Norma let her head tip back, only for a second, before she panicked and her legs scrambled desperately for a foothold.
She found one, her feet brushing against the pool floor, and she sucked in a mouthful of air to remind herself it wasn’t water this time.
Caleb laughed. Tall, buff, and blonde, he looked every inch a lifeguard, and he was one. It wasn’t as if they could have afforded to go to this swim club otherwise. Even with Caleb’s job, Norma was sure that they looked at her when she walked in, muttering under her breath that they didn’t belong.
She had felt that way for almost all of her fifteen years, probably even when she had been a microbe or an embryo or whatever she had been before she had been Norma.
Before she had been, more importantly, Norma Louise.
Caleb’s hand jutted out to steady her, warm and heavy on her sternum, keeping her upright.
“You’re not going to drown in five feet of water. I promise.”
His eyes looked very blue when he said that, and she believed him. She picked her feet up again and let her eyes close. She was drifting in the darkness.
It was then that she felt his hands disappear suddenly, and she found herself flapping forward and panicking, flapping her arms and feeling her head fall downward as she splayed, it seemed endlessly, against the pool floor. She did not open her eyes.
There were arms, firm and a bit bruising, around her hips, pulling her upwards. Sputtering water as her eyes flew open and she glared at her brother, who was nodding and chuckling nervously.
“Asshole!” Norma screamed at him. “You should have told me you were about to do that.”
“Well, see, now you’re not scared.” Brash and faux-confident; smirking but not smiling. She hated this side of him, the one that he put up in public when other people were around.
Norma reached back and elbowed him in the chest, hard, wiping at her eyes with her hands and coming up short.
“Dick,” she hissed again.
His face softened and he reached out, brushing her hair out of her eyes.
“Sorry, Norma Louise,” he said, no longer cheeky and cocky but seemingly truly contrite. She sighed.
It was hard to stay mad at him, even when she had every right. It wasn’t like he meant it, after all.
“You can do this,” he said a moment later. “I know you can.”
The pool closed at eight, and Caleb was tasked with cleaning up, picking up beer cans and cigarette butts that people had thrown into the grass during the day. Norma followed him. It felt as if she was always a few steps behind him, a shadow; it didn’t annoy him the way that it seemed like it should. When he’d sat in the locker room at school, when he went, they’d hacked on about how their sisters annoyed them, how they wanted to spend their time getting laid instead.
He could only think of Norma. None of the girls in his class had interested him; not like they’d talk to him anyway. He had sat in the back of class staring at the books they handed him, rubbing his eyes to try and make sense of words that all ran together. He scribbled anything and the teachers had sighed and marked his papers up with red pen until they had let him drop out last year.
Then it had been docks, warehouses, and now a lifeguard job. Coming home to Norma and telling her that this wouldn’t be their lives forever. That he was saving up money; that he could save them both.
That had to be the truth. He refused to settle for anything less.
It was so hot that her dress stuck to her skin. The wall fan barely put a dent in the 97 degree heat, and she wiped away sweat from her forehead and wished she had the energy to get up and pour herself a cup of lemonade or water or whatever was left in the refrigerator.
It was too hot to be nine o’clock at night. She shivered despite the heat and took a panting breath to try and keep herself calm. She couldn’t stop thinking about Caleb, Caleb and what all of this meant and what he had suggested the night before.
That they should run away together. That they should pretend to be married.
That there were places in the world where people wouldn’t know them; they only had to look hard enough to find them.
Norma stared at her bedroom door and waited for him to come in, or knock, or call through the crack in the door. He was always there, one way or another. She smiled sadly as she remembered how they used to stay awake at night, talking until the sun came back up in the morning.
The sun rising would be like a reprieve; it meant they had survived another day.
Now, she didn’t know if she felt the same relief anymore. Was this all she had to look forward to? Day after day waiting for the morning with Caleb, trapped in a box?
There was a slow rap at the door.
“Caleb?” she called. It wasn’t as if it could have been anyone else. Her parents didn’t knock, didn’t even come in here. Wished for them to be seen and not heard, off the radar, which they were happy to do.
He opened the door; she never locked it. What would be the point of locking him out?
After all, it was his room too.
He unbuttoned the jacket he was wearing and tossed it on his side of the bed, letting out a murmur before speaking.
“Hey, Norma Louise,” he said with a measured, shaky smile. “I’ve been thinking.” She wanted to tell him to stop thinking, that the thing she knew he would say could never work. They couldn’t step arm-in-arm into a chapel and just forget that the past had ever happened. People would know; people wouldn’t understand.
It had only been recently that she had started to think about that, though maybe in some part of her she had always known it to be wrong. She had brushed it off before – people just don’t get it, maybe we’re only special, maybe just no one mentions it but every does it sometimes, everyone has a secret at home. But now…
“Caleb,” she began.
“We’ve got to leave this weekend. When they aren’t paying attention.” Well, that was always.
“And go where, Caleb? I don’t think you’re… thinking about this, at all. What would we do?”
“Wherever we want.”
Caleb laid out the atlas in front of him. He didn’t know where to start. It wasn’t as if it was difficult to figure out somewhere that no one would know them – barely anyone even knew them here in Akron. But where could they go that no one could figure it out? It wasn’t like it was fair that no one else understood. Maybe just no one else was like them. Or maybe, in some way, everyone was like them.
He flipped it open to the map of the United States. It was weird to think that Akron was such a tiny dot in such a big country, in such a big world. He remembered sitting in front of their tiny black and white TV, fiddling with the dial so that they could watch the states announce for Bush or Dukakis. So many states full of people. So many places they could hide.
He let his finger brush over Florida. That could be a good place.
“What do you think about Florida?” he called. Norma was laying on the far side of the bed, half-asleep; she seemed a little dazed.
“There’s alligators there,” Norma replied.
“No good, then.” Caleb tried to hide his disappointment. He had liked thinking about he and Norma living down near Disney World, the kind of place he only saw on commercials on TV. He had always wanted to take Norma when they had been kids, to hop on the back of a freight car and never let go until they went into a magical place and never came home, because this wasn’t home after all. This was just a place to be. “What about…” he looked down again, squinting his eyes to try and make out the names. It always felt like the words all blurred together; they made his head hurt. “How about Boise?”
“There’s nothing in Boise,” Norma replied.
“How do you know? We haven’t gone there yet.”
Norma shuffled across the bed, over to him, and placed her hand over his before reaching over and closing the book.
“Trust me. There’s nothing in Boise. We’ll figure out a place. We just have to not be super obvious. You’re being obvious, Caleb. Stop it.” She put her head on his shoulder and fell asleep.
She had been feeling light-headed for the last week, staggering and swerving whenever she stood up suddenly. That couldn’t be good news, she didn’t need to be getting sick again. She knew if her father heard her coughing he would go off on a rant about how he didn’t have the money to be taking anyone to the hospital and she’d better hope that Caleb had the time to take her because he had better things to do. She had heard it all before.
She was at the pool, standing on the ladder, wading in and finding a free float, pulling herself into it one leg at a time and intending just to relax for a little while, let the blood clear from her head.
If she could just lay back and look up at the sky, maybe all of her troubles would get absorbed into the clouds like the rain, to pour down upon other people instead.
She kicked back a leg and found herself flailing, falling back and feeling her head fall underwater.
Logically, it shouldn’t have been terrifying. The water was only four feet, but she was trapped…
Trapped, at the bottom of the ocean.
Caleb paced back and forth, wondering why they wouldn’t let him in. Not letting him in meant that it was bad news, didn’t it? It must be that he had been too late doing CPR on her, that something had gone wrong and she had lost too much oxygen. What if she was going to have brain damage for the rest of her life? How would he ever get away with her then?
Caleb imagined himself coming to Norma’s hospital bed each day with lupins in hand, spreading them across her chest and waiting for her to wake up. Thinking about what could have been and fading away day after day, losing little pieces of himself that belonged to her.
He knew that he would never love anyone ever again if he lost Norma.
There was no one he could talk to about this; not even anyone he could let know that she was hurt. His parents would ask too many questions, or maybe no questions at all. Maybe they would just adapt to the gaps in the world where she would fit in.
She had to live. There was no other option.
“You had quite the scare.” The doctor had white hair and looked as if he would have rather have been anywhere else in the world. “I’m not sure you should have been that far out in the water anyway, without being able to swim. In your condition, you really have to be more careful.”
“Huh?” Norma asked, staring at him without comprehending. She could still smell chlorine everywhere around her, and her chest hurt. Someone had been banging on her chest; probably Caleb, she wasn’t sure that anyone else would really care at all.
The doctor looked at her and let out a long, frustrated sigh.
“You’re pregnant. You know, there are a lot of ways to prevent this these days. Here it says you’re only sixteen, aren’t you? Such a shame. A bright future and you just threw it away.”
Norma didn’t have time to worry about the doctor who was chastising her like an impudent child. That was annoying, certainly, but that was not…
She wanted to throw up, she wanted to wrap her hands in her hair and pull. This made it all real.
She was never going to get out of Akron. She was never going to be able to leave Caleb behind.
“Thank you for letting me know,” she told him, letting out a little squeak. “I’m going to go now.”
Caleb was worried; Norma didn’t talk the entire ride home.
“I should have been more...” he told her. “That was a close call. It won’t ever happen like that again. Whatever you need me to do to protect you… I’ll always be there.”
Norma listened to the slow, rhythmic breathing beside her. Caleb was asleep. Alive and asleep. Sometimes she wondered what she would do if he were to just stop breathing, stop sleeping, and fade away.
She wouldn’t be able to live if she didn’t know he was out there somewhere. It was so screwed up. She should hate him, hate him, should want to kill him, to smother him while he slept or do something to hurt him, really hurt him, so he would know what he had done.
The full extent of what he had finally done.
She slipped out from underneath the blanket and dressed in silence. She thought of the way John Massett had been kissing her in between classes, the way he had pressed against her in the back of his car, and she felt nothing at all.
He had told her that yes, he would marry her.
She didn’t know a single thing about him.
Caleb was snoring. He always snored, and he would roll to his side and throw an arm over his face like he was blocking out the sun and…
Norma couldn’t think about that, now. She had to focus on forgetting every single detail about Caleb that she had learned for the last seventeen years.
She slid the window open and slid her foot out, balancing it on the ledge.
She pushed off and felt herself fall into the sky.
She’d hit the bottom eventually. And then it was time to swim for her life.