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Places no one knows, p.6
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       Places No One Knows, p.6

           Brenna Yovanoff
 

  At the sink, I rest my hand on the faucet and take a beat before responding. “Excuse me?”

  She covers the distance between us in four purposeful strides. “You. And them. Don’t even tell me you think they’re your same species.”

  “It doesn’t matter.”

  “How very mercenary.”

  I lean away, trying not to look surprised, but I feel my eyebrows perk up anyway. “At least I know how to exist without antagonizing people.”

  “There but for the grace of God or whatever.”

  I splash some tap water through my bangs, pushing them off my forehead, using a strip of pre-wrap for a headband. “If you think it’s all so meaningless, why are you even here? No one is making you.”

  She’s different now, in the empty room. Her expression is cool and alert. “This whole sports and activities thing is just my mom’s latest campaign for conformity, okay? Left to my own devices, I’m not a joiner.”

  The face I maintain is carefully neutral—my mother’s psych face. “Shocking.”

  Autumn turns to the mirror, picking at her bottom lip. In the glass, her reflection looks stoic and mean. “I totally asked you a serious question just now, and you totally changed the subject. You, them, why?”

  I shrug. Kendry and Palmer may not be astounding minds of our generation, but they know how to navigate the terrain of empty compliments and small talk, and never seem to mind too much when I don’t. “They have their uses.”

  Autumn twitches away from the mirror. “Jesus Christ, you are a sociopath!”

  “I’m a pragmatist.” The declaration seems too harsh for daytime-Waverly, and I add, kind of lamely, “There’s a difference.”

  Autumn rolls her eyes. “Come on. Your friends suck so much it’s criminal. What could you possibly get from hanging out with those guys besides the satisfaction of knowing you’re better than them at everything?”

  “It’s not actually as satisfying as you’d think.”

  “Wow.”

  I know how it sounded, but no matter how arrogant or mechanical I seem, the truth is worse. The alternative to formal dances and student council—to Maribeth and her minions—is to be deeply, unalterably alone. It’s a hazard that has always been there, drifting in the background since elementary school. And so I study hierarchies and social norms, abide by the rules. I restrain myself, and even when I slip up sometimes and stop having facial expressions or start talking about spiral galaxies, most of the time, Palmer and Kendry don’t actually notice.

  For a second, I expect Autumn to scold me for my haughtiness the same way Maribeth would. Tell me, once again, the story of my own faulty wiring. But she just shrugs a broad, expansive shrug. “Hey, I get it. Your fatal flaw is that you have no people skills. Whatever, it happens to the best of us.”

  I stare back at her, shaking my head. “You make it a hobby to intentionally piss off everyone, and you’re blaming it on faulty people skills?”

  “Oh, no—my fatal flaw is that I never lie. Totally different. If you want, though, I could probably give you a few pointers.”

  “Thanks, but I think I’d rather stick to just not talking.”

  She grins, but it’s more like she’s baring her teeth. “Waverly, please. It’s not like I don’t already know your dirty little secret.”

  I have a guilty recollection of wandering through drunk, oblivious crowds in my pajamas, waking up with rotting leaves stuck to my feet. Marshall, his warm hands reaching for mine from under the picnic table.

  I cross my arms over my chest. “What secret?”

  “That you’re the smart one.”

  When I laugh, it sounds relieved. “Everyone knows that. They print the honor roll on the back page of the Courier every quarter.”

  “I’m not talking about grades.” She waves her hand at the empty locker room. “I’m talking about this. The dances, the clubs, the passwords and the handshakes. You know it’s bullshit, and you play anyway.”

  I don’t say anything.

  “I bet you play chess,” she says.

  I shake my head. “I quit in junior high.”

  “Too dorky?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You were good, though, right?”

  “I don’t do anything I’m not good at.”

  We stand looking at each other over the carved-up benches. She’s wearing so much eyeliner that it’s starting to flake off in waxy pieces, like crayon.

  “You didn’t quit,” she says finally. “You just found yourself a bigger board with fancier pieces.”

  .

  The run that night is long and dreamlike. I feel surreal, wired like a car battery, my engine clanking, my thoughts racing.

  Autumn is unexpected. An unknown quantity.

  I spend four blocks trying to anticipate all the ways her interest in me could end in disaster.

  No matter what angle I consider, it’s hard to see a motive. It’s not that I’m guileless enough to believe she actually likes me. I just can’t think of anything I have that she would want.

  I need more information. I need to outline a presentation for my English class and ice my feet and find a dress for homecoming and maybe one of these days, if the oceans part and the stars align, actually start sleeping.

  Since the night of the party and the leaves in my bed, I haven’t been all that anxious to get back to my relaxation techniques. It means insomnia as usual, but at least I know I’m not going to wind up barefoot in someone’s yard. I’m still not clear on the more esoteric aspects of what happened on Friday, but since I gave up on the counting and the candle, it hasn’t happened again.

  Running is enough to take the edge off, and if you just go far enough, a sense of unshakable calm will always set in. It leaves me rubbery-legged, but serene, and I slip in through the back door, weightless and euphoric.

  By midnight, though, the rush of endorphins has already worn off. My feet ache. My vision is starting to sharpen like a telephoto lens, objects standing out with frightening clarity. There’s nothing left to do but sit on the couch in the family room and watch Fight Club, and when all else fails, watch it again.

  I am Jack’s wasted youth.

  MARSHALL

  High, Low

  The Captain’s house is where I go when things stop making sense.

  At home, the theme for the night is Pass the Blame: Who Gets It, and I’m in the mood for something that doesn’t make me feel like I need to puke.

  We’re out on the sunporch, playing Hi-Lo around a white patio table. It’s got four matching chairs and a canvas umbrella that barely fits under the sloped roof.

  The Captain and Hez boosted it from the community pool in one of the new developments a couple months ago. It doesn’t leave much space to use the washing machine, and it makes it hard to open the door, but they’re so proud of themselves they won’t get rid of it.

  Hez is dealing, flipping the cards and taking the bets. He turns up the five of hearts and waits for me to call the next one.

  On the other side of the table, Ollie and the Captain are going the distance for the millionth fucking time, mostly about Ollie’s problem when it comes to closing the deal with girls.

  “Low,” I say, because the odds aren’t great, but I just have a feeling and the feeling is low.

  Hez flips the top card. It’s a three.

  “High,” I say, and he flips the next card. Ten.

  The Captain leans back in his stolen pool chair and squints at Ollie. “So tell me—if you’re such a ladies’ man and all—are you wearing that shirt as like a self-activating cock-block, then?”

  Ollie’s had the same clothes pretty much since his mom left. Jeans and old band T-shirts, and some collared button-downs with mangled cuffs. He makes a big thing of looking around the sunporch and the empty backyard, checking all the corners.

  Then he turns to the Captain. “There are no girls here. At all.”

  Just like that, I’m miles away. Not thinking about girls, but one girl
. The acid dream of Waverly in the yard. This pale hallucination that came glowing at me out of the dark, and suddenly everything seemed so real it was terrible.

  Her face was the cleanest thing I’d ever seen, and everything else was so ugly and so dirty. The skin of the world was peeling back, showing all the bones. I had to focus on each breath, taking one and another, and then another. Otherwise, it felt like I might just stop.

  And Jesus, by the time I saw her I was mostly gone. Fuck, I was an astronaut. I was already in orbit. After what seemed like centuries, she touched my hand.

  “High,” I say to Hez. The third card’s a queen and my turn passes to Ollie without taking a penalty.

  “In the mood?” Hez asks, tapping the pocket of his work shirt where he keeps his pipe.

  I shrug and scrape the cards together. “I don’t know. Maybe later.”

  Hez’s real name is Isaac, but back when they were in middle school, the Captain started calling him Hezekiah for no reason and it stuck.

  Across from us the Captain is still ragging on Ollie like it’s a sport. “You’re just picky, is all. Look at Marshall—he’s a total bitch and he scores fine.”

  Ollie just gives him the kind of look that Ollie does better than anyone and slaps the top card out of Hez’s hand without even bothering to call it.

  The thing with the Captain is, you have to just shut up and let him do his thing. He was worse when we were younger, always beating on me over stupid shit or leaving me behind. Now he’s just kind of a dick.

  Hez picks Ollie’s card off the floor and tells him to drink. Across the table, the Captain starts reciting some joke he heard from one of the guys who works with him at Grease Monkey. I suck down the rest of my beer, even though I should be waiting for the penalties.

  Hanging out at Justin’s on a school night is the kind of thing where the first time it happens, you don’t really mind. It’s like a novelty. But then, when you’re not looking, it sneaks in and becomes your life, because nothing else is becoming your life.

  Hez is packing his pipe now, looking at me with his eyebrows raised. He passes it over and I take it, even though I just spent fifteen minutes telling myself how I needed to get on track and I wasn’t going to do that, not now, not tonight. Forget it. I’m too raw, too ready to dive into the heat and the smoke and the nothing.

  It blooms in my chest and I feel guilty for—once again—choosing the easy way. I think about all the other people in the world who are stronger. Who face overwhelming odds and suck it up and raise themselves by their bootstraps to become effective leaders and the noble everyman saviors of third-world countries.

  Then the warm feeling of floating, and at the same time, I’m too heavy to move. All the boredom and the awfulness is melting out of me and I sit there and let it go.

  It’s warmer than it was on Friday. The yard looks bigger without all the people.

  Ollie’s arguing with the Captain over whether two girls in one night counts as a three-way if they don’t touch each other. The Captain says yes, if they’re both on the bed at the same time.

  Ollie says he could not give less of a flying fuck.

  When the Captain finally gets bored with harassing Ollie, he leans across the table and punches me. “So, Mom still doing the sit-down dinner thing?”

  I nod, looking someplace else. Not like he knows anything about it. He doesn’t come over. And our sister Annie’s always at work or school or someplace more important, so the heartfelt tradition that was supposed to bring the family together hasn’t really got a lot to do with family.

  Mostly, it’s just me and them.

  The thing is, when you grow up someplace shitty and angry and your parents fight all the time, you get used to the idea that it’s going to end eventually, so when they finally sat down with us and laid it out, it wasn’t a shock.

  Our dad had been seeing this lady who worked in the back office at the chip-packing plant. The way he talked about it was flat, not like he was ecstatic or so in love, and my mom’s eyes were red, but she’d already finished crying. They were getting divorced, and that was fine.

  In movies, people are always acting ruined. It wasn’t like that. I sat on the couch with Annie and started looking forward to my new, uncrazy life, like things were actually going to be better.

  Except, there was the other thing. Our dad had been having problems—problems with his eyes, problems balancing. It wasn’t devastating or anything. But it kept getting worse.

  And then the tests came back and it was bad. There were lesions on his brain and his spinal cord, and suddenly, my parents were staying together. They were going to tough it out. Our mom was going to forgive him, and he was going to stop screwing the office lady he wasn’t in love with and that was just the situation. They were going to keep doing exactly what they’d always done, only now they both felt guilty enough to pretend they didn’t hate each other and we were all just supposed to pretend along with them.

  Ollie takes the deck from Hez and puts it in front of me. “Your deal. Hey, you want to come over tomorrow? I was thinking—”

  “That whole dinner insanity is such bullshit anyway,” the Captain says, leaning back in his chair like it’s no big deal. “One of these days, you need to just tell Dad to go fuck himself. Shit, tell them both.”

  The air in the sunporch seems electric suddenly, but the feeling in my chest is like nothing at all. I scoot my chair back and push the table out of the way so I can get out.

  The Captain’s still sitting on the other side of the washing machine with his beer in front of him. “Jesus—I’m just saying, you don’t have to keep going along with it if it’s so bad. What is your problem?”

  But my problem is that right now, all I want is to be someplace he’s not, and I could blame it on a lot of things, how he’s always taking shots at people, and we never have anything to say to each other that really matters—or even just that I’m still messed up about Friday night, how I spent something miserable like five hours sitting under his picnic table and hallucinating every sick, fucked-up thing you can think of and he just keeps laughing about it, like me living out my grimmest nightmares in real-time was somehow hilarious. I need to get out.

  The Captain’s staring at me, but he doesn’t say anything else. After a long, uncomfortable silence, I throw the cards down and go inside.

  I could keep going, down the back hall and through the living room, out the front door. I’d walk around the neighborhood or maybe head home, or text Heather McIntire, see what she’s doing.

  Or maybe not. The thought of kissing her kind of makes me feel disgusted with myself.

  Behind me, I can hear the Captain telling Ollie that pussy little bitches never get chicks. The house is empty and dark. I sit alone in my brother’s living room and do nothing.

  WAVERLY

  My feet hurt.

  They throb with a deep, constant ache that hits as soon as I swing myself out of bed. I get in the shower, and after standing there for fifteen minutes, the pain is better. My head feels numb, like it’s stuffed with cotton.

  All morning, my phone keeps buzzing in the side pocket of my bag.

  Five texts. Count them: five. All of which are from CJ, who I’ve known for two years but do not know, not really. Not in any relevant sense. All of the texts are spectacularly content-free.

  “What are you so homicidal for?” Maribeth says, prancing up to my locker after third period and leaning her chin on my shoulder.

  I force myself to stop scowling and hold out the phone, offering: skipped western civ do you hate tha romans as much as I do? “CJ texted me this morning. A lot.”

  “So? That’s ideal! I mean, doesn’t it make you feel special?”

  I think of the various ways to interpret that. The answer is no. No, it does not. What’s special about five text messages? He knows my number. He knows how to work his phone. Everything else is incidental.

  “Don’t you like knowing that he’s thinking about you?” Maribeth
says, and it’s in this moment that I realize I’ll never be able to answer her in any way that she would understand.

  When I look at my phone and see a message from CJ that says What up girl, followed by three question marks and an exclamation point, I can tell we’re not compatible. It’s not that I’m a huge punctuation snob, or even very fascist about grammar. It’s just that we are clearly not relating to each other in even the most fundamental way.

  —

  By the time last period rolls around, the day feels dreamy and bottomless. I think my heart is slowing down.

  The counseling office is empty—its natural Tuesday state—and for the first fifteen minutes, I’m content to wipe down the copier with Lysol and rearrange the add/drop forms. Compulsive cleaning can only tide you over for so long, though. I put up the Back in Five sign, write myself a hall pass, and go for a walk.

  I want to talk to someone and really mean what I’m saying. I want to put into words any of the frantic, tumbling things in my head and know that someone else in the world understands.

  Instead, I wander in ever-shrinking circles until I wind up in the west hall bathroom, standing in front of the spill wall, looking at the secrets. There are so many of them—so much realer than any of the things people say to each other’s faces. A thousand truths about drugs and sex and friendship. Beauty, envy, bodies. Love. Even if I managed to read every single one, in an hour, they’ll have already proliferated.

  Down in the corner, next to the heating register, someone has written:

  I study the handwriting, trying to figure out if it’s someone I know—someone from cross-country, maybe?

  But maybe it doesn’t matter.

  Maybe all that matters is that it’s something true.

  With a tight feeling in my chest, I unzip my bag. This is so stupid. It’s absolutely not my business. My pencil case is stocked, though, filled with weapons of frank communication.

 
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