Interlude in the Basement
At least twelve – one in each tank.
Adrian had knocked over a mop and bucket in the dark, but hadn't picked it up and the water was spreading in a dirty pool on the floor. He was staring, transfixed, into a tank at the other end of the room. A glazed, insane look made his grey eyes seem all that much weirder.
I was afraid. But I couldn't help but walk down the centre of the room towards him. Each step seemed to take a lifetime. I wondered if the snakes were watching me from their tanks.
"Adrian?" He didn't reply. His hands were palm-flat on the glass of the tank, breath fogging it up with droplets of moisture. "Adrian. We should go. We've been here long enough already."
My own voice sounded strange, heavy, thick in my ears. Finally, I was standing behind him, looking into the tank. It was furnished with some scrubby plants and hard beige earth. The snake inside was mostly black, its scales like little raspberry glacier mints, but with strawberry diamonds all down its back. I wondered what kind of freak kept snakes in their cellar.
And then I craned to look at Adrian's face. He was completely gone. There was nobody home. Whatever vestige of sanity was in him had left for a moment.
"I want to take her," he told me finally, looking away from the snake. The thin body was calm, oddly still, as if it was asleep.
" 'Her'?" It wasn't really a question, though I was wondering how he could tell. I just found it weird he bothered with a gender. It was a snake.
Adrian moved a bit and let me see the plaque at the bottom of the tank. It was a plain piece of white cardboard, with the inscription Lula in black marker pen. And really, that was the last straw.
"Fuck it," I muttered. "This house is weird-"
"You should see the fridge," Adrian muttered, back to staring at the snake.
"-This house is fucked up and I'm going."
He wasn't listening.
"I want this snake."
"Adrian, you can't steal a snake, for Christ's sakes!" He ignored me, and I felt a thick wad of panic thump in my chest. I was getting light-headed and dizzy and fuck, but this was going so wrong. "Adrian, please."
Adrian shrugged lazily and turned to look at me with a smug smile. I realised then that he was, in fact, fully in control of himself and the situation. He was far from mad, and he knew I was afraid. But I had said I was leaving, and now I had to. Never mind his hand reaching up to open the tank-
"Fuck, Adrian-" I tried, eyes full of pleading. That cavernous feeling had ripped open inside me again, as if I was about to fall over the edge of a pit I'd never climb out of. I looked at Adrian and for the first time saw everything about him I'd been ignoring for years. The passive aggression, the intolerance, the inexhaustible well of patience he used to play games with people.
Like he was doing with me now. Like he had been since the beginning.
"Ade…" It was the first and last time I would address him this way. Because in that moment, I knew that we really would never fix what was broken between us and what had always been broken. I just wanted some sort of tenderness, for one last time to be able to kid myself he loved me.
"Are you going or not?" He asked calmly, as if he just wanted to clarify the situation.
I walked out.