Swimming Through Clouds (A YA Contemporary Novel) (9 page)

BOOK: Swimming Through Clouds (A YA Contemporary Novel)
5.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Lagan’s smile.

Jump back.

Boiling water on my arm.

Vault forward.

Lagan’s hand on mine.


Broken glass cuts.

Bound forward again.

Lagan’s eyes looking right into mine.


Mom’s empty eyes staring at the ceiling.

Lagan’s Romeo exit.

Jesse’s legs that never move.

Lagan holding the smiley face to his heart.

My heart breaking.

No version of reality allows me to have this—him,
Lagan. For more than a moment. Graduation lies only four months away. I turned
in all the college applications that Dad allowed. All to schools that I can
commute to. Out of state is out of the question. Dad’s goal for me for college
seems to be for me to take over his business some day. He has no clue that I
love to write. That I want to be a writer. Write stories where I can hide my
past in between the lines of worlds my imagination paints, most often in my
dreams. The last thing I want is to have anything to do with Dad or his
practice, but that’s not something I need to worry about now. I’m just relieved
that he’s letting me apply.

I know Lagan applied to schools in the city and in
California. If he decides to stay local, we could find a way to secretly meet,
and then he’ll propose, and we’ll elope, and then, and then... Who am I
kidding, anyway? This thing, this, this—what is this anyway? Like dreaming
while I roam about wide-awake, except that waking up will be painfully real
when June comes around.

My mind seesaws with every step closer to the house,
wondering if it’s worth it. At the same time, I am in so deep, I don’t know how
to rewind. Even if I reason to myself that Lagan is too huge a risk and I need
to stop, retract, and forget about him, my heart begs for more like a newborn
searches for her mother’s breast. I long for time with Lagan like I used to
pine for my mom to stroke my head as I fell asleep. I don’t know how I’ll keep
my joy a secret from Dad. I do know one thing. It’s time to tell Jesse.

I enter the house and find Jess asleep with the TV running.
I continue to complete the remainder of my circuit, mentally editing the words
before I tell my brother. I have my eureka moment while unloading the
dishwasher, as I see my reflection in a Corning Ware platter. I finish
organizing the last of the silverware and race to Jesse’s room to take care of
his needs. He’s awake now.

“Jess, I have a new story for you.” I hear my voice chirping
the words.

Jesse turns off the TV with the remote and lifts his face
toward me.

I begin my tale. “It’s about this girl at school that I’ve
been watching. She’s really interesting to watch, so I’ve been sort of spying
on her, eavesdropping, and just living vicariously while following her around
from a distance. I actually think she’s a little nutty. Maybe that’s what draws
me to her. Maybe someday we’ll be friends. I think we’d get along. For now,
she’s fun to watch, and she gives me fresh material. Helps me stay distracted.”

Jess’s eyes light up with anticipation. It has been awhile
since I made time to talk to him. We both need this. I sweep up the incense
ashes, move Jess to his wheelchair, and change his sheets. All the while, I
tell him about a girl named “Katrina.” A girl who finds Post-it notes
everywhere. A girl who eats lunch with a guy named Logan every day, but never
sits close enough to make anyone think she joined this guy for lunch. A girl
who smiles and giggles to herself, tucking the reasons for her joy into her
books. A girl who seems to be falling in love with this boy whom she eats with
day after day.

Jess holds onto each and every word, telling me with his
eyes that at times he is confused. Other times, he is happy for this girl.
Still other times, he looks down, sorrowful over the girl’s self-imposed
limitations—to love and be loved. When I am about to tell him not to feel
sad—it’s just the story of a stranger after all—Jess lifts his hand
ever so slightly and points in my direction. Then his lips form the word
just as the front door slams shut.

Dad is home. The list is done. The air is full of new
information, and Jess looks at me, not needing an answer. He already knows. And
I know that he knows. As Dad makes his rounds up and around the house, I make a
two second motion of secrecy to Jess by putting my forefinger to my lips. Jess
nods, and we lock the story into our imaginary vault.

Shutting my mind off from my world of fresh possibility and
reentering my hazardous home life, I wonder if this is what jet lag feels like.
While I’m awake, I want to sleep. While I sleep, I want to be awake. I
sleepwalk through my evening chores, and I spend all night replaying every
interaction ever shared with Lagan, from the very first Post-it note, to all
his creative games and witty conversations. To today. And his hand. Resting on
mine. When my alarm buzzes, I awake more tired than ever. I have no choice. I
cannot be found out. I have to maintain my facade—at least until Dad
leaves for work.

He must have had an early meeting, because I smell coffee
that I haven’t made. I look at the clock terrified that I overslept. It reads
6:30 a.m. Whew.  

As I clean up, dress for school, and head down to Jess’s
room to help him with his morning routine, I find Dad is gone, but he left a
note by Jess’s bed:

Early start
today. Make sure you get to school on time. I’ll be home late tonight. Last
second business trip to Vegas. Big case I have to attend to. Taking the red eye
back. Don’t wait up. Don’t forget, I’ll be double-checking


Wow. A chance to breathe, for once. I debate skipping around
the house and throwing the sheets up in the air. But my instinct keeps my
excitement at bay. I have no reason to trust Dad. What does “late” mean? He
could be trying to trap me since a little over a month has passed since my last
punishment. The memories of Mom remind me to never let my guard down.

Doesn’t mean I can’t imagine breaking the rules. Even if I
don’t follow through. Invite Lagan over for milk and cookies. Introduce him to
Jesse. Slow dance with him around the kitchen. I’m bound to miss the bus if I
keep daydreaming. Hello? Shaking off my digressions, I race through my
remaining tasks.

Each time I do anything for Jess or pass his room, he smiles
at me. He has smiled more today than I’ve seen him smile since when Mom was
alive. He is happy for this girl—for me—and it feels nice. I wonder
if he’s ever been in love? Never thought to ask my baby brother. We both know
how critical it is to keep everything confidential. Even a hint of unusual
behavior will arouse suspicion. And suspicion in our house translates to guilty
as charged. No trial. No jury. Straight to life in prison. Makes the electric
chair sound appealing.

Instead, Warden Dad despises my middle name, Grace. I’ll
never know how Mom pulled that one off. I never asked her. In Dad’s world, no
probation or early release for good behavior in sight, leaving me no choice but
to press on.

I grab my bag and head for the front door, almost forgetting
one last thing. Dropping my pack to return to Jesse’s room to hug him goodbye,
I see he isn’t watching TV. Instead, he managed to pull his sheets off himself
and is trying to lift his legs. A little above the bed. One at a time. My
bottom lip quivers as it hits me. He’s rehabbing himself. A tear escapes. He’s
trying. Really trying to live again.

I ease away so he won’t register my sight of him. As I race
out the door, I yell, “Bye Jess,” and resolve to help him regain his strength.
And maybe someday, even walk again.



When I
finish my
quiz quickly and pull out a blank
sheet of paper to doodle on while the minutes pass, I steal glances at Lagan as
I draw a sketch of the ocean. Waves I can relate to. I often dream of swimming
across the Pacific to Japan. Or the Atlantic to England. Starting over as a

Today my picture looks different. There are two stick
figures instead of one. Two swimmers—moving toward each
other—dodging riptides, sharks, and exhaustion. Will they reach each
other? Only time will tell.

Lagan walks past my desk to the front of the class to turn
in his paper. On his way back, I slide my folded drawing to the edge of the
table. He slows his pace when he nears. I smile to myself and slip the paper
off, watching it sail to the ground. Lagan picks it up, and instead of
returning it, he puts a different paper on my desk.

He coined this “TGE” for The Great Exchange. It’s our way of
sharing with each other how we feel at the start of the day. No words allowed.
After I know he is well past me, back in his seat, I unfold his paper and gasp
in disbelief.

The ocean. There are two swimmers. Swimming toward each
other. The sun is rising in his sketch. I remember how he mentioned that his
favorite color is red. Something about the color of the sunrise. There are no
sharks in his picture. However, one detail makes me wince. There are storm
clouds, but they aren’t in the sky. Instead, they rage in the water with
lightning bolts darting to and fro. And the kicker, they only surround one of
the swimmers. The female swimmer. Me.  

I take my pencil and flip it to the eraser side. I try to
erase the clouds. My fury at my life rises, and I rip through the picture. I
rip his picture.

What do you
want from me?
I can only
give what I can give, what I can afford, without Dad finding out. Who am I
kidding? Graduation is around the corner. Four months away. I only have four
months of Lagan left. It’s not enough. But what choice do I have? I can’t live
for the future.

Too many dreams of make-believe futures have been shattered.
I know better than to hold too tightly to my dreams. I lost the dreams I
thought were plausible. Mom used to put flowers in my hair on my wedding day.
Jesse used to run along the beach with me, flying kites on a breezy summer
evening. Dad used to disappear. Nowhere to be found. Missing. No access to me
or Jess.

Like sand slipping through my clasped hands, my dreams only
leave me wanting. Then, when despair morphs to rage, the sand solidifies into
broken glass. My hands now clasp foolishly, full of shards where hope bleeds
from me, one broken promise at a time.

With bloody hands, my rage craves revenge. Last night, I
dreamt of taking a knife to Dad’s throat. I awoke to find myself standing in
the kitchen with a butter knife between my tightly squeezed fingers. Terrified
of what I was capable of, I knew I needed to distract my mind before I returned
to bed and laid my head down on my pillow.

That’s when I first opened it,
Beautiful Fight
the book that Lagan marked
with blank Post-its. I skimmed one story, carefully replacing the yellow Sticky
Note before nodding off to sleep.

In the story I read, a woman had been bleeding for twelve
My lips have been bleeding for more than a decade.
The woman in the story wanted help, but
she didn’t want anyone to know her business. She was afraid to ask out loud.
can relate to that.
She had
spent her every penny on doctors, but to no avail. Her bleeding persisted.
feel spent,
thinking of my
own journey. Thinking about Mom and Jess, and how I still bleed, and no one
arrives to rescue me. No cure I can afford seems to exist.

The woman in the story did something strange, but it doesn’t
seem so strange to me. People do strange things when they’re desperate.
Desperation drove her to search for help in an odd place. A garden of all
places. Greenery surrounded a large crowd that followed a gardener. Then the
woman reached forward, into the crowd, and stole. Just a touch. Of the
gardener’s back. And just like that, she stopped bleeding.

All night, I dreamt that I was the woman, following the
crowd, pressing forward, hoping to reach forward and just brush his shoulder.
The crowd faded in my dream, and all I could see was the cloth in front of me.
But, just as I lunged forward, an axe fell in front of my grasp, just missing
my wrist.

Turning my head to see where he was, I saw him inches away
from me, removing his hood. He’d been walking in the crowd the whole time,
watching me. Dad stood still, hood back, holding the axe to the ground, staring
right at me, shaking his head no.
Not now. Not ever. Don’t even think
about it.

The crowd moved on without me. As did the gardener, his back
blurring with the distance. Dream over.

The bell rings, startling me from my excursion from now. I
crumple up the drawing, gather my things, and shuffle quickly out of
class—alone. Lagan runs up behind me, but I ignore him. Just when I’ve
resolved that I can handle this, I can’t. I am better off alone.
you see that?
I am the
personification of complicated. And no one wants complicated.

I know it’s not fair, but life isn’t fair. Fair is for fairy
tales. I live on the other side of the tracks. Where the king hurts the
princess, and the prince never arrives in time. The dragon burns down the
castle. The queen stopped breathing a long time ago. And no one lives happily
ever after.

BOOK: Swimming Through Clouds (A YA Contemporary Novel)
5.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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