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Conservation

R. Brandon Horner

If it could swallow you whole, it would.

This is how an alligator kills you: it makes you believe it is something it is not. It makes you think it is not interested in you, makes you think that it is tired, or bored, like it’s passing on you, like it has the ability to make a decision. When you believe these lies, you don’t back away. You don’t turn and run. And then it hisses, a low drawn whisper that makes you think of a door closing in space, and before you know it’s moving, it has you. Its weapon is the guise of lethargy.

If it could swallow you whole, it would. But since your body is too big, it rolls you. And whatever it has you by, your leg or an arm, is ripped from your body. Then, when you’re not a whole you anymore, it takes the rest down, down deep, where it can lodge your body under a log or into a crevice where you wait, torn and broken, to drown. It waits, too. It waits for you to stop twitching, to stop bubbling, for the water to soak into your muscles, to soften your skin and bloat you up, so that when it returns, it can take the rest of you apart in large chunks.

This is how an alligator kills you, thinks Sam.

He walks the pond’s perimeter, but sees nothing. It’s one of the larger ponds, and it takes seven or eight minutes the first time around. But when he returns to where he started, loping along the worn path that ovals the pond and continues into the forest toward the next development, he realizes he barely looked for the signs. His second and third passes take longer. It is possible that it has been here: the shallow bank, the distance from the main road, the half-exposed concrete pipes that run between this body of water and the next.

He looks down at his boots after the third pass, maybe because the day is too hot for work boots, or maybe because they feel foreign on the track of deadened grass, worn down from the walkers who used to come in the early mornings and evenings before the attacks, in that small window of a summer day when it’s possible to be outside in Florida. He sees the first sign, the brown grass changing to green grass, running down to the water’s edge. He sees the impression of its track in the flat slot where its weight has pushed the grass down, where it sunned itself before, and maybe after.

Sam puts his hands down and lowers his body to the ground. He crawls forward, his stomach loose, almost like he’s belly-down on a water slide. With his face close to the water, right at the level of entrance and exit, he imagines it rising up, the two bulges of eyes first, unblinking. Then the shoulders and then the snout and then the all of it, poised, slow and ready. He has to put his arms out, to grab the grass and stop the sensation of slipping. He’s unsafe here, exposed. Easing himself back and up, and retreating a safe distance, he thinks how that was a stupid risk.

Despite the signs, there’s been no sighting at this pond, just speculation. The last alleged sighting came over a week ago in The Oaks, where the first dog, Chauncey, disappeared. Mrs. Thomas, a blonde Sarah, had let him out into their backyard to go potty before she got distracted. It was hours later when she remembered him, and as she opened the backdoor she imagined their pet, their little Chauncey, panting in their backyard, stuck out in the Florida heat. Only he wasn’t. Out in the backyard, that is. Or panting. At least not anymore.

Sam’s not sure how Mrs. Thomas ever saw it, but two other dogs and a rabbit followed Chauncey that week, and then Earl Davis, an old queen who lived alone, found parts of a deer carcass in his backyard. That’s when they called Sam. He was familiar with these jobs. His phone would ring five or six times over the course of the summer, and he would drive out to whatever golf course or gated community needed him to remove whatever was living in their ponds and pipelines. It was good money. He fancied himself a consultant, but really, he knew he was just a trapper.

Whoever called said he had seen it as well, in his backyard, and he thought it was at least twelve feet long. Sam did not believe him. When people are scared by something, they usually want it to be bigger than it is. And after Sam has found it and caught it, dragged it up on the shore and shot it behind the eyes, they shake their heads at the fact that it’s only four or five feet long. They could have sworn, they say.

Sam had been searching for two days before the girl went missing. He was in the neighboring subdivision on the day she disappeared, sweeping the brush for signs of a nest. Later, it bothered him to think that he was that close to her when she disappeared. Or that close to it. But at the time, he checked the ponds that were on his schedule and went home at dusk.

Sam pulls into the parking lot of the swimming and tennis facility. It is edged with palm trees and red rock. He passes through the gate and walks toward the conference center, a large multipurpose room carpeted in aqua with swim team plaques on the walls. Metal chairs have been set up, and three sit behind a table at one end of the room. Sam assumes one of these chairs is for him.

Sam’s early for the meeting, and the only other person in the room is Robinson Pearl. Robinson’s the head of the resident board. He’s a large man, and Sam feels small when his hand is dwarfed in the handshake. Robinson has an air of gravity around him. He’s a man who wears a button-down shirt every day, who cleans his glasses delicately. He looks like a former NFL player. Sam asks if they’ve found the girl.

They have not. Robinson gives him the details, and Sam hears them multiple times during the course of the meeting: Emily Levenger, five years old, walking with her mother and baby sister to the playground on the other side of their development. Her mother, Diane, pushing her sister in the stroller. Diane stops to attend to something in the stroller – a bottle was dropped, or a hat came unfixed – and tells Emily to go ahead; they would catch up. She estimated that at their point on the path, Emily could have only been two or three minutes ahead of them. The playground was less than a quarter mile up the path, just past a section of conservation forest and a pond. When they reached the playground, it was empty. They hadn’t heard a thing. Later Diane said she thought the pond water had looked “unsettled.”

In ten minutes the room is filled, and Sam takes his place behind the front table. He sits with Robinson and Alice Swift, the board’s vice president. Sam scans the crowd in the minutes leading up to the start of the meeting, and he sees husbands and wives speaking in loud whispers to their neighbors, wearing looks of concern and shock. A few members have come alone, men Sam’s age, who have dressed as though they expected a search and hunting party to leave from the pool pavilion, as though they were all going to set out with torches into the waning night.

Sam doesn’t see anyone who fits his mind’s description of the Levengers, a couple Sam pictures as attractive and destroyed, wide-eyed and surrounded by consolation. He asks Robinson to point them out, but they’ve decided not to come. They wanted to stay home in case, by any available miracle, Emily might return.

The meeting begins and Robinson introduces Sam. He says he’s sure people have seen him around, though most of them eye Sam with suspicion. Sam wonders if they’re looking for someone to scapegoat. He’s only been on the job two days. For them to expect that he could find it so quickly – that was too much. There could be more than one in such a large system of interconnected lakes and ponds. There were so many places to hide.

Robinson explains that Sam is a retired herpetologist. He gives them a brief summary of his resume, emphasizing the time Sam spent working with reptiles at Busch Gardens, and his 100% success rate as a trapper, which Sam knows is a skewed statistic. Though he has worked with alligators most of his adult life, almost thirty-five years, he’s a newcomer to the trapping world. This is his fifth job.

Sam listens to Robinson speak, and weighs the crowd before him. They’re young, mid-thirties couples, new to this, to a threat in their neighborhoods, and though the men are trying to look tough, arms crossed above their chests, Sam knows they’re all a little soft. They’re clean-shaven, handsome men. Their hair is parted and slicked, or long and styled, or short and tight. They have primped themselves for this show. They wear tight, new golf shirts, and underneath them, Sam can see the rise of pectoral muscles and the bulges of triceps. They think this is what it means to be ready to face a predator. They look like they’ve thought about what it means to protect their families, but Sam knows they’ve just thought about it, here tonight, for the first time.

Their wives are not as prepared. They’ve come more casually, in jeans and sweatshirts, in the uniforms of young mothers. And while the men have come looking for directions to a fight, the women are looking for answers and reassurance. Sam can see through their makeup, and what he sees underneath are the signs of exhaustion. These women have sat up through the nights and have grown tired of explaining to their children why they can’t be in their own backyards. They’ve grown tired of convincing their husbands to get inside, to put down the shovel or the baseball bat, to leave it to the people who know what they are doing. It takes more than they’ve expected to stay this alert, to keep checking and double checking, to combat the sinking feeling that comes when you realize you’re no longer safe on your own street.

They all try their best to keep still while Robinson’s talking, but Sam can see they’re waiting to pounce. They’re on the edge of their seats, waiting for the conversation to open up to the group, when they can ask the questions they’ve had running inside of them for nights. Here, before them, Sam sat as the person who might answer them, or at least, as a person who they could pin them on.

Luckily, Robinson tells the crowd that Sam will speak for a few minutes, and if they had any questions, they would try to answer them together. Though he has only known him a day or so, Sam can tell Robinson is a savvy character – he knows that Sam is going to be the one attacking this problem. He wants him to feel supported, like he’s the member of a team, even though Robinson will never be there with him, knee-deep in the marshy spots, hunting.

Sam explains that it’s probably male, based on the size numbers that people have been reporting. If it’s female, it’s likely to be protecting a nest. He feels a tinge of guilty excitement when he tells them there is always, of course, the possibility of multiple animals. That doesn’t carry the kind of gravity he wants it to, and he shifts into statistics. Florida averages around seven alligator attacks a year, but only seventeen in the last fifty years have been fatal. Sam finds relief in these kind of numbers. He wants to think that the reality will help these people understand how unlikely it is that they will be injured or killed. To think otherwise, to buy into unfounded terror, is worthless. He mentions the influence Jaws had on the public’s irrational fear of sharks. Shark attack numbers are astoundingly small, and of that small number, only half are fatal. Yet, when the film came out, people rearranged their entire lives to avoid the ocean. Sam cites one of his favorite statistics, that more people are killed by falling refrigerators each year than are killed by alligators. To stop going outside would be the equivalent of avoiding your kitchen. He chuckles to himself as he reminds them that correlation is not causation, but when he looks up, he sees in their faces that his pitch isn’t working. They’re paralyzed already, eyes down, jaws locked.

He wants to adjust. But there is a part of Sam that is unwilling to let go of his logical approach to this problem. He tells them they can leave their homes, and to avoid the waterlines around dusk and after dark, the times when alligators are most aggressive. And he tries to dispel some myths – alligators are fast on land, but are much more dangerous when in the water. They’re territorial animals, and the best advice he knows to give is to turn and run directly away from one if you have an encounter. And there’s nothing to that zigzag myth. Just turn and run.

He’s coming to the end of what he has to say, and they start showing a little more life. They know it’s going to be their turn soon. So, in his final words, Sam preaches common sense. Keep dogs leashed. Take outdoor cats inside. Watch your children, and don’t let them near the waterlines. And as he’s explaining these items that shouldn’t have to be explained, he begins to feel angry. If these forty people don’t know this already, why are they even at this meeting? They need him to tell them to watch their children? If they really believe that this thing is attacking them, why are they not home, right now, bathing their children, or reading to them, or watching them sleep? Sam wants to tell them that if this is the way they feel, if they’re really this concerned, then circle the wagons. But he can’t.

When he’s finished, Robinson turns it over for questions, as promised. None of their questions make Sam think for long. The fathers do the talking, and most of their questions are over the top, questions like “I’m thinking of purchasing a bang-stick,” or “If I see this thing, where should I shoot it?” Sam’s polite, and tells them that bang-sticks are dangerous firearms made to kill sharks, and that there’s no reason anyone except he should be arming himself against this animal. They ask him about the kind of traps he’s setting, but Sam’s not sure how this information can help them. He’s glad no one asks the questions he fears – where is this animal, and will he be able to kill it before another child goes missing? Maybe they all know his answer to that.

The next morning, Sam visits the playground where Emily disappeared. Though it’s a Saturday and still early enough that the temperature isn’t oppressive, it’s empty. It’s a newly constructed area, designed to be family friendly with picnic tables and a small restroom building, squat and brick. Rail ties mark off the playground area, and the square is filled with cedar chips, soft enough to cushion falls. Everything looks brand new. Save the impressions left beneath each swing, the playground looks unused, pristine. The jungle gym is erected out of pressed dark wood, and it is filled with tunnel systems, nooks and crannies, plexi-glass windows, areas to hide. Areas where you can be found.

Emily’s parents and neighbors have combed the playground and its surrounding area. Sam’s not sure what he expects to find here. He sits on one of the swings and it creaks with his weight. He re-imagines it.

When Mrs. Levenger turned the corner, when she realized that Emily was missing, what did she do? She must have called out. Her calls were probably questions first, then exclamations. And when they weren’t answered, she must have climbed onto the playground herself, bent down and twisted her body to fit into the small holes, to check every corner and passage. Did she leave her other child to do so? She must have called her husband after a while. He would have left work. Then they must have searched together, fanning out, one with the stroller, unaware that this small search party was now their family complete. The police were probably called. But, Sam wonders, at what point do you decide to go home? When do you give up for the night? Does the dark convince you, or does a little part of you begin to give up?

It was Sam’s ex-wife, Joanna, who had found their baby dead in his crib. This was in his first years as a herpetologist, when he had just decided that the reptile department at Busch Gardens was where he wanted to stay for a while. He was working long hours, hours filled with monitoring feeding patterns and checking incubation temperatures. He would leave their apartment before light, and on the morning their son had died, Sam drove with excitement about the nest one of the females was building in the anticipation of spring.

It helped Sam to think about his son’s death as an unpredictable tragedy. When the doctors gave it a name, called it a syndrome, and when they were unable to offer any explanation for it, Sam began to see his life after the mourning. This was something that happens to people, something that can’t be explained or prevented. It happens and it devastates you and you recover.

But Joanna didn’t. She refused to take the baby room apart, to return it to a study, and Sam defiantly moved a bookcase back in when she was asleep. He carried boxes of his books back, and began to rearrange them. He stayed up all night, categorizing, sorting field guides from biology textbooks. He found himself piling books in the crib and on the changing table, books about life cycles, habitats, conservation. They’re still there.

Sam leaves the swing set. All this thought of movement – of the Levengers stepping through the forest, of carrying books, of Joanna leaving – none of it is getting him any closer to finding it. He crosses over to the pond and walks its perimeter, as he has for almost all the bodies of water in the community. Whoever designed this place, whatever team of developers and planners sat down to create this green, blossoming community, probably never thought that they were constructing an ideal breeding ground for alligators. But it’s understandable. It gives the feeling that this is a natural place, a clean place that flows along smoothly. The Romans knew the effect abundant water can have on people. It makes them feel fresh and filled. It convinces them they have more than enough. But it doesn’t take much for an alligator to take over a body of water. Sam first call had been for an alligator that broke through a screen to inhabit a swimming pool.

Sam studies the pond. He sees, at its center, the nubs of a fountain. It’s been turned off, probably so they can dredge it. When Sam spoke to Robinson earlier, Robinson asked if they should send down a policeman in a scuba outfit. Sam said it would be best to wait.

What made this environment so suited to alligator infestation was not the ponds themselves – they were shallow, aesthetically pleasing areas, lacking the levels of vegetation that would make them biological hotbeds. It was the tunnel system that linked them all, that kept the water flowing from one to the other, that kept them fresh and clear. These tunnels served as hidden highways, allowed them to move across large spaces in little time, to rebuild their nests and claim new waters as their own, and maybe claim new victims, as well. Above all, they made Sam’s job a lot more difficult. He’s at the playground because that’s where he thinks he should start. But in reality, he has everywhere to start.

There are two kinds of alligator traps. The first, the kind that Sam sets up on the banks of the water near the playground, is lethal. He takes a large fish hook, usually a twelve-aught, and rigs it with bait. In this case, Sam uses chicken he has kept in a cooler in his truck bed. The hook is attached to a line, and suspended above the water’s surface. Once the alligator takes the bait, he swallows it whole, and the hook lodges in its stomach. It takes the whole rig down, but when the trapper returns, he can pull the animal up, where it rises horribly injured inside, and can be shot behind the eyes with a small shotgun.

The other method involves box or snare traps, and is used for alligators intended to be moved. Translocated, they call it. Sam won’t use this kind of trap here.

He spends the rest of the day baiting the waters around the playground. They’re all set by dusk, by the time it’s most likely to surface. Sam sleeps in his car and waits for the morning light.

Sam wakes the next morning with stiff legs. He can remember the last time he slept in the cab of his truck. When he did it then, when they were fighting, he did it out of pity, because he knew she didn’t want him in the house, and he didn’t want to be, either.

You don’t have to wait long for these kinds of traps. An alligator’s sense of smell brings it to the bait quickly as the chicken ripens in the heat. When he returns to the playground pond, he’s not surprised to see the trap has gone off. The line is submerged and tight. Sam returns to his truck and gets out his shotgun. He walks around to the anchor spot and begins to pull in the line. Sam imagines the next steps. He doesn’t know how long it’s been hooked, but it can only have been for a few hours. He doubts it died on the line. Most alligators who survive the hooking die as they’re pulled to the surface. With the hook lodged deep, Sam imagines that he’s ripping out its very core.

If it’s still green, he’ll have to shoot it quickly. Then, as the air smells of powder, he will flip it over and open it up for the proof. He knows what he’ll find inside, small fragments of bone or the remnants of torn clothing, the blue shirt and pink shorts described by the Levengers.

It’s not as heavy as he expected. Sam thinks of the smaller ones, the four footers. It has taken all the line, though; the pond must be deeper than his estimate. He continues to haul it in, and it lightens with each pull. When ten feet are left, Sam knows that there’s nothing on the end of the line. The end surfaces, the chicken is gone, the circle hook is destroyed.

“Shit,” Sam says.

Sam gets the cooler and another hook from his truck. He returns to the water’s edge and rigs the trap again. He leans out over the water to hook the line on the suspension pole. He looks down into the water, and sees the dark reflection of himself, stretching. He is motionless, extended, exposed again. While he stands there frozen, the shadow moves. It lengthens and wanders, and Sam sees another shadow grow out of his own, the shadow of something big. The shadow separates from his own and moves away, toward the center of the pond.

“Shit,” Sam says.

When the shadow has receded entirely into the depths of the pond, Sam rocks himself back toward the shore, gets his weight under him, grabs the shotgun and cooler off the ground, and runs. He needs to rig more traps while he knows it’s here, and he gathers the line, hooks, cooler, and gun in his hand. Circling the pond, Sam finds two shallow banks, each a third of the way around. He won’t have time to rig a suspended line on a pole. This time, anchoring the lines to nearby trees and throwing the baited hooks into the water will have to do. A violent fishing, Sam thinks. Hand-lining for gators.

He rigs the second trap. The third bank stands across a gap of marsh. Tall grass fills the shallow water, and Sam knows in an instant he would have to wade through it to get there directly. He weighs his options and decides to turn to the woods instead. There’s no path, but he can fight his way through the brush in a large semi-circle, and emerge on the far side of the marsh.

The woods are thick, dense with horizontal branches and waist-high palm. This is conservation land – coveted in these communities because it will fight off expansion. The most valuable plots, and all the community buildings and parks, neighbor conservation land. In an increasingly expanding community, where every quarter acre available is used for residential development, these areas remind the homeowners that they’ve chosen to live on the border of the natural world.

He holds the box of hooks and line tight to his body with his left arm, the cooler in his left hand, and the shotgun in his right, pointing forward, pushing aside the brush that stands before him. He walks straight back for a while and turns left, beginning to loop his path back toward the water. As he continues left, the woods begin to thin out, and Sam reaches a small clearing, a ring set out by the plant pattern, no larger than his bedroom.

He sees the clothes in the center.

The clothes are folded in a small pile, first the shorts, then the shirt, each in a neat square. On top, the small sneakers, a sock rolled in each. The clothes are size five; they match the description Sam remembers.

Sam puts down the rigging gear, puts down the cooler and the gun, and walks back along the same path, following the indention he made in the brush. He returns to where he rigged the second trap and begins to pull the line in. It comes back to him easily. Only half the chicken remains. Something was playing with it, nibbling at its edges. Something was beginning to take it apart. Sam stands with the line in his hand and thinks about the way things can come apart, and about the way they can’t be restored.

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cindy fahay says on December 6th, 2008 at 10:00 am:

Brandon, this was riveting. susan told me about your story this morning and I was clued, felt like I wanted to read faster but was afraid I’d miss something. Outstanding and bravo!!!! And yes i asked the same “mother” question susan asked. Can’t wait to talk to susan more about it. How long have you been working on it, etc, will it be published elsewhere.. NIce Job!! Cindy

Susan says on December 6th, 2008 at 11:07 am:

Taut, terse,and terrific, R. Brandon Horner.

Ann says on December 8th, 2008 at 8:48 am:

WOW — what a powerful piece of writing! Your masterful writer’s craft is elegantly evident in the way your descriptions unfold. BRAVO!

Gayle says on December 8th, 2008 at 2:57 pm:

R.
Once I started reading the story, I could not stop, but found myself going back to re-read just about every sentence to take in the magnitude of the images and emotions conveyed by your concise prose. I was mesmerized and captivated – and in awe of your talent. Thanks for the great read!

fritzie taborn says on December 8th, 2008 at 7:28 pm:

I love short stories because I can experience what the author is communicating in one sitting. This story is perfect! A real page turner. Congratulations!

Charles Cushman says on December 16th, 2008 at 12:03 pm:

One of my favorite pieces I’ve ever read on this site. I hope we’ll see more from this author!

kathleen anderson says on December 22nd, 2008 at 1:26 pm:

Brandon: I am a reader and do a lot of it. Your story was great. It grabbed me from the first moment and kept me glued to my seat. Your language choices were excellent and the way you drew your characters fascinated me. Gayle told me you had a revised version and I would love to read that. I must admit I lost the idea of the child being abducted. But you kept me fascinated from the first word. I hope you will continue this kind of work. It is so impressive.

Charlie Hart says on December 25th, 2008 at 10:44 pm:

Great Story. Thanks.

Roger Poppen says on February 7th, 2009 at 7:45 pm:

An excellent story at many levels. I particularly like how the technical details provide great authenticity, drawing the reader into the story. Tension steadily builds, though without melodrama. Sam’s tough shell over his emotions makes him a very sympathetic character. And I love endings with a twist.

debbie says on March 9th, 2009 at 7:29 pm:

a very good read, i liked the blend of sam’s knowledge and his emotional baggage. also the unexpected twist when the clothes are discovered. the description of the parents at the meeting enabled me to feel as though i was there.well done

debbie says on March 9th, 2009 at 7:29 pm:

a very good read, i liked the blend of sam’s knowledge and his emotional baggage. also the unexpected twist when the clothes are discovered. the description of the parents at the meeting enabled me to feel as though i was there.well done

Big Red says on May 28th, 2009 at 8:36 pm:

Horner,
You da Man Bro!Baseball is the coolest thing ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love aligators too!