Exclusive Excerpt from Open Water
by Sophia Soames
I know it will happen. I mean it is almost inevitable that going back to Drama class will trigger all kinds of things in my head. It is never going to be easy, no matter how many pep-talks I keep giving myself.
I am me. I need to fucking own it.
Which is easier said than done when you are a mess of nerves trying to get one foot to step in front of the other. When all you want to do is turn around and run the other way as fast as you possibly can.
I am not going to run. I am going to go to Drama. Because.
Okay, I am only going back to Drama because Matteo asked. Because he will be there. Which is also freaking me out and thus, I am back to square one. Going back to Drama. Where it all went to fucking shit, because I was high on endorphins, adrenaline and whatever and wrote some overconfident shit that I shouldn’t have. I told everyone. I told them I was messed up. I told them I was desperately in love. I told them I loved the boy with the smile. It wouldn’t take much to put two and two together.
They all know. They have told their friends. So, everyone knows. Fact.
I mean, Lukas knows. Just look at the looks he gave me, like we are some kind of friends with a secret gay handshake. Fuck that. I have zero interest in other gay people. Zero. Apart from Matteo, who is probably so straight that he could just look at a bird and get her all radiant and pregnant.
Well, that’s what I used to think about Dad, so obviously I have zero gaydar. Which means I will be single all my life, because I will never take a hint if someone flirts with me, and I will never in a million years dare to flirt with anyone. I mean, I had Matteo right in front of me. I had his undivided attention. And all I could do was kind of drool and mutter infantile mumbo-jumbo.
Which brings me back to how I have ended up lying on the floor, under this staircase here, trying not to die. Because I think it was the smell that tipped me over the edge. The dusty musty smell of the Drama department on the top floor of Östra Real’s Senior School. Big showy attic classrooms with rails and rails of old clothes and props. Beanbags instead of desks and chairs, and clipboards all over the floor for when the inspiration hits.
It was all apparently Simon’s vision when he took over as the head of Drama, to create space in the attic classrooms where creativity could flow, and learning would be relaxed and inspirational.
It didn’t make me feel inspired today, instead it made me feel nauseous the minute I hit the top step of the staircase and saw the open door to the classroom. People milling through the opening and that smell. The damp dirty dust.
I knew it was coming and I couldn’t even think clearly where to run. The waves were suddenly everywhere, pushing and tugging at me and I kind of half fell down the stairs with my heart beating out of my chest and I was struggling to breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I was already under water, making those out-of-body sounds that I dread.
I probably sound like a freak, like I am dying. Because that’s what I feel like. I am underwater and fighting the fucking waves that just keep coming at me like some fucked-up gang of thugs on a mission to destroy me.
I have no idea how long I was out. I tend to pass out. Faint with fear. Yeah, I’m a real big man – me, scaring myself shitless until I make myself faint. And even when I pass out, I can still come back to consciousness, still treading water and screaming my lungs out.
But I’m not screaming today. I am just lying curled up in the foetal position with my arms tight around something, and it takes me a while to figure out what it is.
It’s a body. It’s kind of moving in my face, rising and falling against me. Which is odd. But in a way nice. There are also fingers combing through my hair. Soft little strokes in random patterns, as it seems that I am crazy-breathing into someone’s stomach. And t-shirt. The cotton fabric in front of me is damp with sweat and snot and my tears and my breath. And I am hiccupping. Still hyperventilating. I need to calm down before I pass out again. I should breathe into a paper bag. I always have one in my bag. It’s just I can’t make myself move.
Because in the middle of the fucked-up state I am in, I feel safe. Someone cares enough to not only notice, but also stay with me. Which doesn’t happen unless someone calls the school nurse who is nice enough, but totally clueless to what I need when I lose myself like this.
Not like whoever this is who is letting me squeeze the shit out of him as my arms automatically tighten around his waist. I am holding onto him like he is my lifebuoy out at sea, and then he speaks.
Which sets me off into a panic-ridden tailspin.
Because, of course, I am lying on Matteo’s lap, with my arms around his waist and he is stroking my head and asking me how I am feeling.
“Like shit,” I croak out into his stomach.
“You haven’t been down long. Just lie here until you feel better. There is no rush.”
Stroke, Stroke, Stroke. Tangle. Fingers against my scalp. And another stroke. Then, his hand is on my back, calmly rubbing the length of my spine.
“Simon knows we’re here and says we should just come up when you are ready. We can sit here the whole lesson if you need it. “
I don’t know what to say. I just curl further into him. Push my knees up so they are flush against his backside.
He smells of soap. Of some laundry detergent I don’t recognise. I should ask what he uses so I can buy it and keep it in jars all over the house to make everything smell of Matteo.
Not that I will ever speak to him again. Not after the spectacle I must have made of myself to end up like this. Clinging to him like a baby.
“Can I borrow your phone?” he asks. I try to nod into his stomach as he leans over and fishes my iPhone out of my back pocket. He then grabs my arm and forces my hand around, so he can use my thumb to unlock it.
I pant desperately into his guts and let my arm recoil back around his waist with a groan.
“I’m going to put my number in your contacts. And send myself a text so I have yours. Is that okay?”
“Why?” I squeal weakly. I still haven’t got my head together. I still have my guard down.
“Because nobody should go through what you go through alone,” he says softly, his stomach is moving up and down against me as he talks. A familiar ping goes off on his phone that must be buried somewhere in his jacket. It’s close. Vibrating against his body. “I’ve added you on Insta, and why are you called Tom on Facebook?”
“M’Dad.” I breathe out through my mouth. Hard. Breathe back in. Focus Max. Focus.
“Don’t,” he whispers. “Don’t try so hard. Just lie here and snuggle until you can breathe better.” The fingers are back in my hair. Stroking softly. “Do you want to tell me why you snoop on your Dad’s Facebook?” I can hear it in his voice, that he is smiling. Taking the piss. Whilst I am slowly dying again.
“Not snooping. Dad doesn’t do social media, but we started an account for him for some reason and I still have it. I haven’t got Facebook.” I am almost totally out of breath after squirming out all those words in one go. So now I am back to panting as my chest aches with the over-exhaustion.
“Seriously, Pumpkin.” He is still smiling.
“Pumpkin?” I squeal. He is ridiculous. Even more ridiculous than me.
“I always wanted to call someone Pumpkin. Tilda wouldn’t let me. She doesn’t believe in terms of endearment. Says they strip people of dignity. Anyway, you are a little pumpkin so I’m calling you that.”
“Tilda?” Shit. Here we go. Girlfriend. Go on. Crush my heart. Just stomp on it.
“Yeah? Redhead chick I always hang out with. She’s my best friend in the whole world. We have known each other since we went to German toddler group as kids, and then we played naked in each other’s paddling pools. I have pictures. They are really useful when I need to get Tilda to do me favours.” He giggles softly, and I don’t know what to say. So, not a girlfriend. Well, there is probably more. Next minute, he will start talking about the love of his life who is the prettiest girl in the world or some crap.
“Anyway, Pumpkin,” he continues and he’s stroking again. His flat palm rubbing circles over my shoulder. “When these things happen, just call me. Or text me. Just a word of where you are, and I will come find you, because these panic-thingies you get are scary as hell when you are just watching from the sidelines. I saw you have one a while back and the damn school nurse wouldn’t let me near you. She said just to let you get on with it. You looked so frightened. It wasn’t right. It was almost cruel. I got to you first this time and you calmed down much quicker when I was holding on to you. You shouldn’t be on your own like this. Just promise you will call me? Or text, or just shout for me and someone will go get me.”
He sounds almost distraught. Like I have scarred him for life with my fucked-up panic attacks.
“I can’t control it. They just come on so quickly and I lose all sense of reality. I just get so fucking scared.” Here we go. Here come the tears of relief. Another of my party tricks.
He tugs me closer as I bury my face back in the warmth of him. He smells so bloody nice. His stomach is my new happy place. I could die right now, and I would be happy. Put it on my freaking tombstone. Here lies Max Andersson. Died happy, face down in a stomach of bliss smelling of Summer Breeze detergent. Available in all reputable supermarkets and detergent retailers.
“Which is why you shouldn’t be alone. You are so bloody pig-headed not letting anyone be your friend. People try all the time, inviting you to stuff, and trying to talk to you, and you just flip them off like they annoy you. Don’t flip me off, Pumpkin. Trust me. I am like a leech when I put my mind to it. Just ask Tilda. I sleep in her bed just so she won’t get herself a boyfriend. Because I am always there. Snuggling up to her and annoying the shit out of her. She doesn’t really mind me being there, though, and to be honest, she has probably shagged that Henke in Year 3 already and just not told me. Fucking girls and their fucking drama and secrets.”
He’s funny and I am kind of half laughing under my tears and sobs. Hiccups and spasms travelling through my body as he strokes my arms.
“Thank you,” I snivel out. I mean it. I am so fucking grateful that he is still here.
“Anytime, Pumpkin. Please promise you will call me. If you don’t I’ll find out, and then I’ll have to follow you around like some creep just in case. And everyone will talk about me being totally out of order stalking you and it will be this big gossip drama shit and everyone will think I have a massive crush on you.”
I don’t dare to look up. I just snort.
This is the time when I should say something smart. Like raise an eyebrow at him and ask innocently “Have you? Have you got a crush on me?” with a seductive smile. Blow him a kiss. Act totally inappropriate and smarmy and make him run away faster than light.
I don’t. Of course. Instead, I hug him like a crazy person. I am a crazy person.
“Let’s get you to sit up, Pumpkin,” he says.
I don’t look him in the eye. I can’t. It’s too raw. Too much. I am messy. I am me. I can’t. I just can’t.
He drags me out of our under-the-stairs hiding place. I don’t even remember crawling in there, but I must have. I am cold. Shivering, even though I am still wearing my jacket. Shrugging as Matteo dusts off my back and turns me around so we are facing each other.
He’s as tall as me. I have never noticed that. His eyes looking at mine with that beaming smile. Whilst my face probably looks like it has been in a serious altercation with a snot machine, all bloated and blotchy from tears.
“You’re okay. Max 1. Panic 0. Now, let’s go and listen to the losers upstairs trying to write epic theatre. Then we can secretly laugh at their pathetic romance shite, and go tell them how it’s done. Shall we get in there and fix it? Give them some proper drama? Whaddya say, Pumpkin?”
He flicks his fringe out of his eyes with a jerk of his head. Beams at me with a mischievous arch of his eyebrow.
Fuck. I am done for. I will never survive this. This crazy idea of having Matteo for a friend. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if my fragile heart can take it.
I don’t know shit. I just follow him blindly up the stairs and walk into the classroom behind him, letting the door slam shut behind us. Continue reading