Read Learning Not to Drown Online

Authors: Anna Shinoda

Learning Not to Drown

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If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.

—George Bernard Shaw


I was only able to come so far in writing Clare's story on my own. There are many people to thank for their support and insight.

I'll start with my best friend and husband, Mike, who not only provides me with encouragement and support but who is also an excellent brainstorming partner and critique buddy.

Caitlyn Dlouhy, who believed not only in my book but also in my ability to improve it, and gave me the essential feedback I needed in order to make it better than I thought possible.

Amazing agent Jennie Dunham, who found the perfect house and the perfect editor.

Kim Turrisi, Lin Oliver, and everyone over at SCBWI.

Jean O'Neill and Vanessa Lasdon. Encouragement. Support. Advice. A quiet place to write. Best critique group ever. I can't thank you enough.

Keith Hunter. Irreplaceable. I miss you.

All my friends and family who have shown me support or helped me with details or shared their own stories with me, especially: Otis, Abba and Jojo, Tracy Nathan, Tony Cupstid, Mark Wakefield, Lisa Ling and Paul Song, Pam and Chris Zam, Jordan Berliant, Michael Green, Ryan Demarti, Jonathan Schwartz, Karen Ellison, Danny Hayes, Laura Elliot, Laura Villandre,
Kymm Britton, Paul Crichton, Katy Hershberger, Dee Anderson, Bobby Kim, George Hundleby, Bruce Thompson, Jim Digby, Dave and Linsey, Brad and Elisa, Chester and Talinda, Joe and Heidi, Rob and Erika, Miriam, Megan, Laurel, Blanca, Donna, Muto, Jason, my parents, Jeff, Bill, Tammy, Zita, George, and the rest of my family.

Mrs. Smith, for teaching me everything I need to know about knitting and a whole lot more about compassion and unconditional love. You were the best honorary grandmother.

My two favorite creative writing teachers: Mike Buctha, who encouraged all things writing when I was in middle school and high school, and Joann Rocklin, who taught the class that inspired me to return to doing the thing I love most.

Sue and Carolyn, who helped me hold hands with my own skeletons.

Edwin Ushiro, for the swimmer he painted inspired by Clare. And the talented Kelia Anne MacClusky for allowing us to use her photo for the cover.

Also thanks to all the people over at Atheneum who helped turn my manuscript into an actual book.

And to you. Thank you for reading. You're awesome, and I'm glad to have been able to share this with you.

THEN: Age Eleven

he front door window was broken.

I could see the clear, jagged edges that held to the frame.

Slowly I got off my bike. Rolled it to the tree next to the house, my hands turning white from gripping the handlebars. I leaned my bike against the trunk, my eyes still on the window.

I moved closer, then closer. My shoes crushed the glass on the ground into smaller pieces. Inspecting the shards that clung to the frame, I paused only for a few seconds before I turned the doorknob and walked inside.

The drops on the linoleum floor were round. In sixth-grade art class I had tried, again and again, to draw a perfect circle. I couldn't do it without the compass attached to my pencil, stabbing the paper in the center. My freehand circles were always wavy, lopsided. I didn't think it was possible to make a perfect circle without the compass. But here, right in front of me, were perfectly round, bright red droplets. Mom always said that we had thin blood. That's how I knew it was one of us.

I could have gone back outside. Waited at a neighbor's until I was sure Dad was home from work. He was used to blood. He was used to corpses.

But I didn't. I don't know why, but I followed the droplets.

They were a much better trail than breadcrumbs. The blood would stain the floor, stain the carpet. It wouldn't be picked by birds. We'd always be able to follow it.

The sharp sounds of an argument and a nasty smell—body odor and alcohol, and another that I couldn't recognize—stopped me for a moment. Maybe I should have left then.

Curiosity gave me bravery. I turned the corner.

Chapter 1:
Family Skeleton

Skeletons don't like to stay in closets.

Most families try to lock them tightly away, buried beneath smiles and posed family pictures. But our Family Skeleton follows me closely with his long, graceful stride.

I guess people in my town think they have a pretty clear picture of Skeleton. Their whispers have haunted me most of the seventeen years of my life, stalking me almost as closely as he does: prison, prison, prison. Shame, shame, shame.

They don't see him like I do. His eye sockets expand and shrink. His cartoon jaw morphs from smiles to frowns, from serious to surprise. He's at least six feet tall, and when his bones stretch, he can dunk a basketball without his big toe coming off the ground. He's quite talented.

When he wants to relax, he lounges in a silk smoking jacket with a Cuban cigar and drinks brandy from a warm snifter. He might have a drinking problem, but I don't want to be presumptuous.

I think Mom, Dad, Peter, and Luke see Skeleton
clearly. After all, they are my family. Although I can't be sure, since Mom and Dad rarely talk about him, and Peter leaves the room whenever he appears.

Skeleton is the constant reminder of the crimes committed by my brother Luke. I'm used to Skeleton's taunts, his lanky fingers pointing, the click of his bones when he cartwheels across the room. I'm used to him reminding me he will always be a part of my life story. He will always be there to warn that every action has a reaction, every crime has a consequence.

And the more he hangs around, the more my reputation decays.

Skeleton didn't always exist—our family photo album shows me what reality was like before he started to appear. But I was too young then to own that memory now, a pre-Skeleton memory.
memories are like spinning pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that never make a complete picture.

And I can't help but think, maybe, if Skeleton would go away, we could have perfect again.

Chapter 2:
What Perfect Looked Like
THEN: Ages Two and Four

Our family photo album always sat in the living room on the lower shelf of the square dark wood coffee table, available for anyone to look at anytime. When I did, I always turned to the same page—the pictures giving me the memory I didn't have, the memory of what perfect felt like.

In the photos I am two years old, and my little-girl curls peek from under the brim of a pink sun hat. Warm sand is under my legs. Mom sits next to me in a navy-blue bathing suit and bug-eyed sunglasses, with a bright yellow shovel and bucket between us. I look out toward the water with a fascinated stare at Dad; Luke, age fourteen; and Peter, age six—all swimming—my hands together in a clap. Under the picture, my mother wrote in swirling handwriting:
Clare couldn't wait to get into the water with her brothers!

The next picture was an action shot of Dad holding me in the lake, both hands splashing, water drops suspended in air, my eyes shut and mouth open in surprised bliss. Luke is mid-laugh with an arm around Peter as Luke's hand shields them both from the splash.

There was a photo of Luke and Peter, kneeling next to a large sand castle—
The Masterpiece!
—Peter filling the moat with water from the yellow bucket. Squatting next to Luke, I pull his arm with one hand while pointing at the rising water with the other.

The last was a group shot of Mom and Dad kneeling behind us, me squinting and smiling between my brothers. With the lake as the background, the descending sun on our faces left our shadows long in the sand. Mom wrote:
None of us wanted the day to end!

That family, together and happy, not wanting the day to end, is one I know only from those pictures.

Two years later Luke went away.

My first
memory was of a nightmare. A nightmare in full color. The air an icy blue.

There was the house—just like ours, even with our yellow-flower cups. It was so quiet, the refrigerator didn't even growl. I walked through the halls, feeling the carpet squish between my toes as I called for my parents, for Peter and Luke.

The sound was pulled into the walls.

I looked up, up at Mom's pictures. My bare toe hit something solid and cold. Peter. Frozen. Frozen with his eyelids open, the eyeballs missing.

Ran through the house. Found Mom, then Dad. All frozen. All missing eyes. When I put my hand to my face, my skin was hard and cold. My fingers found the holes where my eyes had once been. I stopped moving, my feet ice-cubed in the carpet. Where was Luke? I waited for him to come save us.

He never did.

Grandma Tovin was staying with us when I had that nightmare. I barely have any other memories of her, since she died when I was five. That night she woke me up and held me. My hands clutched the side of her nightgown and wouldn't let go. Grandma pulled her favorite rosary out of her pocket—the one with dark red beads—and told me that when she had a bad dream, she liked to pray. So together we said Hail Marys, my fingers rubbing each bead. When we were done, I was still so scared, she let me sleep on the hide-a-bed in the living room with her for the rest of the night. But I didn't want Grandma—or Mom or Dad or Peter. I wanted Luke, and Luke was gone.

The next morning Grandma told Dad that I must have somehow watched one of his garbage scary movies. And that sweets before bed cause nightmares. When Skeleton heard this, he bent in laughter, holding his ribs so they wouldn't shake off. Then, done laughing, he pointed proudly at himself. Grandma ignored Skeleton, hung her favorite rosary in my room. She told me that if I had another nightmare and she wasn't there, I could hold it and pray and it would protect me. But it didn't work. The nightmares kept coming. And Luke was never there to save me.

Chapter 3:

“When you mince the garlic, make sure it's really tiny,” my mother says as she hands me a cutting board.

I pull a knife from the top drawer. “What's for dinner?”

“Chicken and rice with broccoli. After you're done with the garlic, chop half an onion.”

“Sounds good.” I study Mom for a second. She's concentrating on the rice, slowly stirring it in the pan to coat each kernel evenly with olive oil. Her brow is smooth. Shoulders back and relaxed. It's a good time to ask.

“I saw Drea's mom today at school. She told me more about their trip this summer—the one where they're touring colleges.” I start slowly, peeling the dry skin off the garlic clove. “Two weeks, six campuses. All in California and Oregon. They invited me along.”

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