The croc tour went bad before it began. The bus, a white charter with mirrors that curved from its roof like antennae, gave a pneumatic hiss and snapped its door shut, biting into a pink-skinned boy in a Spiderman cap.
The boy was yelling and thrashing. His right arm stuck out through the door’s rubber lip. His fingers wriggled as though he were trying to find something in the Darwin heat and red dust.
‘Shoot,’ said the driver, already off the bus, to the teacher. He turned to the door and the boy. ‘Have you out in a second.’
The boy kept yelling. The driver slid his own hands through the rubber, one either side of the boy’s. He pushed against the door, making a gap. The boy snatched his arm back, inside, and the door stayed shut. The driver freed himself without trouble and strolled to the front of his vehicle. He pushed something near the windscreen wipers. The door hissed open and the boy, red as his hat, fell out of the bus sobbing.
The teacher gave the boy’s back a rub. ‘You’re okay Byron. Nothing broken. Room 9! Where are your groups? Soursops, Bananas, Avocados!’
Byron sucked the tears back into his forehead where they stung his brain. It was a baby thing, to cry. He could almost see his stepfather Kane’s purple sneer. That made it worse. His shoulders shuddered, trying to twist from his body, away from Kane in his head. In his throat a yell was boiling. He flung his right arm out instead. A sticky web shot from his veins. It landed on the red dirt in front of Miss May. She shifted and the heel of her sneaker erased it.
Miss May took Byron’s hand. She shook her head at the man in charge of his group. The man was the big brother of another Room 9 Avocado, a boy called Lucas. Byron knew this, though he’d only been at the school a month. The brother’s forehead widened and the wrinkles that had been there dropped away.
Lucas’s brother had long hair the colour of a day-old bruise. He was something between a kid and a grown up. Byron didn’t like him. He didn’t trust him. In The Avengers, there was always another bad guy and Lucas’s brother looked just like one: Loki, Asgard God of Mischief. Except for the blue hair. Of course, Loki was supposed to be dead—Byron had seen Infinity War. But so was Spiderman, which couldn’t be right. Anyway, bad guys had a way of coming back and when they were really done, there was always another one to step in. Like in Spiderman: Homecoming. Spiderman killed Shocker, but minutes later some other guy was inside the electric suit, causing trouble.
Byron thought he would have more time, after Kane. But why? Peter Parker never did.
On the other side of Miss May, Sri, Bil and Emmaline formed a glittery swarm. Bil’s skin was dark brown, Emmaline’s freckled with orange, Sri’s the colour of Nana June’s milky tea. But they were the same: their hair in long plaits that started up thick and fat near the tops of their heads; unicorn key-chains galloping from their bag zips.
Byron twisted his neck across his own backpack to look for Deuteronomy. Deut was a few kids back, kicking dirt. You’d think it would make his belly wobble. You’d think he’d worry about the mark the dirt would make on his brand new Nikes. It didn’t. He wouldn’t. Most of the other kids, Byron too, wore black, leather lace-ups. Deut’s shoes were shot with colour: black dashed with orange, purple and blue. Mint green rubber rose from his soles to his laces. He reached into his pocket and Byron saw silver: a Y-shaped disc, concentric circles and a lone star.
‘Let’s go see some crocs!’ Miss May led the class towards a flat-roofed building. Byron kept hold of her hand though he knew Deut would be sniggering into his Captain America fidget spinner. Her hand was warm, her skin powdery. Different to Nana June’s (slippery with hand cream) but just as good.
In the education room, crocodile posters swam the walls. Shelves were crammed with jars of bright liquid. It was hard to see inside them. Lumpy things were stopped there in the gummy-lolly water.
Byron stepped towards the back of the room, to watch Loki from safety. But something else lay in wait.
It was a monster, all head and teeth. A skeleton. Like the girls’ plaits, it started thick and fat. Then it got smaller, bone-by-bone. Its tail began in the corner and its head finished at the door. Its jaws had been opened as wide as they would go to show hooked, crooked teeth. Miss May ushered the class onto plump cushions beyond the skeleton and Byron dropped into a cross-legged daze.
Bones couldn’t hurt, only real live things could. But still, the skeleton made Byron wriggle. What if it came to life? He looked again at the jars, the things floating there, clumped hunks like the jackfruit pickle in Nana June’s fridge. The bones might draw these to it. They might form a moving, spined sludge. Byron’s breath climbed higher. His whole body became a clenched fist. He opened his fingers. Kapow! He shot a web towards the monster.
‘Why’d you do it?’ Deut slid onto Byron’s cushion. The stuffing shifted. Byron glued his front teeth into his bottom lip. Had Deut seen his web?
‘Why’d you hit the bus?’ Deut asked.
‘Didn’t,’ Byron said. But he felt his eyes slip to the underside of his wrist and the pulsing river there. Weird, the way you only ever saw the blue under your skin.
‘Yeah you did. Saw you. You punched it,’ Deut thrust his fist out, palm to the education room ceiling. ‘Like this.’
Deut shrugged, then pointed to the bones. ‘What do you think’s bigger? That or Thanos?’ He’d seen Infinity War too.
‘Dunno,’ said Byron. Thanos, of course. You couldn’t take out a whole team of Avengers, and maybe the universe (that would be the next movie) without being bigger than a set of bones.
‘We could look it up,’ said Deut, patting the phone in his pocket.
The door next to the monster bones jumped open. A woman strolled in. ‘I’m Biggs,’ she said. She was short, which was confusing. Her shorts and shirt were as green as the Hulk’s skin. She sat down on a chair at the front and patted the skeleton’s head, the way Nana June patted her dog, Mitzy Pup.
‘We’ve got over a thousand crocs here,’ Biggs said, looking at each kid. Emmaline, Bil and Sri turned their plaits sideways, so they could make big eyes at each other. It was their way of saying ‘wow’ without saying anything at all. Sri ended up making hers to the back of Emmaline’s plait. With three of them someone was always left out.
‘How many man-eaters?’ Deut didn’t raise his hand.
Biggs smiled. ‘We do sometimes bring crocodiles that get too friendly with the public here. But you’re more likely to eat crocodile, than a croc is to eat you.’
‘As if,’ Deut said.
‘Take a look in the café. You can have croc in your burger at lunch.’
‘Awesome!’ Deut nudged Byron with a fat elbow. It landed right where Byron’s chest was still tight.
Loki was back in charge. Byron followed the Avocados, Sri, Dipthi and Lucas, outside. His fingers pulsed, his nails pressing half circles into his hand. Deut was off with the Bananas, under the watch of a mother in pink jeans.
Past the flat-roofed building, Biggs pointed out the lagoon. The water was still. It looked disgusting, like healthy milkshake. The kind Kane liked, gritty with kale powder and protein. A swamp of liquid always left around the empty glass rim.
There was a boat with a roof and high barred sides but Biggs didn’t take them to it. She led them around the side of the main building and into an open-air, concrete corridor. Two high walls bordered the corridor. Looking over one, Byron saw a long line of grey, rectangular pools.
‘Over here,’ said Biggs, ‘Crocodylus porosus, salt water crocs, breeding pairs. The couple in this pool are Knuckle and Celeste.’
The class crowded together, looking down into the water. Byron could only see one croc, lurking at the water’s surface. It was huge, bigger than the skeleton in the education room. In front of him someone was sucking air across their teeth, almost a whistle. Loki.
Sri turned around. ‘OMG,’ she said. She did the big eye thing at Byron, her eyelashes blinking for each letter. The unicorn on her backpack, probably from the Casurina Square Smiggle, wobbled its head as the bag moved. Its eyes seemed as wide as Sri’s. Byron tried stretching his eyes back at her but they slid to the crocodile. Its skin looked like armour: plated and horned, grey with black patches. Tough like Wakandan vibranium. Could you tie something like this up? Even with all the strength of a Spidey web? This was an unstoppable creature. Maybe it would be a match for Thanos.
Biggs looked at her watch. ‘Nearly lunch,’ she said. ‘Before yours, would you like to see Knuckle have his?’
Around Byron, the other kids answered: ‘no-way-amazing-what-does-he-eat-bet-he’d-like-the-taste-of-you-Emmaline-no-you-Deut-OMG.’
Biggs pointed to the lurking croc. ‘Knuckle and Celeste eat a lot over summer, but in the next few months, it gets cooler and their bodies slow down so they won’t need much food. They make great use of the energy their food gives them. They can convert seventy per cent of what they eat into growth and energy. Can anyone guess how much you use?’
‘Deut’s using one hundred per cent’ said Emmaline, flicking Deut’s belly with her index finger.
‘Emmaline swaps her food for Smiggle vouchers,’ said Deut. ‘She only eats lip gloss.’
‘That’s not kind,’ said the mother in charge of the Bananas. Her pink jeans sagged around her bum, as low and disappointed as her mouth.
Biggs was a steamroller. ‘You lot, you only use about four per cent for growth. You mainly use your food to make heat. Celeste and Knuckle just use the sun.’
Miss May parted the line of children and stepped in. Byron heard her say ‘little chat.’ She moved Deut and Emmaline away.
Biggs walked off too, hands in her pockets. Byron thought she’d given up. Then, there she was, on the strip of mud inside the walled pool area where the croc seemed to be sleeping on the water. Biggs held a fishing rod, something swinging from it. Beef, maybe. Byron didn’t cook, Kane had done that, and now, Nana June. In her other hand, Biggs gripped a large stick.
Biggs raised the stick, bringing it down onto the water. The croc didn’t move. She splashed again, a bigger movement. Nothing. Next to Byron, Sri hugged her bag. Byron felt as though his lungs were gummed with Elmer’s liquid glue.
Splash. It was a bigger hit than the last. The stick made the water leap to the bend of the rod. In a sudden twisting pounce, a croc leapt too – a second animal, hidden until now in the green water. It seemed to stand straight, above the water, on its tail tip. Its jaws were wide, the skin of its belly white. Fat muscles at its mouth pulsed and ripped the meat from Biggs’s rod. Byron felt a scream rocket from him. A few other kids screamed too. The croc landed. Water sprayed. It was over. The crocodile lay, tail in the water, jaws on the shore, chewing.
Byron hadn’t known it would be able to jump.
‘That’s Knuckle. There’s a good hunk of bone in that beef for him to chew,’ said Biggs. She stepped backwards and disappeared from the enclosure.
Something touched Byron. Warm fingers, one at the collar of his yellow uniform polo, the others on the skin of his neck. All his little hairs shivered.
Byron had been so hypnotised by Knuckle, he had forgotten the real danger. He jerked his head away. Loki held his hands up. He looked just the way he did in the first movie, surrendering to Iron Man. Or like Kane, lying to Mum.
‘We’re going in for lunch,’ Loki said, his white forehead creasing. He turned, caught up with Lucas and slipped his arm through his little brother’s.
Deut had cash. ‘I’m getting a croc burger,’ he said. Byron went too.
‘Café’s not for school kids,’ said a woman at the cash register. But she took Deut’s money anyway, sweeping a gold two-dollar coin back to him with huge, smooth arms.
They took the burger to the picnic benches outside. Here, a net dome reached from the ground to the sky. When the other kids peeled back glad-wrapped sandwich corners, two pink-chested birds appeared, hopping and hoping for a crust.
The burger was a squashed bun with a spittle of sesame seeds. Inside: mayonnaise, lettuce, a ring of fleshless tomato and pink meat.
‘Looks like any other burger,’ said Byron.
‘What did you think?’ said Deut. ‘Did you think it would have teeth?’ He took a bite, chewed. His eyes moved in circles, as though they were doing the tasting. He swallowed, shrugged and passed it to Byron. Byron bit down next to the mark Deut’s teeth had made—a fat, full circle which made him think of the moon and Thanos throwing it, heaving it down from the sky. The bread stuck to the roof of his mouth. The meat was dry. He could taste the mayonnaise though. Maybe that’s what croc tasted like, mayonnaise. Not too bad. Mayonnaise was yum.
‘Could you get croc powers, from eating croc?’ he asked, thinking of Knuckle and looking at his hands to see if his webs were disappearing into black-grey armour.
‘What croc powers?’ Deut said.
‘You know, mega bite, ferocious leap. Like when Biggs fed Knuckle.’
‘Who’re Biggs and Knuckle?’ said Deut. Then he seemed to think about it. ‘Nah.’ He whacked the peak of Byron’s Spidey cap. ‘The spider bit Parker, dummy. Croc would have to bite you. Hey Emmaline…’
Deut was off, running towards the far bench where Emmaline sat. He snapped the remaining bit of burger up and down near her hair.
At the other end of the picnic area, Lucas, Dipthi and even Sri were chatting with Loki. Loki looked up and waved. Byron turned his wrists over. Seeing where the webs gathered made him feel stronger. But it also made him think about what had happened on the bus. How he had waited to get off last, on purpose, so he could fire a web. How, just as he had raised his arm and turned his wrist to shoot, the door had snapped shut. How he’d been trapped. That’s when he’d recognised Lucas’ brother for what he was. Byron had seen him, outside the bus, his eyes winking at the edges. Kane was an ocean away, still in Auckland. Byron was with Nana June in Darwin. He should be safe. But there was always another bad guy.
‘Let’s go.’ Deut’s Nikes were tapping.
They snuck off, past the café, following a sign that said “Exotic Crocodilians”. The pools at this side were different. The walkways were sculpted from cement that looked like the red dirt in the car park. Each pool was walled with thick glass, so you felt like you were really in there with the crocs.
Deut threw his fidget spinner. It hit the glass of the first pool and made a double thunk as it went from glass to red walkway.
They moved between the pools, pressing their cheeks to the glass, pulling faces, aiming kicks and punches at the animals inside.
The crocs here were different too. There were all sorts. One pool was overflowing with small, sharp-toothed wrigglers. Round-snouted beasts were next. The last pool was home to a grey, flat-nosed sunbather. Byron read the sign: “Philippine Crocodile, on loan until December.” What happened in December, where would it go? How did something like this travel? Not on a plane, not the way he had been sent away, with a foil covered lunch and a five-hour wait in Sydney.
Deut held out his phone. He pushed his lips together, an almost-kiss. It made his cheeks and chin look different, tougher. He snapped a selfie.
‘Come here.’ He tried to wave Byron into a shot. Byron shook his head.
He stayed, looking into the Philippine croc’s too close-together eyes. Its head was fat but squashed, the sides spilled from it. It looked as though it had been bashed. The idea was a blow. With what? A hammer? Thor’s hammer, thick and silver, like his Mum’s meat tenderiser. Byron could almost taste sick in his mouth. He felt this idea where Kane had hit his toe. His baby one. Outside, on the table next to the brick barbeque in Mum’s garden, Kane had swung the tenderiser into the air, squashing out schnitzel, until it looked thin and angry. Then he had beckoned to Byron. ‘Sit up here, mate.’
A nail had not grown on Byron’s foot since.
‘You’re lucky to see these,’ said Biggs. They were in a new room, back in the main building. Long lights gave it a white shine. The floor was tiled with squares. Stainless steel benches made another square inside the walls.
‘Come close. Not too close. Let’s see if any of these little ones are ready.’ Biggs slid a lid from a plastic tray. It looked like the trays that shelved Wonder White in Coles. Except for the lid. Byron could see rows inside, not bread, but eggs.
Biggs picked one up in her fingers. She pushed it gently and the shell folded.
‘There’s a nose, look,’ said Sri. She tugged the end of Bil’s plait and they big eyed each other. Emmaline looked at the floor.
Biggs pushed again and a tiny crocodile appeared. It was shiny, as though it had been dipped in oil. It squirmed but Biggs held on, one hand circled around its neck, the other hand around its middle. Its small claws ran, scraping air and Biggs placed the baby, almost dropped it, into a tall, orange bucket next to the egg tray.
‘Few more are ready, too,’ she said.
‘Cute!’ Emmaline turned to Sri, her eyes wide and ready. Bil pouted.
‘One, two, three…’ Biggs counted out the babies as she placed each squirming body into the bucket. ‘Twelve,’ she said, sliding the lid back on to the remaining eggs. ‘Who wants to hold one?’
Bil and Sri raised their hands.
Deut stepped in front of them. ‘Me.’
Byron felt something on his shoulder. Fingers.
‘What about you, mate?’
Byron didn’t know where the trick was, just that there was one. He squeezed his teeth.
‘Great idea. Byron, you have a turn.’ Miss May had spoken. Now Byron couldn’t say no.
‘Miss,’ Deut said.
‘Sit down, Deuteronomy.’
Byron couldn’t keep up.
‘Hold your hands out,’ Biggs was touching him, peeling each fist open so they turned palm-up to the white lights. Byron began to float away, watching without being there. He saw Biggs lift a writhing baby. He saw her place it into his pink hands. He saw Biggs move his fingers into an O, collaring the baby’s wet neck. He felt something too: the slip of the baby wriggling; a sharp prick on his forefinger; pain, like a cactus stab.
He heard a shriek. That brought him back.
‘It bit him!’ Sri yelled, her eyes wide, not for Bil or Emmaline now. Byron looked down. Sri’s eyes had grown big looking at his blood.
It was only a small pain. He opened his fingers to see it better. The baby fell to the floor. Its claws made a scratching sound on the tiles. It ran through the class, cutting a path like Hulk tearing into road in Age of Ultron. Sri, Emmaline, Bil, Deut—they all jumped back. Miss May and the mother in the pink jeans did too. Byron made himself look at Loki. Loki had one white hand over his mouth. Lucas was sniffling. The Asgard God of Mischief gripped his little brother’s shoulder. This hadn’t been his plan.
Biggs came to the rescue. She slid under the bench, cornering the tiny croc. She lifted it, placed it in the orange bucket and rubbed her hands against her green Hulk-skin shorts.
Byron rubbed his too. The blood made a brown smearing trail on his yellow shirt.
The spider bit Parker.
Mint-soled Nikes squeaked towards Byron. Light flashed. He blinked though the phone wasn’t aimed at his face. The picture was of his finger, more red beads blooming. It couldn’t capture the change: inside him the DNA moving, fusing, fighting.