Post Road Magazine #28

Allapattah

Michael Hawley

Palms, palmettos, lancewood, camellias. For twenty minutes, Mavis Hawthorn named the plants she knew, happy to answer the stream of questions from the blond-haired seven-year-old in the back seat. Sylvie seemed to have a special fascination with flora—until she switched focus to birds.

"What's that bird?"

"Grandma's driving, honey," said Gordon in the passenger's seat. Their granddaughter was born when they were both over seventy, and he hoped they were "up" for her five-day visit.

"It's a stork,' said Mavis, bending close to the wheel. "A wood stork."

They had picked her up at the Sarasota airport, where they had rendezvoused with Scott and Irene before the newlyweds caught their connection to the Keys. There was little time, beyond a rushed cup of coffee, for the Hawthorns to get a sense of their son's new wife. Naturally, Sylvie was the center of attention.

"What's that bird?"

"I'm not sure," said Mavis. "Ask Grandpa."

Gordon labored to turn in the seat. His face was soft and deeply lined. His voice, too. "We get mostly snowbirds this time of year. Know what those are, honey?"

"What are what?" she answered nonsensically.

Gordon frowned. "Snowbirds. People who spend just the winters down here. From the north. Like you."

"Snowbirds," said Sylvie, wrinkling her nose. "Snowbiiiiiiiiirds."

Mavis glanced in the rearview mirror. Sylvie's language capacities seemed stunted for her age, yet her kooky-cloying intonations suggested a wily intelligence.

They hadn't seen her since their move to Florida. That they were a thousand miles from Lansing didn't help, or that Gordon was terrified of air travel, or that Scott never came to see them.

"If you like birds," said Mavis, patting her corkscrew perm with one hand, "I'll drive you out to the rookery."

"What's that?"

"You'll see. I take lots of pictures there. Me and my neighbor, Ellen."

"No, that thing, that bird!"

Gordon turned up the radio. Dime-sized liver spots showed through the gossamer remnants of his hair. Sylvie poked at one with her finger.

"Stop that, now," he chuckled.

Sylvie sat back. She watched the flight of a snowy egret gliding over the tree line. They didn't have birds like that in Michigan. Or bushes so rubbery-looking.

"Another day in paradise," said Gordon. "What we say every day. Isn't it, hon?"

Mavis nodded, stroking his knee. Though he wore khaki shorts all year round, Gordon didn't leave the house enough to garner much of a tan. "Just as well," he liked to say. "No one ever got skin cancer from watching television."

A car from the adjacent lane cut sharply in front of them.

"Not even a signal!" Mavis thumped her fist on the steering wheel.

"Rhode Island plates," said Gordon. "Figures. Still, you gotta thank God for the snowbirds. Without them, the state would never have built these highways or keep them up so nice." His lower spine was starting to hurt as it always did around noon.

They passed a condo development under construction. The only thing finished was the monumental, gilt-lettered sign—Luxor Suites—and concrete pylons flanking the entrance. On the banks, evergreen shrubs stood ready for planting.

Mavis glanced back at Sylvie. Huddled close to the door, she was licking at the window, her tongue moving in broad, flat swaths up the glass.

"Sylvia Hawthorn!"

* * *

The waitress at Meals-a-Deal had feathered hair and a girlish face, except for the creases at the edge of her mouth and teeth too white to be real. Leaning over Sylvie's shoulder, she tapped her pen at several items on the menu.

"Bacon gravy and biscuits, see? Or a BLT. Or a hamburger and bacon. Just a side of bacon? You're sure that's all you want?"

Sylvie nodded.

"You ought," said Mavis, "to have this Vegetable Medley thing along with. Right, Grandpa?"

Sylvie looked at Gordon and smiled, her lips curled tight to her gums. This girl, he thought, would be quite the looker, with her fair hair just starting to mellow, her daddy's cheekbones and Mavis's dimpled chin. And the eyes. The light just poured from her eyes when they looked at him—until the smallest thing yanked them away.

"Bacon," said Sylvie, glaring at the waitress. "Make it crispy, crunchy, crispy. Pleeeeeeeeeeease."

Gordon took a Vicodin from his shirt pocket and downed it with a sip of iced tea.

As they awaited their food, Sylvie's grasshopper curiosity lit on the wooden statue of an Indian chief poised outside the restrooms. It was roughly hewn and off-proportion, with a small alligator sitting at his feet.

"Look at that!" she shouted, dramatically gripping her side of the tablecloth. "That snake thing's looking at me!" Her voice had taken on a bone-cutting shrillness.

"It's an alligator," said Mavis. "Now stop with the tablecloth. You'll pull the glasses off."

* * *

Sunset threw a coral wash over the roofs of Casa Verde. Sylvie caught her breath at the security station when the crossbar raised to admit them.

"What's that thing, that pond?"

"Lake Pearl," said Gordon. "One of five man-made lakes here at Casa. You can see gators on the banks sometimes."

"Where? I don't see them."

"Not now. In the morning. They sun like cats. Grandma has pictures."

"What's that tree?"

"It's a grapefruit," said Gordon. "You don't see the fruit on the branches?"

Sylvie expelled a sigh of impatience. "All the houses look alike. Short, short, short."

"Mobile homes are all one storey," said Gordon, the painkiller putting a fuzz on his words. "They don't make them tall and they don't come with basements. That's the beauty of them. No musty basements. No stairs. Paradise."

"Manufactured homes," Mavis corrected, pulling into the carport. "Looks like Ellen and Zeke are back. We'll have to ask them over."

* * *

Casa Verde's eastern periphery was defined by a stiff wire fence. In the distance, a flatwood forest of pine and hickory stood against the darkening sky. Controlled burns, Gordon explained, kept the intervening brush at low rise. He waited with Sylvie on the rear patio while Mavis made pineapple smoothies inside.

"In the morning, you can see wild pigs at the fence if you get up early enough. Your room faces back."

Sylvie stared at a spot in the woods, her brows knit tight, as if even then she could see one. Gordon knew not to pay much attention. The girl's mind was full of strange turnings. It would likely be a tiring week for Mavis, he thought, though of course they were glad they could host her. Until now, Scott hadn't asked them for a single favor. He rarely made contact at all.

"Let's go inside, honey." Despite the Vicodin, standing for any length of time sent darts of pain up his back.

Sylvie walked out into the yard and halted at the birdbath. She pointed toward the forest.

"You don't see anything, Sylvie," he said, limping after her. "It's too dark."

He laid a hand on top of her head. Her fine straight hair felt like silk.

"One thing you won't see is a panther, if that's what you're looking for. The Greenies are lying. Anything to erode folks' property rights and beat back civilization. Sometimes you can see Indians, though. Seminoles. They go out in parties, trapping gators and pigs. They have a special license to do that. Along with all the other privileges."

He thought of the gambling revenues, hand over fist, in Port Charlotte.

"Seminooooooles."

"Let's get off the grass, honey. Mavis would never forgive me—Shit."

Sylvie was looking down at her legs, where at least a dozen tiny red ants dotted her left shin. Gordon thought he heard her snicker. Then her lips drew back in a clench-jawed grimace. Standing still like that, with her hands to her sides, she launched a series of piercing shrieks that brought the neighbors running.

* * *

Sylvie lay on the foldout guest bed, gazing at the window and the darkness beyond. From the living room, the unfamiliar voices of a man and woman mingled with those of her grandmother, though the words amounted to little more than decoration in the air, less distinct to Sylvie than the harping of crickets and tree frogs that called through the window screen.

Gordon had given her an antihistamine tablet and—over his wife's distracted objections—half a Vicodin.

Mavis, for her part, had treated the stings with vinegar and soda, then daubed them with Calamine, Sylvie screaming all the way through. She hadn't struggled or scratched at the welts, but applied every crumb of her will to hollering, like that was what she did to relax.

Exasperated, Mavis had left a traumatized Gordon with Sylvie in the guest room and gone to commiserate with the neighbors.

"These things happen," said Ellen Fishman. "It wasn't your fault."

Ellen was slim and fit—remarkably so—with hair that was a shade of light red meant to disguise its thinness.

"I'll have to watch her every minute," said Mavis. "I don't think Gordon's...equipped."

Ellen looked at her husband and smiled inscrutably. Zeke set his empty glass on the table. "Refreshing, Mavis."

The Fishmans seemed wary of expressing opinions when it came to anything. Mavis attributed this to the fact that they were relative newcomers to Casa Verde and the only resident Jews. Which might also explain their congenial silence when it came to politics. Gordon had pegged them as left of liberal.

Aside from Ellen's interest in photography, it was her calming presence that Mavis especially liked. She had perennially friendly, light blue eyes that seemed to make no judgments except when framing a shot. Ellen's photos had been published in several magazines, something Mavis had given up on after more than fifty submissions.

"Well," said Mavis through a bursting sigh, "things can only get better. Right?"

* * *

The first glint of dawn brought the red-bellied woodpecker to the guest room window—tap, tap, tap—the tip of its beak on the mirror glass. The Hawthorns had forgotten to warn their granddaughter about nature's little alarm clock. Tap. Tap-tap.

When Mavis looked in, Sylvie was standing in her jammies by the window, peeking out through the blinds.

"Little pest, isn't he?" Mavis sat at the edge of the bed. "Just pecking away at his own reflection. I'm sorry if he woke you, sweetheart."

Sylvie turned from the window. She brought her hand to her grandma's forehead and, with the tip of her middle finger, copied the action of the woodpecker.

Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Mavis forced herself to sit still. She thought it uncanny that the girl could guess the bird's pattern without even looking that direction.

"Let's check your ankle, Sylvie."

A light red blotch covered the area but, aside from three little pustules, there was no further swelling.

"You've got to watch out for the anthills. In fact, don't go outside by yourself. Okay?"

"Okay, May."

"Call me Grandma. Let's get dressed and we'll have some breakfast. Then we'll go for a walk. Maybe we'll see momma gator."

"Where's that guy, that Grandpa?"

"Sleeping. He'll be up by the time we get back. Then we'll all go to church. It's Sunday."

Sylvie turned back to the window. The bird had moved to the other side of the window, where it continued its noisy pursuit. It would keep up this racket for an hour or so.

"Look," said Mavis as she opened the blinds.

A haggard-looking jack rabbit gimped slowly past the birdbath.

"What's that?"

"Don't tell me you've never seen a bunny."

It stopped at the fence and sank down, panting. Mavis could see the bumpy ridge of its backbone and regretted having pointed it out.

Sylvie drew closer to the window, her nose touching the glass. She giggled.

"Never seen a bunny? Sure I seen a bunny. Duh!"

The rabbit had twisted onto its side and, except for one twitching foot, lay still. Mavis took the girl's hand and led her away from the window.

* * *

They ate breakfast on the veranda.

"A lanai, we call it down here," said Mavis, referring to this part of the house.

Sylvie liked the sound of "lanai" so much that she kept repeating it between bites of cereal. The Fishmans rode by on their double bicycle and waved at them.

"Zeke and Ellen," said Mavis, before the inevitable questions started. "They were here last night. They're Jewish. Ellen runs a taffy shop in Punta Gorda. Taffy's candy."

"What's Jewish?"

Mavis straightened the drape of the sweater hanging on the back of her chair. "Jews are. . . complicated."

Sylvie smiled, her pale green eyes beaming. "Why, May?"

"For one thing, they're a different religion. Though the Fishmans aren't really religious." Explaining this was pointless, thought Mavis. "And call me Grandma, not May. That's not my name, anyway."

Sylvie reached across the table as if to resume the pecking routine, though the bird was out of sight and hearing. Instead, she plucked something off Mavis's glasses—an insect. The child held it gently between her thumb and forefinger. She looked at it closely, her eyes nearly crossed. It had a green metallic carapace and transparent, V-shaped wings. She blew on it, a dim whistle streaming from her lips. She closed it in the fingers of her other hand and crunched it in her fist.

* * *

Wading fowl by the dozens paced the banks and shallows around Lake Emerald. Egrets, herons, ibises. A large gray bird with a two-foot neck stepped out from behind a white bougainvillea and sprinted across the street.

"That's a sandhill crane," said Mavis, her voice hushed. She wished she had brought a camera instead of Gordon's binoculars.

"It's got a red hat," said Sylvie.

"So it does. Both the male and female have them."

The crane stopped in the grass. It preened under one of its wings, then swung its head up to stare across the lake. Mavis raised the bulky binoculars and put the lanky bird into focus.

"It must have a nest in the woods somewhere. Out past the canal."

"Grapefruit!" said Sylvie.

She was pointing to a lime tree, but Mavis just nodded.

"Are we going to church, May?"

"We're going to see the gator first. Isn't that what you want?"

"Babies," the girl scowled. "That Grandpa guy said so."

"Well, you can't see one without the other, Sylvie."

The crane kept its place on the bank as they walked.

"Try to be quiet," Mavis whispered. "Let's see how close we can get."

The girl tracked beside her, silent as a cat. The crane stood less than eight yards off. At four feet high, it was fully mature. Of course, Mavis thought, if she had brought her camera, the bird would not have stood still for so long.

A golf cart hummed up the street behind them—Julius Capetto on his way to the clubhouse. He stopped the cart, obeying Mavis's outstretched hand.

Eight yards narrowed to seven, then six. Mavis glanced down at her granddaughter, whose interests for once seemed akin to her own. Sylvie clasped her hands behind her back and took careful, quiet steps through the grass.

The crane thrust its neck an inch forward. Its legs flexed and it pushed off the ground. Mavis watched it fly over the lake and the clubhouse.

"Dirty birdie!" Sylvie hollered. "Damn!"

"Hey! Don't swear or we're turning around right now."

Sylvie flapped her arms and ran back toward the lime tree.

"That was quite the heron," said Julius, advancing in the golf cart.

"It was a crane," said Mavis.

Julius picked a white plastic bag from the cart seat.

"Take some oranges," he said, handing the bag to Mavis. "The frost this year made them extra sweet." He wiggled the bill of his cap. "Is that your granddaughter?"

"Yep. Scott's daughter. Silvia Hawthorn. She'll be eight this fall."

"Pretty girl." He called out to her: "I wouldn't pick those limes yet, sugar. They're hard as rocks."

Sylvie flapped her arms and circled the tree.

"Enjoy," said Julius. "I'll stop by later and check in on Gordon." He continued around the bend of the street.

"Damn that snowbird!"

"Stop it, Sylvie! Come on, if you want to see the alligator."

Mavis turned and started walking. For weeks she had entertained the fantasy of playing grandmother: hunting for sharks' teeth on the beach, making smoothies, riding the Ferris wheel in Venice. Sadly, though, when it came down to it, she already wanted the week to be over. She wondered how Sylvie's father stood it. Presumably, Irene knew what she was in for.

Mavis heard the girl behind her, scuffing through the grass.

"Aren't the azaleas pretty, sweetheart? Come, let's walk on the pavement."

In five minutes, they had reached Lake Pearl. On the far end stood the security station.

"Do you know where you are now?"

"Paradise," said Sylvie without hesitation.

"There she is on the shore. Momma gator."

Drawing closer, they could see the ten-foot reptile half-submerged in the water, its heavy tail draped up the bank.

"She's a big one," said Mavis. "You can't see it now, but there's a hole dug into the rise behind her."

"Where? I don't see that! Where?"

"Just past the tip of her tail. Her babies are in there. Hatched a few weeks ago."

They ventured within twenty yards of it. The mud-colored beast turned its head their direction. Its jaws cracked. Every movement was slow and deliberate, as if requiring great forethought to execute.

"We shouldn't go any closer," said Mavis. "Gators can move very fast when they want to. See those legs? You especially don't want to mess with a mother."

"Grandpa said babies. He said!"

"They're in that hole, Sylvie. Where momma can keep an eye on them. Their little cave cradle. Do you want to try the binoculars?"

"Hey, no way."

Mavis put down the bag of oranges and looked through the barrels of the instrument. Grass screened most of the hole. She took a few steps closer. She thought she could see the head of one baby—a black little snout, a tawny yellow eye.

"How do they get here, May?"

"The gators? They swim. There's a canal between us and the nature preserve."

Something splashed in the lake.

"What's that?"

Mavis turned the binoculars until they took in a large black bird surfacing in the water.

"They're called anhingas," she said. "They're diving birds. In a few minutes, he'll be sitting on the bank, his wings spread out, drying off."

Mavis shifted her magnified gaze toward the head of the alligator. It had backed up onto the bank so that only its forelegs were left in the water. Its head was raised, its jaws tightly closed. It looked like a statue, regal and serene, until something hit the side of its head, near the eye, and plunked down into the grass. Mavis found it in her sights—a lime. She lowered the glasses and turned.

Sylvie's face held an expression that Mavis had never seen on a child—a bizarre fusion of terror and delight that bared her teeth and blazed from her eyes. The girl raised her hand and pointed.

On her first step away from the charging reptile, Mavis lost her footing. She fell face-down and hard in the grass. Gasping for air, she tried to get up. Her limbs wouldn't budge. Who would believe—without actually seeing its hunkered sprint, its chopping limbs, its spine as pliant as a snake's—that anything so leaden in appearance could really move that fast?

The jaws closed over Mavis's foot and a lurch of the head brought her quickly down the bank. The alligator tugged her out into the water, then, climbing over her, flogged its armored tail repeatedly in the mud.

* * *

Sylvie sat on a wooden bench on the other side of Lake Pearl. Ten minutes had passed since the fracas on the opposite bank had given her the chance to peek into the nest and see what gator babies looked like. They weren't all that small. They were black and prickly, with sharp little claws and shiny yellow eyes. The one she had taken had squirmed feistily in her fingers; she had had to hold on tight until she was able to slip it into the plastic bag from which she had dumped out the oranges.

Staring out at the lake, Sylvie watched as the sky grew over the water and vanished in silver ripples only to reappear. The light seemed to come from all over the sky, different from the kind she was used to. It flashed from the water and from the metal and glass of passing cars.

"Lanai," she said.

The white crossbar at the security station raised and lowered. From where she sat, it looked as small as a toothpick.

A heron flapped down to the grass in front of her and stepped to the water on its black stilt legs. It pecked at something lying in the mud before wading in to hunt for tadpoles and minnows. Sylvie gripped tighter to the bag. It was moving again, the baby gator inside of it trying to escape.

A car had stopped on the far shore, where the mother gator could be seen on the bank. Two people stood nearby, watching it. A mud-colored thing, like a large twisted rock, lay by the water's edge. Mavis Hawthorn.

Sylvie tuned her ear to the sigh of the breeze, to whispers in the grass, to the sound of her nails scraping the bench. She watched as other cars gathered, and a white van with screaming red lights, while the security crossbar raised and lowered, and the water's surface filled with clouds and waves of wrinkled silver.

* * *

Gordon sat motionless in his recliner, his hands clutched to the pair of binoculars found on the bank at Lake Pearl. A cooking show played on the muted TV, the chef concocting a marinade for gigantic swordfish steaks. The bird-call clock above the kitchen sink sounded—the two o'clock oriole chirrup.

In the guest room, Ellen Fishman tried to keep Sylvie occupied with games of tic-tac-toe. The previous evening, after the girl's screeching marathon, Ellen had returned with Zeke to their house through a silence that seemed almost impossible. She had practically felt the rents in her brain caused by those feral, heart-shivering calls. In bed, she had laid awake for hours, waiting as if for those cries to resume, then imagined or dreamed that they were answered from some burrow or treetop in the forest preserve.

"Hey, your turn!" Sylvie stared at the thinness of Ellen's red-dyed hair and laughed. "Under your hairdo, you're bald!"

Ellen peered over her readers at Sylvie—"Isn't everyone?"—then scrawled a requisite O on the grid.

At the front of the house, Julius Capetto bumped around in the kitchen, mixing Gordon a gin and tonic. Julius was father-in-law to Deputy Miles, who sat on the sofa with Zeke Fishman.

Above the sofa hung one of Mavis's bird photographs that had won second prize at the Naples art fair. A spoonbill descending into its nest had been captured in the soft light of dusk.

"I just want to see her," said Gordon, his voice in cracking falsetto. "I want to go to the hospital."

Zeke shared a look of concern with the deputy, then spoke to his grieving neighbor.

"She's not there, buddy. The ambulance took her to the morgue."

"I'm so sorry, sir," said Deputy Miles. Despite his youth, the condolence had weight, his manner both grave and gentle. "She'd been gone at least twenty minutes. They think it was heart failure."

"I have to see her!" Gordon held out his hand toward the empty recliner.

"I don't advise it, sir."

"She just lay there? For half an hour? Where was Sylvie?"

"We don't know," said Zeke.

Julius set Gordon's drink on the side table.

"They were together when I saw them," he said. "Must have been eight-thirty or so. I was still on the treadmill when I heard the ambulance. That would have been around nine, nine-fifteen. And then driving up to see what happened, I saw her alone on that bench, poor thing."

"Gordon, do you want us to call your son?" Zeke offered.

Gordon gripped the binoculars. Tears ran down his cheeks. "That something like this could happen—" he sobbed, his stricken eyes sliding to Miles. "I want something done. I want something goddamn done!"

* * *

The vibrant rose and papaya sunset had dimmed to glowing umber. Very soon it was dark. Cars and golf carts lined the streets around Lake Pearl. At least a hundred people had come to the place where Mavis Hawthorn had died.

Deputy Miles, instead of contacting the state wildlife agency, had called Gator Circus in Naples to obtain the services of two of its handlers. They had put the culprit in a long metal cage after securing its jaws with a belt. Somehow, a Fort Myers TV station had heard about the incident, but its crew was turned away at the gate.

Gordon stood at the front of the crowd supported by Zeke and Julius until a folding chair was brought. He sat staring at the alligator. What he could see of it didn't move. The deputy put his headlights on it, which served mainly to illuminate the bars of the cage.

"God damn gators," said Julius loudly enough to incite conversation nearby. A woman broke into sobs.

The Hawthorns had lived in Casa Verde for more than six years and were active in many of the clubhouse activities. A few snowbirds might not have known them by name, but everyone else did. They were considerate neighbors to folks like the Fishmans, who were slowly adjusting to life in the sunbelt.

Someone in the distance started beating a drum in slow, solitary thuds. It seemed to come from across the lake or even further off. Talking ceased as the flames from a number of cigarette lighters appeared here and there in the dark.

Deputy Miles pulled both a rifle and a baseball bat from the back seat of his car. He propped the rifle against the front fender and stepped toward the cage with the bat. He gave one corner a quick, sharp rap. The alligator made no response.

The officer drew a flashlight from his belt and strode to the edge of the bank. He switched on the flashlight and pointed the beam to the hole in the ground where the mother's offspring were nesting. With his feet firmly planted, he bent over and plunged the head of the bat into the opening—once, twice, three times, six times.

The cage rattled as the reptile thrust its head and tail hard against the top. A forefoot emerged through the bars on one side, the long toes gripping into the turf as all other movement subsided.

The drum continued its solemn cadence on the other side of Lake Pearl. A fish jumped. Traffic hummed back and forth on the Interstate.

Standing, the deputy turned off the flashlight and clipped it onto his belt. Then he walked to the car and took up the loaded two-forty-three. He flipped off the safety.

"Anything you want to say, Mr. Hawthorn?"

Gordon declined with a shake of his head. The deputy put a hand on his shoulder.

"Do you want to put her down, sir? I'll hold the barrel right to her head and you can pull the trigger."

Gordon palmed the tears from his cheeks and tried to sit up straight.

* * *

"Where's May?" asked Sylvie. Her eyes were buttoned to Ellen Fishman, who sat beside her on her grandparents' sofa.

"Who?" Ellen squinted over her readers. "You mean Mavis?"

"May!"

"You really don't remember?' Ellen reached for the box of tissues on the coffee table. She dabbed at the lashes of her lower lids and took the girl's hand. "Your grandma's gone, Sylvie. She died this morning—I'm so very sorry—at the lake."

Ellen cringed at having been this direct. She hoped she hadn't just ripped a hole in the delicate fabric of this child's sensibilities. This was the province of child psychologists. Maybe her friend, Dr. Chrone in Yonkers, would recommend a local professional.

A gunshot sounded, faint but clear.

Sylvie slipped her hand from Ellen's and scratched at the place on the old woman's forearm where a dime-sized mole protruded.

"Ouch! That hurt, Sylvie."

On the silent TV, an animated panther playing golf was superimposed on footage of the Casino de las Palmas resort in Port Charlotte. A year and a half after Hurricane Pete, the casino and golf course had finally reopened.

Ellen rose. She opened the sliders to the veranda and looked out toward the street. A three-quarter moon showed over the rooftops. She didn't like this business with the alligator. Neither did Zeke. It was appalling, in fact, and completely illegal. Despite their regard for Deputy Miles, Zeke had called the TV station in hopes that the press would provide some sort of ameliorative presence.

"Jews are complicated," said Sylvie from the sofa.

Ellen suppressed a frown, then a grin. "Who told you that? Your grandma?"

"No. Yes."

The veranda smelled equally of mildew and lemon-verbena air freshener. Ellen switched on the overhead light. Past the little dining table, the space was crowded with flea-market tchotchkes, including a four-foot plastic pelican with a fish caught in its bill. A whatnot just inside the door held Mavis's Nikon D40 and lenses. But it was the sight of a worn beige sweater draped over a chair that turned Ellen back to the living room.

"Your daddy will be here soon," she said, fighting the lump in her throat.

"They're on their honeymooooooon." Sylvie had picked up the heavy binoculars and was aiming them at her lap.

"Not anymore, dear. They're flying up from the Keys."

Ellen examined the bottles of pills on the table by Gordon's recliner. Ambien, Vicodin, Percocet. Gordon had undergone more operations than anyone she knew, some necessary, others to prove a point, it seemed, in the efficacy of western medicine.

"I have a present," said Sylvie. "For Daddy, my dad."

Her sage-green eyes, Ellen realized, always kept the same avid luminosity no matter what she was looking at or expressing.

"Really? That's nice." Ellen resumed her place on the sofa. "What did you get for him, sweetheart? Or did you make it?"

The binoculars swung up so fast that they almost hit Ellen's dentures.

"Where's that Grandpa, El?"

Ellen firmly took hold of the instrument and set it on the coffee table.

"He went to the lake by the entrance, where your grandma had the accident."

Sylvie's face went blank, her gaze dropping as if in contemplation.

"Dirty birdie," she mumbled. "Damn."

She kicked over a stack of Southern Living sitting by the sofa, then leapt up and ran from the room.

Ellen straightened the magazines, wondering if Sylvie should spend the night here. Gordon was in no condition to care for this child. Then again, the distraction, however unpleasant, might hold him together until Scott could get there.

Ellen walked to the back of the house. Sylvie was standing in the guest bathroom, staring into the toilet. Her cheeks bulged out as she blew out an angry stream of air.

"What's the matter, Sylvie?"

Pushing past Ellen, Sylvie rushed to the guest room, hunched over, as if following a trail of something on the carpet.

"What is it, Sylvie? If you tell me, maybe I can help."

"Allie, stupid! My present!"

Sylvie lay down on the floor by the bed. Using her elbows for leverage, she propelled herself under the frame inch by inch. She searched the darkness. She thought she saw a pair of tiny eyes glinting. With her left hand, she reached as far as she could. She made a crossbar sweep with her arm.

"Bad boy! Bad!"

Ellen watched her floundering about, just her ankles and feet visible. By the base of the floor lamp lay an empty, white plastic bag.

"What's the present, Sylvie? Tell me what to look for. Is it round? Does it roll?"

"Damn!"

The doorbell rang.

"Goodness," said Ellen, a sudden relief coursing through her. "That must be your daddy. Let's go say hi. We'll look for your present later."

The sound of Sylvie's nails on the carpet startled for its sheer audibility. Ellen leaned over to touch the girl's ankle, but her hand stopped short on reflex.

* * *

The man on the doorstep was as tall as Gordon must have been in his prime. His brown hair fell to shoulder-length and his blunt, dark eyes were like Mavis's.

Ellen pushed open the screen door. "You must be Scott. I'm heartsick for you and your dad. Come in."

He made the barest hint of a nod, but otherwise didn't move. He wore a western-style shirt with pearl buttons and a pair of saggy dark jeans.

"I'm Ellen," she said. "I live next door. I'm watching Sylvie."

A dark moth fluttered into the house. The man's head drew forward and he looked past her as if to follow the flight of the insect. Then he stood straight, chin lifted.

"This is the Hawthorn residence," he said with an odd declarative tone. "My name is Angel Morehouse, ma'am."

"Oh?" said Ellen. Surprised, she stepped back. "Are you looking for Gordon?"

"If that is Mr. Hawthorn, yes."

She let the screen door shut quietly between them. He was older than she had first thought. A deep crease divided his brow. He might even be fifty.

"We were saddened to hear about his wife," the man said.

Ellen glanced behind her, glad that Sylvie was still in the guest room.

"What is it you want, Mr.—?"

"Morehouse."

Only then did she notice that his clothes were wet from his feet—which were bare—to his chest, though his shoulders and hair looked dry.

"Ma'am," he said. "There has been a hurt here." Such a formal way of speaking seemed at odds with his bedraggled appearance. "And a hurt out there."

He nodded toward the back yard and the darkness.

"I have come to heal," he said, standing taller. "To restore the peace between the Hawthorn's and the spirit of the swamp."

Ellen whiffed the air for a smell of liquor, detecting beer possibly. Or the musky odor that came from the tamarack barrens at certain times of the year.

"How did you get past Security, Mr. Morehouse? You know the deputy sheriff's right here in Casa, and the men'll be back any minute."

A low hissing noise startled her. It might have come from the patio, it sounded that close. The stranger didn't seem to have noticed.

"Bane to be traded for boon," he continued. "And it must be done on the grounds of this house, where the hurt to allapattah will be healed."

He spoke the word reverently, dipping his head as he did so. It was Ellen's first encounter with a local Seminole, if that was indeed what he was. She had done some reading on the history of Florida, some of which had touched on Native Americans, though she knew next to nothing of their contemporary lives.

"Who gave you this address?" she asked.

He turned his head toward the patio. "Do you hear it, ma'am? The drum? That's my cousin, Tigger, in the woods."

Ellen put her ear to the door screen. She didn't hear drumming. A small puddle, she noticed, had formed on the pavement beneath the man's bare feet. She tried to imagine anyone swimming or wading the canal at night, and on such an outlandish mission. She looked for a hint of guile on his face, in his eyes—finding none. But the smell of beer was unmistakable.

"What do you propose to do here?" she asked.

From his wet jeans pocket he drew out a black-beaded rosary.

"There are words to be spoken," he said. "To allapattah. There's a song in our language—"

"Muskogee," said Ellen, pleased to have remembered this fact.

"There is a song in our language and the dance of the marshes. Then a prayer to our Mother of Beasts."

She was almost sure that he was making this up.

"I'm sorry," said Ellen. "You'll have to wait for Gordon—Mr. Hawthorn."

He placed the rosary over his head and carefully freed his hair from its circle. The cross had been replaced with a tiny, carved, wooden alligator. Then he edged away from the light.

"Your sympathies, ma'am, would help to welcome the spirits I call. We need their good will."

Turning, he walked through the patio and into the dark yard.

"Sir? I can't give you permission. You'll have to wait. Please."

Ellen heard Sylvie's voice from the guest room: "Bad! Bad!" She couldn't remember if she had drawn the blinds there.

"Mr. Morehouse?" She could hear the drum now, its eerie pulse in the wilderness.

It occurred to her that one rarely thought of wilderness here. People thought in terms of undeveloped land. Yet she did feel at times, walking over the coarse, cropped grass of her yard, that if she closed her eyes for more than a minute, the vines and palmettos and snakes and bugs would rise in one great brambly tsunami and take back their old stomping grounds.

"I'm coming out," she called softly, her heart pounding as she took the steps down.

Ellen stood beneath the patio light, shielding her eyes from its glare. With his dark hair and clothes, she could hardly see him. Above her, a beetle circled the light, its wings in a sonorant whir. She heard his feet in the grass, saw him cut in front of the birdbath. He was humming.

She left the patio and tracked along the side of the house. Recalling the fire ants, she wished she had worn better shoes, though she didn't know if they were active at night.

"Mr. Morehouse?"

Once her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could see him standing by the fence. The humming was directed away from her, toward the forest. His notes shifted from his nose to his throat, each delivered in heavy vibrato. The sound opened to a gentle wail broken by distinct syllables. He sang the same phrase several times and stopped. The drumming accelerated, every fourth beat given emphasis.

Then he started to move, a shadow in shadows. He danced in a crouch from place to place, his broadest motions on the loudest drumbeat. His feet whispered on the spongy turf. He was directly under the guest room window. The blinds were pulled and only the lamplight seeping through them lifted him out of the darkness. Ellen could see his bobbing head, his nose jutting out between the drapes of his hair. A shadow formed against the window blinds. Sylvie must have heard the chanting.

A tree frog trilled from a nearby limb in counterpoint to the drum. As the man continued around the edge of the yard, he fell to all fours and at intervals thumped the ground with his palms. Completing the circle, he passed the birdbath and lay face-down in the grass.

The beetle on the patio was still buzzing there. Ellen thought she heard other wings besides—smaller and softer, making a powdery squall.

The drumming had stopped. Something moved through the brush on the other side of the fence. An armadillo, maybe. Or a pig. Or a panther.

Ellen looked up at the guest room window. The girl's shadow was gone.

"You've got to be going now," she called as quietly as she could. "The men are coming. You won't be safe. And the yard is full of fire ants. Mr. Morehouse?"

Finally, he gathered himself and stood up, tugging his wet shirt from his belly. The fabric was speckled with dirt and cut grass. He came toward her and stopped less than two strides off, his brow reflecting the patio light.

"Allapattah," he said, "is at peace."

He bowed his head as a monk might do, then fixed her with a look of almost urgent solemnity.

Ellen caught herself bowing in turn. "Thank you."

The crease in his brow seemed to deepen, his eyes to grow darker, harder.

"Ma'am, what do you think would be fair compensation?"

Ellen stared at him. "What do you mean?"

"For my work." He lifted the rosary from around his neck and gathered it in the palm of one hand.

"Mr. Morehouse." The disappointment she heard in her quavering voice was directed as much to herself as to him. She had believed, if not in his purpose or methods, then at least in his sincerity.

"Fifty dollars, ma'am," he said. "You think it's easy, this magic I do? There is danger involved. Grave danger."

"Certainly not. You should have told me your fee to begin with."

"Forty, then? I have to split that with my cousin."

Ellen clasped her hands in front of her and stood as tall as she could. Never had she felt so alone in a place, so captive to the whims of a stranger. Still, the power of moral authority kept her panic at bay. This man was a fake, a shyster.

"You had best be going, whoever you are."

To this, he offered a bemused little smile as his eyes descended the line of her body.

"Your wrist is bleeding, ma'am," he said.

Imperturbable, Ellen kept her gaze on his face.

He shrugged, turned and walked through the patio and the carport, heading in the direction of Lake Emerald and the canal. It would be a miracle, she thought, if the first passing car did not report him to Security. He looked completely vagrant.

* * *

"Sylvie?"

Ellen locked and bolted the door. She went to the living room, aware of each footfall, each breath. She sensed the transmission from the silent TV—the shifting spectrum of pixels, the jumps of light and shadow. The noise of the wall clock startled her—the red-winged blackbird chittering the hour.

Remembering what the stranger had told her, she looked at her arms. A trickle of blood marked her left forearm. Ellen snatched up a tissue and daubed at the place, then went to the guest bathroom to wash it. She didn't go in. The contents of the trash bin were strewn along the tiles.

"Sylvie? You're going to sleep over at our place tonight."

In the guest room, the bed had been yanked from the wall and the clothes hamper lay on its side.

"Playing hide and seek, little girl? Now isn't really the time."

Every lamp was on in the master bedroom and the duvet was thrown up on one end of the bed. The master bath wasn't occupied either. Ellen looked in the closet and returned to the living room. The sliders to the veranda stood open and the light was on there, too.

With her pulse starting to sound in her ears, Ellen made her way through the bric-a-brac furniture to the veranda's opposite end. The door to the front walk was neither locked nor latched. She peered out at the street toward Lake Emerald. The rising moon put a luster on the asphalt and the fruit of the pummelo tree in her yard.

"Sylvie!" she called, her voice catching in her throat.

She stepped through the door, but drew back. It would be much more prudent, she thought, to have Zeke call Security than for her to walk out and start searching. She rushed to the living room to get her cell phone. Pressing the speed dial, she noticed that the stack of magazines had once more been knocked over. A few were spread under the coffee table. Had she done this herself unawares? Through the glass tabletop, she saw something else—a long black streak on carpet. She stepped closer, looking over her readers at nothing other than a live baby alligator.

"What is it, Ellen? We're turning the corner. Is Scott there? I left his name at the gate."

The nine-inch reptile started toward her, its stumpy limbs pumping over the carpet. She found herself perched on the edge of the sofa. A crimson streak marked her slacks at the knee. Blood was still seeping from the mole on her arm.

"Honey? You there? Ellen?"

Tiny movements sounded behind her, the claws and tail of the allapattah scratching the kitchen floor.

If that was the child's missing present, how on earth, Ellen wondered, had she gotten it? She must have provoked the mother by plundering the nest, and Mavis—poor Mavis!—had intervened?

An arc of headlights hit the front window as a car pulled up to the house. Ellen put her palms to her temples. Scott, too, would be arriving at any moment—Scott Hawthorn, whose daughter was outside somewhere, lost and terrified. Or was she hiding in the house, tucked into some cupboard or crawl space, having a heartless laugh on them all?

On TV, a middle-aged woman in a silver leotard demonstrated the latest abdominal exerciser.

Ellen considered a third possibility—that Angel Morehouse's dubious ritual was rooted in custom, in some sacred, unthinkable magic. Bane to be traded for boon, he had said. She heard a car door shut, then two more. She looked toward the kitchen. The alligator sat on a patch of linoleum directly in front of the fridge. Its head was raised and turned back and forth in clearly evident distress. It commenced a series of raspy chirps, like the sound a bird would make if it could bark.



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