Her mother’s eyes were sunken into her pale skin. Lizzie couldn’t tell if she was awake, or asleep with her eyes open.
Neither of them had gotten much sleep last night, and the weather didn’t pity them. It had begun to rain shortly after dawn, turning the smell of the forest from mud and bark to fish. Worms rejoiced in the cold muck. Lizzie and her mother Diane just sat in silence, in awe of the sudden change in this place where rain was all but impossible—yet it rained anyway.
“What do you wanna do today?” Lizzie asked Diane.
When her mother first cocked her head to look at Lizzie, she looked as if she might throw up. Then Diane shrugged and looked up into the trees.
“I don’t know.”
Dad always had something to do, Lizzie thought. The heels of her sandals bounced against the rotting wood of the log she sat on.
“Just wait,” her mother told her.
“Why can’t we do anything fun anymore?”
Lizzie stared at the ground for a long while, her lips tense with a scowl. Eventually, she felt the log she sat on shift slightly with new weight. But Lizzie herself felt nothing. It was like Diane wasn’t really sitting next to her at all. So after another minute of waiting for her mother to feel human, waiting for a hug or a touch, Lizzie stood and began to walk down a trail. She heard her mother get up and follow.
The rain died down, and neither said a word.
If I ran away, Lizzie thought, if Dad was here, he’d catch up to me in no time. I could never outrun him. I’m not so sure with Mom. Would she even chase after me, or just let me go?
They continued on this path for a few hours, the wilderness opening up to them as the sour day slowly turned bright and vivid. Lizzie led the way for most of the trip, until at one point she stopped to watch a pair of deer walk across the path ahead of her, maybe fifty feet away. The two animals froze for a few seconds, then bowed their heads and continued on, their footfalls barely making any noise at all. Then they were out of sight, ducking into a gully.
“You see the baby deer?” Diane asked her, leaning right up to the hood of her raincoat.
Lizzie shook her head. She’d only seen the two full-grown deer, and didn’t know how she could’ve missed the fawn. What she did notice were the tracks of something much bigger in the mud—paws, the size of something that could kill. They headed in the direction of the family of deer. Lizzie shivered.
For the rest of the hike, the two of them walked together, their hoods down as the temperature rose and the sun peeked out from the leaves above them. The trail circled back around to the lake, back to the beach where Lizzie had gone last night, the water where El Ahogado lived, and breathed, and ate, and killed.
Lizzie reached out her hand. Her mom took it. Some cold drops of water caught in between.
Then Lizzie felt herself being pulled off the trail.
“Look at that!” Diane said, bringing Lizzie to a spot in the forest where the plants were bent and pressed into the ground. She saw a large, brown outline, stuffed with red. Suddenly, she was kneeling with her mom, who pointed and said, “Wow! Look at the size of that thing, hon!”
Lizzie saw before her a beast of a cat, eyes wide open, paws stretching out in either direction. It looked fierce, full of something wild and untameable. Yet it was gray with death. Red with gore, a series of claw marks across its side, its insides let loose, like worms catching breath in the rain. Lizzie saw flies circling the flesh and covered her mouth, her nose, tried not to breathe in the air.
The next thing she knew, her mother’s arms were around her, jostling her, hugging her the way her dad would hold her when she was young, when she had accomplished some great feat.
“Isn’t that incredible?” her mom asked. Lizzie turned towards Diane just as a fly landed on her cheek.