Terence Waldrip, like most sentient beings except snakes themselves, was born with an instinctual fear of those narrow reptiles, but it was by no means his only fear. He was afraid of being late for work. He was afraid of heart disease and open elevator shafts. He was afraid of diabetes and Ebola. He was afraid of love and he was afraid of not being loved. His life was as narrow as a snake’s path, walled on either side and defined by fear. He maneuvered surprisingly well within the limited space allowed by his timidity; he was comfortable there. He had learned early on not to let his ambitions grow too large for their constraints.
Then Evan moved in next door and Terence was no longer comfortable. He began harboring “what-ifs”: What if he invited Evan over for dinner? What if he accepted Evan’s invitation to join him at the pool? What if, instead of letting his gaze slither away when he passed Evan in the hall, Terence returned the younger man’s smile and engaged him in conversation?
From the safety of his second-floor apartment, Terence sometimes watched Evan at the pool. He envied the sinewy confidence of the young man’s muscles, the total lack of hesitation when diving from the undulating surface of the spring board. Evan would leap into the air and hang there in defiance of gravity (Terence felt his heart stop during those endless seconds/minutes/hours), his long form parallel to the water. Then, at an angle so oblique that it was barely discernable, Evan’s hands would slice the water and he’d submarine into the depths.
Terence went online and ordered a pair of swimming trunks. When they arrived, he breathlessly stashed them in the bureau under his neatly folded tee shirts. For the first time in his life he owned swimming trunks and they weren’t black or dark blue, but a vivid look-at-me green. He was in awe of his own daring.
California summers are long and the summer of the hidden swimming trunks seemed particularly so. Terence graduated from watching Evan through the blinds to sometimes sitting on his balcony in prescription sunglasses. He couldn’t see distances well through the corrective lenses, but he didn’t mind. The important thing was that no one could see his eyes. To the smooth gold bodies at the pool it might appear that Terence was staring at the palm trees across the street, or reading the pool rules sign on the fence, or perhaps dozing in the summer warmth. Sometimes Terence held an open magazine. No one need know or even suspect the real object of his watchfulness.
One day he sat on his balcony long enough to sunburn the top of his feet. Perched on the edge of his bed that night, Terence stared down at the bright red half-moons, studying them for signs of melanoma. He could already feel the disease metastasizing a savage path up his legs and he visualized the oozing lumps that would invariably form on his vital organs. This was his punishment, Terence realized glumly. This was the dark reward for a fascination he had no business indulging.
He went to the medicine cabinet and took a Xanax. After a moment’s consideration, he swallowed a second one. Detouring to the dresser on his way back to bed, he found the swimming trunks and tossed them into the trash.
The drugs callously and abruptly pushed Terence over the edge of wakefulness. From lying in the dark with his feet on fire, Terence transitioned directly into dreams. He sat on his balcony and stared down at the pool that pulsated unfamiliarly under pinkish light. It was deserted except for a long shadow beneath its lavender surface. Terence stared as the shadow wove its dark path across the pool and emerged from the other side. It was a monstrous snake. Its brilliant green scales gleamed under the pastel light as it slithered onto the cantilevered deck, coiling its impossibly long body behind it.
Terence watched helplessly as the snake slid over the pool fence and disappeared into the hedges directly below. He could hear its approach. The huge reptile made surprisingly little sound as it wound its way through the hedges and up one of the palm trees that the complex management always insisted on decorating with lights for Christmas, but he could hear it just the same. It whispered his name.
“Terence…” the snake lisped, “Terence…”
It came into view, twisting its way up and around the palm. When it was even with the balcony, the snake stopped and regarded him silently. Its eyes were the color of pool water.
Terence tried to scream himself awake as the snake’s head came to rest on the railing. It kept coming, pulling its wet coils over the railing with mesmerizing grace. He felt the first touch of its hot body on his feet, then around his legs and eventually wrapping around his shoulders. He realized with shock that it wasn’t slimy at all. The snake’s embrace was warm and firm and somehow comforting.
Its head was inches from his face. “I have something for you,” the snake hissed. Its slender tip of its tail was coiled around an apple. “I have something for you,” the reptile repeated. “I have something for you, Terence…”
In his dream, Terence gasped.
He was making a green salad with fat free ranch the next day when he was surprised by a knock on the door. Evan was outside on the landing. “I’m grilling burgers down by the pool,” the young man said. “Are you hungry?”
“Absolutely ravenous,” Terence replied. “Just give me one second.”
He returned to the kitchen and snatched the swimming trunks out of the trash can. After a short consideration, he dumped the salad, bowl and all, into the garbage.
Deborah Winter-Blood is a writer, dog mom and displaced California Valley Girl. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications over the past 30 years. She has recently completed her second novel.