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BELL’S POND by Nathan Willis

Derby didn’t get out on his own. I took him. Yes, technically he was yours, but he liked me better and you didn’t take very good care of him. At least not as good as I did. Before you go waving this letter in front of the cops, I don’t think you really have a leg to stand on. I’m pretty sure crocodiles are illegal to have as pets.

Anyways, Derby and I hit the road and I started to put on my magic act. The one you always made fun of me for practicing. I couldn’t exactly leave him in the van so I found a way to incorporate him. He seemed to enjoy himself. For the final trick, I would pull things out of his mouth. Handkerchiefs tied together. Foam balls. A dove. A lit cigarette. A cascading deck of cards. Your wedding ring. For each item, I would have to reach deeper and deeper into his mouth. 

We performed at just about every venue you can imagine; abandoned malls, VFW posts, car dealerships, and even high school gymnasiums. Things were going pretty well until South Carolina. We were working the boardwalk and someone threw a beer can at us. Derby got startled. He snapped down on my hand and wouldn’t let go until everyone was gone. There was nothing I could do but wait. The audience loved it. 

Between my ragged nerves and the even more ragged condition of my hand, our magic days were over for a while. We drove on to Tallahassee where we came across a safari themed restaurant. They have a stage for live music on the weekends and in the middle of the dining area, there’s a giant glass cylindar. It’s as big around as our old house and almost as tall. That’s where they keep all the animals. They have everything you can think of, including two crocodiles.

I told them Derby and I needed a place to stay. They took him in and in exchange gave me a job bussing tables and enough money to get set up in a little apartment. 

I thought it was a pretty good deal until I saw how they treat the animals. There’s no love here. They’re just commodities. Their care is a task on a list between mopping the floors and changing the fryer oil. And no one stops the patrons or their kids from banging on the glass. On busy nights, it sounds like an army at war running towards another army. 

Derby got depressed pretty fast. You remember how sensitive he was. I would have taken him and left, but he wasn’t mine anymore.

I thought it might cheer him up to do our old magic tricks, so one day after closing we put on a private show for the owner. He loved it. He had us perform for the dining room twice a night during the week and open for the musical act on weekends. It was more work than we’d ever had before. I was happy but it took its toll on Derby. He was old and I was pushing him too hard. I always let people push us too hard. It got to the point that Derby didn’t want to perform at all. They had to use those animal-catcher poles and drag him to the stage. He stopped eating. He wasn’t a threat to anyone, anymore. The diners began to lose interest. Then one day, Derby wasn’t there. The owner said he was at the vet getting a check-up. 

There’s an orangutan here with an arm that’s been dislocated for so long I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen off. There’s a conspiracy of lemurs, some young, some old. All of them blind. That doesn’t happen on accident. This place doesn’t take animals in for check-ups. Derby was never coming back.

That night, the announcement for our magic act came through the loudspeaker system like normal. I figured it was a mistake and kept bussing tables. The owner came out and found me. He asked what the hell I thought he was paying me for. I didn’t have an answer. 

He pointed to the stage where Clint was waiting for me.

Clint is bigger and less patient than Derby, but I still did my act. And I’ve been doing it as scheduled ever since. Clint doesn’t look at me the same way Derby did. He doesn’t enjoy any part of this. He doesn’t want to. He’s a survivor. 

There is a pretty good chance that any night could be my last. When I’ve got my head in Clint’s mouth and I’m pretending to look for something, I think about how you always worried that if Derby got out he’d find his way to Bell’s Pond. He would feel at home there and not know why; not know that’s where you and I met. Then one night we would see on the news that a young girl had been attacked while she was swimming. It was a miracle she was still alive. You would pause the screen on her face and look for a resemblance. 

They would say it was a crocodile. They wouldn’t use your name but they would call you an irresponsible pet owner. They would say it’s your fault the girl got hurt so bad that she’ll never fully recover. And it’s your fault they had to kill Derby. They would say he was a monster and we would watch them pull his body out of the water with a tow truck.

 You said, if Derby ever got away, everything from then on would be your fault. And I want you to know it’s not. It’s mine.  

Please don’t write back. If you do, they’ll give the letter to Clint and that will be the end of me. I’ll have to go in after it. I won’t be able to stop myself.

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