The alligator in the Tilly hat leered. As its thumb rocked back over its shoulder in an endless clockwork gesture, its eye winked, inviting one and all to the attraction which lurked just beyond its knobbed back.
“You guys are kidding. This is about the cheesiest one we’ve seen so far,” Stacey said from the back seat.
“Yeah, that’s the point, Stace. Why go for something all sanitized and posh that’s going to draw busloads of Japanese all snapping photos and getting in the way? Besides, we’d be squished between tubby families like at that pancake place, right?”
Rob paused to revel in the groans, then leaned out the window and snatched another shot of the giant wooden alligators battle-scarred belly. Shattered remains of beer bottle bombs glittered at its feet.
“Crickey mates, let’s catch us some crocs, alright?” Rob said, tipping the brim of an invisible Tilly hat.
Alan steered the compact rental around a towering stand of grasses into a surprisingly busy parking lot.
“Looks like there’s some other suckers too, huh?” Alan reached back and gave Stacy’s knee a quick squeeze before he hoisted himself from the car and stretched. “Hope we get to do a bit of walking. Been sitting entirely too much, these old bones could use some lube.”
“I’d offer you some of ours, but me and Andie used it all up.” Rob dodged the giggling swat Andrea flapped his way. “C’mon. It’s our honeymoon, babes. Like they expect any less, right?”
Stacey was grateful when most of the red-faced mass staggered into the big tour bus near the entrance, leaving two groups ahead of them in line: an aged Japanese couple and a tubby family of four, Bermuda shorts straining at the seams, who bought their tickets and teetered along the wooden walkway leading to the boat dock. Rob waggled his brows and pointed his chin towards their fellow passengers. Andrea favored him with another smack.
Tickets in hand, they followed moss-obscured signs, pausing to take pictures of the large reptiles that wallowed in and around every grass-free patch of water.
“Crickey. Look how many o’ them crocagators there are.” Rob leaned over the rope rail to get a clear shot of a particularly large specimen.
“Hurry up there folks.” A mustached man in a Tilly hat and a badge identifying him as ‘Gator Jim’ called them onto the boat dock to join the other spectators assembled there. “Last tour of the day and we want to get back to camp before dark. I was just explaining that one of the effects of the oil spill appears to be driving the animals away from the outer fringes of the Everglades and closer to land, pretty much where we humans have set up camp. Specialists are overwhelmed with calls about ‘gators in swimming pools, even basements. One poor woman actually found a wee one in the driver’s seat of her car. Research vessels are out in the ‘glades as we speak, studying the spill’s impact. “
Stacey turned away from the group and scanned the surrounding wall of long grasses and twisting tree branches. Hungry eyes followed their every move, she was sure. So many long-jawed beasts slithered around the dock, a lot more than she’d expected: It was hard to decide what was worse, the way they floated quietly, gliding in and out of the water, or their serpentine lunges, reminding her that they could strike at any moment, clamp onto her soft flesh and pull. She shuddered.
After the whole snorkeling fiasco in Belize, how could they think that she’d enjoy this? Was she the only one who feared the horror of a suffocating underwater death? Stacy thought. She’d tried to relax, enjoy the warm buoyancy of the tropical water, but her own ragged breathing sounded so loud and frantic, heightening her panic. Too bad for Alan that he had been embarrassed about the dive boat having to rescue her. When the dive master aboard reprimanded them for not taking lessons so they could avoid dangerous situations like that she’d felt vindicated. Their fault for pushing. No means no, people. Everyone knows that.
“There is a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life living here. With five overlapping habitats they all have to learn to live together.” ‘Gator Jim’s spiel continued. “That has become an increasing challenge with new species being driven here as we speak by the disruption of their habitats, both from the oil spill, and all the vessels out there trying to repair the harm and do some cleanup. Some species will integrate successfully; others will end up being a threat to the ecosystems here and cause damage or be naturally choked out. Until then we’ve had to institute a feeding program for the excess predators so they don’t go looking elsewhere for food.”
His grin half-covered by mustache, ‘Gator Jim then offered up a fan of cartoon alligator stickers. “I’ll award a sticker for each person who spots a species foreign to the Everglades. Hope you guys all studied the educational boards on your walk in. So let’s climb aboard and take a spin through the marshes and see what we can see.” ‘Gator Jim slapped the side of the airboat with a hollow chung, and people started their obedient shuffle forward.
“Hey Stace,” Alan said, guiding her by the shoulders towards the boat, “It’s fine, okay. We aren’t going out to open water or anything. We could probably get out and walk.”
“You wouldn’t want to do that.” ‘Gator Jim leaned close and raised his dark eyebrows. “Snakes and ‘gators and some pretty deep pools out there. Try walking on your own and it’s sayonara sweetheart.”
“Very comforting,” Stacey said, settling on a hard wooden bench near the centre of the boat and stuffing toilet paper into her ears.
Roots that sank into the water like grasping fingers gave way to golden green marsh grasslands as they thundered out of the mangrove forest, the fan-like propeller blasting behind them. They slid over lily pad paved corridors of glassy blue that reflected a soft wash of clouds blown across the pale sky. Snowy egrets took flight, adding to the watercolor beauty. Stacey returned the reassuring squeeze of Alan’s hand and smiled.
Too soon the boat returned to the tunnel-like channels that wound through the tree islands. Here they powered down and in an instant the dank humid air closed in, ripe with algae and decay. Their guide began to tell them about the unique features of this habitat. It was impossible to focus on his speech with the distraction of Rob biting Andrea with his alligator puppet hands every time she tried to take a picture. She’s going to drop her camera if they don’t stop fooling around. Stacey could just imagine Rob losing his arm trying to snatch the camera before one of those lurking beasts crushed it in steely jaws.
“Here we have a classic cypress habitat. This is where you’ll see a great diversity of both plant and animal life. Look up in the trees and you’ll see flowering bromeliads or tree frogs. You can find alligators, of course, as well as beaver, otters and raccoon.” ‘Gator Jim spun his finger in the air to signal to start the engines back up.
Wiry hanks of tangled moss hung from the grasping tree branches as they glided deeper into the maze of hammocks. Her fellow travelers were busy capturing the scene digitally, not really absorbing the atmosphere that was starting to grow on Stacey. There was an eerie beauty here—like a set from a Tim Burton film—that made her feel like she was adrift in a reverie.
Then dream plunged into nightmare.
“Shit,” Stacey saw ‘Gator Jim mouth, pointing in front of them as the boat’s captain powered down again. She leaned across Alan’s lap and looked ahead. At first she thought it was a log jam, but that wasn’t what it was.
“Oh my god, we’re surrounded by crocodiles!” Andrea’s head pivoted back and forth with wide-eyed horror.
“Shit,” Rob repeated the tour guide’s sentiment.
The channel was seething with a twining mass of alligators surrounding the boat. They jostled against one other, taking frustrated snaps as nimbler members slithered past.
“Not to worry, folks. We’ll just poke our way through here and leave these lovelies to their merriment.” The pilot and the guide each grabbed a long oar and began to prod their way through the press of tooth and tail.
“Oh my god… they’re going to make them mad,” Andrea said, trapping Stacey’s hand and proceeding to crush it.
“They have to get us out of here. Just try to relax,” Stacey stroked Andrea’s back with her free hand as she tried to wriggle the other loose. “Relax, it’ll be okay.”
Stacey found that she felt calm. The other passengers were gasping and groaning as the ‘gators met their progress with lunges and snaps. Part of her had always known that something like this would happen; she had felt it when they were snorkeling. She had been utterly convinced that those bulging brain corals were suddenly going to open huge, bloodshot eyes, detach from the reef and come for her. But that didn’t happen. No. It was going to be swarming alligators, and she was ready.
That was why she was the only person who didn’t scream when something bloodied and tattered fell from the tree overhead and landed at her feet with a liquid thunk.
“Atai! Atai atai!” the Japanese woman behind her screamed as she scrambled further back into the boat.
Stacey, however, leaned forward, peeling a flap of fabric back to reveal a bloodied, unconscious face. With care, she smoothed strings of hair back from the man’s fluttering eyelids and spoke quietly.
“Hello.” She waited a moment, then tried again. “Hello.” The man’s eyes blinked open.
Everyone aboard froze at the sound of her voice, but began to talk all at once when they realized the intruder was alive and moving.
“Everyone, quiet,” Stacey said, holding the tour guide off with her palm. “Can you say that again?” She asked the tattered man at her feet, straining for his voice over the muffled sobs, the gurgling bumps and thrashing of the alligators.
“Got to… get out… of here,” he said. He struggled to raise himself, which brought fresh blood oozing out of a puncture wound in his side. “…before dark… might come back.”
“Hate to say it, bro, but we’re completely surrounded by those toothy bastards.” Rob kneeled on the other side of the man and clamped a souvenir t-shirt onto the now gushing wound. “They already came back.” He met Stacey’s gaze with a grim smile.
“No… it. Not alligators. Something… killed everyone…” The man collapsed back into unconsciousness and didn’t move when the screaming started again.
They had drifted around a bend in the canal and into a scene of utter carnage: A small, flat-bottomed boat lay on its side smashed into the trees that lined the waterway. But that wasn’t the first thing that caught Stacey’s eye: It was the blood. Everywhere.
The hull of the up-ended research craft wore it like a Jackson Pollack canvas. The water was a muddy crimson. Even the ‘gators were splattered in a red gloss.
“Oh my god. Is that a leg?” one of the passengers moaned. “It’s a leg… and a hand. Oh my god!“
Blood wasn’t the only thing polluting the swamp. There were bits and pieces of carcasses—impossible to say how many—both human and reptile. Limbs bobbed in the water, chunks of flesh oozed from gnarled tree limbs: remains of some dreadful turmoil.
The tubby mother was hyperventilating as her children screamed in short bursts at each new glimpse of butchery. A low moan came from the Japanese woman, who sat, face slack while her husband smacked her hand in a rhythmic metronome. Stacey focused on the man at her feet. Rob continued to apply pressure to the man’s wounded side—so absorbed in the task that he knelt and stared at his own hands. That left Alan with Andrea, both of whom wore wide-eyed shock like some pasty mask.
“Good work, Rob. Keep compressing.” Rob gave her a signal of affirmation and she turned towards the crew. “I have my first aid kit, so does Rob…”
The kit was placed in her proffered hand with apologies that someone needed to keep them moving. A quiet conference between pilot and guide revealed the depth of their crisis.
The pilot had pulled back too hard on the drive stick and broken a sheer pin; now the boat was inoperable. To make matters worse, she overheard, they were in a radio dead zone and couldn’t call for help. If it got dark before they made contact, a rescue crew would be sent, but until then, they should try to navigate to a more visible rallying point; one where they might be able to use a handheld radio, or even a cell phone.
After switching the bloodied souvenir t-shirt for a proper compression bandage, Stacey did a full body check of Tree Man, as she’d started referring to him in her head. He was scored from head-to-toe with cuts and contusions, but none that were life threatening. The most worrying thing was the puncture wound in his side and the possibility of shock. And what he had said before losing consciousness.
“Jesus, what is this? A feeding frenzy?” Tubby Dad’s voice was muffled by his wife’s bouffant, which quivered with the force of her gasping breath.
“I don’t know. They seem agitated, but they aren’t eating.” ‘Gator Jim scanned the writhing hoard, his eyes showing too much white. “If anything I’d say they were trying to leave.”
Andrea, shrill with panic, sobbed. “Start the motor and get us out of here!” She hiccupped. “I’m on my frickin’ honeymoon.”
“Sorry, love,” the pilot said. “There’s a bit of a problem with the boat. I guess I pulled too hard on the stick when we came around the corner. I’ve got no steering.”
“No worries. We just push the boat over there and walk for it.” ‘Gator Jim gave another heave with his pole.
“But the crocs! They’ll get us!” someone exclaimed.
“We’ll be heading the other way from the alligators, folks, and they tend not to be aggressive. Now grab a pole and push.” ‘Gator Jim grunted with effort as he shoved against a root, propelling them further into the foliage.
When the boat scraped bottom at the tree line, the pilot and ‘Gator Jim conferred before issuing orders for disembarking.
“Now, the walking is not too tough going here. There’s something of a path for the first bit. We’d like to get a number of you back to the station right away so we can send one of the smaller, faster rescue boats.” ‘Gator Jim looked at Stacey before he continued. “And we’d like a couple of volunteers to stay here with one of these walkie-talkies and look after our injured party. It’s a bad idea to try to move him in his condition. “
That’s how it ended up being the three of them: Stacey, Rob, and Tree Man. There were hugs, kisses, reminders, but in the end it was just them in the boat with the splash and scuttle as the alligators made their way by.
Rob cleared his throat, making Stacey jump. They had been working in silence, cleaning, bandaging, removing what bits of grit and debris they could, cutting away wet, dirty clothing and packing clean blankets under and around.
“Yes?” Stacey asked, not pausing in her ministrations.
“Oh, nothing.” Rob sat back on his heels. “Messed up scene, huh?”
She paused, collecting her thoughts. “It is.”
He continued: “I’m glad we’re together. I mean, I’m glad you’re here.” Rob cleared his throat again. “Sorry, I’m saying Al and Andy are pretty useless in a crisis, you know, so it’s a good thing you’re here… I’d hate to be doing this alone. It reminds me of back when we took the First Aid course.”
“We rocked that thing, didn’t we?” Stacey smiled in remembrance.
Friends from University, a team, they opened their gym—Alan and Rob on the floor, Stacey in the office. Stacey had been under the assumption that Rob was a bit of a cowboy considering how often he commented on her fussiness. It became clear as they all worked together that he was as particular as she, and just as competent in what he did. At meetings it was often Rob and Stacey with the ideas, and Alan as backup. It worked.
Then she hired Andrea to teach a fitness class and the cowboy inside Rob resurfaced. It grated on Stacy when she, the stuffy task master, was constantly compared to Andrea, the easy going yoga bunny.
“I thought Alan was going to pass out when this guy dropped in.” Rob chuckled to himself. He regained his composure, than added: “Doesn’t look good for our friend here, does it?”
Stacey looked up and met Rob’s gaze. “I don’t know.” She swallowed. “Pretty sure he’s in shock. All we can really do is keep him warm… try to clean him up in case he does make it. Shame if he died of infection later on. Shit… we didn’t elevate his feet.”
Stacey stopped talking when she heard the quiver in her voice. Too late—Rob heard it too. He grabbed a few boat cushions and placed them under Tree Man’s feet. Then he slid towards her on his knees, slung one arm around her shoulders and gave her a one-armed hug as he gripped her shaking hands. They sat in silence, watching Tree Man breathe.
The radio crackled.
“Stacey, Robert, can you read me?” ‘Gator Jim’s voice came in over the static.
Rob picked up the walkie-talkie. “Loud and clear, Big Jimmy. Over.”
“Hey guys, how you holding up?”
“Good. It’s getting a little dark, though. You talked to base camp yet?” Rob was still holding on to Stacey’s hand, and he gave it a little squeeze.
“No. Not yet. It’s pretty slow going. A few alligators on the trail, and then the turtles… well, you’ll see. They’re coming your way.” ‘Gator Jim paused. “Look guys, it’s getting dark. We have heavy cloud cover so it’ll come on fast now. I left two flashlights for you, but you can also light up that lantern to keep warm and help the rescue boat locate you.”
“Roger that.” Rob smiled, releasing the talk button. “More romantic that way.”
‘Gator Jim signed off with a promise to call back when they’d made contact with the station.
A groan alerted Stacey that Tree Man was coming to. Freeing her hand from Rob’s, she leaned over to touch his cool, clammy forehead. His eyelashes fluttered open and she found herself looking into glazed, swamp-green eyes.
“Hey,” she said with what she hoped was a calm smile, “how’re you doing?”
“Thirsty,” Tree Man said, tongue catching on his lips.
With a dampened gauze pad, Rob dripped water onto Tree Man’s lips, but he was oblivious to the moisture. He began to struggle to raise himself up and look around.
“No, no, lay still. Tell me what you need.” Stacey and Rob held him down. “What’s your name?”
“My… oh… Edgar… p-Parsons.”
“Edgar. Okay Edgar, everything’s just fine. We’re just waiting here until they send a boat for us. Pretty soon Rob will light a lamp and we’ll be warm and cozy.”
“A lamp? No… no…” Edgar started to move about again, but weaker than before. “It’s getting dark? We’ve got to get out of here.”
Rob placed a firm hand on Edgar’s chest to hold him still. “Sorry, man. Not going anywhere. Just hang tight with us and help’ll be here soon enough.”
“But it comes… in the dark… the light…” Edgar’s head fell back on the nest of blankets. “…coming.” His voice trailed off in a desperate whisper.
Stacey shuddered. “What’s coming?” Not really wanting to hear the answer.
“It killed everyone.” Edgar the Tree Man clenched his eyes shut. “It attacked, with others… killed everyone. I dropped my light… Sarah stopped to pick it up… got her… got them all.” He moaned and fell back, giving up his struggle to sit up.
“I don’t like this,” Rob said feeling Edgar’s neck for a pulse. “His breathing isn’t good, his pulse either. If they don’t come soon it’s going to be too late.”
Rob gave her shoulder a pat. “What do you think about the whole ‘it’ thing he’s talking about? A wildcat? Pack of dogs?” He swung the flashlight around, locating both a lantern and more blankets as darkness filtered on them.
She shivered again. “Can either of those do the kind of damage we saw back there? They were torn to pieces, and the boat… I don’t know. Christ, what’s taking so damn long?”
Stacey picked up the walkie-talkie and gave it a shake. It squawked to life so suddenly she dropped it in surprise.
“Stacey… Stacey, are you there?” Alan’s voice came to her through the receiver.
“What’s going on, Alan? Are they coming to get us?”
“Shhh, shh, not so loud. It might still be close.”
“What are you…”
“…attacked. It came out of nowhere. It… it’s bad, Stace.”
“What attacked? Are you okay?” Stacey and Rob looked at each other, straining to comprehend his answer.
Alan: “My leg is bleeding. The Japanese guy belted it… but it won’t stop.” The radio stuttered a bit before he came back on. “Don’t know what it was. ‘Gator Jim thought maybe something from deep water before he… shit. It was so big and there were these other things that were just as bad. It got everyone… only me and the Japanese guy got away.”
“Andrea,” Rob’s voice was a broken whisper.
“Andrea?” Stacey asked into the receiver.
“Oh Stace, Rob, man. It was fast… She never had a chance.”
Grayish-green tendrils of vine and moss swooped overhead, tracing gentle caresses as Stacey stumbled along the path, the flashlight’s beam making it impossible to discern the shadow of a rise from an ankle breaking dip. Glancing back, she saw Rob’s light bobbing behind her.
At first she’d thought she would have to go find Alan on her own. Rob sat, grey with shock, staring blankly at Edgar the Tree Man while she gathered supplies: gauze, bandages, blankets, lights, walkie-talkie. But then, suddenly, he was back, focused. Leaving the Tree Man alone for a while was their only option. They decided to bring Alan and the Japanese couple to the boat and wait together for help. Alan’s voice kept echoing in Stacey’s head: ‘Hurry… it’s really bad.’
“Hold up, Stace, there’s something here.”
Stacey came to a halt and scanned the trees with her flashlight. There was a twinkling in the underbrush, and a rustling from all around. The low-lying bushes were quivering as round, blob-like shapes plowed through, heading directly towards Stacey and Rob.
“What the hell is that?” Stacey asked, frozen.
“Move. Move!” Rob pushed her towards a tree. “Grab a branch Stace. Over here, pull yourself up.” Rob grunted with effort as he helped hoist her up.
“Turtles,” Rob’s laugh sounded hollow, “just like buddy said. Look at them.”
There were so many it was impossible to count. Their hooked beaks gaped as they trundled through the undergrowth. Stacey shone the flashlight down on their backs and watched their plodding parade. As the numbers dwindled, they dropped from the tree, sticky sap perfuming their arms and legs, and continuing towards Alan, giving the last snapping stragglers a good berth.
“Try the radio,” Rob said.
Stacey tried and tried to hail Alan, but she got no response. “How are we supposed to find him?”
Rob peered off into the dark, then cupped his mouth and yelled. “Alan! Hey, Alan. Answer me buddy!”
They listened. No one answered. An eerie stillness engulfed them: No chirp of insects, no groaning frogs, just silence; even the mosquitoes had vanished. Ahead, tree branches waved in the lamp light, maybe warning them back… or perhaps beaconing them forward.
“They must have gone further than this. We’ve only been on the trail for a few minutes.” Rob started walking again, swatting at the dangling drifts of moss.
Stacey followed. It took a while for her to realize that Rob was talking as he went. He was telling the story of the night she had met him and Alan.
“…Remember that, Stace? That bar everyone went to, with the deer antlers everywhere? Al and I went there all the time to try to pick up babes. He was always better at it than me, though. Every time a hot blonde walked in, he’d sniff her out, lay that goofy grin on her with one of his classic lines, and it was game over.”
Smoothing back her sweaty hair, Stacey sniffed. “He never used a line on me.”
“He wouldn’t have even noticed you if I hadn’t bought you and your perky blonde friend those drinks. I was so sure he was going to go for the blonde,” Rob said. “And you fell for the best move in his repertoire.”
“And that would be…”
“Your eyes…,” Rob paused as though flustered. “I’m sorry, but your eyes are so amazing.” He laughed. “Sometimes it was smile… depended on the girl. Worked every time.”
“He never…” Then she realized that was what Alan had said. “Anyways, that’s ancient history.”
“Right,” Rob said. “This is the place.” He stopped where the path met a canal.
“What do you mean, this is the place?”
Stacey swung her light around and saw he was right: The bodies gave it away.
Flashlight beams found their fellow passengers: The family in Bermuda shorts lay shattered and deflated, glassy eyes staring. There were pieces, too, lying still on the ground. But Stacey was looking for movement—for the familiar tousled hair, those gentle giant hands.
“Alan… buddy… answer me. Where are you?” Rob was in the bushes, behind the trees, working his way around the clearing.
“Got ‘im,” Rob said. She staggered to where he kneeled under the twisting limbs of a mangrove. “Talk to me man.” Rob gave Alan a gentle shake.
“He’s got a good pulse. Looks like the bleeding’s stopped too,” Stacey said after a quick once over, relief flooding across her body at the feel of his solid frame. How could anything destroy this?
“Must have been too much blood for him, hey?” Rob said with a tight laugh. “Where the heck is that Japanese guy?”
“I think that’s him coming.”
Stacey pointed down the path where a light was nodding their way. When he was within range he called to them, waving his beacon with one hand, his dead wife cradled over his shoulder.
“My cell phone worked. I got through! They sending someone to the boat. We’ve got to go back.” He talked in a gasping rush, and then froze, falling to his knees. He looked off, down the canal. “No… no… no…,” he moaned. “No, no, no…“
It came: Worming along the canal, nearly the size of a van. The dark beast came. Its sides heaving like bellows, colourless in the night. Huge eyes rode unblinking above the wrinkled slash of its mouth. It came. Writhing on its back, pointed tails flailed. It came. And when it was a few yards from its prey, it struck.
Without a sound, the toothless mouth yawned open, unleashing the horror inside. A wriggling proboscis spewed forth, its tip blooming viscous batwings that enveloped the Japanese man’s head, silencing him in an instant. Man and wife were pulled towards the bloated creature.
Not tails, Stacey realized. Leeched to its pitted and pocked sides was another nightmare. They swarmed to the head of their host—leaving braille punctures in their wake—to join in the rending. Tails slashed, punctured, eviscerated, dismembered, until the man’s convulsing form was stilled and released. Then the beast’s great unblinking eyes turned their way. It began its slug-like advance.
“The lights!” Rob flung his flashlight into the trees.
He wrenched hers from her death grip and hurled it in the opposite direction. The flashlight flew, revolving into the night. Light fell on branches and reflected off the water, catching in the eyes of the audience that surrounded them: They were not alone with the thing.
Before she could make sense of their situation, Stacey’s gaze was drawn back to their attacker. The flashlights had compounded its confusion; torn between attacking to the left or the right, it swung its head, eyes gaping, maw stretched in a soundless scream.
Then they came from all directions.
“It’s the alligators!” Stacey screamed, clutching for Rob, with Alan secured between them.
Striking low and fast they closed. The alligators behind scuttled up the backs of the ones before; layer upon layer of teeth, slashing and ripping with a singular purpose. The beast was enveloped in an instant, ‘gators shredding gelatinous chunks of flesh from its bulging form.
Stacey felt Alan stir as she and Rob watched, scarcely breathing.
The night was filled with the liquid sound of tearing and smacking, the rasp and scrape as the ‘gators clawed for purchase. When it was done the alligators at the top of the straining mass threw back their massive heads and bellowed. Then the heap began to dissolve into the swamp, leaving a blubbery stew in its wake, leaving their spectators in silence.
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