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Paper valentine, p.21
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       Paper Valentine, p.21

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  Beverly is a little ways below the dam, and the water’s shallower here. It rushes along, making a chuckling noise where it runs low and fast over the rocks.

  From the road near the shuttered Dairy Queen, I have a clear view down into the park, where uniformed officers are still milling around near the opening to the railroad bridge, searching the ground for evidence. The whole area around the bridge is taped off.

  It’s been less than twelve hours since I stood over the body of Abby Brooks, but already there’s a motley collection of objects starting to form against the base of the streetlamp on the corner.

  I’m tempted to cross over to the other side of the street so I don’t have to walk by the little shrine on my way to the playground. There’s something just so tragic and so awful about the way all these sorrowful gifts have sprung up around the streetlamp. The rawness and the grief of it are almost too much to take.

  I’m just about to step off the curb and cross the street, when I stop, one foot still slightly raised, remembering the way the glass moved across the floor last night, circling the word memorials. The ghosts were trying so hard to show me how to find him, and rabbit wasn’t the only clue they gave me. They also said memorials.

  I kneel over flowers and candles and a teddy bear with a satin-covered stomach and a tiny Mylar balloon on a plastic stick sewn into one paw. There are notes written on pink stationery and loose-leaf paper and napkins, mostly saying things like Friends forever and We miss you. And flowers. So many flowers. Some of the bouquets are from the grocery store, daisies and carnations mostly, still in their plastic wrappers. But some are obviously collected from the big stone planters in the park or from people’s yards. The stems are ragged, torn off by the handful.

  I’m careful not to touch anything. Not because I really think I might be disturbing evidence, but because it feels inconsiderate to Abby Brooks. It feels disrespectful to be digging around in the pile of gifts meant to honor her.

  I’m just about to straighten up and go, when I see it. Sitting under a flower arrangement near the teddy bear is a small pewter charm, flashing silver in the light of the rising sun. The rabbit is silver, but if it were a real living thing, it would be white, dressed in a top hat, racing along with an oversize pocket watch held anxiously in one paw. It’s been weeks since I last saw it, but I know it like I know arithmetic or the words to the national anthem. I’ve spent long, stifling nights running my fingers along the bare stretch of links where it belongs.

  For a second, I just kneel over the memorial with my hands clasped stiffly against my chest.

  The first idea I have is that I should pick up the charm. Then right after that comes the idea that I should leave it where it is. The charm is mine. The charm is here, lying on the corner, but how?

  And my thoughts leap to Finny. The bracelet was a mess when he brought it back to me, scratched and bent. Missing the rabbit. For a terrible moment, all I can think is that this is what the ghosts were trying to help me see—that Angelie was right, and I’ve been spending the last few weeks with a killer.

  But even as I feel the horror rise up to make a choking knot in my throat, I know that Finny didn’t leave the rabbit here. He couldn’t have, because he’s been at the police station all night. In fact, he’s probably still there. He might have had the chance to rip the charm off the chain, but he wasn’t the one who put it here.

  The rabbit was left by someone else—someone who had the bracelet too.

  I turn my back on the sad little shrine for Abby and start down the hill, heading for the footpath. For the long slash of shade under the railroad bridge.

  When I come up to the police tape, I stop, scanning the crowd for someone I know. The officers are working the scene in their blue uniforms, kneeling on the cracked asphalt, conversing in twos and threes. McGarahan is over by the far end of the bridge, poking through the weeds. I duck under the tape and start across to him, moving carefully, making sure not to step near any of the yellow plastic markers.

  McGarahan glances up, and when he sees me coming toward him, his expression is wary. “Hannah,” he says, sounding disoriented. “What are you doing down here? You need to get on the other side of that police line right now—before you get in trouble.”

  “I know who the Valentine Killer is,” I say. And even as I say them, the words sound impossible. They don’t make sense.

  Some of the other officers laugh these dry, incredulous little laughs. They shake their heads, staring in disbelief, but McGarahan just looks expectant.

  I soldier on, determined to say the rest before any of them can interrupt or make me leave. “I don’t know where he lives, but he has a police record and he’s been in the foster system, so you can get his address.”

  “Whoa, Hannah, slow down,” says McGarahan. “What’s his name?”

  And now I stop and take a breath. Once the name is out, there’ll be no taking this back.

  “Nick Andelman,” I say.

  BREAK

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  By Wednesday morning, it’s all over the news. The police have the Valentine Killer in custody, and his identity has been confirmed. It took less than an hour for Nick to confess to everything.

  I don’t know how to feel.

  There’s a part of me that’s still just so disoriented, like I thought everything would go back to how it was before the murders, but the only difference is that now the newspaper headlines are triumphant instead of grim and I’m allowed to leave the house again without supervision.

  All my mom can talk about is how amazing it is that they caught him, how relieving. How proud she is that her daughter was the one who actually helped the police. She doesn’t even lecture me for the way I left the house that morning without telling her.

  I want to feel proud of myself, but I don’t. I feel anxious and restless, like I’m still missing some important piece of the puzzle. Still waiting for something to happen.

  In the living room, I lie on the couch with my head on the cushions and my feet on the armrest, while the local news runs constant coverage of the investigation.

  Lillian is on her stomach, draped across the top of the curio cabinet, staring at the TV. “Freaky.”

  I nod and don’t ask what’s freaky. The whole week has been like a dream you don’t wake up from, because even after you open your eyes, the picture doesn’t change. It’s still your same everyday life.

  I’m just about to turn off the news and go upstairs when I hear a tiny whisper from somewhere behind me, faint, familiar. I sit up, glancing toward the front hall, half expecting the ghostly silhouette of one of the girls, Monica or Cecily, but I don’t see anyone.

  Onscreen, they’re showing a black-and-white school photo of Nick Andelman. He looks worried and sort of intense. Almost haunted. I stare hard into his eyes, trying to find the thing that made him a killer. It seems like you should be able to read the violence or the brutality in someone’s face, but even as I try to see it, I know I won’t be able to. There are so many things you can’t know just from looking at a person.

  The story is a profile piece, like the ones they ran about Hailey and Cecily and Abby, only the tone is wildly different. Their portrait of Nick is a familiar one. Troublemaker, poor student, disciplinary nightmare. The grave-faced anchor reminds us that while yes, he’s confessed to the brutal murders of four girls, it’s still our duty to consider him innocent until proven guilty.

  At first the police only wanted to approach him for questioning, acting on the information of concerned citizen Hannah Wagner, but they quickly changed their objective as soon as they got a warrant and actually searched his room. The photos are grainy and too saturated, blown up to unnatural size when they flash across the TV screen.

  “Looks kind of like your floor,” whispers Lillian, and I nod because she’s sort of right.

  In
the picture, Nick’s desk is just an old end table, stained and gouged, covered in drifts of spilled confetti and tiny scraps of cut paper. Bottles of glue and silver glitter are lined up against the wall at the back of the table. The police confiscated over seventy pieces of cut-up paper and a Nike shoebox filled with crumpled birthday streamers and crappy toys, all lost or discarded or stolen.

  This is the part that makes everything else seem so crazy and so horrific. More than anything, I want to know why. Why he killed those girls, and more than that, why he left the broken things. I want to know the point of my rabbit charm. Why he brought this one random little piece of junk and set it carefully among the other offerings.

  The whispering is insistent now, growing louder, and I sit up again, trying to block out the noise. The ghosts aren’t supposed to be here anymore. Everything was supposed to go back to normal. I don’t know what they want.

  Lillian flops over onto her back, one arm dangling toward the floor. “It’s weird,” she says in a low, dreamy voice.

  “What’s weird?”

  “Nothing. Just that none of this seems very organized. I mean, he killed Monica seventeen months ago and then nothing. That’s a pretty severe cooling-off period. And then to come back out of the blue? To start killing at such an accelerated rate, almost a frenzy? That doesn’t even make sense.”

  I shake my head, leaning back against the nubbly upholstery of the couch. “You’re worried that a total psychopath doesn’t make sense?”

  “I don’t know, I just think maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong.”

  “Why are we thinking about this at all? We already know who did it. He confessed, Lillian. What, do you think he was lying when he described smashing in the back of Monica’s skull? You’re trying to figure out why a crazy person would act crazy, and that’s your answer right there—he’s crazy.”

  Lillian folds her hands over her chest, staring at the ceiling. “But still.”

  I sit with my head back and my eyes unfocused, thinking about that. She doesn’t say but still what.

  * * *

  I haven’t seen Finny since the night they arrested him, and it’s weird to feel nervous about seeing him now. If it were any of my regular friends, I’d text first or maybe even call, but the thing with Finny is that we’ve never really been like that with each other. We’ve sort of always just found each other when we needed to.

  Lillian watches from the corner of my room while I go through my closet, looking for the perfect thing, the thing that will make me feel beautiful and exactly like myself, a dress that says I’ve missed you and I’m sorry for ever doubting you. The one I finally pick isn’t any of the bright sundresses I usually wear. It’s bird-gray and plain cotton, but it has a short flared skirt lined with pink tulle, and the hem is sewed with tiny silver star-charms.

  The day is hot but overcast, and the clouds are sitting low over the trees, so close they seem to almost touch down and scrape the tips of the branches. The metal charms sewn into my skirt keep sticking to the backs of my thighs.

  Finny’s house is just as cramped and messy as it was the other day, spider plant wilting on the porch, pizza coupons and lawn-care flyers lying everywhere. Jolene answers the door looking scattered, with her ponytail bristling out of its rubber band.

  “Hannah,” she says, sounding breathless and distracted. “It’s nice to see you again. Why don’t you come on in? We were just about to have some lemonade.”

  As she leads me through the front hall into the living room, I pass the same toy animals and spilled blocks as last time I was here, but now there’s a pair of big plastic dump trucks added to the mix.

  Finny’s in the living room, sitting sandwiched on the couch between two younger boys. One of them is practically a baby—this chubby little black kid, maybe two years old, wearing nothing but a diaper, and sucking drowsily on a pacifier.

  The other one looks eight or nine, with penny-red hair and freckles all over his face and arms. He’s flicking through daytime game shows with the remote, while the diapered one leans against Finny’s arm with droopy eyes.

  Jolene points to the couch. “That little guy is Levi, and the one in the blue is Everett. They’re staying with us for a few days.”

  I nod to them, but my attention is mostly focused on Finny. He looks just like he always does, wearing his same too-faded jeans, like a juvenile delinquent or a 1970s punk in his white undershirt. I’ve been waiting for the moment when I’d see him again, waiting to throw myself at him and wrap my arms around his neck, but the look on his face when he glances up stops me in the doorway.

  The freckled one stops chasing channels on the TV and points to me. “Who’s that?”

  “Hannah.”

  “Is she going to stay here too?”

  Finny shakes his head. “Nope, just visiting.”

  “Is she your girlfriend?”

  The question makes me suck in my breath. I wait for his answer, but he just shrugs and doesn’t look at me. I feel pointless suddenly, and stupid to have come here. I think I can hear the rhythmic buzzing of the ghosts, but for once I’m not really sure. It might just be the fast, frantic beating of my own heart.

  “Can I sit down?” I say. My voice sounds small, like I’m just waiting to be told no.

  He shrugs a big, rolling shrug and nods, but he still isn’t looking at me. And that’s how I know that everything must be wrong, because I feel like I might break into tiny pieces, and because of how strange it is to have to ask if it’s okay, when for as long as I’ve known him, I’ve never had to ask Finny for anything.

  I sit on the edge of a battered easy chair even though my dress isn’t really made for sitting. A few of the metal charms jab me, and I adjust my skirt. The tulle feels rough and tickly against my legs.

  We watch a game-show host flip numbered tiles without talking.

  I want to do the right thing or say something important, but I don’t know what it would be. The whispers are louder now, making it hard to hear the game-show contestants when they answer. I wanted this to be the moment when everything strange and wrong and scary went back to normal. I wanted this to be when everything stopped feeling so lost.

  It’s weird that before Finny, I never really knew how to be quiet. Even right after Lillian died, when I kind of stopped talking for a while, it was mostly because I felt like there was no one I could talk to. With Finny, it was different. It was like we didn’t need to talk, because sometimes it was better just being quiet, and because we didn’t have to be saying something all the time. There was no gaping chasm, no frightening space that needed to be filled up.

  But now the silence is unbearable. I lace my fingers together to make myself stop pulling at the stars on my skirt. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a pale shape in a pink jacket and in that instant, I know that even here, even with Finny home and Nick in jail, nothing is better.

  After a few minutes, Jolene calls Levi and Everett to come into the kitchen and get some lemonade. I’m half tempted to follow them, but Finny stays where he is, so I do too. Then it’s just the two of us, sitting in his living room less than three feet apart, staring wordlessly at the TV, where nothing about the game show makes a whole lot of sense or seems to matter very much.

  “How are you?” I say finally. It sounds weirdly formal, like I’m meeting a stranger.

  He shrugs and doesn’t look at me. He’s staring down at the backs of his hands, which are scabbed over at the knuckles and covered in nasty bruises.

  “What happened?” I ask after it gets obvious that he’s not going to say anything on his own.

  “I punched the hell out of the station wall,” he says, staring down at his bruised hands. “Probably not the best way to prove I’m harmless, huh?”

  I nod. I want so badly to reach for him, to hold his bruised hand, but I don’t even know w
hat good it would do. All I can think is how it felt to look at him there, in the flashing lights of the squad cars, and feel undone, like I didn’t know anything about him. I want to say something, but I’ve got nothing useful, and it seems like everything is getting more messed up by the second.

  The voices are very close now, whispering right in my ear. I lean forward, trying to catch a phrase or a word, but the only thing I can make out is Nick’s name, repeated again and again.

  “Is it weird?” I say, scuffing the soles of my sneakers on the carpet, trying to keep my voice under control. “That Nick did something so awful and screwed-up? I mean, because he used to live with you?”

  Finny just stares off in the direction of the TV, like he’s tuning out, not really seeing what’s there. “I don’t know. It’s not like I knew him enough to really be surprised. I told you, he wasn’t like my friend or anything.”

  Without thinking or stopping to doubt myself, I reach over the arm of the couch and take his hand, careful of the bruised places.

  “Don’t,” he says, but he lets me do it.

  “I want to.”

  I’m surprised that I’ve never told him how much I like him. I always just figured he could see it without me having to say it, but the truth is that sometimes it’s important to say it anyway. I try to say it, say something, but the words won’t come, and he shakes his head.

  The weight of his hand in mine is defeated. “It’s not going to be okay, Hannah.”

  “Why? Just because for a few days they thought it might be you? They don’t even know you!”

  He takes his hand out of mine and leans back, looking away from me.

  “Because you’re you, and I’m . . .” He trails off, digging his fingers into the tops of his thighs and looking away. “I’m kind of a fuckup, okay?”

 
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