The alarm buzzed at 4 am, and Megan bolted upright and slapped it silent. Jesus, that was loud, she thought, and for a few breathless moments she stayed right where she was, pricking up her ears to detect any noise from her parents. Satisfied there was none, she slipped out of bed.
Despite the early hour-- the windows showed it was still pitch-black out-- she was wide awake, humming with nervous energy, the same feeling she had after she had discovered the thrill of dipping her fingers into the tap water. Urgently she stuffed her feet into her sneakers and grabbed her hooded sweatshirt; at this hour, she was unlikely to encounter anyone else, so she didn't bother with changing out of her pajama pants and t-shirt.
She slipped the letter to Maria into her sweatshirt pocket and padded quietly down the hall. She stopped for a moment at the secretary cabinet, where she rooted through old receipts and old bills until she found the little strip of postage stamps. She carefully peeled one loose and fixed it to the envelope, then made her way to the front door.
She stepped out onto the porch; it felt good to breathe in fresh air, and she wondered if she shouldn't start rising earlier. She walked down to the sidewalk; there was her mailbox, but she passed by it without stopping. It wouldn't do to mail it from her own house.
She turned left and began scouting her neighbor's mailboxes. The Tran box's flag was down. The McLaren box's flag was up, but there was a light on upstairs. The Willams box (did they still live here anymore?) was missing its flag and the door lay limply open. The Amiri box was intact, but old and metal and Megan feared its door would squeak. Finally, she spotted the new mailbox that the Parks had just installed: perfect. The flag was up and their house was dark. She darted to the curb, slipped her letter inside, and practically leaped back onto the sidewalk.
She was heading back home when she spotted a man standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, several houses away. What was he doing there? Then she noticed a bus stop sign above his head. Since when was there a bus stop there? And who's catching a bus at this hour, anyway?
She walked back up to her house and turned the doorknob, but it hit a catch almost immediately and didn't turn. Locked, thought Megan. Oh shit.
She jiggled the handle, even though she knew it was useless, and glanced back at the man at the bus stop. Did he see her?
She groaned quietly, worked up a quick story, and rang the doorbell.
It took several rings, but finally her bleary-eyed father opened the door. "Good Lord, Megan, what are you doing out there?"
"Thought I'd take a walk."
"This early?" He squinted at her clothes. "And in your pajamas?"
"Couldn't sleep." She squeezed past him into the house. "Felt good to get some air, actually."
"Well, next time, take a key."
I don't have one, she thought. "Sorry to wake you, Dad."
"Yeah, I'm sorry too." He glanced at the hall clock and sighed. "I have to be up soon anyway. No point in going back to bed." He headed for the kitchen and began pawing through the cabinets for the coffee.
Megan followed him and sat down at the table. "Can you believe that somebody's waiting for the bus right now?"
"I can," he answered. "A lot of the military guys have to be at the Pentagon first thing and it takes a while to get there from out here."
"I can't imagine having to do that."
"You might someday," he smiled, wondering if that was even possible for her.
Then Megan waited. She figured it would take her letter three or four days to reach Tarpon Beach, then another day or two for Maria to write a reply, and then three or four days to receive it, so it wouldn't be until next week at the earliest. In the meantime, she occupied her mind with her reading, her occasional school lessons from her mother (who, despite her best efforts to put on a content face, was clearly agitated about something) and her new secret hobby.
To be absolutely certain of privacy, she refrained until her mother slipped out to run an errand or until after both parents had gone to sleep. Then she would creep into the bathroom, lock the door, and run the tap.
She experimented. She dipped her toes into the shower and marveled at the black dots that splattered her calves wherever the water flecks had landed. She collected droplets on her fingertips and drew lines on her face, fighting to suppress guffaws at the silly masks she created. She rolled up her sleeves and leaned her arms under the water; she did the same with her legs. She was very careful not to do too much at once, but she found herself getting bolder and bolder as time went on.
After all, it didn't hurt. Well, it did at first-- that burning sensation that made her eyes well with a spurt of tears and made her bite her lip never seemed to get any easier. But once that initial shock subsided, it felt pretty good. It was soothing and refreshing and for the first time in her life, she felt clean.
But then one morning--her mother was out at the dentist-- she went a little too far. She was making handprints on her neck and upper chest, creating some kind of abstract pattern, when suddenly her breath caught. She inhaled deeply, but only a trickle of air came through. She tried again, but it was even less, and as she gasped and panted, flashes of light burst in her eyes. Her limbs started to tremble and she grabbed onto the counter to steady herself, slowly sinking to her knees. She felt nauseated and sensed that she was slipping out of consciousness. Her ears felt like they were plugged with cotton; her chest felt like it was sandbagged. Her failing eyes fell on a towel.
Dry off, she fought to command herself. Now.
She reached out her shaking hand for the towel, managed to fumble it off the hook, and weakly tried to blot at her neck. In the blur she saw her arms were almost completely greenish-black.
Her efforts weren't accurate, but as she wiped away the water, she began to recover and gradually regained control. Her breathing stabilized and she drew in greedy lungfuls of air. The spasms in her limbs relaxed, but she still trembled. For the first time in her life, she understood what her parents were afraid of, and it frightened her too.
Haunted, she stayed away from the tap after that, but only for a little while. As days and days passed with no reply from Maria, her anxiety gradually beckoned her to return, and she found herself awake at 2 am, dipping her fingers into the soothing water.