Under Water, page 1part #1 of Yellow Wood Series
It’s all about choices.
I think about the two most basic words: right and wrong. I think about right thoughts and wrong choices. Good intentions. Bad consequences. And it occurs to me that even if you want to do the right thing, you have to have the will to do it. The courage.
Too bad I’ve always been a coward.
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Someone pokes me in the back of the head with the corner of a binder. I’m the only one still sitting in my seat. I glance back and see Jay, and I want to scowl, but my face doesn’t know how.
“Is that your idea of foreplay?” I say with a slight smile as I stand and fling my backpack to one shoulder.
He grins but doesn’t take the bait. “Sorry. Hands are full.”
We move into the tide of people surging through the hallway, and Jay manages to keep up with me.
“So you look great, Leni. I mean, really great.”
I keep my eyes forward. “Thanks.”
“I expected…I don’t know what I expected,” he says. “Maybe we could hang out.”
I stop walking. “Hang out?”
“Yeah. You up for Saturday night?” he asks.
“Are you asking me on a date?” I gaze over and up at him, but he’s staring straight ahead.
“If you need to put a label on it.”
I swallow the lump in my throat and force myself to laugh. “I think we tried that a couple years ago.”
“Practice makes perfect,” he mumbles.
I grab the back of his shirt and maneuver us both out of the sea of bodies to the side of the hall. He looks down at me, mischief and maybe a little bit of fear in his eyes.
“You’re serious,” I say.
He tries to smile, but it comes out lopsided. “I thought, maybe, you know…”
“Jesus, does it really matter?”
The two-minute warning bell sounds and I shake myself.
And I walk away from him.
Dr. Jones is sitting at the teacher’s desk when I enter my next class—the Senior Independent Study Thesis, something new this year and only offered by invitation.
I was invited.
I couldn’t say no.
Dr. Jones is a high school principal with a doctorate in education, and since my interactions with her have been minimal, I feel odd addressing her as “doctor.” I always get the urge to yell at her in a clipped accent: “Doc-ta Jones! Doc-ta Jones!”
I expect not only a teacher to enter but at least a few other students—when the bell rings, though, I am alone with her.
“Ms. Marquette,” she says smoothly as I stand awkwardly at the back of the room.
“Hello,” I say.
Normally I’d sit somewhere in the back, maybe off to one side. It seems rude to do that now, so I sit in the middle desk in the front row and glance around me.
“Am I the only one?”
“You are,” she says, propping one butt cheek on the high stool in front of me. “A few others are taking this class as well, but I’ll meet with each of you individually. So let’s talk.”
I remind myself to smile at her.
“This class is for seniors we feel can benefit from study outside the normal state curriculum.” She takes a paper from the stack in her hand and holds it out to me. “I’d like you to pick a topic, an area of study you have interest in, and we’ll develop a study plan together. You will document your research, synthesize it, and write up your conclusions. It’s all there in the syllabus, but we’ll get more into that in the next few weeks. Today, I’d just like us to talk and explore the possibilities.”
“Okay,” I say.
She slides her suited butt off the stool and sits on top of the desk next to mine, swinging her nyloned legs. “So you’re back. Are you ready for all this?”
“I’m very happy to be back,” I say carefully. “I’m ready.”
“And talk to me about the challenges you will face. Health-wise, I’ve read your doctor’s notes, but are there any issues you’re worried about?”
I shake my head. “No, not really. I get headaches, sometimes, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I have a full schedule. I might be tired, but that’s nothing new.”
“So what extracurricular activities are you involved in?”
“Uh, tennis,” I say. “You know I’m on the tennis team.” Dr. Jones nods. “And I give piano lessons on Monday nights to four students. Tuesdays and Thursdays I have dance lessons, and—”
“What kind of dance?”
“Ballroom,” I say. “I’ve taken classes since the third grade. So I can get by in social situations, my mother says.”
Dr. Jones laughs. “Yes, you never know when you’ll need a rumba to fill an awkward silence.”
I laugh, too.
“I waitress at Zov’s three shifts a week, and that’s it.”
“Busy. What do you like to do for fun?”
“Fun?” I ask.
She smiles. “Yes, for fun.”
I chew my lip. “I like to hang out with my friends. I’m looking forward to doing more of that, since I’m only recently able to see them again. Immune system issues. Thank goodness for Facebook.”
“That must have been hard,” she says. “And what do you and your friends do together?”
“We talk, hang out. We like to go to the beach.”
“Do you go to the movies?”
I shake my head. “I don’t really like the movies. I prefer to read.”
“A girl after my own heart,” she says. “What are you reading right now?”
I rummage in my backpack, pull out a book, and hand it to her.
“The Life of the Dalai Lama,” she says, examining the back cover. “Not exactly light reading.”
I shrug. “I like biographies.”
“Yes, but you could have picked one on Martina Navratilova, or Jackie Kennedy, or Sarah Jessica Parker. Why this one?”
I shrug again, and she pierces me with this hawk-eyed gaze. I have to answer her question.
“I have this thing,” I say. “About not knowing something. I hate not knowing.”
“So something led you to the Dalai Lama.”
“This summer I heard a song on the radio by Nirvana. You know, the band Nirvana?” Dr. Jones nods. “And it occurred to me that I didn’t know what the word nirvana meant. I thought it meant bliss or heaven, but I didn’t have any context for it, didn’t know where it came from. So I looked it up. And that led me to Buddhism, which led to the
I wind down and stare hard at my desk. I cannot believe I just admitted all that.
Dr. Jones is silent so long that I begin to worry I’ve bored her to sleep. I finally look at her. She is staring at me with her mouth slightly open, and quickly snaps it shut. She hands me the book.
“That’s a remarkable tale,” she says. “Do you do a lot of studying like that on your own?”
“I wouldn’t call it studying, exactly,” I say. “But if something interests me, I like to learn more about it.”
“How about other religions,” she asks. “Have you read about those?”
“Buddhism, obviously. I read the Koran in the seventh grade, but I had to force myself to finish it. I think I’d understand it better if I read it now. My friend Anita is a Jain, so I’ve read about that.”
“Do you attend church?”
“No,” I say.
I won’t meet her eyes. “When I was younger. I haven’t been since I got sick.”
Dr. Jones decides not to pursue that topic further. She asks me about psychology, about politics, about philosophy, art, and sports.
Even though she’s close to sixty, we have a lot to talk about.
“What about fashion?” she asks excitedly, as though a light bulb just went off in her head. “Where do you like to shop?”
I laugh. “Shopping’s okay, I guess, but I don’t shop much.”
“But you look so cute,” she says, waving her hand at me. “Where do you buy your clothes?”
“Thanks. I make most of my own clothes, except for jeans, because it’s hard to get the right fit,” I tell her, looking down at my slim ankle-length white cotton skirt and pale blue tank top. “I’m saving my money.”
“You made those?” she says, followed by, “For what?”
“For what? You mean, how much did they cost me to make?”
“No, what are you saving for?”
The answer appears before my eyes so clearly, I feel like I’ve left the room. I blink it away, and shrug.
Jay is waiting by my locker when school lets out.
“You can say no—”
“But I wish you wouldn’t.”
I sigh into my open locker and try to block out his face with the door.
“Why the sudden interest, Jay?”
“It’s not sudden.”
I slam the door shut.
“Coulda fooled me.” I turn away from him, but he gently spins me back.
“I apologized for being a jerk,” he says.
“You didn’t apologize,” I say. “You asked me on a date. How does that constitute an apology?”
Jay tilts my chin up with a finger and looks me in the eye. “I’m sorry, Leni.”
We stare at each other. I don’t want to say yes, but I can’t bring myself to say no again, either.
As I hesitate, Jay smiles and goes down on one knee. People around us start to stare and whistle.
“Don’t make me beg, baby,” he says.
“Tell me why,” I say.
“We were friends once.”
“Friends don’t have to date.”
Jay looks around at the gathering crowd. “Not here.” He climbs to his feet, rather graceful for all his gangly height. “You busy now?”
I shake my head. “Practice at four, though.”
“Walk with me.”
I see Baby T and Gabi eyeing us as we exit the quad.
“You okay?” Baby T mouths to me across the space.
I give her a thumbs up and keep walking.
Junior Gomez yells at me from his car to our left. “You comin’ to my game on Saturday, Leni?”
“Gonna try,” I yell back.
“Post-party at my place,” he yells.
I give Junior a wave, and Jay and I step onto the sidewalk and into the Old Towne neighborhood surrounding the high school.
“Please tell me the date you have planned is not Junior’s party,” I say.
Jay smiles. “You think I want you around all that testosterone?”
“You, not withstanding?”
“Can I hold your hand?” he asks.
“You haven’t earned it,” I say.
Jay kicks a pebble lying in his path. “Do you…do you ever think about choices? Like, do you wonder how your life would be if you made different ones?”
“I haven’t had many choices,” I say.
“Oh, come on,” he says, rolling his eyes. “What about dates, for instance?”
“What about them?”
“Do you ever wonder what might have happened if you’d gone to that Sadie Hawkins dance with Woz instead of me?”
I have to laugh at that. “I try to think about Ethan Wozniak as little as possible.”
He laughs, too. “Okay, bad example.”
“I know what you’re getting at. Just spill it,” I say.
“I made a bad choice with you.”
I want to make a snide remark, but I stay silent.
“I still like you—”
“—and I never stopped,” he says.
I stop walking and face him. “It’s been two years. Why are you telling me this now?”
Jay blows out a breath. “I finally have a chance, Leni. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know how to make things right, and then you got sick, and I had the perfect excuse to see you—”
“Then why didn’t you take it?” I ask.
Jay blinks. “Didn’t your mom tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“I showed up at your house every day for two weeks, and I must have called you every day for a month.”
“What?” The world spins, is spinning.
“Didn’t she tell you?”
I shake my head.
“I thought you didn’t want to talk to me.”
I didn’t, I still don’t, but Jay’s admission changes everything.
“I didn’t know,” I say, “but it doesn’t change the fact that you ditched me first.”
Jay nods. “I know.”
“I don’t need another friend, Jay,” I say.
Jay hesitates. “What about more?”
“You had your chance,” I hear myself say. “How do I know it wouldn’t turn out the same way? I’m not the same person I was.”
“Neither am I,” he says.
“I hope not.”
And I turn back the way I came and walk back to my car alone.
It’s halfway through practice. It’s my turn at the ball machine. I pound ball after ball, backhand after backhand.
It’s my best shot.
I’ve never been comfortable with my forehand.
At six, I’m mopping my brow on the sidelines, and Jay is nattering at me through the fence, his fingers laced through the chains.
“Just McDonald’s, if you want to keep it short,” he says.
I’m starving, and the thought of french fries has me salivating. I pack my racquet into my bag and zip it up.
“Not tonight,” I say. “I have dance in half an hour.”
“Let me drive you.”
“I have my car.”
He follows me to the parking lot, where Woz is leaning on the door of my car. I sigh to myself.
“Babe,” Woz says.
I hit my remote to unlock the doors, and Woz sweeps the door open for me.
“My lady,” he says with a bow. “It’s good to see you back.”
I laugh, wrap my arms around him in a big hug, and kiss his cheek. “It’s good to be back.”
Woz is just a jerk looking to score, but we’ve been friends since kindergarten. He knows I won’t play, but he still persists and at least he’s honest about it. I have to give him credit for that.
Woz closes the door and I buckle in. I see Jay and Woz, Jay glaring, Woz smirking, and I know it could be worse.
At least somebody wants me.
I just wish I had a choice.
Dad’s watching TV when I get home. Leftover lasagna is congealing on the counter. I pile a slab on a plate and join him.
“You have a good day?” he asks.
“Long,” I say, taking a bite of lasagna. It leaves my tongue feeling greasy.
“You’ll get back into the routine soon.”
“Yeah. How was work?”
We watch TV.
As I head for bed, Mom steps into the hallway from Bea’s room and closes the door softly.
“She asleep?” I ask.
We go to our rooms.
Baby T and I are dancing around the bonfire. It’s the first time I’ve been able to relax since we started school a month ago.
I turned Jay down for that first date, and for the twelve invitations since, but I should have realized he’d show up here. He never misses a chance to be near the water. I wish he would take Woz and go for a swim. Instead, he’s sitting in a beach chair across the fire from us, staring into the flames and brooding.
Baby T giggles as Raz comes up behind her and starts grinding his hips into hers. They make me laugh. I fling my bandanna-wrapped head back and stretch my arms out wide, rough sand pushing through my toes as I dance. I zone out. Until I feel hands on my waist, surprisingly gentle hands, and a body, warm and muscled, at my back.
I glance over my shoulder. Woz. He grins. His hips mirror mine. The boy has rhythm.
We sway. Woz grinds, and I fight to keep the rhythm and at least a small distance between us. I want to dance, not to flirt.
Woz nuzzles my neck.
I watch Jay’s brooding frown through the flames turn into a scowl.
The song ends and I pull away and turn around.
“Thanks for the dance, Woz.”
He grins. “Let’s have another.”
He spins me around and catches me perfectly face-to-face.
I laugh. “You’re a good dancer.”
“It’s my Latino blood,” he says.
I snort as we move, perfectly in sync. “Wozniak is not Latino.”
ANDREA RING SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Under WaterNervous System (The System Series Book 1)The Go-Between
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