By the Light of Embers
Bellefontaine, Louisiana, 1945
It was the first dead body I’d ever seen.
Thick July heat pressed in, sticking my dress to my skin, while steam rose from waters as dark as motor oil. Cypresses held the sky aloft, and there—in my little haven in the bayou, where the marshy ground turned firm and the old fallen blackgum slowly fell to pieces—lay a man with skin like molasses. Black eyes stared upward, fixed on eternity.
He shouldn’t be here. That was my first thought. Nobody else knew the way into the secret heart of the swamp, through the sucking mud and tangled underbrush. Yet here he was.
Something squirmed in the shadows of his mouth. I pressed my hands to my stomach. If I threw up, Mother would be angry. I already had mud on my dress, which was bad enough.
Lured by horrified fascination, I stepped closer. What happened? Was he murdered? I couldn’t tell. The dead man lay so still that he gave the impression of something missing, rather than something there, as if he were nothing but a yawning void or a cicada’s left-behind skin. Empty.
I knelt. Up close, his flesh was ruined, his body swollen, his right hand chewed to shreds. Faint rustling drifted from his mouth—worms definitely wriggled inside. I leaned in and studied the wreckage of his face. Something familiar...
I jerked backward, sprawling to the ground. More mud on my dress. But it didn’t matter—no, because this dead man was no stranger. This was Tom Fletcher.
And I hated Tom Fletcher.