The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 2

Ava Wrestles the Alligator

by Karen Russell

Ava and her sister are staying in Grandpa Sawtooth's old house until their father, Chief Bigtree, gets back from the Mainland. It's their first summer alone in the swamp. "You girls will be fine," the Chief slurred. "Feed the gators, don't talk to strangers. Lock the door at night." The Chief must have forgotten that it's a screen door at Grandpa's—there is no key, no lock. The old house is a rust-checkered yellow bungalow at the edge of the wild bird estuary. It has a single, airless room; three crude palmetto windows with mosquito-blackened sills; a tin roof that hums with the memory of rain. Ava loves it here. Whenever the wind gusts in off the river, the sky rains leaves and feathers. During mating season, the window beside her cot rattles with the ardor of birds.
     Now the thunder makes the thin window glass ripple like wax paper. Summer rain is still the most comforting sound she knows. She likes to pretend that it's their dead mother's fingers, drumming on the ceiling above them. In the distance, an alligator bellows—not one of theirs, she frowns, a free agent. Their gators are hatched in incubators. If they make any noise at all, it's a perfunctory grunt, bored and sated. This wild gator has an inimitable cry, much louder, much closer. She smiles and pulls the blankets around her chin. If Osceola hears it, she's not letting on. Ava's sister is lying in the cot opposite. Her eyes are wide open, and she is smiling and smiling in the dark.
     "Hey, Ossie? Is it just you in there?"
     Ava's older sister has entire kingdoms inside her, and some of them are only accessible at certain seasons, in certain kinds of weather. One such breach occurs in summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. Ava has to ask the right question, throw the right rope bridge—and then bolt across the chasm between them before her bridge collapses.
     "Ossie? Is it just us?" Ava peers into the grainy dark. There's the chair that looks like a horned devil's silhouette. There's the blind glint of the terrarium glass. But no Luscious. Ossie's evil boyfriend has yet to materialize.
     "Yup," Ossie whispers, sounding wonderfully awake. "Just us." She reaches over and pats Ava's arm. "Just us girls."
     That does it. "Just us!" they scream. And Ava knows that for once she and Ossie are picturing the same thing: miles and miles of swamp, and millions and millions of ghosts, and just the two of them, girls, bungalowed in their silly pajamas.
     They keep giggling, happy and nervous, tickled by an incomplete innocence, both sensing that some dark joke is being played on them, even if they can't quite grasp the punch line.
     "What about Luscious?" Ava gasps. "You're not dating Luscious anymore?"
     Uh-oh. There it is again, that private smile, the one that implies that Ossie is nostalgic for places Ava has never been, places she can't even begin to imagine.
     Ossie shakes her head. "Something else, now."
     "Somebody else? You're not still going to, um—" Ava pauses, trying to remember the word, "—elope? Are you?"
     Ossie doesn't answer. "Listen," she breathes, her eyes like blown embers. The thunder has diminished to a soft nicker. Something is scratching at the dripping window. "He's here."

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