The snake that bit Declan came from the creek by the golf course. We made fun of him when he cried. Then we made fun of him when he told his parents he’d never go out there with us again. We did it right in front of them. Right in the foyer. We could see on their faces, they didn’t know how to stop us. His mom asked if we wanted to come in and talk about it. She wanted to know if we wanted snacks.
We said no, and then we didn’t leave. We made them tell us to go.
The next time we went to the creek, another snake came out and Declan got bit again. He still cried but he tried to fight it, so no one said anything. We just waited for him to stop.
The time after that, he got bit, too.
It got so that we’d get to the creek and Declan would pull up his sleeve and stick his arm out like a dumb antenna. It got so that the snakes would gather and take turns. It got so that we could see they were establishing a pattern.
Then one snake bit and didn’t stop. You’d think it would take a long time for this thing to stretch out big enough to consume an entire boy. An entire future. All of that disappointment and confusion. All that wanting. But it happened pretty fast.
When Declan was gone and all that was left was a boy-shaped snake with a head on one end and a tail on the other, we ran home and told our parents so they could tell his parents. Our parents called the cops so they could tell Declan’s parents. The cops said they had to investigate first. They called for an ambulance, just in case. The paramedics and police converged at the creek, where they milled around looking for a boy they knew wasn’t there, collecting lost golf balls along the way.
One of them found a ball with the words, My Wife Has My Other Balls, printed on it in some old, dumbass font. They all got a real good kick out of that.
We arrange the balls at the edge of the creek. The paramedics and cops put their hands on their hips and shook their heads. We shook our heads, too. They said, you all have no idea how lucky you are to grow up this close to water.
We pushed the balls into the creek and when they had all disappeared, the police and paramedics packed it in and went to Declan’s house to give his parents the bad news.
At the funeral, everyone treated us like they knew something they couldn’t prove, something they wanted to warn others about, but they didn’t know how to put it into words without coming right out and saying this was all our fault.
We thought it would help if we cried at the casket. We thought someone would console us, or pull us away but they just let us go until our faces were stained with splotches and streaks.
The police and paramedics were at the back of the room. We moved to join them. They shook their heads and left.
Not long after, we left too. It felt good to walk away from each other.
Every couple of years we get together and golf at that same course. There is an alligator that lives there. He doesn’t give a shit about us. Any time we come across him, one of us goes over and yells in his face. We get close enough that we can feel his smell in our mouths. It’s like breathing on another planet.
We yell things like, what the fuck are you here for, and, you better not be here next year.
We say that every time.
We’ve been saying it for years.
One of the guys always takes us out for a steak dinner the night before we play. He acts like this is a big deal, like it’s the only time we get to eat good steak. This same guy got all of us new golf balls with Declan’s name on them.
We call this a tribute and we hit those balls like motherfuckers. We hit them harder than we can control. Most of them go off into the rough. We don’t bother looking for them. We don’t have to. Steak Dinner has a bag of extras and says there are more in his car. He got enough that we’ll never run out.
Halfway through the game, it feels like we’re going to be there forever, and we start to see our own names on the balls in that same, old, dumbass font. We know this isn’t right. We blame the sun. We blame alcohol and time. We blame no one understanding us as much as we think they should have any time we felt wounded.
We hit the balls just as hard, maybe even harder. And when they disappear in the trees or back by the creek, we don’t hesitate to reach for another. We force eye contact with each other. We need each other to know this does not phase us. This isn’t even a blip.
Before we leave, we take a deep breath and scan the green. We scan the parking lot. We scan our yards, and the garage shelving that didn’t organize things the way it promised. We scan the office bathroom, and the Google Earth images of every place we’ve ever slept. We scan the dinner table, the bedroom, and the art on the walls that was only agreed upon for the feelings it will not evoke. We scan the never expanding or contracting space left by deleted text messages and contacts, and we try to conjure the smell of the alligator.
We say it’s there even when it’s not.
We know we’re pushing our luck.
Nathan Willis (@nathan1280) is a writer from Ohio. His stories have appeared in Split Lip, Passages North, Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y, Booth, and elsewhere. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com.