suspense by Gay Degani
Pneumonia wears me down most winters and it takes the spring to clear my lungs. That’s when I pack my old Dodge and head for our camp down Bayou Black.
My husband, Warren, reminds me we’re getting old, like I need to hear that, and warns me, too. “There’s been break-ins down there, even a knifing or two.”
“I’ve got the 12-gauge,” I tell him and he shakes his head.
I have Leroy too, our yellow Lab, but I don’t say anything about him because we both know Leroy’s useless, dog most likely to lick an intruder to death. I’m a little surprised at Warren’s concern because I think he’s secretly glad to see me go. He likes his guy time, he tells me, especially since he’s retired. Spends most of his time at Knights of Columbus. At least that’s where he says he goes.
Most camps are abandoned this time of year, though some families losing their jobs think they can live down the bayou on crawfish and okra. Cajuns been doing that since the 1800s, so I guess it’s not a bad plan.
My sister lives in New York so the camp is mine for the most part. It’s got a kitchen and living area on the left and a big bedroom on the right with bunks and a double. I throw my sleeping bag on the bigger bed, empty the cooler into the ancient fridge, and I’m outside in a heavy cardigan. Leroy curls next to the rocker, me with a Pabst Blue Ribbon watching the marshy current move slowly toward the Gulf, wondering if Warren’s gonna leave me.
I fall asleep and wake up to darkness, Leroy barking in the distance, the bayou black as molasses in the moonlight.
I shout, “Leroy, you hush,” and turn toward his bark. He must be over to the Beaudry cabin. No one’s stayed there since the old lady died, her family out in California now. “Get back over here.”
But the dog keeps yapping. I wonder if it’s squatters gotten him riled or the burglars Warren talked about. I don’t care if some homeless man’s found a bunk on Miz Beaudry’s floor, but I gotta shut that dog up. The swamp magnifies every sound.
Pulling myself out of the rocker, I notice how stiff I’m getting. I wrap my sweater tighter and start to head down the stairs—camps are built on stilts this close to the bayou—then stop. My head and legs feel all prickly, my primitive instincts kicking in, being late and lonely here, so I go into the dark cabin and get the shotgun. When I come out, I don’t let the screen door slam.
The weeds on the other side of our shell driveway are knee high, and the next camp is a ways away. My chest tightens and I don’t know if it’s fear or pneumonia, the gun getting heavy in my hands. Leroy lets out a woof as I get close. The rickety stairs are shadowed, and I reconsider what I’m doing.
Music from a radio slips across the water. Lights glimmer through the oak. The bayou’s soft flow sends up its peaty smell.
I hear a sudden rustle behind me, and heart thumping, whirl to see Leroy. I shake my head and wonder what the hell I’m doing out here in the cold.
“Go on,” I tell the dog, flicking my hand toward the camp “Get.” He races back. I survey the Beaudry place one more time, catch the faintest odor of skunk, and retrace my path through the high grass, taking my time, feeling the light night breeze on my cheeks.
I’m a little shaken, but laughing too, thinking how some old polecat could lure me into the night, glad it wasn’t one of Warren’s desperate squatters with a knife. When I see Leroy up on the porch wagging his tail, I want to smack him and myself. I hope he’s proud of scaring me half to death.
“You big ‘fraidy cat,” I tell the dog, breathing hard from the stairs, setting the shotgun against the cedar wall.
I go in, but before I snap on the lights, I know something’s wrong. The ions or whatever it is makes up the balance of the universe seems out of whack, but Leroy licks my hand and races to the bedroom. I’m frightened, and he’s happy?
Leroy lets out a friendly bark. That’s when I know someone’s here, but Leroy’s not growling so it must be — but why the hell he hasn’t turned on the lights? Then a dozen little moments from the past year rush over me. Plans forgotten, late-night car trouble, an unexpected sweetness lingering on one of his shirt’s. My head buzzes with doubt and denial and fear. Warren warned me about break-ins, and I find myself hoping that’s all it is.
I back toward the door and open the screen. My heart for the second time tonight is hammering away as I reach for the shotgun leaning against the exterior wall.
A creak in the wood floor, then footsteps charge from the bedroom. Adrenaline surges through me as I throw myself onto the porch, fumbling with the shotgun’s safety, struggling to chamber a round.
An inky form tackles me and we fall against the railing. Leroy’s barking again, and I can’t move under the heavy weight. My head is pinned to the side, and the shock of cold metal sliding into my side takes my breath. A knife? He has a knife?
My finger searches for the trigger and when it makes contact, the sound is like nothing I’ve ever heard.
Time ticks as I gather strength to drag myself out from under the weight. I touch his gray fuzz. Wonder how this could have happened and turn him toward me. Leroy pads over and licks his face.
Moonlight slips through the clouds and Warren’s blood gleams black as the bayou.
Copyright June 2010 by Gay Degani