The Swamp Man

Steve Metcalf

 

So many times I’ve seen my shadow hovering over that sweetness I know.

When all of a sudden, I’ve needs from below. Who’s there for me now? I’m hungering. Calling out for love.

Take that snowflake, you can’t do it right. I know what I want and I’m not too proud to shout.

Hit that road if you can’t put it right. I know what I want, I want off this roundabout.

“Snowflake” Malachai

 

Epilogue

THE VICTORY FELT NICE, but it was short-lived. The very next day, I started feeling a little tired. Not physically. Mentally. Just drained. The excitement of the curse’s HOW or WHY had started to wear off. I had come to enjoy figuring out who I was. Why I was. Where I was. Shortly after Detective Jonesey carted Teddy Boots off to dump him into the legal system, the entirety of the Riley Show opened up to me.

                The floodgates of memory simply opened. I actually had to sit down in the second bedroom-slash-office-slash-murder investigation for a moment. Eyes closed. Head in hands. Letting the memories of the new life wash over me only to be organized by my own brain. Compartmentalized. Filed away.

                Yes. Riley had assumed there was something going on with Jackson. Bolstered by the stories from Katy, his own observations, and hints from York that drugs were somehow involved, he had started the murder wall. He didn’t include Jones for fear of receiving a stern talking-to by an officer of the law. Boots, however, was happy to help every step of the way.

                It was the conversation with Little York’s coffee buddy Jared that slotted things into place. Riley had gone looking for York shortly after the ceremony, but he was off that day. But, working at +COFFEE was Jared. He had passed along the note about the roofies even before he had shared the info with Little York. Jackson was buying them from Boots.

Boots had a thing for Tracy.

Boots was supposed to drive her home from the office party.

Boots was going to dose her and take advantage of her.

                She died accidentally. But Riley found out what had caused it. It was Boots who suggested a meeting at the clandestine location. The Wreckage. But then he had told people that Riley went to meet with Jackson. That way, Riley’s death would be blamed on Jackson. A known sleaze with no alibi.

Boots had overpowered Riley and poured the rat-poisoned water down his throat. Killing him. Then, he sped away.

Before I showed up.

* *

AND HERE WE ARE.

                I finally made it to the part where I knew for certain what Riley did for a living. Not just in broad strokes. Tracked down the boss’s email and told her I’d not be coming in this week. I had expected some sort of push-back, but none came. Small-town life, I guess. Everyone knew about the long-term relationship between Riley Vantch and Tracy Macy. High school sweethearts. Reunited after college. Soon to be married. Beth was happy to give me a week off. I started mapping out my future. The closest fortune I had buried. Or, maybe not the closest, but the coolest.

                “Wat Samphran Temple,” I said aloud to my balcony. “Khlong Mai, Thailand.”

                It was a 17-story circular temple that was built in Southeast Asia. It was constructed with the sculpture of a huge serpent winding its way up the building. It had the head of a dragon, hence the name. No one knew why. Well, I did. I knew why it was built that way. And I knew exactly where a bag heavy with gems was hidden deep inside a false wall. According to the internet, it had never been located. I guess there was only one way to find out. Literally.

                I sat on the balcony of my apartment overlooking the pool. It was a cool afternoon. Sunny, but windy. None of the residents were swimming. It was late afternoon on a Monday, and I was sipping a beer.

                I smiled.

                “The Dragon Temple, huh,” came a voice from my living room.

                The sliding door was open, but the screen was closed. Startled, I turned to face the voice. She slid the screen open and walked out, holding her own beer from Riley’s fridge. My fridge.

                She was a little taller than average. An inch or two taller than Riley. Dark hair that would have normally cascaded past her shoulders was pulled into a neat ponytail. She wore gray slacks and a striking red bouse. No makeup other than lipstick. She slid a pair of sunglasses out of the neck of her blouse and clicked them open to put on her face. She smiled down at me.

                “Isabel,” I said.

                “First guess,” she said, sliding the second balcony chair into a better position near me. “How are you, Victor? Or should I say Riley?”

                The name shot through me like an electrical shock. Victor. My original name. I had completely forgotten it. Possibly purposely. Trying to burn my original life out of my memory. Isabel always came back in my dreams. But never my name.

                She smiled, but I sat there like an idiot. More than six centuries. 637 years. And she had aged about 10 years. She was more refined. More confident. But she was the same girl who had held my heart for so long – so long ago.

                “How,” I started and stopped. So many questions. It was a traffic jam from my brain to my mouth. You know when your computer freezes, and you have to reboot? I was experiencing the human version of that.

                Isabel opened and took a sip from her bottle. She crossed her legs at the knee and looked at me.

                “It’s strange,” she said, finally. “I look at Riley, and I can still see you.”

                “I looked for you,” I said, coughing and sputtering. “I looked for you and thought you had died. It took me two lifetimes to get back to our village and you were long gone.”

                She nodded. One more sip and she put the bottle down on a small table that rested between us. Nodded once more.

                “I got better at the spell,” she said. “Obviously. Refined what I wanted. Removed what I didn’t. But, of course, pure immortality comes with risks. When you stop aging and your friends and family continue to grow old and die around you, people start taking notice. I had to move several times. Adopting new names. New personas. Eventually, I started going overseas. Claiming to be my own daughter or a niece or whatever. Leaving myself inheritances. The last couple generations have gotten a bit more complex, though, all these digital hurdles.”

                I couldn’t stop staring at her.

                “I loved you,” I said. I wanted to say more. There were entire soliloquys designed in my quiet time – speeches I would give if I ever found the witch again. But right now, they were all trapped in the same traffic jam. “I loved you,” I said again, a tear forming at the corner of my right eye.

                She nodded at me, a sad smile crossing her lips.

                “And I you,” she said. “I never lost track of you, Victor. Sometimes it was more of a challenge to track you down. Sometimes I missed you entirely. Like in London.”

                I cringed at the mention.

                “But I always knew where you were. I never forgot about you.”

                It was quiet then, for a moment. The wind was slight but carried the laughs of children somewhere outside the complex. Down the street. I continued looking at her.

                “What lesson was I supposed to be learning?” I finally said, wiping the tear from my eye.

                Isabel shrugged.

                “I was young. An idiot. I apologize,” she said, and halted for a moment. “Honestly. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can say that will make it all worth it. There’s no storybook ending. I was an ass. I acted impetuously. I worked for years to perfect the spell so I could correct my mistakes. But, by then, you were gone. And, frankly, I was embarrassed.”

                “Embarrassed?” I asked. “637 years and you were embarrassed?”

                “Okay, really embarrassed. I don’t know what else you want me to say. I acted poorly. I think we’ve both grown and I wanted to finally come to you with an apology.”

                I leaned back in my chair. Silence. In some ways, I felt like a petulant child. But, seriously, this level of unexplained punishment was ridiculous.

                “I can change it, you know,” she finally said. “I can end the curse or change it to be more like mine. If you want.”

                I had gone so far as to cross my arms over my chest. The physical manifestation of blocking yourself off mentally.

                “Frankly, Bel, I’m having a hard time, here.”

                She nodded yet again. Isabel reached for her beer bottle; it was now sweating heavily from the change in temperature from the fridge to the New Mexico sun. She lifted it to her lips and drained the liquid.

                “It’ll take me a lifetime to properly apologize,” she finally said, putting the empty bottle into the small trash can that rested in the corner of the balcony. It was empty, save for her recent deposit. “But I’m willing to do so. I’ve grown. I know you have. This experience shows that. You had no duty to Tracy or even Riley. But you pursued it to the end. Holding the person responsible accountable for his actions.”

                It was my turn to nod. There was no accompanying smile. But she was correct in her assessment. Something about Riley’s end had touched a nerve. And the emotion buried in the murder wall.

                “Between us, we have a fortune beyond compare,” she said, smiling widely. “Maybe it’s time to live a little after all this life.”

                It was my turn to smile. What else could I do? This might be the best attempt at a verbal apology I was ever going to get. But now, I could truly reap the rewards of my 15 lifetimes of struggle. The curse of the witch. The smile of the victor. I grinned at myself, and at Isabel, the phrase that had stayed with me through these lifetimes. The hint at my name, long buried.

                “Have you ever heard of the thought experiment called The Swampman?” I asked.

                “Of course,” Isabel said, standing, holding her left hand down to me to help me out of my own chair. “Who do you think proposed it to Davidson?”

 

The End

                   

 

There are monsters in the hallway, but nothing under the bed.

And even though they see me, sleep takes me instead.

I’m close enough to see her, but still so far away.

I sense a shield of sadness and the darkness of the day.

From the precipice of madness, I’m pulled closer to the truth.

Forced to recognize my face to stay hidden from the clues.

“Smile of the Victor,” Steve Metcalf

Afterword

OKAY. Come on. That was fun.

                So. A little history, though. With every Event collection, I write the premise first and then come up with my story. It would be cheating, I suppose, for me to come up with a story idea and then build an event around it. I have always held myself to the same standard of the other Event contributors. The premise comes first and then the story. Unfortunately, I rarely write the first idea I have. Precision Robotics was probably the best example of this as I started working on three or four different stories before finally writing Machine Reality.

                I thought Wreckage would be different, however, as the story of The Witch’s Curse sort of appeared out of nowhere. When I started fleshing out Victor’s curse and forming it around the Wreckage premise, it slowly morphed into The Swamp Man (extra space intentionally added to show that the thought experiment wasn’t EXACTLY going on here). I was intrigued by the idea of telling the murder mystery while also telling the story of the curse … through a contaminated narrator. He wasn’t necessarily untrustworthy, but he would only speak on things that he found interesting. His curse, really, was more of a bore at this point. To him. Can you imagine? 637 years (completely random number, by the way) and he was bored.

                The fun part was that to the writer, and hopefully to the reader, the curse was the driving force of the story. The reason to read.

                So, I let this idea marinate a bit. In my writing world, I’m always dealing with “I need to finish this before I start that.” In this case, I needed to get through the writing of “Project: REAPER,” the third dinosaur story for Severed Press. I delivered the final manuscript to them on 10/29/21 and could then turn my attention to The Swamp Man. I had written the final two pages (what ultimately became part of the conversation between Boots and Riley in the shadow of the wrecked airplane) and left it aside for months. Literally. It was written over July 4th weekend in 2021. It was now time to open it up and actually start writing.

                But, The Event Curse. The laugh of the devil.

                I thought I’d actually go back to my Event roots. Write a story starring my ghost hunting dudes – King Paranormal Investigations. I stared plotting Curse of the Cincinnati Subway, going so far as to write the first 3,000 words (about 12 pages) before stopping. It’s a fun plot and a story that will eventually get written. Likely as a novella. But there was no spark. No energy. Nothing to usurp the original idea.

                Back to The Swamp Man.

                I opened a new Word document on 12/4/21 and started typing the first line that had always been in my head “For my next life, I chose a young man in New Mexico.” Glorious. And here, 22 days later, I got to write “The End.”

                Not a lot changed as I wrote the story. Sorry. I’m usually a sucker for a “behind the scenes” about the creative process. Names changed from the initial notes to the final draft. But that’s it, really. The story sort of appeared out of whole cloth. It was hard keeping back information. The little info blasts like how the curse works. Stuff like that. I wanted to spell it all out immediately for the reader. I knew how it worked and wanted to share it.

                So, I hope you had fun, kind reader. Thank you for taking a chance on The Event 5: Wreckage. We took 2021 off as a publishing year to let everyone cope with the initial 2020 madness and then the continued madness that had somehow both grown and diminished in 2021 … So, you’re holding this in 2022. I’m sure there will be another in 2023. But, I suppose, there are no absolutes in this world.

                Have fun with it. Play along next time if you want.

                Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep smiling, victor.

 

Steve Metcalf

Leander, Texas

December 4th – December 26th, 2021.