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The marshlands off Bayou Lafourche, Louisiana, 1986
Sal Comeaux glanced in the rearview mirror for the fifth time that night and muttered a curse. The child still stared at him with those freaky blue eyes. No longer crying, just gazing into his soul with stabbing accusation.
He clutched the steering wheel tighter, trying to ignore the weight pressing down on him. Guilt. God. Whatever. It threatened to suffocate him. Cold sweat rolled down his back as he searched the inky night for the dirt road. Ten years ago if he'd a blinked, he'd a missed the turn. Much had changed in his life, but one thing was constantthe turn to the Cheramie homestead.
"Almost there," he said to the void surrounding him, not bothering to look back at the girl.
He felt so alone.
Why had he let Billy Priest talk him into doing something so dadgum stupid? His friend had ulterior motives that had nothing to do with mere money. Billy hated Martin Dufrene. Thought the man responsible for all his problems, for losing his family. Dufrene was a bastard, but he'd not caused Billy's wife to leave taking their son with her. Her leaving had been a result of Billy's alcoholism and quick fiststhe reason the man had lost his job at the Dufrene mill. "An eye for an eye, and money for us both," Billy had said, knowing Sal was softand that he owed half the bookies in Baton Rouge, guys meaner than a water moccasin and just as dangerous. Self-preservation had won out over loyalty, and Sal had convinced himself no harm would come to the child. He was weak, true, but he was no monster.
He'd not have the child's blood on his hands.
He risked another look even though the girl's eyes felt like God's sitting upon him, like in that damn Gatsby book he'd had to read in eleventh grade. The child's gaze was steadfast, her small mouth slack, her tear-streaked cheeks pale.
She gave him the creeps.
An old white fence post materialized in the tangled brush beside the dirt road like a specter. Relief flooded him. The old landmark tilted crookedly in the headlights. He hooked a turn left and bumped down the pitted road toward the old house where his grandmere lived.
The place wasn't welcoming. Old, wooden and leaning like half the stumps in the land surrounding it. Though he couldn't see it, he knew a tributary of the Bayou Lafourche sprawled behind the old house, a dark ribbon unraveling across lank swamp grass. He loved Mere's house almost as much as he hated it.
He braked on the crushed shell drive and shut off the headlights of the stolen truck as the screen door cracked an inch or two. Then he saw Pap's shotgun muzzle appear.
He rolled down the window. "It's me."
Moonlight flashed on the metal of the gun. She didn't lower it. "Who's 'me'?"
The gun disappeared and the door opened. "Why you here? I ain't seen you since your mama ran off with that Morgan City boy."
"Sorry, Mere. I"
"Didn't need you around here no how, so why you here tonight?" Her voice sounded tired, disinterested. She'd never liked him much, but he was her only known grandson.
He eased out of the truck, mindful Grandmere might decide he wasn't worth a damn and hoist the shotgun again, but he knew the old woman was his only chance to hide the child until he could figure something out. What, he wasn't sure, but he wasn't killing no child and feeding her to the gators. Billy and his threats be damned.
"I got a little girl here."
His grandmere shut the door and stood in her bare feet and flannel housecoat. Her face sagged in the light of the moon. She'd aged. Life was hard on the bayou and Enola Cheramie wore that life like a badge. "A girl?"
"Yeah, uh, my kid." He hesitated. Hadn't thought much more beyond getting the child here. Mere wouldn't keep no child that wasn't blood. "Um, my old lady's strung out, beats the ever-loving shit out of the kid. She tried to kill the girl tonight. Grabbed a"
"You got a child? Off who?"
"Some gal from Houma. You don't know her. She's bat-shit crazy, and I should have never taken up with her. Just need the girl to stay with you for a spell."
Grandmere shook her head. "I can't keep no child. I'm still fishing. Got no one to watch her."
He jerked the girl from the backseat of the cab. She didn't make a peep. Just allowed herself to be dragged toward the porch. Her hair was tangled and her dress stained with the black dirt of the bayou. He'd tried to do what Billy had wanted. Tried to kill the child. He'd stood holding a trembling gun on her. He wasn't weak. He'd killed dogs when they'd needed putting down, but this child was different. And she wouldn't close her eyes. Just looked at him. Like Christ on the crucifix had looked down on him at Our Lady of Prompt Succor. Vacant. Hopeless. And he couldn't pull the trigger.
So he'd lowered the gun, knowing God spoke to him through the eyes of the child. Knowing he had to find a way to save her and placate Billy. Knowing his own sin would lead to pain.
Enola Cheramie was his only chance for redemption.
The little girl was pretty and barely three years old. No woman, not even a tough, old crane like Enola, could resist a child like this one.
"She'll go with you. She's a good girl." He pushed the child toward his grandmere. The little girl clutched her pink blanket and turned those strange eyes on Mere.
"She don't look like you" was all his grandmere said before beckoning the child forward.
The girl didn't move. Just stood unblinking at the foot of the rickety stairs. His grandmere wasn't much to look at. Wizened like fruit sitting out too long in the sun, with a square face and broad chest. He'd likely not go near her either. He pushed the girl again between her shoulder blades. "Go on. Mere will take care of you."
"I didn't say I would," his grandmere said, but Sal could see it in her eyes. She'd watch over the girl until he could figure out a way to fix what he'd done. What Billy had done.
"I gotta go, Mere. I'll be back to get her. Don't let no one know too much about her. They might send her back to her mama and then she'd be as good as dead."
Enola crept down the steps and reached out for the child. The little girl didn't move, merely turned her head and watched as the old woman's hand clamped down on her shoulder. Then the little girl did something surprising. She held her arms out.
Mere lifted the child into her arms. "She ain't bigger than a minnow. What's her name?"
Sal pretended he didn't hear the old woman. The less she knew the better. News would sweep across Louisiana, and though Mere lived on desolate Houma land far off Bayou Lafourche, she went to town upon occasion. Four times a year or so. He climbed back into the cab and cranked the engine. He glanced at where his grandmere stood, cradling the child, muttering words of comfort. As he shifted into Reverse, he saw the child rest her head upon the old woman's shoulder.
From the open window he heard Mere say, "Don't worry yourself, minnow. Ain't no one gonna hurt you or my name ain't Enola Cheramie."
Something crept round Sal's heart and he knew somehow he'd done the right thing. He crossed himself at that moment even though he hadn't attended Mass since he'd left Holy Rosary and headed to Lafayette over fifteen years ago. Yes, God approved. This he knew.
He backed up and left the old woman and child, heading back toward the dirt road that would connect to the highway, which would connect to the interstate that would take him back to Bayou Bridge where he was currently in an ass load of trouble.
The night draped around him, oppressive and warm for February. A mosquito buzzed near his ear. He fanned the pest away, rolled up the window of the old truck and turned the AC up two notches, but obviously the owner hadn't bothered with the expense of Freon. Warm air blew from the vents, failing to cool his body, now drenched in sweat. Was it from the damn Louisiana humidity or the sheer terror rising in him?
He clicked the brights, haloing the grasses growing on either side of the dirt road. No one was out this early in the morning, not even the shrimpers. The road was uneven, jarring him, but there was no other way out except by boat. He reached the turnoff and headed north on the highway hugging the Bayou Lafourche. Businesses and houses lined the highway on either side of the water. He crossed a lock bridge to reach the other side and rode thirty miles in silence toward Houma. Each mile brought him closer to a no-win situation.
He'd go to jail. Maybe even Angola.
He swallowed and tried to focus on the smattering of businesses outside Houma. The interstate would be quicker, but Sal didn't want to go fast. He knew what lay ahead. Billy wasn't smart enough to pull the scheme off. Sal should have known better than to mix himself up with a piece of bayou trash like Billy. He turned past the entrance ramp for I-49 and took Highway 182 instead, finding peace in the old highway that would eventually cross the Bayou Tete, the very bayou he'd spent so much time on, fishing and contemplating what a failure he'd become.
The road twisted like a serpent, winding around the Louisiana wetlands before brushing against the tangled trees, sad against the February darkness. It made Sal feel melancholic. He yearned for better times. Bait on his hook, Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand, herons gliding to perches on the bayous off the Atchafalaya. How had he come to this?
His headlights caught a shape in the road. He jerked the steering wheel hard, standing on the brakes at the same time. Too late. The image of a gator in the road flashed through his mind at the same time the truck crashed through the guardrail and went airborne. Cypress limbs blocked his vision just before a sickening thud jarred the vehicle. Sal threw his hands in front of his face as the trunk of a tree hurtled toward him. His head snapped backward at collision and he vaguely registered falling, flipping, hitting the water with a loud crack.
Sal gasped for air as water the color of weak coffee poured into the mangled cab. "Hep!"
His mouth felt stuffed with cotton and he couldn't make his legs move. His lungs starved for oxygen. He gulped at the air, hoping to drink it, telling his body to move. No use. "Hep!"
His mind raced though his body could not move. Broken rail. Someone would see. Water deep. Truck sinking. He could taste the fecund water of the swamp. It filled his mouth, stinging his nostrils as he inhaled the essence of Louisiana, his birthplace, his home.
His hands flopped useless beside him, like large oars adrift in a current. He couldn't move. Couldn't save himself. He'd cheated death one victim that night when he'd taken the girl to Enola, but it would wait no longer to claim a replacement.
Sal said a prayer as the water reached his eyes, but there was nothing to comfort him. Nothing except the sound of justice and regret roaring in his ears.
And the last thought to register before he slipped into a place of darkness was no one would know what had happened to Della Dufrene.