Actions

Work Header

the friend

Work Text:

 I.

 

Tim helped him with the last of the boxes—the ones with picture frames and alarm clocks and egg timers and loose ends—but he didn’t stick around long after that. His excuse was that he was going in to the office to catch up on some things, but Martin knows that’s not true. He’d seen the look on Tim’s face, taking in his drab, empty new flat. He doesn’t blame him. Helping someone unpack their dreary knick-knacks isn’t exactly a thrilling Saturday afternoon.

              He doesn’t mind so much. He’s only moved a handful of times in his adult life, and he’s never liked having to ask for help with it. He feels embarrassed about not being able to lift the heavier things, and how slowly he moves up a flight of stairs with a stack of boxes in his arms. He likes to take his time, arrange things just so, impose a sense of lived-in-ness on a place that hasn’t been lived in yet. Tim wouldn’t have been any real help with it anyway.

              The place is slightly bigger and slightly more expensive than his old flat, the one with fingernail scratches all over the front door and the remnants of duct tape still stuck to the windowsills. He’d gotten out of there as soon as he humanly could, after everything at the Institute calmed down, and he was absolutely, positively certain that no worm-infested women were following him on his new route home. In all honesty he can’t wait for his sick leave to be up. He wants to be able to go into the Archives and stolidly play-act that nothing has changed, collect his pay and have a nice, safe, wormless bed to sleep in, a nice, safe, wormless flat to live in. He doesn’t think that’s so much to ask.

              A flat never really feels homey to him, he thinks, setting up the last few charity shop picture frames on the bookshelf in the front room, until all the décor is up, and until he has put everything away in his closet. When the walls are covered and he can see his shirts and jumpers hanging in shadow, then he feels as if he has arrived. He has a lot of bric-a-brac to put out on shelves and tables and nightstands, though, and it’s well after dark before he even opens the empty closet in his new bedroom and breathes in the smell of new paint.

              The naked lightbulb overhead sputters awake when he flips the switch on the wall; it’s an ugly fluorescent, every pit and nail-hole in the walls brought into stark relief. Immediately he sees the spider.

              “Oh,” he says, in the direction of the large brown thing, huddled up in the corner near the ceiling. “Hello.”

              He always greets a new spider when he meets it. It’s instinct, born in childhood, the same way he instinctively counts magpies, or flicks salt over his left shoulder. A little harmless superstition. A bit of politesse.

              “Didn’t think I’d have a flatmate,” he says, smiling at his own joke. The spider doesn’t react.

              He drags in a stepstool a few moments later, the boxes and suitcases of his clothes still untouched, and climbs up to get a better look. It’s spiny-legged, with a fascinating pattern of dark and light hairs on its abdomen, in a sort of falling chevron pattern. In the harsh light, with his face up close, he can see the glimmer in its two neat rows of eyes.

              “Hello,” he says again, more softly. He resists the urge to reach out and touch just yet. Instead he rests his head on the wall below it, looking up, seeing the little spines on its legs picked out in detail on the white ceiling. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll be in and out.”

              It doesn’t move, and he can’t tell if it’s watching him or not, if it’s aware of him in any meaningful way. But no matter. Martin isn’t the type to move a spider if it’s not in his way, and in here, in the deepest corner of the flat, it’s certainly welcome to stay.

              He keeps an eye on it while he unpacks, but it never moves—just stands there in the corner with its legs spread out.

              “Have you got a name?” he says, when he’s finished, leaning against the doorjamb to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his fringe. “If we’re going to be roommates you should have a name, yeah? Let’s see.” He thinks for a moment. “How about George?”

              He’s probably imagining the minute twitch of the spider’s forelegs, but he grins, and takes it anyway.

              “Got it in one,” he says. “Alright, George. Goodnight.”

 


             

 

              George, it seems, is a giant house spider, at least according to what Martin can find online at work the next Monday. Sasha walks by behind him with her arms full of filing folders and leans down over his shoulder to look at the parade of pictures he’s scrolling through, twisting her pink lips. “Yuck,” she says.

              Martin shrugs. “I like them.” He smiles at her. “I’ve got a big one in my new place.”

              “Ugh. Kill it,” says Sasha, swiping at her skirt, as if to dislodge invisible arachnids. He watches her disappear into the open door of Jon’s office and sighs.

He can’t remember the last time he killed a spider. Even the thought of it makes him feel a little queasy. It feels like it would be a bad luck thing to do.

Back at home, he switches on the light in the closet, and George is still there, exactly where he left him—standing near the ceiling, completely still.

He leaves the door open and the light on while he changes out of his work things and sits down on the floor to fold some clothes left over from the night before. It’s quiet. His flat is high up enough that he can’t hear much of the street below, and his neighbors—if he has any, he hasn’t checked—are silent, if they’re even home.

“I always feel better having a spider in the house,” he says. He glances into the closet, past his sweaters and winter coat, to the dark shape in the corner. “Makes it less lonely, you know?”

And safer, somehow, he thinks. It’s strange. Something about knowing that, in the dark, in the house somewhere, there’s a set of eyes open—observing; watching—is comforting. An entirely ridiculous premise, he knows; if another Jane Prentiss came knocking at his door, a giant house spider wouldn’t do shit to protect him. But he likes to pretend.

 


 

Tim has a fruit fly infestation. For a few days he’s in a sour mood because of it. “I don’t know where they came from,” he mutters, to Martin’s sympathetic ear, picking dolefully at a takeaway salad in the break room. “I’ve thrown out everything. They still won’t fucking go away.”

“Sounds like you could use a spider,” Martin says, and Tim snorts. He doesn’t try to follow up the statement. It’s the usual response—he’s used to it. Nobody in the world likes spiders besides him, it seems. Nobody else sees how useful they are. People will go crazy over a cat or a dog or a ferret or a lizard, but never a spider, no matter how pretty or helpful. It’s that visceral, primordial disgust that Martin just doesn’t have.

“Nah,” Tim says. “I’m buying some traps on my way home tonight.”

Martin hums noncommittally. He certainly doesn’t have any flies to worry about. George makes sure of that.

 


 

 

He knows George is alive, because a web begins to appear in the corner of the closet, behind a box on a high shelf, after a while. He thinks maybe the spider is shy, because he never seems to be able to catch it building. It freezes in place when he turns on the light, and never moves a single leg or pedipalp when Martin is watching. Sometimes he watches anyway, for long stretches, admiring the pattern on George’s abdomen, or the delicate fibers of his funnel-like web.

Everywhere else he’s ever lived he’s had an issue with moths, but not here. The box of mothballs he’d bought out of habit sits unopened in a bottom drawer of his bureau. George’s web always seems to be empty, but Martin supposes he just isn’t around when the spider is eating its catch.

He finds himself spending a lot of time in his bedroom, with the closet door open, sitting nearby. He’ll read or aimlessly scroll social media or make half-hearted attempts at poetry in one of his myriad unused notebooks, aware always of George’s presence. It’s like having a friend sitting quietly in the same room. No need for idle chatter.

Maybe he’s going mad. Everyone seems to be going mad lately. Work is stressful. Jon’s on some kind of paranoid solo mission, following people around, being cagey and distant. Sometimes when Martin brings him tea he accepts it with a look that makes Martin’s heart sink, as if he expects it to be dosed with poison. Maybe he does. Martin doesn’t know. Everyone’s on edge. Everybody’s coping.

For him, at the end of the day, it’s comforting to lie down on the rug and read one of Elias’ trashy hand-me-down romances in the company of a giant house spider. There are worse ways to spend his Thursday nights.

 


             

 

              Tim tells him that Jon and the police detective woman are dating. Martin manages to laugh it off without giving away too much of the sound of his heart in his throat, he thinks. And later, on the tube, he does a very good job, he thinks, of keeping himself from crying. He’s pretty proud of how well he kept himself together, all things considered, by the time he drops his bag inside his front door and sits down next to it and starts to cry.

              Stupid, he tells himself between sniffles, in that internal voice that is a perfect cross between his own and his mother’s. What are you crying for? Stupid crybaby. It’s not as if you ever had a chance with him anyway. It’s a complete overreaction, and he’s perfectly aware of that, but the painful aching twist in his chest is real anyway, and every time he stops to take a breath and try to straighten himself out, the tears start coming again, faster than before.

              He’s got a stupid crush on his beautiful boss and he supposes he hadn’t really realized how big it was until now, until it became clear to him that Jon liked someone else, and a woman, no less. And Tim had said it with such confidence, and Tim is always right about these things, and it makes sense, doesn’t it? Why else would he see her so often around the Archives when she has no real business there anymore?

              Stupid. He doesn’t even like you. Get up, wash your face, put your things away. He can’t sit on the floor in the front hall crying all night. He’s pathetic, but he can’t be that pathetic. He peels himself off the rug and smears his hands across his raw, red face, tight with his crying. He needs to make himself something to eat and stop being such a brat. Go and sit in his bedroom with George. That’ll calm him down—it always does after a hard day.

              Eventually he manages to throw something frozen in the tiny oven and put the kettle on, wipe down his face and put on something warm and cozy. Self-care and all that. He pulls his stepstool into the closet, waiting for the egg timer in the kitchen to ping on his shepherd’s pie.

              George is sitting in the back of his funnel, unmoving, and Martin sighs, leaning his head against the shelf. Already he feels better. It’s silly, that the presence of a spider can make him feel better. But other people have birds and rabbits that they can talk to. George isn’t really that much different.

              “You’re lucky,” he says. From back in the funnel, George’s eyes glimmer. Martin runs his finger delicately along the very edge of the web, careful not to disturb it too much. It feels soft, nice. He takes a deep breath; his throat is still thick from crying. “You’re never going to get your little heart broken by any pretty lady spider.”

              George, as always, doesn’t respond.

              Martin sniffs. “You know, I wanted a tarantula growing up. I begged for one for years on Christmas but Mum wouldn’t have it. She said it was disgusting. She said we’d get a cat instead, and don’t get me wrong, I do love cats—but it’s not the same, you know? With a cat you have to share. A cat is everybody’s. Nobody wants to share a pet tarantula. I wanted something that could be all my own, I guess.” In the dimness he thinks he can see George’s pedipalps moving ever so slightly. He smiles sadly. “I thought maybe I could convince her if I could—I don’t know. Pretend that a spider could be like a cat. That it could love you back.

              “I read every library book and encyclopedia I could find about tarantulas trying to see, if it was possible, if spiders and bugs could love you the way a cat or a dog can. But you can’t.” He swallows. “And it’s not your fault—you just don’t have the brain for it. It’s not your fault.”

              He feels a little brave, or maybe it’s just the exhaustion of all his crying and upset, so he doesn’t really think about putting his hand inside the web. He inches the tips of his fingers in, toward George. He doesn’t react.

              “Must be nice. Not having to care about things. You just exist. Nobody asks you for anything.” The web isn’t sticky—he remembers reading about that. It feels fragile and soft on his fingers. It’s bigger than he’d expected, up close. He laughs a little, mostly at himself. “I don’t know. I’m sad.” He feels his eyes growing hot and wet again. “It’s stupid, but I’m just kind of sad.”

              The almost imperceptible feeling of one of George’s legs touching his finger startles him, and he yanks his hand back out, scraping the top of the funnel in the process, shredding it. “Oh! Oh, no,” he stammers, covering his mouth, “oh, no, I’m so sorry—I’m so sorry, fuck.”

              Gingerly, he takes the ruined roof of George’s web in two fingers and lifts it, just enough to see inside. George hasn’t moved. His leg is still outstretched, where it had been reaching toward Martin’s hand, like a friend.

 


 

 

II.

 

              George rebuilds. George is also getting bigger.

              Which is strange, because from everything Martin has read about giant house spiders, George is mature, and shouldn’t be growing at all. He looked it up at work—there’s a really nice book on spiders in the library with a decent section about E. atrica. The biggest males have legspans up to three inches, but he can tell just from a glance, when he sees George up on the wall or out of his web, that his legs reach much further than that.

              He supposes he could be wrong about the species. Or maybe George is special. Mutant or something. He keeps the library book on his desk and, when there’s a lull in the workday, he opens to the black and white photograph of an E. atrica specimen and looks at its cascading chevron pattern and its neat rows of eyes.

              He talked to Jon about some things, and he feels a little better. Jon knows about his CV now, at least. He’s still skulking around, acting suspicious, but he’ll return Martin’s smile if they pass each other in the hallway now. Martin brings him tea as usual and Jon even drinks it in front of him. They’re getting somewhere, the two of them.

              He tells George this, reaching inside his newly-rebuilt funnel web, being extra careful not to harm it. He thinks the spider is getting used to him, as much as a spider can get used to a person. If he intrudes into his space enough, sometimes he’ll even touch Martin’s fingers with his feet—and Martin is prepared for it now. He wants George to crawl out onto his hand so he can really get a good look at him. Maybe even measure him.

              When, finally, one evening, he feels the barest shift in weight on his fingers and draws his hand back out of the web, and the spider is on it, standing on his palm, he feels a quiet sense of triumph.

              “Hello,” he says.

 


 

 

              He’s grateful for George, for the distraction he offers, especially now, with Jon missing and everything turned upside down. Workdays feel like blurs. On the days where he has to record statements, the only thing that makes him feel normal again is coaxing George out of his web and onto his hand, sitting down on the stepstool and gently stroking the hairs on his abdomen.

              He’s a remarkably docile spider. He lets Martin handle him like a small animal might. Martin wonders if it’s something to do with his size. Because he absolutely is getting bigger—bigger than any giant house spider he’s read about. He managed to get his tape measure out one afternoon when George was standing on the wall. His legspan is easily seven inches now. He’s never heard of a house spider that big before.

              It’s becoming a routine that Martin needs, that he craves during the workday. As soon as he gets home and sheds his office clothes he goes in to spend time with the spider, who, more often than not, doesn’t do anything—just sits in his web or in Martin’s hand, occasionally crawling a little ways up his wrist, but never further. Martin imagines there is some kind of intelligence in those beady black eyes, though he knows that’s just wishful thinking.

              He’s never been one for keeping a diary, but he finds it’s easy to talk to George, to complain about his day or ruminate about where Jon could be, if he’s safe, if he’s okay. He pretends that George can hear and understand, that his stillness is just the patience of a listener. When he begins to get sleepy, or needs to make something to eat, he gently deposits the spider back in his web, turns out the light, leaves the door ajar behind him.

              He doesn’t tell anyone at work about George. He knows someone would find it investigation-worthy—a massive spider growing more massive every day, living in his closet. He’s read enough statements about spiders to know that there is a pattern. But that isn’t George. George is special. George is his. And without Jon—with Sasha gone, and all these new people around, and Tim deep in his rage, and all the confusion and fear—he needs somebody. George is his. George isn’t going anywhere.

 


 

 

              He can’t stop crying the night Jon tells them about Sasha. He’s okay on the way home, and for most of the evening, really. It’s only when he gets the urge to text Tim something and scrolls past her name in his phone that it hits him, and then he crumbles, like he knew he would. He’d just been putting it off.

              He has enough presence of mind not to fall to pieces on the floor of the living room, at the very least. Somehow it feels embarrasing, too exposed. Instead he goes into his darkened bedroom and collapses on his bed, pulling off his glasses and curling up into a ball, burying his face in a pillow so that—he doesn’t know. His neighbors don’t hear, he supposes. Not that they could, if they exist. Maybe so he won’t hear himself.

              Stupid, says the rough, disdainful voice in his head. All that time and you never realized she’d been replaced. What are you good for, if you can’t even tell when your friend is gone?

              He gives an aborted little scream into his pillow, but it breaks on a sob. It’s not a real scream, not a real expression of his hurt. His throat is sore already. He curls up tighter, clutching the pillow to his face, wondering if it’ll suffocate him, if he’ll blissfully run out of oxygen and pass out and forget about it all. He wants to scrub her face from his brain with steel wool, but she’s there—standing in the swirling colors behind his eyelids, no matter how tightly he squeezes them shut.

              He hears a creak, and bolts upright, nerves on fire, suddenly alert. He blinks tears out of his eyes, wipes his nose on the sleeve of his jumper.

              The room seems darker than usual, all the shadows hanging, as if they’re heavier tonight. The dull light from the bad bulbs in the hallway is orange-ish and keeping to itself, somehow, as if too weak to cross the threshold of his room. It takes him a moment to realize that the sound was just the door to his closet opening, just a little bit. It was already ajar. He never closes it anymore.

              George. Martin gives a shaky sigh and immediately feels a fresh, hot wave of tears, and he isn’t sure why. He had forgotten for a moment who was in there. His friend. He grabs the throw blanket he keeps on the end of his bed and pulls it around his shoulders, slides off the bed, toes open the closet door. It’s pitch black inside, but he doesn’t bother turning on the light. His back meets the plastic storage bins inside and he slides to the floor, clutching his blanket, and buries his face in his knees, feels his tears slipping from his face onto the soft fabric of his sweatpants, turning moist and cool.

              He can feel the spider’s presence in the space with him. Maybe he’s making it up, but he doesn’t think he is. He can feel something up in the corner, on the high shelf, looking down at him. Silent, still. Emotionless, lacking judgment, simply observing, being. It’s comforting. He fights past the voice in his head that tells him, stupid, that’s silly. It’s a spider. He fights past it and takes hold of it. George is a comfort to him. He shouldn’t try to deny it.

              He looks up; he can’t see anything through his tears, not even a dark shape against the dark wall. But George is there. George is always there. He knows; he can feel it.

              He loses track of how long he stays in there, but eventually his sobs turn to whimpers turn to silence; the tears stop coming quite so fast down his face and instead dry tightly on his skin. His bear-hug grip on his legs loosens; his feet slide out a little against the floor. He sighs, relaxes. His head feels utterly clean and scooped out and empty.

              He lolls against the storage bins, looking up at the vague shadows of his clothes hanging overhead, and the edge of the high shelf illuminated just the barest bit by incoming streetlight. He breathes, tries to coax breath past the hitch in his throat. Bit by bit it seems to smooth out.

              Martin exhales hard, feels the floor under his hands. Bit by bit coming back to himself. Straightening up. He wipes his face, laughs bitterly. “Sure but you’re probably sick of watching me cry,” he says, scrubbing at his eyes.

              He gets up, a bit painfully, from his cramped position on the floor. Exhales again, pops his knuckles and stretches a little. He’s exhausted. He’s going to take something and pass out, maybe even call in sick to work tomorrow. The idea of sleep has never felt more appealing to him.

              Martin reaches up to turn on the light, to strip and throw his clothes in the hamper at the back of the closet.

              George is perched on the shelf, on the box above his funnel web, looking down at him. The box, Martin sees, is bending a little underneath him. Which makes sense, considering that the spider is now, by Martin’s estimation, the size of a cat.

 


 

 

              III.

 

              Every Friday, Martin makes a stop at the pet supply store on the way home from work. It’s a little out of his way, but the clerk is a teenager who isn’t interested enough in him to ask questions about his animal companion, and rings up his weekly purchases of live crickets and pinky mice without even looking at him.

              And it’s good for him, too, he thinks, closing the front door with his heel, shopping bags rustling at the crook of his elbow. The detour to the pet shop keeps him from detouring to the hospital. He’s trying to limit himself to visiting Jon three times a week. Any more than that, he thinks, and he’ll start to go mad. If he’s responsible for something else, he can’t waste away in the hospital chair at Jon’s bedside. Who would feed George if he did?

              He’s stopped trying to come up with animal comparisons for George’s size. The spider is growing exponentially, it seems—has been since the night Martin spent in the closet weeping about Sasha, about the Institute, about all of it. He isn’t sure why it doesn’t bother him more. He’s thought about it, in his new office at work, clicking up and down between two empty Excel cells for hours at a time. Something just clicked when he saw how big George had gotten. A calmer, more rational version of the voice in his head, the one that’s a cross between his own voice and his mother’s. Spider that big can’t live on insects, it had said. You’ll have to figure that out. As if he’d been waiting, with some part of him, for this to happen. As if it was only right for it to have happened.

              George is expanding his web. It’s on the floor now, and it takes up most of the closet, anchored to his boxes and to the winter clothes that are further back, everything covered in silky strands. Martin gut-loads the mice and crickets and dumps them into a smooth, deep ceramic bowl, too smooth for them to climb out, and slides it inside his closet and shuts the door just enough. It’s always empty, blood-streaked, cricket limbs stuck to the sides, a half an hour later, and George—who, if he stood up, would easily be as tall as Martin—watches him retrieve it, his eyes glimmering.

              Martin supposes he should find it more strange and upsetting than he does. Then again, he finds it hard to summon any emotion more nuanced than dreary sadness these days. When his mother died, when he got the call in the middle of the afternoon at work, he barely felt a twinge. He’d gone to visit Jon that day, to tell him, but he hadn’t cried. At home, he’d sat inside the closet with George, in silence, twining a loose strand of silk around his fingers, over and over and over.

              By some shred of remaining survival instinct, he doesn’t tell his new boss about the spider. He knows things now, about the dread powers. He knows the spider in his closet is most likely tied to the one he would have found most interesting, back when he felt interest—the Web. But it doesn’t matter. There’s very little that matters to him anymore.

              On Fridays he visits the pet supply shop, and every now and then he visits Jon. At work he does what Peter tells him, and at home he feeds his spider, whose body grows thicker and bigger and whose legs grow longer every day. He thinks that, if he is being honest with himself, his spider is just about the only reason he’s even bothering to survive.

 


 

 

              Most mornings, he finds himself in the closet, curled up on the floor, half-in, half-out. The sun or his phone alarm wake him. He never remembers getting out of bed, opening the door, lying down on the rug. It gets cold in his flat at night. When he opens his eyes, the first thing he sees the gossamer silk of the funnel web, and the goosebumps studded all across his bare arms. George is always far back in his web, watching, but never touching.

              It doesn’t worry him. Maybe it should.

              He doesn’t have many clothes to choose from for work anymore. George’s web is anchored to most of the things in the closet now, pulling things down by the sleeves and hems, bending the plastic hangers to the point of nearly snapping. Not that he cares much about his appearance anymore anyway, and not that anyone really sees him, so there’s no one to judge him for wearing the same cardigan the entire week.

              Sometimes, when he is finished getting ready for work, he sits down on the floor of his closet, even though he’s already late. Peter doesn’t care when or if he shows up, and the effort of cleaning up is exhausting. He sits with George, whose long, long legs are increasingly more cramped up and folded in the small space, whose mouthparts are easily big enough now to cover Martin’s entire head, and watches the light fade up through the window.

              He hasn’t spoken to the Archives staff in months. He really doesn’t speak to anyone anymore, except Peter, and Jon’s body, and George. With George he speaks less and less. He has a sense the spider knows what he’s thinking most of the time anyway. He wonders if the reason he can’t remember his dreams anymore is that they’re getting caught in George’s web, eaten up, ripped apart. There’s something comforting about that.

 


 

 

              “How’s the poetry?” Jon asks, with so much hope and sincerity, and Martin has to bite back a laugh. He knows if he laughed aloud it would sound bitter and horrible. “I haven’t had a lot of time recently,” he says, and watches Jon’s face collapse, slowly, like a tower under demolition. Something about it feels, simultaneously, awful and perfect. He’s getting used to that feeling now.

              In truth he’s had loads of time, too much time, but he hasn’t touched his notebooks since his mother died. The urge to write has almost completely withered in him. He could say that, he supposes—wring a little more of Jon’s hurt out of him and feed on it, the way Peter encourages him to. Whenever he finds himself with the itch of inspiration he always finds himself, instead, opening the closet door.

              He could tell Jon that, more often than not, he gets home from the Institute and crouches down, crawls under the thick, ropy, hanging strands of the massive spider’s web until he is safely ensconced inside, finding the crook of one of George’s forelegs, wrapping himself quietly up there, staring at nothing, waiting for time to run itself out. That would upset him greatly. It would disgust and perturb him and maybe then he wouldn’t be so keen to seek Martin out. He’d leave him alone, and Martin could get on with it all.

              He doesn’t tell him any of that, though. There’s still a part of him, way back inside him, that can’t do that to Jon. He makes an excuse and walks away, leaving Jon in the middle of the hallway, looking smaller than he really is, utterly forlorn.

              He needs to get used to this, he tells himself. He needs to accept that there are only two creatures left in the world for him, and to cherish the one until the other, inevitably, steals that away, too.

 


 

 

              There’s a fine film of dust in Martin’s flat. It seems so much bigger now than it did when he moved in. All the bric-a-brac he unpacked the last time Tim was here stands unmoved, untouched, coated in cobwebs. The walls to either side of the closet door in his bedroom are becoming obscured by encroaching web. His vintage concert posters in their nice frames, dates and artwork illegible. He finds he doesn’t really need to eat anymore; it all tastes like ash anyway. He can’t close the closet door anymore; George is too big for that. Now, more often than not, he rests halfway out of the doorway, two pairs of legs braced against the doorjamb, looking patiently out. Martin has stopped feeding him, too. He just seems to keep growing.

              “I don’t know what to do,” Martin murmurs. As usual he’s curled into a nice cradle of webbing, resting against the wall, legs tucked beneath one of George’s. It’s as thick around as his arm and covered in coarse dark hair. He touches it, and George doesn’t move. His mouthparts, his massive fangs, in constant meditative motion. “What do I do now?”

              He’s had a headache for days. Dekker’s statement on constant rolling loop in his head. Peter’s voice intermingled. And somewhere there, too, Jon’s voice, though it’s muffled under the fog and cloud, fighting to be heard. Peter wants his help, and Jon wants to talk to him, and there’s so much at stake, suddenly, so much resting on him, the whole world, in fact, and he didn’t ask for it, but he can’t exactly put it back. Say no thank you. He wants to duck out and leave Peter in the dust, but he knows he can’t. Wants to run into Jon’s office and throw his arms around him, but he knows he can’t do that, either. There’s a little track of matted carpet on his bedroom floor where he had been pacing all evening, until the movement tired him out and he crawled into the safe cocoon of his spider’s web. His friend, who always listens.

              “Wish you could talk,” he says softly. “Wish you could solve all my problems.”

              He leans forward, enough to rest his head on the thick, knotted joint of George’s leg.

              “What do I do, George?” he murmurs, looking into the massive face before him, each eye as big as a fist. “What do I do now?”

              The spider doesn’t answer. He never has. Martin stares past its face, past the huge bulge of its thorax and abdomen, to the unrecognizable place that his closet has become—web strung from every corner and every shelf, every box and piece of clothing. There’s a singular tangle of white silk, hung from the ceiling above George’s body, and Martin focuses on it. It’s huge, almost globular. It reminds him of a fungus. He thinks he sees it—move, or ripple. But it’s probably his eyes playing tricks on him.

              He sits there for a long time with George, watching the monotonous movement of his chelicerae. Hypnotic. They soothe his mind, bit by bit. Even out all the whirling thoughts and battling voices. Dekker’s falls away, and Peter’s, and even Jon’s, until there is only his own voice—not as harsh and irritated as it used to be, without the timbre of his mother in it. It’s sharper, stronger, less cutting. Deliberate.

              Think, it says. You know what to do now. You just have to think, very carefully.

              “Yeah,” he says softly, aloud.

              You can survive this. You can save him, too.

              He blinks. Stirs. It occurs to him, suddenly, that this isn’t his voice at all.

              “George?” he whispers.

              But there’s no answer. Only those eyes, in the dark.

 


 

 

              This time, he is aware of sitting up, of sliding out of bed. He is aware of how the moonlight falls on the floor, illuminates the spider’s legs, eyes, mouth, web. He isn’t sure if this is waking, or dreaming, or if it matters. He always ends up here anyway, at the spider’s feet.

              In this heavier, inkier dark, he sees the globular knot of web inside the closet, more starkly than before. It swims into clarity though his vision, without his glasses, is weak. He can see its every detail—every spot where one strand of silk crosses, braids, threads another. He can see the shadows of the things inside.

              He supposes he should have guessed. The female of the species, after all, is usually the larger.

              He’s aware of himself, but he doesn’t think he has control. This doesn’t bother him, not really. It feels familiar, and right. He feels as if he is watching, comfortably, from deep in his skull. His body feels warm and pleasant. He’s steady on his feet. He’s watching the egg sac bulge and pulse, watching a hundred thousand little sharp legs poking, churning, ready to burst.

              He feels the urge to say, congratulations.

              The spider is watching him, its legs outstretched. He steps between them, toward those huge chelicerae, those staring eyes. It’s safe here. Her pedipalps touch his chest, reach up to press down on his shoulders. He feels extremely calm. She’s asking him for something, silently. He doesn’t know what, but he knows he’s going to say yes. He has to. After everything she’s done for him. Her companionship. Her patience. Her benevolent presence. Maternal, he thinks, even if he didn’t know it. He’s so grateful. He wishes he had the words to tell her.

              “Okay,” he says.

              The sac rends in slow motion.

              He isn’t scared. He loves spiders. He always has. He feels some kind of warm, cathartic joy, pushing up through his throat. He thinks he might cry. There’s some kind of benediction in it, in the way the babies swarm him, down over their mother’s body and up onto his arms, his legs. Up and over his shoulders, back, chest, belly, over his face, his head. Into his ears, his nose, his mouth. A million little bodies of every size. They crawl into his tear ducts, underneath his eyelids, into the spaces between his teeth, into his throat. He feels them in his lungs, in his stomach, beneath his fingernails. There isn’t any pain. It’s an embrace, after all. A gift. A reward, for saying yes to her.

              There are so, so many of them. He buckles to his knees. Rests his head against her. He feels so full, for the first time in so long—as if they are every emotion coming back to him, every feeling Peter sucked out of him. Everything he’s denied himself. He can’t breathe for the spiders filling his throat, but he isn’t afraid. He knows she won’t let him die. He can’t see through their bodies and legs. He feels them on the surface of his brain.

              No one has loved him like this in so long.

              Thank you, he says, or tries to say. It’s what I needed.

              He’s aware, until he isn’t.

 


 

 

IV.

 

              He doesn’t usually wander off when Jon is reciting. Even if Jon says they’re safe, he still has enough survival instinct to stick close by. But he doesn’t like the sound of this statement.

              This domain is neater, more orderly than most of the ones they’ve been through. He supposes that tracks. It would make sense for the Web to keep itself organized. All the theatres are numbered in nice brass plates above the double doors. He can hear laughter, gasps, oohs and ahhs from inside. Names emblazoned on the marquees: Rebecca. Alex. Christine.

              Theatre number 74 is playing something called Siobhan. Martin hesitates only a moment before he gently pushes on the door. It opens silently, easily. A gust of sound, of applause, washes over him, and the smell of dust and cobweb.

              The lights on the stage are blinding. He slips inside, just past the door, holding it open at his back. He lets his eyes adjust while the stage comes into focus, and the sobbing white woman on the boards is dragged bodily toward the double bed that is the only set piece there, bathed in gaslights. She dangles limply from the hooks that descend from the rafters.

              There is a spider up there, engorged, bigger than any spider Martin has ever seen. Its body is hairy, brown and black, with a pattern on its abdomen—a sort of cascade of falling chevrons.

              The audience’s applause dies down. The woman drags to a halt on the stage; the silk, for a moment, has gone slack. It takes Martin a moment to realize the spider has lifted its head.

              Overhead, a spotlight stops its arc and swivels, plants him in its beam. It blinds him for an instant, and he blinks, shielding his eyes. He can hear the woman sobbing, the shuffle of her limbs against the stage boards. When his vision clears, he can feel the audience, all turned in their seats, all looking at him, silently, unmoving.

              The spider is looking, too.

              It’s been months, but Martin remembers those big black eyes.

              “Hi,” he says softly. His voice carries, down the aisle toward the stage.

              George’s legs twitch. The woman moans in pain, and Martin smiles.