The Swamp Man

Steve Metcalf

 

There must be something more than falling in love with you.

You shock my brain and you wobble my leg.

Catch my demons and release their souls to die.

I try to tell you all my secrets; I shrug.

I open my mouth and all that comes out is mud.

I’d sell my soul, but the devil don’t want it, baby.

“Baby” Spank Rock

Chapter Three

MY LOVE FOR HER WAS ABSOLUTE. A thing of truth and beauty. Of purity. Of totality. But it didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Like all good love stories, it was doomed for failure. The list of cliches reads like answers in a multiple-choice question. Too much time spent together? Not enough? Individuality dies as a result of the couple? Trust issues? Infidelity? Addiction? Honestly, it could have even been a small instance. A thoughtless remark. Poor wording in an argument. Too much time spent talking to an ex. To a would-be competitor. No matter how it started, it spun out of control over the course of a year.

                The relationship was all over. Except for the crying and the anger.

                Unfortunately, her anger carried significant weight. And it seemed to grow exponentially. Clearly, I had done something wrong even though that particular detail might elude me now.

                While she hadn’t been a practicing witch at the start of the relationship, she sure was now. With some pretty frightening friends. I didn’t realize the full extent of the curse until much later when I could start piecing together the rules. I’m sure she didn’t know, entirely, what she was doing. She was flailing aimlessly. Mindlessly. Intent on the hurt. Unsure of the how.

                I forget the exact wording, but the spell was called something like The Curse of Unquenched Love. Some dread, of course, was lost in the translation. I was doomed to live beyond my years. This, I think, was to give me plenty of time to reflect on the shit person I had become. To change. To make amends. To atone for my sins.

                Whatever.

                I’m not sure what the original scope of the curse was, but it’s been going on for 637 years. I have now lived 15 lifetimes. Separate from my original one. Twenty generations, give or take. Some last a few years. Some last a few decades. I’m given no special powers or insight with each life. Just the same dude. My brain riding along in a different person’s body. Now, to her credit, I have learned much about myself. About the world. About relationships. I’m able to pick up on certain trends. Stocks. Whatever. I’ve also socked money away in various cities across the planet. In short. I don’t want for much in each life, I suppose, but, at this point, it’s simply become fun to spend the first couple years figuring out who I now am. Living the life I’ve inherited. Before the death happens, of course.

                Riley Vantch, however, looks to be young and healthy – apart from dying in the shadow of the wreckage – so this one might take some time.

                I make a mental note to get to that one temple in Nan Madol in the next few months. Ancient Micronesia. I know where there’s a gold box buried. It’s filled with, well, gold, that should finance Riley’s world quite nicely.

                But, first, I want to untangle some weirdness in this life before moving on to the next. Boots and Jones seem pretty formulaic. Now I have Tracy. A cryptic voicemail-text combo from something called York. And, now, this new name, Jackson.

                And the wreckage.

* *

I WOKE UP COLD AND CONFUSED. I had dreamed of Isabel again. It was the picnic dream. One of the happy times. But, in this dream, unlike reality, I knew what was coming. Half of me knew. The “under” half. The subconscious. I was having a pleasant time sitting under a shade tree on her father’s property eating bread and cheese. We were smiling and laughing. Discussing something. A sporting contest, perhaps. A feat of strength. The birth of a new cow on the farm. In the back of my head, I knew it would soon all come crumbling into the sea.

                Unable to articulate this concern, the environment decided to help me. Suddenly, the skies darkened, and thunder roared in the background, miles away.

                I looked at Isabel, my mouth open. She continued to smile even after the conversation stopped. She was looking at me, smiling, but with sorrow in her eyes. Another crack of thunder. A sudden smash of lightning. Finally, she spoke.

“You will have to earn it, you know,” she said.

                 I was confused. Half of me. No, the entire thing. Even the half of me that knew what was coming still didn’t know why it was coming.

“Earn what, Isabel?” I asked. “Your trust?”

Sadly, she shook her head, the smile never leaving her mouth … but the sorrow somehow intensifying in her eyes.

“No, my dear,” she said. “Not my trust. Not my love. Not even my forgiveness.”

                 Another explosion of thunder and lightning. Closer. Ominous. Rain started to fall lightly. I could smell the dirt around us, amplified by the rain.

“Then, what?”

“You must earn your own redemption,” Isabel said.

“I don’t know how,” I said, starting to cry, my tears mixing with the slowly intensifying rain. “Apology? A selfless act?”

Again, she shook her head.

                “I can’t tell you that,” she said, and stood. It was an effortless motion. One that couldn’t be replicated in real life with real gravity and real body parts and real joints and tendons. But, in the dream, it looked spectacular. And natural. Dreams have a way of reflecting life through a prism like that.

“Sorry,” she said and walked away, absorbed by a thunder crash.

                 It was then that I woke up shivering. I had somehow stripped the bed of all blankets and sheets. And pillows. I lay in the center of the naked bed, cold, breathing hard.

Crying.

I tapped the center of Riley’s phone to see the clock. I had only fallen asleep 20 minutes ago.

* *

“PETRICHOR,” I said aloud.

                I stood in Riley’s kitchen just after 11:30 at night drinking a small glass of milk. It had expired the day before. The milk, not the glass. Still tasted fine, though.

                “Petrichor. That’s the smell,” I said, attempting to steady the quiver in my right hand. I drained the milk and rinsed the empty glass in the small sink. “After a long period of dry weather, petrichor is the deep, Earthy smell of the ground, grass, treebark, whatever. The rain somehow unlocks it. Nature’s thank you.”

                I cracked my neck to the sides, splashed some cold water on my face from the milk-glass sink, and turned to head back to the bedroom to remake the bed. It was then, though, that I noticed the message light blinking on the kitchen phone. In my hurry to answer Jones’s call earlier in the day I must have somehow missed it. But there it was, clear as day. I have a message.

* *

THE BULK OF THE NIGHT WAS DREAMLESS. That is to say, I can’t remember any other dreams. I recall reading somewhere that we pretty much dream every night, but we simply cannot always remember them. That must have been the case. My dreamtime picnic with Isabel was clear as day, but the next seven hours passed in an uneventful, recuperative void.

                The next morning, I was up with the rising sun. Standing in the kitchen. My kitchen. Not Riley’s. In a pair of rumpled shorts and a sweaty t-shirt. Mine. I needed to start taking ownership of this life. It always began in the mind. No longer seeing things separately – making that mental distinction between me and Riley. It wasn’t Riley’s apartment. It was my apartment. I am now Riley. It was my murder wall.

                I stood in front of the stove making breakfast. There were enough ingredients in the fridge for some interesting scrambled eggs. Four eggs. Some shredded cheese. Mushrooms. Bacon bits. And a few slices of deli meat. Some turkey. Some ham. Looked like Riley had enjoyed sandwiches. I was frying everything up in a small pan when I remembered the looming voicemail.

              It was probably a telemarketer. Some scam. What was the new one? Something about your car’s extended warranty? In any event, I had enough time to check it. The phone was right there, after all. I dropped the temperature on the stovetop a few degrees lower and stepped to the corner of the kitchen counter.

              “Riley, this is York,” came the voice. “You might remember me as Little York. We met through Tracy at the coffee shop.” He paused, possibly to give me a chance to remember who he was. I looked at the eggs and waited for the firecracker memory. It didn’t come. “Anyway, I remembered something about Jackson I thought you should know. I wanted to touch base with you before doing anything else. Give me a call when you can.”

Beep.

                The message ended and I walked back to the stove, took the frying pan off the heating element and scraped everything into a bowl.

                That name again. Jackson. I took my cell phone off the counter. It was just after eight in the morning. I scrolled back through text messages. There were the three messages from York. Little York, apparently. In retrospect, they sounded fairly urgent. I got some information for you. Are you okay? It was an interesting leap of the train of thought. Why wouldn’t I be okay? Riley, at that time, I suppose. Why wouldn’t Riley be okay?

I tried to call him back, but it went straight to voicemail. No message. I would eat my breakfast and try back again.

* *

THE MURDER WALL was starting to come into some sort of focus. Maybe. A little. The center picture was of Tracy, her name written above it. I had the laptop computer turned on and facing me from the desktop. I held my cellphone in my right hand to look through any email, text or phone calls to fill in any blanks. I had a cup of coffee in my left hand. I picked a coffee K-Cup from Riley’s incredible stash. It smelled like some sort of caramel dessert, yet still tasted like coffee. Maybe that was some intentional design. Trick the nose into intensifying the flavor of the drink. There was a pen, a stack of notecards and a pile of thumbtacks on the desk.

                Still waiting for the firework extravaganza that would help clear up the rest of the Riley memories.

                I had called Little York back a second time, this time leaving a message.

                “Okay, Tracy,” I said to myself, taking a sip of coffee. “What can you tell me?”

                Tracy’s picture was the largest single item on the cork board. It was a black and white print job. Some sort of profile picture. Smiling. Above it was a newspaper clipping. Headline, same smiling picture – it must have been from a social networking site – and a small writeup describing her life and untimely death. She was a vivacious young woman who passed away in her early twenties. Plus, it was a small-town newspaper, so they needed inches.

                “Seriously?” I asked the murder wall. “Her name was Tracy Macy?”

                I smiled in spite of myself, the seriousness of the situation. I read the article quickly but there was nothing really there. Brief history of her brief life. At a work party at Dante’s Bar & Grill. Cardiac arrest. Services at such and such funeral home. She had died on the way home. In the designated driver’s vehicle. Someone named Teddy Hoffman.

                Below the clipping was a handwritten note on one of the 3x5 cards. Boots DD. I wasn’t sure exactly what the notation meant. But then, a firecracker.

                It was like watching a love story montage from a mid-90s movie. I recognized a young Riley and what could be a young Tracy Macy. Shorter hair. Braces. But huge smiles all around. There was no sound. Did memories usually include sound? Possibly. I don’t think it’s a rule, though.

                It seemed to be high school. Walking through kid-filled halls, lockers, bookbags. Classrooms. They were now at a football game, sitting in the stands. Sneaking quick kisses. Holding hands. Sharing a ratty old gray blanket. Some sports team’s logo. Is that an otter? Sharing popcorn. Young love. She was popular in a non-popular way. Cute, but not beautiful. Smart but not a genius. She was active, but never fit in with any cliques. On purpose, I think. She wanted to be friends with everyone rather than being tied into one group of kids. Jocks. Band. Cheerleaders. Whatever. Most guys found her attractive. I think even Boots and Jones made plays for her at some point. Boots even after we had broken up. But, I was the one who had won.

                The scene melted into a couple years later. They had broken up, but it was okay. It was a mutual decision, but no one was really happy about it. The best kind of compromise – everyone is wounded. They had both graduated high school and selected different colleges. For whatever reason. Maybe they got into different schools. Maybe they were pursuing careers that weren’t supported at the same institution. I’m sure the blanks would fill themselves in later.

                High school sweethearts. Broke up rather than try to maintain a long-distance relationship. Separated by four states is a big deal. Neither came from a wealthy home. Neither had a car. Shame.

                Riley, apparently, dated a couple girls during his stint at university. Nothing too grand. Looks like he went to a large state school. Ohio State, maybe? The picture isn’t all that clear. Seems like he was distracted. Okay grades. Graduated on time. Moved back to the hometown. Some level of tech admin at a local factory.

                So did Tracy.

                This was about two and a half years ago. They’ve been back together for just about 18 months.

                Well.

                Up until about a week ago. I took another sip of my non-dessert-flavored coffee.

                “Okay,” I said and went back to the board.

                Moving clockwise from the photo and newspaper clipping was a print-out of a text conversation between Tracy and Riley.

                “I didn’t know you could do that,” I shrugged.

                It was a short conversation. Only a few exchanges. Tracy was going to a small work get-together Monday night. Last Monday night. Appetizers and a couple drinks. She would come over after. Likely hungry. She wouldn’t be out too late because she had to work on Tuesday.

                “Katy’ll keep me out of trouble,” was the last thing Tracy ever said to Riley.

                Riley simply responded with a heart emoji.

                I took a sip of my coffee.

                Further to the right was a hand-written timeline of events. Different pens, different inks, clearly put together over the course of the week. There was nothing on the timeline to indicate any wrongdoing. At least nothing jumped out at me. Apparently, they spent the weekend together then went their separate ways for Sunday dinner. Work on Monday. Different companies. Work outing Monday night. Dead.

                Past that were a couple printed pictures, smaller than Tracy’s. Names written above them with the notations (mom) and (dad) to keep things clear.

                I continued to move around the face of the clock. At the six o’clock position, directly underneath the picture of Tracy, was a printed picture of the bar, Dante’s. Next to that was another text conversation. Looks like it was from earlier in the day. Just a couple lines. Tracy and Riley.

                Tracy: I think I forgot to take my blood pressure pills this morning.

                Riley: You still have emergency in your desk?

                Tracy: Yeah. I’ll take them. I’m sure it’ll be fine.

                Another sip of my coffee. Interesting. Doubled up on the heart pills. Had a heart attack after a couple drinks. Can you have a heart attack if your blood pressure drops too low? I wonder why Riley doesn’t have that note on the board. I put my coffee and phone down, made a note on a small card and tacked it up on the board under this conversation.

                The vertical of pictures running along the 9 o’clock position to the left of Tracy’s photo were smaller profile-style pictures of four people. Katy, who was mentioned in the earlier text message. Mary. Joan. Jackson.

                “Jackson,” I said aloud and squinted. Waited for the firecracker. Still nothing. Looks like this guy was a co-worker based on the positioning of the photo. Was he at the company party? What was his connection to Tracy? What was his connection to me? I made a couple more notes on two separate notecards and tacked them up. One about the comment Boots had made that he was shocked that I went to the wreckage with Jackson. One about York and his multitude of communication efforts.

                “Speak of the Devil and he shall appear,” I said to myself as I picked up my mug and drained the rest of my now-lukewarm coffee.

                Immediately to the left of the employee photos were two more photos. Half on the board and half off. They were clearly after-thoughts. Or, maybe, the most recent additions to the investigation.

                One was a photo of a coffee shop exterior. It was called “+COFFEE” and it looked to be a snap from a Yelp review or their website. Fairly nondescript. Below that was another printed profile picture. Written above it in Riley’s handwriting was “Little York.” There were lines connecting him to Jackson to Tracy.

                “Interesting.”

                And then the phone rang.

                “Right on time,” I said, turning from the murder wall and back to the kitchen phone.

**