We found the snake lying stretched across the road, a black gash extending from the sewage grate on one side of the street to the rain gutter on the other, and I wondered what it would be like to fill space, to lounge, to occupy more than the boundaries allotted to me.
It was a muggy afternoon in the middle of July, and heat radiated off the asphalt in waves. The air smelled of tar and leaves, and of something else, something sweet and vegetal. Sweat dripped between my shoulder blades and pooled in the small of my back, soaking the waistband of my shorts. From where I stood near the foot of the driveway, I could see the snake’s tongue, flicking in and out of its mouth, as if to sample the air.
Abhi, who stood beside me, took a tentative step forward. I could tell from the look on his face that he was planning something stupid. He would be thirteen in September and thought much of this fact, all puffed up with the pride of impending manhood that was his inheritance. Just that morning, he had insisted on having coffee with his breakfast, insisted too on having it without sugar or milk. He’d taken a big gulp but ended up spitting it right back into the cup. He was all bluster.
Predictably, Roshni wanted us to shoo the snake away. “It’s going to get in the house if we don’t do something,” she said. She kept a good several yards back from the snake, turned half toward it and half toward us, one eye trained on it, warily, the other on us, no less wary.
At seventeen, Roshni was the de facto leader of our little group. I say group, but that makes it sound more organized and volitional than it was. In reality, it was just the three of us, Roshni, Abhi, and me, together only because of the circumstance of birth—me and Roshni to the same parents; Abhi to our dad’s sister—together only because it was summer and Roshni was in charge while our parents were at work.
“It’s not doing anything. This is so retarded,” Abhi said, with a slight whine that irritated me to no end.
“Abhi! You can’t say that,” I said, shoving his arm. “That’s really offensive. You’re such a jerk.”
“You’re really annoying, you know that, Poonam?”
“You’re really ugly, you know that, Abhi?” I said. Back then, my verbal sparring prowess was no better than Abhi’s, and I exhibited all of the sophistication one might expect of a fourteen-year-old.
“You can’t call me ugly. That’s offensive to ugly people,” he said.
I took another step towards Abhi, thinking a good shove toward the snake was just the thing to put him in his place. Everything about him infuriated me—his insufferable voice, the way he wore his T-shirt tucked into his cargo shorts and his socks pulled up almost to his knees, the way he always insisted on explaining things to me like I was an incompetent, vacuous idiot, as if I wasn’t fifteen months older than him. He’d been staying with us for a week, and by that point, I was sick of him. It didn’t used to be that way—back when we were younger, we’d been inseparable. I don’t know when I’d started to hate his guts.
“Cut it out,” Roshni said. She jerked me back, pulling my arm hard. She wouldn’t have been so rough with anyone else, of course—wouldn’t risk Abhi telling our parents on her. Me, she knew she had under her thumb.
I rubbed my arm where she had grabbed me and took a grudging step away from Abhi.
“I’m going to poke it,” Abhi said. He bent to pick up a fallen branch from the side of the road and thrust it out in front of him, wielding it like a sword as he approached the snake.
“Stop it, Abhi. You’re going to get hurt,” Roshni said. She tried to reach for him, but he was too far away, and she was too afraid of the snake to move from where she was rooted.
It seemed like the whole neighborhood and the entire surrounding mountainside had fallen still, the birdsong and chatter of squirrels and cicadas silent as every creature waited with bated breath.
The snake lay motionless too, its thick form still roped across the asphalt. At some point, it had raised the front of its body off the road and turned to look in our direction, hovering in an s-curl, poised and ready to strike.
Abhi alone was still moving, and he inched slowly toward the snake. The branch trembled in his hands as he lowered it. Roshni and I watched, entranced by his audacity and his stupidity. A clump of dead leaves and grass dangled from one end of the branch and quivered in the air, threatening to fall, hanging on by a blade.
Abhi took another step forward, and then I don’t know what came first: Roshni’s scream, Abhi’s scream, the snake’s disappearance, Abhi lying on the ground clutching his left leg, the bite.
Probably the bite.
“Mummy, you need to come home right now,” Roshni was saying into the kitchen phone. “Abhi needs to go to the hospital.”
She sounded surprisingly calm for someone who, only a few minutes earlier, had been screaming like she’d just witnessed a murder or was about to become the victim of one.
After the bite, we had rushed Abhi up the driveway and into the house. Roshni made Abhi lie down in the living room and wrapped a tea towel around his calf. Two red specks bloomed on the white and gray checkered fabric. Abhi was still clutching his leg and moaning almost continuously. Snot bubbled out from his nose. Some of it had already dried in a beige, boogery patch on the tip of it and smeared across his cheek.
“Do you want ice?” I asked. “Does it hurt?” I stood well away from where he was lying, keeping the coffee table between us. I wanted to be useful, but I also hated sick people, and the latter feeling was winning out. Something soft brushed my foot. I looked down and realized I’d unwittingly carried Abhi’s branch inside; the clump of leaves and grass hanging from it had fallen onto my foot. I set the branch down on the coffee table.
“No, don’t give him ice. Are you stupid or what?” Roshni yelled from the kitchen. “What if it stops the blood flow and the poison just stays there and he gets gangrene or something? The tissue could die. He could lose his leg.”
As soon as our parents had agreed that Roshni could go to UNC in the fall, she’d announced her plan to be pre-med. She’d let it go to her head. I suspected that she had no idea what she was talking about.
“Nothing, Mummy, it’s fine. Poonam was just being annoying,” Roshni said into the phone.
“Venom,” Abhi said, his voice strained and croaking.
“What?” I asked him.
“It’s venom. Poison is absorbed. Venom is injected,” he said, lifting his head up off of the faded flowered armrest. He sounded more cogent, the feebleness gone from his voice.
“What?” I repeated. I was still feeling dazed and overexcited from all that had happened, and thinking felt strangely like wading through molasses. “Why are you giving me a science lesson?”
“God, you are stupid.”
“Mummy and Pappa are on their way,” Roshni said as she came back into the room. She sat down on the coffee table, on the couch side.
“Ooooh, my leg,” Abhi said, letting his head fall back against the armrest. “Oooh, the pain.” He flung an arm over his forehead and closed his eyes, grimacing.
“Don’t just stand there—make yourself useful. Get him some water and the ibuprofen,” Roshni said to me. Then, turning back to Abhi, she said, her voice softer, “Does it hurt a lot? Can you still feel your leg? Can you wriggle your toes?”
I left Roshni to minister to Abhi and went into my parents’ bathroom down the hall to look for the ibuprofen. As I rummaged through the medicine cabinet, I could still hear them both, their voices only a little muffled through the thin wall separating the bathroom from the living room.
“Did you see where the snake went? Should we try to find it? In case they need to make an antidote?” Roshni was saying.
I rolled my eyes. I suspected the snake wasn’t venomous—it just looked like a rat snake—but I wasn’t going to tell them that. I knew all too well that Abhi and Roshni wouldn’t believe me. They were both enjoying themselves far too much to be persuaded to see reason.
When I returned to the living room, Roshni was telling Abhi not to elevate his leg. “It’ll make the poison flow backwards into your bloodstream. It could eventually reach your heart. Or even your brain.”
“Here,” I said, holding the bottle out to Abhi. He just looked at me blankly, unmoving.
“Here, let me,” Roshni said, snatching the bottle from me. “Is he supposed to take this without water?” she asked, with her back to me.
I rolled my eyes again and stormed away, muttering to myself. I hated when Roshni ordered me around, but I knew if I didn’t do as she said, I’d have hell to pay later.
From the kitchen, I could still hear Abhi’s moans. “Oooh, it hurts.” I opened a cabinet door more forcefully than was necessary, and it slammed against the cabinet beside it. “Oooh, my leg.” He was milking this. He would be so much more unbearable now than he already was.
“Maybe I should make a tourniquet. Maybe it’ll stop the poison from spreading,” Roshni was saying when I returned with a glass of water.
Luckily for Abhi, that was when we heard my parents pull into the driveway.
“Can you hold the glass to my mouth, Poonam?” Abhi said, fluttering his eyes weakly open, his arm still flung over his forehead. “I’d do it myself but—ooooh—I’m too weak to do—oooh, my leg—to do anything.”
The hospital was halfway between our town and the neighboring one. It would take us a good forty minutes to drive there on our own, but my parents hadn’t wanted to call an ambulance.
“We’ll be left with a bill for close to $1,000,” I’d heard my father tell my mother when they’d gotten home. “We don’t have that kind of money.”
“Varun could afford it. It’s his own son.”
But my father had made up his mind, so we’d all packed into the car. Roshni wouldn’t hear of being left behind, and my parents wouldn’t hear of my staying home alone, no matter how much I begged them. “How can you even think of staying home when your cousin is hurt?” they’d said. “How could you be so heartless?”
On the drive to the hospital, Abhi sat between me and Roshni, with his leg extended and resting on the center console. I held my torso as rigidly as possible and had squeezed close to the window so that no part of me was touching Abhi. He disgusted me. And what if obnoxiousness was contagious?
“Who’s at the store?” I asked my parents when we passed Main Street and turned onto the only road out of town. They ran a convenience store a few blocks away, back in the other direction, an off brand 7/11 of sorts, only smaller and less corporate.
“We had to close up. It was Pratik’s day off,” my father said, with a little snort. I heard the usual note of bitterness that inflected his words whenever he mentioned Pratik.
Pratik was a recent hire—one of those friend of a friend of a friend deals, a fresh transplant from a village outside of Ahmedabad, where we’d moved from. Pratik had worked nearly every day at first, taking only five days off a month, which he said he spent at a temple down in Atlanta. But then five days became six, then seven, then eight, and so on, until he took more days off than he worked.
It had seemed obvious to me from the start that Pratik wasn’t praying on his days off. I’d seen him wipe up spilled coffee with the yellowing print of Ganesh that my mother kept taped to the side of the cash register for good luck. Once, when Roshni and I were waiting for my parents at the store, he’d asked Roshni to accompany him to Atlanta. Roshni had reddened and didn’t have a chance to answer before my parents came back out from the backroom, where they had their office. I don’t think Roshni ever told them about the invitation. They would probably have found a way to blame her for Pratik’s creepiness. They were always making excuses for him.
I tried to catch my sister’s eye, but Roshni was intently looking out the window on the other side and pretending not to listen. Her right ear, which peeked through her hair, had grown pink.
“Why don’t you just fire him?” I asked my parents. Even if Pratik weren’t so creepy, I still would have disliked him. At that age, it didn’t take much for me to develop strong aversions to people, and to me, Pratik was especially gross—he had a paunch; at thirty, already had hair tufting from his ears; and he smelled perpetually of cabbage and tobacco. He always wore short-sleeve button-down shirts with the top three buttons undone, revealing a thick gold chain and his chest hair. I didn’t understand how my parents could bear to keep him around. “Does he even do any work?”
“He’s threatened to turn us in to the police,” my father said, still with the same bitterness. He gripped the steering wheel more tightly, his knuckles pale from the effort. “He’s here illegally. He said he’d tell them that we’ve been paying him under the table. We could lose everything.”
“But he wouldn’t do that—he’d get deported,” I said.
“Leave it,” my mother said, turning to me from the passenger seat. “Your father doesn’t want to think about that good for nothing man.”
“Ooooh,” Abhi said, sounding like an especially irritating ghost, but for once I was glad he was there.
“We’re almost there,” my mother said. “Does it hurt a lot?”
“Is there any weakness?” my father asked. “Can you move your toes?”
“I—I think so,” Abhi said, his words thin and shaky. “Oooh, my leg.”
I couldn’t stand listening to them anymore. They were all so annoying—they never focused on what was important. I put my headphones in and spent the rest of the car ride looking out the window.
The mountains were an effulgence of green. The road twisted and wound its way through thick forest, and at times the deciduous trees were so dense around us that it seemed like we were making our way through a tunnel of leaves. I was beginning to feel nauseous—my father was driving more aggressively than usual and kept rounding the bends sharply—so I was relieved when the sign marking the turn to the hospital came into sight.
My father pulled into the hospital complex, and he told us to wait outside until he found a place to park.
“I could park—I need to practice for my driver’s test,” Roshni said, hopefully, but my father drove away, dousing her optimism.
“Oooh, my leg,” Abhi said, as if in send off, almost cheerful.
My mother, Roshni, Abhi, and I stood to one side of the entrance, near an overflowing trashcan that smelled like overripe bananas and rotten eggs. Birdsong sounded from the trees, joyful and incessant. The air was humid and damp, and my shirt clung to me. I scowled up at the big red letters that spelled Emergency over the door. The day was just becoming more and more annoying.
Inside the hospital, we all went up to the check-in window. The woman who worked there was in the middle of a conversation and didn’t look our way. Roshni pushed past me to stand in front, next to our father. She was standing taller than usual, her chin tilted up ever so slightly. She kept looking around, taking it all in—the gray carpeting, the fluorescent lighting, the fake lemon tree sprouting from a dinky plastic pot, the clipboard with a chewed-up pen tied to the metal clip, the tiny American flag planted on the counter.
The rest of us crowded behind them. Abhi was no longer moaning, and my mother seemed to shrink into herself. She, like Roshni, kept looking around her, but furtively. I couldn’t help but think of a dog, shamefaced and frightened, cowering. I tried to wipe the image from my mind but couldn’t.
My father, who’d been drumming his fingers against his legs, cleared his throat. The receptionist finally turned our way. She was an older woman, probably at least in her fifties, and heavily made up, with her gray roots showing through her purplish-red hair. Her long fake nails were painted a garish fuchsia.
“Oh, my,” she said when she saw us, startled.
“My nephew was bitten by a snake,” my father said.
“It happened at around oh-two-hundred hours,” my sister said. “The specimen was black. I’d say eight to nine feet long. Scaly.” She either ignored or didn’t see the angry look my father shot at her. “I had the patient keep his leg lower than his heart, but there’s no telling what kind of damage there’s been.”
“It was more like six feet,” I said. “She’s just exaggerating.”
To my right, my mother said to my father, “We weren’t there when it happened. Can you tell her that? Tell her Roshni is old enough to watch them both. We had to work. It was an accident. Can you tell her that?”
“Oooh, my leg,” Abhi said.
It was the receptionist’s turn to clear her throat, but no one heard her over the chatter. I could see a vein in my father’s forehead had started to pulse, and with one hand, he rubbed his neck and shoulders, as if to smooth away his tension.
The waiting room was empty except for an older couple. Both of them watched us intently, like we were aliens, like they’d never seen a spectacle quite like us before. I felt myself getting warm, and I stepped back and to one side, separating myself from the rest of the group.
The receptionist cleared her throat again, and my father shhhed the others.
“Look, you can’t all be at the window. One of you sign the injured person in and we’ll be right with you.” She picked up the clipboard on the desk to show us and then put it down again, slamming it with a loud thwap.
“What happened? What did she say?” my mother asked. “Do they think it’s our fault?”
My father shook his head at her and waved us all away. We walked hesitantly to the waiting area. The only remaining seats were arranged in two groups of three on opposite ends of the space, so my mother went with Abhi to one set, and Roshni and I went to the other end, closer to where the older couple was sitting. They were still staring openly at us. I was used to the attention—back then, we were still one of the only non-white families in town—but most people were more discreet. I stuck my tongue out at them, and the woman, flushing, looked away; the man glowered at me but looked away too.
It was a good hour before anyone came to get Abhi. I was bored out of my mind. The TV that hung in one corner of the waiting room was turned to the weather, and I must have watched at least five cycles of their afternoon loop—local weather, commercial, county weather, commercial, repeat. I had looked through probably every magazine they had there and was flipping idly through an old National Geographic with a picture of a lion on its cover, my eyes glazed over, the words a blur.
Over on the other side of the waiting room, Abhi had fallen asleep in his chair with his mouth open. He still had snot dried on his face, and now he had dried spit too, a white splotch near the corner of his mouth. My parents sat on either side of Abhi, silent and stony-faced, staring at the TV.
Roshni, amazingly, seemed to be enjoying herself. She had wandered over to the coffee and tea station. She didn’t drink either beverage, but the station was set up right by the check-in desk, and from the surreptitious glances she kept casting in that direction, I could tell she was only heating up water so she could listen to the gossip of the women working behind the window. I couldn’t make out much of what they were saying, but it sounded like some nurse or orderly was having an affair with a doctor. I couldn’t tell if they were talking about real life or about a soap opera.
A door near the check-in desk opened, and a woman emerged, looking at her clipboard, frowning. She wore scrubs the same shade of fuchsia as the receptionist’s nails, and a pair of earrings shaped like hot air balloons dangled from her ears.
“Pay-tell. Pat—Petal?” she said. She looked up from the clipboard and looked around the room. “Petal?” she repeated, more confidently this time.
We all looked at each other and then around the waiting room. We were the only ones there—the older couple was long gone and no one else had come in after us.
“Patel?” my dad said, half standing from his seat. “Abhi?”
“Must be,” the woman said. She pushed the door open further and stood to one side. Her earrings twirled like two tiny spinning beach balls.
“Come on, Abhi,” my father said.
My mother gently shook Abhi awake. He yawned and got to his feet, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Can I come too?” Roshni asked.
When my father shrugged his response, she set her Styrofoam cup down next to the coffee pot a little too enthusiastically, sloshing hot water onto the table, too delighted to mind the drops that splashed her hand. All four of them disappeared through the swinging door.
A plume of steam floated over Roshni’s abandoned cup. From somewhere behind the check-in window, something beeped—a microwave, I guessed, from the garlic-y, tomato-y smell that soon permeated the room. On the other side of the waiting area, across from me, my mother stared mutely at the television, its blue fluorescence reflected on her glasses. I turned to the National Geographic on my lap and tried to read again.
“—wet afternoon. A few lingering thunderstorms until evening—”
Abhi was the first to emerge from the swinging door an hour later, limping slightly, his left leg bandaged. My father followed closely behind, and my sister behind him, but holding back a little. She looked grim, and when she approached, I could see her eyes were red and puffy, like she’d been crying.
“Let’s go,” my father said, pausing only long enough to jerk his head in the direction of the exit. He brushed past Abhi and out the door, leaving the rest of us to hurry to catch up.
Outside, it was even stickier than before. An afternoon thunderstorm had swept through, leaving the parking lot shiny and slick and the air smelling of petrichor. Water had pooled in spots where the ground dipped. Abhi, who walked beside me, tromped through a puddle, splashing brown rainwater on me. I started to say something but thought better of it—my father was watching us from where he stood near the car, stern and tight-lipped.
We piled into the car again, and this time, I was forced into the middle. I noticed my mother glance at my father, but she looked quickly away when he turned to check behind him before pulling out of the parking spot.
No one spoke, not even Abhi, for the rest of the drive home. I heard my sister sniffle a couple of times, and once, Abhi had a sneezing fit. Otherwise, the only sounds were the spray of water, the clatter of traffic, the low, distant rumble of thunder.
When we pulled into the driveway at home, Roshni was the first one out of the car, before my father had even shifted into park. She slammed the car door closed behind her. I noticed a muscle in my father’s neck tense, the clench of his jaw, but he didn’t say anything.
“What’s her problem?” I asked, unable to hold my tongue any longer. Everyone was being so weird—even Abhi had been more subdued than I’d ever known him to be. He hadn’t moaned about his leg even once on the whole drive home.
“Roshni’s mad she can’t volunteer at the hosp—”
“Abhi,” my father said, a note of warning clearly discernible, and Abhi cut himself off.
That may have been enough to shut Abhi up, but it wasn’t enough for me. I kept pressing.
“Why can’t she? She’s going to be a doctor. She’s going to be pre-med.”
“Don’t you start too now,” my father said. He sighed, seeming suddenly weary and old, and got out of the car.
I found Roshni in our room, lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Her eyes were no longer red, but the skin around them was still puffy and swollen, looking a little bruised.
“They’re so annoying,” I said, collapsing onto my own bed. “I can’t wait to get out of here. You’re so lucky you get to leave soon.”
Roshni made a noise somewhere between a cough and a laugh.
“What do you mean?” I sat up and swung my legs off my mattress, dangling them into the space between our twin beds. The room was so cramped and our beds so close together that I could touch Roshni’s bed frame without having to extend my legs. I gripped the metal frame with my toes, flexing and unflexing my feet. “What does dreaming have anything to do with it?”
“You know what Pappa said when we were in there and waiting for the doctor?”
“Abhi said something about not being able to volunteer at the hospital. So what? That’s not the end of the world.”
“That’s not all he said.”
“Oh. So what did he say?” I asked, though a slight nagging, tugging sensation told me I knew the answer already.
“You’re so slow sometimes. Figure it out yourself.”
With that, Roshni climbed down from her bed and left the room.
Light streamed in through the worn bedroom curtains, filtered and fluttering, casting long shadows across Roshni’s crumpled comforter and the carpet. Elsewhere in the house, life had moved on. The faint aroma of onions and ghee and cumin suffused the air, and familiar house noises drifted through the open door—the clatter of dishes, the steamy hiss of the pressure cooker, a Jagjit Singh ghazal, a sitcom laugh track. There was no comfort in these smells or noises, no comfort in what they stood for or what they offered, and I lay back down on my bed, feeling strangely empty.
The next day was Friday, and I woke to find myself alone in the house. My parents were usually long gone by the time I woke up in the mornings, but I was surprised that Roshni and Abhi were nowhere to be found. The air conditioner hummed as I creaked through the house, ducked my head into my parents’ bedroom, the hall bathroom, the living room.
In the kitchen, I found two cereal bowls next to the sink, the milk still left behind in one of them, tinged the color of wheat fields ready for harvest, a few bloated Cheerios huddled together, bobbing on the surface.
I was ready to give up and make myself some toast when I heard voices coming from out in the backyard. It had to be them.
Outside, the air, muggy and wet, suggested rain. A thick mist had descended on the mountain, obscuring the surrounding trees and rhododendron thickets. I ran around to the back of the house, following the sound of their voices, the damp earth soft beneath my bare feet.
“Maybe it slithered into that rotten log,” Abhi was saying when I found them, pointing a few yards away. His voice seemed peculiar, almost giddy. “Should we look there?”
“I’ll check,” Roshni said, yelling the words, sounding as keyed up as Abhi. She wielded a branch like the one Abhi’d had the day before and was using it to push her way through the underbrush, the look of a huntress about her. “We’ll teach that stupid snake not to mess with us.”
There was something in the way she spoke, or perhaps the set of her figure, that made me think that looking for the snake had been her idea, that this was her battle.
They had their backs to me and hadn’t seen me yet. I kept away, cleaving close to the house. For some reason, I knew that I shouldn’t interfere. It wasn’t my place to get involved. I wouldn’t tell them that they were wasting their time, and that there was little they could do, that the snake was long gone. I suspected that Roshni knew that already, deep down, in some inner recess. But it felt good, even if for a morning, even if for a moment, to pretend to forget.