The Creek

They stood together at the steel sink in the corner of the cook shelter, brushing their teeth. The butt of the flashlight was balanced next to the soap dish, the dirt-streaked bar of Ivory. It smelled like cast iron and tin foil. Above them the split beams of the roof were gauzed with spider webs.

Marta spit toothpaste into the basin. “You have big boobs,” she said.

Laura felt her face get hot. “So?” she said. She felt a sting behind her eyes. She rinsed her mouth, crossed her arms over her chest. The water tasted like rust.

“So you’re big for your age. I bet guys love that,” Marta said. She rinsed her toothbrush and picked up the flashlight, swinging her arm so that light arced across the beams.

Laura didn’t say anything. She felt grateful for the dark, that Marta couldn’t see her face. She wanted to go back to the cabin.

“Have you ever been kissed?” Marta asked.

Laura thought about walking away but that would be worse; then Marta would know that she hadn’t. Finally she said, “Oh, sure.”

“Who was it?”

She wanted to cry. Marta, with her two-years-older boyfriend and her small boobs. “Oh, just some guy,” she said. “It was no big deal. A couple guys, actually.”

The flashlight lit Marta’s face from underneath. The shadow of one eyebrow was raised. “Must not have been very good, then,” she said. “Maybe I should show you how.”

Laura’s heart beat faster. Marta grabbed her hand but she didn’t kiss her, just pulled her back toward the cabin. Sometimes, when they were alone, Laura thought about saying, Maybe you could show me now, but every time she was too scared, or Marta started talking, or some other girl showed up and the moment was ruined.

Laura’s mother came to take her home on a Tuesday in August. Her shoulders were tight with sunburn and there was a swim rash between her thighs. She closed her eyes the whole trip home while her mother talked nervously: Did you ever send your grandmother a postcard—you should have worn sunscreen—tell me that you missed me.

She didn’t miss her. She leaned her cheek against the cold window glass. It felt like they were driving away from summer. She thought of the dark lake where the reeds moved slowly underwater, curling up from the loam. If you stood at the shoreline when everyone was lining up for dinner you could hear the grace rolling down from the mess hall, Back of the bread is the flour, back of the flour is the mill. She had lost track of the days, and now the summer was over. Back of the mill is the wind and the rain. It bothered her how time could slip, how inexact it all was.

Her mother steered the truck down the gravel driveway. The house was a double-wide mobile with off-white siding and a dented screen door, picked out of a catalog because it had wood paneling and avocado shag. It was set against the edge of a steep slope. On the other side of the drop was a creek, lined with trees and slow with mud. Laura rarely climbed down to it; when she was little her mother had been terrified she would tumble down the slope, or, if she were to make it, that she might fall into the shallow water. It had thrilled Laura to imagine it: her mother hysterical; police dogs dragging their noses along the creek bed; the lit windows of the house glowing like searchlights.

They had always lived here. It was more familiar to her than anything she’d known—the wood stove, the cat that brought mice dead to the door, the barbed wire of the fallen fence. Stacks of firewood swayed on the sinking porch. The pits dropped from the cherry tree split with frost, refusing to take. She used to like it—the nights when the dark was so thick she couldn’t see where the yard dropped away to the creek. When the house arrived, in halves on the back of a truck, the workers set it down too close to the edge. This fact used to amuse her. Now, pulling her duffel bag from the cab of the truck, she saw it for what it was: inconvenient, foolish, a mistake that should have long been fixed.