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The Refuge

Twelve-year-old Will Kennedy discovers something bigger than a box turtle at the Refuge



Will Kennedy had an hour to kill before dinner. His family was on their vacation in Sanibel Island, a small seaside town on the southwest coast of Florida. They’ve been coming to Brody’s Bayside Cottages for the past twelve years, enjoying the natural sights and sounds of an unspoiled coastal community. Will, turning thirteen in a month, was eager to try out his new mountain bike, an early birthday present from his parents.

“Mom, dad, can I take the bike out for a ride today?” he asked, optimistically. The Kennedy family had arrived two days ago, but Will still hadn’t tried out his sparkling tangerine orange mountain bike.

“I’m starting the burgers in about an hour,” replied Dad, who’d just finished up a kayaking trip in Sanibel Bay, zigzagging in and out of mangrove estuaries with his wife Andrea of fifteen years. Will’s mom took off her water sandals, pouring out sand and bits of seashells. She stretched out on the front step of their cabin overlooking the pristine water landscape.

“You want cheese on yours?” asked Dad.

“Of course,” said Will. “Cheddar if we have it, with onions please! Do we have any pickles?”

“I think so,” replied Dad. “Man, it’s still roasting out; que calor!” He wiped his perspiring brow with a cool towel.

All three sat in the front screened porch of their two-bedroom cottage; the ceiling fan set at half-speed. Will’s dad popped open a couple of freezer chilled Red Stripe beers for he and his wife. “In a few years Will; cheers dear.” Will finished off a bottle of orange flavored Gatorade.

“Take a bottle of water with you; it’s hot, and don’t go too far, okay? Oh, and bring your cell phone just in case.” said Mom, kicking back in a lounge chair draped with a yellow and blue beach towel. Will’s head was spinning. All he wanted to do was go for a quick ride on his new bike.

“And remember to always wear your helmet, okay?” said Dad, wearing a straw hat; his face already incurring a patented facial suntan around his sunglasses. His dad liked to point out when he was growing up, he and his friends never wore helmets and yet, somehow survived childhood. Sometimes, Will wished he’d grown up in the 1970’s so he wouldn't have had to deal with the prevailing over-the-top protective mentality of today’s helicopter-hovering parents. But since there was no Internet back then, Will made the sacrifice and strapped the helmet on.

“I’ll be fine guys,” said Will, understanding his parent’s concern, but not wanting to be treated as a kid anymore. After all, Will Kennedy was about to become a teenager in exactly twenty-nine days.

Will set off on his trek in fifth gear, figuring he’d ride steady for about forty-five minutes, stop off for a water break; maybe even do some sightseeing up close and personal, and return back in time for grilled burgers. Six years ago, the town of Sanibel Island installed a bike path for locals and omnipresent vacationers; mostly for the latter. The winding trail ran parallel along the seven-mile stretch of road leading from the tip of the island to the main intersection in the touristy part of town; the place where tourists bought t-shirts and cheapo souvenirs.

The stretch of road on each side was filled with sabal and fan palm trees. Red mangroves intertwined with the shallow brackish waters; the black and white variety preferring dry land. Florida scrub filled in open spaces, providing cover for native Florida wildlife, an assortment of birds, raccoons, bobcats, and even on ultra-rare occasions, the Florida panther. Most of the bike path baked in the sun. A few locations along the way offered only morsels of shade.

Will shifted to a lighter gear, a little tired already from the blazing heat and humidity. July was always a brutal time temperature-wise to visit southwest Florida, but the hotel rates were cheaper. On some occasions, when the weather actually cooperated, cool gulf breezes pushed the humidity inland. Today was not one of those days.

Will passed the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, a quirky wood-framed building featuring a giant clam painted in pastel blue and green at the entrance. The fountain churning water inside the gaping shell was littered with small change. Will knew he’d already gone two miles; pretty fast he calculated. He pulled over, spotting a pair of sabal palms providing respectable shade. The tween drank almost half the contents quickly, even pouring a few drops on his face. Looking up, he watched a dozen pelicans fly in the direction of the Gulf of Mexico; not a bad place to be, Will thought.

Will hopped on his bike again and resumed his journey. A dangling branch from a large sea grape tree spilled onto the bike path, blocking the lane. Will rode around the obstacle, slightly irked.

Farther up, about half a mile was the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a place the Kennedy family had visited on many occasions, mostly by car. Will never saw much there; other than a few variety of birds and the same solitary six-foot alligator that hung out by a weathered dock near the refuge exit. One time, three years ago, Will’s family decided to walk the trail, thinking it would be a nice change of pace. They were wrong. Later that day, and forever more, it would simply be known as the “death march.”

Will remembered a water fountain inside the exhibit hall, the one thing he actually liked about the refuge. It had some interesting historical information and displays, a gift shop with books, nature-themed stuffed animals, and tee-shirts, but most importantly, it was air-conditioned! Will saw a thick, gnarled rope with a sign stating the refuge was closed – Absolutely no entry after seven in the evening. He noticed an old jeep parked behind the exhibit hall that gave him hope it was still open. He picked up his bike and hurdled the barrier, then peddled over to the shaded entrance. Will parked his bike and jogged up the recycled plastic steps to the double sliding glass door which, unfortunately, was locked. All the lights were out; nothing but the remaining sun shining through the dozen skylights from above. “Rats,” said the twelve-year-old.”

Will walked over to his bike, looking around. Near a green plastic garbage can he spotted a pair of raccoons, rummaging for food. A black racer snake darted from the warmed parking lot surface into nearby brush. The dusk sun still cut through the orchard of towering sea grapes; some of the rounded dead leaves scattered around the grounds. Will took a quick sip of water, trying his best to conserve what was left. He got on his bike and quietly peddled towards the exit then glanced back at the refuge entrance, a yellow plastic-coated chain hooked up from one side of the trail to the other. A bright orange sign hung in the middle displaying park hours. On the left, a green plastic donation box with a slit opening hung from a wood pole, standing at car level. Will reached into his tan khaki shorts and produced a dollar bill, placing it in through the narrow slot. If he was going to sneak in the refuge after closing, at least he wouldn’t feel too guilty about it.

Will guided his bike around the chain and mounted up again, peddling leisurely. It was the first time he’d traveled alone on the familiar trail, a new experience for the tween. The hot summer sun was settling in nicely behind clouds, no-seems and mosquitoes buzzed annoyingly around Will’s ears, but not as bad as he thought. Usually the mosquitos attacked tourists like piranhas.

There was something exhilarating about riding alone after hours. Cruising through the unspoiled natural refuge at dusk brought a new perspective to the youngster. Watching the gentle setting sun reflecting off the mangrove tidal estuary was breathtaking. Great blue herons patiently tiptoed in the shallow, brackish water, hunting for fish with their pointed, lethal beaks. Roseate spoonbills slashed back and forth with their flattened bills searching for small fish and crustaceans, their vibrant pink feathers beautifully reflecting off the water.

Will wished he’d brought his camera. When he was a little younger, he questioned his parents why photographers would want to spend days on end photographing birds. Big deal he thought. Now he understood. He could snap some pictures with his cell phone alright, but the picture quality wasn’t too great.

Halfway through the trail, Will reached a simple, two-story, wood-framed observation deck. Rays of sunlight shot through the wood beams, creating skeletal light. A nearby water fountain was a welcomed relief for the tween. Will pressed the lever, letting it run for a few seconds to get cold. He took a drink, but the water had a peculiar taste and was still room temperature. “Ugh.”

“At least it’s water,” Will said, taking a heavy gulp then splashing water on his sweat-soaked face. He pooled his hands and wetted his course-curly brown hair, water dripping onto his light blue Mucky Mackerel restaurant tee-shirt. He parked his bike near the base of the front steps, partially hidden from the road. Will strode up the steps, reaching the top quickly. He sat on the bench to rest for a moment then took out his phone to call his parents, letting them he’d be home in a half-hour or so. No reception. No biggie, he thought to himself. He’d be home soon anyway.

He stood up and stretched a little, strolling over to the wood railing and peered out over the panoramic view. It could have been a scene straight out of Jurassic Park minus the dinosaurs, of course. He savored a freshly caught breeze; the distinctive stiff salt flavor of mangroves permeated the air.

“That was strange,” thought Will, noticing a station wagon-sized wake appear out of nowhere in the middle of the tranquil water. Birds scattered in every direction. Will knew currents are normally quite mild in estuaries which made this one stand out significantly. The boy scratched his head and shifted over to the viewfinder to get a detailed look.

“Where are you,” Will asked, thinking it could be an alligator, “Or maybe a big crocodile!” he hoped. Will had just watched a pair of cool killer croc films with friends, so maybe life could imitate art. His excitement quickly turned to dread. “No, I don’t want that!” A whole bunch of people got eaten in those films.

He looked up again, scanning the estuary. Nothing – hold on, the tween spotted the churning waters again. Will went back to the viewfinder, focusing on the specific spot.

There, he saw an eye, big and slanted like a gator. “Cool,” said Will, who turned back as the sound of a car approached. “Oh no.”

A two-door black pickup truck drove up the gravel and dirt road towing a smallish U-Haul trailer behind, the top covered up with a gray tarp. The pickup stopped a few feet past the lookout. Will crouched down, begging not to be seen. The man, dressed in long olive-green khaki pants and cream-white long-sleeved mock-tee, got out of the truck and walked over to the trailer. He appeared to be an employee from the refuge. In fact, Will recognized the man from previous visits to the exhibit hall. In his mid-late fifties, the fit man stood a shade over six feet tall. He had long peppered hair in back wore a wide-brimmed baggy red hat and tan hiking boots. He untied the rope holding down the tarp then pulled it back, making a loud, ruffling sound. Will’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets.

Lined up in rows like fleshy folders were huge sides of beef, something you’d see Rocky Balboa tenderizing with his fists. The man took out a sharp, heavy-duty pitchfork and pierced the slabs of meat.

“What the hell is that for,” Will said in a whisper, as he remained crouched down in a corner. The boy turned his head toward the sound of thrashing water, and a deep, resonating hiss.

The thing began to surface, nearly the size a school bus and prehistoric-looking, like a . . .

“A Dinosaur?” Will was stunned, not to mention scared out of his mind. He quickly turned to the other side of the unpaved road only to see another creature, exactly the same as the other one only a bit smaller. Will wished he could disappear and return to the cottage, eating burgers lathered in ketchup on the porch. But no, he was present, now staring at two horrific creatures, both over twenty-five feet in length, with dark green plated skin, claws, tails, and gleaming white teeth. The legs were a bit longer than a crocodile’s, enabling it to hoist their study frame higher off the ground. The last time Will peed in his pants was at the tender age of four, jumping into a mountainous leaf pile for hours in the back yard. He was young, a rookie mistake – but this time? He did his best not to.

The creatures lurched out of the water causing the ground to shake. The park ranger hollered, then heaved an animal carcass to each side of the road. The creatures calmly and methodically, grabbed the meat and devoured it. The sound of crunching bones crackled in the early evening sky. He repeated the feeding process four more times. Will clutched his cellphone with his sweaty hands, but it slipped out of his grasp. It fell to the ground, hitting the observation tower’s concrete base. The noise riled the creatures, especially the larger one, who lifted up its head and glared over to the tower, squinting.

Will hunched over even more, his head between his knees, praying. A voice called out.

“Who’s up there?” the man asked with a strong hint of irritation in his voice. Will kept his head down, not moving a muscle. The creatures followed the man’s eyes looking at the observation tower. Sweat poured from Will’s face, dropping onto the wood. He was scared to death. The boy heard movement and then felt a hot breeze on the top of his head. The smell was nauseating. Will turned his head ever so slightly. He shifted his eyes, now almost in tears.

The creature glared at the boy and bellowed, causing Will to scurry back like a crab, screaming. The creature, with its crocodile-like appearance, stuck its head through the observation deck railing, cracking two beams of wood. It moved closer to the boy. The smaller creature preferred munching on the slab of beef. The bold voice called out again, “No! Come back here Ralph!” The creature, still staring at Will, retreated ever so slowly; the teen dropped to his knees quivering in horror.

“Ralph?” Who the hell is Ralph?” Will asked himself, frightened.

“Son, come down here right now,” said the man, firmly but controlled. Will stood up on his wobbly legs and staggered downstairs, clutching the handrail like his life depended on it. He reached the bottom, staring as the beasts finished off the rest of the carcasses.

“You’re not supposed to be here son; can’t you read?”

“Uh . . . yes sir,” stammered Will, unable to peel his gazing eyes away from the two creatures.

“You mean you can’t read or you know you’re not supposed to be here?”

“Uh . . . the last one you said -- sir.” said Will, still standing on the bottom step of the lookout tower, still clutching the guardrail.

“Come out son, I don’t bite, but they do,” he said with a grin.

“Are you . . . gonna feed me . . . to them?” asked Will, his throat completely dry.

“Don’t be stupid son – they’re all nice and full now,” said the man, with a wink. “You do realize this needs to be kept hush-hush, do you understand me?” Will nodded.

“Uh . . . what are they,” the tween asked, still paralyzed in fear.

“Dinosaur of some sort – closely related to today’s big crocs. Thought they were dimetrodons minus the sail on their backs. I discovered these two almost thirty years ago when I first started here,” said the man, his tone not nearly as stern as before.

“One evening I was closing everything up when I discovered my favorite sunglasses were missing. I remembered taking them off when I was doing a tour at this very tower. Well, I went back to get ‘um and spotted the smaller one sunning itself in the shallows, just hanging out.”

“But it didn’t try to eat you?” asked Will, the whole moment totally surreal.

“To be honest son; by the way I’m Jeff Blake, park ranger extraordinaire. And what is your name?”

“Will sir, Will Kennedy. My family and I have been coming here for years.”

“WeIl, Will,” said the park ranger, “Well Will, that’s kinda funny, don’t you think?” repeating the line with laughter. Will offered up a weak smile.

“I almost pooped my pants when I saw it; couldn’t believe it at first, of course. We made eye contact and it winked at me, I swear to God it winked at me.

“And then?” asked Will, intently.

I waved back. Later I went home and polished off a good bottle of Argentine red wine – Mendoza region, remember that Will when you’re able to drink legally. Anyway, I didn’t say a word to anyone, not even to my co-workers. They’d think I’m nuts.”

“So nobody knows about . . . this?” asked Will, pointing his arms at the creatures, which, to his horror, were stalking towards him. The reptilian faces bore down on the two humans. Will hid behind the man, who suddenly stretched out his arm and started petting the creatures on the nose. Will almost feinted on the spot.

“Relax Will,” said the man, holding the boy steady. “They’re actually quite gentle. I’m the only one who knows about ‘em; now you do too. Did I mention how much they like tourists? Just kidding.” The boy was pale as a bleached out sand dollar, still convinced he was going to be fed to the creatures.

“Ralph and Alice actually don’t eat too much. I feed them twice a month like that; I tell our local butcher in town I throw a lot of barbeques at my house. If any more appear, I’ll have to tell ‘em I opening up a barbeque restaurant!” he said with a bombastic laugh.

“Ralph and Alice?” asked Will.

“Yeah, you know; well, maybe you don’t know -- from the Honeymooners television show starring Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows.” Will offered up a perfectly blank slate look.

“Never mind son, that was half a century ago!”

“Have they ever eaten anybody?” Will asked, feeling a little less queasy, but still wary.

“I’ve found a camera here and there from time to time by the waters’ edge; I’m sure people just panicked a bit and ran off. But honestly, I don’t think so.”

“I hope not,” answered the tween.

I usually stay late to double check no one’s hiding out. Then again, I don’t know who else has sneaked in here after hours, something I’m sure you won’t do again, right Will?

“I’m certain that will never ever happen again sir.”

“I would greatly appreciate it,” the man replied, and so would Ralph and Alice.”

“But wouldn’t it be cool if people knew about . . . Ralph and Alice?” asked Will, “It would be a huge story!”

“And that’s why is has to remain a secret. This tranquil landscape would never be the same. It’d be a zoo here every day,” replied the park ranger.

“I guess that makes sense,” said Will, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“You’ve gotta swear that you will never say anything about what you saw here today; that’s a direct order, do you understand?”

“I promise,” he said. The park ranger walked over to Will’s bike and rolled it over to him.

“Here, ride home, but please, not a word to anyone, not even your parents?” Will agreed.

“Bye Ralph; bye Alice,” said Will, who even got a chance to pet their reptilian snouts.

The park ranger watched the boy ride down the dusty path until he was out of view. He looked back at the two beasts then walked over to a storage shed near the lookout tower. He unlocked the padlock and pulled out a huge five-foot wide heavy-duty rubber beach ball.

“Alright guys, playtime!” The park ranger rolled out the vibrant multicolored ball over to Ralph, who nudged it with its snout. All the birds scattered as the two creatures began romping around the shallows.

Will slammed on the brakes, and quickly rode back, hiding behind a towering cypress tree. He wanted to make sure what he’d seen was really . . . real and not some hallucination brought on by the sweltering heat. But there they were, one hundred percent dinosaurs in playtime bliss, no Barney required. How cute Will thought . . . yet completely bizarre as the ground beneath him rumbled. He jumped back on his bike and peddled home.

“Your timing is impeccable; how was your bike trip?” asked Dad, as both parents savored their tall glasses of lemonade loaded with ice.

“It was kinda hot out there, but interesting,” replied Will, guzzling down a glass of lemonade himself. “Can we visit the refuge tomorrow late afternoon?” he asked, but not hinting at what he saw.

“I suppose so,” replied Mom, rather surprised.

“I though you didn’t like going there?” said Dad, flipping the hamburgers and adding cheese slices.

“I changed my mind,” said Will. “And make sure you bring your cameras.” Both parents looked at each other, a bit perplexed, but shrugged in agreement.

“Shall we walk it?” asked Dad. His wife and son gave him an icy stare.

“Death March Dad, remember?” said Will, with a slight smile.

“Sorry, my mistake; we’ll drive it,” said Dad, creating a delicious double burger with extra onions.

The next day was brutally hot; nothing but clear blue skies and not breeze to speak of. The family drove back from dinner a little later than planned, but there was still time to go to the Refuge.

“Got your cameras guys,” asked Will.

The Kennedy family pulled onto the dirt road entrance. The refuge was closing in twenty minutes, not much time to experience the scenic estuary, but maybe enough to experience something unique . . . big.

“Dad, can you pick up the pace?” pleaded Will, “I want to go to the observation deck and see them . . . birds, yeah, all the colorful birds – spoonbills and stuff.”

“But we’ll miss seeing . . . all this,” said Mom, pointing to the small open spots of water and abundant red mangroves.”

“We’ve seen that a hundred times,” said Will, “But there might be something really cool at the observation tower – maybe a big croc!”

“Alright, alright, we’re going,” said Dad, hitting twenty miles per hour now. “You know I could get a speeding ticket here.”

“By who, the squirrel police?” joked Will.

Dad parked the car just past the tower. Will asked his mom if she had her bottle of pepper spray in the glove compartment. ‘The what?” she replied. “Why would I need pepper spray here? Mosquito repellent, yes, pepper spray? No.”

“Don’t go too close to the water,” asked Will, “Keep the car doors open dad, just in case,” he added, thinking of every precaution to take. Will also brought along one of the oars from their kayak.

“Are you okay, Will,” asked Mom, wondering if puberty had anything to do will their son’s odd behavior. The sun was setting; a surprisingly hint of cool, along with the traditional no-seems was in the air.

Will raced up to the top of the two story deck and peered out; nothing but birds. Suddenly, Will spotted movement in the same spot as yesterday. His heart raced in excitement, but fear as well. He wanted his parents to see what he witnessed yesterday, but what if they get attacked? What if the creatures come out? He didn’t see the park ranger anywhere. The boy panicked. What a stupid idea it was to come back here.

Will looked through the viewfinder but didn’t see any dinosaurs or mutant crocs. Then suddenly, he saw something. A fish? No. The bright object churned a bit in the brackish water. Will focused the viewfinder more; now he could tell what the object was. A hat. A red floppy hat just like the one the park ranger wore yesterday.

“Oh jeeze,” muttered Will. “Mom, Dad? We gotta go now!” His voice trembled with fear. He ran down the steps and shouted again to his parents who were blissfully observing the birds from ground level, taking photographs. Will jumped into the back seat of the car waiting for his parents, honking the horn. Will saw them staring at something. Will turned towards the water.

“Oh God no,” he thought. I’m going to get my parents killed. “Those things ate the park ranger and now . . .”

Will’s parents strolled back to the car. “Roseate spoonbills, wow!” said Dad, “I’ve never seen so many here. Good idea to come here Will, but why are you so uptight?”

“I’ll explain later, but we really need to leave RIGHT NOW!” Dad started the car, and continued driving. As they approached the exit, a man was preparing to close the gates.

“Stop, I need to ask the park ranger something important,” said Will with a sense of urgency. Dad stopped the car – they were the last ones at the refuge. Will jumped out and ran up to the man.

“Don’t you just love how our son enjoys learning,” said Mom proudly, dad nodded in agreement. “I bet he’s going to ask the ranger an interesting question.

“Hi Will, the park ranger said, minus his floppy red hat. “It’s good to see you again.”

“I thought you were eaten,” said Will, relieved the park ranger was still in one piece. “I saw your hat in the water and thought, well; you know . . . I promise I didn’t say anything to my parents.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” the park ranger said with a smile. “After you left, me and the monsters were playing and Alice took my hat – she likes to do that from time to time. She’ll bring it back; always does.”

“Like fetch, I suppose,” replied Will.

“Something like that,” said the park ranger. “Enjoy the rest of your vacation and stay in touch!”

--------------------------------------

Will Kenny was running late. Everything was locked up, no more visitors. He double-checked the exhibition hall doors before running back to the employee kitchen area and opened the refrigerator. “Ah, there you are,” said the tall young man, sunglasses pinned up on his course hair. He lit the candles, a pair of light blue numbers – seven and zero, before walking into a classroom decorated with streamers and balloons.

A retirement party was held for Mr. Jeffrey Blake, celebrating fifty years of dedicated service at the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

“Nice cake Will, you bake it?” asked Blake, joking.

“Not a chance,” replied Will, laughing. “It’s from Stellino’s Bakery; only the best for you!”

The party went on for hours. Dozens of co-workers, past and present congratulated the best park ranger the refuge had ever seen; a special plaque was presented too, but it was bittersweet because Blake had cancer. He still looked fit, but his latest round of chemotherapy didn’t go too well. He placed his arm around Will’s shoulder and took his aside.

“Will, you’re gonna have to take care of Ralph and Alice, you hear?” said Blake, near tears. “I love this place more than anything else and I don’t want anything to happen to ’um. Promise me you’ll do the right thing.”

“I promise,” said the twenty-three year old man, holding back tears himself. He gave the vintage man a hug. “You know the price of beef is getting expensive; any chance they’ll go vegetarian?” asked Will. Mr. Blake laughed then coughed a bit.

“You do that and they’ll be a lot of missing tourists!” replied Blake.

“That’s what I thought,” said Will, I’m really gonna miss you; all of us.”

“I know,” replied Blake, “But who knows, maybe this next round of treatments will do the trick; I’ll never give up hope.”

“Me too” added the young man, putting his arm around Blake. “Now let’s have another slice of cake .”

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