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Paper valentine, p.15
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       Paper Valentine, p.15

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  “Whatever,” he says, staring down at the flattened grass. “It’s not like they’ve ever talked to me any other way.” Then he lets his head drop forward and his shoulders slump, giving me a strange, rueful smile. He looks exhausted. “If you want to know the truth, I think maybe the only reason I’m not sitting in the back of a cop car right now is because you came over to me instead of them.”

  “They’d really have arrested you just for being there? If it mattered so much, wouldn’t somebody just come take down the rope swing? Or at least fix the gate?”

  Finny shakes his head. “Not about that. About me, being there with you, the two of us. It’s weird—they’ve been everywhere all week. I mean, every day now, they’re picking up guys for stupid shit like jaywalking or messing around in the fountain. Asking all these questions, like asking Nick if he’s ever owned a baseball bat, or Alex Vega if he likes to walk through that little field by the culvert, which is totally crazy because everybody walks through the field by the culvert.”

  I nod and realize that I’m squeezing my own wrist for no good reason. Even Lillian and I used to walk over there after school with Angelie sometimes to pick irises and talk about boys, or when we were younger, we’d play in the narrow strip of meadow below the culvert. It’s only a few hundred feet from the bike path, and there was an elm tree growing sideways over an old fence that made a perfect little playhouse. Now, though, it’s not a place for secrets or tea parties. Now it’s just the spot where Cecily Miles’s body was found.

  “Do you think they’re right, that a kid could have done these things?”

  Finny stares down at the ground like he’s never really thought about it before, but he’s sure thinking about it now.

  “No,” he says finally. “At least, not the kind of guys I know.”

  The way he says it is matter-of-fact. In his voice is the difference between all the petty, destructive things that boys do, and this.

  At the base of the tree, the magpie is back, yanking violently at the little silver necklace.



  We walk along the wide, quiet street that curves around the park. It’s not really that late, not dark yet, but the sun is almost down, making everything look dim and hazy. The air feels dry, buzzing over my skin, prickling on my bare arms.

  We don’t talk much, but I’m getting used to that. Used to the way Finny doesn’t feel obligated to fill up the silence and how I don’t really mind it. It’s nice being around someone without always having to think about who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do and think and say. It’s nice to just concentrate on being the person you are—whoever you are.

  The walk around the park is slow and winding, and when we get to my house, Finny tries to lead me up onto the porch.

  “Not yet,” I say.

  The lights are all on, looking warm and welcoming, and if I go inside, all I’ll have to look forward to is Lillian and dark, disquieting questions with no answers, and maybe a lecture from my mom about going out without asking permission first. The house will be bright and hot and suffocating, and who knows what other specters of dead girls will be waiting for me in the corners of my room when I turn out the light.

  “Please,” I say, holding out my hand. “Come with me.”

  After a long moment, he nods and lets me lead him around back, through the side gate.

  In the dark, secret place under the cottonwoods, I sit on the edge of the hammock, careful not to overbalance. I still don’t say anything, and then Finny sits down next to me, holding us steady with his foot.

  He’s inches away, looking down into my face, but I can barely see him in the dusky shadow of the tree. His hair is a light spot above me, and his undershirt glows white.

  I slide my fingers under the edge of his shirt, feeling for the cluster of round burns. Under my fingers, the scars are slick and oddly soft.

  Finny leans down like he might kiss me, but instead he just sighs and rests his cheek against mine. It feels warm and soft and a little bit rough, like maybe he already shaves even though it doesn’t really look like it. When he presses his forehead against mine, I clasp my hands at the back of his neck and close my eyes. I think that if I just hold very still and listen hard, I might be able to read his mind, to find out how he feels about the way I’m feeling for the scars.

  For a long time we stay like that with our heads pressed together, our arms around each other.

  “It’s okay,” he whispers. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me.”

  I nod and stick my nose in the little depression at the base of his throat. His shirt is still damp and murky-smelling from the river, but his skin smells like summer—dust and sweat and the green smell of trees. The scent of it is breathable and warm. When I reach for his bad hand, all his muscles go rigid.

  “It’s not okay,” I whisper, and I don’t just mean his cigarette burns or his hand, but all the catastrophes and the tragedies and the bad, brutal things that happen all the time and everything that makes Finny so quiet. Every awful thing that’s ever happened in the world.

  He just slips his arms around me and holds on, taking me around the waist and pulling me into his lap. The hammock rocks under us, and we are very close against each other.

  When he finally speaks, whispering into the dark, the words are gentle, like he’s comforting me. “It’s something that happened, that’s all.”

  I want to know why the world is like this, but I don’t think that even in his most nuanced silences he’d be able to tell me. When he kisses me, the shaky hopeless feeling that’s been hanging over me for months seems distant and smaller.

  “Does it hurt?” I say, cupping my palm around the base of his remaining fingers.

  He shakes his head and leans back in the hammock, pulling me with him so I’m lying on top of him and our faces are very close.

  Finny’s chest against mine is broad and hard and solid, but comforting, too.

  “Why don’t you want to go in your house?” he whispers, his breath warm against the edge of my ear.

  I shake my head, not knowing how to tell him or what I want to say. “It’s just stuffy and hot, and I’m so sick of being stuck in my room. It’s hard not to think about Lillian in there.”

  Saying it out loud is stranger than I thought it would be and all at once, for no good reason, I’m engulfed by the reality of the whole afternoon. The body in the water, the sad little shrine under the tree. My voice sounds hoarse and my eyes are suddenly swimming.

  Even in the dark I know Finny can tell I’m not faking that I’m bright or shiny anymore, but he doesn’t say anything. He puts his arm around me, pulling me against him. His shirt feels soft and worn-out against my cheek, and his arms are warm around my shoulders. I lean into him, breathing against his neck, and he doesn’t move or turn away.

  “You knew, right?” I whisper. “About how she died, how long it took?”

  Finny sighs. Then he presses his mouth to my temple, fast and light like I might not want him to, but he has to do it before he loses the moment. “Yeah, I knew. But I didn’t have the whole story or anything. I didn’t know. I mean, you never told me.”

  “I should have. I should have talked to someone who would listen. Someone besides her, I mean.”

  “Sometimes you can’t.” He kisses my temple again, only this time he leaves his mouth there. “Hannah,” he whispers. Just that. Nothing else.

  And suddenly I understand why he keeps touching my cheek.

  It’s never occurred to me that maybe the raw, stinging place wasn’t what he wanted after all. That scrubbing my face in the snow was just about the scrubbing and not about the consequences.

  “It didn’t leave a mark,” I say, remembering how the spot was red and raw for weeks. “The snow. It scraped my face, but I heale
d just fine.”

  Finny only holds on tighter. I wonder if it bothers him that even though I’m telling the truth, I’m still lying. It did leave a mark, just not the kind that shows.

  “I was so mean to you when we were little,” I say, pressing my forehead against his shoulder. “I wish I wasn’t, though.”

  “You weren’t the only one.”

  “It doesn’t make a difference. I should have been nice.”

  “I pushed you down,” he says, like he’s offering me a trade, some kind of forgiveness.

  “I think I might have deserved it.”

  “You didn’t,” he says. “I thought you did, but you didn’t. No one does.”

  I nod and know that this is the thing I want so badly to hear, when I’m supposed to want something else. I’m supposed to want a rescuer or a hero, someone who can give me reassurances and answers and charm my parents. I’m supposed to want someone who can fix me. But I don’t.

  Kissing him is like the wildest, most thrilling thing that has ever happened to me. It’s like diving into the deep end over and over. He touches the curve of my lip with his tongue, just once, so softly, and I think the whole world is ending, the sudden warmth of his mouth jolting through me like a shock. I hold on like I’m falling off the top of a tall cliff or I’m lost at sea, like he’s the only solid thing in the whole tilting world.

  “Oh my God!”

  Ariel’s voice is like a fire alarm, and we break apart in a startled lurch that sends the hammock rocking wildly underneath us.

  She’s leaning over us, looking spooky in the dark. “Oh my God, Hannah, if you don’t get up and come inside right now, I’m telling Mom.”

  Finny pushes himself up out of the hammock and stands over her. “Hey, just settle down.”

  “Don’t tell me to settle down!” Ariel shrieks. “What do you think you’re doing with my sister?”

  There are a lot of things Finny could tell her, but he says none of them. Instead, he starts to laugh.

  Ariel huffs and stamps her foot in the long grass. “Don’t laugh at me—this isn’t funny!”

  Without any warning, Finny reaches for her. He lifts her easily under one arm and carries her, kicking and wriggling, to the back steps, where he sets her down.

  “You need to stand there and be quiet,” he says. “I’m going to go home now, but first I’m going to kiss your sister, and you’re going to not make a scene about it.”

  Telling Ariel what she’s going to do is never a good idea, but Finny must know some secret trick for dealing with twelve-year-olds, because it works. She stands with her arms dangling limp at her sides, staring at me and looking small and ghostly on the steps.

  Finny doesn’t hesitate or look back to see if she’s listening to him. He just crosses the lawn to me like he never expected anything else from her. He kisses me once, sure and unhurried, then pulls me up out of the hammock and walks me to the back steps, where Ariel is shifting from foot to foot, looking mutinous.

  “’Night, Hannah” he says, starting toward the gate. He passes Ariel, who watches him silently from the steps. “’Night, you holy terror.”

  She doesn’t say anything. When he’s gone, she darts down the steps toward me and hits me hard on the shoulder with her closed fist.

  “Ow,” I say.

  “Hannah, he’s so bad!”

  “Ha! So are you.”

  That makes her laugh like a giddy little loon, knocking into me and banging her forehead against my shoulder.

  In the mudroom, she keeps on giggling and pulling at me, only now her voice has dropped to a whisper, which is a whisper in name only. Ariel is capable of whispering the same way a toaster is capable of flight. “He’s a big stupid waste of space and you shouldn’t be doing things with him.”

  The way she’s scolding me is uncomfortably reminiscent of Lillian. “Why? Because I’m too good?”

  Ariel shakes her head, giving me a look that says I have completely missed the point. “Because he’s too tall for you!”

  That makes me smile. I take her in my arms, one hand resting on her waist, and together we waltz around the little mudroom, twirling in a circle, laughing when I accidentally steer us into the corner of the door.

  Then Ariel stops, with her arms still knotted loosely around my back, and says in a low, confidential voice, “Seriously, though. You are in so much trouble.”

  I stare down at her. “What kind of trouble?”

  Ariel lets me go, shaking her head. “I tried to tell her not to worry, but she wouldn’t listen. Decker’s out looking for you right now.”

  In the kitchen, my mom is sitting at the table. She’s got a can of grape Shasta in front of her, but she’s not drinking it. When I come in through the hall, she glances up and at first she looks like she’s never seen me before in her life. The way she stares at me across the kitchen is completely disorienting, and it takes me a long, baffled moment to understand that the expression on her face isn’t anger or frustration but terror.

  She stands up, shoving the chair away from the table with the palm of her hand and then, when the corner catches on the table leg, she kicks it out of the way. “Where have you been?”

  “Nowhere,” I say. “I mean, just with a friend.”

  The way she’s looking at me is shell-shocked, like she’s spent a long time staring into the sun. “Ariel said you’d gone to the movies with Angelie, but when I called Angelie to see when you’d be home, she said she hadn’t seen you all day! Why would you lie to your sister, and why didn’t you take your phone with you?”

  I give Ariel a quick, searching glance, but her expression is blandly innocent. I’ve never thought of her as having the ability to look innocent.

  The ice maker in the freezer starts to whir and click, filling the kitchen with the sound, and I don’t say anything about the phone or tell her I’m fine, that I didn’t lie to my sister, that Ariel knew what I was doing and who I was with.

  My mom doesn’t wait for me to answer, though, and I understand that as far as she’s concerned the question was rhetorical.

  “You’re grounded,” she says.

  And I stand with my back against the edge of the granite island, trying to work out what just happened. I have never been grounded in my life. Grounded is for girls like Lillian, who have difficult attitudes and smart mouths and who drive their mothers crazy. Grounded is not for girls like me. I’ve never even had my allowance docked.

  I stare across the kitchen at her, trying to work out what this is going to do to my newspaper-collecting and my access to crime-scene photos—and my thing with Finny, whatever it is. “For how long?”

  My mom doesn’t answer right away, and I realize that she doesn’t know how to do this any better than I do. “For—” She stops, shaking her head, then puts her palms flat on the table and draws herself up, looking breathless but unbending. “Until further notice. Until I say that you’re not.”



  The next week is probably the longest of my life.

  I’m allowed to go to work because I’m Kelly’s only summer help, and my mom believes that it’s important for me to honor my commitments, but I have to come right home afterward, and Decker has to take time off to drive me. Mrs. Ortero or one of Pinky’s brothers has to go over to Harris Johnson every day to get Pinky and Ariel.

  I focus on collecting papers, magazines, anything I can find that might have something to do with the murders. My ears feel funny. They buzz and crackle, ringing constantly like a faraway alarm, or like the wind is always blowing. I can’t tell if it’s something I’m imagining or just a natural consequence of the heat, of being shut in. My skin feels too tight for my insides, and I can’t help thinking that maybe these past few weeks are just what a nervous breakdown looks like. You thro
w out all your better judgment and your inhibitions and leap headlong into recklessness with the biggest, roughest boy in school and disappoint your mother. You start spending every stupid minute on your floor, cutting up newspapers and old advertising circulars until none of the pieces even make sense anymore.

  Even though it’s almost four in the afternoon, I’m in my shorty pajamas with my rag rug rolled back and my papers spread out in front of me, thinking about Finny and how the last time we saw each other was like the best, most perfect thing that had ever happened in my life—and now it’s been so long that it’s not like anything.

  He hasn’t called, which is disappointing even though I don’t know what I expected. He doesn’t seem like the kind of boy who really calls people. I don’t even know what this is or what he thinks it is. Maybe it’s nothing.

  For a little while on Tuesday, I considered calling Angelie to confess to her about my weird, ongoing thing with Finny, or to ask if when boys ignore you, it ever means they really, really like you. But even before I hit speed dial, I knew it would be a bad idea. There’s just no way a conversation like that would end with anything good. Anyway, lately she hasn’t exactly tried to get ahold of me either. She usually calls in the afternoons, when she knows I’ll be home from the photo shop. But ever since our conversation about Hailey Martinsen and about how much it sucks being stuck at home, we haven’t really talked.

  And Lillian is no help.

  On Thursday, when I finally try to tell her how Finny kissed me in the backyard, she just stares down at me from the edge of my desk and says, “Yeah, because that’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had.”

  If this were some other summer—last year, maybe—we could at least talk about it. I could whisper to her in the dark, under the sheets with a flashlight between us, or lying side by side in the hammock. I could tell her everything.

  Except I couldn’t really. Because even before all this, before she got sick, she would never tolerate the idea of me going around with someone like him.

  It’s weird to realize that I have something Lillian doesn’t now, because she was always the confident one. She used to know so much more about boys and dating and sex than I did. She knew so much more about everything. But then Trevor happened, and now the boys who brought her lilac twigs or mix CDs have all moved on, gone before she was even actually dead. Because none of them wanted to date a girl whose bones showed through her skin like it was made out of paper.

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