CLEOPATRA

by
"Who am I to question a queen?"

‘I want to fuck my uncle. I mean not my uncle, like, not Andrew as my uncle. I want to fuck him like he’s a stranger to me. I guess if I looked into his eyes though, I’d remember my mom — they have the same eyes — so I’d close his eyes. And I guess if he spoke, I’d remember he was my uncle, so I’d shut his mouth and tell him not to speak. But then if he heard my voice, he’d remember I was his sister’s daughter, so I’d cover his ears. And if he smelled me, he’d smell the vanilla candles my mom and I love to burn, so I’d block his nose too. Then the only thing left for us to do would be to touch each other, and I mean truly feel each other, and really, that’s the most important thing about being with another person when you think about it.’

My therapist, Barbara, nods as if she understands and also wants to fuck her uncle. But I know from Barbara’s skin-colored pantyhose and scraggly nails that she’s never been sexually adventurous with a stranger, let alone her uncle.

‘Expressing these urges is okay, Cleopatra, as long as you recognize that engaging in them is not,’ Barbara says.

‘I know.’ I bet Cleopatra, the pharaoh, could’ve fucked her uncle.

 

As I climb the stairs up to my apartment, I whisper, ‘Cleopatra. I am Cleopatra.’ Sometimes I need to say it out loud to believe it. I’ve never felt like her, Cleopatra, the pharaoh that is, even though everyone thinks of her when they hear my name.

‘Cleopatra,’ they say, ‘there’s a lot of power in that name, use it wisely.’

‘Cleopatra,’ they say, ‘with a name like that you’re bound to be famous.’

They’re wrong. All the power and fame in that name has been used up, and I’m left with Cleopatra, the woman everyone already knows. You try having Cleopatra — pharaoh of Egypt, seducer of emperors, speaker of nine languages — as your standard and see how many people care that you were president of your high school book club, and you can play Hot Cross Buns on the piano, and you volunteered at a local homeless shelter.

My dad wanted to name me Olivia, ordinary Olivia, but my mom would not budge — I would be Cleopatra or no one. I guess she was rebelling against her parents for naming her Ann, but I don’t know why she had to drag me into it.

The Pharaoh Cleopatra greets me from the mirror across from the front door when I enter my apartment, and I tell her about my therapy appointment.

‘I was married to both my brothers and sometimes I considered fucking my uncle too. It’s natural for royalty to have these urges,’ she says.

Who am I to question a queen?

My phone vibrates. It’s my mother. I ignore her call, the fourth today, so I can enjoy a moment of peace after meeting with Barbara. However, I recall what my mom said before she dropped me off at my new apartment in the city two months ago: ‘If you don’t answer by the fifth call, I’m calling the police. You hear me, Cleopatra? Five calls.’

About a year ago, I had what Barbara calls ‘a mental breakdown’, and ever since my mother has been in mom-to-the-rescue mode. But what they don’t understand is that when you wake up as Cleopatra, you wake up with responsibilities. No amount of therapy or pills will change that. For years I didn’t even know. People kept talking to me about her, the pharaoh like they expected me to be her. So I adapted my own version, a contemporary Cleopatra. I brushed my hair every day, I slept in Egyptian cotton sheets, I took Greek lessons. But it wasn’t enough. They still talked about her, and that’s what led to my ‘mental breakdown’.

I lie down on my bed and wait for the inevitable fifth call.

‘That’s cutting it close, Cleopatra.’

I shrug even though she can’t see me.

‘How are you?’ she says.

‘Fine.’

‘And the job hunt?’

‘I’ve been sending out my resume every day.’ I don’t have a resume, but part of my ‘rehabilitation’ is finding a job.

‘Any responses?’

‘No, not yet. It’s competitive out here in the city, a lot of people, you know?’

‘I’m sure. Have you been spending time with your friends?’

‘Loads of time. We’re always doing crazy stuff around the city.’ I actually don’t have any friends in the city. I spend most of my time in my apartment with Pharaoh Cleopatra, but my mom and Barbara like to think I’m beloved by the people, just like my namesake.

‘That’s lovely dear, we can’t wait to hear all about them when you come home.’

By we, she means herself and her partner, Alice, her longtime friend, who divorced a man and professed her love for my mother. Just like that Alice and my mom became Alice and Ann, lesbian dream team, going on ‘business’ trips every other weekend.

My mother tells me about her and Alice’s vacation to France, which is the kind of place I imagine women who have recently discovered their sexuality go to make up for lost time. ‘Did you and Alice try certain things?’ I ask.

‘We did try snails.’

‘I was thinking more along the lines of clams and oysters.’

If she gets it, she doesn’t let on. Instead, she tells me about wine tasting in Burgundy, and I imagine Ann licking her burgundy soaked fingers after a feel inside Alice’s clam on the elevator up to the Eiffel tower. Alice’s face covered in burgundy wine after taking a deep swig from Ann’s oyster in a dark corner of the Louvre.

Ann’s oyster. My whole body once slid out of Ann’s oyster, and now, Alice is doing God knows what up there. My reverie evolves into me emerging from Ann’s oyster and Alice getting right in there, licking my little burgundy head. My mom’s voice interrupts the scene.

‘Everyone’s coming over tomorrow at two, so I’ll pick you up at eleven, okay?’

‘Yeah, sure.’ Thanksgiving tomorrow. Always a bore since I have no cousins that live in the area, so it’s just me, my mom, and a bunch of other old people who are always complaining about something. Their health, their weight, the price of car insurance these days. It drags on.

‘Well, I better go, dear. Lots of cooking to do. And don’t forget to take the vitamins I gave you. I mean the ones that help with your moods. I love you so much. Bye, bye.’

I hang up and close my eyes. My arms stretch out as if I’m making a snow angel.

I’m lying naked in the desert. The sun is so warm on my face and the wind blows sand onto my body. I feel something. The warmth of another person’s arm pressed against my own.

In my bedroom, I push my hand down my pants to that perfect spot between my legs, where my middle finger aligns with the hole between my lips.

In the desert, the person beside me moves their hand to that perfect spot as well.

My finger enters the wetness between my lips and slides up to my clit, bringing the wet with it.

It’s my uncle, Andrew.

I massage my clit, my finger moving in soft circles.

He rolls over so he’s on top of me. He kisses me on the mouth, the chin, the nipples, the belly button until his face is between my legs, and all I can see is his silver hair, his brown eyebrows, his eyelids, and the bridge of his nose.

I push harder on my clit and move my finger faster.

Andrew’s hair is growing longer and blonder. He’s turning into Alice licking my clam.

The waves of orgasm begin, so I rush to forget Alice by concentrating hard on the details of Andrew’s face until the head of hair between my legs is short and silver again.

I’m about to orgasm. Faces flash in my mind: Andrew, Alice, my chemistry partner from tenth grade. And finally, when the moment comes, my body jolts and the face that springs into my head is my mother’s. I try to bring back Andrew, but it’s too late, I moan, my mom’s thick soft skin filling my mind.

I carefully remove my finger from my now very sensitive clit and a strong sense of caring love for my mother emanates through my whole body.

 

The next day, when I get to Alice and Ann’s, the image of Alice and Ann eating each other out haunts me. A photo of them smiling on the beach becomes a scene of Alice choking on sand after going down on Ann. A photo of them on a golf course turns into Ann getting knocked in the head by a rogue golf ball as she’s licking Alice’s vagina. My mom walks in with a lump on her head. Is that real?

‘Cleopatra? Cleopatra!’ I concentrate on my mom’s eyes, so like Andrew’s. ‘For the third time, will you please set the table?’

I set it for twenty-three people, one of them being Andrew. He normally spends Thanksgiving at his wife’s parents’ house, but, as I, fortunately, learned this morning, both her parents died a few months ago. I’m sure he’s as excited about this development as I am. After all, he did come onto me first.

 

It all began when I was sixteen. My mom used to drop me off at his house while she went away on weekend ‘business’ trips, which I should’ve realized was a lie. Librarians don’t go on business trips. But back then I cared more about the hair on my upper lip than about anything related to my mom’s life.

Most weekends at my uncle’s went by without incident. When he and his wife were home, I’d lay on their couch watching HBO. When they were out, I’d go through my aunt’s underwear drawer, examining her lingerie to see what kind women were supposed to wear, and read my uncle’s unpublished manuscript, The Mountain Man, a story about a man who abandons his mundane capitalist-imposed lifestyle for a solitary one wandering a mountain range in some unknown land. I’ll spare you the details and just say, a book to be left on the shelf.

A few months later while browsing his library, I stumbled upon The Mountain Man II, the ex-rated version of the original. Imagine my delight at this discovery, porn written by my uncle. But after a hundred pages, I was crestfallen. Every chapter was the same. The Mountain Man finds a woman who begs him to fuck her, he sticks his penis in a hole on her body, she screams with pleasure, and he thrusts to completion under a waterfall, in the depths of a cave, or on the back of a moose. It was almost as boring as the original, even for a horny-but-sexually-inexperienced teen.

But I still read the whole thing, just in case. And one story struck me.

The mountain man finds a young girl lost in the forest. While helping her find her way back to salvation, she pounces on him, begging to give him a blow job. She won’t get off her knees until he gives in to her wishes. The moment he comes she transforms into a shriveled-up old woman because, as the Mountain Man somehow miraculously knows, she’s actually a witch posing as a teenage girl to prey on the sexual desires of men.

The young girl in the story had long black hair like me, green eyes like me, freckles like me. And occasionally when my mom picked me up she would ask, ‘How was the little witch?’

My uncle wanted me to give him a blow job.

After that, nothing was the same. Behind every smile and every goodnight hug, I knew there was the image of my lips around his penis.

I had always thought he was hot for an uncle with his silver hair and sky blue eyes even if he did wear slip-on shoes sometimes, but I had never thought anything more of it. Until The Mountain Man II. Now when I thought of him, the place that was reserved for the boy sitting behind me in homeroom tingled. He became more than my hot uncle — he was now my hot uncle with a penis.

But before I could do anything about it, my mom stopped going on ‘business’ trips, and I no longer saw my uncle except at his wife’s birthday party or my grandmother’s funeral or some other family gathering where blow jobs seemed inappropriate. So, I figured he would signal to me when it was our time.

It’s been seven years, and I’m still waiting.

When the clock strikes two, I position myself in a chair with a clear view of the front door and watch for Andrew, ignoring the arriving guests who approach me so I won’t miss him.

Thirty-seven minutes late, Andrew arrives with his wife, Sasha.

I avoid him and talk to other male family members. A man likes to know other men are interested in a woman before pursuing her, or at least that’s what I read in a magazine once. When Andrew heads into the dining room, I hover behind him, stalling to straighten a picture frame as he chooses his seat. And when he does, I slip into the chair next to him.

‘Cleopatra, so good to see you,’ he says. ‘You’re looking as lovely as ever. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were the pharaoh reincarnated. Your mom tells me you’re living in the city now, how’s that going?’

The pharaoh reincarnated? ‘Oh you know, it’s a city, people here, people there.’ What does he mean by that?

Someone passes him the plate of turkey. ‘Turkey?’ he asks, holding up a forkful of meat.

Turkey, right. I can read between the lines. ‘I’ve been dying for some.’

He places a large slice of turkey with a piece of skin attached on my plate. An implication of his penis type — big and uncircumcised. He picks up his fork and brushes his elbow against my upper arm. Touch.

For the rest of dinner, he talks to Alice, who is sitting on the other side of him, but every now and again he bumps his arm against mine to remind me that I’m the one he wants to feel. I lightly bump his back so he knows I understand.

Cleopatra, the pharaoh reincarnated. If I’m the pharaoh reincarnated, does that make him Julius Caesar? There is the same age difference between us, and Julius had been married to someone else. Sasha sits across the table from us, glaring at Andrew between bites of potato, the sexual tension is so obvious. I hit his elbow a bit harder to get his attention. He turns to me.

‘I’m sorry, this turkey is just so hard, it’s almost impossible to cut.’

‘That’s all right.’ He winks and turns back to Alice. Sasha is now staring at Andrew, scowling. I have found my Julius and she knows it.

 

Pharaoh Cleopatra welcomes me when I get back to the city. ‘It’s strange, but I almost missed you. How was Thanksgiving with Ann and Alice?’

‘Very informative. As we could’ve predicted, Barbara’s been wrong this whole time. I’m not just Cleopatra, I’m you. Or I guess, a newer version of you.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’

I grab a pair of scissors and sit down in front of her. ‘Oh, you’ll see it.’ I chop my long dark hair into an Elizabeth Taylor-style Cleopatra cut, straight across the shoulders with thick bangs.

 

‘Have a seat, Cleopatra. That’s a nice haircut. What inspired that?’ Barbara asks when I enter her office.

‘You think so? I was just flipping through a magazine while I was at my mom’s and saw that bangs were in. I’ve always wanted to be in.’

‘It looks good.’ She shifts in her chair. ‘How did you feel being back at your mother’s after two months in your own place?’

I knew small talk wouldn’t last long. ‘Great.’

‘After the incident last year, and now living on your own for the first time, as well as your mother’s lifestyle change a few years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had some mixed feelings about it.’

‘I’m really happy my mom found someone who cares about her. My dad was a bastard, openly cheating on her for ten years. He broke her heart and turned her into a fool without a second thought. Alice would never do something like that. They love each other.’

‘Right. Good. I’m happy you feel that way. I notice you mentioned your father. How are you feeling about his absence at this time of year?’

‘The same way I feel about it every time of year, grateful.’

‘When was the last time you saw him?’

‘Does it matter?’ Barbara’s face tells me it does. ‘Two years ago? Three maybe? It was at my grandmother’s funeral.’

‘How did you feel seeing him at such a vulnerable time?’

‘Sick to my stomach. His chubby body packaged up in a tight Armani suit. I’m not a vegetarian, but even I can’t handle pink meat encased in artificiality.’

‘Do you think there’s a connection between your resentment for your father and your desire for your uncle?’

The word psychoanalyst finally makes sense. ‘Oh, Barbara.’ I shake my head. ‘Have you been listening to anything I’ve said?’ I want to shout, ‘My uncle is Julius Caesar, you dunce!’ but Barbara wouldn’t like that. ‘My father and my uncle are incomparable. Andrew took care of me when my dad was gone, probably out fucking girls closer in age with me than with himself. They are on two completely separate planes of existence.’

Barbara scratches on her notepad for a few minutes. I wonder what she’s writing: ‘I am a fool for trying to compare her father and her uncle’ or ‘who the hell gave me this degree?’ In any case, I’m sure she’s not feeling confident about her career choice.

‘All right, let’s switch gears a bit. I want to talk about what happened last year.’

‘Great.’ I roll my eyes. She brings this up every other session.

‘You still don’t want to talk about it?’

‘It doesn’t matter what I want, it’s referenced just in my being named Cleopatra. You know, Barbara, it must be nice to go home, sit with your little dog or cat or whatever you’re into, come to work in those God-awful clothes. No one would expect any more from you. You live as Barbara, indistinguishable from the millions of other Barbaras. Now imagine your name is Oprah, and everywhere you go people talk to you about Oprah Winfrey. You don’t even know if you like Oprah Winfrey, but you sure start to learn a lot about her — how old she is, how many siblings she has, how her talk show has saved people’s lives. You wonder if you know more about her than you know about yourself. But you’re still you, with your horrible clothes and mediocre advice. Let’s be honest, you’re not changing anyone’s life with questions like, ‘How did you feel about being back at your mother’s?’ You can never compare to The Real Oprah. And every day you’re reminded of that. So maybe now you can try and understand what it’s like to be Cleopatra.’

She opens her mouth, shuts it, opens it again, and says, ‘That’s it for this session.’

Typical Barbara. Tell her the truth and she doesn’t know how to respond.

My mom calls when I get home from my appointment. She had a little chat with Barbara and apparently, we had a ‘breakthrough’ session. She’s ecstatic, and so am I. Now she’ll stop calling every day.

 

Every day, I am filling my role as the pharaoh reincarnated more. I bought a headdress online with red gems and a cobra emerging from the top to wear when I’m feeling especially pharaoh-esque. It arrived yesterday and I haven’t taken it off since. It was a little uncomfortable to sleep in, but it was an important step in becoming the pharaoh reincarnated in both my conscious and unconscious minds.

I watch the Pharaoh Cleopatra in the hallway mirror, studying her mannerisms. I turn my head, move my hands, smile, speak. She coaches me. ‘No teeth, you’re not a Miss America contestant. Soften the eyebrows. I want ‘I don’t give a fuck’ eyelids.’ I continue until we move as one.

And for the final stage in my transformation, I go to an exotic animal pet shop.

Inside it smells like a melange of sawdust, baby shampoo, and pee. A man whose name tag reads Howard awaits me behind the cash register.

‘Hello,’ I say. ‘Do you sell snakes here?’

He sighs as if the answer is obvious. ‘We have corn snakes, milk snakes, rat snakes. What kind are you looking for?’

‘I’m looking for an asp.’

‘An asp?’ He laughs. ‘You can’t buy venomous snakes in pet shops.’

‘What a shame. In that case, I’d like to buy one rat snake.’ If their names are any indication, that one will be attracted to flesh.

 

Ann picks me up from my apartment two days before Christmas Eve. She’s about to take off for the suburbs when she turns and looks at me. ‘Is everything okay Cleopatra?’

‘Everything’s great.’

‘Well, after last year and now you have this haircut… You look an awful lot like Elizabeth Taylor.’

‘Elizabeth Taylor? Is she the one from Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’

‘Cleopatra, I know you had that breakthrough session with Barbara, and let me tell you, I was thrilled to hear it, but if all that pharaoh business is starting up again, you can tell me. I won’t be upset.’

‘It’s not. I promise. I feel great, more like myself than ever. I haven’t thought about the pharaoh in months.’

‘Okay, but if it does start again you’ll tell me, right?’

‘Of course.’

An hour later, we pull into the driveway of the lesbian abode to find Julius’ car there. I didn’t expect to see him until tomorrow.

‘What’s he doing here?’

‘Alice asked him to come over to help her hang a shelf or something.’

Or he knew I was coming over and came up with a plan to be here at the time of my arrival. I rush up to my bedroom before he can see me dressed so commonly. He’ll have to wait until tomorrow for my royal appearance, even if he is desperate to see me.

 

The next morning, I put on a simple white sleeveless dress, gold earrings, a gold collar necklace, and gold heels. I do my eye makeup: green eyeshadow up to my eyebrows and eyeliner under my eyes, out to my temples, and back over my eyelids. I carry the large headdress in a bag and sneak out of the house, avoiding Ann and Alice.

Just as I was hoping, Julius’ driveway is empty and they still keep a spare key in their mailbox. I let myself into their home and go to each room, examining the carpets. The scarlet and gold oriental style rug in the living room will do brilliantly. The colors are perfect, scarlet for passion, and gold for divinity.

I place my hands on the black leather couch to push it off the carpet. The cold, uninviting surface transports me back to my father’s apartment, the one he got just after my parents divorced. Whenever I went over there, which was rarely, I’d lay on his bare leather couch watching movies with goosebumps all over my arms and legs while he went out doing God knows what.

The memory of one particular night forces its way into my mind. My father had drunk himself to sleep in the kitchen and his friend tiptoed into the living room where I was watching a Disney movie.

‘Isn’t it past your bedtime?’ He leaned over the back of the couch so he was looking down at me.

‘I don’t have a bedtime.’

‘Come here, let’s dance.’ I didn’t want to, but he came around to the other side and pulled me onto my feet, placing my hand on his shoulder. ‘Okay, now to be a good feminine counterpart, you have to frame. Push hard against my hand.’

He tried to waltz with me but I was nervous, unsure of the steps.

‘I told you to frame!’ He shouted shaking my arm around. ‘You call this framing? Your arm should be firm. Push harder.’ I was pushing as hard as my eleven-year-old arm would allow.

Toward the end of the dance, his hands wandered onto parts of my body that made me wish my mom or even my dad was there to stop him. But they weren’t, so I closed my eyes and imagined I was the Pharaoh Cleopatra. She, unlike me, was strong enough to live through this.

I remove my hands from the leather as fast as I can, shaking the memory out of them. None of that matters anymore because now I am the Pharaoh Cleopatra.

I roll up the scarlet and gold carpet and drag it down the hall to Julius’ office. Then, I take off my white tunic, stuffing it behind an armchair, and put on my headdress.

Julius won’t be here for another two hours, but I don’t want to risk Sasha coming home first and finding me, so I unroll the carpet then re-roll it with myself inside, fully naked aside from my accessories. I practice rotating out of it a few times to make sure I land on my side, facing the door with my headdress intact. Once I’ve perfected my landing, I fold myself up in the carpet for the final time and wait. It smells like old socks, and crumbs and dirt rub against my body. It’s hard to breathe. As I’m inching up toward the top hole of the carpet to get some air, the door clicks open. I stop moving and listen. Is it him? I didn’t expect him so soon, but who else could it be? He must’ve gotten out of work early. I push my body to the left and spin out of the carpet, just like I practiced. I stick the landing on my side, my entire naked body on display. Julius is there, but he’s not alone. Alice is standing across from him with her top off.

I close my eyes. Am I hallucinating? Julius and Alice? That can’t be right. When I open them again, Alice is still there next to Julius with her sagging pepperoni nipples out. What in the name of Cleopatra is she doing here?

They’re too stunned by my royal transformation to say anything.

I get up unable to comprehend what I’m seeing.

‘Alice? Really?’ I shake my head as I search around behind the armchair for my tunic. ‘Alice.’ I pull the white tunic over my head, then look at them again. And there they are, two bold-faced cheaters. ‘How could you?’ I leave them there, sickened by the thought that I ever thought Andrew was Julius.

 

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Alice and I don’t make eye contact once throughout breakfast, but Ann is too flustered with dinner preparations to say anything about our hostility.

After finishing my eggs, I go up to my room and stay there until Ann calls me down for our annual Christmas dinner. I sit at the table first to claim my space. Alice, noting my place, sits on the other side of the table. Smart woman. Andrew arrives last and is forced to sit in the only chair left, which happens to be next to me. He walks over and clears his throat as he sits down. ‘Cleopatra.’

‘Andrew.’ I can’t believe he has the audacity to say my name after lying about who he is. While we eat, our elbows stay far, far apart. And I devour my food at olympic speed so I won’t have to breathe too much of the polluted cheater air.

Just as I’m getting up to leave with my empty plate, Andrew turns to me. ‘I just need to know, what were you doing in my office like that?’

‘You told me you were Julius Caesar.’

‘I, what?’

I was going to let this go but his denial enrages me. I clink my glass with my fork. ‘Everyone, I have an announcement.’ All eyes in the room focus on me. ‘This man next to me is not only a cheater but also a liar. He told me he was Julius Caesar, but he’s not. He’s a plebeian like the rest of you.’

Andrew laughs. ‘That’s right, Cleopatra, I’m not Julius Caesar and I never said I was. Thanks for clearing that up.’

My voice rises. ‘You did say you were Julius Caesar, one month ago at this table, which is why I rolled myself up in your dirty old carpet.’

He stands up and grabs my arm, leading me away. ‘Sorry everyone, our little joke needs some rehearsing.’

‘Get your disgusting pleb hands off of me.’ I rip my arm out of his grip and turn back to the group of people sitting at the table. ‘Andrew made me believe he was Julius Caesar, just like he’s trying to make you believe this is a joke. Don’t listen to him or you might end up rolling out of a carpet to find him with her too.’ I point to Alice. ‘That fake lesbian.’

Alice starts laughing and says, ‘All right, where is this joke going?’

She too thinks she can lie her way out of this? ‘Another cheater! Alice was in Andrew’s office with her nipples out and her oyster-licking tongue down phony Julius’ throat.’

‘She rolled out of a damn carpet naked with a big gold hat on her head for Christ’s sake!’ Alice shouts back.

‘Big gold hat? That’s my royal headdress, you despicable peasant.’ No respect whatsoever. Pharaoh Cleopatra would never stand for this. I leave the table, making my way toward the front door when I’m frozen by a familiar sound. Deep stomach wails rise above the voices, and chills run down my back. It’s the same sound Ann made every time she’d find proof of my dad’s infidelities and kick him out of the house only this time it’s not stifled by her pillow.

I forgot about her in all of this, but what’s done is done. I keep walking and she runs after me, grabbing me from behind.

‘Cleopatra, I should’ve been there for you. I should’ve known it was happening again.’ She sobs onto my back. ‘You can move back in? Or change your name? I don’t know what would help. Just tell me what would help.’

I pull her hands off of me. ‘There’s nothing you can do for me. There’s nothing anyone can do for me.’

 

In this life, I will never be treated as I deserve to be. People will lie and cheat and violate you. There is only one option if I want to live like the Goddess I am.

I go to the glass case in the kitchen where I’ve been keeping Asp, the rat snake. He’s not venomous, but if he were to bite a major artery it might be enough. I take him out and hold him close to my neck, squeezing my eyes shut in anticipation of teeth entering flesh. Before I feel anything I’ll be dead. Nothing happens. Or maybe it’s over. I open my eyes. I’m still in my kitchen, and Asp is staring at the wall.

‘Come on, Asp, just one bite,’ I say, moving his face closer to my neck. Nothing.

I remember reading on a snake care forum that if you trap them, they’ll bite you. I place him in a corner and approach him on my knees so he might bite my femoral artery. He hisses and lunges for my lower thigh. His teeth sink in. It hurts more than I expected. I scream and hit him. He bites my skin harder, his jaw locking.

I stand up and run to Pharaoh Cleopatra, Asp’s body bouncing each time I bend my knee. ‘What do I do? How do I get him off?’

Her eyebrows furrow in concern. She steps out of the mirror, something she’s never done before, holds my shoulders, and says, ‘Try not to scream.’ She grabs Asp and rips him off my leg, pulling a chunk of meat with him. A fountain of blood pours out of the hole and a surge of pain runs from my hip down to my ankle.

‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ I scream and try to grab her, but she escapes back into the mirror. ‘You think you can just do that and then leave?’ I punch her mirror reflected face until it turns into a web. Until it could be anyone on the other side.

Andrew. Punch. Alice. Punch. My dad. Punch. My dad’s friend. Punch.

Until the whole mirror is in shards on the ground. Until my fist is covered in cuts and blood and bruises. Until the corners of my vision start to turn black, and my body is too heavy to carry. I slump down onto the floor, the black enveloping my eyesight and the sound of sirens filling my ears. My mom appears before me like a hologram. She touches my face and says something, but I can’t hear her over the sirens. I focus on her mouth — her tongue hitting her teeth, her mouth forming an O, her lips rubbing together, her bared teeth grinding against each other.

‘Cleopatra.’

Doesn’t she have anything better to say? But at least she’s here, it would be lonely without her in the dark.