It was trying hard to bite him.
For a moment, the lean muscled young man thought the soupy mud had trapped his foot. A sac of cold nerves dropped into his gut, loosening crucial leg tension right as he leapt.
His arms stretched thin, grasped a pine bough. Uncertainty protruding from eyes that flashed forward with his grip. Bark crumbled then twisted loose under his swinging weight. He released before it came off, his wide-eyed focus shifting to the ground, narrowing on a shallow brackish pool. Brown pine needles showered down, dry branches cracking. He curled up, cannonballing over the water. Bare feet sinking into mud beyond, legs instantly bunching, springing, toes kicking up leaves that spun in the vacuum of his sprint.
The dry rustling faded into a spitting hiss. The boy heard though didn’t bother to turn around. He knew she wouldn’t chase him this far from the water.
“Your mom is fast and mean,” he said, tracking a newly hatched water moccasin that slithered into the underbrush, heading for the water. The surface of the pool roiled, the nest of infant snakes untangling to flee the threat.
“Sorry, baby fangs. It’s just not your day.” He picked up a stick and swiftly, expertly, pinned the snake and grabbed it behind the head. He held the reptile up to eye level, marveling at the tiny fangs it displayed, impressed by the strength it exerted as it tried to wind its six inch body around his hand and pull free.
Amid the trees edging the marsh, the life and death struggles of the bayou were starkly contrasted by birds singing, jubilant in their mating rituals. The spring morning chirps echoed enchantment, accentuated by inquisitive chattering from dozens of squirrels. Leaves rustled under flapping wings. Pine cones crunched, rendered into mulch by hungry teeth. The young man walked on the sides of his feet, spreading out his weight. His light mindful steps through their territory didn’t alarm them, as if they sensed he was removing threats rather than adding more.
He found his shorts where he left them on an oak log. Grabbed the trash bag out of a pocket and put the snake inside it, tying it off with an air bubble large enough to keep the animal alive for the day. He dropped it. Stepped over to the water to rinse his legs and dress.
“Al-ex-an-derrr!” cried a woman in the distance.
Birds scattered in the foliage, songs morphing into shrill cries as squirrels squeaked and clawed bark back to their hideouts.
“I feel the same way,” Alex sighed to the woods. “But last time I hid from her I went to jail. So . . .”
Picking up the bag, he darted into the woods, gaining speed once he found his trail. The ground away from the water was firmer, packed hard on the paths made from years of exploring. The mingled scents of wildflowers breezed his face as he crossed a ditch. Feet toughened by a childhood without shoes, the warming blacktop barely registered as he left light tracks of dirt, running soundlessly over the hard surface.
The neighborhood was mostly old trailers on small lots. A maze of bayous bisected it, with random sprouts of woods among the narrow streets. Alex slowed and walked into his driveway, gravel crunching underfoot. He looked at the dirty two-bedroom trailer with dread. His previous home had been a condo on the beach. It was a dream home. But when Alex outgrew his cuteness, was no longer an object of pride for the rich couple to show off, he was returned to the state’s care.
She was the only one that would have me. All those people . . . The older kids were rarely adopted. He accepted what he could get, desperate to find parents, a home. And she and her husband were actually pretty cool back then.
The thin metal front door suddenly flew open, banging hard. Alex froze. A gaunt woman in rumpled jeans glared out from the doorway, face shining an unhealthy pallor.
“Alexander! Where have you been?” she demanded, voice raspy. She dragged hard on the last of a cigarette, flicked the butt into the driveway and glared through the smoke streaming out of her nose.
“What’s in the bag? Better not be another critter! There’s no money in that. You’re supposed to be helping me. What did I even get you for? I told you not to . . . and not in your good clothes!” She swayed, slurring her next words. “Since you didn’t go to school, help me with the gro’ . . . help me go to the grocery. Sto-store.”
She yanked the door shut, Bam! Words muffled, Alex heard her yell inside the trailer, “You’re supposed to be in school!”
“It’s Saturday, Mom,” he said looking at the gravel. Great. Drunk already.
The Dodge Shadow did a shake-rattle-and-roll into the parking lot of Winn Dixie, cloud of blue smoke clinging to its rear end. Turned into a slot and emitted a grinding noise that indicated braking. Alex’s mother turned the key off and cursed, vehement; the engine clunked and sputtered into a violence that finally stalled.
“I can fix that,” Alex said once she quieted.
Her chest heaved for air. She coughed then replied, “You can’t fix nothing. You’re not even old enough to work on engines.”
“I do know how to fix it,” he argued, folding his arms. “It just needs a new timing belt.”
“Take apart a few cars and think you’re a mechanic,” she muttered, digging in her purse. She looked in the rearview mirror and swiped on some lipstick. Smacked her lips and tried a smile. Then glared at the wrinkles that sprouted around her eyes and mouth, at the lack of firmness to her skin. She turned to Alex like it was his fault. “Think you’re hot stuff. You didn’t go to mechanic school. You work at a junkyard.”
She closed her purse with a sniff. Got out of the car.
He held his tongue, stepped out and lifted the door as he shut it. He frowned at the car, sulking in thought. I could replace those bent door hinges, too . . .
NO SHIRT NO SHOES NO SERVICE. “Uh-huh,” Alex said to the sign, holding the door open for his mom. He walked into the air-conditioned building behind her, with no shirt and no shoes, skeptical of the service their food stamp card would get them.
He was used to people giving them second looks. Some outright stared. Trailer trash, those judgemental eyes accused. He knew they were wrong, and that’s all that mattered. To Alex, his mom was still the beauty queen she was before her husband left. She was his savior. So what if she didn’t mother him like she used to. So what if she drank too much and talked down to him. It wasn’t always like this. He knew who she used to be and who she’d rather be.
That’s all that mattered.
“Get some ramen noodles and meet me at the register,” she said, placing a loaf of bread in the basket she held.
“Alright.” He glanced at the jar of peanut butter in the basket and twisted his lips, said slowly, “Can we get some jelly or honey this time?”
She narrowed her eyes, stopped walking and placed a fist on her hip. “There are starving children that would give their eyes for a peanut butter sandwich. So don’t give me lip about it! Do as you’re told.” She shifted the basket to her other hand, then headed to the back of the store where the alcohol was displayed.
He glowered in her direction. $25 a day on vodka. $175 a week! We could buy real food . . . He looked down at his “good” clothes. And shorts that aren’t Blue Light Specials . . .
He turned to scan the aisles. “And a timing belt.”
Alex frowned at the other, fully dressed shoppers that gave him odd looks, hurrying to pick up the noodles. On the way he passed a store employee, the middle-aged man, Gary, his name tag said, gave Alex a dubious stare. He adjusted his glasses, eyes directed at the young man’s dirty feet, eyebrows raising in appraisal of the rest of him. Snobbish distaste emanated from Gary’s demeanor. He studied the half-naked teenager, searching for appropriate words to chide him.
Alex noticed him and stopped, hostility seizing him. He stared back. His eyes darkened, seeming to go from dark brown to black. Muscles flexed on his neck and strong, lean jaw. His thick dark brows furrowed under hair nearly as dark, shaggy locks haphazard on his forehead.
“You have to wear a shirt and shoes,” Gary said, timid, and cleared his throat. The disdain was wiped from his face once he felt the danger in the wild boy’s stare.
Alex’s voice was quiet, though conveyed a primal strength rare in someone his age. “Don’t worry. I’m leaving.”
Gary nodded, eyes shifting. He turned to the nearest shelf and began repositioning items that didn’t need it.
Alex shook his head, found the noodles and grabbed a case. He headed toward the checkout lanes, once more thinking about how unimportant others’ opinions were.
Until he saw the girls.
“Eww! It’s Bayou Boy. Gross times a thousand,” said a perky blonde in a skirt and belly shirt. She turned to her friend, a brunette in a similar outfit, and made an exaggerated stinky face. “Ugh! You just know he smells.”
“I know, right?” The brunette flipped her hair, prim, bent her wrist. She popped her gum and cocked a hip. “Smells like reptile whatever.”
That’s your crotch, Alex wanted to say. He looked at the floor instead, wanting to sniff himself. Feeling very confused he glanced around as if they weren’t there. They tittered with clean, bejeweled hands to their mouths, and Alex stumbled away feeling as if he had retarded feet and an impact wrench in his chest.
Stupid girls! Why do I care what they think?
The inability to answer the question deepened the embarrassment on his face.
Normally the sweet odors sweeping the produce aisles would entice Alex to make a detour, and, perhaps, sample a few cherries or grapes. The unsettled feeling continued to commandeer his senses, making him oblivious to the mouthwatering peaches, plums and melons, determined steps marching the emotionally taxed young man straight to the checkout lanes.
“Where the fudge is she?” He realized how impatient he felt and closed his eyes, took a slow breath. Nerves calmer, he glanced around and decided to try and look like a shopper with money. People stared more when he just stood there.
“You ready to check out, sweetie?” a woman said from the open lane behind Alex.
He turned from a rack of candy bars and TV Guides, gestured with the case of noodles in his hand. “Waiting on my mom.”
The woman, a grey-haired beauty in a neatly pressed uniform, was familiar with Alex and his mother. Her smile warm, she pointed to the right of the store. “I think your mom’s still browsing for hooch, sweetie.”
Alex grimaced, nodded and gave a half smile in response to her chuckle.
Registers beeped and chattered, spitting out receipts. Alex maneuvered around the lines of people, trying not to glare at those that frowned or looked embarrassed when they noticed him. Found his mom standing next to a tower of Budweiser boxes, tapping a bottle of vodka against her leg while smiling up at a very tall man. She pointed to a packet of steaks in his cart. A girl in a toddler’s dress was smacking it with a bottle of ketchup. She told the man, “You like your meat grilled? Bring your handsome self over to my place . . . you’ll never forget my grilling.”
The man looked at her, looked at the package of steaks. His lips pushed out. He scratched his thick beard and avoided her eyes.
Don’t do it, Alex thought. She’ll chew you up and spit you out. He’d seen it dozens of times.
Alex stiffened as the hair on his neck stood up. He smelled the girls coming before he heard their flip flops slapping their heels. From the corner of his eye he saw them stop and point at his mom. Then they pointed at him. Started laughing, loud.
Alex felt his face flush like never before, heat racing over his neck, shoulders. The ridicule-laced chortles assaulted him. A painful fear spiked, and he considered checking his leg for fang marks.
The bearded man noticed the attention the woman’s flirting was attracting and turned his on-the-fence expression into one of pure rejection. “Uh . . . I can’t, I promised my daughter I would have dinner with her tonight. Sorry.” He angled the cart, and started to push around the shameless woman.
Alex remembered how to walk again. He approached his mom, padding over the cold tile. “Hey mom. I got the noodles.” He stopped and practically waved them in her face.
She spared a glance for Alex, then refocused her best smile on the man. “You sure, baby?” She tapped the liquor on her thigh. “I put out a pretty good side dish, too.”
The man glanced around and shook his head, lips drawn in tight. He eased the cart around her and pushed it away. Her eyes followed, glistening.
She dropped the vodka in her basket and growled frustration. Sniffled. Spun and help up a hand as if to hit Alex. “Damn you! He was going to ask me out before you showed up.”
“What?” Alex squinted.
She flipped her bangs and swayed, still buzzed from her morning bottle. “You’re always embarrassing me.”
Alex readied himself to argue. But his hair stood on end once more, silencing his protest. His instincts screamed, DANGER. Something bad was going to happen.
He turned his head, taking in everything at once. Intuition honed from years of handling deadly animals automatically blanked his mind, placing all senses on overdrive, searching for the threat.
The apologetic look he offered the bearded man a moment ago must have triggered this; his subconscious saw something.
Eyes snapping to the left, the man, his daughter and cart all came into sharp focus. Alex’s heart thumped hard, once, twice, time slowing as the beats quickened.
The man stopped by a section of Styrofoam coolers. Distracted by the bold invitation moments ago, he didn’t notice his daughter stand up in the cart and try to grab a bottle of rum from the aisle behind him.
Captain Morgan’s eye patch and conquering grin gleamed from the row of bottles. The toddler’s minuscule pink fingers couldn’t quite grasp the shiny, friendly-looking cartoon. She leaned over further, pitching over the side of the cart, falling head first.
Twenty yards away, Alex’s mom continued to give her son a tongue lashing. But the young man’s mind was operating on another plane. Wha-wha-wha, wha-wha, wha-wha-wha, she scolded. His eyes flickered an intense tracking of the girl. A millisecond passed—no time for thought, only the feeling that he could . . .
The noodle box hit the floor. Alex was already yards away when the cardboard plop resounded, legs reciprocating a blur, leaning forward, tawny form streaking over the tile. Skin on the balls of his feet burned, gripping. Lips peeled back from his teeth, he dove, flop-grunt, sliding hot, hands pistoning out to cup the soft head of the baby . . .
A piercing cry erupted, vibrating his arms. Alex’s senses, still hyperactive, had time to tell him the toddler’s head smelled of shampoo, was very warm, had soft hair . . .
And was bleeding?
“Debbie! Oh jesus!” The bearded man yanked the cart out of the way, groceries scattering over the floor, cart flipping, banging hard. Two women in an adjacent aisle spat loud gasps, staring at Alex. Their children sensed their angst and started whining, holding up their little arms, demanding to be held safely away from the giant throwing the carts, the scary moving boy and the screaming girl.
The man scooped up his daughter. Hugged her. He shushed her wailing fright, overwhelmed with emotion; he didn’t know whether to keep shushing, thank Alex, or curse himself.
“She ok?” Alex inquired, standing. The baby answered with another ear destroying high note, making him flinch. His hand throbbed. Blood leaked from the back of it. He looked at the corner of the liquor rack. A trace of blood glistened on the sharp corner. He gripped his hand, judging how much it would bruise. He looked at the baby and blew out a short breath.
“Alexander, what in the world?” His mom put a hand on his shoulder, frowning at his shorts as he wiped his hand on them.
“Uncool,” he breathed. He felt numerous eyes on them. Slowly, he turned, spotting the two preppy girls. They stood side-by-side, clenching one another, big eyes locked onto him. Gum fell from the blonde’s open mouth. Alex’s eyes moved left. Gary was walking quickly toward the bearded man. Gary’s eyes were glued to Alex, wide, incredulous. Other shoppers came to investigate. Several were pointing and whispering.
His attention was drawn back to his mom as she squeezed his shoulder and gave a proud hum. She looked at the bearded man and smirked. “How ’bout now? Dinner at my place?”
The man pursed his lips, eyes narrowed. He looked at Alex for a moment. Then he nodded.
She squealed delight and kissed Alex’s head. He rolled his eyes, turned and went to pick up the box of noodles, carelessly wiping his hand again.
Behind the boxes of Budweiser stood a man. He had been standing there for several minutes. Watching. Watching as the young man approached his slutty mom. Watching as he became embarrassed by her drunken solicitation. Watching as his embarrassment became true mortification, as the teenage girls laughed at him and his slut mother.
And he watched as the young man overcame all of that, displaying phenomenal athleticism. The speed of that kid, he thought, exhaling a soft hum.
He walked around the tower of beer. Made his way toward the checkout lanes, tailing the young man that needing further watching.
Chris Roy is the author of Shocking Circumstances, Sharp as a Razor, and Her Name Is Mercie. He is a published tattoo artist (Rise Tattoo Magazine, ATC Tattoo Books app) and the illustrator of two children’s books. Raised in South Mississippi, he lived comfortably with the criminal ventures of his youth until a fistfight in 1999 ended tragically. Since January, 2000, he’s been serving a life sentence in the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Nowadays he lives his life of crime vicariously, through the edgy, fast-paced stories he pens, hoping to entertain readers. When he isn’t writing, he’s reading, tattooing or looking for prospects to train in boxing.
You can find Chris on Twitter @AuthorChrisRoy and on his Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Chris-Roy/e/B00MF6LCHM
For more info on the author, visit: www.unjustelement.com
Reviews from the “Her Name Is Mercie” blog tour: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorChrisRoy/
Chris Roy on Off the Chain Radio: https://t.co/brwaz5KFPp?amp=1