On a narrow bed, she would awaken paralyzed, lying on her stomach with her arms wedged beneath her. The coiled snake would be on her pillow, inches from her face, its eyes staring into her own. She knew she could not move then, even to blink, and that she had to take the shallowest of breaths. The snake always came in the dark, and didn’t usually leave until the first morning light flickered behind the pink bedroom curtains.
Her paralysis would go away slowly, beginning with a tingle in her numbed arms. She would be careful when shifting positions, not fully trusting that the snake wasn’t just hiding somewhere, like under the covers or under the bed. She’d roll over slowly, lifting the sheets and blankets and peeking underneath. If she found nothing there, she would hold her breath and, as silently as she could, bend herself into a frog position at the end of the bed. When she could no longer keep herself from inhaling, she would screw up her courage and jump as far away from the bed as she could. On hands and knees, she would crawl around her bedroom, looking under the bed and dresser, inside of shoes and toy boxes, to make sure the snake was really gone. When she was sure it was, she would she get back into bed, rolling the blankets around herself like a cocoon. Wound tightly, with blankets covering her face, her suspended heart would begin beating frantically and loudly, like popcorn in a hot pan.
It was so many years ago, but today Hester Price sits on a straight-backed chair in a darkened corner of her small apartment, waiting for something to go away.
The busybody neighbor stands chattering outside as usual, with a cigarette dangling from her whiskey-soaked mouth, and her ancient red poodle panting at the end of a green leash. Her drunken voice carries over the metallic screech of lawn mowers and hedge trimmers. Even with the windows closed and blinds drawn, Hester learns that the hostile man in #12 — the one who leaves angry ALL-CAPS notes in the laundry room admonishing others for their failings — is still videotaping neighbors from his upstairs window, hoping to catch the perpetrators of unleashed dogs, crooked parking, and overfull lint traps. He has made it his mission to track down the rule breakers so that they can be punished and held to account.
It’s Thursday and soon the garbage truck will come, with its gurgling diesel engine and steady stream of warning beeps. The left side of Hester’s apartment will shake as the communal dumpster is picked up with metal claws and slammed back down to the asphalt.
As she does every week, Hester considers how much she has to throw away or give away. She thinks about going through cupboards and closets and boxes, but the task seems daunting. Nothing is rooted; everything is impermanent and scattered, like a ten thousand piece puzzle with no design.
Besides that, there is the whole matter of going outside, where there are snakes with cameras lying in wait; snakes with sweat-stained shirts and in crisp black uniforms; snakes that hate without reason and strike without cause. There are pits and pits and pits, and no way to avoid them.
The pits were always there, of course, but The Stalker took them out of the darkness. He shined a malicious light inside and forced Hester to look until she understood that all the excuses she ever made, and all the hopes she once had of escaping, were futile.
The Stalker was an ignorant man, a miserable, squat figure with a lisp and a hairy neck, who read Soldier of Fortune magazines on his lunch break and hawked conspiracy theories to whomever would listen. He insisted that his wife home school their children so that they would learn The Real Truth, like how the federal income tax is illegal, and the CIA killed Elvis. For two years, Hester deftly avoided engaging in small talk with The Stalker – it wasn’t hard since the phones were always ringing in the customer service department – but then one day he came to work particularly excited about locking his eight year-old daughter in her bedroom all weekend for returning ten minutes late from a Girl Scout meeting.
The world, The Stalker bragged, would be a much better place if all parents were as strong and intent on teaching their children responsibility as he was. His daughter needed to know that 5:00 meant 5:00 and not 5:10. Ten minutes spent dawdling on a sidewalk could lead to bad influences; drugs, boys, pregnancy. He wasn’t raising a slut.
“That’s insane,” Hester said. “I can’t believe anyone would do that to a child. I feel sorry for your daughter.”
The Stalker’s response was vicious and immediate. He screamed so forcefully that he drooled. Spittle ran down his chin and onto his blue t-shirt as he ranted about the Bible – spare the rod and spoil the child – and who the fuck did Hester think she was to judge him – and this is probably why she’s single – because she has no values and hates men.
After a two-day suspension for his outburst, The Stalker returned to the work floor, quiet but seething. He took to staring at Hester with such hostile eyes that she wondered if her call to Children’s Protective Services resulted in a visit. She complained to management, but was told that as long as The Stalker was doing his job, there was no rule against staring at someone, even if they did it aggressively and for long minutes on end.
The Stalker grew bolder, and began showing up to work early. Every day, Hester found something new missing from her desk – a stapler, a pair of scissors, a roll of tape, a tube of lotion, a paperback book – but no one ever saw The Stalker take the items. “You can’t accuse someone without proof,” Hester’s manager said. “If it’s that much of a concern to you, don’t keep anything personal in your desk.”
Hester found her car tires flat after work twice, and her sideview mirror torn off once. Lunches that she left in the cafeteria refrigerator were found in the trash. Her home mailbox was suddenly flooded with religious tracts and pornography. “You need to calm down,” said the manager. “At this point, it’s he-said, she-said, and I’m not going to take sides in what appears to be a personality conflict.”
It was the janitor who caught The Stalker pouring urine from a bottle on Hester’s phone and chair. The Stalker was fired then, and Hester went to court to get a restraining order.
“This is all a lie,” The Stalker screamed at the judge. “She’s an atheist who hates Christians! She’s a lesbian who hates men!”
The judge granted the order, but the piece of paper didn’t help her sleep at night. The coiled snake returned, but this time it never really went away. It hissed behind her shoulder even when she was awake, bringing with it every memory Hester had tried to shed from her past.
It doesn’t hurt that much. Don’t be a baby.
I’ll kill your sisters if you tell.
I’ll destroy you, I’ll ruin you, I’ll make you pay.
You’re in trouble.
You never know where I’ll be.
I’ll always be able to find you.
You can’t escape.
You’re in trouble, you’re in trouble, you’re in trouble.
Hester sits with her knees drawn to her chest. The neighbor gossips, the garbage truck beeps, a dog barks, and nothing feels safe. Hester’s thoughts stutter and tremble. She feels the cruel futility of sand ladders and muddy ropes – of climbing and falling a thousand times only to be back in the same place. She’s exhausted. She’s ready.
She leans her head back and offers her neck.