“Blackbeard,” Adam said.
Mr. Crowley snorted. “Set his beard on fire on at least three separate occasions.”
It was a game they had invented, trying to figure out which historical (or mythical) figures the godfathers had met. It was raining outside—even in Tadfield, it rained during the day sometimes— and the Them, along with Ms. Device, Mr. Pulsifer, and the godfathers, had gathered in Ms. Device’s sitting room.
Pepper was thinking of asking about Julie d’Aubigny, but was somewhat stymied by the fact that she had no idea how to pronounce it. It was French, who even knew what the vowels were doing. (Well, presumably the French did.)
Pepper was interested in feminist figures and hellraisers in roughly equal amounts. She'd also had a book called Reclaiming the Villified Women of Myth and Legend as bedtime reading, which was what you got when your mother taught sociology and women’s studies. So when the turn came around to her, she thought for a moment and then said, “Eve,” just to see what would happen.
The godfathers exchanged glances. “Insatiably curious,” Mr. Crowley said. “Poking her hand down holes, climbing trees, sticking pomegranate pips up her nose just to see what happened. The thing that baffles me is that one pomegranate pip almost makes sense, and two is confirming a hypothesis, but by the fifth one, the answer is pretty clearly, ‘If you stick a pomegranate pip up your nose, you’ll have a pomegranate pip up your nose.’ Aziraphale had to miracle them out again.”
“I didn’t realize you were there for that,” Mr. Aziraphale said.
“I spied on them for a while. First rule of temptations, right?”
“They sound like little kids, though,” Brian said, at the same time that Pepper said, “First rule of temptations?”
“They weren’t children,” Mr. Aziraphale said. “Just extraordinarily naive.” He gave Mr. Crowley a glance. “Shooting fish in a barrel, really, from your perspective.”
“The first rule of temptations,” Mr. Crowley said, “is, ‘always know what your victim wants.’ Eve wanted to know things. Really, it’s like sticking a tree of Knowing How To Work Things in front of Pulsifer, or a tree of Being Right All The Time in front of Pepper. Most of the job was done before I arrived.”
If Pepper hadn’t been sitting down, she would have put her hands on her hips in irritation. She did not either have to be right all the time. “You’re telling me that you told Eve to eat the apple.”
Mr. Crowley gave her a slightly unsettling smile.
“You, not the Serpent.”
“I am the Serpent,” Mr. Crowley said.
Wensley had said something about Mr. Crowley naming the Serpent’s Eye Nebula after himself, but Pepper had avoided the subject out of an unease that she was unwilling to examine too closely. “Does that mean that Serpent is just a title? That it doesn’t have anything to do with real snakes?”
Mr. Crowley changed.
It wasn’t like it was in the movies, where shapeshifting made gristly sounds. It happened silently. Mr. Crowley collapsed down in the chair, and instead, there was a snake. Black, with a red underside. Huge.
Pepper screamed. She didn’t mean to. The scream just ripped its way out. Without meaning to, she scrambled to her feet on the armchair, as if she was playing ‘the floor is lava’ for infinite stakes, and was about to jump towards the kitchen from the arm of the chair when the chair tilted under her, and she pitched forward and realized she was falling and grabbed onto the standing lamp, which didn’t stop her from falling at all, just meant that the standing lamp was falling with her, and the fact that she was about to hit the floor very hard with broken glass around her was absolutely insignificant next to the fact that there was a snake—
And then she was on her back. No impact. No crash. No interruption, no blank moment. Just an instantaneous jump between one moment and the next. Mr. Aziraphale was kneeling by her side. “Pepper.”
Pepper scrambled backwards, crab-style, making a sound in her throat.
“Pepper. It’s all right.”
The words didn’t register. What registered—when she was halfway to the kitchen—was seeing Mr. Crowley standing, in his regular shape, in the middle of the room.
He had long hair now, as if he had forgotten what length his hair was supposed to be. But he was still definitely him. Not a snake.
Pepper stopped, staring at him. It took a moment before she could say anything. The Them were out of their seats, gathering around her, and Ms. Device was offering to help Pepper up, but she didn’t register any of that. “You’re.” She swallowed. “You’re back.”
“Never went away,” Mr. Crowley said.
“I didn’t know you were scared of snakes,” Brian said, looking rather as if she had revealed that she was actually a llama in disguise. “I didn’t know you were scared of anything. Except maybe Adam gone all wrong.”
“One in three people is an ophidiophobe,” Mr. Crowley said, a little distantly. “In a group this size there was bound to be one. I would have put money on Pulsifer.”
“No, just—startling,” Mr. Pulsifer said.
Belatedly, Pepper realized how her body felt. Heart, slamming into chest. Stomach knotted. Muscles shaky. She felt a bit sick.
“It’s all right,” Mr. Aziraphale assured her, looking worried. “Crowley-as-Serpent has fully the same amount of intelligence as Crowley when he looks human. There are no extra instincts, or prey drives, or anything of that sort—”
“She hadn’t even thought of that,” Mr. Crowley chided him.
“Well, but surely—”
“Fear of snakes isn’t about being eaten, angel. It’s about me. My own bespoke phobia, going back to Eden.”
“Yes,” Wensley said, “but since when is Pepper afraid of things?”
Pepper felt even more sick. “I should go home,” she said, standing up.
“Don’t bother,” Mr. Crowley told her. “I’m leaving for the day.”
“No, I’m going home.” He was between her and the front door, so she turned to go to the back one.
“I’ll walk you there,” Mr. Aziraphale offered, and the solicitous tone made Pepper want to throw up.
“No! Leave me alone! All of you!”
The next day was bright, and clear, and warm. Pepper didn’t join the Them after school. She went home, full of grim purpose, and outfitted herself in wellies and gardening gloves. Then she found a stick and went out to the creek.
She stepped carefully into the stream, making sure the water wasn’t deep enough to splash her trousers. Mud sucked at her wellies with every step. She was aware they were slightly too big, and had to be careful not to step out of them.
She turned over a rock, very careful, ready to jump back.
“You won’t find any snakes that way,” Mr. Crowley said, from up on the bank.
Pepper jumped and nearly fell, splashing herself. To her twisting shame, she realized her heart was beating faster. “Who says I’m looking for snakes?”
He gave her a heavily ironic look.
“I might not be, you know.” She wanted her voice to come out strong and somewhat annoyed. Instead, it sounded high-pitched to her. “I might be looking for frogs. Or turtles. Or interesting bugs.”
More of the look.
“And anyway, it’s none of your business.” Pepper made herself turn away from him, struggling to ignore the feeling that she was turning her back on danger, and parted the reeds with her stick. A dragonfly darted away from her.
She tried not to feel like she was winning at Russian roulette. The point wasn’t to avoid snakes. The point was to find one. She reached down to grab a stone, and then stopped.
“Just so you know,” Pepper said, “magicking up—something—right underneath this rock wouldn’t be funny at all. Or cool. Or clever.”
“Would I do that?”
“I didn’t say you would. I just said it wouldn’t be funny.” Pepper took a deep breath and turned over the rock. It was heavier than she thought it would be, and she grunted with effort. When she got it to its tipping point, she stepped back hastily and let it fall. It splashed mud and water up to her knees.
“Of course,” Mr. Crowley said thoughtfully, “if you really did want to find a snake, you would ask someone who knows about them. Bit funny, not doing that. Almost as if you didn’t want to see one at all.”
“Who says I don’t want to—”
He smirked at her.
“All right. I’m looking for—for grass snakes, small grass snakes, the kind with yellow behind where their ears ought to be, and I can find one myself so don’t change into one.”
Mr. Crowley’s smile faded. “You don’t have to.”
“I looked it up,” Pepper said. “On the internet. How to get rid of—” She looked away.
“I know what it’s called,” Pepper snapped. “Anyway, the internet says that part of getting rid of it is exposure therapy.”
“And naturally, you jumped straight to that bit so you could fix it faster. Why bother?”
“What do you mean, why bother?”
“How often will you have to deal with snakes, anyway? Just leave it be. That’s what most people do.”
“I am not going to go on being—weird about this,” Pepper told him.
Mr. Crowley was silent for a moment, making a slight odd swaying motion that put Pepper’s back hairs up. “You realize,” he said meditatively, “that when you decide you can solve this all in one go, by turning over a rock, you’re being just a bit disrespectful to people with mental illnesses.”
“A disabled minority.”
Pepper opened her mouth to say, I, and then realized she didn’t know what came after that.
“Not very social justice of you.”
“All right, all right, I get it!” Pepper took a deep breath. “What do you think I should do?”
“Call an actual psychologist?”
Pepper snorted. “Not a chance. I’d have to tell them why.”
“Then give me your email address.”
“What good will that do?”
“Snake documentaries,” Mr. Crowley said. “I’ll find you snake documentaries. Watch them on a screen first, then deal with the real thing. You can email me with questions, even.”
Pepper felt something unclench in her stomach. She was ashamed of it. This wasn’t a reprieve, because she wasn’t sentenced to anything bad. She wanted to do this.
Reprieve or not, she was still going to take it.
1Crowley was aware that this argument could be easily pulled apart if someone stepped back and thought about it, but he knew that people rarely step back and think about it. Which was a factor in one of his more devastating modern inventions, the Youtube comment section. [ return to text ]