The tree stood in the corner, it’s dark green boughs weighed down with long soft needles. They remained unadorned despite the wealth of glitter and sparkle in a storage tub nearby. The tub’s lid sat slightly askew, balancing on the rim, where it had been placed down the evening before. Nothing in that corner had moved since then, as though the Christmas decorations had been preserved in ice, much like the yard outside.
In a way they had. The coldness of a marriage on the rocks had taken it’s toll. Marty and Nadine had been at each other’s throats all night. Many of the barbed comments and dirty looks passed right over the children’s heads, but they felt the darkness, even if they couldn’t truly understand it.
Tempers flared, no one was immune. Like a swirling tempest, the sour mood sucked the joy from every little moment. At fourteen, Clara was the oldest of the four children, and the first to rail against her parents. “I hate this family!” she yelled, shoving her younger brother to the side as she stormed from the room.
Marty called for her to come back, insisting she participate in the festivities, but short of physically dragging her from her room there was little he could do. It wasn’t long before he and Nadine were openly screaming at each other, and the younger children took refuge in their own rooms. So much for the Norman Rockwell Christmas decorating scene they had been trying to cobble together.
The next evening Clara sat in front of the TV, her arms wrapped around her knees, watching a show she only marginally enjoyed. That was fine, because her parents were fighting in the kitchen once again, and her three little brothers raced in circles powered by batteries that never seemed to run out. The house was loud and she tried to focus on smiling faces and the laugh track coming from the TV.
Before the end of the show she heard the front door bang closed, followed by the deep rumble of her father’s car as he fired up the engine and pulled out of the driveway. A few minutes later her red-eyed mother stepped into the living room and turned off the TV.
“Hey! I was watching that!” Clara snapped at her mother.
“Too bad,” Nadine replied, and crossed the room to the tub full of decorations. “It’s time to decorate the tree.”
“Yay!” cried Clara’s youngest brother, Jeremy. He was only eight and always eager to please. He skipped over to the tree, followed by Nathan and Bradley.
Clara stood and crossed her arms. “I don’t want to.”
Nadine pursed her lips unhappily and walked over to Clara. She wasn’t much taller than the teen anymore, but was still able to throw her weight around. Clara glared defiantly into her mother’s eyes. “This is stupid.”
Nadine was fast, and before Clara could react her mother lashed out, striking her across the mouth with her palm. “You’d better watch your mouth, young lady.”
Tears stung Clara’s eyes, but she blinked them back. Not wanting to be struck again, she slunk over to the Christmas tree and accepted a red metallic garland her mother held out to her.
That’s how the night went, the family nearly smothered by a cloud of anger, decorating the tree, trying desperately to cling to a thread of happiness. Except Clara, she didn’t see the point of decorating, or clinging, and with each bulb she hung her resentment grew, like the scowl on her face.
Soon enough the tree was laden with beads and bulbs and tinsel and twinkle. Nadine went back to the kitchen to cook dinner, and her brothers began playing again. Clara with the last golden decoration in her hand, searched for a place that wasn’t already festooned. The back of the tree had the least on it, so she slid between it and the wall. As she reached up to hang the ornament a black spot on a red bulb caught her eye.
It was a spider. Big, and black, with long hairy legs, clinging to the side of a shiny red bulb. Clara squeaked in surprise and recoiled, bouncing off the wall behind her, and back into the tree—and the spider.
Normally, she wasn’t afraid of spiders, but the thought of having one unexpectedly dancing on her shirt kicked her baser instincts into gear. She dropped the ornament from her hand and, squealing in terror, scrambled out from behind the tree.
“Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew!”
Clara danced around the room batting at her clothes as her brothers giggled. After a few moments she stopped, and panting, looked at them. “Spider…” was all she could manage though breaths.
Dinner proceeded as normal, with Marty arriving back home just before it was served. Clara’s parents were curt to each other, but didn’t return to earlier fighting. Her father even complimented the Christmas tree before the kids had to get ready for bed.
Clara had long since forgotten about the spider by the time she was brushing her teeth. She looked in the bathroom mirror, scrubbing, as she saw it creep up onto her shoulder. She froze, toothpaste foaming from her mouth, arm stiff. She didn’t want to panic this time and lose it, she wanted to knock it off into the toilet and flush it down.
Her heart sped in her chest as she tried to move slowly enough not to spook the arachnid. It was bigger than she remembered it. So big she could make out a few details of its face in the mirror. Two sets of shiny black eyes stared forward, unblinking, with a disconcerting quietness. Just below them Clara knew there were fangs, hidden by whiskered mandibles.
She crept toward the toilet, stepping softly and trying not to jar the thing on her shoulder, all the time keeping her eyes fixed on its reflection. It moved slowly across her shoulder toward her neck, and she suppressed a gag as it reached out a thick black leg that reminded her of a pipe cleaner, and stroked her throat.
“Be calm child,” it said in her ear. Its words were raspy, said in the echo of a voice, neither feminine nor masculine. Clara widened her eyes in surprise, but other than that, didn’t move a muscle.
“Please,” said the spider. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Mom! Dad!” Clara screamed, and batted at the spider on her shoulder. As her hand made contact she felt the stiff haired bristles that covered its body. She spun in a frantic circle trying to see where it went. “Mom! Dad!” she screamed again, as they both came running.
On the verge of tears Clara told them about the spider, but at the last second, looking up into their concerned faces, she left out the part about it speaking. They’d just think she was being crazy.
Marty dutifully checked the bathroom for the offending arachnid, and Nadine helped Clara check her hair and clothes. After they came up empty-handed they said goodnight and saw a nervous Clara off to bed, leaving the door open a crack at her request.
“That seemed like an overreaction,” she heard her father say as her parents descended the stairs.
“It’s just her hormones,” her mother replied.
Clara pulled her blanket up to her chin and replayed the moment in the bathroom over and over again, until she managed to convince herself that she imagined a talking spider. I was just scared, she thought, fear can do strange things to people’s minds.
Still, no matter what she told herself, she had trouble falling asleep. She couldn’t help but feel every itch on her body like it was the spider crawling on her skin. Eventually, she heard her parents go to bed, and she lay awake, staring at the ceiling until exhaustion finally closed her eyes.
Clara woke to a pressure on her chest, heavy, but not unbearable by any means. Almost as if a small cat were perched on her. She didn’t know what time it was, but it was still dark.
Half asleep Clara reached up and touched the weight on her chest. It bristled beneath her palm and she yanked her hand back as her eyes popped open.
“Please don’t scream,” rasped the spider.
Clara’s lips trembled and she breathed quickly, feeling the weight of the spider as it rode her chest up and down, up and down, up and down.
The moon shone through the bedroom window, just enough to illuminate the black shadow perched atop her, glinting off its many eyes.
“I’m not here to hurt you, child.” It reached out a long leg and touched Clara’s cheek. “I’m just here to talk. To help you.”
“Help me with what?” Clara whispered, her voice fluttering past her lips.
“Why didn’t you tell your parents about me?”
“No. Not about me. You told them about an ordinary spider. Perhaps a bit on the bigger side, but still a bland and ordinary spider. You didn’t tell them about me.”
Clara shivered beneath her thick down duvet. “They wouldn’t have believed me.”
“They wouldn’t have listened to you.”
Clara nodded, feeling a small ember of resentment from the Christmas tree charade still burning in her gut.
“They never listen to me,” she said quietly.
“I know,” the spider replied. “I witnessed everything from the moment your family selected your tree from the lot. I saw how they treat you, and I hurt for you.”
Clara nodded in the dark, watching the spider’s eyes sparkle as it spoke, her fear slowly being consumed by the tiny flame fanned to life from the ember.
“Am I crazy?” She asked the creature on her chest.
“Does it matter? If you were, its your parents fault, not yours. Look at how selfish they are. If they truly cared about you they would just be happy.”
For the first time in her life Clara felt like she was speaking to someone who understood her. No one, not her friends, not her dumb brothers, no one understood her situation. Everyone thought her parents were so nice. They couldn’t see the cloud that hung over their house, poisoning the very air inside. Choking the life from her so stealthily that no one noticed.
Clara felt her cheeks flush with anger, and balled her fists under the covers. She hated her parents and her whole stupid family.
“What do you want to do?” asked the spider.
“I want to leave and never come back.”
“Now is as good a time as ever.”
“I can’t sneak downstairs without waking up my mom.”
“What about the window?”
The spider rose from Clara’s chest and sidled next to her on the bed. As it moved she felt the lightness of empty space and it almost felt foreign. She scooted to the foot of her bed and peeked out of her window at the white powder covering the rooftop. They were only one floor up. If she hung from the gutter it would only be a small drop into snow.
“I don’t have any shoes.”
“You don’t need them. It’s not really that cold outside.”
“Maybe I should just wait.”
“And endure one more day in this house? I thought you hated your parents, look at what they’ve brought you to.”
Clara nodded. “You’re right.”
She quickly dressed herself and layered on two pairs of socks, then grabbed her coin bank. It was a dolphin jumping from a wave, her favorite animal, but missing its dorsal fin. Last year Nathan had broken it, and although her mother tried to repair it, eventually the piece fell off and was lost.
Quietly Clara slid open the window and a cold blast of air hit her. It was almost enough to make her close it again, but she felt one of the spider’s legs on her arm, reassuring her.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
“Yes,” rasped the spider, and climbed onto her back. It felt even heavier than before. Awkwardly, Clara stepped out onto the roof.
The snow was crisp and cool beneath her feet, and the wind cut through her sweater, but now that she was outside Clara was determined. Just as she had imagined, she hung from the gutter and dropped into the snow bank near the side of the house. Enjoy Christmas without me, she thought spitefully as she headed toward the road, the big black spider clinging to her back like a many-legged backpack.
She walked, head down against the wind, shivering, and telling Spider her new plans. The coin bank she clutched to her chest probably had enough in it to buy a bus ticket. All she had to do was get a pair of shoes.
“Any charity box,” Spider whispered in her ear. “They’re overflowing this time of year. You might even find a pair in your size.”
“And a coat.”
“That’s the spirit.”
The snow was beginning to cake around Clara’s socks and her body heat melted what stayed close. She shivered as she trudged, feeling like Spider was getting even heavier.
“You’re just seeing me more, child.”
Clara nodded, her face feeling frozen. She didn’t understand what that meant, but was running low on energy.
Soon they were out of town, headed toward the small city nearby. There she knew that’s where there’d be charity bins and a bus station. Just as the streetlights disappeared the sun began to rise.
Clara trembled uncontrollably. “You made it through the hard part, Clara,” coaxed Spider. “The sun will bring warmth with it.”
But it didn’t. Clouds obscured the sky and let loose a fury of snow and wind that pelted her chapped face, feeling like needle pricks. Her feet were numb now, as she dragged them in the slush on the side of the road. She tried not to think about them as she walked hunched over, burdened by Spider’s weight.
“It’s getting late, they’ll be looking for you, Clara.”
Clara said nothing but began peaking over her shoulder to see if there were any approaching cars. She spotted the first car’s headlights not long after and ducked into the underbrush along the side of the road. After it passed she tried to stand, but stumbled under the weight of Spider.
“You’re getting too heavy for me.”
“You’re giving up. I thought you were better than that. I got you this far, don’t disappoint me now.”
Clara sighed. She was so tired and so cold. All she really wanted now was to get back into her nice warm bed.
“That ship has sailed, Clara. What do you think will happen when they find out you’re gone?”
Tears slid from Clara’s eyes and froze on her cheeks as she stood, staggering under the weight of the enormous creature embracing her from behind. She tried to take a step forward and fell to her knees.
“Get up,” rasped Spider. Its words floating overtop of the wind. “Get on your feet.”
A sob broke from Clara’s throat as she tried to stand again. Her socks, frozen to the snow around them, pulled away and she stepped barefoot toward the road, trying desperately to carry herself on red swollen feet. Her legs wobbled again and she fell, catching herself with her hands before her face hit the icy ground.
“I can’t,” Clara managed through sobs. Her eyelashes were beginning to freeze.
“You must. You’ll show them.”
Clara rose to her hands and knees, ice slicing at her bare palms, her coin bank lost somewhere in the snow far behind. She fixed her eyes on the side of the road and crawled, chest heaving as she cried.
“Not too close to the road, Clara. You don’t want to be found.”
The weight of Spider was almost unbearable and Clara felt as though she might break under it.
“Not too close.”
She felt the tips of Spider’s legs, like large pointed branches, digging into her sides.
“I said not too close!” Its rasp was loud in her ear, angry, overtaking the howling wind of the storm.
“Get off!” Clara yelled, her voice cracking. She reached for the side of the road, barely able to see, dragging herself next to it, hoping she was close enough to be found.
Spider dug its legs harder into Clara’s sides, piercing her sweater, and her skin. She screamed in pain.
“Get away from the road,” it rasped.
Clara reached behind her and grabbed one of Spider’s legs with her hands. It was so big she could barely wrap her hands around it. As she tried to pull the creature from her back it dug its legs in further, jabbing points between her ribs.
Every sob, every breath Clara took now came with pain. Pain so sharp it almost shut out the cold. Almost. She was too cold to shiver, and too weak to fight. Clara’s hands slipped from the leg and she collapsed under Spider’s weight by the side of the road.
Ahead a bright pair of headlights cut through the falling snow. A pick-up truck slid to a stop and Clara could see Christmas lights strung around its bed. They twinkled merrily, as she closed her eyes.
Horror, thriller, sci-fi … all are synonymous with author M.F. Wahl. Dark plots and a keen focus on character development will keep you chained to each frightful word. Wahl is a proud member of the Horror Writer’s Association and her first novel “Disease” is will be released by Stitched Smile sometime next year. Visit http://mfwahl.com/ for more information, or to get on the mailing list. You can also find Wahl on Facebook and Twitter.
Beginning picture credits: “Frozen Spider’s Web” by Matthew Harrigan