La Pequeña Roja by Abby Vogler

Salt flaked onto Ana’s hands as she stretched a brine-crusted bungee cord over the dented metal cooler. She tugged the cord to make sure it was secure then stepped back to examine her work. Loading the groceries onto the kayak hadn’t been difficult, but Ana needed to prove she could get it right the first time.

Ana felt eyes on her back and turned. As Ana had expected, her mother watched from the other end of the small dock. She was easy to spot in her blue embroidered dress, even though she stood in the shadow of their island’s curved wall. Mami bounced Gabi on her hip, but despite the baby’s grunts and whines, her full attention was focused on Ana and the little boat.

“Make sure that the lid is tight on that cooler, mija,” Ana’s mother said.

Ana strained to keep her eyes from rolling. “It’s fine, Mami. I’ve done this a million times.”

“Even if you have done something right a million times it does not mean that you will do it right the million and first.” She untangled Gabi’s chubby fist from her hair without looking away from the kayak.

Ana pursed her lips and bent to check the lid. She mouthed silent curses as she carefully shifted her weight so that she could reach the far end of the craft without upsetting it.

In the Okaloosa Wetlands, shipping was expensive. No roads reached the panhandle, so parcels had to be flown in by helicopter or delivered by boat. To save money, Ana’s little family combined their grocery orders with Ana’s abuela. Delivering the groceries was usually Ana’s mother’s job, and she was reluctant to let it go. But she was tired from a late shift at the clinic, and Baby Gabi was especially grumpy.

Ana tugged on the cooler’s lid to prove that it was secure. “The lid is on tight, Mami. Stop worrying. I can do this.”

“It is my job to worry. If I sent my little girl out into that swamp without worrying, I would be a terrible mother.” Gabi squirmed, and Mami shifted the baby to her other hip. “Watch out for the mangrove roots. They will tear up the bottom of the boat.”

“I know, Mami.”

“There are animals out there. Señor Hernandez said he saw a gator swimming near his island last Tuesday.”

“Abuela said that gators get sick in water this salty, Mami. He probably saw a manatee. Señor Hernandez needs his eyes checked,” Ana said as she uncoiled the line from the mooring tether. “Everything will be okay. You know I’m careful. We’ve done this together so many times.”

“Just because we have done it many times—”

“—does not mean I will not have a problem this time,” Ana sing-songed back in an imitation of her mother’s faint San Juan accent.

“Ana Manuela.” Mami raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow and drew her lips into a thin line. Baby Gabi stilled, as though even she knew that their mother had been pushed too far.

Ana sat down in the boat, set the paddle across her lap, and looked her mother directly in the eyes. “Mami, I will follow the same path through the water that we always follow. I will keep an eye out for mangrove roots. I will watch for anything out of the ordinary. And I will come back home if I don’t think that I can make it all the way to Abuela’s house. I have listened to your instructions all day. I have been listening to them since I was as small as Gabi. I can do this, Mami.”

Ana’s mother stared back. Ana didn’t blink. Neither did her mother. Her eyes stung, and the glare from their island’s solar panels felt like it would blind her. But she knew that if she blinked first, her mother would pull her from the boat, and that would be the end of any solo kayak trips.

“You will call me as soon as you get to your grandmother’s house. Not text. You will call. I want to hear your voice.”

“I will,” Ana said and finally allowed herself to blink. “Bendicion?”

Dios te acompañe.” Mami gave the blessing and smiled. “I love you, mija.”

“I love you, too, Mami.” Ana’s family wasn’t religious, but they held to the traditions of the island that they lost. Hearing the blessing from her mother or grandmother made Ana feel stronger, like the generations of women who came before her had her back.

Ana paddled away from the dock and toward the path that ran through the mangrove forest. She still couldn’t believe that this was really happening. Abuela could have easily picked the groceries up herself. She was young for a grandmother and didn’t have trouble getting around the Islands like some of Ana’s friends’ grandparents. But responsibility was important to Ana’s mother. It was their responsibility to bring the groceries, so they would be the ones to bring them. For once, Mami’s stubborn refusal to ask Abuela for help had actually worked to Ana’s benefit.

Ana took one last look over her shoulder. Mami was still watching. Ana waved, and her mother waved back. Then, adjusting Gabi’s weight one last time, she walked up the dock and through the rounded doorway of their island.

It wasn’t a real island, not like the ones that the old folks talked about. Their islands were dome-shaped concrete houses that dotted the Okaloosa wetlands like bubbles in bath water. Abuela said that this place had been called The Islands even before the water rose. Before the wall was built. Before the people from the real islands came here on the big government boats. Before the real islands disappeared beneath the rising sea.

The Islands were built for rich folks, the kind of people that lived far inland now, far from the shadow of the tall sea wall. But, Abuela said that when she was Ana’s age, rich folks wanted to live right up against the ocean. When the weather started changing, they thought that they could still live by the shore. They built the bubble houses to withstand the storms, so they could keep living on the beach without blowing away. But when the water started getting higher and the government decided to build the wall between the coast and the sea, the rich folks didn’t want their bubbles anymore.

Mr. Kemp and his husband, Mr. Tynes, Ana’s next-door neighbors, used to live on a real island called Key West before the real islands were lost below the sea. They said that real mangrove forests weren’t like the ones here in the Okaloosa Wetlands. In the old forests, the trees tangled together, and you could only see little squares of the blue sky between the green of the leaves and the greys and browns of the branches. Like a patchwork quilt, Mr. Kemp had said.

Ana’s wetlands were made by the government people, the ones who built the seawall. They planted the mangroves and all the marsh plants. Their scientists did something to the plants’ genes to make them grow faster, but it also made their roots sharper than those of the trees in the old forest. Abuela said the mangrove forest around the islands was just a way to hold on to land that the ocean wanted to wash away, but Ana liked the mangroves. She liked the way their roots reached out like the thin fingers of a giant, and she liked the little fishes that hid beneath them. She even liked the way their earthy sulfur scent mixed with the briny smell of the sea water.

Even though the way was long, if Ana paddled a little harder, the rest of the trip wouldn’t take more than half an hour. Ana knew that her mother wouldn’t want her to rush, but Ana wanted to prove that she could make the journey as fast as any adult. Ana put more effort into her stroke and was rewarded by a cool breeze across her face as her kayak cut quickly through the water. The little craft was long—more than three and a half meters—and capable of holding two adults and a surprising amount of cargo. There were all sorts of cubbies and compartments molded into the kayak’s plastic shell, and each of them could be tucked full of supplies. Before Mami opened the clinic, she had used the kayak for making house calls because it could hold so much without getting wobbly in the water. It was a good boat, but hard to steer alone. Ana had been saving babysitting money to buy a smaller kayak of her own.

Getting your first boat was a rite of passage in the wetlands, like getting a driving license for the kids who lived inland. At twelve years old, Ana was one of the last kids in her class to ride every day to the schoolhouse island with a parent. If Ana could make this trip to her grandmother’s house without any problems, surely her mother would let her buy a secondhand kayak and make the short trip to school and back alone. She hoped she could find one in a bright, cherry red.

Though deep in daydreams of boats and freedom, Ana still paid attention to her surroundings. She avoided the sharp points and edges of the black mangrove roots, which poked from the water like the spike traps in one of the old video games she played with her abuela. They’d been playing video games a lot more since Abuela retired. She said that she was happy to have the extra time to goof off, but Ana wondered if she missed working as a game warden in the wetlands. The job had meant a lot to Abuela, and it had earned her a lot of respect from the other Islanders. Ana’s abuela seemed to know everything about the area, and she taught Ana all about the wetlands and the animals that thrived there.

It wasn’t long before Ana reached the white mangrove with the red ribbons tied in its branches. Each time she passed this spot, the halfway point between her island cluster and Abuela’s, she wondered who had taken the time to tie the bright red strips to the tree. Neither Mami nor Abuela knew who had put them there. The mystery made the tree even more special, as though it had sprouted the silk like flowers in the night. It was one of Ana’s favorite spots in the forest. She dragged the paddles through the water as she passed underneath, slowing the boat. She gazed up through the branches, taking just a moment to enjoy this most magical part of the forest. The tree was like something out of the fairy tales Ana read to Baby Gabi, and though Ana knew she was too old for such silly ideas, she liked to imagine that a fairy or some other magical spirit lived in the heart of the ribbon tree watching over her as she paddled along.

As she gazed up at ribbon-adorned boughs, a breeze rustled the branches. Ribbons fluttered like wings, and Ana felt her smile grow larger. One of the ribbons—one high above where she floated—was tugged loose by the little gust, and it floated down. Ana followed its path with her eyes until it landed right between her feet, like a gift from the tree. She sat up and took the ribbon in her hand, amazed that she’d been given such a treasure. Surely, it must be lucky. Though the ribbon was stiff with age and salt, Ana tied it around the end of her long braid. She liked the way its bright red contrasted with the deep black of her hair and against the soft pink of her old shirt.

A few meters passed the ribbon tree, there was a bend in the path. Ana took a long stroke on the left side of her kayak to steer the little craft through the turn. She scanned the area ahead. A shadow moved under the water not far in front of her. Mami’s warning about Señor Hernandez’s alligator echoed briefly in Ana’s mind, but she immediately dismissed the thought. Alligators almost never ventured into saltwater, even brackish water like this was just too salty to sustain the creatures for long. There were crocodiles further south, bigger and meaner than the gators, but though they lived a little further north than they used to, none of them had ventured anywhere near the panhandle. It was probably just a grouper. Game fish regularly found their way through the ducting in the seawall. They weren’t deliberately harmful, but sometimes as they struggled in the too shallow water, they upset small boats like Ana’s.

She lifted the paddle to her lap and let the boat slow. She watched the shadow move to the far left side of the path between the mangroves. Ana dipped her paddle into the water slowly and smoothly, just enough to change course, then lifted it back out. The kayak turned slightly to the right. If she splashed, she would draw its attention. Ana leaned to the right and reached out. As carefully as possible, she grasped one of the sharp mangrove roots and used it to pull the boat forward. Then she reached forward with her other hand to grab another. Pain shot through her as the root scratched her palm. Ana choked back a yelp, then looked back at the shadow. Whatever had drawn its attention to that side of the path was still holding it in thrall. Ana pushed off the root and reached for another. She used the roots like a ladder until she was about twenty meters past the shadow. The thing hadn’t followed.

Ana breathed in deeply, then assessed the damage to her hands. Her right hand was just a little scratched, but her left palm looked pretty bad. Blood seeped from tiny cuts and scratches and dotted the golden brown of her skin with flecks of red. There was, of course, a first aid kit on the boat, but cleaning and bandaging all the little cuts would take time. Ana wanted to put distance between herself and whatever had cast that shadow. If she got into real trouble, this would be her last solo trip for a long time. Ana thought about that little red kayak and sighed with resignation. Paddling with injured hands would hurt, but Ana knew she could do it.

Ana had been making good time before her encounter with the shadow. Her abuela’s house was only fifteen minutes away. Maybe ten if Ana pushed herself. Ana started rowing. She could mend her hand at her abuela’s. Ana looked once more over her shoulder for the shadow and saw nothing out of the ordinary. The thing probably hadn’t even noticed her.

Ana choked out a laugh. She’d been all worked up over nothing. That shadow had to have been a grouper. Ana was almost positive. Just last summer, her friend’s uncle had caught a huge one, not far from their island. They grilled the giant fish and invited their whole cluster to the cookout. People were talking about the size of that fish for months. Ana would have to tell her abuela what she’d seen. Maybe they could go back and catch that shadowy fish after they had unloaded the groceries. Since it was so big, the fish would be forced to stay in the deeper water of the boat paths so it would be pretty easy to track down. They could grill it for lunch and bring the leftovers home for Mami and for Gabi, when she felt better.

Even though the prospect of catching such a huge fish was exciting, the anticipation couldn’t quell the aching in Ana’s hands. Blood spilled from her open cuts, ran down the paddle, mixed with the briny water, and became part of the wetlands. Salt stung her palms, but Ana pressed on. Her arms ached from the extra effort, but the kayak cut through the water fast and smooth. She concentrated hard on paddling and tried to tune out the pain. Everything but her path through the mangroves—the pain, the grouper, the blood—she ignored. Minutes passed like seconds, as she darted through the wetlands. The opening in the forest, which held her abuela’s island cluster, was just ahead. Despite, or perhaps because of, the pain, Ana had moved faster than she’d thought was possible.

Pleased with her progress, Ana allowed herself to relax. She looked over her shoulder to see if maybe the grouper had followed the kayak. That would be lucky. Maybe they wouldn’t even have to go back to get it. Abuela could just catch the grouper from her dock with the fishing bow that she kept on that old johnboat.

Something churned the water about ten meters behind the boat. Ana squinted to see if she could make out a shape. Then it took off toward her. It moved so fast that a wake formed behind it, just like the wake of her own kayak. It wasn’t a grouper. It looked like a gnarled log. But how could a log move faster than the current? It couldn’t.

A crocodile.

Ana felt a scream rising in her chest and tried to choke it down. She turned and paddled harder. Señor Hernandez didn’t need glasses. He just needed a herpetology class. Ana should have listened to her mother.

The crocodile was close behind. She could hear its jaws snapping. Her heart pounded against her ribs. The pain in her hands was gone. Time seemed to stand still.

Tears stung Ana’s eyes and blurred the way ahead. Why? Why couldn’t she have just had an uneventful trip to Abuela’s house? Everything had to go wrong the one time that she was on her own. She was going to die and lose Abuela’s groceries, and, even if she didn’t, Mami was never going to let her have her own kayak.

Her arms were tired. Pain seeped back into her hands. Her arms were drenched with blood and sweat. She screamed again as she burst out of the mangroves and into the island cluster.

Abuela’s island was on the far side. As much as she wanted to be away from the beast, leading it right through the center of the little neighborhood would be wrong. Children played in the shallow water near their bubble houses, and if the crocodile got too close to one of them— Ana didn’t even want to imagine. She paddled hard, splashing to keep the crocodile’s interest. It might get her, but better her than one of those kids.

People ran from their islands and out onto their docks. Ana ignored them. She wanted her abuela. She wanted Mami. She wanted this to end. She paddled with all of her remaining strength. She didn’t look back. She could see abuela’s dock.

Her arms hurt. Her chest hurt. Ana was almost there. She could see her abuela running toward her down the dock. No. The crocodile would hurt Abuela. Ana turned the kayak sharply to lead the crocodile away.

She might not be able to beat the monster, but she wouldn’t let it hurt someone she loved. Even though she knew it meant a horrible death, Ana paddled away from the islands.

The splashing behind her grew louder.

It had her. Ana knew it had her. It was over. She’d done everything right. She’d tried so hard. She slumped forward and cradled her face in her bloody hands.

The splashing grew even louder.

The kayak bobbed in the water, shaken by the splashes. Ana waited. She listened to the splashes, and she waited. She’d heard of time feeling slower right before the end, but this was getting ridiculous. Why didn’t it just attack already? Ana breathed in and looked up. The kayak floated just ten meters from Abuela’s dock. The dock was wet from the croc’s splashing, and one of Abuela’s favorite sandals sat empty at the dock’s edge. The other floated upside down in the water. Ana felt her stomach drop.

“No,” she whispered. “No.”

The splashing was softer now, and Ana heard voices above the din. Ana closed her eyes and slowly turned, expecting her world to shatter when she opened them. She breathed in. Instead of seeing her worst nightmares come true, Ana saw her abuela, her arms wrapped around the crocodile’s massive jaws, holding tight as the great beast lashed and tried to roll. One of the teenaged twins from next-door, Adam or Evan—Ana couldn’t tell—held his belt tight around the creature’s mouth while the other brother worked the buckle. Another neighbor held a striped beach towel over the reptile’s eyes.

“Mija, are you okay?” Abuela called. The twin buckling the belt finished his work and nodded to Abuela. She slid off the crocodile’s back and waded into the waist-deep water toward Ana’s kayak.

Ana nodded then burst into low, relieved sobs. Spots filled Ana’s eyes and her chest filled with a heavy lump of leftover fear. Every part of her ached.

“You’re okay. I have you.” Ana felt her abuela’s strong arms lifting her from the boat.

“I brought your groceries,” Ana muttered into her shoulder.

Abuela laughed. “You did, mija. You did a good job.”

Relief soaked through Ana. Words tried to surface. She had so much more to say, but that lump in her throat wouldn’t let them pass.

Abuela hugged her tighter. “You’re okay, now. We have her, mija. Mrs. Berry is calling the new game warden, now. You’re safe.”

Ana looked into her grandmother’s eyes, the same black-brown as her own, and for the first time since she’d seen the crocodile, she knew everything really would be all right. She nodded.

Abuela waded over to the dock and set Ana down before climbing up herself.

“What’s this?” Abuela asked, gently tugging on the end of Ana’s braid.

Ana pulled her hair to the front of her shoulder; she had almost forgotten about the little red ribbon. “It’s from the tree. It fell into the boat.”

“You truly have been blessed today, mija.”

Ana smiled as she stood and walked toward the bubble house. Water sloshed in her shoes and dripped from the hems of her jeans. A few feet from the door, Ana paused.

“Mami said that I had to call when I got here.”

“I will call her,” Abuela said. “And I will tell her how brave her little girl is.”

“But, Abuelita, she will—”

“She will know that she raised a strong young woman. You come in and rest. Let go of your worries. I’ll make hot chocolate.”

“With the cheese?” Ana asked, finally smiling.

“Of course, mija,” Abuela said. “Just like we did on the old island.”

Abby Vogler is a huge geek. Her writing is influenced by comics, tabletop games, science class, and fairy tales. Her fiction falls across the speculative fiction spectrum, and in her stories, she explores the way big changes affect regular people. Abby lives and writes in St. Louis with her husband and their pet rabbit, Colin. Her work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction.