As a lifeguard, you’re not supposed to daydream about the bodies of the lives you are guarding, because it will make you a worse guard of those lives. You’re especially not supposed to have these daydreams, these minutes-long flushes of blood to the face and elsewhere, as a boy scout, because boys fantasizing about boys is gross and probably against the scout law. Your scoutmaster always emphasizes the word “clean” between “brave” and “reverent,” and when he does you know he’s looking at you.
The lake where you’re supposed to be guarding lives is chock full of alligators. You looked it up at the camp’s only computer in the quartermaster’s office. You had to wait behind a trio of older scouts hunched over slow-buffering gangbang porn. Your lake is one in a system of lakes that is the most alligator-infested system of lakes in Florida.
You look out at the boys. The water looks like diet coke, and it hides their bodies inches below the surface. They take the lake into their mouths and spit it out in fountains over each other, laughing. Their shoulders and backs pulse.
There’s a shift in the wind and they leap out of the water, trailing muck, screaming that they felt something, then half-swim, half-crawl back to shore, unwilling to name the threat until they’re back on solid ground. On a kayaking trip yesterday, Adrien, the scoutmaster’s son, swears he rammed his canoe over a dead gator’s body, denting its methane-bloated stomach.
Adrien and the other swimmers joke about tying slabs of beef around your ankles while you sleep, carrying you into the lake as a sacrifice. Then they leave for peanut butter sandwiches dunked in mess hall Kool-Aid. Adrien says, “See you later, Gator Bait.”
If you lie between the mangroves and focus, you can see the dead gator’s silhouette in the middle of the lake. It peeks halfway out of the water, inert. There are other silhouettes too, drifting in circles. A vulture lands, takes off when the water stirs. At night you shine a flashlight out over the water, looking for the gator’s body, and a dozen eyes shine back.
In the showers no one talks, except Adrien. Adrien talks cocks and pubes and who has too much and too little of each. He points to you and says, “Now there’s a bush. Can’t barely see Gator Bait’s cock under all those leaves! Bet it’s a stump.”
The next evening Adrien is windsurfing. Or trying to. There’s not much wind, which means more effort pulling up the sail and trying to stand without resistance to work against. The side of the board dips into the water and his arms and neck strain to hold steady. He falls. His leg is caught under the sail, the upper half of his body underwater. He flails, stuck.
Somebody should do something.
It takes you a moment to realize that the somebody is you. You spring off the lifeguard post’s rusted lawn chair and dive into the water, skimming your chin and stomach on the mud a foot down. You half-swim, half-crawl toward him. By the time you’re touching it’s too late: he’s already righted himself. He shoves you back into the water, sputtering dark liquid and cursing.
You hover near him, half crouched, shirt soaked and clinging to your nipples. You spot the gator’s body nearby, in the mangroves, see its peeling scales. There’s a dent in its stomach, just like Adrien said. Its mouth is caught in a permanent scowl. The scoutmaster says gators are more afraid of us then we are of them. That there’s nothing to worry about. But up close, looking at its teeth, you know that can’t be true. You shine a light, and the gator doesn’t shine back—its eyes picked clean of glimmer.
Notes from Guest Reader Ahsan Butt
What struck me about this flash was the precision of its details and its atmosphere so pregnant with menace. The ‘older scouts hunched over slow-buffering gangbang porn,’ the water like ‘diet coke,’ the ‘methane-bloated’ gator…such vivid and evocative language. It conveys how intense life feels when young, vulnerable, and afraid. By the end of the piece, the danger is palpable and, sadly, it does feel like something to worry about. As an ending, I can’t think of a more apt or urgent effect than for us to be left worrying.