Places no one knows, p.17
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       Places No One Knows, p.17

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  Ollie rolls his head to the side and gives me a look, like he’s waiting for me to convince him of all the ways that nothing in my life is simple anymore.

  I shrug and adjust my voice. “I don’t know, she’s just Heather. And yeah, sometimes she’s annoying about stuff, or talks too loud, but it doesn’t make her a bad person.”

  “Dude, what are you talking about? You don’t like Heather. I mean, why do you like that chilly stuck-up bitch Camdenmar?”

  I watch the chain-link diamonds in the fence. I want to ask how he knows, but that isn’t the kind of question that you ask Ollie. He’s always best with the quiet stuff. It’s kind of his specialty.

  I open my mouth, think of Waverly. She’s sitting on my bed with her hand over mine, eyes down, half turned away. I close my mouth again.

  I have no idea what words it would take to make him see. I can’t explain that I can feel how nervous she is, just all the time. How it hums off her like a moth in a jar. It makes me want to save her, even when I know I can’t and know she would never admit to needing it. I have dreams about holding on to her until the panic sound stops and she melts against me. The freak occurrence of her in my bed is the only part of my day that feels like it’s worth anything. It’s the part that doesn’t suck.

  I don’t know how to tell him that and have him believe it, so I just look at him and shrug. “Maybe I’m tired of not wanting anything except to get stoned. With her, she’s always trying to be better. I kind of just want…to be my better self.”

  “Is this why you quit smoking?” Ollie says.

  “Yeah, maybe.”

  Without saying anything, Ollie swings his arm over my shoulders and after a second, I lean into him. We stay like that for a long time, heads together, not talking. I have an idea that Ollie’s my brother if I could choose my own brother. That maybe that’s enough. That right now, today, this is all I need.

  WAVERLY

  I spend the first fifty-seven minutes of dance-planning committee trying to look like I’m not about to drill an escape tunnel through my own eye socket.

  We’re in Maribeth’s kitchen, arranged around the vast oval table, while she goes down her final checklist. The dance is in twenty-nine hours. The lingering responsibilities are many.

  I’m in charge of calling the party supply store to check on the status of our metallic confetti delivery. Autumn will make sure the custom-printed homecoming banners are accounted for. Maribeth is in charge of DJ and catering, because she doesn’t trust anyone else to do it. The wrestling contingent is notably absent. Their collective assignment is to stay out of the way. They can do this job from home.

  Maribeth reaches for a celery stick and consults the all-knowing list. “That leaves the favors for Kendry when she gets back from debate, but maybe we should make her deal with the florist instead?”

  “Oh?” says Autumn, looking innocent and kicking me under the table. “Should we?”

  “Well,” Maribeth tells her with a flat, factual expression that I hate. “I’m just saying, Kendry’s strengths do not lean toward the organizational. I mean, don’t you think that’s true?”

  “Kendry’s not stupid,” Autumn says. “It’s just sorting a bunch of little hourglasses and plastic clocks into piles. I think she can probably handle counting to ten over and over.”

  “God, stop. I just mean, since she has so much on her plate already.” The way Maribeth says it is wide-eyed. Earnest. Like she actually believes that she is being kind and not condescending.

  Autumn leans back in her chair and makes a bored face at the ceiling. “Sometimes you are a raging, raging dickhead.”

  I take a breath and let it out, but it’s just an automatic response. The truth is, I hope something blows up. The tasteful movie set of the kitchen, pink lemonade and granite countertops, gone in one fiery cataclysm.

  But Maribeth simply pretends that Autumn hasn’t said anything—her favorite trick—to act like a look or a word or a sentence doesn’t mean anything, because she’s so above it. I know better, though. In the dark territory that sits just under the surface of her china doll face, words and looks are the only things that matter.

  With her pencil poised to cross off another item, she glances around. “So Kendry will take care of floral when she gets back from the tournament. And who are you calling, Autumn?”

  “Vernon McVegetable’s Magical Paper Emporium.”

  Maribeth sighs. Her mouth is dangerously thin. “Can you be serious, for like five minutes?”

  Autumn leans her chin on her hand. “Seriously? I’m about to have an aneurism from boredom. Seriously.” Then she turns to me like we are not sitting awkwardly around Maribeth’s table, awkwardly planning Maribeth’s dance. “Hey, do you want to come over to my place after this? We can listen to my mom’s eighties vinyl really loud and eat something bad for us.”

  The question sits in the kitchen for longer than it should. I have never wanted anything more.

  When I nod noncommittally, Maribeth grabs the vendor list away from Palmer and circles the number for the print shop. Her expression is impatient, and she will always do something, rather than not doing something.

  As Palmer and Maribeth wrestle over the list, Autumn uncaps her marker and reaches for my hand. “Here, hold still.”

  With quick, graceful strokes, she draws a cascade of art deco flowers coursing down my arm, connected by a line of trailing ribbon.

  The ink starts at the inside of my elbow and winds down to my wrist, where it narrows, terminating in a spray of tiny rosettes circling my pinky.

  And this is the fundamental nature of the Pickerel Uncertainty Principle: the more accurately you try to predict Autumn’s behavior, the less likely your predictions will be accurate.

  Maribeth is coping the way she always does when the situation looks like it might be ungovernable—by being passive-aggressive.

  “Autumn, that is so creative of you! I just hope it comes off before the dance.” She turns to me, bright and merciless. “Or are you thinking elbow gloves? You know, to balance out how your dress is that weird box shape. Oh, and Autumn—what’s the name of the place you’re going to call, again?”

  Autumn plucks a carrot stick from the bowl and snaps it neatly between her teeth. Her gaze never leaves Maribeth. “It’s called Go Fuck Yourself on a Pogo Stick. Kind of a weird name, but goddamn, do they know how to put together an attractive banner.”

  In my notebook, I write:

  Proposition: I don’t want to disappoint anyone.

  Material Implication: If I disappoint people, they will reject me.

  Contradiction: I want to disappoint everyone.

  .

  Autumn’s house is in one of the older neighborhoods, tucked at the end of a shady cul-de-sac, with a week’s worth of unread newspapers in the driveway and drifts of leaves around the front steps. Inside, it’s dim and sprawling, with an exhausting decorating scheme that must be how the world looked in the eighties.

  We slink past garish artwork and loudly mismatched furniture, winding back toward her bedroom.

  In her room, the walls are covered with pictures from celebrity gossip magazines, and there are inside-out clothes and colored pencils and little caches of sewing supplies all over the floor.

  “Don’t look in the corner,” she says, shouldering past me.

  I barely have time to make out something generally humanoid that looks like an old-fashioned sewing dummy, before she steps in front of it and throws a sheet over it.

  “My dress for the dance. You can’t see it yet.”

  Even with the dummy hidden, there’s plenty to look at. The room is vast and disproportionately long, like it might have originally been a rec room. Every surface is cluttered with something unapologetically messy—paint, feathers, glue. There’s a scarred drafting table against one wall and a brass floor lamp that looks like it might be an actual antique. The only place to sit is on the giant oak sleigh bed.

  I wade through the mess, tr
ying not to impale myself on any loose needles, and sink down on the edge of the mattress. “Are you really going to call the print shop for Maribeth, or should I just go ahead and do it?”

  Autumn wades after me and takes a flying leap into the middle of the velvet comforter.

  “You mean like make you do my work?” she says, draping herself over the curve of the footboard so that her head hangs off the edge. “No way. I wouldn’t stick you with more bullshit just to torture her. She’s got a real boner for paper products, though, that’s for sure.”

  I sit watching her. I think she means it, but I’m not sure. “So you’d toe the line for her bureaucratic madness? Because I asked you to?”

  Autumn lies sprawled over the footboard for a long time. Then she sits up, flipping her hair out of her face. “Waverly, I need to ask you a very important question.”

  “What?” I say, when in my head, I’m already paging through every invasive, revealing thing she might be about to interrogate me on.

  “How can a person be seventeen years old and not know how friends work?”

  And I laugh, because it’s so horrible. It’s true. Because she’s the friend I wanted before I even knew that I wanted a friend.

  The velvet bedspread is outrageously tacky and deliciously soft. Being the secret version of myself is easier in the giant repurposed rec room, with no audience but Autumn’s secret dress, standing in the corner like a ghost.

  “I don’t exist the way you think I do,” I say, and immediately I’m gripped by trepidation. I’ve said too much. She’ll look closer, look harder. She’ll see the jagged edges in me, the dark, unholy fascinations—spiders and nihilism, mutant cells and scalpels and sarcophagi.

  Autumn just shrugs and tosses her head. “Does anyone?”

  “I don’t know, you seem pretty authentic.”

  She stretches like a cat and rearranges herself to sit cross-legged. It’s strange to be so easily assimilated into someone else’s world. At school, I’m always sharing territory with people, but it never feels that way. We’re inhabiting one another’s vicinities, is all—shiny cars in shiny parking spaces.

  “You have to pick your poison,” she says. “I like to think I just went with the best possible alter ego for my talents and inclinations.”

  I’ve never heard anyone talk so easily about social artifice. Most of the time, Maribeth won’t even acknowledge that’s something we’re still doing.

  “Why did you defend Kendry today? You don’t even like her.”

  The look Autumn gives me is sincerely bewildered. “God, I don’t know. Because Maribeth was being totally disgusting and unfair when Kendry wasn’t even around to hear it. Because it was the nice thing to do. I mean…haven’t you ever just wanted to do something nice?”

  But the thing is, I don’t really think that I have. At least, not in the way she means—a genuine, empathetic way, beyond volunteer work or socially conscious committees. The spill wall is the only place I’ve ever been brave enough to comfort or stand up for anyone. It’s the nicest version of myself that I have ever been.

  “Not for someone who has, at any point, called me too freakish to be allowed,” I say. “I mean, is principle a good enough reason to just ignore how she’s treated you?”

  Autumn reaches over and combs her fingers through my hair. “It’s the only reason that matters.”

  The way she touches people never stops surprising me. It should feel aggressive or patronizing, but instead, it’s just so easy.

  “Your layers are looking kind of rough.”

  “I was supposed to get it cut last week. I forgot.” Truth be told, I’ve been forgetting a lot of things.

  “I could do it. It’s cool, I’m really good.”

  Two weeks ago, I’d never have let her near me, but when she opens her desk and takes out the scissors, I get up and follow her, because the thing is, when Autumn says she’s good at something, chances are, she is.

  She leads me down a narrow hall into her bathroom, which is painted swimming-pool blue, and sits me on the edge of the tub. Then she takes a wooden step stool out of the linen closet and plunks it down behind me.

  “Not going to chicken out, are you?”

  “No. Are you going to disfigure me?”

  “Like Audrey,” she says, holding up the scissors. “I promise.”

  Her hand on my jaw is light and capable, turning me to look at her, studying my face.

  When she squints, it’s like she’s seeing something intricate and far, the way she did the day she found my homecoming dress. Seeing the person I should be, instead of the one that I am.

  When she makes the first cut, I feel lighter, like we are changing the shape of Waverly. Of everything.

  I’ve never really understood this easy willingness to experiment or try new things, and it’s startling now to realize that it’s…fun. That a person can care about fashion or style or appearance just because they do—not resentfully, not because they have no other choice, but for the sheer enjoyment of it.

  She works quickly, keeping her tongue tucked in the corner of her mouth and her hand on the crown of my head. I watch her as she goes, face angelic, scissors flashing.

  This obvious familiarity with haircuts just reinforces how little I really know about her. She may be blunt and entertaining, but mostly, she’s still unknown. She is my interesting endeavor, my latest area of study. And yes. Hopefully my friend.

  Marshall’s. The realization washes over me, so big it makes my face tingle. She is Marshall’s friend. Suddenly, I’m intensely aware of what that means—of all the things she might be able to tell me.

  “Autumn, do you know anything about—” But right away, it sticks in my throat, getting all jammed up against my teeth. I start over. “Boys. What do you know about boys?”

  “They think with their nether parts and smell like Taco Bell?”

  “But like, what do you think it means if you make out with someone and he gives you a tremendous hickey, and then later you kind of hold hands, but he doesn’t kiss you anymore? I mean, is it possible for someone to be so into you that they just want to…cuddle?”

  Autumn makes a vague humming noise and flicks my hair away from my face with the comb. “I think CJ Borsen needs to keep his tremendous hickeys to himself.”

  She says it sardonically, not how it would sound if Maribeth were offering similar wisdom. Autumn’s judgment has less to do with wanting all acts of intimacy to be approved by committee, and more to do with her inherently low opinion of CJ.

  “Oh, hey,” she says, steadying my head with one hand as the scissors brush my temple. “Do you want to hear something weird, though?”

  I nod cautiously. The question doesn’t even make sense. I wait for whatever could qualify as weird in Autumn’s unlikely universe.

  She trims the last stray hairs, sweeping behind my ears with a casual index finger. Her touch is shocking, reminding me that this is happening in an utterly physical way, on an utterly physical plane. Afterward, I’ll go home and look however Autumn made me look.

  She gestures with the scissors, flicking them toward the sink. “So, do you have any idea who Marshall Holt is?—he’s this complete pothead, but whatever. Anyway, he asked about you. Only, you know, without really asking.”

  And I stop breathing because my lungs are making everything too complicated. I’m half convinced this is some elaborate prank, a trick just to mess with me, but when I twist around and look up at her, she’s not joking.

  “Why—what did he want to know?”

  “Just if I knew you. If we hung out at all.”

  I nod, then remember I’m supposed to be holding still. “Did he say why?”

  Autumn shakes her head. “Not anything actual. I think he might kind of like you, is all.”

  I bite the inside of my lip as hard as I can, but my mouth keeps wanting to smile.

  She raises her eyebrows and shakes a finger at me. “Stop making that face, right now. There are worse guys, be
lieve me.”

  I immediately rearrange my expression so it doesn’t look like anything. The other night, Marshall was so adamant that they were friends, but the two of them actually inhabiting the same space? I still have trouble picturing it. “So you hang out with him a lot, then?”

  She rakes the comb through my hair so hard my scalp tingles. “Used to.”

  “Did you have a fight or something?”

  “Oh, God, nothing like that.” Autumn waves the scissors dismissively. “I moved, is all. My mom got promoted and decided it was time for a house with more than one bathroom. He probably would have ditched me eventually anyway, I guess. He’s not really into arts and crafts and confrontation. I’m not really into getting so fucked up I can’t stand. Plus, after that whole thing with his dad last year, he didn’t really want to be around anyone for a while.”

  The way she says it is offhand, like the story is just known.

  “What whole thing?”

  The look she gives me is impatient, appalled at my social ignorance. “How his dad got MS? And it was this total shit storm that basically landed on top of this other shit storm, which was that his parents were finally getting divorced? But then his mom remembered that she’s a giant codependent freak, so they’d probably better stay together after all. It was just ugly. Anyway, he kind of dropped off for a while.”

  I absorb this information, trying to look appropriate. What’s the right expression again? The one you use when you hear about the misfortune of a stranger?

  “So he dumped all his friends and just stopped talking to you?”

  “Not like that. He just got kind of…what’s that word when people disappear into themselves?”

  I shake my head. “I don’t think there is one.”

  “Well, there should be. Anyway, pretty much the only person he wanted to be around anymore was Ollie, probably because Ollie knows how to just shut up once in a while.”

  I close my eyes as she guides the scissors across my forehead, shaping my bangs. “That wasn’t something you could do?”

  “Oh, God, never. It’s like, if there’s a scab, I can’t not pick it.”

 
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