Everything seemed blue in this other world, and peaceful. The water made time seem slower, and the sound of her breath on the oxygen tank, although it reminded her a little of Darth Vader, was relaxing and comforting, like being reminded that she was alive.
The fish clustered around them - the smaller ones, anyway - interested in what they were at first, giving little love nibbles on the wet suits and their finger tips. Amanda saw some that reminded her of Marlin and Dory and started humming just keep swimming, just keep swimming in her head as she followed Jess, Brian and Nick downward, deeper into the tank.
The tank was built to look like a natural ocean habitat, with plastic coral and real coral that had been rehabilitated and grown there mixed in. Little creatures were everywhere, with funny bodies that glided and swam along. Amanda was in amazement every time she looked a different direction. Giant yellow fish passed within inches of her face, blowing bubbles into the water. A crab scuttled by below her on one of the rocks, clicking his claws at her. She felt like a mermaid with the flippers.
Brian pointed at a big fish with a funny shaped head, that looked sort of like a character on Fraggle Rock. Brian's eyes crinkled in his goggles and bubbles escaped around the mouth piece of his oxygen tank as he laughed.
At one point Nick swam up beside Amanda and wrapped his arms around her, grinning. He took her hand and pulled her around a large rock, where there was a huge grey shark. His gills flexed as he breathed in the water, his yellow eyes darting around at all the littler fish around him. Nick pointed at the shark and grinned. Amanda felt a little afraid the thing was about to snap Nick's arm off, but Nick seemed okay with it even if it did, he was too enthusiastic that the shark was there. Luckily, the shark didn't seem interested in snacking on Nick.
Amanda's favorite moment, by far, was when they were down at the bottom near the sand that lined the tank, and a tiny purple sea dragon came out from a cave in the rocks, dancing through the water, a yellow fin on his back quivering as he moved. She reached out a hand and the little sea dragon spun around it enthusiastically like something out of The Little Mermaid.
They explored all over the inside of the tank, touching the fish and waving at people watching from outside in the viewing areas. Jess picked up a sea urchin and laid it gently in Brian's hands. It felt prickly, like he imagined a porcupine would feel, and he decided that from now on he'd called sea urchins 'sea porcupines' instead. Not that he'd referred to sea urchins often, but if he ever got the chance to again, he was going to call it a sea porcupine.
Nick and Amanda were floating somewhere in the middle of the tank when a school of brightly colored fish swam around them. It was like being in a storm of confetti, and Amanda's eyes glimmered with excitement watching them all swim around her. Nick tapped her to get her attention, and pointed at his goggles winking one of his eyes, his heart, and then at her. She smiled and repeated the motion, ending it by holding up two fingers. He laughed, sending bubbles around the mouth piece he clutched in his mouth.
In the Hummer, on the way to the hotel Nick had booked for them, they were all chattering excitedly about the things they'd seen at the aquarium. It had been a beautiful day, and Amanda was sad to see it over. With a pumping sensation, nostalgia flushed over her as she realized that this had been the last stop before Brian's house in Marietta. The trip was almost over.
The hotel was a lot nicer than the one in Omaha. It had two rooms, a kitchen, and a big jacuzzi on an elevated platform by a huge picture glass window, overlooking the lights of the city below. Even though they'd spent the whole day in the water at the aquarium, the first thing they did was order champagne with strawberries from the room service, and turn the jacuzzi on.
The hot water felt so good on Amanda's back, which kind of ached from all the swimming and walking they'd done all day. A jet was pressing right into her spine and she closed her eyes, sure she was in heaven. "Oh fuck yeah," whispered Nick as he lowered himself into the heat, too. Brian was sitting on the side, his legs hanging into the water, kicking lightly, letting the jet streams catch his feet. He was munching on a strawberry.
"This is amazing," said Amanda, "This whole day's been amazing, actually." She looked at Nick, "I have to hand it to you, the fish were great."
"I liked the penguins," Brian said, "And the seals. Baylee's going to love it when I tell him that beach ball painting was done by a seal!" He smiled sadly, "Nick, someday you should bring Baylee here for me, okay?"
"Okay," Nick agreed, smiling, "It'll be fun."
They sat in silence as the implication of Brian's request sunk in a little bit, the unspoken purpose being that Brian wouldn't be there to take him to the aquarium himself. Nick ducked under the water, letting a jet run into the back of his neck, hoping to relieve some of the sudden stress that had built up there.
Brian looked at Amanda, "You need to tell him," he said quietly, "Tonight."
Nick popped back up and shook his head out, the water going every which way. Amanda hadn't eve had time to respond to Brian. Her heart started pumping up in her throat somewhere. Even though they were under water, she could feel her hands go clammy.
Brian stood up, shaking his legs off, and pulling a towel off a small rack beside him. He rubbed them down. "I'm going to go to bed, I think," he said, "We're driving to Marietta tomorrow and... I want to be awake and refreshed to see my wife and son."
Amanda's stomach turned to knots. He wanted her to tell Nick right now. She could tell the way he looked at her as he dried off, expectantly. She nodded.
Brian tossed the towel down in a corner, "See ya'll in the morning," he said, and padded off across the hotel room to one of the two doors to the bedrooms.
"Night Brian," Amanda and Nick chorused. He disappeared inside.
Nick held his breath and went under the water again. Amanda was panicking. How could she even word it? In all the times that she'd started to tell him, the actual sounds of the words had never crossed her mind. Nick, I'm a journalist. I work for Pop Stuff Online.... Nick, I'm sorry, I've lied to you.... Nick, I love you, but you need to know that I'm secretly a member of the paparazzi that you hate so much.... "Pa-pa, pa-pa, paparazzi". Somehow, Lady Gaga was definitely not the way to go.
Nick came back up, smiling at Amanda. "Are you having fun so far on the trip?" he asked.
She nodded, "Yes, I love it."
Nick beamed. "Aren't you glad you came?"
"Yes," she answered. Tell him! Tell him! her heart screamed.
Nick inched closer to her, kissing her neck softly. The tension in her body surged through her like electricity. He nuzzled her, his nose tickling her temple. "You're so tense, baby, why?" he asked.
"Nick, I need to tell you something," Amanda's voice was choked.
He pulled back from her neck, his eyes curious and a little frightened. "What's the matter?" he asked. He was kneeling on the seat in the jacuzzi beside her.
Amanda took a deep breath. "I'm a writer," she said quietly, trying to decide how to word the confession.
"I know," Nick said, nodding.
The sentence surprised her, "What?" she asked.
Nick smiled, "I know you're a writer. I've seen what you write."
Amanda blinked in surprise. "You- all this time you-" she stammered, "You've known?"
Nick laughed, "Well you told me the first time we met that you were a writer, remember? But I don't think your poems are crappy... You said they were crappy the first time we talked..." he paused, "I think your poems are really nice."
"My... my poems?" Amanda asked, confused.
"Yeah," Nick blushed, "The other night in Kentucky, I kinda-sorta stole one you'd been working on out of your notebook, but it's really good, I love it. Really. You're a good writer."
Amanda's mind raced, trying to wrap around what he was saying. He meant her silly poems, he had no idea she meant that she was a reporter. He was thinking of poems about freckles - which she'd wondered where that page went, by the way - not about Pop Stuff Online.
"Nick," she tried to start again, but he only smiled and interrupted her.
"You should submit your stuff to publishers. Maybe ones your dad doesn't own, maybe having the same last name as him will make them take your entries more seriously, you know?"
"Nick, that wasn't exactly what I meant by writing," she said, but he was off on a tangent now.
"You could, like, produce your own anthology of poems, you know? And people all over the world could read'em. You're so talented, baby. Then you wouldn't have to work for your dad anymore, doing all his crap grunt work, picking up shit for publishers and stuff," he rolled his eyes, "So ridiculous. You're a great writer."
Tears sprang into Amanda's eyes.
"Really, you are," Nick said, "I'd read anything you wrote."
The irony of his kind words made her heart swell and the tears fall down.
"Manda? What's wrong?" Nick reached out a hand gently, touching her shoulder as she covered her eyes and gasps came out of her mouth. She hated how, when she got really emotional, she started sounding like a seal. Now he looked truly worried, "Baby? Baby, I didn't mean to make you cry... What'sa matter?"
"It's not you," she cried, "It's me."
"You made you cry?" he asked, confused, inching closer to try to hug her.
"I love you so much," she said, looking at him with tears streaming down her face, "I can't even begin to tell you how much I love you... More than anything in the world..." She was gushing, her heart pounding, her head swimming. The hotel room was a blur around her.
Nick hugged her close to him, her tears pouring into his neck. "It's okay, baby," he whispered, "It's okay..."
"No," she cried, "It's really not okay."
He stroked her back, "Tell me what it is, baby. We can fix it, we can make you happy again. Just say the words."
"I'm so afraid," she whispered, "That you'll never love me again."
Nick looked shocked at this idea, "Amanda, I could never not love you. Ever. No matter what you did or said, ever."
"Ever?" she asked tentatively.
"Ever," he confirmed, promising her. Then, as though he thought that were the end of the conversation, he kissed her and climbed out of the jacuzzi.
Amanda turned and watched as he dried himself off with a towel, too, "Nick, I wasn't finished..." she said slowly.
He paused, standing above her in his swim trunks, the towel around his neck like he was a lifeguard or something, looking down at her. "What is it?"
Amanda stood up. "I haven't... I haven't been completely... honest... with you about everything."
Nick felt as though he'd been quickly dunked into a vat of ice water. "What do you mean?" he asked, the wind very much taken out of his sails. His hands tightened around the towel. "What haven't you been honest about?"
"My dad is Eric Golde, Nick," Amanda said slowly, "He owns like 15 news papers and magazines and news blogs," she said.
"Yeah, Golde publishing," Nick nodded, "You told me about that."
Amanda hesitated. "Golde Publishing puts out a lot of media outlets," she said slowly. "My dad- he owns Pop Stuff."
Nick was hoping his brain would stop working. "What are you saying?" he asked.
Amanda swallowed hard. "Nick, when I first met you... out back at the hotel in LA... I- I was there- I was there for the press junket," she admitted.
Nick stared at her. "You were picking stuff up for one of the publishing companies," he said, repeating what she'd told him that day.
"I was," she conceded, "A story. On you."
Nick blinked rapidly. "A story? But that would mean you're like a reporter or something," he laughed stonily. She nodded slowly. Nick stared at her. Then he turned, suddenly, quickly, on his heels and walked away across the room to the kitchen.
"Nick," Amanda called, climbing out of the jacuzzi. She pulled a towel around her, and hurried after him, slipping on the wet tiled platform stairs and coming down hard on her ass. The step stabbed into her back, cutting her at the bottom of her spine. She could feel blood where it scraped. She let out a gasp of pain, but stood up anyway, hurrying after him. "Nick," she called again.
She was about to follow him into the kitchen when he came back out. The towel was gone, he was six-foot-four of angry, half naked, flexed man flesh at this point. His eyes were livid and dark blue, almost black.
"Nick, what're you --"
"What? Nick, I--"
"I SAID GO HOME," he screamed, throwing a punch into the wall. It broke the wall, and a big hole the size of his fist was left there. He stepped by, further into the hotel room, away from her.
Amanda blinked in surprise, and her voice came out hysterical. "But Nick, I--"
Brian's door opened, and he stood in the door frame, illuminated by the bedside lamp behind him. His eyes were wide when he saw the hole in the wall by his door.
Seeing him there, Nick pointed at Amanda, "Amanda is leaving," he announced to Brian coldly.
"Nick..." it was Brian's turn to try to calm him down, he looked up from the hole in the wall, his expression a little fearful.
"She's a fucking reporter," Nick's words were sharp, venomous. He looked at her again and picked up her duffle bag. He crossed the room quickly and shoved it into her arms so hard she stumbled backwards. "Go the fuck home!"
"How am I supposed to get home?" she asked, tears springing to her eyes.
Nick reached for his jeans and rummaged a moment, looking for his wallet, then cursed when he remembered it was gone. He looked at Brian, "Give me your wallet," he demanded.
Brian disappeared into his room.
Tears were streaming down Amanda's face, "Please, can't I explain to you, Nick, what happened?"
"I don't want to hear it," he hissed, "You fucking lied to me, you made me believe that you loved me."
"I do love you," she sobbed. But he didn't listen.
Brian reappeared with the wallet and Nick took it out of his hand roughly, opened it and took out Brian's cash. He counted it quickly, then shoved it all at Amanda's chest. Most of it fell from her grasp on the floor. There was at least a thousand dollars there, all in fifties and hundreds. It rained around her ankles. "There, now leave," he snapped.
"What's this for?"
"You don't recognize it? It's your fucking payment, whore," Nick yelled. He turned and went into his bedroom, slamming the door so hard the wall shook.
Amanda dropped to the floor with a gut-wrenching wail, the carpet scraping up her bare knees. The money sat around her like confetti and she was sadly reminded of the school of fish, or of the day after Mardi Gras. She'd never sobbed so hard in her life as she hugged her duffle bag, and gasped, unable to draw in air.
Brian knelt down beside her, his hands shaking, and he wrapped his arms around her, not sure what else he could do.