The Blue Whale of Catoosa by Harold Hoss

Competitive swimmer Anna takes her jilted college roommate on an ill-advised bender with two dangerous strangers; by Harold Hoss.

Anna Gavigan looked out past the gravel parking lot and across the murky green pond at the Blue Whale of Catoosa and thought about how she needed to be studying. The old concrete whale was beached on one side of the pond and had seen better days. The whale's blue paint had chipped and faded, leaving long white scars like war wounds from past battles with whaling ships or giant concrete squids, but its one visible red eye still looked fresh. Her eyes scanned the whale, starting with its thick, bottle shaped head, looking past the slide hanging limply out beneath the eye like a harpoon, and down to the narrow body just above the water where several rusty, three rung ladders hung over both sides. At the back, the whale's tail rose and curved around to one side, creating a small cove where several logs, probably fallen trees, bobbed in a logjam. A small white tugboat floated halfway between the whale and the shore, tethered in place by an anchor.

Sitting behind the wheel of his lifted Chevy Tahoe, Teague cracked another warm beer, and nodded at the whale. "There she blows." He said this through a bulge of dip in his lower lip, then drained half his beer. "Not what you expected?"

Teague reminded her of one of the bad guys from the old westerns her dad and brothers liked to watch growing up. Not the main antagonist, who was usually the greedy owner of a ranch, but one of his hired guns who loped around looking for a fight. He wore a red and white flannel shirt tucked into wrangler jeans held up by a horseshoe belt buckle that were in turn tucked into a pair of worn brown boots. He kept his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, revealing arms crisscrossed with veins as big as vines and, on his right arm, a brand of the number 44 - his old high school football number - just beneath his elbow.

"You said it was a big blue whale." Anna grabbed her own beer from the cupholder and drained the dregs, crunching the empty can beneath her muscular hand when she finished. "That's a big blue whale."

A few hours ago, sober Anna might have gagged at just the thought of cheap, warm beer, but after splitting a few pitchers it went down easy.

Maybe a little too easy, Anna thought, resisting the urge to reach for another. She had what her dad and brothers called the 'Gavigan Gift' for throwing back beers. And while the Gavigan Gift earned her brothers, all high school heroes who joined their dad on the force after graduation, nothing but respect - it seemed to frighten people when they saw it in Anna.

"Should we take a closer look?" Teague asked.

A giggle floated up from the back seat and, instinctively, Anna glanced up at the rearview mirror. While an armrest and cupholder combination split the front seat in the middle, keeping Teague and Anna on their respective sides, there was no such obstacle in the backseat preventing Chad from moving in on Anna's roommate, Michelle.

"That whale is so creepy." Michelle said this like she was just realized where they were, and Anna wondered what she had been doing in the back seat.

"So what. We're just going to sit here in the car?" Anna didn't wait for a response. She reached for her door handle.

"You all go ahead," Chad said from the backseat, and Michelle giggled again.

Anna pretended not to hear Chad and reached for the back door. The door was locked so Anna pulled on it once, then pretended to stare through the tinted windows and past her own reflection into the back seat at Michelle. A second later, the back door popped open.

"I want to go with them," Michelle said, pretending to pout. "I want to see the blue whale."

One tan leg followed the sound of Michelle's voice through the open door, and then another. Then she hopped down from the lifted car onto the ground. She landed with a surprising amount of grace and raised her arms up above her head as if she had just landed a perfect dismount in front of a crowd.

Seeing this, Anna smiled. While both girls were out-of-state student athletes, physically, they were opposites. Anna was a swimmer, long and lean and knotted with muscles, with blonde hair cropped in a pixie cut and arms that always felt too long when she was on dry land. Michelle was a pom girl, shorter and curvier, with bouncy brown curls and an endless well of energy. For some reason, this difference in appearance made it easier for Anna and Michelle to meet guys when they went out, as if the guys might have gotten confused if they looked too similar.

"You good?" Anna said, keeping her voice low and speaking directly to Michelle.

"I'm better than good," Michelle said. "I can't wait to take a picture with that whale."

Anna knew why Michelle was so keen on taking a picture. It was the same reason they were out tonight. A month and a half ago, Michelle had met the University of Tulsa's star quarterback at a party and, despite several rumors, red flags, and flat out warnings to the contrary, believed she could change him.

And, Anna reflected, for a month she had been convinced that Michelle had changed him. That he really would settle down. Until she came back to their dorm room after practice and found Michelle bawling her eyes out.

"You want me to slash his tires? Call my brothers and have them come break his legs? His arms?" Anna had asked between sobs, one long arm thrown around her roommate's shoulders.

"Maybe just his right hand," Michelle said. "He's about to set an AAC passing record."

"You sure? They've got a two for one special when it comes to assholes who break my best friend's heart." Anna managed to elicit a smile from Michelle. "I'll tell them to get on the next plane."

"Good," Michelle said, wiping her eyes. She stopped crying long enough to take a trembling breath and glance around the room. Anna followed her gaze. Despite only dating for a month, pictures of Michelle and her ex covered the walls of the dorm room.

"Let's get out of here," Anna said. "Let's go get drunk."

"Don't you have a test?" Michelle asked.

Anna did have a test on Monday. A test she needed to study for, but she couldn't start studying now. Not right after practice.

It had been an issue all semester. While Anna had been able to compartmentalize athletics and academics in high school, in college athletics dominated every moment of her life. The practices were not only physically grueling, but also mentally. Swimming, even on a team, was a lonely sport. One where the athlete spent most of their time underwater, inside their own head, pushing themselves harder and harder. And while, as the star of the team, Anna could afford an off day back in high school, now every girl on the team was a former star. So every day Anna pushed herself harder than the last, going deeper and deeper into her own head, and every day she found it a little harder to come back.

"You can always retake a test," Anna said with false confidence. "We're only freshman once."

Michelle looked hopeful, but then she shook her head. "I can't go out on campus. What if we see him. What if we see her?"

Anna found the quarterback's infidelity annoying, but the idea that her friend had traded the quarterback's blue and gold letter jacket for some scarlet letter infuriated her.

"We'll go off campus," Anna said. "What about the casinos?"

Oklahoma, despite a few archaic laws that limited the alcohol content in beer and prevented the sale of liquor on Sundays, was home to several tribal casinos that, from the outside at least, rivaled the casinos of Vegas in size and spectacle. Driving into Tulsa, Anna passed one casino where the parking lot had been covered by a mishmash skyline facade of the biggest American cities, while another had appeared to directly copy the design and aesthetic of Circus Circus. The biggest casino nearby was the Cherokee Hard Rock Casino, which boasted an aesthetic that combined the classic rock vibe of a Hard Rock Cafe with the native American tribal art that permeated through everything in Oklahoma.

"Let's go check out that Cherokee Casino," Anna said. "The one we're always driving by. I'll pay for the Uber."

"I've never been to a casino." Michelle's makeup was streaked, but the crying had stopped.

Being raised by a single dad and three older brothers, Anna could remember only two types of vacations growing up: camping and Vegas. She sometimes forgot that Michelle, one of three pastor's daughters in a conservative Texas family, had always gone on more wholesome family trips to places like Disney World and Destin.

"It'll be fun," Anna said. "We'll gamble, have some drinks, meet some guys."

"Good guys?"

Anna hesitated. "Well. We're going to a casino. Not church."

"But not college guys. Not college athletes," Michelle said. "No more college athletes."

Anna doubted this would last, but she was happy enough to have Michelle distracted. Soon Michelle was laughing, trying on different outfits, curling her hair, putting on makeup; all while carefully balancing a glass of vodka and orange juice. While anything nicer than jeans would have looked out of place in an Oklahoma casino, it still took Michelle the better part of an hour to get ready. Ten minutes after Michelle assured Anna she was ready, Anna ordered an Uber.

"You going to try some gambling?" Anna asked. While Michelle certainly wasn't the saintly daughter her pastor father thought she was, her religious background occasionally came out in surprising ways. She used the words 'pot' and 'dope' interchangeably and, despite taking birth control, was adamantly against abortion.

"It's not gambling if you're feeling this lucky," Michelle said.

"Oh, you're feeling lucky?"

"Feeling lucky now," Michelle said, "getting lucky later."

Anna laughed but before she could answer her phone chimed to signal that the Uber had arrived. Anna wouldn't say she felt lucky, but there was something in the air. Something big was about to happen and she couldn't help but be excited.

The pond that housed the Blue Whale sat barely a mile off Route 66, but a thick wall of trees shielded all but the top of the whale's head from view. The sound of traffic quickly dwindled to only the occasional passing car and, as the sun began to set, this in turn was drowned out by the rising den chirping of crickets.

"World famous my ass," Teague said, reading from a sign up ahead that said 'WHALE-COME To The World Famous Blue Whale Of Catoosa' in bright red above a smiling blue whale. As Anna and the others drew closer, gravel crunching under their feet, Teague threw his empty beer can full speed at the sign, scoring a direct hit on the whale and chipping off a piece of paint.

"Nice shot," Chad said, extending a fist for Teague to bump.

Standing next to Teague, Anna found it hard not to compare the two men. Wearing the same good old boy uniform but standing five inches shorter and ten pounds heavier, Chad looked like an obsolete model of the same mold used to cast Teague. Hearing that Anna and Michelle were college girls, the two guys had first tried to pass for frat guys, then recently graduated seniors. None of their stories held water, but they kept buying drinks, so Anna hadn't minded. Most people in Oklahoma worked in Oil and Gas in some capacity, and she assumed they were landmen with the night off.

Just past the 'Whale-Come' sign stood an arched entrance, flanked on one side by a post covered in arrows pointing off in ten different directions, each arrow labeled with the name of a major city and a distance, and on the other by a visitor's map. The map divided the park into three main attractions: the Indian Trading Post, the Blue Whale Swimming Hole, and the Reptile Kingdom. Leaning against the Reptile Kingdom an anthropomorphic crocodile invited guests to "come see the mighty King Sawgrass and friends!" The friends, presumably, were two hissing anthropomorphic snakes that Anna thought looked both exotic and sexual, with their narrow eyes, curves, and tails beckoning guests forward.

"Wait, reptile kingdom. Like snakes? I hate snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?" Chad's voice took on a different tone as he said the line. Then he looked around at the girls. "Come on. Indiana Jones? Guess you girls aren't movie fans?"

Anna knew Indiana Jones and the line, but Michelle looked genuinely confused.

"That stuff has been closed for years," Teague said, "just look at the Indian Trading post." Saying this he gestured to the left, where the remains of wooden structure loomed. Anna thought it looked more like the remains of an old pirate ship than a trading post, but it was in such bad shape it was hard to tell. Most of the wood was rotting away and sections were burnt black, as if they had survived at least one fire. The whole structure looked close to collapsing, held up by the silver skeleton of a few metal pipes and the iron turnstiles at the former entrance. "Only thing left is the swimming hole and the blue whale." Teague said, drawing attention back to him.

A long, red wooden bar that said, 'Permanently Closed!' stretched across the entrance. Teague examined it then, leaning back, kicked it. The board gave way, splintering and snapping down the middle as it broke apart in two halves, causing both girls to jump. Anna's hand slipped instinctively into her pocket. She kept her mini key ring pocketknife, along with her dorm and locker key, on a small pink plastic wrist coil. It wasn't fashionable, but it kept her from losing them. The pepper spray in her other pocket, nestled next to her phone, was so small most people mistook it for an inhaler. Feeling both, Anna shook off any fear.

"What? You thought we'd just turn around and go home?" Teague said, seeing the concerned expressions on Anna and Michelle's faces.

Michelle smiled and shook her head. She was looking at Teague with different eyes than before. It was a look Anna recognized, and she saw Chad notice it too. Michelle might have sworn off football players, but Anna had known it was a promise she wouldn't keep. At least not long term. Michelle's usual type were alpha males with an edge. Teague's edges were a little sharper than most guys on campus, but he fit the bill. She might have started the night by trying something new with Chad, but she was slipping back into old habits.

Or, Anna reflected, she could be thinking about the picture by the whale. Nobody was going to be jealous if they saw Michelle with Chad, but Teague was different. He might not be better looking than most of the football players, but there was no doubt who would win in a fight and that could stir a different kind of jealousy.

"Let's get going," Chad said, squaring his shoulders and stepping past the broken sign first. He wore a wide grin, but Anna thought it looked forced.

The gravel gave way to a dirt path that wound through a garden of porcelain mushrooms towards the pond. Anna wasn't surprised that whoever decided to build a giant blue whale in the middle of a pond in Oklahoma had decorated the surrounding area with mushrooms painted a myriad of psychedelic colors, and she suspected mushrooms might have been involved in the planning, building, and design of the whale itself back in the Sixties.

Teague quickly caught up to and passed Chad, leading them down the dirt path towards the pond. Anna associated most ponds with a foul, rotten egg smell, but instead she smelled only the earthy smell of dirt and grass. She thought maybe it was better described as a lake instead of a pond, but she wasn't exactly sure of the difference. While the murky water wasn't clear, there were no floating lily pads or patches of moss. Aside from the white tugboat raft in the middle of the pond, the only thing floating in the water were a few logs that had drifted free of the tree line on the opposite side of the pond.

"I know it's been said but this is so weird," Michelle said, holding her phone sideways and snapping a few pictures of the whale. "Like were they on drugs when they made this? I mean, they had to be. Right?"

The sun began its descent behind the tree line, and with it the temperature began to drop too. Anna shivered and crossed her arms.

"Speaking of drugs - are you feeling it yet?" Chad said.

Anna turned and looked at Michelle, who giggled. "I didn't take a whole one."

"A whole what?"

Teague cut her off by lifting his shirt up over his shoulders and tossing it on the ground before reaching for his belt buckle. "I bet nobody has been swimming in here since they shut down." He kicked off his boots and jeans but left his boxers, stopping just short of stripping completely. "At least until tonight."

Anna saw Michelle's eyes light up at the sight of Teague's chest and abs, while behind her Chad frowned.

"We're going swimming?" Michelle said, reaching down to pull up the bottom of her shirt. "But I don't have my swimsuit."

Hearing this, Anna could have thrown up in her mouth.

"Race to the raft. The tugboat." Teague waved at the white boat halfway between the shore and the blue whale on the opposite side. He waded into the water until it was waist deep then did a half dive into the murky depths.

Anna glanced at Chad and, despite her irritation, could have laughed at the hangdog expression on his face. He watched Michelle strip down to her black lingerie with the same hopeless longing of a Dickensian orphan looking in a toy store window. He seemed to know that, through no fault of his own, Michelle's interest had shifted to Teague and there was nothing he could do. She saw him sigh and turn to appraise her, the leftover girl.

"So you're a swimmer, right?" Chad said. He started with his pants instead of his shirt, taking off his belt first.

"What did she take? Should she be swimming?"

Chad looked hurt. "If anything, it'll make swimming even better. You want some?"

Anna glared at him and looked back out at the water. Teague was athletic, and making good progress through the water. Behind him, Michelle was splashing and moving at a crawl, listing from side to side.

"You can sit here angry on the shore if you want. But you know," Chad said before turning to run into the water. "You're a lot prettier when you smile."

For the second time that night, Anna could have thrown up in her mouth. Instead she took a deep breath and slipped out of her shirt. She reminded herself that Michelle was on the rebound and deserved a certain amount of leeway to be crazier than usual. She was being paranoid because she had heard too many stories from her brothers about dangerous men. It had been Anna's idea to come out and Anna's decision to get in the car.

Stripping down to a sports bra and kicking off her jeans, Anna left her pepper spray behind but slipped the band holding her pocketknife and keys around her wrist. Seeing Teague most of the way to the boat, her competitive instincts kicked in and, without another moment's hesitation, she took off at a sprint and dove headfirst into the surprisingly warm water.

Anna couldn't help but take the race seriously. With three older brothers, she was often needed to even up the teams for every backyard sport from basketball to football, and because her brothers always played to win, they never went easy on her. She came up out of the water and shot past Chad like a torpedo, her arms cutting smoothly through the water, while her legs pushed her forward like a speedboat propeller. Even with limited visibility, she sensed Michelle splashing through the water long before and long after she passed her, and soon it was down to just her and Teague.

Teague was strong, but swimming wasn't just about strength. Anna's coach liked to say that if he had to choose between strength and form, he would choose form every time, and Anna's form was perfect. She slipped easily into her own head and let her swimmer's instincts control her body.

When swimming competitively, Anna usually tried to clear her head. To banish all thoughts and any distractions. But whether it was the beer or her frustration with Michelle, Anna found her thoughts wandering back to the casino.

When they arrived at the casino, the bored bouncer at the front entrance hadn't even bothered to check their IDs. He just handed them wristbands and waved them inside. Stepping into the Cherokee Casino, Anna felt a twinge of nostalgia for those family trips to Vegas. At first Anna's brothers had taken turns chaperoning her to the pool and different shows while the others drank and bet on sports, but little by little she was given more autonomy before eventually she was allowed to wander around freely. The price of this autonomy had been several bruising self-defense lessons by her brothers and a promise to always carry pepper spray and a pocketknife, promises she kept to this day, but it had been worth it to wander around the gaming floor and pool, occasionally flirting for free chips and drinks.

Whoever designed the Cherokee Casino had clearly taken their lead from Vegas. The casino lacked any windows, clocks, or clues as to the current time in the outside world, and Anna could have sworn she had seen the same psychedelic carpet design of neon swoops, circles, and stars at the Cosmopolitan. Despite an ashtray at every machine, the air smelled only faintly of cigarettes, while the hum of constant conversation intermingled with the chimes and bells from the slot machines meant that Anna had to raise her voice to be heard.

"What do you think?"

"Are these all gambling games?" Michelle said.

Anna had taken Michelle over to the slot machines where they both lost twenty dollars before they tried their hand at a few rounds of blackjack. They sat down at the blackjack table to try and score a free drink, something Anna remembered her brothers doing in Vegas, only to learn that drinks in the Oklahoma casino weren't free. That was how they met Chad, who swooped in to buy their drinks while Teague laughed and spit into his empty bottle.

"The drinks aren't free and you got to pay a dollar ante every hand," Chad said, "it's all the risk of Vegas and none of the rewards."

Anna could remember the dealer shooting Chad a dirty look.

"Look at him like that again and I'll break your face and your hands," Teague said, without looking up from his cards.

When the dealer was relieved by another dealer a hand later, Chad laughed. "Yeah, you better run away."

Anna and Michelle had both giggled. It was, after all, the kind of tough talk they were used to hearing from college guys. College boys were always looking for a fight. Always an insult away from an epic brawl. And this had seemed the same way, until they were a couple pitchers deep at one of the casino bars and Chad got up to use the restroom.

Anna hadn't seen what started it, but she saw how Teague reacted. She turned to see Chad on the ground, looking dazed, when Teague leapt over him, seized the dealer by the shirt and flung him head first into the ground, then leaned back and dealt him one vicious kick across the chest. A crowd quickly gathered but both men knew better than to stick around and quickly slipped out.

And, Anna thought, that had seemed like the end of the night. Until they walked outside, and Teague's Chevy Tahoe pulled up.

"You girls up for a little adventure?" Chad had said and, without protesting, both girls got in. First Michelle and then Anna.

"So what kind of adventure?" Michelle had asked.

Teague had passed around warm beers, cracking one before they left the parking lot. "You girls ever heard of the blue whale of Catoosa?"

Anna caught and passed Teague about ten feet from the tugboat. She sensed him push a little harder, trying to go faster by speeding up his strokes and forgetting about his legs, but it was too late. Anna's hand slapped the side of the wooden tugboat a full beat before Teague.

"You're fast," Teague said with a strained smile, but Anna could tell he wasn't used to losing, especially not to a girl.

They both climbed out of the water and into the tugboat. The tugboat was bigger than Anna thought it would be, but was really just a wooden raft with wooden slats and a tugboat façade built around the front and back. Standing in the middle of the raft, Anna shivered. The sun had sunk beneath the trees, leaving behind a sky streaked with purple and pink. She sensed someone looking at her and turned to see Teague looking her up and down, one eyebrow cocked and a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. Even when she caught him staring, Teague didn't look away, as if it were some sort of compliment.

Feeling more naked without her pepper spray than without her shirt, Anna almost said something when Chad slapped the side of the boat and called for Teague's hand. While Teague helped Chad, Anna looked out across the water at Michelle. She was listing from side to side, sucking wind, and slapping at the water.

"You got this, Michelle!" Anna shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth to help her voice carry.

"Almost there!" Chad shouted, stepping up next to her.

Michelle chopped at the water for a little longer and then stopped. She stood up and spit up a little water.

"I'm feeling weird," Michelle said. "A little dizzy."

Anna felt the muscles in her shoulders tighten into knots. It might have been her imagination, but Michelle's eyes looked big and dark, as if the pupils had dilated to engulf the entire eyeball. She glanced at Chad and saw Teague was also glaring at him.

"Shit," Teague said. "Tell her to swim back."

"She told me she wanted one," Chad said. "I didn't make her take anything."

"You trying to get the cops called? What the hell are you thinking?" Teague said.

"Michelle! Stop!" Anna said, not wanting to get involved. "Can you swim back?"

Michelle blinked, then opened her eyes wide. She licked her lips.

"I feel weird," she repeated.

"Stay there!" Anna said, slipping into the water. "I'm coming to get you!"

She didn't bother telling Chad and Teague that they would be swimming back to the shore. She hoped they could get to the main road before the boys swam back. She had no intention of going anywhere else with them.

Back in the water, Anna started to half swim back towards Michelle, keeping her head above water and her eyes on Michelle. If Michelle slipped beneath the water, Anna wanted to see where she went.

"I'm coming to you, just stay still," Anna said between strokes.

Anna was so focused on her friend that she didn't notice the log floating towards Michelle until it was almost on top of her.

Only the log wasn't floating, Anna realized. Logs don't float with purpose, and they certainly don't float into ripples. Before Anna could fully process what was happening and why, the log slipped beneath the water.

Anna's mouth went dry. A warning bell rang shrilly at the back of her mind and panic rose in her stomach.

"Holy shit." Chad said from the raft. "Did you see that?"

Then, without warning, Chad began slapping the side of the raft and screaming. Michelle, still treading water, blinked rapidly, then squinted at them. She seemed more confused than frightened until her eyes went wide. "Something touched my leg. Something in the water."

Anna kept swimming, keeping her eyes on Michelle, but nausea was already spreading from her stomach and gripping her chest. As she watched, Michelle bobbed once in the water like a cork, dipping in and out so fast she barely had time to register surprise. They locked eyes. Then something dark and scaly washed over Michelle, breaking over her like a reptilian wave and spinning her around, driving her down into the water and leaving behind only a white cap stained with blood.

Anna stopped swimming, her eyes on the spot where Michelle had floated. A bubble broke the surface, followed by another, then blood poured up as if from an underwater fountain, dyeing the water around it black with a hint of crimson.

Anna wasn't sure how long she bobbed in the water staring into nothingness, waiting for Michelle to come back. Then she saw two more smaller logs break the surface. Anna's shock was overridden by primal fear, and she turned and swam as fast as she could back to the tugboat. She slapped the side and started to pull herself out when she felt Teague's hands beneath her armpits, lifting her up and out of the water. She was heavier than he expected, and they both tumbled down together in a pile of limbs.

Again, Anna's senses abandoned her. A high-pitched ringing filled her ears and the corners of her vision were fuzzy, as if she had stood up too fast. She thought again of Michelle and felt tears spring to her eyes.

When the ringing finally receded, she could hear Chad screaming on the opposite side of the boat.

"Where is she? What the hell was that?" Chad had his hands in his hair. "Oh God. Oh God."

Michelle was gone, Anna realized. And they would be too if they didn't get back to shore.

Anna sat up, looking back at the shore and trying to measure the distance. She found it easier to focus on this problem than to think about Michelle, and she felt her senses returning. She guessed the distance to the shore was about the same as an Olympic size pool, but distance wasn't the problem. By the light of the half moon she could see several logs drifting between the tugboat and the shore.

Only they aren't logs, Anna reminded herself.

"Oh my god, look at the size of that thing," Chad said.

Anna stood up, just in time to see a crocodile rise up to the surface and push towards them. Up close there was no mistaking the crocodile for a log, with its long snout full of sharp teeth, cold reptilian eyes, and powerful tail swishing through the water. Anna thought it had to be at least fourteen feet long, and she remembered the cartoon crocodile from the sign out front. "Come see King Sawgrass and friends!"

"An alligator," Teague said.

"It's a crocodile," Anna said, recognizing the animal's long narrow snout from the nature documentaries she liked to watch while studying.

"What's the difference?" Teague said.

It's worse, Anna almost said, but nobody needed to hear that crocodiles were fiercer and far more likely to attack humans. Instead, she stood frozen, watching the crocodile swim languidly around the boat, watching them with cold, red eyes. She had never seen one up close before, and without the protection of a fence or a wall, it felt bigger. The crocodile completed another loop, then slipped into the depths.

Anna considered their options. While the front and back of the raft were shielded by the façade of the tugboat, the sides were low enough to practically dip in and out of the water. It wouldn't take much for one of the crocodiles to get on board, which meant they had to escape. She looked at the shore, then out at the blue whale. The whale was only twenty-five meters away, but the pond was low and the ladders hung high out of the water.

"Shit, she's dead. She's really dead." Chad said. "Shit. If my wife finds out. Shit, and what about the cops? We're on parole man. The judge said no more second chances."

"Calm down, Dave," Teague said, addressing Chad by a different name.

Chad, it was too late for Anna to think of him as a Dave, would not calm down on his own. She recognized the rapid shallow breaths and the wild, unfocused eyes of someone who was hyperventilating.

"Dave," Teague said, clamping a hand down on Chad's shoulder. "Look at me. What did you give the girl?"

"Michelle?" Chad said. His eyes flicked to Anna, then back to Teague. "What do you think I gave her?"

Teague grimaced and stepped away. "That's on you. I ain't taking the fall for that."

Chad looked over at Anna, then back at Teague.

"Will you help me?"

Teague stepped back. "This is your mess."

Chad licked his lips then nodded.

Anna wanted to keep her eyes on the water, but turned and squared up as Chad stepped forward.

"Don't come any closer," Anna said.

"Look, this is bad. This is real bad. But we don't need to make it any worse," Chad said. He spoke softly, as if Anna were a wild animal, but his eyes were manic. "We need to stick together."

"I won't tell anyone," Anna said quickly, her eyes darting between Chad and the water. "I just want to go home."

Chad nodded as if agreeing, when a splash nearby distracted both of them. Anna turned to see Sawgrass, the giant crocodile, surface nearby. She took a step back and heard the sound of running feet. Turning, she saw Chad rushing towards her, arms outstretched.

He crashed into her but she sidestepped at the last moment so, while the weight of him drove her back, he pushed her away from the edge instead of closer to it. For a moment they fumbled together, dancing awkwardly, then Chad drew his hand back and slapped her with his open palm across the face.

Anna stumbled back, felt Chad grab her and begin to turn her towards the edge, and she reacted on instinct. She swung her arms up, knocking his hands off her, then thumped him hard on the chest. He rocked back a step, giving Anna a second to flick her pocketknife out of its case and hold it up and out, then lunged forward again.

Anna hadn't intended to stab Chad, only to ward him off, but the blade sank in with surprising ease. She had expected it to be like cutting leather, even steak, but instead the blade slipped into Chad's stomach easily and with barely any resistance, so easily that she jerked in surprise, wrenching the blade down and to the right. The move caught Chad by surprise; he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, squeezed once, then released and stumbled back.

"You stabbed me." Chad looked at her with an expression of surprise and pain, as if in addition to being physically hurt, he also felt betrayed.

Anna stepped back and pressed against the back of the tugboat. She had left the pocketknife in Chad's stomach and, while it wasn't big, the cut was sizable and oozed blood. The blood dripped down Chad's stomach, pattering on his feet and between the boards of the raft into the water below.

"You stabbed me," Chad said again, and he pulled the knife from his stomach.

The wound wasn't fatal and, now holding the pocketknife in one hand, Chad looked determined to finish the job. He started to take a step forward when something thumped the boat and, without warning, Chad pitched forward.

Anna could practically hear the calm, measured voice of the narrator from one of her nature documentaries explaining what had just happened. She had seen the same thing happen a hundred times before. A wildebeest would wander too close to a murky river only for a crocodile to shoot out at blinding speed, wrap its teeth around the poor animal and yank it off land and down into the water.

Chad landed chest first on the wooden raft, screaming when he saw the jaws of a crocodile where his left leg should be. He kicked once at the animal's head then, when it started to pull him down, he scrambled for purchase on the raft. The wooden boards of the raft, long in need of repair, gave way beneath his hands and the weight of the crocodile, sending water rushing into the boat as it began to break in two separate pieces.

The smell of blood, recognizable but never this strong, washed over Anna as the crocodile spun around in a barrel roll, flipping Chad on his back before yanking him down into the water. Anna glanced up at Teague, who sat pressed against the opposite side of the raft, his eyes wide with fear.

"You killed him," Teague said.

Anna barely registered the words. Instead, she yelped as her piece of the raft began to tilt up. "We're sinking."

Anna wasn't sure if Teague heard her or sensed the same thing. She saw him glance at the churning water nearby and make a decision. While Anna had hesitated when her friend died, Teague didn't make the same mistake. He saw his opportunity and dove headfirst into the water.

Anna, realizing what Teague was doing, glanced once at the churning water around Chad and then back at the blue whale. She ran to the opposite side of the raft and leapt.

Her dive was perfect, cutting the distance to the whale in half without wasting a stroke. The water was still warm and, under other circumstances, would have felt pleasant compared with the chilly air. She kicked with her powerful legs and pushed her arms above her head into a triangle. When she breached the surface she was already mid stroke, her mind, her arms, and her legs all working together like a well-oiled machine. She wasn't swimming; she was flying.

Fear clawed at her peripheral vision, begging her to stop and glance around to look for the crocodiles, but she pushed it away. She crawled as deep into her head as she could and pushed her body to its limits. Today she would have to be fast, faster than she had ever been, or she would die. She found her deepest reserve of strength and she pulled it out. She dug until she hit bedrock, and then she dug deeper.

Anna sensed the whale coming up fast. There were two ladders, one to the left and one to the right. She went right. She came up out of the water at full speed, propelled up by her legs and her will to live. She reached out with one hand, caught the bottom rung of the ladder, and felt it give way in her hands.

For a second, time stopped. She hung suspended in the air, staring at the metal rung in her hands. Then she bounced off the concrete side of the whale, scraping off patches of skin on her arms and head on her way down, before plunging into the water below.

Anna sank to the bottom, hand still clenching the metal rung of the ladder. The freshly raw patches of skin on her arms and head burned. She closed her eyes and screamed inwardly, then she forced her eyes open. The pond was shallow here, and she had her back to the concrete. She could see the surface shimmering a few feet above her head, and the other ladder nearby. She was about to kick up when the water changed; the energy was sucked out. Then the water swirled in one direction as straight ahead she saw the white underbelly of the crocodile racing towards her with its mouth open.

Anna acted on instinct. She still held the metal rung of the ladder, and she brought it up and out, catching the crocodile in the soft, white roof of its mouth. The creature hissed, swinging its head wildly from side to side and jerking the rung out of Anna's hand.

Anna didn't hesitate. She braced her feet on the bottom of the pond and jumped, narrowly avoiding being struck by the crocodile's thrashing tail, and kicked for the surface.

One more push, Anna promised herself. Just one more time.

She shot out of the water again, catching the bottom rung of the other ladder, and this time it held. She gave a cry of triumph and pulled herself up and over the side of the whale, tumbling down into the middle with a cry of pain.

She lay there breathing heavily for a moment, then pushed herself weakly to her feet. The body of the whale was hollow, but secure from the water and the crocodiles by two tall walls. Looking out over the side, she could see one half of the raft beginning to sink, while a few of the crocodiles drifted aimlessly nearby. She scanned the water between the raft and the shore, but saw nothing. No sign of Teague.

Anna wasn't sure if she felt relief or just exhaustion. She would have liked to sink back down onto the ground, but doubted she would be able to get back up. So instead she pushed away from the edge and turned to face the exit.

Michelle had been right. They could have taken some amazing pictures in here, Anna thought. The inside of the whale was hollow, save a few rusted metal poles for support. There was no light, save what little moonlight reflected could slip through the porthole windows that ran along the side, so Anna paused and listened for the sounds of any living animal before stepping forward. The exit from the whale was through the whale's toothy grin and, while a few hours ago she might have found this charming, now it sent a tremor of fear through her body. She found a hidden reserve of energy and spent it sprinting the final feet through the whale and back onto dry land, where she almost collapsed again.

Trudging along the shore, but careful to give the water plenty of distance, Anna wondered what she would tell Michelle's parents. That it was her fault their daughter was dead? That she had been the one who suggested going out off campus?

A sob wracked Anna's body and she had to stop until she got her breathing under control.

She would confess, Anna decided. She would tell the truth. Tell them everything. It didn't matter. Nothing would bring Michelle back.

Anna reached the spot where they had taken off their clothes and sank to her knees. A part of her brain pointed out that they never had to go in the water. That they could have stayed on dry land the entire time. That the only reason they got in the water was because Anna was a swimmer and she wanted to show off.

Had that really been the reason? Anna thought. Had they only gone swimming because she wanted to show off? Because she needed to be the best? Her memories were murky, like the water in the lake.

Anna reached for her pile of clothes but didn't look at Michelle's discarded jeans or her clutch purse. She tried to focus on one thing at a time, putting on her shirt before grabbing her jeans and stepping in one foot at a time before pulling them up. She was so focused on each of these tasks that she never saw Teague coming. She only felt his fist crash into the back of her head, lifting her off the ground and throwing her face first into the ground.

"I hoped the gators would get you." Teague said from somewhere above her. "Hoped I wouldn't have to do this."

Anna blinked to clear the stars from her eyes and scrambled onto her back. Teague stood a few feet away, still shirtless, his chest heaving. His eyes were red, and he looked like he had been crying.

"Wait," Anna said. "I won't tell anyone."

"He was always getting me into trouble," Teague ignored her, and she felt like he was talking to himself as much as her. "Even tonight at the casino with that damn guy."

"Please," Anna repeated, scooting back away from him.

"But he was my friend. And you killed him." Teague started forward. "It wouldn't be right. I got to do what's right."

Teague pounced, reminding Anna of the speed with which he attacked the dealer at the casino. She tried to scramble away, but he was too fast. Her hands wrapped around a rock and she brought it up in a wide swing at his head. Teague batted her arm away with one hand and smacked her across the face with the other, with hands so fast Anna barely registered them as blurs before she felt them. Again she spun around, landing face first on the ground and tasting dirt and blood.

She spat once and tried to catch her breath before pushing up and trying to crawl away. The dirt stung her freshly raw hands, but she kept moving over the rocks and towards the grass until Teague walked up behind her, wrapped an elbow around her neck and yanked back hard, lifting her up.

For a moment, unable to breathe, Anna panicked. She forgot who she was and where she came from. She forgot about her older brothers teaching her how to fight and the self-defense techniques drilled into her by her father.

Then a darker thought flickered across her mind. The idea that maybe, just maybe, she deserved this. That Teague was right and this was justice. That it wasn't fair that she, Anna, should survive when Michelle didn't.

Then she remembered Michelle. Michelle, the consummate pom girl. Her smile. Her laugh. Her ability to light up an entire football field, not to mention a room.

Michelle wouldn't want Anna to die here. Michelle would want her to live.

Anna kicked her feet up, then swung them back with the force of a wrecking ball into Teague's groin. Something crunched beneath her foot and he groaned, loosening his grip an inch. But an inch was all Anna needed. She cupped her hands and jammed them up and out, slipping beneath Teague's elbow and dropping to the ground in a crouch. She snatched the pepper spray up from her jeans and spun around, pulling the trigger just as Teague came forward again.

Teague screamed, throwing himself back and out of harm's way as he clawed first at his eyes, then at the dirt, and then again at his eyes.

"My eyes," Teague whimpered, crawling backward towards the pond. "You bitch. I'm blind."

He moved towards the sound of water, groping about until he found the pond, and began splashing water up into his eyes, stopping only when a low hissing filled the air.

Anna saw the crocodile rising out of the water only a few inches from Teague a second before it struck. The crocodile moved with blinding speed, catching Teague's arm and spinning to the side, ripping the arm out at the socket. Then another crocodile lunged up and caught Teague around the leg, spinning in the opposite direction and splitting him down the middle, like two children fighting over a toy and pulling it apart at the seams.

Anna blinked and tried to catch her breath, watching as the two crocodiles claimed their portion of Teague and sunk back beneath the murky water. She wished she could just lay there. Just lay down right there, curl into a ball, and wait for someone to save her. But that wasn't who she was. She could save herself. She had saved herself.

So she kept moving, pushing up off the ground and grabbing her shoes.

She looked once over her shoulder as she reached the gravel parking lot. Despite everything that had happened, the placid scene seemed to have reset. The Blue Whale still grinned on the far side of the pond, and near the back, past the tail with the ladders hanging over the side, the crocodiles bobbed like logs in the water.


  1. whoa...this was terrifying. I was genuinely scared by this story. A lot of "horror" that I've read isn't nearly as horrifying as this. It seems plausible that such a thing could happen to people. I am amazed at your storytelling ability and the sheer characterization you put into these people. Great job

    1. thank you for reading Paul - I'm so glad you liked it!

  2. I have now give up my long held dream of swimming in Catoosa. This was a really good story!