Neither Sleeping, nor Alive, nor Dead


Wyld FLASH – 16 October 2020

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Michelle Muenzler

There’s a snake in the den. Strung out in a lazy curve between the armchair and the fireplace. It’s not doing anything really, merely lying there. Eyes quiet. Not even the flicker of a tongue.

Maybe it’s dead. Or maybe it’s just pretending to be dead, waiting on me to let my guard down.

Upstairs, something clatters. It sounds like it’s from the bathroom, which means my son has finally relented to his phone’s alarm and is stumbling about readying for school.

I glance up as though I can see him through the layers of house between us, but all I see is white ceiling. Breathing carefully, I look back to where the snake is lying.

The snake, however, is gone.

#

“I’ll be late tonight,” my son mumbles through a microwaved egg burrito, backpack slung over his shoulder. The keys to the car jangle in his pocket.

“School project?”

He finishes the burrito. Shoves the packaging into the trash. “Yeah, school project. Might be late tomorrow, too. I’ll let you know.”

“Oh.” I stare at the plate of bacon on the counter, untouched. The three eggs, over easy. The hash browns. “Okay.”

“So don’t wait up,” he says, already making his way out the door. The door slaps shut behind him, and moments later the rough grunge of an engine fills the street.

I clutch a mug of tea in my hands and squeeze the ceramic tight.

But nothing happens.

“Have fun,” I finally whisper, and begin to put breakfast away.

#

Sometimes I think I’m dead.

Other times, I merely wish it.

Not in a messy way, of course. But nicely. Quietly. The sort of dead that sneaks up on a person.

The snake has returned. Coiled in the basin of the kitchen sink. I stare at it, wondering if its open eyes are staring back or if it’s sleeping. Or, of course, dead.

Dead would be better. Dead doesn’t bite back when moved. Dead doesn’t care where it is left.

Still, I need to rinse the green beans for dinner in case my son decides to come home early after all. In case my husband doesn’t call again to let me know he’s staying yet another week wherever it is his company sent him this time.

Like me, though, the snake doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Finally, unwilling to risk it being alive, I take my strainer of beans outside and rinse them under the faucet there. By the time I return, the snake is once more gone.

#

I’ve made too much.

Rotisserie chicken, thinly sliced, sits on a tray. Steamed green beans are piled beside, as well a bowl of mixed greens dressed in a light vinaigrette.

I shouldn’t have dressed the salad, of course. It’ll only make the lettuce wilt faster.

I’m not sure why I did.

I stare at the meal displayed casually atop the dining room table, little salt and pepper shakers waiting patiently beside. I stare as well at my empty plate. At the two other empty plates I’ve pulled out, just in case.

Nobody’s coming, though.

It’s not as though I truly thought somebody would come, not after my husband’s expected phone call earlier. I just hoped.

Hoping, however, is not enough.

In the end, I pile a bit of chicken onto one of the plates like an offering and set it on the floor for the snake, should it reappear later tonight.

Maybe it will eat the chicken. Maybe it won’t.

Still, it seems better than letting the chicken waste away in the fridge with all the rest of the leftovers.

#

I dream that night of snakes. Snakes of every color. Every size. Motionless like clay statues. Like perfectly painted replicas. They smell like dust when I touch them. Everything smells of dust.

I don’t know what the dream means, but when I wake in the morning some twenty minutes or so before my alarm, my chest feels like a hundred constricted knots. I stare at the white ceiling, breath frozen in my throat. The early light sifts through the blinds, cutting across me in pale stripes.

Minutes pass. An hour. Until finally everything compresses into a single manageable strand and I find myself able to move again.

I slip from beneath the covers and work my way carefully downstairs where my son, already prepared for school, is staring at the plate on the dining room floor. His brow is scrunched in confusion.

The plate is empty.

Unnoticed, I slide into the room and curl against the wall.

My son continues staring at the plate a few moments longer, then picks it up and takes it to the kitchen sink where it clatters atop the rest of the night’s unwashed dishes. He swings back out the kitchen, past where I’m curled, and toward the stair. Sounding annoyed, he calls up the empty expanse.

“Hey, Mom! I’m gonna be late again tonight!”

He waits.

When nobody answers, he shakes his head, then grabs his backpack and shambles out the door. The car’s engine bursts to life outside. Fades down the street.

Meanwhile, I remain in my spot against the wall. Quiet. Unmoving.

Wondering when–or if–they’ll finally see me there.

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Author Bio: Michelle Muenzler, known at local science fiction and fantasy conventions as “The Cookie Lady”, writes fiction both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Her short fiction and poetry can be read in numerous science fiction and fantasy magazines, and she takes immense joy in crinkling words like little foil puppets. Check out michellemuenzler.com for links to the rest of her work.

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