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Paper valentine, p.19
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       Paper Valentine, p.19

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  The whole scene is so unreal, high-contrast like a nightmare, and I can almost hear Lillian’s voice asking me if it worries me that I saw the ghosts when Finny and I were together, if I think it’s weird. Asking if I should be wishing for him or kissing him or be wandering around in the park with strange boys.

  Ariel makes a choked, ferocious sound, wrenching free of me and darting across the grass to Finny. “He didn’t do anything!”

  Her voice breaks and she dives into the crowd of uniforms, shoving her way between them.

  Pinky is still holding onto me, but she’s stopped crying. Her hands are clutching at my shirt and she’s shaking her head back and forth against my shoulder.

  Next to Finny, Ariel looks small and willful and wild. She’s glaring up at the detective, but it isn’t the normal, theatrical Ariel glare. It’s fierce and frantic. Near tears.

  “He was walking us home,” I say, and I sound older and more composed than I did a second ago, but the words feel strangely wooden. “He wanted to make sure we were safe. We took a shortcut. That’s all.” I can hear my own doubt, though, creeping up into my voice. The things I’m saying are true, accurate things, but I can’t ignore the way my heart is hammering in my throat.

  And the question that keeps prickling in the back of my mind is, How much do I really know about Finny?

  It’s been a week since the last time I saw him, and no matter what I might speculate or guess, I’ve really got no idea what he does when we’re not together. And when Lillian confronted me about seeing the ghosts when I was with him, she was right. I was the one who pushed away the possibility because I didn’t want to think about it.

  “And if all that’s true, and you’re telling me everything, then this should be no big deal,” the second detective says. And to his credit, he says it gently. “We’re just going to ask him some questions.”

  I nod numbly. My hands are shaking, and the simple fact is, I’m very glad Pinky’s there. That I can hold on to her and look like I’m doing it because she needs it, and not because my grip on her shoulder keeps me from falling apart completely.

  The detectives glance across the playground at each other and exchange a meaningful look. Behind them, I can still see the flurry of activity down in the tall grass by the bridge. The coroner is crouched over the crumpled, plastic-wrapped body. I start feeling breathless, like I might cry, so I hold on to Pinky like my life depends on it and focus on the second detective.

  “We’re just doing our jobs,” he says, leaning over me in a way that is supposed to feel warm and reassuring.

  But I can hear the other, deeper meaning in what he says. His tone is knowing, like he’s on to the boy with the Clorox hair.

  I stand with my arms locked around Pinky, sorting through the pieces, trying to work out exactly what’s happening. There are so many things that don’t quite seem to line up, but the one I keep coming back to is, Why would Finny want to lead us down under the bridge if he knew there was a body there? That would be stupid, and maybe Finny is a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them.

  “Can I talk to Officer McGarahan?” I say. “Or Officer Boles,” I add, when Finny’s head jerks toward me.

  One of the cops comes tromping over to us across the sand. “They’re not on duty. Why do you want to talk to a couple of beat cops?”

  “Because I know them,” I say, sounding remarkably like Ariel. “And I don’t know you.”

  He sighs and shakes his head. He’s stocky, with a pale, moony face and a little bit of a belly, even though his shoulders and arms are skinny. He doesn’t look anything like how a cop should look.

  “Now, Miss Hannah, what I need you to understand is, this is a serious situation.” He’s not saying it to me, though. He stands with his arms folded, watching Finny.

  “Please,” I say. “I want to talk to Jason McGarahan. He knows me.”

  The officer nods heavily. “And we’ll see about that. What I need from you right now, though, is for you all to come on up to the car with us, okay? We’ll all go down to the station and talk about what we saw here tonight.”

  Ariel is standing so rigidly that she’s shaking all over, and I have this crazy idea that in a minute she might explode. “Why are you looking at him like that? Why are you acting like he’s done something wrong?”

  But the answer is simple: his hair and his clothes, his disciplinary record, his academic record, and his size. But mostly they’re acting that way because he spends hours alone in the park and is strange and quiet and all the things that Lillian said. All the ways he’s not just exactly like everyone else.

  “I understand you’re worried about your friend, but you need to calm down. We just need to ask him some questions.”

  I try hard not to look at Finny, but I can’t help it. He’s standing in the light of the squad cars with his hands dangling at his sides. He looks the way he did when we walked home after that day at the river. There’s something so broken in his eyes, something so destroyed, and the suspicion and the doubt all fall away in one huge, violent rush. The circumstances are against him, but the truth is very clear. This is not him.

  “You have to let him call his aunt,” I say. “You have to let him tell her where he is.”

  “Of course,” the officer says. “Once we get to the station, he can call anyone he wants.”

  He’s trying so hard to sound like this happens every single day, like it’s nothing, but the way he keeps his stare trained on Finny is not reassuring. His face is stony, turned away from me, and I am so incredibly certain that he’s lying.



  Finny is at the police station.

  Finny’s being questioned like he could actually be considered a legitimate suspect. Like he could have done something so appalling and so terrible as killing a little girl from Ariel’s band class and leaving her in the low, dead grass under a bridge.

  But just for an instant, I thought it too. I stood there while they took him and didn’t say anything, even though I should have rushed straight in with Ariel to defend him. The doubt was a tiny prickling thing, a lit match burning brightly for an instant, then gone. It lasted for barely a moment, but that was enough to do the damage. To keep me quiet.

  And now I’m here, sitting on a plastic chair and tearing tiny pieces off a paper napkin while my mother hovers over me and says things like “This is completely ridiculous. You can’t do anything to help” and “Please be reasonable” and “Hannah, we need to go home.”

  Ariel’s slumped on the hard industrial couch next to Decker, leaning her head against his arm. I keep thinking maybe she’ll fall asleep there, but her eyes are open, wide and unfocused. Pinky’s mother has already come to take her back to the Orteros’. It’s almost midnight.

  Over by the coffeemaker, Lillian is leaning against the counter, scowling down at all the little paper packets of artificial sweetener.

  “I don’t know why you’re acting like this,” she says. “Just be logical for a minute. Think about the facts. He’s a loner, clearly troubled, and he was the one who wanted to walk through the park. The police aren’t just making a big deal over nothing. There’s a ton of circumstantial evidence that supports questioning him.”

  I want to scream that I’ve already thought about those things. I thought about them when I stood in the lights of the squad cars after finding Abby’s body. I thought about them when they turned him by the shoulders and put him in the backseat. And that’s why right now, I feel like the bottom has dropped out of my stomach.

  Instead I stare back at her with my hands clenched into fists, like I can burn right into her with my eyes. She was always so maddeningly good at justifying everything, arguing it and debating it from every vantage point, like just because you could line up all the right words to make a case for something—a case
for self-destruction or denial, a case for starving—that was the same as presenting a true, verifiable fact.

  But Lillian’s facts were never all that solid even though she acted so logical, and I know some other ones. Killers don’t get people’s bracelets back. They don’t pick the glass out of your scrape or save you from social indignity when your friend dies. When the police come and escort them into the car and they look back over their shoulders to where their girlfriends are standing on the sandy shore of the playground watching—when that happens, killers never look destroyed.

  My mom keeps fluttering her hand above my arm like she’s about to touch me, but she’s not quite brave enough, just like she’s not brave enough to force me out of the chilly, fluorescent waiting room and into the car. So I sit there, drinking cup after cup of hot cocoa made from powder and telling myself that Finny’s okay. That this will all be a bad, blurry memory by tomorrow, that he didn’t see the look on my face when I watched them take him and thought for one heart-stopping second that maybe they were right to.

  Jolene showed up just before they took him into the back offices with the detectives. I’m glad that she’s here to go in with him, but her fingers were wound tight around the strap of her purse and she looked so frightened. Now there’s nothing to do but sit here and wait for someone to come out and tell us something, wait for a door to open. Something to change.

  “Hannah,” my mom says in a tiny whisper. The sound of her voice surprises me and I look over. “Please tell me what’s going on. Why are they so focused on this boy?”

  It’s awful how easy it feels to just sit here next to her and keep my mouth shut. But what can I tell her? That they picked him because he’s big and quiet and lights off firecrackers and sometimes steals things and that when we were little he used to take Brandon Siberry’s lunch money just because he could?

  My mom sighs, turning me gently by the sleeve of my T- shirt. “You have to be really careful, Hannah. How much do you actually know about him?”

  I look up at her, trying to read her face. She looks so worried, but I have nothing to tell her. The answer isn’t the kind of thing she wants to hear. I know nothing and everything.

  The way she sits with her back straight and her ankles crossed makes me feel nervous, like a bomb is about to go off at any second. My mom adjusts her position, then takes a deep breath, reaching for my hand. I let her take it, even though I want to pull away.

  “I shouldn’t have let you go,” she says. Her voice is thin and she hasn’t been crying, but her eyes are wide and scared.

  “It wasn’t because we went to the Dairy Queen,” I say. Since the night of the grounding, I’ve mostly avoided looking at her when she’s looking at me, but now I stare right back, meeting her eyes. “It’s because someone out there is a psychopath. They’re crazy, but it’s got nothing to do with us.”

  The way she looks at me makes me feel like she’s seeing something else, her own reflection, maybe. It’s weird to feel yourself disappearing, becoming imaginary, becoming the person someone else wants to see when she looks at you. I stare back, feeling more scared than ever.

  My mom just looks away, squeezing my hand too hard. Her mouth is a tiny worried flower, lipstick pink.

  “You don’t have to believe me,” I say. “But don’t try to tell me that I don’t know what he’s like.”

  Really, though, I’m saying it to Lillian—to Finny, even though he’s somewhere behind a whole parade of closed doors—and it might be an empty, useless thing to say, but I don’t care, because it still feels true, and sometimes the feeling is the only thing that matters.

  Lillian looks away, shaking her head, but my mom just nods. She doesn’t ask me if I’m sure. She doesn’t argue or try to tell me what I really mean. For maybe the first time in my life, she is listening to the words I’m saying and not telling me the words she thinks I should use.

  She slips her arm around behind me and I let her. With my shoulder resting against her, we sit staring out at the empty waiting area.

  “You can’t do anything to help him,” she says with her hand resting on the back of my chair, stroking my hair. “If there’s anything to find out about him, they’ll find it. You know that, right?”

  I nod and lean my head against her shoulder, just quickly, just to feel the reassuring there-ness of her. Then I go back to drinking my cocoa and tearing up my napkin. Lillian is standing with her back against the wall and her arms at her sides, giving me a look that plainly says this is not her idea of a good time. I think this night will last forever.

  When Officer Boles walks through the double doors of the lobby, my heart leaps in my chest and I want to fling myself at him. His expression is blank and unsmiling like always, though, so I don’t.

  “Where’s the Boone kid?” he says to the woman behind the desk, without even giving her any kind of acknowledgement or saying hello.

  She looks up him and smiles in a tired, mechanical way. “They’re interviewing him in room three. Andy and Chris are talking to him.”

  Boles nods like that’s about what he expected to hear, and starts for a door at the back of the waiting room.

  I set down my lukewarm cup of cocoa and hurry across the scuffed linoleum to him, feeling light and small and helpless. “Where’s Officer McGarahan?”

  When Boles sees me, he stops his charge toward the back offices, and his forehead creases. “Hannah. What are you doing here? Didn’t they tell you you could go?”

  I stand in front of him, still clutching my tattered napkin. “You have to tell them,” I say. “Tell them this is just a big mistake—that it’s all wrong.”

  Boles stares down at me, and I think that if he tells me this is just another avenue of the police investigation, the way it has to be, I will scream.

  He doesn’t, though. He just shakes his head. Then he steps around me, heads straight for the door to the interview room, and starts banging on it. When Detective Medina comes out to see why someone’s pounding on his door, Boles stands over him, eyebrows raised. “Does anyone want to tell me what’s going on in my park?”

  Medina considers Boles, with his arms folded across his chest. Then he starts to explain the whole messy situation—how we were down in Muncy after dark, which is a violation of the new curfew, and when the patrol unit came through to check for activity, we were standing over a body.

  “It doesn’t mean anything!” I tell them, and my voice sounds shrill and angry.

  “Now, calm down,” says Medina. “I’m not trying to be the asshole here, but we just found you and your friends in an area that was supposed to be closed to the public after dark, at the site of a homicide. We just want to get the full story.”

  Lillian comes creeping up behind me and wraps her arms around my neck. “It doesn’t matter what you say,” she whispers. The words are icy, but her voice sounds almost sad, like she knows that whatever happens next is going to hurt. “They’re not going to believe you. No one ever believes teenage girls about things like whether or not the guy they’re running around with is a killer. No one ever treats us like we know what we’re talking about.”

  I square my shoulders and ignore her. “He took us through the park because he wanted to get us home. That’s all. The path under the bridge was right there, and it’s faster than going around to the road.”

  Boles nods, but the detective is looking skeptical. He hooks his thumbs in his pockets and sighs. “And even though you knew there was a killer out there, you chose to walk down into an isolated area with a sixteen-year-old boy to what? To protect you?”

  Boles is still watching my face, and his gaze is shrewd. “Look, Hannah, is there anything you want to tell us?”

  I think about that. The truth is, I could tell them all kinds of things, only then I’d have to explain how I know them. The truth is too crazy to say out loud, and how do I ex
plain to the police that all my information is the product of séances, ghosts, and crime-scene photos I wasn’t supposed to see? Still, if I could just give them something useful, point them in the right direction, maybe it could still be enough to help them catch the Valentine Killer.

  I stand between them, keeping my gaze fixed on Boles, trying to make him see how important this is. How crucial. His eyes are dark, set deep and close together under heavy brows. “Do you remember a girl named Monica Harris? She was killed last winter behind the bowling alley on the corner of Costello and Vine.”

  Detective Medina only sighs, but Lillian and Boles are both staring at me.

  Then Boles shakes his head. “Are you telling me that an unsolved murder from a year ago has something to do with three homicides this month?”

  I shrug, but I can almost feel him measuring me, searching the gesture for a buried nod.

  He’s staring at me with the strangest expression. “And why exactly would you think something like that?”

  “I don’t know, I just thought . . . I mean, it was February. There were hearts.” My voice sounds small and apologetic. “The Valentine Killer leaves hearts, and I thought—”

  Boles doesn’t give any indication of what he’s thinking. His gaze is steady and sharp, like he’s reading something else on me, right there on my face.

  Detective Medina is paying attention now too, but he’s looking at Boles, not me. “What’s she talking about? I thought the Harris murder was straightforward, a mugging that went bad, maybe.”

  Boles shakes his head. “There were a few cardboard cutouts lying in the parking lot near where the body was found, but everyone just considered it incidental. The holiday decorations around there are always getting pulled down or vandalized.”

  I’ve got my arms crossed tight over my chest like I’m holding myself together, but it’s not enough to protect me from Boles’s revelation, and I take a step back without meaning to. So everything Lillian and I learned from our makeshift spirit board was true—there was a paper heart at the scene of Monica’s murder. It just didn’t make it into the official police report or the paper, because at the time, no one thought anything of it. At the time, it just seemed completely random.

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