Ariel’s music camp gets out at 2:00 and I make sure to be early, already waiting by the time she gets outside. She comes straight at me, mid-sentence, and I’m nodding, trying to zip the pocket on her backpack. I’m not paying attention to anything else, and when the doors swing open again, I almost run right into Finnigan Boone.
He’s wearing a cotton undershirt, which is against dress code during the normal school year, but it’s so hot lately that the teachers must not care anymore. He doesn’t say anything, just looks at me like I’m nothing special.
The thing about Finny is this: we’ve been at the same school since kindergarten, but we never really knew each other, and once they started sorting us into fast and slow classes, he was pretty much always in the slow ones.
Ariel is capering in circles, like one of the wild things, shrieking about quarter notes. She seems to have mistaken Finny for someone friendly.
“Are you coming from music camp, too?” she asks him. “From the ninth grade section? What do you play? Are you marching band or orchestra?”
Finny’s looking at her like he’s never been asked such a ludicrous question, and maybe he hasn’t. He’s carrying his books for summer school. Also, he’s about the least likely candidate in the world for a woodwind.
He’s missing the pinkie finger on his left hand. The skin around the joint and down the outside of his wrist is all shiny and puckered, pale against the rest of him. There are all kinds of stories about what happened, but no one knows for sure. Finny doesn’t talk much.
“Mind your own business,” he says.
Ariel stops capering abruptly. Then she hauls off and smacks him with her clarinet case.
On a given day, there are many things that Ariel might do, but it’s always been hard to say what they will be. There is no usually with Ariel.
For a second, Finny just looks at her. Already, there’s a red mark coming up on his arm. “You’re a real piece of frickin work, you know that?”
Only he doesn’t say frickin.
She swings again, but this time, he’s not having it. He jerks the case out of her hands, then turns and starts off across the baseball diamonds.
“Hey!” My voice sounds almost brave, but the truth is, if Finny doesn’t stop, I’ve got nothing.
He doesn’t even look around, just keeps walking, with Ariel’s clarinet case swinging in his hand, sunlight glinting silver off the latches.
“You’re pink today,” Lillian says from the center of my room. She is pacing, pacing because she can’t keep still.
“Yeah, well it’s hot today.”
Lillian raises her eyebrows. She herself is a pale shade of gray. “Are you sure you’re not upset about something?”
And no, I’m not sure. The afternoon is still fresh like a slap and Finny Boone is probably a sociopath. But his shoulders are nice and I haven’t taken the time to notice boys since before Lillian died.
I sit down at my dresser and get out my hairbrush, wishing for Lillian. The real Lillian, and not the worst, most selfish parts of her. I wish for a warm, true best friend, one who didn’t die. One who didn’t communicate fear and sadness without using words. I want to scream, why didn’t you just use words?
“I couldn’t,” she says. “I didn’t have a choice”
I yank the brush through my hair, feeling the bristles dig at my scalp. “Yeah. Just keep telling yourself that.”
“It was voices,” she says, appearing behind me in the mirror. “I could hear them all the time, whenever I was alone, saying I was worthless and stupid, that nothing would ever be okay again if I couldn’t get myself under control, because who wants a person with no self-control? Who wants a fat, stupid cow? I wasn’t good enough to have what everybody else did. The only thing that understood me was the voices.”
“But you didn’t have to listen to them!”
Lillian grabs me. I can feel her fingers digging into my neck. “Yes,” she says in a deadly voice. Her face is terrible and gaunt. “I did.”
I spin around with the brush in my hand, and I would hit her if I thought it would make a difference, or if I could justify beating at ghost. “No, you didn’t! Get off me!”
“Hannah.” The voice is low, not coming from the hall, but from just outside my window. “Hey, Hannah, is everything okay?”
I turn around and almost scream.
Finny Boone is crouched in the cottonwood outside my window, hazy on the other side of the screen.
I squeeze the hairbrush. “Why are you here?”
“You were shouting,” he says softly. “I was just down on the grass and heard you shouting.”
His left hand is resting against the screen, steadying himself. I have a sudden idea that if he overbalances and falls through the window into my room, Decker will kill him. The shape of his mangled hand is intriguing. The fingers that are left look weirdly delicate. It was clearly a nice hand, before whatever happened.
He lets out his breath like he’s been holding it. “I, uh, I brought your sister’s flute back. It’s on the steps. You should bring it in though, so no one takes it.”
I step closer to the window, still clutching the hairbrush. “You probably should have put it in the mailbox.”
He doesn’t answer, but I can see him shrug. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he says suddenly. “I just thought you sounded like maybe something was wrong. Last year—” He sounds awkward and starts over. “Last year, you started looking sad.”
I reach toward the window, almost meaning to touch his hand. As soon as my fingers brush the screen though, he yanks away.
“See you around,” he says.
I listen to him rustle down through the branches until he’s gone.
Then I cross to the bed and sink down onto the carpet, pulling the sheet with me. On the floor, with the sheet over me, I sit with my knees pulled up and my head on my arms. My heart is beating in huge spasms, but under the sheet is safe, like I’m the ghost and Lillian’s the real live girl.
“Hannity,” she says, from somewhere above me. “Are you really all squishy over Finny Boone? He’s a total delinquent.”
I don’t answer. The word delinquent is sort of right. Finny took Ariel’s clarinet. But only because she attacked him with it. Finny took the clarinet, but then he brought it back. I’m still struck dumb by the staggering fact of him outside my window.
Lillian reaches down and jerks the sheet off me. The shadows around her eyes are deep purple. “You really-truly like Finny Boone? Oh my God, I thought you had better judgment.”
Her voice is hard, mocking, and I collapse so I’m lying on my back at her feet. Me and her, staring at each other in the dying light. I’m choking on all the things I could never say when she was alive, first because she was always perfect Lillian and I was just Hannah, and then later when it got bad, because I was supposed to be strong and supportive. Because I didn’t want to do anything to make it worse.
This whole list of bad, forbidden things. Never say be reasonable. Never say you’re too thin. Never say eat a goddamn Twinkie and I’m not stupid, Lillian—chewing up food and spitting it into your napkin isn’t fooling anyone! Why do you have to control everything? So, you don’t run the universe. So what? So the world is big and scary and chaotic! You know what? Deal with it. I do.
I never said those things, and when they opened in my head like huge, toxic flowers, I pushed them down again. I did everything like I was supposed to. I nodded and listened and never nagged or badgered her. I went to her house every day after school and shared pieces of my bagels and my granola bars, because if it was mine, then it wasn’t the same as her eating it.
I did everything I was supposed to. She died anyway.
And if I go downstairs now, Decker will be in the kitchen making paella, and Ariel will stand on the corduroy ottoman and sing “Mama Mia” and “Girl Anachronism” for our mother. There will be a dented clarinet waiting outside, because Finny Boone might be slow, but he isn’t stupid, and I spent the last four months of ninth grade looking sad.
Lillian is blocking the door, standing over me, with her cadaver’s jaw and her sunken, bloodshot eyes.
I take a deep breath and grab my sheet out of her hand. With the fabric draped over my head, the light looks dim and I can barely see Lillian at all. I open the door and walk right on past her.
Photo by signora oriente