This story is by Rebecca Lea and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alligators to the left? Alligators to the right? My sunburned brain focused on one thought: the gate was locked. As the round headlights of my ancient open-aired Jeep CJ-7 blinked at the steel crossbars like startled tarsier eyes, I slumped in my seat. What had the entrance guard said as she handed me the map to the wildlife refuge? I fumbled for the document; it slid between my seat and the door, a wonder it hadn’t flown out with the ragtop down. Flicking my cellphone on and off so I could read – “gates close at sunset.”
That is not the only thing that happened at sunset. Notorious for “no-see-ums,” these voracious insects appeared in force by some unseen arrangement, an army summoned by the diminishing rays of the sun. Biting into any available bare flesh, they terrorized my body as I swatted and slapped. Lunging for the DEET spray on the dashboard, I hopped out of the Jeep and doused myself with the life-saving mist, then rolled down my pant legs and sleeves. The tastiest target for these predators was the nape of the neck. From a pocket I produced a neck Buff, pulled it on, and squashed down my hat as far as it would go. With only my eyes peering out, I was prepared for the hour-long battle.
As the initial panic washed over me, two clear thoughts emerged. The guard must pass this way at the end of her shift to conduct a sweep, shooing out rebellious visitors, and the drive was one-way, so she had to pass by me to lock the exit gate. I’ll wait for 10 minutes. As time ticked, I resorted to clicking through texts. No cell service and my battery was on life support.
Two minutes passed. Grabbing my Nikon from the seat beside me, I scrolled through the day’s catches. The D5 took brilliant photographs. I arrived at J. “Ding” Darling Refuge in Florida early in the day in hopes of photographing the secretive Mangrove Cuckoo. I set up my gear in along the edge of a swampy stand of mangroves whose spidery roots stand out of the water like giant squid tentacles. The Cuckoos nest up to 10 feet above the water, so I spent the day peering through my telephoto lens. I was rewarded and captured a pair feeding their young. My editor would be impressed. As a bonus, while packing up, I caught a flock of Roseate Spoonbills, their brilliant pink plumage made neon by the setting sun. This delayed my departure.
Why hadn’t I taken some time to look around? Yes, I had turned the camera on myself for a few snaps during lunch. The subtropical landscape is breathtaking. That was it.
Eleven minutes passed. I re-started the Jeep and as I executed a tight U-turn to drive back to the entrance gate, the needle on the gas gauge lurched towards Empty. It wasn’t that reliable, I told myself as I sped the wrong way through the now inky black Florida wilderness. The road was wide enough for one vehicle and I now both hoped and feared I would meet the guard coming the other way.
As I drove, I noted some of the features along the way. Up ahead was an overpass, probably an employee’s exit. I slowed down. Water on both sides. It was a spillway connecting the two bodies of water. Wide enough for an alligator to pass through? I shook the thought from my head and drove on. The foliage was denser now. I did not recall this on the drive in. On the drive in there were fishermen. Were they fishing both sides? They would not have been fishing on the alligator side. What side were the fishermen on? I could not remember now. There were bikers and hikers and birders like me. I was so focused on getting my camera in place and finding a place to stash the Jeep both out of the road and out of the swamp, no easy task.
The next sound I heard as the last of the insects buzzed in my swaddled ears was the sickening clank of an engine gasping for gas. For the second time in one evening, my stomach dropped to my feet. I sat petrified, turning the key until my hand blistered. Maybe the cell service is better here I thought. That hope was extinguished as soon as I picked up my phone.
I can’t recall ever feeling so alone. This place, so vibrant with wildlife during daylight, settled into its nighttime rituals with strange sounds and smells. In the place where I stopped, there was the septic smell of decaying algae, but it was the cacophony of sounds that got my attention. Chirps and tweets and gak-gaks and ca-caws and below them all a more menacing sound. It sounded like a gurgly purr. A loud gurgly purr with some grunts.
I knew very little about alligators. Were they the same as crocodiles? I had seen a nature show on crocodiles once and they were fighting. Why was I thinking about that now? I was always thinking about the worst things at the worst times!
Alligators to the left or alligators to the right?
I had driven for 15 minutes at least since I turned around. The entrance must be just ahead. I could walk to the gate and climb over the fence. I tip-toed out of the Jeep and scurried to the back, hoisting my backpack out. Returning to my seat I took inventory. A full moon climbed into the sky and I could make out my shadowy surroundings a little better. I was surprised to see an hour had passed since closing. I realized I was hungry only when I saw the granola bar. As I ate it, I pulled out two water bottles, a bandana, a small Mag-Lite flashlight, a rain jacket, sunscreen, and more granola bars. The flashlight worked! I tested it, standing on my seat and scanning the road in front of me. Just then, a reptile from a horror movie hoisted its top half out of the water onto the left bank. Stunned by my light, it turned away and with a swift side-to-side maneuver, wriggled the rest of its body onto dry land up a well-worn ditch. I almost fell out of the Jeep. Before I could sit down, the giant had crossed the road and splashed into the swamp on the opposite side!
Alligators to the left. Alligators to the right.
I was not walking anywhere. I returned again to the key, wrapping my damaged hand in the bandana and twisting and urging to no avail. It began to rain. I tied my raincoat to the bars above my head as a makeshift roof, but I was already wet. Sudden summer storms came with spectacular light shows and as the lightning approached, ghoulish views of the swamp flashed in and out. The mangroves that held my Cuckoos appeared as monsters and they seemed to march towards me on spindly legs. I wondered how many alligators were out there.
I fought sleep. It had been a long day in the sun. I drank one of the bottles of water to stay awake. The night sounds intensified to a roar that surrounded me, the lone silent creature. I strained to listen for familiar bird songs. If there were any, they were drowned out by the concerto of insects. The storm abated as quickly as it began. I dozed with the Jeep’s tire iron and the flashlight in my hands, just in case. I was awakened once by a tapping sound on the windshield. Adrenalin racing, tire iron in one hand, flashlight in the other, I saw a Great Blue Heron snapping up a frog plastered there. She moved on and I went back into my fitful drowse.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” I startled awake as a man dressed in a khaki uniform pulled the tire iron from my grasp.
Willing life into my stiffened body, I blinked at him.
“What? What? “
“This is a one -way drive and you are facing the wrong way! How did you get in here? The refuge doesn’t open for 30 minutes!”
“I ran out of gas and got locked in. By the way, what side do the alligators live on?”
“Oh, they’re free to come and go on both sides.” He chuckled.
My editor was delighted with many of the photos and we agreed the Cuckoo pair feeding their young would be the next cover shot for Florida Wildlife. As we finished our review, she stopped at one of the landscape shots taken during my lunch break. There, lurking in the weeds at water’s edge 3 feet from me was a large cow alligator with three hatchlings on her head…