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Underwater, p.20

Underwater, page 20

 

Underwater
 


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  I look down at Evan. “How will you get up here?”

  He tosses the leftovers up to me and climbs onto the railing that wraps around the balcony of our floor. “Like this.” He teeters on the thin metal like an adept tightrope walker.

  “Oh, my god. I can’t watch.”

  But before I can tear my eyes away, Evan jumps high enough to be able to grab the edge of Paradise Manor and hoist himself up and over. There’s something to be said for being athletic. And agile. And Evan. He lands next to me with a thud and rolls over onto his back, staring up at the sky.

  “Don’t you dare let Ben ever see you do that.”

  He laughs, full and free, into the middle of the night. “Deal.”

  “Okay, let’s check out these leftovers.”

  I begin to unwrap what has become a completely deformed tinfoil swan. I’m slow and deliberate, anticipating something good, but I start laughing when I see what’s inside.

  “You got a burger and fries at your fancy dinner?”

  “What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.”

  “Bet they loved wrapping that one up.” I take one of only two bites left of the burger and lie down next to Evan. I turn my head to look at him. “I know you didn’t really bring me up here to eat a hamburger.”

  “Are you saying offering you the remnants of my cold food isn’t as smooth as I think it is?”

  “You don’t have to have smooth moves to get me to hang out with you.”

  “Oh, thank god.” He rolls over and hooks one of his knees between mine, presses his mouth to my lips, and trails his fingertips along the hem of my shirt.

  And then there’s just the dark.

  And the stars.

  And the air.

  And us.

  chapter forty-four

  The first day of summer vacation roars to a start. By nine a.m., the sun is blazing hot enough to heat my apartment to an unbearable degree. Evan and I decide to haul Ben, his boogie board, and Evan’s surfboard down to the beach after I’ve packed sandwiches and smothered my brother in SPF 50.

  I decide today is as good a day as any to practice my driving, and I find parking easily because I head to the strip of beach where the tourists don’t go. I realize this means we’ll probably see people I know, but I’m hoping we can set up camp on the outskirts. I’d like to take my baby steps without the whole world watching. And since nobody is expecting to see us, they might not even recognize me.

  It’s surprising when the feel of the sand squishing between my toes nearly makes me weep. I’ve missed it in a good way. Because I’m a person who belongs at the beach. By locking myself up in my apartment, I’ve been denying who I am. I need sand and salt water. Sunblock and string bikinis. Sun and sanity.

  We lay our striped towels down, three in a row, and Ben takes off for the ocean. He’s a pretty good swimmer, but he needs supervision because he has no fear. I follow him out, and when the water licks at my toes, I know I’m home.

  Really and truly home.

  I pull Ben up on my waist and take him out to where the waves are breaking. I grip the soft sand below with my toes and sink my heels in to brace myself against the salty spray coming at us. And then I tell Ben to hold his breath before we duck under to swim out past the break.

  It’s perfect here, with the cool water all around us and my favorite kid in the world hanging on my back. Absolutely perfect. Ben lets go of me and swims in circles around me, sometimes stopping to tread water and catch his breath.

  After a while, we come back in from the ocean. I settle on my striped towel, put on my sunglasses, and wring salty water from my hair. Evan heads to the water with his surfboard. I zone out, staring at the ocean, while Ben attempts to dig a hole to China with a miniature shovel. I soon notice three figures slicing through the water in the distance. Their swim strokes are perfectly in sync, strong and seasoned, plowing against the current in bright orange swim caps like they know exactly what they’re doing. Watching them makes me want to swim, too. Really swim. I don’t mean going back and forth in the fifteen-yard kiddie pool in the courtyard of Paradise Manor. I mean tearing through the vast open ocean. As the swimmers get closer, I see they’re wearing PPHS caps. They’re from my swim team. Or my old swim team. I don’t know what to call it anymore.

  They pop up to tread water, and one of them points to the shore. They change direction, heading for the sand. I’m not surprised they’ve chosen to stop here. This is where people from PPHS hang out. But I kind of hope I don’t know them. Which is crazy to hope for, because whoever it is was on my swim team. Two of the swimmers catch a good wave that takes them all the way in and spits them out in the white wash. The third one catches another wave. They all stumble out of the ocean, wobbling on their noodly sea legs as they hit firm ground again. When they tear off their goggles and swim caps, I recognize Chelsea and Brianna right away. And then I recognize Taylor, too. I don’t know when they all got to be so tight, but they’re definitely taking their swim training seriously.

  I hope my sunglasses are big enough to hide me.

  “No way!” Chelsea shouts when she gets close enough to see I’m here. “Brianna! It’s Morgan.”

  My sunglasses aren’t big enough to hide me.

  The two of them run up and topple me over in a salty hug. I feel like I’m being attacked by wet puppies. Their enthusiasm for seeing me is overwhelming. And touching, too. I assumed they’d stopped missing me.

  Taylor ambles up behind them. I swear she’s even buffer than the last time I saw her, but I might just be making that up in my head now. She wrings out her thick braid as well as she can and pushes it back over her shoulder, where it lands with a thump. She ruffles Ben’s sandy head of hair and plops down on the ground next to me. Brianna and Chelsea have taken up residence on my towel.

  “It’s so good to see you,” Brianna trills as Chelsea hugs me to her, nodding emphatically.

  “Just in time for summer,” Taylor says, and smiles at me. “We’re training to swim the Pacific Palms Rough Water in August. You should join us.”

  “I don’t think I’m badass enough,” I say.

  Taylor ticks her gaze at Evan bobbing around in the ocean on his surfboard. “Someone thinks you are.”

  “Seriously. Who’s the hot dude?” Brianna asks.

  “He’s my next-door neighbor.”

  “Wish I had a next-door neighbor like that,” Chelsea says.

  Taylor grins. “He’s more than a neighbor.”

  “Ooh. Do tell,” Chelsea says, rubbing her hands together.

  Taylor sits back and gives my friends the scoop on Evan Kokua. And, like that, we’re just four girls sitting on the beach, talking about boys, the same as we did last summer. I realize all is forgiven if I want it to be. Because that’s what real friends do. Even new friends like Taylor do that. And maybe we could be even better friends because of what happened. Because there’s an unspoken understanding between us, and that’s probably how it is with everyone who was at school the day Aaron Tiratore did what he did. I just haven’t been around my former classmates enough to know it. I’ve been living with this gripping fear that doesn’t ever really let go. But surely Taylor, Brianna, and Chelsea feel it, too.

  “Do you guys ever get scared?” I blurt out.

  “Are you kidding? Every day of my life, I remember I could’ve died,” Taylor says as she straightens out the straps on her bikini and shifts in the sand. “But what good does that do me or anyone else who survived that day? Or the ones who didn’t? Aren’t we doing everyone who died a disservice if we don’t say screw it and live? We have to live because they can’t. We have to live as hard as we can, not half-assed, but all the way. We owe them that.”

  “Live, Morgan!” Chelsea hollers. “Say you’ll train with us!”

  “I’ll think about it.”

  Brianna hugs me to her. “Bullshit. You’re so in.”

  I wish I could be as sure as she is.

  * * *

  O
nce we’ve rinsed off all the sand from the beach, I leave Evan and Ben in the pool to practice underwater somersaults and handstands in the shallow end.

  “I’ve gotta make a phone call,” I say, scampering up the stairs.

  I settle on the top step and dial a number I know by heart. Sage answers on the first ring. I can tell she doesn’t recognize Evan’s random Hawaii number because she says hello with a question mark at the end of it.

  “It’s me,” I say.

  “Where are you?”

  “Pacific Palms. Someone else’s phone.”

  “Ah.”

  “I miss you.”

  She pauses. Quiet. Contemplating.

  “I just wanted to get right to it,” I say.

  “It’s okay. I miss you, too.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “I know. Me too.”

  “I was just trying to deal, you know? And I realize I was really selfish in my dealing—”

  “Morgan,” she cuts me off. “I understand. We all had to get through it in our own way. I’m still working on it.”

  “Me too.”

  “Tell me how.”

  So I do. I settle sideways on the top stair, lean my back against the wall, and tell Sage everything. I tell her about Brenda and my apartment. I tell her about Ben’s play and the backpack fiasco. And then I tell her how I gave Aaron a ride to school. She sucks in a breath when I get to that part.

  “You could’ve told me,” she says. “You could’ve trusted me.”

  I try to explain. “I didn’t trust myself.”

  “But you know it’s not your fault, right?”

  “I know that now.”

  “God, I’m so sorry, Morgan. I wish you would’ve let me be there for you.”

  “I didn’t deserve to have you there for me. I failed you as a friend. I wasn’t there for you when you needed me.”

  “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it hurt. But I get it now.”

  “Really?”

  “Really.”

  “So we’re okay?”

  She laughs like I told her a joke. “Of course! I was just waiting for you to call. I’ve been sitting by the phone in the most pathetic way possible.”

  “Why didn’t you call me?”

  “I knew I needed to let you make the first move.”

  “Always playing hard to get.”

  The two of us trail off into peals of laughter. I can picture her on the other end of the line, trying to catch her breath. Sage has the best laugh. I’ve missed it.

  chapter forty-five

  Brenda and I decided to make our once-a-week meetings on Tuesdays, so almost a whole week of summer passes before our first session. Evan offers to watch Ben so I can drive to Brenda’s two-story office building in the middle of town. As I make my way up the stairs, I remember the last time I was here. It took every ounce of energy I had to get through the front door, even with my mom right next to me.

  Today, I push through the entrance and, when I step onto the plush green carpet of the waiting room, I feel relief. There are two chairs and a sign on another closed door in front of me that says Brenda’s with a patient. I settle into a chair to wait, listening to the whir of the air conditioner and thumbing through an outdated travel magazine.

  Five minutes later, when the door swings open, a girl who looks my age walks out with Brenda right behind her. Brenda smiles hello to me as the girl hustles out of the front door, like she’s in a hurry to leave.

  I get it. This stuff is private. She doesn’t need to make small talk with me.

  “Shall we?” Brenda asks.

  I nod and follow her inside her office.

  “So,” Brenda says as we settle into chairs across from each other. “We’re here. How do you feel?”

  “Accomplished?” I say it like a question, like I need confirmation.

  “Yes. Certainly. This is an accomplishment.” She smiles at me. “Tell me about your summer so far.”

  I do. I tell her about beach chairs and boardwalks. Sleeping in and swimming laps. Pancakes and passing time. Ben and Evan. Evan and me. My mom.

  My friends.

  “I saw Chelsea and Brianna,” I say. “I called Sage.” The words come out in a rush. I realize I’m excited about them.

  “How did that go?”

  “It was good. It was normal.”

  Brenda smiles. “How so?”

  “I thought it would be so hard but it was really okay. It’s like they’ll always be my friends no matter what. And I’ll always be theirs.”

  “Exactly. I’m so glad you’ve reconnected, Morgan. It’s important. For all of you.”

  I look past Brenda’s shoulder and through the window at the bright blue sky and green trees outside.

  “I can almost see PPHS,” I say. “Did you know it’s opening again in the fall?”

  “I did. How do you feel about that?”

  “I want to go back. I miss it.”

  “What do you miss about it?”

  I laugh. “The thing I miss most is what scares me the most: all the people. I’m sick of taking classes by myself on a computer. I miss literature discussions, swim team, and eating lunch with my friends.”

  Brenda nods. “Those are good things to miss. I’m so happy to hear you want to return.” She’s looking me right in the eye and grinning so wide that I can see the gap between her front teeth.

  “It’ll be hard,” I say.

  “You can do it.”

  I believe her. I have to. Because right now, more than anything, I don’t want my senior year to be like my junior year. I want to walk the hallways of Pacific Palms High School when it opens again in the fall, no matter how hard it seems.

  Chelsea and Brianna will be there. And Evan. And Taylor. The memories will be there, too. Along with a new building and a memorial wall.

  “What else is on your mind?” she asks.

  “I have a letter here. For my dad.”

  Brenda sits up straight. “Do you want to share it?”

  I pick at some blue nail polish flaking off my pinky finger. “I don’t want to read it out loud. Can you just take a look?”

  She holds her hand out for the letter. I fish it out of the pocket of my shorts and pass it over. She pulls the letter from the envelope I’ve addressed to my dad at his rehab facility and unfolds the crinkled paper.

  “It’s short,” she notes.

  “Yeah. But it says everything.”

  Dear Dad,

  I know you might be embarrassed about things you’ve done, but I want you to know I understand them, in a way. Because I’ve lived them, too. I understand what it feels like to think you’ve disappointed people you love. But the thing is, when people love you, they love you no matter what. I realize this now.

  I’ve always loved you. Even when it hurt. Even when you weren’t around. Even when I worried you’d forgotten who I am. I’ve always loved you.

  I would like to find a way to have you in my life again because I miss you.

  Love,

  Morgan

  “You’re right,” Brenda says, folding the letter back into the envelope and handing it over to me. “That’s all that needed to be said. Do you feel good about it?”

  “Yes. But would it be stupid to send it to him?”

  “Why would that be stupid?”

  “What if he doesn’t want it?”

  “I think he’ll want it. He wouldn’t have checked into rehab if he didn’t want to repair mistakes he’s made. And maybe, even though he’s the adult, you might need to be the one to reach out first.” Brenda taps her pen against her notepad.

  I think of Sage and how I reached out to her first. I don’t regret doing it. “Okay.”

  “Now that I think of it, there’s a mailbox at the end of the block. What do you say we send your letter off right now?”

  “Right now right now?”

  “Sure. Why not?”

  I adjust my ponytail, nod, and stand up. Brenda grabs her keys and sun
glasses, and I follow her through the front door.

  Down the stairs.

  Around the corner.

  Across the sidewalk.

  To the mailbox in the distance.

  When we get there, I pull on the big blue handle and toss my letter inside. I don’t hesitate. I just let it go.

  acknowledgments

  Heartfelt thanks and gratitude go out to so many people who cheered me on and helped me out while I made this book a book.

  To the entire FSG/Macmillan team, especially my editor, Joy Peskin, for seeing what was on the page and also what wasn’t. Thank you for loving these characters as much as I do, talking about them like real people, and for helping Morgan’s story grow the layers it needed. Your brilliance, guidance, and kindness are a debut author’s dream and I am so fortunate to get to work with you. To Andrew Arnold who made a book cover that literally made me gasp with excitement when I first saw it. It is perfect. To my keen-eyed copyeditors, Cynthia Ritter and Kate Hurley as well as Karen Ninnis, thank you for your patience and support in getting this just right. And to the lovely Angie Chen plus everyone else behind the scenes at FSG, I am so grateful for you. Additional thanks to the Macmillan UK Children’s team, especially Venetia Gosling, whose enthusiasm for Underwater means the world to me.

  To my superagent, Kate Schafer Testerman, who discovered Morgan in the slush pile and changed my life with a phone call that has gone down in history as one of the best phone calls of my entire life. You are my dream agent and I am so very lucky to know you. Thank you to the whole kt literary family, including Renee Nyen, Sara Megibow, and my fellow authors. I am humbled to be in your company. And extra thanks to Amy Spalding who took me to lunch and made me feel like an official agency sibling from day one.

  Jon and Kai, my two favorite people in the whole world, thank you for every sacrifice you’ve made and for always believing in this dream of mine. You are the reason for everything and I love you both so much. For my mom, who I think might be the only person more excited about Underwater than I am, thank you for encouraging me when I wanted to major in creative writing and then go on to grad school to write some more. I love you. To Michael, Liane, and Julia for never doubting, even when it was taking a really long time to get here. And finally to my dad who told me the best stories about walking in the woods when I was a kid. I miss you every day.

 
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