Places no one knows, p.16
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       Places No One Knows, p.16

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  By the time I get out my binder, my hands are shaking a little. My heart is racing. I know the chemistry behind it. I drink coffee all day long. My heartbeat surges and plummets. My blood is high voltage, wired like the yard at a supermax.

  I flip to a blank page and write,

  I am a radio tower.

  Then I invent five boring, incontestable things about Laurel, fold my paper in half, and give it to her. CJ is already reaching over my shoulder, passing a folded sheet up the row to me.

  I don’t know Marshall’s handwriting. The particulars of his penmanship are not something I’ve looked into. It doesn’t matter. There is no one else in the world who would have written the list of things in front of me.

  It takes a while to sort through the verbs, even using my dictionary. I don’t know the conjugations for half the future tenses.

  After I’ve puzzled it all out, I sit staring at the paper. His compliments are decisive, dashed off in a fast, slanting scrawl. Next to them, in my own well-mannered handwriting, it says:

  She makes me feel like things will get better.

  She makes me want to be braver.

  I try to be honest when I’m with her.

  I try to be real.

  I’m scared that without her, I won’t ever be this good again.

  While other people raise their hands and share their compliments, I sit with a frantic buzzing in my ears. I want to shiver and laugh and dance around. My scalp is tingling. I smile without meaning to—a wide, uncalculated smile that hurts my face.

  “Waverly,” says Mrs. Denning. “You look like maybe you’ve gotten some nice compliments. Would you like to share some of them?”

  And my smile, incandescent a second ago, is collapsing. None of the items on Marshall’s list are the kind of thing you say out loud.

  Frantically, I query my database for something normal. Grades are safe—grades are always safe. “Era intelligente.”

  “Go on,” Mrs. Denning says.

  “Ella corra muy rápido.” My voice is bright and crisp. The sound hurts my ears.

  Or maybe that’s just the resentment, echoing inside me—how mad I get every time I’m rewarded for being the person people want and not the person I am.

  Mrs. Denning clasps her hands, smiling like isn’t this fun? “And one more, if you don’t mind.”

  With a short, stabilizing breath, I raise my chin and recite, “Ella está muy organizada.”

  Which is when Marshall gets up and walks out of the room.

  Mrs. Denning stares after him, her teacher’s edition held against her chest. There’s a frantic desire pounding inside me, an urge to go after him, pin him against a wall like a Gothic vampire, and compliment him back.

  Mrs. Denning frowns and gives the class a searching look. “Is he not feeling well?”

  No one says anything. Ollie Poe is scowling at his hands.

  “Oliver, do you know if Marshall’s all right?”

  When Ollie looks up, his expression is open and kind of helpless. “He was out sick last week. Maybe he’s not over it yet.”

  The remaining minutes seem to last forever.

  When the bell finally rings, I feel it jangling in my teeth.

  MARSHALL

  Give It Up

  My whole face feels hot and prickly. Even standing out in the empty language arts hall doesn’t really help.

  In my head, I can still hear Waverly. Her steady in-class voice, reciting some list of boring, factual things that have nothing to do with her, skipping over my feelings like she was grading them, drawing a line through them, crossing out every word, everything I thought was true.

  If I feel stupid or rejected, though, it’s my own fault for thinking what happens in the middle of the night has anything to do with real life. Of course she’d never read something so private to the world. That’s not who she is. And even if she’d said the things I wrote, it wouldn’t stop this feeling that everything is coming apart in my chest, like I have no idea which parts of my life are actually real. It wouldn’t prove anything.

  I start toward the parking lot with my hands in my pockets. I’m almost to the end of the hall and out the double doors, when behind me, there’s a loud, skin-crawling whistle.

  Autumn Pickerel is on me like a pit bull. She hits me hard between the shoulders and I flinch.

  When I turn around, she’s right there, hands on her hips, her toes almost touching mine. She’s wearing this lace-covered dress with some kind of floppy, open-front sweater over it, and it’s not exactly weird or anything, but it’s weird for her, like she went out and bought this costume to make her look like everybody else.

  “Where the fuck you been, Boo Radley?”

  “Nowhere,” I say, already backing toward the parking lot. “Around.”

  “Huh.” Her hair is straighter than normal, and something weird is happening around her eyes, like she has about four times more lashes than the last time I saw her. “Does this mean you’ve finally figured out how to turn invisible just by putting up your hood and blowing off a science quiz?”

  I laugh, but it comes out ugly. I don’t know how to act fine when it’s just me and her.

  For six years of elementary school, it didn’t matter that my best friend was a girl. And then we hit seventh grade and she wasn’t anymore. The most obvious explanation would be that’s just what happens—middle school makes people ditch their friends. But that wasn’t why. Autumn has this way of looking at people. She finds the cracks and the weak spots. Then she tries to change it. The problem is, it’s hard to be around someone who sees that far inside you when suddenly everything in there just feels bad.

  She’s standing almost close enough to trick me into thinking this is normal. Like I still know her. It’s been three years since I’ve been to her house. Eight months, maybe, since we had a conversation, but there was a time in my life when I used to tell her everything.

  “What are you doing out here?” she says, waving her stack of papers at me.

  For a second, I almost just tell her the truth. But the truth is too awkward to explain. What would I say? That I walked out in the middle of class because Waverly wouldn’t admit I exist because she never does?

  “I needed a drink.”

  “Really.” Autumn flicks her gaze to the double doors and the parking lot. “Would that drink be called Cannabis indica, by any chance?”

  She’s pretty much a genius at telling when I’m upset, and that’s the real reason I don’t look her in the eye anymore. After the thing with my dad, I could barely stand to be in the same room with her.

  I shrug, jerking my head at her dress. Her sleek, preppy hair. “Is this like some kind of disguise?”

  “Hey now,” she says, holding up a stack of classroom handouts. “Thanks to this wholesome ensemble, I have been picked to make copies of random bullshit more in the last two weeks than I was ever allowed to be helpful in my whole life.”

  Which is probably even true. It’s so stupid how people always just assume that Autumn isn’t helpful. Sure, she’s loud, or funny in a way that makes people nervous, but helpful is like her permanent condition—this bossy, overbearing thing she can’t seem to stop herself from being.

  “So?” she says finally, crossing her arms. “Should I be on my way? I mean, since you clearly don’t want to talk to me.” She doesn’t sound mad, just over it.

  “Yeah, like my company’s so great anyway. Besides, you’ve got plenty of other people to talk to these days, right? Fancier ones?”

  I’m fishing now, angling for something true. Something meaningful. Something that makes the real world and the bizarre nighttime world actually line up.

  “Waverly Camdenmar, you mean?” Autumn says it with one eyebrow raised. “Why don’t you come to the dance and find out.”

  I look away and hope she doesn’t see how hot my face is. “You are not serious right now.”

  “Hand to God,” she says, and she even sounds like she means it. She gives me a lo
ok, crossing her arms. “Come on, don’t you wonder what it’s like, doing things for a change?”

  I can’t really argue with that, but I can’t exactly picture it either. The idea, though—the idea seems…interesting. Possible. “I could take Heather.”

  Autumn scowls. “Really, Holt? I mean, really? A date is not even a thing you need. I don’t have one, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to let me in anyway.”

  But Autumn’s the kind of person who can just show up anywhere and be okay there. I’m not even sure I can show up to my own life without getting wrecked first. Every day feels like some random event. Even with Heather, she was the one who picked me. You look sad, is what she said. I was standing against the pool table in her parents’ basement at the end of last year. She leaned next to me so our hands were touching and then took me upstairs, grabbing at me the whole way because she was drunk enough to grab and it was what I needed. Or wanted. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

  Autumn is looking aggressively bored. “God, whatever. Just try not to get poor judgment all over the place.”

  And I understand that she’s telling me something else, some kind of secret that I’m supposed to be able to decode.

  We used to have a made-up language, but maybe it wasn’t even ours. The thing about Autumn is, she knows how to make even the most normal words sound like something she invented. I’d thought that language belonged to us, but she was the one who made the meanings, so maybe I just happened to speak it once.

  She smiles, and suddenly she looks so much like the person who used to draw me pictures of Deadpool and Batman and make fun of my Pokémon cards that it seems impossible I could have ever thought she was wearing a costume.

  “Got to go,” she says, flapping the stack of worksheets at me. “I’ll see you at the ritual shaming, then?”

  After she’s gone, I go out to the baseball diamond and sit in the dugout, which was something I used to do back when my dad first got sick but after a while, it just got stupid. I haven’t done it in forever.

  The night after our parents told us about our dad, I went up to Gray Rock Canyon with Ollie and Hez and the Captain and we built a campfire and got annihilated.

  It was bad, but only in this numb, blurry way where I was too messed up to care. The next morning was when it got awful.

  We came down the canyon with the Captain riding the brake, then stepping hard on the gas, and I spent pretty much the whole drive with my head between my knees.

  We were halfway down this bad stretch of road that was all switchbacks when I really started feeling like I was going to lose it. My brain was full of smoke and my whole body was shaking.

  I must have made some kind of losing-it noise, because right away, Ollie leaned across me and smacked the Captain’s shoulder. “Justin, pull over. I think Marshall needs to get out of the car.”

  “Mars, if you puke back there, I will fucking destroy you.”

  I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth and tried to tell him how it was just the road, just how thirsty I was. The taste of last night was in my throat now and everything felt like poison.

  Ollie got up and started digging around in the Styrofoam cooler behind the seat, but all he could find was half a bottle of flat Coke.

  “Hey, that’s good,” said Hez. “Coke’s supposed to settle your stomach.”

  So I drank the Coke in little sips and tried to tell myself it was fine, it was okay—I was tired and hungover, but everything was under control.

  It didn’t matter.

  My dad was still sick, he was still an asshole, the world was still ending, and even the Coke made me think of whiskey. Two minutes later, I was on the side of the road with my eyes closed and my hands braced on my knees. It wasn’t one of the prettier moments in my life.

  After, I felt better and worse. Now that I wasn’t so worried about keeping everything down, I was just left with the rest of it. A canyon was opening inside me. I tried telling myself the normal things—that I’d wake up tomorrow and feel fine, like none of this right now was even happening.

  But my dad was going to be disabled, maybe for the rest of his life, and my mom would be pathetic and unhappy, maybe for the rest of hers, and I’d wake up tomorrow and I’d feel so much better and that was a lie. I would feel fucking awful. I would feel just like this and it was never going to be better.

  When I finally looked up, Ollie was standing over me, squinting against the sun. “How you doin’, Mars?”

  And I was so sure he meant the gaping, hollow feeling in my chest and then I’d have to tell him about the non-divorce and how I couldn’t fucking cope and my dad was sick and my parents were just going to keep doing the same ugly, stupid shit. And I couldn’t stand to say any of that out loud.

  “I’m fine,” I said, and my voice sounded completely torn up. “Everything’s fine.”

  Ollie stood over me, shaking his head. “What are you talking about? You just puked off two sips of Coke. Since when are you fine? They just want to know if you’re ready to get back in the car.”

  He was holding out something rumpled and dripping, and it took me a second to figure out it was one of the Captain’s work shirts. “That’s Justin’s.”

  “Fuck him,” Ollie said, wringing it out and offering it again. “It’s cold. Wipe your face. You’ll feel better.”

  When I took the shirt, it smelled like the melted ice at the bottom of the cooler—wet Styrofoam and dirt. I wiped my face, then held it against my neck and sort of felt okay again.

  When I finally got back into the Captain’s Bronco, Ollie didn’t look at me. He was all the way at the other end of the bench seat, wedged against the door, and at first I thought he was trying to keep his distance, but then he patted the seat and said, “If you want to lie down, you can.”

  I looked at the space between us and nodded. When I lay down and closed my eyes, everything stopped hurting so much. It was ridiculous how much better I felt when I wasn’t trying to act okay.

  I woke up when the Captain pulled into the driveway. I was lying across the whole seat with one arm pinned under me and the top of my head pressed against Ollie’s leg.

  Ollie was asleep against the door with his hand on my shoulder, and the weight of it was the exact maximum amount I could stand to be touched.

  —

  I’m sitting with my back against the cement and my feet up on the rail when Ollie comes around the corner of the dugout.

  He stands over me, looking blank and backlit. “What. The fuck.”

  And I know he means me walking out in the middle of class, but the question is bigger than that. It’s about everything backward or wrong. Me, wanting to feel like I matter. Like Waverly sees me. I don’t know why I thought it would be different. This is real life.

  “I don’t know,” I say, looking at my hands. “I really don’t.”

  He sits down and takes out his cigarettes. “Denning wanted to know if you were dead.”

  I stare out at the baseball diamond, thinking about how my dad spent every Saturday the summer I was twelve trying to teach me to throw sliders. How much I hated it.

  “No,” I say when he offers me the pack. “Just needed a break.”

  I’ve been giving up smoking, but the habits are still there. I’m giving up smoking, except I still go out to the parking lot with Ollie every day. I keep half a pack of Camels in my jacket, and when things get bad, I run my fingers over the wrapper like any second I might flip the top back and knock one out.

  I keep remembering why I started in the first place. Without a cigarette there, reminding me to breathe, it’s hard to get enough air.

  Next to me, Ollie flicks his lighter, then slams the top shut. “We going over to the Captain’s this weekend? I’ve got some skunk, so if there’s nothing else, we can just do that.”

  “I can’t,” I say. “I think I’m going to take Heather to that dance.”

  The look Ollie gives me would be hysterical if he weren’t
pointing it at me. I hate that he’s embarrassed for me, and that he should be.

  “Maybe it doesn’t sound so bad,” I say finally. “It could be fun.”

  For a minute, we don’t say anything else and the lie just sits there, spreading out, getting bigger. I try to block it out with a picture of waves washing onto a beach, but it doesn’t help.

  “I might go too, then,” Ollie says in a fake-casual voice.

  “Wait, what?”

  He shrugs and keeps playing with the lighter. “That freshman asked Little Ollie to go.”

  “So what’s the problem?”

  “He said yes, but I heard him tell that piece of shit Carter on C-team football that it’s only because there’s this other girl he wants to get with and he thinks he can hit it. Or whatever passes for hitting it with ninth graders. He’s probably hoping that he’ll get to touch a boob.”

  “Dude, you’re spying on freshmen?”

  He glares out at the infield. “I hate that he’s such a little douchebag. And come on, are you telling me you don’t think that’s the most fucked-up thing?”

  The truth is that I do, but I’m not really in a position to claim the moral high ground. Anyway, when it comes to being douchebags, sometimes people just are, and that’s reality and you have to let them. The Captain is, just as a normal thing, and Ollie never seems too bent about that.

  “Why do you even care? It’s not like you know them.”

  Ollie frowns. “I just think if he has to go around being me, then I’m kind of obligated to keep an eye on him. She’s a nice kid.”

  “Still.”

  “Oh yeah, I’m really going to take citizenship lessons from the person who is going with Heather.”

  “Fuck off.”

  “Why are you doing this?” Ollie says without looking up from his shoes. “Why do you even like her?”

  I think about Heather in separate pieces. Her sticky hair and her laugh and the stupid shit that comes sailing out every time she opens her mouth. “It’s not that simple.”

 
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