By MrsMosley <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted October 2007
Summary: The Okefenokee swamp holds enough amazing sights to keep Jimmy and his camera busy for hours, but film can't do justice to everything under the sun.
"I wonder," Jimmy said thoughtfully, "if that's a real alligator."
They both looked down at it, considering. Jimmy had never thought much about what alligators looked like, but this one was kind of handsome in his reptilian way. It was about fifteen feet long, black as coal and looked indestructible. And it was less than ten feet from the toes of Jimmy's boots. Alligator boots. He gulped and took a step backwards.
Lois was less hesitant. She knelt down to get a look that was closer to eye-level and shook her head. "I don't think so. Look how still he is. And aren't alligators green? Besides, we're standing on the steps of the visitor's center," she said, pointing to the wooden sign on the wooden building — lots of brown around here — reading 'Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge'. "They wouldn't let alligators wander through an area where people are so close."
"It's a weird place to put a statue," he replied, "just sitting there on the creek bank without a sign. And we're in a swamp. I don't see any "Alligators: Keep Out" signs around here, do you?"
"I'm sure it's not real, Jimmy." Lois' voice had taken on her 'I-know-what-I'm-talking-about' tone. She stood and turned to face him, grinning. "But there's a way to find out."
He hated it when she got that look in her eye.
"You know, I think I'm just going to let it go," he replied, as he edged down the steps and away from the building.
"Oh, come on, Jimmy, you aren't scared, are you?"
He turned and smiled at her. "Lois, that would have worked six or seven years ago, but I know you too well now. There isn't anything you can say that's going to make me take even one step closer to that animal."
"Statue," she countered.
"Whatever," Jimmy replied cheerfully, confident now that he had increased his distance to twenty feet. He raised his camera and took several shots: the alligator on the creek bank; Detective Henderson and CK several yards to his right, discussing the finer points of canoeing with the boat keeper; Lois touching the alligator's tail —
He pressed the shutter button just as the alligator turned its head and looked her in the eye.
Lois let out a small shriek and jumped back, falling on her behind. She stood and scrambled up the slope, barreling into Jimmy and sending them both to the ground. She immediately sat back up and looked over at the alligator, which had gone back to its statue-like trance.
"Apparently I'm not interesting enough to follow. I'm not sure whether I should be offended by that." She looked over at Jimmy lying on the grass in a fit of laughter and swatted him on the shoulder. "Jimmy, it's not funny!"
"Yeah," he replied, wiping away tears, "it is!" Jimmy knew he was playing with danger, but that had been priceless. He struggled to a sitting position and noticed that she was fighting back a grin herself. He poked her in the ribs and they both collapsed back on the grass, laughing.
They were still there, just getting their breath back, when Bill Henderson appeared over them, scowling. "I didn't bring the Planet along on this little expedition so you could roll around on the ground. Let's go."
Lois made a face at Henderson's back as the two reporters stood and followed him. They stepped onto the small pier just as the boat keeper was telling CK some dangers of the swamp.
"— alligators and water moccasins as long as yer leg. So be careful. Take plenty of water, and we'll see you when you get back." He tipped his hat at them and went to meet the next group.
Jimmy looked down at the two canoes floating in the water. They looked pretty tipsy. They were supposed to ride in these things? He glanced at the boat keeper talking to a bunch of old ladies. He squared his shoulders a bit. If they could do this, he certainly could.
Henderson knelt down on the pier and pulled out a map of the swamp. He took out a red marker and made a bright, bold circle on the paper. "Here's Chesser Island," he said. "The trip out there should take about two hours. But here's the important thing, all of you: I'm in charge."
"Yes, Lane, Lloyd Baxter may be hiding on Chesser Island, and yes, it was your idea. That's why I let you come down here. But I'm in charge."
"Let me! I —"
"Shut up, Lane!"
CK smoothed his hand over Lois' back. She took a deep breath and glowered at Henderson, but she stopped talking.
"And let me remind you for the dozenth time — we're just checking it out. If it looks like he's there, we row back here and get backup. Do not mess this up! You want your story, but I've got an arrest to make, and I'll sacrifice your story in a second to make that happen. Are we clear?"
They all nodded.
"Fine," he said. "Let's go. Lane, you're with me. Kent, Olsen's looking a little green, don't let him fall out of the boat."
"Hey!" Jimmy exclaimed. "I —"
CK gave him a light punch on the arm. "Don't worry, Jim, I won't let you drown."
"I can swim, you know."
"In that?" The men looked down at the water. It was black, the surface so shiny that it looked like an oil slick. Their dark-haired reflections were perfectly clear, wavering with the ripples in the water.
"Well, I'd rather not," the younger man admitted. CK grinned at him as they settled into the boat.
Jimmy picked up his oar and struggled for several seconds to get it pointed in the right direction. Why were the darn paddles so big when the boat was so small?
"You ok up there, Jim?" CK asked from the back of the canoe. "We're losing our friends."
Jimmy looked up to see that Lois and Henderson were already several yards ahead. He nodded as he finally got the right end of the oar into the water.
"Yeah, I'm good. Let's go." He pushed his oar through the inky liquid below them and the craft pulled smoothly away from the dock.
The scenery was unlike any that Jimmy had seen before, and he quickly discovered that he couldn't paddle and take photos at the same time. After he had to plunge his hand into the creek to rescue his oar the second time — the heron had been right there, so close he could touch it, he'd had to take the photo! — CK announced that he had the paddling under control, so Jimmy happily turned his attention to keeping his camera on the scenery.
But, for the first time, he wasn't satisfied with the scene in his viewfinder. There simply wasn't a way of getting the sky, the water, the trees and the wildlife all in one shot. After several frustrated attempts, he resigned himself to limiting his photos to the animals and the lush greenery. There was no way to convey to the outside world the entire scope of what he was seeing.
Aside from the occasional, 'Oh man, did you see that?!' they traveled up the river trail in an unspoken but mutually agreed silence. In Metropolis, the sounds were overwhelming — car horns and screeching brakes, people yelling and fire sirens. But here there was only exquisite quiet, a quiet that allowed Jimmy to hear things that he had never heard before, like the ribbit of a bullfrog and the soft swoosh of the oar moving through the water.
Henderson's voice, when it came, was startling, breaking the silence they had grown accustomed to. "We should be there soon. That little island with the trees looks solid, let's stop there for a minute. I have to see a man about a horse."
"Ok, old man," Lois replied. Henderson gave her a look, but didn't reply. The two of them were good friends, but fronts must be maintained.
The group paddled up to the island and held on to handy tree trunks to prevent the current from carrying them away. Henderson hopped out and disappeared into the thicket.
Lois turned to the men. "Did you see the bear?" she asked.
"No," CK replied. "How far back was it?"
"About fifteen minutes," she replied. "It was gorgeous, huge and black, but not an animal I'd want to meet face to face."
"I can't believe I missed that!" Jimmy exclaimed. "I think I got a lot of great pictures so far but a bear would have been—" He stopped speaking and turned his head, listening. "What was that?"
Lois shook her head. "I didn't hear anything," she replied.
CK looked around. "I heard it," he said. "It sounded a little like a dog growling, but the pitch wasn't quite right." The three friends turned to look at the island, but nothing was there.
Jimmy shrugged at them, dismissing the thought as he turned in his seat. He was about to return to the subject of the camera-shy bear when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something break through the water and latch on to CK's arm.
Jimmy felt like his stomach had dropped through the floor of the canoe, and he started to shake. A detached part of his brain thought, 'Interesting, I'm usually better in a crisis than this.' But then the rest of his mind caught up, and he leapt to his feet.
CK's face had gone pale as he pried at the huge reptile's mouth, trying to open the animal's jaw. The violence of their struggle caused the canoe to tip precariously. Jimmy picked up an oar and reached to help his friend, but Lois blocked his body and, with surprising strength, pulled him into her canoe, almost sending them both into the water.
"Lois, what are you doing? We have to help him!" He couldn't control the thread of panic in his voice. Lois placed her hands on either side of his face and forced him to look at her.
"Jimmy, Clark will be fine," she said. He tried to push her away, but her grip strengthened almost to the point of pain. "Look at me! Let him handle it."
The authority in her voice was compelling. Jimmy stopped fighting her and took a deep breath. They heard a splash and turned to see Clark sitting alone in the canoe several feet away.
Jimmy watched in a daze as Clark calmly rolled up the torn sleeve of his flannel shirt and then did the same with a sleeve of blue fabric lying underneath. When the blue fabric was above his elbow, he unrolled the flannel again and buttoned it at his wrist. The skin of his forearm showed clearly through the tears in the fabric.
His skin was perfectly sound. There was no blood. There was hardly even any dirt.
Jimmy fell back onto the canoe seat and watched as Clark picked up an oar and made his way back to them. The trees behind them on the island rustled a bit and Henderson called out to Jimmy to get back in his own canoe, but the man's voice was hazy, like the sound was reaching him through a layer of syrup. Clark's canoe bumped up against Lois's and still Jimmy just stared at him.
"Jim." Clark held out his hand, the hand attached to the arm that should have been dripping with blood. Jimmy couldn't move. Surely an alligator hadn't just attacked Clark, he thought. Otherwise he would be bleeding to death.
"Olsen, I appreciate you keeping my seat warm, but we've got to get going. Move!" Jimmy turned his head to look up at Henderson. Had he been gone minutes or hours?
"Kent, what happened to your shirt?" Clark didn't answer, and Lois murmured something about a tree branch.
"Jimmy," Clark repeated, his hand still held out to his friend. This time the younger man took it and stood, stepping into their canoe. Clark motioned for Henderson and Lois to take the lead. Jimmy could feel Lois's eyes on him as her canoe slid past, but he didn't look up to meet her gaze.
Instead, he looked down into the water at his image reflected back to him. He reached out to touch a lily pad floating by but jerked his hand back when he remembered the alligator. Where had it gone?
Clark picked up the oars and set the small boat in motion. They left the shade of the trees, and the rays of the sun bouncing off the water became too much for Jimmy's eyes. He shut them and buried his face in his hands, elbows on his knees, trying to think about this logically.
Had Clark really been attacked by an alligator?
That had been a crazy two minutes, but he remembered it clearly. He wasn't imagining things.
Clark hadn't been hurt. Why?
Maybe he was just lucky.
Perhaps the alligator wasn't able to hurt him.
That made even less sense. There was no way a predator like an alligator would be unable to hurt a relatively fragile being like a human.
'Maybe Clark's not human,' a voice in his head whispered.
With a jolt something Jimmy had seen a few minutes earlier came back to him accompanied by a new friend, understanding.
Clark was wearing something blue under his clothes.
Jimmy raised his head and looked at Clark. The other man looked back at him with a steady gaze.
This was his best friend. The man whose wife he loved as a sister and whose son he had promised to protect if his parents were unable to do so. He trusted him.
Jimmy raised his eyebrows at him, and Clark nodded.
A cascade of memories flowed over Jimmy: late night B-movies, bomb threats, playing poker on stakeouts, and one particularly disturbing day at Veda Doodsen's house when he had been just minutes from death. All those years, and the world's greatest protector had been sitting right next to him, was in fact sitting next to him now, in a canoe in a backwoods swamp in Georgia.
He had taken thousands of pictures of the hero in red and blue and hundreds of his friend in the suits and wild ties, but he wasn't sure he had ever really seen either of them until that moment.
Jimmy raised his camera and looked through the lens at Clark, who was still watching him patiently. He spent several moments adjusting the settings, trying to set the balance that would capture a portrait showing both sides of the man, but he couldn't find it. He lowered his camera and studied his friend for another moment.
Some things were too big for film.
Jimmy returned CK's nod and smiled. "Well," he said, "at least I got one of Lois falling on her butt."
CK grinned. "Hey, I may want a copy of that one for the Christmas cards."
The sound of their laughter echoed through the swamp.
This was written as a ficathon story for Carol Malo. Carol wanted her story to include: 1. atmosphere, 2. a cameo Bill Henderson appearance, and 3. a swamp. It was a great challenge, and the end result is something I never would have come up with unprompted, so thank you, Carol!
I also owe thanks to Caroline K. for beta reading for me, for suggesting the title, and for coming up with a much better ending than I did.
Even though he'll never read this, I have to offer my gratitude to my husband for discussing this story with me ad nauseum on our evening walks for the last month. The man has the patience of a saint.
I love feedback! Feel free to email your thoughts to me at email@example.com.