Remember that one day, when it should have been too hot to be a day in late November? You had an aching feeling in the pit of your gut that something bad was going to happen. That was the day he came into your town and tried to steal her, to take her from you. He wanted what wasn’t his to take.
So you shot him dead…
You live in the Florida Everglades, on a three-acre piece of land you bought a few years ago, where the endless sunshine beats down on your leather-cured-back. The humidity blankets your hardened northern soul as you ride the old rusted mower shirtless around the swamps edge like you do every day.
It’s not your real job, since you don’t work anymore, it’s just something you do to keep the mosquitos down and people from throwing their trash off the highway. You live across the lane with Alice and her three girls in a two-story house with a wrap-around porch and an old lean-to out back from the original homesteaders. You met Alice at the Walter Reed hospital in D.C. when you came home from Iraq with your left arm blown off. She was your physical therapist and a beacon of hope when all seemed lost.
Alice and her girls are survivors, like you.
She pointed a gun in her ex’s face the last time he put his hands on her and the girls–
You will never hurt her like that and you promise to kill her ex if you ever see his sorry-ass again. She’s your savior and you love her more than anything in this world. She’s the one who helped you fill out the paperwork for disability and helped you move to the Everglades, because she said it was good for your joints and your mental health to be part of nature and live the swamp life. Plus, it was far, far away from him.
A new start for everyone.
You admit, it is a peaceful life with Alice and her kids; the kind you need after all the shit you’ve seen being a soldier. You respect her for making you go south instead of north, but you still like to tease her and tell folks at the gas station she twisted your arm clean off to move here. But you both know, you can’t shovel snow with one arm, and the cold sends such pain through your body where that shoulder bone hovers near the surface. You like the south and you love watching the sweat bead down Alice’s back in the yellow dress she always wears over her bubbly curves.
When you finish mowing and turn off the engine, the sweet smell of 50/50 diesel gas blend fills the air and melds with the rack of beef ribs you’ve been slow-smoking on the grill since noon. The crickets hum and crows are cawing in the distance, but all you hear is Alice screaming for help. So you run like you did that time in Sauder City after the IED hit your Humvee and flung you five hundred feet down the road and you stood up from the shock of it, blinded and lost and started running for help, unaware you’d lost your arm. That was the night Lieutenant Anker, Sergeant Nunez and all the other guys in your unit were killed.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help me,” you pray. Because God help this world, if anything ever happens to Alice or one of the girls, hell will unleash it’s fury… You run, one arm swinging and the other one just a ball of flesh to keep your shoulder blade from sticking out.
“What is it Alice? Are you hurt?” You shout and run up the porch. Howler, the Blue Tick, is barking on his chain and sweet little Esther is crying and holding her ratty Barbie close to her chest.
“It’s Keely,” Alice is sobbing and shaking.
“What the fuck happened? Is she alright?” You grab Alice by the shoulder and look deep into her eyes. The fear, the terror, it’s a kind of panic you’ve never seen on her face before. A look you never want to see again. You take a deep breath and step back from her to smack yourself in the head and clear away your flashbacks.
You have to be strong for Alice and to protect what is yours!
“Th-th-the s-s-s-chool called! HE has her, oh my God, h-h-he’s got Keely--” Alice is gasping for air as the words sputter off her lips.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?” Courtney comes rushing inside, covered in swamp muck, Alice let her play hooky today-- but not Keely, she had that math test and soccer practice. “Daddy, please, tell me,” she begs and looks to you for answers, they all do.
There’s hardly time to grab the revolver from its case, the one your father gave you before you went to Iraq. You always keep it loaded. And now you shove it into the back of your belt, with one hand, before you throw on a shirt as you’re rushing out the front door. The engine of your beat-up blue F-250 roars to life and the tires squeal when they turn out of the drive and hit the hot black pavement of Highway 29 past Jerome. It’s fifteen miles to the school in Everglades City and you breathe hard and fast every second of it.
You know you’ll kill him if you see him.
You don’t know how he found you out here in the swamps. He signed over custody, in return that Alice wouldn’t press charges and you haven’t heard from him in years. The girls call you Daddy now. He has no right to be here!
When you pull up to the school, Officer Lopez is there and she looks scared shitless. The teachers are crying and the students have all been cleared out. “Where did he take her? Where did they go?” You shout frantically. But, before anyone can answer, you see something out of the corner of your eye, a man and a girl over by the flagpole. The sun is beating down and you lift up your hand to shield your eyes. You see the flash of something silver. Then Keely cries out when she sees you.
“DADDY!” She screams.
“Marcus NO!” Officer Lopez puts her arms out to stop you, but you’re twice her size and you know she can’t stop you, so you charge forward. The cry of the cicadas ringing in your ears. It all happens so fast.
“You stop right there, one-armed freak! Keely’s coming with me.” He’s waving a giant knife, the kind they use down at the cannery to gut fish, he’s a madman! He’s squeezing Keely as tight as he can, probably like he used to, when he’d hurt her and Alice, before she finally got the nerve to put a gun in his mouth. Oh Keely, she’s so scared, her face red and swollen.
That thing inside of you, the rage you fight against, the pain you struggle with-- it can’t tolerate one more second of this abuse. “FUCK YOU!” You scream and pull the revolver from your back belt. You’ve had enough experience killing men that you don’t blink, you don’t pause or think.
You shoot to kill.
He goes down, but the edge of his blade slices Keely on his way to the ground, the entire length of her left arm is sliced open. The blood sprays out of her little body, like a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s screaming and chaos around you, but you’re calm, the eye of the storm. You don’t fumble as you get your belt off in one fell swoop. It only takes a second to loop and secure it around Keely’s arm, up by the shoulder-- so she doesn’t bleed out.
But you kick him anyway.
Right between his eyes and you spit on his dead carcass.
“You saved me Daddy, I knew you would,” Keely isn’t crying anymore, she’s in shock and she looks happy to be in your arms while you wait for the ambulance to come to take her to the Hospital in Miami. You think she might die.
“I’ll always save you sweetheart,” you say to comfort her.
“Well, I was thinking babe, I’ve got a lot of extra fabric laying around from cutting the sleeves off of you and Keely’s shirts-- I might try sewing them together into a little patchwork quilt for the new baby,” Alice says as she picks up a stack of fabric from her sewing table in your bedroom. Her belly is swollen and almost ready.
You laugh. “That’s creative.”
Alice smiles and starts placing the fabric in a pattern on the edge of the bed. She hums and looks happy. It’s been a year since you killed him and Keely lost an arm. You saved her life-- the tourniquet kept her from bleeding out. But, more than that, you put an end to the fear, the looming dread in the back of all of their minds.
“I’m going out to mow before it gets too hot,” you say and pull yourself off the bed. “You think the girls will eat chicken tonight? I thought I’d fire up the grill later. Unless you’d rather save that for tomorrow.”
“You might think I’m crazy, but I’ve actually been craving fried gator! This little one is going to be a true swamp child,” Alice rubs her belly.
“Oh, I think they are all swamp children. I heard Courtney tell Esther she was fixin to do some froggin this weekend,” you say with a chuckle and thank God for your blessings. “You know, maybe I’ll take Keely out to mow with me, that girl is old enough to do some chores, one armed or not. You know, when I was her age, I had a paper route at five in the morning!”
“Yeah, yeah, in the snow, uphill, both ways.” Alice winks.
You’ve never known happiness like this.
You’re glad it doesn’t snow in the Everglades.