Gwendolyn Kiste imagines Medusa condemned by her secret lover to a lifetime of purgatory.
The forked tongue licked its lips. The rest of the snakes did the same, mimicking the tics and tremors of each other.
"I think she's awake," the second said.
"She's waiting on him," said the third.
"I can hear you."
Medusa pulled herself from the bare mattress, steadying one hand against the peeling wallpaper.
"Feed us," said the snakes.
Below, the traffic honked and squealed along winding city streets.
"It's not midnight yet," she said. "We never go out until later."
"We never go out at all anymore." The first snake flitted forward and back, side to side, his thin form coiling and straightening. "We could starve."
The rest of the forked tongues tittered in agreement. "And what would it be like to have a head of dead snakes?"
"Quieter," Medusa said. "It would be quieter."
She waited at the window, the stained curtain concealing her face from the passersby on the sidewalk below. Occasionally, a small child would spot an eye watching from the window. But an eye wasn't enough to do any damage. The child could point all day, but so long as Medusa remained at least half hidden, the world would turn, oblivious.
The second snake bit Medusa's forehead, its sharp teeth sinking into the Gorgon's skin but withdrawing no sustenance. "Remember when we dined like kings?"
The third snarled. "Remember when we dined on kings?"
"Cities fell at your feet," the first whispered in her ear, and Medusa's lips twitched into a smile.
"And as they turned to granite," the snakes said in unison, "we feasted on their fear."
"That was many moons ago." Medusa crossed the one-room apartment, a vacant place with no more than a bare mattress and withered window dressings. "The world is different now."
"You're the one who's different," they said. "Too heartbroken to strike fear in the hearts of deserving men."
She swatted at the snakes. "It's not like that. It's just -"
Footsteps in the stairwell. The room went still. Though desperate to hide it, Medusa trembled, and the snakes tried to slither away from her lovelorn uneasiness. When they couldn't escape, they bit her instead and hissed in tandem.
"He's here," they said.
Fumbling with the half crumbled light switch, Medusa plunged them into darkness and withdrew to the corner, her bare feet enduring splinters from the rotted floor.
"How will we scare him from here?" the snakes asked.
"We won't," Medusa said, thrusting her hands against the snakes to muffle their voices. "Now quiet."
The footsteps continued their trek to the end of the hallway. It was indeed him. Medusa and the snakes were sure of it now. It had been months since they'd seen him, so long ago she'd lost track of the days. But the door was always unlatched just in case.
He hesitated for a moment as if reconsidering. Then he thrust open the door and slipped inside. The silver blade of his sword flashed against the glint of the streetlight.
Perseus secured the bolt behind him.
"Medusa?" He stepped to the center of the room. "Are you home?"
She scoffed. "Where else would I be?"
Like dancers on a stage, they circled the hollow apartment, the Gorgon always staying one pirouette ahead of him.
"I know it's been a while." He followed the perimeter of the room, yanking off shreds of wallpaper as he struggled to find Medusa in the darkness.
"I thought you'd forgotten me," she said.
At the sound of her voice, Perseus quickened his steps. "How could I forget you? You're the one I've been protecting."
"Protecting?" Medusa laughed. "You think you're protecting me?"
"Of course," he said. "I even faked your death so they'd stop looking for you."
The phony Gorgon head had since retired to Medusa's closet, a souvenir from their Mount Olympus Days. The snakes always complained the likeness of them wasn't so good, but the plaster and paint did its job. Silly sea monsters fall for any old trick. So do Olympian gods. No one had thought of Medusa for years, not even her own family. Only Perseus remembered her - and only when it was convenient.
"You did convince them I'm dead," she said, gritting her teeth, the snakes preparing to strike. "And you've condemned me to shack after shack ever since."
At the window, Perseus rested his head against the glass, the world still turning below them. "How else can I hide you?" He sighed. "And hiding is better than death, isn't it?"
"Not a smart question when the snakes are hungry," Medusa said. "How's Ann?"
Perseus hesitated. "She's well."
"And the children?"
"Everyone's fine," he said, moving toward the corner. "How are you?"
His arms searched blindly for her, and a snake retreated to avoid being swiped.
Medusa dashed several steps ahead. "Lonely," she said. "Though I doubt that bothers you."
"It bothers me," Perseus said. "I think about you all the time. I wish you could understand that."
"What's there to understand? You marry the princess, and forget the other girl you coaxed into loving you."
"It's not that simple," he said. "Things are... complicated. You're a lot more dangerous than other girls."
Medusa shook her head. "I must be. You still bring a sword."
"I need to protect myself."
As Medusa drifted past the wall plate, one of the snakes snuck from the fray and flipped the switch. The single overhead bulb roared to life, and at once, Medusa was exposed.
Perseus screamed and shielded his eyes. "Witch!"
Her gnarled hands covered her face to protect him. "It wasn't me."
"Not you?" The sword unsheathed, Perseus swung wildly. "Who was it then?"
Medusa lunged toward the light switch, but the blade came toward her, and she sidestepped to escape it. "I told you the snakes are hungry."
He swung again and missed. "You're blaming them for this?"
The snakes hissed and wrapped themselves into a knot. "Keep going," they whispered to Medusa. "Scare him again!"
Medusa ran both hands across the tangle of beasts, suffocating them for a moment. Gasping, the creatures wrenched away and resumed their hissing.
"I will kill you this time," Perseus said, "even though I don't want to."
"Then don't." Medusa dashed for the switch and managed to dim the light.
"Phooey," said the snakes.
The room dark once again, she exhaled. "It's okay now," she said. "You can open your eyes."
Sword still in hand, Perseus didn't move. "I don't know if I can trust you."
"You can trust me."
"Then come here to me," he said.
Through the moonlight, she studied the outline of his form as he backed against the bowed wall.
"No," she said at last. "You'll finish me."
He tossed the sword to the floor. "Please?"
She advanced toward him and wrapped her hand around his. Eyes still closed, he pulled Medusa into him, caressing a single finger against her cheek.
"Would you have killed me?" she asked.
"If I had to," he said. "Do you still love me?"
"Always." She rested her head against his chest. "And you?"
He kissed her forehead. "The same."
The couple stood together for a long time. Every minute or so, a few snakes surged toward him, but Perseus dodged them before they could take a bite.
The sun materialized too soon, and they exchanged their farewells.
"I promise I won't be gone so long next time," Perseus said.
Medusa smiled. "I hope not."
He closed the door behind him, his steps retreating along the hallway and down the stairs.
The snakes fell against her crown, their bellies distended.
"Are you full now?" she asked.
"Yes," they hissed. "Delightful meal. His fear tastes better than all the rest."
Medusa waited at the window until Perseus passed. He always peered up at her once more, hopeful he could catch a glimpse of that single eye, watching him.
She smiled every time, even though he couldn't see it.
The snakes drooping onto her shoulders, Medusa reclined against the mattress with no sheets. She stared up at the watermarked ceiling and sighed.
"Sleep now," she said, her arms cradling the snakes. "Let's all sleep."