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Underwater a novel, p.7

Underwater: A Novel, page 7


Underwater: A Novel

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  “Oh. That’s actually pretty cool.”

  I shrug. “It’s okay. Are you hungry?” I ask.

  “I could eat.”

  He follows me into the kitchen, and I swing open the door of the fridge. There’s not much to be said for what’s in there.

  “We have strawberries,” I tell him. “Or I could make you a grilled cheese sandwich.”

  “I love grilled cheese.”

  Evan sits down on a stool at the counter while I form my assembly line. Bread. Butter. Cheese. Piping hot griddle. I could make grilled cheese with my eyes closed. But knowing Evan is watching me makes me nervous.

  “I like extra cheese. What about you?”

  Evan nods. “Sure.”

  I slap another slice of cheese onto the bread and turn to face him.

  He’s really here.

  At the kitchen counter.

  In my apartment.

  Wearing a faded red T-shirt for a surf shop in Haleiwa, Hawaii.

  One of his curls comes loose and flops down across his eye. I’m zoned out, watching him as he pushes the curl back behind his ear. Then he jerks his head up and sniffs the air.

  “I think it’s burning,” he says.

  I turn around to see smoke billowing up from the bottom half of the sandwich. Seriously? How many grilled cheese sandwiches have I made in my lifetime? He must think I’m a total idiot.

  I pull the griddle off the burner.

  I dump the charred sandwich in the trash.

  I start over.

  Bread. Butter. Extra cheese. Piping hot griddle.

  I promise myself I won’t look at Evan this time.

  But that’s really hard to do.

  Because everything about him says Look at me.

  Plus my words. They’re just sitting there on that folded piece of paper in the envelope sitting on the counter next to his elbow. Thankfully the sandwich is sizzling. I can flip it now. I won’t watch him.

  When I set the grilled cheese and a cup of milk down in front of him, he digs in like he hasn’t eaten all day. I can tell it’s too hot because he does that thing where he whistles in air to cool off the food that’s already in his mouth.

  “Don’t burn your tongue. Geez.”

  He laughs and takes a long slug of milk. “Sorry. I’m starving.”

  “Surfing makes you hungry, I bet.” He looks at me weird, and then I realize I shouldn’t know he went surfing before school this morning. Or any morning. I was just lurking. I was staring out the window, watching him go.

  I stare at him now. I watch him eat because I can.

  “You’re not hungry?” he asks.

  “I’m good.”

  He takes another bite. “You kind of rule at making grilled cheese.”

  “I’m okay.”

  “Why do you do that?”

  “Do what?”

  “Blow off compliments.”

  “I don’t.”

  “You kind of do.”


  “Don’t apologize. Just learn to say thanks.”

  Evan’s eyes dart around the room. They settle where I wish they wouldn’t: my list. My heart thumps against my ribs like a marching band. My stomach hurts. I don’t want to talk about the letter because writing things down and saying them out loud are very different. And I definitely don’t want to talk about my panic attack countdown.

  1. Breathe.

  2. You are okay.

  3. You are not dying.

  “What’s that?” he asks, gesturing to the piece of paper taped to the wall like it belongs there.

  “Just this thing,” I say.

  He raises his eyebrow at me. He knows that’s not the whole story. He shoves a golden-tipped curl behind his ear and looks at me like, And?

  “It’s for emergencies.”

  He looks at the list again, like he’s thinking about it. “That makes sense,” he finally says, and finishes off his milk.

  When Evan’s done eating, he unzips his backpack to fish out his homework. The sound of him riffling around makes me stop in my tracks. I eye the backpack like Ben eyed my mom’s pancakes that time she snuck zucchini peelings into the batter. And then Evan looks at me the same way I’m looking at the backpack.

  “What?” he says.

  I don’t look at him. Instead, I twist my neck to try to peer past the half-opened zipper. I’m overcome by the need to know exactly what’s inside. And he must know, somehow, in some innate way, because instead of getting accusatory, he forces his backpack all the way open and pulls out the balled-up sweatshirt on top so I can peek inside. It’s full of the usual backpack stuff. Folders. A novel. Pens. Math and history textbooks. I nod.

  “Thanks,” I say.

  He tosses the backpack on the floor and grabs a folder and a book. We sit down on the couch. But instead of sitting on the opposite end, he sits down in the middle, right next to me, so our arms touch like it’s the most regular thing ever. But it’s completely the opposite of the most regular thing ever, because I swear I can sense every tiny thing about him. I’m wearing a tank top, and having my bare skin against his bare skin makes me feel everything. It’s like I can even feel the fine hairs of his arm brushing against my own.

  He cracks open his US history book, pushing against me when he does it. The weight of his shoulder against mine is too much. I scramble up from the couch, telling him I’ll be back in a second. This is what you wanted, I remind myself as I stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom and run a brush through my hair. When I return, Evan is fully immersed in his homework. I’ve calmed down enough to settle back into the space next to him and get to work.

  We study quietly, side by side. It’s nice to have someone else here. It feels more like real school, even if we aren’t sitting in a classroom with a teacher and a whiteboard.

  But then Evan starts groaning and erasing things, tearing through notebook paper with what’s barely left of the eraser on the top of his pencil. It turns out he really is behind in trigonometry, so I admit I can help him.

  “How do you know all this?” he asks after I’ve walked him through half a dozen homework problems.

  I don’t like to brag, so I just say I worked hard at it. And I did work hard at math. I used to work hard at everything. I worked so hard that working hard became my whole life. Brenda said that being that way probably led to me having the kind of meltdown I had. She said I had a predisposition for that sort of thing because I was focused and precise. Sometimes positives are negatives. She explained that overachievers sometimes end up like me after something tragic happens. It’s a reaction to realizing we can’t control everything. I also worry that I’m the way I am because of my dad. Like I inherited something.

  “Where’s your dad?” I ask Evan. And the way I say it comes out loud, like an accusation. He shifts on the couch, keeping his grip on the folder on his knee.

  “He’s still in Hawaii. My mom and dad are divorced, in case you were wondering.”

  “Mine too,” I say. “Why didn’t you stay with him?”

  His jaw clenches in the slightest way. “Not an option.”


  “Have you always lived in Hawaii? I mean, until now.”

  “Yah, sistah. I da kine, one hundred pah-cent local boy, li’ dat!” He elbows me in the ribs, laughing, which makes me laugh, too.

  “I have no idea what you just said, but I think you made it clear you’re from Hawaii.”

  “You heard right.”

  “You must miss it. And your friends. They seemed fun in that surf video.”

  “They are. We had good times.”

  “I feel like I know them.”



  And maybe he thinks fifteen minutes isn’t enough to be able to know anything. But in my experience, fifteen minutes can make all the difference. Fifteen minutes can change your whole life.

  “Are you going back? After school gets out?” I ask, hoping he says no.

  “Not permanently. I have to visit my dad as part of the custody agreement, which is stupid because it’s really only about leverage for him.” Evan scowls. “But I’ll get to see my friends when I go. That’s the one good thing about it.”

  “Does your mom want to go back?”

  “No way. My mom’s had island fever for years. She met my dad on vacation there a couple years after she graduated from high school and never left. But that didn’t work out, obviously. And then it was just a matter of finding the right time to get off Oahu—to get my dad to okay the move, I mean. Since he doesn’t want me living with him year-round, here we are.”

  Yep. Here he is. On my couch. With his arm touching mine.

  “Hey,” Evan says, nudging his elbow into my side. “Where’s your dad?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He nods like he gets it. “That sucks.”

  “Yeah, it kind of does.”

  After an hour, Evan slams his book shut. He stretches his arms high above his head. His shirt rides up, and his tanned, toned belly peeks out between his shorts and the bottom of his T-shirt. I try not to look, but come on. He reaches across me to grab the remote control from the table and flicks on the TV.

  “Cool?” he asks, cocking his head at the set.

  “Okay.” I could use a break anyway.

  He settles deeper into the couch, really getting comfortable. I sit there with my arms flat against my sides, my fingers gripping the edges of the cushion as I watch the TV channels pass by. Please don’t let anything be on the local news. Please don’t have a panic attack in front of Evan.

  He changes the channels slowly, pausing on practically every station to see exactly what’s showing. It’s after five p.m. The news could be anywhere. A reporter could be at my old school, standing in front of that building again. The idea of it makes my scalp sweat. I can smell the hallway at PPHS. I can hear the screams and then the silence.

  “Go faster.” My words come out like a shout.

  “You okay?” Evan asks. He’s looking at me in a way that says I can tell him anything. But I can’t. I can write about it, yes. I can put things down on a piece of paper, then fold it over twice and stuff it into an envelope for him to read. But I can’t talk about it out loud. Not now. Maybe not ever.

  “I don’t want to watch the news. Can we skip over those channels? Like, immediately?”

  Evan punches a number into the remote and, like that, we’re way off into the bottom-tier cable channels. My mom doesn’t make enough money to afford the really good stuff like HBO.

  “Better?” he asks.


  “You’re sweating.”

  “I know.”

  “Should I be worried?”

  “Please don’t be.”


  He finally settles on some reality show where everyone is fighting and nobody uses proper grammar. My English teacher from last year would’ve hated it. Reality TV is like fingernails on a chalkboard, she used to tell us.

  Now her name is on the memorial wall.

  And Finnegan Hall.

  Evan drapes his arm on the top of the couch behind me and taps my shoulder with his fingertips. “This show’s hilarious.” He laughs when some guy loses his grip on a greasy pole he’s trying to shimmy up. He slips downward, losing his shorts in the process, and gets eliminated from the competition.


  The show ends up being all right. I do laugh a little. And being with Evan calms me down. We sit and watch back-to-back episodes until Evan’s mom texts him to say the restaurant is busy and she won’t be home until late.

  “Looks like I’ll be nuking my dinner tonight,” he says.

  It almost makes me feel bad that my mom and Ben will be home soon. I could ask Evan to stay here for dinner. But if I ask him, he might say no. And I’m not ready for that.

  “We’ll have to hang out again,” Evan says, getting up. “Especially now that I know you’re a math genius. I need your skills.”

  “Oh, I don’t know if I’ll have time. I get pretty busy staring at this wall and that wall. And counting the tiles on the kitchen floor. Have you seen how small they are? I always lose track somewhere in the hundreds.”

  He laughs. “You’re pretty funny for a girl who never leaves her apartment.”

  I shrug.

  “If anything, I’ll be back for the grilled cheese,” he says.

  “I’ll be here.”

  chapter fourteen

  When I walk Evan to the door, he asks me for my phone. “Let me punch my number in. We can text.”

  I have to explain that I don’t have a cell phone anymore. They’re too expensive. I paid for my old phone with the money I made teaching swim lessons in the summer.

  I don’t have a job.

  I don’t have a phone.

  I don’t have a life.

  I’m weird.

  “I don’t have a cell. I can’t afford it.”

  Evan tucks a curl behind his ear. “Wait right here,” he says, as if I might actually leave to go to the corner store for bubble gum. He heads next door and comes back in minutes.

  “You can use this.” He hands me an outdated cell phone. “It’s my Hawaii number. My mom sweetened the move here by promising me a new phone. My old one’s not the greatest, but it’s prepaid and just lying around. It’s something, right?” He enters his California number into the contacts list. “Text me anytime. For real.”

  He hauls his backpack onto his shoulder and leaves.

  I hover at my doorway and watch him go inside his own apartment. After he’s gone, I can feel the smile on my lips. My face feels stretched out, and I have to stifle the laugh that wants to come bursting out of my belly. I run my thumb over the top of the phone and wonder how long I have to wait before I can send him a text without looking like a total stalker.

  I must look happy, because when my mom comes home, she notices.

  “You’re kind of glowing,” she says as she dumps her purse on a stool at the counter.

  I stand in the kitchen spooning three separate servings of chicken and rice onto plates and turn my head to hide a smile. I want my afternoon with Evan to be something only I know.

  “Now she looks like she has a sunburn,” Ben says.

  “Grab the silverware,” I tell him.

  * * *

  I’m restless through dinner and reading to Ben. I’m restless because I want to text Evan. But I wait. I wait until Ben has fallen asleep and I’m settled into the dark of our room between the polka-dot sheets of my bed before I type anything.

  Me: Hi

  The phone instantly vibrates in my hand with a return text. It makes me jump. I didn’t think he’d write me back so fast.

  Evan: Who is this?

  Oh, my god. How embarrassing. Did Evan program the wrong number into this phone? Am I texting some random someone somewhere else in Pacific Palms? The phone vibrates again, lighting up the dark with another message before I can type my reply.

  Evan: I’m kidding. Hey, Math Genius.

  That makes me laugh out loud, and I have to stifle my giggle with my shoulder so I don’t wake up Ben.

  Me: You suck. That totally freaked me out.

  Evan: You know it was funny.

  Me: Ha ha. So thanks for the phone.

  Evan: I got the feeling u didn’t want 2 talk about the letter face 2 face. Maybe this is better? It’s like writing.

  Uh-oh. When I wrote that letter, I knew Evan was a couple of miles away at school. He was sitting in a desk or cruising down a hallway in flip-flops and slamming a locker shut. He was far enough away to make the words easy. But right now, with my thumbs hovering over the phone keys, I know he’s only next door. It’s almost like he can hear me. It’s almost like I’m saying it right to him.

  But I remind myself that I’m not.

  There are a couple of walls between us.

  I can do this.

  I type out, Okay.

ere we go.

  Me: Did my letter weird you out?

  Evan: Nope.

  Me: So you want to know everything?

  Evan: Only if u want 2 tell me.

  I decide I will tell him the parts I can say. The parts I have told Brenda. The things she’s written down and saved on her computer.

  Me: The bell rang for first period. I was sitting at my desk.

  I remember my teacher stood at the podium.

  I remember everything changed in the middle of first period.

  Me: There was a popping sound in the hallway. And screams. And the door to my classroom swung open.

  I remember the panic.

  I remember the smell.

  I remember the sounds.

  I remember there was another door by the whiteboard that led into another classroom that led into a hallway that led out of the building and into the auditorium.

  Evan: What did you do?

  Me: I busted through another classroom door and yelled at people to come with me. Not everyone could come.

  I remember we ran.

  I remember we scattered.

  I remember I left that building and ran into the auditorium.

  Me: I thought people were still following me. But when I got to the auditorium, I was alone. I was worried about everyone else.

  Evan: You were brave. You helped people. You helped them get out.

  Me: No. People died.

  Evan: But some people lived. A lot of people lived. You lived.

  His words look so nice written there that I want to believe in them.

  chapter fifteen

  I’m a little groggy today because I stayed up way too late texting Evan last night. I even went back to sleep for two hours after my mom and Ben left. But now it’s the afternoon and I have my Thursday session with Brenda. I drag two beach chairs out of the storage closet in the hallway of our apartment and set them up outside in front of the welcome mat. I sit down to wait. In my jeans. I wear them now instead of pajamas. Because it makes my mom happy. And Brenda. And me.

  If I poke my toes through the slats of the railing, the sun hits them just right.

  When Brenda arrives, she stops in the courtyard to look up at me.

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