Friday, November 7, 2014

What the Creek Carries Away by Miranda Stone

Miranda Stone's powerful story about cousins who meet twenty years after a terrible misunderstanding changed the course of their lives.

I expected my grandfather's house to be empty a week after his funeral, but I spotted a figure sitting on the top porch step, and as I eased my car closer, a spasm seized my gut.

Twenty years, and my cousin still looked the same. Long brown hair that refused to hold a curl, hazel eyes set deep in her pale face. Three years my junior, she'd be thirty-five now. Despite the morning chill, she wore a tank top and denim shorts. Her feet were bare.

I swallowed hard. My unfamiliar vehicle drew her attention, and I was tempted to hunker down and keep driving. The back of my neck prickled with heat.

"No," I muttered. "You won't run me off this time."

I parked the car on the street and cut the engine. For a long moment, I didn't move, just watched her through the window. The sound of rushing water penetrated the silence. A bold creek traversed the property behind Granddad's house, and I wondered how high the water had risen after last night's heavy rain.

As I got out of the car, Alma didn't wave or move to rise. I scratched the stubble on my jaw, wishing I'd shaved that morning, and then berated myself for wanting to appear more presentable.

"Alma," I called, nodding at her.

"Hello, Reed."

I ventured toward the porch, hands shoved in my jeans pockets. "I stopped by to see the place one last time."

"You weren't at the funeral."

I stared hard at her. "No, but I think the old man would have understood why I missed it." She had the decency to lower her eyes. "Looks like he managed to keep the place up." New vinyl siding covered the house's exterior, and the lawn was well tended.

"When he told me the cancer was terminal, I moved back here to take care of him," Alma said.

"So what happens to the house now that he's gone?"

She cleared her throat. "Granddad left it to me."

My smile was a mere flash of teeth. "Well, you sure have done all right for yourself."

She climbed to her feet, and I avoided looking at her long legs. She was taller than I remembered. "Why don't you come inside? I'll fix you something to eat."

"I don't want a thing from you."

Alma placed her hands on her hips. "What do you want then? To look through the house? Feel free. Take whatever you like."

"That's not why I came. I figured the house would be locked up by now." I started toward the porch. "I just want to sit out here for a few minutes. Is that okay with you?"

Alma hugged herself as though she were cold. "Of course it is, Reed."

I shrugged. "Thought I should ask, since it's your place now." I climbed the steps, careful not to touch her as I made my way to the old metal glider. It let out a hideous groan under my weight. Rust had eaten away most of the pale yellow paint.

Alma retreated to the door but didn't go inside. "You want me to leave you alone?" she asked.

I gazed at the mountains surrounding Granddad's house. The last remnants of morning fog dissipated as the sun rose higher. "I don't care what you do."

She took a step closer. "I saw your parents at the funeral. When I asked about you, they said they hadn't spoken to you in years."

The muscles in my shoulders tightened. "That's right."

She drew a circle on the porch floor with her toe. "You probably heard that Daddy died."

I thought of Uncle Hank, military stern. "I didn't know."

"A stroke, three years ago." She swiped at her cheeks, but I didn't see any tears. "Mama's doing okay, and Elisa's a lawyer now. She lives out in Arizona."

I nodded but didn't trust myself to speak of Alma's younger sister.

She lowered herself onto the porch and crossed her legs. "How've you been, Reed?"

Her coaxing tone infuriated me. "Oh, the last twenty years have been a fucking cakewalk."

Alma studied her hands clasped in her lap. "Are you married? Do you have kids?"

"No. After what happened here, I left home as soon as I turned eighteen, enlisted in the Army. I served for a few years, and when I got out, a buddy and I opened a bar. Running the business takes up most of my time."

She offered a tentative smile. "So things are going well for you?"

I tried to laugh, but it emerged from my throat as a low growl. "Does it look like things are going well for me, Alma?"

Red blotches appeared on her chest and neck. "Reed, you don't know how many times I've wanted to look you up and call to tell you I'm sorry. But for God's sake, we were kids."

I pointed a finger at her. "Don't you dare make excuses for yourself. You sat in this house and listened to your dad threaten to kill me, and you didn't say a fucking word."

She pulled at her tank top as though it were choking her. "I was terrified. Couldn't you see that? Do you know what Daddy would have done to me if I'd told the truth? I never thought your parents would turn on you the way they did."

I leaned back in the glider and closed my eyes, resisting the urge to grab her shoulders and shake her until something came loose in her brain and spilled from her mouth, something more useful than I'm sorry.

"I remember everything about that day," I said. "You wore a pale blue dress with little spaghetti straps. You stayed out of the sun so you wouldn't burn."

"Reed, don't."

The pleading in her voice made me sit up and peer at her. In the late morning light, she looked just like the girl I once knew, and I rubbed my eyes to erase the illusion.

I went on speaking. She finally stopped protesting and grew still in that unnerving way of hers, sitting at my feet like a child as she listened to the story I told.



I sipped a cup of coffee at Granddad's kitchen table, barely able to keep my eyes open. Alma sat across from me, yawning over a bowl of cereal, while Elisa nodded off in the chair beside her. We had stayed up late the night before, engaged in a Monopoly marathon. Alma won two games out of three, and I didn't think she would ever let me forget it.

That Saturday morning, Granddad, my father, and my uncle Hank sat at the other end of the table. As Dad recounted some childhood memory, Granddad's lined face brightened, and I realized how happy it made the old man to see his two sons together. A widower for five years now, he lived alone in this house where he and Grandma raised a family.

Though we lived three hours away, my parents and I visited every month. Uncle Hank and his wife Cheri brought their girls back to the mountains less often, but we still saw them several times a year.

Cheri and Mom chatted as they washed the breakfast dishes, and Hank drained his coffee cup. "So what's the plan for today?" he asked Granddad.

Granddad clasped his hands over his belly and settled back in the chair. "If it ain't too much trouble, I'd like to go see Howard in Woodville."

Elisa perked up at the mention of Granddad's brother. "Please don't make me go to his house again." Just shy of twelve years old, she could still get away with whining. "I'll be bored to tears. He doesn't even have a television."

Alma snorted as she carried her bowl to the sink. "Oh, the horror!"

"Dad, let me and Alma and Reed stay here," Elisa begged. "Reed's almost eighteen. He can watch us while you're gone." Hank's rigid features softened; it was painfully obvious that Elisa was his favorite. He turned to me, eyebrows raised. "Reed, if we let y'all stay here, will you be sure to watch after the girls?"

"Yes, sir."

Alma stood behind Hank, and she made a face at me, sticking out her tongue and crossing her eyes. I had to look away before I laughed.

An hour later, my cousins and I gathered on the porch as our parents and Granddad climbed into Hank's car. Before they pulled away, Cheri rolled down the window and ordered us to stay at the house.

Once they were gone, Elisa carried an old lawn chair from the shed and set it in the front yard. She flopped into it and closed her eyes, basking in the August heat.

Alma and I sat together on the porch glider. "So you're all done with high school now," she said. "Lucky you."

I stretched my arms over my head and let out a contented groan. "Yep. Now it's off to the community college in a couple of weeks."

"What do you want to study?" She swatted at a mosquito on her arm.

"Criminal Justice, so I can go into law enforcement."

Alma leaned back to consider me. "I can see you flashing your badge and carrying a gun, chasing the bad guys."

I couldn't hold back a smile. "You think?"

She nodded and stretched out her legs, pushing her feet against the porch floor so the glider moved beneath us. "Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Not at the moment." I placed my legs alongside hers and helped push. "What about you? I bet you're breaking a lot of hearts these days."

She snickered and shook her head. "Not me."

I nudged her with my elbow. "Come on now, 'fess up."

Alma's fair skin flushed red. "I'm telling the truth!" Her giddy laughter let me know she enjoyed my teasing.

"You be sure to warn your boyfriends that I'll kick their asses if they step out of line."

She erupted into giggles, ducking her head. "Okay, I'll tell them."

I slapped my palms against my thighs. "So you do have a bunch of boys chasing you! Now the truth comes out."

She laughed harder. "No, no, that's not what I meant."

Elisa craned her neck toward us. "Ain't anyone interested in her, Reed. She's never even had a boyfriend."

Alma folded her arms over her chest. "Shut your mouth, Elisa. You don't know anything."

Elisa pressed a finger against her forearm to check her tan. Unlike me and Alma, she had an olive complexion and blonde curls that lightened in the sun. "I know that no one invited you to the spring dance."

Alma stood fast enough to give the glider a violent jolt. "I've got a headache," she said to me. "I'm going to lie down for a bit."

"Granddad has some aspirin in the medicine cabinet."

"I'll be okay." Alma leaned on the porch railing and glared at Elisa. "I hope you get one hell of a sunburn, you little brat."

Elisa waved a dismissive hand. "You're just jealous because you don't tan. You're white as a sheet."

Alma went inside, and I stayed put on the glider, eyes closed. The sound of the creek lulled me into a light sleep.

"Hey, Reed," Elisa called, "if I'm really nice to you, will you go get my portable CD player from the back bedroom?"

I climbed to my feet. "Only if you're really nice to Alma, too."

Elisa grinned. "Where's the fun in that?"

I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. As I gulped it down, I gazed out the window above the sink. Granddad's closest neighbors lived a half mile down the road, and I could barely see their rooftop through the trees.

I walked down the hall, passing Granddad's room and then the spare room my parents shared when we visited. As the sole male grandchild, I was relegated to sleeping on the sofa in the front room, while Alma and Elisa shared a rollaway bed in Granddad's rarely used dining room. Hank and Cheri stayed in the back bedroom, and I now found its door closed.

I rapped lightly. "Hey, Alma, I need to get Elisa's CD player." I opened the door without waiting for her to answer, figuring she was already asleep.

Alma lay on the bed, her slender legs spread wide and bent at the knees. The hem of her dress was drawn up to her waist, and a pair of plain white underwear dangled from her ankle. Her right hand rested between her thighs.

The blood rushed to my face so fast that I grew dizzy. Sputtering an apology, I squeezed my eyes shut and turned to flee.

"Reed." Alma's voice, tinged with urgency, made me freeze. I kept my back to her, gripping the doorknob. "Wait," she said.

I looked over my shoulder. She hadn't lowered her dress or moved her hand from between her legs. Her eyes were unfocused as she stared up at me, and strands of hair clung to her damp forehead. I hated the sound of my hard breaths filling the otherwise quiet room. My brain commanded me to run, but my feet wouldn't cooperate.

"Alma." Her name was a warning on my lips.

Approaching footsteps drew my attention to the hallway. Elisa stood just outside the room and gaped at us. "What are y'all doing?" Her words were high-pitched, bordering on hysterical.

In my peripheral vision, I saw Alma scramble to pull on her clothes. "Elisa, get out of here," she shouted.

Elisa took two steps backward. "I'm telling," she said, then spun around and sprinted down the hall.

Alma and I took off running and caught up with Elisa at the creek. She stood with her hands braced against her knees. "Y'all are sick," she panted. "Get away from me."

Alma grabbed her sister's arm and shook her. "We weren't doing anything. Now you better keep your damn mouth shut."

Elisa jerked away and ran to the house, where she locked herself in the back bedroom.

Out on the porch, I propped myself against the railing, shaking my head as though I'd been struck. "How are we going to explain this?" I asked Alma.

She sat on the steps, knees drawn to her chin. "We'll say she's lying."

I was dripping sweat; my t-shirt clung to me like a second skin. "Uncle Hank will never believe that. As far as he's concerned, whatever Elisa says is gospel."

Alma cupped a palm over her mouth. "He'll kill me," she muttered through her fingers.

I wanted to tell her she was overreacting, but I couldn't convince myself. I feared he would kill us both.

Our parents and Granddad returned at half past four that afternoon. Cheri talked of frying pork chops for dinner. Mom paused to regard me and Alma sitting on the porch. "Everything okay?" she asked.

I nodded. "Everything's fine."

"Where's Elisa?"

"In the back bedroom."

Granddad ruffled Alma's hair. "You kids should have gone with us. We had a real nice time."

Elisa didn't appear until Cheri called her for dinner. She refused to look at me and Alma as she sat down at the table. During the meal, I sneaked glances at my cousins. Elisa pushed food around her plate, while Alma ate as fast as she could.

"You girls are awfully quiet," Mom said.

Those words held the key to unlock Elisa's speech. "While y'all were gone," she blurted, "I caught Alma and Reed in the back room. Alma was on the bed, and she had her dress up and her underwear down..."

The silence that descended on the table was so thick I could hear the blood pounding in my ears. Then a snarl rattled in Hank's throat, growing louder with each passing second. He jumped to his feet and lunged, taking a swing at me. "I asked you to look after them, you little shit."

"Daddy," Alma said.

He turned on her like a wild animal drawn to easier prey. "Shut your goddamned mouth."

"Now wait a minute," Granddad said.

I tried to lure Hank's attention back to me. "Nothing happened. I accidentally walked in on Alma changing, and I was about to leave when Elisa saw me."

"You're a liar!" Elisa screamed. Her face grew taut with rage. "Alma was on the bed and touching herself where she shouldn't be."

My lips moved, but I couldn't form words. I sought out my mother. "That's not what happened," I told her, but her eyes grew wide at my feeble protest, and I knew she saw through the lie. I looked at Granddad. He sat at the head of the table, rendered helpless by age and his oldest son's fury.

Hank's nostrils flared as he loomed over Alma. "Did Reed make you do something you didn't want to?" he asked.

Alma's stare locked with mine. I desperately needed a drink; my throat tightened, and I feared I would choke. She opened her mouth, and I waited for the truth to tumble out like a rotten carcass, but her face crumpled and she began to sob. Cheri hurried over to Alma and led her from the table.

"I didn't make her do anything," I said.

Hank's ruddy face darkened to crimson as he turned to Dad. "Get him out of here, Phillip. I swear to God, I'll kill him if I ever see him again."

I waited for my father to defend me against the brother he so admired. Dad looked from me to my mother, and his shoulders sagged. "Take him to the car, Valerie. I'll get our things."

Mom positioned herself between me and Hank as she came to stand at my side.

I slammed my hands down on the table, almost overturning my glass of tea. "I didn't do anything wrong." My trembling voice filled me with shame.

Granddad leaned forward and covered my hand with his. "It's okay, Reed. Just go on outside for a bit."

I stared into his kind face and realized he was the only one who hadn't betrayed me. My eyes watered, but I simply nodded and did as he said.

Mom didn't try to touch me as I stormed to the car. She didn't ask for the truth. Even after I slid into the backseat, she remained outside and waited for Dad. I noticed the gray in her hair and the lines around her eyes. She seemed to have aged ten years in the last half hour.

Dad lugged our suitcases down the porch steps, and I made no move to help him put the bags in the trunk. After my parents got in the car and Dad started the engine, I glanced up and saw Granddad standing at the front door, his hand raised in farewell.

My parents didn't speak. I closed my eyes, willing the pain in my head to subside. Before we drove out of the mountains, I bolted upright and told Dad to stop the car. He gave me a questioning look in the rearview mirror. "I'm going to be sick," I said.

He pulled onto the shoulder, and I threw open the door and vomited up what little food I'd eaten. When I slumped against the seat, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I looked once more to my mother for comfort, but she kept her eyes focused on the road ahead.



"Things were never the same," I told Alma. "Mom avoided me. If I came into the room, she left. She began spending most of her hours after work volunteering at our church. Dad was polite, making small talk to fill the silence at meals, but I could tell he was counting the days until I turned eighteen. He couldn't stand the tension between Mom and me."

Silent tears coursed down Alma's cheeks and spotted her shirt. Even though her nose was leaking, she didn't raise her head. "I don't understand why Valerie treated you that way."

"We never had anything to do with Mom's family. Dad once told me that Mom's brother hurt her when she was a child. He refused to say how, but I'm pretty sure I know. Maybe she looked at me that evening and saw her brother." I paused and took a deep breath. I would not cry in front of Alma. I would not shed another tear for these people I no longer considered family. "When I turned eighteen, I enlisted in the Army. I didn't have anywhere else to go, and it kept me out of trouble. I served for four years, long enough to get my head together. My buddy Seth and I received our discharge papers at the same time, and it was his idea to open a bar. We've been running it since."

Alma finally looked up, her lips quaking. "I think about what happened every day, Reed. I wish I could go back and make it right." She cried harder, gasping as she struggled to speak. "I've never been able to forgive myself. I went to college and became a teacher, and I saw a therapist for years. I tried to date, but I couldn't be intimate with a man. It felt... wrong, dirty. I kept remembering what happened -"

"I don't want to hear this," I said. Flakes of paint stuck to my jeans when I rose from the glider, and I brushed at them on my way to the steps.

"I tried to kill myself."

I froze on the porch and closed my eyes.

"No one ever tells you how hard it is," she went on. "Do you know how deep you have to slice your arm to open an artery? Or the number of pills you need to wash down with booze, just enough so you don't puke them all up like I did?"

My back ached with tension, but I found myself turning toward her. "What do you want from me, Alma?"

She stood and scrubbed her face with her palms. "Let me fix you something to eat before you leave."



Granddad's old recliner had been replaced with a newer model in the front room, and I imagined him drifting to sleep in it. Photographs of him and Grandma hung on the walls, along with those of my parents and Hank and his family. I saw that Granddad never took down my high school graduation picture.

I followed Alma to the kitchen and slumped into Granddad's chair at the head of the table. The appliances were updated and the walls freshly painted.

"You plan on living here now?" I asked Alma as she fixed a ham and cheese sandwich.

"For the time being. When Granddad got really sick, I quit my teaching job in Louisville so I could take care of him. I hate to think of selling this place, but I figure I'll have to eventually. There's no work back here." She set the plate before me, along with a glass of lemonade, and then sat down. "How did you know he died?"

As I took a sip of lemonade, my eyes searched her inner arm for a telltale scar. I saw it, faint but ragged, about three inches long. "I didn't get a call from him on my birthday earlier this month. He called every year, but I never answered. He always left a message telling me he loved me and hoped to see me soon. Like nothing ever happened."

"That's right," Alma said. "You just turned thirty-eight, didn't you?"

I nodded. "When he didn't call, I looked up the obituaries in the local paper online. He died just two days before my birthday." I cleared my throat and stared at the untouched sandwich. "Did he suffer a lot?"

"It was bad at the end. He was weak and in pain."

"Did he ever say anything about what happened?" My eyes stung with unshed tears.

"No, Reed. He never thought we did anything wrong." She leaned closer. "Do you remember when I was about twelve and went through that weird religious phase?"

I took a bite of sandwich so I wouldn't have to answer right away. "I remember," I finally said.

I thought she'd gone crazy that summer. She agonized over every real or imagined sin she committed and prayed dozens of times a day. She had nightmares of demons. None of us could convince her that she wasn't going to hell.

"You remember what Granddad did for me so I wouldn't be afraid anymore?"

Granddad told us he was gripped by the same religious fervor as a young man. It drove him to become a preacher, but he left the ministry after marrying Grandma, who claimed she wasn't cut out to be a preacher's wife. After that, he worked in insurance, but he could still quote the Bible better than anyone I knew.

One day, when Alma had worked herself into a fit of religious angst, Granddad led her through the woods behind the house. I watched from the trees as they removed their shoes and waded into the creek. At its deepest point, the water reached Alma's waist.

"He said the creek would cleanse me," she murmured, smoothing the tablecloth beneath her hand. "The water would flow over my body and carry all my sins downstream to the New River." Her eyes met mine. "Do you remember what he said when he dunked me under the water?" I pushed my plate aside and nodded. Alma reached across the table and squeezed my fingers so hard I winced. "Take me to the creek, Reed."

I couldn't help but laugh. "I ain't no preacher."

"It isn't God who can grant me forgiveness."



I followed her down the path, now overgrown with weeds. It was clear no one had been to the creek in a long time. "Watch out for snakes," I warned.

Alma strode ahead, her hair falling in a dark curtain over her back. We stood on the bank, and she placed a hand on my arm to steady herself as she removed her tennis shoes. I pulled off my own shoes and looked around. We were alone out here. By mid-September, it was too cold for swimming.

Alma waded into the creek, gasping at the shock of icy water. She stumbled on one of the slick stones under her feet. I walked in after her and released a whoop as the water soaked through my pants legs and reached my skin. Alma slogged to the middle of the creek and turned to me, her teeth chattering.

"We can't stay out here long." I closed the distance between us.

"I know," she said.

I hesitated before her, unsure, but Alma's pleading eyes prompted me to grab her shoulders and turn her sideways. My movements were awkward as I placed a hand against her back. Her hair coiled around my arm. "Ready?" I asked.

Alma nodded and crossed her arms over her chest. I dipped her backward, holding her body before me like an offering. She closed her eyes, and I lowered her farther into the water until she was entirely submerged. Her skin was stark white against the murky gray-green of the creek. She felt so small and weak in my grasp. I pressed my free hand to her forehead. My brain fixed upon the image of me holding her underwater long after she stopped fighting and grew still.

I pulled her from the creek, and she sucked in a lungful of air. Her face broke, the way it did twenty years ago when she had the chance to save me and found she couldn't. Now her hand sought mine. "You have to say it," she wailed. "Please, Reed. Tell me what Granddad used to say."

I cradled Alma in my arms and ached to lie with her beneath the frigid water until it washed us clean of the past twenty years. Lowering my lips to her ear, I whispered, "Go forth, my child, and sin no more."

9 comments:

  1. this is absolutely superb! characters, dialogue story, the works. made me think of the American Gothic genre.
    really, well done!

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. This is an incredibly moving piece, it absolutely works as Michael has said. The apparently non-negotiable pain from the past, the ties that bind, and the mercy bequeathed by the grandfather that effectively leads to redemption for these two, reflects arcane truths. Fantastically well done ,
    Ceinwen Haydon

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  3. A great story, well told! Believable characters, plot development and an ending that couldn't have been bettered. It was very touching and held the seeds of redemption for both characters, leading the reader to believe in a new beginning for both.
    Beryl

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  4. Nicely written. I enjoyed reading this.

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  5. Excellent brief story. Superbly well penned...
    Some memories might be carried away by the creek… But not all of them
    Reed and Alma. Alma wearing a pale blue dress with little spaghetti straps. Alma and reed in a bedroom… A furtive presence which becomes a judging eyewitness, Elisa…
    A weird religious phase, excuses and guilt.
    A grandfather’s funeral… A grandad who passed away and who used to say: “Go forth, my child, and sin no more.”
    Thanks for sharing. Congratulations to the author!, Aquileana :)

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  6. At the risk of offending evangelists I'm unable to understand the significance of faith in this piece. The family are positively bristling neuroses. Reed seems to be the only 'normal' person, and it's pretty clear than even revered old granddad has weakly indulged his redneck male chauvinistic son Hank over the years. The fear by Reed's mother of a 'carbon copy' sexual advance is a highly convincing dramatic device to further obscure the truth. I must say I was shaking in my shoes wondering what else was going to happen to worsen this tribal mess.
    I liked the prose, and the abrupt dialogue of the opening scene really helps to prepare the reader for tense moments.
    Brooke

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  7. Thanks, everyone, for all of your comments. I appreciate you reading my story and sharing your thoughts about it here.

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  8. Hi Miranda, I found this a captivating and very well written story that had me reading. It seemed that the shame of the incident was exaggerated by the family members to the extreme, but then that was the crucial point of the story. I wasn't convinced about the attempted suicide as that seemed rather extreme. Having grown up with sisters who were deliberately mischievous where I got the blame for everything and boy did they play that card often, yes, my sympathies were with Reed.

    James McEwan

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  9. Miranda, this story gave me chills. It reminded me of the novel Atonement--similar misunderstanding and similar high emotional content. The fact that you were able to achieve this in such few words is remarkable!

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