The first time Kate reads “The Snake Pit” the black man dies.
It’s a forgettable story, from an almost equally forgettable horror anthology. She isn’t actually into horror, but she’s into Claire Sennex, who’d written a short psychological thriller near the start of the collection.
“The Snake Pit” definitely isn’t that. It’s backwoods horror at its worst, inane characters making inane decisions until they stumble inadvertently out of the plot. Predictably, the story ends with the open-ended implication that the snakes are going to get them in short order (it ends on the line “What’s that hissing noise coming from the trunk?” for Pete’s sake), and Kate laughs quietly to herself after she finishes, because someone needs to tell this author that killing the black man first isn’t in vogue anymore. She actually flips to the front of the book to check the copyright date, curious if it’s an older story, and she’s right: this was written back in the early 90s. She was probably in middle school, blithely unaware that “the black character dies first” was still a horror cliché of the time.
Still, it’s too bad, she thinks later, washing her hair in the shower, because he was the only remotely likeable character in the bunch. The rest were the usual cardboard cutouts – desperate divorcee, jerk businessman, whiny nerd, brash jock, pretty coed (no, seriously; pretty is the descriptor – the only descriptor – used to describe the Homecoming Queen) – but when the divorcee had thrown herself for the third time at the jerk businessman, the black guy had said, “Lady, this isn’t that kind of story.”
Kate likes the line the more she thinks about it. It suggests both dry humor and a genre-savvy intelligence that tickles her sense of fun. Of course the author wasted it by dumping him into a pit of snakes almost immediately afterwards. Kate can practically see the author’s ham-fisted thinking in it; there, captured the essence of the fast-talking black man. It doesn’t take genius to accidentally write the best line in this story.
By the time she’s drying her hair she’s already forgotten it. She’s thinking about work tomorrow and whether she needs to run to the grocery store or if she can put it off for another day (there’s no one to complain but her if dinner is a bowl of cereal), and it does not cross her mind again.
A year and a half later she reads it again.
It isn’t actually “The Snake Pit” she wants to read, it’s that Claire Sennex short story. However, though Kate may not like any of the other stories in the anthology, she’s just far enough over the border into obsessive compulsive that it doesn’t feel right to leave the rest unread. “The Snake Pit” is near the end of the collection, second to last and right after a gore-fest that reads like an expose on the seedy underbelly of teenage sleepovers, and this time the black man doesn’t die.
Kate doesn’t finish the rest of the book. She stops at least a page after he should have stumbled with boring predictability into the pit, flips a couple of pages to the end to make sure she’s reading the one she’s thinking of (there it is: snakes hissing in the trunk), and then she flips back to the beginning of the story to start over, because maybe the pages got stuck together and she accidentally started reading the story after it.
She reads quickly, not quite skimming but close to it, with her finger tracing down the page and her heart in the base of her throat. She flips one page, then the next, then the one following, and the story is everything she remembered it to be except that the black man doesn’t die.
He has a name, though. Darryl Orange, which she hadn’t remembered the first time. Great name (memorable but just short of over-the-top), and Darryl Orange is definitely still living by the time her finger gets to the last line. She very carefully closes the book, holds it to her chest for a second, and then places it carefully back on the shelf, telling herself that she obviously forgot how the story went.
By the time Kate reads “The Snake Pit” for the third time she has convinced herself that Darryl Orange never died on that first read-through. She can even laugh at herself because kettle? The pot says you’re black. Sorry, Mr. Author, apparently she had assumed that all badly written horror ought to off the black guy first.
Per usual she reads the anthology in the order it’s written, less enamored with the Claire Sennex story than she’d been the first two times she’d read it, still mostly grossed out by the rest of the stories, but she finds out that the character of Darryl Orange is a bus driver in Detroit. She wracks her brain, trying to remember this little detail from her previous readings, but it’s been months since she last picked it up. And yes, she may have an excellent visual memory, but months are months. Frankly, Kate’s just sorry she blew off “The Snake Pit” the first time around because Darryl slips in his sly remarks more than she’d noticed and the story is easily the most entertaining out of the collection.
It still ends with the snakes in the trunk, though.
Kate thinks about it off and on over the next few days, imagining the character of Darryl Orange and wondering how a bus driver from Detroit ends up in the woods of Kentucky with a bunch of cannon fodder that makes up the typical cast of the horror genre. She thinks he must’ve had it tough growing up, oldest out of his siblings, single mother maybe (goodness, now she’s making him a cliché – well, he’ll have to forgive her, “The Snake Pit” started it), which is why such a charming young man, both smart and resourceful, ended up in charge of a route instead of going to college. His family probably needed the money.
But now that she’s extrapolated more of his character from the few lines the author has graced him with, she wonders why he didn’t take charge of the group. He’s a great character, wasted on the usual tripe of accidentally – and mostly passively – escaping, and really it’s not like him. He and the coed and the divorcee escape by the laziest writing possible, which disappoints her for his sake.
Kate laughs at herself suddenly, but she finishes parsing the story anyways because that’s how she enjoys her entertainment. Her sister used to complain about it when they were both still living at home, telling her to relax and just read the book or watch the movie without thinking it to death afterwards, but that’s because Penn has never understood Kate’s need to put things in order. She likes to lay out plot lines into neat rows until they logically bleed one into the other. That’s what makes stories good. Kate’s not an author or an editor or anything like that (she’s an underwriter at an insurance company, with an eye for detail), but she is a very serious fan.
Mind you, she wouldn’t exactly call herself a fan of this story. It takes her a few weeks to stop thinking about it this time, but that’s the only concession she’ll make.
The next time around, she reads the anthology with the sole purpose of getting to “The Snake Pit.”
Kate’s been thinking about it again, now that winter is moving in and she feels less like leaving the house. The sun goes down early this time of year, stretching twilight across the city almost before she gets home from work, which makes the apartment look even emptier than usual. She could turn the porch lights on before she leaves in the morning, but she doesn’t like to waste electricity.
She’s already halfway through the book, having started it the night before, but it still takes her a few hours after dinner to slog through the stories blocking her way to “The Snake Pit.” It’s past her bedtime when she finally gets to Darryl Orange, but she decides she doesn’t feel like waiting until tomorrow so she starts it anyways, hoping to at least hit some of her favorite lines. This is her fourth time reading it within the last three years, which is often enough for her to know where the most entertaining details fall between the trite nonsense that makes up the rest of the plot. Kate reads every word, anticipating Darryl’s first sly jab.
She cannot find the line, “Lady, this isn’t that kind of story.”
Kate gets to a point that she knows is past it – an unknown corpse swollen like a discolored balloon at the base of a tree – and then turns back and re-reads up to that point. Again. And again. But Darryl says nothing to the divorcee because he’s busy teasing the whiny teenager into sticking close to the group. The jerk businessman cops a feel, which doesn’t dissuade Ms. Blanchett-Rime like it should.
Kate reads through to the end with her heart pounding away against her breastbone. There are four of them in the car when they drive away this time: Darryl, the coed, the divorcee, and the teenager. Darryl made him relieve himself within earshot instead of letting the kid wander off on his own, making fun of Kevin’s inability to perform in front of strangers until he gave in and just got it over with.
Kate reads the story three times before she shuts off the light next to her bed. Three times, and every time it’s the same story; same dialogue, same content, same four people in the car at the end.
It takes her hours to fall asleep.
“No,” Darryl said. “That’s a great idea. We should definitely split up and increase our chances of dying alone. I’d hate to have backup.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Mike said.
“Please don’t go!” Carol cried.
Mr. Reed, who may have run a multi-million dollar corporation but was a coward at heart, frowned. “You can go ahead and go, but I’m going to stay with the group.”
“Chicken,” Mike said, and walked off.
Ms. Blanchett-Rime smiled at the businessman. “I’m glad you’re staying, Mr. Reed. I get so desperately lonely without a man like you around.”
Darryl said nothing. He watched Mike go with a frown on his face, then turned back again to the group. “Young fool.” He seemed to have forgotten that the football quarterback had a year on him. (So like him, Kate thinks.) “This would’ve been easier with him, but we’ll make it work anyways.”
“How?” Carol asked desperately.
Kate starts to grin as he tells them.
Everyone but the jock makes it to the car.
Darryl talks about his girl back home and Kate thinks, oh no – death flag.
“Death flag” is a term she’s discovered recently, poking around some of the fan sites for “Gladstone, PD,” her guilty pleasure when it comes to television (Detective Gunner is a beefcake; Penn, happily married or not, totally agrees). Last Thursday there’d been quite the discussion on the forum about one of the beat cops, and Kate had learned that a “death flag” is the sign that someone in a story is about to die. The policeman who has only two days left on the job. The idyllic family in the flashback. The soldier who pulls out the picture of his fiancé and talks about their future together.
So when Darryl tells Mike – Mike, with his untold number of cheerleader girlfriends who’ll miss him when he bites it in another page and a half – that he’s got a girl to get home to and Mike is going to help make that happen, Kate’s heart seizes up in her throat.
“So?” Mike demanded.
Darryl was silent for a long moment. The rest of them stayed out of the conversation, apparently interested in the answer; Mike had been threatening to leave for nearly half an hour and they needed him to stay. The plan worked best with him.
“You ever meet a game changer?” Darryl finally asked.
Mike raised his eyebrows at him. “A what now?”
“No,” the Detroiter said. “I suppose not. A man does not go out with five hundred cheerleaders at once if one of them’s a game changer.”
“Fourteen, actually,” Kevin broke in. He’d been hanging on Mike’s words for about three hours now, and he’d counted up the number of conquests himself.
“Thank you, Kevin,” Darryl said dryly. “So here’s how a game changer works: you’re going along, minding your own business, probably even enjoying your own business, when you meet a girl. And you’ve never really planned to settle down – maybe you’ve though to yourself the word “eventually,” maybe you’ve even thought “never” – but suddenly your business isn’t just your business anymore. It’s hers. Cause she just changed the game.”
Mike actually seemed to consider that for a moment. “Why do I care about your game changer?” he finally demanded.
Darryl crossed his arms. “You don’t. But I’ll make you a deal. I’ll get you home to your five hundred girlfriends—”
“Fourteen,” Kevin interjected helpfully.
“—and you’ll get me home to my one.”
Carol and Ms. Blanchett- Rime spoke over each other, emphatically and immediately. “Please Mike” and “Oh you have to.”
Mike wasn’t going to go for it; both Darryl and Mr. Reed could see it in his face. The businessman turned away with a snort and a disdainful, “Let him do what he wants,” but Darryl stepped right into the football quarterback’s space, speaking too softly for anyone else to hear.
“Here’s the thing, Elway – I can do this without you. But you’re one choice away from walking into a deathtrap, and my girl’s the kind of softhearted woman that thinks even walking clichés deserve a chance. You don’t have to like me to play on the same team. You don’t even have to to win. You just have to play.”
Mike opened his mouth to say something but Darryl spoke over him, loud enough for the group. “My quiet underwriter thinks I can get us all out of this. I’d like to prove her right.”
“Oh please,” Carol added hopefully.
Kate decides she really must be pretty when that actually works, and notices the line about the underwriter but pretends it hasn’t made her heart flip in a really silly way. Because she’s being absurd. Entirely.
From there the plan goes off well. Frankly the whole evil setup is stupid, so it doesn’t take a genius to shut down the backwoods rednecks who are apparently behind this snake pit nonsense, it just takes not splitting up and some common sense. Which Darryl, fortunately, has in spades. They’re headed towards the car when the divorcee sidles up to Darryl and reveals there’s more tenderhearted romanticism to her desperation than Kate had realized.
“Your game changer works at a bank?” she asked. “What’s she like?”
Darryl smiled. “Insurance, actually.” (What a crazy coincidence, Kate thinks, unconsciously squeezing the book tighter in her hand.) “And she’s shy. Keeps to herself, only because she’s bad at putting herself out there. She actually likes people. Now me? I could take or leave ‘em.”
Ms. Blanchett-Rime laughed and Carol, following a few feet behind them, chimed in with, “Where did you meet her?”
Darryl flashed his teeth at her, opening the car door to usher in Ms. Blanchett-Rime. “At an airport in Cincinnati, waiting for our connecting flights. I’ll be sitting at a McDonalds, and she’ll sit in the seat next to me, and that’ll be it. I’ve just got to wait. Worth the wait, this lady.” He helped Carol in, eyed Kevin who was looking like he was about to sidle into the front seat, and then took the driver’s seat while Kevin slunk to the back, to squeeze in between the romantic Ms. Blanchett-Rime and the businessman, waiting for him to move into the middle. Mike looked relatively pleased that Carol had just become his seat partner. “But first I need to finish up night school and get a job that won’t have her father sneering at me when I meet her folks.”
He started the car but Carol prompted, “Sneer at you?” which distracted him before he could put the car in gear.
Darryl gave her a sidelong glance, then flashed another grin at Ms. Blanchett-Rime in the backseat, listening with vivid interest on her face. “She’s a middle class white girl, if you can believe that. And she’d say her daddy wouldn’t sneer, but a man knows how he ought to face another man when he’s about to take something precious from him.”
“Yeah,” Mike snorted, missing – or possibly ignoring – the fact that both women were giving Darryl moon-eyes. “That’s cute and all but—”
“Hey,” Kevin cut in, head tilted back towards the trunk with a look of hard concentration on his face. “What’s that hissing noise in
Kate slams the book shut. She can’t read any farther. She can’t. She can’t she can’t she can’t because it isn’t fair. He can get the whiny kid in the car, he can get the businessman, he can get the jock. He can pack the ladies neatly into the lineup and he can even make them laugh, but he won’t ever drive away. This is what she hates about horror. There’s a stupid pit full of snakes (and a handful of rednecks in there with them; Darryl’s group means it when they solve their problems), but there are no actual rules because the writing is bad. Good guys getting away? Oh, sorry, there are snakes in the trunk. How? Well because the author thought it would be a shocking twist.
She’s so upset she actually throws the book on the ground. She promises herself she’ll never read it again, because not only is it bad writing, it’s terrible writing. Pointless and boring and…why let Darryl get away only to kill him off-screen? To imply that he’ll never make it.
What an awful waste of her time. She kicks it as she stands and the book disappears into the gap between the bottom shelf and the floor, sliding with such ease on the linoleum that she actually hears it hit the back wall. Good riddance.
Kate doesn’t realize it, but it’s the first time she’s never read “The Snake Pit” through to the end. She goes to bed instead.
She doesn’t notice why that matters, at first.
Kate’s got a lot of things to do. Damien’s game starts in less than an hour, the dog needs to be walked, and Leesha just blackballed Ty from washing the dishes because “Go away Ty! You keep splashing me, stupid!” and “No I don’t YOU’RE STUPID.” Goodness knows she ought to go sort out that mess, but Kate’s just remembered that she left that ridiculous horror anthology on the floor and she should put it away while she’s thinking about it. Anyways, she’d like to see if they can sort it out themselves. She reaches under the bookshelf, slides out the book fully intending to put it back on the shelf, but instead starts to read “The Snake Pit” because she’s got to know.
Maybe it didn’t end badly. Maybe they escaped. Maybe Darryl got them out and they dealt with the car the same way they’ve dealt with everything else so far: with extreme prejudice. Maybe they all live another day.
She’s pretty sure they don’t.
But maybe, she thinks more hopefully, they do something different earlier in the story which changes the outcome. Mike will return to his five hundred girlfriends, Carol will get to enjoy her popularity back on campus, while Mr. Reed and Ms. Blanchette-Rime end up with each other, though she doubts that’ll work out. Kevin will get the chance to man-up and Darryl can meet his game changer.
Kate doesn’t realize how badly she’d been hoping the story had changed until she’s certain that it hasn’t. She reads each sentence imagining that it’s slightly different than before, but as the story drags on she knows it isn’t true. Her visual memory is too good, and the story too recent from her last read, so she knows that it’s the same. It’s like they’ve already done everything differently that they could, and this is the ultimate end result. Some rules you can’t change. So Kate reads with her pulse pounding in her wrist because she’s gotten to the part where they’re talking game changers and fathers, Darryl’s about to change gears, whiny teenager’s got his ear against the back seat, and then—
“Kate, we’re going to be late.”
Kate startled, but gathered herself quickly enough to start talking as she looked up. “You won’t believe it, but someone in this story actually has your name.”
“But does he have my good looks?” Darryl asked, and she met his grin with one of her own.
Darryl was not a handsome man. He had large teeth and small ears and a hairline that was going to disappear before he was fifty. But whenever he smiled he meant it all the way to his eyes. He was no Detective Gunner, but he would do.
She opened her mouth to tell him so when suddenly, inexplicably, Kate was certain that she had never seen this man before in her life.
Her smile must have faltered because Darryl’s expression changed to one of concern. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Kate looked at the book open in her hands, back up at him, then down again without reading it. All at once she couldn’t remember her life. She was Kate, underwriter at Sealy & Sealy Insurance, thirty-four in a single bedroom apartment, but she was also another Kate in another time, living in a noisy house off Green Street. She smoothed the pages, though they didn’t need smoothing, then looked up at Darryl, familiar and unfamiliar all at once. “Who are you?”
She immediately wished she hadn’t asked. She knew him; knew him down to her bones. He was smart and funny, a forty-six year old fireman who never lost his calm and not-so-secretly liked that she thought his job was heroic (it was). He’d grown up in Detroit, driven a route until he’d gotten his degree in fire science, then met her coincidentally a few weeks after she’d turned twenty – or was it on a trip to the woods in Kentucky, except…no, no of course it hadn’t been in Kentucky. Darryl had had a nightmare of a vacation there years before they’d met, but she’d never been there herself.
To her dismay Darryl didn’t cock his eyebrow, demand an explanation, or ask her what was wrong with her. He didn’t even remind her that the game was at six, and they needed to get moving. Instead, he looked down at the book in her hands and said, “Ah.”
Kate’s mouth went dry.
Darryl had very broad shoulders. He reached down into her lap, filling her vision with them, and plucked the anthology right from her limp hands. His arms bunched as he gripped a handful of the pages from where the book had been laying open, and began slowly pulling the meat of the story from its bindings.
They said nothing as “The Snake Pit” came out with a quiet ripping noise that left the bottom corner of each page still stuck to the book. Kate looked at the pages in his hand, nearly able to guess at the words peeking between his fingers, and finally asked him, “How does it end?”
“Extremely well,” he replied, in a terribly neutral voice. “How else?”
Kate swallowed, suddenly afraid that she could make out the word “hissing” right in the last sentence, and dropped her eyes while she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t just imagining it. “I hate horror.”
“I know,” he said.
“It’s awful,” she insisted.
“Usually,” he agreed.
She couldn’t look at him. “I want this life.”
“Good. Because it’s yours.”
“I know it can’t end well. You can feel the wind-up. Just…just terrible writing. It’s obvious.”
Silence, in which she studied the dark weave of her jeans. And then his voice, his dear, familiar voice: “I hate to break it to you, but you never read anything that ends badly.”
“But…” she started.
“Lady,” he cut in; Kate looked up with a small smile at his dry tone – she couldn’t help it, she loved it when he called her that – and he finally flashed her that grin. The one that belonged to her. “This is not that kind of story.”
So this is how it ends: the book goes in the trash, the kids go in the car, and tomorrow morning Kate dumps the coffee grounds on top of the pile before tying off the bag and putting it outside. It’s a Tuesday, which makes it garbage day. The only thing that tempts her to read the last few paragraphs – before it ends up on the curb – is her obsessive compulsive need for completeness.
But the garbage truck comes and goes and she doesn’t really mind. Because Darryl’s right:
Kate Orange just isn’t into horror.