This one was published by The Opiate in Summer 2020! You can check it out here.
Some Saturday Night
William hoisted himself through the window in a hurry, scraping his knee on the sill.
“Dang it,” he exclaimed. He did a half somersault and thudded in the grass outside.
“Shhh,” Crystal whispered from above. She threw his shirt and his work boots on top of him.
“Hey—” William began. “What about—”
“Just run,” Crystal whispered. “He’ll hunt you down if he spots you!”
Footsteps exploded through the one-story clapboard house and onto the screen porch, not ten feet away. William grabbed his shirt as the porch door slammed open.
“Who the fuck is back here,” a deep voice bellowed.
William dashed across the yard in his underwear. He looked back for a split second at the man standing on the steps and saw a glint of gun metal in his hand.
This is where it ends, William thought, trying to pull on his shirt as he sprinted toward the garden in the darkening dusk. Me, shot through the heart, lying in a patch of green beans.
“You better run,” the man yelled. “I seen your truck, I’ll find out where you live!”
Beyond a row of dead tomato plants lay a tangled, marshy forest. The evening light was fading and there were probably water moccasins back there, but William knew he had no choice.
The first gunshot hit a pine tree a few feet away. Bark and dry needles exploded and fell to the damp ground.
William changed his course and pushed deeper into the woods, zigzagging as he ran.
“I served in Desert Storm,” the man yelled. “I can kill a man from a hundred and six yards away! With a single shot!”
William scanned the forest desperately. He remembered Crystal saying something about Route 77 being on the other end of their property, through the forest and across the swamp. Maybe if he hustled, he could make it to the rural highway in one piece.
The man was heading his way fast. Spotting a hollow cedar tree, William squeezed his way into the narrow opening. Holding his breath and praying a fervent, silent plea, he watched the man tromp across the wet pine needles toward him.
“You’re around here somewhere, aren’t you,” the man muttered. He stopped just a few feet away, straining to see through the dusk.
William closed his eyes, his heart thumping. The man was close enough that William could smell the Pabst Blue Ribbon on his breath.
He squeezed tighter into the tree. A spider crawled inside his ear.
“Never again,” the man said. “I can tell you that. And I’ll be waiting for you, so don’t even think of heading back this way.”
He belched once and then stood there, scratching his ear.
“Never trust you as far as I could throw you,” the man mumbled.
William thought that for a moment that the man would never leave and that he would have to stay for weeks in the same awkward position inside the tree until the flesh peeled from his bones and just his skeleton remained. Swamp rats would nibble on the bones or kingfishers would take them in their beaks and build nests out of them, and that would be his legacy.
After an endless interlude of waiting and breath-holding, the man finally stomped off. William waited an extra minute. Then he tried to shimmy out of the tree.
He couldn’t budge.
Come on, now.
William was not a burly man by any means; he was muscular but ropy, like a ferret. He was used to crawlspaces and sewers thanks to countless jobs that required him to inch his way along on his back.
He sucked in a deep breath and yanked as hard as he could. The bark tore at the bare skin on the back of his thigh, and it was all he could do from crying out in pain as he stumbled out of the tree.
It was too dark to see if the spider on his head was a black widow, but William was so grateful to be free, he didn’t think twice about it. He just brushed it onto the ground. There was sap of some kind in his hair, and his legs stung painfully, but otherwise he felt intact. Creeping as quietly as he could through the undergrowth, his bare feet squishing in the damp ground, he made his way back toward Crystal’s house and peeked through the trees.
The man sat on the top step of his back porch, picking at his teeth. A gun rested on the step next to him. Crystal was hollering at him out the window.
Some Saturday night this is turning out to be.
William didn’t like his chances against the man, who was built like a surly construction site foreman and was apparently an expert marksman, to boot.
I could proceed with Plan A. Get myself through the woods to Route 77 and flag down some kindly motorist. Never mind the fact that I’m half-dressed. I’m good at making up stories to fit any occasion. I’ll think of something.
William figured it couldn’t be too far. He’d keep an eye out for snakes as best he could.
Besides, most snakes are more afraid of us than we are of them.
He made a U turn and pressed into the woods. Crickets and katydids and all manner of insects droned in his ears as he walked. A few times, he had to wade through trickling streams that wound their way through the kudzu.
This definitely ain’t like Texas.
William was brand new to this part of the country. He’d been raised in dry scrub land, with nothing but oil derricks and football and tumbleweed. Three months ago, he said goodbye to his dear Aunt Miriam and packed up his pickup and drove east across the swamps of Louisiana to where he was now.
It hadn’t taken long for him to get a job as a bouncer at an adult entertainment venue called The Purple Parrot. It was in a tiny strip mall, between a DMV and a store that sold cardboard boxes. Crystal worked at the box store, so that’s where they’d met.
William caught himself smiling.
Their first date had been a double feature of the second and third Smokey and the Bandit movies at a rundown theater in the artsy section of town. She hadn’t complained when he’d quoted most of the lines under his breath, or when he’d kissed her in the front seat of his pickup truck before he dropped her off. That’s when William knew that he’d hooked a winner. He just positively loved the way he felt when he was with her.
He stopped for a moment and realized that he had no idea where was he was. Although the forest had thinned out into a swamp, he could barely see ten feet ahead of him and he had to hop his way between hummocks of grass to avoid wading through the ankle-deep water. Occasionally, he heard animals—muskrats, perhaps—snorting and grunting in the darkness.
A bat darted across his field of vision. William followed its path across the night sky until he noticed a ball of reddish light hovering low above the ground, far off to his left.
“Hello,” he called. “Who’s over there?”
A breeze ruffled his hair. An owl hooted from the trees behind him.
Then, the light began to move.
Maybe it’s a car on a road. I must’ve hit the highway already.
William stepped into the shallow swamp water, mosquitoes buzzing around his nose. He shivered in the deepening chill. He thought about what it would feel like later to curl up in his bed after a shower, preferably scalding hot.
I’ll have a real tale to tell the ladies at The Purple Parrot. Maybe even my kids, to illustrate absolutely what not to do. Ha. If I ever have kids.
William splashed across the swamp toward the light, gasping as he hurtled over dead tree stumps and bushes. It appeared to be getting closer as he ran. Flecks of blue and purple were mixed in with the red glow. It made him think of a giant raspberry.
Without warning, his right foot got tangled up in a strand of marsh grass and he toppled face first into a patch of mud.
Cursing silently, he struggled to his feet. The mud was thick and it took all his strength to pull each foot free. He grasped for a vine in the darkness and hoisted himself onto a dry patch of cattails, his heart racing, the scratches on his legs burning like wasp stings.
He listened hard for the sounds of cars, people, anything. But all he could hear was the drone of insects, a sonic curtain wrapped around his head.
William wondered for a moment whether he should turn back through the pines and find his way back to Crystal’s house. Perhaps the man had gone inside, or passed out drunk on the front steps. Maybe he could make a break for his pickup, parked three doors down the street.
But which way was the forest? He couldn’t see a thing.
His cellphone was in his pants pockets, and who knows where his pants were now? The man with the gun had probably burned them in his fireplace, in effigy.
Who would he call? Aunt Miriam was long asleep, he was sure, clear back in Texas. He’d made tentative friends with the weasel-faced man who lived in the apartment below his, but the guy was a long-haul trucker and was rarely ever home.
The police? How could he explain the situation without—
The light was back. It was deep green now, the color of a glass Christmas ornament. It glowed with a light that was reassuring and calm.
The color of safety.
William wiped the mud from his face. He took a cautious step into the water.
The light hovered there, just above the ground. It was ten feet away, maybe twelve.
“Are you playing a game?” William asked. “Because I don’t find it particularly funny.”
The light waited.
He took another few steps. The light grew closer; it seemed to be pulsing, like a celestial heartbeat, drawing him forward.
William lunged forward in the darkness and tripped over a stump, sinking quickly up to his waist in another pool of mud. The more he struggled, the deeper he sunk down in the frigid mire. He felt around for vines, something to pull himself out, but nothing was within reach.
“Help,’ William screamed, as it closed above his shoulders. “Jesus God, please help me!”
Something flashed through his mind then: a late-night show on a travel channel about how to survive extreme situations.
When in quicksand, flip onto your back and breathe normally. Once the surface has stopped moving, try to push yourself over to the side of the pool with short, controlled strokes.
William tried to relax. He breathed through his mouth. He leaned back and let his body float to the surface. Imagining himself to be a feather being blown across the sky, he looked up into the scattered stars and strange constellations and willed himself to survive.
The surface of the pool stilled and soon William was just floating there; a little boy sitting on an inner tube at the swimming hole.
I’m doing it. I’m really doing it.
Then the light approached. It hovered above him, its radiance blindingly bright, like he was tumbling headfirst into the sun.
William thrashed and squirmed in the mud, struggling to get away. Soon the mire was pulling him down again, sucking him deep into—
Please, God, no—
The light hovered there another moment, then dimmed into nothingness. William had only a fleeting thought of Crystal, smiling next to him in the movie theater as she held his hand, before the darkness closed around him and everything went black.