I close my eyes and wait. When the movie starts, again, I slam a fist against the cushion.
He takes a sip of water, leaves the glass suspended in mid-air, his other hand against his chest. His brow furrows. Dad’s eyes might be locked on the television but I can tell he’s not really watching.
The movie is on and the movie is the best way to act like none of this is happening. Mom is here and Paris is here and Dad is still going to work every day, building condominium complexes and corner offices for retired police officers, and when he gets home he’s out here enjoying a beer and a movie. The papers Jody left on the kitchen table aren’t visible, and outside the rain is not coming back and the birds aren’t muzzled. All of this, a dream.
“You can’t just disappear like that.”
Told myself I wouldn’t talk about Mom, not with him, not anymore, but once I start the words spill out.
“There’s no way. She wouldn’t have left on her own. Where did she go?”
And I know he knows. He must. Her cousins, her sister, she must have gone to someone, anywhere to get away from Dad. Anywhere, maybe, to get away from me.
“She never even said goodbye.”
It’s supposed to feel like a relief, letting it all out. That’s what they tell me.
“We never helped her. Why didn’t we?”
The accident. Her drinking. The rehab.
“Where did she go, Dad? She stayed in the basement and we never did anything, you never did anything about it. Why didn’t we help?”
I don’t feel relieved at all.
“Why wouldn’t you sell the snakes, even just some of them? She asked. I remember. She asked you and you said no.”
It’s exhausting. I’m tired. All I want is an excuse. Don’t need a reason, don’t even need it to be true. Just let me know you’re trying.
Dad doesn’t answer, though. Grimaces in an effort to keep his lips locked. No one speaks.
Walking out of the room feels like I’m climbing a mountain
That night, I wait until I can see the black of his mouth. Dad is not a deep sleeper but I won’t be gone long.
Outside, I walk with my arm outstretched, the bag dangling in front of me. The crickets sing beneath a moonless sky and it takes my eyes a moment to adjust. When they do the barn stands lonely. It’s not the size of it that flutters my stomach, nor is it the stench. It’s the burning on my cheek, the scars. I’m sweating.
Nervous Nelly, I can still hear my dad. They won’t bite. See? Not so bad.
He tried. God knows he tried. Paris at least had the stomach for it. And my mother looked at them as a necessary evil. “Better than gambling,” she’d say. But at least with gambling you could do it from the privacy of your own living room. Some nights my father skipped dinner to come out here with fresh food and I wouldn’t see him again until morning. Most playing cards aren’t poisonous, either.
I breathe carefully. When the door groans, I quickly slip inside, stabbing at the light string in the same motion. It’s never encouraging, this sight, these rows of containers and boxes and cages. They’re stacked to the ceiling. All the dirt, the cords taped to the walls, the wire piled in the corners. The smell hits hard enough to wipe the firmness from my face.
I reach for my headphones. Feel nothing. Dig through my pockets. Check my hoodie.
I dump the bag on the ground and peel my pockets inside out.
Nothing. No headphones.
Going back to the house seems like the sensible move but the last thing I want is to open this barn door twice. I’m already here. And not coming back.
My movements are calculated. I know they sense me. My dad used to say that all the time, chuckling when I’d go to sleep holding my knees against my chin.
There’s Shiloh, the corn snake. Brutus, the kingsnake. A row of ball pythons named after famous presidents, garter snakes my dad never bothered to name because they all look the same. One albino red tailed boa named Ghost. He always fed them first, dropping dead mice in by the tails.
Toward the back of the barn there’s a fenced enclosure with a key hanging on a post beside the door. I pause at the entrance, run my hands over my pockets out of habit. When I finally step through, the fence creaks.
It’s a dinner bell.
The hissing that follows, that coarse, throated hissing…it’s uncomfortable enough to make me dance. Then they get to rattling and I rip the string right off a bulb I pull it so hard. When the light hits, they move. Up against the glass, tongues flicking, reaching, their dangerous, black-pitted eyes following me as I move. Headphones, I hear myself wondering. How? How’d I forget?
One fully-grown king cobra is potentially worth thousands. My father has two. One coral snake could fetch nearly half of that if the coloring is right. My father has four. His mambas, his vipers, his taipans, all of them, rare killers, all of them, worth money.
Then there are the rattlesnakes, maybe a dozen of them. They climb over each other to get at me and the sound they make…without headphones, I feel naked.
He’d once described it like taking a cold shower, my dad. The water sets off every bodily sensor and rather than get used to the temperature, your instincts kick in. You start doing things without even knowing you’re doing them.
And so I move quickly out of pure necessity, distracting the snakes with a stick. It’s effective enough, though the dead mice barely hit the cage floors before the snakes strike.
The last cage sits like a throne against the back wall. It’s twice as large as any of the others, and though I can’t see much in the shadows I know the glass is faded and moldy. No one ever cleans this cage, not even Dad. It’s not worth the risk.
I point a flashlight. The cage’s water bowl is low, dirty. I see broken strands of skin.
There’s a lamp on a table beside me. What I see when I turn it on makes me freeze. I blink, rub my eyes to make sure. No. No. No.
The cage is empty.
The cage is empty…
Immediately, my eyes dart to my feet. I point the flashlight against the back wall, check the floor, other cages. The heat rises in my neck and cheeks. Want to know the most uncomfortable feeling in the world? It’s being watched.
I imagine Herc pulling himself out from wherever he’s hiding, uncurling his body like a hose and wrapping it around my neck, black splotchy skin like pools of molten lava, and I apologize for how busy I’ve been. Issues, I tell him. Family problems. I imagine he doesn’t care.