Jenna wheeled her load into the elevator and pressed the “1” button with a great deal of silent intensity.
No one made a sound.
The elevator doors opened upon a tableau that no one could comprehend – not even those whose minds were steeped in alcohol.
Breathtakingly immense fingers of splintering concrete curled toward them, but also reached upward into the rose-tinted sky. These relics had once been part of the superstructure of a gargantuan dome, but had been worn away by weather and time. All around the floor of the structure, huge heaps of stone had fallen, sprinkling the area with pockets of hardy flora. The majority of the marble floor seemed largely resistant to the encroaching desert, though the outer periphery was heaped with sand.
Ben was the first to shake off his trance and look behind. The elevator itself rest against the base of a mountain, which had been used as a supporting structure for the dome. The part which faced the mountain retained much of the structure and shape of the original construction. The scale of the place immediately made Ben think of the Great Pyramid of Giza which he’d seen as a child. He’d remembered feeling small and insignificant at the time, and the immensity of his current locale induced him with the same oppressive sense of smallness against something so mighty. He was on the verge of a nostalgic funk when his musings were interrupted by Pookie’s voice.
“Someone really let this place go…” she said with utter seriousness in her tone.
Ben and the rest broke into drunken laughter. The ruin echoed and twisted their chuckles into a grim mockery of mirth – more like the depraved catcalls of an audience of sociopaths - but only Jenna seemed to notice.
Jenna wheeled the crate of supplies from the elevator onto the lobby floor and fetched everyone’s makeshift weaponry from the elevator floor. When she did, she noticed that there was a small sticky patch of blood in the corner where Pookie and Ben had sat earlier. She looked over the group for sign of injury and noticed the wound on Ben’s leg had opened up again. It wasn’t deep, but she was concerned about infection.
Jenna snatched the bottle of vodka from Pookie’s fingers seconds before she would have polished it off.
“God, I’ve been such a fool,” she muttered and then turned to Pookie with a stern look, “We need to SAVE our alcohol, not drink it. We don’t have any other antiseptics.”
When it seemed like Pookie only understood about half of what she’d said, Jenna turned to Ben and Curtis who seemed considerably more sober under her cold gaze.
“Sorry,” said Ben with a sincere look of apology in his tired, bloodshot eyes.
“I think she has another bottle…” said Curtis, hoping his comment would earn him some favor, “I mean, her purse is still riding pretty low…”
Before Jenna could turn to face her, Pookie had pulled out what she had found and was waggling it from her hand.
“You mean this?” Pookie called, with a polished black service pistol dangling in her grip.
Jenna froze and said calmly, “I think you should put that down…. Pook. It might be…”
Pookie shook her head and raised her hand meaningfully.
“Nono… no she stammered… It’s not even…”
A gunshot rang out echoing across the area like the crack of a whip.
Pookie dropped the pistol and shook her hand.
“OOOW!” she exclaimed gripping her hand and stepping away from the mean gun.
Jenna made a dash to the gun and almost reached it when a huge coiled mass fell atop the gun and created a person-high barrier. If Pookie hadn’t backed up moments before she’d have been crushed under tons of whatever it was.
The snake’s coils were several feet thick and its head was the size of a large dog.
If not for the gaping hole that spanned the creature’s left eye and much of its upper skull, Jenna would likely have lost her mind. Instead, she merely backed away slowly and squeaked.
Her voice was trapped in a high pitched prison until she had put about twenty feet between herself and the dead reptile.
“What the…” she began, wishing she were drunk. Instead of finishing the thought, she squatted on the ground as small as she could and began to cry.
Curtis, on the other hand, was far from squeamish about the snake. He looked about until he’d found his plastic blade and rushed towards the felled creature, eager to make sure it was dead, and if so, to filet the damned thing. Snake wasn’t his favorite meat, but he was not cut out for a meat-free diet.
He used the tip of his blade to prod the snake thoroughly in the head and coils before getting carried away with his project. Despite his eager hunger, he was no fool. The snake could easily incapacitate him with its coils, much less a bite.
After several minutes of no response, Curtis assumed the creature was dead. He surveyed the neck carefully and tried using the edge to pry away some scales.
After several minutes, his progress seemed to be getting nowhere, and Ben offered to help.
Between them they managed to extract a handful of scales, but the muscle and bone were beyond the capability of their crude plastic cutters. Pookie looked curiously over their work and asked,
“Can I help?”
In her hands she wielded a military knife with a polished metal blade.
“Where the…” Ben started, “Nevermind. Just give it to Curtis. He seems to know what he’s doing.”
As the sun disappeared behind the mountain, it became too unnerving to stay out of shelter. Curtis had actually managed to straighten the snake out to its full length - with the assistance of Ben and Pookie, and later on, Jenna. He suggested (probably wisely) waiting on cutting for the morning, because as it was, the corpse might attract predators, but splaying it out would surely invite unwanted guests. He recovered the gun and placed it in his tote bag.
The group huddled into the elevator, fearful of what waited outside and what possibly waited below.
A faint emergency light bathed them in red, setting Jenna at a particularly uneasy frame of mind. However, when Ben complained about a pain in his leg, Jenna was quick to insist she pour some alcohol upon it. She tore a strip from the frayed leg of her pants to make a tourniquet and dressed his wound. The process took a lot of focus and actually allowed her to relax a little. A stuttering computer voice called over the speakers at some point during her efforts, and was later followed by some softly playing elevator music. In their small box, the crew slept with little idea of what the next day would bring.
Jenna had brief nightmares about running from snakes. These horrors eventually subsided and morphed instead into weird dreams about wrestling with a family of talking pigs.
She awoke, some hours later, with Jenna’s butt in her face and Ben’s legs draped over her waist. The overhead soundtrack had faded to static over the course of the evening, filling the air with a dull hiss. Curtis slept soundly in a corner with his head propped on a tote full of toilet paper like it was a pillow.
Jenna wrangled out of her awkward position and decided to take a glance outside. She found the combat knife resting on the floor of the elevator near Curtis’ curled hands. She readied it and tapped the button to open the door. It didn’t take too long to realize that she had once again slept more hours than she’d suspected. The morning sun was and a fairly high angle in the sky and the ruins of the dome were cast in a golden hue. The morning sky was idyllic – a somber blue tone with scattered fluffy clouds that looked like something out of a painting.
Sparing a glance back toward the snake’s corpse, she was glad to see that it wasn’t swarming with creatures – and it didn’t look like anything had bothered it overnight.
She turned back to survey the ruin and sighed. None of them had actually talked about it, even though it was staring her right in the face. Ben had suggested leaving any serious conversations about their situation until they had a clear idea what they were facing, and until they remembered how they got here. Certainly a month should have cleared all the chemicals from their bodies, she thought, but at least for her, the last memory before “the big wake” was being in Reno and wondering why she had to film that god awful hideous dog and why she wasn’t doing work as a news cameraman.
“Six figures,” she laughed, answering her own question, “That’s why.”
She was startled by a touch from behind and instinctively lashed out with the knife.
Curtis backed off quickly, narrowly avoiding being stabbed in the neck.
“Damn girl!” he coughed in surprise, “One belt higher and you’d have perforated me!”
His smile lingered between shock and bemusement, but he seemed a little shaken as he extended his hand.
“I’m gonna need that if you want some meat tonight…” he added wryly.
Jenna handed him the knife reluctantly, and shifted to wake Ben and Pookie. Ben had already been startled by Curtis’ raised tone, so she kicked Pookie gently in the butt and backed away.
Right on cue, Pookie blasted the elevator with flatulence, rolled over and grumbled about having to get up. However, once she realized everyone else was already awake, she stood and clapped her hands, uncharacteristically eager for whatever was to come.
Curtis realized upon looking at the snake that his job was going to be messier than he’d originally thought. Already a sticky pool of blood covered a considerable area on the ground. Gutting this thing near where they were likely to sleep for awhile seemed a bad idea. It was sure to attract any number of wolves or coyotes. Moving it on the other hand was going to require everyone, and if they were lucky, only half the day. He begrudgingly realized that it would have to be done, but was encouraged by how easily the others agreed to help.
Moving the snake turned out to be just as strenuous as Curtis had guessed. Despite the fact that most of the effort was merely dragging it on the smooth floors, the only way to keep the scales from hindering them was to pull the snake from the head first. Because of its bulk, they only made a few inches of progress every minute or two, and they had to take regular breaks. Still, by midday, they had worked it to a bank of gritty sand that had built up at the dome’s periphery. Curtis was wary of other snakes like this one as he moved it, and hoped they were not too common. Not that he’d have been able to see one very easily. The snake’s scales were mottled with a mixture of ruddy browns and blacks that would have blended into nearly every shadow within sight. He hadn’t noticed before, but its tail wasn’t a traditional rattle as he’d guessed. Instead, it had a strange bellows-like structure composed of what might have been rattles a few hundred generations ago. When he squeezed the tail, the haunting sound gave him chills. It made a sharp bleating wail that echoed like nervous laughter under the wrecked dome.