Every few weeks we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices feature. The next in our series – ‘Crossing Cut Creek’. Read an interview with the author, Erin McMillan, here.
Crossing Cut Creek
‘Laurie, hon,’ Grandma said. She leaned through the sliding glass door, kissing Mama on the cheek. ‘It’s not Tuesday already, is it?’
Tuesday was the day that Mama usually took us to Grandma’s to make out her grocery list. They would drink coffee and sit at the kitchen table, Mama blowing her smoke through the screen door. Me and Keller would sit on the steps outside the back door, or kick down anthills, or run through the stiff patches of grass across the spongy field behind Grandma’s house.
‘No, Ann,’ Mama said, ‘it’s Monday.’
Grandma raised her eyebrows, but Mama just shrugged her thin brown shoulders. The faded red straps of her tank top slid along her collarbone. Grandma made a humming noise, then opened the door wider.
‘Get in here,’ she said, ‘out of that hot sun.’
It was early in the day, but thick and glaring, the way that deep August days are in northern Florida. Grandma gave each of our shoulders a squeeze as we came through the door. Her kitchen was a long, wide room, with shining beige linoleum. The kitchen table sat near the sliding door, white-painted wrought iron, with a thick slab of glass across the top. The matching chairs had round lime-green vinyl cushions that Grandma made herself. They made a thick whooshing noise, and sank slowly, when you sat down on them. Grandma steered Mama towards a chair and sat across from her, reaching to cup Mama’s hands in her own.
‘Dawn, go get your mama an ashtray,’ she said to me. I opened the drawer and scrabbled around like I was looking for something, even though the ashtrays were stacked right in front.
‘Now,’ Grandma said, ‘what’s all this?’
‘Jerry left again,’ Mama said in a low voice.
‘Dawn,’ Grandma said, without looking up, ‘hurry up with that ashtray.’
I looked down at the wavering stack of ashtrays, four high. On top was the thick square amber glass one with the gold Elks Lodge logo.
‘He’s my son,’ Grandma said to Mama, ‘but I warned you when you married him.’
‘Not like I had a lot of choice,’ Mama said.
I pulled my favourite ashtray from the bottom of the stack, a thin, round wafer of cut glass with a low lip around the edge. I always liked the way Mama’s hands looked, her pale oval fingernails, as she flicked her cigarette into that ashtray. Fingering the sharp ridges of bevelled glass on the bottom, I carried it over to the table and set it in front of Mama.
‘Now you go on,’ Grandma said, ‘take Keller outside.’
‘Why do I always have to watch him?’
‘You are eleven.’ Grandma finally looked up at me. ‘And Keller is six. Go on now,’ she said, ‘and don’t cross the road.’ Then she turned back to Mama, who lit up one of her long brown cigarettes. Keller was pushing his toy car along the seams in the linoleum. I held my hand out to him. He slipped the car into his pocket, and together we went outside. Grandma slid the glass door shut behind us.
Keller jumped down the steps and sat cross-legged on the patio. Red bricks were turned onto their sides and pushed into the dirt in long criss-crossing lines to make a pattern of diamonds. The edge of the patio was jagged, the diamonds pointing out into the yard like the edge of Grandma’s lace curtains. She was particular about her patio. Daddy had laid it out for her for Mother’s Day one year. She swept the sandy soil of the yard back from the edges, and pulled the thick grass that sprung up between the bricks, now sunbleached and crumbling. Keller pulled his car from his pocket and pushed it through the gravel, plowing furrows in the chips of reddish stone.
I sat sideways on the steps, my back against the twisting bars of the iron railing. I could see Grandma’s face, the back of Mama’s head. I watched through the glass, straining my eyes all the way to the corners. Mama’s hands fluttered through the air like nervous birds. They touched Grandma’s hands, her own hair, the edge of a placemat. Grandma stood up, disappeared to the other corner of the kitchen and came back with her ice-tea pitcher. She filled two glasses and sat back down. Mama’s hands came to rest, landing one on top of the other.
‘Keller.’ I stood up and dusted off the seat of my shorts. ‘Let’s go into the woods.’
‘We can’t cross the road,’ he said, but he followed me anyway.
We crossed the asphalt and skidded on our heels down into the ditch, then up the other side to where the pines began, narrow trunks with branches too high to reach. The state planted them in straight rows, perfectly spaced, like columns in a church. Keller veered off, running and whooping.
I chose a row and walked down it, deeper and deeper, each step releasing the scent of musty pine. I stopped and looked right, left, behind and ahead of me. No matter what direction, I could look down the rows to forever and see nothing but the same, the same, the same. I sat at the base of a tree, leaned my head back, and stared up to where the green began. The long trunks of the trees around me stretched and curved, their feathery tops wavering in the wind, gathering at the centre of my vision.
I had seen Mama mad at Daddy before. He could rattle her like no one else. Usually by the time we got up in the morning he was long gone. He worked construction, mostly out of town. Half the time he stayed over in motels, came home Friday night and went right to bed. On Saturdays he lay on the couch watching football. Sundays he would pack his duffle bag and go to bed in the afternoon, to get ready for the truck that would pull into our driveway on Monday morning, headlights on, when the sky was still dark blue.
But when I woke up that Monday morning, there he was in the kitchen with Mama. They stood side by side, facing the counter, shoulders hunched. I stopped in the doorway, my hands gripping the trim. They murmured in tight voices, the way voices get lower when they’re trying not to yell. Keller was already at the table with his glass of juice and bowl of cereal. I got a bowl from the cabinet, and a spoon, and slid into my chair.
‘Daddy,’ I said, ‘you don’t have to go to work?’
He turned around. Mama stayed facing the counter, her hands braced against the edge. She leaned forward, her head bent.
‘Morning, sugar.’ Daddy reached over and ruffled my hair. ‘Nope. I got rid of that crummy job.’
‘You can stay home with us now,’ I said.
‘Yeah, Jerry,’ Mama said, still facing the counter, ‘now you can stay home with us.’
‘Well,’ he said.
I tried to think of something he’d like to do. ‘We could play catch,’ I said.
He rubbed his fingertips over his chin.
‘Football,’ I added, even though I couldn’t throw it right. I was much better at baseball. I looked over at Keller, and he nodded.
‘Sorry, kiddo,’ Daddy said, ‘I’ve got my eye on something. I’ve got to go check it out.’
Mama snorted and shook her head. I looked over by the door. Instead of his usual nylon duffle bag with the white webbing handles, there was a square black bag, sides bulging, sitting under the coat rack.
‘But you’ll be back on Friday,’ I said.
‘Might be gone a little longer this time,’ he said, ‘gotta check this out.’ He slid his hand through my hair as he walked to the door. ‘Take care of your brother.’ He picked up his bag, and the screen door snapped closed behind him with a hollow metallic bang.
When Mama and Daddy fought, usually she hollered, and he left. Then she would stomp around and grumble. This time, she just sat at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around her coffee mug, smoke drifting up from the cigarette in the ashtray next to her.
Keller and I ate our cereal, and Mama stared out the window. While we ate, I told Keller about the dream I had the night before. It was our breakfast ritual, and even if I didn’t remember my dream, I made one up. He didn’t know the difference. When we were done eating, I took our bowls and glasses to the sink. Keller, as usual, had spilled his orange juice, so I got the sponge from its dish next to the faucet. I was wiping his spill, when Mama’s head swung from the window and focused on me.
‘Get Keller in the car,’ she said, ‘we’re going to Grandma’s.’
Mama stubbed her cigarette out. Keller and I pulled our shoes on and ran out the back door. She followed behind with her purse, keys jangling in her fingers.
‘I get the window,’ Keller shouted as he skipped. Thick dust rose in clouds around his shoes.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I get it.’
‘You always get it.’
‘I’m oldest,’ I said, ‘the window’s mine.’
‘But I want it this time!’ Keller’s voice rose and wobbled.
‘For God’s sake,’ Mama said, ‘Dawn, give your brother the window seat.’
‘But I’m oldest,’ I said.
‘Then act like it.’ Mama wrenched open the door to the truck.
I climbed up into the cab and slid along the bench seat. Keller got in behind me and sat back with satisfaction as I leaned over him and pulled the door shut, buckled his seatbelt and flipped the chest strap behind his head.
Mama slid in next to me. ‘Dawn,’ she said, running her hand down my arm. My feet were perched on the high hump between the seats, and my knees jutted up. I wrapped my arms around them and stared out the windshield. It had a big crack that ran diagonally from one corner to another, branching off into smaller cracks along the way, like rivers on a map. I wanted to trace them with my finger, to feel the sharp edges of the wavering lines.
‘Dawn, look at me.’ She put her finger on my chin and turned my head. ‘Thank you for giving Keller the window.’
I nodded, leaned over Keller and rolled the window down. She pushed the keys into the ignition and started the truck, pumping the gas pedal until the engine caught. Mama was driving Daddy’s pick-up, the one he used for hauling firewood. Daddy had said he would fix her car, but he hadn’t yet, so Mama was stuck with the old truck, no air conditioning and a broken gas gauge.
The day was hot and windless, the sky a clear, parched blue. Because it was morning, sun low in the sky, the roads were mostly shaded by the long shadows of trees. When we did drive into patches of sun, the heat was a thick blanket, sudden and suffocating. A loose stick of firewood in the bed of the truck rolled from side to side whenever we turned. Rounded stones held down a blue tarp. The edges flapped loose in the wind, and grommets tinked against the metal floor.
‘This truck was born the same year as me, Dawn Marie,’ Mama shouted over the wind from the open windows, ‘twenty-nine years ago.’
It was the only thing she said during the trip to Grandma’s house. Mama and Grandma always got along. Daddy used to tease her about it, about how she stole his mama. When she was troubled, she went to Grandma’s. I went to the woods, and walked far back into the trees.
The pine trees dripped with sap. Slow-moving amber beads ran down through shaggy bark that flaked and fell to the ground. The flat sweet-smelling scales mixed and scattered in the rusty pine needles. The only sound was a distant hum from the highway, and the soft rustling of Keller’s shoes, scuffing across the forest floor. He held the hem of his shirt with one hand, and filled it with chips of bark. Arms coated with dirt, studded with pine needles, he knelt in front of me and dropped the hem of his shirt. The scales tumbled into my lap, their rosy brown undersides sticky with sap.
He stuck a flake of bark to my chin. I peeled it off and pushed my fingertip against the gummy spot it left. I stuck the sappy chip to his T-shirt. He stuck it to the end of my nose. To his knee, to my arm, to his cheek, to my neck. I grabbed a handful from my lap and, starting just above the tops of his tube socks, I armoured him, spiralling up his body, overlapping the sticky chips like feathers on a bird’s wing. When I was done, only his clothing, face and hair, and the palms of his hands were uncovered. He was a patchwork of grey and pink and brown and rust. I picked up a handful of dirt and needles and scrubbed them through his hair.
‘Stop it,’ I said, when he started to squirm.
‘Dawn Marie.’ His mouth was open, pink and wet in his dirty face.
‘It’s for your own good.’ I ground the dirt into his scalp, harder and harder. He trembled, and I pushed him away, and started back towards the highway.
He followed behind me with a stiff-legged walk. I found him a good-sized stick, as thick as his skinny arm and about as long. I handed it to him.
‘Are you ready?’ I said.
Keller held the stick in both hands, propped against his shoulder like a baseball bat.
‘It’s too heavy,’ he complained.
‘I’ll carry it for now,’ I said, ‘until we get to the road. But after that, you have to do it yourself.’
We clambered up through the thick grass of the ditch and onto the gravel shoulder of the road. I gave Keller his stick, and he dragged it behind him, across the road and up Grandma’s yard. The sliding door was still shut. We stood in front of it, and our reflections wavered in the glass like ghosts, floating in front of Mama and Grandma, still sitting at the table. Keller, covered in bark, his summer crewcut dark with dirt and full of pine needles. His stick dangled from one hand, the tip resting lightly on one untied sneaker. My bony shoulders pointed out of my tank top, long thin arms dotted with dirty patches of sticky sap. My face was smudged with dirt, my mouth spread in a wide, thin line.
Grandma looked up and saw us through the glass. Her hand went up to her mouth, and Mama’s head turned. I saw her lips move as she rose out of her chair. She slid the door open, and our reflections disappeared.
‘I cannot believe you two,’ Mama said.
‘Now, Laurie,’ Grandma said, following her out the door.
‘That is it.’ Mama pushed past us then whirled around at the foot of the steps. Grandma stood behind us, her hand brushing the dirt out of Keller’s hair.
‘I’m leaving to get a few of your things,’ Mama said.
‘Leaving?’ I looked up at Grandma. She licked her thumb and rubbed it against the sticky spot on my chin. Keller dropped his stick.
‘You’re going to stay at Grandma’s for a while,’ Mama said. ‘I’ll be back by supper, with your clothes.’
Keller and I looked at each other.
‘Laurie,’ Grandma said, ‘why don’t you take them home, get ’em cleaned up. Bring them back here tonight after supper, if you still want.’
‘Fine,’ Mama said. ‘Dawn, get yourself and your brother in the truck.’
‘Grandma,’ I said.
‘I’m not asking,’ Mama said. She got in the truck. The engine rumbled to life and she looked out the window at us.
Grandma crouched down between us and put her arms around our waists. ‘Go on, honey,’ she said to me. ‘You and Keller come back tonight. We’ll have some fun.’
I boosted Keller up into the truck. He left a trail of bark shards on the seat as he climbed across to the middle. I got in after him and fastened his seat belt, then fastened my own and sat cross-legged. Mama put the truck in reverse and backed down the driveway.
‘Dawn Marie,’ she said.
‘When we get home, I need you to help your brother pack. Sleeping bags and pyjamas.’ She listed things off, flicking another finger with each item, one, two, three, four, thumb. Heat glared off the hood of the pickup as it shivered down the washboard gravel road. I nodded, swaying and bouncing. Keller’s legs dangled off the seat, knees and shoelaces jiggling.
‘Dawn,’ she said, ‘are you listening to me?’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ I propped my elbow in the open window and squinted against the sun. Thick wings of hot air beat against my cheek..
Mama gripped the steering wheel and drove straight on. Usually she dodged bad patches of road, but today she took everything head on. She didn’t even slow before the Cut Creek bridge for the bump we all knew was there, the seam where the gravel road met concrete.
Cut Creek wasn’t much of a creek. It was more a wide clear trail of water wandering through the reeds. The bridge was short and wide, with metal guard rails along the sides. Old men and women in lawn chairs lined up along the creek near the bridge, fishing poles propped in buckets at their feet. Their heads swivelled when our truck came around the curve, gravel popping under the tyres, diesel engine roaring.
The truck dipped down and jumped upwards at the seam of the bridge. All four wheels left the ground. I floated off my seat, legs still crossed. The sun drifted through the windows and filled the dusty cab. The windshield became a thick sheet of gold. Light rose over Mama’s tanned arms, Keller’s dirty hair. The air was thick with colour and swirling dust, and we were still, suspended in it.
The truck landed, and the seat belt snapped against my chest, edge zipping under my jaw. Keller flopped like a rag doll. The loud grind of tyres on gravel-scattered concrete rang through my open window as we skidded down the bridge. Mama swung the wheel, first one way, then the other. The truck twisted, shuddered and stopped.
The engine cut out. It was almost like nothing had happened, like we’d stopped to look down the length of lazy Cut Creek and ask the old people about their catch. I touched the hot, raw scrape the seat belt had burned under my jaw, and looked across the cab at Mama. Her hands were still wrapped around the steering wheel. She blinked. I hoped she could still drive. I was too young, and there was no one else.
‘You can’t leave us,’ I said.
Keller shook his head from side to side. His lips trembled, as if a wail was working its way up. There was a red spot on his forehead where he’d banged himself on the dashboard. I put my fingers on Keller’s chin, and turned his head towards me. I ran my fingers through his dusty grey brush of hair, pulled off a piece of bark still clinging to his neck.
Mama turned towards us. ‘Everyone okay?’ Her voice was thin, stretched tight. We both nodded.
She started the truck and drove home slow. The dust churned up behind us wasn’t rolling clouds like usual, just a low haze simmering a few inches off the road.
When we pulled up in front of the house, I unbuckled our seatbelts. I got out of the truck and turned to help Keller down, but Mama came around to our side, leaned in and lifted him into her arms. He wrapped his legs around her waist. She put her hand on my head as we walked up the back steps. Mama kept walking, Keller still wrapped around her waist, through the kitchen and living room. Her steps creaked up wooden stairs, then down the hallway to the bathroom.
The dirty ashtray and cold coffee still sat on the table where Mama had left them that morning. I emptied the ashtray into the trash and took her mug to the sink. The chicken for dinner was defrosting in the refrigerator, so I took it out and set it on the counter. Water murmured through the pipes overhead as Mama ran Keller’s bath.
I went back out the door and down the stairs, past the truck. The door handles winked at me in the low evening sun. I walked into the garden, scuffed my toes through the hot sandy dirt. The corn reached far over my head. I walked down the shallow trough between two rows, until I couldn’t see the house when I turned around. The stalks were thick as branches, pale bleached green, dirt piled high around the roots. I grabbed the hem of my tank top with one hand, and with the other, broke off six ears and put them in my shirt. The straps of my top cut into my shoulders, pulled by their weight. All the warmth that the corn had absorbed that day seeped through the fabric and sunk deep into my skin. I wrapped my arms around the bundle and pressed it to my stomach.
The bottom step of the back porch was one thick grey plank of wood, silvery and soft, edges curved up from years of sun and rain. I sat down, dropped the corn in the dirt between my feet, and picked up the first ear. The tough, faded outer leaves gave way with a soft ripping noise. Singed brown silk erupted from the top of the ear. I wrapped my fingers around it and snapped it off. The thin damp greeny-yellow inner leaves squeaked, layer by layer, as I pulled them away. The last leaves, fine and pale as skin, were imprinted with the shape of the firm, cool kernels beneath, and the silk that wound among them. I stacked the ears of corn on the step next to me. They glowed, pale yellow and pearly, scraped bare.