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The Grove-Fiction by Kim Bonner
Sawed Off-Fiction by Allan Leverone
Buried Memory-Fiction by James Flynn
Laying Blame-Fiction by Julian Manthorne
Salmone Puttanesca-Fiction by A. F. Knott
Jedda Summons a Higher Power-Fiction by Robb White
Cherry-Orange-Grape-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Jingles and Mr. Hammer-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Shhh...Listen to the Ekko-Fiction by Brian Fugett
Serial-Fiction by Doug Hawley
Somnium Trivium-Fiction by Michael Steven
An Arms Deal-Fiction by Matthew Licht
The Decline of the Midnight Sadist-Fiction by Gary Clifton
Stormy Night at Pussycat Manor-Fiction by Michael D. Davis
Passengers-Fiction by Dan A. Cardoza
Storm_Flash Fiction by K. A. Williams
Becoming Made-Flash Fiction by Paul Beckman
Feeling Like God-Flash Fiction by Luann Lewis
The Coyote, the Dog and the Woman-Flash Fiction by Phyllis Peterson Levine
Fried Zucchini Sticks-Flash Fiction by Cathi Stoler
A Woman of Good Hard Hands-Poem by Otto Burnwell
Abduction-Poem by Jimmy Broccoli
Jitterbug-Poem by Robert Beveridge
Abandoned House-Poem by John Short
The Beauty of Trees-Poem by Ann Marie Rhiel
Regrets-Poem by David Spicer
Hospital on the Hill-Poem by Stephen J. Golds
Panic Attack-Poem by Kevin Ribshman
The Dark-Poem by Kevin Ribshman
Empty-Poem by Connor Orrico
Endless-Poem by Connor Orrico
Effort-Poem By Connor Orrico
Corpulent Octave-Poem by Harris Coverley
Small Town Story-Poem by Harris Coverley
Dans le Bain-Poem by Harris Coverley
Many Surprises-Poem by Walter Ruhlmann
In Another Waiting Room-Poem by Walter Ruhlmann
Innocent Blood-Poem by Walter Ruhlmann
Ebola-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
I Am an Organ Donor-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Just Part of the Food Chain-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Today's Adventure-Poem by John Grey
Creating the Master race-Poem by John Grey
In the Old Mansion-Poem by John Grey
Cartoons by Cartwright
Hail, Tiger!
Angel of Manslaughter
Strange Gardens
Gutter Balls
Calpurnia's Window
No Place Like Home
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Art by Mike Knowles 2020

Jedda Summons a Higher Power


Robb White


Before the virus, Miami-Dade’s Antonio Maceo High was featured on NBC as one of the most violent schools in the U.S., never mind just Florida. Every day before schools across the state were closed, her stomach burned with acid this would be the day one of her violent classmates would give her a beatdown.

This school was so bad that, before final bell every day, girls ducked into lavatories to smear their faces with Vaseline to prevent nail scratches from the fights they were about to get into. Being one of the Caucasian minority, a poor girl at that, she lived in constant fear that the verbal abuse the bullies dished out would be aggravated by something she did or said that day. Jedda knew a harmless look could do it and then she’d be the school’s next fight statistic.

Two years ago, a gang of boys lit another boy on fire because he reported they’d stolen his bike. A girl was kicked to death in front of the bus stop by a boy wearing steel-toed boots because she’d helped to break him up with her girlfriend and mocked him in a text. Last year, the only other white girl who dared to socialize with her was a 15-year-old who had been sex-trafficked and made a viral sensation on the web when she gave oral sex to a boy she liked and a couple dozen others who crammed into the stall waiting in line. She wound up jumping to her death from a water tower in Christmas, Florida after a Miami TV station picked up the story.

Jedda hated her name. Her actual name was Jedadiah Marya Sizemore. She lied and told people her parents were Star Wars’ freaks rather than that they’d given her a Hebrew boy’s name, meaning “beloved of God.” Former meth addicts and functional illiterates, they’d cleaned up their act long enough to saddle her with that goofy name before relapsing. By that time, they’d so screwed up their lives the family was forced to move from a seedy bungalow in Fort Lauderdale to their current rental dump full of cockroaches and ants. She was forced to transfer to “Massacre High” because of them.

The Seventh Day Adventist lifestyle was strict—and they, in turn, were harsh in the rules they imposed on her. All in all, it proved a crushing blow to any chance she had of a social life. You could write the things they allowed her to do after school inside the circumference of a shot glass with a fat crayon. They were constantly pressuring her to dress “godly,” read her bible, stop using those awful teenaged expressions, quit listening to that satanic music (Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers), and—most of all—to pray, pray, pray. She felt as if she’d stepped into a live audition for another Carrie sequel.

For a while, she tried. She wore print dresses from Goodwill, hideous potato sacks with gigantic flower heads on most. The humiliation at school was brutal. The tough girls who never bothered with her before took notice, and she endured worse than the usual round of curses. Once, her face was slapped so hard her glasses went flying into the blackboard; another girl bumrushed her in the cafeteria, knocking her paper sack with its bologna sandwich and carrot sticks to the floor, where the girl promptly ground her heel into it. At Maceo, that wasn’t enough to summon the security guard over.   

Bouts of binge-eating, followed by purges and anorectic starvation. She was frail, anemic, close to a breakdown. Now this: extortion. The three girls who slammed her into the stalls yesterday gave her an ultimatum: pay ten dollars every Monday after third-period English or “pay the price.” She didn’t want to ask what “the price” meant; she knew they could get away with it. Britney Mohler, Simone Shibley, and Shakina Mayweather formed the toughest clique in the toughest school in Miami-Dade.

Ten dollars might as well be ten thousand. Her parents scraped by on welfare and were required to put in a few hours at Goodwill Industries downtown. When she blurted out how difficult their demand was, Britney hit her so hard in the stomach she doubled to the floor and retched up the contents of her stomach.

The trio exited laughing, telling her how she could get the money, Britney miming fellatio with tongue poking into cheek on her way out the door. She lay there sobbing, curled in a fetal position. Students passed on both sides around her as if she were a rock in the middle of a stream. No one helped or asked what she was doing on the floor.

For the first time, she did what her parents had been begging her to do: she prayed to God to help her out of this horror show.

She moped in her room until her parents forced her out to eat dinner with them. Still holding her mother’s and father’s hands for the prayer meal, they accused her of being pregnant. The injustice of it was too much: she burst out laughing and then big tears rolled down her cheeks. It was insane, her life.

Friday night she couldn’t fall asleep until nearly dawn. Then she fell into a profound, black sleep and dreamed she stood inside a windowless white room, empty of everything, except for a kindly voice that spoke in a foreign tongue, saying words impossible to understand. She wanted to hear more of the melodic voice and its soothing verbal caress.

When she woke, she showered and entered the kitchen, but her parents were gone. A newspaper lay open on the table. She scanned an article about a farm foreclosure on Highway 62. A sheriff’s auction scheduled in a couple weeks. “All livestock and property to be sold.” It was a message to her from that lovely voice.

Jedda had ten dollars in babysitting money in the drawer of a side table, but she kept her real treasure—fifteen silver dollars, a gift from her deceased grandmother—inside a sock monkey hidden under her mattress. The coins were won in a drawing contest when her grandmother was a young girl. At the height of her parents tweaking, their crazed ransacking for anything to take or pawn left her terrified they’d kill her if she didn’t turn over the money. When her mother came into her bedroom demanding she turn over the money, she lied and said it was stolen from her locker at school. Her mother grabbed her by the hair and sent her flying into the wall.

Jedda dressed and headed to the library to use the computers. She googled the bus station stops and figured she could make it out there and back before her parents returned.

Sunday, all day, whenever she could get free form her parents, she devoted her time to planning; she marked each item on her list. She ate a dull supper and went to bed at once, falling into an anxious, fretful sleep and woke with her mother hollering at her to get up for school.

The principal came over the loudspeaker to inform the entire school this was the last week before school would be indefinitely dismissed owing to the Coronavirus. Just before third-period English, she saw Shanika kissing her boyfriend Demetrius Noble against the lockers. Jedda tried to hurry past when Shanika snaked out an arm like a mamba catching a rodent, stopping her in her tracks.

“Where the money at, bitch?”

Jedda pulled out the pair of crumpled $5 bills without protest.

Shanika pretended to smell the money in her fist. “You wiped your nasty, white-trash ass on these, didn’t you?”

Jedda flinched, expecting a blow. “N-no.”

Demetrius laughed. “I gotta go, babe,” he said.

She leaped into his arms, kissing him full on the lips, both using tongues. Jedda’s stomach churned, a reluctant witness, too afraid to flee.

“What you lookin’ at, skank? Get the fuck out of here before I slap the white off your ugly face.”

She sang out: “Ten, next week, you hear? That virus bool-shit don’t change nothin’—and don’t make me come to your house lookin’ for you.”

Jedda’s legs almost buckled before she passed the row of lockers.

Every day of her plan had to count now; another step accomplished. Despite her parents’ strict eyes on her, it would be hard, but it was life or death now. She knew the mystery voice in her dream was sent to save her—only if she could help herself.

Three of her silver dollars fetched a mere $25 at the pawn shop on the corner. The glittery eyes of the owner’s face told her he was cheating her badly, although she had no choice here, either. She patrolled yard sales every free hour looking for items on her list, her eyes zeroed on tools, the chintzy bric--brac. First, she found the heavy wire snips. On the day before Shanika Friday, tacked to the telephone pole in front of her house, was a scrawled notice of an estate sale where she used two more of her dwindling stock of dollars to buy a blue and gold China tea server emblazoned with roses. By that afternoon, she had everything. Now there was just one thing remaining to do. The trouble was, however, she was almost broke.

Close to tears, she wandered up and down the block in front of her shabby house in despair, praying for courage to bring her plan to completion.

She packed up her book bag and caught the eleven o’clock bus out to the sheriff’s auction on the highway. She was the only teenager there and the only female. She waited until the auctioneer announced the last sale of the day, the farm’s entire livestock. Her heart hammered in her chest. She heard a pair of bidders upping each other and then, finally, one ceased to call out.

As the crowd dispersed, she approached the man who won the livestock, a sunburned old-timer.

“Sir, what do you plan to do with them?”

“None of your business, young Miss,” he replied. “Why you askin’?”

She swallowed. “I was hoping I might could see them before you shipped them off.”

“You kin take you a peek right now,” he said, relaxing some of his sternness. “You best hurry, though. They’s penned up for now. I’ll be packing them off in a week.”

She thanked him in a whisper and walked away. That gave her the rest of the day to work on the fence. She had little time before the last bus back to town.

That night, she lay back exhausted in her bed. Her hands were bruised and throbbing with blood blisters and new callous. She had worked on that cyclone fence with the bolt cutters under a blazing sun constantly fretted by mosquitoes and deer flies trying their best to devour her alive or drain her blood. Tomorrow she’d write out her lines and practice in front of a mirror. Shanika and Britney, the toughest white girl in Maceo High, were veterans of vicious girl fights. They frightened her but neither scared her as much as the Shibley girl with her melodious Caribbean accent.

Rumors about Simone Shibley said she’d been involved in something awful back in Haiti, a knife fight that left a girl dead in a sewage ditch. Deep in her mocha eyes was something disturbing Jedda had detected not present in the other two girls despite their street-talk’s mindless chatter about “fucking people up.” Simone had a narcissistic disregard for her clique, a panther’s sensuous grace, when she walked. Jedda believed she was exactly what her psych book meant when it defined “the true sociopathic personality.” Britney, white trash from her own gang-riddled neighborhood, and Shanika were just a pair of remora fish drafting beneath the Great White shark belly.

Her mother called her for school. She woke with a gasp, somehow unsettled by a dreamless sleep. She had far less fear of catching the virus than facing her tormentors this close to her plan’s fruition. School or no school, she was their victim and there was nowhere to hide. She told herself she was ready—she could do it.

She went straight to the girls’ rest room after her second period and waited. She had seen Britney chatting with some boys earlier. Shanika’s tall profile stood out in the hallway. Simone was just coming down the stairs, unhurried as ever, but clearly more important than the other students who gave her a wide berth. One smitten, nave social sciences teacher doted on Simone, stupidly mistaking her quiet disposition for gentleness. He believed her two steady companions were the bad influences. Not a surprise as Jedda was convinced all adults lived in a parallel universe.

“Give it up.”

She jumped. She turned around to see Shanika and Britney glowering at her, uneven bookends, one thickset, the other angular but both ready to slam her into the wall if she hesitated. Simone, as ever, stood in the back, comfortably watching.

“Here,” Jedda said. Her hands shook; she wasn’t acting. She slipped her backpack off and removed the tea service, protected in bubble wrap.

“What the fuck is this shit?” Shanika demanded.

“Let me see,” Simone said, her voice soft, lilting.

Shanika handed it to Simone, her calm eyes boring into her.

“L-look inside,” Jedda whispered.

Simone peeled away the wrapping, looked inside the kettle, and removed the sock monkey. The girls surrounding her heard the clinking noise.

“Better not be your piggybank, Sizemore,” Britney said. She cocked a fist that showed raw knuckles from her last fight.

Simone looked around first before taking a razor folded inside a cafeteria napkin tucked in her waistband. She split the monkey’s back without taking her eyes off Jedda. Five silver dollars spilled into the palm of her hand.

“They’re worth money,” Jedda said. “A lot of money. I can get dozens just like them, easy.”

“Where did you get this?” Britney asked. Jedda stared into her wide, pale face with the smeary blue eyes and tried not to think of a pig. She’d practiced this moment for hours until she knew the words backwards and forwards.

“I was at a sheriff’s auction last Saturday,” Jedda began, fear knocking in her throat.

Shanika inched closer, her face scrunched in disbelief.

Jedda plowed on. “Some farm was being foreclosed. I saw all this stuff auctioned off, but, like, almost nobody was there to bid. There was a whole bunch of rare China left behind.”

“I’ll China you—” Britney began but Simone held her off with a touch.

“Hold on, Brit,” she crooned.

 Simone’s eyes bored into her, assessing. Jedda hoped her tone was right and that she didn’t lay it on too thick. She saw what they saw in her—a shy, frightened girl in a drab haircut and a sack dress hoping to stave off a beating. Someone too afraid to lie to them.

“Stupid girl, we ain’t throwin’ no tea party,” Shanika chimed in.

Jedda feared a hard slap, or worse, a punch from the end of that long arm that would leave her bloodied on the floor.

Simone raised her voice a notch. “I said hold up.”

“I know where it is,” she pleaded to Simone. “A man there, he told me they’re hauling everything away soon. I walked around the place and found a hole in the fence.”

Jedda took in Britney and Shanika edging closer, a pair of Rottweilers on a short leash.

“Look, I can show you!”

Jedda held her breath, her eyes never leaving Simone’s face, which betrayed no expression one way or the other. Seconds ticked by like the drips from the water faucets.

Finally, Simone said, “Show us.”

“We’ll need a car,” Jedda said as they reached the door. “It’s out on Highway Sixty-Two . . .”

Shanika gave her that stinging slap to the head, after all. “Don’t worry about a car. You just be out front when they close this mother down.”

Demetrius agreed to drive them. Britney told her to “ride bitch” up front. Simone got in back and began texting. Britney put in ear buds and listened to her favorite country-western channel. Demetrius fondled Shanika’s breasts, brushing Jedda’s chest as he groped his girl. Shanika slapped Demetrius’ hand playfully and then mocked Jedda. She lifted her shirt to expose a full bosom, saying, “Check these out.”

“She’s flat as a board,” Demetrius said, laughing. Jedda’s face burned, she sank back against the seat, steeling herself mentally for what came next, oblivious to Shanika’s running patter that mocked Jedda’s mousy hair, her “God-loving” parents, her crappy house, her dress made from a tent. She kept silent, secretly pleased the bashing kept them distracted.

“There’s a padlocked gate there,” she said. “We’ll have to go around behind it.”

She told Demetrius not to take the road to the front of the property.

“There’s a gravel road. Right there, turn there, turn . . .”

Said with too much aggression. It brought Simone’s eyes away from her cell phone. Jedda caught her look in the rearview and felt her heart skip. She needed to take them away from the road to the fence. Her fingers unconsciously traced the calluses on her palms where she’d labored to cut through.

Demetrius growled, unhappy with the command. He swore as pebbles churned up under the chassis of his canary-yellow Challenger, his pride and joy, earned through more drug sales “than fuckin’ el Chapo Guzmn.” Before the virus, he was destined for a free ride to a major football power in the state coming off NCAA sanctioning, and it had given his family an untraceable “down payment” to ensure his commitment.

Jedda stretched her neck to see through the windshield. The Challenger drove past rows of wind-stunted trees, cattails, marsh grass, and steep culverts on both sides of the road.

After a hundred yards paralleling the fence, Jedda blurted: “Here! Stop!”

“Hey, what I fuckin’ say about giving me orders?”

“Easy, baby,” Shanika said. “We gonna be rich soon.”

Britney unplugged her buds and looked around. “Hell, there ain’t nothing around here but a barbed-wire fence and a lobo wolf.”

“No wolves in Florida, Brit,” Demetrius said, stopping the vehicle at an angle in front of the fence. “Aw, God, look at this dust.”

Simone had not said a word the whole time, yet Jedda felt her eyes boring through her neck.

Stepping out first, Jedda took the lead without permission, her brain reeled from the mind-numbing heat and the fear surging in her. Her line of sight in both directions didn’t show a break in the fence. The sudden thought someone might have repaired it was too awful to contemplate. It had to be this way or it wouldn’t work. Then, at last, she spotted it. She’d used nylon twist ties to hold the loose flap in place.

“Through here.”

The others watched, slapping at mosquitoes, while she pulled at the nylon.

Shanika pushed her aside. “Get out of the way, stupid.” A knife appeared in her hand and she slashed through the ties with quick strokes.

Jedda led them through sawgrass that whipped at their legs. She hoped the thought of silver dollars whetting their appetites would last despite the trudge through the green jungle. Simone replaced Britney as the one walking behind her. It occurred to Jedda with piercing clarity that this could end with her throat cut, left out here to rot, no matter what she did.

“You playin’ games, little girl. I smell your fear.” Simone’s words behind her felt like ice in her stomach.

“It’s just ahead,” Jedda replied in a hoarse voice, without turning around, unable to risk staring into Simone’s dark, knowing eyes.

Jedda led them down a grassy slope past a lone sabal palm to the edge of a dried-up lagoon. The air was thicker with insects and the rank smell of mud. A pair of whistling ducks pecking for mud daubers were startled by their arrival and took off with a flap of wings in a yellow-black blur over a stand of holly trees. Demetrius, startled, swore. She pointed to a man-made earthen mound with a shack built on the rounded peak.  

Reeds poked through the cracked and dried mud like the bottom of a dried reservoir. The small, unpainted shack looked like an old-time outhouse except that it had no door. A pair of wharf posts anchored a rope bridge made of braided sisal rope and planks for risers. It was tied off to a banyan tree just opposite the man-made island.  

“The main house,” Jedda said, pointing, “is just beyond that sandbar. We have to cross to the other side of that mound.”

“Whoa, I ain’t wading through muck, ya’ll.” Demetrius said.

“How do we get there?” Simone asked, nudging her back with a sharp knuckle.

“This is the only way to get to the main house,” Jedda said, forcing herself to look at Simone. “Over there, there’s a rope bridge.”

A film of perspiration glistened from their foreheads. Britney’s thick makeup was beginning to run and a moustache of sweat beads made her slender upper lip look pouty.

“You first,” Simone said to Jedda.

They followed her across the rope bridge, single file; the bridge was sturdier than it looked. Despite the number of bodies crossing at the same time, it barely swayed above the mud flats a few feet below.

When they gathered around Jedda on the island, Demetrius looked at his spattered high tops. “Look at this baby-shit all over my kicks.”

“Mine too,” Britney said. The tan skirting of mud covered her sequined sneakers.

Jedda walked past them up the mound and went into the shack. In seconds, she stepped out with two handfuls of silver dollars.

“Look!” she called.

She tossed them up in the air—big fat coins that rolled down to their feet. Britney and Shanika bumped heads diving for the same one. Simone calmly stooped down, ladylike, and plucked one from the soft-packed mud. Demetrius shielded his eyes from the burning sun, then chugged up the mound, blowing past her like the running back he was and sent her sprawling.

Jedda heard Shanika and Britney squealing, arguing over whose coin it was.

Seconds mattered now. Jedda picked herself up, while the girls hollered at one another and lunged for the coins. When all the coins were gathered, they raced each other up the mound to the shack where Demetrius had disappeared.

Jedda bolted for the rope bridge and flew across it, leaping over the planks, reaching the other side in seconds. She dived into the patch of liriope where she’d hidden the hacksaw last week. Using a banyan tree for cover, out of sight of the mound, she sawed furiously at the rope. Sweat poured into her eyes, she heard shouts, sounds of breaking coming from inside the shack and then silence, followed by loud cursing.

She had just sawed through the rope when she looked up to see Simone already halfway across, a shiny flat filleting knife held in one hand.

The bridge collapsed under Simone and she landed in the muddy slurry sinking to her knees.

Jedda saw the knife flip out of her hand and land in the mud. Realizing Simone could still pull herself with the fallen rope, Jedda flew down to the edge and grabbed up the strands of rope and the attached planking and began hauling it in like a sailor coiling a hawser. When she had enough of it scooped into her arms, she hurled the ropes as far as she could out of Simone’s reach where it landed a half-dozen feet from where Jedda stood watching from the bank.

Simone’s agility did her no good in the thick mud. Jedda watched, frozen, unable to move. The knife was gone, but Simone could kill her with her bare hands if she reached the bank—and Jedda knew, once that happened, she’d never beat her in a foot race.

Simone’s weight pushed the last remaining planks of the rope bridge into the silty mud no matter how she tried to avoid placing all her weight in the shifting muck trapping her legs. She stopped just short of the last plank that lay in a tangled heap of rope. Jedda wanted to run; her limbic brain screamed for her to flee.

She didn’t. This was the moment of truth. Simone’s face twisted in feral rage as she understood she wasn’t going to make that short distance. The mud gripped her in a slimy vise. Her deep-set eyes glittered with hatred for Jedda. Jedda saw Shanika emerge from the shack and a few feet behind her came Britney and then Demetrius, last to realize the treachery.

“Get back!” Simone screamed.

The combined weight of the girls sunk the planks faster into the watery mud, which now covered Simone’s thighs. She grunted with effort straining to free herself but sinking deeper, like being immobilized in wet cement. Shanika and Britney, closer to the shoreline, were able to tug themselves free and waddle backward to safety before they too were sucked into the liquid vortex.

Curses echoed at her from all. Unlike the everyday cussing in the hallways from foul-mouthed classmates, these were vile, bitter, serious. Britney and Shanika hurled gobs of mud at Jedda that barely made it halfway to her.

Jedda tossed the hacksaw into the mud where it sank with a plopping sound, its outline painted in the mud and then it disappeared leaving behind a few bubbles in the muck.

Shanika and Demetrius hugged each other for comfort at the waterline, neither fully understanding yet what was to come. Britney, a frenzied harpy a short distance away, still flung mud and spat curses at her. Jedda savored the scene, not wanting to linger a moment more than necessary.  

“Why are you doing this?”

Simone’s question was as calmly put to her as if they were standing by the lockers instead of in a mangrove swamp. Jedda, against her own will, admired the girl’s poise. Trapped up to her crotch, she could only move her hands, the fingers scooping out channels beside her spattered torso and face.

“I have something for you,” Jedda replied, ignoring the baying of the others on the mound.

Jedda spied a tall sumac nearby. She reached up and snapped off a branch and shucked the leaves. From under her clothing, she found the note she’d put there that morning. She speared it to the branch and , as close as she dared to get, extended it to Simone like a peace offering.

Simone stretched out a hand and plucked the paper free from the tip. With hands caked in beige mud, she unfolded it and read it. She looked up at Jedda without changing her expression.

The lack of any reaction sent a cold shiver up her spine. Jedda knew in that instant what would have happened to her as clearly as if it, too, had been written down on paper and handed to her.  

She didn’t waste anther second. Scurrying up the slope, she ran right to the fence, slipping easily through the sliced portion. She made it back to the front gate where the auction had taken place that Saturday. The padlocked gate was meant to stop cars, not pedestrians.

She followed the winding gravel road to the pavilion and the livestock exhibition pens exactly as she had after the auction when the kind older gentleman had allowed her to see the livestock he’d just purchased. He mentioned he was a wrangler in his youth, always loved these big animals and without intending to, he revealed to Jedda everything she needed to know to make her plan succeed. He told her what the feeding times were, what they preferred to eat, how they behaved, and everything he had learned as a boy about the massive creatures as a species.

Most importantly, he showed her the release latches confining them to their pens. When opened, he said, they’d go right to the man-made lagoon beyond the viewing areas where he said they liked to bask in the sun and mate among the lagoon’s wildlife.

Jedda reached for the first pen’s release handle, hesitating. She closed her eyes, hoping to hear her mystery voice, praying for strength. She pulled the first lever; it eased back with little resistance—and then she went down the line pulling each handle faster and faster until all the pens were opened.  

Nothing happened but that was all right, she knew. Time was on her side. The old wrangler had called them “big ‘ole lazy-ass critters.” He said that mound of packed earth where they sunned themselves was where the former owner’s farm hands went every day to toss the rotted packages of unsold meat purchased from the stores in town. Creatures of habit with acute senses of smell, they’d make for the mound in a frenzy once the scent of meat lifted on the air. When the mound was surrounded by water and became a moat in the rainy season, an airboat would bring them their daily food by cruising around the moat and tossing out the piles of dead chickens and spoiled meat.

Most of the bigger ones, he said, preferred to stick close to their pens, accustomed to dead poultry dumped into the waters. The bulls, however, roamed beyond the confines, establishing territories, and seeking out females. The owner drained the lagoon to make it easier to round them up for the sale. Hunting in the tall grass was too dangerous because they moved with deceptive speed on dry land, possessed armored tails that could break a leg with a single swipe.

“They can scale fences, too,” the grizzled old-timer said, “I seen ‘em do that plenty of times.”

“How big are the biggest ones?” Jedda had asked.

“Damn big,” he said, like a proud father.

He’d raised them from hatchlings to adult sizes, which meant anywhere from ten to thirteen feet and four hundred pounds to eight hundred. She remembered hearing the deep bellowing rising from the pens—remembered the thrashing of the water as they beat it with their massive olive-brown or black tails. She shivered recalling their cream-colored bellies encased in that dinosaur trapping.

 “Eat a damn horse whole,” The wrangler said. “It don’t matter none to them.”

* * *

The mental exhaustion was harder than the physical. Her feet had matching blisters to the ones on her palms. She rode back to town with a psalm-singing tent preacher who reeked of booze and invited her to his service that weekend. She walked the last three miles. The thought of being picked up by a psycho or rapist never daunted her, not then. Not after what she had accomplished. She felt light as air, protected by a higher power, like sleeping inside a fuzzy blanket during that awful time when her parents did meth.

The search turned into an Amber Alert because Britney, though built like a brick outhouse, was still seventeen. Three boys hunting muck rabbits with baseball bats came across a femur; it had flesh still clinging to it. A sheriff’s deputy asked where they found it.

“Over to that cyclone fencing,” one said.

“Show me,” the deputy replied.

Up close, the pungent odor of decomposition signaled what they all feared about the missing teens. It was later identified as Simone’s. The boys told the deputy they had no idea they were roaming around the property of an old alligator farm.

State wildlife agents went in with troopers and volunteers. Airboats batted the thick humid air in a grid search for miles around while helicopters chirred overhead like giant winged insects above them.

They recovered pieces of Demetrius, Shanika, and Britney. No intact bodies, however. They brought the pieces to a tent. They searched all around the lagoon and inside the remains of the shack. That had not proved a safe place to hide from the monsters.

The boys were accused of throwing the levers to release the gators. Reporters couldn’t state how the teens had become trapped on the mound on what they referred to as a manmade “mud island where the previous owner had built a skinning shack for alligator hide.” The meat was sold to specialty shops and certain restaurants around Calle Ocho in Miami.

What must it have been like, one sheriff’s deputy mused, to be stuck on that makeshift island at night, starving and insect-bitten, unable to cross the mud to safety and then seeing a horde of luminous red eyes, dozens of alligators coming to rip you to pieces like so much rotten chicken.

Even the shack proved worthless as a refuge once the gators mobbed it, smashing it to pieces with their tails. Whoever had climbed up to the top might have lasted longer than the others but—Lord, can you imagine what that must have been like?

Sweet Jesus, one said, it didn’t bear thinking about . . .

But the strangest item collected was a muddied slip of paper one of the searchers had found. It seemed incriminating but no one knew what it meant or whether it was just windblown debris, the kind gathered up randomly in a crime-scene search.

The state investigators kept it out of the papers for the families’ sake—Simone’s mother being the exception because she did not want to fly in from Port-au-Prince, even though the state’s emergency relief fund director said they’d pay for her flight. Nothing much, after all: just a biblical verse in block lettering:

From “Judges” 15:7:

Since you act like this, I will surely take revenge on you, but after that I will quit.

Robb White writes noir, crime, and hardboiled stories and novels featuring series character Thomas Haftmann. A recent collection of crime stories is Dangerous Women: Stories of Crime, Mystery, and Mayhem. He published Perfect Killer and Northtown Eclipse in 2018. “Inside Man” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019. His website is  https://tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite. 

Mike Knowles has spent over 40 years working mainly in comics, along with contributions to TV, Radio, animation, gonzo-style journalism for a “top-of-the-shelf” magazine and odd spells as a digital artist. Not to mention three gruesome years writing gags for comedians (even though they begged him not to. But what did THEY know about humor? 


I wrote for the comic papers.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2020