Clare turns seventeen, three months before me, and when she said all she wanted was an adventure, I thought of the creek that runs through the woods behind my house. Swimming the length of it is the one thing I’ve done that she hasn’t. I couldn’t think of anything more adventurous to give her.
We’ll start at the tire swing behind the nature center, float past Valley Green and then into the straight below Walnut Lane bridge leading into the bends and rapids before the falls above the Schuylkill River. The biggest thing would be staying in the deeper water near the middle but close enough to the bank where the overhanging trees will hide us from the park police. They’ll pull us out because there’s supposed to be all kinds of poison in the water, runoffs from the old mills and farms that used to be nearby. The other thing is the current. It isn’t that strong until after the bridge. Someone drowns at least once a summer there but they probably don’t know what they’re doing. Clare and I are good swimmers and I know the way. Besides, it’s hot and we have the day off from work.
We work downtown on Jeweler’s Row, a street of old two-story buildings jammed with jewelry stores and workshops, about a block away from Independence Hall. Clare fixed me up with a job as a runner. Men own the stores and workshops. Wives and daughters stand behind glass counters and handle customers. It seems everyone has known one another for at least fifty years–except for the runners, girls like me who come and go.
All day long I push through the summer tourists to deliver little brown envelopes containing broken jewelry or rings that need settings. The stores are easy–just hand one of the envelopes to the woman behind the counter, often without exchanging any words. But the workshops and studios are different. They’re up flights of worn wooden steps where there always seem to be men running down, brushing against me as they pass by. Rows of doors line the second floor corridor, each with a bell to press before I’m allowed into a small bulletproof glass vestibule where I press another bell for the heavy door to open. Young and old men sit at work benches or behind counters, a few pausing to watch me walk down the aisle until I stop at the one I need. Whoever he is, he pours the envelope’s contents into his palm while muttering, how about a smile, would it kill you to be a little friendly? Sometimes I receive another envelope or two back, heavy with finished pieces or stones that he tells me I better not accidentally misplace. I never arrive back at the door without hearing some kind of whisper: Lose something up front, did you sweetheart? Hike that skirt up a little, honey, you’re wasting the little you got. A diamond cutter I have to go to nearly every day calls me Red. He likes red-hair girls.
I hurry back to where I work, where the owner watches ball games on a little TV in the back, his wife polishes silver, and I huddle on a stool in a corner untangling thin gold and silver chains, pretending nothing matters except my sixty-nine dollars at the end of the week.
All the men on the Row watched Clare grow up and now they let her know how nice it is to see she’s ‘filled out.’ I notice how she adjusts her shoulders back or stands a little straighter, even when she seems to ignore them. She’s of the opinion that I make too much of what they say.
“That’s just the way they are, Pat,” she says.
After the third week, I stop complaining about the men so she’ll think I don’t care, that I’ve become like her. At least they leave me alone when I’m with her.
We work three days a week. The rest of the time she comes over to my house and we cook hot dogs and get high in my room. She brings a couple of her mom’s Xanax and once we finished the bottle of codeine from the cough my brother had all winter. Either way, we end up laying on a blanket out in the yard, reading or falling asleep under the sun’s heat. Nobody else is around, even my brother who works at a summer camp. Except for the job on Jeweler’s Row, this is turning out to be my best summer ever.
We catch the bus to the nature center and sneak around the fence down to the creek and the tire swing. Clare braids her hair and I tie mine back in a bunch, and we hide our sneakers under the brush. We decided cutoffs were better than a regular bathing suit in case we’re caught. I keep my tank top on while Clare pulls off her tee shirt and twists it through the belt loops. The bruise on her arm matches her purple bra.
I wade into the creek, catch hold of the tire, and drag it back up to the bank. The trick is to brace your feet against the tree trunk then push hard enough off that you swoop over to the water’s deep center. If you do it right, the tire swings back for the next person.
I go first to show her how it’s done. I shove off, swing my legs to force the tire back and forth until I’m just above where I need to be, then jump off and holler into the cold water.
Coming up, I shout to her. “Come on!”
Clare climbs up, straddles the tire, grabs the rope high up with one hand and shoves off the tree with the other. She swings out above me but not enough and has to arch back to the tree to try again.
“Pump your legs more,” I yell but, barely over the deep, she lets go instead and flips back smack into the water, disappearing for a long second. She finally crests above the surfaces, screaming.
“You all right?”
She shoves a wave of water across my face and, laughing together, we start swimming downstream.
The current carries us along into the main stretch of the creek. It seems like the only thing beside us in the woods is a hawk gliding in slow loops across the sky. The water tastes metallic but smells sweet and mossy. Fish brush against our stomachs and legs; schools of minnows ripple over our arms and shoulders. We roll onto our backs and stretch out just below the surface, the sun warming our faces. Our strokes synchronize like two Olympic beauties.
Clare calls out one of our new favorite songs. “Uh hun. Uh hun. That’s what I want.”
I respond: “Ummh, yeah. That’s what I am without you.”
Our voices bounce back and forth between the hillsides and we’re laughing too hard to keep swimming so we catch against a large rock and haul ourselves out of the water. The creek’s current tugs at our legs while we lie back against the warm stone.
Clare shields her eyes with an arm and looks over at me. “You ever scared back here?”
“No.” I’ve been coming to the woods since I was ten and the only danger I’ve ever considered involves sliding down the side of the hill.
“Remember Donna McGuire?”
Everyone knows Donna McGuire, the girl whose legs were discovered in the woods two summers ago by a kid walking his dog. Her arms and body turned up somewhere else, but not in the woods. Her head is still missing. They figured out her name by the green toenail polish that just a few nail salons carried. She was our age.
There’s a little girl, too. A man at the gas station near my house saw her being led away from the school bus stop. Mom showed me her grave one time when she took me to the cemetery to visit my grandparents. But that happened a long time ago.
“She was only dumped here,” I say.
Clare turns her face back to the sun and closes her eyes. “Like that matters.” She slides the hand of her other arm across her stomach until her fingertips tuck under her short’s waist band. “I’m getting fat.”
“No, seriously. The pill is making me fat. My tits hurt all the time, too.”
“What else can you use?”
“I don’t know but I’m going to stop taking it.”
“You better have something else lined up.”
“Christ, Pat, you sound like my sister.” Clare gives me her ‘I’m done with you’ look and rolls off the rock, wades into midstream until the water folds over her back and glides away.
When I catch up to her, I tell her we should stay near the trees along the far shore.
“I thought you never get scared,” she laughs.
“I don’t want to get caught and pulled out.”
“Jesus,” she says but follows my lead into the shadows. It probably doesn’t help much since we begin singing again and then whoop loudly through the rapids. We pass picnic areas full of families barbecuing and dodge a couple of fishermen’s lines. The creek grows shallow the closer we drift toward the dam above Valley Green and we decide to climb out to dry off a little before walking across the dam’s wide flat rocks to the gravel bridle path on the other side.
Valley Green is an inn that’s supposed to look pretty much the way it did during the Revolutionary War. My parents take us here sometimes and we always sit out on the porch so we can stare at the water while we eat. On the way home, Mom often asks me to rub my hand on the back of her neck then starts murmuring how cool I make her feel. I was twelve when I figured out it was because of the cocktails she drank through dinner, though Dad kept saying she only had a headache and I was helping it go away. Lately, I just stare out the window at the shadows moving through the woods, trying not to hear her begin to cry.
Next to the inn is a concession stand and wooden picnic benches where runners and bikers rest. Horses from the nearby riding stable drink from a mossy stone trough and children stand near the edge of the retaining wall bothering their parents for bread to feed the ducks and swans in the pool below.
We’re not dripping wet anymore, only soggy from head to toe. Clare pulls her tee shirt from her belt loops and struggles into it while I try to air out my shirt so it won’t stick so much.
“I have some money,” I say and pull out a drenched five-dollar bill I jammed into my back pocket.
“I’m not hungry.”
“We can share some fries.”
She walks away to flop on the grass. If she’s gained weight it doesn’t show anywhere. Her stomach doesn’t stick out over the top of her shorts and her waist is small. Maybe her thighs are bigger. All I know is I’m starving and when it’s my turn at the concession window I order a hot dog, fries, a bag of potato chips, and two cokes from a boy I’ve seen around. He looks me over and smirks as he hands me the box of food, short-changing me by eighty cents. I let it go by telling him he deserves a tip for his crummy job, wiping that smirk right off his face.
Clare’s watching children throwing bread and popcorn down to the birds in the water when I come back with the box of food. She takes a coke but doesn’t show any interest while I squirt mustard on the hot dog and drench the fries in ketchup. After a while, though, she picks up a couple of fries. Two swans sail over and Clare throws them what she hasn’t eaten. The birds stretch their necks far out and neatly catch them, then paddle closer for more.
“They’re going to get too fat to fly away,” I say.
She picks up more fries, bites them in half and throws the rest down to the swans. “Why would they want to.”
A few ducks scurry over and the swans peck their heads and shove them aside. Then they seem to lose interest and glide away with their little heads crook down on their long thin necks.
“They have it made,” she says and her face draws blank. She’s probably tired.
The swim isn’t panning out the way I wanted. To fill the empty pause between us, I say, “My mom says I have a swan neck. It’s my best feature.”
I helpfully turn my chin from side to side for her to notice its length. I mean to be funny but I also want Clare to notice because, according to Mom, all the famous beauties in the world have swan necks: You can’t be one without it. She pesters me to hold my head up as high as I can so everyone will know I’ll be beautiful someday.
She glances over. “Really?”
She shakes her head and stands, wiping grass and dirt off her butt. “You better have something better than a neck,” she says like she’s trying to figure out what’s the something better.
It’s four months since the prom and we’ve been with each other every day, sometimes with Annie and Rachael, but mostly by ourselves. We decided we make the best of friends because she knows the world and I know how to find my way around it. We lead and follow each other, two halves of a whole. But here she is for the first time judging me and finding me wanting, the way the men do on Jewelers Row.
I gather the trash and get up, throwing it in the can while heading off for the bank. She doesn’t call after me to wait up and I don’t look back, not even when I hear her wade into the water behind me. I keep a distance between us even at the point where huge boulders fill the middle and the water hides the jagged ledges below. In places, it takes hanging on the rocks’ sides to navigate through the water safely. Beyond them, the hillsides have slid down into the creek, forcing us to swim into a channel that gradually narrows into a stony shoal. The woolly humidity sticks to our skin. Dragon flies whirl about and mosquitoes prick our arms and necks. I don’t look back even though I hear her cursing as we stumble across sharp pebbles and rocks. The trees cast darker shadows across the water. It must be after three, long after I figured we’d make it back to the nature preserve. Maybe we should forget about finishing but I won’t be the one who says it first.
He is close enough on the bank that I see him clearly: a tall, compact man in baggy shorts and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I focus on the stone he holds in one hand.
“How you girls doing? You’ve been swimming for a long time.” He talks like he’s known us forever.
I trudge a little faster with my head down, concentrating on finding the best path over the rough surface. Clare comes close beside me.
“I’m tired just following you.”
“Since when?” She asks.
“I would’ve come up to you at the Inn but there were too many people around.”
Clare tilts her head to the side and sounds almost as if she’s flirting, “You shy or something?”
“Just waiting for the right moment.” He smiles, then after a pause adds, “You should come up here and rest a little. The grass is soft.”
“What’d we do up there?”
“Oh,” he says and drops the stone as if to assure us he means no harm. He wipes his hands on his shorts. “Anything you want.”
“You ride a motorcycle?” She asks.
“You like bikers?”
“My friend Donna does.”
He turns to me. “You Donna?” He has black hair, deep brown eyes. Years ago, maybe when Donna McQuire was alive, he might have been cool looking.
Everything about us quiets, the woods, the creek. He stands with his hands against his side like a little boy, his mouth strained back as far as it can possibly go. It comes to me that, if he jumps down into the muck, we wouldn’t be able to run fast enough away. I shift behind Clare and take hold of two belt loops, thinking I’ll pull her back and we’d make it together to the clearing on the opposite shore and up the hill to the bridal path.
What ifs crowd my head: What if he jumps off the bank? What if we stumble over the stones–his sneakers would make it easier for him to run towards us? What if I can’t pull Clare hard enough away and he grabs her, then me? The list of things that happened to Donna McGuire before they hacked her to pieces runs through my mind, mainly the burns and rapes.
He draws a pebble from his pocket and crooks his fingers around it. I can’t help standing before him and watch as he swings his arm back then snaps it forward and release the pebble. It zips across the water and smacks off my leg.
His eyes linger on me. “I always skip rocks too hard.”
Clare twists free of my hand and sprints ahead. He and I seem rooted, listening to her splashes: maybe he’s as surprised as I am that she’s suddenly gone. He comes to the edge of the bank and pauses. I can see he’s gauging how big his next step is, and in that small given space of time, I bolt. The heat and how hard I trip over the stones ripping the bottom of my feet tightens my chest. My throat catches and hurts. He runs along the bank and watches me at the same time.
The bridge comes into view. Beyond, the creek widens and deepens. I don’t see Clare. The bank levels off into a sandy beach. He’s a blur at the edge of my vision–how carefully he steps from the grass to the beach. It’ll be so easy for him to tackle me. He doesn’t, though, enjoying what we’re doing together and the together is more frightening than anything else imaginable. We enter the arch below the bridge at the same time, he on one ledge, me across on the other side. A channel of water runs between us. I can smell his sweat and press hard against the concrete wall to get away from it. The thick rumble of the cars driving above us ripple down my spine. My breathing echoes off the walls.
He says, “she’s not coming back.”
“She’s up on the bridge. She’s getting help.” Without turning from him, I catch sight of the creek spreading out glassy black at the end of the arc.
“No.” He’s sure. She won’t. Then he says, “that’s okay with you, right? Just the two of us?”
His smile disappears and he jumps across the channel. An infinitesimal rush of air pushes against me and all I see is the arch and the dark water spreading out beyond it. I know he’s close and know he’s not; he doesn’t have me but he will. The creek is far away but it’s not; I won’t make it but I try.
My breathing fills my ears and I dive forward without seeing the water, unaware of the deep closing in on me. I rise up, inhaling deeply with a crackling gasp to find Clare beside me. She didn’t go for help; she didn’t leave. She’s been waiting. We tread together, waving our arms across the surface, circling about and coughing out the cold water. The hill on one side rises too sharply from the water to leave him anywhere to climb or hide. He could’ve scrambled up the slope to the bridge but not fast enough to reach the top. I’m certain he’s watching, but he’s nowhere to be seen.
“I thought you were behind me,” Clare shouts a little too loud, her voice rasping. “What the fuck, Pat?”
Her braid floats out toward me and I reach for it. I want to shake her, push her, I don’t know what else, ricocheting between the sense that she’s ruined the woods for me but that we survived something together, sharing a loss and gain. My body hums, the cold water failing to relieve the burn in my legs and feet. I let go of her braid and fall on my back so I can’t see her, and stretch my arms straight out, trying to steady myself on the water’s surface.
We drift. The dimming light turns the water amber. I watch birds fly purposefully above, calling to one another what I translate into sweet dreams, sleep tight, don’t let the nest bugs bites, as they settle in before dusk. Clare comes beside me, takes my arm and, when I right myself, she hooks her legs around mine, her face set in a careless smile. Somehow, she’s tucked away the panic I heard in her a minute ago and, looking into her calm eyes, I realize that, for her, whatever I think happened didn’t happen at all.
“What’s next?” She asks.
I know what’s ahead but she doesn’t need to know. I lock my arms around her neck and she does the same to me. We begin to bob like corks, up and down in the increasingly swift current, through the bends and rapids, speeding towards the falls.