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Paper valentine, p.16
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       Paper Valentine, p.16

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  Time’s kept going, and I’ve finally done something she hasn’t.

  Lillian only sighs and shakes her head, flopping down into my desk chair. “I can’t believe you actually want to be with him. With him. Don’t you worry about how you’ll look to everyone else? Don’t you ever think about what people will say?”

  “Like what?”

  She shrugs listlessly. “Oh, I don’t know—maybe like, ‘Look at Hannah, she’s totally lowering herself. She’s wasting her whole summer hanging around with some loser.’”

  I understand that she’s finally getting right down to the heart of something real and ugly, and it sort of surprises me that it’s taken her this long to say it out loud. “Are you sure you don’t really mean that you worried people might be saying, ‘Look at Lillian’? That you worried so much about what everyone thought?”

  “It was all that mattered,” she says softly. “All I really cared about. Isn’t that funny?”

  I kneel over my stack of newspapers with the scissors clenched in my hand. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

  Lillian sighs and rolls over so she’s lying on her back with her head hanging limply over the side of the desk. “It didn’t happen all at once,” she says.

  I look at the bones in her face, remembering how she shrank so slowly that the difference wasn’t daily or obvious. It only really showed up in pictures. “No kidding.”

  “I mean, I didn’t think, ‘Today I’m going to starve myself until I die.’ I just thought, ‘Maybe I’ll try to lose a couple pounds. Maybe a size smaller. Just one size—that’s not so much.’”

  “What happens then?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “If you can go down a size, what happens then? Why is it important?”

  “Because if I could just drop a size, then I’d be happy.”

  “Yeah,” I say, and I wish my voice were kinder. “That worked out well for you.”

  “Hannity, I’m not trying to make excuses. It wasn’t rational. I’m just saying what I thought when I was in it.”

  In it. Like a holiday play or a swimming pool, when what she really means is she dove straight down the rabbit hole after it. I shake my head, staring down at the stack of cut-up newspapers in front of me. “What you thought was that people were paying attention to you.”

  It just comes out, spilling off my tongue before I can stop it. Too vicious, too mean. I know that but it’s too late to take it back, and the voices in my head won’t stop. They’re shouting it now, chanting along, singing it like a jump-rope rhyme, pay attention, pay attention. It’s maybe the meanest thing I’ve ever said to her.

  At first I think I might as well have slapped her, but then she tugs her hair and nods. “Yeah, sometimes. Maybe it was for attention sometimes. On days when I felt like I was invisible, or when my mom was on some rampage about how I should join drama or choir and kept telling me if I just got a little smaller, I’d be really pretty. It was like—it was this hobby I had.”

  But after that it was a monstrous, ugly thing. There must have been a window between well and sick where it became undeniably clear that starving was a black hole and not a toy. “Back then, when it was a . . . hobby, what made you want it, though? Why did you hold on to it?”

  Lillian looks down at me over the edge of the desk and her face is so unbearably miserable. “Because it made me special.”

  I curl over my bare legs, picking at the scrape on my knee. When I peel up the edge of the scab, I see a little pink sliver of new skin, raw and tender. It itches. “Why couldn’t you just be special in a normal way?”

  She crouches over me, and I hate the way her mouth always looks so superior when she’s annoyed. “Come on, you don’t believe that unique-snowflake bullshit, do you? That everyone’s special in their own way? That every tiny microscopic flower is precious? It’s not. I wanted to be unique or important. To matter.”

  “You did matter.”

  “To who? To Jessica and Carmen and that bitch Angelie Baker? To my mother? Please, she spent the last three years drinking a perfectly decent chardonnay on the couch and waiting for me to stop being so dramatic.” She says the last word like she’s swinging a hammer at me.

  “You were special to me.”

  Lillian grins, skull-faced and nasty, which is this new smile she got after she started looking sick. “You think drooling rejects like Finny Boone are special. You think people are important just because they exist, or that everybody matters. But they don’t.”

  The room goes perfectly silent, so still I think it’s gathering dust. And then the voices rush back in, thudding in my ears. Special special special.

  Hands shaking, I flip through a glossy insert full of hardware ads and coupons for laundry detergent. With quick, uneven strokes, I cut out a big cherry-red special! It’s printed in a bold, chunky font, surrounded by lightning bolts and stars. I swipe the back of it with the glue stick and stick it to my floor. The flood of whispers stops, goes still and slow, and trickles away. The word sits there next to the end of my bed, bright and ragged on the varnished wood.

  Lillian laughs a dry little laugh and rolls her eyes. “Nice. Your mom is going to love that, gunking up her hardwood with adhesive.”

  “It’s water soluble,” I say automatically, staring at what I’ve done. All that matters is, for the first time this afternoon, the voices have tapered off, faded out.

  The silence lasts for only a few seconds, though. Then the noise is all around me, the chorus of whispers buzzing and hissing, crashing in my ears like waves. And this time, I can almost make out the clearest word, repeated again and again. It sounds like memorial.

  I hunch forward and sort through the stack of clippings, shuffling around for a photo of the memorial for Cecily Miles on the corner of Muncy and Vine, near the meadow and the culvert. I stick the picture carefully to my floor, just under the bright red special, ignoring the way I can feel Lillian’s eyes boring into my back.

  She hops down from the desk and crouches next to me. “Why did you do that?” she whispers, and her gaze is so intent and so steady that I think she must be looking at someone else. Not at the awkward little girl who followed her everywhere and did everything she ever wanted. Not at me.

  I ignore her and paste down another scissored word and then another. The only thing that quiets the storm of whispers is finding the words and cutting them out. I hunch over the stack of clippings and glue them down, plastering my floor in headlines and photos, a big capital P, dead and love and look.

  Lillian watches with her chin in her hands.

  “This is getting kind of out there,” she says, and I know I must be scaring her now, because her voice is very gentle. It dawns on me how backward that is—that I’m the one scaring her. I can’t stop.

  She sighs and leans closer, like she’s trying to see past the curtain of hair that hides my face. “It’s really hot up here. Maybe you should get a drink of water. Or go down and see if Ariel wants to play cards. You could make ice pops or paint your nails.” She reaches out, using her fingertips to turn my chin and make me look at her. “You haven’t put up your hair or worn makeup in days.”

  Her fingers are cold when they touch my skin, and I can feel the chilly gust of her breath on my cheek. When she was alive, I could tell if she hadn’t eaten by the way her breath smelled. There was always a reek of sickness to it, like something dying. Now that she’s dead, it doesn’t smell like anything.

  * * *

  Later, when the house is dark and everyone’s asleep, I lie in bed with my covers thrown back and my window open, restless with the way the room still seethes and clatters around me, the way it pulses with whispers. The heat radiates from everywhere, pressing down. Lillian looms over me, balanced in her familiar place on the footboard.

  “I think I’m being haunted,” I
say, and the words sound small and helpless in the dark.

  She shakes her head and laughs. “Did it really take you half a year to figure that one out?”

  “Not by you,” I say, and she goes absolutely still. “There are these . . . voices now, all the time. I hear them whispering, but I can hardly ever tell what they’re saying. And other things too. A couple times, I’ve seen things.”

  Now Lillian is paying close attention, staring down at me in the dark. “Why didn’t you say something before?”

  I shake my head, fighting to find the words, struggling to describe the bloody reflection in Finny’s kitchen and the day at the river. I try to explain the white, sunken face staring up at me out of the water. I don’t tell her the simple truth—that I didn’t say anything because I wanted so, so badly for it not to be real.

  She listens with her head up and her hands clasped between her knees. “And they’re like me? You’re sure?”

  I fold my hands on my chest and nod, even though I’m not sure if she can see me. “Why is this happening?” I whisper, and I mean all of it—the murders and the crime scenes and Lillian dying and the rotting drifts of birds and the heat and everything.

  She makes a low, thoughtful noise, hugging her own shoulders. “Maybe it’s something particular about you. Maybe they know something that ties you to them.”

  If I had to guess, though, I would pick something simpler. I think they might just be looking at me because for the past month, I’ve been looking at them. “I think they want me to help them,” I say. “Not just read the papers and fill the scrapbook like I’ve been doing, but really help them.”

  Lillian is quiet for a long time before she speaks again. “Okay, let me ask you one really important question. You seriously don’t think it’s weird that both times you saw them, you were with Finny?”

  I stare up at the dark ceiling, the gently fading stars. I can feel her watching me, holding very still. I don’t want to think about the answer to that.

  “Okay,” she says finally. Her voice is tiny and dry, a tacit agreement not to force the issue. “But how will we be able to help them if they don’t show up for more than a few seconds, and when they talk you can’t understand them?”

  “The same way you and I did that other time, maybe. Like with Monica.”

  “Okay, but we don’t have a board.”

  “No,” I whisper, feeling cold all over. “We do.”

  When I turn on the lamp, the light makes a dull yellow circle that splashes over my walls. I slide out of bed onto the floor and pull back the braided rug in front of my bed, uncovering the collage of scissored-out letters. It’s an alphabet of mismatched consonants and stray vowels, pictures arranged haphazardly on the floor, pasted in a sloppy arc. It’s scary to really look at what it is I’ve made—not a spirit board, but a brutal gallery of chaos and confusion and sadness.

  Lillian just sits on the footboard, hugging her knees and looking at my handiwork like it’s the big reveal in one of those movies about psychopaths. “That’s pretty intense, Hannah. I’ll give you that.”

  I nod. Then I get up and go down the hall into the bathroom. I take the little jelly glass from next to the toothpaste caddy, then bring it back to my room and tip it upside down on the floor.

  Lillian settles herself across from me with her legs folded under her, reaching out to rest her fingers on the glass. When she tries to pull it closer to the center of the collage, though, her hand won’t make contact. It keeps slipping right through.

  She shakes her head. “I can’t. You’ll have to do it yourself.”

  I stare down at the glass, sitting in the middle of the floor. It suddenly looks very small and very stupid. “Will that work? Me by myself?”

  I have a sinking fear that without Lillian to help me, the glass will sit motionless on the board and I will sit with it, staring as hard as I can, seeing nothing.

  But it’s a groundless fear because the whispers are filling up the room, and even though the yard is dark and the moon is down, there are shadows moving on my wall now, stretching and squirming, reaching spidery fingers up toward the ceiling.

  When the glass starts to move under my hands, it’s slow at first. Barely a jitter. Then it gathers speed, skimming fast and silent over the pasted-down letters. It takes all my concentration just to keep up with it. It keeps lurching like it wants to twitch out from under my hands.

  “Who is this?” I whisper, barely breathing, not taking my eyes from the scraps of paper littering the floor. “Who’s here?”

  The glass moves in a confident swoop, scraping across the floorboards to rest over the grainy newspaper photo of Cecily. Her picture smiles up at me with uncomplicated joy. There’s no suggestion of the bloody girl I saw reflected in Finny’s kitchen.

  “Cecily,” I whisper. “Is there something you need to tell me? Something I’m not hearing? Please, do you know who killed you?”

  The glass jerks in my hands, moving to circle no.

  “Can you tell me anything about that day? What happened to you? Tell me about the person who killed you. What were they like?”

  “Don’t confuse her,” whispers Lillian. “Try to keep it simple.”

  The glass moves over the floor, slow and deliberate, pointing out the word nice. Then it glides back down to the jumbled alphabet. With slow, deliberate strokes it spells out not so nice.

  “He changed once you were alone?”

  The glass swerves hard, signaling no again and again, spiraling around it like a lost butterfly.

  Lillian leans forward, mouth open, eyes fixed on the floor. “You mean, he didn’t change? How can he be nice and not nice at the same time?”

  All at once, I’m surrounded by whispers so loud that they threaten to fill the whole sleeping house—a high rushing in my ears like static.

  At the sound of Lillian’s voice, the glass turns ice-cold and I yank my hands away, tucking them under my chin. The pads of my fingers are burning.

  The glass is still scraping over the morbid collage, moving on its own now. It sweeps wildly across the floor, and I sit with my back pressed hard against the sideboard of my bed and my knees pulled up, lacing my fingers together so tightly that the joints feel like they might come undone.

  your friend, the invisible hand spells with terrible certainty and then starts over again. your friend, your friend. The glass moves in loops and spirals, picking out the letters and the jaggedly cut words. Pointing out the undeniable. your friend is dead.

  Then, just as fast as it started, it stops. I’m suddenly aware of a dry, raspy noise and a moment later I realize it’s coming from me. My breath sounds like heavy sandpaper, scraping in and out. Lillian is sitting perfectly still, staring down at the board with her hands resting limply in her lap.

  The glass sits motionless in the middle of my floor, shining wistfully in the light from the lamp. your friend. your friend is dead.

  I clasp my hands tight against my chest, struggling with the realization that whoever was guiding the glass couldn’t see Lillian—didn’t know she was there until Lillian spoke directly to her—that maybe ghosts don’t ever see each other. That even in spirit form, a person can still encounter the horror of brushing up against something dead.

  Across from me, Lillian’s expression is anguished. She’s got her arms wrapped tightly around herself, rocking back and forth in the dim light.

  It’s there every single day, in every conversation and interaction. I think about it all the time. But even with all the awkward, roundabout ways that we allude to it, we never really acknowledge it. I think she’s always been able to just push it away and shut it out. We never talk about the fact that she’s dead.

  Her rocking intensifies, panicked, frantic. Then all at once she closes her eyes and goes perfectly still, and it’s like I’m watching her swallow
it, force it down until it disappears again.

  She was always so good at knowing how to make things small. It was in the way she would never eat anything with her hands. Even sandwiches and muffins had to be cut apart into tiny pieces and eaten with a fork. Like if a bagel could be broken into small enough pieces, it would get so small that it just stopped existing. She did it with everything. Even me.

  UNGROUNDED

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  On Friday, Pinky comes over with a box of plastic butterfly barrettes and a change of clothes to spend the night. When she shows up, I’m sitting on the couch with a damp dish towel draped over my shoulders like a cape, staring into space while Ariel sprawls on the floor, cutting up magazines to make a paper chain.

  Since the night of the séance, the voices have gotten quieter. They haven’t disappeared, but at least the noise has settled down to a low hum, buzzing quietly from somewhere in the neighborhood of my jaw.

  Pinky crosses the room and flops down next to me. “Can I brush your hair?” she says, reaching up and running her fingers through the end of my ponytail, which is definitely in need of brushing.

  “I don’t know, maybe later. It’s too hot for anything right now.”

  She shrugs and gives my ponytail one last pat, humming a vaguely bouncy tune under her breath. It sounds like “Camptown Races.”

  For the next hour, Pinky and Ariel play Slaps and Lillian sits perched on top of the entertainment center, watching them.

  “Another riveting night at the Wagner house,” she says, which is pretty hilarious considering it’s been months since she felt like doing anything fun, even before she died.

 
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