Places no one knows, p.26
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       Places No One Knows, p.26

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  Every passing period, I stand at my locker. If Marshall would just spend two seconds in the same place as me, I could figure out what’s happening. If he looks at me, then I’ll know this isn’t permanent. If he just looks at me, then I’ll be all right.

  For the first time in a week, I straggle back to the west hall bathroom. The wall is still blank, white from floor to ceiling, except for one declarative statement written in five-inch letters, in black marker.

  Waverly Camdenmar slums with poor white trash

  The code of the spill wall has been broken. The wall is for honesty, anonymity. It’s for secrets and confessions, not for personal attacks. I stand by the row of sinks and look at it, just feeling it. The shock, the confusion. The brutal indignity of my name on the wall.

  It’s nothing, compared to sticking a needle through my earlobe, but the sentence echoes in my bones. It glows in front of me, taking up residence inside my chest, radioactive. When my anonymous detractor says trash, she’s talking about Marshall.

  .

  The graffiti is vicious in a way I can barely comprehend. I’ve just always assumed that no one knew me well enough to actually hate me.

  “What’s wrong?” Maribeth says after second period, reaching out to pat my hair. “You’re all scowly.” Then she drops her hand and gives me a concerned little frown. “You haven’t been in the west bathroom yet, have you?”

  I shrug, making my face inscrutable. “It’s okay, I saw.”

  “What do you think?”

  “That someone has very little imagination.”

  But that’s not exactly true, and I have a small, persistent theory I can’t get rid of.

  It’s funny. I used to think that when people were curt with Maribeth, or cautious, or casually avoided her, they were doing it because they were jealous. Their resentment for her was the price of politics, and once she found her calling, there was just so much to envy—her easy, gleaming beauty and her confidence. Her absolute conviction that whatever she wants is not only attainable, but somehow due to her. Her position on power has always been that if you can take something, then it’s rightfully yours.

  I’m not naive, though. It’s been a long time since I was ingenuous enough to actually believe that was the reason. There are a hundred girls who lost their friends or boyfriends or their cherished extracurriculars to her. Girls who quit clubs or threw away favorite shirts, and who might, even now, be resentful enough to want some kind of retribution.

  Loring, or Mallory Silva, who ran the food drive last year, or any of the other battered casualties. Anyone who’s ever been hurt and is still too cowed to come for Maribeth in the daylight. To any of them, I might make a compelling target instead. It could be anyone.

  In fact, of all the girls in school, there’s only one I can think of who it definitely wouldn’t be.

  If Autumn wanted to hurt me, she’d burn me down like Genghis Khan. She’d set me on fire, but she’d do it to my face. She doesn’t write her disdain anonymously on walls. She torches whole villages.

  I haven’t talked to her since her party. Haven’t run into her, haven’t seen her. Now that I’m off the meet roster, we don’t even intersect in the locker rooms anymore. I keep thinking that if I could just talk to her, she’d be able to help, but she isn’t there in my field of rotation anymore. She isn’t anywhere.

  It seems that when I lost Marshall, I lost her too.

  When I finally track her down, she’s standing in the senior locker bay by the art wing, talking to a pair of expensively bohemian girls with assorted facial piercings. I take her arm and pull her unceremoniously into the empty ceramics room.

  “Why did you stick me in that room with Marshall Holt?” I say, trying to sound cool or indifferent, like my world has not recently been shattered.

  Autumn leans against one of the art cabinets and twirls her hair around a languid finger. “Are you saying his brand of understated charm and basic decency doesn’t light your fire? Because you are so full of shit.”

  My throat tightens—it aches—the muscle memory of how it felt to be ambushed there in her mother’s office. Asked to act human without warning. When her eyes drift over me, I feel practically imaginary.

  “Why are you avoiding me?” I say finally.

  Autumn crosses her arms over her chest. “Because you’re fucking infuriating, okay? You are the most frustrating person I’ve ever met.”

  I should feel sadder than I do. I should want to fix it, to take it back. All I can think is that for the time it lasted, it was nice, having someone on my side. “Infuriating how?”

  “Don’t act stupid. It doesn’t look good on you.”

  “I just want you to tell me what I did to you.”

  She regards me with her hands on her head and her hair raked back from her face. Her eyebrows are knit. Her mouth is open. “To me,” she says finally, letting her hands fall. “What you did to me. Waverly, you didn’t do shit to me.”

  She bends over one of the long worktables and unzips her bag. She takes out her sketchbook and slams it down in front of me. “Look, I’m not completely oblivious, okay?”

  When she shoves the book at me, I take it and flip back the cover. A few pages in is a sketch of me in a gray blouse I used to wear all the time last year. I’m in the foreground, bent over my desk with my face half turned away. Behind me, Marshall Holt is sitting with his chin on his fist and his gaze fixed on me. The darkest part of the picture is his eyes.

  In another, we’re standing in the locker bay with our backs to each other, each pretending so diligently, so obviously, to be intent on our own little worlds. She’s drawn a faint, flowing line between us, a ribbon that connects us even when we’re facing away from each other.

  More sketches of classrooms, desks and hallways, of me and Marshall. It doesn’t matter who the primary focus of the picture is. He is always looking at me.

  But we are far from Autumn’s only subject.

  Here, I see the wastoid kids clustered together at the city bus stop, leaning against each other, making a circle that shuts out the school and the world.

  Kendry in the locker room, staring at herself in the full-length mirror. Her back is to the viewer but her reflection shows half of her expression. Anguished.

  Hunter and CJ, royally surveying the junior hall. CJ laughs in awkward capitulation, while Hunter leers at a passing sophomore. The lecherous expression on his face is only half joking.

  And Maribeth. Maribeth bright, and Maribeth bossy, and the little worried frown she gets when she can’t remember where she left her keys. Maribeth with her winter hat, rosy-cheeked coming in from the cold. She has been rendered in loving detail.

  Autumn has captured us, collected us like butterflies, preserving, cataloging. She’s pinned down every single one of us.

  When I look up from the sketchbook, she’s watching me.

  Her arms are crossed. Her mouth is strange, like she might be biting the inside of her lip. “Marshall Holt is the best guy I know.”

  I nod, waiting to see if this line of discussion leads to something else, or if we’re just saying facts now.

  “He’s spent one entire, tragic year being totally in love with you.”

  Love lands in my chest with a thunk. I know I must look like every close-up shot of every lascivious camp counselor who ever walked into a barn or darkened farmhouse to receive a pitchfork to the heart. The hapless victim. The plunge and the stagger. They never know enough to just fall down.

  Autumn reaches for me like she’s going to take my face between her hands, but at the last minute, she chickens out, shaking her head and smiling a grim, helpless smile. “Then it changed. You started looking back at him.”

  So that’s it.

  My feelings are not a secret, not the buried treasure I thought they were. It’s horrible to know that after all this, I really am that obvious. That transparent.

  “I just wanted to give him something good,” Autumn says. “I wanted you to be worth it
.”

  But the unfortunate conclusion is that I wasn’t. I’m not.

  Most people would find this surprising, I suppose. But I can’t work up the necessary energy. Ulterior motives honestly make more sense than the alternative, and the truth is, I would have done it too. The careful study, the tinkering. The most gratifying goal of any undertaking is figuring out how to fix a problem.

  “So all that time you spent with me was just a test, then? The clubs and activities, being completely obsessed with Maribeth?”

  For the first time, Autumn looks at me in real confusion. “You’re the one who’s obsessed with Maribeth. I was just getting to know you. I was trying to take an interest in your hobbies.”

  What can I say? The girl spots dysfunction from a mile out.

  “Look, I know it’s not my business or anything—and also, when have I ever cared that something wasn’t my business—but what happened with you guys?”

  I hug myself and look away. The answer to that is too complicated to fathom, and so I keep it simple. “He said I was the only thing good in his life.”

  There’s an inevitability to telling the truth—people never react the way you need them to. I know that if she smiles or squeals or tells me how romantic that is, I will have to scream. I will have to start demolishing buildings.

  But Autumn only frowns, looking pensive. “Well, that…is a lot of pressure?”

  I nod, picking apart the ways it’s true. Pressure to be soft, to be accessible. Everything he wants or needs at any given moment. Instead, I held him at arm’s length until I couldn’t. I was the only kind of close that I could stand to be. Everything and nothing. Safe. I did exactly what I was always going to do, right from the start.

  “Was it because of Maribeth and all them?” Autumn’s voice is gentler now. “Because of your friends?”

  “No,” I say in a tight whisper, remembering the time in eighth grade when we went on the ecology trip.

  I collected seven caterpillars and put them in a jar. I was going to feed them milkweed leaves and watch them change. Maribeth made a big scene about it and laughed at me for being so childish. Then Kyle Norton thought it would be really funny to kill them.

  “It’s because of how people act when they know what you want.” It feels like too much truth to say out loud and I close my eyes. “They look at you, they hold it over you. They take it away if they can. It’s like they can see inside you.”

  “God, you are such a pussy.”

  She’s says it so easily, so disdainfully, and I just shrug.

  “No, seriously. You know that’s normal, wanting things, right? It’s what makes people interesting.”

  Autumn perches herself on the edge of one of the art tables. “I didn’t like you,” she says, like it’s no big deal to just say that to someone. “I figured he was looking for something else to smash himself to pieces on.”

  I feel paper thin, like I’m all used up. “What changed?”

  “That first week of cross-country, everyone was bitching about how much we had to run for conditioning, and you didn’t. We were doing those stupid distance relays, and when your group came into the checkpoint, you were way ahead, and you had this look on your face. You were just so…happy,” she says. “It was the only time I’d ever seen you look happy.”

  She’s watching me, her lip caught delicately between her teeth like she feels sorry for me. I hate that she feels sorry for me.

  “I wasn’t trying to hurt you,” she says. “I didn’t know you guys already had some weird secret thing. Waverly, I didn’t know.”

  She’s telling the truth, but it doesn’t matter. The damage is done. Marshall hasn’t looked in my direction for days.

  “I don’t know what to do,” I whisper.

  Autumn looks so bright and warm against the gray backdrop of the cabinets. She doesn’t say anything. Suddenly, she reaches out and grabs my hand, pulling me close. She pins my wrist in the crook of her elbow and uncaps one of her felt-tip pens. For one desperate second, I want to pull away. I’m so sure she’s going to write something hateful, mark me like a brand.

  Instead, she shoves up my sleeve and scrawls a number down the inside of my arm. She does it with a flourish, printing the last digit in my palm like a jewel.

  She doesn’t add a name or a signifier, doesn’t say anything else. She just drops the pen in her bag, scoops up her book, and walks out.

  .

  I text Marshall, and after half an hour, when there’s no response, I text him again.

  My phone sits on the bed, and I sit staring at it.

  When the silence goes on so long I think I’ll go crazy, I hold my breath and call the number. It’s one in the morning and I’m not really surprised when no one picks up. The line rings for what seems like a year before it goes to voice mail.

  He hasn’t bothered to record his own outgoing message and I sit listening to the robot monotone recite the number I have reached. For a second, I consider the possibility that Autumn has given me a fake number, but that seems unlikely. A total stranger would have at least taken pity on my dismal series of texts. They would have responded, if only to explain to me that I have the wrong person.

  When the tone sounds, I take a deep breath. My heart is beating in my throat and I close my eyes before I speak.

  “Hi.” That’s a good place to start, right? “It’s me. I was just thinking. I wanted to see how you were doing. Anyway.”

  The ache in my throat gets worse.

  I hang up before I get the chance to find out whether or not my voice will break.

  MARSHALL

  The Wall

  It’s weird to live in a house with a person you just unloaded all your feelings at. To walk up and down the same creaky floor and open doors that you know they’ve opened too, to breathe the same air.

  My dad is nowhere. It’s not like he’s avoiding me, exactly. He just hasn’t spoken to me or looked at me or been in the same room since the night of the full-scale meltdown. Or else I haven’t done any of that. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

  I come in late and go to bed early. I lie in my room with the blanket over my face, holding the phone against my ear.

  Waverly’s voice, crisp and capable. Hi.

  I listen to it over and over. Every time she says Hi, I hold on tighter, waiting for her to say all the things I need her to.

  This time. This time will be different, and she’ll tell me she misses me, say she wants this—wants me—without squirming around or rolling her eyes, without me having to beg for it.

  The last word hits my stomach like a fist. Anyway.

  Then I hit replay and the whole thing starts over.

  —

  When I open my eyes, I’m pretty sure I haven’t really slept. I must have, though, because my phone is mashed awkwardly under my head and the blankets are on the floor.

  It’s morning. But only just. The room is gray with a weak, murky light creeping in around the shade, but that isn’t what woke me up. I lie very still, listening to muffled voices and synthesizer piano.

  As soon as I roll over, I have this crazy idea that maybe it’s Waverly, maybe she’s come back and everything will be like it was. But even if I hadn’t told her I was done, or she could show up when the sun was already rising, she wouldn’t be out in the living room, watching TV with the volume turned down to inaudible.

  I shuffle down the hall and then stand in the doorway, blinking at my dad. He looks tired and rumpled, like maybe his night was about as good as mine.

  I recognize the scene on TV. It’s the middle of The Wall, at the part in the hotel room, and Pink is wrecking everything, smashing the furniture, ripping down the blinds. Screaming into the flat black sky. My dad is staring at the TV like he can’t see me standing there.

  “Marshall,” he says finally, and he sounds so, so tired. “Just come in here.”

  I still don’t say anything, but I go to sit on the edge of the couch with my shoulders hunched and my hands wedged
between my knees. The house is freezing.

  “I know this isn’t easy,” he says, not looking away from the screen.

  I stare at the floor. The music has switched to “Is There Anybody Out There?” and I don’t like the part where Pink shaves off his eyebrows. Every time he nicks himself, I feel a little queasy. My dad is breathing very slowly, choosing his words, but I already know where this is going. He’s going to start explaining in detail how life isn’t for quitters.

  “Whatever,” I say, so careful not to look at him.

  “It’s not easy,” he says again. “Not for me, or for your mother, or Annie. I just—I shouldn’t expect it to be different for you.”

  As sentences go, it’s not even fully coherent. I have no clue why he would ever have thought this is easy for me. I sit there, waiting for him to tell me how I’d better start sucking it up.

  Instead, he leans back in the chair, in the gray morning light, watching me. “I don’t want you thinking this is who I meant to be,” he says.

  The truth, though, is that I never thought that. I never thought he did a goddamn thing on purpose, and that’s what makes it worse. If you’re doing something on purpose, you can stop.

  “Believe me, if I thought you had some kind of strategy or plan, it would not be this.” I only mean it in the literal way, but I sound like a real asshole.

  He hears it too, because he glances up. “Don’t.”

  “Don’t what?”

  “Don’t be like me,” he says. “Don’t be like Justin.” The words are heavy.

  “Why not? That’s who survives, right?” I wrap my arms around myself and shiver even though I don’t want to, thinking how Justin is probably asleep right now. Justin is missing this, avoiding it. Getting rested up for another glorious day as the Captain.

  “Because it’s not you,” my dad says. His voice sounds empty. “That was never supposed to be you.”

  The way he’s looking at me is gentle, like he forgives me. And that, more than his shitty way of communicating or the fact that he’s sitting here in the living room at six in the morning, when all my mom wants is for him to be huddled in bed with her—huddled in their failing marriage—makes me want to just start breaking things.

 
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