The Worst Part
by CL Bledsoe
The worst part was the shrieking. There was the stalking, when he first dropped them into the snake's terrarium, and the terrified look on each mouse's face, that was bad enough. But when the snake caught one, when it sank it's fangs into the quivering white-furred body, the mice shrieked as they died, broadcasting their terror and pain. It haunted Simon. That, and the way Bill grinned when he dangled their wriggling forms over the aquarium, the fascination on his face as he watched every moment. It was disgusting.
Simon had been renting a room from Bill for three weeks, ever since his college roommate had gotten married. It was cheap, and living in a house had seemed like a step up from the apartment he'd occupied for four years, but Simon quickly came to regret it. There were the dogs, for one thing. Bill had five dogs. He'd started with two, which Simon was fine with. They were boisterous, full of energy and constantly seeking attention, but it was nice to be greeted so enthusiastically when he came home. Simon gave them bits of his food when he ate and even threw a ball for them sometimes. Then, about a week ago, Bill's girlfriend had moved in with her three dogs, one of which was her brother's which she was watching while he traveled. There wasn't enough space, really, for the two, much less all these. The dogs whined miserably, they knocked things off of shelves and got into fights with each other. Plus, she had a cat, which she had to keep in their bedroom, away from the dogs. It was the worst of the bunch because of its smell, which quickly soaked into every particle of the house, including Simon's clothing. Bill had a giant fish tank, which just took up space and actually brought a calming effect to the livingroom, though the dogs were constantly in danger of knocking it over. Then there was the snake.
It was a giant greenish-grey thing, with black designs all over its back. They kept it on the kitchen table. Simon had no idea what kind it was, except that it wasn't poisonous. He didn't feel any ill-will towards it, fat and slovenly though it had become. This was Bill's fault, as was the misery of the dogs and the cat that tried to escape every time anyone opened the door, Simon had come to realize. Snakes ate mice, and anything they could get, probably. If mice were given to it constantly, it would eat them. In the wild, where it should be, it never knew when its next meal would come along, so it hoarded. He'd raised this idea to Bill, once, early on.
"It was raised in captivity," Bill had replied. "It wouldn't know what to do in the wild."
It was trapped, now, in this limbo of steady meals and two feet by four feet of enclosed space with a scattering of sand, a couple rocks and a piece of driftwood. It could never breed, never feel the sun on its scales, or whatever snakes liked to do; it could never have any new experiences. This made Simon feel sorry for the snake.
And the mice--they spent their few days in a plastic box, full of fear, with no water or food or hope of escape, and when they were finally let out, they were eaten viciously while Bill watched, laughing, egging the snake on, reveling in it.
It was difficult to sleep nights, with the noise of the animals and Bill, who stayed up all hours playing video games and watching TV, and yet never missed work in the morning. Simon would stumble out, angry and crusty feeling, the bathroom was always occupied, dogs would knock him over if he wasn't careful on the way to the kitchen, and there Simon would be, tapping on the side of the terrarium glass, swallowing his cereal in great draughts.
They'd been friends since they were six, when Bill's parents had moved next door to Simon's. Bill was doing him a favor, Simon knew, by renting him the room, but he also needed the money, which made Simon torn about leaving. But he had to leave. He'd already looked at a couple places, and though it would cost considerably more, and it would mean postponing his trip to Europe, again, the decision had been made.
"So I heard about this place that's come available," Simon said.
"Oh yeah?" Bill said, looking up for a moment before returning his attention to the snake.
"Yeah, I'm thinking about taking a look. How would you feel about that?"
Bill sat back and studied his cereal. "Well, actually, I think it would work out good for us. Brian's coming back tomorrow, and he needs a place to stay. I wasn't sure how we were going to manage it. When do you think you could move in?"
Brian was Bill's girlfriend's brother, who had been touring Europe, backpacking and generally living it up.
"I'm not sure; I haven't talked to them yet," Simon said.
"It would be great if it was by Monday."
"Maybe," Simon said.
"He can sleep on the couch for a couple days if he has to, or you can. We'll work it out. Let me know so I can help you move," Bill said. He rose and dropped his bowl in the sink with a loud clatter.
Simon sat, relieved and yet appalled, watching Bill leave for work.
When Bill fed the snake, Simon usually hid in his room, with his music turned up, though he imagined he could still hear the shrieking. He'd taken a long lunch and met with the apartment people and did all the paperwork. He'd gotten lucky; they said he could go ahead and start moving stuff in immediately. His only stipulation had been that the previous owners didn't have pets.
In the rest of the house, there was a sudden cacophony as Bill and his girlfriend gathered their dogs for their daily walk. Sometimes Simon went along to help, but this evening, he intended to stay in and pack.
He waited till they were gone, and took a load of boxes and bags to his car, with the thought of taking them over that night, as they'd already given him a key to the new place. He went into the kitchen for some water, filled a glass from the tap and downed it, and something caught his eye. He glanced over the snake. It wasn't moving, which was normal after it had eaten, but something was off. Then Simon realized it was a bit of color that hadn't been there before. He went closer, and discovered a mouse, hiding behind the driftwood. If the snake had wanted, it could've easily rooted out the mouse, but it was uninterested. Simon tapped on the glass, but the snake didn't move. The mouse was squashing itself as flat as it could, trying to hide behind the scant cover of the wood lump, but its body shivered in terror, revealing it. Simon stared at it and then took the cover off the terrarium. The snake didn't even seem to notice. Simon reached in, prepared to draw back at any sign of movement, but the snake was as stone. His fingers brushed the soft fur of the mouse, and it tried to burrow down farther, but it had already hit the glass beneath the thin layer of sand. Simon closed his fingers around its body. The mouse wriggled and tried to break free, but Simon caught it and drew it out. He had expected it to bite him, or something, but it just sat huddled in his hand. He could feel it trembling. He let it crawl into his shirt pocket, where it sat, watching him. He replaced the cover and went into his bedroom and found a shoe box. He put some paper and a hand towel in it, and poked holes in the top, and put together some vegetables from the fridge and set them in, with a small saucer with water in it. The mouse ate a bit of a piece of lettuce and then started cleaning itself like the cat always did. Simon took that as a good sign.
When Bill and his girlfriend returned, he made a beeline for the terrarium, passing Simon who was still loading his car. Bill tapped on the side of the glass.
"Did you see him eat?" Bill asked.
"I couldn't say," Simon said. "Maybe."
"I thought he was getting sick or something cause he wouldn't eat earlier, but I guess he got over it."
Simon took the load out to his car, and when he returned, Bill and his girlfriend were in their room. He pulled the shoe box out and carefully carried it out to his car. He could feel the slight weight of the saucer and the mouse. He set it in the floorboard of his passenger seat. Bill came out and met him on the way back inside.
"Need some help?" he asked.
Simon had intended to ask Bill for help, but suddenly he decided against it.
"No thanks," he said, "I'm going to probably be gone awhile, setting it up."
"Well just let me know."
Simon nodded and grabbed a couple more things from inside. His room was almost bare, just the bed, which he intended to get the next day after work, along with a barrel chair and some big things. He'd already called his dad to bring his truck up.
The mouse shuffled around, testing the edges of the box. Simon carried the box up and set it in the bathtub in his new place, and unloaded the rest of his car. He'd been dreading it all day, wondering if Bill could be relied on to help, but it went easily, and he was quickly finished. He'd brought a sleeping bag, and he unrolled it and set his bedroom up as well as he could, then he went back to the bathroom.
The mouse was back in its box. It froze when he leaned over it. He offered it a piece of carrot, which it took. It held it in both paws while it ate. Simon reached in stroked its fur. It looked up at him for a second then continued eating. He sat on the edge of the tub and watched it. It ate silently. The whole apartment echoed with nothing but silence.
About the author:
CL Bledsoe has work most recently in Monkeybicycle, The Arkansas Review, 42 Opus, and Foliate Oak. He is an editor for Ghoti Magazine (http://www.ghotimag.com).