- by Jonathan Kincade -
Vincent punched the steering wheel and the horn blared, causing Marcus to cringe. “Thought you got it checked before we left the city.”
“I didn’t have the money for that,” Vincent snapped. He huffed and tried to the start the car again, but something under the hood made a grinding noise like shrieking prey. “Plus, I looked at it myself.”
Typical Vincent. He was a hobbyist who couldn’t accept the fact that his knowledge frequently fell short of what was needed.
“Hate to say I told you so . . .”
Vincent shot him an impatient look, his eyes shining a deeper blue than usual.
Marcus palmed his camera and diverted his gaze to the empty surroundings, the land all but abandoned in the warm, tangerine light of the dimming sunset. The road stretched into the distance before disappearing behind a bend cut through knotted thickets. It was a place of passing. An in-between not good for much else.
Vincent popped the rusty hood and got out. Marcus followed, running a hand through his nappy hair. He stood back and watched his boyfriend rummage underneath the car’s hood. A series of quick twists accompanied by grunts and mutterings that made him wonder whether Vincent could see anything.
Marcus opened his mouth to help, but hesitated. He knew he wasn’t the intended target of his boyfriend’s anger. But he also knew he was a casualty of that anger, again. He felt caught between the desire to wade in and fix things, risking more wrath in the process, and letting his emotions simmer in silent agony.
His ears burned and he reached up to rub at one.
After a few minutes Marcus adopted a playful tone and said, “Babe you don’t know a thing about cars. Why don’t we just call roadside assistance?”
Vincent went quiet beneath the hood. He rose with a cracking noise and nodded.
Marcus fished his phone from his pocket and tapped its screen, but nothing happened—the device dead. Running maps, music, and games on a last, last generation smartphone would do that quickly, even when plugged in. He sucked his teeth and stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
“I’ll make the call,” Vincent said. He squeezed Marcus’ shoulder as he came around the car, and his face softened, revealing a tenderness which reminded Marcus that Vincent’s passion cut both ways. A year together had taught him that. The burning in his ears dulled a little at the thought.
Vincent retrieved his phone and the screen lit up to show the background image, a selfie taken only yesterday in St. Simons: Vincent draped around Marcus’ smiling frame from behind, pecking him on the cheek. He leaned against the car and dialled.
Marcus scanned the trees to either side of the road and felt unease creep into his chest. Out of reflex he raised his camera and started snapping shots. He mashed the shutter button, not caring about composition, and let its reticent clunk-hiss draw him into a reverie that was, in a way, its own sort of meditation.
Marcus paused when he spotted a massive vulture, perched on one of the branches overhanging the road. He edged toward it with every few clicks of the shutter. The bird drew its wings together like a shawl and craned its head in stop-motion jerks before locking on him with a carnelian eye. Marcus kept shooting, but after a few yards his foot landed in something slick and squishy. He lost his balance and slid forward, grimacing at the substance’s resemblance to shit. The nausea bubbling in his stomach evaporated when he realized it was only mud.
He lifted his camera again to train it on the bird, but it was gone. Just an empty branch quivering in the wind.
Marcus searched the sky. Found nothing. He tiptoed back through the mud as he scrolled through his pictures. His eyes narrowed in bewilderment at shots of an empty branch. He scoured the pictures again, subjecting the bird’s absence to his photographer’s logic.
“This is what happens when you don’t plan your shots around time of day”—Professor Abelson’s voice ran through his head like an anxious afterthought. But the exposure was fine, there was little to no noise, and nothing to cause lens flare. In fact, the shots were crisp and vivid in a way that always lasted longer than his memory.
Marcus found himself questioning whether or not the vulture had been there, even though he could recall it with all the colour and detail of something in high definition. The only conclusion he could draw was that the ride had left him more exhausted than he realized.
That, or he was losing it.
When he got back to the car Marcus looked up from his camera screen to find that, like the bird, Vincent was also gone.
“Vince!” he shouted in distress, walking a bit down the road. “Where did you go?”
A gust blew and the trees shushed at him. He wondered, then, if his boyfriend, too, was unreal. A lucid hallucination, like the bird. His pulse quickened when someone from beyond the forest responded to his calls.
Marcus approached the tree line with apprehension, pressure ballooning in his skull. He peered through the narrow spaces between gnarled trunks, squinting to see in the fading light.
Beyond the trees he was able to make out a figure that called his name again. What was Vincent doing out there?
Marcus entered the copse, clutching his camera close. He sidled between damp tree trunks and fought his way through brambles that tore at his jeans. They stung and bit, and he clenched his jaw as he bled. On the other side was a small mud clearing that rolled into a dingy swamp. Vincent stood in front of a wooden pontoon bridge that ran across the water and disappeared into another dense thicket on the horizon.
Marcus rushed to Vincent. “What are you doing down here, babe?”
“Just exploring. Saw the bridge from the road and decided to check it out.” Vincent snatched a stone from the mud and threw it at a lily pad floating on the water’s surface. It sank, shot back up, and floated away without a sound. “I think this is one of those state heritage sites, but I can’t make out most of the text.”
He pointed to a ramshackle wooden sign just barely poking out from the water. Marcus scrutinized it, only able to make out scraps of the carved text:
In 1803, one of the largest . . . to plantations on nearby . . . Island . . . drowned their captors . . . grounding of the ship in Dunbar Creek. Singing, they marched . . . recovered thirteen . . . others remained missing . . .
The marker did vaguely remind him of other state heritage sites they’d seen on their trip. Most were marked by huge stone slabs that gave a factual account of what had happened there. Without their markers, one docent had said, they were just unexceptional patches of grass, mud, trees . . .
Not unlike this place.
Yet this marker was crude in comparison to others Marcus had seen. Homemade. “This looks really old. Why does it look like that?”
“They probably never updated it. Whoever’s in charge probably forgot about this place.”
“Or maybe they stopped caring.”
The area felt antique, burdened with something he couldn’t name, intent in passing that thing on. Nothing like the manicured St. Simons, which was brimming with pleasant white folks in boat shoes and colour-blocked pastels.
“I want to see where this goes,” Vincent said. “Think there’s a ship out there?” He took an abrupt step onto the bridge, turned around, and flashed a mischievous grin. Marcus puckered his lips and shook his head.
“We’ve got to wait for the tow truck. It’s already getting dark.”
Vincent bit his lip and frowned at the eastern horizon. The Sun was an orange sliver, its light almost gone.
“Listen, the closest operator they have is a few hours away so all we can do is wait. He’ll call when we he gets here. We can just explore for a little bit—we’ll turn around if it gets too hard to continue.”
Marcus sighed in resignation, aware that he had already been swept up in another of Vincent’s excursions. But it was that or wait alone with the car, no phone, and a camera eye that wasn’t quite working as it should. He followed, across the narrow bridge in single file. It creaked beneath their weight as it drifted back and forth in the duckweed floating along the water. The farther they went, the higher the water rose. Eventually the bridge flooded beneath them, water spilling across the walkway and soaking their shoes. Night had fallen by the time they reached the second thicket. And through the dark, herons called to one another across plains of reed and unseen creatures marked their presence with only a soft plop as they slid into the opaque water. Vincent used his phone’s meagre flashlight to illuminate all of three feet in front of them. The bridge ended in a damp mound that poked up from the centre of the thicket. The darkness made it difficult to tell how far it went.
“This is it?” Vincent said in disbelief.
Marcus was somewhat relieved. He didn’t know what to expect, which made finding nothing seem like the safest outcome. Still, he clung to Vincent’s back and followed him around the mound in search of something interesting. The light only showed messy, peat-covered land.
When something howled behind them, he panicked and rushed forward. Rough tendrils caressed his leg and visions of some Mesozoic horror filled his mind, family to the alligators that no doubt made the swamp their home. It would have thick, impenetrable skin and a maw crowded with yellowed teeth that could easily mangle flesh.
Marcus crashed into Vincent’s back and he lost his grip on the phone. It sailed into the air, illuminating a dead oak overhung with Spanish moss. They both tried to catch it, blocking each other’s attempts as the phone tumbled and landed in the water.
Its light receded, flickered, and died.
“Goddammit!” Vincent roared, wheeling on Marcus, arms raised. “Why were you following so close?”
“It was an accident.”
Vincent took a profound breath and the damp ground shifted. Marcus was familiar with this quiet, smoldering anger and wondered which shade of blue those eyes burned in that moment. In the light of day he usually adopted an apologetic face that soothed Vincent in a way mere words couldn’t.
“There’s not even anything here,” he said, trying to placate him.
“Even if there was, we can’t see it now so might as well head back. Let’s just hope the operator doesn’t call me before we get there.”
Marcus searched for the bridge, intent on returning to their car. He felt like a child playing a game, giddy at reaching home base. But which way led back? Trying to catch the phone had turned him around. The disorienting dark and the mound’s circular shape created an overwhelming number of possibilities.
“Which way do we go?”
“I’m not sure . . .” Marcus’ voice was cut with bitterness and something else. Fear.
He pawed the air around him and found Vincent’s hand after missing it a few times. He grasped it and his squeeze was returned with a tender, clammy one. Lightning bugs on either side of them winked in and out of existence. Cicadas droned a warning.
Marcus scanned the night, picked a spot where a pathetic sliver of moonlight showed through, and trudged forward. The peat soil threatened to swallow him as it gave way beneath his footsteps. His confidence waned as water lapped at his knees. Though the night was cool and the water cold, sweat dripped down his forehead and neck and pooled in his crotch. He grew bolder as they reached the thicket’s edge, ready to break into a run.
Then something emerged from the water.
“Hey babe, I’m sorry about—”
Marcus squeezed his boyfriend’s hand and Vincent drew a pained breath. Marcus ducked them behind a tree and whispered, “What is that?”
A frail silhouette stood inert, a few yards past the tree line.
Marcus squinted, trying to resolve the figure into something more than a vague outline.
“It looks like a person,” Vincent whispered into his ear, breath hot.
The entity began to sway as the clang of metal on metal emanated from its direction. Sharp yet rhythmic, a hymn’s beat without melody.
A pressure built around Marcus’ neck as the song grew and intensified, calling to him, until he realized the weight was his camera dangling, and was struck with an idea. He adjusted the camera’s aperture knob to maximize its exposure. The diaphragm worked like an eye, its pupil capable of widening enough to make out what his own couldn’t.
He shuddered as the knob clicked and threatened to give away their location, if the being wasn’t already aware of them. Silently, he aimed the camera and mashed the shutter button with his twitching finger. Vincent’s squinting face was bathed in white light as his own vision filled with floating specks.
Marcus breathed a curse. He’d forgotten to disable the flash.
A soft wading in the water told him that the entity had turned in their direction.
“The water brought us, the water will take us home,” the figure gargled, throat filled with water.
Marcus froze, dizzy, blood pumping in his ears, skin crawling from the base of his neck to his toes. He wanted to claw under it.
He tugged Vincent’s arm. “Come on!”
“Which way?” Vincent shouted.
“Doesn’t matter!” Marcus picked a random direction and took off. He hopped forward, lifting each leg high out of the water, waves crashing in his wake as his thighs burned from the effort. His eyes widened at an amber glow that strobed off to their left, in and out like a beckoning lighthouse.
The coast, or some other horror?
He changed course and ran toward the light. He grinned like a man possessed when his feet hit the wood of the moonlit pontoon bridge. His breath came in torn fragments that stabbed his ribs, but he kept running as the bridge careened under his stride. Vincent’s footsteps thudded somewhere behind him.
Marcus slipped as the walkaway flooded. He lost his balance and plunged into the swamp, water filling his mouth and lungs.
“Vince!” he shouted when he came back up. He raised his face to the sky, trying to keep his mouth and nose above the surface.
Dozens of entities emerged from the trees, the water doing nothing to slow their progress. Some loomed large. Others diminutive, small and overdeveloped—children. They joined together in a flooded chorus and shambled across the bridge.
At their head was the vague entity they’d just fled. It solidified into a woman with each step toward them. Water rained from her tightly coiled hair and streamed down her body. It dripped into the swamp with the sound of someone stepping across pieces of broken glass. Each wrist was bound in wrought shackles that appeared stuck together. The chains attached to them collided before shaking to a rest in the water, a thick din that shrivelled and faded.
Marcus scrambled for the bridge, but something snatched his torso. He turned as a face rose from the water to meet his, staring at him from behind eyelids bloated shut.
“The water brought us, the water will take us home, nwa.”
The being tightened its grip.
Unexplainable visions flashed through Marcus’ head. He was still himself, yet also someone else, lifetimes away, at the beginning of it all.
Shackled. Crammed into a tight, brackish space. Dark. Exceedingly dark. He can’t see land but hears the others speak of it. Dreads boils at what it signals.
Then a murky wetness and the familiar, bright light of day. The swamp, same yet different. It doesn’t have any story, at least none to be aware of. Then, an odd sensation, freedom. Then, nothing. A beginning that is also an end.
Tightness around Marcus’ arm dispelled the visions and snapped him back to the swamp. He was pulled toward the bridge, hard.
“Climb up, quick.”
Vincent knelt in front of him, a grimace of effort and dread etched on his face. Marcus reeled at his boyfriend’s sudden appearance, caught between the visions and the present. Who was he truly?
Nwa, the chorus sang.
“Marcus!” Vincent pleaded.
Marcus struggled and broke free of the being that held him. It pawed at his legs as he kicked at it, and used Vincent’s help to hoist a leg up and climb onto the bridge.
But the entity in the water was determined to have someone. It slammed both arms down on the side of the bridge and pulled. The structure lurched under their combined weight and tilted into the water.
Marcus fastened his arms around one of the bridge planks, amid the cacophony of splashing. Arms burning, he clung to the wood as it shot up from the water and scrambled atop as it swayed and bounced.
Vincent was down in the water, struggling with the dead man.
“Grab my hand!” Marcus reached for him.
Vincent tried to wade toward him, but the group was on top of him in moments. They grappled with him and pulled him back.
“Oyibo,” they chanted together.
Vincent flailed in their grip as another of the dead latched on, and they dragged him down.
“Run, go!” he yelled through splashing, spitting out water. More bodies piled atop his, before he disappeared below the surface.
Marcus wheeled to see the female entity stop a foot away. She locked eyes with him, pale, water-blistered skin peeling in sopping layers.
“Nwa,” she croaked.
Marcus stumbled a few steps back, then rolled and ran. Fear drove him away from where Vincent vanished below the surface, away from the water. His muscles burned, his stomach torn and knotted. He focused on the amber glow, newly recovered, and used it as a beacon as he fled. Shame mixed with guilt as he collapsed before the light and lay on the ground, heaving for air, resigning himself to whatever end was coming. He wondered whether anyone would find them, too, in a few hundred years.
“Where the hell did you come from?” The voice came like gravel in a dryer.
Marcus looked up to find a grizzled man standing next to a tow truck.
“We’ve got to get out of here. They’re coming,” Marcus pleaded, stabbing a finger back at the darkness, at what lay beyond the woods.
“What you talking about, boy?” The man squinted in confusion.
“These . . . things. Out there.”
Marcus fidgeted as the man peered into trees. The tow truck’s emergency light winked, illuminating the area around them in an odd mixture of safety and exposure. Shades crept at the edge.
“Yanking my chain,” the man said and chuckled. “This your car?”
“Yes, yes, yes. Can we go now?”
“I been calling the number ya’ll provided. Got nothing but voicemail. Manifest says two passengers.” The man paused. “Where’s the other one?”
“Not coming,” Marcus groaned, low and pained. He gazed at his feet, letting remorse overtake him.
The man nodded. “Then go ahead and hop in. I’ll finish up here.” He wiped a greasy hand on his chest, and hit a button on the truck. It whirred and started hoisting the SUV onto its bed. His too-casual demeanor betraying a knowledge of what lay in the waters beyond.
Marcus moaned in loss and frustration but got in anyway. What else could he do? He didn’t realize the tow truck driver had gotten in until the truck lurched forward. They sat crammed in the small cab, not speaking as they drove. Through the window as they departed Marcus swore he could still see them—the entities. They lingered in the waters beyond the wood, waiting for his inevitable return.
It was only then he shuddered with realization. The female being had been right on top of him, could have had him. But she had only stared and uttered: Nwa. He didn’t need to question it. He already knew what it meant, from memories not his own, but lived nonetheless.
© 2018 by Jonathan Kincade
Jonathan Kincade is a musician, scholar, and self-professed storytelling nerd. He has a story featured in FIYAH magazine and has also done story development for scripts that are now movies in theaters and on Netflix. An NDA prevents him from sharing the titles, so you’ll just have to take his word for it. He hopes to have his very Black Sci-fi novel completed soon but in the meantime you can reach him on Twitter @minustimes.