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Places no one knows, p.14
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       Places No One Knows, p.14

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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After the miserable parade of dresses, Kendry and Palmer head off to the outlet shops to look for shoes, and Autumn disappears to whatever magical land she inhabits when she’s not playing student council with me, but Maribeth and I walk down to the food court.

  I’m in the mood for some companionable silence, but she wants to discuss AP chemistry and dinner plans for homecoming and Palmer’s latest conquest and subsequent breakup. Nothing is different between us, nothing has changed. I should feel flattered that she’d rather talk to me about these things than anyone else.

  “Logan was pointless, anyway,” she tells me, playing with her hair.

  She speaks with authority, as though Palmer is no different from her, or from me, as though our needs and wants are identical. As though I have any opinion on any of Palmer’s short-lived ex-boyfriends.

  “He wasn’t for us,” Maribeth says gravely, and I know she’s referring to the gaping discrepancy between the admirable goals of student government and the less admirable goals of boys who start on varsity lacrosse. Or maybe just his tendency to adjust his crotch in public.

  She must see the disconnect somewhere in my face. She leans closer, pitching her voice conspiratorially low. “So, what’s Autumn’s dress like?”

  “I don’t know. She didn’t take me into her confidence.”

  “Oh, I thought you guys were like best friends now.” She says it coolly, like she actually believes that friends are something you can acquire or exchange. That you can only have one at a time. That I could somehow just replace her with a stranger.

  I look away and drink my smoothie, acutely aware that I’d rather be sitting in the food court drinking smoothies with Autumn. “No. We’re on cross-country together, is all.”

  Maribeth nods, staring off toward the freestanding sunglasses shack and the herd of kids shrieking in the playland. Then she puts her hand on my arm and opens her eyes wide. “Well, are you at least going to tell me about your wild night of passion?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Waverly, you have a hickey! You should see your face right now. It is the face of wantonness and secrets! There is no way that you haven’t been giving your android love to CJ, okay?”

  I let my straw fall mid-sip. And I nod.

  It’s a stupid lie. An outrageous one, but yes is still exponentially less problematic than no.

  If Maribeth decides to investigate, I’ll be outed in a second, but I don’t really think that will happen. She won’t confront CJ directly—it would strike her as indecent. More likely she’ll gossip about me to Hunter when they go to the movies together or meet for study sessions, or whatever it is they do.

  Except that Hunter probably doesn’t care much about hormonal head cases sucking on each other’s necks when it’s not him doing the sucking.

  Except that Autumn is rapidly taking over Maribeth’s life, and that includes hijacking her boyfriend.

  MARSHALL

  Numb and Hungry

  Most of the time, I’m starving. In class, and at school, and late at night after everyone else is asleep. At lunch or Justin’s house, I finish things other people don’t want. Then I sit down at the table and it disappears completely.

  Until my dad got sick, we never really did family meals. Now, every night is this brutal sit-down dinner, with cloth napkins and the kind of conversation that is basically guaranteed to not end well.

  When he asks how school was, I don’t even look up. His voice is flat.

  “Why can’t you be nice?” my mom says. “Why can’t we have a normal meal for once?”

  He taps his fork on the edge of his plate, like he’s just doing it because he feels like it, but his hands are shaking. Some days, the nerves stuff isn’t bad, and some days it is. Those days, everything else is worse too. “Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, honey, the only way we ever know what’s going on is to cross-examine him.”

  I wait for one of them to tell the truth—that they only focus on me so they don’t have to focus on anything important. I know I’m supposed to be grateful. Our whole neighborhood is full of kids whose parents are total deadbeats, or who left them, the way Ollie’s mom did, but mine aren’t like that. With them, it’s just this gross, messy despair that never goes away. It oozes out and fills the room. I can feel it getting all over me.

  “Shane.” Her voice gets high-pitched, and her chin starts to tremble. “Can’t we just drop it and enjoy this? Please?”

  I already know he’s not going to apologize. He won’t say something nice or change the subject. Instead, he’ll shut down, dig in farther. He’ll stare across the table at her like he’s nowhere, and she’ll be trying not to cry, her face red and her eyes full of tears, and I’ll sit there, looking at my plate. I can feel it in my throat and it’s like I can’t swallow.

  When I was little, I was the safe ground between them. They always argued, but they didn’t like to do it in front of me. Even now, if I’m in the room with them, sometimes it stops things from turning into a complete nightmare.

  And sometimes it doesn’t.

  It takes less than two minutes for the fight to get ugly. It’s about me and high utility bills and Annie and Chowder and the car. It’s about nothing and everything—all the little, stupid things that logical, grown-up people never fight about. Who left the milk on the wrong shelf in the refrigerator, who forgot to get the mail.

  They never ask any of the real things, why the new immune suppressants aren’t really working. What to do now. Whether it’s stopped being intermittent and is officially chronic yet. Why they keep pretending they can stand being in the same room. Who has stopped loving who.

  She spent two hours making dinner, like that might make up for the fact that he’s been stuck at home for almost three weeks now. She keeps messing with the serving dishes, moving them around like it’s possible to fix whatever parts of him are broken if she can just put things in the right order.

  She leans across the table, reaching for my arm, but not touching it. “Mars, you’re not eating.”

  “I’m not hungry,” I say, even though I pretty much devoured lunch, and the rest of Ollie’s pizza, and it wasn’t even close to enough.

  “Are you getting sick again?”

  But even sick is like a dirty word. I can feel it taking up space in the kitchen. After this awful, empty silence that goes on forever, I get up from the table and scrape my plate, which is more than half full, and then she starts crying.

  I shut myself in my room, which is small and dark and a shithole, but better than when I shared it with Justin. There’s not much to do, so I get out my homework.

  Out in the living room, the show goes on and on, like if they can stay focused on the little things, they won’t have to remember that once, for no reason either of them can remember, they loved each other.

  I scoot closer to my desk and open my English book. We just started a new unit—Literature of the Depression. I only get a few pages in before I have to stop. The introduction is full of pictures, kids whose whole lives were ruined by the dust bowl. Their faces are blank and sunburned, but their eyes scorch into me like they hate the guy with the camera. Like they can see me watching them.

  It’s too much to deal with. Like reading out loud in elementary school, feeling my voice getting hoarse and thick because a forest burned down or a dog died, and my teacher saying it’s okay, keep going, it’s just a story. Of not being allowed to stop.

  Once, when I was twelve or thirteen, Annie told me that other people didn’t feel things the same way I did. They don’t get a stomachache from watching the news or feel like crying when other people are sad.

  She said, “I don’t know if you know this, but people are kind of numb, I think. They mostly think about themselves, even when they don’t mean to.”

  Before, I’d always thought I was just like everyone else, only everyone else was better at ignoring it—that they were doing something where they turned it off, and I was just some sad abnormal failure, because
I couldn’t.

  When Annie told me I wasn’t normal, I was relieved. It meant that I was broken, but at least I wasn’t failing. Then I started smoking pot all the time, and the nice thing about that was, I didn’t have to feel anything if I didn’t want to.

  I need to finish the chapter for English. I need to stop being here. Out in the living room, things are stupid like always.

  I put on my headphones and turn the volume up as loud as it goes.

  WAVERLY

  7.

  The bedroom is dingy and cramped, with one window and no curtains. Its layout is vaguely familiar from the other night, but disorienting too. Everything seems smaller with the lights on. The carpet is an upsetting shade of burnt orange.

  Marshall’s sitting with his back to me, hunched over a little writing desk with a textbook open in front of him. He’s eating Goldfish crackers out of the bag without looking away from the page. Close by, someone is shouting.

  He’s clearly used to it. He’s got on big DJ-style headphones, which I can only assume are noise-canceling, because as soon as I touch his shoulder he jumps and drops his pen. When he whips around and yanks off the headphones, his eyes are all pupil.

  “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

  For a second, he sits perfectly still, staring up at me. Then his jaw gets tight and he closes his eyes. “How are you doing this?” he says, his breath catching in his throat.

  “I don’t know,” I tell him, when what I really want to say is Does it matter?

  And yes, I understand that it’s supposed to, but it’s a line of questioning that stopped feeling very important right about the time I woke up with a giant, impossible hickey. I’m Waverly Camdenmar. I’ve spent my whole life memorizing unfathomable things. I’m ready to follow this rabbit hole all the way down.

  One teaspoon of a neutron star weighs over a hundred million tons and giraffes only need to sleep twenty minutes a day. There’s a star in the Centaurus constellation that’s made of diamonds, and when it snows on Venus, it snows lead. I have a bruise on my throat the size and shape of Marshall Holt’s mouth. If all those things are true, why does he seem so certain that this isn’t?

  Suddenly, it feels inevitable that he’ll embrace the strangeness with me. He has to. Just let go and fall headfirst, like his own personal version of compulsive running or insomnia or distant lonely moons.

  “Maybe this is that soft, wobbly place where awake and asleep kind of blend together.”

  He stares up at me, shaking his head. “No. I mean, dreams can be weird, whatever. But they don’t just blend with regular life. Things are either real or they’re not, and if you can’t tell the difference, what happens is you get locked up for having a breakdown. I’ve watched you disappear in front of me like a goddamn magician, and that isn’t real. It can’t just happen.”

  “Why do people always do that?”

  “Do what?”

  “Say something can’t be happening, when clearly it is?” When what I want to say is, Your mouth is the first thing I have ever encountered that’s more interesting than astrophysics. I want to say, You have savaged my neck. What does that mean? Does it mean anything that you savaged my neck? “We’ve been defying rationality for a week and a half, and now you suddenly have a problem with it?”

  “Yeah.” His voice is flat, so carefully controlled it shakes. But sometimes that’s the problem. The tighter you grip something, the more you betray the trembling inside. “I do. I mean, don’t you get that it was different before?”

  “Before. Before what?”

  He looks away, shaking his head. “Look, when you’re messed up, you can kind of just roll with whatever happens, but when you’re normal, other things are supposed to stay normal too, or—or follow rules. I’m not messed up this time, okay?”

  His tone is dogged, like he’s proving something, but what he’s saying is close to nonsensical. Things always follow rules. Just because you don’t understand them doesn’t mean they’re not there.

  He keeps going, pronouncing each word very clearly. “I’m not drunk, or tripping, or—or delirious. I’m sitting in my goddamn bedroom, trying to do my homework.”

  Under some other circumstance, I’d passively accept his objections. I’d nod and frown, avoid confrontation, because that’s what people do—force myself to fit whatever mold the world demands. But now, in this room, my shape doesn’t matter. I’m a completely different person than I am in the daytime.

  “Marshall,” I say, and I sound capable and brusque, like Jamie when our practice times are bad. “I get that this is out of your comfort zone—I do—but it’s what’s happening. You’re not allowed to stick your fingers in your ears and sing lalala anymore. We’re past that.”

  He opens his mouth and I think he’ll argue, even just to dispute the idea that something as pervasive and dependable as the laws of science could be called a comfort zone. But then his mouth snaps shut again. He drops his eyes to the desk and nods.

  “Okay, then.” I stand with my hands on the back of his chair. “Okay.”

  This is the first time I’ve really seen his room. It’s like a museum display or an educational diorama—natural habitat of the North American stoner—with a scarred twin bed and a mismatched dresser. The rickety little desk and not much else. The closet yawns, spilling out undifferentiated clothes. His headphones are clearly the most expensive thing in the room.

  I know I should do something, say something, but I have no idea what. I’ve spent most of my life following a set of helpful scripts and suddenly, none of them apply. How do you make conversation with someone when you’ve seen them kneeling on the bathroom floor? When their most private moments are yours to intrude upon at will? When they’ve had their hands up your shirt, and you are ninety percent sure you wouldn’t mind if it happened again?

  “What are you reading?” I say, leaning across him to examine the book.

  “Nothing. Homework.”

  “I thought you hated school.”

  He flips the cover closed. “I don’t hate American lit. I hate school.”

  The last time I was this close to him, it was a commotion of touching. His hands, picking apart the rigid panels of my exoskeleton. His mouth, finding mine with the certainty of a meteor.

  “What do you want?” he says, and raises his eyes to mine.

  A vacuum opens in my chest. It seems crucially important, suddenly, that he is the only person who ever asks me that.

  “For you to kiss me.”

  I say it without blinking. I say it to his mouth and to his dark, steady gaze. The warmth of his body, the shape of his lips.

  I keep waiting for him to stand and reach for me, but he just hunches over the desk. “Don’t. Don’t say things you don’t mean.”

  I rest my elbows on the back of his chair, leaning close to his bare, blushing neck. “Marshall,” I say. His name sounds strange coming out of my mouth. “I want to kiss you.”

  When he still doesn’t move, I take his hand in both of mine, turning it carefully, then holding it against my collarbone. It’s warm and pliable and he’s shaking.

  “Fuck,” he whispers, unresisting.

  The weight of his hand in mine is awful, and after a second, I drop it.

  When he finally looks up, his expression is wide open, like I’m seeing him undressed. “Is there anyone you don’t lie to?”

  Like I am some sort of habitual and compulsive liar, like every word out of my mouth is malicious or false. As though I am not to be trusted. Whatever is taking place right now is not a sweet and tender moment. The silence that hangs between us is prickling and sharp. There is no moment.

  “You,” I say, looking someplace else. “I don’t lie to you.”

  There’s a certain thrill in being honest. I take a breath and keep going. Because precision matters. Because I don’t get to do it much and what have I got to lose. “Or Autumn, I guess. I don’t lie to her.”

  He shakes his head. “Who’s Autumn
?”

  “Pickerel. She goes to school with us.”

  He laughs then—a sharp, staccato laugh. “You’re kidding, right? Autumn? You do not hang out with Autumn.”

  “You don’t know who I hang out with.”

  “No—no way. She’s nobody. She is way too weird for someone like you.”

  And here we are again. No matter how hard I smile, how far I run, at the end of the day, it always comes back to the question of what I am.

  I hug my elbows and shake my head. Autumn is not nobody, but a real, actual force of nature. She is so much more than just some run-of-the-mill person. She’s Bette Davis and Dorothy Parker and Madonna. Autumn is Tyler Durden and Tony Soprano. Autumn is Cthulhu, Destroyer of Worlds.

  I turn in an agitated little circle, pacing the room just so I have some space to breathe. When I sink onto his bed, the mattress is low and squishy. I settle myself into the saggy middle and lie back. “Maybe you don’t know her very well.”

  “Are you serious right now? She was my best friend for like eight years. I went to all her birthday parties. You do not hang out with Autumn.”

  His voice is final, and suddenly I get it. He knows those things about her—knows she’s bold and scary and surprising—and what he really means is, Autumn could never be those things to me.

  I burrow into his pillow. The pressure against my face makes patterns on the inside of my eyelids. “Never mind. The point is, I’m not some rampant liar, okay?”

  I hear the squeak of his chair, and then the bed sinks gently beside me.

  When I lift my head, he’s looking down at me. His gaze is dark and reflective, like well water or something by Kafka. It makes me feel nervous for no good reason.

  After a second, he reaches over like he’ll touch the side of my neck, but doesn’t quite dare.

  “Yeah. Thanks for that.”

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would—” His voice is heavy, too full of feelings. He leans closer, and when he does, it’s like he’s sucking all the air out of the room. I wait for him to kiss me and make the breathless feeling go away.

 
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