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Paper valentine, p.20
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       Paper Valentine, p.20

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  Medina starts to say something, but Boles holds up a hand. “Now why would you ask about hearts, Hannah? Did someone say something to you? How did you know about the valentine decorations?”

  I hesitate, cycling through possible answers. Lucky guess. Ouija board. The ghost of my dead best friend. “Kelly told me.”

  Boles nods, his gaze never leaving my face. He knows it isn’t true, not because it’s so impossible that Kelly would tell me secure information or even because I look guilty—although I know I must—but because a few ruined holiday decorations wouldn’t have even seemed important enough to remark on, and because Kelly didn’t have the crime-scene account that winter. Royal Crest did.

  I try to think how I’ll answer when he calls me on the lie, of what I can say to explain my uncanny knowledge of the heart, but he doesn’t say anything else. He just looks at me in that same shrewd, unsettling way he always does. Perfectly blank.

  * * *

  It’s after midnight by the time we get home. All the lights are on. The kitchen still smells like Decker’s garlic pesto sauce from dinner.

  The whole place is way too hot, and Ariel hasn’t said anything since the police station.

  As soon as I walk into the house, the barrage of ghostly whispers seems to come from everywhere, pressing in, making the middle of my eardrums throb. I can still smell the dark, stinking memory of the air under the bridge and my feet feel heavy. I can’t stop thinking about the weight of Abby Brooks shifting under my shoes, her body rocking stiffly. I can’t stop remembering that these shoes touched her. That her death touches me.

  When I can’t stand it anymore, I take off my shoes and put them outside by the back steps. Then I go up to my room, where I find Lillian sprawled across my bed, reclining with her hands clasped behind her head and looking gaunt. “I can’t believe you actually told them about Monica!”

  “Why not?” I say, and I say it like a challenge, like I’m daring her to give me her best shot. It’s weird to realize that she can usually make me doubt myself, but not about this. “Why not point out that she was beaten to death behind the bowling alley and they never caught the guy? It’s not exactly a secret, Lillian.”

  “No, but you know what is a secret? That paper heart.”

  “So? Why would I hold back something that important?”

  “Um, I don’t know, maybe because it sounds kind of crazy?”

  I just look at her. Then I shake my head and glance away. “Well, whatever. It’s not like they believed me.”

  I expect her to gloat, to give me some kind of triumphant smile or at least an “I told you so,” but she just sits up and wraps her arms around her knees. “What now?” she says, and it’s weird because I can’t remember her ever saying that to me before. She was always the one who knew what to do next.

  “I have to find out who’s doing this,” I say, staring up at the string of rainbow Christmas lights. “Otherwise they’re going to keep Finny there, maybe charge him with murder, and I should have stopped them.”

  I was totally stoic the whole way home, but finally saying it out loud makes my voice tremble. I might as well be saying this is all my fault. I did this to him. I wavered for one terrible moment, but it was the moment that counted.

  Lillian nods, hugging her arms across her chest, cupping the points of her shoulders. “What are you going to do?” she whispers, and her voice is so frail, like the thinnest, saddest song.

  “Someone knows something they haven’t told us. Even if it’s something small or that doesn’t seem like it matters. They have the clue, the thing that will tell us who’s out there doing the killing. The girls know, Lillian. They have to. And I’m going to find out what it is.”

  WHITE RABBIT

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  For a second, we just sit there looking at each other. The room feels so empty and so small. The storm of whispering is roaring in my ears, making it hard to think, hard to concentrate on any one voice.

  I yank back the braided rug and set the jelly glass down in the middle of the floor. I’m still wearing my mom’s Warped Tour T-shirt and my shorts. My back feels sticky from the heat. It’s one o’clock in the morning, and the neighborhood is dark and silent out my window. Even though the moon is still high enough to send long rectangles of light across the carpet, I reach across my nightstand and turn on the lamp. The bulb casts a warm orange glow over everything, the shade draped in an old silk scarf I got from the dollar bin at my mom’s consignment store. Warm but not cozy.

  On the bed, Lillian is sitting with her knees up, watching as I position my fingertips on the edge of the upturned glass, trying to ignore how cold it feels under my hands.

  “Hello,” I say, speaking into the stillness of my room, and my voice sounds very loud.

  The rushing static grows louder in my head, so thick and heavy it suddenly seems hard to breathe.

  “One of you—any of you—please, can you tell me the thing that will help catch the person who killed you?”

  And in that moment, it sounds like all the frantic voices in the world are shouting over one another, clamoring to be heard. Then, as abruptly as it started, the noise stops. The room is suddenly so quiet that I think I might scream.

  The glass begins its slow crawl across the floor, coasting gently at first, then picking up speed. I make sure to keep my hands firmly planted, even though I can feel my heart hammering in my chest and I want more than anything to pull away. The glass slides over to the newspaper clipping of the makeshift shrine near where Cecily’s body was found. It coasts along the edge of the photo’s caption, circling the word memorials.

  “What about them?” I whisper, but the glass only jerks hard to the side and slides away toward the bed before turning sharply and stopping on a glossy rectangle scissored from a flyer for laser eye surgery.

  look.

  The room is cold enough to make my ears throb. I keep my hands held out in front of me, though, tucking my arms closer against my sides, waiting for an explanation, or at least a sign.

  When it comes, it’s not the jumble of noise that’s been filling my head for weeks. It’s clear and calm, speaking out of the corner by my bed.

  “He’ll pick you,” says the voice, so fierce it seems to ruffle my hair.

  I can feel her there, standing just beyond my field of vision, perfectly still in the corner of the room.

  “Monica?” I whisper, fighting the urge to close my eyes and tuck my hands under my chin.

  “No,” says the voice, louder now in the impossible stillness of my room. “Hailey Martinsen.”

  I nod a stiff, frantic little nod, staring straight ahead at the clippings plastered all over the floor. There’s the soft scraping sound of shoes scuffing on my floor, and that’s how I know she’s there—really there, in the horrible solid way that Lillian has been here for months—and that if I turn my head, I’ll see her, with her dark eyes and her bloody hair and her orange nail polish chipping off her fingers. I’ll see the unutterable deadness of her, the face that looked up at me out of the river.

  “What happened to you?” I whisper, and the words ache in my throat, like I’m begging for whatever she says next to not be true.

  Hailey makes a sad, wordless noise, and when I turn my head, she’s standing in the corner just like I’d known she would be, but worse. Worse with her slumped shoulders and white lips, her hands hanging limply at her sides. “I was walking home from ballet when he found me. He told me to come down into the meadow and see, that he’d found a nest of baby rabbits.”

  The trick is so obvious, almost too obvious to work. But maybe that’s the genius part of it, that even though any girl should know better, it will always work anyway. Maybe a girl like that, a nice, hopeful girl, will always go down into the long grass to see the rabbits, always follow with a smile, trusting so easily, trusti
ng that whatever he promises her is the truth.

  “He’ll pick you,” says another voice, speaking from the deep, black shadows near the closet, where the lamplight doesn’t reach.

  I turn my head to see Monica. Monica, who I once made a Salem witch–themed shadowbox with for an English project about The Crucible. Monica, who died with blood in her hair and snow in her eyes, in her pink nylon parka. She stands with her coat zipped up to her chin, her hair caked with ice, face purple all down one side. “He’ll pick you if you’re small. If you’re soft. If you look like you’d be fun.”

  The whole room is suddenly so cold that I think my skin will crack apart. “Fun to what?”

  “To break.”

  And then no one says anything. I am almost too cold to breathe.

  “What can I do?” I whisper. “How can I stop it?”

  “Find him,” says Hailey, and her voice is not the high, soft voice of a little girl anymore, not the voice of someone walking down into the meadow to see rabbits. “Find him and make sure that he’s punished.”

  “Find him,” says another voice, from over by the door this time.

  There’s a pale flutter at the corner of my eye, and I turn to see her standing just behind the open door, just in the shadow, one hand glowing whitely in the lamplight. And then another one in the far corner, beside my desk. All four corners of the room are filled now, occupied by the ghosts of four murdered girls with rage in their eyes and every reason to want retribution. Me and Lillian at the center.

  “How?” I ask, and my throat is so painful and dry that it’s hard to make the words come out. “I’ll do whatever you say, just tell me how.”

  I expect the voices to speak up in unison, to tell me the secret that will reveal the Valentine Killer. Instead the glass races across the floor beneath my fingertips, swift and insistent, spelling the same word again and again. rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

  “What?” I say, the word catching in my throat.

  There’s a shudder like an electrical current racing through my hands and up into my wrists, like at any second the glass will spin out of control, go racing crazily around the floor or streak down the hall and out the front door. Suddenly it flies fast and hard across the room and smashes against the wall, showering the floor with a rain of diamond-cut glass. The pieces come spilling toward me in a shining wave, then lie still.

  The room is silent. The chill is gone. The corners are all empty.

  In my throat there’s a feeling like a strummed guitar string, trembling, trembling, but even as I try to keep my hands from shaking, I understand that really, I’m holding very still, frozen in place.

  There’s a high-pitched ringing in my ears, like if I don’t do something quick, maybe the world will end. I jump up and cross to the closet, feeling around in the dark for a pair of shoes and then a hoodie— something to put on, anything to make me feel less exposed.

  “No!” Lillian says from the bed. “Are you crazy? You can’t just go running outside by yourself in the middle of night!”

  I turn and face her, and even before her mouth drops open and her eyes widen, I know I must look wild, unhinged.

  I know this script by heart. I’ve said it a million times, only now the exchange is backward and all wrong. Now she’s the one with her hands clasped like she’s begging me to go slow, to be careful.

  “Is this what you think you have to do? Go running out into the night? This is stupid and reckless. It’s not you.”

  I shake my head. She ought to understand by now that who I am is not the girl I look like every day. And maybe it took staring into the milky eyes of dead girls and kissing Finny in the dark, but at least I finally got a good look at what’s under my ribbons and my feathers and appliquéd flowers. Even before all this, though, I think I might have known. I think I suspected. I just never showed it to anyone who might punish or judge me for it, because it’s not a contest. Because the fact is, the contest has always been invulnerability, and even when you win, you still lose.

  Lillian is watching me with sad, regretful eyes. “You were the brave one, not me. No matter what any of them said or did, you were the one who never had to invent yourself. You always just knew who you were.”

  “So did you, though.”

  She stares off into the distance, shaking her head. “If I’d known that, I think maybe I would have been a different person. Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up like this. Part of not knowing was pretending so, so hard that I knew everything.”

  We stand in the middle of my room, looking at each other, and I don’t know how to make her see that whatever Hannah she’s imagining—that girl never existed.

  “I’m not those things you think I am,” I say. “Yeah, I looked bright and shiny on the outside, maybe. But inside, I was always just the same as you. Underneath, I wanted all the chaos and the scary, messy stuff. I think I was always just this—this strange, secret girl who always wanted to kiss Finny Boone.”

  It’s weird to say it out loud, like I’m confirming all of Lillian’s worst suspicions, admitting to imperfection—weakness and desire. Earnestness, honesty, everything she seemed to be so dead set against before she died.

  The whole room is cluttered with stick-on stars and colored lights, but the colors are muted now, like all the bright little pieces of my old life are gathering dust. Like I’ve been holding my breath for days.

  All at once, Lillian shakes her head and looks up, her eyes bloodshot and desolate. “No,” she says. She says it quietly, not like she’s correcting me or telling me how it is, but just respectfully disagreeing. “No, you can still be both. You have to be, because otherwise we’re always just ghosts of ourselves. So the hearts and the flowers are still you. Just like even though I wanted more than anything to be left alone, to ignore everyone and live my life, there was still this huge part of me wanting to be perfect and special, wanting to make my mother happy.”

  I shake my head, but the words won’t come now. They won’t take shape. Because she was so much more than her mother’s dress-up doll, even when she was volunteering for the part, even when she was desperate to just feel okay and trying so hard to get it right. Even now that she’s dead.

  “You can’t tell me that being sick wasn’t who I was,” she says. “I mean look at me—it defined everything.”

  Her cheeks are hollow, and I’m struck by the fact that she never called it “sick” when she was alive. The idea that a person can be defined by anything so superficial is terrible. Like this is the one true heart of her, reduced to a bony apparition in her pajamas. It’s like trying to shrink me down to nothing but my shiny thrift-store dresses, or defining Finny by his broad shoulders and his Clorox-blond hair. The simple version isn’t even recognizable when you hold it up against a living, breathing human being. Her ghost will always be so much less of her than the girl I used to see every day.

  The bed is wildly unmade and the pillows are all over the floor. Lillian turns to stare out the window, sitting in the middle of my bed with her knees drawn up and her head resting on her arms. She looks so unbelievably small, folded in on herself like a jackknife.

  “I miss you, Hannah.” Her voice is hoarse and shaky. Her eyes are too red to belong to a ghost. Why does she always look so real? “I miss you so much.”

  “I’m here,” I say, standing over her, reaching for her. “I’m right here.”

  Lillian nods miserably, looking up at me with wet lashes. Her mouth is crumpled and hopeless. “But I’m not.”

  * * *

  I leave the house as soon as it’s light. My mom and Ariel and Joan are all asleep, but Decker is already gone.

  The air over the city is motionless and heavy but not unbearable yet. The sun is still teetering on the horizon. For the last five hours, I’ve gone over every possible type of rabbit I can think of, trying to understand exactly w
hat the spirit board was telling me. Does it mean the fake, imaginary rabbits that Hailey talked about—the ones the killer used to lure her down into the grass? On the unlikely chance that I could get someone to believe me without demanding that I prove how I know, I could at least tell the police how he’s getting the girls alone. They could put the information in the paper and once the public knows, maybe then the trick won’t work on anyone else.

  I stand on the corner of Sherwood, tugging on my bracelet, running my fingers along the row of charms. A rabbit will help the police catch the killer, but already my list of possibilities is way too long and even if I could check everything, there would still be a whole army of rabbits I was missing. There’s the painted bouncy one on the Muncy playground, this wooden cutout with a saddle that rocks back and forth on a big metal spring. There’s the fast, sleek outline of a rabbit on the logo for the city bus, the second level of the parking garage at the mall is the Rabbit Level, and there’s a bronze statue of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny in front of the public library. And that’s not even counting things like stores or restaurants or anything else that could have the word rabbit in the name.

  The possibilities are overwhelming, and as I walk, I’m still coming up with more. There are wild rabbits in the park and rabbits at pet stores. There’s a whole herd of plush rabbits at Toy Dungeon. There’s just no way to pick one specific place or picture or object out of all the rabbits in the world.

  After a few blocks, I decide that I can at least check the bouncy-toy on the playground. It’s close to the crime scenes, and maybe that makes it important somehow. It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got.

  The footbridge near the three-hundred block of Sherwood is the quickest way to get there, but I stay out of the park. Instead I go all the way around on Beverly Street, following the sidewalk, sticking close to the railing where it crosses the river. There’s not much traffic on the roads. It’s still too early for most people to be going to work.

 
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