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Underwater a novel, p.8

Underwater: A Novel, page 8


Underwater: A Novel

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  “You’re outside already.”

  I nod. “Hurry up before I chicken out.”

  She scurries up the stairs and sits down next to me. She has her burgundy dreads piled on top of her head and she’s wearing a short skirt. It’s kind of awkward for her to sit in a low beach chair dressed that way, but she doesn’t complain about it. She simply kicks off her boots and sticks her toes through the slats of the railing like me.

  “It’s wonderful to see you out here. How have you been?” she asks.

  “Good. Ben’s going to be in a play.”

  “That’s exciting.”

  I pick at the edge of the plastic armrest on my beach chair. “He wants me to go. He wants me to be there.”

  “I see.” Brenda scribbles something down. “When is it?”

  “June. Right before school gets out.”

  “And you have concerns?”

  “Of course I have concerns. I don’t leave my apartment. How am I supposed to go to my brother’s play?”

  “Do you want to go?”


  “Then we’ll make sure you do.” She wiggles her toes, trying to stretch them out farther into the sun. “We have about seven weeks to work on this.” She looks at me for confirmation that I’m on board. I nod. “Great. We’ll make it a goal then. We can even practice with some visualization.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Visualization can trick your brain into thinking something has already happened. Like it exists as a memory.”

  “That makes sense, I guess.”

  I say that even though I’m not sure I actually mean it. It just seems like my brain would know whether I’ve actually been to my brother’s play or not.

  Brenda keeps wiggling her toes and adjusts her skirt so it doesn’t ride up. These chairs really aren’t made for an outfit like hers, but I try not to think about it because I don’t want to move or go back inside. This surprises me. I’m relieved to feel this comfortable out here.

  “So. What else have you been up to?” she asks.

  “I’ve actually been doing a lot of writing.”

  “Good. That’s great, really.” She puts that down in her notebook and looks back at me. “What have you been writing, exactly?”

  “A bunch of stuff.” The turquoise water of the pool glistens below us, and I can almost trick myself into thinking I’m about to dive right in. “And I wrote another letter.”

  “Fantastic. I encourage that.” She smiles. Proud. “Do you think I could see what you wrote?”

  I shift uncomfortably.

  “What’s wrong?” she asks me.

  “Well, I wrote a letter.” I gnaw at the corner of my thumbnail. “But I delivered it. Or technically, Ben delivered it. I didn’t know I was supposed to show it to you first.”

  She jots something else down. “It’s okay, Morgan. Maybe I didn’t give you the best direction on that. How did it go?”

  “It went really well, actually. I wrote it to Evan.”

  “The new boy? Your neighbor?” She gestures to the shredded screen door of Evan’s apartment.


  “Can I ask you what you wrote?”

  I pick at the shredded knee of my jeans. “I basically told him the truth about me.”

  “Which is what?”

  “You know.”

  “But I’d like to hear it in your words.” She has her pen poised, ready to write it down.

  “I said I’ve been scared to leave my apartment since October fifteenth, but that he reminds me of the things I’m missing. He didn’t seem freaked out.”

  “I’m glad to hear that.”

  “We hung out. We’re friends. I need a friend.”

  “What about your other friends? From before. Do you miss them?”

  “Of course. But it’s nice having a new friend.”

  “Mm-hm. New friends are nice. But old friends are nice, too. Don’t you think?”

  “I wouldn’t know. I don’t talk to them.”

  “That was your decision, not theirs.”

  “Thanks for reminding me.”

  We look out at the pool. The surface of it twinkles against the sun. I wish Brenda would understand why new friends might be easier for me than old friends. And that I might like Evan as more than a friend. She must sense that.

  “If I’m not supposed to send letters, why did you want me to go to the mailbox before?”

  “Oh, we would’ve mailed your letter.” She taps her pen against her notebook. “But we would’ve talked about it first. About what you’d written. We didn’t get that far. I’m sorry. If it makes you feel better, I think you did the right thing giving your letter to Evan. It sounds like he responded well. It’s a positive step for you. I’m glad you did it.”

  She sounds pretty confident. Of course, she always sounds confident. But she sounds so confident about this particular thing that it does make me feel better.

  We talk some more. She asks me all the regular things that she always asks: How am I sleeping? How am I eating? Have I needed any emergency pills? And then we talk about new things. Like Evan. And why I wanted to let him in. Every week she tries to chip away at something else. Like she’s an archaeologist and I’m the ancient skeleton she’s discovered buried underneath a bunch of dirt somewhere far away.

  When our hour is up, she tells me I should keep writing letters. “But maybe I could read them. If you’re okay with that.”

  I nod because I trust Brenda. I mean, I mostly trust Brenda. Because if I trusted her completely, I’d probably tell her everything.

  “What do you say we work up to trying the stairs? Just a little farther. Maybe a little on Tuesday and more on Thursday?”

  I look at the steps in front of me.

  They lead down to the courtyard.

  The pool.

  The mailboxes.

  The front gate.

  The world.

  The top step seems close enough, but the bottom one looks like it’s a mile away. I want to say no, but then I think of everything that’s outside that gate. There are bad things, but there are good things, too. I have to keep moving forward if I’m going to stand a chance at finding them again.

  “Okay. I’ll try,” I say.

  chapter sixteen

  My mom’s cell phone rings after dinner, and she excuses herself to go outside and sit on the stairs to talk. That’s where she goes when she wants privacy since our apartment is about the size of a shoe box. I have an idea of who it might be.

  Someone related to my dad.

  Someone with the same olive skin and big dark eyes.

  Someone who wants answers.

  Someone who is sad.

  Someone who is sick with worry, but also frustrated.

  Someone who has talked to him.

  Someone who knows where he is.

  Ben is buzzing around. Literally buzzing. Like a bee.

  “Buzz,” he goes. “Buzz, buzz, buzz.” He flies around the apartment, chasing me from the kitchen to the living room to the hallway to our room. “I’m gonna sting you! You better watch out!”

  I run in front of him, swooping around him when it seems he’s finally gotten close enough to actually get me. “I’m too quick for you,” I say as I dash back down the hall, past the school portraits that hang there. The frames are shaped like school buses. Each window on the bus is for a different year, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. My eleventh and twelfth grade windows are empty. And a shinier, more optimistic version of me occupies all the other years.

  Ben is laughing so hard that he can’t run straight. He goes thump thump into the walls of the hall.

  “Be careful,” I call. “Don’t knock down the pictures.”

  I finally let him catch me on the couch. He takes his finger and pokes me. “Ha! Got you! Zap!”

  I pull my hand to my shoulder where he stung me. “Ow! That hurts!”

  He laughs. “Buzz, buzz.”

  “You’re too cute to s
ting people.” I pull him onto my lap and smother him with kisses. He tries to keep buzzing, but he’s practically choking on laughter. “Calm down, little bee,” I say.

  Ben finally catches his breath, settles down, and glazes over at a cartoon on television. I realize my mom has been gone a long time. I untangle Ben from my lap and sit him down on the other side of the couch so I can get up to check on her.

  I step out on the welcome mat. It’s amazing how easy it is to stand here now that I’ve done it a few times. And it feels good to do it, too. I see my mom sitting on the bottom step. She’s still wearing her hospital scrubs. Her phone call is done. But I hardly notice that because I can really only focus on the fact that Evan is towering in front of her. He’s got his wet suit slung over one shoulder and his surfboard under his arm. The look on his face is very serious. He’s listening to my mom. She is staring up at him and saying things. I want to see her face. She’s telling him something important. I know this because of the way Evan watches her.

  And then I hear her say, “She’s working through some problems. It could take a while.”

  And right then, Evan’s eyes shoot up and meet mine. We lock on to each other for a split second until my mom turns her head to look at me, too.

  chapter seventeen

  I run to my room.

  I slam the door.

  I fall onto my stomach on top of my bed.

  I bury my face in my pillow.

  I sob.

  Ben calls my name.

  I can hear his feet racing down the hall toward our room.

  My mom intercepts him.

  She tells him everything is okay and to please go practice his spelling words.

  A few seconds later, there’s a knock outside my room. My mom doesn’t wait for me to say come in or don’t. She just opens the door and lets herself inside.

  She sits on the edge of my bed.

  She places her hand on my back.

  She rubs tiny, soothing circles.

  “What’s wrong?” she asks.

  Seriously? “You’re kidding, right?” I mumble into my pillow. “I didn’t think I had to worry about my mom convincing people not to hang out with me.”

  She pauses for a second like she’s racking her brain. Like what she said didn’t happen only one minute ago. “Do you mean Evan? Is that what you think I told him? Not to hang out with you?”

  “Um, yes. I heard you. You told him I was all messed up and too much trouble.”

  “You know I didn’t say that.”

  “I don’t remember your exact words, but that was pretty much your message.”

  “Well, you didn’t hear me then. You didn’t hear me thank him.” She knocks her hip into mine to get me to scoot over so she can lie down next to me. “He’s good for you.”

  I roll onto my side to face her, rubbing the tears and snot off my face. “What?”

  “You’ve changed. It started when Evan moved in.”

  “You really think so?”

  “Yep. I’ve seen some of the old Morgan coming back.”

  And of course I want to believe her. But now I can only think the opposite.

  “But maybe I am too much work. I mean, Evan’s in high school. He should go be in high school. He doesn’t need all this.”

  “Need all what?”

  “This. Me. Come on, you don’t think my life is just a little bit messy?”

  “I think you’re a girl who went through a horrible thing, something no mom ever wants to think about their kid going through. But I also think you’re smart and capable. I think you’re working hard to get better. I think you want to get better. I think you will get better.”


  “When you’re ready. I believe in you.” She runs her hand over the top of my head. She smooths the strands back that are stuck to my tears. “I saw you outside. You were on the welcome mat.”


  “Do you do that now?”

  “Sometimes. Brenda wanted to try it.”

  “But you did it. And you feel okay about it?”

  “Yeah. I mean, it’s not very far.”

  “But it’s outside. It’s something.”


  “Well, don’t stop.”

  “I won’t.”


  We lie on the bed there. My mom strokes my hair, and I listen to her breathe. She takes in slow, deep breaths. She seems exhausted. Like she could fall asleep right here.

  “Who was on the phone?” I ask to keep her from drifting off. It’s too early to fall asleep.

  “Your grandma,” she murmurs. “With an update.”

  “Did she see Dad?”

  “Something like that. They know where he is. For now.”


  “San Diego. As we suspected.”

  “Is he okay?”

  My mom closes her eyes. Sighs. “He’s the same.”

  I think of what that means. Of what my dad has become. He used to be dependable. He used to tell the best jokes and carve the best jack-o’-lanterns. He used to come to my swim meets and keep track of my split times in a tiny notebook he kept in his back pocket.

  He used to love me.

  I used to know he loved me.

  But now, I don’t trust him. And I don’t want him in my life until he gives me a reason to find that trust again. But that doesn’t stop me from missing him. It only makes it worse.

  chapter eighteen

  A week passes, and on the last Thursday of April, after my mom and Ben leave for the day, the rain comes down like a last hurrah to April Showers. It pounds against the roof all morning. It slides down the windows and onto the ground. It glides down the front door and soaks the welcome mat. It smacks the surface of the swimming pool, making the water bounce up into the air.

  Bam, bam, bam it goes.

  I turn the TV up loud so I won’t hear it.

  I don’t like the rain.

  I don’t like the rain anymore.

  I used to love it. I would walk in it. I would swim in it. I would spin around in it. I would let the cold of it spatter against my face and my eyelashes.

  When I was five, I had pink-and-purple rain boots with cat ears and whiskers on them. I had a jacket to match. I had knobby knees covered in Hello Kitty Band-Aids. And hair that hung in fishtail braids. One Saturday afternoon, the rain pounded on the roof and slid down the windowpanes. My dad put on a raincoat, then helped me pull on my cat boots. He handed me an umbrella, took my hand, and led me out the door, giddy and grinning.

  “Let’s go find some puddles,” he said. I knew I was in for a good time.

  We walked around the neighborhood, splashing through the water. I jumped from a curb to make the biggest splat I could. He clapped for me when I leapt off a picnic table in the park and landed in a muddy puddle that bounced up and left dirty remnants on my sweatpants and his jacket. He showed me how to make bigger splashes by hitting the heel of my boot just right. We laughed and splashed and held hands through the puddles in the park as my braids dripped over my shoulders. We walked down the street, past the cars driving by with their headlights on in the middle of the day.

  Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

  Whip, whip, whip.

  “Fun can be free,” my dad told me, squeezing my soggy hand. “And water is water no matter where you find it.”

  When we came home, drenched and laughing, my mom stuck me right into a warm bath while my dad made hot chocolate with more mini marshmallows than my mom would ever allow in one sitting. Once I was dry and bundled up, my dad and I sat on the couch, listened to the rain, and drank hot chocolate in our slippers. My legs weren’t even long enough for my toes to hit the floor.

  “I love the rain,” I announced, swinging my feet back and forth.

  “Me too,” he said through a sip of hot chocolate, his words echoing in the almost empty mug. “We are people who love the rain.”

  It was official. That would be our thing. We would
be rain people. My dad and I.

  But now I hate the rain.

  Because it is too loud with memories of October fifteenth.

  Which is why I pace the floors of my apartment today.

  I wonder if I need an emergency pill.

  I stand in front of my list.

  I do the things it says.

  I breathe.

  I think of good things.

  I tell myself I’m okay. You are not dying.

  I count down the minutes until Brenda gets here.

  * * *

  By the time Brenda knocks on the door, the rain has stopped. I open up right away. She stands on my welcome mat in rubber motorcycle boots and a matching biker jacket. Only she would have rain gear like that. Outside, the ground is still damp. There are a few puddles in the courtyard. But the sun is out and it’s trying really hard to make things bright and cheerful.

  Brenda steps back from the door. She gestures to the stairs. “Shall we?”

  She takes the first step. I know I have to go farther than before. I made it to the top of the stairs on Tuesday. I nod my head. I take a step.

  The first step down feels like I’m jumping out of an airplane. It’s a descent that makes my heart pound. I want my parachute to open with that jerky motion that’ll pull me back up for a second. Only a tiny tug and I could be by my front door again.

  Brenda’s boots smack the fourth step and then the fifth one. She doesn’t turn around. She just expects me to be right behind her.

  She has faith in me.

  I try really hard, but I only make it a few more steps. Everything is spinning. My toes tingle. My fingertips prickle. I have to hold on to the railing to steady myself. I grip it, actually. I grip it so tightly that my fingernails dig into the rotting wood of its underside.

  I make it halfway down.

  I stop.

  I sit.

  Brenda turns to me and I shake my head. That’s it. That’s all I can do. She walks back up a few steps and settles down next to me. She pats my knee. She’s letting me know I did okay.

  The stairs are still damp, and the wetness slowly seeps into the back of my jeans. I don’t care. It reminds me I’m outside. It reminds me I did this.

  “It was raining the day that everything happened.” I start talking because I want to say something even though Brenda didn’t ask me to.

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