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Okefenokee Freedom

by JB Stevens

No time to worry about getting shot in the back… got to keep moving. This was it, if he got away this time he was done. No more bars, no more meth, no more fast life. He wanted to do the right thing. He was going to make good choices. This time he would really try, and he knew he could do it. His messed-up past kept dragging him down. He was really the victim in all this. It was bullshit. Poisonous people always trapped him in shitty situations and he just had to make the best of it. All that was over now, Blue was sure.

He knew the Okefenokee swamp was about fifteen miles south. Make it there and he could re-group; figure out the next move.

Damn, what was that sound? Did the guards bring out the dogs? How long would it take to notice he escaped from the Doctor’s office? Hope that guard didn’t die. Why the hell would they put one old lady guard on him, it was like they wanted to cause an incident or something. He had put her in that little locked supply closet. It would take a long time for anyone to find her. He should have a good head start. To many thoughts were running through his mind, he needed to get rid of the noise.

If he stayed to the west of Waycross and kept going south he would be in the clear. He had looked at a picture on google maps. Other than the town it was all forest and farms until he got to the swamp. Once he was safe in the swamp he could rest. First things first, he had to find some clothes. He supposed the bright orange jumpsuit with “Prisoner” stenciled on the back wasn’t doing him any favors.

Blue Johnson kept moving through pines and cotton fields until he came upon a small residential neighborhood off Longwood Road. It was a blue-collar area, which was perfect, because they hung clothes outside to dry.

As he moved Blue kept thinking about the Judge that had put him away, always talking about the “victims” of crimes. Sure, he had done some illegal stuff, but it wasn’t like he was a bad person. He had a shit childhood. No one gave him anything, he had to fight and scrape for every single cent his entire life. So what if he got a little messed up on dope and made one bad choice. He deserved to relax every now and then. Of course he had to pay society for his crimes, but why the hell do they want to treat him like he is 100% at fault? He was a victim in all this too. He felt horrible about how the situation had played out. But no one cared about he felt. No one ever tried to see it from his point of view. He made one bad choice, and he was high, so did it really even count? He was a decent man; he knew it in his heart.

Blue looked around to make sure no one saw him and took off the prison clothes. He grabbed a well-worn pair of distressed blue levi’s and a faded grey University of Georgia football shirt from the laundry line. Luckily, they fit his six foot 190-pound frame. He was still wearing the molded tan plastic jail sandals, but hopefully no one would notice those.

Blue started walking south through the countryside by Smith Road. He came up on a small house at the intersection with Valdosta highway and drank some water from the spigot on the side. The heat beat down. The sun was intense here, he had developed a deep tan and light hair from all the time he had spent in the prison exercise yard. He was thirty-five, but could pass for twenty-five if need be.

“What the hell you think you’re doin?” called a female voice with a clipped southern accent.

Blue froze. If his face was on the news he was done. He slowly turned and worked up his best smile. The Reidsville Prison dentist had given him a nice set of pearly whites, replacing what meth had taken.

Standing in the home’s sagging doorway was a woman. She looked about forty-five years old with dry wind-swept blond hair. Her skin was red and chapped from too much exposure. She was wearing washed-out cut-off jeans and an Allman Brothers t-shirt from their 1975 Jimmy Carter benefit concert, it was full of holes. A cigarette rested in her left hand. Twenty-five extra pounds clung to her midsection. Blue noticed she was not wearing a wedding ring.

“Excuse me ma’am! I am just rude as can be, drinking ya’ll’s water and not asking permission. My name’s Steven Goodman, I was walking down Valdosta highway trying to get to town to go apply for a job. I was just about dying of dehydration, it’s so dang hot out here. I didn’t mean to impose. Let me get out of ya’ll’s hair. Thank you ma’am,” Blue turned and started to walk away.

“Now just hang on a moment there Mr. Goodman. Jesus was very clear about helping travelers. I ain’t the most Christ like, but I’m trying to change that. Why don’t you come on inside and have a glass of lemonade and soak up some of the air-conditioning,” the woman said.

“Ma’am you are just about the sweetest thing since Coca-Cola. What did you say your name was?”

“Sherry Morefield, but everyone just calls me Cher, like that singer.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Cher,” Blue held out his hand, Cher accepted. They shook, Blue held on a touch to long. He stared into her eyes. His were light blue and women loved them. Cher turned red and shifted her gaze.

“Come on inside Steven, let me get you something cold to drink.”

They walked up the rotting wooden stairs into the small yellow two bedroom home. It looked tired. The floors were beige linoleum. The furniture was dusty, cheap, and beaten down. The off-white walls held photos of presumed family members. There was a framed re-print poster from the stage production of Legally Blonde. It was hanging over an ancient cathode ray TV. Cher had Blue sit at a round laminate table surrounded by folding chairs and pulled out a pitcher from the refrigerator.

“It’s just the powdered stuff, I don’t have the time to make fresh squeezed,” Cher said.

“I love the powdered stuff,” Blue responded.

“Now Mr. Goodman, I don’t normally invite strangers into my home. But seeing a grown man drinking water from the side of my house, well I just knew you need some help. I don’t want you to think this is a normal thing for me. I am trying to change for the better.”

“Well, let me tell you that you made the right choice. Just seeing you, I could tell you’re a good person. I appreciate you looking out for me like this, being a stranger and all.”

“So Mr. Goodman, you said you were going into Waycross to apply for a job? Do you have any leads?”

“Unfortunately, no. My Momma lives up in Dixie Union, so I was up there taking care of her. Before that I was living up in Vernal, Utah, working on the oil fields. When Momma got sick I came back, got here last week. Now I have to find a new job. It’s a tough situation without any savings, but a man has to look out for his mother.”

Blue looked up at Cher and smiled. She smiled back turning a deep shade of crimson.

“So Mr. Goodman-“

“Please, please! Call me Steven.”

“Ok, Steven how’s your drink?” she moved into the chair across from him and avoided eye contact.

They sat at the table and talked. His time in prison and hustling on the streets gave him the ability to carry on a conversation with anyone. He was good at telling a person what they wanted to hear, and he was proud of that skill. No one had taught him anything, he had to earn it himself, the hard way.

Quickly an hour passed, then two. The conversation was flowing effortlessly. Blue knew he had earned her trust. Cher was smiling and laughing. He could tell she hadn’t had a man’s attention in a long time.

“I hate being so forward Ms. Cher, but are you married?”

“I don’t think that is too forward. It seems an appropriate question being in my kitchen and all, no I am not.”

“Are you seeing anyone?” Blue already knew the answer, but he wanted her to say it.

“No, I am waiting until I find a respectable man. Until then I will stay single and happy. It’s just me in this ole’ place. My only child, Joe, joined the Army last year. He is out at Fort Lewis in Washington. His daddy ran off a long time ago.”

“I understand. It’s a struggle to find virtuous people now days. I try my best to be an upstanding person. I know I am in my heart, even if I slip sometimes. I always try to walk in the path of our lord.” Blue said.

“Steven, I feel the same way. The path of our lord is the only way. I am glad I met you.” Cher replied.

“Cher, I feel the exact same way,” as he spoke he reached out and grabbed her right hand. She didn’t pull away. Her hands felt rough and dry. The fingernails were chewed.

“What kind of work are you looking for? Do you know any trades? Maybe I know someone and could point you in the right direction.”

“Well, like I said, I have mostly worked in oil. There isn’t a lot of oil drilling around here I imagine.”

“No, but a lot of the farmers need wells, so there are drilling jobs. I imagine drilling for water is like drilling for oil?” Cher asked.

“I bet you’re right. You’re a sharp lady Cher, a man would be lucky to have you. I hate to ask, but would you mind driving me into town? Maybe we could hunt up a drilling job. Or any job really, I just want to help out my mama,” Blue said.

“Well I don’t have to be at work for a few more hours, did I tell you I work nights cleaning up at Memorial Satilla Hospital? Either way, I got a bit of time. I can give you a ride.”

Cher led the way out of the house, Blue followed. She locked the front door and walked out to the street. She had a patchwork red late 80s Honda Civic. It looked more rust then metal; the tires were bald. Blue opened the door for Cher and she beamed back at him.

“It’s nice to see there are still some gentlemen left in this world,” Cher said.

Blue got in the passenger seat and started thinking about his options. Should he figure out a way to get her to drive to the swamp? Take the car from her? She liked him, that was obvious, maybe he could play up a Robin Hood noble outlaw thing, get her on his side? He had to think fast. If someone asked about drilling she would see through him in a minute. Next time he is going to have to pick a fake career he knew something about. Maybe a minister; path of Jesus and all that.

They started driving down highway 23 towards Waycross. He could smell the pines and the air was warm. It was good to be free, and he knew he deserved it. As they passed a cop Blue turned to Cher.

“You know it’s so beautiful today. Do you have a little time before your shift?”

“Why, what are you thinking? Don’t you want to go look for work?”

“Well, it is just such a nice day, maybe we could just go for a drive and spend time together. I heard there is a beautiful park near here, is that true?’

“The swamp is south of here, but I am not sure if beautiful is the right word. Peaceful maybe?”

“Peaceful sounds just right. How about we go down, take a drive, and then look for a job later. Anyway, I was looking for a reason to see you tomorrow,” Blue flashed his biggest smile.

Cher looked deep into Blue’s eyes. Blue was sure that she felt something.

“Steven, I was waiting to meet an upright man, and I think you might be him. It’s been hard being alone these years. ”

“I know in my heart I am a good man Cher, sometimes I have had to make hard choices, but I know I am a man of God. Let’s go take a ride in that peaceful swamp.”

“I am glad you drank from my faucet, and I am happy I decided to do something different, to help a traveler in need.”

Cher drove down highway 23 then took a right on to highway 177. As they got to the entrance of the park they took a left onto a dirt road that went around the edge of the swamp. After about fifteen minutes on the dirt road they stopped for an alligator who was sunning himself in the middle of the lane.

“You don’t see those in Vernal. Let’s take a look!” Blue said.

“Steven, those things are dangerous. We are in the middle of nowhere, let’s go back to town. I have work in a bit. We can check out alligators another time. I have a feeling we will be seeing more of each other.” Cher looked at him and smiled.

“I agree, I think we just might have something here. But this is a treat for me, I got to go look at this thing.”

Blue opened the door and started walking down the red clay road. The deep vibrant green of the swamp pressed in all around him. He smelled rotting vegetation and heard a cacophony of insects. The alligator snorted and slowly started moving off the road, back towards the water.

“They’re something else, huh? You ever seen one before?” Cher asked as she walked up behind Blue.

The gator kept moving to their right, toward the water. Cher turned her head and slowly walked behind the animal, keeping her distance.

As she followed the alligator Blue recognized his opportunity. He hated that he had to do this. Why couldn’t she have just left him alone? Why did she have to be so sweet and trusting, agreeing to go to the middle of nowhere with someone she just met, letting him lead her down this path? It was all a damn shame.

He picked up a piece of pine. It was about four feet long and as big around as his wrist. As she followed the animal he slowly walked up behind her. He didn’t want to disturb her. It was better if she didn’t see what was coming. After all, he didn’t want to be cruel. He took a slight side step to the left and swung the branch, rotating his entire body, and connected with the back of her head.

The impact made a hollow thump. Cher fell down to her knees, and then forward to onto her face. Blue raised the smooth piece of pine, he wondered how all the bark had been stripped, and swung it hard. After five swings she stopped make noise. A trickle of blood flowed from the back of her head where the skin had split. A small indentation was present. After a bit she stopped breathing. He grabbed her wrist and didn’t feel a pulse. He was glad she hadn’t suffered. He grabbed her ankles.

“Sorry girl, you made the wrong choice.”

He drug the body through the underbrush, along the trail that the alligator had blazed. The prickly bushes scratched his arms. The sun was getting high and the sweat was pouring down his forehead.

He felt horrible that he had to kill this poor woman, but he knew it had to be done. He needed her car and he couldn’t have her telling people about their meeting. Really it was her doing for putting herself in the situation.

If you lock a man up for five years, then kick him to the street with nothing, of course he is going to rob someone. A man needs money to eat. It is not his fault if someone didn’t listen. If people would just be reasonable and do the right thing none of this would have happened.

Blue drug Cher’s body to the swamp’s edge. He took her wallet out, grabbed the cash, and threw the it into the center of the waterway. Next he took the car keys. He pushed the body out until the inky black water was chest the deep. He went back to the bank, grabbed some large rocks, and used them to weigh down the body. The alligators would take care of the rest.

Blue cut back along the trail to his car. He got in, started it up, and headed towards the highway. Once he was out of Georgia he would be able to relax. South to Florida and then west to Texas seemed like a good route. Crossing state lines always slowed the cops. After that, who knows? Mexico? Maybe further South?

As he drove he thought about all the bullshit that had caused him to become a fugitive. The bad things he had done, he didn’t want to do any of that. But, unfortunately, it had been the only way. He really hadn’t wanted to hurt Cher. It was painful leading her down that path. Was he fooling himself… No, no way. He knew in his heart he was the victim, not a real criminal.