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Paper valentine, p.7
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       Paper Valentine, p.7

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  As I pour myself some shredded wheat, he gives me a long, doubtful look but doesn’t say anything. I’m wearing a sleeveless minidress made out of a heavy-metal T-shirt from the thrift store, which is the most menacing thing I own. The dress is black, with slayer angled across the front in pointy silver-glitter letters. It would probably be more menacing if the scalloped trim around the neckline and the armholes weren’t pink. Decker just looks at me, and I can’t tell if his fixed stare is because of the outfit or something else. His eyes are too serious. If it were the outfit, he’d just say something.

  “What?” I ask, trying to sound unconcerned, like he’s not freaking me out.

  Decker shrugs and shakes his head. He’s picking at his arm, touching his four-color sleeve tattoo. “Nothing. Just you be careful out there, okay?” Then he pushes back his chair. “I’ll take off pretty soon here, get back maybe around two. Three at the latest.”

  The way he says all this has a false easiness to it, and it occurs to me that maybe my mom has been after him too, reminding him to remind us of how the world is actually dangerous.

  Out in the hall, the doorbell rings, and Decker goes to let Pinky in.

  * * *

  “We should do some new portraits before school starts,” Kelly says when I come into work. “I could set up some really dramatic lighting, and maybe do some fun makeup.”

  “Yes, let’s,” I say, lacing my fingers together and propping my chin on my hands, elbows stuck out in imitation of a 1950s pinup pose.

  Over by the register, Lillian mimics me, flopping herself down on the counter with her arms splayed out, elbows jutting. I make sure to keep my eyes focused somewhere to the right of her, like I’m not looking at anything.

  Kelly loves high-concept shoots, but the truth is that it’s been a while since I’ve liked having my picture taken. It always makes me feel like I’m being magicked into someone else, and then I don’t even know how I look anymore.

  * * *

  Some days I’m pretty, and some days I’m not, and once, for three hours and forty-five minutes, I was beautiful. But that was a long time ago, at the eighth grade dance, and I wore a blue dress that I’d made from a McCall pattern after I fixed the serger, and Jason Forrester really, really liked me. I mean, he liked me so much that it wasn’t just hypothetical. I could actually tell.

  I let Ariel put my hair up in a fancy braided bun that she’d just invented, and I didn’t even mind that it was kind of lopsided or that the ends stuck out, because it looked almost intentionally messy. It looked the way girls’ hair looks in magazines sometimes—like their lives are so wild and glamorous that their hair is constantly getting tousled. I wore makeup, and everyone kept looking at me in this confused, startled way—like they’d never known before that I could surprise them.

  And I know it’s what you’re supposed to want, but it scared me.

  Lillian laughed because I was so awkward, and because usually she was the one who made people stare. She was the beauty, with her sweet fairy-tale face and her long black hair. And then, not.

  I was no one, barely even a real girl. I’d had to alter the pattern to make up for the fact that my waist was 22 inches and my bust was 26.

  Even shoes and blouses were a problem, and shopping for swimsuits was embarrassing, but Lillian never made fun of me. She already wore a real underwire bra and the kind of jeans that you don’t buy in the kids’ section. She said I was lucky. That I was so delicate and tiny. Like a pixie, she said, but I knew that 26 inches wasn’t something to want. That’s not even the size of a real person.

  The blue dress was the best thing I’d ever made, covered in pleats and flounces, with a tulle overskirt. My mom helped me with the flounces because the fabric was fragile and stretchy, which made measuring tricky, but I did everything else myself.

  Before the dance, we got ready at my house, but we went to Lillian’s to meet our dates. I never minded that. I knew it was because she didn’t have a sister to be loud and sticky and mess things up or a dog to shed all over everyone, and because my house wasn’t as nice as hers. And that was just how it was.

  “Lillian,” her mother said when we stood in front of the gas fireplace for pictures. “Honestly, honey. I don’t know if you should be wearing those kinds of dresses anymore. You’ve just got a little too much going on in the chest area to be wearing spaghetti straps. Don’t you want to wear your black one?”

  As if Lillian hadn’t just spent four hours trying on every single dress she owned, looking for the one that didn’t make her look fat. She was smart and stubborn, but her mother was the voice of authority. Mrs. Wald was so well-meaning and so picky, and she was always right.

  In her room, Lillian sat slumped at her ruffled vanity with the oval mirror in front of her and the black dress spread out on top of her quilt, but she didn’t change right away. She just looked at herself, and I sat on the edge of her bed and didn’t remind her that Connor and Jason were waiting for us.

  “You can wear my bow,” I said, running my fingers over the black dress. “It will look better with the flower pattern than it does on me.”

  Lillian just stared into the mirror.

  I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to tell her that her mother didn’t mean she wasn’t okay just the way she was. She had this expression on her face like she’d lost at something, and I thought, How awful to never be allowed to fail. I took the bow out of my hair and saw that she was crying a little.

  “It’s okay,” I said. “It wasn’t true about the straps. You look nice.”

  She just shook her head and cried harder.

  “If you don’t stop,” I said, “you’re going to wreck your makeup.”

  And she pinned her hair back from her face with the bow and stopped crying, but it was already too late. All her happiness was gone. Her face looked numb and empty, like all the joy and the excitement had run out of her.

  We went back upstairs, and Lillian’s mom drove us to the school. We went inside and stood in the cafeteria along with everyone else. And maybe Jason Forrester liked me, but he was too nervous and awkward to stand next to me with the music blasting through the speakers and Lillian acting like anyone who came near us needed to be shot.

  I didn’t care. I didn’t even really know how to slow dance, even if he had gotten around to asking me. I was waiting for Lillian, watching to see what she would do, always ready to let her show me the way.

  Connor didn’t ask her to dance, though, and neither did anyone else. I thought maybe it was because of how Lillian had basically ignored him in the car the whole way over, and because she looked ready to set fire to anyone who got close, but she thought it was because she was fat.

  “You can dance with me,” I said.

  She shook her head, avoiding my eyes. “That’s stupid. I mean, we’re not little kids anymore.”

  Over by the refreshment table, Connor was standing with Jason and Max Sodermeyer, flicking the roasted peanuts from the pretzel mix at all the couples shuffling past.

  “Lyle,” I said, reaching for her, holding out my arms. “Dance with me.”

  I thought she would turn away, but then she reached for me too, collapsing into me like a building coming down.

  We stood in the corner of the gym, with the reflections from the mirrorball trickling over us in silver coins of light. I put my arms around her waist and held on, held tight like we were magical girls in a story, or like I had a big sister. She rested her head on my shoulder, and I knew she was crying, but I didn’t say anything. The song was one from an old TV show. It was happier and brighter than the moment, but I didn’t care that the soundtrack to our evening was bouncy and all wrong. I was just glad to be with her.

  Even when things weren’t okay at all anymore, and she got sad and sick and awful, I was always just so glad to be with her.

 
Eighth grade was a long time ago, but it’s what I want to remember.

  I was pretty and skinny.

  Lillian was beautiful.

  * * *

  When officers Boles and McGarahan come in at lunchtime, Kelly beats me to the counter to write up the order.

  “What’s up?” she says, reaching for the forms. Her smile looks warm and friendly, but her hands are nervous, skittering across the counter.

  McGarahan is watching her in a long, meaningful way, like if he stares hard enough, she’ll understand without his actually saying anything.

  “We’ve got the film for the Miles homicide,” says Boles, who tends to lose patience with things like etiquette and beating around the bush. He gives her five rolls of film and two sets of special instructions.

  The whole time, McGarahan keeps up this constant stream of conversation, like if he just keeps talking, everything will be fine.

  After they leave, Kelly sits down to print the order, and I do my best to stay busy. I sweep the main aisle and the floor behind the register—all the places that aren’t anywhere near the printer.

  Lillian is just as restless, pacing back and forth between the counter and the door, while Kelly works on the order. She’s clicking her way through the second roll when her face changes.

  I put down the broom and go into the back.

  In the little office, I sit on the edge of the counter and stare at the workers’ compensation poster on the wall, thinking about Cecily. I think of the version of her that I saw on TV—the wide, goofy smile, and the way she will never get her braces off. The counter is cold against the backs of my legs. Lillian sits next to me, hunched over with her hands clasped between her knees.

  After a minute, she leans into me, resting her shoulder against mine like she used to when I was upset about something. “What are you doing back here?”

  “Nothing,” I say, without looking away from the workers’ comp poster. It shows a guy lifting with his back, red arrows of pain shooting out from his spine.

  “You can’t keep acting like this,” Lillian says, and for the first time in months, it’s like she’s actually trying to be nice. “Tragedy isn’t this evil thing that came from outer space. It’s just there, you know. Along with everything else.”

  I don’t answer. The fact is, she can say that because she’s not the one who lost everything.

  “That’s not true,” she says softly. “You know that’s not true.”

  When Kelly comes into the office, I think that maybe she’s come back to get me, but when she sees me sitting on the counter, she looks surprised. She’s carrying the police photos in their brown paper bag and then she does something really strange. For the first time ever, she doesn’t just tuck them under the front counter with the rest of the orders. Instead, she locks them in the little floor safe, like they’re an ugly creature that might get out.

  “You could look,” Lillian says in my ear, “if you wanted. It won’t hurt you. If you look, maybe you’ll feel braver.”

  I nod, but I don’t feel brave. I feel like we’re playing the worst game of Truth or Dare in the history of the world. Lillian is right there next to me, though. After a second, she reaches for my hand and squeezes it.

  When Kelly goes back out to help Connor Price’s mother choose negatives for enlargements, I slip down from the counter.

  It’s not like the safe combination is a secret or anything. Kelly keeps it on a tiny piece of scratch paper taped under the edge of the desk in case she forgets. She even has me open it sometimes, when she needs extra quarters for the register.

  Still, it takes me two tries before I actually manage to twist the dial the right number of turns.

  With shaky hands, I take out the stack of envelopes and sort through the order. I used to be honest. Not underhanded, not a sneak. I never would have looked at the crime-scene photos when Kelly said not to. But Lillian’s right, it’s no good pretending the tragedies aren’t happening, and I have to believe I’m brave enough to know the bad things. Anyway, this isn’t the same as taking something. I’m not vandalizing lawn ornaments or stealing candy from the gas station or cheating on a test. I’m just looking.

  I hold the pictures in the palm of my hand, flipping through two traffic accidents and a B and E before I get to the final set. Cecily is lying just below the little cement dam at the west end of Muncy Park.

  She’s wearing a blue sundress. The kind with a smock front, where the straps tie in little bows at the tops of the shoulders. I can tell just by the way the skirt is crumpled that it’s probably made of cotton, and it feels wrong to be noticing these things when I should be noticing other things instead.

  Her face is shockingly white—dead white—and there are dark finger-shaped bruises all over one shoulder. In the blue evening light, the bruises look black. Almost as black as the blood that’s splashed in the weedy grass around her.

  She’s lying faceup with her legs twisted awkwardly and her arms out to her sides. Even though the crime-scene photographer took the shot from twelve feet away, it’s not too hard to see how she died. The blood all seems to be coming from one side of her head, like maybe she was hit with something big and heavy.

  None of this is the most shocking part, though. The real, actual worst part is the thing that Boles mentioned the other day. Flea market. When he said it, the words didn’t even add up to anything in my head, but now I understand.

  The body of Cecily Miles is the drabbest thing in the picture. All around her, arranged in no particular order, marked with yellow police markers and reaching all the way to the corners of the photo, is a collection of toys. Most of them are tiny and cheap, like party favors. There’s a little airplane made of pink plastic, barely two inches long, and a sparkly rubber ball, like the kind you get out of a bin at the dollar store, and too many others to count. Threaded through the surrounding bushes and tied in a crazy web above her is a tangle of rainbow craft string.

  “Oh,” says Lillian in a tight, shaky voice. “Oh, Hannah—Hannah, look.” She’s leaning in over my shoulder, pointing with a trembling finger.

  But I already see it. Lying against the back of Cecily’s outstretched hand is a red heart, cut from construction paper and glued carefully to the center of a lacy white doily. It’s a strange, eerie thing to see lying in the grass, in the middle of summer, in the shadow of a dead body, but that’s not what makes the horror come bubbling up from the bottom of my memory.

  “You remember?” Lillian whispers. The tightness in her voice makes her sound like she’s begging. “Remember, Hannah?”

  I nod so slowly it feels like I’m underwater, thumbing through the rest of the prints until I get to a close-up. The valentine is big and bright red, but you can tell from the unevenness of the scallops and the crooked way the pattern doesn’t line up that the doily is handmade, cut out with scissors or maybe a utility knife. The tile floor is cold under me, and I feel wobbly and full of needles and pins, like maybe I’m going to faint.

  Together, we crouch on the floor of the office, in front of the open safe.

  “Remember?” Lillian says again, in a desperate, strangled voice. “The spirit board and the message?”

  “You did that!” I mean to sound impatient and kind of bored, but it comes out much too loud.

  I wince and clap my hand over my mouth. Out in the front of the store, Kelly and Mrs. Price both stop talking. There’s nothing but the sound of the machines, and I sit very still. Then Mrs. Price says something I can’t hear, and Kelly laughs and everything is normal again.

  I shove the pictures back in their paper bag and lower my voice to a whisper, glaring at Lillian. “You did that. It doesn’t mean anything.”

  She shakes her head, raising one hand and keeping her back very straight. “Hannah, I swear to you, I didn’t move that glass.”

 
I sit staring down at the package of photos in my hand, not really seeing them. “That’s not possible, okay?”

  “What’s a better explanation, then? That I was trying to play a prank on you and I accidentally broke a murder case that hadn’t happened yet? That I psychically tapped into some freaky collective unconsciousness? Look, whatever—whoever—wanted us to know about the heart, it was someone else.”

  I put the pictures back in the safe and close the door, making sure not to let it slam.

  Someone killed a girl one winter—left her dead like a worn-out toy, all powder-pink ski jacket and bloody hair—and then they killed another, tucking her in a nest of the cheapest party favors ten dollars can buy.

  This is not one of those dismal everyday tragedies that Lillian talked about, those bad things that just happen.

  This is something black and monstrous.

  It’s so much worse.

  RABBIT HOLE

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  The rest of the week is like a strange alternate reality where everything keeps chugging along like always.

  It’s one thing to know—know, with a crazy, impossible knowing—that someone in my city is out there killing girls, but it’s another to actually be able to talk to anyone about it. So I don’t. I walk Ariel to school and I go to work and I paint my toenails, and I act like nothing is wrong.

  Since I saw the crime-scene pictures of Cecily Miles, though, that raggedy homemade valentine has mostly been all I’ve thought about. I’m almost sure I’d be having nightmares, except that it’s been really hard to sleep.

  I’ve started wearing my Alice bracelet all the time. I never take it off, even though the chain sometimes pinches my wrist and a lot of the charms are kind of sharp. I don’t care. The weight of it against my skin is comforting, and it’s nice to have something solid to remind me of Lillian. I never told her, but the Queen of Hearts charm always reminded me of her, even when she was alive. The way that all ways were Lillian’s ways, and how in the story the queen is unpredictable and kind of scary, but even when she throws a tantrum or threatens to cut off Alice’s head, she never really means it.

 
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