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Places no one knows, p.24
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       Places No One Knows, p.24

           Brenna Yovanoff
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“I’m just saying,” my dad says in a voice that implies he is not just saying anything. “Maybe you should see about cutting back your hours, if it’s so demanding.”

  Justin stares at him across the table. Then he leans forward and slams his hands down on his placemat. “You want to turn this into some passive-aggressive bullshit? Great! I’m not your problem anymore, and how I fucking live my life is none of your business.”

  “Says the freeloading slacker.”

  They’re both red in the face, both edging toward explosion, and Justin has always been the loud one, the angry one. Now, though, he keeps both hands flat on the table and closes his eyes like he might be counting.

  My dad is building up to something, getting good and mean. “Isn’t this shit exactly like you! Acting like you’re so goddamn busy, or maybe just too good to waste your time on us. Not so wonderful when you were flunking out of trade school. Not when you were asking me to drop four thousand dollars on some HVAC certificate that never materialized.”

  The shot is so cheap that I feel it in my gut. We all know school has never been easy for Justin, not even when we were little. And still, maybe he would have picked something to get good at if our dad wasn’t always up his ass about picking something.

  “I don’t have to sit here for this,” Justin says. His voice is flat, horribly even.

  I’m so sure that in a second, we’ll be treated to the version I know. The Justin who’s always been a junior copy of our dad. He’s going to get nasty, get cruel or sarcastic. He’s going to break something.

  Instead, without saying anything, he shoves back his chair. He looks from me to Annie—this hard, complicated look, like we’re somehow the ones letting him down. Then he walks out of the kitchen and out of the house.

  We hear his car start up, go screeching down the driveway, and then it gets quiet. Out the window, it’s still raining.

  I sit and wait for everyone to sigh in relief, like now we can stop playing this ugly Leave It to Beaver game and go back to our stupid, screwed-up lives. I’ll finish the creamed corn, put my plate in the sink, go over to Autumn’s and get numb. Or maybe not—maybe I’ll just skip it. I’ll stop by Ollie’s instead, and we’ll drive around and listen to the radio and be really careful not to talk about why I never let him come over anymore.

  Annie will lock herself in her room, or meet some friends for study group. We’ll escape into the little secret hideouts that we made, and leave the two of them to cry and shout and fuck each other up some more.

  I sit with my head down and wait for someone to act like anything at all has happened. The problem, though, is that they can’t. That would make it real. We’d have to admit that all the chaos and the noise is just this thing we do. We need it, because if no one’s yelling or crying, then there’s nothing left to hold on to.

  We all sit there, busy with our forks, like it’s not sickening to eat this way. I shove a gooey lump of scalloped potatoes around on my plate, whisper “Razor blade.”

  My dad is going in for another dinner roll, but he freezes midreach. “Something on your mind, Marshall?”

  “No,” I say, trying to look as blank as he does.

  Waverly, wrapped around me like she could shield me with her body.

  At the other end of the table, my mom is concentrating on her salad. Her eyes are red and shiny the way they get, but she’s acting like everything is totally, stupidly fine.

  My dad’s still watching like he can see through me, peel back the layers between me and him and start digging around in my bones. He looks so disgusted and I can already tell we’re going to do the thing—that thing where he tells me I’m pathetic. That at least Justin stands up for himself or knows how to act like a man.

  “Then you’d better adjust your attitude, because right now, it looks like you’ve got something you want to say.”

  I know he’s baiting me, still jonesing for the explosion that never happened. The only thing that can shut him up now is a fight.

  “Please.” There’s a knot in my throat, but my voice isn’t shaking. “Please just stop.”

  “Excuse me?”

  I put down my fork and look up. “Stop acting like we’re the ones doing this to you. Stop pretending you ever once acted like you could stand to be in the same room with any of us, or like Annie somehow owes it to the goddamn family to put her life on hold. That’s not what this is.”

  He stares hard at me, but doesn’t answer. He might be all about the sneering and the shouting, but when it comes to saying how he really feels, my dad would always rather say nothing.

  “No one has a problem here but you,” I say. “We’re just trying to get through this, the same as you. So quit acting like we’re some kind of huge pain in your ass, because we’re not the ones making your life shitty.”

  I feel dizzy, almost. Out of breath, even though I haven’t moved from the table. My blood has turned to acid, flooding my body. At the same time, I can hardly feel my hands.

  He’s staring back at me, brutal and cold, and under that, hurt.

  “You don’t deserve this,” I say. “It sucks, and it’s not fair. But we don’t deserve it either.”

  For a second I think he might hit me, even though he hasn’t even spanked me since I was a little kid. His face is red. His hands are clenched in fists.

  “So just stop,” I say, and this time I don’t say please.

  My mom puts her head down on her arms and starts to cry like someone just died, but I don’t move.

  Suddenly, I have a horrible feeling that I’m saying the thing everyone’s secretly been thinking. That me and Annie and my mom, and even Justin, became We five or ten years ago, maybe from the beginning, and on the other side, there’s just him and no one else.

  “Give me the car keys,” I say to Annie without looking at her.

  My mom looks up, wet-faced. “Where are you going?”

  I shake my head, still looking at my dad. “Away.”

  I don’t say that I’m sorry for this, or tell him that I hate it, that I don’t even want to be saying it—there’s really no way to make peace now. He’s the one who set the terms.

  It’s him or us, and now that I’m actually honest, I realize I’ve known that for years. He hasn’t left any of us a choice.


  The party is never, ever going to end.

  After an interminable debate with Maribeth over whether or not I’ve ruined everything by neglecting to give my heart to CJ, I escape into the hall, and then the aggressively outdated dining area, milling around with everyone else, bumping from room to room. This is where I live now.

  Autumn has outdone herself when it comes to homemade movie posters and colored lights, but everything else is just like any other party.

  The beer tastes thin and bitter. It’s cold, though, and that’s appropriate and fitting, because I am cold. I drink it fast, like penance, and go get another.

  Time is stretched. It’s relative—a perceptual miracle. I’ve never liked the dumb, despondent haze of being drunk, but I love how the minutes pass in quick, untethered jerks. I wonder if Einstein ever had occasion to notice, if he devoted any calculation or causal hypothesis to the temporal properties of beer.

  Autumn is camped out in the kitchen, sitting on the counter by the stove, swinging her feet and drinking something offensively blue and fittingly unidentifiable through a twisty straw.

  “Waverly!” she screams in mock delight. She’s wearing a beaded dress and combat boots. She looks beautiful. Her wide-eyed rapture is half ironic and half because she is actually that glad to see me. “I have a present for you!”

  My blood alcohol level is telling me now that sure, I’ll do this. I’ll flirt and smile and act coy and careless and effervescent like everyone else. I lean against the stove and raise my beer can. “Is it a pony?”

  Autumn shakes her head, twirling the twisty straw between her fingers and smiling wickedly. Her teeth are stained a pale, venomous blue. “It’s better. C
ome on, I put it in my mom’s office for safekeeping.”

  She leads me through the house, thundering like a goddess in her black boots. Her hand fits neatly in mine, her way of saying without saying that we are together in this, whatever this is. She drags me along, pulling me close, but sends me down the last darkened hall alone—a scene befitting a horror movie.

  I shuffle toward the office, wondering what she could possibly have put aside for me. A homemade Hadron collider, complete with hand-stenciled electromagnets and glitter-covered compressors. The preserved skin of some obscure eldritch horror. I can wear it as a costume—make my surface match my inside.

  I push the door open and stop.

  Marshall Holt is standing under a confusing piece of contemporary art, with his shaggy hair and his slacker hoodie and his deep, uncomplicated wanting. My whole body feels warm.

  “Waverly,” he says. That’s all. Just three aching syllables.

  My heart starts beating faster before I even reach him. He looks immaculate and defenseless against the statement painting—three circles and a huge smudgy triangle. This is Autumn’s present to me. The wish I’d blow out birthday candles for. “What are you doing here?”

  He doesn’t answer, just offers me a piece of heavy paper. It’s a pencil drawing of Audrey Hepburn, backed by a fantastical city, overgrown with stylized art deco vines like the ones that Autumn drew coursing down my arm. In the middle, directly below Audrey’s pearl-wrapped throat, it says:

  Merry Christmas, Marshall Holt

  “This is bad,” I whisper and as soon as I say it, I know that it’s the truth.

  His eyes are wary, terribly unsure. “What is?”

  But for a second, I can only shake my head. The truth is that I’m dangerous. The brutal sum of everything that made it so impossible to be gentle with him behind the bleachers or follow him to the dugout.

  Every way I break it down, failure is inevitable. The limited amount I have to give won’t be enough. I’ll disappoint, be found insufficient. And when I finally ruin the last vestiges of what I have with him? Then I’ll just have nothing.

  “This. This is bad. We can’t be here, Marshall. I can’t.”

  “Hey, I’m sorry,” he says, taking back the invitation, shoving it in his pocket. “I just—I was having a bad night. You haven’t been around at all and I really wanted to see you.”

  “And then what?” I say, holding perfectly still. The need to reach for him is fierce, and I am terrified to touch anything for fear that it will break.

  “I don’t know,” he says. “Go somewhere, do anything you want. Coffee, the park, the goddamn grocery store. I’ll drive you around Fullerton Heights to look at bulldozers or abandoned warehouses, I’ll take you to see one of your psychopathic splatter flicks.”

  I look away and squeeze my beer can hard enough to make dents. My heart is slowing down again. “No you won’t.”

  He shakes his head. “Don’t tell me what I’d do. You know I’ll do whatever you want.”

  “Shouldn’t, I mean. You’d hate it. You shouldn’t do things you hate just because it’s what I like.”

  My voice is empty. Sad. I think that I have never in my life felt quite this sad. Instead, I’ve spent years feeling brittle and angry. All I wanted was to make out with Travis Bickle, Tyler Durden, someone who wanted to watch the world burn. Marshall is the complete opposite of a psychopath. We are not a symbiotic species.

  He shrugs. “I’d take you anyway.”

  The gaping ache in him is tangible, there in his face and his voice, worse than ever. He needs me to be here in a real, honest way. A way that there’s no going back from. Alcohol is humming in every capillary in my body. My skin feels tingly.

  Magically, we’ve moved closer. I can already feel the magnetic charge between us. Too definite, too intimate. And still, I find myself crashing toward him. My hand is a discrete entity, floating a millimeter from his cheek.

  Then, just as I reach for him, someone behind me lets out a harsh, incredulous breath.

  We stop, caught in a rapidly decaying orbit, my hand already veering away.

  Kendry is standing in the doorway. “Oh, wow,” she says. Her shirt is hanging off one shoulder, and her weirdly nude lip gloss has migrated halfway across her face. “Wow.”

  Marshall and I jerk apart like we’ve been electrocuted, and Kendry doubles over, covering her mouth with her hands so it’s just her wide, gleeful eyes staring up at me. “Waverly, Jesus! I knew you didn’t get out much, but goddamn.”

  From out in the hall, people are already trickling in, crowding into the doorway, anxious to see what the commotion is about.

  Kendry is shrieking now, howling with mirth. “Give her two beers and she’ll throw herself at anyone!”

  Everyone is poised, breathless—watching us, waiting for the next delicious thing. The sensation of their eyes is in my blood like ice.

  Then, like a lecture slide changing over, Autumn is there, grabbing Kendry, turning her by the shoulders. “You’re one to talk, Drunky McGlitter-Face.”

  Kendry gives a high-pitched little squeak, then hiccups once, but her laughter cuts off abruptly.

  Beside me, Marshall is standing with his hand held out like he wants to reach for me, but I don’t reach back. My defenses are cracking now, too fragile to withstand any but the most quarantined environment.

  Autumn’s standing with her hand on Kendry’s shoulder, waiting to see what I’ll do, but it’s Maribeth who breaks the silence. “Waverly.”

  She says it without inflection. Without articles or verbs. She doesn’t have to say anything else.

  I stare back at her, trying to remember that we are standing in front of fifteen people, all crowding up behind each other in the doorway. A wasteland opens inside me at the thought of being seen. Not my skin or my naked body, but the true, inarguable shape of me.

  This is not supposed to happen, not in front of Maribeth, not to the boy with the quiet voice and the bleeding heart. Love is a sparking, arcing power surge that shorts out everything and I am shivering with it, desperate to get someplace where everyone will stop looking at me. Someplace safe.

  “Take me home,” I say, reaching for her.

  The words are all wrong. Even as I say them, I understand that home is not a place I can get to from here. It’s not my room, it’s Marshall’s, but to choose him now would mean giving up…everything. My seamless facade, all the stupid little conventions that define my life. Admitting weakness, admitting need.

  It would mean giving up myself, and more than that, giving up Maribeth. There is no room in her carefully ordered world for a Waverly who longs to be more than a machine.

  She reaches back clumsily, catching hold, tugging me closer. Her palm is warm and sweaty. The brass key on her necklace of romantic aspirations is long gone. She barely glances at Marshall. “Waverly, I’m in the middle of King’s Cup. You should come play. Anyway, we’re way too drunk.”

  I do a quick check, comparing the proposed state against my actual condition. I still have access to basic chemistry, and the formula for distance. I plow through all the presidents in order, conjugate destruir, run a diagnostic on Hamlet’s third soliloquy. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. I’m nearly paralyzed by the ferocity of my heartbeat.

  Autumn is the one who breaks the silence, appearing in front of me with the dignity of an iceberg. “What is your problem? You’re acting like a possessed person. Seriously, are you having a stroke, because I will call an ambulance!”

  Marshall glances at her, shaking his head. “It’s fine,” he says, and the edge in his voice twists hard against something in my throat.

  We stand in the office, arrayed in frank disorder, and through it all, Maribeth just looks at me. The shape of her mouth is studious. Inevitable. I jerk my hand away and head for the door, pushing hard at the crowd until they part. I walk out in a daze, propelled by the force of my own adrenaline.


  Marshall catches me in
the mudroom. I’m already struggling into my coat.

  “Where are you going?”


  “I’m giving you a ride.”

  And part of me leaps at the promise of being alone in the dark with him. It’s immediately overwritten by the panicked loop that circles in my brain. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. That voice is louder than any other thought, and I have finally found something that Waverly is simply incapable of.

  I grab my purse and slam my empty can down on the bench, then start for the door.

  “You can’t walk home,” he says behind me. His voice is low and even. “Your feet are too messed up. Just let me give you a ride.”

  I whip around, nearly toppling into the coat rack before I right myself. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

  The look he gives me is inappropriately kind. “Go outside while I find my coat. I’ll be there in two minutes.”

  I stand at the top of Autumn’s driveway. I could start walking. I could leave, but I know I’ll only get a block before Marshall catches up with me. He’ll pull up next to me and say get in, and I’ll do it, because he’ll be right.

  But even the introduction of stone-cold logic won’t be enough to power off my red alert. The emergency siren has been activated, blaring in time to the warning light that flashes in my head. The hull is breached. All nonessential sectors are on lockdown. It’s so hard to love someone when you have to do it in the open. The second you expose a thing to air, it has already begun to oxidize.

  When Marshall comes out a minute later, head down, hands in his pockets, I’m still standing at the curb.

  He leads the way to a rust-speckled car, unlocks the passenger door, and I get in. The interior is shabby and smells like smoke and exhaust and him. He flops down in the driver’s seat and turns the key. The engine sputters and coughs before it evens out.

  “This isn’t okay,” he says.

  I lean against the window, feeling drunk—but only in the tingling numbness of my lips, the pressure behind my eyes. The rest of me is immovable and stiff.

  He takes a breath before he continues. “I’m serious, Waverly. I can’t keep doing this. I want something that’s an actual life.”

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