Joey stared at the hot green blur of passing trees.
“Are we gonna see alligators Dad?”
“Oh we’re going to find deadly, poisonous snakes and hillbilly cannibals, I bet!” his sister replied, laughing.
Dad glanced at the back seat. The station wagon swerved slightly.
“Don’t know Joey. In these swamps, there’s a little bit of everything.”
“Maybe alligators,” Mom added, not looking up from the magazine she held.
The station wagon rattled over a muddy bump.
He’d never seen a poisonous snake. The thought thrilled him. They were just natural things, things that should be there, no reason to be scared of them. Not so sure about cannibal hillbillies though. He’d only seen a little bit of one movie about them, and sometimes he had horrible thoughts at night. They weren’t real anyway, not matter what Jenny said.
The station wagon slowed. Dad said something about turning around. Mom wanted to stretch her legs, and as Joey expected, and begged Dad to take a break for a few minutes. Joey was out the door before they came to a full stop.
Vaguely aware of car doors opening and closing behind him, he took a few steps toward the shadowy forest, or swamp, or marsh. He wasn’t sure what to call it. The urgent sensation of wet grass on his calves combined with a rank odor or rotten vegetation pushed everything else out of mind. He didn’t see water nearby, but the ground was moist. The underbrush around him was thick and vibrant, and he could almost imagine a lingering mist.
This is a swamp, he decided. This is where alligators live. The ground was wet from a recent rain, and water was probably just a few feet away. Maybe on the other side of the thicket that lined the dirt road they were following. He glanced back at the car.
Mom gave him a look.
“Don’t go far!”
Dad unfolded a map on the hood.
“Look, it’s just a few more miles and we’ll be on the highway, here. It’s got to connect.”
Mom said something too low for Joey to catch it. His eyes were on the perfect stick. It was mostly straight, about his height, and thick around as a broomstick. Nice and heavy too, but not too heavy. Good for clobbering enemies. He wiped the dirt off and gave it a test swing.
Jenny was right behind him.
“Be careful honey,” Mom yelled. “Jenny, keep an eye on your brother, will you?
“For God’s sakes leave the boy alone,” Dad added. “It’s just a stick. He’s not gonna hit his sister.”
Joey frowned at the indignity of the idea he had to be “watched at all times,” but wasted no time in whacking the nearest bush.
“Careful runt, might be poison ivy,” Jenny teased.
Joey give his sister a dirty look and shook his head. “It’s not poison ivy, idiot. It’s just a bush. It’s a, um, mesquite.”
He knew what poison ivy looked like, poison oak too. This wasn’t it. Mesquite sounded good, a word in the book he was reading. Jenny wouldn’t know the difference.
A canal streamed on the other side of the bush. The bank on this side looked gentle enough to climb. The other side, however, looked totally brutal, wild.
“Wow,” Joey said.
Then the smell hit him. The word fetid came to mind, a word he’d read, to which he now had a scent to match.
“Oh, this stinks!” Jenny said behind him. She was holding her nose.
Frogs croaked. Insects buzzed. Green plants and algae covered the water. Joey crept down the bank to the place where baby alligators had to be, wary of the slippery spots in the tall grass.
“Don’t go near that!” Jenny commanded.
“It’s just water! Come on.”
“Looks gross, smells gross!”
Joey leaned down, touched the water, looked at the green stuff floating all over. “Duckweed,” he said, not sure.
Tiny ripples marked where something darted under the surface on the other side of the canal. Not big enough for an alligator, thought Joey. probably a frog. Frogs down here get as big as chihuahuas, Dad said.
Wiping sweat from his face with a gritty hand, he was glad the station wagon had air-conditioning. Maybe Dad would use it when they got going again.
The bank on this side angled down slightly, offering several places to reach the water’s edge. The ground was a confused mass of tall grass, dead grass, weeds, twigs, and matted growth. What nasty insects were in Florida? Scorpions, spiders, fire ants. Nothing that could kill, not like out West. Using his stick he turned over a piece of dark wood, and jumped when three fat frogs leaped out.
He dived after the frogs.
“Oh, yuck!” Jenny exclaimed.
Joey giggled and told her to stop bitching, and instantly regretted it. That word was out of bounds, at home anyway. To his surprise he didn’t hear a peep. Enjoying the short reprieve, he chased the slowest frog on a line parallel to the canal until it made good its escape with one perfect leap into the warm green water.
Where was she? He thought for sure she would have mentioned his dirty mouth by now.
Grass on the bank snagged a foot and down he went, into the canal, just as sudden as the word “bitch” had escaped his mouth a moment earlier.
A muddy, mucky mass scrambled out of the canal and plopped down on the bank. Joey sighed. The shock of getting wet was nothing compared to the thought of Mom yelling at him now. First swearing, now this. They’d never let him out of the car again!
He began wiping himself off. After a few handfuls of crap splashed back to where they’d came from, he became aware of an odd sensation.
“Jenny?” he yelled.
She was nowhere to be seen. Back at the car, of course. Already busting him out.
Jumping to his feet he yelled again.
Somewhere a bush rustled.
He ran to where he thought he had seen her last and wished again he was taller. Being short sucked. She was probably watching him now, laughing. Wet sneakers gurgling, he went back to the car, the end of an adventure that would certainly be costing him in some way he figured, even if Jenny didn’t bust him for swearing.
Something in the trees caught his eye. It was hair, yellow hair, like his sister’s, stuck in a branch, higher up than he could reach, higher than his dad could reach. This was almost impressive if it wasn’t so weird. But now he could get HER in trouble for climbing a tree so high! Things were looking up!
A flash of white caught Joey’s attention. A map – the map his father had been using – caught in a bush. The glove compartment was full of maps, Wyoming to Alabama, all neatly folded and put away for future reference.
A sudden gust of wind caught Florida and Joey leaped after it before it could get away, certain that retrieving this object might put the brakes on any punishment. It was a lot slower than the frogs, and didn’t take much effort to catch. But part of it was missing. He kept an eye open for the missing part as he headed back to the station wagon.
A frog croaked somewhere nearby.
She wasn’t at the car. Neither was Dad or Jenny. He yelled until his head hurt.
Ignoring the the thought of hidden eyes watching him, and deciding this little trick was enough for him to do something drastic, he went to the front of the car, put his foot on the bumper and climbed onto the hood. Leaving a muddy print on the windshield, he climbed onto the roof. He could see over the bushes now.
The world felt cold, distant, and mean. He stood on tip-toe, craned his neck. There was no one, no one in sight. He jumped as high as he could, which turned the roof of the station wagon into a drum. That made him suddenly very nervous.
This made no sense. Not about to give up, he concentrated on everything around the car, the bushes, weeds, grass, anything for a sign. It had to be some kind of trick, a joke. He’d find them, they had to be somewhere, probably with Jenny. Suddenly a new thought occurred to him.
They had to leave a note.
He jumped off the roof.
The keys were missing but that was no surprise. Nothing on the front seat. Nothing in the dashboard. Nothing under the visor, left or right. Nothing under the seats, but even looking made him feel kind of stupid. If Mom and Dad had left a note they would have left it where he could find it. He looked in the backseat anyway, and on the floor, and in the back, and under the luggage and toys. After double checking the doors and windows he returned to the front seat. For a while he watched it get darker outside.
Joey’s stomach made a sound. Hoping Mom had stashed some candy or snacks, he opened the glove compartment. Maps of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama. Tissue paper box, tissue papers, plastic packet of pens and pencils. His hand went deeper, past the loose odds and ends, until he touched the gun.
Mom and Dad sometimes went target practicing with it. One day, Dad told him, he’d be able to shoot it at targets, when he was just a little bigger.
The gun was no mystery. Nor was it an object of fascination, it was just heavy and cold. He put it on the floor, on his mother’s side.
It was getting darker. He double checked the doors to make sure they were locked tight and the windows snugly shut. The long bench seat felt like a sea of vinyl. Sitting in the middle, he stared at the road. He peed in a soda can, killed mosquitoes, and changed into fresh clothes. Finally the monotony of the night and the hot, stuffy car put him to sleep. Hours later he peeled himself from the vinyl seat.
The hood of the station wagon glowed in the moonlight. Beyond it, a vast, black tapestry with a glimmer of dark grey here and there, and a wash of stars in the sky. The insects, crickets and frogs made quite a racket. And there was something else, now and again. Sometimes it was a scurrying sound, sometimes a weird creak or thump, sometimes off by the side of the road, sometimes under the car. Tears came and went. Where was Mom and Dad? Where was Jenny? What were they doing? He screamed for his mother, a shriek that lasted until he fell asleep again.
A wan grayness lit the road as dawn approached. Joey stared at the bleached world outside of the station wagon, colors growing brighter with the sun. It all looked foreign and threatening.
Playing with the rear-view mirrors, Joey looked where he could. Under the car was enough room to hide an alligator or two.
He picked up the gun. It didn’t feel as cold today.
The sun heated the Buick like an oven. Joey began to sweet. He’d had the last soda for breakfast, and now thirst was becoming an issue. And he had to pee again. Maneuvering himself to splash into the soda can he’d been using for a urinal, he missed and soaked his foot.
He didn’t cry. Only part of him wanted to cry, but more than part of him was angry. Ignoring his raw throat he screamed, not from despair this time but from rage. It felt good! Fear and despair no longer filled his mind, jut this new, intense feeling that squashed the fear down to a manageable point, a point he could safely ignore. He swore, cursed, and threatened unseen beings who had done this, this, whatever the fuck it was!
Grabbing the torn map, he wiped himself. Then he realized how stupid he’d been. Carefully opening the crushed and soggy towel, he flattened Florida out until he found the spot his dad had been looking at. There was the highway they had been on, and the street that took them to this dirt road, a thin line running through green ink to another thin line. Lee Wood Drive.
This map showed him where to go. Even if the legend was missing, it couldn’t be that far to the intersection of those little lines.
Joey looked down the road. Lee Wood Drive might be paved, and maybe there’d be houses. He couldn’t remember seeing any driveways along the road on the way here, but then he wasn’t paying attention back then. Maybe he should try to go back to Perkin’s Parkway State Highway. He looked in the rear-view mirror. The road behind the car was much like that in front of it, a track of green speckled drying mud just wide enough for cars to pass in safety. Then something moved. Joey’s heart thudded like a rubber mallet. Then it was gone, sinking into the brush before his 10-year old eyes had a real chance to look at it.
Joey sank into the vinyl seat, feeling more vulnerable than ever. He moved to the floor, cradling the gun in his hands, and held his breath, listening and struggling to contain his bowels.
He had not idea how long it took him to work up the courage to peek outside. After looking all around the outside of the car he crawled in the back, found Jenny’s Hello Kitty backpack and emptied it. Then he went through the car, exploring family suitcases and bags, looking for whatever he could find that he thought he might need.
It felt weird to go through family belongings. Along with the clothes and shoes and things he’d expected to find, he discovered bullets in Dad’s suitcase, and a wicked folding knife. Mom had books, and a box of mints which he gobbled immediately. Jenny had some paperback books too, and some books from school. He found matches in the ashtray, and took the maps from the glove compartment for making fire. From his own bags he grabbed his precious Swiss Army Knife and Frisbee, along with some clean clothes. There was still room in the bag, so he picked up one of Jenny’s Nancy Drew’s and stuffed it in Hello Kitty’s liver.
Joey had heard nothing, aside from squawking birds, and seen nothing strange in more than an hour. That thing in the road had to be a raccoon, or maybe a big-ass rabbit, if he’d really seen anything at all. Maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him. Well, whatever it was, he couldn’t stay here. He was out of water and night was coming, and as far as that space under the car was concerned, he couldn’t do anything about it so maybe it was best to pretend it wasn’t there. Just do it real, real fast, he told himself. Be fearless. Tightening his grip on Hello Kitty’s shoulder strap, he unlocked the door, stepped outside, and ran, slinging Hello Kitty over his shoulders as he went. That was a mistake. In one supremely uncoordinated movement, his feet banged together, tripped him up, and dropped him into the dirt.
Ignoring his skinned knees and chin, Joey scrambled to his feet. He looked behind him. The doors of the station wagon were shut. Did he shut the door? He couldn’t remember, but he was pretty sure he didn’t. He bolted, ignoring a wave of nausea that almost made him vomit, and really regretted eating that whole box of mints.
Nothing seemed to follow. He slowed to a jog after a while, and then settled into a fast walk.
The road turned and twisted vaguely but kept generally straight, never rising above the belly of the marsh. Insects buzzed and gnats tortured every patch of exposed skin. A cloud of hungry mosquitoes became an unwelcome companion. Joey splashed through low spots where water collected, wary of poisonous snakes and other critters, always with one eye on the road behind him. Odd sounds kept him alert, sometimes close enough to make him break into a sweat-dripping run.
Though it was now a heavy burden he gripped the gun tighter nonetheless.
The sun baked the road surface to a fine dry dust. Joey took his shirt off, then put it back on when the insects revealed his mistake. Blisters on his feet made him stop long enough to put on two pairs of fresh socks from the depths of Hello Kitty.
Didn’t anyone use this road? Didn’t anyone live around here? He begged God for a car to come by, anyone would do (except cannibal hillbillies), or to show him a driveway. And where the hell was that intersection (please be around the next corner)?
He saw her as the sun began to set. She stood at the far end of a long curve, where trees loomed over the road.
She stepped between the trees and disappeared. Hello Kitty dragged him down as he bolted to the spot.
Then he saw it. Yellow hair, again, this time stuck on the branch of a bush. On the ground nearby, a mark, like someone had jammed the edge of a board into the dirt and dragged it. He stood between the trees, eyes searching, reluctant to leave the road. In the gathering gloom he could see no more.
Something in the bushes moved. A twig snapped.
Joey took a step back. A mosquito buzzed in his ear. He swatted, stumbling under the oppressive weight of the backpack. But this time he found his feet and managed remain upright, and even point the gun at the bushes where he heard the sound.
“Jenny! Come on!”
The mosquito returned to plague his ear. Frogs croaked in the distance.
“Jenny, please! I gotta go!”
The hilt of the gun was slippery and hot. The mosquito buzzed loudly, then went quiet. A sharp sting on his ear forced him to swat at the irritating thing once again.
“Please! Jenny! Mom! MOM!!!”
For most of the day anger and activity had staved off the fear, but now it came rolling back, and with it the tears.
“I gotta go, Jenny! I’ll come back! I’ll get help!” he cried, backing down the road.
Then suddenly Jenny was there. But she stood funny, and even in the shadows he could see it wasn’t her face.
A gurgling scream came out of Joey’s throat as he backed away, the weight of Hello Kitty pressing down, holding him in a sluggish grip.
The thing in his sister’s clothes fell to four-legged crouch.
Joey ran. He was still running when Charlene and Mark Campbell picked him up. The newlywed couple was returning home from a grocery trip to the Pixie Mart in Dundale. They had decided to take the back road home.
“Of course the Campbell’s called the police, and the police took that poor little boy to the hospital,” Peebo said. “And from there it wasn’t long till he went all the way to the State Loony bin!”
“Bullshit,” one of the men laughed, the one who had paid for the beer.
“What’d they find? The police, I mean,” his friend with rust-colored hair asked. He was the one who’d paid for the story.
Peebo answered as he fetched the keys. It was closing time. “Well,” he said, leaning for a moment on the cash register, “they found the Hello Kitty backpack, all tore apart. They found one of his dirty socks by the side of the road, and the car. A few years later someone found some woman’s clothes out there, traced ’em to his momma.”
“Oh you are so full of shit man!” the doubting man said. He wore an Alabama University t-shirt and was now jingling his car keys.
“It is not bullshit sir,” Peebo grinned. “It is the god’s honest truth so help me Lord!”
“Bullshit or not Lou, you gotta admit it was a good story. Worth the $10,” added the man’s other friend, who wore a blue baseball cap. “Hey, crazy kid in the nuthouse, family eaten by swamp things! Fuckin’ cool.”
“Fucking cool,” Peebo nodded at the front door.
The red haired man tapped his watch.
“Hey, let’s go. We gotta set up tents.”
After deciding to buy one more case of beer, and paying with cash, the three young men left. The doubter paused at the door.
“So hey, the kid had a gun. Why didn’t he shoot the thing?”
“Well yes sir, he had a gun. Why didn’t he shoot the thing, that’s a good question. Somewhere between when he started running and when the Campbell’s picked him up, he did fire off every shot in that gun.”
They were at the door.
“What?” Alabama U. asked.
“All six shots. Don’t know if he hit anything, nothin’ was ever found. The kid wasn’t right no more, injuries and all. He never said what really happened. Everything I know is kind of what got pieced together from knowing people ’round here, you know? Years go by, people talk, even people with official positions. It gets to where they don’t care no more. Sometime it gets ’round to me.”
“Injuries? You didn’t say anything about that,” asked the same man again. “Did he shoot himself or something?”
“Oh no, didn’t shoot himself of course. But something got to him, out there in the marsh. The kid was covered with mud and insect bites, even his ears were messed up. All chewed, like. Mutilated, I guess you’d say. The doctors pulled out rusty staples and all sorts of shit from his ears, wood slivers, bits of pins, slivers of wood, chunks of nasty stuff, all shoved in real deep.”
Blue Cap rolled his eyes.
“That’s sick man.”
The three customers were outside. Peebo stood in the doorway, key in the lock.
“You ain’t heard the sickest part son. The doctors tested that stuff in his ears. Said it was mucus, or weird saliva.”
“What the fuck?” blurted Lou.
“Weird saliva? What the hell does that mean?” Alabama U. asked.
“Non-human saliva is what the doctors said. Like from some kind of animal.”
The frogs off Lee Woods Drive croaked in the distance.
“You all have a good evening now, goodnight!” Peebo nodded, smiling. Then he locked the door and turned out the light, and went upstairs to make a fine sandwich from that ham he got yesterday at the brand new Pixie Mart in Dundale.