It was Sunday morning and for once a sunny day. Grover’s father was in the garage, getting ready to change the oil in the car. His mother had gone to church. Grover finally had some time to himself.
When the little kids had finished their breakfast, he shooed them outside. “Get out there and tear around,” he said. “There’s sun today, but it might be gone tomorrow.” They charged into the backyard, and he sat with Granny Carrie at the kitchen table while she finished her cup of coffee. He contemplated his grandmother. She was wearing a plaid flannel shirt this morning, with an old green sweatshirt over it, and orange sweatpants with thick, fuzzy socks and her duck slippers. Her short white hair was so wispy that her pink scalp showed through.
“Going to sit out on the porch this morning,” she said. “Take in some sun.”
“You’d better wear a hat,” Grover said. “It’s chilly out there.”
“I will,” she said. “I’ve got that nice green-and-yellow one your mother knitted me.”
Grover smiled to himself. His grandmother didn’t care a bit what she looked like. She’d happily wear fifteen different colors, all clashing with each other. She sometimes looked like a heap of bright laundry with a little wrinkly walnut head on top. His mother was always trying to get her to spiff up, but Grover thought she looked fine the way she was: completely different from every other old lady in town.
From outside came five or six piercing shrieks. Granny Carrie rose from the table and hoisted up the window by the back door. “You kids quit that!” she yelled.
More shrieks followed, and then a wail.
“I’ll go deal with them,” Grover said. “I’m going out there anyway.”
He took his jacket from its hook by the back door and went out into the yard. For a few minutes, he fooled around with the kids, and then he shooed them back into the house and went down to his shed. If the kids behaved, and if his father didn’t call him to help with the car, he’d have at least an hour, maybe more, all to himself.
The shed’s door was fastened with a combination lock, its combination known only to him. He twirled it, opened it, and went inside, closing the door behind him.
And as soon as he was in there, he became, as always, a different Grover. Not the funny Grover, not the big brother Grover, but the serious, brilliant, totally focused Grover, pursuing his passion.
A few rusted garden tools still hung on one wall of the shed, but he’d cleaned out all the old broken flowerpots and half-empty boxes of plant food and bags of moldy potting soil that used to be in here. Along one side of the shed he had built a wide shelf, and on the shelf were the two glass tanks, each equipped with lights and sitting on a heating pad, where he kept his prized possessions: his snakes.
He bent down and peered into each tank in turn. “How’re you doing, my beauties?” he murmured. Both snakes were barely visible. They’d burrowed under the dry leaves and bark he’d put in the tanks for shelter. All he could see was a small patch of patterned scales pressed against the glass in one tank and the narrow tip of a tail lying across a twig in the other.
He checked the temperature in the tanks—86 degrees for one, 80 for the other. Just right. Then he raised the glass top of the tank on the left and set it down on the shelf. He reached inside in a slow, unstartling way, and he took hold of the snake gently, a few inches behind its head, and raised it up into the air.
It curved and whipped, looping itself into anS and then aJ and then anS again, flowing like a moving rope between Grover’s hands. It was a gorgeous creature, nearly two feet long. Rings of black and yellow and rusty red alternated all down its slim body. It looked like a beaded belt, except that at the top end was a head with glittering black eyes and a darting tongue like a sliver of black paper.
“Pretty soon,” said Grover, “I’ll have some dinner for you. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. Something delicious.” He held up the snake and looked it in the eye. “Okay?”
This snake’s name was Fang. He’d found it during the summer, sleeping at the base of a rock in the woods. It was the first milk snake he’d captured, and he was very pleased with it. For nearly eight months now, he’d kept it alive and healthy. Fortunately, it didn’t have to be fed very often during the winter. Finding food for it wasn’t easy, and he couldn’t always afford to order from the reptile supply company. Of the dozens of snakes he’d captured in the last three years or so, he’d kept this one the longest. If he couldn’t find food for his snakes, or if they started to look sickly, he always let them go.
Grover was on his way to being a snake expert. Four years ago, a snake had come out of the bushes and crossed the path in front of him as he was walking in the mountains. He had stopped and watched as it slithered along, moving without legs, swimming without water, a creature built all in one line, strange and beautiful and, to him, thrilling rather than frightening. He’d been nine years old at the time. The whole rest of that summer, he’d scrambled around in the woods, looking under rocks and logs and in holes in the ground, hoping to find a snake to take home with him so he could see it up close and watch it live its life. He went to the library and got out books about snakes, and on the library computer he went on the Internet and found endless pages of information and pictures. Before long his head was packed with snake knowledge.
For a while, he talked to everyone about this new passion—his parents, his grandmother, his friend Martin. But his parents were too busy to be very interested, and Martin didn’t understand how he could care about such dirty, slimy things. Only his grandmother really listened. She thought it was a fine idea to collect snakes as long as he didn’t ever show them to her. She said she would scream like a fire engine if any snake got close to her.
So now Grover kept his snakes to himself. He fixed up the shed (his father didn’t have time for gardening anymore, so he didn’t mind), and he used every penny he could earn on snake supplies. So far, he had found, kept, and released thirty-seven snakes. Only two had died in his care. He knew all the kinds of snakes around where he lived. Now his ambitions had grown. He had a plan. All he needed to make it happen was money, and he was working on that. Success was near.
He told this to his snake. “Success is near, Fang,” he said. “Really. No doubt about it. You’ll see.”
With the hand that wasn’t holding Fang, he took the lid off the other tank. This tank held Licorice Whip, his young red belly snake. He’d had it only a few weeks. It was the thickness of a slender cord, about a foot long. He lifted it out. He held the two snakes up, one in each hand, and gazed at them as they wove among his fingers and coiled around his wrists, sliding their cool dry skin against his skin, raising their small, elegant heads and staring back at him, almost as if they were about to speak.
Then suddenly he heard a noise: a soft thump against the wall of the shed, and a rustling. He shifted his gaze to the dusty window just in time to see something move quickly on the other side. Someone was out there. As fast as he could, he set the snakes back in their tanks and put the lids on. Then he dashed out and ran along the fence to the gate that led out to the alley. Up ahead, going around the curve, someone was running, but it was too far away to see who. He didn’t try to give chase. Probably it was Martin, who used to be his friend, trying to catch him doing something forbidden. He didn’t bother to run after him. He went back to the shed.
“What is thematter with that guy?” he said to Fang and Licorice Whip. “Seems like he’s out to get me.”
He took Fang out of his tank, draped him around his shoulders, and started in on the task of cleaning tanks. But after he’d been working twenty minutes or so, he heard footsteps outside. The door of the shed opened, and his father leaned in. “Got an emergency job to do,” he said. “Leaky pipe. I’m going to need your help.”
Grover sighed. He put Fang back in his tank and, after locking up the shed, followed his father back to the house.