alligators, by Scott Nicolay


Art by Nick Gucker – – click to enlarge

The dream returned to Russell on Easter: his dad diving, disappearing once more beneath the quarry’s green algal murk, ripples calling wide, silent echoes over the surface: “O, O, O,” loud, louder…fading…flattening to glass as all three kids stood staring openmouthed from the platform; his sisters suddenly yelling for real, not just yelling but flat out screaming: “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” until the pale bulk of his back breached, legs apart, arms out from his sides, everything but the head, the head they never found. And 10 year old Russell screaming now too, crying, thinking, “An alligator! An alligator got him!” Only there were no alligators in New Jersey. And he didn’t have any sisters. And none of the rest of it ever happened either, except in that dream, the inexplicable nightmare that circled the nocturnal swamp of his subconscious for 26 years, mostly beneath the surface, but always rising to strike again in time.

He sat up in bed and planted his back against the wall, panting while the lingering images of his father’s headless body in the quarry pit dissipated. His breath came in shallow gasps, and he felt infinitely small and isolated. Wendy slept on beside him, face to the wall. He gripped her left bicep and rocked her gently, calling her name. A slow feline ripple ran the length of her body and she shifted further toward her side of the bed to shake free of his hand. He leaned over and latched onto her again, desperate for human company.

“What?” she mumbled, awake enough to express the maximum exasperation that one syllable could bear.

“I had that nightmare again. The one about my dad.”

She turned her head toward him, but the blue glow of the digital clock on his nightstand showed him that her eyes stayed closed. “You’re kidding, right? It’s been like two years since the last time. I thought we were finally through with that.”

“I know, I did, too, but it just came back. Bad. I’m kind of freaked out right now. Would you hold me? Please?”

“Give me a break. I’m trying to sleep.” But when he slid down beside her, she flopped her right arm lifelessly over his torso.

“Thanks. I just need to feel someone right now.”

“Yeah, well don’t get too feely. It’s too late for any of that.”

He stretched his left arm around her back and wiggled his right beneath the pillows under her neck, then tried to pull her closer. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t cooperate either, forcing him to drag her as dead weight. Only when he had her close enough that her breasts pressed his chest through her nightgown did she expel a sigh of resignation and shift her legs in his direction as well. But only close, not touching.

“It’s time for you to see someone like we talked about before. You can’t go on with this forever.”

“Well, if I had any idea who to go see, I might.”

“That’s no excuse. Do some research, ask around, get some recommendations, make an appointment. At least try.”

“I don’t know…sometimes I think maybe all I really need is to go back to Jersey, go out to that quarry, you know, confront my fears.”

Wendy sighed. “Your fears…we’ve been through this already. I think you just got scared by Peter Pan when you were a kid. That’s where it all comes from, not some slimy old quarry. It’s all some Oedipal thing with your dad as Captain Hook, just a vehicle for your secret resentments against him. And now your childhood fears are keeping you from growing up and me from sleeping. What you need is to see a professional, not some New Age pop psychology stunt, symbolically eating the liver of your enemy.”

Peter Pan? Oh come on, look who’s talking…at least I’m not named after a character from it.”

“Asshole.” She twisted away from him and lay on her back.

He shouldn’t have gone there. He knew how sensitive she was about the name her adoptive parents gave her. “Aw, shi-heart, I’m sorry. It’s just, you know, I’m still shook up from that dream.”

Silence. He could see her digital clock through the crook of her neck. He watched the blocky scarlet numbers flick silently from 12:51 to 12:52. 12:53. 12:54. She sighed, then spoke: “You know what my Aunt Theresa would say, don’t you?” She pronounced aunt to rhyme with font. Most anyone raised on the Rez would’ve said auntie, rhyming with panty. Or shima yázhí.

Theresa Peshlakai was the only significant link Wendy had recovered to her biological family since returning to the Navajo Nation in 1997. Wendy’s biological mother, whereabouts currently unknown, was Theresa’s younger sister. Russ never felt Mrs. Peshlakai was comfortable with the visits of her southern California-raised niece, even though Wendy counted as her daughter under the Diné clan system. But he himself quite liked the elderly woman, who still lived in the old log hooghan her husband had built for her outside Teec Nos Pos before the patient but inevitable cancer of the uranium mines had eaten him from the lungs out. Russell enjoyed the smell of cedar and tallow that pervaded the octagonal structure, and he was happy just to stare up at the interlocking logs of its roof while Wendy badgered the older woman.

“I can guess.”

“She’d say it’s because of all those snakes and lizards you played with when you were a kid.”

Which was just what he guessed…Navajos held extensive taboos about most reptiles, especially snakes and green lizards. The latter were said to kill by leaping onto a victim’s head and expelling a deadly stream of toxic urine. Snakes were just all around bad news. One of the more common beliefs was that a pregnant woman would miscarry if she saw snakes eating or fucking.

“Not lizards. We didn’t really have any lizards in New Jersey, at least none I ever found. Salamanders, yes. I caught a lot of salamanders back in the day. My dad took us to that quarry to hunt for salamanders.”

Wendy shuddered and wriggled away from him. Now his hand under her pillow was directly beneath her neck.

“It was just something we did back then, Tommy and me. I wanted to be a herpetologist from the time I was like eight, and Tommy copied anything I did, so our dad would take us both out in the woods to hunt for salamanders and snakes and stuff. We were always tramping around the hills and streams of central Jersey and east Pennsy, flipping over rocks and logs.”

Wendy opened her eyes at last, turning her head toward him again but not moving any closer. “That reminds me, you promised to take the girls out to visit their nálí this summer. They’ve been asking when they could see her again. And I know she wants to see them.” She used the Navajo word for paternal grandparent, nálí, one of the few words she’d adopted from the language she had come to Arizona to claim as her birthright. Only she missed the intonations and pronounced it like golly. He did not correct her. He had learned his lesson about such comments long ago. The Diné language had never clicked for her; the tonality, the extended vowels, the voiceless “l” and its several compounds…she was lost with it all and now deliberately avoided it. But it came easily to Russ, the pronunciation and the basic vocabulary at least. And that disparity was an “issue.”

“What about you? Aren’t you gonna come, too?”

“You know how it is with me and your mother. The girls don’t need to be around that. Plus it’ll give me a chance to catch up around the house.”

His hand under her head was getting numb, despite the two pillows. He twisted it out, and they lay side-by-side without touching, both staring at the ceiling.

“I’ll call my mom, find out what are some good dates for her, and then I’ll price some flights. Okay?”

“You’d better get on it right away. You know how flights just go up the longer you wait.”

She turned on her right side as if to signal the end of the conversation. He considered sliding over and trying to spoon, but dreaded her familiar clipped and unequivocal response: “Go back to your side. I’m trying to sleep.” He stared into the ceiling’s flat, inverted pool, remembering when they met, years ago and just yesterday, two first year teachers at Window Rock High School, come together from opposite sides of the country and united by their youth and what he at least thought was a common fascination with Navajo culture. United now by two daughters and a common bank account. He thought of when he first saw her one August day on playground duty, how the high desert sun glanced off her black hair like a mirror, the litheness of her youthful pre-pregnancy figure. When sleep swallowed him again at last, the nightmare did not return. But then it never came more than once per night, even when it came every night for weeks at a time.

As much as he dreaded it, Russ actually did call his mom the next week, got some dates in June and booked the flights; even called her back to confirm and make detailed arrangements. The first call actually went well. That was probably because he’d surprised her. He remembered what the old-timers said about encountering a rattlesnake on the trail: first guy wakes it, second guy pisses it off, third guy gets bit. But Dolores Fenster was ready to pounce by the second call.

“So why isn’t your little Indian maid coming? Is there trouble in the teepee? War in the wigwam?”

“Jesus, Mom! What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Well, at least you still remember the name of Our Savior, even if you profane it. I thought maybe you’d forgotten it now that you’ve got yourself some red religion.”

He stared at his cell, lost for a response. She was wrong about so many things–first of all, Navajos didn’t live in teepees. Or wigwams. But then there was that grain of truth: things weren’t going well. It was like the bullies in high school: they instinctively knew how to construct their attacks around some actual vulnerability. They were predators who could sense weakness the way a shark smelled blood in the water. Only this was his own mother…

“Just drop it, Mom, okay? And please don’t talk that way in front of Darlene and Stephanie when we’re out there.”

“It’s your life, son. I’ve learned by now that you won’t listen to my advice anyway.”

He refused to take the bait. He would only find himself in a quagmire.

“Whatever, Mom. You know I love you. Let’s leave it at that, okay. We’ll see you in June.”

“I love you, too, son…despite your poor choices.”

He heard her sigh, followed by the clunky sound as she hung up her land line. He groaned at the silent black rectangle in his hand. Maybe it was best Wendy wasn’t coming.

April passed, then May. Day after day Russ bore witness to the futile pleas of students who failed to pass one or more sections of the AIMS, yet still hoped to walk at graduation with their peers. Most had already ordered caps and gowns, announcements and invitations–even booked reception halls in Page or Flagstaff–and those costs were non-refundable. He knew from years past that the School Board would hide behind policy and refuse even to hear their requests, so he consoled the students as best he could, struggled to calm angry parents, and crossed his fingers he didn’t say anything careless that someone would misrepresent to higher-ups. This year, at least, no one had. So far. He wished he could tell the students that graduation and their entry into the new and unforgiving world beyond was nothing to look forward to.

The Thursday before Grad Week was particularly grueling. 17 students were scheduled not to walk, and all but two of those showed up in his office that day. By seventh hour he was completely burnt, but he anticipated at least a brief reprieve, as this block was reserved for senior electives, and even now few students willingly missed those.

Russ leaned back in his battered swivel chair and peeked through his open office door. No students waited in the three gray chairs lined up outside. He rocked forward and gripped the flat center drawer of his desk, drew it halfway out, wincing at the inevitable metallic squeal. The drawer was stuffed with papers, most of which he would probably never look at again. Holding the drawer in his right hand, he slid his left beneath the dense layer of old memos, student schedules, meeting agendas, and broken, forgotten bric-a-brac, and extracted the magazine that lay face down at the bottom. After a last glance outside, he placed it flat on the desk and flipped quickly to page 42. The pages fell open on their own to that well-thumbed spot, to an entry entitled: “THE WATCHUNG PIT OF SACRIFICE.” He began reading, though by now he knew it almost by heart:

LOCATED HIGH IN THE WATCHUNG MOUNTAINS BETWEEN DEEP BROOK AND UNDERBRIDGE, the Upper Stavros Pit came to our attention via occasional WNJ contributor Alex Lugo. We were skeptical at first: How could such a site exist less than half an hour’s drive and hike from Rt. 22? It sounded way too creepy to be so accessible. But WNJ followed the directions and there it was. Sorry Alex for doubting you.

There is some history here: The Pit operated from 1949-1954 as an adjunct to the main Stavros Quarry, which remains in business today at the foot of the Watchungs on Rt. 22. Stavros Quarry specializes in asphalt and gravel, but the Upper Stavros Pit produced a fine-grained red sandstone that was used in building facades and countertops. The sandstone business provided a prosperous sideline for the Stavros Brothers until 1954, when quarrymen unexpectedly breached the floor of the Pit and opened access to a subterranean lake. Dark, freezing water immediately poured in, flooding the pit and drowning two workers. Their bodies were never recovered.

The Stavros Brothers briefly considered plans to plug the breach and pump out the water, but it soon became apparent that so large a section of the pit’s floor had collapsed into the lake that it would be impossible to seal the opening, and the site was abandoned.

In 1963 the Underbridge Township Department of Public Works purchased the land from the Stavros Brothers with the goal of turning the pit into a reservoir, but they scrapped this plan, supposedly after conducting a chemical analysis of the water. The results of that analysis have never been published, and township employees now claim that the report was never on file. Management of the Pit eventually passed to the Sewer Utility Division, which considered using it for graywater disposal, but that plan was also scrapped, ironically enough for fear of contaminating the aquifer.

By the mid-1980s the story spread locally that a Satanist cult was using the Pit for human sacrifices. According to this story, the lake was bottomless, and bodies thrown into the Pit never surfaced.”

There was more, mostly an uneventful account of a visit the author and his two friends made to the site, punctuated with readers’ claims to have seen torchlit processions crossing the ridge at night. And there were several photos of the flat, dead surface of the lake. Russ pretty much knew it all by heart now. He examined the photo at the top of the first page instead. It showed a portion of the raw rock wall along the pit’s upper edge. Bent trees and dense underbrush retreated into the woods above. Someone had spraypainted “UR MEAT” on the cliff just beneath the edge. The letters were tall and spindly, and the more Russ looked at the “U”, the more it looked like a “Y” instead. The “T” in MEAT was an inverted cross. Or a dagger. The focus of Russ’ obsession with this photo was not the words, however, but the crude outline of a long, thickly-toothed reptilian jaw several feet to the right of the letters. Like an alligator’s jaw…only there were no alligators in New Jersey. This graffiti had not been there when his dad had taken Tommy and him to the quarry in the early ‘80s.

Russ shuddered, even though he already knew the photo well. Whoever had sprayed the letters must have hung over the edge of the pit with someone else holding his ankles. Obsessed cultist or joking stoner, the artist had taken an awful risk. Russ could not help thinking of his father’s final flailing dive in the dream.

The story of the waters from the underground lake flooding the pit also resonated for him. He could not help thinking of Tééhoołtsódii, the Big Water Monster of the Navajo Emergence story that drove people from the lower worlds with floods.

“What you got there?” The voice startled him. He looked up from the photo, to the young woman who stood watching him: lean, long-legged, perfect obsidian hair in a pageboy bob.

He crushed the magazine tight to his chest and forced a smile. Cassandra Manygoats leaned against his doorframe, arms folded over her high, firm breasts. He tried to fix his eyes on hers: two dark pools in which he longed to lose himself, but he could not meet her gaze for long without flinching. Cass was all that Wendy was not: Navajo but raised on the Rez, Princeton educated and at ease in either culture–and either language. A former Miss Western Navajo Agency, she supposedly won her title by singing a Navajo song while butchering a sheep in the Traditional Talent Contest. Still single and hot as hell at 26. And oh, those legs. Not to mention that ass! If she were older/he were younger; if they had met each other before he settled for Wendy…

He knew this was Cassandra’s prep hour–it was the common prep for the entire Language Arts department–all three of them–but then he knew her schedule forward and back, had stopped by her room on one bullshit premise or another more often than he could count (well, 37 times this school year), but this was the first time she ever visited his office. He had no worries about Wendy interrupting; she would be immersed in Pre-Calc this hour.

“Hey Cassie…Cassandra, how you doing? What’s up?”

She nodded toward the magazine and laughed. “Did I catch you with your porn?” His heart skittered.

“No, oh, no way. Not me.” He flipped the magazine up quickly so she could see the cover. “WEIRD NJ. It’s a magazine about my home state, about all the ch’íidii and other weird stuff out there. An old friend sent it to me.” He did not mention the old friend was an ex, one he’d awakened many times in their college days after the quarry dream. She’d seen the article and sent it to him with a sarcastic note as a bookmark: “I can’t believe this place is real, even if your story was bullshit like everything else.”

Yiiyá, ch’íidii!” Then, laughing: “Hey, just kidding. I actually remember that mag from my Princeton days. I had this one boyfriend who used to take road trips to visit the places from those stories. I even went with him a couple times, like to that old sewer drain near Clifton they call the Gates of Hell. It was pretty much a waste of time: we tramped around with our flashlights in the smelly water until all the tunnels dead-ended. And that was about it. Nothing really creepy except for all the Satanic graffiti. Another time we looked for Midgettown, but no luck. That was about it.”

She paused, dark eyes still fixed on him. He stared at her left elbow. “So anyways…” She gave the dialect term an ironic lilt–her English was impeccable as her Navajo– “Amber says you’re going Out East to Jersey for the summer.” Amber Hardaway was Cassandra’s mentor and Darlene’s third grade teacher. A gaunt, chain-smoking Okie, the woman looked as if she might transform at any moment into a gnarled tree trunk. Russ bit down a sarcastic response, and Cassandra continued.

“So I was wondering if you might do me a little favor?”

“Sure!” Oh, that was way too eager. Damn.

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could bring me back some Taylor Pork Roll.”


“Seriously. It’s for my family–they’re such Rezzed-out Johns, and they still eat so much Spam. They’ve got to try pork roll. It will change their lives.” She laughed again. “And I really want to try it with green chile.”

“OK. I’m game. How much do you want?”

“As much as you can manage. I hate to ask, but maybe a couple pounds? I know they’ve got it in big rolls.” Then hurriedly, as she reached for her wallet: “I can pay you.”

“Hell, don’t worry about it,” He said, waving her off, “It shouldn’t be that much. If it turns out to be a lot, we can settle up after I get back with the goods.”

“Awesome. Thanks Russ, you’re the best!” She turned to go, began walking away, then did an about face after two steps and spoke again:

“Listen: Language Arts and Social Studies are getting together at Tim Mulvaney’s place in the North Housing for a little party tomorrow night. Just us and some friends, but only the Humanities; we didn’t invite anyone from the, you know, Inhumanities.” That was her group’s term for Math & Science, Wendy’s department… “Number 121. You should come if you can get away from the Dragon Lady. It’ll be fun.”

“Cool, yeah, thanks. I’ll definitely try.” Sure he’d try, but there was no way he was going to slip out past Wendy, no excuse he could concoct that would satisfy her. His “trying” consisted mostly of swirling various possibilities about in his brain for nearly two days but never coming up with anything even remotely practicable, even after he knew the party had to be underway, his opportunity missed. When he fell asleep at last, past midnight and on into Saturday morning, the dream came almost instantly. It began as it always did: the four of them on the creaking, rusted platform, Russ and the sisters he never had, then their dad suddenly diving all unannounced into the pit. And it stuck with him almost the whole next week, not departing until Thursday. Each time he awoke from the impossible vision of his father’s floating headless corpse, he bit down his panic and did his best not to wake Wendy. He didn’t want to remind her he hadn’t located a therapist.

Then came Graduation, Memorial Day, and School-out. Russ still hadn’t gotten used to school starting in August and ending in May; somehow the school year was never official for him until Labor Day. He would lie in bed on those September Mondays and wait for the faint tidal shift that always ran through his blood. Only then did the real school year begin.

Cassie Manygoats never returned to his office. After that first brief visit, Russ didn’t see her again except as they passed in the halls and in the crowd at Commencement. The only time they had even a moment for conversation, she commented on her envy for his pending trip and how she wished she could go, then told him to be sure and say hi to Tony Soprano. She punctuated this advice with a lifeless chuckle, and he offered his own stilted laugh in return before hallway traffic drove them in opposite directions.

Immediately after School-out, Wendy shot off to some kind of staff development in Phoenix–something on Math and Science content standards–and left him alone with the girls. They were excited about their trip east, and immediately began packing, which Russ considered a blessing, as he dreaded the usual last-minute scrambling of two prepubescent girls. Who knew what they might forget?

One afternoon several days before their departure, Russ was washing dishes when nine year old Darlene popped up beside him and tugged on the kitchen towel tucked into his belt: “Daddy?”

He made a small startled leap away from her. “Whoa, honey, you scared me! What do you want?”

“Daddy, are there really alligators in the sewers in New Jersey?”

He let the crusted plate in his hands slip back into the soapy water and cocked his head down at her. “Now who told you that, honey?”

“Mrs. Hardaway. She said to be careful going to the bathroom when we’re there because of the alligators. She said people buy them as pets and flush them down the toilet and they get big eating rats in the sewers. Then they come back up and bite you on the butt when you’re going pee.”

Hardaway. That witch. Cassandra practically worshipped her, but the woman had adopted an inexplicable hostility toward both Wendy and Russ. He had a pretty good idea why she would mess with his daughter’s head like that. She had been Stephanie’s teacher two years earlier, fawned over her all year, then made it clear all this year she considered Darlene a grossly inferior student in comparison. That, and she shared a duplex with Cassandra in the housing. She had several times given him the hairy eyeball when she caught him hanging around Cassandra’s classroom. He should complain, try to get her written up, but she would just deny it, blame Darlene. And it would piss Cassie off. He dried his hands on the towel, dropped them on Darlene’s shoulders. “That’s just an urban legend, honey, and it’s about New York, not New Jersey.”

“What’s an urban legend?”

“It’s like a traditional Navajo story, like a coyote story, only set in the modern world. But it’s not true.”



“Pinky swear?”

He pinky swore. For Darlene, that settled the matter. She broke contact and scuttled outside to join her sister, whatever they were doing out there. Probably riding bikes around the housing. As long as they stayed within sight of the house. That was the rule. The local Crips and Bloods still contended for turf around the school, so the range of the girls’ activities was greatly circumscribed.

At last it was time to go. Wendy returned two days before their scheduled departure, puffed up with subject-area confidence, and grudgingly helped the girls finish packing. When the appointed day arrived, she drove them to Flag and dropped them at the curb outside the hotel where they were to overnight because of the early hour of their first flight. She never left their aging Ford Explorer, just leaned out her window, said, “Call me when you get there, okay?” Russ got a peck on the cheek, the girls got a wave, and she was gone.

From Flag they flew to Phoenix, from Phoenix to Atlanta, Atlanta to DC, DC to Newark. He was concerned that all the flight changes would be too much for the girls, but they knew the routine from two years earlier and were excited to repeat the ordeal. More excited than Russ for sure. By ATL the girls had taken control of their itinerary, were checking departure monitors, hurrying Russ to each gate in turn.

In Newark, Dolores stood waiting for them just beyond the checkpoint, close to the wall so she could avoid the heterogeneous stream of their fellow travelers. Russ remembered how his dad somehow always managed to sneak all the way to the arrival gate…but that was before 9/11. The girls ran to her right off, nothing but hugs for Nálí. She wrapped an arm around each of them but kept her eyes on Russ. When he reached her, he said, “Hi, Mom,” and leaned across his daughters to peck the cheek she offered.

Once they had all their luggage, Dolores led them to her car, which she had parked for some reason in the open lot far beyond the parking deck, despite the numerous spaces available in the latter. He did not ask why, as he dreaded her explanation, which would likely involve some dire warning in her email about terrorists. Russ was drenched with sweat from the humidity by the time they reached her boxy black Mercedes where it lay baking in the sun before a single stunted acacia.

Half an hour later they pulled into the driveway of the two-story suburban home where Russ had lived nearly 23 years. It was strange to him now. He thought of the Henry James story “The Jolly Corner,” about an American expatriate in Europe who returns to his family home after 30 years abroad to find it haunted by the disfigured ghost of his own alternate, undeparted self. He knew the story well; BA in English, so how had he ended up as a high school counselor? “Letting the days go by / water flowing underground.

Russ regarded the split-level box. It was home, and yet it was not. The shape of the house was the same, but the landscaping and the trees in the yard had changed. Some time after his dad died, his mother slapped on aluminum siding and a fresh paint job. The house he remembered as olive green and white was now two shades of gray. Up and down the block, the neighbors’ houses had undergone similar alterations. Everything the same, everything different. As they walked to the door, he asked his mom about the fate of those neighbors still in residence when he moved. Only two other families on this side of the block of those he’d grown up with. She was less certain about the other side, but believed all the properties there had changed hands. The girls could care less. They chased each other around the lawn while Russ heaved their luggage from the trunk and Dolores fumbled with her keys.

As he waited for Dolores to unlock the door, he scanned Piedmont Avenue, pausing at each house to unpack the palimpsest of his personal history. Next door to his right was the old Starkweather house. The Starkweathers were long gone, likely deceased, and the current owner had cut down their infamous hedges and installed a border of Belgian block around the yard and the driveway. He wondered if old Mrs. Starkweather’s horde of confiscated baseballs and Frisbees was still locked away deep in some hidden cellar.

Beyond that house were the two duplexes. These had gone up in a vacant lot that was the site of many adventures in Russell’s early years, adventures that briefly intensified during the construction period, which happened to be the last summer before Russell entered kindergarten. He recalled the deep basement pits and the yellow saurian earth movers on which the neighborhood kids climbed in the evenings. Most of all, he remembered the gigantic apple tree at the edge of the Starkweathers’ lot, and the men who had bulldozed it down. The whole neighborhood had gathered dangerously close to watch, Russ and his family included, and when the thick, gray trunk tipped and the vast, tentacled rootmass tore free, everyone marveled at the enormous brown and spotted toad that lay in the pit: a clandestine, startled god. His youthful fascination with amphibians and reptiles began that very moment. To this day he wondered what became of the toad. In his mind, it still lived nearby, somewhere deep beneath another tree, casting its mysterious influences over the neighborhood.

The contrast between his memories and this slightly upscale toad-free suburban street disconcerted him, but the difference between these neat homes with their green lawns and the dreary school housing where he lived on the Rez with Wendy and the girls…that was far greater. No wonder the girls loved it here. One day it would be hard to get them to return.

At last his mother got the door open. The interior of the house had changed as well: new carpet, new paint, new fixtures, new furniture. Complete remodels of the kitchen and bathroom.

They settled in–the girls in Tommy’s old room, where they would share the pullout bed; Russ in his own former room, which still contained his original bed even though Dolores had made the space her sewing room. At least after all that traveling, they had a home for a while. Things were good.

The first couple days were mostly spent visiting relatives and dining out. Russ had to admit that the restaurants in and around Middlebrook had increased significantly in both variety and quality–as had his mother’s tastes. He was shocked when Dolores took them to a sushi place the second night–a pretty good one, too. His mother would never have eaten sushi during his high school or college years. Darlene was excited about ordering octopus, but the more reserved Stephanie stuck with California rolls, which she nibbled through a dark curtain of barely kempt hair.

That night the dream came again, his father arcing downward from the end of the platform, and Russ awoke with a choked-off scream. As he gasped for breath, he saw Dolores in the doorway.

“Russell, are you all right?”

He inhaled through clenched teeth. “I’m okay, Mom. I just had that dream again, the one about dad in the quarry.”

“Russell, Russell, Russell. Your father’s been gone 11 years now. Prostate cancer ate him, not the alligators from your nightmare.”

“Yeah, well tell that to the nightmare. It comes and goes. Sometimes it stays away for a year or more, and other times I get it every night for a week, even two or three. That’s how it’s been lately.”

“And have you seen a psychologist?”

“Not yet, but Wendy made me promise I’d find one soon.”

“Well then, for once I agree with the little heathen.”

“That’s enough, Mom. You can go back to bed now.”

“Fine, but please try not to wake my granddaughters. I don’t want to have them both crying and begging to sleep in my bed because you scared them with your shrieking.”

“I wasn’t shrieking, Mom.”

“No, of course not,” she said. He let it go. Dolores would always have the last word. Always.

After she left, Russell lay in the same bed where the dream first attacked him. The lingering impressions were slow to fade: the certainty of his nonexistent sisters, the false memory of his father’s lost head. These phantom recognitions of circumstances beyond the dream itself always delayed its ready dismissal, gave it hooks to extend its grip on his waking mind.

The girls finished breakfast early the next morning and ran outside to play in the grass. The lawn itself was a treat for them–yards back home were just dirt or at best cinders of red lava rock.

Russ prodded a cooling chunk of syrup-drenched waffle across his plate while Dolores sipped her coffee. Her taste in coffee had also improved. The current batch was from Papua New Guinea. She kept it in the freezer. Folger’s Instant was good enough when the old man was alive.

Russ spoke without looking up: “Mom, do you think we could borrow the Merc today? I was wanting to take the girls for a scenic drive.”

“Scenic? This is still New Jersey, remember. Exactly where do you plan to take them? Bayonne?”

“Well, I was thinking about driving them up in the Watchungs, maybe even taking them on a little hike while we’re there.”

You want to go back to that quarry, don’t you?”

Wow. That didn’t take her long. Time to go with honesty then:

“Okay. Basically, I’m thinking that if I go back there and confront my fears, it might help me get rid of them once and for all.”

“Is this something one of those witch doctors told you to do after he saw it in a vision?” Her voice placed quote marks of sarcasm around “witch doctors” and “vision.”

“No, Mom. It’s just an idea that came to me. And we don’t call them witch doctors. You’ve been watching too many old movies. Come on: how long will it be before I’m out here again? I might as well try. Can’t hurt anything.”

“That’s what you say. I, on the other hand, am very uncomfortable with you going to that place, especially in my car.”

“Mom, it’s just a dream.”

“Maybe your dream is just a dream, but there are serious reasons to stay away from that quarry.”

“What are you talking about, Mom? We never even caught any of those salamanders, and I doubt they bite anyway.”

“I’m not talking about lizards. I’m talking about wise guys. Maybe you recall how your grandfather was so dead set against your father taking you and Tommy to that place? That’s because your grandfather had a friend, and he had a friend, who…knew people. Italian people. And his friend’s friend’s Italian friends said to stay away from that pit because the Mob was dumping bodies there. He said they liked it because the bodies went down and never came back up. There was a rumor that the lake was bottomless, at least in some places. Your grandfather wasn’t totally sure but he thought it might even have been where they dumped Hoffa. He got into a real shouting match with your father one time over him taking you boys there. I thought they were going to get physical and I would have to call the police to break them up.”

“Dad and Grandpa getting into a fight, Mom, seriously? You’re just making this stuff up now. And that whole Mafia thing is probably an urban legend. Even if it’s true, we’ve got to be talking way back in the ‘50s.”

“Well son, I can’t control your choices, that’s obvious; but I do control the use of my car. And I don’t much care for you taking my granddaughters up there either.”

“Mom, listen: even if the wise guys use that place, they’re not going to be hanging around in the daytime. We never saw anyone else up there when Dad took us. Just lemme do this, Mom. Please.”

She shook her head slowly then pinned him with her stare. “I am totally against this, but then it’s been a long time since you listened to anything I had to say. So if you’re determined to pursue this silliness, then I guess you might as well go ahead and get it out of your system. And when it doesn’t solve your problem, I hope you will seek professional help. I would encourage you to take your burden to the Lord, but I know you’ll just shut me out as usual. Very sad.” She shook her head again, slowly, her face downcast. “And I’d really prefer you didn’t take my granddaughters with you, but if you’re so determined to do this today you’ll have to because I have my Bible study with Reverend Mainz at 11:00, and I won’t be able to watch them for you.”

Later that morning he remanded Dolores into the custody of her Bible study group, declining her invitation to enter and meet the other ladies–who would love to see how he’d grown. And of course there was the new pastor, Father Mainz, whose sermons were so relevant. Dolores attempted to lure the girls in with cookies, but Russ promised them better desserts if they would hold out until lunch, and they accepted his counter-offer. Their last visit to New Jersey had left them with a taste for fancy Italian pastries, so he was thinking about taking them to Chimney Rock Inn, where he had washed dishes in high school. More upscale than in his day, he expected the current incarnation would at least offer tiramisu, something he knew the girls would love. He pointed the restaurant out to them just after they finished skirting the Stavros Quarry and its dusty gray conveyors on their left. Gray conveyors, gray buildings, gray railcars, gray trucks–everything monochrome, coated with the powder of crushed rock.

They wound up the hill, past the Chimney Rock formation itself, stark protrusion atop its ridge, bleached pigeonshit-white and smooth with uncountable coats of paint, all surrounded by graffiti. He slowed and the girls craned up to see it, but only briefly. They were underwhelmed. It probably wasn’t much to them after Monument Valley, Spider Rock, Sanostee Arch, and all the other weird rock formations on the Rez. They were more interested in the row of five gray metal cylinders directly below whose rounded ends still spelled: “Z-A-P-P-A.” “Daddy, what’s Zappa?”

Zappa…the man was dead how long now? Longer than Russell’s dad, who never lived to see his granddaughters. Russ had unresolved issues with him over that–his dad, not Frank Zappa–the old man could’ve stopped smoking any time; Russ and Tommy and Dolores all asked him to quit over and over again. Once Russ tried to explain this to Wendy, but that conversation went south immediately: “You should be grateful you knew both your natural parents. When you’re a different skin color from the rest of your family, it’s kind of obvious you’re adopted. Look at me: I had to deal with kids calling me Princess This and Princess That all the time…Princess Spreadeagle, Princess Running Nose…and if I had a dime for every time some jerkoff at Temecula Valley High asked me if my ‘Indian name’ was ‘Two Dogs Fucking,’ well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have to work now. You might still have to, but not me.”

Russ couldn’t argue any of this; knew better than to try. He had no doubt the details from her personal history were true, even if presented all out of context. Her pre-Russell past was one of her trump cards, and he knew by now to shut up and take it when she played it.

“Zappa was a rock star, back in the day. I don’t think you would like him though.” Stephanie had just graduated from her Hannah Montana phase into an iPod filled with the Beatles, Bob Marley, and newer bands like the White Stripes and Avenged Sevenfold. Darlene was following her sister’s lead, just as Tommy had once copied Russell’s interests. Not anymore: Tommy lived in Illinois now; was knocking down six figures in corporate sales. Their roads had diverged.

As Russ wound his mother’s Merc up the mountain road, surprised at how smoothly it cornered for a big black box with upholstery, he remembered when his father brought them here back in the ‘80s, him and Tommy. At first they only visited the stream, which to them was always “The Stream,” even though the locals knew it as “Thunder Bridge” after the sound the plank bridge made for anyone standing beneath it when a car passed over.

After several trips to “The Stream,” during which they caught half a dozen bullfrogs, two small painted turtles, a water snake, and various salamanders from under rocks along the trails, their dad announced that he had a surprise. He’d been looking for an old trailhead, and on their last trip he thought he’d found it. On all their visits thus far, their main equipment had been dip nets, but on this next trip, Carl added two cheap plastic fishing poles from Korvette’s. After parking as usual in one of the turnouts near the bridge, he led them upstream to where a vague path cut off over the ridge above. A 10 minute hike along this trail took them over the saddle and out to the Upper Stavros Quarry Pit. Prior to their arrival at the pit, Dad issued a series of warnings: “Stay away from the edge,” “Don’t wander,” “Stay off any platforms or scaffolding that are still up until I check them.”

Russ remembered the Pit as he saw it that first time: immense, gaping; the still, flat surface far below, coated with a scrim of duckweed. On that first hike out their father explained how his biology prof at Montclair State showed the class an enormous white salamander coiled in a jar of formaldehyde, bleached and flabby, eyeless but equipped with feathery gills, and described how he was all but certain it was an unknown species. Some kind of axolotl. And it had come from the Upper Stavros Pit. Supposedly. Before the professor’s tenure though, donated by an old quarryman from the time of the original breach and flood. No one ever found another, at least not so far as the prof knew, and he had even gone out there himself. No luck. Maybe someday, he told the class, someone would find a second specimen?

This was the scientific opportunity Carl Fenster pitched to his boys as they perched near the edge of an old steel platform that still stood out from the rim of the Pit: the chance to be in on the ID of a new species, perhaps even have it named for them: Axolotlus fenestra. Axolotlus russellia. And thus with their arms over the rusty rails, they fished, or salamandered, with compacted bread balls, wiggly worms, salmon eggs from a jar. Never a nibble. Their father paced, smoking his Benson & Hedges Multifilters one after the other and flicking the butts into the foul-smelling lake far below.

It didn’t take long before the two boys tired of all this nothing, but they continued for three whole visits until Russ first had the dream. Then Dolores drew a line, and they never even went back to The Stream. After that it was the Poconos, Hacklebarney, or Ken Lockwood Gorge until Russ outgrew his interest in salamanders, snakes and frogs, and focused on girls instead.

Russ returned only once to Thunder Bridge, a tipsy June night near the end of his senior year when his friends wanted suggestions on a place to park and finish the bottle of Southern Comfort they’d begun along Rt. 22. He led them to his childhood haunt only to find all the turnouts banked up with berms and blocked by No Trespassing signs, likely the work of the Underbridge Sewer Utility Division.

Now he was back not with drunken friends, but with his daughters. He discovered the old berms plowed right through in two places. They parked on the north side. As Russ stepped out of the Merc his foot caught something stiff that clattered over the gravel. A rusted sign on a rusted chain, the words still legible only because they were embossed: “Keep Out: Underbridge Township Property.” He said nothing to the girls, who both got out on the right side of the Merc. He led them over the bridge–surfaced with asphalt now and no longer thundering–and onto the trail up the north bank.

The air was dense in the shallow gorge, intensely humid, and long stalks of green fuzz overhung the path and slapped Russ and his daughters with dew so that they were half-soaked by the time they came to the side route up the ridge. The distances were shorter than Russell remembered, but still the girls complained that their legs were tired almost as soon as they began the climb.

The path up the ridge to the Pit was even more overgrown, lush clumps of brambles and the branches of scrubby pin oaks pressing in from both sides. Russ found a sturdy limb and wielded it like a machete to hack a way through. No way either the wise guys or some Satanist Cult were using this trail regularly. They hadn’t gone far before both girls started in with, “Daddy, I don’t like this place. Take me back!”

“C’mon,” he said. “I’m going to show you something really cool. It’ll be worth it!”

Just then they came to a towering tulip tree on the left side of the path. Russell had forgotten this monster, but he immediately recognized it as the halfway marker. He was tempted to distract the girls with Poe’s story of “The Gold-Bug” before he realized he barely remembered the plot, other than dropping a beetle on a string through the socket of a skull nailed in a tree. How had he gone from teaching high school English to serving as a counselor? He was no longer certain he understood the transition himself. He decided not to mention the story: best not to frighten the girls with talk of weird bugs and skulls.

Darlene spoke to him from behind in a matter of fact voice, “Daddy, the monkey wants you to carry her.” Monkey. She’d entered this devolutionary phase over a year ago, and one symptom was demanding to ride on his shoulders, a request he obliged whenever he could, knowing he wouldn’t be able to lift her much longer. Stephanie trudged silently on behind, her eyes down. Her flattened affect had begun to worry him, but this was not the time to address it. Wendy didn’t seem concerned: “It’s a phase. It’s normal. Calling attention to it will just make it worse, so leave her alone.”

Once they passed the tulip tree, it took only a few more minutes before they crested the ridge and emerged in a small clearing floored with trampled dirt and a dense litter of broken glass, brown and green and transparent. Scattered amidst these shards were the exhausted stubs of dozens, maybe hundreds, of black candles.

The Pit yawned before them. It was not as wide as Russ remembered, perhaps only 200 feet across. The water table had fallen and the film of duckweed he knew from his youth was gone. Where the afternoon sun did not strike the surface, he saw through to a lumpy rock floor fuzzed with dead brown algae and silt. But not everywhere. A long stretch of pure blackness reached from somewhere out near the center toward the wall directly below them. The breach, no doubt.

At last he had the girls’ attention. Darlene began to squirm, so he set her down, and they all three peered over the edge, the girls holding his hands.

“Do people swim here?” asked Darlene. She gripped his left hand more tightly than she’d gripped his neck moments earlier.

“I don’t think anyone ever has. There’s no way down or up again. And the water stinks.”

The smell struck them full on now; a blend of rancid grease and ammonia with other elements less easy to identify. It was far worse than Russ recalled, thick and slimy in his nostrils and on his skin. He realized now the smell was probably why his dad had chainsmoked whenever they were there.

“Gross,” said Stephanie, wrinkling her nose. “Why did you bring us here anyway?”

“Daddy, I don’t like this place. Can we go now?” Darlene tugged at his hand. She was staring at the trees that bordered the clearing, all of which had block-lettered words sprayed vertically down their trunks in bright red or white: “NATAS,” “MORTUUS,” “FEED ME.”

Across the Pit he could see the phrase from the Weird NJ photo. The “T” in “MEAT” had faded some, and now resembled an “L.” The quarry walls were mostly pinkish, but nearer the top, rainwater had darkened long streaks to a muddy rose. Stretches stained by the black surface soil had the look of deep crusted burns or wounds. Faded boreholes marked the exposed rock surface at intervals. Nearer the water these scars were fresher and closer together. In some places, they looked very fresh.

Below and to the right of the graffiti, sections of rusted and crumpled scaffolding protruded from the surface, dragonflies buzzing about their lower rungs. Then something beneath the scaffolding caught his attention, something white and bulbous that drifted against the wall. Russ thought it looked like a man’s dress shirt. With the man still inside. Or at least his torso.

The platform from which they’d hung their lines as children was still there, though badly rusted. “Wait here,” he told the girls, and took one step onto it. He had to get closer, had to confirm. Mob hit or Satanic sacrifice, if he could return to Cassie with a story like this, it would have to be worth something.

“Daddy, I don’t think that’s safe.” The voice came from behind him. This time it was Stephanie. Emerging from her shell now: that was good. He gripped the right rail and took a little hop on the corroded surface. It felt sturdy. He took another step and stamped in place with both feet. The platform gave a muffled clang, but it barely shook. For a few seconds, he heard the soft patter of rust flakes showering the support structure beneath him.

Russ shuffled forward, careful to keep his grip on the rough, rusty rail. The air was so thick and foul he felt as if he were pushing his way through it. Behind him now both daughters pleaded for his return. He ignored them; did not look back. If what he saw was a floater–or a partial floater–this story would make them all celebrities back at the school. Then the girls would thank him.

Russ advanced cautiously, his shoes scraping over the corroded surface. When he was only a few feet from the end of the platform and almost within sight of the floating white whatever, the whole structure buckled under him with a raw metallic screech and his end collapsed at least 60 degrees in a second. He fought to keep his hold on the railing, but his own weight threw him forward and spun him around. His palm tore on the rust-flaked bar, then ripped free. The end rail snapped into bits the moment he struck it, and he flailed into space.

In that long, frozen second as he pinwheeled to fall head downward, no scenes from his life flashed before his eyes. Instead, he saw with utter clarity the still, stagnant plane below–and just before he pierced it, the great gnarled length of darkness on the other side as it stirred from the muck and gaped to meet him, the dead gray interior of the maw, the ancient yellow teeth so much longer and so many, many more than an alligator’s. There were no alligators in New Jersey.

(alligators is from Scott’s new collection Ana Kai Tangata.  If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love the book — purchase it here!)

Scott Nicolay was born Nicolay_Sunflowers_picover half a century back amidst the toxic waste dumps and devil haunted swamps of New Jersey…26 years later that child packed all he could fit in a ’72 Dodge Challenger and lit out for the high desert of northwest New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, where if the dogs bark at night it is only the skinwalkers. Along the way he had three children and held jobs including dishwasher, restaurant and hotel cook, factory worker, camera salesman, DJ, security guard, teacher, and sheepherder. As a teacher he and his students cofounded the New Mexico Youth Poetry Slam and the National Youth Poetry Slam. As a caver and archaeologist he studied and explored the caves and lava tubes of Belize, Easter Island, and the U.S. Southwest.

Several years ago he tailed Jack Spicer’s Martian to the uncertain boundary between our reality and the cobbly worlds…now he spends his nights there peering through a grimy window and reports what he sees. Fedogan & Bremer published Ana Kai Tangata, his first book of weird horror tales in 2014.

If you enjoyed this story, let Scott know know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

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4 responses to “alligators, by Scott Nicolay

  1. I enjoyed this tale very much, although the purpose of the protagonist dreaming of his daughters as sisters, and himself as his father is apparent about halfway through it does not spoil the enjoyment of the story.
    The descriptions of the pit with its graffiti and litter are entrancing, and cast a tone of what Stephen King describes as “slippage.”
    Your dialogue and interpersonal relationships between the characters are believable if a bit intentionally depressing. Your prose is efficient and swift without being too terse, and unnecessary adjectives are thankfully absent especially when it comes to dialogue.
    As a matter of personal taste I would however have preferred more of a glimpse of the creature towards the end, and maybe a little gore to round it off.
    All in all an excellent composition that gave me an hour of entertainment while watching the machine I operate at work.


  2. The ancient gods are everywhere! Lying, waiting…
    TO FEED!!!
    Great story, Scott. Look forward to reading more of your work.


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