At some point he finishes whatever it was he was trying to say and there’s expectancy in the air, for a response, some type of sign to prove he’d said his piece and that I was on board with it. I’m not, though, whatever it was, and as I’m walking out of the room his wobbly voice comes after me. “Shut the light at least.”
I flick the switch and the room goes dark. He’s asleep within seconds.
I’m on my bed listening to my headphones when car beams flood my room. I hear gravel scatter. Someone’s pulled into our driveway. I don’t wait to see if Dad is awake.
Ruben is unpacking a few container tubs when I walk out to meet him. His shaved head gleams beneath a streetlight and he has a beard that’s grown so long it curls around his face. He’s chewing gum machine-like and asking all types of questions. I grab his arm and tell him those containers, those ones right there, they won’t be enough. That makes him eye me suspiciously. “I can always come back,” he says.
“I need the money tonight.”
“I’m only paying for what I take.”
It isn’t until I open the barn doors that it registers for him. In his eyes, his body. It hums. Ruben moves swiftly from tank to tank, his nose against the glass like a 7-year-old. I toss him the flashlight and he starts naming them. Milk. Racer. Indigo. Garter. Coachwhip. His voice grows hysterical, his breaths hurried. He keeps looking back like he’s expecting me to tell him it’s not real, none of this is. But I say nothing. Don’t move, neither. I keep a palm against the door. Herc probably hasn’t moved, but either way I’m not stupid enough to risk it.
When Ruben gets to the end and sees the open fence, he stops, pointing emphatically, his eyes shining like giant marbles.
“Anyone know about this?”
My mother. My sister. Jody, I guess. She might know my father collects snakes out of some sick childhood habit, yet there’s a big difference between admitting that and admitting you own dozens of illegal poisonous serpents. My father was…is a private person. Some folks collect things to show them off. He collects things to keep himself from showing off.
The hissing swells as Ruben’s flashlight jumps across the walls. I start doing math totals in my head. How many snakes. How much money. How much money Ruben will actually pay me tonight. My mind starts wandering to the doctors, their pens and papers, the smugness they wear like a tangy draft. I push the thought away even as it keeps coming back and soon I can’t stop myself. The hospitals are gone, all the nurses and doctors too and there’s Dad, his swollen legs filled with blood and water and mucus, and I think about them exploding and see Herc wrapping around them, doing it easy, a mercy.
There’s a tapping on my shoulder. Ruben is asking about the monocled cobras, the monocled cobras, Nelly! He’s putting rolls of bills in my hand and telling me he wants them, wants all of them, that he’ll be back in a few hours with a bigger truck and that, oh my Lord, he just can’t believe this! His voice echoes, and after I allow myself to be pulled to the driveway, his car’s engine sounds oddly calming as he drives away.
It isn’t until I get inside my house that I realize there was no mention of Herc.
In the back room, my dad is snoring loudly, another glass of water turned upside down across his blanket. The Fugitive is on its final scene. They’re lugging Harrison Ford into a police car in handcuffs.
I watch Dad, expecting him to wake up. His bottom lip twitches like a half-blazed flame, his open mouth a yawning. On the floor, the bucket needs to be cleaned. The smell stings.
“I’m selling your snakes,” I say, though I’m guessing he can’t hear me. “We need the money.”
In that moment, the way my dad’s body seems to shrink makes me nervous that maybe this wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe we should’ve waited. Maybe I should’ve lugged this man out to the barn, this man who was once my father, left him there and set the snakes loose. Maybe that’s what he wanted all along.
I turn the television off and stare at the blank screen. The wind flutters against the screen door. The air breathes. My dad snores. I close my eyes and picture Herc. He’s slithering through the grass somewhere right now, searching for water. I know it. I can see it. I can see the moon drifting into sunrise and there he is. The birds are cackling. The air is harsh. The wind grows soft. I realize I’m smiling.
Sean Sweeney has been published in Wilderness House Literary Review, 3Elements Literary Review and Mind Murals. He received a B.A. in English from Springfield College. He also graduated with a master’s degree from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2010. Currently, Sean is an editor for Complex.