In our town they called them creekboys, the little lightning bugs that come out at dusk along the banks of Wickett Creek in summer. Every night beginning in June, you could count on them to light up the dusky shadows of the creek and the bending, bowing bodyguard of thick trees growing all along it. You could count on the creekboys, but you could never count them one by one. There were just too many. So many, you’d find them threatening if they were anything other than beautiful bugs – if they were actual boys, say, or young men speaking in deep voices instead of the language of lights. On any given night, there could be a thousand creekboys, maybe a million. Until the year there were none, no creekboys left at all.
I couldn’t remember the last time the creek had frozen so thick and solid before – I don’t think it ever had until now. Still, I doubted it was frozen enough to stand on without falling through. Which made Derek laugh at me and got the others going too. Anyone could see it would hold an elephant right now, never mind a few junior high kids. But I didn’t trust him or his little brother Tom either, or their friend Josh and their friend/my friend Dawn to even try. I stood on the high bank while the rest of them shimmied down onto the ice, Dawn making a show of how brave she was, how daring. She jumped up and down on the frozen creek, did a jig by the one edge where the ice had broken away to slushy water, and called up to me on the bank to tell me I was a wimp – something she’d called me before on plenty of other occasions, always and only when the boys, and sometimes the other girls, were around. Never when it was just her and me. Meanwhile, the boys made iceballs out of the impacted snow from the steep of the bank and loudly lamented the absence of any ducks to torture on the creek, chucking the iceballs instead at each other and at me (none at Dawn). They missed mostly, only nailing their target once. Just enough to let me know they could get me again, if and when they really wanted to.
The decline of the creekboys was the third of its kind these parts had seen in the 12 years I’d been a witness to life. First the crows went gone, then the butterflies disappeared, now the creekboys weren’t showing up in the unknowable numbers they used to. People blamed these vanishings on things like West Nile virus and crop dusters or whoever was in charge downstate at the capital in this year or that. But I had a theory it was the town itself driving all the beautiful flying things of this world away. The town and the people in it. Sure if I could fly, I wouldn’t settle anywhere near here. Not that I knew of anyplace better. Not yet. It was just a hunch, about the vanishings and the likely betterness of Somewhere/Anywhere Elseville. I didn’t have the science, the evidence, or the authority to prove it – just a kind of fluttery gutheart feeling. A hunch that stuck with me and me alone.
In springtime the college kids come back home, a full month before the rest of us get out of school. They get summer jobs at the mall or with the local painting and moving businesses, but there’s always a few who don’t get jobs anywhere, who have all the time and fortune to make fun or trouble, or both, until August. They’re all boys, these free ones. Or young men, as the townspeople and teachers say, careful to make the correction whenever I try to tell them what one of the college boys said or did to me. They get together and haunt Wickett Creek, you see, drifting over one by one around the time us younger kids are walking home from school. They shoot baskets in the small patch of pavement by the creek, smoke and drink beer, and occasionally name call the younger kids from a distance, like Derek and Josh do. I admit I’m afraid of them, as I am of most men and boys, but part of me pities them. It’s as if they’re stuck in a time warp from the days when they were still kids, pubescent or just on the verge, when power could be got as easy as patting together an iceball or pulling a girl’s ponytail.
But one day, one bridged the distance. One put a creekboy on me. Where he got it so early in the day and season, I never knew. He met me as I was crossing the road to the green parkland skirting the creek. Maybe he’d been standing behind a tree, or maybe I’d just been lost in space again, busy imagining my future life far away from here, something I tended to do when I was walking alone, or bored in class, or lying in bed at night dreading the schoolday to come. Whatever, I didn’t see him until he spoke to me, kind of like how you don’t know a ghost is near until you feel the chill, or so I’ve been told.
What’s your name, he said. How old are you? He walked alongside me, his voice deep but soft. I answered him, sort of, telling him some other name to his first question, adding a year onto the second, because if I was going to pretend to be someone else, I might as well go all in. But then he began asking questions that stumped me, that couldn’t be dodged or fudged so easily. Do you have a boyfriend? Have you ever been on a date before? Why don’t you have a boyfriend? You’re beautiful. Are you allowed to date yet? Do you want a boyfriend? Would you go with a guy if he asked you, even if your parents told you not to? Would you?
The whole time I kept my eyes down or straight ahead. Kept walking too, across the grass, onto the gravel path, to the metal bridge Dawn and Derek and I used to spit on to watch our saliva freeze every winter, the one we used to dare each other to stick our tongues on to see if they’d get stuck (Dawn was the only one to try). Something funny was going on inside me. Things were suddenly seeming so far away to me – the other end of the bridge, those deep winter days, the future and past together. Unreachable, like someplace I knew I’d never be able to get to anymore, much less across or beyond, not without some cost of an innocence I was too young and inexperienced to guard close. I had a feeling if I made it across the bridge now, I’d be a different girl than I was at this moment. I wouldn’t be the girl I was before the college boy appeared.
Fear is a gift, a good friend when it wants to be. It can cover you tenderly, like a soft, dark night, keep you still and steady when danger would turn you dumb and obvious as a bulls-eye. Except in those instances when staying still would mean suicide – then, fear can light you up like an engine, inject your body, your legs, your feet with cheetah blood, cheetah instincts, run you away to someplace better, someplace safe. It can give you a voice you didn’t know you had, strong and clear, or keep it wisely silent somewhere inside you, in that dark, ever-humming, intensely personal place that no one can get to, no one can harm. Fear knows best, whatever the situation.
Until suddenly it doesn’t, when it turns traitor. Or trickster. I’m still trying to work it out, this fear thing, though I’m not sure I ever will. How can something that helps me sometimes, hurt me other times? How can you trust something of that nature? Like I knew the creek wouldn’t crack that day winter froze it so thick and sure. And I knew the other kids were right to laugh at me, standing stupid and stubborn on the bank above, watching the fun, not joining, not running, not fighting back, not doing nothing but letting fear treat me like a broken toy. Would it have hurt me to shimmy down the bank and stand on the creek with them? Were Derek and Josh really so intimidating, so hard to get over? Had I fallen in somehow, would I have suffered much beyond wet boots, a cold scramble back up the bank? Couldn’t there be worse things?
Do you know what ________ is? Do you want to learn about it? I can show you if you want. He’s only a voice still. I won’t look up. His voice is soothing. It reminds me of my favorite teacher, in the second grade, how she comforted me when I spilled my milk carton in my lap one day in the lunchroom, making it look like I’d wet myself. We all make mistakes, we all have accidents, she said. You’ll survive. But she was a little old lady, easy to trust and believe. This college boy though, he’s much taller than me. I don’t even have to look at him to know – I can feel him, feel his great height looming beside and above me like a thunderhead. More than anything I want to know what he looks like, but I just can’t bring myself to look up. My face is hot. I’m sure he notices. I’m sure he thinks it’s funny. You’re pretty, hasn’t anyone told you that before? Don’t all the boys tell you that? They don’t? I can’t believe that. I can’t believe you don’t know what a babe you are. I can’t believe you’ve never had a boyfriend.
At school I’m the butt of jokes. My hair, my weight, my body, my whole being. Dawn calls me a wimp, Derek and the boys call me worse. When we’re at school, Dawn laughs along. When we’re alone, she tells me just ignore them, offers to straighten and color my curly dishwater hair, to loan me fashion magazines, to help me in some way, make me feel worthy. She says it’s all about attitude – if you’ve got attitude, you’ve got all you need. But I’m completely alone now with this college boy by the creek – no attitude, no cheetah instincts, no nothing. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what he wants – well, I do and I don’t. Maybe he really likes me and this is how true love begins. Can’t it be possible? Maybe this isn’t a joke. Maybe I’m not a joke.
When I reach the bridge, he strides ahead of me and stops in the middle of the entrance, blocking me from crossing. My eyes are still down, focusing on the footprints in the gravel before the bridge begins. Look! he says. I raise my eyes a little and see his hand holding out a creekboy. It likes you. His hand is on me a second, brushing one of my breasts. (I had them already, but just cuz you’re fat, as Derek said.) After his hand is gone, it takes me a second to rouse and do anything beyond feel the blood rushing to my face. Then I see the creekboy crawling upwards on my breast. It begins to open its wings when the college boy touches it, touches me, again. Don’t let it get away! He keeps his hands, the tips of his fingers on me, on my breasts, as he guides the creekboy the opposite of wherever it tries to go. I make myself look up. I look him in the face. He has neat hair, light eyes, a strong jawline. A young man, just like the teachers and townspeople say. I step back from him. His brows furrow. I take another step back, my eyes narrowing, my face still hot. He laughs. Why do they always laugh? Finally he steps aside, opening the way across the bridge.
I don’t budge. I just can’t. He shakes his head and laughs again. You’re not going to tell on me, are you? His voice is different now. No longer soothing like an old woman’s but mocking like a boy’s, like Derek and Josh. You don’t even know, do you? You don’t know anything. Just agree with him, I think. It’s the only way to get him to leave you alone. Only he doesn’t. At least, not forever or for good.
When it’s just Dawn and me, she tells me things she tells no one else, even though I don’t tell her a thing in return. It’s safe for her to tell me things because no one really knows we’re kind-of-sort-of friends. Telling me secrets doesn’t really count, since no one will believe me anyway if I tell and no one will even think to ask me what I know. So Dawn tells me once, at the library, an older boy – a college boy? a young man? she wasn’t sure – followed her into one of the stacks and put his hand on her. She was looking for a book on the shelf. He came into the same stack as her, inched his way down the aisle, browsing the shelves as he went. She said she had a feeling he might be only pretending to be looking for a book, but how could she know for sure? He stopped when he got to Dawn, standing there holding the book she’d pulled out, staring at the table of contents and not seeing a word, her back to his. What did the guy look like, I asked her? Did he have neat hair? Was he tall? She didn’t know – she wanted to turn around but just couldn’t. All she could say for sure was he was taller than her and his hand was on her. On her butt. Right away she put the book back on the shelf, probably in the wrong spot because her hands were shaking. She walked fast out of the library and didn’t tell a soul. Except you. My mom doesn’t even know. I don’t want anyone to know. It’s…embarrassing.
I nod, keep quiet. I wonder to myself who he was, if he liked her, if he would’ve done the same had it been me in that bookstack. Dawn calls him a creep and wonders why he picked her. Was it what she was wearing, that pink tank top? Or her blonde hair? Maybe he liked you, I suggest, wanting her to deny it, to say that’s ridiculous. Well, he definitely liked me, she says and rolls her eyes like she always does when I get too obvious. We go back to what we were doing before her confession, to her smoothing and ironing the forest of frizz out of my hair. I want to tell her that I know exactly why she didn’t tell her mom. And I want to confide my own new secrets in her, but it’s not the way things work between us.
Because the college boy came back, again and again, like a recurring signal, for the rest of spring and into the early summer, and nobody knew but me. He’d meet me, always from out of nowhere, always catching me when there’s no one around, two or three times a week by the creek. He talked to me. The second time, he began by apologizing to me, asked if I have a bike, said his sister had one she never used any more, good condition, light purple with a black seat, would I like to have it, he can bring me to see it next time he runs into me, he doesn’t live far. But the next time, he didn’t take me to see the bike – instead he wanted me to see an owl he said sits on a branch on one of the trees overhanging the creek. You like birds, don’t you? You need to see this one. It’s hard to find. You won’t be able to find it on your own. He said it’s where the trees and branches are thickest, among the shadows, where the sunlight can’t get to and the creekboys light up brightest at night. But it was still daytime when he took me, and there was no creekboy light garnishing the dense, deep green canopies of branches and leaves of Wickett Creek, and no owl hiding or hooting among the dark lingering moments between flickers of creekboy light. Only the shadows themselves, unredeemed by light of any kind. Only secrets, only him and me.
No one knew about that. Or about this: The day I first met the college boy, the day he blocked me on the bridge, I went home, went to my room, and found the creekboy he put on me had come home with me. Perhaps it rode along on my shoulder, in my hair, on my backpack. It didn’t leave me and that’s what matters. In my room it came out as I was sorting through my schoolbooks. Unlike spiders, ants, and most other bugs, I don’t mind creekboys, so I let it do what it wanted. It settled on the back of my hand, opened its wings, then flew up to my mouth. And for some reason, I opened it and the creekboy walked right in. It went down my throat and into my belly, easy and natural as a tonic. But it had no taste, no sourness or flavor. Still, I worried I’d suffer a stomachache. Instead, a warmth began to grow inside me, a comfort, like being covered by a quilt from the inside out. I sat a long while on my bed feeling the feeling and trying to understand it. I had one of my hunches again that maybe by understanding it, putting a name or description to it, I could claim it and keep the feeling around a little longer. I sat and tried to compare the feeling to things I’d only heard about, things not yet promised to me, to a girl like me, but still for the taking, somewhere, somehow. I bet this is what true love feels like, I told myself. Or a real friendship, the kind you can have in the open. Or sex. This is what it’s like to make a baby, to make another human being. To be strong, unafraid. To speak and have people hear you for a change, to actually listen to you. To be God.
At the time, I didn’t know if I was close to accurate with any of these thoughts. It was a thrill just to entertain such notions with no one around to take them or laugh them away from me. And the creekboy warmth dissolving inside me. It was like each notion led to a deeper one, a reserve of audacity I didn’t know I had. This was so much bolder than any confession about a college boy. There was to be no telling these thoughts to anyone ever, no giving them away for dissection or dismissing. No matter what Dawn had said about attitude, these notions were more potent, more…me. I told myself: Keep all this to yourself, somewhere safe, in the silence of your girlbones, the stillness of your tongue. Keep it where only you can access it and no one else can get to. Then you’ll always have everything where and whenever you need it.
Whenever I come home after meeting the college boy, a creekboy follows me. I swallow one at least two or three times a week. Soon I start to take on a strange hue. A luminosity, a glow. The teachers and townspeople say I’m blossoming. They say I’m turning into a young woman, a beauty, the ugly duckling become swan. They aren’t entirely off – both swans and creekboys have wings after all. But if I had to tell someone, I’d say: Think smaller. Much smaller. Think of the dusk, of warmth, of dark things that come to light then disappear. In the summer, in the winter, whenever. Of things that diminish, that wane, that swallow, get swallowed, are shadowed and secreted away.
The days the college boy doesn’t show up, I miss him but feel relieved. Or I wish him dead but worry he just might be. I shake in bed, cry in class and at mass, disobey my parents, who tell me I’m not the girl they thought I was, the girl I should be. I run from the house every morning and avoid the creek until the afternoon, but am almost always looking in its direction, even crosstown. The only time I feel calm is after swallowing one of my creekboys. I cannot understand how I can feel such different emotions at once. Then I remember my old friend fear, how two-faced it can be. And I remember Dawn, my two-faced sometime friend. By the time summer vacation starts, I don’t see her much anymore but I don’t even miss her. My world has become the college boy. I hear rumors – they trickle down even to me. Dawn’s in summer school. She’s busy babysitting. She’s got a boyfriend. Then I hear she’s gone, that she never came home one day, which turns to two days, then forever.
Girls are necessary. Indispensable, no matter what anyone says. Same as the creatures that fly and the creatures that glow and the creatures that wake us from sleep with their caws and cries every morning. Maybe girls don’t have the powers others do, but we’re here, in the world, with a purpose – if not power – and we belong. The vanishing of a girl should be regarded as tragic as the vanishing of a species, the death of a language or a population, or the loss of a friend. And the using and crushing of a girl, of her heart, her trust, the audacity just beginning to course through the blood of her growing girlbody, through the marrow of her magnificent girlbones – that should be tragic too. First the crows, then the butterflies, then the creekboys, then Dawn. Then me. Who is to blame for what happened to us? Because I believe in blame. As deeply as I’ve come to believe in myself. So who owns it, this tragedy? The world? The town? Or the college boy and all his kind?
When Dawn disappeared, the town transformed itself looking for her. It became, for awhile, an inside-out place, like a volcano that’s erupted all its deep, long-sequestered, tremendous store of suspicions and emotions. News crews and helicopters came out, hovered everywhere, made a ruckus and drove all the local pets into hiding and the remaining creekboys away as well. The only ones left were the ones I carried inside me. Dawn’s friends were questioned on her possible whereabouts – Derek, Josh, even little Tom. Who last saw her and when? Rumor has it Derek cried, but I can’t believe it. Grownups are wont to mischaracterize and misidentify the young, and I know in my bones and blood that gossip simply confused Derek with Josh or little Tom. Derek never cried in his life and likely never will. The questioners didn’t even bother with me. Those girls aren’t friends, the townspeople told the news crews and police. Those two have less in common than day and night.
Then someone offered a tip that Dawn was last seen by the creek, crossing the bridge. And someone else mentioned she was seen on more than one occasion talking to a young man, a nice-looking young man with neat hair – outside the library, down by the creek. But the tips came too late – the town was already preparing to move on, to shrug Dawn’s vanishing down beneath wherever the creekboys and crows had gone to, wherever all things dark and unsettling and out of the ordinary can be disappeared without fear of coming back. Besides, that young man was gone now, back to the town where he goes to college. Isn’t that earlier in the year than usual? the news crews asked. It was barely July. But the townspeople said, Who would question a young man for wanting to get back to his studies, for his ambition? He probably knows nothing of Dawn’s whereabouts.
And then she was found, down by the creek, near the tree where the owl I was told would be. The police concluded she fell, somehow, from somewhere. And it was a shame. She was a risk taker – a beautiful little girl, but too bold. Her friends Derek and Josh could tell you – how she coaxed them down on the frozen creek once, how she stuck her tongue to a freezing pole on a dare. And her mother, she let her do this stuff, her mother didn’t even know half of what she got into, her mother was to fault for not watching over her well enough, for not instilling some sense and fear into the girl for her own good. The girl was to blame for not knowing her limits, for not knowing that sometimes your own worst enemy is yourself.
At first I believed them, I believed it all. Swallowed the excuses like they were creekboys, like they could calm me and make everything better. If I didn’t, I would’ve erupted, becoming like the town, the thing I’d hated most. Inside, I was roiling. No longer blossoming but burning. No longer radiant but raging. The swallowed things were stirring, the creekboys inside me rousing, revolting. I thought they’d let themselves inside me because they liked me, because they just wanted to be close to me. All along, I thought we’d been kind-of-sort-of-friends, funny as that may sound. But they had other reasons, a purpose of their own only connected to me as a rose bouquet to a vase or a bride’s hand. I became afraid to open my mouth, knowing something that could never be taken back would come winging out and change everything if I did.
I waited every day, all day, by the creek for the college boy, sure there’d been some mistake in identity. Dawn’s young man wasn’t my young man. They weren’t the same, weren’t even friends, no more alike than me and Dawn. If I could only see him once, he didn’t even have to pretend to like me anymore, but just show himself to prove I hadn’t been stupid, hadn’t been betrayed or tricked, hadn’t been a toy, a fool. But it became harder to get to the creek. My parents watched close over me, kept me on a tight leash, lectured me not to become like Dawn, not to make her mistakes and a bad example of them the way Dawn had of her mother. They had no idea how late they were.
Finally I snuck out one night, when my parents were asleep and the town was quiet, the police cars and news crews long gone. I went to the creek in my nightclothes, guided there easily by a bright midsummer moon and a chill that belied the July heat and tugged me along as if on an irreversible path. My stomach and heart both stung with pain. What was this all about, these encounters since the spring? Why had he ever picked me? Why had I never run, never told, never even questioned him about Dawn or his intentions?
I found him by the tree where the owl was supposed to be, where a little memorial for Dawn had been placed – a picture of her, some candles and crosses, a teddy bear, a tersely worded warning to other young girls. He was drinking beer, had already finished off a couple bottles and junked them by the picture of Dawn. He saw me, skipped his smile and went straight to laughter. Why are you laughing? I said. And why are you doing that to Dawn’s memorial? Are you going to tell on me? he said, and laughed some more.
No, I didn’t tell. But I did open my mouth, and from there the creekboys took care of everything. They say the light was seen from as far away as all the young men’s college towns. And they say the sound – because light of that brightness, of such often-swallowed fear and long-dimmed, long-silenced rage, indeed has a sound – made the earth crack open downstate, created a fissure that unleashed all the missing crows and butterflies, some of the creekboys too, who all flocked north to join with the ones who’d been waiting inside me, made a girdling, gobbling cloud that lifted the college boy away from Dawn’s memorial, away from me and Wickett Creek, away to where he can’t come around anymore, where he can’t put his hand on any more girls.
I was just the vessel, the vase, the bride’s hand. But what a blessing, that they picked me. And left me ever-luminous in their wake as well, eternally lit, forever aglow, shining from my mouth, my eyes, my gut, my heart, the ends of my fingers and toes, even from the coils of my hair. I’m still here, in town, in the place I’ve long wanted to escape. I never leave the creekside, not at dusk or dark of night, nor at noontime, when only the sun outshines me. I stay here for the girls, to make sure they get across safe, no matter the time of day. I stay to keep the college boys away and chase the shadows and dim judgment from Dawn’s memorial. I stay to make this town a brighter place, until the creekboys return with word of someplace better.