Webs

written by Cindy Lou Hernandez


    When you live way out in the middle of nowhere, you’re bound to encounter creepy-crawlies. Little creatures that fly, hop, buzz, bite, and chirp. Oh, and spiders. Every cabin in the woods has at least a few. Fortunately, Eric didn’t mind them. Not right away, at least.
    Dust filled hammocks of spider webs hung in every corner of the two room cabin, but Eric didn’t care. As long as the rent stayed cheap and the roof didn’t leak, the bugs could do whatever they liked. The place was perfect. A shabby sanctuary away from the city, away from people, away from everything. His meager belongings sat in the middle of the floor next to the fireplace: his guitar in its battered case, a black plastic trash bag with his clothes inside, and Zombie, his grey and white, battle-scarred cat. Zombie settled herself on the bag of clothes, purring for no good reason, and Eric cracked open a lukewarm beer in celebration of their new home.
    Zombie developed an acute fondness for spiders and insects in the days that followed. Entire battalions of crickets, flies, beetles and spiders disappeared down her throat. Eric would sit on the front porch in an ancient, splintered rocking chair, drinking beer and watching the feline huntress as she stalked her multi-legged prey. She held no quarter and she took no prisoners. One afternoon, Eric was roused from a beer-induced slumber by an odd wailing sound coming from outside. His hand went to his forehead, making a sun visor as he opened the door and peered out into the harsh mid-day sun. Zombie lay next to the rocker, and her growls and hisses were dreadful to hear. She pawed at her face, gurgling and gagging, and Eric caught sight of four inky black, bristly legs protruding from the cat’s mouth. Evidently, one of Zombie’s victims had decided to fight back.
    The weathered boards of the porch squawked and popped as he crossed it, and he picked up his struggling pet. Zombie scissored her jaws a final time, severing the legs from the unseen body. The little cat swallowed convulsively, and whatever had been fighting for its life was gone. The legs fell to the ground. An odd smell tainted the air; something like drain cleaner. Zombie escaped from Eric’s arms and bolted for the unkempt shrubbery next to the driveway.
    Eric knelt and examined the still twitching legs. Using his thumb and forefinger like tweezers, he picked one up for a closer look. Zombie’s afternoon snack had definitely been an arachnid. A huge one. The glossy black appendage was as big around as a pencil lead, and there were orangey-red stripes above and below each point of articulation.
    “Holy crap!” Eric tossed the spider legs over the porch railing, and squinted into the sunlight, looking for his gluttonous cat. “Zombie? Kitty-kitty?”
    He spent the rest of the afternoon checking corners, cracks, and crevices for possible relatives to the monster spider. Although he’d only seen the legs, Eric knew that the spider had to have been an anomaly, perhaps a rare species. He’d never seen a spider with legs like that. Zombie emerged from the shrubbery after a few hours, sullen and morose. An old refrigerator occupied a corner of the porch, and the cat curled herself on top of it, glaring at Eric whenever he passed.
    A few days later, Eric noticed sores on the top of the cat’s head, and along both her sides. During the day, she spent much of her time on top of the refrigerator, but at night, Eric could hear her prowling about outside, yowling softly to herself. To say it gave him the creeps would be an understatement. Her fur began to fall out, and the scabby patches on her head and sides were alarming. The weird spider she’d eaten must have been venomous; she’d been fine before she’d swallowed it. Eric could only hope she’d get better on her own. He had no money to spare for the vet.
    Despite the near-tragedy with Zombie, Eric made no real attempt at cleaning up the place. The webs in the corners and around the light fixtures increased in size until they resembled tattered grey ghosts. They swayed in the drafts from under the front door and around the windows, heavy with their loads of trapped insects. When Eric came home from his job as a grocery clerk, the front door would sometimes be swathed in a veil of fresh spider webs and he’d have to tear them away before he could unlock it. The webs were thick and cottony, and he clearly saw each individual strand. Yet despite the increase in spider webs, the only spiders he saw were ordinary ones, with ordinary arachnoid legs.


    Zombie left her perch atop the old refrigerator a few days later, but refused to come back inside the cabin. Eric left food and water out for her, but she wasn’t interested in that either. She looked awful. Most of the fur on the top of her head was gone, and her sides were sunken. Her ribs were prominent, and her eyes bulged strangely from their sockets. At night she prowled around outside, scuttling through the dried leaves just beneath his window, and making odd little sounds. Only a few days ago, Zombie had been plump and sleek, the picture of feline health.
    In a week’s time, the blanket of thick, white webbing extended from the front door to the exterior window frames. Eric swiped at them each morning with a tired old broom he’d found in the cellar, and when they ripped free, he heard a sound like rotted lace being torn. When he’d return from his job, the first thing he’d see would be the replacement webs, tinted a gentle orange by the setting sun. He never saw the spiders responsible for these gauzy masterpieces, but his imagination supplied plenty of images. His intrepid cat, struggling to swallow her latest kill. Those long spider legs, quivering as they flexed their orange-striped joints.
    He saw more spiders inside but they were quite ordinary and their webs, though plentiful, were normal. They would waltz across his face at night, then cut through his eyebrows and investigate his ears. If only Zombie would come back inside and start eating the little bastards again. Eric still caught fleeting glimpses of the cat. She stayed hidden in the shrubbery, lurking in the shadows, as though she were too afraid to come close to the cabin. She never responded to his gentle calls and the food and water bowls remained untouched. Eric didn’t blame her. This spider thing was getting ridiculous.
    Eric left the Winner’s Circle Market on a Friday with his uncashed paycheck in his wallet, and two boxes of insecticide bombs in the cargo pockets of his Army surplus pants. He didn’t like to steal, but spending money on them would have cut into his beer allowance, and there would be none of that. Besides, the crappy company he worked for owed him a freebie or two. He’d cash his check tonight at the dive bar down the street, and drink his fill while he waited for the bug bombs to work their magic. Hopefully six would be enough. He saved his smile of triumph until he’d guided his car out of the parking lot. He’d gotten away with it. Time to unleash hell on some spiders.
    The pilfered bug bombs hissed in unison as Eric locked the door behind them and strode to his car an hour later. He patted himself on the back for having the presence of mind to extinguish the pilot light and shut off the gas on the stove. Six canisters of insecticide in his tiny cabin was over-kill, and he knew that, but why take chances? He wanted them gone. All of them. Later, maybe he could work on getting his cat back.
    It was a minute past one on Saturday morning when Eric carefully coaxed his car down the cabin’s rutted dirt driveway. He’d driven home at thirty miles an hour, with his head out the window in an attempt to see the road better. Half his paycheck had gone towards drinks for himself and an occasional round for a few fair-weather friends. Eric couldn’t feel his nose, and his legs had wobbled in a grim parody of walking on his way from the bar to his car, but he’d made it home alive. He managed the trip from car to bedroom and had just enough time to open the window and turn on the bedside fan before he collapsed in a groggy heap on the bed. Forget airing the cabin. The open window would have to do. A moonbeam slipped in through the open window, and lay across his face as Eric began to snore.
    In a darkened corner of the lawn, under a dusty juniper bush, Zombie opened her yellow eyes. Recovery from the poison had been slow as she lay on her bed of mildewed leaves. The mutated creature that had forced its way down her throat had nearly killed her, but she felt well enough to venture out again tonight. The night entranced her more than it ever did, now that her range of vision had increased. It had taken some time to regain control of her legs, but now they moved in perfect unison. She lifted a grey-and-white leg and her relocated claws closed around one of the silk-wrapped bundles hanging from the fragrant ceiling of the juniper branches. Whatever was inside twitched, much of its insides destroyed by the digestive enzymes Zombie had injected earlier. She lifted her inch-long fangs and ripped through the white wrapping and into the liquefying body of the mouse inside. As the transmogrified cat drew in nourishment, its exoskeleton cracked a bit more. It was time to molt again, time to find a new host. The being inside the cat’s body grew quickly.
    The last of the insecticide fumes were borne away by the oscillating fan. The tiny victims of the poison cloud lay curled on the floor, their legs tucked up next to their bodies. Their abandoned webs flowed in the breeze coming in through the open window. Eric stirred in his sleep. Something kept trying to pull him up from the depths of his unconsciousness. A hissing sound, like air escaping from a tire. Eric grunted as he rolled over onto his back. His mouth dropped open as his snores resumed.
    What woke him next was not a sound, but a sensation. The feeling that someone watched him as he slept. Eric’s mouth clapped shut, cutting off his snore, and his eyes flew open. A square of moonlight fell across the foot of his bed, painting everything with a dim silver. Beyond that frail glow, the shadows were black and fathomless. In the farthest corner of the tiny room, the hissing began again, and with it came a muffled tapping, like idly drumming fingers wrapped in wool socks. The man in the bed sat up, and his hand dove between the mattresses for the baseball bat he kept there. Something dark moved along the baseboards, hissing quietly to itself.


    Eric kicked aside the cumbersome top sheet and got out of bed. His fingers clenched around the splintered bat in a two-handed grip. It was the closest thing he had to a weapon. He saw no further movement, but he knew he wasn’t alone.
    “Zombie?” Eric called out to the dark corner of his room, in hopes that he’d hear his cat’s distinct meow. Maybe it was Zombie, home at last.
    He took one hand off the bat and sent it down the wall in a quest for the bedside lamp while he called out again to what he hoped was his cat. His fingers touched something gauzy and sticky, and when he yanked his hand away, the stuff made a soft ripping sound. His face screwed up in disgust. Webs. Just like the mess outside. He groped for the lamp again, found it, and flipped it on.
    A festoon of thick webs hung from the wall, the strands glowing opalescent in the light from the bare bulb. His fingers were bound together by the sticky threads. In his haste to pull it away from the wall, Eric’s hand struck the lamp, and it shattered on the floor, plunging the room into its former darkness.
    Eric no longer felt the effects of the alcohol. All he felt was the need to leave the room in a hurry. He spun about and collided face-first with something dangling from the ceiling. It had a body like a football covered in soft grey-and-white fur, like a stuffed animal hung with a rope. As the object bounced off his face, and into the gloom, he caught sight of its legs, so many of them, all tipped with delicate pink pads. The creature swung forward again, into the ghostly patch of moonlight.
    What arced towards Eric’s face had once been his cat; there were still obvious signs. The head, elegant and triangular, with two smooth lumps where the pointed ears had been. And the eyes, all eight of them, brilliant and golden, with black slit pupils. The legs were still feline, but there were far too many of them, and they bent at odd angles. Each joint was marked with a bright orange stripe. Its pink, open mouth bore no resemblance to a cat’s. It was arachnoid and hissing, and its fangs and maxillae flexed and worked at the air as though it were tasting it. That tea-kettle hiss again, as Eric’s erstwhile cat swung at his face again, reaching forward with its eight dainty paws. Still possessed of a long tail, it swung that appendage upwards, and the pink opening at its base contracted as its spinnerets added an extension to the line from which the mutated cat dangled.
    Fear and fascination combined to hold Eric fixed to the spot. His arms refused to lift from his sides and ward off the loathsome being which sailed towards him on its silken trapeze. The hooked claws made contact with his face and dug in, and the action caused Zombie’s exoskeleton to split further. She was lucky to have found a host just in time. The nictitating membranes of the eight golden eyes slid shut as the triangular head shot forward and dove into Eric’s scream.
   
    The beam of moonlight shifted away from the bedroom window, and slid down the wall of the porch, illuminating the white sticky ball which hung in the corner above the old refrigerator. Zombie had deposited her egg sac here some days ago, and the tiny creatures inside, awakened by the cold pale light, began to squirm and fuss. They were due to hatch any day. For now their slender grey and white legs would stay gathered together, wrapped in their long fuzzy tails.