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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

How to Breathe Underwater

Vicky Skinner

Swoon Reads

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One


I could see the swimmer beside me every time I came up for air. His face was distorted slightly by the plastic separator that divided his lane from mine, but I could see him pushing, his arms pumping fast. I was faster. I was always faster. I pulled ahead, closing the distance between the wall and me until my fingertips touched, and I came up for a deep, refreshing breath of chlorine-scented air.

“God, Kate,” Harris (short-distance butterfly and my best friend) said, and panted. He’d come up out of the water a whole four seconds behind me. He needed to get his time down if he was going to make it to State. “Give a guy a break.”

I was sucking in air, too, but each breath seemed to scream out my accomplishment. Harris might have been bigger than I was, but he would never be faster. “Give you a break so you can get lazy? I don’t think so.”

He pressed his back to the wall and closed his eyes, sinking into the pool just enough for his chin to dip below the surface. “Thank God I’ll never have to race you for real. That could really bruise my ego. Maybe if my dad had quit his desk job to coach the swim team, I’d be as good as you.” He grinned over at me, and I splashed him with a handful of water.

I snorted. “Yeah, right. It’s called natural talent. I was mastering the dolphin kick while you were still in floaties.”

“Harris, out of the pool,” Coach Judd (assistant girls’ swim coach) called to us. “We need girls in first.”

Harris held his arms in the air, dripping. “But Coach isn’t even out here yet.” He gestured toward the door behind us, where Coach Masterson (head coach for the girls’ and boys’ swim teams, and my father) had disappeared ten minutes earlier for a parent-teacher meeting with Jenny Carther’s mom. We were two weeks away from the start of school, a month away from the start of the season, and he was already lecturing parents.

Coach Judd rolled his eyes. “Doesn’t matter. He’ll be ready to go any minute, and I need the girls ready to go, too. Out!”

Harris sent me an irritated look but did as Coach Judd asked. I did the same, splashing up out of the water and sitting on the edge of the pool, my legs still knee-deep. Everyone else was hanging out in the stands and on the side of the pool, their suits dry. Over by the bleachers, April (a master in all events, and Harris’s girlfriend) blew him a kiss. Beside her, Jenny Carther rolled her eyes.

“Hey, Jenny!” Chuck (100-yard backstroke, bulkiest and slowest on the varsity team) yelled out. “When’s Mommy gonna buy you implants so you can fill out your suit?”

Coach Judd made a disgruntled noise but didn’t call Chuck out. Jenny Carther (breaststroke leg of the 200-yard medley relay and exceptionally self-conscious for someone who weighed one hundred and thirty pounds of almost pure muscle) bolted from her spot poolside and raced by me. I listened to her bare feet slapping the floor until she threw open the door to my father’s office, probably to tattle on Chuck.

I didn’t turn to watch the scene, instead massaging my sore calves in the warm pool water. But after a moment, everyone went quiet. I looked up at Harris to say something, but immediately forgot what it was when I realized that every member of the girls’ and boys’ swim teams was looking in the direction of Coach’s office, like a car had just crashed into it.

I turned to look, and my mouth fell open.

Inside the office, Jenny Carther’s mother and my father were making out against his trophy case, and it was embarrassing how long it took for them to realize that every athlete on the swim team was watching them.

Finally they broke apart, my father’s eyes finding mine amid everyone’s, and the horror on his face matched the horror that had settled in my chest.

Before the end of the day, the swim team had spread the word about my father’s little slipup. It felt like everyone in Salem knew, and it didn’t take long for my mother to get wind of it as well. A month later, my mother and I were moving to Portland to live near my sister, Lily, and my life was completely ruined.

* * *

“Wait, 6A?” Harris bellowed in my ear. “You can’t go to a 6A school. You won’t be in our division. We won’t even be competing together!”

I pressed my forehead against my window and peered down at the traffic below, my body finally exhausted after a day of moving, not to mention the emotional upheaval of abandoning the house I’d been living in since the day I was born. I sighed, watching my breath fog up the window.

“I’m painfully aware of that,” I told him. “It’s not like I have a choice. Most of the schools out here are 6A, and seeing as how I don’t have a car, I’m not going to move to a 5A school that’s four times farther from home just so I can swim in the same pool as you.”

He laughed, but I felt something serious settle under my skin. I was going to have to go back to the pool. I was going to have to join a different team like nothing had even happened, and it felt unreal.

“So, how’s Portland? It’s been a while since I’ve been there. I hear it’s gotten smoggier. Is it extra smoggy?”

“It’s not any smoggier than usual.”

Our new apartment, located on the third floor of a high-rise apartment building in downtown Portland, was actually pretty nice. According to the brochure my mother had given me when she broke the news that we were relocating, the place had a heated rooftop pool, an indoor serenity garden, and a fitness center. There was even a doorman.

Out my window, I got a great view of downtown. We were in the thick of things, close to the Willamette River. I could practically smell it through the glass. It was a black blob of shadow in the darkness. Sure, it was nice, but not exactly nice enough to make me forget that my parents’ pending divorce was the reason I was here.

“God, this blows.” I heard the crisp sound of a can popping open.

“Tell me about it.” My carpet was covered in boxes, suitcases, tote bags. And right in the center of everything, not yet cemented to a spot, was my bed, bare and cold. “You better not be drinking a soda. You know it slows you down.”

Without even being able to see him, I knew he rolled his eyes. “Calm down, Mom. It’ll be long out of my system before I hit the pool again. I don’t have one foot in the water at all times, like you.”

I knew he meant it as a joke, but in the process of my father’s affair being publicized, my parents splitting up, and our current migration, it had been a month since I’d been in the pool—an eternity. “What’s going on with you?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.

“Oh, you know, the usual. April’s bugging me about homecoming, like I actually plan on going. First meet in a few weeks, and if I can’t get my stroke count down, Coach is going to suffocate me in my sleep—and my dad would provide the pillow.”

I sat down on the floor, my back pressed against the windowsill. “Well, can’t say I blame them. You’re too distracted. You need to stop focusing so much on getting April to put out and spend more time doing drills.”

“Not everyone can be a child prodigy, Katherine. Hey, let’s video chat. I want to see your new place.”

“Oh. Yeah. Okay.” But just as he said it, my phone beeped, letting me know the battery was about to die. “Um,” I said, pushing up off the floor and searching my room, phone still pressed to my ear.

But I was fairly certain my charger was still in the back seat of the car, where I’d tossed it in my haste. “Hey, I have to call you back. Battery’s about to die. I’ll call you when I’m plugged in.” I didn’t wait for him to answer, just hung up and tossed my phone on the bed on my way out the door.

We had a parking space underneath the building, in a parking garage. I wasn’t a fan of elevators, so I took the stairs down to the lobby and then walked the two floors down to our parking space. I used the key fob to unlock the doors and reached into the back seat where, sure enough, my charger was sitting. I snatched it, ready to get back upstairs.

As I was locking the car, I heard a strange noise on the other side of the lot, like the air going out of a balloon, and then coughing. It wasn’t the clearing of a throat, but a hacking, gagging struggle for breath.

On instinct, I tried to remember my CPR training. I’d gotten certified one summer so I could be a lifeguard, but it had been long enough now that I wasn’t sure I could remember all the details if the person I could hear needed it.

Another series of coughs broke the silence, and when I got back to the building’s entrance I stopped, just feet from the door. Parked in one of the first spots in the lot was an old station wagon, right under one of the overhead lights. The light shone down on a woman, probably in her fifties, sitting sideways in the driver’s seat with her feet flat on the concrete. She was bent over at the waist, her long gray-spotted braid trailing down to her lap. Hovering beside the open door, stooping to be level with the woman, was a boy my age, a hand on her shoulder as the woman wheezed violently.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

The woman didn’t appear to need CPR. She was breathing, and she was conscious—both encouraging. When the guy’s eyes found mine in the shadows, all I saw was fear. I saw that his other hand was clutching the woman’s. Neither of them said anything for a long moment, but I could hear the rattling of the woman’s breath, the sounds of her lungs still struggling for air.

“Everything’s fine,” the guy finally said. “Thank you.”

I turned my attention to the woman, thinking that maybe she would say something different. Maybe she would tell me to call an ambulance. But instead, she coughed hard, gasping between fits. I took a step forward, feeling helpless. There had to be something I could do, but the guy sent me a strange look that reminded me that this had nothing to do with me. So I backed away and went inside, moving slowly in case he called out after me for help. He didn’t.

When I was back inside the bright lobby, Bobby, the evening doorman, looked at me with worried eyes.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

I was still watching what I could see of the boy and the woman through the glass doors. “There’s a woman out there. She’s having trouble breathing.”

Bobby’s eyes widened and he rushed to the door, but as soon as he caught sight of the two out in the garage, his progress lost its urgency. “Oh. That’s Harriet. You don’t need to worry about her. She’s got a nasty case of emphysema. Consistent bronchitis. Gives her a lot of trouble. Years of smoking will do that to you. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Her son will take good care of her. If she needs medical attention, he’ll make sure she gets it.”

I watched the woman’s back lift and fall in deep breaths, her son still bent over her.

* * *

I jerked awake the next morning and groaned at the light spilling into my bedroom. I made a mental note to hang my blinds and curtains before the end of the day. I lay in bed for a second, trying to get used to the unfamiliar smell of the new apartment. It was cold, so much colder than my father had ever kept the house, and I wanted to stay under the warm covers forever.

As soon as I opened my door, I tripped over a sewing machine. “Motherf—!” I shouted when I lost my footing and slammed into the wall.

“Language!” my mom shouted from the kitchen. “I’m glad you’re up,” she said when I got to her. “I made breakfast. Eggs, bacon, and toast.” She shoveled some onto a plate and set it in front of me at the table with a smile pasted on her face that was so fake, she looked like a plastic doll.

“Thanks, Mom.”

She went back to the stove to make herself a plate. “How did you sleep?”

The truth was that I hadn’t slept much at all. The traffic sounds outside my window all night had kept me awake, along with the noise from the apartment upstairs. I’d never lived in an apartment before, and I’d never lived in the center of a huge city like Portland. We’d lived in West Salem for as long as I’d been alive, a much quieter sector of an already relatively small city.

I didn’t tell my mother any of that. “Good,” I said, trying to sound optimistic. I didn’t want my mother to have to worry about the fact that she had completely upturned my life by moving us out here, even if that’s exactly what she’d done. It wasn’t like she’d had a lot of options.

“Have a lot to do today,” she said, munching on her toast. “I want to try to get a good number of the boxes in here and the living room unpacked.” She finished her toast, the only thing on her plate, and rinsed her dish in the sink.

In Salem, every Sunday morning had been the same: a hard swim at sunup with dad, Mooney’s Café for a recovery meal of pancakes and eggs, and a walk along the river in the late-morning sun.

This was our first Sunday without Dad in a long time, and it showed in the bags under my mother’s eyes.

“I’m off to locate the trash chute,” she said, picking up a bag of garbage.

“Why don’t I take it?” I asked, leaving my breakfast behind to take the bag from her.

She gave a little sigh. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

I was still in my pajamas, a T-shirt and Superman boxers, but I decided to go right then anyway. I’d just made it to the front door when I saw the planner lying open on the entry table. I recognized it immediately. Every season, my father would put my meets, practices, and workouts in a planner so I wouldn’t get behind. Pages and pages of swim-related activities. My mother must have found it in a box somewhere. I glanced over my shoulder at her. She was digging through a box in the kitchen, pulling out towels and pot holders. I reached out and snatched the planner off the table before opening the door.

I was standing hopelessly in the hallway with no clue where the trash chute was when the door directly across from me opened and someone joined me in the narrow hallway.

It took me a second to place the boy in front of me as the one I’d seen in the parking garage the day before, the one leaning over the woman with the bad lungs. Dark, messy hair that might have been styled to look that way or might have been subject to nervous fingers; dark eyes, the color of which I couldn’t decipher with the length of the hall between us; the sleeves of his shirt bunched up around his elbows.

I wanted to ask him if his mom was okay, or maybe ask him his name, but I saw his eyes go first to my boxers and then to my garbage bag.

“Can you tell me where the trash chute is?”

He pointed to the end of the hall. “Take a left and then a right. Last door on the left.”

“Thanks.”

I hauled the garbage bag up but paused when he said, “Nice boxers.”

Like an idiot, I said nothing. I just turned in the direction he’d indicated. At the end of the hall, before I rounded the corner, I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over my shoulder for one last glimpse. He stood by the elevator, the button illuminated, and then he glanced over his shoulder, too, his eyes meeting mine down the hallway.

I looked away quickly, turning the corner. I almost forgot I had the planner in my hand when I pulled the door open to toss the trash in the chute. The bag fell from my hand, and I looked down at the planner. It contained my entire life. Everything I was expected to do, everywhere I was expected to be. But now it was just as much trash as the garbage I’d thrown down. A new place meant a new swim schedule.

I pulled open the chute again and tossed the planner in.


Copyright © 2018 by Vicky Skinner