By Erin Fanning
The diamondback shook its rattle.
“Listen to that ornery fellow make his music. I can feel it right here.” My brother Lyle jabbed a gloved hand at his chest.
Even though Lyle was certifiable most of the time—had actually spent time in a mental hospital—he had a point. The rattle sounded like a rainstorm beating on rock: powerful, scary, and beautiful all at the same time. Unlike Lyle, though, the rattle didn’t get me all excited. It said stuff about death and life that I didn’t want to hear. It reminded me of Ma.
The snake, rattling again, coiled and raised its head.
“Whoa there, chief.” Lyle stepped back. His knee-high boots left muddy streaks on the floor; his black braid swung across his back. “We ain’t going to hurt you none.”
Lyle tipped his cowboy hat at Mrs. Bobblehead—I never caught her real name—who stood at the front door. “You best wait outside, little lady. We got some work to do.”
She wobbled her head, and her heels clickety-clacked across the porch. In one hand, she clutched a martini glass and in the other, a cigarette.
“Strap on the big guns, Jimmy,” Lyle said. “It’s going to be a long day.”
“Enough with the cowboy act,” I grumbled, wanting to follow Mrs. Bobble. I could have used a martini too.
Before Ma died, Lyle’s nickname had been The Professor. That was prior to his stay at the sanitarium, what he called “The Spa.” He’d been found in his dorm room in a manic state, texting a line from an e. e. cummings poem, something about petite feet and rain over and over again to some girl. His roommate discovered a half-finished paper on his computer about how e. e. had secretly invented the cell phone so he could text his lowercase message worldwide.
“Okay, Jimmy,” Lyle said. “I promised Mrs. Bobblehead a twofer deal, so you best wander off and find that pesky scorpion.”
“Me? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Shoo now.” Lyle gripped his snake hook and bag.
The diamondback’s head shot out.
I jumped, yet Lyle stood still, his eyes never leaving the rattler. “Chief and I have a little business to attend to. Go find that scorpion, but don’t touch it. We’ll take care of him together.”
I sighed and headed down the hallway with no intention of scorpion hunting.
What had Mrs. Bobblehead’s son been thinking? He’d secretly kept the critters in his closet, and on a cleaning spree that morning, Mrs. Bobble discovered the empty terrariums.
“No idea,” Junior Bobble said when asked about how the animals escaped. But it was obvious to me that he’d let them out to get back at his mom for making him attend Saguaro City’s Dance and Etiquette Camp.
Ma had loved to dance, always boogying to disco tunes or waltzing around the kitchen. Even when chemo stole Ma’s energy, I could still see a song in her eyes, a lullaby of hope.
The other obvious thing was that I needed to find another summer job. The night that Lyle got fired from Buck’s Better Burgers, I found him watching “America’s Scariest Jobs,” which featured snake wranglers. The next day, Lyle was stomping around in knee-high boots and waving a snake hook. He stapled flyers for “Lyle’s Loving Snake Removal” all over town. The calls dribbled in soon afterwards—contractors with snake nests in their developments or a rattler curled up beneath an RV.
He coerced me into signing on, and I couldn’t complain about the money. When there’s a sidewinder underneath your bed, you’re willing to pay just about anything to get it gone.
So here I was, tiptoeing down Mrs. Bobblehead’s McMansion and wondering what I’d done to deserve such a bizarre existence. I stumbled into the kitchen and saw my greasy hair and zits reflected in the stainless-steel appliances. What a loser. Lyle would be better off without me. He’d head back to school instead of me holding him back. And for what? So that I’d have someone to live with while finishing high school?
I missed Ma so much it tore a hole in my heart. I started to cry and not just a few tears, but a full-on fit. On top of being a loser, I was a complete pansy. I grabbed a glass from the kitchen counter and shot back some water.
That led to a coughing attack and more tears. I sank to my knees, struggling for control, and caught something moving out of the corner of my eye. A black scorpion, stinger raised, danced near my boots. Junior hadn’t been keeping any ordinary Arizona scorpion. That bad boy was a Death Stalker, a deadly variety from the Middle East.
My mouth opened, but nothing came out, although I screamed plenty in my head. If the scorpion stung me, how long before I died? Maybe I should roll up my sleeve and offer Mr. Death my forearm. I wouldn’t mind being gone. No more pain.
From behind me came, “Lookee what I got. No way chief was getting past the Snake Wrangler.”
Lyle drew in his breath as the scorpion moved to its right. “Whoa there, Jimmy. You’ve got a scorpion doing the two-step. Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.”
The crazy vibe in Lyle’s voice shook some sense into me. If I followed in Ma’s path, who would make sure that my brother found his way back to college?
I’d danced with Mr. Death long enough.
In one quick move, I trapped the scorpion beneath my glass and slid one of Lyle’s flyers underneath the cup.
“From now on, I dub you the Scorpion Kid.” Lyle said. “Now let’s find Mrs. Bobblehead and collect our loot.”
I followed Lyle down the hall. Mr. Death rattled the glass.
“Beat ya,” I whispered.