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Places no one knows, p.8
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       Places No One Knows, p.8

           Brenna Yovanoff
 

  “But you don’t,” I say, when what I want is to whisper it like he’s on his deathbed. Like the tragedy it is.

  Marshall sighs and rakes his hair back from his forehead. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

  “Because you know I’m right.”

  “Fine, yeah, you’re right. Can we just skip this part?”

  “Which?”

  “The part where you tell me I’m lazy or a slacker or—or not worth anything. I already know how pathetic my life is.”

  Neither of us says anything else. I’m the one who looks away first.

  Out in the yard, another round of bottle rockets goes off. The shower of sparks is industrial and beautiful, like someone’s welding crossbeams in the sky. I wonder where a person gets bottle rockets, how much they cost. Maybe I’ll invest in some. I like things that increase velocity and then explode.

  “I look at you,” Marshall says, and his voice is very gentle suddenly. “I look at you and I think, why is that girl so sad? Why are you sad?”

  I turn to face him, crossing my arms over my chest. “I’m not sad.”

  Slumped against the washing machine, he looks broken. His face is wistful, half lit by the dull yellow glow of the porch light. And he smiles. “I call bullshit,” he says. “I’m calling bullshit all over that one.”

  I stand with my shoulders back. “Forgive me if I don’t think unbiased evaluation of someone else’s emotional state is really your area of expertise.”

  He shrugs. “Whatever. Not like it matters, but you’re not fooling anyone.”

  “I’m fooling everyone,” I say, and know it’s the truth.

  Everyone except him.

  I can feel my blood thinning, becoming air or water. My hands are weak, losing my hold on the world, losing track of Waverly, and I dread the moment when I wake up in my own bed.

  “I’m sorry,” he says abruptly, staring out into the yard.

  “For what?”

  “For this—for not being…” He stops and takes a breath like he’s about to say something else, but in a second, when the words stop eluding him. His mouth is open and I can see the frustration as he struggles for it. I want to jump in, start suggesting conclusions to his sentences, but I wait.

  Instead, he holds out the lighter, offering it to me, but when I reach to take it, my hand is tingling and numb. The way he’s looking at me is so cautious, so impossibly kind. Suddenly, I can’t feel the cracked linoleum or the cold or anything at all.

  “Better,” he whispers as I start to disappear. “For not being better.”

  I wake up breathless, with a squeezing feeling in the center of my chest like my heart hurts.

  .

  I’m beginning to suspect that I can only converse meaningfully with strangers. My true, unfiltered personality is unsuitable for everyday use, and the whole morning is just one long object lesson.

  In the commons before AP Lit, I told Maribeth that Kelly green for the balloon arch at the dance was fine, when everyone knows that Kelly green is hideous, and in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve been more honest with Autumn Pickerel than I’ve ever been with any of the people I call my friends. At night, in my dreams, I have the capacity to say and do and be exactly what I want, but never in the daylight. Not in real life. I spend most of second period considering all the ways my ability to communicate is fundamentally broken.

  Anyway, objecting to Kelly green would require me to produce a compelling alternative, and I just don’t care that much.

  When my daily stream of texts from CJ starts rolling in before trig, I take out my phone and set him to ignore. His persistence should be flattering, but it makes something sink in my chest.

  Slumped at my desk, I pretend it’s Marshall texting me instead, and smile for the first time all day. His imaginary correspondence would be witty and surprising. He wouldn’t talk about nothing. He would limit himself to one question mark per sentence. I can’t decide if it’s impressive or pathetic that even my wildest fantasies involve appropriate punctuation.

  I tear a sheet of loose-leaf from my binder and compose a note I know I won’t pass to him. It says things that seem largely self-explanatory and leaves out a lot of other things, which are too hard to put into words.

  Hi,

  I thought about what you said last night. It’s nice of you to ask, but I don’t think that I am sad. I think I might just be tired. Also, I’m sorry I said your poor decisions were a cornucopia. That was probably uncalled for.

  Sincerely,

  Then I tear it into sixteen tiny squares and put it in the pocket of my messenger bag. During the passing period, I throw away the pieces, despite the fact that no one’s name is on it.

  —

  Maribeth meets me after Spanish and we walk down to the locker bay, talking about how we still need to go dress shopping and how hard the work will be when we have calculus next semester. Dependable, reassuring. That’s the thing about Maribeth. She believes in a predetermined future.

  Marshall wasn’t in class, which was clearly a personal choice because when we reach the junior bay he’s slouched at his locker, looking sullen and bored with his waster sidekick, Ollie Poe. His eyes are dark, and I look at him a long time before I look away.

  Maribeth leans against me, draping an arm around my neck. “I’m thinking we should do something really intense and glamorous, like crystals or jewel tones, don’t you think?”

  From the corner of my eye, I see Marshall step away from the wall. And now he’s coming over, crossing the bay. I turn my back on him and keep my expression neutral.

  Maribeth soldiers on, explaining in loving detail how important it is to coordinate our corsages, but I can’t focus.

  Marshall’s presence has the weight of an off-course planet. He’s so close I can smell his crumpled T-shirt and his hair, that mix of detergent, pepper and licorice and deodorant and pot, but I don’t look at him, and he doesn’t say anything.

  Maribeth is staring past me now, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

  I focus on my open locker—my math book, sitting crooked on the shelf. The publisher’s emblem is stamped on the spine in gold foil and he stays right there behind me.

  Finally, when I can’t realistically ignore him any longer, I turn, hands on my hips. “I’m sorry—can I help you?”

  He’s six inches from me, looking down with an expression like I’ve just hit him in the stomach.

  He’s holding a plastic cigarette lighter.

  For one towering moment, I’m certain my heart will stop. My face feels numb. The locker bay is too bright. The lighter is cheap and cherry red. It’s the same one he offered me on the porch last night.

  We stand toe to toe, facing each other across countless fathoms.

  Then he presses the lighter into my hand and walks away.

  “Wow,” says Maribeth. “What was that?”

  I turn back to my open locker, trying to sound unaffected. “His name’s Marshall Holt. He’s in my Spanish class.”

  “But why was he like…completely stalking you?”

  I make an ambiguous noise and line up my books by descending height. This gives the illusion of order.

  Maribeth is wriggling with excitement. She pops her eyes wide, leaning in, grabbing for my wrist. “What is that? What did he give you? Did he give you a present?”

  “Nothing. Just something he thought I needed. It’s not important.” When what I mean is, nothing is important. The most basic logic of the world is broken. Nothing will ever be important again.

  “Waverly, seriously—what’s in your hand?”

  For a second, I’m sure we’re going to wrestle over it. She’ll pry my fingers open, get the story out of me one way or another.

  But then she tosses her hair back and slips her arm through mine, pulling me toward the bathrooms. “God, why are we even talking about this, though? I need to tell you what Hunter told me CJ said about you at practice!”

  I want to sit down on the floor
until I’m sure I’m not going to hyperventilate. I want to bolt for the science room and spend the next fifty years examining the lighter with a microscope to make sure it’s real. Even after I manage to parse all her various pronouns, everything about that sentence is meaningless.

  In the bathroom, Maribeth stands at the sinks, leaning close to the mirror with her compact open.

  “What you’ve been needing is exactly this,” she says to her reflection. “CJ will literally revolutionize your life. Now you can finally go on dates, like someone who is not destined to end life alone under a blanket of cats. And he’s just nerdy enough about math and logical fallacies and stuff that you won’t want to murder him. It’s perfect. He is basically the most Waverly-appropriate thing I can think of.”

  I nod. The gap between myself and the facade of myself must be growing exponentially.

  The lighter feels smooth and solid in my hand. Already, my pulse is beginning to normalize. I touch the surface of the spill wall, thinking how someone wrote these things, their confessions, their wishes, their hearts.

  This is being brave or stupid to an alarming degree.

  If someone put a marker in my hand, I could write, I never sleep.

  For the covert New Ager in us all, I could write, I transcend space and time.

  I could write, Last night, Marshall Holt told me I was sad, and now I can’t stop wondering if it’s true.

  “Come on,” Maribeth says. “I’ll walk you down to the tragedy office. I need to make copies of the food drive information for Stu-Co.”

  When she says Stu-Co, it makes me want to get out a sheet of paper and tear it into little tiny pieces. I let my hand drop and follow her out of the bathroom.

  —

  By the time I finish my night run, there’s a hot pressure behind my eyes. I’m moving too slow all the time now, too tired to run out the loose pieces rattling inside me. It’s hard to get free with my legs so heavy.

  Things have changed. The boundaries of the waking world have shifted, and even now, part of me wants to insist it can’t be real. People don’t just close their eyes in their bedrooms and open them someplace else. They don’t start conversations in their dreams and finish them in the daylight. Everything about last night is impossible.

  But the lighter is real. It came from somewhere. It used to be in Marshall’s pocket, and now it’s sitting upstairs on my desk. Everything’s getting tangled in my head. I can’t stop thinking about the way it felt to stand next to him on the porch, and the way he said better. The whole day feels like a dream.

  I know this stage of sleeplessness—the unreality, the confusion. Insomnia is ruthless, but familiar. I have routines. Now is the point at which I eat a box of Popsicles and curate a personalized horror movie marathon. My blood is so wired my skin feels itchy. I’ve seen all the good ones a million times.

  I fling myself down in front of the TV and flip through channels, looking for something bloody. It’s not that I’m sadistic. It’s just that things never really bother me. Nothing bothers me. And when it’s hard to find things shocking, sometimes it’s good to know that something in the world can still make your heart beat faster.

  I click past Seinfeld reruns and ads for unusually durable blenders, and finally settle on cage fighting. It’s a rebroadcast—after midnight, cable programming all starts to repeat itself.

  The title match is Nikolai Federov, the Serbian Psychopath, against defending champion Andrew Saint John, and even though I’ve seen it twice and already know how it ends, I pull up my feet and cover my throat with my hand. This is the elemental truth of the world. It might be crude and senseless, but at least it’s real.

  Halfway through the second round, the door opens, making me jump. It’s my mother. Her silhouette sends a jolt of adrenaline down my back like I’ve just been caught doing something shameful.

  “What are you watching?” she says, tilting her head at the TV, where Saint John is grinding Federov’s face into the mat.

  I answer fast, and even sort of sound like I’m telling the truth. “I’m writing a paper on male dominance behaviors. For school.”

  The real tragedy is that this seems normal to her. “Well, I’m glad you’re working on something challenging. It seems like so many kids would just pick the simplest topic and not really get anything out of it. And anthropologically speaking, human aggression is incredibly interesting.”

  I want to tell her that human aggression is not the easy one-two punch she thinks it is. Not every form of violence is a frontal assault. Aggression can be sitting in the cafeteria with Maribeth Whitman every day at lunch. The hardened criminals I know all deal in secrets and subtext. Maribeth’s power is evident in the way that Loring hasn’t come to a single committee meeting this week.

  My mom is considering the television. “Are you almost done?” she says. Saint John has Federov trapped against the cage now, bleeding and squirming. “You should go to bed.”

  “I will,” I say. “In a minute.”

  I know I don’t have to lie to her. If anyone understands the deleterious effects of an active mind, she does. But still, there’s a certain quiet defeat in telling the truth.

  I could ask for a cure and she’d give it to me. She’d gladly point me in the direction of psychoanalysis and pills. It would feel like surrender, but it might mean sleeping through the night.

  On-screen, Saint John is smothering Federov with the weight of his body.

  My mom watches with her hands on her hips. This is her, Taking an Interest. “Will he give up, now that he’s being held down like that?”

  I shake my head as Saint John transitions into full destruction mode, lifting Federov half off the mat, then slamming him back down, dragging him along through a trail of his own blood.

  My mom stands in the middle of the room, eyebrows delicately knit. “And they won’t stop the fight?”

  “Not while he can intelligently defend himself.”

  “Intelligent?” she says, and I hear the wryness in her voice—I get it—but she’s not seeing everything and there are more elemental factors at work.

  The fact is, blood is slippery. Blood can be a strategy all by itself. If there’s enough of it, sometimes it can turn a fight.

  Suddenly, Federov slips the hold and jerks his arm out. His fist plows the side of Saint John’s head, once, twice. On the third impact, Saint John comes loose, rocking against the side of the cage and Federov is there, Federov is on his back with his arm around Saint John’s neck and his other hand clutching his bicep.

  The commentators are screaming over each other now. Saint John’s face turns an ugly shade of purple, and suddenly the ref is sweeping in to save the day.

  “Well,” says my mother. “That will certainly make him think twice about knocking people’s shoulders in the hall.”

  I don’t answer. She means it as a joke, but the comparison is perfectly apt. High school popularity is a blood sport.

  MARSHALL

  Choke

  I stop thinking about school somewhere in the middle of the second drink. By the sixth, I’ve stopped thinking about home.

  Forget family dinners and report cards. Forget the way my dad takes about nineteen pills a day and it’s still not enough to fix the way his hands shake or the way he slumps around the house like he’s doing ninety-nine to life. Like everything is ending. Forget the way my mom ignores every shitty thing he says like she fucking owes it to him. Like she deserves it.

  And yeah, the Captain can be a total asshole and his kitchen always smells like someone forgot to take out the trash, but at least with him, it’s predictable. No fighting, no crying. No English homework, no one asking why I can’t be more like my sister.

  No setup for failure.

  Except that’s the biggest lie of all, because if I’m drinking bourbon in the Captain’s kitchen, I’m clearly not at home applying myself.

  Ollie’s slouched next to me at the counter, picking at the label on his beer. “You’re looking good,
” he says, and he smiles, but it’s a slow, ironic smile and in Ollie-speak, good means the same thing as wrecked.

  But so what? That’s the goal, isn’t it? I’m getting there. Maybe after a few more I can even stop thinking about Waverly.

  She took the lighter. I stood right in front of her in the locker bay, offered her my plastic Bic, and she took it. And sure, when someone hands you something, sometimes you might just take it without thinking. The way she looked at me was so shattered, though, like I was more than some random guy.

  Maybe. Or maybe it didn’t mean anything.

  There are all kinds of bizarre things that could still actually happen. One of the smartest, most untouchable girls in school could show up at my brother’s house in the middle of the night in her pajamas, and tell me to quit smoking.

  She wouldn’t, but she could.

  The girl I write love poems to in my head could stand on the porch with me, so close I could smell her hair, and tell me she never sleeps. That’s a thing that could happen.

  But just because something’s possible doesn’t make it real. Girls like her don’t actually walk into people’s living rooms. They don’t actually take a cigarette out of your hand and announce that you’re a disaster area. But mostly, no matter how conversational they’re feeling, they never just disappear right in front of you.

  Maybe this is what hard-core burnouts mean when they talk about acid flashbacks.

  All I want is to get to that point where you’re drunk enough that you can’t feel your hands, because once you can’t feel your hands, a lot of other stuff gets hard to feel too.

  At the counter, Ollie’s watching me. “Hey,” he says, in a voice like he’s trying really hard to sound like he doesn’t care.

  Normally, Ollie never has to work at sounding like he doesn’t care. It’s kind of his natural state. He hooks his hair behind his ears and looks away. “So, I was thinking maybe I should have a talk with that freshman. The one hanging all over Little Ollie all the time. She needs to know what she’s getting into with him. He’s one hundred percent about her global endowments, and she has to know that. I mean, I can just tell that she’s going to be stupid about it—she likes him. It’s going to end badly, is all I’m saying.”

 
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