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Paper valentine, p.5
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       Paper Valentine, p.5

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  When I shake my head, Lillian makes a high-pitched, incredulous noise, but Angelie just nods and starts for Claire’s.

  We’re almost inside the store when Carmen stops me, catching me by the arm. “Hey, you do look kind of twitchy. Are you sure you’re not upset about something?”

  And, no, I’m not sure. The afternoon is still fresh like a slap, and Finny Boone is probably a sociopath. A big, lighter-stealing sociopath. But his eyes are steady and complicated, and I haven’t really taken the time to notice boys since before Lillian died.

  The day seems very long suddenly.

  I consider telling Carmen that I just remembered something I’m supposed to do, that I have to go home. But her hand on my arm is light and warm. I can feel myself stepping away from the tense, helpless feeling, letting it go. Rising above it.

  “I’m fine,” I say.

  At Claire’s, we wander up and down the aisles, trying on barrettes and plastic bangles. Carmen wants to go to the pet store, but Angelie says the puppies make her sneeze.

  “Untrue,” Lillian says next to my ear, sounding bored. “Whenever she goes to your house, she never sneezes because of Joan.”

  I nod a little tiny nod, picking through a bin of on-sale lipglosses. Joan is my mom’s ancient basset hound, and she spends most of her day following people around, waiting for them to give her food and shedding all over everything. Angelie is not Joan’s biggest fan, but she’ll usually condescend to pet her as long as she’s had a bath. Lillian’s right; the thing about the pet shop is just to annoy Carmen.

  The lipgloss shades are mostly glittery neons—orange and fuchsia and green. I pick three of the craziest ones and head for the register.

  When Angelie comes up to the counter with a handful of enamel jewelry, Jessica inspects her choices, then holds out a bunch of bangle bracelets from the same clearance bin. “Do you want to just give me yours and we can pay for them all together? There’s an extra discount if you buy at least ten, and I have three more than you.”

  Angelie opens her eyes wide and gives Jessica a mock-offended look. “God, Jess—it’s not a contest!”

  Not a contest was this thing we started saying. Or, Lillian started saying it first and then it kind of trickled down to the rest of us. It was obviously a joke, making fun of the very idea that we would be so insecure and desperate that we actually had to compete with each other. And it was the perfect catchphrase because you could say it about anything—who could sing along to detergent commercials the loudest or whose hair was wetter after walking in the rain.

  It took me a while to understand that there was this extra layer to it, this other thing happening underneath, and that maybe the second layer wasn’t so harmless or so funny. That when Lillian said not, what she actually meant was always.

  Angelie gives her handful of chunky plastic jewelry to Jessica and then lounges next to me leaning on the counter. I think she’ll have something to say about the lipglosses, how they’re for little kids, or that the colors are perfect for a disco-clown hooker. Instead, she reaches over and smacks Jessica on the butt.

  “And, yikes! Do something about your pants! You’re hanging your unmentionables out all over the place.”

  Jessica grabs her jeans, which are yellow and skinny and splattered with long streaks of rainbow fabric paint. She tries unsuccessfully to yank them up past the top of her thong, which is peeking a full inch above the waistband and printed with little pink and silver stars.

  Angelie whistles and fans the air like she just touched something hot. “Damn! That is just too much ass for those jeans!”

  And we all laugh—even Lillian, who’s crouched omi- nously on top of the nail-polish display, watching our little group from over the top of a CLEARANCE sign. She’s grinning with her head tipped back, even though if anyone had ever said something like that about her, she would have been mortified.

  Angelie’s phone buzzes frantically, and she grabs my arm and pulls, texting one-handed. “Come on, let’s go over to the fountain. I have to meet Connor.”

  I start after her, but Lillian hangs back, swaying morosely by the false eyelashes. “What’s the matter with you? Why do you always let her treat you that way? She’s being a complete bitch.”

  I give her a jerky little shrug. It’s true, at least a little, but I’m not sure what to do about it. It’s not like Angelie’s impatience or her bossiness even really matter all that much—and if we’re going to talk about how friends should treat each other, then we’d have to start talking about Lillian. Because the thing is, yeah, Lillian never treated me the way Angelie does. She just treated everyone else that way.

  When we reach the wishing fountain, Angelie drags Jessica and Carmen into the bathroom to help fix her figure-eight braid. She usually keeps her hair artfully messy, but now it’s tangled and frizzing in tiny corkscrews around her face.

  I know that I’m supposed to follow them, but Lillian’s pacing circles around the oversize gumball machine in front of the play area, looking restless and distracted. Instead, I head down the steps to the fountain and sit in the shade of a huge potted rubber tree. The atrium is cool, and after a second, Lillian appears next to me before crawling back into the tangle of tropical plants.

  She’s rustling around in the planter, singing the chorus to “Fake Plastic Trees,” and I’m sitting on the edge, trying not to nod along to the melody, when Nick Andelman comes slouching across the atrium.

  The fact that I just saw him and now he’s here in the mall isn’t that weird, since pretty much everybody from Harris Johnson hangs out at Deer Meadows in the summer, but my heart is suddenly going a million miles a minute, and all I want is to vanish.

  “Oh my God,” says Lillian, poking her head out of the bushes and shoving me in the back. “That’s the asshole who took your bracelet!”

  He’s smoking a cigarette, which is outrageous for a number of reasons, but mostly because we’re in a shopping mall. As he passes, he drops the butt into the fountain.

  Lillian is pushing harder now, fingers jabbing into my back. “Go!” she says. “Go over there. Tell him you want your Alice bracelet back!”

  I pull my feet up and scoot all the way back against the planter, shaking my head.

  “Hey!” A boy’s voice booms through the atrium suddenly, echoing against the skylight. A second later, Connor Price comes cutting across the little tropical area by the fountain, looking messy-haired and tan and sort of perfect. Either he’s early to meet Angelie or she’s late. Probably she’s late.

  Nick glances over his shoulder but doesn’t stop. His expression is tight, like this interaction is the last thing he wants. He keeps walking, and I bury myself deeper into the shadow of the tree.

  Connor comes up behind him and catches him by the back of his Lakers jersey. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He jerks Nick around to face him. “That’s massively not cool. You know that, right?”

  Nick shrugs and pulls away. He’s bigger than Connor but has this way of slumping his shoulders or ducking his head that makes him look sulky and thuggish. I have this sudden idea that maybe sometimes the people who are mean to you wind up on the other end of it more than you’d think. It doesn’t really make me feel better, though.

  Connor makes a big thing of checking his watch. “You’re lucky,” he says in a low, cool voice. “You’re lucky I’m meeting someone and I don’t have time for this. Otherwise, I would mess you up right now.”

  He raises his hand at Nick then, like he’ll hit or push him, but stops before he actually makes contact. “Do we understand each other?” he says, sounding like a guy in a movie, and not even a little bit like just a sixteen-year-old boy on the soccer team.

  Nick pulls away, then glances across the atrium to where some of the other scowling, delinquent boys from Harris Johnson are standing around the statue of jazz
musicians, scratching their names into the finish. I give them a quick look, but Finny isn’t with them. Nick jerks his head at Connor. Then he turns and slouches away, looking at the floor.

  Lillian laughs scornfully, peeking out from the rubber plant. “I’d like to see that same exact confrontation go down someplace without a closed-circuit camera and three security guards.”

  I know she’s right, that Connor’s just making a big show of being tough. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be pushing Nick around if they were alone outside, with no one around to break it up if something happened.

  He comes over to the fountain, glancing around the atrium, probably looking for Angelie. Behind me, Lillian makes a low, dismal noise and I know it’s because of Connor. It’s been a long time since they went out, but they were together for a while, from eighth grade till about the middle of freshman year. Then she got sick—or sicker, anyway—and it kind of fell apart. After a while, Connor started dating Angelie, and Lillian acted really hard like she didn’t care—and Angelie acted really hard like it wasn’t the greatest moment in her whole life because she’d finally beaten Lillian at something.

  I swing my legs down from the planter and untangle myself from the rubber tree, trying to scoot away from it without getting my hair caught in the leaves.

  When Connor sees me, he smiles and does a little salute. “Hey, Twinkie,” he says, thumping down next to me on the edge of the planter.

  “You have got to make him stop calling you that,” Lillian whispers from right behind me. Her voice sounds bored, like she barely even knows him, but under that, there’s an empty note. I’m practically sure that if I glance over my shoulder at her, she’ll be watching him with wide, greedy eyes.

  Connor leans back on his arms. “What were you doing back there in the bushes?”

  I feel stupid, but I figure I might as well say it. Connor can sometimes be really obnoxious. He’s not always a very good boyfriend to Angelie, and for the first few months after Lillian died, he was pretty hard to be around. But most of the time he’s okay.

  “I was hiding from Nick Andelman,” I tell him, sounding only a tiny bit less ridiculous than I feel.

  “That guy? He’s a total loser. Why were you hiding from him?”

  I sort of want to tell Connor everything, explain about the bracelet, but instead I just shrug.

  When Angelie exits the bathroom, newly brushed and braided, she comes bounding down the steps to the fountain and kisses him on the cheek. She gives me a look and I scoot away from him, even though he’s the one who sat down next to me.

  The two of them decide to go see one of those loud, summer action movies they’ve been advertising constantly, even at the gas station and Taco Bell, but the rest of us opt out. Carmen and I both hate movies about explosions. We say good-bye to Angelie and Connor and then head down the walkway to Bathing Beauty so that Jessica can get some more Harvest Peach body spray, which comes in a round orange bottle and smells exactly like peach schnapps.

  As we pass the food court, I slip my arm through Carmen’s and try not to search the crowd for Finny. I know I shouldn’t be looking for him, but I can’t help it. I keep picturing him standing over me in the Quik-Mart every time I let my mind wander.

  On my other side, Lillian’s mood has darkened abruptly. She’s glaring at the clusters of afternoon shoppers with their french fries and their floppy slices of pizza. “Don’t waste your time swooning over him, Hannah. He’s just a big dumb animal who hangs out with bracelet thieves.”

  I don’t answer, but I have the stark, uneasy feeling I always get when she does this, like she’s just seen straight down into my soul. The magic of ghosts is that she always seems to know what I’m thinking, and even when she was alive, Lillian was a little bit of a mind reader.

  “God, you’re such a weenie sometimes,” she says as we wander through the fragrance section at Bathing Beauty. “If you had any self-respect, you would have gone up to Nick and told him to give it back.”

  I twist away and pretend to be very interested in an elaborate pyramid of pastel bath bombs, but she steps in front of me, making me look at her.

  “Seriously, Hannah. When are you going to stop letting everyone in the whole entire world walk all over you?”

  I turn my back on her. In the long mirror behind the counter, I look strange and secretive, like I’m trying to keep my face under control. Behind me, Lillian is watching, waiting for some kind of reaction.

  “Fine,” she snaps, but the way she says it makes it clear that this isn’t over. It isn’t fine.

  When she swings her fist at the table, it’s fast and ferocious. I don’t expect her to make contact, but as soon as she brings her arm down, there’s a sound like pond-ice cracking, and the whole display goes crashing to the floor.

  Bottles hit the tile in an avalanche. Plastic cracks and lids fly off, splattering pink and blue bath products everywhere. I stand with my hands clasped tightly under my chin and cupcake-scented bath gel dripping down the front of my dress.

  Sometimes Lillian tries to throw or break things, but even when she concentrates, she hardly ever actually moves them. When I turn to face her, she has the strangest look—not shocked, not sorry, but defiant.

  Jessica comes hurrying over to me, picking her way around broken bottles, doing her best to avoid the spilled gel, which is all over the floor and splashed up the sides of the shelves. “God, Hannah, are you okay?”

  I nod, glancing at the woman behind the counter, wondering if I’m going to get in trouble, but the table is in pieces on the floor with its legs splayed out like a flattened bug, and this is clearly not my fault.

  “That’s it,” Lillian says, shaking her head and turning away. “Just keep telling yourself that.”



  It’s almost seven by the time I get home. As soon as I let myself in, I’m hit by the smell of garlic and peppers, and my mom calls from the kitchen that dinner will be ready in twenty minutes and can I please set the table?

  “Sure,” I yell back from the front hall. “Just let me change first.” The top of my head feels burned, and there’s bubble bath all over my dress.

  Upstairs, Lillian is already waiting in my room, balancing precariously on the footboard of my bed. Outside, the sun is low. The air is starting to look blue.

  I want to lie on my floor and listen to Imogen Heap or The Sundays, but I smell like a soapy, chemical cupcake, and I should really go help in the kitchen. Anyway, I know if I turn on the stereo, Lillian will get all excited and remind me that she’s the whole reason I even know about whatever band I’m playing. She’ll clap her hands and dance around like she owns it, because she was always doing that—acting like a song or story or poem was so important. Like she was the first person to ever know about it. Like it didn’t exist before the second she heard it for the first time.

  She hops down from the footboard and begins to pace, striding back and forth across the room. “You need to get cleaned up,” she says in a distracted voice. “You’re a mess.”

  The way she moves is frantic and jerky, like a nervous bird. Completely exhausting.

  She’s wearing the powder-blue flannel pajamas she died in, and her hair is loose and straggly and unbrushed. Her feet make no sound as she crosses the floorboards and the little braided rug. Sometimes I catch myself wondering all these strange, perplexing things, like if she ever wishes for a change of clothes, and whether time and distance mean anything to ghosts. If she can even feel the ground under her.

  I gesture to my soapy dress. “Yeah? Well, whose fault is that? I didn’t make the mess.”

  She doesn’t answer, just gives me a tiny shrug, like she might be half sorry.

  After watching her pace for a few seconds, I sit down and take off my shoes. The AC clicks off with a sharp mechanical sound and then
there’s silence.

  I can hear my mom and Decker downstairs in the kitchen, laughing about paella and for a minute, I just sit there in the dimness, listening to them sound happy.

  Lillian folds her arms over her chest but doesn’t stop pacing. “God, could an afternoon with Angelie be any more gruesome? I don’t know why you even do this to yourself. When she talked Jessica into getting that feathered headband, I actually wanted to shoot myself.”

  “Don’t,” I say. “Don’t joke about things like that. Anyway, you used to hang out with Angelie all the time. We’ve always hung out with Angelie. She’s my friend.”

  “Oh, I forgot. Hannah doesn’t like to live in real life. Hannah just wants to pretend that we all live in happy fairyland, where everyone is super–best friends and no one is a heinous bitch and nothing bad is ever going to happen. Yeah, well. Maybe you should ask Cecily about that.”

  I’ve been waiting for this. Ever since the breaking-news story and Lillian’s little tangent about ghosts the other night, I’ve been wondering when we’d get into the topic of Cecily Miles—all the gory details.

  Lillian sighs and flops down in my desk chair. “What do you think the police are doing right now? Do you think they’ll call in the FBI?”

  “Come on,” I say. “It’s not exactly a freak occurrence or anything. I mean, do you know how many people die in Ludlow every year? This is just the kind of thing that happens in cities.”

  That’s not really true, though. The only other time anything this bad has happened was almost a year and a half ago, to a girl named Monica Harris. She was in our civics class, and she died the winter of freshman year, the Saturday before Valentine’s Day. One of the city garbage collectors found her out in the parking lot behind the Bowl-A-Rama in her pink polyester jacket, beaten dead with a piece of two-by-four and her own ice skates.

  It was one of those shocking nightmare things, and afterward, I wove floral wreaths for the makeshift memorial by the bowing alley and tried not to think about it too much. For the next few months, though, it was all anyone at school could talk about.

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