There’s no room in the red plastic canoe to lie down, so JC stretches out on a grassy patch next to the water while he waits. The sun is right overhead, and even though the light is filtering down through oak leaves and palm fronds and a nice breeze is cooling his sticky skin, he feels stunned and heavy, like he can’t keep his eyes open. Probably it’s because Chris curls up every day around this time.
“Come on, JC,” he says, patting the bed or the floor or the ground or the seat of the canoe. “Some of us need our beauty rest. Hey, no offense.”
Insects are humming in the underbrush bordering the little clearing, so JC hums a drowsy chorus with them. Sleep is not far off, and the world is already shifting and changing around him, fading away. He can hear something splashing in the river water, and smiles at the wash of blues and greens behind his eyes, the comfort spreading throughout his body. Something else rustles in the grass near him and he has to struggle for a long time to open his eyes.
Oh, he thinks dimly. An alligator.
Scaly elbows bend under the weight of a thick torso, and a long muscular tail trails into the shallow water at the river’s edge. Big teeth glint in the sunlight. Three people have died in the area in the last few weeks, JC knows, their bodies found in bloody pieces in retention ponds or canals. He’s in danger.
He shivers and catlike eyes track the movement. The insects have gone silent around them, JC realizes, and the world feels like it’s poised, watching and waiting. The splashing in the water has subsided.
The alligator charges, quick as lightning, and the river erupts, and JC rolls out of the way.
When he resurfaces from behind the canoe, JC can see the alligator hanging limp, drops of blood rolling off its snout, and the last mighty shake of its body, how it lofts into the trees, tossed aside.
“Took you long enough,” JC murmurs, and crawls back into the sunlight and sprawls out on the patch of grass.
Something cool and moist winds around his ankle, a quick touch.
“I could have been eaten.”
Twisty tongue-tips wander across JC’s belly and curve along the fly of his shorts, poking and probing. “Hey!” JC yelps, convulsing and clutching himself. “Tickles, you bastard.”
He grabs a damp tip and yanks, wrapping it around his hand and wrist until Chris hisses, a humid bath of air that washes over JC’s entire body. JC lets go, and the tongue-tips curl back into Chris’s wide fringed mouth.
“You about ready?”
Chris moans, an unearthly sweet song that drives the birds from the trees, yet still manages to sound like grumbling. JC laughs.
“Fine, jeez. Wake me up when you’re through fucking around.”
JC falls back into drowsiness easily, listening as Chris claws chunks out of the bank, covering his face as bits of dirt patter onto the grass around him. Chris will writhe around in the moist earth until he’s coated, then surge up into the air over the river to shake out his iridescent scales. After that, he’ll rest on the river bottom, waves of displaced water or a few bubbles popping at the surface the only marks of his presence, until JC shouts at him to come on. Eventually, he’ll wade back out of the river to put his clothes back on.
JC doesn’t think he’ll let him. He almost died this time. Chris totally owes him.
He brushes the dirt from his body and finger-combs his hair, then turns over onto his belly, pushing his face into the warm grass, and allows sleep to flow through him.