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Underwater a novel, p.11

Underwater: A Novel, page 11


Underwater: A Novel

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  She’s blond.

  She’s cool.

  She has a scar across her right shoulder where a bullet grazed her.

  I know her, but we aren’t friends. I don’t dislike her or anything. We’ve just never hung out aside from swim team. We had matching team suits and the same lane assignment, but I wasn’t friends with her like I was with Chelsea, Brianna, and Sage. Taylor was another long-distance swimmer on the team. But I held the school record and she didn’t. And here she is now. She’s standing in front of my feet. With Evan. And she’s staring at me. They both are.

  Everything about the way Evan is staring says he’s annoyed with me. The muscle in his jaw is ticking, and he’s gripping the strap of his backpack so tightly that his fingers have gone white. I want to talk, but there’s no way I’m getting into it with Taylor here.

  “Morgan, oh, my god!” Taylor gasps. “You’re so … different.” She grabs some chunks of her hair, pulls them up and lets them drop back down over her shoulders. I know what she’s trying to say. She’s trying to say my hair isn’t streaked blond and shiny from chlorine anymore. I don’t have a tan. Or muscle tone. I shrug my shoulders because there’s nothing else I can really say. She’s right.

  But she’s not exactly the same, either. The Taylor I remember was flirty and flouncy. She wore pink tutus and body glitter to football games. This new version of Taylor is ripped. The muscles in her arms are a billion times bigger and more defined. They aren’t the kind of muscles you get from only swimming. They’re the kind of muscles you get from lifting weights. At a gym that plays loud metal music. And is full of guys in tank tops with the sides cut out from top to bottom so you can see their stomach muscles through the gaps.

  This Taylor is different. I don’t know her.

  “Thanks for ignoring me all weekend,” Evan says, shaking me from my Taylor trance. His tone isn’t kind, and I jerk back when his words feel like they’ve slapped me in the face.

  “Sorry,” I mumble.

  “Well, at least you’re outside,” he says.

  Taylor leans down and punches me playfully in the arm. “Oh, I knew it! I knew all that junk about you staying inside all the time was BS. I bet you sit out here every day, soaking up the rays, while we’re all stuck in some boring classroom. You’ve got it all figured out.”

  I know she can tell by looking at me that what she said isn’t true. I wish I could tell her that it is. I wish I were capable of fooling the system like that. But Evan and I know the truth. We both know that my being all the way down here on the bottom step, practically in the courtyard, is not even close to typical.

  Taylor grabs on to the stair railing and tries to maneuver her way around me. That’s when I realize I’m blocking the two of them from getting to Evan’s apartment. They want to go inside together, and I’m in the way. I scramble up and dust off the back of my jeans.

  “Sorry, geez. I’ll move.”

  “Evan’s teaching me to surf,” Taylor says brightly. She’s wearing a tight black tank top with the mascot of her new school on it. A snarling wolverine. And I can see the keloid scar from the bullet on her muscular shoulder. It’s thick and shiny and red.

  “Oh, wow.” I look at Evan, and he shrugs. “That’s really cool of you.”

  And of course Evan should teach Taylor to surf. Taylor is what Evan deserves. She’s a pretty girl who has a zest for life and wants to be with him in the ocean. And she knows how to flirt and be pretty. She used to wear a bikini to practice instead of the dorky one-piece Speedo I wore simply because I associated it with bringing me good luck. We shared a lane with the league-winning foursome of senior guys who consistently won the 4x100 freestyle race, and in between sets, Taylor would hoist herself halfway out of the pool to grab her water bottle from the pool deck. All the guys in our lane would watch her, checking out her butt while she drank. She’d tell them to stop looking, playfully kicking water at their faces. Maybe she’ll do that to Evan today. Out in the ocean.

  She skitters up the stairs, but Evan stays behind, leaning into me. “Why did you blow me off?”

  “I was a mess. I needed some space.”

  “Well, you made that clear.”

  I can’t believe how differently this conversation is going from the way I’d hoped. “I didn’t want you to see me like that.” I say this under my breath, through gritted teeth, because Taylor is watching us.

  Evan backs up. “No problem. I can take a hint.”

  “Evan, that’s not how it is. I just needed to be by myself for a little bit. I want to talk to you about this.” Taylor’s watching us curiously from the top of the stairs, her head cocked to one side like she’s trying to reason out an abstract painting at a museum. I lean into Evan and whisper so she can’t hear me. “I want to talk to you, but not with her here.”

  He gives me this look. It’s almost like I wounded him, but at the same time, he’s too mad to be wounded.

  “Oh, really?” he asks. “Is it not convenient for you right now? Geez, I’m so sorry. Why don’t you let me know when you’re in between one of your pity parties?” He looks at me so hard that it makes me press myself into the concrete wall that runs along the stairs. “Do you actually think you own the market on having sucky things happen to you? Do you think you’re the only person who’s mad about what happened? Because you’re not. I’m mad. My mom’s mad. My aunt’s mad. And Taylor. What about her? And the other kids like her who got shot, and lived, but now have to look at their scars every day and remember what happened to them?”

  I just stand there. It’s so pathetic, but that’s all I do. Because I know he’s right.

  “Let’s go already!” Taylor calls from the top of the stairs.

  Evan gives me one last look, then turns around. He takes the stairs two at a time. He’s in a hurry to get to Taylor and away from me. He doesn’t look back.

  I can’t stomach the idea of watching Evan and Taylor applying sunblock to each other, so I go inside.

  I shut the door.

  I sit at the computer.

  I open a blank document.

  I type the word Dear.

  I watch my cursor blink.

  Dear who? What do I need to say and to whom do I need to say it?

  While I’m sitting there, staring at nothing, I hear Evan and Taylor leave. I picture Evan carrying his surfboard under his arm. I picture Taylor skipping after him. And what right do I have to care? He should be with someone who is willing to leave the house. I can picture their whole day outside. It will be perfect.

  They will go to the beach. They will plop thick towels down in the warm sand. Evan will wax his board and Taylor will watch the muscles in his arms flex when he does it. The sight of that will make her swoon. She will comment on it. He will grin at her. That night, they’ll watch the sun sink from the end of the pier. Evan will lean in and kiss her. They probably will have been kissing all day so they’ll have a rhythm now. This will be their beginning.

  And Taylor deserves that. She deserves to live every single minute of her life. She deserves to pull it behind her like a kite.

  I envy that.

  Why can’t I be happy to be alive instead of afraid of living?

  chapter twenty-five

  “Hop on my back and I’ll take you to the river,” Ben says. He’s sprawled out on his bed long after Evan and Taylor have gone surfing and then some. His hands are tucked behind his head.

  I scan the page for my line. “But the river is so far, and it’s getting dark.”

  “That’s not how it goes. You’re supposed to say: ‘It’s getting dark, and the river is too far.’”

  “Geez, excuse me.”

  “It’s supposed to be exactly right. That’s what Ms. Belford said.”

  “Okay, start over.”

  Ben has memorized all his lines from the play along with everybody else’s. I guess memorization is some great hidden talent of his. He recites his parts, and some of the extras, too, as we lie across from each other on o
ur beds. I know most of the lines as well, so I try to take all the parts in between. When I stumble, Ben helps me to remember. It takes us almost an hour to get through the whole thing. When we’re finished, I get up, turn off the light, and crawl back into bed. Ben rolls over to his side and flicks the switch on a new bedside lamp my mom won in a raffle at the hospital. It makes our room seem like it’s underwater. Tiny yellow fish swim across the walls. I watch them move, around and around in circles, never really getting anywhere.

  Ben speaks up when I thought he was practically asleep. His voice startles me. “You’re coming to my play, right?”

  I bury myself deeper into my sheets. “I hope so.”

  He sighs, and I can feel the weight of his exasperation in the air. A disappointed five-year-old is a brutal thing.

  “But why wouldn’t you go?” he asks. “What are you afraid of?”

  What am I afraid of? What if I throw up? What if I can’t breathe? What if I get sweaty and have a panic attack and can’t get out of the building? What if being in an auditorium reminds me of the last time I was near an auditorium?

  “I don’t want to embarrass you,” I say.

  “It’s okay if you clap the loudest. I won’t be embarrassed. I want you to come.”

  “It’s not that I don’t want to be there. You get that, right?”

  “All I know is if I wanna go somewhere, I go. You can, too.”

  My brother is too smart for his own good.

  I remember reasoning out those exact same thoughts about my dad that time he didn’t show up for Christmas almost a year and a half ago. I’d worked so hard putting together a scrapbook of the best moments my mom and Ben and I had shared over the past year without him. I thought he’d love it. But he didn’t even show up. He wasn’t in Afghanistan that Christmas. He was right down the coast. He could’ve been with us in a matter of hours. My mom had given him a chance to make things better. He could’ve been unwrapping the presents that Ben had made at preschool and diligently wrapped in tinfoil.

  I thought he just didn’t want to come.

  I understand more now. I understand how my dad might’ve felt the same way I do at this moment. I understand how humiliating it is to see the look of disappointment on people’s faces when they realize what you’ve become. My mom called back and forth with my grandma and my uncle Matt that Christmas day. She called because my dad had promised to spend the day with us. She called because she wanted to believe him, for my sake and for Ben’s. But that was the night she stopped trying. That was the night she knew we had lost him for good. I knew it, too.

  “This is what a promise from my dad looks like,” I told my mom as she hung up the phone for the last time that day. “It looks like nothing.”

  I didn’t say it in front of my brother. I’m not that mean. But I was angrier than I’ve ever been. How long will it be before Ben gets that mad at me? Will he stop bothering? I don’t want to do that to him. And I don’t want that to happen to us.

  “I’m trying really hard,” I tell Ben. “I want to be there. So much.”

  “Okay.” He yawns and stretches his arms up over his head. “Then you will.” The subject is closed for now. Somewhere, somehow, my little brother still believes in me.

  It’s only the first week of May. I still have time. I watch the fish swim and listen to Ben sink into sleep.

  * * *

  As I’m about to doze off myself, I hear the cell phone vibrate on Ben’s nightstand. He must’ve taken it out of my drawer to play with it. I know it’s Evan. I don’t want to touch that phone. He can’t possibly have anything nice to say. “Ben,” I hiss through the fish. But Ben’s sleeping soundly with his knuckles tucked under his chin and the collar of his dinosaur pajama top popped up to his earlobes. I get out of bed and grab the phone, telling myself I’ll just shut it off and shove it back in the drawer without looking at what it says there.

  But I’m a liar.

  Evan’s text is too bright, lighting up the screen in the middle of the night.

  Evan: You can return the phone since you refuse to use it. You probably won’t even get this because I doubt you’ve turned it on.

  This is what he tells me. This is what he wants me to know.

  After that, I can’t sleep. I lie flat on my back and stare at the fish. The house is quiet until I hear my mom’s footsteps in the hall. They are soft, barely perceptible. The deadbolt clicks free and the door creaks as she opens and shuts it. And then I hear her making her way down the concrete steps outside my bedroom window. It’s late. She has to work in the morning. She can’t possibly have somewhere to go. I pull aside my curtain, but I don’t see her on the steps or in the courtyard. I tiptoe my way through the apartment. I peek through the crack of the door as I open it.

  I still don’t see her.

  I step out onto the welcome mat and peer through the starry night. My eyes rake across the doors of each apartment.

  They are shut.

  The windows are dark.

  The curtains are drawn.

  The wind is gentle.

  The moon is big.

  The sound of the water licking the edges of the pool is all I can hear.

  But then, in the midst of it all, I see her. My mom. She is in the far corner of the courtyard. She lies on a chaise longue. She smokes a cigarette. I’ve never seen my mom smoke a cigarette. I lean over the railing to peer down at her. I hear her then. She muffles a sob with the crook of her elbow, and I can see her body spasm as the emotions rip through her.

  My mom is breaking down in the jasmine-scented courtyard of Paradise Manor on an almost-summer night.

  She tries so hard, but she can’t do it all. Tonight, I see what trying to do it all has done to her.

  She looks up. She sees me watching. I’ve startled her. Her mouth drops open like she wants to explain, but she doesn’t yell over to me. She swipes at her eyes. She crushes out her cigarette. She stretches her arms wide. She waits. It’s an invitation. It’s an asking. It’s the admittance of her need to hold me. And for me to hold her.

  I look at the door behind me. I’ve shut it like I never had any intention of going back inside. I look at the stairs in front of me. They don’t seem that far. I take them, one by one, until I’m at the bottom. My mom is still waiting for me, arms outstretched, on that chaise longue across the courtyard. I don’t think about what I’m doing anymore. I just go. I want to be what she needs. I pick up the pace. I need to get to her fast. I need to get to her before I can’t.

  I sink down on the chaise longue and into her. I curl up into a ball, and she hugs me. Her robe smells faintly of cigarette smoke, but more of laundry detergent. And the other smell of her is there, too. The smell that is my mom. It’s a smell I can’t explain, but it makes me feel safe and loved no matter what. She tucks my head under her chin and holds me tight. She holds me in.

  And then we cry together, letting go of everything but each other.

  chapter twenty-six

  A week passes and Evan doesn’t stop by. He doesn’t knock. He doesn’t call my name through the walls or the windows. He’s finally done with me. I leave his phone by his doorstep when I know he’s home. I knock and run back inside. It’s for the best.

  I am me. He is Evan. We are not an us.

  Brenda seems disappointed. “What happened?” she asks.

  “Everything changed when he showed up with Taylor.”

  “Who’s Taylor?”

  “I’m assuming she’s his girlfriend. Love interest. Tandem surf buddy. Date to the prom. She’s something.”

  “How do you know? Did you ask?”

  “I didn’t have to.” Taylor had always been my biggest competition in the water, but now it’s the same way on land. “I just know.”

  Brenda sighs. Annoyed. “Actually, you don’t. You’re making assumptions that aren’t fair.”

  Is she serious right now? “Don’t tell me about fair. Life isn’t fair.”

  “No! It’s not!” Brenda cl
enches her fists and slams them against her thighs in frustration with me. “Life’s not fair, Morgan! But you know what? You’re not being fair, either. It’s not fair to shut people out who want to help. It’s not fair to them. And it’s not fair to you! You did the same thing with Evan you did with your friends. And where did that leave you? Alone. Do you want to be alone?”

  “My friends are doing fine without me.”

  “How do you know? Did they tell you? Or are you assuming?” There’s a sarcastic edge to her voice.

  “Well, they don’t come by to see me anymore. They’re happy going to school and dances and parties and swim meets. They’ve all moved on just great, so I must be doing it wrong.”

  “They don’t come by anymore because you pushed them away. If you push hard enough, eventually people will go!” She tosses her notebook onto the chaise longue next to her, plucks her hair back, and pinches the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger. She takes a deep breath, like she’s going through her own checklist to calm down.

  “Morgan.” She sighs. “We aren’t all wired in the same way. People grieve differently. Maybe what your friends are presenting on the outside is different from how they’re feeling on the inside. Just because they seem okay doesn’t mean they’re not hurting in the same way you are.”

  “They couldn’t possibly feel like I do.”

  “Why not? They were there, too. Sage was in the same building as you, for god’s sake!”

  “It was different for them than it was for me.”

  “Why? Tell me. How was it different for you?”

  The words are so close. I can feel them in my throat. “It was raining that day.”

  “Yes, I know. You’ve told me that. Why is the rain so important?”

  “It just is.”

  “Why?” Her question comes out like a whimper. Like she’s exhausted. Like we’ve done this too many times.

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