Places no one knows, p.20
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       Places No One Knows, p.20

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  He flinches back and shakes his head. “What are you talking about?”

  “I’m talking about your penchant for finding every toxic waste site and sharp edge in a thirty-mile radius.”

  “She’s a person.” But his voice is hoarse. He’s not looking at me.

  “Are you sure about that?”

  Now he meets my eyes, chin up, jaw tight. “She’s a person.”

  He means it, but not in any way I need to be afraid of. His voice is hurt, not smitten. The way he’s looking at me is like I’m the only beating heart in the world.

  He’s inches away, and it makes me think of sleep and kissing. He smells like Heather’s perfume, and who even cares? I want to climb him.

  I move to press myself against him, but he pulls back. In the dark, his eyes are miserable.

  “What?” I say, sounding ferocious, even to myself.

  “Waverly, I love you.”

  And for a second, I stop breathing. They’re just words. But they make something shudder under my skin. “No you don’t. You love the idea of me.”

  For a second, I’m sure he’ll let me go. He’ll duck out from under the bleachers and walk away and that will be the end of it. Of everything.

  Then he takes a breath and moves closer.

  With his mouth against my ear, he slides his hand along the side of my face, cupping my cheek. “Waverly, I know it freaks you out, but I have the right to love you if I want.”

  “Stop,” I whisper, because I’m starting to feel light-headed, like I might float away.

  His hands are clamped on either side of my face now, holding me so that my chin is up and I can’t look anywhere but him. “Why?” he says, with no heat, no rancor.

  “Just stop it. I don’t want to hear that.”

  He leans in so our foreheads are almost touching. “I don’t care if you don’t want to hear it. I want to say it.”

  I’m squeezing my tiny beaded purse with both hands. “Why are you telling me this?”

  “Because I’ve never said it to anyone. Because I just want to be able to say it when I mean it.”

  “I’m not your girlfriend,” I say.

  He breathes out and lets his hands fall. His face is eminently readable. “I know that. Do you think I don’t know that?”

  “Why did you even come here tonight? Were you trying to punish me? To make me jealous?”

  “No,” he says, his lips barely moving.

  “What, then? To make sure nothing untoward happened? To protect me from CJ fucking Borsen?”

  He shakes his head, slow and real and honest. “Because I wanted to see you in that goddamn dress.”

  He is completely sincere. He can say some mundane, normal word like dress and mean it more than I have ever meant anything in my whole life.

  I open my mouth again, but there are no words, no corresponding declaration. After a second, he turns and ducks back out into the crowd.

  I am alone.

  Over the PA speakers, the DJ is playing “Fade into You” by Mazzy Star.

  The truth is, it’s a very depressing song.

  —

  CJ takes me home at midnight. In the driveway, he kisses me and it’s soft and unexciting. When he puts his hand on the back of my neck, I reach behind me for the door.

  “I have to go.”

  “Let me walk you up.”

  “No, really. Thank you for dinner. I’ll see you Monday.”

  “The food drive meeting is tomorrow.”

  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  I get out of the car before he can reach for my hand or touch my face, and bolt for my house so fast that by the time I get to the porch, I’m almost running. My feet ache like fire in my slippery, shiny shoes.

  In my room, I go straight to my nightstand and get out the candle. My hands are shaking and every time I flick Marshall’s lighter, the flame goes out again, until I want to scream. The candle is a lumpy hockey puck, mostly melted. I measure the remaining height between my fingers—a slippery inch of comfort. It isn’t enough.

  When the wick finally catches, I stand over it, breathing in huge gasps, gulping down the smell. It reminds me so much of Marshall, I can half believe I’m already there. The smoke gives me something to fix on until I can find the part of me that exists beyond the dimensions of my room. That knows how to get to someplace I actually want to be.

  When my heartbeat finally slows down, I yank off my dress and throw it in the corner. Autumn’s version of me was stark—lovely, even—but I’m better in my pajamas, better without gash-red lips and huge, black-rimmed eyes.

  In the dark I lie rigid, counting down, trying to reach the small, transcendent core that doesn’t measure or calculate or obsess, exempt from matter and distance. Be impermanent and soft, I tell myself. Just disappear.

  It takes a long time, because every number keeps turning itself into Marshall, Marshall, Marshall.

  MARSHALL

  Home

  Razor blade.

  I hate the words but I think them anyway, trying to get used to the shape.

  Waverly’s right. She’s always fucking right. In the last six months, there’ve been so many times I used Heather because I could, for distraction or company or just to feel something else. I got so used to knowing that no matter what, she’d always just be there.

  But I’m right too. Heather’s a person. I can’t keep jerking her around anymore.

  I tell her in the parking lot, in case she’d rather get a ride from someone else and maybe salvage the evening, but after I finish my big ugly speech, she just opens the passenger door and gets in.

  Ollie is MIA. He watched the little freshman with the kind of interest he doesn’t usually have for anything, and when Little Ollie spent twenty minutes talking to every girl who wasn’t her, then did a disappearing act, he pushed himself away from the wall.

  He walked over to her through the crowd. Left me on the dance floor with Heather. She slid her hand into mine, and when I didn’t squeeze back, she held my arm instead. When she stood on her toes and tried to kiss me, I had to look away.

  The whole way home, Heather sits with her head against the window, like she needs to get as far away from me as possible.

  “I’m sorry,” I say.

  And she doesn’t say anything. If she’s crying, I can’t hear it, and I don’t look away from the road.

  After a while, she digs around in her purse and lights a cigarette, but doesn’t open the window. I’m nearly grinding my teeth with how bad I want one too, but I don’t tell her to put it out. The smoke is everywhere and I want it with my whole body. I just stare straight ahead and keep wanting it.

  When I pull up to her house, Heather drops the cigarette in the ashtray and takes one deep, shaky breath before she gets out.

  “Good night,” I say, and wonder if this is the last thing we’ll ever say to each other.

  “She’s not going to pick you,” Heather says suddenly, leaning back in through the passenger side. “Just so you know. She’s not going to suddenly just condescend to be seen with you.”

  “What are you talking about?” I say, even though there’s only one direction this could be heading.

  “I saw you follow her, Marshall. I’m not a total idiot. What did you think was going to happen? Behind the bleachers like a total slut? God, have you met her?”

  I recognize the girl that Heather sees. The one who never cracks.

  But that girl isn’t Waverly—at least, not real Waverly. Heather’s only thinking about the lie. Waverly in the daytime.

  The thing that hurts is something else completely. I said love. She didn’t say it back.

  Heather doesn’t slam the door or make a big dramatic scene, even though she could probably pull off a decent exit. She just walks away, and I sit in her driveway, thinking about Waverly, how she’s not my girlfriend, and what that means. How I’m one step closer to just accepting the terms of what we’ve got, the same way Heather spent the last six months accept
ing I was never going to hold her hand in public.

  How even in that black dress, even in the dark, Waverly was the brightest thing in the gym.

  I drive home with the window down and the radio off, just being quiet and alone. Just feeling the air against my face.

  —

  When I let myself inside and close the door too hard, Annie comes shuffling out into the hall. “What are you doing? Did you just get home?”

  “Yeah.”

  She scrubs her eyes like she’s trying to focus. “Why are you wearing that shirt?”

  I look at the button-down. “There was this thing at school.”

  She squints and shakes her head. “A collared-shirt thing?”

  “A dance, okay? There was a dance.”

  “Oh.” Nothing for a long time. Then, “Do you have a girlfriend or something?”

  “No.”

  For a minute, Annie doesn’t do anything, just stands there, looking warm and drowsy. Chowder is huffing for my attention, butting the top of her head against my knee.

  Finally, Annie nods and trudges back to her room. She mumbles something into her hand before she shuts the door. It sounds kind of like, “Have fun at your dance.”

  Then I’m standing in the hall in a collared shirt that I ironed myself. Badly.

  I keep smelling Heather’s lip gloss, tasting it when I breathe, this oily candy flavor, choking and slick.

  I brush my teeth. A lot. In the shower, I scrub my face like I’m trying to wash it off.

  In the mirror over the sink, I look younger than I’m used to. I can’t stand how helpless, how pleading my eyes look. I cover my reflection with my hand so all I can see is my mouth.

  Right away, I get an ugly flash of how my dad will act when he sees my handprint on the glass. He’ll say, what have you been doing in there? Like I’m some degenerate. He’ll want to know why I was putting my hands all over the mirror and I won’t say anything, because the reason is too weird and stupid to explain.

  I was covering my eyes so that I would stop looking at myself. Are you happy now?

  I was covering my eyes, because I just got home from the kind of school function I swore I’d never go to. I spent most of it with my arm around a girl who doesn’t know the first thing about me, while the only girl who actually matters was pressed up against someone else. This happy, confident guy with sports and activities and lists—these crazy lists of all the things he’s going to do and be and accomplish.

  He is the person I will never be.

  That isn’t some angry, defiant promise.

  It’s just the truth.

  WAVERLY

  9.

  I open my eyes and nearly melt with relief. I’m in the only place I want to be, standing awkwardly in the corner by Marshall’s desk and feeling like I’ve come home.

  I hear him first, sense the magnetic tension as he approaches. But when he steps into the room, he moves right past me, padding across the carpet with a towel around his waist.

  He’ll see me in a second. He has to. His head is down, though. His eyes are on the floor, and the awkward moment when he doesn’t look up just gets longer.

  I stay where I am. He thinks he’s alone, and maybe I’ve spent the last few weeks invading every corner of his life, but it’s different now. He’s let me see too much of him, offered more than I have any right to. He’s not a stranger anymore.

  At his dresser, he yanks open the top drawer. He’s about to take the towel off, and once, I was in bed with him. I held him down in the dark, but this moment is not the same. It’s private. Voyeuristic. When he gets out a pair of boxers, I back away, sliding furtively into the closet.

  It’s worse, standing in the dark like a contract killer or a movie monster. I keep my hands flat against the wall, like I might ambush whoever steps inside.

  Marshall doesn’t come near me, though. I can hear him out in his room, rustling around, getting ready for bed. Then he turns out the light.

  In the safety of my hiding place, I stand against the wall, staring into the dark.

  Out in the bedroom, his breathing has the cadence of someone wide awake, too careful.

  He told me that he loved me. He has to see his grave mistake by now. Has to know that I am ice inside. I lean back and close my eyes.

  After a while, his breathing loses its regimented sound. It evens out, and when it does, even the air seems softer, like the world has stopped standing guard.

  I let myself relax. I don’t move until the pain in my feet gets bad enough that it tingles all the way up my shins. Then I steel myself and tiptoe out of the closet.

  In the dark, Marshall is a low shape under the blanket, silhouetted against the wall.

  I sit by the head of his bed with my elbows on the mattress, watching him, watching his pale, fluttering eyelids and his mouth.

  After a long time, I lie on the carpet beside his bed and pull my knees up. I fold my hands under my head and close my eyes until the sound of him breathing is the only true thing.

  —

  “Waverly.”

  I roll over, already resigned to my room and my bed and my frantic, shrieking alarm clock.

  I’m not in my room, though. I’m still on the floor and Marshall is out of bed, crouching next to me and shaking me by the shoulder. “Hey, Waverly. What are you doing?”

  I feel dazed, too stupefied to think clearly. I want to be tucked against his chest, warm and safe and far away from the grinding monotony of daylight. I turn my face into the floor and can almost feel it.

  “Here,” he says with his hand on my arm. “Sit up, sit up.”

  When I do it, though, nothing is fine or better. Nothing is okay. I’m still chilly and untouchable. Still me.

  Marshall has me by the wrist, guiding me carefully into bed and climbing in after me so he’s pressed against my back.

  “Don’t do that,” he says into my hair. “Don’t lie on the floor when you could be up here with me.”

  His body is warm. Inarguable. It feels better than any moment in any given day. I pull away and roll over. I don’t deserve to be comforted.

  “What?” he whispers. “What are you doing?”

  I adjust my head on the pillow, trying to see his face in the dark. “Are you mad at me?”

  He’s lying on his back now, dimly illuminated by the light from the window. His silhouette looks up for a second, staring at the ceiling. Then he swallows and fumbles for my hand. “No.”

  “You should be, though.” I squeeze my eyes shut tight for a second before I say it.

  I mean for what I said, for how I acted behind the bleachers, but it doesn’t really matter. I could apologize for every facet and fiber of my being, and it would still be just as true.

  He doesn’t say anything, just rolls over and pulls me against his chest, pulls me right where I want to be.

  “I broke up with Heather,” he whispers against the top of my head.

  His breath on my scalp makes my heart leap and stutter. “Why?”

  “Because I don’t like her that way. And I like you. I don’t want to be with anyone else.”

  For a long time, I just lie there in his bed. Safe. Perfectly still. “You wouldn’t kiss me tonight.”

  He laughs a small, helpless laugh. It isn’t really a laugh at all. “I didn’t want to do it and still be pretending I was there for her. It was—it seemed gross. Or like…not the way I feel.”

  The weight of his voice is unbearable, so heavy I can feel it like a change in gravity, the force of it pressing on my body. My ribcage tightens and suddenly, every strange and wordless thing inside me is welling up.

  He pulls me closer, squeezing tight. “Are you crying?”

  I close my eyes, swallow down the lump in my throat. “No.”

  And because I’m in control of it—because I have stopped—it’s not a lie.

  He tried to give me something honest, something true. He said love, but there’s a part of me that still insists in cool, clinical tones
that he can’t possibly mean it, and even if he did, I’m not mechanically designed to take it. My motherboard is only wired for analysis and calculation, no place to plug it in.

  “I’m not good at being loved,” I whisper. My voice is barely audible. “I’m good at being self-sufficient.”

  I’m touching his bare chest and his stomach now, tracing shapes with my finger.

  “That feels good,” he whispers back, and I don’t know how to make him see.

  He sighs as I draw the shape of my own private geography. My list of confessions:

  Frigid

  Insensitive

  Narcissistic

  Egocentric

  Fine. I know he doesn’t understand—can’t read my secrets on his skin—but he pets my hair anyway. He pulls me closer, close enough that I can almost convince myself this is the only thing that exists.

  “I wish you could put your hand on my heart and feel it,” he whispers. “I wish you knew exactly how much I’m not going to hurt you.”

  I picture it—surgical, gory, distinctly unromantic—and stop tracing. Science Waverly, reaching into a gaping chest, lifting a bloody heart in one latex-gloved hand and fighting the urge to squeeze. I have never once worried about how much something will hurt.

  He’s drowsy now, sinking into sleep. His body softens, forming to my contours, filling in the jagged mountain range that constitutes my outline. He is molding himself around me, making a space for me that didn’t exist before.

  In the past, I’ve always thought that people’s edges either lined up or didn’t. Some days, I didn’t even have to work that hard to overlook the fact that no one ever lined up with me.

  I assumed it was a matter of time. One day I’d meet someone who counteracted my chemical structure. We would compete for supremacy, collide until one of us was forced to yield, or else go forth together, suspended in eternal stalemate.

  But my model is inaccurate. The poets are wrong.

  The opposite of ice isn’t fire.

  It’s water.

  .

  The days are strange and the nights feel like some hyperrealistic dream I can’t wake up from. The candle has shrunk to a sliver now. I cradle it in my hands like a holy relic. I don’t light it, because I know that if I do, my window to Marshall just gets smaller.

 
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