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I grew up in these Bald Cypress trees, having spent the majority of my childhood on the boat with Pop and my older and only brother, Carl. I was raised in the sawgrass prairies, hunting and fishing every weekend with Pop. He taught Carl and I a route that took us from our backyard to the Gulf, and only on occasion would he venture out and show us different parts of the Everglades. He worried that we would go off on our own, get lost and not be able to find our way back. I used to argue this, telling him that the only way to ensure that we didn't get lost would be to explore the area. Pops declined and would hide the keys to his boat every time he left for a business trip, but Carl and I knew all of his hiding places. He would hide them in Ma's old shoes in the back of the closet, or at the bottom of the laundry basket because he knew that we wouldn't do the laundry while he was away...or in general.
Carl and I would sneak off and teach ourselves the map of the national park, and he did get us lost a handful of times, but I always managed to find our way back home. It didn't take us too long to get comfortable enough in the canals to race each other to see who could get back to the house first. I always beat him by a landslide.
Much to Pop's surprise, I was never lost in The Glades, as I liked to call it. It was my second home, and I knew it like the back of my hand. That was probably the main reason why I considered getting myself into the drug smuggling business, even though the more I thought about it, the less of a choice I seemed to have. My races against Carl seemed to work out for me, as I knew routes and canals that no one's ever heard of–not even the authorities–and I could navigate quickly and successfully. I was introduced into the business by my uncle, Al. He knew some buddies from the two weeks he went to college that knew some guys from Cuba that were willing to pay a pretty penny for him to smuggle a "few pounds" of marijuana back to the states, and he needed my help with the transportation.
When Al first suggested the idea to me, I've got to admit I was a little apprehensive and a bit disapproving. I mean, who wouldn't be? Drug smuggling isn't just a casual hobby like painting or solving puzzles, no. We're talking about a federal offense here. I thought Al was insane for even conjuring up the thought. Sure, Al is the most colorful member of the family. Sure, maybe he did get four DUI's before he was even legally allowed to drink. And sure, maybe he got arrested for stealing seventeen boxes of brownies from the market to make edibles. But did I ever think he would go to the extreme of drug smuggling? Maybe.
I wasn't going to do it, and I sat on it for nearly two weeks before I made my decision. I was young, and I still had my whole life ahead of me. I wasn't going to risk my freedom and sanity for some dirty money, but I needed it. I really fucking needed it.
Turns out we had a knack for it, Al and I. Everything ran smoothly and without complications. I drove the boat down a back trail, Al and his buddies got the goods, and then I drove us all the way to the bank. At this time, it seemed to be the easiest money I'd ever made. All I was doing was driving a boat; a boat with thousands of dollars worth of pot in it, that is.
"How long you've been doing this for, Ruby?" Al's son, Q, asked me as we made our way back towards The Glades. He was only seventeen years old, a high school dropout in need of a job. He had tried everything from construction work to McDonald's, but he couldn't hold any of them down. The plan was to never involve him, as Q is very impressionable. He went from crowd to crowd when he was in school, and none of them were ever any good. One crowd smashed car windows, one smoked weed in the school bathrooms, and then one stole bike chains and then used them to create textured posters for their brief three weeks as a band. I believe they were called 'Bingefuck' and got booked for a show once, but the lead singer got arrested for having cocaine on him in the courthouse.
We wanted to keep Q away from this. It was supposed to be our secret, but he saw us unloading the boat once and immediately wanted in. I tried to talk Al out of it, but the more I did, the less he saw anything wrong with the situation. Eventually, I gave up on trying to reason with him. He was a stubborn bastard and Q was going to be a legal adult soon. They could both make their own decisions.
"Two years, maybe?" I wasn't confident in my timeline as I answered Q. I never really thought about it. I did this so often that I lost track of everything but the money I was taking home. This was routine for me now, my own version of a nine-to-five, and the more we were willing to smuggle, the more money we would make. It didn't take long for us to become confident enough to up our cargo from a few grand to a few hundred grand.
"Shit. And you've never been caught? Not even once?"
"Son, if we got caught, we wouldn't be on this boat." Al chimed in and wrapped an arm around Q's shoulder, yanking him down into a sort of playful headlock. "We wouldn't even be free citizens anymore."
"Al, you're gonna scare the kid," I warned, steering the boat through the trees. Every time I was on these waters, it felt like the first. The swamp had a salty aroma that only the locals grew to like. Being out here was comforting, more comforting than home had become. Even before Pop got sick, things had been strange. Maybe it started when Carl went to the police academy in Atlanta. That wasn't always his plan. He went to college for psychology and even got a scholarship to do so. He did good for a while, but college turned him into a major fucking asshole. He stopped returning mine or Pop's calls, and he never came home on the weekends. We had to beg him to come home for the holidays, and even then he never showed up. A year into college, he lost his scholarship because he was flunking all of his classes. Turns out he never went to any of them. Carl's never told me the reason behind all of it, and truth be told, I don't care enough to ask...anymore. I've made my effort with him, and frankly, it's a two-way street.
"I ain't scared!" Q exclaimed, pushing himself away from Al snapping me out of my depressing memories of Carl. "I just watched my old man deal more pot than a college education is worth!"
"Keep your voice down, kid!" Al asserted in a hushed tone. Even though we had earned the title of professionals, we still had no idea what would be lurking in The Glades–alligators, panthers, pigs...
We had to play it safe at all times because as soon as you get cocky, you get sloppy.
I turned down our usual path that led to our usual docking place where two white vans would be waiting for us. I didn't know what happened to the cargo once we handed it over, and I didn't want to know. Al was in charge of the dirty work. He tossed me a beer and handed one to Q, too. I was about to chime in and tell Al that Q was underaged, you know, like how you have to tell a father? But I guess I couldn't really judge while I was doing what I was doing.
"So tell me," Q began after he chugged nearly half of his beer. "How did you get into this?" I couldn't tell if he was asking me or Al, so instead of answering, I took a few gulps of my beer. I didn't owe Q an explanation on exactly why or how I was doing what I was doing. Q had flappy lips. Al responded in my place.
"I knew some buddies in college who paid their way by doing this sort of thing. I was broke, son. I had nothing when me and your uncle, Lord may he rest in peace, moved down to Florida. I could barely buy a pack of cigarettes let alone pay tuition. So I went with my buddies on their 'adventure,' as they called it."
I had only heard this story one other time when it was just Al and me out on the water. We weren't smuggling, only smoking a doobie in the Gulf. This was after Pop had passed away. Al and I became very close during that time. He always made sure to check on me and get me out of the house. He was nervous about me. I wasn't doing so good. So he took me out on the boat, the first time I had been on the boat since I'd left for college. It was different without Pop, but Al made sure I didn't go to that dark place. He told me the story he was now telling Q, except instead of it being about him smuggling, it was about him and his buddies starting a distribution company. He still had that company, except it was totally fake. It was just a cover-up for what he was really doing, which I guess is distributing. He didn't lie, he just didn't go into the specifics.
"So you've been doing this since you were in college?"
"Off and on. I stopped after I met your mother. We got married, had a family. I really only do this when I need the money."
That was funny because we've been doing this quite frequently lately. Not once did he ever express financial instability. He couldn't have. We've been doing good. We've been well off.
"What do you need the money for now, then?" I piped up.
As I turned my attention away from the wheel, he looked at me strangely with his lips parted only slightly. I couldn't pin down the way he was looking at me. Almost in a way of telepathically asking me why would you ask that in front of my son? He began to reply out of obligation but then his attention was caught by a boat in the distance, but it wasn't just any boat. "Fuck."
"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Q said under his breath as he scrambled to sit on one of the coolers that the drugs were in. Al kept telling him to shut up and stay cool, but Q was sweating like a bullet. I attempted to remain calm as my eyes shifted over to the police boat that was making its way toward us. Red and blue flashing as quickly as my heartbeat.
I looked to Al in hope that he would have an idea of what to do, but he didn't look to me. He kept his eyes glued to the ground, occasionally shifting to look at where the boat met the water. I knew he was thinking of jumping and leaving me and Q behind. I didn't want to believe that he would actually go through with it, but Al was sometimes unpredictable. I grunted to get his attention and then whispered, "Don't you dare."
"Good evening, miss," The officer said as he reached our boat. I took a deep breath and turned to face the boy in blue, mentally preparing myself for anything that was about to happen–fines, confiscations, searches, arrests, jail time, everything and anything. What I didn't prepare myself for was to be face-to-face with my brother whom I haven't spoken to in years. His autopilot happy face built by his careers immediately faded into a scowl as he realized it was me. "Ruby."
"Carl." I was no longer nervous to be in this situation. Now I was hurt and angry. Carl's done more than just ignore me and Pop while he was in college. He never came to visit him when he was dying and left me to take care of everything for Pop–the cooking, the cleaning, the nurturing. He said that it was a job better suited for a woman; taking care of our dying father was a job better suited for a woman. He never apologized, not even at the funeral, which he also left for me to plan. I was once very close to Carl, but after what he said and the way he treated me and Pop was enough for me to cut him from my life.
"What're y'all doing out here this late at night?" He shined his flashlight all over the boat, stopping when he got to Q. "Hey there, buddy. You're awfully sweaty."
"It's been a hot day, Carl," Al spoke up. "Perfect weather for night fishing, though!"
"Really?" Carl nodded, shining the light around different areas of the boat. "Huh, I don't see any rods."
"We forgot 'em," Q said with semi-shaky words. I went rigid as he spoke. One of the rules Al and I set for him was to never speak, and here the little punk was risking all of our asses! "We're going back to get 'em now."
"So you're telling me that y'all got in this boat with the intention of fishing, got two miles out and then suddenly realized you forgot the major thing you need to go fishing?"
"Yes." I snapped at my interrogating brother. Remaining calm for the sake of the crew was becoming increasingly difficult. Looking at my brother now, his smug face and his crooked smile, made my blood boil. He couldn't ignore my call when he was standing right in front of me. I wanted to tell him how I felt. I wanted to scream at him for the way he treated us during such a difficult time. Was it not difficult for him?
"I'm having trouble believing that."
"I'm having trouble believing that you're an actual cop. I must admit, Carl, I'm impressed that you actually went through all of the police training. You didn't flunk out or anything. And look at you! You respond to calls. I didn't think you were capable of doing so."
He looked at me with a blank stare, but I could tell that he wanted to respond the way he used to respond when we were bratty teenagers fighting over the bathroom. Much to my surprise, he didn't.
"Ya know, there have been a lot of reports of marijuana smuggling through this here national park. Y'all wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would ya?"
I heard Q curse under his breath once more, and a part of me wanted to stand up and punch the lights out of him for making it so obvious. Another part of me wanted to punch Al for letting him come along. And another part of me wanted to punch Carl. Over. And over.
"I have not heard that, but thank you for keeping us updated in local news," Al said in an attempt at being casual, but it came out more sarcastic than he probably intended. Or maybe not. Al was pissed at Carl, too. Regardless, he tried to quickly change the conversation by saying, "What brought you back to Florida, Carl?" Not a dying family member, that's for sure.
"Things got pretty boring up in Atlanta. The force relocated me here for a drug case."
Carl looked at me, and it took everything I had to look him in the eyes. He knew. His face had changed since the last time I saw him. He looked worn-out. His face had welcomed more lines and wrinkles, all I assume is from his habit of frowning. His hair now more grey than dirty blond. He didn't look like the young and vibrant brother I once knew and loved. The one who helped me paint my nails because Pop's and I had shaky hands. The one who chased after a dog that stole my favorite raccoon stuffed animal. The only one who understood what it felt like to be left by their mother, and the only one who would talk me through it. He was always there, and then he wasn't.
"Well, as we said, we are on our way back to the house to get the rods," I said and shifted myself in my seat to let him know that we were ready to get on with our lives.
"You still living in Pop's house?"
"I got a letter in the mail stating that they were going to auction that house a few years ago if it wasn't paid off by a certain date. I'm assuming you paid it off?"
"If you don't mind me asking, how did you pay it off? You didn't finish college, so I'm guessing you never got a job that paid well enough to actually do so."
"Carl," I dropped my head down and looked at my hands. I didn't have a good enough excuse. "Please just let us go." Please felt like poison on the tip of my tongue, but what else was I to do? He had the upper hand, and not just in an elderly brother way, but in a federal one.
Al looked at me like I was crazy for basically admitting to Carl that we were doing something illegal, even if I didn't specify on what. He caught on, sure enough, and proceeded to give me a stern talking to as if he was entitled to.
"We both know I can't do that," He shook his head in regret, but something was telling me that he wasn't so regretful. "How dumb could you possibly be, Ruby? Drug smuggling? With Al of all people? And let's not forget his minor son. You both could be tried with child endangerment. Social services could get involved. You could all end up with life sentences, did you not even think that through? And-and for what? A plant? I can't believ–"
"I am not admitting to anything. You are accusing me without reason."
"Without reason? I may have failed out of college but I'm not an idiot. I know that this boat is filled with drugs just because it makes sense. For Christ's sake, you're with Al. Drug smuggling isn't really beneath him."
"And being an entitled asshole isn't really beneath you." Al judged. I turned back to look at Al, giving him a look that told him to shut up while he was ahead.
"This is my last job, Carl," I lied. "Once I finish this I'm done and you'll never have to worry about me again. Not like you ever did in the first place. Please. You owe me."
This time when he looked at me, it was less cruel. He wasn't scowling. He almost looked a bit defeated by my pleads for release.
"Fine, but I swear to God if I catch any one of you out here again I will not hesitate to report you."
Q sighed in relief, and Sol finally stopped being so tense. I, on the other hand, was not feeling as eased as I thought I would be. Instead, I felt sort of...empty, still looking into the eyes of my brother–but he wasn't looking at me.
"And Al, get that kid out of here or at least teach him to be a better liar for Christ's sake."
He didn't even say goodbye, not like I expected him too. He didn't even wait for Al and Q to agree in unison before he began to drive his boat away from ours. The adrenaline hit them sooner than it hit me. Instead of cheering, I continued to watch my brother as he drove away from me. It then dawned upon me that the only other person who knew The Glades like me...was him.
"We need to take a break for a while," I told Al as I steered us down a different path. It just didn't make sense for him to let us go the way he did. He said he was relocated for a drug case. We had to be that drug case. Why would he let us go if we were the reason he was here in the first place? Sure, I'm his sister, but I haven't been his sister in years. He wouldn't just be pulling a favor like this out of his ass.
"Eh, I'm not too worried about it. It's just Carl. What's that putz gonna do?" He cracked open another beer in celebration and tossed one to Q as well. Q laughed in agreement with his father and then shotgunned his beer. Al patted his back as he rooted for his son.
"Carl or not, we still got caught by the police," I tried to reason.
"Fuck the police," Al said.
"Yeah! Fuck the police!" Q shouted.
"If you guys are going to be fucking dumb, I'm not going to do this shit anymore." I threatened.
"Oh, lighten up, Ruby. We had a close call, we got by, we're fine." Al walked over to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. He continued to try and calm me down and see the bright side to all of this. "If anyone should be worried about that boy, it should be me, but he's had many chances to take me down and hasn't. Don't stress it."
"Wait. What does that mean?" I asked, and he immediately pulled himself away from me. He tensed up as he realized he said something that he shouldn't have. He was quiet as he walked over to pick up another beer. I didn't even notice that he finished the one he already had. "Al, what does that mean?" I repeated.
He still didn't answer.
"Fucking tell me, Al. What do you mean 'he's had many chances to take me down'? Why should you be worried about Carl?"
"Because I gave him drugs!" He finally spat out.
I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion. He gave him drugs? Like, he's secretly giving some of our cargo to Carl? I pointed to the cooler full of marijuana, and he shook his head in denial. If he didn't give Carl pot, then what kind of drugs did he give him? When did he give him drugs? Why did he give him drugs?
"When Carl was in college, he asked for some shrooms. I was hesitant about giving some to him, but he asked for a large amount for his buddies. I needed the money, so I did."
I shook my head. "So what, you should be worried about him because you shorted him or something?"
"No," Al looked guilty. I've never seen him look guilty. "I never shorted him. He kept asking, and I kept supplying."
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I knew where this story was going, and I didn't want it to go there. I kept shaking my head in denial, hoping that that simple gesture would make everything stop. It never did.
"The shrooms became worthless and he wanted something else. He always wanted something else. Acid turned to ecstasy, Adderall to coke, you name it."
"Jesus Christ, Al." I felt the sting of tears forming in my eyes.
"I know," He said. "I didn't even realize how bad it was getting..."
"Is that why he never came home? Why he never answered our calls? Why he never fucking visited Pop?"
Al didn't confirm nor deny, but his silence told me everything. All this time I shouldn't have been mad at Carl. I should've been mad at the man I thought I could trust. I had so many things running through my mind that I could've said to him, but the only thing that could come out was:
"Fuck you, Al."
"No. Fuck you. I don't want to hear any of it."
Al tried to explain himself to me, but I tuned him out. In the distance, I could see the docking point. I had never been so relieved. Once we loaded the vans, I decided that I would go home and avoid Al. I didn't want to speak to him or try to reason with him anymore. This would be my last job. He could be his own goddamn navigator. I was done.
As we pulled up to the docking point, I noticed that the vans were black this time–something no one notified me about. I wanted to bring Al's attention to the vans, but he probably already knew and just didn't tell me. He was good at keeping things from me. I wondered what else he was hiding behind my back.
"Please, just hear me out."
"I'm not going to hear you out. You did a shitty thing, Al. You got my brother addicted to drugs, and then did not tell us about it."
"I know what I did, and I'm sorry."
I couldn't help but laugh at his apology as I began to exit the boat. Q dropped the anchor and began gathering the coolers while Al just stood in one place and continued to apologize to me.
"Just get your fucking drugs and then get out of my life."
"Get out of your life? Jesus Christ, Ruby. I gave the kid a coke addiction but it never killed him! He got the help he needed and now look at him! He's a police officer. I gave him that. He would just be a college drop out if it weren't for me."
"Your logic is fucked. You are the reason he's a college dropout. You are the reason he had to resort to the police academy. Don't you see how dangerous that is? He probably hates you and now has the authority to turn us in. And on top of all of that, you took him away from his family! He was probably too coked out of his mind to give a flying fuck that his father was dying, and because you never told us that he was struggling with addiction, he probably believes that we never tried to reach out to him. Pop never got to say goodbye to him. You took his one and only son away from him!" I had never been so enraged. Tears fueled by anger were running down my cheeks. My hands were clenched into fists, my nails digging into my palms. "All this time, I was the one who hated Carl, when really I should've been hating you and your fucking drugs."
"Don't try to play this game. You love drugs, and you love the money that the drugs have given you. You're just as bad as me, using your father's death as a justification for doing what you're doing. You think you're so innocent but you're not. You're just as much to blame."
As cinematically as possible, a dozen police officers busted out of the black vans and began shouting at me to get on the ground. I dropped immediately, throwing my hands up in the air as they pointed their guns at us. I watched as the officers yanked Al and Q out of the boat and threw them to the ground. More officers entered the boat, searching.
I felt hands begin to frisk me for weapons as a voice behind me said, "Ruby Huser, you are under arrest for the possession and intent of distributing marijuana." Cold metal then clasped around my wrists, pinching the skin. This isn't happening. This isn't real. This isn't fucking happening.
I felt my heart beating out of my chest, and I tried to shut my eyes and shake my head to make everything stop. It never did. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law..."
I frantically looked over at Al and Q who were also being handcuffed. Al had his forehead against the ground, and he looked more defeated than he did when he was trying to apologize and angrier than when he tried to turn his mistakes on me. Q had tears in his eyes, his body bouncing with each sob. With everything going on, I felt the worst for him. It was his first time on the job, and he got caught. Who knew what would happen to him. He was a minor, sure, but he'd be eighteen in only two months. He could end up with the same fate as us. I shouldn't have let him come. I should've fought Al more. I wondered if he was blaming me.
I heard my brother's voice in my head as I laid my cheek against the hard ground as a sign of my surrender. He was right, and even after what I recently discovered, I still hated admitting that he was right. I didn't know what would happen to me, but I knew it wouldn't be good. People would soon find out the truth about me and what I had done.
Drug smuggling? With Al of all people? And for what? A fucking plant?