A 21st-century voice from Lizard World: A dentist is taken prisoner

Smack: he was thrown forward, teeth first into the steering wheel as the glass of the windshield splintered into a pattern like a giant spider web.

The next thing he knew was that his mouth was bleeding, obviously the result of macerated gingival tissue and traumatic impaction of the right central incisor. His heart—that traitor in his chest—was pounding like a jackhammer. But he wasn’t dead—not yet. Calm down, Smedlow.

Calm down. You can get through this.

As soon as he opened the door, the bugs descended. Not just the gnats and mosquitoes, but above all a rage of horseflies that he couldn’t slap fast enough as he limped around to the front of the car where, in the headlights’ glare, he saw the fender crushed against a tree and—threaded between the left front axel and the wheel housing—the bloody twitching of the alligator’s tail.

“Oh shit.”

He thought he would faint or scream, but he didn’t. It was as if not his body but his whole soul wanted to vomit. Crouching down he discerned, beneath the tailpipe, the creature’s snout, teeth and the faint glimmer of an eyeball. It must have been dragged some fifty feet, for in the moonlight he could see red streaks between the skid marks.

It was hard to say how long he stood there—smacking at flies, gasping, fighting the surge of growing nausea—before the sound of an approaching car broke the spell. It was some time before he saw the headlight or headlights—for at times he could see one, then two.

Through the foliage, the density of palm fronds and Spanish moss, he saw it rushing closer, heard the shifting gears, the squeal of tires, the boom of the radio, until now it was on top of him—an old red Ford pickup with one good headlight screeching to a stop not ten feet from where he stood.

The driver’s door opened, slammed. A gangling hick sashayed around to the front of his truck and kicked the bad headlight. It flickered on.

“You tryin’ to get yourself killed? You crazy? If I’d a runned you over, there weren’t nobody who’d a knowed the difference, seein’ as how there’s critters hereabouts woulda dragged you off an’ chewed up what was left.”

“He’s the one we been waitin’ for. I seen it in the leaves,” said a husky voice from the truck. And immediately the truck’s passenger door opened—

and in a glance Smedlow took in the flowered housedress and mudcaked boots, the goitered enormity of the neck, the jaundiced cheeks and somnolent lids. As she climbed down from the truck and hobbled toward the headlights, she held her back as if it pained her.

“He’s got real nice shoes, don’t he?” said the hick. “Those are real nice shoes, mister.”

“Listen, I’ve had an accident. I was wondering if you could get me to a gas station.”

“That’s a brand new BMW, ain’t it?”

“Yep, Lem, he’s the one,” said the woman.

Smedlow kept pressing his handkerchief to his gum. It was still throbbing, but by now the bleeding had mostly stopped. The tip of his tongue searched the cavity where his front tooth had been. These hillbillies—if that’s what they were—might be induced to give him a ride, especially if he offered them a couple of dollars. But then again, there was something about them that seemed a little strange – those white hairs on the woman’s chin and the way the hick’s eye kept on twitching, for example:

“You mind if I take a look at yer car, mister?

Smedlow nodded assent, faked a smile. That Neanderthal forehead. Those crooked central incisors. What a curious anthropoid. What a cretin. He checked his gold wristwatch: 12: 17, which meant that if he could get to a mechanic and then somehow found the highway and drove all night, he might still be able to make it to Miami by morning. Maybe then he could get some breakfast, some sleep—and something stronger than aspirin.

On second thought, wouldn’t it be better just to get away from these people? Maybe he should just slip back into the car, lock the doors, back it up and drive it slowly to the nearest town.

But by now the hick had opened up the hood of the crushed car and was studying the engine:

“Whoops! Radiator’s broke,” he said. “Fuel pump’s shot to hell.”

He banged down the hood and, falling to his hands and knees, peered sideways beneath the carriage: “That’s some gator you ran over, mister. A gator like that’ll fetch over a hun’red dollars if the skin ain’t broke too bad. “

“ Oh? . . . Say . . . is there a gas station anywhere near here?”

“This here’s the swamp, mister,” said the woman. “Nearest gas is Swannee’s place in Beauregard, fifteen mile down the Sagawummy road. Which is covered with gators this time a night. If I was you,” she said, glancing at the hick, “I’d just come home with us.”

The inside of their truck smelled of manure and gasoline. The hick beside him smelled of something worse than either. The woman wheezed and had dugs the size of watermelons. Her sagging flesh was yellow. She seemed to be something of a fortune-teller, for she chattered on about palm-reading, cards and tea leaves:

“My kidneys is all busted. But when I looked in the leaves this mornin’, I knew my prayers was answered.”

A coconut head—with eyes, nose and mouth made out of seashells—dangled from the mirror and bounced up and down as they drove along.

For a 17th-century excerpt from Lizard World, go here.