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Authors: Sarah Jamila Stevenson

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BOOK: Underneath
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Woodbury, Minnesota

Copyright Information

© 2013 by Sarah Jamila Stevenson.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any matter whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from Flux, except in the form of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

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Any unauthorized usage of the text without express written permission of the publisher is a violation of the author's copyright and is illegal and punishable by law.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover models used for illustrative purposes only and may not endorse or represent the book's subject.

First e-book edition ©2013

E-book ISBN: 9780738737027

Book design by Bob Gaul
Cover design by Ellen Lawson
Cover photo compilation by John Blumen
Cover photo
Titled “Drop” by Alex Stoddard
Cover images: Woman © Glow Images/SuperStock
Space/cosmos image © DigitalStock

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Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd.

2143 Wooddale Drive

Woodbury, MN 55125

Manufactured in the United States of America

For my family


The whistle blasts three times and Coach Rydell yells, “Take your marks!” Fifteen seconds more. I step up onto the starting block. My feet are poised on the dark, sand­papery surface, toes hanging slightly over the edge, my body tense and ready to dive into the lane.

I take a deep, slow breath and expel it in a quick puff of air.

Looming in my peripheral vision are all of the other swimmers lined up on either side of me. I try not to look at them; instead I focus on the abstract pattern formed by everyone's legs on the blocks, the different colors of swimsuits, the faint reflection of the cloudy sky in the surface of the water. I look at people's toes. Cassie, as always, has a perfect, glossy pedicure. Not me. The light-purple nail polish I painted my toes with is starting to scrape off.

Glancing back up, I see my mother sitting on the lowest bench of the small bleachers on the south side of the pool. For some unknown reason she's on her cell phone. Why now, when my race is starting? I frown.

Five seconds. Almost time. I push everything out of my mind—Mom, cell phones, even Cassie, who's in the lane to my left, adjusting her goggles.

The whistle shrieks, and we're off. It's my best event, the 100-meter freestyle. My arms and legs cut into the cool water with hardly a splash, and then I surface, sucking in air. It's only an off-season invitational, but I push my muscles that extra little bit because I know I've got this one covered. I barely notice that I'm gradually edging ahead of a girl from Lakewood in the lane to my right. I'm focused on my rhythmic breathing, my legs churning up the water, the exhilaration surging through me.

This time, I'm leaving Cassie behind, and for once that makes me glad. She can go ahead and look perfect all the time. But guess who's going to win today's race? Not Miss Fancy Feet. I file that one away for post-race teasing at Spike's house.

After a perfect flip-turn, I try to add an extra burst of energy for the last length, even though it doesn't matter because I know I'm going to be the first one in by a long shot. Soon the familiar calm comes over me. I'm in the zone, quiet, just me and the other end of the pool beckoning me, coming inexorably closer with every stroke. My happy place. One of the reasons I swim. Really, the only reason I—

ohgod, ohgod—

NO! no. no. no. no—


I pop my head up, my legs floundering in the pool. My heart pounds. Who's dead? I hear screaming, and my hands go reflexively to my ears as I try to block out the sound threatening to drown me.

The wake of the person in the next lane washes over me, pushing chlorinated water into my nose and mouth. I cough and sputter, my sinuses burning, and take a quick glance around. But I've realized by now that nobody was screaming. It was all in my head. I'm in a race, at the school pool.

in a race. A race I am now losing as Cassie swims past me and tags the end of the pool, me belatedly pulling up a few seconds behind her, my head spinning.

Elisa is already there, her long dark hair tucked tightly into a swim cap, ready for the relay in a few minutes. She high-fives Cassie and shoots me a sympathetic smile.

I shake my head. This is not good. I heave myself out of the water and head over to the junior varsity bench, not wanting to meet my mother's eyes. I can see her out of the corner of my eye, sitting like a statue with her cell phone in her lap. She looks shocked. I am, too. Everyone else is looking at me as if I'm mentally unstable. Did

Cassie squeezes my shoulder before sitting down on the bench next to me. “Wow,” she says, and pauses for a moment to catch her breath. “That should've been you, not that Lakewood chick.” I nod, then shake my head, still in a daze.

Coach Rydell is not happy. Not happy at all. She stalks right up to me, brandishing her whistle, as I'm drying off by the benches.

“Pryce-Shah,” she says, with a measuring glare. The dreaded last name. “What happened back there? That was your race. You had it.”

“I know,” I say hoarsely. I clutch my towel around me, dripping, and shiver a little in the breezy October air. “I … I don't know what happened.” It's a pathetic answer, but it's true.

“Well, I don't want to see it happen again. We're lucky this is the off-season.” She sighs, straightening the Citrus Valley Vikings baseball hat that's mashed down over her sun-bleached hair. “And your form was looking so
before you just … freaked out and bailed. I hope this doesn't become a habit, Sunny. I'd hate to see you drop in the team rankings before the season even starts.” Coach peers at me over the top of her sunglasses. I swallow hard.

“I'm just—maybe I'm getting sick,” I say. Coach makes a frustrated noise and moves down the bench to where Cassie is celebrating with James, who won earlier for backstroke. I should be there, too, but I can't even manage to be happy for my friends.

Maybe it's true. Maybe I

Sick in the head.

Because nobody just spaces out mid-race and dreams they hear voices.

But it's not real, either. Nobody's screaming. Nobody's dead.

As I'm heading to the locker room to change, I catch sight of Mom hurrying to her car to pick up Dad from work. I'm kind of glad I don't have to talk to her about how I messed up my race. She'd say something well-meaning, but she's never been part of a school sport and she wouldn't understand how it really feels, how I didn't simply disappoint myself. I drive home in silence, still trying to figure out what happened, but all I can think is maybe I didn't get enough sleep last night.

I pull our old green Volvo into the driveway next to Mom's hybrid. As I drive up, I notice the mailbox door is open and a big puffy envelope is sticking out. I walk to the curb and grab it. It's addressed to me, from my cousin Shiri. She hardly ever sends me snail mail from college, so I rip it open eagerly.

A small notebook falls out. The hard cover is dark blue, plain. I open the front; turn a few pages. I flip to the middle. All the pages are covered in Shiri's neat, rounded handwriting. I frown, perplexed, and rummage in the envelope for a note or a card or something. As I do, a folded slip of paper falls out of the back of the notebook. I bend down to pick it up.

“Sunny!” My mom is standing in the doorway. There's a strange note in her voice.

“Yeah, Mom.” I straighten up, juggling the slip of paper, the notebook, and my backpack.

“I'm so glad you're home. Come in right now—we need to talk.”

“Is this about my race? Because—”

“No,” she cuts in, and this time her voice wavers. “No, honey, it isn't.” She goes back inside, and I'm left standing on the front lawn, suddenly shaking for no reason I can name.

From Shiri Langford's journal, January 18th

My grades again. Dad was livid. Not that I care what he thinks. Why should I?

It's not like I was planning to get a C in Math 75, but everything just seemed like too much last semester. At least this semester I have Existentialist Lit. I don't care if he says it's useless.

But while I was home, THAT happened. Again. I thought it stopped about a month ago, but it happened every night, while I was trying to go to sleep. One night I must have screamed or made some noise, because Mom came in to check on me and stroked my hair like she used to when I was small.

I miss it. I miss my family, the way it used to be when I was little. Before THAT started happening.


The air in here smells like sour dirty laundry. The heavy yellow curtains are closed and it's too dim to see much, but I can feel the lump of bedspread bunched up under my right shoulder; I feel my dry, cracked lips and swollen eyes but I don't move. I should probably go downstairs to get cucumber slices to put over my eyelids, but it doesn't seem important.

I haven't gone downstairs in two days.

I haven't changed out of my pajamas. I haven't showered. I haven't talked to Cassie, or Coach Rydell. I haven't called Auntie Mina or Uncle Randall to say … what? What
would I say?

My mom brings in tomato soup, my favorite creamy kind that comes in a box from the organic section of the grocery store. She's even grated cheddar cheese over the top and brought a small plate with a slice of buttered toast. I only make it halfway through. It doesn't taste like anything to me, and when I swallow my throat is sore. I put the plate on my nightstand and pull the covers up to my chin.

“Sunshine,” my mom says gently. “Please try to eat something before we leave.”

We're leaving in an hour. It's my first funeral.

We're here, and it's awful.

I stare at the dry skin on my knees, at the white specks of lint on my navy blue skirt. In my peripheral vision, everything I see is black—black dresses, black suits, Mom's black crocheted handbag on the floor next to my chair. Dark wood-paneled walls.

All I want to do is go home and crawl back into bed. Mom squeezes my hand and doesn't let go, as if she's afraid I might bolt. Her hand is freezing, and her elaborate silver wedding ring dents my skin.

Of course, it isn't technically her wedding ring, since my parents didn't “technically” have a wedding. Instead, they eloped on the beach during a yoga retreat in Santa Cruz. And since both sets of grandparents are holding grudges about that, now I only “technically” have grandparents. You know; on holidays and birthdays.

And funerals.

“We are here to console one another during this time of grief and to remind ourselves of our love and respect for Shirin Alia Langford.” I jump as the chaplain's voice blares out of the speakers that sit on either end of the dais.

“This young woman was just twenty years old, but she was universally loved by family and friends alike … blah blah blah dee blah.” The chaplain is obviously using a pre-fab introduction, something he downloaded off the Internet or pulled out of a file folder. His reedy voice rises and falls, punctuated by frequent sighs. I can't help but wonder if that's rehearsed, too. It makes me angry. It seems so insincere, so flat and empty and forced.

When Shiri first decided to go back east to Blackwell Cliffs College, it felt like part of me was getting ripped away. I knew she wanted to get as far away from her family as possible, but she was pushing me aside, too.

I was furious. I imagined the East Coast turning all her familiar Southern California habits into something I couldn't recognize, some uptight, work-obsessed go-getter with a New York accent and no more interest in me.

Little did I know how much she really would change. Little did I know that my anger then would be nothing compared to now. When she choked down all that pain medication and drove off into the mountains, did she even think about what would happen to the rest of us? Is she somewhere out there looking down at us, regretting what she did, or worse,
she's not here? My teeth ache, I'm clenching them so hard.

Auntie Mina, tiny and forlorn, goes to the front of the room. She starts talking in a small voice about how much Shiri was their little girl, how proud they were of her, and then she breaks down and I can't make out the words through the crying. Uncle Randall and Randall Jr. go up and lead Auntie Mina back to her seat.

Randall Number Two, as Shiri and I used to call him when we were little, is dressed in a dark three-piece suit, his brown hair slicked down and a somber expression on his face. Uncle Randall's son from his first marriage, his golden boy. The one he always indulges, while Shiri has—
—to excel at everything just to get acknowledged.

When Number Two gets up to speak, he manages to stop being an asshole for five minutes and sound like an actual human being. He even squeezes out a few authentic-looking tears for his poor departed half-sister. But I'm not convinced.

I look at Uncle Randall. He sits there rigidly, his face not showing any emotion at all. Auntie Mina can't or won't stop crying.

I don't feel like I'm about to cry. I'm not even sure what I feel.

I guess I just don't understand—not any of it.

I think about the journal Shiri left me, the one that arrived the day we found out about—everything. The note, scrawled on a half-sheet of paper, that fell out of the journal.
Dear Sunny: I don't expect you to understand any of this yet, but we'll always have yesterday … and today, and tomorrow. Maybe one day you'll figure it out. I never could.

I squeeze my hands into fists in my lap, digging my fingernails into my palms. I don't know why she thought I'd be equipped to figure anything out. She was always the brilliant one. And me—I wanted to be just like her. My whole
, practically, I wanted to be like her; to have all the boyfriends, the tennis awards, the scholarships. By the time I started high school a little over two years ago, I was able to bask in her reflected glory, even though she was a senior while I was only a freshman.

Insipid as it sounds, the chaplain was right—everyone did love Shiri.

I didn't just love her, though. I idolized her.

An imam from the local mosque gets up and says a few words at the request of my Pakistani grandparents, Dadi and Dada. On my right, my dad shifts awkwardly in his seat. He's not religious at all; Auntie Mina isn't either, and Shiri certainly wasn't, so the imam's words seem just as false as the chaplain's address.

“No vanity or dark rumors will they hear,” the imam quotes, describing some heaven that I can hardly imagine exists; “only the call, ‘Peace! Peace!' ”

He rationalizes Shiri's death for my more traditional relatives, reassuring them that she will still make it to Paradise, since she was obviously suffering some mental affliction that made her not responsible for her actions. I glance around. On the other side of Auntie Mina, Dadi is rocking back and forth in her seat, her gauzy shawl wrapped around her head and tears trickling down her wrinkled, nut-brown face. Dada just sits there looking miserable.

After the lanky, skullcapped imam concludes his part of the ceremony with a brief
from the Qur'an, there's a viewing of the deceased so people can go up and pay their respects. My dad puts a hand on my shoulder as we stand, so I know I can't avoid this.

Even though all my shaking legs want to do is run out of here.

The wooden casket lies on the carpeted dais at the front of the room. The top half of it is open. It's surrounded by arrangements of white and yellow flowers, and black plastic stands holding blown-up photographs of Shiri: her senior portrait with the fuzzy filter that makes her look like a movie star; an action shot of her whacking a tennis ball that appeared in the local paper her junior year. In the tennis picture her long brown hair is tied back in a ponytail, flying behind her as she hits the ball; her tiny features are scrunched in a grimace of concentration.

I stop, reach one hand up, and lightly touch the edge of her senior portrait, my other hand knotted into a fist at my side. In that photo, she's the epitome of calm, her makeup perfect and her mouth curved slightly as if she's smiling at someone off camera. But she's got that little line between her eyebrows that she only gets when she's upset. I wonder what made her so unhappy that day.

I wonder what made her so unhappy, period. She seemed embarrassed about taking antidepressants; she only told me reluctantly, after I found the bottle in her purse while rummaging for hand lotion. I can't help feeling like I should have known, should have been able to figure it out somehow. But how could I? How could anyone?

Earlier today, my mom told me something else I hadn't known. Shiri had been put on academic probation after last spring and would be in danger of losing her scholarship if she didn't get a good enough GPA this fall. Even worse, she'd gotten a stress fracture during a tennis match that left her on the bench for the duration of the season.

“None of us knew that was going on,” my mom said this morning, looking at me with red-rimmed eyes across the kitchen table. “She must have been feeling so much pressure. We never want you to feel like you're under that kind of pressure, Sunshine.”

I let out a shaky sigh. There was no chance of that happening. Sure, they're always telling me I have to “live my ideals,” but I don't think the words “parental pressure” are in their vocabulary. Not the way Uncle Randall put pressure on Shiri. They're probably just glad I'm not like they were at my age, ditching school to smoke pot at the nude beach or whatever. They have nothing to worry about. I'm a swim jock, not a hippie. I have popular friends. I fit in at school. I'm happy there. I am
like them.

But they've always supported me. I'm lucky, I guess. We don't have money to throw around like my aunt and uncle do, but we live in a pretty nice neighborhood and I go to Citrus Valley High, which is a college-prep magnet full of the “right” kind of kids, as Uncle Randall would put it. The kind of kids that parents love.

Kids like Shiri.

I reach the front of the room. The sickly sweet smell of the flower arrangements almost overwhelms me, but I step up to the coffin, trying to swallow past the huge knot in my throat. I force my eyes to stay open, force myself to look at her. At her body. This isn't really her, says a little voice in my head. She's still back at school, studying in the library or throwing a frisbee with her hair flying in the breeze. Not lying here, her lips artificially pink and her skin powdery and dull with makeup. Not dead.

—dead. no no no—

I grind my teeth. I don't want to remember the voice. The swim meet. Not now.

My limbs feel jerky, like they aren't attached to me, as I step down from the dais and stand near the end of the front row of seats. My dad is off to one side, talking quietly with Grandma and Grandpa Pryce, Mom's parents. Cassie's older sister Tessa is on a bench about halfway back, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She used to be one of Shiri's best friends in high school. It was because of Shiri and Tessa that I met Cassie, the summer before freshman year. Shiri brought me along to a swim party at Tessa's house, and there was Cassie, who loved swimming as much as I did and invited me to go shopping with her for first-day-of-school clothes.

I search for Cassie. She's in the very back, next to Spike, who's looking uncomfortable, and Marc, who's texting somebody. She's frowning at her mother, shaking her head, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. Some people might think she's being cold not coming up to me, but I know Cassie—she's not hard-hearted. She always remembers things like my birthday, like my
birthday. She's detail-oriented like that. But she's never been a touchy-feely person. She's not good with tragedy.

Who is, though?

Still, I have the urge to run over there. Rip the phone out of Marc's hand, put my head on Cassie's shoulder. Listen to Spike make a dumb joke. But I can't.

I move away, cross the burgundy-carpeted funeral parlor to the ladies' room in the back. There's a small cushioned bench in there, plush like the carpet, and I sit. I stare at the beige-painted wall but I can't bring myself to cry. I feel abnormal and disloyal, but I can't help it. I shake my head, almost violently. That's not her out there.

And she didn't commit suicide.
. It's something that happens on TV. Not in real life. Not to

I can't grasp it. I may not be a religious person. I may not know what I believe. But I can't believe she's gone.

BOOK: Underneath
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