When I moved into the Slater Street house, I lived with Elaine and Katya. We had two bedrooms, and I lived in the closed-in sunroom. Then our landlady hired the Steves to tear down my room and build two new bedrooms in its place. During that time, Katya moved out, and two new housemates, Sam and Taylor, moved into the new rooms, located next to one another. Sam and I became good friends, but Taylor, an undergrad, had her own set of friends and stayed at her boyfriend’s house more often than she was home. Sometimes weeks would pass between Taylor sightings, but sweet and shy, we were always happy to have her join us for dinner or a movie when she had time.
Taylor had been home for over a week, which was highly unusual, when Sam came to me visibly bothered. “Why is there a towel shoved under the edge of Taylor’s door?” I glanced at the French doors that led into her bedroom. A white towel was wedged firmly underneath.
“Maybe she’s had friends over and didn’t want to wake us?” I suggested.
“But she’s not here now,” Sam replied. “If she was here now, that would make sense.”
I had no answer, but kept an eye out for Taylor and asked her when she returned home.
“I was using the towels to keep Scarlet from getting loose,” she replied. “She got out of her tank and I can’t find her. But I’m pretty sure she’s still in my room.”
I stared at her blankly. “Scarlet?”
“That’s what I named her,” Taylor said, blushing. “I got a pet snake.”
“You got a pet snake,” I repeated, surprised. “And it escaped.”
“Yes. And it could be anywhere, but I think it’s in my room. I came in and the lid was pushed off the tank. I guess I bought the wrong size. The man at the pet store said this kind escapes a lot. But my doors were closed. Plus, the man at the pet store said snakes like Scarlet like the smell of humans and they’ll hide in piles of clothes or anything that smells like people. So she’s probably in my closet. But I don’t know.”
An image flashed through my mind of me innocently gathering dirty laundry and a snake racing up my arm. (And my subsequent heart attack.) I shivered.
“So what kind of snake is Scarlet? I assume she’s not poisonous. You bought her from a pet shop, right? Like, a reputable place?”
“I don’t think she’s poisonous, but I don’t remember what kind she is.”
“Well, what does Scarlet look like?” I asked. “She’s red, right, but how big is she? Does she have stripes?”
“She’s not red,” Taylor said. “And she’s not big. Just average.”
You know, Brittany. Average.
“She’s not red? But her name–OK, what color is she then?”
“Kind of orange, I guess.”
“So she’s just plain orange?”
“No, she has stripes.”
“Are they black stripes, or white, or what?”
“I don’t remember,” Taylor said. “But I think she has stripes.”
I sighed. “How big is she? Is she as long as your hand?”
“No, she’s longer. About average.”
“So maybe the length of your arm?”
“I think she’s bigger?”
I stopped asking questions as Taylor’s answers were becoming increasingly disturbing.
Taylor had already left the house by the time Sam arrived home. Level-headed and practical, I didn’t expect a huge reaction from sensible Sam, but I’ve never seen her more alarmed than when I explained the purpose of the towels.
“A snake?! She has a snake?! And it’s loose?! Where is she? Why is she not here looking for it?!” Sam demanded.
“She’s pretty sure it’s in her room, so we probably won’t even see it…”
“But my room is NEXT to her room! If the snake gets out, it will come in MY room!” Sam exclaimed. “I do NOT want a snake in my room!”
“It’s not poisonous, and I don’t think it’s big–well, Taylor said average, so maybe the length of her arm? I’m not really sure…”
“The size does not matter! A snake is a snake, and I do not like snakes!” Sam declared. I can’t say I blamed her; I didn’t want to be the one to find Scarlet, either.
We. WE hate snakes.
As bedtime rolled around, Sam became increasingly distressed. “Lily is sleeping with me!” she declared, scooping up the tabby Manx who lived with us. “She will protect me if Scarlet comes into my bedroom.”
I was skeptical. Sure, we often called Lily to kills bugs for us when our landlady was too cheap to pay the exterminator. But a snake the length of Taylor’s arm (or bigger–who really knows?) wasn’t quite the same thing as a cockroach or a June bug. Besides which, Lily was diurnal. She and her brother Jack regularly would stampede through the house like a heard of obese buffalo, waking us at 2 or 3 AM; more than once Stephanie, who lived in the garage apartment and shared a wall with the main house, would ask me what had been happening the night before and seemed skeptical when I explained it was two seven-pound felines. But Sam was adamant she wouldn’t get any sleep anyway, with or without a cat.
The fierce Huntress
The next morning I went to the freezer for a piece of pork to thaw for dinner, and as I was digging through pieces of meat in freezer paper, I found an unfamiliar box wrapped in a Wal-Mart bag. Opening it, I pulled out a boxed labeled, “Infant Mice – Frozen.” I cannot fully express my delight that Scarlet’s food was kept so close to mine. But after a year of living at Slater Street, I can definitively say that was not the weirdest or grossest thing I found in that fridge. (The weirdest thing was two kittens in the vegetable bin, but that’s another story.)
When Sam emerged from her room, she looked haggard. “Did you sleep at all last night?” I asked.
“No! Lily cried the whole night!”
“Maybe you should have let her out. You know she hates being cooped up.”
“She is staying in my room until that Scarlet is gone!” Sam declared. “I will not sleep anyway.”
When Elaine arrived home that afternoon, I told her about Scarlet. Elaine was unfazed. “I don’t mind snakes,” she said, shrugging. I told her how distressed Sam was. “So where is Taylor?”
“She’s been here off and on looking, but no luck.”
Elaine reflected. “Do you–I don’t want to invade Taylor’s privacy, but do you think maybe we should look?”
I hesitated. There was no way I was touching it, so if I did find it, what would I do, watch it slink away as I put everything possible between the two of us? But Elaine seemed willing to sacrifice her hands for the noble cause, so I agreed.
Entering Taylor’s room, I was surprised to find it was messier than Elaine’s. Although her room had two large closets stretching the length of the largest bedroom in the house, all of Taylor’s clothes were in various piles on the floor. Her bed was unmade, with sheets piled next to a naked mattress. Textbooks and paper littered the place. In short, there were a million hiding places for a small snake (large snake?) to burrow, waiting to strike. Elaine was every bit as overwhelmed as I was. We dug for a while, at first trying to carefully return things to where we had found them, but quickly giving up. Half an hour yielded nothing, so we left, fixing the towels as carefully as we could at the base of the door.
Scarlet was MIA for three days (that we knew of); on the fourth day, Taylor came home for a jar of peanut butter and I asked her about her pet. Blushing, she replied, “I found her. I left some food in her tank and left her heat rock on, and last night when I came home, she was curled up on it.” She agreed to take her milk snake (as we later discovered Scarlet to be) to her boyfriend’s house, along with her dead mice babies and free-range tank.
And no one was sad to see our secret roommate leave.