Creek Walking

June 29, 2012
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The crank on the door squeaked and stuck as Katie attempted to roll the dirt- streaked window down. The local weatherman had said that this was going to be the hottest summer the west coast had ever seen, and the grimy wetness that dripped down the back of her neck confirmed that. She heaved in the dryness of the desert air as she finally got the window halfway open, and she was flooded with relief, the crease between her eyebrows unfolding, her lips parting with a sigh.
“How’s the weather over there?” Andrew joked from the driver’s side, his eyes squinting with a sideways smile behind his heavy glasses.
Katie crossed her arms, keeping them close to her chest -- she didn’t want to show her sweaty armpits to the entire world -- and turned to look at Andrew. Really, she had no reason to be self conscious. This was her best friend; they used to play World of Warcraft games together in high school, and there was no coming back from that loss of dignity. Looking at him now, he hadn’t changed much since high school. He was about to turn 30, a 4 year old and a 1 year old at home, and his sandy hair was just as unkempt as before, eyes still bugging out from a pair of dorky glasses – and every now and again they played WOW together, every time getting more into the game than any self-respecting adult ever should.
“See something you like?” He met her stare with a cocky smile. “Just admiring your eyes. Tell me, were you born with four of them?”
????????????Focusing on the road, he shook his head, muttering something about maturity under his breath. Yes, it was easy to see that, though they had both grown chronologically, the same couldn’t be said for their personalities. The old pickup plowed across the gravely path leaving a cloud of dust behind it, driving in the two defined tracks that had been molded into its surface by all the kids escaping the city. Occasionally the path would pass through a covering of evergreens, and they would break the silence with a joke or some inconsequential gossip. But then they would come into a clearing, and the vastness ahead that held no shade would send the car into a dry and heavy silence.
Past the repetition of the mountainous terrain with sage bushes strewn haphazardly on its surface, the path took a turn into a forlorn and dreary area. It must have once been a glorious place, all the trees with their branches full of green and a toxic pine smell that pervaded the atmosphere and clogged the mind. But the years had not been kind to this sad little stretch of dirt on a hill; the stumps that remained were charred and their branches wilted to an ash that still covered the ground. It was a ghost town, and Katie could just picture the tumbleweed rolling across the screen like an old Western film.
To her left, she could see that Andrew’s bushy eyebrows were furled together, like they always were when they passed this cemetery.
“What’s on your mind?”
The question exploded into the silence of the car, and Andrew jerked his head to look at her as if he had forgotten she was there. His already-pale face was paler than usual, and a blush grew on his cheeks as he quickly shifted his gaze back to the road.
????????????“Just things. You know, gotta pick up Daphne from school later, plus about a million and one other things. Just busy these days.”
“Look at you, being a good dad. Anyway, how’s work going for you?”
“Work’s good. Longer hours than I’d prefer, but what can you do?” He deliberately kept his eyes on the road, careful not to look at her.
“Yeah, what can you do?” A thought popped into her head, and she was about to voice it when she noticed that they had gone too far. “Hey, I think you missed the turn-off.”
Andrew had obviously been stuck in a deep thought, because he seemed very dazed looking around, coming to the same insight much slower than he should have.
He cursed under his breath as he turned the wheel rapidly to the left and turned the car around.
“Whoa there, Daddy. You should probably watch your language,” she teased, which was met with a scowl. “Oh, come on, lighten up. It’s really not a big deal.” She lightly pushed his arm and laughed again. He looked at the place where she had touched his arm and back up at her. For a moment, they were silent, and he tried to hide his upturned mouth from her. And suddenly, they were both laughing, the atmosphere in the car instantly lighter.
The turn the car took was an inconspicuous nook to the left of the road that would be invisible to someone who wasn’t looking for it - nature had camouflaged it to be as brown and beaten as its surroundings, and the ground underneath the tires was even less welcoming than the rough gravel of the main road. But after a few minutes of
????????????driving on this track, patches of dry grass and flowering trees marked the end of the cemetery. They were close.
“So how are things going with Tyler?” he asked nonchalantly.
Katie looked down at her left hand, a large diamond sparkling in the sunlight on her ring finger: a promise.
“Things are...things are great.”
“Yeah? And how are the wedding preparations going? Do you wanna pull your hair out yet?”
Katie sighed and ran her right hand through her hair, fingers coming up slightly damp from the sweat on her head. “Yeah, I mean it’s actually running pretty smoothly so far. No complaints. But nobody ever told me how much work you actually had to put into this kind of thing.”
“Tell me about it.” Andrew shook his head, glancing at her out of the corner of his eyes. He smiled.
Katie faced away from Andrew, gazing out the window as they passed tree upon tree, and she let her eyes close. She had been lying through her teeth when she told him things were going well. The truth was that there was rarely a night at home that wasn’t filled with screaming and crying. And there were comparably more nights where one of them spent the night on the couch in their living room -- a lumpy little paisley sofa that she really needed to replace. And on the worst nights, Tyler threatened that to break the whole thing off. So yeah, she wanted to pull her hair out all right.
????????????The pickup slowed to a stop in a spot where the trees thickened. Andrew pushed the gearshift up to park and faced her with a familiar mischievous look to him. She had seen this look on him so often that she was sure she could draw it perfectly anytime she wished. And thus was their whole relationship: familiar. Their friendship was the place she kept returning to, even after almost 15 years. And these days, she was very grateful for that.
“Race you there?” she prompted.
And with that, she kicked the passenger door open, slamming it shut behind her. She ran across the lightly trodden path and into the forest, Andrew chasing a little bit behind her, yelling.
“Come on, Katie! Aren’t we a little old for this?”
She ran some yards through a shaded wood, Andrew chasing close behind her, until the ground beneath them became a wet clay that stuck to the soles of their shoes. Katie stopped running right in front of a shallow little creek. She and Andrew had first come to this place back in high school, before the great desert fire had wiped out most of the wildlife East of the mountains. Coming here again was like stepping back in time: everything looked exactly the same. She breathed heavily through her grin.
“So not fair. You’re such a cheater,” Andrew panted as he walked up next to her. He, unlike Katie, was not smiling at all.
“Hey, it’s not my fault you’ve never been able to beat me here.”
The water in the creek bubbled and sloshed, a blue jay tweeting from a nearby tree. A light burst of wind rustled the leaves on the trees. The sound of nature was blaring; Andrew and Katie were silent.
????????????“Karen and I are getting a divorce,” Andrew said, staring ahead into space. Katie gaped at him. “Oh my gosh, Andrew, I’m so sorry.”
He crossed his arms tight to his chest. “Don’t be.”
“Well, can’t you fix it? When did this happen? Why didn’t you say anything
earlier?” With each question her voice raised noticeably in pitch.
“I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d do this.” He sighed and turned to face
her. “Freak out, probe all the details out of me, you know. I just really don’t wanna talk about it right now.”
She bit her lip and lowered her eyes. “I just don’t understand. You guys seemed so happy together.”
“I don’t know.” He hesitated, shifting his weight uncomfortably. “I think we just grew apart. It was like I woke up and suddenly we weren’t the same people we married. I don’t know.”
Andrew cracked his knuckles, and she cringed a little at the sound.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that with your fingers. It creeps me out.”
“Sorry,” he replied, inching closer.
Katie bit harder on her lower lip, tearing off some of the dry flakes with her teeth. “You need to stop doing that.” He was now close enough that she could feel the
warmth of his unsteady breaths on her forehead. She looked down, hiding her red face.
“Doing what?” she said to the ground.
“Katie.” Andrew brushed her arm with his hand, and she looked up, a response on her lips to see his eyes boring into hers; her response was cut off by Andrew’s hand trailing along her shoulder to cup her neck, pulling her into a very intimate position. And
?he leaned in just an inch more, tongue flitting over his dry mouth, and kissed just the corner of her mouth, missing most of her lips.
Katie stood frozen, eyes bulging wide, staring at his eyelids--which were unnervingly large under his glasses. She was absolutely paralyzed for the hours--or maybe seconds--that the kiss lasted, and her brain ceased to function. And just when she was beginning to feel lightheaded from lack of oxygen, he pulled away, searching her eyes for a reaction. Inside her head, all of the emotions she’d never wanted to admit to feeling rushed to the surface of her mind. Yet, despite the chaos she was feeling, her expression gave nothing away.
The blue jay in the tree had sensed the rising tension int he air as well, and its flapping wings beat out a rapid rhythm as it tweeted into the air, flying fast away from the awkward scene.
Katie blinked and cleared her throat loudly, tersely turning away from Andrew.
“Look,” she said to a branch out in front of her, “I’m getting married in a few months. To Tyler.” She could just picture the hard set of his mouth as she heard him inhale sharply through his nose behind her. “I’m sorry.”
All was silent for an infinite moment. For that moment, all the animals hiding in the forest didn’t move, and even the sound of the water rushing through the creek seemed to disappear as Katie held her breath, waiting for him to say something.
“I’m gonna go back to the car,” Andrew said, and hurried steps moved away from her, crunching on the dirt path and cracking on little twigs. The steps grew fainter until Andrew was completely out of earshot, leaving the sound of water tinkling through the little pebbles in its path to drown out the sound of the woman’s shallow breathing.

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