The Reptile Man

by August Niehaus

 

Candace sucked on her lips and stared at the foggy glass doors, willing them to open. She turned her glare on the woods, her puffy jacket rustling when she shivered. This high up in the mountains, the fog clung stubbornly to the tops of trees even well after sunrise, giving the tiny shack on the side of the freeway an air of extra creepiness. The flickering, droning sign with the alligator on it didn’t help.

She’d been on some field trips in her life, and this was shaping up to be one of the stupidest.

Candace pulled her phone out of her pocket again and sighed. 9:58 AM. The bus had dropped them off almost an hour ago; Ms. Rose hadn’t bothered to do her homework and find out what time the reptile zoo really opened. The owner clearly cared about sticking to a schedule.

Candace could hardly imagine a building full of lazy snakes and lizards caring if bug-eyed children pressed their faces against the tanks two minutes earlier than usual. And anyway, she just wanted to get in, see enough to write a passing report, and then complain of a stomachache so she could get the hell back to civilization.

At the sight of Candace’s phone, Yawen sidled up, standing in that peculiar demure way she did when she wanted to be noticed but didn’t want anyone to know she wanted it. Candace curled her lip and shoved the phone back in her pocket.

“What time is it?” Yawen asked, all innocence and big eyes. Adults loved that nonsense and, much worse, adults loved Yawen.

“I don’t know,” Candace sneered.

Yawen gestured towards Candace’s pocket. “You just—”

“I just nothing,” Candace said. She shot a nervous look at Ms. Rose, who strictly forbade her third-grade class from bringing “pocket technology” with them on any field trips. Not that most of the other kids had phones; Candace suspected it was a rule created for her. As usual, the adults’ laws were unfair, but she suffered them silently.

Before Yawen could protest further, something moved behind the cracked stickers and smears on the glass, and the lock of the Reptile Sanctuary snnnked open.

Ms. Rose scurried up to stand at the front of the cluster of students. “Oh, here we go, children! Everyone smile at the nice Reptile Man and say, ‘thank you for the field trip.’”

One of the doors opened slowly, but there was no one standing there. Just a dim interior with dingy carpet and the gleam of an occasional sun lamp. In a tank right inside, a massive chameleon balanced on a thin stick, and Candace felt its beady eye snap to her face.

“Welcome,” someone said softly, and Candace realized there was a person standing behind the door, holding it open for them. She strained to see, could only make out a thin man in a button-down shirt.

Everyone hesitated, even Ms. Rose. “Thank you for the field trip,” piped up a few nervous voices, but no one moved.

Huffing her disdain for every cowardly one of them, Candace pushed her way past unmoving classmates and went over the threshold of the Reptile Sanctuary.

Her eyes took a second to adjust to the darkness, and she quickly whirled around to face the Reptile Man. Now he was a mere silhouette against the outside light; she could only tell that he was tall and slender, with long fingers that held the door as delicately as her mother held a saucer at the country club’s afternoon tea.

In a low, smug voice, clearly meant only for Candace, the Reptile Man said, “In fact, ma’am, the snakes and lizards would be very cross if I opened two minutes earlier than usual.”

Candace’s feet locked up in her Adidas. Had he read her mind? Or had she spoken that thought aloud, and not realized it?

But she was certain of one thing: unlike most adults, the Reptile Man saw right through her.

As soon as she’d had the thought, Candace forced herself to turn in a slow circle and walk away with her head high in the air. A stranger she couldn’t trick with a smile and twirl of her golden hair? That simply could not stand. She would reclaim her dignity and get what she wanted from this place: enough material to fill a Ms. Rose-pleasing paper.

She turned her attention to the inside of the shack, which was as shabby as it had looked from the doorway. There were three rows of tanks and cages, and two doorways leading to rooms so dark Candace couldn’t see anything in them. Not daring to see if the Reptile Man was watching her, Candace strode to the nearest cloudy tank and peered inside, feigning interest.

In the glow of the sun lamp, belly pressed against a flat piece of wood, lay a monitor lizard. Its eye was half-closed, but when Candace bent over and put her face close to the glass, it blinked as if awakening and looked up at her.

For a while, they stared at one another, girl and lizard. Candace’s skin crawled as she studied every fleck of gold in the creature’s intelligent eye. Its nostrils flared, and it gently caressed the smooth wood with its long claws. Scritch. Scritch.

She wondered if it could read her thoughts, too.

“Lots of monitor lizards have poison in their saliva,” said a small voice, startling Candace.

Adrenaline made her angry; she balled her fists by her sides and physically shifted away from Yawen. “Who cares,” she said. “It’s just a dumb lizard that can’t get out of its tank. And anyway, they took its venom out. It said so on the sign out front.” She was proud of knowing something Yawen didn’t. “They’re de-ven-om-ized.”

Yawen’s eyes widened, and she put her hand on the glass, making the monitor lizard twitch. “Oh no. That’s so sad. I wonder if it hurts them.”

“We are very careful with our reptiles,” came the Reptile Man’s low, sibilant voice, and suddenly Candace realized he was looming over the girls. His eyes met Candace’s, and she saw that his were pale yellow, not very human at all. “We do not hurt them, and so they do not hurt us.”

They all looked back at the lizard, who seemed to feel their gazes and made a slow retreat into the tank’s generous foliage.

Candace’s phone buzzed in her coat pocket, disturbing the silence and making them all glance at her coat pocket. The Reptile Man let his long arm dangle by his side. His sleeve lifted away from his wrist to reveal two deep fang marks like grooves. Yawen gasped.

Candace gulped in a breath. “I thought you said the reptiles don’t hurt you,” she said before she could stop herself. It wasn’t so much a statement as a challenging question; she wanted to take back the upper hand with this man, by catching him in a lie…

He stared at her with those flat eyes, scattering her thoughts. “They do not hurt me now. I am not bad…anymore.” He circled around behind the girls, touching the tips of his long fingers together. “Our reptiles are very delicate creatures. If they scent wrongdoing, they will attack.”

Candace’s hand twitched at the last word. She shot a glance at Yawen, beginning to see the makings of a plan—one that invoked lawyers, with their stiff suits and angry scowls. A plan that would make the teachers and the other parents hate Yawen.

“Be good,” the Reptile Man whispered, and then he vanished into one of the impossibly dark rooms.

Candace waited until she was sure he was gone, then checked to see where the rest of the class was. Ms. Rose had them in a ring around the boa constrictor’s cage, watching it slowly overtake the still body of a massive rat.

When she was sure their attention was elsewhere, Candace snatched at Yawen’s wrist. “Come on. I want to see what’s in here.”

She half-steered, half-shoved Yawen into the other dark room, willing her eyes to adjust quickly. There were twice as many tanks in here, smaller ones, just big enough for the really deadly snakes and lizards. A few were illuminated by soft purple night lamps, and it was to one of these that Candace pulled Yawen.

A skinny, pale snake flicked its tongue curiously at them, a strange sweetness in its beady eyes as it slid a third of its body up the side of the tank. For all her bravado, Candace hesitated at the humanity reflected in the little reptile’s gaze.

It isn’t Yawen’s fault she’s so pure, and good, and everything the adults want a nine-year-old to be…is it, Candace?

Candace set her jaw stubbornly. Maybe it wasn’t Yawen’s fault, but the girl deserved to be taught a lesson anyway. Best to learn early how life really works. Candace was grateful she’d been taught that lesson long ago.

She cast around the room, looking for the right object. It had to be irreplaceable, something the Reptile Man and his creepy museum would miss when it was gone.

She spotted it hanging halfway over a display shelf on the wall next to the door, gleaming like ivory in the low light. Candace gave Yawen’s long hair a cruel tweak to draw her away from the pale snake.

“Look,” she said, pointing. “A big lizard skull.”

From the size and shape of it, the skull probably belonged to an alligator or a crocodile, not a lizard, but Candace didn’t care about scientific accuracy. In her essay, she’d say, “it looked like it was from a prehistoric monster,” and Ms. Rose would put a smiley face in the margin.

It was too dark to make out Yawen’s expression, but Candace could imagine the soft O of the girl’s mouth, forming her plaintive wail. “That’s awful! D’you think it died ‘cause they took out its poison?”

“Maybe, maybe.” Candace struggled to keep her voice level and reassuring, not to reveal her irritation. “But anyway, don’t you think the other reptiles hate looking at it? I bet it reminds them of how humans have trapped them and kept them in cages.”

Yawen began to shiver, a violent trembling that passed into Candace where the girls’ arms were touching. Candace stifled a cold smile.

“That’s awful,” Yawen said again, this time in a whisper.

“It is. It’s awful.” Candace drew herself up to her full four feet, summoning from her soul something as dark as the room around them—her powers of persuasion. “Think of all the nightmares that pale little snake must have, looking at that skull. Why don’t you smash it, so none of these poor creatures will ever have to look at it again.”

Yawen hesitated. Every creature in the room seemed to hold its breath. Candace felt dozens of pairs of beady eyes fixed on her back.

She nudged Yawen, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Go on. Smash it. It would be oh so good of you.”

Yawen gulped. Then she tottered forward, lunging awkwardly at the skull, which was barely within her reach. Her fingertips hung on to the lower jaw long enough to flip it end over end, and send it tumbling onto the floor.

Where it shattered into fragments and dust.

For one endless moment, Candace turned to smile at Yawen. An encouraging smile, a look that said, you did exactly what you should have done.

Yawen’s eyes gleamed hopefully in the faint light from the doorway. And so did the white scales of the gaboon viper poised to lunge over Yawen’s shoulder.

The snake struck with vicious quickness, whipping its entire body around Yawen’s neck and clamping its fangs into her ear. Candace couldn’t move, frozen by a combination of terror and delight as she watched the reptile slowly squeeze the breath out of the other girl.

Yawen collapsed at Candace’s feet, clutching at the snake. The viper released Yawen as soon as she hit the ground and slithered behind the tanks on ground level.

A triumphant Candace couldn’t stop herself from squatting beside Yawen and putting her hand in front of the other girl’s delicate nose, which dripped blood from her bitten ear. Something like a sigh escaped Candace as she felt Yawen’s breath tickling her palm, but she shrugged off her faint disappointment as she rose.

As promised, the reptiles had struck when they’d smelled wrongdoing. The lawyers would still get involved, and the parents would hate Yawen for ruining a field trip for their own children. Ms. Rose would draw frowning faces in the margins of Yawen’s essays. The girls in their class would stop inviting Yawen to their birthday parties, and maybe those extra invitations would end up in Candace’s mailbox instead—more opportunities to wear her custom dresses and put the others’ hand-me-downs to shame.

A long, sinuous shadow fell over Candace, blocking most of the feeble light.

She put her hands to her cheeks and spun around in slow motion, perfecting her look of horror as she did so. She expected to see Ms. Rose with a shocked stare; expected to weave an explanatory story; expected to heroically produce her phone to call 911.

She needn’t have faked her horror.

The Reptile Man stood in the doorway. His muscular neck burst from the collar of his button-down shirt, three times as long as a man’s neck. His snout opened to reveal rows of gleaming fangs, longer than Candace’s fingers. He had no visible eyes, but somehow he stared right at her, the long horns on his head weaving hypnotically with the motion of his neck.

A terrible sound rasped out of his throat. Through her wild trembling, Candace sensed he was speaking. One by one, she understood the words.

“You…are…bad!”

The first snake to strike latched onto her ear, like the viper that had attacked Yawen. Only this was a copperhead, and Candace got a good look at it out of the corner of her eye.

She grabbed at the copperhead and pulled, her desperate hands wrenching at the snake’s body until it released her and {hissed}. Through the red spray in her vision, Candace took a good look at the copperhead’s bright golden eye and then twisted its neck.

She might have killed the beast, but someone grabbed her leg.

Candace spun around, turning her fury on the feeble girl who’d regained enough consciousness to become a hinderance. But her dark eyes burned up at Candace with the fire of righteousness, a bubble of blood appearing on her lips.

“Leave them alone!” Yawen cried hoarsely.

Letting go of the copperhead, Candace yanked her leg free of Yawen’s hands. She whirled around, triumphant, readying herself to sprint past the Reptile Man to freedom.

An adder sank its fangs down to Candace’s anklebone and she screamed. A turtle’s jaws closed around her Achilles’ heel, severing the tendon. She stumbled, sobbed, wavered—and somehow stayed on her feet.

The Reptile Man’s fingers elongated impossibly, becoming like clawed twigs. He shuddered and leaned forward, his whole lithe body becoming one muscle that joined with his neck. His shirt and pants crumpled at the base of his swaying form.

His eyeless face was like the face of the watch in the hypnotherapist’s hand: captivating and unbearable. The blood ran down Candace’s ankles and filled her shoes. Distantly, she registered sharp fangs digging into her calf, and looked down to see a small caiman attached to her leg.

She looked back up at the Reptile Man. His mouth opened, jaw working like a snake’s, dislodging in preparation to consume his prey.

The heavy thump was distant and irrelevant—until the anaconda’s bulk wrapped like lightning around Candace’s body, locking her arms against her sides. The snake squeezed. The world went dark.

“You…are…bad…”

Author’s Note: Although the setting is based on the Reptile Zoo facility in my home state that I visited in the 90s, this is no way a reflection of the human being known as the Reptile Man who runs that place. It’s a really awesome, educational place for kids and adults both! As long as snakes don’t totally give you the creeps, of course.