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Places no one knows, p.27
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       Places No One Knows, p.27

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  The room gets colder and the scene on TV switches to drug coma and “Comfortably Numb,” shining winter gray on my dad’s face. He looks so tired. So done.

  I keep trying to find reasons it’s us out here in the living room, freezing and silent, watching this movie that’s one long music video about how much it sucks being a kid. How much it sucks trying to figure out how to have feelings and still act like a man.

  Fuck him for acting like I’m the one who’s defective. For treating me like every time I do what I think is right, I’m failing. Like I’m the one who needs him to forgive me, to tell me it’s okay to be the person I already am.

  It’s not until he heaves himself up out of the chair and reaches for my shoulder that I understand. He’s not saying those things. I’m the one who’s thinking that. Who thinks that. He’s just working on his own private shit and then giving me a choice. Asking me to forgive him. Asking if I can.

  I wonder how long he’s known that every impulse I have is telling me to forgive everyone all the time. I wonder what he must have been like when he was my age. If he used to feel it too.

  WAVERLY

  11.

  Every minute, I have to check my surroundings to make sure that the floor is still under me, that the air is still breathable, that all my limbs are still attached.

  I spend the days with my head buried in my nonexistent notes. I have tried every candle in our house and none of them will bring me back to him.

  In the west hall bathroom, the graffiti is still there, looking huge and defamatory. It’s been over a week now, and still no one else has added their confessions. The epic shaming of Waverly Camdenmar intimidates all other secrets.

  Every passing period, I make my ritual pilgrimage to the wall, waiting for the warning bell to ring, my next class to start.

  I’m killing the window between chemistry and Spanish, trying not to hope for anything—that today will be one of the days that Marshall comes to class. It’s honestly a relief when he doesn’t show up. It’s easier.

  I’m staring at the graffiti when Maribeth comes in alone, looking impeccable. She stops right behind me but doesn’t say anything. I can smell the sweet, self-righteous smell of her perfume.

  As I study the words, it comes to me, the way things do in dreams, that I know the writing after all, the awkward loop on the bottom of the y, the prim, rigid w in Waverly. I’ve always known it.

  Other people own black felt-tip markers, but no one else likes to keep a moral stranglehold on me the way she does.

  “Thank you,” I say, without turning away from the wall. “Thank you for finally just making something easy.”

  She breathes a small, businesslike sigh. “What are you even talking about?”

  “Putting your honest-to-God opinion up there? You’re usually harder to read, is all.”

  “Whatever,” she says. “You’re not making sense.”

  “But I deserved it, so it’s okay. I mean, that’s what this is, right? You had to. I needed to be corrected. Obviously.”

  “Fuck off,” she says. There’s something strangely naked about her voice, and I turn to face her.

  The girl I’m looking at is not the girl I expected. Maribeth’s cheeks are a bright, furious red. To my shock, there are tears in her eyes. I haven’t seen her cry since seventh grade, when Peter Evanston took her two-subject folder with the Paul Frank monkey on the front and threw it on the roof.

  She stares at me with absolute savagery. “I’m serious, don’t even talk to me.”

  Something is molten inside me now. Something is hissing and smoking, eating through my bones.

  “Sure,” I say, and I sound so cool and flat. So Waverly. “No problem. We’ll just write all our meaningful communications on walls from now on.”

  The words are sleek and leaden in the ballistic chamber of my mouth. This is the poisonous part of my nature that Maribeth knows better than anyone. The part of me she has always valued most. I might look tidy and self-contained, but when the chips are down, I can be positively lethal.

  I’m smiling, but it’s not the smile she wants. In the row of mirrors, it looks predatory. How sharks with broken hearts would smile—powerful and hungry.

  Maribeth stares back. Her mouth is angry, but her hands are scared, opening and closing like there’s something there to grab if she could only find it. “Everything is always so easy for you!”

  And I laugh. It comes spilling out in huge, inappropriate howls. I put my hands over my face and wail with the hilarity of her mistake.

  “Don’t laugh at me!” She shouts it—screams it. Her voice echoes in wounded yelps against the tiled walls.

  Other girls have filtered into the bathroom between classes. They are gathering around us, ready to claw and pick like scavengers. There’s a reason a flock of crows is called a murder.

  I face the wall again and stab the offending sentiment with my index finger. “Tell me about that, Maribeth. I want to know all about that, because it is one thing to decide what I need to be, how I need to act, or tell me I’m weird or wrong or defective—and if I have the bad judgment to believe you, that is my problem—but to go around saying horrible, shitty things about someone you don’t even know?”

  The look she gives me is rigid. Defiant. “It’s not like it even matters, right? Not to the cyborg. You’ll hit start, you’ll reset and adjust and rearrange your priorities, or whatever. When was the last time you cared enough about anything that someone could take it away from you?”

  I stare back like I could melt the flesh off her face. “So that’s it? You waited till now because that’s how long it took to figure out how to hurt me?”

  She doesn’t answer, but most of the time, when someone doesn’t respond to your accusation, they’re not denying it. They’re just not giving you the satisfaction of being right.

  “I don’t hurt you,” I say. My tone suggests that I still might. “I don’t take things from you.”

  She looks at me with such pristine hatred that I feel it in the base of my skull. “You were supposed to be my friend, Waverly! We started the year with all these plans, all this stuff we were going to do and everything was going to be so good—we were going to take over the world, and now you don’t even talk to me anymore!”

  The implication that I have ever been able to talk to her is ludicrous. “What exotic foreign land are you living in? I’d have told you and it would have looked exactly like that. I’d have told you the truth and you’d have told me how stupid I was, how misguided. Because we need to be perfect, right? Perfect on the inside, perfect on the outside, or what’s the goddamn point?”

  Maribeth takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Maybe I could have listened more, okay? Maybe we should have backed off a little on Loring and the dance stuff. But why Autumn?”

  Her voice is anguished, conveying so clearly that my association with someone like Autumn is the deepest betrayal I could have devised.

  “I have no idea what I did to you,” she says, “but I’d really like to know. I want to know what exactly I did to make you hate me.”

  The question barely makes sense. Hate her? I owe her so much. I learned everything I know from her. How to make people do what I want without having to say it. How to apologize for things I’m not sorry about, to hedge and falter and qualify, and finish even the most definitive statements of fact with a question mark. How to shove the realest things down deep, where no one can see them. How to smile on command, to fake my own incompetence. To signal that I’m insecure about my conclusions or abilities, when nothing could be farther from the truth. When there has never been a moment in my whole dogmatic existence when I didn’t know exactly what I wanted.

  And still, I have subscribed—willingly, totally—to Maribeth’s animatronic version of me. Years and years of deferring to her, letting her correct my expression, my posture, my tone, until I’m nothing but memory chips and blinking lights.

  I stare back at her, and in one long, slow exhalation,
all the rage and the frustration just runs out of me.

  “You didn’t do anything, Maribeth. You were just being yourself.”

  Her jaw twitches. Her mouth is generous and beautiful. Venomous. She turns back to the wall, to the one perfect statement. “At least I was honest. You spent this whole semester acting like we’re still friends. And really you don’t even care that I don’t know you anymore!”

  I hold out my hand. “Give me the marker.”

  She makes a scornful noise and looks away.

  “Give me that fucking marker.”

  She’s bigger than me, the very picture of health, blond and glossy, pink-cheeked. I try to imagine myself as I appear to her, colorless now, except for the huge purple smears beneath my eyes, with my newly pierced ears, still painful, burning red at the lobes. In a perfect ecstasy of adrenaline, I understand that I scare her.

  She reaches into her bag without taking her eyes off me. She puts the marker in my hand like she’s handing over some kind of detonator.

  “Go ahead,” she says. “Cross it out. But no one’s going to just forget.”

  I uncap the marker and step up to the wall. I cross out slums, cross out poor white trash. I scrawl my retort, writing so fast the felt tip starts to flatten and fray. The wall is so huge, so impossibly white, and the only thing left to say is blooming inside me like a mushroom cloud, slicing through the Kevlar and the composure, clamoring to get out:

  I walk out of the building and across the back parking lot. The air smells like exhaust and burning leaves. The sky is so blue I can barely see.

  In the shelter of the baseball dugout, I sit with my back against the wall and my head on my arms. The sound of the wind is sterile and faraway, a static roaring like a seashell. I focus on the feeling in my throat—that tight, gnawing pain that hasn’t left since I shoved the needle through my earlobe. I’m raw to the touch.

  I lean sideways against the cement and breathe very slowly, trying to get a grip on the desperate need to sob. I have peeled off my skin in front of everyone and I don’t even care.

  My hands are shaking like they will never stop, but so what? Once the audience and the breathless whispers and the last vestiges of Maribeth are gone, does the fact that I’m unraveling even matter?

  I’ve lost something real, something I needed more than any canny, vindictive friend or stupid secret club. The rest of the world feels small and slow and faraway. My eyelids are hot against the pressure of my arms. I let my shoulders slump. The wind goes quiet.

  I’m drifting away on something cottony, sinking into nothingness, when the strange, stuporous warmth is interrupted by a shadow.

  I raise my head, blinking in the sudden glare. He’s standing at the top of the dugout, silhouetted against the sun. I try to speak, to even just say his name, but all that comes out is a choking sound.

  “Waverly,” he says. “Are you okay?”

  I take one huge, ugly breath, trying to find the words for what I am. Then I bury my face in my hands and cry harder than I’ve cried for anything in years. Maybe ever.

  Marshall Holt just steps into the dugout, crouching next to me, tugging at my wrists.

  He pulls his cuff down over his hand and begins to wipe my face, careful, careful. My makeup is running, leaving black smears on his sleeve. He just keeps doing it, touching my cheeks, looking at me like he’s never seen me before, never hated me, never blushed or shouted or kissed me in his bed.

  “Stand up,” he says, taking my hands.

  “I just want to stay here.” I whisper it, so unspeakably scared that if I move the whole dugout will dissolve, I’ll fade, he’ll fade. We won’t be anything.

  “Come on.” He pulls me toward him—gently, implacably. “Stand up so I can hug you.”

  As soon as I’m on my feet, he folds me against his chest. I close my eyes. I’ve never felt like a real thing anywhere but here.

  “I’m sorry,” I say against his shirt, grabbing handfuls of anything I can reach. “I’m so, so sorry.”

  “Waverly.” He takes a step back and lowers his head to mine, our noses almost touching. “It’s okay. You’re not perfect. Whatever.”

  Perfect rings in my head, making tiny concentric circles, even though he doesn’t sound accusatory. “Do you think I don’t know that?”

  “I mean, you don’t have to be.”

  I stand with my hands clamped on his arms, looking up at him, this boy who knows me well enough to know that he can’t solve me. Who knows me better than anyone. Knows me well enough to love me.

  “Say it again.”

  He lowers his forehead to mine and whispers it. “You don’t have to be.”

  “Is this real?” I say, mashing my mouth against the front of his hoodie. “Or am I just asleep again?”

  “No, it’s real. I mean, doesn’t it feel real?”

  But how can I trust a feeling, after all the times I’ve been with him, in his bed or in the nighttime squalor of his life? “My dreams are the truest thing about me—truer than real life. You’re always real.”

  He smiles. “Then right now, I’m real in the real-life way.”

  “How, though? How can you be here?”

  He smiles shyly and holds up his phone. Someone has texted him a sepia-filtered picture of the spill wall, complete with Maribeth’s hateful graffiti and my terse, painful annotations.

  The contact name at the top is “Awesome Pitbull.” The message under the picture says Merry Christmas, Holt.

  For a second, I can only look at it. The shape of my handwriting on the wall appears strangely out of proportion. It’s disorienting, like seeing yourself on video, a sudden realization of how you look from some other angle, and I start to laugh.

  With my eyes squeezed shut, I lean my forehead against his shoulder and laugh and laugh. This is why Autumn. Because she believes in truth, justice, honor among thieves—because she loves him. Because she was always the friend I needed, before I ever even knew I needed a friend.

  Marshall takes the phone back, still smiling awkwardly. “When I said I wanted you to pick me, I didn’t mean you had to, like…announce it. Seriously, this is not what I was asking for.”

  “I know.” My words on the wall were necessary, though. The only way to say what I meant.

  From the building, the bell sounds, blaring across the parking lot to signal the end of sixth period. I stand shivering in the shade of the dugout.

  Marshall takes my hand and pulls me toward the steps. “It’s cold. Let’s go inside.”

  In my rigid former life, I would never walk into school with tears still visible on my face, never advertise the depth of my affections in the locker bay.

  As we join the crowd, I lean into Marshall, acutely aware that I’m holding his hand. His fingers are laced with mine, intertwined in an intricate constellation that is as real as the people around us, real as the way my cells love his cells, or the way everyone in the bay keeps shooting us glances.

  At my locker, I stand with my hand on the dial, savoring the feeling of Marshall beside me.

  He leans down, his breath delicious against my ear. “Is this too weird? Do you need a minute?”

  The question is astute and ridiculous. It’s something no one else would even think to ask. I just smile and shake my head. Then I wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him like I mean it.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  My agent, Sarah Davies. In the simplest terms, she is truly a miracle.

  My editor, Krista Marino, who patiently and painstakingly took this story apart and helped me put it back together so it looked like the one in my head.

  My critique partners and incredible, indelible friends, Maggie Stiefvater and Tessa Gratton—Maggie, for always taking Waverly’s side in everything. And Tess, for always taking Marshall’s.

  Emily Hainsworth, who read the first draft and said, “So, is Waverly actually a sociopath? I mean, it would be fine if she was. But is she?” Because that was a totally legitimate question.


  Gia, for lending me all of Autumn’s dance moves.

  David, who knows what I like, reads what I write, thinks I’m funny, and watches all the horror movies with me.

  Syl, we’ve been talking about this book forever and now I finally wrote it. Thank you for every time we ate chocolate chips and sat on the basement floor at the first house, and then on the porch at the other house, and all those coffee shops. And just for everything. In general. Thank you.

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Brenna Yovanoff is the New York Times bestselling author of The Replacement, The Space Between, Paper Valentine, and Fiendish. She lives in Denver with her husband. To learn more about Brenna and her books, visit her online at brennayovanoff.com and follow @brennayovanoff on Twitter.

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  Brenna Yovanoff, Places No One Knows

 


 

 
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