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Where There's Smoke...
by Charles M. Bonanno
Charles M. Bonanno -- all rights reserved
 

He's doing it again and I've been watching all morning. We've all been watching. With the coming of the dawn all heads turn and fix upon our newest roommate. Why'd they placed him amongst us is a total mystery. He doesn't belong here. He hasn't fallen as far as we have.

As I watch his high speed antics my own limbs pain me in sympathy; which is surprising since I don't have any. Whenever I move my non-existent arms and legs send nearly forgotten sensations to my brain. They confuse me. I keep looking and looking but they're not there. They're gone forever.

Today my right leg feels like I have a huge Charlie Horse. I coil my body into a tight circle trying to smoother the pain. It doesn't work. From hip to toes the pins n' needles twinges flash up and down a limb I haven't had for over a year.

A friend who'd lost a hand in a car wreck explained it to me once long ago. He said the doctors called it the 'Phantom Limb Syndrome.' He said that he'd often wake up feeling his missing fingers. The nerves in his wrist would misfire and tell his brain that his right hand were itching. Still groggy from sleep he'd reach over to scratch and find... nothing.

But what do you call it when you've lost your entire body?

Each new morning is worst than the one before. As the sunlight warms the room I awaken. I haven't dreamt once since my 'change.' Can snakes dream? Can what little remains of my brain ever dream again? I'd like that. Anything to get away from this place if only for a few minutes. To live again, if only in dreams, as I once was.

Without eyelids to open the world snaps into view instantly. From one second to the next I return to consciousness and remember why I'm here. Through the thick glass I'd spend the rest of my day watching my fellow reptilemorphs going about their business. And, until just recently, they'd spend most of their time doing the same to me.

You really can't expect Hell to be interesting, can you?

Most of us just wait motionlessly until the midday feeding. A custodial worker appears around noon with a large wire basket and a pail of water. After a momentary glance at the chart attached to each cage, he'll either drop something inside or proceed to replace the soiled sawdust. That's about the only time most norms come anywhere near my cage. I only get feed twice a month, but for a few creds he'll let the curious drop a rat inside here with me... they never seem get tired of watching me strike and swallow it whole.

He never talks to us. In fact, most of the staff working in this holding facility never really talk to us. Not that it really matters. Most of us couldn't hear or understand them if they did. Yet, as I look into their faces, I think that there's a more likely reason. I think most of them are afraid what happened to us could one day happen to them. I'd like that. There's always room in the Pit for one more damned soul.

But now a new element has been added to our torture. As if to remind us of what we've lost, they wheeled in a new cage two weeks ago. A big cage. Oh, joy! A warm-blood! A huge friggin' mongoose!

Living as I did in the cage closest to the door, I'm among the first to see him. Easily three feet in length, if you counted a foot long tail, with thick gray-black fur covering everything but his face and limbs. All that fur still did little to hide the fact that he was rather chubby. He easily topped the five pound average for his species by a pound or two.

Quite cute really. The sweet-sour taste of venom began to fill my jaws as soon as I saw him.

Within seconds pandemonium broke out as hard-wired reptilian instincts tripped most of us into flight mode. Luckily for me I've never had much trouble with them, instincts that is. Except for the glaring exception of trying to bite and kill anything that comes within range. Few things scare an eight foot and three inches long King Cobra.

(Yes, it's true. I'm vain about my length. I've still got lots to go before I reach eighteen feet. In the reptile world size does matter. Size is the only thing that matters. Sue me!)

My scaly 'friends' were not so lucky. Many shattered limbs or tore open their bodies trying to ram through glass or wire mesh in panic. Several were maimed permanently. A couple even writhed in broken spined agony and died. For a few seconds I vainly expected that they'd give whoever had this bright idea a severe talking too, that hope was dashed almost immediately.

Being deaf as a board, and having had months of little else to do, I've become quite an expert at reading lips. A skill that I hardly needed at this moment. One look at the smiling faces crowding the doorway was enough to clear away any doubts about how 'accidental' this mistake had been.

Eventually they took away the injured and dying leaving the new cage behind. In time most of us came to accept the mammalian predator living in our midst. Those that couldn't soon died of nervous exhaustion or fear induced starvation.

For the rest of us he instantly became the center of attention.

Reptiles are quite boring to watch actually. As objects of evolutionary art we are one of Mother Nature's most colorful and beautiful creations. However, if you want to watch things that continually move about you'd be better off buying a gerbil or a rabbit.

I'm likely to remain immobile for days. Except for feeding time I stay coiled in the back of my cage and let life flow by. At least twice a month a curious custodial worker reaches inside and pokes me with a stick to see if I'm still alive. It gives me great pleasure to notice how long that stick has become. Last month a blue shirt hurt me with the old one. I quickly reminded him how fast snakes can move when provoked. I haven't seen him since. I wonder if he survived my bite.

It's so hard to get good help these days. Sooner or later they're going to kill me if I keep this up. They haven't yet, but I can always hope, can't I?

My new furry neighbor has no such trouble. He expends energy like its going out of style. What they feed him in one week would keep me going for a year. Around and around he jumps as he entertains the constant stream of curious norms visiting his cage. Like some bottomless pit he chows down on all the candy and junk food they give him. Could I even taste the sugar anymore? I can barely think of eating anything that doesn't move or smells alive.

As usual, I torture myself with the most trivial memories before I go to sleep. Last night was a perfect example. With last week's rat still making a bulge in my middle, I'll fantasized about my favorite greasy spoon. The rodent became a double burger with all the trimmings, and my hands where wrapped around a frosty chocolate shake.

I held onto the image for what seemed like hours until nature broke the mood. It's hard to fool even yourself when a burp fill the air around you with the scent of decomposing rat.

Yet, with all that I've lost, the images of my lost hands hurt me the most.

None of the other reptilemorphs caged within this room can do anything even remotely as dexterous as that mongoose can manage with ease. At best their clawed hands and feet are good for digging or walking. As a snake I can't even do that.

They even let him out of his cage on occasion. He races around the room in a blur of motion that's hard to believe. For hours he plays fetch with the norms. He even climbs their clothing and hunts for even more tidbits of food hidden within their pockets. With the ease of a master pickpocket he displays the small items he's found. The humans laugh and give him even more food to retrieve their missing car keys or pocket change. They never seem to tire of his antics.

Nor do we.

I have nothing. I am nothing. But I'd give anything for a single one of the heartfelt hugs they lavish upon him.

My family is gone. It's probably best that they never know what happened to me. By now the authorities have stopped looking. Just another missing persons report to join the thousands of others that get filed and forgotten each year.

Most likely they believe that I'm dead. For all intentions they're right. Trapped in a body pared down by evolution to the most basic of lifestyles, to hunt and kill, I might as well be on another planet. With each passing day their faces become harder to remember.

My face becomes harder to remember.

What little pleasure I get now is from watching the mindless antics of a mindless mongoose. Sooner or later someone is bound to take him away and make him their pet. By now I'm sure most people have encountered animals like that... the family dog with the penetrating stare or the tiny yellow canary with the odd sounding song.

Somehow, I doubt if anyone will want to take me home. Unless, of course, they're in the market for a new pair of boots.

As darkness falls, I coil even tighter and prepare to sleep. The humans are long gone. Looking around the room one last time I notice the mongoose standing rock still and staring back at me. He never stands so still. Never. Ever. In all the time he's been here, I can't remember a single instance when he wasn't in motion. Even in sleep I've watched him twitch and rock continuously.

The shock causes me to rear up and flick my tongue out at him. Why? I don't have a clue. In either case it was stupid. I'm inside a locked shatterproof glass box that's five feet away from his cage. The only thing my sensitive forked tongue detects is snake musk and reeking sawdust. Sometimes it pays to be a snake, I can't smell a thing unless I stick my tongue out.

Certain that he has my attention, he opens and closes his muzzle as if in speech. Naturally, I can't hear a thing. Wondering what's going on I crawl forward and press my chin against the glass. With a little effort I can translate the vibrations rattling my jaw into words.

"Yo, Mike! How'd ya' like to get out of there?"

The mongoose knows my name! How?! Duh! Sometimes I'm so stupid! My chart's posted outside the cage just like his! It's not my real name. Even if I could talk I wouldn't tell. Mike's just the name of the first person I bit when then dumped me inside this place. It's an in-joke really. My namesake tried to impress a female co-worker

by using me to show how they milk snakes for their venom.

Take it from me, you shouldn't try that trick if your hands are slippery with sweat and you're wearing shorts. You'd think she wouldn't mind sucking out the poison out from where I injected it. Women can be so fickle sometimes. It breaks my heart to see a young couple fight. Really it does.

"Yo, Mr. Slinky! You want out of there or what?!"

Spreading my hood as wide as it will go, and nod my head.

"Do that twice more and I'll take that as a 'yes.'

I might as well humor him. 'Want to get out of there', indeed! How many times have I heard that one before? It's gotta be that warm blood and thick fur. Sooner or later their brains get fried. It's a shame really. Any self respecting reptile could tell instantly that the situation is hopeless. Just for fun I flick my tongue twice for good measure.

"Fantastico! We're cooking now! Here's the deal. I busting out tonight and I need backup. You comprendo?"

Oh, great! A prison movie fan! I wonder what film noir this fuzzy James Cagney thinks he's in?!

Curious despite my misgivings, I nod again. I'm just waiting for him to show me the bar of soap he'd gnawed into a gun. That's when I'm going to turn around and go to sleep. If I'm lucky someone will have stuffed and mounted him on the wall by morning.

Being unable to change my expression in the slightest, I'm not exactly sure what provoked his next comment. I can only assume that it was my tongue. Cobras don't normally stick out their tongues and let them dangle outside for minutes at a time. Snakes are never rude. Killers, yes. Rude, no. There must be more human left in me than I thought.

"You don't believe me, do you?! Well, just you watch this!"

In a flash of movement he's dug through the sawdust and retrieved two objects. Why he'd want the first one is a mystery. In his left paw is a small butane cigarette lighter. One spark from that thing inside his cage and roasted mongoose would be on the menu. What really attracts my attention is the key in his right paw. A big red key. The key for all the damned cages in this room!

"I see you know what this is. Believe me now?"

How I'd like to tell him how much I've thought about that key. Even if he knew Morse code it would take me hours to flicker my tongue that many times. I simply raise up and tap my nose against the lock sealing my cage lid. Hard. Again and Again. And then some more after that.

"Calm down! You're making too much noise!"

Too excited to remain upright I tip over and fall flat on my stomach. Too much noise he says! If I could make more than a dull hissing sound I'd be screaming loud enough to shake the rafters!

"Here's the deal. You promise to protect me and I'll keep you warm and feed. I'm too high degree to make it outside on my own. You'll be my ace-in-the-hole. I've got plans for you. Big plans. You with me?"

In a single unbroken motion I rear up as high as the cage will allow and nod by head. Again. And again. And again. I'd still be doing it if he didn't start to laugh.

"I'll take that as a tentative maybe. Now watch this!"

Slipping his paw through the wire mesh lid, the mongoose finally managed to unlocks his cage after several failed attempts. His paws might not be as well suited for this task as those of a primates, but who the heck am I to judge? There's not a single set of scaled paws in this room that could've come close to what he'd just accomplished.

In a flash he's across the room and climbing atop my cage. After quietly swinging the lid open, he jumps back to the floor and races away towards a supply cabinet. By the time I've slithered onto the floor he's back with something bright and shiny in his paw. Pointing a clawed digit at the coin sized object he begins to speak again.

"Now, listen up. Put your head completely on the ground. I want you to hear every word before I do this. For the time being, flick your tongue once to change the question, twice to answer yes and three times to say no. Got that?"

It's only after I comply by flicking my tongue twice that he comes closer. I can tell from his scent that he's not exactly happy confronting me at close range.

"Okay. Now get this! I don't want you going postal on me! I need to stick this on your head. Do you know what this is?"

Two flickers.

"That's right. It's a voder. It's one of the newer ones, actually. They're going to be royally pissed when they find it missing. They're expensive as shit! I'm kinda surprised they even had one. Most likely they're going to miss it more than they will us. Got me?"

Two flickers.

"Have you ever used one before?"

Two flickers.

"Were you able to talk?"

Three flickers.

"Damn. It was probably too much to hope for! Were you able to hear?"

One flicker.

"Could you hear well?"

Three flickers.

"Okay, it's not like I need you to appreciate music. Do you promise to hold still while I stick this on you? I'm out of here if you try anything."

Two flickers.

I'm pretty sure he'd have soiled himself if I'd moved even a single scale.

"Is it working? Can you hear me better?"

Two flickers.

"Great. Now follow me! But not too damned close! Got it?!"

Growing more amused by the second I slithered after him. As we crossed the room I get closer and closer until I was just inches away. Whatever comment he'd planned to make when he turned around was lost as I pounced on him. In less than a heartbeat I had his throat in my jaws and my coils around his body. He was helpless. He was food. A single twitch would've sent my fangs and poison into his body.

And then I let him go.

"Why... why'd ya' do that!?" he asked as he trembled in shock.

One flicker.

"Are you fucking crazy?!"

Three flickers.

"You didn't hurt me. You could've but you didn't. Is that what you were trying to prove?"

Two flickers.

"How about I shut up and get the two of us out of here?"

Two flickers.

Cheap design work will get you in trouble every time, and this particular building was a perfect example. Clearly the builders had never thought that any of the Scab 'patients' inside would ever escape their cages. It was almost laughably easy to find unlocked windows and air vents. Following each other in tandem we soon found ourselves outside in the warm summer evening air.

I would've yelled for joy if I had the capacity to do so. Feeling much like one of the legendary escapees from Alcatraz, I kept pace with my furry little friend until the building was nothing but a small blur of light to my eyes.

In the other direction a sea of blinking lights beckoned us forward. With my poor vision I had no idea where I was or what city it might be. Frankly, I couldn't have cared less. If I died in the next ten seconds it would've been worth it. I was free. I was free and I was not alone.

"You still want to come with me, Mike?" the mongoose asked as he turned to face me directly.

Two flickers.

"I'm Carl, by the way. My friends call me, Fingers. Do you want to be my friend?"

Two flickers.

"That's great! It's gonna be tough going, but if you'll watch my back, I'll watch yours. Would you like that?"

Two flickers.

"Very well, lets get going. Once we're in the city I'm gonna look up some friends and find us a place to stay. It won't be much, but with your help will soon get some dough for something better. Will you help?"

Two flickers.

"Is there anything you'd like before we go? I've dealt with your kind before. I know a little bit of the Morse code lingo you guys use."

It took me three tries to get my simple request across.

By the time I finished the first time he was staring at his paws.

By the time I finished the second time tears had begun to flow around his muzzle.

I never finished the third time.

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