Jen drove into the swamp on a cool wet night. The roads were muddy, but her four wheel drive could handle it. She drove through the dark, an unopened beer in her hand. She thought about taking a drink because–fuck it– it was only one beer and anyone wandering through the swamp at this time of night deserved to get run over. But if it happened by some one-in-a-million chance, she’d feel shitty about it. She didn’t need that. Though killing someone would be the perfect finish to her night.
She drove through the mist, afraid she’d miss her turn. It’d been years since she’d been to the cabin.
The turn came. It was farther than she remembered. When the cabin finally came into view, she barely recognize it.
The place was a broken down shack. It still stood, but she expected it’d fall over if she slammed the jeep door too forcefully. She parked, left the engine running, left the lights on to cast all their unforgiving brightness on the rotting wood and dirty windows.
The place had never been in great shape, but her dad had always been around to keep in from falling apart. After he’d passed, she’d told herself she’d take up the job. But she needed some time before she could come back. Too many memories she wasn’t ready for.
When she had been ready, life had become a distraction. Every so often, she’d make plans to come up to the cabin. But something would always get in the way. Work. Chores. Emergencies. Everyday bullshit.
The dock still stood. It wasn’t much. Just some boards dad had built over the water beside the cabin. He’d take his deck chair and sit out there for hours. Fishing. When mom would rib him about never catching anything, he would just smile. Jen didn’t get it at the time because it didn’t make sense. The humidity, the mosquitoes, the smell. Why would anyone want to be here?
She’d spent years hating the cabin.
She’d spent years missing the cabin.
She found the deck chair, ice chest, and fishing rod in the back of her jeep and crept down the dock, one creaking board at a time. She set up the chair and sat, avoiding any sudden movements. She cast the line in the water. Didn’t bother with bait. Dad never had.
She sat in the dark, staring at the black water, drinking Old Milwaukee. She only drank it at the cabin. She’d forgotten how godawful it was, but it was what she drank here. At some point, she fell asleep. She only noticed when something snagged on her line.
She pulled back, and whatever was on the other end fought her. She worked the reel, but she didn’t know what to do. Dad had never shown her. Dad probably didn’t even know.
Once, he’d caught something.
“Probably a gar,” he’d said. In her youth, she’d believed he knew what he was talking about. She’d looked up gar later, and was glad that it turned out to be an old boot, fished up from the depths like a cartoon.
“That’s good eating,” dad had said with a wink.
If there was a God, and that God was feeling charitable, Jen would draw up the boot’s pair. It’d be poetic and beautiful, and she’d know that the universe had a sense of humor. Clumsy and corny, like dad’s.
She struggled with the rod, and the fish fought back. If it was a gar, she’d drag it ashore and bash it with her ice chest. Or she’d let it go. One problem at a time.
The fish yanked the rod from her hand. It burned her fingers. Swearing, grabbed a beer to cool them.
She took out her phone, used the flashlight to scan the black water. Her rod floated not too far. She could get on her hands and knees and reach for it. Not a good idea. Whatever had snagged the rod was strong. Unlikely to be a gator, but not impossible. She imagined a gar leaping out of the water to drag her into the depths. She imagined the other things that could be lurking in that brackish pool. She felt foolish now. Standing on a creaking dock that might collapse at any moment. Drowning in the dark.
Nobody would find her. Nobody came here anymore. Mom didn’t drive anymore. Somebody would find the jeep one day, and the cops would probably put it together, even if her body was long ago eaten by all the animals living in the place.
She backed from the dock, one careful step at a time. Only when she was on the muddy soil did she feel safe again.
A figure emerged from the water. She thought it might be a gator, but it was bigger than any gator than she’d ever seen. The wrong shape too. Although it did have a gator’s head.
The thing stepped closer, and the light revealed that the flesh had long ago been stripped off the gator’s skull. Half of it was bare bone. Mud and tangled roots covered the rest. The thing pulled the fish hook out of its empty eye socket and held up her rod.
“Is this yours?”
Its jaws clicked together as it spoke.
Why she was nodding instead of running away, she didn’t know. Shock, maybe. Terror. Surprise. Whatever the feeling, it overwhelmed her fight or flight response.
The headlights lit the thing up. It stood on two legs. Its body was bones and mud and vegetable matter, assembled in a humanoid form.
It scooped up her half-empty Old Milwaukee.
“I was going to throw that away,” she said.
It cocked its head toward her. “Can I keep it then?”
“You want it?”
“Sentimental reasons.” It stuffed the can into the sludge of its chest where the roots wrapped around it.
“You should be careful,” it said. “Dangerous stuff in this swamp at night.”
“I’d get in your car and go home.”
It turned its back to her. Several snakes slithered along its back.
“It’s a jeep,” she said. “Not a car.”
The thing chuckled. “Whatever you say.”
It walked into the muck. Jen got to her feet and took a step forward. Not too close to the water.
“What are you?” she asked.
The thing paused. It didn’t look at her. “What do you think I am?”
Even saying it, Jen knew that was wrong. The thing didn’t remind her of dad. Even beyond its ghastly appearance, it had none of his body language. Its voice was completely different. Low and creaky and older than anything she could imagine. Its voice was ancient in the way the pyramids were ancient. Older than even that.
“I am. That is all that needs be said.”
It took another step into the dark.
“How come I’ve never seen you before?” she asked.
“You’ve seen me, Jennifer. You’ve seen me a thousand times. Just not like this. And, yes, I know your name. We’re old acquaintances, aren’t we? Though it’s been a long time.”
The thing turned back to her. Despite its appearance, despite the bones and the snakes, the deep, empty eye sockets, it didn’t scare her.
“Dad died a few years ago,” she said.
“I know.” It raised its head to look at the bits of night sky visible through the canopy. “I miss him.”
Jen thought about crying. She should cry, but she didn’t.
The creature moved toward her. She didn’t retreat. It stood before her, and only then did she realize how big it was. Not just physically. Its metaphysical weight bore down on her like a god of old.
“We all mourn in our own way,” it said. “But if we are missed, then we must have done something right.”
She almost hugged it, but the spiders crawling in and out of its eyes gave her second thoughts.
“Mom always wondered why he came here,”she said. “He’d just tell her you had to see it for yourself. Nobody could show you.”
The thing turned back to the water, disappearing up to its gator skull that floated in the darkness.
“Will I ever see you again?” asked Jen.
“You know where to find me.”
It vanished into the black. Jen stood there a good while.
The cabin was in bad shape, but it was salvageable. The little dock could be rebuilt. Nothing here was beyond repair.
“See you around,” she whispered to the swamp.
In the chirp of crickets and buzz of cicadas, in the mosquitoes pricking her skin and the splash of creatures swimming through the bog, she heard its gentle whisper back.