Poison Marsh Summer

By Mark Benedict

When your parents first pitch you on their idea to steal a laundry basket full of
cash, you know you should skate. Not that you’re above petty crimes. Heck no. In fact, petty crimes are kind of your thing. But it’s a dark, do-nothing chapter in your life, not to mention that these parents of yours are flipping crazy. Probably not clinically, though maybe. They belong to a group that believes that serial killers have infiltrated the food safety industry and are conspiring to take over the country. Plus, they were cruddy parents to you as a kid and aren’t much better now. And their schemes, unlike yours, aren’t sleek. But your finances are dire and if you want to survive the summer, which you’re not sure you do, but let’s err on the safe side, then you’ll need some money, so you stay in their dingy kitchen and eat more soda crackers and ask for more details.

Your mom sneers. “This bitch is a dealer, she’s always got a stash of cash at the
end of the month,” she says, then swigs from a bottle of rum. “All we have to do is bust into her house when she’s out, snatch the basket she keeps it in, and skedaddle.”

“It’s gonna be a big score, son,” your dad says merrily, reaching for the bottle.
“Do whatever you like with your share. Live it up! But naturally we’ll put our shares
toward the Cause. They’re doing great work to stop the spread of communism.”

Things the Cause is against: communism, feminism, Black people, gay people,
abortion, peanut butter. The Cause believes that peanut butter is secretly being infused with an ingredient that turns people communist. Your parents rabidly discuss this plot with other Causers on internet message boards. Back when you still challenged them about this stuff, you had asked what the hell kind of ingredient could make a person communist. Goat blood, your mom replied, annoyed, as if this were first-grade stuff. Your parents are amazingly confident. They have a stupid answer for everything.

Later, back at your apartment, you sit on your mattress drinking flat beer and
thinking about whether you’re going to do this laundry basket thing or if you’ll just scram out of town or maybe do something even more final. It is your least favorite year in a life with many strong contenders. Jane, your fiancé, a professional botanist who loved you despite your criminality, died in a freak accident while collecting plant samples in the woods three months ago. She was struck by a stray bullet from a group of target shooters, drunken teens, reportedly, who fled the woods and were never caught. One day you were planning a wedding, the next a funeral. Misery entangles you like an invisible squid. You’ve taken a leave of absence from your promising career as a gas station cashier.

Days go by, dumbly. One morning you meet your parents at a local diner to
discuss the robbery. You sit across from them in the booth sipping rank coffee and
covertly regarding them. They’re like grubby dolls. Your mom is weasel-eyed and
sweetly dimpled. Your dad is unshaven and grinny. Their fellow local Causers, the few
you’ve met, anyway, likewise exude a skanky innocence. When your mom, scarfing
pancakes, asks what you’ll do with your share of the money, you shrug and say you’ll
probably just stock up on peanut butter or else schedule your sex-change operation.

Your mom snorts. “Shit, I wouldn’t be surprised if you turned queer on us,” she
says. “No offense, hon, but you’ve been such a crybaby since that girl died. We’ll see if money will cheer you up, cuz we’re on for Saturday night. Tell him the plan, hubby.”

“The dealer lady lives out in the marshlands,” your dad says. “You’ll drive and be
lookout, we’ll do the rest. Easy peasy!” Then, cheerfully chomping bacon, “Like I told
ya, what you shoulda done to get over that girl is, boink somebody else right away.”

Advice that your parents have given you: Boink somebody after your fiancé dies.
Don’t vote. Don’t go to college. Never wear sneakers, high tops, or athletic shoes of any kind. That last one isn’t from the Cause, though race is at the root of it; it’s a bizarre, belated protest against racial integration in professional sports. Your parents only wear house slippers, even in public. They never hike in the woods or the county’s infamous marshlands, but they’re lazy and probably wouldn’t even if they had the right shoes.

At home later, you sit on your mattress and eat stale bread and further consider
your parents. As much as you hate them, you can’t deny that you feel some tug, some glow, whenever your mom calls you hon or your dad calls you son. But their capacity for joyous living angers you. Why do they get to be so happy? Save for the brief Jane era, you haven’t been glad to be alive since you discovered baseball, the first thing you were interested in and good at. This thrill lasted until you realized that, actually, you weren’t that good. But you might have improved if your parents had bent their stupid shoe rule and bought you a pair of cleats. You were the only kid in little league in docksiders. The calluses were like swollen cobra bites. You had nightmares about amputation. Your dad refused to play catch with you. It’s a Negro game, he said, confused, as if suddenly uncertain whose son you were. You figured he’d at least be interested in hearing about the baseball scandals, the times they rigged the world series, especially, but he always just changed the subject. Your parents are only interested in conspiracies that aren’t true.

Time passes, pointlessly. You stop by your parents’ house the night before the
robbery, walking in unannounced, passing through a hall filled with shelves of cheap but carefully polished knickknacks. Your parents love their junk stuff. In contrast, you own little and love nothing, except deep sleep and dreams of suicide. Your car, your only significant possession, is held together by rust, prayers, and bungee cords. Entering the living room, you find them on the couch inspecting a dozen or so guns spread out on the table. There’s a cleaning kit, a storage bag. You ask them what the hell’s going on.

Your mom scowls. “It’s for the assault on the peanut butter factory, ya dummy,”
she says. “We’ve been stocking up for months. After the robbery, we’ll buy even more.”

“Wifey and I will be there, you betcha! Maybe we’ll even shoot us some commies
ourselves,” your dad says, aiming an assault rifle at a lamp. “Boom! Pow, boom.”

Murderous things you’ve seen your parents do: nothing, really. They’re too lazy
to be dangerous. Or so you assumed. A clear thought burns through the squiddy haze of your mind: that there are no coincidences in a town this small. Your parents are even stupider than you thought; it hasn’t occurred to them that you might connect the world’s most obvious dots. The Cause’s plan to storm a peanut butter factory is a different, less personal, but still vastly putrid matter. It’s a real thing, the news has reported on it. It’s destined to be poorly planned, ramshackle, but still, people will get hurt or even killed.

Lying on your mattress later, you drink prime tequila and consider your options.
Your life is garbage; the only sensible thing to do is throw it away. You fondle the pistol you snagged when your mom went to the kitchen and your dad was pretending to shoot the drapes. It’s unloaded but that can change. You feel sick. Your hands shake, your head hurts. You console yourself, or torture yourself, with Jane memories. Your favorite thing to do together was to go to the marshlands and look for wildlife—beavers, muskrats, opossums—while joking about getting stuck there forever. The terrain is notoriously ensnaring. The footpaths, mucky and sinking, are only marginally safer than the actual marshes. People have died. It’s a grueling, slow-poison death; people get stuck, then starve or get snacked on. But Jane was a crack outdoorswoman and kept you both safe.

Sleek schemes you’ve come up with: Calling people for a fake fund-raiser. Posing
as a door-to-door bill collector. The scheme that occurs to you now. Taking the tequila bottle, you drive to a department store to pick up some ammo and other supplies.

On robbery night, things go as smoothly as your parents promised. You wait in
the car while they enter the dealer’s house through an unlocked side door. They’re
unarmed. It’s a dark, breezy summer night. You watch for other cars, other people, but there’s nothing, nobody; it’s the only house around, surrounded on all sides by slimy marsh. Returning with the laundry basket, your parents put it in the passenger seat, then hop in the back like happy toddlers. You put the car in gear, but instead of going back to town, you drive deeper into the marshlands. Before they can protest, you say you have a quick errand to do and pass back a bottle of liquor. They glug like guppies. When the road itself starts to become marsh, you brake hard and tell them to get the fuck out. Your mom laughs boozily and tells you to stop funning around, at which point you raise the pistol, firing a warning shot out the open window. They get out quickly. You get out too. At your request, they hand over their slippers and their phones. You tell them that Jane might have lived if only their idiot target-shooting group had called an ambulance.

Your mom frowns. “You stupid dope,” she says, but nervously. “That wasn’t us,
hon. That was just some young Causers we know. We didn’t—we weren’t even there.”

“We’ll die, son,” your dad whispers, shocked. “It’s twenty miles back to town.
Nobody could do it in bare feet. And we’ll wear out, we haven’t had any supper.”

You say nothing. You’re dosed with hate. Even if they weren’t there that day, it
was still their guns. They’re bad people. Still, you’ll give them a fighting chance. You
open the trunk. You take out two pairs of sneakers, in their sizes, tossing them on the wet, smelly ground. Next you set out a jar of peanut butter, a spoon, and a bottle of water. You slam the trunk and get into the car, switching on the exterior lights and watching them in the rearview mirror. Your mom’s weasel eyes are squinty, strategic, like she’s on the verge of yanking on her sneakers and downing a scoop of peanut butter. But your dad’s stubbly face pulses with fright, as if he’d rather die. He’s the truer believer, apparently.

Memories that come back now: A circus outing with your mom. A fishing trip
with your dad. A gift of vintage baseball cards from them both. But these are just bright blips in an otherwise cruddy childhood. There were way more smacks than hugs.

You drive away. When you get to the highway leading out of state, you take it.
You have no delusions about yourself. You’re not a good person, either. The basket of
cash is riding shotgun, after all. And face it, you’ve left them for dead. Even if they put
on the sneakers and eat the peanut butter, they still might not make it; liquored up, with no flashlight, they’re bound to lose the skimpy road and get trapped in the marshes. A dark elation comes over you. You picture them struggling against the scratchy cattails, the swallowing ground, your mom cursing, your dad weeping, and as you speed through the night, you feel young, and mean, and hopeful. You’re cruel enough to thrive.

###

Bio: Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously published in Columbia Journal, Hobart Online, Menacing Hedge, Rue Morgue, and Tor.com. His publications include short stories, author interviews, and book and movie reviews. 

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