by GEMMA FISK
hooping and a-hollering in harmony with the gargled puttering of their rusted boat, they glided into The Great Dismal Swamp. South-eastern Virginia was just fine this time of day, eventide burgeoning on the hilt of the afternoon's humidity. It was hot enough to send the ecoregion's wildlife hobbling off to shady coves and damp foliage cover. It wasn’t heat that brought sticky unease to Bobby Gilford’s brow though. Bobby was minutes away from a brain embolism.
Westy, Bobby's best buddy by gosh, was a little too drunk to be manning the engine. On his bench at the back, his calloused hand slipped off the rudder more than a few times. Westy didn't want to crash; he wanted to ask one of the guys to take over, but they were even worse than him. Johnno and Dane had thrown up their tumblers of moonshine a ways up river, but tangy corn liquor still burbled in his small intestine.
All of them had wives to hide from. Westy had a kid. By their own exclamations they were all butt-ugly, except Johnno. He was the only one of the group who didn't have a face like sieved lard. In fact, Dane and Johnno had got lost some years back, high up on Blue Ridge Mountain. They'd gotten it on in the staunchly anti-homosexual way hillbillies possess even when they're kissing a dude. But Dane and Johnno were just pals now and no one but their pinky fingers knew what'd happened on Blue Ridge.
Bobby gripped his double-barrel shotgun, the only weapon the group had on them, which was ironic because just a month ago Dane had gotten thirty 'for personal protection' firearms seized by the police. Otherwise the weapon would never have been in Bobby’s clumsy hands.
"We lookin’ for a hunt tonight, boys!” Bobby crowed. He followed this up by a yeeehaaaw and Dane and Johnno echoed the sentiment. Westy finally sicked up his alcohol over the side of the boat where the oatmeal colour of his stomach’s contents floated on the water's top, only some of it sinking.
'Lookee! Booby, lookee there!' Johnno said with a dreamy drawl, pointing at something. Then, for a second, his eyes unfocused as he heard what he'd said and he laughed a hands-on-knees laugh. 'Booby! Dane, did'ya hear me? I said Booby!'
Bobby gave a token chuckle so he wouldn’t be left out of the fun, but he was looking where Johnno had pointed. It was hard to see anything because firstly Bobby had an old-man’s eyesight, secondly the cypress forest was dense and dark with absorbed wetness, the maples, spruce and pines all bunching their mighty, exposed lower limbs together to form some variation of a shore. Some of the trees were monstrous. As the group passed a big one with roots high and thick enough to form a tepee the size of a house, they fidgeted, wondering if someone could be sitting in the dark spot at its centre where misty light couldn't reach.
Bobby took a sharp, alarming breath. 'That's a bear! Hoo-wee, that's a mama black one sitting right upin' there,' Bobby said with excitement, standing up to tap dance in the rocking boat. Stupidly, he let off a shot in the sky.
'Idiot, Bob! You'll scare it,' Johnno scolded with wary hesitancy, pulling Bobby back down to his bench at the prow.
'Yeah, Bobby,' Dane agreed, and Bobby quietly reloaded, sniffing and eventually wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Blood came away on his fingers, but he didn’t notice.
Bugs and flies were swarming above their heads now, following them as they slowed, approaching the bank. They all saw the movement at the same time. It stood watching them, too far away to see clearly- a shadow bear. Westy still felt like a wasp was being blended in his head, but he stopped the engine and they drifted to a stop up against some kind of dead bush.
The bear moved and Bobby whistled low in appreciation. 'Think we got our prey, boys.'
Johnno and Dane giggled, their hands touching like it was an accident. Bobby pulled his gun up and lay down in the front of the boat, levelling it and trying to see straight through his blurred eyes. The black bear didn't move, it accused them with its stillness, dared them in the distance, and Westy succumbed to guilt.
'Wait, Bobby, buddy, we can find sumthin' else, right? It don’t feel right, man,' Westy pleaded, struggling to climb between Johnno and Dane to get to his friend.
'Naw, shut up,' Bobby said, and then called Westy something that made the sweet man blush in shame. Westy had never been good with peer pressure, so he backed up. After a grumbled belch, Bobby lined his sights up with the bleary shape. Westy hadn't drunk so much as the rest; out of them all, his eyes were working best, and when Westy looked up, he saw the bear for what it really was.
Westy dove for his friend as Bobby pulled back on the rusty trigger. 'Bob, no!'
The shot surprised them all. Its recoil vibrated through the treetops, sending a shockwave of silence in its wake like the startling quiet of a lightning strike before the thunder rolled.
Johnno gripped Dane's forearm. When Bobby looked up, the bear was gone. 'Did I git it?' Bobby asked, blinking rapidly. No one answered him. Westy stared through the clearing in the deep greenery, hoping he'd seen wrong.
'Think we oughta go have a look up there to be sure, what d'ya think?' Dane asked, casting quick glances at Johnno’s open mouth.
'I'll come,' Johnno replied, and they both got out into the knee-deep sludge, wading through forestry and deadwood.
'Wait…' Bobby began, but his eyes were getting bad now. He was feeling weird. A blood clot had reached his brain. ‘What’s that burning smell?’ he said, and blood spewed from his nose.
Dane and Johnno laughed unknowingly as Westy clambered over to his friend. 'Bobby? Bud, you’re bleeding!’
Bobby's eyes rolled, and he dropped, seizing when he hit the boat deck. His fingers contracted around the trigger and he got off one shot. It went straight into handsome Johnno's ear and cleared out half his cerebrum before he'd even fallen into Dane's arms. Dane screamed as Westy tried to hold Bobby's thrashing head. Blood frothed between the slit of his lips. Bobby had bitten clean through his tongue.
Even now, Westy didn't swear, even when he could smell his best friend's faeces. Bobby twitched for a good long minute after, but there was no life left, that was for sure. Westy still had a headache and it was all he could think about. He wasn't sure what you were supposed to think when someone died in your arms. Dane was having the same problem.
Over in the craggy water, Dane let Johnno go, let him drift into the waterlogged bank and float there. He looked over to where the bear had been and saw a mound of something lying on the twiggy ground. Sobbing and lost, he dragged himself over to it, pulled his legs across a gnarled wire of root and finally looked down at their kill, their prize.
Westy spotted Dane, saw him looking at something wet and bloody. His voice shook and his head throbbed, but Westy shouted out to his last friend. 'What is it, Dane? What did we hit?'
Dane didn’t answer for a long time and Westy thought maybe he was in shock but eventually Dane looked back at him. He was crying harder, his face twisted in blotchy pain, and Westy almost couldn't hear what he said.
'What? Buddy, come back to the boat, we gotta--'
'A girl,' Dane called, his voice small with regret. 'We killed a Goddamn girl.'
At Dane's feet, on a bed of reedy filth was a young girl. Her soaked t-shirt read ‘Daddy’s Little Hunter’, and she’d bled out in the swamp waters. Several shards of Bobby's buck shot glinted in her forehead.
Crawling from the depths of rural Norfolk, Gemma Fisk studied a degree in English Literature alongside the Humanities and is now both a freelance editor, and also a senior poetry editor for a literary journal. She has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines such as The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society, and Page and Spine in March 2014. You can find her latest releases at her website gfisk1.wix.com/gemmafiskbooks Other than that, she is a dog-loving hermit.
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