Inside the house is dark because the windows are all covered with plywood. Me and my sister Deb helped Dad put the boards up in the morning to protect the glass from breaking in the storm. Hurricane Daniel. Like me, but everybody calls it Daniel, nobody calls it Danny. The air is always damp and heavy here but on hurricane days especially you can feel it, thick and electric, sticking to your hair and clothes. Even the mosquitoes are weighed down by it.
I’m not big enough to use tools so Deb and me helped Dad hold the boards in place. He used the drill gun and the hammer, swinging hard. Each hit made me flinch and the wood rattled the bones in my fingers. I turned my face away from the force of it, staring down at his huge white sneakers instead. They left ridged indentations in the damp ground.
We left one big board off, the one for the sliding-glass door that leads to the wide canal out back. Where you can see the waist-high fringe of yellowed grass along the edge of the water that I don’t mow because that’s where gators lay their eggs. Dad likes to lean over the edge of the wooden dock there and throw raw meat into the big bull gators’ open mouths. With the rain, the water level’s high enough that if you were standing on the dock now, you’d also be standing on the surface of the water.
“Get away from the glass, doofus,” Deb says. “Mom just cleaned it and she’s gonna be mad if you smudge it. And if Mom’s mad, Dad’s gonna smack you.” She mimes Dad’s gesture, cocking her hand behind her ear, the back of it toward me. Dad gives the back of the hand to everything.
“You’re not the boss of me,” I mutter.
We were gonna put the last board up when Mom and Dad got back from their one last trip to the grocery store for batteries and food before the storm hits. Deb’s in charge til then but I’m big enough that I don’t need anybody watching me.
It’s already gray and windy outside. The green-black surface of the canal ripples like fingers. I didn’t look at the clock when Mom and Dad left but it feels like they’ve been gone a long time. My stomach twists to remind me to eat something, anything.
“Hey, look, Danny!” Deb gloats by the sliding back door. “Your tree is gonna come down!”
Mom and Dad planted a tree for Deb when she was a baby. It’s big now, twelve years old and taller than the house. They didn’t plant one for me til I was like six, and old enough to ask why I didn’t have a tree too. So the Danny Tree is only three and looks it, thin and wispy. And she’s right, it’s getting blown around, bent in half almost, the branches flying around in the wind like a girl’s hair. I watch, almost forgetting to breathe while it leans and straightens, each time coming up not quite as high as the time before until it finally bends for the last time, pulling its roots out of the ground like a person climbing out of a hole, leaving light brown bits behind as they snag and tear. It tumbles over the lawn and into the canal, long and skinny and dying.
“Yay, it’s gone!” she shouts and pumps her hands like a cheerleader.
I push my hands against the flat pane of glass. The muscles in my neck go all tight and I wrench my hands into fists. It’s not right. Not fair. Hurricane Daniel sucked up the Danny Tree and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I know my eyes are red but I can’t cry in front of her. Men don’t cry, Dad always tells me. And I do want to be a man, I think.
Deb leans over my shoulder, her face close to my ear. “It’s with the alligators now,” she smirks. “They’re doing the Death Roll to it.” That nightmare move where the gator grabs you in its jaws and twists quick like a screw gun to snap your spine so they can drag you underneath the water. You drown, paralyzed, while they take their time eating you. Adults tell you about it when they tell you how fast alligators are, even on land.
I can’t breathe right, like I’m the one drowning instead of the tree. You don’t Death Roll a tree. I know that. But it was the me-tree and now it’s dead and gone down the canal.
“I told them to do it,” Deb goes on, whispering, looming too close behind me. “I told them to plant it shallow so it would get sucked up and die.” Her hands on my shoulders, the edge of a laugh in her voice. “Now you’re gonna die, too. You don’t have any life-force left. That’s what happens when you lose your tree.”
She presses her weight into me, down and forward into the door on purpose. My face and fingers leave streaks on the glass. I know you don’t hit a girl but I can’t even push her off me, she’s so much bigger and stronger. So I swing myself down and to the side away from her, toward where Dad’s tool bag sits open by the couch. I dig through it and my hand lands on something wooden and long—his hatchet, the metal rusted almost black, the back end forming the round knuckle of a hammer. I hold it tight against my side while I dart past Deb, slide the door open, and rush outside.
The grass is wet and my sneakers slip-squeak over it. If I’m not gonna have any life-force then neither is Deb. If the Danny tree is dead because of Deb then the Deb tree is gonna be dead because of Danny. That’s fair. That’s right. And no adult is gonna do it for me.
Thick raindrops fall heavy and gray on my shirt, each individual wet spot showing a hit. I’m breathing heavy and my tears are hot and wide on my cheeks.
I swing the hatchet like a baseball bat into the trunk and it just bounces off. On the second swing I knock away a hunk of bark, the naked wood underneath showing through. But now Deb’s here with me, in her bare feet and screaming, pushing me away from the tree and back toward the house. I slip past her again and manage to get the blade into the tree’s meat, quick like one two three, leaving deep lines in it like fingernail scratches.
Then her hands are on my shoulders behind me pushing again and the tree’s coming at me fast. It explodes in a hundred blue fireworks when my forehead thunks against it. I lose the hatchet when I fall backward onto the grass.
I can’t hear anything when I wake up, but the sky is a creamy gray, almost as dark as nighttime. I’m looking up through the mess of crescent-moon-shaped leaves of the Deb tree, watching them whip around and fall in silent eddies toward me.
I can’t hear anything because my ears are underwater. I’m floating on my back and only realize it when my body bobs against the tree trunk. I flail my arms and lurch to stand but end up on my butt instead, brown-gray water up to my chest. I shake my head and hear the whursh-whursh of trapped water expelled from my ears.
Deb’s voice is the sound of aluminum shredding.
Now that my ears are clear, there’s a howling sound, whipping up the air. I’ve heard hurricanes before but always from behind plywood, never from inside them, never from being out in the snarl and tear of it.
“Danny! It’s coming!”
She’s above me in her tree. She’s tall enough to grab the branches to climb it. But it grows at the same rate as me and its lowest limbs are as out of reach as they’ve always been.
I scan the water, the sky. “What?” I yell over the howl. “What’s coming?”
Her bangs whipping across her face as she points:
Against the silvery water, a green-black ripple. Halfway between me and the canal. An armored back, a spiked tail. Glimpse of its eyes like razor cuts. Long curlicue waves twist in its wake, its dinosaur head the size of a lawn mower, each cracked-bone tooth big as a hacksaw.
“Look out!” Deb screams. Like she’s actually worried for me, like my life-force isn’t really gone, like I can still be saved and she wants to help.
I have to run. Now. But my legs and feet don’t make any sense in the water so I push myself backward, crabbing, paddling, my arms like windmills pulling against the mud and sharp grass blades. The hatchet handle finds my hand and comes with me, thump-churning into the water.
Together, me and the monster rush through the layer of brown overflow toward the front lawn, my shoulders on fire, its ragged, leathery face getting closer, impossibly close, coming to roll me into paralyzed drowning death.
When my elbow bashes into a mass of rubber, I know I’m in the driveway. It slopes away from the house, and I’m fighting my momentum to keep from sliding out onto the flooded street. My sneakers find enough traction on the concrete to stand and scramble up into the bed of my dad’s pickup. The truck rocks under my weight, then lurches as something massive rams into its side. I huddle against the back of the cab, as small as I can make myself. Pull my knees in close. Both hands grip the hatchet, as tight as Deb must be holding onto the tree. I see the dark shape of her among the whipping branches, both of us slashed by rain. Her scream carries to me as the truck bucks, rocks again, the wheels slipping in the wet.
“Leave me alone!” My voice, shrill and breaking, is pulled ragged from my throat. “Why won’t you leave me alone!”
And then, rumbling up from beneath the truck bed, its speech a whisper like wet gravel: ‘I will Roll you.’
It speaks. The sound drills through me, freezing me deeper than the rain. “Why?” I sputter. “I never hurt you, I—I don’t even mow the grass near your eggs.”
‘I’m hungry. I will Eat you. Come Down. Why don’t you come Down and let me Eat you?’ Its head slams against the side of the truck.
“No!” I’m cold and tight like a knot of rope. “I’m never gonna come down. I’m gonna stay here forever and you’re gonna starve.”
I risk a look over the edge. It’s a sliding shadow, stalking the driveway. When it speaks, the water down its back shudders, undulates with the vibration.
‘Hungry. You need to Eat, too,’ it taunts. ‘You can’t hide forever.’
“My sister is gonna come fight you,” I lie. “My Dad is gonna be home soon, he’s so strong and he’s gonna bash your face in with a baseball bat.” It’s a lie too, though the truth of his strength is real. There’s a pause where it seems to consider this.
‘They’ll not Protect you—we are both Alone.’ Its massive, sinewy shape circles the water surrounding the truck. ‘If you will not let me Eat you, then you must Kill me. A Man would Fight me. Are you not a Man?’
I stand, slashing the rain with my hatchet. “I am—I will! I’m gonna chop you up!”
It roars and bucks against the chassis in reply.
And I could. Dive into that thick brownness, drive the hatchet blade into its face, its neck. But am I someone who could do that? Could hurt, could kill? It would gather me up in its bone-teeth and crack me in half before I hit it a second time. Fighting means we both die. But waiting, in the kind-of protection of the truck? Keeping myself safe, refusing to panic, praying for the storm to pass? That, I could maybe survive. Live and not become a killer, too.
The night is long and the storm never stops. Mom and Dad never come home. The rain lashes my clothes to my skin, so soaked they’re nonexistent against the wind. Beads of water cling to my eyebrows and drip off my nose. The creature, raging, gives the side of its head and its shoulders to the truck, the driveway. The back of the hand to everything. The chassis lurches seasick against the impacts that come steadily, then rarely, then leave me waiting forever for the next one. I lose sight of Deb in the muddy haze of exhaustion and panic.
Then the sun is up. Gradually it pinkens the edges of the sky. The rain spatters out. My head pounds like I swallowed a bucket of salt and mud. A trickle of dirty water pours from the seam by the truck’s swinging back door. I rise slow on scratched-up legs. Our street’s become a canal now, brown and muddy, but the water’s gone from the lawn. Fronds from royal palm trees blanket the front yard and sidewalk. Pinecones are scattered like grenades on the driveway and in the empty parking space where my mom’s car never came home.
I lean over the edges of the truck and scan the ground for danger, but don’t see anything. No moss-black stone-leather monster. But as I climb down, I see dents in the truck body and dark skids around the tires. The impressions are ridged, patterned like a sneaker’s rubber bottom. Bigger than mine would be, as big as my Dad’s. The muddy scrapes in the driveway have the shoe-print shape, too.
Around the side of the house, I find the sliding glass door still open like we left it. The gray hole in the lawn where the Danny tree grew. The nicks are still in the trunk of the Deb tree, but there’s no Deb up in the branches. It looks so skinny and hungry now, with its missing leaves and the empty spot where my sister was. “Deb?” I call. It’s different now that I’m not scared and crying-mad at her, just achy-hollow in my belly, my hands all loose and weak. “Deb?” I’m answered only by a mosquito biting my arm. I smack it and my palm comes away bloody.
Inside the house is dark still because of all the plywood, and heavy with trapped humidity. Quiet except the distant dripping of water. The clock over the stove blinks a red 12:00 from when the power must have gone out. The quiet is peaceful, almost beautiful, and I’m thankful for it.
But right away, a sound interrupts the calm. In the front yard, a powerful voice, and the grind of something heavy in motion. It stabs into the stillness and cuts up all its insides. I feel the rumble in the soft bottoms of my feet.
Tears swell behind my eyelids, threatening to overflow like the canal did. I wrap my arms around myself, hug as tight as I can. I should go see what the sound is, but I can’t move. Purple bruises blossom across my vision. I don’t know how long I wait, rooted there, because the numbers on the clock keep flashing red and don’t ever change.
© 2023 James Parenti