by JAMES ELENS
The storm washed away the town on a Sunday. Moselle lay on the eastern end of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya swamp basin, fifty miles south of New Orleans. The whole town was only a dozen homes perched lined along a lone road, with a bait shop made from rotting wood and rusted sheet metal that occasionally drew visitors who came to see the swamps. These visitors were rare, and the locals preferred it that way. A census official once came to town and tried to survey the residents, and the local preacher pointed a shotgun in the man’s face and told him to take his briefcase and go back to Washington. The census wasn’t taken, and so nobody outside of the bayou knew much of anything about Moselle, Louisiana, nor cared to. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise, then, when nobody came to her rescue that Sunday night.
Before the storm came, Marcus and Kacy Reed lived with their father in an old home at the north end of the road surrounded by ancient oaks and flanked on one side by the green waters of the Atchafalaya. Marcus was fifteen years old and Kacy barely eight. Their mother had passed bringing Kacy into the world, and the father had raised them as best he could. When the waters rose that Sunday night, he rushed the boys up into the attic crawlspace and tried to remain strong. The air smelled of salt as the Gulf rushed through town and turned the road into a white-capped river. The boys watched the floor crack and splinter and collapse into the black current before their father could climb the ladder. He fell into the water and disappeared.
Kacy cried as the house moaned and creaked. Marcus pulled an old suit trunk over to them and emptied out the clothes. He pushed Kacy inside and ordered him to stay quiet. Kacy kept crying but he did as he was told. Lightning exploded outside and rain attacked the roof so loudly that Marcus had to scream so his brother could hear him.
“Cover your ears and close your eyes!” he told Kacy.
Kacy nodded and Marcus closed the trunk. Marcus kept his body pressed against that trunk all night and all night the storm bent and shook the house to its limits, but the walls held. The wind ripped holes in the roof and water splashed against Marcus’s legs. He kept his eyes closed and pretended it wasn’t real. He held the trunk so tightly that his palms bled as the metal latches cut against his skin. He and his brother stayed in the crawlspace all night, until the winds and rain passed just before dawn.
When light came again, Marcus tried to hear birds outside, but nothing made a sound. He looked up through one of the holes in the roof and saw sparse clouds tinged red by the morning sun. He opened the trunk and pulled Kacy out, and together they crawled through a hole and onto the roof. They stood side by side and looked over what remained of their town, Marcus in jeans and a torn yellow shirt and Kacy in stained khaki shorts and a thin white t-shirt. They were both soaked from head to toe, and the water shined against their brown skin in the early light. Marcus was tall for his age, with skinny shoulders and gangly adolescent limbs, but his little brother was stouter and his shirt failed to cover all of what their father had often called his “baby gut.”
The road and all other hard ground had disappeared, replaced by a brown sea that ebbed and flowed around the great cypress trees that stood tall with battered and splintered limbs. Every structure in town was gone except the remains of two other homes, stripped of their roofs and gutted like animals with their insides spilled into the muck, soiled sheets and ripped drapes half-submerged and clinging to boards and nails. A swing set stood alone in the newborn sea with its metal supports sticking up like rusted spires and links of chain swayed from the high bar with a soft squeal, the swing seats ripped away. The bruised home on which they stood was all that remained of Moselle, Louisiana. The morning sky stretched out above the swamp canopy as far as they could see.
“Hello!” Marcus called out. He watched the expanse for a few moments as his words drifted into the quiet, and no one answered him. He turned to Kacy. “We can’t stay here.”
“Where’s Daddy?” asked Kacy.
Marcus ignored him. He looked out over the swamp and tried to find any sign of other people. “There’s a boat over there,” he said. He pointed over at a sunken red pickup truck. A small seven-foot fishing dinghy sat in the truck bed and bobbed back and forth in a foot of water. It looked intact. Marcus approached the edge of the roof and searched for the best way to climb down.
“Where you going?” asked Kacy.
“You stay up here until I get that boat, you hear?”
Marcus turned around and stuck a finger in his brother’s face. “You shut up. We’ll look for him. You just do as I say.”
Kacy wrapped his arms around himself and looked down.
“Just stay here,” said Marcus. He went to the corner of the roof to a metal gutter that hung from the side of the house. He sat down and slowly lowered himself, gripping the gutter for support until it started to come apart. He looked down into the brown water and got wind of a faint scent of sewage, or something like it. He searched for an easier way down, but there was none. Taking a deep breath, he hung down from the roof as far as he could and let himself fall into the water.
The ground at the bottom still felt firm, though his toes brought up thick clumps of dirt as he took careful steps forward. The water came to just below his chest and he kept his arms above his head, afraid to touch whatever might be in the swamp with him. He waded all the way across the flooded road to the truck without stepping on anything sharp. He grabbed the latch to the truck bed and pulled it open, letting the water inside rush out and mix with the brown sea. He climbed into the truck bed and pressed the dinghy down to see if it was sturdy. It appeared to be. He got on one side and used all of his strength to tip it so the water went out, then he let it fall right-side up again. He stepped inside and sat down, and after a moment of searching the town from this new vantage point to see if he could find anyone, he used his hands to paddle his way out of the truck bed.
“I can get down, Marcus!” he heard Kacy shout. “I can get down okay by myself. See?”
Marcus turned around and saw Kacy hanging from the same gutter. Kacy’s feet dangled and kicked against the side of the house. Marcus paddled hard to get the dinghy into the flooded road.
“Kacy, no!” he shouted. “Dammit, get back up there!”
The gutter came apart and Kacy cried out and fell into the water. He went under for a moment but quickly came back up, spitting out brown water and trying hard to swim. “I can get over there,” he said. “I can do it.” He made it a few feet toward the dinghy, but he stopped and cried out.
“What’s wrong?” asked Marcus, still paddling with both hands.
Kacy cried and clenched his teeth.
“Dammit, I told you not to go in there!” said Marcus. He got to Kacy and wrapped his arms around his brother’s torso. The dinghy almost capsized as he pulled Kacy aboard, and when he got him inside he saw a bad cut on his little brother’s right foot. Blood spilled from the gash and pooled in the bottom of the boat.
“Dammit, Kacy,” said Marcus. He used his wet shirt sleeve to wipe blood from the wound but more kept coming. “Lord knows what’s down there. It’s dangerous. Take off your shirt.” Kacy sniffled as he removed the t-shirt. Marcus used it to wrap the wound as tightly as he could. “This’ll help,” he said. “This’ll help, I promise.” Kacy kept crying. Marcus slapped him on the head. “Stop crying! It’s your own damn fault!”
“I want Daddy,” Kacy muttered.
Marcus slapped him again and Kacy raised his hands to block the next blow. “Dammit, I said we’re gonna look for him!” said Marcus.
“Where is he?”
Marcus closed his eyes for a moment and breathed in, and then he took a look around them. They’d floated a little ways north up the flooded road and were now beside one of the gutted homes. Marcus looked at the massive hole in the side, and amongst the torn sheets and strewn house wares he spotted a hand sticking out from underneath a toppled dresser. It was a woman’s hand, with a gold wedding band wrapped around the slender ring finger. Mrs. Boudreaux lived in that house, with her fisherman husband and a little boy named Nathan who Kacy often played with.
“We just have to get away from here,” said Marcus, his voice hushed.
“We have to find Daddy,” said Kacy.
Marcus again looked at the motionless hand before the dinghy drifted too far and it slipped out of view. He wished he wanted to look for their father as badly as Kacy did, but he knew not to. He’d been at the top of the attic stairs when the floor gave way. He’d seen his father plunge in and disappear so quickly that he had to stare down into the violent waters for a long time to convince himself that what he’d seen was real.
“We have to head north,” he said. “Toward New Orleans. It’ll be better there. There’s lots of people. We can get some help.” Those words didn’t make complete sense to him, but he knew of nothing else to say.
“But we have to find Daddy.”
Marcus grabbed his brother’s chin so they could see each other eye to eye. “We’ll try and find him on our way outta here. If he ain’t here, then he sure enough went to New Orleans. He’ll be waiting for us, ok?”
Kacy squeezed the bloody shirt wrapped around his foot. “Daddy wouldn’t leave us,” he said, looking away from Marcus.
They drifted past a large stick that floated on the water and Marcus grabbed it. It was long enough to reach the bottom of the swamp and he was able to better paddle them forward by pushing the stick against the ground below.
“It ain’t safe here,” said Marcus. “Now don’t keep crying all the damn time, or I’ll smack you again. You hear?”
Kacy hugged his knees against his chest and nodded.
It took them until after midday to get three miles from town, and the waters were getting deeper. Fallen trees blocked the road north so Marcus had to navigate through the thick marsh forest. The stick no longer reached the bottom and he had to use his arms to paddle. They passed more of the green moss and thick patches of lilies atop the water that signaled the normal reaches of the marshes, the ones there before the storm had turned the entire region into endless water. They hadn’t encountered any other people, alive or otherwise, and as they drifted through the wilds there was no sign they ever would. The white shirt around Kacy’s foot had turned completely red. Marcus knew he should examine the foot as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, and Kacy never asked him to.
Marcus stopped rowing and slumped over, resting his head between his knees.
“Why we stopped?” asked Kacy.
“I’m tired,” said Marcus. “Damn lot of help you are, too.”
“I’m really thirsty,” said Kacy. He’d perched himself at the rear of the dinghy with his feet up against the sides so they wouldn’t be near the pool of dried blood at the bottom. Marcus’ weight on the front end kept the dinghy balanced.
“I told you to just drink the water,” said Marcus. “It ain’t so bad.”
“The water’s funny.”
“Well, we ain’t got nothing else.”
Kacy groaned and braced himself against the back of the dinghy so he could lean over and put his hand in the water.
Then Marcus saw something. As the burning orange of the afternoon sun seared the swamp, he saw a snaking rainbow of metallic color sitting on the water’s surface. The trail led to the north so far back that Marcus couldn’t see the end of it. The faint smell of something unnatural to the bayou stung his nostrils. “Kacy, don’t drink that!” he shouted. He reached over and grabbed Kacy’s hand and shook the water from it.
“I’m thirsty!” Kacy cried.
“You can’t drink this water. Look.” Marcus pointed to the oily trail.
“It smells funny,” said Kacy.
Marcus brought the rowing stick up from the water and smelled it. It smelled almost like gasoline, but stronger in a way that made the inside of his nose burn. No telling where it had come from. Maybe a wrecked ship. A leak at one of the giant refineries that dotted the horizon like smoke-spewing trees. “Yeah, it does smell funny,” Marcus agreed. He put the stick back down into the muck and pushed them forward. “We gotta find some good water.”
“Yeah, and medicine.” Marcus sat up straight in the dinghy and looked as far as he could in every direction. Nothing but swamp. “We gotta be close to some place.”
He gathered strength and paddled them onward. He used what he knew of the sun to keep them going in a general northward direction, but as the sun sank past its peak down toward the horizon he found it hard to locate through the trees, many of which were upright and intact but some of which were leaning and bent or taken down completely. He had to keep changing direction to avoid the old and new obstacles that filled the bayou, and he began to feel lost.
“I’m hungry,” said Kacy.
Marcus kept them moving. “Me too.”
A few hours later they reached a widened path that must have been a country road before the water overtook it. A pair of rusted and bent road signs stuck up from the water and Marcus paddled close to see what they said. The larger sign signaled ahead to a town called Mertha. He’d heard of it from neighbors, but had never been there. The other sign warned of an upcoming bridge, but there was still no dry land anywhere around them. Thankfully the water had long since become shallow enough to use the rowing stick.
“There’s a town up here,” said Marcus.
“Marcus, my foot really really hurts.”
Marcus glanced at the foot again and winced. He knew enough about infection to know that a cut like that was bad news. He really didn’t want to look at it, and since he had nothing to help it with anyway, he resolved himself not to. He was actually surprised by how little Kacy complained. His little brother mostly kept the pain to himself, and throughout the day Marcus had stopped here and there to find himself looking upon Kacy with a kind respect he had always been so reluctant to grant.
“We’ll find some medicine soon,” said Marcus, trying to sound confident.
“How far are we from New Orleans?”
“Not far,” Marcus lied. He figured they’d find someone long before they got that far. There had to be people somewhere. People with a boat. People with a phone. He rowed into a wide gap in the trees that must have been the main road into town. The top of a jeep peeked above the water, and a few telephone poles leered over the flooded roadway. Up ahead the forest gave way and the trees were sparse. He rowed past the exposed handlebars of a submerged motorcycle, past a procession of floating Sunday dresses with blue flower prints turned green and brown, past a hand-carved wooden signpost partially hidden by the dirty water.
“What’s that say?” asked Kacy.
Marcus had to row closer to read it. Spelled out in kitschy country letters was “Welcome to Mertha, Oasis of the Bayou!” Green mold clung to the wood, and past the sign around the edge of the forest, Marcus could now see the ruins of Mertha, Louisiana.
The boys ventured further past the trees and soon they could see at least twenty one-story homes flooded up to their shattered windows, their sides lashed as if by giant claws and their household items scattered about the surface of the water where they bobbed up and down like bathtub toys as a strong breeze blew in from the south. It had been a tiny town, no more than a few blocks wide, and in the center of the expanse stood an enormous oak tree with its limbs adorned by torn clothing and roof shingles and a pair of children’s bicycles that hung like macabre Christmas ornaments. The whole scene was so quiet. Marcus could only hear himself breathe.
“Is anyone here?” Kacy whispered.
“I don’t think so,” said Marcus.
As they passed one of the flooded homes, he saw a figure floating next to a backyard tree where a tire swing hung from a high branch. It was a large man, face down in the swamp, a rim of green algae outlining his body as it bounced gently against the side of the house. Farther back, behind the tree and visible through the hole in the tire swing, Marcus saw another, this one much smaller, her young face drained of color and staring up into the sky.
Marcus spun around to face his brother. “Kacy, you remember when we used to watch scary movies at Uncle Larry’s house? When the really scary parts came, I’d say ‘Turtle Time!’ You remember that? You’d pull your shirt over your head.”
Kacy had already seen them, and his eyes welled up.
“Turtle Time now, Kacy.”
“I don’t got a shirt.”
“Take mine,” said Marcus. He pulled off his own shirt and handed it to his brother. “Turtle Time, right now.”
Kacy grabbed the shirt and pulled it over his head and started to cry.
Marcus shoved the stick back down into the water and pushed them forward as hard as he could. He saw another body, this time an old man with long gray hair floating about his head like a halo. Marcus splashed water as he rowed them faster. He closed his eyes after he saw another one, a young redheaded woman with yellow skin who clung to piece of torn pink baby clothing. He rowed even faster, blind until he heard someone from up ahead.
“That someone over there?” called a gravelly voice.
Marcus opened his eyes and saw a raised wood house at the edge of the expanse, much higher than the other homes, with a foundation safely perched on wide stilts. Kacy maneuvered the shirt so he could peek out the collar, and together they found an old white man sitting on the porch with his legs hanging over the edge. The man had his head turned up a bit and he didn’t look at the boys, even as he spoke to them.
“Hey there, now, I said is someone over there?” he said.
“It’s just us two!” Marcus shouted, excited just to see somebody. Kacy kept quiet and continued peeking out from underneath the shirt. They floated closer to the raised home. The house seemed in decent shape except for a few holes in the roof and some bad cracks in the windows, but they might have been there before the storm. The man still didn’t look at them as they approached. He just sat there on the porch, wearing faded blue overalls and rocking up and down, smiling as he spoke.
“Two of you, huh?” he said. “Sound like a young’n.”
Marcus examined the man’s face. It was coated with coarse black and white facial hair, and his eyes were glazed over with cataracts. He wore a heavily weathered fishing hat with a wide brim. The hat cast a shadow over his face that made the milky whiteness of his eyes even more unnerving.
“Can you see anything, mister?” asked Marcus.
“Oh, no,” said the man. “But my ears still work alright, for an old-timer. I heard your little boat coming down the way. That one of them little plastic fishing boats?”
Marcus nodded, but then remembered that he needed to voice anything he wanted to say. “Yessir. We’ve been paddling our way up north all day.”
Kacy took the shirt off his head. He no longer seemed afraid.
“Where ya’ll from?” asked the man.
“Oh, that’s a nice little town,” said the man. “Good, decent folks. I was there, oh, maybe ‘bout nineteen ninety. Ain’t had much reason to travel since.”
“It’s not there no more,” said Marcus, trying to keep the emotion from his voice.
“No, I expect not,” said the man. “Lord come by and take it right from ya, didn’t he?”
Marcus said nothing.
“Well,” the man continued, “I can tell he did a good number on this place as well. I ain’t heard nothin’ since this morning.”
Marcus couldn’t manage to tell the old man what he’d seen of the town, though it seemed as though he somehow knew. “How’d you make it through?” he asked.
The man chuckled. “Lord saw me through one last storm, yes he did. They called me a fool for building my house so high. I used to build everything, back in the Army. Built them Quonset huts in my sleep. Got this place up with my own hands.”
Marcus noted again how well the house had held up, and he believed the old man’s story. “Please, sir,” he said. “We ain’t eaten anything all day, and the water’s gone bad.”
“Yes, I can smell it,” said the man. “If you boys like, I got me some crackers and a little water I put in a bucket when they said the storm was coming. They didn’t lie. I thought they was lyin’.”
“Yessir, we’d appreciate it. My little brother’s hurt bad. He cut himself. You got medicine?”
“Oh, no,” said the man. “Can’t say I believe in it. Tell the boy to get to prayin’. That’s what I been doin’ out here on this porch. All day.”
Marcus had to restrain himself at talk like that, but the man was offering them food and water. He brought the dinghy right up to the porch and gave Kacy the stick. “Can you use this? Make sure the boat don’t float away?”
Kacy nodded and carefully put the stick down into the swamp and kept a curious eye on the old man. Marcus hopped onto the porch, cautious to jump lightly so the dinghy wouldn’t rock too much. The old man sat there and kept on rocking up and down, the smile still there across his wrinkled hairy face. “Thank you, sir,” said Marcus. “You got a phone ‘round here by any chance?”
“Ain’t no phones anywhere ‘round here, boy,” the old man said. “Even I can tell that.”
“Well, could you tell me where to find those crackers and water?”
“Inside, by the sink. I’ve had all I need today.”
“What about tomorrow?” asked Marcus.
The old man was quiet for a moment and his blind eyes looked out over the expanse of his decimated town. He seemed peaceful. “I won’t be needing ‘em, boy,” he said, “Take ‘em. I don’t got nothing else, so don’t go rummagin’.” He turned his head toward Marcus. “I don’t suppose you gonna stay a while.”
“We gotta find help,” said Marcus. “My little brother’s getting sick and we need medicine.” He noticed Kacy watching him. “We need to find our daddy, too. We’re rowing up toward New Orleans.”
“Oh, that’s a bad town,” said the man. “Ain’t sorry I can’t join you.”
Marcus stood there for an awkward moment, then he went inside the house through the open front door. It was only a living room with a door to a tiny bedroom in back. The floor had been soaked in the storm and there were still puddles. Leaves lay scattered over the boards. There was a sink at the left side of the room next to a countertop and a large cupboard. Marcus found the bucket of water and a red tin filled with stale saltine crackers. He took a swig and stuffed a few of the crackers into his mouth. He chewed with selfish intensity, but then he thought of his brother outside and held back from eating more. Then he opened the pantry. He knew he shouldn’t, but he opened it all the same. There was nothing inside except for a few empty cans and a dirty mason jar. He opened the drawer below. Nothing there either. He closed the pantry as quietly as he could and he felt guilty for even looking in there without asking.
He brought the bucket and the crackers onto the front porch and saw Kacy sitting in the dinghy, still looking curiously at the man.
“Sorry I ain’t got anything more there in the cupboard,” said the man, his voice a little lower and a little less friendly.
Marcus tensed up and he closed his eyes, embarrassed. “I was just looking around,” he said. “Thought you might have missed something I could find for you.”
“That right?” said the old man. “Well, you got yourself a little water and something for your belly. I suppose you’re ready to get on your way.”
Marcus got back into the dinghy. He handed the bucket of water of Kacy, who grabbed it and took a long, desperate gulp. Marcus then handed him the cracker tin, and Kacy forced three of them into his mouth at once.
“Got some whiskey back in the bedroom,” said the man. “But you boys are too young for that, ain’t ya?”
“Yessir,” said Marcus, ashamed to look the man in the eyes even though he knew they couldn’t see him. “How much of this water and these crackers you want to keep for yourself?”
“None of it. I promised it to you boys, and you’ll be the ones to take it. Ain’t no room for dishonesty ‘round here.”
“What will you eat?” asked Marcus. “Told you, this water ain’t no good now.”
“Lord’ll take care of me as he sees fit,” said the man. He gestured out to the ruins of the town. “I can feel he up and took the rest of these folks. He just taking me a little slower is all. Ain’t my place to question it.”
Marcus looked above the trees at the reddening sky where dark and threatening clouds started to intrude over the fading sun. “It’s getting near dark, mister. Maybe we could stay here with you for tonight.”
“You boys best be getting’ on your way,” said the man. “That there should maybe get you close to New Orleans. Boys like you these days always wantin’ more, though. Always wantin’ more. I’d best be by my lonesome tonight.”
Marcus looked down and clenched his teeth. He stared out at the other homes, a couple of which rested on lower stilts and looked relatively unharmed. But the images of the bodies crashed back into his mind and he knew he couldn’t keep his brother here if they couldn’t stay with the old man. He took the stick from Kacy and shoved them away from the porch.
“We really appreciate all this, mister,” he said. “Say ‘thank you,’ Kacy.”
“Thank you,” said Kacy in a whisper.
“God be with you boys,” said the man. “I’ll just wait here. Wait for what comes.”
They left the old man there, rocking up and down on his porch. As Marcus rowed past the edge of town and up another wide swatch of flooded country road, he looked upon his brother. Kacy sat there with the shirt draped over his skinny shoulders and munched on a cracker and kept the bucket of water between his knees.
“Maybe those other houses had more food,” said Kacy.
“No,” said Marcus.
“How do you know?” asked Kacy.
“I just know. We’ll be alright. Just don’t pig out with those crackers. Save some for tomorrow.”
Seeing Kacy sitting there, in need of help but still fed for the night, Marcus didn’t feel guilty for rummaging through the man’s pantry. He didn’t feel guilty for trying to find more. The only thing he felt bad about was failing to find decent shelter for them as night approached. The clouds thickened in the evening sky, and the breezes became stronger and more frequent. He looked down the road as the daylight waned and he could see nothing but trees and leering telephone poles that pierced upwards like black stakes from the earth against the red horizon, the biggest of them crossed by a titled and branchless tree, a crucifix in shadow against the dying light.
The swamp came alive in the dark. A symphony of frogs and crickets and nocturnal birds combined to fill the air with harsh noise, and as another strong breeze rushed through the forest, the boys saw a flash of light briefly turn the water around them into a glassy white sea. Thunder followed the lightning, and it rumbled over the swamp like a deep growl. Kacy started to cry, but he tried to keep quiet.
“We’ll be alright,” said Marcus.
“The storm’s coming again,” Kacy whispered. Another flash of lightning let Marcus see his brother pulling the shirt back over his head. Mucus oozed from his nose as he choked back tears.
“It’s not the same storm,” said Marcus, though he wasn’t sure if he believed that. “It won’t be as bad. Just some rain, ok?”
“No,” said Kacy, his voice muffled by the shirt. “My foot really really hurts. It’s burning like fire.”
Marcus had steered them along the flooded road for as long as he could, but the road had ended amidst the dense forest and he let them float there at the dead end so that they got at least some of the moonlight that crept through the black clouds. He didn’t want to get deep into the forest at night. He could see nothing past the first line of trees at the edge of the flooded road, just a darkness that swallowed everything beyond. Another burst of lightning lit up the air, this one for longer than the others, and Marcus could see a pair of long dark forms floating atop the water no more than ten feet from their dinghy. Small eyes glowed in the brief light, two pairs of orbs hovering over the surface. Marcus held his breath for a few moments, and then another flash of light showed that the alligators had stopped, facing the dinghy but staying back. A soft rain began to come down as a much louder thunder ripped open the sky above them. Another flash, and he saw the creatures again, still floating there in silence. Marcus lost control and he began to cry.
Kacy heard him, and he peeked through the collar of the shirt to see Marcus sitting with his head in his lap and his hands clasped over the back of his neck. The lightning made his skin glisten as the rain came down on his back. The animals in the forest grew louder and they sounded desperate.
“I’m so sorry,” said Marcus. “I’m sorry I brought you out here.”
Kacy had seen Marcus cry only once, when their father had caught him taking the truck for a joy ride a year before. His father hadn’t whipped Marcus very hard, but he’d done it outside and some of the neighbors had seen from their porches and their front lawns. Marcus had cried from the shame, not the belt. Even Kacy had realized that, young as he was. Marcus had retreated to the room the boys shared and cried in his bed for an hour, his crying so intense that the pain behind it could only come from some place internal, some place that hit Marcus harder than any belt ever could. Marcus couldn’t stand shame.
“I have to tell you,” said Marcus, looking up at Kacy. “Daddy, he ain’t in New Orleans. He ain’t waiting for us.”
Kacy didn’t speak. He just kept staring at Marcus with the shirt wrapped around his head as the rain kept coming.
“He’s gone, Kacy. He’s gone and he ain’t coming back. It’s just us.” Marcus wiped some snot and water from below his nose. “It’s just us, little brother.”
Kacy looked down at his feet, but he didn’t join Marcus in crying. He sat in silence for a while and watched the rain pool in the bottom of the dinghy. “There’s water in the boat,” he said, his voice weak.
Marcus looked down and punched the side of the dinghy so hard that his fist bled into the swamp. He cursed as loud as he could and grabbed the bucket. With frantic strokes, he started scooping the water out, but the rain came down even harder and the pool kept refilling.
“I can help,” said Kacy.
“No, I can do it!” Marcus shouted. Lighting lit up the swamp again and he could see that the alligators had crept closer to the dinghy. Four of them now. They watched the boys with unblinking eyes and remained still when Marcus looked their way. He looked on the other side of the dinghy and saw three more close to the darkness of the forest’s edge. They lined up in front of a huge Cypress, a phalanx of eyes, backs and tails that shimmered when the lightning came again. “Turtle Time, Kacy,” Marcus said. “I promise I won’t let nothing bad happen to you. You hear me? I promise you. Just close your eyes.”
Kacy did as he was told.
Marcus scooped a couple more buckets of water from the dinghy and leaned over the edge toward one of the groups of alligators. “What do you all want?” he screamed. Kacy kept his eyes closed, and Marcus used his stick the beat the water violently. The creatures did not move. “What do you all want? Huh? There ain’t nothing here!” Thunder rolled over the swamp again and he continued striking the water with the stick. “Get outta here! Get the hell outta here!”
The tears streamed from his eyes and he dug the stick down into the muck below and pushed the dinghy forward. He pushed them away from the alligators, who all turned in unison to face the boys but didn’t chase them. They just watched. The lightning cracked again and Marcus looked back at a sea of eyes shining like diamonds in the dark. He scooped some more water, but as he threw it out he lost hold of the bucket and it landed between the boys and the waiting monsters. Marcus shouted. He tried to get to the bucket with the stick, but a rush of wind came through the trees and he lost hold of the stick as well. The water carried it out of reach, and Marcus tried to paddle after it but he couldn’t move the dinghy fast enough. The bucket and the stick floated over to the alligators, and Marcus didn’t dare go near them. He cried in panic and punched the water as the rain continued to fall. Kacy cried now as well and pressed the soaked shirt against his eyes. Thunder boomed, and Marcus brought his little brother toward him and hugged him tighter than he’d ever hugged anyone is his life. He let the water continue to pool at their feet and they drifted to the edge of the forest. The darkness beyond was impenetrable. More lightning lit up the low hanging branches and the great tree trunks that surrounded them, but between those lightning strikes he could see nothing. Marcus held Kacy and they cried together.
The water in the dinghy came up above their ankles, and Marcus thought about what he’d do to prevent the alligators from getting to his brother. He rubbed the back of Kacy’s head and brought their noses together. He wouldn’t let the creatures get them. He’d hold his brother under the water before that happened. That had to be better. He ran a hand over Kacy’s hair and prepared for the dinghy to sink.
“This tree is strong,” said Kacy with little fear left in his voice.
Marcus looked up and saw Kacy grasping against the trunk of a mighty cypress. Lightning lit up the air again and he could see thick branches rising upward toward the night sky, some snapped and twisted by the storm but most intact and sturdy. One intact limb sprawled out over the water just a few feet above their heads, and the joint where it met the trunk seemed wide enough that at least one of them could find a seat up above the swamp while the dinghy went down.
“You can go up,” said Kacy. “I’ll push you.”
Marcus shook his head. “I’ll push you up.”
Kacy wiped rain from his face. “It’s not too high.”
Marcus grabbed Kacy by the ears and looked him in the eyes. “You’re goin’ on up there,” he said. Thunder cracked the sky open above them. “When I push, this boat might sink. You go on up and you can try and pull me, ok?”
Tears came from Kacy’s eyes and joined the rain on his cheeks. “What if I’m not strong enough?”
Marcus nodded at his brother. “You’re strong enough.” He squatted down in the dinghy and wrapped his arms around Kacy’s waist, and once he felt he had some balance, he lifted his little brother in the air and groaned under the strain.
Kacy scrambled up onto the large branch and wrapped his arms around it so tightly that in the dark he appeared part of the tree. Marcus felt the dinghy sink underneath him and water rose to his shins. He glanced behind him. The diamond eyes in the dark water loomed maybe ten yards away. He heard splashes from within the forest.
“Kacy, you alright?”
Marcus clenched his feet. The swamp touched his knees. “I’m coming up,” he said. “I’ll try to get up myself.”
“I can pull you,” said Kacy.
Marcus looked up and saw Kacy reaching one arm out to him.
“Marcus, I can do it.”
Marcus nodded. He grabbed his little brother’s arm and jumped up as high as he could. He reached the branch with his other arm, just barely, and with that grip and his brother’s pull he managed to climb into the tree. He lay on the wide branch and made sure Kacy was closer to the trunk. He hugged his brother as the rain spilled from above. Marcus looked down and couldn’t see their dinghy anymore. They were stuck up there in the storm, but for the moment they appeared safe.
Then, as the brightest flash of lightning burned through the forest and the loudest clap of thunder shook the water underneath them, the rain stopped. For a moment, the wind died and the frogs held their tongues. For a moment, the swamp did not make a sound.
Marcus prayed. He’d always hated church and he’d grumbled when his father made him say bedtime prayers. But that night he prayed for hours.
They stayed awake in the tree all night, though Kacy dozed every now and then before Marcus nudged him so he didn’t fall into the water.
Then as dawn came, they heard the sound of a helicopter.
It started low and far away, but as Marcus gazed up into the light of morning, it grew louder and closer. Marcus craned his neck to get a better look through the cypress canopy. The whirring of the helicopter blades grew louder, and when the low-flying white aircraft flew over them, Marcus jolted up so quickly that his entire body shuddered in soreness.
Kacy rubbed his eyes and sat up. “It’s a chopper-copter!” he cried. He looked pale and his lips were turning purple. Marcus smelled something coming from the wound on his brother’s foot. He didn’t need to look at it. He just needed to get help. He couldn’t see any alligators, and the morning sun tinged the water with a sparkling orange hue that stretched all the way back down the path they’d taken to get this far.
“Come back!” Marcus shouted. His voice cracked. The sound of the helicopter faded. He almost fell out of the tree from exhaustion, but he remembered his brother, how he so rarely mentioned the pain, and he sat up straight and raised his arms in the air. He heard the helicopter getting closer again. He looked through the treetops and he saw it coming right toward them from the opposite direction as before. He waved his hands frantically in the air, and Kacy did the same.
“They gotta stop,” said Marcus. “They have to stop.” He shouted up at the helicopter as it passed right overhead. It slowed down near their tree, but as the brothers waved as visibly as they could, it left over the treetops and disappeared.
Marcus slumped over and put his face in his hands.
“Why didn’t they stop?” asked Kacy.
Marcus almost began to cry again, but he stopped himself. His little brother had seen him cry enough. He gripped the branch and looked hard at Kacy. “I’m gonna get us out of here myself,” he said. “Now, I know I ain’t Daddy, but I can…”
Kacy reached over and put a hand on top of Marcus’ head. He didn’t smile or make a sound. He just placed his hand there and let it stay for a moment. Marcus closed his eyes. He knew he didn’t need to talk anymore.
The sun rose higher and the heat draped over them. Marcus gazed out over the water and then back into the forest. He gazed up into the tangle of twisted branches above him, and he began to climb the tree. They would have to see him if he made it to the top. Kacy sat quietly on the large branch. The red cracker tin floated below, trapped amidst a bed of lily pads.
After Marcus made it a few branches up, they heard another sound. This time it wasn’t the rumbling whir of helicopter blades, but the strong grumble of an engine cutting through water. The boys both looked down the flooded road, but the shimmering glare atop the surface made it hard for them to see what was coming. After a few moments a boat appeared. It was a large craft with a raised metal steering perch and a flat deck where two men crouched. They both carried rifles, the long barrels rising over their heads.
“Don’t say nothin’ yet,” said Marcus. He made his way back down to Kacy. “Just keep quiet.”
“Who are they?”
“Don’t know. Just keep quiet.”
The boat kept coming toward them. Marcus saw a star on the hull, and he watched a tall man with black sunglasses standing in the steering perch raise something to his mouth.
“Hello there!” said a voice through a megaphone. “We’re the State Troopers.” The boat pulled up near the forest edge and shut its engine off. The men with the rifles slung the weapons over their shoulders and stood on top of the deck as a flock of egrets flew out from the forest. Marcus held Kacy’s hand, and Kacy squeezed back. The man with the megaphone waved. “Thank God you boys are alright. Can’t imagine how you made it out here. Don’t worry no more now.”
Marcus knew he should say something but he couldn’t. He closed his eyes for a moment and let the sun warm his face. He felt every bead of sweat on his body, and felt Kacy’s grip on his hand grow even tighter. He breathed in as much air as he could and opened his eyes, and he held out his free hand toward the boat as it drifted within reach.
A child of the Pacific, James was born in the Samoan Islands and still prefers to be near the ocean. He is a graduate of the University of Miami and the Creative Writing M.F.A. Program at Florida International University, where he served as editor of Gulf Stream Literary Magazine. His has appeared in journals including Fiction Southeast, Sliver ofStone, and the Florida Book Review. He currently writes and works as a visual media producer on the Florida Gulf Coast.