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Places no one knows, p.5
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       Places No One Knows, p.5

           Brenna Yovanoff
 

  I laugh, even though that’s so true it’s not funny.

  Ollie shrugs, then flinches as the Captain comes barreling back into the kitchen. “Whatever. Oh, hey, I was going to tell you. I saw Little Ollie in the art hall before Spanish today.”

  The Captain laughs and pounds Ollie on the back. “Wait, you’re naming your junk now?”

  But Little Ollie is a real person, this douchey freshman who looks remarkably like regular Ollie—not Ollie now, but Ollie when he was fourteen.

  We ran into him in the quad one day at the beginning of the year and it was so weird and Twilight Zone that now regular Ollie occasionally keeps an eye on what Little Ollie gets up to.

  Ollie shoves the Captain’s hand away and doesn’t answer. “Anyway, he was just lounging up against the lockers like a pimp, scamming on this little freshman girl. It was kind of crazy to watch.”

  “Is he smooth?” I say, not really caring, but already a hundred percent sure that I’d rather have this conversation than any of the ones the Captain has on offer.

  Ollie shakes his head. “Not so much. When I passed them, he was looking like he wanted to jump down her shirt headfirst.”

  The Captain’s still off on his own tangent like Ollie hasn’t said a word. He hoists himself onto the counter, settling in between us. The way he’s talking is loud and blustery, and I feel bad, because no matter how bad I feel, I can’t help thinking that if we just ignore him, he might still go away.

  I stand slumped against the kitchen sink, waiting for the acid to kick in and drinking a beer.

  The Captain is telling the longest, stupidest story in the history of the world, all about how Hez, his roommate, wouldn’t get out of the Captain’s easy chair.

  “—and he totally didn’t believe that I’d do it, that I’d piss on him, but—”

  Ollie sighs, leaning his elbows on the counter and staring down with his hair hanging in his face. “That’s because you’d have to be a complete degenerate to piss on someone.”

  The acid is starting to come on in little tremors, like someone just threw a rock into water and now the waves are rippling out from the center.

  When I look up again, Ollie’s watching me.

  “What?”

  He shrugs and sort of smiles, but like a floppy cartoon character shrugging for something sad, and I know he’s right—and I knew the score anyway—but it’s too late now.

  He says, “If it gets bad, think of something really boring. Like history, or something.”

  “I don’t think history’s boring,” I say, and my voice sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before, all sad and slow and musical.

  Ollie shrugs again. “Deep-sea fishing, then. Or baseball.”

  But really he’s saying, We both know this is going to get bad.

  “You’re right,” I tell him, but I’m not sure I say it out loud. I might just be using my brain.

  Then the two of us sit there being right, but not getting any satisfaction out of it. There’s not really a prize for that kind of thing.

  WAVERLY

  2.

  I’ve stopped counting down, but I don’t remember when that happened. Voices echo from far away, getting closer. Everything feels cold.

  When I open my eyes, I’m standing at the edge of a cement slab, surrounded by a horde of people. The yard is filthy. It has that ambience of total neglect that only frat houses and meth labs can sustain. The whole patio is awash in spilled beer.

  The crowd presses in on me, boys in trucker caps and wifebeaters, the girls caked in makeup and squeezed into disastrously short daisy dukes.

  There’s nothing worse than the realization that everyone around you is adhering to some kind of unifying principle, and you’re dressed in two-piece flannel pajamas. I clasp my hands under my chin and tuck my elbows close, gripped by the horrifying idea that I’ve been sleepwalking and have wandered into someone’s yard.

  No one seems to find my presence remarkable, though.

  They don’t even look in my direction, and as time wears on, I’m more and more convinced that they’re not going to. This is the functional opposite of dreams about delivering speeches to packed auditoriums while naked. It’s like my subconscious is underscoring all the ways the world consists of tightly knit social biomes, and I am on the outside.

  Everyone’s drinking and laughing. I recognize a few of them from school, but mostly from the chatter and chaos of the passing periods. Everyone else is college age, but none of them really look like they’re in college. Something a little too adult in their faces, a little too tired.

  Close by, one of the boys is talking to a guy in his twenties, who’s holding a bottle of beer and sporting facial hair that could use the delicate attention of a weed-whacker.

  The boy is named Ollie Poe and he’s in my Spanish class. He has lank, dark hair that comes down to his chin, and a nervous way of touching his collarbone before he talks. I had PE with him last year, and his crap badminton skills were rivaled only by his chronic inability to run the mile in under twelve minutes.

  He’s moving his hands too quickly, touching his forehead, his chin. “Look, is Mars gonna be cool or what? I mean, maybe you think this is funny or something, but he’s down under that table picking at himself like a fucking tweaker.”

  The other guy nods and finishes his beer in a long swallow. He scrubs his mangy little beard with the back of his hand before answering. “He’s okay. That blotter shit comes on big, but it peaks fast. Just don’t bother him, he’ll be fine.”

  Ollie twitches like a marionette, sticking a cigarette behind his ear, taking it back down again. “What if he gets cold? He’s just in that beater. Shouldn’t somebody check on him, maybe take him a blanket or something?”

  The other guy shrugs, swinging his empty bottle in a meditative circle. “You go messing with him now, he’s just going to flip his shit. Leave him alone, he’ll work it out.”

  “He was rough tonight, though. Like, cut-up. Look, is something going on at your house, or what?”

  The guy clenches his jaw like a nervous tic—one quick beat. Then he shakes his head, peering around the yard. “This is my house.”

  Ollie sticks the cigarette in the corner of his mouth. “Don’t be a dumbass. You know what I mean.”

  The guy shrugs, scratching the back of his neck. I can’t tell which parts of his sketchy ensemble are a costume and which aren’t. “It’s no big deal. My dad just got approved for long-term disability. Like, last week. Whatever. Untwist your panties. Mars is fine.”

  Ollie nods, looking unconvinced. He keeps glancing in the direction of the back fence, where lawn chairs sit piled between a picnic table and a rusting barbecue grill. The chairs look serviceable but the grill tilts halfheartedly on a missing wheel. It’s a glance that says Ollie will watch out for his friend anyway, because he’s just that kind of guy.

  Across the patio, a pair of girls with way too much eye makeup are looking sleepy and drunk together, sharing a battered armchair and a can of PBR.

  One of them looks over, and for a second, I’m nearly certain that she sees me. Her eyes go wide in recognition. Then a boy with a drawn-on neck tattoo and a pornstache—either real or fake—starts toward them and she jumps up, flinging herself past me and into his arms.

  I turn away from them, and almost smack right into Ollie Poe.

  He just stares through me like everyone else, eyes going back to the fence, back to where the table sits battered and forlorn, and a boy without a jacket is feeling rough tonight.

  The yard is grassless, packed with dirt and wet, putrid leaves. They ooze sickly between my toes as I start across it. When the wind blows, it cuts through my pajamas like a surgical knife.

  The picnic table is the stolen-from-the-park variety, gouged with pocketknife graffiti. When I lean down to look under it, Marshall Holt is sitting on the ground with his head bent and his knees drawn up.

  This is not the indifferent Marshall in Spanish class, and not the coo
l crossword expert from my dream. He’s got his arms around himself, holding the points of his shoulders. When he looks at me, his pupils seem to be swallowing his irises like spilled ink.

  With a quick, electric pulse beating time behind my breastbone, I move closer. “Hey. What are you doing?”

  His breath comes out in a strangled gasp, but he doesn’t answer. His eyes are locked on mine.

  I scoot up against the table, leaning farther into the dark. “Marshall, why are you under there?”

  He flinches and turns his face hard against his shoulder.

  “Hey,” I whisper. My voice sounds careful and slow. I can almost feel myself sinking deeper into the dream. Letting it wash over me. I would never be so gentle or so forward in real life. “Hey, Marshall, look at me. Why won’t you look at me?”

  When he speaks, his voice is hoarse and cracking, barely audible. “You’re not real.”

  I prop my elbows on the bench. “You should come out from there.”

  “No,” he whispers, keeping his face turned away. Then, without warning, he swings around, eyes huge and dark in the shadow of the table. “It’s bad—it’s so bad. The ground is falling apart, it’s peeling up all over the place. The moon’s like a death’s-head.”

  I sit in the dirt and look up. Above the trees, the moon is low, glowing orchid-white against the sky. Wispy clouds feather out, drifting in front of it, but in the dark, they appear to be reaching from behind it like spectral fingers. Or bones.

  I keep expecting the scene to shift, the way things do in dreams, mutating from raucous house party to something else. Maybe, if I’m following Marshall’s train of thought, a history lesson on Nazi insignia throughout World War II?

  But the ground underneath me seems solid enough, and when I glance up again, the moon is just a moon. “It looks okay to me. Really.”

  He doesn’t answer, working at the dirt with the toe of his sneaker.

  “Marshall, relax. It’s going to be fine.”

  “Please,” he whispers. “Stop saying my name.”

  I nod, trying to look reassuring. “Okay, I won’t say your name.”

  For a long time, neither of us says anything. He sits with his arms around himself, breathing in long, whining gasps. Then he closes his eyes and wets his lips. “If you’re real, then touch me.”

  I reach under the table, into the blue-black shadow, and after a second, he reaches back.

  His fingers are warm, softer and more cautious than I expected, tangling with mine, and then he yanks his hand back, twisting away from me, covering his head with his arms. His breath sounds tight and panicked.

  In my mom’s clinician handbook, it advises that when people are operating under the influence of psychoactive drugs, you should ask them simple, manageable questions that will help you make their surrounding environment more comfortable. The bonus is that sometimes this lets you evaluate their mental state without sounding like you’re interrogating them.

  I stay right there in the dirt, leaning close, and don’t say his name. The ground is wet and there’s a soggy residue soaking through my pajamas. “Are you cold?”

  He buries his face in the crook of his elbow. His shirt seems to glow up out of the dark like a lit bulb. All I can see is the curve of his back, the outline of his head. He’s rocking now, swaying back and forth. His shoulders are shaking. His breathing sounds strangled.

  “Do you feel sad?”

  He keeps his face hidden against the crook of his arm. “Go away. Please go away.”

  I scrub my hands off on the tops of my thighs and stand up. “Okay, fine. Fine. If you want to wallow in the dirt, that’s completely up to you.”

  I start back toward the cracked patio and the naked light. In the middle of the yard, I stop. Ollie Poe is coming toward me, elbowing his way through the crowd and carrying a gray army blanket. As he passes, his arm brushes my shoulder but he doesn’t seem to notice. As soon as he touches me, though, a tight, creeping sensation blooms on my face and my bare legs, like something is very wrong.

  Above me, the moon is smiling in its luminous, pockmarked skin. I shiver and wrap my arms around myself. Something about the moment is getting thinner, but I can’t tell if it’s me or everyone else. The feeling on my skin is chilly and squirming. Then it’s nothing.

  —

  The light on my ceiling is unsteady. When I toss the blankets back, I do it so aggressively that the candle gutters out.

  In the dark, I’m not entirely sure where I am.

  The dream is still alarmingly vivid. Marshall Holt, with his bare arms, his bent back. The warmth of his touch as I reached under the picnic table for his hand.

  It’s difficult to hold on to these things, though, and the harder I try to inventory my surroundings, the more disoriented I feel, until I’m not sure of anything anymore, apart from a cold, scratching sensation whenever I move.

  I flail toward the nightstand, fumbling for my lamp, then sit frozen in the circle of light, staring down at myself.

  There are dead leaves plastered all over my feet like leeches.

  .

  The weekend gallops past in flashes. I keep coming back to the problem of my feet. I do the research for my midterm paper, help Maribeth with the student council budget, win the mini-meet against the parochial school across town by almost forty seconds. I’m still thinking about my feet.

  By Monday, the thought has stopped feeling like a thought and is more like a low-grade toothache, flat and tolerable, but always there.

  I sit at my desk while cities fall, cells divide, the imaginary shadows of imaginary flagpoles make acute, useless angles when the imaginary sun shines down on them. I’m thinking about my feet.

  The first order of business was to wash them. Then strip the sheets, pick twigs and scattered leaves out of my bed. I didn’t put them in the trash. Instead, I carried them outside and walked up and down the block looking for a maple tree.

  Maybe this is evidence that I’ve started sleepwalking. Maybe relaxation does strange things to people. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I’ve been attending redneck-themed keggers on autopilot.

  Counterargument:

  1) No one at the party seemed to see me except for Marshall Holt.

  2) All the trees in my neighborhood are cottonwoods.

  There’s a formula for finding the volume of an irregular prism scrawled on the inside cover of my notebook, but I don’t remember writing it there. The rest of the notebook is full of Spanish verb forms.

  Marshall’s attendance record is generally spotty, but today he makes it to class—a full three minutes after the bell. When the door opens, everyone turns to look at him. It’s strange, how everyone is always turning to stare at latecomers, like just this once, there will be a mechanized dinosaur or a rhinoceros standing in the doorway, instead of some slacker who was smoking out by the baseball diamond and lost track of time.

  His gaze rests on me for one scant second. By the time I meet his eyes, he’s already looking away. Marshall Holt is just a boy I talked to once, for one excruciating second in the counseling office. There is no evidence that we conversed the other night, even briefly, which leaves a very realistic dream. The kind in which you inadvertently get mud and leaves all over your sheets.

  No, that doesn’t work.

  Superficially, it sounds neat and logical, but it doesn’t prove out.

  —

  In the mirror over the locker room sinks, I check under my eyes. It’s getting to be an obsession. Pat concealer in a dotted line, smear it with my fingertip. Usually, the full-coverage complexion perfecter in Porcelain Pure gets the job done, but today it looks chalky and unattractive.

  “She’s doing it again,” Palmer says behind me, in a voice that could eat through metal.

  When I turn around, Autumn is standing in the middle of the locker room with her shoulders slumped and her ankles crossed awkwardly. We have a meet today, but she’s still wearing a faded black T-shirt instead of her uniform.

&nbs
p; When the fluorescent tube in the ceiling flickers, she looks like someone out of a cheap horror movie—the girl who gets killed in the middle. Not the smartest or the prettiest or the most virtuous, but everyone thinks she’s basically okay and they’re sad when she’s dead.

  “Autumn,” says Kendry, with her hands on her hips. “I thought we agreed for you to keep your random flyers off the board or I was going to have to report you for being too freakish to be allowed.”

  Autumn doesn’t answer right away. A new flyer is tacked in the middle of the board. It says, in heavy block letters:

  MISSING UNICORN IF SEEN, PLEASE GO HOME. YOU’RE TOTALLY FUCKED UP.

  The drawing is good. It’s of a Boston terrier with a horn taped to its forehead.

  I think I catch Autumn looking at me from the corner of my eye, just for a second, but then she glances away, letting her bangs fall in front of her face.

  After a lazy beat, she sighs and flicks her hair behind her ear with one coolly deliberate middle finger. “And I thought we agreed that you’d stop doing perverse things with tennis equipment.”

  “God,” Palmer says, looking genuinely affronted. “You don’t have to be a bitch about it. She was only joking.”

  Autumn just stares back with the same flat, sleepy expression she always has. Then she nods. “Oh. Oh, sorry, I get it now.” Her voice is husky. “No, that is funny. I think you might have messed up the punch line, though. I think it’s actually supposed to be go fuck yourself.”

  For a second, I’m almost hysterically sure that I’m about to laugh out loud. Palmer and Kendry are both looking incensed. I wonder if this is what international correspondents mean when they say tensions have escalated. The air practically crackles with angry static.

  Then Jamie yells down the hall that we have five minutes until the bus and Palmer and Kendry snatch their Windbreakers and turn for the door. When they leave, the room gets so quiet it feels like it’s starting to rust.

  Autumn’s still standing under the gently flickering light. When she speaks, she sounds almost drugged. “You know what I don’t get? The fact that you do this shit voluntarily. I mean, forgive me, but what is the point?”

 
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