Along the creek the mud ferments to sulfur and sour. It runs deep brown in syrupy algae covered tongues like lava. If your foot goes too far in it’ll come out without your shoe, then you have to hop and yank it out, the suction slurping like a frog’s mouth as you try to keep your socks from getting coated in the dark green-brown goo.
I’m running with Anna. Cuts on my face sting and my stomach still aches like too much candy from where the kid kicked me, but I’m a fear gazelle now. We’re thrashing through the furry summer humidity so thick it seems the air is filled with steam. Green straw reeds hide the creek water that's littered with fallen leaves; scummy mud and bits of spray from Anna’s shoes flick into my eyes.
Follow her, is all I can do. The big kids’ voices blast through the trees behind us.
Why’d I have to do it? Should have left her alone. She deserves it. Says stupid things and gets in everyone’s way. A bunch of big kids on stingray bikes—what did she think they were going to do? Kiss her?
And then there I am. What was I thinking so small? They’re twice my height.
I should let them beat her up in the playground, then tell on them. Instead I get in the way and a whole mess of their punches land and hurt out of control, make me cry as I ball myself up; but then I see a tunnel of light through the blows and squirm away. Somehow Anna grabs my hand and we start running. She lets go when we're fast, and I’m following her flowing hair, the big kids looking around like we’ve turned to smoke, then they see us, mount their bikes, and start following, off the playground pavement and over the school ground grass as fast as they can pedal.
She heads for the trees and takes the creek path because she knows the bikes won't work in the mud. When it happens they ditch them. Now we’re running like foxes pursued by pampered hounds.
Anna’s shoe gets stuck and I pull it out while she leans on my shoulder. She smiles when I hand it to her, in fact I’m pretty sure she’s been smiling the whole time.
She twists to put on her shoe the way girls do, standing straight and bending one leg up, slipping on the shoe behind her back with her instep resting on the back of her knee, looking at me as if I'm supposed to say something. Trickles of blood and sweat run down my cheek and I can taste some warm metal where I bit my lip when the kid punched me there.
“Why’d you do that?” she asks me.
And I tell her the truth, “I didn’t want them hitting you. I can’t stand it.”
“So you thought it would be better if they were hitting you?”
No. That is not what I thought.
I tell her, “I guess I thought I could take ‘um.”
“Those big kids?” Anna says to me. “They’re in fifth grade. There’s four of them. You would beat up fifth graders for me?”
The voices pound against the back of my head. One sees us and shouts for the others. They’re getting closer. Who knows what they’ll do if they catch us. I grab her hand and start to run but she won’t go.
She holds my hand and asks me if I know what love is.
“Ohhh. Please. No dumb stuff. Let’s go.” I pull her arm as hard as I can. She stumbles forward and catches herself. We start running again, fording the shallow part of the stream and climbing over fields of yellow-green skunk cabbage. The wind’s in my face as I look for places we won’t be found. We tunnel under dark tree branches. Splashing through the swamp beside the creek. Under the damp rocky overhang. Through the sticker bushes and the field of purple honey clover.
At the footbridge our soggy shoes leave splattered patches of shadow on the pale sun bleached wood. We’re farther than I’m supposed to go. The other side is the far away park--the one in the other town I’m only allowed to go to when I’m with my parents. That thought evaporates with our footprints.
The end of the footbridge comes and we’re on a knoll that’s girl scout green in dense grass. College students lie under the blue sky, heads propped on hand over elbow, faces illuminated by the bright reflection of paperback pages. And we pass them, feet squishing in saturated sneakers and socks, mud flecked faces, sunlit hair.
Down the paved gray footpath next to the lake where the cotton white geese float like clouds. Through the shade of the great drooping willows where the air runs cool and the crows take rest from their busy thieving day. Past the dogs chasing plastic disks and babies learning to walk. Past the old men sleeping on green metal benches, their fishing poles dipping into the water, tiny red and white ball-bobbers drifting away fishless.
A woman tosses flakes of dried bread to the pigeons. A honey bee newly departed from the hive wanders from dandelion to butter yellow dandelion.
And Anna’s eyes are bright and brown. Her hand is warm and alive in mine. The sun takes us in, feeding us the heat that’s food to stay alive. Our feet tap in time against the pavement as we make our own smooth breeze that patters our faces and lifts our hair.
And I’m smiling, too.