Paper Valentine

Decker is actually kind of awesome. Sometimes that makes me feel guilty, like I’m failing the divorce test, like everyone else hates their stepdads because it’s somehow required.

But Decker is just so very cool.

It’s past 9:00am on a Thursday and he’s lumbering around the kitchen with Ariel swinging from his arm, getting out flour and buttermilk for pancakes.

“What are you doing home?” I ask, and feel stupid for sounding all petulant-step-daughter. Really, I just want to know what he’s doing home.

“Money day,” he says, which means that instead of leaving in the dark, getting eight or nine good hours at some job site before the heat, he’ll drive around in his truck with the air-conditioning on, harassing contractors to pay him.

“I’ll take off pretty soon here, get back maybe around two.” He’s picking at his arm, touching his four-color sleeve tattoo. “Three at the latest.”

He never used to act like this, but lately, he can’t leave the house without providing an itinerary, a detailed account of his movements. The world is dangerous and the investigation has been going on for weeks.

Because of the dead girls.

*****

I’m weird about moments. How you know that they’re happening, but you can’t do anything about it. They plant themselves in your head, and later, you can’t stop thinking about them.

There was this one time last winter, when Lillian was already a certified disaster area. We were sitting in the quad at lunch, only lunch was now this thing that was sort of like a siege.

I said, “If you want to be completely malnourished, that’s your business, but they’re going to put you in the hospital if you’re not careful.”

She lined up her carrot sticks in a little orange row. “If you chew everything fifty times, it cancels out the calories.”

It was a moment, you know.

There are all these times where you could fix things, just by knowing what to do. You want to repair it, you want to solve the whole flipping world.

And you can’t, because . . . you can’t.

*****

Ariel is doing elaborate surgery on her pancake, cutting a wide, psycho smile, biting out eyeholes.

Decker stands up, jingling his keys. “Okay, I’m taking off. Watch your sister,” he says, like Ariel is a television.

She’s holding the pancake to her face, looking at me through the eyeholes. Her strange shade of bravery makes me laugh. The pancake mask is insanely creepy.

Decker is doing something awkward with his mouth now. I know what that’s about—like all the things he wants to say are in there, piling up against the white enamel wall of his teeth. Sticky things, like keep an eye out for anything suspicious, and be careful, and I worry about you guys.

But the city is in twelve kinds of chaos. It’s a hundred and five degrees every day. Heat makes people act crazy and lots of things are suspicious without being significant. You can’t be vigilant, you can’t be careful. Some of those girls were stolen in the daylight, from the shopping mall or the park, and even at noon, no one was watching.

When I think about it, that fact makes me feel like someone isn’t playing fair. Like the really bad things should only happen at night, when I’m in bed with the sweat collecting between my shoulder blades, flipping my pillow over again and again to find the cold side.

*****

I retreat to my room, but Lillian’s ghost owns it now. She’s already commandeered the bed, reclining with her hands clasped behind her head. Looking gaunt.

The blankets are pushed back and the pillows are all on the floor.

Ever since Madison Brooks died a week ago and Ariel saw her ghost in the pile of towels next to the hamper, she won’t sleep in her own room, and my bed is not big enough for three people, even if one of them is dead. There is no longer room for luxuries like pillows.

“Ariel’s been messing with dangerous things,” Lillian says, touching her jutting collarbone. “Someone needs to watch her, because if they don’t, she’s going to do something reckless.”

But the idea that Lillian Wagner, self-destructor-extraordinaire, is telling anyone else about reckless behavior is positively laughable.

*****

Still, I check on her.

She’s in the office, kneeling on the rolling chair, squinting at something on the screen and I realize that even though she’s eleven-going-on-twelve, she knows how to find intricacies, the details in things, because somehow, she’s also going on thirty-five and I’m looking at a color photo of Madison Brooks, who was found on a Thursday, with her body wrapped in plastic and dirt in her mouth and her eyes.

“Where did you get that?”

Ariel doesn’t look away from the screen. “From artfuldodger_59.”

“Were you messing around in some forum?” I say. “Did you give someone your email?”

“Yeah, but only to get a better picture than what’s on the news.” She points to the monitor. “See, I noticed all these little, like, cut-marks when I saw her in the laundry—here, all around her neck. I want to know why she has such bad marks on her neck when she wasn’t strangled.”

I stand looking at Maddie Brooks in clear plastic. It’s like an official crime-scene photo, admissible evidence. Like a product of shock journalism, only not, because I saw the one they printed in the paper, and it was blurry, foreground full of yellow tape. The body was farther back and from a bad angle. Even with the telephoto, you could barely see her.

Because there’s a red-and-white valentine lying next to her, and that was definitely not in the paper.

12 thoughts on “Paper Valentine

  1. artfuldodger_59 clever. There’s a Lillian Wagner obituary notice online. I searched because the name seemed important to me. She was 85 and I’m sure she’s standing beside me. Ariel? The angel or little mermaid. The names suit the characters.

    Do you go into character to change the voice? I’m curious. Have a good day, cheers.

  2. Oooooo a follow up! I’m dying here. More please.

    I like the characterization in the very first section, esp. 😀

  3. Ariel? The angel or little mermaid.

    It’s actually kind of both 😀 I was trying to think of a name that a very frivolous mother might pick, but which would accidentally turn out to be highly appropriate–she’s very righteous, like a little engine of retribution 🙂

    Do you go into character to change the voice?

    Here’s where I admit something scandalous. I know that a lot of writers talk about “becoming” their characters, or seeing things through their character’s eyes, but I’m completely useless at that kind of imagining.

    Instead, I remember real voices, either of people I’ve met, or characters in movies or audiobooks, and then when I have a sense of what sounds right, I’ll know the word choices and the cadences, which (hopefully) is what keeps those things from sounding too much like mine.

  4. More please.

    Oh, I’d love to. I plan to. Just as soon as I figure out a good serial killer plot that’s not blatantly ripping off Dexter or Thomas Harris . . .

  5. Thanks–I definitely want to follow this one and see where it goes. Now I have a good excuse to read about serial killers . . .

  6. deliciously creepy

    Thanks! Delicious is the best kind of creepy. Actually, it’s probably the best kind of everything.

  7. I can’t believe I missed this one! I’m so glad I came back and caught it! Like buried treasure on a snowy Wednesday. I, like everyone else, hope to have more.

  8. I’m glad you came back for it too 😀

    I have big plans for this one. (I just don’t necessarily know what they are.)

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