Paper Boats

Jason Stout

There is a creek in Cherry Hill, Tennessee where I’ve hidden my memories from childhood. Mom and I would walk down to the creek every day to escape the tiny apartment and everything and everyone in it. At the water’s edge, I would tie each memory to a stone with an invisible string and throw them one by one into the middle of the creek.

Mom thought I was trying to skip stones. “You have to throw them sort of sidearm to make them skip,” she’d say, demonstrating. “See? Like that.” She would smile when she said it. She was pretty and young and had a nice smile that I liked to see. I hated to disappoint her, but I had no intention of letting the stones skip around willy-nilly. I knew what I was aiming for.

“Okay,” I’d say. I would secretly secure another memory to a stone and throw it like a rainbow into the middle of the creek. The rock would make a satisfying slap against the water before sinking.

“Maybe next time,” she would say, giving my hair a tousle.

On the days we couldn’t go to the creek―because it was too cold or because my mother was too tired―the memories would expand in my head and threaten to lodge themselves permanently. On those days, I would hide in my room, take the memories out, and close them up in an old Swisher Sweets cigar box my father had given me. But the memories were clever and wouldn’t stay confined. They would sneak out and wait patiently at the foot of my bed for me to be awakened―by the yelling or the thumping or the slamming of a door―and rush back in my head again and force me to watch and re-watch them until I finally fell asleep.

The next morning, I would beg to go to the creek straightaway. On those mornings, mom would sit quietly on the bank and watch me frenetically pitching stone after stone into the creek. There was no talk of skipping stones. There was no talk at all.

On my sixth birthday, she told me we were leaving―Dad, the apartment, Cherry Hill. I didn’t ask why. Instead, as I looked into her deep brown, wonderfully sad eyes, I simply asked: “When?”

“Right away,” she said. “I’ve packed everything up and we need to go now.”

“I have to go to the creek,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “One last time to the creek.”

I ran to the door without waiting for her. I tore across the parking lot and down the little bank. I stared at the creek and, for the first time, spoke to it. “This is it,” I said. “You’ve got to take them all now.” I picked up handfuls of stones and smashed the memories into them. No time for delicate, invisible strings. I threw them, carelessly, hurriedly.

Mom joined me at the creek and told me she had the car warming up and that it was time to go. I threw one last fistful of rocks and dusted my hands on my corduroys. She reached her hand down to me and wiggled her fingers in the universal parental language that says, “Grab on.” I did.

Years later when I told my wife about the creek, she laughed. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “If you threw all your memories into the creek, how can you be telling me about the apartment and Cherry Hill and the creek itself? You wouldn’t remember anything at all before you turned six.”

She doesn’t understand.

If I were ever to go back to the creek, I would stand with my wife on that tiny bank and hold her hand so maybe she could understand. I imagine that the creek would offer up my memories to us both. But then my wife would want to see them, and she would bend down to the water and ask the creek to send them to her. And if the creek decided to float those memories to her on paper boats, I would have to throw rocks and sticks at the boats to sink them. “I’m sorry,” I would say. “I can’t let those reach you.”

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Jason Stout lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and five children.  His stories have appeared in Flashquake, Every Day Fiction, Shine! and Pequin.  Recently, his story, “Larry Legend,” was nominated for a Pushcart.