The crocodile came to Otter River Community pond by nightfall, pushed from his home among the mangroves by gale force winds and torrential rain. A strong current moved him down the river that snaked through the new Florida housing community, and over a small bridge into the pond beside the golf course. There were fish that came too and so the crocodile had no choice but to accept his new home. After he swam the perimeter of the pond he settled beneath the surface of the water and watched the world with two small eyes.
Oscar Thompkins stood in the living room of his mother’s house looking out onto the pond in the backyard as ripples spread across the surface. They reminded him of the kind he used to make when he would skip stones as a child. Palm trees swayed in the strong wind, and dark clouds moved overhead. If anything had gone right in the past twenty-four hours it was the rainless sky that had hovered over his father’s funeral.
The service was held earlier that morning at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church by the Sea; a building painted coral pink and one of the few places in Otter River that had empty plots left in the cemetery. Oscar’s mother, Matilda, insisted on having the service outside despite the July heat because his father loved the outdoors. True, his father enjoyed being outside, but only if it involved a boat, a fishing rod, and a six pack of beer. Though his mother wore a cross around her neck, her visits to church fell on two days out of the year—Christmas Eve and Easter. As far as Oscar knew, his father had never stepped inside of a church. There was no will for Timothy Thompkins, Oscar discovered, so it was Matilda’s decision what to do with the body.
Of course she would want a full service, instead of an intimate ceremony with Oscar and his sister, Doreen. Matilda never refused an opportunity to be the center of attention. Growing up in West Virginia their town was small, rural, and most of the men who lived there worked in coal mines. Their wives did what they could to make extra money, but not Matilda. She threw embarrassing cocktail parties and wore the only two nice dresses she had while guests adorned jeans or their worn Sunday clothes. Frozen wet shrimp hung limply over the edge of Solo cups, plastic silverware and tiny left over Christmas napkins were spread out on the table.
Inside of their small house decorated with furniture his father found on the side of the road, everything looked pathetic. Oscar remembered wearing his only suit, standing among the adults, watching his mother laugh and smile, pretending that their family was perfect. He felt like that this morning, a man on display, and could not wait until his flight the next day so he could return home to Maine.
A white heron sitting in the pond took flight, its wings beating against the wind as it tried to stay on course. Larger ripples formed in the middle of the water created by something other than the wind. Oscar thought it was a fish jumping to eat a water bug. A cell phone vibrated in the back pocket of his black dress pants. Adrenaline coursed through him when he looked at the phone followed by disappointment. It was Doreen. Before he could ask where she was, Doreen launched into a long breathless explanation about how her flight was cancelled from Phoenix because of the storm rolling into Otter River. In the background Oscar could hear Doreen’s music—bells chiming and people chanting. Though he had never been to Sedona he could picture Doreen standing among a cloud of smoke curling from the tips of incents. Oscar tried to sound calm as he pleaded for her to find a way to Florida, but everything was cancelled. His sister was better at managing his mother and he didn’t know how he would spend the next twenty-four hours alone with her.
When Doreen asked how the funeral was, Oscar frowned, then replied in the only way he knew how: with facts. It was an hour long. His mother held herself together. What he didn’t tell Doreen was that he spent the entire hour shifting in his chair trying to unglue his sticky legs from the seat. Clouds moved overhead blocking the sun and a loud wind blew but they did nothing to alleviate the heat. Matilda sat beside him in her wheelchair clutching her crocodile skin purse. At one point, he noticed she popped two pills into her mouth and put eye drops in her eyes until saline ran down her cheek. A handkerchief was tucked into her breast pocket but it was dry. She sniffled once or twice, but Oscar thought it was from allergies. His mother was good at pretending, too good sometimes, and Oscar wanted to knock the bottle of anxiety pills from her hand. She didn’t need them; she hardly visited his father when he went into the nursing home, even though he had been a few minutes down the road.
When the minister had finished his service and asked if anyone would like to share words about Timothy Thompkins, Matilda’s dry, bumpy hand clutched Oscar’s wrist. She looked him in the eyes as if they were coconspirators sharing a secret. It was a look he knew all too well from his childhood, one she would use when he had caught her doing something Timothy didn’t like. Smoking cigarettes, drinking cocktails, or once, packing a suitcase in the middle of the day. She pretended like she was putting away clothes for donation, but there weren’t enough to give away.
Oscar read the eulogy he had written on the back of a paper towel late last night after three beers and a whiskey beneath the front porch light while moths fluttered about running into him. As a journalist, he was trained in seeking the truth, and so read facts about his father with little elaboration. Timothy Thompkins was a seventy-five-year-old man, ten years Matilda’s junior. He liked to walk around the house in his boxers and stand in front of the window facing the golf course naked, but this fact was crossed out in red ink. Instead, he described his father as an eccentric who had a few close friends, cherished fishing, and spent his entire career working in a coal mine in West Virginia. He was a restless man and when they moved to Florida for retirement, he took up a handyman business. He was survived by his two children, and his wife of fifty years.
After Oscar hung up the phone he heard his mother’s shuffling footsteps coming out of her bedroom. He went into the guest bedroom and closed the door before she could see him. He took off his shoes and stripped down to his boxers. He threw himself back against the bed, legs and arms sprawled out. The fan wobbled at high speed; outside bugs hummed and frogs croaked. Oscar picked up his cell phone, checked his voicemail messages and texts, but there weren’t any. He scrolled through his contacts to Loraine’s name, hovered his thumb over the number, then hit dial. His heart raced as the phone rang and went to voicemail. He hung up without leaving a message. It had been three weeks since she moved out of the apartment, taking her clothes, but leaving her books behind. He thought that was a sure sign she would be back. It made Oscar anxious being away from their apartment, what if she decided to come home and he wasn’t there?
The inbox of his work email account wasn’t any better either; there was a new message from his boss at the Maine Inquirer marked with an urgent red flag. Oscar read the email: due to his several absences from work, and his late incomplete articles, he was fired. A pain bloomed behind his right eye and traveled down his neck. Now, he had nothing.
“Oscar, Oscar will you come out here please?” Matilda’s crackling voice called. Thunder rumbled overhead, and a steady rain began to fall onto the roof. Matilda stood in the kitchen, looking pleased with herself. An empty yellow Nestle Cookies package lay on the counter and the oven was turned on.
“What are you doing, mother?” Oscar asked.
“I’m baking chocolate chip cookies, they’re your favorite,” she said with a smile. Queasiness filled Oscar’s stomach. When he was younger, after he had received a belting from his father, Matilda would offer a plate of fresh gooey melted chocolate chip sweetness as if it would take the pain away. Matilda reached across the counter and touched Oscar’s wrist. Her eyes widened when he jerked his hand away.
“I don’t eat chocolate chip cookies anymore,” he said.
“Oh,” Matilda shrank back. “Well then, I’ll have them all to myself.” They were silent for a moment as the wind howled shaking the windowpane. Matilda stared out onto the pond. “If that pond floods the crocodile is sure to come up to our house,” she said.
“There’s no crocodile in that pond, mother. It wouldn’t survive.”
“There is. After the last hurricane the crocodiles and the otters came through, swept up by the wind. They’re in the water now, just waiting. One of them already got Patrice’s cat.”
“I think Patrice is making it up,” Oscar said. Matilda grew silent and pursed her lips. For once, Oscar wanted her to say what she was thinking whether it was polite or not. He was in no mood for her passive aggressive games. “We need to start going through dad’s stuff while I’m here. Why don’t we start with the study.”
“What are you going to do with it?” Matilda asked in a quavering voice.
“Donate it or throw it away.”
Timothy’s study was filled with trinkets and junk. Miniature model ships inside of bottles lined the shelves along with photos of fish he had caught. A banjo leaned against a bookcase. Every night when his father came home from the coal mines, he’d drink beer and sit on the front porch playing music. One time, at age fifteen when Oscar was cutting through the trailer park late at night after drinking in the woods with his friends, he heard the familiar sound of his father’s banjo coming from one of the windows. When he stood on his tipey toes and peered inside, he saw his father sitting in a chair playing for a naked woman sprawled out on a bed. The next day, Oscar slammed his father’s banjo against their living room floor over and over again until the strings snapped and the handle broke. When his father tried to drag him into the basement for a beating, Oscar wrestled him to the ground, overtaking him. As punishment, he had to give his dad every paycheck he received until it paid for a new banjo.
Oscar opened the ledger sitting on his father’s desk. The low balance of his parent’s bank account glared back in a red cursive script. Their mortgage and Timothy’s nursing home payments took up seventy-five percent of their monthly budget, leaving little else behind. Based on what was left in their account, Matilda could afford two more months in the house before she would have to declare bankruptcy. Doreen tried to persuade their parents to live in a more modest place besides Otter River when they retired six years ago, but Oscar didn’t chime in all too happy his parents would be further away. The allure of a new development drew his parents to the community, but now half-finished houses were spread throughout the neighborhood, large cleared lots sat empty, plans for a sprawling development abandoned after the housing market crashed. Signs promised six bedroom houses with pools, and interior finishes of the buyer’s choice. Matilda’s cul-de-sac was the only finished neighborhood, twelve houses in total that all looked the same, if you didn’t include the model home. Palm trees lined either side of the only road, and a river snaked through the mangroves that were left, ending in the harbor, which eventually went out to the ocean.
Oscar leaned back in the chair and pinched the bridge of his nose, pain bloomed behind his eye again. Even if Doreen helped, they wouldn’t be able to afford for his mother’s mortgage payments. Without enough money to place her in a retirement home, Oscar would have no choice but to move her up to Maine to live with him.
Thunder rumbled. The lights flickered, then went off. Everything was quiet without the humming of the air conditioning. Matilda cried out in surprise. Darkness filled the room and Oscar used his cellphone for light. A tray of half baked chocolate chip cookies sat on the stove top. Matilda looked up at Oscar with fear.
“We’ll get overheated without the air-conditioning. I can’t be down here without air conditioning.”
Oscar wanted to tell her that she wouldn’t be down here much longer. “It’s probably just a circuit that blew. Where’s the fuse box?”
“I don’t know your father always did that stuff,” Matilda responded.
“I’ll go look in the garage.”
“Let me come with you, it’s dangerous out there!”
His father’s bulky gray Lincoln took up most of the garage space. The driver’s side mirror was held together with duct tape, cracks in the glass spreading out in thin lines like the varicose veins in his mother’s legs. Last year on an early Tuesday morning Matilda had called his office phone, crying that his father had been in a car accident. After several minutes of pressing for answers, he pieced together between her sobs and his father’s yelling voice in the distance that he had backed out of the garage too close to the wall, and broken the side mirror. It was Matilda’s fault, his father had roared, for having too much junk. The storage boxes were piled everywhere.
The air was thick with humidity, sweat drenched Oscar’s forehead, dripped from the tip of his nose, as he weaved his way between Tupperware containers, brown boxes that were molding, a rocking chair and fishing gear. In the corner was the fuse box.
“Do you remember when I taught you how to ride a bike?” Matilda asked as she pointed at a small black bicycle with the batman logo on it. “You did so well, I was so proud of you. You were a natural.”
“That was dad and he pushed me down a hill until I fell and scrapped my knees,” Oscar replied.
“Not your father, he wouldn’t do that.”
Flipping the switches in the fuse box didn’t turn on the lights. Sweaty and irritated, Oscar turned around to face his mother who stood in the doorway. She looked frail in her baggy sweatpants, slippers, and long sleeved shirt. How nice it must be, he thought, to live in a world where everything was perfect. To be able to replace fact with fiction. If only he were so lucky.
“He did and he also bought this ridiculous house, which you can’t pay for. You’re going to be out of here in two months with no money. How nice of him is that?”
Matilda retreated from the doorway shaking her head. “Why are you being so mean, Oscar? I know you must be upset but you don’t have to take it out on me.”
The door to the garage slammed shut and Oscar stood in the kitchen, his whole body felt like it was vibrating. Thunder rumbled, lightening struck the golf course, close, illuminating the pond. Ripples moved across the surface.
“It’s the crocodile,” Matilda whispered in panic. “It’s going to come out of the pond and I won’t be able to stop it.”
“There’s no crocodile, mother and I’m going to prove it!” Oscar took his mother by the arms and pulled her away from the walker. She cried out trying to hold on but her grip wasn’t strong enough. He placed her in the wheel chair, pushed her outside onto the screened in porch, through the door to the backyard. Wind blew rain into his face. Matilda raised her arms. Oscar pushed his mother down the stone path to the pond, the wheel chair getting stuck along the flag stones so he had to lift and push at the same time. He was tired of listening to her false reminiscing, her delusional memories she created so she could live with herself every day. He stopped when they reached the edge of the pond.
“Oscar, the crocodile, we need to go back inside,” Matilda said.
Oscar leaned down so his mouth was by his mother’s ear. “There isn’t a crocodile in the pond, mother, it couldn’t survive without the fish. It’s all in your head.”
“Oscar, please!” Matilda shouted and squirmed in her chair. “Take me back inside, the crocodile is going to come out. Can’t you see him out in the middle? Don’t you see his teeth?”
“Tell me that you’re sorry!” Oscar pushed the wheelchair closer.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
The wheelchair jolted again. Matilda cried out, then began crying. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry for whatever I did, please take me back inside now. Please.” Oscar titled his head back, letting the rain wash over his face. His anger ebbed and as he turned to push his mother back inside the long bumpy mouth of a crocodile emerged from the middle of the pond.
The crocodile awoke to rumbling overhead and the sound of rain splashing against the pond. He surfaced to feel the drops against his bumpy skin. His eyes looked out from the middle of the pond as he waited for the wind to carry him home.
Elise Gallagher is a fiction writer and undergraduate writing instructor who resides in Maryland. She is also a candidate in the University of Baltimore MFA Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program. Her shorter works have appeared in Skelter, The Raven’s Perch, STORGY, and Welter. Her linked-short story collection, We Were the Baumanns, will be available in May. You can follow Elise on Twitter @GallagherElise.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
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