فصل 30

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فصل 30

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The first warm day

The second week of February there’s a blizzard that leaves the entire town without power for two days. The best thing about it is that school is canceled, but the worst thing is that the snow is so high and the air so bitter cold, you can barely stay out in it for more than five minutes at a time. I tell myself it’s only water in a different form, and I walk all the way to Violet’s, where we build the world’s largest snowman. We name him Mr. Black and decide he’ll be a destination for others to see when they’re wandering. Afterward, we sit with her parents around the fire and I pretend I’m part of the family.

Once the roads are clear, Violet and I creep very, very carefully down them to see the Painted Rainbow Bridge, the Periodic Table Display, the Seven Pillars, and the lynching and burial site of the Reno brothers, America’s first train robbers. We climb the sheer, high walls of Empire Quarry, where they got the 18,630 tons of stone needed to build the Empire State Building. We visit the Indiana Moon Tree, which is a giant sycamore more than thirty years old that grew from a seed taken to the moon and brought back. This tree is nature’s rock star because it’s one of only fifty left alive from an original set of five hundred.

We go to Kokomo to hear the hum in the air, and we park Little Bastard in neutral at the base of Gravity Hill and roll to the top. It is like the world’s slowest roller coaster, but somehow it works, and minutes later we’re at the peak. Afterward, I take her out for a Valentine’s Day dinner at my favorite restaurant, Happy Family, which sits at the end of a strip mall about fifteen miles from home. It serves the best Chinese food east of the Mississippi.

The first warm day falls on a Saturday, which is how we end up in Prairieton at the Blue Hole, a three-acre lake that sits on private property. I collect our offerings—the stubs of her SAT number 2 pencils and four broken guitar strings. The air is so warm, we don’t even need jackets, just sweaters, and after the winter we’ve been through so far, it feels almost tropical.

I hold out my hand and lead her up the embankment and down the hill to a wide, round pool of blue water, ringed by trees. It’s so private and silent that I pretend we’re the only two people on earth, which is how I wish it could be for real.

“Okay,” she says, letting out a long breath, as if she’s been holding it all this time. The goggles hang around her neck. “What is this place?”

“This,” I say, “is the Blue Hole. They say it’s bottomless, or that the bottom is quicksand. They say there’s a force in the middle of the lake that sucks you down into an underground river that flows right into the Wabash. They say it leads you to another world. That it was a hiding place for pirates burying treasure, and for Chicago bootleggers burying bodies and dumping stolen cars. That in the 1950s a group of teenage boys went swimming here and disappeared. In 1969, two sheriff’s deputies launched an expedition to explore the Hole, but they didn’t find any cars or treasure or bodies. They also didn’t find the bottom. What they did find was a whirlpool that nearly sucked them down.”

I’ve ditched the red cap, gloves, and black sweater, and am wearing a navy pullover and jeans. I’ve cut my hair shorter, and when she first saw me, Violet said, “All-American Finch. Okay.” Now I kick off my shoes and yank off the shirt. It’s almost hot in the sun, and I want to go swimming. “Bottomless blue holes exist all over the world, and each one has these kinds of myths associated with it. They were formed as caverns, thousands of years ago during the last ice age. They’re like black holes on earth, places where nothing can escape and time and space come to an end. How bloody awesome is it that we actually have one of our own?”

She glances back toward the house and the car and the road, then smiles up at me. “Pretty awesome.” She kicks off her shoes and pulls off her shirt and pants so that, in seconds, she is standing there in only her bra and underwear, which are a kind of dull rose color but somehow the sexiest things I’ve ever seen.

I go totally and utterly speechless and she starts to laugh. “Well, come on. I know you’re not shy, so drop your pants and let’s do this. I assume you want to see if the rumors are true.” My mind draws a blank, and she juts one hip out, Amanda Monk–style, resting a hand on it. “About it being bottomless?”

“Oh yeah. Right. Of course.” I slide off my jeans so I’m in my boxers, and I take her hand. We walk to the rock ledge that surrounds part of the Hole and climb up onto it. “What are you most afraid of?” I say before we jump. I can already feel my skin starting to burn from the sun.

“Dying. Losing my parents. Staying here for the rest of my life. Never figuring out what I’m supposed to do. Being ordinary. Losing everyone I love.” I wonder if I’m included in that group. She is bouncing on the balls of her feet, as if she’s cold. I try not to stare at her chest as she does because, whatever else he is, All-American Finch is not a perv. “What about you?” she asks. She fits the goggles into place. “What are you most afraid of?”

I think, I’m most afraid of Just be careful. I’m most afraid of the Long Drop. I’m most afraid of Asleep and impending, weightless doom. I’m most afraid of me.

“I’m not.” I take her hand, and together we leap through the air. And in that moment there’s nothing I fear except losing hold of her hand. The water is surprisingly warm and, below the surface, strangely clear and, well, blue. I look at her, hoping her eyes are open, and they are. With my free hand, I point below, and she nods, her hair fanning out like seaweed. Together, we swim, still linked, like a person with three arms.

We head down, where the bottom would be if there was one. The deeper we go, the darker the blue becomes. The water feels darker too, as if the weight of it has settled. It’s only when I feel her tug at my hand that I let myself be pulled back up to the surface, where we break out of the water and fill our lungs. “Jesus,” she says. “You can hold your breath.”

“I practice,” I say, suddenly wishing I hadn’t said it at all, because it’s one of those things—like I am make-believe—that sounds better in my own head.

She just smiles and splashes me, and I splash her back. We do this for a while, and I chase her around the surface, ducking under, grabbing her legs. She slips through my grasp and breaks into a breaststroke, clean and strong. I remind myself that she’s a California girl and probably grew up swimming in the ocean. I suddenly feel jealous of all the years she had before meeting me, and then I swim after her. We tread water, looking at each other, and suddenly there’s not enough water in the world to clean away my dirty thoughts.

She says, “I’m glad we came.”

We float on our backs, holding hands again, faces to the sun. Because my eyes are closed, I whisper, “Marco.”

“Polo,” she answers, and her voice sounds lazy and far away.

After a while, I say, “Do you want to go look for the bottom again?”

“No. I like it here, just like this.” Then she asks, “When did the divorce happen?”

“Around this time last year.”

“Did you know it was coming?”

“I did and I didn’t.”

“Do you like your stepmother?”

“She’s fine. She has a seven-year-old son who may or may not be my dad’s, because I’m pretty sure he was cheating with her for the past few years. He left us once, when I was ten or eleven, said he couldn’t deal with us anymore. I think he was with her then. He came back, but when he left for good, he made it clear it was our fault. Our fault he came back, our fault he had to leave. He just couldn’t have a family.”

“And then he married a woman with a kid. What’s he like?”

The son I will never be. “He’s just a kid.” I don’t want to talk about Josh Raymond. “I’m going in search of the bottom. Are you okay here? Do you mind?”

“I’m good. You go. I’ll be here.” She floats away.

I take a breath and dive, grateful for the dark of the water and the warmth against my skin. I swim to get away from Josh Raymond, and my cheating father, and Violet’s involved parents who are also her friends, and my sad, deserted mother, and my bones. I close my eyes and pretend it’s Violet who surrounds me instead, and then I open my eyes and push myself down, one arm out like Superman.

I feel the strain of my lungs wanting air, but I keep going. It feels a lot like the strain of trying to stay awake when I can feel the darkness sliding under my skin, trying to borrow my body without asking so that my hands become its hands, my legs its legs.

I dive deeper, lungs tight and burning. I feel a distant twinge of panic, but I make my mind go quiet before I send my body deeper. I want to see how far I can go. She’s waiting for me. The thought fills me, but I can still feel the darkness working its way up, through my fingers, trying to grab hold.

Less than 2 percent of people in the U.S. kill themselves by drowning, maybe because the human body was built to float. The number one country in the world for drowning, accidental or otherwise, is Russia, which has twice as many deaths as the next highest, Japan. The Cayman Islands, surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, has the fewest drownings of all.

I like it deeper, where the water feels heaviest. Water is better than running because it blocks everything out. Water is my special power, my way to cheat the Asleep and stop it from coming on.

I want to go even deeper than this, because the deeper the better. I want to keep going. But something makes me stop. The thought of Violet. The burning sensation in my lungs. I stare longingly at the black of where the bottom should be but isn’t, and then I stare up again at the light, very faint but still there, waiting with Violet, over my head.

It takes strength to push myself up, because I need air by now, badly. The panic comes back, stronger this time, and then I aim myself for the surface. Come on, I think. Please come on. My body wants up, but it’s tired. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Violet. I won’t leave you again. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m coming.

When I finally hit the air, she is sitting on the bank crying. “Asshole,” she says.

I feel my smile go and I swim toward her, head up, afraid to put it under again, even for a second, afraid she’ll freak out.

“Asshole,” she says, louder this time, standing, still in her underwear. She wraps her arms around herself, trying to get warm, trying to cover up, trying to pull away from me. “What the hell? Do you know how scared I was? I searched everywhere. I went as deep as I could before I ran out of air and had to come back up, like, three times.”

I want her to say my name because then I’ll know it’s okay and I haven’t gone too far and I haven’t just lost her forever. But she doesn’t, and I can feel a cold, dark feeling growing in the pit of my stomach—every bit as cold and dark as the water. I find the outer edge of the Blue Hole where there’s suddenly a bottom, and I rise up out of it until I’m next to her, dripping on the bank.

She pushes me hard and then again, so I go jolting backward, but I don’t lose my footing. I stand there as she slaps at me, and then she starts to cry, and she is shaking.

I want to kiss her but I’ve never seen her like this, and I’m not sure what she’ll do if I try to touch her. I tell myself, For once it’s not about you, Finch. So I stand an arm’s length away and say, “Let it out, all that stuff you’re carrying around. You’re pissed off at me, at your parents, at life, at Eleanor. Come on. Let me have it. Don’t disappear in there.” I mean inside herself, where I’ll never get to her.

“Screw you, Finch.”

“Better. Keep going. Don’t stop now. Don’t be a waiting person. You lived. You survived a really horrible accident. But you’re just … there. You’re just existing like everyone else. Get up. Do this. Do that. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Over and over so that you don’t have to think about it.”

She shoves me again and again. “Stop acting like you know how I feel.” She’s pounding at me with her fists, but I just stand, feet planted, and take it.

“I know there’s more in there, probably years of shit you’ve been smiling away and keeping down.”

She pounds and pounds and then suddenly covers her face. “You don’t know how it is. It’s like I’ve got this angry little person inside me, and I can feel him trying to get out. He’s running out of room because he’s growing bigger and bigger, and so he starts rising up, into my lungs, chest, throat, and I just push him right back down. I don’t want him to come out. I can’t let him out.”

“Why not?”

“Because I hate him, because he’s not me, but he’s in there and he won’t leave me alone, and all I can think is that I want to go up to someone, anyone, and just knock them into space because I’m angry at all of them.”

“So don’t tell me. Break something. Smash something. Throw something. Or scream. Just get it out of you.” I yell again. I yell and yell. Then I pick up a rock and smash it into the wall that surrounds the hole.

I hand her a rock and she stands, palm up, like she’s not sure what to do. I take the rock from her and hurl it against the wall, then hand her another. Now she’s hurling them at the wall and shouting and stomping, and she looks like a crazy person. We jump up and down the banks and storm around smashing things, and then she turns on me, all of a sudden, and says, “What are we, anyway? What exactly is going on here?”

It’s at that moment that I can’t help myself, even though she is furious, even though she maybe hates me right now. I pull her in and kiss her the way I’ve always wanted to kiss her, a lot more R-rated than PG-13. I can feel her tense at first, not wanting to kiss me back, and the thought of it breaks my heart. Before I can pull away, I feel her bend and then melt into me as I melt into her under the warm Indiana sun. And she’s still here, and she isn’t going anywhere, and it will be okay. I am carried off. We yield to this slow flood.… In and out, we are swept;… we cannot step outside its sinuous, its hesitating, its abrupt, its perfectly encircling walls.

And then I push her away.

“What the hell, Finch?” She is wet and angry and staring at me with large gray-green eyes.

“You deserve better. I can’t promise you I’ll stay around, not because I don’t want to. It’s hard to explain. I’m a fuckup. I’m broken, and no one can fix it. I’ve tried. I’m still trying. I can’t love anyone because it’s not fair to anyone who loves me back. I’ll never hurt you, not like I want to hurt Roamer. But I can’t promise I won’t pick you apart, piece by piece, until you’re in a thousand pieces, just like me. You should know what you’re getting into before getting involved.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re already involved, Finch. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m broken too.” Then she says, “Where did you get the scar? The real story this time.”

“The real story’s boring. My dad gets in these black moods. Like, the blackest black. Like, no moon, no stars, storm’s coming black. I used to be a lot smaller than I am now. I used to not know how to get out of the way.” These are just some of the things I never wanted to say to her. “I wish I could promise you perfect days and sunshine, but I’m never going to be Ryan Cross.”

“If there’s one thing I know, it’s that no one can promise anything. And I don’t want Ryan Cross. Let me worry about what I want.” And then she kisses me. It’s the kind of kiss that makes me lose track of everything, and so it may be hours or minutes by the time we break apart.

She says, “By the way? Ryan Cross is a kleptomaniac. He steals stuff for fun. And not even things he wants, but everything. His room looks like one of those rooms on Hoarders. Just in case you thought he was perfect.”

“Ultraviolet Remarkey-able, I think I love you.”

So that she doesn’t feel she has to say it back, I kiss her again, and wonder if I dare do anything else, go any further, because I don’t want to ruin this moment. And then, because I’m now the one thinking too much, and because she is different from all other girls and because I really, really don’t want to screw this up, I concentrate on kissing her on the banks of the Blue Hole, in the sunshine, and I let that be enough.

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