When I was in the fourth grade, Matt Fischer got stabbed outside Mueller’s Bowling Alley. He didn’t die or anything, but it was the talk of the town for months after it happened. That’s how small towns are. If you live in a big city, you’re used to people getting stabbed all the time, but because exciting things rarely happen in towns with populations under two thousand people, a seventeen-year-old kid getting knifed by a confused drunk guy, it becomes the talk of the town.
After that, my brother and I weren’t allowed to go to the bowling alley without our parents anymore. This was annoying because both my parents worked all the time and there weren’t many other air-conditioned places for kids to go during the summer. So, one July day, when I was ten years old, and my brother Darren was eleven, we ended up going to play in Peterson’s creek.
We were both lying on our stomachs on the plush, blue carpet of our family’s living room, sweltering with only the ceiling fan providing minimal relief. My long hair was tied up in a pony-tail on top of my head to keep it off my neck. I was envious of the way boys were allowed to shave their heads in the summer while I was forced to tote around my mop of hair, even when it was over ninety degrees outside. I wasn’t sure who created that rule, but I wasn’t fond of them.
“Have you ever caught a fish with your bare hands?” I asked Darren.
“What kind of fish?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the PBS program playing on our television set.
“What does that matter?”
“Some fish are easier to catch than others. I could probably catch a trout, no problem, but a jellyfish would be trickier.”
“I’m not asking if you could catch a fish with your bare hands, I’m asking if you have,” I said, rolling my eyes. It was times like this that I cursed my parents for stranding me here, away from all my friends, with only my brother for company. It was if they wanted us to kill each other so that they’d only have one left over to deal with.
“Not just yet,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Do you want to?” I asked standing up, tugging on my denim shorts as I did. They were still the same ones from last summer, and they’d gotten too tight for my liking, but my mom thought we could still get another year out of them.
“Right now?” Darren asked, rolling onto his back.
“You got something better to do?”
“Where are we gonna catch this fish?” he said, looking doubtful.
“I know a place,” I said, turning and marching out the back door without waiting for him. I knew he’d follow. He was as starved for entertainment as I was.
Sure enough, a few moments later I heard the screen door slam and the sound of his feet pounding along the brown grass of our lawn. “This better not be some wild goose chase of yours where you lead me around all day, and we never end up getting to what you set us out to do.”
“I never do that,” I said, flipping my ponytail with my hand so it hit him in the face. I heard him grumble something behind me, but I chose to ignore it.
We walked for about ten minutes with me leading the way and Darren a few paces behind me before he started complaining. “You’re not going to make us walk all the way to Peoria for this stupid fish, are you?”
I huffed at him and didn’t respond. He’d always been a complainer. Mom said that it came from his general nervous disposition. Our Grandma Jeannie was the same way. Gave herself an ulcer from all the worrying she did. Before she died last summer, she hadn’t left her house in two years. I couldn’t imagine staying cooped up inside for that long. Dad said that the outside had become too scary for her to handle. I asked my Dad if it was the spiders and such that were keeping her inside—because truth be told, they gave me the creeps too—but he just laughed kind of sad-like and told me I’d understand when I was older.
“Oh no. Absolutely not,” Darren said from behind me. We’d reached the chain-link fence that blocked off the perimeter of the Peterson’s property.
“C’mon, don’t be such a wuss,” I said as I lowered myself flat on the ground and rolled underneath the gap in the fence. I stood up, tugged on my shorts, and brushed the dirt from my front.
“What about their Rottweilers?” Darren asked, looking off into the distance behind me.
“If they come after us, which I doubt they will because they’re both about a hundred in dog years, we’ll climb one of those trees to get away from them,” I said, gesturing to the plethora of perfect climbing trees surrounding us. Darren gave me a doubtful look, but he followed my lead and did an ungraceful shimmy underneath the fence.
“Thank you for joining me today, Darren,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Today is the day you become a man.”
“I thought I’d become a man at my bar mitzvah,” he said, taking my hand in his and throwing it off his shoulder.
“That’s what mom and dad want you to think, but that’s not true. You can only truly become a man when you catch your first fish.”
“Does that mean if you catch a fish today that you become a man, too?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. I guess we’ll see,” I said, turning and skipping off in the direction of the creek.
Darren jogged behind me.
The creek was in the northwest corner of the Peterson’s property so we only had to walk a few minutes before we reached it. Central Illinois was not known to be a place with many lakes, and the Peterson’s creek was one of the only places for miles to cool off from the heat. The Petersons attempted to keep out trespassers by putting up a fence and adopting twin Rottweilers, Zeus and Poseidon. This did cut down the problem considerably, but everyone knew how to get past the fence and the dogs.
I never could understand what the Peterson’s problem was with sharing their creek anyway. It wasn’t like they’d dug it themselves. They just so happened to buy this chunk of land that just so happened to have some water on it. And they didn’t even have any kids who could get any use out of it. They let it sit on their property untouched. It was selfish, and I felt absolutely no guilt in trespassing on their land that day and attempting to steal some fish out of their creek with my bare hands.
“There she is,” I said as we approached the creek, looking down over it from the top of the hill that stood next to it.
“Stop talking like you’re a pirate,” Darren said, walking down the hill ahead of me. I didn’t appreciate not being in the lead, so I ran full-force down the hill, wind-milling my arms and shoving him out of the way as I barreled all the way down, stopping just short of falling face-first into the somewhat murky water.
“And you wonder why the kids at school call you weird,” Darren teased, out of breath from running down the hill.
“Daddy says it’s because they’re jealous of my individuality,” I said, sticking out my tongue.
“My friends say it’s because you’re a few spoons short of a dining set,” he said under his breath.
I felt a sting in my throat and behind my eyes. “I’m going in,” I said, and started splashing my way into the water.
“Diana, you don’t know what’s in there!” Darren shouted.
“It’s a creek, not the Pacific Ocean,” I shouted back.
I continued splashing my way farther in. I realized that I was probably scaring any nearby fish away, but I didn’t really care about catching fish anymore. I wanted to get away from Darren, and what he said, and from myself.
“Diana, stop!” Darren shouted again. I heard him enter the water behind me. I knew he thought it was infested with diseases.
“It’s fine. I’m fine!” I shouted back, but I took one more step and suddenly couldn’t reach the bottom anymore. Submerged, I let out a scream and my lungs filled with water. I struggled to get my head above water, but I’d never learned to swim. Our town didn’t have a pool, and mom and dad didn’t have time to drive me twenty minutes away to take lessons. I thrashed around in water, but felt myself being pulled farther down. My head was feeling fuzzy and my lungs hurt so badly that I didn’t think I could stand another second when I felt a pair of arms wrap around my middle and drag me above into the sunlight.
“You stupid idiot,” Darren sputtered when we got to the shoreline.
Amid coughing up water, I asked, “When the hell did you learn to swim?” I didn’t think lungs would ever empty of the water.
“Eddie’s older brother taught me last year when I went camping with his family,” he said, lying on his back next to me in the grass.
“Tell Eddie’s brother that I owe him my life,” I said, lying face-down, still spitting up sludgy water.
“You owe me your life, you little shit,” Darren said, whacking me on the back; which actually helped to get out the last of the water.
“It looks like I was right,” I said, rolling over onto my back and looking up at the cloudless, blue sky.
“Today was the day that you became a man,” I said, grabbing his hand in mine. “Mazel tov.”
“I should have let you drown,” he said, but he didn’t let go of my hand. In my memory, he held it tighter, but I’m not sure if that’s true or not.
I think about that day a lot. It was my first real brush with death. I would like to say that it made me more careful with my own life, but I continued to be as reckless. Darren continued to be as careful as ever.
In the car crash when he was nineteen, he hadn’t done anything wrong. A drunk driver swerved into his lane and the police officer on the scene said there was nothing Darren could have done.
That was the moment when I realized why Grandma Jeannie was so afraid to leave her house. No matter how hard you tried to be careful and be a good person, terrible things could still happen. You can’t control what other people do. You could spend your whole life doing everything right, and it could all end in a split second in the parking lot of a bowling alley, or in a neighbor’s creek, or on a highway in the middle of the night. I saw that I wasn’t smarter than Darren—and everyone else, for that matter—like I’d always thought. But rather, I was the idiot who was naïve enough to believe that world owed me something like safety.