Places no one knows, p.3
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       Places No One Knows, p.3

           Brenna Yovanoff
 

  When she hangs up, the air in the room is suddenly insufficient. The effort of turning her full attention on me demands outrageous quantities of oxygen. I peel the top sheet off her notepad and drop it in the trash.

  She sighs, taking a saucepan out of the cupboard. “Stephanie’s daughter is having trouble at school again,” she says to the can opener. “And Stephanie thought that if she could just get her feet under her, maybe if she transferred to State—which, let’s be honest, that wasn’t about to fix the problem. Anyway, it’s disappointing.”

  I don’t bother to respond. Stephanie’s daughter is a moron.

  “You’re home late. Do you want something to eat? I’m about to heat up a can of chicken broth, maybe sauté some liver.”

  My mother believes that I am her in chrysalis form. That I will one day emerge, brilliant and dysfunctional, to psychoanalyze Ford commercials.

  “We had takeout at Maribeth’s. The dance-planning committee went long. Do we have any candles? I need to do an experiment.”

  I don’t point out that she’s possibly the only person on earth who is comforted by her comfort foods. It would be too much of a shock.

  My mother nods and starts ticking her fingernails against the lip of the sink like she might be counting. “I think we have one or two tapers left over from the holiday party last year. In that bottom drawer of the credenza.”

  I turn to walk out, but she stops me in the doorway and kisses me quick and light on the cheek.

  “You know,” she says, with her hand on my shoulder. “Sometimes I forget how much trouble kids are. I’ve just never had to worry about you. Even when you were little, you always thought before you spoke.”

  And that is precisely why I don’t talk. Too much thinking.

  Far from one or two candles, the credenza is dangerously infested. White tea lights that radiate anxiety, and tall Christmas tapers, steeped in the aroma of spiced cider and seasonal depression. And far at the back, a fat brown candle that smells reassuring and capable and faintly familiar. There’s an undercurrent of cracked pepper, mixed with something sharper that might be licorice. If I concentrate, I can imagine other elements—notes of fabric softener and smoke, a tiny olfactory snapshot of being back in the front office—the signature scent of a certain kind of boy. The kind with a sullen, sculptural mouth. The kind whose jawline is worth admiring, but for display purposes only. The kind who might look enticing, seem intriguing, but never actually satisfies.

  I take the candle anyway, because it seems the least likely to tip over or collapse or melt into nothing and burn down the house.

  MARSHALL

  Stupid

  Waverly Camdenmar is so hot that when I see her in the halls, I want to put my hand against my chest and make sure I’m still breathing.

  Not that I’d ever say that out loud. I’m not an idiot.

  Waverly is just this place I go when everything starts to be too much. Sometimes people in offices keep a poster of a vacation spot over their desks. Waverly is like that, like an inspirational quote or one of those music box ballerinas. Something private. Quiet.

  I lie in bed and think her name, even though thinking it gives me a guilty feeling.

  It wasn’t always like this. Before last year, she was just another girl—hot like other hot girls, but completely untouchable. The feeling was whatever. I could deal with it.

  Now it’s bad. Every day I have to decide whether or not I can stand to go to Spanish. I tell myself over and over how I’m not going to look at her or think about her or notice her or anything.

  And every day, there’s Waverly, third row from the front and one seat over, with her pens lined up and her mouth open. Hand in the air, reaching for the answer.

  It starts at my heart and spreads fast and hot up my neck, until my face goes red and my ears feel like they’re about to catch fire.

  I’m thinking about this, even though it’s past midnight and I should be thinking about homework, but everyone else is still up, which means everyone else is still shouting, and I left my history book in my locker.

  Out in the hall, my dad is telling my mom all about how pointless and needy she is, and she’s not telling him he’s wrong. If she did, I think it would break something. It would be the thing that dissolves whatever disgusting glue is holding them together. It would be exactly what they need.

  I have to get out of the house. Not for a cigarette or a couple of hours, or to spend the night at my brother’s, but for good. The Trunchbull had this whole fantasy about college applications, but my family’s in chaos, my grades are a disaster, and college is just one more thing that doesn’t happen for the Holt boys.

  The scene with Trunch was hazy in that dizzy-high way, where all the main parts are hard to remember, but then random things will stand out with freaky Hollywood clarity. Let’s be honest. I was really stoned.

  And as long as we’re being honest, that’s pretty much an ongoing thing.

  I know the motivational speeches and the public service announcements. The front office has all kinds of posters and pamphlets about making good decisions, and when counselors or teachers or whatever tell me I’m wasting my potential, I know it’s the truth. I can watch it slip by, but that’s an ocean away from having any idea what to do about it.

  I know I could destroy English or history—especially English. I could do respectably in pretty much everything else. I just don’t.

  When I close my eyes, there’s Waverly again, sitting behind the reception desk, looking at me like I’m defective and she’s the one with the final answer, worth ten thousand points. Like she’s just waiting for the goddamn tiara.

  She was working this crossword like it was the most important thing, and only put it away when she condescended to check my hall pass. It was one of those hard ones that you get out of a book or the New York Times. There was a long word across, with a Z and a C and two A’s. Her eyes were bored and her bottom lip looked pink and kind of untouched.

  Then I went into the office and Trunch told me all the things I already know, like how I’m not living up to my potential and I need to start applying myself. Like it’s just that simple, and now that I officially know I can do the work, it’s only a matter of getting the work done, when everyone knows that’s the hardest part.

  “Marshall,” she said, right as I was getting up to leave, in that voice that sounds all sad and quiet, I’m not blaming you. “I was talking to some of your teachers. I hear that neither of your parents came to parent-teacher night last month.”

  I just nodded, trying hard not to look tragic.

  “Is there a problem with involvement at home? It might help to talk to them.”

  But the reason they didn’t show up is because I didn’t tell them. They have their own shit and I’m old enough to do my own homework. There are plenty of problems, but none of them have to do with involvement.

  “It’s no big deal,” I said, and I wasn’t talking about parent-teacher night, but everything—the missing assignments and the participation points, the tardies, the absences. All the bullshit.

  I came out of the office feeling like my surface had been chipped away. See-through, like if Waverly just raised her head, she could have looked inside me and she wouldn’t have seen lungs or bones or blood, she would have just seen how messed up everything is.

  I didn’t have to worry, though. It wasn’t like she cared.

  She still had the crossword out, but hadn’t filled in any new boxes. Number forty-five still sat there, with its Z and C and two A’s. I read the question upside down while she stamped the pass, and suddenly, I knew the answer. I knew it and she didn’t, and that was the one thing I had that made me worth anything.

  If I hadn’t been completely chickenshit, I probably would have said something, but just then, she looked at me. Her eyes were sharp—piercing—and I had to look away so she didn’t see the answer sitting right there for her to pick apart and stare at.

  I picture it now, alone in my ro
om. Imagining the way the back of her neck always looks smooth and I want to touch it.

  I think of possibilities and they are fucking terrifying. I could have made her see me. I could have impressed her. There’s just the little issue of how my voice stops working when I look at her.

  I say it now, just to myself, just whisper it. The answer to the question, the feeling of having something she doesn’t. Something that she wants.

  I close my eyes, and when I open them again the room feels less empty. For a second, I think I can actually see her, standing in my doorway, soft and pale in the light from the street. Then I squint and she’s gone and I’m stoned and lonely, and it’s late—so late.

  I roll over, feeling tired and stupid.

  I want to punch myself, because I know girls like her—the kind who act like I’m some disease, like I might get them dirty if I stand too close. I want to tell her she’s not that smart, that being perfect isn’t the only game in town.

  That I’ll be something else, something good. I’ll clean myself up if she wants. I’ll be anything.

  She is never looking in my direction.

  WAVERLY

  1.

  Some people are born wakeful.

  When I was little, the reason I couldn’t sleep seemed simple. I was too full of thoughts. The problem would work itself out when my skull got bigger. I didn’t know yet that the ideas just get bigger too.

  Back then, when I’d brushed my teeth and said good night to my stuffed lamb, exhausted every jigsaw puzzle and game, read all my books and the drowsy weightlessness still wouldn’t come, I’d go to the moon. That kind of inter-orbital travel is easy when you’re little—the membrane between real and pretend is still semipermeable. Your imaginary friends seem just as solid as anyone else. When they pinch you, it hurts. When they disappear, you wonder what you did to make them leave.

  Late at night, I’d stare at the ceiling and imagine myself on the moon. Up there, I would lie on my back, making angels in the drifts of pale lunar dust, peering down at my neighborhood with telescopic vision.

  Because it was pretend, the tiny roof of my tiny house would dissolve and then I’d be looking at myself where she lay under the sheets, wishing to be a physicist and a manticore and Carl Sagan. And sometimes, if I stayed there long enough, her face would go slack and she’d close her eyes. She’d fall asleep.

  That trick is broken now. The moon has disappeared, replaced by other allegories—mushroom clouds that bloom and expand in radioactive billows, and gleaming knives balanced on their points, rotating in perfect symmetry. I don’t need an expert to tell me that’s not normal.

  Some people are just born wrong.

  In my room, the urge to climb out of my skin is suddenly so big it feels criminal.

  I turn out the lamp and light my candle, illuminating the only place where nothing about me is for other people. A draft sends the glow flickering over the bed, desk, chair. My bookcase, home to three hundred comic books, thirty-seven collectible horror movie figures arranged in alphabetical order, Norman Bates to Xenomorph, and a pair of two-gallon terrariums that house my tarantulas, Franny and Zooey.

  Maribeth said once that it was fitting, how even my pets can’t be in the same room with each other without risking fatality, but the arrangement seems equitable. They’re just enjoying each other from a distance.

  When I lie down, my bed feels miles away. Already, I want to be up again, on my feet and pacing the room a few hundred times. But I need to sleep, and if I can’t have that, then I need to achieve some kind of doze or trance or hypnotic state.

  Courtesy of the Internet, some things I’ve learned today: insomnia is a harmless phenomenon that affects everyone from time to time, and it’s the sole province of the clinically insane. It’s a symptom of a physiological, possibly life-threatening condition, and it’s all in your head. Mainly, though, I’ve learned that the Internet is alarmist, uninformative, and full of contradictions and the only practical option is to pick some relaxation techniques and start trying them.

  I have my candle from the credenza, even if it’s just an outsized Thanksgiving votive. Now all I need is a number to count backward from until my brain bows down to the hypnotic power of repetition.

  Eleven seems like a good choice. It’s a Lucas number, an Einstein prime, and the preferred visualization number in my mother’s guided meditation book. Downstairs, the TV is murmuring and then she switches it off and the house goes silent.

  I lie back, arms at my sides, trying to clear my mind.

  But trying not to think is much harder than it looks. At once, I’m ambushed by the faces of the people who inhabit my world every day—my mom and Maribeth and Jamie the cross-country coach. They hover in front of me in a noisy flock, voices overlapping, blending together until I can’t even tell who’s saying what. If it’s Jamie who likes Cattaleya orchids for the corsages, or if Maribeth thinks I could qualify for State.

  I understand in a muddled way that the reverse counting technique must be working. Ordinarily I’d still be wired to the core, staring at the ceiling with hot, itchy eyes and humming skin. And instead, here I am, all my thoughts slipping away, slipping away, my hands heavy and numb.

  I’m beginning to suspect that thinking is overrated. There are all kinds of people at school and I’m reasonably sure they rarely think at all. How nice it must be to have low expectations. No one wants anything from you. If you succeed in not getting arrested, they’re happy for you.

  Except for the Trunchbull…

  The Trunchbull—I hear her voice suddenly, as clear as if she were standing in the room. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about you.

  Marshall Holt is a burned-out loser who just happens to have nice features, good skin, and well-shaped eyebrows. And surprisingly good test scores. The smell of the candle is much stronger, suddenly—a dark, complicated array of dryer sheets, deodorant, smoke, and indifference. It’s undercut by something sweet and pungent and all its own. Pot, maybe?

  All at once, I’m back in the office, sitting behind the reception desk with my stack of hall passes, and Marshall Holt is waiting for the stamp.

  He’s looking past me, and his mouth is wide and soft in a way I’ve never noticed. Then he smiles, but it isn’t friendly. “Little miss perfect isn’t so perfect after all.”

  I stare up. The sound of his voice is realer and sharper than everything else, almost accusatory.

  The scene changes, the way it does in dreams. Now the room is small and poorly lit. I can’t make out the details, but there’s a smell of tomato sauce, onions, dog, and laundry. He’s sprawled out on an unmade twin bed, still looking at me, but not aggressive now, not arrogant. His eyes are fixed on mine, so dark I think I’ll drown there. Somewhere close by, people are talking in raised voices, but the sound is indistinct, nothing but a murmur.

  He smiles again, and this time it almost looks regretful. “Forty-five across is Lucrezia Borgia.”

  I sit bolt up, clutching my blankets to my chest.

  The clock says 1:29. My pulse is frantic.

  Somewhere down the street, a dog is howling like its heart will break. On my nightstand, the candle flickers. I lean over and blow it out.

  Lucrezia Borgia. How could I have missed that?

  .

  When I meet Maribeth in the commons for a cup of coffee before homeroom, she and Loring are already waiting at our favorite table.

  There’s a party supply catalog open between them and Maribeth is bent over it, running her finger along the pricing column for confetti. The way she’s biting her lip tells me everything is still proceeding to plan, a coup is imminent. One more advancement in a series of delicate maneuvers.

  I know what will happen next. Maribeth will check off an order for crepe paper streamers in the color of her choice, like it was a foregone conclusion, and Loring will slip farther and farther toward the edges, until she simply disappears. The separation will be neat—no mess, no blood—and Maribeth is alw
ays so charming, and so, so warm. All the way up until she’s not.

  She waves me over and I know Loring can already sense the vibrations as the balance of power shifts. She gives me a smile like a bank-job hostage. Her mouth moves just fine, but nothing’s happening around the eyes.

  Maribeth reaches for me, moving so that Loring is effectively boxed out, and flutters her lashes meaningfully. “So? I heard you had a little talk with CJ last night.”

  I ignore the seat she offers and slide into the one across the table. “He wants me to go to the dance with him.”

  “Oh my God, he just went up and asked you?” She sounds affronted—nearly scandalized—but her smile is fueled by pure, high-test pride. “I told him to do it like a normal person, with hearts and flowers and something cute.”

  Ducking her head conspiratorially, she runs her finger over the little brass key hanging on a chain around her neck. Hunter didn’t give it to her, but I know the key must represent some meaningful encounter—that one time at the beginning of September, they conversed or flirted or did a group project on locksmithing or maximum-security prisons. I know her well enough to know the key is aspirational. A symbol of their bright and productive future together.

  “It’s fine,” I say. “I don’t think I would have liked that.”

  “Oh, you would have—you would. It would have been adorable!”

  The way she can be counted on to tell me what I want is irritating, but for once, it doesn’t strike sparks off the phosphorus strip in my chest. I’m not operating on a lot of sleep, but some. After my weird little pseudo-dream, I got four or five really decent hours. I feel okay.

  The sun is out now, and everything seems new and clean and soft. I smile, thinking how nice it is that Maribeth is smiling and I’m here in the commons with her. I have a cup of coffee and it tastes sweet and dark and bitter, exactly how I like it.

 
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