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by Stephen Gresham
Description: Starting over seemed simple enough to Anita Martin. She moved with her young sons Wade and Timmy to a pristine new home near the Everglades. Sadly, it won't be that simple. When Wade begins having nightmares of a terrible dark creature with razor talons and pitch-black wings, they are dismissed as a young boy's fantasies--until people start disappearing with screams in the night. With the death toll steadily rising, who will come to fight the mysterious and evil Blood Wings?
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1990
eBookwise Release Date: April 2008
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [461 KB]
Reading time: 275-385 min.
"I can take care of myself."
"And I'm sayin' you can't. I'm sayin' you're a friggin' wimp."
"I can take care of myself. Been doin' it for a long, long time. And I ain't a friggin' wimp neither."
Both boys paused as a helicopter dipped low, thrumming, then climbed and banked sharply out over the slough and the mangrove swamp beyond it.
"Betcha never stole nuthin'. Betcha don't know how."
"I do so. I've stole stuff. Lotsa stuff. Back in Missouri."
"Okay, prove it. Go ahead and do it now. Walk right into Holly's and steal somethin'."
As he considered the challenge, Wade lifted his blue-green Miami Dolphin's cap, a perfect match for, Gillie's, and squinted into the south Florida sun, trying to catch a final glimpse of the copter.
"Gillie, I can steal any ole thing you can steal. But I gotta case the place first. It'd be stupid not to."
Gillie started to laugh. His pink, sweaty cheeks rounded into shiny balls; his head jerked; his cap tumbled off. He rubbed furiously at his blond crewcut and stomped his feet until his blond-white rat's tail bobbed on the back of his neck like a hangman's noose dangling in the wind.
"Case the place! Oh, man, that's funny! That's so-o-o damn funny!"
His black eyes darting, fearing someone would hear the derisive laughter, Wade pushed his companion hard in the chest, and together they twisted around the concrete block wall at the rear of Holly's Grocery and Bait Shop. Continuing to laugh, Gillie buckled over, occasionally glancing up to check Wade's expression, exploding into fresh laughter at the other boy's seriousness.
Wade dug his fingernails into his palms, squeezing and unsqueezing, but his anger would not relent. He rocked forward on the balls of his feet and cleared his throat.
"Come on and I'll show you. I'll show you 'bout stealin' stuff. Florida people don't know nuthin' 'bout stealin'. St. Louis people, they know. I grew up there, and so I can tell you--they know."
Gillie's eyes bulged. His mouth stretched wide open in disbelief. "Florida people don't--! Frig it, sport, you're seriously wrong. I mean seriously wrong. Listen, I growed up in Miami before my folks sent me here to Orchid Springs. I'm tellin' you, people in Miami invented stealin'. Killin', too. Ask anybody, sport."
A car rattled along the dusty white, shell-based road winding into the mobile home park behind Holly's, stirring fine particles which the breeze snatched and tossed into the boys' faces.
Wade blinked hard. "Don't call me that, Gillie. Don't call me 'sport.' I really hate that. What's it mean anyway?"
Gillie shrugged and slapped the bill of Wade's cap.
"I hate that, too. You tryin' to piss me off, Gillie?"
His companion laughed. "No, sport." He feigned fear as Wade clenched a threatening fist.
"I mean it, Gillie."
"Hey, wait, man. Nuthin' wrong with the word 'sport.' It's Aussie."
"So what's Aussie?"
"Australian. You know, like Miss Freda over at the wildlife refuge. She uses words like that. It's a friendly word."
Wade let his glance drift doubtfully across the slough and the roadway bridge into the Maxwell Schreck Wildlife Refuge, Orchid Springs' chief tourist attraction. He had never met Miss Freda. Wasn't eager to do so, either.
"You sure it doesn't mean something like 'asshole'?"
Gillie grinned and swiped at his sweaty face. "You got kangaroos under your top hat, mate?"
Wade glared. "More Australian stuff?"
"Yeah. It means, 'Are you crazy'?"
"Why don't they just say, 'Are you crazy?' Lot easier."
Gillie shrugged. "Beats the shit outta me. Let's get movin'. We got us some stealin' to do. You with me?"
He bounced on ahead in a loping, sneaky gait like that of a fox or a coyote, and Wade watched him, watched him carefully because of one simple fact: Wade Martin worshipped Gillie Roth. Worshipped the air that he breathed and the dust that he spit upon. Gillie was the coolest, street-smartest, bad-ass eleven-year-old Wade had ever known. Or could imagine. But that didn't mean, as Wade often reminded himself, he should let Gillie walk all over him. You had to draw the line sometimes. And yet--well, he would have paid money unhesitatingly to be in Gillie's company. The rat-tailed scavenger could take care of himself. He was, in Wade's eyes, totally awesome.
"I'm with you," he whispered, twenty feet behind.
At the glass double doors to Holly's, Gillie wheeled around. "So whatcha gonna steal?"
Wade took a deep breath and peered into the aisles of bread, aspirin, and cookies, the racks of sunglasses and visors and lotion, and the tangle of dip nets and rods.
"Haven't decided. Maybe some candy or ... triple geez, no."
"My mom's in there talkin' to Holly. I think she's gonna ask for a job waitin' tables at the bar next door." Disappointed, he faced Gillie. "I gotta wait till she leaves. I'm not goin' in there while my mom's there."
Gillie shook his head. "You're a big-time stealer all right. Man, I can't believe this--the kid's scared of his mom."
"Am not. But a smart stealer, he don't take unnecessary chances," Wade exclaimed, hoping his words echoed enough cockiness and street wisdom to sound convincing.
Gillie seemed to be studying him, and it made him uncomfortable.
"You know what your problem is, Wade ole friend? You're a coward. Got no guts. I shoulda seen it before. You're 'fraid to go into forbidden territory."
The words "coward" and "no guts" reactivated Wade's palm pressing; but the words "forbidden territory," the mystique of them, the surprising ease with which they slipped from Gillie's tongue, startled him.
And he found himself listening.
"Yeah, that's what it is," Gillie continued. "You say you got the guts to take care of yourself, and maybe you do when things is safe; but what about when they're not? What about when you got to do things and go into places where you could get your ass burned? You got to have the guts to cross the line. These here doors is your line, man. You gonna cross it?"
Shamed, fuming within, Wade stared at the white silt standing in tiny mounds where the doors came together; then he raised his eyes and caught the profile of his mother's face, the black ringlets of her hair.
"I can take care of myself. I ain't a coward."
Gillie made a deprecatory sound with his lips; two drops of spittle landed on Wade's flushed cheek.
"See this nickel?" Gillie taunted, holding it up against the glare of the noonday sun. "I'm gonna walk in there and buy me one Blue Volcano Jaw Teaser, but I'm comin' out with a stash--I'm talkin' at least two candy bars and a bag of M & M's."
"Big deal," said Wade, his heart racing as he followed Gillie's swagger into the air-conditioned store.
Can he really deliver on this one? It would be too awesome. Too friggin' awesome.
The door alert, a string of flat, metallic shells, rang discordantly.
Holly Webster, proprietress, looked up from her conversation with Anita Martin and smiled, and when she commenced talking again, Wade could see her fat jowls quiver. He avoided his mother's glance. In fact, he stayed mostly out of sight, over near the ice cream freezer, as Gillie went to work.
Cool. Gillie was so-o-o cool. He strolled by the candy rack, passing it while keeping his hand tucked in the stomach pouch of his windbreaker. He turned and sought eye contact with Wade. Gaining it, he slowed his steps on a return pass at the candy rack, his head cocked to one side as if listening to every word Holly and Mrs. Martin exchanged.
Cool. Careful. Awesome.
Wade held his breath and tiptoed from aisle to aisle. He momentarily lost sight of his friend, but could hear him clink his nickel on the counter and purchase the Teaser. The indistinct give and take between the purchaser and Holly was muffled. Then a pleasant, fat lady chuckle was followed by another few words. And then Gillie was on his way to the glass doors.
The words rumbled through Wade's thoughts like thunder rolling over the nearby Everglades. Gillie had ventured into Holly's, claiming he could load up. Stealing. Forbidden territory. So cool. Had he pulled it off?
"Couldn't have," Wade whispered to himself.
He would have bet money Gillie failed. 2
Surprised beyond words, Wade wrapped his fingers around the Snicker's bar as if doubting it were real. He and Gillie hunkered down behind Holly's to examine the loot: Besides the Snicker's, there was an Almond Joy, a bag of Peanut M & M's, a half dozen caramel squares, and, of course, the Blue Volcano Jaw Teaser.
Wade touched each item; a string of saliva escaped from one corner of his mouth.
Gillie laughed. Then he said, "Hey, your eyes are big as pool balls. Whatsa matter, didn't you think I could pull it off?"
Wade shook his head very slowly, the kind of head shake every boy understands to have been generated by envy or astonishment.
"You did pretty good, Gillie."
"Pretty good? Friggin' right, I did."
Gillie leaned closer and whispered, "Now it's your turn. You ain't freezin' up on me, are you?"
"Huh? Me? Freezin' up? No way. No way."
Gillie seemed to study him again; Wade pushed himself to his feet to elude the unnerving scrutiny.
"Here," said Gillie, "you can have half my Almond Joy. After you steal somethin', I'll show you a cool thing we can do with the caramels."
"What's the cool thing?"
Wolfing down the candy, Gillie gargled, "Huh-uh. Later."
They dipped into the M & M's, crunching, and on such a warm day in late May they discovered that the candy-coated goodies do indeed melt in your hand--and get smeared on your shirt and shorts and chin--even your sneakers.
"You know what, Gillie? This stuff makes me thirsty. You thirsty?"
"Yeah. Bad thirsty."
Hands on hips, head cocked at a mischievous angle, Gillie surveyed a wisp of cloud far to the north. Wade, whose estimation of his friend had just climbed a dozen rungs, thought Gillie looked too cool to be true. Off the scale cool.
"Here's the plan," Gillie exclaimed suddenly. "While I'm buyin' a can of Cherry Coke, you cruise the candy rack and fill your pockets--little shit like bubble gum and jaw breakers, they're the easiest. Bags of M & M's and Skittles make too much noise if you're just startin' out stealin'." He paused. "Listen, I'll be a distraction, you know, so you can make a clean lift. It'll be a piece of cake."
Wade wanted to protest, wanted to maintain that he needed no such assistance. I can take care of myself. But he kept his mouth shut. Obviously Gillie was in a class by himself when it came to lifting goodies.
And so, backs of his knees the consistency of Jell-o, Wade trailed into Holly's behind Gillie. The scenario unfolded in an orderly fashion. Gillie worked his special magic at the soft drink cooler and ambled toward the checkout counter, where Holly and Wade's mom pursued their seemingly idle chatter.
"Piece of cake," Wade whispered, attempting to pump up his courage.
He threaded his way past the bags of potato chips and cheese curls, one ear glued to Gillie's progress; and then it presented itself, heart-plunging and larger than life--the candy rack. It was a profusion of colors and anticipations of tastes.
Gillie, Cherry Coke in hand, had reached the counter.
Better hurry up and take something, Wade told himself.
He scanned the rack, scrambling his brain to recall Gillie's advice. And suddenly panic--he couldn't decide. Colors and items and sizes blurred. He could hear Holly's chuckle, but he could also imagine her meat-hook of an arm swinging down upon him: Put that back! And what about his mom? She would pitch a major fit. She would send him on the longest guilt trip of his young life.
He grabbed at a Blue Volcano and tried to jam it into the pocket of his shorts.
But he dropped it. It bounced twice and rolled, luckily just as the cash register drawer rattled open.
Why am I doing this? I've never really stolen anything except once at school I took a couple of baseball cards out of a kid's locker. I've been in fights and been sent to the principal's office, but I've never, ever stolen stuff from a real store.
He conjured up Gillie's cocky grin.
Coward. No guts.
He dived to the floor after the Blue Volcano; it was wedged beneath the rack.
Gillie was starting to leave.
Grab something! Anything!
Wade got to his feet and without looking snatched at one of the display boxes and, heart beating like a jambox, poked the item in his pocket. Then he hustled out of the store.
Once outside, he ran. He didn't stop until he reached the halfway point of the small bridge that joined Orchid Springs with the Schreck Wildlife Refuge. Beneath his feet, the wooden planks continued to echo the hammering of his footfalls.
Huffing and puffing, Gillie jogged up, and they rested their elbows on the railing, eyes drawn to the coffee-colored water of the slough as it flowed sluggishly below them, moving inexorably toward its destination: the Everglades.
"Let me see what you got," Gillie prodded.
Wade hesitated; it was a stomach-turning realization: He had no idea exactly what he had thrust into his pocket before desperately escaping Holly's.
"Sure. I made a super-clean lift. You didn't need to be a distraction for me." He brought his hand free of his pocket and slowly uncurled his fingers.
Gillie frowned. "A pack of wintergreen gum? All the neat junk in there and you stole a pack of wintergreen gum? You friggin' serious?"
The tips of Wade's ears burned; his throat filled with sawdust as he stared down at the gum.
He swallowed, and the resultant gulp was audible.
Time to stonewall it, he reasoned. "Hey, I like wintergreen gum. It's my favorite kind. It's what I wanted to steal."
Charade under way, he tore into the pack, unwrapped a piece, and popped it into his mouth. He immediately hated the taste, the semi-sweet coolness with a bite all its own.
"Want a piece?"
Gillie grimaced. "Not on a bet."
He opened his can of Cherry Coke and slipped a second can to Wade, who almost sent the partially chewed gum on a journey into his bowels.
"You got two!"
"Couldn't leave out my buddy, could I?"
Impressed, Wade took a long draw on the sickeningly sweet drink, a draw imitative of Gillie's, and then he noticed that his friend's gaze was glued to a skiff tied up thirty yards beyond them--a skiff that belonged to Mr. C.M. Bradshaw, real estate developer and self-appointed mayor of Orchid Springs.
Eyes never abandoning the skiff, Gillie said, "It's gonna be a good summer. Monday's the last day of school, and you and me are gonna be cocks of the rock."
"That Australian? 'Cocks of the rock'?"
"Naw--it's somethin' my Granny Roth says."
When Gillie wasn't looking, Wade sneaked the wintergreen out of his mouth and gave it a hard flick behind his back. He took another swig at his Cherry Coke, all the while admiring the final inches of Gillie's rat's tail and wondering how much his mom would scream if he dyed his own coal-black hair blond. Some pretty serious screaming, he guessed, but he didn't care; it would mean he was more like Gillie.
Bradshaw's skiff continued to occupy his hero's attention. Wade finished his Coke and belched loudly, earning him an appreciative smile from Gillie, who volleyed an even louder belch, and they pursued the impromptu competition until Wade's stomach hurt and Gillie gained an unceremonious victory.
Then Wade said, "Anything every scare you, Gillie? I mean, really, really scare you? Scare you shitless?"
"Shitless?" He thought a split-second. "No."
Wade grinned. Yeah, it was going to be a great summer. In the company of a cool dude like Gillie, how could it be anything else?
"Hey, wanna have some fun?" Gillie exclaimed.
Nodding, Wade finished his soda.
Eyes twinkling mischievously, Gillie held up two caramel squares.
"Feeding time." 3
The kangaroo, an elderly female named Ruthie, worked her velvety lips like fingers, but no matter how hard she tried, the sticky caramel squares eluded her control. At one point, she rolled onto her back, pawing at her mouth, chewing as furiously as her ancient jaws would allow.
Gillie and Wade cackled.
But as they watched the shackled animal, Wade shot a wary glance now and again at the Key-West-type, white-frame house at the rear of the refuge.
"What if Miss Freda sees us?" he offered in a sober moment between laughs.
Gillie waved him off. "She never comes outta her house. Not for nuthin'. She's got a housekeeper, a real live aborigine from Australia who does everything for her. Houston Parker and old Hash are supposed to tend the animals and keep up the grounds--but you don't see them around, do you?"
After Ruthie had managed to worry the caramel squares into a more consumable texture, the boys grew weary of her performance and moved to the koala cage and the pen holding the large ostrichlike rhea. From there they migrated to the gator area and hovered at the chain-link fence, hoping to see one of the muddy gray-green monsters snap into action.
"Let's go tease at Houston's albino," Gillie suggested.
The pure white gator, a five-footer, had a shallow concrete pool of its own. Gillie waited for a couple of tourists to move on before searching in the nearby vegetation for a wire-looped bamboo pole used for dangling snacks near the mouth of the rare reptile.
"Houston's chopper be headin' in soon," Wade warned.
"I ain't 'fraid of Houston," said Gillie, tapping the gator on its snout until, irritated, it lunged, snapping, whipping its tail to show that it meant business. "Houston thinks he's hot stuff, you know. Thinks he looks like Don Johnson; thinks all the women are warm for his bod. Your mom likes him--I can tell that."
A flame torched in Wade's chest.
"She does not! She thinks he's a jerk--least I think he's a jerk."
Winning several more angry snaps from the gator, Gillie tossed the pole aside and said, "I bet Houston's humpin' your mom."
Wade froze; the fury started at the soles of his feet and spiraled up through his stomach and chest, and when it reached his mouth he growled low and mean. Then he charged.
It wasn't much of a fight. More of a shoving match in which Gillie easily held off the smaller boy, giggling madly as he did so.
"Is not! Is not! Is not!" Wade yelled.
A tourist or two in the distance might have taken notice; but the basking gators did not, and when the dust had settled, Gillie apologized. Sort of.
"Look, I'd've never said anything 'bout your mom and Houston if I'd known how it'd freak you. Wow, you got seriously freaked."
Embarrassed, Wade caught his breath.
"Didn't mean to jump you," he mumbled. "Don't talk 'bout Houston and my mom no more, okay?"
Wade looked around. He had forgotten about something, lost as he had been in the aura of Gillie's company--even if Gillie could ignite his anger any second.
"You seen Timmy?"
"Geez, I'm supposed to keep an eye on him. Mom says I got to."
"Glad I don't got a little brother," said Gillie. "They can be real pissers."
"Come on. I gotta see if I can find him."
Back over the bridge they rumbled. Late spring traffic going into the refuge was very light as usual. The world of Orchid Springs seemed to belong exclusively to the two boys.
"There he is," Wade exclaimed. "Down by the slough."
"Yeah, and look who's with him."
Both boys snickered.
The scene they came upon consisted of a nine-year-old, black-haired boy and a heavyset girl, eleven, lightly spotted with freckles which matched her strawberry-blond hair. The boy was Timmy Martin; the girl was Sara Beth Bradshaw, the mayor's daughter. They were farting around near the skiff, perhaps toying with the daring idea of taking a ride in it, but much too timid to ever attempt it.
As Wade and Gillie approached them, Gillie became animated.
"It's happy, happy hippo, happy, happy hippo," he chortled, dancing down the gentle bank toward the slough, working his arms so that they resembled a huge mouth opening and closing.
"Happy, happy hippo," Wade chimed in, and almost immediately, Timmy echoed the taunt aimed at the overweight girl.
Sara Beth retaliated with a throaty shriek and more. She lifted one of the long wooden poles out of the skiff and jabbed it at Gillie's feet as if she were a medieval jouster wielding a lance.
"Get out of here!" she screamed. "Stop it, Timmy! Whose side are you on?"
She turned on her little turncoat friend, but he was swayed by the company of the older boys. The taunting continued for several minutes, much sound and fury--no injuries beyond Sara Beth's humiliation.
Wade grasped Timmy's arm eventually and pulled him up the bank. "Mom don't want you so close to the slough."
"Aw, why not? I can swim."
"Don't be so stupid, Timmy. There's alligators in there. They'd bite your face off if they got a chance."
Timmy thoughtfully touched at his nose and cheeks as if entertaining images of such a horrific event.
"You and Sara Beth go on up and play around the trailers," Wade added.
"We can play wherever we want to. My father owns most of Orchid Springs," said the flush-faced girl.
"Hippo, hippo, hippo," Gillie chanted, charging at her, sending her scrambling up the bank, scalded by his aggression.
"Go on, get," Wade said.
Timmy and Sara Beth lingered. Then she said, "You better leave my father's boat alone."
"It's hippo season, Sara Beth, you better get your fat ass outta here," Gillie called out. And he and Wade laughed riotously.
But not for long.
In Gillie's teeming brain, an idea was forming.
"Wade, ole friend, you ever been to Pelican Pond?"
The two boys flopped down in the cool grass bordering the slough. Wade glanced over his shoulder, making certain that Timmy was minding him.
"No. Where is it?"
Gillie gestured vaguely toward the mangrove swamp. "Some miles out there."
"What's so special about it?"
Rolling over so that he could look directly into Wade's eyes, Gillie whispered, "It's forbidden territory."
"You're full of shit, Gillie."
But the words had, once again, tapped a nerve. Wade felt tingly all over.
"And you're a friggin' coward."
They shoved at one another playfully before Wade asked, "So how do we get there?"
"How do you think, snothead--we fly!"
Gillie jumped to his feet and flailed his arms and circled Wade like a huge winged thing, soaring, gliding, and finally swooping down to attack.
"I'm serious," Wade protested, fighting off the predatory Gillie-creature.
Speaking very slowly, as if explaining something to the mentally handicapped, Gillie said, "We borrow Mr. Bradshaw's skiff."
"What? Come on, Gillie, if we steal that skiff, Bradshaw'll have our butts in a sling."
"Did I say 'steal'? Read my lips--'bor-row.' We're going to borrow it just as soon as I get my spear. Stay here. I'll be back in a second."
Pelican Pond. Forbidden territory.
Wade sat nervously contemplating the situation: Stealing candy's one thing--but stealing a boat! The notion scared him, yet curiously thrilled him. Could he back out of it? Could he tell Gillie he needed to stay and watch after Timmy?
Gillie's claim echoed through the empty rooms of his thoughts.
"I can take care of myself," he whispered. "I ain't no baby, and I ain't no coward."
The sight of Gillie returning cheered him, reaffirming his decision.
"Is that your spear?" Wade asked.
Halfway down the bank, Gillie stopped. "No, it's a friggin' toothpick! Course it's my spear. Here, jump in the skiff and hold on to this while I push us off."
He tossed the object at Wade, who muffed it before he got control of it and gingerly stepped into the skiff. The spear was a masterwork of boyhood ingenuity: An axe handle with a long, nasty-looking butcher knife lashed to one end with wire and twine and black electrician's tape.
"Geez oh God, Gillie--this thing's wicked."
"Might need it where we're goin'."
As the skiff eased away from the bank and Gillie leaped aboard, Wade felt a draught of cool air gust through his insides.
Borrow, not steal, he reminded himself.
Wade remained seated, but Gillie stood, maneuvering the pushpole, straining to coax the skiff out into the current.
From a vantage point somewhere out of sight, Sara Beth's voice screeched, "I'm going to tell my father!"
"Hippo, hippo, hippo!" Gillie called back, and as they caught the sluggish current, he and Wade laughed and whooped and felt a particular surge of energy that only boys can understand.
In a matter of minutes, they were drifting free of Orchid Springs. Holly's store and her bar, the mobile home park, the scattering of cheap condos and the area's only motel diminished rapidly. The slough meandered slightly to the right, rimming the edge of the Schreck Wildlife Refuge. Grassy banks transformed into the low tangle of mangrove trees, their roots threatening to claw their way out to the skiff.
"Comin' up on Hash's cabin," Gillie announced.
Behind the small, derelict building stood a tall tower with an observation deck for bird-watchers. As they passed the cabin, Wade thought about the man called Hash, a man who reminded him of the actor Telly Savalas, except that Hash looked meaner, his eyes dark and hard like those of a shark.
"Didja know Hash has a talking parrot and a pet boa constrictor?" Wade asked.
"Sure. I've helped him feed Danbhalah--that's the snake's name. And Ibo, the parrot--man, he can swear like a sailor--neat bird."
Disappointed that Gillie knew more about Hash than he did, Wade sat back and surveyed the scenery and soaked up all the good feeling of being out on such an adventure. There might be hell to pay when his mom heard of it, but, well, it would be worth any punishment.
"I've been thinkin' 'bout somethin'," said Gillie, guiding the skiff expertly down the ever-narrowing slough. "How'd you like to go halves with me on my paper route? Miami Herald. It's a good deal. I've had the route 'bout a year now."
"You serious?" said Wade. "That'd be super."
"Thing I've been thinkin' is--you and me, we're a lot alike, you know."
Wade warmed to the suggestion. "Yeah, I guess maybe you're right."
"I mean, take dads, for example--neither of us got one. Mine left my mom when I was just a baby."
"Mine's not around neither," Wade confirmed. "One night my mom loaded up me and Timmy, and we headed out of St. Louis and came here because Holly--she's my mom's aunt--she told mom we could come here if Dad kept gettin' meaner."
"Your dad pretty mean?"
"Yeah. But--well, he told my mom if she left him, he'd find us and pay her back--you know, get revenge for taking me and Timmy away. My mom's 'fraid he'll show up one of these days and there'll be trouble. We been here two whole months, and so far he hasn't come."
"I don't need a dad," said Gillie. "A mom neither. Livin' with Granny Roth's okay. She don't rag me much. I don't mind nuthin' she tells me to do."
"Where's your mom?"
For a few seconds, Gillie fell silent, then he forced a half chuckle. "She's in Miami. She's a hooker. You know, a whore. A prostitute. Makes pretty good money sometimes."
Wade frowned, and his lip curled as if he had tasted something sour. "She's not really, is she?"
Gillie wheeled in sudden anger. "God damn it, I said she was."
"I'm sorry," said Wade timidly, though it didn't seem to him like quite the right thing to say.
Conversation waned. Gillie let the slow current take them; he used the pole only to keep the skiff centered. A trio of brown pelicans winged above them, and off to their left a couple of wood storks stirred up the mud searching for food.
"Hey, there's a gator nest up ahead," Gillie announced, and Wade felt relieved that the focus of attention had shifted from Gillie's mom.
To their left, the saw grass grew tall, creating an interesting contrast to the low-growing snarl of mangrove trees to their right.
"We gonna look at it?" asked Wade.
"Sure. You can't pass a gator nest and not poke around in it."
"What if the mama gator's 'round? Won't she be protectin' it?"
"That's why I brought my spear. You can cover me while I snatch us both a baby gator."
Gillie maneuvered the skiff up to within a few feet of the nest, a surprisingly large mound of vegetation hugging the bank.
"You want me to cover you?"
"Don't be so friggin' dense--yeah, I'd like to stay in one piece."
When the skiff nosed against the mounded nest, Gillie scrambled out onto it. Wade, spear in hand, crouched low, scanning the slough for any suspicious movement.
"Gillie, could a mama gator bite this boat in two?"
His curiosity running full speed, Gillie gently pawed through the top layer of sticks, paying no attention to his friend's anxiety.
"Gillie? I'm serious ... Gillie, I think somethin's under the boat. You better leave the nest alone."
Spear poised to thrust into the water, Wade stood and squinted into the brackish water.
"Will you stop buggin' me!"
"All right, but I'm tellin' you ... somethin's under the boat."
"Mud and swamp peat. That's what's under the boat, Wade. You're friggin' imaginin' things."
Gillie continued to remove sticks from the top of the nest until he happened to glance into the saw grass nearby. "Shit! Look at that."
"Gator comin'?" Wade tensed, tightening his grip on the spear handle.
"Somebody beat us to it," said Gillie as he tossed something white into the skiff.
Wade tiptoed reflexively away from it.
"What is that?"
"Broken gator egg," said Gillie. "Raccoons have been here. Couple dozen broken eggs over in the grass."
Fears relenting, Wade said, "I wouldn't want to be that coon if mama gator finds him."
Gillie stepped back into the skiff. "Me neither. But she won't. Coons--they're real good at stealin' and gettin' away with it. Kinda like you and me."
He winked and rubbed at the blond stubble beneath his cap. Wielding the pushpole, he swung the skiff out into mid-current. For another hundred yards, they rode upon the rhythm of the swamp, the mangroves thickening, snowy egrets and blue herons watching them disinterestedly from knobby limbs.
"Hey, Gillie, you think it's 'bout time we turned 'round?"
"And miss Pelican Pond? Hang on. It's only another mile or so."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot, you know, 'bout Pelican Pond." 4
As they ventured onward, deeper and deeper into the labyrinth, Wade felt the mangroves take on a sinister air, their prop roots bending in graceful arcs resembled giant webs harboring an unseen spider creature beneath them somewhere in the muck. The waxy green foliage of the trees concealed furtive movement, completing the atmosphere of potential terror.
"This is neat," Wade exclaimed, hiding his real feelings.
"Beats the hell outa bein' in school, don't it?"
Wade smiled. The next mile passed slowly, and his smile gradually faded as the afternoon sun began to slip westward in earnest. The breeze soon died away, and the swamp's humidity closed around them oppressively.
"Skins! Skins!" Gillie suddenly exclaimed.
Wade jolted out of his reverie, his eyes darting from side to side, expecting to see a gator or perhaps that spider creature his fear had spawned. But then he saw that Gillie was peeling off his windbreaker and T-shirt, and so he followed suit, keeping his cap on, as did Gillie, to ward off the possibility of a badly sunburned face.
They floated on, a lazy, dreamlike experience; the slough narrowed, then doglegged right. And Gillie whooped, sending a foursome of egrets winging straight at the sun.
"We made it!"
Wade stood up; the scene he surveyed weakened the backs of his knees.
"This is it, isn't it? Pelican Pond."
"Damn right," said Gillie, his sweaty face beaming with a pride that suggested ownership.
"I don't see any pelicans," said Wade.
Gillie laughed. "You're not for real, man. It's just a friggin' name. Maybe pelicans used to nest here--who knows. Just a friggin' name. Waddaya think of the place?"
Gillie brought the skiff virtually to a stop. Wade drank in his surroundings as if he were dying of thirst: The slough emptied into a circular pond twenty to twenty-five yards in diameter, its water gray-black and locked in an almost imperceptible counter-clockwise swirl. To its right crowded the mangroves; top center, the slough resumed meandering still again to the right. But to the left of the pond, a hummock rose, an island of firmament covered in saw grass and dwarfed pines.
"This is weird," Wade muttered. "Super weird. But, hey, what's that wooden thing?"
At the far end of the hummock, railroad ties had been shaped into a boxlike platform and sunken into the grass.
"It belongs to Hash. There's a sinkhole over there, and he's got this pump that dredges up mud. He comes out here to look for fossils."
"You know, like old bones. He sells them to some rich guy in Miami--prehistoric shit like leg bones of saber-tooth lions. Haven't you ever seen some of Hash's bones out at his cabin?"
"Oh ... yeah, sure. But why isn't he out doin' this more often?"
"'Cause he's a drunk. Whenever he looks for bones, he comes back and goes on a big drunk."
Gillie shrugged. "Who cares?"
They poled along the right edge of the bank. Wade was lost in thought over Hash's activities, but the sharp eyes of Gillie slammed him back to reality.
"It's mine!" he cried, grabbing his spear. "I saw it first!"
Out onto the mangrove roots he scampered, negotiating them as if they were a massive playground junglegym. 5
"Gillie? What do you see?"
Wade followed Gillie's acrobatics, saw the mangrove limbs bow and strafe, but could not detect the source of his animation. Not at first.
"Look at the size of that mother!" Gillie exclaimed, using the spear like a balance pole.
The rustle of wings in the near distance weakened the hold of the pond's humidity, and something more--the outer edge of a stench, the stink perhaps of the swamp itself, decaying, putrefying, feeding upon its own death--wafted through the air.
Gillie had stopped. "You see it?"
"No, what are you after?"
"Corn snake, dummy. Great big sucker. Six feet, I'd bet."
A slip of movement near the prop roots, and Wade caught sight of the orange-banded, gray-brown reptile.
"Down there, Gillie." Wade pointed.
"Keep the skiff close," Gillie called out as he gave chase.
Plunging the pushpole into the water, Wade smiled at his friend's energy.
Gillie crashed forward, yelping with glee; soon he clambered around the turn and was out of sight, though Wade could hear his voice and the protest of the mangrove limbs.
The pond seemed alive with the vibration of wings. Everywhere wings; a thrumming, heavy and ominous. Wade looked up, expecting to see Houston Parker's copter, but his eye was greeted only by white wisps of clouds.
Wade wrinkled his nose. More of the swamp stench.
"Shit, I lost him!" Gillie's words filtered through the humidity. Having failed but not having been defeated, he climbed back into the skiff.
"Stinks 'round here, don't it?" said Wade.
"I missed that son-of-a-bitch by this far." He held up a thumb and forefinger, indicating a distance of two inches or so.
Wade was about to ask him why the corn snake held such importance when he noticed something. "Hey, where's your spear?"
"Friggin' straight--musta left it where I 'bout stuck that mister. Be right back."
"Well, hurry up, okay? We been gone long enough. My mom's gonna jump my butt."
"Keep your pants on," Gillie exclaimed over his shoulder.
He rambled across the six-to seven-foot tops of the mangroves, then swung beyond view. Wade poled to the point at which the slough bled away from the pond, meandering right.
"I found it!"
"Good," Wade whispered to himself, growing more uncomfortable every moment with the heat, the stench, and the muted hum which now seemed to surround him.
He waited, wondering what story Gillie would cook up to explain their taking the skiff. Mr. Bradshaw would complain to Holly and Holly would probably inform his mom and--
Something in the tone of Gillie's voice sent a tiny chill trickling down his spine.
Not a cry, not a loud call.
Wade poled into the renewed current; the mangroves blocked his vision. "Gillie, where are you?"
Once again, Gillie said, "Wade?" Then repeated it rapidly: "Wade? Wade?" Then louder and louder: "Wade! Wa-a-a-de!"
The boy poled faster; the skiff caught the swing of the current, and suddenly he could see a wide expanse of mangroves.
He could see Gillie.
And smell the stench.
It burned the lining of his nostrils; mucous streamed down over his lips.
He could feel the air from the beat of wings.
And hear a smothered cry--nothing like Gillie's voice.
A blackness rose and spread, a black curtain closing, then slowly opening.
Wade's skin turned cool and clammy.
His stomach gurgled once.
He held on to the pushpole as if letting go of it would plunge him into a bottomless abyss.
Then his senses began to shut down.
The world became a gigantic drive-in movie screen, white and blank.