Once upon a time, many years ago when there were no computers, no cell phones, no video games, and only five television channels to choose from, in a land called South Florida, in the city of South Miami, a little girl named Lucy Thorne lived with her mother, father, brother, and little sister in a stucco house that backed up to the Twin Lakes canal.
Lucy was nine years old. She was the middle child.
In the mornings when Lucy woke up, her mother reminded her how clumsy, slow, and ugly she was. When she came home from elementary school, her mother made sure Lucy remembered what a dense and hopeless student she would always be. When Lucy cried because the other children teased her about her outdated hand-me-down clothes, her mother assured Lucy that the she was too chubby and plain to deserve anything pretty or new.
Lucy’s father was a real estate agent, and he was hardly at home. He worked late, and sometimes received mysterious phone calls from a husky-voiced woman speaking soft Spanish.
Lucy’s older brother, Edwin, troubled and tormented her, pulling the arms and heads off of her dolls, stealing her toys, and punching her when no one was looking. Her four-year-old sister, Ellen, who was blond and perfect in all ways, existed as a permanent touchstone measuring what Lucy was not and never could be.
One afternoon in the summer between her fourth and fifth grades, Lucy was playing outside, trying to stay out of her mother’s way. Edwin and Ellen remained in the air conditioning, eating sweet snacks and watching cartoons in the family room. Lucy knew that if her mother didn’t see her, the woman wouldn’t find new chores for her to do, or additional faults in Lucy’s appearance or behavior. So Lucy stayed out of the house, and climbed a pillar of thick aerial roots to a forked branch of her favorite Banyon tree, the large one in the back yard that spread and thrived next to the canal. She made herself comfortable, hidden and high.
A chain link fence separated the patchy grass of the yard from the overgrown bank that sloped down to the dark water. Inside the fence, Lucy absently watched from her perch as her mother’s three miniature poodles barked and darted and nipped at one another. Sometimes they pooped and pee’d. Sometimes they humped. Lucy hated her mother’s poodles.
Gradually, in the back of her mind Lucy became aware of a splashing sound, and then a gurgle, coming from the direction of the water’s edge. She peered down from between the branches and the leaves, and scanned the canal. She studied a shadowy bumpy mass glide like a ghost towards her. As it reached the plants that grew on the other side of the fence from her tree, she saw a massive, scaly head rear upwards. Soon two front legs were extended squarely, and these pulled a huge gun-metal gray and gnarled body after them. Lucy gasped as the creature continued to emerge into view — there seemed to be no end to it as the trunk blended into the tail.
An alligator! Lucy thought. She felt aloof and safe in her bower. She shifted a bit so she could gaze straight down; the slight noise caused the beast to look up. Lucy’s eyes met the eyes of the creature — almost human eyes, brown and expressive. They stared at one another for several minutes. “You’re a lady alligator,” Lucy said. “You’re the Queen of Alligators,” she added.
The ancient reptile lowered her snout and swung one leg then the other forward, pulling the immense rest of her in a lurching fashion towards the metal fence. She poked beneath the perimeter, where it was marshy and stagnant, and started digging into the muck. Soon she was under and moving with stealth up onto the soil and grass.
Lucy maneuvered around and observed the progress of the alligator queen. The three poodles were resting closer to the house, in the shadow of the Florida Room, trying to escape the heat and humidity. The closest dog to the gator was Princess, who was white and trimmed and — Lucy considered — the most spoiled of the bunch. The gator abruptly rose on all fours and darted on powerful muscles, the four claws on each foreleg piercing the ground for traction.
Princess yelped once, and then there was a hollow snapping sound. The alligator gripped the poodle by the neck and flopped the body to the left, to the right, then swallowed Princess down in three gulps. The other two poodles, Bella and Taylor, leaped into the air and began charging their attacker, yiping in a high-pitched hysterical “ar ar ar ar” that echoed off the stone of the neighboring homes.
The alligator queen calmly lunged and snared Bella in her powerful jaws. In moments, Bella disappeared between two rows of pointed teeth. Taylor, her gold-colored frizzy pom-pom tail tucked under her, urinated and squealed while she ran in circles, then tried to escape. The alligator charged after her and overtook the terrified dog almost under Lucy’s position. There was a final garbled “ar” followed by a grinding crunch, and then there was silence.
Lucy, completely still, watched as the alligator shambled back the way she had come.
Lucy’s mother slammed out of the back door leading from the pantry area of the kitchen, and loped towards the sound of her pets, screaming, “Lucy, Lucy, where are you? What did you do? What the hell are you up to now?”
The alligator slid under the fence, and disappeared into the water. Lucy clambered down her tree from the opposite side, so her mother wouldn’t see, and popped out from behind once she hit the ground. “Mommy, Mommy, I saw an alligator,” she said excitedly as she bounded towards the angry woman.
“Bella, Taylor, where are you?” her mother yelled for the dogs. “Princess, Bella, Taylor, come to Mommy girls,” she called while pacing several feet back and forth, her hand to the side of her mouth.
Lucy tried to keep up with her, skipping this way and that, trying to get her attention, “But Mommy….” she said.
Lucy’s mother hesitated, then abruptly stopped. An expression of wide-eyed horror spread across her face as she knelt to the grass and stuck her fingers into what was left of a dark pool that had mostly soaked into the ground. “Is this blood? Is this blood?” she shrieked. She sprang to her feet and faced Lucy, waving her blood-smeared fingers under the girl’s nose. “Lucy, is this blood? Where’s Princess? Where are Bella and Taylor? What did you do to my doggies?”
“I didn’t do anything. The Queen of Alligators ate them.” Lucy pointed in the direction of the canal, to where the gator had submerged, “There, she went in the water there.”
Lucy didn’t see it coming, her mother moved so quickly. The slap knocked the girl backwards and she lost her balance, falling heavily on her rear end. Shocked, Lucy felt nothing except extreme heat on her face, then the sting of tears that did not arise from fear or pain, but offended pride. She put one hand to her burning cheek and glared up at her enraged mother.
“How dare you, you, you juvenile delinquent, you always hated those dogs,” her mother screeched, hopping and waving her fists.
“I didn’t do anything, it was an alligator, I told you.”
“You liar, you little fucking liar,” her mother hissed, crying now herself. “You stay here. You stay right here. I’m going to call your father, and we’ll take care of you, you little shit.” She wiped her nose with one hand and turned, stamping back towards the house. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she wailed as she went, “my doggies, my poor little doggies, my God, my God….”
There was silence, except for the buzzing of insects, and a mocking bird trill, and the soft lapping of wavelets against a concrete wall lining a stretch of the opposite side of the canal. Lucy felt as if all their neighbors were peeking through their blinds, trying to see what had happened. She was seized with a series of intense sobs, great gasping inhalations that left her feeling drained and dizzy. Slowly she rose to her feet, and brushed off her bare legs and her dingy pink shorts. The sticky sap of the Banyon tree, where she’d broken off leaves or infant root strings or small branches, stained her t-shirt and arms and matted her hair. Her sneakers and white ankle socks were grimy with mud.
She continued to heave, trying to get her breath, as she tried to wipe her eyes and runny nose with the bottom of her shirt. She dragged herself to the fence, and halted under her tree at the hole the alligator had created; she felt herself start to sink so she stepped backwards. She gazed out over the undulating gray-green and glistening canal water; it was murky and oily, seeming to catch the light like a mirror reflecting a mirror. It was probably close to dinner time, and the sunlight was lengthening, bursting bright gold here and there through the jungle-like foliage of their neighbor’s yard, hitting Lucy in the eyes as she moved her head but never touching the rippling current below.
Lucy hung her head. She turned and walked the few feet to her favored aerial root ladder, and climbed up with deliberation and heaviness. When she reached the most lofty horizontal limb, she tried to make herself comfortable. She rested with her back against a tangle of brittle brown danglers, and stared down once more at the canal.
She stiffened, straightened, gripped a bunch of leaves and berries so she could lean further out and get a better view. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision, and stared at what appeared to be dozens of encrusted, metallic-looking nodules breaking the surface, cruising in unison towards her. Soon all the clumps became heads with eyes and long snouts; Lucy recognized the alligator queen leading them. It was a phalanx of alligators, approaching their chain link fence.
Lucy watched as the queen broke onto land first, and slipped into her yard the same way she had done before. She was followed by a dozen smaller, gray and gritty lizard-like shapes, the scales on their legs and the spikes down their backs resembling armor; all of them were advancing towards the back of Lucy’s house.
Lucy squirmed and tried to climb to another vantage, without falling. She got to a point where she could see, her mother in her rage had left the back door ajar. Lucy opened her mouth to call, to cry out as loudly as she could, “Mommy, Mommy, the alligators are coming, close the back door, close it quick, hurry, hurry….”
The alligator queen pulled her enormous gleaming bulk up the back steps, onto the stoop, and using her nose and one of her front legs, flung the rear door all the way open so hard it cracked against the stucco wall. Lucy’s voice choked in her throat. She stared as the tail of the great female beast disappeared into her house. One by one, the rest of the alligators followed.