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Underwater, p.9

Underwater, page 9



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  “You’ve mentioned that before. Does it bother you?”

  “Maybe things would’ve been different if it hadn’t been raining.”

  “Why is that?”

  “I don’t know. It’s just a feeling I have.” That’s half the story. It’s the part that’s a lie. I shake my head to clear it. “It’s silly.”

  “Nothing is silly if you think it matters.”

  I nod my head, but I know I won’t tell her anything more than that today. I started. But I had to stop.

  We sit on the stairs.

  We do the visualization stuff we talked about. In my mind, I’ve watched Ben’s entire play, given a standing ovation, and returned home again. In reality, I’m still sitting on the stairs in front of my apartment.

  When we’re done pretending I’ve gone to Ben’s play, we talk about letters and to whom I could write them.

  “How about your dad?” Brenda asks.

  I think of my grandma calling my mom last night and how tired it made her. “What’s the point?”

  “As I’ve told you before, it might be a useful exercise.”

  “I’d rather not try it.”

  She nods. “I understand how you might feel that way. But you should.”

  “Why? What makes you such an expert?”

  She looks at me. I look at her. Her mouth quirks. She holds her hand out to shake my hand.

  “I’m Dr. Brenda Gwynn. Have we met?”

  “Sorry,” I mumble. “I forgot you were an expert.”

  “It’s okay.” She tosses her dreadlocks over her shoulder and they thump against her back. “And I might be an expert in more ways than you realize when it comes to this particular thing, so will you listen to what I have to say?”


  “I think it would be good for you to write a letter to your dad because there is something freeing about getting the words out. It’s helpful to put the hurt and frustration onto the page. When you write it, you can think, I’m letting this go.”

  I listen to her, but I don’t look at her.

  “It helped when you wrote the letter to Evan, right?”

  “Yeah, but I’m not mad at Evan.”

  She nods. “I hear you. But anger is a horrible thing to cart around. Let’s see if we can do something to help you with that.”


  The clouds move across the sky, leaving behind streaks of blue. The barely damp edges of pavement around a rain puddle have dried up under the sun since we’ve been here.

  I thank her.

  I go inside.

  chapter nineteen

  After I say goodbye to Brenda, I sit down at the computer to work. I finish up a paper that’s due next week, and then our home phone rings. I answer. It’s someone from a mental health facility in San Diego. They ask for my mom. They say they’re calling regarding a Mr. Richard Grant. I know what this person would tell my mom if she were here.

  They would say Richard Grant was found drunk.

  They would say he was disorderly.

  They would say he was deemed a danger to himself.

  They would say he is on a seventy-two-hour involuntary psychiatric hold.

  This is not the first time my mom has been my dad’s emergency contact.

  They can’t tell me these things even though I could recite the details from memory.

  They can’t tell me because I’m a minor.

  The woman on the phone is kind and has a Southern drawl. The words ooze out of her mouth. “Please have your mama call us,” she tells me.

  I scribble down a number my mom can call when she gets home from work and is tired and dirty and has a headache. I refuse to bother her with it right now. If it were the first time, like a year and a half ago, then maybe. But it’s not. I won’t interrupt her during her shift. I thank the lady on the phone.

  “You take care now,” she says before we disconnect.

  I slip to the floor and don’t move. I don’t do anything. I can’t. I stay still to try to keep my heart from beating out of my chest like I’m in a movie about some freaky zombie invasion.

  The thing is, I sometimes have to remind myself that my dad was good once. He was fun. And inspiring. He took me to play in the rain. He taught me things. He was a dad.

  Ben was three months old the first time my dad met him. My brother, my mom, and I stood among hundreds of others on the blazing hot asphalt of the parking lot of the Army base, waiting for the buses to roll up with all the soldiers returning from deployment. We were lost in a sea of red, white, and blue pom-poms and miniature American flags. I held up a homemade WELCOME HOME sign. I’d made it the night before using glitter glue and rainbow markers. I was eleven.

  The buses finally rolled up, and the soldiers exited in camouflage uniforms and scanned the crowd. They looked for their families. They looked for the ones they loved. I waved. I jumped up and down. I couldn’t spot my dad in all the people who looked the same. I wanted to find him. Desperately. Somehow I thought spotting him instantly would prove I hadn’t forgotten him. Because sometimes I was afraid I had. Like weeks before when my sixth grade science teacher had told us how people either had attached or unattached earlobes. I felt mine. They were unattached and had tiny ladybug stud earrings in them. I knew my mom’s earlobes were unattached like mine. So were Ben’s. But I had to dig up a picture of my dad from our computer when I got home from school in order to see what his earlobes did. They were attached. I hadn’t remembered.

  But that day in the parking lot, I knew my dad when he started running toward us. He pulled me into a tight bear hug that made me safe and whole again. My mom cried happy tears and put Ben in his arms. My dad looked down at him in awe. Amazed. Our family was on the local news that night because reporters always like to find the soldier returning from deployment who is meeting their baby for the first time. It tugs at heartstrings. It makes people cry. It drives home the fact that military families make huge sacrifices. We were that family that day. My dad was that soldier. Ben was that baby.

  When we got home, everyone was hungry for lunch, but my mom had to nurse Ben and put him down for a nap. So my dad told me with a wink and a squeeze of my shoulder that it was about time he taught his favorite girl how to make grilled cheese sandwiches. And tomato soup. It had always been his first-choice meal. It had always been our meal. He called it comfort food. He said it was the thing he craved when he was sitting in the desert eating an MRE in the dusty dirt. He got the soup started and lined everything else up on the counter. Bread. Butter. Cheese. Piping hot griddle. He made the first one and we shared it right there in the kitchen, laughing as we wrapped the oozing cheese around our fingertips and sucked it into our mouths. He helped me make three more sandwiches and manage the soup after that. And when everything was done, the three of us sat down to eat. We were together again. Things were as they should be.

  It was good until it wasn’t.

  Over the next four years, my dad was deployed again. Eight months, then twelve. He’d enlisted when I was in preschool. As a twenty-three-year-old father, who’d kicked around for four years trying to provide for his family, I imagine the Army seemed like an honorable way to do what was best for us. But the after-effects of 9/11 lasted longer than anyone had anticipated, and every time my dad thought he’d finally have extended time back with us, he was redeployed sooner rather than later. It took its toll. He returned from the last tour angrier and more distant. He drank too much. More than I’d ever seen. He didn’t spend time at home. He stopped hugging me and coming to my swim meets. We didn’t make grilled cheese sandwiches. He fought with my mom in hushed tones that grew louder through the walls. When he was around, he paid more attention to Ben than to me. I decided this was because Ben was only four and too little to know a better version of our dad existed. I think my dad liked that. I was fifteen. He knew the only thing he could give me was disappointment.

  My dad still isn’t the same. And neither am I. He is in a psychiatric lockdown faci
lity against his own will. I stay locked up in an apartment.

  I have pathetic DNA.

  So when Evan knocks on my door a little after four p.m.—I know it’s him because he calls my name through the wood—I can’t let him in.

  He keeps knocking.

  He calls my name once more.

  I sit perfectly still.

  I stay that way until he leaves.

  chapter twenty

  Evan knocks at the door every fifteen minutes. He calls my name and jiggles the metal knob. He texts me messages I don’t read. I’ve turned the sound off on my phone, but I can hear the vibration against the countertop as his texts come through. When the evening comes, he’s outside my door again. He sounds panicked by now. I haven’t turned any lights on. I haven’t turned on the TV. The curtains are closed. I haven’t made a single sound. I’ve just lain still on the floor in the living room for two hours. Shadows slip silently, hitting my feet and then my ankles. Next my calves and my knees. My stomach. My chest. My eyes.

  I can hear Evan outside when my mom and Ben come home just after six p.m. He calls to my mom and she comes bounding up the stairs. I can hear the boom boom of her feet skipping steps. I can hear her keys in the lock. She bursts through the door and drops the mail in front of her feet. She looks everywhere and finally at the floor.

  She finds me.

  She rushes over.

  She hovers above me, squinting.

  She whispers my name.

  She kneels down at my side.

  I don’t have words for her. I don’t have explanations. But when she puts her hands on my cheeks, I know she thinks I might be dead. She lifts me up into her arms, holding me to her chest when she sees I’m still as here as I can be.

  Ben is watching us. He’s fidgeting. I can tell he’s scared. I feel guilty for letting him see me this way.

  “Evan,” my mom says gently, “can you take Ben next door for a little bit?”

  Evan doesn’t move at first. He only stares down at me, and I know he’s trying to figure out what he thinks about this other side of me. And that makes me wish I’d never told him anything. I wish I’d never opened the door and let him in. Because what I can see right now is the thing I never wanted: he pities me.

  “Evan, please,” my mom says.

  “Yeah, sure. Right. Come on, buddy.” Evan nudges Ben’s shoulder and pulls him through the front door.

  “What happened?” my mom asks me, reaching over to turn on the light.

  I lie down again, flat against the floor. I run my hands across the carpet. I tell her about the phone call. I tell her where my dad is. I tell her what I realized.

  “I’m going to be exactly like him.”

  “No. You’re not.” She says the words like they’re nonnegotiable, like brushing my teeth or eating leafy green vegetables. “That’s why we have Brenda. I won’t let that happen to you.”

  “But I’m trying. I’m trying so hard. And I can barely get out the front door.”

  “Don’t you see? You’ve taken the first step forward. Your dad is only taking steps backward. Everyone, all of us, we want to help him. He doesn’t want it. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. I tried to tell that to your grandma when she called the other night. She’s just a mom who wants her son to be okay. I get it. But he doesn’t want help.” My mom pushes my hair off my face. “You want help, right? You want to get better.” She asks me like she needs me to say it. Like she needs me to confirm it for her own peace of mind.

  “Yeah,” I say.

  And I do want to get better. I want it in a way that makes it feel like a necessity. I just don’t know how to get there. What I’m doing doesn’t seem like enough.

  * * *

  Later that night, my mom plunks Ben into the bath and scrubs his head clean with his apple-scented shampoo.

  I hear him through the wall.

  “Morgan’s gonna come to my play, right, Mom? She’s coming, right?”

  I can tell my mom is scooping water into a big cup and pouring it over Ben’s head because I can hear him sputtering against the bubbles. He does that when they run down his face, too close to his mouth.

  “She’ll try her best, Benjamin.”

  “She better come.”

  I sink into my pillow and scrub my fists against my eyelids. I try to picture myself at Ben’s play in six weeks. I want to go, but the idea seems absurd. It really does. He can never know that.

  “Why was Morgan on the floor?” Ben asks.

  “She had a long day.”

  “I think she was tired.”

  “Yeah, she probably was.”

  “She should’ve gone to bed.”


  “Do you think she’s sick?”

  “She’s fine. She’ll be fine.”

  * * *

  The screen on my cell phone lights up after Ben is asleep and our room is dark.

  Evan: What’s going on? Talk to me.

  Me: Not now.

  Evan: Seriously? What the hell, Morgan?

  His annoyance shouts at me in the dark.

  I delete his message.

  I shut off the phone.

  I shove it into the drawer of my nightstand.

  I slam the drawer shut.

  I roll over to face the wall.

  I try to sleep.

  I can’t.

  Why does everyone always want to talk?

  * * *

  The day that everything happened, I had to talk to so many people. I had to talk to police officers and counselors. At first, we all ended up on the soggy grass of the football field. It was the emergency evacuation center for my school. So many of us were saturated from the pounding rain. Tents were haphazardly erected and umbrellas were handed out. Students huddled in clumps under tents or stood three to an umbrella. Obviously nobody expected a downpour when they thought up my school’s evacuation plan. Everything on the field was chaotic. Tears. Primal screams when bad news came. We all wanted to leave, but it was where we had to wait until we could be released to our parents. They had to check us off on a list. We had to be accounted for.

  I borrowed a phone to call my mom and tell her I was okay. She was so relieved to hear my voice. She was standing across the street from my school with a bunch of other parents who were waiting for news. As soon as she heard about students arriving at the emergency room of the hospital where she worked, she’d raced to my school to find me.

  At the field, we had to say where we’d been when everything happened. When I said I’d been in English class, I was put into a separate line. The language arts building line. We were the ones who had really seen things. They were going to question us one by one.

  It was in this line that I finally found Sage. We crashed into each other and sobbed. She’d talked to Brianna and Chelsea. They’d gotten out okay. I was so glad to hear that, because I hadn’t been able to get ahold of them. So many people left their backpacks when they ran. So many people didn’t have their phones.

  After I talked to a police officer on the field and he found out what I saw and where I hid, he wanted me to go to the police station. They needed to talk to me more in depth. It was getting late, so my mom arranged for Ben to go home with a friend from his after-school program so she could drive me downtown.

  Once there, I sat at a table in an office and stared at a poster of the schedule for my school’s football team. It was orange and blue and had a picture of Neptune crashing through sea foam. He gripped a trident and stared back at me. We still had four games left in the season.

  My mom sat at my side, pushing tissues into my fist and rubbing her knuckles in tiny circles across my back. I was finally dry. But the rain had made the blood spread out on my shirt, resulting in the most morbid-looking tie-dye job ever.

  A pretty blond woman, who was tall like a professional basketball player, sat across from me, writing stuff down on a notepad. Kind of like Brenda, but not all the way like Brenda. A digital recorder was set up,

  I had to give statements.

  I had to say where I was sitting.

  I had to say where I ran.

  I had to say where I hid.

  I had to say what I saw.

  I didn’t tell them everything.

  She wrote my words down and said thank you.

  A counselor visited me last. He told me what I was feeling was normal. He said it was okay to feel angry or sad or any of the emotions I had and that right now I might not feel anything at all. He gave me a card with a phone number on it. He said I could call it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He said someone would always be there to talk to me no matter what. He said I should go home and eat. Then sleep. He said he’d check in with me in a few days. He did. I told him I was fine. It was a lie.

  My mom and I picked up Ben on the way home. It was after eight p.m. He’d been asleep already and he stayed that way in the car. I was glad, because I think my appearance would’ve scared him. We would tell him the next morning when my shirt was in the washing machine and my hair was brushed. But that night, my mom carried him to the apartment and put him to bed with his clothes on.

  I had a bowl of cereal for dinner. It was hard to keep it down.

  I stayed in my mom’s bed that night. I curled into her side. Her flannel nightgown was soft against my face. She cradled me against her like I was small. It felt safe and warm. It was the only way I could sleep.

  chapter twenty-one

  All weekend, my mom fields phone calls from my grandma about my dad. She wants to know what to do and whom to call and where to be. She wants to know how we can make sure this time is different.

  My mom tells her she shouldn’t bother getting her hopes up. My mom says she’s tried a million times. She says she has washed her hands of it. She doesn’t have time for this. She has bigger problems now. I know that bigger problem is me.

  And right now, she is worried about me.

  I know this because of the way she watches me move through the apartment. She looks up from the stuff she’s stirring in a saucepan to observe me. On Saturday night, she stops reading to Ben midsentence and eyes me as I cross in front of his bed to pull clean pajamas out of my dresser. I haven’t combed my hair since Thursday morning. It’s long and tangled. She wonders, out loud to Ben, why I’m so quiet. She wants to know if I’ve eaten. Or done my homework. Or brushed my teeth.

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