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Places no one knows, p.4
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       Places No One Knows, p.4

           Brenna Yovanoff

  She reaches across the table and holds my face in her hands. “You look better this morning.”

  The way she says it is cozy, reassuring. Just tender enough to remind me that the rest of the time I look terrible.

  But maybe I’m projecting, thinking my own thoughts instead of hers. She didn’t mean it like that—can’t have meant it like that—and there are so many things to enjoy. I’m glad that Maribeth always wears her hair loose down her back like a Disney princess, and she hasn’t changed her perfume since eighth grade, and her face is lovely and familiar. I like my laugh when I’m with her, and the way we’ve been glancing sideways at each other for our whole lives.

  I even like Loring, although her ideas, organization, and execution are always terrible and she needs too much validation from people like Maribeth. That, more than anything, is a critical indication that it won’t be okay. As soon as you need something from Maribeth, it’s all over.

  The way she’s watching Loring now is openly appraising. She does the vaguest, subtlest thing with her mouth—halfway between a smile and a frown. “Loring, that thought you had about the table decorations was really interesting. Did you read that in Ladies’ Home Journal?”

  Maribeth’s face is angelic. She waits. Does she pause the tiniest bit before she applies the adjective interesting? Does she draw the word really out a beat too long? No one can say for sure. This is the magic of plausible deniability.

  I know the trick because I invested time and energy into understanding it. Maribeth knows it because she was born with the ability to slice through a person’s self-assurance without even thinking.

  Afterward, what recourse? Just shrug and smile and say you don’t care about glitter or crepe paper or being included. Whether your existence has value.

  Loring is looking over at the floor-to-ceiling windows, staring out at the cars in the parking lot and trying to decide if she’s just been flayed.

  It will sink in soon enough.

  Don’t kid yourself. Everybody cares.


  The cross-country team: home of tiny nylon shorts and school-sanctioned eating disorders.

  Within the distance runner demographic, I’m something of an aberration. I don’t run to keep my weight down. I run because there’s nothing better than going for miles with everyone else strung out in little clusters behind me.

  I win because I have a good understanding of strategy, the long game, pacing myself.

  No, wait. I lied.

  I win because I’d rather hold a needle in the gas flame and stick it in my eye than lose. In fact, in the event of an eye-skewering tournament, I’m relatively certain I’d take first. Make it a competition, and I can do just about anything.

  Over by the sinks, Kendry Epstein is braiding Palmer LeRoy’s hair. They’re talking about calories.

  “But protein,” Palmer says. “Maybe not beef. But soy? How many calories does tofu have if it’s baked?”

  “I don’t know, but it’s supposed to be good for your boobs—I heard it makes them huge. Waverly knows, right?” Kendry says it over her shoulder, giving me an ironic look.

  I laugh because that’s how the script goes, the little joke, the little giggle. A smile is for everybody else. I have no breasts to speak of.

  I open my locker and get out my cross-trainers and my shorts, thinking about homecoming posters, sleep deprivation, hearts and flowers and Maribeth’s stupid necklace. Thinking about crossword puzzles and Lucrezia Borgia, right up until I hear Kendry say, “Okay, Autumn—for real. You can’t keep putting your psychotic flyers on the bulletin board. Just, can you please take it down?”

  Autumn Pickerel is sitting alone on one of the low benches, staring at a battered notebook with paper flowers decoupaged all over the front. Her legs are stretched across the aisle, and the laces of her sneakers have been wrestled into sloppy bows, grimy from being stepped on.

  Behind her, the bulletin board is huge, covered in photocopied pep rally announcements and ads for letter jackets and class rings, only now, there’s something that looks like a hand-drawn bingo card tacked in the exact center of it.

  Autumn is slow. Not in the sense of being stupid—I have no idea about her mental capacity—but her cross-country times are terrible.

  Strictly speaking, the level at which she sucks doesn’t matter. Distance running is one of the only sports with an open roster. A social free-for-all. Anyone who wants to can sign up.

  I just have no idea why she wants to.

  Girls like Autumn don’t go out for sports. They sulk around the drama department or the art hall, fidgeting with their piercings and drawing tragic water lilies on their shoes. They write poems about how they’re in love with sad, androgynous musicians who wear eyeliner. They don’t just show up to Extracurricular Involvement one day and start loping along at the back. Or anyway, they never did before.

  She’s looking up now. Her hair has fallen in a reddish spill over one eye. The way the fluorescents glint off all the metal in her ears makes her look like she’s holding an electrical charge.

  “You can mark off the square for Fascist to Be Fascist,” she says. Her voice is soft and husky. “I mean, since you’re the one who fulfilled it just now.”

  She says it very clearly—just tosses it out there, without missing a beat.

  Working theory: Autumn is so socially bizarre that she’s exhausted all obvious channels of expressing it. Clearly, she has joined cross-country because the only way left to prove her eccentricity is by doing something normal.

  Kendry plants her hands on her hips. “God, what is wrong with you? Do you have any idea how weird you are?”

  Autumn just stares back, and in that moment, I’m almost sure that something is going to happen and I have no idea what it will be. Autumn looks mysterious, but not the way other girls look mysterious when they’re trying to flirt with boys or keep secrets. Nothing about her face tells me what’s coming. She’s not angry, not anxious or hurt or apologetic. I don’t recognize her expression, and that is interesting.

  “Come on,” I say, taking Kendry’s arm, turning her by the elbow.

  For a second she resists, still staring down at Autumn like she wants to eat her. Then she sighs through her teeth and lets me do it.

  In the hierarchy of our glossy, snarling pack, I’m the beta. This is the end result of having built Maribeth Whitman. The privilege of being carnivorous.

  Kendry twists away from me. Most days, she has a face like a happy pie, but now she’s looking thunderous. “The bulletin board is for office-approved flyers only.”

  “I’m sure people have enough reading comprehension to recognize that the school isn’t sponsoring”—I examine Autumn’s contribution, which represents a fairly damning selection of things I have actually heard various girls on cross-country say, and bite my lip to keep from smiling—“Bitchface Bingo. It’s fine.”

  Kendry clearly believes it is not fine, and doesn’t appreciate how the card is obstructing people’s view of the sign-up sheet for synchronized swimming, but she huffs once, then catches hold of Palmer, dragging her out of the locker room, stepping ostentatiously over Autumn’s outstretched feet.

  After they’ve gone, Autumn stands and saunters back toward the sinks. She takes her time, swinging her hips from side to side and singing under her breath, “One of these things is not like the others….”

  At first I think she must be talking about herself, but the way she’s looking at me is too purposefully cool. Too bland to be accidental.

  As she passes the bulletin board, she stops in front of me, holding the notebook against her chest—not like she’s protecting herself with it, but like she just needs a place to rest her arms because they really are that heavy. She’s taller than me, with a good build and long legs. I wonder why her cross-country times are so bad.

  “Cute how they all jump,” she says, sounding almost sleepy. “Did they come with that built in, or did you teach them how to do tricks?”

bsp; I stare back at her and don’t answer. The truth is, it’s a little bit of both.


  The warm-up is flat and slow, heading down the east side of the park and out along the road. In the haze of car exhaust, my heart beats harder. When I begin to sweat, it’s the slick, ghostly kind, drying off my face and arms as soon as it appears.

  There’s an ugly word beating in my blood. The word is tired, tired, tired.

  Even before I look up, I can tell I’m lagging. My feet throb with a tight pain that wasn’t there a week ago, and for half a mile, it’s enough to keep me at the back with the Autumns. The aimless and the slow. Girls who joined to please their parents or get in shape or just to be able to say they played a sport in high school.

  But I have no right to be tired now. I slept last night, really and truly, for the first time in days—deep, unconscious sleep. And sure, maybe it wasn’t eight hours, but it was actual. Functional.

  As I cross Spooner Street, my stride gets longer. Now I’m shaking off the torpor, powering through it, rising up and up—above the road, above the trees. I’m flying. Running is like music. It requires rhythm and focus. It requires dedication. It requires a dogged ability to shut out everything else. The herd is strung out below me, keeping time with the thump and slap of their cross-trainers. I hold the sound in my head and subtract cars, trucks, motorcycles, voices until it’s nothing but a song.

  By the time I reach the corner of Wentworth and Sixth, I’ve left them behind. I move like patterns of air and light. I float.

  Sweat blooms in a thin film across my back and my stomach. My skin feels cool and smooth, like I’m turning into stone.

  I hit Grant Street and the ache starts, gnawing at my heels, the backs of my ankles.

  Let me tell you about blisters: they are irrelevant. They tear, they weep, they scar, but they do not keep you from getting to the finish line. Pain is a series of impulses. It leaps from your nerve endings to your brain, telling you to move your hand off the burner, to get that gash stitched up. It’s an evolutionary function, a language of survival.

  Pain as a concrete, factual thing does not exist.


  If my mother is concerned with the deep dark heart of things, my father is the opposite. He’s in commercial advertising. His job is to spearhead campaigns for products like ammonia-based hair color and high-protein weight gainer and denture adhesive. I am typically not in his target demographic.

  He and I communicate using an elaborate system of sticky notes. When he’s working on a new concept, he writes down his thoughts and sticks them to the counter. Some days, the kitchen looks like it got hit by an exploding piñata.

  The product of the day is a box of granola bars. The note is a bright, wholesome shade of blue, shorthand for emotion. How do Sun Valley granola products make you feel?

  I peel down the wrapper and bite into it. It tastes crumbly and reminds me of the oatmeal cookies they gave us for snack in kindergarten.

  I scribble nostalgic on the sticky note and go upstairs to shower.

  When I come back down for dinner, two new notes have appeared on the counter. Orange is thank you for your participation. Green means a face-to-face. The green one says, Pizza in the TV room? Olives and banana peppers. At the bottom, in red ink, courtesy of his trusty four-color pen, it says, Destroy this message upon receipt.

  My mother must be out. We are ordinarily not allowed to eat wet or colored foods in the TV room.

  I like eating with my dad because he doesn’t have a preconceived notion of how things should be. The conversation isn’t measured in correct dosage, no prescription recommending that the napkins match the place mats.

  He’s sitting on the floor with his back against the couch and a yellow legal pad propped on one knee. When I come into the room, he looks up. There’s a pizza box on the coffee table.

  “What do you think about mutual funds?” he says.

  “I don’t, really.”

  He nods and makes a dutiful note. “So you’re saying the seventeen-to-twenty-five market is untapped.”


  He smiles, leaning forward to flip open the box. “Speaking of the jaded-youth demographic, isn’t it Friday? Shouldn’t you be out doing something involved?”

  I shrug and reach for a slice. “Involvement gets old.”

  He waves his pen in a way that’s calculated to conjure images of my mother. “I see. And do you feel that as a contemporary American teenager, freshness and novelty are vital to the development of your psyche?”

  “Dad, stop. We’ve been working on color schemes for the dance for two weeks. Do you have any idea how long two weeks is when you’re talking about napkins?”

  “Ah, and do you have a date for this dance?” His hands are clasped on the coffee table now, legal pad forgotten.

  “I’m going with CJ Borsen.”

  “And just what are this CJ’s qualifications?”

  “Aspirations of law school, and a five-star safety-rated fuel-efficient car.”

  “And would you say the match is socially advantageous?”

  I nod and rearrange the olives on my pizza for more even distribution. I don’t point out that all my contacts are socially advantageous.

  His expression is open and receptive. I just don’t know how much of that is the marketing consultant, and how much of it is my dad. He makes up persuasive copy for a living. It doesn’t really matter that he’s joking. Advantageous contacts are still just another fact of life.

  After pizza and two episodes of spin-off Law & Order, I double-check the answers on my trig homework. Then I go up to my room and get out a new book of crosswords. I pass four or five hours filling out the puzzles in English, and then again in Spanish. Some of the words aren’t in the translation dictionary. I have to look them up online. Some don’t even have a Spanish equivalent. The vowels are unpredictable and all over the place.

  When the book starts looking like the work of a serial killer, I shove it back in the desk and take out my candle and my matches.

  The sleep I got last night was insufficient, but it was real, and the true test of any good experiment is whether or not it’s repeatable. I lie on my back. The flame burns low and steady. I close my eyes and start to count.



  It’s not like I think the acid is a good idea. I don’t.

  But my brother Justin has this thing about parties and if I don’t look like I’m out-of-my-mind happy, he’ll always take it personally.

  He offers me the tab, balancing it on a safety pin so he won’t rub the dose off by touching it with his fingers. The blotter paper has a little Christmas angel printed on it in yellow ink. I wonder if it’s supposed to be a joke, or if he’s just confused. It’s October.

  Sometimes I get the feeling he’s trying to piss off our dad, and this is just another way to do it—like Justin has me on his team and the sport is being more like him. Being exactly who my dad already thinks I am.

  The theme for the party is Trailer Trash Showcase, which Justin came up with because he actually likes cheap beer, or because he started lifting over the summer and wants an excuse to wear a shirt with no sleeves, or maybe just as some kind of a misguided middle finger to everybody who ever made fun of us growing up for our clothes or our shoes or the street we lived on.

  Now that I’m here, though, standing in his kitchen, the actual event doesn’t really feel cool or edgy. Underneath, it seems more like giving up—you just say it first, before someone else can.

  After too much time debating it, I reach for the acid.

  “Atta boy,” Justin says, smiling like I’m a dog who’s done a trick, and then charging off to find a shot glass or a bottle opener or to bother someone else.

  My friend Ollie gives me a look, but doesn’t say anything. He’s pretty good at seeing how things are going to turn out, but he’ll usually keep his mouth shut.

  Ollie’s easy to be around, but sometimes hard to read.
His mom left a couple years ago—just took off one day without warning. She said she needed to simplify her life, so she threw a bunch of stuff in the back of her Civic and moved to San Antonio, which is about the most screwed-up thing I’ve ever heard. In some ways, Ollie is probably as messed up as I am, but that’s not why we’re friends. Or at least, we’ve been friends longer than things have been shitty.

  “Mars,” he says. “Are you sure you’re in the mood to go sailing tonight?”

  Which is a hard question to answer.

  The acid isn’t a big deal. It’s Friday night, so it’s not like I have someplace else to be. Lately, though, my life is a little off the rails. I already feel like the walls are coming down around me. I want to feel different, sure. But I don’t want to feel any more ruined than I already do.

  Also, Justin’s Trash party is not the greatest place to get chemically altered. A lot of people are walking around with huge ratted hair and their front teeth blacked out. I can picture several scenarios where the night doesn’t go so well. They just aren’t bad enough to make me change my mind.

  “Don’t,” Ollie says, like he’s going to give me a reason.

  I put the square on my tongue anyway, because it’s free, and because no matter what, it’s a guaranteed alternative to feeling like I feel right now.

  The party is loud, bigger than most of the ones at Justin’s house, and everyone’s swarming all over each other. The girls are sweating off their makeup and I know that before long, I’ll have to go out in the backyard just so I can breathe.

  “You didn’t have to take it just because the Captain gave it to you.”

  In Ollie-speak, the Captain is shorthand for Captain Cockjob, but Justin doesn’t know that. He thinks being the Captain is a good thing, which makes me half sorry. I’d feel all the way sorry if he wasn’t such an unrelenting cockjob.

  Tonight, though, he’s at least acting like a brother, and he did just give me the blotter tab, for no reason except that he wanted to. “Come on, he’s okay.”

  “Yeah, he’s fine, as long as you’re swinging from his nuts.”

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