Welcome to the October 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
October is traditionally the month for horror fiction, so this month’s free story is a horror story. Now I haven’t written a lot of straight horror stories, cause for some reason, whenever I try to write horror, it comes out as humor. That probably has something to do with the fact that I haven’t really been scared by a horror movie since I was a teenager either.
This month’s story is called “The Terror of the Bayou” and may be found in the collection Southern Monsters. The title says it all, really – it’s a story about a swamp monster that lives in the Louisiana bayous and snatches a bride on her wedding day and the man who goes after them. It was inspired by my love for the US Gulf Coast, where I lived for almost a year as a child.
So prepare to accompany Remy Theriault, as he faces…
The Terror of the Bayou
Remy Theriault had never really believed in the swamp monster.
True, there had been stories. Stories going back two hundred years, passed on from father to son, from mother to daughter. Stories of the thing that stalked the bayous of Vermilion Parish. Stories of glowing red eyes staring out from the undergrowth. Tales of roots and twigs and pond scum suddenly coming alive to form a crude mockery of the human form. Stories of a thing with razor sharp teeth chasing the unwary through the bayou.
And then there were all those tales of people who had ventured out into the bayou — hunters, traders, runaways and escaped slaves — and never come back. And whispers that they had fallen prey to the thing that stalked Bayou Cramoisi, the Crimson Bayou. Whispers that the Terror had got them. For that was what the locals called the monster. La Terreur. The Terror.
Remy didn’t believe any of it, of course. Growing up Cajun in Acadiana didn’t mean that you automatically had to believe every tall tale told by some old man sitting in a rocking chair on his porch and every superstition whispered by some old woman stirring a pot of gumbo in the cosy comfort of her kitchen.
For Remy was smart, a man of the world, a man of poise and education. He’d been to college, after all. He’d left behind the bayou and the little shack in the village of Leleux where he’d grown up. He’d gotten a scholarship for Tulane, worked hard, studied hard, became a lawyer in New Orleans. He was a man of the world now, yes, he was. And men of the world did not believe in tall tales and superstitions and stories of swamp monsters.
As it was, Remy barely even heard the old stories anymore now that he lived in the big city. And so he mentally slotted them into the same category as the voodoo shops with their windows full of love spells and pincushion dolls made in China or the tours of supposedly haunted houses, haunted by the ghosts of people who’d never lived and certainly never died there, or the fake vampires that roamed the French Quarter by night.
It was all just a bit of quaint folklore for the benefit of the tourists who came to New Orleans, their head full of the stories told by Anne Rice or Charlaine Harris, thinking that it was all real, thinking that just because the city was old, older than most any other on the American continent, it had to be haunted by ghosts and infested with vampires and swamp monsters as well.
Remy politely ignored it all. The city needed the tourists, after all, and many a family in his old home in Acadiana made its living ferrying tourists through the bayous, taking them hunting or fishing or gator spotting. And if the tourists wanted myths and legends and stories, then who was Remy to say anything against that? Money made the world go round, after all, in Cajun country as much as everywhere. But that Remy tolerated the old stories didn’t necessarily mean that he believed in any of them.
Though these days, Remy didn’t come home much anyway. Weddings, funerals, maybe Christmas and Thanksgiving, that was it.
It was the former that had brought Remy back to Vermilion Parish this time around. His cousin Alex was getting married to Belle St. Croix this weekend. Or rather, Alex was supposed to get married to Belle St. Croix, for the wedding had to be called off at the last minute, because the bride had gone missing.
By all accounts, Belle had just vanished into thin air. One moment she was in her parents’ house, getting dressed for the wedding, the next she was gone — poof, just like that — and all that was left were a few drops of blood, a scrap of white lace from her wedding dress and an open window overlooking the Crimson Bayou.
To Remy, it was completely obvious what had happened. Belle, probably experiencing the usual wedding jitters, had taken a good long look at Alex — who, though he was Remy’s cousin and an all around nice guy and gifted car mechanic, had never been the sharpest knife in the drawer — and saw the future life she would lead as the wife of a car mechanic barely scraping by in the Louisiana bayous. And then, in a moment of unusual clarity — for Belle was nothing if not Alex’s intellectual equal — she’d done a runner. Probably tore her dress and hurt herself climbing out of the window, which would account for the blood and the scrap of lace.
So there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for what had happened to Belle. She was probably halfway to New Orleans or Atlanta or Houston or Galveston by now, and more power to her.
But Belle’s parents and Alex and the whole town really, they just didn’t want to accept the truth. The truth that Belle was gone and that she wouldn’t be coming back, if she had even half a brain — which, knowing Belle, was debatable. And so, rather than face the facts, the people started talking of the Terror and how it had snatched Belle like it had snatched so many others before.
It was all bullshit of course. Superstitious nonsense, cooked up by people unwilling to face the hard truth. People like Alex, looking so sad and lost in his borrowed tuxedo that had gone out of style in approximately 1988.
But though he didn’t believe in the Terror, Remy had nonetheless volunteered to go looking for Belle. Dumb as a sack of rocks or not, Alex was family and family looked out for each other. It was simply a matter of duty.
And so here he was, still in his dress shirt, though he’d ditched the bow tie and jacket and swapped his tuxedo pants for jeans, his dress shoes for sturdy workboots, wading through the swamp in search of Belle St. Croix, a search that he knew fully well was futile.
When no trace of Belle was found — as Remy knew there wouldn’t be — the people of Leleux would eventually give up looking for her and chalk up Belle as another victim of the Terror. There’d probably be a nice memorial service and a headstone with her name and the date of her disappearance on it in the cemetery. And soon no one would remember or care that the headstone marked an empty grave, a grave in which nothing but a scrap of bloody lace lay buried.
As far as anybody in Leleux was concerned, Belle St. Croix would be dead, just one more victim of the Terror. Which probably suited Belle just fine. Disappearing without a trace was always easier, when there was no one looking for you.
Hmm, perhaps Belle had even deliberately planted the blood and the scrap of lace to lead the town chasing down the wrong path. Though in that case, she had to be a lot smarter than Remy gave her credit for.
He should’ve done the same, Remy thought, as he sank knee-deep into brackish water, soaking his jeans and his boots. Should’ve done a runner and planted a few scraps of clothing and a few droplets of blood to make it look like the Terror had taken him. That way, he could be sitting on the balcony of his apartment in New Orleans now, a Sazerac in one hand and a good crime novel in the other, overlooking the French Quarter. Not wading through some stinking bayou, chasing ghosts and phantoms and runaway brides.
A twig cracked behind him, followed by the distinctive slurping of water. Remy froze. Someone or rather something was here with him, watching his every move from the dense undergrowth. Not the Terror. Remy wasn’t stupid, after all. He knew that there was no such thing as monsters. But there were plenty of creatures in the bayou, snakes, alligators, snap turtles and even the occasional Louisiana black bear, that were just as deadly and — unlike the Terror — actually real.
Remy raised his shotgun, aiming it at nothing in particular. True, he might not believe that a monster had taken Belle St. Croix, but he’d be damned if he went into the bayou without a gun and a knife. Only an idiot would go into alligator infested waters unarmed.
There were more cracking twigs, more rustling leaves, more slurping water behind him. Slowly, Remy turned around, hand on the trigger of his shotgun.
Behind him, there was nothing, nothing at all. Just dense undergrowth, a bit denser than it should have been considering Remy had just come that way mere seconds before.
Then, all of a sudden, the undergrowth moved, branches swaying and shaking, leaves quivering, water rippling. Almost as if something was trying to break through, something big and deadly.
Remy took a step backwards and then another, keeping his shotgun trained on the undergrowth.
And still the leaves rustled, the foliage trembled and brackish bayou water bubbled up against Remy’s legs. But nothing broke through. Nothing but a bird that fluttered out of the undergrowth and up into the sky with a panicked chirp.
Remy allowed himself to relax a little. Scared by a bird, right. Here he was, mocking his old neighbours for being terrified of mythical monsters, when he himself was scared half to death by a bird.
The undergrowth shook again, leaves rustling and quivering. Probably the bird’s mate, abandoning the nest to follow her beloved. Hell, maybe there even was a whole colony of birds nesting in there.
Remy waited, shotgun still raised, but no further birds emerged from the undergrowth. But the twigs still crackled, the leaves still rustled, the brackish water still burbled like mad.
And then he saw it. A pair of glowing red eyes peering out of the undergrowth, watching his every move.
Remy froze. Fuck, it was the Louisiana black bear. Had to be. On the other hand, did bears have red eyes? But then, what else could it be?
Yeah right, the Terror. Except that Remy did not believe in those stories, no siree, he didn’t.
The undergrowth rustled again. Remy raised his shotgun and braced himself for a close encounter with the Louisiana black bear.
But no bear emerged from the undergrowth nor an alligator, raccoon, possum nor any other critter that inhabited the bayous. Instead, the undergrowth itself was shaking and heaving. Pond scum burbled and leaves, twigs and roots reformed themselves before his very eyes. And gradually, what had only been a patch of dense undergrowth mere seconds before, became something else.
Roots and reeds twisted themselves into two legs, branches, leaves and vines formed a torso and two arms with spindly fingers made from twigs. A head grew upon its shoulders, assembling itself from twigs and leaves, with glowing red eyes and Spanish moss for hair. A mouth opened, studded with rows of razor sharp teeth, and the thing let out a roar that was part the burble of the bayou, part the shriek of a bird and part the growl of the Louisiana black bear. Then, the thing launched itself at Remy, mouth wide open, razor sharp teeth bared.
Remy fired, right into the thing’s wide open mouth. The impact threw the thing back and sent twigs and leaves and bits of Spanish moss flying in all directions. But the thing kept on coming, pond scum foaming at its mouth.
Remy stumbled backwards and fired again. And again. And again. He fired until his pump action shotgun was empty. And still the thing kept on coming.
Remy didn’t have time to reload, for the Terror — might as well call that — was almost upon him. So he used the barrel of his shotgun as a club, slamming it again and again into the Terror’s body. It was a lot like beating on bushes to scare up birds, like he’d often done as a boy.
But the Terror was no bird. And if shots didn’t stop it, then clubbing it with an empty shotgun sure as hell wouldn’t.
The shotgun landed in the water and then the Terror was upon him, twig fingers clawing at his body, vines twisting themselves around his arms, legs and throat. Breathing was already hard and the thing seemed to be determined to drag him under and drown him in the bayou.
Remy struggled, but the grip of the thing holding him was too strong. He could not get free. He’d die here, mourned as yet another victim of the Terror. And this time, the townsfolk would even be right.
His hand brushed against the hilt of his knife, a hunting knife his grandpa had given Remy for his tenth birthday. His fingers curled around the hilt and he began hacking at the vines and twigs that held him.
The Terror screamed in pain and rage, sap spurting from its wounds. Encouraged by the creature’s reaction, Remy continued hacking at it. He was a Theriault, after all, and a Theriault never went down without a fight.
Then suddenly, the battle was joined, as someone else attacked the Terror from behind, slashing and hacking at it with a determination to match Remy’s.
But this new combatant’s weapon wasn’t a knife. It was a shoe, a white stiletto-heeled shoe of the sort that brides wore on their wedding day.
He’d found Belle St. Croix. Or rather, Belle had found him.
Together, Remy and Belle kept hacking and slashing at the Terror, until the creature disintegrated into its components and became trees and shrubs and undergrowth once more.
Remy and Belle looked at each other, both panting with exhaustion. Belle’s wedding gown was in tatters, her body covered in scratches. Bits of twigs and leaves were tangled in her blonde curls.
Remy didn’t look much better. His jeans were torn and his dress shirt had been reduced to a rag, the once white fabric stained green and brown with pond scum and mud.
“You… you’re Alex’s cousin, aren’t you?” Belle stammered, “The one who’s a lawyer in New Orleans.”
Remy nodded and held out his hand, well aware how absurd it all was. “Remy Theriault at your service, Mademoiselle.”
Belle took his hand. Her faux fingernails had broken off and tattered lace gloves clung to her fingers like cobwebs.
The formal introductions were interrupted by a sound behind them. Cracking twigs, rustling leaves and burbling, slurping water.
Belle and Remy spun around as one, just in time to see glowing red eyes watching them from the undergrowth. Vines snaked, pond scum bubbled, leaves and twigs moved to reassemble themselves into a crude, vaguely human form.
“Fuck,” Remy exclaimed, before he remembered that there was a lady present. Besides, given the circumstances, he doubted that Belle would mind. “How many of these damned things are there anyway?”
“I… I think we’d better leave now,” Belle stammered, her face turning pale under her smeared make-up, “Before we find out.”
Remy nodded. “Great idea.”
And so they ran, hand in hand, splashing through the brackish water as fast as they could. When the bayou became too deep for Belle, Remy swooped her up in his arms and carried her the rest of the way, until they reached higher, drier ground.
In the distance, they could make out Remy’s pick-up, a spot of bright red among the greys and greens and browns of the bayou. They sprinted the rest of the way, Remy in workboots and Belle on bare feet.
As soon as they’d scrambled into the car, Remy gunned the engine.
“Look,” Belle cried in the passenger seat beside him.
Remy turned and saw the Terror emerging from the undergrowth. It had grown since their last encounter and was the size of a cypress tree now. And judging by its howl and its wide open mouth, it was angry.
Remy stepped down hard onto the accelerator. The pick-up sped away, splashing water and mud as it went.
Behind them, the Terror howled, drowning out the roar of the engine.
And so Remy Theriault brought back Belle St. Croix, the stolen bride. The entire village had turned out to celebrate the hero who had conquered the Terror and rescued the maiden — well, sort of — and Alex, glad to have his bride back, assured Remy of his undying gratitude.
Since everything was ready — the church, the priest, the band, the buffet and now the bride and groom as well — the wedding could take place after all. And since Remy had rescued the bride, he even got to serve as Alex’s best man. Someone even found a new shirt for him to wear with his tuxedo.
Belle was a radiant bride and grandma’s old wedding dress fit her almost perfectly. The vows went off without a hitch — well, another hitch — and then it was time for the party to begin.
Remy ate a lot, drank a lot and danced a lot with every single bridesmaid. And with one of them, a redhead named Marie who’d been friends with Belle at school and was now studying law at Tulane, Remy danced more than once.
Finally, when the clock was nearing midnight, Remy took a break from dancing and found himself standing at the buffet, his plate loaded down with gumbo and jambalaya and cornbread and crawfish pie.
“You did good today, boy,” a voice beside him said, “Ain’t many men who’ve fought the Terror and lived to tell the tale.”
Remy turned around and found himself standing next to his grandpa. “I just did what everyone would’ve done,” he said, “And besides, I got lucky. Real lucky.”
Grandpa chuckled. “Modesty’s always a good trait for a men to have.” He helped himself to some red beans and rice. “By the way, I see you’ve been dancing with Marie Delacroix.” Grandpa nodded. “She’s a nice girl and smart. And she caught the bouquet.”
Remy could see where that particular conversation was heading, so he quickly changed the subject. “About the Terror… have you seen it before?”
Grandpa nodded. “Aye, I have, back when I was a young lad like you. I was out fishing in the bayou, when I saw it. Glowing red eyes in the undergrowth, shrubs forming themselves into something. Never waited around to see what, but paddled away as fast as my arms could carry me.”
“Smart choice,” Remy said, “And besides, it’s damn ugly anyway.” He hesitated. “I never believed it was real, you know?”
“I know. You weren’t shy about telling us either. What was it you called it? Superstitious nonsense and old wives’ tales.”
“About that…” Remy shifted from one foot to another. “Well, I’m sorry.”
“No need for that, boy. No man believes in the Terror until he sees it with his own eyes. Still, you’ve got quite a tale to tell your big city friends in New Orleans.”
Remy shook his head. “Actually, I’d rather not. I know what happened and I know I saw. But when I go blabbering about swamp monsters in New Orleans, I’ll get laughed out of the bar association.”
Grandpa regarded him thoughtfully. “Probably for the best,” he finally said, “There’s some truths big city folks just cannot take. And now get yourself back on the dancefloor, my boy, cause that nice Marie Delacroix is standing there all alone and unattended.”
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.