The Snake – Erika Skorstad
“Looks like murder,” says Cassie, her chubby cheeks jiggling as she nods at the green snake lying dead in the soil. Her eyes look funny, like something is missing from them. At first, I can’t hear what she says because my dad is mowing the grass. He keeps driving the mower over the same three patches of grass even though they’re already short.
“What?” I yell to Cassie.
“How do you know?” I ask, taking a bite out of my jam sandwich.
“Detective! You’ll contaminate the crime scene.” Cassie pushes my sandwich away, scowling. She looks the same way she did when my mom dropped me off an hour late to her pirate birthday party last year. It feels like the party was ages ago.
“Sorry,” I mumble, my mouth full. Dad finally turns off the mower and smiles at us in a stretched-out way. He comes over.
“Hey Pumpkin, I have to take care of something. Will you and Cassie be alright out here?” He ruffles my hair and I smell his “special” cologne that reminds me of olives. I wrinkle my nose and nod.
“Yes, Mr. Pearson,” says Cassie.
Dad walks across the yard, then opens the sliding door and goes into the kitchen.
“Anyway…” Cassie shakes her caramel curls out of her eyes and consults her small notebook with the silhouette of Sherlock Holmes on the cover. “You can see the victim is missing part of his tail. Probably bitten off by a rabbit or something.” She paces to the patio. “A possible motive is revenge. The snake might’ve eaten the rabbit’s daughter.” She nods again, then puts her notebook back in her pocket. “We’ll take this shedded skin back to the lab for testing.” Cassie pockets the snake skin that looks like paper.
“Be careful,” I say, brushing off the crumbs from my hands. “You don’t want to break it.”
She whips her head to look at me. “I know what I’m doing, Detective.” Her arms flop down at her sides. “And how can you eat a sandwich with jam and no peanut butter? It’s an…abomination.” She pauses when she says the last word, sounding it out.
I shrug. “The jam’s the best part.” Cassie’s face wrinkles up and she just stares at me.
I wipe a bead of sweat off of my upper lip.
“Any idea where the, uh, suspect went?” I ask. Cassie’s face smooths out.
“Well, I saw him head into that hedge earlier. I’ll see if I can chase him down.” She fumbles away, almost tripping in her flip flops that are too small for her feet. I finish my sandwich and go sit on the good swing—not the one that squeaks when you swing too high.
Through the window, I see Dad talking to Cassie’s mom, Eileen. I didn’t realize she was here already. He brushes a piece of her hair away from her face and I think she must have a leaf in it or something.
Cassie comes running over to me. As she’s catching her breath, I stare at the shiny badge around her neck from Party City, the rumpled notebook sticking out of her shirt pocket, and the urgency in her eyes.
“Detective! There’s been a breakthrough.”
Inside, Cassie’s mom is laughing. Maybe Dad told her the joke about the penguin who goes to law school. They leave the kitchen.
“C’mon, aren’t you gonna say something?”
“What’s the breakthrough?” I stand up from the swing and the summer heat makes my shorts stick to my legs.
“I went to look for the rabbit, and instead I found this in the dirt.” Cassie holds out a blue feather earring. “Maybe it was a bird! Or a peacock.”
“Peacock’s are birds. And it’s an earring.”
Cassie rolls her eyes. “I know that. Just play along, okay? Like you used to.”
I pluck the earring from her hand, wondering who it belongs to.
Cassie shrugs. “I’m thirsty,” she says, her arms drooping.
I run my thumb across the feather, shaking loose specks of dirt.
“Okay. Let’s go get some iced tea.” Putting the earring in my pocket, I lead Cassie over to the kitchen. When we step inside, it smells weird, like the banana bread Mom made early this morning mixed with garbage. Maybe Dad forgot to take out the trash again.
Stretching up on my tip-toes, I grab two of my favorite blue glasses from the cabinet and hand Cassie the one with the scratch on it. She doesn’t notice. Opening the fridge, I take out the pitcher of homemade iced tea. As I’m pouring it into Cassie’s cup and then mine, I hear a thump upstairs.
Cassie’s body tenses. “Did you hear that, Detective?”
“Yeah, it was probably just the cat.” I hand Cassie the glass of iced tea.
“It could be an important clue. Let’s investigate.” She puts down her glass and heads towards the stairs. I gulp down some iced tea from my glass and then follow her.
As Cassie leads me up the stairs, I’m careful not to look at the wall with the photo of me that I hate. It was taken a year ago at the beach with my mom and dad and my smile looks like it belongs to a jack-o-lantern. We turn left and stand in front of the door to the playroom. Someone giggles behind the door.
“Cassie, let’s go back outside and look for the rabbit,” I hear myself say.
But Cassie reaches for the doorknob and turns it. My eyes immediately fly to the playroom ceiling, where the remnants of the moon sticker I had placed there four years ago glow faintly. I hear Dad and Eileen saying a jumble of loud words, but I’m focused on Cassie’s face. Her eyebrows are furrowed and there are pink patches on her cheeks. Her eyes look emptier than when we found the snake.