Saturday is my first day back to the pool since my brother Johnny died.
Mom drops me off at 10 am with a granola bar, my swim bag, and my phone, fully charged. My sister, Ava, is texting in the backseat in her cheerleading uniform. Her brows are furrowed over the brightly lit screen. She doesn’t look up as I get out of the car.
“Have a good time, sweetie!” Mom is effusive, if a little concerned. She wants me to swim, but doesn’t understand why I am doing it alone.
I try to smile at her, but it comes out more like a grimace.
I have a full hour. No longer. If I am late coming out into the parking lot, Mom will barge into the lobby and through the locker room doors, panting with worry.
I make a mental note to wait in the parking lot five minutes early.
Walking through the glass double doors, I see that nothing has changed. Same old vending machines, metal folding chairs and the woman with white hair behind the counter. She wears her glasses on a brass chain, and she never seems to recognize me, even though I’ve been coming here since I was six.
Her eyes flick up as I walk in.
“Member?” she asks.
I nod, and she waves me through. But I can’t seem to move.
It’s been four months. Four months since the accident. Four months since swim team.
Four months since my brother …
Dark clouds erupt like a fog in my head. Don’t think so much, I tell myself.
My therapist Dana and I talked about this a lot when I decided to start swimming again. We made a whole plan.
Her voice rings out in my head: Just focus on everything one step at a time. After you walk into the lobby, what needs to happen?
Locker rooms. I need to go to the locker rooms.
It’s pretty dumb, but for the whole thing to work, I need to lay out the instructions for myself like I am talking to a toddler. Like I am learning how the world works all over again.
My sneakers start trudging through the brown halls towards the blue tiled entrance to the pool.
I move towards the sign that reads Women and turn the corner down the hall which deposits me in a blindingly fluorescent room. It’s mostly empty. An older woman changes in the far corner, her belly folding at her center as she bends over.
My eyes register the wall of teal lockers, their metal handles. The fumes of chlorine, the residual steam from the showers. I drag in a breath.
The locker room is the toughest part about being here. It’s full of memories. Moments. Things from before Johnny died. Changing with the swim team, trading candy from the vending machines, hitting the showers and slicking back my hair for practice. Feeling that adrenaline pumping through me. Kay’s laugh. We always shared a locker, even when there were plenty of others to use.
Now I avoid Kay in the hall.
Dana and I came up with a plan for the locker room. Once I get to the pool, I figure I’ll be fine. The water is why I am here.
Dana’s plan is about doing everything in the right order. Locker, combination, change into my suit, tuck my hair into my swim cap, grab my goggles. Go.
All you have to do is remember your combination and unlock the locker. I do it. I twirl the little dial and it feels like being at school.
The locker clicks open. Inside, there is nothing. Just a little bit of light shining in on dark metal.
On my last visit with Dana, she said: I sense you have some issues with being seen.
But she’s wrong.
I wish I could disappear. Like sea foam in Ava’s favorite fairy tale. In the fairy tale, the mermaid jumps from the boat and just fades away.
Ava asked me to read it to her over and over again when we were kids. Sometimes, Johnny and I would read it together. He would do the voices and I would narrate. Again and again. The sea princess fell away in the waves. Again and again, she turned into nothing. Nobody, not even the prince, noticed.
It’s a stupid book, I used to tell Ava. And she would cry. Snot welling up in her six-year-old nose. Why do you like books about mermaids who die? Why can’t you like normal fairy tales like Cinderella? She gets what she wants: the prince, the dress, the castle.
The kingdom. It’s all hers.
“Amie,” a soft, surprised voice echoes behind me. I wheel around. The older lady is gone, her locker closed. Standing on the other side of the bench is Kay. Her hair is wet and clipped at the nape of her neck.
“Hey,” I say, without understanding. “What are you doing here?”
Kay tilts her head, rolling her eyes in the way that only Kay can. “Well, that’s a nice greeting.”
I shake my head. “Sorry, it’s just …” But I don’t finish. I just stand there at my locker, arms at my sides.
I wrap my fingers into the palms of my hands. Fingernails into skin.
Say something, I tell myself. But nothing comes out of my mouth.
Kay doesn’t seem to mind. Amazing, considering I’ve been ignoring her for a solid four months. She shrugs and says, “We changed our practice this week to mornings. Because of the game.”
Kay stares at me. “You know, the playoffs? Tonight? Football?”
“Oh,” I say. “Right, of course.” Though I hadn’t known about it. Everyone must be talking about it at school. There must be banners and everything. A pep rally, too.
And Ava. She must be doing late practices with the team.
How did I not notice? Is that why she was in her uniform this morning?
I was so worried about coming here, I didn’t ask.
“So, you want to come? Or what? I could pick you up.” Kay is looking at me like I am a puzzle she can’t figure out.
“The party. After the game. I am asking if you want to go. I could give you a ride.” Her voice tilts uncertainly.
A party. No way in hell am I going to a party. I look at Kay closely. Why would Kay want me to come to a party? Doesn’t she remember what happened at the last one I attended?
“I don’t think so” is all I say. I try to smile, but I don’t think it comes out right.
“Well, if you change your mind, text me.” She gives me a little wave and then moves towards the bank of swim team lockers at the other end of the room and pulls out her phone.
I grab my suit out of my bag and head towards the bathrooms. I don’t want to change in front of Kay, even though she’s probably seen me change five hundred times.
That’s one thing about the swim team girls. You could have five inch scars all down your back or be covered in chicken pox or your skin could be as green as the Wicked Witch of the West – they would just change into their suits, ball up their hair underneath their swim caps, and hit the showers.
“We miss you,” Kay says. Her voice is soft and it sounds like the Kay I remember from sleepovers. When her armor was down.
I turn around. She still has her phone out, but she isn’t looking at it. She’s looking at me.
“On the team,” she says. “Coach hoped you would be back. He says you could still join. For the spring.”
Kay watches me, expectantly.
My heart thumps inside me like it’s banging on a door, trying to break through. The smell of chlorine overwhelms me, my feet shrivel against the moist tile and the walls keep getting closer and closer. I drag in a breath. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here before the rest of the team comes in.
“Okay,” I manage, already turning away from Kay. “I’ll think about it.”
I don’t wait for a response. I half-run to the line of bathroom stalls, clutching my suit to my chest as if holding it to my heart will make the whole thing stop.
As if these things can be stopped once they start.
I bang through the gray stall door and stumble towards the toilet, then slam the door shut. God, it’s happening, I think to myself. My thoughts feel loud on the inside of my skull, like they have their own vocal chords and are screaming to be let out – my heart pounds faster and faster, adrenaline pumping through my veins as bright lights whirl through me, sparking like stars. Bolts of electricity run up and down my legs, my arms.
I can’t escape it. This thing.
My swimsuit falls from my arms and I clutch my elbows with my hands. My knees collapse, and I hold myself as I squat on the floor.
It will pass, it will pass, I remind myself.
This isn’t forever.
Dana. My therapist’s name comes to be like an epiphany. Dana says these are normal. A lot of people get them. Dana says the panic will go away. It’s always gone away before. Every time.
But first, I have to get through it.
I close my eyes against the fluorescents and see Bryan’s house decorated for Halloween, tissue paper ghosts strung up in the windows, an inflatable witch with a crooked nose on the front lawn. And inside: laughter, shouting, the pulse of a beat blasting through the speakers in the living room.
It was just a party.
I rarely went to parties, and if I did, it was only with Kay and the rest of the girls.
But Johnny. Johnny was always the life of the party. He went to every single one like it was Sunday church. He was a gentleman – that’s what everybody says. He never drank too much, never was creepy to the girls, always said hi to everyone even if they were unpopular or a jock or whatever.
God, Johnny. Why. Why. Why.
The question sprints through me and pumps hot blood into my chest. I feel like I am running a marathon, all breath and beat. All electric pulses. I might crack, I might explode.
I hug my knees to my chest, and rock myself on the stall floor. My face is right next to the toilet and I am inhaling bleach odor, but I don’t care, I just want it to be over. Just want it to end.
I don’t know how long I am in the bathroom stall. All I know is that when I get my bearings, the locker room is peppered with the sounds of girls changing after swim practice. Voices I know. Part of me wants to go out there. I want to listen to their gossip, I want to know Cady’s new time for butterfly or how the meet against Ridgeport went last week. I want to be consumed with it.
But I don’t move, and eventually, the sound of flip flops on linoleum echoes through the room and the girls’ voices fade as they make their way out to the lobby.
I breathe until my heart steadies in my chest. Then, I slide out of my clothes, slip on my suit, and make my way towards the pool. Alone.
The water isn’t cold. It isn’t warm either. It’s perfect and chock full of chlorine. My mom complains about how much they pump into the indoor pool here, but I love it.
Makes me feel clean.
I strap my goggles on and the edges suction my skin. My hair is pulled back into a low bun and covered with a blue swim cap.
I tuck my legs and drop down beneath the surface in the deep end. It’s different underneath. The water has noise, which I always thought was weird. It muffles the splashes coming from other lanes, the lifeguard’s whistle, the slam of the locker room doors. But it also has its own sound. It’s a sort of endless sound. The sound of space and light. The sound of movement.
Blinking behind my goggles, I watch the aqua-tiled world. My eyes close halfway and everything blurs. My hands float ghost-like by my sides. My feet stabilize my body on the floor of the pool. I am not ready to float back up yet.
I am not ready to breathe in air.
The longer I am below the surface, the more my lungs tighten. I fight the urge to breathe in. I fight the urge to break through the surface. Every part of my body says, Amie, breathe, breathe! But there is something so tempting, so elusive about water. About the space I inhabit underneath.
If I can’t disappear forever, I at least want to disappear for a moment.
Finally, I press the bottom of my right foot against the bottom of the pool and shoot up through the water.
I float there for a moment. There are tons of skylights in the pool area. It’s kind of silly I guess, but I like how the gray light crisscrosses the tiled walls. How I still feel like I’m underwater even after I come up for air.
I never noticed that sort of stuff before. Before it happened. When I was still on the team. I can’t remember seeing the tiles or the windows or the people. I just remember the feeling of water on skin, stroke after stroke, the whistle, the way my arms cut through water. Adrenaline coursing through me like a river.
I fold my knees against the wall and bend my arms back, latching my fingers onto the edge of the side of the pool.
My muscles know this feeling.
Dana says it’s overwhelming to think about a whole thirty minutes of swimming. She calls this an unproductive thought. Instead, she says, break up your day into only what you have to do next.
That’s how I get through my days.
It’s painful. My brain does somersaults narrating every last action, every motion, every thought. But I do things. I go places. I mean, mainly just to school and back home. And now the pool. But still. I eat my dinner and do my homework.
I have to hand it to Dana. It works.
My feet press against the slippery tiles as my arms arc through the water over my head. I tuck my chin, point my feet and glide, the feeling of water submerging me. The freedom, the ease.
My arms windmill on either side of my head. Freestyle. My favorite stroke. I swim fast. Faster than thoughts, faster than getting too drunk, faster than a car careening through the night.
My feet flutter-kick behind me as I angle my arms over my head. Every third arc, I tilt my head to the right side to breathe.
When I come up against a wall, I slip underwater and somersault before kicking off again, back across the pool for another length.
Two lengths make a lap.
Laps can be endless.
Laps can fill an hour.
I swim until my fingers are prunes. Wrinkled, shriveled raisins. It happened a lot when we were little kids. My brother Johnny in the bathtub. His brown eyes. His hair was lighter then. More strawberry blonde than red.
I hear the edge of my mother’s voice in the hall.
Muscles tighten against my bones.
A whistle blows, piercing my ear drums, dragging me back.
Free swim is over.
My legs pump in a familiar rotation beneath me. I am still breathing hard, but the rhythm of treading water helps calm me down.
I swim slowly, methodically to the shallow end of the pool. Kay’s voice keeps trilling through my head. A party. Has Kay been going to a lot of parties?
She tried to make an effort, after Johnny died. She tried to be my friend. But what could I say? The only thing I wanted to ask her was: what did he say? Moments before he died, Kay was with him, getting out of my car.
But I am not ready to hear the answer to that question.
And maybe Kay is not ready to give it.
Gripping the edge of the pool, I wait until my heart steadies inside my chest. I wait until the shaking feeling leaves me.
Pushing against the side, I climb out of the pool. My swimsuit clings to my body. I cross my arms over my chest and, dripping a trail of water behind me, I walk quickly over to the stack of towels by the locker room door.
I press the towel to my face, breathing into the cottony darkness. And stop.
Swimming is easier than living.
Living has so many moving parts. So many anomalies – so many things that could go wrong.
Just focus on the next thing. Do the next thing.
Dana’s voice is a clear bell inside my head. But that doesn’t make any of this easier.
I worry about tomorrow. It is empty and white. A beautiful plain. I have a hard time imagining me in it. I have a hard time seeing anything but the wet tiles of the pool area. The damp cotton of the towel. The world is endless, and I am so limited.
But I will end up waking up in this tomorrow-world. And it will be like today, only the details slightly rearranged.
I will end up leaving my phone unplugged tonight so the battery dies and Mom yells at me about responsibility. I will end up being dragged out of bed by Mom tomorrow around noon. I will end up watching shadows crawl across the wall until I curl around the warmth of my laptop in bed, so my heart stops beating so fast, so I can watch people who aren’t real and aren’t my friends love and hurt each other again and again.
That’s what my tomorrow-world will look like.
But then again, it might not be.
It could be clean, empty, white.
I lift the towel away from my face. How long was I in the cottony darkness? A woman who wasn’t there before stands at the edge of the pool, removing her goggles from her face. They leave little red rings around her eyes. She isn’t paying attention to me.
Two guys make their way towards the men’s locker room. One slaps the other on the back. The movement makes a loud smacking sound that echoes through the entire pool area.
I sometimes wish I were in the ground. The smell of dirt, coolness of earth against my bones.
It doesn’t work like that, Dana says. You won’t feel relief when you are dead because dead people don’t feel anything.
That’s hard to imagine, Dana, I tell her in my mind.
But then she looks at me with these kind, brown eyes. Those perfectly aligned teeth. And I feel bad. I feel like shit for taking up so much of this nice woman’s time. She is trying to help people.
Trying to help me.
I try to envision a future where I come to the pool every weekend. A future where I train, join the swim team, and start sitting with the girls at lunch again.
A future where I go to parties.
The picture doesn’t come through. I walk through the locker room doors, blocking Kay’s invitation from my mind.
Mom is in the lobby when I finally emerge from the locker room. I am five minutes late.
Her face is flushed and creased with concern, but when she sees me, relief spreads like a wave over her skin.
“Hey Mom,” I say.
“God, Amie,” she says in a rush. “Not answering your phone. Not out in the parking lot.”
“Mom, there’s a lifeguard. And, in case you forgot, I am a great swimmer.”
Mom takes in a deep breath. “I know. I just …” But she doesn’t finish. Mom’s short, shorter than me. So, I am looking down at her as she tries not to cry.
I reach over and put my hand on her arm.
It might seem weird to strangers. Teenage girls aren’t supposed to comfort their moms like that. But here’s the thing: Mom’s been this put-together business woman since forever. Ever since Johnny, Mom has been a basket case.
It’s just me, her, and Ava. If we don’t comfort her, nobody will.
She shakes her head and squeezes my hand, smiling away the tears.
“Milkshakes and fries?” I ask. It’s our weekly tradition.
“God, yes,” she says as we turn towards the double doors. I breathe deeply as we leave the Y.
I climb in the passenger seat, tucking my swim bag on the floor. Mom puts the car in drive.
We swing through the drive-thru at Burger King. Mom orders for us: a large chocolate shake and a large fry.
I hope we can inhale sugar and salt in compatible silence, but Mom has other ideas.
“What are your Saturday plans?”
“My Saturday plans?” I stuff a fry into my mouth. I never have plans anymore. She knows that.
“Yeah. Your plan.”
“Nothing,” I say, sticking two fries dipped in delicious milkshake into my mouth. Ava thinks this is gross, but she has no idea what she is missing.
Mom’s ignoring her milkshake.
“We talked about this.”
“It’s one night, Mom,” I say. “I don’t have to make a plan for every night.”
“Dana thought …”
“Dana said I could have free time. Dana said I needed time to relax. That’s my plan.”
Mom turns the key in the ignition. I hand her a fry.
“These will get cold you know,” I say. She smiles and dips it in the shake before reversing.
I have a plan.
My plan is to avoid my sister’s dark glare.
My plan is to eat just enough of dinner that Mom doesn’t say anything.
To watch the bright screen of my laptop and sleep.
But to Mom, plans mean progress. Normalcy. But plans can mean the destruction of things, too. It was my plan to quit the swim team. My plan to stop talking to Kay.
Suddenly full, I place my shake back in the cup holder and look out the window. The sun skids across my eyelashes, warming them and blinding me. I can’t deal with Mom’s interrogations right now.
I have to come up with something so she’ll leave me alone.
“There’s a party tonight. For the game.”
“A party.” Mom says, pinching her lips together. “You know you’re not allowed …”
“You want me to see the girls on the swim team. That’s where they are going to be.” Maybe now she’ll see that staying home and watching my laptop is better than having so-called plans.
Mom purses her lips. I watch her watching the road.
“I’ll think about it. Where is this party?”
She is thinking about cars. About rides. About drunk drivers. Suddenly, I feel like a shithead for even bringing it up.
The last time I went to a party, Johnny never came home.
Mom will say no, and then I can tell Kay that I tried but, of course, Mom wouldn’t let me. Then, Kay will think I am her friend still and I won’t have to watch teenagers guzzling beer out of kegs. I won’t have to see Johnny’s friends playing flip cup and turning up the volume on the speakers.
I won’t have to see the space that my brother once occupied.
At dinner, Ava’s sulking at the table in her cheerleading uniform. We won the game, but apparently, I ratted out Ava’s party plans to Mom.
Ava pushes her potatoes around her plate with her fork. She used to do that a lot when she was little. Nobody can pout like Ava.
“Maybe you girls could watch a movie together,” Mom says brightly.
“I’m just gonna go to my room,” Ava says, standing. “Take a shower. I’m sweaty from the game.”
Mom nods, her lips pursed into a strained smile.
Ava and I have never gotten along. Johnny was the butter between us. He made us a unit. Without him, we don’t know how to interact. So we just … don’t.
Ava flies up the stairs, and I help Mom with the dishes before slinking off to my room. I curl into my unmade bed. My silver laptop lies asleep and charging underneath the sheets. I wake it up and navigate towards YouTube. I turn on the documentary I was watching last night and let the sounds wash over me.
My eyes close, I am almost asleep.
And then, I am dreaming.
I dreamt about Johnny a lot right after he died. They weren’t good or bad dreams, just little snippets. Like little pieces he left behind. I would be in the kitchen and he would come in as a little kid and open the fridge. Or we would be biking near the high school. But now, it’s like he is banned from my dreams. I never see him, not even the top of his unruly red hair.
Instead, I dream about my sister.
She is a little kid, and she has her bright blonde hair tied up in braids. We aren’t at home. We are at this cabin rental we used to go to when we were kids and our grandma was still alive. It smells like Pine-Sol and all of the lights are off.
She is by the window watching the lake. Except, when I stand beside her and look out, it’s not the lake at all. It’s a street. It’s night and red lights dance across the inky sky.
“It’s alright,” Dream Ava tells me. She is gripping the splintery windowsill with all her might.
Then, she hooks her palms under the large glass window and pulls it open with a large creaking sound.
Sirens blare into the cabin.
My heart hammers in my chest. I am sitting bolt upright in my bed. My laptop is a black screen next to me. A siren wails a few streets away.
And then, there is the sound of the window sliding shut.
I crawl over to my window. It’s dark outside but I can see, by the dim light of the streetlamps, Ava in a dark sweatshirt crawling across the roof towards the tree.
I toss the sheets aside and heave my bedroom window open.
“Hey,” I hiss in Ava’s direction. She turns around, surprised. But when she sees me, a mix of frustration and annoyance clouds her face.
I crawl towards her, the black shingles rough like sandpaper on the palms of my hands. This part of the roof is flat and wraps all the way around the house. There is enough room to lie down. The tree is right in front of Ava’s room. It’s one of those trees that was made for climbing. It’s like our house wants us to sneak out in the middle of the night.
She’s already in the tree when I reach her. I grab one of the branches and swing next to her. Her makeup is thick and heavy. I can barely see her eyes under all of it.
“Why do you want to go anyway?” I whisper. “Doesn’t it make you sad?”
“Sad to hang out with my friends?” Ava rolls her eyes. “Sad to have fun? Amie, we won the game today. Not that you noticed.”
“No,” I say, ignoring her comment about the game. “About Johnny.”
Ava wasn’t at that party over the summer. She was at sleepaway camp. She wasn’t here when we got the call. She made it just in time for the service.
“Everything makes me a little sad these days,” she says.
She climbs the rest of the way down. I don’t stop her.
I sit motionless in the tree, in the dark, listening to my sister walk towards a party I should be at.
And do what, try to be her friend? Try to enjoy myself in the mass of sweaty, drunk teenagers who all treat me like I am made of glass?
I could protect her, a small voice inside me whispers.
Like you protected Johnny?
My brain twists in something close to pain. I wait for the tightness in my chest to unfurl.
I ache for the morning before he died. I don’t remember it. Not at all. But I ache for it. For what we had for breakfast. For the dumb names he called me. For how he used to get Ava and I laughing.
I wait for Dana’s voice to give me instructions. But I can’t figure out the right thing to do. Minutes pass and the wind makes patterns as it hits the tree branches. The longer I sit in the tree, the more uncomfortable I am.
I swing down from the tree, my Converses hitting the hard, November earth. I don’t have my phone. I don’t have my wallet. I hug my sweater around my arms and walk in the direction of Hillcrest.
It’s cold and the wind rises every minute to whip my hair against my cheeks. The street is silent, and my footsteps make these loud scraping noises as I walk faster and faster.
My heart speeds up as I walk. Too fast.
I squeeze my arms under my armpits. No, I think sternly. I already had an attack today.
I practice breathing as I walk, the way Dana taught me. Breathe out longer than you breathe in. It’s weird but it works.
My heart steadies.
I hang a right on Hillcrest. It’s a short, curving hill. I can already hear the muffled sounds of hip hop on the speakers, laughter on the front lawn. I jog up the hill and pretend I am swimming. Pretend I am in the pool.
Pretend I am underwater.
The pavement is unrelenting on my knees. I feel stiff—I feel like if I fall, I might crack open into little slivers of Amie.
I am sharp inside. All knife-like edges. All words that cut.
I stop jogging and put my hands on my knees, breathing hard. I am a swimmer. An athlete. A jog up a hill shouldn’t wind me.
A car engine revs and bright, blinding lights flood the street. A horn blares behind me.
“Move!” Someone I don’t know is hanging out the passenger window. “Quit blocking the road, bitch!”
Startled, I walk slowly to the curb. I stand dumbly as a Ford Escort passes, the bass thumping loudly. A car full of boys laughing. Probably at me. I sink down to the grass and watch the car park on the side of the road. My eyes float up to the house across the street. The front lawn is packed with teenagers. This party got too crazy, too quick. The houses on Hillcrest are spread far apart and hidden by these tall pine trees, but there is no way the neighbors are going to let this party go on much longer.
I should find Ava. Find Ava and get out of here before someone calls the cops.
I force myself off the curb and move towards the party, my heart flickering like a flame. Every bodily sensation is magnified to 1,000. But I keep walking. I cross the street and make my way towards the front door, into the press of teenagers. The smells overwhelm: hair gel mingling with some terrible cologne, cold air, stale beer and the sharp scent of vodka. Someone says my name, but it’s not my sister, so I keep going, crash my way through the foyer and into the loud, thudding world of the living room.
They have pushed all the furniture—the coffee table, the couch, the lamps—to the edges of the room and everyone is crowded in the center, dancing. Or, doing something that is close to dancing. I look for Ava’s long, dark blonde hair in the tangle of bodies, but she isn’t there. I turn towards the bright kitchen and run straight into Kay.
She is holding a red solo cup. When I bump her, it spills onto her pale pink top.
“Shit,” she says, dabbing the wet spot ineffectually with her hand. Then she looks up.
“You came!” Her eyes are the kind of bright you have after a few drinks.
I had been the designated driver that night. Kay had to be home at midnight, so I promised I would drive her. I didn’t go to parties a lot. I remember Johnny in the kitchen, playing beer pong. He winked at me and I rolled my eyes at him. He was so smart, but played the dumb jock so well.
Then someone put a drink in my hand and I thought, One drink. Why not? Kay only lives 10 minutes away. Only 10 minutes.
But the drink was strong and by the time I was done with it, the whole world was a blur of lights and colors. I suddenly loved everyone and then my brother was there. They called us twins at school—only a grade apart. We were the athletes. The jocks. I was shy but it didn’t matter. Everyone knew me because of him.
“I’ll take her home,” he said. “Just don’t drink anymore, Mom will kill me if you’re hungover.”
I remember Kay laughing at this, and then I don’t remember much else until later that night. Until Mom screaming, screaming like someone stabbed her in the temple.
The party blares. I am caught inside it, my heart beats so fast I can’t tell where one beat starts and the next begins. The sharp pieces inside keep threatening to cut deeper and deeper. All the air goes out of the room. I can see Kay’s eyes, the tilting world of the living room and I wonder, suddenly, if any of this is real.
I try to hold onto breath, but I can’t seem to find the air. I open my mouth to ask something. Shut it.
It should have been me.
Johnny was hit after he dropped off Kay. He was on Foley Street and the guy who hit him ran the stop sign. Doing 60 in a 40.
Johnny hadn’t had a single drink.
But I … I was drunk. He took the car. He drove Kay home. Kay knows, though. Kay is the only one who knows. Which is why I had to quit the swim team. Why I had to leave.
Why I can’t be Kay’s friend anymore.
“Amie,” Kay’s voice emerges from the static.
Noises blur into aqua tinged tiles. For a moment, I am back in the pool. Safe under the blanket of water. I am going to melt into the air right here at this party before I can find my sister. Before she gets in a car. Before. Before.
“Amie.” Kay’s voice is as calm as a lake. “I am here. You are going to be okay. Someone is getting Ava.”
I crumple. Heaving sobs on Kay’s chest. “I’m sorry,” I say. I say it over and over again. A hand runs through my tangled hair. My hair tie is gone, probably trampled on by a thousand drunk teenagers. And then. Then, we are outside. Kay must have brought me here. It’s cold, but the cold feels good. I drink in the air, the almost quiet.
“Here,” Kay offers me her cup, and I shake my head. “It’s water. I promise. Drink.”
I take the cup and lukewarm water spills down my throat.
Kay laces her hand in mine. “We are going to be okay,” she says. I look at her. Her eyes are red. Like she’s been crying.
I never talked to her about it. About Johnny. She was the last one who saw him alive.
“Amie!” Ava’s breathless voice breaks through. I turn and she is coming at me full force. Her makeup is smudged and her hair is loose and wild.
“Hey,” I say and raise the red solo cup in a mock cheers. We stand there looking at each other. Sisters, somehow.
She drags in a deep breath and glances at Kay, who nods.
“Let’s go home.”
In the kitchen, Ava makes hot chocolate the way Mom used to when we were kids. In a saucepan: whole milk, Hershey’s syrup, and cinnamon.
She brings two steaming mugs into the living room. I take a sip. It’s perfect.
Ava curls onto the couch, tucking her knees up to her chest. She doesn’t look at me when she speaks.
“You think it’s your fault.”
I don’t say anything.
“You do,” Ava says. And then she laughs. It isn’t a nice laugh. It isn’t a mean one either. It’s a disbelief laugh.
“You don’t understand,” I manage, finally. “It’s complicated.”
“What?” I say.
Ava turns toward me. Here is a secret: my sister’s eyes have always scared me. When she was little, she did this creepy thing where she would come into my room when I was sleeping and when I woke up, she would be sitting on my floor staring at me. Like she was trying to figure me out.
Now, her hazel eyes laser into mine. I can’t escape them. She faces life full on. She isn’t a coward like me. She doesn’t flinch.
“Tell me” is all she says.
I hang in the silence for a moment—just a breath. Then, something in my chest loosens.
I tell her about the party, about the drinks, about Kay. I tell her how I was supposed to be the one to drive Kay home. How Johnny stepped up. How I haven’t talked to Kay since.
After I am done, we sit in silence for a bit.
“Is that why you quit the swim team?” she asks.
“I couldn’t deal with it. With Kay. Facing her.”
“She probably misses you. She was pretty upset tonight.”
I don’t say anything.
Ava picks up our mugs from the coffee table and heads to the kitchen. The mugs clang in the empty sink.
She comes back, standing in the doorway, backlit by the fluorescent lighting of the kitchen.
“It’s no one’s fault, Amie,” she says. “I thought it was my fault for a while, too.”
I look at her. “How could it possibly be your fault? You weren’t even here when it happened.”
“Exactly,” she says.
She doesn’t move. I breathe into the darkness of the living room, the taste of milk chocolate coating my tongue.
“I am sorry,” I say.
“For missing the game. For not even realizing there was a game to begin with.”
Ava laughs. “It’s not your thing.”
“But you come—came—to all my meets. With Johnny and Mom.”
Ava moves from the doorway and perches on the arm of the couch so that a sliver of moonlight catches her face.
“I like watching you swim,” she says, not looking at me. “You are completely focused. Other swimmers look like they are attacking the water. But you just … are the water.”
She turns towards me and quirks her lips into a half-smile.
“I’ll be at the next game,” I say, holding her words in my chest carefully, not wanting them to break.
“I’d like that,” she says.
I listen to her footsteps as she walks up to her room. I let my eyes half-close so that the world comes out all blurry. It reminds me of the pool—how everything softens around the edges when I sink beneath the surface.
How I become the water.
I fall asleep on the couch. I don’t remember it happening. I don’t remember my dreams. Just the feeling of water submerging my limbs.
Mom shakes me awake. I blink back to consciousness, disappointment swallowing me.
The party, the panic attack, Kay, Ava.
“You okay?” Mom’s brows are furrowed together. She is in her terrycloth bathrobe and she hasn’t put her makeup on yet. Her eyes are pinched and puffy.
“Yeah,” I say. “Just fell asleep here.”
She looks suspicious but nods. I follow her into the kitchen where we make coffee and watch the sun part through the trees and through the windows over the sink. I drink my coffee black.
I dig my phone out of my pocket. It’s still alive, despite not being charged in forever.
It’s early on a Sunday. She probably isn’t up.
I navigate to my contacts and click on Kay’s name, opening a new message.
When I am done writing, I hold my breath and hit send.
“What are you up to?” Mom is pulling bread and eggs out of the fridge.
“Making plans,” I say.
Mom smiles. I look back at my phone. Kay’s name is brightly lit against the screen.
Before I read her message, I close my eyes. Imagining a future where I am on the swim team, talking to Kay. Maybe even talking to my sister sometimes.
It will be a while, I know. But there is glimmer in knowing it could happen. That the world isn’t just a wide-open blankness. That there is me. There is light.
Until then, I will just keep swimming laps.
by Meg Cook
Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature