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Places no one knows, p.11
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       Places No One Knows, p.11

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  He shakes his head. “Sick. Some chest thing. It’s really gross.”

  There’s a part of me that wants to tell him I don’t think he’s gross, but the words won’t come. Instead, there’s just my usual script—Waverly Classic. “Maybe this is a sign from God that you shouldn’t be kissing girls indiscriminately.”

  When he smiles, the shape of his mouth looks like he’s in pain. It’s hard to know what I’m supposed to do. I’m not good with tender ministrations.

  “Is there anything you need?” I say, and I don’t sound tender, but I sound helpful. I just want him to see that when he hurts, I’m not enjoying it.

  He looks up at me. His cheeks are flushed in hectic blotches. “Put your cold little hand on my neck?”

  I feel self-conscious suddenly, and shy. “Do you want me to hold it under the faucet first?”

  “No, I just want to feel it.” His voice is low and matter-of-fact. Honest. “I like how…how real it is. I was kind of hoping you’d show up, you know?”

  And the thing is, I do.

  When I touch him, he squeezes his eyes shut and reaches out, fumbling across the couch for me. His skin is dry, furiously hot. His hand is blazing against my thigh and he leaves it there, rubbing his thumb over the place just above my knee. He looks ragged in the lamplight, hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed from staying out every night. His touch is gentle and deliberate, like he means it.

  “You need to stop being so rough on yourself,” I say.

  That makes him smile. He squeezes my leg and keeps his eyes closed. “Says the girl who doesn’t sleep.”

  It takes me a second to realize he’s talking about what I said on the porch the other night. “Yeah, well, I never get sick.”

  He gives me a soft little pat, but doesn’t say anything. His smile is knowing, sad in a way that makes me feel stupid and obvious. His hand on my thigh makes my cheeks prickly and too warm.

  “Why do you do that all the time?” I say. “Getting drunk, getting high—I mean, I don’t see the point.”

  He turns his face into the pillow and laughs. “There’s no point. It’s just a way to be.”

  “Be what, exactly?” My tone is flippant, implying a list of negatives. Not be important or productive. Not be a success.

  He’s got his face half buried in the couch, talking into the upholstery, but he says the next part clearly enough. “Here without having to be here.”

  He doesn’t sound embarrassed, just weirdly factual.

  I look down at his hand. It’s softer, more delicate than I’d remembered, with clean cuticles and long, tapering fingers. Under it, the shape of my thigh is stringy. Utilitarian. The living room is bristling with furniture—end tables and recliners and terrible lamps—like it’s supposed to be full of more people than just the two of us.

  Marshall takes a breath like he’s about to say something else, but halfway through, he’s gripped by a ferocious coughing fit. He pushes himself up from the couch, sitting doubled over with his forehead against his knees. The way his face goes violent-pink, blood blooming under his skin, is slightly alarming.

  “Are you okay? Do you need a drink of water?”

  He shakes his head, still red in the face, trying to catch his breath. After a minute, he lies back.

  I rest my hand on his neck again, rubbing my thumb over the smooth, burning skin, touching the hollow behind his ear. “You really shouldn’t be smoking in your condition. Also, if you have a respiratory infection, antibiotics probably won’t help. Most respiratory infections are viral.”

  He sighs, smiling a resigned little smile. “Waverly, you make me want to die, but it’s in the best way. You have no idea.”

  “Mars?” A woman’s voice drifts in from the kitchen. “Who you talking to in there?”

  “No one,” he calls back. “It’s just the TV.”

  She creeps into the room looking pretty and timid, much too young to be the mother of three mostly grown kids. She approaches Marshall like she’s weaponizing plutonium, bending over the plaid couch to feel his forehead. He doesn’t make it easy. He was unresisting for his sister, accepting the blanket and the good-natured fussing, but his mother’s hand on his face makes him flinch.

  “I’m okay.” He raises himself on his elbow, twisting away.

  “Mars, baby, you’re burning up. Let me get you some aspirin.”

  Her face is worried in a way my own mother wouldn’t even comprehend. At my house, the concerns of the material world are purely secondary. I’ve been raised on the philosophy that once you can read the instructions on the Bisquick box and reach the stove, you’re on your own. A chest cold is not life-threatening.

  Marshall’s mom is leaning over him, brushing his hair back like he’s younger than he is. He lets his cheek sink into the pillow, but he’s gazing past her, right at me.

  I’m going now. I can feel my skin getting thinner. I hate the transparent feeling of already fading.

  He gives me an imploring look and mouths the words Don’t leave.

  “I have to,” I say, but when I move my lips, no sound comes out.

  .

  Marshall isn’t at school. This should not be the focal point of my day. There’s a bibliography due for the long project in English and a brace of practice sets for trig, and I don’t have time to be thinking about someone else’s questionable attendance.

  His desk is uncomfortably vacant when I hold up my compact.

  By the time office duty rolls around, I’m nearly climbing out of my skin.

  I don’t know whether to twirl or pace or start pulling out my hair. Instead, I write myself a pass for the west hall bathroom.

  I have no secrets to confess, nothing clamoring to be heard. Even in kindergarten, I was never one for sharing. After six frantic laps between the wall and the door, I get out my pen anyway.

  To the girl who thinks you can get pregnant from giving head, I write:

  To all the girls who complain that their supposed BFFs are copying their style/mannerisms/catch-phrases/accessories, and then proclaim in self-satisfied tones:

  I paraphrase a certain popular film and write:

  I write this only once, and then divide it—a collection of arrows spiderwebbing out, sprawling to touch the relevant grievances, all various permutations of the same problem.

  To:

  I shake my head and write:

  Near my first contribution, someone has written:

  I consider this and write my longest, most truthful response to date.

  .

  Night is a long, unbroken sprawl, followed by another. And another.

  It’s been four days since Marshall lay on the couch looking up at me with hot, bleary eyes. Four days since I sat next to him and touched his neck and he rested his hand on my thigh. Four days since I’ve seen him. Since I got even the barest suggestion of a good night’s sleep.

  I’ve tried all the conventional wisdom—hot milk and boring books. A double dose of Benadryl, which left me numb, thirsty, and still very much awake.

  The candle burns on my nightstand, but no matter how dutifully I count, nothing happens. After two hours and no luck, I admit that persistence isn’t accomplishing anything, and blow it out.

  —

  Monday was supposed to be the day that sent everything clanking back to normal. No one can stay sick for more than seventy-two hours, right? That’s impossible. It’s inefficient.

  But he still isn’t at school. The assignment in Spanish is a study guide, but it’s just to pass the time. We don’t have to turn it in because then she might have to grade them. Sometimes when I blink, the room goes shimmery around the edges. I draw spirals in all the spaces where the -er verbs should go.

  The memory of Marshall’s hand on my bare leg has its own kind of secret life. It creeps in, getting mixed up with lagging cross-country times and homework until suddenly, there it is, covering up everything else.

  .

  Tuesday. Tuesday is better.

  And I
know my debatable sense of well-being should be because when Mr. Aimsley hands back our Virginia Woolf papers, there’s an A at the top of mine, or because Maribeth is waiting for me with coffee before trig and tells me the pattern I found for crepe paper flowers is a good one, but the reason it’s better is because when the bell for sixth period rings, Marshall walks into Spanish, looking tired but upright.

  I watch him in my compact and wait for him to look at me. He doesn’t. When I accidentally make eye contact with CJ Borsen, he winks and rubs my ankle with the toe of his sneaker. I pretend to dig through my bag for an eraser or a pen—I can’t decide which. I take out a box of paper clips and suddenly everything feels so fake I’m nearly dizzy. I have this disturbing idea that the entire classroom might just be set dressing.

  At the front of the room, Denning is looking quietly defeated, and I feel sorrier than usual. I wonder what drives a person to become a high school Spanish teacher. Maybe she is in witness protection, or some vengeful god is punishing her for a past life. There are so many other career paths that don’t involve daily humiliation.

  “Who’d like to hand back the tests?” she asks miserably, preparing for our collective lack of response.

  When I raise my hand, she looks surprised but smiles wanly. When it’s a choice between me and anyone else, most teachers will fling themselves on the safety of the sure thing.

  I make my way up and down the rows, sorting through papers.

  When I get to Marshall, the smell of his hair makes me want to faint in some blissful, recreational way that would be good in a Victorian novel, but just seems totally impractical in real life.

  I settle for breathing deeply as I flip through the sheaf of tests, looking for his name.

  He hasn’t failed it. He’s missed a few points here and there for accent marks, forgotten that poner is irregular.

  At the bottom, Mrs. Denning’s prissy handwriting declares, Nice work It’s good to see you starting to apply yourself. If you still want some extra credit, see me after class.

  I set the paper facedown in front of him and he doesn’t look up. His hands are resting on the desktop, long and clean and still. I remember his palm on my thigh and wonder if it haunts him. If it even occurs to him.

  Without stopping to consider the consequences, I lean closer, letting my breath wash over the back of his neck—a long, slow exhalation that sends a deep flush creeping all the way up to his hairline. His ears are burning.

  I continue along the row of desks, leaving him staring at the blank side of his paper and blushing furiously.

  —

  In the space of less than one week, Autumn has become a different person. She deserves a movie montage, complete with some twitchy, fast-paced song by Mindless Self Indulgence or The Offspring. Her hair is shiny, her clothes preppy to a competitive degree. She even walks differently. But that’s probably because she’s wearing wedges instead of her Vans.

  I find her waiting at my locker like a softer, pinker version of herself. The Pearl Perfection eye shadow makes her look harmless.

  “Wow,” I say, but it comes out sounding breathless.

  She stands with her ankles crossed, twisting a lock of hair around one finger. Then she smiles her hard, sly smile and her face looks normal again. “I know, right?”

  I’m admiring her newly unclumped eyelashes, adjusting her sideswept bangs to camouflage her rook piercing, when Maribeth shoves between us, smiling her sweetest, fakest smile.

  The way she’s blinking, fast and innocent, does not bode well. “Hi, new person. Waverly, I need to talk to you. I just saw the sketches CJ’s been working on for the centerpieces, and they’re not going to work.”

  I gesture with both hands like I’m presenting a game show contestant with a new car. “Maribeth, this is Autumn.”

  Maribeth turns to Autumn, studying her with deep concentration. “Okay…” Her voice is dubious, her eyebrows pegged at dramatic angles.

  Autumn tucks her hair behind her ear and moves closer to me. The way she ducks her head makes it seem like she’s using me as a buffer, which is something no one has ever done.

  I’m the unnerving one—Maribeth Whitman’s blank-faced vizier, high priestess of precalculus. Her quiet mercenary, her black cat. The girl who needs help remembering how to smile. I am Maribeth’s ever-watchful familiar. She, beloved by multitudes. Me, beloved only by her.

  But now Autumn is shoulder to shoulder with me, her back against the row of lockers, her arm touching mine.

  Maribeth opens her eyes wide, her mouth an exaggerated O of delight. “Waverly, what is this? Making friends and influencing people? Are you sure you’re okay? Is your motherboard functioning properly?”

  Autumn makes a matching face. “Version update! Waverly’s real people now!”

  Maribeth is not amused. “Where did you find her, again?” she says to me. Like Autumn is from a foreign country, or at least not standing right there.

  “She’s on cross-country with me.”

  Maribeth’s expression says, And therefore…? It says, So are a lot of other completely insignificant people, but none of them are standing here breathing my air, so what’s the deal, Waverly? Enlighten me.

  “She does art,” I say. “And we need someone to help with the centerpieces.”

  Maribeth studies me, then seems to soften. “Oh, so that’ll be great, actually! I mean, we’re still one short since Loring quit.”

  The way she says it is bright, like she’s talking about an incident that has nothing to do with her. Like Loring’s absence is voluntary. I wonder if it’s what she actually believes.

  “Perfect,” I say. “Autumn can come over tonight.”

  “Perfect!” Maribeth responds. She might even mean it.

  She twists her necklace around her finger, turning back to Autumn. “We’re doing cut-paper lanterns with those little fake electric candles. Four-sided, maybe five. It would be good if they had a floral motif—no lilies.”

  Then she tosses her hair over her shoulder and leaves us standing at the open locker.

  Autumn leans against the bank of metal doors, watching Maribeth disappear into the crowd. “What the fuck was that?”

  I shrug and straighten my textbooks. I can’t begin to count the times Maribeth has called me alien and cyborg and genius and robot, but this is the first time I’ve been embarrassed for someone else to hear her do it.

  Autumn is looking at me now, waiting for clarity. Waiting for something.

  I rake my bangs out of my eyes. “By the way, I probably should have asked. How do you feel about paper lanterns?”

  “Pretty much like how I feel about steel wool or dwarf hamsters. So, when she breathes like that, does it mean she has something bitchy on her mind and she’s just not saying it?”

  I nod. “That’s her judging sigh.”

  Autumn laughs the way that no one ever laughs when I talk—bright and uncomplicated, with her head thrown back.

  It’s not until we’re halfway to the gym that something occurs to me. Maybe she wasn’t shrinking close for protection after all, but stepping in front of me.

  .

  The meeting of the excessive confetti committee is the kind of thing that makes you want to put a pencil through your eye.

  Everyone—by which I mean the grim cabal of Everyone Who Matters—is sitting on the cut-pile carpet at Maribeth’s house, arguing politely over color schemes.

  I try to remain focused on the intense appeal of paper streamers, but my thoughts keep wandering. I want to be home, in my bed, alone with my candle and the fascinating possibility of Marshall Holt.

  I wonder if it’s too soon, if he needs more time to recuperate. If the sensation of my breath on his neck today made him blush because he was responding to me, or if it was just the result of physiology and hormones—if any other girl could have gotten the same reaction. I wonder if he exists in the way I think he does, or if he’s just something I’ve invented while I was busy trying to function normally.
If he thinks of me at all. If the way he ran his thumb over my knee meant anything.

  “Waverly, watch the edges—you’re drawing them crooked,” Maribeth says, and I lurch back to the task at hand.

  We’re cutting up poster board for her paper-lantern centerpieces, which is mind-numbing.

  Across the circle, Autumn is sharing her X-acto knife with Hunter Pennington. She keeps swatting at him with her ruler and he’s loving every second of it, offering her colored tissue paper and pretending to be wounded by her pretend disinterest.

  I study Maribeth, trying to measure her reaction. In the glow of the recessed lighting she looks placid and pristine, but when I glance away and see her reflected in the glass door of the entertainment center, her expression is desolate.

  The centerpieces are shaping up nicely. Autumn’s pattern is good, easy enough for even the wrestling boys to cut out and assemble. My lanterns are neat, sliding together with precise tabs and notches. Palmer’s look like angry, mutated beetles. Autumn’s are delicate, verging on exquisite. I know that by the end of the night, Maribeth will figure out a way to make her do them all.

  Autumn taps her bottom lip with her pen, surveying the collection of cutout shapes spread across Maribeth’s carpet. “So, is the whole thing going to be a garden theme, or just the lamps?”

  Palmer is the one who answers, looking bored and long-suffering. “It isn’t final yet. We’re still deciding.”

  She and Kendry are clearly distrustful, but they haven’t been outright nasty yet. After all, Autumn is here with Maribeth’s blessing. Or at least, Maribeth’s lack of objection.

  Autumn opens her mouth, presumably to make the carefully planned suggestion I outlined for her last week, but before she can get a word in, Maribeth cuts her off.

  “Oh, but you know what I was thinking?” Maribeth’s tone implies she has just discovered a glorious unicorn. “We should have a school-wide vote, like we do for the homecoming court. That way, everyone will feel like the dance is theirs too.”

 
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