Paul lit a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket before flicking the match through the narrow gap of the car window. Outside, the last few coral rays of evening sunlight were being slowly engulfed by the brooding clouds of a late spring storm. He aggressively shifted the Corvair into fourth gear and exhaled a puff of light blue smoke through the crack in the window.
“Okay Paul, we’re out of there. I think you can relax now. And for god’s sake, roll that window down more.” In the passenger seat beside him, Maria was theatrically waving her hand in front of her face with a disgusted look. Even though she was only half serious, she still hated the cigarettes. After spending an entire afternoon with his parents though, she knew there was no way Paul was going to wait until they made it back home.
Cranking the window a little lower, he said, “Why does he have to complain so damn much? I’ll tell you why, the bastard doesn’t have anything better to do. That’s what old croppers do when they finally retire—sit around making everyone else miserable. Thank god for Nixon being in office or he’d still be bitching about the leafhoppers and wireworms.”
Maria laughed, brushing her windswept jet-black bangs from her eyes. “Is that what you’re going to do when you take over someday and eventually retire? Sit around with your piles of money being a cranky old codger?”
It was Paul’s turn to laugh, despite himself, and he said, “Well, first of all, I’m still convinced Julius Tarver is going to outlive us all purely out of spite. But if by some miracle he doesn’t, at least I’ll have you to put a smile on my face. I mean, how bad can I get, right?” He grinned at her as he squeezed her knee with his hand. “Besides,” he said, “if I never see Oak Hill again, it’ll still be too soon. Brian can manage just fine without me for a while.”
Outside the car, a light rain had started to fall, pattering softly on the windshield as they sped through the gathering darkness. An isolated drive at the best of times, their blue sedan was the only vehicle on the rural highway this late on a Sunday evening. Paul flicked the remainder of the cigarette from the car and cranked the handle to raise the window, shutting out the wind.
“You know Brian hates that place just as much as you do,” said Maria, “you saw him at supper—he looks miserable there.”
When their father had finally decided to retire the year prior, Paul’s younger brother had moved back home to manage the day-to-day operations of the Tarver family peanut farm. Originally purchased at the close of the Civil War, the sprawling property located just outside of Hickox, Georgia had produced enough wealth over the years to last several Tarver generations.
Paul scoffed and said, “True, but he also needs the money more than I do. Besides, why am I the one that’s supposed to abandon my own company to go back and scrape peanuts out of the ground? Maybe things would be different if dad were gone already, but with him alive, even retired, it’d be nothing but a pain in the ass. You saw him tonight, could you just imagine him looking over my shoulder every day, butting into everything I say and do? No thanks. To tell you the truth, I have no idea how Brian does it.”
Maria was accustomed to Paul’s dark moods after visiting his parents. More often than not, the two and half hour drive back to their home in Valdosta was long enough for him to vent his frustrations, and so she just did her best to listen empathetically. Today however, they had already left the estate later than they’d planned, and the approaching storm looked as if it were about to slow them down even more.
Paul glanced up at the marbled gray sky, shaking his head as lightning flashed deep within the clouds, illuminating the desolate landscape. “This one’s going to be a doozy. It’ll take us all night to get home.” The accompanying thunder vibrated the car as if to punctuate his statement.
“We can always just turn back and stay at Oak Hill—just for the night?” Maria regretted the words as soon as they left her lips, scrunching her face at her own stupidity.
“Ha! I’ll sleep in the mud on the side of the road before we stay there. I could just see the look on dad’s face when we pulled back into the drive. ‘Afraid of a little rain, are you?’ Meanwhile, he hasn’t even driven a car in twenty years. That’s how big of an egomaniac he is, he wouldn’t even see his own hypocrisy.” Suddenly a thought came to him, and he began looking around the landscape through the windshield. “Actually, you know what—we’re not too far from that old logging road that cuts through the ‘Fenokee. I’ve never taken it all the way through, but that’d definitely save us some time,” he said.
The vast Okefenokee swamp stood like a botanical barrier between Paul and his childhood home. Whenever he made it back to the mental safety of the swamp’s west side it was as though a hefty burden had been lifted from his shoulders. In normal circumstances, him and Maria would simplyHighway 57 around the north end of the swamp, bypassing the desolate twenty five mile-wide bog. Tonight though, Paul desperately wanted to reach the Julius-less side of the swamp before the approaching storm stopped them dead in their tracks.
“What old logging road? I don’t remember any other roads to Valdosta from here,” said Maria from the passenger seat, grateful for the change in topic. Although her and Paul had been married for three years, they had begun dating as freshmen while attending college together in the same city they would eventually call home. At the time, she had been enrolled to become an elementary school teacher and him to earn a degree in business; not, ironically, to assume the family company, but to escape from underneath it.
In the years since however, they seldom came back to the little town and, when they did, he was never keen on lingering long enough to show her around before rushing back off, leaving the dusty brown patches of dirt in the Corvair’s rearview mirror.
Paul leaned over and popped open the glove box, rifling through the contents with one hand as he kept the car on the road with the other. “Aha—” he said, taking out a folded and tattered map. “Here, open that up.” He handed the map to Maria who took it with a confused look.
“It’s not really a road, per say—not anymore at least. Years ago, back around the time my dad was a kid, the state cut a swath through the ‘Fenokee to chop down all the good trees. Once they got what they wanted, they just let the road go to hell. Eventually, it got to the point that no one even wanted to take their car down it because they were getting too beat up. And trust me, it’s not the kind of place you want to get stranded.”
Maria looked through the windshield at the ominous sky and asked, “If it’s that bad, do you think we should risk it with this weather coming?” She held the map up to the window, trying to use the last remnants of cloud-choked twilight to read as she flipped to the section showing the Okefenokee swamp. She understood Paul wanting to get home as fast as they could, but the way he had made the route sound had worried her.
Running a hand through his wavy brown hair, Paul said, “Look, even if we take it slow and easy, we’ll still shave off an hour’s worth of driving—at least.” He took the map from Maria and switched on the interior light. Studying the faint lines for a moment—his eyes alternately shifting between the map and the road—he tossed it down into his lap with a huff.
“Okay, well, it isn’t on here, but I know the turn-off is just past the Bannefort plantation. After that, it’s a straight shot through. It’s not like you can make a wrong turn once you’re on it.”
Maria didn’t say anything, and for several minutes they rode in silence as the rain began to fall heavier outside. Fat drops were smearing the dusky fields through the windshield, and Paul switched on the wipers.
A few miles later, despite the poor visibility from the rain and darkness, as they came around a shallow curve Paul pointed and said, “There—”
The twin headlight beams illuminated a spilt-rail fence running alongside the highway. They continued driving along the fence, paralleling a freshly planted soybean field, for half a mile until they reached the corner. Slowing down, Paul didn’t bother to use the car’s signal as he turned left, crossing over the opposite lane and pulling onto the narrow gravel road, now slick with fresh mud. He stopped the car as rain poured down in heavy streams, rumbling on the roof overhead.
Lying on the ground next to the corner post, barely visible in the high grass, was a rusty metal sign, beaten with age. Amidst a smattering of bullet-holes and flaking white paint, the gray, sun-bleached wordscould still be read with considerable effort: “State Road 8.”
Paul grinned with nostalgia, “Yep, this is it. God, it’s been years since I’ve been down this road. Brian and I used to sneak some of dad’s pipe tobacco and cruse down here to smoke it. Actually, I remember buying a jar of ‘shine off Billy Meadows and bringing it out here with Shirley—”
“Paul,” said Maria, cutting him off, “think carefully before you finish that story.”
“Ah, good point.”
Just past the hazy glow of the headlights, empty soybean fields continued on either side of the gravel track for a short distance before slamming up against the dark and imposing edifice of the Okefenokee swamp’s forest.
Staring at the foreboding wall of trees in the distance, Maria asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea, Paul?”
Paul shrugged, “Against the prospect of getting stranded at Oak Hill overnight, I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
Checking to ensure that the windshield wipers were running at full speed, he eased the car forward into the dark and pouring rain.
From the author: It’s exciting to be starting a new tale, especially with so many new readers on board, (750+ new fans since “The Sigbee Depot” debuted a little over a month ago). If you’re new here, you can also find me on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn— each with varying degrees of success and failure on my part. As always, thank you to everyone for reading, commenting, and sharing my stories with those around you. I set out to build something that I wanted to exist in the world, and because of you it does. Please keep up the fight.
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