Tommy had never been afraid of the creek before Adam Croach drowned. Tommy had been baptized in it beside the little Methodist church at the end of the road four years, a whole president, ago, when he was eight. They dipped him in the water, just before it fed into the river, and then pulled him out brand spanking new. His mother cried and his father looked so proud. He remembers water pouring over his head. They said it meant he was made clean by God, all his sins washed into the mud and sent down the filthy Ohio.
Adam Croach drowned last March. He had been swept into the creek and down into the river. No one really knew what he was doing in the creek in March, in forty-five degree weather. They said he was probably going to check the heifers in the Croaches’ north field, or maybe he had been walking alongside in the field and dropped something in, or maybe he had fallen. He had probably been trying to check the heifers. The water only ever came up to his waist. In the summers everyone swam in the creek, in the pool below the bridge on the Armstrong’s farm, where the water was deep enough to cannonball. It was where kids learned to swim, where teenagers skinnydipped after the trailer park parties. Tommy had always thought of the creek as a neutral thing. Its level remains consistent even during the flood season, and in the summer it offers a cooler place outside, under the maples on the bank. It had rained the day before Adam had waded in to never wade back out, but the water looked the same, whispering through the ravine. Something had changed, or maybe something had always been lurking, dormant and then awakened, and the current grabbed him and held him down, washed him out into the river. He had floated past the power plant where Frances and Tommy’s father worked and past the little town that clung precariously to the floodplain, feet lifted up and never planted on something solid again. Adam’s body was wrangled out of the river twenty miles south at the locks and dam in Proctorville two days after he had been reported missing. A week earlier he had turned fourteen. On the bus they had sung to him, and Donna the bus driver had brought him a cupcake.
Today Tommy stands on one frostbitten creek bank, and beside him his sister puts one foot out on the ice.
“Be careful!” Tommy says, his voice higher than he wants it to be.
Frances shifts more weight to her ankle. Tommy holds his breath. The ice doesn’t move, doesn’t creak.
“I think it’s froze solid,” she says. “We can probably just cross here.”
He stares down at the creek and swallows. He hasn’t been this close to it in almost a year. “I think there’s a log further down we could cross on.”
“We could just go over the ice now,” she says. “It’ll hold our weight.” She moves her other foot to stand with both feet on the ice.
“Get back here!” It erupts from him without him formulating it. “Get back here,” he repeats, his voice shaking. “It’s not safe.” A vision of her slipping and busting her skull open on the ice worms into his mind, the ice opening up and her falling through and her palms pressed against it like a frigid window. She rolls her eyes at him but steps back to the bank, the snow crushing under her feet.
“The water’s not even that deep, Tommy,” she says. “Where’s this log you’re talking about at?”
“Downstream a ways, closer to the fence.”
She pouts. “It’d be so much faster to cross here,” she says. But she follows him through the bushes along the bank another twenty yards until they come to a narrower stretch. Back a few years ago, a summer storm had felled some of the trees in these woods, and one, a big locust, made a natural bridge. Frances steps onto it without a second thought and walks along its trunk to the other side, arms out for balance. She jumps down at the other bank and turns to watch Tommy.
He holds his breath and stares down at the tangle of roots and trunk.
“Chicken!” she calls.
“I’ll go back home!” he threatens.
“Oh, come on, chicken.” Her voice turns pleading. “Come on! It’s no fun without you.”
The water can’t be much more than up to his waist, and is now frozen, though if he fell on the ice there’s no telling what would happen: bruising and bleeding and drowning and dying. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, but if he did, he thinks Adam’s must be there, waiting to grab him by the ankle and pull him in. He doesn’t want to die young.
He steps up onto the trunk and wobbles across. On the other sideFrances smiles encouragingly. Underneath the ice stays still, and when he hits the shore, he realizes his hands are shaking.
“Come on,” Frances says. “They’re right there!” Tommy can hear, too. Just beyond the trees the other neighbor kids are sledding. Whoops and laughter, muffled by the trees, echo softly.
Snow days used to be the best days on Hatfield Run, when school being cancelled was a thing to look forward to and time spent at home wasn’t a thing to be dreaded. They would throw snow down each other’s coats and sled down the Armstrongs’ hill and, if enough snow fell, make snowmen, and even try to walk on the ice without slipping. But that was all before last spring. This morning, after his mother had left for work and his father was about to do the same, he had turned to Tommy sternly and told him he needed to keep an eye on Frances and not to track mud in the house, and above all to be careful.
“Come on,” Frances says, tugging on his arm. “They’re all there. I bet Britney’s there. She’s probably got a better sled than us.”
“No way has Britney got a better sled than us,” Tommy said, with effort as he finally finds his feet and forces his hands to still. Britney is his age and his parents always said she grew up too fast, which he knew was a warning to stay away from her, the girl who got detention for kissing other boys on the bus with tongue. “Have you seen her house? It’s a dump.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Frances says seriously. “They’ve got all that trash they can use. Make a sled out of anything.” Frances has always been more clear-minded than him.
At the end of the tree line they slip through a gap in the fence, and then there is nothing but the huge white hill and sleds and damp cardboard slabs scattered across it. The land in the Ohio valley is too hilly for proper farms, though that hadn’t stopped the Armstrongs from clearing their hill a few generations ago and attempting to grow corn anyway. After a few failed seasons they had given up: so steep flipping the tractor was all but a guarantee. Tommy figures that if God made man out of dirt, man should know how dirt works and know better than clearing a whole hill of trees to make zero return on the land. But maybe it wasn’t that simple. After all, he doesn’t know what possessed Adam to wade into the creek spilling over the ravine, doesn’t know why he himself acts the way he does. Today the Armstrongs’ hill is overgrown with weeds and coated in a half foot of snow. It is a winter tradition for the kids from the surrounding farms and trailer park nestled up the road to make the trek with sleds and cardboard boxes.
The last blizzard had been eleven months ago, and Adam had been there on the hill. Tommy had said something snide about Nathan, Adam’s brother. Something about how Tommy was in the advanced reading group in class and Nathan was in the lowest one. Tommy knows that only one thing distinguishes him from the other kids who live in these rickety old places full of black mold and broken lawn mower parts: Tommy is smarter than them. Adam gave Tommy a black eye and cussed him for saying that about his brother. At home his mother held a Ziploc bag of ice to his face and asked if the other boys were giving him a hard time. His father asked his mother whether he should call Mr. Croach and give him a piece of his mind about his boy, and Frances told them what Tommy had said, and the disappointment in his parents’ faces hurt more than his eye.
Today three figures stand on the top of the hill. One of them settles down onto a sled. For a moment nothing happens. Then the sled begins to move. It grooves into the snow and soars as the hill steepens. A boy lays face-first on his stomach, mittened hands squeezing the sides of the sled. Tommy gets long enough a look to recognize him: Brett Bowers. Brett flies past them as the hill levels out, hollering as at last he fishtails and spins. He halts some fifteen feet from the creek, the snow a powdery haze around him, and leaps up, laughing.
On top of the hill stand Claire Bowers — Brett’s twin sister — and Nathan Croach. Brett huffs up the hill behind them, dampened cardboard box in hand.
“Heya,” Brett drawls. “What took y’all so long?”
“Tommy wasting time,” Frances says.
“Hey,” he protests, feeling his cheeks redden.
“He’s always wasting time,” Brett says.
Nathan settles into his sled — a dented aluminum trash can lid — and pushes off the hill with his hands. He thunders down the hill, whooping, and falls off towards the bottom. The lid continues to move, and skids over the bank and into the creek.
“Damn!” Brett exclaims. “He musta put Crisco on that fucker.” Brett and Claire, the poorest kids in the sixth grade, live in the trailer park down the holler. Tommy has never respected Brett, who once killed a bird on the playground and sometimes eats paper in the back of the classroom. Claire doesn’t seem to think much of him, either. She’s the most intimidating person Tommy knows, and for some reason he likes this about her. She is also, Tommy thinks, the most beautiful creature to ever exist and the girl he has, at twelve years old, decided would be his wife one day. He allies with her against Brett whenever he makes a crack about the favorite subjects of sixth graders, which all, invariably, are about sex or flatulence or the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Are you gonna get the lid?” Brett shouts down the hill.
“He can’t hear you,” Claire says.
“Are you getting the sled!” he hollers, his raised voice cracking. Nathan gives no sign of hearing him, though from this distance it’s difficult to tell.
“Your voice sounds funny,” Frances says.
“He’s hitting puberty,” Claire tells her.
Down the hill Nathan heads to the creek bank and stares down over it.
“I hope he’s okay,” Claire frets.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” Tommy asks, trying to keep a flash of irritation out of his voice. What would he have to do to get her attention like that?
“Well, you know,” she says.
He does know. Nathan had missed almost a month of school after Adam died. The day before he returned, their homeroom teacher, Mrs. Griswold, spoke in a soft voice. “Nathan’s mom called to say he would be back at school tomorrow.” She paused, her eyes flitting over every desk. “We will show him respect and privacy. Won’t we?”
“I don’t know,” he lies, his voice flat and stupid.
Claire looks at him for the first time since he’d come up the hill. “You know,” she says, in a voice less euphemistic and more accusatory than before. He’s made a mistake. He wants to say something, backtrack, plead ignorance, but she turns away before he can. Tommy doesn’t know why girls have attitudes. Frances has never been as aggressive as Claire, though she does know how to say cutting things, things that shouldn’t bother Tommy but do. Their mother has always been especially proud of Frances, proud that she had produced a baby so beautiful, curly-haired and long-lashed and freckled like a strawberry. Their mother likes to talk about how the women at church wanted to take turns holding Frances in the nursery: a baby that looked more like her than their father. Tommy resembles their father, or so everyone tells him; he assumes it will become more apparent when he gets older.
Claire, unlike Frances, has always seemed to be one cross comment away from punching someone in the stomach. Even her blonde hair bristles.
“Nathan’s not going to freak out over a couple inches of water,” Brett says.
“You couldn’t blame him if he did,” Claire retorts.
Nathan jumps down from the bank and into the creek. Tommy cannot help but flinch. For a moment they cannot see him.
“Didn’t even flinch,” Brett says. “Cool as a cantaloupe.”
“Cut the narration,” Claire snaps. “We’ve got eyes.”
Tommy holds his breath. He wonders if drowning makes a sound. He sees Claire clench her hands into tight fists. But then Nathan’s head reappears, and the trash can lid flies up over the bank. Nathan hoists himself up over the bank. From their vantage point on the hill he is smaller than a thumbnail.
“See, he’s fine,” Brett says. “He’s got bigger balls than you thought.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t talk that way in front of my sister,” Tommy says sharply.
“Well, I never said anything about his balls anyway, so you can thank Brett for that,” Claire says. “I just said that I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t go down into the creek.”
“Well, there’s no reason to blame him,” Brett adds, “he’s coming up now.”
“I said I have eyes,” she snaps. “Come on, Fran. It’s your turn to sled,” she says in a far gentler tone, pulling on Frances’s sleeve. Claire could have asked him.
They settle into the sled, Frances in front, Claire in the back, the rope dangling over Frances’s lap. Tommy feels the blood in his veins quicken. If the ground opens up under them. If suddenly there’s a landslide. If Frances falls out and busts her head open. If Claire can’t stop the sled and runs her over. Once Frances had fallen out of a tree and a branch scratched a deep cut in her palm, and she didn’t tell anyone for hours, and at dinner their mother screamed when she saw the bloody weal and dirt around the wound and almost fainted, and their father yelled at Frances for not telling them before, and then he started the truck and drove her straight to the ER. Tommy expected her arm to be cut off at the shoulder, and when they came back a few hours later with it wrapped tightly in gauze and an antibiotic prescription and a huge smile on her face he felt so relieved.
Tommy doesn’t realize he’s shaking until Brett claps a hand on his shoulder.
“You’re vibrating, dude,” Brett says.
The sled begins to move. Nathan is halfway up the hill now, panting, trash can lid in hand. The girls accelerate as the hill steepens. Frances screams, and Tommy flinches. Brett drops his hand. Frances breaks off in laughter. The snow powders and billows behind them, the sled etches lines in the snow, topographic ridges that will disappear, like everything else, when the thaw comes. And then it’s over, and they’re coasting to the bottom of the hill.
“You okay, Tommy?” Brett asks, serious for once.
Nathan reaches them, his breath puffing in the cold. “I wish everyday was a snow day.” His pants below the knee are soaked. He must have broken the ice. Tommy catches his eye for a moment and drops his. Ever since Adam’s viewing, he has found it hard to look at Nathan. It had been held five days after he was pulled from the river, and was the first time Tommy saw a dead body outside of the movies. It was held at the big Greek revival funeral home in town with the wraparound back porch and big white columns. He and Frances agreed that it was the coolest building in town, and they’d speculated about what the inside might look like. Chandeliers, solid gold window panes, soaring cathedral ceiling? It had never occurred to either of them that someone they knew would have to die for them to see the inside. Frances had a fever, and besides their father said she was too young to go. She made him promise to tell her every detail. He had never felt smaller, never felt more like a kid, standing in line around so many adults to see a dead body. When they finally got to the casket, his father talked to Mr. and Mrs. Croach in low tones and Tommy tried not to make eye contact with Nathan, who sat behind his parents, snot-faced and shaking. They were the only living children there. Tommy’d rather stare at Adam’s too-pale corpse. The eyelids looked like they might flutter open, waxy and pale and like they were coated in makeup but so calm he could be asleep, or pretending to be. Adam wore a blue suit and a gingham shirt. He looked very little. He had always seemed like the big kid on the bus. Adam had been Frances’s first crush, the good-looking middle school bad boy who sometimes rubbed snuff and talked back to the bus driver and said the word “fuck.” The first time Tommy had rubbed snuff had been the summer before, behind the Croaches’ barn with Brett, Nathan, and Adam. Adam pulled a can of Skoal out of his back pocket and put a pinch of tobacco in his lip. It looked sort of like coffee grounds. Nathan took some too. It was clear they were veterans. He and Brett stared bug-eyed at them.
“You’re going to get cancer,” Tommy said, “and your teeth are going to rot out of your head.”
“Chicken,” Adam drawled.
Brett tried a pinch. He squeezed his face in a grimace. “Try it, Tommy,” he said, wincing.
“Chicken,” Adam said again, but his face was warm, smiling.
“Am not,” Tommy said, and he put some of the tobacco in his mouth. It tasted bitter and disgusting. He gagged but didn’t spit it out. Adam grinned at him and slapped him on the back. Tommy and Brett were throwing up in the weeds twenty minutes later.
Those hands that had clapped him on the shoulder when he rubbed snuff for the first time behind the barn, hands that had given him a black eye when he’d made that crack about Nathan, rough hands that baled hay and worked tractors and tillers, hands that had been alive now sitting in that casket at his sides, a watch on one wrist. He looked so still and small and not at all like what Tommy thought a dead person would like, not rotting or stinking or like the features of his face had been carved out of wet clay. He looked like Adam, but if Adam were very much a child, and a dead one, dead, very dead, no hope of a soul ever animating those hands again. Tommy believes in the resurrection and that he will be resurrected one day, too, when Jesus will trill his great trumpet in the skies and everyone who loves him escapes Earth before doomsday sets in, before everyone left behind is tortured, buried alive, set aflame in the lake of fire forever and ever. Tommy’s father likes to say that all people are immortal, set for eternal life somewhere. But staring down at Adam’s face in the funeral parlor, Tommy felt instinctively that there was no way this could possibly be true, that Adam would never be resurrected, never be alive again.
Out on the veranda a lot of people smoked, and Tommy’s father lingered there a few moments before they left. He had quit smoking the summer before. A secondhand smoke, even a secondhand smoke outdoors, was a mercy from God. God in all his goodness, Tommy’s father said, allows small graces in the face of insurmountable loss. Tommy’s father told him in the car on the way home that sometimes the embalming process can make a body look fake. With Adam being in the condition he was, it was a miracle they were able to have an open casket. At home Frances asked him what it was like. Was there a big fireplace? Grand piano? Was the wallpaper overlaid with gold? Her eager face. She didn’t know. It’s just a few big rooms, he told her, and carpeted.
“Snow day every day’d be sick,” Tommy agrees, studying his bootlaces. “No work.”
“Mom wouldn’t be happy,” Brett muses, “but fuck that.” Tommy marvels at how the word flows naturally from Brett’s mouth. He doesn’t know what “fuck” means, not really, much less know what part of speech it is or how to construct a sentence with it.
“Seriously,” Nathan says, nodding. “I just had to feed the chickens this morning. Mom let me sleep in before, too. No work. Beats going to Griswold’s and reading and feeding the chickens before the bus gets here.”
“I like reading,” Tommy says defensively.
“You would like reading,” Brett says.
“I’m not going to teach my kids how to read,” Nathan says. “I’m not going to make them do homework, either.”
Tommy remembers sitting on his father’s lap as he held a big illustrated Bible and showed him the pictures of a horned green serpent and David holding a lamb and Jesus silhouetted in a cave. His father traced the words below with a finger and helped him sound them out. That was how he had learned to read, reading about Eden, a perfect place that had existed for only a week all those years ago. So long ago that the only way anyone could remember it or understand it was through a Bible. Back then Tommy assumed the world was perfect, or at least, he was unable to understand that it was actually very bad. He thought people just said today was messed up to make a point about back then. He wonders if there was a creek in Eden, if in the autumn it clogged with leaves and rotted fruit from the trees, whether it flooded in the spring.
The girls are back up the hill. At the top Frances squats with her hands on her knees as she catches her breath. Claire smiles at Tommy. Maybe she forgot her earlier anger. “You haven’t gone down yet, have you?”
“You should,” she said, holding out the sled.
Tommy flinches but tries to hide it.
“What?” she asks.
“Tommy’s a chicken,” Brett says singingly, his voice light. Frances giggles.
“Tommy,” Brett says in a teasing tone, “Everyone else’s gone down already. You’re next in line.”
“You guys can go ahead,” he says.
“Why’re you scared?”
“I’m not scared.”
“Then go down the hill,” Nathan says.
“I just- I don’t want to.”
“Why don’t you go down with me?” Claire asks.
“We can go down together,” Claire says. “Like I did with Frances.” Tommy, on the same sled as Claire. He wants to die on the spot.
“What are you so scared of, man?” Nathan cuts in.
“If you don’t want to go with me,” Claire says, “you can go by yourself.” She sounds mean again.
“I just don’t want to get hurt,” he says. “That’s all.”
“That why you don’t like football either?” Brett asks.
“What are you so scared of?” Nathan asks. He no longer looks like he’s asking for jokes, his face suddenly stony.
“Well- you know,” Tommy blurts abashedly, turning his eyes back to the ground.
Understanding dawns on Brett’s face. “That’s silly,” he says, his voice softer, less accusatory, almost awed. “There’s barely any water down there. Even Nathan ain’t afraid to go down there.”
“Why would I be afraid to go down there?” Nathan asks sharply.
“Well, it’s only that-” For the first time that Tommy can remember, Brett looks nervous. “It’s just that, the creek, you know.”
“No, I don’t know,” Nathan says. He throws his trash can lid sled down.
Brett stares at him, mouth opening and closing like a trout.
“What, you’ve got that fat mouth and now you’re all of a sudden too chicken to run it?”
“Well, Adam died, Nathan,” Brett forces.
“Brett, you didn’t have to say it like that,” Claire says reproachfully.
“Shut up, Claire,” he snaps.
“Why is everyone obsessed with him?” Nathan half-shouts. “I don’t spend my whole life thinking about him!” Tommy winces to look at him. All he remembers is the numbness he felt when he saw him in his periphery at the viewing. Something changed when he saw Nathan cry, something irreversible. Something changed the first time he saw his parents cry, too. He doesn’t know what. He just knows he can’t stand to look at Nathan without feeling a gnawing sense that there is something deeply humiliating about it for both of them.
“You’re such a coward, Tommy,” Nathan adds, jabbing a finger into Tommy’s chest. He feels it through his coat. “You’re scared of everything! You don’t even got a reason to be!”
“Claire brought it up first!” Tommy blurts.
“Shut up, Tommy!”
“You don’t got a reason to be scared,” Nathan says, vicious. His voice is thick, cheeks reddening. “You don’t got a reason to talk about him. You don’t got to think about him! What are you staring at, Tommy? Mind your own business!” And then Nathan pushes him.
Tommy lands on his back in the snow. He stares up at Nathan, meets his eyes. Nathan is crying, and he turns away from them, his eyes red, face scarlet, crying loudly, indecipherably. Claire wraps an arm around Frances. Brett gapes. And Nathan turns away from all of them and begins to walk down the hill. He leaves the lid behind him, one glove that had fallen off or dropped from his pocket in his tracks.
From the top of the hill, Tommy can see just the edge of the creek bank, a jagged scar in the fields, the hills on the other side of the valley, the trailers down the road. Nathan becomes smaller, his dark figure a dot at the bottom. He gets to the creek and slides down the bank. For a moment, nothing. Then he reappears on the other side, his blue coat a cold smudge against the snow. Tommy wants to be with his mother, right then, he wants his parents to hug him and hold him and tell him that he doesn’t have to be scared of all the bad things to come. From the top of the hill, Tommy can look into Heaven, far past the clouds and stars, where he one day will be, happy and uncaring and dead and alive all at once. God will give him a warm blanket and a mug of hot chocolate and he will never be afraid again. And Adam is there. They will have the best snuff money can buy and their gums will never bleed and they’ll never puke tobacco juices, and all the creeks will be dry.