Padding barefoot about his Pikesville hotel room, half asleep in the semi-darkness, Christopher Artis Smith stepped on something big, writhing and scaly.
The longtime snake-loather told himself it was a bad dream. "But I knew exactly what it was: I felt it squirm, the texture."
Then, he said, in the dim light "I got a visual of this large snake moving toward the head of the bed," where his wife of 25 years, Patricia, lay sleeping. What he saw, he said, was 2 1/2 feet of a 10-foot boa constrictor.
"It was a night of horror," the 46-year-old community college counselor said, and the experience put him and his wife into therapy. He said Mrs. Smith still has nightmares and started smoking again after 14 years of abstinence.
The Virginia couple have filed a federal lawsuit in Maryland against the Northwest Comfort Inn's parent corporations, Manor Care Inc. and Choice Hotels International Inc., seeking damages of $500,000 and $1 million on allegations of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
According to the lawsuit, the motel "had a duty to provide plaintiffs with a room where they could stay in comfort and peace without the terror of a boa constrictor sharing the room with them."
"When these people told me this story, I just could not believe it," said their attorney, Leonard L. McCants of Silver Spring. "In some 20 years, this is the weirdest, the most bizarre case by far I've ever had."
M. Michael Cramer, attorney for the defendants, agreed that it was bizarre but said he couldn't comment on the case, which was filed Sept. 29. At the hotel, staff members referred questions to the attorneys.
At the Garrison station of the Baltimore County Police Department, the call log for the early morning hours of June 27, 1993, has a single brief entry at 1:38 a.m.: "A wild snake loose in a room, hiding under a cabinet."
That doesn't begin to describe the situation, according to Mr. Smith, who said the couple and their two sons, who live in Courtland, Va., had arrived at the Comfort Inn the previous afternoon to attend an Artis family reunion in Randallstown.
The family returned from the gathering about 11 p.m., and the couple fell asleep watching television while their sons, ages 6 and 13, slept in the room next door.
About 1:15 a.m., Mr. Smith said, "I woke up [and] went to switch off the TV. I took a couple of steps to the bed, and on that second step I stepped on that snake, and at that point everything went slow motion."
Mr. Smith said he yelled to his wife to call the desk and that a security guard arrived.
"I think the guard was thinking about a garden snake, because he came back out of the room very, very quickly, saying 'Yes, it is a snake,' " Mr. Smith recalled.
A police officer patrolling Reisterstown Road just inside the Baltimore Beltway saw the commotion at the motel, pulled up in his cruiser and went into the room. The officer also made a quick exit, Mr. Smith said.
The guard and the policeman finally cornered the snake and put in into a trash can more than an hour later, Mr. Smith said, after breaking open an air conditioning recess where the snake had retreated.
With no more rooms available at the motel, the Smiths left for the bright lights of an all-night 7-Eleven. Mr. Smith said their bill, noting "snake in the room," listed no charge for the night's lodging.
"It was just a terrible ordeal," he said.
"We have definite feelings about snakes. My wife was totally out of it, and I was too."
Mr. Smith said he returned to retrieve a shirt the next day and talked to a maid who had found the snake, which was still in the trash can in their motel room. He said the maid told him she gave the creature to her snake-loving sister.
Where the snake came from remains a mystery.
At the Baltimore Zoo, Anthony Wisnieski, curator of reptiles and amphibians, said that if the snake was 10 feet long, it probably wasn't a boa, because those snakes don't usually grow that large in captivity. "If it was 10 feet long, chances are it may have been a python," he said.
He added that people tend to overestimate the length of snakes. "Most boas and pythons people have as pets are always several feet smaller than they said," Mr. Wisnieski said. "I think snake-keepers exaggerate more than fishermen."
The nonvenomous boas and pythons can't survive a Maryland winter outdoors, Mr. Wisnieski said, and the zoo gets several hundred calls a year from people trying to give away large snakes and lizards that outgrow their living room aquariums.
He said constrictors prefer to eat rodents and an occasional bird. Human shoulders are too wide for them to swallow, he said, so once the snake strikes a human and constricts, it can't figure out what to do with its catch.
To Mr. Smith, though, "a snake is a snake is a snake. I just want to know whether it is small or large, and is it living or dead, because I can't stand them."