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Paper valentine, p.12
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       Paper Valentine, p.12

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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“What?” I say. “What are you standing there for?”

  “I’m going with Pinky,” she says, looking unsettlingly like our mom.

  Her voice is serious and she’s still eyeing Finny as if he can’t be trusted, or I can’t be trusted with him. Like, Are you going to be okay by yourself, Hannah?

  “You should probably come too,” she says after a long pause, and I realize her concern has nothing to do with Finny after all. What’s on her mind right now is my mom’s decree that we’re not supposed to walk home alone.

  “Come where?”

  “Mrs. Ortero’s taking us to the pool.”

  The public pool is basically the most disgusting place in all of Ludlow. It’s always packed, the cement lounging area is a billion degrees, and instead of water, the pool’s mostly just full of screaming kids and soggy Band-Aids and pee. I haven’t been there since eighth grade, when Lillian and Angelie and I all made a pledge to never, ever set foot in it again, under penalty of death.

  “I don’t have my suit,” I say, then stop and look at her. “Neither do you.”

  But Ariel just shrugs. “I’ll wear one of Pinky’s.”

  The way the two of them can just trade everything is so unfamiliar, and swimsuits are not the kind of thing I ever shared with Lillian, even when we were little. Maybe we were only four months apart, but even in elementary school, we were never close to the same size.

  “Okay, then you just go and have fun,” I tell her. “I’ll see you at home.”

  Ariel shakes her head. “We’re not supposed to split up,” she says. “You promised Mom.”

  “Ariel, I just walked all the way over here from the shop by myself. It’s fine.”

  Ariel nods but doesn’t look convinced. She keeps sneaking glances at Finny.

  “I’ll be okay,” I say, giving her a look that’s supposed to be reassuring. “I promise. He’s not going to hurt me.”

  The best thing about Ariel being twelve is that I can almost always get my way, because she still believes whatever I tell her—even the things I’m not so sure about. She gives me one last doubtful look. Then she climbs into Mrs. Ortero’s station wagon and leaves me there on the sidewalk next to Finny, where the afternoon sunlight bakes the pavement, and everything is hotter than it was just seconds ago.

  AT FINNY’S

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  For a long time, Finny and I just stand there. It’s one of those excruciating silences where you can’t focus on anything else. The ones that feel so fatal and weigh so much you think you’ll go deaf from the pressure.

  Then Finny scrapes his textbooks off the top of the bike rack and turns to face me.

  I wish I still talked, because then I’d have something to say. I know I need to break the silence, but something is wedged in my throat, and anyway, it’s too embarrassing to say what I’m actually thinking, which is that no one’s been this nice to me in a while.

  I have a sinking feeling that this is it. He’s going to go and leave me standing here like an idiot, with blood drying on my shin and soaking into the edge of my shoe.

  “You really need to clean that up,” he says, glancing at my knee. “Before it scabs over.”

  I nod and look down at the red, stinging mess but don’t actually move. The sun is so hot that my skin feels like it’s humming.

  Any minute, he’s going to ask me why I told my sister he wasn’t dangerous—why I’m still standing here with him in the crushing heat, with the tops of my collarbones turning pink, and sweat running down between my shoulders—and I don’t even know what I’d say. Any question he asks is going to be impossible to answer.

  “Come over,” he says suddenly, and he says it in a voice I can’t quite figure out. Like he’s offering a compromise or telling me a secret. “It’s only a couple blocks.”

  Immediately, there’s this storm of noise in my head, telling me that’s a bad idea. I can hear all these different voices: Kelly, Decker and my mom, Officer McGarahan. Responsible, grown-up people who know better, saying that I can’t. There’s a killer hunting girls, and How well do you even really know Finny? Even if the last week hadn’t happened and the whole summer were different, I could never go over to his actual house. It would be too weird, too awkward.

  But under all that loud, unhelpful noise is this other voice—the one that understands the big things. It reminds me that I’ve known Finny almost my whole life. That if he were one of the boys from my housing development, I wouldn’t think twice, and when Lillian was alive, we were always going over to Connor’s or Tyler Campbell’s or Austin Dean’s, even though we didn’t really know them that much better. And I never even really liked any of them all that much.

  Finny hitches up his books and starts for the intersection, then glances back over his shoulder like he’s waiting. I feel my pulse get faster and thank God that he doesn’t expect me to say anything.

  * * *

  Finny lives over on Wabash Street, where the driveways are weedy and narrow, and rows of houses are just starting to fade into rows of warehouses.

  As we turn off the sidewalk and start toward the front porch, the screen door bangs open and we’re met by a little woman with a round, cheerful face and dark, curly hair. She’s carrying a wooden stepladder and a huge, drooping spider plant in a hanging basket.

  Finny hurries up the steps and takes the stepladder from her, then situates the plant on a little metal hook at the edge of the porch roof. She hugs him, standing on tiptoe with her arms around him, and when he smiles, it’s a different smile from any of his other ones.

  When Finny slides past her into the house, I hesitate. I know how I must look—sticky and hot, with a bright yellow dress that’s drooping from the heat, and a gash on my knee.

  She doesn’t seem bothered, though, just smiles and holds out her hand. “I’m Jolene,” she says. “Finn’s aunt.”

  I climb up onto the porch to shake hands. Hers is small and warm, and when she gestures me inside, I follow her.

  The front hall is narrow, with paper-yellow walls and dusty wood floors. At this end of Wabash Street, all the houses were built a hundred years ago, and all the floor plans are small and dark and cramped.

  There are drifts of bright plastic blocks scattered down the hall toward the back of the house like breadcrumbs in a fairy tale.

  I’m just starting to relax, glad to be inside and out of the sun, when I see Lillian standing very still in the shadow of the coat rack, grinning at me like there’s no place she’d rather be than lurking around the front hall in other people’s houses.

  Jolene sees me looking in the direction of the scattered toys and sighs, kicking a few of them under the hall table. “Sorry about the mess. We used to make an effort to keep the clutter under control, but I’ve just accepted that it’s useless.” The way she says it is easy but disconnected. It’s the tone of someone who is used to having entire conversations all by herself.

  I pick up one of the blocks, pointedly ignoring Lillian. “Do you have a baby?”

  Jolene shakes her head, then stops shaking and nods instead. “Sometimes,” she says. There’s a weird sadness in her voice, but she smiles anyway and keeps talking like nothing’s wrong.

  “I knew it would be a commitment, but I couldn’t just sit back and watch anymore, and there were so many kids with no place to go.” She glances at Finny, who’s standing just inside the door to the kitchen. “I said, what the hell, you know? If these other people can do foster care, then so can I. It seemed ridiculous to do social work and still not be around when they needed it the most. I guess it seemed hypocritical.”

  Behind her, Finny is watching my face, like he’s waiting for a reaction. I try to figure out what he’s thinking, but he looks how he always does. Unreadable.

  Jolene turns and smiles at him. “Finn, can you run out to the garage a
nd put those picnic chairs on the back porch?”

  He nods and ducks past us, leaving me there with his bright, fast-moving aunt, and the lurking ghost of my best friend.

  Jolene buzzes into the kitchen, which is low-ceilinged but well-lit, with big windows and white lacy curtains. It seems completely unbelievable that Finny is in this room every day. It looks much too cozy, like something that belongs to a little old lady, not to this bright, busy woman and her huge, defiant boy.

  I realize I’m standing very near the table, and step away without thinking. The way the tablecloth hangs down halfway to the floor gives me a bad feeling. I keep expecting Lillian to pop out at me, grabbing for my ankles, trying to make me jump.

  “Would you like something to drink?” Jolene says.

  “No, thank you,” I tell her, and immediately wish I’d said yes.

  Yes would mean something to pass the time until Finny gets back. It would help me take my mind off the fact that Lillian is haunting my entire life.

  Also, something about being alone in the kitchen with Jolene feels unnerving, like she’s seeing too much of me before I’m ready. It occurs to me that maybe she has to be able to do that in order to live in the same house as Finny, because he never talks.

  “Hannah,” Lillian says in a ferocious whisper, peering around the doorframe and then flouncing across the kitchen and climbing up onto the table. “What are you doing here? This is crazy. It’s not okay! Go home, right now.”

  I don’t respond, but I can feel my cheeks get hot. The fact that she’s telling me what to do and what counts as crazy is pretty much hilarious.

  She flops down hard on her back on the tablecloth, and dust puffs up around her, twinkling in the yellow shaft of sunlight. Her skin looks yellow too, ugly with liver damage. “Okay, look—yes, sometimes it can seem really tempting to do something you know you shouldn’t. I get it, believe me. I know all about that.”

  I raise my eyebrows at her, just for a millisecond, as if to say, But?

  “But this is way too much of something you shouldn’t! God, not him. He’s a total waste. I mean it—he’s not even cute. And he made you cry. In fifth grade, don’t you remember?”

  I do remember, like an old TV show or a movie I used to watch. Something you can relive any time the notion takes you; just stick it in the player.

  The snow was weeks old, crusty with ice, and when he scrubbed my face with it, the crystals were so sharp they made me bleed.

  I felt stupid for crying, stupid for caring. Stupid for being small enough that Finny Boone could hold me down in the snow with one hand. I blamed him a long time, only thinking of how much it hurt, and being completely humiliated that he could overpower me.

  But now, the memory runs over and over, playing out like a punishment. What had I been doing in the minutes before he tried to whitewash my face off?

  I’d been standing in the recess yard with Lillian and Jessica and Angelie, and we’d been whispering to each other in shrill, gleeful tones, cackling like a bunch of little witches. We’d been talking about something pointless—flavored lipgloss or the best kind of gummy candy—when Finny went by.

  Even back then, he was already bigger than everyone else, and none of his clothes fit right. His jeans were too short and his coat was so big that the shoulder seams slumped halfway down his arms. The only thing that wasn’t too big or too small were his sneakers, which were dingy, white canvas with rubber soles. Not the right kind of thing for snow.

  “Nice shoes,” Lillian said, and I hadn’t said anything.

  But I’d laughed this high-pitched, witchy laugh, and looked right at him. Mostly, I remember feeling vital and untouchable, like I was free and separate from him. I would never be him, and because of that, I would never be lonely or laughed at, and I would never have to worry about anything.

  And that was why I couldn’t stop crying. I was so ashamed of myself for being awful, and for the fact that he could see it, see the meanness in my expression or hear it in my laugh. He’d done the most logical thing and tried to scrape it off me.

  * * *

  Lillian lies stiffly on the table, arms straight at her sides, head turned so she can watch me. “You can’t possibly like him, Hannah. He made you cry.”

  I stare back at her, not moving or blinking or anything. The only thing I can come up with is indisputably true, and I’m not going to say it. That yeah, maybe he made me cry. But so did she.

  When Finny comes back from the garage, he looks rumpled, and there are huge dust smears down the front of his shirt. “They’re on the porch,” he says.

  Jolene gives his arm a squeeze. “Thanks, I’ll go out and hose them off later.”

  I stand in the kitchen watching them and feeling like an intruder, like they’re putting on a show for me—not the fake, lying kind, but just trying to figure out who they are and how to show it in front of someone else.

  Finny glances over at me. Then he jerks his head, indicating my scraped knee and motioning for me to jump up on the counter. I balance next to the sink, leaning out of the way while Finny reaches around me to turn on the faucet.

  He holds a paper towel under the water and then uses it to mop up my bloody knee. He works his way around the edges, dabbing gently with just the corner. His other hand is resting against my shin, and I’m concentrating on the feeling of it, the way his fingers reach around almost to the back of my calf, when something moves in the corner of my vision, reflected in the glass cabinets. Right away, I just assume it’s Lillian and don’t think anything about it.

  But it can’t be her, because Lillian’s still lying on the table, and the shape in the glass is small and wispy and has much lighter hair. It’s faint, hard to make out in the wash of sunlight that fills the kitchen, but its appearance makes something tighten in my throat. I sit very still.

  Finny’s still bent over my knee, rinsing the scrape with handfuls of lukewarm water. I stare past him at the reflection in the glass, so indistinct that I might be imagining it.

  Then, a stray cloud drifts across the sun and in the dimness that follows, the reflection darkens, becoming sharp and clear and horribly familiar. I’m looking at a pale, round-cheeked girl with shoulder-length brown hair and a small, pointy nose and silver braces, smiling at me with blood running slowly down the side of her face. Her eyes, which were cloudy blue in the crime-scene photos, are still cloudy blue, but now they’re lively and alert and looking right at me.

  It’s Cecily Miles.

  All the breath goes out of me and my hands move on their own, fluttering at the air. My mouth is open in the shape of a soft little oh.

  “Stings?” Finny says, turning off the water and leaning to look into my face.

  I nod in a series of little jerks, trying to make my hands stay still. The cloud moves over, and the kitchen brightens.

  Lillian is standing in the center of the table now, the top of her head almost touching the ceiling. The cabinet still reflects the sunlit kitchen, but the bloody reflection of Cecily Miles is gone.

  “Don’t you need to put something on it to disinfect the cut?” My voice sounds unnaturally high-pitched and I fidget on the edge of the counter, trying to seem normal.

  Finny shakes his head, opening the cupboard under the sink and dropping the paper towel in the trash. “Something that shallow, anything you put on will just burn like hell, and it won’t heal any faster.”

  Jolene comes back in just then, carrying what looks like a box of old clothes. “Hey, Finn, can you get the hide-away bed set up in your room this afternoon? It doesn’t have to be right this minute.”

  Finny glances up from the sink, where he’s scrubbing his hands. “Nah, I can do it now.”

  Without a word, he helps me down from the counter, then leads the way down the hall toward the back of the house. I follow him, keeping one hand o
ut, trailing my fingers along the wall. My heart is beating so hard the inside of my ribcage actually hurts, but on the surface, I’m trying hard to look normal.

  Finny’s room is small and ankle-deep in a stew of clothes, very few of which are folded. I have no idea how he ever knows if anything’s clean.

  His closet is half buried in a drift of crumpled jeans and skate magazines, and he forces the door open, shoving a variety pack of Black Cat firecrackers out of the way with his foot.

  “She’s my real aunt,” he says with his back to me. “Just so you know.”

  “Okay.”

  The tone of his voice is like he expects a fight, like he’s challenging me to disagree, and I want to tell him that I don’t care one way or the other. That her blood-relative status makes no difference as long as she loves him. And she does. She wears it, beaming it around like a neon sign.

  Finny drags a folding cot out from under his bed and wrestles it over against the opposite wall, kicking his laundry out of the way.

  After the cot is up, he crosses to his closet and yanks his dusty beater over his head, keeping his back to me. He’s sturdy and brown, with muscles that ripple in huge slabs under his skin. The way he just peeled off his shirt in front of me is kind of shocking. Most of the boys I know would never just undress like that in front of a girl they barely knew. They wouldn’t just let you see them.

  But then, most of the boys I know wouldn’t scoop a girl off the sidewalk or take her home or blot her knee with a paper towel. Finny just peels out of the shirt like it’s nothing. Like he already knows exactly what he looks like.

  “Yikes,” Lillian whispers in my ear, propping her cold, pointy chin on my shoulder. “That is a lot of boy.”

  I nod, trying not to watch too closely as he makes a production of going through his closet and then the dresser, digging around for a clean shirt. On his left shoulder, the skin is marked by four round scars in a row down his back, each a deep, glossy pink.

  I sit down on the edge of his bed, even though he hasn’t told me I could. There are free-weights of various sizes just lying around, mixed in with the fireworks and the crumpled jeans. It makes sense, I guess. Even boys as tall and as broad-shouldered as Finny don’t get that big by accident.

 
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