“I only let you out because I feel sorry for you.”
“Why would you feel s-bad for me?”
“You don’t have any arms!” Caleb says cheerfully, turning so that his puffy cheeks are pointed directly at the white snake crawling towards him on her belly. The sight of her blood-red eyes makes him hesitate. He forces as much bravado as he can manage into his voice, beaming at her and thrusting his shoulders back, looking for all the world like a gerbil without a care in the world. “That’s sad.”
“Will you feel s-bad when I am eating you?” she asks. There’s no emotion in her voice, which only makes her more terrifying.
“Don’t be that way. Besides, I’m the only one who knows the keypad combination.”
The snake – she won’t tell him her name, so it’s probably super embarrassing – glares at him and flicks out her tongue to taste the air. She’s probably trying to taste Caleb. He turns away so that she can’t see him shiver.
Mama always said never to turn your back on a snake, and here you are doing just that. You’re a damn idiot.
The pet store is quiet. Outside, snow falls in heavy waves and the lights from down the street flicker with red, green, and gold. Christmas, that was what the humans called it. The one day a year when they leave the store unattended. The one chance he has to escape.
“Come on, the front door is this way.”
He shuffles along on the ground with his bad back leg dragging behind him – a deformity that had destined him for snake food the moment he’d been born. The humans, with their hairless paws and whomp whomp whomp voices, seemed to think that was all he was good for.
Then the little one the straw-coloured hair fed him in front of the telly machine and he’d realised that he was destined for more. He’d watched, half-dazed, as Hamtaro and his brightly-coloured hamster companions had fought cats and saved each other. Caleb could do that! He just needed a chance to live.
The white snake tosses her head from side to side. “How do you know that the camouflage outs- out there will work?”
“I’ve seen the white. I’m telling you: once you’re out there, no one will ever be able to catch you again.”
Hamtaro talks to other creatures. That is his power. Caleb talked to the white snake, and she’d agreed not to eat him. She hadn’t seemed happy about it.
They move slowly across the carpeted floor. Caleb’s paws dig into the soft fluff and he can feel his fur rising on the back of his neck as the white snake creeps steadily behind him, like a ghostly shadow. Everything about this situation sets his instincts into danger mode. He should be running for his life, or hiding, or doing anything but bouncing slowly in front of a snake.
Like the dumbest prey alive. But she hasn’t eaten you yet.
As they cross the room, the other creatures in the cages start to notice them. At first, Caleb doesn’t realise it – not until he hears the sad, hushed voices of the other prey animals drifting out of their glass confines:
“He got out?”
“Why is she toying with him?”
“That’s just cruel. She knows he can’t run away.”
Caleb droops his ears down, deliberately blocking out the worst of it. The predators aren’t awake, but he can see cages full of rats, bunnies, and even the goldfish high up on the walls, all pausing to observe what they must think is the slowest murder in history.
“Can you hear?” the white snake asks as she slithers behind him – just close enough to nip the backs of his paws if she wanted to. “They think you are about to die.”
Caleb tries to shrug it off, but the sight of the front door looming a few metres away makes him all the more anxious to get out of here. To give the snake the freedom she craves so that he can take his own. That was the deal.
She wants to be able to hide. You want to be able to live. You can both get what you want.
“Not yet,” he says. He isn’t sure if she heard that.
They make their way to the door. It takes a while, with his bad leg and the constant prickling sense of fear he feels with the snake just behind him. Finally, they arrive at the door and he puts his paw on it.
“I need to get up to the keypad. Will you help me?”
The white snake doesn’t speak. She dips her head beneath his rear and he feels a sudden blast of panic at the feeling of her scales beneath his fur, his heart beating like a hummingbird’s and his paws gripping nothing. Then he is being lifted up towards the handle. He wonders what the other prey animals in their cages think of this.
She lifts him up to the pad above the handle. She is so long that she can easily reach and still leave much of her body coiled up beneath them. Ready to drop him to the ground and crush his fragile bones into pulp before swallowing him whole.
Caleb huffs out a breath. He can feel the cold air from outside, vibrating through the glass and making the snake shudder beneath him.
“Cold,” she says. “Make me sl-tired.”
“We’re almost there.”
“You did not tell me the white would be cold.”
But Caleb isn’t listening now. He’s shoving his paws into the numbers, just like he’s seen the humans do whenever they brought him and the rest of his defective brothers and sisters into the store. First the squiggly – 3 – then the dippydash – 2 – then the whirlywhirly – 8 – then the whirlydip – 9.
The door lets out a mighty buzz and both he and the snake are startled. He grabs the handle just in time for her to drop out from underneath him, leaving him dangling with his furry rear in the air.
“Cold –” she says, her whole body recoiling as the door opens a crack and some flecks of snow swirl through the opening and onto her pale scales.
“But look how white it is!” Caleb says from above her. “Just like you!”
She looks unsure. Caleb can feel the cold as well, but his fur keeps him from feeling it too much. And in any case, whatever is out there is better than being trapped in a pet store with a snake.
He pulls himself up onto the handle, manoeuvring his bad leg so that it dangles and doesn’t get in the way. With one last look at the white snake – her head is starting to dip, is she alright? – he pushes the door away from the wall just enough to squeeze his body through. There’s a soft patch of white snow beneath him.
He screws up his eyes, takes a deep breath, and leaps bad leg-first out into the world.
Author’s note: Yeah that snake’s not gonna make it… But the hamster was so well-meaning!
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂