Owen flipped the light switch and for a brief moment caught a glimpse of the horrifying Rube Goldberg machine his kitchen had been transformed into. The apparatus was already winding and spinning into action: cordage, mechanisms, counterweights, and tripwires crisscrossed every surface. A bowling ball fell into a clothesbasket. A pulley system was engaged. A cinderblock fell on the tines of a garden rake. Something snapped across the room and a claw hammer whipped through the air, striking him above the right eye and pealing his eyebrow back from his forehead in three wet pieces like the skin of a banana.
Black stars exploded in his field of vision. The grocery bag he was holding dropped to the floor and he staggered in a drunk circle as blood poured down his face in hot globs. He was tipping at the edge of consciousness, sure he would pass out, when an odd shape scuttled across the kitchen floor and jolted his scrambled brain into focus: The spider was in the house.
It was huge. He had only been this close to it once before, outside in the dark, in the garden, where seeing a large spider was within the realm of possibility. There, he had no way of knowing how big it was but seeing it in the house gave him a startling reference point. Its body was greasy and black, about the size of a football, and flanked on either side by a platoon of spindly legs, each two feet in length. It had three incandescent blue triangles blazing on its back, a face full of eyeballs, and a fuzzy mustache sheathing a mouth full of needles. At some point, it had been at the pipes and fashioned a rough-looking suit of armor for protection. Owen also noticed it was wearing his father’s tool belt and manipulating a flat head screwdriver with alarming dexterity at the end of one of its long gangling legs.
“You’re not fucking around are you?” Owen said, backing away.
The spider hissed and began to creep toward him, trying to speak, attempting to form some hideous sentence, and sounding like an old man desperate to vomit out last words through a chest full of mucus. Owen made out a word: give. There was a soggy belch, then something indecipherable, followed by another word: back.
Hearing the spider talk threatened to push his mind past the breaking point. Working on instinct and the preternatural sharpness that comes from being covered in your own blood, Owen groped in the floor for the hammer, found it, and hurled it in the spider’s direction. It chopped through the air. The spider pirouetted, avoiding the volley with an elegant feint, and the hammer sailed across the room knocking a jagged hole in the drywall.
The room prickled with animosity. The spider spat in the floor, holstered the screwdriver, and shot across the kitchen, popped the grate off the floor vent, and began to stuff its hairy black body into the duct, looking like someone trying to cram a rancid sausage back into a meat grinder. Searching for another weapon Owen jerked the bowling ball out of the clothesbasket, and surged toward the vent. He raised the bowling ball over his head and brought it down hard. The spider squeezed through unscathed, its armor clanging into the bowels of the house.
Owen’s mangled reflection in the kitchen window confirmed it would take stitches to put his eyebrow back together but going to the ER was out of the question. He had already made the mistake of leaving for groceries and in the hour he was out of the house the spider had mounted a major offensive.
He dabbed at his ruined eyebrow with a dishtowel then wrapped a clumsy band of duct tape around his head and made a cautious room-to-room check downstairs. There was another contraption in the entry hall. If he had come through the front door he would have been greeted by a battery of two-by-fours sprinkled with sixteen-penny nails, rigged to a device the spider had fashioned out of an air compressor and some trampoline springs. Owen used a broom to trigger the device from behind the sofa. It had so much torque it ripped the frame off the front door.
A series of scraping noises from the basement sent Owen back into defensive posture. Then he heard a sound like a handful of coins being thrown into a long metal tube followed by the nauseating tapping of the spiders legs beating against the sheet metal as it scurried upstairs through the maze of ductwork.
Owen thought about the safe upstairs in his bedroom. He thought about running- the urge to get out of the house was overwhelming- but hearing the spider make a break for the upstairs meant it was making a play for the safe. He couldn’t fool himself into believing he could do without it anymore and he knew he had to get there before the spider did.
The hammer was lying on the kitchen floor and Owen grabbed it. He wished he had a helmet, something with a face shield. A Kevlar vest would also be nice, or something he could cram into the vents after the spider. A take-no-shit tomcat maybe, or a deranged ferret.
The clear ring of a bell cut through the heavy silence in the house. Owen recognized it immediately. Peering around the corner, up the staircase, he saw the spider sitting at the top of the stairs, crouched over the antique brass call bell Owen kept hidden in his office. The bell was a symbol of the house and its illustrious past and sat at the front desk when it was a successful boutique hotel owned by Owen’s family: the business that had been passed down to him, the legacy he had been trapped under, the inheritance he squandered. No other item in the house would have incited the same reaction from Owen. The house itself, now shabby and forgotten, was a monument to his failure. Something about the bell was worse, every perky chime a reminder of the house in its heyday. Under the stewardship of his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather, the tones of that bell filled this house when reservations were made years in advance. It was special then, a place with intangible magic. It could have thrived for twenty years on autopilot; Owen turned it into an afterthought inside a decade. Somehow, the spider knew that.
The spider was mocking him, tempting him up the stairs, luring him to some waiting nightmare.
Owen turned the corner and stood and the bottom of the stairs, holding the hammer in front of him like a torch. The spider repositioned itself over the bell. It had one of its legs curled behind its back and Owen saw a fine-spun filament rising up to the ceiling.
Stepping forward like a man walking a tight rope, Owen began to climb the stairs. Hundreds of eyes moving in hundreds of directions calculated and analyzed his ascent. Owen saw a glint of steel from the ceiling above and stopped.
The garden tools from Owen’s shed, and several other nasty things he had never seen, were dangling from the ceiling, connected by an insane web-work that spanned the distance between the two of them. There were sledgehammers, fence posts that had been refined to invisible points of sharpness, a squadron of skill saw blades, a mattock, all hanging above them, triggered to crash down, bludgeon, slash, and pin him to the stairs.
“Aren’t you clever?” Owen said.
Ding! Ding! Ding!
“I see your trap. You think I’m stupid enough to walk into that?
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
The spider swiped at the bell frantically and began to back down the upstairs hall. Owen saw concern on its repulsive face.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
The spider dropped the filament hidden behind its back and began to scurry backwards down the hall. Seeing that it had dropped its trigger mechanism Owen took a huge leap forward, trying to cover as much ground as possible and get out from under the trap while it was in retreat. When his foot hit the stairs he felt them shift beneath his weight. There was a loud pop and the stairs rolled, giving him the sensation of being on an escalator, then crashed out from under him. He lurched forward creating just enough momentum to throw his arms over the upper landing of the stairs. The stairs exploded behind him. A terrified glance over his shoulder revealed the spider had rigged the upper portion of the stairs to collapse and had cut a hole that went all the way down to the basement. There was an old bedframe on the cold concrete floor below that it had doctored into a bouquet of Punji sticks, positioned beneath the pit to skewer Owen’s falling body.
The hammer in his right hand prevented him from getting a firm grip on the slippery wood floor. He dangled over the gaping hole panting and struggling to pull himself up.
The spider appeared at the top of the stairs, still wearing the tool belt slung sash-style around its abdomen like a bandolier. It fished out a box cutter and in one fluid motion, stood up on its back legs and pinned Owen’s left wrist to the floor with a sticky blast of webbing from its spinneret. Owen recoiled from the wet lacey feel of the webbing but couldn’t free his wrist.
The spider cranked the blade out of the box cutter.
Owen put his feet against the wall and tried to kick away, not caring if he fell into the pit, not thinking about the spikes in the bed frame below or what type of death that would be, just wanting to get away.
The spider pinned the top of his hand to the floor with effortless strength and moved in to take the fingers off. Owen screamed. The web flexed but kept his wrist secured to the floor. He screamed louder, pleading and murmuring indecipherable threats. The blade dug into the slender edge of his little finger.
Owen swung the hammer over his head; having forgotten it was in his hand. It slammed down, claw end first, hacking into the wood floor and lopping off two of the spider’s legs. Phosphorescent green blood spattered both of them. The spider wailed, rolled down the hall, and leapt onto a table scattering family pictures and knickknacks everywhere.
Owen humped his way up onto the landing. The spider’s severed legs writhed and twitched in a small pool of neon blood. The box cutter had been left behind in the commotion and Owen used it to cut his hand free from the web.
The spider was gone but it left a trail of glowing blood snaking down the hallway into an open air vent. Owen didn’t think it was dead-didn’t even know if it could be killed, but he had hurt it. It was in the walls again and he pictured it healing, growing hypodermic needles where its legs had been, or shedding its wounded body and transforming into something worse.
Most of the rooms upstairs had been ransacked and looked like photographs you might see of the insides of houses after a hurricane swell recedes. Furniture and memories turned into debris; the type of wreckage that isn’t cleaned, just walked away from.
The sun was going down and light was seeping out of the house. His bedroom door was closed and a quick check of the knob assured him it was locked, as he had left it. The key turned with a rusty scrape and the door creaked open just enough for him to examine a sliver of the room. Plaster, bricks, and glass were strewn everywhere. The closet doors had been ripped off their hinges and pounded into wooden shards. His clothes were flung around, ripped and shredded, like a hateful child with obscene strength had been confined in the room and had gone berserk.
This had been The Garden View Room when the house and family fortunes were in the ascendancy. There were ornate double doors that opened onto a wrought iron balcony overlooking the picturesque little garden, the rolling hills around the house, and the endless forest that spread into the preserve beyond it. Thousands of acres of protected lands in all directions that had been untouched and unchanged as far back as anyone could remember. Owen was finding out there were old things in those woods and why old things and new things keep to themselves. The double doors had been blown out from the inside leaving a gaping hole that looked like the mouth of a cave. The balcony was gone and the unkempt garden roiled below like a great green storm in the wind and the dying light.
His eyebrow throbbed. He could feel blood beginning to seep around the edges of his duct tape bandage and a light nausea that warned he might have a concussion. His adrenaline was still keeping him sharp. Getting to the safe and getting out of the house were his only priorities now. There was nothing else to salvage.
The safe sat against the far wall. The spider had tried to break into it, but was limited by the amount of force it could use and couldn’t take the safe to a different location because Owen’s great grandfather had it welded to the frame of the house. It was a Depression Era overreaction that had paid dividends in this situation.
Owen closed the door, searched the room for traps, and checked for signs of phosphorescent blood to ensure the spider hadn’t flanked him and wasn’t lying in wait inside the bedroom.
He dropped to his knees in front of the safe and spun the dial until he heard the comforting chunk of the bolt sliding through the lock. He turned the heavy arm and opened the safe door slowly.
The small woman was standing in the center of the bell jar, just as he had left her. She squinted against the light and raised a tiny hand to shield her eyes. She stumbled toward him, placing her hands against the glass wall between them and began shaping her mouth into words he could not hear. He smiled at her and was lost for a moment in her beautiful little face.
There was a small cigar box beside the bell jar and he reached for it. His eyes stayed fixed on the little woman as he slid the box out of the safe. Her tiny mouth formed more frantic words and she began to beat against the inside of the glass. He cracked the lid of the box just enough to squeeze his nose in and breathed deeply. He watched her perfect lips form the shape of his name over and over, while she pounded against the glass. His arms and legs went numb and the pain in his eye seemed to lift out of the top of his head and blow away in the warm breeze engulfing every inch of his body. The room and the chaos around him faded into nonexistence.
When he woke up, night had come in full over the old house. He was surrounded by darkness. Pinpricks of light began to wink into view around him and he realized he was encircled by a landscape of stars. A cold wind stung his face but his hands were warm, hot even, burning but not burning. Heat without pain.
He looked down and saw the little woman cupped in his hands and past his hands, far below, he saw the house, and the garden, and the forest all around them. He could see its edges and it was larger than he ever imagined. But from this great height everything he could see was tiny.
His stomach lurched. In his head he heard the comical boing! of someone striking a timpani drum and stamping down on the foot pedal. He scrambled in the air but had nothing to grab, nowhere to put his feet. He was suspended in the air. Weightless.
“You’re awake,” she said patting his thumb with a hand the size of a watermelon seed, trying to comfort him, “don’t be afraid.”
“Where am I?”
“We got out. You got us out Owen.”
She giggled, a sound like the twinkling of little bells. “Isn’t it obvious?” She peered over his hand, looking back down at the house like a girl peeking over the edge of the basket during a hot air balloon ride. Only higher. Much higher.
“How did we get up here?”
“We flew. You flew Owen. It was wonderful.”
“Yes Owen, you flew. Isn’t that what all of this has been about? Isn’t this what you wanted?”
He surveyed the world around him, the patchwork of little fields that stretched for hundreds of miles off to the west like a brilliant quilt of green swatches, the great forest pushing east to the coast. “I just wanted something new to happen to me. Something great. Something I got to choose.”
“You made your choices Owen. How do you feel about them?”
He looked away from her, couldn’t look her in the eye. “I’m sorry I pulled off your wings.”
The little woman patted his thumb with her tiny hand and frowned at him, pitying him with a face that said, you poor baby, you did what you thought was right.
“Owen I hope you see now that you don’t need my wings any more than you need your own wings. It’s never been about wings. Your kind never flew because you could never believe it was possible. Your kind had to build machines to fly for you. But it’s not the machine that makes you fly: it’s your belief in the machine. Do you understand?”
The wind blew his shirttail out behind him like a short cape. He moved an arm cautiously through the air and changed direction. The little woman stood like a wooden cutout in the palm of his hand. It felt like those precious few seconds after you’ve jumped out of a swing at the top of its arc, when you’re not going up, and you’ve not yet begun to drop, just hanging suspended in the air, exhilarated and without consequence.
“When I found you in the garden I knew immediately what you were,” he said.
“You were never supposed to see that.”
“And that spider, you were caught in its web.”
“That wasn’t what it looked like.”
“I saved you from it.”
“Him. He’s a him and his name is-”
“But I brought you into my house. I thought you were hurt. I thought he would-”
“You shouldn’t have done that. I told you to let me go. I told you he-”
“I loved you and you kept trying to leave. You kept trying to get away. You tried to trick me to get away. What was I supposed to do?”
“You didn’t love me. I intrigued you. I was something strange that you wanted to possess. People hadn’t seen something like me and by showing them what I was, you thought you would bring attention to yourself.”
“No. No. No. I loved you. I love you. You were sweet and beautiful and that spider…he was…”
“Your kind doesn’t know how to love. For you people, consuming a thing is easier than loving a thing.”
It was quiet between them. She was making sense and he couldn’t argue with her. She seemed to know so much about him, about people, knowledge that came from careful observation, from hundreds of years of hiding away, from wary surveillance and distrust.
“What now?” He said after some time.
“Now you fly Owen. This is my gift to you. You can do whatever you want with it. Be a hero, save cats out of trees, or women forced to leap from flaming buildings. Sew yourself a colorful costume. Travel the world. Get a reality show. Donate your body to science. Do whatever you want. The sky is no longer the limit for you.”
The possibilities made his pulse quicken. He pictured himself as the first of a kind. The freedom it would bring. He pictured the hole inside himself being filled with adoration.
“Thank you. I don’t deserve this…but thank you…what you’ve done for me…after what I did to you.”
“You don’t have to thank me Owen,” She smiled at him and he smiled back. She was so beautiful and magnanimous. “You don’t have to thank me…because you’re dreaming.”
Weight began seeping into his arms and legs and torso, like water or concrete, or lead, or something heavier, filling up every inch, every space, and every atom in his body.
“I’m not dreaming…you woke me up.” He began to pant, to perspire, to sink.
“How many times have you flown in dreams Owen?”
“Dreams just like this?”
Whatever happy thought had kept him afloat disintegrated. The golden band that tied her sweet words together, words that had lifted him, held him, made him believe, snapped in an instant. Now there were thunderheads behind her eyes and her mask of pity was off.
He squeezed his hands around her and hung in the air from her small body.
The moon swung like a naked bulb in the black sky and from below he looked like a man dangling from its pull string. The wind raged around them. The earth rotated below: huge, sluggish, bored.
“I want to wake up!” He screamed.
“Then wake up. Do whatever you want,” she smiled at him and there was wickedness in it. “Always do whatever you want.”
Her body began to heat up. At first there was an itchy burn in his fingers. Then the skin began to peel away and the meat of his palm was cooked through and his bones began to liquefy. He screamed, thrashing in the air, and trying desperately to hold on through the pain.
He let go and fell.
It wasn’t a dream like she told him and he didn’t wake up before landing in the garden.
She fluttered back down like a leaf.
The spider came out of the house and cast a soft web between two tall hedges, catching her delicate body and preventing any unnecessary impact. He helped her out, holding her close to him with the sharp black spines of his remaining legs. She ran a porcelain hand over the rough wounds left by the blow from the hammer. He had reattached his legs with webbing and with time and care they would heal.
The wooden cigar box sat in the tall grass beside them. He took her wings from the box, turned her body gently, and reattached her wings with a care and precision he hadn’t afforded his own wounds.
Owen’s body lay in a twisted pile at the base of a wild overgrown rose bush and the spider ate it; because consuming a thing is easier than hiding a thing.
The small woman, already beginning to feel a light tingle around the edges of her wings, set the house on fire and they stood in the garden, under the moonlight, watching it burn.
Words between them were unnecessary. It would always be that way.