The Specimen Room
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the snake in the jar move. Ali’s head snapped up. She looked at the large container, which was faintly labeled as Pituophis melanoleucus. The faded gopher snake hung motionless in its ethanol filled tomb. Rubbing her eyes, Ali thought, That’s it, I’m losing it. Too little sleep. She pulled her hands through her unruly auburn hair, stretched, and looked around the room. Shelves surrounded Ali, filled with animal specimens.
Ali couldn’t wait for this semester to be over. Between working on her thesis and doing Dr. Bingham’s bidding she was overtaxed and extremely tired. On top of that, she and her boyfriend had split. Moving out of their shared apartment had been just another hideous part of this semester. The one thing Ali had to look forward to was an upcoming camping trip with some fellow biology students. It was nice to have something to look forward to.
The gopher snake, suspended in its jar, was one of many reptiles and amphibians similarly floating in their containers. Most of the herpetological specimens sat on shelves to Ali’s left. The rest sat haphazardly on a low counter than ran beneath the windows in the musty specimen room.
Behind Ali were shelves full of taxidermied mammals. These were arranged by size on shelves from top to bottom. Squirrels, wood rats, weasels, and many other different species of smaller mammals adorned the upper shelves, posed in garish parodies of real life. The lower shelves held the larger specimens. Crowded together were raccoons, opossums, foxes, and other various mammals of a similar size. The largest mammal in the collection, a mountain lion, stood on the floor. To Ali’s right there was a veritable flock of birds. They perched in all manner of supposed life-like poses, dead eyes staring. All of the specimens had one thing in common. They were old.
This collection had been put together over the years starting when the University had just started its biological studies program. Most of the specimens were dull and dusty, and all of their labels were faded, some to the point where you couldn’t read them anymore. That was what brought Ali to this room. Professor Bingham, Ali’s graduate studies professor, wanted her to rewrite the specimen labels with the scientific names, common names, and collection dates of all the species in the room.
Ali sighed and rubbed her temples. When she had applied to have Bingham as her professor Ali knew he was a taskmaster. She had heard the stories. However, hearing the stories and actually experiencing the man were two different things. Even though finals were looming and she was in the middle of research for her thesis, he had set her on this rather unimportant, yet time consuming, task. She was getting little sleep and studying every waking moment. No wonder that poor girl threw herself off the roof. She was remembering the student of Bingham’s who had committed suicide about two years prior. She promptly put that out of her mind. What an awful thought! Admonishing herself she refocused.
She bent back over her work, attaching a new label to the base of an American robin. The robin was another specimen in a pose of real life action. The bird stood with his head cocked towards the table, as if listening for that juicy worm. Suddenly, there was a rustling behind her. She turned around quickly. I didn’t hear the door open. Nobody was standing there. She laughed weakly, Definitely losing it, she thought. She looked back down at the robin. It was standing up straight looking back at her, directly in the eye. Ali pushed her chair back, making a loud grating noise in the silence. The bird had moved, she was sure. It hadn’t been posed like that before she had turned.
Then, once again, out of the corner of her eye she saw the snake move. This time when her head snapped towards the reptile it wasn’t motionless. The snake writhed in its container. It was looking directly at her. Bubbles rose in the viscous liquid and the snake’s coiled body undulated. Then came that rustling sound from behind her. She turned and saw one of the raccoons wiping its face with both of its little paws. The masked mammal then turned its attention to her. Ali watched, mesmerized, as it took a step forward. Suddenly, she felt a stabbing pain in her hand. She hadn’t realized she’d put it back on the table. The robin was pecking at her hand with vehement concentration. She snapped her hand back with a cry and stood up.
Noises and movement were suddenly all around her. In their jars the snakes, frogs, and lizards were thrashing in their eternal soup. Behind her the mammals growled and squeaked. They slowly, stiffly started moving. Then overwhelming the rest of the noise, the birds started calling. A cacophony rose about her. The mammals were moving forward. The birds fluttered and called. Jars rattled on the shelves as scaled, trapped animals struggled for freedom.
To get to the door Ali had to go between the bird and mammal section. As she turned toward her escape, the robin flew from behind her and landed on the top of her head. Immediately it started pecking towards Ali’s left eye. Ali screamed and threw the thing to the floor. Then she ran. She headed for the door past the shelves. A red-tailed hawk flew from its shelf and, talons extended, came for her. Ali saw it coming and quickly looked around. A large textbook lay on the table next to her. She grabbed the book and lobbed it at the hawk. The book slammed into the hawk and both book and hawk fell behind the table. The noise of all the animals was deafening.
Panting, Ali went for the only exit again. To her right she saw the mountain lion advancing, but it moved slowly, stiffly. Not feeling her legs, she rushed to the door. As she threw open the door, she heard the crash of glass behind her. She slammed the door shut. Shaking, she ran down the hall to her Professor’s office.
Ali burst into Professor Bingham’s office. The old-school professor looked up and said mildly, “As you know, Miss Collins, I prefer a polite knock before entering my office.” Mozart’s Lacrimosa was playing in the background and the smell of black tea was in the air. The Professor looked slightly annoyed at the interruption. The normalcy of his office and his demeanor made the specimen room seem unreal and far away.
Still panting slightly, Ali said, “It’s the specimen room Professor, it’s…the animals…” She didn’t finish her sentence because she didn’t know what to say. The impossibility of what had just occurred was sinking in. What was she supposed to tell the Professor? He would think she was crazy.
“It’s what with the animals, Miss Collins?” He waited. “Well?” He said when she just stood slack-jawed.
Ali stuttered, “It’s the specimens sir. You have to see!” She said. It was all she could think of. She couldn’t think of any way to explain what was happening. The whole thing was too unreal.
“Let’s go take a look at it then.” He set off out the door three steps ahead of her. Ali often had to work to keep up with Bingham as he walked down the hallway. Normally it irritated her. Today, though, she was glad to hang behind. When they reached the specimen room, Bingham reached for the door. Ali’s palms started sweating and she wanted to warn him before he opened it, but she didn’t. How could she say, “Watch out! All the dead animals are alive!” So she said nothing.
Bingham yanked on the door and walked in, Ali slowly followed. All was quiet. There was no noise. There was no movement. There was a smell though. The pungent, overwhelming odor of ethanol filled her nostrils. Bingham strode in and said, “Oh, you knocked one over, I see.”
Ali followed behind and saw the mess. The gopher snake was lying limply on the floor in a puddle of broken glass and ethanol. “Well, that’s easily fixed,” he said. “There are plenty of jars and ethanol in the supply room. You know where they are. I don’t know why you needed me here.” He didn’t look pleased.
Ali thought, What the hell? I imagined the whole thing? Then she looked down at her hand a saw a red dot of blood where the robin had pecked her. Bingham saw here looking and looked himself. “Ah, got a little cut in the process, I see. Make sure to really disinfect that and wear a mask while you re-pickle the snake.” He laughed as he walked out, finding his reference to pickling funny.
Ali stood in the silent room. She looked behind the desk, where the book she had thrown lay open on the floor. She looked up, where the red-tailed hawk stood in its fierce pose as it always had. She looked down, where the robin lay, knocked onto it’s side, in it’s normal head-cocked posture. She looked behind her where the mountain lion stood. The lion was right there in its normal position. The only signs of disturbance in the room were the book and the snake, both, lying on the floor. Ali ran her hands through her hair, several times.
Get yourself together girl, Ali thought to herself. She left the specimen room and went down the hall to the supply room. As she gathered what she needed, Ali’s nerves slowly settled. She reasoned that perhaps she had fallen asleep and had a dream. It was possible she had even sleepwalked and knocked over the snake. There had been a couple of episodes of sleepwalking when she was a kid. Yes, that must have been it. Just a weird event brought on by the stress of school and her exhausted mind.
On her way back to the specimen room, Ali ran into a friend. They talked for a few minutes, made fun of Bingham, discussed the upcoming camping trip. By the time she was back to the specimen room Ali was feeling back to normal. She thanked her stars that she hadn’t blurted out something embarrassingly stupid in front of Bingham. He might be irritated with her for interrupting him, but at least she didn’t sound like a complete nut job. Wearing her mask and gloves, she carefully put the very slippery snake into its new jar and covered it with ethanol. Nothing in the room moved but Ali. Then Ali cleaned up the mess on the floor. Finished, the room looked normal, even if it didn’t smell quite normal.
With the windows open, Ali sat once again at the table. She had finished with the robin and moved on to a mourning dove. Suddenly there was movement in the window. Ali looked up and saw a bird sitting on the windowsill. It was a robin. Ali thought, Don’t fly in here little bird, and then her blood ran cold. She saw the tag hanging from the bird’s leg. It was the robin from the collection. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the snake move.
Once again she heard rustling behind her. When she turned this time, the movements of the animals were much more animated. They no longer had the stiffness that she had seen before. The birds started up their calls, flapping and fluttering. The mountain lion started towards Ali, slowly, head down. Ali backed up, nearing the windows, her eyes darting toward the exit. The lion was between her and the door. Then the tawny beast leapt toward her. Ali cried out as she bumped her ass end on the counter and then the lion hit her full in the chest with its two huge front paws. Ali sailed out of the fourth story window with a scream.
Professor Bingham thought the scream of his beautiful student, Ali, sounded lovely over the strains of Mozart’s Agnus Dei. He smiled contentedly and sipped his tea. Using the smallest key on his initialized fob, the professor unlocked the lower drawer on his desk. He carefully pulled out a well-worn leather three ring binder. The binder was full of newspaper articles, all carefully placed in plastic sleeves.
He opened the binder and gazed at the newspaper article on the top. The headline read, “Student Commits Suicide at Minton University.” The article related the details of a female student who had thrown herself from the roof of the science building after a fight with her boyfriend. That student had been cleaning the dust off a bunch of old biological specimens in the open air. The crime scene picture showed the roof of the building cordoned off with police tape. Several taxidermied animals sat on the roof. The mountain lion was front and center. Professor Bingham smiled and added an empty plastic sleeve to the binder.