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Underwater a novel, p.2

Underwater: A Novel, page 2


Underwater: A Novel

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  “That was just really funny in a way you don’t even know.”

  “Oh, well, then I’m glad I could make you laugh. Again.”

  “Me too.”

  I’m still laughing as I say goodbye and shut the door behind me. It’s a sound that echoes inside and outside of me, and it stops my mom in her tracks when I turn to face her. She stands dead still in the center of the kitchen and looks at me, a smile creeping across her face. It’s quick. There and gone. And then she pulls a slice of pizza from the box and slaps it down on my brother’s plate.

  “You eating?” she asks me.

  I nod and pull myself onto my stool at the kitchen counter. The stool where my mom and Ben are to the left of me because they know the drill.

  “Evan seems nice. Did you talk for long?” my mom asks. She’s fishing.

  “Long enough.”

  “I’m not sure it was long enough for him. He wanted to stay for dinner.”

  “He shoulda stayed,” Ben says. “He’s cool.”

  “Yep, too cool for me, I think.” I grab a slice of pizza and turn to my brother. “So who’d you play with at school? I want to hear all about it.”

  Ben launches into a story about recess. He tells me about how they played Farm and all the kids were different animals and he got to be the farmer.

  “That’s the best part because then you get to pretend to feed all the people.” He laughs, then shakes his head trying to knock his mistake loose. “I mean, the animals.”

  He keeps talking, animated and stuttering with excitement. I listen to the sound of his voice. And even though the sides of his mouth are covered in tomato sauce and he smells like kickball sweat and playground dirt, I pull him into me and kiss the top of his messy head of hair.

  “I love you,” I tell him. “You know that, right?”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says through a mouthful of pizza. “I love you, too.”

  chapter two

  My emergency pills are in an amber prescription bottle on the second shelf of the medicine cabinet. I look at them every morning and hope today isn’t a day when I’ll need to take one. But knowing they are there makes me feel better. I haven’t needed an emergency pill for almost two months. Since Valentine’s Day. That was a bad day because my dad called. I refused to get on the phone even though he asked to talk to me. That was the last time he tried. But he did talk to my mom, which made her angry. And he talked to Ben, which made him confused. Ben asked my dad when he was coming home, because by then it had been over a year since Ben had seen him. Over a year since he’d returned from his last tour, his fifth one, in Afghanistan. Over a year since my mom had filed for divorce and full custody. Once Ben had gone into another room where he couldn’t hear her, my mom told my dad he’d better not even think about showing up at Paradise Manor.

  So he didn’t.

  And he probably never will.

  * * *

  After my mom and Ben have left for work and school, I hold the amber prescription bottle in my hand. I run my thumb over the label that tells Morgan Grant to take one pill as needed.

  Not today.

  I put it back.

  I shut the door.

  I hear Evan leave when I’m in my room pulling on a clean pair of pajama pants—I don’t see the point of wearing real clothes since I never leave the house. Slap slap goes his screen door and boom boom go his footsteps on the stairs outside. I pull back my curtains and watch him go.

  It’s the first week of April, but today will be Evan’s first day of school. Everything will be new, but enough of it will be the same. Because it’s still high school. And high school doesn’t change that much from one place to another. Evan will go to a classroom. He will sit in a desk that faces a whiteboard. A teacher will stand at a podium and tell him things that are supposed to sound smart. Evan will write them down in a notebook covered in graffiti doodles. The girls at school will like him; I’m sure of it. The pretty girls will call dibs and drag him off to the quad at lunchtime to watch them eat apples and sip Diet Coke. I know this because I used to be one of those girls.

  I think about these things.

  I watch a soap opera.

  I eat a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup.

  I complete two online lessons.

  I study Rolle’s theorem.

  I e-mail an analysis of colors in The Great Gatsby to my English teacher.

  I wait for Brenda.

  I wait for one p.m.

  * * *

  At noon, I know Brenda is coming soon. It is because of this that I feel zingy electricity in my veins. I know she’s coming and I have to open the door to let her in.

  I have to talk. I have to tell.

  Maybe a shower will help.

  I duck my head under the hot water and let it soak through to my skull. My hair suctions itself to my ears, locking the noise out. I like being underwater where it’s only me. Sounds and the world are far away.

  I’ve spent a lot of time underwater because I used to be on my high school swim team. I swam every weekday, even in the off-season, from three until four thirty p.m., in the twenty-five-yard lanes of the Pacific Palms High School pool. I swam with the same three friends I’d met on youth squad when I was eleven and my dad first received orders to a base near Pacific Palms.

  My mom was newly pregnant with Ben so we’d hoped my dad’s transfer meant he would be home for a while. But we’d barely gotten settled when he was called up for his third tour in Afghanistan. So he returned to combat and my mom and I committed to making the best of Pacific Palms.

  I got close to my swim team friends, and by the time we got to high school, we’d become an inseparable foursome. Chelsea was brilliant and beautiful in that blond SoCal way that made boys stutter when they talked to her. Brianna swam the fifty-yard freestyle faster than any other girl in the history of our high school. And my best friend, Sage, was wise beyond her years, poised to perfection on Model UN and talking about things other sixteen-year-olds didn’t even know existed.

  I was a little of all of that. But after October fifteenth, after that day, Pacific Palms High School shut down. My friends and I had to go to different schools so construction workers could get busy changing the parts of PPHS that would haunt us forever. The administration split up students based on a set of neighborhood boundaries they’d come up with. The four of us didn’t live close enough to go to the same place, so we drifted as things continued to change.

  Brianna got a boyfriend.

  I started online high school.

  Chelsea stopped calling.

  And Sage moved away before she was even supposed to start at her new school.

  But at our old school, I imagined the bright blue championship banners still hanging from the rungs of the metal fence that ran around the outdoor pool deck. I didn’t know if they were still there, but I wanted them to be. Because my name was on one of them. I held a record. I was a long-distance swimmer. I was someone who could go on and on forever, steady and even, then finish hard to pull off the win.

  Now my whole life is a race. Every minute leading to the next. Every day feeding into another. It’s a constant crossing of the finish line. It’s like playing a fast song slow.

  Chelsea and Brianna don’t understand that. They tried. They’d come over, but we’d only end up sitting and staring at the television.

  “Come with us to the party,” Brianna would beg. “There are going to be so many cute boys.”

  “So many,” Chelsea would echo.

  I’d curl up tighter on the couch, tucking my slippered feet underneath me. “I don’t care about cute boys or parties right now. But don’t let me stop you from enjoying them.”

  “It’s not the same without you,” Chelsea would whine.

  Sage would call from her new house on the weekends. More often than not, she’d sound distant and sad and in search of solutions. “So you quit school?” she’d ask. “Is it easier?”

little,” I’d say.



  * * *

  Brenda knocks her knuckles against my door at 12:57 p.m. I want those three minutes before one p.m. to myself. But she’s here. So I breathe deep. I breathe long. And I open the door. Brenda smiles, and I can see the gap between her top two teeth that makes her look like a little kid. I know how old she is because I once asked her to tell me.

  “If it really matters, I’m twenty-nine,” she said. “But why do you want to know?”

  “I just wanted to see if you would tell me.”

  Today, a long burgundy dreadlock falls into her face, and she tucks it back into the other chunk of dreads she has fastened with an oversize ponytail holder at the nape of her neck. I can see the string of tiny silver loops that line her lobe when she does it. And the peace sign tattoo etched into the skin behind her ear. I pull the door all the way open, and she comes inside.

  She sits. She is to the left of me because she knows. She takes out a notebook and a pen. She has pages filled about me. I’m sure she goes back to her office after we meet and types the notes into her computer. She didn’t tell me that. I just know. I’d be stupid not to know. Everyone keeps everything on computers.

  She pulls the remote from my hand and shuts off the TV with a click.

  We stare. We start.

  “So. How have the last couple days been for you?”

  I tell her about the mundane stuff that happened yesterday and today. Soup. Soap operas. School assignments. And then I tell her about Evan.

  “A boy? Your age?” She’s intrigued. I can tell by the way she taps her pen against her notebook. “Tell me about him.”

  “He’s tall. And summery.”

  “Summery? What does ‘summery’ mean to you?” Her voice is calm, like petting a cat.

  And then I tell her about soft sand and crisp ocean water. Of bright blue skies dotted with seagulls and airplanes. Of those same blue skies turning dark and dotted with the moon and stars. I tell her of bonfire smoke and surfboards. Of tank tops and short shorts. Of beach cruiser bicycles and snow cones. Of string bikinis and tan lines. Of parties and promises. Of cold beer and warm kisses.

  I tell her all the things I used to be before this. It’s not the first time I’ve told her, but she seems to be listening extra hard today. I think it must be because I sound wistful.

  “Do you miss it?” she asks me.

  And that makes me cry.

  She hands me a tissue, and I sit like a lump on the couch.

  “Missing summer is a good thing,” she says. “It will be here before you know it. You can be ready for it. You can enjoy it again.”

  After she’s gone, I feel better for a little bit. I don’t hate thinking about summer. But then I think too much about other stuff. I curl up into the fetal position, knees tucked into my chest, waiting for the memories to pass.

  * * *

  An hour after that, there’s a knock on my door. I’m still curled up, but I’ve stopped crying. My nose is stuffed up with snot, and I snort it down into my throat. My eyelids are puffy, and the throb of a headache bangs at my temples. I want to be alone. I stay very still and hope whoever is knocking will go away. But they don’t. Whoever it is wants me to know they are there.

  “Who is it?” I ask through the door.


  Even though that makes me smile, I tell Evan I’m not dressed. “I can’t open the door.”

  “Well, get dressed. I’ll wait.”

  So I do. I don’t know why, but I do.

  I scrub my face. I run a brush through my hair. I dab deodorant under my armpits. I put on a clean bra and change my stained shirt. I do it all in five minutes flat.

  When I crack open the door, Evan’s holding some envelopes and a white to-go cup of something. There’s a lid on top with three holes poked through it, like the lids of jars Ben uses to collect bugs from the planter at the entrance to Paradise Manor.

  “First off, we got some of your mail,” Evan says, handing over a credit card bill and some grocery store coupons.

  “Feel free to keep them.”

  He smiles. “Second, I brought you some soup. To make you feel better.” I can smell the garlic through the lid when he holds it out to me. “My aunt owns a restaurant. They make good soup.”

  “I like soup.”

  “Well, yeah. Doesn’t everybody?”

  I shrug.

  I watch Evan take me in. “Wow, you don’t look so good.”

  “Okay, then.” His words hit me hard. I shouldn’t have opened the door. I don’t need this cute boy from Hawaii to bring me soup and tell me I’m not pretty. There was a time in my life when I knew I was pretty. But I don’t feel that way right now.

  “Aw, man.” He runs his hand through his hair, flustered. “Look, I’m sorry. That came out wrong. That sounded like I think you’re ugly or something. Which you’re not.” He looks down at our welcome mat. “You just look sick. That’s all.”

  Right. Sick. I push my hair back from my face with my free hand, knotting it on top of my head without a ponytail holder.

  “It’s okay,” I say.

  “I just meant you seem worse today. So maybe it’s one of those things where you have to get worse before you get better.”

  “Yeah, maybe.”

  I pull the lid off the soup. A stream of steam hits the air between us. The smell of garlic goes from pleasant to overwhelming.

  “I didn’t want it to get cold. That’s why I needed you to open up,” he says.

  “Thanks, Superman.”

  He grins like he’s relieved I’m calling him that. I notice dimples digging into his tan cheeks. There’s a part of me that wants to nudge my pointer finger into one of them because they’re so cute.

  “I’m not Superman. Clark Kent, maybe. Not Superman.”

  “Yeah, okay.” I smile.

  Evan kicks the front of his flip-flop against the edge of our welcome mat.

  “So did you learn to play the guitar yet?” I ask.

  “Nope.” He laughs. “Did you write any songs?”

  “Oh, yeah. Dozens.”

  “I better pick up the pace then.” He grins and those dimples show up again. “But right now, I better go do my homework. This trigonometry class is way ahead of where we were at my old school.”

  “Trig, huh? So are you a junior?”

  “Yeah. You?”

  “Same.” I don’t tell him I’m already in calculus and that math is the one of the few subjects I haven’t let slip.

  “Well, you need to get well so you can show me around town, okay? I don’t know anybody here.”

  I think about how fun that would’ve been a year ago. When I was the way I was before. I would’ve taken him to Clyde’s Coffee for frozen hot chocolate. And I would’ve shown him the strip of beach where the locals hang out and the tourists don’t. I would’ve shown him which hill it was fun to ride down on your bike, and I would’ve let go of my handlebars and let my arms fly out like wings while the wind whipped past my ears. And on a Saturday night, I would’ve taken him to a party and leaned into him so his lips would’ve been close to my ear when he talked. That move always worked. I would’ve shown him the alcove in the hallway by the auditorium at school where I used to think I could hide and nobody would find me. I would’ve shown him my world. Now, I can’t show him anything but a tiny apartment and a girl who can’t walk out the front door.

  “I don’t get out much. But thanks for the soup. I’m sure it’ll taste really good.”

  Before he can say anything, I shut the door and leave him behind it.

  chapter three

  Ben loves pancakes. It’s our Friday morning ritual, and I wake him up fifteen minutes early to make sure it happens. Today, he climbs onto a stool at the counter and I let him pour the milk and crack an egg into the batter. He stirs and talks. He tells me about kids at school and the words he’s learning to spell. He talks about the library an
d how the section about science is his favorite.

  “There’s a book about electricity,” he says. “And another one about rocks. Rocks are cool. Did you know diamonds can cut glass?”

  Pancake mornings with Ben are the best. We eat breakfast and chat until my mom hustles him out the door to drop him off at his before-school program. She runs around the apartment and talks at the same time.

  “Don’t forget we’ll be late tonight. I’m taking Ben to a birthday party.” She stops. She stands. She puts her hands on her hips and looks up and down and all around. “Ben, where’s the gift?”

  “I dunno. You wrapped it.”

  She runs off to find it. I hand Ben his lunch and ruffle the top of his just-combed hair. “Hey, sneak me a piece of cake if you can. Especially if it’s chocolate.”

  I bend down to zip up his sweatshirt and he plants a wet kiss on my cheek. He grabs me around the neck and holds on tight. “Rawwwwwr. I’m a dinosaur. I’ve got you. Rawwwwwr. You can’t get away.”

  I stand up, pretending to struggle under his grasp. He stays put, dangling from my neck like a mess of fat gold chains on a rap star. I swing him around the living room and he laughs. Then I bend down and plant a bunch of kisses on top of his head, tickling him until he loosens his grip and I can slide him back down to the floor. He struggles to stand straight, winded from laughing.

  “Have a good day,” I tell him. “Don’t spend the whole time reading about rocks. Listen to your teacher. Be nice.”

  “I am nice.”

  My mom hands Ben the gift so he can carry it to the car, then does one final tug on the bun on top of her head.

  “Do something,” she tells me. “Even something small.”

  And they’re out the door. And the house is empty. And quiet. I can breathe.

  * * *

  I take a shower. I comb my hair and part it. I put on clean pajama pants and a soft T-shirt from a concert I went to once.

  It was at an arena downtown. My boyfriend, Alexios, and I stood in a general admission pit instead of sitting in the assigned seats of the sections above us. Alexios had surprised me with tickets for my sixteenth birthday. It was my favorite band, so I wanted to be in front where I could reach out and touch the stage. Being in front meant people crowded around me, pressing in. Hip to hip. Shoulder to shoulder. Elbow to elbow. Like we were all part of one huge mass. Back then, I didn’t mind the crowds. Or the noise. Or the way the ground vibrated underneath me. I wasn’t afraid. But Alexios stood behind me anyway. Protective. He was a senior, but he didn’t seem too old or too hard to talk to like some senior boys can be. He was my first real boyfriend. And at the concert, his arms were wrapped around my waist. His mouth was behind my ear. He was so much taller than me that nobody dared invade our space. He pushed them off with a simple twist of his shoulder.

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