Mitch dragged himself out of the swamp. His tattered camouflage pants streamed a trail of effluvia that marked his passage. Mud, blood, and mucky water trailed behind him in a filthy wake. He was glad to find higher ground, slapped aside the reeds at the edge of the bank, and pulled his exhausted body up on dry land.
He cursed every ass-backwards Cajun who lived in this shitty bog, intent on outlasting even hurricane Katrina. The old woman hadn’t died peaceably. She put up a goddamned fuss though he was only doing his job, for Christ’s sake. She’d shot his fucking leg because she wasn’t ready to go.
When the time came, you went. Those were His rules, Mitch just enforced them.
A flash of bright color, a swirl of golden hair and the echo of a squeal of laughter filled his mind. His consciousness skittered away from the familiar thought and shut down that avenue of memory. He ramped up the anger, used the rage to keep from remembering, and refused to recall the details that brought him down this shit path.
Think about now.
Mitch flicked his hands, watched mud and slime splatter against the hard packed dirt. After damn near six hours of slogging through bottomland, he found a road. He hiked up the canvas pant and inspected three tiny pairs of puncture wounds on his calf. Almost delicate, the trio of red perforations marked the spot where a determined cottonmouth struck repeatedly, as Mitch struggled to hold the woman’s head under the surface.
At seventy-three, the lady had been a real scrapper, a good fighter.
At last he’d persevered, held her down until murky fluid filled her lungs and her struggles ceased. White hair, broken free of the tidy bun, splayed out from her head in a gauzy flow. She’d looked pretty as he anchored her body on a clump of cypress knees near the bank, in view of the porch.
Now he set out to receive his next appointment.
A ray of sunshine fingered down through the foliage but he dodged around the light.
No grace needed and no quarter given, he wanted none of that. They had a deal with fucking terms.
Buy salvation. Find solace.
Another flash of laughter and an echo of the word daddy…
Mitch broke and ran.
Five miles down the road he stopped. His pants had dried and the blood from the gulley left by the bullet had crusted over. Pushing up the long sleeves of his green army shirt, he studied the tattoo on his forearm. The “d” in Danang showed elaborate curled edges and the lettered “sixty-eight” below the spread angel wings mocked him, looked as fresh as the night he’d drunk enough rice wine to let Patterson ink it on. At least infection didn’t worry him anymore, not like then, when he’d been in the jungle and his arm had swelled up red and oozed pus for a month.
Eyelids drooping, Mitch propped his back against a weathered post, the long-forgotten marker for this crossroads, and waited. That was the story of his existence now, an endless cycle of squalid murder and waiting.
A voice woke him.
Eyes gritty with sleep and dirt, Mitch blinked, brought the figure of a man into focus. The sun hovered low on the horizon, the glow emanated into a haloed effect around the form.
Mitch snorted a derisive sound. “Hey, Boss. Save the theatrics for someone who gives a shit. We’ve already got a deal.”
He ignored the patient sigh and heaved his feet up under his body to leverage himself into a standing position. Mitch stood at eye level, his demeanor adversarial regardless of how much he tried to restrain his anger.
The man’s tone was soft. “All is forgiven, Mitchell.”
Mitch tensed and shook his head. “Some mistakes can’t be pardoned.” He pushed the words out between clenched teeth. Shoulder stiffened, he narrowed his eyes in the glare of the sun and jutted his chin forward. “Give me the next task.”
“Penance has a limit, my son.”
Hands fisted into tight balls and nails ground into his palms, Mitch shook with despair. “Not for me.”
The silence stretched out. A minute passed. Evening approached in the bayou and with it the buzz of insects and the drone of flies settled for the night.
At last the man spoke. “It is time to rest.”
Every word fell like a blow against Mitch’s ruined heart. He needed these jobs, wanted the curses laid upon him, desired the struggles of his victims as each experienced death. Shaken by the uncontrollable tremors vibrating through his body, Mitch’s voice quavered with weakness when he uttered a hoarse denial.
“Just one more,” he despised himself for pleading, “to guide, to show the way.” The next one might absolve his guilt.
The sudden memory came too swift; he wasn’t fast enough to close down the thought before the image bloomed. His little girl whirled in a circle, her hair spun out in a gilded ring, the pink and white frock floating around her like the inverted petals of a spring tulip…then the blood.
A guttural cry erupted from his throat. Mitch collapsed, palms over his ears, but still he heard her gasp when the bullet struck. His eyes clamped shut, failed to block the sight of her tiny body blown backward on the grass.
“The next might make the difference,” Mitch sobbed, “be the one to balance the measure.”
A touch gentled on his head, drew out the pain until Mitch breathed easier.
“You are not to blame, Mitchell.”
The words brought a bitter laugh. “It was my gun.”
After another long minute the hand fell away. “Very well. I will give you one final task, a last chance for redemption.”
Mitchell raised bloodshot eyes; a tortured smile twisted his lips. “Tell me who to kill.”
Flash Fiction Challenge: The Unlikable Protagonist @ www.terribleminds.com