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Paper valentine, p.13
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       Paper Valentine, p.13

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  When he has his shirt on, he kicks his way through the drifts of clothes and magazines and sits down next to me. The weight of him makes the mattress sag, and I slide sideways into the depression so that our hips are touching.

  His hand is resting palm-down on the top of his knee. When I take it in mine, he goes still but doesn’t pull away.

  “What happened?” I ask, touching the smooth, abbreviated stump of his little finger. “For real.”

  The question seems important suddenly, because the truth is, something did happen. There are so many stories about Finny’s mangled hand.

  “It really was a dog,” he says, and his expression goes flat and out of focus, like he’s off somewhere, stuck someplace and it’s not pretty. “This mutt of my dad’s. Part bull terrier, part chow. This mean, hard-edge devil of a dog.”

  I nod, lacing my fingers between his. The way he says it is simple and casual: A dog did this. The end. But that’s only one tiny piece of the story, because the real problem is that the dog belonged to someone who didn’t care much about keeping it away from his kid.

  I let my eyes move to where the slick, pink marks are hidden under his shirt. “Did it bite your shoulder?”

  He sits very close, watching me. “No,” he says. “Those are cigarette burns.”

  He says it in a voice that tells me not to feel bad for asking. He meant me to see his shoulder. He told me about it by taking off his shirt. His story was there in the way he pawed through his closet, apparent in how he never turned his bad side away or looked awkward.

  I wish he would talk to me, but instead he just sits there on the bed, staring into my face with his nose very close to mine. The look goes on and on, and my lips move, but no sound comes out. I want to say something smart and cool, but instead there are just the shapes of all these different words. But why? and That’s awful and I’m sorry.

  For a long time, we sit facing each other, like we are each waiting for the other to know what to do. I don’t know how to proceed, but suddenly I have this deep, consoling certainty that I’m not here because of those reasons that Lillian said. Not because I’m looking for something jagged and hazardous to fall on. The way Finny watches me is nice, and not just in the way it can sometimes feel nice to be watched by someone you might like.

  The way he watches me is kind.

  Lillian is circling the room, making a big thing of picking her way through the mess, making sure I see how dramatically disgusted she is by the state of his things.

  “Do you skate?” I say, as she gestures to a copy of Grind with one derisive toe.

  Finny shakes his head. “Not really. Not enough to count.”

  “Then why do you have all the magazines?”

  Right away, I think I’ve said something wrong, that the question is too difficult or too personal. Then he leans back, clasping his hands behind his head. “They’re not mine. You know Dustin Sykes?”

  From over by the dresser, Lillian laughs a shrill, unpleasant laugh. Dustin Sykes used to be in our grade. Then he was in the grade behind us. Now I think he’s in Lehigh, which is the boys’ detention center out at the edge of Park County.

  “Is he your friend?”

  Finny smiles, shaking his head. “Nah, that guy’s an asshole. He was here this spring, though. He wound up with protective services ’cause his dad was using him for a punching bag.”

  “But then he moved out?”

  For the first time, Finny looks helpless and kind of uncomfortable. “That’s not really how it works. After a few weeks, he got turfed back home, and things went back to normal. Whatever. I mean, he’s not like my brother or anything.”

  He reaches over and touches my bracelet, tugging gently on the chain, running his fingertips along the row of charms. The movement makes them jingle against each other, a small shimmering sound, like a lullaby coming from someplace. For the first time since I looked at the pictures of Hailey Martinsen this afternoon, the vague sense that I might be dreaming finally starts to wear off.

  “Thank you,” I say suddenly, and it comes out sounding way too formal.

  Finny squints at me. “For what?”

  “Bringing my bracelet back. You didn’t have to.”

  He laughs and shakes his head. “No, I really did. That was way out of line, even for Nick.”

  “How did you get it back?”

  Finny shrugs. “When he came outside, he was all snorting and laughing about how he took it, so I said for him to hand it over.”

  “And he just let you have it?”

  Finny gives me an ironic look. “Well, not quite. At first we had a little bit of an issue.”

  I have a feeling that the issue involved someone getting punched, which would explain why the bracelet kind of looks like it spent some time in a garbage disposal, but I don’t ask. “Wasn’t he mad at you?”

  Finny throws his head back and laughs. “Do I give a shit? He can fucking deal with it! I told him that maybe he’s free to act like a total dick any other time, but not to girls and little kids. Not when he’s with me.”

  The edge in his voice is new and unexpectedly hard, like he talking about something that disgusts him.

  “Why do you even hang out with Nick, then? I mean, it doesn’t seem like you like him, so why were you—” I almost say why were you shoplifting together, but I stop myself before I get to that part. “Why were you hanging out with him in the Qwik-Mart?”

  Finny shrugs, looking resigned. “He was around.” Then he ducks his head, and his face softens. “And Jolene would have wanted me to. She always likes for me to hang out with those guys sometimes, to show how just because they’re not here anymore, we didn’t forget about them. He’s another one like Dustin.”

  “So, he lived with you?”

  “For maybe two months in ninth grade. He wound up in Lehigh for a while last year, but since then he’s kind of been staying out of trouble. Or at least, trouble bad enough to get someone sent to Lehigh.”

  I shake my head, trying to picture Finny doing something bad enough to get sent to the detention center. “It doesn’t seem like you guys really have a lot in common.”

  Finny laughs, but not like anything is all that funny. “Don’t you ever just have those days where even if you don’t really like someone, you might as well hang out with them because right then, it’s better than being alone?”

  I have a sinking feeling that I would know a lot more about what he’s saying if I didn’t spend the greater part of every day with Angelie or Carmen or the ghost of my best friend. I am pretty much never alone.

  As if to prove her constant presence beyond any shadow of a doubt, Lillian makes a disgusted noise, and I glance around. She’s standing in the doorway of his closet, peering down at a pair of ancient gym shoes and looking appalled.

  “Come on,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “Please, let’s go. If your mom gets home before you do, she’s going to freak out, and anyway, it is just way too gross in here.”

  “I should probably go home,” I say, but I don’t stand up just yet.

  Finny nods and squeezes my hand. He’s smiling, but it’s a small, disappointed smile, like this is about what he expected.

  “You could call me, though,” I say. “If you wanted.”

  “Okay.”

  His hand is warm and I hold on, looking down at the floor. There are crumpled school assignments and stray clothes lying everywhere, but I don’t even care, and it’s nice knowing that right now, at least for this second, I’m someplace I actually want to be.

  THE SCRAPBOOK

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  The rest of the week passes in a hot, high-octane blur, fast and silent, skimming along like clouds in a time-lapse photo.

  Even at two o’clock, when I go to get the girls from school, the streets seem unna
turally quiet, like everyone’s waiting for the apocalypse to come, or like the whole city is holding its breath.

  Mostly, I’ve been staying in the house. My mom is weird about me going any farther than the photo shop, or even going into the backyard by myself if it’s after dark. Angelie calls a few times, but she’s stuck inside too, so we pass the time playing I Spy with all the stuff in our rooms, and texting back and forth with Carmen and Jessica and Connor.

  Finny doesn’t call at all, which makes something tug in the center of my chest, but it’s also kind of a relief. I want to see him again and hold his hand and maybe make out a little, but the thing is, if he comes over, then Decker and my mom will have to meet him. And maybe Decker has tattoos all over his arms and shaves his head with a BIC razor. And maybe when I was little, my mom had five tiny silver studs in each ear and wore a motorcycle jacket, but now she wears blouses from Stein Mart and drives a Prius. And maybe I just don’t think they’re going to be overly excited about a boy who shoplifts from the gas station and is in all the slow classes at school.

  It took a while, but the police have finally given an official statement, letting the press in on the bizarre nature of the crime scenes. It’s awful to have seen the actual details myself—this ugly, secret mix of blood and cheap colored plastic—and now every newscaster and reporter in Ludlow is talking about the Valentine Killer like he’s some kind of major figure or celebrity.

  Every headline, breaking bulletin, and news feature seems to be basking in the horror.

  It would be so tempting to put the awful things out of my mind. Tempting to ignore the way the cop cars crawl the streets, and the way the TV never, ever stops talking about the fact that two girls are dead.

  Except I can’t ignore it because every time they talk about two girls, all I can think is that they should be talking about three, and because twice after getting out of the shower, I thought I saw a brown-haired shape reflected behind me in the door of the medicine cabinet. Each time, though, it disappeared. There and gone so fast that by the time I wiped the condensation off the glass, I was half sure I’d imagined it.

  The air conditioner is still broken.

  I find a few old blog posts and online write-ups about the Monica Harris murder, but Lillian’s scrapbook is the only account of what happened that feels truly honest. I read it through again and again, looking for some piece of insight or tiny detail that might link Monica to the other two girls. For the first time, I kind of understand how Lillian could be so obsessed with numbers and facts. There’s this constant nagging feeling that if I can just collect the right information, keep adding one more piece and then one more, the whole picture will fall seamlessly into place.

  The clippings all start to look the same, though, and it’s hard to know what counts and what just gets shuffled off to the side somewhere. Monica was the middle sister in a family of three girls. Cecily had an older brother who’s majoring in business at UCLA, and Hailey was an only child. They had different friends, different hobbies. They didn’t go to the same church or live in the same neighborhood or play on the same sports teams. They went swimming and had birthday parties. They all liked little kids and animals and sleepovers with their friends, but who doesn’t?

  We don’t get the paper at my house, but sometimes people drop them in the recycling bin behind the photo shop, and so every day, I pick through the jumble of bottles and cans, looking for a stray copy of the Ludlow Herald.

  On Thursday, when I was coming back inside with a crumpled Local section, Kelly finally said something. “Hannah, if you really want one, I will buy you a paper. You don’t have to dig in the trash.”

  But it sort of seems better this way, like when I fish a paper out of the bin and search through it, looking for clues, this is how it’s supposed to be. Like this whole grisly mess is just some kind of complicated story told in glimpses and in found objects, and if I follow the clues the way I’m supposed to, I just might find the pieces that matter.

  I’ve missed most of the early newspaper coverage of Cecily Miles, but it’s not hard to find the text-only versions in the library database, plus the Herald runs community portraits and supplementary pieces almost every day. I collect as many as I can, along with the features and interviews and letters to the editor.

  I make a two-page profile of Hailey Martinsen, complete with her age and description and her interests and the nice things people have said about her. I draw exclamation points around all the adjectives and cut out a photo that I got online from one of the dismally pastel memorial sites that keep popping up. It’s a different one from the birthday photo they keep showing on the news. In it, she’s got her arms around the neck of a bronze statue of a horse and is pressing her cheek to the metal curve of its muzzle. She’s wearing a lavender dress and smiling in a wide, impish way that reminds me so much of Ariel that it makes something flutter in my throat every time I look at it.

  It’s Friday afternoon, and my room is so hot I think I might pass out. I keep opening the windows and then, when that doesn’t help at all, getting up and closing them again.

  Lillian is lying on her stomach across my bed, watching as I kneel over the scrapbook, pasting in an article from yesterday’s paper about neighborhood safety. Ariel and Pinky are downstairs somewhere, freezing lemonade for ice pops or playing cards or standing in front of the refrigerator with the door wide open.

  The newspaper is limp from the heat and from how much I’ve handled it. I reposition the clipping, pasting it down with the glue stick. In the margins of the book, I’ve drawn lines between pages and paragraphs, circling words like happy and generous. The same words keep coming up over and over: helpful, well-liked, lively, outgoing.

  “You look confused,” Lillian remarks, watching as I run my finger over the corners of the clipping, pressing it flat.

  “It’s just, these articles don’t add up to anything,” I say, staring down at vibrant. It’s just that it’s 110 degrees in my room, and my brain feels scrambled.

  Lillian nods very slowly, and in that moment, everything about her seems to get thinner, more transparent, like she’s thinking so hard that it takes away from her appearing solid in my bedroom.

  “Here’s the thing,” she says finally. “None of what we know really adds up. This is someone who clearly has no problem with homicide, right? In fact, it would be pretty safe to say he’s a fan. But then he’s also someone who goes out of his way to collect plastic piñata stuffers and make doilies. Doesn’t that seem a little weird to you?”

  “Well, but he’s crazy, though. I mean, he pretty much has to be, and it doesn’t always make sense, what a crazy person does.”

  “Maybe,” Lillian says. Slowly, like she’s tasting it. “But we can’t go confusing psychopathic with unhinged. This is someone who is totally in control of his actions.”

  I have the sneaking suspicion that while she’s not exactly wrong, she’s not quite right either. I keep thinking that there has to be some other place between sane and crazy, some mysterious territory that rests in the middle.

  Lillian crosses the room and settles herself on top of my dresser, where she hunches forward so that her shoulder blades jut through her pajama shirt, and cups her chin in her hand. “Okay, so things we know: We know he doesn’t hoard his victims, or else these girls would have been missing for days or even weeks before they were found. No, this guy kills them quickly, within a few hours. He bludgeons them and arranges the bodies in the grass. Private but not hidden. He wants to show them off.”

  I nod, and in that moment, I can almost see it—the killer, kneeling over Cecily or Hailey, turning her arms and legs, straight- ening her clothes. Sprinkling the body with toy airplanes.

  “The toys and candy,” I say, staring down into Hailey’s smiling face, remembering the little flash of insight that came to me in the shop the other day—that these are the remnants of childh
ood. “It’s how he defines these girls.”

  Lillian scowls down at the floor, squinting hard, like she’s trying to see further. “Maybe we’re going about this from the wrong angle. Maybe we need to start thinking more about what it means to die while you’re still a kid.”

  And then we’re quiet. Me looking at her, her looking at the floor. Her eyes are unfocused, like she’s looking off somewhere into the distance, and I don’t know what she’s thinking.

  I’m thinking that my best friend killed herself so slow it was almost like a magic trick, and other people let her do it. That there’s got to be a point somewhere in this. There’s guilt or blame, and it’s all over our hands. Even mine, or maybe especially. I wonder why she never seems to blame me, when sometimes I think I blame her so much because it’s easier than blaming myself.

  Lillian is still watching the floor, with her hands braced on the edge of the dresser and her elbows locked, when the doorbell rings.

  She gives me a long, resigned look, drumming her heels against the front of my sock drawer. “Don’t get that. You know who it is.”

  But her voice is strange, like there’s something somewhere inside her that wants to smile. It reminds me of the way she looked at Connor in the shop the other day, like someone wishing on a star or a dandelion clock or a stray eyelash. Wishing for happiness. For someone to love her.

  The bell rings again, chiming through the house. Lillian’s mouth is working, like she’s trying to figure out the right expression for the moment. It doesn’t come, but her eyes are soft and she shrugs as if to say, This is it, the thing you want. If you go down there right now, you can have it.

  I don’t wait for her to tell me again.

  * * *

  Downstairs, Ariel and Pinky are standing in the front hall, ten feet back from the front door.

 
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