Underwater a novel, p.6
Underwater: A Novel, page 6
I decide to deliver my letter to Evan as soon as I’m done writing it. I’m eager to get it to him before I chicken out. I want to be someone Evan might like. Maybe it’s selfish to want that because liking me is a lot of work, but I think it’s brave, too. I open my front door. I peek out, craning my neck to see his front door. Even standing on my welcome mat, I’m too far to be able to reach his apartment. If I toss my letter over there, I might miss and risk it sailing through the slats of the balcony railing and into the pool. Evan has a welcome mat, too. It says ALOHA on it in rainbow colors. If only I could take a couple steps, I’d be able to stick my letter under it. Or I might even be able to secure it near the handle of the screen door. I visualize this. I breathe. I move my upper body forward, but my feet don’t follow. They can’t. Being out here alone is different from being out here with Brenda. Evan’s apartment is too far away. So I do the only thing I know how to do: I go back inside and lock my front door behind me.
* * *
That night, Ben rushes inside, practically plowing my mom down as she pulls her keys from the knob. He’s all flushed and panting, with his brown curls sticking to his sweaty head. He unzips his backpack and yanks out a red folder, shaking it in my face.
“Look! I’m in a play!”
He’s so excited, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it. I high-five him. “That’s so cool. What are you going to be?”
He wrinkles up his nose. “I’m a frog. But a really smart one. I know everything.”
“Sounds like the perfect role for you.”
My mom chuckles as she moves past us and into the kitchen, where she sets two bags of groceries on the counter.
“It’s gonna be in the auditorium,” Ben continues. “There’s a real stage there. They even have one of those spotlight machines. And everyone is invited. Even you. Will you come?”
I try to imagine myself sitting in a dark auditorium packed with people and not being able to keep my eye on all of them at once. The idea makes me feel so sick that I almost wonder if I need an emergency pill. I take a deep breath. I think of my list.
2. You are okay.
3. You are not dying.
I brush the hair back from Ben’s face and pull his chin up to look at me. “We’ll see.”
“You’re going to come, right? Yeah, I know you’re going to come.” It’s like he’s talking himself into believing it. I don’t know what to say, so I plant a kiss on his cheek instead of talking. He plops down on the middle of the living room floor to look at his script. “Wanna read all the parts with me?”
His grin is so huge. It’s as wide as the whole room. I sit down next to him and pull him into my lap. “Tell me who you want me to be,” I say.
“You can be all the parts except for the frog. And the alligator. I want to be the alligator, too. He’s crazy.” He waves his hands up in the air to indicate crazy.
I laugh. “Okay.”
When we finish reading, I send Ben next door to deliver my letter to Evan before I change my mind. I wait. My heart thumps. And I cross my fingers.
Ben comes back a little bummed out.
“Nobody’s home. But I left it for him.”
“By the door.”
“Good job. Thank you.”
So now I have to wait. And wonder. I picture Evan reading my words. What will he think of them?
* * *
An hour later, it’s dark and cold outside, but it’s cozy and bright in my apartment. I help Ben with his homework and fill up the tub for him with warm water and bubbles. My mom fixes dinner, and we eat together in front of the TV. We watch a cartoon that makes Ben laugh so hard, he snorts.
“Chew your food,” my mom says.
I hear Evan and his mom come home while we’re eating.
I hear them banging around in the kitchen. I hear the whir of the microwave. I tilt my head toward the wall, trying to make out the sound of something meaningful.
“You okay?” my mom asks.
But she doesn’t stop watching me.
I eventually hear the clanging of dishes in the sink next door. And then I don’t hear anything at all. Ben falls asleep against my shoulder. My mom picks him up off the couch as his arms droop limply at his sides. She shuffles him off to the bedroom.
I sit in the dark for a few minutes. I want to be alone. But then my mom calls out to me.
“Go to bed, Morgan.”
She doesn’t like to fall asleep and then have the noise of me brushing my teeth wake her up an hour later.
I peek out of the peephole of our front door on my way to my bedroom. I can’t see Evan’s front door, of course, but I can tell the porch light isn’t on. Everything outside of our apartment is dark. And quiet. It’s the kind of silence that hurts.
I stop at the entrance to my mom’s room before I turn into mine. She’s sitting in bed, reading a romance novel. She buys them from the spin rack at the hospital pharmacy. The cover of her book has a guy with long hair and no shirt kissing the bare shoulder of a lady in a ripped dress on the deck of a pirate ship.
She sets the book down on her stomach. “Yeah?”
There are things I want to tell her, but she looks so tired. I want to say I went outside today. I want to tell her Brenda was proud of me. But then I think maybe I need that to be something that only belongs to me right now. I don’t want to get her hopes up.
“I just wanted to say good night.”
She holds her arms out to me, and I cross over and sink into them. She brushes my hair back from my face and kisses the top of my head like I’m Ben’s age.
“You okay?” She talks against my hair so her words are kind of muffled.
I nod and hug her tighter. The safe smell of her makes me wish I could stay there all night. Instead, I stand up, kiss her on the cheek, and sneak quietly into my room so I don’t wake up Ben.
I slide between my polka-dot sheets. I think of Evan and how my words must’ve scared him. It seems like he would’ve come over if he’d been happy to get my letter. This realization makes me question everything Brenda has ever told me. She said lots of people would be thrilled to get a letter from me. But Evan obviously wasn’t thrilled. How could I have been so stupid? And what if this isn’t the only thing Brenda is wrong about?
The sound of Evan thumping down the stairs early the next morning wakes me up. He’s up before the sun. I peek out from behind the curtains of my bedroom window just as the tail end of his surfboard rounds the corner by the front gate. He’s on dawn patrol, getting some surfing in before school starts. All the good surfers in town do that. I know the smell of him without being there. I think of him sitting astride his board, bobbing around in the middle of the ocean, waiting for a wave and missing Hawaii.
My letter definitely scared him.
I picture Ben waving his hands up in the air last night when he said the alligator in his play was crazy. Maybe Evan thinks about me that way. He doesn’t want to deal with crazy.
I pack Ben’s lunch. I watch him and my mom hustle out the door. My mom’s keys jingle as they dangle from her fingertip when she goes. I smile as I watch Ben soar through the courtyard. He trips and almost falls into the pool, but my mom catches him by his elbow just in time. And then they push through the gate, disappearing just like Evan did this morning. Neither of them realizes I’m standing on the welcome mat watching them go.
* * *
My day is my day: Schoolwork. Soap operas. Sandwich. Soup.
A little after three p.m., I hear the thump thump of Evan climbing up the stairs. Like a total creeper, I rush to the front door and peer through the peephole, but he’s already moved past my welcome mat. I can hear him outside, though, so I move to the window and open the curtain just enough to peek outside without being seen. I catch sight of him as he bends down to pick up something.
He studies it.
I can’t tell what he’s holding until he stands straight again.
He turns it over in his hand.
He didn’t see it until now. Ben must’ve shoved it under the mat. Or it was hidden in the dark. That’s what I get for sending a five-year-old to deliver the most important thing I’ve ever written.
He rips it open.
He backs up against the railing of the balcony in front of my door.
I want to know what he’s thinking.
I watch him even though I shouldn’t.
The look on his face stays put. It doesn’t give away anything.
I want to be honest with you, so here’s the thing: I’m all messed up. I assume you heard about everything that happened at Pacific Palms last year. Well, I was there. And I saw a lot of things. And I’m guilty of stuff I can’t even put into words because I’m still trying to figure everything out. I have a psychologist who helps me. Sometimes I wish someone could erase my memory. Because it changed me. I don’t leave my house anymore. That’s why I go to school online. It’s not because I’m a genius; it’s because I’m scared.
But then I met you and I thought we could be friends. You’re the first person in a long time that has made me want to walk outside my front door. You’re the first person who’s made me think I might like to ride a bike again or go to the beach or swim in a pool. And even if you think I’m too crazy to bother with, I still have to thank you because I’m trying now. You’ve reminded me of things I miss. And I realize I miss them enough to want to find them again. I really hope this doesn’t scare you. I hope you want to know me, too.
I could never say these things to your face. I needed to write them instead of speaking them.
I skitter from the curtain to hover behind my front door. I picture Evan reading my letter with his backpack hanging off one of his shoulders. I swear I can hear him breathing. It’s been hours. It’s been a whole night. And all that time my letter was hidden somewhere he couldn’t see. Sometimes the things we are sure of aren’t true at all.
I jump when he knocks. I stand still, wanting something I’m afraid to want. He thrums his knuckles against the door again.
“Morgan, open up.”
I draw in a breath, let it out, and open the door.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” he asks.
He’s holding my letter between his fingers, and I’m concentrating on the way it looks. Like he’s holding my feelings right there in his hand. I think about the way my words are on the page. I really hope this doesn’t scare you.
“I was afraid to tell you,” I say.
“I sound crazy.”
“You’re not crazy.”
“You don’t know me.”
“Fine. But I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
I can tell he’s speaking as true as the sun shining behind him.
“That’s why we’re here, too. My cousin … he…” Evan gets caught on the difficulty of his own words. “We’re here because my cousin was one of the ones. He went to your school and, well, you know.”
I do know. I know exactly. And the fact that I know makes me sick to my stomach. He tried to bring up his cousin when we watched the surf video and I didn’t let him. I cut him off. Maybe that’s why he disappeared after that night. He probably thinks I’m heartless.
“Who was your cousin?”
“Connor Wallace. Did you know him?”
Evan is looking at me so hopefully that I wish more than anything I’d known Connor Wallace. I wish he’d been more than just another person I passed in the hallway sometimes. Or took an art class with once. I vaguely remember him sitting at an easel on the other side of the room. He was good. Everybody knew that. He won an art contest with a self-portrait he painted in class. I was terrible. None of my art ended up looking like what I’d pictured in my head when I started. If I concentrate really hard, I can see the family resemblance between Connor and Evan. But Evan is more olive-skinned and beachy than Connor. The Hawaiian half of him shines through.
“I knew who he was, but I didn’t know him,” I say.
“That sucks.” He kicks at the welcome mat, disappointed. “I really wanted you to say you knew him.”
I scramble to make it better. “We took an art class together once.”
He sighs. “I know.”
“Yeah, right,” I say, laughing off what he said. But I stop when I see the sincere way he’s looking at me, his big brown eyes locking on mine, practically pleading.
He runs his hand through his fluffy hair. “God, this is gonna sound so psycho.” He takes a breath. “I know who you are.”
I take a step back. What does he mean? How much does he know? Does he know the things I don’t tell Brenda?
“Connor told me about you, okay? Because he liked you.”
“Oh, my god.” I feel like my knees might buckle out from under me.
“Sorry. I didn’t want to weird you out.”
“It’s not that.” I shuffle. “I feel like a terrible person for not knowing him.”
He shrugs. “You can’t know everybody.”
“But I should’ve known someone who liked me.”
“Nah, he never gave you a clue, I bet.” He laughs at that thought, like remembering how good Connor could be at keeping a crush secret is funny. “But he liked you. A lot. Since freshman year. We were tight, and he talked about you all the time. Every summer and spring break when he visited. Every Skype session. He had it bad.”
“But how did you know I was the same Morgan?”
“I put it together when I moved your car. I mean, how many girls at your school drive old-school Bel Airs? I figured you had to be the one he’d told me about. And that kind of made me want to know you in real life. Like, you were somehow a part of him. But I should’ve told you that first day. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
“Wow.” I shake my head, trying to take it all in. “All this time, you’ve known so much about me. That makes me feel really stupid. Or like I’m a liar or something.”
“Not even.” He looks down at the ground and up again, studying me thoughtfully. “I guess there was a part of me that wanted to see what you were like on my own. I wanted to see what Connor saw. And I thought of telling you a bunch of times, but whenever I brought up school or my cousin, you shut down.” He shrugs. I stand there, feeling like he’s pointing out everything wrong about me. Like he sees how messed up I am. “And to be honest, hanging out with you kind of bummed me out. That’s why I stopped coming by. Because I thought of how much Connor would’ve wanted to be me. It almost makes me feel guilty, you know?”
“So hanging out with me is a total bummer?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Look, I just told you I never leave my apartment. I get it if you have better things to do than spend time here.”
“Well, I don’t want to hang out inside all the time, but what’s the big deal if we hang out when I’m home anyway?”
“Hanging out with you is better than sitting in my apartment by myself.”
He’s so matter-of-fact. Like I should get this. Like it’s a compliment. But it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like I’m only good enough to bother with when there’s nothing better to do.
“I sit in my apartment by myself every day,” I say.
“But you said you’re trying. So it won’t be forever, right?”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“My aunt, Connor’s mom, stays inside a lot. Because she’s sad.” He sighs. “That’s why my mom’s running the restaurant. It’s her sister. We had to move. We had to help. And since we got here, my aunt is doing better. My mom even got her to come help out with the dinner rush last weekend. So see?”
“But I’m not like her. I don’t stay inside because I’m sad. I stay inside because I’m scared.”
“I’m sorry you’re scared,” he says.
“Please don’t pity me.”
“I don’t.” He sounds annoyed that I’d accuse him of that.
He simply smiles. “Okay.”
Evan is nice enough. But now I can see he might not be talking to me at all if Connor hadn’t liked me. And now that I know that, I wish I could tell him I’d known his cousin so I had something to make knowing me worthwhile. I want to have a story that’s heartwarming and original that Evan can carry with him forever. I want him to be able to tell his mom the story so she can tell his aunt. Maybe it would make her day. But the truth is, Connor was someone I had never talked to and never will. And now he’s one of the names on the memorial wall.
“Do you want to come in?” I ask Evan while he’s still standing on my welcome mat with my letter in his hand. “We can do homework.”
I step aside and hold the door open all the way. Even if hanging out here is only a matter of convenience for him, it’s everything to me.
“Uh, sure.” He hoists his backpack onto his shoulder and comes inside. “Wait. You still have homework?”
That makes me laugh. “Of course. Online school is still school. I have to do all the same assignments and stuff.”
“How does it work exactly?”
“I have to put in five instructional hours a day, but I can do them whenever I want as long as it’s over a twenty-four-hour period. And then I e-mail all my homework and assignments to my teachers.”
by Marisa Reichardt have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes