Paper Gator (Original Short Story)

In honor of Father’s Day.

***

Nolan West pulled his 1967 Chevy Impala off I-59 and found a quieter road from which to inspect the West Pearl River. It looked like a slab of greenish ice, even in the late June sunshine. The trees alongside it were low-hanging, ominous. They were garbed in cobwebs and Spanish moss, with bony legs hanging into the water.

“Mr. West?”

Nolan was startled from his mental narration by the voice of his eleven-year-old daughter. He had almost forgotten that he had just picked her up at the airport in Gulfport. After being dropped off by her mother, who had promptly caught another flight to Atlanta, Joy had ranted for a little while about wanting to go to Europe too. Then she had fallen silent. She had admitted that the teachers’ conference in Paris sounded boring, but she hadn’t seen her dad since the divorce three years earlier. She hadn’t said much since telling him she wanted a Whopper Junior for lunch.

“Yes, Joy?” Nolan said, adjusting the rearview mirror so that he couldn’t see his rising widow’s peak.

“Where are we going?”

“West Pearl River State Park.”

“Why?”

“My boss asked me to look into a swamp monster there.”

Joy lowered her elbow from the window frame and scrunched her dirty blond eyebrows together. “A swamp monster? A real one?”

“No one’s proved it otherwise,” Nolan replied, slowing down to look for the turnoff.

“I thought you were a reporter,” Joy asked, glancing at the camera bag in the backseat.

Not since your mother left me. Nolan tried not to think about how much Joy resembled Anna Beth. “Not for a couple years.”

Joy played with her seat belt, pulling it all the way out and letting it slurp back in. “So what do you do, exactly?” she asked after a moment’s pause.

Nolan glanced sideways at her. “I prove that monsters are fake.”

“What if they aren’t?”

“I haven’t found a real one yet.”

Joy did not look convinced.

On the West Pearl River was a small gift shop called Ol’ Red Eyes. The man who greeted them inside had on a big straw hat and had a bulge in his cheek. Joy watched with wide eyes as the man spat a brown stream into a plastic bottle.

“Now who y’all with?” the man said again after Nolan had explained twice.

Nolan tried to keep his voice even. “I write a blog for the Chattanooga Newsfeed,” he said, enunciating loudly, as Joy looked with something akin to horror at the array of red-eyed reptilian paraphernalia. “I want to write a story about the swamp monster.”

“Ol’ Red Eyes don’t take kindly to reporters.”

Not to be dissuaded, Nolan paid the man for a tour of the bayou, and they made their way to the moored speedboat. Nolan took note of the Yamaha 60 outboard motor as a fair-haired tour guide jumped into the boat before them.

“Won’t that motor scare off Ol’ Red Eyes?” Nolan asked, frowning, as he helped Joy into the boat.

“Nah, he’s used to us,” replied the tour guide. He was about twenty, probably in college. He seemed happy to have a small audience and started into a spiel on the West Pearl River.

They proceeded through the bayou at a roaring twenty-five miles per hour. Joy stayed close to her father, squeaking when Adam—the tour guide—made any sudden turns. At one point, Adam turned the boat so hard that the murky water sprayed up over the edge of the boat. Terrified, Joy flung herself onto Nolan.

Adam suddenly cut the engine, and the boat continued to glide almost silently past a low-tide area where dried logs lined the shore like pine straw lines the Georgia piedmont. Between two of these logs lay Ol’ Red Eyes. He was long and lumpy, brown with a knobby ridge down his spine. He looked rather like a gator, but was at least twenty feet long. And his eyes were blood red.

Joy abruptly sat down in the exact center of the boat and remained immovable until Adam pulled the boat back up to the dock by the gift shop. After they had disembarked, Joy sat in the passenger seat of the Impala, mumbling to herself and rocking back and forth.

Nolan was far less impressed. If only he had taken his camera with him . . . Let’s see, it was a left about two miles in, and¬—

“Mr. West?”

“Yes?” Nolan replied, cringing a little, as he pulled into the drive-thru lane of another Burger King.

“You actually do this for work? It’s super scary!”

Nolan was unable to hold back a smile. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

Still not convinced, Joy asked for chicken strips. “So what do you do next?”

“We need pictures. If we could get back there without a guide . . .”

Nolan spent that evening researching the West Pearl River. He worked out where they had seen Ol’ Red Eyes, and the Wests returned to the bayou in the morning. Nolan parked the Impala in sight of the water and left Joy inside of it with the windows rolled down a couple inches. He left his cell phone with her and set out with the camera. He got to the log-strewn shore and picked his way carefully among them. He came upon Ol’ Red Eyes quite suddenly and started backward, but then he gave a yell and began to laugh.

Nolan had taken several pictures when Joy’s plaintive voice surprised him. “Dad?”

A warm glow filling his chest, he walked back to the car. “Yes, Joy?”

“Just making sure.”

“I’m all right. Get out of the car for a second.”

Joy looked at him as though he had just asked her to chew off her own arm. Nolan put the camera down in the backseat before opening her door.

“Come on.”

Joy clutched his hand tightly as he led her back to Ol’ Red Eyes. She wouldn’t set foot on the muddy shore.

“Look very carefully, Joy.”

Joy looked until at last she picked out Ol’ Red Eyes. Then her eyes widened, and she broke into a grin. This “swamp monster” was a cleverly-carved log mixed in among the dead wood. Nolan had to laugh again at the look on Joy’s face.

They got back in the Impala. Two weeks stretched out before them, and Joy clearly no longer dreaded the idea of hunting down monsters with her dad.

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