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The Copperhead

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Let me set this straight. I am not a reliable narrator. From the outset, I have to tell you that I am not going to pull a “Fight Club” on you at the last second and try to wrap everything up in a neat little package of “oh gosh, he was dreaming it all along.” Nor am I going to introduce some “god in the machine” right in the middle of things so that I can extract a failing plotline or stupid character from the fire before it or they get burned right up. Also, before you start thinking “hey, this guy is telling us he is unreliable, but maybe he is trying to confuse us when he says that…” stop it right now. I am being completely straightforward here: this whole thing is made up. It is fiction. It is a lie. But it happened.

My brother and I were very close even after we grew up and moved out of our abusive parent’s house. I moved first, because I got sick of the daily assaults first, but he was older by one year. We both went our separate ways as brothers tend to do, but we always kept in touch and we always met for dinner and drinks at least once a month. Seth is an important businessman sort and I am an unimportant bum type sort, but that never really becomes an issue for him. He’s not the type of “ashamed sibling” you hear about or read about, he is pretty much just a loving older brother. Hey, I told you we were close.

Want to hear an example of how close we are? Well, get this. When we were teenagers, I had the unluck of stepping right on a copperhead. A copperhead is a type of venomous snake that will fuck your shit up if you aren’t taken care of right away. We had been fishing all day in an abandoned quarry that had been flooded and stocked with bass. We were on this long pier that extended like a finger into the manmade lake and as we were leaving for the day, we were engaging in some mischievous tomfoolery that normal brothers tend to get into when they are in good moods. Seth socked me in the arm and I went sprawling off the end of the pier into a stand of grass that was on the bank. Inside that stand of grass was a copperhead about a foot long. The thing bit me on the upper calf and I immediately knew that something very terrible was happening. I never even saw the snake itself, but Seth said that he did and automatically went into (as he called it) "older brother mode.” Seth carried me for the entire two miles worth of path that led back to our parked car while I began to daze in and out of consciousness.

Can you imagine that situation? He actually carried me on his back in the hot woods for two miles. He thought that it was his fault that the snake had bitten me. He took it upon himself to carry me that whole way, crying while he did it, to the sun-baked car in the quarry parking lot. I don’t remember very much of the trip to the hospital, but I do remember how hot the seats in the car were as he set me down in the passenger seat.

Of course, after I was safely in the hospital and on the mend, our parents were contacted and Seth got the beating of a lifetime. I am not sure, but I think that the day I was discharged from the hospital, I got a good thrashing as well…there were so many, I can't remember them straight. That incident, the fishing trip, snakebite, and extended stay in the hospital did more to make me decide to leave home when I could than any other incident of my childhood and post pubescent years. I stood through beatings, verbal abuse, irrational shouting matches, and adult alcoholic rage that came out of nowhere, but that snake and his little love nip did more in one brief second to force my resolve in leaving than any of it. It took my brother a few more months to see what I saw.

So now I guess you are waiting for me to reveal this incredible insight I gained while immobile in a hospital bed, my leg propped up to keep the blood flowing properly, but what I have to say really isn’t all that enlightening. While in that bed, a nurse came in the room to take my temperature or to draw some blood or something, and I noticed that she had a lattice of scars on one arm. Not all that earth shaking is it? she was a cutter. She liked to deal with her pain by taking an Exacto knife out and giving herself a series of cuts…and somebody had let her be a nurse.

My parents were drunks. They weren’t what I like to think as functioning alcoholics who only drank on the weekends. They were rocked out of their minds pretty much through my whole childhood. This sort of behavior ranks somewhere higher on my scale of “fucked up” than cutting does…and somebody let them be parents. But seeing that nurses arm, slashed so perfectly, solidified something inside of my mind. An idea began to form that there were no rules, or, the people who were making the rules only did it because they could get away with it.

I talked to Seth about this, and while he understood what I meant, he also wanted to live by those rules for a little while longer. He wanted to graduate from high school and then he felt that he could get out. I didn’t, seeing that I felt that high school was just another set of rules and I had had enough of that bullshit. I got out, moved into a shit-hole apartment in the dumpy part of town, and called him to let him know where I was. I also told him that if the beatings got too bad, he had a place to crash.

Once my parents had figured out that I was gone for good, they pretty much didn’t do anything extra special. They continued to be drunks, they continued to fight, and they continued to let Seth have it if he happened to get in the way. It kind of hurt me that they didn’t even feel that my departure was worth an extra bottle of whatever it was that they swilled. I figured that Seth would have at least gotten a clout on the eye or something, but no, it was just business as usual.

Seth went to his counselor and explained that he wanted to finish out his high school career on an accelerated pace. He didn’t come right out and tell the counselor that his parents were beating the shit out of him every night, but he didn’t really have to at that point, between myself and him coming to school every so often with a shiner or a busted up lip, everybody already knew. For his junior year in high school, he was allowed to take advanced courses that would speed his graduation and count for some of his college credit. He graduated at the Christmas break of his junior year and for a present to him; I let him move into my apartment.

He didn’t stay with me very long. He had plans for himself that did not include living in the ghetto where the sounds that came through the paper-thin walls mialcoholiced the sounds of his own childhood. I didn’t really care and just turned the stereo up. After a few months, Seth moved himself into student housing at the local college and began working on those plans. We kept in touch, but we didn’t see very much of each other due to the fact that he was a full-time student and I was a full-time bum.

I sank into the obscurity of my twenties while Seth went to college. I worked in fast food joints while Seth worked on grants and dissertations. I graduated from cashier to head chef while he graduated sum cum laude with a degree in business administration. During that time, Seth managed to get married, become wealthy, divorce, and lose most of his fortune, while at the same time; I had managed to get a new bed and a new apartment…just down the tenement hallway from my first room. By thirty, we were both where we started out at when we were twenty-four, but I had managed to expend a hell of a lot less energy getting there.

Because he was freshly divorced, I brought up the subject of perhaps taking a vacation. We should get away from all this, I said. We hadn’t seen the whole wide world out there, maybe it was time? After several months of this sort of urging, I finally got him to finance a trip to Yellowstone. It seemed like a great idea, Old Faithful and all. Being raised the way we had been raised, we never got to see very much of anything besides our own back yard or pictures in books, so getting to someplace big, wide, and free appealed to the both of us. In the room we shared while growing up, both of us had a small store of books that we would escape into when things got bad. One of those books was a picture book called “Wide Open Spaces: A Photographer's History of the Wild West” and I recall that book as being the most beaten up, dog-eared, and re-read book in our whole collection. It seemed a given that we would one day have to travel out there if only to verify that books grand pictures as real.

We made plans to drive to Wyoming and spend a whole month inside of the national park. To this day, I have never seen inside of that park, even though I want to with all my heart. While in Indiana, on the interstate, a lug nut shot off of a ROADWAY truck’s wheel and struck my brother square in the forehead. The noise the lug nut made when it smacked against the windshield was like what you see in a comic book: the word “zap!” surrounded by a jagged lightning bolt-shaped balloon. The noise that the lug nut made when it hit my brother and killed him was like nothing I have ever heard before or since. It was more of a feeling than a sound. But if I were asked (forced) to describe it, I would have to say that it sounded like a piece of uncooked steak hitting black asphalt at a high rate of speed. Yes, it was a slapping sound, but it went beyond a mere bash and into the wet kind of strike that is associated with destruction of flesh.

With Seth being dead, nobody was in control of the car and it swerved into the culvert that ran alongside of the highway. I can remember this part only because like most accidents a person is involved in, I saw it in slow motion. The car hit the dip of the ditch and then rocketed over the small rise on the other side. We became airborne for a brief second before flipping entirely and slamming into the concrete divide that made up the back of the highway gutter. Being upside down probably saved my life as the energy of the wreck was transferred into the underside of the car instead of the front. I was tossed around like a rag doll and hit my head on the dashboard a few times, but other than that and a few scratches from the shattered safety glass, I was in perfect condition.

I stood beside the highway in a daze, blinking at the suddenly extra bright sun and watching other cars zoom by for what seemed like hours. Nobody stopped to help, so, like that other crazed accident in my life, the snakebite, I was cut off from help. Only this time, my brother wasn’t around to carry me…or so I thought.

I am not sure when it was that my leg started to itch, but it was probably within a few seconds of my brother’s demise and I am certain he had something to do with it. Deep in my upper calf, a hot itch was spreading slowly, like somebody was pouring micro-waved maple syrup on my pants leg. As I crawled out of the wreckage, I remember digging my fingernails into my leg, trying to find out what the itch was. I wanted to go to sleep, but that itch... it writhed like a parasite within the muscle itself, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I think it’s probably silly for me to assume at that point that I knew what was wrong, or that there was something going on other than the shear insanity of the situation: standing above a culvert, the car’s wheels still spinning, my brother dead inside, and me scratching like an idiot at my leg while cursing the cars that flew by and didn’t stop. It is stupid to think beyond those boundaries. Who in their right mind would see that despite all of those other wreck-related things, something truly strange might be occurring. Yet somehow, I knew. Was Seth keeping me awake, keeping me from drifting off to where he was?

Soon, that itch spread out inside me, covering my whole body like a blanket of energy. I was scared to move, fearing that I would discharge that energy like a static spark you get from walking across carpet in socks. Only this spark would knock me on my ass like getting hit by a rabid linebacker, and kill me from the sheer power grounding itself out or expanding into the air. I stared at my hands, expecting to see electrical sparks, like little tentacles, crawling across my skin, but I didn’t see that. That casual perusal of my hands seemed to calm down the itching and the feeling of being a human battery. I realized that I hadn’t exhaled since crawling out of the wreckage of the car. Breath escaped me like a rush of sobs, shaking my whole frame.

After some time, me standing above that sunny culvert, somebody realized that there was a problem. Soon the wreck was converged upon by ambulances, fire trucks, and emergency people. They all told me what I already knew; that my brother was dead…and he had died the instant that lug nut had impacted with his skull. I was ushered into an emergency vehicle and taken to a nearby hospital.

After a few x-rays of my head, it was discovered that I had a minor concussion and would have to be extra careful over the coming days; advice that both the doctors and I knew I would ignore. Even still, the hospital people kept hovering over my leg.

“This wound,” one of the ER doctors was speaking at me, “This wound really bothers me, Mr. Bellows. How long is it since you were bitten?”

“What?” I said, twisting my leg to examine the location of the old bite. “That happened when I was in high sch—“ I stopped dead. The bite mark looked like it was brand new, as if it were just given to me by some sneaky snake. A thin rivulet of blood trickled from the punctures.

“This bite isn’t fresh?” the doctor asked, looking over the sheaf of papers he was holding. His curious eyes seemed to look at me for the first time and I got the idea that all of the sudden, he wasn’t just going through the motions.

“Honestly doc, I got that bite when I was a freshman in high school. Is there some way the wreck could have torn something open…y’know maybe opened up the scars?”

“Look at the way the flesh is destroyed near the bite,” he was gesturing with his pen. “I don’t think this bite is more than a week old, look at the way the leg is swollen.” He walked over to a small, plastic intercom on the wall and asked for a nurse. “And I need an antivenin kit as well, full range.”

“Don’t waste your time, doc. I am willing to bet you a hundred bucks its copperhead venom.”

He gave me a queer look and turned off the intercom. “What makes you think that? Did you see a copperhead out by the wreck site?”

“No doc, I’m telling you, this bite isn’t new…yeah yeah yeah, it looks new, but it isn’t. “ I thought about it for a second then added: “If you feel like it’s a new bite, go ahead, do your thing, and don’t let me stop you, but I am telling you, if you find anything, it’s a copperhead wound.”

I didn’t spend as much time in the hospital as I did with the first bite accident, this set of bites and the accompanying damage seemed to fade over a short amount of time, healing so quickly that my nurses and doctors were baffled by the process. I say that the damage healed, but a better term would be that the wounds eroded away, as if they were a sand castle on a beach during high tide.

The swollen flesh seemed to melt and slough off in time-lapse photography. Speaking of pictures, several photographs were taken over the course of the limb’s healing and were used in a case study and probably in some textbooks. The whole thing made me feel like a lab rat, trapped in some human sized NIHM experiment, only this one didn’t make the rat any smarter.

One week and one day from the day of the accident, I was released from the hospital and I didn’t even need a set of crutches to walk out the front door. Outside the hospital, I was greeted by the bright Indiana sunshine, a soft wafting breeze that smelled of freshly cut grass and all good summertime things, and a vast chasm of emptiness. I was alone, without money, without help, and without my brother. I began to walk off of the hospital campus and made my way to what seemed like a town strip. Perhaps I could find someplace to get some work; I was good at finding quick no-brainer jobs.

The Copperhead is a part of a series on Old Stuff

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