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Paper valentine, p.9
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       Paper Valentine, p.9

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  * * *

  Finny waits with his back to me, staring off in the direction of the river, while I fight my way out of the bush and yank my skirt straight.

  It’s still early, and the sun is just starting to sink down over the tops of the trees. The air is hot, and all around us, the little hollow is full of shadows.

  There are bridges all along the length of the park, and I start toward the closest one, which will take me across to the other side of the park and to Sherwood Street.

  “Hey,” Finny says as I step around him onto the path. “Wait up.”

  “Why?”

  “I’m coming with you,” he says.

  It’s weird walking through the park with him. All I can think of is how much I don’t really know him, even though during the school year I see him in the halls almost every day, and he lives on my side of the park, and we’ve been in the same district since first grade.

  At the river, Finny steps down the slope above the bridge and I start to follow him, but my shoes are useless, slipping and sliding on the packed dirt. I almost have a repeat of my tumble into the honeysuckle, but he holds out his hand to steady me and I have to grab it or else I’ll go right into the water. His fingers are warm and solid in mine, and I think how it’s surprising and kind of cool that he will just offer his hand to another person, even someone sweaty and red-faced and covered in leaves.

  When we get to the edge of the park, I kind of expect him to leave me to walk the rest of the way alone, but he doesn’t. He just turns in the direction of my house like it’s something we’ve already agreed on.

  “You don’t have to walk the whole way with me,” I say. “I’ll be fine. It isn’t that far.”

  Finny gives me a bored look and shakes his head. “It’s far enough. Seriously, you can’t be walking around out here without someone to watch out for you.” Then he smiles. “And I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m kind of scary-looking.”

  It takes me a second to realize that he might actually be making a joke. I didn’t even know he was the kind of person who made jokes. He is kind of scary-looking, though.

  We walk in silence, winding our way through my neighborhood. The sun is setting now, and it’s sort of . . . nice not to talk. Usually, I have this whole parade of things I could be saying—how Spirited Away is a really good movie and what kind of Jolly Ranchers I like and whether or not the new statue in front of the bank is ugly. But most of those things aren’t that important, and sometimes when I talk all I’m really doing is filling up the silence. The streets are empty and still, and it’s funny to think that I’ve never walked anywhere alone at night with a boy, and now I am.

  “Hey,” Finny says when we’re almost to the little flagstone walkway that leads up to my front porch. He sounds careful, like he’s trying to get a poem or a motto right, only he’s not sure he knows all the words.

  I glance up at him, waiting for the rest. The way he’s scuffing his shoes along the pavement seems almost nervous, and I can’t help thinking that right now, if he wanted to move closer or reach for my hand again, there’s a part of me that would really, really be okay with that.

  “Do you remember in Mrs. Winslow’s class?” His voice is low and flat. It takes me by surprise. Mrs. Winslow was our teacher in elementary school.

  “Sure. What about it?”

  He doesn’t answer right away. His hand skims the brittle crest of his hair, like he’s trying to make it lie flat. “She had that whole thing about birthdays.”

  “Oh. I guess?”

  But she did. She had this special birthday calendar on the wall behind her desk. When your day had a star on it, you got to come up and pick a prize out of a cardboard box in her desk, and your parents could bring cookies or cupcakes, and everyone would sing. The way you could tell who was popular was by whose parents sent them to school with fancy store-bought cupcakes piled high with frosting, and whose sent weird homemade ones, wilting in their paper wrappers. Or else, who got sent with nothing, which happened sometimes too.

  “One person gave me a birthday card,” he says in a flat matter-of-fact way that makes me walk faster and squeeze the scrapbook against my chest.

  It was just a piece of construction paper folded in half, but I spent a long time on it, making sure all the words were spelled right and the letters were straight. It said happy birthday in army-green marker, with the vowels outlined in orange and a squished-looking drawing of a truck underneath, because he liked trucks.

  He stops walking and turns to face me, standing with his feet apart and his shoulders squared, so he’s taking up most of the sidewalk. “Why did you do that? You didn’t even like me.” The way he says it is like he’s just telling me the truth, but his voice sounds low and empty suddenly, all wrong. Maybe sad isn’t the right word, but he’s something.

  I wish so desperately that the answer was better. That in third grade, I was kind and thoughtful or didn’t want him to feel left out, but that wasn’t why I made him the card. It just hadn’t occurred to me that there was any reason I wouldn’t.

  Finny sighs and starts walking again. “Never mind. I don’t even know why you’d remember. Anyway, it was a long time ago.”

  The way he says it is so similar to the way Lillian always acts, like she has to remind me of the past, as though I will have somehow actually forgotten, that I laugh even though it really isn’t funny.

  Finny gives me a quick, defensive look, like I might be laughing at him. “What?”

  “Nothing. You just sound like my friend, is all.”

  Out of habit, I glance around the empty street for her, but she’s nowhere.

  SERIAL

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  When I open the front door, Lillian’s waiting for me in the hall, perched on top of a cardboard box of hand-embroidered linens from the fifties.

  I start to go upstairs to change out of my ruined skirt, but she holds up a hand to stop me.

  “No time,” she whispers. “Quick, it’s all over the news.”

  In the living room, Ariel is standing in the exact center of the antique rug, staring at the screen. I’m about to come up behind her and tweak her ear, when the stiffness of her back catches my attention and I stop.

  “They found another one,” she says, glancing over her shoulder. “Just above that big culvert at Muncy, where the water comes in.”

  News anchor Ron Coleman is shuffling his papers around on the desk. When he raises his head, the look he gives the camera is heartfelt and sober. “Police are investigating what authorities now suspect is the second in a pair of related murders. The victim was found earlier today and has been identified as thirteen-year-old Hailey Martinsen, a student at Lincoln Middle School.”

  The photo they show is of a pretty, brown-eyed girl. Now deceased.

  Ariel and I stand transfixed as they play a grainy video of some elementary school kids singing a math-themed parody song to the tune of a babyish pop song that Ariel and her friends like. All the kids in the video are blurred out except for one grinning dark-haired girl in the middle. She’s younger than in her school picture, and the circle of focus floats around her in a halo, following as she dances to the beat.

  Ariel turns slowly on the spot, revolving like a windup toy. The way she looks at me is lit up with something almost like excitement. “I did that project,” she says in a breathless voice. “Last year. Me and Pinky and Katie did. We did ours on integers.”

  The anchor comes on again, reminding us that the body of Cecily Miles was discovered in Muncy Nature Park just this past Saturday. Reminding us that the park is close to a hundred square acres and that until the killer is caught, no one should be walking there alone.

  The segment is followed by special correspondent Cora Butcher interviewing one of the detectives. “Is it true,” she says, waving her microphone in h
is face, “that the way this second crime scene was staged is highly suggestive of evidence found around the body of the first victim?”

  The detective tells her that this is an open investigation and he isn’t free to comment. Then the news switches over to a story about the recent rise in petty crime, clips of police and local store owners talking about vandalism and an upsurge in shoplifting, and finishing with another segment on communicable blood diseases and the dead birds.

  Ariel’s standing with her arms stiff at her sides, and it’s weird to see her so still.

  “Go turn down the thermostat,” I say, not quite daring to touch her. I want to shake her hard, just to make her move. “Why is it so hot in here?”

  “The air conditioner’s broken,” she tells me, glancing up at me in a flat, distracted way.

  The look on her face is the strangest kind of vacant, and she doesn’t ask me why there’s dirt all over the front of my skirt or why I’m carrying a wedding album.

  When I turn to leave the room, Lillian is standing in the doorway. She’s cupping her elbows in her hands, and when she meets my eyes, her expression is stricken. “That’s our killer again already. That just happened today.”

  I nod, trying to get a grip on the fact that I was in the park at the same time that the killer was in the park, and now Hailey Martinsen is dead in the park, almost exactly a week from the death of Cecily Miles. My thoughts are fast and circular, like ponies on a merry-go-round I can’t get down from.

  In my room, Lillian stalks over to crouch on the edge of the bed. Her face is turned away from me, and her fingers are sunk deep in the fabric of my comforter.

  I sit down in the middle of my rug, still holding Lillian’s scrapbook. Right now, I don’t want to open it. The thing is, there are just going to be more articles, more girls to go inside. I’ll have to open it eventually, whether I want to or not, and so for a few minutes, I only sit there holding it in my lap.

  Lillian scoots to the edge of the bed, looking down at me over the side. “Aren’t you going to read any of the articles? It’s what you wanted, right?”

  I lie on my back and study the ceiling, which is covered in smears of glitter glue and stick-on stars. The way Lillian says it is hungry, like she’s waiting for something to be revealed, and I wonder if maybe that’s the real difference between us—that when she pulls back the curtain and stares into the blackness behind it, it’s just one more way of testing herself. Like some game you can never win, because even if you face all the shocking realities and the horrors of the world, once you’ve seen that kind of awfulness, you can never un-see it. You have to carry it around with you forever.

  She stands up in the middle of the jumbled mattress and then begins to pace, walking briskly from the bed to the desk to the dresser. Perched on the bookshelf, she seems impossibly tall, towering over me. Then she crouches down and clasps her hands.

  “Why do you think he does it?” she says, picking at her bloodless cuticles. She’s hunched over like a giant bird, hair hanging down on either side of her face, making a kind of hood.

  I stare up at the ceiling. “That’s the big question. I mean, if they knew that, they’d be able to catch him, right? Do you think he put all those toys around her the way he did with Cecily?”

  Lillian sits up straight and cups her chin in her hands. “The way they wouldn’t talk about the crime scene means it probably looks a whole lot like the other one, which means he’s got a thing about the ritual—an obsession. He’ll need to keep indulging it now. He’ll keep going till they catch him.”

  “Jesus.” I squeeze my eyes shut and cover my face with my hands. “What kind of person even does something like this?”

  I mean it rhetorically, but when Lillian answers, she sounds serious and thoughtful. “He’d be someone angry, maybe. Someone who wants to feel like he’s got power, because maybe the rest of the time, he’s at the mercy of someone else?”

  “Why do you keep saying he?” I whisper, letting my hands fall.

  “Oh, come on. If a woman kills a lot of people, it’s almost always for money or self-preservation. This, though . . . This is for fun.”

  I shake my head, still staring at the ceiling. “Psycho. How do these girls not see that he’s psycho?”

  “Appealing and dangerous can sometimes look like the same thing,” Lillian says, touching her jutting collarbone.

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  Lillian sighs and looks away. “Nothing. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. I mean, look at you. Someone’s out there killing girls, and you’re running around with Finny Boone—this total reject who steals from the Quik-Mart. I mean, don’t you think it’s kind of reckless?”

  But the idea of Lillian Wald—self-destructor extraordinaire—telling anyone else about reckless behavior is totally laughable.

  I want to remind her about the time she took that bottle of Sour Apple Pucker from her mom’s liquor cabinet and we drank it in the back of her garage, and the time she snuck out alone to catch the midnight bus to see her dad even though it was twenty degrees out and she didn’t have permission, and that time she talked me into breaking into her mom’s house to steal a makeshift shrine to a murder victim. And that time she didn’t eat for so long that she died.

  * * *

  My room is sweltering. When Decker got home, he spent forty-five minutes out in the backyard trying to fix the air conditioner, but it’s frozen over, covered in a thick crust of ice.

  Lillian is humming to herself, stretched out on top of my bookcase like she doesn’t mind the heat, and of course she doesn’t. Even when she was alive, she could never seem to get warm. The tune she’s humming is thin and tight with anxiety. It’s the opposite of carefree.

  The obvious explanation for her mood would be the new murder, but somehow I don’t think that’s all of it.

  It was hard seeing Mrs. Wald today. After the funeral, I never called her or went to visit, even though I’d been coming over for years, almost every day. And now, on some insane secret mission, I’ve broken into her house, risking all kinds of trouble, when the truth is she probably would have just let me in if I’d asked. Knowing that makes me feel guilty, but even now it seems like there was no other way. I don’t think I could have faced her.

  It would have been just like it was after the funeral. She would have hugged me stiffly. Invited me in to sit in the living room with her, and I wouldn’t have had any idea what to say.

  When we were little, Lillian even used to get along with her mom. Kind of. They weren’t always arguing at least. Back then, all Lillian wanted was just to make her mom happy.

  Then she started dieting, got more interested in track than school or clothes or boys. And after a while, being sick was the only thing that mattered at all.

  “Why did you get so weird about food?” I say, moving my head against the pillow.

  “I wasn’t. I wasn’t being weird. I was just . . .” Then she stops. Even though I can’t see her face from down here, I know she’s pressing her lips together. “It was a place to put the awful stuff. A box for everything about myself that I didn’t like.”

  I have a box like that, but it’s a real one, covered in cutout pictures of lips and mouths, all printed on slick magazine paper, all gaping wide open and full of teeth. I put disappointing quizzes and bad history reports in it. I put the sixteenth-birthday card I made for Lillian in the box, and the evaluation the guidance counselor gave me to take home to my mom.

  “Why?” I say, so quietly that it comes out sounding like a tiny, tired sigh.

  “Nobody wants to be mediocre.”

  Her shadow on the ceiling is monstrous, a witch in profile.

  “Your mom didn’t ever say anything or get worried about you?”

  “Not when it might have made a difference.”
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  And I know it’s the truth. I was there, after all. But the idea is so foreign, and until recently, my mother has been a never-ending voice of anxiety, always coming right at me with sunscreen and Band-Aids and night-lights. “How could she just stand there and let you do that to yourself?”

  Lillian turns her head sideways and smiles, showing all her teeth. “Well, it was my problem, right? My own shit to deal with.”

  The way she says it is nasty and final. She doesn’t say anything else, and after a minute, I roll over and reach for the lamp.

  The broken air conditioner seems more broken in the dark, and the heat comes in waves, throbbing like a bad tooth.

  Someone has stolen the trees outside my room and replaced them with bones—the kind that throw long shadows on the wall, reaching in through the butter-yellow curtains until morning.

  If I were younger, I would think of ghostly hands. Hailey Martinsen, reaching in from the afterlife, fumbling through my things until at last she finds the way back to the real world. But what a joke. Lillian found her way in, found the secret passage months ago, and now her skeleton grin is just normal.

  After two, when I still can’t sleep, I flail around in the tangled nest of covers and then throw all the blankets onto the floor. The air is dry and suffocating.

  I’m lying on my back with the window open and my T-shirt hiked halfway up to leave my stomach bare, when there’s a low rustle and Lillian climbs onto the bed and hunches there, crouching over me. The air around me is suddenly freezing.

  “You get to need it,” she says. “That’s the thing. You start out so strong, in perfect order, controlling everything, and then you get to need it.”

  Lying there in the dark, I know that no matter how deeply I imagine needing something, I’ll never understand.

  My body is . . . my body. In the past four years, it hasn’t changed much. My hipbones are wider, but other than that, it’s practically the same one I had in seventh grade.

  Except for the way I want to press it against Finny. The thought of him is electric, beating in my chest like a birthday wish, dark and warm and secret.

 
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