“Wuss! It’s a frigging turtle. What do you care?” Huge grabbed a cold one.
“Knock it off, both a yous!” Their dad pelted a second red and white can at Tenny’s head. “You should know better’n pick a fight with your brother. Least til you grow a bit, or a pair.”
“Grow something so you can hang on to your next girlfriend.” Huge closed his eyes, smushed his lips into a zigzag which was meant to indicate pleasure and thrust his hips forward and back.
Tenny dove onto his older brother, knocking the fresh can of beer into the water and sending ripples past the aluminum airboat. Huge lifted Tenny off the dock and slammed him onto the metal cage that protected the fan at the back of the boat.
Tenny gingerly twisted his slender torso right and left to feel for broken ribs. When he was sure that he was fit enough for another round that he could not win, he said, “My bad, Hugo.”
By that time, Huge had made himself comfortable in the boat’s passenger seat, though his arms stuck to the vinyl through his frayed Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. He didn’t have an additional empty to throw at Tenny and couldn’t be bothered to cross the four feet to continue beating on him. “Call me ‘Hugo’ again and I’ll feed you to the crocs when we get up river, Wuss.”
Tenny wished that the rifle resting on his dad’s knee was for shooting crocs. He didn’t particularly want to kill crocs either, but it would be better than this. When they got back, his dad would go from the dock to Island Bar and tell and retell every detail of how he came “this close” to bagging a Sasquatch. As the night wore into morning, his dad’s thumb and index finger would get closer together, and he would hold them closer to his eyeball. The next day, when Tenny would stop at the 7-11 to buy his breakfast, he’d feel the denigrating stare as his face reminded the Chokoloskee Island locals of the crazy drunk who believed that he was destined to airboat out of the Everglades with a Sasquatch in hand.
“Here.” Huge extended an arm in Tenny’s direction with a sweating beer swaying in his fingertips. Tenny accepted.
From his post steering the boat, his dad tossed Tenny a tub that had long ago given up on being white. Inside the tub, a homemade mix of birch tar and Deet waited to protect him from the onslaught of insects. He slathered it on, darkening the color of his face several shades.
The mangrove canopy nearly blocked out the sun as the giant fan increased from a whir to a roar and propelled them up the green soup of rotting wood, leaves, and fish. By the time the river took a ninety-degree right turn toward Mud Bay, the sun was waist deep in horizon.
“Didn’t tell a soul on the island this time,” Tenny’s dad informed them. “That’s been my mistake. Somebody’s been tippin’ ‘em off.”
Tenny found that “yeah, dad” was usually enough to indicate that he was listening without committing himself as a collaborator.
“No sightings this year, but this is the time they come this far south. Can’t live here or I’d a found ‘em by now, but they do come.” He spoke as if he hadn’t told his sons the same few insights each time he and Huge dragged Tenny on this trek. After a few more cans were popped, he would tell about THE time.
“Weren’t but a year older than you are now.” He flicked his toothpick in Tenny’s direction. “Turned eighteen and come up this same river. The boys dared me to whack a sleeping croc. I wasn’t no wuss so I said hell yeah. We floated into the bay with the motor off and spotted a big one. I sneaked up.” He re-enacted an exaggerated tiptoe gait without moving from his seat. “Bam! I nailed him on the noggin and hightailed it. They can run but they get real tired real fast. I look over my shoulder to make sure I lost him, and I plow into something hard. When I look up, damned if it weren’t full a hair with big ol’ eyes. I covered my face with my arms, sure it was gonna kill me. And, nothing! When I open my eyes, it was gone. All gone.”
Tenny shook his head, incredulous that his dad still believed a decades-old memory of a drunk boy in a black swamp who probably saw knots in a mangrove trunk and thought they were eyes.
When they were almost to their destination, a low-hanging branch busted through the wire fencing and jammed into the blades of the fan. The boat lurched to a stop. Huge yanked on the leafy branch to dislodge it without success. As they drifted close to the root-lined shore, Tenny’s dad handed him the rifle and told him to stand watch for crocs.
“I mean it now! Keep it ready. You won’t see ‘em coming. They be rolling you in the water before we even know you gone.”
Tenny obediently scanned the land along the side of the boat. His belly rumbled, reminding him there was a bucket of crawfish to boil back home. Would he add a can of beer to the water like his dad or spice it up with cayenne like his mom used to? He looked back, hoping the motor was ready. They were still attaching the broken blade to the hub. He turned back to the tree roots.
A twig cracked in the forest. Tenny strained to take in every detail of the murky shoreline just in case, but there were no tooth-snouted logs hurtling toward him. When he realized he was holding his breath, he shot a glance toward his dad and brother, hoping they didn’t notice his reaction to what was likely a prickly apple falling to the ground. As he exhaled, he heard a louder crack. He snapped his gaze in the direction of the noise and spotted a pair of eyes that were too high to be a croc and too bright to be knots in a tree trunk. Tenny tried to make out a shape. It was tall, maybe seven feet.
“Dad,” Tenny whispered. “Dad.”
When his dad finally looked up, Tenny pointed with the rifle into the menacing swamp. His dad aimed the flashlight until the beam fell upon a fur-covered beast that cringed when the harsh light hit its eyes. It started to back away but looked to its right and paused. Instead of continuing to retreat, it straightened to full height, took a step toward the boat, and let out a thunderous growl that stopped Tenny’s heart for a moment.
From behind him, Tenny heard “shoot it” repeated loud and deep like a fog horn. The shouts became more insistent when the creature took a few cautious steps to his right.