You met Tessa’s boa constrictors, Meg and Calvin, in Dreaming of Xeres.
This story tells how she got them, and
what happened when Riley met them for the first time. Enjoy!

“C’mon, Josh, it’ll be cool. You know the manager said we couldn’t have any pets ‘with fur’. Snakes don’t have fur so he can’t tell us no.”

“But they’re slimy. And besides, where would you keep it?”

Tessa batted her eyelashes. “In a terrarium, of course.”

Josh made a face at her. “I know that. I mean,” he said with an exasperated air, “where would you keep it in our tiny little apartment?” He shook his head. “I don’t think I could sleep in the same room as a snake. What if it gets out?”

“Are you seriously telling me you’re afraid of a teeny-tiny snake? This little girl’s hardly bigger than a pencil.”

“Yeah, but she won’t stay that size, will she?”

“According to what I read online, this particular breed can grow up to ten feet long and about six or seven inches in girth.”

“See, that’s huge.” He ran his fingers through his shoulder-length blond hair. “What if it gets out and kills us in our sleep.”

Tessa looked down, pinching her lower lip with her thumb and forefinger. “So you’re telling me you’re afraid this pencil-sized snake will up and decide to wrap herself around your rather substantial neck, squeeze you to death, then eat you. While you sleep.”

Josh had the decency to look abashed. “Well, when you put it that way, I guess it wouldn’t be so bad. I mean, it’ll take a long time to get to ten feet, right?”

She rolled her eyes. “Years and years. Trust me, you’ll be safe until we graduate from college. Well, at least until I graduate. The jury’s still out on whether or not you ever will.” It was her favorite thing to tease him about. He’d changed his major four times in the five years he’d been at UC Berkeley.

“I guess,” Josh said without enthusiasm.

“So it’s okay for me, I mean, us to get a snake?” She couldn’t disguise her happiness at the prospect. She’d always wanted a snake of her very own, but living arrangements had precluded getting one. Now that he’d given in, she could look around and find the perfect one for her.

“Sure, if that’s what you really want.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him thoroughly.

Looking very pleased, Josh murmured into her hair, “If you’d just told me it would get me laid, I’d have given in sooner.”

* * *

“Oooh, look at these!” Tessa pointed to a particular terrarium down the row from where he was looking at an iguana. Inside, a mass of young boa constrictors basked in the warmth of a heating lamp. It was hard to tell how many there were with them all intertwined.

“Can I see one of these, please,” Tessa asked the clerk.

“Good choice. Those are red-tailed boas. They’re usually very friendly. We just got these in from the breeder.” The man opened the top and reached inside, nudging the pile of baby snakes with one comparatively-huge finger. The mass began to writhe, separating into clumps, then individuals. “Which one would you like to see?”

Tessa watched for a moment, then said, “The white and cream one, over on the right.”

The clerk spotted her choice and held his hand flat in front of the moving snake. It obligingly slithered onto his hand and he lifted it out of the cage.

“Here you go, miss.”

Tessa was so enthralled with the tiny creature that she tittered like a little schoolgirl.

“She’s adorable.” Tessa grinned as the tiny snake wound around her fingers. She held it out toward Josh. “See? I told you they weren’t slimy.”

Josh looked at her like she’d just told him a growling dog was actually a friendly puppy. He wasn’t having any of it.

Tessa put on her best pouty face. “C’mon, you said I could get one. The least you could do is hold her. You’re going to have to eventually anyway.”

Josh rolled his eyes and held out a quivering hand toward the little reptile. “If it bites me…” he warned.

“I think you’re safe as long as you don’t smell like a mouse. You’re not a mouse, right?” She arched an eyebrow at him. I can’t believe that a big jock like Josh is afraid of a little snake that’s smaller than his… She blushed furiously at the unbidden thought.

Josh looked at her sourly and grabbed the tiny snake. When Tessa started to protest his rough handling, he growled, “No, I’m a man and I’m not scared of a snake smaller than a pencil!”

Tessa sucked in her lip. Even the clerk stepped forward like he wanted to take the boa from Josh.

Obviously the boa didn’t like being handled roughly either. She promptly bit his thumb.

Howling, Josh dropped the snake, holding his hand and backing away.

“It bit me! I told you they were dangerous!”

Tessa caught his hand and examined the bite. Sighing, she shoved his hand back at him, pronouncing, “It’s barely a scratch. You’ll live.”

The clerk scooped up the snake and rushed to placate the customer. “These young ones haven’t been handled much. I think you scared her.”

I scared her?” Josh replied in outrage.

“You did,” Tessa said nodding. She took the little thing from the clerk’s hands, enjoying the way the snake felt winding herself around her hand. The snake’s tiny forked tongue flicked out.

“She’s getting to know your scent,” the clerk lectured. “A snake’s tongue is it’s sensory organ. Once she’s gotten familiar with your smell, she’ll recognize and remember you.”

The snake was winding across one hand, then the other as she explored. Tessa couldn’t take her eyes off of her.

“Earth to Tessa. Come in,” Josh said, waving his hand in front of her face, careful to stay out of the boa’s reach.

“Huh? Oh, right.” Tessa turned to the clerk. “I’ll take this one.”

“What about me?” Josh complained. “That one bit me.” He glanced at the terrarium and pointed. “Show me that one. The black one.”

“Really?” Tessa said. I thought for sure he’d back out on the whole thing!

“Yeah. You just have to show them who’s boss.” He took the small black and grey boa from the clerk. It wound around his hand, then tried to climb under his shirt sleeve. “Uh uh, no, you don’t. Stay out in the open where I can see you.”

After a few minutes, Josh’s shoulders began to relax.

“Well, this one doesn’t seem to be as nippy as the other one.” He looked up at Tessa. “Let’s get this one instead.”

She took a deep breath and shook her head. “Nope. I prefer the cream one. I’m going to name her Meg after my favorite character from A Wrinkle in Time.”

Josh paused so long Tessa thought she’d have to fight him for the snake. Finally, he nodded. “Okay, we’ll get both. I’m naming mine Calvin.” He stuck his tongue out at her. “Remember, it’s my favorite fantasy book too.”

Tessa could hardly keep her feet on the ground.

“You mean it? We can get them both?”

“Sure. Why not? It’s not like two of them will be more work or cost much more to raise than one.” He looked over at Meg with distaste. “And I get one of my own that doesn’t bite!”

* * *

Why did I let Jenna talk me into coming to this party? Tessa thought for the third or fourth time as she climbed the stairs. She could already hear the sound of the inane chatter that all these parties seemed to subsist on. She couldn’t hear the music so much as feel it. Each thump of the bass spawned miniature earthquakes that reverberated through her body.

“Tessa, you made it!”

Jenna stood on the top landing waving down to her. A puzzled look came over her friend’s face as Tessa made it up the last flight of steps to join her.

“Where’s Josh?” she asked. “I thought you two were joined at the hip. You mean he actually let you go somewhere without him. I’m impressed. Maybe there’s hope for him after all.”

Tessa shook her head, dark hair swirling about her face. “Nope. No hope there. We broke up.”

Jenna lifted one eyebrow at Tessa. “Truthfully, I’m not that surprised. I never could figure out what you saw in him.”

“I’m not sure either,” Tessa sighed. “You could have told me, you know.”

The other girl raised her eyebrows before shaking her head. “No, I couldn’t. From the moment you met, you were so caught up in him that none of us dared say anything against him. What did Josh do with his snake?” Jenna asked.

“I kept Calvin. Josh said he didn’t like feeding him anyway.” Tessa snorted. “The big baby!”

“Traded one cold-blooded reptile for another, huh? At least you kept the one that can feel love for something other than himself.” Jenna laughed. “So where are you living now?”

“With Jane for now.” Tessa grimaced. “I’m sorry I let Josh talk me into moving in with him. Finding a new apartment while school’s in session’s a bitch.”

Jenna looked at her in shock. “You and the snakes? With Jane? How’s that going?”

“You know, she’s okay with them. It’s dogs that bother her. Something about a kid-herding collie when she was young. In fact,” Tessa said with a smile, “I might have problems wrestling Meg away from her when I find my own place.”

She took Tessa’s arm. “Come on. Maybe your next boyfriend is inside waiting to meet you.”

Tessa huffed. “This one had better like snakes,” she said grimly.

* * *

“Hey, Tessa, come over here. I want you to meet someone,” Jenna yelled, waving her hands to get Tessa’s attention.

Tessa shook her head as she moved to join her friend. Please stop. You’ve already pointed out half the single guys here. I can find my own boyfriend, thank you very much! Besides, why do I need a boyfriend? I do just fine on my own. I’ve got Meg and Calvin, I don’t need a man complicating my life.

“Tessa, this is Red Tom and…. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Riley. Riley MacPherson.”

“Tessa Connors.” She reached out shake Red Tom and Riley’s hands.

“She just broke up with her loser boyfriend, so she’s single if either of you boys are looking.”

Turning to her friend, embarrassment and fury warring inside her, Tessa said, “Subtle, Jenna, real subtle. You know, I can handle my own love life. Butt out! Did you even consider that I might not want to jump into another relationship right away?”

Unfazed, Jenna peered down her nose at the shorter girl. “Yeah, because you have such good luck finding decent guys, right? This last one was pretty, but a user. The one before that was a psych major with mommy issues who needed therapy and maybe a padded room.”

Red Tom guffawed.

Riley turned beet red.

Tessa raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the two men. “What’s so funny?”

“Riley here’s a psych major, too,” Red Tom said around his hand, trying but failing to control his chuckles.

“I’m sure you’re not like that…” Jenna began.

“I’m sorry. My friend has verbal diarrhea. You never know the shit that’s going to come out of her mouth,” Tessa said, talking over her friend.

Red Tom waved his hands at both girls. “Hold it, hold it! Riley here is a great guy, and he’d be lucky to go out with a hot girl like you.” He shook his head, his red mop of hair briefly obscuring his face. “Me, I got a girl back home in Atlanta. So I’m off the market, doll. Sorry.”

“I think I’m going to crawl over there and hide,” Riley said, as he turned and walked away.

Jenna got a pouty look on her face. Raising her voice, she yelled after Riley, “But you guys would make such a cute couple.”

“You’re not helping. Would you just drop it. Please?” Tessa glared her friend down.

I hope I never see that guy again. I think I’d die of embarrassment. It’s too bad really, he was kinda cute….

* * *

Tessa had been in the library for over an hour trying desperately to find a book that she needed for her Religious Studies class.

How did I get stuck writing a research paper on some obscure Hindu deity? Just who the hell is this Ganesha dude, anyway?

Running her finger along the shelf, she muttered to herself, “It should be right here. Hunh. Nice empty hole in the shelf. Dammit! Someone beat me to it!” She leaned back against the opposite shelves, fumbling for her reading list. “Maybe the other book Dr. Maxwell recommended is still here.”

Stabbing the paper with a finger, she said, “Aha! That one!” She began searching the Hindu Mythology section again. “It has to be here. If I can’t find The Broken Tusk, I have to find Ganesha Goes to Lunch. What kind of title is that, anyway? My paper’s gonna suck without at least one of them.”

As she rounded the end of the aisle, her eyes zeroed in on the title she needed. With a sigh, she reached up to retrieve it.

“Hey! Wait a minute. I need that book.”

A large hand landed on the book from over her shoulder.

Turning to face the other student, she found herself looking up at a man who looked vaguely familiar. Is he in my class? she wondered. No, I’d have noticed him. He’s got that sexy bearish thing going with the beard and the tufts of fur sticking out of the collar of his shirt.

“I need this too,” she said. “I couldn’t find The Broken Tusk and this was the only other book that has the information I need for my report.”

“Are you in Dr. Maxwell’s morning Religious Studies class? I’d remember if you were in the afternoon class with me,” he said with a smile.

“Yeah, I am. You got stuck doing a report on this Genesha too?” she asked.

“First of all, it’s GA-nesh-a, not GEN-esha. Second, I chose Ganesha because I liked what he stood for. He’s the god of luck and scribes and the remover of obstacles.” He made a grimace at her. “I could use a little of that in my life right now. I’m stuck. I have to decide where to specialize and I can’t make up my mind.”

“Specialize?” Tessa inquired, raising an eyebrow at him.

“I’m a psych major. I need to decide what kind of psychology I want to practice so I can take the right courses. I know I want to help people, but….”

“But you aren’t sure how you want to help them. That’s understandable. And cool that you want to help people.” She tilted her head. “You look familiar. Wait, you’re a psych major? Oh, no.” She covered her face with the book they’d both gone after. “You’re the guy I met at Jenna’s party, the one she tried to hook me up with right after I broke up with Josh.”

Riley raised his bushy eyebrows at her. “That was you? I nearly killed Red Tom for embarrassing me like that.” He shook his head. “Maybe we were supposed to meet. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, after all.”

Tessa laughed. “We could share this book for our reports since someone else has The Broken Tusk.” She waved the book at him.

Riley coughed. “Umm, I already have that one over at my study table. Would you like to join me?”

“No wonder I couldn’t find it!” She smiled up at him. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe Ganesha’s removing obstacles for both of us.”

* * *

“Thanks for putting up with me being all fangirl,” Tessa gushed. “I just love the Harry Potter books, but summer school was so intense I hadn’t managed to see The Half-Blood Prince yet. I was worried it would be out of the theaters before I got a chance to see it.”

She sighed. Over the past spring and summer, according to Jenna, they’d become ‘a couple’. She felt like she could fall for Riley, but he kept pushing to see her apartment. Eventually she’d have to give in and invite him over. But what if he doesn’t like Meg and Calvin? I don’t want to go through what I did with Josh.

Riley nodded, smiling. “It’s okay. I like Harry Potter too.” He shook his head, blushing slightly. “But that big snake in the second movie scared me half to death.” He stopped and turned toward her. “I have a confession. I’m deathly afraid of snakes. Ever since one bit me as a kid.”

Oh shit, he’s afraid of snakes, Tessa thought in horror. Then it’s probably a good thing that he hasn’t been to my place yet. He’d freak out if he saw Meg and Calvin.

“Bit you, huh?” Tessa said, trying to keep the quaver from her voice.

“Maybe you could take me back to your place and help me forget my fear of snakes,” Riley suggested, a lecherous smile dancing on his lips. “We can pick up some froyo and talk about Harry Potter all night.”

“Um, that sounds nice, but it’s getting late,” Tessa said, looking away from Riley. “I’d better just get home. Early class in the morning.” Going to my place is the last thing you want to do if you want to get over your fear of snakes!

Riley’s face fell. “Hmmm. It’s Friday. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any classes tomorrow.” He turned her to face him, put both hands on her shoulders, and looked deeply into her eyes. “Is there something you’re not telling me? Do you live with someone? Are you married? I really like you but I can’t be your dirty little secret on the side.”

She sighed inwardly. Why do I always have to choose between the man and the snakes?

Sudden resolve stiffened her spine. If I have to choose, now is as good a time as any.

Taking a deep breath, she turned to face Riley. “Okay.”

Riley gave her a sideways look. “Okay what?”

“Let’s go back to my place. Froyo and talk?”

“O…kay. Is it far? Can we walk?”

“It’s just around the corner, but you’ll have to let me go in alone first. I don’t want you to see my…unmentionables. A real date killer, you know,” she said. And I need time to hide the cages!

She left him in the hallway with promises to ‘be right back’. Racing around the studio apartment, she cleaned up some leftover fast food debris, discarded clothing, and coffee mugs. She hastily threw a board and a blanket over the snake cage, effectively disguising it as a coffee table in front of the sofa.

She was taking one last glance around the room when Riley rapped on the door and hesitantly peeked in.

“Is it safe yet? Are my manly sensibilities going to be damaged by any ‘unmentionables’ still lying about?”

“Riley! Come on in! I just finished the decontamination, so you’re safe.”

He shut the door behind him, then stopped to survey the room.

“Thank you for saving me,” he teased. “I might have been permanently scarred if I’d seen a stray pair of panties or a bra. I’ve never seen those things before, you know.”

The look he gave her made her break out in giggles. “Yeah, right! You may have seen other girls things, but that doesn’t mean you need to see mine. I need to keep some mysteries to myself. If I don’t, you’ll get bored with me and find someone else.”

“Not gonna happen,” he said, suddenly serious. “I know what I want and what I want is you.”

She watched him, mesmerized by his eyes. As he drew nearer, he opened his arms and she took a small step forward. Just before they met, she banged her shin into the board covering the cage.

“Owww!” she yelped, looking down. “Sorry. I’m not used to this being here. That’ll teach me to redecorate on the fly.”

“Are you okay?” Riley squatted down, peering at her leg. “Looks like you’ll have a bit of a bump, but it didn’t break the skin.

Tessa saw a flicker of movement. That was all the warning she had before Riley screamed in a decidedly high pitched voice and apperated to the far side of the apartment.

“Whatisthatthing? OhmyGODSit’saSNAKE! WhyisthereaSNAKEinyourapartment? Don’tletitbiteme!”

Meanwhile, Tessa reached down to retrieve Calvin from where he was hanging half out of the cage, wearing the blanket like a cape.

“Shhhh, Calvin. It’s okay, he’s not going to hurt you. It’s okay.” She gingerly lifted the four foot long black and grey snake and draped him around her shoulders.

“Are you crazy? That thing is huge! Aren’t you scared it’s gonna bite you?”

“Actually, Calvin is a boa constrictor,” she explained calmly, stroking Calvin’s head with one finger. “They squeeze their prey to death, then swallow them whole.” She smiled over at him. “I’m a little big for him to eat.”

Still plastered against the wall, Riley quavered, “But…but…but…Isn’t it slimy? How can you stand to even touch it?”

“Calvin is not slimy. He’s very soft and silky. He’s a sweetheart, really. I’ve had him since he was the size of a pencil.” She huffed a bitter laugh. ”You could say that he’s the reason my last relationship ended. Josh accused me of loving the snakes more than I loved him.”

Riley groaned. “Snakes? Plural? You have more than one?” His voice rose in pitch on the last word. He began edging around the room, heading for the door.

“Mac, stop! You said you knew what you wanted and that was me. Well, my snakes are part of the package. I’ve already lost one guy because he couldn’t accept my snakes. I don’t want to lose you too.”

“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” Riley said, with a slight chuckle.

Tessa giggled. “Did you just quote Raiders of the Lost Ark at me?”

Riley had a pained smile on his face. “Yeah.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t want to lose you either. I guess that means I have to get over my fear of snakes, huh?”

“Pretty much. You’re the psych major. Physician, heal thyself.”

That got a real chuckle from Riley. Then, with a deep sigh, he pushed himself off the wall, approaching her step by slow step until he was within arm’s reach.

“Okayyy,” he said slowly. “Now what?”

Tessa gently lifted Calvin over her head and settled the snake around Riley’s shoulders. I really hope he doesn’t faint!

“Urk! Tessa….”

“Shhh. It’ll be all right, Riley.”

After a few moments, Riley said with surprise, “Wow, you’re right, it isn’t slimy at all. It’s so soft.” Then his face grew worried again. “But isn’t it going to try to strangle me?”

“First, his name is Calvin, not it. And second, you’re way too big for him to swallow so I think you’re safe.”

The snake began wending his way down Riley’s arm, flicking the air with his tongue. Riley eyed the snake warily.

“What’s he doing? What if he thinks I taste good?”

“No, that’s how he smells, dummy, with his tongue. He’s just getting used to your scent. Here, let me get Meg out. You might as well meet both of them.”

Tessa lifted the blanket and board off the cage and set them against the wall. Reaching down, she raised the cream and red boa out of the cage, wrapping the snake around her arm.

Riley’s eyes were as wide as saucers when she turned back to look at him.

“That one’s even bigger!”

“She’s a female. They grow larger than the males.”

“Are you positive they won’t bite me?” Riley asked, sounding a lot like a scared little boy in need of reassurance.

“Calm down, Mac, they’re harmless. Unless you’re a mouse. Wait, are you a man or a mouse?” She arched an eyebrow and smiled, enjoying teasing him.

“Um, man?” He looked at the snake moving down his arm. “I think.”

She laughed at him.

“Okay then,” she said. “Let me get the Chamber of Secrets DVD out of that cabinet. I’ll show you that that really big snake isn’t as scary as you thought.”

“Okay. What should I do?” He had remained motionless ever since she’d put Calvin around his shoulders.

“Well, first, you can relax,” she said gently. She waved a hand. ”Go ahead and sit down on the couch. I do it all the time. Calvin won’t go anywhere.”

“If you’re going to make me watch another movie, I need popcorn. With butter!” He looked over at her, flashing her with his best puppy dog eyes.

“Fine! Sit down. I’ll go make some popcorn.” She turned away, leaving Riley alone with Calvin.

When she came back from the kitchen a few minutes later, she was surprised to see that Riley had dozed off on the couch, Calvin curled up in a ball in his lap.

Josh could barely handle sleeping in the same room with Meg and Calvin unless they were in their cage. Riley just fell asleep holding Calvin. Maybe he’s a keeper after all.

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