The naked man on the bed was dying and he had no idea why.
Moonlight filtered through sheer curtains billowing before a window
next to the bed. He smelled the ocean, moaned, and tried to string
together thoughts. But there was neither logic nor pattern to the
things that flitted through his brain now: the canopy of a lone
tree silhouetted in a garden at twilight; the assured, fluid rustle
of an invisible animal moving through tall grass; the rubbery tart
taste of green apple; the musky redolence that hung in the air
after sex. Questions came to him like raindrops: What is my name?
How did I get here? What is the fire that has replaced my
He asked himself all these things and could not come up with a
single coherent answer; in the last hour his consciousness had been
reduced to sensory fragments. No past. No future. Just terrifying
blips of the now.
He was aware, for example, that his vision kept blurring yellow,
then clearing and blurring again as if he had been cast adrift in a
small boat in a sea storm, pelted in the eyes with salt water, able
only to see the horizon when he crested the waves. His teeth
chattered. His fingers, toes, and scalp prickled and stung. His
left thigh and right armpit felt swollen, hollow and tight,
throbbing so he swore his skin might burst. Deep in his ears, his
own erratic heartbeat backfired.
He lost the instinct to respire. It happened in an instant. Now
every breath was cruel labor, a forced expansion of the chest, a
deep drawing to fill the lungs. An excruciating pressure built in
his skull directly behind his eyes. Scream, he thought. Scream and
someone will hear you and come to help.
But he managed only an impotent blatting noise. He felt his heart
stall, cough, then throttle up again, like an ill-tuned engine
choking on stale diesel.
Water, he thought. Need water. He wanted to bring his hands to his
mouth, so they might somehow move his tongue aside to let him
swallow, but he could not; his wrists seemed anchored above and
behind his head. His legs would not move, either.
For a moment he faded. Then a tremendous cinching occurred inside
his rib cage, and he flailed back toward the shore of
consciousness. Breathe. Breathe.
His vision was almost gone. Everything in the room, the bed, the
ceiling, the curtains, the moonlight, seemed to submerge into a
brackish yellow liquid.
Then he was aware of a presence in the liquid with him, a shadowed
form that swam his way. The shadow seemed tapered, cowled, vaguely
sexual. He caught the scent of caves and rotted logs emanating from
somewhere within the form. That and a dry clattering noise.
"Help me," he managed to whisper.
The shadow arched and rose over him. A voice came to him as if
through yards and yards of water: "I am helping you: Mark the
The voice continued on, but the man took no heed of the confusing
words. He was intent on a sudden weight against his chest, cool,
slick, and writhing, and the voice in the liquid became a chant
heard at a distance.
Something cut jaggedly into the side of his throat. Fluid fire
poured into him. He convulsed and fought for air even as his mind
seized on a final vision: Heat lightning flashed in a night sky.
Cicadas called. Owls screeched. Low, menacing clouds appeared on
the horizon and he waited for them on a cliff in a forest of scrub
oak, pine, and kudzu. The raindrops became bigger, darker, then
turned to sleet. The pattern of the frozen rain became a whirlpool
that spun him, then knocked him from his cliff perch, and he fell
in spirals into black liquid depths.
Excerpted from THE SERPENT'S KISS © Copyright 2003 by Mark T.
Sullivan. Reprinted with permission by Atria Books, an imprint
Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.