This story is by Jack Gorfinkel and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The unclosed, creaky door cracked open across the bedroom. Awake, nine year old Lena Laster heard the moving hinges and froze. Silence. Staring up at the soundless, whirring ceiling fan, she listened a moment longer and lifted her head. The wood barrier had swung inward about halfway, revealing an empty, unlit hall.
Feeling the lingering, achey pain in her right ankle, Lena threw back the covers and sat up. A beat. Summoning the courage to crawl over to the foot of the bed, the child tried to make as little noise as possible. Upon reaching the bedpost, she stopped dead.
A shadowy reptilian form sat in the doorway. At eleven feet in length, its upper, semi-rounded midsection rested upon the maplewood threshold while its scaly, stubby lower legs and V-shaped tail stuck out in the hall. On either side of its bony plated body were sets of sharp claws, one of which laid within inches of the smooth white dresser. With seventy-four to eighty hidden serrated teeth, the alligator’s long head and U-shaped snout pointed towards the nightstand.
Her heart skipped a beat. Staring at the creature, Lena knew it had come from the lake. Though the child would hear its echoing, engine-like croak now and again, this had been the first time she had seen it for herself. Unable to stop shaking, the child considered calling out to her parents. Mulling it over, Lena felt that doing so would get too much of the animal’s attention. That and the last thing she wanted was to put either of her parents in danger. Instead, she crept back over to her pillow and sat there, watching.
Her phone came to mind. Lifting it, the screen turned on. Lena left it face down and yanked the covers over her face, hoping, praying that it had not seen her. The gator’s claws scratched upon the wood floor. As it motioned, the child kept quiet, remaining as still as possible. Hesitant, Lena popped out from under the bedsheets. The reptile had moved a foot or two into the room, the tip of its snout aligning with the face of the dresser.
Sitting up, a chill went up her spine. She had to get out. Looking from the doorway to the long dresser and back, an idea emerged. Touching her ankle, she wondered whether or not she could do it.
Three days earlier, she and her friend Renae were playing in the backyard pool. They were doing jumps and somersaults into the water. Lena tried to leap over the pool stairs only to hesitate at the last moment. Carried by her momentum, she pulled her legs up in mid air, hoping to avoid the stairs. Plunging into the water, part of her right foot landed on the last step and a sharp, pain filled sensation shot up. Renae’s father Patrick Dillard, a local podiatrist, checked Lena’s foot. Examining it, the physician informed her parents that it was not broken and told her to keep off it for a few days.
While it did not hurt as bad now, she still found it uncomfortable to stand on. The idea of climbing on top of the dresser and using it as a means to hop over a wild, twelve foot alligator was already crazy and dangerous. But to do it with a not so good ankle made the situation even worse. What else could I do, Lena thought. She knew she could not get back to sleep with that predator just sitting there. The child did not want to lie awake until morning either for help to arrive.
In her mind’s eye, she could see the gator crawling over to her bedside, curious, able to claw its way up to get to her. The other thing that bothered her was landing on her bad foot. She would not be able to get to her parents’ room due to the pain from the impact. Thinking it over, Lena felt that her best option was to leap as far as she could and land on her better foot first. It would not hurt as much. Lena decided to go for it.
The mattress groaned and squeaked as she inched herself across. Sliding off the side of the bed, a slight twinge rode up her ankle as the child planted her feet on the cool wood. Standing there, she turned to the closer end of the dresser and lifted her weaker foot, half tiptoeing, half limping up to the bedpost. The freshwater predator’s claws tapped upon the ground and she stopped, heart palpitating. Easing the pressure on her foot, she gripped the bedpost and leaned forward. A distant blackened snout stuck out from behind the other end like a sharpened spear. Wavering, unable to bring herself to move, she noticed its mouth opening and dashed across the room. The pain washed up her lower leg in waves as she clamored atop the dresser. Pushing herself up using the wall, she got on top, bumping into a couple figurines. One of them wobbled and fell, clattering to the wood floor below.
She froze. Hunched forward on her hands and knees, the girl waited. She leaned her head off to one side. The gator had thrusted its long head out from behind the dresser. It crawled some inches and halted, turning its U-shaped snout in her direction. Lena’s heart pounded. Though unable to see, the child imagined its sliver of an eye looking up at her, the predator well aware of her presence and ready to defend itself if necessary.
As the pain in her ankle subsided, she got on her knees and looked around. Lena touched the different objects before her and got a sense of where everything was. The child got up on her good foot, placing her left hand upon the wall for support, and stood there. She had to be careful and quick. Lena lowered her bad foot down and limped across the long piece of furniture little by little.
Maneuvering her feet around the different sized toys and trinkets, she dragged her ankle at a slow pace. The smooth wood cracked and creaked with each foot fall. While sneaking across, Lena would look over at the gator. Feeling the creature’s anticipation, she forced herself to keep her eyes straight and not look down. Reaching the dresser’s edge, the child turned to the adjacent doorway, peeking out into the hall.
Like the rest of its body, most of the gator’s lower legs and tail were obscured by the dark. To clear both, she would need to give it her all. While she tried to pinpoint the tip of its tail, the creature hissed. It startled Lena, causing her to back up against the wall, afraid. She took deep breaths to help calm herself. In her head, the child landed only for the reptile to turn around and attack her. Though scared, she knew she could not stay there forever. Positioning herself, she relaxed, took one last deep breath, and leaped out through the portal.
Crashing to the slippery, tile ground, her hand hit something hard and wet. The gator made a loud hiss, whipping its tail from side to side. The appendage bump-brushed against her pain stricken ankle as she hopped to her feet. Screaming all the way to her parents’ bedroom, Lena slipped halfway and lost her balance. She collapsed onto her hands and chest. Dazed and bruised, she pulled herself up and rushed into the door. Feeling for the knob, the girl found it and pushed. Lena slammed the door behind her, waking her parents up. Running, she dived into the space between them, panting and in tears. She crawled into her confused mother’s arms, grateful to be alive in the dark.