The water in Mingo Creek was the color of sweet tea if you dipped a cup in it, but it sure didn’t taste like it. It tasted like dirt and rot and left Trevor’s mouth feeling drier than if he’d had nothing to drink at all. A person could still see that warm brown up close, maybe while fluttering their fingers an inch below the surface as they swam, but for the most part the creek off Black River kept to that description: black. That was how Grady had described Trevor’s heart, who now watched the water swirl over Grady’s corpse before his old friend sank out of sight and into the black.
Turned out blood was pretty dark, too. Trevor was afraid it might show up, marking the site where he had put a bullet in his best friend’s skull. As soon as he moved his lantern away, there was nothing but black. The blood would have dispersed by the time anyone else passed this way. By then the fish and alligators would be picking the flesh clean from Grady’s bones.
Trevor sat in the rowboat for a few minutes, arms resting on his knees while he watched the water’s surface to make sure the knots tying Grady’s corpse to the rocks held true. His little rowboat—sitting a lot higher in the water now that it was short one corpse and a load of rock—was like the eye of a storm in the swamp. Swamps were always a riot of sound. All around him he could hear chirping, buzzing, croaking, splashing, and the creaking of tree branches. He heard the screech of a horned owl nearby, which his gran always said meant murder.
“You’re a little too late,” Trevor called into the darkness. Grady was already getting cold.
Too late, too late, his own voice echoed back to him. Trevor shivered. Stupid Gran with her stories. She also used to say that the trees walked around at night and that the creaking he heard was them shaking out their old cypress knees. No honest man had business in the swamp at night, she would say. Nighttime belonged to the raw red boo hags, who left their skins behind while they sucked the breath from their victims, and the will-‘o-the-wisps whose lights led travelers to watery graves. The swamp at night belonged to ghosts, monsters, and murderers, but Trevor was at least one of those.
It was all superstition, but the swamp was a weird place. All alone, with two oars, a lantern, and a six-shooter with four rounds, it was no surprise that his gran’s damn stories popped into his head. Not too far off, he heard the guttural, vibrating bellow of a gator and let out a quiet cuss. No point in being jumpy about it. Swamp was full of gators. He’d run one off his fishing dock just yesterday. Everything just felt weirder in the dark, that’s all.
Those were the things he told himself as he lifted his lantern high and peered around. Not because he was scared of his loony gran’s stories, of course. He just had to make sure there were no silent witnesses to his crime. When the light reflected off two pinpoints of glowing red eyes in the black water not three feet away, Trevor nearly dropped the lantern in the water out of fright. Damn alligators. “Your meal’s underwater,” he told it. “Leave me be, go on.” He picked up an oar and slapped the water’s surface with it. The red eyes disappeared without a sound as the gator slipped out of sight.
Thinking about old stories and gators had his heart really kicking, so he decided it was time to get going. Trevor rowed, oars cutting through the black water. It was harder rowing with only one person, but at least the boat was a lot lighter now. If sore arms were the trade-off for more cash, he’d be happy. Like he’d told Grady before putting a round in his belly and another in his head, it only took one man to run moonshine now that he’d seen the location of Grady’s dead-drop up the creek.
Further ahead was an abandoned boat that had been moored up the creek for longer than anybody could remember. Some folks reckoned it had been hauled there for protection from a hurricane, but that idea never made much sense to Trevor. Why haul a boat this far up the creek and never come back for it? Others thought maybe it had been used during all that nasty business with the North, taking slaves to their next stop along the Underground Railroad.
His thoughts scattered when something hit the underside of the rowboat with a big thump. Trevor’s heart skipped a beat, but he kept going and refused to let his thoughts wander back to glowing eyes and monsters. He’d only bumped a branch or some bit of debris hidden just beneath the surface. That was all.
It would all be over just as soon as he reached the abandoned boat. The old boat’s history didn’t much matter, as folks left it alone all the same. Nobody had any reason to stop. It wasn’t close to any brim beds, and no one had ever caught a catfish of any decent size close to it. Eventually it would rot into the water, and its remains would either make their way to the ocean at an ambling pace or become yet another snag to row around.
For now it was a perfect place for moonshiners. No federal types came anywhere near the creek. Grady had been lugging jugs of shine there in exchange for a leather bag of cash for at least three years, never telling Trevor—his best friend, his partner—about his drop spot until he broke his hand in a fight with a fellow slipping it to his wife and needed help rowing. The two men ran the shine together for four months after that until Trevor worked up the courage to make it a one-man operation.
The two boats bumped together as Trevor rowed up, gripping the edge of the abandoned boat with one hand while he leaned over it, holding the lantern high. There were no more glowing red eyes, but best of all, there was a little leather pouch beneath one half of the broken seat. Trevor let out a happy whoop. He had no idea who the folks leaving the cash were, and he didn’t care. And so long as he kept leaving the moonshine, they’d never need to know about the business changing hands, so to speak.
He took the pouch and opened it, cackling again at the neat stacks of bills inside and thumbing through it. Trevor’s laughter echoed across the water, and he opened one of the jugs to take a celebratory sip. “Thanks for the cash, and I’ll see you in hell,” he crowed as he poured a gulp’s worth over the side and into the black for Grady. Trevor corked the jug again and started moving over the moonshine, lifting the boards of the broken seat to place jugs beneath them.
He was so busy congratulating himself for his successful plan that it took him a few minutes to notice the most unnatural thing to ever happen in the swamp: silence.
Trevor paused, jug in hand. No more owls hooting their bad omens. No more creaking or croaking or splashing. There was only a silence that felt heavier and more choking than the humid air ever had, and the fine hairs on the back of his neck prickled despite the heat.
“What’re you doin’, mister?” a high voice said.
The voice wasn’t loud, but to Trevor it was as startling as a gunshot. He jumped and dropped the jug, which rolled across the bottom of the boat and out of arm’s reach. Trevor cussed so long and loud that his gran had probably stirred from her grave to club his ears. He whirled around to see a girl leaning her elbows over the side of his boat. A naked girl, it looked like, her shoulders bare and her skin gleaming pale and white even in the moonless dark. Black hair slicked back from a pretty, heart-shaped face, and she blinked giant eyes at him from beneath long lashes.
“Who the hell are you? What’s your name?” he snapped, putting a hand on his revolver. Had she followed him? Had she seen the money? Had she seen him kill Grady?
“I ain’t got a name,” she said.
“Where’d you come from?” Trevor asked, pulling back the hammer of his revolver. The closest homestead belonged to the Avants, a good twenty minutes of hard rowing around the oxbows of the winding creek. Nobody ought to be swimming here. She didn’t even have a light. What kind of crazy girl went into the swamp in the dark? “Everybody’s got a name, stupid. What does your mama call you?”
She blinked those big eyes and smiled. Her smile was broad and toothy, and she seemed quite tickled with herself. She must have seen him and followed him; nothing else made sense at all.
“My mama just called me hers and carried me between her teeth ‘til I got too big. Then I left her and my brothers and sisters to make my own way.”
Or maybe she really was just soft in the head spouting nonsense like that, but it didn’t matter. Trevor didn’t like the idea of anybody seeing him here with a rowboat full of moonshine, moored to his lucrative dead drop. Nutty or not, she might talk if she managed to swim back to wherever she came from without becoming gator chow.
Trevor crouched down in the boat, arms over his knees, to get at her eye level. “Your mama should’ve told you not to swim in the dark naked.” He wrapped his hands around her slim wrists even as he thought about his next move. “Might get a snake where you don’t want one.”
“I eat snakes. I love it when they wriggle.”
He shook his head, unnerved and ready to be done with her. “You’re cuckoo.”
Trevor could put a bullet in her head, but he didn’t have anything left to weigh down the corpse. He’d have to drag her into the boat, shoot her, and then row as far as he could downstream to dump her. Thinking about the inconvenience this was causing him when all he wanted to do was go home and count his money made him angry. His grip tightened around her wrists, and he made to pull her into the boat.
She resisted his tugging, but he had pulled her up enough to see the curve and color of her breasts. He could also see where her ivory skin turned into ivory alligator scales over her belly and hard, black ridges on her sides and back. “Christ!” he yelled when he saw a dark reptilian tail lash the water a good five feet behind her. He tried to fall back away from her, but she grabbed his arms with both hands.
“I hope you wriggle, too,” she said.
Trevor’s screams rose in volume and pitch as her teeth lengthened and sharpened and her jaw stretched from her face. Her pupils became slits, and she blinked a membranous second eyelid over them before pulling Trevor over the side of the boat. He thrashed, his screams echoing through a swamp that was still otherwise silent. He screamed for Jesus, he screamed for his gran, and he even screamed for Grady. He screamed while his blood bubbled red in the water. He screamed until the once-girl closed her jaws around his throat and tore his head from his shoulders, her body spinning gracefully through the water.
Up the creek, a corpse drifted alone beneath the water. Catfish and freshwater eels nibbled at his lips, until Grady wore a smile to greet Trevor in hell.
Kristen Archambeau has a doctorate in pharmacy with a background in biology. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband and cat. This is her first fictional publication, though her biological research has been featured in the Journal of Experimental Biology. She has had a passion for horror stories and reptiles since childhood. She is also an avid gamer.