Fiction · 02/29/2012

Animal Control

Look, Ty says, peeling off his gloves. Three full bags. Can’t we just do this tomorrow?

It’s the rattlesnake migration again. Each year, falsely anticipated in early May. Each year, left to you and Ty, who doesn’t like you anymore, but who doesn’t think you know. A stretch of interstate’s been cordoned off; heat surges under your boots in a constant, hazy sear. Ty’s kicking a few out of his path, wandering toward the bags, swearing. He’s your girlfriend’s brother, which is how you got him the job with animal control in the first place. But he’s also a complete moron. Batshit crazy. Rattled with Speed.

No, you say, eyes on a female, bloated with rat. Just gotta finish this road. Crows’ll get the rest.

You know your job is really to make him work, to keep him out of the meth scene, until at least 8 PM, when all bets are off; then, he’ll slide off to the city and God-knows-where. Like he always does.

Fuck you, too, he says, hissing back at a pile of snakes coiled like small, black wreaths on the pavement.

You don’t respond, or pretend not to hear him, and realize you tend to ignore him a lot. But it makes sense, at least since that time he tried to feel you up, or whatever that was in the truck. An accident, he later said.

Do you give off those vibes? No, you decide. You don’t. You’re sleeping with Kara, his sister, after all.

Ty has a head the size of a melon, his keys on a red, plastic carabiner that shakes and sounds like mature snake tails. You know, because you’ve been — and are, in fact — that close to the sound. Your first trip to the hospital was extraordinary: the violent throb of venom shaking your chest as if in electric volts. The succeeding second and third times were less severe, but also less memorable. A simple faint and recover sort of deal. Ty’d been lucky, somehow only got nicked in the pinky by one of the bastards.

Stop kicking the bags, you shout. We’re not tryin’ to kill ‘em. Which is true; you’re not. He’s pushing them together, a clot of bagged snakes writhing on the dirt. They twist and curl inside the thick plastic.

Whatever, dude, he says.

You aren’t technically even qualified to be doing this. A bachelor’s in psychology and a background in preparing dead bodies for open caskets at the morgue isn’t an effective immunization to basic common sense — you know, at least, not to pick it up by the tail. Any moron would know that. Except Ty, who’s holding one way out by the rattle, skittish and bumbling, like he’s dancing with it.

For God’s sake, drop it!, you say. Which is what you’re supposed to do. Drop the snake, breathe, take six steps back. It’s what you do, at least, when you forget.

Dammit, Ty! Drop the fucking snake.

You look from the bags — where a few have poked out like they always do — to him, a thick arm still raised above the asphalt.

He doesn’t move. At some point, it bit him: shin, foot, forearm. The typical points of entry. He dangles it there like a whip he can’t use before it falls from his grasp, his hand paralyzed in the act of letting go: all five fingers tightly pinched. You look up at the sun, which is climbing down past the flatlined horizon. Blue sky is settling in like a crown above the sinking sun.

If this were you, you think, you’d be ready for the torqued charge around your heart, the weightless feeling, that blistering heat behind your ears. But it isn’t you — a relief so striking you nearly faint. For a moment, you want to know what else is in his blood, if venom and speed congeal to instant clots, if CPR would help (an option you quickly rule out). A rush of responsibility seems to rise from some distant place and land square inside you. You want for it to be a week, a month, a year from this moment, and can almost feel Kara slipping away with the seconds: He did what? and Which hospital? and Why weren’t you near him? You’re supposed to be near him.

You place pressure on the wound — two welts on the left wrist which have swollen to look like lidless eyes. His fingers loosen with a weightlessness you can remember, almost summon at will. You feel it a little now, too, looking at his calm, red face, then back toward the bags.

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Peter Kispert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Dakota Review, PANK Magazine, Baltimore Review, The Summerset Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and others. He will soon be headed to earn his master’s in fiction writing. Visit him at www.peterkispert.com.