small textlarge text

Stephen Williams

An Echo of Spindly Legs

A handful of quarters roll from my pocket and bounce to the mildewed laundromat floor. Each silvery drop meets linoleum with a metallic jingle that rings between my ears, sending me scrambling out of my folding chair like a mouse fighting its trap. I catch my balance, my breath, and desperately try to slow my heart as the room comes back into focus. I'm awake.

The clock reads 9—I've been out for three hours. The laundromat is empty and silent save for the last quarter spinning its way to a dead stop in the corner. I must have snored through the electric buzz of my "quick dry" cycle, the bras and jeans tumbling around each other like acrobats. The panic is setting in but it doesn't have its fingers around my throat yet. I need to think rationally. Get my clothes and get out. Every second that I stand here like an idiot is another second for them to assemble and prepare.

I pop open the dryer's glass porthole and shovel my laundry into a trash bag; its black skin stretches beneath the weight of my lab coats. I reach inside one last time to go fishing for stray socks and split a nail down to its cuticle. Thank God for small miracles. There's no blood.

I sling the bag over my shoulder and head for the door. How could I have been so careless? It's true that I haven't been sleeping well lately because of my research but that's no excuse. People like me—people who know too much to ever live a blissfully ignorant life ever again—have to follow certain rules to stay alive. You NEVER let your guard down. You ALWAYS prepare for the worst-case scenario. You NEVER EVER, under any circumstances, go outside after dark.

I press my forehead against the front window; its cool surface soothes my clammy skin and I gather my thoughts. I'm an arachnologist; I study the creepy and crawly with a focus on how the things that go bump in the night have evolved over the last hundred million years or so. Cat-sized spiders and sea scorpions bigger than a hatchback are my bread and butter. These colossal nightmares were possible from the heightened levels of oxygen present in Earth's atmosphere. Luckily for us, the chemical composition of the air we breathe mellowed out and the biggest things we have to worry about today are Theraphosa blondis, the goliath bird-eating spider, with its abdomen as thick as a chicken egg and its leg span reaching up to a foot. Frightening sure, but for an adult human, no more dangerous than your average honeybee.

Sadly, I was stupid and optimistic. I toiled away on my graduate thesis, running countless tests and reading hundreds of studies in the pursuit of knowledge, and that's when I realized something. As gradual as it may be, the atmosphere is changing again and even larger species are beginning to crawl out of jungles and gutters. Man-eating invertebrates aren't quarantined to chunks of limestone and amber anymore, they're here now. I'm the only one who knows. I've seen them. They want to kill me.

"It's only two blocks," I whisper. My breath leaves milky patches on the dirty glass. Each cloud practically begs me to slide an index finger through, smearing my last will and testament in the dust and crust and moisture. "Two blocks back to my apartment. I can do this."

I steady my nerves and step outside; the tinkling bell above the entrance wishes me good luck. I'm going to need it.

It rained while I was asleep. The slick asphalt glows a radioactive orange from a single streetlamp on the corner. Power lines crisscross between rooftops, each strand drips into the puddles below. The apartment buildings that line each side of the road are dark save for the flickering of television screens behind drawn curtains. The air tastes like ash. I'm all alone.

Where to walk? This seemingly simple decision could keep me alive. Down the middle of the street? If I suddenly screamed someone poking their nose between their blinds would be sure to see me, call the police, come to my rescue. But being visible is a double-edged sword. Not to mention I have my suspicions that members of the Ctenizidae family (more commonly known as the trapdoor spider) have begun taking up residence underneath manhole covers; feeling the vibrations of the road above before lunging out and sinking their eight inch fangs into joggers and tires alike. Portland, Mexico City, Oakland—abandoned vehicles have been on the rise in almost every urban center. The descriptions are always the same—tires slashed, no driver in sight, blood soaking into upholstery…

I'll stick to walking in the gutter.

My footsteps echo off pavement and down alleys. As I pass each storm drain, my eyes follow the water trickling into the abyss below. Deep in the blackness I catch little shimmers of light. What a lot of people don't know is that spiders don't have compound eyes like an insect, instead, they have multiple sets of simple eyes. If you take a flashlight and shine it at a spider, their eyes will glow, almost like a cat.

Everything goes smoothly for half a block until I look down into one drain and catch two silver dollar sized, highlighter yellow eyes looking back up at me. I freeze; remembering the dozens of accounts out of Colombia where villagers have seen spiders carry off whole, live chickens. If its fangs sink into my ankle, the venom will go to work on my muscles, paralyzing every square inch of my body. It will then drag me into its nest and wrap me lovingly in blankets of silk, tucking me in for a numbing final rest. The Australian Funnel Web spider can kill a human in 15 minutes (they like to hide in tennis shoes) but usually, spiders don't finish their victims off immediately. Instead, their venom slowly dissolves soft tissue. I'd feel my heart stop beating as it bubbled into jelly, ready to be slurped out with the rest of my organs.

I stumble backwards just as the stench of stomach acid and shit hits my nose. Something is rotting in the storm drain. I start running.

The asphalt blurs beneath my feet as spindly things crawl behind trashcans and rusted post boxes. Only one block to go but my messy sleep schedule has taken its toll on my stamina. I'm not going to make it, and I'm too afraid to look what's behind me—waiting for my legs to give out.

Up ahead, leaning against a brick building on the corner, is a man wrapped in a brown trench coat. His fedora is pulled low over his face. He's probably a drug dealer but at this point I'll take anyone. The scuttling behind me dies down and I stop to catch my breath.

"Are you okay Miss?" he hisses.

"I think so," I reply. He has a big bushy mustache that hides his mouth and thin, graying hair that runs from his scalp all the way down the back of his neck.

"May I escort you home?" he asks.

I look past him; my apartment building is less than a football field away. Moths flap lazily around the lone porch light. Clive the doorman isn't waiting for me tonight, only his tattered vest and a long brown smear on the sidewalk are.

"I can make it," I say, keeping my vomit down. I straighten up and prepare for one last dash "I'm so close."

"It might be better not to risk it," he says, his shoulders spasm and I begin to see some other movement underneath his coat. Like he's trying to keep a collection of tent poles pressed to his chest. "Maybe my place would be safer? It's very close by…"

Spiders are geniuses when it comes to murder in the animal kingdom. The ogre-faced spider, for instance, weaves its web into a net between its front legs and then uses the web to snare its prey. The Portia Spider likes to imitate the mating rituals of other spiders in order to cannibalize them. And it's here that I remember an obscure piece I ran across during my research, a Japanese woodblock print from the 1800s. It displays a sleeping man with a kimono-clad woman watching over him. Pale legs jut from her mid section and the faint lace of spider webs surround her. This legendary creature is known as the Tsuchigumo. Spiders disguising themselves as people…

"I have to go," I breathe.

"Are you sure? My place is so close. Just down this alley—so close…" a line of viscous drool slips below his facial hair and runs down his front.

I turn and sprint for home as fabric shreds and the creature's joints creak back into place. 100 feet. 50 feet. I hear each claw find the cement with a dull scrape. I keep waiting for it, the sticky ropes wrapping around my knees and dragging me back as my fingernails are worn to nubs on the pavement. But it doesn't come, and in a matter of seconds, I shove myself through the front door and slam it behind me.

I peer through the grime of the lobby's window and see scraps of trench coat flapping in the faint breeze. Each strip has dozens of prickly black hairs clinging to it. Something tall and slender slinks into the nearby alley and begins to climb to the rooftops. I head up the stairs to my apartment.

"Home sweet home," I say, pushing the door open and tossing my clothes on the nearby couch.

I flip all four of my deadbolts and stuff a bath towel in the crack at the base of the door. Some invertebrates can press themselves as flat as paper. Better to be safe than sorry.

I run through the checklist before bed: baseball bat propped up against bedside table, aerosol can of poison under my pillow, 911 typed into my phone, all I'd have to do is hit "send"—not that they'd come anyway.

As I lie in bed, covers up to my chin and one arm bent back, fingers wrapped around the bug spray; I stare at the dream catcher tacked to my ceiling. I try to avoid thinking about the milk spoiling in my fridge, how I'm down to my last can of beans, how I'll inevitably have to go outside again. For now I'm safe. All I want to do is sleep.

Something is scratching at my window…

➥ Bio