Chapter 17: The Death of the Beast
The animal’s jaws snapped shut. Reid locked instantly on one of Dax’s alligators. He tapped Dax’s shoulder pointing, but Dax remained still. He couldn’t tell what the creature was eating, but it didn’t matter. The beast was in sight and didn’t seem to be paying any attention to them as the sun rose in the sky.
Amazingly the police hadn’t caught up with them in the woods yet. After rushing Fern to the hospital, they left Kent behind to comfort his daughter. No hard feelings were withheld. Both Reid and Dax admitted to each other that they’d have done the same and were both impressed with how well Kent had held himself together on the way to the hospital after the initial shock was over. The two of them had regrouped at the hospital and determined they would reenter the forest a half hour before sunrise. The sole pair of night vision goggles remained with Kent who obviously was too distraught to hand them over. Neither of them wanted to bother him for it because they both respected his predicament.
The navy blue hue of the sky was light enough to give them warning if they saw an alligator as they walked back into the forest at 5:45. Reid had both hoped then that they would find them quickly, but secretly wished that they wouldn’t find them at all. He was on Dax’s side all the way, but it was hard walking alongside him especially when it was so dangerous.
None of that mattered in the moment, as Reid refocused his attention on the alligator before him. The creature’s eyes were now closed. Why hadn’t Dax done anything about it yet? Using his periphery vision to glance behind his shoulder, he noticed something that explained everything. Dax was staring at the alligator, it just happened to not be the one that Reid had been focused on. They stood in a crossroads between the two alligators that thankfully were both fast asleep.
Reid gulped as his eyes continuously darted between the two predators that lay before and behind them. He wanted to open his mouth, to ask what they should do, which one they should grab first, but he didn’t want to chance it, risk waking either animal from its slumber.
Everett walked up behind the creature Reid was staring at. Reid placed his index finger to his mouth trying to quiet Everett who had begun hyperventilating. Upon noticing both beasts, Everett shrieked. The two eyelids opened slowly, slightly apart from each other as the alligator awakened taking in its surroundings. Reid dashed toward the beast grabbing it and picking it up off the ground. Dax had done the same thing. Reid commanded Everett to take a deep breath and pull the masking tape off his belt so they could tape the mouths shut.
Reid couldn’t focus on anything as the beast wriggled around in his grip. Amazingly it wasn’t trying to bite him, it just seemed to want to be set back down on the ground. Before Reid knew it, both of the alligators’ mouths had been taped shut.
Everett’s breathing was short and shallow, while Reid took a deep breath and Dax wiped sweat off of his brow. Reid held out one arm trying to side hug Everett, but the weight of the alligator was so intense that the thought of reassuring Everett rapidly fled his thoughts.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be all right,” Everett said with monotone inflection.
“Are you ok?” Reid asked.
“I just said I was.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Now’s not a good time,” Everett replied, his eyes glistening.
Reid opened up his mouth to interject, but Dax intercepted saying, “He’s right, Reid. We need to move these alligators back to the farm. Can you carry it back on your own?”
“You bet I can.”
“Wait,” Everett stopped. “We have to carry his alligators for him?”
“Yes,” Reid gently replied.
“Why?” Everett asked simply.
“Because he needs our help. He can’t carry both of them on his own.”
“I want to help.”
“Why not?” Everett demanded. “I’m here. I want to help get them out of the forest.”
“You can’t handle the weight on your own.”
“You don’t know that,” Everett whispered defending himself.
“Dax, a little help here, please?”
“Why is it so important for you to help us out? We can carry it on our own.”
“Bennie’s…dead,” Everett murmured. “That thing ate her. I couldn’t save her. It’s my fault.”
Dax gasped out of sympathy, his eyes glistening alongside him. Reid couldn’t understand the reaction. It must have been traumatizing watching his friend being eaten right in front of him, but there was nothing about the scenario that was his fault. Dax and Everett were kindred spirits for Dax had too blamed himself for all of the deaths. He prayed in that moment that the town wouldn’t blame Everett for Bennie’s death, or Dax for all of the deaths, but the latter was almost unsalvageable.
“I know exactly how you feel,” Dax said, his voice choking up.
“How could you? You haven’t seen it eat anyone.”
“No, I haven’t, but I have seen the aftermath. That wasn’t what I was getting at though. See, Midvale, I love this town, but they blame me for the deaths because it was one of my alligators that did it.”
“You weren’t the one that opened the gate.”
“No, I wasn’t. It wasn’t his fault either, although it can be easy to blame him for the things that came after. I blamed myself for bringing them into this community. Even though we hadn’t had any problems before this summer that seemed irrelevant. I blamed myself anyways. I bet you blamed yourself for Charlie’s death too, didn’t you?”
“How’d you know?” Everett asked, his eyes widening.
“I understand the place you’ve been because I did it to myself all summer and I don’t want to see you stay there, but if you have to we’ll stand beside you and help you through it.”
“Absolutely,” Reid added.
“I need to feel like I contributed. I can’t live with the ‘what-if’. It’s just too painful,” Everett replied his voice laden with melancholy.
“Listen, Everett, I get it,” Dax paused, “completely. The immeasurable ways that this could’ve panned out differently, but it’s not good to think on such things. It doesn’t matter what could have happened because it’s already happened and we can’t change the past, no matter how hard we try. You need to forgive yourself. It’s the hardest person to forgive: yourself. That’s something your uncle taught me, even though he probably didn’t realize it.”
“I hadn’t, but I’m glad the message came across anyways,” Reid tacked on.
“How am I supposed to do that?” Everett asked dejectedly.
“It’ll come with time, but it will come. I promise you that. It will come,” Dax gently replied. “Now, how about I let you carry my alligator back to the farm? Will that be enough to tide you over for now?”
“Dax!” Reid interjected.
“Yeah,” Everett answered simultaneously.
“Trust me,” Dax winked at Reid. Commanding Everett to hold out his arms, Dax began lowering the alligator into Everett’s grip. Everett’s eyes became saucers as the impact from the weight hit him hard and it wasn’t even the full weight yet. “Now, are you sure you can handle the full weight?”
“Definitely,” Everett said with an exasperated sigh.
“Everett, no,” Reid chimed in.
“Come on, Reid,” Dax retorted. “He’s not going to feel better unless he can pull some of the weight and he so desperately wants to help. How can we deny him that?”
“I don’t like it.”
“You’re being too protective. You’re a better parent than you realize, but even still it’s not an excuse for allowing him to play a part, all right?”
Reid nodded conceding.
“Ok then,” Dax said turning back towards Everett. “I’m gonna let go now.”
Watching the heart rate monitors, the rhythmic breathing that remained constant, steady, was enough to smash Kent’s heart into a hundred pieces. She was sleeping and her vitals were good, but the trauma that she had suffered, the amount of blood that she lost, it was by the grace of God that she was even alive. Kent had been awake for over 24 hours by now but he wasn’t even the least bit tired. Watching his daughter be so at peace while she slept juxtaposed to the sheer pain she felt while she was awake kept his mind racing. For the moment, while she slept, she was no longer in pain. It would return when she awoke, but even still she was alive and that was all that mattered.
The sun was now glaring down on the ground having fully risen while he wasn’t paying attention. The police must be walking into the nature trail now. He wondered if Dax and Reid had succeeded. He wondered what they were up to now. There was a part of him that wanted to be with them to see their plan come to fruition, but he also knew he could never help them, not in his current state.
Why couldn’t it have been him? Why did the alligator have to take the arm away from his daughter? He would gladly, instantly give his arm if it meant that she could get hers back, but that wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t the way it worked. Why had God allowed the beast to harm his little girl? Why had God taken away his wife who had passed away a year ago? The power of God was striking, but he still wasn’t willing to give into it. Buddhism had been the only thing that had helped him live through the death of his wife and it would be the only thing that helped him to forgive himself now. They had entered the forest too late. He should have just sought her location the moment he realized she was in a closed-off trail. The numerous alternatives to what he could have done to prevent his daughter harm played over and over in his brain. He blamed himself for the pain she was feeling, the pain she would feel for the rest of her life. He didn’t know if he could ever forgive himself for not being there for her during the most painful experience of her life, but he couldn’t rewind time. He couldn’t take away the pain now, he could only watch as she squirmed and hold her hand comforting her from afar. If only he could take on her pain for her…
Fern’s eyes fluttered open. She opened her mouth, yawning. She began to speak but Kent shushed her. “It’s all right,” he began. “I’m here, baby.”
“Where am I?” she asked plainly.
“You’re in a hospital, darling.”
“Is it dead?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“I don’t know, but Dax and Reid are on it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I was with them when we found you lying down in the forest.”
“I remember now. I’m glad you were with them. I’m so proud of you for helping them. If I could, I would too.”
“No, I should’ve been with you.”
“Why? To protect me?”
“Exactly,” he nodded. “If I had gone with you, none of this would’ve happened. I’ve failed you.”
“Oh Daddy,” Fern shook her head, “where is your faith? You taught me to believe that pain, suffering was only temporary. You helped me through Mom’s death, but I took on Mom’s faith. The Lord is good. He kept me alive despite all odds. Where is the faith that you prayed for me to own?”
The tears came like a floodgate opening up an overflowing river in a summer thunderstorm. He could not have been prouder in that moment for his daughter showed such great faith, much stronger faith in the Lord than he shared. While grateful for her being alive, he truly had been angry and bitter at God for allowing her to suffer. She didn’t complain though. Her eyes were focused above. It was the first moment that his child had become a shining example of faith for him. The role reversal factor was extraordinary and he never believed it would actually happen, but he couldn’t be prouder and more thankful for the way the lesson was taught. He would never forget this moment.
His nose started running from the amount of tears he had shed. He placed his hand in his pocket to grab a tissue. Something was missing at his side. He looked at his belt to confirm. His gun was gone.
Everett’s heart thudded in his chest as they walked further, step-by-step out of the woods. He could sense that they weren’t heading towards the nature trail entrance, but were just now crossing over the dirt path heading instead towards the alligator farm. It was curious to him that they were wandering off the path again. Everett had always liked wandering off the beaten road, until the summer of the alligator infestation that is.
The silence ate away at him. Whilst carrying the creatures, the alligators had fallen asleep. It was more pleasant than when they were wriggling about, but gravity’s pull seemed heavier, overwhelming at times. He wanted nothing more than to set them on the ground, but only in a safe haven where they wouldn’t be harmed and where they wouldn’t harm anyone else. Alligator farms were set up like that. Of course it was a tragedy that Dax’s security had failed, but the question still lingered in his mind: why had this particular alligator farm, the one where he had connected with one of the owners, failed?
A million different reasons came to mind, every person in town could be blamed for the downfall of the farm, but as much as he wanted to figure out why, he knew it was like a dog chasing its own tail. He would never know why it had to happen to someone he now admired. His thoughts raced about how the town would treat him. At first he had been so focused on coming out and how the town would react, taking hope from how the town had eventually embraced Dax and Keith as a couple, but all that had changed the minute the alligator closed its mouth. He wanted to protect Dax from the downfall, but he knew it wouldn’t help. He had no clout and even his uncle wouldn’t be able to trample out all the gossip that was guaranteed to ensue.
“You still doing all right, bud?” Dax asked.
“Yep, fine,” Everett replied through deep breaths.
The sound of a gunshot echoed across the forest. Shouting ensued with proclamations that they weren’t firing at anything while others shouted back that they swore they saw movement. Everett noticed Dax closing his eyes, breathing deeply, collecting himself.
“Here comes the cavalry,” Dax exhaled.
Before Everett could comprehend what was said, a long line of police officers lead by Chief Jacox barricaded their path to the alligator farm. Everett held his breath as he noticed all the guns at the police officers sides. They weren’t raised…yet, and he hoped they never would be.
“What are you doing with my alligators, Dax?” Chief Jacox asked proprietarily.
“They’re not your alligators. They’re mine,” Dax replied disdainfully.
“I don’t think so. See, I gave Midvale a promise that I would protect them. The only way to do that is to kill them. Why don’t you two put the beasts down and let us deal with them,” Chief Jacox commanded.
“No, stay your ground,” Dax locked eyes with Everett.
“Come on, Dax. Be sensible,” Reid gingerly added.
“I am being sensible. These are my creatures and I’m dealing with them as I see fit.”
“You haven’t been doing too good of a job, have you son?” the chief taunted. The line of police officers laughed at the prospect.
“I’m taking care of it. Most of them are back at the farm now and after I’ve collected them all, I’ll ship them somewhere else. I don’t care if I go into debt. I need to do this for myself.”
“Hmm, you’ve got quite the spirit. I like the initiative you’ve taken despite the fact that you crossed over caution tape to do so. You know I have a lot of sway in the community. I can make your life easy or a living hell. If you back down and let me kill them, I’ll influence the community to embrace you without question. You won’t have to worry about being a part of the community anymore. Just let me kill them as I promised.”
“No,” Dax replied with finality.
“Stubborn fool. We’ll just have to take it by force then. Grab the alligators out of their arms, men.”
The flash of the gun was the first thing Everett saw followed by the ear piercing sound and the leaves falling around on the ground where the bullet had struck. Dax had shot the gun directly above his head, arms outstretched. Where had he gotten the gun? Everything changed in an instant. Dax pulled the gun back under his head pointing it directly at Chief Jacox. “You will not do this.”
“Awfully brave of you, son,” the chief responded with a chuckle.
The other officers raised their guns angling them towards Dax. Everett closed his eyes trying to blink tears away as the guns were pointed so closely to Dax. Reid’s breathing quickened. “Dax, please-”
“Shut up, Reid! This is between him and me.”
“No, it’s not. This involves all of us,” Reid implored.
“Don’t listen to the pastor, Dax,” the chief said with maniacal delight.
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“You were right the first time. This is between you and me. At any moment I could call my men to shoot you. We have every right to since you’re pointing a gun straight at me.”
“I’m just protecting my property.”
“We’re protecting people. I think we have the upper hand here, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I am protecting others.”
“By feeding them to the beasts?”
“No! I never wanted any of this to happen.”
“I know you didn’t. I believe you, but Midvale won’t. No matter what you or I say, Midvale will never forgive you.”
“Where’s your clout over the town now?”
“Caught me in my fib, did you? That’s good, very insightful,” the chief paused applauding him. The response was so bizarre that some of the officers moved their guns off of Dax out of confusion. “Does no one else believe that Mr. Donnelly deserves a standing ovation for his act of courage?” The silence was deafening. “I suppose not.”
“You’re not going to get to me. I’ll die before you conquer me.”
“You keep threatening to shoot me, but you haven’t shown any backbone yet. Go ahead. Pull the trigger. I dare you.”
“You shouldn’t taunt a man with a loaded gun,” Dax answered derogatively.
“You shouldn’t point one at an officer of the law.”
Everett held his breath as a pause ensued between them. His heart was pounding watching as the two of them stood at a standstill glaring at each other, both trying to defeat the other’s confidence, tear each other down. The wind violently picked up, yet everyone around stood their ground. Debris blew into Everett’s eye but it didn’t bother him. He didn’t attempt to blink the pebbles and dirt away from his eyes, or wipe the grime off his face. He didn’t move. His gaze never drifted away from where Dax and Chief Jacox stood.
Dax took a step forward, closing the gap between him and the chief. Everett’s heart started pounding. His lungs screamed for him to take a breath, but he was afraid. He held it in as long as he could. His body ached. Slowly he let a breath escape his lips, not daring to make a sound.
Extending his arm, Dax held the point of the gun against the chief’s chest, directly in front of his heart. The chief grinned from ear to ear. Dax slowly squeezed the trigger. The chief’s smile vanished instantly.
“Wait,” the chief responded calmly.
Dax’s finger was still on the trigger, but he had stopped pulling his finger towards him. Everett feared what the slightest slip of his grip would entail.
“Back off men,” the chief stated stoically.
“But chief!” one of the officers objected.
The officers lowered their guns, placing them back in their belts.
“You may have won today, but don’t think I won’t follow up to ensure you’ve moved all of the alligators away from Midvale,” Chief Jacox paused, taking a breath. “I’ll see you in court.”
It couldn’t have taken more than a minute, but it felt like an eternity watching the entire police force walk back towards the trail.
“Do you know who you’re going to take the alligators to?” Reid asked after the sound of the police officers feet could no longer be heard.
“Yeah, they’ll be out of Midvale within a fortnight.”
“You swear to it?”
“Yes,” Dax nodded.
“You’re going to leave us, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not leaving Midvale. It’s home now, but I am walking away from you right now. You know the way to the farm. Drop them off in the pond. I’ll take care of it when I get back. There’s some unfinished business left in the glades that I must attend to,” Dax replied handing the gun to Reid. “Give it back to Kent for me?”
Reid nodded and walked away. Everett followed suit. By the time he looked back over his shoulder, he could no longer see Dax running towards the glades.
The interior of the hospital, the fluorescent lights, the sound of shoes echoing off the tiled floor: everything around him caused Everett to go on sensory overload. Within the span of 24 hours he had entered the nature trail in an attempt to clear his name, watched his friends die, and given up whilst accepting his inevitable death, a death that hadn’t happened. The weight of the alligator was no longer upon him, literally. Having dropped off the alligators at the pond they had quickly driven over to the hospital. He had beaten the odds, but he didn’t know if he could continue on without his friends. His spirit broke thinking about having to recover from the traumatic experience on his own.
“I can’t believe it,” he said.
“Believe what?” Reid asked him.
Everett was taken aback not having realized that he had said that out loud. “I’m gonna have to go through a period of recovery, an extended period of time with a therapist…on my own.”
“You won’t be alone. You’ll always have me and that’s a promise,” Reid said putting his arm around Everett’s shoulder.
It was one of the sweetest things he had ever heard, but he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it with a response. His mouth wouldn’t open, his thoughts still delving into the negative.
“They’re all gone. All of my friends are dead,” Everett replied sniffling.
“Not all of them,” Reid reassured him.
Everett had assumed his uncle was referring to himself, which brought with it a lot of comfort to their relationship. Just then, wheeling around the corner on a stretcher, Fern appeared waving her one arm at him.
“Fern!” Everett exclaimed ecstatic. Rushing over to her side he gripped her hand. “I can’t believe you’re alive.”
“You made it out too,” Fern replied, her eyes brimming with tears.
“How is this possible that both of us made it?”
“It’s by the grace of the Lord, Everett. Deep down, I think you know that.”
Everett rolled his eyes tired of all the God talk that had occurred recently. He had begged God to keep him safe from the alligator and that prayer had been answered, but that was a moment of weakness. Nature had protected him. The alligator wouldn’t have attacked him anyways whether he had called upon God for protection or not.
“Where’s Bennie?” Fern asked.
“She didn’t make it.”
Fern closed her eyes as tears wet her face.
“But it’s all over now,” Everett found himself comforting her.
“You’re right. I’m beyond devastated that she’s gone, but I am grateful that you’re alive.”
“I’m thankful you made it out alive, too.”
His mind went back to clearing his name. The police wouldn’t do anything now, would they?
“What’s wrong?” Fern asked.
“I was just thinking about how I need to clear my name.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that anymore,” Fern said, her eyes focusing over her shoulder. The man who had interrogated him walked up beside her bed.
“What are you doing here?” Everett asked incredulously.
“He’s my father,” Fern answered before the man could speak.
“Call me Kent,” he said to Everett. “I wasn’t able to apologize to you before you stepped onto the nature trail yesterday, but I am deeply sorry for the way I took your statement. It was completely unprofessional and I regretted it the moment I walked out the door. Can you ever forgive me?”
Everett held his breath. Everything inside of him was screaming at him to keep a hold of that grudge. Kent had made him feel awful. Everything that Kent had said to him came back in an instant. His mind begged him to remain quiet, but his heart implored him to let it go. He knew what he had to do. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Of course. I forgive you…for all of it.”
The breeze swept through the glades causing the leaves to dance. Dax took a breath staring at the water. His insides were churning. There was one thing that was left unresolved that he knew he had to face: would he, could he forgive Keith for leaving him, abandoning him to fend off the alligators on his own? The question lingered in his mind. He had spent countless nights cursing him, hating him for all of it. Why had Keith committed to marriage if all he was going to do was cheat? Keith was a coward. He was perverted and cruel and Dax wanted no part of him.
Shaking his head, regretting the thoughts he had just spat out, he knew Keith had been right all along. He had to forgive Keith and Keith had known that he would. He wasn’t forgiving Keith because he felt he deserved it, quite the contrary. Dax felt a little selfish in desiring to forgive him because until he did so, Keith would always remain attached to him. For his own sanity he knew he needed to forgive him. How had it been possible that Keith had known him better than he knew himself? It didn’t matter.
Out loud he uttered, “I forgive you.”
His mind started racing. He was ready to face Marcus. The first alligator he had ever owned was the culprit. The other ones who had been captured had barely fought back and Marcus had been more aggressive this summer. He knew his animals. It was definitely him.
Racing into the water, his feet quickening as the sound of splashing reverberated around him, he felt uncertainty. In the middle of the water, he was knee deep. He searched the clear water around him, trying to find the green monster, but he saw nothing. It was possible that the beast had moved on. He didn’t know what he would do if he couldn’t find it in time. Taking a deep breath, trying to center himself, he took a moment to compose himself.
Failure, if the beast won, if the beast ate him, was an option, but fear, in facing the beast head on, was not. Closing his eyes, he tried to engage where it would have gone if it was no longer in the glades. His mind raced thinking about all of the alternatives, the worst of all being loose on the streets in the neighborhood. Something inside him told him that wasn’t the case. He had to be patient. It would come to him if he just stood there and remained patient. Attempting to calm his heart, stop it from bursting through his chest, he took deep breaths preparing for nothing. After several breaths, he felt his heartbeat slow down. He was finally at peace.
In that moment, the alligator lunged at him, teeth gleaming in the sun, mouth agape, surging toward his head. His heart skipped a beat as he grabbed the beast in mid-lunge. The mouth snapped shut twisting and turning to take a bite off of its owner’s head. Dax took a huge breath, his lungs aching for air.
A thought occurred to him: instead of shutting the mouth closed he should press it open, pushing it as wide as it would go. As the mouth shut, Dax grabbed the tip of the mouth, the teeth slicing into his hands. Red pouring down his forearm. The alligator wasn’t strong enough to fully close its mouth now. Dax opened the mouth slightly. The beast shook in his grasp. Pushing the mouth, centimeter by centimeter, Dax could tell the beast was getting nervous. His heart pounded so hard against his rib cage, he feared they might bruise.
The mouth was forced open even further. The beast swished its tail attempting to throw him off balance. Water sprayed violently in every direction, the ripples consuming the entire body of water. With even more strength, Dax forced the mouth open, the mouth fully agape now. The tail swayed even faster. With all of his strength, Dax pushed forward, pushing, pushing, pushing until he heard a deafening snap. Staring at the body, he could tell that he had fully dislocated the beast’s jaw. Breath no longer flowed through its veins. A triumphant feeling swelled within him, but he wasn’t done yet. His adrenaline pumping, he ripped the beast’s teeth out attached to the gum lines, which came off in two long rows. The entire world felt lucid around him. He could no longer tell what was real and what wasn’t. The only reality he knew to be true was that the beast was dead.
Tossing the rows of teeth onto shore, he picked up the full body of the now deceased alligator, lifting it over his head. With all the force he had left to muster, he threw the body down into the water, a ginormous swell of water cascaded, the red mixed with the clear rained down upon him. A guttural cry of dominance, the loudest scream of victory flew out of his body.
As the sound of the waves splashing against the shore subsided, everything became still. Walking to the shore he grabbed the two strings of teeth, placed them around his neck, tying the gum lines together not caring that it painted the back of his neck and his chest red with blood. Walking back to the water he kneeled down grabbing the lifeless body, carrying it over his shoulder as he walked out of the glades. The sun beat down upon him, drying the wet blood against his skin. As he left, not a sound was made. All was silent.