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Places no one knows, p.19
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       Places No One Knows, p.19

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  “I just can’t believe you did that,” Maribeth says. “What were you even thinking?”

  And I don’t say anything, because anything I say will be vicious.

  —

  I’ve slept six hours in two days, so when CJ guides me through the double doors and into the dance, at first I’m not even sure if what I’m seeing is real.

  The gym is a festival of green. It looks like a chemical explosion, complete with colored streamers dripping from the rafters. We are stuck in the heart of a toxic tinsel disaster.

  The rest of the dance planners are already here, clustered around the best table—at the edge of the dance floor, but not too close to the speakers. We weave our way over to them, Maribeth fluttering like a tropical bird, eager to flock decorously with Kendry and Palmer in their assorted jewel tones and their cattleya orchids and shiny barrettes.

  Beside them, Autumn’s outfit is almost too ludicrous to pull off.

  Except, she’s doing it.

  She is haute couture and Hollywood Heroes and epic punk rock. She’s come as Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, and also the most brutal Tinker Bell the world has ever seen, tricked out like some kind of psychopathic ballerina.

  The material of her dress is nothing fancy—just plain white cotton—but the cut is shocking and whimsical, with a short, stiff skirt and brass zippers everywhere. The straps are styled like straps, but they’re also suspenders. She’s got the black bowler hat, the single false eyelash, and all of it’s contrived, but none of it’s wrong.

  She is a fashion god.

  “Oh, my brothers,” I whisper, sliding into the empty seat beside her. There’s almost always an empty spot beside her. This whole time, I’ve assumed it’s because no one wants to get too close, like her lack of polish is somehow contagious. Now, though, I think maybe I was wrong all along, and really she’s just been saving it for me. “Autumn, you look amazing.”

  She smiles and drops me a huge false-eyelashed wink. “They wouldn’t let me bring in my swagger stick. They said it was a weapon.”

  From across the table, Hunter examines her with casual lewdness, openly appreciating her legs, the way her ultra-violent neckline accentuates her breasts.

  Autumn is the new Maribeth. And not in that noncommittal way that black is sometimes the new black. This is confrontational. It’s daring—the social equivalent of Plaid Is the New Black. Fuchsia Is the New Black. Outrageous, sure, but what are you going to do? Everybody who’s anybody is jumping on the plaid bandwagon.

  “Sorry Hollywood Heroes didn’t work out,” I whisper. “It’s hard to fight the inertia of poly-satin.”

  “Oh, who cares?” She sounds like she actually means it. “I’m wearing what I wanted to wear, and I fully intend to have the most fun that has ever been had at one of these things. So, slightly more than one tablespoon. Anyway, change of plans. My mom has this sales conference coming up in, like, Pittsburgh or wherever. I’m totally going to have a party, and it’s going to be unruly and amazing and exactly how I want it.”

  When a fast song comes on, Autumn slides out of her chair and takes the floor, not sullen or slouching or anything I’ve come to expect from her. She moves to the music with her arms aloft, pirouetting through her own private Swan Lake. Her own irreverent ode to joy.

  Halfway through the routine, people start to clap. She maneuvers through the crowd like a beautiful, volatile gyroscope, impossibly graceful in her steel-toed boots. I wonder if they know she’s making fun of them. I wonder how long it took her to learn her extensive selection of ironic Michael Jackson moves.

  She flicks off her bowler hat, letting it tumble down her arm and into her palm, smooth and practiced, no hesitation. She drops the hat onto my head and smiles, batting her false eyelash.

  I laugh. The hat is heavy and warm, slipping over my forehead. I want to hug her the way she hugged me that day in the locker room, to throw away all my carefully cultivated inhibitions and just plunge headlong into the chaos of her. The sheer, unspoiled wonder.

  And right about then is when I see Marshall.

  He’s standing just inside the double doors, under a makeshift arch of silver and green balloons. He has on slacks and a dark button-down shirt and his hair is combed in a slick, deliberate way I don’t recognize. It makes him look young and sort of wet.

  The sensation is like someone sucked the air out of the room, and being breathless is strangely pleasant, until I notice Heather beside him. Her dress is a lurid shade of purple and, in a bold fashion move, is also encrusted with glitter. Her hand is resting on his arm.

  The track switches over to a slow song and she reaches up, slipping her arms around his neck. It hurts in a way that I didn’t know things ever hurt. Deep and without logic.

  CJ sees me looking off at all the swaying couples and leans to whisper in my ear. “Would you like to dance?”

  I let him lead me out into the middle of the gym, under all the fluttering, tumbling confetti.

  It’s probably supposed to be romantic, but it looks like someone planned a birthday party for the Green Goblin. I bet Marshall’s into it anyway. He’s biologically designed for flowers and soft things and all that sentimental stuff, which I know is supposed to be a secret, the way it’s a secret that his heart hurts, a secret that getting insensible is his version of curling up on the floor and closing his eyes. His version of running the cross-country course at Basset at three in the morning until his feet bleed.

  I want to think that Heather is just another part of that, warm mouth and clutching hands and numbness. The way she wants him is just so honest.

  She likes him so much it’s painful and I face front, staring at CJ’s tie. It’s subdued. Sensible. The kind of thing parents buy when they want their sons to grow up to be accountants.

  He pulls me closer. His suit coat is lumpy with buttons. We turn slowly, swaying to the music, rocking in circles as Marshall and Heather wash into sight again and again.

  She’s leaning against him now, her cheek on his shoulder. His hands are long-fingered, clasped gently on her back, and I hate her. Not for resting her head in the place where mine should be, or even for liking him.

  I hate her for existing in all the ways I don’t. For knowing instinctively how to want him here and now, in front of everyone, without caring that everyone will know her desires and her secrets. I hate the way she never worries about anyone seeing her.

  CJ is looking down at me, smiling in a solid, honest way. I lean my head against his chest and close my eyes.

  When the music ends, I don’t know what to do with my voice or my hands. I float back to our table and sink down next to Autumn. I think I might be shaking.

  Marshall and Heather are still standing under the industrial fan, surrounded by confetti. She’s got his shirt untucked and is sliding her hands up the back of his undershirt, reaching for someplace impermissible. My exclusive province, my territory. When she touches him, she is running her hands over my skin.

  I look away, even though my first impulse is to make myself watch, to stare until the ache dissolves. Master the situation, move on.

  I look away because if I don’t, then…nothing. The wound will scab over, scar, go numb. It will cease to exist.

  And so I look away, because there’s a small but ferocious part of me that doesn’t want to stop caring that Heather is getting her steadily degrading DNA all over him.

  I fold my hands in my lap, chin high, back straight. Autumn is lining up silver plastic clocks on the tablecloth, making a tiny timepiece army.

  She scrapes the clocks into a pile, then glances at me, leaning in like she might touch my hand. “Hey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

  But Maribeth flops down across from us before I can get the words out, starry-eyed and flushed. “Oh, no, don’t worry. That’s just Waverly’s face.” She reaches for my arm. “Here, come with me while I fix my hair.”

  Her voice is bright and strained and desolate. I can’t tell if it’s over somethin
g real, imagined, or just the fact her whole extracurricular life has been building up to this fucking dance, and now that the moment is here, she doesn’t know how to cope.

  When she pulls me to my feet, I force a smile and follow her, tripping gaily along as she leads me through the crowd, holding hands like two little girls on their way into tangled thickets and dark woods. It’s both gratifying and disappointing that my heartbreak face isn’t much different from my everyday one. I feel utterly composed. And at the same time, like something inside me has cracked in half.

  In the bathroom, Maribeth stands at the counter. “Here, can you pin this? No, not like that—just move it there and hide it under the edge.”

  I adjust the curls carefully. She could get someone else to do it, of course. Any one of them would be flattered, because one of the secrets of total social domination is to make your moment of vulnerability a premium. You trade on your need for people, bestowing it like a gift.

  The gesture has a broad and cynical application, announcing that I am still the favorite. Announcing to me that I should be flattered.

  Once you know the secrets, though—after all, you were the one who wrote them down—the language loses its meaning. The real reason she picked me is simply that I’m careful.

  When her hair is arranged to her satisfaction, she turns and brushes my cheek with her thumb, wiping away a smudge under my eye.

  “Aren’t you having the best time?” Her smile is syrupy, trying way too hard. “So, are you going to give CJ a kiss goodnight?”

  She looks ferociously happy, and under that, she looks sad. I haven’t seen Hunter in a while.

  I want to let go of my tiny beaded bag and hug her, tell her it’s okay. That even if Hunter never chooses her, despite all her demonstrations of organizational preeminence, someone will. I want to tell her about Marshall, but I don’t.

  This is just what it means to be friends with Maribeth. Never, at any point in my life, have I told her anything that qualified as a feeling. We are not allowed to see the dirty mechanisms of each other’s inner workings.

  Her world view doesn’t encompass Sad-Waverly, and she’d try to fix it in the only way she knows how—by detailing all the ways I’m not built for anything so prosaic as affection.

  She’d carefully explain the emotional limitations of species Camdenmar, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am made of jumper wire and rare-earth metals. If I were really lucky, she’d move on to Marshall’s fundamental composition next, take him apart and lay him out—drugs, report card, lack of healthy male aggression—like all the best things about him are not worth anything.

  So I don’t tell her, because a part of me is still strangely gratified by how it feels to ache for something instead of just waiting for it to be over so I can go home. But mostly, because I don’t want anyone to see the way my mouth will tremble if I have to say his name.

  Maribeth smooths her hair with a few drops of water, flicking her fingertips under the faucet. Her nails are painted a vibrant peacock green. “So, Autumn seems to be having a good time.”

  “I think she pretty much always has a good time.”

  Maribeth does this thing with her hands, like she’s waving Autumn off. “She is just…too much.”

  I apply another layer of lipstick and wonder how a person ever knows what is officially too much.

  When we leave the bathroom, we’re both more composed, slick and hard as porcelain. Maribeth takes my hand again, tugging me toward the dance floor. She’s got her finger hooked in my bracelet like a towline, but as we approach the refreshment table, she stops short. We stand caught in the eddies of dry, freezing air and confetti, green foil stars landing in our hair.

  Autumn is luminous under the fractured light of the mirror ball, slow dancing with Hunter Pennington. His mouth is close to her ear. His hand on her waist is positioned a scant millimeter above someplace inappropriate.

  Maribeth stands beside a giant bowl of pretzels, her finger still caught in my bracelet. I understand two things simultaneously—first, that she is desperately sad and second, that she would never, ever tell me that. At least, not in any way I’d know how to answer. I have a sinking feeling that this is the end of something. This is where I’ll see her fall apart.

  And then she collects herself. With a toss of her head, she leads me straight through the swaying crowd, back to the table, steering us to someplace we belong.

  “There you are!” she says as we come up next to Kendry and Palmer, who are sitting with their heads very close together. Her tone implies that we have searched high and low and are now overjoyed to see them.

  They jump apart, looking guilty, and I’m almost certain that the topic of interest was Maribeth and her philandering date.

  The way she stands over them is imperious.

  Palmer fidgets with a plastic hourglass. “God, so Autumn is really slutting it up, right?”

  Maribeth shrugs like nothing has ever mattered less. “Well, I guess it’s not even surprising. I mean, what do you expect?”

  “Wait, what?” says Kendry. “Expect it why?”

  “Well, it’s just what I heard, but”—Maribeth’s voice drops to a whisper—“last year she got caught behind Kroger’s with the janitor.”

  Her expression is so gleeful—so hateful—it makes me flinch. This is Maribeth wounded. Not beaten or broken, but anguished enough to tear out someone’s throat. I’m almost positive her supposed insider knowledge of Autumn’s sex life is grounded in nothing. Still, it is an unfairness universally acknowledged that when it comes to gossip, objective truth has no bearing whatsoever.

  “Oh my God,” says Kendry, leaning across the table, wide-eyed. “What are you even talking about?”

  “I’m serious, Kelsey Conroy used to work in the flower department. I can’t believe you never heard that!”

  “Gross,” Kendry and Palmer cry in delighted unison, while Maribeth looks at me expectantly.

  I know her well enough to understand the only way to console her is by declaring my alliance. She wants me to prove that I’m still hers. I wonder if I am. If I ever really was. I don’t know any of the words it would take for me to choose her, or why we have no idea how to be sad together.

  Kendry and Palmer laugh behind their hands, the short, stifled laughs of people who know they’re doing something naughty. I look away and tug the bottom of my dress. It’s not even that short, but the bareness of my back makes me feel naked. I want Marshall Holt to see my spine, and no one else.

  Another fast song comes on and the couples all break apart. The sudden change in sound track is too perky and upbeat to deal with. I push my chair back and cross the dance floor, winding between bodies, shuffling through twinkling drifts of confetti until I make it to the bleachers.

  The custodial crew has covered the gap at the end of the stands with butcher paper to discourage closet drinkers and clandestine lovers, but their masking tape barrier is no match for my fingernails. It’s dark under the bleachers and marginally quieter. I slide out of my shoes and sigh as my feet rest flat against the floor. The pain is sharp and immediate, but bearable. I close my eyes and lean back.

  Out in the gym, the music is thumping, girls are dancing, couples are groping each other like drowning people. Somewhere in the dark, Autumn Pickerel is taking everything Maribeth wants.

  I didn’t do this. I didn’t plan or design or wish it. I just made the larceny possible. I stood in the wings and watched it happen and now I’m left with that—that deep, filthy complicity.

  When Marshall materializes out of the dark, there’s a cool, dreamy part of me that’s completely unshocked. The sun is down, and with the sun down, nothing about the real world matters quite as much. Even the air feels softer.

  My arches ache from faraway, pain thudding up my calves. I stand against the wall, cycling through all the words to describe his presence here—inarguable, impossible, insupportable—but his mouth is tentative and inviting. It’s the only thing I want, and a
nyway, what’s one more fantasy?

  He ducks into the narrow gap and stands facing me. The metal folding supports are pressed against his back and his mouth is very close to mine.

  “Hi,” I say, so small and cautious I’m surprised he can even hear it over the music. My voice doesn’t sound like mine.

  He leans closer, and I close my eyes and hold my breath, nearly trembling at the weight of his body in my space. “Hi.”

  This is real. More than the lighter, more than a bruise on my neck—already fading—or some subjective, sentimental list to read aloud in class. This is the closest we have ever come in real life to acknowledging the impossible thread that exists between us. We’re total strangers, and we are magicians with the intimate power to see inside each other, and we’re missing all the small, crucial steps between those two things.

  I have a disjointed daydream of kissing him, getting my special-occasion lipstick all over his mouth, and then I won’t have to say it aloud, everyone will just know.

  “How’s the confetti?” he says. “Having a good time with the pretty people?”

  He has me trapped against the wall, hands braced on either side of my head and I like him looming over me. I like him electrified and wide awake.

  “That depends. Are you having a good time letting Heather grope you?”

  “If I said no, would that make you happy?”

  He stands with the insides of his shoes pressed against the outsides of my bare feet, waiting for me to say something. To tell him that no is the only word in the world that will make me happy, that I saw him with her and I hate it, that I need him to not want anyone else. But the scenario is impossible. Need is not in the Waverly vocabulary.

  “So,” I say, and I say it coolly, cruelly, like nothing in the world has ever mattered to me less than this. “I take it she still doesn’t know that you’re using her as your own personal razor blade?”

 
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