Every night, the voices start.
From outside the open window of the crumbling swamp house, they mingle with the haunting scree of the loons. At first, I question whether or not I’m truly hearing them.
I swear one of them is Adam’s voice. The other is Delilah’s. He laughs as if she’s told him a joke, and she whispers so low I can’t make out what she says. He laughs again.
If my friend is out there, I’ve yet to find him.
I press my forehead to the windowpane and stare out over the blackened waters. A shimmer of moon’s edge peeks out from behind the clouds and its light glistens over the inky depths of Dismal Swamp.
This house commanding the end of the promontory belongs to Adam. Last week, Zach and I came out here to conduct our own search for him. I’m skeptical about what the cops say, that Adam must have blundered out into the swamp and died among the cypress trees. Gator got him, my ass. Adam was smarter than that, a heck of a lot smarter.
He knew these waters better than anyone, the creatures lurking in the muck. Before Dee died, Adam traipsed up and down the coastline with her, spearing fish, salting their skins, and hanging them out to dry. Fish jerky. The rest of us hated it, but he loved the stuff.
A year ago, when Delilah’s fishing boat capsized and she was swept out with the tides, Adam nearly went mad. They never recovered the body, and Adam never recovered his mind. He didn’t talk much after that, and he insisted we leave him alone other than to check in on him on the weekends.
Zach stirs in the top bunk and rolls over. He presses his thumbs to his eyes, then squints at me from the other side of the room. “Colin? What are you doing?”
I lick my lips and gaze out the window. Zach doesn’t believe me about the voices. He waves me off like I’m crazy.
Maybe I am. But if Adam took it into his head to go searching for Delilah, he could still be out there. Injured. Starving. Suffering. I owe it to him to find him. We all do.
Four weeks he’s been missing. Everyone in town says it’s useless to keep searching after two; the swamp will either spew out its secrets, or it won’t. Not much we can do other than to go home and move on with our lives, but I won’t accept that.
“Can’t sleep,” I say. “Swamp’s too loud.” A cricket starts up with a mad chirp, and others join him in a raucous chorus of scratchy noise.
Zach sighs, flops back onto the pillow, and stares at a water mark on the ceiling. In a square of moonlight, cobwebs drift in spidery waves across cracks in the plaster. “We can leave anytime you want. Call it quits. I’m ready.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not.”
“Adam was my friend, too, Col. But we have to be realistic.”
A flash of light gleams across the water, illuminating the wooden dock, the empty space where Adam always moored his canoe. I straighten and a prickle starts in my fingertips.
What was that? I repress the urge to ask. In the top bunk, Zach’s arm is slung over his eyes.
The tingling creeps up my arms to my spine. “Go back to sleep.”
As soon as he drops off, snoring softly, I hurry outside to investigate the source of the light. The voices have been around for a month, but the light is new.
That’s when I hear them, across the water. Adam and Delilah, talking, whispering, snorting in an attempt to stifle their laughter.
“Hello?” I call out. “Are you there?”
The voices cease. Farther out on the water, the same light I witnessed earlier winks in and out amid the darkness of the swamp and stops near the entrance to the grove of cypress trees.
I rush to the side of the house and grab an inflatable raft, then pick my way down to the dock and lower the raft into the water. The raft sways as I step inside, the paddle firm in my grasp.
I ease my paddle into the water and silently drift across the swamp. A thought flits through my head like a dragonfly among the cattails. Adam insisted Delilah hadn’t died when the boat went under, that she’d swam to safety. That if he didn’t stop searching, he’d find her. Her body was never found, he said. She’s alive, I can feel her.
I can’t help thinking he’s right, that both of them are out here on the water, and I keep paddling. The light is up ahead, but it’s weaker now, and the voices are mere whispers. Bullfrogs throw off throaty calls; a shrill mosquito whine permeates the air.
My raft approaches the treeline, the mighty cypresses drinking from their fanned-out roots, with their sheltering, feathered limbs stretched out above.
“Hey.” My voice echoes across the water, meeting with silence.
I approximate where I last detected the light and pause, the moonlight illuminating an irregularity on the water. It squishes under my paddle, then balloons up to the surface again like a soggy, punctured float hanging on to a last remnant of air. I haul it out of the water and draw it toward the raft.
An old, waterlogged flannel shirt. Adam’s old flannel shirt.
I drop the thing and it hits the bottom of the raft with a squelch. I make a conscious effort to steady my breathing. What’ll I do if it’s torn to shreds, stained with Adam’s blood? I can’t handle that, or the fact that his body might be under my raft as I sit here. My throat’s a stiff knot I can’t swallow past.
I mark the spot mentally, spin the raft around, and paddle like hell for the swamp house. I plop the raft next to the dock and leave the shirt where it is. The rest of the night passes in a dreadful haze. I pace back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen, unable to get comfortable. The image of that shirt is seared into my mind.
By the time the sun rises, Zach shuffles into the kitchen and makes a face at the sludge stuck to the bottom of the coffee pot.
“Gross,” he says, flinging the oily liquid down the drain. He turns on the tap and starts scrubbing. “You want some coffee?” Deep shadows line his eyes.
“Nah,” I say, gruff.
Zach senses the tension. He finishes what he’s doing and sets the pot down, pulls out a chair and plunks down on the seat. His hair’s a mess. “What’s going on? Why were you out all night?”
Before I respond, he holds up a hand. “Don’t tell me. You heard the voices.”
I suck on my teeth and glare at him. I don’t say a thing. He’s always after evidence. It’s time I showed him. Before exiting the door, I wave for him to follow.
Zach holds up his hands, “What the crap? Fine. Whatever.” He pushes back the chair and it squeals against the floor. He thumps outside after me, to where I’ve stowed the raft.
The shirt’s still balled up at the bottom of the raft, soaked. “That’s Adam’s. I found it in the swamp, over there by the entrance to the cypress trees.”
“Shit.” Zach runs his fingers across his scalp. “That’s Adam’s, isn’t it?” He starts shifting his balance.
“We can’t go digging in the swamp ourselves,” he says. “Gotta let the cops handle this, Colin, c’mon.” It’s like a plea, and Zach’s a thread away from his breaking point. His eyes are wild, bloodshot.
I nod. “Okay.”
He pulls out his phone and an hour later, the cops are dredging the swamp where the cypress trees grow.
They don’t find a thing.
Later that night, Zach questions me. “How’d you find it? What made you think to go out looking for anything, let alone a shirt?”
He doesn’t want me to talk about the voices, but they’re the only explanation. What do I say?
I tell him the truth.
“Whose voices?” Zach is skeptical, one brow thrust high above the other.
“Adam’s and Dee’s,” I say, deadpan.
Zach scoffs. “This is ridiculous. Ghosts? You’re as mad as he was.” He tosses a scuffed, leather-bound journal on the table and slides it toward me.
I open the journal to the first page. This is Adam’s handwriting, his entries, written in pencil, dating back to the month Dee died. “Where did you find this?”
“Under the mattress of the top bunk. Just a minute ago.”
His silence is stony, as if he’s daring me to read it.
I skim the first few pages. They’re pretty depressing, Adam’s clearly in shock. When he starts to comment on something other than how he feels, I perk up, mark the line with my finger, and show it to Zach.
“Hey. Right here, did you see this? Adam started hearing Dee’s voice out on the swamp a few weeks after her boat sank.”
I flip forward a few pages, scanning the entries.
“He saw lights on the water, too. Always at midnight.” My heart’s racing now. I keep reading, smother a curse, then set the journal on the table.
Zach eyes me. He clenches his fingers so hard the knuckles blanch.
I read straight from the page. ‘She’s looking for me, I know she is. Delilah is not gone. By the light of her firefly lamp, she searches the shore for me.’ “He goes on from there,” I say, turning the page, “to describe how he takes the canoe out every night in search of her.”
“Like I said. Crazy.”
I thumb forward to the last page, dated four weeks ago, the day Adam went missing. It’s empty, not a mark on the paper other than the date, as if he intended to write and got distracted.
What. The hell.
“He wasn’t crazy,” I say.
“Pffff,” Zach exhales. “He couldn’t cope. I don’t blame him. But we have to face reality. Adam is gone. So is Delilah.”
“I don’t think so.” I thwack the journal closed. “I’m telling you, what I’m experiencing is real. They’re here among us, in the swamp.”
Zach tilts his head, narrows his eyes. “Don’t start. Not again.”
“There’s something they want us to know. Don’t you get it?”
“It’s you, Colin. It’s you who’s not getting it. Give it up, dude. They’re gone. G-O-N-E, gone, and they’re not coming back. Not as ghosts, not as anything.” Zach pushes back his chair so hard it almost topples over. “I’ll be upstairs packing. I’m leaving in the morning, whether you come with me or not.”
His footsteps echo up the stairs and the door to the bunk room slams against the wall. The zipper on his suitcase buzzes open, followed by the soft hush of clothes hitting the bottom.
I grab a beer and head out to the back porch, not bothering to flick on the light. The darkness helps me think, blocks out the distractions. The loons shriek and I check the time on my watch.
Quarter to midnight.
I settle on the steps and take a long swig. I was closer to Adam than any of our friends; he confided in me about how much he loved Delilah, often. I get how this looks, why everyone thinks he’s dead. Adam lost his anchor when Delilah went missing; he didn’t know how to live without her.
Of course he’d be hoping for a sign, anything to let him know she was all right, she wasn’t suffering and hadn’t forgotten him. But Adam wasn’t a signs and wonders kind of guy; he was an engineer, solidly grounded in his five senses.
If he heard Delilah and saw her out on the swamp, it was legit. Adam didn’t make that kind of shit up, not even to make himself feel better.
I set down the can and watch the stars flicker in the sky above. I’m not stupid. My chances of finding out what really happened to Adam are drying up, but those journal entries are starting to make me consider otherwise. I can’t get them out of my head.
Adam’s managed to pass along at least one message to me so far: the balled-up shirt in the bottom of my raft, the one the cops took away as evidence. If he’s truly gone and I’m chasing after a ghost, what’s he trying to tell me?
I’m here, but they’ll never find me.
When I hear them, the voices always sound happy. Carefree. Exuberant.
As I take a sip, a light glimmers on the open water. My grip on the can dents the aluminum. My watch says they’re right on time.
Laughter ripples across the water and I choke on my beer.
The light bobs back and forth, illuminating the shoreline and the dock of the swamp house before passing on into the night, farther off, toward the black line of cypress trees leading deeper into the swamp.
I stumble down the steps and dash around the side of the house for the raft. Hoping to catch up, I don’t have much time.
I drag the raft to the dock, toss it over the edge, and hop inside. Water slaps against the paddles and my breath is ragged with effort. That light is drifting faster than I can boat toward it, and the voices are growing distant.
I dip the paddle deeper into the water, forcing great swaths of it behind me, straining my muscles, keeping that light in the center of my attention.
About thirty yards from the entrance to the cypress trees, the light winks out.
“No!” I cry. “Adam! Is that you? Where are you, man? I hear you every night – you and Delilah – but I don’t know what you’re trying to tell us…to tell me. Are you okay?”
The raft drifts sideways, nose pointed away from the grove. I position it to face the treeline. It’s dark as hell in there. Without a light, I could easily lose all sense of direction, get mired amid the tangled roots.
But I’m out of options. That light disappears in the cypresses after I hear their voices. I have to know what happened. To see their faces again, and find out if they need anything from me.
I paddle forward slowly, the giant shadows of the trees looming in the moonlight. Water laps softly at their roots; the smell of heavy damp lingers in the air. Mist laces through the branches, forming a veil above my head.
The rustle of a night creature disturbs the silence. It’s no use trying to locate it. I keep my hands inside the raft and continue paddling, shallow, surface strokes. A mosquito buzzes in my ear.
Before long, I reach a clearing where the mist thins out. Above the trees, the night sky is blanketed with stars, countless numbers of them. A shooting star whizzes past. Off to my right, a light bobs in the darkness.
I’m rooted to the bottom of my raft. Drifting toward me is a glowing white canoe and inside, two misty figures: Delilah in front, and Adam in back. In the center of the canoe hangs a lantern, dozens of fireflies flitting inside, their light illuminating the glass.
Adam says something I can’t hear and Delilah bursts out laughing, the canoe momentarily slowing as she stops to catch her breath.
They drift past, inches away, and I stare into Adam’s face. He glances sideways and sees me, whatever he’s about to say to Delilah suspended in time.
“Adam,” I whisper.
My friend smiles, the richest, most contented smile I have ever seen. Any question I could have freezes on my tongue. I can see how happy he is, I feel it in my heart. A loosening, an unwinding of the pent-up tension, a fullness, and a release.
Adam is exactly where he wants to be.
My friend turns back to Delilah and they begin rowing in tandem again. Every so often, a firefly escapes the lantern in the middle of their gleaming canoe and several more flit inside, happy prisoners free to come and go as they please.
Laughter punctuates the darkness as, slowly, the canoe floats away from me, deeper into the cypresses.
I turn the raft around and retrace a path through the trees.
BIO: A Jersey girl at heart, when Lisa’s not writing, she’s usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. She has recently been published in The Chamber Magazine, Noctivagant Press, Aphelion, and The Write Launch, and has upcoming publications in Crow & Cross Keys, Carmina Magazine, and Bards & Sages. Before she started writing novels, she earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University. Find out more about her at https://lisa.voorhe.es or http://facebook.com/lisavoorheesauthor . Interested in becoming a patron? Find out more about how to support her creative work and receive bonus material at http://www.patreon.com/lisavoorhees .