Eddie Brickell was just like any other fifth grade boy.
No he wasn't.
All the other boys had no problem holding Mr. Slithers, the class pet. They could reach into its cage, pull the snake out, and let it coil himself around their arms or neck or shoulders. Not Eddie.
Not the girls either. They wouldn’t come near it or they would shriek if a boy held the snake up to them. Except for Amanda. She was the only girl brave enough to hold Mr. Slithers.
The thing gave Eddie the willies. He didn’t squeal like a girl, though he wanted to.
So far no one had caught on to him. He played the tough guy part like all the others. He would hang around the cage and pretend to be interested. And with so many boys clamoring to hold Mr. Slithers, no one noticed that Eddie had never touched it. No one questioned his courage.
But the plain fact was that boys are supposed to be manly and snakes don’t bother macho boys. It’s as though he had failed at being a kid. How could a self-respecting guy move on to middle school if he were afraid of snakes?
And that is why he found himself alone, at recess, standing before Mr. Slithers’ cage. He had snuck back into the room after the teacher had left. Eddie was bound and determined to be brave and overcome his anxiety.
The glass aquarium cage was capped with a framed screen top, which was held tight with nylon straps. Eddie undid the latches and removed the screen. When he did, Mr. Slithers moved out from its hiding place under a rock. The snake slid its body up the side of the glass cage, stared, and pushed out its forked tongue. The hairs stood on the back of Eddie’s neck and he plopped the screen back in place.
He was repulsed, yet he couldn’t take his eyes off the reptile. Its head was black and shiny and a round beady eye stared at him. Red and black and yellow rings went the length of its body, slimming as it reached its tail. Its upper body held to the glass and its head swayed, licking the air with its tongue.
Eddie sucked in his breath and raised the screen. The snake brought itself an inch higher. Eddie slowly reached his arm over the rim and the snake bobbed its head. Eddie pulled his arm back out of the cage.
This is stupid, he thought. It’s a harmless snake, no more than a foot long. Every guy in class can do this. Why couldn’t he?
Eddie reached his hand over the cage and hovered there. The heat from the warming lamp warmed his arm. He took in a breath and willed himself to grab the thing behind its head. He reached closer to it when a voice said, “Scared, aren’t you?”
Eddie turned his head toward the voice. “No, I’m not scared.”
“Yes you are,” said Amanda. She walked toward the cage. “You never pick it up. You never pet it. I’ve watched you. You’re afraid of it.”
Eddie puffed his chest and put on his tough guy face. “Afraid of Mr. Slithers? Ha. I’m not afraid of a silly little snake.”
Amanda held his gaze for a second then said, “Okay, then. Pick him up.”
Eddie looked at her and said, “No problem.” He turned to face the cage and gathered his courage. He sucked in his breath, sighed it out, and reached over the edge. The snake moved its body toward his hand. Eddie willed himself to be brave. He stared into its beady eyes and decided to make a move before he lost his nerve. He closed his fingers around the serpent, pinching his thumb and forefinger behind its head. Eddie backed his arm out of the cage and the snake rose in the air with him.
He did it! He finally did it. It was easy and he laughed his timidity. He smiled at Amanda. “See? I told you so.”
Mr. Slithers undulated its body and when it found Eddie’s bare arm, wrapped itself around it. Its body was cool. Its scales grasped his skin then released as slithered up his arm.
Sweat broke out on Eddie’s forehead. His display of courage was quickly turning to feelings of disgust. The snake moved up his arm and Eddie couldn’t take it. He shook his arm and the thing fell to the carpet.
“Why did you do that?” Amanda asked. She bent down to pick up the snake but it moved before she could catch it. It slithered along the baseboard of the counter. Amanda ran after and each reach was inches behind. Eddie stood petrified watching her.
The cabinet door under the sink was open just a crack, but enough for Mr. Slithers to squeeze through. Amanda threw open the doors but the snake could not be seen, hidden by boxes and rags and cleaning products. Amanda glared at Eddie. “If you’re too afraid to pick it up, you have no business messing with it. Now look what you’ve done.”
Eddie had nothing to say.
Amanda was on hands and knees and began emptying things out of the cabinet. A plastic tub of watercolor paints and brushes, a watering can and plant fertilizer, sponges and window cleaner. She pulled out a box and said, “There he is.”
Instead of reaching for it, Amanda stared into the cabinet. Eddie waited. Amanda didn’t move. Eddie crouched beside her. “Aren’t you going to get it?” he asked.
She didn’t say a word, but just shook her head. Eddie looked at the back of her head. The bell rang and he said, “The kids are coming back from recess. We better put Mr. Slithers back in his cage.”
“Amanda?” he asked. “Are you going to get the snake?”
She shook her head. “I can’t.” She pointed into the cabinet. “There’s a spider.”
Eddie squinted. The bright colors of Mr. Slithers was easy to pick out. Above him sat a large spider, swaying on its web. “It’s just a spider,” he said. “Grab the snake and put him by the cage.”
Amanda’s face was ashen. She could only shake her head and whisper, “I can’t.”
Eddie looked at her. “Are you kidding me? You? Afraid of spiders?”
She nodded her head and said, “Snakes are easy, but spiders are a different story. Get Mr. Slithers.”
Eddie looked at the snake and hesitated. “Get the snake,” Amanda said.
Eddie reached and the spider scurried. He grabbed the snake and was determined to not let go. He backed out of the cabinet with Mr. Slithers in both hands. He leaned his arms on the cabinet and pushed off to get himself up. By the time he reached the cage, the snake had again coiled itself around his arm. Instead of disgust, Eddie was intrigued by the animal and held it to his face for a closer inspection.
Kids came in and gathered around Eddie and Mr. Slithers. Amanda pushed the last box in the cabinet and stood up.
She and Eddie shared a glance.