Slivers of bright blue sky winked between the leaves overhead as we drifted down the river. The warm, bitter smell of rubber inner tube mixed with the sour-sharp tang of the blackberry canes that flowed over the bank. I rolled over and draped myself across the inner tube so that only my fingers and toes and belly were touching the frigid water. Beside me my sister lay back regally on her inner tube like a queen on her throne, and my brother kicked himself in a lazy spin.
Up ahead, something was coming toward us against the current. Something small swimming our way. A bobbing head cutting through the water.
“Snake!” I screamed.
My sister sat up so quick she tumbled off her tube with a splash. I turned around and started kicking and paddling as hard as I could. My hands and toes weren’t getting me anywhere, so I slipped down through the middle of the tube and wore it around my waist while I swam hard. My brother and sister and I were all screaming and splashing, trying to get away.
The snake was still gaining on us.
In sheer panic, I abandoned my inner tube and made for the shore. My sister got there first, and I climbed with her through the muck and slime onto the sandy bank. I grabbed my brother’s hand and pulled him out. He was still hanging on to his inner tube while ours continued bumping down the narrow river.
The snake’s head still bobbed out in the water. In fact, it seemed to be swimming just fast enough to beat the current, no more, no less. We all stared.
“It’s just a stick!” my brother said.
I could see that now. Only a stick, attached to a sunken snag, just the right size and angle to look like a snake’s head skimming the river.
“Our tubes!” my sister shouted, and we all splashed back into the water to go chase them down.