Hellion

“Y’all put that gator right back where you found him or I’ll pepper your asses with 177s.”

I aimed my Daisy right at Butch, the more chicken-shit of the pair. 

Mitch held Dragon by the jaws while Butch tried to steady his lashing tail. 

“Feeding him Atomic Fireballs again, I see, which might could kill him. Why you want to mess with an innocent beast?”

“Come on, Butter, we just wanna see him fart fire,” said Mitch. 

“Y’all idiots and cruel. Now go on and lower him into his tub.” 

They couldn’t grab their rifles with Dragon all thrashing and ready to bite, so they eased him down into his number-two tub, which was getting right snug now that he ’d grown. 

“Put that chicken wire over the top and get them latch-action toggles clamped.” 

Mitch kept Dragon’s jaws shut while his little brother Butch crouched with the cover, slammed it down fast as soon as Mitch let go. Then Dragon went ape-shit, snapping at the wire, so mad I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold him for a week. 

“Was a dumb thing to do but we did it,” said Butch, lighting a cig butt to play it cool. He leaned on his Beeman like John Wayne. 

I lowered my gun.

“You do it again and I’ll sick the Swamp Ape on you. I’ll get Miss Ruby to put a hex on your entrails. You’ll wake up at midnight with wasps in your belly, stinging you from the inside.”

“What’s entrails?” asked Mitch.

“Guts, idget. Now promise you won’t mess with Dragon again.”

“Promise,” they said. 

“Let’s spit on it.” 

We spit into our palms and did some funky hand jives. 

“You heard about the citified pansy at Miss Edna’s house?” asked Butch. 

“Who?”

“Your third cousin from Aiken, Butter, according to our mama. They got a mall there and a nuke reactor.”

“Something tells me he’s gonna be achin’ real soon.” Mitch laughed so hard he upped a lump of snot. He spit the loogie in the dirt and slid astride their Yamaha Midget X-7. Butch hopped on back, holding the sport fender as they sped off. 

Miss Edna, postmistress of Davis Station and widowed a decade, didn’t take crap. She allowed me use of her library, told me I could be a career girl if I’d apply myself. Tried to get me in a dress now and then and said my tow-head was too pretty for a pixie cut, especially since I was almost thirteen. 

Hands and face fresh-washed, I stood on her spotless porch, waiting for her to answer my knock. Saw a skink skitter over the steps and longed for my Daisy—an easy dollar down the drain. Suffering some phobia that went back to her childhood before the Civil War, Miss Edna paid me one buck for every lizard I shot. I’d present them in a shoebox, do a body count while she cringed, then bury them out back her shed. 

“Well hello there, Butter.” Miss Edna stood behind her screen door, aproned, the boy lurking in her shadow, a pale freckled scrap of male humanity who looked like he ’d strain to lift an ice-cream spoon. “Come on in and meet Alex. He’s just a few months older than you.”

I’d never heard of a boy named Alex who wasn’t on TV. He nodded, led me back to the den where he had his Atari hooked up to Miss Edna’s console Panasonic. Sat right down to play Q*bert. Kept his eyes on that creepy head with feet, jumping it around on a pyramid of cubes, avoiding bouncing snakes and balls—an exercise in mindless stupidity. 

“Come all this way to play Q*bert?” I asked him. 

“Nothing much to do,” he said. 

“You stuck your head out the door since you came?”

“Why bother?” 

“Why don’t you let me show you a thing or two?”

When Alex pulled away from the screen, I noticed he was long in the neck, with big eyes the color of my mama’s olive-fire agate beads. A cowlick ruined his strawberry-blond New Wave bangs, preventing them from cascading over his right eye. And his lips pouted like Simon Le Bon’s.

“What you got to show?” He looked me over. 

“A whole ’nother universe. Teach you how to drive a go-cart, for one, how to shoot an air rifle, plus several techniques for handling a live gator. How to creep up on the Swamp Ape without making him bellow and coax him out with a fistful of Slim Jims. Show you flesh-eating plants and deer dens, the Plat Eye demon floating over black water, forest fairies swooping up to mooch from Miss Ruby’s hummingbird feeder.”

The bragging spewed out like I was hexed. I would’ve kept going if Miss Edna hadn’t called me back to the kitchen.  

“Butter,” she said. “You got to promise me you’ll watch out for Alex, the boys around here being mostly hellions.”

“I’m a hellion, too, Miss Edna.”

“No, Butter, not like the rest. You’re my great-niece, after all.”

She drew me close so she could whisper, suffocating me with her White Shoulders perfume.

“Alex’s mama just had a premature baby boy. Know what that means?”

“Came out before he was cooked.”

“That’s right. A poor three-pound thing struggling to breathe in an oxygen tank. Alex, being tenderhearted, is taking it right hard. So, you got to keep that in mind and be gentle with him. You can be a lady when you want to.” 

Ladies sat still and tormented themselves with stiff dresses and torture-chamber shoes. Ladies held their tongues when men walked among them and fixed them food and drinks. As my mama, who worked the night shift at Clarendon Memorial, said, “I don’t have time to be a lady.” 

“I won’t never be a lady,” I said. “But I won’t let the boys mess with Alex.” 

_____

The next day was one of those blazing summer mornings: sky blue as a pilot light and birds going full throttle, opening their golden beaks and warbling, Glory Be. I had Alex riding shotgun in my Hellcat kt100, a right decent yard cart upgraded by my daddy with thirteen-inch tires and a Titan engine. Wind in my hair, Dr. Pepper between my thighs, one hand on the wheel while the other handled a fresh-lit cig butt: pure-tee heaven on a stick, except for Alex gripping the side rail like he didn’t trust my driving. Had a mind to race the Hellcat that day, with Alex there to witness my triumph, and we were headed over to the Cliffs. 

The boys were already there, brown and shirtless, popping wheelies and jumping gullies, flying ass-over-teacup around that eroded moonscape where a feller buncher had plucked pines out of the earth like they were dandelions. Second we arrived, Butch and Mitch did donuts around us, spitting loogies and slurs, calling Alex poontang, gerbil balls, city flower, and fagmeat. 

“Your mama’s got sweet tits,” screamed Butch, who was all of ten. “Ask me how I know.” 

I eased into a clump of upstart pines and cut the motor. Sat in the prickly shade for a spell, sipping my Dr. Pepper. 

“Look,” I told Alex, “first thing you got to learn is ignore their insults, save your wrath for what matters. Remember that nuclear radiation has endowed you with a Hulk-like condition where you might, any minute, pop out into a raging, muscular mutant.” 

“What?” Alex smirked.

“Well, that’s what I told them, since you live near that nuke plant. Also said you could mind-read, tell futures, and levitate.”

“Why would you say that?”

“For one, pardon me, you’re weird. And two, they would’ve already snatched you off the cart and whupped you if I hadn’t, or peppered you with BBs. We got to keep up the mystery. Now, if Mitch or Butch mess with you, mention that their mama’s got webbed toes. They don’t know I know, so that’ll spook them. Tell Kenny Walker, a big fool who flunked three grades, that he will realize his dream and become a professional wrestler. As for Dinky Watts, the little redheaded spazz whose freckles run together, tell him redheads are mind-readers by nature and you’ll teach him this art like Merlin did King Arthur. Don’t even talk to Cag Stukes, the one in the Gamecock jersey, cause he speaks the language of fists.”

Alex went bluish-pale like skim milk.

“I should go back to Meemaw’s house.” 

“They’ll track you there. They’ll climb through your window at night and dump fire ants in your bed. Tough this one out and you’re home free. Think about it like a video game. Get to the next level.” 

_____

I drove straight into an orange cloud of clay dust that hovered like a nuke mushroom, came out the other side, jumped two gullies, hugged the outer wall of a U-turn, and fishtailed right up to the action. Though it almost killed him, Alex loosened his grip on the side rail, keeping up a half-assed appearance of cool. The boys went crazy strutting their stuff: Cag circling with a two-wheeled donut on his Rambler x10; Butch standing on the seat of their Midget while Mitch popped a wheelie; Dinky hopping the hind wheel of his Hornet while Kenny zipped higgledy-piggledy on his Scorpion 5. I realized how stoked they were to blow this city-boy away. They finished their daredevilry, circled us twice, and then stood idling, staring at Alex, half-hoping my tales were real—that the boy would float up out of his seat. Instead, Alex staggered from the cart, fell to his knees, and wallowed on the ground like a bass gasping for water.

“Aw, shit,” I said. “Looks like he’s about to turn.”

Clutching his head, Alex stood up.

“I can-not al-low it to hap-pen a-gain,” he said. “Too ma-ny in-no-cents slaugh-tered.” 

Alex twitched as though shaking a winged demon from his back. He tottered like an exhausted old man and then stared up at the sky, croaked out gibberish, pausing between bouts as though taking dictation from God. 

“Your mother has mermaid blood.” He pointed at Mitch and Butch. “Hence her webbed toes. She swims in Lake Marion on full-moon nights.” 

The brothers’ jaws dropped at the exact same time, and I pictured them creeping around their den at night, their mama crashed on the couch, her feet freed from the Reeboks she wore to waitress, toes moist and pale in the spooky light of their television. 

“And you.” He turned to Kenny. “Blessed with giant’s blood. One day you will know the glory of kayfabe, your name joining the ranks of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair.” 

“Last but not least,” Alex said, pointing solemnly at Dinky. “Redheaded elf of rare blood, small of stature but vast of mind, I will teach you the telepathic arts.” 

With his word-magic, Alex struck the boy-beasts dumb. They stood, dreamy-eyed in the balmy morning air—all except Cag, who fidgeted, eyes goggling, waiting to hear his fortune. But Alex paid him no mind, sank into my Hellcat as though exhausted from divining. And we sped off, cackling at our stunt. 

_____

After lunch I fetched Alex from Miss Edna’s porch, blood thrilling when I saw him smile. The boy was bored with his video games, revved up for real adventure, and I spirited him off into the afternoon. We zipped through three backyards to mine, scooted round the shed, and rolled up to Dragon’s den. When I cut my motor, cicadas blared like summer’s engine. We scrambled from the cart, hunkered down by Dragon’s hole, dug deep by my daddy back in April when I’d found the baby gator moping motherless in the swamp. I’d fed him peepers and silver minnows, brought green life back into his yellowing scales. 

Now Dragon pressed against the chicken wire, flaring his nostrils and smacking his chops. He could smell the ripe chicken giblets and fresh bream I’d brought, his food bucket bungeed to my Hellcat’s rear frame.

“Easy there, Dragon,” I cooed, fetching his dinner. I swung the bucket over his head to let him catch the scent of meat. “Hungry, buddy?”

The reptile snapped at the wire, his tub spattered with liquid shit. I prayed those Atomic Fireballs hadn’t torn him up too bad. 

“Damn fools,” I hissed.

“Who?” asked Alex.

“Nothing.” 

I unclamped the chicken wire.

“He won’t bite you or try to run?” Alex backed away from the cage.

“Got him trained,” I said, relieved to see Dragon creep halfway out the water onto his rock. He used to perch like an anole there, little and jaunty. Now, hemmed in by tub walls, he slithered, covering the mass of the rock with his body, tail whisking the tainted water. He stared up at me, gold-eyed, jaws cracked, waiting for the first giblet to dangle in his range.  

Alex squawked when the gator jumped to snap the meat from its loose-tied noose. But by the third chicken gizzard, the fear had left him. When I lowered the baby bluegill, Alex inched up behind me, crouched hands-on-knees to peer. I could feel his body heat. Maybe that’s what flustered me. Maybe that’s what caused me to lean in too close and get snagged by a tooth—a jagged red rip right through the meat of my lower thumb. I didn’t scream, but Alex did. I had to shush him, tiptoe to secure the chicken wire while Dragon chewed in a trance, savoring the taste of fish splashed with his adoptive mother’s blood. 

Hot tears burned my eyes, but I didn’t let them spill. I grabbed my first-aid box from the cart and doused the wound with peroxide. Watched pink froth sizzle in the cut. Wiped it clean with fresh gauze and covered the ugliness with a Revco jumbo strip. 

_____

“Sure you don’t need stitches?” Alex asked that evening, after I’d whisked him off for fresh adventures. 

“Just a scratch. Cleaned it again at home and put some antibiotic ointment on it. My mama works at the hospital, so we got medicine galore.” 

We lazed in a cypress grove at the edge of the swamp, right where the woods got eerie. Frogs bellowed from the deep of it, down in the dark wet where the Swamp Ape lurked and pitcher plants opened their blooms to tempt insects into their acid bellies. When darkness came on, along with the glitter of bugs and stars, I taught Alex frog language: the twitter of wood frogs, the bark of tree frogs, the donk-donk of green frogs. Frogs bleated like sheep and rattled like woodpeckers, droned like power saws and bellowed like bulls. Peeper season was over, but I tried to imitate their high warble, like something from beyond the moon. 

We stared up at the sky, didn’t look at each other, and shared secrets about our lives. I told Alex my mama was a vampire, according to my daddy. A pale woman who drew blood on the hospital night shift, she slept through most of the day. I told him about my father’s slipped disc, his failed soybeans and blighted corn, how he ’d tried to stay busy after both cash crops failed. But his back was busted, and summer had broken him, driving him to drink when dusk came on. He tended to sit alone in our empty house. 

“My parents’ clocks are out of sync,” I said. “And their moods never mesh. My mama sleeps in a mask in a darkened room, sun flicking around the edges of blackout blinds, while my daddy lurks through the house like a man held captive by silence.”

Alex spoke of his own dad, an engineer who worked the nuke plant, a giant fortress gated off from the world. Alex imagined it glowing on a hill, surrounded by forest, contaminated animals creeping radiant in the night. He feared his father brought radiation home in his clothes, that it mixed in the washing machine and poisoned them all. Maybe that was why his mom had birthed a preemie, a three-pound frog-eyed baby that struggled to breathe in his incubator. 

“His eyes are dark silver like a shark’s,” said Alex, “and you can almost see right through his skin. If they keep him in oxygen too long, he’ll get brain damage. But if they stop the flow, he might die of asphyxiation.”

“Terrible,” I said. 

But there were other babies even smaller than Matthew. One of them, a girl called Amy, just disappeared one day. Alex saw a grease spot on her sheet. And then the nurse pulled the sheet off the mini-mattress and gave him a weird look, wadded it up and threw it into a big rolling hamper. Made him wonder how many hospital sheets had been leaked on by the dead. Made him think about all the death mixed up in the washing machines and streaming from the HVAC vents. 

We fell silent and listened to the frogs, with cricket-chirr shimmering over the lower calls. An owl hooted. A chuck-will’s-widow cawed its own name. And through this delicate symphony came the bellow of the Swamp Ape, mournful and longing, as though epochs of human misery had been mixed together into this one voice, ringing out from the deepest dark. I knew where the creature’s hovel was, a shack so mossy it looked like a bear’s den, part and parcel of the wood. I’d seen pieces of the creature in the circle of my flashlight: a crazed red eye, a roaring maw, a hairy arm reaching out to snatch the Slim Jims I fed him from time to time. 

“What the hell is that?” asked Alex. 

“It’s the Swamp Ape,” I said. “Monster of the forest who only comes out at night. Some people say he’s a throwback to ape times, a variety of Bigfoot that’s half aquatic. Others think he escaped from Clemson University, a lab-made creature half-human, half-ape. Another faction believes he’s a regular man, gone feral from drink and craziness, second cousin and once-lover of Sadie Morrison, an ancient lunatic who lives in a mansion that’s half-sunk into black water. Alligators, they say, creep right through her living room, and possums suckle litters on her velvet couch. Birds nest in her moss-festooned chandeliers. Open any closet and moths spew out.”

Though I’d never been able to find her house, I saw Miss Sadie at the Piggly Wiggly sometimes: gray beehive like a crooked wasp nest, polyester dress from the 1960s, and tattered panty hose. She always filled her buggy with Saltine crackers and cans of oyster stew. 

“But you’ve seen this Swamp Ape thing?” asked Alex. 

“I have. And I can take you to him.” I pulled a bundle of Slim Jims from my rucksack. “He won’t hurt you if you bring him a treat.”

We set off down a foot-trail, flashlight flickering over cypress knees that looked like Druids kneeled in prayer. The vines thickened. The trees were smothered with Spanish moss. Mosquitoes swarmed around our force field of Deep Woods OFF! 

I felt something damp and knuckly brush against my wrist. It was Alex’s hand, reaching for mine, half-scared, half-longing. We twined our fingers together and walked deeper in. I felt a sweet twist of nausea in my gut, and the ground went mushy under my feet. 

“This is it,” I whispered. “The Swamp Ape lives just beyond the border between wet and dry ground.”

We let go of each other. I flickered my light through the trees and spotted the collapsing hovel. Out came a bellow so long and low, so misery-packed and wistful, that I longed to join in, to howl my own torments in the muggy dark. 

“Mr. Swamp Ape,” I said. “Got a treat for you.” 

I placed the Slim Jims on an ancient stump. And then we backed away and stepped onto solid land. I could hear the man-beast creeping out, the squelch of feet in mud, low grunts and thick breathing. I flashed my light just in time to see a red-frizzed hand take the Slim Jims. I caught a glimpse of shaggy potbelly. A bulging, baggy eye. And then the creature was gone, retreated into his den, tearing into shrink-wrapped meat with his claws.

“Did you see him?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Alex rasped, his voice ghostly, light as a dandelion seed in wind. 

_____

The next morning Alex looked freaked, pale with bluish streaks under his eyes. 

“What’s the matter with you?”

“Nightmares. Dreamed I was lost in the hospital, looking for the preemie ward. Finally found it and peered through the glass, saw a bullfrog with vampire teeth grinning in my brother’s incubator. Dreamed that the Swamp Ape crept outside my window. I kept waking up, relieved that it was only a dream, and there he leered, the ape-man, reaching in with yellow claws.”

“Dreams within dreams,” I said. “I get those too. And then I know I’m dreaming and start rigging the dream.”

“Me too,” said Alex. “It’s called lucid dreaming. Makes me wonder if we’re dreaming right now.”

“Could be.” 

“You think the Swamp Ape’s a real monster or just a crazy person?”

“A person can be a real monster too.”

Alex chewed on that for a minute, then slipped into my go-cart, and off we drove toward Eb Richburg’s farm shed. Eb was laid up at Clarendon Memorial, getting his sinuses drained. Since he ’d let me drive his tractor before, I figured he wouldn’t mind if I took a city boy for a trip to Ruby’s Whatnots. I took the back way, so Miss Videl wouldn’t spot us, and parked behind their propane tank. 

Mr. Eb’s shed, a glorified carport, smelled of diesel and peppery pesticides. His 4040s, pride and glory, was parked between a riding mower and a no-till corn planter. I smirked when I saw he ’d left in the key, climbed up, and waited for Alex.

“Swear you’ve got permission for this.”

“Sorta kinda,” I said.

“I don’t know.” He made a fish face, but climbed up anyway, wedging himself beside me into the big bucket seat. 

“Trust me,” I said, slipping my brown hand onto his pale knee. I sat for a spell, relishing the warmth that flowed between us. I pulled a Camel butt from the pocket of my cutoffs, lit it with a Bic, took three tokes, and tossed it onto gasoline-spotted concrete, where a small puddle flared into flame. I laughed as I watched the fire wane. Alex winced, but didn’t groan. When I cranked the 4040s, it shuddered to life like a T-Rex. 

We lurched toward the sunny doorway, veered to avoid a nest of scampering kittens, and rolled into a bare-dirt lot. After shifting to second, we chugged around a pond and pulled out onto Moses Dingle Road. It felt good to shift to third, drive with my left hand while lighting another cig butt with my right, nicotine buzz coming on just as I upped it to fourth. And then we were cruising, passing the post office, Uncle Henry’s store with its stack of watermelons, and Hog Heaven BBQ. We passed stray houses and mobile homes, crumbling barns and pre-fab sheds. The sky was cloud-crammed, light streaming through holes in the mass. 

“I love to drive,” I said. “Calms me down.” 

“Got to admit,” said Alex, coughing up a chuckle, “that this particular experience is having the opposite effect on me.”

We passed a neighborhood of sun-bleached shacks and trailers, what Butch and Mitch cruelly called Brown Town, and I eased into the lot of Ruby’s Whatnots. We parked the tractor and went into the cinderblock building. Miss Ruby was a tall, striking woman who ’d been to college and had traced her lineage back to Nigeria. She taught history at Manning High School. 

Miss Ruby’s parents ran the shop during the school year, but she worked it in the summer, the only hippie in Davis Station. She sold carved wood sculptures, a variety of cosmetics and hair products, incense, handmade macramé bags, her daddy’s garden produce, and homegrown herbal remedies she mixed herself, along with fishing tackle, fresh worms, ice, chips, snack cakes, candy, sodas, and beer. I’d tried one of her headache powders and it really worked, but most of the whites and some of the blacks around here figured Ruby dabbled in African hippie voodoo. Miss Edna, however, who knew a thing or two about the world outside Clarendon County, purchased Ruby’s stress-relief tea on the regular. 

“Hey there, Butter,” said Miss Ruby. “I see you’ve got a pal today.”

“His name’s Alex. A city boy from Aiken.”

“Aiken!” She widened her eyes in mock awe. 

“It’s not that big.” Alex shrugged. 

“Well, glad to meet you, city boy. You here for the usual, Butter?”

“Yes, ma’am, except double on both.” 

I pulled out my lizard-hunting money and paid for two Kit Kats and two Dr. Peppers, both a better price than my great-uncle Henry charged down the road. Just a few pennies made all the difference, if you knew how to scrimp and save. Once I got my Daisy and my Hellcat, I always asked for money on birthdays and at Christmas. Add in lizard money, chore money, Tooth Fairy, and Easter Bunny, and I had a right decent savings account at First Palmetto. Top Secret Escape Plan A, I called it, though I didn’t dare let on that I plotted to bolt this backwater when the right time came. Maybe I’d move to Aiken, go to the USC branch they had up there, even though Alex scoffed at the school and said he was aiming for Duke. 

We drove home in silence, watching storm clouds scud along the horizon. Alex almost sobbed with relief when I pulled that tractor into its shed, and then we scrambled out into the thunder-charged air. 

When the storm broke, we ducked under a rusted jut of tin, the porch for Mr. Rufus Brock’s rundown toolshed. We sat on the stoop to revel in our Kit Kats while staring out at the rain. And then I caught a blunt whiff of molten tar—the smell of flat-roof exploration, new roads winding off into the green distance, amusement-park blacktop gone soft in July sun. I jumped up.

“Smell that?” 

“Stinks,” said Alex. 

“I love the smell of pitch.” 

We ducked into the shed, where a half-barrel of molten tar stood cooling, and I dipped a finger in.

“Still warm.” I scooped up a glob of the black stuff and lobbed it at Alex, plopping his left cheek. At first he stood stunned, but then he flashed a grin, grabbed a fistful of dark mash, and pressed it against my throat. I felt his heart thudding as I smeared thick grime over his bony chest. And then we went at it, shoveling filth with our hands and smirching each other’s bodies. We tussled on the concrete floor of the shed, wrestled and kicked our way out into the drizzle. Like puppies, we rolled and nipped in the wet grass. 

We both spotted her at the exact same time: Miss Edna, her wash-and-set hairdo ruined by rain, her bulldog face scrunched with wrath under a broken paisley umbrella. 

“Got a phone call from Mr. Rufus,” she hissed. “Said y’all ’d gotten into his tar. This about takes the cake.”  

She snatched our skinny arms, marched us to her carport, ordered us to strip down to our underwear. We waited with bowed heads, avoiding each other’s eyes as Miss Edna fetched her gas can, a bucket of moldy rags, and a mean-looking scouring brush. 

As the drizzle waned and sunlight gushed, lighting every pore of our bare flesh, Miss Edna rubbed us down with gasoline, pulled a thousand hairs from their follicles as she brushed bits of clotted tar from our screaming skin. I felt dizzy from gas fumes, flayed raw, streaked with chemical burns. 

“Hellions,” she hissed, and kept on scrubbing long after she needed to. Then she hosed us down, sudded us up with Octagon soap, and rinsed us off again. At last, she left us, goose-bumped and hunched in shame, our underwear transparent. We each faked interest in opposite corners of the carport—Alex absorbed with a dead geranium, me lost in a spider’s web. 

“Your meemaw’s a bitch,” I finally said, straining to break the silence.  

When I turned to meet his gaze, hands cupped over my no-count titties, Alex stared at my wet underwear, and I wondered if he could see the puckered slit between my legs. I made out the shape of his thing, curled like a beetle grub in his sodden briefs. 

When Miss Edna returned with a pile of towels, we turned away from each other again. 

“I called your mama,” she told me. “Said for you to get home right this minute.”

Though I pretended to run home, I slipped behind her azaleas to spy. 

“Pick your switch,” she said to Alex.  

“What do you mean by that, Meemaw?” 

Miss Edna pointed at a hickory sapling, instructed him to tear off a flexible young branch, stood behind him as he chose his torture rod, and then ordered him to strip it of leaves. As Alex leaned face-down against the brick wall, his granny lashed at his poor, skinny legs, stinging those tender zones on the backs of his knees and thighs, silk-soft skin that had never known such torture. Mitch and Butch, who had a nose for misery, crept up behind a clump of forsythia to jeer. 

“You rinky-dink piece of fagmeat,” they called. “Our mama said she ain’t no damn mermaid.”  

I closed my eyes, couldn’t bear to watch Alex—green to switching—scream and flinch and jump. Couldn’t stomach the sight of Mitch and Butch laughing so hard they staggered like drunks. 

“City poon,” they screamed. “Dork.” 

Running home, I looked back once, saw poor Alex hugging his knees and sniveling as his grandmother swept the carport in fury. 

“Get home, hellion,” Miss Edna hollered after me, lifting her broom in the air. 

_____

I slipped into the house, which was cold and dark as a tomb, and got dressed. I hoped my mama had gone back to bed, but there she waited on the couch, vampire-pale and smelling of hospital disinfectant. My daddy sat stiffly in his La-Z-Boy, in the non-recline setting, so I knew I was in for some shit. 

“Butterbean.” Daddy moaned my baby name, the name they ’d called me when I was born six pounds with jaundice. And I pictured myself the size of a lima, curled in the warm wet dark of my mama, dreaming myself into being. 

“Why ’d you want to get into that tar?” Daddy said, his eyes red from drinking, and it not hardly noon. “And put your cousin up to mischief too, him on the honor roll and all?” 

“It was a dumb thing to do, but we did it,” I said. “Go ahead and whip me.” 

“Reckon I’ll have to,” Daddy said sadly. I knew he couldn’t bear to beat me.

“She’s too old to whip,” said Mama. “How about you take her go-cart or her gun.”

“But mama,” I said. “Can’t survive without a ride and a weapon, not with these hellion boys.”

“Stay inside, then. Read one of those books Miss Edna lent you.” 

I pictured myself shut up in the air conditioning, sealed off from summer in this twilight house of whispers and swallowed words. 

“Go ahead and take my Daisy,” I said.

Then Mama’s eyes went wide.

“What’s that on your hand?” she said. 

I looked down, saw that my Band-Aid hadn’t survived Miss Edna’s scouring, that my wound was puckered purple, but at least the Neosporin had kept off the pus.

“Tore it on a catbrier thorn,” I said. “But I cleaned it and put on antibiotic. It’s not oozing nothing.” 

“Elizabeth Ann.” Mama shot across the room, picked up my hand, and turned it in the lamplight. “It’s not infected, but it could’ve been. You ought’ve got stitches and an oral antibiotic. Tell me right now how you got this thing.” 

“Dragon nipped me.” 

I couldn’t think of a reasonable fib. If I said dog bite, they might make me get twenty-one rabies shots in the belly, like Kenny Dennis suffered when that field rat bit him. 

“But it was an accident. I had my hand too close to his dinner.” 

Mama gnawed her lip, doing math in her head. She ’d forgot all about Dragon, and now she imagined how much he ’d grown. 

“God damn it,” she hissed. A tremble worked its way through her. 

I bowed my head, waiting for the tornado of her fury to bluster over me.    

“I slave all day at the hospital, and you drown your worthlessness in drink,” she screamed at Daddy. “The least you could do is keep an eye on things around here. How the hell you let that gator get so big?”

“What do you know?” squalled Daddy. “You’re never here. And when you are, you’re like a vampire sleeping, with us on pins and needles.”

And then they went at it, screeching accusations, excuses, and insults, dragging up ancient shit from the deep latrine of their marriage, circling the room like professional wrestlers who ’d never take the leap to strangle each other. 

I sat on the couch and let their words lapse into noise, until Daddy went stone cold silent. He stomped to his gun case, unlocked it, and grabbed his .22. I thought for sure he ’d shoot Mama, that I’d be haunted for life by the sight of her spattered brains. But then, crook-backed and grabbing at the waistline of his pitiful too-big shorts, Daddy stomped out the back door. 

“Don’t you worry, Miss Dracula,” he yelled. “I’ll take care of it.” 

I followed him out into the afternoon glare, where hellions filled the air with thunder, go-carts and dirt bikes kicking up dust. When they saw Daddy bumbling like the Swamp Ape, mad-eyed with his gun, they idled after him. Trying to catch up, I sprinted under the high summer sun, my nose running with the snot of grief. 

“Don’t do it,” I cried, but nobody heard me. A half-dozen engines revved. 

Daddy stooped over Dragon’s cage, unclamped the chicken wire, and flung the cover away. The hellions cut their motors and inched up for a better look. As cicadas chanted in the mystic heat, Dragon crawled out onto the grass and stretched to his full length, nearly three feet long, his spiked back slicked with water. The glorious prehistoric creature opened his mouth in a fanged grin. 

“Please Daddy,” I said gently. “Just let him run off. He’ll smell swamp and head right for it.” 

“He might come back for food and bite somebody. Never should’ve let you keep him in the first place.” 

Still, Daddy seemed to consider my wish. Sat there thinking and cradling his gun. 

“Shoot him,” yelled Dinky Watts. “He looks big enough to eat a baby.” 

“Fools,” I snapped. “None of your damn business.”

“Call somebody a fool,” Mitch and Butch chanted, “you in danger of hell’s fire.” 

Daddy shook his head as though rousing from a dream, took aim, and fired, catching Dragon in the flank. The gator let out a gurgling hiss and rolled onto his side. The boys cheered. Daddy fired again at a closer range, kicked the poor beast onto his back, and blasted another bullet into his pale belly. 

Daddy picked up the limp reptile by the tail, swung his gory trophy in the air, and staggered around the shed toward Mama.

“You happy now, Miss Dracula?” he shrieked. 

Mama stood on the back stoop, fists clenched, her skin so white she glowed. 

“Idgets all,” I hissed, and ran off into the woods. 

_____

It was almost dusk, light tipping toward pink. I was in the swamp, bawling my miseries to the throb of frogs—my baby gator dead, Alex shamed and switched on my account, my house a tomb of silent wrath, vampire and ogre cramming it roof to cellar with what Miss Ruby called bad vibes. I was a hellion, for sure, who deserved to slip back into the swamp from which the first land creatures crawled: those fish with legs, skinks or whatever, primitive pining things. I had four hundred and thirty-six dollars in my savings account. Weren’t enough lizards in Davis Station to shoot for college tuition. Plus, Miss Edna had banished me from her porch. Hellions like me never got scholarships, so why bother striving in school? 

I was lost, doomed to attend Central Carolina Tech, master some bleak medical procedure, and turn into a vampire like my mama. I’d prick human bodies a hundred times a day at Clarendon Memorial, fill those little feedbags with sugar water, or worse: wash diseased feet, rub salve on bedsores, drain abscesses as big as tennis balls. I saw myself, pale and moving in a dream through a hive of the sick and dying, a one-week vacation the only thing to look forward to. Alex had said he wanted to build rockets, and I pictured him zipping off into the twinkling black of space, leaving the likes of me to rot on our ruined planet. I imagined humans crammed cheek to jowl, mutated by nukes, resorting to cannibalism after they ’d devoured every last animal alive. I saw plant life stamped out by solid blacktop, the globe turned to a ball of tar. 

Alex, fated to zoom through universes unknown, was right to keep his distance from both me and planet Earth, a thought that made me bawl the harder. When I finally stopped crying, the bellowing went on, as though the spirit of my grief had haunted the forest. But it was the Swamp Ape, I realized, roaring along with me. Now he, too, stilled his song. We ’d twined our grief together, which had drained the poison from me. I was grateful to the man-beast for that. 

Exhausted, I leaned against a cypress, watching lightning bugs sway out from whatever holes they slept in during the day. 

I noticed a circle of light spotting the trees—the Plat Eye, I thought, sniffing my weakness, come out of his demonic dimension to hound me until I lost my marbles. But it was only a flashlight, my daddy come to fetch me, no doubt.

“Butter,” said a voice high and boyish, not yet croaky from change.

Alex sat down beside me.

“Where you been?” I asked.

“Meemaw kept me locked in all day. But as soon as she dozed off, I put a fake person in my bed, towels and blankets, and slipped out the window to find you.”

“You’re not mad at me about the switching?”

“Not your fault. Got a will of my own and so do you.”

“I guess we all do,” I said, thinking it over. “Though some people got more room to move than others.” 

“Sorry about Dragon,” he whispered, slipping his hand into mine. “Butch told me all about it.” 

“Daddy might’ve been right,” I said. “That gator would’ve probably come back for food and bit somebody.”

We sat there, sweaty hands fastened in a funny position.

“Little Matthew’s coming home next week,” said Alex. 

They ’d cut the oxygen in his brother’s tank, and though the baby had struggled, he ’d gotten the hang of breathing. I tried to think of something to say. I was happy for Alex but also sad: summer would suck when he was gone, the dog days coming on, me left with nobody to play with but hellion boys. 

“Good,” I said. “When do they come get you?”

“A week or so. We could be pen pals, you know.”

I pictured myself trying to write a decent letter, struggling to impress, straining for the right words. I pictured Alex sniggering every time I misspelled something or got carried away with Miss Edna’s thesaurus. And what would I have to tell him? About my vampire mama and drunken daddy? About go-cart races and BB-gun fights? About the King Arthur novels Miss Edna lent me? Or the Swamp Ape’s preference for Slim Jims over beef jerky? 

“Maybe,” I said. “I’ve never been one to write letters.” 

We sat in silence for a spell, listening to night music—insect, amphibian, and bird. The Swamp Ape started up again, gentle and wistful, more soft-grunted song than howl. When Alex flicked on his flashlight to catch him in action, the creature lurched off into deeper swamp. 

“What the hell?” said Alex.

Now big-eyed creatures glided through his circle of light—two, three, four—their limbs splayed, furry membranes stretched wide. 

“Fairies,” I whispered, though I knew they were only flying squirrels, come to feed on pawpaw fruit. 

They landed on a branch and shimmied down to the heavy clusters, the fruit bruised and rotten-looking on the outside. But inside was soft yellow pulp like banana custard. 

“Fairies,” Alex repeated, as though to hypnotize himself into believing, and I strained hard to believe too, pictured the creatures twittering real language and working magic spells. 

I could see the future of summer. Ravaged cornfields and soybean chaff. Cicadas buzzing like broken toys in parched grass. Muscadines past ripeness, fermenting on the ground, the woods smelling like wine. School would be here in a blink, and then I’d be in prison for a solid nine months. 

But now, summer was at its height, offering its sweetest fruits, full of furry fairies and glowing bugs. Alex leaned against me, humming with warm blood, his brain like a different universe. 

Julia Elliott’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Georgia Review, Conjunctions, the New York Times, and other publications. She has won a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and Best American Short Stories. Her debut story collection, The Wilds( Tin House Books, 2014), was chosen by KirkusBuzzFeed, Book Riot, and Electric Literature as one of the best books of 2014 and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch (Tin House Books, 2015), was a finalist for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Prince of Tides Literary Award.