Read Breathing Underwater Online

Authors: Alex Flinn

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues, #Physical & Emotional Abuse, #Boys & Men, #Dating & Sex

Breathing Underwater (10 page)

BOOK: Breathing Underwater
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“Watch it, Ray,” Mario says. “No personal attacks.”

“But that’s what’s wrong with this country. Right there.” He points a finger at Kelly. “Children rule the house because their parents won’t raise a hand, just withhold TV or put them in the corner.”

“You got it, baby!” Kelly says. “America, love it or leave it. Don’t you burn my flag, you commie Cuban!”

Ray says, “I’m from America too, just not your fast-food, Disney World America. My parents came here on a raft. Papa broke his back in the fields, leaving me to be a man from when I was seven. When he was away, I got into two shares of trouble, but when he came back, he whipped us all into shape, including Mama. That’s what kids need. Discipline. What I see in this room sickens me.”

He stops. Below, the train roars by, and I want to protest the injustice of what Ray said, but I don’t. No one does, and I wonder if it’s because Ray’s life is as familiar to them as to me. No way to tell. Beside me, Leo is silent, but his eyes are dark.

Tiny and A.J. speak now, A.J. saying his father’s an all-right guy. His mother’s a doormat. To my surprise, Tiny admits being sexually abused by his mother’s boyfriend. Through it all, Leo remains motionless, teeth parted, until I wonder if he’s sleeping. Finally, he’s the only one left. Mario nods at him. Will he refuse? He often does, saying he doesn’t have to talk. But now, his black eyes seek Ray, and he speaks like the rest of us aren’t here.

“I’m one of those kids you talked about, Policeman.” Ray flinches when Leo calls him that, and I know why. Ray never told us what he did. It looks pretty bad for a cop to be in a class like this. “I live in the Grove—the good part, drive a nice car, go to a private school. So I’ve got it made, according to you. And you’re right about one thing, Policeman. No one lays a hand on me.”

Ray’s eyes could melt glass. Leo doesn’t look away.

“You think you know who I am?” Leo demands. “My mother married Hector when I was three, telling us what a good man he was. From the beginning, I heard screaming, lying in bed at night. By the time he started hitting her in front of us, there were two more kids, a Mercedes, and my brother and me at Wentworth Academy.

“Felix and I were twins. He was a few minutes older, but I was bigger, so I was in charge. We shared a room and had a secret language we used in school until they put us in separate classes. Even so, when Felix broke his finger playing ball, my own hand hurt so bad I couldn’t write. We weren’t identical, though. I look like my mother. Felix had our father’s blue eyes.”

My mind wanders to Tom, and suddenly, I ache for a brother. Beside me, Leo’s still talking.

“Hector had it in for Felix. He used to take me and my half brother and sister to get McDonald’s or whatever, but he’d leave Felix home. I’d try to stay home too, but Felix would say, ‘Go ahead. I’ll just get reamed if you don’t.’ So I’d bring him back whatever I got, candy or toys from birthday parties. One time, I brought back ice cream. It melted, chocolate all over Hector’s leather seats. Hector sprung a leak then, screaming, ‘You little bastard! You did this for your shit brother!’ He drags me to our room. My brother’s making a model car, and Hector says, ‘Hit him.’

“‘No!’ I said. But Hector’s by my ear, screaming ‘You weakling, you turd! I’ll smash him worse if you don’t!’ and finally, my fist moved without me. I blacked my brother’s eye.”

“This is such crap!” Ray yells in my ear. “He’s making this up as he goes along.”

Leo starts toward him, but Mario says, “Simmer down, Ray.” He holds up his hand, and when Ray sits, Mario says to Leo, “Go ahead.”

Leo sits, and I watch him. “That was when we were nine. After that, Hector knew how to hurt us. Hector wanted me to like him, but I hated him because of Felix. So if Felix did something wrong, Hector made me beat him up. Or sometimes, he made Felix hit me, and he’d scream, ‘Don’t let him beat you! Fight back, little girl!’ Like I was his prize rooster. And finally, I hated Felix because he got me in trouble. I stopped playing with him, stopped bringing things home, wouldn’t even talk to him at school. I had my own friends.

“The violence stopped then. Hector had what he wanted. But when we were twelve, Felix swallowed a bottle of pills. My mother took him to the doctor, and they made him puke, sent him home like nothing happened. By then, I hadn’t spoken to my twin brother in over a year.”

Leo stops, running a hand across dry eyes, and Mario says, “You okay to go on? You don’t have to.”

“I’m fine,” Leo says.

“I don’t want to push you,” Mario says.

“You aren’t,” Leo says. “I’m fine.” Leo continues, his voice even, like reciting the multiplication table.

“The day Hector and I were supposed to be partners at his father-son picnic at work, I woke up, feeling sicker than I’d ever felt. Ten minutes later, I look out the bathroom window over the driveway. There’s a police car outside. The doorbell rings, and I go downstairs, stand behind Mama.” Leo jabs a finger at Ray. “She’s talking to one of your kind. He tells her my brother’s dead, like he was asking for donations to the Police Athletic League. I ran back upstairs. I knew Felix was there. But when I got in our room, his bed was made. Even his bear … the brown teddy bear he’d hidden from Hector was sitting on top of his turned-down blue sheet. He made the bed and walked to the train station—that one right there.”

Leo gestures toward the window, and we all look out at the elevated train. He pushes his knees forward and rests his elbows on them, looking at us as if he expects us to speak. There’s nothing to say. Outside, the train roars by. I watch it, listening to the background music of Leo’s voice.

“At the funeral, I saw my mother pretend to cry, her friends pretending to comfort her. The priest prayed God would spare Felix’s soul, and people shook their heads because he’d committed such a grievous sin. I hated them. I hated the ones who sympathized, and I hated the ones who judged. Mostly, though, I hated Felix for being weak. I hoped Father Michael was wrong about his soul being saved.”

Leo stands and walks to Ray, eyes burning. Ray looks away.

“So that’s how spoiled I am, Policeman. And you’re right. My parents never hit me.”

We’re all silent a moment, hearing the hum of fluorescent lights. Finally, Mario starts to talk, pulling together what we’ve said, how it affects our other relationships. I want to listen, but I can’t stop thinking about Leo’s story, even though what Mario says applies to me. Finally, Mario closes his notebook, saying he hopes we’ll think about what we discussed. Then, he dismisses us.

I’m almost out the door when I hear Leo say, “Neysa and I have a date tonight. With any luck, this will be my last day here.”

“I hope it’s not,” Mario replies. “That’s quite a tale you told. I’d imagine someone with a story like that has a lot of anger stored up.”

I turn in time to see Leo smile. “Do I look angry?”

angry,” Mario says. “Only reason you told that story’s ’cause you were angry with Ray. You need this group even if you won’t admit it.”

“Well, I’ll go on needing it,” Leo replies, starting to walk away.

Mario stops him. “My uncle Gustavo used to say, ‘If you’re halfway across the lake, it’s just as easy to swim forward as swim back.’”

“Don’t say?” Leo turns. “Tell Uncle Gus I hitched a ride to shore.”

The following week, Leo isn’t there.

Caitlin hadn’t been too hot for me to meet her mother, and one look told me why. Tom and I knocked on the McCourts’ pink door (which we’d found by walking up the pink walkway, past the pink plastic flamingoes), and before you could say
acrylic nail
, a woman was on us like an obese kid on the last Twinkie

While Caitlin tried to ease us out the door, her mother gushed about how she’d been longing to meet us, then demanded, “Which one of you adorable creatures is Nick?”

“Guess that’s me,” I said. It should have been pretty obvious since I was holding Cat’s hand. Caitlin was squeezing the life out of mine

Cat’s mom looked like Cat, but younger. No, really. Her makeup wasn’t to hide age. It was like a whole new face, including painted-in eyelashes. Ripe grapefruit halves peered from a purple crop top while a denim miniskirt exposed tanned legs. A father with a shotgun would have been less threatening. A
would have been less threatening

No such luck. Mrs. McCourt’s eyes dissected me, checking off clothes, watch, Nikes, before smiling. “Caitlin said you were handsome, and she was right.”

“Thanks.” I think

Done with me, Mrs. McCourt turned her ample searchlights on Tom

“And you must be Lacey Carter’s boy.” She squeezed Tom’s biceps. “Your mother and I have spoken extensively about my giving makeovers at the club.”

Caitlin said, “We have to go, Mother.”

Mrs. McCourt told Caitlin not to embarrass her. She moved still closer to Tom, and Caitlin tried to get between them. Mrs. McCourt gave Tom’s arm another squeeze. “Besides, it’s not often we have male visitors. Boys haven’t exactly been rioting on your front lawn, have they, Caitlin?”

Finally, Tom mumbled something about needing to pick up his date, and we got away. Getting into the car, I noticed something around Caitlin’s neck, a silver bead chain with charms, trendy and stupid. I fingered it, leaning across the seat to look

“Did your mom give you that?” I asked. Her mom was embarrassing, and so was the necklace

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just doesn’t look like something you’d wear.”

She touched it. “I got it in the Grove with Peyton. I think it’s cute.”

“You think wrong,” I said. “It doesn’t go with what you’re wearing and it’s totally blue-collar. It makes your neck look too short for your body too.”

Caitlin didn’t move

“Take it off,” I said

“Nick…” Tom’s voice from the backseat

“What?” I slammed my arm down on the backrest and faced him. “What is your particular problem?” I turned back to Caitlin. “I said, take that stupid thing off.”

“It’s all right, Tom.” Caitlin removed the necklace and held it up. “Maybe it doesn’t work with this outfit. Peyton chose it.”

“Last thing you need is to dress like Peyton,” I said

Cat hung the chain around the stick shift. We drove a block before I plucked it off and threw it out the window. Cheap metal hit pavement with barely a clink. I put my arm around Cat. She moved away

I pulled her closer. “Don’t you want to be close to me? That’s what love is all about.”

Caitlin didn’t respond, but she didn’t shy away

Hallway behind the Fruitopia machine

The roses are white, veins of green through their petals, a plastic vial of water attached to each stem. I glance over my shoulder then turn the dial on Caitlin’s lock. 4-34-0, same as always. It gives way.

In the empty hallway, I study the contents, books crammed in, a card from Liana. A stuffed bear straddles Caitlin’s history text. Behind me, something clicks. I turn. Just the clock. It’s five minutes into first period. I lay the bouquet across Caitlin’s books, close the door soundlessly and set the lock to zero.

Happy birthday, Kittycat.

Later that day

It wasn’t like I’d never screwed up with Caitlin before. I had. But before, I’d always been able to get her back. I just had to keep trying.

The evening had been a bad one. Caitlin had barely spoken to me since I threw her necklace out the window. She’d whispered with Liana, laughed at Tom’s dumb jokes, and ignored me. I could tell she couldn’t wait to get home, but I couldn’t take her there. If I took her home now, it would be over for sure. Out of ideas, I dropped Tom and Liana off then pulled into my own driveway. I walked around and threw open Caitlin’s door

She didn’t move. “Take me home, Nick. My curfew’s—”

“I know when it is. Just stay fifteen minutes, okay?”

Caitlin’s eyes searched my face, the car, the deserted street, and I saw anger replaced by resignation. She’d go. I grabbed her hand and pulled her from her seat and down the gravel path before she could change her mind

BOOK: Breathing Underwater
4.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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