The snakeskin is huge, as snakeskins go. It is at least four feet long. The students see the pattern of scales running across its back. They see its slow taper into the tail. There is a tattered opening where the head should be, but other than that it is in one exquisite piece. Both fluid and stiff, it waves a bit when Mr. Adleman gestures. It flops around beneath his hand as he says, "...not funny" and "...consequences of this behavior." He vows to find the students responsible for bringing the snakeskin into his school and punish them severely.
The thing is, though, a month goes by and nothing has been found out. No one claims responsibility. Mr. Adleman becomes increasingly frustrated. He calls another assembly in which he encourages students to do their own detective work. He says, "I know you all probably already know who did this. Your silence isn't helping anyone." The students look around at each other. Mr. Adleman offers a pair of free prom tickets to any student who comes forward with information about the snakeskin.
Another month goes by and no information has come to light. There are meetings with Mr. Adleman, six students at a time, in which the students swear they haven't heard anyone take credit for the snakeskin being in their school. Mr. Adleman threatens to cancel the prom if no one speaks up, but no one does. The students begin to walk around nervously. The weather is turning warmer, but the girls forgo their strappy footwear in favor of closed sneakers. Female teachers switch to pants. Everyone wears socks, even the art teacher who sports a thick woolen pair under her Birkenstocks. "If you think about it," the students say, "that can't even be the size of the snake now. He was too big for that skin."
In April, teachers find four more skins. They are smaller, but the scale patterns indicate that this is the same kind of snake. Mr. Adleman stops calling assemblies. He cancels interrogations. Students pile their schoolbooks under the legs of their desks to raise them off the ground. They stalk through the hallways with their eyes glued to the tile floor. The girls stick their feet straight out in front of them when they use the bathroom. Many students claim to have seen a snake, but the descriptions are varied and largely discredited by the student body. Still, parents begin writing notes to accompany their children's dress code violations: "Due to the snakes, please allow Jeremy to wear his steel-toed boots during gym class."
Senior prom is held in the big gym, which is transformed by balloons and colored lights. The students walk through a curtain of metallic streamers. Many of the girls shiver as the streamers rub their bare shoulders. The boys on the soccer team wear their shin guards over their tuxedos. The girls wear tennis shoes and leggings under their formal dresses. In the real couples, the ones whose romance will last well into June, the boys carry the girls in front of them like infants. But still, no one is relaxed. No one is having fun. Several students request the lights be turned up. In the end, they all climb up onto the bleachers and watch the floor. Periodically, someone jumps up and points to the painted foul line or rounded three-point line in fear. Then everyone laughs nervously.
At the end of the night, the students ask Mr. Adleman to take down the streamers. He climbs onto a chair and peels the tape from above the doorframe. The students file out silently. Long after they are gone, Mr. Adleman stays on the chair in the dark gym watching the floor.
Aubrey Hirsch is a writer and teacher of writing in Pittsburgh,
PA. Her work has appeared in The Summerset Review, The Minnetonka
Review, Annalemma and others. Her recent honors include being chosen
as a finalist in Glimmer Train's spring Fiction Open and a nomination
for the upcoming Pushcart Prize. Aubrey currently teaches creative
writing in the MFA program at Chatham University and at Pittsburgh
CAPA, a creative and performing arts magnet school.