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Paper valentine, p.18
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       Paper Valentine, p.18

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  Angelie stares down at me, hurt and angry, because even from beyond the grave, Lillian has this unshakable hold on her. On all of us.

  “Oh, you were done?” I say, and I hate it.

  Angelie looks almost shocked, like she might even apologize, take it all back, just the way she always used to. Then, she draws herself up and lifts her hands like she’s about to grab me by the shoulders but doesn’t quite dare. “Get out of my face, you nasty flat-chested bitch.”

  I wonder if this is how people get into fights. She’s a lot bigger than me and will probably murder me if we actually wind up hitting each other.

  I don’t care. For the first time in maybe my whole life, I feel dangerous and magical, like a dragon or a mermaid. A fury, standing there with my half-gone grape slush and my jaw clenched, ready for whatever comes next.

  When Finny moves beside me, I feel it more than see it. He doesn’t say anything, but I can sense him there, looming.

  “Oh my God,” Angelie says, looking up with narrowed eyes. “Who invited you into this conversation?”

  I understand that Angelie is dangerous in a way I’ve never realized. That she probably even has the power to hurt Finny. He’s standing with his hands in his pockets, looking down at her. His expression is unreadable, then he frowns slightly but doesn’t say anything. Maybe he was invincible against Connor last year when he yanked him off me in detention, but this is a completely different world. One that can’t be solved just by being the biggest. All his easy confidence disappears when he’s faced with the pack of little witches who laughed at his shoes.

  Without saying a word, I drop the plastic cup, then step up onto the picnic bench and grab him around the neck. It takes everyone by surprise, even him. But it’s easy. I stand with my feet planted on the wooden bench and my arms around his neck, and look straight into his sea-green eyes. The way he looks at me makes something go shivery and hot in my chest and in the next second, I’m kissing him in front of everyone.

  He doesn’t react right away, but then his hands move to my hips. And in the few seconds between Angelie’s shocked gasp and Finny’s hands, something changes. I understand that I’m not doing this for them anymore. We’re beyond that now. We’re someplace better, and I smile against his mouth, keeping my eyes closed and my arms around his neck.

  When the kiss is over, I stand looking down at everyone, and for a strange moment, I think that this must be how Lillian felt all the time.

  But no. Her feeling was bad enough to make her break herself apart from the inside. Mine is wild and powerful and final. Done. The thing is, Lillian never would have proved her point by just doing what made her happy, letting Angelie see how she felt. Lillian’s way was always to lash out, at herself or someone else. And maybe I can fake that—I can tilt my head the same way she did or mimic the way she talked—but in the end, maybe the only thing I’m completely sure of is that I am not her.

  Angelie stands blinking with her spoon in her hand, looking at me in pure, undisguised horror. “Oh my God, why, Hannah?”

  “Because Finny is an excellent kisser,” I say, and his face goes red all the way up to the roots of his hair, but he’s smiling.

  Angelie’s mouth has fallen open, glossy and sticky-looking. I jump down from the bench and stand with my arms at my sides, smiling up at her.

  “This is so screwed up,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t even believe you’d be this dumb. I mean, it’s like you have no survival instincts whatsoever.”

  “What are you even talking about?”

  “Oh come on, Hannah! Why do you think the police are cruising up and down the streets all day, watching boys like him? Why do you think they’re stopping us all the time at the mall or the pool to ask if we’ve seen anything, if they didn’t have some kind of evidence it was one of those delinquents? For all you know, he’s probably the fucking killer!”

  No one moves or says anything, and it’s like we’ve all stopped breathing. If my jaw gets any tighter, I think my teeth will break. We’re six inches from each other, so close I can smell her spring-clean bath gel and her flavored lipgloss. I’m staring into her eyes, searching for some way to demolish her, when Finny reaches out and just barely touches my arm.

  “Come on,” he says, looking out over the neighborhood. “It’s late. Let’s get you guys home.”

  “That’s right,” says Angelie. “Go home with your giant psycho killer. Bye, psycho—bye!”

  I don’t argue. I just give her a little wave and my brightest, fakest smile. “You’re a raging bitch, Angelie. So have fun with that.” And I look around at Carmen and Jessica and Connor before I turn to go. “Eventually everyone else is going to figure it out too.”

  As we start down the little blacktop path toward home, no one says anything. I can tell that Finny’s upset, angry or embarrassed over what just happened. I can read the damage in his face, but I don’t know what to say.

  “You called Angelie a bitch!” Ariel says after a few minutes, prancing around us as we head down the bike path. “That was awesome.”

  Pinky is quiet, trudging along beside me, scraping the toes of her sneakers along the asphalt. She looks rumpled and sleepy.

  I think about Angelie and how I spent all these times wondering why she could sometimes be so mean, why she wanted to hurt me, but never had the answer. I know why now, and it’s got nothing to do with sadness or Finny or my hair. It’s just the dark, toxic sludge of residual Lillian.

  Residual me.

  Finny stays quiet, like if we just pretend the scene with Angelie never happened, then we can act like all these other things never happened either, like I never laughed at his shoes and no one ever called him a retard and a psycho.

  “Come on,” he says. “If we cut through the park, we can take the path under the train tracks.” His voice is flat, like nothing matters.

  I bump against his arm and reach for him, trying to take his hand, but he doesn’t reach back and after a second, I let my hand fall. “Can’t we go back around on Beverly Street? It’s just, I promised my mom we wouldn’t go through the park.”

  Finny just keeps walking in the direction of the tracks. “So don’t tell her. Beverly takes twice as long.”

  I don’t tell him that maybe I want to take the long way, walk home next to him in the dark, with my head quiet for once and his hand in mine. Even if that’s what I want, he doesn’t. What he wants is to get as far away as he can from Connor and Angelie and all the rampant ugliness of the last half hour.

  “I know you’re not any of those things she said,” I whisper, just under my breath, just for him.

  He glances over with an expression that’s unreadable, and because it’s unreadable, I know exactly what it means. It’s a look of total defeat.

  “Well, I do,” I say.

  “You’d be the first,” he mutters, looking away, and in the silence that follows, I’ve got nothing to do but reach for his hand. This time, he lets me take it.

  The air near the river is thick with the smell of honeysuckle and chokecherry bushes, so warm that it’s almost like walking through a curtain. It’s getting dark now, and the park is rustling softly all around us. Finny’s hand is big and comfortable in mine, and I wonder what he did all week while I was stuck at home. If he was lonely or missed me or thought about me at all. It’s funny, but even though I’ve seen his house, I still can’t really picture what he does in his every- day life when he’s not busy with school or misdemeanors or me.

  The path that leads under the railroad tracks to the Sherwood Street side is cracked and weedy. It slopes sharply, bordered by tall, brittle grass. Finny starts down first and helps Ariel and then Pinky along the steepest part. The asphalt path is narrower here, winding down the little hill, and even though the sky is still a deep jewel-blue fading to dusky purple, the shadow under the bridge is
dark and cool and private.

  Just as I’m stepping under the bridge, I roll my ankle on a patch of loose gravel, and the sole of my sneaker slips off the edge of the path. I knock my foot against something heavy, and Finny catches me by the back of my T-shirt to keep me from falling facedown into the weeds.

  I almost walk on by, but the impact is still throbbing in my foot and there was a certain weight to it, a feeling. Not like the hard, irregular shape of a rock or a branch but a solid softness. I stop and turn back to see what I tripped on.

  The darkness under the bridge is almost a living thing, oozing through the hot night air, getting all over my skin. From somewhere around us comes a high-pitched tinkling noise, drifting in from nowhere and everywhere all at once.

  I dig in my pocket for my phone, fumbling for the light. In the pale glow of the screen, I can make out a mass of shapes, slopes, and angles.

  “What is it?” Ariel says behind me.

  I don’t move. There are long strands of fishing line hanging from the underside of the bridge, tied to glass beads and safety pins and paper airplanes that sway like wind chimes, knocking against each other a little. I know that you’re never supposed to touch things when you’re dealing with a body, but there’s this soft, hopeful voice in my head that says maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just nothing—some thrown-out trash, a pile of random junk that someone left in the park because they didn’t want to deal with it.

  But even as I stand there listing all the things it could be, I know.

  The screen times out, goes dark, and I have to hit a button to make it light up again. I do it without thinking and when the light flares to life again, I’m stunned but not surprised. I’m looking into the face of a girl, and there’s blood in her hair and splashed down the side of her neck. There’s a smell. It hangs in the still, humid air, and I can taste it in the back of my throat.

  She’s lying on her back like the others, staring blankly up at the rough underside of the bridge. Her face is pale blue in the light from my phone, but I have this bad idea that it might be blue anyway. The way her eyes are turned up to the underside of the bridge is almost mesmerizing.

  “Hannah, Hannah.” Ariel says it like the air is being squeezed out of her, her voice breathless and fast. Her fingers are painful, clawing at me, digging into my wrist. “Hannah, that’s one of the horns from summer band. That’s Abby Brooks.”



  “I know her,” Ariel says, so frantic and shrill that the words all run together.

  The air under the bridge is warm and still, whining with mosquitos, and time feels pointless and far away. The hanging objects are still swaying gently, rustling in the dark around us, tinkling in a way that sounds almost ghostly. A paper plane brushes my bare shoulder, and all I can think of is how weird it is that I don’t scream out loud.

  The truth is that this whole time, even when I was breaking into Lillian’s room or sneaking into the safe to look at the crime-scene photos, I’ve only been playing detective. It was so easy to just focus on the how and why of it. Easy to sit on my floor with Lillian, searching through printouts and newspaper articles for clues, when all I was really doing was distracting myself from how the horror and the danger are actually real.

  There are shadows everywhere, distorting the collection of beads and paper planes, making huge, dark scrawls against the underside of the bridge. Pinky clings to me with her arms around my waist and her face pressed against my shirt.

  The girl is lying at our feet just barely to the right of the path, an oblong shape in the dark. Then Finny reaches down. His face is slack as he brushes away a little drift of plastic soldiers and leans over her.

  “Don’t touch her,” Ariel says in a loud, bossy voice, sounding panicked but more like herself.

  Pinky takes a sharp, hitching breath, then starts to cry.

  “We need to call the police,” I say.

  The words seem right and obvious, but knowing what we are supposed to do still seems a million miles away from actually doing it. What comes next is simple enough, except that we’re standing at the bottom of Muncy Park next to a dead girl, and I don’t really remember how to use my phone.

  Pinky is still clutching me around the waist, crying into my shirt. She’s not sobbing, just making this thin, whimpering noise that goes on and on.

  “Should I just dial nine-one-one?” I say to no one in particular. I’ve known forever—since kindergarten—that it’s what you’re supposed to do in an emergency. It’s the rule, the procedure, but I don’t want to call 911 and talk to a stranger. I want my police officers, McGarahan and Boles. I don’t want some anonymous first responder coming out to see this small crumpled girl surrounded by random junk like she’s part of a trash heap. Like just some piece of meat.

  For a few seconds, we just stand there in the dark, looking at each other as I try to remember how to type in the numbers. I have a strange bottomless fear that even if someone picked up, I would never be able to think of what to say.

  I’m still frozen in place, staring down at the screen, when a voice speaks out of the dark. “What are you kids doing down here?”

  Then comes the light, shining full in our eyes, making us wince and shield our faces with our hands. It’s the kind of white blinding light that only cops ever use.

  “What do you kids think you’re doing?”

  The voice is deep and official, and Finny glances at me with his face bare and startled in the harsh light. I can see a wordless panic in his eyes.

  “Please, you have to help,” I say, shading my eyes with my hand.

  The officer approaches, followed by a second, shorter one. They come toward us, crunching down through the long grass. When the one with the flashlight asks my name, I tell him in a calm, patient voice that sounds almost mechanical, like a voicemail system or a talking doll.

  The officer comes closer, keeping the flashlight trained full in our eyes. “And do you mind telling me where you live, Miss Hannah Wagner?”

  “Over on Sherwood, by the elementary school. Can you get that light out of our faces, please?”

  The officer doesn’t answer, but after a moment, he lets it fall. The beam plunges toward the ground, shining in the grass at our feet, and I can see the shape of his face for the first time, silhouetted against the sky. I can’t make out the details, but he’s rounder than Officer McGarahan, with a short-sleeved uniform and a bristly mustache.

  When the light drops, it washes across the crumpled body at our feet, but the officer is still focused on us, only watching us.

  “Are you okay? Can you tell me what happened?”

  “There’s a dead girl under the bridge,” I say.

  For a second, the whole park is very quiet. The officer says nothing, just stands there with the light pointed at the ground by our feet, and I can tell from the way he stays perfectly still that he knows exactly what I mean.

  Not a dead girl but a murdered one.

  * * *

  It only takes five minutes before we see the lights from the squad cars.

  Police officers file down the bank with nightsticks and flashlights. They come wading out to us through the knee-high weeds, and it’s like something from a space movie, a parade of alien lights bobbing along in the dark.

  They lead us away from Abby and then we are not huddled over her in a nervous cluster anymore. She’s still down in the dark suffocating space under the bridge, and we’re someplace up on the flat expanse of grass by the playground. It’s weird to see Ariel there, standing apart from the crowd with the colored lights from the squad cars hitting her from the side and the teeter-totter right behind her. It looks staged.

  I’m standing with Pinky by the tire swing, and the sand is soft and uneven under my feet.

  We’re only there for what feels lik
e a few minutes before we’re approached by two plainclothesmen, who we’re informed are detectives Herkabie and Medina.

  “Whose idea was it to walk through here?” says the one with the mustache, giving us a stern, searching look.

  “Mine,” Finny says tonelessly, looking at them with his head up and his shoulders back. His voice is deeper than normal, but also tense. Dry. “I was the one who wanted to cut through the park.”

  “And did you know what you were going to find down here?”

  The question is aggressive, and right away I understand that they were never really asking who wanted to walk through the park. What they want to know is if our being here means something sinister. If Finny brought us here on purpose.

  He stares back at the detectives but doesn’t answer right away. All I want is for him to just deny it, to tell them flat-out that he has nothing to do with any of this.

  His expression is stubborn, almost defiant, and he says, “How would I know there was anything down here?”

  Which is not the right answer.

  I feel a knot tightening deep in my chest, and I struggle to breathe normally, one inhalation and then another until it adds up to something.

  Detective Herkabie nods and makes some kind of note in a little spiral-bound book. “Son, we’re going to need you to come down to the station and answer some questions.”

  “What?” Ariel is the one who says it, who almost shrieks it.

  I know that I’m the one who should be saying it instead, the one who should rush to defend him, but the words won’t come. Suddenly, all I can see is the strange, vacant look on his face, the way he knelt to touch the body. The way the haunting started with him and how all the times the apparitions have been the clearest, the most real, were when I was with him.

  One of the detectives has taken him over by the slide. They’re talking in low voices—or at least, the detective is talking—and I recognize that they are one second from taking him away, steering him toward the squad cars.

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