The Swamp and the Stone Wall

Cajoling gave way to pleading which, in its time, evolved into something just short of blackmail. Ronnie wasn’t surprised that it got so bad. She hoped at first it wouldn’t, that eventually, Bill would get tired of pounding his head against the stone wall of her denial and just let it die. He had pretended to be concerned about the scratches on her body, the bruises on her neck and the bite marks on her ears, and she’d always been weak to those little shows of concern. Eventually, she agreed to take him to meet her new lover.

“I should have known it was some weird hick,” Bill commented as he followed her into the woods.

“Oh, yeah,” she agreed. Everything seemed distanced from her as though by an especially fleecy blanket. Even her own words were muffled. “His family has been out here for ages.”

“You always did reel in the freaks,” Bill said, his blithe lack of self-awareness once more protecting him from any sort of uncomfortable introspection. “Wandering around out in the woods. Crawling around in drain pipes. Like a possum!”

“Sure, Bill. Like a possum.”

Ronnie had an easier time than Bill picking her way down the hills. There was a path she’d worn through the tangled trees and underbrush, free of brambles. More’s the pity for Bill, Ronnie thought, and led him through the worst of the woods.

Maybe he’d get frustrated and go home. Why Ronnie would possibly want that was beyond her. Her time with Bill had been one tiny crisis after the other, punctuated with disasters to keep her on her toes. The fact that he’d shown back up in her life at all had been the single black spot on an otherwise good year. He wanted to turn it into a long, venomous spell of suffering—at least, he’d been willing to threaten it to get her cooperation.

Just like he said. She did reel in the freaks. Bill had sharp eyes if they weren’t pointed inward.

“God, Ronnie, your legs! You should have worn pants.”

She hummed, leaving it to Bill to decide whether or not she’d agreed, and ignored the tickle of blood creeping down her legs, the itch of it as it dried into tattered stockings. The thorns out here cut deep, the warning snarl of a big dog that preceded an owner with his gun. A few times, Bill swore as they pierced even his jeans and found soft skin.

At last, they came to bottomland. The river had pulled back in recent years, dragged away by drought. The soil was kept wet by runoff and the lack of sunlight; the canopies of either side met the treetops of the bottom and kept it in shadow, even at the height of noon. Bill’s boots sank up to the ankle, and he groused as he had to rip his feet up and plunge them back in with every heavy step. Ronnie managed to find mats of leaf litter and twigs to keep the marsh from sucking her in as well. They formed a perfect pathway of stepping stones to the cabin.

Surrounded by trees and draped in vines and fallen branches, the crumbling structure was nearly invisible. It could have easily just been a well-developed thicket. Bill, who’d obviously been expecting something a little more ‘Hills Have Eyes’ and less… long-abandoned illegal distillery, scoffed.

“Jesus H Christ, Ronnie. That’s where he lives? That’s where you’ve been fucking him? You must’ve actually, factually lost your goddamn mind, Veronica.”

“Not everybody is as fortunate as you, Bill,” Ronnie said.

Her voice was even. She doubted emotion could even reach it now. That blanket from before was getting thicker and softer and more welcoming every second. Every step she took toward the cabin, it got tighter.

“It’s got multiple rooms, even,” she said. “It’s just sunken in a little. It’s been here forever, y’know.”

“I have got to see this,” Bill said.

A nasty tone, like he was half a second from laughing at her, had crept in under the disbelief. Let him laugh. It wouldn’t matter in the big scheme of things.

There was no door, just a torn-up blanket nailed to the jamb. The kind you could get in Mexico or on a reservation, coarse and hardy. It had decorated Ronnie’s sofa for years, a present from some or another auntie, until it found a more noble calling here. Ronnie held it up so Bill could duck under it, and pulled her phone out to provide a flashlight.
Sour soil and rotting wood turned the air thick, and dust motes danced in the beam of Ronnie’s flashlight. Bill’s expression had gone from condescension to concern, eyes getting bigger as he took in the sight of the wrecked home. The floorboards sagged under their weight, had fully collapsed in places and left jagged black voids that led directly to the stagnant pools below.

“I don’t even want,” he began, “to know what sort of mold you have in your vagina now, Veronica. Jesus. Jesus!”

“What a great first impression to make, Bill,” Ronnie said. Then, clearing her throat, she called, “Hon! Hey, hon, it’s Ronnie! I brought a guy who wants to meet you!”

Silence, thick and muffling as the blanket around her heart, held for a few seconds. Then, the creaking of floorboards and the uneven cadence of footsteps broke through. Bill squared up his shoulders and turned to greet what he had assumed was the man Ronnie had been seeing.

Ronnie took some quiet steps backward and pulled down a sturdy board across the doorway. It fit snuggly in the latch that had been hidden by the blanket-door, too low to duck under, too high to easily vault.

From the back room, Ronnie’s lover came.

Bill, never one to mince words, immediately started to scream. Ronnie stepped out of his way, and let him run right into the board. It knocked him on his back, his head smashed into the soggy boards beneath, and Ronnie’s lover was on him in an instant, white hands with their white nails digging into the flesh. Bill reached up to her and begged, “Ronnie, Ronnie—!” but she only stared. Ronnie’s lover dragged Bill, who had stopped begging and now only screamed, back to the room that had once been a kitchen.

“Sorry, Bill,” Ronnie mumbled, unable to raise her voice any higher. Though it was hot as an oven and humid as all Hell, she was cold, freezing cold and shivering from it. She could barely feel her arms wrapping around herself. “You shouldn’t have been such a snoop…”

The tattered stockings of dried blood were beginning to flake. She scratched one of them away as her lover sank his pink teeth into Bill’s throat and tore, holding him down in a corrugated steel trough to catch the waterfall of blood. After a moment, Bill stopped struggling, and the frenzied, gurgling breaths gave way to quiet. Only Ronnie’s breath and the continued dripping of blood disrupted the peace.

Ronnie’s lover came to her, wiping his mouth on the back of a long, white arm. He knew how she hated the taste of blood, how it brought her back to a bad time, a bad place, and that made him a damn sight kinder than almost any other man who’d ever kissed her. She leaned against the still, thin chest and looked into the middle distance. Lank white hair like brittle, acid-leeched grass fell in her face, and thin lips like the cut of a blade pressed to her scalp. Bill commenced to stinking as any corpse did, but the smell was far away. Everything except the coolness of her lover’s chest and the heavy thumping of her own heart stayed far, kept away by the blanket that had turned into a stone wall.

Ronnie closed her eyes, and kissed her lover in the rotting, bottomland house, far from the afternoon sun and everything else. Within moments, she had forgotten Bill was even there.

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