Her leg hurt worse now, a day after the alligator rose out of the murk and clamped onto it, and everything was so much more complicated. When the gator had bit down, it was just a thing that was happening to her. Not a pleasant thing, sure, but simple. Now people she’d never met were picking it apart, like the expert on the emergency room TV saying: “A 10-year-old girl? There’s no way. If the alligator wanted to take her, there wasn’t anything she could have done about it.”
“I should have been closer,” her dad said, yanking the plug on the TV. “I should have saved her.”
“She saved herself,” Emily said. “That’s even better.”
Anna thought about that, and wasn’t so sure anymore. She’d pulled as hard as she could on the jaws, yes, but when the alligator had released her he did it without much fuss, almost gently. And when she collapsed on shore she could see his knobby head a little ways out watching her out of one eye. The lid had blinked twice, like a private code, before he sank under again.
“People are skeptical,” the reporter was saying, one side of his mouth smiling. “You understand.”
Before he showed up, they’d all been sitting close together on the couch with the air conditioner humming and the TV on quiet. A nature show about red pandas.
“No, I don’t understand. Are you calling her a liar? A child who just had her leg torn up by a fucking alligator?”
“Come on, what really happened?”
Her dad’s temper surprised her sometimes—when he got mad at her for spilling a glass or knocking something over—but he always apologized. In the hug afterward, she could feel love up and down his arms, every hair holding onto her.
“It doesn’t matter, dad.” She was limping a little, and the medicine was making her sleepy. Her dad reached behind him and pushed her back, out of the doorway. When she fell, the reporter pointed at her on the floor:
“Get that,” he said to a man with a camera.
It surprised her a little, the sound of her dad’s punch, how it was soft and hard at the same time. Not too different from the sound her leg made when the alligator bit down.
She ran her hand along the back of her knee where the tooth marks angled up and around like a crooked smile. Someone said her dad might go to jail for hitting the reporter. Emily threw the remote across the room; the cover broke off, and the batteries spilled out onto the floor.
“You did it yourself, right?” she asked, down on her hands and knees scooping the batteries up. “Got away?”
“You didn’t just cut it on an old car fender or something?”
How weird was it that she missed the alligator. Like a friend almost, someone who moved away one summer day without telling her.
“I don’t think so.”
Emily blew the hair out of her face and grunted back up onto the couch.
“Goddamn Florida, is all I can say.”
Out on Lake Mary Jane, a man with a long pole and a pistol was dragging an alligator out of the water. He said it was the same one, but how would he know?
They sat together on the couch, her and Emily, with an empty space between them. Anna could smell the butterfly bush outside the kitchen window that Emily always left open and her dad yelled at her about. This was her favorite time of year, the flowers reminded her—everything alive and stirring before summer came on full and it got too hot to do anything at all.
They’d think she was crazy if she told them how much she still loved swimming, the lake so cool and quiet. She wanted to go back, maybe ask the gator why it had let go. It wasn’t her doing, she knew that. Like everyone said, she was too little. All she knew was it had left its mark on her, which is what love does.