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Paper valentine, p.4
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       Paper Valentine, p.4

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  Beside me, Finny was hunched on his elbows, digging at his cuticles with a safety pin, and I studied the missing finger. It was ugly and shocking, and I couldn’t make myself stop staring. The skin around the joint and down the outside of his wrist was shiny and puckered, pale against the rest of him. There were all kinds of stories about what happened—garbage disposals and alligators—but no one knew for sure, because Finny never talked much.

  A few rows over, Connor Price got out of his seat and crossed the room to flop down in the desk next to me. He used to go out with Lillian in junior high and now sometimes made out with Angelie and always smelled like Slim Jims and Axe body spray.

  I thought he was going to comment on my strawberry sweaterdress or ask me why I’d been mean to Angelie at lunch, but instead he leaned across me and snapped his fingers at Finny. “Hey—hey! Jesus, what did you do to your hair, man?”

  His voice was incredulous, but different from how Angelie had asked about the sweater. Connor sounded sincerely interested. Prepared to be impressed.

  “It’s Clorox,” Finny said. Then he flipped his notebook over and didn’t say anything else.

  “Sick,” said one of the rocker girls. But she said it in a voice that made it hard to tell whether she meant it as a bad thing or a good thing.

  I stayed in my jacket-cave, looking out at Finny, noticing how red the skin was around his ears. Thinking how there were all kinds of bleaches and dyes that won’t burn your scalp, but he’d picked the harshest thing, maybe just to prove that he could.

  After a minute, Connor reached over and rested his hand on top of my hood. “Hey, is that Hannah under there?”

  When I didn’t answer, he poked me roughly between the shoulders, but I still didn’t look up. I just closed my eyes and wished he’d stop touching me.

  “What’d you do, Hannah? Write your name on the wrong line in math?”

  I shook my head, keeping my face turned toward Finny.

  “Aw, come on—don’t be mean. What’s with the silent treatment?”

  On any other day, none of it would have even been a big deal, but right then, I was just so tired of acting fine and happy all the time. I was so unbearably sad, and it didn’t matter that I’d known Connor since forever or that he wasn’t even trying to be mean. All that mattered was how I couldn’t stand to play this game with him, to be poked and prodded and teased, but I couldn’t find the energy to make him stop.

  Connor put his hand on my shoulder again, giving me another little shove. Then, on my other side, Finny stood up, and everyone in the room got quiet.

  He was wearing work boots, gouged and scuffed, and I watched them, staring dully at how they left black smudges on the linoleum floor and then moved closer. He filled the aisle, leaning over my bent back. I could smell his deodorant and the bleach from his hair and I held very still.

  For a minute nothing at all happened. Then there was a scraping sound as my desk went sliding sideways under me, and Connor gave this sort of yelp. “What the hell!”

  I twisted around and looked up.

  Above me was a big, complicated silhouette, blocking out the light. Finny had Connor by the collar of his shirt and was holding him so their foreheads were almost touching, but he didn’t say anything. He just leaned over me while Connor yanked on Finny’s wrist, trying to get loose.

  “Hey, man! Jesus, what are you doing?”

  With his hand on the back of Connor’s neck, Finny held Connor away from me, leaning close to his ear. “Don’t be a douche,” he said.

  Then he opened his hand and let him go.

  Connor thumped back down into his seat and Finny went back to digging at his cuticles.

  I buried myself in my hood and put my head down on my arms so no one would see me crying.

  * * *

  In front of Harris Johnson, the pavement is white-hot and the sun sits high and scorching over the roof of the school. Ariel’s cheeks and forehead are already starting to turn red, and Pinky’s squinting around like everything is too glaringly bright to look at.

  Finny’s still standing with his books held loosely by his side and his eyebrows raised, like he’s waiting for something.

  I understand in a hazy way that we’re blocking the sidewalk, but he doesn’t say anything, just sighs and steps around us, cutting across the grass toward the Qwik-Mart convenience store at the corner of Huxley and Coronado.

  It’s hard to stop looking at his wide, mostly bare back, and my heart is hammering out a loud, frantic drumbeat as I watch him stride across the parking lot and into the store.

  The air is so hot and dry it’s like opening the lid to the barbecue and leaning over the grill, a sudden updraft that can take your breath away. I step off the curb into the bus circle and feel around in my purse and then my pockets.

  Ariel is making little panting noises, fanning herself with her sheet music. “Okay, that guy was weird.”

  “How bad were you?” I say, ignoring her remark and taking out a wad of crumpled dollars, flattening them one by one against the palm of my hand. “How bad were you in class?”

  She gives me an indignant look. “I told you, I didn’t do anything!’

  “Okay, then I’ll tell you what. It’s way too hot out. Do you want a slushy before we go home?”

  I almost stop to consider the fact that I’m only taking them to get slushies because Finny Boone has just disappeared into the Qwik-Mart and I kind of want to keep looking at his shoulders. That would be too awkward to think about, though, so I put it out of my head and follow the girls down the block toward the convenience store.

  The parking lot is small and mostly empty, with a smashed beer bottle lying on the sidewalk by the pay phone, and weeds springing up in dry clumps where the cracks in the asphalt are wide enough to let them poke through. In places where the blacktop’s been patched, the squiggly lines of road tar are soft from the heat. It sticks to the soles of my ballet flats as I cross the parking lot, like it’s trying to suck them off my feet.

  A couple of sunburned summer-school boys are leaning up against the front of the store, smoking and giving me unfriendly stares. I lead Pinky and Ariel past them, trying to look indifferent, like I don’t even see them.

  Inside, a wall of cold air hits me like a solid thing, making my face tingle. The whole store is jammed full of bumper stickers and magazines and candy, but the walls and the ceiling are bright fluorescent white, and suddenly I’m shivering even though thirty seconds ago all I wanted was to get out of the heat.

  Pinky and Ariel head straight for the drink counter at the back, where you can get yourself slushies and fountain Coke and pink plastic straws.

  I follow them through the narrow rows of shelves, keeping an eye out for Finny while still trying to look casual. He’s near the back examining one of the endcap displays a couple aisles over from Pinky and Ariel.

  When I come up to the drink counter, he glances away from a selection of fake Zippos like he’s surprised to see me there. Behind him, a boy with worn-out jeans and a Lakers jersey is leaning down to dig through a cardboard display of Visine bottles and caffeine pills. I can’t quite see his profile, but his ears stick out from his head, and he has a terrible unshaved strip along his jaw that looks like it sort of wants to be a goatee. Then he straightens up, turning to mutter something to Finny, and I recognize Nick Andelman.

  Nick is bad news. Not like Brady Huff, who would grab girls around the waist when they walked by his table in the cafeteria last year and say things like, “Want to sit on my lap and talk about the next thing that pops up?” Not like that, but just bad enough to make you stay away from him in the halls. Bad in the stealing-Visine-and-NoDoz-from-the-Qwik-Mart way. He belongs in the same general category as Finny Boone, except that he would never try to do something nice for you if you were having a bad day.

Over by the slushy machine, Ariel is making a total mess with the Blue-Raspberry Blast, slopping it all over the counter. She and Pinky are trying to layer the different flavors and I know I should go and stop them, but right now I’m too busy appreciating Finny’s arms.

  He leans against the endcap, playing around with a lighter that has a pair of cartoon ravens painted on the side. Then, without breaking eye contact, he palms the lighter like he’s daring me to say something.

  His eyes are too green to look at, so I turn away and drop my gaze to his hands, then wish I’d looked someplace else. The lighter is tucked under his thumb. I can see just a silver stripe of metal peeking out, reflecting the harsh fluorescent lights. The place where his little finger should be is slick and pink, and I can’t seem to stop staring.

  Behind me, Lillian’s voice floats down from somewhere near the ceiling. “Um, Hannah? He’s shoplifting, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

  I nod a tiny, disconnected nod and don’t look away. The lighter is completely hidden in Finny’s hand now. His expression is unreadable.

  All I’m thinking suddenly is that it was such a bad idea to come in here just because he did. I can’t even begin to explain what I expected to happen, but this isn’t it.

  Up at the counter, the store clerk is playing some kind of game on his phone, and the little blips and chimes and explosions are the loudest sounds in the store. There’s a sudden chorus of electronic chirps, and Finny raises his eyebrows and then slips the lighter in his pocket, turning so the muscles in his neck and shoulders suddenly look much, much bigger.

  “Let’s get out of here,” he says to Nick, sounding bored. He steps away from the shelf of lighters and brushes past me, even though it means taking the long way out. He walks straight out past the cashier, and the bell over the door makes a high, jangling noise behind him.

  Nick starts to follow him, then sees me standing in the middle of the aisle with my mouth hanging open and my hands clasped against the front of my dress, staring at him.

  “What are you looking at?” he says, even though I’m pretty clearly looking at the pocket where he stashed the NoDoz and the Visine and whatever else he’s walking out of the store with.

  “Nothing,” I say, which we both know is a lie.

  He grins and shakes his head, then steps closer, trapping me against the drink counter.

  “Nothing,” he says, like it’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard, or maybe the stupidest. His voice is deeper than most of the boys’ in our grade, which wouldn’t be so scary if he weren’t two inches away, scuffing the toes of his sneakers against my ballet flats.

  “You can’t just take things because they’re there,” I say, sounding shy and tiny.

  He doesn’t answer, just gives me a mean, toothy smile and in one quick twitch, he reaches down and yanks my charm bracelet off my wrist. It’s from Posy Boutique in the mall and has an Alice in Wonderland theme. Lillian gave it to me for my birthday two years ago and it’s the only piece of jewelry I wear almost every day. The chain is heavy and silver-plated, but the clasp isn’t the greatest, and as soon as he yanks, I can feel it let go. A metal jump ring hits the floor and bounces away, and I gasp, massaging my wrist without meaning to.

  From the corner of my eye, I can see Pinky backing farther and farther away, like she wants to hide behind the wire sunglasses rack. Ariel just stands with her eyes very wide, holding her slushy cup in both hands, Blue-Raspberry Blast melting down over the rim and dripping onto the floor.

  Nick gives me one scornful look and then starts for the door. The charm bracelet is still in his hand, its broken chain swinging sadly.

  “Do something,” whispers Lillian from the top of the slushy machine. “Don’t just stand there!”

  Her voice is like a bell, jolting me awake, and I shout after him. “Hey!” My voice sounds almost brave, but my face is hot and my legs feel weird and trembly. “Hey, come back. You can’t just take people’s stuff!”

  The guy at the register glances up from his phone, looking around the store like he might sort of be thinking about doing something eventually. He starts to get up, but Nick just stalks past him and out into the parking lot.

  Ariel is still standing with her mouth open and her hands dripping blue syrup. Pinky just peers at me from behind the tower of sunglasses like she’s deciding if it’s safe to come out. I stand with my shoulders limp and my back against the counter. There’s a raw half-circle of little red marks around my wrist where the chain dug in before it snapped.

  What am I looking at?




  “Look who decided to show up,” Angelie says when I get to the Sno-Cone stand outside the mall.

  She and Carmen are standing together in the shade, lounging against the wall by the main entrance. We were all supposed to meet at three to look at earrings and maybe see a movie, but because of the impulsive slushy decision, I’m late. And for what? The possibility of standing near Finny Boone? There’s a stinging scrape around my left wrist where my Alice in Wonderland bracelet used to be.

  Angelie steps away from the wall. “You’re looking pink today.” She gives me a long once-over, and I can’t tell if she’s talking about my face or just my dress. At least she doesn’t say anything about how it looks like I got puked on by a rose garden.

  “It’s okay,” says Carmen, who’s wearing a lipgloss so red it looks like nail polish. “You’re not the last one.”

  Carmen’s sundress is almost as bright and outrageous as mine. It’s hibiscus-orange with a ruffle around the bottom and a giant purple bow on the shoulder, and I wonder if Angelie gave her the same once-over I just got.

  Lately Angelie’s been acting nastier about a lot of things, and once or twice she’s told me flat out that something I’m wearing is way too twee, even though for as long as we’ve been dressing like this, that’s kind of been the whole point.

  It was Lillian who decided, all the way back in eighth grade, that there was room for only one really enviable group in school, and we were going to be that group. Even before high school, she understood what it took to be popular. Not the sticky-sweet, sweaters-from-the-Gap kind of popular—where girls like Hilary Chase or Morgan Whitmeyer get all enthusiastic and involved and then run out and join cheerleading or student council or Future Business Leaders of America—but the real kind. The kind where when a band gets big or a movie comes out, everyone checks to see how you feel about it before they can decide if they like it, and if you come to class with neon crackle nail polish or colored eyeliner, they all have to dash over to Ulta right away and get it too, but they never forget that you wore it first.

  That was what Lillian wanted—not the responsibility of running the committees or the clubs, or the boringness of us all buying the same plain cotton tank top in a variety of coordinating colors. Instead, we’d be the girls you could never confuse with anyone else. The girls who invented the colors and started the trends and rolled our eyes at anyone who tried to copy us, because no matter how much effort they put in, they just couldn’t pull it off like we could. The girls everyone wanted to be, even if they denied it or pretended so hard that they didn’t.

  The biggest requirement of Lillian’s fashion philosophy was to always wear it—whatever it was—like you meant it. Like no one in the world could inhabit that exact outfit but you. Today, though, Angelie’s just wearing a striped tube top and cut-offs. Except for her cat-eye eyeliner and the way her thick, coffee-colored hair is pinned up in a complicated figure-eight braid, she looks normal. She could be anyone, and I wonder suddenly if maybe she only went along with the accessories and the outfits because Lillian said so, if maybe Lillian’s idea of what popular should be was never really hers.

  Jessica doesn’t show up for another ten minutes. We spend the time hanging out on the little half wa
ll by the entrance. When she finally coasts around the corner on her lavender Schwinn cruiser, Angelie sighs a huge, put-upon sigh and throws up her hands. Jessica just shrugs and locks her bike before starting for the entrance. I go in after them, wondering if this is how it’s always going to be now.

  The truth is, things haven’t been the same since Lillian died, but mostly they haven’t been all that different. Angelie still calls me almost every day. We still make plans for the weekend and spend the night at each other’s houses. And even though these days we’ve pretty much stopped doing projects together and she occasionally ditches me to hang out with Connor, we’re still friends. It’s just like it always was. The kind of friends where you sometimes want to disappear.

  The Deer Meadows Mall is the biggest one in Ludlow, with a movie theater and two escalators and a Cheesecake Factory. The air inside echoes like a canyon, and as we walk down the middle of the main corridor, I have a little daydream about being home, burrowed in my bed with the pillowcase cool against my face, and the air bone-dry and freezing from the air conditioner.

  I want to turn on my stereo and listen to songs about heartbreak on repeat. The mall is full of people from school, and even though I don’t know most of them, I catch myself smiling automatically. The friendly expression is just a holdover from last year, when I was always smiling in the halls, always making an effort to look normal and happy. I want to be carefree, seem brighter. Mostly, I want to forget how Nick Andelman ripped the charm bracelet right off my wrist while I stood there and let him.

  Carmen falls into step next to me, and I watch the way our skirts flutter against each other. The orange and the pink look nice together, like a garden party, and I’m just starting to feel lighter and more like myself when Lillian materializes on my other side, letting her arm thump down across my shoulders. I flinch without meaning to, then try to turn it into a little twirling skip, like a pirouette.

  Angelie hears the soles of my shoes slapping on the tile and glances back. “Something wrong?”

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