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Paper valentine, p.8
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       Paper Valentine, p.8

           Brenna Yovanoff
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  Sometimes Lillian got mean or moody, or snapped at me to stand up for myself, reminding me that she wasn’t going to protect me from every cranky teacher and varsity jerk forever. But mostly? She liked me exactly how I was, and I liked her right back.

  I wrap my fingers around the charm and hold on until I fall asleep.

  On Monday night, when I went downstairs for dinner, the bracelet was lying on the porch where Finny said it would be, arranged in a careful circle on the welcome mat. It wasn’t in great shape, but I fixed it so it’s wearable at least. The chain was still in one piece, but the jump ring holding the clasp had to be replaced. The Cheshire cat’s tail is broken, and some of the enamel is scratched off the card guard. The white rabbit is just plain gone.

  Now, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, and the house is empty except for me. Ariel’s at the pool with the Orteros, and there’s a note from my mom on the refrigerator door saying she’s taking Joan to get her shots. Decker is out at one of the new housing developments on the east side of town, putting up drywall.

  I can remember so many days when all I wanted was to be alone. Hating how crowded and noisy the house was, wanting so badly to have the place to myself. Now, though, I don’t really want to be by myself.

  No matter how loud I turn up the stereo and dance around, I can’t shut out the list of random words that keeps popping into my head: bone and blood and bludgeon. When I close my eyes, I see Cecily. I see Monica Harris, who I did an English project with one time and then never thought of again until she was dead.

  Lillian’s sitting on my dresser, rocking from side to side in time to the beat of my dance party, while I bounce on my mattress and scream along. After my legs get tired and my throat starts to hurt, I stop jumping and turn off the music. The air feels suddenly still, like the silence right after a thunder- clap.

  “Okay,” Lillian says finally. “This can’t be how you spend the rest of your life. Come on, what are you doing, Hannah? I’m supposed to be the obsessive one.”

  I sit on the edge of my bed, breathing hard with the raw, screaming feeling still sitting in the back of my throat. I know she’s right. It’s strange to have Lillian be the voice of reason and me the one who can’t relax or sit still or act normal.

  “How do you stop obsessing?” I whisper, pulling at the little tufts of fleece on my bedspread.

  Lillian laughs and rolls her eyes. “Do I look like I know the answer to that? I always just locked on to the target and then followed it all the way down.”

  I nod and stop ruining the bedspread. Then I get up and dig through the pink footlocker at the end of my bed until I find my yearbook from freshman year.

  It’s weird to look at a picture of someone and know that they’re not even in the world anymore. You are never going to run into them in the beauty aisle at Rite Aid or pass them on the street. They’ve gone past the point of no return. They’ve winked out.

  In her class photo, Monica looks almost unbearably happy. Her teeth are small and straight, but there’s something in her smile that reminds me of Cecily—at least, the photo of Cecily they keep showing on the news.

  For a freshman, Monica is in a lot of the candid shots. She was in a ton of clubs and activities, which is one of the surest ways to get your picture in the yearbook, but still I can’t help thinking that maybe they included more than they normally would because she’s dead.

  On the front page of the fall sports section, there’s a picture of her with Taylor Wetherall and Izzy Marks at the first football game of the year, wearing matching sweatshirts with their hair up in pigtails and go, fight, win written on their cheeks in greasepaint. It’s the kind of undisguised enthusiasm that Lillian always considered dorky, but I don’t even know if that’s fair. They look really happy.

  Lillian has climbed down off the dresser and is crouched on the floor next to me. She watches me flip through the book, leaning over my shoulder to study a black-and-white photo of Monica looking responsible and serious as she represents Turkey during a debate for Mock UN. “God, she was a piece of work. Do you think Cecily was even one-third as annoying?”

  “They seem like they were both really sweet,” I say, running my finger along the caption underneath. International drama sparks lively discussion.

  Lillian rolls her eyes and makes a dry, scornful noise. “That’s one word for it.”

  I don’t answer or tell her to be nice. I’m thinking about smiling Monica, about smiling Cecily and the awful scattering of plastic toys lying in the grass around her. The valentine that is the only thing tying them together, and I’m not even sure it’s a real thing.

  I glance over at Lillian. “When Monica died, it was in the newspapers for a while, right? All the interviews and details about the investigation and everything?”

  I expect her to say, How should I know, but instead she nods, looking almost awkward.

  “Well, I think we should try to find copies of that stuff, check the details, see if there’s anything about a heart, or Valentine’s Day, or what her head wound was like, anything that could connect her to Cecily. The library would have all that, wouldn’t it?”

  Lillian sits very still, like she’s bracing herself for something. It takes a minute before she answers. “Or you could go get it from my house. I have a scrapbook in my room.”

  I sit with the yearbook open on my knees, staring at her like she’s blurry around the edges and I’m trying to make her come into focus. “Sorry, a what?”

  “It was just this thing,” she says, sounding defensive, talking very fast. “I was really bothered that someone could just die like that, with no warning. I just—I sort of kept a record of all the important things, plus a bunch of little details, dates and stuff. So it’s all there. You just have to go and get it.”

  “Are you insane? I’m just supposed to ring the doorbell and ask your mom if I can go downstairs and get your secret dead-girl scrapbook out of your room?”

  Lillian gives me a disdainful look. “Don’t be stupid. Anyway, she’s at work right now.”

  * * *

  Lillian’s house is big and eggshell-white, and right across the street from Muncy Park.

  When she was alive, Lillian and I would sometimes climb out her window late at night and run across the street to the playground. We’d swing on the tire swing or lie on the grass by the baseball diamonds, even though Lillian’s curfew was eleven o’clock and the park was supposed to be closed to the public after dark.

  I haven’t been on this side of Muncy Park since before she died, and it’s weird to me that her street doesn’t look any different from the way it looked six months ago. The trees and bushes all have leaves now and the daylilies are in bloom, but otherwise it’s exactly the same.

  I have to climb in through her bedroom window, which is in the front, barely hidden behind a row of snowball bushes. I cross the lawn, trying to look inconspicuous and like I belong there. The neighborhood is deserted, though. It’s still before five, so most of the neighbors aren’t home yet.

  Her bedroom is in the basement, which means that in theory, all I have to do is open the window and crawl in. The window is the sliding kind that locks with a metal spring latch, and even though I don’t think it’s very likely, I’m a little worried that someone will have noticed the lock doesn’t exactly do what it’s supposed to and gotten it fixed.

  The thing is, Lillian’s mother caught her sneaking out. Lillian’s mother caught her sneaking out more than once. The first time, she got all worked up and yelled and threatened to take away her cell phone, but yelling at Lillian has never really had much of an impact.

  After a while, it got so that any time Mrs. Wald woke up and found Lillian gone, she’d go through the house and make sure everything was locked, so if Lillian wanted back in, she’d have to ring the doorbell. It was supposed to be this tactic o
f parental control, but Mrs. Wald underestimated exactly how much Lillian hated being told what to do.

  Lillian’s solution was simple. She took apart the window latch with a screwdriver and put it back together so the little metal lever always looked like it was in the locked position, when really, it didn’t lock at all. The fact that someone might be able to break into her house didn’t even faze her. Ludlow was safe enough—safe enough to walk around the park in the middle of the night, safe enough to leave her window unlocked so she would always be able to get back in. But now that sense of security is gone, and it makes me wonder if it was ever safe at all.

  I have to slide through the window on my stomach, which is precariously awkward, and for a second, I’m scared I’m going to fall through and land on my head on the floor. Her bed is still pushed against the wall, though, right under the window. When I drop down onto it, the impact sends a puff of dust billowing up around me, and I have to press my hands over my face and close my eyes to keep from sneezing.

  Being in Lillian’s room is like being in a wax museum or someplace just as eerie.

  It’s so dark that at first my eyes can’t focus, and the air seems oddly damp, like I’m standing under a swamp cooler. The bed is still half made, the quilt hanging down over the mattress at an angle so one corner of it touches the floor. Her Emilie Autumn poster is still tacked up on the wall, but her computer and most of her books are gone. The closet is empty, but her basketball trophies from elementary school are still on the little shelf above her desk.

  When I swing myself off the bed, Lillian is standing in the middle of the room, looking around like we’re in the wrong place. “What happened to all my stuff?” she whispers.

  I cross to the bookshelf, which is mostly bare except for a few figure-skating programs and a framed picture of Lillian with her dad. Things the Salvation Army probably wouldn’t want.

  “Maybe your mom got rid of it,” I whisper, picking up a glass paperweight with a tiny seahorse suspended in the center. “Almost everything’s gone.”

  I’m suddenly so sure that we came here for nothing and the scrapbook has gone into the donation box or the trash with the rest of her stuff, but Lillian shakes her head and motions me over to her bed.

  It’s a huge oak cabin bed, with a carved headboard and built-in drawers underneath. The scrapbook is in the one closest to the wall, shoved all the way in the back. It’s a three-ring photo album, with a lumpy handmade paper cover, cream-colored with real rose petals and dried ferns mixed in with the pulp. It would look elegant, like something for a wedding, but Lillian has drawn all over it with a marker, making the dried flowers look spiky and ominous.

  Inside, the book is filled with articles cut out of the Ludlow Herald and printed from various online news sites. The last item in the book is a one-page follow-up article from December, ten months after Monica’s body was found. After that, the rest of the pages are blank.

  I sit on the carpet with the book open in my lap. In the margins, Lillian has added all these little notes and comments, mostly cross-referencing people and places.

  It’s detailed and methodical, but that part doesn’t really surprise me; Lillian was always writing things down. After she was sick, it got worse. She started keeping this little purple notebook full of numbers—how many steps she’d walked, pounds she’d lost, calories, carbs, grams of sugar she’d eaten. Breaths she’d taken.

  No, the shocking part of the scrapbook is the absolute gruesomeness of it.

  “This must have taken forever,” I say, touching a bold five-pointed star that she’s scrawled next to the clipping of Monica’s obituary. “How come you never told me about it?”

  Lillian laughs, and it’s not as harsh or as mean as it could be. “You would have just said I was being creepy and then changed the subject.”

  I nod, because it’s probably even true. The book is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

  Suddenly, from upstairs, there’s a faint metallic jingling, barely audible, but I freeze, listening. It’s the sound of a key in the front door. The door opens, then closes again, and the ceiling echoes with the sound of footsteps overhead.

  “It’s cool,” Lillian says, leaning over the scrapbook. “Just don’t make any noise. It’s not like she’s going to come down here or anything.”

  I’m pretty sure she’s right, but I get up and close the door anyway, before picking up the book and heading for the window. Lillian was a lot taller than me, and I’m not sure how to get myself back into the yard.

  I’m trying to figure out the best way to climb out, when upstairs, another door opens and I can hear Mrs. Wald talking to someone. And then comes the sound of frantic, scrabbling feet. I recognize it immediately. Our dog, Joan, does the same noisy, ecstatic dance any time you shake the Milk-Bone box.

  There’s an explosion of barking right outside Lillian’s door—the huge, booming kind of barking that only comes from something the size of a pony—and Lillian gasps and makes a grab for me, pushing me toward the window.

  I turn to stare at her. “Your mom got a dog?”

  She opens her eyes wide and gives me a hard shove. “I didn’t know!”

  I scramble for the window, trying to boost myself up through the opening, but it’s too high and I can barely even get my head level with the flowerbed.

  My heart is pounding in my throat, and now I can hear Lillian’s mom on the stairs, yelling for the dog to be quiet. The storm of barking doesn’t even slow down.

  “Shut up!” she yells, and this time I can tell she’s right outside the door.

  I toss the scrapbook out into the yard and swing one foot on top of the headboard. Then, with my toe braced on one of the carved wooden roses, I shove myself face-first into the snowball bushes in front of the house, rolling over and pulling my legs up.

  Behind me, the barking is suddenly much, much louder, and I lie flat, desperate not to make any noise. I can just see the top of Mrs. Wald’s head as she comes into the room, and while she’s staring in the direction of the closet, I slide the window shut, then snatch the scrapbook up and run.

  I pelt across the street into the park without checking for traffic—past the soccer fields and the playground, past the white plywood concession stand. I cut straight across the bike path and into the wooded nature area, where everything is underbrush and tall grass, and the only paths are narrow dirt trails that wind aimlessly along the edge of the river, all the way through town.

  The rational part of me knows that there’s no one behind me, that Mrs. Wald didn’t even see me, but I tighten my grip on the scrapbook and keep running, following the paths that lead toward Sherwood Street and home.

  It’s too hot to run for long, though, and I’m so far back in the trees that I can’t even see Lillian’s neighborhood behind me anymore. After a few more yards, I slow to a walk, heading in the direction of the nearest bridge.

  As I start down the shallow embankment toward the river, a huge, unearthly bang echoes through the trees, sending storms of birds flapping into the sky above me. I try to catch my balance, but my ballet flats are slick and I slide the rest of the way down on my butt, landing at the bottom in a tangle of honeysuckle bushes.

  Everything is quiet.

  The leaves are cool against my face and arms, and under the bushes the air smells sweet like fresh wet dirt and sugar. Mosquitoes are everywhere, whining around me in a cloud, but at first I don’t even wave them away. I just lie in the shade of the bushes, gasping, trying to catch my breath. The force of the explosion still echoes in my ears, making my head feel numb and fuzzy. I stay very still, listening, but it doesn’t come again. I try to remember if I’ve ever heard a car backfire and if it sounded like that. If thunder ever happens when there are no clouds.

  When I finally sit up, my hair is sticking to the back of my neck. I brush the dust and twi
gs off myself but don’t crawl out from under the bushes. The honeysuckle flowers are baby-yellow with a flush of pink around the edges of the petals. My skirt is a mess, covered in dirt and streaked with grass stains from Lillian’s front yard.

  I’m sitting with the scrapbook in my lap and my head tipped back, staring up at the little gaps of sky that show between the honeysuckle branches, when from somewhere close by there’s the heavy, plodding sound of footsteps crunching through the underbrush.

  In a panic, I curl over Lillian’s scrapbook and close my eyes, like if I concentrate hard enough, I can disappear. All I can think of is how running into the park was insanely, incredibly stupid, that there’s a killer loose in the city—maybe even in my neighborhood—and there is no way my red tulip- print skirt won’t be totally obvious through the leaves. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. Everything is perfectly quiet. No crickets or grasshoppers, no birds. All I can hear is the river.

  The silence goes on and on, and I stay perfectly still, waiting for a squirrel to chatter down at me or a thrush to sing. Then, when the silence gets too long and I can’t stand it anymore, I take a deep breath and raise my head.

  Finny Boone is standing over me. His shoes are muddy and he’s got a package of Black Cat firecrackers sticking out of his front pocket, which at least solves the mystery of the booming explosion. In his good hand, he’s holding the stolen Qwik-Mart lighter.

  “Are you okay?” he says.

  I stare up at him with the scrapbook clutched against my chest. It takes me a few tries before I manage the word “Yes.”

  For a second, he doesn’t do anything. Then he nods. He doesn’t look at me like I’ve completely lost my mind. He doesn’t ask me what I’m doing in the middle of the park, in a honeysuckle bush, with a stolen photo album full of morbid newspaper clippings.

  “Haven’t you been watching the news?” he says. “You shouldn’t be out here alone.”

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