The Creek

The phone didn’t ring that night. She imagined Marta at the kitchen table with her parents, her shoulders slumped forward. Imagined her sitting on her bed, knees drawn up, one hand scratching an ankle. She always had bracelets of mosquito bites.

Marta had a boyfriend—she showed Laura a picture one day, while they sat together on Marta’s bunk. The rubber mattress made the back of Laura’s legs sweat. The boyfriend was fifteen—two years older, which Marta said was a good amount—tall, wearing a Yankees cap over hair gone dark with grease. “He’s going to be a mechanic,” she said. “He already rebuilt a car. A Cadillac. He got it from his grandfather.”

The boyfriend sent Marta a single card in the eight weeks that she was away. On the front there was a picture of two birds, their wings beating in front of a pink heart. On the inside he wrote, Hope you are having fun at camp, have fun babe, sorry I don’t write much.

Laura hadn’t thought much of the boyfriend. By the end of the summer Marta had stopped talking about him entirely; he existed to Laura as only a small irritation, something to worry and pick at when she was bored, like a hangnail.

But now—she wondered if they were together, sitting on the leather front seat of the Cadillac. His rough stupid hand on her thigh.

Laura sat at the table, waiting for the phone. We’ll have to keep in touch, Marta had said. I’ll call you for sure. At the table Laura’s mother read a magazine, licking one finger to flip the pages, breathing noisily.

A week after she got home, there was a movie on television, about two elderly women who lived together. They held each other’s papery, translucent hands.

“Hmph,” said her mother. “They put this on television.”

“It’s a good movie,” Laura said.

“You shouldn’t be watching this,” her mother said. “Isn’t there something else on?”

“I want to watch it,” she said.

“It’s about lesbians. Turn it to Match Game.

“Maybe I’m a lesbian.”

Her mother turned. “Don’t even make jokes,” she said. “That’s not funny.”

Rain on the roof of the cabin; heat between her legs; the pale moon of Marta’s face in the cook shelter. She imagined Marta with the boy in the baseball cap, her hand in his, his thumb rubbing a slow circle into her wrist. Imagined standing over him, kicking him in the ribs, the throat, in his pimpled face until blood ribboned down his lips and over his chin.

By the end of August there was still no call. The fall was coming early; wood smoke, a chill in the air. Two of the other girls from camp called, putting her on three-way. They were giggling; one of them, the one with the horsy face, kept saying, Remember when we had the food fight? She didn’t care about the food fight. The call was all the worse because she had nothing to compare it to: she couldn’t say, When Marta and I talk, we talk about more interesting things.

In her room Laura undressed in front of the mirror. There were still lines where her bathing suit had been, though she hadn’t been swimming since she left Camp River Ranch. Her hips were too wide, she thought. Her calves were thick, her shoulders bowed. An ugly body. She was glad Marta had never seen her naked. Not that it mattered now. Not, she thought, that it’d ever mattered.

She put her clothes back on. In the living room her mother was sitting on the sofa, watching an afternoon game show. Laura looked at her. Her mother’s hips were wide, too. Of course.

“Why do you watch these stupid shows?” Laura asked. “The prizes aren’t even that good. Who wants a new kitchen table?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” her mother said.

“No, thanks.”

“You’re certainly in a mood.” Her mother kept looking at the screen. It flashed to a commercial for a pain reliever. “What are you so bum about?”

“I hate it here,” Laura said. “I wish I’d never come home at all.”

She kicked the wall, hard. The rubber of her shoe left a dark mark on the wall that her mother had just papered.

“What a dump,” she said. “I hate this ugly house.”

Her mother didn’t say anything, just stared hard at the rubber mark her shoe had left. It made Laura angry, a red heat behind her eyes, sparking down her arms and legs. Say something, she thought. When her mother stayed silent she let one hand fly out and bang the wall.

“And I hate you,” she said. “This house is ugly, and you’re ugly, and I can’t wait until I never have to see it again!”

She ran to her room, slammed the door and pushed a chair in front of it. She climbed into bed. The wool blanket was rough on her face but it deadened the sound until she could almost believe she was underwater, floating in the green of the lake.

She slept through dinner and then she couldn’t sleep that night. She was hungry. There was an ache in her chest that felt rock hard, like it might never go away. She thought of the boyfriend leaning over the hood of the Cadillac. Of Marta, pulling the burnt skin from a marshmallow, holding the raw center back in the flames until it was just a coal-black lump.

She climbed out of bed. The weight in her chest was still there, heavy and permanent-feeling. She felt her way down the narrow hall.

There was a small noise from the kitchen. Her mother was standing in the dark in front of the stove.

She turned and looked at Laura. “Go back to bed,” she said. Her voice was thick, as though she’d been crying. And then, “I can’t bear your getting older. Boys coming around.”

Laura didn’t say anything. She stared into the dark. There wasn’t any sound, just the press of the house against the slope. She thought of the creek down there, how dark it was, and moving fast.