“Cobra” by W.T. Paterson

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

 

Rhonnie slid the crying couple an invoice to sign after their pet dog, an old German shepherd named Shadow, had to be euthanized. She pointed to the X’s, called attention to the $560 charge, and explained how it was their right to pay off the balance in small increments if they so chose. Most people signed and left through the automatic sliding glass doors with arms draped over each other like cloaks, but this couple with well-kept tans and fancy shirts had other plans.

“So we have to pay you to kill our cancer-ridden dog?” the man asked, holding the pen so tight that his hand was shaking.

“I’m very sorry. I’m just the messenger,” Rhonnie said. She was poised, in control of her nineteen-year-old body language, all of which projected fact over emotion, a learned skill to avoid irrational arguments with people whose minds had already been made up.

“You don’t think that price is a little outrageous?” the woman asked, leaning over the desk into Rhonnie’s personal space. The desk was chest high, so it didn’t exactly have the intended effect.

“I don’t make the prices,” Rhonnie said. “I just need you to sign.”

“Is there someone we can talk to about this? Someone else?” the man asked.  Rhonnie didn’t like the way that he said it. The implication felt as though she was being talked down to simply because she worked reception. Part of it also felt like he was saying me man, you woman. Let me talk to man. Men have understanding on price.  It was just another form of discrimination, which Rhonnie learned all about when she got certified to work the desk and handle sensitive client information.

“Again, sir, the numbers to call with any questions are listed both here and here. Agents will be happy to discuss…”

“You know what he meant,” the woman scowled. Rhonnie sighed and picked up the phone to dial the extension for Dr. Annette Stoller, the lead veterinarian. It was her animal hospital, Annette’s Vets and Pets, and she had final say. Rhonnie could have repeated her stance for hours unwavering, but there was also satisfaction in bringing out the boss to back her up, especially in cases where people’s wants weren’t in line with reality.

Annette was a woman of great composure. She took immense pride in doing her work well, and great pride in the pageantry of social interaction. With great sweeping hair that never seemed out of place, perfectly white lab coats, and un-scuffed cross trainers, Dr. Stoller commanded attention from anyone in proximity. Even when she wasn’t dressed for the exam room, she always wore two-piece suits with a great pearl necklace, which made people at the grocery store turn to each other and ask who is that?

Rhonnie spoke softly into the phone, even though her voice was teetering from the confrontation – a natural waver when dealing with people who rarely suffered the same way she had suffered. An older brother who joined the marines and lost a leg but gained a substance problem, two cousins who committed suicide within a year of each other, and an absent father who occasionally showed up with a new pyramid scheme to invest in, Rhonnie wanted to grab them both and scream you know nothing of suffering! But she also recognized that her message would fall on deaf ears; an unforeseen effect of life’s unending tragedies.

“Yes, the couple up front has questions about the bill,” she said, softly.

“Tell her we’re not going to pay it,” the man said loud enough for the phone’s receiver to pick up. Rhonnie covered the phone with her palm and mouthed the word please.

A moment later, Annette walked into reception to speak with the grieving man and woman. The white lab coat whooshed behind her like a superhero’s cape, and her blue eyes sparkled under the fluorescent lights of the clinic’s dull-toned intake area.

“Let’s look at your options,” the vet said, opening her arms as a form of welcome and inviting the couple to sit on the rounded, tightly packed grey couch.

“We should at least have been given the choice to choose what to do with Shadow,” the woman said, her eyes suddenly welling with water.

“Couldn’t you have just given us our dog back to live out his final days in our home?” the man asked. He sounded younger, pleading like a child trying to side-step chores.

“I hear you, and I agree in options and choice. I could have allowed the dog to go home, but Shadow was in immense pain. If he died under your care, especially given the facts of his condition, you could have been hit with animal abuse and neglect. Those fines are far heftier.”

“What if, by accident, the dog had gotten into the trash and there happened to be poisoned bones in with the rubbish?” the woman offered.

“Again, I hear you. Losing a pet is no different than losing a family member and the pain you’re in is very real, but loving something means making tough decisions. You wouldn’t want the trauma of watching your sweet Shadow die, would you?”

“I guess not,” the man said. He wiped the bottom of his nose with the sleeve of his shirt and looked out into the July day. Cars were moving along the road with little regard to the happenings behind the wall, and they were none the wiser for it. Other people moved on with their lives only invoking true morality when it directly applied to their immediate situations.

Rhonnie placed a hand over her stomach and wondered about the future. The nation had erupted when her state had reinstated old laws making it illegal for pregnant women to have access to safe pregnancy terminations. She thought what was growing inside of her. Then she thought about the guy that put it there – Derek, a pierced and tattooed dropout whose sex appeal was in rebellion and counter-culture. He flipped off cops, wore his pants low, and openly smoked joints in public places all but challenging people to say something. If and when someone did, Derek would absolutely erupt about the hypocrisy of our “free” society.

It was fun at first, Rhonnie felt alive in ways she hadn’t before because Derek was the type of person all her teachers and family members warned her about. No future, barely a past, homemade prison looking tattoos, and an affinity for vape pens, he proudly carried himself like a caricature of an anarchist. The sex, admittedly, was good in sort of a primal caveman way.

But then Rhonnie graduated high school and took a job in Annette’s clinic through a friend of a friend and started wondering if veterinarian school might be a future worth pursuing. She fell in love with the idea, heartbroken couples and all. Then, six months after finding a much-needed role model in Dr. Annette Stoller, Rhonnie bought a pregnancy test and pissed hot.

It kept her up at night. A child meant veterinary school would have to be on hold, but for how long? Ten years? Fifteen? Eighteen? To afford a child meant she would need an increase in pay, but she couldn’t get an increase in pay without schooling. Maybe she could take a second job, but taking a second job meant that she would have to pay out for childcare, which meant she’d need a third job. And how would she pay for school? Loans were one thing, cost of living was another. The spiral was vicious and even thinking about it was a cause for intense anxiety.

Rhonnie couldn’t count on her mother for support. The woman was a functioning alcoholic barely able to take care of herself, let alone the needs of a newborn. Rhonnie’s father was a bust, no sense in even attempting to ask him for help.

Then she thought about Derek as a father and it made Rhonnie physically ill. Every scenario that she ran in her head ended the same way. Derek would make a terrible life partner, let alone a father. He wasn’t even good enough for her to change him like in those movies where a woman tames a rebellious man and they live in a cute cottage off the beaten path, but the guy still has his motorcycle as a reminder of where he came from. No matter which way she spun it, Derek just wasn’t worth the effort. If the child was anything like him, oh god, if the child carried any of his traits, it was going to be a long road that she’d have to walk for the rest of her life. Motherhood was a commitment she didn’t feel ready for.

She wondered if she was being too hard on Derek and started to ponder his redeeming qualities. The only thing she could muster was that he knew how to make her come, unlike the first guy she’d been with who was too gentle and came entirely too fast. Rhonnie joked that she wanted to call a mulligan on the night she lost her virginity because everything lasted less than two minutes, but the guy started to well up, much like the couple talking to Annette on the industrial couch by the sliding glass doors, and so she backed off.

“It’s clear that you adored Shadow, and that he adored you. Cherish those memories, not the bill mumbo-jumbo,” the vet said, and unbelievably the couple nodded in agreement. They all rose and the guy hobbled to the counter to sign his name on the X. The two left with arms draped over each other like capes and Dr. Annette waited until they had driven away to drop the act.

“They react like it’s some moral offense,” Rhonnie said, scanning the paperwork into PDF files for the system’s records.

“Try dealing with yuppies while going through menopause,” Annette joked. “Now that’s a moral offense.”

“Is it true that they put you on suicide watch before I started?” Rhonnie asked, remembering the rumors spread by the former receptionist. It felt like they had reached a point in their professional relationship where those questions could be asked.

Annette took a breath. “I was in the process of spaying a lot of animals, and something about not being able to have offspring was…well, unfortunately, the rumors were true.”

“Glad you didn’t,” Rhonnie smiled, watching the status of the upload hit the satisfying 100 mark.

“You wanted to talk to me about something, right? What’s up?”

Rhonnie felt comfortable with Annette, more comfortable than she felt with her own mother who had tossed the girl out when she found out she had been sexually active with Derek the degenerate under the roof of their God-fearing home. Rhonnie scrambled in the wake and blew her savings on a deposit for a tiny studio apartment above a record shop. She still struggled to afford it, and the bills that came with independent life. Water, electric, internet, cell phone, groceries, car insurance, registration, plate renewal, and so forth.

But these were the same reasons that she looked up to the veterinarian with more than aspirations. Rhonnie found Annette to be caring and compassion, well-spoken, in control, and honestly, it was a turn on. There was something that moved in her blood like an uncoiling snake whenever they were alone together, how most women react when they encounter women they respect. Annette had it together, and Rhonnie wanted a piece of that success or, at the very least, an unburdened chance to pursue and attempt it.

“So…how do I put this,” she said. It was slow and calculated, intentional. “Say I upload a file into the system and it’s now stored on the hard-drive, but I realize that the file shouldn’t be there and the longer it sits, the larger it gets. Maybe the motherboard should wait to upload…I’m sorry, I’m not making any sense.”

“You’re wondering if there might be any poisoned bones in the trash,” Annette said, scanning Rhonnie with soft, knowing eyes. The scan felt like a satisfying 100. “Even if I knew, I’d never be able to tell you because I’d become an accessory after the fact. See what I mean?”

“It’s all hypothetical,” Rhonnie said.

“Are you familiar with the Cobra effect?” Annette asked.

“I didn’t realize we did snakes here.”

“It’s more of a concept. Years and years ago in India, there was a huge problem with snakes, specifically cobras. Entire towns were overrun, people were getting bit, it was an epidemic. The government stepped in as an attempt to control the cobra population and restore order.

“They told citizens that for every decapitated cobra head that was brought to a collection facility, they’d pay out a monetary sum. Officials believed that if people actively hunted the cobras, the cobra problem would end.

“What happened was that people chased the money and not the actual problem.  Instead of going out to hunt, they bred cobras in their basement as a way to cash in on the new law. People were making out like bandits and the problem didn’t go away. It actually got worse. The snake population exploded for a second time, and people who could have been kept safe ended up getting severely hurt, or worse. It’s the Cobra Effect, the unintended consequences of an act meant for good, but instead leads to imminent danger.”

“The law makers couldn’t see the whole picture,” Rhonnie said, thinking of the lawmakers in Alabama.

“What I tell people who are considering poison bones is to instead look at getting in shape. I have a friend, Jaycee, who own a kickboxing gym on West 8th. Former champ on local circuits, competed a few times in Thailand. Tell her I sent you and inquire about private lessons.”

“I’m not really into MMA or combat or anything,” Rhonnie said.

“It doesn’t hurt to tighten up the tummy…through physical activity,” Annette said slowly, not mincing her words. Rhonnie scribbled down the address, still a touch confused if this was general advice, or double speak. Annette was more than qualified to give both and Rhonnie began to feel like she knew what the vet was really trying to say.

After Annette went back to her office after picking a piece of stray dog hair from her shoulder, Rhonnie googled the school. Positive reviews, in-shape instructors, a clean space, affordable classes. At the very least it was worth checking out. Of course, Derek would flip his lid if he knew she was trying combat sports. He’d always said he could take professional fighters in a real fight, but didn’t believe in traditional martial arts academies, or even MMA schools. If she told him she signed up for a class, she’d never hear the end of it.  That is, of course, if she ever decided to speak to him again after his little run in with the police that escalated from a traffic stop to both of them being hauled to the station. Rhonnie was let go, she was just the passenger, but she had to wait an additional four hours for them learn that Derek was officially under arrest for possession of narcotics and obstruction during a traffic stop.  He had promised he wasn’t dealing or using, but it all turned out to be a line. Derek had been selling to Rhonnie’s brother behind her back. The relationship should have ended there, but  life felt too treacherous to go at it alone.

But looking at the backwards letters on the sliding glass doors for Annette’s Vets and Pets, she wondered if maybe she wasn’t as alone as she thought.

When six o’clock rolled around, Rhonnie clocked out and said a quick goodbye to Annette. She drove to the kickboxing school so that she could meet the instructor. She wondered why she didn’t feel more relieved, why it was so hard to accept, but deep down, she also knew. Sometimes what masqueraded as love was really pain and rebellion under the guise of pleasure. More than anything, she understood the difference between Mr. Right, and Mr. Right Now.

She pulled up to the building – a standalone center with large glass windows showing off a handful of boxing rings and heavy bags with people pounding away. A sign near the door advertised affordable private sessions in big red ink. It was hot outside, the southern sun beating down on the world with unyielding weight.

A blast of cold AC and a smiling receptionist greeted her. The woman had impossibly straight and impossibly white teeth.

“How can we help you today?” the pleasant receptionist asked. She looked only a few years older than Rhonnie. A college textbook was tucked next to the computer’s white keyboard, and a purple spiral ringed notebook sat next to the phone.

“I work for Annette the Vet, and she mentioned that I should check this place out.  Maybe get a private lesson?”

The words felt oily. The back of her throat started to burn as though the contents of her stomach decided to catch fire and creep back out.

“No problem. Let me grab the owner,” the receptionist said, and picked up the phone to dial into the back office where a strong looking woman in shiny blue kickboxing shorts and a loose tank top and neon black sports bra stepped out. She had strong, muscular shoulders, sturdy quads, and a flat stomach with 11’s.

“I’m Jaycee,” the woman said, holding out her firm hand to shake. Rhonnie took it and almost buckled under the held-back strength. Jaycee had the same knowing, caring features of Annette. Strong eyes, compassionate focus, and a flair for pageantry with all the thuds and groans echoing through the space, it was like she had been custom made for the setting.

“Rhonnie.”

“People call me Jay, or Jay Bird. How about you, any nicknames?

Rhonnie politely shook her head no. There were the nicknames her mother had endowed, things like whore and tramp, or the time her father referred to her as Funbags McGee and suggested she could make a killing working the corner. Derek usually called her hey Yo. Not anymore.

“You’re Annette’s girl,” Jaycee said, a knowing smile spreading her thin lips. “She talks about you all the time. I get it now.”

“I don’t follow,” Rhonnie said.

“Yeah you do,” Jaycee winked.

Behind them, a man in compression shorts and no shirt launched a thunderous shin kick into the hanging heavy bags, which shook the steel posts of the frame. Rhonnie felt her blood start to tingle with anxiety. Maybe it was a bad idea to come here. Maybe she hadn’t considered the alternatives.

Or maybe she had, which was why she was there.

“Our receptionist mentioned you were interested in a private lesson,” Jaycee said.

“Annette said it would be a good way to uh…to tighten my tummy.” Her skin went cold when she said it. What if she’d massively misinterpreted the signals and was unwittingly signing up for an hour of push-ups and burpees? For conversations about meal prep and routine? For a lecture about lifestyle changes?

“Sure. Private lessons with me cost $40, but we need you to sign a waiver to absolve the gym of responsibility should you incur any injury. And you have health insurance?”

“I do.”

“Great.  Then you’ll be all set.”

Jaycee put her arm around Rhonnie and showed her around the gym explaining that their style of kickboxing was based in Muay Thai. They used their shins like baseball bats and elbows like sharp hammers. It sounded like a brutal form of self-defense.

“I’ve never really had to punch or kick anything before,” Rhonnie said.

“That’s ok. Our teaching style during private lessons is take one to give one. It helps contextualize the impact. We have a spot open now if you’d like. We try not to schedule anything beyond a day or two because most people find reasons to talk themselves out of it instead of holding firm and committing.”

“Ok,” she said, realizing that her intuition had been correct. Relief breathed onto her shoulders like the crisp AC. “I’ll do it.”

Rhonnie was led back to the front desk where she filled out a bunch of paperwork and signed her name to the big familiar X’s. Hearing the thump of people hitting the bags, the way the floor shook with each collision, she wondered if it would hurt.

Of course it’s going to hurt, she told herself.

She paid the $40 in cash, which meant no proper dinners for the next week, and followed Jaycee to a back room. It was a separate space away from the main training area that had no windows and a thick red wrestling mat on the floor. It smelled like stale sweat and burnt rubber from old weight machines.

“Should I change into something else?”

Jaycee closed the door tight and walked up to Rhonnie. She put her hands on the sides of the young girl’s face and leaned in so that they were touching foreheads.

“Remember that you’re young and strong, and you have your whole life ahead of you. Promise me that you won’t give up hope.”

“I promise,” Rhonnie said, closing her eyes and feeling them well with water. “Is this going to hurt?”

“Clench your stomach as hard as you can and squat your legs. Keep your back straight. I’ll be fast.”

Jaycee kissed Rhonnie softly on the forehead and stepped back. She swung her legs in large arcs to loosen the muscles. She bounced from foot to foot and threw some shadow punches at the air hissing with each strike. Then she looked at Rhonnie who had tears pouring down her cheeks but was attempting to stand strong.

“I wish it didn’t have to come to this,” Jaycee said, and then stepped forward delivering a massive shin kick to Rhonnie’s clenched stomach. The thud bounced around the room for a moment before dying in the soundproof panels near the ceiling.

Rhonnie’s insides felt like they had exploded and she wasn’t sure if she had blacked out. The pain was tremendous. Her vision pinched everything into a small tunnel and her tongue became unbearably dry. Anything beyond that felt like a mystery. All that she knew was that when her wits came back, Jaycee was cradling her head and pouring small sips of cold water from a plastic cup into her mouth.

“How did I do?” Rhonnie asked.

“You’re a champ. But you’re bleeding,” Jaycee said, and Rhonnie understood.

Jaycee had the receptionist drive Rhonnie to the ER.

“Pick up your car whenever you feel ready,” she said, her impossibly perfect mouth forming each word with pinpoint accuracy. Rhonnie mouthed thank you and hobbled towards the intake desk as the giant glass doors closed behind her.

“I’m bleeding internally,” she told the receptionist, and signed her name to another set of X’s while waiting for a nurse to call her name under the unflattering fluorescent lights of the hospital wing.

Eventually she was led to a private room while a few nurses scrambled to do X-Rays and blood tests to figure out what exactly had happened.

“Kickboxing,” Rhonnie told them, and each looked at each other with hard eyes.  They gave her some pills to take the edge off.

When the doctor came in, he sat across from her and spoke in direct, unwelcoming tones.

“I’m afraid I have some bad news. The reason you’re bleeding is because you were pregnant, but you’ve since miscarried. The trauma of the impact…I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” Rhonnie said, and tried to will herself to cry. It was easier than she had planned and came too naturally. “I didn’t know.”

“We may need to keep you here under observation just to make sure you don’t start to hemorrhage. If this injury occurred while kickboxing, you may have a lawsuit against them if you choose to pursue.”

“Can’t,” Rhonnie said. “Signed a waiver.”

“Well, they should really make women take pregnancy tests before signing up for anything high impact.”

“Can’t” Rhonnie said. “Discrimination.”

“Between you and me, you’re not the first to end up like this. When we remove safe means, people don’t just stop. They resort to unsafe means.”

“Cobra effect,” Rhonnie said, feeling herself still in a blissful daze, the pills working into her blood like snakes into the earth.

The doctor left her alone and excused himself to attend to another injured woman who the nurse had said just got out of a boxing class. Rhonnie took out her cell phone from the pair of jeans slumped over the back of a rounded overstuffed orange chair in the corner and called Annette.

“I won’t be in for a few days,” she said, and sniffled.

“Kickboxing is tough,” the woman sighed. “How about you stay at my place until you’ve recovered? I’ll come get you.”

Rhonnie felt warmed by the idea of being taken care of. Truly taken care of, and held, and comforted, which is more than she could say for any other aspect of her life.  Derek texted to see if she could bring home pizza, and  why wasn’t she home yet. She didn’t reply. Instead, she signed herself out of the hospital on her own recognizance and sat on a wheelchair near the giant glass sliding doors waiting for Annette, who showed up in less than twenty minutes. The day was starting to fade into darkness, but not before exploding the sky with color.

“Turns out I was pregnant,” Rhonnie said, halfway to Annette’s home sitting in the passenger seat watching the streets whip by. They slowed at a stoplight.

“Oh my,” Annette said. “What a day you’ve had.”

They drove through the downtown area and Rhonnie noted how many new signs offering special deals were popping up in storefront windows. She thought about the pills she had taken, and how when venom seeps into the land – it continues to spread, despite the efforts of the best intentioned. Then, she closed her eyes and thought about the future.

 

 

W. T. Paterson is a Pushcart Prize nominee and graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 50 publications worldwide including Fiction Magazine, The Gateway Review, and The Paragon Press. Several of his stories have been anthologized by Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Thuggish Itch. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “get down from there!”

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