My sister and I are all bent knees and elbows sitting on the kitchen counter, bare feet in the sink. Krystal’s skin looks blue under the glow of a long, humming bulb overhead; a cluster of bug carcasses in the plastic light cover makes a shadow on her shoulder like a bruise. She reaches to a slat in the window, the one with a silver crack in it, and flicks a pair of clinging love bugs outside. It’s October in Florida tonight. The moon is a dusty white marble, cool and soft.
We are alone again. Fifteen days so far. This time dad’s probably fishing illegal snapper off the gulf coast on a crusty boat called Blondie. Probably sunburned and shirtless. Probably with his freckled, callused hand sunk deep into a cooler of beer. He claims to have built all the malls in the state, but Krystal says if he were that important we wouldn’t be buying clothes at the flea market and food at the dollar store. Krystal says a lot she wouldn’t want Dad to hear.
There’s no telling whether or not he’ll be back when he promised, but that doesn’t worry me yet. The rules are always the same: money is for food, no going outside at night, and—because I’m eleven and she is fourteen—Krystal is the one in charge.
All the lamps are on in here and over at Barb’s place, where our only neighbors are making another noisy scene. Barb’s pacing her carport in a fit, waving a skinny cigarette in one hand and holding a fat roll of duct tape in the other. The loose elastic on her yellow terrycloth romper is about to give up and expose a nipple.
According to Barb, there’s an alligator under her dinette. She hollers for Rusty to get the damn thing gone. Barb is always hollering at Rusty.
“Batshit,” Krystal says.
The kitchen light casts a shadow on the grass below the window like two bicycle frames: sharp angles and thin frames.
“Bonkers,” I say back.
Our trailer has been here since before we were born. It doesn’t so much nestle into the khaki grass as it slumps, cruddy and exhausted. The only neighbors for miles are Barb and her sometimes-lover Rusty who live in the cinder block and stucco palace opposite the trailer, across a skinny canal we call The Green Finger on account of a thin layer of duckweed growing on top.
Every spring, a dozen golden fuzzy ducklings hatch among the palmetto fronds, then their mama leads them to The Finger, and one by one they jump into the water after her. But they’re gone before the summer starts—eaten by something or another. One time Krystal saw a river hawk snatch a straggler off the water and cut back into the sky. The mama duck just kept swimming straight ahead toward the lake like she never noticed. Krystal doesn’t count the baby ducks anymore, but I do.
We are wearing bathing suits under our clothes. Dirty underwear is piled in a heap by the toilet or washed and forgotten, growing stiff over the side of the tub. We spent our last wrinkled dollars on three dented cans of spaghetti, a pack of pillow-size maxi pads, and a VHS rental at Plaza Video.
I don’t know if there’s really a gator inside Barb’s place, but just the thought of it lights me up from the inside. Makes me wish we were still going to school so I could tell Jen Springer about it and see the look on her face.
We know it’s four days in a row we can miss before the school starts calling and ten before they send a skinny secretary—the one with gobs of phony clip-on gems dragging her earlobes like chewed gum—down the dirt road in her pokey sedan to declare us truant. Her hair always sprayed so stiff it looks like the curlers are still in it. She left a letter on the screen door this week while we were on a supply run: TO THE GUARDIANS OF typed crooked across the front of the pastel-pink envelope. Krystal didn’t open it before she lit it on fire in the kitchen and threw the burning paper in an old coffee can. We danced in circles around the flames, howling until the smoke alarm went off. Then we tore out the battery and danced some more.
The pizza box we shoved in the broken bathroom skylight has gone soggy at the edges, allowing in the kind of frogs with eyes like black buttons. They stick to the mirror with those long fingers and watch us while we brush our teeth. I snatched one once and showed Krystal its tiny heart beating under gossamer, opal skin. She let out a tight scream and slapped it out of my hand.
It happens more than a person might think, animals in the house. Squirrels nest in a closet, a rat snake curls up in the tub. If you let the grass grow high enough around the cinder blocks, the outside forgets where it ends and wild things start slithering in.
“He’d better not kill it,” Krystal says, chewing on her bottom lip a little.
“Better not,” I echo, wondering how many ducks we might have with one less gator lurking.
Barb keeps on pacing and smoking her cigarette, disappearing most of it in one slender drag. Finally bored, Krystal hops off the counter and shakes Raisin Bran crumbs into our dirty palms, then sets off around the room drawing the curtains, telling me we ain’t nobody’s business. But nobody’s ever out there except Rusty and Barb, and they don’t care a lick about us.
In fifteen years dad will be telling this story as if it were his own to tell. I’ll bring his groceries and medicines over from town. He’ll be in that saggy lawn chair again, still and always shirtless with a few remaining wisps of chest hairs gone silver and thin shining against his deep maroon skin. That old Barb sure did squeal like a hog in hell when she seen it, didn’t she? A toothless laugh chased by a phlegmy cough. And I’ll say Sure, Dad, as I pass by him to put a dozen frozen dinners into the same old yellow freezer.
We dry-swallow all the cereal dust in the house. Krystal tips her head next to my feet in the sink and turns on the tap.
“There’s two cans of Beefaroni left,” she says, wiping her wet chin with a dirty dish towel, “but he’ll be back before then.”
“He’ll be back before then,” I agree, but we really can’t know.
We measure Dad’s absences in empty cans and boxes. We break the rules and cut across miles of shaggy fields to the gas station for pull-tab cans of syrupy fruit cocktails. Krystal teaches me how to slide Slim Jims up my shirt without getting caught. The golden-tooth cashier lets us take-a-penny from the bowl even though we never leave one. We pluck sand spurs from the bottoms of our flip-flops and share Cokes in the parking lot while the parts in our hair grow tender under a vicious sun.
Sometimes I think my sister likes when our dad is gone—the way I do—but then I see her dusting the top of his dresser around the empty bottles of cologne and under the aftershave or I catch her holding back tears while she boils the last hot dog in the package and I wonder if she feels a different way than I do.
If you ask her if she’s scared alone when it’s dark—out here where the bobcats make soft paths in the weeds between our place and the stand of ancient, mossy oaks—she’ll roll her eyes at you and sigh.
I know it’s not snakes and gators or the tree frogs with the big eyes that scare my sister. It’s a feeling that gnaws at her during our father’s long absences—a feeling in her stomach that makes her chew bits of toilet roll cardboard to a pulp until they turn into something soft enough to swallow. We aren’t scared or lonely without our father. Those are two feelings we could manage. Hunger is a different beast. It’s pink and raw, like a tender hole in your gums after a tooth falls out. An empty place. That empty feeling is what scares my sister, though I don’t know because I asked. I know because that feeling is what scares me, too.
A buzz-saw commotion of cicadas surges and wanes, opening a silence too golden to waste. I let out a long, high whistle at Barb through the window, but she won’t look. There’s a rattle of dishes, the gritty scrape of chair legs on linoleum. Rusty’s overgrown body takes up the doorway in front of Barb, backside first.
“Don’t wreck the damn place,” Barb hollers.
A handful of night birds scatter into the dark like tossed confetti. I squeeze Krystal’s shoulder, but she shrugs me off.
Krystal and I pass a can of oily noodles in orange sauce back and forth between us over the sink as we watch Barb rummage around in the trunk of Rusty’s Topaz. One flat ass cheek sags out of her terrycloth shorts. The beam of a flashlight flickers and we watch it ghost across the weeds, reaching for the edge of the canal. A meaty, prehistoric groan rides to our window on a breeze.
Krystal shushes me, though I’m as quiet as a mouse.
I can hear my own heartbeat.
I feel a deep and sudden sadness for those springtime baby ducks following behind their mama, paddling hard to keep up, without so much as a flinch of suspicion they’re gonna be eaten soon by something hungry.
Then, without ceremony—as if he’s done it a hundred times—Rusty rakes a hissing, six-foot alligator out of Barb’s house by its tail over the polished carport concrete and across the moonlit yard. It thrashes the whole way, black as water except for a pale streak of belly, a flare of amber night eyes. There’s a silver loop of duct tape wrapped around its toothy snout.
Barb sets down the flashlight at the edge of the canal. The light shines toward us sitting in the window, obscuring their two crouching silhouettes. I tell myself I don’t want to see whatever is about to happen, that I don’t want to watch the neighbors do something terrible to that alligator. But I can’t help looking.
There’s a twisted harmony of lamenting grunts, a doleful splash, as Rusty and Barb shove that gator into the water. My sister’s feet press lightly on mine in the kitchen sink.
“Did you see him take off the tape?” I whisper.
“No,” she says back, “the sonofabitch.”
We watch the flashlight cut a path back to Barb’s, but we don’t much care what happens next.
When it’s quiet again we listen for dad’s tires crunching up the gravel driveway. We listen for the screen door banging behind him, the crinkle of a plastic sack of snapper on his wrist—perfect for frying, perfect for tearing apart with a fork, just perfect. We’ll tell him about what Barb had under her table, how we watched the whole ordeal sitting in the kitchen window. He’ll laugh so hard about it, his open mouth exposing fish on the back of his tongue, a flash of scale between his teeth. Even my sister will laugh then.
Krystal scrapes sauce from the bottom of the noodle can.
“Open up, baby bird,” she says, putting the spoon’s handle in her mouth to feed me the last bite.