Casey Sparks knew things he should not. Sometimes when he touched an object, a memory of its owner or a vision of its past would transfer to him. It didn’t always work when he wanted it to, and sometimes it happened out of the blue. But whenever it happened, he knew he could trust the information. And standing on the sandy bank of Murder Creek, a distributary of the Alabama River, he knew for certain the boat fire had not been caused by engine trouble, and the three fishermen who had been on board would never be found alive. All of this was a certainty. The little charred piece of wood in his hand told him so.
Dwayne Beniot slapped a mosquito on his thin chest, leaving a tiny bloody smear. He washed off his hand in the creek and said, “You got stage fright or something? Let’s get a move on. I’m getting eaten alive over here.”
Casey shook his head and dropped the burnt wood. “Sorry. I found a chunk of that boat that went missing a few weeks ago on the big river. I guess when it blew up, bits of it that didn’t sink floated downstream, and some of it ended up here.”
“Blew up? How do you know? Oh, right. See anything else?”
Casey had. He had seen bursts of disjointed moments. Something ramming the fishing boat, men in the water, screams, fire, and ultimately the explosion. But the fire and explosion had come later than the rest after the men were already dead. “Probably nothing the sheriff hasn’t already pieced together.” Casey relieved himself in the woods and then walked back into the creek. When he was calf-deep, Dwayne pushed an innertube towards him. Dwayne had attached it with a bright-yellow nylon rope to his own and to a floating cooler they shared.
“Engine fires break out more than folks realize,” Dwayne said.
Casey caught the innertube. “Yeah. But I don’t think that’s what happened.” He sat down and paddled until they reached deeper water, where the current took over. It pulled them to the middle and down the creek.
“Either way. That’s why I prefer to float.”
Dwayne reeled himself even with the cooler and plucked out a Budweiser. Taking a sip, he let his head fall back and closed his eyes. Casey plucked a beer too. The sky was cloudless, and the light breeze and warm creek water brought little relief from the already too-hot south Alabama July afternoon. The beer brought a little more.
Casey kept his eyes open. The banks of both sides of the river alternated between thick bushes, pine forest, and thin patches of sandy beach. He found himself scanning the water as they floated along. The fisherman had disappeared at night, not in the light of day, and it had happened in the big river rather than the little creek, but it hadn’t been far away from where they were, not really, and it had only happened three weeks before. Casey felt strange worrying about something in the river. He knew it so well and had always before associated it with fun and relaxation.
A few of the sandy patches of riverbank were large enough to accommodate five or six tents and a firepit, and so the creek had been a favorite camping destination for their local boy scout troop. They would put in on a Saturday morning, canoe or kayak until dark, camp on a beach, and row out on Sunday morning. Casey and Dwayne had both made it to Life rank in scouts, but neither quite had the ambition to make Eagle. By the time they were in their late teens, Dwayne’s focus had shifted almost completely to girls and guns and Casey’s to anything that would help him cope with and hide the fact he was gay. Cherry Hill, Alabama was as good a place as any for Dwayne’s preoccupations but didn’t offer much for Casey.
Floating around a bend, he saw Amy Gale holding court with a handful of other older teenagers who worked with Casey and Dwayne at the Catfish Shack. Two of the young men were lobbing M-80 firecrackers into the forest and giggling with each explosion.
Dwayne opened an eye at one of the booms and laughed. “Amateurs.” He started paddling. “We are making another pit stop.”
Casey sighed. “You want to hang out with the waitstaff babies?”
“Amy’s with them. And you need to socialize. I could barely get you out of the house today.
“I’m throwing the damn party tonight, aren’t I? I even have most everything set up.”
“I know, but this is part of it too. The Fourth of July tradition is all day, not just your party. And you are going on, what, three weeks since your breakup? You’ve got to get out of the trailer, lighten up, and snap out of it. And as your best friend, it’s my duty to confiscate that bottle of tequila Amy’s holding and get you drunk.”
Casey joined in the paddling, and they dragged their tubes onto the beach.
Approaching Amy, Dwayne said, “Going to need to see some ID, miss.”
Amy brushed her dark hair back with a single extended middle finger and smiled as she held it in place.
“That’s not government issue.”
“Do all old dishwashers work part-time for the cops now?” The other servers laughed.
Dwayne looked at Casey and shook his head. “I’m 25. That’s not old.”
Dwayne started to respond but was cut off by one of the servers at the edge of the water, pointing and shouting, “water moccasin.” Dwayne darted towards him and leaped into the creek after the snake. He splashed through the shallows and then swam freestyle after the quick S shape in the water. Most of the others moved toward the action, but Casey stayed back with Amy. He’d seen this before more times than he could remember, and Amy simply didn’t care.
They looked at each other and shared a smile. She handed him the bottle.
“You going to rat me out too, officer?”
Casey took a long pull and winced it down. “You’re safe. The cops already have enough fry cooks on staff.”
Amy watched Dwayne from a distance for a moment, and then she looked at Casey and frowned. “Are you OK? You’ve been really quiet at work and not acting like yourself lately.”
Casey feigned a smile. “I’ll be fine. It’s just dating trouble. I promise to be more upbeat at the party tonight.”
“You better. I expect you to read my fortune or something. You are really getting good at those magic tricks. Are you sure you don’t really have some dark powers?“
Casey snickered, and a real smile grew across his face. “A magician never reveals his secrets.” He took another gulp of tequila and handed the bottle back. She received it in one hand and hugged him with the other. “If you need me to kick somebody’s ass, you just let me know.”
Casey hugged her back, his hands squeezing bony shoulders. What she lacked in size, she made up in fire. “Thank you.”
“Of course. You would do it for me.”
She was right that he would defend her. He had done it before. When she came on at the Catfish Shack as a waitress a couple of years prior, he had been there four years already and was one of the senior kitchen staff. At first, the other girls disliked her because she was popular with the boys and made better tips than most of them. For revenge or simple meanness, many of the girls mixed up her orders, stole side dishes, swapped salad dressings, and generally tried to run her out. A former server went so far as call her to the parking lot after work one night to brawl. Casey stepped in that night and had kept an eye out for her ever since. She could hold her own, but he still tried to protect her from as much of the restaurant hazing as he could.
She was different than the other girls there. She was a lot like him. The daughter of the reverend of the largest church in Cherry Hill, she was raised mostly without a TV, books, computers, or a cell phone. Her mother had passed away when she was little, and her father never remarried. He had kept her under this thumb as best as a man unqualified to raise a child and married to his job could, but around age thirteen, she had found ways to get around his rules. Upon realizing all the things she had been missing out on, she was equal parts bitter at her father and eager to experience everything life had to offer; the more exciting, the better. And she had dedicated herself to both causes with a zeal her old man could only dream of inspiring in his congregation.
The crowd watching Dwayne gasped when he caught up with the snake on the opposite bank. He hooted and held it aloft in one hand, supporting the snake in the middle with an open palm. Each side reached down almost to his shoulder. He called to the waiters. “It’s not venomous. It’s not a cottonmouth. Check it out.” He crossed the creek, one-arm swimming some of the way, still holding the snake, and the crowd scattered. Even Amy took a few steps back from her already distanced position when he stepped onto the beach, handling the brown water snake with both hands.
Casey turned to her and said, “It’s OK. He’s kept snakes practically his whole life. He knows what he’s doing.”
She mouthed the word “nope” and took a few more steps back.
Casey walked over to Dwayne and took a closer look. “If it’s not a moccasin, what is it?”
“It’s a brown water snake.”
“Yes. I can plainly see that.”
“That’s the common name, smart ass. Not too creative, I guess. Anyone want to hold it?”
The crowd shrunk back further with the suggestion. Dwayne knelt by the water and let the snake glide from his hands into the stream. “Wish I could keep it, but water snakes need special enclosures. And I don’t have room for anything like that. Plus, I don’t like keeping wild-caught animals. Seems cruel.”
“Let’s get going. You’ve terrified the waitstaff enough for one day, and I need to finish getting the trailer ready.”
“Not before you get a shot of tequila.”
“I worked that out with Amy already. I didn’t even have to tase her.”
“Good work. I guess you are right.”
Casey and Dwayne plopped back in their innertubes and floated away. Casey waved at Amy as they set off, and Dwayne held up a middle finger as he closed his eyes and hung his head back. Casey was feeling less apprehensive about the party after talking to Amy. But there was something about the vision that he couldn’t get out of his mind. Although Dwayne was right that accidents happen on the water all the time, nothing large enough to ram and flip a fishing boat should be in the river. But that is what Casey saw, and when he saw it, it was always true.