“So here’s the thing about snakes,” said Mr. Rosen. “The average guy, when he thinks about a snake, he’s got a picture in his head – a long green stringy thing with fangs at one end. But a snake isn’t a species, it’s a name for thousands of species of pretty much any length and any level of lethality. The folks go in thinking they’re prepared, but they’re not, they can’t possibly be unless they’re psychic. See this little guy?”
He waved Natalie over to a tank, and she had to practically play a live action game of Where’s Waldo before she saw what he was pointing at.
“Is that – is that a snake? I thought it was a worm!”
“Nope, 100 percent genuine suborder serpentes right there. That’s a Barbados threadsnake, smallest snake in the world. I keep a ruler beside his tank just so I can prove it if anyone ever doubts me. He can’t hurt you, but if you want to defeat him, you gotta find him first. We bring this one out when the students are getting a little too impressed with themselves. I like to think he’s smarter than they are.”
Mr. Rosen may have been older than Natalie’s father, but he was surprisingly spry; before she’d even turned her head, he was over at another tank at the other end of the hall.
“Hey, kid!” he called. “You want to hold a snake?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I want to hold a snake!” Natalie dashed over to where Mr. Rosen was lifting out a beautiful beast ringed in red, black and yellow. She extended her arm and, after cautiously flicking its tongue in her direction, the snake slithered up from her wrist to her shoulder. Natalie tried not to jump for joy on this, the greatest day of her entire college career.
“This one’s a milk snake,” said Mr. Rosen. “He’s not poisonous, but he’s got the same colors as some other snakes that are. You can tell if you look close and see the exact color order of the rings, but most people just jump right at the sight of him. Tie themselves in knots trying not to get bit; meanwhile, this guy just looks up and sees a giant monkey flailing around, making a fool of himself. Like I’m telling you, there’s snakes and snakes.”
It was only her first day working the snake hall, and already it was the best campus job Natalie had ever had. Not only were snakes a huge improvement over cataloguing boxes of paper towels, but the pay was also better. The only real downside was having to sign a paper stating that she would not seek postgraduate education at this university – and with her impending student loans, she certainly wasn’t thinking about that anyway. She enjoyed being nuzzled by the milk snake as it wound itself around her arm, and it was with a certain degree of sorrow that she allowed Mr. Rosen to unwrap it and put it back in its tank.
“Do you have an anaconda?” Natalie asked, hardly daring to hope.
“Sure do! We bring her out when the papers are obviously padded too long. She can theoretically squeeze somebody to death and then eat them, but it hasn’t happened yet. You still want to be careful with her, but I can introduce you two later if you’re interested.”
“A thesis defense that can eat you gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘dark academia,’” Natalie tried to joke, but Mr. Rosen grew grim-faced.
“Don’t get me started on the dark academia people. Everyone’s a Donna Tartt character until they have to actually pick up a knife and stab something, then they start screaming like a baby.” He trudged over to a desk to pick up a clipboard with a little keychain dangling off it. It looked to be a figurine of Sir Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood .
“Now,” Mr. Rosen went on, “I’m not going to put you in charge of any of these guys until I’m sure you won’t hurt yourself. To start with, you’re mostly going to be doing paperwork, trying to find a good match for every case we get. It sounds like a big deal, but you’ll get the hang of it before too long. And you won’t be told whose thesis is being judged, just in case you might be biased.”
“Actually,” said Natalie, “about the students, I was wondering something – what about herpetology majors?”
Mr. Rosen nodded.
“It’s the same for them. They have a bit of an advantage in recognizing snakes, but they also have a disadvantage in that most of them don’t want to hurt a snake. Don’t you worry too much about the herp majors. I don’t think we’re ever going to have to get out the big guns for them.”
“Big guns?” Natalie examined a tank with a rattlesnake, much more warily than she had the milk snake. “You mean, black mambas and diamondbacks, snakes like that?”
“Nope.” Mr. Rosen tapped a finger on the wall, next to a piece of paper that had been taped up there. There was a phone number on it. “For the big guns, we have to call the guys at the University of Iceland. It’s never happened yet, but a lot of schools made these kinds of deals with them during the 80s. You’re too young to remember, but everybody was pretty damn scared back then.”
Natalie frowned, trying to see if there was anything obvious she was missing in this situation. It may have been inevitable on the first day of any job, but she didn’t want to look stupid in front of her boss.
“Um…” she said at last. “Can I ask what’s in Iceland?”
Natalie was silent and motionless for several seconds, waiting for Mr. Rosen to crack a smile. He didn’t.
“Anyway, kid, don’t worry about it.” Mr. Rosen’s face looked no more concerned than when he’d been handling the milk snake. “If it ever comes to that, I’ll be the one to make the call. It’s probably never going to happen, but the idea is that someday, someone who’s too smart and too stupid for their own good is going to come up with a thesis so dangerous to humanity it cannot be allowed to exist. It would probably be one of the STEM kids, but you can’t rule out a business or political science thesis either.”
He nodded at the tongue-tied Natalie.
“Like I said, there’s snakes and snakes. You might say Adam and Eve had the world’s first thesis defense, and it didn’t go so hot. Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves now.”
Natalie regained enough of her composure to deftly catch the piece of plastic he tossed her way.
“There’s your key card – it’ll get you into the hall when I’m not here. Now let’s get you a staff shirt.”