Eric walked to the edge of the drive and stood waiting as the sheriff climbed from his SUV and approached with his hand resting on the butt of his gun. Eric felt an almost uncontrollable desire to run, but he could tell by looking at the sheriff's lanky frame that it would be useless to try to outrun him. He looked like a football quarterback. The nameplate on his shirt said, Sheriff Clay Boone.
"Are you Eric Watson?" the sheriff asked.
Eric knew he was in trouble. The sheriff wouldn't drive ten miles out of town unless it was something serious.
"Yes sir," he said, trying to keep his voice steady.
The radio in the patrol car came to life as the sheriff closed the distance. Eric couldn't understand anything the dispatcher was saying. It was mostly numbers and code.
"I've had a complaint, Eric, and I came out to investigate. I understand you fired some shots down by the creek. You knew that was against the law, didn't you?"
"It wasn't me that fired the gun. It was Marcus Turley."
"Marcus told your friends at school that the gun was yours, and it was you who fired the shots."
"Yeah, I know what he told everybody. We went down to the creek to shoot at some cans. He claimed he saw a snake hidden in the grass. When he started to shoot at it, I grabbed the barrel of the gun and pointed it at the sky. He didn't hit anything."
The sheriff pulled a notebook from his shirt pocket. "I'll read Marcus statement to you and you can tell me what you think. Marcus said, The snake was as big around as a fire hose and it had fangs like the prongs on a barbecue fork. It was coming along the top of the bank not more than five feet from where we were standing when Eric shot at it."
"That's not what happened, sir. I never saw the snake. Marcus claimed he saw one and he tried to shoot it."
"Eric, killing a snake is against the law in this state."
"Marcus said it was a poisonous snake!"
"It doesn't matter what kind of snake it was. In this state, a snake is a protected species. It is also against the law to hunt without a hunting license."
"Old Miss Turley told on me, didn't she?"
"Her name is Mrs. Turley, Eric, and she's had a rough time in the past year with her husband dead, and her grandson coming up missing. Even if it wasn't against the law, you don't need to be on her property discharging a weapon. Now here is what we're going to do. I want you to give the gun to your mother and tell her to lock it up until you are old enough to handle a weapon properly. I also want you to go to Mrs. Turley’s house and apologize. Do you understand?"
"But the snake—"
"Eric, if I have to come out here again, the game warden will be with me. There is a five hundred dollar fine for killing a snake. Your mother doesn't need any more bad luck right now."
"Yes, sir," Eric said, wondering how anyone could be so thickheaded. Marty Davenport's dog had three puppies missing, and Mrs. Houston had lost a cat. The snake had probably killed Marcus too, but everyone though he had just wandered off into the forest. He had been missing for almost a week.
The sheriff walked back to his car, then paused as if he was trying to make up his mind about something. He turned slowly around.
"Eric, I am going to talk to the game warden about this. The game and fish people stocked the creek with several species of snakes back in the spring. There is a microchip implanted in the neck of that big one and it sends a signal to their computer. They will be checking on it often. Snakes are an important part of our ecological system. They keep down rodents that might spread diseases. If that snake comes up missing, I'll have to carry you before the juvenile judge. Are we straight on this?"
"Yes sir," Eric said, hoping the sheriff would leave before his mother arrived home from work, but then he realized he had probably stopped by her office on his way out of town. His mother would probably ground him for the rest of his life. He started to turn away, but stopped when he saw the curtain over Mrs. Turley's front window move. If he went over and apologized to her, it might make his mother less likely to punish him. The sheriff backed into the road, then pulled rapidly away with a little shower of gravel from the rear wheels.
* * *
Eric was halfway through this stupid English assignment when his mother knocked on his bedroom door. He finished the stupid geography lesson and the stupid math assignment before he left school. There was a lot of daylight left and he wanted to shoot a few baskets in the back yard before it got dark. His mother had been strangely silent at dinner. He was glad she hadn't brought up the snake or the sheriff's visit. His bedroom door opened and he realized she was looking down at him with her arms crossed. This was a bad sign.
"The sheriff is in the living room, Eric. He wants to talk to you."
Eric opened his mouth to complain, but what was the use. It was obvious his mother was on the sheriff's side. Parents were always on the side of the teachers, the cops, and every adult that wanted to complain about something. It wasn't fair. He rolled his chair back, and took a quick look around the room. The policemen on television always searched the house. His email was password protected, but his mother would make him give the password to the sheriff. And then he thought about the magazines. Marcus traded three of his Nintendo books to Jimmy Holland for some magazines, but he was afraid to keep them at home. He let Marcus hide them behind the loose board in his closet. He wished he hadn't allowed him to do that.
"Coming, Mom," he called to her, then flipped the off switch on his computer before hurrying down the hallway to the living room. The sheriff didn't look as formidable sitting in his father's old chair as he looked standing beside the patrol car. Eric stopped in the middle of the room feeling as out of place as he had at the sixth grade dance, only this time there wasn’t any potted palms to provide a hiding place.
"Sit on the couch, Eric. I have some questions to ask and I want you to tell me the truth."
Eric could see the small leather pouch on the sheriff's belt that contained his handcuffs. He had seen this a million times on television. The police officer would ask a few questions, then grab the prisoner and have the cuffs on his wrist before he had time to do anything. When Eric didn't move, his mother placed her hand in the middle of his back and pushed him forward a few feet. His knees gave way when he was halfway down and he dropped into the corner of the couch with a little bounce.
"Where were you on Wednesday afternoon after school?" the sheriff asked.
That was the day Marcus disappeared. Men from the search party stopped at each house and questioned everyone about when they had seen him last. He had been there alone and hadn’t gone to the door. Eric felt a little tingling of fear as he remembered the small lie he told his mother. He told her he was going to Marcus' house to play basketball. Instead, he had gone to Jimmy Holland's to ride his pony. When Eric didn't immediately answer, the sheriff looked at his mother.
"I need to talk to Eric alone, Mrs. Heath."
"I don't understand," she said. Eric was aware of the way she was looking at him.
"It is just a minor point or two we need to clear up. I think it would be a good idea if we talked in his room."
Eric looked toward the front door, but the sheriff was already moving toward him as if he was aware of the urge that made him want to run. He stumbled blindly down the hallway and into his bedroom.
"I talked to some of the kids in your class at school. They told me that you and Jimmy Holland discussed trading some magazines. I want you to tell me the truth about this."
"No, sir. Jimmy traded them to Marcus."
"Was that where you were the afternoon Marcus disappeared?"
"I went to Jimmy’s house to ride his pony. I didn't tell my mother where I was."
"Did she ask where you were?"
"And you lied to her."
"Not exactly," he said, looking off in the corner of the room.
"I would like to see the magazines if it isn't too much trouble."
It wouldn't do any good to refuse. He knew if he ran out the door, the sheriff would search his room. He hesitated for just a moment and then went to his closet. The envelope hung on the edge of the molding when he tried to pull it through the crack. He jerked it lose, then turned around and handed the package to the sheriff without looking up. He could hear the rattling of paper as he opened the envelope and looked inside.
"This isn't the sort of thing you should to be reading, Eric," the sheriff said after a minute.
Eric tried to answer but he couldn't. The sheriff moved forward and placed his hand on his shoulder. He hated it when adults touched him, but he couldn't push his hand aside. He didn't want to be locked up in jail.
"You father was a friend of mine, Eric. I am going to talk to your counselor at school and he'll discuss this with you."
"My counselor is a woman! I can't talk to her about something like this. And besides, she never believes anything I say."
"Have you lied to her before?"
"No, but she always accuses me of lying, regardless of what I say."
"Then I'll make some other arrangements. You're growing up and it is normal to be interested in your own sexuality, but this stuff is really sick. I want you to do something in the future. If someone asks you a question you don’t want to answer, then don’t lie to them. It’s better not to answer than to lie and get into deeper trouble."
Eric watched as he tucked the envelope under his arm. He knew he wasn't likely to get it back. The sheriff's boots clicked on the hardwood floor as he went down the hall and stopped in the living room. He could hear the murmuring of voices, but they were talking too low for him to hear what they were saying. Taking a couple of quick steps, he peeked around the door. They were standing in the middle of the floor. The sheriff had his hand on her shoulder. When she reached for the envelope, he shook his head and moved it out of her reach. They were still talking when his mother suddenly went up on her tiptoes and kissed him. Eric whirled away from the opened doorway feeling sick.
This was the way the girls kissed the men in the magazines Marcus got from Jimmy Holland.
"It's time to feed the rabbits," Eric’s mother said from the doorway. He didn't know how long he had been standing there staring into the distance. He hadn't heard her approach.
"Sure, Mom," he answered without turning around. She remained where she was for a minute, and then turned away without saying anything else.
* * *
They sold the horses when his father died more than four years before. The only thing in the barn was the rabbit hutch built against the back wall. He had ten rabbits and another litter on the way. In the beginning, he hadn't wanted to buy the rabbits. In fact, he hadn't wanted to come into the barn ever again. His mother insisted, and he gradually began to enjoy caring for them. There were several litters per year and this was how he made his spending money. He liked the little ones with their small faces and eager expressions. His favorite ones were the two old rabbits his mother bought for him in Willow Creek when he started his business. The shaggy hair and rapidly blinking eyes reminded him of the elderly man and woman who ran the service station where his mom bought her gas. He bent toward the cage, talking to them, when he saw movement from the corner of his eye. For a moment, he thought one of the young ones had managed to get out of the cage, but finally realized he was looking at the snake. It was on a brace behind the cage with its head only a few inches from his hand. He froze, knowing if he made any quick movement it would be likely to strike. Its head was as big as one of the adult rabbits, and its body was at least six feet in length. As he watched in horrid fascination, the snake opened its mouth and looked directly into his eyes. The teeth were long enough they would have reached through his hand. It was all he could do to keep from screaming. The snake remained where it was, its head moving in a hypnotic pattern, first toward, and then away from his hand. After what seemed like an eternity, the snake withdrew its head and retreated around the corner of the cage.
Eric spun away and ran across the barn toward the opposite wall. His mother's garden hoe was hanging with the other tools. He grabbed for the handle, but let it slip from his hand. He lost a few seconds when he had to bend to pick it up. The sheriff warned him about killing the snake, but he didn't care. He had read in a book that if you attacked a snake, you had to kill it. If you didn't, it would start stalking you until it got its chance. This was probably what had happened to Marcus. Marcus had seen the snake several times at the creek. The first few times he threw some rocks at it. Then he tried to kill it with the gun. Now it was stalking him just as it had stalked Marcus. Walking as quietly as he could, he approached the cages and looked underneath. There was a thin layer of alfalfa hay on the floor, but it was not thick enough for the snake to hide. Going down to the opposite end of the cages, he cautiously approached the wall and looked down the center brace to the corner. He didn't see the snake anywhere.
He spun in the direction of his mother's voice. "Mom it's the snake! It's trying to get to the rabbits."
"No, Eric, stop! You know what the sheriff said. Get away from there and leave the snake alone. It can't get inside the cages. The wire mesh is too small. It is probably only a garden snake. They are harmless and they don't catch anything bigger than a mouse."
His attention shifted between the cages and his mother. He knew this was his best chance to kill it before it killed him. The next time, he might not have a weapon handy.
"Have you fed the rabbits yet?" she asked.
"I haven't. I was going to when I spotted the snake. He was right beside my hand."
"I'll stay with you until you are through feeding them if you are afraid."
He hesitated and then handed the hoe to his mother. He knew it would be useless to argue with her. She never believed anything he said.
* * *
The bus driver had a flat tire while they were on their way home from school the next day. Usually, he was home for almost an hour before his mother arrived. He had counted on that hour to find the snake. At this time of the day, it was probably at the creek catching frogs. Marcus told him it hid along the edge of the deepest pool where the frogs sunned on the rocks at the edge of the bank.
The man from the garage finally arrived and patched the tire without having to remove it from the wheel. Eric glanced at his watch and realized he would have only a few minutes to kill the snake and hide it by the bridge. He would wait until dark, then slip down and stretch it across the road. Someone would come along and run over it and no one would know it was already dead. There wouldn't be any way they could blame it on him.
When the bus finally stopped in front of their mailbox, he jumped off and ran toward the porch. He had only fifteen minutes before his mother would be home. That wasn't enough time, but he knew he had no choice. He ran down the hallway, threw his books on the bed, and was racing toward the barn before the screen door slammed shut. He grabbed the hoe from the rack and ran toward the edge of the woods. He would have to go down the hill where he could cross the road without Mrs. Turley being able to see him.
He jumped the road ditch and ran quickly across the road, then plunged into the woods on the opposite side. It was only a short distance to the creek. In a couple of minutes, he was approaching the place where Marcus had seen the snake several times before. He decided to skirt the carpet of leaves and grass by going around on the far side of a wild plum tree. There was a bird nest on the ground and he wondered how it had gotten there. There hadn't been any wind in the last few days. The nest was empty, but there was an adult robin setting on a branch flapping its wings and screeching at him.
Suddenly, he realized what had happened. He froze where he was and reached overhead to grab a limb where he could balance himself as he bent forward to scan the ground.
The limb moved under his hand.
Eric lifted his head slowly and saw the large head as it descended toward his face and stopped no more than six inches in front of his nose. The snake stared back into his eyes for a moment, then its head tilted downward and he realized it was studying the hoe he was holding in his left hand. He was standing with his head just underneath the limbs and he knew there was not enough room swing at the snake. As he watched, the snake began to move downward like a piece of well-oiled machinery until its head was near the hand holding the hoe. He saw the large mouth open, and the tongue flick out, moving tentatively across the back of his hand. The hoe dropped from his hand and he heard it hit the ground with a rustle of leaves. The snake immediately began to withdraw, pausing only once as if it was studying his expression before it disappeared in the thick foliage overhead. He started backing away, and then ran all the way to the house.
Eric's mother was late and he had time to feed the rabbits before she arrived. He was half way through his reading assignments when he heard her enter the front door. He tried to appear busy, for he knew she would check on him before she started dinner. When she didn't come down the hallway, he rolled across the bed and pulled the curtain back an inch. He saw the sheriff's car parked in the drive. Something was going on between them, he decided. Easing off the bed, he tiptoed to the door and listened.
"I don't know why they didn't warn us," the sheriff said. "We only got the papers today."
"You mean we have a sex predator living two doors down and no one let us know?"
"I'm not going to lie to you," the sheriff said. "I'm not only worried about Eric, I'm worried that this might have been what happened to Marcus. We haven't found any sign of him anywhere. Your new neighbor's name is Glenn Utley. There were three convictions of child molestation and rape."
"Then why is he out of prison?"
"He's out on a technicality."
"Can't you arrest him?"
"So far, he hasn't done anything."
"He hasn't done anything you know about," she said.
"There is one thing I can do," he said. "I am going to leave this for your protection."
"No, Clay. I don't think so."
"You know how to use it. I used to see you and Robert at the firing range. If I remember correctly, you were a better shot than he was. This is a small gun, but it has a lot of stopping power. Do you think you could use it if you had to?"
"I know I can, but I don't like to think the situation warrants this kind of action."
"Until we know something for sure, I don't want that gun out of your reach."
"What do you think I should tell Eric?"
"I don't think you should tell him anything."
"I can't lie to my son."
"Well, he hasn't made much of an effort to be honest with you."
Eric turned away from the doorway, but he could still hear them murmuring.
* * *
"Go directly inside and lock the door when you get home," his mother ordered when he was ready to get on the school bus the next morning. He didn't tell her he had overheard her conversation with the sheriff the previous day.
When the bus stopped in front of their mailbox that afternoon, he took a careful look around before he went down the steps and rushed toward the front door. As soon as he was inside, he locked the door and went to check the back. He usually fed the rabbits as soon as he got home, and then got his lessons so he could play outside before it got dark. Suddenly, he had an idea. The window in the attic faced the house where Mr. Utley was supposed to be living. He grabbed his binoculars from his closet and raced up the stairs. There weren't any curtains over the attic window and he didn’t want to be spotted. He stood slightly to one side and focused them on the house. The yard was empty except for an old pickup truck. Then he saw the curtain on the front window move. Utley was at home. He would have time to slip out to the barn, feed the rabbits, and then get back inside before anyone had time to spot him.
He went rapidly down the stairs and across the back yard. Grabbing the metal handle, he slid the door open and started across the floor toward the sack of rabbit food. Taking the feed bucket, he scooped up some pellets, and then saw the man standing directly in front of him when he turned. The man was smiling, but it wasn't a friendly smile. Eric started to back away, but the man seized his arm and stopped him.
"Why don't you set down over there on the bale of hay where we can talk?"
Eric started to refuse when he saw the knife in the man's hand. He backed away until he felt the wall supports against his back. The man placed his other hand— the one holding the knife— on top of his shoulder. He weighed his chances of ducking under Utley’s arm and running toward the door. He wasn't as large a man as the sheriff but he was strong. Suddenly, the hand holding his arm tightened painfully, and Eric was aware of something striking him a glancing blow on the side of his neck. He heard a loud cry of terror as something large and heavy slid across his shoulder. He lifted his head and saw that the snake had fastened its massive jaws on the Utley's neck. Eric twisted away as Utley dropped to his knees, clawing desperately at the snake. His legs kicked only a few times, and then he was still. Eric managed to untangle himself from the cage supports and ran toward the door, but stopped when he saw the snake coiled in front of the opening. He moved back a couple of feet. The snake glided in his direction and came to a stop directly in front of him. After looking at him for a minute, the snake moved its head toward the door in an almost human-like gesture. Eric guessed that the snake was trying to communicate the fact that it wanted him to follow. When he waved his hand toward the door, the snake immediately turned and glided away as if it was sure he would follow. As soon as they were outside, the snake turned toward the creek and disappeared into the underbrush. He could no longer see it, but he could tell where it was by watching the waving grass. He was so intent on watching the snake that he didn't realize where they were going until they reached the top of the hill near Mrs. Turley’s house. There had been a cabin there several years in the past and everything was gone except a small dilapidated building that appeared to be a root cellar. Eric could hear a noise inside like the whimpering of an animal. He put his head cautiously around the side of the door and saw something on the floor. It was a person bound head and foot with duct tape. Marcus was making a gagging sound and moving his head back and forth on the ground. Eric grabbed the corner of the tape and ripped it down.
"There’s a snake in here!" Marcus screamed. "I saw it. It was bigger than my leg. I think it is the one from the creek."
Eric hesitated for a moment, not sure if he should explain the situation to Marcus. "Well it must have gone," he finally said. "I don't see one now."
Suddenly, Marcus started to scream again in mindless terror.
It took several minutes for him to tear the tape lose from around his wrist. By the time he was finished, he wished he had left the tape in place over his mouth. As soon as his feet were free, Marcus shoved past him and started running toward his house without looking back.
* * *
Utley's body was lying almost directly under the track that supported the ceiling hoist. Eric pushed the hoist along the track and then fastened the leather band around his waist. It took him only a minute to lift Utley high enough in the air where he could roll the wheelbarrow underneath. Once he had him balanced, it was easy to roll him out of the barn. He went back inside, grabbed his father’s life preserver, and placed it on top of the load. The creek passed behind their house, but the water here was swiftly flowing. It was hard to get the wheelbarrow down the steep bank, but he finally managed to get it to the edge of the water. He dumped Utley on the top of the bank and fitted the life preserver around his chest. It took several minutes to get the straps fastened. Eric gave him a push and he splashed into the water and started floating away. He set the wheelbarrow upright on its wheel and rolled it back to the barn. He grabbed his father's sledgehammer from the wall and ran back to the shed where he found Marcus. It took only a couple of minutes to break the blocks loose from the foundation. They fell into the hole and the rusted roof crashed down on top of them. He grabbed a broken branch and swept a pile of leaves over the debris. When he backed away, he could not see any sign that the building ever existed.
Eric was back in his bedroom studying when he heard the sirens. A moment later, someone hammered on the front door. He tried to look surprised when he opened it and saw the sheriff and three of his deputies.
"Has something happened to my mom?" he asked.
"Marcus said that Utley had him tied up in a cellar near his house,” the sheriff said. “He said you freed him. Is that true ?"
"Marcus is the biggest liar in the whole school! He is always telling a wild story about a monstrous bear he saw in the woods or a big snake chasing him."
The sheriff glanced at his deputies, and then all three of them were looking at him again. "He did mention the snake. Marcus said it was as big around as his leg and it was watching him over your shoulder as you removed the tape."
Eric rolled his eyes.