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Paper valentine, p.3
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       Paper Valentine, p.3

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  Everything has to be treated just so, so nothing gets mixed up. Kelly is grievously disorganized when it comes to things like using the right spray to clean Matilda Braun’s monitor, or remembering to order more paper towels for the dispenser in the bathroom, but she’s very good with numbers.

  Officer McGarahan leans on the counter, watching her write down the cases. He’s young for a cop, and kind of goofy.

  “And what’s Hannah been up to?” he says. “Staying out of trouble?”

  “Mostly,” I tell him, twirling my pen like a parade baton or a magic wand. Like the ghost of my dead best friend is not lounging next to me, pinching the back of my neck with icy fingers.

  “Hey,” she hisses. “Hey, ask him if he saw Cecily’s body. Ask him if it was all horrible.”

  I shrug her off and shake my head, just a little, barely noticeable.

  Boles stands with his back to us, spinning the wire rack where Kelly stocks the photo journals. He has a bony face and a dry, broken voice that reminds me of crows. He’s always got that same blank look, like nothing ever shocks him. Lillian says he’s a freak, so socially inept that he should have been a mortician. I’m pretty sure I could ask him about the murder, though, and he’d answer. Or at least not tell me I’m being morbid.

  McGarahan grins, raising his eyebrows at my cascade of silk roses. “You’re a good kid.”

  I duck my head and smile down at the counter. “You never know. Maybe I’m just waiting for my wild streak to show up.”

  “You’re an old soul,” he says, handing me the claim stub for Friday’s order, and I can’t tell if he’s teasing me.

  Suddenly I feel the sadness all over me, like being tangled up in a wet sheet, and I have to duck down behind the counter and pretend to look for the finished order, even though it’s sitting right there on the bottom shelf. I hate the way it can hit out of nowhere, just because of a word or a phrase, because he said one stupid thing that was probably even supposed to be a joke.

  Lillian used to call herself an old soul. She was always talking about all the times that people had told her she was wise beyond her years. As far as I could tell, it was just something people said about girls who were serious and smart.

  “Old souls,” Kelly told me one time, shaking her head. “Anybody who calls themselves that is just too young to know how young they really are.”

  Back when she said it, I thought she was being harsh, even though I got what she meant. Kelly doesn’t have a lot of patience for loftiness or melodrama.

  I think now that she’s right. I think people who really are old souls, really wise beyond their years, would never need to praise themselves through other people’s words. They wouldn’t care about being old souls, because they’d be wise enough to know it didn’t matter. Lillian was really smart, but she was never wise.

  I stay crouched on the floor behind the counter, first because it gives me time to scrub my eyes with my hands and then because as soon as I’m out of sight, McGarahan says something to Kelly in a weird, fake-casual voice that’s so tight I stop breathing.

  “Hey, I figure I should give you a heads-up. We’ll be bringing in some bad ones—tomorrow or Wednesday, probably.”

  Kelly laughs. “You know me,” she says, sounding brave like a Hollywood cowboy. Like a gunslinger. “You bring it, I print it.”

  Next to me, Lillian crouches with her knees pulled up, and I look the other way so she can’t see my eyes.

  “What are you doing?” she whispers. “What’s wrong?”

  I shake my head and don’t look at her, letting my hair fall in front of my face.

  “I mean it, Kel.” McGarahan’s voice has dropped, but I can still hear him just fine. “It’s that kid they found at the end of Muncy Park.”

  Lillian leans closer, popping her eyes wide. “Cecily,” she whispers unnecessarily, elbowing me.

  I nod down at the floor, remembering the school-picture version of Cecily with her rubber-band braces and her wide, sunny smile.

  Above us, Kelly slouches against the counter, jiggling her foot, and I sit with my shoulder blades pressed against the built-in shelves, watching the back of her ballet flat slip off her heel and pop on again.

  McGarahan keeps talking like he’s forgotten I’m down here, and I keep being surprised at how when people aren’t looking right at me, I can disappear.

  “Look, you need to know that the crime scene . . . it’s—” He stops and clears his throat. “I’ve just never seen anything like it.”

  “It’s like if someone got killed in the middle of a flea market,” says Boles from farther away, somewhere out on the floor.

  For a second, I think I can’t possibly have heard him right. Flea market. Flea market? No matter how I deconstruct the sentence, it’s completely nonsensical.

  Lillian, however, is suddenly wild, bouncing up and down, clutching at my arm. “We’ve got to get a look when they come in,” she whispers, bony fingers digging into my skin. “We have to see.”

  I shake my head, trying not to look horrified. Even before she died, Lillian was always getting excited about really dark things, so it’s not like this is anything new. It’s more like since she died, it’s just gotten a whole lot worse.

  Overhead, I can hear Kelly clicking the top of her clicky-top pen over and over again and then she stops. “Thanks,” she tells McGarahan. “I’ll look out for it.”

  After a few seconds, she takes a deep breath and reads off a case number. McGarahan checks it against his list and gives her the quantity. He tells her that one of the orders for today is a DUI with injuries. She asks him if she needs to print extra copies for the district attorney, and I wonder if that’s just what happens when you grow up. If you learn how to agree to change the subject without ever saying anything out loud.

  After the new police order is in and the old one’s paid for, McGarahan and Boles head back out to their squad car to drive around Rossway and keep an eye on the boys at the skate park.

  I tape the film to the plastic leader cards that carry it through the processor. Then Kelly runs the negatives through the scanner.

  “Can you come sort for me?” she says, without looking away from the monitor. Her fingers strike the keyboard without stopping, adjusting the color balance faster than some people can type words.

  Lillian watches the frames go by, leaning over Kelly’s shoulder. “Nasty,” she says, wrinkling her nose and gesturing for me to come look.

  The shot is a close-up of a bruised mouth—an empty, bloody gap where two teeth used to be—and I flinch, screwing up my face, but we’re both laughing a little.

  Kelly spins in her chair and shoos me away, but not with any real seriousness. She runs off prints of scowling tattooed drug dealers and drunk, disorderly frat boys standing against a dirty wall outside one of the college bars.

  I package the pictures carefully, making sure to touch only the edges, while Lillian studies them over my shoulder. She reaches to point things out sometimes, and it takes all my concentration not to bat her hand away, even though the sensible part of me knows there’s no possible way she can do something as human as leaving fingerprints.



  Music camp gets out at 2:00, and I make sure to be there before the teacher dismisses the class.

  The day is blindingly hot. By the time I walk the three blocks to Harris Johnson, I’m sweating and my dress is sticking limply to my back and my legs like it’s starting to wilt.

  I’m already waiting next to the bike racks by the time the girls get outside. Pinky comes out first with her songbook and her saxophone, looking annoyed.

  “Where’s Ariel?”

  “She had to stay. Mr. Tyler wanted to tell her all about her attitude.”

  The obvious thing is to ask what’s wrong with Arie
l’s attitude. But I don’t. Knowing would mean having to decide how bad it is and whether or not I need to tell on her. I figure I can wait. If Mr. Tyler calls our mom, I’ll know it’s serious.

  When Ariel finally pushes through the double doors, she’s already half incoherent, raging about how her music teacher is a total fascist.

  She comes straight at me, mid-sentence, and I nod along, unhooking her hair from the buckle on her clarinet case, trying to zip the pocket on her backpack so her sheet music doesn’t go everywhere.

  I duck around her to wrestle with the zipper, and when the doors swing open again, I almost run right into Finnegan Boone.

  He’s paying more attention than I am and steps back before we actually touch. I freeze with my hand on Ariel’s backpack and we stand there looking at each other. I can’t quite breathe. He is all shoulders.

  “Watch it,” he says, and his voice is low and husky.

  He’s wearing a plain wifebeater with nothing over it, which is against dress code, but it’s been so hot lately that the teachers must not care anymore. I don’t want to seem like I’m checking him out, but I can’t help it. His summer-school books are tucked carelessly under one arm. They’re all for classes I had two years ago.

  It’s been a while since I actually looked at him. In my head, I still remember him big and mean and sticky in elementary school. I remember him licking Lay’s potato chips and throwing them at me.

  The sun is crazy-hot and everything seems to come from far away. I can hear sirens and fire trucks out on Huxley Road, and a noisy bird in the ash tree above us.

  His hair is standing up in crazy tufts like Johnny Rotten, bleached so blond it’s almost white. The way the sun hits it makes the ends look translucent. When we were little, it used to be this dusty in-between color, not blond, but not really all that brown either. Then last semester near the end of March, for no apparent reason, he started bleaching it to within an inch of its life.

  I remember because it was just after the two-month anniversary of Lillian’s death—and the day I came very close to losing all my friends.

  * * *

  Lillian was the one who’d started it. She’d been after me for weeks, telling me to stop moping, get happy, add more color. She kept saying I needed to start acting more like Hannah and less like one of the tragic emo kids who ate lunch out on the steps, so I was trying. That day, I had on a choppy lace- up tunic dress made out of one of her old oversize sweaters. She’d never wear them to school, but at sleepovers or on weekends, she lived in them. This one was printed all over with giant purple strawberries. The night before, I’d cut down the body and the sleeves, and sewed little bunches of sequins to the middles of all the berries, but it was still so obviously the same bright, obnoxious sweater she always used to wear. It was so clearly Lillian.

  When I came up to our regular table at lunch and sat down, everyone stopped talking.

  “Are you for freaking serious?” said Angelie, who’d worshipped Lillian when she was alive. “I mean, that’s the one she got last year at Camelot. It’s hers.”

  I nodded, trying to explain that I thought (knew) it was what Lillian would have wanted, but by then, Angelie wasn’t even listening. She leaned closer, until her nose was almost touching mine, and I could see the little hairs where her eyebrows grew too close together. “Do you think it’s just okay? Do you think it’s normal to go around cutting up dead people’s clothes and wearing them?”

  Over my shoulder, Lillian made a disgusted noise. I could feel her humming with a cool, skin-crawling static as she leaned to whisper in my ear. “God, those brows are horrific. Someone needs to get her, like, a pamphlet to encourage proper use of tweezers.”

  And I laughed, even though I knew that I shouldn’t have, even though I knew it was a bad, bad thing to do.

  Angelie was supremely not amused. “Is something funny?”

  Well, yes. But when I opened my mouth, nothing came out and all the rest of them were just looking at me.

  “Do you think maybe you should go see the counselor or something?” said Jessica, and I couldn’t decide if she sounded like she was being nice or nicely vicious. “I mean, if you’re having, like, some kind of psychotic episode.”

  And in that moment, I thought maybe I was. Maybe this was the part where I gave up everything and went to the counselor, admitted to myself that it wasn’t normal, living with the ghost of your best friend.

  I left my plastic tray and my hot lunch and my social studies notebook. I left everything except my coat, and instead of the counselor’s office, I walked out of the building. It was a long, gray day and the sky was low and wet, spitting ice pellets like it couldn’t decide if it should rain or snow.

  I walked all the way across the south lawn toward the football field, and sat alone on the bleachers. The field looked as big as an ocean and too green.

  I thought about all the times we’d sat in the same place for football games or track meets or just hung around in the summer, and how we used to talk about what things would be like once we were in high school. I’d always imagined full-size lockers, better art classes. Lillian talked about boys. About parties and all the places we’d go once we got our driver’s licenses, and then she stopped. After a while, the only thing she ever talked about was whether I thought her nonfat yogurt tasted like it had fat in it, and if no-calorie sweetener was made with real sugar, then where did the calories go? I thought about how I might be living with her ghost forever.

  After a long time, the bell rang and I got up, but I didn’t go inside. The thought of sitting through Earth Sciences made me feel like I was flaking apart into little pieces. Instead, I just climbed down the bleachers and started toward home.

  I walked slowly, crossing the parking lot with the sleet in my hair and soaking through my jacket, until I was stopped in the bus lane by Mr. Harmon, the security guard.

  He was wearing a clear plastic poncho and looking annoyed. “Are you supposed to be wandering around out here?”

  The question hung there in the air between us, and suddenly my mind was blank.

  He reached for my arm, talking louder, like I might be deaf. “Why are you here?”

  I stood looking up at him, trying to think, because he was watching me like I was somehow so bad, and there were all these answers that he wasn’t looking for. I’m here because this is where my mom’s family is from and after my parents got divorced, she kept the house. Because I was conceived and born and grew up. I’m breathing and my heart is beating and as much as it hurts—as much searing, monumental pain as it causes me—I have to exist.

  But there was a wall in my throat that kept the words in. I had a sudden uncomfortable image of something closing up inside me, slamming shut like a lid, and a memory of how last semester they explained diaphragms to us in health class, and I couldn’t help it. The frantic, breathless feeling was coming up again and just like with Angelie, I started to laugh.

  “Are you trying to be difficult?” Mr. Harmon said with his arms crossed over his chest, his Cracker Jack badge winking in the rain.

  And that was a bad question, the kind adults only ask when they’ve already decided, but at least I knew the answer.

  “No,” I said, and my voice came out impudent and loud. I hadn’t sounded loud in months. I was beginning to think I’d never sounded loud at all.

  For a second, we just stood there. The rain was thin and constant.

  “That’s enough,” Mr. Harmon said, but he didn’t say enough of what. He put his hand on my arm and I didn’t pull away.

  The sky was so gray it was almost colorless.

  And that is the story of how I got my first and only detention.

  If something like that had happened even three months earlier, I would have been horrified, but by then, I just wanted to go someplace warm where I didn’t have to talk or
feel or think.

  Detention was in the Language Arts wing, with a social studies teacher who never taught any of the college-track classes, some boys from the wrestling team, two ninth-grade girls with glam-rock haircuts, and Finny Boone.

  I showed up late because I couldn’t remember where Mr. Harmon had said to go, so I had to ask the ladies in the front office. My jacket was covered in a crust of ice and my hair was wet and sticking to my forehead.

  The teacher was this short, stocky guy with an awkward beard. He sat at the front of the room looking bored, and let us sit wherever we wanted.

  I picked the seat next to Finny because it was about as far from the wrestling boys as I could get, and also he was pretty much the only one in the room who was sitting still. I kept waiting for Lillian to show up so at least I’d have some company. But she didn’t.

  Finny was exactly the kind of boy I was just not allowed to look at. But I couldn’t help myself. Even though I already knew, I was kind of surprised by how tall he was. Even squeezed into a desk, he was so clearly over six feet. It was the first time I’d been in the same room with him in a while, maybe since elementary school. I’d known his name and his face for pretty much my whole life, but it was different seeing him up close.

  The thing about Finny was, we’d been at the same school since kindergarten, but we never really knew each other, and once they started sorting us into fast and slow classes, he was pretty much always in the slow ones. I kept being distracted by all these random details—all the things about him that were exactly the same as when we were little. The way the cuffs of his shirt were fraying away from the seams, and the tiny triangular scar on his chin. How his eyes were too light for his tan, but mostly how he was missing the pinkie finger on his left hand.

  His expression didn’t change, but I was sure he could feel me watching him, so after a minute or two, I slumped forward and put my head on the desk. With my jacket on and my hood up, I could peer out like someone in a cave.

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