Authors: Jillian Peery
Only seconds ago, I had slammed on the brakes too fast and jerked the steering wheel too hard. I had flipped the Coupe off the road and rolled clear down the ditch.
Erik had been in the middle of the road with the girl, perched on a black and silver motorcycle, blocking my way out. They were just sitting there in the rain—head turned sideways with their black shades in place
How did they catch up to me?
It didn’t matter now. I needed to get loose. I needed to get out of the car. I needed to run.
I pulled at the seat belt, throwing the weight of my body into it, until something snapped. I didn’t take time to see what had broken I just grabbed my bag and crawled my way out of the metal heap. My side was hurting now.
I took a step away from the car to look through the rain. I didn’t see them. I didn’t see anyone. I took another step away from the car and used my hands to shield my eyes from the rain. That’s when I saw them.
They were standing next to the motorcycle, studying the land. Fortunately for me, the ditches of Louisiana were too soft for any machine to drive through—that’s what caused the Coupe to slide so far away from the highway. They would have to catch me on foot.
I placed a hand on my side and began to stagger away. I looked over my shoulder to see them sliding down into the ditches.
I started to run. If I could just make it to the swamp, I would have a chance. I weaved through the high grass and inches of mud until I reached the edge of the woods. I clung to the first tree trunk in the path and squeezed it tight while I caught my breath. They were getting closer, but I was almost there.
A beam of moon cut through the branches of the trees and shone on the path before me. Faded green moss hung from the tree branches and swayed like dark tinsel on an eerie Christmas tree. The spongy land began to sink below my feet to form pools of algae-filled water. Each time I lifted my foot from the soft soil, suction from the mud would pull at my shoes. It didn’t take many steps before the mud had sucked them completely from my feet, but I kept moving.
Branches snapped in the blackness of the forest, followed by the sound of splashing water—they were near. I looked at the algae-blanketed water before me and then plunged forward into the floating greenery. The warm water quickly rose from my ankles to my chest as I waded through the marshy land. Through the trees I caught a small shimmer of light; a small shimmer of hope awaited me. Just a little bit further. I gritted my teeth as my bare feet slid across slippery surfaces at the bottom of the swamp. No telling what creatures or trash my feet were coming in contact with.
Whispers came from behind. I quietly veered off into a pile of floating shrubbery and sunk down into the water until my head poked just above the surface like a turtle. They were getting closer.
“Is she still out here?” the redhead questioned.
“Oh yes, she’s still here—I can smell her fear,” Erik said. “Check the borders of the swamp. She couldn’t have gone far.” His voice made my skin crawl.
Something in the shrubs moved, and I reacted with a sudden jerk in the water.
“Did you hear that?” The woman spoke again. “Give me your flashlight.”
I quietly waded out from the shrubbery as a beam of light skimmed the water’s surface. As the light neared, I took a deep breath and lowered my face underwater. I kept my eyes tightly shut to keep out the muggy water, but through my lids I saw the light pass over the surface. I held my breath as long as I could before resurfacing. A mutter and a crackle came from the muddy shore—they had moved down the edge of the swamp. There was no way I could get ahead of them on land now, but if I stayed in the water—I just might make it.
I waded out into the middle of the water, completely away from the shrub-lined edges. At this time of night, the snakes and alligators rested near the banks and the fallen cypress trees. As long as I kept my distance, they shouldn’t bother me. I just needed to push my way through the muck, to the shack. Fergus had already moved into the Swamp Tours shack—he would be there, and he would help me. I began to swim.
I heaved my weight out of the water and rolled my aching body onto the wooden deck. I laid flat on the rough surface while I steadied my breathing. It was a relief to be out of the dark water. I looked back to the bank—I could see the faint light from the flashlight still skimming the earth. I had maybe ten minutes before they would be here; I had a feeling they would thoroughly investigate the shack.
I crawled over to the old door of the shack and peeped in through the fogged window. Fergus was sitting by a small fire, reading, like always. I tapped on the glass.
“Fergus!” I lowered my voice a bit more, “Let me in—hurry.”
I saw a small twinkle in his eye as he hobbled from his quiet place by the fire to the door. As soon as the door cracked open, I slid in and grabbed his shoulders.
“I am so sorry I’ve put you in danger. I-I need your help, Fergus. I don’t know what to do.”
“You’re soaking wet, child. Are you all right?”
“No, I’m not.” I was still breathing heavy from the swim. “Alice is missing, and Erik and this woman, they were in the house. They took her, Fergus. I don’t know where, but they took her. And now they are after me—and I flipped the car, and they followed me. I don’t know what they want. I just kept running. I waded over here—but they are on their way. We have to go.” I paused, still frazzled from everything that had happened. “I know this must sound crazy, but you have to believe me—it’s not safe here.” Nothing I said made sense, even to me.
“I believe you. Just take a deep breath. Let me get a knife.”
“A knife? Did you not hear me?” I bent over slightly to calm my breathing. “We need to get out of here.”
“Everything will be okay. Let’s first take care of these leeches.”
“Leeches?” I immediately looked down to my feet. A slimy brown tube was wedged in the crease by my big toe. I glanced to my other foot—two more leeches were stuck to the top of my foot. I flinched and let out a gasp.
“Get them off. Get them off,” I begged while I slapped my hands at the top of my feet.
“Now calm down—if you slap them off, the leeches will regurgitate into the wound. We don’t want you to get an infection.” Fergus quickly shuffled over to the small kitchen part of the shack, grabbed a knife, and motioned for me to follow him to the table. “Sit, sit. We will take the airboat to town. Just let me get these suckers off your feet.”
I sat in the chair, eyeing the window, while he slid the knife under the anterior sucker of each leech. I cringed in disgust as he popped the squirmy worms from my skin. After the leeches were off and stomped dead, Fergus limped over to the cabinet in the corner of the room. He opened the lower cabinet drawers and grabbed a brown sack. In my peripheral vision, I saw his aged hand toss a set of rattling keys into the bag, along with something wrapped in a woolen cloth.
“What’s that?” I questioned.
“Something you will need—I will only be a minute. Grab the keys from the table and head for the boat. I’ll be right behind you.”
“All right, please hurry. They weren’t far behind me.”
I swiped the keys from the table’s wooden surface and flew through the door. My shoulders tensed as the old boards of the deck moaned and creaked with every step. The deck had spent centuries exposed to the harsh elements of Louisiana’s swamp waters, not to mention the countless times the deck had been used as breaks for the airboat—but it chose tonight to complain about it.
I looked over my shoulder to the woods. The light was closer. The minute Fergus had promised had already stretched to several. What was taking him so long? What was he packing? I struggled to stay calm.
Before I jumped into the boat, I tiptoed around to the fillet station that was connected to the side of the shack and swiped an old cutting knife. I leaned over the cutting board and peeked through the small, dusty window that still beamed light from the fire. I could see Fergus still limping around, collecting items in his brown bag. I lightly tapped the knife on the glass and gave him a nervous look. He nodded and then finally closed his bag.
I took long, quiet strides over to the edge of the deck and stepped onto the aluminum surface of the boat. I collapsed into the damp driver’s seat and tried to recover a sense of tranquility. The keys and the knife rattled together in my lap, while my right leg shook with anxiety. I kept my eyes glued to the deck, waiting for Fergus to round the side of the shack at any moment.
I glanced back to the wooded area—I couldn’t see the light anymore. A disturbing thought entered my head—it had been over ten minutes since I’d rolled onto the wooden deck. They could already be here lurking around the shack. Through the loud singing of the crickets and frogs, I heard the familiar moaning of the deck floor.
“Oh, Clara, Clara, Clara. Why are you making this difficult?”
My body tensed. They were here. I tried to contain my nerves as I watched two slender figures round the corner of the shack.
“Did you think you could outrun us? Or were you just wanting to play?” Erik questioned again. His shades were still on, but I could feel his eyes on me.
I carefully let the knife fall between my legs so that it was completely hidden. It was the closest thing I had to a weapon. It would have to do.
“What did you do with Alice?” I tried to sound strong, but the anxiety was clear in my voice. I was afraid of what their answer might be, but I had to know. I couldn’t lose my aunt; she was all I had—the only family I knew.
“We just had a little talk with her.” The redhead spoke with such a sweet tone, it almost sounded innocent.
“Tell me where she is!” I yelled.
“I don’t believe you are in a position to make demands,” he said.
“What do you want?” My lips trembled as I glared at the evil version of the Erik I thought I once knew.
“I told you I would come for you, did I not?”
“Why? I’m nobody. If you are doing this for money, you should know we don’t have any money.”
The redhead and Erik chuckled before he continued. “It’s not about money. We just need you.”
He stepped over the side of the boat and placed one hand on my shoulder and braced himself with the other on the back of the seat. I felt light-headed as soon as his fingers touched my skin.
“This doesn’t have to hurt—if you just cooperate,” he said.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow creeping toward the girl. Fergus. He was slowly making his way onto the deck with his cane in one hand and his bag in the other. I lowered my arms to my lap and discreetly slid the hidden knife under my hand.
In a split second, Fergus had knocked the redhead to her knees. I promptly turned the swivel chair and kicked with all my strength. My heel caught Erik straight in the chest. The air boat rocked from the movement, causing him to fall against its aluminum floor. He scrambled to grab the side to push himself from the floor. I stood from the chair and raised my leg for another kick. He caught my foot, pulling me down by his side. I struggled to get up from the floor. But he was too strong.
He pinned me against the side of the boat, pressing my sore side. I lashed at him with the knife, but it quickly flew from my hand to the deck. He pushed me harder against the boat, so that the aluminum cut into my back. His fingers latched around my throat in an unbreakable hold. My eyes darted to Fergus for help. But it was no use. The women had risen from the deck, and she stood between us—furious. And she had the knife now. My eyes began to water as I struggled for air. I was scared for Fergus. I was scared for myself.
Erik lifted me from the boat by my neck and flung me to the hard surface of the deck. He looked down, pleased by the pain he had caused.
This couldn’t be it for me, I thought. I was exhausted and still gasping for oxygen, but I was not ready to give up. I was not ready to die. Not by his hands, by his terms—not without a fight.
Fergus had knocked the knife from the woman’s hand; it was only a few feet from me now. If I stretched, I could reach it. I had to go for it.
I swung my leg as hard and as high as I could, jabbing it right between his legs. He dropped to the deck with a moan. I grabbed the fillet knife and forced the blade through the flesh of his hand. The knife drove down hard into the wood below it.
“You whore!” he yelled furiously as he grabbed at his hand.
A loud crack came from behind. I turned just in time to see the fiery redhead fly into the water, landing with a big splash. We were winning.
Fergus threw his cane and bag into the boat and then helped me over the side. We could hear Erik screaming from the deck as he pulled at the knife that joined his hand to the wood.
The propeller of the boat buzzed as soon as Fergus turned the key. The air from the blades drowned out the sound of the screams as we propelled away from the shack.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’ll be all right,” I replied while pulling my flying hair back. “I’m so sorry I brought you into all of this. Are you okay?”
“Yes, dear, I’m fine. But you needn’t apologize. We need to get you to the library. Things are much worse than I imagined.” He still spoke with the gentle voice that I knew and loved, but it was different somehow, more protective.