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Paper valentine, p.17
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       Paper Valentine, p.17

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  Still, I can’t help thinking that she kind of has a point.

  “We want to go for ice cream,” Pinky says after they go through the cards a few times, slumping against my knees. “Will you take us to Dairy Queen?”

  “I can’t,” I tell her, giving her a mock sad look that is also a real apology. “I’m grounded, remember?”

  “Please,” Ariel says from the floor, lying prostrate at my feet. “Please just ask? Maybe she’ll let you go since it’s not really as good as being ungrounded. You’ll just be with us.”

  Her voice isn’t shrill or overly dramatic. Not like normal Ariel, but more like she’s just asking for a favor, hoping for me to say yes. It’s weird, but the way she sounds reminds me of a conversation last winter, when everything seemed like it was never going to melt or thaw out. Like I would never feel warm or okay again.

  * * *

  We were all in the kitchen. Decker and my mom were making herbed roast beef with popovers, and Ariel was at the table doing her homework. I was sitting across from her with my notes spread out but not studying. I was flipping through my German book, pretending to memorize the unit vocabulary but at the same time, I wasn’t really doing anything. It was six weeks after Lillian died, and I still spent every day feeling like I was floating in midair and this was all just a long, ugly dream.

  My mom was mixing the popover batter and talking quickly, in time to the rhythm of the stirring. The wire whisk clinked against the bowl. She was talking about me.

  “I just don’t know—she keeps saying she’s fine, and what kind of things should we even be looking for? Her grades are okay. I mean, what am I supposed to do?”

  “Mom,” Ariel said from the kitchen table, but my mom didn’t answer.

  She just kept right on worrying to Decker, talking about me like she was alone in the room. Like I was some other species.

  “Mom!”

  “And she keeps up with school and chores and never gives anyone any trouble. She’s so good at coping with things, at adjusting.”

  Ariel stood up from the table and slammed her geography book shut. “Mom. If Hannah was on fire, she would still say she’s okay.”

  I think of this and how my mom spent all those months hovering over me, like she was so determined to do whatever she thought I needed, but Ariel was the one who actually just let me be sad, because she was the only one who understood that sometimes that’s the only thing you can be. My mom wanted me to go back to the girl I’d been before—the one who was never any trouble. Ariel was the one who wanted me to get better.

  And there are so many things about her that drive me crazy sometimes. How she always plays the music too loud and doesn’t remember to wash her hands after eating Popsicles, and how she sometimes has a disturbing way of sounding exactly like our mom. But even when I was really sad, she never once tried to fix me, never treated me like a problem that needed to be solved.

  * * *

  She’s still lying on the floor, looking up at me and waiting for an answer.

  Suddenly, I want more than anything for her to understand that I like being with her, and Pinky, too.

  “Yeah,” I say. “That sounds fun.”

  When I ask our mom, though, she frowns and shakes her head. “Honey, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

  At first I think that this is still part of the conditions of my grounding. Since the night it happened, my mom and I have been almost unnaturally polite to each other, always smiling, but careful not to get in each other’s way.

  But then she turns toward the street and looks out the window at the setting sun. Her mouth is thin, worried, and I know she’s thinking of other reasons for us not to go walking out in the neighborhood unsupervised.

  Ariel has followed me into the kitchen and is standing with her shoulders slumped and her elbows splayed out, leaning on the back of a chair. “We won’t stay out late, I promise. We’ll go to Dairy Queen and come right back and not stop at the plaza or the park or talk to strangers.”

  Which is the biggest lie ever, because Ariel is incapable of not talking to every single person she sees.

  My mom sighs and clasps her hands, looking more nervous than usual. “I don’t want you walking over there alone,” she says. “Maybe tomorrow.”

  “But we wouldn’t be alone,” says Ariel. “We’d be together.”

  My mom shakes her head and her mouth goes pinched and small.

  Ariel gets a fierce, stubborn look, and Pinky has begun her long process of sulking, which she uses like a superpower. They look cranky and restless, and the night is going to be miserable if we don’t get out of the house.

  “I could call Finny,” I say. “I bet he’d come with us.”

  Everyone stops and turns to look at me.

  My mom is leaning over the kitchen island, chopping a handful of carrots, watching me with her eyebrows raised. “And who, pray tell, is Finny?”

  I’m still debating the best way to answer that question when Ariel beats me to it. “He’s a boy from school.”

  I expect her to say more, maybe even tell about the shoplifting or, God forbid, the hammock, but she just shrugs, trying her best to look casual. “I think he wants to be Hannah’s boyfriend.”

  My mom freezes with her hand poised on the handle of the knife and her little pile of chopped carrot. Then she takes a deep breath and puts down the knife. “Oh, really? And how can you tell?”

  She’s not directing any of her questions at me, and I can’t figure out if it’s because she doesn’t trust me to tell her the truth, or just because she knows that Ariel has a huge mouth.

  The way Ariel stands with her hip cocked to one side and her eyebrows raised is nerve-racking. I’m so sure that we’re nearing the story of the hammock and I brace myself for an interrogation or possibly a sex-talk.

  But again, Ariel surprises me. “He just likes her, and he talks to us at school sometimes. He’s nice,” she says, which makes my eyebrows sail up in spite of myself. Ariel is becoming a competent little liar. Either she’s not as put off by him as she pretends to be, or she really wants ice cream.

  Pinky doesn’t say anything. She gives me a worried look, then stares down at her hands and stays out of it.

  Ariel is expounding on Finny’s various finer qualities now, chattering on and on about my scraped knee, which is a story that’s designed to convince my mom that he is exactly the type of person she can trust to take us down to the Dairy Queen alone. “He’s really big and strong, almost as big as a senior. No one would hurt us, I promise.”

  My mom isn’t listening to her anymore, though. She’s looking at me. “If you’re going to be spending a lot of time with this boy,” she says, “I want to meet him.”

  I nod, and take out my phone. It had to happen eventually.

  * * *

  It takes Finny less than twenty minutes to show up at our house. When I open the door, he doesn’t say anything about my calling him out of the blue, or how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, or why my hair looks like I styled it with a porcupine.

  I invite him in, feeling unbearably awkward. “We can go in a second, but first I’m supposed to bring you in to say hi to my parents. Sorry.”

  He shakes his head. “No big deal, I don’t mind.”

  The way he looks at me is easy and warm, like everything is just that simple.

  Then there’s a dry little throat-clearing noise behind me, and when I turn around, my mom is there, looking surprisingly tiny in the doorway.

  “Finny,” she says in her painfully polite voice. “How nice to finally meet you.”

  Like there is a level of importance to their meeting. Or a finally.

  Decker is cooler about the whole thing. At least he’s trying to act normal. He watches us with his arms folded over his chest,
and I can’t tell if he has any particular idea about Finny or if he just hates him.

  Finny doesn’t seem intimidated, though. He crosses the living room. He offers his hand to Decker, and Decker takes it, giving him a sharp, searching look. I can tell that they’re gripping each other more tightly than is really necessary. The look they give each other is thoughtful, though, like maybe they’ve reached an understanding.

  Before we leave, my mom makes us stand in a row in the driveway while she spritzes us all over with mosquito repellant. I close my eyes against the spray. Pinky just stands with her arms out and waits patiently until it’s over, but Ariel keeps making theatrical spitting noises, wincing at the taste.

  “Ariel,” my mom says, lowering the can. “Keep your mouth closed.”

  Finny raises his eyebrows, then starts to laugh, throwing his head back. My mom gives him a curious look, like she can’t quite fathom someone this rough and this big is standing in her driveway, laughing like no one’s even going to think it’s strange.

  He shrugs another one of his big shrugs and I think he’ll leave it at that, but then he says, “It’s just funny, you telling her to shut her mouth. Because she doesn’t.”

  I wait for my mom to say something about how this is serious and Ariel is being immature or irresponsible, but instead she just looks up at Finny and smiles back in a bemused way.

  By the time we leave the house, the streetlights are on, making Sherwood Street look like nothing but a long row of tiny yellow moons stretching out into the distance. The sky is a clear, perfect shade of cobalt blue.

  We’re only halfway down the block when Finny moves closer and reaches for my hand. The feeling of him next to me is so right, like something I never even knew I wanted. It’s funny, I used to hold hands with Lillian, because it was this thing we did. This way of showing that it was her and me. That we’d known each other forever and that she was always going to pick me first for everything. It was a way of being untouchable and also how she let everyone know who was her favorite, even before high school or middle school or boys.

  Holding hands with Finny is different, and not just in the obvious ways. It’s easy, without all these symbols and meanings, like we are just holding hands because we want to.

  Ariel glances at us and I think she’s going to make a scene, but then she links arms with Pinky and starts chattering to her about the orchestra assignment for next week.

  At the Dairy Queen, we wait for our turn at the little window and I buy them hot-fudge sundaes and get myself a grape slush. Finny just gets a Coke and then we wander through the crowd, looking for a place to sit.

  The evening is warm, and everyone in the neighborhood is hanging around the cluster of wooden picnic tables. By now, it’s been two weeks since anything’s happened, and I guess that a lot of Ludlow parents must be getting sick of constantly having their kids underfoot. Still, there are way more grown-ups around than you’d usually see in the summer.

  I weave a path through crowds of laughing kids. The parking lot is full of cars, and the gutters are lined with crumpled napkins and ice-cream wrappers. Under it all, though, I can see scatterings of dark feathers.

  Angelie and Carmen are sitting on one of the picnic tables, while a few feet away, Connor and Mike Lolordo wrestle on a little square of dying grass, struggling to see who can make the other one spill their shake. They’re clearly all here together, and I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that even though I’ve been grounded, no one called to see if I wanted to come with them.

  Jessica is leaning against the side of the little brick building, frantically kissing Austin Dean, but as soon as she sees me, she pries herself away from him.

  “Hannah,” she says with her lipgloss smeared halfway down the side of her mouth and a big fake Norma Desmond scream. “My God, it’s been so long I almost didn’t recognize you! Where have you been?”

  She and Carmen both come clopping across the sidewalk in their wooden-heeled platforms to gather me up in frantic hugs, exclaiming over how long it’s been.

  Angelie doesn’t stand up to meet me, though. She doesn’t even smile. “What did you do to your hair?”

  My face feels very warm suddenly, and I can feel Finny and the girls and everyone just looking at me, waiting to see what I’ll do. “Nothing. I didn’t really think about it before I left the house is all.”

  Connor laughs, taking his paper shake cup back from Mike and giving me a smile that might even be apologetic, but Angelie rolls her eyes and makes a breathy well, duh noise that prickles on my neck. “But seriously. You look like a crazy person.”

  Then her gaze lands on Finny, who is standing back almost to the edge of the parking lot, with his hands in his pockets, like he’s trying not to take up so much space. “Oh my God, what’s he doing here?”

  “He came with me,” I say, and even just saying it makes something soar in my chest. The fact that it’s true, that Finny is with me, makes my whole inside feel full of sunlight, and I smile without even meaning to.

  Angelie turns back to face me, but her expression doesn’t change. “Really.”

  “Hey, come on,” says Mike, whose dad owns a Toyota dealership and who once got a three-day suspension for hitting our art teacher with a huge gob of rubber cement in eighth grade. “You know girls are all about the bad boy. Hey, do you think maybe if I bleached my hair and started vandalizing street signs or something, Carmen would let me near those exquisite titties?”

  He gives Carmen a suggestive grin and reaches for her, but she steps out of his way like she barely even sees him. Her gaze is worried and fixed on Angelie.

  Over on the grass, Connor is messing around with Ariel and Pinky, teasing them that he’s going to steal the chocolate off their sundaes with his spoon. I’m suddenly glad they’re distracted, too far away to overhear Mike’s comments about Carmen or see the way Angelie is looking down at me from the picnic table.

  “You’re not okay, Hannah.” The way Angelie says it is heavy, like she’s saying more too, daring me to disagree. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you’re really just not okay.”

  The way she’s watching me is patronizing, and in the six months since Lillian died, nothing about what’s left of our little group has really stabilized. Now it seems like everything is falling apart. So much has changed.

  Since school let out, Angelie has pretty much completely stopped following Lillian’s fashion mandate of outrageous sophistication. Tonight she’s wearing a plain, cream-colored tank dress I don’t recognize. It’s a clean, preppy style, and every day she looks more and more like the conventional girls—the ones Lillian was always so disdainful of. The ones who get involved and organize things and look just like everybody else.

  I’m wearing an old Warped Tour T-shirt of my mom’s and a pair of twill shorts I never wear, no accessories, no makeup. I don’t look like anything.

  There’s a gap between us, maybe only a few feet. We’re too different in height to stand nose to nose anyway, but she’s up on the picnic table, looking down at me like she’s waiting for me to scuttle off somewhere.

  “What is your problem?” I say. My grape slush is so cold, the plastic cup feels like it’s burning my hand. “Why are you acting like this?”

  “Hannah,” she says, giving me the most patient, long- suffering look. “There’s something going on with you. I mean, come on—lying to your mom that you were at the movies with me, hanging around with boys like that. I haven’t seen you in weeks and now you show up here, with him, looking like you just rolled out of bed, and it’s like I don’t even recognize you.”

  Once, Angelie and I slept together in the daybed at Jessica’s sleepover when Lillian was away on vacation. We talked about our favorite bands, and she let me paste plastic jewels on her fingernails. Now, I kind of want to yank her down off the picnic table by her hair.
>
  Ariel has stopped capering and is standing off to the edge of the picnic area, watching us. I have a strange feeling she might be thinking that this is partly her fault because she was the one who told the lie, but she doesn’t say anything.

  “Angelie,” I say, and it’s the weirdest thing, but I’m smiling. “Do you ever just wish that we could be kids again, like back in fifth grade?”

  She looks at me like I have lost my mind. “No,” she says. “No, because fifth grade was fricking miserable. I was the tallest kid in our class, and I had terrible glasses, and you and Lillian just expected everyone to be as perfect as you were!”

  I don’t answer right away. Her version of things is twisted and confusing and so, so flawed. “We weren’t, though. We—”

  Angelie hops down from the picnic table and comes right up to me, sticking her spoon in my face. “I spent the last five years trying to figure out how to be just like you guys, okay? And now she’s dead, and you’re here looking like a homeless person and prancing around with a giant retard. So don’t go telling me how things were.”

  And just like that, everything inside me seems to go numb, like I’ve turned to stone.

  Jessica is watching us with her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open. Her expression is close to excitement, but Carmen looks worried, like she just wants the evening and the whole summer to go back to normal. I know the feeling, just like I know she won’t actually say anything. Of the five of us, Carmen and I have always been the ones who never start arguments or really stick up for ourselves. Carmen, because she’s quiet and nice and never wants anyone to think she’s being loud or bitchy, me because I never had to.

  Because Lillian would always do it for me.

  “Excuse me?” I say, sounding cool and sweet, just like Lillian always used to.

  And Angelie feels it. Her face goes stark and rigid, because this, right here, this is Lillian.

  It’s awful to remember how dismissive she could be, how easily she talked to us. She was the one in charge, and it didn’t matter if I could only watch slasher movies between my fingers or if Jessica was scared to go off the high-dive. Lillian ran roughshod over all of us.

 
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