|Publisher:||Black Spot Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.22(d)|
About the Author
Laura Morrison has a B.S. in applied ecology and environmental science from Michigan Technological University. Before she was a writer and stay-at-home mom, she battled invasive species and researched turtles. She lives in the Metro Detroit area.
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FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT
They didn't belong.
They came from other countries, moved in, and displaced the natives. It was wrong. It was depressing. It was unfair. And, regrettably, there was no beating them. It was one of the sad downsides of globalization.
Fighting them was a losing battle, but that wasn't going to stop Bernice from trying.
Step by step, she trudged onward.
Sweating, parched, and weary, she trudged onward.
Fueled by an idealistic fervor to cleanse the landscape of the encroaching menace, she trudged onward.
Armed with her trusty steel hedge clippers, Bernice sallied forth to do battle with the invasive species threatening to overtake Cleary Swamp. The biodiversity of the swamp would not get shot to hell on her watch. No, sir. As long as she had any say, this wetland would be a haven for swamp rose mallow and shumard oak.
Too bad she didn't have a say in the welfare of Cleary Swamp for much longer; she was soon to get her master's degree and move on to a different university for her PhD. After that, the invasives would be free to commence their bloody (chlorophyll-y) march across the wetland, their roots feeding off the dead bodies of the poor natives lacking the evolutionary defenses to compete. Brutal. Sad. Perhaps inevitable.
But at least, at the end of this, she'd have a nice, shiny degree and a glowing recommendation from a professor who liked her a lot. Silver lining.
From out of her backpack, Bernice grabbed her water bottle–stainless steel. No BPAs for Bernice. She took a swig, glanced at her GPS, reoriented a tad to the left, and slogged through the mushy swamp to her worksite. So many Japanese barberry and autumn olive were going to meet their maker this hot summer afternoon.
She marveled at the unnatural heat. The air was thick with humidity. That was the problem. The humidity. And the complete lack of a breeze. Bernice slapped a mosquito, thought about West Nile and the Zika virus, took another swig of water, and stuck her bottle back in her backpack.
At last, up ahead, she saw a red flag tied around a scraggly little willow–the southern border of Professor Zimmer's research plot. Bernice made her way to the willow and hung her backpack on the usual branch.
Getting her headphones out, she queued up some twangy bluegrass, thought about how Kentucky bluegrass was an invasive species in Michigan, pondered irony, put on her gloves, and got down to business cutting barberry.
Japanese barberry was pretty horrible. It was covered with thorns, which necessitated wearing long sleeves even in the stifling heat. As she chopped away at the bases of the stems, Bernice asked herself why on earth it was that she felt she enjoyed this work. Glorified weeding, and for what? Nothing was going to stop the advance of invasive species. What was the point?
Cynic-Bernice's answer was, "Job security!" It was nice to know that her field was not going to become obsolete.
Idealist-Bernice's answer was, "We owe it to nature!" Humans created the problem, so humans should jolly well try to fix it, even if it wasn't technically all that realistic a goal.
Bernice was throwing some twigs into a pile when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye.
She turned to look, but saw nothing other than willows and grasses. Slowly, warily, she turned back to her work.
But then, there it was again. Movement.
She turned, fast.
Again, she saw nothing.
Whatever it was, it had looked big. Her impression had been of a person, but that might have been her imagination. Being a lady all alone in the middle of nowhere, she tended to freak out about that kind of thing.
Taking off her headphones, she hung them around her neck. If it was a person, she'd hear them. People were rotten at sneaking in swamps. She knew this all too well from undergrad hijinks.
Bernice got back to work, but remained wary, ready to turn at the slightest sign of movement. There had definitely been something there. Person? Bear? Mountain lion? She wasn't sure which she'd least prefer. What kind of person would sneak around a swamp on the outskirts of Detroit? Did anyone non-insane do that kind of thing? Well, anyone besides ecology students and birdwatchers.
She wished her phone had reception. Why did the GPS have reception and the phone didn't? Technology was stupid.
She sighed and commenced her gallant battle, fiercely wielding her noble hedge clippers–named Anduril, Flame of the West. Which made Bernice the King of Middle Earth, and made the invasive species the orcs. Anduril had Lord of the Rings stickers on the handles.
Bernice heard a snapping branch behind her.
She glanced around again for her mystery stalker. She wasn't too concerned about bears and mountain lions since there wasn't any reliable evidence that they even lived in the area. Just a few blurry photographs taken by random locals. And as far as bears were concerned, black bears (the only variety that might be in the metro Detroit area) were really pretty wimpy. If she'd been a raspberry or a fish or a trash can, she'd have been more concerned about bears. Mountain lions, on the other hand, were plenty creepy. She'd heard somewhere that they only attack from behind; she had been advised to wear a hat that had eyes on back of it in order to fool them. But no way was Bernice wearing a stupid hat with fake eyes painted on the back of it. At least, not until reliable evidence indicated mountain lions might actually be in the area. How unutterably lame would it be if she became a mountain lion mauling statistic out there in the middle of the swamp, just because she didn't want to wear a dorky hat?
She was thankful for the stillness in the air. No large mammal was going to sneak up on her unawares. Not with all the twigs and squelchy mud. No way.
"Who's there?" she yelled in as huge and threatening a voice as she could manage. If it was a black bear, huge, threatening sounds would scare it away.
If it was a person, they'd probably just laugh, since Bernice was the exact opposite of huge and threatening.
If it was a mountain lion, it'd probably be like, "Whatevs. Save your breath, human. I'm gonna kill you now. Rawr!"
Silence answered her holler. No black bears ran off, no people laughed, no mountain lions mocked and killed her.
Utterly freaked out, Bernice was just considering calling it quits for the day when a hand gripped her wrist and whirled her around.
She let out a hearty scream and swung Anduril at her assailant–a gray-haired woman with matted hair and an alarming grip. The old woman grabbed Andruil, tugged it out of Bernice's hand, and sent it twirling out into the swamp as though she was the queen of her AARP shot put club.
Bernice tugged against the old woman's grip and gaped at her weathered old face. The woman watched her with cold, green eyes, not even seeming to notice how hard Bernice was trying to pull out of her grasp. Then, the old lady pulled her close–just a few inches from her wrinkly, sunburned, mud-crusted face. She rasped into Bernice's face, "Get out."
Bernice swallowed and opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She found herself looking away from her assailant's eyes, and fixating on the plant matter stuck in the lady's hair. Yikes. What a mess. Twigs and leaves and a few yellow flower petals.
The old lady hissed at Bernice, "You understand?"
"Uh ... uh huh —"
"Then get out."
Bernice swallowed again, and managed some words. "Uh ... just so I'm clear, you mean out of this research plot?" She waved at the red flag tied on the willow. There were a lot of random weirdos who thought any scientific research was somehow evil on account of how all scientists are sellouts who alter their results to get payoffs from Big Business and politicians. This lady definitely fit the bill as a random weirdo. Was she a crusader bent on saving Cleary Swamp from the corrupt invasive species researchers in the pocket of Big ... uh, she couldn't even think of a big business that could have a possible stake in this cause. Big Hedge Clipper Manufacturer? Big Native Plant Seed Supplier?
The old lady growled, "Out of the swamp." She gave Bernice a shake. She was crazy strong. Not just strong for an elderly woman. Strong for a person.
Bernice did not like being pushed around. She shoved her fear aside for long enough to say with all the authority of a person who had just finished up a semester in public policy, "This is public land. You do understand the concept of public land, yes? There are laws–"
"That means nothing. Nothing. I swear no allegiance–"
Bernice raised her eyebrows. This lady was intense. "Actually, you'll find your allegiance-swearing doesn't really matter. The rules are still the rules. Who do you think you are that you can order me around?"
"Who am I?" The old lady stared at her with unsettling intensity long enough for things to get super awkward. "I am the swamp."
Bernice blinked. "Huh? The what? You're the ... what?"
The old lady growled, "I. Am. The. Swamp."
"Uh," Bernice said, spotting an opportunity to segue this insanity into the spiel she liked to spew out for random people who asked her what she did for a living, "it's great you feel so connected to Cleary Swamp. I like it a lot, too. That's why I'm here trying to preserve its natural beauty for future —"
The lady let out a hiss reminiscent of a rattlesnake that probably slept curled up in her nasty hair. Then she whispered, "I do not mean I feel connected to the swamp. I mean I am the swamp. And I want you out. The swamp wants you out." Her grip on Bernice's arm tightened. "Out."
Bernice glared at her and didn't respond.
"You need to leave. I will not have you here cutting. Chopping. Slaughtering. The pain ... it hurts–"
"Come on, they're invasive species! They're throwing off the whole ecosystem of this swamp that you love. You should be thanking–"
"I do not love it! I am it! I am the swamp!" the old woman screamed in Bernice's face. She gave Bernice another hard shake, then released her and pushed her backward. Bernice felt something tighten around her ankle. She tripped and fell flat on her back.
Oh great. Now she was covered in mud. Fabulous. "What'd you do that for?" Bernice snapped at the old woman as she looked down at her ankle. There was a vine wrapped around it. It might be noted that it was Asiatic bittersweet–yet another invasive species plaguing the swamp.
It might also be noted that the vine was wrapped around her ankle in a way that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. It was coiled around three times. Tight. How on earth had that happened? She reached down and tugged at it. The vine was thick and tough and woody, not pliable like young bittersweet.
"What the ..." Bernice muttered as she tugged. She must have stepped straight down into this weird coil of vine. Her brain struggled to make things make sense. Maybe the vine had grown up around a tree branch like that, and the branch had broken off the tree and gotten pulled out of the coil of vine by a beaver making a dam. Yes. That was it.
Bernice shot the woman a glare, then got to work prying the vine off her ankle. It was so snug. How had her foot slipped into it in the first place? If only she had Anduril, she could cut the vine off. "Got any hedge clippers?" Bernice asked. "I'd use mine, but you threw them across the swamp."
"I? Hedge clippers?" the old woman asked, clearly scandalized at the very notion. "I would just as soon chop off my own arm as I would chop off?"
"Okay, okay. Yeah. Because you're the swamp. I get it." Bernice finally managed to work her ankle free, and got to her feet, shaking off as much mud as she could. "Can I ask you one thing?"
The old lady narrowed her eyes and nodded her head. One slow nod.
"Okay. If you're the swamp, and if you're so mad I'm chopping you up, why are you just now confronting me about it? I've been coming out here for months, and not a peep from you that whole time."
"I've been slumbering," she intoned.
"Ah. Slumbering. Um. So you're nocturnal or something? You sleep through the day usually?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "For years I have slumbered."
Wow. Insane. This woman was totally insane. "Mm. Yeah. People don't hibernate."
The woman brushed her matted hair out of her eyes, and crossed her arms. She began to tap her foot. The effect was kinda weird since she was tapping it in mud instead of on a hard surface. Squelch. Squelch. Squelch. Squelch. "Go. Now."
"Okay, Okay," Bernice grumbled. "Crazy old broad. Fine. I'm going." Her boss was going to be pretty cranky when she found out Bernice had gotten next to nothing done. She'd have to come out extra early the next day to make up for the lost time. Shoot. She'd been hoping to binge watch some quality space opera television. Oh well. Long after the summer research season had gone, Space Mantis would be there for her.
The old lady narrowed her eyes at Bernice and took a few menacing steps toward her.
Bernice held her hands up placatingly. "I'm going!" With that, she turned and hurried away, glancing over her shoulder every other step. At least the old lady wasn't following her. Bernice grabbed her backpack off the willow branch, slung it over her mud-coated shoulder, and skedaddled. She looked back at the old lady again to make sure she wasn't in pursuit.
She was not. She was standing motionless, staring at Bernice with those weird, cold eyes.
Bernice strode away as fast as the mud would let her, then reached into her backpack for her GPS to make sure she was going the right direction.
A loud quack from behind her distracted her from the GPS screen. She turned toward the duck. It was standing on a tussock of grass right by the willow tree. And the old lady was gone.
Great. Bernice had made an enemy of a cyborg with superhuman strength and the ability to transform into a mallard. Weird choice, cyborg. A raven would have been a much cooler transformation choice. Or a swan. But whatever. Bernice wasn't one to judge. All she herself could transform into was an elf for cosplay.
The farther Bernice got from the research plot, the angrier she became. She had just let some old hag scare her away from the work she was supposed to be doing. Why had she been so freaked out, anyway? So what if the ratty old broad was strong? She was just a person. A strong one, yeah, but just a person. If the old woman had been planning on harming her, she'd have done it when she snuck up behind Bernice. Being shaken and pushed around by a crazy stranger all alone in the middle of a swamp was definitely scary, but had she backed down too easily?
Well, Bernice would be back the next day.
With pepper spray.CHAPTER 2
TWIGS, LEAVES, AND YELLOW FLOWER PETALS
Bernice trudged out of the swamp and onto the dirt road where she'd parked her truck. After tossing her backpack through the open passenger side window, she went around to the driver's side door. She was about to open the door and hop in when she saw a pile of twigs and leaves and yellow flower petals on her seat. Just like all the stuff matted in the creepy old lady's gross hair.
Bernice backed away from the truck and looked wildly around. Where was the old lady? She had to be around. Had she beaten Bernice to the truck, then picked the stuff out of her hair and piled it onto the seat? Had she put it there before going into the swamp to scare the crap out of Bernice? That would require a lot more planning and effort than Bernice felt the lady was capable of. But what other answer was there? A bunch of twigs and leaves and flower petals didn't just blow through her open window and settle in a tidy little pile on her seat. Or maybe they could? Maybe the wind had picked up some debris off the road and had blown just right and created one of those little swirls of wind like a tiny little tornado, and it had flown into her truck's window, and it had lost energy and dissipated right in the middle of her seat and ... yeah, sure ...
Or, the lady had upped the creepy for some reason. Whether she'd somehow beaten Bernice to her truck or she'd left the stuff ahead of time, it was super scary. For a drug-addled, old, homeless, swamp dweller, she was pretty clever and quick. Drugs. Yes. The old woman had to be on some sort of drugs. It would explain the fact that she thought she was the swamp, and the fact that she was super strong. Bernice was fairly sure some drug highs gave people temporarily heightened strength. Yes. She was going with that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Come Back to the Swamp"
Copyright © 2018 Laura Morrison.
Excerpted by permission of Black Spot Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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