Updated: Apr 5
Everglades National Park, Florida
Promptly after acquiring his Wildlife Management degree from Eastern Kentucky University, Danny Skelton had landed his first interpretive ranger position in Everglades National Park, on the swamp-ridden southern tip of Florida. And although his imagination was endless, he never fathomed he’d be this close to angling a shark.
His employee dock looked out over a spread of shallow bay that was cut off from the ocean by sandbars. All manner of brackish water monsters lurked about him: snook, tarpon, sting rays three and four feet across, goliath-sized grouper. The list went on, but nothing intrigued the twenty-five-year-old more than the brutish and sleek, almost mythical, bull shark. And they were active this evening as the tide rose and the sun sank into a tangerine horizon.
Only five minutes ago, he’d lost his first such shark, claimed his older friend Rick. Rick had assured him that by the way it fought, it was a “bully” that had ripped the hook and leader from his line. After again demonstrating to Danny how to tie a proper knot on his rig, Rick directed Danny where to recast his line. When Danny gave it an overzealous cast, the bait, a mullet fish head, had come free from the hook and smacked the water surface clear off target.
“Damn, Danny! I didn’t say ‘throw it to the moon’!” Although a trusted fishing partner and an overall good guy, Rick could really be a wise ass when he wanted. He gave Danny a friendly slap on the back, then had him re-bait and cast again.
Rick was a trim man in his forties with a receding hairline, goatee, and a two-year technical degree in marine boat mechanics that pulled in an impressive paycheck. His skin was bronzed from years spent under the Florida sun, just a shade darker than Danny’s own Latino complexion. It was hard for Danny not to be jealous of Rick’s fishing skills. But growing up on the eastern shores of Florida, all Rick had to do was breathe and he’d become a talented fisherman.
That wasn’t the case for Danny. The shy Kentuckian was only seven the last time he’d fished, and he wished to tell Rick the reason why.
This summer, though, Danny had reluctantly come out of his no-fishing shell, and for good reason. The fishing here wasn’t anything like the ponds and lakes of Kentucky. This was serious fishing—world class. People paid hundreds, thousands, to take fishing charters in these waters. Danny’s fishing was free.
After letting his line sink to the bottom of the bay, Danny closed the bale on the softball-sized reel, then tightened the line. Danny marveled at the thick, formidable gamefish rod. Last week, Rick had walked him through the local Wal-Mart, an hour’s drive away and collected the essentials: the nine-foot saltwater rod with a spinning reel, a case of large circle blood hooks, eighteen-inch steel leaders to prevent the shark from slicing right through the line with its razor teeth, the highest pound test braided line, sinkers, and connecting links. He also didn’t let Danny leave the store without an eight-inch filet knife for severing mullet fish heads—the Everglades bull shark’s favorite snack. Rick insisted these sharks didn’t pass on a mullet head, especially on a moonlit night, their lifeless eyes twinkling up at the shark from the muddy bottom.
As Danny envisioned a shark meandering by, spotting his bait, and jawing it up, his chestnut eyes danced in an odd way and his lips parted slightly as if he wished to smile.
Watching Danny’s peculiar gaze, Rick said, “What the hell is wrong with you? Stop it, would ya? You weird me out when you do that.”
Danny stopped at once, changed the subject. “When is high tide?”
“In about thirty minutes or so. That’s when you’ll get bites from the big guys. You’re lucky you got one to bite this early. When the water in the bay rises with the tide, the bull sharks move further inland to feed on schools like these mullet.”
Danny mumbled to himself, “As brackish water rises with the tide, bull shark will move inland for better feeding…”
Rick glared at Danny.
Danny said with averted eyes, “Sorry, just rehearsing.”
Rick tugged on his line, tightened the slack. He said, “You know, I find it ironic how you can lead tourists—complete strangers—on hikes and give classes about the wilderness, and at the same time you’re so goddamn shy and strange.” He shook his head, slipped off his pricey polarized sunglasses, and peered out over the water.
Just then, Danny’s line tugged hard. He excitedly yanked the rod back.
Before he could start to reel, the braided line went slack.
Rick sighed with disapproval, "I told you, wait till he takes the bait and runs with it before you try to set the hook. You just yanked it out of his mouth, dumbass."
Danny bared his teeth at Rick as the Florida man faced the bay. Rick turned back around, but Danny had dropped his threatening expression. Rick said, "Well, you gonna reel in the slack or just stare at me?"
It had been ten days since Rick last imparted his angler wisdom onto Danny. The Kentuckian fished each evening through high tide without Rick who seemed to have given up on him. On only six occasions since, he’d gotten a challenge from what was probably a shark, just to have his line snap either from a poorly tied knot or a bent hook. With each failure, frustration built up inside of him. With all the money spent on the rig and the repeated loss of tackle, his pursuit for a shark was getting expensive.
He considered the expense, one afternoon, as he laid out more cash on the marina counter for fresh shrimp. The shrimp gave him something to do while he waited on high tide. With a less impressive pole, he used the crustaceans to bring in smaller fish like trout or striped sheepshead. These species’ capture he could master. A hundred sheepshead, however, would never amount to one bull shark.
Fellow ranger, Megan Wood, appeared in the doorway. She had an angelic glow about her as the bright of day accented her tall figure. Her straight hair reached the small of her back and her ever-present smile lit the room. She and Danny traded guided hiking tour routes every two weeks. On many occasions, she’d attempted to share pertinent specifics about the route as they swapped, but he would only nod and avoid conversation.
Danny’s vivid imagination spun once again as he saw himself walk over to the dishwater blonde, give her a smile, and take her by the hand. He pictured leading her outside to a table where he’d secretly set up roses, wine and a seafood dinner. Suddenly, her voice brought him back to the real world. “Hey, Danny.”
“Hey, Megan.” He knew his eyes did that thing when he zoned out, and he hoped she didn’t notice.
Megan plucked a Twix bar from the shelf and a bottle of water from a small fridge near the counter. She joined Danny’s side, eyed his purchase. “Shrimp, huh? Any luck on the dock?”
He hated how she made this much eye-contact. “Uh, yeah. A little.” The man behind the register gave him his change, bagged his items.
Megan asked for a pack of Newport Slims, and the cashier turned around. She said to Danny, her eyes sliding over his chest and arms, “Haven’t seen you without your uniform on. You look like you work out. How often, probably six days a week?”
He lowered his gaze, fiddled with his plastic sack.
She said, “Come on, Danny. I told you, you don’t have to be so shy. It’s adorable, but really, you can talk to me. I won’t bite.”
The cashier turned back around, eyeballed Danny over the top of his glasses almost smirking.
Danny stuck his hand through the sack handles, twisted it tight around his wrist. He said, “Yeah, sure. See ya,” and ducked out the front door.
Later that night on the dock, he palm-struck his forehead remembering his encounter with Ranger Wood. When would he ever find the courage to talk to her? All his life, he could only imagine conversations with girls. And even that was difficult for his overly creative mind. What was he supposed to say? How is it people can just casually talk to a girl, especially ones that remarkable, like Megan?
He tried shaking the regret as he waited for a bite. Moments ago, he noticed Gumbie, the resident crocodile, gradually floating by a distance away. Gumbie, who had no teeth, often cruised by with intentions of stealing a fish from angler lines. But she had seemed to know that Danny wasn’t going to catch anything and disappeared from his vicinity.
Skelton had watched the soft-yellow horizon darken as the bay water gently rocked and lapped against the dock pillars. There was a calm atmosphere right about that time each day that he looked forward to. Despite not bringing in a big bully, at least he had these quiet times.
It happened every night, though, a disruption in his peaceful alone time, right when darkness blanketed his surroundings. Pitter-pattering up the dock, as if on cue, an annoying racoon consistently intruded on his space. The critter sought bits of unused mullet fish carcasses that lay on the platform at Danny’s feet. The ranger loved animals, but not ones that snuck up on him at night—ones that wanted to thieve his hard-earned bait he’d acquired by way of cast netting. Netting bait fish was a skill he had to master when he first started fishing here. His ire toward the small mammal, he had to concede however, was more about his lingering fear of the dark than the racoon’s presence or the potentially stolen bait. He was ashamed that he was still afraid of it, the dark and things that bump therein, which only added to his irritation.
He bolted up and ran at the furry night stalker. He shouted, “Shoo! Go on!” and stomped at it.
It scurried away and Danny went back to his peace and quiet, back to losing shark bites.
It was day twenty-one of attempting to land a shark, and still nothing. Danny wondered if he’d ever be a success at anything. The frustration caused by the mischievous racoon was still as consistent as his failure to court Megan, and his futile try at becoming a bull shark angler. This had become a three-headed obsession to the point of self-loathing. He had a growing, sinking feeling that something would have to give. If only he could hook a mighty seven-footer, stand victoriously over the muscly creature with a smooching Megan at his hip, the furry bandit scuttling away in fear of his menacingly jawed fish!
He stared blankly over the uneventful water. A hazy glow was all around as the half moon and blinking stars crowded the sky. That’s when racoon feet again approached up the dock's pier.
Danny faced the sound.
The little figure stopped. It took a few more steps. Instead of throwing a tantrum, this time Danny just watched. A few more steps, then something mysterious happened.
Incredibly, the dark critter began to morph. It grew vertically as would a casting shadow. The changing silhouette came closer as it bloomed shoulders and eventually rose into the shape of a six-foot-tall man. Danny stepped backward and the thing stepped onto the dock platform with him. It wore bib overalls, a long sleeve button-up denim shirt, and a beat-up hat with a Valvoline logo on the front. Its furred feet were black with long toes. The hat kept its face from light, but Danny could still discern the tiny snout of a racoon.
It spoke, “Mind if I join ya?”
“No. Have a seat.” Danny stared blankly as it sat at the bench on the opposite side of the dock, and propped its legs on a cooler. The creature sighed, “Any luck?”
As it questioned him, Danny spied canine teeth protruding from its mouth.
What a question to ask. Of course, he had no luck! Danny pouted and rolled his eyes. “No.”
The racoon man extended his arm and pointed down with his dexterous, black and clawed fingers, “May I?” A mullet lay at its feet.
“Yeah. It’s yours. I can’t do anything with it.”
It snatched the five-inch fish aggressively and bit off the head. Like a dog chomping a chicken wing, it chewed loudly. After swallowing the head, it flung the fish body into its mouth and gobbled it up.
The being wiped its face and considered, “You know, I saw you get off work the other day. You live across the street there. A park ranger, huh? Impressive.”
“Impressive?” Danny looked out over the dark water that seemed as stagnant as the fruits of his ambitions, the water’ surface mirroring his life with the bad things that swam below it.
“Sure. A lot of people would love to have your job. A lot of kids grow up watching little critters like me digging through trash, getting smashed on the road, playing in cartoons, hoping one day maybe they can go out and work up close with animals and nature.”
It removed its oily cap and scratched behind it ears with its clawed toes. Repositioning the hat on its hairy head, it continued, “Most of ’em give up, end up in the wrong place, punchin' numbers for some big company or fixin' computers all day. Hell, when I was a kid, I told myself I’d be a pilot, but look at me now. I tell ya, we start off right, but the older we get, the more we lose track of who we really are. What a sad thing, givin' up on a passion.”
Danny felt it turn toward him.
“But you didn’t,” it said. “You had the courage to follow your heart, even if it meant longer schoolin’ and less pay. Even if it wasn’t what everyone else was doin'. You were true to yourself, that’s honorable, boy. Which makes me wonder why you look like your panties are in a wad.”
“I can’t catch a goddam shark.”
The changeling laughed amusingly at Danny’s woes. It produced a noise that started as a human laugh, then ended as a racoon’s chatter.
How dare he belittle Danny.
He watched the racoon character from the corner of his eye for his reaction when he said, “It’s not funny. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Yes. Yes, I understand, Danny.” It got up, walked over, stood in front of Danny. As it almost towered over him, it placed its paw on the distraught young man’s shoulder, the dark claws dangling down Danny’s back. The name patch on his shirt became visible: Joe. “I understand perfectly well, son. You’ll catch him, that god damn shark, sooner or later.”
The racoon man smiled, then strolled down the dock pier, whistling a Grateful Dead tune just like Danny’s father would have. It paused before stepping onto the grass. “Hey Danny boy, don’t forget to call your mother.”
The little ones ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at Danny’s expressive portrayal of Rocky Racoon who came to see him just last night. The ranger had removed his flat-brimmed and straw-colored hat to take a knee and educate the visitor’s children about racoons in the Everglades. “And then he told me ‘But don’t feed me, because I’ll come back for more and more and I’ll get run over by a car trying to get some more human food’. He told me, ‘Danny, you make sure to tell those children to stay away from me and my friends. We can have rabies and we don’t want to give them to any little kids’!”
The children giggled, to Danny’s delight. He glanced up and noticed Megan adoring him.
He wished the youngsters a good vacation and strutted over to Megan. She flirtatiously teased, “You’re a good liar.”
A sly grin stretched across Danny’s face. “You don’t believe me?”
“Rocky Racoon helped me fish last night, right out on the employee dock. Why don’t you come by tonight and see for yourself? I think he might come back.”
“Alright Ranger Skelton. It’s a date.”
The two interpretive rangers enjoyed each other’s company on the employee dock, waiting for Danny’s line to hook a shark, admiring the sun’s retreat over the southern Florida horizon. Before it would say goodnight, the sun seemed to hang around just a little longer. Dusk’s hue provided a tender moment for the two that Danny could feel in his chest—a nervous aching, but a good one. Every so often a fish could be heard surfacing and plucking a bug from the water top. As they stood at the railing, he had inched closer to the tall blonde.
Over a few Solo cups of wine, she let him into her world, telling him what she wanted to do with her life. She also spent the last two hours telling stories from her past—stories she claimed she usually kept to herself. The talkative woman reflected on the massive cake fight she and her sister got into a few years ago. “It was on the stove, on the refrigerator, all over the walls. Mom was so pissed.” As her hazel irises watched the lazy water, her smile faded. A tear gathered at the corner of her eye. “That’s the last time we ever hung out. The next day was when she crashed. She was off to her first day at college.”
“That’s awful. I’m sorry to hear that.” He palmed her tricep awkwardly and rubbed up and down. Then, for the first time in his short life, Danny felt the great urge to talk, to unload his past onto the beautiful ranger.
He recounted to her the last time he’d fished before coming here, when he was only seven. “For as far back as I can remember, my interest was always with wild animals and the outdoors, so my parents took me to the national forest for a weekend getaway.” Megan smiled warmly at this, but gradually dropped her happy expression as he continued. “My dad, Joe—he went by ‘Rocky’—passed away from a heart attack that trip while he was reeling in a striped bass. I was there. I saw it all. He just told me to run for help, buckled to the ground. I can still see his agonizing face. I can hear his wheezing.” Danny’s throat swelled, and he waited a few seconds until he was able to swallow again.
He said, “I swear I could feel his spirit leaving his body. And I just stood there and did nothing.”
Megan slid closer to him, stroked his back.
Danny said, “He was a self-proclaimed ‘average white guy’. He worked long hours at the grain mill. My mom was a typical Latina, beautiful, vibrant, up until the day Dad died. She became a depressed shut-in after that. Once he was gone, her mind went, and I didn’t exist to her anymore. She barely moved from her recliner. I had to take care of everything at the house with my little brother, cooking and cleaning, everything. Poor mental health already ran in the family, so her losing Dad didn't help one bit.”
“So,” Danny explained, “it’s been almost twenty years since that day, and I never fished during that time. I avoided it altogether. It became kind of like a sacred act. If I couldn’t fish with Dad, then I’d rather not fish at all. But I threw all that out when I got here. I got obsessed with catching a bull shark, so I started fishing again. Look what it got me, though.” He threw up a hand gesture of surrender toward the water, then shook his head.
Megan put two fingers on Danny’s chin and redirected his eyes to hers. She said, “Thank you, Danny, for sharing that with me. I know that has to be so hard to tell someone, and I’m honored you chose me to be the one you opened up to. Really, I mean it.”
Danny squeezed her arm, nodded. Her eyes lingered on his, and so he reached his other arm around her neck and gripped it at the base.
Right when he thought he’d lean in, he didn’t. He squeezed her harder.
Then, the look in her eyes told him that she knew, too late, that Danny wasn’t right.
Megan said shakily, “Danny, you said mental illness ran in your family. What did you mean?”
He said, “Although primarily nocturnal, this small, twenty-five pound, short-tailed feline is frequently seen during daylight hours. The American Bobcat, scientific name Lynx rufus, occupies a diversity of habitat and can travel tens of miles in one night, searching for prey.”
In his mind, Danny’s claws were sunk deep into Megan’s upper arm and neck. He imagined grey fur with splashes of black growing from his entire body and pointed, black-tipped ears raising from his head. It was hard for him to speak with his imagined canines. “Thith carnivore normally seeks out thmall mammals, birds, and fith. But he’th an opportunistic hunter ath well.” Drool wetted his chin.
Megan clenched his wrists. “Danny, let go of me.”
Danny grappled with her for a beat, then took her to the dock floor. When she landed, her head cracked against the oak boards, stunning her. With a loud racket, the tackle box tipped and spilled its contents.
He ravenously bit at her neck. When she fought back, he pawed at her face with slaps and scrapes. He mounted her chest and controlled her flailing arms.
Danny raised his head and searched the area in all directions—no one around.
He tried biting her neck again, but she resisted. He growled with anger and she slapped him. A startled look came over his face and she clinched him by the throat. He pulled his filet knife from his belt. With one hand over her mouth, he sliced through her jugular.
Dark blood pulsed out for a full minute until she finally let go of his throat.
Danny checked the perimeter again. He returned the knife to its sheath and slowly licked the back of his hands like a cat that just finished a tin of tuna. Positioning himself next to her on all fours, he clinched her shirt with his teeth and attempted to drag her but could not.
Frantically, he considered someone could walk by at any moment. His sense of urgency heightened.
He huffed and grabbed her by the ankle. A thick blood smear followed behind as he dragged her to the edge of the boarded platform. He splashed down into the waist-high water next to her.
Another look around. All was silent and dusk had darkened fully now.
The deranged man clamped his teeth onto her pant leg and pulled her into the water. Her body initially sunk, but bobbed to the surface face down.
He again retrieved his fillet knife, this time cutting a lock of hair from her head. He put the hair in his mouth and gummed it. With his knife still in hand, he walked her body into deeper water. When the water reached his chest, he pushed her body out toward the ocean.
He spit out her hair, and grumbled to himself as he walked back to shore. “Bobcat scat can be found on nearby hiking trails containing the fur and bones of local prey animals like rabbits. Bitch!” His eyes darted side to side.
Just then, he thought he heard her moan.
He looked back to her floating carcass under the moonlight. It bobbed as something yanked at it.
Another tug, then another. Water thrashed about with a surge of fins and swirling shark tails around her.
“The Everglades bull shark has an internal process called osmoregulation. This means they control water and salt concentrations with their kidneys and can habituate in salt water, fresh water, and brackish water. So, that’s why we always remind our guests not to go swimming here in the Everglades. That is, unless you don't like having arms or legs—then be our guest.”
He leaned his head to the side with the same fake, toothy smile he gives to all the tourists.
Just then, a flashlight blinked in the direction of the dorms.
“Is someone out there?” Marine engine repairman, and expert angler, Rick curiously walked to the dock, playing his flashlight over the benches.
Danny placed his knife blade between his teeth, slunk into the brackish water to eye level like a prying crocodile, and slid beneath the dock.
In his twisted mind, he narrated to himself, ‘The Everglades is the only place on Earth where the American Alligator and the American Crocodile coexist. The unassuming manner in which they ambush their prey and their violence of action makes them very efficient carnivores. Kill him, Danny, kill him.’