Chapter 16: The Passover
Everett jogged to catch up with Bennie and Fern. Fern grimaced in pain clutching the towel around her wound. Bennie simply glared at him.
“Took you long enough,” Bennie practically spat out.
“I’m sorry!” he sassily replied.
“What were you doing anyway?”
“I was just looking for where the alligator went.”
Fern bolted upright. “Did you see it?” she demanded.
“No, I couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“Typical,” Bennie uttered under her breath.
“You know I can hear you, right?” Everett added trying to embarrass her.
Bennie stopped in her tracks, turning around to look at him. “I’m sorry, I guess.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah, well you’re not getting any better than that.”
“Why are you being so mean right now?” Everett pleaded.
Fern held up her arm catching her breath as she held onto a tree branch. Bennie grabbed him and pulled him behind a tree.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Fern needs us now.”
“Exactly, but she’ll be safe for one minute.”
Everett looked at her challenging her to explain herself. He couldn’t explain why he felt so calm in such a tense situation. It must just be a coping mechanism. His heartbeat was steady and while he felt the alligator could be anywhere around them, he felt at peace. He was convinced he could outrun them if need be.
“Listen,” Bennie began snapping him back to his surroundings, “I love how you’re so open, so vulnerable, but this is not the time. Fern is paranoid that we’ll run into the alligator again before we get back into town.”
“Can you really blame her? I mean she did lose an arm!” Everett raised his voice.
“Shh! Calm down,” she demanded. “Whisper, please,” she begged.
“All right, fine,” Everett whispered agitated.
“It’s very simple. We need her to forget about the alligator. She’s lost a lot of blood. I don’t want her to focus on anything other than heading back.”
“I don’t know. I think her thinking about the alligator is keeping her alert, conscious.”
“She’s not alert, she’s crazy. We’d all be if it happened to us. Stop filling her with even more paranoia.”
“She has a right to be and so do I! I just witnessed one tear off my friend’s arm.”
“I know, I was there too, but we can’t talk about it.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because I can’t handle thinking about the alternative,” Bennie admitted.
Everett’s heart sank. Her denial made total sense now. The alligator consumed his thoughts. He saw the shadows of the figure in every turn in the twilight. A part of him morbidly wanted the alligator to show up again just so he’d know where it was, but he’d only want that if all three of them could be safe. That wasn’t a possibility, not anymore. Fern’s safety needed to overtake everything else, but Bennie’s sanity was a close second. He would respect her wishes.
“Where are you two?” Fern called out for them.
“I won’t say a word,” Everett promised.
“Thank you,” Bennie whispered. Walking around the tree to comfort Fern, she added, “We just needed to have a little chat and you seemed fine.”
“Tell me where it is!” Fern screamed. “I need to know! I need to see the light leave its eyes before I die.”
“You are not going to die,” Bennie calmly replied. “Not if you can remain calm. We’ll get back very soon, I promise you.”
“I don’t want to be calm,” Fern responded with disdain. “I need answers,” she pleaded.
“Well, we can’t give them to you, so you’re just going to have to accept that. What are we even doing? We’re wasting time. Come on let’s move,” Bennie commanded.
Everett didn’t dare object knowing that Bennie was teetering on the edge of what she could handle. Surprisingly Fern even kept quiet as they began walking again. The silence gave Everett some free space to think. Bennie had been right. More than likely they wouldn’t see the alligator again. They had been walking a ways and had seen no sign of it. His fears were all for naught. The thing to focus on was getting back into town.
It was a mistake having entered the nature trail in the first place. All of them knew that. Had they just stayed, had Bennie not persisted in swimming in the glades, had he not been so adamant about clearing his name all the pain could have been avoided. None of it mattered anymore. The tribute swim for Charlie ended in more carnage by the teeth of the alligator. His fears over clearing his name virtually vanished the instant the alligator showed up. He just wanted everybody to be safe. He desperately wanted to protect his friends from harm, but that was unavoidable. Bennie’s thoughts were unclear to him. He would never know what she was thinking, but he assumed it was avoidance. He just wanted to work through things, talk through his fears, but he still felt eerily calm.
He felt bad about being so harsh on Bennie earlier. Both of them wanted to get Fern to safety as quickly as possible. They had just dealt with it differently. He walked over and patted her on the shoulder sympathetically. She placed her hand on his gently thanking him for comforting her, or so he thought. They were at peace with each other and all he wanted to do was to comfort her. She had wanted to comfort him when he came out to her even though he didn’t need it. He hadn’t understood that she needed it more than he did. It was a beautiful gift to be able to comfort someone who needed to know you were there for them. Their bond of friendship was now stronger than ever and he thanked nature for bringing her into his life.
Bennie pulled a loose branch away revealing an alligator’s snout poking out toward her. Fern bolted. Everett tried desperately to find where she’d gone, but the darker the forest had become, the easier it was to get lost. Bennie backed away slowly, her hands shaking. He couldn’t hear a single exhale escape her lips. He wanted to comfort Fern, but he couldn’t find her and she wasn’t screaming. She was lost. All attention went solely to the alligator that wasn’t moving. The thought occurred that it wasn’t there to harm them, but the thought was fleeting, frivolous.
Everett moved right behind Bennie as she kept walking backwards. Neither made a sound. The alligator remained still. Everett grabbed her arms letting her know he was there. She turned around and hugged him. He gripped her for support as he stared into the alligator’s eyes. This was not the alligator that had attacked them previously. It couldn’t be. The alligator was slowly waking up as the light left the sky. Only a blue tinge remained before the cold, dark, blackness of the night overcame them.
Bennie broke the hug and started to walk back to the glades. Everett knew they needed to regroup. He couldn’t even remember which way Fern had run. Neither dared talk. How could they have lost Fern? She needed their help most of all, but Everett had been surprised he hadn’t run away either. He wanted to protect Bennie who was frozen in fear and he was scared too, he admitted to himself.
A branch snapped. He audibly gasped as his eyes locked onto the alligator that was taking a step forward. Bennie started crying. He tried to comfort her, but he was frozen in his stance. She walked backwards, her hand shaking. He tried to reach her hand to guide her away, but he still couldn’t get himself to move.
Her foot caught on a tree root sticking out of the ground. She gasped and then screamed as she plummeted down the hill towards the muddy embankment. Everett lunged down the hill grasping the root reaching his hand toward her. The alligator rose out of the water, its eyes glowing red in the darkened sky. Bennie shrieked as her leg fell straight into its mouth. Everett turned away closing his eyes as he heard the crunch, the blood curdling screech. She screamed at him, but he couldn’t make out a word.
When he opened his eyes squinting all he could see was the color red polluting the water. He opened his eyes fully and saw Bennie floating. If Fern was ok with losing an arm, maybe the beast only wanted a leg. Maybe it left her alone. He grabbed her hand hoisting her up. She wasn’t moving, but there was still hope. There had to be. He couldn’t handle the possibility that Bennie was also dead. With all his strength he pulled her further up. The blood flowed effortlessly below her waist. A jet of blood squirted onto his face, getting into his eye. He screamed out as he realized she had been bitten in half. He tossed her body back into the water. As he pulled himself back up the hill he heard the cracking of more bones, the violent splashing. When he stared down at the water in the glades again, Bennie’s body was nowhere to be found. The water was hauntingly still. The only proof she had ever been there was the paintbrush of red that crossed from shoreline to shoreline.
A snarl sounded right by his ears. The alligator at the top of the hill, the one he had completely forgotten about was right on top of him. He punched it in the eye, scrambled to his feet and blindly ran further into the forest away from the glades. Broken branches sliced his cheeks as he kept running. Even the light of the moon didn’t illuminate the forest. The clouds covered the light. He was now alone. He called out to Fern, screaming at the top of his lungs, but it was no use. She was gone. She had to be just as lost as he was, if she was even still alive.
He tripped over a large tree limb, his face smashing against dirt and fallen leaves. He wept. Tears flowed down his eyes as he realized he had no idea where he was, where Fern was, and Bennie who…he couldn’t even say it in his mind. This wasn’t right. He wanted to wake up from this nightmare. He screamed out internally to nature, pleading with the other dimension, the spirits in the woods to let it all be a dream, to protect him, but it was senseless. Too much had happened. Nature hadn’t protected him it had only inflicted harm. He cursed it with all his might although he never opened his mouth. It became increasingly obvious. Everett just knew that he was going to die tonight. He had to accept his fate.
Finding no place else to run, he leaned against the bark of a tree, sliding down it as he collapsed onto the ground. The blood had solidified, cracked across his face. He felt the dried streak, morbidly aware that this was the last moment Bennie had touched him. Her blood marking him as if for a war with the beast, a war he knew was hopeless, one he couldn’t win. He begged nature, anything, any deity that would listen, would hear his cries to not let this be the end of his life. The thought of the pain from the teeth ripping his friend to shreds caused him to shudder. He felt every bite. His heart skipped a beat.
His eyelids began to droop. He slapped his cheeks trying to keep awake, but he was on sensory overload. His body was shutting down. Glancing for the alligator, any alligator, but his eyes wouldn’t remain open. Tired. Too tired. Succumbing to defeat, he closed his eyes pleading that he wouldn’t feel the teeth when the alligator tore him to shreds.
The forest had erupted with sounds and then all had been silenced. Dax stood still trying to grasp his bearings. Something had happened. It had sounded like screaming, possibly splashing in the water. It sounded like it was a couple miles away, but that was impossible. Sound didn’t carry that far.
“What do you think?” Reid asked beside him.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from and I’m getting more concerned for our safety tonight. This isn’t a good idea. We should turn back.”
“No!” Kent protested. “I don’t believe you! You’re not going to check out where the screams came from?”
“Can you hear any of them now?” Dax challenged. They all held their breath for a beat trying to listen for something, anything that would indicate where they were, but there was nothing. Dax even had trouble seeing where his companions were. It was so dark in the forest. They had captured one more, but it seemed from the noises they had just heard that the beast’s reign over them was not over yet. The more he thought about capturing the other two and killing the one who had been causing such damage, the more overwhelmed he became.
“No,” Kent finally answered behind him. “You know I can’t.”
“I’m sorry guys, this was a waste of time. What was I thinking? There’s no way we can capture the others in time.”
“Stop saying that!” Reid castigated. “We’ve stuck with you this far, so why won’t you see it through to completion?”
“Because it’s worthless!” Dax said through gritted teeth. “I’ve been stalling. Nothing I’ve done has helped. In fact it’s done just the opposite. I’ve harmed too many people.”
“It wasn’t your fault. We’ve been over this,” Reid said gingerly. “Forgiveness,” he added, a light bulb going on over his head. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? You still don’t understand the concept of forgiveness, not fully at least.”
Dax took a moment to entertain the idea. It hadn’t occurred to him. He had simply lost hope when they heard screams but couldn’t place where they came from. It might’ve even been from Kent’s daughter no less. He didn’t want to discuss that option out loud to Kent, although he was surprised Kent was so calm and hadn’t brought it up. Recalling what Keith’s goodbye letter had said made him question what Keith saw in him at all. He could recite the words from memory: Foolishly I shall ask for your forgiveness. I know you will eventually give it to me if not right away. There didn’t seem to be a chance that he could ever forgive his ex, not with the way he had been treated. All of the alligator fears had absorbed his every thought that he hadn’t even given Keith a second thought except when he discussed him whilst drunk…until now.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Dax mumbled trying to avoid the subject.
“Oh, I think you do. You may not have noticed it until I mentioned it, but I saw the dawning moment in your eyes. It was undeniable.”
“I’m confused,” Kent said aside.
Dax sighed gripping the back of his neck. He felt like he was painted into a corner. Reid, someone he genuinely liked and severely wanted to be liked in return, as usual noticed things about himself that made any form of friendship with him uneasy. Not only wasn’t Reid letting him give up on capturing the rest of the alligators, he was forcing him into a conversation on forgiveness according to Christian doctrine, a conversation he’d be happy to leave unsaid for the rest of his life. Yet Reid made it irresistible. With Reid, he just couldn’t say no.
“You’re right,” Dax relinquished, “at least partially.” He hesitated unsure of what to say next.
“Go on,” Reid gently prompted.
“What do you want me to say?” Dax replied annoyed.
“I’m not looking for a specific answer. I’m just trying to gage what you think. What’s going through your head?”
“I don’t know,” he replied breathily.
“Just say anything that comes to mind.”
“You are so intrusive, you know that! Why do I have to share about Keith, huh? Answer me that.”
“Who said anything about Keith?”
Dax’s eyes became saucers. His mind had gone straight to Keith when the word forgiveness had released from Reid’s lips. It had to mean something. Perhaps Keith knew him better than he had willed himself to believe after he’d been abandoned.
“You got me there,” Dax admitted sheepishly.
“Tell me about him. Why is he so prevalent now?”
“Because he said that I’d eventually forgive him even though I shouldn’t. I thought he was full of it, but something tells me that I might get to a place where I can and that horrifies me.”
“Why?” Reid asked.
It was the simplest question. How could one word be so difficult to explain? His mind was racing. “Because how can I have zero self-respect, belittle myself so much to get to that place where I can forgive someone who abandoned me? It only emphasizes my own weakness.”
“No, it’s a good thing,” Kent chimed in.
“How does that make you weak?” Reid asked.
“It just means that I can’t stand up for myself. I wish I was stronger. I even struggled with embracing my sexuality. Not anymore, but I wish I didn’t have self-loathing tendencies.”
“This is interesting to me.”
“I can tell.”
“Why do you beat yourself up so often?”
“I think if I could answer that I wouldn’t be doing it,” Dax rolled his eyes.
“Enough questions. It’s my turn now,” he paused waiting for Reid to object, but none came. “Do you believe that everyone should be forgiven?”
Reid exhaled. “That’s a big question.”
“Yeah, so? How ’bout it, pastor? Can you answer it?”
“Not in the way you want the question to be answered, no I can’t.”
“I’m not looking for a specific answer.”
“You see that’s where you’re lying. You definitely are even if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not.”
“Ok fine, let’s just say you’re right, just this once,” he tagged on bitterly. “What’s wrong with just telling me what I want to hear?”
“Because that wouldn’t be the truth.”
“And you’re so sure you know what the truth is?”
“That’s a fair question,” Reid paused. “What do you think? Do you think I have the truth?”
“I think you think you have the truth, but it’s misguided.”
“Is ultimate truth knowable?”
“No, that’s impossible. Every wise man in history agrees with that sentiment.”
“Actually they don’t, but that’s beside the point. Do you believe in a higher power?”
“I don’t know. If one does exist, I think the deity would smile down upon me by being open to all truths.”
“I never claimed the higher power to be a male,” Dax replied a smile plastered across his face.
“You believe God could be a woman?”
The question wasn’t challenging or welcoming, simply curious. “If God does exist I believe that God transcends gender. There’s no male or female. It’s all equal.”
“Intriguing concept. I’m not exactly sure what I think about that.”
“That’s a first,” Dax muttered under his breath.
“Do you think God can be truly known?” Reid asked shattering the silence.
“I wish that were true, but it’s the impossible feat, isn’t it?”
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right, but it’s possible thanks to Jesus. That’s the truth.”
“According to you.”
Reid nodded. “You bet. I believe in that truth fully.”
“It’s difficult to explain without going through a bunch of scripture passages. I know you’re aware of them. I know you know the tale.”
“Of course I know the tale. Doesn’t everybody?”
“You’d be surprised,” Reid added cynically.
“Jesus was born of the virgin mother, Mary. He preached a lot, gained 12 disciples but one betrayed him. He died on the cross and according to Christian doctrine, after three days rose again. Yeah, I know how to roll the dice in these circles.”
“You really don’t like Christians at all do you?”
“No, not particularly.”
“But you like me.”
Dax exhaled exasperatedly. “You know I do, so why ask the question?”
“Why not answer it?” Reid tested.
“Because I thought you would always tell me the truth and that you’d always be willing to listen.”
“Has that ever been proven wrong?”
“No, not yet at least.”
“Well, Dax, I’m not perfect, you know that. I probably will let you down one day, but it won’t be intentional. You said that I’m willing to listen to you. Are you willing to do the same for me?”
“What? Is this the part where you give me a gospel presentation?” Dax asked snidely.
“Not in the traditional sense. You know the story beat by beat, but you’re missing the why.”
“All right, I’ll bite into this English lesson. What was Jesus’ motivation for dying? He didn’t need to.”
“You’re right, He didn’t. He chose to. Why? Well, let me answer my own rhetorical question as all pastors awkwardly do. We as humans rebelled against God. It’s in our very nature. People debate left and right when that begins, but it’s an undeniable truth nonetheless. See our rebellion against God was so great that we couldn’t possibly solve it on our own. Somebody had to suffer though and no one other than God Himself could take on the offenses of others against the Lord. God sent Jesus to proclaim a message of love. A love so great, so powerful, so undeniable that it was willing to sacrifice His son to be in a relationship with those who rebelled against Him without a thought of ever being faithful in return, who couldn’t be faithful, not without the grace and love bestowed upon us from God our heavenly father.”
“Well you certainly are a gifted pastor. It was a great nutshell speech, not that I buy into it.”
“We’re getting off topic here. Let’s get back to forgiveness.”
“Oh, I had forgotten how we got here,” Dax admitted disgruntled.
“It’s quite easy to delve into quite the spectrum of topics whenever God comes up in conversation.”
“What else is there to say about forgiveness?” Dax asked getting more annoyed by the minute.
“Everything,” Reid breathed passionately. “Without forgiveness there is no love, no long-lasting love. Without grace we are nothing. You must know this. You beat yourself down for thinking you’ll forgive your ex for abandoning you, but it’s the most beautiful gift that you can give him and yourself.”
“Why should I forgive? He did nothing for me.”
“Uh, that’s not fully true and you know it. You wouldn’t have committed yourself to him, you wouldn’t have married him if he meant nothing to you.”
“You think we had a good relationship?”
“Oh hell no!” Reid sassily replied.
Dax couldn’t help but chuckle. It was refreshing to hear him talk about him being gay without any problem, any question in his mind that that’s who he was. “So you think my feelings for him were real?”
“Of course they were real! I’d never deny that. Yet we’ve been over this several times. Do we really have to go over it again about where I stand?”
“No, I guess not. You’ve proven yourself to be a true friend regardless. But you’ve yet to answer my question.”
“We forgive because Jesus forgave us when we didn’t deserve anything other than death. We forgive the unforgivable first and foremost because we’re unforgiveable in God’s eyes, but Jesus changes that. His blood washes us clean, which causes God’s wrath to pass over us. It marks us. His crimson spills turn us blindingly bright, like the sun. Still with us, Kent?”
“Huh?” Kent asked flustered. “I’m sorry I tuned you out since I was excluded from the conversation so long.”
“I’m sorry. I can be quite the blabbermouth at times,” Reid apologized.
“Yes indeed, but you pretty much summed it up.”
“Can we stop talking about Jesus now?” Dax begged. “He just doesn’t do it for me.”
“All right, that’s fine. I really appreciate you taking the time to listen though,” Reid thanked him.
It was interesting to see Reid after all these years of dedicating his life to Christian theology to still be so passionate about it while still being open to listen to others counter points. It was a rarity in Christians. If more had been like Reid, Dax might have stayed with the church. Yet it was bricks on his shoulder, on his chest. Every time a discussion about God came up he felt trapped, the walls closing in on him, suffocating him. Couldn’t Reid understand that he didn’t want to talk about it at all? It was too painful, too many bad memories. The conversation was over though, so why was he prolonging it?
A thud sounded near them. Dax held his breath. He tapped Kent on the shoulder. Barely a whisper came out when he told him to use the night vision goggles. It could’ve been anything, but Dax’s mind went directly to the alligators. Moments passed as Kent had walked away from them searching for the originator of the sound.
Kent gasped loudly and screamed, “Come quickly!” Shrieking he added, “Help!”
“Where are you?” Dax called out.
“Come!” Kent replied. “To the, to the left,” he mumbled.
Dax nudged Reid’s arm leading the way as they searched for where Kent was. Something was moaning in the distance. Quickening his pace, Dax raced towards the sound.
When he arrived his mouth dropped. A girl was lying on the ground nearly passed out, missing an arm. Dax knelt on one knee placing two fingers on her neck searching for a pulse. Kent was hysterical beside him screeching out in pain. Dax struggled to find any sign of life, but although it was faint, he could tell there was a pulse.
“Please protect my baby, protect my daughter!” Kent urged.
“She’s alive, we know that,” Dax assured Kent, “but we need to get her to the emergency room right now.”
A prickle, a tingling sensation woke Everett up causing him to want to laugh. The early light of the dawn had broken. The clouds had disappeared. The sun was strikingly bright as it slowly rose in the distance. A spider crawled along his leg, up on his arm and then crawled onto the tree above him. A centipede followed and then a flying praying mantis landed onto his hand. Before he knew it a multitude of insects were crawling over him, yet none of them bit him. They had accepted him as one of their own, a part of their ecosystem, a part of nature. He would not disturb them now. Nature was once again giving him a sign that things were ok again. He was being blessed.
As the son rose higher into the sky, the purplish hue turned into reds, yellows, oranges, and pinks. It was a wonder to behold. Then it dawned on him: he had survived. He had survived the night. Nature was showing him the way again. Everything in the forest was being corrected. Fern came to mind. Had she gotten back in time? Had she told them about him and Bennie? Oh, of course. Fern didn’t stay behind to see, to notice that Bennie…
It was over now. As he had given up all hope, succumbing into sleep he had convinced himself that he would die and now that he was still breathing in the forest he could do nothing else but internally say thank you repeatedly. The more he thought about what had happened, he knew he had to get up and move, but he couldn’t. He was still so exhausted. Having retreated into his thoughts for so long, he hadn’t noticed that all of the insects had left him. It was fine while it lasted, but he didn’t want them to crawl all over him forever, but he would never disturb their path if they embraced him as part of their environment.
Fern had lost a lot of blood. Feeling his face at the thought of blood, he could sense the dried crumbly crimson still caked on his cheek. Fern had left them at the moment of her death. How could she have done that? She probably hadn’t made it out of the forest, he admitted honestly. The thought that she was alive and had told people where he was seemed too hopeful. Too much had changed. Bennie was dead. There seemed nothing to live for if he couldn’t make it out of the forest, but then again here he was still alive witnessing the beauty of a sunrise. He would make it out. He was sure of it.
Something breathed on his arm, snapping him out of his meditation. The alligator’s snout was directly beside him on his right. A stream of urine rolled on the ground wetting his leg. The beast’s breath fell on his skin again creating a ripple effect of goose bumps all over the hairs on his body. Not a sound escaped from him, but internally he was begging, shouting not at nature, but at God, pleading with the God his uncle believed in to protect him from the beast. The creature took a step forward applying pressure, weight onto his leg. Another step followed as the alligator slowly crawled across him. It wasn’t attacking him. It was walking over him. This nature wasn’t comfortable though and he didn’t want to be embraced as a part of the beast’s ecosystem.
Closing his eyes to avoid seeing the beast centimeters in front of his face, he could tell the tail had come onto his leg now as the back legs stepped off of his left leg. The tail seemed heavier than the feet did. Feeling every scale, the tail rolled off his leg. Opening his eyes, he saw his legs were bleeding from the roughness of the skin, but it didn’t matter. It had passed over him.