip on his books when he sees me and pushes himself away from the wall, looking off somewhere over my head.

  I stop on the sidewalk a few feet away and stare up. I haven’t seen him since Friday, when I broke into Lillian’s room and he found me in the park and walked me home and touched my hand. I have an awkward feeling that I should say something, but I don’t know what.

  The thing that finally pops out is so inane I almost wince. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”

  He still doesn’t look at me. “We had a test. They let us out early.”

  I don’t ask why he hasn’t gone home. I’m scared that if I ask, he’ll tell me. He might say that he stayed to wait for me, and that scares me—but so does the thought that he doesn’t even care that I’m here and is waiting for something else.

  For maybe five seconds, we just stand facing each other but not making eye contact, looking around the parking lot at all these places that aren’t each other. The sun glares down overhead, and I’m already starting to burn across the tops of my shoulders where the straps of my dress keep slipping sideways.

  I tuck my bangs back into my beaded headband and make myself look at him, taking in his blank expression, his massive shoulders, and his white shirt. The way his shoes are breaking apart at the seams, like his feet are still growing.

  I lace my fingers together, thinking that this is where I could use some friendly guidance from Lillian, some vague inkling of what to do now. This is where Angelie would deliver a wide, Crest-commercial smile and play flirtatiously with her cocktail rings. The part where Lillian would work her magic, punch her number into his phone, and give herself some clever nickname in the contacts. All my friends are so much better at knowing how to talk to boys.

  I stand in front of him, trying to figure out how to look friendly or normal and where to put my hands. I never used to have to think about any of that—it just came naturally. It seems ridiculous suddenly that people have hands and no place to put them.

  Finally, I gesture to his stack of books, which is bristling with loose papers. “Careful, you’re losing one of your worksheets.”

  Finny raises his eyebrows and right away, I wish I hadn’t said anything. The sentence hangs, and I have this idea that it’s because the air is so insufferably hot. There is no room for a conversation to move.

  “Thanks,” he says, then yanks the worksheet from between the pages of Foundations of English and jams it in the trash.

  The gesture is unexpected and weirdly refreshing, but he must think I’m staring at him for some other reason, because he takes a deep breath and says, “I’m sorry, okay? About the other day, with Nick. That was really shitty, what he did.”

  I shake my head and smile so easily it’s almost automatic. “It’s fine. It wasn’t a big deal or anything.”

  He doesn’t answer. The way he’s looking at me is oddly gentle, like he’s seeing all this bad, uncomfortable stuff inside my head, all the things I’ve tried so hard to ignore.

  Then he clenches his jaw and looks away. “So, are you ever going to act like something actually matters?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “You,” he says. “You’re always acting so smiley and happy, even when you shouldn’t. You’re like the pretend plastic doll of you. What Nick did, taking your bracelet? That was a shitty thing. At least admit that—say it. Otherwise, you’re just letting bad stuff happen and then acting like you don’t care.”

  I stare up at him, this big, scorched-brown boy squinting down at me, telling me that I should stop smiling just to smile, or start keeping a list of all the things that suck about the world. That if I don’t, I’m some huge, unrelenting fake.

  I want to make him see, but I don’t know how to say any of the things that matter. That I have to be this way. That before, it was just the easiest way to deal with home and school and everything. And now, it’s the only way to live with being haunted constantly by the deadest dead girl—one who was dead months before she actually died. And yes, things might be black and messy on the inside, and yes, this town might actually be dangerous and I’m holding a scrapbook full of all the gory details. But when I put on my lacy dresses and give the world a little shrug, at least I know exactly how I look. Bright, small, sparkly. I look perfect.

  When I don’t say anything, Finny throws up his hands and shakes his head. “Whatever. Act happy if you want, but know that it’s not going to make the shitty stuff better

  I just look at him.

  Then I turn my back on him and start toward the parking lot. I head for the shade under the cottonwood trees, where it’s green and cool, far from him and anything that might hurt me.

  I step off the curb without looking, dazzled by the heat and the blinding midday sun. Some idiot has left his bike sticking out of the rack, and I hit the back wheel with the toe of my shoe and go straight over, landing on the sidewalk on my hands and knees.

  The pain bursts into focus, sharp and real, so intense it almost knocks the breath out of me. I don’t stand up right away, just stay there on my hands and knees, feeling the impact shudder up my arms. I picture it like silver stars, raining down around me like fireworks.

  Then a shadow falls over me.

  When Finny bends and scoops me up, I go rigid but don’t pull away. He sets me on my feet with surprising care, holding me steady.

  “Easy,” he says from behind me, and I stumble back a little so that my ponytail skims his chest. “Looks like you cut yourself pretty good.”

  When I look down, my knee is a torn-up mess. As I watch, blood springs up in drops. It looks like the surface of water for pasta just starting to boil.

  “Are you okay?” Finny says in a low voice. His hand is big and warm on my waist, not holding on but just resting there, like I might tip over.

  “It hurts,” I gasp, staring down at the bleeding place.

  He doesn’t say something mean, like what did I expect? He doesn’t even ask why I sound so surprised. He just lets me go and takes my arm, leading me off the pavement and into the grass.

  Blood is running down my shin and into my shoe. I keep waiting for him to say something because that’s what normal people do, but he just stands over me, studying my face.

  “Here,” he says, but he doesn’t say where, just takes me by the arm and tugs me gently toward the bike rack.

  It’s half empty and cluttered with old Schwinns and beat-up BMX’s. The metal rods that hold the bikes are bent and rusted, but the outside part—the frame—is made of poured concrete, with straight sides and a flat top where some of the potheads like to sit and wait for their friends after school. Without a word, he takes me by the waist and sets me up on the cement bike rack like I’m some package or box that needs to be put somewhere. Like it’s nothing.

  For a second, I just sit there with my feet dangling, looking at him. I can tell my mouth is moving, opening and shutting in little gasps, but no sound comes out.

  He bends over my knee, brushing the raw center of the scrape with his fingertips, and at first I think he’s wiping up the blood, but that doesn’t prepare me for the sharp, electric pain.

  “What are you doing?” I whisper, trying not to wince.

  He doesn’t answer right away, just tosses a few chips of something small and lumpy onto the sidewalk, and I see that he’s picking out all the little pieces of gravel and broken soda bottle.

  “You need to clean this out,” he says, wiping his fingers on his jeans.

  I nod slowly, staring at the little white scar on his chin. Peroxide, I tell myself like I’m memorizing a word in another language. Peroxide. When I get home, I’m going to use peroxide.

  And then we’re looking at each other, and it’s a look that goes on and on, stretching across space and time. Across galaxies.

  Finny doesn’t speak or look away. He smiles, and the shape of his expression is uneven, like his eyes are smiling more than his mouth is. And then, for no reason, he touches my cheek.

  The feeling is shocking and it occurs to me that no one has ever done that, touched my cheek like it’s unavoidable, like his hand belonged there. His palm feels rough, and I reach up and run my fingers over the back of his wrist. It’s strangely comfortable to touch the place where his finger used to be. It feels right. Not like a hand is supposed to feel, but like how Finny’s hand feels. He tenses when my fingers brush the mangled place, holding very still, but he lets me keep touching it. His eyes are fixed on mine, and the look on his face is very complicated, like he’s saying a lot of things at once. His mouth is open a little, and his hair looks translucent and brittle in the sun.

  “Are you waiting for someone to come and get you?” I whisper. I sound small and thirsty.

  He doesn’t answer. Instead, he bends his head and kisses me, just once, then lets me go. When Connor would kiss Angelie in the halls last spring, he did it like he was trying to suck the chocolate off the outside of a Klondike bar. It could last hours.

  This is more like seeing a star fall—thrilling and soundless and then over.

  “Why did you do that?” I say when he straightens, surprised at how conversational my voice sounds. I don’t know if I mean Why did you start? or Why did you stop?

  Finny’s mouth is open a little, and I wonder if we’re about to get into the reasons for things, or if this is one of those awkward moments that we never talk about and spend the rest of high school pretending didn’t happen.

  Instead, he leans down and kisses me again. It’s slower this time, and he moves like he’s learning me, the way I did with his hand. His tongue brushes the curve of my bottom lip, grazing the hollow underneath, and something leaps and fidgets in my chest. It’s like a bright silver shock, running through my whole body, and I want him to never stop. But the other thing is that I think I need him to stop right now because my eyes are dry and hot, and if he doesn’t stop, I might start crying.

  When I pull away, it’s with a huge, shuddering relief. I turn toward the treetops and the sun, staring up at the glossy canopy of leaves so Finny can’t see the tears in my eyes. When did June turn into July? When did I become one of those girls who makes out with delinquents?

  He rests his hand under my chin and turns me very gently back to face him. His touch is so light that it’s barely a touch at all. It would be so easy to pull away.

  When I finally look up into his face, he raises his eyebrows but doesn’t say anything.

  “I’m sorry,” I tell him, but I have no idea why I’m apologizing.

  “For what?”

  “I—just . . . I’m sorry.”

  He shrugs. He looks like kissing me without warning was totally natural. Totally planned.

  “What happened to your hand?” I say, and my voice sounds wobbly, like I’m trying not to cry.

  He glances out into the street and shrugs. “Dog.”

  “What kind of dog?”

  “A real shit-house bastard of a dog.”

  I laugh, which is probably about the least acceptable response for the situation. “Connor Price said it was an alligator.”

  Finny grins and shakes his head. “Connor’s kind of a tool, though.”

  And I laugh again, sounding nervous and breathless. “Yeah, I know.” Then I decide that’s not really fair. “Well, he used to be, anyway. He’s kind of better now.”

  I wonder if Finny’s going to argue, but he just nods. “People do that sometimes. Change.”

  He smiles, and his mouth looks rueful and heart-fluttering at the same time. The thought crosses my mind that this whole day cannot possibly be happening.

  Behind us, the doors fly open and Ariel comes storming out in a flurry of chatter and noise, dragging Pinky behind her. As soon as she sees us together at the bike rack, though, she stops.

  Finny is standing very close—so close he’s almost between my knees—and as soon as Ariel starts toward us, he takes a step back.

  “What happened to you?” she says, eyeing Finny like she suspects him of scraping the skin off himself. “Why are you bleeding?”

  “I tripped.” It’s funny, but I feel less stupid now that I’m sitting up on the bike rack, with the soft, dry sound of cottonwoods rustling over me and I can still kind of taste Finny’s gum.

  Ariel looks up at him,
narrowing her eyes. “Okay, but what’s he doing here?”

  “Nothing,” I say, slipping down from the bike rack and moving past him to sweep her hair back into the headband again. “He helped me clean up my knee, and now he’s just leaving.”

  Finny glances at me, looking mildly surprised, but I am not about to tell my twelve-year-old sister that the gigantic delinquent we saw stealing impulse items from the Qwik-Mart the other day totally just kissed me. And that I kissed him back.

  Ariel moves closer, clutching the clarinet case against her chest. “Did you?” she says. “Help her, I mean?”

  Finny nods, looking unsure of himself, and for the first time, kind of awkward.

  I think that Ariel will ask the most obvious question—how?—but instead, she wrinkles her nose and scowls up at him. “Why is there blood on your hand?”

  I answer for him, fast and bright. “There was some glass in my cut and he took it out.”

  Ariel looks up at him, cradling her clarinet. She stares hard, and I brace myself to hear all her thoughts on whether or not I should be allowing him to put his unsterilized fingers all over my abrasion. But she just watches him, eyes moving over his features, taking in the shape of his jaw, the bleached hair. The way his ends are almost white, but the roots are coming in dark.

  She opens her mouth and then she does something very strange. She closes it again.

  Now that Ariel has proven there’s no danger, Pinky comes picking her way across the grass and hugs me around the waist. “I’m not coming over today,” she says against my shirt.

  “Why not?”

  She turns and points to where Mrs. Ortero’s station wagon has just pulled up and is waiting by the curb.

  “Okay, that’s fine.”

  Pinky gives me a one-armed good-bye squeeze, refusing to look at Finny. Then she lets me go and starts off toward her mom’s car. I expect Ariel to wave and then demand to go home, but instead she wobbles back and forth like she’s being pulled in a million different directions.

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