Our legs sank knee-deep into the muddy channel that lay between our cabin-on-stilts and the array of solar panels perched on the only dry land for miles. Remnants of the storm, palm fronds and plastic flotsam, were scattered across our path. The plastic wasn’t new. Couldn’t be. Once in a while we’d see a bucket or bottle that remained well enough intact to hold rain water—we’d save those.
“Why don’t we just wait for the high tide and pole the jon-boat over?” Janjay put her hand on my shoulder as she pulled her sandaled foot from the muck. “It’ll take hours this way.”
I shoved the pole I carried out in front of me and leaned hard. It wobbled, bit solid and steadied. I took Janjay’s hand and balanced her as she followed. “It’s just this one part. The sand gets packed beyond that busted culvert.” We’d lost electrical power and were headed out to see why. “‘Sides, we need to inspect the wires along the way.”
I heard her gasp and turned back to see her raise her arm and point to the left where the estuary deepened and opened up.
“That’s one big-ass gator.”
“Huh,” I said, “I don’t think that’s an alligator.”
“What? ‘Course it’s a goddamn gator. What else…”
“Snout is too narrow. But, I didn’t think crocodiles got this far north.”
“You mean, like a real crocodile?” Janjay took another mucky step. “Maybe it’s a caiman.”
“No, there’s actually a North American crocodile. But yeah, it’s prolly related to the caimans from down south.” I looked back at the cabin. We’d come too far to turn around.
As we watched, the croc dipped its head and vanished.
“Oh, shit,” Janjay slapped me on the back. “That sumbitch’s gonna come after us.”
“Maybe,” I said and yanked my staff up from the ooze, the sucking sound came out way too loud. “See that ribbon of dark sand laid in against the light one?” I nodded to a spot within spitting distance. “Make for that patch.” If the croc came for us, it would have to struggle across twenty yards of thick mud and shallow water, inches deep. Ahead a hundred paces, we could see the palmetto and white pine stand that marked the high ground. Just out of sight were the solar panels. Between the land and us was a broken-down jetty, a stand of rotted pilings, hardly sanctuary from a hungry crocodile.
“Make for the old jetty. We’ll get it between us and the croc.”
“Damn it, Teak. I lost my sandal.” The mud could suck tight-laced boots from a soldier’s foot, hastily donned sandals were child’s play.
We wore sturdy beach sandals so as to not get cut by oyster shells, razor thin and wicked. Going barefoot guaranteed getting sliced. “Well, lean hard on me and let’s hustle.”
We made the first of the rotted timbers sticking up like the bones of a shipwreck, barnacle covered and forbidding. Behind us the twelve foot reptile had poked its head above water and was swishing its tail, the slapping sound in time to our breathing.
Janjay wove her way between the rotted jetty’s timbers. “Fuckin’ thing’s trailing us. What do we do?”
From her stance I could tell she favored hiding amongst the decaying posts. “Tide’s comin’ in. We get trapped dodging croc teeth weaving in ‘n out of this old jetty we’re gonna be sorry for it.”
She huffed and blew auburn hair out of her face. “Fine. But I want a weapon, too.”
My staff might seem dangerous to her, but I was sure the beast would bite it in half at first go. The old pier had some planking that dangled haphazard so I made my way up to one low cross member, wedged my sandal, gingerly wrapped my hand around the crusty pillar and hoisted my way up to where I could grab hold of a loose board. It came away and I let it splash down beside Janjay.
“Hey, I said a weapon, not a mud bath.”
“Here, take my stick, I’ll take this old plank. You good now?”
“Good? No. Better, maybe.”
“Then, let’s put a skip to this and get up to high ground.”
We used our staff and plank to give us each a third leg. This kept our feet from sinking to our shins. We came to another sandbar and got to within a stone’s throw of our destination.
“There’s a channel we’ll have to cross,” I said from behind Janjay. I’d forced her into the lead when I saw the look on her face. Better me to beat off the croc than my younger sister.
“I know there’s a channel. Where’s that big fuckin’ lizard?”
I looked back but the croc had vanished. “Shit. I think it’s gonna and swim around.” I figured I was right when a pair of snowy egrets flapped frantic and leapt into the air from their log-perch to the left of the island.
Janjay stood on the last solid sand before the two-foot deep, thirty-foot wide channel. “That wasn’t us that scared them, was it?”
I came up behind her and scanned the placid water of the lagoon. “‘I don’t know. Head across but move to the right. I’ll stay to the left in case…” I took one step, my eyes glued to where I thought the crocodile would surface. Behind us I heard a slap against the mud. “Oh crap, it’s fooled us.” The croc hadn’t swum around, it had followed us through the jetty and was only two dozen yards behind us. It lifted its body up out of the mud and made its steady way onto the sand. “Go go go.”
On hard ground, crocodiles could run almost as fast as a man, despite our long-legged advantage. Here, the creature’s element would give it the lead.
Janjay splashed and half swam, half ran, practically paddling the stick to help her forward. “It’s gonna eat us. It’s gonna eat us, I just know it. Teak, Teak, it’s gonna…”
“You’re almost there, Sis. Scramble up and get behind a tree.”
I risked a glance to see the low, green-gray head dip down, its sinuous body sliding now as it pushed at the mud and sand, its stubby legs moving faster and faster.
I heard Janjay squeal in glee as she reached the cut bank and its roughhewn stairs. I watched her race up and look back, the terror in her face nearly caused me to loose my bladder.
“Turn around, Teak! Turn around and fight it,” she screamed.
I spun at her command to find the monster now swimming in the channel, only its eyes and nostrils above the water. I backed away as quickly as I could, watching for its lunge. I could see greenery to my right, the islands shrubs and palmettos. My heel caught and I fell back into the murky water, the silt stirred by Janjay’s passage.
I kept my head up and took in the scene, the croc’s tail thrashed the water as it began its attack, its mouth cracked open just enough to show its black-stained teeth, stone-hard daggers as long as my fingers. Just as it spread its jaws the stick I’d given JanJay landed, ineffective on the croc’s back. I recalled the foul plank I still held. I brought it up before me, held it out like a serving tray and witnessed, helpless, as the crocodile charged forward. When its mouth felt the wood, it snapped shut. The plank held but the beast kept driving forward, pushing me up against the earthen stairs. When it started to twist its body, I release the board. From behind me, JanJay reached down and I felt her knuckles on my neck as she grabbed my shirt and yanked me up the cut bank, me, back-crabbing away from the thwarted crocodile.
She kept dragging and I kept kicking backwards until we were out of sight of the mayhem. We stopped to catch our breath and could hear the chaotic sloshing of the croc trying to shake its head free of its latest meal, the plank had apparently gotten stuck in its teeth.
“I’m gonna kill that goddamn alligator.” Janjay had scrunched up her face, part grimace, part tears.
“Crocodile. And yeah, that’s a plan.”