We would walk home, up from the valley, and just as we turned the corner, a darkness would infuse Mom’s face when she saw our overgrown grass.
We would walk home, up from the valley, and just as we turned the corner, a darkness would infuse Mom’s face when she saw our overgrown grass. She would look at the neighbor’s lawn cut short—a line drawn between our two properties visible only if you were looking for it, but she always was. She would wait until a big game was happening, until the whole town was down at the baseball fields or everyone was in their houses watching Bonanza and she would do it herself. People forget, but it was rare in those days for a woman to mow her own lawn. Rare for a woman to own a lawn. She had bought it after selling Grandpa’s land and saving some of her salary as a nurse. My mother wasn’t ashamed of owning, but she was ashamed of long grass, and I think of Dad having left us. I wanted to mow it for her. I offered when I turned twelve, but those were the days when fathers said, “My daughter will never mow a lawn.” Grandpa was dead and a dad seemed to never have existed so she would do it herself until my brother was old enough to do it for her.
It was silly for her to care so much because we never played on the lawn anyway. My brother Max and I blew past the yard and made a beeline for the old graveyard or the spring or the creek. The graveyard was on a ridge halfway up one of the peaks. In 1964, we spent the early weeks of summer at the graveyard. Every fifty years or so a big rainstorm shifted all the tombstones. We tiptoed around, not knowing where bodies might lie beneath us. No one was buried there anymore. It was a place for the pioneers that had come to the mountains first. “The real McCoys,” Grandpa called them. After he died, Mom started saying that and all the other things that Grandpa used to say that didn’t really make sense to me, but I got what he meant.
We grew sick of the graveyard a few weeks after school let out. It stopped being creepy and started being boring, just a bunch of confused tombstones, nothing moving. The creek was the next logical choice, alive and rushing.
We didn’t tell Mom when we started going to the creek. She would have thought we were too small. She said the water would sneak up on you and grab you by the ankles to take you away to the sea, but I was starting to lose my faith in her. Slow and rambling, moseying around rocks and damming up twigs, it didn’t feel like that type of water to take you away, but Mom said there was something called a “flash flood.” She said that if it was raining high in the mountains, further away than we could see, it could sweep down in a wall of water. I told her that if that happened it wouldn’t matter if we were in the water or on the bank; she said to stop being smart. I made Max swear he wouldn’t tell her and we went anyway.
The best part of the creek was a ravine, with a rope to swing on and grass to lie in. The sun set over a ridge, just in time for us to get home before dark. After sprinting up the trail, the water made of snowmelt was like waking from a long nap.
The first day Penny came with us was sometime in the heat of summer. I wasn’t sure when her family had moved in—it just seemed like she appeared one day. They were new to the mountains, and Mom had to show them how to bear-proof their trash cans and deer-proof their garden. There was no point in fighting off raccoons, mom said. “My Grandpa used to shoot them,” I whispered to Penny.
The first time we took her to the creek, the boys did tricks off the rope to impress her, but she looked at them like they were dirt and hooked her arm around mine, her skin soft and warm like a winter fire. She didn’t even dip a toe in the water; she had called it a “hick” thing to do. I didn’t know what a hick was, so I didn’t know she was making fun of us. I should have guessed from the way she wrinkled her nose and tipped up her chin.
One day at the end of June she must have changed her mind because she finally got in the water. It was a hot day, maybe the hottest that summer saw. We were standing at the base of the trail in the quiet morning sun when Bobby Jones told us he had found a dead deer to poke. He wanted Penny to go to the bloated corpse with him and the rest of the boys.
“Gross,” Penny said and then stuck out her tongue. “Crissy, Max, and me are going to the creek.” I stared at her, mesmerized at the sound of my name on her lips. She looked back at me. “Right?” I nodded in agreement. With that, she started up the trail as Max and I followed. For the better part of the hike I watched her long curly hair bouncing ahead of me. It was ruby red and pulled tight into little rings twisted by god himself.
We raced up the trail until sweat glistened on Penny’s face and Max panted like a dog. At the creek, we flopped into the tall grass next to the water. Tall enough to graze Penny’s shoulders, it was perfect for hiding from the sun. We ate our peanut butter sandwiches in silence, still huffing. Her shoulders had freckles, so many you didn’t know where freckles stopped and skin began. When she looked away I liked to locate the little spots of pale, pinpricks in the shroud of night.
She never put her hair up in a ponytail even when we ran. That day it swayed like wheat in the wind. She didn’t notice the grass touching her shoulder; she was distracted, watching my brother down at the water.
“Are you going to go in?” The sun was on her face and in her eyes.
“Yeah, but we have to wait. Mom says you should wait thirty minutes so you don’t get a cramp.”
“But I want to go now. Right now.” She stood before I knew what was happening.
“Okay, let’s go. But not too deep.” I stood to meet her, the sandwich heavy in my stomach.
“No, we have to go deep. I want to go off the rope and you have to go first so you can stop me if I start floating away.” Her eyes were wider than I thought eyes could be and looking right at me.
I climbed the few boulders to the notch in the big cottonwood where the rope waited. Max looked up at me. He had been collecting flat stones to skip. He didn’t like jumping but he liked to watch me. Penny stared too, curious but uninspired. I wished I could do a flip or a big cannonball like the older boys but I was scrawny at best, skeletal at worst, and not stupid enough to try. I placed the knot of the rope between my legs, sat, and stepped off the rock.
It is short, so short, that space between flying and falling. But that was my favorite part, a place in time when you didn’t have to be anything. There were no rules on the rope, except to let go at the right time. Then the water was all around me, and I wanted time to wait so I could just be water, but I knew Penny was watching.
She was a year older than me, almost fourteen. Her breasts were more developed than mine, which was all that mattered at that age. Mine were small. Billy Hanson had called them mosquito bites. Penny’s were small too, I guess, but they were real breasts. She placed the rope between them and for a second before she dropped I swear she was scared. But as she flew and fell she whooped in a way I never had. She popped out of the water like a cork, her white dress plastered to her skin. Her smile covered her whole face. I felt there was a type of happiness I had never known.
“This water is fucking freezing!” she bellowed, so loud it echoed off the canyon walls. Max gasped. I looked at both of them and a laugh escaped my mouth so long and true that it rippled with the water. Both her and Max were surprised by it and were pulled into laughing alongside me. Little flecks of water were on her nose and eyelashes, and a small flutter danced in my belly like a trapped hummingbird. I held her hand as we found our footing on the mossy stones.
We lay in the grass to wait for our clothes to dry. Penny had an arm behind her head, exposing her armpit and the little bit of skin near her breast.
“Does your mom always make you take him with you?”
I moved a rock out from under my back. “No, not all the time.”
“That’s lame. I’m glad I don’t have a brother.”
“Yeah, pretty lame.”
“He likes you though. As far as brothers go, he seems cool.”
“Yeah. When Dad left, Mom started working a lot so I had to make dinner and do laundry and sorta become his mom.” A cloud shifted and the sun struck my eyes.
“Wow, that’s crazy. You, a mom.” Her voice floated away in the wind.
She sat up, the grass she had been lying on was flat against the ground. Her dress was still transparent from water. I could see her bra strap. It was a real one, not the trainer ones Mom bought me.
“Crissy!” Max waved a rock in the air.
“Good job, Max.”
He was knee-deep in the stream.
“Do you want to go further up?” Penny tilted her head to where the water disappeared around a bend.
“Mom said I should watch him.”
“He’ll be fine, we always just sit here, let’s go see what’s up there.” Her dress was less see-through in front, but her hair swirled around her face.
“Only for a few minutes. We need to get home before dark.”
We stood up. Penny brushed the dirt off her dress. I didn’t own anything white, Mom said white things got dirty and unless I was going to scrub it out, she wasn’t going to waste her money.
“Max, we’re just going to go up here a ways.”
“Okay.” The stones in his hand looked like perfect skipping stones. I thought of inspecting them but Penny’s white dress was moving upstream.
The rocks were bigger here, harder to balance on. You had to hop between them like you were crossing the stream. Max was closer to shore now. We passed around some trees and lost sight of him.
“It’s nice here,” Penny said with a lilt.
The trees up there were aspens, not pines. When the wind blew they made the light flicker, and a noise that was like warm water washed over our faces. I was suddenly aware of every part of myself and every part of her. We each stood on rocks above the water. The light spots between her freckles were brighter in the sun.
“So, are you gonna kiss me?” She looked straight at me, waiting for my answer to her question.
“Here?” I asked in return.
I tried to exhale, but something was stuck, and I almost felt like crying but nodded anyway, “Yes.”
“How?” Her eyes were a deep hazel, mud and moss together.
“Yeah, how are you going to kiss me?”
“On the lips?” I could hear my heart in my ears and my chest and could feel the corners of my mouth.
“No, I mean how?” Her eyes were wanting, testing something in me.
“Like grown-ups do?”
Her eyebrows arched in surprise. “Like with mouth open and tongue and stuff?”
“Yeah. Like that.”
With that, I moved forward. I stumbled towards her, over the last few rocks between us, a current tying us together. But I didn’t make it all the way. I think she knew I wouldn’t. I was close enough to smell her starched white dress when I fell.
In less than a gulp of air, the rocks leapt up to meet me. A pain cracked through my face as my jaw slammed tight with something caught in between. I wasn’t sure what had happened until I felt the hole in my lip with the tip of my tongue and heard my brother scream and saw the blood on Penny’s dress.
My mouth was copper and a slickness spread down my chin and to the center of my chest. Max’s little hands held either side of my face. He had evidently been peeking at us through the trees. His rocks were on the ground, and he had my blood on him. I looked back at my feet, confused at their betrayal. A violent green moss I hadn’t noticed covered the curve of the stones.
“Let’s go home.”
The words came out in a rushed garble. I snatched Max’s hands from my face, somehow my shoes found purchase on each stone. I didn’t realize I was crying or that Penny wasn’t with us until we were halfway down the mountain and the sun was setting. Flashes of her face came back to me, fear and maybe a shock of disgust that I saw across my vision late into the night.
When Mom came home from work she stitched up my lip. I had washed our clothes by then so she couldn’t smell the creek water or see the mud from where I had fallen. Max was asleep on the rug in front of the crackling TV. Mom made me soup and kissed my forehead when I winced with the first spoonful.
“It will heal, Sweetpea. All things do.”
I guess she meant it because she stopped talking about Grandpa as much even though she still used his words. By the end of the summer she seemed to get sick of strategizing the mowing of the lawn and did it whenever she damn well pleased. She would go out in the mid-day sunshine and wave at people as they walked by. Maybe I should have learned more from that because I never talked to Penny again.
Max and I went to a new stream, one with smaller rocks. But sometimes when we searched for skipping-stones I would look at the grass and think of red on a white dress.