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Underwater a novel, p.3

Underwater: A Novel, page 3


Underwater: A Novel

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  Onstage, there was a guy with a bass and a girl on the drums and another girl with a guitar and a microphone. I shouted out all the words because I knew them by heart. I bounced when the songs got faster, and Alexios bounced behind me, still holding on tight.

  By the end of the night, we were hot and sweaty and almost in love. We were in love enough that when he told me his parents were out of town for the weekend, I texted my mom to say I was spending the night at Sage’s house. But I went home with him instead. We left our jeans and T-shirts in a tangled pile on the floor and climbed into his bed, where he gently pulled me to his mouth by my cheekbones.

  We stayed together for six months.

  We stayed together until we decided we liked other people. The breakup wasn’t ugly or tear-filled. It was simply how it was. It was high school. Alexios was my boyfriend for six months, and then he wasn’t.

  And now he’s in college and I’m in an apartment.

  * * *

  I spend the rest of the morning watching video lectures for English and calculus, then e-mail in an assignment for US history. After that, I focus on small things. I make my bed and move to the other side of the room to make Ben’s bed. We share a room because we have to. We’ve always had to because we’ve lived in Paradise Manor since he was born. Ben’s bed is to the left of mine. If it weren’t, I’d never sleep. I clean the toilet and the mirrors in the bathroom. I pace. I watch. I sit and listen.

  My mom and Ben are more than halfway through their days. Evan is, too. I don’t know why I think of him, but I do.

  I listen to the silence. Then I turn on the TV.

  There are news people reporting live from my old high school. I feel my stomach cramp. I might have instant diarrhea.

  A pretty news reporter wears a flippy dress and stands by the front office where big chunky metal letters spell out PACIFIC PALMS HIGH SCHOOL on the wall behind her. The reporter talks into a microphone as her hair blows around her face and gets stuck in the hot-pink lipstick on her mouth. She explains that my school is still closed but determined to reopen in the fall. I can hear the wind swish through the microphone. She pulls her hair back and talks about the new language arts building going up on campus. It will be called Finnegan Hall after my English teacher who died there. The building will go where the old one used to be. In between the math building and the auditorium. And the courtyard where Brianna, Chelsea, Sage, and I used to eat lunch will still be right in the middle. The reporter talks about the memorial wall that will be there, too. I fumble for the remote.

  Before I can stop it they switch to footage from October fifteenth. They show a line of police cars twisting around the block. They show my classmates filtering out of the school, single file, hands on top of their heads, daring glances over their shoulders at the chaos behind them. My insides clench when I see Chelsea. It’s the way I remember her. The news people always show the footage with her in it because she’s screaming and crying and looks the most panicked out of everyone.

  I can’t catch my breath. I feel like Ben is sitting on my chest—the way he does when we are pretending to wrestle. I finally get the remote straight between my fingers. I shut off the TV. I run to the medicine cabinet for my emergency pills. They are there, like a rope tethering me to the world. I need one. For the first time in almost eight weeks, I have to go there.

  Twist, thwap, gulp.

  I wait.

  It’s not what I want it to be.

  It’s not instant.

  The zingy electricity is too much. I pace the living room. Back and forth. In front of the window. With the blinds closed. I might be dying.

  I’m pretty sure I’m dying.

  I don’t know what to do, so I call Brenda. She picks up on the second ring. I tell her about what I saw on the news. Chelsea. My school. I tell her how it made me remember. I tell her the building is gone but the memories aren’t.

  “Seeing it like that is too real,” I say. “It makes it all come back.”

  She tells me to breathe. She tells me I’m okay. She tells me I’m not dying. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. She tells me to picture myself in my favorite place, which I say is on a beach towel underneath the hot sun. I miss it. She talks about that place and how I can go there, in my head, on days like this. Her voice is soft, like fuzzy slippers. And when she’s done, I can think again.

  I tell her I will be okay now.

  We hang up. I go to my room. I pick up Ben’s stuffed animals from the floor and toss them onto his bed. I lie on my own bed. I stare at the ceiling and think of more good things. I think of Ben on the day he was born, all chubby and pink and bald. We sent pictures and a short video through e-mail to my dad in Afghanistan. He wrote us back saying, There’s my boy, and told us everyone in his platoon toasted him that day. He was good and proud. He was happy in the way I liked to remember him, because that happiness quickly slipped away when he returned and got even worse when he was deployed again. I think of the way newborn Ben wrapped his tiny fingers around one of mine. I think of sitting next to my mom’s hospital bed and rocking him under dim lights while he slept in my arms. I fall asleep to a feeling of a love I never knew until my brother got here.

  chapter four

  Nighttime makes the darkness last forever. I’m used to being alone during the day, but when my family is gone at night, I feel it. I’m used to snuggling up to Ben before bed and reading him books. We climb between the sheets and he curls into me to turn the pages. I run my fingers along the bigger words, hoping my pointing will help him to learn them. When he drifts off, his head droops underneath my chin and I can smell his apple shampoo. The dirty boy smell has been scrubbed clean. His mouth tilts open as he breathes his toothpaste breath on me. He has dark green pajamas with dinosaurs on them. The top buttons up and has a collar like a fancy shirt someone would wear to work in an office.

  Tonight, Ben and my mom are at a birthday party.

  Ben is eating pizza.

  And cake.

  He’s playing arcade games.

  He will win a prize.

  It will be loud and noisy with the chaos of kids.

  If I were there, I’d be sweaty. I’d be overwhelmed. I’d want emptiness and I wouldn’t be able to find it. I’d have to cup my hands over my ears to block out the noise. Being in the middle of the chaos would make me feel like throwing up. I’d go to the bathroom and grasp the sides of the sink to wait for it to happen.

  I’d take deep breaths.

  I’d talk to myself in the mirror.

  After a while, I’d feel like I could breathe again.

  I’d take another deep breath. I’d draw in oxygen like I’d been trapped under an ocean wave and just rose to the surface. It would feel good.

  I’d splash cold water from the public bathroom sink on my face. I would think it was gross because the sink wouldn’t be very clean. And there would be the faint smell of a dirty diaper coming from the trash can. But I would splash water on my face anyway because of the noise. And the flashing lights. And the screaming kids.

  I know these things because I’ve done these things.

  I tried to live in the world after October fifteenth.

  I tried and I failed.

  * * *

  After October fifteenth, after that day, we had two weeks of candlelight vigils and celebrations of life instead of classes. Chelsea, Brianna, Sage, and I held hands and cried at every one of them. I told myself we were all hurting in the same way. I told myself I wasn’t worse off or different. And then I started at Ocean High School. A school that wasn’t mine. I tried to make the best of it. I slung my messenger bag crammed with books and pens and notebooks across my chest and walked through the hallways of my new school like it was no big deal. For three weeks, I pretended the slamming of lockers didn’t startle me. And the endless sea of backpacks didn’t make me flinch. And the crowded cafeteria didn’t make my heart beat too fast. I tried to sit in classrooms and pay attention, but the distracti
on was there. It was a gnawing feeling in the back of my head.

  One day, in the middle of my Spanish class, I watched a girl across the room. She tossed her head back and laughed at something a boy mispronounced. She was pretty and had freckles. He was tall and lanky and had bangs that fell into his face. I gnawed on a pencil and watched them, wondering what it would be like to feel that way again. Then a door slammed across the hallway and it set off a trigger in my body.

  I thought I was dying.

  I was sweaty. And hot. And sick to my stomach. My heart beat so fast against my chest that I couldn’t catch my breath, and I felt like my head might explode because it hurt so much. I stood up, and my teacher stopped writing on the whiteboard to stare at me.

  “Qué pasa, Morgan?”

  “I’m dying.” We weren’t supposed to speak in English in Spanish class, but I did it anyway.

  The blood drained from Señora Gutiérrez’s face as her eyes darted to the shut door. She was panicked. I’d said words you weren’t allowed to say in a school unless you were serious.

  She picked up the phone on her desk and called whoever she was supposed to call in an emergency. People came—an ambulance and medics and police officers and firefighters. And it looked like October fifteenth. It looked like that day. And I’m sure it was very upsetting for a lot of people, because students in my class wrung their hands and peered over their shoulders like they were waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

  I was taken away in an ambulance. We went to the hospital where my mom works. She was sweaty when she got to the ER, like she’d run from far away even though it was only from the cancer ward three floors up. She’d run the whole way because that’s what moms do when they hear their kids are in the emergency room. When she found me sitting on a bed with the privacy curtain wide open, she hugged me, and I sank into her chest and cried.

  My mom went down the hall and around the corner with me, where a radiologist took a CAT scan of my head and an X-ray of my heart. They wanted to make sure I didn’t have something majorly wrong with me. I didn’t. Not exactly.

  My heart was fine.

  My brain was fine (sort of).

  It turned out I wasn’t dying on the outside. I was only dying on the inside, where nobody could see.

  After that, we sat in a freezing cold waiting room. I drew in deep breaths of hospital air that I was convinced smelled like blood and bleach. Then the doctor took us into a private room with a door and a window. He gave me some medicine to make me calm. Then he told me I’d had a panic attack.

  “But it felt like I was dying,” I said.

  “It can feel that way,” he agreed.

  “What can we do?” my mom asked.

  “It would be good to find someone for Morgan to talk to.”

  * * *

  My mom had to be there the first time I met Brenda because Brenda had to do something called an intake. I think that meant she wanted to talk to both of us to figure out how messed up I was and how often she’d need to meet with me. My mom couldn’t afford therapy. I felt guilty for needing it. But my mom was close with some of the doctors at work because she’d had her job for a while. And the doctors at work knew people. And one of them had heard about Brenda. She said Brenda did a certain number of volunteer hours every year and she was willing to use those hours on me because she was particularly interested in helping out military families. The doctor asked Brenda to call my mom. Brenda did. They set up an appointment for the next day in the middle of a bright and sunny afternoon.

  I liked Brenda instantly because she was young. And she had tattoos and dreadlocks and all those earrings. It made me trust her. Like she was honest about what she was. Like she didn’t have anything to hide.

  We sat in cushy chairs in her office. They were deep and green and plush like the carpet underneath them. I think they were supposed to be comfortable, but I felt like I was going to sink into mine and disappear. I asked if I could stand up. My mom and Brenda looked at me funny.

  “I can’t go to school anymore,” I said out loud, my hands fluttering against my thighs. “And I don’t want to leave my apartment again.”

  “Are you sure? Won’t you miss your friends?” Brenda asked.

  “My friends are all at different schools.”

  “But you can still see them,” my mom said, and then admitted to Brenda that she was worried about the way I seemed to be pushing all my friends away.

  “I can’t be social right now,” I said. “I’m sorry. And I can’t go to school. But I did some research. I found an online high school. There’s one just for California students, and I can start classes right away.”

  “I don’t know,” my mom hedged. “How much is it?”

  “It’s free. All my classes will transfer, and it’s fully accredited.”

  “It just sounds so extreme,” my mom said.

  I literally stomped my foot on the ground the way Ben would when he didn’t want to jump to me from the edge of the swimming pool when he was three. “I can’t go to school. I won’t.”

  Brenda reassured my mom it might be the best thing for me since I’d made the decision myself and had done the research. “Morgan deserves to have some control.”

  It felt like Brenda understood what I was going through even if I didn’t quite understand it. She asked me if maybe I could try to come to her office only twice a week and stay home the rest of the time.

  I told her no. I said I couldn’t drive. “I can’t be in my car. I feel trapped inside of it. I just want to be home where I feel safe.”

  “Morgan,” my mom said, “Dr. Gwynn doesn’t make house calls. If you want to work with her, you’re going to have to get yourself to her office.”

  “I can’t.” My voice caught then. I curled into myself. Broken and barely breathing. “What are you not hearing? I can’t leave our apartment. I won’t.”

  And then I felt Brenda looking at me. Really looking. Studying silently as I sank deeper. And finally, she sat up straight, her heavy dreadlocks falling over her shoulders, and said, “I’ll do it. I want to help.”

  My mom looked surprised when Brenda said that. To be honest, I was a little surprised, too. Brenda sure was willing to go out of her way for me. She said I had touched her on a personal level, though I didn’t know how. My mom said great. And thank you.

  So I didn’t go to school again. I enrolled in online high school after the Thanksgiving break. The next time I saw Brenda, we sat on the couch in my living room. I told her I needed her to sit to the left of me. She asked me why.

  “I need to be able to know what’s there. To know it isn’t him.”

  She said okay and sat down.

  I was glad she didn’t press me.

  I was glad she didn’t make me talk about how he was standing to the left of me the last time I saw him.

  I didn’t want to start with that.

  And that’s how I’ve met with Brenda ever since. We started at the end of November, and now it’s April. For just over four months, Brenda has been coming to my house to help me get better.

  chapter five

  My mom and Ben are still at the birthday party when there’s a knock on my door. I know exactly who it is. I can picture Evan standing on our welcome mat. I want to see him. I can’t help it. Even if all I do is look at him from the other side of the threshold. That’s something at least.

  I double-check the peephole, then open the door. Evan’s right there, his index finger poking through the hole in the middle of a DVD.

  “Wanna watch something?” he asks.

  It’s not like nobody ever comes inside this apartment. My mom and my brother live here. Brenda visits. Chelsea and Brianna used to visit. But Evan is here now. Can I let him in?

  I do. I open the door, and he comes inside.

  I follow him to the living room and the lopsided couch. I try to scoot past him, to settle into my space before he can sit in it, but he’s too fast. He sits down on my end of the couch and waits for
me to sit on the other end. I can’t.

  I stand.

  I stare.

  I shuffle.

  I swear under my breath.

  I clench my hands into fists and try to calm down.

  “You okay?” he asks, gripping the DVD.

  I shake my hands out against the sides of my legs. Fluttery fingers. Nervous hands.


  “Um, I need to sit there.”


  “Right there. Exactly where you’re sitting.” I fidget. I fumble. I freak. “I’m sorry.”

  “Oh,” he says, standing up. “Go ahead.”

  “I’m sorry,” I say again, shielding my eyes with the back of my hand so I don’t have to look at him. “I know it sounds incredibly specific.”

  “It’s okay.”

  He doesn’t give me a funny look or anything. Instead he kneels down in front of the DVD player and slides the disc in. He looks over his shoulder to kick a grin in my direction. “Did the soup make you feel better?”

  “It was good.” And it was. I ate it for dinner the night he gave it to me. But it wasn’t the miraculous cure-all Evan had hoped for.

  “You smell like coconut,” he says, settling onto the opposite end of the couch.

  I shrug. My shampoo is coconut-scented. Is it good or bad that I smell this way?

  The DVD starts up, and the opening has some music that sounds like summer. It’s sweepy and dreamy and goes perfectly with the waves rolling across the screen. The TV fills up with clear blue water crowded with surfers. And then there’s a panoramic shot of the beach. We watch sand that looks like brown sugar and palm trees slanting sideways into the sun. And then the surfers are there again, the camera zooming in as one of them goes peeling down the front of a wave almost as tall as Paradise Manor. Scribbly writing shows up in the right-hand corner of the screen: Evan “Da Hapa” Kokua, 17, Pipeline. There’s no mistaking the sun-streaked curls of the boy sitting next to me.

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