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Everyone in the town of Paradise Brook remembered where they first heard Lily Mattison had given birth to snakes. Mr. Perry was sitting outside, the door to the art room propped open with a textbook, chain-smoking his second pack, when his wife texted him the rumor she heard at her Mom-And-Baby class. His TA came to tell him that second period was about to begin and saw the screen trembling in his hand. Casey Heiser and Ella Hansen were in the bathroom, skipping math class, when a freshman entered and whispered an interesting tidbit about their former friend. But the moment before the news hit the whole school, Amber McIntyre rose from her desk and bolted out of AP Calculus.
The heartbeat in her ears deafened her classmates’ gasps and Mrs. Arnold’s protests. Her hair spilled out behind her like a wake behind a ship as she ran through the linoleum halls. She burst through the doors of the East Wing, imagining them to be that of the delivery room. The declaration bubbled on her lips, ready to burst. No one had to tell me. I just knew. And I am here.
Mrs. Heiser, the PTA mom who buzzed people in and out of the front entrance, blinked as Amber slammed into the locked doors. She watched from her tiny windowed office as the girl struggled against the immobile handles, shouting for either the gate or its guard to relent. Her mouth hung open as she looked up from her phone, messages popping up like fizz in a freshly opened soda. She reached over to her security board and pressed a button. Amber pressed against the glass, pleading. Please. She needs me. Please.
Two meaty hands wrapped around Amber’s shoulders and jerked her back. She kicked and cried out as the security guard pulled her away. Two white faces poked out from the girls’ bathroom in a cloud of American Eagle body spray and chatter. Casey and Ella snickered as they watched the security guard drag the whimpering girl down the hallway.
Any member of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception who looked up from their hymnals long enough could have seen Amber and Lily sneaking out to the memorial garden every Sunday morning. Amber could picture it still, the memory as tangible as the single black curl between her fingers. She let it slip from her touch, watched it slink back through the grass to Lily’s milky cheek.
“It might be Jeremy McDonald’s.” Lily’s fingertips glistened with frosting from the donuts stolen from the reception hall. She sucked on the sugar and wiped her hands on her swollen belly. “He wasn’t cute but at least he was nice to me.”
Lily’s body melted toward Amber. She reached for Amber more and more those days. Her mom wouldn’t speak to her in their home, let alone hug her. Her friends at school, the ones Amber had observed always grasping, clinging, petting her, now avoided her in the halls.
“Maybe Mr. Perry. We did it in the back of the art room after school so that his wife wouldn’t find out. His TA caught us, but nothing ever happened with that.” She moved her head to Amber’s chest. Her hair smelled like cucumbers and rosemary. Her belly rubbed up against Amber’s thigh. “He gave me a C– in Ceramics though. Said it was an integrity thing.”
Her hands cradled her stomach. She pressed her eyes shut. “Or it could have been my dad’s business partner. He smelled weird, like mushy fruit.”
“But did you—” Amber’s voice squeaked, and she blushed. “Did you want that?”
“Not really.” Lily smiled at her friend the way she did whenever she thought Amber was acting naïve and virginal. “It was just easier than making a fuss.”
“You deserve better than that.” Amber stroked her hair, tucking a ringlet behind her ear.
The chapel bells began to toll. Parishioners who didn’t pause to chat about the city sidewalk renovations or the boys’ hockey tournament might have caught a glimpse of Lily and Amber’s feet intertwined out in the garden, before Amber’s parents drug her up from the flowerbeds and scolded her for pretending to be in the bathroom during all of Mass. Lily’s mom would simply gesture for her daughter to climb into their Escalade, so they could speed out of the church parking lot while the rest of the congregation looked on.
“Everybody wants something, Amber,” Lily explained. “You gotta decide whether it’s better to resist or give in. Either way, they get what they want, and you get fucked.”
Amber, as usual, did not know how to respond.
Lily gasped. Her hand flew to Amber’s wrist. She moved Amber’s fingers over the curve of her stomach.
“Do you feel that?” Lily mouthed. Amber nodded, though she didn’t feel anything. Her hand hovered there, limp, waiting for something to stir. Much later, she would look back on the following moments, with Lily lying contentedly in the garden, fingers delicately tracing her belly, and Amber would be almost certain, just shy of revelation, that under the skin, she felt a slither.
Outside Principal Malcom’s office, the security guard stood with his arms folded and his legs spread shoulder-width apart. His lips pursed underneath his mustache. He leaned toward the perfumed receptionist and teased her about being on Facebook at her desk. Through the cracked door, Amber heard the flirtation hemming his voice. She squirmed, willing that she could crawl out of her skin, shed every part of her that touched the scratchy upholstered chair and break free.
Dr. Malcom burst through the side door of his office, flip-phone in hand, bald spot shinning underneath the florescent light. From the first time he addressed the freshmen at orientation, shoving his hands in the pockets of his oversized pants while rambling into the microphone about the importance of order and safety in the American high school, the students perceived him as a man of hunger. It wasn’t just apparent in his whittled-down, former track-star body, but in his mannerisms, jerky like a coyote caught in a porchlight.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, Miss McIntyre. Today has been absolutely crazy.” His lizard-like gaze twitched between the girl, the door, and his phone. Amber practically lifted herself out of the seat, contemplating her odds of sprinting past the guard. “Don’t be nervous, sweetie. Everyone is on edge today, with the rumors. That Mattison girl can be so upsetting.”
Maybe one of the backdoors of the school was unlocked. At least one, in the back of the art room, opened into the overflow parking lot. Amber had to try. Lily was sitting in a sterile hospital bed, exposed, alone, waiting.
“She was always so, so provocative,” Malcolm elaborated. “That’s not a judgement, you know. It’s a statement of fact. She was always provoking situations that never needed to be situations in the first place. Mr. Perry, you must know him, not only a great teacher but also the nicest guy, came to me just a few months ago to express his concerns about her flirtatious behavior. Not to mention what she did to poor Jeremy. His mother had to call me about Lily’s pursuit of him. Good God, I bet many, many other students and parents could tell you similar stories.”
He blinked at me, and then exhaled and rubbed the top of his head.
“It’s a hoax,” the guard proposed to the receptionist outside. “It’s obviously a hoax. She wants to get on Ellen or Dr. Phil or something.”
The receptionist smacked her pink-painted lips. Her brunette up-do bobbed as she spoke. “My sister is a nurse in the maternity ward. She saw the snakes herself, five of them. She said the girl acted like it was all so normal. She wanted to hold them and cried when the doctors took them away.”
“Girl was never right in the head,” the guard grumbled. “Coming from that house, how could she be?”
“What I’m saying is.” Malcolm pretended to adjust the documents upon his desk, as if he wasn’t listening too. “Don’t worry, Miss McIntyre. I have to deal with far bigger screw-ups today.”
Lily’s father skipped town six months before the birth. The kids at school whispered that he left because of the pregnancy but he likely never knew. Jason Mattison used to own the most booming construction business in Paradise Brook, a Chicago suburb once known for its cozy ranch-style homes. As the economy rose, people wanted more expensive houses than their neighbors and their neighbors wanted expensive houses than that. They edged bigger and bigger structures onto their formally wooded properties, creating the suburb’s own space race. Jason’s company tore down and built up four houses on Amber’s street alone. Customers loved him, seeing themselves in his colloquial manners and attractive wife and daughter.
Then, while the families showed their neighbors through open houses, they began to notice the leaky pipes and cracked beams. Wires crossed. Light switches connected to nothing. They called Jason, but he didn’t pick up. His answering machine filled. Parents would accost Lily as she left school, attempting to beg or intimidate her father into calling them back. He made the mistake of attending a National Night Out picnic and was chased back into his SUV. Whispers of lawsuits bounced off of peeling wallpaper. The families had mortgaged their futures to buy their dream houses and he had built their dreams crooked.
After he fled town, Lily could never have succeeded in the town’s eyes. Her pregnancy and its result were the final confirmation that the family was poison.
The receptionist gasped.
“They’re gone,” she whispered. Malcolm picked his head up out of his hands.
“Who’s gone?” the guard asked. The receptionist’s hand hung in view of the doorway, her manicured finger pointing to a text message on her phone.
“The snakes. An Intern knocked over the box the hospital put them in and they escaped. No one can find them anywhere.”
“Can I make a phone call?” Amber piped up. “I really need to make a call.”
“I, I, uh…” Malcolm rubbed his head, pulling his focus back into the room. “We can talk about your little outburst in a moment, sweetheart. I just need to process all of this. I mean, we all do, don’t we? They talk about a girl in trouble, but this…” He tugged at the collar of his cream-colored shirt. His tie hung askew.
“I mean, one can’t help but imagine the mechanics of it.” Malcolm’s fingers massaged the air as he spoke. “A woman giving birth to… It reminds one of that kid’s song. The worms crawl in; the worms crawl out.” His fingers retracted into a fist. He laughed, a sharp exhale. Amber stared back at him. “Excuse me.”
“I just need to make a call,” she mumbled.
The phone on Malcolm’s desk rang. He stared down at it like the sound had been following him all day yelling obscenities at him and his family. He sighed, ran a hand through what was left of his hair, and picked it up.
“I just don’t believe it,” the guard said, defiantly. “How could something like this even happen? In our town of all places.”
“You know that old wives’ tale, that what a mother sees during pregnancy affects what the baby comes out as?” the receptionist said. “Like while I was pregnant with my first kid, my husband had this poster of Wolverine hanging in the garage. I saw it every day and Dylan came out so hairy. Or my sister used to spend a lot of time with her husband’s brother and her son ended up looking just like him. I bet you Lily saw something.”
The guard waved her off.
“Come on now. Where would a girl even find any snakes?”
The news vibrated through the school in hushed voices. Amber could feel the humming in her feet. Malcolm cradled the phone against his ear. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. He rolled and unrolled one shirtsleeve. He nodded and grunted in affirmation. Amber writhed in her seat. Malcolm set the receiver down gingerly, like it was going to strike him.
“Tell me something, Miss McIntyre.” He picked his way through the words. “Were you friends with Lily?”
“I am her friend. Her only friend.” Amber gripped the arms of the chair. “Which is why I really, really need to go.”
“The snakes have a victim,” Malcolm stated. “Passersby found Eugene Stewart dead in the parking lot of Finnegan’s Bar & Grill. I’m sure you know his sons, one’s in your grade.” The Erickson (né Stewart) boys had adopted their mother’s maiden name two years ago, nearly a decade after their father moved out and stopped paying child support. “As you can understand, people are outraged, and terrified. The police are investigating the cause of death, but the board member who just called me said that witnesses reported seeing bite marks on Eugene’s hands.
“Did Lily by chance know Eugene Stewart? Was he one of the men she—” He wiped his hands on his corduroy pants. His scalp glistened. “I mean, what if the snakes are on some sort of vindictive mission? What if they’re hunting any man she thinks wronged her?”
He wrung his hands and shifted in his seat. His foot hit the leg of his desk and he jerked, pulling his knobby knees up to his chin. His eyes scanned the carpet.
He did not stop Amber as she darted out of his office. The receptionist, still staring at her phone, and the guard, still staring at the receptionist, did not notice her either. Only fifty minutes later would the receptionist rise to check on her boss, finding him on his knees on the carpet, searching the corners of his office for any cracks where something could slither through.
If one of parishioners of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception stepped out for a smoke, or just a few seconds of relief from the monotonous sermon of the priest and the moldy smell of the sanctuary, he might have seen Lily sprinting through the memorial garden that one Sunday. He would not have known that, during the final weeks of her pregnancy, Lily often fell asleep during the regular morning escapes. Amber knew, because she would prop herself up on her elbow and study the sleeping girl, study how Lily’s skin was fluid and tranquil everywhere hers was rough and volatile, how Lily’s curls fell in gentle, even loops everywhere hers split and frizzed. Each ringlet of Lily’s hair appeared to be a sleeping creature basking in sunlight, so peaceful Amber could reach out and stroke it.
Lily’s eyes flew open. Her fingers, resting upon her stomach, constricted. She shot up.
“What? What?” Amber asked her. Lily struggled for air. Her fingernails dug into her abdomen. Tears squeezed from her eyes.
“I need to, I need to go.” She scrambled up to her feet. She heaved and crumbled forward. Her face turned red. Her mouth dropped open like she was screaming, but all that came out was a hiss of air.
“You’re okay,” Amber cooed, rubbing Lily’s back, though her own hands shook. “I’m here. You’re safe. I’m your friend. I won’t let anything hurt you.”
She wrapped her arms around Lily and pulled her close. Lily’s breathing began to slow, but Amber still held tight. They stood there, leaning into each other, until the bells of the chapel came ringing through the garden.
Amber turned in the doorway.
“Lily’s gone. She left the hospital. Someone saw her driving North on 94 towards the city.” The receptionist read off her phone.
“But what about the bab— snakes,” Amber stuttered, gripping the doorway. But what about me? I didn’t know she was gone. I hadn’t felt her leave.
“Typical,” the receptionist spat. “Typical of her to just abandon the mess she made.”
The final bell rang. Students flooded into the hallway. Mr. Perry elbowed his way through the crowd, sprinting to his car. Casey and Ella gripped each other, stepping aside as Amber drifted towards the front entrance. Waves of whispers broke against her ears as she waded through the crowd. She had heard these currents of rumor before, when news of the snakes first arrived, but she had mistaken the words for prophecy, a telepathic connection where there was none.
Lily was gone. The snakes were last spotted disappearing into the lawn of Our Lady Catholic church. Kids changed the subject and climbed into their cars, only a few glancing down at their feet as they stepped through the parking lot.
Lily now ran from Paradise Brook, hair wild and bare legs springing from her hospital gown. She ran like Eve ran across the virgin earth, wailing for both Abel and Cain. Wailing for the God who created the Snake and yet did not stop him, who forbade the Tree of Wisdom and yet told her she should have known better.
Amber ran too, unmoored, out into the empty playfields behind the school, in her head still a story she now realized she stood outside of. Or perhaps alone in. She stumbled and paused, directionless. Blades of grass licked at her ankles. She crouched down and touched the earth, willing the snakes to come to her. A breeze moved over the field, over her body, and she prayed that among the grass, she would feel a slither.