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Paper valentine, p.6
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       Paper Valentine, p.6

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  * * *

  When Lillian first got the idea to contact Monica Harris from the dead, it was like just another part of this same bad running joke that people had started spreading around. That Monica would come back and haunt you. I said absolutely, positively not—no way. The whole thing was awful. It was stupid. It wouldn’t work.

  Lillian kept after it, though, teasing me about ghosts whenever I slept over, waking me up in the middle of the night with the sheet over her head. And when that didn’t work, she threatened to do the séance with Carmen and Angelie instead.

  I think she always knew I’d do it, though. And in the end, I did.

  Neither of us had a Ouija board, but Lillian had read this article about how you could make one the way they did in the 1800s, with a card table and a drinking glass. My mom had a whole set of vintage barware from the seventies, up on the top shelf in the front closet where she kept extra merchandise for the store. The corners of the box were held together with Scotch tape, and I worried it would be full of spiders, or that my mom would be able to tell we’d been messing around with her inventory, but Lillian just picked through the box and found the smallest, fanciest glass and took it up to my room.

  We did the séance on a Wednesday, because Lillian said Wednesday was the best day for contacting the dead. I made a board with a permanent marker and a square of leftover plywood and put a piece of clear shelf paper over it because Lillian said it had to be slippery. Then we sat on my floor with the plywood between us, and she lit her mom’s aromatherapy candles in a circle around us, just like the instructions said in an article she found online.

  “Spirits,” she said in a whisper, with the fancy little glass turned upside down in the middle of the board. “We call on you to help us contact Monica Harris. Spirits, are you with us tonight?”

  She’d barely finished talking when the glass jerked hard and skated along the edge of the board in a long arc. The way it moved so effortlessly made a cold shudder run right down my spine. The shelf paper wasn’t that slippery.

  “Stop,” I said. “Stop doing that.”

  Lillian shook her head. “I’m not moving it.” Her eyes were big and she didn’t look like she was lying, but by then she was so good at lying about everything that it made it hard to believe her.

  She scooted closer, staring at the board. “Am I talking to Monica Harris?”

  At first the glass just sat there. Then, in one long, lazy swoop, it drifted to the top corner of the plywood, where I’d printed the word yes.

  “Okay,” Lillian whispered, almost like I was gone and she was saying it to herself. “Okay. Monica, can you tell us how you died?”

  We sat perfectly still, and I watched without breathing as the glass slid down again and hit the H, then circled briefly before gliding across to the E and stopping.

  “He?” whispered Lillian, staring hard at the board. “Who’s he?”

  But then the glass moved again, sliding to the A and then just as quickly to R, and finally coming to rest on T.


  “What does that mean?” I said. My voice sounded thin and tiny.

  The glass was already moving again and I took my hands away. I couldn’t help it. The feeling of it gliding around under my fingers was just too creepy.

  Lillian gave me an outraged look but didn’t say anything. She sat with her hands over the glass, but it didn’t really look like she was touching it at all anymore. Maybe a little, but it didn’t seem that way. I could have sworn I saw the glow of candlelight in the gap between her fingertips and the bottom of the glass.

  I sat perfectly still, watching the board with goose bumps coming out on my arms.

  The glass looped across the rows of letters, spelling out P-A-P-E-R. Then, without pausing, it circled its way back to H-E-A-R-T.

  After that, the glass wouldn’t spell anything else. We tried for another half hour, but it was no good. It just sat in the middle of the board, motionless. Silent.

  As soon as Lillian went home, I put the cordial glass back in the closet and threw the board in the Dumpster behind my house.

  * * *

  After a minute, I shut myself in the closet and change into one of my old wrap dresses, then sit down at my dressing table, and switch on the lamp. The light makes everything look warm and ghostly, but it never seems to do that to Lillian. She’s always more solid at night.

  I get out my hairbrush and wish for her—the real Lillian, and not the worst, most selfish parts of her. I wish for a warm, true best friend, one who didn’t die.

  She stands behind me, reflected in the mirror. The shape of her shoulders when she cups her elbows is fragile, but real enough, almost like I could reach out my arms and hug her. Only, I know that if I do, she’ll feel like ice against my skin, too freezing to touch, and even when she was alive, all I’d be holding on to was her bones.

  Sometimes girls online or at school called it Ana, like a real actual person, someone you could play Yahtzee with or talk to on the phone. But because Lillian never liked to do what everyone else was doing, she called it Trevor, after this Christian Bale character in a movie about a guy who never sleeps or eats. A guy who looks like the walking dead. Even then, I guess she knew what she was up against.

  I toss my hair back over my shoulders and start brushing. It bothers me, remembering all these random little things, like they’re part of a book or a TV movie, or happened to someone else. Like it isn’t really real somehow. But I know better. My best friend gave up a life and a future for something else, and the indisputable proof is standing right behind me.

  “I couldn’t help it,” she says close to my ear, always so good at knowing exactly what I’m thinking. “I didn’t have a choice.”

  I yank the brush through my hair, feeling the bristles dig at my scalp. The string of paper lights tacked around the outside of the mirror makes my face look dreamy and all the wrong colors.

  I hate that she says choice like it wasn’t one. Like it was something that just happened, some natural phenomenon or twist of fate, instead of something she actually did. And maybe, when everyone is always competing to have the most ironic thing to say and wear the most unique outfit and be the most special, maybe it starts to feel like you don’t have a choice. Because the truth is that if everyone’s special all the time, then really, no one’s special, so maybe all that’s left is just to be perfect, because at least that’s something you can measure.

  Or anyway, these are the things that I think about. Because when you hang out with Angelie Baker, it’s like even just existing starts to be a contest all the time, every day, and I always thought that because Lillian was the brightest and the wildest, she was somehow exempt.

  “It wasn’t Angelie’s fault,” she says behind me, leaning her elbows on the back of my chair. “Don’t give her that much credit.”

  I glance at her reflection. Beside her, my own face looks pink-cheeked and kind of startled.

  “It was more like this obsessive little part of me I couldn’t shut out,” she says. “I could hear it all the time, whenever I was alone, reminding me how I was worthless and stupid, that nothing would ever be okay if I couldn’t get myself under control, because who wants a person with no self-control? Who wants a fat, stupid pig? I wasn’t good enough to have what everybody else did.”

  Her mouth is close to my ear, like she’s telling me a secret, but it’s ugly and self-satisfied, the kind of secret you throw around like a live grenade any chance you get, and I can feel the anger—the absolute fury—welling up in my chest. “Well, you didn’t have to listen!”

  Lillian grabs me, fingers digging into my neck. “Yes,” she says in a deadly voice. Her face is terrible and gaunt. “I did.”

  I spin around with the brush in my hand, and I would hit her if I thought it would make a difference or if I could justify beating
at a ghost. The fact that she’s here telling me about some kind of relentless, judgmental voice she couldn’t ignore when she lurks around everywhere and says mean things to me all the time is just pretty much hilarious. “No, you didn’t. Get off me!”

  Lillian skips back and clasps her arms over her chest to shield herself, but she’s smiling. “Aw, you’re so cute when you’re mad.”

  The way she says it is warm and cozy, like I am not significant enough to be mad. Not significant enough to be anything but this scared little bunny hiding in the rubber tree just because Nick Andelman walked by.

  Suddenly, I’m on my feet. “I said, leave me alone!”

  We stand facing each other and I clench my hands into fists, squeezing the hairbrush. I want to throw it at her. The distance between us seems to hum, and my room is so quiet and still that for a second, I’m not even sure if I’m breathing.

  “Hannah.” The voice is low, coming from just outside my window. “Hey, is everything okay?”

  I turn around and almost scream.

  Finny Boone is crouched in the cottonwood outside my window, blurry through the screen. The clearest, most visible part of him is his white undershirt, and the second is his Clorox-blond hair. Everything else is in shadows.

  I move toward him cautiously, still holding the hairbrush in front of me. “Why are you here?”

  He’s resting his palm against the screen, steadying himself. I have a sudden idea that if he overbalances and falls through the window into my room, Decker will kill him. The shape of his mangled hand is intriguing. The fingers that are left look weirdly delicate. It was clearly a nice hand, before whatever happened.

  “You were shouting,” he says, and I have the same hot rush of panic I always feel when there’s a chance someone’s just caught me talking to Lillian. Like I’ve just made a huge, unforgivable mistake and someone is seeing straight into my head.

  I move closer, still clutching the hairbrush. “Why are you here, though, at my house?”

  He lets out his breath like he’s been holding it. “I, uh, I brought your bracelet back. It’s on the steps. You should bring it in, though. So no one takes it.”

  Behind me, I can feel Lillian moving closer. The air around me seems to buzz with icy static and I must look sort of petrified, because right away he starts shaking his head, a white-blond glow outside my window. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

  “You didn’t scare me. I mean, I was startled. Just . . . why are you in my tree?”

  He shrugs, but his face is blurred by the screen and I can’t see his expression. “I heard you from down in the yard. I just thought you sounded like maybe something was wrong.”

  I concentrate on my voice before I answer, keeping my back very straight and my face calm and innocent and curious. “Why would something be wrong?”

  “I don’t know. Last year—” He sounds awkward and starts over. “Last year, you started looking sad.”

  The hairbrush feels heavy in my hand, turning into a stone. Behind me, Lillian is standing so close I can almost feel the chill of her in my own blood, like our skins are running together, getting all mixed up. “I’m okay.”

  He doesn’t say anything, but suddenly I like so much that he climbed up here just to check on me. I reach toward the window, almost meaning to touch his hand. As soon as my fingers brush the screen, though, he jerks away.

  “See you around,” he says.

  I listen to him rustle down through the branches until he’s gone.

  Then I cross to the bed and sink down onto the rug, pulling the sheet with me. On the floor, with the sheet over me, I sit with my knees pulled up and my head on my arms. My heart is beating in huge spasms, but under the sheet is safe, like I’m the ghost and Lillian’s the real live girl.

  “Hannity,” she says, from somewhere above me. “Are you really all squishy over Finny Boone? He’s a total delinquent.”

  I don’t answer. The word delinquent is sort of right. Finny is a troublemaker and a lighter-thief, and probably a lot of other things, but those parts aren’t everything. He’s also the boy who cared enough to bring my bracelet back, and once, when I was very sad, he stood up out of his seat and pulled Connor Price off me.

  Lillian reaches down and twitches the sheet away. The shadows around her eyes are deep purple. “You really, truly like Finny Boone? Oh my God, I thought you had better judgment.”

  Her voice is mocking, and I flop down so I’m lying at her feet. Me and her, staring at each other in the dim rainbow light.

  I’m choking on all the things I never could say when she was alive, at first because she was always Lillian and I was just Hannah and then later, when Trevor got bad, because I was supposed to be strong and supportive—because I didn’t want to do anything to make it worse. This whole list of bad, forbidden things: Never say, Be reasonable. Never say, You’re too thin. Never say, Eat a goddamned Twinkie and I’m not stupid, Lillian! Chewing up food and spitting it into your napkin isn’t fooling anyone! Why do you have to control everything? So you don’t run the universe. So what? So the world is big and scary and chaotic. You know what? Deal with it. I do.

  I never said those things, and when they bloomed in my head like huge, toxic flowers, I pushed them down again. I did everything I was supposed to. I nodded and listened and never bullied her. I went to her house after school and made crochet arm warmers and shared pieces of my bagels and my granola bars, because if it was mine, then it wasn’t the same as her eating it.

  I did everything I was supposed to, which is such a lie. Whatever thoughtful, comforting things I said, whatever effort I made, it wasn’t enough. She died anyway.

  And if I go downstairs now, Decker will be in the kitchen making paella, and Ariel will be standing on the corduroy ottoman and singing “Mamma Mia” and “Girl Anachronism” for our mother. There will be a broken Alice in Wonderland bracelet waiting out on the steps, because Finny Boone might be big and quiet, but he isn’t stupid, and I spent the last four months of tenth grade looking sad.

  Lillian is blocking the door, standing over me, with her cadaver’s jaw and her sunken, bloodshot eyes. I take a deep breath and yank my sheet out of her hand. With the fabric draped over my head, the light looks dim and I can barely see Lillian at all.

  I open the door and walk right past her.



  On Tuesday morning, I wake up late and can’t remember if there’s something I’m supposed to be doing. The sunlight makes a crisp yellow square on the wall.

  I’m lying there with my chin on the edge of the mattress and my pillow wadded up under me when Ariel comes tiptoeing in, holding her hands behind her back. “I have something for you.”

  I roll over but don’t raise my head. “What is it?”

  She turns her palms up to show empty hands and smiles slyly. Then she jumps on me, hugging me around the neck and pressing her face into the top of my shoulder.

  I laugh because I can’t help it. We wrestle together, rolling around until I’m flat on my stomach with the comforter wrapped around my legs and the sheets in a mess on the floor.

  Ariel is lying flopped across my back. “When you get dressed, you should wear your big boots,” she says, playing with my hair.

  “Is that right?”

  She nods and flips over so she’s staring up at the ceiling, still holding on to my hair. “We need you to look menacing.”

  “Ow, don’t pull. What are you talking about, menacing?”

  She thumps down next to me and pushes her face close to mine. “So when you walk me and Pinky to school, no one will come and snatch us.”

  I have a drowsy feeling that my mom has put this idea into her head. It’s not the kind of thing Ariel would come up with on her own, and she doesn’t even look particularly worried about it, but then
, Ariel never looks worried about anything.

  We lie side by side, staring past each other. I think I see Lillian watching from the closet, but when I turn my head, she’s gone. Morning is the only time when Lillian is really truly ghostly. Practically nonexistent.

  “You have to get up,” Ariel says into the silence. “Pinky’s almost here.”

  “That’s right, Hannah.” The voice that comes drifting out of the closet is a ghost voice, the way Lillian in the morning is always a ghost Lillian; the sun shines through her, making her seem pale and faraway. “You just need to figure out how to look menacing.”

  I lie transfixed, staring into the closet like a bird staring helplessly at a snake.

  “Get up,” Ariel says again, pulling at my arm. “Or we’re going to be late.”

  “I am. I will.” The way I say it is just a little off, not bright enough somehow, and I take a deep breath, trying to channel Old Hannah, who always had an easy laugh and something whimsical to say. “I was just watching how the sun looks on the wall. When you squint, it looks like a window to a secret yellow place—like a fairyland,” I say, shooting Lillian a dark look, even though I can barely see her anymore.

  Ariel lets me go, turning to see. “Really?”

  “Yeah, try it.”

  She lies with her cheek resting between my shoulder blades. “It does,” she says, and the tone of her voice sounds like she’s humoring me, but it doesn’t matter. The weight of her head is sort of nice, and for a second, it’s just the two of us, lying there together, looking at that bright yellow square.

  When I come downstairs ten minutes later, Decker is sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through the mail.

  “What are you doing still home?” I ask, taking down a bowl and a box of cereal. We have five kinds, but three of them are cornflakes.

  “Money day,” he says, which means he’ll spend most of today driving around in his truck with the air conditioner on, harassing contractors to pay him.

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