HOW TO SURVIVE THE CREEK
Don’t say no when they tell you to follow. Don’t say no when they invite Dan, the new boy with the lazy eye and the sour smell. Encourage him when he seems doubtful because his family might be rich. Threaten him if you have to. Tell him not to go home right after school, even if he promised his mother, even if you promised yours. Don’t laugh when Dan trips over the hole in the wire fence behind the school. Grin from ear to ear when Marcus claps you on the back and then Dan as if either of you played football. The clap makes you feel hollow inside like your bones are brittle as a baby’s, but the thickening treeline tells you it is time to let the silence fall. Don’t make a noise when the fence cuts you. Let the blood soak into a fold in your jeans because you know that if they smell it you will be the lamb. Keep quiet until you’re past the road. Watch Sandy’s ass as you follow her into the woods, but don’t get so distracted you snap twigs. When it is darker and the air is heavier, take the cue from the others and titter at Dan’s nervous joke, laugh differently when Sandy says she doesn’t know which eye to look at when he’s talking. Pretend his “I know, right” is truthful. Listen for the hissing of the creek now, listen for the density of birds’ wings. Listen for the snap of a sandal as Jenny trips over the ground. Look to Marcus when he grabs her by the arm and tells her to be careful. You know that you will always look to Marcus; you know that he knows it too. He is big brawn and blonde and in these woods you feel so thin. Your favorite part of coming here is the silence: immense, crushing, you can’t believe that it doesn’t swallow you. When Sandy lights the pipe and offers it to you, accept it. Feel electric when your fingers touch. Then when everything is stars, gaze up at the graying light and beg it to bleed into you, seep into everything beating and vital. You still have a splinter in your ear from the last time you came here and a loose tooth from the time before. Let your tongue roll over the slick slide of tooth to pay its rightful homage. By the time you reach the deepest part of the woods you will see the creek, a scar in the land, and you will feel like bursting. You’re the only one who has stayed so far. Joe fled the trees last time with a black eye and Alex a broken thumb. But this is your fifth time: be proud of that. You are invited as long as you survive. Sandy and Jenny lean against a tree and pass the pipe back and forth between them. When Marcus strips away his shirt, strip yours. Try to do it in time with him. Then, stare Dan down until he wriggles out of his long sleeves. Veiled threats are what you do now. It makes you useful. Feel contempt for Dan’s thin body and try not to think of it as your own, soft and narrow and so white in the darkness of the forest. Try to comfort Dan when he panics, but not too much. He knows why he is here and why you were the one to invite him. Now, look to Marcus because you both know that is what you do, too; look to him as he swings a broad fist into the air in front of him. The sound of it clapping against Dan’s cheek is thrilling, his yelp a frail sound that dies in the air. Let his weak punch at Marcus delight you. Rock back and forth on your toes. Marcus tosses his fist again and hits Dan squarely in the face, and then a few more times, taking more than his turn. Dan is bloodied and wonderful and Marcus, radiant, with barely a mark. If he moves to hit you, you will let him, you will be ready, you will be leaning in, you will be braced, you will feel something. But then you will see in the ripple of his skin that he isn’t coming for you. Imagine it happening just before it does, to experience it fully, the sound of Sandy’s soft voice in your ears: Marcus’ hulk exploding into Dan, the thud of the two of them as they skid across the earth, red dirt kicking up like voices. Putting up a solid block is how you got to stay and you know it will be the same for Dan. Only it isn’t. What you don’t imagine is the crack of skull as Dan hits the great alder behind him, the soft searching in his eyes before he crumples and his body rolls down into the creek. When the wet sounds stop he will be face down in the water, a red and white stripe in the dark. Marcus stands over the side of the creek, blank-faced, his fist still clenched in red momentum not yet gone. Dan will not get up and the creek flowing around his crown, stained. Marcus and the girls spare only a moment before they bolt from the woods, breaking all the branches. In seconds you are alone there, the only one who would see the boy in the creek move. But you say to yourself that there will be nothing to see because you are always the one who survives. Turn. Look away. If you leave the woods now it will be with your truth discolored. Maybe you are being swallowed after all.
Caitlin Woolley recently earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. She now lives and works in Seattle.