Justin Lawrence Daugherty


Emma comes over and says she's fallen in love with a snake handler and there's not a thing I can do about it. She says it like: fallen in love, not lust. She hiked somewhere near the Appalachian and came upon this tent revival, and there he was, all danger and spark, she says.

She falls in love with someone new and leaves about once every six months. Each time, there's a production and the man is usually some myth figure, some conjured beast out of a storybook. I tell her I can't keep her no more than she wants to be kept. She stands in the doorway with her empty suitcase.

“I guess I'm supposed to let you go if I really love you...” I start to say.

Emma smiles sweet and kisses me on the cheek and walks in and past me. “I ain't no bird,” she says. “I ain't no boomerang, flying out as far as I can til there's nowhere else to go but home.”

Emma fell in love with a mountain rescue climber once. She ran off to be with him. Learned to climb, sometimes in the dark and often up high, high cliffs. One time, she went up someplace in Yosemite all alone and got stuck. She knew he would be the one to rescue her. She waited for half a day before he came, dangling from a helicopter, arms out.

Each time she returns to me, disappointed. I tell her, the clothes don't make the man, or something equally worthless, and she falls into my arms like she never left. She tells me the stories of these men, about all their fire. She never speaks of quiet breakfasts or walks on beaches, hand in hand.


I always expect her to come back. For some reason, the leaving guarantees it. Emma doesn't have to worry about me not coming home.

I explain to this lawyer in her nice suit that no security system is enough. That she has to be prepared to defend her home. This is what I do: sell people on how they can protect themselves and their homes from invaders. I tell them the police will not respond quickly enough. That there is no guarantee an invader wants just to find jewelry or money. I teach some self defense, the best spots to shoot a robber to ensure injury or maybe death.

“You have to be prepared to be the one standing between the invader and you,” I say. This is the line that secures my business.

The lawyer signs me a check for a ridiculous amount of money. We set up a schedule for different in-home lessons and firing range appointments.

I do not tell the lawyer—or, any of my clients—that all that matters is that you want it more than the other person does. If I told these people the truth, they would ask: what if the other person wants to live more? They would shake their heads and look around at their walls and locks.

The lawyer stands in the door as I leave, says she is excited to get started. I say, “your life is serious business,” and I never know what I mean.

Emma tells me the snake handler will not let the timber rattler loose in their room when they have sex. That he refuses to let a python wrap itself around her when he goes down on her.

“The illusion's sexier than the lie,” I say.

“Oh, honey, you can say what you like. But, hoping don't make it so.”

The lawyer wants me to break in and smash all of her expensive dishware. She wants me to bring the dishware into her bedroom and smash all of it around her bed while she lays and watches.

“That's not what I do,” I say. I start to talk about focusing on hand-to-hand combat with someone wielding a knife.

“Aren't you supposed to help me plan for any eventuality?” she asks. She comes closer, says that she needs to know what to do in any circumstance. How to keep her heart pumping, her blood going to all the places it travels.

“Security's about knowing you're still alive,” I say. “It's not about having to prove that you are.”

The tent revival is more show than worship. The snake handler gives a drawn-out sermon. The parishioners agitate in their seats, look around. They want snakes. The snake handler finishes talking about pride before the Fall, then asks if there's anyone with him today who feels pain, who needs to be healed. An old woman in a wheelchair glides down the aisle and he says her name and she says she's got so much pain from the cancer, she can't stand up no more.

Emma's in the front row, her eyes on the snake handler like she's awaiting the Rapture. I'm in disguise so she won't notice me. The snake man takes a rattler out of a box and does his thing, speaking in tongues. The old woman shies, keeps saying don't let it bite you. Snake man gets down on his knees, the rattler coiled around his left arm. He puts his right hand on the old woman's forehead. He prays for light, for relief for the woman, then speaks again in tongues.

Nothing happens as he does this. No clap of thunder or him writhing as though the spirit is in his body. Don't let it bite you, the woman says, and the snake never makes the handler regret what he's done.

The lawyer takes me to her kitchen, where there's a bundle of rope on a chair. She says she wants me to break in, tie her up, and make myself a nice dinner while she has to watch. She wants me to eat in front of her, clean the dishes, and leave. She wants me to leave a knife just in reach so she can get loose after I'm gone.

“This is not a real scenario,” I say. “I'm here to prepare you for things that might actually happen.”

“What's the fun in that?” she asks. She takes a carving knife out of the drawer and sets it on the counter. She sits down in the chair, holds the rope out to me, this life merely a watered-down copy of a more exciting one she doesn't lead.

I meet Emma at a restaurant and tell her I need her to come home. That the game is over. That the snake handler isn't real. She says, “if you love me like you say, then you won't ask me to come back.” I tell her, most often, the people I teach how to defend their homes never have to fight. Most homes are never invaded. People are mostly always safe in their beds. Now and then, something happens and sometimes my clients have to defend themselves. Each time, I say, like clockwork, they always tell me they wish they'd never had to fight at all.

The lawyer calls in the middle of the night. She says she thinks someone's in her home. I ask if she's called the police, if she's exited the house to be sure she's safe. She says no, that she's scared, that I'm closer to her home than the police. She says she needs me to come over and I hang up the phone.

The door is open when I arrive. A window is smashed. In the kitchen, apples and oranges are splattered on the countertops, on the walls. I go upstairs to her bedroom and find her in a closet. She hugs me, but she's not crying, not shaking. She says he's downstairs still, that she thinks he has a gun. I tell her to stay and creep down the stairs. In the living room, the television is on and a man sits in a recliner watching cartoons. He notices me and stands and I lunge for him, punch him in the face twice. I wrestle him to his stomach and hold his head down. There's no gun or knife. His mouth bleeds.

“What the hell'd you punch me for?” the man asks. “Get off of me. She didn't tell me you'd be violent.”

I stand up, walk to the door and the lawyer's standing at the bottom of the stairs. I tell her I'm done, and hold the un-cashed check out to her. “Was any of this what you planned for?” I ask.

“The point,” she says, “was to expect the unexpected.” As I leave, a cartoon coyote gets blown up by his own explosives and a roadrunner speeds away. As I get to my car, the lawyer yells to me, “You never taught me how to handle a gun or how to fight against a knife attack,” and I don't say a word, her standing mostly naked in the door, exposed to the menacing world.

A few weeks go by and I come home from the job to find Emma sitting at the kitchen table. Her suitcase rests on the floor. I ask what she's doing, what happened to this one. “The snakes were all de-venomed or had their fangs removed,” she says. Her hands are beneath the table.

“Not quite what you expected,” I say.

“He wouldn't let me handle the snakes, so I snuck into his tent one night while he slept. Went to the timber rattler's cage and opened it. The snake bit me and I freaked out, but there was nothing. I expected a fever or the feel of its teeth in my flesh. But it just gnawed on me with its toothless maw”

“The thing's much more dangerous when it has what it needs to survive.”

“I yelled out of shock more than pain. He found me and I told him what happened and he asked me to leave. The rattler was lost. He said it would die out in the wild without its teeth. I told him he should never have taken those away.”

I drink and sit down. I tell her I'm glad she's home, but I don't know if I believe it. Don't know if this is her home. She takes her hands from under the table and places them out to hold mine. She reaches and I see the bruise on her wrist from the snake bite. She leans and reaches for me, but I don't take her hands, instead looking toward the swollen and purple bruise, the worst it will get before the body re-absorbs the blood, before the body begins to heal.

Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta. He founded Jellyfish Highway Press and Sundog Lit. He edits for New South Journal and Cartridge Lit, a lit mag dedicated to work in the intersection between video games and literature.