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Paper Valentine
Brenna Yovanoff



My sister, Ariel, is sprawled upside down on the couch, pointing with the TV remote.

“News 4 anchorman Ron Coleman is totally doing it with special correspondent Cora Butcher,” she says. “I bet they make out like hyenas as soon as Jim Dean starts giving the weather report.”

Her legs are brown and bony. She’s got her sundress hiked up and is in danger of flashing her underwear. Ariel loves the local news in the same practically manic way she loves most things. Like even though it’s just half an hour of all the same clichés and ridiculous haircuts, she has to give it her complete, frantic attention, or else it will disappear.

I can hear my mom flirting with my stepdad in the kitchen, arguing over when to stir the rice. The sound of their voices comes in from far away, hissing and buzzing like the signal is fuzzy and I just need to adjust the antenna.

On TV, the anchors are looking serious, shuffling their papers, and I get up to go get a glass of lemonade. I already know how the news lineup is going to go. The feature will be the mosquito virus that’s going around infecting people and birds, followed by the latest color piece about how our baseball team keeps losing—but first we have to compare the high temperature for today to the high for yesterday. They’ve been covering the heat wave every night for the past two weeks.

Instead of the usual graphic of the angry cartoon thermometer, though, the one for the breaking story is a stock photo of yellow crime tape. I stand with my elbows propped on the back of the easy chair to watch. Crime tape means homicide.

The anchor Ron Coleman is doing the breaking story in that broad, unnatural voice that newscasters have, like they come from no place and every place all at once. “And in local coverage, the body of a teenage girl was discovered at the west end of Muncy Nature Park yesterday, leaving many asking the question, ‘Is our community safe?’”

Muncy Nature Park is right by our house, but that’s not really meaningful or anything. There are ninety acres of it, and it runs straight through the middle of town. It’s right by a lot of people’s houses.

The news story still makes something tighten in my throat. I try to will the feeling away, going through a little inventory of reassurances, telling myself how it isn’t even that shocking, really, and the whole thing would be much more mysterious if it had happened someplace else. The west end of Muncy isn’t that far from the train tracks, which makes it not that far from a whole bunch of homeless guys.

The dead girl’s name is Cecily Miles. In her school picture she looks mouse-haired and kind of dorky, but in this fun, goofy way. She would have given you gum or shared her lunch if you forgot yours. She would have been pretty eventually, if she’d had a chance to get her braces off. She was younger than me but older than Ariel—thirteen or fourteen.

“Do you think it was just some random crazy person?” Ariel asks with her head hanging off the edge of the couch. “Like a wandering psychopath or something?”

The way she says it is casual, though, completely unfazed. Nothing really scares Ariel.

She looks strange with her face flipped upside down and her hair brushing the carpet. Gravity distorts her features, and for a second I almost don’t recognize her.

I shake my head, leaning on the chair. “No way. When they catch him, it’ll turn out to be someone she knew—her creepy estranged uncle, or like a deviant gym teacher or something.”

I say it casually, as if it’s just that obvious—whatever—I am glitter, I am sunlight. I’ve been so good at seeming untouchable these past few months, but now I can’t help digging my fingers into the upholstery of the chair. There’s a dark flutter in my chest, like a bird smashing itself against a window, and I know what’s coming next.

The sleeves of my T-shirt are handmade. They’re these scalloped half-moons of white netting that I sewed one day when my friend Carmen was over and we were messing around with some of the damaged merchandise from my mom’s consignment store. They used to be a tutu that someone tore a hole in.

The room seems like it’s pressing in now. My little white sleeves start to dance and rustle. The air around me is suddenly electric.

First comes the slippery, unsteady feeling, like everything is tilting and the floor is going to slide right out from under me. I stand perfectly still, trying to breathe like everything is normal.

The dry, unnatural cold is next, making the tiny see-through hairs on my arms stand up.

Then comes the whisper very close to my ear. “It’s a good theory, Hannah-Bell, but you are one hundred million percent wrong. I bet you anything.”

I turn my head like a windup girl, so slowly I can almost hear the bones in my neck, and Lillian Wald is right there next to me with eyes wide as planets.

Ghosts are the kind of thing you go your whole life with everyone telling you they aren’t real. I believe in them anyway, because the world is full of things that no one really understands. Mostly though, I believe in them because my best friend died six months ago and now she’s with me all the time, materializing silently out of the shadows, creeping closer, reaching out.

She smiles, and her face reminds me of a skull. “You don’t seriously think this is the work of a rogue gym teacher, do you?”

I don’t answer. The way she’s staring at me seems to go on and on, like she’s accusing me of something. Some days, it’s like she takes every silence personally, while others, she’ll forgive me for not talking if someone else is around and might think I’m weird.

“This is no run-of-the-mill pervert murder,” she says into my ear. Her face is as sharp and hollowed-out as a moon crater. “It’s a thrill kill, baby. All the way.”

The sound of her voice sends a chill racing over my neck. I shrug away from her and shiver without meaning to.

 On TV, the anchorman is talking about candlelight vigils, looking appropriately sad. “Our hearts are with the Miles family tonight,” he says, and then gives the address of a local church where people can send flowers, reminding us that we can reach out to Cecily’s family during their time of need. That we all feel this tragedy as one big loving community.

Lillian leans closer, making the sleeves of my T-shirt twitch and flutter like I’m about to take off. “What a load of bull,” she says, fiddling with my hair. “We all feel this tragedy like gigantic slobbering gore-hounds.”

Her hand tickles a little, but I hold still this time. When Ariel glances over, I smile automatically.

Lillian scowls, waggling her fingers in a devil-horns sign, but Ariel only stares right through her. It’s like no matter how many times the universe proves otherwise, I still always expect someone besides me to see her standing there.

* * *

Lillian weighed seventy-eight pounds when she died.

The outline of her hipbones looked like a basket with nothing in it.

She was cold all the time and always wanted to hug me. It used to be that we were always together, never picking anyone else first, but by then I’d stopped wanting to touch her.

I told myself it was because I might hurt her, which was true—she bruised easily, in dark purple smudges like ink blooming on tissue paper—but that wasn’t the real reason. When she pressed against me, her bones felt sharp and spidery, like they might crawl inside me.

When we were little, she was like a completely different girl. We lay in the rope hammock in my backyard and braided our hair together. Hers was black and hadn’t begun to fall out. Mine was yellow like butterscotch.

Best friends since forever, Wagner and Wald. She’d flop down in her desk and grab me from behind, squealing my name with her arms around my neck.

I can hear her voice like the cry of a bird, Hannity, Hannity, Hannity! I can feel her hands against my throat.

She died in January.

Now it’s July.

* * *

On TV, they’ve already moved on to the next story, but this one is old news.

“The latest in a continuing epidemic of avian mortality,” says special correspondent Cora Butcher, looking heartfelt and serious, but the effect is sort of ruined by her lipstick, which is so red it’s almost orange.

She’s standing on the front steps of the courthouse and then the camera pans away from her and across the lawn, coming to rest on a scatter of dead crows. They’re all over the grass like they just tumbled straight down out of the sky. The cameraman scans the ground, zooming in on a heap of black feathers lying next to the statue of Justice in a blindfold.

The way the crow’s eyes are scary and sunken and the way its bones poke up through its skin remind me of Lillian, even though some days she’s close to transparent and her own eyes are so wild and bright they almost look like stars.

When our mom calls for us to turn off the TV and come to dinner, Ariel and I leave the living room with Lillian drifting along after us like a helium balloon.

Even with the air conditioning on full blast, the air in the kitchen is warm from the stove, and everything smells like fresh garlic and sweet yellow onion.

My stepdad, Decker, sets a heavy casserole dish in the middle of the table and we all sit down, except Lillian, who crosses to the granite island and hops up on the edge of it. Seeing her in the kitchen is always disorienting. It reminds me too much of how things used to be, nights she’d stayed over and laughed around the table with my family and did all her tricks to fake that she’d eaten something. Later, we would whisper back and forth in my room, then sneak downstairs at two in the morning to lie out in the backyard and look at the sky.

I concentrate on the dish of carrots in front of me and try not to glance in her direction.

“Did you hear what was just on TV?” Ariel says, even though there’s no way my mom is going to let her talk about the dead girl, especially during dinner.

Things like this aren’t normal for a city like Ludlow, but they happen. My cousin Kelly runs a one-hour photo shop over on Coronado Avenue. She’s in charge of printing the crime-scene pictures for the district police, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from hanging out there, it’s that a lot more people die in a given week than you’d think. There are a hundred fifty thousand people crowded into a seven-mile stretch along the Coureur de Bois River. For the past month and a half, it’s been insanely hot every single day. Someone’s bound to feel a little homicidal now and then.

Lillian is wriggling on the edge of the counter, watching Ariel with her eyes wide and her hands clasped against her chest. “I love that your sister is like the darkest munchkin ever.”

Ariel soldiers on, even though there’s no way Lillian’s comment was actually meant for her. No one ever hears Lillian except me. “There was this girl, and they found her by that little cement dam in the nature park and it was all taped off—”

Decker is leaning forward with his hands in fists on the tablecloth, like he wants to fight someone. Like the killer is going to burst into our kitchen right now, this minute, and he will have to scrape back his chair and protect us. My mom is looking way too cheerful, though, blinking fast, and I know she’s about to shut down this particular topic. She is the absolute master of avoiding the unpleasant.

“Ariel,” she says, sounding dangerously patient. “That isn’t a dinner conversation.”

“But it’s on the news,” Ariel tells her, helping herself to salad. “It’s a current event, which is like the most basic dinner conversation there is.”

My mom sighs, and I know from the way her mouth is set and her hands are folding and refolding her napkin that she’s dying to do something totally neurotic, like stay up all night talking about it with Decker, or go around checking all the windows and the doors, or take away Ariel’s television privileges. She’s going to worry because it’s what she does.

“I’ve already said I don’t want you spending so much time watching stuff like that. It’s always just the most violent and sensationalist stuff they can find. Why don’t you tell us about your music camp?”

I ladle creamed chicken over my rice and give Ariel a look that says, Please just do it. She kicks me cheerfully, then launches into a story about how one of the girls in the brass section got in trouble for leaving her phone on in class and it went off during the Star Wars medley. But my mom has already stopped paying attention.

She’s watching me from across the table, picking at the edge of her napkin. “Did you go to the pool today? You look burned.”

I shake my head and tell her how Angelie Baker had two-for-one passes for the activities at City Park, so we walked over and went on the paddleboats.

I expect her to say how stupid it is to waste a whole afternoon paddling around the duck pond and “You should be spending more time helping your cousin at the shop,” or “You need to wear your sunscreen,” or “Hannah, you need to stop spending every single goddamned day hanging out with Angelie, because she is as mean as a mean, vindictive cat.”

Or maybe that’s what I’m thinking.

My mom just nods and scrapes up the last bite of chicken. “You should put something on it so it doesn’t peel.” She gets up to clear the table, then stops, staring at my plate. “Don’t you like your dinner?”

“It’s good,” I say, studying the line of negative space between a pair of carrot circles and a small triangle of chicken. The line is uneven. Not entirely comfortable. So I move some peas into the gap and balance out the distance.

There are all these things that you do.

Sometime around eighth grade, I got in the habit of always leaving a little bit of everything on my plate. Even if I was starving or at least could have eaten the rest, I’d leave it. Just two or three bites, nothing very intimidating. Manageable. If there was a piece of ginger beef or a few fries on my plate, sometimes Lillian would finish what was left. If the food came from my plate, it wasn’t the same as her just sitting down and eating it. It wasn’t going to make her fat.

She had this whole list of rules and rituals that, when you got down to it, were nothing but magical thinking. My rituals, on the other hand, were real. They mattered because if I did them right, then sometimes I could actually help her, and now I can’t stop, even though there’s no good reason anymore.

“Are you kidding me?” my mom says. “Hannah, please just eat it.”

She’s standing over me, hugging her arms across her chest and rubbing at the points of her elbows. Decker and Ariel don’t say anything, which for Ariel is basically unheard of.

I look down at the scrap of chicken, and because there’s no one else around to eat it, I do.

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