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Paper valentine, p.14
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       Paper Valentine, p.14

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  I come up behind them and they both jump. “Why didn’t you answer it?”

  Ariel stares back at me over her shoulder, looking scandalized. “Because there is a murderer out there, and Decker’s not home.”

  She’s right—of course she’s right—but we’re standing in our own front hall, with the door between us and the rest of the world, and the sun shining high and glaring outside. It seems safe enough.

  “Who’s there?” I say, just to be sure, calling it over the top of Ariel’s head.

  “Me,” answers a low, steady voice that I immediately recognize as Finny’s. And maybe I had no reason to doubt Lillian, who—since she became a ghost, anyway—only really says things that are true. But I’m still relieved.

  I go to step around Ariel, but she lunges at me and grabs at my arm. “Hannah, don’t! It might be a stranger.”

  I shake my head and turn the deadbolt. “It’s not a stranger.”

  When I open the door, he’s waiting on the porch, leaning against the porch railing with his hands in his pockets.

  “Hi,” I say, and even to myself, I sound kind of breathless. There’s a long, expectant pause, but I don’t invite him in. I’m suddenly way too aware of how my house is nothing like his.

  He doesn’t say hi back. Instead, he pushes himself away from the railing and comes up close, hooking his pointer finger with mine. “Can you come out for a while?”

  I look up at him, amazed at how he can always act like he belongs anywhere, like showing up on someone’s porch when there’s a killer on the loose is just the most normal thing.

  I hook my own finger in return and squeeze. “I don’t know. I’m not really supposed to.”

  Finny gives me a small, conspiratorial smile and raises his eyebrows. “Do you always do what you’re supposed to?”

  The way he says it is like it’s supposed to be a joke, but I’ve been breaking the rules more than he knows. My room is starting to feel like a hellish, baking cage, and my head is stuffed full of all these different words that describe kind, friendly girls, and I feel a rush of desperation, like if I don’t get out of the house, I’ll go crazy.

  “Keep me safe?” I say, giving him a sly, sideways glance, smiling in a way that I know makes me look ironic and innocent at the same time.

  He steps closer, staring down at me in the shade of the porch. “Always.”

  Ariel is standing with her back against the newel post at the bottom of the stairs, biting her bottom lip. I know I should stay, that I shouldn’t leave her and Pinky home alone, that my mom would say I’m not supposed to go out by myself. But I’m not by myself, and maybe Finny’s big and rough and unpredictable, but he’s also the boy who walked me home after he found me out in the woods alone. He’s the one who helped me up off the sidewalk, kissed me in the bus circle, and cleaned the blood off my knee.

  “Do you like jumping?” he says, sounding perfectly reasonable, like this is not a weird question.

  “Yes,” I say after a beat, even though I can’t actually say I know what he’s talking about. I don’t know about jumping, but I really like being with him.

  “Come on,” he says, reaching for my hand. “I know a place.”



  We cross Ashby Road along a narrow blacktop bike path that runs under the train tracks. Beneath the bridge is littered with empty cans and cigarette butts, and the sides are spray-painted in a whole mess of bright, dirty colors.

  It’s already after four, and the sun is high and pale, scraping its way slowly across the sky toward the west. The day is still unbearably hot, but the shadows are starting to get longer.

  Even before we’re close enough to see it, I can hear the Coureur de Bois River. It runs directly through town, and most of it’s bordered by parks and bike paths. People ride up and down the paths, or kayak in the deep parts. There’s a shallow sandy spot by the Muncy playground where little kids splash around and catch crawdads and minnows in plastic buckets.

  Most of the river is public space, but the stretch of bank above the dam and just below it is fenced-off with a spiral of barbed wire along the top. Halfway down a little hill and overgrown with bindweed is a narrow gate that almost blends in with the rest of the chain-link. It’s posted CITY PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING, but the lock is broken, and when Finny shoves the gate open, the hinges screech like a dying bird.

  The river is lower than it was in the spring or early summer, but just above the dam, the water slows up against the cement lip deep enough that you can’t see the bottom.

  Finny leads the way along a narrow dirt path worn hard and flat in the grass.

  The shrill, grinding cry of the grasshoppers in the weeds makes me think of rusty harmonicas, of silver pinwheels spinning.

  We follow the path until we come to a huge cottonwood tree. Finny stops under it, smiling like he’s just presented me with something glorious.

  “What are we doing here?”

  He looks up, pointing to a thick rope knotted around one of the upper branches, and all I can think is how amazing it is that someone actually climbed up there to tie it.

  Finny turns and gazes out toward the river. The rope dangles limply, draped over one of the lower branches to keep it out of the water, but I can see that if one of us were to unhook it, it would swing directly over the river.

  “Won’t we get wet?”

  He shrugs. “Well, yeah. But do you actually mind?”

  I shake my head a little too frantically, trying to figure out if, under his easy manner, there’s any indication that he expects me to strip down. That I’m supposed to take off my T-shirt dress and swing off the rope in just my bra and underwear.

  But Finny doesn’t seem to be using the excuse of swimming in the river as a ploy to get me undressed. He grabs the rope in both hands, pulling himself up onto a low, heavy branch, and now I understand that wet clothes are just a normal part of the activity. With the end of the rope twisted around one wrist, he climbs higher. It’s nice watching him climb. I like the way his arms move, the muscles tensing and pulling as he hauls himself up into the branches.

  He plummets from the tree, arcing out over the river. He waits until the very top of his swing before letting go and then it’s just the white-haired shape of him falling through air in a wild dive toward the water. When he hits, the splash is tremendous and frothy white. The rope tail is so long that it dangles in the water, trailing back and forth in the current.

  He stays down a long time, and the seconds stretch out, heart-stopping as I stand on the bank, waiting for him to break the surface. When he finally comes up for air, it’s in a huge, exuberant burst, water spraying away from his spread arms.

  Finny splashes in the current, catching hold of the rope and then wading up onto the bank with it, water pouring off his shoulders and running down his arms. He shakes his head in a huge spray, like a dog, sending icy drops spattering against my face and my bare arms. The chill of it feels good in the dry, broiling heat.

  He hands me the rope, helping me wind the end around my wrist. It’s rough against my skin, and makes me think of being tied up somewhere, even though there’s no evidence that any of the girls were restrained. Before I can help myself, I think of choking, but Finny doesn’t seem to see it on my face. He smiles at me and gives me a little shove toward the tree.

  When I climb up to the jumping place, the air feels cooler as I make my way out over the river. The rope is thick and rough in my hands, fibers sticking into my palms. I stand balanced on the curve of the branch, looking down into the water. The bark is worn smooth from so many feet stepping in the exact same places.

  “Do it,” Finny says below me. “What are you waiting for?”

  I glance down at him standing on the bank, dripping wet and grinning up at me with his jeans hanging so
aked and heavy on his hips.

  I want more than anything to let go of the rope, to climb back down and kiss him, right now, with the wet fabric of his shirt sticking to his back and the sunlight streaming through the trees. But he’s watching me, waiting to see what I’ll do. If I’m going to chicken out or if I’m brave enough to jump.

  I tug the rope once, just to feel the sturdiness of the knot, and then I grip it in both hands and step off into space. At first, there’s nothing but the clear, empty sensation of falling, falling. I’m plunging away from the horror and the blinding sun, the scrapbook full of dead girls, the claustrophobic cocoon of my room, and the heat.

  Then the rope jerks taut in my hands, and I’m carried up, sailing over the river like a dandelion seed.

  “Let go!” Finny shouts from the bank. He’s laughing up at me, waving his arms for me to do it.

  Suddenly, letting go seems like a wonderful idea, a terrible idea, and when I do, the feeling is like nothing I’ve ever felt. I’m rising up, up, and then, for one breathless second, I am perfectly still. For that glittering moment, I stay suspended in space, caught in the wash of hot dry air and sunlight before gravity takes me and I plummet.

  The water is freezing. I hit the surface, and the current sucks me straight down to the bottom of the river. It’s pure runoff, and even the heat of hundred-degree days hasn’t done much to warm it up. There’s a rush of gritty sand under my fingers, and my skin feels brittle, like it might crack into pieces. There’s a pressure in my chest, huge and aching, and I kick my legs once and strike for the surface.

  I come up gasping, and as soon as my head breaks the surface, I yelp shrilly into the still, silent air, trying to catch my breath.

  Finny is still up on the bank, hugging his ribs, laughing with his bleach-white hair plastered against his forehead and falling down in his eyes, and his shirt stuck to his chest. “How’s the water?”

  I start to paddle for the bank, still gasping for breath. My ribcage feels so cold that my lungs don’t want to work. I’m just struggling up the riverbed into shallower water when I stub my toe on a jutting shelf of rock and almost fall. I stop and look down, trying to see where to put my feet.

  And then I scream.

  Floating in the current just below the surface is the body of Hailey Martinsen. She’s stretched on her back, with her hands folded on her chest. She’s wearing a pale green tank top, and there are leaves stuck to her cheeks and tangled in her hair.

  As I stare into her bloodless face, inches from mine, she opens dark, filmy eyes and rolls her head to look at me. She moves her mouth like she wants to say something, but all that comes out is a storm of tiny bubbles. With terrible slowness, she reaches out a hand. Her chipped orange nail polish is obscenely bright, even in the shade of the trees.

  Then she catches hold of me, fingers closing around my wrist, and I scream again, louder and more panicked, twisting my arm out of her hand, kicking and shrieking away from her.

  And then Finny’s in the water with me, splashing against the current. He catches me around the waist and lifts me off my feet, pulling me back toward the bank. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

  The apparition of Hailey, with her dark, staring eyes and pale face, is gone. My teeth are chattering so hard I can barely speak.

  I cling to Finny even though the water only comes up to my chest, trying to come up with something plausible. “I think—it was a fish—a fish touched my leg.”

  The look Finny gives me is confused and just a little worried, but he doesn’t tell me I’m making a big deal over nothing, and he doesn’t take his hands away from my waist.

  “Hey!” The voice is harsh, rising over the sound of the river. “Hey, you’re going to need to step away from her right now.”

  I raise my head, twisting in Finny’s arms. Standing above us on the far side of the bank is Officer Boles.

  At first I hardly even recognize him without the yellow backdrop of the photo shop behind him. Mostly, I don’t recognize the way his hand rests on the grip of his gun.

  “Step away,” he says again, looking down at us with his fingers still skimming his holster.

  After a second, Finny lets me go and takes a step back toward the bank, keeping his hands held carefully above the water. I have to flail wildly to catch my balance against the current. My sneakers keep slipping on the algae-covered rocks, and my legs are so weak and shaky I’m afraid I’ll fall.

  Boles stares down at me, looking rattled. “Hannah, are you okay?”

  I gasp out a pitiful yes, fighting to stay on my feet. The river swirls around me and tugs at my shirt. My hair is loose around my shoulders, getting tangled in my clothes.

  There’s another voice calling to Boles from farther up the hill, and a disturbance in the tall weeds behind him, and Officer McGarahan comes crashing out of the underbrush.

  “What’s going on? Who screamed?” He peers over the bank at me, looking anxious. Then his gaze moves past me to land on Finny. “Hannah,” he says, crouching down and holding out his hand. “I need you to get out of the water, sweetie.”

  I understand, with an icy burst of clarity, that I have two choices. I can move toward them, or away. The third option is to stay where I am, but the water is freezing and if I see Hailey’s body again, I think I might start screaming and never stop.

  Boles and McGarahan are both standing on the edge of the bank, waiting for me.

  There’s a moment that seems to go on for so long that my scalp starts to hurt. Then I turn and stumble over the rocks to the far side of the river, where Finny is standing under the cottonwood tree, looking hunched and awkward.

  I haul myself out of the water, wading up onto the bank with my shoes squelching and my hair hanging in my face. I realize that everyone can see the outline of my bra through my dress, which didn’t seem like such a big deal when it was just going to be Finny, but now that I’m standing on the bank across the river from two police officers, it seems horribly inappropriate.

  I turn to face them, hugging myself as hard as I can. “He wasn’t hurting me. I just screamed because . . . because of something else. What are you even doing here?”

  Boles starts to say something, but McGarahan sighs and rakes his hands through his hair, shaking his head. “You know why. The park’s not safe these days.”

  And he’s right—I knew before I asked. It’s the right time of day and the right kind of place for a murder.

  “Just get out of here and go home,” he says. “And you.” His gaze shifts to Finny and it’s not friendly or patient at all anymore. “You make sure she gets there. If she doesn’t, I’ll hear about it.”

  Boles sighs and shakes his head. I can almost see his earlier intensity fading out of him, replaced by something more like anger. “Kid,” he says to Finny, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you know you’re not allowed to come in here. There are places on the river that you’re allowed to be. This is not one of them.”

  Finny speaks for the first time, crossing his arms over his chest and squaring his shoulders. “Am I in trouble?” he says, watching Boles with a tight, wary expression, measuring him.

  Without even thinking, I move closer to him.

  Boles presses his fingers against his eyelids as if something hurts inside his head. “Not today. But you need to stay away from places like the river. There’s a killer running around. Don’t you kids understand how serious this is?”

  * * *

  Finny walks me home, his soaked jeans leaving a trail of splotches in the dust on the path.

  I’m still shaking, shivering convulsively, and whenever I close my eyes, I feel the freezing shock of Hailey’s fingers around my wrist. I want Finny to reach over and hold my hand, but right now he seems scared to touch me.

  As we start down the little hill that leads to the
main bike path, there’s a harsh, barking sound ahead of us, like a metal hinge screeching against itself.

  Finny stops, freezing in the weeds with his shoulders rigid and his chin up. I follow his gaze, staring down into the little hollow of shadowy grass under a big cottonwood tree, where a magpie is hopping around at the bottom of the hill.

  I shade my eyes, squinting down into the hollow. I can just make out a heap of random objects and a tangle of brightly colored ribbons, half hidden in the grass. My whole skin suddenly feels tight, like I might freeze solid. The understanding, the inevitable conclusion, is that they’re scattered around a body.

  As we get closer, though, I see that they’re not. It’s a memorial, like the one we made for Monica behind the bowling alley last year. The trampled patch of grass under the cottonwood tree is clustered with tiny teddy bears and fake flowers, Mylar balloons and homemade cards. Leaning crookedly against the tree trunk is a big Styrofoam wreath covered in roses and decorated with a picture of Hailey, smiling for the camera and wearing a silver party hat. It’s the same picture they used on the evening news the day they broke the story.

  The magpie is hopping excitedly back and forth, tugging at a silver best-friends necklace hanging from the top of the wreath.

  In the photo, Hailey is glossy-haired and pink-cheeked, but in my mind that image is superimposed over the white, bloodless face staring up at me out of the water.

  “You okay?” Finny asks, moving next to me for the first time since we left the river.

  “This is so messed up,” I say, hugging myself so I won’t shiver. My voice sounds hopeless and stunned. I wonder if I’m about to start crying.

  Finny makes a low, wordless sound. He shoves the wreath gently with his foot, and the bird flies away. Then he takes me gently by the shoulder and turns me away from the little shrine. His hand is a little unsteady, like he might be shaking.

  “They didn’t have to talk to you like that,” I say, touching a silk tiger lily with the toe of my shoe. “They didn’t have to act like you were a criminal.”

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