The Snake Tree
The Snake Tree
The Snake Tree
Charmer Cat's Life
The Snake Tree
by Andrew Hughes
The Snake Tree
by Andrew Hughes
Lucas Green had known Samantha Meadows for seven years before he realized he was in love with her. They’d grown up together, gone to school together, played ball together, and yet, he’d never noticed. Maybe most important to this eventual discovery, they’d trudged the creek together.
The Green and the Meadows families lived in a rural collective with two score other households on the outskirts of Jackson. The area was surrounded by a dense forest of oak and loblolly pines, infested with bugs and deer and rodents, and most families resided in trailers. This never bothered Lucas or Sam. It never crossed their minds that they were poor, because they possessed the secret. A secret that all the other dirty, greasy haired, tank top wearing kids before them had discovered, and they indulged in it often. They knew the creek.
It was a narrow body of water that twisted its way through the forest, deep enough at some points to engulf a preteen, but mostly shallow enough that their boots would not get waterlogged. Lucas and Sam trudged the creek on their neighborhood famous crawfish hunts. Lucas led the way, his long, broken shovel handle staff brandished at the rocks, protecting them, and Sam followed, carrying her yellow bucket, the water curling up her long legs and splashing the hem of her denim shorts. There were snakes, oh yes, there were snakes. They’d run into them before, but each time a water moccasin had slithered its way from a hole in the muddy embankment, Lucas had thrashed down with the staff, striking the snake and stealing enough time for the pair to escape to shore. After these encounters, they’d always sit on the grassy embankment breathing heavy and ranting hysterically, and Lucas had felt like a hero when they ran back together, bucket and stick swinging in the wind.
Seven years he’d lived like this, growing up with her, countless days wading the creek plucking the fattest and most delectable riverbed crustaceans from beneath the rocks and plopping them into Sam’s yellow bucket, the one decorated with pink easter eggs and ordained with a thin white handle. And then, one day when he was twelve years old, the cusp of his golden teenage years, or freshmen hell according to his older brother Danny, a light had flashed and he realized that his feelings for her were not like the ones he felt for anyone else. It wasn’t the adoration he felt for his mom, or the begrudging love for Danny, or the annoyed disapproval of Danny’s flower petal girlfriend Missy, and it wasn’t the camaraderie he felt for his friends he played ball with at recess. It was something else. Smooth, warm, and comforting, a feeling that he wanted to touch and hold as a physical thing, something he wanted more of. It was not a feeling that built over time, not consciously, it just appeared.
It was a Saturday and Lucas set out for the creek. He stopped at Sam’s trailer, knocked on the door, but the family minivan was gone and no-one answered, so he picked up the bucket from the shed and walked into the backyard and along the forest path. She’d told him that he was welcome to use the bucket any time, even promised to leave it out by the washing machine shack, and whenever he came looking, it was always there. Lucas thought that was pretty cool. The path curled into the woods and he stepped past cigarette butts and discarded beer cans, evidence that the older kids had been out the night before.
Lucas walked the path whistling "Surrender" by Cheap Trick, one of his mother’s favorites. He’d just finished humming the last guitar chord when the path deposited him at the creek. At this inlet, there was a bridge of sorts, a series of ten heavy stones connecting the path on either side, but Lucas didn’t bother with it. He tucked his hand-me-down jeans into the bullfrog green wading boots and trudged into the water, heading upstream.
He walked for thirty minutes without stopping and when he did, he flipped over a rock, plucked two fat crawdads from the sifting dirt, and plopped them both into the bucket. Then, he whistled and walked some more. When he stopped again he realized he’d gone past where his mom had always told him to stop. The water seemed to be stiller here and he was studying the rock formations when he heard something splash behind him. Musta been a monkey brain, he thought, and continued studying the creek bed, but then a chilling thought formed. He hadn’t seen any of the tall trees with the bulbous, spongey yellow fruits hanging from them. Slowly, Lucas turned and looked at the widespread, thin branches of the white alder sprawling above him. For a moment, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but when he squinted, he saw them. Hundreds of them. Shining, curling snakes of every variety. Thin ones, thick ones, white ones, grey ones, wrapped up in the branches twisting around each other, slithering and flicking at the air with their forked tongues. Lucas screamed, stumbled backward, and fell. Sopping and sputtering, he picked himself up and saw four serpents gliding towards him. He let go of the bucket, grasped the staff, and swung with a downward chop.
As the water settled, he saw that he’d hit two of them, fazed them and sent them floating limp down the stream. A third one was zigzagging its way to shore, back towards the towering snake tree. Lucas drew the staff up, and saw it. The fourth snake. Menacing, thin, and striped with alternating vibrant blue and white bands. It was curled around the butt of his staff. Lucas tried to swing down, but the halt in his momentum detached the creature. It flew through the air and landed flopping and convulsing onto his shoulder. Lucas screamed and fell sideways into the water, and when he resurfaced the snake was gone. But it was too late. He’d felt the searing sting of its fangs. It had gotten him.
Panicked and huffing, he abandoned both bucket and staff and ran back downstream, his boots splashing through the current. He sprinted, throwing cascading droplets high into the air until he tripped and was swimming, then he was back on his feet again, disoriented and stumbling. Snakes had poison. It would work its way into his bloodstream. He’d collapse face first in the water and the rest of the serpents would descend to feed on his flesh while he still felt pain. Sobbing, Lucas made it to the bridge and ran the rest of the way home.
By the time he rounded the back of his house and came clomping in through the laundry room, he was out of breath and his side pierced with stitches. Lucas knelt over and tried to take in a deep breath, but his lungs stung and his chest ached. He lifted his damp shirt. The bite mark pulsed, his left pectoral swollen and distended, poking against the tight fabric. Lucas whimpered and went inside, walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, slamming the door shut behind him. He didn’t think to take off his muddy boots until he was safe in bed and had the covers pulled up to his sandy blonde hair. He sobbed for a minute and fell into an exhausted daze.
Lucas woke to the horrifying realization of what he’d done. He breathed heavily as he got out of bed and turned on his bedroom light. Sure enough, he was doomed. Muddy boot prints ran from the door right up to the mattress.
“No,” he said. “No, no, no, heck no, shit no, no.” Lucas stumbled out into the hallway, his chest stinging, inflicting fresh doses of anguish. He felt like crying but forced himself not to.
The tracks ran throughout the house, from the tile at the back door, in through the laminate kitchen, down the sliding hardwood floor slats of the living room, and up the white carpet steps. The prints were brown and sloppy, and Lucas knew he was dead. “She’s going to kill me,” he breathed. The bite pulsated again, radiating a new wave of warm, paralyzing pain. Standing in the pool of sunlight shining through the kitchen window, Lucas rolled the shirt up his stomach. The movement agitated the wound and he clenched his teeth. When it was up over his chest, he bit the shirt tail and pulled it flat so he could see the bite.
The left side of his chest was a dark, unorthodox purple. His entire left pectoral was swollen noticeably larger than the other. A veiny, stellate pattern stretched beneath the skin, the strings of nerves and blood originating from the bite itself, a two-pronged indent. Each of the punctures had swollen over with a bulbous, yellowish pus capsule reminiscent of a pimple but much larger, nearly the size of a dime. His left nipple was black, absorbed by the discoloration of his breast. Lucas moaned, involuntary tears dribbling down his cheeks, when he heard the quartet of anxious raps at the front door. Lucas let his shirt roll into place. Pale and clammy, he stumbled toward the entrance.
“Hey,” said Sam. She stood on the step with an ice cream sandwich in each hand, one unopened, the other half eaten. Dry chocolate spotted her fingertips and stained her thin lips. She took another bite, lapped the white dribble of vanilla, and outstretched the unopened sandwich to Lucas. “We got ’em at Walldrin’s. Want one?”
Lucas shook his head.
“What’s wrong dude, you love ice cream.” Sam squeezed past him. “Don’t worry, I’ll put it in the fridge.” She walked into the kitchen and a drop of vanilla plopped to the floor. Lucas groaned. “Hey, are you all right dude? You look pale.”
Lucas followed her into the kitchen, a hand clasped to his chest. He couldn’t put much pressure on it; he feared popping one of the blisters. But the pain was excruciating and pressure felt good.
Sam placed the sandwich on the bare bars of the freezer and shut the door. “Hey, you know it’s a real mess in here,” Sam said. She studied the floors and another drop of vanilla fell from her sandwich.
Lucas groaned. “Sam, the ice cream.”
“Oh,” she giggled and tossed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth. “Ahhhh,” she moaned and slapped the back of her hand to her forehead with an audible thwack danced on the tips of her toes. “Brain freeze.”
Lucas walked around her and opened the cabinet beneath the sink. He was sifting through the cleaning products frantically, pushing away air fresheners and pulling out soaps until he had a collection of bottles by his side.
“Dude, are you all right? It looks like you got kicked in the balls.”
Lucas slammed the cabinet door shut. “Sam. You need to leave. She’s going to kill me so I have to clean all this up.”
Sam looked flabbergasted. “What are you talking about?”
Lucas pointed at the prints. “They go all the way upstairs.”
“Oh shit. You didn’t get the carpet, did you?”
“Okay, then you need more than that. I’ll be right back!” She stepped on the drop of vanilla on her way out, smearing the melted ice-cream across the front step. Lucas took a deep breath, steadied himself against the pain, and began to work.
He started with the back room and he scrubbed the tile clean, rinsed the rag and moved to the kitchen. Each boot print he covered in thick, yellow Lysol before laying into it with a wet rag. He was just rounding the kitchen counter when he heard the front door swing open again. His heart thumped fast and the hair on his neck tingled, his eyes locked in place on the current boot print. But the footsteps faded upstairs and then he heard Sam yell. “Oh God, it is a mess up here. A real freakin’ mess.”
Ten minutes passed and he’d nearly finished a particularly caked step by the pantry when the back door opened and he fell back against the wall, frightened and clutching his chest.
It was Danny. He was laughing, long hair greased back beneath a ball cap, his thin frame clinging to his skeleton, stretching with each gasping holler. His eyes were red, as if he’d been crying. “What are you doing down there, Douche Fag?” Lucas could smell something strange in the air, and it grew stronger every time Danny opened his mouth.
“Hey, be nice to him,” said Missy. She wore a red sundress decorated with dancing green leaves and long stalks of yellow flowers. She smiled and waved. “Hey Lucas.”
“Move,” said Danny. He kicked Lucas’s legs out of the way of the pantry door and Lucas erupted with a pained cry.
Danny laughed and shut the door. “Oh my god,” he scoffed. “Are you crying? What’s wron- ...” He noticed the bootprints. “Oh, you’re so dead.” Danny squinted down at him. “Oh my god, you are crying. You little pussy. She’s not going to actually kill you, you know that?”
Lucas had crumpled into a fetal position and he shook with every haggard breath. The pain was everywhere and tears streamed down his cheeks, the first drops beginning to pitter into a puddle on the floor.
“What’s wrong with him?” Missy knelt beside him.
Danny leaned back against the kitchen counter and ate a handful of Oreos. “It’s nothing, he’s just being a pussy.”
Missy shot him a stern, corrective stare.
“What? You know, being a baby?”
All of a sudden, there was a thunderous crash of footsteps followed by an Amazonian yell.
Danny flinched, dropping a cookie. “What in the hell?”
Sam tore around the corner. She brandished a mop at Danny like a caveman preparing to spear a Sabertooth. “You stop being mean to him right now.”
Danny pointed a finger at her and looked down at Lucas’s twitching form. “This is cute. Your boyfriend’s sticking up for you.”
With a birdlike scream, Sam raised the mop handle and brought it down on Danny’s outstretched hand. The wood cracked and he howled with pain.
“I told you to stop being mean.”
Danny clutched his hand to his chest and glared at her with eyes that catapulted fire. “Oh you little bitch.”
With a snarl, he was upon her. Sam tried to raise the mop high enough to jab him back against the counter, but she was too slow. He grabbed her wrists and squeezed hard enough that she dropped the mop.
“Bastard,” she breathed through gritted teeth, straining against his weight, but there was no helping it. He had her pressed against the wall and she could smell a burnt, repulsive odor wafting from his mouth.
“That hurt,” he growled, lips inches from her ear. Sam tried to swing her head back, but Danny moved out of the way. He squeezed harder and it was all Sam could do not to cry.
“Danny,” Missy said.
“There’s something wrong with your brother.”
“I told you, didn’t I? He’s fine. Just faking it.”
“No. Danny Green, you need to look at this right now,” she said, a dormouse scolding the barnyard cat.
Sam let out a relieved groan when he released her. She leaned against the table and kneaded her wrists, opening and closing each palm and rubbing at the red marks that would soon turn into bruises.
Lucas was lying on his side with his knees curled and his back and bare feet pressed against the wall. The whites of his eyes were tinted red and the pupils themselves had rolled back out of sight. His mouth hung open and a pink, frothy foam bubbled out. His fingers were clenched into tight, nubby fists so tight that Sam thought his fingers might snap under the pressure. There was a slow, rocking shake that seemed to originate in his chest and spread throughout his labored body as if he’d been galvanized.
Danny leaned against the kitchen counter, his mouth agape.
“Do something,” Missy whimpered.
Sam moved around the table, toppling one of the stools. She knelt next to Lucas. His breathing was agonal and short and when she touched his face he began to shake all the more. “Snake,” he said softly with each exhalation. “Snake. Snake. Snake.” His hand shook in hers and she grasped the fist tighter, trying to decipher his gasping utterances.
“Move.” Danny shoved her to the side. “Okay,” he said. His eyes frantically scanned his brother’s seizing body. “Okay.” He looked at Sam. “Go call 911. Now. Go. And get your ass back here.”
Ten seconds later, the front door smacked shut and Sam was running across the front yard, pumping as fast as her long legs would take her.
“What do we do?” asked Missy. She was chewing on her hair, a lock of it curled around her neck and up into her mouth like an endotracheal tube.
“Shut up.” Danny had to think. Think. What happened? Lucas had been muttering something, something about a safe? Danny’s thoughts flashed to a cartoon image of the Roadrunner walking beneath a city window where the coyote, whatever the fuck that guy’s name was, hoisted a large black safe on a rope. Danny cleared his thoughts.
“Is he breathing?”
“I thought I told you to shut up.” That was right though, that wasn’t a bad idea. Breathing. He had to keep Lucas breathing. Danny held a hand over Lucas’s sputum-covered lips and when a second passed without a flutter of breath, he lowered his ear and listened. Still nothing. “Go get me a rag.” Danny rolled his brother onto his side.
“Does it need to be wet?”
“Get me a gosh damn rag!” He clasped his hands together flat, palm first, and pressed them down dead center of Lucas’s chest. There was a pop as something burst. The left chest pocket of Lucas’s t-shirt grew wet with a clear, viscous liquid, but Danny pressed on. He pushed down hard with stiff arms, no bend at the elbow. When Missy knelt by his side with the outstretched rag, he instructed her to wipe Luca’s mouth clean. She did, but when he told her to breath into Lucas’s mouth she leaned away. “You’re useless,” he yelled. He shoved her aside and huffed six deep breaths into his brother’s mouth. When he returned to the compressions, Sam was back.
“Ambulance is coming. Said they’d be ten minutes.”
Danny pressed down deep into his brother’s chest and twice he felt the something snap beneath his force. Sam knelt by his side and breathed into Lucas’s mouth. When they heard the sirens, Danny slung the limp body over his shoulder, and with aching arms ran into the front yard. The ambulance pulled up to Sam’s trailer, but when they saw the panicked teens, the two paramedics ran the stretcher out to them.
“Hello, my name is Chris from AMR, this is my partner Max. Is he breathing?”
“I don’t know.” Danny lowered Lucas to the stretcher and while Chris continued his questioning, Max ran a vitals check. After a minute of routine information gathering, Max looked up.
“We gotta go.” He cut Lucas’s shirt down the middle with trauma sheers.
“What is that?” asked Danny.
“Snake bite,” said Sam.
“She’s right,” said Max. “Let’s go!” The two paramedics wheeled the stretcher to the back of the box, loaded it, and Chris rounded to the cab.
The three teenagers stood in the Green’s front yard and watched the flashing lights disappear. When they were gone, they faded back inside.
Sam paced and Danny sat at the table, his fists curled in frustration. Missy studied the floor. They had been inside for some time, fifteen minutes or so, and twice, neighbors had come knocking. The first time, Danny went outside and told them off, but the second he let them knock until they went away. In the interim silence, they sat at the table and waited for his mom. Sam paced the counters and Missy plucked at the hem of her dress, looking ashamed. She felt as if she had let them down, caused this whole mess by not speaking out when Lucas had first toppled over.
“What was he talking about?” said Danny. He was wringing his fists open and closed, squeezing imaginary water from imaginary rags.
“He must have gone to the creek. You saw the bite. And my bucket, it wasn’t there when I got home.” Sam stopped pacing and placed her hands on the plastic countertop.
After a moment, Danny banged both fists on the kitchen table and stood up. “Screw this. What hospital they taking him to?”
“I don’t know,” said Sam.
Missy reached back through anxious thoughts and plucked the name out like she was picking a tomato from the vine. “Wilmington,” she exclaimed. “They’re taking him to Wilmington.”
“Sounds right,” said Sam.
“It said Wilmington on the side of the ambulance,” Missy said. She felt proud for a moment, and then the anxious regret returned.
“I know how to get to Wilmington,” said Danny. “It ain’t far.”
“Maybe two miles,” chimed Sam. “That’s where my mom had knee surgery.”
“Yeah,” said Danny. He walked past her and opened the door to the laundry room. “We’ll ride there. You have a bike?”
Sam shook her head.
“You can take Lucas’s.”
In the dimming light of the Mississippi sunset, Missy climbed onto the seat of Danny’s bike, while Danny himself stood high on the petals. Behind them, Sam rode Lucas’s fire engine red Mountaineer. They rode out of the cul-de-sac and through the neighborhood to the main road.
When they reached Saint Wilmington’s Memorial hospital, it was dark and Danny’s calves ached. They’d pushed hard down the freeway, as fast as they could to avoid being stopped by the cops. Missy’s rump hurt from the ride, but she said nothing. Sam trailed them into the parking lot, past the security office and toward the towering building with a thousand glowing portals to sickness.
The doors slid open, ushering them into the frill air conditioning that propelled the smells of chemicals and disease. Sam lead the way and Danny and Missy followed once the bikes were stowed in the bushes abutting the building. The waiting room was full of soon-to-be patients. Ahead, there were two parallel sets of double doors and a big olive-skinned woman sitting behind a desk.
They made their way to her.
“Hello ya’ll, how may I help you?”
“We’re here to see Lucas,” Sam said.
The woman smiled, clicked something on the computer monitor, and shifted her full attention to them. “What’s Lucas’s last name?”
“Green,” said Danny. He pushed Sam to the side and placed his hands on the grey speckled counter. To their right, a woman emerged through the doors of the ER, walked to the front desk, and took a chart from a clear slot on the wall.
“Okay, I see a Lucas Green here. What’s his date of birth?”
“July sixteenth, 2004. He’s short, with brown hair.”
“Sandy brown hair,” Sam corrected.
“He’s here with a snake bite.”
A minute passed as the woman clicked on the computer, then a soft, embarrassed smile split her cheeks. “Yes, I’ve got him right here.” She looked back up. “He’s in an operation right now, but if you’ll wait a moment, I can see how long it’ll be.”
Danny growled under his breath and before the woman could offer consolation or protest, Sam darted through the doors of the ER.
“Ma’am, you can’t-” the woman yelled, but the doors smacked shut before the sentence was finished.
Sam raced through the white halls, stretchers laden with the wounded forming obstacles in her path. There was a large, open island of a cubical in the center. Nurses and doctors in blue scrubs chattered throughout. There were operations going on in some of the rooms. She could see the nurses crowding around open tables, piercing white overhead lights beaming down on still bodies.
Behind her, the doors sprung open, and the desk nurse jogged down the hallway, pointing and shouting. Sam ran faster, pausing to glance into each of the rooms before dashing farther down the hall. The nurse was gaining on her now and people were starting to look.
Danny and Missy had slipped into the ER as well and had started around the other edge of the hallway, circling the cubicle in the opposite direction. Sam rounded one corner and was running full sprint, the nurse nearly on her heels, when she saw him. It was Lucas. He was lying on a gurney, his feet propped high in the air, an oxygen mask strapped to his mouth. Two orderlies were pushing the stretcher away from her.
Sam kicked off, sprinting faster than before, when a large hand closed around her shoulder and her momentum gave way to a backwards yank. She looked up at a security officer standing above her.
“Thank you, Mark,” said the nurse. “What do you think you’re doing girl? Don’t you know there are sick folks here? Look at you, covered in mud and muck. Your hands are black.”
Sam ignored her and watched as Lucas disappeared around a bend in the hallway. Another officer had a struggling Danny by both wrists as Missy trailed behind, apologizing. They were led back to the waiting room.
They sat in silence and watched the nurses come in and out of the clapping double doors. One officer stood by the doorway to the ER and watched them with disdain. After an hour, Tammy Green arrived. She still wore her work clothes, the black smock of a dietary aid. Her eyes were red with tears and her hands clenched and released anxiously. She approached the counter, shared words with the nurse, and took a seat between Danny and Sam. She put an arm around each of them, and they could feel her shaking.
Another hour passed and the nurse approached them, introducing herself as Sherry. She beckoned them through the double doors parallel to the ER and down a long corridor. When they reached Lucas’s room, all four rushed inside to his bed. He was unconscious and a monitor beeped meekly. Tearfully, Tammy found the doctor.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked, glaring at the man’s handsome, clean-shaven face.
“Don’t. Don’t you do that. What’s wrong with my son?”
“The venom, whatever bit him. ... We don’t have it on file here, it’s nothing that’s ever been recorded at our hospital or at any of our sister hospitals.”
Tammy’s worn features sagged and she glanced back at Lucas through the open doorway.
“Whatever it is, we’re going to find it. We’ve sent the samples off to the Poison Control Center in Chicago. They specialize in snake bites. We’re going to do everything we can.” Tammy turned back and took a step towards the door. “Mrs. Green?”
She looked back. “Yes?”
“Your son, before he got here, while he was in the ambulance, they got him conscious and talking for a moment. He said something about a snake tree.”
“A snake tree? What is a snake tree?”
“We’re not quite sure. He said something about a snake tree. He kept saying blue and white, blue and white. Do you know anything about this?”
She shook her head.
“I see. Well, I’ll make my way back here as soon as I’ve finished my rounds.” The doctor reached out, squeezed her shoulder, and strode off down the hallway.
With a sigh, Tammy went back in, and on her way to the bedside, she passed Missy, who had been waiting in the doorway.
After a moment, Missy motioned Danny and Sam to follow her.
They stood on the sidewalk by the ashtray. Although Missy slapped his arm, Danny selected a particularly long butt and sparked it with his pocket lighter.
Sam spoke. “I know exactly what he’s talking about. The creek at least. We wade it every other day.”
“Yeah,” Danny puffed and coughed. “We all know about the creek.” He took another deep inhale. “There’s a rumor that there’s a big tree with all these snakes in it down toward the sewer tunnels.” He took the last drag and tossed the smoking filter back into the ashtray. “I don’t know nobody I trust who’s seen it though.”
“Well Lucas has,” Sam said, starting to pace.
Danny poked around for another butt. “What snake is blue and white?”
There was silence.
Finally, Missy spoke. “What are we doing?”
Danny and Sam looked at her.
“We need to go look for this tree. It’s his only shot and we are wasting time.” She spoke fiercely and when she was done, she looked to the ground once more.
A silent moment passed, then they went back inside.
Danny said that Missy and Sam had to get home. When Tammy offered to drive them, he objected, insisting that she stay.
Eventually, she gave in.
They rode their bikes into the fresh evening darkness, the brisk wind buffering their faces and the draft from passing cars nearly knocking them off balance as they pedaled madly down the side of the freeway. People honked and Missy clung to Danny, her arms clenched around his thin chest. She kept imagining that they would hit a pebble wrong, keel over into the street, and both their heads would be crushed like melons under the thick rubber tires of an eighteen-wheeler. Pulp and rind, skull and blood. Splattered across the thin white line. Behind them, Sam pedaled furiously, struggling to keep up.
They turned off the freeway and coasted downhill, the wind swirling around them as they diverted into the neighborhood past the little convenience store with the burnt-out florescent lettering. As they rode, Missy looked to her side and saw a mangy, skeleton-thin cat slink into the tall grass.
When they reached the Green’s house, they pulled into the dirt driveway and Danny kicked off, running with the bike until it came to a halt with Missy still sitting lopsided on the raised seat. Behind them, Sam crashed over a gopher hole and nearly toppled off. She skidded across the yard and landed against the shed.
“Are you okay?” asked Missy.
“She’s fine,” Danny said. “Put the bike in the shed. I’ll be back.”
Five minutes passed and he came back out the laundry room with a collection of items cradled in his arms. “Put these on.” He handed both girls a pair of wading boots. Sam took Lucas’s froggy green ones and Missy hesitantly put on Danny’s old ones. She’d never worn boots like this before and she could smell the musty bog as she pulled them on her bare feet. Danny put on a backpack and handed her a flashlight. “We’ve got two, but the batteries ain’t too good. Only use em when we’re in the woods.” Missy pointed the mag light across the backyards and clicked it on, illuminating the Benson’s clothes line. “Hey, what’d I just tell you?”
She clicked the light off.
“Had to check and make sure I know how to turn it on.”
Danny grunted and handed Sam a milk jug full of a pungent, slopping liquid.
She unscrewed the cap and took a deep whiff of the contents. Her nostrils furrowed and she outstretched it from her body. “Jeez, is this gas?”
“Lawnmower mix. Gas and motor oil.”
“Why do we have gas?” Missy asked.
“Because.” Danny attached a sheathed machete to his belt. “We don’t know what we’re going to find out there. Do either one of you two know how to shoot?”
Missy shook her head.
Danny handed her a butcher knife.
“I can,” said Sam. “My pawpaw has a bunch of shotguns out on the farm. When I was a kid, he paid me a dollar per squirrel.”
Danny handed her an antique .22 caliber rifle. The weapon was loaded with a five-round magazine.
“You cover our back, I’ll take point with the machete, and Missy, you shine the light and make sure nothing sneaks up on our asses. That clear?”
The girls nodded and they set off through the backyards, slinking past the glow of televisions through open windows until they reached the forest path. Danny walked ahead, a commander leading his troops into battle.
As they entered the woods, Missy asked what was in the bag.
“PB&J’s and Koolaid pouches,” Danny said.
They walked into the mouth of the forest and he stopped to pick up a cigarette butt from where he and his friends had hung out the night before.
He’d grown up in these woods, knew every shanty cabin and creek crossing, but he’d never seen the snake tree. As far as he knew, only one person had. Chuck Madison. A farm kid, when his parent’s livestock ran off and the barn burnt down, the Madisons had moved to the neighborhood. Chuck was a couple years older than Danny, but none of the older guys liked him very much, partly because he always told big lies, like he had a girlfriend back in Dickson or that he could get a fake ID for anybody. So, when the lies caught up with Chuck, he stopped hanging out with the high school kids and instead started bugging the younger ones, trying to be their leader. Danny hadn’t liked him much, but he could get cigarettes and the girls thought Chuck was hot, so he’d stayed a while.
One afternoon, Chuck’d met up with them in Hickman’s barn, and when he barged in through the doors, Danny and Mack Pilsner were playing foosball. Chuck was all out of breath and when he calmed down and everybody had gathered around, he told them he’d seen a hundred snakes all tangled up in tree branches like vines. He’d taken a picture with his cellphone, but it was blurry and just looked like a tree. They’d bought into it for a minute though and they’d followed Chuck into the woods, but sure enough, he couldn’t find it. After that, Chuck’s family went back up north and some people said Chuck went crazy.
Danny took long drags on the cigarette butt, and when it was out he struck another. When they reached the creek it was half past eight, the moon was in the sky, and he’d smoked three to the filter. Danny flicked the smoking butt into the water, heard it sizzle, and watched it float away. “Alright. You guys usually go upstream?”
“We go upstream then.” Danny reached to his belt and drew the machete. He held it in one hand and directed the flashlight beam with the other. Behind him, Sam held the rifle like she was about to disembark a Higgens onto Normandy Beach. Missy held the flashlight in one hand, the gallon of gasoline in the other.
“Let’s go,” he said.
It had rained the day before and the water was high. Even in the shallows, the current caressed Danny’s bare shins and behind him, Missy whimpered. The water had already seeped into her boots, making each step a tedious effort.
Danny told her to stay near the bank as he slid his lighter in his backpack. He didn’t know what was coming, but he sensed they were in trouble if the striker got wet.
They walked for an hour. Above, the moonlight was distorted and stolen by dark clouds and thunder boomed and boasted. Before long, a heavy rain began to fall and upon Missy’s request, they slunk to the shore.
“It’s really coming down,” Danny said.
“We need to keep moving,” Sam said. They were standing on the shore and behind them, Missy leaned against a tree. Danny shone the light at every treetop, but noticed nothing peculiar.
Below, the water was rising and the playful creek was growing to a river.
“Yeah,” Danny agreed.
“If she can’t keep going, I’m gonna go myself,” said Sam. “I’ll meet up with you guys on the way back.”
“Hold on. I’m going to go talk to her, don’t go nowhere.” He turned and walked to where Missy knelt, grumbling as he went.
Sam watched them for what seemed like an hour, picking up some hints of conversation through the roar of the downpour. Missy worried about the rain making her dress see-through. Danny said that was fine. Missy said it wasn’t. Danny said that she should stay there then. Again, Missy refused, saying that she would worry too much. And then they were back at the beginning again. Sam shook her head and picked up Missy’s flashlight and the rifle. She didn’t understand girls. Silently, she slunk down the riverbank and into the rising tide.
Sam walked for ten minutes, sticking to the shore where it was shallower. She studied the treetops for any sign of serpents. Nothing. Soon, the storm subsided and she thought of turning back, but decided against it.
“They can catch me,” she said and marched on through the tide.
Before long, it grew too deep. She found herself standing on her tiptoes, both her hands thrust up high into the sky to prevent the precious cargo from getting wet. It only grew deeper and she began to slush back to shore, when her foot struck a rock and she fell face first into the water.
It was lukewarm and swirling and Sam sputtered a moment before finding her footing. When she surfaced, the flashlight was gone, fried and tumbling along the bottom of the creek. The rifle was still in her grasp, but she doubted it would fire. Sam wiped water from her face and waded across the riverbed to an inlet of rocks.
As she walked, she felt her lips quiver. She had no flashlight. It was too dark. She couldn’t do anything to help Lucas. She cursed aloud, words she’d never said before, a long stream of them, and although she felt guilty, they felt good coming out of her fiery lungs. She took a seat on a flat rock, looked to her left, and saw the bucket.
She leapt up. It was her bucket alright. Even though the white handle had snapped off, the Easter bunny stickers had clung to the yellow plastic like a man on a windy ledge. She reached out for it and felt her heartbeat quicken. It had gotten wedged in the inlet, trapped in some rocks. She picked it up and sat back down, the rifle laid across her lap. A warm smile spread across her face. This meant Lucas had come this way.
She stood and gave a tapping dance on the wet stone.
That was when they began to descend upon her.
She couldn’t see it, but the snake tree loomed above her, and while she was blind in the darkness, they were not. Two score curling, slithering serpents descended down the bark, some finding a way to hold traction, but many flopped off, most landing in the underbrush on the riverside. Some decided against the straight descent and instead slithered off the long branch and plopped into the murky depths, where they jackknifed their way back and forth towards their unassuming prey. They were not the smartest creatures, but somewhere along the evolutionary line they’d developed memory. It was a collective thing, and shortly after they’d populated the forest, they’d made their colony in the big tree, the snake tree. They were not the strongest of creatures, but they’d brought down big prey before. The biped man. The four-legged dog. The naive buck. Yes, they’d found a way to fill their gullets, but it had been a while and they were hungry. They’d almost brought down game earlier that day, the boy, but he’d managed to get away. That would not be the case with this one. No, they would bite and she would fall. And if that couldn’t finish it, Mother would.
Sam stood, the rifle slung over her shoulder and the bucket clutched to her chest, the mouth facing upwards and catching the dribbling drops of rain. She’d taken a step off the rock when something brushed her foot.
Her heart clenched in terror and she squinted through the darkness.
She’d let out a soft chuckle of relief when she felt a second something whip over her boot.
Sam felt the scream building up in her chest.
Behind her, something splashed from the treetop into the water, then another and another, each accompanied by a subtle spray.
Maybe it was a stick, she thought, but still her nerves tensed.
Up ahead, there was a small patch of creek bed free of tree cover. It was illuminated in bright, pale moonlight.
With a quick inhale, Sam made a break for it.
As soon as she kicked off, it happened. An adolescent serpent fell from the treetop and landed half in, half out of the bucket, convulsing and fighting to get up the smooth incline.
The diamond-headed snake blinked through green slits, curled back into the bottom of the bucket, and launched.
Sam hurled the bucket and ran sloshing through the creek. As she went, she felt a hot dagger of pain latch ahold of her calf, and she moaned in agony but kept running toward the moonlit patch.
“Danny,” she bellowed. “Missy! Mom! Lucas!”
She splashed through the moonlight, saw no suitable place to climb to the shore, and continued downstream, yelling louder.
When she looked back, she saw them. A slithering horde following after her. And in their wake was something massive, black, and curling, ten feet long if it was an inch.
Petrified, she pushed harder, yelling madly into the night for whoever might hear. She’d recognized that shape, had seen it before on the Discovery Channel. Anaconda.
She’d heard the rumor, that one had escaped from the zoo a few years back, but she hadn’t believed it.
She did now.
The energy welling in her chest began to fade, as the burning of the bite grew numb. She felt fuzzy.
“Venom,” she mumbled. “They kill you with venom.”
She reached up to clutch her chest and felt the strap of the rifle.
She stumbled to a halt along the shoreline, pulled the rifle over her shoulder, and pressed the butt into her armpit. Even wet, it was her best chance.
The water was dark, but she could make out the sideways ripples.
“Alright,” she said. Her words sounded distant and her head felt heavy. She racked the lever, loading the first bullet, and pointed it at the rippling water.
She took a short breath and squeezed the trigger.
The burst of gunpowder lit up the night for the slightest moment and in the brief explosion, she’d seen the reality. The snakes were almost upon her now, but the big, dark shape was gone.
She didn’t have enough bullets. They would get her. She was going to die here.
A beam of light flashed over her shoulder and she turned to see Danny and Missy in the belly of a canoe. He was at the oars and she was at the helm shining the light. They were coasting towards her.
“What are you doing?” he bellowed.
As the gap between them shortened, Missy screamed out.
Sam felt another burst of pain as a snake drove its fangs into her thigh. Teeth clenched, she groaned in agony and fell forward into the belly of the boat.
“Get her in,” Danny said. “And don’t you flip us!” He dug his paddle deep into the water as Missy dragged Sam by her belt loops onto the middle seat.
“Oh my God,” Missy said. The snake was still attached to her thigh by its fangs.
“Kill it,” said Danny.
Missy did. She delivered a quick slice of the butcher knife and the convulsing segments flopped into the bottom of the boat.
Sam’s bite pulsated and a pinprick of blood formed at each incision hole. What at first was agony had faded to a numb discomfort. She laid back with her head resting on the gas jug, her feet splayed out across Missy’s seat. Behind her, Danny back-paddled downstream towards another inlet.
“Where’d you get the boat?”
“We went to wait out the storm in Rickman’s barn,” Missy said. “We’d got there before we realized you’d left. We found it hanging on the wall. Did you find the tree?”
“Yeah,” Sam winced, shifting her leg to the side.
“How many times you get bit?”
“I think two.”
“Give me that,” Danny said, snatching the flashlight. He shone it upon the water. “I don’t see them.”
“There were so many,” Sam said. “And it gets worse. You remember the anaconda that escaped the zoo last year?”
“It was two years ago,” Missy said quietly.
“Whatever,” said Sam.
Danny’s face grew ashen.
“It’s here,” Sam said. “I swear on my great grandma’s grave I saw it. It was swimming right at me when I shot that bullet.”
“Maybe you hit it,” said Missy.
“I didn’t hit it.”
The canoe rocked gently back as they struck the shore and drifted against the rock wall separating them from the current. Danny laid the paddle down next to Sam and held out his arm for the rifle. Sam passed it to him. He inspected it, checked the magazine, and handed it back to her.
“Alright,” he said. “We need to figure this shit out.” He ran a hand through his thick, greasy hair. “Do we take you back or do we keep going?”
“Daniel,” said Missy. “You’re kidding. She was bit. By a snake.”
“Don’t you dare,” Sam growled.
“Okay,” Danny nodded and picked up the paddle. “Little snake, blue and white bands.”
The canoe crawled against the current. Missy resumed shining the flashlight and from her prone position Sam trained the rifle on the treetops.
“A little further,” she said.
Danny plunged the paddle deeper into the water, grunting with the exertion.
“Oh my God,” Missy said.
They all looked to where the light was shining.
“Holy shit,” Danny muttered.
The beam illuminated the pale bark of the snake tree where the serpents were receding back into the branches. They cooperated with one another, slithering over each other as they ascended up the trunk and into the low-hanging branches. Higher up the sprawling topiary, the snakes were larger and paler, a caste system in the treetop. As the beam fell upon them, the large serpents hissed and withdrew from the light that wavered as Missy’s hand shook.
“Hold it steady,” Danny said, squinting at the branches.
“There.” Sam pointed at the blue and white banded snake hissing in the middle branches. “That has to be the one.”
“You think so?”
“I’m sure of it.”
As if they had comprehended her words, snakes from all branches began to descend, releasing their curled position and falling with convulsing twists until they flopped into the water. Each splash was a dark omen, and when a thick yellow one plunged, Missy followed it with the light until it landed in a tiny geyser.
“Keep it in the branches,” Danny said.
“On the blue one,” Sam said. She lay back in the belly of the canoe, the rifle pressed to her shoulder. The snake that had bit Lucas hadn’t moved, and in the piercing beam it seemed to be staring back at her, tasting the night with its flicking tongue.
Sam took a sharp breath and pulled the trigger.
The rifle boomed and kicked and Missy yelped in surprise. The flashlight beam wobbled and Sam caught a slicing glimpse of the mutilated snake’s thrashing descent.
“Follow it,” she cried out.
Missy brought the light down on the water’s surface and the blue and white corpse bobbed in the current toward them.
More and more serpents fell from the snake tree, splashing into the water. The severed fragment of snake floated closer and Missy leaned out and plucked it out. The body dripped water and blood.
As she pulled back, something massive hit the starboard side, sending the boat lurching. With a scream, Missy fell over and disappeared, thrashing, beneath the surface.
All at once, the night went dark.
“Missy!” Danny yelled.
She resurfaced with a choking sob, her arms splashing as she fought to find her footing. She still had the snake clutched in her fist.
Sam leaned over the lip of the canoe, reaching as far as she could stretch, just far enough to grab hold of Missy’s hand. Her fingers curled around the wet, scaly corpse right as the anaconda struck for the second time and Missy disappeared again.
Sam fell back into the canoe, the carcass flopping into the floorboards.
Danny bellowed and smashed the surface with the paddle. “You give her back!”
“Danny,” Sam said and pointed at a pool of moonlight. Beneath the surface, the black thing was dragging Missy along the bottom of the creek.
“What do I do?” Danny said.
Sam grabbed the rifle as Danny let out a guttural yell.
Sam looked ahead and saw it. The anaconda had dragged Missy’s limp form onto the shore beneath the snake tree. With each muscular compression, it moved forward, foot by foot toward the base of the tree.
Without thinking, Sam raised the rifle and fired the three remaining bullets at the monster. Only one found its mark, drilling into the thick, scaly flesh a foot down from the head.
The snake expelled a high pitched, hissing squeal, but it continued to drag Missy through the mud and underbrush towards the towering tree.
“Give me the rifle,” Danny yelled at her.
The canoe had stopped in the gully where she’d found the bucket.
A snake dropped from a long branch into the belly of the canoe. It curled over itself a moment, trying to find its bearings, and Danny severed it with the machete, leaving a shallow gouge in the canoe’s bottom.
“It doesn’t have any bullets,” Sam said.
Another snake hung down from the branch, and she struck it with the rifle hard enough to send it flying.
“I’ve got a few loose ones,” Danny said. He reached into his bag and retrieved three bullets and his lighter.
Sam understood. She handed him the rifle and picked up the milk jug.
“Can you run?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“Okay. Set the bomb, but don’t you fucking dare light it before I get her. You got that?”
Sam nodded, took the lighter and the jug, and splashed overboard.
She held the items above her head as she sullied to shore. As she stepped upon the earth, a snake landed on her shoulders. Before it could sink its teeth in, she dropped the jug and hurled the beast into the underbrush.
Another fell beside her and she kicked at it. There was a searing dagger of pain on her shoulder blade as a third landed, but she ignored it, grabbed the jug, and sprinted the last ten feet to the tree.
They were everywhere. Closing in like demons. She kicked out with her boots, batting them away one after another.
Behind her, she heard the first gunshot. It faded with echoing ambiance to a silence that was quickly ravaged by a second shot, then a third.
Sam heard the anaconda’s screech and something massive fell into the water with a pluming cascade. Another snake drove its fangs into her thigh and she bellowed, ripping it away.
“Do it!” Danny yelled from the creek.
In a surge of adrenaline, she removed the cap from the jug and splashed it haphazardly on the trunk of the snake tree. When she neared the end of her supply, she ran a little stream down the bank, tossed the carton back at the trunk, and lit the pungent fumes.
All at once, both the bank and her hands burst into hellfire.
Sam howled and dove headfirst into the water, swallowing deep gulps as the cool liquid extinguished her hands and soothed her burns. When she resurfaced, the night was alive with an orange blaze that reflected off the creek like a mirror.
All through the branches, the serpents screeched in pain and anguish.
“Get in the damn canoe,” Danny yelled. He’d already pushed off from the rocky inlet and out into the center of the stream. As Sam clung to the side of the boat, she could feel the heat from the burning tree. In the licking firelight, she could see Missy lying in the belly of the canoe, her eyes open, both hands clutched to her chest. Danny paddled furiously, the veins in his thin arms bursting.
Sam kicked behind the boat.
When they grew closer to the forest path, she ran her hand along the bottom of the canoe and found the wet, bloody fragment of the blue and white banded serpent. With the severed bit clutched in her fist, she watched the licking tower of flames fade out of sight.
In total, they suffered thirteen snake bites between the three of them, all from local specimens. Missy, who had been dealt the most, was also afflicted with three broken ribs, one of which punctured her lung. Pink froth filled her mouth as the canoe came to the bank where a mob of neighborhood residents had already gathered to investigate the fire.
When they saw the three children, they rushed the boat.
Two days later, Lucas Green woke. With a gasp, he clutched his chest and felt the tubes attached to his arms. Above, bright lights blared and he began to scream.
“Oh my God,” Tammy cried. “It’s okay. Sweetie, it’s okay.”
Lucas took a series of short, huffing breaths, blinked through the glare, and saw her leaning over him.
“I’m here baby,” she beamed.
Behind her, a door opened and a nurse entered. “Everything okay?”
“Yes,” Tammy nodded, tears flowing freely. “He’s awake. He’s alive.”
“What is it sweetie?”
“Where am I?”
“We’re in the hospital,” she said, letting his hand go long enough to wipe her eyes. “You ... You got really hurt. But you’re okay now. I’m here and you’re okay.”
“She’s here too.” Tammy reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. “Let me call Danny.”
Lucas lay back and closed his eyes. Nothing made sense. Last he remembered he’d been walking the creek.
“It happened,” Tammy said. “Uh huh. He’s awake.”
A few minutes passed before the door swung open again.
“Well look who decided to wake up.”
Lucas sat up to see Danny and Sam enter the room. She sat in a wheelchair wearing a hospital gown. Danny pushed her. He wore jeans and rubber wading boots.
“You look terrible,” Sam laughed as Danny wheeled her to the edge of the bed. “But I’m so glad you’re alive.” She reached out and squeezed his leg.
For a moment, Lucas was silent, too stunned to speak. Her black hair braided to the side. Her freckled cheeks. Her dark green eyes the color of pine needles in the fall. He felt a soothing warmth radiating through his chest.
“If you don’t shut your mouth a fly’s gonna land in it,” Danny said.
“Oh, yeah,” he chuckled. “Hey, why are you in a wheelchair? You fall off Daryl’s trampoline again?”
Sam fell silent and looked down at the floor.
Behind her, Danny glanced at Tammy.
Their mother smiled. “I’ll give you guys a couple minutes. Should probably go call gram.” She picked up her purse and left the hospital room, shutting the door softly behind her.
Lucas watched her exit, then looked from Sam to Danny. There was something missing in his brother’s face.
“What happened?” Lucas asked.
“Well,” Sam said, looking back up at him. “How much do you remember?”
Lucas shut his eyes and thought back, trying hard to concentrate. He was wading through the creek. He had the bucket and his stick when...
He remembered the snakes. A tree full of snakes.
His eyes shot open and he felt the breath catch in his chest.
“It’s okay,” Sam said, grabbing his hand.
“You were walking the creek when the snakes got you,” Danny said. “You remember that?”
“Yeah,” Lucas said.
“Well your girlfriend here and I and Missy.” Danny shut his eyes. “We went to go find the one that got you.”
“Did you find it?” Lucas asked.
“You guys saved me?”
“Yeah,” Danny said.
“That’s crazy.” Lucas chuckled until he felt the pain in his chest. “Where’s Missy?”
No one spoke. Lucas looked from Danny to Sam and back again. They both averted their gaze.
“What?” Lucas asked.
“She died,” Sam said. “Her lungs got crushed.”
Lucas felt a wave of tingling emotion wash over him. “Oh.”
Danny stared at a chart of the human muscular system.
“I’m sorry,” Lucas said.
“It’s alright.” Danny took a deep breath. He reached down and patted Lucas’s leg, then walked toward the door. “I gotta get going.”
“Danny,” Lucas said. “Where are you going?”
“Well,” he said, looking back. “Newspaper said they found the bones of about fifty snakes. But they didn’t find the one I’m looking for.” He offered a fabricated smile. “See you at home.”
As he left, Lucas looked over at Sam and felt the pleasant warmth burn in his chest again. In that moment, he understood what Danny had lost.