Underwater, page 19
“I hope so.” And I mean it.
“Good. I can’t wait.” He flashes the remote at the TV. “Ready to watch Ben?”
Evan presses play, and the DVD starts with a couple jerky movements but steadies itself quickly. And then there’s Ben hopping across the stage. He’s so cute, I can’t stand it. I actually tear up watching him. The DVD is about an hour long, and it’s bittersweet to see the twenty minutes I missed, especially the part where a kid sings half of a peppy song with his back accidentally turned to the audience. By the end of it, I’m bawling. I promise Evan they’re happy tears. Ben steals the show, and I’m pretty sure I’m not saying that because I’m biased. He could probably earn big money being one of those annoying kid actors.
“I wish I’d seen the whole thing for real.” I sigh, leaning back into the couch cushions. “That was the best.”
“So you’ll go to the next one. And the one after that. I’m pretty sure that’s not gonna be Ben’s last starring role.”
I laugh. “I think you’re right.”
We sit in silence for a minute, watching the dark screen of the television until Evan grabs the remote and switches the TV back to the regular stations. My stomach clenches, because the news is on. They’re at Pacific Palms High School. They’re standing in the courtyard. In front of the memorial wall. There are lots of flowers. And solemn faces. My former PPHS principal is behind a podium saying important things. Evan aims the remote at the screen to change the channel, but I hold his wrist steady.
“Don’t,” I say. “We should watch.”
“Are you sure?”
I nod. So we do. We watch. And then I see Evan’s mom. She’s holding the hand of a woman who looks just like her. On the other side of her, holding the woman’s other hand, is Evan. And of course they’re there. PPHS will reopen in the fall, and they dedicated the official memorial wall today. And Evan’s cousin’s name is on the wall. Connor Wallace. They must’ve filmed this earlier. After morning finals and before he picked up the DVD of Ben’s play and brought it here.
“My aunt,” he mumbles. “She needed us.”
“That must’ve been so hard.” I squeeze his hand. “I’m sure you miss him a lot.”
“Every day.” He stares at the screen. At his mom. At his aunt. At himself. “He was one of my favorite people. He was an only child and I was an only child, so early on, we decided we’d be like brothers.”
I pull my legs from Evan’s lap so I can wrap my arms around him. I squeeze him tight. “I’m sorry I haven’t asked about Connor. I should have. But I wasn’t sure if I could handle talking about it, which is so selfish and wrong.”
“It’s hard to miss someone.”
The muscle in his jaw ticks. “It sucks to miss someone.”
“Did you see him a lot? Even living so far apart?”
“Every summer and every spring break. It’s not exactly hard to get people to visit when you live in Hawaii. We grew up surfing together, so that’s pretty much all we did when we saw each other.” Evan smiles thoughtfully. “But he threw lemons at rental cars, too. You know, just to fit in.” He pinches my elbow.
“So you were totally BFFs!”
He laughs. “Yep. Pretty much.”
“Evan, I’m so sorry.” I hug him again. “I really am.”
When I pull back, he sits there looking at me so gently with his big brown eyes. There’s a rip at the hem of his T-shirt and another one on the knee of his jeans. There’s stubble on his chin and a pimple on his forehead. There’s a scar on his right arm where he told me he got nailed by the skeg of his surfboard when he was in middle school. He isn’t perfect. There’s the pain of loss underneath the surface of him, but he’s managed to let people in despite it.
“You’re a good person,” I say.
“So are you.”
The next day, Evan’s finals are on a block schedule, so he’s done at noon. He comes home to get me for my afternoon exams, essentially grabbing a quick snack then turning right around to drive me straight back to Ocean High, where he’ll wait for me in the hallway. Three of my junior year curriculum classes required final papers instead of exams, but three more—US history, calculus, and English—have written tests that will be one hour each. Since my online school serves students throughout California, they’ve had multiple testing days and sites all week long based on subject. I could’ve spaced my finals out. I could’ve gone to three different locations on three different days this week, some of them hours away, but I decided once would be easier. For me.
However, the second my feet hit the concrete steps of the campus, I’m not sure I can stay.
“I shouldn’t be here,” I say.
“Just tell yourself you’ll take the first one,” Evan says. “And if worse comes to worst, you leave. But you have to at least try.”
“You sound like Brenda.”
He grins. “I sound like a psychologist with dreadlocks and tats? Cool.”
I elbow his side. “No. You sound smart.”
“I am smart.”
I laugh. “Now you sound like Ben.”
“Ben’s smart, too.”
“I know. I should have him take my finals for me.”
Ocean High School is officially out for the summer, so the campus is empty. The whole time we’re walking the hallways, Evan points stuff out to me. “That’s the door to my science class.” “Here’s where I hang out at lunch.” “A pregnant teacher fainted there.”
By the time we arrive at the library, I realize he managed to keep me distracted the whole time we were walking through the school. We passed his dented locker and the musty gym. We passed the cafeteria, where the stench of day-old tater tots seeped through the doors and stuck to the nearby walls. And, because of Evan’s constant play-by-play, not once did I picture Aaron Tiratore lurking around a corner.
In the hallway outside the library, Evan turns me to face him and rubs my shoulders like I’m a boxer about to enter the ring and he’s loosening me up to fight. “You’ve got this,” he says. I close my eyes and roll my neck back against his knuckles, trying to relax.
We stay like that for a few minutes until I pull away and nod my head at him like I’m ready. He fist-bumps me, then kisses my forehead. I leave him leaning against the wall with his thumbs hooked into the front pockets of his jeans. “I’ll be right here when you’re done.”
I nod again and go inside.
Apparently I’m the first one to arrive, because the only other person here besides me is a portly but serious-looking man who must be the exam proctor. He’s sitting on a stool at the counter where students go to check out books.
“Name?” he asks. His deep voice bounces off the empty walls of the library and settles in my stomach.
He checks a clipboard in front of him. “Got you. You can sign in here.”
I walk over and scrawl my signature on a line next to my name. I notice there are only two other people on the list. And one of them has a first name I recognize from my live sessions. Blue. I guess his last name is Armstrong, because that’s what’s typed out next to Blue.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I mutter.
“Nothing. Sorry.” Of course there could be someone else named Blue, but what are the chances?
“Very well. The exams are closed notes, so you’ll have to leave your bag up front with me.”
“I don’t have one.” I hold my two pencils and two pens up. “Just this.”
“Great, because that’s all you’ll need. Go ahead and grab a study carrel up front.”
I take a seat in the one on the far right. I spread my pencils and pens out in front of me and stare at the chipping green paint and penis drawings graffitied onto the study carrel wall. I knot my fingers together and rest them on the edge of the table, rocking them back and forth.
Let’s get this over with.
The proctor coughs. It’s ripe and phlegm-filled. He unwraps a cough drop and pops it into his mouth. I hear the click of it against his teeth.
It’s too quiet in here.
I can detect everything.
The door to the library bangs open and I jump. A guy swaggers in. He has a blue-stained fauxhawk and cobalt Dr. Martens boots with loose laces, like he came here to see his favorite band. Not to take an exam.
“M’name’s Blue. Where do you need me?”
The proctor clears his throat and motions him to sign in. Another girl arrives right after, and the proctor motions her over as well. The next thing I know, we’re all settled into study carrels, and everyone is to the left of me because I planned it that way.
“You have sixty minutes and your time starts … now,” the proctor says, hitting a button on his phone that I assume offers up some sort of sixty-minute countdown.
“Yo,” Blue says to me as soon as we’re supposed to be quiet. “You got an extra pencil? I only brought a pen.” He holds it up to me. The black plastic top is flattened from his gnawing.
I turn away. I don’t want to make eye contact. I don’t want it to look like I’m cheating.
“Hey, hello? Pencil?”
I shake my head no, not looking up from my Scantron sheet even though staring at it so intently makes the letters and numbers go blurry.
“You have two of ’em. I can see the extra one on your desk.”
I finally turn to face him. “I might need it,” I hiss under my breath. “If something happens to the other one. I like to be prepared.”
He smirks and turns to the girl on the other side of him. She hands over a pencil the first time he asks. I can feel him looking at me, like he wants me to know other people are less high-strung about sharing pencils. When I don’t return the stare, he dives into his test, humming and tapping and being distracting the whole time.
We have a bathroom break in between tests. I walk out into the hallway, expecting that Evan might’ve left to wander around the school or breathe in fresh air outside. But he hasn’t budged. He’s sitting right there on the ground, listening to music and scrolling through his phone. He yanks his earbuds out of his ears when he sees me.
“Bathroom break,” I explain.
“Here, I’ll show you where,” he says.
Blue watches us walk down the hallway. I can feel his eyes on my back. Maybe he recognized my name, too. Maybe he remembers antagonizing me in our live session. Maybe he gets off on screwing with people who like to be prepared.
Two more people join us for the second test. When that one is over, I stretch in the hallway. Blue wanders off to god knows where. The other girl who started with Blue and me never leaves the library.
Evan gives me a kiss before I head in to the last test. “Almost summer,” he whispers.
I take my place at my study carrel and realize one of the two people who joined us for the second test is gone. The other one is still here. And the first girl. And Blue. Lucky me.
When the third exam is finally over, the proctor gives us a few minutes to go over our final answers. Blue leans back in his chair instead of double-checking his work. The front legs lift off the floor, but he uses the steel-toed tips of his boots to balance himself.
“Don’t fall,” I say.
He grins at me and pushes back on his chair again, like I’ve challenged him somehow. He rocks back farther, eyes on me the whole time. Farther and farther back he goes. I look down and see the chair is teetering on the very edges of its back legs now. He’s grinning. Showing off. And then the chair topples backward, taking Blue with it. He hits the floor hard, and the force of his butt against the back of the chair makes it flip back over and land on his chest.
“Argh!” he bellows.
I try to hide a snicker in my armpit.
“Screw you,” he says to me.
“You’re an idiot.” I get up, turn in my test, and step past Blue to get to the door. He stands there rubbing his chest and righting his chair. I can’t get out of the library fast enough.
“Happy summer,” Evan says, taking my hand as soon as he sees me.
“Happy summer.” I kiss him. “Let’s go.”
We push through campus corridors and heavy doors. I think of the last day of school last year. I think of the sophomore hallway littered with loose-leaf papers torn free from notebooks. Of plans made for that night and the long, slow days ahead. Some of us had part-time jobs. Some of us planned to lounge on the sand from dusk until dawn while plugged in to music playlists. Some of us were traveling to see the other half of divorced parents who lived in other states, like Evan will do in August. None of us knew what would happen when we returned. Because it was before Aaron did what he did.
It was before everything changed.
This time, the last day of school is just a time stamp on how much I missed this year.
But now, there will be summer. And summer can be everything. Evan and I will surf and swim and smell like sunblock. In the evenings, we’ll come back to Paradise Manor and jump in the pool to rinse off the sand and the stickiness. When it gets dark, we’ll watch movies until Ben falls asleep, and then Evan and I will kiss each other until our lips get swollen.
When we get home, Evan only has a little bit of time to get ready for a celebratory last day of school dinner he’s going to with his mom, aunt, and uncle. He knocks on my door on his way out. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt so worn that it clings to him. It clings in a way that makes me want to ask him to stay.
“What’re you gonna do tonight?” he asks as he hugs me against him. He smells like Evan. Like sunblock and surf wax even though he just took a shower. My own shirt rides up, and he presses his fingertips into the bare skin of my lower back, pulling me closer.
“Ben and I are going to watch a movie,” I mumble into his clingy shirt. “Maybe pop popcorn. You know, summer stuff.”
Evan leans down to kiss me goodbye. When his hands start to wander and he attempts to maneuver me back inside my apartment, I stop him.
“Don’t you need to go?” I laugh. He pushes back on his heels, but steadies himself in front of me again. I give him a little push. “Go. Have fun.”
He leans into me to bury his face against the crook of my neck, tightening his grip on my waist like he doesn’t really want to leave. “Can we hang out when I get back?”
I grin. “Of course. We can hang out all summer long. Now go. Your mom never has any time off. Let her take you to dinner.”
He straightens up, and his T-shirt seems even clingier since being pressed against me.
“What?” he asks, and I realize I’m staring at him all blown away by how cute he is.
“Nothing.” I shift from one foot to the other. “Would it be bad if I told you to hurry home?”
“Morgan.” He laughs. “If it were up to me, I’d already be back.”
* * *
After Ben’s bath, I encourage my mom to take the night off. She settles in her room with a book while Ben and I settle on the couch with a movie and a heaping bowl of popcorn. Ben tells me all about the last-day-of-school party they had in his classroom and the water balloon fight they had at his after-school day care.
“I got soaked.” He snickers. “It went all the way through to my underwear.”
“That’s good stuff,” I tell him.
He leans his head against my shoulder and props his bare feet up on the arm of the couch. I know he’s just a little kid, but sometimes he looks so grown-up. Thankfully, my phone buzzes with a text before I start ugly-crying and telling my little brother to stop getting older.
Evan: You up?
Me: What do you think? I live with a 6 y.o. who just started summer break.
Me: How’s dinner?
Evan: Over. I miss u.
Me: I miss you, too.
Evan: Can I come over now? I might have leftovers wrapped in tinfoil that looks like some sort of exotic animal.
I laugh, and Ben asks me what’s so funny. “Evan,” I tell him.
“Yeah, Evan’s funny all right.” He chuckles to himself like Evan’s sitting right here and just cracked a joke about dinosaur poop. He stretches, yawns, and curls up against me, his eyelids miraculously fluttering shut.
Me: Come home. Ben is fading fast.
Evan: See u soon.
* * *
Ben manages to fall asleep against my shoulder in the time I’m waiting for Evan to arrive. I pick him up and carry him to his bed. My phone vibrates with a text as soon as I’ve shut the door to our room.
Evan: Can you come outside?
I head to the front door and open it. Evan is standing there on my welcome mat. Waiting for me. Holding up his tinfoil-wrapped leftovers. “I think it’s supposed to be a swan,” he says, bending the long neck back into place as I take it in my hands.
“We ate at a fancy restaurant.”
“I didn’t know Pacific Palms had one of those.”
“I’ll take you sometime.”
I take a whiff through the tinfoil. “What’s in here, anyway?”
“Come up to the roof and I’ll show you.”
“Oh, I bet you will.”
“What? I just meant we’ll have a picnic,” he teases. “You have a dirty mind, Morgan Grant.”
“You know you love it.” I click the door shut behind me and take his hand. “I’ve never been on the roof. Aren’t there opossums and other vermin up there?”
He pulls me around the corner. “I guess we’ll find out.”
When we get to the edge of the building, Evan sets the leftovers on the ground and hammocks his hands together. “Climb on. I’ll give you a boost.” I look at the roof. It’s only one story up, but it seems higher. “I’ve got you. Trust me.”
I take a deep breath, stick my bare foot into his hands, and grab on to the storm drain, hoping I don’t tear it down as he pushes me upward. Within seconds, I’m able to scramble across the worn wood shingles, though I’m certain I’m getting splinters and deadly brown recluse spider bites in the process.
by Marisa Reichardt have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes