I knew I was in trouble long before I would admit it to myself or anyone else in the boat. I’d taken my father-in-law and my 6-year-old son miles into an unfamiliar swamp to find the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds. I knew it was taking too long, but I’d pressed on. Now it was time to get home. Night had fallen, there was no cell phone coverage, and I didn’t want to risk running out of gas in the narrow, isolated creek we’d fought through to get there.
I hadn’t shared these concerns with my passengers. I got my son, Albert, in his life vest and settled. Then I started thinking fast.
“Hold the flashlight, ” I told Mike. “I think I know a shorter way back.”
Mike held the light while I studied the map for a cut I’d noticed earlier. I soon found it, what looked like an old logging ditch north of us. I pointed, he saw it, too. That was good enough to plan on, but not enough to ease the knot in my gut.
We ran a mile up the Tensaw, waving the spotlight across the riverbank. I felt like a horse kicked me in the stomach when we saw channel markers in the Mobile River. The cut hadn’t been there.
“We’re going to have to turn around, ” I said.
If Mike was worried, he didn’t show it. He’s always carried an optimistic outlook, but I thought this might just tip him. So I didn’t mention that turning around sentenced us to running out of gas somewhere in the vast swamp.
“I’m tired, Daddy, ” Albert said.
I had a sleeping bag in my dry box and I got it out for him. “Just lay down on the floor and go to sleep, ” I said, calmly.
I turned the boat around and started back. I decided if we were going to run out of gas it would be best to take a longer, more established route so there was at least a chance we’d run into people.
After a while, I saw Albert was asleep and I slowed the boat. It was time to come clean to my father-in-law. He had to know just how much I screwed up.
“We’re not going to make it, ” I told him. “We’re almost out of gas. I need to find a camp in case we have to spend the night.”
“Is there somebody we can call?”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t have a signal. Maybe I will when we get closer.”
I didn’t mention the low battery warning blinking on my phone. I’m glad it was too dark to see his face. I felt like a fool.
I drove with one hand on the tank, tilting it, judging the weight. Even when I was sure it could be nothing but fumes, I kept on. Finally I saw an abandoned camp and shut off the motor and drifted before it. The sound of frogs and cicadas and emptiness pressed into us over the black water. I got my phone out and stood on the bow and held it over my head. One bar. I called my wife.
“I don’t have time to explain. We’re out of gas. Call Archie and tell him to track down David and give him my number.”
“Where are you?”
“Somewhere off the Tensaw. Albert and your dad are OK. My phone’s about to die.”
There was only one person I knew who could find us: David Steele. And my friend Archie could find him. In the upper delta, David was the closest thing to a swamp rat I knew. The last time I’d run into him was 15 years before, and we’d chatted about a family trip he was taking to Disney World.
In five minutes my phone rang. I answered it. There was no small talk.
“Hey, bud. What do you see?”
My low battery alarm bleeped. I had 10 seconds.
“We just made a left turn out of a river about 50 yards across into a wide area. There’s an old camp on my right.”
“Got a big stump stickin’ out of the water 20 feet in front of you on the left?”
I squinted. “Yeah. I see it.”
“Orange bream cork hangin’ on it?”
I saw a faint orange speck. “Yeah?”
My phone bleeped again and went black.
An hour later I heard a boat moaning toward us through the night. It seemed we listened to it approaching forever. The only man-made noise on Earth. Then I saw a vaguely familiar psychedelic neon beer mug floating through the air over a vessel that was otherwise dark. The mug passed, purple and orange and blinking not 30 feet from our faces and kept on into the night. Boat waves rocked us gently.
I looked at Mike, then back at the disappearing mug.
Slowly the boat made a wide circle, and I heard David and Archie laughing over the still water. I recalled seeing a similar mug for sale at the Rainforest Café at Disney World. With good friends, 15 years always seems like yesterday.
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in September, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
text by Watt Key • illustration by kelan mercer