The Swamp Man

Steve Metcalf

I know that everything we did will come around.

I take the thought of you and burn it to the ground.

Sometimes I’m waiting for this ice age to arrive.

Sometimes the hate in me is keeping me alive.

“Ice Age” How to Destroy Angels

Chapter One

FOR MY NEXT LIFE, I chose a young man in New Mexico. I suppose it wasn’t much of a choice as I only had a few minutes and a limited number of options. So, here we are. I awoke with a huge intake of air. A violent, enormous sound. I could sense myself coming back to life. Slowly. My internal organs felt like they were performing a complex dance. I had taken to calling it “rearranging the furniture.” The feeling of incredible weirdness slowly dissolved into the background.

                Eventually.

                I took in my surroundings and first noticed a brilliant blue sky overhead. And sunlight, even though I was cold. I was lying on my right side with a slightly obstructed view of my world. Obstructed by a large beige rock and a scrub cactus. The cactus was beautiful. Shocking, actually. It was a tiny thing, maybe only a foot tall, and looked something like a green oven mitt that had been flattened and stiffened. Using the green mitten as an avatar, the ground was reaching up and waving hello. Spiny protrusions all around it with some orange highlights and tiny, little flowers. I had never been to the desert. At least not that I could recall. And I was used to seeing the big stereotypical cacti in movies, shows and paintings. Cylindrical. Tall as a person. Two arms, each curving out away from the body for a short distance and then climbing upward as if some gangster had just sneered at the plant to reach for the sky. This, however, was nothing like that.

                My breathing was returning to normal. Deep ins. Deep outs. No more ragged coughing. No more hitches in the intake.

                I allowed my eyes to focus past the rock and scrub.

                It was an airplane. At least the wreckage of one. It was hard to gain any sense of size or scope as I was lying pretty close to it. But I could immediately see the destroyed wing, caved-in sections of the fuselage, and, if I moved my head just slightly, the tattered remains of the forward cabin. From this position, I couldn’t tell if it was caved in or simply missing. Missing, probably.

                It looked like the paint had long ago evaporated off the rusting hulk. Or, perhaps, this was how it had always been. The gun-metal gray, metallic finish. Some sort of retro aesthetic, I supposed. There was a splash of color near the tail section. A thick white stripe with thin blue accents. Fragments of what could have been the letter D and the number 13. And then something that could have been the name of the airline. Or the name of the airplane. Do they name airplanes like they do ships? I don’t think so. Probably not. My brain was still a little fuzzy from the transfer. This stage was generally purely observational.

                With another cough, I brought my knees up toward my chest and rolled from my side to my front to gain some sort of leverage. This was often the worst part. Standing up for the first time. I immediately thought back to London and tried to whisk the memory away as soon as it appeared. It was a horrible memory. An enemy of the mind. The laugh of the devil.

                Another cough and I was on my feet swaying slightly. I closed my eyes and tried to still both my breathing and the heartbeat that was pounding away at the inside of my ribcage. It felt like an overcharged organic machine that was too large for the confined space or too small for the job. In either event, the machine was fighting against its own constraints – imagined or not – to successfully perform a Herculean task.

                Life.

 From death.

                In small sections, I regained my balance and opened my eyes. Again, concentrating on slowing my breathing and relaxing my heartbeat, I looked at the ground around my feet. A backpack. A pair of sunglasses. An empty bottle of water. I slowly bent to retrieve these items. Sunglasses on my head. Backpack over my shoulder. Finally, I grabbed the bottle of water. It was empty, but the plastic was still cool. Not wanting to be a litterbug, I picked it up and dumped it into the backpack – the other contents of which I’d explore later.

                Starting at the bottom – I was wearing canvas boots with thick rubber soles. Cargo pants with several of the four-dozen pockets containing, well, something. And a thin Columbia-brand jacket over a t-shirt. The jacket was likely there to protect me from devastating sunlight and blowing sand. Although, I recall reading something about the desert getting cold at night. Was I here overnight? Was I planning to stay here through the upcoming night?

                It was still daylight, but I shivered standing in the shadow of the airplane wreckage. The ruin could have stood there for four years or four decades. It was impossible to tell at first glance. I could see small pieces of the wreckage that had fallen off the plane only to come to rest on the thick, sandy floor of the basin I now stood in.

                “Damn,” I said to myself. That thing was huge. Few people get the chance to stand up close to a passenger airliner. For the most part, people only see them in person from the windows of an airport terminal. They board through a long, metal tunnel. They are too busy trying to find their seat and don’t have time to recognize just how big the structure is. I couldn’t begin to guess what make and model this was. Most of the front was destroyed. The tail section was missing. Only a quarter of the wing on my side was intact. It was sheared off just past the engine. From stem to stern, the whole thing looked to be about 200 feet long. And it was a complete ruin. “Damn,” I said again.

* *

AVERAGE HEIGHT. Average weight. Nothing important in the pockets. A tiny wallet with a money clip on the side. Seventeen dollars. Two credit cards. A driver’s license. Name. Address. It didn’t take long to find the car.

                During the walk, though, I felt a lump in a thigh pocket that could only be a cell phone. Curious, I tore the lip of the pouch open. The ripping Velcro fasteners made a satisfying sound in the still desert air.

                No password lock.

                Notifications on the main screen. Three text messages and two missed phone calls. One from a contacted simply called “York.” This individual had left a voicemail. Nothing from the other caller known only as “Unknown.” The three text messages were all from the same York.

                Give me a call when you get a chance. Found out something you should know. Like. Now.

                Hey, man. Call me.

                Are you okay?

                I played the voicemail on speaker and it was basically the same as the first text message with a “Yo, it’s York” at the front. I exited the phone menu and held the device in my left hand – right hand searching my pants pockets for car keys. Found them and clicked the unlock button on the fob.

                “Not bad,” I said to the car. It was something relatively new. One of those remodeled, reimagined, revised Ford Broncos. Some type of grey. I started it up, activated the GPS navigation unit and found an entry that said Home. “Pitter patter,” I said aloud, not recognizing the sound of my own voice, and then finished the phrase in my head. Let’s get at ‘er.

* *

THE GPS NAVIGATION VOICE has a tough time being helpful when you’re that far off the beaten path.

                “Please proceed to the route,” she said. Very polite. Not helpful.

                The wreckage looked to be just more than a mile from anything significant. I found the “minus” sign on the navigation map and hit it a bunch of times to see where the road actually was. Apparently, I had turned the Bronco and parked facing in the correct way. Way to go, me. I would need to drive forward about a mile and a half before hitting the route.

                “Please proceed to the route,” she said again.

                “Yes,” I said, clearing my throat. “Thank you. I am.”

 I hit the road and turned left.

                 I spent the drive home running through what I knew. In these situations, it was important to try to come to terms with the cause of death. Somehow it clarified the issue. Removed some fog. Made cognition easier. Somehow. I was never sure of the logic behind it. It was a lesson learned over the course of 15 lifetimes. I turned off the radio. Closed the windows. Turned the AC up one notch higher. The GPS lady was keeping me informed of the distance traveled as well as the anticipated arrival time. I still had three quarters of a tank of gas in the car, so I knew it wouldn’t take long.

                “I woke up in the desert,” I recalled aloud to myself. “Next to the wreckage of a huge passenger airplane. The plane had been there for decades, so that’s out. It wasn’t dehydration. No physical indication. Gunshot? Blade? No blood on the clothing. Snakebit, perhaps?”

                I held the steering wheel with my left hand and started feeling around my clothing for any punctures or tears. Nothing. I shrugged.

                “I suppose it could have been exposed skin.”

                Absently, I touched my face, throat and neck. I knew that any damage would have healed as I woke up. A gift from the witch. I shrugged again, finding nothing. I put my right hand back on the steering wheel. The 2 o’clock position.

                “I suppose it could have been natural causes. Bad heart. Organ failure. Sepsis. Brain hemorrhage. Could be a pure coincidence that I was in the desert.”

                I drove on silently. It was a long, straight road. Desert as far as the eye could see. The shadow of buildings in the distance. Looks like I was breaching the extreme outskirts of the town. I had come about 90 miles. A pretty fuel-efficient vehicle.

                “Must have been a bad heart,” I said to the car’s interior and turned the radio back on.

* *

APPARENTLY, I LIVED IN AN APARTMENT. Unit D, according to the license. The middle floor of a three-floor building. Corner unit. It was a small brass key on the Bronco’s fob. Same key worked both the deadbolt and the door handle.

 “Convenient,” I said to myself.

                  The front door revealed a short hallway. Opening on the right led to a galley-style kitchen. Old appliances. Vinyl flooring. Opening on the left was another hallway. Bedroom on the left, bedroom on the right, bathroom at the extreme end. The original hallway continued straight into the living room. Old couch, chair, entertainment center. Sliding glass doors with a view of the courtyard pool.

                “Not bad,” I said for the second time since waking up.

                The apartment was nice and cool. Ceiling fan in the living room was on pushing some air around. I walked down the branch hallway. Bedroom on the right looked like it was mine. In use. Bed. Not made. A pair of shorts and t-shirt tossed on the floor. Likely last night’s sleepwear. I slid off my thin jacket and added it to the pile. I was wearing a black t-shirt with a logo on the chest I didn’t recognize. Nice material, though. Some sort of moisture-wicking thing.

                The second bedroom, though.

                “What the hell?”

                While they weren’t my main course, I have watched enough popular entertainment to know what this was. Shows of killers, police work, detectives, governments hunting down serial killers. It was, as they say on the television, a murder wall.

* *

ONE WALL OF THE BEDROOM was nearly covered by mirrored sliding doors for the closet. Another wall contained the door and a mid-sized flat panel television. The third wall contained a black barrel chair, small magazine rack and a window above it. The fourth wall had a small writing desk. This wall, however, was dominated by a wooden workstation. It was a huge – almost six feet by six feet – corkboard built on two legs. It looked like there were pegs on the ends, suggesting that the entire thing spun along the horizontal axis … becoming two boards, back-to-back. It was called a murder wall because the investigator could make notes, pin photos and create paths that connect people or events during a homicide investigation if popular media was to be believed. I had no idea if this was how the real police operated. At the center of the collection, though, was a photo of a young woman. In general, this position of authority was reserved for the victim. The murder victim.

                “And who are you?” I asked the board, stepping further into the second bedroom, made up more like an office-slash-den.

                She was pretty, but still sort of average. The prototypical girl next door. I walked a bit closer and eventually stood at the center of the board, directly in front of the photo. There were strings of colored yarn pulled this way and that across the murder wall. Connecting this young lady, Tracy, according to the handwriting above the printed photo, to other pieces of data. A screen-grab of a text conversation. A calendar with handwritten notes filled in. Photos of other people, some male some female.

                “Clearly, you were looking for something,” I said to myself. “Are you missing? Dead? Object of a stalker’s devastating obsession?”

                The memories were slowly starting to filter in. It was always a tough thing, these first few days, because the brain is two people at the same time. Two sets of memories. Two sets of thought processes. Clearly, I’m me, but I’m also taking over this guy’s life. Like I’ve taken over his car. His apartment. And, it seems, some sort of investigation.

                But the memories were starting to help.

                It’s almost impossible to explain. The witch’s curse. I think this was the crux of it. This dissonance. This dichotomy. If she was trying to teach me a lesson, it was lost more than 600 years ago. I’m still me. Whoever that is. I still have the memories, but my original name has been lost to antiquity. But I’m also this guy. According to my driver’s license, Riley Vantch.

                My memories still take precedence, but I have access to young Riley’s memories, too. It just takes a little time to access them. It’s something like – well, say your favorite television show went on for twenty seasons. You’ve seen every episode a few times. You can quote bits of dialogue and you remember that this one actor played three different bit characters during the run of the show. Now, sometimes, it takes a bit of effort to remember an episode’s name. There’s a bit of lag. But you’ll get there. That’s what it’s like for me to access Riley’s memories. They’re in there. But there’s a lag. That’s why, when the phone rang in Riley’s apartment, it took me a moment to remember where the hell it was.

                Forgetting the fact that Riley was old-school enough to maintain both a landline and a cell phone.

                I continued looking at Tracy’s photo and on the second ring, turned and walked out of the little bedroom office. I found the phone, a gray cordless job, resting in its charging cradle in the kitchen, next to the tiny dining room with a café table against the window that also looked out over the courtyard pool.

                “Of course,” I said noticing there was no caller ID. If Riley was still around, I’d slap him.

                “Hullo,” I said, picking up the phone and hitting the talk button.

                I didn’t immediately recognize the voice coming over the airwaves, but I knew I’d get there eventually.

                “Hey, man,” came the voice. “I didn’t know if you’d get cell reception out there, so I was going to leave you a voicemail. Home and cell. You guys are back already?”

                “Uh, yeah, um Jones,” the name hit me like a ton of bricks. Some memories faded into the foreground while some went off like a firecracker. “Cut it a bit short. What’s up?”

                “Cool, cool. We’re meeting at Melter’s at 7:30. Dinner. You still in?”

                “Yeah, yeah. 7:30. I’ll be there,” I said.

                “Sweet,” and then the line went dead. I turned off the handset and placed it back in the cradle. It suddenly bothered me that memories of Tracy weren’t coming back yet. She seemed to be integral to the story. Also, what the hell was I doing in the desert?

**