Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Serpent in the Cupboard

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Last Sunday was warm and breezy, and the windows of the social hall had been thrown open for coffee hour. Audra Park, however, was too preoccupied to enjoy the weather. She was telling Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell about her ideas for mission projects when she spotted her six-year-old son Tyler making his fourth trip to the refreshment table.

“You’ve had enough cookies,” Audra snapped as she intercepted the boy.

“But I’m hungry,” Tyler whined.

“We’ll go to lunch as soon as I finish talking to Pastor O’Donnell,” Audra replied. “Can you please go play?”

Tyler sighed as only a six year-old unfairly denied a cookie can sigh and trudged off.

Audra returned to the pastor, apologizing for the interruption. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I remember when my daughter was his age.”

As Audra continued to explain her mission idea, she noticed that O’Donnell had grown distracted by something behind her. She turned and let out a gasp.

Tyler was creeping along the wall with a ten-inch carving knife in his hand.

“Tyler!” she shouted, running over to him. “Give me that. What were you thinking?”

“I was hunting a snake,” he said.

“There are no snakes in here,” she replied. “You know you aren’t allowed to handle knives without supervision.”

“There is a snake,” Tyler cried. “It bit my shoe!”

He stuck his left foot out revealing two puncture holes about half an inch apart on the tip of his tennis shoe. “Tyler Park, what did you do? Those were brand new! Why would you poke holes in them?”

“It was a snake, Mom,” Tyler insisted.

Audra sighed. “Are you familiar with the boy who cried wolf?”

“It was a snake, not a wolf! Geez, will you listen to me?”

“We’ll talk about this when we get home,” Audra said. “Now sit right here until I’m finished.”

Tyler flopped onto a chair and folded his arms, his lip protruding in an exaggerated pout. Audra returned to the pastor. “He said he saw a snake,” she sighed. “My son has an active imagination.”

O’Donnell chuckled. “They probably discussed the Garden of Eden in Sunday school. Last week’s lesson was about Daniel, and Tyler told me bullies at his school were throwing kids to the lions.”

Just then there was a high-pitched scream from the kitchen. The pastor ran toward it, Audra following close behind. They found church secretary Tammy Billings standing in the middle of the room looking even paler than normal, her fingers fluttering about her mouth.

“What happened?” O’Donnell asked.

“Snake,” Tammy squeaked, pointing at the cupboard.

Audra’s face went pale. She dashed from the kitchen, shouting Tyler’s name.

O’Donnell reached for the cupboard. “Don’t open it!” Tammy exclaimed.

“Relax,” the pastor said. “I’m sure it’s more afraid of us than we are of it.”

Tammy thought snakes must be timid creatures indeed if this one was more scared than she was. She remembered that the offering still needed to be counted, and decided now would be a terrific time for that task. She bolted for the church office before Pastor O’Donnell could open the cupboard.

It so happened that as a boy O’Donnell had been fascinated by snakes and even kept a garter snake as a pet for a while. He knew most were harmless, though there were a few species of rattlesnake in Pennsylvania. So he opened the door calmly but cautiously.

All that he could see in the cupboard were boxes of tin foil and plastic bags.

For a moment he wondered if Tammy had imagined the snake. But given Tyler’s claim, that would be too much of a coincidence. He opened the cupboard a little farther. Inside, the shelves ran the entire length of the cabinetry with no sides separating the individual sections. The snake had most likely slithered along the shelves after Tammy disturbed it. O’Donnell began methodically opening each door in turn, using a wooden spoon to shift the contents around. But there was no sign of any snake.

Meanwhile, Tyler was writhing on the floor as Audra wrenched his shoe and sock off to examine his toes. “Where did it bite you?” she cried.

“It didn’t!” Tyler said. “It just bit the end of my shoe.”

After a ten minute inspection, Audra was finally satisfied that his skin hadn’t been broken and that he wasn’t about to go into a poison induced coma. She hugged him tightly. “Mom, you’re hurting me,” he mumbled against her shoulder.

“Sorry,” she said, releasing him.

Tyler saw the worry in his mother’s eyes. It kind of scared him. It also gave him an idea. “Could I maybe have a cookie?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Audra replied.

Most of the congregation had already departed to enjoy their Sunday afternoons, but there were still a few cookies on the table. As Tyler and Audra finished them off, neither noticed the snake slithering across the linoleum behind them.

The snake was not trying to scare anybody, of course. It had only bitten Tyler’s shoe because he nearly stepped on it while running after a ball. And it was drawn to the church office by a shuffling noise that it thought might be a rodent. Had it known Tammy was in there, it would have chosen a different route. But its eyes were at floor level, so it didn’t even notice Tammy sitting behind the desk.

However Tammy, from her vantage point, definitely noticed the serpent gliding across the office threshold.

She scrambled up onto the desk. She watched as the snake curled itself into a swirl in the middle of the office floor, sunlight glinting off its reddish brown and white scales, its malevolent obsidian eyes scanning the room, its tongue tasting the air. Tammy imagined it tasted her fear. She wondered what flavor fear most resembled.

The snake was between her and the door. She leaned over slowly to peer into the social hall, hoping someone would be there to rescue her, but Tyler and Audra had already left and the room was now empty. She needed another means of escape. She could reach the window from the desk, but when she tried to raise it she discovered it had been painted shut.

Tammy glanced back at the snake. It gazed implacably at her. Panic swelled in her throat, threatening to choke her. She had to get away from those unblinking eyes or they would drive her mad! There was only one place to go: The closet.

Slowly she climbed down and slipped through the closet door. She stuffed her sweater in the gap at the base of the door so the snake couldn’t get in. But now the small space was completely dark. She triggered her cell phone display for light.

Her cell phone! Help was but a call away. She dialed Pastor O’Donnell’s number. “I’m trapped in the closet in the office,” she whispered when he answered. “The snake is right outside. Stop laughing, it isn’t funny!”

She hung up angrily. Several minutes passed. She held the cell phone in her left hand, aiming the light at the bottom of the door, as she used her right hand to dab away the beads of icy sweat that kept forming on her temple.

Suddenly, the door swung open. Tammy yelped, momentarily imagining the snake had figured out how to turn the knob with its mouth. But it was only Pastor O’Donnell.

“Did you see the snake?” she asked.

“Yes,” O’Donnell whispered. “It’s right above you.”

Tammy screamed and climbed the pastor like he was a tree. But since, unlike a tree, the pastor lacked roots, both of them tumbled onto the carpet. O’Donnell was laughing so hard he was crying.

Tammy scrambled to her feet and looked into the closet. “Where is it!” she screeched.

“Under there,” O’Donnell gasped, pointing at an overturned plastic wastebasket in the middle of the office floor. “It was sleeping in the sunlight.”

Tammy seethed at the prank he’d played on her, but could not at the moment think of an appropriate comeback. She stalked out of the office while O’Donnell called Normal’s animal control department. She intended to head straight home, but she forgot to take her purse with her and was unwilling to reenter the office while the snake was there, wastebasket or no wastebasket.

Once the animal control agent had captured the snake, Pastor O’Donnell insisted that Tammy take a look at it. “It’s in a cage,” he told her. “Come on, it’ll make you feel better.”

Reluctantly, Tammy entered the office and studied the cage from a safe distance. She wondered if they’d gotten the right one. The snake didn’t look as big as she’d remembered.

“It’s a milk snake,” the animal control officer said helpfully. “Non-venomous. See that bulge behind the head? It’s fed in the last half hour so it’s pretty docile.”

“Fed on what?” Tammy asked.

“Probably a mouse. See, it did you a favor.”

“A… mouse?” O’Donnell stammered, then dashed from the room.

Tammy walked the animal control officer out to his truck. Pastor O’Donnell was in the parking lot waiting for her.

“Call an exterminator Monday,” he told her. “I won’t have mice in the church. Sneaky, filthy little rodents.” He shuddered.

“Will do,” Tammy said with a smile. She was remembering how O’Donnell had intentionally scared her earlier. And she was pretty sure she’d seen some rubber mouse toys for cats at the pet store.

No comments: