If you had to share a room with someone for as long as I did, you’d know it’s natural to think of ways to hurt that person in her sleep. Growing up, I’d heard stories of girls who woke up two pigtails lighter or boys who sprouted Sharpie mustaches overnight. I never took scissors to my sister’s hair, but I thought about it, just as I thought about dropping her toothbrush in the toilet or sticking straight pins in her mattress, sharp side up, before she slid into bed at night. I guess those same urges made me lock the snake in the trunk of my car and drive it home that day.
* * *
I was at my boyfriend’s house, out by the pond his father stocked with big bass so all his buddies could fish on the Sundays they weren’t bumbling through the woods straddling ATVs. We swayed on the rockers his grandpa made then remade when the bottoms wore out. I lifted the hem of my dress to suck a grass stain that just wouldn’t rub out when the dog started going nuts. Lady yapped away in the far corner of the pond. Jake shouted, “Hush up!” but Lady never listened, so I went over and saw her snarling at this muddy circle between two tree roots.
“Lady, come!” I shouted, but she wouldn’t come away. The yard around the pond was still pockmarked from all the fireworks Jake and his dad blew up last week to celebrate the Fourth. “You can go bigger over water,” Jake said, “without catching anything on fire.”
In the eddy a fat snake splashed in flicks and looping jerks. “Jake, get your dog,” I said. “There’s a copperhead over here.”
I wasn’t afraid of snakes, but I knew what to look for. I saw enough to know. I spotted that fat triangle head instead of a spoon-shaped oval, and backed away from the hole. Jake wasn’t afraid of anything, made us do it bareback, convinced that we’d be safe from babies until we weren’t. He picked up the snake, easy as an earthworm. He put his hand right in the water and nabbed it by the back of its head as he learned to do from watching all his NatGeo TV shows. The snake twisted and tried to shake itself free of his grip, but Jake held on. He knew how to take and get what you wanted out of life.
“We’re too far east for copperheads,” he said.
I was still pretty sure it was a copperhead, but then his dad came out, took one look and said, “Easy mistake. Just a harmless milk snake is all.”
I’d never heard of a milk snake, but if Jake’s dad could put a name to the thing, I figured he knew more than I did.
Jake began to dance. He bounced from the knees and let the snake flop and writhe. Its mouth flared open and snapped at the air. Jake mimicked the snake, snapping his lips open and closed, and began to sing, “My milk snake brings all the boys to the yard.”
I forgot about the stain on my dress. I flung my hands over my head and began to twirl until I fell laughing onto the ground.
“Run and get me something to put it in,” Jake said.
I took off into his father’s new garage. It held eight cars and even though it was bigger than my house, it was already too small for Jake’s dad. His hobbies spilled into an aluminum shed and were beginning to clutter the porch again. I came back with a container marked Christmas Balls and we stuffed that ropey thing into the plastic tub like a fat sweater packed away for summer. That’s where it stayed all afternoon while I fucked my boyfriend and joked that I should scare my sister with it.
“Why would you do a thing like that?” he asked.
“Because she’s afraid of snakes.”
He didn’t have a sister, so he didn’t know what it was like to have someone map out all the things you’re supposed to be but can’t.
* * *
Gracie’s only one year older than me, but by seventeen she’d already gone through six boyfriends. All I had was Jake.
When Gracie brought her first boy home I was not yet thirteen, but he sat us both down in the room we shared. Our twin beds could have been bunked but were pushed adjacent, like two corners of a frame. We slept with our heads inches apart until Gracie started high school and flipped her pillows so that her feet faced me. I pretended that I didn’t notice and did the same as if we’d always been sisters who watch each other breathe instead of those who listen through the night.
Sex, my father told us, was all about giving, not taking. “Don’t ever let a boy take from you,” he cautioned. That was all he ever said on the subject, which was fine enough for Gracie, who made a game of turning boys down in contoured bucket seats. All I knew was that when Jake came around in his car, it was my name he called, that I was the one to bring up Gracie and when I did, Jake said, “Oh, that’s your sister?” It was easy giving into him after that.
Back then Gracie told me, once when the lights were out in the room we shared, that she had done it, but I didn’t believe her. She didn’t have to do anything to get guys to take her to the Friendly’s where I worked and treat her to chicken tenders and a clown sundae. I only had to wait on her once, but I watched through the frosted glass of the ice cream case as one boy’s arm draped around the back of the booth. His fingers dripped down to graze my sister’s naked shoulder like she was some white hot thing he was afraid to touch palm on.
“If a boy brings a thing, you know, protection, on the first date, it’s a bad sign. But if a few months in you’re ready to do it and he doesn’t offer, that’s a worse one.”
I nodded, forgetting that she couldn’t see me in the dark. “Good to know,” I said.
“I mean, you have to make sure that whatever you do, it’s always on your terms.”
I pretended she actually cared about a future after Friendly’s for me, when really something must have happened that night and she was trying to ease her own regret. It didn’t occur to me at the time that she was looking for something from me, some kind of surrender that I was too tired to give.
I forgot about this moment when I heaved the snake out of my car and into the house. I carried the tub all the way to the end of the hall where my sister and I slept since we were babies and unsnapped the locking sides of the plastic lid.
* * *
People say losing a sister is like losing a limb, but if you asked Gracie, she’d tell you she’d rather have her leg instead of me.
When I was a baby, my sister used to pinch my feet to make me cry, then soothe me back to sleep by stroking the center of my forehead with her thumb saying, “There. There.” That’s all I was doing when I set the snake loose in her bedroom. The way I pictured it in my head, she’d open the door and scream. I’d laugh a little while and tease her for being such a chickenshit. Then, I’d push past Grace, snap my fingers around the back of that nubby little head just as I saw Jake do and wrestle the snake back into its tub before giving the all clear.
* * *
What no one ever says about Grace is that when I was eight she got the whole neighborhood to call me Fatty Maddy. “Fatty Maddy” the older kids chanted on my way to and from the bus stop, loping ahead of me. There goes Fatty Maddy thundering down the slide again. Fatty Maddy in her Pretty Plus clothes.
Maybe it wasn’t me who heaved the Rubbermaid up the porch steps and into the house. It was Faddy Maddy acting alone who took the end of a lace parasol, the one Grace twirled in Mary Poppins while a troupe of smaller girls penguined around her, and nudged the snake loose in our bedroom. I shut the door and figured it would spread out on the floor, maybe hide out under the bed like the monster she said slept under my twin. But it didn’t. It coiled in the blankets at the foot of her bed like a pet cat who kept your feet warm at night. I stayed up late watching all the talk shows on TV and drinking Cokes to make sure I was still awake when Grace came home. It was past midnight when Grace slid into bed and it nipped at her toe, just enough to make her scream and throw back the covers.
That was my cue to rush in to the rescue, but I was too late. My dad was already there screaming, “Jesus. How’d a fucking copperhead get in here? Jesus. Maddy, get out of here.”
My sister was curled on the bed still, her body pressed against the headboard like some scared mouse curled in the corner of a cage.
I tried to push past my dad. “It’s just a milk snake,” I said. “It’s harmless.”
“That’s a copperhead,” my dad said. “It’s poisonous. Get back, Maddy. It’ll kill you.”
My dad’s not like Jake. He didn’t reach out and grab the snake. He yanked a comforter from the floor and tossed it over the snake like it was a fire that needed to be put out. He scooped my sister like a groom taking a bride through the threshold and carried her crying out of the room and into his truck. Her toe where the snake bit her had already turned purple like it was one big bruise.
Dad let Gracie rest her bad foot on the dash and didn’t even make her buckle up as he drove her away. He never once yelled at her for being a crybaby.
“You call the animal control and stay out of that room,” he said.
I didn’t see Gracie for three days after that. It was the longest we’d ever been apart. I visited her only once in the hospital, and by the time someone got around to bringing me there, it was too late to do anything. My sister had already disappeared under piles of blankets.
“I’m cold,” she kept complaining, though the nurses kept reassuring her that the fever was gone. People from school tethered condolences to her bed in bouquets and balloons, but her bed was a doomed ship too heavy to lift.
* * *
When we were little Grace and I used to play Helen Keller and imagine all kinds of bodily harm upon each other. Would you rather be deaf or blind? Would you rather lose your arm or your leg? Which would you rather lose to cancer, your breasts or your womb? My sister always chose blindness. She chose to lose the leg and offered up her uterus to the cancer gods, just like our mother had years before our memories were old enough to hold onto her.
“I mean, you can always run on a prosthetic,” she said, “and if you wear pants, no one would ever know. But if you’re deaf you can’t ever dance to music and feel a boy’s hands snake up your waist. And how do you put your hair into a ponytail or tie bikini strings with just one arm?”
I didn’t remind her of this when she returned from surgery one leg lighter. I said nothing about last season’s Dancing with the Stars when Paul McCartney’s rich ex-wife jived and waltzed her way to seventh place.
I said, “I’m sorry,” and asked if there was anything I could get her to eat.
My sister refused the hospital food. Her snobbery remained unassailable, even as she convalesced among a crowd of bright cards that boasted her resilience. Most of the messages said something cheesy about hope and faith, her sister virtues. I watched Grace open one of those, tearing through the pink envelope like there was money inside. There wasn’t. She let the card tip out of her fingers and fall to the floor with a clap.
“Barf,” she said. “Who thinks of that crap?”
“Lame-Os,” I said.
“Totally. Can you get me some gum?” she asked. “They only let me brush my teeth like once a day. My mouth is super gross.”
I said I would, and I meant to, but I never got around to coming back to give it to her, as if a pack of Juicy Fruit would be enough reparations for her innocent, enviable leg.
For seventeen nights I slept in our room without her, and when my period didn’t come, I just figured it was because Grace had gone. They taught us in school that girls who live together sync up. Grace and I had always been like that. In that way, we were the sisters we were supposed to be. Without her, my body didn’t know when to bleed, and when she got home with that great bandage where her leg was supposed to be, it was too afraid to let go of anything.
Grace never said, “It’s not your fault.”
She never cried over the loss or cursed the snake. Even before her prosthetic came in, she returned to school with everyone else, sat front row at the senior assembly, and crutched around the halls like she’d just sprained an ankle at cheerleading practice.
“It is dead now,” our father said, when she first came out of surgery, as if all that had happened was buried behind us: first our mother, now the snake and Gracie’s leg with it.
* * *
That summer, Jake dumped me for Leeza Harris who had a shore house with two jet skis and a hot tub tucked behind a privacy wall. Three weeks after school started up, I peed two pink lines. Jake promised that if I took care of it, we could be together again. But I knew by now not to trust him.
I waited for people to tease Gracie, to call her peg leg or Ahab, so I could stand up and say, “Don’t call my sister that.” But no one did.