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She was struck by how small Graham Wentley seemed. He was still polished, tailored suit, slicked-back hair, but when she was young, he looked larger than life, imbued with a holy presence. Now, he was wrinkled and almost swallowed up by the imposing oak desk in front of him. Despite that, it was his disarming warmth that hit her the hardest. He was cordial, friendly even. When she first came through the door, he greeted her with a tour of his office and iced tea.
She felt the squeak of the metal folding chair beneath her. Her low vantage point set her gaze directly above his head. The snake painting stared back at her, its eyes blood red. Though, it was nothing compared to the full-size diamondback rattlesnake sitting in its glass enclosure to her right. Nose against the glass, watching her.
“This is a big job, Libby,” Graham said briskly, twisting his gold pinky ring. “We need someone with energy and drive, someone who really believes in our mission.”
Libby carefully recited her answers and watched him as he nodded, seemingly pleased with her responses.
“Most importantly,” she said, touching her mother’s small diamond necklace strung around her neck, a modest heirloom that paled in comparison to the wealth displayed around her, “I grew up on the road with you.”
“Is that so?”
“My mom was a true believer, may she rest in peace.”
“I’m certain she’s found her heavenly rewards. I know it is so.”
Libby’s thoughts drifted to Graham leading a sea of worshippers, outdoor congregations in the foothills of the Appalachian Trail. Her mother setting up and breaking down chairs, tables, tents. Sweating in the sticky, humid heat. Fingers numb during the bitter, winter frost. Libby’s mother taught her worldly possessions didn’t matter compared to patience, faith, commitment. Truth reveals itself in time, and Libby’s mother believed Graham Wentley saw the truth of God.
During sermons, Graham often made a great show of dissolving powdered Strychnine poison into a shot glass, holding up the clear, swirling liquid before downing it. The gasps of followers his orchestra, echoing in the still, forested air. He then called her mother on stage for snake-handling demonstrations with his favorite rattler, Abednego, going on about his power to protect his people from poisons and deadly venom.
Libby recognized the old viper next to her as the very same from her childhood. Graham stood up, approached the glass.
“…In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues—”
Libby cut him off, too eagerly, she thought: “—they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
“Very good,” he said. “I think you’ll fit in well here.” Abednego watched him, tail flicking. She wondered if the snake was pondering the same thing as her, wondering how many faces Graham Wentley truly had.
Over the last year, Libby watched another rattlesnake named Lucy shed its skin several times. She cared for Lucy at the research facility that employed her, where she learned how to safely subdue the snake with CO2, then use a metal chopstick to hold out its fangs, delicately massage the jaw to expel a few drops of venom.
“You are one of us now.” Graham looked her over, sipped his tea. “Welcome.”
Libby held her cool glass between her fingertips, thinking of the cold night air during that service so long ago when Graham took a shot of Strychnine poison and held Abednego above her mother’s head. Without warning, the writhing creature plunged downward, fangs sinking deep into flesh. Her mother died gasping out a final prayer that did not heal her. With tears streaming down her face, Libby snuck into Graham’s tent, intent on asking him for an explanation, how could he not protect her, when she saw him emptying bottles of Strychnine and filling them with salt.
“To new opportunities,” Graham said, and downed the rest of his glass.
“To my mother,” Libby said, fingering the vial inside her silk sleeve, traces of powder stuck to the rim from when it had emptied into Graham’s iced tea.
Graham coughed, hard. He tried to recover, but his leg spasmed, and he dropped to one knee.
“What…is…” Graham said. He collapsed to the floor. Muscles shook as though an angered demon possessed him, stiffening his limbs with the grip of paralysis.
“Strychnine, your favorite,” Libby said. She stepped around him, approached Abednego’s glass enclosure, unlatched the front locks on the terrarium, laid it down. At the research facility, Lucy taught her to move slowly, show herself at eye level, use two hands.
She laid Abednego on the floor and he circled Graham, smelling his captor’s scent. Libby turned on her heels but stopped at the door. Graham’s eyes shifted between her and the diamondback.
“I give unto you power to tread on serpents,” she said, before leaving Graham and Abednego, both staring after her, the snake’s tongue flicking in and out.
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