Up Creek

creek in forest up creek victoria griffin

Originally published in Flare: The Flagler Review, edition now unavailable

***

The day of my high school graduation, my mom asked me why I eat so much peanut butter.

“It sticks to your ribs,” she told me.

“I know,” I said, smoothing my dress before sitting down on the bench. We had climbed the ramp to the arena entrance—a solid half-mile of walking—and Mom was tired. We had come early so I still had twenty minutes before I had to be in line with the other graduates. “That’s why I eat it. So I feel full.”

“No, honey, it sticks to your ribs. Builds up over time. When you get to be my age your rib bones will look like giant hot dogs under your skin. The doctor will have to go in with one of those sucking things like they use to get plaque off your teeth. You don’t want to go through that, honey. All the scars and everything.”

I sighed. “Yes, Mom.”

I couldn’t keep from looking around to see who had heard. An old man with a cane eyed us as he limped into the arena. A woman with too-high heels looked away when I made eye contact.

“Are you ready to go inside, Mom?”

“Hang on, honey, just let me rest up a minute. You know, it’s hard to watch your only daughter graduate high school. Makes my breath thicken a little bit.”

“You have another daughter, Mom. She’s in Florida, remember? Annie? And her husband, Jimmy, and daughter, May? Your little granddaughter?”

“Oh, yes, yes.” She waved me off. “Of course I know my own daughter. What kind of mother do you think I am? She really ought to be here, though. She’s a terrible aunt to you.”

“Sister, Mom. Annie’s my sister.”

“Of course she is, that’s what I said.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Are you ready to go inside now, honey? We’ve been sitting out here an awfully long time. The wind’s picking up, and it’s going to mess up my hair.”

I looked at my mother’s head, the sun reflecting off her bare scalp. I’d fought her this morning, trying to get her to put on the wig, but she kept tearing it off and throwing it across the room, yelling about spiders on her head.

“Yes, Mom. Let’s go inside.”

I found her a seat near the floor, and I made sure it was behind the stage so I could see if she tried to leave. This was the first time she’d been in a crowd this large since starting chemo. The treatments made the dementia so much worse.

I’d rather have a mother who can’t remember me than no mother at all.

I’d told myself that so many times it began to feel like a part of my brain—a ticker tape running behind my eyes twenty-four hours a day.

Surely she would get better again once the chemo stopped. Surely she would start to remember things and act normal. If she didn’t, we would be up creek. There were hospital bills on top of hospital bills, and the only money besides my measly part-time salary was the alimony she still got from my father—and child support, but in another two weeks I’d be eighteen and those checks would stop coming. My wages from Food City weren’t a lot for us to live on, but they were something. If I had to stay home all day and make sure Mom didn’t drown herself in the bathtub—then we might as well both drown ourselves. It would be better than starving.

A lot of the girls in line were wearing flats—that made me feel better about my black ballet shoes. Some of the girls were afraid of tripping while they walked across the stage, but I had wanted to wear heels anyway. I wore flat shoes so that I could chase Mom if she got away from me and so I could support her as we climbed up the ramp. It was alright, though. I would still look good in flats.

I wished someone were there to take pictures of me.

We made it almost through the ceremony—we marched in, took our seats, listened to the principle and the salutatorian and the valedictorian—before my mom started fidgeting. They began to call out names, and they almost made it to mine before she headed up the stairs. I nearly fell on my face climbing over the rows of classmates to follow her out, cussing my mother under my breath the entire time.

That probably wasn’t fair. It wasn’t her fault.

It also wasn’t fair that the makeup I had spent hours on was running down my face and that I would not get to stand on a stage and receive my high school diploma.

“Mom!” I flung open the outer door. The bright sun stung my eyes, and I shielded them with my cap, the tassel dangling stupidly. I walked down the first section of ramp so I could see the rest of the way down. No one.

How had she gotten away from me so quickly? I cantered down the ramp, glad of my choice of footwear and irritated that the choice had been warranted. I yelled for my mom. Nothing. When I made it to the parking lot, the car was gone.

That’s when my blood began to feel like melted iron. That’s when my eyes felt like balls of lead in my skull, rolling back and forth. That’s when the terror hit me, and I thought I might vomit.

I pulled my phone out of my bra and dialed 9-1-1, the recorded tones of each number like laces on a corset pulling tighter—tighter—tighter.

After I spoke with the operator, I hung up the phone and dropped it on the asphalt, my body collapsing behind it. My arms wrapped around my waist, and I dry-heaved but couldn’t manage to puke.

I was standing when the officer arrived—standing still and trying to be steady. He helped me into the passenger side and asked what sort of music I’d like. I told him none. He looked over my graduation robes but didn’t comment. I wanted to thank him for that.

He made sure my house key worked before he pulled out of the driveway, saying goodbye through the window of his vehicle. “We’ll let you know the second we find something.” I nodded and thanked him. He half-grinned and drove away.

I went in the front door and out the back, my graduation robes spilled somewhere in the living room, my wind nipping at the hem of my short dress, showing my thong to the squirrels as a ducked into the line of trees. The branches above me darkened the ground, textured with roots and pinecones. I ran, not hearing the cacophony of animals’ sounds, not hearing anything but the heaving of my breath—and the sound of running water.

A creek ran through the forest. I used to play near it when I was younger. Mom always warned me not to fall in. “It’s deeper than it looks.”

“Mom?”

She was kneeling at the edge of the water, her hands clasped in front of her, her head gleaming like the wet rocks peeking out of the water. She didn’t hear me call to her. I inched closer.

“Dear Lord,” she said, “please forgive me for my sins. Please forgive me.” She wrapped her arms around her belly, pressing her forehead into the mud. “I’m so sorry. I thought I loved him. I’m too young, I know that now. But it’s too late.”

I watched her body rock.

“I can’t have a baby, not now. What about high school? College? I couldn’t even support us by myself. I can’t take care of me, what would I do with a baby?”

Her words came in short bursts, half-obscured by the running water. She thinks she’s seventeen. She thinks it’s Annie in her belly.

“I can’t. I can’t.”

She rose to her knees. Then her feet. Her neck arched back, and she looked up at the sky—blue and cloudless. She stepped off the creek bank, into the water. I took a step forward, then stopped. The water came to her waist.

“Dear God, cleanse me of my sins. Let my blood run pure and clean as this water.”

I ran to the edge of the creek.

“I believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord, and my savior.”

I looked down at her as she sank into the water. It rippled against her chest.

“Please Lord, please baptize me…in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Forgive my sins.”

Her bald head sank beneath the water. I stood still on the creek bank. Then I hit my knees and prayed, but no amount of salty tears running down my flesh could cleanse me of my sin.