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Underwater a novel, p.18

Underwater: A Novel, page 18

 

Underwater: A Novel
 


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  And I want to yell, Stop! Get off the stage!

  But I can’t move. I can’t make a scene. Because it’s fine. It’s probably fine.

  What if it’s not fine?

  I walk back through the door, down the aisle, and right up to the boy and his backpack. I tap him on the shoulder and attempt to grab his bag at the same time.

  “I need to check this,” I say louder than I should, like I’m important enough to have that right. He tries to pull it away from me.

  “Morgan! Sit down!” my mom hisses.

  Evan looks back and forth from me to the guy like he’s trying to figure out what’s going on. Really, everyone is looking at me. And I know what they’re thinking. Who is this crazy girl with the nerve to cause such a disruption at an adorable kindergarten play? Why don’t they realize I might be saving all of them?

  It gets even worse when the kindergarten forest animals stop in the middle of their performance to watch. I can see Ben squinting at me through the rainbow-colored stage lights. And I know it’s time to take my meltdown right on out of this auditorium. I give the backpack one final tug until I have it, and when I start walking back up the aisle with it, the guy has no other choice but to follow me.

  “What’re you doing? Who are you?” he asks, trying to pull his bag from me when we reach the lobby. I yank it back and unzip it.

  “I just need to check this,” I say.

  When I look inside, I see two binders, a book, and an aluminum water bottle—that must be what made the clanging sound—staring back at me. I unzip the smaller pocket in front to dig around through pens, pencils, and pennies. And I know how crazy I really seem. Once I’m satisfied, I hand his backpack over to him.

  “Thanks,” I say. “All good.”

  “Seriously? You’re weird,” he grumbles, zipping the backpack up. “If my sister’s scene wasn’t coming up, I’d report you to security or something.”

  And then he’s gone. And I’m left standing here in front of a bunch of sweet-looking moms acting like they’re too busy loading plastic plates with cookies and cupcakes for intermission to pay attention to what just happened. Except for one of them. One of them watches me, frozen, with a fluffy pink cupcake in her hand. When Evan shows up, I pull past him and through the front doors of the auditorium into the cool air and dusky twilight. I leave the warm lights of the theater lobby behind me and run to find a place to hide. I finally settle on the wall around the corner. I slide down it. It’s smooth, like marble, so it doesn’t hurt my back or catch my shirt. I sit on my butt, holding my thighs tight to my chest. I rest my forehead against my knees and try to breathe.

  “Morgan?” Evan whispers from around the corner, as if we’re still inside and he doesn’t want to interrupt the performance.

  I rock back and forth, back and forth.

  “Morgan,” he tries again.

  “I’m over here,” I say. “Lurking in the shadows. Like a vampire.”

  He chuckles as he rounds the corner and slides down next to me. He knocks his knee against mine. “You okay? Was it too dark, maybe?”

  “I don’t think my problem was the lights being out.”

  “I meant the play. That was some pretty dark shit for a bunch of kindergartners. All those forest animals trying to find their way across the river before dinnertime? Mind blown.” He unfolds his fingers on each side of his head to indicate explosions.

  I smile at him through the evening light.

  “I freaked out when I saw the backpack,” I say.

  “I know.” I like that he knows. I like that I don’t have to explain more than that.

  We sit quietly for many minutes, just breathing in the salty smell of the summer air while Evan traces circles in the palm of my hand with his fingertip. Around and around he goes until at least ten minutes pass, which feels like a lot when your brother is the star of the play.

  “I made a scene.” I sigh.

  “Honestly, I don’t think anyone really even understood what was going on. The play’s just that good.” I actually giggle. “It’s okay. We’ll just sit here until you’re ready to go back in.”

  “Ben saw me leave. He knows I’m gone.”

  “Then don’t be gone.”

  “I’ve missed so much already.”

  “Don’t miss any more.”

  He stands up.

  He reaches for my hand.

  I take it.

  chapter forty

  “I freaked out at Ben’s play,” I tell Brenda the next Tuesday as I sip a Slurpee on the hood of my car in a 7-Eleven parking lot a few blocks from my house. Brenda has an iced coffee, which I’ve come to realize is her drink of choice. It’s the last week of school for Evan, Ben, and me. I have final projects and an appointment with a testing proctor to freak out over, but instead of working on them, I’m spending the afternoon doing driving lessons with Brenda. They’re nothing like the lessons I took with my high school’s PE teacher when I was fifteen and got my learner’s permit. Instead, Brenda’s teaching me tricks to what she’s dubbed “maintaining the brain” in my car.

  “I missed practically the whole first half of the performance,” I say, remembering how disappointed Ben looked when I hugged him into my arms in the lobby. “He asked me where I went during ‘the best scene of the whole thing.’ I felt awful.”

  “What did you say?”

  “I told him a half truth. I said I didn’t feel good and needed some air. And that I went back as soon as I could.”

  Brenda takes a long look at me. “That’s fair.”

  “Is it? He’s just a little kid, and I totally let him down.”

  “You did the best you knew how to do at the time. It’s not uncommon to have setbacks, Morgan. That’s okay as long as you don’t let those moments define you. You went back inside and saw the rest of the play. That’s what matters.”

  “I guess so.”

  Brenda lifts her dreadlocks away from her neck. She uses them like a fan to air herself out in the heat of the day.

  “It’s hot,” I acknowledge.

  “It is. Do you mind if I run in and grab a refill?” She shakes her empty cup at me, and the melting ice cubes bounce against the plastic.

  I hesitate a little. The idea of sitting here alone with my thoughts is unsettling. But it’s not like Brenda’s running across town. She’s going fifty feet away. I can watch her the whole time.

  “Okay, yeah,” I say, like I’m talking myself into it. “Go ahead.”

  “I’ll be quick.” She slides off the hood of my car, being careful not to scratch it. “Need anything else?”

  I shake my head, holding up my Slurpee. “I can’t even finish this.”

  I dig my fingernails into the palm of my hand as I watch Brenda head inside and toward the self-serve aisle. But I turn from watching her when a group of buff construction workers pull up in two separate trucks on either side of my car. They hop out, dirty work boots hitting the asphalt, and pat their pants pockets in search of cigarettes. One of them looks at me, his long dusty hair floating over his eyelids. He’s tall and lanky, not like the other ones. He still looks like a teenager. He nods hey, like he knows me.

  He doesn’t.

  “Nice ride,” he says, motioning to my car. His Southern accent tells me he didn’t grow up in Pacific Palms.

  When I don’t respond, he smirks.

  “Oh, I see how it is. Too good for me, eh?” He shakes his head, moving closer. “You local girls kill me.”

  I do a quick take over my shoulder, feeling the need to plan an escape route. When he leans against the driver’s side door to help himself to a peek inside my car, my heart hiccups and my insides ripple. I look through the window of the 7-Eleven for Brenda, willing her to hurry up and get out here. She’s in the checkout line, watching us. She gives me a warm smile, like this creepy dude is no big deal.

  “Clean dash. How old?” the guy says, swiping his index finger across the top of my steering wheel.

  I dig my nails
deeper into the palm of my hand. “It’s a fifty-seven.”

  “Wow. Someone must really like you.” He looks me up and down in a way that lets me know he means the double entendre.

  I need Brenda to get out here right now. What’s taking her so long? I glance back inside to see her laughing at something the store clerk is saying. The guy leans against the driver’s side door and rests his elbow on the roof of the Bel Air.

  “Please don’t touch my car,” I say. The words come out sounding more like a plea than a demand.

  He takes a couple steps back, slowly looks me up and down again, and puts his hands up in surrender. “Chill out, Local Girl. I’m just looking.” He shakes his head and saunters toward the door of the 7-Eleven. He hits the entrance at the same time Brenda is exiting, and I watch him as he moves aside to hold the door open for her. She thanks him and walks toward me with a smile on her face, like she’s still enjoying whatever it was the clerk said to her in there.

  “Way to take your time,” I say, carefully sliding off the car, ready to leave.

  She grabs my elbow to stop me. “Hey now, what are you so upset about?”

  “Didn’t you see me getting harassed out here by Mr. Psycho?”

  “Mr. Psycho? You mean the cute guy who was standing by your car? What did he do? Did I miss something?”

  I notice he’s watching us through the window. He’s ripped open a bag of potato chips and is eating them right there in the middle of the store before he’s even paid for them. He looks more curious than anything, like I’ve just baffled him somehow.

  “That guy was practically climbing into my car and you didn’t even notice! You were too busy making friends with everyone inside the 7-Eleven!”

  Brenda jerks back from my words just as a mom with two kids comes out the door. She stops to look at us. I guess I’m going to be loud right here in the middle of the parking lot in the middle of the day.

  “You brought me outside and abandoned me!”

  “That was not abandonment, Morgan. And I didn’t come running out to your rescue because I didn’t see anything that looked worrisome.”

  “Well, maybe that shows how little you know.”

  “Oh, really? And you know everything, do you?” Brenda slams her drink down on the roof of my car, making me flinch. She better not have made a scratch.

  “I know that guy was creepy. I know that much.”

  “Fine. Talk to me. What about him made you nervous?”

  “Everything!”

  “I want you to be specific. Did he remind you of Aaron?”

  “No.”

  “Did he say something that troubled you?”

  “He was definitely overly friendly.”

  “And that made you uncomfortable.”

  “Yes. And if you really cared, you would’ve recognized it. But I guess you don’t care. I guess I’m nothing but a professional duty to you.”

  “Are you kidding? You are so much more than a professional duty to me. You are me!” She stops herself, shaking her head, realizing what she said.

  “What does that mean?”

  “Nothing. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Let’s go.”

  She grabs her coffee and walks around to the passenger side of my car. I don’t exactly want to spend time with Brenda in a confined space right now, but when the construction workers head back out to their trucks, I scramble into the driver’s seat. The guy who was all over my car gives me a sarcastic military hand salute as he passes me.

  “You’re right. He’s kind of creepy,” Brenda mutters.

  I turn to look at her. “I told you.”

  She shrugs her shoulders, but she still seems peeved because she doesn’t look at me.

  “Oh, now you’re annoyed with me?”

  “I’m not annoyed, Morgan. You can just be extra challenging sometimes. That’s all.”

  I turn to face her. “If I’m so challenging, why do you even bother?”

  “Because I’m up for the challenge, dammit!” But just as Brenda always manages to do when she loses it, she instantly mellows out, like an automatic calm-down checklist clicks into place in her head. I guess she has better control over her emotions than I do. When she’s caught up with herself, she lets out a heavy sigh and finally meets my eyes again. “I think it might be useful for me to disclose something about myself. I’d like to explain why I wanted to help you, and this seems like as good a moment as any. Would that be okay?”

  I focus on the tattooed vines weaving up her arm and under the sleeve of her shirt, poking back out again from her neckline. “Yes. I’d like that.”

  “We have a similar background, you and me. I grew up in an apartment like yours with a family like yours. My dad was in the military. I was in high school when he came back from Iraq. He was not in good shape. He completely checked out from our family.”

  “I know the feeling.”

  “I know you do.”

  “Did he get better?”

  “No. He killed himself.”

  “Oh, god.”

  She looks at me then gently presses her fingers to my wrist. “I’m not saying that is the end result for everybody, Morgan. It most definitely is not. Please don’t worry about this with your own father. You can find comfort in knowing he has chosen to get help.” She sighs. “I wish my dad had done the same. Because what he did hurt me deeply. I blamed myself somehow, thinking I should’ve known he would do it. Thinking I should’ve been able to stop him. The guilt haunted me. I wanted to talk to someone. I asked my mom if we could look into therapy. It took a lot for me to ask for that kind of help. I was embarrassed. None of my friends had therapists that I knew of. And my mom acted like I should just find a way to get through it.” Brenda looks at me, truthful and trusting. “It was like she didn’t hear me.”

  “So you never talked to anyone?”

  “Not until I was older. In college. It essentially led me to my career.” She smiles at me. “Morgan, when you came to my office and you were so honest with your mom about your fears and why you couldn’t go to school, it felt like you didn’t think you were being heard.” She squeezes my forearm. “I wanted you to know I heard you.”

  “Thank you,” I say, my voice catching.

  “You’re welcome.”

  I pick at the edge of the steering wheel. “I’m sorry I said what I said before.”

  “It happens.”

  “You’re actually really brave.”

  “So are you.”

  After a few minutes of sitting there, only breathing, Brenda buckles her seat belt.

  “Ready?” she says.

  I nod and buckle in. I start the engine and back out. We drive along a curved road by the beach. The sand and the ocean are spread out in front of us. I take it all in, I try to enjoy it, as we drive back to Paradise Manor.

  I park my car in space 207 out back, and Brenda stands underneath the shade of the overhang as I pull the tarp back over the Bel Air.

  “I’d really like it if we could meet at my office from now on,” Brenda says, sounding very matter-of-fact. “And I think we can cut our meetings down to just one time per week. Drop Thursdays, keep Tuesdays. You’re ready.”

  “How do you know? I just freaked out in the 7-Eleven parking lot. I don’t think I’m ready.”

  She looks at me. “Morgan, you’re ready.”

  “But I need you. I can’t do this without you.” I wave my arms around, trying to communicate that the world is still too big and overwhelming.

  “You won’t be doing it without me. I’ll still work with you in my office. And I’m only a phone call away if you need me some other time.”

  I feel a panic attack coming on. I’m pretty sure Brenda is not supposed to make me feel this way.

  “I can’t do it.”

  “Morgan,” Brenda says, “you’re already doing it.”

  chapter forty-one

  That afternoon, after Brenda and I have finished my driving lesson and I’ve made a nause
a-inducing phone call to my testing proctor to confirm that I’ll be at my final exams at the Ocean High library tomorrow, Evan shows up at my door. He hands me a disc as he crosses the threshold. I turn over the clear plastic case in my hand. It doesn’t have a label.

  “What’s this? Another surf video?”

  “Nope. It’s Ben’s play.”

  I look at him. “What? How?”

  Evan shrugs. “I made friends with some parents with a camera while you and your mom were hugging all over Ben in the lobby after the show. They burned me a copy, and I picked it up today.”

  I kiss him. “You’re amazing. Have I told you that?”

  “Not in so many words.”

  We settle on the couch, the DVD player whirring to a start. Evan reaches over to scoop my legs across his lap.

  “So, last day of school tomorrow for both of us,” he says, walking his fingertips across my bare knee.

  “Don’t remind me. I have to take three on-site finals tomorrow. I’m not looking forward to it.”

  “Where?”

  “Your school.”

  “So I’ll wait for you. Out in the hall.”

  “You would do that?”

  “Sure. If it’ll make you feel better knowing I’m there.”

  “I would like that. So much.”

  “Then it’s done. I’ll be there. And just think: when you finish, it’ll be summer. Officially. Am I gonna be able to get you down to the beach and on a surfboard in the next two months?”

 
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