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Paper Men

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1

The Durseys were moving today.

Evelyn Tozier watched from her bedroom window as the young family of four hauled the last of their belongings into their blue station wagon. Little Myra stood beside the car the whole time, clutching a raggedy brown teddy bear against her chest, squeezing so hard its black button eyes looked about to burst from their sockets. One was already loose, Evelyn saw, dangling from a string the color of sand. Evelyn had never gotten around to fixing it. She had meant to—promised to—but then school-life got in the way. Evelyn was a sophomore now, after all, and fully devoted to her studies and extracurriculars. Between student council, honor society, yearbook club, babysitting, and tutoring (which she did after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the public library), the bear had completely slipped her mind; that is, until she saw it this very morning.

It was Evelyn's bear, an old hand-me-down that the teen had dug out of storage one stormy July afternoon while she was babysitting the Dursey kids. They were all excited to go to the park, but the rainstorm kept them trapped inside. It took all of ten minutes before the kids starting going stir-crazy, picking fights with each other and running around the house like a bunch of wild chickens (and chickens would have been easier to catch). Then Myra erupted into a massive temper tantrum because her little sister Gracie stole her favorite doll: a blonde-haired and blue-eyed Barbie, dressed glamorously in a sparkly purple evening gown with heels to match. The bear was only meant to be a temporary distraction, but Myra fell in love with it immediately, and Evelyn didn't have the heart to take it back. Now it seemed to be the only thing that brought the child comfort. The rest of her toys were stuffed in a cardboard box that was already halfway to Connecticut, where Mrs. Dursey's parents lived.

All but one, Evelyn realized, as a chill crept up her back. They never did find that doll, did they?

Mr. Dursey scooped Myra into his arms and carried her into the car. The oldest child was already in the backseat, sitting with his head hung real low. Steven Dursey hadn't spoken much since the incident; neither of the kids had.

Mr. Dursey called out to his wife, his voice booming with a desperate sense of urgency. He didn't need to call her again. The front door closed gustily, and Mrs. Dursey came flying down the stairs. Her face was a pale, hollow mask of its former self, covered in deep wrinkles and untreated blemishes. Before everything happened, Mrs. Dursey would have never been caught dead stepping outside her house without a full face of makeup. (You should always look your best, Evie darling. You never know who you might run into.) This morning, the former Miss Derry didn't even bother to shower. She dashed across their once perfectly groomed lawn, completely ignoring the stone path her husband had laid by hand the summer before. Her slippered foot crushed two of her precious daffodils into the dirt. One sprang back up, withered and bent.

(She's strong, my Gracie. That's how I know, Gary. That's how I know she's still alive.)

Mrs. Dursey climbed into the car and slammed the door shut. Not once did she look back at the house they'd owned for ten years. Their pride and joy. It was a beautiful house, the kind of house you bragged about at neighborhood barbecues (the Durseys certainly did, on more than one occasion). In the spring, it looked like something out of a magazine: this perfect two-story colonial, painted white with blue shutters and a blue door, surrounded flowers of all colors and trees so lush they looked artificial. At Christmastime, the Durseys would string up the entire house with these fancy white lights that glistened like stars against the falling snow. They hadn't put up any lights last Christmas, though, not a single one. On November 28th, Mr. Dursey carried in the tree through the front door like he did every year, but the family never decorated it. Evelyn saw it during the memorial service, stuffed away in the corner of the living room, barren and forgotten.

(If you're watching this—whoever you are—please, please, bring my baby home. Please, I'm begging you. She needs to be home with her family beside her Christmas tree.)

Across the street, the car engine suddenly revved with life. The blue station wagon pulled out of the driveway so fast it almost knocked over the Tozier's garbage cans. Then it made a screeching right turn and sped off down the road. The perfect house on 1072 East Summer Street seemed to watch them go, its windows dark and vacant, lonely almost. The sight of it gave Evelyn the shivers.

She closed her curtains and finished getting ready for school.

2

At seven o'clock, the Tozier house was still quiet. Mr. Tozier was at a dental conference in Portland, and Mrs. Tozier, a nurse, wouldn't be home until the kids were already gone, so Evelyn took it upon herself to make sure her little brother got up for school on time.

"Richie," she called, rapping her knuckles on the door. "Richie, time to get up!"

When he didn't respond, she opened the door and peered inside. The room was dark apart from the blue glow of the small TV that he kept on his desk. A large stack of VHS tapes towered to the left of it, leaning dangerously to one side. Evelyn couldn't help but sigh when she saw it. Richie had a habit of falling asleep with the TV on, for the sound more than anything. He just couldn't sleep in a quiet room. Never could, even when he was a baby. The silence always seemed to make him uncomfortable. Maybe that was why he talked so much.

Evelyn flicked the wall switch, filling the room with light. She would have gone inside if there had been a visible path, but her little brother didn't keep his room nearly as tidy as she did. Didn't see the importance of it. All his clothes were lying in a wrinkled heap on the floor, surrounded by comic books, old homework assignments, soda cans, and empty snack bags. Richie knew he wasn't supposed to have food in his room, but the little brat snuck it in anyway. One time, Mrs. Tozier found a plate of leftover pork chops under his bed. Turns out, Richie had forgotten all about it, until the ants showed up.

Evelyn shook her head. "Oh, Mom's gonna freak when she sees this. Richie, get up!"

The lump in the middle of the bed stirred and groaned; then a hand crawled out from under the covers and proudly flipped her the bird.

"Good morning to you, too." Evelyn smiled, unaffected. "Now get up or you'll be late for school." She left the light on as she went downstairs to make breakfast for the two of them.

By the time Richie finally dragged himself out of bed, the scrambled eggs on his plate had already gone cold. He stuffed them into his mouth regardless and then reached for two slices of toast. "So," he asked as he slathered his bread with peanut butter and far too much jelly, "what's got you so quiet?"

Evelyn lifted her head with a sudden jerk. "Huh? Oh, nothing." She went to stab herself another serving of eggs and heard only the quiet screech of metal on tempered glass. Her brother was staring quizzically at her from across the table. She set her fork aside and leaned back in her chair. "The Durseys moved today."

He shrugged. "So? They've been moving for weeks." He wiped some jelly off his chin. "Or did you not notice all the trucks coming and going?"

"You talk to Steve at all?" They were in the same grade, Evelyn remembered. They must have had at least one class together.

"No." His face scrunched up like she'd said something absurd. "Mom made me hang out with him a couple times, but it was too depressing. Whenever things got quiet, he would just start crying, like ugly crying. And we would all just stand there, pretending not to hear. It got too weird."

"Really, Richie?" she said, disappointed.

"What? What was I supposed to say? 'Hey, sorry your sister's dead. Wanna go play some Street Fighter?'"

"I dunno, Richie, maybe have some compassion! Hmm? Or is that too inconvenient for you? I mean, … I mean, … how would you feel?" For Evelyn, the thought alone was impossible to bear, so what came out of her brother's mouth next hurt more than she would ever admit.

"Well, right now I'd feel pretty fucking happy." Richie bit down on his lip as soon as the words came out. Shit. He hadn't meant that. His sister knew he hadn't meant that, but he apologized anyway, in his head at least. "Can I have some more orange juice?"

Evelyn pushed the pitcher across the table.

"Thanks." He sloshed some juice into his glass and took a long drink to get the bitter taste of regret out of his mouth. But it was still there when he was finished, clinging to his tongue like a thick, grimy, unyielding film. He wiped his wet lips with a napkin. "So what's in the box?"

Evelyn looked to her right. "The new class t-shirts. You wanna see?"

He cracked a smirk. "Not really, but you're gonna show me anyway."

Yeah, he was right about that. Evelyn was already out of her chair and pulling up the cardboard flaps. "I think we really outdid ourselves this time," she said, that naive cheerfulness returning to her voice. "I mean, last year's were pretty sweet [they were bright orange, psychedelic shirts that had the words 'Funky Freshman' on the front], but this design really takes the cake." With great care, she unfolded the shirt and displayed it proudly, like it was a patriotic flag and Richie was supposed to stand at attention and salute. It was sky blue with white lettering, one of the dorkiest shirts Richie had ever seen, with the lamest slogan on the front:

WE PUT THE MORE IN SOPHOMORE!
class of 1991

Richie pushed up his glasses, squinting to make sure he was reading it properly. "What does that even mean?" he asked, dumbfounded.

"What do you mean?" Evelyn looked herself, understanding the play on words right away. "It's ... It's a … Ugh, just forget it!" Her little brother didn't know what he was talking about. Mr. Burke said her slogan was super clever, so she had no doubt that the rest of the students would like it too.

Or maybe they would hate it.

Maybe they would laugh and throw them in her face like they had with last year's shirts.

Evelyn pushed that thought to the back of her mind as she stuffed the shirt back into the box and closed it. No, not this year. I did a good job this year. Mr. Burke said so. She slung her canvas backpack over her shoulder and grabbed the box with both hands. It was heavy, but she could manage it well enough. The bus stop wasn't far, just a little ways down the road at the corner of Palmer Lane and Jackson Street. If she hurried, she would make it on time. She started toward the front door. "Hey, I gotta go catch the bus. Mom left you some lunch money on the counter. Be sure to lock up before you leave, okay? I'll see you tonight." She closed the door with her foot and descended the porch steps.

There was a bright red "FOR SALE" sign sticking out of the Dursey's lawn. Evelyn paused in front of it for a moment, wondering how long it would take before another family moved in.

Not long, she decided grimly. It's a real pretty house.

3

Hannah-Beth Stokes was sitting in her usual seat—in the second to last row, right next to the window—when Evelyn Tozier boarded the bus. Hannah-Beth was a new student at Derry High School, a pastor's daughter who mostly kept to herself. She met Evelyn over the summer while she was roller-skating near Bassey Park. Evelyn had skates of her own and knew all the best routes, so the two became fast friends. Hannah-Beth was glad for that now. The rest of the students hadn't been so welcoming.

"You need help with that box, hun?" the bus driver said to Evelyn. "Dang thing's almost as big as you are." He had a phlegm-rattling laugh that broke into a violent cough. The old man hacked into the crook of his elbow a few times and then opened the window and spat out something nasty.

"You all right, Mr. Healy?" asked Evelyn, peeking out from over the top of the box.

"Right as rain, missy, and don't you think no different." He closed the bus door. "Now, take your seat."

Evelyn quickly and carefully maneuvered her way down the aisle, stepping over school bags and instrument cases. A small considerate few were nice enough to move their stuff out of the way and apologize when they saw her coming, but most simply ignored her as they chatted away with their seat-mates and scrambled to finish late homework assignments.

Hannah-Beth smiled as Evelyn drew near. It was a shy smile, tight and close-lipped to hide the chip in her front tooth. "But don't you worry, sweetie," her mother had assured her, "we'll have that tooth fixed up in no time." Mr. Tozier was a very respected dentist after all, and sure to give his daughter's new friend a generous discount. Her mother was certain of that. "I mean, it would be unkind not to."

But there was nothing unkind about Evelyn Tozier. She was the sort of person who whole-heartedly believed that she could make friends with anybody if she put in enough time and effort. ("A Stranger is Just a Friend You Haven't Met Yet" was one of the many slogans she'd plastered all over the school walls.) For most people it worked, as the girl was rather well-liked by the majority of her classmates and teachers, but for a very small subset of the student body (a strange subset in Hannah-Beth's eyes), the girl was—to put it gently, because to put it any other way would leave her poor friend devastated—a bit of a pill.

Kristie Andrews (who now preferred to be called "Kriss") was of that subset. As Derry's only goth kid, Kriss considered it fashionable to hate everyone, but Evelyn especially rubbed her the wrong way, with her pastel-colored outfits and that annoyingly persistent, can-do attitude. Of course, none of that mattered to Evelyn. Every single day since the first day of their freshman year, she went out of her way to talk to Kriss and sometimes, if she was feeling particularly bold, compliment her. It never went well, Hannah-Beth had been told, but Evelyn kept at it day after day after day.

This morning, she was making another attempt. Hannah-Beth watched nervously, certain it would end in disaster.

"Hey, Kriss," Evelyn said, "your makeup looks nice today."

Kriss, her pale lids painted with a bold cat-eye, didn't even look up as she hissed, "Eat shit, Tozier!"

Hannah-Beth cringed at the interaction, and she couldn't for the life of her understand why Evelyn was smiling as she slid into the seat next to her. Luckily, she didn't have to ask. Evelyn Tozier was an open book.

"Last year," she said, "Kriss would always tell me to fuck off. This year, I'm only eating shit. I dunno about you, but I call that progress." She set the box down at her feet. Thump. And she turned toward Hannah-Beth, smiling that perfect smile that went all the way up to her eyes. "So how are you doing?"

Hannah-Beth sat up, suddenly very aware of her posture. "Good. I'm good." Her fingers fumbled with the cover of her paperback novel, bending the upper-right corner upwards.

Evelyn glanced down and saw what she was doing. "New book, huh?" She leaned over to get a better look. There was a man on the cover, bare-chested and muscled like a lonely housewife's fantasy. "What'cha reading?"

"Nuh-Nothing!" Hannah-Beth flipped the book over, hiding the cover from her friend. "Just something for English class." She scooted away, huddling against the window. The bus driver took a left onto Center Street, where small mom-and-pop stores were opening their doors for business. Mr. Keene, the local pharmacist, was crossing over from Court Street, a ring of keys jingling at his side.

"Hey." Evelyn gently bumped Hannah-Beth's shoulder with hers. "You don't have to hide your trashy romance novels from me. I already know you read them during class. Hide them in your textbook so you don't get caught." She chuckled a little to herself. "Don't worry, your secret's safe with me. Everyone else just thinks you're a super nerd."

Hannah-Beth smiled sheepishly, her cheeks cooling down to a light pink. "My parents won't let me date until I'm thirty." It sounded like a joke, but it wasn't. "This is the only action I'll be getting until then."

Their laughter rang together effortlessly. "Yeah, my parents won't let me date either," Evelyn said. "Not that it matters much. Nobody asks me out anyway." Except for that one time back in the seventh grade, but Evelyn didn't like to think about that. It only made her sad. She sat waiting in Nancy's Cafe until her soda went flat. Only then did she realize that she had been stood up. She spent the rest of the night in her room, crying into her pillow. "Maybe I should borrow one of those books from you."

Evelyn had only meant it as a joke, but Hannah-Beth perked up right away. "You want one? I have plenty."

"Oh?" said Evelyn, taken aback. "Yeah, sure. Maybe."

The bus driver took another left, this time onto Pasture Road. Derry High School was at the end of this road, nestled between Bassey Park and the new athletic complex. Hannah-Beth sat up a little in her seat. She had heard rumors about Bassey Park: that people went there to drink and get high, that students sometimes skipped class and snuck out there to make-out under the trees and do … other things, the kinds of dirty things Hannah-Beth only read about. Her face flushed at the thought, and her imagination went wild.

Then there was the Kissing Bridge, a covered footbridge where couples carved their initials into the worn-out planks. By the summer's end, Hannah-Beth had read every inch of it: every crooked heart, every cheesy declaration of love. That's how she found the other messages—the lewd ones that made her squirm a little. Those were the ones she re-read over and over, wondering how many were true and how many were made-up. Then, before she would leave, she would always be tempted to write a message of her own, just to prove that she wasn't as innocent as everyone believed. If people saw her name on the Kissing Bridge, they wouldn't call her "Virgin Mary" or "Sister Christian" anymore.

Of course, the fear of getting caught always stopped her in her tracks. Then she would scurry away before anyone saw her. Next time, she would always think. Next time I'll do it for real.

Sighing, Hannah-Beth stood up with the rest of the students, their morning chatter falling into a depressed silence as they shuffled off the bus one by one (except for one kid, who was still passed out in his seat). Evelyn alone seemed to be immune to the Monday morning blues. As soon as her feet touched the sidewalk, her eyes came alive with determination, sparkling like small pools of gold in the early morning sun.

The look she gave Hannah-Beth sent shivers down her spine.

"Let's sell some shirts."