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Paper valentine, p.22
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       Paper Valentine, p.22

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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He says it like he’s so sure, like he’s trying to get me to agree with him, but I already know that I won’t do that. I will not tell him he’s broken or inferior. I’ve had enough practice living with Lillian, and I’m not about to sit here in his living room, with picture books and plastic toys lying all around us, and help him tear himself down.

  “Stop,” I tell him.

  He glances over, squinting at me. “What?”

  “Stop acting like you need to protect me from yourself.” And I sound angrier than I ever usually sound. “I’m not a victim or a fragile little thing. And maybe there’s all kinds of dangerous stuff out there, but not you. Okay? I don’t need to be kept safe from you.”

  Finny’s looking at me in this sad, pleading way, like he doesn’t quite believe me. The truth is, why should he? No matter what, he’s stuck being everything people think about him, someone who steals and lies and destroys things, destroys everything. The person he is not.

  “Don’t listen,” I whisper, reaching again for his raw, bruised hands, even though it feels wrong to tell him how he’s supposed to live his life when I’m the one who’s still surrounded by voices. “Whatever they said, whatever they told you about yourself, it’s not true.”

  He shakes his head and pulls his hands away. The sensation of his fingers sliding out of mine makes me feel lost, like when he kissed me for the first time and then stopped.

  “Look,” he says—thickly, like something hurts in his chest. “You should probably go.”

  * * *

  By the time I get home, I’m crying.

  My biggest fear is that someone’s going to come into the front hall and ask me what’s wrong. Ariel should be home from music camp by now, but the house is empty and it’s a relief to not have to see anyone. I stand with my back against the front door, wiping my eyes with my fingertips and trying not to smear my makeup.

  As soon as I’m inside, though, the storm of voices fills the halls. I want to scream at them to shut up, to just stop talking and let me have some quiet. I did what they asked.

  The truth is that I shouldn’t even be crying, because I was the one who left him first. I was the one who stood in the middle of the Muncy playground, looking mistrustful and betrayed, not saying anything.

  Ariel’s sneakers aren’t in the front hall, and there’s a note on the refrigerator, but I don’t go in right away to read it. I want to hold very still until I stop feeling like the world is pitching and tilting all around me. Until the voices go silent and the noise in my head stops and I can just shut myself in my room and not think about anything for a while.

  When I open my eyes, Lillian is sitting on the lowest stair with her chin in her hands. I want her to go away and leave me alone, to stop looking at me like that. Like I’m this interesting bug she just found.

  When I stare back at her, she doesn’t get up from the stairs or ask what’s wrong. She frowns a little, tipping her head to one side. “They said he cried.”

  “What?” I want the question to be flat and dismissive, but it comes out sounding miserable and stuffy, even to me.

  “On the news. They said his confession was tearful. That the interrogation only took like half an hour, because he broke down almost right away.”

  I shake my head, trying to get my voice under control. “That’s not weird, though, Lillian. He killed people. I mean, wouldn’t it be worse if he didn’t even feel bad about it?”

  She gives me a long, shrewd look. “But real psychopaths don’t feel remorse. They can fake it maybe, but it wouldn’t look convincing.”

  “So then he’s not a psychopath. He’s just a really messed-up guy, and now he feels bad.”

  Lillian snorts. “Well, if he felt so damn bad, then why would he do it in the first place?”

  I shake my head and walk away from her into the kitchen. The note on the refrigerator is from Ariel, saying she’s going out really quick and that she’ll be back in half an hour. Reading it, I feel a familiar jolt of panic, like she shouldn’t be wandering around the neighborhood without me, before remembering that with Nick in custody, the danger is over. It’s finally safe to be alone.

  I go upstairs to change out of the dress I thought looked nice an hour ago, kick off my shoes, and throw myself down on the bed and forget everything, but when I get to my doorway, I stop.

  Lillian’s scrapbook is lying in the exact middle of the floor. And that’s all wrong, because I know, without a doubt, that when I left to go over to Finny’s, it was on my desk. The narrowest sliver of something red is sticking out from between the pages, and I walk across to it like a person in a dream.

  I reach for the book, already knowing what will be there waiting for me to shake it from between the pages. The card is a red paper heart pasted to a white doily. The lines and curves and scallops are clumsy-elegant. The paper is rough and cheap. The words Come and get her are printed on the front in black ballpoint pen. On the back, it says Better hurry if you don’t want to find another dead girl. You know the place.

  The valentine is crisp and heavy in my hand, lacy under my fingers.

  It’s for me.

  LOCK AND KEY

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  I bolt from the house, tearing down the front steps, out onto the sidewalk and toward Muncy. The soles of my shoes are beating time to my heart, making a frantic slap-slap noise on the cement.

  When I get to the steep embankment near the playground, I don’t stop or slow down, cutting across the street, sliding my way down the weedy hill toward the bike path. The police tape is gone. The bridge sits dark and empty, a gaping mouth.

  The space under it is empty now, bare of plastic party favors and bodies. I scramble down the little asphalt path and then stop, turning in a circle, searching for Ariel. I’m staring into the deep shadow under the bridge, still breathing hard, when someone comes crunching through the dry grass above me.

  A voice calls, “Hey, Hannah!”

  The sound makes me jump, and when I glance up, I have to shade my eyes against the sun. Connor Price is standing at the top of the bridge, leaning his elbows on the railing. Ariel is beside him, grinning down at me. She doesn’t look afraid, and for one soaring second, I have the idea that I’m wrong about everything. That this is all just a big misunderstanding and the card was a mistake or some kind of joke. That it was never really there at all.

  Above the railroad bridge and the trees, I can see the clouds coming in. They pile up in a dark bank of thunderheads, towering above us, purple and bruised.

  “What are you doing?” I say, looking up at the two of them, and my voice sounds all wrong.

  Ariel gestures to me. “Come with us. Connor’s going to show me a nest of bunnies down by the bridge.”

  I stare up at her, frozen on the path. The words seem to be drifting down to me from a long way off, chilling my skin like ice water, and I can feel the frantic pounding of my heart thudding in my ears and in my teeth. Until just now, I was so ready to believe that everything would be okay after all, that maybe Connor just happened to run into Ariel here. But he’s standing inches away from her, much too close for this to be anything accidental, and then there’s the matter of the rabbits. He told her about the rabbits.

  He smiles at me—a warm, generous smile. There on the edge of the train tracks, he’s like a magazine ad. The perfect fake-worn-out T-shirt. The perfect hair.

  “Come on,” he says to Ariel, pushing himself away from the railing. “Let’s go down and see them. Hannah can come if she wants.” The smile he gives me is disgusting.

  I want to scream at her to run, run away and find help, but he’s right there behind her, blocking her path. There’s no way she’ll be able to outdistance him.

  They’re halfway down the embankment when he reaches over and takes her hand. The gesture is a harmless one, like he’s just reaching out t
o help her along the steep part. I’ve seen Finny do the same thing, but now the whole production seems ugly.

  Then all three of us are standing at the bottom of the hill, baking in the sun with grasshoppers buzzing all around us. The neighborhoods to the west look so still, so peaceful. Idyllic, like nothing bad could ever happen. And that’s when my skin starts to crawl. I shiver hard, feeling cold all over.

  Connor is guiding Ariel along the narrow asphalt path. He moves his hand to take hold of her arm and then pulls her in the direction of the bridge. “Come on, let’s get this party started.”

  Ariel glances at me and her eyes widen, because something isn’t right and she knows it. Connor’s fingers are digging into her arm. “Hannah, what’s happening?”

  He tightens his grip and yanks her down into the dark space under the bridge so we’re hidden from the sightlines of the playground. Not that anyone is out right now anyway. The little kids are all inside, and the low dark clouds mean thunder.

  Once we’re all the way under, Connor steps closer, backing me against the stone wall of the bridge, still holding Ariel by the crook of her elbow as she struggles to get free.

  “Why are you doing this?” I say, backing away from him, sliding sideways along the wall like I’m about to make a break for it.

  “It’s not personal, Hannah.” But the way he’s looking at me suggests that he means the opposite.

  “What isn’t?” But I’m only pretending now, only doing the happy little Hannah dance, like I can prove to myself that everything’s still okay. It occurs to me that murder is probably the most personal thing there is. Bashing someone’s head in is personal. Dying is personal. I’m shaking now, shivering so hard that the metal charms on my skirt echo under the bridge, clanking and jingling.

  “Hannah, stop being such a baby.”

  The voice is sharp and scornful. I look up. Lillian is perched on the narrow cement ledge just under the arch of the bridge, with her hands folded carefully in her lap. The shadow there is deep, but a few feet below her the sun slants in at a hard angle, and I can see by the way her outline wavers around the edges how much effort it’s taking just to stay here. She’s staring down at Connor with a look of absolute hatred.

  He must see a change on my face, because he tightens his grip on Ariel and drags her closer. The three of us are standing in a little cluster, almost stepping on each other’s feet. Connor and Ariel are right in front of me, and I stand with my back pressed hard against the cement wall.

  Connor glances back over his shoulder at the path, and the instant he turns away, I stare hard into Ariel’s face and jam my phone into her hand.

  Run, I mouth, knowing with hideous certainty that she has to do it. There’ll be one chance, and so she has to go, without hesitation, without questions, without looking back or faltering or trying to help me.

  As Connor turns to face me, I take a deep breath and press the sole of one shoe against the wall behind me. Then I push off as hard as I can and slam myself into his chest. I might not be big, but I throw all my weight against him like I’m playing Red Rover, trying to break through the chain of hands. Only instead of trying to break through myself, all I’m focused on is wrenching Ariel’s arm out of Connor’s grasp.

  As soon as his hand slips and she wriggles away, I expect him to go after her. I’m ready to fling myself on his back if I have to and do everything in my power to slow him down, but he doesn’t chase her. He turns and grabs me by the shoulders, slamming me hard against the wall of the bridge.

  His face is close to mine, his breath hot and damp against my cheek. He’s laughing. “Hannah, you are just too much. I mean, you’re perfect. This is going to be so much fun.” He leans closer, and his expression is sympathetic, confiding. “So, I heard you went crying to the police about Nick.”

  He’s watching my face like he’s waiting for me to deny it. I don’t. I don’t say anything.

  “You’re pale,” he tells me gently, reaching out like he might touch my face again.

  “You’re always pale,” says Lillian. She looks deeply unimpressed.

  “I’m always pale,” I tell Connor. I sound braver than I feel.

  Lillian crawls down from the little ledge, digging her fingers into the cracks in the cement, looking like a giant flower-printed spider in her pajamas. She creeps across the asphalt path to stand next to me.

  “How can he be doing this?” she whispers, and her voice is stunned. “I mean, I knew he could be impulsive or really insensitive, but Hannah, this is psychopathic.”

  I nod, just barely, a tiny little agreement.

  “I mean, he actually wants you to beg.” She leans close, and her eyes are hard and fierce. “Don’t do it. Don’t cry or try to bargain with him. Don’t ask him for anything. Can you do that?”

  I look at her, just briefly, glancing away as soon as our eyes meet. And I nod.

  “Are you seriously going to hurt me?” I say to Connor, and my voice sounds convincingly incredulous. “We’ve been friends for years. I’ve never done anything to hurt you.”

  His gaze is chilly though, making my skin crawl, and maybe it’s true that I’ve known him since elementary school, but we were never really friends. The little gestures and inside jokes were all there, but that’s all they were. They didn’t mean anything. Looking back, the only thing our shared history ever really proved was that we knew the same people, went to the same neighborhood barbecues and birthday parties. That we happened, again and again, to be in the same places at the same time. The way he’s watching me now is almost predatory, and there are so many things you can never tell just by looking at a person.

  He leans close, staring into my face. “You really think that? You think you’ve never done anything to fuck things up for me? So, Nick just walked into the police station on his own? He just went right up to the cops with his wrists stuck out for the cuffs and turned himself in?”

  “Well, he kind of did,” whispers Lillian, creeping around behind me and leaning her chin on my shoulder.

  “Oh, come on,” I say. “He wanted to get caught. No one goes back and leaves something at a crime scene unless they want someone to come stop them.”

  Connor shakes his head, squinting at me in the dim light. “Bullshit. Why would he want to get caught?”

  “I don’t know, maybe because he felt bad for killing those girls.” The chilly weight of Lillian’s cheek pressed against mine makes everything seem less terrifying but also less real. “Maybe he thought it was just pretty despicable to go around killing middle school kids. But you’re off your game now, Connor. I’m not a kid.”

  Connor laughs with his mouth open, smiling much too wide. “Are you saying you’d rather it were Ariel?” The way the light comes in under the bridge makes his face look kind of like a monster. “It still could be. Maybe I’ll catch up with her later. If there’s time. And anyway, don’t stress too much, Hannah. You’re pretty much perfect for this game. You even like all this shiny plastic shit and Nick’s stupid craft projects and everything, so what’s the difference? I mean, you’re practically a little girl, anyway.”

  The way he’s looking at me is hungry, like someone sizing up a piece of meat, trying to find the best place to stick the knife.

  I start talking faster, trying to buy some time for Ariel to get help, backing away from him even as his fingers dig into my wrist. “How did you decide on Monica? What made her special enough to be the first one?” I say “special” in a hard, scornful voice, like it’s a dirty word, and part of me doesn’t even mean to.

  Connor looks at me like he’s really thinking about that, trying hard to figure something out. Then he shrugs and shakes his head. “She was there. We wanted to know what it was like, and there she was, just bopping along by herself with her big white mittens on and those fucking ice skates.” He shakes his head, smiling at somethi
ng too beautiful and far for me to see.

  “You knew her,” I say, and my voice is suddenly ferocious. “You’d been in the same homeroom with her since seventh grade!”

  “And she was really surprised when I smashed her head against a Dumpster. Come on, let’s go up into the trees. It’s freezing down here.”

  I shake my head and dig my heels into the soft, damp ground and the loose gravel. I’m desperate to stay with Lillian, scared that if we leave the shelter of the bridge, she won’t be able to follow us. But Connor just grabs my arm and pulls me hard, making the soles of my shoes slip and skid over the path.

  He yanks me out into the sunlight, dragging me up the other side of the bank by my elbow. His grip is painful, and I can feel my pulse banging away in my forearm and my shoulder.

  When I try to squirm away, prying at his fingers with my free hand, he gives me a shake that nearly pops my shoulder out of its socket. “If you don’t settle down, I will knock you the fuck out.”

  He pulls me up the hill and into the middle of the clearing, shoving me so that I fall forward into the grass, landing on my hands and knees.

  Connor drops down next to me and pulls me close so we’re sitting in the grass with his arm around me, holding me against his side so my shoulder presses into his chest. I hate how easy, how familiar the gesture is, like I’m barely even a real person, just a worn-out doll he’s dragging around with him.

  “I’ve really been looking forward to this,” he says in a voice so conversational that I want to scream and wrench away from him.

  His grip is painful, though, so instead I sit perfectly still and imagine Ariel, following her progress in my mind, tracing her path through the trees and across the bridge. How far is the edge of the park? How far to someone who can help? How much time could I gain if I can make him talk to me?

  “After Monica,” I say, sounding breathless and dizzy, “then what?”

  “Oh, we were totally freaking out after it happened. I mean, Nick was pretty messed up about it. Forget making it, like, a recurring thing—I thought he was never going to talk to me again. I was amped, though. I mean, it was insane—like drugs or something!”

 
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