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Underwater a novel, p.13

Underwater: A Novel, page 13


Underwater: A Novel

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  “What if you get spaghetti sauce all over it? What frog eats spaghetti? That stain wouldn’t even make sense.”

  “Yeah, that’s true,” he says, even though I can tell he’s not entirely convinced that a spaghetti-eating frog wouldn’t be totally cool.

  When we sit down to eat, Ben launches into his usual play-by-play of his whole day at school. Today was library day, so he picked out a bunch of books he wants to read together before bed.

  “I got one with a mermaid in it because she looks like you,” he says.

  My mom smiles and points at the side of her mouth with her fork to let Ben know he has some stray sauce to wipe up. He grabs his napkin from his lap and swipes it across his messy face.

  “Your grandma checked in today,” my mom says, looking at me. I can tell she’s trying to sound casual so Ben doesn’t pick up on any weird vibes.

  “Any news?”

  “Nothing.” My mom shakes her head. Tired. Resigned.

  That means nobody has heard from my dad since he took off with his bag full of new clothes and my grandma’s jewelry.

  “Maybe it’s for the best,” I say.


  * * *

  After I’ve showered and read the mermaid book to Ben three times in a row, I crawl into my own bed. Outside, the front gate of Paradise Manor bangs shut. I can hear Evan. I recognize his voice. He’s talking on his phone in the courtyard. I peek out from my curtain just as he’s heading up the stairs in front of my bedroom window. I hadn’t realized he was that close. I freeze when he actually sees me. He stops, stunned, in the middle of the stairs to observe me through the window. We only make eye contact. Silent. I wave, and he waves back. Halfhearted. I let go of the curtain. It falls back into place, and Evan disappears behind it.

  chapter thirty

  Today, May twenty-third, is Ben’s birthday, so when Brenda arrives, I suggest we walk to the corner market to buy a cake mix and a tub of frosting with the money I still have saved up from teaching swim lessons. We’ve had two sessions since I told Brenda I gave Aaron a ride to school on October fifteenth, and she doesn’t stop to stare at me for even one second this afternoon when I say I want to leave Paradise Manor.

  “Let’s go,” she says, so I follow her down the stairs and out the front gate.

  The sidewalk seems less busy than when I mailed Aaron’s letter last week. Or less shocking. It just feels like I’m supposed to be walking here. The world is everywhere and it’s even better to be out in it with someone next to me. And even though I like Brenda, right now I kind of wish she were Evan. The thought surprises me. I’ve been trying not to think of him since he cut me out of his life.

  “How are you feeling? We’ve had a lot to cover in our last sessions.”

  I guess we’re going to walk and talk about things that matter as we go. I squint through the brightness of the afternoon to look at her, wishing I’d remembered my sunglasses.

  “I feel good. Like I can breathe again.”

  “How so?”

  I spent the last two sessions telling Brenda everything about those fifteen minutes I drove in my car with Aaron. I told her about his bulky backpack and the way he smelled. I told her the things he said and the things I wished I could take back.

  “Well, you know that saying about having the weight of the world on your shoulders?”

  Brenda nods. The force of a Santa Ana wind whips past us, making my frizzy hair flat, and I brace myself against it.

  “I didn’t really know what that meant until I felt that way.”

  “And how do you feel now?”

  I think for a minute. “This might sound really weird, but it makes me think of my team suit. For swimming. It’s tight. And sometimes it crushes my chest a little. Still, it’s the uniform and it makes me go faster and I’m required to wear it to compete. Yet sometimes, after a meet, it just feels so good to take it off.”

  Brenda nods.

  “Even though it’s off, there are still marks on my skin where the straps have dug in. Or I’m chafed under my armpits. So it almost feels like I’m still wearing it. I’m still kind of uncomfortable.”

  “I understand what you’re trying to say.”

  “Will it get better?” My fingers flutter at my sides like an instantaneous reaction to that fear. “Like, what if I cross the street tomorrow and it’s one block too many? Will I freak out and have to start all over again?”

  I should probably let Brenda know I left my apartment by myself last week, but that would mean telling her I wrote a letter to Aaron. She might not like that I wrote another letter and didn’t let her read it. I figured since Aaron is dead, it didn’t matter if I mailed it or not. I wrote it because I had to. I wrote it and it made me feel better. I mailed it because I wanted to let go.

  “You’re testing boundaries,” Brenda says. “Your day-to-day is going to be less about overcoming and more about managing.”

  She waits for me to punch the button for the crosswalk.

  “Morgan, what you admitted—about giving Aaron a ride to school—that was profound. You need to process it. You need to fully work through the emotions of that. I can see that you’re trying. And I know how hard it is. But saying it out loud was important. Admitting it was a huge step. As long as you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep moving forward.”

  There are people and cars all around us, but she doesn’t even seem to notice because she’s too busy making eye contact with me. She seems like she understands so much that it makes me wonder if there’s something she’s had to carry around her whole life, too.

  “But maybe,” I say, “if I hadn’t given Aaron a ride to school, he wouldn’t have done what he did.”

  Brenda stops in the middle of the sidewalk. “I want you to hear this because it’s important, got it?”


  “It’s okay that you gave Aaron a ride. The fact that you gave him a ride didn’t make a difference. He was going to get to school and do what he did whether you picked him up or not. Do you understand that?”

  “How do you know?”

  “Because when someone like Aaron is set on doing something, he’s going to find a way no matter what.”

  There’s a bus stop bench nearby, and I motion to it. I want to stay there and just breathe. Brenda sits next to me. We look out at the street. We watch the traffic.

  Brenda says, “It’s a lot to take in, I know.”

  I nod. The wind is there. And the street. And the people. And the cars. I listen. I breathe. I think. I process. I’ve spent minutes, hours, weeks, and months thinking I could’ve made a difference if I hadn’t stopped to give him a ride. Or if I’d picked up on the clues that are so clear to me now. His backpack. His warning to skip first period. Everything he said. But if I believe what Brenda is telling me, I couldn’t have changed the outcome. Not at all.

  “Don’t punish yourself for being kind,” Brenda says. “Perhaps more people should’ve been kind to Aaron.”

  When I’m ready, we head inside the corner store. The smell of deli sandwiches crawls up my nostrils, making my mouth water. I remember roast beef on sourdough bread and sour cream and onion potato chips. I remember getting food to go on Saturdays in the summer and eating it on the beach with Sage while we watched the waves roll in. I suddenly want a roast beef sandwich because I can have a roast beef sandwich. I’m sick of grilled cheese.

  I cross over to the deli counter. Brenda follows me. She’s observing, not talking. I place my order, and the girl behind the counter rips off the bottom portion of the order ticket, writes the price on it, and hands it to me. I grip it between my fingertips as I cruise the aisles looking for baking supplies. Brenda is still there. She’s with me, but quiet. There are a few dusty boxes of cake mix on a shelf near the back freezer.

  “I don’t think people come here very often for birthday cake,” I say. I check the expiration dates on the frosting and the cake mix, settling on the one that expires in three
months instead of three weeks.

  I tap out all my funds paying for my sandwich and cake supplies. We leave, making our way back out to the pockmarked sidewalks of my town. I glance at the mailbox in front of me. I think of my letter and wonder if it has made its way across town yet. Brenda and I traipse past it, dodging a guy on a bike. The sudden swoosh of him makes me jump, and my heart speeds up.

  When we get back to my house, Brenda comes inside and I put my sandwich in the refrigerator for later. Brenda settles on a stool at the counter to watch me stir chocolate cake mix, eggs, and vegetable oil with a big wooden spoon. She asks me some questions, simple stuff about how I plan to decorate the cake and what sort of celebration we’re planning. I answer her while dumping the mix into a baking dish coated with cooking spray. When it’s time to go, she gives me a hug. She’s never done that before. It’s not creepy or anything. It’s just different. But it’s meaningful, too. It’s like her way of saying she’s happy with what I’m becoming.

  “Thank you for everything you do,” I tell her.

  “I’m happy to do it. You’ve helped me, too.”

  “I have? How?”

  She takes in a deep breath, closing her eyes. “We have more in common than you know. I’m just glad I can be here for you.”

  I hug her because that’s all I want to do. It’s the only response I have.

  “Ben’s going to love the cake,” she says as we pull away from each other.

  She smiles at me, and I think it’s weird how I might be helping her, too.

  chapter thirty-one

  My mom is relieved I baked a cake, because we’d be up hours past Ben’s bedtime if she had to bake one herself. Still, she wants to know how I got the ingredients.

  “Brenda and I took a field trip,” I explain. “We walked to the market on the corner.”

  “Morgan, that’s huge.” She holds my face in her hands. She kisses my forehead. “I’m so proud of you. I knew you could do it.”

  I nod. I’m glad she’s proud, but I don’t want to keep talking about it.

  Ben loves my cake. I used chocolate frosting and sprinkled brown sugar on top to look like dirt. Then I took some of Ben’s plastic dinosaurs and plunked them down on top of the brown sugar. My brother blows out the candles, then picks up each of the dinosaurs to lick the frosting from their feet. I reassure my mom that I washed all of them when she cringes in disgust.

  I cut slices of cake and slide them over to my mom and Ben at the counter. I stand in the kitchen to eat mine.

  Through a forkful of cake, Ben asks if we can play Go Fish after he takes his bath.

  “Dude, it’s your birthday. We can pretty much do whatever you want,” I say.


  He gets this look on his face like he’s thinking really hard about what he wants to do. I wait for him to ask for something over-the-top, like going for a ride on the old wooden roller coaster by the beach, but he doesn’t say it.

  “I wanna give Evan some cake,” he says. “Can he come over?”

  My mom looks at me over her plate, with her eyebrows raised like, Well, can he?

  “No way,” I say. “That’s not a good idea.”

  Ben slumps down on his stool, resting his chin on the counter. I’m a horrible sister to project my issues onto my little brother’s birthday celebration. But how can I sit here eating cake with Evan when he doesn’t even want to talk to me?

  My mom butts in. “I think it would be really nice to invite Evan over for a piece of cake.”

  Ben is off his stool and out the front door before I even come close to grabbing him by the collar of his shirt. The next thing I know, Evan’s shuffling sheepishly through our apartment in board shorts and a faded thermal. He takes a seat at the counter between Ben and my “Calm Down and Get It Together” checklist. I’m still in the kitchen so he stares me down through the space between the counter and the overhead cabinets.

  “Hey,” he says, nodding at me.


  “Can I have a piece with dirt on it?” he asks.

  This request sends Ben into a fit of giggles. “It’s just brown sugar.”

  “It is? Bummer. I wanted real dirt,” Evan says.

  Ben snort-laughs, choking on his milk for a second so that Evan has to pound his back and ask if he’s okay. Ben chills out, and my mom tells Evan his mom should come over, too.

  “I’m sure she’d love to, but she’s at my aunt’s,” he says through a mouthful of cake. He looks at Ben. “It’s too bad, because she loves cake with dirt on it.”

  Again, Ben snort-laughs.

  “Who doesn’t love cake with dirt on it?” I ask, trying to keep up the momentum.

  Evan jerks his head in my direction. “Whoa! You speak! I forgot what you sounded like.”

  Yeah, right. Like he even cares.

  “She sounds like this: wah wah wah wah wah,” Ben says.

  “I do not sound like that!”

  My mom stands up like she just received some offstage cue to busy herself in the kitchen. Ben sits there, oblivious, shoveling cake into his mouth. My mom opens a drawer. She rips off a ream of tinfoil. She covers the cake. She turns on the faucet. She rinses pots and pans from dinner. We had macaroni and cheese with a side of mashed potatoes because Ben got to pick. I’m going to have to do a double eighties aerobics workout tomorrow to make up for this meal.

  Evan and I watch each other, wondering who will talk next. I’m sick of cake, but I keep eating because it gives me something to do.

  “Do I really sound like that?” I finally ask Evan.

  “No.” He tosses a lopsided grin my way. “It’s actually more screechy.”

  I open my mouth to tell him off, but I can see that his lips are bunched up, holding in a laugh. I don’t know why it is that whenever he’s in my apartment everything seems less dark.

  “Very funny,” I say. “Seriously. You’re hilarious.”

  “Thanks. I know.”

  My mom finishes up and nudges me out of the kitchen by tapping her hip to mine. “How about we open presents?” she says, throwing her hands up in the air like she’s about to start a conga line.

  Ben jumps up and down because he’s officially six and presents are the best thing in the world when you’re six. My mom goes back to the bedroom to grab the gifts, and Evan and I settle on our respective ends of the couch. Ben sits in the middle of the floor waiting for my mom to hand the presents over. She returns with a couple of gifts and whips out her camera to take pictures as we watch Ben rip dinosaur-print wrapping paper off boxes like it’s a sport. My mom got him new Vans and an at-home science experiment kit. When he tears into the cardboard lining of the kit, she stops him.

  “Outside,” she tells him. “In daylight. I can’t have you burning down Paradise Manor.”

  I hand Ben a card I made. I drew a picture of him riding an apatosaurus and stuffed ten bucks of my own birthday money from September inside the card. “Save it,” I tell him.

  He nods. “Can we check the mail?” He pops up and riffles through the pile of envelopes on the counter. “I bet I got more.” He pulls an envelope free from between the coupon mailers and bills. “See? Here’s one.”

  “You’re very popular,” I say.

  Ben rips the envelope open. His forehead crinkles up as he reads the words on the front. “I don’t get it.”

  I pull it from his hands and read it to myself. In Deepest Sympathy it says. But it’s been crossed out with green pen and Happy Birthday has been scrawled underneath it in the barely legible chicken scratch I recognize immediately.

  “It’s from Dad,” I say.

  The whole room goes stiff. My dad isn’t here, but he’s still managing to make us feel as edgy as if he were sitting on the couch watching us through drunk eyes. And at the same time, even though I know it’ll only set me up for disappointment, there’s this sliver of longing. Of hope. It hits me at the core. I can see the expression on my mom’s face and on Ben’s. I know they’
re thinking the same thing: Did he change? Is he better? Does he still love us? But no.

  “What does it say?” Ben asks, all eager.

  I open the card up and read out loud. “Happy Birthday, Benjamin. See you soon. Love, Dad.”

  My mom is silent. Evan is, too. I want to throw up.

  “See you soon, my ass,” I mutter under my breath, tossing the card to Ben like a Frisbee.

  “Well, that was fun,” my mom says. She bends down to gather all the wayward wrapping paper and envelopes into a pile on the floor. “Time for your bath, Ben.”

  Evan high-fives my brother, and then Ben races down the hallway to the bathroom. “I owe you a present,” Evan calls out to him.

  My mom follows Ben. I pick up the wrapping paper and dump it into the trash can labeled for recycling. It’s full so I punch it down, deflating orange juice and milk cartons in the process. I pummel the pile until it settles into half the size of what it used to be.

  I punch it and punch it again.

  Evan’s fingertips brush my shoulder. I feel the heat of his fingers through my T-shirt.

  “Hey. Are you all right?” he asks.

  I push out from under him. “You don’t have to be nice to me.”

  “I know. But I’m doing it anyway. I must be a glutton for punishment.”

  I turn to look at him. “Why does my dad have to be like that?”

  “I’m the wrong person to ask. My dad’s not all that great himself.”

  Before I burst into a full-on sob, Evan pulls me to him. He grips me tight into a bear hug and rests his chin on top of my head. It’s such a relief. He smells like a mixture of sunblock and surf wax. We sway. His golden-tipped curls mix into my own hair and I breathe him in, wishing I didn’t have to let go of him again.

  “Thanks,” I tell him. My voice is muffled against his chest and his shirt. “Tomorrow you can go back to not talking to me.”

  He doesn’t say anything. He just grips me tighter, like he doesn’t want to let go, either.

  Once I’ve calmed down, he tilts my chin up to see him. “I need you to wait here. Can you wait right here? For just a second?”

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