This story is by Retta Bodhaine and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I hear the guttural roar from thirty feet away and my eyelids snap open. The answering roar, from just as close, has my fists clenching as if they can hold onto the words of the park ranger from earlier in the day. “Don’t worry the gators don’t go on the camper’s island.”
I repeat those words over and over in my head as I hear the gators fighting at the water’s edge. I’ve never spent much time around gators, and the barked low growls cutting through the heavy night send my body into defense mode. My muscles tighten and I push myself into plank position inside of my sleeping bag. I don’t know where or what my mind is thinking, but my body is ready for split decisions to be made.
I hear a sharp crack, a sepulchral moan, and a sizable splash. I release a breath thinking that they’ve gone back into the water, but quickly suck it back in again as I hear loud, large crashing coming closer. Twenty feet. Ten feet. Five. Two.
It stops right beside my tent, and growls.
My mind goes into overdrive thinking of all the reasons why Darwin would argue that I deserve to die. I went camping on an island in the middle of an alligator infested lake. I did not bring a gun. I did not bring a knife. I didn’t bring any weapon or defensive device at all. I came with a group, but brought a single tent. I brought the smallest tent. I placed it on the outside of all the other tents. My small tent is red. I zipped up the sleeping bag so I can’t move without making noise, and I can’t move quickly at all.
I’ve made myself into a brightly wrapped, defenseless, single serving burrito, and now I’m going to die.
The alligator continues growling at my tent, but it doesn’t attack. My racing mind tries to figure out what it must be thinking. I may not know gators, but I know animals. This is an aggressive and riled reptile. It just fought and chased off another alligator so it must be territorial and dominant. Now it’s growling at my tent and waiting.
Why is it waiting?
Maybe it needs my reaction to spur it on. In that case, my best bet is to do nothing. I try to do as little living as possible. I try to shallow and quiet my breaths, but it’s like playing hide and go seek in a tight space. My heart and my breaths immediately become louder than any noise I’ve ever heard, except the growling. I vainly try to stop being afraid because with that snout, there’s no way he can’t smell it. I try to not move, which is the only thing I manage perfectly. My fear-frozen muscles aren’t relaxing anytime soon.
It’s still growling. Is it trying to challenge me or determine if I’m a living thing? Can it sense heat? Is there a way for me to—
It stops growling.
I listen and wait.
Nothing changes. No growls. No footsteps. No sounds.
What feels like hours pass, and I still haven’t heard anything. I wonder if it’s sitting outside my tent observing me as closely as I’m attempting to observe it.
My mind flashes to a remembered discovery channel clip.
A thirsty gazelle cautiously approaches a murky and still watering hole. It notices the tranquility of the animals to its right and left as they peacefully sip their water. It slowly lowers its head to the water. It gets a few blessed mouthfuls down it’s throat, just enough to fully lower its guard.
Bam! The crocodile strikes, it’s jaw clamps around the gazelle’s neck. It doesn’t even have time to scream before the crocodile drags it under. With one fluid powerful thrust, the death roll is completed. The broken gazelle will rot and tenderize under a sunken log, and the crocodile will sup at its leisure.
I immediately try to dislodge the image from my mind, but it’s stuck fast. It doesn’t matter that alligators and crocodiles are two different animals; I am convinced that the same fate awaits me just outside of my tent.
My legs start to tremble. My breath wants to come in sobs. I lower myself as slowly as I can back to the ground, and take one breath every thirty seconds trying to keep silent. While my muscles relax against the ground, my bladder vehemently makes itself known. Screw that! I will pee myself before I face down a freaking alligator!
The alligator makes no noise, and there are no signs of life from my fellow campers. I’m not sure whether to curse or bless alcohol. Is it better or worse that everyone is passed out except me, the idiot who has to leave early for work?
Oh my God! Jack! He didn’t bring a tent! He’s in the middle of camp on an air mattress!
My mind blanks with panic. What do I do? What can I do?
Ok, ok ok, ok, ok, ok. Breathe woman! QUIETLY!
It hasn’t moved.
It’s still beside my tent.
It’s hunting me.
Slowly I move my hand out of the sleeping bag. I can’t stop it from shaking as I move it towards the tent entrance, towards the gator. My fingers graze the hard metal casing, and I pull my phone back towards me.
Four AM and five percent battery. My list of reasons for why I deserve to die grows.
I text my nature channel obsessed sister, ‘How do you know if an alligator is hunting you?’
As it is four AM, I get no response. I text her the same thing twice more, and add, ‘NOT A DRILL.’ To the last repetition.
‘Are you drunk?’ I receive back.
‘No. There was an alligator growling at my tent, then it stopped, but I haven’t heard it move since. Are there signs to know if you’re being hunted? What can I do?’
‘Why did you go camping with Alligators?’
‘Annie! Call 911!’
‘They can’t go on the lake until morning!’
‘This is for real?’
‘Yes, and my battery is dying!’
‘What weapons did you bring?’
I take too long to respond.
‘I didn’t bring any weapons.’
‘You’re an idiot.’
‘Did anyone else bring weapons?’
‘I don’t know. They’re all passed out.’
‘You’re all idiots.’
‘No argument. Now help me not die!’
‘Try texting your camp mates. I’ll google and get back to you.’
My phone is at 1% battery. Oh Geezus, I’m gonna die.
I send a group text to everyone who’s number I have.
‘There’s an alligator in the camp, and it’s outside my tent.’ Send.
I hear chimes and buzzing all around me. The alligator still makes no noise. I take a deep breath and send the next message. ‘This is Annie. Did anyone bring –’ black screen of death.
I try to turn it back on. I shake it silently and vigorously and try again.
“What the hell?” I hear a still drunk Jack yell from the center of camp. The alligator must have found him. My stomach drops as I prepare to hear his screams of terror and pain, but I jump because instead I hear the rustling right beside my tent.
The alligator is on the move. I stifle a scream as a four-foot tail shape presses against the thin tent fabric. It moves off towards the fire pit, and Jack’s air mattress.
I’m shimmying out of the sleeping bag as I hear Jack’s war cry. “Fuck you Godzilla! AAAARRRRRRRGGGHHHHH.”
A high-pitched whistle screeches through the night. I hear an explosion followed by the enraged alligator’s roar.
“What the Hell? It barely touched him!” Jack’s receding voice calls out incredulously. The alligator roars are moving in the same direction as his voice.
“You can’t use a flare gun on an alligator!” Stephanie castigates him. “Help me put out the fire! Helen, Gene, get out of the tent!”
“So not happening!” Helen calls back.
“Guys help me!” Jack’s voice yells from farther away.
I finally get my fumbling fingers to open the zipper on my tent. I run to Stephanie and start throwing as much dirt on the flames as my two cupped hands can hold. Jack screams in pain.
I look over my shoulder. The alligator has latched onto Jack’s leg and it looks like he’s just been pulled off a tree.
“Jack!” I screech helplessly. He keeps screaming and the alligator uses its whole body to twist his leg. I hear his knee snap a split second after I see his lower leg wrenched out of the socket. I see Jack’s screaming face but my ears aren’t registering any new sounds. The sucking squelch of his maimed leg keeps reverberating in my mind. His hands claw at the dirt as he’s still trying to get away from the gator.
I’ve stopped moving. The tent behind me is burning, the man in front of me is being dismembered, and I can’t move. Spots swim before my eyes. I’m kneeling in the dirt, and I’m not sure when I stopped standing.
My vision tunnels and bright lights start going off in my foggy peripherals. A shadowy figure shows up behind the gator. It points an elongated spindly arm at the back of the gator’s head. A shot rings out and the gator stops growling.
My vision goes black, and the world fades away.
Behind my closed eyelids I see black figures moving through red light. I fight the monumental weight of my lashes and open my eyes.
I’m looking up at a man’s face. There’s a brilliant sunrise casting a halo around the wispy hairs on his head. His furrowed brow and hard eyes remind me of my father’s expression after my at-fault car accident.
“Are you Annie ?” He asks me. I realize that he’s holding up my upper body while the rest of me is sprawled on the ground.
“I – I fainted?” I say more to myself than to him, but he answers me anyway.
“Yes, but you don’t appear to have suffered any wounds. Do you feel any pain?”
I start to shake my head, but still feel a bit hazy. “No, I’m not in pain.” I swallow hard trying to regain motor functions in my jaw.
“Are you Annie?” He prompts me again. I manage to nod once before tiny rippling dots threaten my vision again.
“Your sister called us.” He informs me in a no-nonsense voice that matches his face. “You’re lucky that she did. Your friend’s going to make it, and we’re going to need you to answer a few questions after you’ve cleaned yourself up.”
I look down at myself trying to figure out what he’s talking about. I feel my face flush and hear the blood rushing in my ears again. “I faced down the alligator and still peed myself.” I mumble woozily. “That’s just so wrong.”