He needed large quantities of alcohol and fast. He walked away from the voodoo shop and back to the leather bar.
Frankie was about halfway between the bar and Zara’s place when he heard a loud metal-on-stone noise and squealing tires; other people ducked for cover and screamed. He saw smoke. Frankie ran for cover and dive-bombed behind a table, turning it on its side as he went over. He raised his eyes over the edge of the table and he saw it: Landry’s hideously ugly car. Frankie had left the keys in it; he could never imagine anyone would ever steal that rolling disaster. Now he guessed he was wrong. Some guy from the bar must have gotten himself good and drunk and decided to take it for a ride. What he saw next made his blood run cold. Behind the steering wheel, opening the door was a man: a man who looked exactly like Landry.
The door opened and the man exploded from the car and ran over to Frankie. It was Landry coming at Frankie in a blur and a flash, and his blows landed fast and hard. Frankie felt the first blows land in his ribcage. He held his breath waiting for the ribs to break. Another shot came to the face and one to the nose so fast that Frankie couldn’t even raise his hands to defend as the pummeling continued. He could taste blood in the back of his throat, felt a rib and then a second rib break. He finally raised his fist to strike back at Landry. A hard punch landed against Frankie’s temple and Frankie fell backward over the table he’d used for cover. He felt his head hit the broken concrete of the sidewalk and next he found himself looking down at the cobbles of the street, tasting the dirt. He realized that he was face down and a good flow of blood was running from both his nose and a new cut on his forehead.
He watched as his blood mixed into the dirt of the street making a thick paste. He felt the newly broken ribs; the pain was strangely like an old friend. In that moment he tried to recall the last time he’d gone a year without a broken rib, or two, or three. He felt a hand on the back of his neck and the collar of his t-shirt pulling him back up. Half-standing, he was spun around. He felt another blow to his head. Thought and consciousness faded away, closing in from the edges to a tiny singular point, but it never disappeared. Frankie hung on.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman from the voodoo shop and Zara, watching as he got beaten into the ground, presumably by a ghost. Frankie thought, There’s your poetic justice. There’s your irony. You can’t even fight anymore, tough guy. You can’t fuck and you can’t fight; you can’t even make sentences. You can only bleed from your beatings. Then the lights finally went out.
He woke up in the front seat of Landry’s car, still bleeding. His ribs hurt with every breath. Landry was driving, fast as hell.
Frankie looked over at him and said, “I saw you die. You had no pulse. How the Hell can you be alive? I saw you die!”
Landry looked at him. His anger filled the ugly, smelly car. He screamed at Frankie. “You left me out there in the swamp! You left all those people to die. Now you will help me clear the bodies and clean up the mess you made, you and your goddamned demon.”
Frankie countered back, “I watched you die, all of you! You can’t be alive!”
Landry replied, “You know nothing of life, of death or faith. What you watched was your fear of the other side. That’s why you run, you hide. You’re a drunk and a drug addict. You know nothing of these swamps or life. You live to satisfy your fear, and my friends died because of you. Those deaths, Frankie, are all on you. Now you will help me gather the bodies and help those that died find their peace. You need to seek peace, Frankie. Your days and your chances are running out.”
Frankie asked, “How can you find peace in that insane ritual, dancing with snakes? You talk of peace like you own it. You know nothing of peace.”
Landry immediately countered back. “Peace? What in the world can a terrified man such as you ever know of peace, Frankie? Do you know the one thing me and the snake people and your voodoo friend and the white witch you love and your friend at the bar, David, all have in common, Frankie? Faith. We all share a faith. We all worship our God, the same God. We worship him in our own ways, and we fight each other because ‘they all do it wrong, and I do it right’, and all that bullshit, but we all agree we need to acknowledge him, but not you. You are too wise and all knowing.
“You are an arrogant, ignorant bastard, Frankie, and when you’re gone and even your demon abandons you to rot, as he takes up with another, because he’s nothing but a whore for suffering, that is the day you’ll realize you were wrong and your life was a meaningless waste. Look at your life—you’ve killed your best friend, and how many others? Your sanity has left you. You cannot even love anymore. You are becoming the ghost before you die. Can you even feel anything anymore? Did you even feel it when I beat your ass? If you did, that’s the last thing that you’ll feel, a dying man’s pain. I’m not going to preach to you, Frankie, but your days and your options are running low. You can change like a chameleon. I’ve seen you do it. Now it’s time you change again.”
Frankie looked over at him and said, “How are you not fucking dead? I wish you were dead.”
Landry countered, “I’d love to kill you, right here and right now. I’d love nothing more, but I’ve got to teach you one more thing. Then you can die.”
Frankie stared off into space. His body hurt everywhere. He’d never felt this battered. His spirit was as beaten as his body. Finally he spoke, “It’s not God; it was never God. It’s the church. That’s my war. The church has turned me against God and turned me into this. I hate your church. I hate Zara’s church, and the voodoo church and Alexandrine’s church and the old ladies’ church. I hate all the fucking churches, but I hate your goddamned, stupid, fucking snake-shaking church the worst. You pompous asses, who do you think you are? It’s people like you who have turned people like me against God. Your church is the poison. Your religion is cancer. I’m a fucking mess; I’ll not argue that, but you people, with your religion, are as bad as me any day. You see what I’ve become? It is driven by people like you. I can’t stand the monster I’ve become and I can’t stand what you’ve become.”
Landry looked over at Frankie and for the first time he saw the demon. The demon looked at Landry and offered him his hand.
The long narrow road to the site of the ceremony was more frightening in the daylight than the dark. The deep, black water lapped only inches from the surface of the road, just compacted dirt and rocks and sand. The smell of the swamp was noxious on a good day. It smelled a lot like rotting fish and foul water.
Frankie could see where everything had happened as they approached, including the pile of boxes where the preacher had stood and the blackened spot where the fire had raged. It was only a two-hundred foot by two-hundred-foot small circle of dirt in the middle of this putrid swamp. As they got closer, he could see the land was covered with the bodies of those less fortunate than Landry.
Frankie burst out, “Why did you live and these other assholes die? What makes you so fucking special?”
Landry had been quiet since he saw the demon in Frankie. He finally spoke, “I’ve been snake-bitten many times, as a boy and all my life, many a time. Their venom paralyzes me, but it doesn’t kill me. When you turned the snakes on the people, that’s when you killed them. You couldn’t stand the thought of those you’ve killed before. Was it three? Now it’s in the dozens.”
Frankie realized he had stopped seeing the demon. He started to only feel his presence. The car pulled to a stop. The air was putrid from the swamp and the bodies decaying in the still hot, autumn sun. Frankie vomited and realized he was out of booze or drugs. He needed something now. He looked in the back of the car. There was nothing. He was shaking a little. He told Landry this was insane. Being there was insane. If they reported this, they would certainly be arrested. There was only one thing to do. Feed the bodies to the alligators and hope they’d disappear. Landry wanted to bring them back for a proper Christian burial.
Frankie looked at him and said, “Are you fucking nuts? I’m not going to prison for you or your insane church, your madness or your lies. We need to throw these fuckers in the swamp and forget this ever happened.”
Landry got a crazed look on his face. Frankie walked around, pretending to survey the carnage. He was, in fact, looking for a weapon. He spotted a dead man with a Bowie knife strapped to his belt. He reached down as if he was trying to extricate the dead man from some other bodies. He took the knife and carefully slid it inside his shorts.
Landry yelled over to Frankie, over the sound of the now- steady breeze and the sound of the water lapping at the shallow shoreline, “I see you found something, a weapon maybe. Do you plan to kill me out here, Frankie? I have a knife too. Is that how we decide this, with a knife fight to the end? You are sick and your body is broken, and you can hardly breathe. It won’t take a lot for me to kill you.”
Frankie yelled back, “I’m probably a suspect in at least one murder. They have an eye on me for the killings at the carnival in South Carolina. I can’t be involved in this mess too. I can’t go to prison. You get that, right? I cannot and I will not go to prison, so either you kill me, or I kill you, or we work out something right here and now”
Landry yelled back, “I don’t want to kill you and I don’t want to die. Besides, you can’t kill another black man. Your grandma really will think you’re a racist.”
Frankie countered, “Leave my grandma out of this. Now, what do we do?” They both stood there among the rotten stench and looked at each other. “This fucking sucks, Landry. This fucking sucks,” Frankie commented as he sat down, surrounded by the garbage and dead bodies, and broke down. Landry came over to him and put his arm around him, cradling him. They sat there in this embrace for a long time, in silence, listening to the wind and the waves lapping against the sand and stones.
“Let’s go back to town. I’ll call the sheriff. It is obvious these people are all snake-bitten. I’ll say I came out here—they know we have service here—and found them all dead. It will be fine. This is not on you, Frankie. This is on me.” Frankie turned his head to face Landry and Landry’s blood ran cold. He saw the eyes of that demon staring back at him. Landry pushed back in fear. Frankie reached into the back of his pants, pulled out his knife, and buried it deep into Landry’s spine. He didn’t even know why, but Landry didn’t budge. They both stared at each other.
Landry finally spoke. “I’ve been dead a long time my friend. I am here to keep you from my fate. I was you, Frankie. I walked your path. I lived your life, and died your death. I died ugly and alone. I know your demon; he was my demon. I had to die to be free of him, and from what I know of you, you’ll have to die to be free of him as well. We are both descended from the witches, Frankie: my mother and your grandmother. We have deeper ties than most to the other side. That’s why you see the things you see and do the things you do.”
With those words Landry vanished, leaving Frankie alone on the little spit of land in the hot sun: hungover, desperate for a drink, shaking, broken and beaten, surrounded by rotting corpses. Frankie became even more confused. He wasn’t sure where he was or how he got there. He knew for certain his ribs were broken again, and it felt like his nose might be broken. He knew these dead bodies were real and the odor of that place was real. He sat there as the sun started to set and he realized he had to get out of there.
He got up and ran to the car. Climbing inside, he turned the key. The battery was dead. He started to shake. He slammed his hands on the steering wheel and started to scream and finally cry. The sun got lower in the sky. He tore the car apart, desperate for something to drink. Under seats, in the glovebox, he even took the keys and tried to open the trunk. The key stuck in it. He started to punch the lid with both fists. He tried the key one more time and the trunk popped open. He was suddenly overjoyed—among twenty-five or so empty beer cans, he discovered half an unopened six-pack, three cans still in the rings. It was about 100 degrees in the trunk, but it didn’t matter as long as he had alcohol. He dug deeper, a quart of Jack Daniels, barely cracked, his least favorite booze, appeared. He’d be puking before long, but it didn’t matter. He cracked the first hot beer and took a long drink off the equally hot bottle of JD.
He sat back in the car and tried to collect his thoughts. It was at least six to eight miles back to the highway, a long walk even without broken ribs. It would be dark soon. The night sounds held their own terror, and then there were alligators. This situation was bad. Thankfully he had alcohol. He sat and drank slowly, medicating. This booze had to last all night.
Frankie got out of the car and walked back out near the bodies. Then he started to hear noises and the sounds of the Caneback rattlers; he could feel the snake people as they began to surround him; he could feel them, all of them. They chanted and spoke in tongues to him as it was getting dark. He felt the demon, and he took a long, long drink from the bottle. He sat down on the sand and stone with them. Sitting cross-legged, he drank from the bottle of Jack and waited for the ghosts to come to him. They came slowly, one by one. Each one approached him and hovered around him. He felt their fear, their sadness, their terror; the terror of these disconnected spirits became his terror. He felt cold, for the first time in months since leaving Canada; he felt the cold of the other side. The lost spirits began to chant in muffled, indecipherable sounds, and he saw Landry reappear out of the crowd of opaque spirits.
There was no fight left in Frankie. It was the first time in his relatively short, complicated life that he just felt completely defeated. He was always the one who could never be beaten, never be broken, but sitting here now in the middle of a swamp, drinking the drink he hated the most, surrounded by dead and rotting bodies, Frankie was losing what was left of his sanity.
He wanted to die, right there and then. End it. Finally, just end it. He took another drink from the bottle of Jack; he held his breath as he swallowed the bourbon. He held it down. He cracked the last beer and drank that.
He was tired and his body was depleted. He wanted to lie down in the dirt and die. It was silent, except for the sounds of the water lapping and the noises of the creatures of the swamp. Frankie, a Yankee by birth, was rightfully terrified of whatever could come out of this place. It was, without question, the most frightened he’d ever been in his life. He felt the demon’s joy. Frankie asked him, “Are you happy now? You’ve won. It took you years, but you have won. This is it.” The demon was silent. He held the bottle of Jack Daniels to his mouth and drank the last from the bottle. He lay down on the sand and passed out, hoping to die.
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