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Underwater a novel, p.16

Underwater: A Novel, page 16


Underwater: A Novel

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  “Oh, my god. It’s so not okay. That’s the most embarrassing thing ever.”

  He pulls me toward him to kiss my forehead. “Don’t worry. My mom’s not weird about stuff like that.”

  “Evan, I was just straddling you on your bed. All moms are weird about stuff like that.”

  “Well, she doesn’t know you were straddling me.”


  “What can I say?” He laughs. “My mom’s weird about not being weird.”

  “I gotta go.”

  He hugs me and won’t let go. And then his warm breath is in my ear, ticklish and tantalizing all at once. “Hey, I’m not embarrassed, okay?”

  “I am.”

  “Don’t be.” He kisses me once. Gentle. Chaste.

  “Yeah, right.”

  He leans back to look at me. His lips poke up into a teasing smile. He makes me want to smile, too.

  “Stop it. Why do you always do that?”

  “Do what?”

  “Make me laugh.”

  He pushes back to lean against the balcony railing. The moon is a bright crescent high in the sky behind him. The breeze sways swiftly, picking up his fluffy curls in its wake. Like he’s posing perfectly for a photograph.

  “Morgan, don’t you know? Making you laugh is my greatest accomplishment.”

  I roll my eyes, trying not to snort-laugh like Ben. “Don’t be corny.”

  He shrugs. “Sometimes the truth is corny. Sometimes I’m corny. But you know that’s why you like me.” He smiles a smile that takes over his whole face, pressing his dimples deep into his cheeks. He pushes forward from the balcony railing and grabs for the handle of his screen door. He turns to me before he pulls it open. “Turn that phone back on, okay?”


  I tiptoe through my apartment and down the hall. I do everything I can to keep the door to my room from creaking when I open it. I trip when I get halfway across the room because Ben has managed to kick off all his sheets so they’re in a pile on the floor. My feet get tangled up in them as I grope through the dark to get to my bed. I slip off my skirt and pull my bra through the armhole of my T-shirt, then fall backward on top of my comforter, clutching Evan’s old phone in my hand. It buzzes as soon as I turn it on.

  Evan: So actually not just a room.

  I have to stifle a giggle.

  Me: Smartass.

  Evan: Smartass. Boyfriend. Whatever you want to call it, I’m happy. See you tomorrow.

  chapter thirty-five

  “So I have a boyfriend,” I tell Brenda as we stroll around the block, past dilapidated doorways and beaten-up bus stops two days later.



  I wait for her to say it’s not okay. To say I’m not ready. Or I will ruin him. She takes a sip from her iced coffee, the sweaty condensation dripping down the sides of the cup and coating her fingertips, then looks at me thoughtfully.

  “Morgan, I think that’s positively wonderful.”

  “You do?”

  She tweaks her neck in a double take. “Well, of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

  “Maybe because it was only last week that I set foot out of my front gate again?”

  She sips. She sighs. “Getting out the front gate isn’t the only thing that matters here. I know it might not always feel that way, especially with me, but it’s true. Being open to new experiences and relationships is important, too.”

  I want to believe her. I want to trust her trust in me.

  “Tell me about him,” she says. “Evan.”

  It feels weird talking about this kind of stuff with Brenda. She’s a grown-up. Right now, I miss Sage. I miss sitting at the lunch tables underneath the swaying palm trees while sharing play-by-plays of conversations and kisses.

  “He makes me laugh. He doesn’t sugarcoat things for me. He doesn’t expect me to sugarcoat things for him. He doesn’t tread lightly. He gets me.”

  I leave it at that because I can’t tell her the other parts, like how it feels when Evan kisses me or itsy-bitsy-spiders his fingertips along my spine.

  “It’s a remarkable feeling, isn’t it?” she says. “When someone gets you?”

  I nod. A few feet ahead of us, a toddler becomes tangled up between his mom’s legs. I push forward to catch his fall, but he rights himself just in time. Brenda doesn’t notice. She’s focused on me.

  “I think Evan is good for you. And it sounds like you’re good for Evan, too.”

  “Wow. Nobody has said anything like that to me in a long time.”

  “Like what?”

  “That I was good for someone.”

  We stop. We stand.

  “Morgan, of course you’re good for people. What would Ben be without you? What would your mom be?”

  I shrug. “I don’t know. Unburdened?”

  “Why do you think you’re a burden?”

  “Aren’t I? It’s all about me all the time.”

  “Is it?”

  I think of our life. I think of my apartment and how it feels at the end of the day when everyone is home. I think of dinner and details. Of baths and bedtime stories. Of TV shows and talking. Of weekends and waffles. Of good nights and good mornings. Okay, so it’s not all about me. It’s about all of us.

  “Fine. Maybe not all the time,” I concede.

  We head back to Paradise Manor. The sun is bright. School will be out for summer break in three weeks. We pass the corner market where Memorial Day decorations from the past weekend have easily morphed into Fourth of July decor. There are streamers and sparklers in a bin by the door. I want to buy a sparkler and light it up in the darkness of the night. I want to watch it sizzle and fizzle in my hand. It will pop and sputter, then disappear as if it had never caught fire in the first place.

  Brenda tips her chin toward a trash can, crosses over, tosses her coffee cup, and turns back to me. “I can tell you you’re not a burden. Your mom can tell you you’re not a burden. But you have to believe it yourself. Will you try?”

  “I always try.”

  “Yes, you do.”

  chapter thirty-six

  There’s no texting about whether Evan and I should hang out after school the next day; we just do. We sprawl out on chaise longues in the courtyard and move into my apartment when the other residents of Paradise Manor come home and open their windows wide enough to make the courtyard feel less private. We legitimately try to do homework because Evan really does need to raise his grade in trigonometry. But we keep getting distracted by each other. When he lifts his arms above his head to stretch, for instance, I can’t help but notice the way his shirt rides up. And he looks so cute in his reading glasses. I think he might be wearing them on purpose now.

  Today slips into tonight. We quit quizzing with notecards as the TV hums quietly in the background. Evan leans over to kiss me but pulls back when Ben races in, dumps his backpack on the floor, and stops still in front of me.

  “Look out,” he says, out of breath. “Mom’s mad.”

  “Not good,” Evan says as Ben races away from us. “I should go.”

  He stands up, but I pull him back down to the couch. “Stay. I’m sure it’s fine.”

  My mom stomps through the house. She halts in front of me, waving an open envelope in one hand and a wrinkled piece of paper in the other.

  “What is this? Really, Morgan! What is this?” she shouts.

  She tosses both at me. They drift through the air, then land solidly on my lap. The envelope rests on my right thigh, writing side up.

  My letter. My letter to Aaron Tiratore.

  RETURN TO SENDER, ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN is stamped across the middle of it in bright red ink.

  For three weeks, my letter has floated around in limbo with no idea where to go.

  Evan looks at my lap. At the letter. At me. He tries to understand.

  I pull up from the couch to close in on my mom. “You read it? You actually read my letter? How could you? That is such a violation!”
  Evan is all ears. I’m all sweat and a quickened heartbeat. Also, a throbbing vein at my temple. My mom hasn’t even acknowledged the fact that Evan’s here. She couldn’t care less that she’s embarrassing me.

  My mom points at me. “You do not owe that boy any kind of forgiveness, Morgan Grant. None. Zero.”

  I push up on the balls of my feet and lean in. “Wait. I don’t or you don’t?”

  “Anyone! Nobody owes him a damn thing after what he did. And what are you even talking about here? What car ride? What does that mean?”

  I glance at Evan. His face is angled down at his notebook. He works the tip of his pen through the metal spirals, releasing tiny flakes of paper onto his jiggling knee.

  I look back at my mom. “Can we talk about this privately, please?”

  “I’m gonna go,” Evan says, bouncing up from the couch. He collects his things, but doesn’t bother stuffing any of it into his backpack. He just leaves the room with papers and folders and half-open books hanging out from under his arms. Ben stands by the front door, shifting from one foot to the other like he has to pee.

  “Come with me,” Evan tells him, and they head out.

  The door shuts with a rattle, and then it’s just my mom and me and the murmur of the almost-muted voices on the TV.

  “Well, that was pretty over-the-top. Did you have to do all of that in front of Evan?”

  She doesn’t hear me. She just launches into everything. “Why did you write this letter? Who did you hope would read it?”

  “Nobody. The person I wrote it to is dead! You think I don’t know that?”

  She looks at me seriously, lowering her voice like she’s going to tell me a secret. “Did you think his parents still lived there? Were you hoping they’d see it? Were you looking for answers?”

  “God! I wasn’t looking for anything, okay? It was just something I had to do. It was a relief. Like when I let go of it in the mailbox, I let go of other things, too.”

  Is that true? Is that all it was? Or did I hope, deep down, that Aaron’s parents would see my letter and offer up some kind of an explanation? An apology? Something that would make me feel better? Because of course I knew they moved. Why would they stay? I’d even heard about the “For Sale” sign stuck into the crunchy brown grass of the front yard that people had defaced with red paint and rotten eggs. But if I knew they’d moved, then did I hope my letter would miraculously reach them? They had left without a trace. Nobody knew where they’d gone. And there’s no way they would’ve left a forwarding address. They didn’t want to be found. But I sent a letter anyway.

  I sink back down onto the couch. I’m exhausted, as if I’ve just swum anchor for a relay race. My mom slumps down next to me. She pulls the letter from between the worn couch cushions. She holds it in her hand.

  “His parents should’ve done better,” she says. “They should’ve stopped him.”

  “Maybe they tried. All the news stories said he’d been in therapy. Maybe they couldn’t do more than that,” I say. “Maybe they tried everything until they had to stop caring.”

  “I guess that’s how it might’ve been, huh?”

  “Like with Dad.”

  My mom’s back goes stiff. “Is that what you think? That I’ve stopped caring about your dad?”

  I shrug. “I don’t know.” Yes.

  My mom takes my hand and squeezes it. Her forehead crinkles. Her eyes get shiny. “Oh, Morgan. How can I say this in a way that you will understand? I care about your dad. But I care about you and Ben more. Does that make sense? That’s why I don’t understand Aaron’s parents. How could they not have helped? He was their son. How could they not have known?”

  “I know the choices you made for Ben and me. But parents can’t always know everything. Should you have known that I’d go crazy?”

  “You’re not crazy.” She says it like I’m crazy for thinking I’m crazy.

  “What about Dad? Is he crazy?”

  She sighs. “Your dad is sick. Not crazy. I don’t like that word, crazy.”

  Crazy does feel like it weighs a lot. It’s a weight I’ve been grappling with ever since Aaron Tiratore stormed through the hallways of my school. What is crazy? Was Aaron crazy? Is it fair to call someone that?

  “But you know Dad needs help,” I say. “How are you any different from Aaron’s parents if you don’t get him help? The last time he was at Grandma’s, it was like you didn’t even want to try.”

  “Are you kidding? You know how hard I tried to get your dad help! But he’s a grown man. I’m a mom, but I’m not his mom. I’m your mom. When you needed help, I got you help because that’s what parents do. And when it was better for you and Ben to not have Dad around, I made that choice, too.”

  “Maybe it’d make you feel better to forgive him. Like I did with Aaron.”

  She looks at me, startled.

  “That’s why I wrote the letter,” I say. “I had to forgive Aaron in order to forgive myself. Maybe you need to do the same thing.”

  “Maybe so.” She leans back and stares up at the ceiling. The words feel so big, like they’re just sitting there in a pile between us. Everything is quiet for a moment, and then my mom takes a deep breath like she’s preparing herself. “What do you mean you need to forgive yourself? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

  I answer her calmly. “I gave Aaron a ride to school on October fifteenth.”

  She pushes up, shaking her head like she didn’t hear me right. “What?”

  “Brenda knows. But I’ve been carrying it around. That guilt. I felt like it was partially my fault he did what he did because I drove him there.”

  “Oh, honey.” She reaches for me. She has a look of pity on her face.

  I hate that look.

  “Please don’t. I’m okay. I forgave myself. Because I forgave Aaron.”

  “I see.”

  We’re quiet like that. There’s the silence and the air and the light beaming down from the ceiling above us. When my mom stands up again, she shoves the letter back into the envelope and hands it over to me. I look at the RETURN TO SENDER stamp, blaring bright red and permanent. That stamp makes it seem like Aaron never existed. Like his life has been erased. He did what he did because he wanted people to remember him, but his name isn’t even on the memorial wall.

  chapter thirty-seven

  After breakfast on Monday morning, I do aerobics in front of the TV with the windows open wide so the day can come in. I can do the whole workout now without running out of breath. I bounce from one foot to the other, pumping my fists up in the air while sweat drips down my face. After that, I put on my stretched-out Speedo and swim laps in the pool. I have no idea how far I go. The pool is only fifteen yards, so the laps are there and done too quick to count. Still, I can feel the strength in my muscles and my lungs and I have faint tan lines across my back again.

  When I come back inside, wrapped in a towel, my hair dripping wet down my back, the home phone rings. The woman on the other end asks if either Carol or Morgan Grant is available, and I tell her that I am. She tells me her name is Karen and that she’s calling from Pacific Palms Primary. Ben’s school. My stomach flips up and over itself like a trapeze artist.

  There’s a scratchy sound followed by a bang, like she’s muffling the phone with her hand. “I, um, I have a Mr. Richard Grant here to pick up Ben,” she says. “He claims to be Ben’s dad, but I don’t have his name on the emergency release form. It says we can release Ben to you or Carol or his after-school program. Does Richard Grant have permission to take Ben?”

  Everything stops long enough to feel like forever. And when the seconds start again, they’re revved up like race cars.

  “No. Don’t let Ben go. He can’t go with him.” I say these things, panicked and petrified.

  “He’s, um, rather insistent,” she says.

  “I’m coming,” I say. “I’m coming right now.”

  I turn off the phone and toss it onto the desk, then race down the
hall to my room. I pull sweats on over my damp suit, run back through the apartment, and grab my car keys from the hook in the kitchen. Everything is automatic at first. Slapping through the screen door and tearing down the stairs and through the courtyard doesn’t even faze me. But when I run out to the back of the building, I stop still at the line of marked parking spots. What I’m doing hits me full-force. I look at my car covered in the navy blue tarp. I can’t move forward. I’m frozen, gripping my key ring in my hand. I grip it so tightly that the teeth of my house key dig into my palm enough to make an indentation.

  And then I pace. I walk back and forth, from parking spaces 200 to 215. Counting up. Counting down. I can’t do this. How can I do this? I sink to my knees, trying to catch my breath. My stomach churns. I lurch forward like a cat. I retch. Nothing comes up. I pant in place until the warm pavement soaks through the knees of my sweatpants and scrapes the palms of my hands. What good am I?

  And then I think of Ben. I think of the googly eyes on his frog costume and the way he pronounces the word paleontologist incorrectly when he talks about dinosaurs. I think of the way he squeezes my cheeks between his hands so I can’t say “I love you” coherently before he kisses me. I think of the way he sleeps and runs and jumps and dreams. I think of all that he doesn’t know and all that he shouldn’t have to know. Not yet. And because of that, I stand up and yank the tarp off my car, leaving it in a crumpled mess on the ground.

  I get inside and shove the key into the ignition. The engine growls in protest from so many months of not being driven while the exhaust pipe coughs up black smoke into the alley.

  I sit for a moment.

  My seat rumbles underneath me.

  I grip the steering wheel.

  I look over my shoulder.

  I back my car out.

  I go.

  When I round the corner and merge into traffic, there are lights and bikes and people and things that make me jerk in my seat. I continually start and stop my car with a jolt, trying to avoid everyone and everything. Even though I’m alone, all I can see is Aaron Tiratore sitting next to me clutching a backpack full of secrets. I dry-heave at a stoplight and quickly roll down all the windows in case I puke for real.

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