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Paper valentine, p.24
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       Paper Valentine, p.24

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  Someone is kneeling over Connor, holding him down in the grass. My vision is starting to come back, but there are black starbursts printed over everything. They’re struggling, gasping and swearing, crashing around in the dry grass. There’s a hoarse yelp, and the struggle gets louder and more frantic. And then it stops.

  The noise starts from far away and grows steadily louder. The clearing fills with an earsplitting shriek that rips through the trees, a wail like the torment of all the ghosts of all the horror movies. It goes on and on and I look wildly around the clearing for them, all the ghosts of all the girls. But they’re gone. Lillian is the only one left, sitting elbow-deep in the waving grass with her arms crossed over her chest.

  And then the light around us gets weirdly red, throbbing like a heartbeat, and I hold Ariel tighter. There’s so much noise, wind and thunder and shouting. I crouch lower in the grass and close my eyes, burying my face in her hair, rocking her and rocking myself until the red subsides and things get quiet again.

  “Here,” says a hoarse, panicked voice very close to my ear. “Ariel, let me see her.”

  It’s Finny. He crouches over me, raking my hair out of my face as he presses his hand against my temple and holds it there. Blood is running down the side of his arm and falling in scattered drops onto my dress. They bloom into dark splotches, and I look away, staring around the clearing for Connor.

  “Where is he?” I gasp. My voice sounds furious and bruised, like it belongs to a monster.

  Finny’s holding me by the shoulders, keeping his hand pressed hard against my temple while Ariel sobs against me with her arms around my waist and her face buried in my dress.

  “It’s okay,” Finny tells us. “It’s okay—Boles cuffed him and put him in the car. The paramedics are coming.”

  His expression is wary and raw, and when I nod and reach for him, he wraps his whole body around me, shielding me from the wind and the rain, and there’s so much noise and so much fresh, damp air. I’m coughing so hard that my eyes water and I collapse against him, tears streaming down my cheeks, sobbing for breath. My throat hurts so bad and the tears are so thick that I can’t even tell whether or not I’m crying. I mash my face into Finny’s shoulder, digging my fingers into the fabric of his shirt as the sky opens up.

  A few feet away, Lillian is sitting plunked down in the grass with her hair hanging in her face and her arms folded against her chest, watching us. Rain pours down around her, but none of the drops seem to make contact. Everything in the clearing is wet except her.

  I wait for her to say something, but she doesn’t. She’s looking at me and Finny—the way he’s holding on to me and the way I’m holding on to him. The expression on her face is cool and distant, but her eyes are full of longing, and I know what she’s thinking. Or maybe the truth is just that I’m thinking it—that she has never had anyone to come crashing into the storm for her.

  I reach out, fumbling through the grass with my hand, but I still can’t touch her. She reaches back anyway, letting her hand drift above mine, pretending to hold it.

  “You did it,” she whispers. “You were strong. You were so brave.”

  There’s a flash of lightning, and I flinch against Finny, squeezing my eyes shut.

  “It’s okay,” Finny says against my ear, keeping his hands cupped over my head like he can protect me from the rain. “It’s going to be okay. The ambulance will come, and they’ll stop the bleeding.”

  Lillian just sits there watching me, sad and dry and silent.

  Her eyes are so huge that it’s painful to look at her. “I have to go, Hannah. I have to.” This time when she reaches for my wrist, I can almost feel the pressure of her fingers as they brush against my bracelet, jangling through the charms.

  I nod even though my head aches whenever I move it. I’m crying for real now, leaning against Finny, sobbing against his shoulder.

  * * *

  It’s after ten o’clock by the time the hospital lets me go. My throat feels okay, but there’s a huge wad of gauze taped to the side of my head, and my voice still sounds like it belongs to a goblin.

  My mom and Decker met me at the emergency room, where I got nine stitches and a CT scan and answered questions the detectives already knew the answers to.

  The hospital was bright and fluorescent and cold. I waited and waited for Lillian to show up, to make a joke or a smart remark, or roll her eyes at me for flinching from the needle. But she didn’t.

  Now I’m at home in the living room, snuggled on the couch with Ariel wrapped around me like a monkey and Joan lying warm and heavy against my shins. Decker’s in the armchair, leaning back like he’s having trouble getting his head around everything that’s happened, but my mom keeps standing up and pacing.

  Finny’s sitting on my other side, looking big and rumpled and out of place in our living room. He’s restless, touching the scrapes on his elbows over and over, but I know that’s just because this is all still new and that the more he comes over, the more he’ll start to look in-place. Just like I know that if we were alone, he’d put his arm around me, or at least hold my hand, but he’s too nervous to do it in front of my mom and Decker.

  I’m pretty sure that after what happened today, though, he gets to. If there’s any way to earn a pass for hand-holding in front of my parents, he’s earned it.

  I reach for him and he reaches back, lacing his fingers through mine. The look he gives me is startled but relieved.

  “That was really lucky that you were in the park,” Decker says finally, and I know it’s his way of telling Finny thank you without actually saying it. He still looks kind of stunned. “Jesus, that was lucky.”

  Finny just shrugs. “I was on my way over here.” His voice is awkward, and he glances sideways at me. “After I’d had a while to, you know, think about what you said, I figured you were right. So I was coming to talk to you.”

  The way he says it is apologetic, and he stops before he gets to the story of what happened next. I already know the rest, though—the part where Ariel came bursting out of the chokecherry bushes, screaming at Finny to help her, to come stop Connor Price from hurting her sister because he was out of his mind, and she’d called 911, but she was so, so scared that the police weren’t going to get there in time.

  And I know that I was lucky. That if he’d doubted Ariel for even a minute or tried to make her slow down and explain, it might have been too late. But he wasn’t late, and here in the coziness of my living room, with my sister dozing off next to me and my hand clasped in Finny’s, the whole afternoon seems far away, like something that happened a lifetime ago.

  * * *

  Later, after Ariel’s in bed and Jolene has come by to pick up Finny, I climb the stairs to my room and peel out of my dress. The whole back of it is covered in grass stains and red dirt, and the seams are still sort of damp. There’s a huge rip in the bottom of the tulle, and some of the charms have been torn off. The ground around the railroad bridge must be littered with them.

  It’s still raining hard, a black-sky torrent, water coursing down the glass, springing up in tiny droplets from the surface of the backyard. In the dark, the drops catch the glow from the porch light and shine brightly before plunging down again and disappearing back into the grass.

  I put on my pajama pants and a thermal shirt, then sit down in front of my mirror. With careful fingers, I scape my hair into a ponytail, working around the pad of gauze taped over the purpling goose egg near my hairline.

  There’s a sharp tug at the top of my scalp as my bracelet tangles in the end of the ponytail, and I wince at the pain that radiates through my stitches. I unwind the bracelet and then take it off, setting it on top of the dresser. The light in my room is warm and soft, making a smeary rainbow across the wall. My head aches, but in a vague, sore way that’s only really noticeable if I look up too fast.
r />   As I lay out the bracelet, my gaze falls on the enamel surface of the Queen of Hearts. Her dress is painted red and white, but now the paint is ruined. Someone has scratched the red off every single heart.

  The job is detailed, neat and thorough, and Lillian has always been able to make the world bend to her will when she really wanted to. I have a wordless memory of her reaching for my wrist in the throbbing light from the ambulance, fingers jangling through the charms, and I sit very still, feeling like a person in a dream.

  I understand, with a painful knot tightening in my throat, that this is her gift to me, her good-bye. That maybe getting rid of the hearts is her way of protecting me from the horror and the tragedy of what happened. But I can’t help thinking that it might mean something else.

  She’s ruined my private little reminder of her authority, X-ed out the thing that always seemed like a symbol for her power. And maybe as little as two months ago I wouldn’t have gotten that, but in the last few weeks, I’ve learned too much about her secret self and mine to misunderstand it. This is her letting me go.

  Our whole lives, it was like we were always trying so hard to be perfect—for our families and our friends, for each other—when the funny thing was, we didn’t have to. In the end, we were better than that.

  I sit down in the middle of the braided rug, over the center of the makeshift spirit board. The rug hides the chaotic mess of clippings, but I know it’s there like I know the rain will run its course and that soon I’ll stop crying. I’ll get up and walk out of my room and down the hall. I’ll take a shower and be careful not to get my stitches wet. But for now, I sit in the middle of my room, holding the bracelet and thinking of Lillian.

  Thinking of this friend I had. This friend I loved and keep loving—dead, but never really gone.


  Sarah Davies, who champions my books, provides invaluable guidance, and answers every question (even the completely ridiculous ones), all with grace, kindness, and a healthy dose of practicality.

  Ben Schrank, who not only gives me permission to write weird books, but actually encourages it.

  Jocelyn Davies, who edits like a champ, totally gets what I’m trying to do (even when I’m not quite doing it yet), and if she panics at the sight of my first drafts, she always keeps it to herself. Jocelyn, you rock!

  The Razorbill editorial team, for helping me fix the wonky parts, not to mention the erratic comma-use, and for occasionally reminding me that there are very few circumstances under which a character can end a scene wearing different shoes than they started with.

  Tess and Maggie, my Merry Sisters. You guys are indispensable!

  The Photo Shop. Thank you for the best college job in the history of the world, not to mention imparting all that detailed knowledge of chemicals, machinery, crime scene photos, and customer service. Those parts are all true, I swear—even if they didn’t actually happen.

  And David, who read this book over and over and over, all the way into infinity, even when it hadn’t changed all that much since the last time he read it, and explained to me very patiently that popcorn is not a meal. No, not even when you’re revising.



  Brenna Yovanoff, Paper Valentine



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