(Fiction) Viper & Serpent

I awoke from death, as I had so many times, shivering on a slab. For once, I had not been murdered. This time, I had taken my own life. The body bag that encased me was meant to contain stench rather than heat, and it was frigid. It also reeked of bile, and I was happy finally to work my shivering pinky into the tiny gap of the zipper and slide it several inches down. The handwriting on the white exterior label read: DOE, JANE 8W756-D. I stopped and listened carefully for a reaction. Hearing nothing but the rumble of the refrigeration units, I unzipped the bag and sat up. The small room was crowded. Opioids had seen to that. It reminded me of the casualty transports I had the unfortunate occasion to ride during the war. Bodies in bags were stacked everywhere—except on each other. Most were in the rack against the back wall, three spaces high and four long. The rest, like myself, were on metal gurneys, some of which carried a second body on a lower shelf near the wheels. All of them were packed so tightly there was very little room to walk.

My first problem was that I was naked. I should’ve stepped outside and seen to it first. Instead, I stepped to the floor in bare feet and began immediately searching for Benjamin’s bones. I found them quickly enough. His was the flattest bag in the room. But since it rested on a lower shelf, I had to push hard against the chain of wheeled gurneys to make enough space to squat. They rattled against each other, and I paused to listen for a response to the noise. It was hard to tell over the sounds of the coolers, one of which rattled noisily, but it seemed as though I was alone. I slowly pulled the body bag’s zipper over the bump of the skull, but rather than a pile of bones, I discovered the corpse of a small child. There were deep red burns marks across this face and neck, but other than that he appeared to be normal. Sleeping. He couldn’t have been more than four. Heartbroken, I found myself unable to look away. He had a wide forehead that reminded me of Jakub, a boy I had raised as my own nearly two centuries before. I never knew what had became of him, I recalled. He was 16 the last time I saw him, testifying against me at the trial that saw me hanged for witchcraft.

I replaced the zipper and, finding no other suitably flat bags that might contain the remains of my friend, turned for the door. On the other side was a long, open medical examination room with several identical stations, each clustered around a single, long table. Two were occupied: one by a bag and one by a collection of bones.

“There you are,” I whispered.

It was dim in the room—only the under-counter lights shone—but then, according to the clock on the wall, it was approaching three in the morning. At least it was warm. I shut the door behind me and stepped closer to examine the skeletal remains, but all I could see of Benjamin was what I already knew: he had been burned. His bones were black. Most had bits of oily charcoal attached. Whatever had killed him had been extremely hot. What I did not know was how he had ended up inside an elementary school in Adams County, Ohio—a place that, as far as I knew, neither of us had never been. I had hoped the medical examiner’s file, which rested in a slot near the cabinet, would help solve the mystery, but there was nothing of note except for an order from the medical examiner that the bones be kept separate from the other dead since they were slightly radioactive. There was no danger, it said. The radioactivity was slight. The coroner simply didn’t want to contaminate the others out of respect.

I replaced the file and turned to the nearby computer, which was when I saw the large viper slither out slowly from behind it. I froze as it undulated unnervingly down the cabinet to the floor. It was big—too big, really. Fat, like a python. As it moved relentlessly toward me, holding my attention rapt, I had no choice but to step back. I heard the cock of a revolver a moment before the barrel was pressed to the back of my head. I raised my hands slowly as the unnaturally large viper slithered between my legs.

“This move was clever,” a woman said, “but predictable, given your talents.”

She had some kind of accent—African maybe.

A leather bag with large loop handles dropped near my feet.

“Fendi,” I said. “Fake.”

“Fill it.”

I understood her meaning. She wanted me to put Benjamin’s bones inside. I set the bag on the table, glancing back as I donned a pair of latex gloves from a nearby box. I caught the last of the viper’s tail as it faded into the woman’s brown skin, completing a tattoo that spiraled around her right arm up to her neck. Several other tattoos adorned her shoulders, arms, and back. She was in a white tank top and army pants. Her hair was wild.

I began to lift the bones one at a time and place them inside. “You left them in the school. So it would make the news and I would come.”

“I knew one of you would show.”

“Where did you find them?” I asked hesitantly as I went about my task. I saved the skull till last.

“Does it matter?” Her tone invited no argument.

“You’re mizzen,” I accused.

“What makes you say that?” she challenged in return. “The tattoos? Or the color of my skin?”

“Neither. You’re using a gun.”

Seeing I had finished, she motioned with the barrel toward the back.

“Can I at least have something to wear?” I nodded to a glass-doored cabinet at the back, inside which were stacks of folded green scrubs.

“Hurry,” she ordered.

I stepped bare foot across the cool floor and dressed as quickly as I could. The pair of scrubs I donned were too big, but they would have to do.

“I suppose shoes are out of the question,” I said.

She motioned toward the door with the barrel. “No time.”

“Are we in a hurry?”

Move,” she ordered, “or I’ll shoot you in the head and drag you out of here.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“They wanted you alive, if possible. Dead, if necessary.”

“Don’t want to wait, then. Must be in a hurry.” I started walking. “Can I at least know where we’re going?”

“You’ll see. Don’t forget the bag.”

I had deliberately walked past. I lifted it by the handles and walked across the long room to the door, which led to a dark and silent office.

“Left,” she ordered from behind.

There was an emergency exit. A red sign warned that opening the door would sound an alarm, but given there was a battered sedan waiting for us on the other side, I suspected she didn’t care. We’d be long gone before the police arrived.

“Drive,” she ordered.

I pushed against the exit and the alarm beeped for several seconds before blaring in earnest. The car was open. The keys were waiting in the ignition. I set Benjamin on the seat next to me as our kidnapper got in the back.

“Take a left out of the parking lot.”

“Am I running red lights or not?” I asked as I started the engine.

“Just drive.”

Once we were several blocks from the morgue, she seemed to relax. “So, it’s really true?”

“What is?”

“You’re immortal?”

“It would seem so.”

She made a clicking sound. “What’s it like?”

“It’s not any different. I’m just like you. I eat. I sleep. I go to the bathroom.”

“No. I meant death.”

“I’m afraid you’re asking the wrong person. As we previously established, I don’t die.”

“Take the next right.”

I did and joined a country road leading out of the small town.

“So there’s nothing?” She put her gun to my head. “If I shoot you now, what? You just wake up. Is that it?”

“If you shoot me now, I’ll crash the car and one of us won’t wake up at all.”

I briefly considered running into one of the many trees we passed. But given that I wouldn’t rise until the third day, my enemies would have ample time to find me.

“So it’s like sleep,” she said.

“No.” I hesitated. “Not exactly.”

“Then what?”

“Does it matter?”

“I wanna know,” she said, grabbing the shoulder of the seat.

I glanced at her in the rear view mirror. There was an odd look on her face. “Worried about death?” I asked.

“Most people are.”

I watched the road in silence. It was dark out, and the ancient car’s headlights did little to illuminate the road.

“I re-experience my life,” I said finally. “Or parts of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. It doesn’t start at the beginning. And it rarely makes it to the end.”

“A dream.”

“No,” I insisted. “Not a dream.” I paused. “A punishment.”

“Punishment?”

“I suspect someone wanted to make sure I had ample time to review my mistakes before sending me out to try again.”

“Here,” she said. “Pull in here.”

We’d barely gone five miles. It appeared to be some kind of park. I turned slowly, and the weak headlights shone across the simple bar gate to a groundskeepers lot, which had been left open on one side. After a short run down a gravel slope, the car stopped before a long shed. It was completely dark. Not a single exterior light shone. I suspect that wasn’t an accident.

“Get out. Leave the engine on.”

“It won’t take the police long to find us,” I said as I opened the door. “There were cameras.”

“That’s not gonna matter. Now move.”

I grabbed Benjamin and stepped out of the car. I paused immediately. There were no crickets. I looked around but saw only shadows amid the dense silhouette of trees.

“Where are we?”

“Move.” She pushed me toward the shed with the barrel of the gun.

The weak yellow light from the headlights flickered slightly as the car idled, but there was enough to make out the small placard near the door: SERPENT MOUND PARK.

“What is this place?”

I stopped when I saw the marking at the top of the shed door. A minotaur’s head had been etched into the frame: the sign of the labyrinth. It was old and the paint around it was heavily scuffed, but it was unmistakable.

“It can’t be . . .” I breathed, risking a shocked turn to my captor, who simply waited grimly.

We both dew breath when we heard the click. We listened as the door handle turned slowly and opened.


from the conclusion of my epic urban fantasy FEAST OF SHADOWS.

cover image by Zoe Keller