The muck was now up to her knees. She hadn’t intended on hiking this deep into the swamp but it was far too late to turn back. The mud sucked her down deeper, its vacuum seal holding onto her boots with each step. She stopped in his path, rested against an upturned log, and took out her radio. “Roam-seven to base-three.” She waited for a response and while she waited she listened to the noises surrounding her. It was dark at the time so noises were much more more dangerous. That’s how it always was on patrol. She heard crickets, the cicadas, the croak of a bullfrog, the nightly call of a loon, an occasional rustle in the water either from a moccasin or something larger. For anyone else, this would be a quiet night. Not for her. For her, it was loud. She had heard these noises every night. She was getting tired of these noises. Like a catchy song on the stereo, they played over and over. She searched for the off switch but you can’t find that in the swamps at night. However, her favorite station was interrupted by the jarring static of her radio.
“Base-three to roam-seven. What’s your lock?”
She looked up at the stars above. They glistened the way they did below in the reflection through the swamp. With her left hand raised to the sky, she fixed her eyes to match a constellation due North. “Lock is three miles east of base-five. Got sidetracked and lost the path. Should I proceed?”
“Hmm,” the voice on the other end hesitated and thought for a moment. She hated when he did this, which was often enough, “Alright. Return to base-three by first call.”
“First call? Negative. I would have to cross the ridge just to turn around.”
“Fine… head to base-five. Radio when you arrive.”
She switched her radio off, “Asshole,” she said to herself and trudged on. One should never curse in the presence of guests, but that may be excused since she had no knowledge of her newest visitor. She would soon enough though.
The night was completely dark now. Covered by a woven-blanket of thunderclouds. The booming claps didn’t scare her. It was those flashes of light that troubled her more. With the darkness she could only assume she was safe but when the lightning illuminated her surroundings, she would fall victim to the knowledge of her danger.
A flash! She shook down to her core. All seemed clear. Boom! She trudged on. But moments later. Another flash! This time she closed her eyes, knowing that anything she might possibly see would do her no good. Boom! If she had opened her eyes, however, she would have seen the half-eaten corpse weeping from the willows above. She did not. She would have also seen the beloved owner of the feed stalking her from behind. She did not. Her radio fell in the dark water during the second roar of thunder. She crouched down to retrieve it before falling to the bottom of the swamp. When doing so, the third flash brightened her perspective and she came face to face with her visitor, a jet-black panther. The lightning faded away and all that was left were the two reflective eyes staring her down… Boom!
The tea is hot. It burned my tongue. It always does that. The only tea I know that won't burn my tongue is at the coffeeshop off of Turner. What is it called again?
Oh never mind. Tea isn't important right now. I set down the styrofoam cup on the desk, it spills on my hand. Dammit. As I wipe my hand on my slacks, he walks into the room. The officer cuffs him him to the table and closes the door. I got this. Dammit, look. Your hand is still wet.
"Detective, whenever you're ready." I don't got this. Why did I do this? Detective? That's nice though. Sounds o official. I'm a detective. Yeah. That's right. I'm one bad ass detective at that too. I got this.
"Thank you, Officer." I even said it in my cool guy voice. I feel like Dirty Harry. The florescent light hits my face. God, that's bright. Was it always this bright? Oh, it's hot.
"Aren't you supposed to ask me some questions, Officer?"
"Oh, I'm sorry."
Dammit, why'd you correct him. Now he thinks you're an asshole. Wait. Remember who you're talking to. You can be an asshole. "So David, why don't you tell me why you think you're here."
"Like I told the other detective..." The other detective? What other detective? Johnson? That prick. He's had it out for my since day one! "...I didn't know the guy. I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"What were you doing at 3am on Thursday night?"
"Outside the bar. Getting a smoke."
"A little late to be drinking on a weeknight, don't you think?" Don't you think. Hmm. That sounded good. I feel like I heard that from a cop show once. I should use it more often.
"I suppose. I was having a rough day. Lost my job, needed to blow off a little steam."
"Blowing off a little steam? A little suspicious to say during an interrogation, don't you think?" Alright, don't use it that much.
"Poor choice of words, Detective. You have to believe me, I was just out for a smoke!"
"Let's say I do believe you. If I did, I'd ask you what you did next." Ooh. Hypotheticals, very fancy.
"Uhm. Well, I went back inside, had another beer, and then walked home."
I need to pull out the big guns. "Did you hear the gunshots?"
"Yes, sir. I believe so."
"How many shots did you hear?"
"Maybe two... no three! I'm pretty sure it was three."
"HA!" Ha? Alright, dial it back there, buddy. "Gerald Brown wasn't shot. He was stabbed and stabbed by you nonetheless. You were piss drunk and mad. You couldn't handle anything else and you just had to blow off some steam. So how do you do it? You take your lovely fishing knife and plunge it right into his chest. Isn't that right." Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.
The door opens. My instructor comes out with a clipboard in his hand. He doesn't look happy. "Well, you were close but you didn't solve it." Dammit. He writes something down on the clipboard and says, "The suspect has never gone fishing all thanks to a traumatic riverside experience when he was five. It was all in the case file. You would've known that if you had read it. This wasn't your guy. Better luck next term." He walks out of the room.
The man handcuffed to the table, my fellow student, looks up at me with a pitiful smile. "Hey, that wasn't all that bad, man. You were so close. I'll see you around." He leaves me, standing there, looking hopeless and lost like a child abandoned in the supermarket. Nice going, detective.
He sat at the counter, drinking coffee. "The price of coffee was raised yesterday. It'll two dollars and nine cents," the barista said as if she knew he couldn't pay for it. His shoulders were slumped as he stared at his cup of two dollars and nine cents. A young man tapped him on his shoulder, asking if he'd like to join his table. He was awkwardly sitting at the counter near the checkout and people were beginning to notice. "No!" he said, like a dog chained to a dilapidated house. The whiskers on his chin were wiry and white, hair unkempt. What I found most intriguing were his eyes. They glanced back and forth at each customer. A drop of contempt in his pupils. To put it simply, he was a grumpy old man... and he knew I was staring at him.
I froze like a child seeing a dead cat for the first time. Except this cat was very withered and grey and very much alive. "Hrrrgh." He grunted under his breath the way old men do. He had the demeanor of someone homeless. The casual attitude that tells everyone else you don't care what they think.
As he rose from his chair like the rusted tin man, I noticed his bag. More importantly, I noticed its contents. Papers. Loads of papers. What could they be? As my curiosity roamed on a quest of what they could be hiding, I had failed to notice he was standing right in front of me.
"Anything good." His voice was rough like a gravel road covered in potholes and roadkill. He had a slouching posture that towered over me as I sat at the table.
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"Writing anything good?"
"I-" I had never gotten caught writing about someone before. Usually, I could blend in like a journalistic chameleon but he noticed my camouflage. "I'm just writing really. Nothing of importance." He leaned on the chair across from me. Resting his hands on its back. The fingers of elderly men always repulsed me and I cannot tell you why.
"Hrrrgh... very well." He took his coat, tapped on the table, and limped away, his joints clicking with every step. I looked down at my notebook, collecting every detail I could of this unusual old man.
As I finished describing my thoughts and packing my bag to leave, A crumpled scrap of paper caught my attention. It was placed neatly on the seat across from me. I unravelled it, expecting to learn some ancient wisdom or some secret to this man's story. I sat down in my seat once more, reading it.
"$2.09 is too much for a damn cup of coffee."
“There’s a raccoon in the attic.” He didn’t hear her the first time. “The raccoon is back in the attic!” Ethel said it louder the second time.
“How you know?” He knew it was back too and he knew how she knew. He could hear it shuffling above the ceiling during communion, gnawing away at the nativity set they brought out every Christmas. He knew all of this. But he didn’t want to deal with it.
“If that baby Jesus loses its arm to that pest then a raccoon’ll be the least of your worries!” Ethel’s glasses rested on the tip of her nose. They would do this when she was especially frustrated. She never got mad. She got frustrated, anger wasn’t a quality of a godly woman; especially not a godly woman like Ethel. But whether Ethel Storch wanted to admit it or not, she was mad.
“Are you sure it’s the raccoon,” grunted Josiah Heath; his corn-bred accent cutting through the gap in his teeth. “I mean, not sayin’ you’re wrong but I just don’t wanna mosey on up there for nothing. Plus, I ain’t too prepared to be wrestling any critters. I wore my nice Dickies today.” He brushed his knee, swiping off some dirt from his lightly ripped pair of blue jeans.
“Oh hogwash, he’s about to start the sermon so best do it while the choir’s still singing. Now get.” Josiah begrudgingly arose from his seat and grabbed the broom by the door. The church choir kept singing a hymn about heaven’s gates on the other side of the modest church. For a town of 462, it was big. Ethel sat down in his place, feeling accomplished. She pushed her glasses back up to her eyes. Josiah, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling as proud of his endeavor. The choir continued, he could hear them from outside. A ladder rested on the side of the paint-peeled church. He climbed up gingerly, anticipating a fall at every rung. Once at the top, Josiah opened the stow-door and peeked in.
The attic to the church was built only for storage of a few items. Aside from that, the wood was old and rotting in certain spots. This made for a tricky encounter for Josiah Heath. He coughed up a mouthful of old traditions. Almost eighty years worth, to be exact. Josiah was already inside the dusty shelter when he realized he forgot to bring a flashlight. Oh, never mind. He thought. He wouldn’t need it. This would be a fast one for sure. He tried to remember what the animal looked like last he saw it. It was fat. Too fat to run. Surely he could hit with the broom, delaying any sort of defense mechanism. He was safe, he figured.
It’s a funny thing, safety is. We feel it most when we’re in familiar places. Our home. Our work. Or perhaps, our church. But one is never safe completely. Josiah Heath was about to come to this conclusion for himself. The creaking wood planks that served as a floor, if you could call it that, were loose and shifted as Josiah walked step by step. Only those planks and a flimsy mix of paneling and insulation stood between Josiah and the entire congregation.
Hisssssss. The raccoon was aware of its guest. Hisssssss it continued. Although wherever Josiah peered, he couldn’t figure out where the varmint was. The hair on his neck began to stand up but he wasn’t scared. He wouldn’t have confessed that he was, at least. The constant tapping of his left hand to the broomstick would say otherwise. The hissing stopped. For an odd reason, this was more terrifying than any extermination. Darkness and silence. Then, all at once, the hissing started back up. This time it was louder. More aggravated. Josiah had begun to think that it was all around him. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact source but he’d be damned if he didn’t get to it before it got to him. He thrashed about violently. Slamming the broom into the darkness. He heard the occasional thud of a box or clammer of one of the wise men falling over but no raccoon. Silence, once more.
Josiah Heath started smoking at the age of fourteen. He picked up the habit after local bad-girl Mary Winthrop said he looked hot with a cig in his hand. Twenty-three years later and he had finally beaten his addiction. His car was filled with nicotine gum wrappers but his lungs were clean. He hadn’t touched a cigarette in almost four years. Four years also happened to be the last time he wore his ‘nice pair of Dickies.’
He reached down in his pocket for his knife and instead found an old lighter with the NASCAR logo faded on the side. His finger twitched as it tried to light. A spark flew. Nothing. Again, he tried. Sparks then darkness. The third time he was able to produce a flame but what he saw and suddenly realized made him wish he never lit it in the first place. Josiah first believed the raccoon from earlier was fat, he was wrong. It wasn’t overweight, it was pregnant. And as sixteen different eyes stared back at Josiah Heath, he realized all of this. His foot slowly stepped back onto a loose board. The horde was fast though. It wasn’t long before the light went out and the population of this small Oklahoman town dropped to 461.