The rain pelted the windshield in large, angry droplets too fast for the old Chevy’s wipers to keep pace. The full moon was barely visible through the clouds and even the impact from an occasional crack of lightning was minimized by the heavy rain. As a result, the only light in the car’s interior came from the dim glow of the dashboard clock. It was just after 2 AM and Beau felt a pang of unease.
“I changed my mind.” Julie said before adding, “I think this is a mistake.”
“It’s okay, Babe.” Beau said from the back seat and leaned forward to put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She started to turn toward him but caught sight of the sleeping man next to him and swiftly turned her attention back toward the road.
“I knew it.” Leann said. Her grip on the steering wheel tightened as she glared at Julie.
“What?” Julie asked defensively. “What did you know?”
“I knew you’d chicken out.” Leann said. “I told you to stay home. Me and Beau could handle it. I told you…” She lost her train of thought when the car hit a pocket of water and hydroplaned for a second or two before regaining its traction.
“Watch the road!” Beau shouted and his grip on Julie’s shoulder tightened.
“I am.” Leann snapped, but she eased up on the gas and leaned forward over the steering wheel until her face was only inches from the windshield. “I can’t see a damned thing.”
“I’m not chickening out.” Julie started again. “It’s just… This is a bad idea. Maybe we should just go to the cops instead.”
“Are you crazy?” Leann asked bitterly. “We’ve been over this. It’s the only way. Tell her Beau.”
“Just take it easy.” Beau told Leann.
“Take it easy!” Leann shouted, tears welling in her eyes. “Screw you, Beau. It wasn’t your boyfriend that was butchered by that… that... psychopath.”
“I know.” Beau said reassuringly. “Just try to calm down.”
“Calm down? He killed Johnny! No,” she started, and Beau could see from her reflection in the rearview mirror that she was becoming a bit unhinged. “He didn’t just kill him. He…”
“Stop it!” Julie shouted and covered her ears. She leaned forward in her seat and put her head in her hands. Beau rubbed her back and could feel the sobs overtake her.
Leann looked at Julie and shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But what he did… he needs to pay.”
“He will pay." Beau said. "I promise, but if you don’t slow down, you’re going to kill us all.”
Leann slowed the car. They were barely going thirty-five miles an hour, but they would be turning off the highway soon and, in this weather, anything above a crawl was reckless.
“Look Jules,” Leann sighed and patted her friend’s leg. “I know this is hard for you, but we’re doing the right thing. He has to pay.”
As Leann spoke, Julie sat back up and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. They waited in silence as she composed herself. Finally, she spoke.
“I’m not saying just let him go.” Julie said.
“Maybe not,” Leann said. “But that’s what will happen. You know it. Johnny wasn’t his first. He told you…”
“I know,” Julie cut in, “but killing…”
“It’s what he deserves.” Leann said. “We’ll be doing the world a favor. He won’t be able to hurt anyone else.”
“You don’t think I want him dead? Johnny was my brother.” Julie’s voice broke and turned her head to peer out the side window. To the darkness, she said, “But, what if someone finds out? I don’t want to go to jail.”
“No one’s going to find out.” Beau said.
“You can’t be sure.” Julie said. “I just think it might be better if we just let the cops…”
“The cops won’t do anything.” Leann interrupted. “I know you loved Johnny, and he loved you so much, he died protecting you. He...”
“You think I don’t know that?” Julie cut her off. She began to speak again when the car slid near the ditch before Leann righted it.
Leann glanced in the rear-view mirror and her eyes caught Beau’s. He inhaled deeply and shook his head. She could tell he wanted to yell at her again, but it wasn’t her fault. The weather was terrible and the further they came, the more potholes. The visibility was so compromised, she couldn’t avoid them.
Beau shifted his focus to Julie. She was shivering and Beau couldn’t tell if it was from her clothes that were dripping wet, the shock of everything that had happened, or a mixture of both.
“Babe, you can’t change your mind now. It’s too late. We’ve broken into his home, tased him, tied him up, and brought him out here to the middle of nowhere. Do you know how much trouble we’ll be in if we don’t finish this?”
“Not as much as if we kill him. The cops will understand.” Julie said meekly.
“Maybe,” Leann said. “But you know there’s not enough evidence to put him away. What happens when he does it again? This is our only option.”
“We can’t risk him getting off.” Beau said. “He might go after you again. I don’t want to think about what he would have done to you if Johnny wasn’t there. Babe, we have to stop him.”
Julie nodded, tears pooling in her eyes again.
“You’re right, I’m sorry.” She said and put a hand on Leann’s shoulder. Both girls were crying now, but they were back to talking and Beau knew it wouldn’t be long before they were best friends again. Rather than speak, he leaned back in the seat and studied the man beside him.
The guy looked like a dirty vagrant. He was in his late twenties with greasy brown hair and the beginnings of a goatee. He had a small scar right above his lip and his mouth was open slightly, exposing a smoker’s smile complete with a sparkling silver canine. Beau’s lips curled in an involuntary grimace. His gaze left the man’s face and traveled down his body. He was dressed like a laborer in a light-colored shirt that was so filthy and sweat-stained, Beau wasn’t sure if it had originally been white or gray. There was a large knife tattooed on his left forearm, the blade coming to a point at his wrist, just above where his hands were tied with an old phone cable and rested docilely in his lap. Beau was tempted to check the bindings but didn’t want to risk waking the man.
Beau sighed. The man slept deeply as if he hadn’t a care in the world. The man reminded Beau of his father before his parents divorced. His father used to come home from work on a Saturday and pass out before he could even finish unlacing his boots. He, too, slept like the dead. It wasn’t a stun gun that had done him in, though, but exhaustion from a 60-hour workweek with an added hour commute. Beau’s father had been an oiler on one of the draglines that worked round the clock pulling muck and rock from the Florida swamps. It had actually been Beau’s recollection of his father that had inspired their plan.
His father had worked deep in the swamps and had always joked with his friends that if they ever needed to get rid of a body, he knew the perfect spot. It was known in South Florida that many a body had been left along Alligator Ally. It was favored by drug dealers and mafia bosses as an easy way to make someone disappear. Everyone knew there were miles of canals that flanked the lightly traveled road. Bodies didn’t last long in the heat, especially when the decomposition process was accelerated by murky algae-infested water and gators. But Beau’s dad had always claimed Alligator Ally was too well known. He said the swamps where he worked were much better suited to the job. They had the same opaque water, sweltering heat, and hungry gators, but they didn’t have the traffic. There was only one road that led into the work area. Once inside, it branched into a maze of dirt roads surrounded by finger lakes and canals.
Each dragline was manned by two men, an operator, and his oiler. The team was responsible for digging the rock from the water so it could be crushed down and hauled out. They worked twelve-hour shifts and would often go hours, sometimes days, without seeing another person. Trucks drove in and out but usually didn’t venture as far back as the machines. The place was massive, and drivers were loaded in pits close to the road so as not to interrupt the digging that was going on further inland.
Beau remembered a story his father had told him once about a new operator at the site. The man had been there for a few months and was pretty cocky. In an attempt to impress the boss, the operator had gotten his machine too close to the edge. The guy had thought if he could maneuver his bucket further out into the lake, he would get a better haul. But when the bucket swung, its momentum combined with the angle of the boom, exerted pressure so much pressure, it caused the bank beneath him to collapse. The entire machine had gone into the water, operator and all.
The story was that the man’s oiler had been taking a break at his truck a couple of hundred feet away when he heard the noise; felt it really. The oiler thought it was an earthquake and by the time he reached the edge of the water, he couldn’t see anything but the top of the boom peeking through the surface. There was nothing to do except run back to the truck and radio it in.
Beau’s dad said that it had taken hours before the authorities could get out there and by then the rain had started. When divers went down two days later, they found an empty cab. The guy had apparently escaped after the machine went in the water, but there had been no sign of him. They searched for a few days, but eventually gave up. Then, about a month later, his replacement pulled him up in a load. He was unrecognizable. The gators had been gnawing on him for weeks and by the time he was pulled out, he was missing part of his face and his entire right arm.
Beau shivered and looked out the window. It was so dark; he couldn’t make out anything in the rain. They had turned off the main road about ten minutes ago and he was sure they should have been in the construction area by now. He turned away from the side window and leaned forward between the front seats, hoping visibility would be better through the windshield. It wasn’t. Even with the high beams on, he could barely see more than a foot or two in front of the car.
“Slow down.” He cautioned Leann. “We’re getting close. This whole area is nothing but rock piles and lakes. If you’re not careful…”
Before he could finish, the tire of the car hit something, causing them to fishtail. As the back swayed to the right looking for traction, Leann pulled hard on the wheel and before anyone knew what was happening, they were in a spin. Suddenly the driver’s side caught in a ditch and the momentum from the spin caused the car to flip over the embankment and into the lake below.
Time seemed to slow, and everything went black. Beau could hear movement around him and on some semi-rational level, he knew the car was still moving. He couldn’t see it or feel it, but he told himself to remain calm. He hadn’t heard a splash and did not feel any water, but he knew it was there. Just as he knew the rain still fell even though he no longer heard the drops hitting his window. As his mind struggled to process his surroundings, he felt a weight on his arm and something in the darkness pull at his jacket.
Julie? He suddenly remembered she was with him in the car. Was she reaching for him? He turned his head from side to side but could see nothing, just a shadow slumped behind the wheel illuminated by a soft glow a few feet away. Leann? Was she dead? He tried to move toward her, but he was immobile. As his mind pondered his inability to move, it occurred to him his feet were cold, and there was a banging coming from his left.
His brain wrestled to make sense of the noise. There was a dull thump and a weighted pressure pushed into his side. Silence. He strained his eyes, but the darkness was overwhelming. Then again, a thump and someone pushed into him. It stopped and he realized the cold was spreading from his feet to his knees. Thump. There it was again, and again he was pushed. The sound and sensation were connected. It reminded him of a dance. Someone was hitting something and shoving him in unison. Again, Thump. Shove. Silence. He moved his fingers and realized they were wet. Wet? The thought puzzled him.
“Please…please.” Julie’s whispered plea disrupted the rhythm.
“Julie!” He called, but his voice sounded weak. She mumbled something in desperation. She sounded deranged, like a madwoman from an old movie. She was chanting more than speaking, but he could sense her fear and even though he could not decipher her words, he knew she was praying.
“He won’t save you.”
Terror gripped Beau at the hiss of those words and Julie screamed. It was deafening. The sound echoed through his body. Instinctively, he reached his arm out to comfort her, but something weighed it down, making the movement slow and wavering.
Thump. The sound had started again and although it lacked the accompanying shove, Beau’s focus was immediately drawn to it. Julie must have been drawn to it too because her chanting stopped abruptly. Beau turned his head toward the sound, more out of habit than any expectation of sight. It had seemed an eternity since he had use of his eyes. Even the dimmed light from earlier had faded.
Beau heard a faint intake of breath. It was him, the vagrant, who had been making that infernal, thump. Something was different this time, though. There had been a muffled sound that accompanied it and Beau’s brain scrambled to place it. Finally, his mind registered the sound of the breaking glass, he was inundated with sensation. Everything was happening at once. Julie was screaming again, but louder than her screams was the high-pitched whirl of moving air. As icy wetness engulfed him, clarity struck.
The ceaseless thump had been that of the vagrant pummeling the car window until it finally broke. Rushing water consumed Beau and he was struck with another bewildering thought. Why hadn’t he tried to escape himself? He remembered when the car first veered off the road that he had known it had entered the lake. Hadn’t he told himself to wait until it settled? Why had he not released his seatbelt or made any effort to escape or to rescue Julie? Somewhere in his addled brain, he had to know his inaction would mean death. Was he so afraid of what lurked in those dark waters that he would rather a watery grave within the car than risk the open waters outside?
He didn’t struggle as his mind contemplated this irrational choice. Instead, he mumbled a soft goodbye to Julie, who had gone silent moments earlier. He knew he should feel fear and regret, but he didn’t. He thought back again to his father’s stories.
He thought once more of the fat cottonmouths that liked to skim across the surface of the quarry lakes, their gray scales blending in with the muddy water. The aggressive snake often went unnoticed until it opened its signature puffy white mouth. He also thought of the alligators that seemed to stalk the lakes and the canals, watching… waiting.
“Shark, gator, or snake,” His father had often said, “In Florida, you’ll find at least one in any body of water larger than a swimming pool.”
Beau knew his father was right and the thought comforted him. He turned his head upward and inhaled deeply. He saw a final image in his mind’s eye. It was the vagrant, breaking the surface of the water only to be pelted by the rain. He imaged the man smiling as he took that first deep breath. He imagined the faint light from the moon glimmer off the man’s silver tooth. And he thought about how it was a rainy May night. He smiled. May was mating season for gators, wasn’t it? An image of two eyes peeking out of the water flashed in his mind and thought again of the alligator… watching and waiting.
Beau’s lungs filled with water and in those final moments, he would have sworn he heard the muffled sound of a scream followed by a frantic splashing. Somewhere in his mind, where reason and logic still existed, he knew it to be impossible. But death was not reasonable. Like an alligator, there was no reasoning with it. The screams had been real, and they comforted him.