The Serpent's Tooth

Carol choked back the scream that had almost been startled from her. You'd think ten years of living with Luke would have taught her to take mummified crocodiles in stride.

"What's this doing in your suitcase?" she asked, handing the foot-long creature to her son.

"Oh, that's where it went. Dad brought it back from Borneo for me and then it just disappeared." He shrugged, as if dead crocodile carcasses might get up to anything if left to their own devices.

"Well, you can keep it at your father's then."

"He's already got one," Isobel observed from her defensive stance at the door. Being thirteen--fourteen on Thursday--she was too cool to hang out in her little brother's room, but too bossy to leave the packing to her mother. "Dad's got everything from everywhere. Kami says he's like a professional scavenger hunter who gets paid to bring back treasure from all over the world."

"Your father's a producer."

Richard filmed reality television programs about spoiled teenagers backpacking in Europe and slutty women getting naked in the jungle.

"I know what he does, Mom. Duh. Kami said he's like a scavenger hunter. God, your soul has no poetry."

"My soul is too busy worrying about socks. Luke, where are all your socks? I just did laundry yesterday."

"In a black hole, probably." Luke looked up from his Super Space Kidz comic book. "Did you know that holes can randomly form in the space/time continuum at any moment. Anything could fall into one."

"Or maybe you didn't put them away like I asked you to," Carol said, finding a pile of mismatched socks at the bottom of his wardrobe. Suppressing a sigh, she began matching them.

"There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Isobel pontificated. "Your horizons are so narrow."

How sharper than a serpent's tongue, Carol thought. She could quote Shakespeare too. "Are you reading Hamlet for school?"

"Kami reads to us. She doesn't want us to be provincial."

"You're old enough to read to yourselves. Look at Luke. He's reading right now."

"Sure, superhero comics or science fiction crap. That's all he ever reads. It's provincial."

What did provincial even mean, Carol wondered.

"Live long and prosper," Luke said, flashing the double-fingered v-sign at his sister.

"You see what I mean? Star Trek."

"What's wrong with Star Trek? Your father always loved Star Trek."

"Not anymore. Kami says he's going to start filming documentaries so he can use his influence to effect positive change."

Effect positive change, Carol repeated in her head. Her thirteen year old daughter was using phrases like "effect positive change."

"He'll probably do it too, because she wants him to. Dad would do anything for Kami. Do you know what he said about her? He said her eyes were the color of hot fudge."

"Meaning brown." Carol pointed out. "Brown eyes are very common. I have brown eyes, too, for that matter."

"Your eyes are the color of mud. Kami's eyes are the color of hot fudge."

"Your eyes are the color of blood," Luke told the baby crocodile cradled in his lap. And your teeth are like saber-toothed saws." He kissed its snout.

"Luke, don't put your mouth on that thing. It's probably infested with tropical diseases."

"He's not a thing. He's Crocky McCrockster. Crocky would never hurt me, would you Crocky? He's only dangerous to my enemies. Get her!" He threw the crocodile across the room at his sister who ducked and screamed.

"Keep your stupid toy away from me," Isobel said. She threw it back at him.

"Crocky's not a toy. He's a monster. Rawr."

"Don't throw that again. Either of you. Give it to me." Carol snatched the beast from her son's hands and stuffed it into the suitcase. Whether Richard already had a stuffed crocodile to grace his home or not, he could deal with it. Or Kami could deal with it. Kami would deal with it in an educational manner, no doubt.

"And get your thumb out of your mouth. You were just touching that diseased thing. Go wash your hands. Go."

Luke stomped peevishly out of the room. Isobel slid out of his way, then drifted closer to her mother who was still sorting through what must have been three weeks' worth of socks on the bed.

"How were you and Dad ever together? It's so weird."

"You remember us together, Isobel. You were eight when he moved out."

"Not really. I remember that he lived here but I don't remember you together. You weren't like Dad and Kami."

"We were once. Before you were born, maybe."

"But you guys are so different from each other. How did it even happen?"

"How does it ever happen? You have a person"--she held up a sock--"and you have another person"--she held up its mate--"and they belong together. Like this." She folded the two socks into a single bundle and held it out to Isobel symbolically.

"God, that's like that most boring description of falling in love ever. No wonder Dad left."

"I guess we can't all be poets like Kami." She dropped the paired socks into Luke's suitcase. She'd been Kami once--young, excited, interesting. When she and Richard had fallen in love, it had not been boring. "Some of us have children," she told Isobel. "And jobs."

"Kami has a job. She does those shows at the library for the kids."

"That's volunteer work, not a job."

"So? That's even nicer, that she's doing it without getting paid. She reads to them and she sings to them and acts out stories."

"Two four six oh oooooone!" Luke belted out, coming back into the room.

Carol turned to look at him in astonishment.

"That's from Les Miserables," Isobel explained. "It's the part where Jean Valjean is trying to decide if he should turn himself in to save his soul."

"Oh ooooone!" Luke bellowed again.

"I didn't even know you could sing," Carol said to her son. Never mind that he could sing tunes from a musical based on an old French novel.

"He totally can't. You should hear Kami sing. She sings like an angel and dances like a fairy. That's what Dad says. 'I dreamed a dream in days gone by,'" Isobel trilled, somewhat off-key, waving her arms like a fairy who'd had too much to drink. "Dad and Kami took us to see the movie and she explained the whole thing before, so even Luke understood it. You've probably never even heard of it."

"I've heard of it." She hadn't seen the movie though. When was the last time she'd seen a movie, other than what the kids wanted to see? But then, she'd never have guessed the kids would want to see Les Mis. Maybe she should be grateful to Kami for exposing the children to culture. It wasn't Kami's fault that Isobel idolized her. None of this was Kami's fault.

It was hard though. Time was thief enough--stealing her children from her day by day. Did Kami have to take what was left of Isobel? Luke had always been Richard's. He was a boy's boy--stuffed crocodiles and space ships from the day he was born. But once up a time, Isobel had belonged to her. Like Richard had belonged to her.

"Have you finished packing?" she asked Isobel.

"Yes."

"Did you pack your bathing suit?" She put Luke's bathing suit in his bag.

"Yes."

"Toothbrush?"

"God, Mom."

"Something nice in case they want to go out somewhere? You know Kami doesn't cook."

"Mom, seriously? Don't be so embedded in the patriarchal vision of women. If Kami doesn't want to cook--"

"Then Kami doesn't have to cook, but you have to have something to wear. Do you?"

Isobel slunk off to her room without answering.

"Why don't you bring that nice lavender dress with the halter top?" she called after her. That would keep Isobel out of her hair for a few minutes. The lavender dress hadn't fit her in two years and had been pushed into a Goodwill donation bin months ago.

Downstairs, the doorbell rang. Luke tore off through the doorway, heading for the stairs.

"This is your suitcase," she yelled after him, closing it with a thump. Following at a more labored pace, she went down the stairs with his bag in hand to find Luke at the door with Richard and Kami.

"Hello, Richard." She tilted her chin up so he could brush an air kiss across her cheek.

He'd gotten his hair cut for the summer. The buzz cut suited his face, made him look even younger. He was Peter Pan, the boy who'd never grown up--carefree and reckless. He played international scavenger hunt for a living with his Wendy flying devotedly at his side and popped randomly in at the window to sweep the children off to Never-Never Land for the weekend.

"Hey, Luke," Richard said, "you'll never believe what wandered into our yard--a moose." He held out his phone. "I got some pictures."

"A moose? With antlers and everything? Right in your yard." Luke sidled up to Richard to better see the photos he was swiping through.

"A moose in Connecticut?" Carol asked.

"Dad's house is so cool," Luke explained. "There's woods and rivers. Once I saw a bear. Do you think it'll come back?"

"I bet it will," Carol said, because Richard was the amazing father who put on a show with moose and crocodiles and trendy young stepmothers who danced and sang and fought the patriarchy in their spare time because they didn't have to work or sort three weeks' worth of socks.

She shifted her gaze to Kami, acknowledging her with a short nod. Kami was dressed in a tomato-red sarong with an emerald-green silk scarf draped artfully around her neck. She looked like a chili pepper and smelled like a cinnamon stick. Spicy and exotic, that was Kami. Carol looked down at her own black yoga pants and blue Hanes t-shirt. She didn't own a sarong and would never dream of wearing red, not at her age.

"That color suits you," she told Kami. "It really brings out the fudge in your eyes."

"Carol, don't start," Richard said, glancing up from Luke.

"It was a compliment. I'm embracing my inner poet."

"Is Isobel ready? Luke, take your bag to the car."

"Isobel!" Carol called up the stairs. She shrugged at Richard as if to suggest that she had no idea what might be keeping her.

"We'll have them back around eight on Sunday, if that's OK."

Kami nudged Richard in the side.

"And we'd, uh, we'd like to take Isobel out on Thursday."

"We have reservations," Kami said. "In the City."

"Thursday is her birthday."

"Yes, we're taking her out for her birthday. The reservations were very hard to get. Of course, Richard being known--"

"Well," Richard interrupted. "We thought she'd like it, that's all. A grown-up thing to do on her birthday--go into the City for dinner."

But it's her birthday, Carol thought. It's my little girl's birthday. "Of course," she said. "I'm sure Isobel will love it."

"Hi, Dad. Hi, Kami." Isobel bounced up to them, her overnight bag slung over her shoulder. Kami returned Isobel's enthusiastic hug. It was nice that they got along. Nice. Really.

"We were just telling your mother we have reservations at one of the hottest spots in New York City for your birthday."

"Swank Puss?" Isobel asked immediately. When Kami nodded, Isobel squealed and threw her arms around her father. "Thank you, thank you. Oh my God, that is so cool."

Swank Puss? What kind of--

"So we can have her Thursday?" Kami confirmed.

"Not Thursday," Isobel said. "That's my birthday."

"Exactly. That's why we--"

"I'd rather be home with Mom for my birthday, but we can do it another day, OK? Hey Dad, can my friends come hang out by the pool tomorrow?" Isobel dragged her father towards the car, leaving Kami and Carol facing each other. The red of Kami's sarong crept up her neck to her face.

"I guess she'd rather be home," Carol said, relishing the unexpected victory. I'd rather be home with Mom.

"Bye, Mom!" Luke yelled out the car window.

"Coming, Kami?" Richard asked from the driver's side.

"See you Sunday," Carol said. She hid her smile until the door was completely shut.


© Dawn Alguard, 2015