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Sweet Gum Head
About the Author: Blu Gilliand has written everything from brochures to radio commercials to newspaper articles to book reviews. His short fiction has been published in various magazines and anthologies in the horror and crime genres. He's currently hard at work on his first novel.

His aim had been to lose them, and he’d done that, and got himself lost too. All these dark Florida back roads, all these stands of pine trees, all these little swamps full of mosquitoes and other, bigger, things that bite. He’d read somewhere that there were over a thousand swamps in Florida, and he reckoned he’d driven by half of them tonight.

He passed a sign that said “Sweet Gum Head 20” and shook his head. Where’d they get these names? Sweet Gum Head. He thought about people putting that on envelopes as their return address. Thought about wedding invitations listing “Sweet Gum Head Country Club” or “Sweet Gum Head Civic Center” as the venue. Thought about some guy or gal walking around, proud, calling themselves the mayor of Sweet Gum Head.

He was in serious trouble. It was good to let his mind wander a bit, loosen up some, so maybe a solution would shake itself free from the tangle of stress and worry his mind had become. But he couldn’t get too far into the weeds, forget why he was here. They might not know where he is right this second, but they were still looking. Maybe they would get lucky. Or maybe he would get stupid, thinking about Sweet Gum Head, and make a mistake.

Up ahead, in the darkness, a little oasis of dim, orange light.

He pulled up even with it. There was a little cluster of vending machines—Pepsi-Cola drinks, snacks, a squat brown thing that might once have dispensed coffee. A little shelter erected over these, four wooden posts with a tin roof to keep the machines dry. A rusted light fixture hanging down, four fluorescent bulbs in their dying days, buzzing and flickering, raining down what little light they had left to give. A little bench where a weary traveler could have a seat while he sipped on something cold and swatted at the gnats. Nailed to one of the posts, a hand-painted sign that read “The Snack Shed.”

He rolled into the little parking lot of packed dirt and killed the truck’s engine. It had been a while since he’d had anything to drink or eat, and he thought a little caffeine might snap him out of that highway haze, sharpen his focus a little so he could figure out his next move.

The truck was old, a Ford from the ‘70s, still had those little metal ashtrays built into the dash. People kept change in there sometimes. He pulled it open and yeah, there were three quarters and a couple of dimes. He had some change in his pocket too. His granddaddy would say he was in high cotton, if he were still alive to say it.

He gathered up the coins and stepped out into the warm night. It had felt good, riding around with his window down, listening to music when the signal came through, listening to the wind whip and whistle around the cab when the signal faded out. Only thing would have made it better would have been a girl in the passenger seat, laughing at his jokes, singing along to the radio, her blonde hair wild and free in the wind.

He was a bad man, both in deeds and in disposition. He didn’t try to convince himself or anyone else otherwise. Just before his last stretch, four years in Holman up in Atmore, Alabama, the judge told him, “Everybody can see you ain’t sorry for what you did. You’re just sorry you got caught.” He didn’t argue with the man on that.

His cellmate at Holman, a three-time loser named Abel Colquitt, told him, “You think you a bad man. I reckon you are one. But you know, there’s always somebody out there badder than you.”

“Guess I’ll know him when I meet him, huh?” he’d said.

“Guess you will,” Abel said.

He walked up to the Pepsi machine, not really thinking it would work, but finding the buttons all lit up. He plugged in some change and hit the big square button that said Mountain Dew, and the guts of the machine rumbled and within seconds a can dropped out. He picked it up and it was ice cold. He side-stepped over to the snack machine, pulled the tab on the Dew and swallowed some down while he surveyed his choices. Most of the slots were empty, but there were Funyuns and sour cream and onion chips and barbecue chips. Way down at the bottom he spied some peanut butter crackers and paid up for a pack.

He went over to the bench and sat down. He funneled crackers into his mouth whole, chewing them into paste and washing them down with Dew. He thought about what to do next.

This story appears in our JUN 2023 Issue
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