Tony puts his weight behind the punch, sending the old man down, across the floor and into a display shelf; sprawling dazedly and scattering taxidermy alligator heads, an assortment of sizes, about himself. Tony leaps over him toward the convenience store’s exit. Looking back mid stride; the older man struggling to his hands and knees whilst the dozens of alligators silently smile and laugh in frozen perpetuity. The glass door swings open at his touch and warm, sweaty summer air hits his face. He is across the gravel parking lot quickly and finds a space between two trucks, the only two in the lot, and squats using them for cover.
The phosphorous squat cube of a building beckons his attention. He can see the clerk, another old white man, anguishing between calling the police and helping the still stunned older man to steady himself. His lined and weary face though, goes from confusion to revulsion as saggy skinned cheeks bunch into a grimace. Tony’s eyes flick back to the older man who is violently vomiting over himself and the counter. The older man’s eyes roll slowly skyward before his body crumples out of sight. Tony flicks back to the clerk: the phone drops from his hand, presumably clattering against the tile floor, as he shuffles away from the vomit, the unconscious body, the trouble before him. The unpredictable and uncertain nature of the present circumstances seemingly shatter his vestibule of safety.
Outside, the night air is tangible, sticky, and overwhelming to the senses, yet a summer breeze waves and brings relief from the oppression.
Tony realizes this is his moment to run, to escape his own present circumstances, to free the weight of mistakes and their disproportionate consequences.
His attention turns to the two trucks. Are there keys inside…No. Are either unlocked…No. Is there any way to get into them or start them…NO. He could go back into the store, take either of the men’s car keys from them by force and drive away. What consequences would that decision bring…
If he continues lingering, wavering with indecision, someone will come, something will happen, and he will be stuck, stranded at a fluorescent roadside service station forever.
Movement and sound from the store front. The older man is up before the glass door, not opening it, slapping his palm against it, and shouting to the clerk.
Tony shuffles back into a shadow between the trucks’ flat beds. He turns away from the parking lot and store front. The country highway, only a few steps away, stretches empty and silent in opposing directions. Across the gnarled black asphalt stands a retaining wall stretching across the land. Climbing it will be a struggle but instead of thinking he acts, sprinting across the road. On the far side, a swale of tall grass and soft earth, nearly stumbling his feet and ankles, slopes downward distorting the perceived distance and height of the wall. Impossibly he is almost at eye level with the top of the wall, but his momentum will quickly tumble him toward its base. Tony throws himself into the air. All his weight, his strength, his desire into this effort. All this as well as his body smacks against the wall like hammer to nail. The air rushes out of him and takes the entirety of sound with it leaving him suspended within an eternal moment.
Acting instinctual and independent from thought, Tony’s hands scratch and scramble and claw for a hold on survival. They find a groove atop the wall, catch and lock in. His elbows and shoulders anguish in contorted pain. His mouth sucks desperately at the humid tacky air mingling with the taste of blood across his tongue. A vice grip of fingers, a pair of dead arms pull him prone atop the wall before abandoning their duties with exhaustion. Blood and spit pool around his lips and chin with every slurping sucking breath. For a moment, Tony’s eyes close to complete darkness that holds a depthless shine within. A reflection of harsh, lifeless white light articulates itself out of the depths and from this the silence of prehistoric laughter echoes upward. The greeting of countless smiles slashed across ivory white alligator skulls blot out the darkness. The smell of life and death, of detritus, brings Tony back to consciousness.
The far side of the wall terminates at the base into cattails, sawgrass, boggy mud, and murky water. This time he thinks, as good a place as any to fall upon, before acting and pushes himself off the ledge. Plunging once more into the night air.
The swampy earth is a slap across his entire body; a jolt of attention seeking reality to his senses. Chirping and trilling of insects return the presence of sound to his mind. His skin refocuses from the impact as what feels like hundreds of cuts and scrap alight, and mosquitos descend to feed. It is time to move, and he can hear his body sloshing further into the swamp water, knowing that louder noises from larger beasts potentially await. Predators far older, devoid of predilection in their neutrality toward prey, than any on the civilized side of the wall. Exhaustion swells, halting Tony into a heaving bobber amidst the black water pulsing ripples across the surface with each breath.
The swamp's horizon subtly distinguishes itself from the night in the form of oak and cypress trees. Their canopy shimmers in the wind as branches dance, leaves flutter, shadows patter and ripple against an unknown, unseen source of light. The light reaches into the night, toward the swamp and Tony with one bony finger. The light scratches at the obsidian water with a mere fingernail beckoning him. Tony obeys and wades forward once again, focused on the spectral beacon.
In the recess of his thoughts, the silent reptilian laughter turns into a guttural bellow; a deep CHUMPF growing in intensity and proximity with every cough. A deafening HISS troubles the water as the anger of nature seems to engulf Tony. The fingernail of light strengthens straights to him. Tony reaches out and his hand finds earth. Thick, wet, sucking mud that reeks of earth and animal slaps and oozes between his fingers. Another hand finds the same muddy bank and the two pull together, finding his destination. The scent of burning wood overtakes the boggy stench. The ancient and instinctual smell of fire welcomes Tony. Sanctuary.