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King of the Everglades

I do not like alligators. Especially when they’re following my canoe.

Somehow, my uncle Steve convinced Mom that he should take my little sister and me to the Everglades—at night.

“Y’all are on vacation,” he’d said. “The kids need some excitement!”

“We could go back to the beach,” I’d suggested.

“Bah,” Uncle Steve had scoffed. “The scariest thing you’ll see at the beach is a sunburn.”

I was surprised Mom let us go. I think she wanted me to spend “guy time” with my uncle. Ever since Dad died, Mom worried Gracie and I didn’t have a masculine influence in our lives. Uncle Steve was so masculine, his mustache had a mustache.

The Monster’s Lair
Uncle Steve strapped a headlamp to my cap. “You won’t want to miss a single critter, Theo,” he said, giving me a wink.

I wonder how far I can paddle with my eyes closed, I thought.

We launched our canoe into the darkest night—and the blackest water I’d ever seen. I paddled up front. Gracie took the middle seat, while Uncle Steve steered from the back. Thirty minutes after we’d left the shore, Uncle Steve stopped paddling.

“Welcome to the Everglades, the most dangerous place on Earth,” he whispered. He was sweating even in the cool night air. “Keep your fingers out of the water. The gators snack ’em like potato chips.”

I think he was just trying to scare us a little. And it was working.

We floated in the dark, not speaking a word. But I could hear things moving. Eating. Behind me, Gracie breathed hard.

Uncle Steve leaned forward. “I call this spot The Monster’s Lair. It’s crawling with some of the biggest, meanest gators in Florida.”

“I want to go home,” Gracie whimpered.

Uncle Steve snickered. “Soon enough. But first, I want to show you how gator eyes light up at night.”

He ducked his head, sweeping the light over the water’s surface. Suddenly, he stopped. “There,” he whispered. “You see ’em?”

Four—no, make that five—pairs of eyes reflected back at us with an eerie orange glow.

“When the beam hits a gator’s eyes just right, it looks like their skulls are full of molten lava,” Uncle Steve explained with a grin.

“Get me outta here!” Gracie shrieked.

I don’t always agree with my sister, but I totally did this time. I splashed my paddle into the water, and the spooky eyes disappeared.

“Aww, the noise scared ’em off,” Uncle Steve grumbled.

As we paddled deeper into the Everglades, my foot brushed against something strange. I looked down and saw two candy bars. Finally, a nice surprise, I thought. I handed one to Gracie and we both ate quietly.

“You know who the King of the Everglades is?” Uncle Steve asked. “The one who’s really in control out here?”

I knew what Mom had taught me. “Jesus?” I said, with my mouth full.

Uncle Steve laughed. “Good answer, but this isn’t Sunday School. Out here, I’m the king.” He put his hand on Gracie’s shoulder. “I’ve taken thousands of guests into the swamp and never lost so much as a toenail. As long as you’re with me, you two are perfectly safe.”

Top of the Food Chain
“Don’t you worry about gators,” Uncle Steve said as we kept rowing. “The Everglades is home to deadly snakes too: pythons, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes. Anacondas thicker than a palm tree’s trunk.”

Somehow, he steered us back to The Monster’s Lair without us noticing. The alligators were closer now. And big.

“They look at us like we’re their dinner,” I said.

Uncle Steve shook his head. “We’re in a boat, and that puts us at the top of the food chain out here.”

“But what if—”

“As long as we stay in the canoe, we’re fine,” Uncle Steve insisted. “You thinkin’ of taking a swim, Theo?”

I shook my head.

“Whoo! Check out the chompers on those beasts,” Uncle Steve said, leaning close to Gracie.

The gator’s teeth looked yellow—and absolutely wicked. With the flick of its tail, it swam right toward us.

“It’s coming closer!” Gracie screamed.

“Just got to show ’em who’s boss,” Uncle Steve said. He raised his paddle and slapped the gator over and over. The gator didn’t look one bit scared, but it drifted below the surface of the black waters.

Sweat rolled off of Uncle Steve now. His upper body weaved side to side, as if our canoe had been rocked by waves. But the water was absolutely still.

“Uncle Steve, are you OK?” I asked.

“The king… is fine,” he wheezed, paddling a few strokes. “I haven’t eaten much today. Was gonna get you kids some gator bits later. I guess my blood sugar’s a little low, that’s all.”

“Huh?” Gracie asked.

“Uncle Steve is a diabetic, like Mom,” I told her. “You know how she sometimes feels weak between meals?”

“I’ll bounce back,” Uncle Steve said. “Just need a snack. Theo, can you reach under your seat and grab my candy stash?”

Oh, no. I reached down but didn’t find any more candy.

“We ate them,” I said. “I’m sorry. We didn’t know what they were for.”

Gracie reached back and touched Uncle Steve’s hand. “He feels cold. Clammy.”

I’d seen my mom like this once. She’d nearly died, and it scared me.

“I shoulda brought… extra jerky… or sumpin.” Uncle Steve’s voice sounded woozy.

“We have to get you food now,” I said. “Otherwise, you could slip into a diabetic coma.”

Uncle Steve sloppily waved me off, nearly tipping the canoe. “I’m… O-K,” he slurred.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a second gator gliding toward the canoe.

Uncle Steve took a swing, but there was no power behind it. “Just gotta… show ’em,” he mumbled.

The paddle dropped from his hands as the King of the Everglades slumped off his throne. He dropped face-first into the canoe with a sickening thud.

Gracie shook him. “Uncle Steve, get up!”

But he didn’t open his eyes. His face looked pale, and one hand hung limp in the dark water.

Greater Than Gators
“Theo!” Gracie pointed. An alligator torpedoed toward Uncle Steve’s submerged hand.

I crawled past Gracie, trying not to tip the canoe. I yanked his hand out of the water just in time.

The gator passed under the canoe. The bony ridges on its back thumped against the underside, sending vibrations through the entire boat.

Gracie covered her ears and screamed. “We’ve got to get out of here!”

The other gators were moving in, like they sensed Uncle Steve was no longer in control—if he ever was in the first place.

“Jesus, help us!” I yelled. I knew He heard me, even if I whispered, but I shouted as loud as I could. I wasn’t taking any chances. “Please show these gators You made that You’re the only King. Make them leave us alone!”

We couldn’t just sit here in The Monster’s Lair. “Move to the front of the canoe, Gracie,” I said. “We need to even out the weight.”

The back lip of the canoe hung inches above the water.

Gracie eased herself forward, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

She handed me the only paddle we had left. Uncle Steve’s paddle was still in the water, with a nasty looking gator hanging close. It waited for me to reach out.

No chance.

I paddled hard, switching from side to side like Uncle Steve had taught me to keep the canoe going straight. I didn’t dare look back.

For some crazy reason, an old hymn popped in my head. I could only remember a few lines, but I sang out loud, in rhythm with every stroke:

This is my Father’s world
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet.

Yeah. God ruled. Exactly what I needed to remember. Not Uncle Steve. And definitely not me. God was in control.

Soon Gracie started singing too. I could tell she still felt scared, but she stopped crying.

When my voice went hoarse, I finally looked back. No glowing eyes, not one pair.

“They’re gone, Gracie!” I shouted.

She gave me a shaky smile. “Maybe they don’t like your singing.”

Or the real King showed ’em who’s boss, I thought. I looked up, my headlamp casting shadows in the cypress trees. “Thank You, Jesus.”

Lights in the Dark
I’m not sure how long I paddled in that oily black water. We passed endless clumps of saw grass. Creepy Spanish moss hung overhead, casting strange shadows.

“Look!” Gracie pointed. “A light!”

I paddled right for it. As we got closer, we heard the rumble of an airboat and several men laughing. They’d been out for some late-night fishing.

“Please help,” I cried. “My uncle’s in shock.”

The men loaded Uncle Steve into their airboat and helped us climb aboard. They gave him some orange juice, which helped. Then we raced to the nearest hospital.

As the swamp whipped past us, I saw the fiery glow of gator eyes. Uncle Steve had been right about one thing: The Everglades was a dangerous place.

I gave Gracie a big hug, and whispered in her ear, “Next time Uncle Steve wants to show us gators, we’re going to the zoo.”

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