Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 400 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June 2016. He has had six collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
By Steve Carr
Keeping the bundle wrapped in burlap held tightly under his left arm, Talbot waded through the waist-high swamp water, pushing aside with his right arm the thick strands of Spanish moss that hung from the branches of the cypress trees. The water was tepid with the stench of dead fish and decaying vegetation. The air was alive with mosquitoes and gnats that swarmed and buzzed around his head. The tapping of woodpeckers high up in the trees drilling into the thick tree trunks and the cawing of crows echoed through the woods. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and turned to see Cushion a few yards behind him struggling to remain standing in the thick mud that shifted with every step he took. Streams of sweat poured down Cushion’s fat face.
“Keep up or I’m leavin’ your ass behind,” Talbot said with a sneer.
Cushion took a step forward, felt his right foot slip out from under him, and then frantically splashed the water as he regained his footing. Mud swirled around his body, encircling him like water around a drain pipe. He held his arms out like he was walking a tightrope and took several more unsteady steps. The end of a branch that resembled the head of a snake suddenly broke through the surface of the water in front of him. He let out a screech and stopped dead in his tracks. “A snake,” he cried out. He hated snakes more than anything else, except for rats. The rats in the prison induced nightmares.
“It’s just a stick, you moron,” Talbot hissed before he turned and continued pushing his way through the water.
Talbot wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his meaty right hand, and then resumed following behind.
Reaching a bank, Talbot climbed out of the water, gripping the soft ground with one hand to pull himself out of the swamp as he kept the bundle securely held in his arm pit. He lay down in a moist, spongy bed of moss, rolled onto his back, and stared up at the intertwined branches of several cypress trees. Thin slivers of late afternoon sky shone through the canopy. He heard Cushion splashing about in the water for several minutes before his obese companion dragged himself up onto the bank, sputtering and gasping for air. Talbot raised his head and glared at Cushion. “How did you get so fat on that God-awful prison food?” he asked contemptuously, and then laid his head back down.
Cushion crawled to where Talbot lay and plopped down on his stomach in the moss. He crossed his arms and laid his head on his forearms. Moments later he was sound asleep and snoring with the erratic inhaling and exhaling of an asthmatic in need of oxygen.
Talbot kicked him in the side. “Wake up you fat fuck,” he said, “There’s probably still another hour of daylight left and they’ve probably set the hounds loose.”
Cushion’s eyes shot wide open as if he had been jolted by electricity. “The hounds!” he exclaimed. “I almost forgot about them.”
Talbot sat up. “You won’t forget about ‘em if one of ‘em has your big ass in its teeth.” He switched the bundle to his other arm and then stood up. “You’re certain we’re goin’ the right direction?”
Cushion rolled over onto his back. “The map Charcoal drew showing where he was from is as clear in my brain as if it was right in front of my eyes.” He pointed west. “We’re not that far away from Clumpville.”
Talbot began walking westward. “Clumpville!” he muttered disdainfully. “A fittin’ name for Charcoal’s birthplace. With all the talk he did about growing up around voodoo, I’m surprised it ain’t called Creepyville.”
Stumbling along as they trudged through the marshy forest undergrowth, Cushion tried to keep up with Talbot who never seemed to tire. They had only gone a short ways when Talbot stopped and rested casually against the trunk of a tupelo tree. “I’m thinking we need to hide what I’m carrying”
“What are you carrying?”
“It’s none of your business, but we can’t walk into Charcoal’s shantytown carrying anything of value,” he said. “If his people are anything like him, they’ll take it and then slit our throats once they see what it is.”
“What is it?” Cushion asked again.
Ignoring Cushion, Talbot rubbed the blonde stubble on his cheek. “We can’t bury it ‘cause if they got the hounds out they’ll sniff it out before they even try to find us.” He slowly raised his eyes, following the length of a nearby cypress tree. He fixed his sight on the hole in the trunk left by a squirrel or woodpecker. He pointed up at it. “It’ll be a piece of cake climbin’ up there,” he said, excitedly.
He placed the bundle on the ground and removed his wet shoes, socks and shirt. “I didn’t stay in shape while in that hell hole for the last six years for nothin’,” he said as he picked up the bundle and clamped down on the burlap with his teeth. He then circled the tree trunk with his arms and legs, and with his arm and back muscles bulging, he shimmied up the tree. At the hole he shoved the bundle into the hole and then quickly slid down the tree. “Ain’t no dog or other man goin’ to find it up there,” he said. “We better get a move on, nighttime is comin’ fast.”
As Talbot put on his shoes and shirt, Cushion gazed nervously at the dark hues of twilight that invaded the woods. The croaking of toads had risen to a crescendo, hawks circling above the forest canopy screeched, and owls hooted from their perches high up in the trees. It was as noisy as inside the prison at night just before the lights were put out. “Maybe we could find a spot to sleep for the night and then continue on at daybreak,” he offered timidly, fearful of incurring Talbot’s wrath.
Talbot ran his hand through his stringy blonde hair slicking it back with the excess of oil that coated it and looked around. “In a half mile from here, if we ain’t reached Clumpville by then, maybe we’ll stop for the night,” he said.
He started off, leaving Cushion behind who scanned the shadows spreading across the ground searching for the movement of snakes writhing beneath the fallen leaves and twigs.
As rays of daylight broke through the canopy, Talbot awoke with a start. He shook his head, erasing the last of the quickly fading nightmare of being back in solitary confinement. He glanced at the watch on his arm – Charcoal’s watch – happy to see that being in the swamp water hadn’t stopped it from working. It was a little past six. Only twenty-four hours before he was lying on his prison bunk.
The click in the cell door meant that it had been unlocked by the guard responsible for getting the prisoners in Cell Block D up and ready for morning chow. Talbot was already awake and completely dressed. He had spent most of the night awake, playing out in his head the plans he had made with Charcoal and Cushion for their escape. He skipped breakfast and waited at the back door of the main building with one of the two guards responsible for guarding him, Charcoal and Cushion, who did the lawn care of the warden’s mansion grounds. The warden hadn’t become exceedingly wealthy by being a warden, but by marrying his third wife who was very rich.
When Cushion and Charcoal arrived along with the other guard, they all climbed into the van and drove out of the prison and headed toward the warden’s secluded estate that sat on an expanse of open land that ran adjacent to the bayou.
The moment the guards removed the chains from the three prisoners’ legs and the cuffs around the mens’ wrists, Talbot, Charcoal and Cushion put into action what they had planned for weeks while mowing the grass, pruning the rose bushes, and trimming the shrubbery. Catching the guards unaware while the five men were casually chatting while standing in the rose garden, Talbot and Charcoal quickly overpowered them. They took the guard’s rifles, tied them up, took the van keys and then locked the guards in a tool shed. Talbot wanted to kill them execution style but was quickly outvoted by the other two.
“We can’t have their blood on our hands if we’re going to hideout in Clumpville,” Charcoal warned. “Mother Canja doesn’t tolerate that kind of evil.”
“The only thing I’ve ever killed is the rats in the prison’s kitchen,” Cushion said, demurely.
As Charcoal and Cushion ran to the van, Talbot grabbed pruning shears and a burlap sack and went into the house. He came out twenty minutes later carrying a bundle wrapped in burlap and got into the passenger seat next to Charcoal who sat at the wheel.
“What you got there?” Charcoal asked as he started the van.
“Life insurance,” Talbot answered.
Cushion lay curled in a fetal position near to Talbot and reeked of swamp water and sweat. Talbot jabbed his elbow into Cushion’s back. “Wake up you disgusting pig,” he said, “we’ve got to get to Clumpville and get something to eat. I’m starving.”
Cushion groaned in protest, sat up, and then wiped the sleep from his eyes. He glanced around at the grove of thirteen tupelo trees that surrounded them. “According to what Charcoal said about a circle of thirteen tupelo trees near the entrance of Clumpville, we’re just about there.”
Talbot stood and stretched. He removed his damp shirt and used it to swat away a swarm of gnats that hovered around him. The swamp was quiet; eerily so. He looked up at the trees for signs of birds and saw nothing moving. The air was still, hot and humid. “I grew up not far from the bayou,” he said, “but nothin’ prepares you for what it’s actually like in these parts of the swamps compared to growin’ up in the city. It’s the difference between bein’ on the moon and on Earth.”
Cushion began frantically scrambling about in the pile of leaves he had slept in. “Where are my shoes and socks?”
“My shoes and socks. I took them off and sat them beside where I was sleeping. Now they’re gone.” He glanced up at Talbot. “This ain’t funny,” he said. “Give them back.”
“I didn’t take your lousy things,” Talbot replied. “Maybe one of them spirits Charcoal was always talkin’ about took ‘em.”
Cushion stood up, his face flush with frustration and anger. “Speaking of Cushion, what did you do to him? How come you have his watch if he drowned in the swamp as you said he did?”
“If you had been able to keep your lard-ass up with us you would have seen him drown for yourself,” Talbot answered dismissively.
“But his watch . . .”
Talbot grabbed Cushion by the throat with one hand and slowly lifted the obese man up on his tiptoes. “He gave it to me just before he drowned. Now shut the fuck up about the watch.” He released his grasp on Cushion’s throat.
Cushion fell back, coughing and sputtering.
Talbot picked up the bundle and shoved it under his arm. “Which direction to Clumpville from here?” he asked, his tone full of venom.
Cushion pointed toward a break between the tupelo trees. “That way,” he replied hoarsely.
Talbot began walking followed a few minutes later by Cushion who let out quiet yelps each time he stepped on a thorn or thistle despite his attempt to avoid them, keeping his eye on the ground fearing a snake would sink its fangs into one of his bare feet.
There was only one entrance to Clumpville: at the other end of a swinging bridge made of hemp. Only a few feet below the bridge a tangled mass of alligators splashed about in the murky water of a slow moving stream that curled around a plot of land on which sat a few dozen corrugated tin and plywood shacks. Goats, chickens and pigs roamed freely up and down the short dirt road that bisected the shacks, the right side from the left. Stalks of corn and tomato plants grew inside small vegetable gardens protected from the roaming animals by wood rail fences and mesh wire.
“Charcoal said nothin’ about Clumpville bein’ on an island,” Talbot grumbled.
“It’s still a place to hide out until they stop looking for us,” Cushion said. “That is, if Charcoal’s people are willing to accept us as guests for a short time.”
“It may not be that short. We may need to hide out here for a while,” Talbot replied. “The law don’t take kindly to escaped murderers.”
“I didn’t murder anyone.”
At that moment the doors of the largest shack on the island and the nearest to the bridge opened. Men, women and children began to pour out. They parted in two as a dwarf-sized woman wearing a white scarf around her head came out of the shack and made her way to the front of the group. She walked to the end of the bridge and stood absolutely still, silently staring at Talbot and Cushion.
“I’m Mother Canja,” she said after several moments. “You are friends of our Charcoal?”
“She’s a fuckin’ Munchkin,” Talbot whispered derisively in an aside to Cushion. “Charcoal said you would give us a place to stay for a while.”
“Where is he?” she asked.
Talbot hesitated for just a moment, and then said, “Still in prison.”
“Cross the bridge and follow me,” she said.
Sitting cross legged on a straw mat laid out on a dirt floor, Cushion used his fingernails to dig at a thorn that was lodged just beneath the skin on the heel of his right foot. Talbot was standing nearby, peering out the small glassless window cut into the side of a plywood wall. The shack that the two men were in was the size of a small one-car garage. The window was also the only source of light from the setting sun. They had been led to the shed with the admonishment from Mother Canja not to leave it. She had hairs plucked from each man’s scalp by two of the townsmen and took the watch from Talbot’s arm before putting the hairs and watch in a small pouch and turning and leaving. The two men had said nothing to each other for some time after being placed in the shed.
“You think she’s performing some kind of black magic ritual with our hairs?” Cushion asked at last, finally extracting the thorn. A small bead of blood bubbled up from the wound.
“So-called black magic is just silly hocus-pocus,” Talbot replied.
“Charcoal believed in it.”
Talbot turned from the window. “Well, you see what good it did him.”
Cushion looked up at Talbot. “Did you notice how she handled Charcoal’s watch before putting it in her pouch, like it meant something to her? He bought it from another guy in prison just a few days before we escaped. She wouldn’t have any way of knowing it was his.”
“It wouldn’t matter if she did.”
Cushion lay back on the mat, his arms behind his head. His shirt was soaked with sweat. “Did you know Mother Canja is actually Charcoal’s real mother?”
“No,” Talbot replied, his voice steely and cold. He then began searching the space within the shack as if looking for an escape route. He turned to Cushion. “Life’s too short to get caught in a family drama. I’m gettin’ out of this shit hole right now,” he said. “You comin’ with me?”
“And do what?” Cushion replied.
“We get what I put in that tree and then head back to the highway and catch a ride to Natchez.”
“What’s in the tree?”
Suddenly agitated, Talbot answered, “That crazy bitch, the warden’s wife, wouldn’t give me all those diamond rings she had on her fingers, so I cut off her hand.”
Cushion sat up. “You killed her?”
“She was still alive when I put her hand in her jewelry box and ran out of her bedroom,” he said.
“And what about Charcoal?” Cushion asked, feeling as if he was going to throw up.
“The asshole wouldn’t let up, kept threatening me if I didn’t show him what I was carrying, so I jumped on him and drowned his sorry ass.”
“You’ve made me into a wanted man in a way I’ll never escape from,” Cushion said. “I can’t run anymore even if I wanted to.”
“Fuck you,” Talbot hissed, and then he ran out of the shack. Under the cover of night he ran down the road to the bridge and saw Cushion’s shoes sitting in the middle of it. Resting on them, Charcoal’s watch glistened in the moonlight. He ran onto the bridge and as it swayed back and forth he picked up the watch and slipped it on his arm.
“You take my Charcoal from me.”
He whirled about to see Mother Canja standing at the edge of the bridge. Her pointing her finger at him was the last thing he saw before the bridge swayed far to the left and dumped him into the alligator-infested water.