Like Snakes Among Vines

Novel Excerpts by Brenna Hosman

Like Snakes Among Vines
Synopsis

Like Snakes Among Vines follows Dani, a skilled bartender in her mid-twenties who spends her nights after work walking around an upscale, suburban neighborhood called Grace’s Grove, a haven of solace and safety to her, but also a place where she does not reside. When the neighborhood’s residents start to become suspicious of a stranger’s presence, their paranoia kicks in, and they go through various lengths to safeguard their homes against what they deem as a mysterious threat. The neighbors—whose own individual, complex backgrounds examine their worries—also begin to turn on one another as Dani becomes aware of the antagonism that she faces within the suburb. Throughout the novel, Dani’s backstory slowly unfolds to detail her own fears living alone as a young woman, reveal her past trauma that haunts her (a flashback contained in the chapter submitted), and explain why she walks through Grace’s Grove at night. Told through a rotating point of view that features the judgmental and satirical voice of the neighbors, this novel explores fear in its many forms, the distinction between public and private lives within a community, and what it means to be an outsider to that community as a woman tries to reclaim her life.

In college, she learned about rape myths, the misconceptions and excuses created to downplay the crime and blame the victims. Dani saw the myths plastered on poster board and in the margins of flyers hanging on the walls of every campus building, myths that she didn’t even know she had believed until they were spelled out for her in words and, one by one, debunked.

Rape Myth #1: If a victim is dressed provocatively, they are “asking for it,” and the rape is the victim's fault for wearing revealing clothes.

On Halloween weekend during the first semester of their junior year, Dani dressed as Cher. Monica once commented early on in their friendship that she was a dead ringer for the disco queen. Dani’s hair then went past her waist when it was completely straight. She had the same height and a similar build to the singer, the resemblance uncanny.

The two girls got dressed in their shared apartment, clothes strewn across the floor.

“God, your tits look great,” Monica told her.

“Right?” Dani said. She preened in front of the mirror. “I feel hot.”

In the orange satin halter dress that she thought looked seventies-inspired, the deep, V-shaped neckline stopped just above her belly button and framed her chest beautifully. She had done up her face with blue eyeshadow, wispy fake eyelashes, and pale lipstick to complete the retro fantasy.

Dani saw her roommate in the mirror’s reflection and stifled a laugh. “Can’t say the same for you!”

Monica was the Sonny to her Cher. She had on a bowl-cut wig and a ridiculously wide moustache overwhelming her upper lip. A black shirt with a wide, bat-winged collar unbuttoned at the top to reveal her pale chest where Dani helped draw on tiny wisps of chest hair with eyeliner strokes as Monica giggled. An oversized orange blazer that she had found in a thrift store topped off her costume.

Monica jutted out her hip and raised a finger to the air like Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. “How do I look, baby?” she said.

“Like I’m going to divorce you one day.”

Rape Myth #2: If a victim is intoxicated when an assault occurs, they bear some responsibility for the assault taking place.

The party was at an old house off-campus where some of the frat boys they used to hang with their freshmen year now rented. Dani and Monica pulled up a little after eight to the hilly neighborhood just blocks from downtown. Dani saw that the house didn’t need decorations; the chipped paint, broken shudders, and empty beer bottles littering the front lawn was enough of a horror.

“All right. Here we are.” Dani cut the engine. “You got your spritzers?”

Monica nodded and held up the box of canned wine. “You think it’s enough?”

“I don’t really feel like drinking tonight. I just want to have fun.” Dani unbuckled her seatbelt and looked for a place to put her phone. It was much too big to carry in the coin purse she had strapped to her wrist. It only held her license and keys. “Shit. No pockets. Do you mind?”

“Not at all, foxy mama.” Monica took Dani’s phone and stuffed it in her jacket pocket. She looked up and wiggled her mustache at Dani. “Let’s groove.”

A guy dressed as Super Mario opened the door for them. Dani recognized him from the college’s baseball team. “Look who’s here! Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher!”

“We’re Sonny and Cher, dickhead,” Dani said, but she was smiling. They followed Mario into the kitchen, passing a few Spidermen, Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and an offensive brownface Aladdin. There was probably a time when Dani knew all of their names; hell, she’d probably kissed a few of them before, danced with them at other parties, maybe even slept with them. But she hit a blank trying to recall who they were, and years later, she would refuse to even try.

Inside, the party was only just getting started. Dani waved at scantily clad nurses and masked superheroes with no recognition. She was sure old friends and sorority sisters were among the partygoers, but the masquerade rendered them strangers. She held onto Monica’s arm and followed her toward the back of the house.

A sour smell masked by a pine-scented air freshener wafted through the open living room. The house was already warm with bodies and the southern autumn air. Most of the heat came from inside the kitchen. Half a dozen people congregated in the cramped space around a table stacked with booze, mainly beer. A red-striped and bespectacled Waldo chugged some Busch Lights as the group around him cheered him on. “Where’s Waldo?” they chanted. “In the corner, getting wasted.”

“Y’all want anything to drink?” Mario asked.

Dani looked around at the offerings and made a face. “I think I’m good. Besides, we brought our own stuff.”

“Yeah, but it’s just like, some wine spritzers, nothing crazy,” Monica said. “A cocktail would hit the spot, and not that jungle-juice shit you throw together. Dani makes a bomb tequila sunrise if there’s any orange juice around.”

Recognition struck Mario’s face as he looked toward Dani. She figured she made a convincing Cher. “Oh shit! You’re the mixologist girl. Daniella, right? Thank God. You’re about to save our night.”

Dani sighed and tightlipped a smile. “Oh, I don’t know.” This was how her college parties usually went. It happened at sorority mixers, birthday parties, and now Halloween bashes. As soon as Dani showed up and people realized that she was the only one there who knew how to make a good drink, she was enlisted to bar duty.

When she was a sophomore, she didn’t mind so much. She liked to feel that she was special, that the party relied on her and couldn’t go on without her. Everyone needed a drink, and so everyone wound up talking to Dani at some point in the night. She liked the attention.

But she wanted tonight to be different.

Mario called over to his friend Waldo. “Hey, dude, where’d you put all the fancy shit again? We got ourselves a bartender!”

The other partygoers in the kitchen whooped at that. Waldo got up, knocking over beer bottles and spilling droplets on his striped shirt. He reached into a cabinet and pulled out the good stuff: Jack and Malibu, Absolut and Cuervo. Whatever glasses he could grab—juice glasses, shot glasses, plastic souvenir cups, water tumblers—he set out on the counter.

“Feel free to use whatever you need in the kitchen. We don’t care about mess,” Waldo said to Dani.

“I didn’t say I’d do it.”

“Oh, come on,” Waldo insisted. “Tell you what, I’ll pay you.”

Dani considered the offer. Attention was its own kind of currency. But actual money was better. She looked toward Monica, who was standing next to Mario and sipping from one of her spritzers.

Monica shrugged. “It’s easy money. You might as well. Just be sure you make me my sunrise.”

Dani turned back to Waldo and nodded.

He reached out and squeezed her bare arm. “Thanks so much for doing this, Daniella.”

As if she asked to make drinks all night. As if she asked for him to put his hand on her.

With an apologetic look toward Monica, Dani stationed herself behind the counter in the kitchen and played chemist with alcohol for the next hour or two. More people arrived at the party, which only meant more mouths thirsty for a tingle and a buzz that only she could provide. She made up the drinks as she went along with whatever shit she could find in the boys’ unorganized cabinets and the sad stock in their refrigerator. Mountain Dew and wine coolers, white Russians made with almond milk, Red Bull martinis. She served Sonny her tequila sunrise with a squeeze of strawberry sauce.

Dani didn’t mean to drink. She tried to keep herself busy as her hands stirred and her legs cramped in her white platform heels. She served Disney princesses, Barbies, and pop stars. She served Mad Hatters and Harry Potters. Monica came back for refills, and Dani, mixing a new drink, wished her friend would relieve her. But she watched her leave the kitchen, every time.

Dani was jostled on the sides by people grabbing for the bottles. They were grateful for Dani’s drinks, they said; they asked her to take shots with them. And damn it if she wasn’t at the party to have fun, too. So she did. She tried to limit it to just one or two; she still planned on driving home later. But before too long, Dani felt a warmth come over her, pouring from the center of her forehead and dripping down her body in a fountain of calm. The bass-heavy music bleeding in from the other room—a 3LW song that reminded Dani of her childhood—began to dull in her ears, an underwater roar of swimming sounds. She took off her shoes.

After a while, the other guests took over the kitchen. Their tongues numbed to taste, they poured the liquor into a pitcher and drank from that like a trough. Dani was no longer needed. The room smelled of sweat and hot, boozy breath, and it made Dani’s stomach turn. She wondered where Monica was; it had been a while since she filled her cup. Dani left the room, and for the first time that evening, she joined the rest of the party.

Bodies in cheap, stained spandex crowded around her. She didn’t see Monica among them. She felt the music pulse through the soles of her bare feet on the parquet floor. Dani decided to look for her friend upstairs, but she didn’t realize how drunk she really was until she tried to climb up the steps. Suddenly, her legs carried the weight of every bottle she had poured empty, as if they were chained to her ankles, clanking glass against every step. She could hardly lift her feet, so Dani crawled up the stairs on hands and knees. She made it to the landing but stopped, panting. Pressed against the wall, Dani thought she might just stay there, where the surface beneath her was flat and solid and unmoving, where she felt she wouldn’t fall.

She sat there for a few moments blocking out all the noise and mistaking seconds for minutes when she finally saw Monica coming up the stairs. She carried a can in one hand and held the railing with the other. Her wig was crooked. Her mustache was peeling off at the corners. The guy dressed as Mario followed behind Monica, hand on her ass as she ascended.

Rape Myth #3: If a victim goes into their date’s room, it implies they are willing to have sex.

“Dani! There you are,” Monica said as she stumbled onto the landing. She crouched beside Dani, and the tequila sloshed out of her glass and onto her jacket. “Been looking for you. You left the kitchen. How’s your night?”

Dani’s tongue felt fat and sluggish in her mouth. “Oh, you know. Having fun.”

“Hey, girl, listen,” Monica said in a low voice. She gestured a thumb toward Mario behind her. “He says he’s got weed in his room. He’s gonna share some with me. You wanna come?”

The thought squeezed at Dani’s stomach. Weed made her too anxious. “No, thanks. But hey, is he cool?”

Monica giggled. “Oh, him? Chill. He’s groovy,” she slurred. “Just wanna take a toke, and then maybe we’ll go home?”

Dani, still feeling dizzy, nodded. She watched the two of them, Sonny and Mario in their matching mustaches, mount the remaining stairs. All the while, Mario had his arm tight around Monica’s waist. The couple disappeared down the hallway, and Dani lost sight of Monica.

Rape Myth #4: If a victim doesn’t fight back to avoid assault, then they weren’t really assaulted.

Dani was still on the landing when she woke up to warm breath whispering in her ear, “Hey, Daniella. You’re so beautiful.”

She wasn’t wearing a watch. She had no idea how much time had passed since Monica left with Mario. It could have been five minutes. It could have been five hours. She heard repeats of the same songs from hours before, the playlist cycling through.

She was pressed into the corner. Waldo crouched in front of her, back to the rest of the party. Dani felt Waldo fondling her left breast, the top of her dress having fallen open. It was a cold, unwelcome touch. As her eyes started to regain focus, she saw that as he touched her with one sticky hand, his other was in the crotch of his black pants.

A noise of shock escaped Dani’s lips, one she had hoped would cry like a sound of alarm, but in her intoxicated state, it came out like a moan. That only encouraged Waldo, and he pulled her face towards his and tried to kiss her.

“Get off me!” Dani slurred. She tried to stand. Feeling stuck in slow motion, she clamped the neckline of her dress closed and pushed Waldo off. He fell, hard. Her push was forceful enough to send him rolling down the steps, past empty plastic cups and abandoned candy wrappers, until he tumbled in a red and white heap at the very bottom. The party paused to hear him grunt, and all eyes went to Dani.

Her face blazed and her legs shook. With sudden clarity, she knew she had to leave right that moment. She dashed down the steps, not tripping once, not even on the man on the floor screaming “Bitch!” who still managed to get in her way. She did not dare meet the eyes of the people who had witnessed what had happened and who had done nothing to stop him, so she kept her head low, letting her long dark hair curtain her from their stares.

No other thoughts entered Dani’s mind besides escape. She did not think of her shoes, wherever they were, as she walked barefoot into the dark of night. She did not think of her phone. She did not think of Monica.

Dani retrieved her car keys from the purse on her arm. She got in her car, turned the ignition, and sped away toward her apartment. With the house in her rearview, she saw her fear the size of a boulder rolling down the hill after her. Foot bruised to the gas, she wailed into the wheel.

Rape Myth #5: If a victim does not report the crime to the police immediately or does not report it at all, then they must not have actually been raped.

Monica stumbled into the apartment as dawn lightened the sky. From her corner of the couch where she had been curled up for hours, Dani saw her friend kick off her shoes and fill a glass with water from the sink. Monica’s feet socks were red and threadbare. Her jacket was tied around waist, and her wig was gone.

Dani hadn’t been able to sleep. “Hey,” she said hoarsely.

There was no answer.

Monica walked over and eased herself down on the couch next to Dani. She sipped her water and stared at a spot on the wall.

After a minute or two of silence, Monica said, “You left me.”

Dani felt horrible about that. “I know! I’m so sorry. I should have left the car there or come back for you. I should have waited. It’s just—something happened.”

“I had to walk, you know. Two miles that I had to walk all alone. Do you know how scary it is out there? The streets I had to walk just to get here, full of catcallers and pickpockets and people camped out in the alleyways?”

She felt bad for her friend, but now Dani was starting to feel pissed. Why was Monica laying even more on her? “You could’ve gotten a ride from someone, right? Why didn’t you?”

“Everyone else was too drunk. All thanks to you.”

“Well, you made it home safe and unharmed. That’s all that matters.”

Monica turned to her and finally looked Dani in the eye. Dani noticed that she was shaking. “You left me,” she said again. “You weren’t there. I couldn’t find you.”

“I know. I said I was sorry.” Dani shook her head with the memory of the night still so heavy. “Something bad happened.”

Monica shook her head. “You’re not listening to me. Remember the guy I was with? Mario? Dani, I think he—”

Her voice gave out on the last couple of syllables, flames turning to smoky whispers, and Dani saw Monica’s face crumple like paper.

Dani’s hands came up to her mouth. “Oh my God.” She felt very small in that moment. “Oh my God,” she repeated.

“I thought we were just gonna smoke,” Monica cried. “I thought that would be all.”

Dani scooted over to Monica’s side of the couch and wrapped her arms around her. Monica shrugged her off. “Hey, it’s not your fault. You know that, right?”

She looked up, her face raw and cracked and wet with tears. “Yeah, well. We didn’t have to go to that party, huh?” Monica rubbed at her face. Her leftover makeup smudged. “Honestly, I just want to forget all about last night. I’m gonna take Advil and go to bed.”

But Dani couldn’t just forget it, and if she truly knew her friend, and she believed that she did, she didn’t think that Monica really forgot it either. These kinds of things wouldn’t just disappear come Monday morning.

The girls skipped their classes the following week. They languished in their apartment where they kept to themselves and ordered pizza. The kitchen trash began to overflow, and when the smell invaded the other rooms, Dani knew she had to take care of it. She peered inside the bag before she ventured to take it out, and inside, she could see Monica’s Halloween costume wrinkled among food wrappers and paper plates. She tossed in her own Cher dress and took the trash to the dumpster.

A video had started going around of Dani’s assault. Someone at the party had their phone out and caught the act happening in the background. Monica saw it and showed Dani, and a knowing moment passed between the two girls of understanding. It was brief, however, once the texts came pouring in.

As mortifying as it was that not only had Dani been touched without her consent she had also been filmed; the video was proof. Proof that it had happened, that Waldo was in the wrong; proof that she was a victim. And though she told anyone who had the video to delete it, those who saw it sent her messages of sympathy and support, a flood of apologies and concern drowning her inbox. Sorority sisters she hadn’t spoken to in months reached out with their own stories of assault. The video reached the dean, and the university looked into the situation. The school sent Dani a contact with the counseling center. All the attention overwhelmed her, and she was grateful to be believed.

But it wasn’t enough to lift her up and cradle her in safety. She still didn’t feel like leaving her apartment; she couldn’t foresee a time when she’d ever feel like facing her classmates on campus. Because for each positive message, Dani also received messages of hate and blame from Waldo’s friends, messages telling her that she deserved it, that she was lying. She received anonymous texts that told her she was a hot slut and would she want to go out sometime? Then there were emails from local news outlets asking for an interview, which she always turned down.

She wanted time to heal, but all she had to do was look toward Monica to see that time wouldn’t be enough to heal them both. Because while Dani’s trauma was laid out in the open, no one else could see that Monica had started to lose weight, took longer and longer baths, and was falling behind in her classes.

“I can’t do it, Dani,” Monica told her after Dani suggested she should report the crime and Mario. “He’s on a scholarship. Besides, they’ll just think I’m piggybacking off of you and your story. People will choose to believe one girl, but two? They won’t accept that.”

So Monica stayed quiet. In the weeks that followed, she still didn’t go to class, and Dani didn’t either. She couldn’t bring herself to leave her friend, not again. In her memory of the party, she had let her friend be led away to a faraway room in a dark hallway, and she could not remember whether or not she had heard the door shut. Would it have made a difference, if Dani had? She would never know for sure. But for years to come, she would wonder: did she hear the door shut?

In the following weeks, Dani devoted her time to caring for Monica. She encouraged her to get out of bed, tried to strip her bed and wash her sheets. She quietly listened, ear to the bathroom door, for her roommate’s movement during her baths. Dani made breakfast, which Monica only nibbled on. Dani handed her a glass of orange juice, which Monica turned away.

A rift had formed in their friendship that night of the party, one that the Dani tried to step over like a crack in the pavement but that was ever-growing wider to divide them. They had both experienced traumatic events inside that house, but the two of them could sense a feeling of difference bound in control.

One had fled; one had stayed.

One had walked miles on bleeding feet; one had driven away.

It was this guilt and shame in abandoning her friend that hurt Dani almost more than her own assault. She could sense that Monica still partly blamed her for letting that thing happen to her. And Dani couldn’t defend it; she blamed herself, too. Monica had suffered deeply that night, in part because she was alone, in part because her best friend had deserted her. Dani couldn’t forgive herself for that.

She didn’t think she ever would.

About the Author

Brenna Hosman

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Brenna Hosman grew up in east Tennessee and attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She has previously worked with the editorial team of Nelson Books at HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Nashville. She is currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, where she is also the fiction editor for Mid-American Review.