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Underwater a novel, p.12

Underwater: A Novel, page 12


Underwater: A Novel

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  “He wouldn’t have gotten to school,” I say.


  “Him. Aaron. Him.”

  She sits up then. She heard me. She heard everything and then some. But she doesn’t pick up her notebook yet. She’s too busy paying attention to the fact that I’ve said something new.

  “He wouldn’t have gotten to school unless what?” she asks.

  I put my face in my hands and scratch at my scalp. And then I grab chunks of my hair in my fists and pull. I think of the list taped to my wall inside. I might need it. Right now. Because I feel like I could throw up all over this chaise longue.

  “Morgan.” Brenda presses her hand to my wrist, stilling me. Stalling me. “What do you mean?”

  I pull free from her grasp and stand up because the energy bubbling up inside of me makes it impossible to sit down anymore.

  “I gave him a ride, okay?” I don’t recognize my own voice. It’s screechy and surreal. But I keep going because I have to. I started this. I’m finishing it. “He was walking in the rain and I saw him. He would’ve been late. We were too far from school to make it by first period. So I pulled over. I gave him a ride. I let him and his guns and every messed up thing about him into my car. I drove it all to school and dropped it off. I felt bad for him!”

  Brenda can’t help her reaction. “Oh, my god,” she says, and her words make me so mad.

  “Oh, my god? You don’t get to say that!”

  “You’re right. That was very human of me. I’m sorry.”

  I look at her and I know she sees the truth of me in a way nobody else does. She understands me. That’s why we’ve gotten this far. That’s why I told her what I did. And I lose it because of her and all that she is and all that she’s been to me. I’m suddenly snot and tears and wailing into the sunshine. And Brenda does one tiny thing. She reaches her hand out and knots her fingers with mine.

  “Let it go,” she says. “Just let it go.”

  chapter twenty-seven

  My grandpa Ben took care of his car. He saved it for me. Sometimes grandparents feel the need to do things for their grandkids that their own children can’t do. The car is basically an apology from my grandpa that my dad, his son, is the way he is. I was supposed to sell the Bel Air to help pay for college. But college isn’t as alluring now that I can barely get through high school.

  I can picture my grandpa with his car. My family didn’t come from money, so that convertible was a really big deal. He told me how, as a teenager, he’d worked summers scrubbing barnacles off the bottoms of rowboats and school years mopping up puddles of grease at a local auto shop to save up enough money to buy it. He said it was just a Chevy at first. But as the years passed, it became a classic. He loved it like some people love their kids. He polished it to a blinding shine. He drove it up and down the coast on weekends. He showed it off at car festivals in beach towns and inland empires. He dropped the top. He hung one arm over the side of the door. He wore sunglasses and a baseball cap. Sometimes I went along.

  He refused to pick up hitchhikers.

  His car was the only thing he ever had that was worth anything. Now, it sits under a tarp in a parking space in the back of our building.

  I used to love that car and the freedom it gave me to get around. It’s hard to believe there was a time when I couldn’t stand the idea of being stuck inside. All I wanted was to be out in a world that was bigger and fuller than what I already knew. Eight months ago, in September, one month before October fifteenth, I drove the car to an away football game. Chelsea, Brianna, Sage, and I wore T-shirts we’d tie-dyed with our school’s bright blue and orange colors. At the kitchen table at Brianna’s house, we’d cut the bottoms into fringe and strung beads at the ends. We had ponytails with blue and orange ribbons and we chewed on red licorice vines and bubble gum. We matched. We had school spirit. We had dreams for the future.

  We drove inland with the top down. We talked about boys we’d kissed and the text messages they’d sent that interrupted homework. There was a full moon and bright stars. Chelsea and Brianna sat in the backseat. Sage sat beside me. (Best friends always got dibs on the front seat.) And that night on the way to the football game, we sang along to an AM station because it was the only reception we could get. It was crunchy with static, but ripe with the kinds of pop songs where you know the words no matter what. You know them because they play them in the grocery store and on television commercials and in the juniors section of department stores.

  A month later, everything changed.

  * * *

  I haven’t wanted to be in the Bel Air since October fifteenth. Not since that morning that I saw Aaron Tiratore trudging through the rain.

  I see him clearly in my mind. He walks down a wet sidewalk, his backpack hanging heavy over both his shoulders. The rain splats at his feet. His dark hair is matted wet against his head. I slow down because I think I know him. I think we had a math class together when I was a freshman. I feel bad letting someone walk to school in the rain, knowing they’re going to be late because of it.

  I pull over to the curb. I lean over to roll down the window. He stops. He stares.

  “Want a ride?” I ask.

  He twitches. He shrugs.

  “Come on, you’re getting soaked.”

  “Only if you’re sure.”

  “I’m sure. Geez.”

  He gets in my car, trying to carefully settle his backpack between his feet, but it lands with a heavy thump that makes him do a double take. I didn’t notice the sound then, but I hear it now. I hear it every day. It startled him. He picks the backpack up and sets it in his lap, holding it gently—the way I hold Ben during the scary parts of a movie.

  I twist the dial for the heater, but only a halfhearted whir of warm air comes out.

  “Sorry. Old cars are cool, but their heaters suck.”

  He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t look at me. He just looks out the window like nothing matters. I figure he’s simply glad to be someplace that’s dry. His jacket is a blue so bright that it almost hurts my eyes to look at it. It’s thick and puffy, like a down comforter. It holds him in tight. It makes him look bigger than he is.

  Aaron has bad skin. He smells gross, like old sweaty shoes. People make fun of him for the way he smells. People have always made fun of him. There’s something achingly distant about him as he watches the world whiz by through the passenger side window.

  “Thanks for the ride,” he finally says. He doesn’t look at me. He only says the words. “My bag is heavy.”

  He taps his fingers against his knee and doesn’t stop.

  “No problem.”

  I don’t know what else to say to him. I don’t know what Aaron does or what he likes or where he hangs out. I don’t know if he has any friends. Practically everyone at school calls him “Wallpaper” because he’s something that’s there, but isn’t particularly necessary. I know he isn’t on the swim team, but I don’t know whether he’s on another sports team. I don’t know if he hangs out at Clyde’s Coffee on Friday nights like most people do. I don’t know if he can read music or even what kind of music he likes to listen to. I don’t know if he’s ever kissed a girl. Or a boy. I don’t know anything about him because I’ve never bothered to notice.

  I fiddle with the radio dial because that’s easier than talking and better than wondering. I settle on a morning sports program the radio was tuned to the day after my grandpa’s funeral when my grandma handed me the keys to drive the car back to Pacific Palms.

  Aaron says, “I’ve walked this same route to school for the last three years and nobody has ever stopped to give me a ride.”

  His words feel like something he’s pulling from his mouth and handing over to me because he has to, not because he wants to.

  “That sucks,” I say.

  “Yeah, well, it doesn’t matter now.”

  I don’t know what that means, but I’m turning into the parking lot so I don’t bother to ask. I pull into a spot in the cor
ner by the pool.

  “Sorry. The walk to campus is farther from here, but I like having my car close when swim practice is over,” I explain.

  “No problem.”

  I pull a tube of lip gloss out from my jacket pocket and apply it. Aaron lifts up his heavy backpack and opens the door. He sets one foot down on the slick asphalt and scoots out. He stands up. Before he closes the door, he leans his head back into the car.

  “Thanks again. That was a huge help,” he says.

  “No biggie. I’ll pick you up whenever I see you from now on.”

  “Really? You would do that?”

  “Yeah, why not? It’s not like we aren’t headed to the same place.”


  The rain pounds against the roof of the car. It hits the hood of Aaron’s puffy blue jacket. Rivulets of water drip down from his backpack and splat on the ground.

  “Go, you’re getting soaked again.”

  “Yeah, you’re right. I better get inside.” But he doesn’t pull his head out from the car right away. He wants to tell me something first. “You should wait out the rain here. I bet it’ll stop by the end of first period.”

  He slams the door shut before I can tell him that I can’t skip my English quiz. I watch him run across the parking lot and into the school. He’s a flash of bright blue, the most obvious thing on campus, but not one person pays attention to him zipping past them.

  chapter twenty-eight

  After I finish my homework, watch two videotaped lectures for school, and mop and vacuum the floors, I sprawl out like a starfish on top of my bed to think. Yesterday, I told Brenda I gave Aaron a ride to school, and now I can’t stop thinking about the letter I wrote to him. It’s been sitting in the top drawer of my dresser for a month. I remember what I wrote, but I don’t know how I said it. Or if I still mean my words in the same way. I take out the letter and stare at the address I got from the school directory and scrawled across the middle of the envelope. I rip the letter open. I read it through and cross stuff out. I add something else. I seal it back up in a fresh envelope. Before I can stop myself, I shove my feet into flip-flops, grab my keys, and head out the door.

  I stomp down the stairs. I trample through the courtyard. I stumble past the pool. I reach for the front gate. But I stop. I sway. The rusted wrought iron taunts me; its rods hang heavy, like the bars of a prison cell. My palms sweat. The bile in my stomach churns.

  I count to three.

  I take deep breaths and watch the real world pass by.

  A guy jogs by in running shorts. I can hear the bass-heavy beat of his music throbbing through his headphones. A lady bends over in work clothes and high heels to scoop up dog poop with a plastic baggie. Her Yorkie barks maniacally at a FedEx delivery guy balancing a package as big as his torso. Cars zoom past. Zip, zip, zip. A girl who looks my age rides by on her bike. The wind whips through her hair, and her loose shirt flutters out behind her like a cape.

  It’s life. All of it. Right here. Waiting for me. But it’s moving so fast that it scares me. Things don’t move this fast in my apartment, or even the courtyard of my apartment building.

  Do I turn back around or keep moving?

  Screw it. I’m going.

  I visualized this sort of thing with Brenda. I can do it.

  I yank the gate open. It’s heavy and creaks with age. I pass through and let go of the handle. The heavy metal bangs shut behind me. I don’t look back. I march down the sidewalk, moving with purpose past the people and the places and the things. Everything is normal. Everything is everyday. But I’m not. My brain is on overload. My head hurts from all the stimulation. And worry. I study the way a guy at the bus stop has his hands shoved into his pockets. Is he hiding something? I watch a girl with a weighed-down backpack. What’s in there? A car runs a red light and another car honks. I jump. A guy on a skateboard whips past me, making me swirl around in a circle and into the safety of a nearby doorway. But I force myself to move again. I make my way down the block. I pass an apartment building almost identical to mine. I hear salsa music through an upstairs window. The beat of it thrums through my fingertips. It feels good. It’s a hot day. And there, in the distance, I see it. A big blue mailbox. It’s on the corner in front of the market where I used to buy Popsicles for Ben that would melt and drip down his arm in the sizzling summer sun. A few more feet. A few more squares of sidewalk. I’m almost there. My legs move underneath me like I’m not controlling them.

  Until I get there.

  I halt.

  I pull open the drop box.

  I shove my letter inside.

  My fingers hold on to the edge of the envelope.

  Until I let go.

  I hear it plop against the other letters.

  I pull my hand out.

  The drop box bangs shut.

  I walk away.

  Realistically, what good is it? I can’t get answers from a dead guy.

  Dear Aaron,

  Why did you do what you did? You changed me forever. Not because of what I saw or who you hurt, but because when you got into my car that day, you made me an accomplice. You made me a person who plays fifteen minutes of her life over and over again in her head. Why did I stop? Why did your bag make that noise? Why didn’t you talk? Why did you tell me to wait? What did I miss? It’s a horrible place to be. And for that, I hate you. I. Hate. You.

  I know you will never see this, but I needed to write it. It needed to be said.

  Morgan Grant

  But now I see that, sometimes, bad things bring people together in ways we’d never imagine. I don’t leave my apartment, Aaron. I’m a shut-in. You made me afraid of the world. It’s May, and I haven’t left where I live in five and a half months. But after being alone in my apartment for so long, I think there’s a part of me that understands how alone you felt. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry you didn’t have any friends or someone you thought you could talk to. I’m sorry you thought you had only one solution to your problems. I wish you’d gotten help.

  I wish things hadn’t happened the way they did.

  I want to hate you, but hating you has gotten me nowhere. Forgiving you will start the healing. Forgiving you will allow me to forgive myself.

  I know you will never see this, but I needed to write it. It needed to be said.

  I forgive you.


  Morgan Grant

  * * *

  I run back home. I run because I want to endure the way my muscles protest. I want to feel the pounding of my heart in my chest. I want to hear the smack of my flip-flops on the sidewalk. I want to have the wind in my ears. I want to know the wind on my face.

  When I get home again, I don’t want to stop moving. I need to get this energy out somehow. I miss exercise. I miss the way it makes me feel. I want to stretch. I want to reach. I want to go. I want my body to be strong again.

  I want to swim.

  I peer out the window and down at the pool.

  I let the curtain fall back into place.

  I run through the apartment.

  After a couple of rounds, I’m panting. I’m definitely out of shape. And having all the windows closed doesn’t help. The stagnant inside air is stifling.

  I head to the family room and open the window above the TV to let fresh air in. I flop down on the couch and flip through TV channels. I skip right past an exercise show from the eighties, then click back and watch, entranced. The workout host is wearing a shiny pink leotard and a yellow-and-white-striped terry cloth band around her forehead. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, but her bangs hang loose over the headband. She bounces from one foot to the other, pulling a knee toward her chest and touching it with her elbow. She looks like she’s having a great time, and she sounds like she really wants everyone at home to join in.

  “Get off the couch!” she shouts, as if she’s talking right to me. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!”

  I bounce off the couch and sta
rt hopping around the room, mimicking her movements. I fear that I might look like a total oaf with no rhythm. Wearing jeans doesn’t help. But I don’t really care. Because moving is good. I can feel my heart working hard to keep up. I like that I’m winded and sucking in air. I love that I have sweat dripping down my back and collecting in the waistband of my underwear. My body is doing what it’s supposed to do.

  I’m alive.

  The workout show is an hour long. There’s a nice cooldown session at the end. I sit cross-legged on the floor and stretch. I can feel my muscles pull away from my rib cage as I reach my hand over my head and breathe out from my mouth. The cooldown part is kind of crunchy granola, and the host keeps telling all of us at home to stay centered.

  “Be in the moment,” she says. “This is your moment. There is only one you.”

  chapter twenty-nine

  Ben comes busting through the door at six p.m. with my mom trailing behind him. I probably smell from my spontaneous eighties aerobics session a few hours ago, but nobody says anything. I press save on a persuasive essay about why cell phones should be allowed in school (uh, they’re good in an emergency) and shut down the computer so I can focus on my brother. He’s all excited because he got his costume for the play today. He yanks it out of his backpack with so much force that his lunch box and homework folder come toppling out, too. He waves his costume in front of my face. I pull it from his grasp so I can see it. It’s just a green hoodie with giant googly eyes glued to the top to make it look like a frog. Ben thinks it’s the greatest thing ever.

  “It’s awesome,” I say, holding it up to him. “Try it on. I wanna see.”

  Ben pulls the sweatshirt over his head and the googly eyes roll back and forth, landing cross-eyed. “Do you like it?”

  “I think it’s pretty much the best costume I’ve ever seen. And you’re the best frog in the history of frogs.”

  He grins up at me and the googly eyes roll back. I pull the sweatshirt off him even though he begs me to let him wear it through dinner.

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