Wicked Charm

By: Amber Hart
For Rodolfo





1


Willow

The swamp beats and throbs and hums with life. Sickly hot air meets a limitless blue sky, and below, a forest of teeth and limbs reaches toward a jagged scar of land that separates two properties.

One belongs to my family.

Gran lives on the edge of the Okefenokee wetlands in a damned city named Waycross, Georgia, in a damned county called Ware, as she would say. A place where nothing exciting ever happens, life trudges on, resisting change, and the people like it that way. It’s a world built on legends and secrets that run like a vein through the heart of history.

Most claim only the craziest live this far out. And they’re partially right.

“The brightest light casts the darkest shadow,” Gran says.

I eye our property through the kitchen window. I happen to like the shadows, the seclusion of the trees, the whispers of the forest. Especially at night, when everything takes a less defined form, when the swamp comes to life.

“I’m telling you, this world would be better off if they remembered that. ’Specially that neighbor of mine, never mindin’ his own business. Telling me I need to stop feeding the gators. I can feed the gators any damn time I want. It’s my land. I wish he’d just move on already, bless his heart.”

I’m a replica of Gran. Except Gran is much older, wrinkled like a rippled reflection in water. My hair is hers, dark and thick, though hers has now faded to gray. And our eyes are identical, a solid brown—so brown that my pupils bleed into them. I am younger and more beautiful, she would say. But Gran says all kinds of things.

“By ‘move on’”—I pause to turn off the stove and shuffle eggs onto Gran’s plate—“do you mean ‘die’?”

“Hell right I do,” she says, grabbing a biscuit, a scoop of sausage gravy, and four pieces of bacon. “Maybe then I’ll have some peace around this godforsaken swamp.”

“Gran, it’s not nice to wish people dead.”

Gran despises the next-door neighbor, Mr. Cadwell, making sure to ignore his greetings and glances. He’s nice enough, I suppose. But I don’t know him like she does. Word has it they even dated once, long before she decided that he was evil.

“You’re new here, Willow,” she says. “Just you wait and see. Twisted, that’s what that family is, the whole lot of them.”

It’s true that I’m new. I’ve been here five days, though I’ve visited plenty of times over the years. Never long enough to know the old man next door for anything more than a passing hello lost on the wind. I glance outside again. Marsh is everywhere, pushing the smell of earth and fungus through the open window. Patches of water are blanketed in green algae, alligator eyes popping up like floating marbles. Cypress trees protrude from the murky water, reminding me of notches of bone, little leaves growing from them. Lifeless branches float along for the ride. The swamp is the kind of place a girl can get lost in and never find her way out.

Though Gran’s land is mostly wet, there’s solidness, too. My eyes trace the long path that cuts the property between Gran and Mr. Cadwell in half. I’m expecting to see nature—the kinds of birds Dad and Mom study, snakes, grass, and forever sky—the same things I’ve seen every morning since moving here with Dad and Mom to help Gran, who’s ailing but doesn’t like to admit it.

I get halfway down the path with my stare before my eyes snag on something. A serving spoon falls from my hand with a clatter into the sink.

“Who,” I whisper, “is that?”

Across the way stands a boy. He’s staring at me, wearing a twisted grin like he knows me. The wind ruffles his depths-of-the-ocean black hair. He’s wearing a dark shirt and dark jeans, and I cannot tear my eyes from his.

Gran hobbles over and looks out the window. “What is he doing so close to our side?”

“You know him?” I ask.

I can’t stop staring out the old, weathered screen.

“Hell right, I do. Grandson of the evil next door. Trouble in living form. Someone oughta hand that boy a Bible. Change his life forever and ever, amen.”

Gran curses a lot. “Hell” is her favorite word.

“Hell, you’d better look away first,” Gran says. “B’fore he snares you for good.”

I wonder if she’s right. I want to look away first. Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t want to look away at all.

“Mother!” Dad’s voice enters the room a moment before he does. “Did I just hear you cursing around Willow again?”

I rip my eyes away—though it’s hard—to see Dad clad in shorts and a T-shirt, ready for another day of observation. He and Mom are ornithologists, scientists who study birds. Mom follows Dad into the kitchen and takes a seat at the table; her strawberry-blond hair is braided and slipped through the adjustable hole in her hat. Dad’s hair is like Gran’s and mine, his eyes, too. Mom’s eyes are blue, and I’m secretly glad mine are not. I enjoy being like Gran.

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