Monday, March 8, 2021

Giving the Light, fiction by Nik Korpon

La primera regla,” Lalo started, then paused, regrouping. “La unica regla es,” he said again for emphasis, “we don’t stop for no one. ¿Entienden?”

He surveyed the group standing before them, beads of sweat cutting rivulets through the dust coating their faces. Many huddled close to loved ones, mothers holding children, grandparents and their grandchildren making an already-dangerous trip even more so. A small girl, not more than two, kept her eyes pointed down, her arms wrapped around her father’s leg as if that would protect her from whatever awaited them on their trip across la frontera. The father cleared his throat, calling for Lalo.

“Pero…la migra?”

“No me importa la puta migra, eh?” Lalo made a point to look down the line again, ensuring everyone was paying close attention. “You see la migra, you hide. If you can’t hide, you run.”

“Pero,” the father said again.

Lalo whipped his glare toward the father. He could feel the sun beating down with a hundred small razors, pummeling the crown of his head, splitting his skull as they remained hidden behind a rock outcropping five kilometers from the shallow river they’d cross to reach el norte. He’d barely slept the last ten days, what with Pilar’s sickness getting worse. His abuela told him the first trimester was always the worst and it’d get better, but it seemed like the opposite: They didn’t even realize she was pregnant till she was nearly twelve weeks. But as she got closer and closer pa’ dar la luz, she seemed to be getting more and more nauseated. 

And answering all these pinche questions was making Lalo even more irritable. He just wanted to get these people across la frontera, get his money from el Tuerto’s man, then get back home to el Llanto and be with Pilar. Just a few more hours till dark then, they’d be on the move.

The father cleared his throat again.

Lalo exhaled hard. “¿Qué?”

“Pues,” the father stammered. “What about los Cazadores?”

Lalo swallowed, setting his face to remain stern and maintain the group’s confidence. El Tuerto’s people had people inside la migra, so they could get their patrol schedules and reduce the chance one of their coyote groups ran into armed agents. But los Cazadores? Those crazy-ass redneck gringos who couldn’t get it up without holding an AR-15? Hell, they called themselves the Hunters, which was all anyone needed to know.

The father fixed his gaze on Lalo while he waited for an answer, his nervousness seemingly awakening the daughter, who finally raised her head, making Lalo’s hair stand on end. Her eyes were impossible, an aberration, like the entire sky above el Llanto compressed into two bright dots in her cherubic face. They were the same color as Pilar’s, the same color he imagined his daughter’s would be. He felt a pull inside him and considered walking away from this whole thing for a moment, heading directly home to Pilar and resting his head on her stomach to listen to his daughter’s heartbeat. But as soon as the thought arose, it passed. He wasn’t helping people cross to score points with el Señor. He did it to earn money for his family.

“Si tú ves los Cazadores,” Lalo said, “reza.”

Because praying was all they could do.

Debris pocked the river bank. Clothes tossed aside to cut weight during previous trips. A rusted propane tank. Metal scraps fashioned into weapons to defend against desert predators of various species, some on four legs, others not. The wallet of someone who had underestimated the current.  

From where they crouched behind scrub brush, it appeared as if the water was lapping low against the soil, which was a good sign. The river was less than two meters at its deepest, enough that an adult could normally cross it with their head held up. But when a freak storm hit the mountain range a few kilometers miles upstream, water would rush down the gully fast enough to catch even a strong swimmer unaware and sweep them into a muddy abyss.

But tonight, Lalo watched the moonlight glitter on the surface like the tiara he’d place on his daughter’s head at her quince in fifteen years and hoped it was a portent tonight would be uneventful. He crept toward the edge of the brush, reminding the group of the plan as he passed, then peeked through an opening, up to where his partner Sergio waited, surveying the area with binoculars.

From this point, they could see faint headlights tracing up and down Route 9 in New Mexico. After Lalo led the group across the river, they would run as fast as they could to a small hideout on the US side el Tuerto’s people had dug in the sand where they could regroup, drink some water, address anything that needed addressing before making the last push across the highway to a truck stop where they’d be loaded into a produce truck and taken to wherever Tuerto said to take them.

“Estamos jodidos,” one of the group said.

Lalo came back around. “What’d you say?”

Everyone in the group looked at each other, a combination of shrugs and unwillingness to snitch on another.

“You.” Lalo pointed at the man, a scar running from his temple into his hairline, where it disappeared. “What’d you say.”

Not a question.

“Dije que estamos jodido.”

“Why are we fucked?”

“Should’ve done like my nephew. Got a visa and just never left.”

“He get a student or worker visa?”
 The man hesitated. “Student.”

“For what university?”

Again, the man hesitated. “Stanford.”

“Could you get into Stanford?” Lalo said.

The man didn’t answer.

“Then shut the fuck up and get ready to run when I tell you, ¿vale?”

He pulled back his shoulders, looking around for support from the others, but quickly crouched back down when he found none. A quiet moment passed, the group either whispering novenas or watching Sergio or seeing whether Lalo would strike out against the dissenter. When nothing happened, the man felt confident enough to speak up again.

“Should just go over and claim asylum. Demasiada violencia. Enough of us seen heads in our pueblos to claim that, ¿no?”

Lalo sighed for what seemed like the thousandth time, then crept back over to the man, staying low and out of sight. “You want go over there and claim asylum with those Nazis lording over them?”

The man started to argue, but Lalo cut him off.

“How’d you get that scar? Cartel fight? Smuggling drugs up your culo?”

“Someone doesn’t know how to use a scythe, how I got it.” The man postured like he was indignant.

“And you think that’ll matter to them?” Again, Lalo gestured toward el norte. “They see a scar, they think criminal. They’ll put you and any chamaco near you in a cage as quick as they say freedom fries, ¿entiendes? So you want to claim asylum? Hágale, pues. Buena suerte con ese.”

The man snuffed from his nose a few times, trying to save face before settling down, resigning himself to the situation. Lalo didn’t like working like this, for a man like el Tuerto, but what kind of choice did he have? A degree and work experience didn’t mean shit when there was no one to hire you. And as much as he hated herding these people across, the idea of them hauling their kids over a thousand miles of jungle and desert in order to get away from heads tumbling through the streets of their aldeas only for them to rot in cages like discarded fruit nearly brought him to tears. All he could envision was his future-daughter duct-taped to his back as he slogged across the barren land.

A sharp whistle cut through the night. Sergio waved his hand.

“Chicos. Vámanos,” Lalo whispered, motioning toward the river for the group to follow.

Sergio helped lead everyone toward the safest place to cross, a thin sandbar that only reached waist-high. It wouldn’t be quite as easy for the ones carrying small children but was better than any alternative. He stood in the middle of the river, herding everyone across as Lalo brought up the rear, keeping everyone together. The man who’d challenged him passed by, not raising his eyes and gladly accepting Sergio’s help when he stumbled on a rock or something hidden beneath the surface, as if by profusely thanking one of the coyotes, the other would also receive gratitude. Lalo didn’t care; he just wanted this night over.

The father was one of the last ones to come to the river’s edge. His daughter hesitated, testing the water then jumping back as if something had bit her toes. Lalo felt the night tilt around him. Then the father snatched her up and carried her, which Lalo was infinitely grateful for. He followed them as they crossed, the others on the far side already making their way toward the dugout.

Then the father slipped.

It wasn’t much, more like being knocked off true-north than slipping on a banana peel, but it was enough to make him throw his arm out to keep from falling, which threw off his balance on the other side. His arm swung out, dislodging the daughter just enough for her to slip from the crook of his arm.

She yelped as she touched the warm water, as much from surprise as her being two-years-old.

The father reached for her but wasn’t quick enough to stop her from splashing.

She fell to the side, away from her father. She yelped again, this time worse, the tone of her voice sharpened.

Her father lunged over at the same time as Lalo, the father falling into the water to make sure he reached her. Lalo, still upright, missed. The father rose, water cascading off him, his daughter held tight in his arms, protecting her from all else unseen as Lalo shepherded them across the last part of river.

On the other side, dripping but safe, Lalo finally exhaled.

“Por fin,” he said, then pointed at the rest of the group heading toward the dugout. “Vámanos.”

“Espera.” The father was knelt down, tending to his daughter, who was babbling something Lalo couldn’t understand. Zapotek or Lacandón or something from much farther south, the words smothered in wet banana leaves and dense moss.

Lalo cursed under his breath. He thought babying children was an American thing, not wherever they were from. After all, she was just wet. Lalo and his brothers spent most of their free time in the river near their house.

The father looked up and caught Lalo’s gaze, his eyes conveying something paternal that Lalo had never felt before: the urgency of an injured child.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“Ella está herido.”

“Hurt? She’s just wet. Muévete ya.”

The father lifted up her leg, displaying a gash on the back of her calf, the blood now glimmering in the moonlight.

“Ella tiene hemofília.” His voice was thick with fear for his daughter.

Lalo felt the air tremble around him, the humidty pass over him. “So stop it.”

His hand shook as he pulled a small tube out of his pocket and held it up. Lalo didn’t know what he was looking at, especially not with the moon as the only light.

“Este es desodorante pero solo lo funciona para heriditas.”

It only worked on small wounds? Lalo fought the urge to scream. The cut wasn’t huge, but her skin was wet, making the blood flow more easily. And if the deodorant wouldn’t stop the bleeding on a wound so large, they were going to have to make the wound smaller because Lalo couldn’t let this girl who had his future-daughter’s eyes bleed out in the middle of the desert.

Think think think think.

Lalo had an idea. He called out in whispers. “Sergio, ven acá.”

“Nadie pare,” Sergio called back.

“Ya sé,” Lalo said, trying to convey the urgency of the situation without shouting at Sergio to get his ass back here so they could fix the girl and get gone. “Pero ven acá, ¡ya ahora!”

Sergio told the rest to wait a second while he scurried back to Lalo.


“Gimme your needle and thread.”

Sergio didn’t ask, just dug into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out the contents, dumping it in Lalo’s palm.

“You take them to the spot,” Lalo said. “I’ll take care of this and we’ll meet you.”

Sergio nodded, hurried off without another word.

Lalo held the needle up to the moonlight and slid the thread through, then looked down at the father.

“Tapa su boca y sujétela fuerte.”

Even in the darkness, terror radiated across the daughter’s face. Lalo averted his eyes and focused on the cut.

The skin puckered as the needle touched it, bouncing back when the sharp point slipped through. She gave a muffled yelp and bucked against her father’s firm grip, then jumped again with the needle’s next pass, over and over. Tears glimmered down her cheeks, down her father’s.

Lalo worked his way up, clenching his jaw harder and harder as he cinched the cut further closed, the needle flashing in the moonlight. 

He repositioned himself, trying to keep the wound in the light to make sure it was completely sutured. But the father took the movement as his being finished and relieved the pressure on his daughter’s mouth, just as Lalo shifted her leg, inadvertently pulling the thread tight. 

The daughter’s eyes went wide, almost as big as the sky over el Llanto. Her yelp echoed through the darkness, across the sand, before the father could clamp down on her mouth again.

The father and Lalo froze.

Breath crashed against the inside of his mouth. Blood thrummed through his veins.

A desert rat shuffled through the brush to the west, its feet scrabbling over the hard dirt. A bat flapped overhead, chittering as it chased bugs across the sky. A cereus not ten meters northeast from them breathed a sigh of relief, its blooms opening for nocturnal pollinators. The wind shifted, carrying the faint smell of cigarette smoke.

Lalo scanned the area. No one in sight, not even Sergio and the others.

Then another shuffle, due northwest, maybe fifty meters away. Not a rat. Not a snake either. Bigger.

“La migra,” the father whispered.

Lalo pushed aside a quick thought, looked around frantically, though he knew there was nothing to hide behind. They were caught in the open. The scrub brush would only give them momentary cover. Only real options were to run north or head back across the river, across la frontera and out of la migra’s jurisdiction. Dile a Dios, he thought. “When I say, you grab your girl and you run.”

The father nodded.

Then the heavens opened, bright white light raining down, blinding them.

A bolt of cold shot through Lalo. La migra would call out, tell them to freeze, put their hands up, all that shit. But now: nothing.

Which meant….

“¡Los Cazadores!” the father yelled, already scooping up his daughter in his arms.

Lalo shoved the father northward then took off, feet pounding on the desert floor. Puffs of sand exploded behind Lalo as he ran in the opposite direction, drawing fire away from the father and daughter. He zigged and zagged, cutting across the land, but the puffs drew ever closer. Lalo faked right, then bolted left, toward the river. It wasn’t deep, but maybe he could bound out to the middle, baptize himself in el río, hold his breath tight and let the current take him down—

Lightning tore through his calf. His face slammed into the desert, sand coating his mouth and face as electricity eviscerated his muscle.

His fingers clawed at the ground, pulling his body toward the river. Twenty meters. Eighteen meters more. Fifteen—

A foot smashed against his spine, pinning him in place.

“Looks like you caught one.” The hunter’s voice was thick with smoke.

“Not the one I was aiming for. Them tiny ones are faster than they look,” another hunter said.

“That’s why they’re a good challenge.”

The foot relented, but only to flip Lalo over. The two faces were backlit against the moon, only moving shadows where features should’ve been.

The first hunter said, “Pegged you as the soft touch, stopping to help out that little girl and all. That’s y’all’s rule, right?”

His words had too many vowels in them, distended them, so they became hard to understand.

“‘No stopping,’” the other hunter said, readjusting the rifle slung over his shoulder. “Not for no one. But wherever the cargo go, the boss ain’t far behind.”

“Yeah, I’ve had my eye on you a spell. That bounty on your boss’s head’ll set me right for a long time.” The first hunter crouched down, took a long drag on his cigarette, held it for effect, exhaling only when he spoke. The air shifted around him. “So I’m gonna ask you once, and only once: where’d your friends go?”

Lalo sucked in his breath, steeling himself, staying quiet. Wondering how far away the father and the girl were, if they were hiding, if there were more hunters in the area.

The first hunter laughed to himself. “One of the strong, silent types, huh?” He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and regarded it for a long second. “Okay, then. I think I can help with that.”

And as he lowered the burning cherry down to Lalo’s eye, all Lalo could see was the part that burned hottest, the bright blue part, the same as the sky above el Llanto, where Pilar was waiting for him, pacing their bedroom with a hand on her stomach, counting the seconds between contractions.

Nik Korpon is the author of Radicals, Wear Your Home Like a Scar, The Rebellion's Last Traitor, and Queen of the Struggle, among other. He lives outside Baltimore.

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Good Life, fiction by Richie Narvaez

 Reimagining Ernest Hemingway’s Indian Camp

Chibenashi was out of breath from running with the dogs. The dogs followed Chibenashi all the way from the camp, but when he found Larry, they turned and ran back. 

Larry sat on the soft loam at the edge of the pines by the lake. There was an empty bottle between his legs. The young man stared out at the lake. It was a cold night and much colder by the water. Larry had a poor fire going and half a dead fish near it on the sand. The fire was threatening to go out. This disappointed Chibenashi. He had taught Larry better than that.

“Larry!” Chibenashi said. “Ayashe is in a bad way.”

“I can hear her from here.”

“We have to get the doctor. She’ll die if not,” Chibenashi said, trying to catch his breath. He grabbed Larry under the arm and pulled him up. The young man was soft as a boned fish and stank of anti-fogmatics. Chibenashi pulled him up and walked him toward their rowboat, beached a few yards away.

“Move your feet,” Chibenashi said.

“Will Boonoo George be there?” Larry said. 

“What does it matter? We need his brother, not George.”

“I don’t like Boonoo George. Peezhickee don’t like him either.”

Chibenashi was going to say it didn’t matter if Ayashe’s husband Peezhickee liked George, that Ayashe’s husband was more full of anti-fogmatics than Larry was, but instead Chibenashi said, “Peezhickee’s in a bad way, too, on account of his foot. It don’t look good. Maybe the doctor can look at him, too.”

“Boonoo George is a leech.”

“You ought not to say that.”

“I won’t sit near him in the rowboat if he comes. You sit near him.”

“The rowboat is not that big, Larry.”

“I don’t want to sit near him, is all. If I do, I will jump overboard, and you can row those white men to Ayashe by yourself.”

“Fine. I’ll sit near him. Now help me.”

They pushed and pulled the rowboat into the water. Larry sat in the front of the boat while Chibenashi took the oars.

“I’m not sitting near Boonoo George is all I’m saying,” Larry said across the rowboat.

“Fine.” Chibenashi said. The rowing made him sweat, and the sweat drying on his skin in the cold air made him shiver. But he didn’t mind it. It woke him up and kept him awake.

The doctor and his family camped every summer on the other side of the lake from the Ojibwe camp. They usually didn’t bother anybody, and it was good to have a doctor close by. Their medicine was different than Ojibwe medicine, and Chibenashi had to admit it worked sometimes when the Ojibwe’s could not.

The rowing was going hard, and Chibenashi looked over and saw that Larry had fallen asleep.

“Larry! Wake up.”

Larry sat up straight and rubbed his eyes. 

“How can you sleep when your sister is in danger?” Chibenashi said. 

“If she dies, it’s her own fault.”

“You ought not to say that, Larry. You know better. I know you know better.”

They pulled their rowboat up the shore, near the doctor’s rowboat. The doctor’s rowboat looked brand new.

“That sure is a pretty boat,” Larry said. “I could use a pretty boat like that one.”

“You already have a boat.”

Chibenashi walked up the beach and toward the doctor’s camp.

As they approached, the doctor and his brother stood up from around their fire, looking as if they were ready for a fight. White men always looked if they were ready for a fight.

Their camp smelled of burned fish and liquor and cigars and piss and lilac soap. Chibenashi bowed to the doctor and told him why they were there, and the doctor turned to go back to the tent.

George teetered on his feet. He had a short face, with a hawk nose and a dirty bald head. He had a bottle in his hand. More anti-fogmatics. 

Some nights men just have to drink. Chibenashi would save his drinking for later, after Ayashe’s baby was born and she was safe. No one liked being in the camp, no one liked peeling the trees, making them naked to the sun and the wind and the insects, leaving them to rot. But it was the only work left. But that was the reason the men at the camp drank. One of the reasons, anyway.

The doctor came out of the tent, and a thin little boy stumbled out after him. The boy was just putting on a coat and stood like a newborn colt. The doctor was a younger version of George. He was a smart one. His eyes looked bright but not focused. His beard was very neat.

The boy was an even younger version of both men, not old enough to shave.  He stood behind the father, holding his hand, and stared at Chibenashi and Larry as if they gave him the heebie-jeebies, as if he thought they were going to scalp him.

Larry said, “Why are they bringing the boy? He looks like he’s going to loose himself.”

“I don’t know,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s just go.”

“We’ll have to take two boats now, so I can row the pretty one.”

“Sure, Larry.”

“As long as I won’t have to take Boonoo George.”

“George can speak Ojibwe, Larry. He can understand you.”

“I don’t care.”

The scared boy and the doctor started walking toward the new rowboat, so Larry ran over to it ahead of them. Chibenashi headed toward their own rowboat.

The doctor and the boy stopped. The doctor was saying something to the boy, who looked as if he were about to cry. When they moved again, they changed directions and headed toward Chibenashi.

“Oh no,” Larry said. 

George waddled up to the white man’s rowboat and dropped in.

“No! No! No!”

“Shut up, Larry,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s get a move on.”

On the lake, Larry rowed smoothly, the way Chibenashi had taught him. Larry was still young and full of fire. Chibenashi rowed as best as he could, but he didn’t have the strength. He had peeled bark all day, then stacked it, and then helped load more to go to the tannery. He was exhausted and had eaten only a spoonful of rice for dinner.

They had known Ayashe was in trouble for days. Nokomis told them what she was doing was not helping the baby to be born. So they decided someone had to go get the white doctor, and Chibenashi said he would go.

In the boat, Chibenashi got a better look at the doctor’s boy. He had red cheeks and long eyelashes. His head swiveled and his big eyes seem to be trying to see the entire world. The boy crushed himself against his father, who held the thin boy against his chest, with one arm over him, as if he was trying to shield him. From the cold? From the animals of the night? From the entire world maybe. With his father’s big arm around him, the boy didn’t look any less frightened.

On the other side of the lake, the doctor and his boy got out of the boat. Chibenashi pulled the boat onto the shore.

They were in a hurry, but George had stopped on the sand and was puffing on a cigar. He took cigars from his pants pocket and handed them out.

“Have a gall stone,” George said in Ojibwe. “Have a gall stone.”

Larry looked at Chibenashi. “What is he doing with the cigars?”

“Shut up and take one. Don’t insult him.”

“I want to insult him,” Larry said. 

“A free cigar is a free cigar. If you don’t want it, give it to me.”

Chibenashi took the cigar from George and in English said, “Thank you, Mr. George. Thank you.”

“Armpit,” George answered in Ojibwe.

“You said he speaks Ojibwe,” Larry said.

“I thought so,” Chibenashi said.

Larry snatched a cigar and smoked it on the long walk through the logging road back to the camp. Chibenashi kept his cigar in his shirt. The logging road was wider than it used to be because many of the trees were gone. One day you would be able to see straight from the lake to the camp.

“Why do you hate George so much?” Chibenashi asked Larry. 

“He cheated me at cards. More than once.”

“More than once? Then it is your fault you kept playing cards with him. You should know better.”

“And he likes our women. He will not even look at a white woman.”

“That’s because they won’t look at him,” Chibenashi said, trying to be cheerful.

“He likes our women a lot. And he goes with them, even when they don’t want to go. Especially when they don’t want to go.”

“Don’t say things like that.”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

Chibenashi looked back to where the doctor was leading his boy by the hand. George was farther behind, pissing on a tree he was leaning on and getting his feet wet.

“You shouldn’t gamble, boy,” Chibenashi said. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“You’re no good at it. It’s what did your father in.”

“That’s not what killed my father.”

Chibenashi put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Leave it be.”

Larry shook the hand off. “You’re always taking shit, bowing and scraping to them. You’re shit to them, you know. Less than shit.”

Chibenashi’s eyes welled. “Leave it be, you stupid drunk.”

Nearby Ayashe screamed. The dogs exploded into the forest and straight toward Chibenashi. They yipped and ran around him. “Git from here,” he told them. “Git.” But the dogs went on, wagging their tails fiercely.

Nokomis stood outside Ayashe’s shanty with a lantern. She yelled at them for taking so long.

Larry stopped and said he was going back into the woods. “I’m not sticking around for the rest.”

“That’s your sister in there.” Chibenashi tugged at his arm.

“I can hear how she’s doing all the way from the other end of the camp.”

“Come on. Let’s go in. The doctor may need our help.”




“Listen. I’ll buy you a drink. Stick around and I’ll buy you a drink afterward.”

“In town?”

“In town. Where else? I don’t get drunk alone in the woods like a fool. We’ll find a place you haven’t been thrown out of.”

“You’ve been thrown out of a few yourself.”

“Not in a long time, boy. Let’s go to Ernie’s then.”

“Not Ernie’s.”

“Fine. We’ll go to Gilby’s, although they don’t like us there as much.”

Chibenashi shooed the dogs away and entered the cramped shanty. Inside, it smelled of smoke and the sour smell of peeled hemlock. There was the way a room smells when a woman is giving birth, of blood and sweat and shit and something sweet and musty. But there was something else there, too, something foul and sick.

Chibenashi looked up and saw Peezhickee in the upper bunk. He had a pipe in his mouth and his head lolled back and forth against the wall. Maybe the doctor should look at him first. Peezhickee had been in much pain since he hurt his foot, and, since his wife starting giving birth, he had spent two days drinking.

Things had been bad for them for a long time. Peezhickee and Ayashe had been together since before they were teenagers. Chibenashi had once been sweet on Ayashe, too, when she was a girl and Chibenashi almost a man. She had eyes like glittering river stones, and she loved to sing although she sang like a hungover bird. She knew that and enjoyed herself anyway. She knew Chibenashi was sweet on her, but Peezhickee was the one she picked, the one she stuck with, which was only right. Peezhickee and Ayashe held hands when they were only kids. As they grew up, when one or the other was missing, which was a lot of the time, everyone knew they were together and knew what they were doing and knew they were out necking by the back of the camp.

When they got married it was a good thing. But then a year or so ago, Peezhickee had started talking about moving out of the camp, about going to California maybe. He thought they could live a better life, a good life out there. But Ayashe’s family lived in the camp and she wanted to stay near her family. So the couple started arguing, and Peezhickee started drinking more, even during work. Then just three days ago Peezhickee had an accident peeling bark and chopped into his own foot. He hadn’t kept his mind on the work. You could see there was no way that foot was going to heal. You could smell it.

Another Ojibwe, Oshkaabewis, stood in the shanty, ready to help. Chibenashi went to stand next to him, pulling Larry to stand next to him.

On the bunk Ayashe screamed, loud enough to hurt the ears. 

On the top bunk, Peezhickee’s face was in pain, too, like he was giving birth himself. 

Nokomis remained in the shanty. The doctor ordered her to heat some water and after she got it he shooed her into a corner. 

Ayashe kept screaming and the doctor put himself between Ayashe’s legs. He told Chibenashi and Oshkaabewis to hold onto her ankles. He told George and Larry to hold down her arms. As George came close, Ayashe bit him. But still he held her down. There were five men squeezed onto the small bunk holding her tiny body down. 

The white doctor put his hand inside her. The look on his face told Chibenashi that something was wrong. The doctor took a jack-knife from the hot water and cut into Ayashe, tearing her belly open. 

Chibenashi turned to look at the boy standing there alone, away from his father’s arms. His eyes were as big as the sky, and it looked like he really was going to loose himself.

There was lots of blood on the bed and the doctor reached for the baby inside the wound and yanked it out and cut its connection with its mother. 

Chibenashi saw the baby’s face and saw that it was another half-breed. Nine others had been born in the camp. He stared at the baby for a long time, and he looked at Ayashe, whose glittering river stone eyes were closed. Larry touched him on the shoulder and pointed toward the door where Boonoo George stood. “Him,” he said.

“You can’t know that for sure,” Chibenashi said in a small voice.

“Does it matter?”

The white doctor sewed up Ayashe with catgut. She was covered in sweat and her skin was hot as fire, but she was alive.

“Nokomis will take care of the rest,” Chibenashi said. He stood up to congratulate Peezhickee, but he saw that Peezhickee had used a razor to open his own throat. He had done it so quietly and quickly they hadn’t noticed.

Larry said, “I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him at all.”

Boonoo George was stumbling out the door.

“I am going after him,” Larry said. “I want my money.”

“Leave him be, boy.”

The white doctor was whispering to his son, and the son’s face was covered in snot and tears. The white doctor led the boy out of the shanty. He left behind his jack-knife. 

“I want my money,” Larry said. He bent down and took the white doctor’s knife.

“Come on, boy,” Chibenashi said. “It’s almost morning. We got to get to work soon. Let’s just go.”

“Come with me,” Larry said. “I want my money.” And he stumbled out the door, past the doctor and the boy, and after Boonoo George. 

Chibenashi looked at Oshkaabewis, who stood and said nothing. Then Chibenashi took the cigar from his pocket and put it on the bunk next to Peezhickee. He took the razor from Peezhickee’s still warm, wet hand and he followed Larry out the door.

Richie Narvaez is author of four books. His most recent novel is the historical YA mystery Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, and his latest book is the anthology Noiryorican.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Twitch, fiction by Brandon Barrows

There was almost eleven-thousand dollars on the low-slung table in front of me. The neatly-banded blocks were all relatively small bills, none larger than a twenty, and were lined up straight and piled into little towers, organized by denomination. It looked like a city skyline in miniature. It was the most money I’d seen in a long time. It was mine—mine and the kid’s, rightfully—but I didn’t dare spend a dollar of it. It was too hot. But that wasn’t my fault. Not a bit.

I looked across the motel room at the kid, Dennis. His legs were pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He talked to himself in a constant low drone. 

I realized I couldn’t remember his last name, just that it was different from his sister, Mattie’s. They had different dads, I remembered that much. None of it meant anything now, though. The only things that mattered were the blood splattered across the kid’s t-shirt, slowly turning brown as it dried, and what would happen next. I should never have let him have a gun. Mattie warned me that he was a little twitchy, but it didn’t make sense to go into the place with only one of us armed and he swore to me that he could handle it. Believing him was my first mistake.

My second mistake was letting the girl drive the car. She held up fine the two other times she drove for me, but that was with my old partner, Jake, and nothing ever went wrong with Jake Barsi around. God, I missed that big, stupid bastard. He was dumb as a post, but his nerves were rock-solid and he took directions well. Who could have guessed that he would end up in prison for not paying child support? All those years and I didn’t even know he had kids.

That left me in the lurch, though. Mattie wasn’t really a partner so much as a fill-in, and the kind of job I could do alone wasn’t worth even trying to pull off. Too much risk for too little pay-out. When Mattie suggested her brother as a new third, I said no way. She told me to just meet the kid, give him a chance. He was an amateur, with no more experience than nickel-and-dime stuff. Literally–he busted open vending machines, Mattie told me, going on about how clever he was. A little twitchy, a little weird maybe, but clever and eager to learn.

Nothing about what she said seemed clever to me. I read once that crime, when you broke it down year by year, was the lowest-paid “profession” on the planet. Risking two to three years for maybe a few dozen bucks stolen from a vending machine didn’t seem smart to me. That’s why I went for the big stuff, and before now, I never had much trouble. 

Maybe Jake was my good luck charm. Aside from a couple early jobs, he was my only partner and without him, I was seriously considering finding another line of work. But Mattie liked the excitement of being with an outlaw, pretending  as if  we were Bonnie and Clyde. She wouldn’t like the idea of my getting out of the racket. We’d also been balling long enough for me to know that she wouldn’t give up until I at least agreed to meet her brother, so I caved.

The kid was maybe twenty-three. He was small and wiry, with short, sandy hair and cheeks that looked like they never needed shaving. But he spoke well enough, and he had more or less the right answers to the questions I asked him. After a couple hours, I told him it was nice meeting him and that I’d let him know. When Mattie and I left, she wanted an answer. I told her I’d think about it and maybe we could try something if the right opportunity came along.

A few weeks later, it did. A buddy of mine told me about a check-cashing place, way on the other side of the state, where a friend of a friend used to work. This acquaintance got the can, doesn’t matter for what, and wanted a little revenge. He sold everything he knew about the place—its routine, its security, and so forth—to my buddy’s friend, who was willing to pass it along in exchange for a percentage. 

My buddy offered me the same deal and when I heard the details, I figured it sounded safe enough. Two employees, one manager-cashier and one guard, came in for pre-opening around seven in the morning, and then another cashier came in at eight to open the place. It stayed open until seven at night, Monday through Saturday, two cashiers and a guard on at any given time. On Friday mornings, they had an extra cashier because a lot of people got paid that day. They were flush with cash for the same reason. That came in Thursday afternoons.

The security sounded solid, but unexceptional. All electronic locks, the PIN for which would be changed whenever an employee left. Except there were manager’s master codes for both the doors and the safe which were never changed, cuz the guy worked there for years and thought nobody knew about them. At least three people knew them now and at least one of us was going to make use of that knowledge.

I told Mattie about it, giving her enough detail to let her know what was going on and that, if I thought Dennis was up for the challenge after talking to him again, I’d give him his chance. She was pretty pleased and I was happy with the way she proved it to me. They may only have been half-siblings, but she wanted good things for her little brother–better than robbing vending machines, anyway. 

So I agreed to bring the kid in, figuring this was probably the safest way I’d find to test him out. With the manager’s codes and only three people in the place, I almost figured Mattie and I could do it alone, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving an empty car running out back of the place. That would only draw attention. That, and Mattie never used a gun; she preferred to drive. She told me Dennis used to go plinking with his dad, so he knew the basics of firearms, at least. Since he really only needed to point a gun at a couple of people and make sure they stood still, it should be fine. Anybody could handle that much, she argued. I caved again.

The next Thursday afternoon, I got Mattie and her brother into the motel room I rented a day earlier. I outlined everything to them, all the details. The girl was excited, and Dennis pretended to be. It got into his nerves before I even finished talking. Mattie could tell it was bothering me, the way the kid was acting, but she took me aside, reminded me it was too late to back out and promised Dennis would be okay. “It’s just nerves. It’s his first time.”

“Sure,” I told her. “And what happens if he blows it all up in our faces?”

“He won’t.” She leaned up and kissed the side of my neck, the way she knew I liked. “Love me?”

I didn’t think I did, but I liked her well enough, and now wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Sure.”

“Then trust me, Paul. I know my brother. He’ll be fine.” She kissed me again, on the lips this time. She broke away and said, “And when it’s all over, when we’ve got the money, I’ll really show you how much I appreciate you giving him this chance, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to imagine it, but succeeding only in thinking about how everything could go wrong.

As bad as my imagination was, the reality was worse.

We waited until just after seven before barging into the back door of Cash Express. It opened into a counting room where a withered-looking little woman in a yellow and red polo-shirt with the chain’s logo embroidered on the sleeve was seated at a cramped desk, sneaking a smoke. The safe, a waist-high job bolted to the floor, was to her right. She turned left as we entered and her eyes went wide, stretching the folds of skin around them. But she didn’t say a word, just let the cigarette fall to the floor and raised her hands over her head. We were both old pros.

“Who else is in here?” I asked.

“Just Sunil, the other cashier, and Hank, the evening guard.”

“Get them in here.” I gestured with the .38 revolver in my fist.

The old woman went to the door and called out, “Sunil? Hank? Come back here a sec, will you?”

Behind me, I could feel the energy pouring off of Dennis. I risked a glance over my shoulder. He had his own gun, a .380 automatic Mattie got for him somewhere, clasped close to his chest. His knit ski-mask was identical to the black one I wore, except his was red and it was already showing darker spots on his forehead where the sweat was soaking through. I could practically hear his knees knocking together.

The old woman turned back to the room, nodded at me and stepped off to one side, pausing only to grind the cigarette into the floor before again raising her hands over her head. A moment later, a handsome, dark-skinned guy a little older than Dennis appeared in the doorway. His eyes met mine and went as wide as the old woman’s had, but he never got a chance to do anything else. A bam sounded right by my ear and then a bright-red spot appeared among the lively colors of the handsome kid’s shirt, dead-center on the heart. He fell to the floor without making a sound, collapsing face-first onto the linoleum. A pool of blood began to spread beneath him. 

The old woman screamed and made for the door, colliding with a middle-aged guy wearing a grey uniform coming from the other side. I turned to see Dennis holding the gun at arm’s length, his eyes huge and staring through the holes in his mask.

“You stupid fuck!” I spat as I made for the front of the room, leaping over the dead kid, avoiding the pooling blood. I slammed the door shut, wedged the desk-chair under the handle, and then turned to the safe in the corner.

My fingers were clumsy with nerves, anger, and adrenaline, but on the third try the manager’s code for the safe worked just as well as the one for the door had. I started shoveling banded bills into the plastic grocery bags I brought for that purpose. Every instinct told me to run, to cut my losses, but I’d be damned if I left empty-handed.

I threw another look at Dennis and saw the kid had pulled his mask off and was on his knees, leaning down over the guy he shot. The gun was on the floor nearby and he was trying to turn the other kid over. “What the hell are doing? Grab a bag!” 

Dennis shook his head. “He might still. . . I didn’t mean it! Maybe we can help him!”

“Too damned late! We got maybe thirty seconds before that guard thinks of the back door!”

I turned back to the safe. Two bags full of cash. I had two more, but decided not to press my luck. It’d be a miracle if we got out of here and another if we didn’t get picked up right off the bat. I should have listened to my gut and ignored Mattie’s arguments about her brother.

“Pick up that mask and gun,” I said, shoving a last packet of bills into the pocket of my jeans as I stood. The kid was motionless, just staring down at what he’d done.

“Get your god-damned shit together!” I shouted, leveling a kick at the kid’s ribs. It connected and seemed to jolt him back to himself. He looked at me, tears in his eyes, then snatched the mask and gun up, found his feet, and stumbled to the backdoor. 

That was when the shit really hit the fan. The alley was empty, except for a couple of dumpsters and the kind of crap that accumulates in alleys everywhere. No car. No Mattie. My heart jumped in my chest, the same way it did when Dennis fired the gun. My hand went to the burner in my back pocket, but that was no good. Even if Mattie answered, the cops would be there before a call could connect.

We were fucked, but there was no time to dwell on it – not unless I wanted nothing but time to think, sitting in a cell somewhere. I wasn’t going to let that happen, not if there was any way to avoid it.

“Run!” I told the kid, shifting the bags to my left hand and setting out at the kind of fast lope I learned as a cross-country runner in high-school. It was a long time since my school years, but I was still in reasonably good shape, and there wasn’t any other option. I could hear sirens not too far off.

Keeping to alleys as much as we could, somehow we found our way to the cross-street that connected with the highway where the motel was. We saw other people on foot and every once in a while, a passing police cruiser, but fortunately it was dark enough that nobody noticed Dennis’s shirt. 

It took maybe half an hour to reach the highway and two hours more, walking far off the edge of the road, to make it back to the motel. Every few minutes, I tried calling Mattie’s cellphone, but there was no answer. Along the way, I ditched the masks and Dennis’s gun in a foul-smelling slough a couple of miles from the motel. There was no reason for anyone to go in there and I hoped the smell would keep the stuff from being discovered any time soon. 

Dennis chattered the entire way, mouth moving a mile a minute, alternately making apologies to the kid he killed and worrying about the cops coming after him. Sometimes, it sounded like he thought they already had him and he was trying to explain what happened, as if that would do any good. More than once, I told him to shut the fuck up, but it was like he couldn’t even hear me. After a while, when we were out along the highway, I punched him squarely in the jaw out of sheer frustration, knocking him to the ground, but even that only quieted him down for a couple of minutes.

I was angry enough to shoot him, but I’d never killed anyone before and now wasn’t the time to start. Another body wouldn’t do anyone any good. More than ten years in this business, and I’d never had a job go so badly wrong. At least I knew what Dennis’s problem was–he was “a little twitchy.” That didn’t explain his sister leaving us high and dry. I’d give her a chance to explain, but who knew? I might still kill someone that night.

The moment we got into the motel room, I dropped the bags on the scarred coffee table and tried calling Mattie again. It began to ring–from the bathroom. She used it before we left and must have taken the phone out of her purse for some reason then forgotten it. That was just great. 

I spent over an hour stewing, counting the money, and listening to Dennis ramble--to himself, to a handsome dead kid, to imaginary cops. Mattie had my car and I had no way to contact her. Dennis had no change of clothes—my shirts would all be suspiciously big on him—and his face might well be on camera at the check-cashing place, so we couldn’t go far from the room. There wasn’t much we could do but wait and hope Mattie came back. 

After a while I started to calm down a little. Soothed by the sight and feel of all that money, my thoughts came together better. Things went just about as bad as they possibly could, but despite everything else, as long as Mattie didn’t get picked up and she came back before too long, I wanted to believe that we might still be okay. 

That stopped me. With what already happened, Mattie being picked up was a possibility I hadn’t even thought about before. When did she leave, exactly? When Dennis fired that shot? Or did something else spook her first? In all the confusion that was happening inside Cash Express, I had no clue what might have been happening outside. Maybe she knew something I didn’t. 

I was getting worried all over again and about something I had absolutely no control over. I stood up and began pacing the room, trying to think of something, some way forward, some path out of this fucking maze I was trapped in. My eyes fell on the piles of cash and I wanted to spit. All that money and it couldn’t do me any good–not until I was far, far away from this place.

I walked back and forth, trying to squeeze an idea out of my brain. I was drawing a blank. I grabbed up my jacket from the back of the chair by the door and said, “I’m going out.”

Dennis hadn’t really shut up in hours, no matter what I said or did to him. It was like he was in his own world. Now, finally, somehow I got through to him. “What?” His voice was small and lost-sounding.

“I’m going out.” I slipped my arms into the jacket.


There was a convenience store across the highway from the motel. There was really no place else to go and it was as good a destination as any. “Across the street. Gonna get something to eat. You want anything?”

Dennis shook his head, his eyes falling again to the table, to the money and my gun. I put it down the moment we got back to the room and I intended for it to stay there until we checked out. Unless you’re actively on a job, carrying a gun is stupid. In a lot of places, that’s inside time right there, even if the cops never connect you to anything else. So the gun stayed here, along with the cash and Dennis. I wasn’t too worried about that, anyway. I figured what happened tonight would turn him off guns, maybe permanently. 

Dennis tore his eyes from the table and looked up at me. His lips started moving again, but now, no sound came out. I went over to stand in front of him, but he wasn’t really seeing me anymore.

I said, “Maybe I can get you a shirt over there, too. You should get out of those clothes and take a shower.

The kid’s voice started getting louder, saying he was sorry over and over again.

“Hey,” I said. “Look at me.”

There was no answer except the chanted “sorrys”.

“Hey!” I clapped my hands right in his face.

Dennis jumped back so hard he half-turned over the chair he was in, setting it thumping back against the wall. If there were neighbors, they’d love that.

“Listen to me, you little fuck.”

Dennis finally looked at me again. There were tears in his eyes and his lips were still moving, but I knew he saw me.

“Don’t go anywhere, okay? And don’t open the door for anybody.”

“I can’t go to prison,” he half-whispered. He grabbed my arm and said, “You can’t let them take me. I didn’t mean it.” The tears were running down his cheeks now.

I sighed and pried his fingers from me. Part of me wanted to grab the bags and start walking up the highway just to get away from him. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said, not really sure if it was meant for his benefit or mine. I went out without waiting for him to respond. 

Across the highway, the lights from the convenience store were like an island of light in an ocean of darkness. I went inside and saw a dark-skinned guy, Indian or Pakistani maybe, behind a plexiglass-protected counter. I flashed on the kid Dennis killed and a little pang went through me. Nobody ever got hurt on any of my jobs before. This wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t really help. It wouldn’t fly with the cops if we got picked up, either. Either Mattie had to come back or I needed to find another way out of town.

“Evening,” the guy at the counter said. I nodded, grabbed a basket, and went around the store, gathering up snacks and drinks. I wanted a beer in the worst way, but I needed a clear head. 

Up by the register, there was a corner stuffed full of hats and t-shirts and hoodies, all with the logos of local sports teams. I picked up a shirt with a pair of stylized red socks on them and winced. The price-tag said forty-five bucks. Sometimes, the legal ways to rob someone seem more dishonest than just doing it with a gun. Gritting my teeth, I paid and got the hell out.

Outside, I stood for a moment under the night sky, wondering what was going to happen next. At the very edge of the parking lot, headlights flashed. I turned and after a few seconds, it happened again. All my senses went on high alert, but I forced myself to relax. Cops wouldn’t flash their lights at me, not headlights, anyway, and nobody knew I was here except Dennis. Was it possible the kid did something useful and found us a car?

I walked towards the car, just out of range of the sun-bright lights that splashed the tarmac around the gas-pumps. I recognized it as my own and when I was within ten feet, the window rolled down and Mattie’s voice said, “Paul! Paul!”

I kept my pace casual, pretending to be unsurprised, and angled towards the passenger side. I opened the door, slid into the car, grabbed her arm, and squeezed as hard as I could. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Mattie flinched. “I got scared. I heard the gunshot and just sort of took off. I went back, after, but there were cops all over the place. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove around and then kind of ended up here. Are you okay? Where’s Dennis?”

I let my grip loosen. “At the motel and no, I’m not o-fucking-kay. Things were going fine until your dipshit brother randomly started shooting.”

“Oh shit. . . ” she whispered.

“He killed a kid.” 

My hand fell away from Mattie’s arm, but then her hand found mine in the semi-darkness. She squeezed gently and said, “I’m sorry. I really am. But I never been so close to a gunshot before and all this crap started popping into my head and I got scared. That never happened to me before. Everything worked so smooth the other times.”

“That’s because Jake was with us.” 

We were both silent a moment, then Mattie asked, “You got the money?”

“I got some money.” 

I shook off her grasp, but her hand was persistent and found my thigh. “Dennis is okay?” she asked.

“I guess. . .” He was definitely not okay, but there wasn’t a thing either of us could do to help. 

“Cops didn’t see you, obviously.”

“Not me, no. I got no idea who might have seen your brother. The little fucker took his mask off and actually tried to help the kid he shot. His face is probably on video.” I turned to her. “You swore to me he’d be okay.”

Mattie’s hand roamed across my lap. “I was wrong. . . I’m sorry. I really thought he’d get over the nerves. But it’s all gonna be fine, right? Nobody knows us around here and we got the money. We just gotta get out of the area.”

I moved her hand away from my crotch. “Let’s go. We’ll talk about it later.”

“We got a little time, don’t we?”

I turned and in the light that reached the car, I saw she was giving me a puppy-dog look, the kind she always used when she wanted to make extra nice.

“Paul. . . I told you I’d show you how much I appreciate you giving my brother a chance, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but—”

“And I wanna show you how sorry I am. I was so scared something was gonna happen to you. We got a little time, don’t we?” she asked again.

Again, I ignored my instincts, and admitted we did. Mattie’s hand was in my lap again, fiddling with my zipper now, and a moment later, her head followed.

When we were done, we switched seats. I started the engine and drove across to the motel. I parked the car in front of the room. The lights were out inside. Maybe Dennis finally went to bed. It would do him some good, if so. I could use some sleep myself, for that matter. 

I said to Mattie, “I wanna get out of here, but we better stay ‘til check out in the morning. Look bad if we just disappear.”

“Sure, if you say so, Paul.”

I pulled her to me and kissed her forehead. Despite myself, I tried to forgive her for screwing me and her brother over by disappearing. I wasn’t the type to forgive easily, but I did a lot of thinking while Mattie was hard at work proving how sorry she was. I decided that, aside from the handsome, dark-skinned kid’s death, the plan wasn’t really that changed. I felt bad about that kid, but I didn’t pull the trigger and getting caught wouldn’t bring him back to life. Maybe there was a way to give Dennis up without getting myself arrested, but Mattie would never forgive me and she knew too much about me and my life to risk pissing her off and then cutting her loose. There was no way I was ever working with her brother again, but that was a discussion for another day.

“Before we go in, just a word of warning. . .  your brother’s not okay. He’s kind of messed up over what happened. He’s been rambling about how sorry he is and shit like that.” 

Worry flashed across Mattie’s face, but she just nodded. We both got out of the car. Mattie grabbed the bag from the convenience store without my even asking. She really was eager to be forgiven.

I looked up at the sky again. I had a good chunk of money, I had the car and my girl back, and nobody saw my face. Things would work out okay as long as we kept a leash on Dennis.

At the door of the room, I turned to the girl and said, “Shooting that clerk really screwed with his head. Just give him the kid gloves, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. 

I put the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. The key fit fine, but it was like something was holding it in place, keeping the cylinder from turning. “Son of a bitch. What now?”

“What’s wrong?” Mattie asked.

“The god-damned key.”

I jiggled the key and it shifted a little. I thought I heard something move inside the room, but I wasn’t sure. Something like hurried footsteps. Mattie looked at me; she heard it, too. “Dennis?” she called softly. 

There was no answer, though, and the sound wasn’t repeated, so I twisted the key again. Finally, it gave with a small, metallic sound and the lock turned. Mattie flashed a sheepish grin. “Some night, huh?”

I opened the door, and gestured for Mattie to go ahead of me. The room was dark when I opened the door, but it was immediately lit up by an explosion of light and sound. Mattie screamed and fell backwards, the bag flying from her hand and blood spewing from her neck. Before I had a chance to understand what I was seeing, a giant fist punched me high on the side of the head and I joined her on the concrete curtain of the parking lot. 

“I won’t go!” Dennis screamed, his voice just barely audible over the sound of repeated gunshots. “You can’t take me! I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t my fault! I won’t go!”

I fell on my side, Mattie directly in front of me. As my vision went dim, she stopped thrashing and lay still. 

The sound of a hammer clicking on empty chambers and Dennis screaming began to fade out, like I was moving away from him, down a long padded hallway that absorbed all sound. 

I tried to push myself up, but my arms and legs ignored me as ice began to spread through my body. Every instinct I’d been ignoring for days was screaming at me again, mocking me now. A little voice in my head sneered, “Just a little twitchy.”

Then everything was black and quiet and none of it mattered anymore.

Brandon Barrows is the author of the novels BURN ME OUT, THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD, and NERVOSA, as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Find him on @BrandonBarrows and at

Monday, February 8, 2021

Beneath The Black Water, fiction by John Rector

Deputy Carson wiped the humidity from the inside of the windshield and squinted through the glass. The distant shapes were still a blur, so he rolled the window down and stuck his head out into the thick night air.

Swamp gas, he told himself, just swamp gas. 

He wanted to believe it was true, but he knew it wasn’t. The lights were not swamp gas, they were fires; a single file line of torches moving just beyond the trees, snaking deeper into the heart of the swamp.

The old man had been telling the truth. 

“Oh, Christ.” 

Carson glanced over at the shotgun in the passenger seat and thought about his next move. He didn’t want to go into the swamp. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the swamp, especially at night, but there was a code between lawmen, both past and present, and he’d given his word. 

But it couldn’t be true. It just couldn’t.

Carson never asked the old man what he did back when the marchers came through Mississippi, back when he’d worn his own deputy’s badge. He didn’t want to know because it didn’t matter. Those days were a long time gone, a different world than the one he’d been born into. If the old man was to answer for his actions, then so be it, but he would answer in the next life, not this one. 

That was the promise he’d made.

Carson looked over at the shotgun once again, and this time he picked it up and held it close. It was heavy, and the weight of it in his hands helped him find his legs. 

Slowly, he opened the door and stepped out into the dark.


The old man didn’t recognize all of them, but he remembered a few.

At least, he thought he did.

It’d been so many years.

He studied their faces as they walked, trying to place them. Most were unfamiliar, but others slipped into his memory like wisps of smoke, barely touching his mind before dissolving back into the dimness of the past. 

But he did remember the kid in front of him.

In truth, he’d never been able to forget him. 

He remembered the way the kid had smiled and laughed and sang all of those songs, over and over, so confident in his belief that the world was a fundamentally decent place. 

Of course, all that changed after Sheriff Tyler knocked one of his eyes loose with a ball-peen hammer, leaving it dangling against his black cheek like an overripe cherry. 

He remembered Sheriff Tyler laughing, and he remembered his own youthful laughter. The sound seemed to go on and on in his memory, like maybe it had back then, too. At least until Sheriff Tyler called for the wire cutters.

Then the screaming started.

But that was over fifty years ago. It couldn’t be the same kid, even if he had lived, which he hadn’t, he’d be old himself by now. 

It just wasn’t possible.

“Where are you taking me?”

The people around him kept moving, silent, weaving through the trees, their torches burning bright and blue.

The old man thought about Carson, wondering if he’d seen the torches. There were so many of them. He had to have seen them. Unless. . . 

Unless Carson forgot his promise.

He pushed the thought away. Carson wouldn’t forget. He was practically a son to him, and he wouldn’t back out, not after he’d finally made him believe.

And he had made him believe.

The old man remembered the look on Carson’s face after he told him the marchers had come back, that he’d seen them standing outside his window at night, staggered across the fog draped lawn, perfectly still, fading in and out with the moonlight.

It took a while, but eventually Carson believed him; he was sure of it.

So where was he?

The old man looked back over his shoulder in the direction of the road. There were no lights and no sounds other than the night bugs and the smooth crunch of his footsteps on dead plants. 

Carson was out there somewhere. 

He had to be.

They stopped in a clearing beside a mirror of calm black water and stood in a half circle, the torches burning a clean blue light, the old man in the middle. He knew this clearing, and now he understood why they’d brought him here. This was where it had ended for so many. Dead or alive, it didn’t matter. 

They all ended up in the water.

The old man looked out at the empty stillness of the swamp and remembered. 

Oh, sweet Christ.

For one terrifying moment, the old man thought he might break. He felt tears burn behind his eyes, and he blinked them back hard. Every part of him wanted to turn and run the opposite way, but he couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. 

Instead, he looked at the kid in front of him and smiled.    

“You ain’t gonna make me scream, boy. I promise you that.”

The kid didn’t say anything.

“Hear me, you God damned nigger. I ain’t gonna scream.”

The kid’s face showed nothing, and he didn’t look away.

The old man was about to say it again when he heard something large, impossibly large, slide through the water behind him. When he looked back, he felt his bladder release.

“I ain’t gonna scream,” he said, again, but this time his voice was soft, no louder than an evening prayer. “Jesus, Carson, where the hell are you?”

The old man felt several hands on his shoulders, grabbing his shirt, tearing the fabric away. He saw a quick flash of metal in the blue moonlight and felt a cold pain slice along his side, just below his ribs. He gasped as the blood flooded wet and warm down his side.

The hands pushed him toward the water.

The old man tried to fight, but his legs folded under him, and he dropped to the wet ground. The dirt beneath him felt slick and cold and rotted. 

Once again, something whispered through the water, and the old man moaned. He knew what was out there. They’d been there for as long as time, always waiting, always hungry. 

The hands lifted him, pushed him forward, into the water. 

The old man went under, and the shock of the cold sucked the breath from his lungs. He fought for air, and when he finally broke the surface, he shouted at the gray line of faces along the shore.

“I ain’t gonna scream. You won’t get that from me. You hear me?”

He didn’t know if they heard him or not, but in the end, it didn’t matter. In the end, there was only the water and the darkness and the timeless movement of things below. 

And in the end, he did scream.


The torches disappeared from view as soon as Deputy Carson entered the swamp. He followed his flashlight, weaving between cypress trees. Somewhere up ahead, he heard the old man’s voice, quiet at first, then shouting. 

Carson moved faster.

He saw the clearing beyond the trees. There was movement out there, and he lifted the shotgun. The old man stood on the edge of the water, alone, with his arms held out to either side. He yelled to him, but the old man didn’t turn. Instead, he stepped into the swamp.

Carson couldn’t believe it. 

The old man had lived out here his entire life. He knew better than to go into the swamp at night. It wasn’t safe. 

Night was when they fed. 

Carson pushed himself forward, moving toward the clearing. Every muscle in his body tight, ready to snap. As he got closer to the water, he fought the urge to turn away, desperate to not see what he knew was coming. 

When he reached the clearing, the old man spun back toward the shore and yelled, “I ain’t gonna scream. You won’t get that from me, you hear me?”

“For God’s sake,” Carson yelled. “Get the hell out of there!”

But it was too late. 

The water boiled up around the old man, and he went under. Several seconds passed, and then he surfaced one more time, made a noise that sounded to Carson like laughter, and then he was gone.

Carson crossed the clearing. By the time he reached the edge, the water was calm again. He shone his flashlight over the stumps of cypress trees breaking through the black surface like rotted teeth.

Countless small yellow eyes shone back.

Go in.

The voice shocked him, whispering from inside his head. Carson spun around, convinced that the words had come from somewhere behind him. He scanned the clearing with the flashlight, and for a moment he thought he saw…

Go in.

Something, ancient and dark, slid silently below the surface of the water. It was close, too close, and Carson jerked away from the edge, tripping and landing hard on the ground. He saw a shadow break the still surface, its yellow eyes seeing only him before slowly slipping back beneath the black water. 

Carson felt a scream build deep in his throat, and he fought to keep it there as he scrambled to his feet. Before he could turn and run, he saw them all. Dozens of pale gray faces scattered among the trees, watching him. 

He lifted the gun, squinting against the darkness. 

Shadows, he told himself. Only shadows.

Behind him, the sound of footsteps. He turned, swinging the gun from side to side, but there was no one. 

“Who’s there? Come out.”


Then a single voice, sharp and insistent, sang into his mind. 

We’ll wait.

Carson turned, searching for the source of the sound, hearing only his breathing, heavy and labored. He said, “Who the hell are you?”

This time the answer came in a chorus of voices. 

We are old, they said, and we are patient.

And then there were images, terrible images, forming behind his eyes. 

All we have is time. 

Carson squeezed his eyes shut, but the images kept coming, more and more vivid, climbing over each other, worming together in his mind. 

Because out here, under the water. . .

Carson heard himself scream as the chorus continued.

There is nothing but time.


Carson didn’t remember getting back to the truck and leaving the swamp. He didn’t remember the drive home or going inside and taking the bottle of Jim Beam from the cupboard above the refrigerator. He didn’t remember his wife asking where he’d been, and he didn’t remember going outside to the porch, leaning the shotgun against the railing, and watching the darkness along the eastern horizon, praying for the morning sun.

But he remembered the swamp, and he remembered the old man’s laughter. Except, it hadn’t been laughter. It couldn’t have been laughter.  

No, the old man had screamed.

Screaming made sense.

Carson took the cap off the bottle of Jim Beam and drank until his throat burned, then he set the bottle on the ground at his feet and picked up the shotgun, bracing the barrel under his chin, reaching for the trigger. 

Yes, screaming made sense.

In the end, screaming was the only thing that made sense.

John Rector is the bestselling author of THE GROVE, THE COLD KISS, ALREADY GONE, OUT OF THE BLACK, RUTHLESS, THE RIDGE, and BROKEN. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and won several awards including the International Thriller Award for his novella LOST THINGS.

He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.