Chapter Two: The Snake
When I was twelve my Dad took my sister and I on a week long Fall vacation in the middle of nowhere to “unplug”. It had been raining, and I was stepping in Dad's massive muddy footprints on the nature trail behind our cabin, pretending to track Bigfoot. My little sister was walking beside me, two steps to each of mine, when Dad stopped suddenly on the trail in front of us. My sister and I, heads down, slammed right into his back and fell giggling into the mud. We tried to stand up, slipping over and over until her laugh was echoing through the woods. Laying on my stomach in the mud behind my oak tree father, the ground suddenly vibrating with his fear, I looked through the space between his feet to the path ahead of him.
A giant black snake was twisting and coiling in the air, dancing like a ribbon in the wind no more than six feet from my nose. My sister’s laughter echoed through the scene like a snake charmer’s pipe as she rolled back and forth over the muddy leaves, clutching her stomach. The snake’s head shot straight up, its oily black body pausing briefly in the air as straight as an arrow before collapsing to the ground, writhing in what now appeared to be agony. Its body thrashed as if it was possessed, retracting like an accordion and straightening out again before slamming on the rocks over and over. Bloody marks started to appear wherever it hit the ground. My sister’s laughter transitioned seamlessly to an anxious cry as she begged Dad to do something, snapping him out of his trance. He leaned down to scoop her up with one hand, pulling me out of the mud by the back of my pants and onto my feet with the other. I felt his arm across my back, ushering me out of the woods as quickly as he could walk the muddy trail, my wailing sister draped over his shoulder like a rag doll. I could still hear the snake, cracking and snapping like a whip as we walked through the leaves and back to the cabin.
The silence that evening in the cabin felt heavy and awkward. When my sister suggested we watch a movie, Dad seemed relieved and immediately agreed despite his plan of nothing but nature walks and books. When my sister started to snore, I asked Dad if he was okay. He gave me a half-hearted grin and told me he was just tired, and rolled over on the couch to sleep. I wanted him to ask me if I was okay. I wanted to tell him that I felt like I was going to throw up. I wanted to cry.
When they were both asleep, I went back into the woods, a flashlight in one hand and a knife from the cabin’s kitchen in the other. I followed the Bigfoot’s steps to the bloody rocks, shaking as I swept the light back and forth looking for the snake. I nervously kicked a pile of rocks, exposing a bent and bloody tail, still barely twitching. As I uncovered the snake’s broken body, heavy tears started rolling down my cheeks, splashing off the bloody ground.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry”, I whispered, as I pressed the knife behind its head and into the earth beneath it. I buried the snake and my knife under the rocks and sat in the leaves , crying and hugging my knees tight to my chest. When I couldn’t cry anymore, I snuck back into the cabin and fell asleep.
. . .
We finally pull into the parking lot of The Commune, familiar smells pouring through the open car windows. It is getting dark, and I am anxious to be inside with my son and my thoughts where it feels like home. We silently carry our bags upstairs, and I’m relieved that he still seems tired after sleeping for most of the drive.
The hour or so after tucking my son in at night is one of my favorite parts of every day. I used to think of it as a time to be productive, and would often end up painting until the sun started to rise. Now I tuck him in, make some tea, and sit, my breath breaking the silence like a slow motion metronome until I am ready to sleep. Tonight I am finding it hard to leave his room. I stop at the door and turn around, sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Are you okay?” I ask him, pulling the soft blue quilt the Mother made him down from his eyes. He looks at me for a long time before answering.
“Yes. Are you?”
I tell him I am, and he asks me again to sing the song that now seems to hold a new weight and feels hard to finish. I am breathing longer between the verses, hoping he will feel the peace in my body rather than the worried thoughts that come between the words. He seems calm, so I kiss his forehead and tell him goodnight. I cannot sleep. The sleep of my son is giving me permission to panic, and I am.
I fold the bright red kitchen rug back and press down on the floorboard until it slowly folds open, revealing my safe. Making intricate hiding places has always been a specialty of mine. I open the safe and carefully remove a small jewelry box wrapped in plastic, tuck it into my pocket, and slip out the front door, leaving it open just a crack. I won’t be gone long.
There are six apartments in The Commune, all with children except the one I’m headed to. Tok did have a daughter and a wife when he first moved in, but they died seven months ago in a horrible plane crash on the way to visit his wife’s parents. He didn’t miss a single day of teaching except for their funeral, which was weeks later due to issues identifying the bodies. The others called a meeting while he was gone, concerned that he was not well and would no longer have a child in the little school that he contributes so much to. I asked why anyone would expect him to mourn like we do, when he processes everything else so differently. Tok is an undeniable genius. For all we knew, he could have a superior understanding of death and not need to go through the same stages of mourning to feel better. Besides, the pain was visible in his eyes.
I walk through the Tech room on the first floor, the little motion sensor nightlights courteously lighting my path. It is otherwise pitch black despite all of its gadgets and machines; Tok shuts everything down after class to minimize unnatural vibrations. This room is a favorite of the children’s, and it is not hard to see why. The Learning Stations are painted beautifully inside by each child, and have the best computers you will find anywhere. Enormous project tables line the walls and are filled with tools, wires, robots in progress, and hand drawn blueprints. I knock quietly on the big wooden door in the back of the room, and I hear rustling behind it.
Tok doesn’t look surprised to see me. He opens the door and motions for me to come in and sit down, clearing the chaos of one of his projects off of his kitchen table in front of me. I unwrap the box and slide it across the table. He carefully examines its contents with magnifying glasses that seem to emerge from his mop of curly hair. After a moment, he snaps the lid of the jewelry box closed and looks up at me, asking a question he already knows the answer to.
“You want me to put it back in?”. I nod yes.
Fifteen minutes later, I am back upstairs, tracing a circle on the roof of my mouth with my tongue, re-familiarizing myself with the controls. I am listening to autopsy reports, parent interviews, and statements from The Center that feel increasingly defensive and nervous. Seventy-two more children have died since the Mother’s report. They’re coming faster, with no new information to explain why. I fall into a restless half sleep, dreaming of the river that my son and I fell in love with this summer at the Circle.
I startle awake to reports of a surveillance video leaked from The Center, where a three-year old girl was being held for observation due to suicidal behavior. It appears to be taken from the corner of a ceiling in a tiny white room with no windows. There are only three things in the room: a single mattress on the floor, a colorful piece of paper taped to one wall, and a girl with white blonde hair in white pajamas. She walks like a tiny ghost to the middle of the room and lays down, curling into a ball.
After several minutes of unnerving stillness, she begins to move. I watch in absolute horror as she becomes the snake in the woods. She is dead in seconds.