The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
By the time Erthelene reached the back porch, Billy Joe had disappeared. She searched for any trace of the boy in the wall of green jungle beyond the cypress trees as she ran toward it, but there was none.
Uncle Mabus, joined by Sheriff Rogers and two of his deputies, watched from the cabin as Erthelene entered the swamp, swallowed up in the green tangle of trees and vines. “Stop, girl!” the old man called out in desperation. “Don’t go in there, Erthelene!”
Sheriff Rogers looked at Uncle Mabus, shaking his head. “I can’t help you, Mabus,” he said, taking his hat off and wiping the sweat from his forehead. “My men are not equipped to go into that swamp. We’ll need tracking dogs and people who are familiar with it. Just pray to God the two of them have sense enough to turn around and come back out before they’re gator bait.”
Uncle Mabus pulled the rope to the alarm bell with all of his strength. The heavy iron rocker turned and the bell began to clang loud and clear. He rang it hard, out of desperation and fear. “Lawd,” he said, “hear me now. We need your help!”
A mile away, Big John heard the alarm bell and immediately started for the cabin. Others who heard it also stopped work on the farms and in the fields. Men and women, black and white, recognized the call for help.
Otilla Harrison was shocked by the number of people milling around the old cabin when her sedan pulled up. Three police cars, one marked “Sheriff,” blocked the driveway. She made her way through the gathering crowd and onto the front porch, where Sheriff Rogers and Uncle Mabus met her.
“What’s happened? Why are all of these people out here?” she asked.
Sheriff Rogers removed his hat and answered her slowly. “Well, it seems like the boy has run off into the swamp.”
“But why would he do that?” she interrupted, a look of fear and confusion on her face.
“To get away from us, I imagine,” Sheriff Rogers continued, “and to keep from being sent back to...”
“To me, Sheriff?” she asked, finishing his sentence.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s about it, except for Mr. Mabus’ niece, Erthelene. She’s gone into the swamp searching for the boy.”
“I had good intentions,” Otilla Harrison replied, a discouraged look on her face. “Now I think I have caused more harm than good.”
* * *
Patches of sunlight filtered down through leafy openings in the canopy above. The pungent smell of rotting vegetation hung like death on the humid air.
Erthelene struggled through thick masses of overhanging vines, trying to catch her breath. As soon as she stopped moving, hundreds of black gnats swarmed around her face, flying up her nostrils and into her mouth and eyes.
Ankle-deep black water swirled around her feet and the muck below sucked at her with every step. She called Billy Joe’s name until the smothering air sapped her strength. It was all she could do to keep moving and looking for any signs of the boy.
Erthelene sank into deep holes several times, the water coming up to her chest. Uncle Mabus called these “gator holes” and each time it happened she panicked, struggling to pull herself out as quickly as possible.
Finally she came upon a patch of higher ground. It was dry and covered with dead leaves. Erthelene fell to her knees, grateful to be out of the black water. She had been in the swamp for almost a day and now she realized her chances of finding Billy Joe were next to impossible. Erthelene had made a terrible mistake in her desperation and now she would pay the price.
Slumping into physical exhaustion, Erthelene closed her eyes, too tired even to pray or to notice the silent occupant on the small island with her: a large water moccasin coiled in perfect disguise among the dead leaves, less than six feet away, watching her every move.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen