Friday, August 10, 2007

Casino in the Cotton Field

For Sunday Scribbling's prompt: Goosebumps. Inspired partly by Vasti Jackson's very creepy song, Casino in the Cottonfield, which gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

Goddamn Mississippi, how big could the state be?

Winson was lost. He'd been lost for a long time. The hell of it was, he hadn't meant to get off the highway in this state at all. Meant to drive straight through on Route 98. But there'd been a section washed out near New Augusta and the detour hadn't been well marked. He'd tried to keep heading east, pick 98 up again, but the roads seemed to keep leading south and the land got lower and flatter. No towns. No signs. No landmarks. Just fields after fields after fields with an occasional shotgun shack by a half-silted irrigation ditch. All the side roads were dirt now, not even gravel, what kind of people lived like this?

The sky to his right was burning down in a weird bruised yellow. The sky ahead, south, was gunmetal dark. Even at forty miles an hour, the air felt heavy and dead. Winson had tried for a weather report, local news, anything that would give him some idea where in the hell (or Mississippi) he was, but the radio gave him nothing but static.

Then he saw lights up ahead on the left. Electric lights, thank you God, couldn't quite make out what they were illuminating though. Too big to be a house, too small to be a town... then the sign flashed by: Casino something.

Winson sighed. Rest. Food. Directions back to the highway. Maybe a room for the night; he'd have to call and explain why he wasn't making the meeting in Pensacola, but what the hell. Invent some kind of car trouble. It wasn't as if he hadn't had trouble-- don't think about that.

He swung into the turnoff, actual asphalt and in better condition than the nameless road he'd been on. What the hell was this place doing out in the middle of nowhere? Winson shrugged it off; he'd seen casinos in stranger places out west.

Empty parking lot. Off season, he supposed, getting out of the Corolla to stretch. The air smelled of salt; the Gulf most be closer than he'd thought. He wondered why they hadn't built on the beach, wasn't beachfront property supposed to be so fashionable? This place (he still didn't know the name of it) must be second-string. Winson shrugged; as long as they had a phone, booze, and a bed in that order, he didn't much care.

He pushed through the glass doors. The place was cavernous, dim, quiet. Winson stood still, letting his eyes adjust. No people moving around; there was slightly brighter light off to his left, so he headed that way.

A long, dark, polished bar stretched off into the gloom. Something white moved behind it; Winson blinked; it resolved into a starched white shirt, with shadowy dark features above it. The bartender moved noiselessly towards him. "Sir?"

"Uh," said Winson. "Uh. I'm kind of-- I'm lost. I was trying to get to the highway, I mean, to Pensacola-- or anyway Mobile-- Geez, it's dark in here."

The bartender stepped into the light. Black, of course, youngish, very composed. Clean-looking, at least that was a good sign. Shiny teeth set in a friendly smile.

"There's no highway near here. Storm come in, sir, ugly storm. You best to stay the night, sir."

"Uh--" said Winson. He'd meant to stay; clearly, the place must have room, but this was just starting to feel wrong. "Well-- do you have a phone? I have to get to a meeting..."

"We have no phone, sir."

"Geez. Well, give me a shot of whiskey, would you? I need it, I've been driving all damn day-- what do you mean, there's no highway? This must be practically to the coast, what about the interstate, I-10?"

The bartender bent his head slowly, reaching under the bar with languid grace. Like a drowned man. "You cannot get there from here, sir."

There was music playing from somewhere. No musicians in sight, but it didn't sound like the usual tapes; some kind of jazz? A horn, or maybe a saxophone, wailing.

Winson sat down on a bar stool and put his head in his hands. In the dimness, the gleam of light off the glasses hanging above the bar was dazzling, disorienting. He could hardly tell which way was up. "Man. I'm too tired to drive."

"You best stay, sir." The bartender put a glass in front of him. Winson slugged it down, fiery bite at the back of his throat, and sighed gratefully.

"I don't know how I could get this lost. I mean, there was this detour and I followed the signs, then they just... ran out... and there was this little town, I don't even know the name of it..." He hadn't meant to talk about it. "I think I did something bad. I mean, I didn't stop-- I don't know for sure what happened--"

"You don't need to tell me, sir," murmured the bartender. He was standing back in the shadows again. Winson could barely see him, except for the shirt and the gleaming teeth.

"No. No, I got to-- I didn't see her. It was this little girl! And I didn't stop, I was scared-- and the old lady was shaking her fist after me, I saw in the rear-view--" Winson lunged up off the stool, feverish. The room swam around him. The horn music was turning mean and Winson could hear something else, wind, maybe surf in the distance.

"You could have stopped to help, sir."

Winson grabbed onto the bar. "I was lost! I didn't know where I was!" His head was spinning. Jesus, one shot of whiskey? Something wasn't right. "I... I gotta go. I'm not sleeping here."

"It's too late, sir." A sudden gust of wind hit the building, rattling windows somewhere behind Winson. Panicked, he spun around, trying to see out. There was nothing but darkness. "You can't go now. You hear that storm? That is the hurricane, sir. She is coming in for you."

Winson whirled back to the bar, breathing hard. "You're crazy. You're out of your mind! What the hell place is this?"

The horn snarled, triumphant. The bartender stepped forward to the edge of the light. "Why sir, this is Casino Katrina."

Lightning blazed over Winson's shoulder, and the electric lights flickered and died. But in the moment of brightness, he saw clearly at last: white jaws gaped in a half-dissolved face, and the hand that reached for his empty glass was bone, stained bone, hung with tatters of rotting flesh.

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