The Trouble with Rumors

It had been a tranquil summer day until my sister stepped on the snake. She hadn’t seen the long black creature in the grass until it reared up and struck at her. I couldn’t really blame it. After all, my sister had stomped her foot down on the thing’s back. I probably would have struck at her if she stepped on me like that.

The scream my sister let out could have woken the dead. Mom heard her from all the way up at the house and came running. Sophie was still screaming and dancing around when mom finally got there. She’d been smart enough to jump away from the snake, but instead of turning and fleeing like a normal person she started running around in circles. The snake, who didn’t want anything except to not be stepped on, had subsided into the grass and slithered away under some spiny bushes. At least there it wasn’t likely to get stepped on again.

My sister, teary eyed and pale faced, was standing trembling in the yard when mom rushed over. “Honey, what happened?” Mom asked.

Sophie pointed toward the bushes. “I—It—s—snake—b—bit me!” she stammered before collapsing into sobs again.

Mom put her arms around Sophie and looked over at me. “Sasha, what happened?”

“She stepped on a snake,” I said.

Mom’s eyes widened. “What kind of snake?”

“I dunno. A big black one. Maybe a black snake? I can go get it for you,” I offered.

“Don’t you dare, young lady.” Mom glared. “I’m not rushing you to a hospital if you get your nose bitten off. That thing could be poisonous!”

“Venomous,” I corrected. “And anyway, it didn’t look venomous.”

Mom gave me a look, but didn’t say anything. Sophie was finally starting to calm down, although I still couldn’t understand anything she was saying. Mom stroked my sister’s blonde ponytail and crooned softly to her. “Come on, let’s get you up to the house,” she said.

I trailed after them as mom guided Sophie up to the back porch and through the screen door into the house. Grandma Rose sat in a chair at the kitchen table with a bundle of knitting in front of her. She looked up as we came in and exclaimed as she saw my teary eyed sister. “What on earth?”

“A s—snake bit me,” Sophie sniffled.

“Only because you stepped on it,” I said.

“I didn’t see it!” my sister snapped.

“Well I did,” I said.

“Oh, you poor thing.” Grandma Rose reached out a wrinkled hand and patted Sophie’s arm as she limped by. “I guess it’s a good thing your sister was there to help yo—Sasha May!” Grandma had turned to look at me as she spoke and was now staring at me in scandalized horror.

“What?” I asked.

“Sasha May, you are a disgrace! Go clean yourself up right now!”

I looked down and realized I had mud from the creek coating my bare feet and splashed liberally over my rolled-up pants. My fingernails were also caked with brown stuff and there were a few more splotches from the dirty water on my white shirt.

“Saving your sister from a snake is no excuse for coming in the house looking like that,” Grandma admonished me.

I frowned up at her. “I didn’t save her! I was just in the yard…”

Grandma Rose didn’t seem to hear what I said as she waved her needles at me to shoo me out of the house. Sighing, I slunk out the back door and went to rinse my feet off with the garden hose, being careful to watch for big slinky things in the grass that weren’t hoses.

When I got back in, Sophie was sitting on the edge of the kitchen sink with her skirts pulled up while mom rinsed off her ankles. Grandma gave me an approving nod as she saw me pad across the floor on my now-clean feet.

“That’s not a bite,” I said, peering over mom’s shoulder at the two tiny pin-pricks on Sophie’s right ankle. “A bite would have lots of teeth marks. Those little things are just from the snake’s front fangs. It probably didn’t even open its mouth.”

“Says you!” Sophie glared through her red-rimmed eyes. “You get bit by a snake, and then we’ll see how you feel about it.”

“Now, now, girls,” mom said, “there’s no need to fight.” She shut off the water and straightened up. “You should be all right Sophie. I got those punctures flushed out and made sure they bled.”

“Are you sure?” Sophie peered cautiously at the twin marks on her leg. “What if the snake was poisonous?”

“Venomous,” I said.

“Poisonous!” Sophie glared.

Mom sighed. “If it was a rattlesnake, I think one of you would have heard it. I’m going to call someone just in case though.” She turned and headed out of the room.

“Those specialists always insist on seeing evidence you know,” Grandma Rose called after her. “They hardly ever take a verbal account as accurate, and always ask to see ‘evidence.’” She tisked her tongue in disapproval. “Why, I remember once I called a man to remove a spider I had crawling about in the sink. The horrid thing was huge and all violently colored! Well I thought it had to be a tarantula big as it was, but when I described it to the man he said he ‘couldn’t know for sure until he saw it.’ And do you know, when I left for two minutes to answer the door, that spider just up and vanished! The man was quite polite, but I could tell he was cross with me for calling him out for nothing, or so he thought.” Grandma sniffed and clicked her needles aggressively.

“So they won’t know if it’s a rattlesnake unless they see it?” Sophie whimpered from her perch on the sink. “What if they can’t find it?”

“They’ll find it,” I said confidently.

My sister gave me a skeptical look. “How do you know?”

“Because I know everything!” I gave her a smug smile. Sophie rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at me.

“You’ll see.” I said, and raced out the door.

~          ~          ~

“Sasha? Is that you?”

I looked up through the stubby leaves and thorns of the bushes I was under. “Yeah?” I craned my neck back, trying to see through the branches at whoever was talking to me.

“What are you doing under there?” the voice asked.

“Hang on.” I twisted around and crawled out from the bushes, trying not to get scraped by most of the thorns. When I got my head clear of the branches I squinted up at the owner of the voice. “Oh, hi Tabatha. What are you doing?”

“I could ask you the same question,” Tabatha said. She cocked her head to one side and arched her pale brows as I wriggled out from the bushes.

“Just looking for something,” I said, trying to brush some of the dirt off my shirt and pants. It was a hopeless task and I gave up after a few ineffectual swipes. Tabatha, in a spotless frilled top and pink skirt, watched with her lips pressed tightly together. The corners of her mouth kept twitching up rebelliously though.

“I don’t suppose this has anything to do with the snake that bit your sister?” Tabatha asked.

I gave her a sharp look. “How’d you hear about that? And it didn’t bite her anyway, it just sort of scratched her.”

“I do live next door,” she reminded, a mischievous glitter coming into her blue eyes.

“Next door is two miles away!”

Tabatha shrugged. “I bet they heard Sophie scream from five miles away.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “You were already coming over, weren’t you?”

“It’s possible,” Tabatha admitted. She suddenly reached forward and I leaned back automatically. “Hold still a minute. You’ve got something in your hair.”

I eyed her hand, but let her pick through my short brown locks until she pulled back and displayed the offending twig. “New hair piece?” Tabatha arched a brow.

“Um, no.” I wrinkled my nose at the twig. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Tabatha stepped back and tossed the twig away. There was a dry hiss and something dark flipped through the grass passed Tabatha’s foot. She leaped aside and I dove forward, sprawling chest down in the grass.

“What—” Tabatha started, eyes wide.

“Ah ha!” Wriggling up to a sitting position, I held up my prize for her to see. Five feet of glossy black scales and white underbelly writhed around my arms, the snake’s head held just in front of the hand I had curled around its neck.

Tabatha stared blankly at it for a moment before she found her voice. “That’s—Is that the snake that bit Sophie?”

I grinned. “Yup.” I scrambled to my feet and held out my arms to her. “Tabatha, meet Henry.”

Tabatha regarded me for a few long seconds. “You…named it?” she asked.

“Her,” I corrected. “Henry laid a clutch of eggs in a rotten log last year. I found them when I was down by the creek.”

“Uh huh.” Tabatha and Henry eyed each other in silence.

“You can pet her,” I offered. “She won’t bite unless you squeeze her, or step on her.”

Tabatha gave me a skeptical look, but after a minute she inched forward and cautiously brushed her fingertips over the smooth scales. Henry flicked her tongue out and continued to coil around my arms, but she seemed to have warily resigned herself to the human contact.

“She’s so dry,” Tabatha said. She stroked her fingers over the snake’s back, a little less hesitantly this time. “I thought snakes were supposed to be slimy.”

“Snakes aren’t slimy at all,” I said. “That’s snails. Snails are really slimy.”

Tabatha’s mouth twitched up. “And I supposed you’ve pet snails, too?”

I shrugged a shoulder. “Once or twice.”

The crunch of tires on gravel made Tabatha glance up at the house. “Are you expecting someone?” she asked.

I shifted my grip on Henry as she tried to slither out of my grasp. “Yeah. Mom called someone to make sure Sophie didn’t get bit by a rattlesnake. That’s why I had to get Henry, so that they could see her and tell she’s not a rattler.”

“Ah, I see.” Tabatha gazed over my shoulder as the screen door banged.

“Sasha!” Mom called. “Sasha—oh there you are.” I turned as mom and a strange man descended into the yard. Sophie, with a mulish look on her face, limped after them.

“Hi Mom!” I said cheerfully. Three sets of eyes widened as they took in the scaly black creature draped around my arms.

“Sasha May!” Mom started to run toward me. By the ashen look on her face, you would have thought I was holding a live grenade.

“I’m fine! Really, I am!” I took a half step away as mom skidded up to me, hoping her sudden arrival didn’t scare Henry.

The newcomer, his tie flapping out behind him, panted up beside mom. “Well,” he paused to gulp in air, “what do we have here?”

Before I could answer, Sophie squealed from behind him “That’s it! That’s what bit me!” She pointed at Henry.

The man chuckled. “Well Mrs. Halstead, I wouldn’t worry about your daughter. That’s a Pantherophis obsoletus, or black rat snake if I ever saw one. Perfectly harmless. In fact, black rats are known to eat rattlesnakes on occasion, and they’ll keep down the mice in your outbuildings. Quite a useful snake to have around.”

“See, I told you she wasn’t venomous.” I stuck my tongue out at Sophie. She screwed her face up at me and jammed her hands on her hips.

“Sasha, you put that thing down right now! You’re going to get bitten!” Mom glared at me.

“No I won’t,” I retorted. “Henry likes me! I pick her up all the time.” Mom looked like she might faint.

The man held out his hands toward me. “May I?” I nodded and let him unwind Henry from my arms. He examined her with interest, and no sign of fear as the lengths of glittering black scales coiled around his wrists. “Lovely specimen. She looks to be in perfect health.” With a smile he gave the snake back to me. “You have quite a way with snakes, young lady,” he said. “We might just make a herpetologist out of you one day.” His eyes twinkled with amusement.

I grinned. “Thanks.”

The man turned back to mom. “It looks like you won’t be needing my assistance anymore.” He offered his hand to mom, and she shook it. “It’s a good thing Sasha pulled her sister away from the snake, since a true bite can be quite deep. As it is, Sophie here should be perfectly all right.”

“But I didn’t—” I started.

“Thank you so much for coming out here,” mom said. “I was so worried that thing was a rattlesnake.” She glared over at Henry.

“It was no problem, Mrs. Halstead,” the man said as he turned to walk back to the house with her. Sophie, who clearly didn’t want to hang around Henry very long, had already begun drifting toward the back porch.

I watched them for a moment, then looked down at Henry looping and twisting around my forearm. “Guess you want to get down, huh?” I said to her. I turned to take her to the creek and nearly collided with Tabatha. “Sorry!” I took a step back. “I forgot you were still here.”

She smiled. “It’s alright.” She followed me as I started across the yard again. “What was that about you rescuing Sophie from Henry?” she asked.

I frowned. “I don’t know. I didn’t do anything! I was just standing in the yard, and then Sophie screamed, and mom came running and Sophie said a snake had bit her.”

“Hmm.” Tabatha was silent for a minute. “Were you standing close to Sophie?”

“No.” I stopped as we reached the creek bank and knelt down next to a tangle of brush. Henry stayed frozen for a moment as I set her down, then slithered away into the bushes. I sat back on my heels, listening to the rustle of fallen leaves as Henry disappeared. “You know, Grandma Rose said something about me saving Sophie. Only I didn’t!” I looked over as Tabatha gathered her skirt up and crouched next to me.

“I guess that’s the trouble with rumors,” she said, flashing me a grin. “One person gets it into their head you saved someone, and suddenly you’re a national hero.”

I snorted. “Great. Now everyone’s going to think I’m so brave protecting Sophie, and Sophie’s going to hate me because they’ll think she needed me to protect her, and I’ll hate it ‘cause everyone will try to be friends with me.”

Tabatha laughed. “It might not be so bad.” I made a face at her. “If you really hate it, you can just stick a crawfish in Sophie’s bed or scream every time you see a mouse. That should suitably stain your reputation again.”

It was my turn to laugh. “I’ll have to try one of those things,” I said. Then after a heartbeat, “Thanks, Tabatha.”

She flashed me a sly grin, the mischievous glitter back in her eyes. “You’re welcome, Sasha.”

Isabel Nee loves reading, writing, science, birds, and mythology. She sporadically practices archery, and is known to research bizarre genetic diseases which she then inflicts on her characters. Isabel has had prose and poetry published in elementia magazine and Showcase Selections ~ 2016. She is currently writing a YA fantasy novel, and hopes to some day become a professional novelist. Isabel lives in Kansas where she hatches chickens and (she would like to think) great ideas.

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