Herc is an anaconda, the yellow species. No, not the really big kind you see in movies. But he’s still almost 10 feet of illegal, bone-crushing predatory evolution.
His cage’s lid sits undisturbed, almost like he closed it to cover his tracks. No trail on the floor, neither. For one fleeting moment something comes through me, telling me maybe, just maybe, my eyes aren’t working right and that Herc is still in there, caged and silent. I drop a dead mouse beside the water bowl just in case.
It’s when I bend down and shine the light beneath the desk that I lose hope.
That’s where I see eyes, glimmering, steely eyes looking back at me. Waiting. Watching.
I take a few deep breaths and push my stomach into its rightful place. Hear myself talking to him, to myself, using the words like a guide. They come out stumbling in a voice that isn’t totally mine. Prodding at him with the stick doesn’t seem entirely smart, but it’s the only option I have. Herc curls tighter to make it more difficult, and when I relent and poke at his face, he lashes out with such speed I stumble backwards, Herc retreating into his corner like a boxer waiting for the bell, his eyes never leaving me.
Trying again seems hopeless, even stupid, but I try nonetheless. This time Herc breaks the stick and that’s enough to make me stop. I collapse against the far wall, legs wobbly, my hands trembling. There’s a brick in my head. It’s weighing me down. It’s not my fault, I admit. It’s not my fault. I don’t need to fix it, not me. Not me.
Herc isn’t moving. I get the feeling he’s smirking. I glance at his cage for only a moment, then back at Herc. Why? I wonder. Why? Why? Herc watches. His tongue flicks.
We sit there for what feels like hours, me running a finger through the dirt, Herc curled tight in the corner. Outside, the crickets’ crescendo falls and begins anew. Within, the heat clothes me, the hissing like a cloak. Finally, my eyes start feeling heavy and I ask Herc what he wants? Is this it? This right here?
I look at the empty cage, the rows, hear the hissing…the whole damn mess of this place, and I realize I can’t stay here. Not anymore. Not like this. The flashlight drops and I stagger away, feeling sick, nearly forgetting to lock the fence before realizing it probably doesn’t matter anyway. If Herc wants out, a locked door won’t stop him.
The hissing trails me all the way back to the house.
I’m in the bathroom trying to hold down dinner when I remember the card. It’s wrinkled up beneath some briefs and a packet of loose quarter rolls in my top dresser drawer. I grab the phone and dial. He picks up on the fourth ring.
“Is this Ruben?”
“You gave me your card a few days ago. You said call if I needed something. Do you still have the money?”
“I don’t have much time. Can you come by in 20 minutes?”
Ruben had been a senior in high school when I was a freshman, a tattooed, pinball-headed wasp of a kid with four fingers on his right hand. Back then, he couldn’t have picked me out of a lineup. Now? He knows me. Knows I’m hiding something, too. Even gave me his card the last time I went to his shop and said if I ever needed something done, you know, like really needed something done, he’s my man. Said he had cash too.
From across the house, my name comes out haggard.
When I come to the back room, Dad’s in the middle of some bumbling conversation with himself. His eyes are half-closed, his lips chapped like scales. He motions for me to sit down.
“Herc got out,” I interrupt.
He’s not listening. “It was hard ‘cus–”
“Once she had the accident–”
“I don’t care. I don’t care.”
He raises a hand to silence me and starts in on something about life not being fair and how when he was growing up his mother never let him slip up. I look into the backyard at all the drunken pine trees in need of a good bath. I look beyond and imagine the jungle gym, me with my lacrosse stick, on the swings, the slides, mornings slinking into afternoons, my dad finally emerging up the hill with his bucket.
“We ain’t gonna lose this house,” he’s saying. “I know you wanna help. But it can’t all be on you.”
He closes his eyes and snickers like he too is thinking about better days, like he’s down again by the pond with his bucket and gloves, and he’s catching snakes that squirm and writhe and bite, oh they bite so often, and I don’t even care that he never played with me, don’t even care about all the afternoons I spent waiting by the swings. I want to be left alone. I want to run to my room and bury my face in the pillows, let their heat wash over me, let myself fall asleep and never wake up.