When I was a child, a trapdoor appeared under my bed: a perfect square with no handle visible from the outside. The only way to open the latch was to let night fall and wait for the house to go quiet.
Some days, it wouldn’t budge. I was too tired, I fell asleep when I was told to, my mother spun a bedtime story, or an open book kept the trapdoor closed.
But most nights when I lay in bed, the door opened with a silence so loud it rushed into me like the breath I tried to hold. I knew it was open because the room grew around me and the thickened air crept down my throat urging it to scream. But I couldn’t scream, or they’d find me.
Beyond the trapdoor was a bottomless snake pit. Countless snakes slowly untangled themselves from their lair. They never hissed. Never made a sound as they slithered from the nest, stretching sinuously and slowly spreading themselves across my bedroom floor.
The noise they didn’t make echoed in the rush of my pounding heart. I closed my eyes tightly and watched as they crept into drawers, slid over homework, traced my journals, and wrapped themselves in my clothes. They touched everything. The doll I bought with babysitting money and her purple hair extensions and startled violet eyes. The new jean jacket with the buttons that popped and the daisy patch on the left pocket. Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice and even the glitter pencil I kept on my top shelf.
In the mornings, armored in daylight, I checked under the bed. I ran my fingers over surfaces but could never find a trace of them. The trap door was so well concealed that nobody believed it existed at all. Not even the nice doctor who said he was impressed to hear a child describe such vivid dreams.
My childhood bed is long gone, and my nights are full of the kinds of noises that frighten serpents away: baby cries, sirens, barking dogs, drunken screams from the street corner, and the neighbor’s sprinklers that go off at 2:34am.
Without the vigilant snakes, questions are free to crawl out of pockets and tucked away boxes. They swarm heedlessly through the room, knocking each other off course, crashing into me. They tug away my covers and toss and turn me, pressing my face into the pillow as they shout whispers past the ringing in my ears.
Are the doors locked? The children asleep? The fish fed? The trash cans out?
Are the backpacks packed? The emails sent? The bills paid?
Will we be caught in the fires? The floods, the storms, the heat?
Will the fever go down, the lump go away, the pain be nothing to worry about?
Will anything ever be a snake again?