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Underwater, p.14

Underwater, page 14



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  I shrug my shoulders. “Where else am I going to go?”

  He laughs. “I think you might surprise yourself.”

  Evan darts over to his apartment and comes back a minute later holding a canvas. It’s a pretty decent size, big like the ones we used in art class. He turns it around so I can see what’s painted on it.

  It’s me.

  Only it’s not me the way I am now. It’s me the way I was before. Vibrant. Alive.

  I take a step back. “How did you … Who painted that?” I ask.

  “Don’t freak out, okay?”

  “Should I freak out?”

  “Connor painted it.”

  “What? When?”

  He shrugs. “Last year. This is what he did. He painted portraits of people he cared about. Everyone in my family has one. I thought you should have yours. I’ve wanted to give it to you for a long time, but I didn’t want to weird you out.”

  I take the canvas from him and study it. It’s surreal to see someone else’s version of me so big. And flawless. Am I supposed to hang this in my room and stare at it? “Well, now I guess you know what I used to look like.”

  “What’re you talking about?”

  “This painting is obviously a totally idealized version of me.”

  “You’re hardly unattractive, Morgan.”

  “I’m hardly like this,” I say, gesturing to the painting.

  “No, you’re better.”

  “Oh, really? How so?”

  He sighs. “For the record, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. First of all, you aren’t ugly, so please stop saying that. You’re smart. And most of all, you’re real. Everything you’ve been through, and the way you’re trying to work through it, actually makes you more attractive. To me. But you’re so busy trying to convince me of all the reasons people shouldn’t like you that you can’t even see people do like you.”

  I think about that for a minute. Silently studying Evan and the way he’s silently studying me.

  “I like you,” he says.

  “I like you, too.”

  chapter thirty-two

  I see Aaron Tiratore in my dreams. Brenda knows. We’ve talked about it. She told me I should write my dreams down. I have bits and pieces of them on crinkled pieces of paper that I’ve shoved into the bottom of a drawer. Others, I ripped to shreds and dumped in the trash.

  In my dreams, I never know what kind of mood Aaron will be in. Sometimes he’s mad. Other times he’s my best friend. Usually, he changes his mood in the middle of a thought. But always, we’re in the hallway by the auditorium. In the alcove. It’s the last place I saw him. And every time we meet, I try to stop him.

  I dream of him tonight.

  On Ben’s birthday.

  In my dream, I’m running. I toss aside blankets and kick off sheets.

  I run so fast. We all do. We slam through doors and tear down hallways. Some people go this direction. Some people go that one. We all try to find a way out. We all try to find a place to hide that will only be ours. Some of us make it. Some of us don’t. One person falls to the ground right next to me as Aaron storms through classrooms and corridors. The principal yells over the loudspeaker that we are on lockdown. We are supposed to be huddled under desks and behind bolted doors, with the lights shut off, like we repeatedly practiced in school safety drills. But so many of us are running. So many of us are trying to get out. I hear screaming in the distance. I hear screaming right in front of me.

  I run and run.

  And then I wake up.

  I’m drenched in sweat. I think Aaron is here for real. In my apartment. I swear I hear his boots on the ground. Down the hall. I’m ready to scream until I realize Ben is breathing in the bed across from me. His green frog sweatshirt hangs from the bedpost, looking at me cross-eyed. My painting is propped up on my dresser even though it seems weird to have it there.

  I scrub at my eyes, trying to stop the flood of memories that won’t stop. But they’re here now. They want me to see them.

  And so I do.

  It becomes that day.

  I run to my secret spot. It’s a tiny alcove tucked into the end of the hallway by the auditorium. It’s where I went last spring when I found out Taylor Schneider was named sophomore swim team captain instead of me. It’s where I went when I needed to study for a math test and the cafeteria was too loud. Now, it’s where I go to try to stay alive.

  I cower in a ball. I hope I won’t hear anyone coming after me. In that alcove, I put my hands on top of my head. I rock. I feel exposed even though I’ve gone to the best place I know to hide. Static bits of my life weave a staccato rhythm through my brain. I picture Ben being born. I see fluorescent lights and the smile of the nurse before she laid him on my mom’s chest. I hear my mom’s laugh. I see her happy tears. I feel my tears, too. I watch Ben’s red face pucker up and scream. I remember my grandpa Ben. I hug him tight. I smell dinner cooking. I smell wet grass. I smell chlorine. I feel the water of the swimming pool through my fingers. I dive under a wave. I grab a handful of sand. I roll a snowball with fingers stuffed into bright red mittens. I feel the wind in my hair. I kiss someone who matters. I hold on.

  I wish for a happy ending.

  I hope whoever is doing this will pass me by. That they’ll turn down another hallway that leads right out of the school and into the back of a police car.

  But that’s not what happens.

  Instead, everything stops.

  It’s hard to breathe.

  I hear the whisper-thin scratch of him.

  He’s standing to the left of me.

  Blocking me in.

  I hear myself crying.

  “Look at me!” he shouts.

  His eyes are wild. He’s nothing like the person who sat in my car an hour ago. He’s not withdrawn. He’s in a moment that is only his. His puffy blue jacket is spattered with blood. He has a cut on his face. He’s wearing combat boots like the ones my dad wore in Afghanistan. Like the ones lined up in our closet when he returned home.

  But Aaron’s not a hero.

  He whips his gun around. He holds it to my head.

  I look at him.

  And then he freezes like he sees me and who I am. It’s as if a flash of a memory zipped through his brain and jolted him from his stupor. And all I can do is hope that it means something.

  “Please don’t,” I whimper. “Please.”

  He puts his hand to his ear and motions for me to listen. “Do you hear that? Sirens. They’re coming.” His voice is faraway and dreamy, like he’s remembering a family vacation or building a fort as a kid. Like he’s thinking of waterslides and chocolate-dipped ice-cream cones. “It won’t be long now.”

  He looks at me like he wants me to say something back, so I nod. The tip of his gun presses hard against my forehead when I do it.

  I wish my life had been better.

  I wish I were leaving something significant behind.

  I close my eyes tight because I don’t want Aaron’s eyes to be the last things I see.

  “There’s a part of me that wanted you to figure it out,” he says, tapping his fingertips to my chin, forcing me to open my eyes and see him.

  His gun is on my forehead. I’m waiting.

  “I’m sorry,” he says.

  I wait still. Crying. Begging.

  And then Aaron abruptly pulls the gun away from my head, shoves the tip of it into his mouth, and shoots.

  * * *

  I have to remind myself that it isn’t happening right now. It did happen. On October fifteenth. But today is May twenty-third, seven months later. I’m in my apartment, far away from school. And the alcove. And Aaron. And his gun.

  I consider waking up my mom.

  I won’t.

  I think of my emergency pills and whether or not I need one.

  I don’t.

  I sink back into my pillow and stare at the ceiling.

  I listen to Ben breathe through the dark.

  I wonder wh
at he dreams.

  * * *

  After October fifteenth, after that day, everyone wanted answers. Before Aaron’s Facebook page was disabled, news outlets released photographs from his profile. They found the worst ones. The ones that painted the picture of a kid who was angry and alone. They interviewed neighbors who said Aaron spent weekends tinkering in the garage. His mom revealed Aaron had been in therapy since middle school. His dad revealed he kept guns in the house. For protection. From the world. Not from his son. Those were the guns Aaron brought to school on October fifteenth.

  “Aaron was a loner. He kept to himself,” a classmate said in front of the makeshift memorial at PPHS. It was night and dark and she held a candle that dripped wax into the tiny paper plate surrounding it, the edges flipped up like a summer skirt.

  The school choir sang sad songs.

  Students wept.

  Parents hugged.

  And the only person who could give us answers, who could tell us why, was gone.

  I never told anybody until Brenda that I’d given Aaron a ride to school on October fifteenth. But I did tell the police Aaron had killed himself in front of me. I told them when I was in the separate language arts building line on the football field. I said I was the last person to see him. That’s why I had to go to the police station. They hoped I’d have answers I didn’t have.

  chapter thirty-three

  Summer is almost here. The air is telling me so. Evan went to the desert with his mom for the Memorial Day weekend, and I haven’t heard him or seen him or breathed the ocean smell of him since Ben’s birthday.

  “I’ve never been to the desert. I heard it’s unbearably hot. Will I melt?” Evan asked Ben when he left our apartment that night with a giant slice of dinosaur birthday cake for his mom.

  “Just watch out for rattlesnakes,” Ben warned him. “They come out at night.”

  And now it’s Wednesday and Ben and Evan are back at school. My mom is at work. By the afternoon, the inside of my apartment is so hot, I can hardly breathe. I slide the bedroom window open and sit in the fresh air that comes through the screen. I’ve got my notebook propped on my lap and thoughts in my head. I’m writing down things I remember from years ago. I remember when Ben was small and I was bold. I recall wildfire warnings. I remember the way ash blew down from the foothills and into the courtyard of Paradise Manor two Septembers ago. There was the smell of smoke in the air and the burn of it in my lungs and my eyes. Sunsets blistered the sky in pink and orange. I stood at the edge of the swimming pool and scooped out ash, dumping it into a pile next to my bare feet. I scooped out the ash because it was a hot day and I wanted to swim.

  That same heat is here this afternoon, minus the smoke.

  My hair sticks to my forehead. My underarms stink.

  I think of the pool downstairs. I could jump right in right now. I would cool off in no time. I make the choice. I leap off my bed and pull off my clothes. I yank my team suit from the door handle where it’s been taunting me for months. I slide it on. The good thing about Speedos is that they stretch. My suit effortlessly sucks up the pounds I still need to lose. I grab my goggles and race down the hall and out the door. Barefoot in my bathing suit.

  The turquoise water winks at me.

  It licks a come-hither message at the edges.

  I skitter down the stairs. I stop shy of the pool. I back up to the front gate. I take a running start.

  I leap.

  For a split second, I fly through the air. My feet hit first. The splash echoes through the courtyard. My body sinks downward in follow-through. Oh, the pure bliss of cool water and chlorine.

  In my hair.

  On my skin.

  Through my fingertips.

  I rise to the surface and kick my feet, blasting through the water and gulping in air. I climb out and scoop the leaves from the surface of the pool. There aren’t many of them. I think Evan has been busy with the upkeep. I jump back in when I’m done.

  The pool is small, but I take long, even strokes, propelling back and forth, wall to wall. I’m weightless. I’m free. I’m where I’m meant to be. People either are or are not of the water. It either means something to them or it doesn’t. I know in this moment that I’m not myself without it. I know this as much as I know anything. My need is palpable.

  I swim. I float. I breathe. I burn. I hope. I dream. I think. I wonder. I am.

  I think of Evan in the ocean and on his surfboard. I think of him loving the water as much as I do.

  And then I sink to the bottom of the pool.

  My hair floats out around me. I hold my breath. My goggles make everything crystal clear, from the crack in the bright blue tile mosaic in the deep end to the leaf stuck in the drain. I let out the air from my lungs slowly, watching tiny bubbles rise to the surface.

  Blip, blip, blip.

  Pop, pop, pop.

  I’m watching. I’m waiting. I’m about to rise up again when the water suddenly jostles me. Someone else has jumped in. They yank me from behind, holding me tight so I can’t move as they pull me up and through the surface. I scream and flail, splashing water everywhere with my feet. My brain is about to go into full-blown panic mode.

  “What the hell?” I yell, punching at nothing because whoever is holding me is gripping me so tightly that my hands are about as effective as the forelimbs on a Tyrannosaurus rex in one of Ben’s dinosaur books.

  “What are you doing?” Freaking Evan.

  “What are you doing? Let go of me! I don’t need saving!”

  We hit the waist-high water of the shallow end and Evan lets me go. He’s fully clothed. His hair is dripping, and a bright green T-shirt advertising a Hawaiian shave ice shop clings to him. I push him hard. Even though we’re only waist-deep, he rocks back on his feet despite the fact that he’s so big and brawny.

  “I’m sorry,” he says. “I thought maybe you were doing something stupid.”

  “I’m not stupid!”

  “I didn’t say you were stupid. I said I thought you might be doing something stupid.”

  Underwater, I curl my hands into fists like Ben does when my mom tells him he can’t watch a TV show past his bedtime. “That’s the same thing!”

  Evan pushes his hair back from his face and water droplets fly off the curly ends and land in the pool. “I thought you were drowning, okay? I thought I was helping you. I’m sorry.”

  He looks sincerely apologetic, with his big brown eyes bewildered. But I’m too mad to care. Okay, maybe I care a little bit.

  I rip off my goggles and toss them onto the pool deck. They skip then skid. I point at my Speedo. “Hello? Swimming here. Kind of a big deal for me.”

  “You weren’t swimming. You were sitting at the bottom of the pool doing nothing. I thought you were drowning.”

  “I was thinking!”

  “Well, stop thinking!”

  “How am I supposed to do that?”

  He’s poised to yell again. He opens his mouth to let loose. But then he clamps it shut. He smacks at the surface of the pool because we’re still standing in the shallow end. Drops of water fly up into the air and splash back down again. I roll my eyes. He rolls his back.

  Eye-roll challenge.

  He crosses his arms over his chest, all huffing and puffing and blowing my house down. I try to muffle a laugh, but it spits out of my mouth and breaks through the courtyard.

  “What’s so funny?” he asks.

  I try to be serious, but when I look at him, I know my eyes are cracking up. “You jumped in with your clothes on,” I say.

  “Yeah? So what?”

  “That’s so dramatic,” I mutter. “I was just thinking.”

  “There are better places to think, you know?”

  “I used to do all my thinking underwater.”

  He leans back on his elbows against the edge of the pool, shifting to casual, like we’re suddenly at some fancy resort where people order drinks with tiny umbrellas in them.

  “Okay, so what
were you thinking about that was so important?”

  “I don’t know. Stuff.”

  “Like what?”

  Who is he? Brenda? “Like that it felt good to be back in the pool.” Since Evan is of the water, he will understand what I mean.



  “That’s good.”

  He reaches out his hand. He flutters his fingers in the pool, daring me to take them. I reach out to him, only my fingertips at first. Then he grabs my hand to knot our fingers together just under the surface.

  “What else?” he asks.

  “Nothing.” I look at our hands before I look at him. “Maybe you a little.”

  “I like that.” He pulls me closer to him. I look up. He looks down, pushing my wet hair back from my face. “But only a little?”

  I nod.

  “I wish you thought about me more than a little,” he says. “I think about you more than a little.”

  I flutter in my heart and in my hands. “I might think about you more than a little. If I’m being honest.”


  I nod again. “But I shouldn’t because of Taylor.”

  “Taylor? What? Why?”

  “Aren’t you guys a thing?”

  “Whoa. Not even. We just hang out. And surf.”

  He leans in, bit by bit. Close enough to make me suck in a breath.


  He grins. “I swear.”

  “So you’re glad that I think about you?”

  He nods.

  “And you think about me?”

  He nods again.


  He leans in a little more. And I wait. He slows down for only a second. Until he finally presses his mouth to mine. We’re all soft lips and pool water until suddenly we’re not. We quickly become swoony thoughts and grabby hands. We’re clumsy and giggling until off in the distance someone whistles and claps.

  “Woo-hoo! Get some!” they yell.

  I break away from Evan to look over his shoulder and see Taylor standing by the mailboxes. Her camouflage tank top and black workout pants are drenched in pink, yellow, and pale blue paint, while her arm muscles bulge out as buff as G. I. Jane’s.

  “I knew it,” she squeaks. “God, I love love.”

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