Girl snarled at Sister when she reached for the can with the spoon in it.
The younger child winced and retreated. She scuttled back behind the emaciated corpse of Mama and stared at Girl from the shadows. In the darkness, the paleness of Sister’s skin shone like a light, and the circles around her eyes put the gloom to shame. The whites of her sclera glinted as she watched Girl take another mouthful.
Mama gave off the odour of an unflushed toilet with a sweet aftertaste. The shape of her body and the features of her face had collapsed into mush. Her skin had turned a shade of blue-green, and something writhed under her shirt. She hadn’t eaten enough of the tins to stay alive; she’d opted to give her food to her daughters. “Kindness saves us,” she said. But it didn’t, and Mama died.
Behind Girl, the last cans stood stacked in a pitiful pyramid. She had eaten two-thirds of this can and gave Sister small spoonfuls between every two of hers. Meanwhile, the body that had birthed them into this world continued to rot in the centre of the room. They’d gotten used to the smell, and even when it had been fresh, it hadn’t quashed the hunger that gnawed from inside.
Papa had plenty of the cans, but he kept them in the lower part of the house. When the mechanical wail split the air, he ushered them down the concrete stairs at the bottom of the garden. He had only a handful of the tins. Papa went back for more, but the Bad Man tried to take them from him. Papa offered the Bad Man half of the cans, but he wanted them all, even as the Fireball lit up the sky. They fought over those little tins with food inside as the air ignited around them. Finally, Mama pulled the door shut. “I had to,” she said between sobs that racked her entire body.
The spoon scraped the bottom of the tin, and Girl paused. She blinked down in the darkness, the overhead bulb a shadow of its former self. Sister’s eyes pulled at the can like a magnet. Girl looked up and sighed, then rolled the tin towards the stairs. Sister let out a small gasp and dashed over Mama for it. She plunged ankle-deep into Mama’s chest but didn’t notice. When her foot came out again with a wet pop, maggots clung between her toes. Sister dropped to her skinned knees and pulled the last morsels out with her fingers. Her untrimmed nails scraped against the insides.
With Sister’s eyes elsewhere, Girl grabbed a can and stuffed it under her shirt. She could no longer call it a pyramid because the two cans that remained formed only a row. If she kept quiet, she could eat it when Sister slept. Girl glanced to Mama, but Mama didn’t say a word. Instead, the larvae fled the spot where Sister’s heel had disturbed them.
Girl caressed the tin under her shirt. It bit into the tender flesh there with its metal teeth. A pool of gunk leaked out from Mama, and Girl’s eyes watered when the smell hit. Sister had scattered maggots in a rough circle. Some floundered on the bare concrete, and others curled around the legs. But the majority crawled up the bloated flesh of Mama’s neck and onto her face. And in the background, Sister continued to gobble, and the sounds of her talons set Girl’s teeth on edge.
Girl furrowed her brow and clutched to can to her belly like a pregnant woman. She turned to Sister, mouth half-open. But she stopped. The command turned to dust in her throat, and the taste of Mama coated her tongue like slime.
Sister sat still, head tilted to one side.
But the urgent rasps persisted.
Girl’s frown deepened, and she squinted up those concrete steps. The ones they’d descended and never used again. At the top stood the closed door, behind which Mama had locked out Papa forever. Could it be the Bad Man, still alive after the sky had burned away his skin? Had he finished the cans he’d stolen from Papa? Did he still hunger for more? Girl’s fingers gripped the tin with a white-knuckle grip.
The scrapes echoed off the walls and became something else — the breaths of a man, desperate to reach them. Wide-eyed and maniacal, he clawed at the dirt and scratched the door. His nails tore off, his fingers sanded down to stumps, and the nubs of the bones grated against the metal.
The sounds died, and silence swept in with a sigh.
Sister turned to face her, fingers still inside the empty can, a question on her lips.
And then the door imploded.
Fire poured down the stairs and flooded the bunker. Girl winced and held up her hands, eyes scrunched shut. Movement flickered behind her closed lids. A flurry of thuds as something rushed down the stairs. Impossible shapes twisted and melted together. An ugly chorus of hisses and gibbers came from a thousand places in the room. Above it all, high-pitched and perfect, Sister screamed. The scream never ended; it went on and on and on.
Girl forced her eyes open.
Her gaze took three uneven heartbeats to focus.
At the top of her brain, confusion swirled about like snowflakes. Girl reeled backwards. A hundred thoughts shoved their way through a bottleneck and jammed. But further down, in the lizard part of the brain, alarm bells sounded: WARNING.
Lots of them.
Too many to count as the microseconds blew away like sand in the palm.
Spiders so big, they’d have struggled to fit into the drum of Mama’s old washing machine. Back when they had a washing machine, before the Bad Man and the Fireball. When Mama and Papa both had heartbeats, back when food didn’t come only in a can. Back when she had a name and people called her—
Sister’s scream reached fever pitch. One of the bigger ones, which clung to the concrete wall with legs thicker than her arm, lunged. It leapt and spiralled midair. It snaked its arms around Sister and enveloped her, knocked her to the floor and pinned her there. The spider’s chelicera mewled, and the pedipalps waggled in the air. Two curved fangs protruded from its mouth, and something pus-yellow dripped from them. The spider jabbed Sister, and her shrieks subsided.
Girl fell to the ground and scrambled backwards, and her head hit the frame of the bed. A roomful of black marbles swivelled in her direction, and a mad white mist twirled within those orbs. Girl grabbed the bed’s leg and pulled herself under with her hands. Her foot collided with the last few tins and scattered them. Several of the arachnids scuttled after the cans and dispersed. They grappled with the objects and punctured the metal with their fangs as she crawled away. Girl retreated under the safety of the bed and tucked her legs to her chest.
Above, the bed’s springs squalled as something fat landed on the poor excuse for a mattress. Girl clasped a hand to her mouth as a gasp tried to whisper past her lips, but she didn’t let it. Thick black legs dangled over the edge, the bristles thick as thorns and sharp as syringes. The snot-yellow substance trickled to the concrete floor. The spider remained there, motionless, as the rest of the chaos unfolded.
Two spiders tried to pick up Mama and bind her in a web, but she’d rotted too much. Her body split open like an overstuffed binbag. Frantic legs shovelled bits of gore into their mouths and then left the remains to the fate of the microbes.
A whimper squeaked from the side.
Girl’s eyes rolled in their too-wide sockets.
The arachnid still had her pinned down, but her struggles had weakened. Sister’s hand reached for Girl, but she remained frozen in her hiding spot. Overhead, the thick black legs twitched once. Sister’s fingers clutched at the space between them. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.
One second fell away, a stone into a pond.
Stillness crept over Sister and sucked the tension away — all except for the eyes. Her eyes continued to plead for Girl to help her, to save her. A silent, paralysed entreaty. Not even Sister’s tear ducts could function to produce a droplet that might trickle down her cheek.
The spider picked Sister up and spun her around with insectoid precision. It wrapped her in a cocoon, over and over again. It rotated her around until none of Sister’s features remained visible. The trap smothered her too-pale skin and the worn black holes of her eyes. Another arachnid helped the first and carried Sister up and away. Their bulbous, hairy bodies writhed as muscles jiggled their exoskeletons.
A fractured heartbeat later, they all filed away, back up the concrete steps.
The ones she’d descended but never ascended.
The thick legs dangled from the edge of the bed a moment longer than the others. The spider made no sounds, not even a rustle of the bedsheets — absolute, perfect silence. Girl’s heartbeats pounded in her eardrums and thrummed in her temples. Girl would explode if she didn’t move her hand and let her breath out soon. But still, the spider remained.
One leg twitched. Another slid backwards, up past the frame of the bed. The spider moved with breathtaking slowness. The bedsheets whispered as the creature moved. The frame’s springs creaked and groaned, and the spider hesitated.
Girl fought against her own need to breathe and all but writhed on the floor.
The spider stepped down from the bed, first with one leg, then two. All eight fell in line, one at a time, each of its own accord. It understood every piece of its anatomy to the point of elegance. Then, the bulbous body dropped to the floor with a gentle thump. It crouched there and waited, coiled.
The details of the spider’s abdomen burned into her mind from this position: every hair, every lump and bump. The fur at the back of its body sprouted out thicker and softer than the spines on the legs. The spiracles and spinnerets protruded and drooled a sticky off-white goop. They twitched like mini versions of the chelicerate appendages in front of its mouth.
The spider scurried across the bunker floor and hopped up the stairs. It moved with grace and speed, even when not on the hunt. Several quiet steps later, the arachnid vanished into the blinding fire.
A single word escaped Girl’s lips.
Girl stared at the zagged patch of brightness that pooled across the floor. It didn’t ripple and lick at the air like fire. So with the level of caution the tarantula had used, she reached forward and pierced it with her spoon. Somehow, she’d held onto it throughout the ordeal.
No, not fire.
Girl almost grinned but stopped herself. Her eyes darted to the ruinous remains of Mama, now unrecognisable as a human being. Her gaze jerked to the corners of the room, the now illuminated shadows, the wasted tins of food. Only one container remained intact, the one she’d hidden under her shirt. The others lay in crumpled heaps, a lazy dribble of the spiders’ poison in a pool around them.
She crawled out from beneath the bed an inch at a time. The bunker, although small, had a few hidden holes. Spiders could have concealed themselves, ready to spring out at the first sign of stimuli. But none did. Girl got to her feet with shakes and trembles and stood there in the empty room, spoon in one hand, can in the other. The only movement came from the motes of dust that floated in the beams.
Girl tilted her head and gazed up the stairs. The ghosts of Mama’s words snaked around the bunker, twisted in and out of the sunshine. Her tongue stuck out the corner of her mouth and remained there. Millimetre by millimetre, the irregular patches of light shifted to the right. Girl frowned and clutched the spoon tighter. But she took a step towards the exit that had only ever been an entrance to her. And another. And another.
Girl had lifted her foot to embark upon the first of the stairs when the dog’s barks cut through the silence.