“Smith’s Creek”

Fiction by Alexandra Talty

Michael was describing where he’d found the figurine when a shout from the upstairs startled us. 

“Boys, what’s going on?” said the skinny man who was now in the living room, a beer bottle in his hand. It was 2 p.m., but it was dark inside the house, all of the surfaces occupied by catalogs and remotes and broken pencils and T-shirts, the air heavy with the smell of antiseptic and air fresheners. 

“Michael, Chris! No screaming in the house,” said the man with long hair. He continued, “Who’s this then?” 

“Lana and Seton, the girls from across the street,” said Michael. 

“The big house there? The O’Neils?”

“Yes,” I said. I looked away, focusing on their sister’s chair in their living room. She had cystic fibrosis. Her body was as small as her younger brother’s and when I stared at the wheelchair it gave me a hot feeling in my chest. Their mother brought her daughter every day to the bus: It was the only time we saw either of them. 

“Tell your grandma we’ll mow the grass down to the creek this week. I don’t like the way they’re cutting it. Hacking at those raspberry bushes.”

  “Okay,” I said. I squeezed my sister Seton’s hand long enough so that she would stay quiet. Since we’d moved permanently into my grandmother’s house two summers ago she had become better at listening to me. 

He continued, telling us which traps to use for catching voles and why hand sprinkling was best as he worked his way over to a mounted pine cabinet angled behind the television. It was the one part of the room with a clear pathway. He opened the cabinet and I pulled Seton behind me. 

The neighborhood was a postcard of Americana-vacationland: low-slung houses with mute shingles; wide roads that dead-ended onto various bodies of water; middle-aged Chinese elms, linden trees, and volunteer sumacs scattered throughout the backyards — all of which was spliced together with slivers of Shinnecock Bay, its water soaked permanently into the horizon of 12 Hampton Harbor Road, where my grandmother, Bammie, lived. 

The boys were catty-corner from us, a single-story duplex next to the dirt path that would take you down to Smith’s Creek. Our friendship was predetermined from when we first met them: Michael was my age and his younger brother, Chris, was my sister’s.

We spent afternoons collecting baitfish down at Smith’s Creek, my feet primed for the pinch of a jagged mussel edge or blue claw crab as we swooped the net full of water, slowly walking into shore, the seine shaking full of glinting silver as we laid it out on the sand. I was never sure who Smith was, but remember my father telling stories of the pirate Captain Bob who sailed in the creek when he was a boy; it was enough of an origin story for us.

Inside the cabinet in the boys’ house were six guns organized into rows, their dark bodies slung across metal spikes. Their father grabbed a long skinny one by its neck and offered the butt to Michael. They stood at the window together, the man’s hair draped over Michael’s shoulder. He whispered into his son’s ear as Michael brought the gun up and fake-shot at the squirrel sitting in the pine tree outside, making bla-bla-bla staccato noises like the stammer of a motorboat. 

Chris was offered a turn. His six-year-old arms could barely hold the rifle up but he took aim at the pine tree outside. They offered me a go too and I hesitated before saying no for both of us, fixed on getting us back to Bammie’s. I had never seen a gun before but knew I wasn’t supposed to. 

We crossed the road, the asphalt leaving small indents in the bottom of our feet. I told Seton not to breathe a word about the gun. I told her not to say anything about the boys’ house or their father or the beer in his hands. I told her we were helping at our grandmother’s cocktail hour that night. I told her not to stare at Mrs. Hanley’s mole like the last time.

Ten minutes after serving a plate of sweaty, cubed cheddar cheese and artichoke dip flecked green with spinach, Seton and I were on the floor, Shirley Temples in hand as we sat near the fireplace. We were practicing “being seen and not heard,” a quality that, despite my grandmother’s lectures on why it was important, I struggled with. 

Mrs. Hanley was discussing the upcoming plan for a garden club when Bammie interrupted, talking about hunting season and how she hoped that the town gave out more tickets for the deer this year, as they were absolutely decimating her tulips. 

“They were out, right up against the cottage yesterday morning when I woke up,” said my grandmother. “They’re worse than last year.”

“I’ve never seen them this bad,” said Mrs. Hanley. Her grandkids lived in Arizona. Every birthday, she would give us a Russian nesting doll and a $5 bill. 

“Does Peter hunt?” asked Mr. Hanley. 

“Not really,” Bammie said. “His dad never took him out.”

“Mr. DeCusio hunts,” said Seton. The room pivoted at the sound of her voice. Since our mom left, I did most of the talking for both of us. 

“What do you mean?” said Bammie. 

“Mr. DeCusio hunts,” she said. “We saw his guns.”

“Where?” said my grandmother, directing the question at me now. “Where did you see the gun?”

My lungs felt pressed, like I was tumbled by a big wave in the ocean and swallowed a gulp of saltwater on my way up.

“Over there,” I said, pointing. I gave Seton my best mean-eyed look. “In their house.”

“Where in their house? When did you go over there?” asked Bammie.

“In the living room. In a cabinet,” I said. 

“He let the boys hold it,” said Seton.

  I added, “We didn’t want to.”

Bammie was in her armchair, hunched over her legs so that when I looked up all I could see were her breasts, pushed forward with a gold cross stuck between them. The swing outside blew slowly back and forth, rocking like a boat at anchor. You always knew Bammie was really upset if she was quiet. 

“Alexandra, Seton. I’m serious. You are not allowed to go to that house again.”

“But it’s Chris and Michael’s house.”

“I don’t allow it,” said Bammie. “Girls — promise me.” 

We avoided the boys after that. Ceding the creek to them, we played inside mostly. Sometimes when it was really, really hot, they would catch us outside and convince us to go scrape melted tar off the pier, our under-fingernails staining black as we scratched the bubbling smears into balls. By October, we were allowed to move back in with our dad, and by spring, the whole DeCusio family left the neighborhood too. 

The crows bothered Bammie. I remember hearing her voice in the mornings, shouting at them to get off her lawn. She tried everything: scarecrows, sprinkler timings, even poison, despite the neighbor’s small dog. After she died, they stayed, tyrannizing large patches of grass, turning them into dirt. Seton and I would drive by sometimes, but when the swaths of soil became too big we stopped.

Alexandra Talty recently returned to Southampton, her hometown, after three years as a journalist in Beirut. She is a contributing writer at Forbes magazine and a columnist covering land use and agriculture for The Southampton Press.