HIS FRAIL GRANDMOTHER had probably been the one to nail the board at a slant across the cellar door in the corner of the kitchen. Casey found a claw hammer and pulled it off. The garbage stench struck as the yellow door swung.
Toward the bottom of the stairs, broken mason jars had rolled across the cellar floor and light from small windows fell over white maggots squirming through the dark goo between the glass shards. He’d have to clean that up. Maggots were the worst.
Behind shelves, a brick wall with a recessed chimney flue had loose mortar around the hole and some bricks had long since fallen out. Sparse light from the windows revealed the top of a hole in the lower back corner and Casey leaned forward, feeling wind from someplace deep caressing his face. The hole looked like part of a slanted fissure with brick on top and limestone on bottom. He thought he heard water down there somewhere. It seemed big enough to squeeze a trashcan through and he couldn’t have possums or bats sneaking up. He’d have to throw some cement in there or something.
A card-shuffling sound like something scuttling came from down there. Casey darted from the hole into the window-light, standing, looking around, feeling ashamed, nervous. Something leathery on the floor near the shelves looked like a brown towel. The possum corpse was dried and deflated like the one he’d seen in the lawn earlier. Its small eyes seemed punctured, sucked out.
He climbed the stairs and let the cellar air. For now, he focused on clearing all the embarrassing backwoods crap out of the house.
Near dusk he started his 911 Carrera, found his sunglasses beneath the visor and headed into town for supplies. As he weaved along the dirt road it occurred to him the house might be harder to sell than he’d thought. His varied interests and engineering degree, however, had always provided fodder for problem solving.
He’d need work clothes, eventually. Something cheap and simple—not designer or tailored.
The water was the only utility working. He’d take cold showers and work hardest in the early mornings and late afternoons. He could make it sell quickly, get sixty grand worth of capital despite the northwestern locale in the woods of Kansas.
The main drag of downtown looked more dried up and forlorn than he’d remembered—so many shades of gray and faint brown. Shukley’s Caverns was once a respectable farming town. But the promising youth moved to real cities when the Ogallala Aquifer dried beneath their families’ fields.
He was born in a similar town sixty miles south but he had gotten on with his life, joined the Marine Reserves, went to college and moved to Boston. His ex wouldn’t have approved of Shukley’s but she didn’t approve of much. After their son died, the separation was as inevitable as Shukley’s decay.
Inside the general store, brown shelves held assorted, outdated items and fluorescent lights hung above booths that might’ve been stolen from a hamburger place twenty years ago. A thin old man sat behind a wooden desk with an antique cash register and a crossword puzzle, scowling, with pencil poised, as he drifted to sleep. Casey walked around a thin man with gray hair and a T-shirt advertising an ice-cream shop.
The man tapped the back of Casey’s shoulder and spoke in a childish voice, “Have you seen . . . friends?”
Casey walked away.
“Mr.” the man called, scowling and bobbing his head before turning away.
A twenty-something mother and her son browsed the aisle next to his as he found some candles, batteries and spackle. A couple rows over he discovered a set of bed sheets featuring Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird.
“Not your color,” a man in his mid-twenties said over his shoulder. The heavy-set man wore paint-splattered overalls and a sleeveless red T-shirt. His lazy eye made Casey think there was something behind himself.
Casey walked away.
“I said,” the man asserted, “not your color.”
Casey stopped, turning. “I know.”
“You too good to talk?”
The heavy man stepped closer. “You should be nicer.”
He glanced at the candles. “You’d be better off paying the electric bill over at the Mets’ place.”
“Fuck off.” Casey turned and walked toward the end of the aisle.
“Not nice.” His breath smelled like hot dogs and he grinned, showing crowded teeth. “You should be nice. Maybe I follow you out to that shiny car.”
Casey set down his items. “What did you say?”
The heavy man looked over to his gray-haired friend and a tall slender man with a baseball cap. “Maybe you’d like all of us outside with you.”
Casey folded his sunglasses, looking into his eyes. “That’s acceptable.” He glanced to the grey-haired man. “Bring your retarded friend. I’ll knock him up a peg.”
They looked at each other as Casey sneered, the heavy man stepping forward.
The old man roused, “Hey! Leave this man alone!” He looked to the other two. “Get out.” He stood and shooed them. “Leave here!” Nearing the heavy-set one, he pointing an arthritic finger. “Not again! Or you’re cut-off.”
The heavy man brushed Casey’s shoulder.
Casey fought the urge to punch him since he needed the supplies, then put on his sunglasses and followed the old man to the register.
Casey walked out to the parking lot with his bags, hoping to find them. They had left a gravel-streaked dent in his passenger-side door. He didn’t say anything—just soaked it in with the sun beating down on the back of his neck. The store’s door opened and Casey spun to the mother leading her son by the hand toward their car. His heart sank. It was Jacob—how he would have looked had he grown a few years older. His blue shorts looked just like the nylon swim trunks Jacob drowned in. And the kid’s curly brown hair—just how he’d pictured it would be.
The boy pointed at him, grinning. “That’s a bad man. He’s gonna get the White-Daddies.”
His mother jerked him toward her. “Hush.”
Casey smirked. “Smart kid, ma’am,” but she wouldn’t look at him.
He was tired by the time he got back to the house and put everything away. It was hot as fire on the second floor so he opened his bedroom window, left the door open and took off his gray T-shirt. The flashlight worked once he put the batteries in and he made his way to the bathroom, brushing his teeth with questionable water.
The Sesame Street bed sheets were for a twin so he could only pull them over two-thirds of the bed. He lay on his back and thought he heard a dripping sound but it stopped, then he fell asleep quickly, dreaming of doing the books at the new business he would start from the house sale. It was somewhere in Iowa. Everyone was impressed with him. Next he had an out-of-body dream, looking down on himself sleeping in the bedroom. His son walked through the door, only he was crawling, he was a giant spider with his adorable three-year-old head, innocent expressions and his wife’s hot curling irons at the tips of each of eight legs, blue nylon swim trunks caught around one of his hind legs as a curling iron burned the bubbling fabric and black smoke tendrils rose and he crawled up, sinking eight legs over bed sheets.
“I’m sorry, Jacob. I’m sorry.”
Something strong and wiry clasped him. Its thorn-like claws pierced the thin sheet. His eyes opened, burning as his head swam through the dream, reaching for pieces of reality. Jacob’s innocent eyes superimposed the looming white figure. The face of his son faded. His mind froze denying its white translucent head. It sprawled over his body, the size of a large bag of luggage. Wet black eyes spread in a smiling crescent with the huge outer pair casting a human visage. Its white bristled legs flexed with hairy palps buzzing around its unfolding fangs.
Blood rushed to his head, his hand slapping at one of its legs—thick-bristled, like scuffed plastic but wet—feverish. Casey screamed and kicked as it dug in its legs, piercing him like knives. He pushed back into the corner of the bedroom where bed met wall, “JESUS CHRIST!”
It flicked the sheet off with its legs before arching its belly and flailing its many legs into the air.
He scraped his ankle, planting his foot beneath the metal bed frame and overturning the mattress as he yelled.
It retreated in a flurry of spindly legs, turned almost all the way round, then turned back and bolted through the door.
Casey stood in the corner of the room, panting. “Son of a . . .” He ran to the hallway door and peered to the left as it darted behind a corner of the hallway. Casey went back and got the flashlight, whipping it round corners of the hallway and ceiling.
It wasn’t downstairs in the family room or in the closet. He scanned the dining room and den, then its legs made the card-shuffling sound. He burst through the kitchen doorway and flashed his beam over its unnaturally still body, legs folded in close; dreaming. It skittered to life with tapping claws as it spun and moved backward toward the cellar door, flailing legs at him before slinking down the stairs. Casey ran forward, slamming the door, pulling the knob to ensure it had latched. “Damn.”
He felt lightheaded as he walked upstairs to put on clothes. It had really happened; he was sure of it. He wasn’t just under stress. But weird things happened. Drill Sergeant Mavers from Basic had killed himself two years ago in a hotel and nobody knew why. Maybe this was how it started. You think you see things. He looked down at the scratches on his legs and a tear in his boxers. That thing did it. It was a spider. A White-Daddy? That kid said something like that. Was there some local folklore surrounding that thing? He put on his T-shirt and jeans and shoes. He didn’t know anyone in town who could help him and telling others might not be a good idea if he ever expected to sell the house.
He grabbed a shotgun and shells out of his bedroom closet. The box of shells looked like it had been wet and the paper of the .410 cartridges were a variety of dark reds. He unlatched the breach and stared down barrels with the help of the flashlight. Sergeant Mavers always shouted during rifle inspections, “Your weapon is your life, Mets! Guard your life!” He inspected the hammers and triggers before loading each barrel.
It wasn’t just the scratches on his legs. There had been signs all over if he’d only put it together. Those deflated possum corpses. That’s how spiders ate; they paralyzed you with their fangs, dissolved your insides and sucked you out. That hole near the back of the flue in the basement. That was where it came from. It came from the caves in those bluffs behind the house. Casey stuffed his pocket with shells, grabbed his laptop. He’d wait the thing out in the kitchen. His Gladiator DVD would keep his mind busy, even if he had to wait all night. It probably only came out at night.
He ran the DVD with the sound off and poured a coffee mug half-full with Grey Goose, wishing he had vermouth. It was all right to drink now that this had happened. The two other kitchen doors were closed so it couldn’t get past. He opened the cellar door slowly, peering inside with the flashlight and the shotgun. Nothing.
The chair was hard with the drink sharp and pungent in the dirty mug and the shotgun resting over the wooden table with hammers cocked. The flashlight pointed at the black doorway and his finger rested against the trigger guard. He divided attention between the screen and the doorway, sipping vodka. He could figure this out. Figure out what he was up against. It was fast. And when he touched it, it was hot. He didn’t expect spiders to be hot. But this was an enormous spider.
In his engineering classes, systems didn’t always work as well when you scaled them up. Especially thermal systems. It was a surface-area to volume thing. Bigger things weren’t always as thermally efficient. And spiders didn’t have sweat glands or tongues to pant with to cool themselves. So maybe they’d lived in the caves before. Nobody knew how extensive and deep those caves were. Maybe they lived down there to regulate their temperatures.
He used the glow from the computer screen to read his watch: 2:18. It was quiet outside, no crickets, no owls. The kitchen window had been broken and nailed over with particle board, letting moonlight slivers streak across his back onto the counter and cupboards to his right. The card shuffling sound came from somewhere down there.
It seemed too coincidental that he’d seen one of these things and nobody else really knew of them. Something must have changed recently. Like the farmers drained the aquifer that fed streams in their caves. Screwed up their ecosystem. Starved them out of their natural habitat. Made them come out into the heat.
On the computer, Casey watched Russell Crowe and Richard Harris discuss the future of Rome as his eyes grew heavy. He looked to the doorway. Maybe the light scared it. He turned off the flashlight and waited for his eyes to adjust. He could just see the doorframe and the floor. It was enough. He looked to the screen and whispered, “And what is Rome, Maximus?”
He checked his watch again. Thirty minutes had past. He thought maybe he had dozed off for a minute or two so he slapped his cheek and blinked. It seemed the spider’s white legs pawed the lower ledge of the doorway, but they weren’t.
It had attacked him earlier. Totally unprovoked. Spiders didn’t do that. Did they? Animal lovers on nature shows talked about how snakes and tarantulas were noble creatures, only attacking when provoked. But that was bullshit. Spiders were carnivores; hunters. Every animal on this planet had developed an understanding, a suite of instincts toward every other animal, based on one thing: size. This spider didn’t just pop-up on the scene overnight. It evolved over millions of years, side-by-side with humans, testing its limits, apparently, successfully since no one seemed to know of them.
It knew it was on equal footing. It would come upstairs.
He thought about how hard he had worked during the day. Now he couldn’t sleep because of this. It seemed unreal. He wished he was in a nice soft hotel bed in Boston. The Hilton. A king-sized bed at the Hilton. He smiled as he eyed the black doorway.
Casey jerked his head up. Something was different. His computer screen was blurry and he couldn’t see the doorway. His eyes focused on his watch: 3:40. The doorway was empty. Silence. A sensation shot through his spine as neck hairs prickled. He spun, knocking the chair, jarring the table and pointed the flashlight, clicking the switch. Nothing. He clicked it again, and again. Darkness. He tried to make out counters behind the streaks of moonlight separating the room. The clicking sound came from the far side.
He stepped backward into the cellar door, slamming it close. “Gotcha.” His barrel rose as he walked toward moonlight in the center of the room.
It ran the perimeter, springing from counter to floor like a pile of deformed bones tumbling and twitching around a shell body that seemed to roll over waves. Casey followed the card-shuffling with his barrel, spinning circles until he wasn’t sure what direction it moved. The shuffling of two-clawed legs over tiles quickened. Dangling bristles flashed past in the moonlight and he spun to where it had been. It ran behind him as he spun. It came forward, curling-finger palps quivering around fangs, wet eyes glinting. The barrel rose. The hammer clicked. Misfire. It darted to the right and scurried behind him. Casey spun, head dizzy as he pictured the deflated possums on his lawn. He turned the shotgun over like a club with the tangle of white bristly legs lunging. The stock crashed onto its back, thin legs prodding and pushing him about like swords. A bang issued, his leg burning furious pain as he fell and the spider dashed and leapt onto the sink.
“It shot me!” Casey cried, crawling toward the kitchen’s back door, dragging the shotgun. He staggered onto his good leg, bursting through the door.
The thing had shot him. As if it had known the second cartridge wasn’t rain-soaked and had deliberately crammed its leg inside the trigger guard. He stumbled across the dining room into the family room and waited with his back against the front door, his hand warm with blood. The buckshot had grazed the outside of his right thigh. He unlatched the barrel, ejecting shells. The room spun and his pulse beat his neck. His hand dug into his pocket, shaking shells onto the floor. He clenched a shell and fumbled in the darkness to stuff it into the breach as shuffling came from the dining room, darting about chaotically.
Casey opened the front door and closed it behind him, dropping the open-breached shotgun in the grass near the Porsche. His gray T-shirt made for a lousy tourniquet but he tied it around his leg anyhow and found the magnetic key compartment under the wheel well, then climbed into the driver’s seat.
“The morning. Wait till the morning.” The woods seemed so still. There had to be a way to kill that thing. He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t force the idea out of his mind that it had shot him. It didn’t matter and there was no way it could get inside the car. Still, he checked to make sure the doors were locked before resting his eyes.
He awoke to a hand tapping the windshield. The man wore a white terrycloth bathrobe. As Casey tilted his head, he noticed a white robe wrapped around his bare shoulders as well. He got out of the car and recognized Sergeant Mavers’ broad strong features but the sergeant’s hair was long and wet, his thick neck was flushed and beaded with water like he’d just finished a shower.
“Sergeant Mavers?” Casey looked around at the woods and the house, bewildered. “Why are we wearing Holiday Inn bathrobes?”
Mavers stared at the full silver moon and the brown and silver ridges of limestone bluffs. “Not much time left before sunrise.”
Casey walked closer to Mavers but something stopped him. He felt brimming strength within Mavers. As if he might swell up and fill the sky. “Sergeant . . . what happened to your hair?”
“You’ve got a job to finish. Don’t you, Mets?” Mavers looked at him. His pupils dilated, flooding fear and wonder into the pit of Casey’s stomach.
Casey flinched and steadied himself on the hood of the Porsche. His leg burned and blood from his thigh soaked through white terrycloth. “It shot me, Sergeant.” His lips trembled. “It’s smart.” He clenched his eyes.
“This is bigger than you, Mets. You’ve got obligations. Did you forget, Mets? Did you think I would let you forget? Obligations: To Country. To men, Mets. That thing in your house is an abomination. It’s gone against God. The God we both love!”
Casey shrunk closer to the car. “I—”
Mavers raised a clenched fist. His voice boomed like thunder, stealing into the depths of Casey’s heart and lifting up on low shimmering soot clouds. “Genesis 1:26 . . . God said, ‘I made man in my image so he shall have dominion and rule over all creatures!”
His starry eyes fixed on the Sergeant, mouth gaping. “Dominion . . .” he said while in the Sergeant’s starry-eyed trance as he pushed from the car and blinked.
Mavers went to him, his face full of fake sympathy, corners of his mouth fighting a grin. “Don’t you love this country God’s given us? Don’t you want to be a man? Don’t you deserve that house?”
Casey touched the blood of his leg and looked to dry skin resting over a possum’s ribcage. Mavers grabbed his head and turned it away. “Don’t look at that!”
“It’s my house,” Casey said. “Not the bugs’.” His head drooped to the ground. “I could get help in the morning. There could be someone in town who knows how to take care of it.”
Mavers looked irritated, like his time was being wasted. “Mets. What’s your best weapon? What’s your best weapon, Mets?”
“Use it. We both know damn well this house ain’t selling to anybody out of town. But that’s okay. Hill-jacks have money. It spends just the same. You let word out in Shukley’s there’s a White-Daddy running loose on your property and you’ll never sell that house.”
“Gotta sell the house.”
“That’s right, Mets. Gotta sell it.” Mavers led him to the other side of the car. He walked to the shotgun lying in the grass. “What’s this?” He picked up the gun and his face flashed red. “You let your weapon get away from you?” He snapped the breach close.
“It’s a hundred-years-old, Sergeant.”
He held the shotgun out toward Casey. “BULL-SPIT! She’s a sweet lady. She’ll clean house like a Mexican.”
Casey limped over, took the gun and examined it. He looked behind his shoulder to Mavers walking toward the woods. “Where you going, Sergeant?”
“We’ve both got things to do, Mets. It’s check-out time for me but you’ve still got twenty minutes before sunrise and you’re getting blood all over that ridiculous car you love so much.”
Casey arched his neck, mumbling, “Sunrise . . . sunrise. Before sunrise.” His eyes opened and his watch showed 4:22. His thigh didn’t seem to be bleeding but it burned as he climbed out of the car.
The shotgun rested in the grass and he pulled five shells out of his pocket, holding them to the moonlight, dropping darker red casings into the grass. It was quiet outside as he hobbled and grunted up the porch stairs with the barrel bouncing in front.
The door swung inward with a creak and Casey peered inside at darkness. Listening for the scuttling, he cocked hammers and tried to make out folds in the drop cloth he knew draped over a couch in the middle of the room.
Casey crossed the threshold and pulled the door close against his back. It was dark except for rectangular grids of moonlight cast over the left side of the room by windows. He limped away from the door, listening. It was quiet. He heard his breaths and slowed them as he fanned the barrel slowly across the room. He stepped toward the center, feeling it in there. It had its white legs folded up in a ball somewhere. The air stirred. Smooth fangs scraped his shooting hand. The thing was soundless. One of the hammers fell with a click. Another misfire and he pushed his arm out, dropping the gun, pushing underneath the slick head as bristly legs beat over his face and back. Its legs shuffled and he fell to his hands and knees. Groping for the gun. Waiting for fangs in the back of his neck. His fingers found the rifle stock and the shuffling began in erratic fits and starts. He stood, limping backward just outside the light of the windows.
It grew quiet as he rested his finger on the unspent trigger. He wondered about the toxicity of its venom and felt over his shooting hand, unsure if its fangs had broken skin. Neck muscles burned. It was so quiet. It waited. He wished he could see his hand. His finger and wrist seemed tight and his heart pounded against his chest as sweat crept into his eyes. Contours and shapes were almost visible in the darkness. He pointed the barrel at them and groaned, needing to switch hands—shoot with his left before the venom cramped up his right. It was waiting. He stomped his foot. “I’m here! Right here.” Shuffling within the darkness moved it closer, closer—farther, maybe.
If it paralyzed him, it could devour him slowly. Clock-like movements as it loomed. Dead inhuman eyes. His deflated corpse tugged slowly into the lawn.
The smiling crescent of eyes bounced as it rushed him and he stepped into the rectangular moonlight of window casements. He passed the shotgun to his left hand, stumbling on his right leg, falling backward, finger squeezing along the unspent trigger.
It turned sideways, running along the wall as Casey kicked backward into the corner and propped the gun over his knee. White legs pattered along window panes like a gale of raindrops. Casey followed the welded BB at the end of the barrel as it wobbled toward the white flurry, pulling the trigger with the muzzle flashing red as the stock kicked into his bicep. Buckshot punched a tennis-ball-sized hole where the head fused with the thorax. Its right legs collapsed, bringing it to the floor as legs kicked and bounced it randomly, clear fluid spewing, flapping chunks of white shell around the hole.
Palps buzzed and motionless eyes glared as it dragged toward him with one front leg while the rest went berserk like discordant arms. They stopped suddenly while the last leg pulled closer, staring. Casey brought his heel down on the leg, cracking and bursting its hot fluid, seeping through jeans and sock. He looked into its huge wet eyes. Inside its simple mind, it still crawled toward him. It had won somewhere deep inside there.
He laughed forcefully, rolling his head between windowpanes and feeding eyes, laughing until his throat hurt and tears rolled over cheeks.
His palms pressed over the walls as he stood, then he kicked the carcass along the floor. It was heavy. He considered jumping with both feet onto the soft hairy abdomen and bursting it but he didn’t want the memory of what it would feel and sound like burned into his brain. Casey opened the front door and kicked it several times, bouncing its lifeless legs before getting it over the threshold and onto the porch. “Get out, bug!”
He inspected his right hand in the moonlight. The fangs hadn’t broken skin, only scratched the surface in a red streak.
Casey was surprised to find himself tired. He had to get a few things set right before trying for a couple hours sleep. Like closing that cellar door, reloading his shotgun, inspecting the wound in his leg, he’d at least need to put some iodine on it, eventually. He pulled the curtain off and took a short watchful shower.
The bedroom door closed behind him. He slept on his side, facing the door with the shotgun. Casey closed his eyes and thought about throwing cement in the hole in the basement. Then he could finish the repairs and get the hell out of Shuckley’s. With some white paint, new carpet, a new toilet, he could show the house to a real-estate agent. But a notion occurred to him that seemed half-inspired by stubborn pride. The house had a certain feel to it that he was beginning to like. Maybe he wouldn’t sell it after all. Maybe he needed to slow down for a while and enjoy the country. Hell, it was his house anyways; not the bugs’.