Chapter 14: The Closing
The police office was abuzz with rumors about the big announcement that was happening later that day. Officer Kent Able tried to drown out the chatter. There were plenty of other things he was concerned about. He hadn’t gotten any more than three hours sleep. Tossing and turning, pulling the covers out from the bedding, he couldn’t stop his mind from running wild. The interrogation with Everett, who was undoubtedly innocent, was completely awful. He had made radical insinuations that had virtually no proof other than an overactive imagination.
The coroner had phoned him in the early hours of the morning, waking him at 1 a.m. informing him that alligator residue remained on the severed neckline of Ms. Witcher’s head. He had been a total idiot. Letting his own trepidations about her teaching methods on his daughter dictate how he approached poor, innocent Everett. He was such a fool, a complete fool. He was deeply ashamed of himself. Perhaps there would be mercy considering the nature of the beast. Having an animal rampaging, ticking down Midvale’s population was enough to drive anyone up the wall, cowering in the corner. He needed this job to support his daughter, certainly, but it also kept him sane. Knowing he was doing something, even if it was a small part in making the world a safer place, helping people in need, it gave him life. He had failed Everett and he didn’t know if he could forgive himself, but he desperately wanted others to forgive his total lack of judgment.
A knock on top of his cubicle wall snapped him back to his surroundings.
“Hey, the chief wants to talk with you.”
“All right thanks,” he brushed aside, not even looking to who said it. When he looked up the person was gone. He was really in his own world today. He called out to God internally, asking for focus and to receive mercy for his awful job performance yesterday.
Every step to the chief’s office felt like a walk of shame. Convinced eyes were following him, laughter trailing behind him, he tried to drain all the periphery noise out. The more he thought about it, he realized he was over thinking everything. The laughter wasn’t about him and nobody was staring at him as he walked to the chief’s office. He had convinced himself that he was about to hear bad news, but he didn’t know what would be said, so why should he worry himself sick playing out various scenarios in his head?
He knocked on the open door to the chief’s office. Chief Niels Jacox had his back turned, the phone in one hand, the other holding up the index finger silently asking for a second. Kent swayed back and forth, his body off-balance waiting awkwardly outside the door.
“All right, love you too. Kiss the boy’s forehead for me,” Niels said hanging up the phone, a smile bursting on his face. “Congratulate me! I’m now a grandfather. I can’t believe it.”
“Oh wow! Congratulations. I still remember when I came here and she was just in high school.”
“Please don’t. You’ll make me cry. I could reminisce for hours, but that’s not why I asked you back here.”
Kent gulped. This was it. Time to let the degradation begin.
“I listened to Everett’s statement last night right before I left the office. That was shoddy work, Kent. It was the tawdriest work I’ve ever seen you do. What happened to you, man?”
Kent remained silent. The thing he respected the most about Niels was his uncensored nature. They had become instant friends because he knew Niels would always be honest, but it sucked hearing it out loud for he had already been blaming himself for the entire night.
“That was a serious question, Kent. I want an answer,” Niels demanded.
Kent’s face became beet red. He had assumed the question was completely rhetorical. “I wanted answers for why this was happening to us.”
“The alligators, you mean?” Niels clarified.
“Yeah. I wish I could just blame somebody, but there’s no one at fault. I allowed my frustrations to get in the way of my work. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”
“You recognized what you had done before I called you in here. It read all over your face. I respect that. I’m not going to fire you, so rest assured about that.”
Kent let out a sigh of relief. He knew their friendship would save his job, but he still was deeply distraught over his terrible work ethic. He prided himself in how he was never judgmental in taking a statement. His reputation was completely shot. This was quickly turning into the worst day of his life.
“…but I’m going to ask you to take the week off, get some rest and just take a break from this whole alligator business. I can personally promise you that it’ll all be resolved definitively this week.”
“Do I have to take PTO?”
“No, don’t worry at all about that. I can tell that you’re stressed. I need you, but not now, not the way you’ve been performing. Take the rest seriously. I don’t want you to worry your head about our predicament.”
Kent nodded. Niels turned his chair back around, nonverbally ending the meeting. People who didn’t know Niels well thought he could be incredibly rude, but Kent knew it was just the way he functioned. There was no time for pleasantries. He had said what had to be said and had to move onto the next task of the day.
Walking out of the office he was bombarded with questions as to what the midday announcement was going to be. Of course they had thought Niels had revealed to him the announcement since they had been close friends before Niels had become the chief. They were the two oldest in the department. He fielded off all the questions, ignoring everybody as he walked out the door. This was his time off. He was going to make the best of it. However, something kept repeating in the back of his mind. How could Niels promise the alligators would be taken care of this week?
Everett walked by the nature trail. It was so welcoming, but he knew he should avoid it, especially after that Buddhist officer practically accused him of murder. He wanted to spend more time in nature. Convinced that the alligators had intercepted the message, that they had distorted what nature was trying to tell him, he had to get back there. Fear prevented him from taking the step forward into the trail. Fear of his uncle’s reaction, fear of the repercussion that would undoubtedly ensue, fear of the officer who interrogated him, it was all reasons to not take a step forward. Nature was calling out to him. He could hear it in the breeze, but consciously he would ignore it for now.
Turning around he headed back to his uncle’s house. He noted that it was strange that he kept calling it his uncle’s house when that was now his permanent residence. It was so strange to think that his parents didn’t want to talk with him at all, that they had severed ties with him. Pulling out his cell phone, he looked at his contacts. He looked at his mother’s number. Every fiber of his being screamed out at him to dial, to cuss her out, berate her, completely disown her too, but he couldn’t do that to his mother, to his parents even if they didn’t want him anymore. Perhaps some of Uncle Reid’s teachings in church had rubbed off on him, but that was ludicrous. Nature had revealed that to him from a distance.
He scrolled down his contacts and found the church’s number. He only had to wait two rings before his uncle picked up.
“Yes, Everett? What can I do for you?” Uncle Reid asked.
Everett was tongue-tied. He was certain he’d have to explain who it was, but he was glad to skip the pleasantries. He just felt a little flustered.
“Are you still there?” his uncle asked.
“Yeah, sorry. Uh, how, how did you know it was me?”
“You don’t think I have your number memorized? I’m responsible for you now. I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’re taken care of. I memorized your number so that I know exactly when you call, make sense?”
“Yeah…” Everett breathily whispered. His eyes brimmed with tears. He knew Uncle Reid cared for him, but he hadn’t realized how much he was cared for. The thought occurred to him that Uncle Reid would never abandon him the way his blood parents did. “Thank you.”
“Of course. You’re my nephew and I love you. You know that.”
“Can I stop by your office so we can talk?”
“No, I’m busy today. I just don’t have any time to spare and honestly I’m still upset with you for the stunt you pulled yesterday. I love you, but I’m not ready to talk with you just yet. I still need to calm down. This whole parenting thing is new to me, you know? So can you give me some space?”
“Whatever,” Everett hung up on him. The worst thing about that conversation was he understood where his uncle was coming from. He probably would’ve felt the same way, but it still didn’t lesson the sting. It seemed like a contradiction that his uncle loved him but didn’t want to talk things through. Yet internally he knew Uncle Reid did love him and he hated being cut off like this.
“Hey!” a voice called out behind him.
He smiled as Bennie walked over to him. “Hi.”
“You seem troubled. What’s on your mind?”
“Just growing pains with the uncle, I guess.”
“Is he giving you lip for being gay?”
Everett’s eyes bugged out. “What? No! That wasn’t even on my mind.”
“Ok, great! So what’s there to worry about?”
“I’m sorry to inform you but my sexual orientation doesn’t define me. I don’t think about it all the time and sometimes things are just wrong because I’ve had a tough day, not because I’m frickin’ homosexual.”
Bennie laughed. “You wanted to curse, didn’t you?”
“Why can’t you just take me seriously? My gosh!”
“I’m sorry,” she said instantly composing herself, “I’m listening.”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“Then why are you so upset about it?”
“I don’t know! It’s all so confusing. He wants to talk but then he doesn’t want to talk. I think he loves me but then he doesn’t have time for me. Then he gives this extravagantly worded proclamation of how much he cares for me and-”
“Let me guess…he doesn’t have time for you?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Maybe it’s only for today, perhaps?” Bennie asked hopefully.
“I guess that’s possible. I just really wanted to resolve things now.”
“Yeah, I know but which is better: having it shoddily resolved when he’s not ready to give you a pass, or wait until he’s mulled it over for a while and full-heartedly extends grace upon you? I mean, is there really even an option between the two?”
“No, I guess not,” Everett retreated. She was right of course, but that didn’t help with his frustrations.
“Can I say something completely off topic?”
“Go for it,” he urged, ecstatic that the conversation was off him.
“I leave in a week,” she said trepidatiously.
“Wow…” he could barely let the breath escape his lips. She was the only one who understood the conflicting feelings over Charlie.
“I really, really want to go for that swim.”
“You’re still on about that?” he asked mystified.
“It’s in honor of him.”
“No, it’s just plain creepy if you think that’s going to honor him,” Fern said behind them.
“Fern!” Bennie called out.
They both walked over to her, giving each other a three-way hug.
“How are my other miserable peeps doing?” Fern asked.
“I’m going for that swim today, whether you two like it or not.”
“Ok, ok now calm down. Give me twenty minutes to grab my dad’s gun. He’s at the police office. There’s gonna be some big announcement later today, so we can just skip that and head on the trail.”
“Can I interject?” Everett asked.
“Certainly,” Fern responded.
“I want to go, but not for the reasons you think. Some creep cop accused me of murdering Ms. Witcher.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it,” Fern said averting his gaze.
“And you would know this how?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Fern mumbled.
“Get to the point,” Bennie encouraged.
“Ok! I wanted to find wherever the alligators are hiding. I want to capture them. It could clear my name.”
“Trust me, your name doesn’t have to be cleared,” Fern said under her breath.
“Do you want to clarify that?”
Fern remained silent.
“I didn’t think so,” Everett retorted.
“We could become heroes,” Bennie added with glee. “And I bet your uncle would be proud of you.”
“Give me twenty and we’ll head on in,” Fern said.
“Can you make it fifteen?” Bennie asked.
Fern raised her eyebrows.
“I’m only joking.”
“I never turn down a challenge. Clock me, if you dare,” Fern retorted bolting away from them.
“There’s something seriously wrong with that girl,” Everett said.
Bennie’s glare shut him up.
Fern burst through the front door panting. A quick look at the clock told her she had made it in six minutes flat, a new personal record. She perused around her father’s den flustered from the run. Opening the doors to his desk revealed nothing other than the fact that he had changed the location of the gun’s hiding place.
“What are you doing, honey?”
Fern’s heart nearly burst through her chest. Her father had caught her red-handed. There was only one thing to do: lie.
“I was looking for your schedule. I wanted to know when you’d get home. Why are you home so early today?” she queried.
“Uh, I kinda got a week to just kick back. Is there anything that you’d really like to do this week, you know, just the two of us?”
“Sure Dad, just not today. I gotta jet. Friends are waiting for me. We’re just gonna hike on the nature trail.”
“Oh, of course sweetheart. Spend time with your friends. Have fun.”
“Cool. I’ll see you tonight, whenever. Gotta go!” she called out running out the door.
She had lost two minutes chatting with her dad. He seemed sad, like he wanted to share something whilst ignoring his pain. It was whatever. He could take care of himself. The important thing was to win this challenge that she had inflicted upon herself.
It dawned on her, crashing down her high spirits. Beating the challenge no longer mattered. She hadn’t obtained her father’s gun. They’d have to call off going into the nature trail, at least for the day. When she arrived back at the nature trail entrance, she realized that Bennie was no longer there.
“Where’s Bennie?” Fern asked exhausted.
“She was convinced you wouldn’t make it in time,” Everett responded.
“14 minutes, 49 seconds. I have to say I’m impressed.”
“I guess that’s that then. Wait, why did she leave?”
“She went to grab her Bible.”
“Oh sick!” Fern responded jubilantly. “We could have Bible study in the glades.”
“Yeah…” Everett dragged the word out. “Stimulating,” he uttered sarcastically.
“I find Scripture refreshing.”
“Yeah, but you don’t really believe it, do you?”
“Because it’s homophobic.”
That had not been the answer she was expecting. It took her a second to compose her thoughts. She cleared her throat and said, “Yeah, well there’s different ways to interpret the Bible.”
“Oh come on. Don’t be foolish. You don’t really believe the Bible endorses homosexuality.”
“Well…” she sighed with apprehension.
“All right. You got me curious. What do you think it says about being gay?”
“I think you’re right.”
“About what? Embracing who I am or that the Bible condones it?”
“I do think the Bible frowns upon it,” she said gaining confidence.
“And you still believe in a book that’s heterosexist?”
“What, are you disgusted by me, now?”
“No, not at all. I believe the Bible teaches us to love one another, even if we disagree, even if they don’t believe.”
“Sure it does. Nope, can’t do it. We’re not going to talk about this anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” she conceded. “I didn’t mean to step on your toes.”
“Yeah you did, but don’t fret. That only makes me respect you more. Let’s just stay away from talking about the religion stuff, ok? You won’t agree with my views and I’m not going to agree with yours.”
She was heartbroken hearing that the road of communication, discussing God, spiritual matters, had been shut off. They had practically just met but due to their mutual pain over losing someone close, she felt like she had known him and Bennie for ages. They were the only ones who understood.
“What are we talking about?” Bennie stepped into the conversation holding her Bible at her side.
“Religion and the Bible,” Fern said.
“We were discussing that, but the conversation’s over,” Everett connoted.
“That’s probably for the best,” Bennie agreed.
Fern was shocked. She had thought since Bennie ran to grab her Bible that she would come to her defense, relate how helpful, how beautiful the Scriptures were.
“Shall we?” Everett said leading the way into the nature trail.
Fern looked down at Bennie.
“What?” Bennie asked nervously.
“I’m disappointed in you.”
“Why? Because I don’t want to talk about the Bible to someone who just came out of the closet this summer? He needs our help. What do you not support him?”
“I support him, I just don’t support his decision.”
“It’s the same thing.”
“No it’s not!” Fern quipped.
“Are you coming ladies?” Everett called after them from the trail.
Bennie glared at Fern as she walked into the trail. Fern waited a moment trying to calm herself down and then followed Bennie onto the trail.
Yellow Caution tape blocked off the entrance to the nature trail. Chief Jacox had officers walk the trail, clearing everybody out before they had taped off the entrances. The crowd seemed antsy in the middle of the afternoon. Sparse conversations fluctuated throughout the crowd. Niels Jacox was excited to share his solution. Everybody would understand without question…he hoped.
Officer Ralls gripped Niels’ shoulder, whispering in his ear, “Everybody’s waiting for your call to start, Chief.”
“Fine,” Niels responded lightly. “I’ll begin in a minute.”
Turning around, facing the trail, Niels corrected his tie, wiped the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief, and took a deep breath.
“Well, shall we get this town meeting started?” Neils began gripping the sides of the podium set up for him to support his balance.
“Why is the nature trail taped off, Chief?” a journalist from the local paper piped up holding his cell phone out visually recording him.
“That’ll be answered in time. Please hold your questions until I finish the announcement. I will answer as many as I can afterwards.”
The crowd went silent anticipating the announcement.
“As you all know we’ve had a terrible loss this summer, terrible tragedy by losing four members of the community who shall remain unnamed for the time being. We have an alligator infestation and despite numerous attempts to contact professionals, or have the owners take care of it,” he paused to glare at Dax standing to the right of the crowd, “it has persisted to be a problem. I can assure you that we are taking every precaution to ensure that this problem ceases within the week. I will personally guarantee that we will not have an alligator problem this time next week. Please quote me on that,” he nodded to the journalist.
The journalist held his hand up, fingers spread apart, but pulled it down relinquishing his question.
“How can I guarantee that?” Niels added rhetorically. “Well, I’m glad you asked. For starters, we’re going to close the nature trail. Every alligator attack apart from the first one has been within the forest. By closing off the trail until we deal with this properly, it’ll limit human contact with the beasts. We’re taking the alligator problem into our own hands.
“We’ve attempted to take a hands-off approach, to humanely capture these animals and put them back into captivity, but every time that has failed. Beginning at sunrise tomorrow, I along with the bulk of our police force are going off the path in the nature trail to find these creatures and killing them off one-by-one.”
The crowd collectively gasped. Cheers and jeers intermixed as everyone began talking with each other. Niels held his hands out trying to quiet down the crowd, but then a group of teens started singing Hail to the Chief in falsetto. He busted out laughing out of sheer embarrassment.
Once the final line had been sung, the journalist whistled to grab everyone’s attention. Niels pointed and nodded at him. “Chief, how exactly are you going to kill the creatures?”
“Shouldn’t it be obvious? We’re going to use guns.”
“Isn’t it true that alligator skin is tough, like armor? Bullet-proof you might venture to say?” the journalist added cockily.
“No, that’s not true,” Dax called out. “It’s incredibly tough to kill them with guns, but it is possible.”
“And how would you know that?” the journalist asked.
“Because I’ve done it before when they’ve attacked me,” Dax said gravely, letting out a sigh.
The crowd became still.
“Did you just admit to killing your own pets?”
“And who can blame him,” Niels interrupted, “when we’ve seen them inflict such damage? These are not friendly creatures. They are nothing more than vicious animals. I’m sure God will not frown upon us for killing off these beasts.”
“Give me one more week!” Dax yelled. “I’ll have them all caught by then. Don’t kill my babies,” he pleaded.
“When any of our children in Midvale kill off another town member, whether it be in a drunken brawl, or premeditated, we give them the death penalty. Thankfully our state has enough sense to keep that in place to protect its citizens. If we kill other humans for killing humans, why would we not kill pets too? You can’t hold them too close if you’re willing to kill them yourself, right?”
Niels looked directly at Dax challenging him to have a rebuttal, but Dax remained still.
“Why wouldn’t you start that tonight?” the journalist prompted, as a few in the crowd applauded the notion.
“Because alligators can see at night and we can’t. We don’t want any surprises. The casualty list stops here!”
The crowd erupted into cheers and applause. It was gratifying to see that the push back on killing the alligators was minimum and every question he had been asked he had already thought through an answer beforehand. He still had his finger on the pulse of what the people thought. It could be easy to influence any group of people if you prepared how to answer difficult questions, a quality he had mastered early on in his career that ultimately gave him the highest ranking in the local force.
“Come now, that can’t be all of your questions. Surely you have more!”
“How do you know that God wouldn’t frown on killing the alligators, huh?” a voice in the middle of the crowd yelled out.
“Well, I’m sure Pastor Reid could answer that for us.”
“I am he.”
“You can’t really think God wants this beast to eat us?”
“I didn’t claim that, but there are other ways to deal with this.”
“Yes, ways we’ve already tried and I’ve answered to earlier.”
“Can you provide scripture proof for your plan?”
“Can you?” Niels retorted snidely.
“Why don’t you answer the question, Chief?” the journalist prodded.
“I’m no spiritual leader. We all know this, but if I have to disobey God to ensure the safety of this town, then I assure you I will do everything in my power, so help me God, to protect this town through my last fleeting breath,” Niels said and then stepped down from the podium ending the town meeting quickly.
The Sunday school whiteboard was full of facts about Obadiah. There was no time to get distracted. Dax took the eraser and wiped all the bullet points off the board.
“Ok, we need a game plan,” he said.
“I’m at a loss where to begin,” Dax mumbled.
“We need to stop Niels. His heart’s in the right place, but it’s misguided. They have no idea about how to react to this animal. He’s just sending them into danger. Gotta respect his confidence though,” Reid stated.
“It’s not confidence it’s just sheer idiocy,” Dax spat with disdain.
“That might well be true, but one thing’s certain: he’s an amazing public speaker. He can control a crowd like none other I know.”
“I know it. That’s what scares me.”
“Is there any chance that we could convince him to change his mind?”
“You know him better than I do.”
“Not really. He doesn’t go to my church. In fact I don’t think he attends church at all.”
“Really?” Dax asked confused. “Then why all the talk about God would want us to do this? What’s the point if he doesn’t believe it himself?”
“I’m unsure if he’s a full on atheist, he just doesn’t see the need for church. He knew his audience though, so he had to mention the Lord.”
“I thought this was an incredibly religious town. Doesn’t everybody go to church?”
“Well most people do, but that doesn’t mean anything. Just because people sit down butt-warming the pews doesn’t mean they apply anything that’s discussed during the worship service.”
“Clarify this for me: are you saying that most people who step into your church, who profess to be Christians, aren’t Christians at all?”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“How can you say that about your congregation?”
“Because it’s the truth. I don’t mind that they show up, but it irks me when they’re just lazy and don’t do anything. A lukewarm attitude about God is sickening to me.”
“Wow,” Dax said flustered. “Why don’t you tell me how you really feel?”
“I just did,” Reid replied matter-of-factly.
“I know. It was a joke.”
“So was mine.”
“Sorry, I just don’t read deadpan humor well.”
“It happens to the best of us.”
“We’re running in circles again. We’ve gotta get back on track. Can we stop him from going through with this?” Dax asked bringing the conversation on point.
“It’s doubtful. He’s incredibly stubborn. He’s not somebody who half-asses his way into a decision. They’re going into that forest whether we want them to or not.”
“They’ll get killed!”
“Most likely, but they’re not going to listen to us,” Dax said gravely. “Is there any chance we could capture the rest of them before they begin?”
“Perhaps if we had more people…”
“You do now,” Kent said.
“Officer Kent?” Dax asked flabbergasted.
“Kent!” Reid exclaimed. “It’s good to see you brother,” he added giving him a bear hug.
“You two clearly know each other,” Dax commented.
“You bet. Kent’s wife was one of the few adults who embraced me as a brother in the faith, as well as a pastor when I moved to Midvale.”
“Well, it was quite easy to do,” Kent tacked on, “because you had a lot more passion and zeal for the Lord than the previous pastor, according to my wife at least.”
“Now, Kent, what have I told you about playing the comparison game? Stop it! It’s not fair to either of us.”
“Sorry,” Kent grumbled.
“What’s your plan?” Dax asked Kent.
“I thought we had already established it. We need to go and capture them ourselves. The only hitch is we have less than 24 hours to do it in. How many more need to be caught?”
“Four,” Dax said with the slightest hint of hope. “Two have already been captured. I have a feeling that it’s only one alligator that’s been attacking people.”
“I’ve had similar sentiments,” Reid added.
“It shouldn’t be too bad trying to capture them, right?” Kent said optimistically.
“It’ll be harder than you think,” Dax replied. “Are you sure you’re up for it?”
“Absolutely,” Kent said.
“Because I have to be. My baby’s walking the trail right now and I’m going to find her, but I also want to help you. Three is better than two. If we run into alligators along the way we can capture them. It’ll protect her having them out of the community.”
“I’ll second that,” Dax added. He surprised himself by being in agreement. While he didn’t want to kill the creatures, he no longer wanted anything to do with them. He wanted to ensure their safety along with the safety of the town. It was a juggling act that had seemed impossible up until now. He had high hopes that this would be it. It had to be it. There was no other alternative, no humane one at least.
“We haven’t used the whiteboard at all,” Reid observed.
“And you shouldn’t either. You don’t want anybody to find evidence of what we’re doing. They’re bound to try to stop us,” Kent replied
“So what happens if we don’t find them all before sunset? Are we going to continue searching through the night?” Reid asked.
“If we have to,” Dax added. “Do you have night vision goggles, Kent?”
“I only have one pair at my house.”
“Well, grab that and your gun just in case of an emergency before we head out.”
“How are we going to enter the trail?” Reid asked. “They’ve put up a guard blocking the entrance which thankfully is protecting the people, but not the creatures. They’re bound to see us.”
“No they won’t,” Dax said. “You’ve never gone off the beaten path, have you?”
“Not until the summer when I was summoned to pray over the remains.”
“There’s access to the forest from the alligator farm. That was how they got in and that is the way we’ll get them out. We’re going to follow them.”
“You know what this means?” Kent clarified.
“Absolutely,” Reid replied.
“We’re going to break the law.”