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Places no one knows, p.21
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       Places No One Knows, p.21

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  I spend whole class periods staring at my textbooks, flipping through the pages, not comprehending. Marveling over the perfect blackness of the letters.

  In every sleepless expanse of days, you come to a point where your brain stops processing information correctly. A chapter could be written in Cyrillic and you’d still get halfway down the page before you noticed.

  You start to believe that you can see the future. You stop noticing that you’ve been staring into space for the last four minutes. Déjà vu is a daily condition. Everything seems recursive, winding back on itself. You look at the assignment on the board and are sure that you’ve already done it.

  In the west hall bathroom, secrets keep appearing—proliferating, overlapping. Sometimes I don’t know what to say. The confessions are too heartbreaking, familiar and foreign at the same time.

  —

  There’s this one:

  And this:

  Girls worry about their popularity, their weight, their goodness and intelligence and worth. Their stupid secret crushes.

  By the sink in the corner, someone has printed the message, enigmatic, but oddly affecting:

  I want to tell the confessor and the world that I understand the feeling, but instead, I don’t write anything.

  Near the paper towel dispenser, someone has written:

  I uncap my pen, put it to the wall. Maybe it’s Heather’s secret, maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

  For Heather or Maribeth or every heartbroken girl whose chosen boy has passed them over for someone else, someone who doesn’t have the common decency to appreciate what they’ve got, I write:

  I’m sorry.

  Every day, someone else’s heart spills out a tiny, unvarnished truth, like the very substance of our lives is determined by whether or not we’re loved.

  There are eleven hundred boys in this school and plenty of them look all right, they sound all right. They buzz around the hallways, indistinct, while girls gaze and pine and lust after them.

  Those girls are lucky, and sometimes I even want to tell them that, ink it on the wall in blood or sear it into the latex paint. They have a place to be honest.

  In trigonometry, I open my notebook. In the margin, in pencil, I write:

  He is the lighthouse; everyone else is just boats.

  MARSHALL

  Damage

  I stop waiting. I rake the leaves, do the dishes and the grocery shopping. Laundry, homework, disappearing act. Whatever needs doing.

  I don’t sleep in the middle of the bed anymore on the chance Waverly might appear out of the dark and get in next to me. I wake myself up reaching for her. When I roll over, there’s nothing there.

  In the locker bay during passing periods, Ollie never asks why I don’t go out back to smoke anymore. He seems strange lately, or like a stranger, but I can’t tell which one of us is different. Sometimes it seems like we both are.

  We’re standing at our locker after lunch when the little freshman shuffles by and smiles at him.

  Ollie smiles back, a small, offhand smile, and waves. Once, like it’s no big deal.

  “So you’re friends with her now?”

  He shakes his head. “I walked her home from the dance, is all.”

  “Are you high? I mean, you don’t like her, right?” For a question, it sounds more like an argument, and I elbow him harder than I mean to. “Do you like her?”

  “Mars, she’s a kid.” He’s looking down toward the line for the vending machines, where Little Ollie is panting around after some ninth-grade volleyball players in their microscopic uniforms. “I just wanted her to be okay.”

  I nod, but it’s that slow, uncertain kind of nod. I don’t know what makes Ollie the official chaperone of fourteen-year-old girls all of a sudden. I always figured that was me, wanting so badly to make sure everyone was okay. That I was the only one.

  I just assumed he was different, somehow. Bored and over it, putting up with me when I was too daydreamy and weird for everybody else. I know it’s not the truth. He just got ruined is all, the same as I did.

  Once, in seventh grade, Jason Costello pegged him in the face with a basketball, which wasn’t even really an event. Someone was always getting pegged in the face, usually if you were skinny or short or fat or bad at sports.

  It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before. Jason maybe hit him harder than usual, but for whatever reason, Ollie wound up with a gusher of a bloody nose.

  Everyone would have stared anyway because of the blood, but the bad thing was that Ollie started crying. It was this basic rule of middle school that if someone messed with you, you were supposed to just take it like a psychopath. Only Ollie wasn’t one.

  The popular guys all started laughing at him, calling him a fag. Everyone else mostly stood around looking at the floor. The whole class, there in this big, wobbly circle that wasn’t even really on purpose. And Ollie, standing in the middle, shaggy and skinny—we were both so fucking skinny—with his hands up to his face and blood running between his fingers and I knew I wasn’t supposed to help him, but it was so much worse to stand and watch.

  In middle school, you were supposed to pile on with everyone else when someone was weak. You were supposed to smash until you hit bone. What you were never supposed to do was step into the circle.

  But I couldn’t help it, because it was Ollie, who always sat with me on field trips even though I got carsick pretty much any time we had to be on the bus for more than half an hour. And because I knew he wasn’t crying over how much it hurt. His mom had left three weeks ago and his dad had checked out so hard it was like he was a missing person even when he was in the room. Jason and the bloody nose and the basketball were just the last tiny cut.

  So I stepped into the circle, because it was the only thing I knew how to do, and when we’d gone to the museum for social studies, Ollie had spent the whole ride talking to me about marmosets while I stared out the window and tried not to focus on the telephone poles. I stepped into the circle because it could have been me.

  The whole time I was getting called a queer, standing there with my hand on his shoulder, handing him paper towels, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

  I think now that somehow those things destroy us. That day in the gym made us meaner or worse, instead of helping us. We weren’t even doing anything wrong.

  I wonder suddenly if there’s a part of Ollie that would still rather be the kid with the bloody nose, sobbing over how people treat each other, than Ollie stoned and bored and staring at the floor like the whole world can just fuck off.

  “Hey,” he says, hitting me with his elbow and pointing to something stuck in the side of my locker door. “What’s that?”

  I pull out a folded piece of paper, and for a second, I have this completely stupid idea that maybe it’s from Waverly, but as soon as I open it, I recognize Autumn’s writing. The note isn’t a note, but a drawing of a girl with short, messy hair and huge vintage-looking eyes. Behind her, a shining gangster city looms Batman-style, like the cities Autumn used to draw for the stories I made up. At the top of the page is a movie marquee, inviting me to a party at her house, in honor of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

  Across the bay, Waverly is standing in a little cluster with her friends, digging around in her book bag. I shove the invitation in my pocket.

  I keep thinking about that first night in my room. How Waverly climbed into my bed, without a reason or an invitation, without thinking twice. Her hair was damp, like she’d just washed it, and smelled like flowers.

  I hate wanting anything this much.

  Next to me, Ollie sighs and knocks his shoulder against mine.

  “You’re inspecting Camdenmar again,” he says. “If you keep trying to take her pants off with your eyes, one of these days, people are going to notice.”

  I nod but don’t stop. I spend the rest of the passing period watching her across the linoleum. It’s not so far. Eleven steps would get me there. It’s barely a distan
ce at all. And at the same time, it’s so fucking far that I will never make it.

  WAVERLY

  The weather is frigid now. The week is long and gray and vacant.

  I’m changing. I can feel it like a continental drift. My territories are shifting. If I just let go, I could stop being me, stop holding on so hard, guarding my borders like a country under siege.

  I’m scared to disturb the balance, though—that delicate equilibrium. Marshall and I can only exist in the narrow spaces where I’m not me and he is not him.

  So I do my homework. I focus on how to survive without cross-country. An earlier Waverly would have called life without motion impossible, but I’m finding the rhythm of it. I’m learning to exist without the numb, faceless miles—the daily expanse of parks and city blocks, until I’m too wrung out to feel my bones.

  I spend my afternoons in the library or the student council room with Maribeth. In the evenings, I lounge on Autumn’s bed while she makes plans and invitations for her Autumn-themed party. I don’t mention Marshall to anyone. I don’t look at him. I wish for him on every penny and star and eyelash.

  This preternatural self-control doesn’t last, though. It can’t. On a foggy, drizzly Tuesday night, my resolve begins to weaken. I do homework until my eyes blur. Until I can’t stand myself anymore. I’ve finished one problem set, two four-page papers, a Spanish handout, and there’s nothing left. Since the dance, I’ve kept the candle far back in my desk drawer. Now, I sit with my hands tucked tight between my knees and try to ignore it, but it’s like starving for something that’s right in front of you. I might be made of wires, but I’m not made of stone.

  It isn’t even nine yet, but I turn out the light and get into bed.

  The days are so much colder and night comes early now, but it’s still strange to be sitting in the dark before the neighbors’ lights go out. This is the earliest I’ve been in bed since I was seven, but the only place I want to be right now is the one where I get to be the person I am when I’m with Marshall.

  With the candle lit, the little pool of wax scorching next to me in its glass dish, I force myself to lie still.

  It’s so hard to focus, though, to just dissolve. I feel made of amphetamines.

  I keep my eyes shut anyway, yank hard on the power cord to my brain—count and count and count.

  I get there in the end.

  WAVERLY

  10.

  In Marshall’s bedroom, the light’s still on. He’s sprawled on his bed with the covers wadded up at his feet and a textbook open on his chest.

  He’s not the boy he was when I met him, high and tripping and insensible in a bathtub on a school night. The floor is covered in what looks like an entire semester of American lit. The shaggy yellow dog is curled in the middle of it, watching me with its tail thumping fitfully.

  As soon as Marshall looks up and sees me, he smiles and moves over, offering me a spot on the bed. I sit down on the floor instead, with my legs stuck out in front of me and my elbows locked. My feet hurt so much the nerves feel like someone’s been working on them with a grater.

  “What’s wrong?” he says, like I’ve given him some kind of sign.

  But I’m not brave enough tell him. The candle is barely even a solid thing anymore. It will not last the night. This is the last time I’ll see him as the girl I don’t know how to be in the daytime—my strange, secret self—and I didn’t spend it on some existential emergency or special occasion. Just an ordinary weeknight, because I couldn’t stand my own brain.

  There are no words. Nothing is fine, nothing is okay. Without a way to bring me here, I’ll go back to who I am when everyone’s looking—Daytime Waverly, with a 4.0 and a stare like bulletproof glass. I’ll be the girl with all the answers, bobbing along comfortably in the wake of Maribeth Whitman, and he’ll still be the boy who said he loved me once. Said he loves me. What does that mean?

  He doesn’t even know me.

  I flop sideways and rest my cheek on the dog’s yellow back, smelling the warm, comfortable smell. Animal, and animal shampoo.

  “What’s wrong?” he says again, rolling onto his stomach, his hair hanging in his face and his mouth against the edge of the mattress.

  “I’m off the meet roster for cross-country,” I say. And even though it’s true, it sounds like such a lie. “I messed up my feet and now I’m not allowed to train. It’s just for the rest of the season.” I press my face into the dog’s fur, closing my eyes. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

  I wait for Marshall to call me out, tell me to try again. He doesn’t say anything. Instead, he leans over the edge of the mattress and rests his hand on the top of my head. After what feels like a full minute goes by and I don’t move, he tugs at the collar of my pajama top. “Here, come here.”

  I give the dog a farewell pat and climb up next to Marshall, ready for him to come at me like a car crash, kiss me sloppily into oblivion.

  Instead he puts his arms around me and hugs me hard. His shoulder feels just right under my cheek and I close my eyes. I could lean against him and have that be all I need for the rest of the semester. The rest of the year. I could fall asleep here, settle in until spring. Hibernation sounds good. It sounds like a sweet, impossible dream.

  He presses his mouth against my cheek and I nuzzle closer, savoring the scrape of his jaw. I love how his skin is rougher than it looks. I want to bite him as hard as I can, which is the literal embodiment of everything wrong with us. The last thing he needs is someone who wants to savage him.

  He holds me tight, rocking me like something fragile. “What can I do?”

  I force myself to relax my grip. I’m clinging to him like I need the consolation. Like I can’t take care of myself. “Nothing. There’s not anything.”

  “Lie down,” he says. He says it like he knows what he’s talking about.

  I let him turn me facedown on the bed and kneel over me, running his hand up the back of my calf. The pain is deep, zinging through my heel and all the way along my arch. I gasp and press my face into the mattress.

  “Does that hurt?”

  “Yes,” I whisper. “But keep doing it.”

  He moves carefully, touching the tender places, making the pain flare sharp and insistent. His fingers are precise, finding the spots where the muscle has started to twist in on itself. I lie facedown and let him do it. When he slides his thumb along my arch, tears gather in the corners of my eyes.

  “You’re like the little mermaid,” he says softly.

  I snort into the bed. “Ariel?”

  “No, the real one. The one who kept dancing even though it hurt. How she never let it show. And everyone just thought she was all right.”

  “It was easy for her, though. I mean, wasn’t she a mute?”

  His hands are warm, cradling the length of my foot. “You kind of are too,” he whispers.

  I don’t answer, just scrape my face against the sheet to get rid of the tears.

  “I used to think about this,” he says, kneading my arch with his thumbs, making tiny arrows shoot up my calf. “I used to dream about it.”

  “The moment I finally managed to half cripple myself through a combination of ill-fitting shoes and overzealous training? You should open a psychic hotline.”

  “No. I just mean I would wish for things.”

  I pull my foot away and roll onto my back. “Like what?”

  He ducks his head. “It’s embarrassing.”

  “Tell me anyway. I like embarrassing things.”

  “I know you do,” he says. “Which is totally screwed up.”

  And I laugh, because it’s better to hear him say that and know he means it than to hear anyone else in the world call me good and sweet and tenderhearted, and realize they don’t know anything about me.

  Marshall rests a hand on my ankle. “I always wanted to—not protect you? But just…take care of you.” He smiles awkwardly, looking down. “It’s okay if you laugh. I know how stupid that sounds. I didn’t k
now you yet, is all.”

  I sit up and take his hand, spreading his fingers, holding them in front of my face, studying them. “It’s not stupid,” I say, touching his palm and then each knuckle. “It’s sweet.”

  When what I should have told him is, it’s true.

  “You’re acting weird,” he says. “Weirder than normal.”

  I close my eyes and roll away, burrowing into the bed, which is the best, most satisfying bed in the world. “Everything is terrible,” I whisper, winding myself in his blankets.

  For a second, Marshall doesn’t say anything. Then he tugs gently on the hem of my pajama shirt. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

  I sigh and put the pillow over my face. “What’s to tell? I can’t run, I can’t sleep. I don’t know what to do with my own thoughts most of the time. Every day is the most boring thing I’ve ever sat through. Oh, and I think I might actually hate my best friend, so there’s that.”

  I say the last part fast, muffled by feathers. He just reaches over and takes the pillow away.

  “How can you hate your friend?” he says. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

  “It does, kind of. Just in a really dysfunctional way that’s hard to explain.”

  “Try,” he says, but he is so unguarded. So perfectly earnest. No matter how much he thinks he’ll understand, he won’t.

  “Maribeth is just mean.” I’m startled at how raw my voice sounds. “She’s self-centered, and condescending, even when she’s supposed to be nice or—or helping.”

  Marshall’s watching me, shaking his head. I need him to see. My daytime life is made of all these tiny, ugly moments that render even the most pedestrian interactions vicious, and it will take the very worst parts to make him understand.

  “Alyssa Barrity’s mom died last year.”

 
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