By Lauren Lang
All the snakes are dead; my mother was pregnant with me when the Yellowstone volcano erupted the first time and killed them all. My parents crawled into the bunker my grandfather had built behind their old house to save themselves and me. My mother said it’s called a nuclear fallout shelter. I’m just glad it was built underground, where there are no snakes.
My parents say they came down here fifteen years and many eruptions ago. They didn’t think we’d be down here this long. They thought that we’d be able to come out after a few weeks, but the volcano kept going. They could feel the vibrations through the walls. We still feel them sometimes. They insist that everything is dead, except for us. I don’t know if I believe them, though. In the books I’ve read, snakes are often known to be tricksters. There might still be some up there.
I’ve never seen a snake outside of books. They hide in long grass, under rocks, and in trees. They sun themselves on patches of dirt. I’ve never seen grass, or trees, or dirt, only the cement inside the bunker. I’ve never felt the warm sun on my skin, so I don’t know how hot snakes like it. I do know that the bulbs in the ceiling don’t put off any heat, so it’s probably too cold for snakes down here. That’s just another way the bunker keeps us safe.
My mother says it’s ridiculous to worry about snakes. In the before times, little boys kept them as pets. The thought makes me shudder. I can’t imagine playing with a snake, its ropey body sliding over my skin, wrapping around my arm, slithering across my shirt. I imagine a snake’s little tongue flicking in and out of my ear, hissing before it wraps itself around my neck and kills me. Constrictors do that, or so my books say. It makes me glad I’ve never met another boy. He might want to be friends. He might have a pet snake.
My mother says not all snakes were kept as pets. Some were poisonous, and people stayed away from those. Vipers used venom to kill their food, but they also killed people. The vipers bit the people, dispensing venom through giant fangs in their mouth. Depending on the type of snake, the poison could paralyze people, make them bleed from their ears, or even stop them from breathing. Even if the venom didn’t kill, people still got sick. I’ve never been sick, and I don’t want to be. My father says there are no germs in the bunker but the ones we brought in here with us, and they’re all dead by now anyway, just like the snakes.
My parents say there are other things I should be concerned about, like food and whether or not we’ll have enough to stay in the bunker for much longer. We’re on our last few cans of beans. The canned peaches ran out years ago. I was tired of peaches when we ate them every day, but I miss them now. Snakes don’t eat peaches, which makes me like them more.
If we have to go outside to look for something to eat, the snakes might get in, which scares me. There’s nothing for snakes to eat in the bunker right now, but if we open the hatch, who knows what will happen? There could be rats or mice up there, which snakes do like to eat. If a rat got in, snakes might want to come down here. My mother says that’s ridiculous. If there was a rodent in the bunker, we would be eating it, not snakes.
My father says he misses the taste of meat. I don’t really remember it. We haven’t had meat in years. I do know that I never want to be like a snake and eat rats. Rodents are dirty. My books say they carry disease and that many people got sick and died because of the Black Death. After reading that, I would never eat a rodent, no matter how hungry I got. I’m pretty hungry now, though.
My father says the air outside is the biggest reason why he thinks all the snakes are dead. It’s poisonous, but not like snake venom. There isn’t enough oxygen left in the air for us to breathe. We’d suffocate, not bleed or become paralyzed. Our air scrubbers keep us safe, but some of the bad air may get in if father has to go out to look for food. We’d all have to wear special suits to breathe, at least until the scrubbers do their work. I wouldn’t really mind, though. Snakes can’t bite me through the suit, and the thick cloth protects me from any sickness. My books say we can’t see germs, but they’re there. My parents don’t seem to know what the catastrophe may have done to viruses and bacteria. They seem to believe that those things would have survived because they’re smaller than snakes, and they could have mutated to continue living in the new environment. My mother keeps saying that I don’t have any immunity. It’s the biggest reason why she wants to stay in the bunker. My father says immunity won’t matter if we starve.
I hate it when they fight. My parents have been doing that more and more lately. That’s why I spend so much time with my books. To know what they’re fighting about, I have to look things up in my grandfather’s encyclopedia set. The pages are worn, and the print is beginning to come off, especially on the part about snakes.
I open the book, prepared to show my father pictures of snakes again, the one with the giant fangs. Maybe I can convince him not to go out. I don’t want him to go. The outside world is a dangerous place. After all, it killed all the snakes, and they’re the scariest thing there ever was.