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Paper valentine, p.2
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       Paper Valentine, p.2

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  As soon as I take out the hydrocortisone cream and close the cabinet, Lillian’s there, standing right behind me. It’s one of her favorite tricks to pop out from behind doors or come looming up beside me in the mirror. Next to hers, my reflection is sweaty and red. She looks like a cadaver.

  “Hannity,” she says, wrapping her arms around my neck. “Do you think maybe that girl wound up like me? Do you think she’s out there right now, haunting the park or whatever?”

  I stare back at her reflection, trying to look unconcerned, but I’m squeezing the tube of skin cream way too hard. Lillian almost never mentions her current situation.

  When I finally answer, I know on some uncomfortable level that I’m just echoing what my mom said earlier at the table, but I can’t help it. The way Lillian fixates on ugly things makes me feel shuddery, like there’s something creeping on the back of my neck. “That’s so morbid. Don’t even talk about it.”

  “You would have talked about it last year,” she says, holding my gaze in the mirror. “Back when you used to be fun.” She presses close against me. Her cheek is freezing. “You used to call me Lyle.”

  I shimmy away out of her grip and shake my head. “You used to be alive.”

  It used to shock me, seeing her appear out of thin air, but now it’s just normal. When she maneuvers in front of me, her expression is expectant and I wait for her to remind me of how we were best friends, that I have to talk about Cecily or toxic waste or animal testing or genocide or whatever she wants, because I owe it to her. I wait for her to trot out the list of things she’s given me, all the ways she plucked me from invisibility and made me matter.

  Lillian dragged me along through the land of ironic, upcycled fashion and three-car garages and bouncy wicked sequined popularity, and when she died, I was the only one who even seemed to miss her.

  All the rest of them, Angelie and Jessica and Carmen, cried and made fancy cards and swore up and down to never ever forget her, but two months later, their lives went right back to normal and I was the only one stuck with what’s left: Lillian from the months before she died—all her worst parts.

  Now she slouches against the counter, tipping her head back to stare at the ceiling. “Maybe it was a ritualistic sacrifice.”

  I take the cap off the Cortaid and smear a glob on the bridge of my nose. “Or maybe it was a creepy neighbor. Now could you please just drop it?”

  It’s a stupid question, though. Lillian can never drop anything—not when she was alive, and especially not now that she’s dead. Sometimes I think that’s the whole reason she’s still here—she’s weighted down, anchored by all the things she couldn’t let go.

  I have to believe that, because the alternative is that she’s here because of me, which is just blatantly not true.

  I am not the kind of person who gets haunted by anything.



  Mondays get such a bad reputation, but I kind of like them.

  Mondays are when my mom leaves early to do the books at the store, and Decker leaves late for his construction job so he can fix us breakfast.

  When I get downstairs, he and Ariel are already in the kitchen making pancakes, and Pinky Ortero is sitting at the table drinking something orange out of a plastic Big Gulp cup from the gas station. It’s all over her top lip, making her look deranged.

  “Buongiorno,” she says, waving the cup at me.

  Pinky has red cowboy boots and a silver BMX bike and four brothers. She and Ariel are best friends because they both have what my mother calls “big personalities.”

  I sit down next to her and watch as Decker lumbers around the kitchen, getting out flour and buttermilk, with Ariel swinging from his neck.

  Pinky sets down her cup, reaching to touch one of the sugar-pink roses that are sewn in a tumbling cascade down the front of my halter dress. I spent hours cutting out stacks of tiny silk petals and then stitching them carefully to the bodice and the skirt so they fell in a graceful avalanche, pooling around the hem, just like one they sell at Heléne in the mall for three hundred dollars.

  When I wore it to school for the first time, back in April, Angelie said it looked like a flower shop threw up on me, but I just shrugged. The way she said it was like she wanted me to admit she was right or feel stupid wearing it, but I didn’t. The dress had turned out exactly the way I’d pictured it. I’d layered the petals so artfully and so delicately they almost looked real, and whenever Angelie came over to do DIY stuff after school, she usually spent most of the afternoon just trying to figure out how to blind stitch an appliqué to her shoulder bag without the fabric bunching.

  I’ve always been better at those kinds of things, though—the sewing and the making. Angelie starts a pattern or a project and then gets bored with it. Sometimes she tries to do something easy, like a tube skirt or a T-shirt dress, but in the end she pretty much always winds up buying most of her stuff at Buffalo Exchange or Urban Outfitters, which Lillian used to say was only, like, three or four steps off from J.C. Penney, and that the only reason she put up with such a blatant lack of originality was that we’d known Angelie forever, and that at least it wasn’t Sears.

  The kitchen is warm and full of sunlight, making my dress look even brighter than real life.

  “You’re like a cupcake,” Pinky says, and Decker laughs.

  He switches on the stove and turns to face me, Ariel still dangling from his neck. “So, Miss Confectionary, got anything special on the agenda today?”

  I smile a sweet-cupcake smile and nod, which is kind of a lie and kind of not. I know what I’m doing (being responsible) and where I’m going (Ariel’s music camp, my cousin Kelly’s photo shop), but I don’t really know how to answer the question. Having someplace to go is not the same as an agenda.

  Before Lillian died, I was never out of ideas, and not just because we hung out all the time, but because I was always making things—designing bracelets or hair ornaments out of leftover beads and upholstery fabric from my mom’s work.

  Now, I mostly fill the time with being helpful and the rest of it hanging out with Angelie and Carmen and Jessica, and the hours spool out like a ribbon I can’t find the end of. Even when I have a project or a plan, even when I dress up like Tinker Bell and smile so bright that the light hurts my eyes, everything around me feels sort of like it’s winding back on itself.

  Across the table from me, Ariel is doing elaborate surgery on her pancake, cutting out a wide psycho smile, biting out eyeholes.

  “Where’s Katie?” I say, not really dying to know.

  Katie Randall used to be at our house all the time, and I know she’s in the summer band program with them, but I haven’t seen her around much since school got out.

  Pinky just shrugs, but Ariel shakes the pancake at me and rolls her eyes. “She doesn’t hang out with us anymore. She started to, like, develop. Now she thinks she’s better than everyone.”

  Pinky pinches her T-shirt with both hands, holding it out from her chest and wiggling violently in her chair.

  “Don’t be mean,” I say. “That’s mean.”

  Ariel just shrugs. “Yeah? Well, so’s Katie. She said I was a boobless stick, and that Pinky was going to turn into a real porker just like her mom.”

  That piece of wisdom is pretty much hilarious. Mrs. Ortero is a roundish woman, but it’s not like she’s huge or anything, and until about a year ago Pinky was so head-to-toe bony she was practically nonexistent. A porker, she is not.

  “Twiggy and Piggy,” Pinky says, then throws her head back, shrieking like a howler monkey.

  Ariel is holding the pancake to her face, looking at me through the eyeholes. And even though she’s getting syrup all over her placemat, it makes me laugh. The pancake mask is insanely creepy.

  Decker tips another pancake out of the skillet and slide
s it onto my plate. He’s younger than my mom and has a full sleeve tattoo and a shaved head. I know I’m supposed to be weird about him because he’s my stepdad, but my parents got divorced when Ariel was three, and Decker is actually kind of awesome.

  He gives Pinky the last pancake, then turns off the stove, standing with his back to the cabinets and the spatula still in his hand.

  Then he leans his elbows on the counter and looks down at me. “Your mom and I had a talk last night about what was on the news, and we decided it would be a good idea if you’d take the girls to and from school for a while. Just to make sure they stay safe—just until this guy’s picked up. She doesn’t want them walking alone.”

  Pinky and Ariel both make a big thing of sighing, like this is the biggest inconvenience they’ve ever heard. Since their music camp started, they usually just meet at our house and walk over together. It’s been years since Ariel needed a chaperone to go six blocks. But this is exactly like my mom to get worked up about something and then make Decker say the ugly, scary parts, so she doesn’t have to.

  I nod, waiting for him to say more, but the silence gets longer and he just looks someplace else.

  Finally, he runs a hand over his scalp and pushes himself away from the counter. “Okay, I’m taking off. Watch your sister,” he says, like Ariel is a television.

  * * *

  Just before ten o’clock, I herd Ariel and Pinky out the door so I can walk them over to Harris Johnson High School. As we leave the front porch, it’s just the three of us. Lillian might follow me around the house most days or hang out with me at work, but she prefers to avoid the sunlight, which can be kind of a challenge in Ludlow.

  I’ve seen her outside a couple times—at her funeral, and then once on the porch swing when I was over at Angelie’s—but it’s a lot of work for her, like she has to concentrate really hard just to stay visible. I don’t know if that’s something that’s true for all ghosts, though, or just for her. Even in the last few months before she died, Lillian didn’t really like to go outside anymore.

  I glance back at the house, and almost think I see her, watching from the upstairs window of Ariel’s room, but I can’t be sure. It might just be a smudge on the glass.

  At the end of our driveway, there’s a dead crow lying on the sidewalk. Ariel finds a stick and pokes it.

  “Don’t,” I say. “It’s not safe.”

  Since the virus got bad, the birds are everywhere. They decompose in little black heaps, bones poking through the feathers as their skin dissolves off them. In the papers, the Centers for Disease Control tallies up blood tests and trips to the emergency room. Sometimes people die, but only old people. Or sometimes little kids, which is sad in the same blue, far-off way that Cecily in the nature park was sad. Ariel’s not all that little anymore, but still there’s no point in taking chances.

  “Gross,” says Pinky, hitching her backpack higher on her shoulder.

  Ariel jabs the bird again, making the sunken body rock stiffly. “It was alive yesterday. I saw it, like, floundering when I took out the recycling.”

  Its feathers look crumpled, shining with a dirty rainbow, like an oil slick. It smells like chicken dust and dead things.

  “Seriously!” I make a halfhearted grab for her arm, but she wriggles away from me. “Stop messing with it.”

  Ariel rolls her eyes and gives the crow one last defiant poke before shoving it off the sidewalk into the gutter and dropping the stick. It’s probably fine, but I kick the stick down into the storm grate anyway, so none of the little kids in our neighborhood will pick it up and play with it. By the time I look up, the girls are already halfway down to the corner of Sherwood and Muncy, and I have to walk fast to catch up.

  Ariel is charging along like someone on a mission, but Pinky dawdles, hopping her way through a half-finished hopscotch grid. The squares are lopsided, drawn in three different colors of chalk, and it makes me think of a long rainbow crocodile. The 2 is printed big and floppy and backward.

  At Harris Johnson, I stand on the sidewalk and watch Pinky and Ariel until they’re safely in through the double doors. Then I cut across the baseball diamonds and out along Coronado to the grimy strip mall three blocks over.

  Quality Photo is in a narrow slot between a coin appraiser and a locksmith. I step inside to the sound of the bell jangling above me.

  “Oh, thank God,” Kelly says from behind the counter, turning with the phone caught between her shoulder and her ear.

  Kelly is twenty-seven. My mom says she’s crazy to run a business by herself. My mom also says it’s crazy to be processing color film when everyone in the whole technologically relevant world uses digital, but to be completely honest, Kelly has never been interested in what’s logical or easy.

  The strip mall is about forty years old, and you can still kind of tell that the shop used to be a payday loan place, but it’s clean and bright. The walls are painted baby yellow and most of the floor space is taken up by displays of camera accessories and picture frames. The rest of it is filled with big, noisy machines and a smell like vinegar and sulfur and warm moving parts.

  Right now, though, the biggest printer is sitting motionless and Kelly is sighing into the phone, writing down part numbers on the back of a receipt. When she nods, the end of her ponytail slaps between her shoulders.

  She holds her hand over the mouthpiece and gestures at Matilda Braun, who is made of painted steel and is the oldest, noisiest optical photo printer in the world. “I changed the paper, and now the advance is stuck and Brad can’t even tell me why—he just keeps saying that she’s old. I know she’s old!”

  Kelly is always on the phone with Brad from Services. The machines break down every other day, and it’s true that some of it’s because everything in the shop is really, really old, but sometimes it’s because Kelly just isn’t that careful. She moves too fast and never remembers that even though there’s room for only two prints to move side by side on the belt, Matilda Braun doesn’t cut the paper in pairs. Whenever there’s a paper jam, there’s always another piece.

  As soon as I kneel down to pry open the maintenance door, Lillian materializes like black magic, peeking around the corner of the machine.

  “I don’t even know why you like these things,” she says, pointing into the nest of rollers and belts and gears, past the warning pictures taped to the inside of the door. “They’re practically cannibalistic.”

  The illustrations are full of blunt metal slabs and sharp edges. Pinch points like torture devices—hands caught in heavy machinery, crushing all the bones.

  “Careful,” Lillian says beside my ear. “Don’t want to lose a digit.”

  I look away and snake my hand between the rollers, feeling around for the jam.

  The paper is crumpled, lavender from light exposure, and I roll it out carefully so I don’t mess up the belt tension. Kelly is good with cameras and with money, but she always handles Matilda Braun too hard.

  “Did you get it?” she says, hanging up the phone.

  I nod and hold out the crumpled sheet.

  “That’s it—I’m canceling the maintenance plan. Brad has no idea what he’s talking about. Here, come over real quick and let me check the settings on the passport camera.”

  I stand against the marbled backdrop with my hands flat against the wall. Kelly threatens to cancel the maintenance plan at least once a week.

  Over by the register, Lillian is sitting on top of the price list with her legs folded under her, making faces and trying to get me to laugh.

  “Chin up,” Kelly says from behind the round staring eye of the lens. Her voice is soft. In the real world, she’s always going too fast, but with the camera held to her eye, she settles down.

  “Good,” she says from behind the sound of the clicking shutter. “Good.”

  When she’s done,
she prints the test shots on the little tabletop passport printer. The pictures come out in twin squares. Me, looking sweaty and sunburned. The contrast on the passport camera is always way too high, and in the picture my eyes are paler and brighter, silvery like antique coins, fixed somewhere beyond the frame.

  Fixed on Lillian.

  * * *

  I spend the morning dusting shelves and sticking price tags on packets of lens-cleaning tissue. I’m only allowed to run the printer when the shop is closed, since Kelly has a hard enough time getting customers to take her seriously as it is.

  She makes sure all the rush orders are caught up before she takes her lunch break, so the only thing for me to do is help customers and run the register, while Kelly sits on the counter in the back, eating a sandwich and reading Vogue.

  She finishes just in time to come back out and write up the police order for officers McGarahan and Boles. They’re beat cops, in charge of things like doing the community outreach program at school and bringing in the crime-scene film.

  Kelly told me once that metro police departments all have their own processing labs in-house, but that means they have to have the paper and the machines and someone to run them, plus the chemicals are expensive and mostly toxic. Ludlow barely has the money for cruisers and body armor. So the police department uses Quality Photo because Kelly’s fast and does good work, but mostly they use Quality Photo because the lab technician at Royal Crest said she couldn’t do the crime-scene photos anymore.

  After the bad ones, Kelly sometimes gets quiet, but she never cries in the bathroom, which is what the girl at Royal Crest used to do before she said she had to stop taking the account.

  Boles hangs back, looking at the lens-care display, but McGarahan comes up to the counter, carrying the paper shopping bag that holds their film for the day.

  I take the bag from him and sort the film cassettes, arranging them in neat rows, but I let Kelly figure out the print orders.

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