For Pete's Snake
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For Pete's Snake
The last, tearful words my sister, Petra, said to me as they drove her off to the hospital were, "Please, Will, take care of my Coily!"
It was Saturday evening, on the Fourth of July weekend. My parents didn't know how long they'd have to wait in the emergency room. But they were used to it. This was not the first time Pete had fallen out of a tree. Or off the roof. Or off her skateboard.
Pete is a major klutz. She breaks things. Mostly her bones. Whenever anyone asks my father for a credit card, he says, "Visa, American Express, or County General?"
So there was really nothing new about Pete being carried off to the hospital again.
Except that this time I had promised to baby-sit a boa constrictor.
Well, I hadn't really promised. But I had nodded. I'm her brother, what else could I do? The kid was in pain, in tears, and in the car. If I'd said no, she might have jumped out of the car and tried to take Coily with her to the hospital. Then my mother and father would probably have argued over who would get to shoot me.
And besides, I thought, as I sat down on the front steps, it's a snake, not a baby. It's not as if I'd have to pick him up, or rock him, or burp him or anything.
As Pete told my mother when she begged to adopt the beast, "They're really no trouble at all. You don't have to walk them, and you only have to feed them every two weeks. And they eat mice."
"We don't have any mice," my mother had pointed out.
"So we'll get some," Pete said.
The sky was beginning to turn a coppery color, and I could see hard-edged dark clouds on the horizon. The air was heavy and still. I hoped we weren't going to have a thunderstorm.
It's not that I'm really afraid of storms. It's just that when I was five, I wandered away from our tent during a family camping trip. I got lost, and this monster thunderstorm came up --
Well, ever since then I've been a little tense about thunder and lightning.
Except for the occasional sound of a distant firecracker, the neighborhood was unnaturally quiet. A lot of people were away for the holiday weekend, and the others were at Waterside Park, waiting for the fireworks display.
Which is where we were planning to go before Petra fell out of the tree.
I can go anyway, I realized. After all, it wasn't as if I had to do anything for Coily. Mostly he lay on the flat rock in his tank, or wrapped himself around the tree branch in there, or hid inside the copper water pipe Pete had found for him.
"They like to hide," Pete explained. "Where they can't be seen."
"Great," I'd told her. "The less I see him, the better."
Not that I'm afraid of snakes - but, hey, even Indiana Jones thinks they're repulsive. So I'd just look in on Coily -very briefly- and then go off to see the fireworks. If I could find someone to drive me.
I went into the house, flipping on light switches as I made my way to the kitchen. It was getting pretty dark. The fireworks would probably begin in about an hour.
I phoned my friend Josh, hoping he was home.
"Hey, Will!" he shouted. "Boy, am I glad to hear somebody who doesn't sound like Popeye the Sailor Man."
"There's a six-hour Popeye marathon on cable. We're into the fourth hour here."
"Then you'll be glad to know why I'm calling," I said. "Though it does involve water." I explained about Pete and the hospital, and about how I wanted to go down to Waterside Park.
"That would be great," he said.
"Okay, come over and pick me up and - "
"Except that I have to sit with Steffie." Steffie is Josh's five-year-old sister.
"Bring her along," I said.
"She's got a strep throat," Josh said. "I can't take her anywhere. "
"It's hot out," I said. "It wouldn't hurt her to just lie on a blanket and watch-"
"She's got a hundred-and-one fever," he said.
"Hey, I have to go. I think I hear her croaking for something. Enjoy the fireworks."
"How can I -" But he'd already hung up. How can I enjoy the fireworks, I'd been about to ask, with no one to drive me there? The park is four miles away.
Shelly! I thought. My friend Shelly had a brand-new driver's license and was always looking for an excuse to drive somewhere.
I heard a lot of noise in the background when Mrs. Getz answered the phone. Kid noise. Like a bunch of preteenies squealing and giggling.
"Hi, Mrs. Getz. It's Will. May I speak to Shelly?"
"She's sort of tied up at the moment," said Mrs. Getz. "Can she call you back?"
"What's going on there?" I asked. "Is that Shelly screaming?"
"I think so," Mrs. Getz answered. "She's supposed to be running Carol's birthday party." Carol is Shelly's eleven-year-old sister.
"I forgot about the party," I said glumly. "I guess she'll be tied up for a while then."
"She will until I go untie her," said Mrs. Getz. "I believe they're playing Joan of Arc."
"Boy," I said, thinking of Pete and Steffie, "kids can sure be a pain sometimes."
Mrs. Getz snorted. "Tell me about it," she said, and hung up.
I dropped the phone back on the hook. I peered out the window over the kitchen sink. It was only seven thirty, but the darkness was closing in fast.
I called three other friends. Two weren't home. Chip, the third, had to shout over the sound of an electric guitar, and some horrible wailing.
"Family reunion!" he yelled. "That's my cousin Dennis. "
"What's he doing?"
"Elvis Presley. Why don't you come over? We're barbecuing."
"Dennis, I hope," I muttered.
"What? I can't hear you."
"I said, great, I'll be right there." It was only half a mile to Chip's, and even if I'd have to listen to Dennis, it was better than sitting alone in the house with a boa constrictor.
And then I heard a distant rumble.
"Was that thunder?" I asked.
"I can't hear a thing," Chip shouted. "Dennis is doing 'Hound Dog.' "
Another rumble. Closer.
"I think it's starting to rain," Chip said. "It doesn't matter. Come on over."
"Well, maybe not," I said. "I mean, if it's raining."
"That's okay. We'll go inside. Whoo, there goes the lightning."
"I'd better stay here," I said. "My folks might try to call. "
"Oh, yeah," Chip said. "You have this thing about thunderstorms.'
"I do not have a thing about thunderstorms," I said defensively. "I just don't feel like walking half a mile in a downpour, that's all." With lightning striking all around me.
"Suit yourself," Chip said. ''I'd better help Dennis get his amp inside before he's electrocuted."
"Right." I slammed the phone down. Okay. Fine. I'll stay home. I'll read. I'll watch TV. I'll listen to music. I'll worry about my sister.
I'll be alone in the house with a boa constrictor.
Big deal. It doesn't scare me. All he ever does is lie on his rock. Or curl up inside his pipe. I won't bother him, he won't bother me. I'm not really afraid of snakes anyway. I just happen to find them repulsive, disgusting, and evil looking.
But I'm not afraid of them.
And I'm certainly not afraid of being alone in the house. And even though it's starting to thunder, I'm perfectly safe, as long as I don't talk on the telephone, stick my toe in a light socket, or stand under a tree.
So there's nothing to be afraid of. Even if it is getting so dark that the light over the kitchen table is barely making a dent in the gloom.
So don't stay in the kitchen, dummy, I told myself. There's a whole, brightly lit house to wander around in. I'll just go check the stupid snake, I thought, then settle down in front of the TV. There's nothing like a Popeye festival to calm your nerves.
I turned on the light in the hallway and headed toward Pete's room.
One quick look into the glass tank and I could say that I'd kept my promise. Coily will be curled up on his rock, and I'll go curl up with Popeye and Olive. The rumbles of thunder that had seemed so far away a moment ago were louder now. The storm was coming closer.
That's okay, I told myself. The closest thing to a tree in this house was Coily's branch, and I would hardly climb into the tank and wedge myself under it, so there was nothing to worry about.
The door to Pete's room was wide open. This was a major violation of rules. Ever since she'd gotten the boa, Pete had strict orders to keep her door closed. That way, in case Coily ever managed to escape from his tank, he'd be confined to Petra's room and be reasonably easy to recapture.
Not that any of us, except Pete, would ever try to recapture him. My father said, "If that thing gets loose, I'm moving to a motel and putting the house up for sale."
So far the only time the snake had been out of Pete's room was when she would occasionally drape Coily around her shoulders and parade around the house so we could admire his exotic markings and alleged tameness.
When Pete "walked" her scaly pet, the rest of us found urgent business to attend to in rooms with doors that locked.
Anyway, it disturbed me that Pete's door was wide open, but I figured that in her hurry to get to the yard and climb a tree so she could fallout of it, she'd forgotten the rule.
I reached inside the room and flicked the light on. From the entrance I peered at the snake tank. It was a large, glass rectangle with gravel on the bottom and plastic mesh screening over the top. Pete had taped a little sign on the side that said COlLY'S CORNER.
I couldn't see the beast at first, but that didn't throw me. As Pete had said, snakes like to hide, so I figured Coily was scrunched inside his copper pipe.
I moved into the room. A clap of thunder made me jump, but it wasn't too bad, and I didn't see any lightning flash.
"Miles away," I reassured myself. "Just get the stupid snake check over with and go watch something dumb on the tube."
Okay. I cleared my throat so Coily would know I was coming and not feel he had to rear up and do anything dramatic to protect his territory. I know snakes can't hear. But why take chances?
I edged closer to the tank. I could see it all, the whole thing. But I couldn't see Coily. Inside the pipe, I reminded myself. Just squat down, look inside the pipe, barf, run out of the room, and shut the door.
The lights flickered with another burst of thunder.
Lights flicker in a storm, I reminded myself. No need to panic. I squatted down and looked into the copper pipe.
I could see clear through it to the other side. There was nothing inside it but air.
"Yikes!" I straightened up, and as I did, I noticed that the plastic mesh screening on top of the tank had a jagged rip in one corner.
As if something-something with fangs-had gnawed right through it.
"Yikes!" I was repeating myself, but this was no time to worry about being clever. I raced out of Pete's room and slammed the door. I leaned against the wall, panting, even though I'd only sprinted ten feet.
What a narrow escape. I could have been standing--or squatting-right there in front of the tank, with the boa lurking under a chair just waiting to slink up and constrict me.
And then it hit me.
Pete's door had been open when I went into her room. It had been open for almost an hour. The snake might not be in there at all. In fact it could be anywhere in the house by this time.
I hugged the wall, wanting to climb up it. If I could hang from the light fixture on the ceiling, chances were the creature couldn't reach me.
Don't lose it, Will, I told myself. This is stupid. I could see all the way up and down the hall, and the boa was nowhere in sight.
There are seven rooms in this house, I reminded myself. Plus the hall. The odds are eight to one that I won't be in the same place as the snake. As long as I keep my eyes open-
Two deafening bursts of thunder, one right on top of the other. Instinctively I shut my eyes and clapped my hands over my ears. Then I thought of the twelve-foot long snake slithering along the hall toward me. I snapped my eyes open and did a 360 to make sure I was still alone.
Another clap of thunder. The lights went out.
"No!" I yelled. "No! Don't let the electricity go out"
The lights came back on.
A drenching rain began to pound the house. It sounded as if I were standing in the middle of Niagara Falls.
Flashlight! I thought. Candles. Quick, while I could still find them.
I ran for the kitchen. I opened the utility cabinet, next to the refrigerator. Something smacked against the window. It was probably a branch of the mimosa tree, driven by a sudden, howling wind that had seemed to come from nowhere.
"Just the tree," I told myself. "It happens all the time when it's windy."
As I turned around to make sure it was nothing more sinister than the tree branch, the room went black.
Another flicker. I tried to keep calm. The electricity would come back on in a moment.
But it didn't.
"Aw, no!" I begged. "Not the lights. A boa constrictor and a thunderstorm aren't enough for one night?"
As if in ironic answer, a flash of lightning-very close, extremely close-illuminated the room with a harsh, chalky light. For three seconds I could see as clearly as if it were daytime. The mimosa tree, the sink, the white curtains at the window ...
And the giant brown reptile twined around the curtain rod flicking his forked tongue at me.
I screamed and jumped backward, crashing against the open door of the utility cabinet. Shrieking, I stumbled out of the kitchen, flailing my arms in front of me to keep from banging into anything else.
Which didn't work. I tripped over the stepladder, bounced off a wall, and staggered into the dining room, where I met the china cabinet head-on. Every dish on the shelves clattered as I careened into it and landed on the floor. I moaned, and wondered which part of my body hurt the most.
I sat huddled there for a moment, dazed and whimpering. Now, accompanying the torrential rain, there was a loud, rattling sound, as if someone were hurling handfuls of gravel against the windows. Hail, I thought. You sometimes get hail with severe thunderstorms. And tornadoes.
Great. A tornado. Just what I need. Thunder and lightning and hail and total darkness and a wandering boa constrictor and a tornado.
The hail and rain were making so much noise that I could hardly hear myself think. If you could call what I was doing thinking. If I can't hear myself think, I realized, I can't hear the brown monstrosity unwind himself from the curtain rod.
I can't hear him slip down off the sink, and across the floor, and out of the kitchen, and into the dining room, where I'm curled up here on the floor like a sitting --
I leaped to my feet--or at least I crawled to my knees and stood up as quickly as I could with an entirely black and blue body. Think, Win, I ordered myself. Just shut the kitchen door, and-
Good idea. Except we don't have a kitchen door, only an archway that separates the kitchen from the dining room. At this very moment Coily could be slithering past the refrigerator, heading for the dining room.
I'll go to my room. I'll go to my room and shut the door. No problem. Just grope around the table, through the living room, down the hall, and into my room. I can certainly move faster than a snake can slither - at least I can when the lights are on.
Of course there is another archway that leads from the kitchen and into the hall. The snake could be creeping out that way and into the hall just as I -
Don't even think about it.
I moved. As fast as I could, in the dark, with only an occasional flash of lightning to help me around the maze of furniture that clutters the living room.
"Why is this room so crammed?" I wondered, as I banged my shin against a footstool. "Does anyone really need this much furniture?"
I flung my arm against a plant stand. A flowerpot crashed to my feet. "Please don't let it be my mother's African violet that didn't bloom for three years up until last week," I prayed.
I made it to my room without further damage to myself or to our over furnished house. I slammed the door behind me. I was sure the snake couldn't have gotten to my room before I did.
Well, I was pretty sure.
Call Josh, I thought. Maybe his parents are home by now. Maybe he can come over with a flashlight, find the boa, and put him back in his tank.
The phone next to my bed has a lighted keypad, which is convenient if you have to call the police in the middle of the night, or if a boa constrictor gets loose in the dark.
When Josh picked up his phone, I didn't even say hello. I just shrieked.
"You have to come over and help me! I don't know where Coily is!"
"Did you check with Larry and Moe?" he asked.
"A Three Stooges joke," he explained. "You know, Larry, Moe, and -"
"This is no time for jokes!" I yelled. ''I'm alone in the house with a rampaging boa constrictor, and the lights are off, and-"
"I can't take my sister out in this storm," he cut in.
"When will your parents be home?" I asked desperately.
"Monday," he answered.
"ARRGGHH!" I slammed down the phone.
There was only one thing to do. Only one intelligent, mature way of coping with the situation.
I dived into bed and pulled the covers over my head. The snake couldn't be in my room. He just couldn't be. I'd be perfectly safe here under the covers. If I didn't pass out from the heat or smother myself.
I cowered there, sweating and shaking, waiting for my parents to come home. Once in a while I'd think I'd heard a car door slam. Then I'd poke my head out and listen. And gasp for air. But the only sounds were the rain -softer now-and distant rumbles of thunder.
I don't know how long I stayed there, trying to breathe, feeling my clothes getting wetter and wetter with sweat, telling myself that there was no snake in my room and that even if there was, he preferred curtain rods to beds.
And then I felt something soft graze my leg.
For a moment I froze. I couldn't breathe, couldn't even scream, which is what I really wanted to do.
It can't be a twelve foot boa constrictor, I told myself. It's just a beetle or a mosquito or something. But it didn't feel like a beetle or a mosquito.
It felt like a wet strand of spaghetti crawling up my leg.
I threw the covers off, howling. Just as I did, the electricity came back on. My room blazed with light. I blinked, and like a kid waking up from a nightmare, clutched my pillow to my chest. I forced myself to look down, down toward the end of the bed, where I had flung off the covers.
And saw a procession of brown, foot-long snakes writhing up my sheet, heads darting, tongues flicking, coming straight at me.
Screaming uncontrollably, I threw myself out of bed. I could still feel something on my leg. When I looked down, I saw that one of the creatures was hanging from my ankle like a loose boot strap.
"NO! NO!" I shook my leg violently, and the snake fell to the floor. I felt as if there were snakes crawling all over my body. I twisted around frantically, smacking my pillow against my legs, my arms, my chest.
W'hat if they're in my shorts?
I screamed even louder, dropped my pillow, and scrambled out of my cutoffs. Through my screaming I heard feet pounding down the hall.
"Will! Will!" My father threw my door open and grabbed me by the shoulders.
"Snakes! Snakes!" I screamed. "In my pants! In mybed!"
My mother was right behind him. Dimly, through a haze of terror, I saw Pete peer into my room. She had a splint on one arm and a boa constrictor wrapped around the other.
"How come you're running around in your under-"
She looked over at my bed.
"Coilyl" she cried delightedly. "You're a girl!"
Maybe the biggest surprise was that my hair did not turn completely white. Although I was afraid to look in a mirror for two days.
Coily has been adopted by one of my sister's weird friends. My mother put her foot down. She told Pete, "Look, your brother cannot live in the same house with that snake."
"So let him move," Pete said.
They think they found all the babies. But since no one knows how many snakes Coily actually gave birth to, no one is positive they're really all gone. Pete says if there are any left, they ought to come out pretty soon, because they'll be hungry.
In the meantime they could be anywhere. In the pipes under the toilet, in the back of a closet, behind the refrigerator.
So I did move. I'm staying at Josh's house for a while. My parents have been very understanding about my traumatic experience. Especially my father.
He's checked into a motel for two weeks.