Kate sat on the subway train, cradling her cell phone to her ear and chatting to Angela about the weekend.
“And you’ll never guess who Sophie went home with Friday night,” she said, her green-as-envy eyes glittering with glee. “Nick Satterly! Yes, Laura’s Nick! They both shared a martini, and several beers, and then Nick gave Sophie a ‘ride home’. To his place, of course. What? No, you know Laura was out of town over the weekend. Some business with her brother.” Kate shifted her cell phone to her other ear, crossing her legs. She could feel her pantyhose chafing her unpleasantly beneath her skirt in her unmentionable place. “No, I’m not jealous,” she said. “Why would I be? I’m not his wife. Laura, on the other hand…”
She fell silent as a woman sat down next to her. On the subway Kate expected someone to sit next to her, eventually, but this woman set off her alarm bells. She had frazzled black hair, dark black eyes, and dark black eyebrows in a long face with narrow slits for a nose. She wore a black dress and was covered like a Christmas Tree in gaudy, cheap Dollar Store jewelry that looped and dangled from her in mad disarray. She looked like a crack-head Cher with a rat-king nesting in her hair. Kate’s nose crinkled in disgust.
“…Well, Laura will probably be mad,” Kate finished lamely, too distracted by the woman to be colorful or hyperbolic about the weekend affair. She listened to Angela for a moment— her excited gasping and wondrous hawing—and then answered her subsequent question. “No, I’m the only one from the office that knows. You, Ben, Arthur, Madeline—everybody else left the bar early. Only I stayed behind and saw them leave together. And then Sophie called me Saturday morning, giving me the low-down. And it was a new low for her, for sure. Down, down, down low…”
Kate tried to giggle, but realized that crack-head Cher was staring at her. Kate turned away from the strange woman, presenting her back as a barrier of privacy. The woman did not seem to take the hint. Rather, she spoke to Kate freely.
“Who is Sophie?” she asked. Her voice was husky, like heady smoke. She smelled of strange, earthy incense—burning fragrance within a deep cave. “Is she your friend?”
Kate sighed in irritation. “What is it to you?” she demanded, shaking her head in disbelief and continuing to talk to Angela. “No, not anyone important. Just some weird lady on the train…”
“You do not speak of her as a friend would,” the woman said.
“Stop harassing me, you rude, smelly crack-whore,” Kate snapped. “Or I will call the police.”
“Deep underground here?” the woman said. Her look of skepticism was replaced by a small, mysterious smile. “This is my world. No one comes unless I wish them to. I am the Pythian priestess.”
“You are a wacko, is what you are,” Kate said. “She’s a druggie,” she then explained to Angela on her phone. She turned toward the woman again, puffing up with anger and righteousness. “I am not going to give you money,” she added. “I don’t even carry change on me. And if you think I am going to give you my credit card, you are badly mistaken.”
The woman’s small smile widened to reveal bright white teeth, flashing all the whiter in the sooty ash that overspread her pale face. She reminded Kate of a gypsy, or the stereotype of a gypsy. Her teeth were so long and narrow that it looked like she had no gums.
“I find no worth in any such thing as that,” the gypsy woman said. “I do wonder about your worth as a friend, however.”
“How dare you!” Kate exclaimed, sliding down a seat away from the woman. “And for the record, Sophie and I are not friends. We are coworkers.” She spoke quickly into the phone. “But Angela and I are besties. Always have been. Always will be.”
“Then it is very unprofessional,” the woman continued. She slid closer to Kate upon the subway seats, crowding Kate against the end of the row. As she slid nearer her cheap jewelry rattled and the fabric of her black dress hissed. “But who am I to say such things? The world is run by unprofessional people. Unprofessional gods, at that! Did you know that prophecy is simply gossip between the gods? It is true. Gossip is divine. Gossip becomes true, even if it isn’t, because the gods demand that it be so.”
The woman then folded her arms, each hand grasping the other forearm. Her skeletal wrists were entwined with many coiled circlets that clanked and jangled like bells.
“Since gossip is divine,” she said, “I will bless you, Kate Huxley. By the deep womb of Delphi, may you speak a sibilant sibyl’s song. May the twin-headed snake seek you in your most private moments…and places.”
Kate stood, then— losing all patience—and walked to the other end of the subway car. When she sat down she glanced back, but the gypsy woman was no longer sitting where she had been. Kate paid it no more mind. Instead, she took up chatting with Angela where she had left off, telling her all of the scandalous details about the affair over the weekened. She became quite happily lost in the lurid flow of it all and never reflected a moment enough to wonder how the weird gypsy woman knew her last name.
Kate did not stop talking to Angela on her phone about Nick and Sophie until she was face to face with Angela on the tenth floor of their firm’s office building, and even then she simply turned off her cell pone and spoke to Angela about them directly.
“He did not even pay for her Uber ride,” Kate said, laughingly. “Can you imagine?”
Angela smiled in mild amusement. She was very tall and skinny. “You know Nick’s always been that kind of guy. I think he has dated every woman in this building at one point or another. Not me, of course, but…well…others.” She eyed Kate’s pink sweater sideways while they both walked to their own corner of the floor. Behind them the maze of cubicles spread wide beneath florescent lights. Beyond the windows the sun rose sullenly between the crowding skyscrapers.
“But I’m sure Nick treated the other women better than Sophie,” Kate remarked. Her smile was somewhat bitter. “She said he didn’t even cuddle afterwards. He just sort of…ahem… he just rolled over and…hack…went to sleep…”
Hand to her chest, Kate coughed and hacked.
“Are you all right?” Angela asked.
Kate waved away her coworker’s concern. A moment passed, and so did the congestion. She continued speaking as before.
“What was she thinking?” she said, laughing sardonically. “As if Nick would use her for anything but a few jollies over the weekend! She’s not even sure…huck…that he wore…ack…a condom…”
Hunching over, Kate coughed and gagged, finally expelling something long and slimy from her throat. It slipped out and fell to the carpeted floor in a sinuous heap of scaly coils. Looking down at it in surprise, Kate saw that it was a snake— a small scarlet snake with pearly white fangs. It slithered toward the elevator. She watched it go with a feeling of relief, and an anticipation of mirth. She did not feel disgust or horror, nor did Angela show any.
The elevator doors opened as the snake reached them, and the snake coiled around Sophie’s ankle as she stepped out from the elevator. She did not seem to see it, but her face twinged as the snake bit her calf muscle through her silk pantyhose. Kate paid the snake no further mind, nor did Angela comment upon it at all, and the two women turned to greet Sophie as she walked slowly toward their habitual corner of the office.
Sophie appeared out of sorts and anxious. Her hoop earrings jittered like June bugs on a hot windowpane. Normally she wore makeup, but not today. Her face was sickly green with snake venom.
“Laura’s not here yet, is she?” she asked them.
Kate looked to Angela, and Angela shook her head. “I don’t think so. She’s not supposed to come back until tomorrow. Nick is here, though.”
The look of betrayal on Sophie’s face did not faze Kate in the least. The serpent bit at Sophie’s leg and foot several times, nearly tripping her as she stood upon her wedges.
“Kate,” she said, “you promised not to tell anyone.”
“I only told Angela,” Kate said. “And she’s my best friend. Just like you. Besties trust each other. We’re supposed to share everything.”
Sophie glanced nervously around the labyrinth of cubicles.
“I don’t want anyone else knowing about it,” she said, red-faced and heaving beneath her blouse. “I could lose my job. Nick could, too.”
Kate took Sophie by the hand. “There are plenty of other things to talk about,” she said. “And people. Did you know that Joe Plitschy in Accounting is getting fired? Hank Danforth told me that Joe bungled a few thousand dollars’ worth of numbers in the Hawthorne account. Some people think he’s addicted to pain meds and…hack…he doesn’t think of anything…blahaock… except taking them…”
Bending over, Kate coughed up another snake. It was orange, like fire, and it slithered toward a cubicle on the far side of the cubicles. Neither Angela or Sophie remarked upon it, though they clearly saw it. Kate continued talking as before.
“Anyway,” she said. “They are going to let him go at the end of the day.”
“I always liked Joe,” Angela said. “He reminds me of one of my dead uncles. Not the creepy one. The one that liked to give presents because he had no family of his own.”
“It was probably that back surgery,” Sophie said, still looking nervous as the snake loosened its fangs from her ankle. “I bet he has been in pain ever since returning from medical leave. Sitting at a desk without lumbar support doesn’t help. Even my back hurts sometimes.”
“Weekend activities can make things worse, too,” Kate said, making the snake at Sophie’s ankle bite her again.
Angela opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment saw Joe Plitschy hobbling toward the men’s restroom.
“There’s Joe there,” she said.
Joe’s face was bright red and his brow had broken out in a cascade of sweat. He was a rotund man—misshapenly so—and his girth twisted awkwardly with each cumbersome step he took. The orange snake which Kate had expelled had encoiled his chest. He held a hand against the wall for additional support.
“Going for his pills, I’ll bet,” Kate said. Her eyebrows hopped eagerly and she left the corner of the office, heading to Hank Danforth’s office. Leaning into his office from the door, she spoke to him briefly, then returned to Angela and Sophie. Danforth stepped out of his office and watched Joe Plitschy go into the restroom. He waited a moment and then went into the restroom himself.
“All things in due time, Kate,” Angela said, crossing her arms irritably.
Kate shrugged. “It’s for his own good.”
Shortly afterward, Hank emerged from the restroom. A minute or so later, Joe emerged, his eyes to the floor. He walked more slowly than before. The snake had tightened its coils around his chest, and had buried its fangs deep into the middle of his spine. The balding man cringed with every biting step as he went to his cubicle to pack his things. Eyes from the other cubicles followed him quizzically, then sympathetically. But no one said goodbye to him.
A few minutes later Kate, Angela, and Sophie went to their cubicles. The workday began for everyone except Joe Plitschy.
Kate had a lot of business to attend to. Not official work-related business; but social business. She was a confidante for many people in the office building. Ironically, she had earned this dubious station by sharing with everyone what others had shared with her. People felt like they could trust her because she trusted this and that person with another person’s secrets. Even now, when she was supposed to be filling out data tables and spreadsheets, she spent her time reading emails and sending emails concerning salacious information. She felt the snakes roil and coil in her chest, writhing with restless anticipation.
As the workers sat at their cubicles, working on their computers and reading emails, there rose many whispers between the cubicles among that peopled maze. The whispers were hushed, but together sounded like many snakes gathering in a sibilant storm.
Lunchtime came, and with it whole rivers of snakes spewing from Kate’s mouth. The multitudinous tangle in her chest uncoiled and spilled from her throat impossibly, like clowns from a clown car. Occasionally she hacked up a large nest of snakes—like a cat coughing up a hairball—and set them loose on the whole HR department, rolling among the cubicles like a pinball in an elaborate machine until it gradually unwound itself, leaving snakes everywhere to await the return of the workers from their break.
For Kate the release felt good. Thrilling. Cathartic. Orgasmic. Each expulsion of a snake was a tectonic rapture. She was the nexus, after all; the convergence and the floodgates of the garrulous flow. She spoke serpents into the world, and it pleased her to do so.
Everyone had a mess of snakes to struggle with as they returned to their cubicles. But no one had more snakes than Sophie as she returned to her desk. Her head hung heavy with snakes. She bowed beneath the weight of them, staring at the ground like a forlorn Medusa. No one spoke to her except Angela. Kate spoke about Sophieincessantly, and subsequently Nick and Laura.
Nick did not seem to mind any of it. He wore his snakes like trophies as he smiled his All-American golden boy smile and joked around with the other guys in the Acquisitions department. He was invulnerable. This did not so much provoke Kate’s ire toward him as much as provoke her ire toward Sophie and Laura. Laura was not there to protest, and Sophie was too overwrought to do anything about the snakes. And to try to fight against them did nothing but antagonize them. The more she tried to disentangle herself, the more riled the snakes became, biting her in waves of discontent.
And then things became worse. To everyone’s surprise, including her husband, Nick, Laura arrived for the latter part of the day. She appeared unhinged, and not only from apparent jetlag. One of her friends in HR had notified her of the affair via email. Everyone expected her to confront Nick and Sophie, and she did, hysterically. Nick hurried her to his office where the door muted her sobbing and screaming minimally. Meanwhile Kate crept nearby, listening at the door. Angela attempted to call her away, but Kate only smirked. There was a mixture of mischief and malice upon her face as she listened.
And then, abruptly, Laura was standing there, looking like a wartime refugee in the florescence of the overhead lights. Her blonde hair was disheveled. Her blouse and skirt were wrinkled and hitched up and down like she had been fighting herself. There were distraught tears streaming from her eyes, yet the look on her face was simple, overwhelming horror. She looked more like a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer rather than a victim of Monday gossip.
“How could you do this to me?” she said, her voice cracking. “Nick and I are getting a divorce now.”
At first Kate did not know to whom she addressed the question. Her surprise gave way quickly to supercilious disavowal.
“Sophie is the one that did it to you,” Kate said. “She slept with your husband.”
“Lots of people have slept with my husband,” Laura said, her voice hollow. “I don’t like it, but it’s the way we work.” The mournful dismay in her blue eyes hardened into ice. “But you…you had to talk about it. You had to spread it around where we work. We don’t have privacy anymore about it. You’ve shamed me more than Nick ever could. Everything is ruined.”
“It’s not my fault you don’t feel any shame about not being able to please your man,” Kate snapped. “You and Nick need to separate. You’ve needed to for a long time. If you had any self-respect you would know that, and do it. Right away.”
“I was happy,” Laura said, ignoring Kate. “We were happy. Happy enough for me. But then you ruined it. You ruined everything with your forked tongue.”
“You should have had your own house in order,” Kate said, smiling with faint satisfaction. “You should have had more self-respect.” She spoke loudly, then, so that everyone in the labyrinth of cubicles could hear her. “You should have divorced Nick for all of the other affairs he’s had. But you just let him walk all over you, and fuck whoever he wanted. You’ve got…hlack…no one…glack…to blame but…ack…yourself…”
Kate bent over, her hands on her knees while she heaved. Her neck bulged and her face reddened and then darkened to purple while her mouth stretched unnaturally wide. A giant python disgorged from her throat, landing heavily upon the floor. It slithered toward Laura and encoiled her. Laura shook her head slowly, ruefully, and let the snake have its fill. She could barely breathe.
“I hate you all,” she said faintly. “I hope you get what you deserve. I hope it comes back to bite you on the ass before it’s over…”
She disappeared into the snake’s unhinged jaws.
Kate entered the Ladies restroom. It was the last break before the end of the workday and she needed a moment to take a breather and relieve her bladder. She sat in a stall, tinkling and texting, and soon heard two women enter the restroom, talking. She knew them immediately. They were Angela and Sophie. They did not use the stalls, but stood near the sinks, Angela’s high heels clopping loudly on the bathroom tiles.
“I still feel bad about Laura,” Sophie said. “Friday night was…unplanned. All of us were at the bar and then you guys all left and I had had too much to drink. Kate was hitting on some random guy, trying to show off. I hate her sometimes. And Nick…Nick was so nice to me. I knew better, but I just felt so…so lonely. I hadn’t even been out on a Friday in over a month. I have no life, you know? I’m a loser. A guy hasn’t paid attention to me in forever. And then Nick was so nice and sweet and one thing led to another and I just…I feel awful.”
The water faucet hissed on, and Kate could hear Sophie splashing her face with water.
“Shit happens,” Angela said, “and then you die. We all make mistakes. Several mistakes in a row, too. It’s like playing a scratch-off lottery ticket. You win the jackpot— or Nickpot, I guess—and you are as surprised as anyone.”
“That’s for sure,” Sophie said, sighing. “Drink too much, sleep with a coworker, then tell another coworker about it. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have told Kate anything. She talks too much.”
“That’s because she has no life, either,” Angela said. Kate could virtually see her smirk through the stall door, so strong was the twist of her lips on that sharp tone. “And don’t feel bad about Nick and Laura. Their marriage has been doomed for a while now. You’re not the first woman he has taken back to their marriage bed for a one-night-stand. Last year he and Kate slept together. A couple of times, actually. She wanted him to leave Laura. But he wouldn’t do it. She was just another side-piece. Kate told me about it. Several times. Wouldn’t stop crying over him. God, I dreaded those phone calls.”
“She liked him that much?” Sophie said, incredulous. “But why? He wasn’t even good in bed. I’m not even sure I had an orgasm. It was over so quick…”
Kate did not see the snake slithering under the stall’s door, raising its head toward her spread knees. She was staring at her phone instead, but her mind was attending the conversation at the sink.
“Who knows why?” Angela said. “Kate’s always wanted what other people had, even if it wasn’t that good. Or maybe she hates Nick just like she hates herself and wants the both of them to be miserable together.” Angela tittered like a snake would if it could. “Whatever the reason, Kate is super-jealous of him and whoever he is with; whether it is Laura or some other girl on the side. She didn’t get over him as well as you have.”
“That’s just…sad,” Sophie said.
“That’s not even the worst part,” Angela said. “Afterward she was so upset that she tried to make Nick jealous. She went and got blackout-drunk at a bar and woke up with some guy. He never even told her his name. He left shortly after they had both woken up, but he left a gift for her to remember their romantic evening.”
Angela paused for a long time, and in the meantime Kate felt like she was falling down into the depths of the earth. Things swarmed over her in that terrible darkness.
“Kate has HIV.”
Sophie’s sharp intake of breath was a hiss, and Kate flinched painfully at the revelation. The snake speared itself into her womanhood and slithered its way into her womb.
“Kate has HIV?” Sophie said, aghast. “But she seems so healthy.”
“She’s on really expensive drugs to manage it,” Angela said. “She’s actually running out of money. I gave her a loan myself to help pay for her rent.” Angela tittered again. “It would be a shame if everyone at the firm found out about that, wouldn’t it? But then again, it might be divine comeuppance, too. She’s always been a busybody. Ever since college. Probably ever since she learned to talk. She doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.”
The restroom door opened and the two women left. Kate sat in the stall, stewing in her own venom. Bitterly she stared at nothing, her cell phone loosely gripped in her limp hand. Deep within her, the snake coiled in upon itself, constricting itself into a knot of self-loathing and hatred and despair. It was a two-headed snake and it entwined itself balefully, each end trying to eat the other in an interminable struggle. She wished she had never spoken it into existence.