Gators | Mike Sutton | The Piltdown Review

Gators

Gators
Photograph from Bigstock. Photo manipulation by William Shunn.

“GATORS” is First Prize winner in our 2018 Fall/Winter Fiction Contest.

Got a call early this morning. John Goodroe, thirty-six, missing on Caddo Lake. Heard the report all the way in Ouachita Parish and couldn’t help myself. Drove a hundred miles cause I got a bone to pick with ole Goodroe. Family says he got something wrong with his ticker, some kind of condition. Left his medicine at home. Truth is, gators probably got him.

I haul ass north on 49, swerving through traffic with my blue lights cutting a path. I’m not worried. No matter what happens out there, no matter what we find, I’m gonna be fine. Simmons sits next to me, chattering as he does. A whole lot a noise, never a word worth hearing. I pull my Chevy into the grass.

“Careful,” Simmons says. “Too much rain here lately. Bound to get stuck.”

He’s right. We’d needed the rain, but I’m sure glad it’s gone. Ground is solid ’til it guzzles down a couple inches of rainwater. Ain’t nowhere for it to go, so it just sinks and loosens up that good earth. A dozen pickup trucks and police cruisers sit on either side of the gravel road leading to the lip of Caddo. A few flat bottoms are sitting on trailers but none are on the water. There’s no boat ramp, so I ain’t sure why they’re here where they’re not doing any good. Ain’t surprised though.

A circle of officers is gathered, the usual gagglefuck of men pointing, standing, and rattling on for no other reason than to hear their own voices. Bullshit. This is the place hard work comes to die, right in the middle of all their talking. I pull my ball cap down and squeeze it, tightening up that C curve as I get close.

“Didn’t figure you’d show.” Sergeant Davis is looking at me. “How’s the kids, Branson?”

“Fine, sir,” I say. He don’t care. Not one damn bit.

Sergeant Davis cuts the act, barks a few snappy orders while pointing, his chest puffing and straining the khaki buttons holding his gut in. I turn, damn happy to escape the bullshit. I’d find him, dead or alive. Didn’t need their help. Didn’t need any help at all. Got questions needing answers, and I’m aiming to get ’em if I can.

The air feels like soup; it’s thick, dripping with humidity. Fuck this shit, I think. Fuck it. That’s the bad part of rain in the summer. You want it, you pray for it. As soon as you get it, you savor a half hour of cool breezes, and then the sun comes back and turns it all to hell. You could drown in it if you weren’t careful. I feel like I’m drowning right now, like one of those cypress trees sticking up out of the water and clawing at the sky.

I take a deep gulp of wet air and push down the grassy slope. Simmons follows, his radio crackling. It’s slick, but I get down the incline without falling. First miracle of the day. I step into the thicket, pushing aside the hedges and the thorns as best I can. Get snagged. My right hand checks for my pocket­knife, the shiny one with INFIDEL written on the side. Just in case.

“Has a family I hear, and a baby on the way,” Simmons says. “No way to go, getting got by gators.”

“Ain’t dead,” I say. “Just lost out here on the lake. Probably got dark too quick.” Don’t know why I say it, it just comes out. My eyes are peeling back and forth as I swat at a skeeter and come up empty-handed.

“Been gone for two days,” Simmons says. “Gators got ’im. You know as well as I.”

Probably right, but I know Goodroe. Known him since we was kids out in the hills. Used to play together in woods like this. Got caught taking nips off his daddy’s whiskey once and I ain’t ever been whipped so hard in my life. His daddy had a mean streak and rough hands. Probably why Goodroe ran off after his momma died.

“You know him, dontcha?” Simmons asks, wiping his brow with a navy handkerchief.

“Once,” I say, rubbing my ass like the welts are fresh. “Grew up close.”

“That right?”

“Keep your eyes peeled,” I say.

We hack and slash our way through the thicket, deeper and deeper. It feels like we’re walking through Jurassic Park, like something ancient and lost. The air is thick and it ain’t just the rainwater. It’s musty, like a thousand years of leafy dry rot’s been festering since the beginning of time. Since Noah walked off the Ark. There’s skeeters whistling by like stealth fighters and a frog or two croaking out of tune. Life claws up everywhere.

The sun begins to set, somewhere out of sight. Trees loom overhead, too thick to see anything but specks of the sky. The heat loosens its grip as those slivers turn to purple, bluer every minute. The crickets are chirping now, joining the frogs in their nightly chorus, like the old folks at church on Sunday morning. It ain’t pretty, but it’s something. Better than quiet, I think. They’re probably singing about us. Telling us we don’t belong.

“Call it in, boys,” Sergeant Davis cracks over the handheld strapped to Simmons’s chest.

“Find him?” Simmons asks, always too quick to blow.

“No. Getting late. Ain’t safe. Need everybody back here ASAP.”

It’s cooler now and quieter. We can cover more ground. The job ain’t done, so I keep on pressing. Simmons doesn’t put up much of a fight. Never does. He’s too young. Too green. Fancies himself a hero ever since he saved a girl from a pond and made the front of the paper. I remember him standing there getting a big cardboard check from the Walmart downtown, smiling like he’d ended a war. Had a reputation to live up to.

We keep moving. As we get deeper, the shouts stop. No “Goodroe!” hollering for quite some time as we push through the thicket. The others must’ve fallen back, must have given up. Probably took Davis’s call on their knees, excited to go home and leave the dry rot behind. Not me.

“We oughta head back,” Simmons says. “Getting too dark. Might step on a gator.”

“Ain’t no gators in the woods, Simmons.”

“I seen ’em in the woods before.”

“Boy, ain’t no gators coming for you. They’s lazy. Ain’t gonna budge unless they’s real hungry.”

“I seen it online,” he says, like he’s quoting Scripture. “I’ll show you when we get outta here.”

If we get outta here, I think.

“I’m telling you, used to throw rocks at ’em back home,” I say. “Don’t hardly move unless you get real close.”

I think back to the lazy summer days that Goodroe and me would go tearing through the woods, barefoot and wild. We used to hunt gators sunbathing down by a lake half the size of Caddo. They were small, but mean all the same. We’d toss rocks at ’em and see who could peg one hard enough to make it move. They hardly ever moved. Too damn lazy.

“Ain’t he by the water?”

Simmons won’t let this go and I don’t care to answer.

“If he’s fishing, why the hell ain’t we on the water?” Simmons asks.

Hell if I know.

“They got men on the water too,” I say, remembering those boats on the roadside. Simmons stops talking, but he doesn’t believe it. I feel it.

I take a wad of Copenhagen Long Cut and pack it in my lower lip, sucking away at that wintergreen sweetness. An old Arizona Sweet Tea bottle sits empty in a cargo pocket, ready to take the leavings. It swishes and sways, filling up the pocket nice and tight and clanking my knife as it goes.

Something peaceful about being in the woods, being somewhere other than a roadside in that Chevy cruiser or the station. I’m tired of sitting behind the glass, but can’t do without the pay. Life’s hard. Ain’t cheap. Never enough.

We take a rest to stretch the legs and sit a while. Simmons is bitching about his calves being sore and the skeeter bites; his fat ass ain’t done this much work since he was a kid driving fence posts. It’s pitch black now and the night’s thick with noise, with life. It’s still hot and dripping. I get Simmons moving again and we keep trudging. Even I’m starting to question whether we’d done right, staying out here. It feels like we’ve crossed into something unknown, a place God spun together and forgot about.

Our flashlights cut through the dark. I catch a coon square in my beam, but it runs off. Catch a lizard too, sitting there and staring at me, trying to figure out why this big critter that don’t belong is fooling around in its pocket of the world. My eyes are getting heavy, but that light keeps going. Keeps cutting.

“Bout time,” Simmons says. He’s worn out. Been that way for a while.

“I reckon you’re right. A few minutes more.”

“Branson.”

“Man’s lost out here. Family’s worried sick back home. Don’t that mean nothing?”

“I got a family sitting back home too.”

The light traces here and there and finds a shred of red flannel.

I freeze.

A trail of scraps leads to a pair of boots, blue jeans, and a man slumped over against a tree trunk. He’s got a black beard that’s a bit too long and he’s tangled in thorns twisted round his left ankle. Don’t look like he used to, but that’s Goodroe. There’s dark blood caking one of his arms, soaking into the torn red flannel shirt. A small puddle of it collects along the tree trunk, inklike in the darkness. It looks almost like sap, oozing out of the tree itself. It ain’t. The roots drink it up, thirsty.

“Simmons,” I holler. “Simmons!”

I take a step, slowly. I can hear Simmons reacting, asking questions, and pushing through the hedge to reach me. The whole fuckin world hears Simmons coming through the hedge. My eyes are fixed on the red flannel shirt, at the boy I used to know that’s now a man. I’m stooping over him. I can’t tell if he’s breathing. Sure ain’t making any noises. I reach down.

“Johnny . . .”

Nothing.

“Johnny . . .” I nudge his shoulder.

A hand shoots up and latches onto my right arm, squeezing like a bear trap, threatening to tear it off. I yelp and fall backwards on my ass. Goodroe tries to stand, but he’s caught in them thorns. They slowly tear loose, but he can’t get up. Too wobbly. His legs go soft and he slumps down against the tree with a thud.

“What the fuck,” Simmons says.

“I ain’t going back,” Goodroe says; he’s gasping and coughing. “Ain’t going.” He melts against the tree trunk, his legs sprawling in all that tangle.

“Calm down now.” Simmons pants, he’s still in shock. Still taking it in. “We’re here to help.”

“Don’t need no help,” he says.

“The fuck you don’t. You been missing for days.”

The two men stare at each other, not a word, not a noise except for all that breathing.

A hoarse laugh punches through Goodroe’s mangled beard, muffled at first. He’s laughing. Honest to God, he’s sitting there laughing. It’s more a rasp, like a smoker struggling to breathe, but I can tell, it’s a laugh. He’s tickled, but I don’t have a clue why. Ain’t like the Johnny I knew.

“You don’t get it,” he says, shaking his head and looking at the ground.

“What?” Simmons says. “What don’t I get?”

“Came here for some peace . . .”

He takes a strained breath.

“Maybe I was hoping one of them gators’d get me.”

He’s crazy. I can smell it. Something ain’t sitting right.

“Johnny,” I say.

He quiets down when he hears his name. His eyes widen and I can see the wheels turn as familiarity takes hold. I can see him falling deeper and deeper into those eyes, back to when we was kids.

“Ain’t seen you in a coon’s age,” Goodroe whispers. “Timmy Branson done grown up.”

“Ain’t heard a word since you ran off from your old man.”

He sits quiet. Don’t deny it. Don’t even apologize for leaving his best friend to fend for himself on a July morning.

“Ain’t heard a word from you since.”

Still, nothing.

“You got a family,” I say. “Worried sick.”

“Is they? Where they at? They out here hunting for me?”

He knows the answer. He’s making a point. I ain’t getting paid to listen to his points, and I ain’t out here in the middle of nowhere to hear ’em neither.

“No sir,” the tangled man says. “Don’t give a damn about me.” He’s almost shaking. “They’s why I’m here. Man needs to breathe sometime.”

“What are you talking about?” I can feel something inside me bubbling to the surface, and it ain’t pretty.

“Take and take and take and don’t leave nothing.” He smiles. “Give ’em the sweat off my brow and everything I got. Ain’t never enough. No way to live. Came out here looking to find a little peace.”

He rattles on but I don’t have time for this. Ain’t gonna get the answers I came for and my patience is back in the Chevy.

“We got a job to do,” I say. “So listen close. We’re taking you back. If you’re aiming for some death mission, get yourself a gun and do it clean.” Simmons looks at me like he can’t believe his ears. Believe them, Simmons. Believe.

I lock eyes with the man that’s supposed to be John Goodroe, age thirty-six, two kids and a wife, lost. All I see is something broken. Something’s sprung loose in him, something deeper than flesh and bone. I can see it in his eyes. Can’t quite place it, but it’s there. Goodroe wipes his face and spits to the side like ain’t nobody watching.

“Fair enough,” Goodroe says. “Help me out of these stickers, would ya?”

Simmons steps forward, always too eager, reaches in his pocket and comes up empty.

“Got your pocket­knife, Branson?” he hollers.

I whip out my knife and pass it to Simmons.

“Careful with that,” I say. “Ain’t cheap.”

“Timmy Branson,” Goodroe says. “Always prepared, ain’t he?”

Simmons doesn’t respond, but starts hacking and slashing, freeing the man just a little bit more with each stroke. I don’t trust Goodroe. Don’t nobody change their mind that quick, but I’m tired and don’t have time to puzzle it out. Ain’t long ’til we’re moving again, headed in the direction we’d come. I’m walking ahead and Simmons is keeping an eye on Goodroe.

Went too deep. Way too deep, where we don’t belong. Can’t even get a radio signal out here. Nothing but static. Simmons and his goddamn mouth are running a marathon. He’s preaching at Goodroe with fire and brimstone, whipping him like a Sunday morning preacher in a fancy suit on the TV.

“The hell you thinking?” he says. “Coulda got yourself hurt.”

That’s what he wanted, dumbass.

“Don’t care about your kids?”

It’s quiet, except for all that chirping and croaking and Simmons’s yammering. Truth be told, it ain’t quiet at all. My head is pounding, and I’m ready for a cold one.

“You ever breathe?” I ask.

Simmons stares at me and doesn’t say a word more. I never called him on it, but something about his chattering has me hot today. Ain’t having it. Simmons’s flashlight burnt out about half an hour ago, so we’re down to mine. One sliver of light alone for miles. I’m cutting our narrow line through the marsh. A lifetime passes in the thick air as we hack and slash with heavy eyes and strokes. The grass is soggy and each step is a gamble. One step finally settles in water that swallows my leg up to the kneecap. I stretch the light out, fanning it right and left, and see nothing but still water ahead. We’ve hit the tip of Caddo. My boots are soaked through and my socks feel like sponges against my toes. I’m ready to get out of this hellhole, but my foot’s stuck.

The radio cracks for a moment, but nothing’s coming through. Just a few broken words, not one of ’em making any goddamn sense. Gotta be getting closer. Goodroe starts muttering to himself, like that radio flipped a switch somewhere inside. I can’t hear what he’s saying. Sounds like a drunk man rambling, but that ain’t surprising. Goodroe probably ain’t had food or water since he got out here. No sense in it. Simmons is antsy though; he’s fidgeting with the radio and not paying any mind to Goodroe, probably thinking about that pretty young thang waiting for him back home.

I turn back to the water and try to get a clear view of the night sky, searching for stars to point me home. Can’t see a thing. Too cloudy. I shift my leg, but it’s stuck deep in the mud and I topple down into the water, dropping the flashlight.

Motherfucker.

I’m choking and coughing, drinking the brown water in gulps. It tastes like dirt and burns its way up my nose. I can feel the grains in my teeth and running down the back of my throat, gritty like sand.

I pull loose and drag myself to the bank. My flashlight’s gone and so is Simmons. I hear the water splashing off of my back to the warm lake. I take a slow heavy step, another, and finally I’m back on land, sopping.

“Simmons,” I holler, coughing and spitting up the dirty water.

Nothing.

“Simmons. The fuck you at?”

I hear a dull thud, like someone’s punching a sack of flour, another, another. It sounds like the air’s getting sucked through a plastic sandwich bag with tight crisp pops. Then, nothing. There’s rustling in the tree limbs as something runs toward us. I think of gators. Got too close to the water. One must of got Simmons. He’d be screaming though. He’d be squealing like a pig. I can’t see a thing, not without my flashlight. I stand still, just listening. That running noise gets quieter. Ain’t running toward us. It’s running away.

I stumble over to where I hear a sucking sound, crackling in the black. The radio chirps for a few seconds and goes silent. I can’t see much, but I can make out a figure on the ground. It ain’t moving much. The khaki top and brown britches tell me exactly who it is. I rummage and reach in the darkness, feeling for the radio, feeling for something, anything. I find it, lift its black plastic to my lips and start hollering.

“Help!” I ain’t making no sense. “Help!” like they’re gonna know where we are. Like they’re gonna know what’s going on.

I’m the calm one. Always the calm one. I ain’t got a clue what to do. Just keep yelling ’til someone finds us. No way I can carry Simmons’s fat ass outta here. Ain’t no way. Probably gonna die, no matter what I do.

“What you hollering for?” a voice says, somewhere in the black.

I freeze.

“Ain’t nobody coming. Ain’t nobody gonna help.” It’s Goodroe. Can’t be anybody else.

I don’t say a word. Not sure what to do. Ain’t never been in this position. The voice is somewhere just ahead, a few yards maybe.

“Shoulda let me be. Shoulda let me finish what I started. Ain’t going back to Daddy’s. Done told you. Ain’t going back.”

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

“Needed some peace.”
“The fuck?” I say. “Your daddy’s been dead for twenty-five years, Johnny. Drank himself to death.”

Goodroe mumbles to himself, somewhere in the blackness.

“Why’d you have to stick him?” I demand, but there’s a quiver in my voice.
“Nice and quiet like a church mouse, ain’t he?”

It’s almost like the voice is coming from around back now, but I ain’t heard no movement. Ain’t heard nothing but my panting and his talking.

“You come out here to die,” I say, struggling for air. “Then go on. Die!”

“Ain’t like that now,” he says. “Needed some peace. Then, you come along bringing up old memories I ain’t wanting to remember.”

“What? You running off?”

“Didn’t run off on you,” he says.

“What you call it then? Up and leave. Never heard a word, not in twenty-five years. Not a damn word!”

“No choice,” he says. “Daddy’d kill me next.”

“What you talking about?”

“You know Daddy had mean hands,” he says. “They knew what he done . . .”

“Johnny,” I say to the blackness.

“Didn’t do a goddamn thing about it.”

I can’t find words. He ain’t listening either.

“Just left me there with him, knowing what he was. Ain’t murder if you scrub them fists raw.”

Quicklike, the man with the black beard lashes out and I feel a sharp cut rip my shirt open as I fall backwards. I’m lost for a moment, can’t process what’s happening. He stumbles toward me and falls on top, crushing me with his weight, slashing, gasping, grunting. He’s screaming too, a smoker’s rattle, echoes from the grim reaper himself. I can smell the stink on him. Sweat and assrot. I’m drowning in it.

I manage to get hold of his wrist. I’m stronger. Goodroe ain’t eaten in days, ain’t got the strength, but he’s got crazy coursing through every damn inch. I twist his arm, groaning and screaming as I give it everything I got. Ain’t holding nothing back. He drops the knife. I catch a flash of metal as it plops and sticks upright in the mud, blade slicing through the soggy earth like a spear. I see INFIDEL written down the side in worn letters.

“Shoulda let me be!” He’s laughing now, unhinged.

I get back on my feet and grab the knife. My head is wobbly now, almost like a rickety windmill.

“Do it,” he says. “Fuckin do it!” Laughing.

I ain’t giving him what he’s after. Gonna pay for what he’s done.

“Motherfuckin pissant pussy!” he hollers, trying to get a rise. I’ll give him a rise. It’s bubbling up and out of me now, busting to the surface. Can’t help it.

I kick him with everything I got, right in the jaw. I hope it kills him. He coughs, spits out something I can’t see in the dark, and goes to laughing again. I can’t help it, I keep kicking. His face. His gut. Anything and everything I can reach. I’m pounding him with my fists now, bringing ’em down like some animal, hollering and screaming as I swing. Just keeps laughing.

I stop, panting heavy and dripping. Ain’t just dirty ole lake water anymore. There’s blood. There’s sweat. There’s carnage painting every inch of me. I yank out a zip strip from my belt pocket, flip Goodroe belly down, and cuff his hands with the strip, cinching it tight. I can’t see ’em, but his motherfucking hands gonna be white as snow. I cinch up his ankles too, leaving him face down in the dirt. I check Simmons, but he ain’t moving. Probably already gone.

“He’d a killed me next,” Goodroe says.

I turn toward the voice in the darkness.

“Mean hands.”

“Yeah. Don’t mean you gotta leave your kids. Don’t mean you had to run off before your momma’s body was cold and leave me.”

His smoker’s rattle cuts the night.

“Ain’t about you,” he says. “For once, wanted it to be about me.”

“Here you are, running again.”

“Not like that,” he says. “Can’t breathe, just like Momma.”

“Not making sense, Johnny. Your daddy’s dead. He ain’t bothering anybody.”

“Daddy idn’t the problem,” he says as he coughs and spits a wad of blood. “Momma stuck around too long. She wisened up, but it was too damn late . . .”

Goodroe rolls on the ground, turning himself to face me with thrashes of his legs. I can see a glint of light in his eyes, sparks in death’s open maw.

“Ain’t making the same mistake she done . . . Ain’t waiting around long enough for them to choke the life out of me . . .”

I don’t wait to hear the rest. Heard enough. I start limping back the way we was headed from before it all went to hell. Gotta get to help. Gotta get backup. Radio still ain’t working. Nobody hollering.

I make it back to the road and climb that slick hill. Find Davis sitting there on the tailgate of his truck, sipping gas-station coffee. He drops it when he sees me coming. Ain’t long and he’s got a battalion of officers out on Caddo. We head back to where I remember it happening, as best as I can tell. This old place ain’t meant to be remembered. Almost like the ground changes every time you come cutting through, making sure nothing is the same. Trees look different and the muck’s all green in the sunlight. Nothing’s right. We fan out, hollering for Simmons. I know he’s dead. Gotta be. A man doesn’t lose that much blood and come out breathing. Can’t find nothing. No Goodroe. No Simmons. Nothing but puddles of blood where I’d left both of ’em. There’s a helluva lot. Couldn’t see it all in the dark.

Davis squats down, sticks a finger in a puddle, eyeballs it, takes a lick.

“Lord have mercy,” Davis says. “Gators must a got ’em.”  

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