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Sylvie always knew she didn't have very long to live. The average lifespan of the typical pet mouse was, after all, approximately three years. A few reached the age of five, like Sylvie's sweet Grandpa Jules, but she knew he was the lucky exception...
She also knew that some greater being had apparently had a bad day during her creation. As if her painfully shy personality wasn’t enough, it had decided to give her the tendency to stutter and ramble (internally, of course) when something bad happened. She’d also been given an extremely jumpy tail, one that had accidentally slapped Sammy in the face when he’d tried to talk to her. She’d positively burned with mortification. How was she supposed to get his attention after that fiasco?
Sylvie became acutely aware that she was rambling internally, and that she had a bigger problem to face.
A potentially life-threatening problem.
The grip on her tail was released, and she dropped into the glass cage. A second later, Kia, dangling by her tail, was also dropped into the cage. The latch was closed with an ominous click.
A life-threatening problem, then.
"Sylvie," Kia said, "what's going on?"
Sylvie felt like fainting. She knew what was going on—she had seen It, but she'd never thought it would be her and her sister who were thrown in to face It—
A pile of dead leaves in the middle of the cage moved. It raised Its head, and Its black beady eyes stared at the two mice huddled together in a corner.
"Snake?" Kia whispered.
"S-snake," Sylvie whimpered in confirmation.
“Snake!” Kia was shrieking, scrabbling futilely against the glass cage. “Syl—Sylvie, it’s a snake, what do we do what do we do whatdowedo!”
"Shh, Kia, we’re going to be f-fine, we’re going to be fine—“
Kia burrowed under Sylvie in terror, muffled squeaks escaping from her mouth. Sylvie simply pressed herself against Kia, trembling furiously while her little heart tried to escape her chest. There was no longer any need for words, for they both knew better than to swallow Sylvie’s lies.
The leaves rustled. The snake slithered leisurely towards them, stopping a few mouse-lengths before Sylvie.
Sylvie shoved Kia behind her and started backing up, only to go cold when her tail felt the glass behind her.
The snake flicked its tail. "I think..." it said lazily, "I think I'll have you first."
One second Kia was behind Sylvie, the next she wasn't.
"K-Kia!" Sylvie skittered forward frantically, not knowing what to do besides scream out her sister's name. "Kia! Kia—"
The snake imperceptibly tightened its hold on Kia. The message was clear. Sylvie stilled.
"Sylvie," Kia gasped.
"L-let her go, please," Sylvie squeaked. "Take me, you can t-take me first, please!"
"I don't believe I will," the snake said. "She looks tastier."
Not for the first time, Sylvie cursed her plain, dull gray fur. Kia's was a light, creamy brown color that was more pleasing to the eyes—a color that endeared her to the Humans, but proved to be her undoing now.
"B-but," Sylvie cried.
The snake squeezed harder at Kia, trapped within its coils. A rush of air escaped from Kia's mouth and her tail thumped feebly against the ground.
"Stop it! Stop! Kia!”
The snake hissed irritably and made to go towards Sylvie. She forced herself to continue, so that maybe the snake go for her and let Kia go instead—
It was before her in an instant.
"What, exactly," the snake flicked its tongue out at Sylvie, "do you hope to achieve? It doesn't matter. I'll eat you both."
Oh, Sylvie knew that. But she was also aware that as the snake cornered her, Kia's beautiful creamy fur was paling and her thrashing movements were growing weaker. Sylvie looked down at her claws, or lack thereof, and knew fighting the snake was out of the question, but she could not sit there and just do nothing...
"Please," Sylvie begged. "Please..."
It turned away. "You might want to close your eyes."
She did not. Sylvie had failed in protecting her sister, so she would make herself watch as Kia’s movements slowed and she wheezed for breath.
"I'm s-sorry," she sobbed. "I'm sorry, Kia!"
The snake squeezed, and Kia twitched no more. Then it fixed Sylvie with a stare. "Look away now," it said, as it opened its mouth.
Sobbing, hating herself, Sylvie did.
She did not know how long she curled up in her corner, in a motionless daze. It could have been hours or it could have been days... and then she became aware that she was still alive.
Why was she still alive?
"We do need time to digest. Are you aware that you are talking out loud?"
Sylvie couldn't find it in herself to be embarrassed as she normally would be. Instead, a deep-rooted seed of something unfamiliar rose in her chest, hammering and threatening to burst out.
"You have something to say."
She looked at the snake, coiled up all prettily without a care in the world, when it had just eaten her sister. Her sister, who was dead because Sylvie had failed—
The snake's eyes were calm and emotionless, as if it hadn't just killed her sister, and that was what riled her up.
Gone, at least for the moment, was the shy Sylvie. The anger stirred in her chest, unfamiliar but so good, and she took it and fueled her words with it, moulded them into the sharp claws she didn't have.
"You killed my sister," she spat. "My sister. And now you sit there and—and talk to me. Like you haven't done anything wrong. You enjoyed it too, didn't you? You're a monster. You're a monster and I hate you!"
The snake flicked its tongue out at her, and this time she didn't skitter back nervously. "You didn't stutter." It seemed... amused?
"W-what?" Sylvie said, momentarily thrown off-balance.
"Ah," the snake said, "there it is again."
Sylvie's mouth flopped open. "You apologize? That's it? You apologize?”
"You misunderstand. I do not apologize for eating your sister, but for causing you grief."
"If you'll let me finish," the snake said pointedly. "Snakes eat mice. I am simply doing what my nature dictates. I cannot stop eating mice, just as you cannot start eating snakes."
Sylvie shivered, hating herself for agreeing. But her sister’s death was fresh, and she tried to come up with a retort.
"I-I... I don't c-care. Y-you killed her. You killed her..."
The snake seemed to sigh, a tiny wisp of sound escaping from its mouth as its tongue flickered. "I know you don't. You think of me as a murderer... but what do you eat every day?”
"Th-that's different," Sylvie wanted to say, but she really couldn't see much of a difference at all.
"It's all a matter of perspective," the snake said, then appeared to fall asleep.
Kia’s death still hung over her like a cloud, but Sylvie deduced that her staying alive had apparently been of great importance to the Humans. Probably surprised at the fact that the snake hadn't eaten her. How long did it take for snakes to... digest (her sister), anyway?
"Approximately two weeks. You are talking out loud again."
In two weeks, she would be with her sister.
"I do not understand why you would offer yourself to me to save your sister."
Sylvie was flabbergasted. "Because she is my sister. I love her."
There was a beat of silence, then the snake said, "Tell me about it."
"About this... sibling bond. Tell me."
"Ah..." Sylvie said. "W-we..."
"Well? Speak up. Or do you not care for her after all, because you cannot describe it?"
"No!" Sylvie burst out. "I love her! I do! Because she’s family!"
The snake was silent for a while. "I have realized," he said, "that you lose your stutter when you feel strongly about something."
Sylvie predictably stuttered.
"So she is your family. And?"
"It is the only reason you acted that way? The only reason you love your sister? Because she is family?"
"Um..." Sylvie was speechless. "It... um... a family... loves each other."
It was inadequate, yet was strangely all she wanted to say.
"Don't you have a family?"
The snake cocked his head to the side thoughtfully. "No," he said at last.
"I will tell you if you do not stutter."
"Um," she said. “I’ll t-try.”
The snake flicked his tongue out. "Good enough, I suppose. Now, snake mothers generally do not take care of their young. After the eggs are laid, she leaves, and we fend for ourselves."
Sylvie was horrified. "H-how did you get here?"
"I suppose the Humans thought I was reasonably attractive." The snake shrugged, a slow movement that raised his head and ended with a rippling movement of his tail. The sunlight glinted off his white and yellow scales.
Sylvie snorted slightly.
"What?" The snake said.
"You are," she said, giggling hysterically, "a pretty snake."
The snake looked offended. Sylvie carried on giggling.
"If you are quite finished," he said. "I would like to take a nap."
"W-wait," Sylvie said, sobering up quickly. "W-what's your n-name? U-um, so I don't call you Snake all the time."
"The Humans call me... Pretzel," the snake said, looking as disgusted as a snake possibly could. “I will absolutely devour you if you do so as well. You may call me Elias.”
"I-I'm Sylvie. Oh, but you already know..."
It suddenly occurred to Sylvie that she had started thinking of the snake as a he instead of an it, and she could not remember when the situation had changed.
Sylvie nibbled at the slice of apple the Human had left for her. It was almost two weeks since she had been stuck inside the cage with the sna—Elias.
The burning rage against the snake was absent, and she hated herself a little for it.
Maybe it was in her nature not to be angry for too long. Maybe it was the fact that she was... really not that different from the snake after all...
"The humans find us interesting," the sn—Elias remarked casually. "But they won't find us interesting for long."
"Why?" Sylvie asked, an inexplicable feeling of dread creeping up on her.
"Because nature will take its course."
Sylvie squealed and leapt away. Why did she let her guard down? She should have known—but for what, really? Sooner or later she’d tire, and he'd get her—
She made another leap, barely missing the lunging snake.
—but she'd see Kia again.
The thought froze her, and the snake pinned her against the ground.
"How disappointing," he said. "You give up so easily."
Sylvie struggled half-heartedly, the primal instinct to stay alive overruled by the need to see her sister again.
"You’re pathetic. You’ll never end up in the same place as your sister."
And suddenly Sylvie knew.
"I-I am not pathetic!" Sylvie cried.
“Prove it,” the snake hissed.
"I-I wanted to save my sister! I was willing to die for her!” Sylvie scratched against the scales pinning her with renewed fervor. “I know love, and I know sacrifice! You are the coward!"
Taking a deep breath, she opened her mouth as wide as it would go and bit down.
Startled more than injured, the snake released its hold on her. Sylvie bunched up her muscles and jumped the biggest jump of her life. She aimed for the hole at the top of the cage, the hole she had been dropped through—
—and smashed into the transparent glass.
Dazed, she scrambled to her feet, sensing the snake slither towards her.
"Much better," he said.
Her brain understood the words a few seconds later. "What?"
The snake looked amused. "You do have a little bit of fire in you."
"Th-that wasn't funny!" She cried, feeling herself start to hyperventilate.
"No," the snake said, "but it did tell me what to do."
Reaching up high with his tail, the snake fiddled with the latch. A few moments later, the glass door swung open, swaying back and forth as if to mock Sylvie for crashing into it earlier.
The snake looked at her expectantly. "Well? The door is open."
Sylvie wasn't sure she heard him correctly. "W-what?"
"I said, the door is open."
"You—" she spluttered, "you're letting me go?"
A languid swish of the tail. "Yes."
The snake looked annoyed for a brief moment. "I could provide you with a reasonable, logical explanation... however, the truth is that I don't know."
Sylvie realized, then, that he was fueled by the same involuntary impulse she’d felt before. It was the same impulse that fueled a family when it wants to protect its loved ones...
She glanced up at the open door above her, enticing her towards freedom.
And then she remembered.
"Kia," she said.
"Ah," the snake murmured. "And so we come to the question."
Sylvie dimly felt herself slump down. Did she want to go on—did she even deserve to go on? She'd failed Kia, after all.
She didn't deserve it.
"Or you may stay," the snake said. "And end it." His voice was quiet, without malice.
She felt heavy, weighed down by an invisible anchor. She should end it. She should stay and let Elias eat her—in some ways it would be a blessing... it would be so easy.
But wasn't the easy way the coward's way out?
She could not do it.
But Kia, the stuttering voice inside of her said. Don’t you want to see Kia?
Yes, Sylvie thought. I do. And I will. But not now.
She could not die now to be reunited with Kia, any more than she could hate Elias for being Elias. The knowledge jarred her, just as she realized something else—
She wasn’t a coward. Not anymore.
The snake evidently saw the spark in her eyes, for he looked satisfied and lowered his head back down to rest on his coiled body.
"But it’s so high...” Sylvie felt her resolve wavering.
The snake hissed, baring its fangs and lunging.
Squealing, Sylvie jumped, soared, and found herself outside the cage.
Elias flicked his tongue out and fluttered it in what Sylvie realized was the snake version of a smirk.
"D-don't do th-that again," she gasped.
"Apparently I cannot," the snake said. "You are out there, after all."
So she was. There was so much weighing down her mouth, but she didn’t know what was appropriate for the situation.
"Go now," the snake said, "before they find you."
Sylvie thought she should say something, anything, and her little brain scrambled before settling on an answer.
"Goodbye," she blurted, and it was all she could say and all she wanted to say at the same time.
Then she turned and scampered away.
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"Do what I do. Hold tight and pretend it's a plan!"
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Remember... that each child is a separate person. Yours forever, but never fully yours. She can never be all you wished or wanted or all you know she could be. But she will be a better human being if you can let her be herself. ~Stella Chess