I should probably pay Donna Tartt royalties as this is
ripped off from inspired by The Little Friend, which I’m 1/3rd into (and is good but a bit slow). Critical feedback very welcome as this is a first draft.
Sadie couldn’t believe it. The snake bit him! It actually bit him!
He was bound to die. No way he could get help in time.
So much work. The research, the hunting through scrub. Sadie had risked her life to catch this Brown Snake.
At first she was going to find a Fierce Snake, The Eastern Taipan, the most venomous snake in the world. Deadly perhaps, but docile, which was no use for her purposes. The Eastern Brown on the other hand was vicious and fast, as she learned only too well.
How she’d sweated, scouring scrub and gingerly poking her stick around rocks in her thick trousers and rubber boots, her father’s old, kevlar motorbike gloves. Appallingly hot, but they had saved her life.
For all her care, she stumbled upon the snake ineptly, almost stepping on it. A lucky thrust with her forked stick caught it as its strike rebounded from her boot. Just a young snake, but getting that angry, squirming length of muscle into her lunch-box had been so terrifying she literally couldn’t remember how she’d done it amid the blur of reflexes.
It was a year ago now. Chasing each other round the house Sadie had been half a lap behind her brother. She was taller and faster, but he was nimbler round the twist on the path, over the low wall or dodging the pile of rusted bikes, tools and car parts that spilled from the shed.
Mum was always nagging dad to clear that pile up but it only grew. So much the better for the kids, who were now the only ones who dared enter the shed, making it a perfect den, full of inexplicable objects, smelling of flowers and decay and fabulously coloured moulds.
Sadie stopped in the back yard and waited, trying to catch her brother out by letting him run to her. Hunkered down beside the shed she held her breath. A long moment passed. Sadie began to think maybe he was trying the same trick at the front of the house. Maybe he’d gone inside for a glass of water. Finally she stood up and went round the house, into the kitchen, calling his name.
Sadie never saw him again.
She might pretend, but her mum blamed Sadie for it all on some level. A distance grew, a withdrawal, a formality to their relationship that Sadie could not pin-down but could not miss either.
Her kid brother. Sadie was only eleven but she was still the eldest, still responsible somehow.
The police found only one clue, a torn piece of fabric caught on the gate. It was a distinctive print, part of an animal, a dog’s paw, or a lion maybe. Not from her brothers clothes.
The police asked questions. And they asked and they asked and they asked, until the way they haunted her life was worse than the emptiness left where her brother should be. Every question held the same unspoken accusation.
“Did you see anyone suspicious?” “Why weren’t you looking?”
“When did you last see him?” “Why did you stop watching?”
“What were you doing?” “What were you doing wrong?”
Eventually the police left and life tried to go back to normal. Except it couldn’t go back. When you take a cog from the clock it can’t run the same – if it can run at all.
Something about the way the investigation had taken over meant that the family hadn’t been able to grieve properly. By the time it was over the sorrow had buried itself deep, burrowed roots into their bones and begun the long process of poisoning its host.
Her warm, laughing mother had died, replaced by a cold, angry woman who treated her like a chore. Her father was gone within a few weeks, but at least he took the rows, the shouting and thrown plates with him. Sadie simply stopped being a child.
It was down to her, Sadie knew. If justice was to be done, it was down to her.
She was eleven. There’s not much you can do at eleven, save one advantage. People don’t even know you’re there. So she listened.
When the post-office man talked about the ‘the bad feller’ to her mum, Sadie listened. After catching the conversation in the coffee shop about ‘that terrible man’, she ran home to make notes. Even the second hand gossip the kids passed round in the school yard held gems, tiny tid-bits that, when you put them all together, would make another part of the picture, one more tiny piece.
The man at number 9 was a bad sort. Everyone in town knew, even though none would say directly. Trouble with the police, some said. Others talked about jail. While the whole town seemed to know why, when they spoke of it that’s when Sadie was finally noticed. They always glanced at her and just hummed and hah’d, exchanging lowered glances with each other knowingly.
Of course, if you talk around something enough, you draw it’s outline all the same.
Once she was happy with the evidence, Sadie did what she had to, what the police had failed to do, what the town had failed to do, what her mother had never even tried.
He answered the door and looked left and right before spotting the box. It was light-blue with a horse on it. Normal enough for a child’s lunch box but utterly strange to be left on a grown man’s doorstep.
He picked it up and shook it. Had the snake been any smaller it would have rattled about, but it was packed in. Had it been already awake it might have hissed loudly enough to warn him. Instead the shaking only roused the Eastern Brown into a drowsy anger.
The man from number 9 pressed the little tab which held the lid closed.
Sadie hid her face in her arms. She heard a shout, as much surprise as alarm. Some scuffling, a clatter, another cry and then the slamming of a door.
Looking up there was no sign of man or snake. Sadie ran to the house, grabbed the lunch-box and sprinted home, not looking back. It bit him. It really bit him!
The ambulance came but it was too late. The anti-venom didn’t have time to work and he died shortly after they reached the hospital. Few people mourned his passing. Snakes were common enough here that it barely raised an eyebrow he should die that way. Some even said it was divine intervention – a serpent.
Sadie watched the funeral from the edge of the cemetery and cried for the first time in a year, but not for the man from number 9.
All these memories came back as Sadie walked the path of her childhood home. It was twenty years or more since she’d been here. Having left home as soon as she could, Sadie and her mother had done their respective best to erase the other from their lives.
Now mother was dead, leaving Sadie to deal with the dilapidated wreck the house had become.
In the back garden the pile of bikes and tools remained, much of it so rusted and broken down it was hard to say what is was, what it had ever been. A pathetic echo of her childhood memories.
Unable to resist, Sadie entered the shed for the first time since her brother had disappeared. Twenty-seven years were at last distance enough.
Little had changed except maybe things had sunk further into the floor, the jar, the box or just into themselves. Sadie lifted the flap of a box only for her fingers to pass through it, crumbling gobs of damp cardboard to the floor like cottage cheese. Finding a plastic ruler, somehow patched in rust, Sadie lifted the remaining cardboard flap more carefully. The box was full of books, although they had decayed so badly she couldn’t make out the titles of any of them.
Moving cautiously, Sadie poked at another box to find corroded cutlery and old screws, another containing cracked glassware, blackened with aged mildew. Tearing a small hole in a plastic bag she was surprised to find toys in relatively good condition. An old bear, intact if damp and stinking of stagnant water, a spinning top, some old building bricks.
The next bag had some torn rags, old wash cloths maybe, cleaning rags from her father’s days working on his bike. Then she saw a t-shirt that gave her a start of recognition. It was a band t-shirt, one of her father’s favourite rock groups. The faded design showed a guitarist pulling a typical rock pose, and behind him a cartoonish hell-hound. The end of the hounds leg was missing from where a piece had been torn out.