The Alligator (The Dream, The Island, & The End) | by Margaret Ward McClain

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

In the Dream

It’s starting to get dark, and we have to get my grandparents’ belongings from the house. They are gone. No sense of their presence remains. The house is a hollow shell for the objects left. A moving truck is parked out front right down to the brick porch. Several cars are under the spread of the live oak in the yard. My son has gone down by the lake. He’s just out of sight but I know he’s playing on the mossy bank near the spot where the wooden boat rested. I’m standing on the front porch, talking with the movers about how to get the furniture out. Inside the house is full; the front door is small beside towers of beds and tables, books, photographs, a piano. There are two men. They are looking over my shoulder at the curve of the lake beside the house, confused, but not alarmed. One man looks at me and says, “but what are we supposed to do about the alligators, ma’am?’

Turning around to the lake, I see dark forms massing. Not to the bank yet, but getting closer. How many? Close to the bank is thick with them. Eyes and scutes are visible above the water. Beyond the bank are V-shaped trails of ripples in the water where others swim, mostly submerged, and beyond the ripples are bubbles where yet more lurk below the water. Waves upon waves. The sight horrifies me to my bones but is somehow familiar, a fierce and unpredictable storm of a kind I’ve seen before. My answer is matter-of-fact. “We’ll have to hurry. We’ll have to get things out before they get to the yard.” In that moment I am conscious of my son.

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

I move through the house to the sliding glass door. I can see him outside playing at the bank. He is five, maybe six years old, all blonde curls and soft small hands. He is bending the cattails down, pulling open the brown velvet pods and blowing the fluff across the water. He does not see the alligators swimming across the lake, the alligators approaching the bank, the alligators heaving their bulk from the water. I see them, feel their mass. I don’t scream, don’t yell to him, don’t make a sound. If he makes a sound, they will have him. I yank the sliding door open and run, run like I ran to catch up with my grandfather, legs churning. I make it to the holly tree outside the back door, then to the towering camellias, looking for the grass to turn to moss under my feet, then I’ll be almost there when there’s the moss by the bank, and the moss crushes under my feet, and I have him. I pull him to my chest and run, pressing his face into my shoulder so he can’t see them, his damp curls on my neck, his feet dangling past my knees. My arms ache with his weight and I run. The reptiles are black and slick from the water of the lake and gathering like clouds. My path to the door narrows to infinity until suddenly my foot hits the first step and we are inside and banging the glass door closed behind us. There is no breathless relief at our escape, no emotional release after the grip of fear. We are safe; that is all. I set my son down and he looks up at me, nearly expressionless, all large eyes in a pale face. I wrap his hand up in mine. He knows that I have done what had to be done, all one can do when the alligators come, and now it’s time to go.

When we turn around the room is neatly arranged, each book and photograph where it belongs. The house is dark as we walk to the front door. I place my hand on the brass-colored knob, worn from decades of touch by many hands. It is loose in my grasp and I turn it, hear it click and pull the door open. It is night, and the thick LowCountry darkness has settled, obscuring any view beyond the threshold. Outside is a wave of sound of the frogs and cicadas, blackness and the thick humid air wrapping around my face. Staring hard into the dark I try to pick out the outline of a seething black mass, a shape darker than the darkness that will force us back into the house. Nothing reveals itself to me in the dark. We are drawn to leave the house by a force like a magnet. The car is in the yard under the live oak. If we go, we can make it. My child’s hand in mine, I push the screened door open with my palm and we step over the threshold, pushing into the night wave of heat and sound, unseeing.

Dewees Island

Shit. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and my mouth goes dry. “Breathe, breathe,” I tell myself, “back up slow, no sound.” Eyes locked on the black marbles of the alligator’s eyes visible above the water, I move one foot, then the other. The alligator moves no closer but holds his ground, floating just beneath the surface. Thick and numbed, my fingers let my fishing rod slip down and catch in the mud and I stumble. Catching my weight my foot hits the mud bank behind me with a resounding slap. Movement blurs in the water; instinctively I startle and turn towards the sound. An anhinga rises in improbable flight from under the surface of the water. Slick feathers slip free of the water, breaking the surface tension, pulling air beneath wet wings, making an ungainly flapping commotion. In seconds the bird lifts into the air, transformed from a sleek swimming machine into a sodden parody of flight. Listing on heavy wings it flies above the marsh grass and crashes to roost in a tree. For seconds my gaze has strayed from the alligator. When I look back he is gone, vanished as if he were never there.

My heart is still pounding when I hear the whir of a golf cart coming up the path above the bank and my son shouting. “Hey Mom! Mom! What are you doing down there?” My son and his best friend are tooling around the island. He stops the cart and kicks back behind the wheel. Propping one foot on the dash he looks at me from under his baseball cap with amused condescention, a look that should be patented by 16 y.o. boys. “You catching anything?” he says skeptically. I start picking my way up the bank.

“I’m catching flying fish,” I retort, using our expression for casting a line into a tree.

“Ha!” he laughs, “way to go.” Huffing up the bank I’m closer and see his eyes light up with amusement at my muddy self. He flashes his charming I-want-something smile. “Hurry up! Me and Cam want to go to the marsh dock and see the alligators. Can we? Come with.”

Grabbing my empty bucket and rod I step to the back seat of the cart. “Ok, honey, let’s go,” He steps on the pedal and the cart lurches off, “but remember, we have to stay in the cart, and be respectful of their space.” He responds with a huge eye roll. “I know, Mom, I know. They’re more scared of us than we are of them.”

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (the conclusion)

The young officer squinted with painful eyes into the unrelenting sunlight.  His partner hospitalized in critical condition, he felt strangely alone on the Thomas property, even though other officers and a team of forensic specialists were with him.

A drug addict had been arrested a mile from Ella’s shed. The dead woman’s blood was on his clothes, but given the episode’s violent nature he seemed oddly whole; no scratches, bites, or injuries were documented.

A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective.  They were longtime friends, and her speech was slow and careful when she spoke about the Sera Thomas case.  “So she never said goodbye to anyone in North Carolina?”

“That’s what all the interviews indicate,” sighed her colleague.  “Most say they just accepted it because it was so soon after everyone found out about her affair.  They thought she was ashamed, skipped town to save face.  The church people bought the shame thing, hook line and sinker.”

“I guess I can see that,” she said.  “But the boy….that seems hard to explain.”

“In hindsight, sure,” said the young officer.  “At the time, the community thought it made sense.  Even his parents believed he killed himself.”

“What do you think?”

“I think he was forced off the bridge, I don’t think he jumped.  We may never know, though.  Sera is a different story, if we can just find her.”  He looked into the sun, even though it hurt.

The woman forced herself to ask the obvious but forbidding question.  “Do you have any idea where she is?  Any gut instinct?  I mean,” she drew a deep breath, “There is a lot of territory in question.  Thomas was good.  Everyone believed him about everything.  God.  Was she ever even in Mason County?”

His gaze fell on the Thomas flower garden.  Heavy rose blooms weighed down even the strongest stems as if they were marble spheres.  A honey bee lifted itself from a flower, its legs coated in nearly invisible pollen.   Carrying its fertile payload to another farm, the bee lifted itself out of sight.

“Yeah, she was.  She is.  Life never disappears.”

Pulling his long-neglected sunglasses from his breast pocket, he gestured to another officer holding a shovel to go ahead and stepped into his car, careful to knock the soil off his soles.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (6)

(This is part 6 of a 7 part ghost story.)

I see Sera.  Her face is so pale and pinched.  Is it worry or fear?  I can’t read her. 

Webb exhaled an enormous breath of relief at the sight of his wife, but then immediately spun around to the gaze of two strangers in his house. Webb glanced away from Sera’s face to see the uninvited men standing in his kitchen, each wearing a handgun holstered at the hip and strapped over the chest.

“Who are you?  What the hell is going on here?  Why are you here?  You need to go.   You need to go right now to my neighbor’s house, to Ella Williams’ place.”

“Mr. Thomas, we already have a car headed over there.  Someone called in a disturbance.” The younger of the two cops was gentle but direct as he said, “What you need to do is sit down.”

Webb suddenly felt exhausted, and he welcomed the chance to sit.  He was still completely confused, but he was too tired to do anything but go along with the request.  He sat down at the kitchen table where he saw Sera and reached for her hand.  “It’s OK, baby,” he told her. The officers exchanged glances.  Then the younger one continued.

“Mr. Thomas, we’re here at the request of Ella Williams.  She’s made several calls to the Sheriff about your frequent trespassing, but she doesn’t want to press charges.  She just wants you to stay off her property uninvited.  Do you understand?” The first officer’s voice remained even but stern.  The older of the two men took it to another level.

“She says she told you to stop coming over in the morning and then she found you digging in her yard at night.  What is wrong with you?”

Webb rubbed his palms against his damp forehead.

Ella never told me to stop coming over. 

Image: Courtney White

The digging at night felt familiar. He used to do that at their old place in North Carolina when he couldn’t sleep, get up and do soil amendments or plant tender perennials by moonlight.  He knew it was a little eccentric, but it helped him get back to sleep.  No mosquitoes, no hot sun, just him and the earth.  Nitrogen and calcium plus lots of organic matter and compost had built one of the prettiest gardens in Forsyth County.

I wish I could have just picked it up and put it down in West Virginia when I moved.

“Thomas, do you hear me talking to you?” The older cop was getting agitated.

“Yes,” said Webb.  He looked into the other man’s eyes and held them.  For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.

“I’ll be right back,” said the younger man, “I have to take a call from Don.”  Don was the Mason County Sheriff and officers used his first name in front of people they interviewed to keep anxiety low.  The sheriff knew where they were and what they were doing, that it was pretty small potatoes, and it was unusual to get a call during an outing like this.  The officer stepped quickly into the dining room, and spoke in a low tone into his mobile phone.

Back in the kitchen, Webb held the older man’s gaze.  “You know, you don’t have to speak to me like that,” he said.  “Shut up,” retorted the cop.  “I could care less.  You’re an idiot who bothers women who are too nice to tell you to get lost.”

Webb felt his heart rate was increasing but there was no outer sign.  Webb’s perspiration had disappeared, too.

The young officer returned to the kitchen.   His right hand was free and hovered near a now unsnapped holster.  He looked at his partner who instantly released his own gun with a movement so fluid and rehearsed it was like slipping off a watch worn for decades.  They never spoke, but the two men were in complete communication.

“Mr. Thomas, we need to know why you moved here.”  The young man’s face was a stony veneer, but his throat muscles were convulsing violently.  He had never tried harder to exude control. He’d never had to try like this before.

“For my wife’s health,” Webb said slowly.

“Where is your wife?” asked the older man.

Webb’s eyes sped to every corner of the room.  “She was just here.  You saw her.”

The young cop’s voice was controlled when he said, “No one has seen Sera Thomas for over a year.”

I see her.  I see her every day.

“She’s a private person,” Webb said.  “We don’t socialize much.  We broke ties when we moved.”

“Mr. Thomas, you need to come with us.  Nothing fancy, let’s just do this easy.  Some people back in North Carolina say Sera disappeared.  Her family is very worried.  We just need to ask you some questions.”

Life never disappears.  Idiots.  Don’t they know?

Webb dropped his shoulders and rose quiet and defeated to his feet.  Davis reached for his handcuffs.  He never saw the weapon behind the door.

Like a snake strike, Webb seized a newly sharpened shovel as he passed the open door.  He spun towards the older and slower cop, the shovel’s long wooden handle held at the far end with both hands.   The man staggered back but not before the shovel blade sliced his chest.  His partner’s bullet entered the back of Webb’s skull and exited his eye socket.

In the microcosm of time before the steel left his brain, Webb saw his wife.  She was in the garden, her arms outstretched, reaching for him as he fell into the loamy soil.

What was left of his face crushed against the hard stone floor.

 

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (5)

(The Mason County ghost story continues . . . go back to read parts 1-4 if this is your first time here!)

Ella was their closest neighbor, just a short hike by foot to the west.  She had blonde hair and big hips and a loud laugh.   She was up on current events, funny, and independent.

She’s everything my wife isn’t. 

Sera was spending more and more time in bed alone and disconnected from the world, from his world.

I need company.  No crossed lines, no harm.

Webb crossed onto Ella’s property.  They had a regular coffee date Saturdays to talk about soil amendments, horticulture, politics, and county gossip.  There was a woman missing from Point Pleasant, she’d last been seen buying limestone pellets and a seed spreader at Southern States two days prior.  Her husband reported her missing when she never came home as expected, and now everyone was a-buzz with what could have happened.  Her abandoned car was found on the side of the road, but there was no trace of the woman.   Oddly, the receipt from her purchase was on the front seat, but the items on the receipt were not in the car, nor were any personal affects.

I’m not the only one who feels a rush thinking about what might have happened to her.  I know I’m not.  Everyone thinks mysteries and missing people are exciting.  They do.  If they say they don’t, they lie.

He called to his neighbor through the screen but there was no answer.  He opened the door and called again, but still no answer.  Cautiously he went to the top of the stairs to the second floor and loudly said her name.  No one was in the house.

Webb walked around to the back of the house and that is when he heard the sounds.

What he heard was unmistakable.  It was where he heard it and its ferocity that stopped him in his tracks, his spine suddenly rigid with a hard cold that seemed like an instant paralysis.  He wanted to move.  He wanted to move fast, to turn and run back to his farm as fast as he could, but his mind was so confused it wouldn’t allow any decision or action.  He pictured Sera at home.

She must be awake by now, making eggs and waiting for her roses.  What am I doing here?

A woman’s screams vibrated in his ears.  There was a pattern to her voice, and it paralleled the pattern of the crashing sound against an interior wall of the shed.  Webb saw a side wall shudder violently as something or someone slammed against it again and again.   He heard other sounds too, like heavy tools hitting the floor and large pieces of gardening equipment rolling around and knocking against each other and the doors of the shed.  He wanted to open the door of the shed, to save her, to make it stop, but he was frightened and not even entirely sure it was her or what was happening inside the building. Whatever it was, it was bad.

He heard a few more tools fall over, and that’s when he found his legs.

He was across Ella’s acres and back on his own in a third of the time it had taken him to get to her house.  He ran up the stairs to the porch and straight into the house.  Sera must be up, the door was wide open.  He tried to stop his heart from beating through the walls of his chest, but he couldn’t calm down.  He heard Ella’s voice screaming in his head, the pick axe and shovels falling off their hooks, the creak of the shed itself as it groaned against the weight of whatever assaulted its walls.

Sera, Sera, Sera………….where is my wife?  Why did I ever leave her, ever, for one minute?  I said never again.  I lost the roses.  Should I call Ella, the police?

He had no idea what to do next.  He walked through the dining room to the kitchen where he hoped Sera would be.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (4)

(Part 4 – go back to read Parts 1-3 to catch up with the story.)

The darkness ate people alive, all the while numbing them to the consumption.  Children starved to death while their parents got so high and disconnected that they forgot to feed their offspring.  Sometimes Webb thought the dead children were the lucky ones.

You just make it yourself with stuff from around town.  It’s so cheap it’s crazy.  I feel like a god.  I’m never stopping.  You have to try it.

The county couldn’t keep enough social workers on the job to respond to all of the calls about burnings and beatings and assaults of kids by their own parents torn out of their skulls, an evil coursing through their veins.  In one news item, a band of children managed to escape the hell of their own home, only to run to the neighbor’s house for protection and find all of the adults there dead.  The corpses were thin with mouths full of black teeth and fingers charred from fire damage.  The children were all in the county’s custody now, eligible and waiting for adoptions that would never come.  In their hollow eyes one could see they would live forever in a house they could never flee.

I can’t tell Sera these stories.

He felt the stabbing pain of fear as he thought of what might happen if his wife were aware of the deadly plague that seemed to circle ever closer to the center of their world on the farm.  He was sure she knew something about what was going on, but she chose not to engage it.  He chose not to tell her everything he knew.  It just seemed unkind and unnecessary.

The kitchen clock said 9:00 a.m.  He left Sera a note at the foot of the stairs.   He pocketed a pair of sharp anvil pruners and slipped back out the screen door, careful to lock the latch on the wooden door behind him.

It’s unlikely out here.  Still, who wants uninvited guests with your wife home alone?

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (3)

(Are you just joining the story? Go back! There are 2 short parts before this one!)

The sun was fully over the edge of the earth now.  He decided against more coffee and in favor of socks and shoes.  He slipped through the screen door, closing it gently and purposefully rather than letting it bang shut.

Sera has been working very hard in the new garden.  “She deserves to rest,” he whispered to himself.  She is a good woman, a good wife.

When Webb and Sera left North Carolina, Webb was able to buy ten times the land in West Virginia without even noticing the money gone.  They settled on ten acres of property on the river bottom of the Ohio in Mason County.  Huge bright blue skies, the sparkling river, rich soil, charming wildlife, four seasons, and tremendous privacy all made the decision simple.

For awhile, Webb could not understand why more people weren’t relocating to this gorgeous, cheap land.

I got it first.  Sera doesn’t read the paper, and she won’t even turn on the computer any more.  I had to figure it out on my own, but it wasn’t hard to do.  I should have done more research.  It was such an urgent mission for change, for a new place.  I only looked at acreage and price. 

Rural life has a dark side. 

I hate the darkness.

Image by Max Frear 2008

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (2)

(This is part 2. You did read part 1, didn’t you?)

Sera was beautiful in the way all women are at twenty.  She had thick brown hair that she wore in a pony tail most of the time because she didn’t really know what else to do with it.  Her slight slender simplicity was what drew him to her.  That night his eyes fell on a young woman wearing garden boots and a kitchen apron as she volunteered to serve the meal in the fellowship hall.  She had a strange transcendent quality that rendered him mute, and when she said hello to him, all he could do was nod and look away, confused and almost ashamed.

Webb invited her to his house to talk about life, God, and love.  He knew it was manipulative, but he couldn’t stop.  He even invited the preacher’s son to come over with her on several occasions to extend the illusion of a chaperone to her father.  The first time Webb kissed Sera on the mouth in the kitchen the other fellow was thumbing through Garden and Gun magazine in the living room, oblivious.

Webb could still see the e-mails he found on his computer between his wife and that same boy, the boy she’d known from childhood.  The words glowed off the screen with passion and affection, ripping Webb’s guts and leaving him catatonic from grief.

He held his temples tightly, his eyes pinched until stars came into the blackness of his thoughts.