Sometimes Creek

By Steve Fox

Featured Art: I Wish I Knew Of by Brooke Ripley

Our move to Halloween Street was one of necessity, not choice. Following the death of my wife, Sylvia, the home we had rented was sold. The new owners gave us nine months to vacate. And this place, situated on a leafy and wealthy street in the town’s eerie historic district, was the only thing available within walking distance of my daughter Claire’s school. So I took it, despite the steep rent commensurate with the austere economic laws of Supply and Desperation.

An energetic and put-together neighbor tells me I will need somewhere between three and four thousand pieces of candy, treated out one piece per kid, as well as gallons of a stiff grog for parents, to get me through the hours-long Halloween night here on Halloween Street. Based on some simple arithmetic and plot-pointing along a mental timeline, starting with the next paycheck, I have just enough pay periods between now and the end of October to buy a total of four thousand pieces of candy. Or eight hundred pieces of candy each payday, all totaling in the end approximately six hundred American dollars. Candy. For one happy motherless night for our only child more than two months hence.

It is barely August.

Eight weeks to Halloween. News of us renting the old Demello house has spread, our transience rather well known. In an old neighborhood like this, even the friendly are reluctant to bond with the ephemeral. Brent from up the street makes an effort, though, and introduces us as ‘the family from that one accident’ that’s ‘holing up in the Demellos’ tax shelter.’

Brent is referring to the spectacular car crash in which my wife, and our baby girl growing inside her, scarcely the size of Claire’s fist, died. A sister we had yet to tell Claire to get ready for.

I look at Brent. It’s hard to feel embarrassed for a stranger, and worse when everyone witnesses your embarrassment, particularly when everyone knows what the stranger means in the first place. I’m still trying to make the house something we can think of as a home while figuring out how to explain to Claire, once and for all, that Sylv isn’t coming back. My first-grader shouldn’t be made to feel like a drifter. Bad enough her mom is gone for good.

In a matter of days, Claire has sorted out new friendship circles, and broadened existing ones. And she has adapted to hand-language thanks to one child she hadn’t known.
Jasmine, the non-verbal girl who lives opposite our house. She’s eight, with the height of a twelve-year-old. Cloud of fawny brown hair, bright ashen eyes, she’s beautiful. She drapes a blue velvet cape around her shoulders and uses a gnarled tree branch for a magic staff. She’s calm and inviting though our speechless hands and confused eyes disappoint, I can tell.

Claire wasted no time connecting. Those luminous and arresting eyes glimmering from the rounded front porch corner of that Queen Anne summoned Claire, who offered little resistance. Together she and Jasmine colored on the sidewalks, dug for worms, chased grasshoppers, and nibbled columbine beneath the warm late-summer sun. Claire paged through stacks of books and narrated her version of the action, dirty wormy fingers pointing at the occasional word as Jasmine nodded along. Then they braided and unknotted each other’s hair and shook like dogs and laughed and laughed and dug up more bird worms and fed them to the trout in the small creek that flows somewhere behind the Queen Anne.

All this time I lived in this town, I said to Claire, and I never knew that little river existed.
She giggled and massaged the air in front of her as she spoke: It’s only there once in a while. ‘Sometimes Creek’ comes and goes, she said. Her fingertips drew toward her: Comes. And goes, she said. Her fingertips looped and fell away.

Now Claire and the non-verbal girl routinely disappear into the long-grassed and misty beyond of Sometimes Creek. It’s hard to explain how they vanish around the corner of that house. That big old Queen Anne, with the blurry circular porch corners. Jasmine hoists her staff up high, unfurls her cape, and they clasp hands and swing around a kudzu lattice into a knee-deep mist.
Once upon a time there was a messy little girl . . .

Jasmine’s mother, Rain, shows relief at the sight of Claire bounding across the street to her daughter. She and I chat. She’s also a single parent now. Doesn’t offer much, just that Geoff had to go. She’s tall with a mossy green countenance, and soft honey skin that will seem slightly tanned even in December. Rain wears solid, ankle-length cotton dresses and moves like an adult version of her daughter. A plume of clove and anise wafts from her aura.

There’s no pretense about Rain, and her eyes don’t slide away as she speaks to you or as you speak to her. A stray hair that sprouts from the space between her eyebrows reminds me of something. Something Sylv would pluck, probably, but Rain doesn’t seem to mind. Behind her, a misty distortion rises where the edge of her side of the street begins, and all I detect is lush.

She’s content, she says, to care for her little girl, and her home, just like me. She appears to like the fact that Claire dresses herself, has knotty hair that Jasmine needs to pull apart and straighten out every morning, and usually has clumps of berry jam or smears of maple syrup all over her skirt.

I return the gratitude, and comment on how well Jasmine functions despite her disability.

Rain’s eyebrows shoot up. Disability? she says. A quick pit rots in my stomach.
I was embarrassed for Brent, but Rain, in this moment, is not embarrassed for me. But I detect she senses that I’m aware of a gaffe.

Jasmine is non-verbal, Rain says, and smiles the way one would when clarifying the color of their eyes. Hazel, not brown. We watch Jasmine explain something patiently to Claire with her hands.

Rain places a hand on a hip and tilts her neck. Her lips curl into a wry smile. She knows she’s got me. Does my daughter look disabled to you?

I smile and shake my head, Of course not.

After a while, Rain asks so what’s my story.

It’s a good question. But our talk of Jasmine makes me think about Claire, who already speaks with concurrent hands and mouth. I wonder if there’s ever a miscommunication, or a language overlap with her hands. If the speech of her hands is always true to the language of her mouth. A language tangle. Collision of words, or a disagreement in conveyance. Doesn’t matter. She’s convinced she’s got it right.

Mostly I wonder if her signing cuts like her voicing. Like earlier today, when she asked, Will I remember her?

So many dewy morning moments like this, her sleepy voice, messy hair, broken toenails, all pressed against me beneath the covers, warm honey breath asking, asking, asking, asking.

Any memory at all?

I shudder and lift my eyes to Rain, who waits to hear so what’s my story. I exhale only once and my story is done.

She winces audibly, and clutches me, on my front lawn, beneath the buzz of summer leaves. She smells like grassy sunshine and roasting fennel. The warmth of her face presses into mine. She feels me shake. I close my eyes. She doesn’t let go.

The smells of early fall creep into our house. Summer’s last dust scales the girls’ shins while their tireless hands laugh and gab on this side of the street and that. Usually that side of the street. I ask Claire why Jasmine doesn’t come over more often.

Hers is the best place, Claire says. She glances around.

After more than a month, I still call the Demello tax shelter our house. Not our home, despite how homey I try to make this empty place feel. Empty, yet so full of what Sylv would say, the little things she’d do to make all this less like something of my own doing. Tip her long neck to a side, look at me with those amused black eyes, twitch her crooked smile, and save me from myself.

Sylv never knew this house. So I can’t call what I now detect a ‘lingering.’ Yet her absence perseveres, and persists. A pressure that inflates every room. Radiates in nooks, corners, and questions—Mom? Mom?—new, known, unknown, and unborn.

Present events fold into the past so quickly. Everything, even that which lies well ahead of me, becomes consumed by the proactive machinery of retrospective, grinding and dissolving and blowing away. A rear-view mirror always blocking my view of what approaches, obstructing my path. The echoes and reflections of my immediate past—Dad? Dad? Where’s Mom?—are all I can see coming at me.

Today Claire comes buzzing inside while I’m struggling to hang a bookshelf. The physical hanging part is easy. The struggle lies in the placement, plagued with Sylv’s in-my-head second-guessing. How she’d organize and position such things as books, pottery, music, little pretties. This location on the living room wall would clearly prove to be the incorrect spot were Sylv around. But it seems good enough to me, for now.

I set down my drill and tell Claire to wash her face. She wipes her mouth and checks the back of her hand.

It’s just mustard, she says, looking up. She raises a hand to spell out the word.


Yep. Jasmine’s always got a just-in-case-wich in her sack.

A just-in-case-wich? I say. What’s that?

Claire sighs and rolls her eyes and shakes her head and positions her feet like Sylv.

It’s a sandwich! You know . . . for just in case.

Ah, I say, reminded that I should eat something myself.

Yep. Sometimes we split it. Cheese and mustard.

Oooh. Sounds good.

Occasionally, the truth comes out to play. But I can’t. Not yet. Some days, though, I think I’m over it. But usually I’m not. I still have the need to put on a happy mask, file down the sharp edges of the story. Though Claire, less restless, more content now with her discovery of Jasmine and her spell of signing, seems more easily satisfied with my simple explanations. What happened to our other house? What I don’t tell her is that our previous home on the other side of this small town, where we lived when Sylv was killed, was demolished shortly after we moved away. What I said earlier about the house getting sold off wasn’t entirely true. There was no reason to move other than Sylv’s suffocating absence. We had to leave. But the part about the Demello place is true: this crazy expensive house was the only thing available near Claire’s school.

Real estate developers are now constructing an office building where our home once stood. I told Claire that the new owners wanted to build a place for workers. She shrugged and galloped across the street.

It seems that only now, a full month in this house, have I been able to ponder any of this. Yet I still have no words. How could anyone, really? My wife and unborn daughter a highway traffic statistic, the drunk driver roaming free and still piling into things, racking up a DUI every other year. I have no words for this. How could anyone?

Just candy. A growing stockpile tucked away in the dank basement laundry room of a spendy rental on a wealthy street.

Four weeks out. The Halloween spirit more than stirs. Corporate retailers have been marketing to children for weeks. I add to my candy stockpile every payday. Last time it was Kit-Kats. School has been in full motion for nearly a month, and the autumnal equinox has passed. We’ve had nights of frost, many species of apples are ripe, and birch trees are shedding their leaves, albeit in an unsettling and premature global-warming sort of way. Too soon dead. An adult elephant, meandering through the same room as me in a different part of my brain, makes a desperate plea for me to just ignore him.

A neighbor pulls up alongside our curb in her new pickup truck while I’m standing outside, arms folded, considering the lifeless leaves.

The neighbor is absurdly beautiful. Her truck revs. The horn beeps. The leaves loop and land, dead, dry, and indifferent.

Hello! she shrieks, and extends a sculpted arm from her new pickup truck. Michaela. Dark curls, clear skin, alive eye-whites.

How are you, Cyprian?

Good, thanks. I’m—

Great! I’m so glad, she says. And I think she is glad. She smiles gigantically.

We’re just back from the pumpkin patch! She points over her shoulder toward the bed of her truck. My line of sight crosses the four glowing eyes of her two girls, staring out at me, the father of the noisy messy child renting the Demello house. The kid who prefers the non-verbal girl to them.

At least forty happy pumpkins swell inside the bed of Michaela’s truck. Picked, trimmed, and polished. Gleaming orange, purple, white, and black. Perfectly clean. She’s acting pleasant enough, but her jaw dangles, and her lips remain parted, in some form of indictment. I see her eyebrows rumple as she squints around my yard, eyes angling toward my stoop.

Her teeth flash. The Demellos, she says, really used to light this place up! Her eyes flicker and drift toward my stoop again.

All I’ve got that’s remotely relevant is my candy. But not now. She’s in the middle of a moment with her girls, and they took time out to share, to check on me, to see how I’m doing. Perhaps even Michaela, now with a polite laugh that could scarcely fill a champagne glass, is capable of seeing beyond her own untouchable beauty to notice that there is clearly something wrong with me. She’d clutch me, too, maybe, were her DNA wired for it.

Gotta keep the Halloween in Halloween Street! she says, and lets loose that champagne-glass laugh. The whites of her eyes light up the inside of the cab. She revs her truck. She doesn’t hop out to clutch me. She turns her head to drive away when one of her girls blurts something I don’t catch. The girl’s head turns in my direction, wide eyes finding mine. Michaela’s lips remain parted. She hesitates, nods to her daughter, and offers me a pumpkin.

Go ahead, she says, tossing back curls. The light always catches her hair just right. Take one, she says.

Air crowds into my lungs. I step toward her truck.

Thank you, I say.

Just don’t grab it by the stem! she says.

I select one at random and hoist it to my chest. It’s heavier and more dense
than I expect. The thick stem smells like freshly cut vine. My throat has gone dry. I back away from the truck and nod.

Michaela, she yelps, reminding me yet again, and presses a palm to the top of her breasts, breathless. Shiny dark curls tumble over the back of her hand. She revs goodbye. I’ve barely nodded again before her teeth are done glinting and she’s pulled away out of sight.

Time exhales, and cascades out of control, off the rails. A lateral waterfall sprawl. October? It’s a month that’s appeared here, before me, spun like a scarf from a hole in the middle of this Halloween Street air. An air that now quickens with anticipation, and a certain anxiety. Like a prolonged breath held trapped within a lung for an extra second, and then another.

Pumpkins line every porchtop, and it’s just now occurred to me that not only does every house on this street boast a spacious front porch, each porch has a flat rooftop, and each flat rooftop is now lined with pumpkins. Not jack-o’-lanterns just yet, though it’s been cold enough for those.

Jasmine across the street signs something that reminds me that I haven’t put away all of the day’s shopping, and a couple of new things happen at once. The first is that it looks like I started to put things away, like groceries and yet more Halloween candy, but I became yet again distracted and wandered away from bulk spices and dry goods into some remote brain ether. In this case to observe twirling dying dead leaves. Then a weight presses, deliberately, across the back of my shoulders, into my shoulder blades.

Ghosts only get lost for a little while. Do they stop to ask for directions? Who or what would they ask? And how? Maybe they sign, too. Like Jasmine to Claire. I don’t know. But I’m relatively convinced that a motivated ghost will eventually find you, and this pressure upon my back is not entirely new. It’s been creeping into me at random since the funeral.

This touch is startling at first, but once settled in, I don’t want it to leave. The only thing I dread, in fact, is its departure. The wondering if this time will be the last.

I mention this to a work colleague over lunch. She doesn’t look up from her soup when she tells me, calmly, that I am ‘a natural draw for those new at being dead.’ I nearly drop my sandwich.

So, bulk spices, among other items, still need a home, to be put away. At my replacement house, from which I’m trying to carve a home, I repurpose empty spice jars. New labels for old spice and herb containers. A new, replaced creation of what it will contain, from the old.

The empty jar in my hand will become dried peppermint, and I suppose I do replace, like that one poetess said: Women mourn, men replace.

But Sylv isn’t a thing, and she’s not empty. Only thing empty is this jar in my hand. I turn it between my fingers, and wish I could climb inside and twist the lid.

I close my eyes.

Once upon a time, there was a man who didn’t want to replace. Who didn’t want to move on, didn’t want to just get over it.

Savory becomes oregano, thyme becomes tarragon, clove becomes coriander, and fennel becomes . . .

Anise. I open my eyes and look up and out the front window across the street. Warm anise wafts in from Sometimes Creek, where beautiful Rain makes black licorice.

She offered me a piece the other day. I hesitated.

Go ahead, she urged, and smiled secretively. What? You’ve never had homemade licorice before? She laughed quietly and coiled a length of hair over an ear. C’mon, she cackled, like I was acting silly. She nudged me with the plate. It’s even gluten-free.

I stare at the jar in my hand and fasten the replacement label Mint with a band of clear tape, and it’s hard to remember what the peppermint was for. A stir-fry? Claire shrieks from across the street. Maybe she’s caught a trout. Or a hairy spider. The inside of this old house throbs with changes Sylv would make. Halloween hype amps up. Maybe the mint was for a stir-fried something-or-other. I don’t know. I can’t even remember the last time I made rice. Maybe water is freezing on a lake somewhere. And all of the dead leaves on the ground can each individually rise all together, all at once, and reattach to their trees, pulled up from the ground by a resurrecting tree-branch magic. I don’t know. I don’t. And I can’t. Can’t remember anything. Like what the mint was for. Can’t remember anything at all. Except that Sylv and our baby girl are still dead.

Day zero. Halloween. Claire bangs around inside the house somewhere, searching out a shoe to work with her costume. This year she’s going as a Q-tip. Neighbors have lit their jack-o’-lanterns, one continuous row, house to house to house to house, a thread of gleaming pumpkins, flashing toothy smiles, pulsing out a visual melody. She rummages and I lean over the kitchen sink to eat a leftover something. My tongue is dry and numb, the something chalky and wet.

In the laundry room, the box holding the Halloween candy stash feels suspiciously light. Nearly empty, in fact, but I carry it up the stairs anyway to check the bags inside. They’re all empty. Each and every bag.

Not a single Snickers, packet of M&M’s, or Kit-Kat bar remains. I swear they were all there a few days ago.

It’s Halloween. Month zero, week zero, day zero. The day. I’m standing on the front stoop. My lights are lit. A column of hot flames twists inside Claire’s jack-o’-lantern. The street is blocked off for pedestrian traffic only. A TV news crew has set up beyond the street barricade, an earnest reporter geared up for her annual Live from Halloween Street news segment. Throngs of kids and their excited parents will push through at any minute. There will be so many kids. I can hear the jeer of jack-o’-lanterns atop porches up and down the street, mocking me. So many jack-o’-lanterns. Their flickering voices all sniggering as one.

Michaela and her perfect curls wander by and ask if I’m all set. This time, she spares me the self-introduction. I recall back in August, when she first explained the Halloween Street Rules: three to four thousand kids; one piece per kid; adult grog for parents; lights out and disappear when candy gone. She helps herself to a glass of mulled wine. She nods at the jack-o’-lantern carved from the pumpkin she gave us. Nice, she says, smiling indulgently. She looks at me, recalling that moment. One I mistook for compassion but now understand was pity.

I cough and notice that her place down the block is all dark.

Outta candy already? I joke, tired, and gesture toward her house.

She seems taken aback. Her hair tosses. Eh? Oh. No, she says, and chuckles that breathy champagne-glass laugh.

She stoops before me slowly to top off her drink. She straightens and leans back, resting an elbow in her free hand. She’s still mid-chuckle when she says, We never hand out candy. Waaay too much hassle. And expensive, ya know? I mean . . . Jesus. So we just turn out all the lights and head out for dinner while the girls trick-or-treat their way over to my sister’s place on Hemlock.

I look around, all wordless, all again. Somewhere inside that Queen Anne, gentle Rain calmly folds tongues of black licorice she’s lifted with a wooden spoon from a cauldron. Slow black bubbles ooze to the surface. The thick bubbles bulge, tremble, snap, and gasp.

I look at Michaela and settle on Oh for a response.

The candy. Maybe Claire has been using the candy for barter all this time . . .

Sylv’s live dead weight presses.

Yes! Michaela says. I blink and look up at her. I had nearly forgotten she was there. And I don’t even know what she’s saying Yes! to.

Been doin it that way for years now, she says.

Oh, I say again, and watch her walk away, drink cup in hand. The porch-to-porch-to-porch thread of jack-o’-lanterns trembles and nods.

Jesus Christ.

I should turn out my lights, too. But I lean back on my elbows instead. It’s such a beautiful night.

How many Kit-Kats and M&Ms and Snickers can a single kid eat? Is what Claire did even humanly possible? Did she even do it?

Jasmine crosses to our house to pick up Claire for trick-or-treating. She is dressed as a ladybug. She seems a little old for that, but her own personal magic allows her to pull it off just fine. Her cloud of rich brown hair pulled back into a bun and wire-rim glasses and parasol give the impression of a ladybug librarian. Adorable. I tell her sky eyes that Claire is getting ready.

She signs something. Something. And a heavy weight sinks into me again. Her hand language comes together. She’s brought Halloween gifts.

She takes a seat next to me on the stoop, and places a cloth sack between her legs. She waves her arm across the span of jack-o’-lanterns topping façades across the street. Clipped shafts of lantern-light strobe through her fingers. She lowers her arm and leans her warm shoulder and head into my side. She smells of fennel, dust, and early evening dew.

I’m outta candy, I say again, and fiddle my tongue-tied hands.

She stands and signs trick-or-treat or Happy Halloween. Her eyes dance up over my shoulder at Claire, who has been sneaking up behind me, the sound of her panting amplified by the tension of the pre-chaos calm, her breath hot on the back of my neck.

“Happy Halloween!” Claire shouts. I feign surprise. Claire giggles. Jasmine and I share a look, and from her cloth sack she removes a clear glass jar with two large grasshoppers sealed inside. She extends the jar, a wiry antenna thread poking from a frayed hole pushed into the fabric of the lid. A grasshopper leaps and slams into a clear wall and lands on its side, defeated.

Asterix! Claire squeals. Obelix! She snatches the jar from me, delighted. She presses the glass to her forehead and nose, muttering in soothing tones, teeth clenched with love.

The girls sit down and lean into me on the stoop. Jasmine reaches into her sack again. This time she removes a sandwich, wrapped in wax paper. She reaches across my chest to hand half to Claire.

Jasmine’s famous and ever-present just-in-case-wich. Smells like Rain when she unwraps it. The rye bread is a century old, the slab of caraway cheddar inside a half-inch thick, topped with a sharp Hungarian mustard. It looks delicious.

The girls eat. My hunger is a cavern. Silently I wait for the burning pumpkins to tumble from porch tops to detonate the heaps of dead leaves the neighbors have carefully shaped into burial mounds on their front lawns. I struggle to remember what I couldn’t taste and didn’t eat over the kitchen sink less than an hour ago. The girls nod at each another and demolish the sandwich. Not a single crumb remains.

Claire wipes her mouth on her sleeve and her sleeve on her pants and runs inside to find her Q-tip shoe. Orange-and-yellow ribbons pant pink inside the jack-o’-lanterns across the street.

Jasmine’s eyes twitch and I find myself drawn inside the house. Her eyes trail my every step.

Claire stands in the middle of the living room. She drops the lost-and-now-found shoe. It slaps the hardwood floor and she slips her foot inside. And all at once, her hands begin to move and I feel the tapestry of dead leaves outside rise and reconnect, as somehow it all comes together, leaf by leaf. She says she knows Mom isn’t coming back. That her almost-sister will always be an almost-was.

Jasmine explained it, Claire says. It’s just like her daddy. Away is gone. You have to accept that, Dad, she signs, matter of fact, You’re so sad all over. All sad, she says. All over. So . . . sad. Her hands stop. We both freeze in place, but we’re not playing Statues. A wad of stringy hair swells at the back of my throat. The silence of the room fills with the sound of me not vomiting.

There are four or five books stacked on one end of the bookshelf on the wall above Claire’s Sylvie eyes. A vase and portrait box rest on the opposite end. There’s room for an ivy or a succulent in between, but the whole thing probably works better on other the wall.

Claire’s hands loop away. There’s no coming back from where they went.

Her hands fall serious and silent, until she raises a goodbye palm. She drifts, and lifts her open palm again, drawn backward across the street, through the mesh of rising and reattaching leaves, around the porch corner, and through the mist inside the older girl’s cape.

Steve Fox’s work has appeared in or has been recognized by Narrative Magazine, CutBank, Whitefish Review, The Masters Review, The Iowa Review, Writer’s Digest, Orca, and others. Steve is the winner of the Rick Bass/Montana Prize for Fiction, the Great Midwest Writing Contest, Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Contest, and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters Fiction Prize. His debut collection, Sometimes Creek, is forthcoming from Cornerstone Press. Fox lives in Wisconsin with his wife, Stephanie, three boys, and one dog.

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