Photo by Yohan Marion on Unsplash
Francis expects the worst when she’s sent away from her beloved island to live with her mom—a woman whom Francis has avoided for years—and to attend a prep school in Charleston, SC. Always comfortable in the shadows of her alligator wrestling grandpa and her outgoing best friend, Cecelia, Francis is torn between fear and excitement for a fresh start where nobody knows who she is or who she’s associated with.
But she’s haunted quite literally by her past—in the shape of an alligator wearing a Stetson hat—and Francis must choose between hiding her identity or standing up for those she loves. With the help of her unexpected new friends at Charleston Prep, Francis begins to let go of the shame shrouding her identity and lower-class background. Navigating first love, friendship, and her broken family, Francis learns that you must wrestle for the things that really matter.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I waited for the police to call or show up on our front porch, but they never did. I thought about calling Cecelia’s house, but I didn’t want them to connect me to her, which didn’t make any real sense because everyone knew we were best friends. I’d be one of the first people they’d come to. I watched the sunrise through my window and gave up trying to sleep.
It was a warm and sunny morning. I fried an egg and bacon and sipped on some hot tea, trying to give myself a sense of normalcy. Grandpa popped into the kitchen from outside—most likely returning from his morning swamp romp—and mumbled something about good ideas while he fixed himself a cup of tea and joined me at the kitchen table.
“Morning Francis,” Grandpa said. “Have you talked to Cecilia Russel recently?”
Fear filled me. I shook my head and focused on keeping my voice steady. “I think she was working yesterday.”
“Jordan called looking for her this morning,” Grandpa said. “Apparently, some cash disappeared from the store, along with Brad and Cecelia. Cops are asking ‘round.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “That’s crazy.”
Grandpa raised his eyebrow and gave me a skeptical look. I wondered how much he’d guessed already. I stared at my plate, avoiding eye contact.
“That girl needs to get off this island.”
“Why’s that?” I spoke softly, keeping my eyes set on the fried egg that I couldn’t bring myself to eat.
“She’s just a stick-in-the-mud here.”
I wanted to tell him that’s why she was in this predicament in the first place—because she was trying to get off the island—but I kept my mouth shut. The phone rang, and my life all but flashed before my eyes. This was it. My life was over. I was going to Juvey. Grandpa lifted the phone off the wall hook with a gruff “Hello.”
Debbie Langley had a seven-foot alligator in her yard who seemed to be waiting patiently to eat her little chihuahua as a snack.
“We’ll be there in thirty minutes,” Grandpa said.
He hung up the phone and pointed at me.
“I’m gonna need your help. Get the gear. We got a big ‘un.”
Despite everything else going on, I was excited—happy, almost. I hadn’t helped Grandpa wrestle an alligator all summer, and I was in desperate need of a distraction.
The gear didn’t take too long to gather—frozen chicken necks, a pole with a looped wire at the end, duct tape, blindfold, a handgun, and a bangstick. The bangstick and handgun were only for emergency situations or especially nasty gators that we knew had gone after one too many dogs or children. I loaded up Grandpa’s truck, and we were off in five minutes.
“I got a bad feeling about this one,” Grandpa said.
I gripped my seatbelt. Grandpa’s feelings were usually spot on. Years ago, when I asked him how he always knew, he’d said, “If you listen hard enough, the ghosts of the swamp will let you in on their secrets.”
Then he’d tell me the stories about the swamp ghosts. When I was eight years old, I became so obsessed with the ghosts that I spent everyday walking around the woods and listening for them. All I heard were birds. The birds never spoke to me, and I figured I just wasn’t gifted like Grandpa. Now, I knew they were just stories he told to keep me entertained.
“Francis, you need to call your mother again,” Grandpa said.
I hadn’t spoken to Mom since she’d told me I was going to Charleston Prep. “I tried to call her last week—or maybe it was the week before.”
I didn’t mention that I called her house during hours that I knew she’d be at work. Grandpa didn’t need to know that.
“You need to talk about the move,” Grandpa said.
That was exactly why I was avoiding her. “I don’t want to move in with her.”
The summer had passed by too quickly. I was supposed to move in a few days, but I wasn’t ready to face the reality of going to a new a school. Grandpa drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, catching the half beat of the song droning softly on the radio.
“Your mom misses you, and now that your grandma has passed—”
“I love it here. I’m used to it.”
“There’s more for you in Charleston. You can get a good education and get into a good college.”
“My school was fine.”
“There aren’t enough kids living around here anymore. Hard to justify that place staying open anymore,” Grandpa said. “Anyways, you qualified for a scholarship. You can’t pass that up.”
“I didn’t ask for a scholarship. She did that without me knowing.”
“Just do me a favor and talk to her.”
The truck slowed to a stop alongside a pretty, two-story house that overlooked a sizeable pond. I leapt out of the truck before Grandpa shut it off, so I didn’t have to answer. I knew I was avoiding the inevitable, but that didn’t mean I had to make it easy.
I opened the tail of the truck and pulled out the bag of chicken necks. Grandpa came up next to me and gave me a long stare that said the conversation wasn’t over, but he’d let it go for now. Grandpa was always like that, speaking without saying anything out loud.
Debbie Langley floated down the steps of her house. A silk floral bathrobe fluttered behind her, and she wore a white and rather revealing nightgown underneath. Curlers looped through her dyed blond hair. A black chihuahua quivered in her arms. Debbie was in her early sixties, maybe five years younger than my grandpa, and her carefully set makeup told me that she had more than gator wrestling in mind for Grandpa. Debbie smiled when her eyes lit on him. Red lipstick was smeared on her white teeth. The smile quickly turned down when she saw me with my arms full of chicken necks.
“Why, Francis Marion Dupre, don’t you just get prettier every day,” Debbie said. “I hope your taste in friends has improved along with your looks. I hear bad things about that Russel girl these days.”
News on the island traveled quickly. I looked down at my dirty cut-off jean shorts and grimy tee shirt that I was wearing for the second day in a row. Not to mention the smelly and quickly melting chicken necks in my arms. “Nah. I still have bad taste.”
Debbie pretended not to hear me. She turned to Grandpa and plastered a glittering smile on her face. “Francis Marion Senior, I can’t thank you enough for coming on such a short notice. I really thought I’d lost dear little Jeffery today when that mean ole alligator chased after him. Luckily, little Jeffery is smart and knew to run for his life.”
Grandpa grunted in response. Jeffery immediately peed on Debbie’s robe. Grandpa turned away and made a fuss about retying his ponytail, but I knew from the shake of his shoulders that he was trying not to let Debbie see him laugh. Grandpa’s tanned, leathery hands smoothed back his hair. He took an awful long time, but his expression was blank when he turned around again. “Any idea where that mean ole gator is now?”
Debbie pointed to the pond.
“Stands to reason,” Grandpa said.
He pointed at me and then to the right of the swamp. I nodded and set off in that direction. Time to track an alligator. I glanced over my shoulder to see Grandpa setting off in the opposite direction. Debbie sat on the steps and pulled something out of her bra that looked suspiciously like a mini bottle of vodka. It was before noon, but I didn’t blame her. Sweet little Jeffery had just peed all over her, after all.
My eyes flicked back and forth between the pond and the dirt below my feet. I looked alternately for signs of the gator in the pond or tracks in the earth. The day was hot and humid already, and my shirt stuck to my back. Mosquitos swarmed and buzzed over the water, and I wished vainly for a breeze.
I found the tracks about a quarter of the way around the pond. Four paw prints spread out far apart with an ‘S’ curve snaking through the middle. The prints were about two feet apart, confirming what Debbie had told Grandpa earlier: that gator was big.
The tracks led into the pond, so I gazed out over the water to see if I could spot her. Alligators were hard to find in the water. I found several branches floating by before I spotted her. I kept my eyes locked on the sight as she bobbed up and down. The gator faced me. Her whole body stretched out on the surface, from the snout to the tail. Then, her whole body sank under the water except for her eyes—two black beads floating just above the surface. The wide snout popped up for a second and sank back down. Her ridged back popped up next, only to sink down into the water again too. I felt as if she was playing with me. The gator’s entire head disappeared and emerged a few feet away, closer to me. She moved slowly, slinking through the water with hardly a ripple left behind.
I cupped my hands around my mouth to shout for Grandpa, but his hand suddenly wrapped around my wrist before I could get a sound out. It was uncanny how he always knew when to show up at just the right time.
“I see her,” he said. “Go ahead and drop those chicken necks right on the edge here and run and get the handgun just in case.”
Grandpa already had the pole in his hand and the role of duct tape around his elbow. I dumped the chicken necks and sprinted to the truck.
Just as I reached the truck, a startled shout sounded from where I’d left Grandpa. The shouting wasn’t that unusual, but I sped up the process all the same, loading the handgun as fast as my trembling hands would let me. No matter how many times I helped Grandpa, wrestling gators always made me nervous. The creatures were dangerous and unpredictable.
“Francis!” Grandpa’s voice cut through the silence of the pond. “We don’t have all day.”
I checked the safety and ran back to Grandpa as fast as my legs would take me.
When I arrived back to the scene, Grandpa’s feet were planted wide. He crouched on his toes, ready to spring at any moment. The gator had the end of the pole in her mouth, and Grandpa held stubbornly onto the other end. Again, not unusual, but what was unusual was that one of Grandpa’s legs was covered in blood. Not a good sign.
I slowed my pace and inched my way forward. Grandpa spoke, keeping his eyes fixed on the gator. “I’m going to hand you the duct tape, and I want you to wrap her jaws.”
I stuck the handgun in my back pocket and extended my hand out to Grandpa. He slipped the duct tape around my wrist. I tiptoed slowly around the alligator until I was directly behind her. Grandpa nodded. He was ready. I gently peeled the tape back and looped it, so it stuck to itself. I was ready to force it around the gator’s jaws. Grandpa pulled the blindfold from his pocket.
It’d been a while since I’d wrestled a gator, and my stomach clenched in anxious anticipation. Usually, I was the one watching while Grandpa jumped the gator. And if I was wrestling, Grandpa was usually available and ready to jump in if necessary. This time, he wouldn’t be able to help as easily. This gator was more aggressive than most, and she’d already ruined our normal rhythm.
I eased closer to the gator, scooting next to her webbed backfoot. I jumped. I landed right where I need to be—my hands strapped under the front legs. The gator’s mouth reared open. Instead of trying to twist around to get to me, the gator leapt straight towards my grandpa.
I tried to keep her pinned down, but she was too strong and too fast for me. Grandpa was a big man. He was at least six feet tall. Lean, but muscular enough that nobody would choose to go up against him. But for the first time, I was afraid for him. If anything could split him in two, this gator could.
Grandpa stumbled back. The gator lunged again. My body weighing down on her back might as well have been an annoying mosquito, the way she ignored me. To make matters worse, I’d lost the duct tape in the tussle. I looped my arm around her front leg. I avoided her neck, not wanting to accidentally land my arm in her mouth. I tried to reach around her head to poke her eyes, but my body had slipped down when she lunged forward. I couldn’t reach her face.
I tightened my legs around her core and tried to inch up, but it was impossible with her moving so much. This gator was too strong for me.
“Francis,” Grandpa said. His voice was ragged. “We can’t go on like this for much longer.”
I knew what he meant, but I hated it. When it came down to me and Grandpa or the gator, though, obviously I’d pick us.
I tightened my grip on the gator and reached for the handgun. The gator leapt forward again. The handgun slipped from my grip as I pulled it from my back pocket. I almost lost everything—my hold on the gator and the gun. I secured the gun against the small of my back and fumbled for it, finally getting the piece firmly in my clutches.
The alligator made one last leap towards Grandpa, and this time the gator was successful.
I fired. Once. Twice.
A chuck-will’s-widow called out nearby. I strained my eyes in a vain attempt to spot the fat, brown-and-grey-speckled bird in the trees above. They were strange looking, and their call, which sounded exactly like their name, was eerie and comforting all at once. They were a morph between a faery and a toad—perhaps a distant relative of both. The chuck-will’s-widow always made me feel nostalgic, but I didn’t know what for.
Chuck-will’s-widows were normally evening birds, but the sun shone brightly in the sky. Something must have set the bird off for her to call in the middle of day.
Sharp ridges stabbed into my stomach. I didn’t know why I had chosen such an uncomfortable place to lie down. Something groaned near my head, and suddenly, everything came back. I’d just shot an alligator. I rubbed my face, and my hand came away red—blood must’ve splattered onto me since I’d shot the gator at such a close range.
I jolted up, searching for Grandpa. His body was stretched out above the gator’s bloody head, and I was still lying on the gator’s back. Grandpa clutched a bloody arm to his chest, rising and falling with every breath. He was alive. An eye cracked open, and he looked me over.
“Cutting it a little close there, kid, but good job,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to do that.”
Tears filled my eyes as everything that’d just happened caught up with me. Grandpa gave me a moment as he busied himself with wrapping the blindfold around his injured arm. Deciding that there were better things to do than crying while sitting on a dead gator, I wiped my face with the back of my hand and pulled myself up. I retrieved the handgun from where I’d dropped it earlier and put the safety on.
Grandpa’s temporary bandage secured, he looked me over next. My body ached, and I knew I’d be plenty sore and bruised the next day, but I’d managed to come away relatively unscathed. Grandpa must have been satisfied too because he turned away from me and looked over the gator.
“Let’s pay our respects,” Grandpa said.
We closed our eyes and held a moment of silence for the animal. We usually didn’t say a prayer out loud because Grandpa was more of a pray-in-your-heart type person.
“I’m getting too slow for this. Making mistakes.” Grandpa paused and looked at the pond. Mosquitos bounced across the water’s surface. Grandpa didn’t make mistakes when it came to gators, and I couldn’t help but worry about him. Yet another reason why I didn’t want to go to Charleston with my mom.
I looked at the giant gator on the ground. I was skeptical about the two of us getting the gator into the truck bed, but Grandpa did have a pulley system we could employ if necessary.
Debbie was nowhere in sight when we returned to the truck, so I guessed she’d decided to give up on her attempts to flirt with Grandpa. Really, I hoped she’d changed out of her pee-stained nightgown.
We brought the truck around to the alligator, and Grandpa measured it. The gator was about seven feet and five inches long, meaning that she most likely weighed somewhere around two hundred pounds.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Grandpa said. “Let’s use the pulley system.”
My worry deepened. Grandpa was sixty-five, and he was strong and in shape for his age. I examined him closely. Blood seeped through the makeshift bandage on his arm.
“Maybe we should go to the doctor first,” I said. There wasn’t a doctor on the island, and the nearest hospital was forty-five minutes away. Ashepoo was not a conducive place for medical emergencies.
“Won’t take long to load her up,” Grandpa said. “I can go to the doc in Charleston after I drop the gator off.”
The pulley system was basic. I cranked down the chains until they rested right above the alligator. Grandpa unfurled the tarp, and I helped him spread it out next to the gator. I took the backend, and Grandpa took the head. We crouched on the side of the gator.
“On the count of three,” Grandpa said, “One, two, three!”
I pushed my hands forward with all my might, and the gator rolled on her side and over onto the tarp. I shuddered, suddenly thinking that it could have easily been me or Grandpa who had died.
We hooked the tarp to the chains, so the tarp formed a hammock around the gator’s body. Grandpa cranked the pully back up while I guided the gator’s body towards the truck bed, making sure that it didn’t bang against the tail of the truck on the way up.
We secured the gator and set off.
With the windows rolled down in the truck, the warm breeze tickled my face and soothed me a little. We passed an expanse of marsh. A great blue heron stood on the edge of a small inlet, fishing. The grey-blue bird speared the water with its beak in a practiced movement. Unsuccessful, the bird stalked a few steps forward and tried again. Before I could see if she caught something, I lost her to the passing trees.
“I’m going to drop you off at home first,” Grandpa said.
I looked at his arm again. The bandage seemed even bloodier than before.
“I don’t mind coming with you,” I said.
“I might be a while,” Grandpa said, tipping his head towards his arm. “And to be honest, kid, you look pretty rough yourself. Go home and rest.”
I caught myself in the side mirror. My face was stark white, smeared with dried blood, and my hair was disheveled. I looked as if I’d been scared out of mind—as if I’d just seen a ghost.
“I’ll be fine,” Grandpa said. “You did well today. Get cleaned up and get some rest. I’ll be back home before you know it. If I’m too late getting to the doctor, I’ll just stay the night with your mom.”
I nodded. I was once again on the brink of tears, as if Grandpa’s words of affirmation had given me the permission I needed to face everything that had happened in the last hour. I felt like life and death were swirling around me—I’d saved Grandpa, but I’d killed something else to do it. I didn’t regret my choice, but it didn’t sit right with me either.
Grandpa dropped me off at the house, not even bothering to get out of the truck before heading to town.
The shower washed away the dirt and blood, but the death remained. Mixed in with everything else that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, I needed to shut off my brain for a bit. I crawled into my bed and curled up under my covers.
In my dream, a chuck-will’s-widow landed on my chest and ate a bat. The bird swallowed the bat whole. She pressed her bloodied beak against the underside of my chin—soft, like I used to press the dandelions against my skin to see if they cast a yellow light. I wondered if she saw light or shadow there, under my chin.
I woke up tangled and sweaty in my sheets. Out my window, I saw that Grandpa’s truck hadn’t returned. He didn’t come back that night, so I figured he’d ended up staying with my mom. The phone rang at six in the morning. I ran to answer, still half asleep.
“Hello,” I said.
“Francis,” Grandpa said.
I sank to the floor, relieved to hear his voice.
“Hey, what happened?”
“Sorry I didn’t call you last night,” he said. “I had to get stitches, and it was late by the time I finished up. I’ll be heading home soon.”
“Glad you’re OK,” I said.
“Your mother will be coming as well,” Grandpa said.
Dread filled me as I hung up the phone. The sky was just beginning to lighten outside, and I knew I couldn’t fall back asleep after that news. I splashed some water on my face, brushed my teeth, and went outside.
I searched for the camp chair Grandpa normally had set up by the swamp water, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I settled on a tree stump in the yard and gazed at my hands. Mom coming to the swamp was a bad sign. I knew exactly how the visit would end: Mom would scoop me up and take me to Charleston, and there’d be nothing I could do to stop her. I contemplated slipping into the woods and disappearing for a while. Maybe I could find Cecelia, and we could both be outlaws. Unfortunately, with Grandpa’s tracking skills, he’d probably find me in an hour.
“You didn’t hesitate so much when you shot me in cold blood yesterday,” a rumbling voice said next to me.
I glanced up to find a seven-foot alligator standing on her hind legs. Her long, fat tail rested on the ground behind her. The gator wore a black Stetson hat, and water dripped from her body, forming a puddle around her feet. She took off her hat and bowed, revealing the blood on the back of her head. “See? You shot me twice. No hesitation. I’d think you could handle a little chat with mommy.”