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The baby alligator showed up in the mail one day. Miss Setterfield stepped outside to collect the brown packaging, still in her fuzzy pink bathrobe and matching slippers despite the old cuckoo clock indicating minutes ago with a pestering chirp that noon had arrived. She waved mildly to the dark-skinned delivery man driving away, sneezed loudly at the dazzling sunlight, picked up the abnormally heavy package and stepped inside.
With her glasses on the brim of her nose, seated at the oval dining room table beneath a glittering chandelier, she read the taped white sheet indicating the package was from somewhere in Florida. That’s odd, she thought. Although her grandson, Mark, could easily attest to her failing memory -- just last week she called him Luka, mistaking him for one of the neighborhood kids -- she certainly couldn’t recall any relatives of hers whom resided there, and in fact had never been there herself.
Nonetheless, she had almost thrown her back out lugging it inside and was, if she was being honest with herself, quite interested in what the box may contain. It was then, and only then, that she saw the round little holes poked into the side of the box as though daring her to look inside and, written in typed black lettering, “CAUTION: LIVE ANIMAL. TREAT WITH CARE.”
Miss Setterfield may have been older than she’d like to admit, but she was not naïve. She edged herself closer to the spiral staircase just outside the dining room and bellowed, in a hoarse voice that suggested years of smoking, “Mark! Get down here right now!”
A door opened quietly and near-silent footsteps pattered down the stairs, as though his grandmother wouldn’t be angry with him if he made as little noise as possible.
Mark was a small, pale boy wearing a plain blue tee and looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. However, when he peeked around the corner and saw the square box lying there on the table, his face lit up and he asked, a bit too eagerly, “Is it here?”
Miss Setterfield crossed her arms across her chest and stepped slightly forward. “You know what it is, then?”
“That depends,” Mark said. “Will I get in trouble if I do?”
Miss Setterfield tried to look angry at this response, the creases along her brow deepening noticeably, but soon a thin smile crossed her face. “Go open it up.”
Mark eyed his grandmother suspiciously, as though expecting her say, “Just kidding!” if he dared move. When he was satisfied she was serious, he raced past her and tore the clear adhesive tape off the top of the package and peeked inside. Nestled beside plastic water and food bowls was a baby alligator, breathing quickly but deeply, its thin tail coiled around its body. It peeked one eye open to investigate the disturbance of its nap.
“Hey, little guy,” Mark said elatedly. He gently placed his hand on its belly and held the squinting alligator up for his grandmother to see.
“Oh my God,” she breathed. “Is that a lizard? Please tell me it’s a lizard.”
It was clear to see why Miss Setterfield mistook it as such. The alligator was a similar length, with the same scaly skin. But there was no mistaking the distinctive shape of its reptilian head, and, despite having seen much worse in her life, Miss Setterfield let out a tiny shriek when Mark held it up to her. Her heart sent a pounding thrum to her head, working a tight knot into her temples that dissipated only after her hysterical demands to put it back into the box. Once it was finally inside and shut tightly, she exhaled heavily.
“Excuse me for asking, Mark,” she said reprovingly, “but what the hell were you thinking?” Miss Setterfield had never before cursed around Mark, whose eight-year old ears reddened with shame. “It was Tom’s idea,” he muttered.
“Tom, your cousin?”
“Yeah. He said…you wouldn’t mind. I guess he was wrong.” He stared at the lamp light reflected off the linoleum floor and scratched his head nervously, then looked up suddenly and hopefully. “Can I keep it?”
Miss Setterfield stared at Mark sternly, weighing her options. If she said no, Mark’s shrieks would resonate on twice the scale of a banshee’s for weeks on end. Saying yes, however, was simply out of the question, and despite the crazy liberals down in D.C., possibly illegal.
“One week,” she said reluctantly, after a long pause. “One week and then it’s gone. And while it’s here, I don’t want it in my sight. Do we have a deal?”
Mark bobbed his head up and down seriously and ran past his grandmother to the box in the other room.
The next week, Mark predictably spent the larger portion of his day upstairs, talking to the alligator -- whom he had named Jack -- in a voice that lowered to a barely audible whisper when night fell and his grandmother burst through the door, her gray hair a messy tangle and the hall light making them both squint, and demanded he put the alligator back in its box and go straight to bed, mister.
Really, though, Miss Setterfield didn’t mind all the time Mark and Jack spent together. At the very least, it meant more time for her New Age practices, which often consisted of chanting in a darkened room by candlelight in a manner that would have frightened Mark, had he been around to witness it.
Mark fed Jack from a glitzy animal food package that had arrived along with him, pouring it every night into a tiny blue food tin and filling up his water. He threw in a few blueberries on top as well. He hated them, and he confided this to Jack, but had once overheard his grandmother claim a serving a day would make anyone live to ninety.
Although Jack seemed decidedly unwilling to fetch anything that Mark tossed across the room -- instead flicking its tail, annoyed, back and forth, and always watching Mark as though poised to say, in a strangely human voice, “You’re kidding, right?” -- Mark did this anyway, and sometimes fetched it himself to show Jack how it was done.
Soon, however, the week was over, and Mark received a knock on his door that morning. When no one answered, Miss Setterfield walked to the edge of Mark’s bed and shook his shoulders. “Mark,” she whispered. “Mark, get up.”
Mark opened his eyes -- a blue clearer than the sky, still filled with the innocence of childhood -- and, groggily, pressed himself up with his arms.
Miss Setterfield exited without another word, but the tone in her voice and the insistent dread that grew stronger in Mark each day made him know immediately what she was talking about.
When he carried the box downstairs, Mark’s eyes and cheeks were a tomato red. He walked by his grandmother washing blueberries without a word or glance in her direction. The front door slammed shut, and Miss Setterfield put down the bowl of blueberries, placed a hand on her hip, ran the other through her stringy strands of hair, and sighed.
Sunlight splintered through tiny cracks in the looming branches, alighting on Mark’s downcast face. He was deep in the forest out back, vaguely trekking through a path he’d taken months ago and, after a half hour, had at last found it: a silent, still crick, surrounded on all sides by dense foliage. It lay connected to the end of a narrow creek, which fed into a river miles away.
Mark placed the box gently on the leaf-strewn ground and opened it up. Cradling Jack in his arms, he whispered, “This is your home now.” Despite having grown a couple inches in the short time they’d spent together, when the alligator stared up at Mark with cool green eyes, its babyish features were just as conspicuous as they had been a week ago. His concentration camp-thin arms shook forcefully and his chest heaved against Jack as he carried him to the edge of the crick. “Bye, Jack.”
The alligator stared at the crick and then back at Mark hesitantly, then, reluctantly, took a single step into the murky depths of the water. Mark smiled, his lip quivering, when the alligator darted off.
He turned around and padded back down the path. He didn’t see the alligator when, after only a few movements in the water, it sunk straight down to the bottom and didn’t come back up.