“You know what they call this stretch of the interstate? Alligator alley. Doesn’t that just bounce? Alligator alley. That’s like the name of a weather girl. ‘Alligator Allie and News Copter 5!’” he joked.
She shook her head and tucked her shoulder into the gap between the passenger seat and the door.
“Me and my friends used to drive this way in high school,” he said, “it’s fucking scary, right? We loved scaring each other. Here—”
He flicked the headlights off.
She let out a noise and hit his arm.
“That’s not funny,” she said, laughing.
He grinned and turned the lights back on. “You see what I mean?”
She rolled her eyes. He hit the window switch and rolled the rear passenger window down, letting a warm, humid breeze roll into the car. She pressed her forehead to the cool glass of the window.
“So what’s out there?”
“Right now? Nothing.” He rolled the window up again because the windshield was getting cloudy with moisture. “Just everglades. Swamps.”
They drove on in silence for a few miles. No cars passed them, coming or going.
He chuckled a little. “Hey, when I was in high school, there was—”
The headlights illuminated a heap next to the highway. As the car drew closer, they were able to pick details out in the headlights. A tan Datsun, stopped without emergency lights.
“What the…” he muttered under his breath. He put on the signal.
“What are you doing?”
“Just seeing. Don’t worry.” He put the car in park, unbuckled himself, and got out. He left the door open behind him.
Her eyes followed him to the car, saw him peer into the driver’s window with his hands cupped around his face.
There was the sound of a branch breaking.
She turned and looked out the open driver’s side door. It seemed like she should have been able to see a few details of the opposite side of the road, of the trees and the swamp beyond, but all that was there to see was a wall of black. By the time she looked back at the Datsun, he had gone around the far side. The car rocked as he hunched by the passenger door. Once, twice.
She almost called for him, but the sound backed up in her throat like phlegm.
He walked back to their car. Only, instead of going around the front, cutting through the headlights, he went around the back of the car. She tracked him through the mirrors.
“What was it?” she asked as he got back in.
He kept his face turned away from her as he buckled, waiting until the car was rolling to pull his leg in and finally close the door.
“Oh,” he said, “nothing.”
The silence was thick in the car. There was something she felt she needed to ask, but couldn’t put it into words. He was humming aimlessly, something that rumbled low in his throat.
“Anyway—what was I saying?”
She grabbed at this invitation to return to normality. “When you were growing up?”
“Oh yeah.” He kept his face at a three-quarter turn away from her, but even so she could see his cheek stretch as he smiled wide.
“When I was growing up, there was something they called the Alligator Man. He used to hunt people along this here highway. Stalk people nice and slow. Nobody’s really sure he was a man anyway. Nobody saw him and lived.” He cackled a little.
She folded her arms. “Nevermind. I don’t care anymore.”
He went on regardless. His voice had become creaky and pitched low in his throat, like he was putting on a voice to scare her.
“They called him the Alligator Man ‘cause of what he’d do. He’d take you, and he’d stash you somewhere underwater. To soften you up. Just like a ‘gator. They would find people with chunks missing, all swollen with swampwater.”
She sank down further in her seat. “Stop it. You’re not funny.”
He went on, cadence of his voice smooth and even. “He was never caught, like I say. Just trawled up and down this stretch of highway, up and down. But do you know why they really called him the Alligator Man?”
She didn’t answer.
He drove on, rolling down all the windows so the wet, warm air invaded every corner of the car.
“Why?” she whispered.
“Because,” he said, teasing the word out nice and long, “because he acted like an alligator. You ever seen an alligator hunt?”
His voice had dropped lower with each passing phrase. She tried leaning forward to see his face, but he shut off the dashboard lights.
“No,” she admitted.
“An alligator likes to lie nice and still on the water. That way it looks like a log or something harmless. Right up until it’s ready, it’s still as a stick. Alligator Man’s like that. Only, he don’t look like a log or a stick.”
His accent, which had been nearly extinct when they met, was oozing full and thick from his throat.
“He look like somethin’ harmless. Somethin’ folk reco’nize. So they let him get nice and close.”
He put on the signal. The car slowed as it bumped onto the red dirt of the shoulder. She looked around.
“Why are you stopping?”
“This is where we stop.”
He shut off the car, the headlights, everything, and turned around in the seat to face her. She couldn’t make out his face or any features, the night was so dark.
She held her phone up, finger hovering over the flashlight app.
“Are you sure you wanna do that?” he asked. His voice was a low rumble in his chest now, like scales dragging across something as they slipped into the water.
She turned on the light.
It was the last thing she ever did.