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At night when I couldn’t sleep, I’d sneak downstairs and go for a swim in the pool. I’d start doing laps, and I’d keep going until I felt tired. When I went to bed, my muscles felt nice and sore but also shivery and relaxed. I loved bundling myself up after a swim in one of Susannah’s cornflower blue bath sheets–I’d never even heard of bath sheets before Susannah. And then, tiptoeing back upstairs, falling asleep with my hair still wet. You sleep so well after you’ve been in the water. It’s like no other feeling.
Two summers ago Susannah found me down there, and some nights she’d swim with me. I’d be underwater, doing my laps, and I’d feel her dive in and start to swim on the other side of the pool. We wouldn’t talk; we’d just swim, but it was comforting to have her there. It was the only time that summer that I ever saw her without her wig.
Back then, because of the chemo, Susannah wore her wig all the time. No one saw her without it, not even my mother. Susannah had the prettiest hair. Long, caramel-colored, soft as cotton candy. Her wig didn’t even compare, and it was real human hair and everything, the best money could buy. After the chemo, after her hair grew back, she kept it short, cut right below her chin. It was pretty, but it wasn’t the same. Looking at her now, you’d never know who she used to be, with her hair long like a teenager, like mine.
That first night of the summer, I couldn’t sleep. It always took me a night or two to get used to my bed again, even though I’d slept in it pretty much every summer of my life. I tossed and turned for a while, and then I couldn’t stand it anymore. I put on my bathing suit, my old swim team one that barely fit anymore, with the gold stripes and the racerback. It was my first-night swim of the summer.
When I swam alone at night, everything felt so much clearer. Listening to myself breathe in and out, it made me feel calm steady, and strong. Like I could swim forever.
I swam back and forth a few times, and on the fourth lap, I started to flip turn, but I kicked something solid. I came up for air and saw it was Conrad’s leg. He was sitting on the edge of the pool with his feet dangling in.
He’d been watching me that whole time. And he was smoking a cigarette.
I stayed underwater up to my chin–I was suddenly aware of how my bathing suit was too small for me now. There was no way I was getting out of the water with him still there.
“Since when did you start smoking?” I asked accusingly. “And what are you doing down here anyway?”
“Which do you want me to answer first?” He had that amused, condescending Conrad look on his face, the one that drove me crazy. I swam over to the wall and rested my arms on the edge. “The second.”
“I couldn’t sleep so I went for a walk,” he said, shrugging. He was lying.
He’d only come outside to smoke.
“How did you know I was out here?” I demanded.
“You always swim out here at night, Belly. Come on.” He took a drag of his cigarette.
He knew I swam at night? I’d thought it was my special secret, mine and Susannah’s. The length of time he had been aware was something I thought about. If everyone knew, I questioned. Even though I had no idea why it mattered, it did. To me, it did. “Okay, fine. Then when did you start smoking?”
“I don’t know. Last year, maybe.” He was being vague on purpose. It was maddening.
“Well, you shouldn’t. You should quit right now. Are you addicted?”
He laughed. “No.”
“Then quit. If you put your mind to it, I know you can.” If he put his mind to it, I knew he could do anything.
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
“You should, Conrad. Smoking is so bad for you.”
“What will you give me if I do?” he asked teasingly. He held the cigarette in the air, above his beer can.
The air felt different all of a sudden. It felt charged, electric, like I had been zapped by a thunderbolt. I let go of the edge and started to tread water, away from him. It felt like forever before I spoke. “Nothing,” I said. “You should quit for yourself.”
“You’re right,” he said, and the moment was over. He stood up and ground his cigarette out on the top of the can. “Good night, Belly. Don’t stay out here too late. You never know what kind of monsters come out at night.”
Everything felt normal again. I splashed water on his legs as he walked away. “Screw you,” I said to his
back. A long time ago Conrad Jeremiah and Steven convinced me that there was a child killer on the loose, the kind who liked chubby little girls with brown hair and grayish-blue eyes.
“Wait! Are you quitting or not?” I yelled.
He didn’t answer me. He just laughed. I could tell by the way his shoulders shook as he closed the gate.
After he left, I fell back into the water and floated. I could feel my heart beating through my ears. It thudded quick-quick-quick like a metronome.
Conrad was different. I’d sensed something even at dinner before he’d told me about Aubrey. He had changed. And yet, the way he affected me was still the same. It felt just exactly the same. It felt like I was at the top of the Grizzly at Kings Dominion, right about to go down the first hill.
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