Fingertips stretch into the blue and shove handfuls of water aside.
Mae swims alone slowly, inspecting deep sea wonders: periwinkle coral adorned with delicate moss and schools of neon-striped fish and a crab scurrying along the ocean floor. She shoves water away, kicks lightly in an effortless swim—until waves break her solitude. It's Ethan, swimming next to her now, dressed head to toe in scuba gear, sending well-funded air bubbles into the water. As she turns to look at him, she realizes how ill-equipped she is, in bare feet and bare legs, lungs and mouth stuffed with stale air. Must take a breath. She zips her lips and the air expands, up her nose, down her throat. Cheeks ache. Must let it out. Must breathe. But she'll never make it to the surface in time. Ethan glides on ahead, leaving a trail of bubbles behind, unconcerned. She can't stand it any longer. Mae opens her mouth. Water rushes in. She wakes up.
Emerging from her bedroom with a blanket around her shoulders, Mae finds her mother in the kitchen. Courtney scrubs a pan ferociously, projecting a lifetime of resentment onto stainless steel. Outside is dark. The clock reads 7:38. “Is it morning or nighttime?”
“Are you sick? It's after seven in the evening.”
“Why aren't you at work?”
“You know Tuesday's my night off. Tuesday and Wednesday.”
So it's still Tuesday, though Mae's been asleep for what feels like days. Despite her underwater encounter slipping away by the second – was Ethan there? – the conversation with Lucy remains clear. “Here's the thing.” And out it all comes: the meetings with Lucy, a description of the binder, just a feeling that there's more under the surface. Courtney has abandoned the dishes and remains frozen by the sink. Hot water still pours from the faucet.
“I need you to be honest with me,” says Mae.
“It's all true,” her mother replies.
There are pictures—only a few, in a wallet at the bottom of Courtney's sock drawer. “I haven't looked at these in years. I don't know why I haven't thrown them out. Maybe I knew this day would come.” She lays them across her bed, crawls next to the row, pats her bedspread for Mae to join her. “This is me. I was nineteen, and James and I had just started seeing each other.” A young Courtney poses with a grinning boy on a roof, his arm around her waist, all of Chicago stretching behind them. “He was just an intern then, and I was tending bar at this pub beneath his office, so he started coming in a few nights a week for a drink and a chat, and then he started coming in every night.” A printout from a photo booth: Courtney and James smiling; Courtney and James kissing; Courtney and James with their tongues out. They look happy and carefree and, above all else, young. Unlined faces beneath thick hair. Straight backs and bright smiles. “We were dating for about four months when I found out I was pregnant, and when I first told him about you, I swear he was excited. Here he is at the bar.” James smiles sheepishly from behind a massive beer glass, familiar eyebrows raised. “At first, I thought he would propose any day. He would always talk about how cute you'd be. I remember—and this is embarrassing now—but I remember making sure my nails were always done, just in case.” At a party, Courtney smokes a cigarette in an oversized sweater. James holds a glass up to the camera, as if giving a toast. Her hair long and unnaturally blond, his dark and curly. “But then he stopped coming in for drinks. He said his internship and his family were stressing him out. He stopped picking up his phone at home, so one day I waited outside the mayor's office for him to come out. I remember it was cold and I was standing on the steps for over an hour, but eventually he came out, and when he saw me he lost it and told me to leave or I'd 'ruin his chances at a political career.' Exact words.” The last photo looks to have been taken by Courtney—an image shot from above of the two of them, rumpled and exhausted, lying in bed. “Well as you might expect, I lost it right back. I told him I wasn't going nowhere, and he told me I'd have to speak to his lawyer. So we settled. That part was pretty straightforward – a set amount for us, every month til you turned eighteen, as long as I kept quiet. But I was young and naive, you know. I could have gotten more.”
Mae's eyes rest on each picture, back and forth, in an infinite filmstrip. A brief documentation of her conception. It's a lot to take in, and she thinks she should feel more. Beyond the absence of emotion, she's not even sure what the proper response should be. Anger? Sadness? Relief? The man in the pictures is and always will be a stranger who starred in a predictable narrative. “I'm glad I know.”
In gathering up the pile and slipping it back into her wallet, Courtney looks the oldest she ever has. Just like that her love affair is tucked away again, back in the sock drawer. “Oh, while we're in here.” Courtney pulls out Mae's cell phone. “You can have it back. I tried to protect you, but obviously that's not what you need.”
“You mean it's been here this whole time?” Mae cups her hand around the slip of plastic and a jolt of energy shoots up her arm, through her shoulder, down her spine, returning her energy, buoying her up and out of the room.