Fearing an intruder had once again been inside the house, I hurried to the front door. The thread remained taut across it. The chalk line on the floor was undisturbed. The bit of index card was still wedged between door and frame.
Secure in the knowledge the door hadn’t been breached, I went down to the kitchen, made a pot of extra-strong coffee, and poured it into a mug roughly the size of a soup bowl. After taking a few eye-opening gulps, I returned to the rest of the house and methodically checked all the windows. They were the same as the door—completely undisturbed.
No one was there.
No one but us chickens.
My grandmother had used that phrase, back when I was a boy and my cousins would play hide-and-seek in the hulking barn behind her house. Because I was the youngest and smallest, it was Gram who’d hide with me, pulling me into her arms and shrinking her surprisingly spry body behind hay bales or in dark cubbyholes that always smelled of leather and motor oil. When one of my cousins came looking, calling out to see if anyone was there, Gram would always reply, “No one but us chickens!”
Security check complete, I returned to the kitchen and grabbed my coffee mug. As I took a sip, I noticed white dust sprinkling the tabletop. Sitting among it were small chunks of gray rubble.
Then I felt it.
Something inside the mug.
Small and whip thin.
It lashed against my upper lip before scraping my front teeth, slimy and foul-tasting.
I jerked the mug away from my mouth. The coffee I hadn’t been able to swallow streamed down my chin. The liquid I did swallow came back up in a gurgling, choking cough.
I peered into the mug. A circular ripple spread across the coffee’s surface and splashed against the mug’s rim. I tilted the mug, and the thing inside breached the surface—a slick shimmer of gray rising and falling in the mud-brown liquid.
I dropped the mug and backed away from the table as coffee rushed across its surface. Riding the wave, like some small sea serpent washing ashore, was a baby snake.
It squirmed along the table, tracing a sinuous path through the spilled coffee. I stared at it, dumbfounded and disgusted. My stomach roiled so much I had to clamp a hand over my mouth.
Looking up, I saw a hole in the ceiling’s plaster that was roughly the size of a shot glass. Two more baby snakes slipped through it and fell onto the table. Their landing sounded like two fat raindrops hitting a windshield.
I scrambled to find something to contain them. A bowl. Tupperware. Anything. I was rooting through a cupboard, my back turned to the table, when something else landed with a sickening splat.
I turned around slowly, dreading to see what I already knew I’d find there.
A fourth snake.
Not a baby.
Fully grown and more than a foot long, it had landed on its back, exposing a belly as red as baneberries. It flipped over, and I saw twin stripes the color of rust running down its back, just like the snake I’d found in the Indigo Room the day we moved in.
This bigger snake slithered past the babies and went straight to the upturned coffee mug, trying to coil itself inside. It hissed. In anger or fear, I couldn’t tell.
I was still staring at it, paralyzed with horror, when two more baby snakes rained down onto the table.
I looked to the hole in the ceiling, where a seventh snake—another adult—was winnowing its way out, headfirst. It tried to reverse course by bending its body back toward the ceiling, which only hastened its slide from the hole.
When it landed—another splat, like a water balloon hitting its target—the table shimmied. Flecks of plaster from the ceiling fluttered like confetti. By then, most of the baby snakes had dropped off the table’s edge and were slithering in all directions. One came right toward me, prompting me to scramble onto the counter.
Above, a mighty tearing sound emanated from the ceiling. Cracks spread across its surface, zigzagging like lightning bolts. Standing on the counter, I threw myself against the row of cupboards as a massive chunk of ceiling smashed onto the table.
A rolling cloud of dust filled the kitchen. I closed my eyes and again covered my mouth, blocking the scream that had formed in my throat. The wave of dust hit me. It was gritty, like sand. Small granules stuck to my skin and coated my hair.
When I opened my eyes again, the dust was still settling, revealing the damage in gut-tightening increments. The rectangular hole in the ceiling. The matching chunk on the table, now broken into several smaller pieces.
And more snakes.
A dozen. Maybe more.
They had landed as a single unit—a writhing, hissing knot of snakes so big I worried the table would collapse under their weight. Within seconds, they were untangled and oozing outward.
Across the table.
Onto the floor.
A few more stragglers dropped from the ceiling, sending up their own individual puffs of dust.
The scream I’d been withholding finally broke free and echoed through the kitchen.
I screamed for Jess.
I screamed for help.
I screamed sounds I didn’t know I was capable of just because there was no other way to express my panic and revulsion and fear.
When they died down—settling as surely as the ceiling dust—I realized no amount of screaming could help in this situation. I had to jump down from the counter and run. There was no other choice.
Letting out another scream, I jumped. My bare feet hitting the floor sent the snakes around me rearing up. One struck at me. Its fangs snagged the hem of my pajama bottoms, got caught in the fabric, tugged until it was freed.