It’s after midnight when I hear his car in the driveway and I stumble out of bed.
“Oh! Sorry!” I say, forgetting my best friend is asleep in the trundle bed next to me.
She sits up, rubbing an elbow. “Your dad?”
I press my face against the window and see the Jeep, illuminated in the spotlights above our garage. Green and red, a snorkel attached to the hood, nets and snake traps strapped to the top, and a bungee cord holding a container of gas to the bumper. “He’s home.” I try to whisper, because it’s best if Mom doesn’t know yet since—officially—he was supposed to be home in time for my sixth-grade graduation earlier that night. But when you’re dealing with time zones and monster alligators and life and death, can you really be expected to keep appointments?
“Your mom’s going to kill him. I’m out of here,” Harper says, sliding into her flip-flops.
I swear I see movement in one of the cages tied to the roof rack. Snake? Mongoose? Kitten? Harper wedges in next to me at the window.
“Put your bag down,” I say. “Mom will never let you leave.”
The door to the Jeep pops open and Dad steps onto the driveway. It’s like a thousand-pound weight is lifted off my back. He’s home. He’s safe. But then my idiot brother, Jake, slides out of the back door of the car, his arm in a sling, limping across the driveway. Harper gasps, but honestly, is it really a surprise that Jake comes back injured every time?
“Alison?” Mom calls from her bedroom.
“It’s Dad,” I say, bolting out of my room and down the stairs.
Before I can even get to the kitchen, Harper skidding after me, the door to the garage bursts open and there stand Dad and Jake, mud-streaked and sunburned. Dad lifts me up and tosses me in the air like I’m two instead of twelve. “Ali-Gator!” he says, nearly squeezing the organs out of me.
“Can we not say that word?” Jake moans. His khaki sling looks like it was made out of an old pair of cargo shorts.
“Hi, Jake,” Harper says in her girly voice she usually saves for Brad Garrison. It’s disgusting. Dad’s been letting Jake go on shoots for his show, Survivor Guy, ever since he graduated high school last year, and now Harper thinks he’s some kind of celebrity. I keep reminding her he’s the same kid who crashed his car into the garage a few months ago.
Dad shakes his head. “You’ll be fine, Jake. It was only a baby. FACT!” he says and points a finger at him. “They almost never carry diseases.”
“Where have you been?” I ask. “I thought you were in Saskatchewan.”
Jake shifts his arm in the sling, cringing. “Louisiana bayou.”
“You missed graduation,” Harper pipes in, putting an arm around my shoulder.
I push her away. How could she say that? My dad just came all the way from the bayou, where Jake practically lost his arm to an alligator. What better reason than ‘I saved my own son from the vicious jaws of a man-eating reptile?’ Excuse accepted, in my book.
“Production went over, Ali.” Dad drops his three-hundred-pound backpack in the kitchen, pots and spoons and fishing nets clattering to the floor. “Where’s your mom?”
I point upstairs and Harper starts to head toward the door. “Will you knock it off?” I say. “She’ll be happy to see he’s okay.” But I know she’s probably fuming. It’s like she doesn’t even get that Survivor Guys have a commitment to the wilderness. And sometimes that means sacrifice.
Dad climbs the stairs, his hiking boots leaving crumbs of dirt on the carpet. “Michelle?”
We stand in silence for a moment, Jake picking at his sling.
“You could have called, you know.” I cross my arms. “We were worried.”
Jake rolls his eyes. “Sure, next time I’m wrangling mosquitoes the size of bats and losing half my arm to an alligator, I’ll whip out my phone and give you a call.” He snorts and so does Harper. Traitor. How could she think Jake is anything but seriously disgusting? I know for a fact he never changes his socks.
“Can we go back to bed now?” Harper asks, yawning. “It’s like one in the morning.”
I yawn too, my body suddenly heavy with exhaustion.
“I got most-improved player at the archery banquet,” I say to Jake as we all head up the stairs.
“What? No you didn’t,” Harper says.
“Well, I almost did,” I reply. “Coach said I was the runner-up most-improved while you were in the bathroom.”
“Aren’t you the only person on the team?” Jake laughs at his own joke.
I flick him in the back of the neck. “Harper’s on the team too.” But to be honest, the team was pretty pathetic. We spent most of our time slurping down the blueberry-vanilla smoothies our coach brought from his side job at the smoothie stand downtown. My mouth waters.
Dad appears at the top of the stairs, stretching. “Well, that’s it for me tonight. Time to hit the hay.”
He passes us on his way down, stopping to squeeze Jake’s alligator-bite arm. “Ow!”
“FACT,” Dad says. “That means it’s healing.”
Harper and I glance at each other because we’re pretty sure that’s not a fact. But Dad’s tired and probably half delirious from the long drive. He kisses me on the forehead and flashes a thumbs-up to Harper. “See you kids tomorrow.” I watch him leave through the front door.
“Where’s he going?” Harper asks.
“Probably left something in the Jeep,” I say.
Jake looks at me. “He’s going to a hotel.”
“What? Why?” Harper says, struggling to catch up with us on the stairs.