It was empty. The last pack I had promised myself for the foreseeable future was empty except the battered foil wrapper and a few flakes of tobacco at the bottom that rattled around like bones, drifting into my pocket like toast crumbs in bed sheets.
And, of course, I still wanted one. I wanted to step outside into the screaming wind and the soul-leeching cold, Winter's ministers tearing into my cheeks and fingers until the inside of my mouth felt cold. Failure didn't surprise me anymore. I'd written it in pencil on every cigarette I'd smoked for the past month. Failure. しっぱい. Debil. できない. Fracaso. Weakness. I'd exhausted every word I knew to deprecate myself across three languages and even with all the graphite and negativity destroying my lungs, I wanted another cigarette.
So I found myself trudging out of the shower and pulling on a pair of sweats, reflexively looking back at the flat sheets of the bed where she should've been a moonlit lump; my ever-lovable, presumably forever lost lump of Rachel. I threw on my coat without putting on a shirt, grabbed a pair of gloves, and opened the garage door. Sitting at the steering wheel of the sleeping car, helplessness overwhelmed me and I brought the engine to life. When the cabin lit up, the seatbelt warning smacking my drowsy, desperate head around, I saw what I hadn't seen in the passenger seat: a snake.
A failed biologist and a recovering medical school hopeful, I could tell it was venomous by the pit between its nostrils and its eyes which it locked eagerly on mine. All coiled up, I couldn't tell its exact length, but four or five feet seemed to fit with its mass. I could swear it was smiling at me.
I should've run, I should've called animal control, I should've done lots of things, but instead I sat there in apprehensive half-dread, half-excitement, paralyzed. The snake dropped its head on the elbow rest between our seats and flicked its tongue at me facetiously. There was something bizarrely Oscar Wilde in the snake, that look of sardonic amusement in its eyes. It had the laidback manner of a predator promised easy prey. I pushed myself against the car door.
"It's a rather lovely car you have. Leather has always appealed to me," so spoke the serpent. "Where are you going at this hour?"
"I see. Perhaps to buy cigarettes?"
"Yes, actually. Are you going to kill me?"
The snake opened its mouth wide in a grotesque mockery of a sigh. "How pedestrian do you think I am? I'm a talking king cobra for goodness' sake! No, I have no desire to kill you, only help you realize what you desire. You see, I don't smoke, but I came across this package of cigarettes earlier this evening and I was wondering if you'd like to take them off my hands. Or lack thereof, rather."
"Sure," I blurted, an uneasiness welling up in the base of my spine. "I'm
trying to quit though."
"Haven't you noticed you can't do anything? 'Trying' is a term reserved for those who don't fail in every endeavor they undertake. Rather, you sir, in my estimation, are 'floundering.' Desperate to find what you actually want and entirely incapable of such simple self-analysis. For shame, what do you hope to achieve by 'struggling' to quit? A sense of self-worth? It's disgusting, really. Regardless, you would like these cigarettes, no?"
"Yes," escaped the defeated murmur. "Yes, but I won't take them."
The snake crawled into my lap, his head on my shoulder, his crown flared. The smooth contractions of his muscles and the weightlessness of his bones was eerie. I stifled a shudder. So much for a smoke, I thought.
"Oh, I think you will take them. I'm rather sure of it. You haven't the constitution to refuse."
"Get off me."
"And if I should choose not to?"
"I'll kill you."
"We both know how unlikely that is. Now please, humor me, have a cigarette. You happen to be wearing my patience exceptionally thin," the snake spat into my ear.
"No," I said steadier, louder. "I will not."
"Unrealistic people are certainly a chore," the snake muttered, wrapping his tail around a cigarette and bringing it towards my face. "They're so much like children."
"I will not smoke that," I resolutely stated aloud, more to myself than the snake.
"If not now, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, next week. You haven't the power to grapple with demons my friend, however small they may be. It simply isn't in you."
"Shut up already. I'm going back to bed."
"How rude. I was only offering you what you clearly want."
"No, no you're not. You've turned a cigarette into some damn metaphor and you haven't a clue what I want."
"Oh I do. Fame, fortune, power, and all those miscellaneous vanities men hold so dear. You're not all that unique, you want these things."
I stepped out of the car. In the dark of the open garage, I felt the snake grip tighter to me to fight the cold. A bolt of fire ran down from the base of my skull to my feet, he had shown weakness.
"I want what I want, even if I don't know what that is yet. Right now, I want to go to bed and tomorrow I want to bake cookies."
"How superficial. You want to be more attractive? More self-assured? You want a cigarette, accept it at face value. I'm prepared to help you with this 'metaphor' of yours as well, but let's take baby steps."
"Go die in a fire! I want chocolate chip cookies."
I tore the snake off me before he could protest and stomped on his head. I drove the heel of my boot into his spine and felt his ribs cracking like toothpicks. He reared to bite my leg and I stuck my foot into his jaw and split his skull wide open against the floor of the garage. Grabbing him by the tail, I threw his thrashing body into the driveway and drove over him. Reverse, drive, reverse, drive, my tires slick with snake guts and squealing on the blacktop. At last, the rage bubbling out of me, I pulled the car in the garage, parked, and cut the engine. The sobering rush of silence and night air helped me gather myself.
I shut the garage door, poured myself a whiskey with shaking hands, and turned on the television. Watching music videos, my eyes stinging with fatigue, I finally slipped into a victorious sleep that promised tomorrow, the world was mine. And I would not meet it looking for an ash tray.