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  • Writer's pictureNicole Jorge

THESE DAMNED TREES

cw: domestic violence, toxic relationship


I’d never been in a town like Cypress Grove. I always thought of myself as a country girl, even if nobody would’ve called Gonzales the country. Suburbs, maybe, or the boondocks if they weren’t trying to be nice about it. A lot of people thought of the stretch of I-12 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as the boondocks, outside of Livingston Parish, anyway. Truth is, there wasn’t much to do in Ascension when I was growing up. Cypress Grove was a lot like that, only there was even less for the kids to do out there, as far as I could see. Idle hands are the devil’s tools, Aunt Chimene used to say, only the kids seemed happy enough playing tag, or riding their bikes all up and down the neighborhood. I’ll bet their parents weren’t even worried about where they were, or what kind of trouble they were getting into. That was before people understood that kidnapping is something that can happen to anybody, of course, even you. There was hardly any traffic the day we pulled in, and even the campground folks were polite as could be when they told us it’d be 90-freakin’-dollars to hitch up for the week, cash due on the spot. I’ll bet they saw us suckers coming from a mile away. Cypress Grove was a nice place, kinda like Mayberry, only Southern. I should’ve known we wouldn’t last the week.


We were there four days before K and Jerry came screaming up in the VW after they’d gone out for supplies, laughing and hollering about an angry mob coming for us. It wasn’t funny. I’d only just hung up our clothes to dry, and I barely had enough time to grab it all down before we had to go. I’d figured it was only a matter of time - I’d seen a car down the road just the other day, and somebody must’ve known we were squatting - but there could’ve been a better time, damnit. My nice dress was getting mildewed in a box in the camper, and K was mad at me like it was my fault. The other guy started it, he said. Said the same thing back in Galvan, too, only I’d known better then. I think I always knew better.


At that point, all the shitty little towns we’d crashed through had begun to blur into each other. What made one podunk post office different from another? There wasn’t anything waiting for me at either of them. I couldn’t have told you when I’d last called home by the time we crossed the state line into North Carolina at some ungodly hour, the road lined on both sides by trees standing tall, dark, and silent.

I was in the VW with K, following Jerry and Elena in the camper. The radio was blasting some 90’s alternative shit and I wanted so badly to turn it down. It had been making my head pound for the last 60 miles. Only K had a thing about me touching the radio, so I just sat gritting my teeth until they ached.


“The Great Dismal Swamp,” Jerry read. “Sounds...exciting?”


“We don’t need exciting, brother Jer - we just need somewhere to pitch up,” K reminded him. “This’ll have to do. Think we can leave the camper here without any trouble?”

Jerry pitched a stick into the woods. It didn’t go far. I watched it hit a tree and snap easily in half. “Sure. Why not?”

K didn’t look happy with that answer, but he didn’t argue or say anything about it to Jerry. He never did. I was still focusing on my sandals, the ones that had seemed pretty and bohemian when I first bought them, but they’d pinched my toes like a bitch the first three months I’d worn them. “All right then, ladies. The Great Dismal Swamp is our new home.”


We lost Elena first. It wasn’t much of a surprise. She was really into the hippy dippy shit, Elena. I’d never liked her very much. She was a scrawny little thing, and she was always wearing these gauzy, drapey dresses that made her look like some kind of woodland nymph. Sure, I was jealous. But I was also a little worried, on account of she wasn’t very sharp. Our first night in the swamp she went off to “forage” for us, coming back with a handful of worryingly bright berries and some greens. K and Jerry thanked her, patted her on the head, and set her findings aside to break into some of the canned beans they’d shoplifted back in town. I don’t think she even noticed.


That night, K was a real ass. Long story short, I didn’t get much sleep - it had been a while since I’d gotten much sleep, to be honest - and the sun was only beginning to peek through the trees when I stepped out to find Elena sitting by the firepit. It was a chilly morning but she was still in one of those ridiculous dresses, puffing away on Jerry’s pipe.


“Better not lose that,” I said, sitting to join her, if only because I had nothing better to do. “He won’t be happy if you do.”


“Jer’s not so bad. He’s not K, anyway,” she said. That bitch. But when I looked at her she was smiling vacantly, and I knew she hadn’t really meant anything by it. It was just the truth, after all. For a long while neither of us said anything. I could hear Jerry snoring from the tent, and eventually the sound of K knocking around in the camper.


“Did you see the lights?” Elena asked, at last.


“What lights?”


“The fairy lights. They were all around us. It was beautiful.

I looked down at the pile of vegetation she’d gathered that night and hoped she hadn’t gotten into any of it. I couldn’t tell if she had.


“Did you...eat anything funny, last night?” I asked her, and she laughed.


“No, silly. I mean it! Oh, I wish you could’ve seen them. It was so wonderful.”

I heard K swear, and then he was calling my name. Elena looked at me a bit sadly.


“You don’t have to go back in there, you know. If you went out into the swamp, instead, the fairies would provide...they always do.”


Maybe she had gotten into the berries, after all. I couldn’t bring myself to care, much. I was still sore about Cypress Grove, still sore about the night I’d had. So I left her there, and I went back inside the camper to face whatever K had in store for me.

It hadn’t always been like that. When we first met, I’d thought K was the rising sun. He’d been such a charmer, so sweet and down to earth. He’d been strumming a guitar outside a book signing I’d gone to for some vegetarian cookbook or other, and I’d thought he was so damn cute. I could hardly believe it when he smiled at me, asked me to sit down with him and chat for a bit. This was before the drinking and the temper came out. This was before enlightenment had struck him, telling him that it was time to reject these false temples man had built up and learn to live off the land instead. Only “living off the land” came down to living off of canned goods and microwave mac n’ cheese...at least until the microwave in the camper died, anyway. Once, I tried following a recipe from the cookbook for yarrow tea. I thought it might take us back to the old days. Instead, we both spend the night puking our guts out and getting angrier and angrier with each other. It was the first time he hit me. It wouldn’t be the last.


“Where the hell’s Elena at?” Jerry asked, a couple days later. He’d crawled out of the tent yawning and scratching at his hairy chest. Jerry slept in the nude and seemed to enjoy how uncomfortable it made me. I looked away from his pale, pimpled flesh and shrugged.


“Don’t know. Haven’t seen her.”


K was lounging in the doorway of the camper, whittling absently at a stick with the nice knife his grandfather had given him. He spat and narrowed his eyes at me.


“Well, when was the last time you did see her?”


“Last night, at dinner,” I answered, shortly. “Same as you.”


Jerry sighed. “That idiot. She’s probably off looking for fairies again. Lemme get dressed and go find her.”


Only, he didn’t find her. I stayed at the camp as the day wore on while the boys took the VW out to search the roads for her. As I sat alone by the firepit, I thought of what she’d said about the lights and I hoped she hadn’t wandered off into a bog somewhere. I hadn’t liked her, sure, but that didn’t mean I’d wanted her dead. I fully expected the boys to roll back up with her in the backseat, stoned and giggling about whatever she’d found in her wanderings.


Instead, the sun started to set, and I was still on my own. I retreated back toward the camper in short stretches. The sky grew dark, and I could hear the sounds of night life around me. Water splashed, frogs croaked, the wind whistled through the trees. Every so often came a sound like footsteps breaking through the undergrowth, probably some animal wandering by our camp. That’s what I told myself, anyway. I had taken up K’s seat in the door to the camper when I saw the first lights. At first, I thought they were just fireflies. They danced among the trees, weaving in and out of the shadows. But they were so brilliant. Brighter than any insect had any business being. They began to multiply, too, some dancing high among the leaves, others swooping low to the ground. I wanted to get a better look at them, understand how anything natural could look like that. But these damned trees, they pressed in all around me, shielding the source from my eyes. I backed into the camper and shut the door. I didn’t turn on the lights - I couldn’t shake the notion that something was out there watching me. I wasn’t an idiot. In the dark, I could see it more easily than it could see me...or at least, that’s what I told myself.


Then the guys came back, the car swerving into the clearing where we’d staked out our camp. The sight of it made me livid with rage. I hardly noticed that the lights surrounding the clearing had gone out as I stomped outside as heavily as I could in my cute sandals.


“Where the hell have you been? Did you find her?” I demanded.


They’d been climbing out of the car, laughing at each other. At the sound of my voice, K’s smile quickly disappeared. He looked at me, angry, as Jerry stumbled.

“What?” Jerry slurred. “You mean she ain’t come back yet? Aw, shit.”

Their search had taken them into a little town called Alexandria, they told me - a college town, full of know-it-all pricks, K said. He sure hated college kids. But they’d liked the town bar, well enough to stay a few hours, anyway. It was a miracle they hadn’t gotten pulled over on the way back. It was a miracle they hadn’t killed anyone. In any case, there had been no sign of Elena.


“Well, she didn’t come back here,” I told them. “Oh, Jesus. Do you think she’s still lost out there? Maybe we should call the cops, or some park rangers - ”

I just blurted it out. If I’d thought longer, I wouldn’t have said it. Jerry went gray at the mention of the cops, and K glared at me.


“Are you out of your fucking mind? We don’t need help from the pigs, Claire. We look after our own, remember?”


Ah, yes. Our own. K seemed to think there would be more of us, at one point. He’d had grand ideas of forming something like a commune, a gathering of like-minded folks who took care of themselves and didn’t need to depend on “the establishment” for anything. Like we were going to hack a path through the trees and pave it for the VW ourselves. It had seemed like such a quaint idea, back then. But I was starting to realize that’s all that K was - ideas, and meanness. One day, I thought, I’d tell him to fuck off back to the 70s with his commune bullshit and his archaic ideas of what to expect from a woman. I just wasn’t ready yet. And when it came down to choosing between spending a night out by the firepit with those lights, or back in the camper with K, I had a really hard time figuring out which was the lesser of two evils.

I chose the camper. It was a mistake.


My face was still swollen when I slipped out of the camper early the next morning. It was cold, but I felt numb inside, so what did it matter? I sat by the firepit by myself for a while. I half-expected Elena to come wandering back through the trees. She didn’t. Jerry had still been ashy when he’d crawled into his stinking tent that night, like it had finally started to dawn on him that something really bad might have happened to her. How much longer would it be before he realized that we had no option but to contact the police? And when he did, would he be enough to convince K?


“You start breakfast?” K asked, when he climbed out of the camper. I jumped a little at the sound of his voice. The sun had come up properly, and I wasn’t sure how long I’d been sitting there alone staring off into the swamp.


“I’m not hungry,” I answered. K scowled.


“I didn’t ask you if you were hungry, damn it. Maybe you should think about someone besides yourself for a change, Claire. Fuck. I’ll bet Jerry’s hungry. Hey, Jerry!”


There was no answer. “Asshole,” K muttered, and stalked past me, jostling me just because he could. I watched him crouch and stick his head into the tent.

“Jer?”


A moment later he was back up. He looked...uncomfortable. At first, I figured he’d just gotten a good look at Jerry’s pasty ass. He turned to me.


“He come out of his tent?”


“What?”


“I said, did he come out of his tent?


I blinked. It made my eyes hurt. “No,” I said, and K spat.


“Shit. Well, he’s gone now.”


This time, K made me ride in the VW with him. We sped up and down the roads leading to and from our camp. I figured maybe Jerry had headed back out on foot to look for Elena once we’d gone into the camper, and we’d find him laying hungover in a ditch somewhere. Only we didn’t find him. We ended up back in town, and if I’d been in a better mood I might have found it charming. It really was full of college kids, pizza places and sneaker boutiques, a scattering of bars and a cafe promising vegan empanadas. I liked it a lot.


“This is the street we were on last night,” K said, as he slammed the car into a parking spot. It gave me whiplash, as if I wasn’t sore enough already. But I held my tongue. “I’m gonna go left and see if he wandered back this way. You go right.”

There was a bar to the left of the car, the Ironclad. I wondered if that was where he was headed. Maybe he wasn’t even looking for Jerry, after all. But I wasn’t about to argue with him, not as volatile as he was. So I went right, my toes cold and my arms crossed over my chest. I caught a glimpse of myself in a storefront window, and I didn’t like what I saw. I looked like shit. The skin around my eyes was bruised, and my mouth was all swelled up. There were streaks of mud on my legs. When a cop stopped me out in front of the library I wasn’t even surprised. She looked me up and down, her lips pursed.


“You all right, miss?” she asked, and I couldn’t tell if she was actually worried by what she saw or if she just figured I was a hobo nuisance. I forced a smile, and I felt the split in my lip reopen.


“Um, yeah...I’m fine. Just looking for my friends.”


“Where are your friends?”


I wouldn’t be looking for them if I knew, I wanted to say.


“I’m not sure,” I said, instead. “We were out camping on the swamp, and we got separated...we thought maybe they came back into town.”

The cop’s eyes darkened. “On the swamp? Hoo, boy. Sweetheart, you better come in and file a report - sooner you do that, sooner we can get a search party goin’.”

I felt K’s presence before I saw him. His hand curled around my elbow, tight and possessive and angry. But he was smiling as he faced the cop, the same smile he’d been wearing when I first met him.


“There you are! Afternoon, officer.”


“You part of the group?” the cop asked, hands on her hips. “How many are missin’?”


“Oh, no - jeez, Claire! I’m so sorry, officer. It’s just a misunderstanding, is all. Nobody’s missing. They’re waiting for us back at the camp.”


I looked up at him. “What?”


He smiled down at me. “See, I told you you just had to be patient! Jerry called. They’re both fine. We just got a little worried, when we couldn’t find them right away.”


Jerry didn’t have a cell phone - neither did K. So it was a lie, then. I made myself nod.


“Oh, yeah...how stupid of me. Sorry to waste your time.”


The officer eyed us warily. “You sure you’re both all right?”


K had started to retreat, tugging me along after him. “We’re just fine! Seriously, we’re so sorry for the trouble. You have a good afternoon, ma’am.”

I thought he would wait until we were back at the camp to go off on me, but he slugged me in the shoulder as soon as we were back in the car. I cried out.


“K, what the - ”


“Talking to a pig, are you out of your fucking mind? Jesus Christ, you’re a real idiot, you know that? You want us all to get locked the fuck up when they find all that grass back at the camp?”


“But Jerry and Elena - ”


“Man, they could be dead in a ditch, for all I care! I’m not going to fucking jail.”


I sat there quiet, all shook up. For as long as I’d known K, Jerry had been his best friend, his right-hand man. Jerry could do no wrong, even when he lost all our pooled funds gambling back in Alabama. I’d had to put up with all of Jerry’s bullshit, and by extension, all of Elena’s bullshit, because K wouldn’t hear a word against either of them. And now, it had come down to this.


I was out the door and running before K had even parked the car.


“Claire!” he called after me. “Get back here!”


I didn’t stop. I wasn’t an idiot, whatever he thought - if he didn’t care what happened to Jerry and Elena, what the hell did that mean for me? I ran across the clearing and out into the trees, lights be damned. It was getting dark then, and all around me I could hear the sounds of the swamp. I half-expected to plunge into water or to be sucked down into the mud. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t stop, not till I’d lost him, even if that meant losing myself.


I could hear K crashing through the brush after me. I was getting tired, but I couldn’t slow down, even if my lungs burned and my legs ached. Even after I saw the first of the lights. They were blinking to life all around us. As I ran, I saw them as bright little blurs. They zipped past. K’s ragged breathing was coming closer. Then, like a horror movie damsel, I tripped. There was nothing delicate about it. My foot caught on a tree root and my ankle wrenched, pitching me down into the mud. I landed with a scream, but the muck was in my mouth and all over me. Even as I rolled over, I knew I wasn’t getting back up on my own. My arms were shaking too hard for me to life myself. I lay there on my back, my heart beating so hard I could hear it.


K stood over me. “You fucking idiot,” he said, quietly, as though someone was listening. “You really fucked up now, you know that?”


I think deep down I had always known it would come to this. The lights were dancing all around us now. It was almost pretty. I could see why Elena had thought they were fairies. But they weren’t fairies, not really. K blotted them out for a second as he crouched down beside me.


“You made me do this,” he said, his voice shaking. He’d reached a road he couldn’t go back on, now. We both knew it. His hands were unsteady, but he still wrapped them around my throat and started to squeeze. But he wasn’t squeezing for long. The lights had come even closer, and I could see them better now. I wondered how I’d mistaken them for bugs. They were fires, tiny little fires, burning inside of lanterns. And the lanterns were held by dark figures too indistinct for me to make out. There were dozens of them all around us. One of them came up directly behind K. I opened my mouth to say something - even then, my first thought was to warn him. I never got the chance. He went down with an oomph sound.


One of the figures had swung his lantern. It connected hard with K’s skull. K lay where he’d fallen, groaning. The figures closed in. I couldn’t make out their faces, if they even had faces. Several of them gathered around K. I couldn’t see him anymore, but I heard him start to scream and scream and scream. And then he went quiet, and somehow that was more terrible. The rest of the figures just...stood there, looking at me. They said nothing. They didn’t move any further. I’m not sure how long I lay there gasping in the mud. Somehow, finally, I found the strength to stagger to my feet. I expected them to swarm me next, but they didn’t make a move. Even when I started to go, limping along back toward where I thought the camp was, they didn’t do anything.

They didn’t try to stop me.


I’m still not sure if it was a mercy, or if they just hadn’t expected me to survive on my own. I never found my way back to the camp. I was too lost, too turned around. The park rangers found me a day or so later, huddled up under the roots of a great cypress, my hands around my knees and my hair clotted with mud and blood and who knew what else. The lady cop I’d met outside the library was waiting for me back at the station looking fed up.


“I knew you kids were up to no good,” she said when she saw me, heaving a big sigh. “You’d better hope we find your friends, miss, ‘cause they got a lot to answer for.”


I spent the next few days at the station. I might have been under arrest, but I wasn’t sure. There was no sign of K and the others, and later I’d realize how lucky I was the cops didn’t figure I’d killed them. Maybe they figured they had no case without bodies. As for the pot, there wasn’t half as much of it as I’d thought, and after what I’d been through I think they couldn’t bring themselves to hold me accountable for it. When Aunt Chimene showed up at last I couldn’t do anything but throw myself into her arms and cry.


Gonzales isn’t what it used to be, but it’s home. I don’t think I’m going to be leaving here again for a long, long time. I still think about K and the others sometimes. I sure as hell don’t miss them. But I do wonder what became of them, out in that swamp. I wonder why I was spared, if I was spared, and I wonder what it was that kept those lights burning out in the dark and wet. And when I catch myself wondering, I stop. It’s no good to dwell on the past, not when there’s the future for living. Idle hands are the devil’s tools, after all. And I mean to put mine to good use.






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