When I got into the car, he told me to call him Teddy Bear. It was 3:00 a.m. and I was hitchhiking. I was grateful when I saw the brake lights come on and the car stop about thirty feet from where I was standing. The car itself was not visible because the fog at that time in the morning was so thick.
As I’ve said, I was to call the driver Teddy Bear, which didn’t strike the seventeen-year-old boy, which I was at the time, as a strange or unreasonable request. The road was a deserted two-lane affair that ran right through a swamp, which accounted for the excessive fog. I was damn glad he had happened along. It was mighty wet and cold, standing out there on the side of the road.
Because of the low visibility, we were going about twenty miles per hour and Teddy Bear was in an expansive and talkative mood. He told me in great detail of his job as an ambulance driver. He especially enjoyed picking up and transporting dead bodies. Still no alarms went off in my head. As he talked, I noticed he was slowing the car down even more than was necessary, given the conditions. As he spoke of his fascination with death and dead bodies, I just sat nodding my head and agreeing with whatever he said. I was not about to be put out into that inhospitable climate again for being an inattentive guest. I had been let off from my last ride about four hours earlier, and in those four hours, I had not seen one car until Teddy Bear came along.
We traversed the winding road through the swamp at an annoyingly slow pace as I learned of the joys of being in close proximity to the dead. About fifteen minutes into our time together, Teddy Bear started fishing around in the console that separated us. He did not seem to be trying very hard to find whatever he was looking for; his eyes never left the road and at times his hand would stop moving and just lay there in the console. Then he said, “You know, I could kill you, throw your body into the swamp, and nobody would ever find you.” That got my attention! However, before I could digest the statement and make the appropriate reply, his hand came up out of the console and made for the area of my neck. He was holding the largest damn hunting knife I think I have ever seen—before or since.
When you are inside a car that is traveling at about ten miles an hour, it does not seem like you’re going very fast. However, if one tries to exit a vehicle while going at that rate of speed, that’s a whole different story altogether. And that is exactly what I did as that knife came up to my throat. I grabbed the door handle and yanked as though my life depended on it, which it did. I meant to put one foot after the other onto the pavement and run like hell. But that is not what transpired. Before I could get my other leg out the door, I found myself falling, with the asphalt coming up to greet my face with an alarmingly alacrity. I had just enough time to get my hands out in front of me before my face met the road. It sure wasn’t like in the movies; there was no tuck and roll—just spastic clown time.
The car had continued forward as I was doing my little ballet, and as I lay prone on the ground, all I could see were the red taillights slowly receding into the fog. Then my heart jumped straight into my mouth. The brake lights came on, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the white backup lights came on immediately thereafter. I did not wait around to see what further mischief Teddy Bear had on his mind. I raised myself to a standing position, turned, and took off in the opposite direction. Remember, I was seventeen, and like all seventeen-year olds, I was in top condition. I was a quarter of a mile down the road before I realized I was even running. Having covered such a fair distance, I thought it might be safe to stop a moment and see if I was still being pursued. I turned to see those goddamn taillights still slowly coming my way. I could not make out the outline of the car through the fog, but those lights seemed to be the red eyes of a demon that would not be satisfied until I was run to ground and devoured.
As I stood there contemplating those red orbs, I became cognizant of my folly. Staying on the road was a mistake. Teddy Bear could follow me at his leisure. There sure wasn’t any other traffic to impede his amusement. If not for the lights, I wouldn’t know his location, which also meant he could not see me. That son-of a- bitch was toying with me! He must have thought that with nothing but swamp on both sides of the road, I had nowhere to go and he had ample time to catch up with me. That pissed me off, though not enough to confront that oversized knife. As I pondered the best course of action, I wondered if I was the first of Teddy Bear’s playthings. Had he done this before? Did he indeed throw dead bodies into the swamp, never to be seen again as he’d told me he could do with my deceased carcass?
Well, there was only one thing to do; get off the road and into the swamp. When you’re running for your life, you don’t sweat the little things, such as snakes and alligators. I turned to my right and proceeded to the tree line, which lay about fifty feet from the road. I could not see the trees, but I knew they were there, having seen them earlier in the night before the fog thickened.
I ran in a straight line, perpendicular to the road. A few feet after leaving the pavement, I stepped into a foot of water. My initial reaction was to halt and take a step backwards. But as I did, the car pulled up level with my location and stopped. This propelled me onward. The only problem with this strategy was the noise I made as I blundered through the slough. But I kept moving. Fear had a vice-like grip upon my psyche.
After what seemed an inordinately long time, I reached the tree line, stopped and listened for sounds of my nemesis. He did not disappoint. From the sound of his splashing, he was close on my heels. Then all of a sudden, the splashing stopped. We were no more than fifty feet apart, but we could not see one another through the fog. I held my breath and listened. Nothing! He must be doing the same thing—listening for any movement. Without making a sound, I inched myself behind a tree. Then it started. Out of the fog I heard, “Hey chick, chick, chickie. Hey chick, chick, chickie. Come to Teddy Bear.”
My God, if things weren’t already creepy enough!
I held my breath. I dared not move a muscle. And then I caught some luck. The mantra of, “Hey chick, chick, chickie” started to fade—he was moving away. I let out a deep breath and ventured a peek around the tree. To my surprise, I could see him. It then occurred to me that this was the first time I had set eyes upon him since leaping from the car. He was wearing his white ambulance driver’s uniform and it caught what little light there was. It wasn’t much, but it would give me a slight advantage in our game of hide-and-seek. Even though he was moving away, he was still close to my position. I was not about to budge or make any noise unless it became absolutely necessary. I watched the retreating, ethereal figure until it became an iridescent blur fading into the fog.
Even before he was completely out of sight, I started my retreat. I had to move slowly so as not to make the racket he was making as he indecorously made his way through the swamp. It was slow going, trudging through the quagmire, but I seemed to be making progress when all of a sudden I heard him coming up fast behind me. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell. I blindly ran farther into the swamp. At that point, I just wanted to get away. I reacted like an animal pursued.
As I frantically made my way, I noticed that the water was getting deeper; it was now knee deep, which considerably slowed my progress. I pivoted to retrace my steps in the hope of finding shallow water again. And there he was, or more to the point, there “it” was; not ten feet away stood the white jump suit I had been running from for what seemed like an eternity. His face was indistinct, but there was no mistaking the menace in his voice as he said, “Hey, Chickie, I’ve been looking for ya.”
At that point I just gave up. What was the use? This guy knew the swamp; he would always be right behind me. And then, any doubt I had that he was playing with me, as a cat plays with a mouse, was put to rest when he took one step backwards. “You’ve got two minutes, Chickie. I suggest you use ’em.”
That got my Irish up. Not enough to tackle Teddy Bear and the knife, but enough to give me the strength to run once again. Where a few moments before I was willing to play the sacrificial lamb, I was now determined to play his game to the end—come what may. All this was decided in less than two seconds, which meant I still had one minute and fifty-eight seconds before Teddy Bear renewed his pursuit. And for some reason, I had no doubt that he would hold to his timetable. So, Once again, into the breach. Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war.
I restarted my trek. I blundered to and fro. And then I heard the inevitable thrashing of Teddy Bear behind me and to the right. This reinvigorated me and I ran pell-mell deeper and deeper into the swamp. I was doing a good bit of thrashing myself when my foot caught on a root and I pitched head first into that miasmal water.
I got my hands out in front of me just as I hit the water, but not soon enough to keep my head from being immersed in its cold putridity. As I raised myself from that rancid liquid, the putrescent aroma clung to me as if we were fast friends. It was then that I felt it. My right hand touched something alien—something apart from the swamp. What it was I did not know, and I almost raised myself fully without inspecting it. However, at the last possible moment, I hesitated and felt along the length of this marvel. It floated, it was smooth, and by God it was a 2” x 4”, about four feet in length! This may come in handy, was my first thought. I took hold of my new friend, raised myself from the mire, and continued on my journey of fear.
Then I heard Teddy Bear coming up fast. I panicked, which was a good thing because it froze me in my tracks and I made no noise in which to help him locate me. He was getting closer and closer with every second, but I still stood there motionless.
After what seemed like forever, the fog thinned a little and I saw two trees directly before me; one with a trunk large enough that I could easily hide behind it. The other tree was only half the size; if I got behind that, I’d have to suck in my stomach in order not to be seen. I was about to step behind the larger of the two when the thought struck me that maybe I should get behind the smaller tree. I figured my pursuer would make a beeline for the larger one. All this assuming went on in a fraction of a second. But when I had finished with my deductive reasoning, I headed for the smaller tree.
And just in the nick of time. I was no sooner ensconced behind my tree when I saw the faint outline of that goddamn white jumpsuit. Man, was that getting old; I mean, I’d been running from that thing all morning. When was I going to catch a break?
As Teddy Bear approached, I took the chance of peering out from my concealed position, but I needn’t have fretted. His entire attention was focused on the tree next to mine. For the first time since the nightmare began, I had the luxury of observing ol’ Teddy Bear in his natural habitat. It looked as though he had played this game many times before.
He was moving in my direction, slowly. To him it was the old cat and mouse game; one I am now convinced he had played on numerous occasions. As he came toward me, I hefted the 2” x 4” as though I was Hank Aaron. He was now moving so slowly I thought he would never get into striking distance, but before I was fully aware of it, he was there, three feet from me, facing the other tree.
I planted my feet in my best batting stance and let fly. I was aiming for his head. I missed and hit him on the shoulder. His paroxysms of rage reverberated throughout the swamp. Though his fulminations were ringing in my ears, I set my stance once again and let swing. This time the only sound I heard was a loud THAWACK. Both of us, Teddy Bear and I, were stunned at this turn of events. He just stood there for a moment before collapsing like a wet dishrag. Me, I was so amazed that I had connected, that I stood there as if it were I who had been hit across the head.
But my stupor was short lived. When I saw he wasn’t moving, I dropped my weapon and started running. Teddy Bear had left his lights on, so it was no trouble finding my way back to the road. I thought we had traversed well into the swamp, but, in reality, we were only a few hundred feet into the goddamn place.
I emerged onto the pavement only a few yards from the car. The driver door was wide open and, as I said, the lights were on. Now if only the keys were in it, I could take the first easy breath since that nut job picked me up. I approached the car warily; I thought there might be some sort of Teddy Bear hex on it. I peered into the vehicle, and thank the Lord, the keys were in the ignition. I slipped into the driver’s seat and started the engine. I put her into gear, and accelerated away from that accursed place.
I drove hard and fast through the fog until it thinned out a bit. Up ahead were the lights of a truck stop. I parked the car around back, leaving the keys in it. I found a spigot not far from the car and because it was out back and in the dark, I took off my smelly clothes and rinsed them out. I then washed up as best I could and put my clothes back on. It was summertime and the Florida night was warm; the clothes would dry quickly. I then walked between the trucks asking any driver I saw if he was going south. One guy said he was heading for West Palm Beach, but first he was going to get himself some coffee and a sandwich. If I was still around when he came out, he’d give me a ride.
I was, and he did.
To this day, I don’t know if I killed Teddy Bear or not. Sometimes late at night when I can’t sleep, I pray that I did not. At other times, thinking he must have been a serial killer and if I did kill him, then I must have saved at least a few lives. The not knowing doesn’t bother me all that much. I did what I had to do.