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Places no one knows, p.2
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       Places No One Knows, p.2

           Brenna Yovanoff

  I answer with bland Waverly derision, the line I’m supposed to say. “What can I tell you? The slacker contingent is always in desperate need of guidance.”

  But my heart’s not in it.


  My last period of the day is spent behind the reception desk in the counseling office. It’s a post reserved for well-behaved girls who already have sufficient credits, but are not so aimless as to want a whole off-hour to themselves.

  For the next seventy-five minutes, I will wear my helpful-person mask. Pretend I’ve had the requisite amount of sleep. My face feels cool and rigid, like it’s made of marble.

  By midnight, I’ll have the voltage of a Tesla coil, but right now my legs are stiff and heavy. Things are hurting where they never used to hurt. I close my eyes and press my hands against my face. The counseling office is empty, so quiet you can hear the wires humming in the ceiling. In the computer monitor, my reflection is pale, ghostly around the edges. As much as I hate to admit it, Maribeth’s right—I look half transparent. I look terrible.

  I log on with the admin account and scour the Internet for relaxation techniques.

  There are a lot of techniques. Some involve name-brand prescription drugs purchased at low, low prices from Canada. Others take a more holistic approach—recordings of white noise, incense and prayer candles. Counting backward from a power number again and again and again.

  I make a list of possible solutions, complete with bullet points, notations on ease and convenience. Then I tear up the list and put it in the trash can.

  Here’s to admitting you have a problem.

  I clear the browser and open my bag. Some people would use office duty to get a head start on their homework, but mine is done and has habitually been done for weeks. Not sleeping gives you all the time in the world.

  Instead I take out a crossword puzzle. It’s at that obnoxious halfway point where all the easy ones are filled in, and the rest just sit there blank and mocking.

  Forty-five across. Name. Renaissance-era poisoner. Fourteen letters, begins with L.

  I’m staring at the squares, counting them over and over, when the door to the reception area wheezes open and someone slides a lavender hall pass across the desk. Big hands with long fingers and bony knuckles. Boy-hands. He smells like a mixture of detergent and something complex and peppery. He doesn’t say anything.

  After the silence lasts so long it stops being annoying and starts being awkward, I look up. Marshall Holt is standing over me. He drops his gaze and mumbles something incoherent.

  I lean back in my chair. “Excuse me?”

  He’s not imposing, but his chest and shoulders look bigger when he folds his arms.

  “I’m supposed to see Trunch,” he says, louder this time, but only marginally.

  The Trunchbull is one of three guidance counselors tasked with the academic and emotional well-being of the entire Henry Morgan student body. Of the three, she’s the biggest, the loudest, and the meanest, and she’s probably been here for as long as the school has existed, which is approximately as long as people have been calling her Trunchbull.

  I drag the logbook across the desk and pencil in Marshall’s arrival time. His expression is unreadable.

  “You can go in,” I say when he doesn’t move. Suddenly, my heart is beating too fast for no good reason. I keep my eyes fixed on his face until he turns away.

  As soon as he’s disappeared into the office, the reception area feels manageable again.

  I push my chair in a circle, listening to the murmur of voices. Trunch can usually be counted on to sound semi-inconvenienced at best, but through the door, her tone is strange—not irritable or impatient. Instead, she sounds almost tender, and that is interesting.

  There’s a place just under the ceiling vent where everything that happens in the guidance office is clearly audible for one square foot. I roll backward in time to hear Trunch sigh and do something organizational with a stack of paper.

  “Let’s talk about your plans for college,” she says in her smoker’s rasp.

  For a second, there’s silence, and then Marshall does the strangest thing. He laughs. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”

  I expect Trunch to argue, or at least try and talk him into taking some classes at the community college, but she lets it go. She waits a full ten seconds before she says, “Regardless, you need to do something about your grades.”

  “Like what?” he says, and as bored as he sounds, I think I can hear him smiling.

  I’m dubiously impressed that someone could accrue this much academic misfortune only a month and a half into the semester.

  “Well,” Trunch says dryly. “You could start by employing a few simple tricks. You know, show up now and then? Maybe try some of that fabled classroom participation, turn something in once in a while.”

  Marshall’s voice is lower, but just as clear. “Maybe I’m not that bright.”

  “I have two years’ worth of standardized tests that say otherwise.”

  “I thought those tests were supposed to be biased or something.”

  That makes her laugh—a hoarse, cawing sound. “Generally, the issue of bias doesn’t come up when you decimate every section. Your English scores are phenomenal.”

  “Yeah, well, I speak English.”

  She laughs again, but it’s short this time, and bitter. “Have you been to a remedial comp class lately? I’m not talking about them, Marshall. I’m talking about you. What about math?”

  “So, I can count. Big deal.”

  Their conversation devolves into a catalog of teachers and course numbers. Instructions for him to at least take home some applications, at least look into financial aid. I stare at the crossword, but no answers present themselves. I feel heavy, like I can’t lift my hands.

  When Marshall finally comes back out of the office, he doesn’t look at me.

  In the shallow pool of appealing boys at Henry Morgan, there are two kinds: the ones who are not to touch, and the ones you might possibly think about touching if you were bored at a party and there was nothing on TV and you wanted to see what the big deal was, but didn’t really want it to go anywhere because they don’t know who George A. Romero is and anything more than five sloppy minutes would probably end in homicide.

  Marshall is the first kind.

  He stands over me with his arms folded and his gaze averted, waiting for me to check him out. This task may be completed in several ways.


  His mouth

  His wry self-deprecation

  The way his T-shirt complements his shape

  The way he smells clean and disreputable at the same time


  His laziness

  His wry self-deprecation

  The way he dozes off in class

  The way he’s looking past me, over my head, like I’m almost too trivial to stand

  When I stamp his pass and slide it across to him, he meets my gaze for the first time. His eyes are a dark, complicated brown. Suddenly, I’m convinced that he’s going to say something and it’s going to be scathing. But he just turns and walks out, letting the door sigh shut behind him.

  I stack the hall passes so their edges are flush, perfectly parallel to the keyboard and the monitor. Pens in a tidy row, pretend that order equals tranquility—already looking ahead to cross-country practice, the next predetermined activity, the next unit of the day. Everything perfect, everything in its place.

  Somewhere, there’s a merit scholarship in all of this.


  Between cross-country and the twice-weekly meeting of the Most Hallowed and Venerable Homecoming Committee, I go home and shower. Then I walk over to Maribeth’s.

  All of the best people have gathered in her living room, sharing gossip and takeout containers. Maribeth is at the center of their orbit, their beaming sun. Everyone clusters around her, basking in her radioactive glow, soaking up the light-years until star-death.

>   When I step down into the split-level rec room, she smiles and holds out a felt-tip marker. “Here, you can help with the stencils.”

  Maribeth does a lot of things involving markers. I sometimes suspect this is her own socially approved form of drug use. No need for misappropriated liquor or illicit substances. Petrochemical vapors go right to your brain.

  She’s flipping through a catalog of formal dresses, supervising the poster construction with good-natured detachment. Loring is perched on the corner of a velvet ottoman, smiling hopefully like Maribeth is not usurping her authority in greedy gulps.

  I sit cross-legged beside them, ready to spend two or three hours in mute, agreeable productivity. My skull is echoing, like I left my conversational abilities someplace else. My whole body feels vacant.

  “Like you mean it,” Maribeth whispers under her breath, and I adjust my expression automatically. A smile is for everybody else.

  “I hate short hair on girls,” she says, folding down a corner of the page and then folding it up again.

  The magazine is open to a picture of an androgynous model with no hips and a spiky Mohawk, bleached and razored. My first impression is that the way she’s slumped artfully on the little brocade fainting couch makes her look disassembled. My next is that her hectic cheeks remind me of how Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with girls with tuberculosis and I still need to find another secondary source for my AP lit project.

  I finish stenciling a twinkly star, and the way I can tell that sleeplessness is getting to me is that for three or four seconds, I’m oblivious to the fact that Maribeth is watching the side of my face, waiting for me to say something.

  When I finally look up, she acts like I’ve reproached her. “Oh, shut up, Waverly! I didn’t mean on you. Your hair looks fine.”

  Once, Maribeth told Kendry Epstein that she hated when top-heavy girls wore clingy shirts—it accentuates the way their bra straps dig in. Kendry hasn’t worn her Carl Carringer blouse since, even though she bought it with her own money and I know for a fact that it cost two paychecks.

  The way Maribeth can cut through someone’s entire being with just a sentence or a glance is something close to magical. She knows, with unerring acuity, how to pick a thing apart like she’s not even trying. I used to find this impressive, but lately there are times when I don’t think she even knows that she’s doing it.

  My hair is smooth and sensible, low-maintenance. It looks the way it always looks. I draw a circle and try not to think about the larger implications.

  A primary component of the dance-planning committee is simply the opportunity to socialize with the right kind of boys. The varsity kind, college-bound, muscle-bound.

  Maribeth is showing pictures of formal dresses to her future boyfriend, Hunter Pennington, asking him what he thinks about bubble hems. I can kill the suspense right now: Hunter does not think of bubble hems at all.

  I spend most of the evening trying to deflect the attentions of CJ Borsen, who is on the soccer team with Hunter, and is, in his own way, just as blandly datable—tall enough to wear heels with, polite enough to never point out that you’ve stopped listening. Attractive enough that if I showed up somewhere with him, everyone would glance over and nod approvingly.

  Taking advantage of a lull in conversation, he leans across the coffee table. “Hey, I don’t know if Maribeth already told you, but student council is talking about maybe starting the canned food drive early.”

  I hate student council.

  When I actually take the time to think about the situation and the circumstances, to think about what is happening right-now-this-minute, it’s not that confusing.

  We planned this, Maribeth and I. We built it, orchestrated it—me, the sly strategist, and her, the smiling, gleaming princess—all purely by design.

  Back in eighth grade, Taylor Cassidy was the most popular girl in school. She was head of yearbook, captain of the volleyball team, cool and effortless and golden.

  We…were not.

  When Taylor found out she was moving to Tennessee at the end of the year, Maribeth saw the opportunity I’d never even known we were waiting for.

  We were sitting on the floor of her walk-in closet, playing Reversi. Back then, she still liked to do things like that.

  She said, “When Taylor leaves, I want to be head of yearbook. I want to be her.”

  “Why?” I said.

  “Because when you’re the prettiest and the most popular, then you’re in charge of everything. You can do whatever you want.”

  And maybe I was never very socially inclined—but that? That made sense.

  Maribeth wanted to take the summer to properly transform. She had this vision of coming back changed and everyone falling down at her feet in awe. She’d been watching too many movies.

  “No,” I said, and I only meant it in a practical sense, but she frowned anyway.

  I didn’t care. I was already planning it in my head, arranging the Reversi disks to form a war map of the three most relevant cliques in school, knowing that this was what Henry V knew. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re outnumbered ten to one. With the right strategy, the right weather conditions, and the right men, you can still take over France.

  “Do it now,” I said. “Do it before Taylor leaves, and then it won’t be provisional.” I was in accelerated English for the first time, proud of busting out provisional in conversation. “If you do it now, no one can take it away from you.”

  We made her what she is, step by step and piece by piece. Half the tricks she knows? I invented them. Or at least, I stole them from Machiavelli and Sun Tzu and Heathers.

  We did it, just like I knew we would, moving into the delicate ecosystem of student organizations like an invasive species, making the territory ours one biweekly meeting at a time—student council, Key Club, mock UN. Formal dance committee looms imminent on the horizon.

  And now, Maribeth’s world is also mine, and every time the hours move too slow, or the conversation makes me want to punch a baby bunny, I just remember that I brought it on myself.


  When I get up to forage for something to drink, CJ follows me into the kitchen and I experience a gloomy premonition.

  CJ’s face is so symmetrical it seems vaguely unnatural. He’s proportioned like an ad for something patriotic, with thick, reddish hair, last year’s midrange Volvo, and a dimple in his chin.

  The way he’s looking at me now is too blatantly significant, and I already know exactly what’s going to happen.

  Once when we were fourteen, Maribeth got the very backward idea that I had a crush on this boy named Jarett Fitz. She told everyone.

  On the first day of this charming debacle, I pulled her into the bathroom and tried to explain that she was wrong, and she laughed and said I must really like him if I was making such a big thing about it.

  So I stopped making a big thing, but it was too late. Everyone was talking about it, and after another forty-eight hours, it just seemed easier to decide that I wanted to date Jarett.

  Except—and here’s the thing. I didn’t. At that point, the only boy I had ever wanted to date even a little was this skinny blond kid in my accelerated math class who liked Mandelbrot fractals and walked the scary line between prodigy and genius. He won the science invitational, and the next year, he got sent to one of those private schools where everyone owns their own graphing calculators, and I never saw him again. This is not the touching point of the story.

  The point is that the unfortunate Jarett asked me out, which in ninth grade essentially means that you meet someplace, hold hands, and kiss with way too much tongue. Then he tells all his friends you gave him head, even though you didn’t get remotely close, and no one really believes it, but they repeat the story anyway, because it’s just that delicious.

  I told him no.

  Then Maribeth got mad at me for making her look unreliable and undermining our social endeavors. She told me I was being unreasonable, which is something
I am definitively not, and that I wasn’t being loyal to the plan.

  I stood my ground for a week. Then I apologized, and she forgave me.

  CJ is looming over me now, gazing down with hopeful good cheer. “You were good in Spanish today.”

  “Thanks,” I say to the eight matching canisters of dry goods on Maribeth’s counter. Coffee is full to the top, but the Tea and Sugar levels are down.

  “Waverly.” He’s very close and smells like spicy Cheetos and something sweet that makes me want to sneeze. “I was wondering if you wanted to go to the dance with me.”

  His eyes are green like spring foliage or breath mints, and the point of having a date for the dance is having something to be smug about.

  I watch him so long that he starts to squirm.

  “Yes,” I say, because it’s easier than saying something else.


  By the time I get home, my nighttime restlessness is starting to set in. I’m ready to peel off my sweater and shrug out of my day. Shrug out of my life. Night is when I mind the most that everything feels fake.

  My mother is standing in the kitchen with her phone pinned between her shoulder and her ear, drawing tiny rows of dichotomous flowers around the logo on a Zoloft promotional notepad.

  “Stephanie,” she says with absolute authority. “You can’t expect a person who’s already established this kind of baseline to spontaneously change. The fact is, no matter how much you might want to see an improvement, it’s going to be her own choice.”

  Stephanie is the other clinical psychologist at the mental health center. My mother doesn’t have friends, she has colleagues.

  “Waverly?” she says, giving me a little wave. “Oh, she’s fine. She just walked in.”

  The word fine blossoms in my brain, appearing out of nowhere for the second time today, but that’s hardly surprising. People use it so much it barely has meaning. They use it so much they might as well say nothing at all.

  My mother seems untroubled by the emptiness of social conventions. She holds up her index finger, looking off over my head. “Stephanie—Stephanie, I have to go.”

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