Start the story here:
I was blind, floating through wet, empty space. I heard muffled sounds of water splashing and something bending under a great stress. The rowboat. This was a nightmare; soon, I would shoot awake in my apartment. The sun would be shining through the windows waiting for me to greet the day.
My lungs ached for air. Waking would have to wait. Brown flickers of sunlight pierced through the darkness. That had to be the surface. I reached up with my arms, climbing through the dark water.
Bright light assailed me as I reached the surface. The crisp sound of bending metal and snapping wood greeted my ears. I wiped my eyes while treading the deep, black water. Blurry writhing shapes gave way to wooden tentacle-like roots crushing and tossing the pieces of our mangled rowboat. Scientific equipment was lost to the dark depths.
Patrick was nowhere to be seen. Was he somewhere at the bottom of the pond? Did he escape?
Escape. Escape, then I could wake up.
Then, my eye caught a glimpse of our yellow notebook floating between me and the mad, drunken cypress tree. The only remaining account of the event drifted just out of reach.
I sighed. “Damn.”
It was the longest ten feet in my life, but I swam and grabbed the notebook. I nearly shouted in triumph.
The trunk of the cypress tree twisted as if turning to face me. Its trunk bent over the water. Branches reached for me, like gnarled, wooden hands marked with the remnants of old bird nests.
The limbs reached for my arm holding the notebook. I swam backward. The tree’s branches slithered through the water. I shouted in panic and turned to swim away.
Wooden tentacles wrapped around my ankles. I was pulled under the water. I steady stream of frightened air released from my lungs. I inhaled black water. Shapes flickered in and out of my limited, blurry sight. Froglets. One bumped into my arm and bit me. It stung like ten wasps. I exhaled my breath with a muffled scream.
Next time I do field work, I’m bringing a chain saw. What was I thinking? There was never going to be another day. A wave of calm over me. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I felt a bite on my upper leg. In a dying rage, I reached toward the offender and ripped the froglet from my leg. I felt its dorsal spines pierce my hands. I squeezed. It let out a screech, louder than any noise they had made above water. I felt it pop in my hands like a piece of rotten fruit.
The roots thrashed me through the water. I released my victim. I saw bright light and felt the dry air. The tree lifted me and flung me through the air. Wet mud greeted my fall. I spit out water and muck, gasped for air, and writhed like a suffocating fish.
I rolled onto my chest and lifted my upper body with aching arms and sprained wrists. I collapsed again. I was out of the water, but I could still die here.
Then, I heard a roar. Not an angry frog-beast mother, this was a diesel roar. The lab truck.
Was that Patrick screaming? Please let that be Patrick screaming.
I sat up and spotted the lab truck barreling through the bumpy terrain of ferns, mud, and fallen timber. It was an ecological disaster, but it was coming to my aid. I hopped to my feet, nearly falling backward into the water. I was a safe distance from the tree that threw me, but the landscape was filled with twisting trees. The ground heaved and roiled around them. Cypress roots rolled through the earth toward me.
I sprinted toward the truck.
My ankle was caught mid-sprint. My leg pulled out from under me, and I slammed face-first into the mud. I could feel things squirming around my cheeks. Worms maybe. The strong, wood gripped around my ankle and pulled. I imagined that in the center of this mass of trees was a maw of wooden stake-like teeth waiting to impale me.
The truck roar passed me. I heard crumpling metal and splitting timber. The truck growled in idle.
My ankle was free.
“Theo, get your ass in the truck!” Patrick shouted.
I jumped to my feet; my ankle rebelled in pain. I fell back staring into the blue sky through the canopy of cypress trees. They swayed, but not with the breeze. They were ravenous.
Patrick’s large head eclipsed the light from the sky. I felt his hands grab mine and he pulled. I was on my feet. My ankle agonized over the slightest pressure. I hopped on one foot. Patrick flung his arm around me and guided me toward the truck.
A young cypress tree writhed in front of the truck. It was bent at the base of the trunk, pinned by the truck’s front wheels. The front of the truck was bent inward, the hood arched up.
Patrick pushed me into the passenger side of the truck and slammed the door. He ran around and hopped into the driver’s seat. He flung the truck into reverse.
“Good truck, sturdy truck,” I mumbled. Instinctively I looked for the yellow notebook. It remained bent in a death grip in my left hand.
Patrick shifted the truck in drive and spun the truck around through the dirt and mud. The truck groaned forward as Patrick turned it to the shore of large swamp near the land bridge. The swamp frothed near us as cypress knees rose from the waters, extending into hungry, wooden tentacles.
One flung itself at the truck bed, bending the bed of the truck inward and lifting the cab a foot off the ground. Failing to get a hold, the root slide from the truck. The truck landed with a shake. It slid through the mud as Patrick took a moment to take stock of the situation.
I tapped on the window so Patrick could see other tentacles snaking toward the truck through the mud. Patrick nodded and slammed his foot to the gas. The tires flung mud everywhere, we were digging treaded ditches through the mud, but the truck push through it.
Patrick slid the truck onto the path toward the land bridge and the now-animated cypress guardians at our exit. I braced my legs against the vehicle and pushed my back into the seat. The guardians’ misshapen hand-like limbs reached for the truck.
Patrick screamed through clenched teeth, and I closed my eyes as we charged. The truck lurched from below. I opened my eyes to see roots rising from the ground bashing the undercarriage. The truck was lifted and scooped up neatly by a webbing of wooden limbs. The jolt sprained my neck and Patrick’s head hit the steering wheel.
All I could hear was the sound of crippling metal and the revving engine screaming like an animal trapped inside the jaws of a predator.
The roof of the cab bent inward.
I saw Patrick shaking sense back into his head. Two streams of blood rushed from his forehead down the contours of his nose. We traded wide-eyed glances, affirming that we had to get out and knowing how it would end for us.
I manually rolled down my window, pain shot from my neck down through my elbow. The tree limbs shook the truck. We bounced within the cab. The roof bent further inward. Cracks formed on the windshield.
Bracing my body with my sprained ankle, I reached through open passenger window. I pulled half of my body throughit. Below me, there was open space between the cypress branches to reach the ground. With one last breath, I slid out of the truck window and dropped.
Pain shot from my spine, my lungs desperately craved air. My head convulsed and rose sporadically, despite the pain in my neck, reaching for wisps of oxygen. Above me, the roots and branches ripped the truck bed from the cab.
Something grabbed my collar and dragged me. I heard heavy panting and wheezing behind me. I could breathe again.
I struggled to stand. My hands slipped on the crushed corpses and bones of long-decayed nutria that still littered the land bridge. I lifted my head, the trees handed pieces of the truck to the roots which pulled the vehicle and our remaining gear into the swamp. The cab released air and bubbles frothed on the surface of the swamp, then silence.
The trees ceased moving, the swamp’s violent ripples faded to stillness. The swamp was silent.
I laid there, my body aching and bleeding, surrounded by the crushed pieces of invasive rodents.
“Hey, man,” Patrick wheezed.
I craned my head back to see Patrick behind me, sitting in the mud. Blood dripped from his nose to the ground.
“Amazing,” he panted.
“Yeah, that is exactly what I was thinking.” I stared back at the cypress trees. “I would have preferred gators.”
Patrick groaned. “Yeah.”
I snapped my fingers. “Shit! I lost the field notebook.”
Patrick grunted with a chuckle, “I don’t care.”
I lifted my body to a sitting position. I looked out over the swamp. Adrenaline rushed through my weak form. A trio of V-shaped ripples broke the surface, heading toward our former study site. Large spiny dorsal fins emerged from the water.
“Nope.” Patrick and I said.
We stood and walked away, as quickly as we could drag out wounded bodies. We didn’t slow down until we reached the ranger gate entrance.
A ranger’s SUV was waiting for us.
© 2020 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.