Serpentine by Alex S. Johnson
inspired by works of Ralph Ellison and Bram Stoker.
Forget the ghouls of stage, screen and novels.
Or rather, remember them–with a difference.
One day, it was I believe in midsummer, I awoke, wiped the crust from my eyes and saw with a new, startling clarity. It was reminiscent of my first pair of glasses at age 12, when the world screwed into focus, from a Monet painting of water lilies to the stems, leaves and green water.
The first thing I saw was my girlfriend’s portrait next to my computer, in the frame carved from a tobacco box by my great-great uncle, before his move from Alabama to New York in the mass northern movement. I had stared at her dark, curly hair and deep brown eyes so often that her features were embedded in my brain. She was off visiting relatives in Idaho; or so she claimed.
Or maybe she was just passing, as in through. Or for. Black or white, with a shortcut to shades in between. I was more cafe au lait.
But something was different. In her eyes, a glimmer, just a pulse at first. Then the snakes leaped out.
You think I’m crazy. I thought I should either admit myself to a mental hospital or check my meds for interactive effects.
They weren’t large snakes, but vipers. Small, darting across my desk. I raised my hands automatically, but they shot towards my neck and took hold.
A period of blackness. Then a flashlight shining in my eyes. I was disoriented. I looked up, and it was Lateisha, pouring the beam of a Maglite into my retina.
Darling, I was so concerned…
I believe these were her actual words. She was concerned, had a hunch, female intuition, a premonition that something was dangerously wrong with me. Had rushed to take an early flight home. Screamed at the cab driver who was already going 30 miles over the speed limit, weaving between lanes like a drunk on a terminal bender. Snakelike, even.
Yes, I have always maintained a sense of humor, even on good days.
She was wearing a different perfume than usual.
No, it wasn’t perfume. It had a darker, more masculine scent.
I sniffed the air. She looked startled.
“What is it, honey?”
“It’s never nothing with you. Nothing means something. Talk to me.”
I sat up on the bed, where I’d taken refuge, my brain burning. I couldn’t say what was on my mind, my suspicions. But I was too out of it to fake it.
I nearly told the truth, and saw a tail beneath her right eye. Just a flash. I turned away from her.
She leaned over and held my face in her hands.
“You’re scaring me, Don. Should I call your doctor?”
A reptile handler would be more helpful, I thought.
The transformation was sinuous and sudden. I felt the sting of the bites, but no pain. I thought perhaps that the snakes from the photograph had embedded themselves in my neck, which thought, doubtless insane, was no crazier than Lateisha’s actual flash-morph into a monster.
Those were difficult times for me. Obviously, although I had to fake it to make it when my shrink asked me about hallucinations, I was probably hearing sounds that weren’t there and seeing things that looked like loved ones–with scales and yellow slits for eyes.
This was the first episode. After that came old classmates, my best friend from high school, Mom and Dad. Variations on a theme.
Mom, I discovered, was a vampire.
Dad was a ghoul.
My best friend from high school, Henry, was more complex; assembled from rotten body parts by my Dad.
It reached the point where I grew nostalgic for the simple serpentine that had stolen my heart and infected by bloodstream with her venom.
You will find the process is not as painful as it seems. As they say in recovery circles, keep coming back. It does get better.
You may well mistake me for your favorite armchair, but I am watching. Always.
You may think of me as a lampshade, and if so, I safeguard the light for your reading pleasure.
If you find traces of me on an operating table on which you’re strapped, the anesthetic will take effect soon.
And now, to the air.