The Snake Pit
by Sonya Spreen Bates
Ellis huddles on the seat, his eyes firmly fixed on the dark corner to his left. Something moved there. He’s sure of it. It wasn’t there when he came in, but it’s there now, and it’s big. Big and black and hairy.
He edges as far to the right as he can. That gives him about two centimetres before his shoulder butts against the rough wall. His hand lands on something soft and he snatches it away. The toilet paper thuds to the floor. Ellis groans.
“How can people live like this?” he mutters as he stretches his hand towards the paper. But it’s rolled into the corner and he’s about a hands breadth short. “It’s uncivilised. Barbaric. Inhuman.” He inches himself forward with each additional insult, keeping one eye on the hairy black blob in the corner, and finally touches his fingers to the roll.
There’s a scuttering noise and a monstrous black cockroach darts across the floor.
Ellis lets out a yelp.
The cockroach runs blindly into the waiting web, and the spider hurries in for the kill.
Ellis grabs the roll of toilet paper. He’s done in record time and his hand is on the door latch before the paper even hits the bottom of the pit. And that’s where he stays.
He jiggles the latch and pushes on the door, but it’s firmly locked.
There’s a giggle from outside.
Ellis’s heart sinks. He should have known. He’d seen Chad and Michael hiding behind the woodpile on his way across the yard. He’d known they were up to something, but he’d been in too much of a hurry to worry about it.
His eyes dart back to the spider. She’s bigger than he thought, intent on her prey, spinning, wrapping, preparing, like a chef working on a favourite delicacy.
“Open the door!” he shouts.
“What’s wrong, Ellis?” comes Chad’s voice, deep and rough. “Having a little trouble? A bit of backlog?” He laughs uproariously.
“Ha ha,” says Ellis. “The joke’s on me, now open the door.” The spider’s finished wrapping her dinner. She moves up to the top of the web. It looks like she’s eyeing him off.
“We haven’t done anything to the door,” says Michael. “You have to use the screwdriver.”
The spider twitches on her web. Ellis notices a trail of ants crawling through a crack in the wall.
“Sure,” says Michael, hardly able to contain his giggles. “The latch broke last summer. You have to jimmy it with the screwdriver.”
“Well where is it?” Ellis pounds his fist on the door. His skin is crawling. It feels like the smell from the hole has sunk through to his bones. The ants find a wet patch on the floor and swarm over it like bees on honey.
“Didn’t you take it in with you?” asks Michael.
“No,” says Ellis. “No one said anything about a screwdriver.” There’s a scurrying noise behind him and he looks nervously over his shoulder. Mice?
“Here it is, still hanging on its hook.” Chad’s voice oozes innocence. “Shall I pass it in to you?”
“Yes please.” Ellis is starting to sweat. The spider’s moved to the bottom of the web and is busy weaving a gate across the crack in the door. “Now, if you don’t mind,” he says.
“Heads up,” says Chad. “Or should I say bottoms up?”
Ellis sees the end of the screwdriver poking through the gap at the top of the dunny. He stretches out, leaning over the hole, nose pinched. Next thing he knows the screwdriver is flying towards his head.
The screwdriver lands with a thud.
He dives for it. But it’s too late.
He watches it roll over the edge, landing with a splash at the bottom of the pit.
“You idiot!” he screams, and stamps his foot in frustration.
Gales of laughter pound through the walls. Ellis imagines his cousins rolling on the ground. They’d be wetting themselves.
Then he hears another sound that sends a chill straight to his heart. A strident hiss that can only mean one thing.
“Guys?” he says softly. “Do you hear that?”
“What, the sound of you crapping yourself?” Chad’s still laughing.
“No, I’m serious,” says Ellis. He can hear his voice shaking but there’s nothing he can do about it. “Listen.”
The laughter gradually dies and the fetid air in the dunny seems to pulse with tension.
The hiss comes again.
“Geez, do you know what that is?” asks Michael. He’s not laughing anymore.
“Of course I do,” whispers Ellis. “Get me out of here.”
“We can’t,” says Chad. “The latch only works from your side.”
“I’m getting Mum,” says Michael.
Ellis stands very still. The noise is coming from the pit. Can snakes swim? he wonders. Can they climb? He squeezes in closer to the door. His leg touches the sticky strands of the spider’s web but he doesn’t care anymore. His heart is banging on his ribs.
“Ellis?” Aunt Maya calls quietly.
He can’t drag his eyes away from the hole. “Yeah,” he says.
“Don’t move. I’ll unscrew the door.”
Ellis doesn’t say anything. The hole is dark. The hissing has stopped. Would he see it if it climbed out of the hole? Would he hear it coming? Sweat pours down his face and drips onto his shirt. He doesn’t wipe it away. His hands remain clenched at his side. He presses them closer to stop them shaking and feels a jab from inside his pocket.
Suddenly there’s movement in the corner.
He looks down just in time to see something long and scaly disappearing behind the bench seat. He screams.
Ellis feels like he’s swallowed an elephant, but something registers in the back of his mind. He grabs the pen out of his pocket and jams it into the latch. His breath is loud in his ears. In out, in out like an air pump on full bore. He glances back at the hole. Did something move?
He wriggles the pen and gives it an extra shove. The latch gives way. The door falls open.
Ellis scrambles away from the dunny and turns to face Aunt Maya.
“It’s – it’s in there – behind the – It’s –” He stops, seeing the twin grins growing on the faces of his cousins.
“What are you talking about?” asks Aunt Maya.
“The snake – I – I heard hissing – I saw a tail –”
“Oh, you poor dear,” says Aunt Maya, hiding a smile. “Didn’t Chad tell you?” She frowns in Chad’s direction, but he’s doubled over trying not to laugh and doesn’t see her. “It’s our bluey – a blue-tongue lizard. She’s lived here longer than we have. She goes into the dunny sometimes looking for insects.”
Ellis stares at her, his mouth hanging open. A lizard? His life was flashing before him, and it was a blue tongue lizard? One of those slow sleepy creatures that Jake brought to school on pet day? He closes his mouth and his eyes slowly sweep around to glare at his cousins.
Michael is looking a little sheepish, but Chad shrugs. “No hard feelings, eh?”
Ellis doesn’t say anything. His mind is already thinking ahead to next week when they’ll all return to Ellis’s house in the city.
He has the perfect plan.
First published in The School Magazine Vol. 19 No. 1, February 2006
Edited version published in School Journal Part 4 No. 3, 2007 (also published in audio format)