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Paper valentine, p.23
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       Paper Valentine, p.23

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  He’s right. This whole thing is insane.

  I stare out over the deserted park, searching for something else to ask, something that will eat up the minutes. “Wait, so you really were doing all this with Nick Andelman? I saw you go up to him at the mall a couple weeks ago, but that was one time. You guys never even hung out together.”

  The look Connor gives me is profoundly patient. “Of course not. The whole point of a secret pact is not to go advertising to everybody that you know each other. He wasn’t even supposed to be hanging out at the mall that day because he knew I was going to be there. No mistakes, right? Don’t get careless. So I had to remind him, make sure he remembered which one of us called the shots.”

  “If you think you’re so much better than him, then how come he was the one you picked to do all this with?”

  Connor shrugs and I feel his arm tighten around me. “It’s kind of funny, really, how detention is like this great equalizer. We both had to stay after with Mrs. Phipps one day, back in eighth grade. We were the only ones there. Anyway, we started talking about how you could make napalm with, like, Styrofoam and shit, and Nick said he had a whole batch of this really ghetto stuff that was mostly gasoline and random kitchen chemicals, but that it really worked. He said he knew this abandoned building and that he was going to burn it down, so after detention let out, we went over there. Turned out it wasn’t really a building, just some dinky little shed out in the field behind that Texaco on Sixteenth, but we took his napalm and torched the place and it was cool. After that, things kind of went from there.”

  But it’s a pretty big jump from burning down an abandoned shed to deciding it sounds like fun to kill a girl you’ve known since middle school. I stare up at him, trying to work out the chain of events. “And then after setting a couple fires together, he really wanted to go on a murder spree with you?”

  Connor laughs, shaking his head like the memory is one of those funny, rueful ones you talk about at parties because it makes such a good story. “Not exactly. I mean, sure, we talked about how cool it would be to off someone, but Nick was pretty much all talk. I had to work on him for a long time. And then after Monica, he was still practically ready to turn himself in and confess everything. But that would have been it for me too, and no way was I going to let that happen. In the end, I got him to see how it was.”

  “And how was it?” I say, staring straight ahead, watching the dark opening under the bridge.

  Connor laughs and shakes his head. “Well, first of all, no one was ever going to believe that it wasn’t his idea. I mean, look at him! And as long as we were careful, as long as we took all the right precautions and didn’t hang out together where anyone could see us, we could keep doing it—do whatever we wanted. It was going to be epic.”

  “And that was all he needed to hear? That you were going to kill a whole bunch of girls and it would be epic? That’s really what he wanted?”

  Connor’s expression darkens abruptly, and it’s like watching a cloud move across the sun. “We were all set to start doing some real damage. Then he had to go and get picked up for being fucking stupid and lifting utility knives right where the shop guy could see him. He spent four months in Lehigh, and when he came back, he was too scared to do anything anymore. It took pretty much the whole semester to get him to where I was even sure that he wasn’t going to go running to the cops any second.”

  “They’re going to catch you,” I say, and I say it like it’s just that obvious, that unavoidable.

  Connor only leans closer and gives me a warm, conspiratorial look. “I know that.”

  “Why are you here, then? I mean, why bother with me?”

  He shakes his head, looking so earnest, so sincere. “Don’t you get it, Hannah? Since the second you gave them Nick, it was never going to be any other way. It’s just a matter of time before he pussies out and tells them everything. So before it all goes down, I had to make sure I got my chance to deal with you. Because yeah, they’ll get me, but until then, I’ve got you.”

  In the flatness of his eyes, I can see that he’s completely committed to whatever he’s got planned, and before now, I’ve never truly understood what it means when they say that a person has nothing to lose.

  Overhead, the clouds are rolling in fast. The temperature has plunged ten degrees in the past fifteen minutes, and I’m starting to shiver even in the heat. The wind is blowing gusty and cool when Lillian comes drifting out from under the bridge. At first she looks just as solid as she does in my room, but as she steps out into the light and starts to climb the hill, her edges go soft. It takes her a while to reach us, struggling up the stony ground, fighting against whatever it is about the outdoors that makes her weak and thin. She sits down beside me with her knees pulled up, watching as Connor slips out of his backpack, keeping one hand around my arm.

  He unzips the pack and takes out a pair of disposable latex gloves that he probably got from his dad’s dentist office. The whole procedure is so methodical and businesslike. It’s so horrifically ordinary.

  He glances over at me, and his friendly smile isn’t so friendly anymore. His eyes look flat and cold and terribly, terribly alive.

  “Please,” I say softly. “I’m your friend, Connor. You’ve known me forever.”

  Lillian leans closer, clutching at me, but her hand drifts through my arm in a way that makes me think of ghosts in movies. It surprises me because in my room, she is so, so solid. “Don’t,” she whispers. “Don’t say ‘please’ like that, like you expect him to give you anything.”

  The light in the clearing is still warm, the afternoon sun pouring through the branches in brilliant arrows of light, but even as I watch, it’s fading, growing darker.

  “You can’t,” I say, and this time my voice sounds almost bossy—telling, not asking. “You can’t really do this.”

  Connor laughs, looking around the empty clearing. “Hannah,” he says, like he’s explaining something so obvious he shouldn’t even need to say it out loud. “No one’s stopping me.”

  The three of us are sitting in a little circle in the grass, like we’re about to have a tea party. The trees above us sway and creak. Lillian is staring out across the park at the coming storm. The color of her skin is ghostly, clammy gray, like stone. And then she grabs for me, making goose bumps come out on my arms.

  “Look,” she whispers, trying to catch hold of me even as her hand keeps slipping right through mine. “Look—look!”

  Something is moving under the railroad bridge. At first it’s just a flutter. Something pale and murky in the dark. Then a cloud rolls across the sun, and Abby Brooks is standing in the arched mouth of the tunnel with grass stains on her knees and blood in her hair. She’s still wearing one blue flip-flop.

  Connor follows my gaze, not focusing on Abby exactly, but he sees something. His hand goes slack around my arm and I have a fast, crazy idea that I could yank free and run, maybe along the river toward the footbridge or back out toward the road. He’s bigger and faster than me, but I’m small enough that maybe I could lose myself in the brush, hunker down, and hide until he goes away.

  Without wasting another second, I wrench myself out of his grip and bolt for the river.

  I make it about fifteen feet, just to the edge of the clearing, before he catches up to me and grabs me by the back of my dress. He’s laughing.

  “Hannah, Hannah, get it together! If you make a big thing about this, it’s just going to be a whole lot worse.”

  I twist in his grip so I’m looking up at him, right into his pale, distant eyes. What I see there startles me. There is nothing in them, nothing in his face. His gaze is perfectly empty.

  “Worse than what?” I say, even though I’m brutally sure that there are a million ways this could get worse, a million ways he could hurt me or make me scream and cry, or destroy me. But the idea of pain seems
far away, and it feels good to stare into the rabbit hole anyway. It feels good to be Lillian.

  He shrugs, smiling his dull, brutal smile. I’m absolutely disgusted that I ever could have thought it was charming. It’s just a mask he wears, and now I’m seeing him for what he really is—arrogant and cruel. Vacant.

  He gazes down at me, shaking his head. “You’re a real trip, Hannah—way tougher than any of those junior high girls. You’re going to be so much fun to fuck with.”

  In one hissing electric burst, I have never been so uncontrollably angry in my life, not even when my dad left, or that summer my mom made me quit piano lessons because I had to watch Ariel every day. Not even at Lillian.

  I stand with my chin up and my shoulders back, and it’s my turn to laugh. “You think you’re actually scary, don’t you? You think you’re smart. But let me tell you something, Connor. Anyone who’d pick Nick Andelman for a partner is an idiot. No one with any sense at all would ever beg help off a hulking moron with an IQ of seventy-five.”

  “Shut up,” he says, and he throws me down in the grass so hard that my teeth click together and I almost bite my tongue. “He was never my partner. He did whatever I said, whenever I wanted—I was in charge of everything. I came out of this with everything.”

  The ground under me is still warm from the sun, the long grass prickling against my back, but the sky overhead is nearly black.

  “You can’t kill a person without losing part of yourself,” I whisper. “When you murdered them, you were really doing it to yourself.”

  Connor crouches over me, shoving his face very close to mine, clamping his hands on my shoulders and holding me down in the grass. “You think they could ever take something from me? As far as those little bitches knew, I was God.”

  Behind him, Lillian gasps and points. When I turn my head, Cecily Miles is standing at the edge of the trees, like she’s just wandered up from the river. Her hair is a wild mousy tangle around her face, and there’s mud splashed up her legs. Her eyes are luminous, lit up with a kind of ecstatic fury.

  Connor glances in the direction I’m looking but doesn’t seem to focus.

  “They’re coming for you,” I tell him, and maybe that sounds insane, but I’m staring him straight in the face when I say it, and he believes me. I can tell by the way his eyes dart rapidly from side to side and from the catch in his throat when he swallows. “The girls. They’re coming.”

  His hands are clenched tight on my shoulders, holding me down in the weeds. I can smell grass and dirt and the sweet, musty pollen of wildflowers. I can smell the tight, electric feeling the air gets before a good lightning storm. We’re crossing into the pocket of calm, where the clouds come in and the light goes wrong.

  Connor crouches over me, pressing me into the ground. “You sound deranged. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as ghosts.”

  But I can hear in his voice that he’s faltering, not trying to ridicule me, but trying to convince himself that his victims are not climbing up the hill to us. That they’re not crowding around him. I lie very still, looking up at him. I hate his breath and the dead, unsettling color of his eyes and his white, straight teeth.

  “You’re such a coward.” My voice is smooth and vicious. When Lillian would fly into one of her rages, it was always chaotic, explosive, but mine is tight and poisonous. Hard as a diamond. When I stare up into his face, I feel nearly incandescent. “I’m amazed you had the balls to kill anyone at all. In fact, I bet it wasn’t even you. I bet it was Nick, every inch of the way.”

  That one gets him, cutting right through the cold, smiling mask. That’s when he slaps me.

  “Don’t talk about what I do,” he says, and his voice is a snarl. “You don’t even see what I am.”

  “Bullshit,” I say. “You think this makes you interesting? You think it’s so profound? You’re not special, Connor. You’re not a mystery. You’re just a run-of-the-mill psycho, just like any other sick asshole out there, and you know what? It’s pathetic.”

  And the whole time, I’m thinking that I just have to wait, wait a little longer, wait for Ariel to find someone, bring help.

  The girls are right behind him now, standing over us in the grass. Monica is bright and horrible in her pink jacket, with crystals of snow stuck to the side of her face like they’re never going to melt. She smiles and puts a finger to her lips. Then she leans down and blows gently in his ear.

  Connor shudders, and I can see the doubt in his face now. It flickers in his eyes like a tiny flame, guttering. The light is turning strangely blue as the clouds come in, and there are goose bumps all over his arms.

  Lillian is behind him, leaning her chin on his shoulder and looking down at me, and my God, she’s scary-looking, but I love her.

  “I love you,” I whisper, and the way I say it makes it glaringly obvious that I am not talking to him, and he knows it. He knows that we are not the only ones here. The grass is prickly and dry against the backs of my arms, and my heart is hammering in my ears so loudly that I’m amazed I can still hear the rising wind and the river and the sound of his voice.

  The other girls are all around us, and Monica slips her ice-blue hands around his throat. Her skin is translucent, almost see-through, but he starts to cough a little anyway, looking panicked.

  “What are you doing to me?” he says, barely above a whisper.

  “I’m not doing anything.”

  “Why are you looking at me like that? Stop looking at me.”

  When Hailey runs her finger along the top of his ear, he jerks like something is buzzing around his head.

  “They own you now,” I whisper. “You picked them, Connor, and now they own a piece of you.”

  His hand is over my mouth, covering my smile, and my heart is beating so hard I think I might die, but the wild, savage joy is in me now, and I can’t stop. He takes his hand away and I’m still smiling.

  “Don’t look at me like that,” he says. And he shakes me so hard that my head thumps back against the ground. It hurts in the same way falling hurts in a dream, dizzy and faraway. I blink once because I can’t help it, and go right back to smiling, staring up into his nervous, skittering eyes.

  Lillian is sitting cross-legged beside us, nestled in the grass. Her arms are wrapped around herself, but if she were solid, she’d be holding my hand.

  Connor frowns, reaching for his backpack. He takes out something heavy and oddly shaped, like a marble sculpture or a bookend, but my fear is beating time behind my eyes, and it’s hard to make out the details. The end is so much closer than I’d hoped.

  “Wait!” I say, sounding breathless. “Aren’t you going to arrange your crime scene? What about all the candy and toys? What about the valentine?”

  He stares down into my face. “Wow, look at you, Hannah! You really are our biggest fan, huh? All that plastic shit is Nick’s business. He’s the one who gets all broken up about it, but I don’t mind if the newspapers get into it. It’s actually pretty hilarious how they freak out whenever they see one of Andelman’s stupid little presents.”

  The rain is on its way now. The air has gone damp and cold, and I can smell the frantic ozone smell of an electrical storm.

  It doesn’t matter that a shambling pack of dead girls is standing over us, making the air go cold. It doesn’t matter that Connor is shivering now and that I can see the panic in his eyes, the knowledge that his victims are all around him. None of that matters. He’s going to kill me anyway.

  His knees are pressing into the points of my shoulders as he takes a deep breath and lifts the marble bookend, which is mottled brown and shaped like a cherub. The sky is nearly black, and the wind comes rustling down through the trees like a secret. He’s going to kill me here in the grass, next to the train tracks, before my sister can find help. I buck and twist, trying to squirm out from under him, screami
ng loud enough to make my throat hurt.

  “Scream all you want,” he whispers, and now his face is as cold and blank as a statue. “No one is going to get here before I finish this.”

  “You’re not special,” I whisper, and don’t recognize my own voice. It sounds low and hoarse, ferocious.

  The weight of his kneecaps digging into my arms should hurt, but as soon as he swings the bookend down, I can barely feel anything. It ricochets awkwardly off the side of my head, and I gasp and try to call out, but my scream dies in my throat. My vision goes soft and black around the edges.

  Lillian is there beside me, kneeling in the grass. She opens her mouth wide, like she’s about to scream, but no sound comes out. Her hands are clasped against her chest, and my head is twisted roughly to the side so that I’m staring into her face.

  “No,” she says in a sad little whisper, shaking her head back and forth over and over, almost moaning it. “No, no, no—Hannah, please no.”

  Connor crouches over me with his hand against my throat, holding me down in the grass, and when he swings the bookend again, there’s the sharp pain of the collision, then nothing.

  RED QUEEN

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  I ’m left floating on the cool updraft of Lillian. Drifting away with her, buoyed up, with the impact of Mrs. Price’s faux-Victorian bookend still booming through my head and Connor’s knees digging into my shoulders.

  Then, without warning, there’s an explosion of voices and Connor’s weight is gone. Shapes are wrestling in the grass around me, gasping and shouting. Someone kicks out, and a shoe catches me in the shoulder and then I know I must be alive, because it really hurts. When I open my eyes, I’m lying flat on the ground, rain spattering on my face.

  Then a blurry shape leans over me, hands reach out, and Ariel comes bursting into focus and throws herself at me, hugging me hard around the neck. Her knees press painfully against my side as she leans across me, digging into my ribs, and I don’t even care. I lie gasping in the wet grass, keeping my arms around her while she sobs against the front of my dress. I clutch her tighter and struggle to sit up, holding on to her, watching the scene unfold over the top of her head.

 
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