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First, take inventory. Something hot hisses, and something wet drips — a fast drip, nearly a pour, and you can’t tell from which direction it’s coming. You can’t see; maybe it’s dark, but maybe your eyes are closed. There’s pressure on your left leg. Your shoulders, too, are your shoulders pinned? And so panic sets in, a low-grade panic at first, but it grows as the hissing becomes a rattle. Sirens in the distance, or are your ears ringing?
Remember the fable you heard that one time in, what, middle school? Wonder why it’s coming to mind only now. There was a scorpion. “There was a scorpion,” Ms. Holmes had said at the front of the classroom. “And there was a river,” she had continued. “And there was a frog.” A unit on Aesop’s fables. You had thought they were childish. Livia had kicked you under the table, had laughed at Ms. Holmes’ bad teeth after the bell rang.
Once, she convinced you to smoke a cigarette by the lake before a boys’ lacrosse game. Another time, a joint. Livia had leaned back in her seat when teachers talked to her, tilted her chin just so. She wore makeup in unnatural colors that should have been unflattering but instead impressed you.
There was that time the two of you and others had slipped out of your clothes and your January snow boots at two in the morning, had run down to the half-frozen creek behind her neighbor’s cousin’s cabin, screamed, danced, ended up nearly hypothermic but giggling and warm-blooded nonetheless.
Livia’s loud laughter. I’m not going to get you in trouble. If you got in trouble, wouldn’t I get in trouble, too? Hmm?
The fable: There was a scorpion, there was a river, and there was a frog. The scorpion couldn’t swim, you don’t think, but he wanted to cross the river. The frog also wanted to cross, and the frog could swim.
“Why don’t you carry me on your back?” the scorpion suggested.
The frog pursed his thin, wet lips. “How can I be sure you won’t sting me?”
“If I were on your back, we were crossing the river, and I stung you, wouldn’t we both drown?”
The frog thought, shrugged, and the scorpion climbed onto his back. They began across the water.
Try to move your left leg again; it doesn’t move. Does it hurt? Notice the air around you getting hotter. There are smells, now, that you can’t distinguish. There are sounds other than the hissing and dripping and what may or may not be sirens. There could be someone saying your name. It could be Livia.
You hear this next part in Ms. Holmes’ grandmotherly alto. “The frog, with the scorpion on his back, made it only halfway across the river when the scorpion stung him and doomed them both. Dying, the frog asked, ‘Why would you sting me, knowing the consequences?’” Ms. Holmes’ narration was drawn and dramatic, low like a whisper. “The scorpion replied, ‘Oh, it is simply my nature.’”