All of the sunset had been sipped down beyond the tree line by the time Officer McNamara opened the door to the room where Noah was waiting. He stopped watching for fireflies and looked up at this new policeman, who was clean-shaven and wearing a yellow ID card on a lanyard around his neck.
“Noah Tyler?” said McNamara, looking up from his clipboard.
“I’m going to need you to come with me. My name is Detective McNamara. You look tired. I would have been able to interview you sooner, but your friends took a long time, especially the one with the bandaged leg.”
“Johnny,” asked Noah. He stared up expectantly at McNamara, but the detective was walking too fast to notice.
“Yeah, Johnny,” said McNamara as he double-checked his clipboard and opened the door to a sparsely furnished room. “Here we are. Take a seat right there.”
Noah sat obediently in the cold folding chair. McNamara reclined in the cushioned seat on the opposite side of the table.
“If you’re a detective than why do you wear a regular police uniform?”
McNamara raised his eyebrows and stared up from his clipboard once again.
“Well, Noah, how about you answer my question first? If you’re such a good kid liked your file says, how’d you end up in the interrogation room of the New Hankerton Police Station?” Noah blinked heavily and let his gaze zone off into space.
“I’ll tell you everything exactly as it happened.”
“I’d like that,” said McNamara, resting his chin on his knuckles and smiling wryly. “Why don’t you start about 22 hours ago.”
We were walking down to the swing set by the marsh like we always do, just me, Nadine, Johnny, and Johnny’s girlfriend, Lois. Johnny and me have been best friends with Nadine since we were four years old, but Lois just moved here two years ago. She’s great, but she’s still getting used to Florida, I think. We were walking down to the swings and it was getting dark, but there’s a streetlamp right next to the playground so everything was that plastic orange color. It was bright enough that we couldn’t see the stars, but dark enough that no cars going by could see us drinking. We weren’t drinking a lot, just a six-pack for the four of us. Nadine stole it from her dad. He always has a six-pack in the fridge for when his friends come over even though he never drinks.
For a while we sat around and talked and spit at the can while the girls swung on the swings. Then Johnny and Lois went into the woods to make out or something and me and Nadine just sat on the swings and talked about stuff. We talked for probably half an hour before Johnny and Lois came back with another group of five or so kids from our school. Then some cars pulled up with more kids we kind of know. Someone brought a handle and before we knew it there was sort of a party going on down at the playground. Music was playing from the cars and everything. One drunk girl from Ohio took her clothes off and tried to climb down the bluff and go skinny dipping before her cousin stopped her. I guess she’s not used to having alligators around up in Ohio.
Noah laughed softly before he caught himself and turned pale white. McNamara stopped taking notes and quickly picked up the wastebasket and handed it to Noah, who promptly threw his head into the bucket and vomited.
“I’m sorry,” Noah groaned, “I just forgot—“
“Don’t worry about it,” said McNamara with shake of his head. “So just to make sure I have this right, there was a little party going on at the playground down by the bluff and you and your friends were drunk.”
“No, no, I wasn’t drunk.”
“Look, Noah, I’ll tell you the reason I’m wearing a regular uniform. I’m new to being a detective. I just got promoted two days ago and this is my first case. But having been a police officer doing rounds of New Hankerton for seven years, I know that kids go to the playground bluff to get drunk.”
“I’m telling you I wasn’t drunk. Maybe Johnny and Lois were, a little bit, but Nadine and I never get drunk. That’s the truth.” McNamara bit down on his pen, leaned back in his chair, and examined Noah for a long time before continuing.
“Alright, well, keep telling your story then.”
As it got late, the party thinned out. A lot of kids’ parents were expecting them home and things like that. Eventually there was just ten of us. Nobody was talking. Everyone was either making out or watching the moths and bugs fly into the streetlight. I was pushing Nadine on the swing and the chains were creaking hard like a low whining. It was the only sound until Jerry arrived. No one saw him coming.
He yelled, “What’s up!” and jumped out from behind the slide. Everybody jumped or screamed.
“Screw you, Jerry,” this girl Alice said.
“Yeah, what’s your problem, Jerry?” said her boyfriend, Nick.
“No problem except you,” said Jerry with his annoying grin on his face and his eyes squinted. It was obvious from the first moment he got there that he was messed up. Nick and Alice and the rest left right away, so it was just the four of us and Jerry after that. He watched them go as they all hopped in Alice’s car and drove away, and then finally turned to talk to us.
“My oldest and dreariest friends!” His voice was too loud, and echoed against the trees on the other side of the marsh.
“I think you mean dearest,” said Nadine.
“Nope!” he said happily as he kissed her cheek. “Dreariest and boringest!” Even though we hadn’t been friends in forever and hadn’t talked to him in over a year, Johnny and me each gave Jerry a hug. He dropped out of school when we were sophomores and went to live with his older brother in another town.
“Oh yeah, to run drugs for him, isn’t that right?” said McNamara. He flipped to another page on his clipboard to be sure. “Yep, that’s right, marijuana and cocaine.” Noah was silent until it became apparent that McNamara was waiting for a response.
“We knew he was doing something bad, we just didn’t know what.”
“So you didn’t know that he was back in New Hankerton because he had stolen from his brother?” Shock came over Noah’s face. He shook his head in frightened surprise. “Okay then, go on.”
For a while Jerry just messed around with us. He gave Lois a lot of trouble for not being from Florida. Nadine was sitting on the swing not saying anything, but Jerry wouldn’t leave her alone. He grabbed the swing out from underneath her, and when she finally got up he threw it up and around the bar a couple times so that it was all mangled and wrapped up and no one could use it anymore. I was watching him get ready to do the same thing to the other one when Lois called us over to the bluff.
“Look! Look, everybody! A gator!” She had never seen one before, and she just kept hopping up and down at the edge of the bluff while Johnny held her shoulders and tried to quiet her down. It wasn’t really that big, anyway.
“There’s one over there, too,” Nadine pointed out to us. “They don’t get much bigger than that around here, Lois.” Another three-footer was hanging out in the tall grass. The light was sharper now that it was past midnight and it made the alligators look even more like dinosaurs. The four of us were standing all together looking down at the water for more. I could hear Jerry struggling behind us to get the swing up and over one more time. He was really losing it. I looked over my shoulder, and he finally got it. When he started walking toward us, I could see that he had a bad smile on his face. My whole stomach got cold and Nadine grabbed my wrist and pulled me away from the edge.
“You say some reptiles are here?” Jerry tilted his head at Lois and waited for her to answer. She just nodded and pointed down at the marsh. Jerry looked over the edge and then back at Lois. His smile was even worse now and we could all tell he was really messed up now and he seemed sick. He didn’t stop looking right at Lois, but he reached down to his wristband and pulled out a gun. We all just froze and didn’t say anything. He stepped toward the edge to take a look at the alligators and almost fell, but Johnny caught him.
“Whoopsies,” Jerry said with his smile all wide. He tapped Johnny’s cheek with the gun affectionately and turned back to the marsh. “See you later, alligator!” he yelled, and shot the one on the shore right in the stomach. The other one hid in the grass right away, but its tail was still sticking out of the grass, which was leaning a little in the night wind. Lois whimpered a little, but besides that we were silent.
“See you in a while, alligator!” Jerry shot again, but the second one got away and swam off into the marsh. “Damn it!” He was really angry now, and when Lois started crying he turned around fast and pointed the gun at her, which only made it worse. He wasn’t smiling anymore, and he was about to say something when he stepped wrong and somehow fell backwards off the bluff. He landed in the muck down below, but his leg was twisted underneath him and definitely broken.
“Help me,” he growled up at us. None of us knew what to do, and before he could try to help we all heard a sliding sandy noise from further down the bank. It was the biggest alligator I ever saw or heard of. It was maybe 12 feet long. Jerry could see it coming, but he couldn’t move, so he panicked.
“Help me!” he screamed. He pointed the gun up at us and shot. He hit the streetlamp behind us, so the orange light was gone, but we could still see his outline on the shore. “Help me, you freaks!” he screamed again. Johnny started to make his way down the side of the bluff, but Jerry shot another time and we could tell from Johnny’s yelp that he was hit. We all ran over to him. He couldn’t make it all the way back up, and we all had to grab a part of him and yank him up while he moaned in pain.
“Help me!” We could hear Jerry scrambling in the dark below. When we finally had Johnny safe up on top of the bluff, Jerry screamed the loudest I’ve ever heard someone scream. The alligator had him by the stomach, and took him down into the death roll. None of us knew what to do besides take Johnny to the hospital.
“So let me make sure I understand,” said McNamara folding his arms over his chest. “You had to choose who to save?”
“Yes.” Noah sat perfectly still, and both men waited for the other to talk next. Noah looked at the mirror, which he knew from television shows was a one-way window. McNamara bit his lip.
“I don’t know,” said Noah finally, “But I think we made the right choice. Don’t you think?”
“This room is for you to answer questions, kid,” said McNamara, who put his clipboard facedown on the table and walked out the door.