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The Ecologist
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by Doc Markham

The old man and the boy had a hand in the changes, so no new surprises awaited them when they looked over the half-curtain behind the display window. The rows of secondhand books that usually stood facing River Drive, Cedar Grove's two blocks of main street, were gone. What they saw now were two pie tins filled with water, an overturned fruit crate, and the snakes—living dark tubes decorated with bright yellow, green, and orange stripes. 

      Humming happily, though tunelessly, the old man trained his watery eyes on the uneven opening he had cut in one side of the box. "Should be coming out soon," he told the boy, tapping his cane against the dry wood around the hole. "Yessir, Tom, any minute now."

      "I . . . I guess so, Mr. Stanley," said the boy, his voice cracking.

 "What's the matter, Tom?" He tapped the box again, then rested the cane between his worn oxfords. "Not getting squeamish about Mother Nature, are you?" 

      "Gosh, no," the boy answered quickly. "It's just that I . . . well, I was thinking that maybe we should stop now. It doesn't seem right anymore. You know, not natural—" 

      "Why, Tom Ricken, I'm surprised at you. This here's one of the most righteous things we might ever do. You know that." The boy's head barely nodded, and Mr. Stanley patted it. "Now, what could be more natural than working right in hand with good ol' Mother Nature herself? And just think what you've learned . . ." 

      Tom was only half listening. He was thinking about the animal in the box, wondering how it would finally fit into all this, and hoping that Mr. Stanley would let him take it back to its home by the river. If not—

      He caught the snakes' movement from the corner of his eye. They'd been quiet most of the day, content to lie in small living knots near the glass, their bellies fat with their recent live feast. Now they were quickly unraveling those knots and twisting their bodies into inverted S's. They seemed charged with a frantic energy, and in the last true light of sunset, their stripes brightened until they resembled rainbowed lightning streaks. He knew somehow that there'd be sparks and the smell of roasted flesh if he dare touch them now. 

      "See that!" cried the old man. "They've got the scent, all right." 

      Raising their flat heads, the snakes released their forked tongues and tasted the air. Then they began sliding toward the box, seemingly eager to meet a natural enemy. And that, Tom knew, was not natural. 

      But then, Tom reminded himself, what had been happening in Mr. Stanley's window hadn't been exactly natural almost from the time it began that early evening two days before.

      That Wednesday had been warm and unusually dry for a Tennessee August, and Tom had spent an easy afternoon bottom-fishing the river until he had to report to the Amphora Bookshop. He worked there part-time on Wednesday and Friday evenings, with Saturday being his one full day. It was his first real job—he didn't count mowing lawns or delivering the town's weekly Observer on Thursdays—and he liked sorting and stacking the books for the old man. He had grown to love them, the books, and Mr. Stanley, too.