The argument had started the same day they moved in. An old song with new lyrics.
‘Do we really need a gun?’ Lizzie had asked, a box cradled in her arms.
Eric leaned against the truck and squinted out towards the water. ‘You won’t feel so bad if a cougar comes,’ he said, flicking his eyes to Hunter. The boy was across the driveway, choosing the best tree for a tire swing. ‘Or a gator. Or a bear.’
‘You said it’s safe out here,’ Lizzie said.
‘Safer. I said safer.’
Lizzie had sighed and gone indoors. The screen door slammed behind her and Eric couldn’t tell if it was the breeze or her mood. He couldn’t tell a lot those days, he felt. Except that the move would do them good. Hunter especially. All kids deserve to grow up in the country.
Months passed with the gun bolted away, and Eric, Lizzie, and Hunter shaped the garden, the house, the jetty in the water into something collective: no longer individual buildings, or people, even, but a home. Lizzie found work and began to chip away at the mortgage. Eric put feelers out, made connections, chopped wood for the elderly couple down the road. Hunter made friends at school. A treehouse was built.
Once, sitting on the jetty, dangling his feet in the water, Hunter had asked Lizzie if she was happy. She had frowned at him, puzzled by his question.
‘Why do you ask that?’ she said.
He wiggled his toes, little waves slopping over his ankles and breaking against the edge of the jetty.
‘Dad seems different,’ he had said. ‘So do you, sometimes.’
‘In what way?’
‘You talk more. You used to just shout. The city was shouting all the time. Here you laugh.’
‘We didn’t shout all the time,’ Lizzie had said.
‘It felt like it.’
There was a silence. A country silence, with no alarms or sirens or neighbours’ music in the background.
‘Are you happy?’ Lizzie asked, her voice a whisper against the quiet sunset.
‘I am,’ Hunter said. He pulled his legs out of the water and ran up the jetty, towards the house. He had grown so much since the move, Lizzie thought. The clean air; it’s like fertilizer for kids.
She followed him with her eyes, and saw Eric in a chair on the porch, the rifle broken across his thighs. He was cleaning it. A soldier checking for sand, still.
Hunter ran straight past, not even glancing at the gun, and something jarred in Lizzie’s stomach. He should find that new, she thought. Unusual. Interesting. Cool, even. ‘Is that a gun?!’ She could almost hear his voice, but no. She wondered what Eric and Hunter did while she was at work.
Weeks after, Eric cleaning the gun again, Lizzie sat in the second porch chair, placing two beers on the wooden floor. She listened to the creak of wood, the rub of cloth on gunstock, the slow build of condensation on the bottles. You could hear everything outside the city.
‘You were right,’ she said eventually.
Eric looked up, his hand paused on the butt of the gun. ‘About what?’
‘The move. It’s done us well, I think. It’s sinking in now; the change.’
Eric smiled and suddenly they were 19 again, sat by a different lake, drinking beers and laughing. Not that long ago, really, but long enough. He moved his hand on top of Lizzie’s, squeezing gently. When he got up to stretch his knees he left her fingers streaked with oil.
She watched him walk around, working the stiffness out of his legs, his back. So old at such a young age. He built into a slow jog down by the water. She sipped her beer deeply, drinking half in a few mouthfuls. She closed her eyes and breathed.
Sometime later, she couldn’t tell how long, she heard Eric’s voice. Faintly at first, as though she had been asleep, and then sudden, urgent, loud. Shouting hoarsely, his voice a scream, calling for help.
She snapped up, straining her eyes to see down to the water. Eric was ankle deep, hunched over. A silhouette against the blood sunset. Lizzie ran across the grass, realising the gun was in her hand only when she was about halfway. She noticed that first, then the alligator.
Its black bulk a tangle with Eric’s limbs. The occasional flash of bright, fleshy red.
‘Eric!’ She screamed, her gut tight and hard like a musket ball.
‘Shoot it! Shoot it!’
Lizzie froze for what felt like the longest time. She looked to the gun and snapped it shut. She pulled the bolt back and heard a round slide into the chamber.
Eric punching the twisting beast; a baby, Lizzie saw. An adult would have taken him already. The ripples would be smoothing by now, and her eyes would still be shut.
‘Shoot it!’ Eric screamed again, his punches slipping off the scales like water.
Lizzie aimed the gun, her arms shaking, her legs numb. She couldn’t get a clear shot and the barrel kept dropping.
‘Lizzie!’ Eric’s voice faltering, panicked and tight. Then Hunter’s voice way behind them, up at the house.
There was a huge splash as the gator twisted again. A cry from Eric, who stumbled, and then he was running. They both were. A trail of water and blood across the grass, glimmering like snail slime.
Eric slipped then fell, and Lizzie stopped to stand over him, tasting iron and sweat. She leant to wrap a hand around his calf, blood seeping between her fingers. Eric closed his eyes and fought back whatever was trying to come out. Lizzie saw Hunter, frozen by the porch chairs, and then turned back. The lake had stilled and the gator was gone. Birds were calling again.
Lying awake later, Lizzie listened to the sounds of night with Eric full of painkillers beside her. Lizzie breathed deep. The smell of antiseptic cream and lake water thick in the air, acrid at the back of her throat. What Hunter had said as she kissed him goodnight kept repeating in her head: ‘I thought you were aiming the gun at Dad.’
She thought back to the muzzle dropping and imagined if she actually had squeezed the trigger. The shatter of sound, the smell of gun smoke; the feeling she would have had, seeing her husband fall. She tried to put a name to the sensation in her chest but fell into a troubled sleep instead.
Eric hunted for three days before he found trace of the gator. One morning, dew crisp on the grass, he came striding into the house, gun cocked over his shoulder, muttering. Lizzie had asked him what was wrong and he took a full minute to reply.
‘It’s back. The gator. Tracks on the grass.’
‘Are you sure?’
He’d looked at her and her insides froze. There was something in his eyes that she hadn’t seen for a long time. He had stuffed a bag of trail mix and two cans of soda into his rucksack before checking the gun on the porch and disappearing off around the lake.
He hadn’t come back until the sun was low. His shirt was dirty and he smelled of wood and rotten reeds.
‘No sign,’ he’d said, locking the gun away, leaving the bag by the door. ‘I’ll go out again tomorrow.’
‘Are you sure?’ Lizzie had asked. ‘It could be anywhere in that lake. And how do you know it’s the same one anyway?’
‘It’s the same one or it’s one of the parents. Either way, I’ll find it.’
That had been the end of it, and Eric had gone to bed without another word after drinking three beers. Lizzie stayed up thinking again about how blasé Hunter was about seeing the gun. She couldn’t shake the flutter in her chest. She would never voice it, of course, but she definitely didn’t like the idea of Hunter ever handling a weapon.
Lizzie had been out at the store when it happened, and still couldn’t eat yams because of it. The blame. If it weren’t for needing yams she would have been there. Eric had been tossing a football with Hunter, the passes growing longer and longer, the sun beating down on them. Eric’s bare shoulders reddened and Hunter’s hair grew slick with sweat. They laughed a lot but didn’t talk so much. It had been nice.
Eric had just thrown a long, sloping pass that Hunter had fumbled when he called across that he was going indoors to get some tea. Hunter had said alright and run off into the long grass down by the far right side of the driveway. The water there was shallow and there were heavy old logs heaped haphazardly throughout the grass.
Eric had only been inside a second.
The sound was like a dropped glass shattering. Eric had done exactly that when he heard Hunter’s cry. Strangled, choked out, but loud enough to reach a parent’s ears. Eric had run out, his eyes flashing left to right, trying to find the boy. There, down by the shallows, Hunter lay half in the water, a dark shape latched to his skin like a leech.
Eric had loaded the gun in a second. He ran closer, his vocal chords sore with shouting Hunter’s name. Fifty metres away he saw the blood. How much the human body can hold, and lose, is terrifying. He stopped, aimed, exhaled, and fired.
The ringing in his ears seemed louder than ever before; the recoil bruising his shoulder for the first time in years.
The mess was awful, he could see even from that distance. A sticky pink hash spattered the logs, the grass, the nearby trees. He couldn’t remember what the gun had been loaded with. The gator would be nothing more than a twitching tail.
Except when Eric got to Hunter, the gator wasn’t there at all.
‘Son,’ Eric had said. That one word breaking the silence like a branch snap. ‘Son?’
Hunter lay still, his legs barely submerged by the lake, his upper body turned as if clutching a teddy bear in sleep. Eric reached out for him, his breath catching.
He turned the boy over and vomited.
Months later, with the last of their belongings loaded into the van, Eric sat by the lake and thought. It had been soothing here, once. The soft lap of water blown by a breeze, the sound of Lizzie singing in the shower drifting down to him. He’d had the idea that this place would be somewhere he would make huge plans for them, his family. Instead, it was the place Lizzie would no longer speak of.
The place the gator took Hunter, Eric had said once, putting it into words for her. She had nodded and he’d held her tight. ‘A strong husband in the face of such grief’, he’d heard their church friends saying after the funeral.
‘Nature can be so cruel,’ he had whispered, the guilt like another member of the family; one Lizzie wasn’t aware of. ‘You know I tried,’ Eric continued. ‘I tried to save him. But those jaws. They’ll do awful things.’
Lizzie had nodded, hands clasped around his waist, and he breathed in the smell of her hair. He knew it would smell like coconut, lime, and grapefruit, but still all he got was old water and gunpowder.