Phillip backed away from the counter into one of the kitchen chairs. “Um, honey, there’s something you should know.” The tone of his voice made Donna glance up from the box she’d begun to unpack. Styrofoam and newspapers scattered across the floor. She held a mug in each hand. One with a cartoon dog on it, another with the phrase ‘FEW HAVE SPOKEN TO ME BEFORE COFFEE AND LIVED TO TELL THE TALE’.
“What?” Images flashed in her mind. Infidelities. Murder. A criminal past. A horde of secret lovers. Drug smuggling. Gangsters and mafiosos. Kingpins, crimelords. Prostitutes, brothels, red-light districts. Heroin and cocaine addictions. Assassins, hitmen, killers-for-hire. What hadn’t he told her until they’d moved in together?
“I-I’m afraid of spiders.”
She frowned and smiled at him all at once. This was a joke. “What?”
Phillip gestured at the corner of the window by the sink. “There’s a spider.” His voice was small. Not his usual larger-than-life boom. “There’s a spider in the corner.” He looked at her, eyes wide, face pale. “Can you get it?” The words squeaked out of him like air out of a balloon. “Please?”
Donna laughed — she couldn’t help it. He looked so innocent and dependent on her. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh, Hon.” She covered her mouth. “Sure, I’ll get it, give me two secs.” Donna ripped a corner of the cardboard box off and placed one mug on the counter. Armed with container and lid, she prepared to do battle with the beast who’d attacked her husband.
Phillip nodded and shuffled away from the arachnid, not once did he take his eyes off of it. His skin was so ashen, Donna hoped he wouldn’t be sick. “There he is,” he pointed with a hand that shook. “Over there.”
“Oh my God,” she raised on eyebrow at him, “he’s tiny! You can’t be scared of that little thing, can you?”
“Hon, don’t. Just—” Phillip wet his lips “—just get ‘im, yeah?”
Donna smirked. She’d had her fun. “Yeah, I’ll get him, Hon. Don’t you worry. Donna’s here, baby.” With slow movements, she placed the mug over the thing. Tiny, black, a speck. She slid the cardboard beneath.
“Why don’t you just kill it?”
“Because,” she lifted the trapped insect, “it’s mean. Why kill ‘em when you can release ‘em?”
“‘Cos they’re creepy, that’s why.” Phillip shivered. “Those legs. The way the crawl.” He shuddered again.
Donna made her way to the back door, which Phillip opened for her. “Well, if ever I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, and some superior, alien being is watching over me, I hope they have the kindness to catch me and release me back to where belong.” She glanced up at him. “As opposed to splatting me with a rolled-up newspaper or squishing me underfoot.”
Phillip said nothing. He held the door to the garden open and cringed away from the mug as she carried it past. “Fine, just keep it the hell away from me.”
“Besides.” She paused alongside him. Phillip’s eyes remained glued to the mug. “If we kill all the spiders we see, natural selection will make all the ones who survive stronger and sneakier. I mean, who knows?” She shrugged. “Maybe if we murder enough of them, we’ll start an interspecies war? Humans versus—”
“Stop.” He did look like he would throw up. Now she felt bad.
Donna smirked. “Sorry. You gotta let me have a couple of digs before dropping it.”
“Yep.” He had his eyes closed. “Now if you wouldn’t mind.”
Donna tapped the spider out into the grass. “There you go, little fella. Off into the wilderness with you. Away from us nasty humans, there’s a good spider.”
“Did you get rid of him?” asked Phillip from the doorway.
“I got rid of him,” said Donna. She grinned, rolled her eyes, and then made her way back inside the house.
* * *
The scream from the upstairs bathroom almost made her drop the box of plates. She abandoned it on the sofa, which still had the plastic wrap on. Donna ran to the bottom of the stairs.
“Phillip? Phillip! Is everything all right?”
He’d fallen in the shower. Snapped an ankle. Cracked his skull. He’d slipped when shaving. Severed an artery. Sliced open his neck. He’d broken something already. Split the beautiful porcelain sink. Flooded the room, damaging both floor and ceiling. He’d—
He was fine.
Phillip stood on the landing, in the doorway of the bathroom. A towel wrapped around his waist, hair wet, water droplets on his skin.
“Oh my god! You gave me a heart attack! I thought you’d hurt—”
He started at the sound of her voice. Spun around. “Three of them! There’s three!” Phillip moved aside from the door. Invited her in. “Three!”
Donna frowned. “What?”
“Spiders!” he said as if that single word contained a wealth of information. The whites of Phillip’s eyes were so white. He swore. “Little buggers. Go on, have a look!”
He was right.
Three spiders, larger than the one she’d caught the day before, clustered in the upper corner of the bathroom. Behind the door, where the ceiling met the walls. “Huh,” she said.
“See? I told you. I swear, they know I don’t like them! It’s like they’re magnetised, or something. Will you get them? Please?”
“Yeah, wanna grab me a chair to stand on? I’m gonna get these pests.” Donna upended the glass with toothbrushes into the sink. Pink for him, blue for her. They clattered onto the ceramic. “And something to slide under the bastards!”
Phillip came back in 20 seconds later. He handed her a takeout pamphlet and held the chair steady as she climbed up. Donna wobbled upright. She never did like heights. But Phillip liked spiders even less — or so he claimed.
Donna righted and oriented herself. The critters were a foot away. If that. She frowned. Why did she have the sensation that they watched her? They were too small for her to see their eyes — beady, black — but she felt them. “All right, hold the chair, Hon.” Her tongue stuck out the corner of her mouth. Donna reached forward, movements gradual.
An inch away, she slapped the cup over one of the three, trapping two of its legs in the process.
And then she screamed.
And so did Phillip.
The one she’d captured went beserk. It fought for its freedom — squirmed and twisted. It ripped its two trapped legs off and flung itself against its glass prison. The weight of its body against the cup thudded. A small tap was audible. Again and again, it threw itself against the walls. And… was that a high-pitched growl? An insectoid gibber?
The two she’d left for later had split. The pair squealed then broke off — in two directions, movements frantic. They both scuttled onto the ceiling, up and over her head. Donna wasn’t arachnophobic, but at that moment, the thought of those fat spiders in her hair sent her into a frenzy. She shrieked and dropped the glass. Donna toppled off the chair. The cup shattered. Somewhere nearby, Phillip swore and cursed.
“Hon? Hon, you okay?” Arms around her. Phillip didn’t so much pick her up as he did drag her from the bathroom.
“Fine, fine,” she said. Her butt had begun to bruise, but her pride had taken the brunt of it. “Where did they…?”
Phillip’s hand gestured towards the lightbulb. A violet, cone-shaped shade encircled it. “They went up through the fixture. I—” there was a click as he swallowed “—I didn’t see where the other one went. Did you hurt yourself?” He let go of her and looked her up and down. “You didn’t cut yourself on the glass, did you?”
“No, no, I—”
A realisation came to Donna.
She squealed and started to shake, bent over. Her whole body writhed. Her hands rifled through her blonde locks. “Is it in my hair?! It’s in my hair! Get it out, get it out!”
“Oh, God!” Phillip whacked the back of her head. Hard.
“I can’t—” another whack “—I can’t see it!” He thumped her again.
They stopped. Donna stood upright, hair in disarray, face red. She rubbed the back of her skull and winced. “Ow,” she repeated.
Phillip grimaced. “Sorry, I panicked. But I don’t think it was in—” His words died, mid-sentence. Phillip’s eyes darted to the bathroom ceiling. His face paled.
Donna spun around. Her hands rose to her face.
Nothing jumped at her.
The third spider — its body as fat as a marble — sat by the plastic moulding, from which the bulb dangled. It regarded them for a moment. It was, despite its insectoid features, a very human stare. It sized them up. Measured them.
“Is it… watching us?” asked Phillip. For a moment at least, confusion had replaced the terror in his words.
At the sound of his voice, the arachnid darted into a crack beneath the fixture. Up and into the ceiling.
Up and into the loft.
“Phillip,” said Donna, “go get your baseball bat.” She scowled at the ceiling.
“Time to clean house.”
* * *
Phillip opened the pull-down ladder for her. Dust drifted down from the attic, the square in the ceiling devoid of light. “You’re not really going up, there, are you, Hon?” Phillip shifted from one foot to the other. “We should just call an exterminator. It’s not worth it.”
Donna never took her eyes from the hatch. “They’re just spiders. It’s a waste of money to call someone.” She spun the bat in her hands — smooth, polished, heavy. “Some bugs aren’t gonna drive me from my own home.” She put a foot on the lowest step. Before she could go any further, Phillip put a hand on her shoulder.
“All right, just… be careful.” His tone was sombre. His face like stone.
Donna had to suppress a giggle. What did he think they were in, an eighties horror movie? She nodded. “I will, Hon.” She raised the baseball bat. “After all, I’ve got this.”
Phillip nodded and raised the dustpan and brush he held. “In the meanwhile, I’m gonna clean up the glass.”
Donna leaned over and smacked a kiss on his forehead. “Thanks, babe. You’re the best.”
With that, she started her ascent. She climbed one step. And then another. And another. The wood creaked beneath, as she put her weight down on each level. The hatch yawned ahead, black, musty.
Donna stopped one inch short. She waited.
Cold, thick air breathed down on her. Stale, dry, unclean.
She held her breath and listened.
Nothing. No scuttles, no rustles. Below, the clink of glass and the swish of a brush. Above, nothing.
“Come on—” Donna whispered the words through gritted teeth “—get a grip.” She climbed up into the attic. She groaned as she pulled herself up into the hatch, the bat clutched in one white-knuckle grip.
Donna staggered to her feet and wiped her hands on her jeans. She frowned at the somehow oily dust. It made its way up into her nose, down to the back of her throat. Once she’d dealt with their eight-legged lodgers, they would need to give the place a thorough clean.
The old owners had died, one after the other. Their children had sold the place on as fast as they could manage. To hold onto the place would drag out the grieving process, Donna surmised. Part of the reason they had gotten the house so cheap was that they’d agreed to clear the place out themselves. At the time, it had seemed like such a good deal.
A smudged, dust-smothered window at the far end filtered the light. It trickled in, weak and grey. Towers of cardboard boxes loomed this way and that, their structures precarious. Old pieces of furniture, out of date by at least half a century, sat here and there — buried in knick-knacks and bric-à-brac. The shapes of chairs, wardrobes and dressers swelled beneath sheets — grey with grime. Hills of miscellany rose and fell, whatever implemented system long since abandoned.
And there were cobwebs.
Lots of cobwebs.
The silken ropes stretched between the beams — corners and peaks clogged with fuzz. At the far edge, beyond an oak shelf, the webs looked to be as deep as the span from finger to elbow. Some of the arachnids’ nets looked to be decades old. They crumbled and decayed in spots, the weight of the accumulated dirt too much to handle.
Donna’s pulse quickened. If Phillip knew what was mere metres above their bed, he wouldn’t sleep a wink.
She spun the bat, rolled the smooth wood through her sweaty fingers. What was she looking for? Did spiders form nests? Wasps did, Donna knew that much. But what about spiders? And even if she did find this nest, what then? Hit it with the bat? That’d be no good, they’d scatter. Donna shivered.
She crept further and further into the attic, the hatch now far away. Donna was halfway to the window when something dropped in front of her eyes, suspended by a string.
It squirmed in the air.
Donna shrieked and leapt backwards. She almost lost her balance, but managed to stay on her feet. She didn’t want to land on the floor — not up here.
Another one dropped down.
The spiders hung there in the air. Their legs writhed and clawed at the nothingness. They weren’t big — the same size as the ones in the bathroom. Now that the panic of the jump was over, Donna squinted at the little buggers. They couldn’t be, could they? Could spiders remember? And further to that point, remember a human face?
One of the spiders was missing two legs.
Donna swallowed and stared at them. They wanted to scare her. Or worse. They wanted revenge. And yet, they dangled there, limp. Impotent. What could three spiders — tiny spiders — do to a human?
So consumed was she with her observations, Donna almost didn’t see Mother as she crept out of the shadows.
Movement in the background. Donna focused on it. A gasp escaped her lips as if someone had punched her in the gut. She stumbled backwards.
As soon as she moved, the three shot back up into the darkness and skittered away.
No, they hadn’t intended to attack her. They had baited her. Had gone and told Mother about what she’d done, and together, they’d laid a trap.
Big as a dinner plate, Mother crawled towards her. She moved at a slow pace, took her time. Mother was in no rush. Her eyes, the size of marbles, regarded Donna with anger, with rage. With parental love. Her fangs mewled. Saliva quivered and dripped from the tusks.
The strike came as quick as lightning.
One second, Mother was several metres away.
The next, she scuttled towards Donna, faster than the blink of an eye. Mother growled and gibbered as she scurried over floorboards.
Donna brought the bat down.
The connection was horrid. It felt like breaking open a watermelon.
The spider shrieked. A large dent caved in. Half of her eyes smashed and exploded. Several of its legs — thick as cacti — snapped. Greenish-yellow pus seeped out of the breaks. It tried to move, to scuttle away, but its fat, bulbous body was too heavy for its damaged limbs to carry.
Best put it out of its misery. Even if it was a freak of nature.
She readjusted her grip, held her weapon like a sword. Donna brought the bat down again and crushed its body. It plunged into Mother with a splat. Liquid burst from the seams. Hairs and chunks of flash scattered. The spider squealed and squirmed. Her legs spasmed.
And then she was still.
Still, that was, except for her insides.
They twisted and wriggled.
Millions of them.
They swarmed inside their dead mother’s carcass, several of them crushed with the impact. But most were fine. Protected from the bat by their mother’s body.
They exploded from within, an army of infant arachnids. At first, they scattered in all directions. Donna screamed and leapt backwards.
From above the window, something big and black dropped and hit the floorboards with a meaty thump.
For one stuttered heartbeat, the babies stopped. And then they began to stream towards the window, rivers of hairy bodies and too many legs. Away from her, which was a relief. Once she was certain they wouldn’t swarm all over her, she squinted at whatever had dropped from the rafters.
He was the size of a small dog. Bigger than Mother. Meatier. More muscular. Thicker bristles. Blacker.
Donna looked from the ruined corpse of Mother, past the rivers of infant spiders, back to Daddy. Her stomach dropped, her jaw hung open. The bat fell from her hands, hit the floor with a hollow clunk.
“I had to,” she said. More of a whisper. “Please understand. I—” Donna licked her lips “—she attacked me. I had to.”
Donna backed away from the big one. The babies all climbed up his legs and onto his back. They squirmed, scuttled, and writhed — crawled over one another, inseparable. One big happy family.
Phillip’s voice came up from the bottom of the attic stairs at that moment. “Hon? How’s it going up there? You get ‘em?”
Donna’s heart fluttered.
“Yep.” Her voice squeaked, small like a mouse.
Daddy retreated into the darkness, but his eyes still shined like marbles. A ceasefire.
“Awesome, thanks, babe. Was it just the three of them?”
A caesura bit into her breaths. She sucked in a mouthful of stale air.
“Yes,” she lied, “just the three of them.”