Assignment: Write about someone else’s childhood memory.
(Prompt: Hot Creek in Mammoth, cold creek runs through hot spots,age nine, dad drove big blue Suburban, John Pope, a grizzled hippie guy with a mustache, red bandana, leaning over hood of Suburban with map, a boy surrounded by girls.)
The sun glinted off the car’s hood. John Pope lifted his hand to his bandana-covered brow, blocking the glare. He shook the map, erasing the creases, and spread it over the Suburban’s blue metal. Dad leaned in.
“Ha, ha! You’re a boy! You’re dumb!” the girls shrieked, me among them. Tommy cringed into himself, fists clenched like the rocks we threatened him with. So far, we’d only chucked chunks of bark, but the threat of escalated violence filled the circle we’d made, surrounding him.
John Pope pointed at a squiggly blue line. “We’re here,” he said. “Pretty sure, anyway.” Dad furrowed his brow, grunted in what was likely acquiescence to John Pope’s statement. I was never sure what the guttural sounds meant. Yes? No? I don’t care, let’s just get the hell out of here and away from these kids? No, Dad wouldn’t think that. He loved spending time with us. He’d brought us to Mammoth, hadn’t he? All the way to Hot Creek, a waterway winding between mountains so tall they stuck to the sky. Cold water a reminder of winter’s existence, but with the odd spots of heat, all the more glorious for being unexpected.
“Tommy, Tommy, Tommy!” the girls singsonged. I’d glanced away, watching John Pope and Dad, but the chanting of Tommy’s name brought me back. Just saying his name wasn’t much of an insult, but the girls, excepting me this time, inflected the syllables with such mockery one would have thought Tommy’d had a hunch on his back or had murdered kittens. Twelve-year-olds are cruel. At nine, I still hesitated before joining the brutality.
Some sort of bug landed on John Pope’s cheek. He smacked it, smushed it, leaving a smear below his eyes. Dad extended his hand, used his thumb to remove the remains. “You got it,” he said to John Pope. “Thanks,” John Pope said, eyes still on the map. Dad grinned. It took more than an errant bug to faze John Pope. A breeze ruffled the paper. Dad caught the corner. “So which way from here?” he asked.
Tommy wasn’t allowed to hit girls. They knew that, so the tormenting came easy. “Whatcha going to do, Tommy?” teased Susan. She was tall, but not too tall, thin, but with curves the boys admired, even if they didn’t yet know why. I didn’t know why, but I knew she was not to be messed with. She had that thing, that assurance that I associated only with movie stars and older kids.
“I say we head this way,” John Pope pointed. “And then over here for the night.” Dad nodded. He didn’t care, particularly, as long as the kids were safe enough, fed enough, slept well enough to leave him in peace. I imagined him thinking about the book he’d brought along, some collection of words thick as a brick with a serious-looking cover and an even more serious-looking author captured in photo on the back. Me, I preferred dragons.
Susan broke the circle, pushed Tommy down. He fell among the pieces of bark, river rocks and bits of leaves blown down early from the otherwise summer-laden trees. “Stop!” he cried out as Susan sat on his chest. The other girls froze. I froze, too. We stood there, frozen in the heat that had us in tank tops in shorts, goosebumps on our arms, hearts pounding. What would happen next? I thought, we all thought, the circle broken, the clearly defined parameters suddenly no longer.
John Pope folded up the map. “What the hell?” he bellowed, noticing Tommy pinned to the ground by Susan, her legs linked around his, her hands on his shoulders. Susan jerked her face to him, the sun behind him blinding her, then twisted down to plant a kiss – she planted it, like a seed that would someday grow into something large and valuable – on his still-protesting lips. “Susan!” Dad yelled, lunging away from the Suburban, his face shimmering in the heat waves glinting off the Suburban’s hood. She scrambled off Tommy, scooted away before John Pope or Dad could catch her. “Ha!” she laughed, her face wild in the sunlight, sun glinting off the creek behind her. “Last one in’s a rotten egg!” she shouted, leaping into the water, ducking under, then rising triumphantly. “It’s warm!”
Dad shook his head. John Pope held out a hand to Tommy, hoisted him up. Tommy’s face had turned redder than I’d ever seen anything, redder than the sunburn I’d earned after our last trip to Mammoth, the one where I refused to let Dad put sunscreen on my face. “Suit yourself,” he’d said. I’d cried all night, my face tender to the touch, retaining heat with such force that even an inch away from my cheek, I could feel the lingering sun radiating outward from my skin. That’s how Tommy looked, like you could fry an egg on his forehead, sizzle some bacon on his chin.
The other girls scattered into the creek, following Susan’s lead with shrieks and giggles. “Cold here!” “Hot here!” Without realizing I was doing so, I stretched a hand out to Tommy. He looked at me for a moment, like he was mulling his options, then took it. “Come on,” I said, pulling him to the creek, down a ways from the other kids. We stood on the side, sized each other up, then, without a word, leapt.
We’d missed the hot spot. Where we landed was cool, a relief against all the heat. I stayed under, underwater, loved the quiet, thought about my fingers still wrapped around Tommy’s. When I finally burst through the surface, he was waiting, a grin across his face like we’d been friends forever. I looked at those brown eyes and imagined we would be.
“Come on, you!” John Pope hollered, flinging towels in our general direction. “All aboard!” We let go of each other, trudged out of the water, joined the others in drying off, loading up. Dad nodded. It was time to move on to the next destination.