Arachnid 2.0: Darkness Crawls, Detest-A-Pest #2 (Hardcover)
Arachnid 2.0: Darkness Crawls, Detest-A-Pest #2 (Hardcover)
Spiders. Over 35,000 species. Every person on Earth eaten in one year. Now there’s one more... a ravenous eight-legged hybrid thousands of years in the making and bigger than a dozen burritos.
After a summer of exterminator training in New York, Bradley returns home ready to face his senior year with renewed confidence. But fate gets in the way of his grand teenage plans – especially when eight legs attack instead of four.
And these aren’t your typical, everyday spiders. Their newly acquired taste for raw meat has them casting a wide net over Bradley’s sleepy San Fernando suburb. It doesn’t take them long to scramble up the food chain.
Add a vengeful ex-girlfriend casting a web of lies into the mix, and things get downright sticky.
But Detest-A-Pest can’t resist a challenge. Sam and O'Connor rejoin Bradley and his inventive friends as they wage war on an infestation of spiders poised to swallow not only the high school, but the neighborhood and everyone within...
Rally behind heroes you'll want to root for in “Arachnid 2.0: Darkness Crawls,” book two of the popular Detest-A-Pest Creature Feature series.
Book Data (for book nerds like you and me)
Book Data (for book nerds like you and me)
Publisher: Frankenscript Press
Audience: Trade/General (Adult)
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Look Inside Arachnid 2.0: Darkness Crawls (Detest-A-Pest #2)
True silence is rare. There’s always something going on somewhere, if you stop to listen. And in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, the sounds of sizzling spiced fillings and lively conversation floated from the back door of Taco Siempre.
Javier kicked the door closed. He preferred quiet and timed his smoke breaks to coincide with dawn breaking across Pacoima and the San Fernando Valley. He pulled a hand-rolled cigarette from a pocket in his denim shirt and perched it between his lips, igniting the end with a flip from his trusty Zippo. He sat on a sun-bleached plastic chair and balanced a tin can ashtray on the arm rest. The smell of fresh corn tortillas, chilis, and cumin rising from an exhaust vent nearby mixed with the sweet tobacco smoke of his first drag. As relaxation washed over his body and mind, his eyes took to the skyline emerging in dark blues and hints of orange.
Local birds had already begun their early morning wakeup songs. Javier was not a birdwatcher, but he knew enough to recognize the American robin with its musical cheerily cheer-up cheer-up call.
Halfway through his cigarette, the robins fell silent in unison. He cocked his head to focus on the sudden lack of sound and realized all birds had ceased their morning calls, leaving only the constant thrum of early morning traffic.
Over the span of six seconds, no time to react, a low rumble rose from beneath Javier’s feet, culminating in one strong shake. He felt the ground jolt and heard a crack like a whip. The ashtray fell off the armrest, spilling its burnt offerings into the back stairwell to the restaurant’s kitchen.
Javier bolted upright, jettisoning the chair away from his legs. One car alarm wailed in the distance, breaking the silence, but birdsong remained absent. He jumped into the stairwell and pulled open the kitchen door.
“Did you feel that?” His shoulders rose and fell with each excited breath.
Edmundo and Reja turned from their cooking stations with confused looks on their faces.
“Feel what?” Edmundo said as he stirred a spiced chicken mixture in a skillet. “And no smoking in here. You know the rules. If Carlos finds out—”
Javier tossed his cigarette out the door and exhaled. “I think there was an earthquake.” Javier’s eyes darted between the two cooks. “Got to be.”
Balls of masa harina sat in ragged rows on Reja’s work surface. She placed one into a press and flattened it into a tortilla. “Didn’t feel a thing.”
Javier crossed the kitchen and pushed through the swinging doors into the customer area of the restaurant. “Hey! Did anyone feel the earthquake?”
Taco Siempre was one of a few 24-hour Mexican food joints in the Pacoima area and had the good fortune of being consistently busy. Folks stopped their conversations and looked up from their meals. Some responded “no”, while most shook their heads or simply didn’t offer any response.
Carlos, the night manager, stood at the cash register making change for a customer and cast a perplexed look at Javier. The speakers in the corners continued to play their piped-in music.
“No birds,” Javier said to himself before returning to the kitchen. “There’s no birds.”
Reja looked at Edmundo, then at Javier. “What have you been smoking? And can I have some?”
“I’m serious,” Javier said. “Come see.”
Both Edmundo and Reja knew Javier well enough to know he wouldn’t stop. Edmundo shot a look at Reja. He turned the stove off, slid the skillet off the heat and followed Reja and Javier out the back door.
Javier stopped at the top of the stairs, Reja and Edmundo standing just behind. “Listen.”
The three stood in silence.
“See?” Javier stepped forward into the back parking lot, gravel crunching under his feet. “There’s always birds singing by this time.”
“What’s that then?” Reja said.
Javier turned to face her. “What?”
Reja held up a finger and shushed him. Faintly at first, birdsong rose from the surrounding trees, followed by the robin’s overpowering call.
“I believe those are birds,” Edmundo said.
“They weren’t there a few seconds ago.”
Carlos appeared in the kitchen doorway and knocked the frame. “What is everyone doing back here? People are hungry.”
Reja and Edmundo returned to the kitchen.
“You believe me, right?” Javier said.
Edmundo fired up the stove again. “Yeah, sure Javi.”
“It’s was probably one of those little quakes we always get,” Reja said. “They don’t do nothing.”
Javier washed his hands and returned to his station to prep tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and grated cheese. He looked out the back door, the framed sky glowing in brighter blues and oranges.
I’m not crazy, he thought. I know what I heard.
Glasses clinked and rattled in the kitchen cupboards down the hall from Jack’s bedroom. His phone vibrated a random, audible path across his bedside table, but it was the barking of neighborhood dogs that cracked his eyelids and pulled him from sleep. He grabbed the phone, fumbling with groggy coordination.
“4:08 a.m. Magnitude 2.9. San Fernando Valley,” the phone read.
Ugh. I got to change the tolerance on that app, Jack thought as he silenced the notification and placed the phone back on the table.
He rubbed his eyes and groaned. Jack had to be up for work in a couple of hours and even though he turned eighteen in four months, fractured sleep had always caused him to feel like a bag of shit the next day. He envied classmates that could pull all-nighters and still function.
Jack laid in his bed and stared at a strip of moonlight slashing the wall, dividing one of his many Mythbusters posters in two. Being an inventive teenager and creative with his hands, working at M5 Industries was his dream job.
The house and surrounding neighborhood fell silent once again, except for his own breathing. Or maybe it was the house he heard breathing. The few dogs who had howled earlier were back to dreaming of open fields and unlimited rabbits.
Jack wondered where his parents were. Luberon? Lyon? Cannes? They had left on a twelve week cycling tour of France and its major cities a week earlier. Their itinerary was stuck on the fridge with a “Cycle the Patagonia” magnet from their last cycling tour. He rarely looked at it. Jack preferred to imagine his parents rolling through the picturesque French countryside he had seen in so many magazines and brochures for the past month. Their research had been relentless. His sleep addled mind calculated that they must be finishing lunch. Somewhere.
Jack had the run of the house and could host a wicked back to school party if he wanted to, but he wasn’t into the party scene. His independence meant too much to him to blow it on a party. And he knew how out of hand those kinds of parties could get.
Jack liked his alone time. He was comfortable in his own skin and knew how to take care of himself. His parents had done a good job in that department. He closed his eyes, his thoughts drifting toward his last year of high school. He’d be a senior, although the title didn’t mean much to him. He’d soon be free to follow his own path. Maybe be a star employee at M5 Industries if he was lucky.
Even after eleven years of school, he didn’t have many friends. Jack preferred quality over quantity. He spent his summers with his best friend Bradley, but this year Bradley had had the opportunity to meet his dad in New York City for the first time in fifteen years. Jack shortened the nearly three thousand miles of distance between them with sporadic emails and texts.
According to Bradley, he’d been helping his dad manage an apartment building, including acting as exterminator, and had one hell of a story to tell involving rats.
Even though Jack enjoyed his own company, the summer had dragged. He hadn’t thought he’d miss Bradley, but texting, email, and the occasional voice call couldn’t hold a candle to hang time in person with his best bro.
He immersed himself in work at Food Fresh Market during the day, and with his inventions at night. Jack didn’t know it yet, but his ingenuity would soon be tested in unexpected ways.
A ten minute drive from Jack’s House, Hansen Dam Golf Course backed onto the south face of Hansen Dam. The beautifully landscaped grounds offered two unique nine-hole courses, separated by varied elevation and strategically placed trees, predominantly oak and palm.
Each morning during the summer, coinciding with dawn, the automatic irrigation system watered the fairways in preparation for each day’s use. Worms, grubs and insects squirmed to the surface and made an all-you-can-eat buffet for birds of all varieties, including finches, sparrows, scrub-jays and robins. When it came to worms and grubs, robins made formidable hunters, ruthless and efficient, seeking out prey using visual and auditory cues.
The watering had just finished its automatic cycle, but instead of flying down to the greens to begin their early morning feast, the birds remained in the trees. They all sensed danger and stopped their singing, like a hive mind thinking and acting as one, sensing sound and vibration beyond human sensitivity. The birds were unable to pinpoint the source of the danger, but knew it was there and chose to remain under cover of their leafy roosts.
Two miles underground within the Sierra Madre Fault Zone, a perpendicular slip caused two walls of rock to shift and open up. The slow rumbling and release of kinetic energy travelled to the surface. A half-minute later, the golf course and surrounding area felt the full force of the rock plates settling into stasis, echoing a loud impact like a dump truck slamming into a concrete wall.
Many birds took to wing at the startling impact, but not the robins. They remained perched in the trees, waiting.
As earthquakes go, this one was considered minor and it didn’t take long for wildlife to return to their regular routines. A robin launched itself from an oak branch, landing close to the first hole, where the manicured lawns met the rocky scree of Hansen Dam’s south face. Thanks to the recent irrigation, the pickings were good.
The robin ran through the wet grass, stopped, and cocked its head from side to side as it surveyed the ground for movement. Worms and grubs were plentiful, and the bird continued its hunting routine until its keen eyesight spotted something different, a spider, one fully as large as the robin’s head. It hustled toward the crunchy delicacy, paused, re-evaluated its path, and scurried forward.
The spider, whose body was covered in dense, whisker-like hairs, sensed the bird’s approach, but instead of retreating, it lowered its body and retracted its legs like a shield-carrying warrior preparing for battle.
The robin stopped its attack just short of where the spider sat and tilted its head, looking down on what appeared to be easy prey. Convinced the timing was right, the robin opened its beak and jutted its head forward to snap up the spider.
As if anticipating the bird’s move, the spider spun itself around, raised its abdomen and shot a thick, gauzy cloud from its spinnerets to encompass the robin’s head and the tops of its wings.
Immobilized and unable to see, the robin struggled to break free of the webbing trapping its body. Several spiders with the same quill-like hairs on their backs appeared from beneath the turf and joined the defending spider, as if they were called by some unknown, unified force. With quick precision, the spiders worked together to encase the robin in a tight silken sac.
The bird writhed within its wrappings until the first spider, the largest one, sank its fangs through the sac, the bird’s feathers, and into its neck. As the spider’s poison seeped into the bird’s bloodstream, swelling and paralysis set in and within seconds the bird’s struggles ceased.
The spiders connected threads to their newly captured prey and dragged the robin’s paralyzed body below the grass, back into the ground.
Most of San Fernando Valley’s 1.8 million people slept through the earthquake that shook that night. The tremor was but a small and consistent blip on the valley’s seismographic history, one that residents had come to expect and ignore, taking for granted their lack of danger.
The next morning, the Los Angeles Daily News reported the same information Jack had seen on his phone hours earlier. The quake was minor, almost negligible, and nothing like the magnitude 6.6 tremblor that hit the valley in 1971, a quake that was half a million times stronger and produced half a billion dollars worth of damage at the time.
The Hansen Dam, built in 1940 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was later determined to be the epicenter of the recent quake and sustained no visible damage to any surrounding structures. But the quake had cracked a channel a foot wide and a thousand feet down into the earth’s crust at the border between the dam and Hansen Dam Golf Course to the south. Dank air rose to the surface filtered through ancient cave systems never before explored.
With the golf course at their front door, the spiders feasted on small mammals and birds, but they still preferred cool darkness. Working together using a combination of pheromones and touch, the cluster built a central nest close to water, prey, and constant shade from the sun. Multiple tripwires fanned out from the nest in all directions and made hunting more effective when the spiders behaved as one coordinated organism. Together they hunted and fed on the liquefied flesh of their prey.
The spiders’ central nest was a perfect hatching ground and the queen—the most aggressive female in the cluster—wasted no time constructing and filling egg sacs. The male spiders chosen by the queen to fertilize her eggs were later cannibalized by the cluster. With an incubation period half that of a typical spider and a limitless supply of food, the central nest expanded from a cluster to a crowded colony. Emboldened spiderlings cast their silken webs to the wind and the San Fernando Valley became their new fertile hunting ground. But the connection to the central nest—and to the queen—remained.
And their connection, like the gossamer thread of their webs, grew stronger each day.
If yah see one rat, there’s ten yah can’t.
Captain Hook’s words had left an impression on Bradley during his summer stay at Sam’s Bronx apartment. And the Captain’s words were reinforced during every supply run to Hunts Point Hardware. Bradley thought the store should make it their slogan and put it on their checkout bags. The Captain was content to repeat it to every living soul. His war injury had done nothing to diminish his ability to prattle.
But after all the extermination work Bradley and his father Sam had done, rats continued to show up in the apartment building. No Gambian white-tails at least, and no hordes, but one special rat continued to elude their traps. A female, the queen, the “holy grail” when it came to wiping out an infestation.
What Bradley and Sam had succeeded in doing over their ten weeks together was reduce the food supply available to the rats. They plugged access holes in all the apartments and regularly checked the garbage chute for blockages. Sam attempted to convince the landlord to install a new, more secure dumpster, but the apartment at 616 Casanova—and most properties in the red light district of Hunts Point—were not a high priority. If the improvement had no immediate return on investment, it was dismissed.
The only major repair approved by the landlord was to the massive access hole under Sam’s kitchen sink. It had been repaired with new drywall, but as cheaply as possible. Sam had no faith in its structural integrity and had reinforced the wall further with a sheet of 16 gauge steel, paid for out of his own pocket. Any rat could chew through that thickness if they wanted to get at what was behind it, but so far none had tried. The extra layer gave Sam some much needed peace of mind, even though he had grown more comfortable around rats with each passing day.
With food in scarce supply, the remaining rats became bolder. The queen rat ventured away from its nesting area and chewed an undiscovered access hole in the closet of Sam’s bedroom, which had doubled as Bradley’s room over the summer. Each night under the cover of darkness, the queen ventured out into the bedroom, hallway and kitchen beyond, looking for an easy meal.
As with the rats, the tenants got smarter as well, starting with Sam. He had upgraded his garbage container to a lockable can with a flip-top lid and recommended the rest of the building’s tenants do the same. He bid farewell to the days of hanging a garbage bag from the under-the-counter door.
Even with increased garbage security, the queen rat still managed to find enough to eat, but it was forced to expand its diet. Instead of the plentiful garbage delight it was used to, the queen kept the apartment clear of insects and spiders.
Tonight, the queen spotted a juicy house spider the size of a silver dollar under the kitchen table. Following the baseboards, the rat paused at the doors under the kitchen sink, rising on its haunches and trying to catch the scent of something better. It caught the faintest odor of ripe food from the lockable garbage can but had already tried breaking into its polished steel shell during previous outings. Slim pickings tonight, except for the spider.
The rat stood up on its hind legs, surveying the kitchen by habit for any predators from above. It scurried across the open linoleum of the kitchen, close to where Sam had encountered the horde of Gambian white-tails two months earlier. The rodent paused near one of the metal chair legs and sniffed, whiskers quivering, watching. The spider held its ground.
The rat bolted toward the spider and a second later both were scrambling across the floor, the rat in hot pursuit.
The spider made it to the corner of the kitchen and headed up the wall, but not far or quickly enough to escape. The queen rat jumped and knocked the spider to the floor. The spider reared up on its back-most legs and quivered its front legs, nimble chelicerae twitching beneath its eight symmetrically arranged eyes.
The rat paused, surveying the spider’s display of defiance before continuing its pursuit. Both creatures ran along the baseboard until the queen cornered its prey. After a split second hesitation, the rat pounced.
In defense, the spider jumped and landed on the rat’s back, sinking its fangs into the rat’s fur. The spider’s venom was not powerful enough to affect the rat in any significant way, but the rat took no chances. It rolled its body, knocking the spider toward the wall again.
The rat brought its paws down, pinned the spider to the floor, and sunk its incisors through the spider’s head and eight eyes.
The spider drew its legs close to its body in reflex and was dead a second later.
The queen rat picked up the spider and held it like a blueberry. One bite crushed the spider’s head. The rat systematically pulled off each leg and ate it, followed by the thorax and abdomen. A crunchy snack. The rat licked its paws, washed its face, and set out on the hunt once more.
Sam stood in the doorway of the bedroom and watched Bradley collect his belongings, stuffing shirts and dirty underwear haphazardly into his two suitcases. As much as he looked forward to being back in his own bed again, he’d miss his son more. If it meant Bradley could stay longer, Sam would happily continue to sleep on the lumpy TV room sofa he had gotten used to during Bradley’s visit. But Bradley would be beginning his senior year of high school back in Los Angeles and Sam knew that was important to him.
Sam focused his attention on Bradley’s right bicep, the bottom of his new tattoo just barely visible. “How’s the arm feeling today?”
Bradley raised his t-shirt sleeve and craned his neck to get a good view. Slight redness was still visible around the solid black areas of the stylized rat and the red circle-backslash overtop. “Still a little sore.”
“Your mom’s going to be pissed.”
A sly grin broke across Bradley’s lips. “I know.”
“Ah, to be a fly on the wall when she finds out.”
Bradley laughed. “I could live-stream it, if you want.”
“Nah,” Sam said. “That’d be a waste of… bandwidth?”
“Yup. You’re getting it.” Bradley bumped fists with Sam. “You’ll be an expert in no time.”
Sam shook his head subtly. “Doubt it. I have no plans to get a cell phone any time soon.”
“But Dad, we could text each other, send each other photos of dead rats. It’d be cool.”
Sam imagined connecting with his son any time he wanted. But he could already do that now with the old push-button phone in the kitchen. Still, all the teenagers seemed to live through their phones and part of him wanted to meet Bradley at his level.
“I’ll think about it,” Sam said.
“Cool. You got my number, right?”
Sam thumbed back down the hallway toward the kitchen. “It’s written down on a piece of paper by the phone. And it’s in here.” He tapped his temple.
“You won’t forget?”
Sam shook his head. “Mind’s like a steel trap.” He smiled at Bradley, seeing parts of himself and of Claire in the teenager, the good parts.
“No, tell me.”
Sam paused before dodging the question. “You’re a good kid. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” He looked at Bradley’s luggage. “You finished packing?”
“I could definitely eat.”
Sam looked at his watch, the glass face scuffed from his years at Franklin Correctional Facility. The analog face read just past six o’clock. “When does your flight leave?”
Bradley dug out his plane ticket. “10:25 tonight.”
“Could you stand one more pizza from Kingsley’s? Maybe some fried chicken?”
Bradley’s stomach growled, as if on cue, and he grinned.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Sam said. “Let’s eat there this time. Get the authentic Kingsley’s experience.”
Bradley lead the way out of the apartment. Sam followed, locking up. The two of them headed out into the late afternoon autumn sun, up Casanova to hang a right onto Spoffard Ave. Kingsley’s Fried Chicken and Pizza was a few blocks away.
Kingsley’s focused on take-out but had three booths inside for dine-in customers. Images of all Kingsley’s offerings were plastered to the windows beneath buzzing neon signs spelling out their best sellers.
“They sell breakfast?” Bradley raised his eyebrow.
“Breakfast, coffee, and donuts,” Sam said. “But I stick to what made them famous.”
Sam opened the door and the smell of hot oil, chicken, spices and baking pizza crust filled their noses. It felt just as hot inside the restaurant as outside, maybe a bit hotter.
A stout man with closely cropped hair and a graying goatee stood behind the counter. An equally heavyset woman and a younger man worked in the back preparing the food. All their aprons were stained with grease and tomato sauce.
“Sam!” said the man behind the counter. “Good to see you, brother.”
“Hey, Marcus. Busy tonight?”
“Kingsley’s always be busy.” Marcus laughed. “What can I do you for?”
Sam scanned the menu board, looked at his watch, then turned to Bradley. “What do you think? The works?”
Bradley nodded. “Let’s do it.”
“Okay. Get one of the booths,” Sam said to Bradley before turning to Marcus. “We’ll have the large Superbox and pizza combo. Pepperoni and mushroom. And two Cokes.”
Marcus pulled two cans of Coca Cola from the cooler and motioned toward Bradley in a booth taking in the restaurant’s vibe. “Who’s the kid?”
“That’s my son, Bradley. He’s been visiting from L.A. for the summer.”
“Shit, son, you been holdin’ out on me.”
“Sorry, we’ve been busy.” Sam leaned toward the counter and lowered his voice. “You have any Kingsley’s t-shirts left? Extra Large?”
“I’ll take one. A souvenir for Brad.”
“Free advertising for me in L.A.” Marcus chuckled, his belly rising and falling with the laugh. “I like the sound of that.” He punched the order into the cash register. “Anything else?”
Sam shook his head.
Marcus hit a button on the register, causing it to rattle out a final total.
Sam took out his wallet and pulled out two twenty dollar bills. “Keep the change.”
“You sure, now?” Marcus eyed Sam’s wallet. “You’re not going to get yourself into any… trouble?”
“Nope,” Sam said. “I got it covered.”
“Hey, thanks Sam. Wish all my customers were like you. I’d be retired to the Bahamas by now.” Marcus laughed, his whole body shaking in response.
“The Bahamas, huh? Sounds nice.”
“Someday, my friend.” Marcus reached under the counter and pulled out a white t-shirt, emblazoned with the restaurant’s official logo: a chicken giving a thumbs up, wearing a black leather jacket and a golden crown, and standing behind a pizza. Surrounding the logo in a circle were the words “Kingsley’s Fried Chicken and Pizza”. Sam stuffed the shirt under his own plaid flannel work shirt.
“I’ll give you a holler when your order’s up.” Marcus turned to the cooks in the back and announced the order.
Sam took the Cokes and slid into the opposite seat of the booth Bradley had picked. “Well? What do you think?”
Bradley looked around, taking in the details of the restaurant. “It’s like a McDonald’s, except way smaller.”
“But unlike McDonald’s, this place has character.” Sam cracked the tab on his Coke and took a swig. “It’s not run by a corporation. And the food’s better.”
Sam sat across the table and watched his son; a young man he’d thought he’d never get a chance to know. He owed the opportunity to Claire, as strange as that idea was, and reminded himself to thank her the next time they spoke. If there was a next time.
Bradley noticed the silence as he broke the seal on his Coke. “Are you okay?”
“Never better,” Sam said. “Hey, did you say goodbye to Hope?”
Bradley tried to look nonchalant. “Yeah, I saw her in the hallway this morning. She wished me good luck.”
Sam grinned. “You like her, don’t you?”
“Well, sure. What’s not to like?”
“Not much, I guess.”
Sam and Bradley drank their Cokes.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Bradley set his Coke down on the table. “Depends on what.”
“You have someone special back in L.A.? Besides Mom?” Sam winked.
Bradley groaned. “Mom? Please.”
“I mean a girlfriend?”
Boyfriend? Sam was just about to respond when Marcus approached the table with their order.
“One Superbox and one pepperoni and mushroom pizza,” Marcus said. “Fresh and hot, the Kingsley way.”
“Smells great, Marcus,” Sam said. “Thanks.”
Marcus caught Bradley’s gaze. “Spread the word about Kingsley’s in L.A., okay Brad?”
Bradley furrowed his brow, his eyes flitting between Sam and Marcus. “Um, okay?”
“That’s the spirit.” Marcus chuckled. “Let me know if there’s anything else you need.” He tapped Sam’s shoulder.
“Will do.” Sam opened the Superbox, chose a piece of chicken, and asked through a bite, “You were saying?”
Bradley pulled out an unevenly sliced piece of pizza. “About someone special?”
“Yeah. Girlfriend? Boyfriend?”
Bradley took a bite of his pizza. “I had a girlfriend for most of the last school year, but she dumped me a couple months before school ended.”
“Why? Without getting too personal.”
“No, it’s okay,” Bradley said between bites. “She was kind of a control freak. I didn’t like how she treated people. I was going to dump her but she kind of beat me to it.” Bradley chased his mouthful of pizza with a gulp of Coke. “I guess we both had the same idea.”
“What was her name?”
“Alexis.” Bradley dug into his pocket and pulled out his phone. After a few finger taps and swipes, he presented a photo of Alexis. “She lives with her foster parents.”
“She’s certainly an attractive girl.”
“Yeah, she’s got looks, but that’s about it,” Bradley said. “I guess that’s why I like Hope. She’s got so much more going on.”
“Maybe Alexis needs control because most of her life has been so out of control.” Sam set his chicken down. “Living in the foster system can be hard.”
Bradley shrugged. “Yeah, maybe.” He took another bite of his pizza and caught a hot spot. As he pulled his mouth away, a big glob of tomato sauce, cheese and pepperoni landed on his shirt, front and center.
“Shit…” Bradley took a quick look around to make sure no one had heard him. “Sorry.” He looked down at his chest and picked up the pizza toppings. They left a large greasy, tomatoey stain. He gave his raccoon tail hanging at his belt a cursory inspection. “At least the shirt’s black.”
Sam pulled the Kingsley’s shirt out from under his flannel button-up. “I was going to save this as a surprise, but I’ll give it to you now.” He held up the white t-shirt for Bradley to see.
“That’s awesome.” Bradley looked to the counter to see Marcus nodding and grinning and giving him a thumbs up. “Spread the word in L.A. Got it. Love the logo.”
“Maybe you can open up my first L.A. franchise,” Marcus called out across the restaurant.
Bradley smiled back. “Maybe.” He turned to Sam. “Thanks, Dad, but I think I’ll wait to put it on.”
“Yeah, sure.” Sam secured the t-shirt under his flannel and looked at his watch. “We’d better chow down or we’ll miss your flight.”
Sam and Bradley dug into their meals, switching from chicken to pizza on a whim.
“Anyway, sorry about Alexis,” Sam said with his mouth full of food.
Bradley shrugged. “I’m so over her.”
Sam held up his can of Coke. “To my son. I hope your senior year is full of adventure.”
“And to my dad, the bravest man I know.” Bradley tapped his can against Sam’s and they both drank.
Sam and Bradley returned to the apartment with a Superbox partially filled with chicken, mashed potatoes and pizza. The quantity of food Marcus had brought them had exceeded their appetites and Sam couldn’t help but wonder if Marcus had thrown in a little extra in response to his tip.
“Get your things ready,” Sam said. “We should leave soon if you want to catch your flight. I don’t want to piss Claire off.”
Bradley looked at the time on his phone. “We got lots of time. It’s not even eight o’clock.”
“We should be at JFK an hour and a half before take-off. Plus, there’s travel time… and traffic.”
Sam walked toward the refrigerator. “Humor me. I’m still relearning this city.”
“Okay, but not before I have one more slice of pizza.” Bradley slipped his hand into the Superbox and pulled out a jagged piece of pizza, the topping barely staying on.
Within minutes of their returning from their farewell dinner at Kingsley’s, the queen rat caught the scent of their leftovers. The smell of fried chicken and pizza was too enticing to ignore. She emerged from the access hole in the bedroom closet and scrambled under the bed and across the floor.
Sam placed the Superbox into the fridge, finding one suitable spot beside a half-full jug of milk. The contents of the fridge bore a striking contrast to its contents at the beginning of summer. No rotting or rancid processed meats permeated the space. There was even a container of salad. Bradley had been a good influence on him, and Sam hoped he could continue the habit of healthier eating.
Bradley crammed pizza into his mouth as he walked to his bedroom, sauce and cheese oozing onto his fingers.
When the sight of human feet appeared at the bedroom door, the queen rat froze, black eyes watching, whiskers quivering at the scent, mouth salivating.
“Hey.” Sam stepped into the hallway from the kitchen. “Try on your new shirt.” He threw the ball of fabric at him.
“Watch it. I’m eating!” Bradley raised his hands out of the way and let the t-shirt drop to his feet. “I don’t want to get it dirty too.”
He took another bite and balanced the remaining pizza on top of the open suitcase lid. The queen rat watched Bradley’s every move from the protective shadows under the bed. He looked at his greasy, saucy hands and contemplated washing them.
Screw it. It’s black for a reason.
Bradley pulled off his already dirty shirt, careful not to snag it on his raccoon tail, and wiped his hands clean. He threw the inside-out shirt into his suitcase.
The rat stretched its body out, trying to get closer to the beckoning scent without leaving the safety of its hiding spot. The dirty shirt smelled a lot better to the rat than the crust balancing on top of the suitcase lid. Chicken, grease, baked goods, all mixed together.
Bradley picked up his new Kingsley’s t-shirt and pulled it on. It still smelled like fried chicken. “What do you think?”
Centered on the back of the t-shirt were the words, “FRY THE BEST - FORGET THE REST” in big, bold red letters.
Sam chuckled and clapped. “Fantastic.”
Bradley grabbed the remaining piece of pizza on the suitcase lid and walked to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. “This shirt rocks, Dad. Thanks.”
Sam appeared at the doorway to the bathroom. “I couldn’t resist. I’ve been eyeing those all summer.” He looked at his watch. “We should go. Get your stuff and we’ll hit the road.”
Sam patted Bradley’s shoulder as he left the bathroom to collect his luggage.
Bradley popped one last bite of pizza into his mouth as he zipped the lid of the second suitcase. He slung his leather jacket and day pack over his shoulder, picked up his luggage, one suitcase in each hand, and met Sam by the door to the apartment.
Sam locked the apartment, leaving it empty and quiet. He took one of Bradley’s bags as they both stepped toward the foyer, out the front door and down the steps to the wrought iron gate. He held the gate open for his son and followed him to Sam’s old Ford F-250.
One bag at a time, Sam raised Bradley’s luggage over the side of the truck bed. Bradley opened the passenger door, tossed his day pack into the footwell and put on his leather jacket. He slid into the passenger seat.
“Your truck have a name?”
Sam pulled himself into the driver’s seat and closed the door with a heavy clrunk. “Nope.”
“You should call it Rusty.”
“That’s not bad.” Sam inserted his key and turned the ignition. The starter whined until the engine turned over, revving into a rolling rumble. Sam patted the dashboard. “Attaboy, Rusty.” He looked at Bradley. “Got everything? Ticket? This is your last chance.”
Bradley leaned down and partly unzipped a pocket on his day pack. He pulled out his plane ticket as proof. “Got it.”
“What about your phone?”
“Surgically attached to my hip.” Bradley managed a smile. “But I thought you knew that.”
“What about your bags?”
“I checked everything.” Bradley locked gazes with Sam for a couple of seconds.
“I could always mail back the things you’ve forgotten, if you’ve forgotten anything, that is.”
“Or I could just come out and visit you again.”
Sam felt emotion rise in his throat.
“That’d be okay, right?” Bradley said.
“Sure.” Sam swallowed hard. “That’d be perfect.” He revved the engine and the faded orange truck, mottled with rust, pulled away from the curb and headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The setting sun had already dipped below the horizon when Sam drove Bradley to JFK. The view over the East River from the Trogs Neck Bridge was spectacular, with the cloudless western sky spreading out in hues of yellow, orange, red and blue.
“It’s going to be a great night to be flying,” Sam said.
Bradley glanced out the passenger window to take in the vista. He pulled out his phone and by habit looked for the window switch on the car door.
Sam laughed. “It’s a hand crank.”
Bradley grinned back. “I know that.” He rolled down the window to take an unobstructed photo. The warm wind mixed with the ocean scent of Long Island Sound flowed through the cab of the truck. He closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath.
Sam cast a glance at him. “Smells pretty nice, huh?”
Bradley nodded, rolled up the window and rested his head against it.
Sam saw a hint of sadness in Bradley’s face. He felt it too but chose not to bring it up.
“Are you by the ocean?” Sam said. “Back in L.A.?”
Bradley kept his eyes closed, facing the passenger window. “There’s no ocean near the San Fernando Valley. Closest beach is in Santa Monica about an hour south. There’s an outdoor aquatic center pretty close to where I live, but it’s not the same.” He heaved a sigh. “I’m landlocked and it’s hot as fuck…”
Sam smiled ever so slightly.
“Sorry. Slipped out. It’s so hot during summer. I thought I’d escape most of it by being here, but it wasn’t very cool here either.”
“I wouldn’t know. This was my first summer on the outside in 15 years.”
Bradley’s eyes settled on the prison tattoos escaping from the cuffs of Sam’s work shirt, just barely visible by the dashboard lights and dimming dusk. He turned his head to the window again, his thoughts straying toward how his life might have turned out differently if Sam had been around for all his summers. Bradley felt a wave of sadness wash over him as he pushed the “what ifs” out of his mind, choosing to focus on the future and his final year of school.
Bradley remained quiet for the rest of the ride and Sam didn’t try to force conversation. At one point, to try and break the silence, he flipped on Nash 94.7 FM right in the middle of “Five More Minutes” by Scotty McCreery. A good song but the wrong time for it.
“A pause button would be nice,” Sam said in a low whisper as he turned the radio off.
Sam navigated onto Belt Parkway and soon after JFK Expressway, the F-250 rumbling and rolling in a predictable fashion. The sprawling JFK International Airport loomed in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before Sam would have to face a moment he had grown to dread.
A creature of habit built up from years of routine, Sam found the same parkade he had used when he had picked Bradley up ten weeks ago. So much had changed between them since then, and changed for the better. But the parkade looked the same.
Sam pulled into a parking stall. “This is it.” He reached out and gave Bradley’s left shoulder a light squeeze. “I’ll get your bags.” He slid out of the truck and slammed the door with a familiar clrunk.
Bradley grabbed his day pack and exited the truck. The parkade was filled with vehicles, but only a few visible travelers making their way to Terminal 8. Bradley’s feeling of sadness and isolation amplified.
Sam checked his watch. “It’s a few minutes after nine. We made pretty good time.” He heaved Bradley’s bags out of the truck bed and headed toward the main entrance of Terminal 8. Sam tried not to walk too fast or slow. He didn’t want to appear eager, because the truth was Sam would have preferred Bradley to stay.
Bradley followed a step or two behind.
After passing through the sliding doors of the entrance, Sam turned toward the escalators to the departures level. “What airline are you on?”
Sam spotted the ticket counter for American Airlines. “Let’s deal with your bags.” There was no one lined up in the winding queue. “Aren’t you glad we’re early?”
“I guess so.” Bradley said in a hushed voice. He stepped up to the counter and presented his ticket and travel documents.
Sam spotted a Visa card in Bradley’s wallet. “You have a credit card?” Sam gave Bradley a playful nudge to try and ease the tension. “You’ve been holding out on me.”
Bradley shrugged. “Mom got it for me. It only has a five hundred dollar limit.”
“I might have to get myself one.” Sam lifted both bags onto the scale. The agent tagged each bag with a flight information ribbon and deposited the luggage onto the trundling conveyor belt behind the counter. The bags soon disappeared into the massive unseen machinery of JFK’s luggage processing area.
Sam stepped away from the ticket counter. “So, what do you want to do now?”
Bradley shrugged, stowing his ticket and wallet.
“We could get a snack or a drink.”
“I’m kind of full from our dinner at Kingsley’s,” Bradley said. “Which was dope, by the way.”
Sam returned a small nod. He could see the conversation was becoming uncomfortable for Bradley. It wasn’t easy for him either.
“Okay. Let’s get you through security,” Sam said. “I’ve never been big on long drawn-out goodbyes.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he could see the relief on Bradley’s face. “You’re definitely a chip off the ol’ block.” Sam smiled and placed his arm over Bradley’s shoulder as they walked.
Sam stopped just in front of the entrance to the security checkpoint. “This is it.”
“I guess so.” Bradley shifted from foot to foot, his hands fiddling with his raccoon tail attached to the side of his jeans, his eyes flitting, not settling on anything or anyone.
“Can your old man give you a—”
Before Sam could finish his request, Bradley stepped forward and wrapped his arms around him, squeezing tight. Sam reciprocated, taking in the hug and filing the memory away for darker times.
Bradley stepped back and wiped a tear away with a stealthy twist of his wrist. “It’s been really great, Dad.”
Sam smiled. “Yeah. It has.”
Bradley took a step toward the security entrance. “You got my phone number?”
Sam tapped his temple. “In here. Steel trap, remember?”
“Speaking of traps, let me know if you spot any Gambians.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. “I hope I don’t, but I will. For sure.”
“Say goodbye to the Dobbies for me,” Bradley said. “And I forgot to check their trap this morning.”
“I’m on it. I’ll let t hem know.”
“And get a cell phone.”
“I’m working on it.”
Bradley sent Sam a “thumbs up” and headed for the security checkpoint.
Bradley turned immediately, as if he was expecting Sam to say something.
“Call me any time. Day or night.”
“I mean it.”
“Okay,” Bradley said.
They both waved at each other. Bradley turned and walked into the security checkpoint and disappeared into a sea of people.
Sam stood outside the entrance for a long time. He closed his eyes and pulled up the memory of their farewell hug. It turned out he wasn’t such a bad father after all. He’d just needed a chance to prove himself.
Sam retraced his path out of Terminal 8 back to his truck. Along the way, everyone he saw seemed to have a cell phone. He unlocked the truck’s driver-side door and stepped up to his seat.
Can I afford to have a phone? Sam admitted the thought of sending Bradley a text message right now was appealing. Can I afford not to?
He started the truck’s engine, pulled out of his parking space and began his journey home.
Once through security, Bradley found Gate 37, sat, and pulled up the photo app on his phone. Flipping through the images, most were of Sam and him, working alongside each other. Bradley found his favorite photo of Hope, wearing the same Ramones shirt she had worn when he first met her. He pinch-zoomed to her face and studied her.
He flipped to the next image, one of himself giving the camera two thumbs up, with a baited rat trap in front of him. The amber pendant given to him by Washington during his friend’s last moments of life hung loosely over his t-shirt.
Bradley’s hand went instinctively to the pendant around his neck. He felt the smooth, rounded ball of amber through the fabric of his Kingsley’s t-shirt.
Even though he tried not to, his mind revisited Washington’s death. It was one of the most horrible experiences of his life so far, one that he would never forget. Bradley didn’t want to believe it had been suicide but something else, something deeper. Maybe in time he’d understand why Washington had sacrificed himself. For now, it would remain a mystery. He doubled his efforts to focus on the man Washington had been before the Gambian white-tail invasion.
When his flight was called for boarding, Bradley sent a text to Claire. “On my way. See U 2morrow.” He found his seat, which happened to be next to a window, fastened his seatbelt and promptly fell asleep. When Bradley next awoke, the plane was landing in Los Angeles. He had slept through the entire flight. That was the good news.
The not so great news? Now he had to face his mom.
With his day pack slung over his shoulder, Bradley recalled how he had played a cat-and-mouse game when he’d first met Sam, making him sweat a little. No such luck with Claire. She was waiting front and center at Arrivals, wearing tight jeans and a plain purple t-shirt, waving excitedly.
“Brad!” she called out. “Over here.”
As much as Bradley wasn’t looking forward to seeing Claire, it was good to be home, despite the heat of Los Angeles and soon, the valley. He smiled and waved back.
Claire threw her arms around his neck, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and hugged him tight. One thing was for sure: both Sam and Claire knew how to hug.
“Let me look at you.” She took a step back and scanned him from head to toe. “I think you’ve grown.” She reached up and ruffled his hair. “Your hair has definitely grown. We’ll have to get that dealt with before school starts.”
Bradley swept his mussed hair out of his eyes. “I think I’m going to grow it out long this year.”
Claire cast him a sideways look. “We’ll see about that.”
As the crowd thinned, a man remained standing by Claire’s side, a man unfamiliar to Bradley. He wore black brogues, sharply pleated tan pants and a red golf shirt. All that was missing was a set of golf clubs and a sun visor over his curly blond hair.
Claire followed Bradley’s stare, prompting her to take a step closer to the man. She placed her hand on the small of his back.
“Brad, I’d like to introduce you to Roy,” Claire said.
Roy stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Brad.” Roy’s bleached smile in his tanned face looked oddly fake to Bradley. “I’ve been hearing good things.”
Bradley took Roy’s hand and shook it.
Ugh. Limp. Not a good first impression. Bradley forced a smile. “Thanks. How do you know my mom?”
“Roy and I have been seeing each other, honey.” Claire looked up at Roy and touched his chest lightly. “We met a week or so after you left for New York. On the jogging trail near Hansen Dam.”
Roy gazed at Claire and grinned. “Your mom is quite a woman.”
“Oh, Roy. Stop.”
Is this guy for real? Bradley contemplated turning around and catching a flight back to New York. “I need to go pick up my luggage.”
“American Airlines, right? This way.” Roy grabbed Claire’s hand and led her and Bradley to the luggage claim area.
Bradley avoided conversation as he kept an eye out for his two suitcases. He pulled out his phone and texted Jack. “@LAX. Want to hang later?”
Claire approached Bradley and touched his shoulder. “Are you okay, honey? You’re awfully quiet.”
“I’m just tired,” Bradley lied. “I didn’t sleep at all.” He spotted his luggage and grabbed his bags. Roy didn’t offer any help.
“Well let’s get you home, then,” Claire said.
The sooner the better.
Bradley slipped his day pack over his shoulders, stacked his bags, and rolled them out to the parkade. Claire rested her head on Roy’s shoulder a few steps ahead.
Bradley didn’t like his mom’s “new development” one bit. He clenched his jaws and looked for their charcoal gray Nissan Pathfinder.
After several minutes weaving around parked vehicles and other travellers, Claire and Roy approached a bright red vehicle.
“Where’s Gandalf?” Bradley looked left, right and back in the parkade for the SUV that he had ridden in his whole life. He was looking forward to driving it when he got his license.
“Don’t get mad, honey. We traded in the Pathfinder for a hybrid.” Claire pointed to a small Nissan Leaf. “Isn’t it sweet?”
This can’t be happening, Bradley thought. He’d be the laughingstock of the school. No one who cared about their senior year reputation would be caught dead in a little hybrid. But there it was, Claire and Roy beaming next to it like it was their new baby.
“I can’t believe you traded in Gandalf the Grey… for this.” Bradley looked at Claire, no longer trying to hide his disappointment. “You loved Gandalf.”
Claire’s smile faltered for a moment. “It was time, Brad.” She looked up at Roy, finding her smile again. “Plus, Roy got me a great deal. He works for Sylmar Nissan.”
“Roy sold you the car?” Bradley shot a look at Claire, then daggered Roy. “I bet you got a nice commission, huh?”
Claire took at step forward, but Roy stopped her, shaking his head. “It’s okay. He’s just looking out for you.” He opened the back hatch and extended a hand. “Let’s get you loaded up.”
Claire got into the driver’s seat and closed the door. It took a little juggling to get both suitcases to fit in the back.
“They fit fine in Gandalf.”
“It’s all good.” Roy closed the back hatch and took a calming breath.
As the back hatch swung past his line of sight, Bradley thought he saw a subtle undulation in one corner of one of the suitcases, but he was too annoyed to pay it much thought. “So, did you sell my mom the car before or after your first date?”
“Look.” He motioned Bradley aside and lowered his voice. “That’s none of your business, but just so you know, I split the commission with your mom.” The two stared each other down for a moment. “Now please, get in the car.”
Bradley opened the back passenger door, threw his day pack onto the back seat, and sat down, slamming the door behind him. He buckled his seat belt and looked out the window.
“Hey.” Claire gave him a puzzled look through the rear-view mirror. “You okay, hon?”
Bradley looked at Claire’s eyes reflected back at him, then returned his stare out the window. He could see Roy watching him through the passenger side mirror. He crossed his arms and recalled his first meeting with Sam over two months ago, which was similar in a lot of ways except one. Sam wasn’t intentionally being an asshole.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired I guess.”
Claire nodded. “We’ll be home soon.” She pressed the ignition button, the start-up chiming from the dash. It was a stark contrast to Sam’s old Ford F250. She backed out of the parking stall and began the hour long journey back to the valley.
The new car sounded like the Japanese bullet trains Bradley had seen in a documentary at school. It was an electronic whirring that rose in pitch as the little car accelerated. It was a cool sound, almost pleasant. He closed his eyes and imagined himself in a sci-fi movie. Anything to diffuse his annoyance toward Roy.
“Oh, I love this little car.” Claire looked to Roy and squeezed his knee. Roy smiled back. “It’s so zippy.”
Once out of the LAX parkade, Claire navigated onto the 405. Normally by seven thirty in the morning, the freeway would be approaching gridlock. But being a Sunday, there was no delay as the little car zoomed north through the Sepulveda Pass, toward the Santa Monica mountains and the San Fernando Valley beyond.
Despite the pungent new car smell and having no pillow, Bradley slept during the ride home. He awoke as Claire passed through Sherman Oaks.
Twenty minutes and I’ll be home. Bradley rubbed sleep from his eyes.
Claire spied him in the rearview mirror. “There he is. You nodded off for a bit.”
Bradley yawned. “This car is so quiet. You should hear Dad’s truck. Probably drive you crazy.” He smiled at the thought before remembering who he was talking to.
Shit. I hope I haven’t opened a can of worms.
As if on cue, Claire tensed up, her hands gripping the steering wheel more tightly. She deflected her eyes away from the rearview mirror and tried to keep a scowl from creeping onto her face.
“So… how is Sam?” Claire spoke through clenched teeth. Even Roy noticed the change in her tone of voice.
“Mom, we don’t have to talk about this. I know how you—”
“No, I’m fine,” Claire said. “It was going to come up eventually. Better sooner than later.”
Bradley paused, trying to gauge Claire’s level of aggression.
“Besides,” Claire continued. “If you hadn’t connected with Sam this summer, I would never have met Roy.” She reached out and squeezed Roy’s hand and offered him a smile. Bradley thought it looked forced.
“Well, Dad is doing really well.” Bradley stretched his shoulders and leaned his head against the car window, replaying memories of the last ten weeks. “He’s the building superintendent of an apartment in the Bronx. And we just finished exterminating a rat infestation that you’d have to see to believe.”
Claire’s eyes widened. “You killed animals?”
“They’re rats, Mom. Besides, if you had seen them, you would have wanted to kill them too.”
“Every animal is placed on this earth for a reason.”
“I hear the rats in New York are pretty bad,” Roy said.
Claire turned her head and daggered Roy with narrowed eyes. “Don’t you take his side.”
“I’m not. But it’s true, isn’t it?” Roy looked back at Bradley.
“They’re bad everywhere,” Bradley said.
“Not here, in the valley.”
“Don’t count on it.”
“Stop it,” Claire said. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Anyway, Dad’s doing fine.” Bradley watched Claire’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “I’d like to see him again next summer.”
Claire cast a quick glance at Bradley.
“Maybe sooner,” he said.
Silence hung in the car like fog.
“We’ll see.” Claire signaled and switched lanes.
“Isn’t the Bronx a hotbed for prostitution and drugs?” Roy said. “See any hookers, Brad?”
Bradley remained silent, visions of Carmela in her tight white tank top and red hot pants bubbling up even though he fought hard to suppress them. He still found it hard to believe that Sam knew her.
Claire gasped. “Brad! You didn’t—”
“No, Mom.” Bradley looked away, embarrassed, but caught Roy’s smirk in the passenger side mirror. “Give me a little credit.”
“I think Sam is a bad influence on you.”
“He’s a better man than this jackhole,” Bradley said in a hushed voice.
Roy turned his body almost completely around in his seat, brows raised in surprise and anger. “What did you say?”
Bradley faced Roy. “I said soon I’ll be old enough to do what I want.”
“Hmm. I heard something different.” Roy settled back into his seat. “You better watch your mouth.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Bradley said. “By the way, remember that rubber rat?”
Claire’s gaze locked with Bradley’s, a combination of anger and guilt simmering behind her eyes.
“You didn’t tell me that Dad was afraid of rats, like really afraid,” Bradley said. “Thanks for that. Went over so well.”
“Watch the road,” Roy said, breaking Claire’s focus on Bradley in the back seat.
“What? Oh…” Claire returned her eyes forward.
“He’s over that now, though,” Bradley said. “His fear of rats.”
Claire straightened her posture. “Wonders never cease, do they?”
Silence returned to the car, something Bradley was coming to prefer. If home life was going to be nothing but angst and arguments, he’d take silence in a heartbeat, especially if the arguments were about Sam.
Claire didn’t like silence and turned on the radio. It was tuned to 104.3 MYFM, just as it had been in Gandalf before Bradley’s trip. “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette floated out of the little car’s stereo system.
“So, anything interesting happen while I was away?” Bradley watched Claire shoot a quick look of warning at Roy. Busted. He knew the look because he had used it dozens of times with Claire when he’d gotten into trouble with Jack.
Claire stammered and turned down the volume of the radio. Bradley recognized it as a stalling tactic. “Um, we had an earthquake a couple of weeks ago. That’s about it.”
“Did you feel it?” Roy looked at Claire with a lascivious grin. “Because I certainly felt the earth move that night.”
Gag. The thought of Claire doing anything sexual with this douche-bag turned Bradley’s stomach. He didn’t get what his mom saw in the guy.
“Nope.” Claire sent Roy eyes of admonishment. “Didn’t feel a thing. It wasn’t very big. But I remember hearing about it on the radio. Do you remember the magnitude?”
Roy looked out the passenger window, sulking.
Score a point for Mom. The corners of Bradley’s mouth turned up into an almost-grin.
“It wasn’t more than a three, if I recall,” Claire said.
“I’ll talk to Jack about it.” Bradley closed his eyes and rested his head on the window again. “He tracks that kind of stuff.”
Traffic continued to be light as Claire left the 405 and headed east down Ronald Reagan Freeway toward the suburbs of Pacoima, Lake View Terrace, and finally Stonehurst.
1068 Sheldon Street. The house that Bradley had grown up in. It was a small light-yellow rancher with an even smaller backyard where Claire managed to cultivate a select crop of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. She’d have more workable earth if it wasn’t for the shed in the corner of the yard, but it held all the necessary tools and materials she needed to keep her green thumb healthy.
A white wrought-iron fence joined brick pillars four feet tall at the corners of the property. Smaller brick pillars framed the gate in front of the house. The Hansen Dam Golf Course lay about half a mile west and the Hansen Dam Recreational Area, with its outdoor public pool and dozens of trails, sat just north of that.
Claire turned down a side alley and stopped the car in front of a detached garage on the back edge of the property. Bradley was used to her parking Gandalf in front of the house, but apparently the new electric car needed to be plugged in to charge every day.
“Roy, do you mind?” Claire looked at him with eyes considerably brighter than they had been moments earlier.
Roy grunted and got out of the car. He twisted a lever on the garage door and opened it. Claire rolled forward silently and killed the engine. The low whine of the electric engine faded away.
Bradley grabbed his day pack, slid out of the car, and maneuvered to the back. The Leaf took up a lot less space than Gandalf had.
“Need some help with those?” Roy said.
“No, I got it.” Bradley didn’t wait for the back hatch to fully open. He had his luggage in hand before Roy had even taken a step forward to offer help.
“Suit yourself.” Roy watched Bradley walk down the alley and around to the front of the house, his arms straining under the weight of his suitcases.
Claire stepped up beside him. “You’re a big change for him. He’ll come around. Just give him time.”
Roy clenched his fists, leaving nail grooves in his palms. “I hope you’re right.”
It felt a little strange to be back in his own room again, walls covered with rock and roll posters, his shelves of books, his clothes dresser, a few plastic models, and a laptop on a desk in the corner. Part of him expected bare walls and a broken-in bed, just like in New York.
It was obvious Claire had been in his room. His bed was made, more precisely than he would ever do himself, and the window was open, allowing a warm August breeze to move through the space.
Bradley stripped off his jacket dropped it to the floor. He heaved his two suitcases up onto the bed and made a beeline to the desk in the corner. He pulled open the drawer and reached into the back right corner.
For a moment, fear took hold of him when he didn’t immediately find what he was looking for. Bradley ran his fingertips across pencils, erasers, rulers and other school-related paraphernalia before they fell upon a familiar rectangular object. Then another thought dawned on him.
Did Mom move my condoms? Bradley pulled out a small box and looked inside to take inventory. They’re all there. He let go a sigh of relief as he placed the box back into the drawer. Maybe things had shifted around since the last time he had used one.
The last time. Bradley laughed. It was months ago, just before he and Alexis broke up. At least it wasn’t drugs. Having condoms made him a responsible young adult.
At first Bradley thought the noise he heard next was the wood of the drawer scraping as he pushed it back into the desk. The drawer had always stuck in spots. He stood and cocked his ear to one side and heard the sound again.
Bradley turned and faced the room, listening.
This time, in addition to the scratching, he saw the fabric of one of his suitcases move in time with the noises.
“What the hell?” Bradley stepped to his bed to get a closer look at the suitcase. There was something moving inside.
He rotated the suitcase to get better access and slowly began to pull the zipper open.
What the actual fuck am I doing? He took a deep breath, unzipped the suitcase’s lid, threw it open, and stepped back.
Nothing. No movement. No noise.
Bradley padded forward on the balls of his feet, closer to the open suitcase. He could see all his clothes, just as he had packed them in New York.
Nothing appeared to be wrong. He reached in, pulled out a shirt, and shook it out in front of him. It passed inspection: he threw it on the bed and grabbed another shirt. He looked at both sides for holes and found none. He tossed it aside. Odors of fried chicken, pizza, dirty clothes, and something else—urine?—rose from the case.
He spotted his “Home is where the WI-FI connects automatically” t-shirt. Bradley pulled a corner of the shirt and the suitcase exploded in a frenzy of motion. A rat leaped to the edge of the suitcase. Its tail swished back and forth in angry twirls and he could hear the familiar chi-chi-chi-chich of the rat’s grinding incisors. Bradley stumbled backward, his feet tangling in his jacket, and fell to the floor.
The rat jumped from the suitcase to the clothes dresser and scurried out the open window. Everything happened so fast that Bradley wasn’t sure if it had been real.
“Brad?” Claire called from elsewhere in the house. “Is everything alright?”
It was real. Brad sat on the floor, catching his breath.
Claire popped her head into his bedroom. “What are you doing on the floor?”
“I tripped on my jacket.” Bradley rolled onto his knees and grabbed Claire’s extended hand for balance. He stood and brushed himself off.
“What is that?” Claire’s concern was replaced by anger.
“What are you talking about?”
“This.” Claire pulled back the right cuff of his t-shirt, revealing his anti-rat tattoo.
Bradley sighed. He had hoped to ease into the topic later, but as usual, things were not going as planned.
“It’s a tattoo,” he said.
“I know what it is. I suppose that’s Sam’s doing?”
Always trying to blame Dad. “Actually, no. I got it done myself.” Bradley stood his ground. “Dad had nothing to do with it.”
Claire was livid but had difficulty finding words. “This isn’t over, mister. Not by a long shot.” She stomped back down the hallway.
“I’m not removing it,” Bradley called back. “It’s my choice.” He expected a response, or even Roy to pop his head in where it didn’t belong, but was met with silence.
Bradley replayed the path he remembered the rat taking just moments ago and stepped to his bedroom window. The back yard looked just as it had every August, with assorted vegetables (tomatoes, peas and onions this year) growing in their designated patches of earth. The shed just behind the garden needed a new coat of paint.
And the rat was gone.
Was it a white tail? God, I hope not. Bradley couldn’t remember. Everything had happened too fast. The rat hadn’t appeared big enough to be a Gambian, but he couldn’t remember for sure.
His phone chimed in his pocket. He pulled it out. There were several texts waiting from Jack.
His latest text read, “Breakfast burrito?” Jack had a one track mind when it came to food. Go Mexican or go home. His favorite spot was Taco Siempre, close enough to walk or bike to.
“Sounds good,” Bradley texted back. After his dustup with Claire, getting out of the house would help him cool down.
“C U in 5.” Jack texted. Translation: He was planning to drive. Jack had had his driver’s license since April. Bradley had to wait another couple months before he could apply. As envious as he felt, this also meant that he didn’t need to walk or ride much. Jack loved driving almost as much as Mexican food.
Bradley slipped his wallet out of his inner jacket pocket, pocketed his phone, and headed for the front door of the house. He slipped on his shoes without tying them.
“Going to grab some food with Jack,” Bradley called back before stepping out into the morning sunshine. The faster he was out of earshot the better. He stopped and sat at the curb, tying his shoes as he waited.
Bradley didn’t have to wait long. He heard the rusted-out muffler of Jack’s orange 1982 Honda Civic before he saw it. The Civic zoomed around a corner onto Sheldon Street and barreled toward the house, accelerating instead of slowing. A budding daredevil, Jack applied the brake at the last moment. The little orange car came to rest about three feet from where Bradley sat.
Jack leaned out the driver’s side window. “See that? Didn’t leave rubber. Hop in.”
Bradley pulled open the passenger door with a creak and slid into an aftermarket bucket seat. The two teenagers gave each other dap.
“It’s about damn time, bro.” Jack pulled away from the curb, accelerating down the street. “Was starting to wonder if you were coming back.”
“New York is cool and all,” Bradley said as he buckled himself in. “But I’d never want to live there.”
“Let me guess. Too many rats?”
Bradley laughed. “You could say that. So, are these seats new?”
“Damn straight. Got them put in a couple weeks ago. But if you checked your texts, you’d know that.”
“Sorry. There was no Wi-Fi and data charges were killing me.”
“No Wi-Fi? For the whole summer?” Jack ran his fingers through his short afro. “Damn. I think I’d go nuts.”
“I got used to it.”
Jack wove his way through Stonehurst and west along Glenoaks Boulevard toward Pacoima, the Civic’s belching muffler alerting everyone along the way.
“You got to fix your muffler.”
Jack shrugged as they passed the southern edge of Hansen Dam Golf Course. “I’ll get to it eventually. Hey, you heard from Alexis?”
“Fuck, no. That was the only plus to having no Wi-Fi all summer.”
Jack pulled into the small parking lot in front of Taco Siempre. The smell of Mexican seasoning, cumin, chili, and cilantro drifted through the car.
“Smells like heaven,” Jack said. “Hope you’re hungry ‘cause I’m buying.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Jack slid out of the open driver’s side window like it was second nature.
“What’s up with that?”
“Damn door wouldn’t latch, so I welded it shut.”
“I bet that goes over well on dates.”
“Dates? I don’t got time for dates.”
Bradley pulled open the door to the small restaurant and the smells intensified. His stomach growled, almost loud enough to be heard above the sounds of sizzling from the back kitchen.
A corkboard hung on the wall beside the entrance where various announcements and business cards from the community were tacked. Bradley noticed a couple missing pet posters before his brain skipped back on track.
“What did you mean I’m going to hear from Alexis?”
Jack’s eyes focused on the menu board. “Food first. Know what you want?”
The breakfast selections were limited to two items: breakfast burrito and breakfast plate. Bradley shrugged indifference.
Jack turned to the young woman behind the counter. “Hey, Sofia. Could I get two breakfast burritos, a side of guac, and two coffees.”
Sofia punched in the order on the cash register. “That’s $18.93.”
Jack had pulled out his wallet and was handing Sofia a twenty before Bradley could protest. “Keep the change.”
“Gracias,” Sofia said with a smile. “I’ll call you when your order’s ready.”
Jack nodded and headed toward one of the few empty tables available. Even at eight-thirty on a Sunday morning, Siempre was hopping busy. He slid onto the red form-fitting melamine bench seat, with Bradley taking the opposite side.
“Thanks, man,” Bradley said. “I’ll get the next one.”
“Deal.” Jack clasped his hands behind his head. “I must have some Mexican blood in me because damn, I love this food.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
Both teenagers laughed and bumped fists.
“So, what were you saying about Alexis?”
“I’m surprised she wasn’t waiting on your doorstep,” Jack said. “You haven’t gotten texts? Because I’ve been getting them all damn summer. It’s like I’ve been your secretary. Fucking annoying.”
Bradley pulled out his phone. There were no new texts from Alexis. He placed the phone on the table. “What was she saying?”
“She wanted to know where you were, to tell you that she’s sorry, crap like that.”
“Hell no. We both know she’s crazy.” Jack studied Bradley’s expression and saw the gears turning in his head. “Don’t even think about getting back with her.”
“No, I won’t,” Bradley said. “Just curious.”
“You know what they say about curiosity.”
“Jack?” Sofia called out from the front counter. “Order’s up.”
Jack stood up to go get the food.
“You know what they say about satisfaction.” Bradley grinned.
“No.” Jack pointed at Bradley. “Just no.” He lifted the tray off the counter and inhaled the aroma deeply. “Smells great. Thanks, Sofia.”
Jack transported the tray back to the table and both teenagers dug in. He lifted the additional cup of guacamole.
“You want some guac?”
“Nah.” Bradley took his plate and coffee off the tray. “Good call on the coffee.”
“I figured you needed something to wake you up after your flight.”
Jack peeled back the paper on his burrito and took a large bite, savoring the flavors. “I got to learn how to make this. Maybe Sofia is single.”
“I thought you didn’t have time for dating.”
“If it was Sofia, I’d make time.”
Bradley laughed and cut into his burrito. “I wonder if they have rats in a place like this?”
“I doubt it,” Jack said between bites. “The food doesn’t last long enough to attract rats.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Right now, I don’t give a damn.” Jack chomped another bite.
“Hey, take a look at this.” Bradley raised the right cuff of his t-shirt and exposed his anti-rat tattoo.
Jack’s eyes went wide. “Bro, that’s sick.”
“Souvenir from New York.”
“Bet your mom freaked.”
“So, what’s the big deal about New York City rats?” Jack crammed in a mouthful of burrito.
“Actually, these ones were hybrids. Part Gambian, from Africa, and part Bronx,” Bradley said. “Strong and smart as fuck.”
Jack pumped his fist. “Africa, for the win.”
“One of the exterminators, Washington, he invented all his own tools,” Bradley said. “There was this big, electrified cage he called the Kill-O-Matic. We lured thousands of rats into that thing and fried them.”
Jack’s attention took priority over food for a moment. “Thousands?”
Bradley nodded. “I wish I had video of it. Then again…” He trailed off, his hand instinctively touching the pendant under his shirt. Bradley removed it from around his neck and set it into his palm. “He gave this to me.”
Jack took the pendant with careful fingers and examined the rat skull encased in amber closely. “That’s seriously cool.” He handed the pendant back and Bradley placed it around his neck.
“Washington was a cool guy.” Bradley sipped his coffee. His shudder from its strong flavor also disguised his reaction to the memory of Washington’s death. “You would’ve liked him.”
“Wait.” Jack raised his eyebrows. “Would have liked?”
“He was electrocuted. Right in front of me.”
Jack stared and his jaw slackened. “You’re shitting me.”
Bradley shook his head. “He died inside his own invention. But he took a lot of rats down with him.”
A somber tone fell over the table. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Don’t worry about it, bro.” Jack drank from his coffee. “I would’ve done the same thing. Lucky we don’t got rats in the valley.”
“We do now,” Bradley said. “One of those bastards hitched a ride back in my suitcase.”
“A…” Jack searched his memory, then snapped his fingers. “A Gambian hybrid?”
“I don’t know. It was too fast.”
“Tell me more about the cage.”
Bradley could tell Jack was switching into “idea mode”.
“Yeah.” Jack continued eating his meal, mouth full but ears open.
Bradley had barely opened his mouth when his phone lit up and began vibrating on the table.
“What the?” The phone was showing weeks of unanswered texts from Alexis popping up in rapid succession.
Jack halted his chewing. “What?”
Bradley held up his phone’s display as more texts appeared, getting more and more recent.
“Oh, shit,” Jack said.
Oh, shit is right, Bradley thought.
Claire never locked the shed in the back yard. She needed tools and supplies from it far too often to bother. Without a lock, the rain and heat-warped doors offered a gap at the bottom about an inch wide. Just the right size for a hungry and recently escaped rat.
After scrambling out Bradley’s bedroom window and scaling an electrical conduit to the ground, the rat followed the foundation of the house until it could find cover in the garden foliage. The rat’s nose quivered madly as sorted through the scents to determine the best source of food.
The rat bypassed the onions and tomatoes completely, focusing on low-hanging pea pods. It gnawed a stem, picked up the fallen pod and began to eat.
Under normal circumstances peas would have sufficed, but the rat could smell something else, something more tantalizing. It dropped the pea pod to the dirt after eating half and searched under cover of shadow for the source of this intoxicating smell.
The rat followed its nose until it found itself at the foundation of the shed. It stood on its haunches, looking across the back yard and to the open window through which it had recently escaped.
The odor was strong here. The rat was close. It surveyed the yard, the front of the shed, and the surrounding trees for danger. Raptors were always a threat.
Satisfied it was safe, the rat scurried along the front of the shed and wriggled through the uneven crack between the double swinging doors.
What little light there was in the shed entered through vented openings near the roof joists, one on each wall. The dim environment proved little challenge to the rat’s eyesight. So close to such a heavenly smell, the rat’s snout kicked into overdrive.
The rat shot across the shed to the right wall and followed the exposed floor studs until it found what it was looking for: a bag of premium bird seed, chock full of shelled raw sunflower seeds. It gnawed the corner of the bag until a small torrent of seeds cascaded onto the wooden floor.
The rat picked up a seed from what seemed to be an endless supply and consumed it without pause. It was about to pick up another seed when something in the shed moved. The rat froze in its tracks, listening and watching.
After half a minute, the rat returned to its feast, searching with its paws for another seed. After its third helping, the rat saw something that it had missed on its way in. The rat had been so intent on finding the sunflower seeds that it had bypassed a plum lying on the slats of the floor.
Rats love plums and this new delectable find would be the perfect dessert. It kept its body low and stretched its neck forward, sniffing and testing the nearby air.
In the blink of an eye, the plum was no longer a plum, but the abdomen of a large spider. Its eight spindly legs mobilized from underneath its body and long whisker-like hairs sprang up from around its thorax and abdomen, acting like feelers.
The rat was quick, but the spider was quicker. It shot a jet of sticky silk from its two spinnerets, covering the rat’s eyes, snout, and whiskers. Unable to see, the rat reversed itself into the open floor of the shed and emitted a raspy wail. The spider jumped on top of the rat and punctured its neck with its venom-filled fangs. The rat’s wail morphed into a short-lived shriek.
The effect was instantaneous. The rat lost control of the left side of its body and rolled onto its useless limbs. Its right legs spasmed as the rodent tried to regain control of its body.
The spider crossed the rat’s body from side to side, front to back, until all remaining air in the rat’s lungs was squeezed out by a thin but tight net of silken webbing.
Several more spiders emerged from the shadows, each attaching their own threads to the paralyzed rat, and together they dragged the cocoon into a corner of the shed and deep within a woven funnel-like structure.
For almost two years, Jack had begun his days at five-thirty in the morning. Working at the local Food Fresh Market had helped him finance his customized Honda Civic and buy the supplies and equipment he needed for his inventions. He was the only teenager he knew at Washbrook High that worked before school started.
Jack got up, took a quick shower, and threw on his Food Fresh shirt and comfortable jeans. He ran his fingers through his tight afro curls, noting a need for a haircut soon.
He finished the carton of milk with his cereal and saw that the fridge looked bare. He’d need to make a grocery run at the Food Fresh sometime today.
He slipped out his phone, called up his banking app, and checked his expense account. Being the beginning of a new week, funds for running the household should have been automatically deposited overnight by his parents. For a moment, the Internet hiccupped as he waited for the app to load. But the screen updated as it usually did, showing his weekly allowance. His parents had made it clear that the money be used for household bills and supplies first. Any remaining balance by the time Sunday rolled around was his to keep, and Taco Siempre got a fair share of it.
Jack grabbed his wallet, keys, and a banana for the road. He locked the house, jumped into his Civic through the passenger side, and sped off toward Food Fresh Market. He woke up every dog along the way.
His shift started at six and he made sure he was always a few minutes early. The neon “OPEN” sign for the market was still off, as were most of the lights inside. He backed the Civic into the stall furthest from the store, cracked open the skin of his banana, and ate it in three bites.
Will I be stocking shelves or delivering groceries today? If he had his pick, Jack would much rather deliver groceries. Anything that let him zoom around town got his vote.
“This Is America” by Childish Gambino played from his phone played wirelessly through the speakers in the dash. Jack had modified a set of Bluetooth headphones and connected it to an old cassette adapter. He could have bought a dedicated Bluetooth cassette adapter to achieve the same result, but he had wanted to build something himself from parts he had on hand. It worked well, other than some dropout when traveling over bumps, and saving fifty dollars made the solution even sweeter.
The lights within the store’s sign flickered and buzzed on, the neon “OPEN” glowing red in the dawn light. An animated neon arrow pointed toward the main doors. Less than a minute later, the fluorescent lights within the store cascaded on, one aisle at a time. Jack turned off the music, grabbed his keys, and locked the car. As he crossed the parking lot, he took in the blue sky and fresh morning air.
The double doors slid open automatically as Jack strolled inside. It was always a strange feeling walking into the market before the rest of the employees and customers had arrived. Almost apocalyptic, he thought.
He headed to the manager’s office situated at the back of the market. The staff schedule and daily employee tasks were posted on the wall next to the door. Jack poked his head into the office.
“Hey, Mr. Toscano.”
“Mr. Johnson.” Giovanni Toscano, a bald, portly man with a thin black mustache and a heavy gold chain around his neck, spoke without looking up from his work.
“What’s up for today?” Jack said to himself as he scanned the task list for his name. As it turned out, he was responsible for a few deliveries and a pickup from a local boutique egg producer. Not bad, he thought. He’d have just enough time to get everything done before the first day of school.
Jack grabbed a cart from the front of the market and collected the items for the three deliveries he was scheduled to make, separating the items into plastic boxes as he went.
By the time he was finished, several cashiers had arrived, including Tasha. She was a year older than him and worked full time. It was her rich, dark eyes that got him every time. He’d gladly stand in line to have her ring in his groceries, even if other lines were shorter. But he always lost his voice when he stepped up to the till. He never knew what to say.
This morning Jack was first in line. He lifted each box to the conveyor and Tasha began to ring through the delivery items to their associated delivery accounts.
“Three deliveries today, huh?” Tasha smiled. “Beautiful morning for it.”
Jack felt as if his knees would buckle. He couldn’t hold her gaze, so he traced the length of her tightly braided cornrows with his eyes until they touched the nape of her neck.
“Your hair looks nice.” Jack cast his eyes to the floor and groaned to himself. Your hair looks nice? Tasha had had her hair in cornrows for over a month and he couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t made the same compliment already.
Tasha tilted her head slightly and grinned as she bagged his orders and placed them back in the plastic boxes. “Thanks.” She pulled the receipts from the cash register and tucked them into an envelope reserved for deliveries. “Drive safe, Jack.”
He nodded, loaded the boxes back into the shopping cart, and exited the store. He couldn’t wait to get back to his car, but at the same time, he didn’t want to leave. He paused and shot a quick smile at Tasha. The first few customers had already begun filtering in from the parking lot.
Jack loaded the boxes into the back of the car, then slid behind the wheel. He watched the entrance to the market just long enough to see Tasha serving another early-bird customer.
Using a mapping app on his phone, Jack planned his route for maximize efficiency. He started the Civic and the engine settled into a low rumble. “Act A Fool” by Ludacris, an oldie but a goodie, pumped from the car’s speakers as Jack peeled out of the parking lot. Thirty-five minutes later he was parked at Unbeaten Farms, loading eggs separated by the dozen into the back of his car.
Back at the market, Jack parked in back and moved a wheeled pallet next to his car. He loaded the eggs onto it, wheeled it through the cooled storage room and into the market’s public area.
Jack rolled the eggs through the fruit and produce section, passing Tasha on her way back from the staff room. In his distraction he clipped a display of bananas with the pallet and one carton of eggs fell to the floor. He heard at least one distinct crunch.
“Shit.” Jack stopped and secured the pallet.
“Sorry,” Tasha said. “Need some help?”
“No.” Jack could feel the burn of embarrassment creep up his neck. “I got it, thanks.”
“Okay.” Tasha continued up the aisle toward the front of the store.
Jack lifted the lid to inspect the contents of the fallen carton. Dented in one side, only three eggs had broken. He’d pay for the dozen and take the rest home. Luckily, he needed eggs anyway.
Jack visited the staff room, tore off a strip of paper towel and returned to the scene of the accident to pick the broken shells out of the carton.
He pulled the first eggshell out of the carton and jerked back when a swarm of glistening black spiders scurried away in all directions. Jack scrambled backward in shock and disgust.
The spiders disappeared into the shadows of the surrounding fruit displays quicker than the words “what the fuck” had escaped from Jack’s mouth. But there was something about the spiders, something about their backs that seemed odd. He filed the observation in the back of his mind for later.
He approached the second broken egg and flicked it with his finger. The cracked shell rattled in the carton. Jack picked it out, leaving a yolky mess behind. He tested the third egg in the same way and was relieved to find no eight-legged surprises underneath. He soaked up the rest of the spilled whites and yolks and set the carton aside.
Jack deposited the shell remnants into a nearby garbage can in the rear warehouse. He stuck his head into the office on the way back. “Mr. Toscano, I broke some eggs. But I’ll buy the carton, I need groceries anyway. Can I store them in back?”
“Sounds good.” Giovanni gave Jack a “thumbs up” without averting his eyes from his computer monitor.
Just as Jack stepped away, Giovanni called him back.
“I have one more delivery, if you have time,” he said. “Mr. Moody. It’s all packed, ready to go at the front.”
There weren’t many rules that went with working at Food Fresh. Honesty, punctuality, and “the customer is always right” were standard. But one unwritten rule topped the list: you always had time for Giovanni. If you didn’t have time, you made time. Second on the list of unwritten rules: you never said “no” to Giovanni. To preserve their own sanity, Jack and his coworkers had an unwritten rule of their own: avoid Giovanni as much as possible.
No such luck today. “Sure, Mr. Toscano.”
It wasn’t that Mr. Moody’s orders were complicated. Quite the opposite. The old man ate the simplest of foods. It was everything else about him that gave Jack the creeps. He couldn't imagine a worse way to start his first day back to school.
Jack picked up Mr. Moody’s delivery from the front of the store, managing only a wave to Tasha as he walked by. He carried the delivery box back to his Civic and placed it on the back seat.
He dug out his phone and texted Bradley. “Want a ride?”
Bradley woke before his six-thirty alarm feeling exhausted. His sleep the night before had been fractured, not by worries about school, but by jet lag mixed with anxiety about running into Alexis. He ran scenario after scenario through his head, trying to come up with the best response. One idea his fuzzy brain kept returning to was to continue ghosting her, but that would become a ticking time bomb. Bradley decided not to seek out trouble, but if trouble found him—and Alexis’s kind of trouble always found him—he’d face it head on.
He got up, showered and dressed, and wandered into the kitchen. His residual anxiety had spoiled his appetite for breakfast, so he chose coffee instead. The same modern Mr. Coffee drip brewer sat on the counter as before his New York trip.
At least some things haven’t changed around here.
Bradley scooped enough coffee grounds into the filter cone for a full pot, filled the water reservoir and set the machine to brew. He was looking forward to better coffee than the swill that came out of the Mr. Coffee from the 1970s that Sam used.
While the coffee brewed, Bradley made himself a ham and cheese sandwich and threw it into a paper bag, along with an apple and most of the few Oreos that remained in the bag. He noticed that Claire had stocked the fridge and pantry with food he liked, and he felt a little guilty about their argument the night before. But not guilty enough to put the Oreos back.
A pot of hot coffee would be a nice peace offering.
Bradley added two ample teaspoons of sugar to a mug and waited for the brewing to complete. He stood at the kitchen window and watched the back yard wake up.
His hand went instinctively to the raccoon tail hanging off his belt loop. He pulled it through his hands and fingers. The soft feeling of fur calmed his anxiety about Alexis.
Mr. Coffee beeped and Bradley poured himself a mugful. The coffee’s rich aroma filled the kitchen and it wouldn’t be long before the smell would pull Claire and Roy out of sleep. He raised the mug to his lips and took a tentative sip.
The raccoon tail worked wonders, but coffee amplified his relaxation as well as his awareness. It was a better combination.
Through the kitchen window, Bradley spotted a raccoon wandering through the garden. Claire would have a hissy-fit if she knew some creature was eating her vegetables, but this raccoon had other ideas.
Is that the same raccoon I saw after being jumped last spring? Probably not, but the thought reassured him, and Bradley treated it as a sign of good things to come.
He stood at the window drinking his coffee and watched the raccoon wind its way to the front of the shed. The animal pawed at the doors until it had created an opening large enough to squeeze itself through.
Bradley thought of telling Claire but decided against it. There wasn’t any food inside the shed worth eating anyway.
Bradley’s phone chirped in his pocket and his body stiffened.
What if it’s a text from Alexis? He took a gulp of coffee to prepare his nerves before pulling out his phone to look.
“Want a ride?” Jack’s text read.
Bradley heaved a sigh of relief and texted back a “thumbs up” emoji.
“ETA 8 mins,” Jack’s reply read.
Bradley downed what was left of his coffee, grabbed his bag lunch, day pack, and shoes, and headed out to the curb.
The raccoon had been drawn to the shed by the scent of the premium sunflower seeds. Once inside, it rummaged around looking for the source of the smell. Other equipment stored in front—a lawn mower, earthenware pots and assorted tools—blocked the path of the larger animal. The bag of sunflower seeds remained unattainable for now.
Instead, the raccoon found an open bag of allium bulbs and began eating.
Deep within the darkness of the shed, behind the bag of sunflower seeds, the tunnel of silken webbing had increased in size. Hundreds of gossamer trip wires lead out and around the opening.
Glints of oily black attached to eight gunmetal legs moved forward in small bursts. The cluster of spiders held their distance, choosing to observe instead of attack. The raccoon was much larger than any prey they had captured so far.
The raccoon, unaware of the lethal threat behind it, finished its snack and pushed its way back through the double doors of the shed. Getting out of the shed was easier than getting in.
The spiders retreated into the dark and lay in waiting. Spiders survived on patience, but hunger would force them to hunt. Escaping the shed would be more difficult next time.
The shady refuge of the trampoline provided a favorite summer haunt for Winston the cat, when Elizabeth and Jacob Hyland weren’t using it to reach for the sky. He spent most of his sunny days snoozing in the cool grass with warm summer breeze buffeting his fur. It was cat paradise.
When Winston didn’t show up for breakfast, Liz and Jake’s alarm bell went off.
“He always eats with us in the morning,” they had said to their mom.
By lunchtime the two set out to find him.
“Win-boy! Winner!” their concerned voices called out. Liz and Jake circled the house, then expanded to side streets around the neighborhood. They even took his Pyrex food dish out and rapped the edge with a spoon. The invitation of food attracted other neighborhood cats but not Winston. Not today.
Liz and Jake went to bed that night without their favorite pet and their sleep did not come easily.
No one had thought of checking under the trampoline. If they had, they would have found gauzy webbing and wisps that led to the corner of the yard, between the neighbor’s garage and an old refrigerator with its door stuck open. They would have found Winston’s body inside, tightly wrapped in a silken cocoon and covered with black spiders, cultivating him for food.
But no one found Winston. The spiders consumed him over several days, leaving nothing but a sack of bones.
Jack pulled up to the curb in front of Bradley’s house, facing the Civic in the opposite direction as all the other cars parked on the street. Jack liked to stand out.
Bradley threw his pack into the footwell and hopped inside. “Thanks,” he said as he gave dap to Jack.
“Got to make a short delivery first.” Jack scanned the street around him for approaching vehicles, then pulled out, accelerating fast.
“Damn. Lucky you.”
“Don’t I know it.” Jack hooked his thumb at the back seat. “The guy eats nothing but oats, bananas, and milk. Oh, and vodka, but I don’t get to deliver that.”
Bradley twisted in his seat to see the box. There was an aerosol paint can next to it. “The guy must be totally bunged. Maybe a rat will come through his toilet and bite him in the ass.”
“They can do that?”
“Saw it with my own eyes.”
“Shit, I don’t even want to imagine Moody’s toilet.”
Bradley loosened his seat belt, reached back, and picked up the paint can. “What’s this?”
“That’s one of my latest inventions. See the lever?” Jack pointed to a metal rod at the base of the can. “Squeeze it.”
Before Bradley could work his hand around to the lever, a small black spider crawled onto his hand from the opposite side of the can.
“Holy shit!” He dropped the paint can and recoiled his hand, squirming in his seat as the spider fell on his lap. Bradley brushed it into the footwell and stamped it into a dark, greasy stain.
Jack laughed. “Don’t like spiders?”
“Not when they sneak up on you.”
“You going to clean that mess up?” Jack nodded at the remains of the spider now embedded in the passenger side floormat.
“Are you serious?”
“Damn, bro,” Jack said between chuckles. “I’ve missed having you around. Now back to what matters. Squeeze the lever.”
Bradley raised the paint can in front of him. It didn’t take much pressure to move the lever. It triggered a spring-loaded arm that flipped out, unfolding a stencil of a Wi-Fi symbol in front of the spray nozzle.
“Tag and run with one hand, bro.” Pride showed through in Jack’s voice. “Fold it back away for quick and easy storage.”
“You sound like a commercial.”
“I can’t sell it without talking about it.”
Bradley folded the arm back down until the lever clicked, then triggered it again. “Love the Wi-Fi symbol.”
“It’s small and recognizable. You can swap it out for whatever shape you want, as long as it’s not too complicated.”
“Cool.” Bradley placed the spray can on the back seat. He scanned the joins and shadows of the seat for any other unwelcome eight-legged creatures just as Jack pulled into Moody’s rutted driveway. The house, a dilapidated rancher from the 1950s, was in serious need of paint and a new roof. All the windows had curtains covering them and the surrounding lawn was overgrown with weeds.
“Love what he’s done to the place.”
Jack killed the engine and pulled himself through the driver-side window. “The guy never leaves the house.” He flipped his seat forward and lifted the delivery box out the window. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, call the cops.”
It must have been Bradley’s expression, because Jack laughed as he walked away from the Civic. “Bro, you crack me up.”
Jack carried the box down the driveway and up a short rickety staircase to the left of the ramshackle garage. He knocked on the back door before taking a couple of deep breaths of fresh, clean air, a scarce commodity inside Mr. Moody’s house.
Jack waited a moment and listened before knocking again.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” a hoarse voice said from behind the door. “Wait a goddamn minute, will yah?”
Sounds of deadbolts sliding and unlatching echoed through the door. The doorknob turned, the door opened a crack, and stopped.
Silence, then a voice. “What’re yah waiting for?”
Jack pushed open the door and received a blast of warm ripe air, pungent with a mixture of body odor, shit, and rotting fruit. He gagged and struggled to control his nausea.
The morning sunlight slashed through the dark mudroom that led into the kitchen. The air was thick with haze and everything looked dirty and diseased.
“Well, don’t just stand there, boy.” Mr. Moody sat in a motorized wheelchair that looked as if it had become one with his body. The old man was grossly obese, his soiled pajamas stretched tight across his body, stained yellowish brown at the crotch. His breathing rattled in his chest and Jack imagined his lungs half-filled with diluted oatmeal. The glasses he wore tethered around his neck with rotting cords doubled as a trough for fallen food.
Jack carried the delivery box into the mudroom. “Where do you want this?”
Mr. Moody grunted. “Kitchen counter. Same as always.”
Jack set the box down and unloaded the bananas, oatmeal and milk onto the counter. “You want me to put the milk away for you?”
“I don’t want yah touching my food any more than yah have already, boy.”
Fine by me, you fat fuck. “That’ll be $11.23.”
Mr. Moody grumbled something unintelligible and drove his wheelchair down the hallway into an adjoining room. Sounds of crashing dishes pierced the dank darkness. “Boy!”
Jack gritted his teeth at the man’s overt racism and tip-toed down the hallway. This was the furthest he had ever ventured into Mr. Moody’s house since beginning his deliveries and the walls felt like they were closing in on him.
Mr. Moody’s foot had caught on a woolen afghan, toppling a stack of dirty dishes. But it was the hundreds of porcelain doll heads that caused a scream to build in the back of Jack’s throat. Every free space, table, and shelf was occupied by pale miniature heads that seemed to glow in the dark, some cracked, some with pieces missing, all with wide-open dead-black eyes that seemed to track his every move.
“I’m stuck, boy.” Mr. Moody’s voice distracted the terror rising in the back of Jack’s mind. “Want yer money? Pull yer thumb out of yah ass and unstuck me.”
Jack knelt next to the wheelchair. The yellow, fungus-encrusted toenails of Mr. Moody’s right foot were tangled up in the afghan’s weave. One by one, Jack extracted Mr. Moody’s toes, trying not to touch his feet any more than necessary.
Once freed, Mr. Moody navigated around a couch and retrieved his wallet. “Don’t got no twenty-three cents.”
“Eleven is fine.” Jack didn’t care that he’d have to make up the difference. All he wanted was to get the hell out of the house.
Mr. Moody handed Jack a wad of bills.
“Thanks, Mr. Moody.” Jack jammed the bills into his pocket without counting them and headed for the door, sunlight, and salvation just beyond. He grabbed the delivery box as he passed through the kitchen.
“Them bananas better be fresh,” Mr. Moody said, following Jack with his wheelchair.
“Shipment came in yesterday.” Jack closed the back door behind him and stopped on the bottom step, taking in the sweet September air like a drowning man pulled to safety.
Jack jogged down the driveway to the Civic, threw in the delivery box, and jumped into the driver’s seat.
“Holy shit. I think I need a shower.”
“I was this close to calling the police.” Bradley held his thumb and index finger an inch apart. “Seriously, man.”
“You got any hand sanitizer?”
“You don’t want to know.” Jack started the engine and backed out of the driveway. “Fucking gross. But he does have a lot of cool shit in his garage. Like turn-of-the-century kind of shit. Remind me to show you some time.”
“When were you in his garage?”
“You know, odd jobs. I have no problem taking his money,” Jack said. “Even if he is an asshole. But going into his damn house? Fuck that shit.”
Jack worked the gear shift of the Civic’s standard transmission like a pro. He envisioned himself a Formula-1 racer, the aftermarket accessories reinforcing the image. What the Civic really needed was a new coat of paint.
“We had earthquakes while you were gone.”
“Yeah, my mom mentioned that,” Bradley said. “Nothing too big, she said.”
“There was one quake. Woke me up.” Jack geared down and turned onto a side street like the car was on rails. “Compared to the others, it was big. A 2.9. I crunched the numbers and it was over two standard deviations above the mean for the summer.”
“In English, please. You know math ain’t my thing.”
“It wasn’t typical,” Jack said. “If I graphed it, you’d see it right away.”
Bradley gave Jack a sideways look.
“I got it on my phone. I’ll show you later.” Jack slowed the Civic at a four-way stop and looked for approaching vehicles. “Speaking of phones, did you get any more ex texts since yesterday?”
Bradley shook his head. “No.” He grabbed his raccoon tail and let the fur slip through his fingers.
Jack tapped on the steering wheel and smirked. “You’re so fucked.”
“I’m so fucked,” Bradley said in unison.
The two teenagers laughed and tapped fists. Jack accelerated away from the four-way. Washbrook High School could be seen in the distance.
“You shouldn’t have ghosted her, bro.”
Bradley protested. “I didn’t do it on purpose. How was I supposed to know she’d go ape-shit on me?”
“I don’t know, but there are few things worse than a Latina on the warpath.”
“Says the guy who has no time for girls.”
“Hey, I don’t need to date to know the facts.” Jack turned into the school’s student parking lot and found a spot on the far edge. “Girls hold all the cards.”
Both teens rolled themselves out of the Civic’s passenger door. Bradley swung his day pack over his shoulder and watched Jack grab a pad of paper and a pencil from the back seat.
“You sure come prepared.”
Jack gave him a shove as the two walked toward other students hanging in front of the school. “You know what the first day is like. We don’t do shit. Besides, what can they teach me?”
“Wow. Look at Jack’s massive ego.”
“Shut up.” They both laughed.
Bradley passed a lamp standard with a paper notice taped to it.
“HAVE YOU SEEN BARKLEY?” the top of the notice read in bold black letters. A black and white photo of a cat was framed underneath with contact details below that.
Bradley hooked a thumb at the notice as they passed by. “What’s up with that?”
Jack shrugged. “Pets started disappearing about a month ago.”
Bradley snapped his fingers. “There were posters in Taco Siempre yesterday.”
“They’re popping up everywhere,” Jack said. “I been seeing them a lot on my deliveries.”
“Weird.” For once, Bradley was glad Claire hadn’t let him have a pet.
The school bell rang the day into session and students funneled in through the main doors.
“Later, bro.” Jack grinned and raised his middle finger at Bradley. They had been giving each other middle finger goodbyes since Grade 8, confusing anyone witnessing the exchange. To Jack and Bradley, the gesture was as harmless as a wave, but they liked to screw with people’s heads.
Bradley returned the gesture. “Later.”
The friends disappeared into the school in opposite directions. Washbrook High could accommodate over one thousand students from grades nine through twelve. The size of the school and the number of students made it easy to fly under the radar and blend in. That was Bradley’s first order of business.
His phone chimed in his pocket. He slid it out and on the display was a text from Alexis.
“WHERE U BEEN???” it read.
Bradley tapped “NYC” and hit “send.” He set the phone to vibrate and dropped it back into his pocket.
Bradley found his old homeroom from last year easily enough. They tended not to change from year to year since students were divided by alphabetical order based on last name. This also meant that he wouldn’t run into Alexis. Delarosa was worlds apart from Shaw, alphabetically speaking.
After confirming his homeroom assignment with the one he had received by email, Bradley followed a mass of students up the south stairwell to the second floor, where most of the grade eleven and twelve classes were located. Lockers in varying states of disrepair and decoration lined both sides of the hallway. The lockers should have been cleaned up over the summer break, but in Bradley’s view, they all looked the same.
Mr. Silver’s classroom was two doors down from the stairwell on the right. The windows faced east and were blessed by the morning sun. Mr. Silver, a man who never said “no” to a doughnut, sat reading with his feet up on his desk.
The only aspects of Mr. Silver that seemed to change from year to year were the book he was reading and the length of his beard. He had played Santa in previous years, but this year he could pass for a younger, slightly rounder Jeff Bridges. His typical attire consisted of pressed khaki pants with a buttoned shirt, a tie, and a brown leather vest, all one size too small. He looked like he was going to pop at any minute. Instead of a book, he held an e-reader.
Bradley pointed to the device in Mr. Silver’s hand. “Moving up in the world.”
“Birthday gift from the missus.” He flipped the device around in his hand. “Jury’s still out. I miss the smell of paper.”
“You’ll get used to it pretty fast.” Bradley found a seat at the front. “What’re you reading?”
Being an English teacher, Mr. Silver usually chose a classic novel like Murder on the Orient Express or The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was why his answer surprised Bradley.
“Jaws. Peter Benchley.”
“The movie’s awesome.”
“The book is better.” Mr. Silver placed the e-reader on his desk. “I’ve been immersing myself in genre fiction this summer. I’m hooked.”
“Do you have English with me this year?”
As the classroom filled with students, Bradley’s conversation with “a teacher” threatened his “coolness factor.” He pulled out his phone and dialed back his conversation. “Think so.”
“Good,” Mr. Silver said. “We’re going to have some fun this year.”
Bradley nodded and went back to his phone.
“You’re going to want to put that away.” Mr. Silver motioned at the phone.
Bradley took a hint and stuffed it back into his pocket. Students talked amongst themselves in small groups, some standing, some sitting in or on top of desks, excitement evident in their voices.
Mr. Silver looked at his watch, cracked his knuckles, and stood. “Take a seat, everyone.”
Most of the students still standing found open spots to sit. “I see we’ll need a few more desks. Duly noted. Can I have someone close the doors?”
Two students at the back rose from their desks and closed the doors at the back of the classroom.
Mr. Silver placed a cardboard box on his desk and picked up a clipboard and a pencil. “To those just joining us, welcome to Washbrook High. To everyone else, welcome back. Did everyone have a good summer?”
The class mumbled various forms of “yes.”
“Great. I hope your time here will be both fun and productive. We don’t have much time, so when I call your name, raise your hand and say ‘here.’ ”
Since Bradley first started at Washbrook three years ago, there had always been a high number of last names beginning with “S.” Jack had once calculated and graphed the distribution curve of last names to try and predict homeroom assignments. Most of the time, he was accurate. Math certainly had its uses.
One by one Mr. Silver called out the names on his list. When a student responded, he noted their name on his clipboard and handed them a combination lock from the box. A paper tag with a locker number hung from the lock loop.
This year Mr. Silver’s homeroom was entirely comprised of students with last names beginning with ‘S.’ When Bradley heard his name called, he raised his hand and took his lock.
“Trillian Stark?” Mr. Silver was answered with silence. “Is there a Trillian Stark here?”
Bradley looked around the classroom, as other students did the same, shrugging their shoulders.
Mr. Silver made a note on his clipboard and finished taking attendance. He exchanged the clipboard for a stack of paper and pencils from his desk and handed a portion to the first student in each row. “Take a sheet and pencil and pass the rest back.” After a flurry of paper, everyone had a sheet. “Those with phones, place them face down on your desk, or leave them in your pockets. We won’t need them for a while. And don’t think about taking the pencils. They all have tracking chips in them. I will find you.” Mr. Silver used that same joke every year and it received the same response: not a peep.
He looked out at the students in front of him, many staring back with apathy, and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to write down what you did over the summer.” A sigh of relief drifted through the classroom. “However, I would like you to write your name at the top of the sheet and list what you read over the summer.”
A grade nine girl sitting in the front raised her hand.
Mr. Silver consulted his clipboard. “Ella?”
“Can it be anything?” Ella asked.
“Yes. Books, magazines, anything.” Mr. Silver took his seat behind his desk as the room fell into a hush of pencil scribbles.
One of the doors at the back of the classroom creaked open and an unfamiliar girl entered. Everyone in the class turned around to look. Her dark brown eyes didn’t seem to mind the weight of everyone’s stares.
The girl was dressed in graffiti-covered Doc Martens, black jeans, and a white t-shirt with the words “lit happens” scrawled across it. Her hair was shaved close to the scalp on one side with the hair on the other side divided into long rainbow-colored sections. Each ear supported half a dozen earrings and a black knapsack with string straps hung off her shoulders.
An image of Hope back in New York flashed through Bradley’s mind and his heart skipped a beat. The new girl’s fashion sense wasn’t as hardcore as Hope’s, but he couldn’t help but wonder if she had any tattoos.
“You must be Trillian,” Mr. Silver said.
The girl nodded.
“Come on up.” Mr. Silver took a pencil and piece of paper, as well as a lock from the box, and handed the items to the girl. “Write your name down and what you read during the summer. I expect great things.”
Trillian gave Mr. Silver a confused look.
“Your shirt gave me a clue,” he said. “Take a seat.”
Bradley seized the opportunity and rose from his desk. “Take mine.” He offered a shy smile to Trillian and handed his paper and pencil back to Mr. Silver. “I’m done.” Without a smile, Trillian gave Bradley a once-over, settling a moment longer on the raccoon tail hanging from his belt loop.
Trillian lowered her head, her colorful locks falling and hiding her face like a curtain, and joined the other students completing their assignment. Bradley grabbed his lock and day pack and headed to the back of the classroom to wait for first bell.
Mr. Silver picked up Bradley’s paper. In one line of non-cursive rushed lettering were the words: “I read the instructions on rat trap packages.” He found Bradley at the back of the room with his eyes and gave him a sideways look with a dash of raised eyebrow.
Bradley shrugged and offered a grin back. It was the truth.
The first bell rang.
“Leave the sheets and the pencils on the desks, please,” Mr. Silver said. “I’ll see some of you later today, but most of you later in the week. Have a great first day.”
Everyone collected their locks and belongings and exited into the hallway to find their lockers.
Bradley looked at the tag attached to his lock loop. Locker number 323 was located about a dozen spots past the first entrance to his homeroom. He pulled open the mildly dented and scratched locker door and was pleasantly surprised to find the interior reasonably clean. There was the usual wear and tear, but without any potentially embarrassing leftover graffiti. Bradley had seen some lockers that looked like they had been hit by a battering ram.
On the back of the lock was a sticker with the lock’s combination. He peeled it off and stuck it in his day pack. Bradley spun the numbers and popped open the lock loop on the second try. He hung up his coat and pack took out a binder full of blank paper and a pen.
Bradley was about to slip his phone out of his pocket to check his class schedule when Trillian walked out of homeroom in search of her locker.
Stay cool, Bradley thought as he busied himself, rummaging needlessly inside his day pack. He offered a shy wave as she passed by.
Trillian noticed Bradley’s greeting and stepped up to locker 327 without reciprocating. She looked at the combination on the back of her lock and tried to unlock it. Her first two attempts were unsuccessful.
“Stare much?” she said.
Bradley realized he had been gawking and straightened himself up. “Sorry.” He closed his locker door and locked it. “For the second number, remember to turn past the first—”
Trillian glared at Bradley. “Mansplain much? I’m not a troglodyte. I know how these work.” Her rich brown eyes connected with his for only a second before they settled back on the combination lock. Her third try was unsuccessful, and she kicked the base of her locker door.
“No worries,” Bradley said. “Just trying to help.” He headed toward the south stairwell.
Trillian sighed. “Hey.”
Bradley spun around, hoping he wasn’t too quick.
“Sorry,” she continued, fumbling with the lock. “Everything’s new. I don’t like new.”
“Just go slow.” Bradley saw confusion in her face, then grinned. “The lock, I mean.”
Trillian worked the lock for the fourth time, slowly and deliberately, and its loop sprang open. “Good advice.” She had nothing to deposit into the locker, so she locked the door closed.
“Take the sticker off the back. The school’s full of assholes.”
“Right.” Trillian peeled the combination sticker off, rolled it into a tiny ball and flicked it down the hallway where it rolled into the stairwell and disappeared.
Mr. Silver poked his head out of the classroom. “You two better get moving. You’ll be late.”
They both walked toward the stairwell.
“What’s your next class?”
Trillian plucked her phone out of her knapsack and found her course schedule. “Biology with Miss… Fiscara?”
“Me too. Come on.” Bradley led the way, with Trillian matching his stride as they both descended the stairs. “We call her Miz Viscera, by the way.”
“As in guts. Internal organs. You know, biology.”
Trillian raised an eyebrow. “Oh-kay.”
“She’s cool. You’ll like her.”
As Bradley and Trillian disappeared down the stairs, their voices echoing back, a Latina girl stepped to the top of the stairwell. She wore an all black ensemble comprised of a sleeveless t-shirt and shorts, black and gold Air Jordans, and a black Coach purse slung around one shoulder. Her dark brown hair framed her caramel face, bangs in the front, a long braid in the back that ended just past her shoulder blades. Her eyes were deep brown, but if asked, Bradley would say they were black as night.
She held a notebook and pen in one hand, her face flushed with anger. She balled up her free hand hard enough to turn her knuckles white.
She extracted her phone from her purse and keyed in a text. “Found him.”
By the time Bradley and Trillian arrived for Biology class, there were a few vacant desks available. Bradley found a seat in the middle row, third from the front. Trillian ended up a few desks farther back in an adjacent row.
Miss Fiscara perched herself on the edge of a long table in the back corner of the classroom, directly in front of two large terrariums. She held a file folder in one hand and tapped the eraser end of a pencil against her leg with the other.
Of all the teachers at Washbrook High, Wendy Fiscara had casual dress on lock with jeans, a t-shirt, and red Converse high tops. Always red. Her straight black hair fell loosely around her shoulders and her Kate Spade frames, also red, boldly framed her face. Today, her white t-shirt was emblazoned with “Has anyone seen my tarantula?” in red panic-stricken lettering.
“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Shaw and Miss…?” She tilted her head and looked a question at Trillian through her rectangular-framed glasses.
“Right.” Fiscara made a checkmark in her file folder. “Trillian Stark. The new girl.”
Trillian sighed and sank into her desk, her emotional armor beginning to weaken from inquisitive eyes.
As Miss Fiscara stepped to the front of the class, Bradley saw Alexis stroll in, fresh lipstick applied and not a hair out of place. Her eyes narrowed and flitted between Bradley and Trillian.
Bradley looked down at his hands clasped on his desk and felt the heat of impending doom rise on his neck.
“Brilliant.” Fiscara made one last mark in her file folder and dropped it on her desk. “All sentient organisms accounted for. Find a desk, Miss Delarosa.”
Alexis went out of her way to walk down the center aisle. She paused at Bradley’s desk, looking down on him. After a moment, he stared back, unwilling to back down. She moved farther down the aisle. She kicked the metal leg of Trillian’s desk as she passed and found a seat at the back of the class. Alexis slung her Coach purse on the seat back and slapped her notebook and pen on the desk.
“Before we get started, some may have noticed a few new additions to the class since last year.” Fiscara pointed to the terrariums at the back of the class. “I’ll get to that in a moment. We have a new student.”
Trillian groaned and set her head down on her desk. This was one aspect of new schools that she hated: the dreaded introduction. But over the years, she had developed a reliable method of cutting it short.
“Trillian?” Fiscara stepped to her right to get an unobstructed view of Trillian’s desk. “Please stand and introduce yourself.”
Trillian let go an exasperated sigh as she pushed herself out of her desk. “Hi. I’m Trillian. My parents, who abandoned me when I was five, named me after a character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My favorite color is all of them. I like long walks on the beach but there’s no beach in the valley. Last year I lived in Lakewood, but my foster family didn’t want me anymore. I move around a lot. It sucks because—”
“Trillian, if I may interrupt, have you read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”
“No. I think that’d be weird.”
“I think you might like it,” Fiscara said.
“What’s with the rainbow?” a voice from across the classroom said.
“Lez-be friends,” Alexis said, shielding her mouth with the back of her hand. Laughter chittered through the class. Bradley turned and glared at Alexis. She returned his gaze with a raised middle finger.
Trillian noted the exchange and ignored the laughter. “Mediocre minds,” she said to herself, but loud enough for Bradley and Alexis to hear.
“What was that?” Alexis leaned across her desk toward Trillian. “Speak up, Rainbow Brite.”
“Miss Delarosa,” Fiscara said. “Let’s start the year on the right foot, shall we?”
Trillian turned her head, slow and determined, and looked down at Alexis. “I said mediocre minds.”
Alexis sat back and looked around the classroom. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Trillian nodded and grinned. “Exactly.”
Fiscara felt the animosity building between the two girls. “Thank you, Trillian. We appreciate the detail. Please take your seat.”
Alexis watched with disgust as Bradley gave Trillian a “thumbs up” sign. She had missed something and was determined to find out what.
“This year, we’ll be focusing on invertebrates,” Fiscara said. “Can anyone tell me what an invertebrate is?”
A girl in the front raised her hand.
“Any animal without a spine?”
“That’s right.” Fiscara looked around the room. “Can anyone name an invertebrate?”
“You spineless, Rainbow Brite?” Alexis whispered at Trillian.
“Alexis?” Fiscara walked down the aisle to where Alexis sat. “Have something to share?”
“Anyone else?” Fiscara walked to the terrariums in the back of the class, opened the lid, and reached in. The class was more interested in what Fiscara was doing than in answering her question. “Whoever said spider would be correct.”
She picked up a tarantula from a secluded corner of the right-hand terrarium and carefully placed it into a smaller plastic container. The tarantula’s legs and body alternated between black and orangey-red and its entire body was covered in a fine but husky fur.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Killer.” Fiscara beckoned her students to come closer. They hustled from their desks and surrounded Fiscara and the spider. “She’s a Mexican Redknee tarantula and she’ll be sitting in all year long, so don’t get out of line.”
She held the container up for everyone to see.
Abigail stared at the large, hairy arachnid in the container. “What does it eat?”
“Good question,” Fiscara said.
“Kiss-ass.” Alexis shoved Abigail aside.
“All Killer needs is a couple of crickets every week or so. We’ll make up a feeding schedule.” Fiscara lifted Killer out of the plastic container and placed her in her palm. Students who were closest backed up. “Occasionally, she’ll eat a pinky mouse as a treat.”
“They eat meat?” someone said from within the crowd of students.
Trillian shot a surprised look at Bradley and they both shared an uneasy smile.
“Oh yeah,” Alexis said. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Let’s see that thing eat a mouse.”
“That’s animal cruelty,” someone else said.
“That’s nature.” Fiscara shrugged. “Tarantulas eat mice in the wild.”
Alexis turned to look back at Trillian, a scowl crossing her lips. “Do they eat anything larger?”
“No. She won’t overeat and she won’t bite unless provoked.”
“Too bad,” Alexis said.
“Is it true that the average person eats five spiders in their lifetime while they’re sleeping?” Abigail said.
“That’s a myth someone made up to vilify the spider,” Fiscara said. “However, due to their sheer numbers, spiders could consume every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth in one year.”
“What? I’ll never sleep again,” someone said.
“Relax. Spiders don’t eat people.” Fiscara placed Killer back into the terrarium and closed the lid. “Everyone back to your seats.”
“They almost look cute,” Trillian said.
A shiver moved through Bradley’s back. “I wouldn’t want to wake up next to one.” He ran his fingers across his raccoon tail.
“Maybe you will wake up next to one,” Alexis said to herself.
“Most spiders are harmless.” Fiscara moved to the front of the class. “However, there are some species out there that can kill a person in seconds.” Most students stared back blankly at her. “Lucky for us, those spiders are not indigenous to this region.”
Fiscara wrote “Invertebrate” on the chalkboard and drew a basic sketch of a spider underneath. She spent the rest of the class going through the parts of a spider, the mechanics of how they move, their diet and habitat.
Alexis missed most of what was said, instead choosing to focus on Bradley and Trillian and trying to interpret their body language. What little she saw she didn’t like.
The bell rang and everyone collected their notebooks and various supplies before heading to the doors.
“For next class, research the origins of a deadly spider,” Fiscara said. “Most lethal spider wins a pinky mouse.”
Bradley shivered again as he left to go to his next class. Trillian followed and observed his hand instinctively going to his raccoon tail once more.
Alexis followed them both out and watched them disappear into the busy hallway crowd. “Mediocre minds, huh,” she said to herself. “We’ll see about that.”
It was last class before lunch and Alexis had become bored with Math. She faked a bathroom emergency and had spent the past half hour playing games on her phone.
Now Alexis stood outside Mr. Silver’s English class, filing her manicured nails with an emery board and waiting for her best buds Deirdre and Caitlin.
Ever since ninth grade, the three girls had been inseparable. Alexis liked to surround herself with people whom she saw as inferior to herself, in looks, height, weight, and fashion. She made an exception for intelligence because Alexis could use that to her advantage.
Deirdre and Caitlin fit her criteria perfectly. Deirdre stood half a foot shorter and several pounds heavier than Alexis and Caitlin had a bad case of acne. Alexis once told Caitlin that her acne was God’s way of trying to burn her face off.
Despite the insults, Alexis offered bad-ass status at school and free makeup supplies from her foster mom’s salon. It took little time before they became Alexis’s soldiers, enacting most of Alexis’s dirty work.
The bell sounded and the doors to the classrooms on the south wing of the school burst open almost in unison. Deirdre and Caitlin were among the first students to exit and Alexis grabbed their arms and pulled them across the hallway.
“Hey!” Deirdre tried to pull away. “Don’t squeeze so hard.”
“Don’t be such a pussy.” Alexis backed the two girls against the lockers. “We got to teach Brad a lesson.”
“Why? You dumped him,” Caitlin said. “Why are we wasting our time with that dick?”
“Because I said so.” Alexis was about to lay out her plan when Trillian walked out of Mr. Silver’s class. The two locked eyes, trying to stare each other down. “And that bitch is the reason why.”
“That’s the new girl.” Caitlin cast her mind back. “Trillion? Is that right?”
“She’s mostly zeroes.” Deirdre laughed at her own joke as she watched Trillian open her locker to exchange something inside.
“I think Mr. Silver likes her.” Caitlin loved to start illicit gossip.
Alexis pushed Caitlin back into the lockers with two fingers. “Who gives a shit?”
Caitlin fell quiet and shrugged.
“Listening?” Alexis scrutinized each girl as they nodded in affirmation. “Okay, here’s the plan.” She scanned the hallway for any sign of Bradley, then huddled close with the other two girls.
Bradley ran up the south stairs two steps at a time. His class right before lunch happened to be Home Economics, which made him hungry at the best of times. Having the class scheduled right before lunch just made it worse and he was ravenous. He unlocked his locker, threw his books inside and grabbed his bag lunch.
The hallway was deserted. Everyone was outside enjoying what was left of the September weather. Bradley strolled down the hallway and took a detour into the boy’s bathroom. He placed his bag lunch next to the sink and stepped up to the urinal.
The door to the bathroom squeaked open. The sound of shuffling shoes—too many shoes—echoed in the small space. A second later, someone kicked Bradley’s feet apart and forced him forward into the urinal wall. He had just enough time to raise his hands to the wall to protect his face. He turned his head to the right, cool tile against his cheek, and felt a body press itself against his back. If the attack hadn’t been so unexpected, he might have been turned on by it a little. But the smell of jasmine, specifically Dolce & Gabbana, turned his stomach. The perfume was a dead giveaway and brought with it a flood of bad memories.
“You been ghosting me, asshole?” Alexis’s hot breath floated past his right ear.
“I told you.” Bradley spoke through clenched teeth. “I’ve been in New York.”
“What, you can’t text in New York?”
The door to the boy’s washroom swung open and struck the back of Deirdre’s shoes. She turned to the teenage boy wanting to get in. “Occupied, bitch,” she said before pushing the door closed.
“I couldn’t afford it and the Wi-Fi sucked.” Bradley tried to push back but Alexis had him at a disadvantage. “Besides you dumped me.”
There was a time earlier in the year when Bradley had wanted Alexis back. He hadn’t understood why she’d dumped him. Now he realized things had played out just as they should have.
Alexis jammed her elbow into Bradley’s ribs, causing pain to radiate across his back. “Just because we’re not together doesn’t mean you get to ignore me.”
“You’re crazy,” Bradley winced. “I don’t even like you anymore.”
A subtle click echoed through the bathroom. Alexis raised a switchblade up to Bradley’s face. His wide eyes and sweating brow reflected off the blade’s stainless steel surface.
“What are you going to do with that?” Bradley increased his struggle. Alexis signaled Caitlin for back up. She positioned herself next to Alexis, securing Bradley’s body against the urinal and wall.
“You’re in a tough spot.”
Bradley could hear the grin on Alexis’s face.
“You’ve let it all hang out. Be a shame if your fun was cut short.”
“Do it,” Deirdre said. “Cut his dick off.”
Alexis dragged the blade tip across Bradley’s cheek, leaving a white scratch line behind. “Who’s the girl?”
Thoughts of losing his manhood cluttered Bradley’s brain. “What girl?”
“Don’t jerk me around,” Alexis said. “Rainbow Brite.”
“Oh. She’s new.” Bradley’s saliva and sweat made the tiled bathroom wall slick against his face. “Never met her before today. I swear.”
“You look like best friends.”
“I offered to show her to her first class.”
Alexis brought her mouth to Bradley’s ear. “You better not be lying.” She bit his earlobe hard enough to draw blood. Bradley grit his teeth and stifled a scream. Caitlin watched with surprise and awe as blood began to trickle down Bradley’s neck.
Alexis lowered the switchblade down to the belt-line of Bradley’s jeans. He twisted his body but couldn’t clear the sides of the urinal. He was trapped.
“Stop squirming,” Alexis hissed, “or I might take more than I came for.”
Bradley tried to look down, but the knife was out of view. “Don’t do it.”
“Oh, I’m going to do it alright.” Alexis hooked the blade through one of Bradley’s belt loops and cut through it with a flick of her wrist. His raccoon tail fell to the dirty tiled floor. “I never understood that fucking tail of yours… Dee.”
Deirdre stepped away from the bathroom door.
Alexis motioned at the tail. “Flush it.”
Bradley thought of protesting more but chose to remain silent. Anything he could have said at that point would have made things worse.
Deirdre plucked the tail up off the floor with two fingers and walked to the first empty toilet stall. She disappeared and a moment later the sound of the toilet flushing and choking down its contents rose from the stall. Deirdre emerged empty-handed.
“You fucking bitch.” Bradley’s voice was low and full of anger.
Alexis gave him one final push and backed away. Bradley almost spun around to confront his attackers head on, but remembered he was still exposed down below. He adjusted himself, zipped his fly and turned around.
“What are you going to do now?” Alexis said. “Hit a girl?”
Bradley remained silent, holding his rage at bay.
Alexis spotted his bag lunch on the counter next to the sink and grabbed it. She gored the side of the bag with the knife and cut a hole in the bottom, causing the contents to fall to the floor. The apple bounced and rolled under one of the toilets. “I hope you’re hungry.”
The three girls sauntered to the door. Diedre stepped on Bradley’s sandwich, mashing it into the grout between the tiles.
Alexis stood in the bathroom’s entrance. “You better think twice who you hang with.”
Bradley propped himself up on the countertop and stared into the sink.
“Later, lover boy.” Alexis, Deirdre and Caitlin disappeared down the hall, laughing and talking excitedly.
Bradley pushed open the door to the first toilet stall. The bowl was filled with clear water. Not a trace of his raccoon tail. He was filled with feelings of fierce independence instead of revenge, which surprised him.
He stepped back to the row of sinks, looked in the mirror, and said to himself in a low whisper, “You’re not the boss of me, Alexis Delarosa.” He washed his hands and face, dried himself off, and left.
Bradley found a place to sit on the grass, close to the outdoor equipment storage and edge of the basketball courts. The sun spread warmth on his back and helped him relax. He watched other students sit and talk in groups and often wondered what it would be like to be part of a “tribe.”
His phone chirped in his pocket. A text from Jack.
“10-20?” the text read. Jack liked to seem like an enigma to most people. He tried to respond in 10-codes whenever he could.
“Near ball courts,” Bradley texted back.
A shadow drew out on the grass in front of him. Bradley turned back to look and was blinded by sunlight filtered through rainbow-colored hair. It was the graffiti-covered shoes that gave Trillian away.
“Hey,” Trillian said. “Mind if I sit?”
She placed her knapsack on the grass and sat beside Bradley, her arms around her knees. Silence held between them, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.
Jack pushed open the double doors that led to the basketball courts. He spotted Bradley right away, then saw Trillian, a girl, sitting next to him.
Jack and Bradley had an agreement that they would never interrupt the other if one was “making a move.” The fact that Jack hadn’t had a girlfriend yet didn’t matter.
The two appeared to be in a deep conversation so Jack detoured around the corner of the school toward his car in the parking lot. Sun, music, and racing seats. Couldn’t go wrong with that.
“Thanks for being nice to me this morning.” Trillian guided her colorful hair behind her ear. “When people see me, they assume I’m unapproachable.”
“People are assholes.”
Trillian looked along Bradley’s belt-line. “Where’s your raccoon tail?”
Bradley’s hand went to the belt loop that Alexis had cut and rolled the frayed denim between his fingertips. “Like I said, people are assholes.”
Trillian could read between the lines. “Well, I thought it was cool.”
“Thanks.” Bradley tore out a clump of grass by the roots. “And sorry about your parents.”
Trillian hung her head down. “Thanks.”
“My dad’s been absent all my life, until this summer.”
“At least you get a second chance.”
Bradley looked at her. “What happened?”
Trillian focused on the far side of the field. “No offense, but I don’t want people to know the real me unless they pass my inspection.”
“I haven’t passed yet, huh?”
Trillian shook her head.
A moment of silence passed between the two teenagers as a daddy longlegs spider crawled up onto one of Trillian’s shoes. She reached out and intercepted the arachnid, letting its thin, spindly legs carry its round body over her hand.
“It’s hard to imagine that this little guy has been around for over four hundred million years,” said Trillian. “Not too bright, though.”
“Smart enough to outlast the dinosaurs.” Bradley watched Trillian transfer the spider from hand to hand. He was reminded again of Hope back in New York and smiled.
Trillian felt his gaze. “What?”
Bradley shrugged. “You just remind me of someone I used to know.”
She could have probed for more information, but instead offered the spider to Bradley. “Want to hold it?”
“They don’t bite, and they aren’t venomous.” Trillian looked at the spider closely. “That’s a myth.”
“I don’t have anything against spiders. They’re just not my thing.”
Trillian set the spider down and watched it crawl away.
The end of lunch break bell rang and everyone headed for the doors. Alexis stood on the landing between the first and second floor of the south stairwell. Through the window she spotted Bradley and Trillian.
“You don’t listen too well, do you Brad?” Alexis said to herself.
Deirdre and Caitlin were on their way to class when Deirdre’s phone buzzed in her back pocket. She slid the phone out.
“Message from our fearless leader.” Deirdre held up her phone so Caitlin could read the display.
“Get the bitch’s locker combo,” the text read.
“How come she never sends me texts like that?”
Deirdre and Caitlin reversed direction, heading back to Mr. Silver’s classroom on the second floor. “Because between you and me, I’m the brains and you’re the muscle.”
Caitlin gave Deirdre’s shoulder a shove. “I got brains.”
“Oh yeah? How are we going to get the bitch’s combo without getting caught?”
Caitlin worked on the question longer than Deirdre had patience for. “See?”
“So, what’s your plan?”
They rounded the second floor landing and up the second flight of stairs. “I can pick any lock if I have the right tools and enough time.”
“But class starts in, like, three minutes.” Caitlin looked at her phone’s clock. “I can’t be late for math.”
Deirdre was busily tapping and swiping on her phone. “I’m going to let technology do the work for me.”
“You better hope that she hasn’t gone already.”
The two girls arrived on the second floor and walked past the bank of lockers outside of Mr. Silver’s classroom.
“You stand here with your back to the lockers.” Deirdre framed up the shot on the phone’s display. “Pretend like I’m shooting a video.”
“How do you know…” Caitlin looked over her shoulder, scanned the hallway, then back at Deirdre. “How do you know what locker is hers?”
“I pay attention.” Deirdre held the camera up as the hallway began to fill. “Now, do as I say.”
Caitlin gave a goofy salute and spoke through her front teeth. “Yes, Cap-ee-tain.”
“Such a dork.” Deirdre spotted Trillian emerge from the stairwell to the second floor. “Shit, there she is. Act natural.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. Talk about your classes.”
Deirdre positioned herself and Caitlin several feet away from Trillian’s locker and tapped “record.” She framed Caitlin in the shot but included Trillian’s combination lock in the lower right corner of the frame.
Trillian spun the dial on the lock and popped open the lock loop. It was over in less than five seconds.
“I think I got it.” Deirdre moved her finger across the phone’s display, a smile breaking across her face. “I’m so brilliant,” she said to herself. The ultra high definition video showed Trillian spinning her locker combination in super slow motion. The numbers were easy to read.
“I’ll show you later.” Deirdre ran down the hallway. “Don’t be late for math,” she called back.
Caitlin headed in the opposite direction toward the stairwell. She passed Trillian and offered her a smile. Caitlin had meant it to be mischievous, but it ended up looking friendly.
Deirdre arrived at her history class just as the bell rang. Unable to wait, she stood outside the classroom door to watch the video she had just recorded.
Her history teacher, Mrs. Medina, despised cell phones and took offense that these intrusive devices were becoming a part of history, shaping it even. She stepped to the entrance to the classroom and saw Deirdre buzzing with excitement over her phone.
“Deirdre?” Mrs. Medina glanced at the phone with disgust. “Are you planning on joining us?”
“Just one second, Mrs. Medina.” Deirdre kept her eyes on the phone’s display, her smile growing wider.
Mrs. Medina crossed her arms and glowered at her. “If you aren’t in this classroom in three seconds, both you and your phone are getting detention for a week.”
Deirdre wanted to play the video again but knew Mrs. Medina meant business. She dropped her phone into her bag and found an empty desk near the back of the classroom.
“Nothing, except history, should be that important.” Mrs. Medina closed the door hard and walked to the front of the class.
“Oh, I’d say this is pretty fucking important,” Deirdre said to herself. She pulled a notebook out of her bag and slid it onto her desk.
“Something to share, Deirdre?” Mrs. Medina looked across the classroom at her.
“Nope.” Deirdre grinned back, doing her best to push down her excitement. Alexis would be pleased.
Claire had enjoyed her summer more than expected. She loved Bradley and would do anything for him, but having two months to be an adult again, without any teenaged angst, was a refreshing change. She could be spontaneous and do what she wanted, when she wanted. And she would never have met Roy otherwise. The decision to send Bradley to visit Sam in New York had been a good one.
She had arranged to take the first week of school off from the hospital to make sure Bradley settled into the routine of his final year. However, his first day had begun without a hitch. Bradley was handling himself just fine.
After school began, the rest of the day was hers to play with. Waking up to fresh coffee this morning had been an unexpected treat that Claire hoped would continue, but she tempered her expectations knowing that one day didn’t make a trend. Bradley was still a teenager.
After Bradley had left for school, Roy joined her in the shower, and they ended up having perfunctory sex. Awkward and inconvenient was how Claire described shower sex most of the time. But at least Roy was interested in her as a sexual being and she was getting the physical contact she needed.
To make the most of her week off, she headed out to her first love, her garden. The tomatoes would need weeding, and a few would be ripe enough for picking. Claire threw on a pair of loose denim overalls and her button-up gardening shirt and headed to the back yard. She opened the shed and grabbed her wide-brimmed gardening hat and a hand-held claw.
She knelt between the tomato plants and began excavating rogue weeds by the root. She didn’t bother with gloves. The fresh earth felt like heaven in her hands. Half an hour later, Claire had amassed a pile of weeds and the soil around the tomato plants was once again a rich, oily black.
One plant was weighed down with ripened tomatoes and risked collapse. Claire stowed the claw in a breast pocket of her overalls and walked back to the shed.
She stood in the entryway of the shed and scanned the right-hand wall reserved for hand tools. The pruning scissors should have been hanging next to the claw, but an empty space was there instead. Roy must have misplaced them somewhere else in the shed.
Her left foot brushed against the cocooned rat next to her feet, vibrating the webbed tripwires leading away from it. Black spine-backed spiders advanced out of the darkened funnel next to the cocoon.
Had Claire worn her rubber boots, she would have been in no danger. But today she had chosen open-toed flip-flops. Good for the spiders. Bad for her.
The first spider out of the funnel leaped and landed on her left foot, past her purple-painted toenails and above the foot strap. It sank its fangs into her skin and scrambled back into the darkness to wait.
Claire felt a tickle, then searing pain as if a red-hot needle had been jammed into the top of her foot. She stumbled back out of the shed, landing hard on her backside.
She drew her foot close and looked at the skin. Two small punctures could be seen. Her eyes darted around the shed, looking for bees or wasps. Perhaps she had disturbed an unseen nest.
Then she saw her assailant, a mean-looking black spider with what looked like quills emerging from its back. The spider advanced to the front of the shed, soon joined by others. Claire grabbed her gardening claw from her front overall pocket and swung it at the leader of the cluster. The spiders evaded her attacks with easy agility.
Her foot began to feel hot and the skin around the punctures morphed into a spreading swollen red before her eyes. The clock was ticking, and she only had a few minutes, perhaps seconds.
Claire hobbled to the house and into the bathroom. From the medicine cabinet she uncapped an epi-pen and jammed it into her left thigh, holding it there for a few seconds to administer the drug to her system. She moved to the bedroom and pulled a belt from the closet, cinching it around her left leg, just below the knee, as tight as she could stand.
Claire grabbed her purse, hopped across the back yard to the garage and opened the door. She unplugged the Leaf, dumped herself into the driver’s seat and backed out.
She drove herself to the hospital, sweat drenching her face and stinging her eyes, her left leg numb from the knee down. But the tourniquet wasn’t working. She could feel hot pain seep up her leg, past the tightened belt and into her thigh like sharp claws in her flesh.
Claire could barely walk when she arrived at Sun Valley Medical Center. She parked askew at the Emergency entrance, called Roy but got his voice mail.
“At hospit… Aller-gee. Stung or…” Claire’s thoughts were becoming clouded. Words that made sense refused to vocalize. She sent a text to Bradley before run-hop-stumbling in through the automatic doors.
Shari, a nurse at the Admitting desk, recognized Claire immediately. “You’re not scheduled—”
“I’m… p-patient.” Claire’s panicked voice was raspy and her breathing wheezy and labored. “Allerg… stung by s-sp-sp spome…”
Shari grabbed the intercom. “Code blue, emergency!” She ran around the desk, grabbed a stretcher and helped Claire onto it. Her left leg was almost unrecognizable, swollen red, the skin tight and shiny. She was unable to bend her knee.
“Epi-pip-pipp…” Claire’s speech slurred as a doctor and other emergency support staff pulled her stretcher into a curtained section of the emergency ward.
Shari looked Claire directly in the eyes while holding her forearm to measure her pulse. “epi-pen administered?”
Claire nodded, her ability to speak gone. Tears streamed from her eyes and soaked the pillow behind her head.
“How long ago?” Shari maintained eye contact.
Claire began to shake.
Shari held up her hand, all five fingers spread. “Five minutes ago?”
Claire stared back at her, terror in her eyes.
Shari held both hands up. “Ten minutes?”
Claire managed a nod.
Dr. Nikki Holbrook pulled back the privacy curtain. “What have we got?”
“Not sure, Nikki,” Shari said. “Claire’s been stung by something. Epinephrine auto-injected about ten minutes ago.”
Dr. Holbrook and three nurses transferred Claire from the stretcher to a bed. She removed the belt from Claire’s leg. “I want albuterol, five milligrams nebulized and point-five milligrams of adrenaline every ten minutes if no improvement.”
She took Claire’s pulse and examined her leg closely from her knee down to her toes. “There appear to be two puncture wounds just above the arch of the foot.” Dr. Holbrook looked at Shari, concern in her face. “Claire wasn’t stung. She was bitten.”
Bradley had arranged to meet Jack in the parking lot after school. Jack was already out in his Civic, reclining in the front seat and listening to music.
He wove around parked cars to the Civic’s stall, threw his day pack into the back seat and plopped himself in the passenger seat.
Jack took one look at him and knew something was up. “Bad first day?”
“Good and bad.” Bradley closed his eyes. “Highlight of the day was meeting a cool new girl. She’s smart. You’d like her.”
“Did you eat lunch with her?”
“We hung out, yeah.”
“Girlfriend material?” Jack grinned and flashed his eyebrows.
“Don’t know yet,” Bradley said. “Definitely friend material though. We exchanged numbers.”
“And the bad?”
Bradley shook his head, almost imperceptibly. “Alexis is going to be a problem.”
“I told you.”
“Yeah, you told me.” Bradley opened his eyes to the Civic’s textured roof. “What you didn’t tell me is she’s a fucking psycho. She pulled a knife on me in the guy’s bathroom.”
Jack’s eyes widened. “Holy shit.”
“Cut my tail off and flushed it.” Bradley looked at Jack. “She thinks she can control me.”
The two teenagers bumped fists in agreement.
“How about you? Your day go well?”
“Good. Flew under the radar. Got all the courses I wanted.” Jack laughed. “Shit, bro. We sound like an old married couple.” He turned the ignition and revved the Civic’s engine a couple of times. A blue cloud belched out from the tailpipe.
Bradley watched the smoke drift away. “You’re burning oil.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Jack reversed out of the parking stall and navigated his way to the street, where he accelerated to just above the speed limit in what seemed like seconds.
“While I was waiting, I graphed the summer’s earthquakes,” he said. “I’ll show you when I get to your place.”
“Why does that not surprise me?”
“You see different things when you make pictures out of the data.”
Bradley stared out the window and saw several “missing pet” notices stapled or taped to trees and telephone poles. He reached down for his raccoon tail. When his hand came up empty, his thoughts led him to the raccoon he’d seen in his back yard. Could it have been a sign of something to come?
“Earth to Brad.” Jack poked his shoulder. “Come in, Brad.”
“I said did you ever read about the Sylmar quake?”
Bradley shook his head.
“1971. A 6.6. One of the worst earthquakes in California’s history. The epicenter wasn’t that far from where we live.” The Civic rounded a corner onto Sheldon Street.
Bradley chuckled. “You are such a nerd.”
“And you’re listening to a nerd, so that makes you a nerd by association. Anyway, people died in that quake. Can you imagine something like that happening today?”
“Well, bro, we’re due for one.” Jack pulled the Civic over to the curb. “See? Look.” He held out his phone and showed the graph of the summer’s earthquakes. The 2.9 magnitude quake stood out like a sore thumb. “You got emergency supplies?”
“I don’t know,” Bradley said. “I’ll mention it to my mom and check the shed later.”
Jack’s stomach growled. “I think there’s a taco in my future.”
Bradley grabbed his day pack out of the back seat and stepped out of the car. “You think?”
“One-hundred percent probability.”
Bradley stepped onto the sidewalk. “Nerd.”
Jack laughed and peeled out down the street.
Bradley raised both hands, middle fingers extended. He heard Jack tap his horn and saw him flash a middle finger out his driver-side window before turning out of sight.
The house was quiet. Bradley dropped his day pack in his room and went to the kitchen to find something to eat.
He grabbed some Oreos from a new package and stepped out the back door, across the back yard to the garage. The Leaf was gone.
The shed’s doors were open, illuminating the interior with afternoon light. Bradley stepped inside. Smells of gasoline and musty fertilizer assaulted his nose. And the smell of something else, low and unpleasant underneath it all. It sent a shiver down his back.
He closed the shed doors and returned to the house, making a mental note to ask Claire about earthquake supplies. Bradley preferred to be prepared for anything.
On his way back to the kitchen to get more Oreos, Bradley’s foot kicked a small, blue plastic object down the hallway. He picked it up, his blood running cold.
The cap to Mom’s epi-pen.
Bradley ran back to the bathroom and saw Claire’s used epi-pen on the floor next to the toilet. As he picked it up, his phone chimed an incoming text as if both were connected by his touch.
On his phone’s display were three emojis that confirmed his worst fear:
A spider, a syringe and a hospital symbol. But the spider should have been a bee. That sequence of emojis was what Bradley and Claire had agreed upon to indicate a bee sting when he got his first cell phone six years ago. But spiders don’t sting, do they? They bite.
Bradley dialed Jack. “I got a big favor to ask. It’s a matter of life and death.”
In less than ten minutes, Jack reappeared in front of Bradley’s house. He reached over the passenger seat and pushed open the door.
“This is becoming a habit.” Jack grinned.
“Sorry. I didn’t know who else to call,” Bradley said. “A taxi would have taken too long.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’d do the same for me.”
“Absolutely. Things will change in November.”
“Pay for gas every once in a while, and we’re cool.” Jack sped down Sheldon Street toward the hospital. “So, what’s up?”
“It’s my Mom.” Bradley kept his eyes on the hospital ahead. With its five floors, Sun Valley Medical Center was the tallest building in his immediate vicinity. It had been convenient to live so close to the hospital growing up when Bradley had had his fair share of cuts and broken bones. “I think she was bitten by a spider.”
“But the hospital? For a spider bite?”
“She’s allergic to bees and wasps,” Bradley said. “I guess spiders too.” He spotted a raccoon scampering down the sidewalk like a stray dog. His hand went to find his raccoon tail at his belt, but the emptiness he found did nothing to calm his mood. “It’s called anaphylaxis. If spiders are like bees, she could die from it. Thankfully she got to her epi-pen in time.”
“Shit, bro.” Jack floored the gas and the Civic tore down the street.
“Easy, man. I don’t want to die getting there.” Bradley gripped the passenger door handle. Now out of the residential area of Stonehurst, industrial buildings flew past his window. “And don’t get a ticket.”
“I’ve never gotten a ticket in my life.” Jack gripped the steering wheel and grinned.
“You’re kidding, right? You’ve been driving for six months.”
“My driving record is spotless.”
Bradley shot a dubious look at him. “In words you’d understand: Not enough data.”
Jack laughed as he turned right onto San Fernando Road. “I got you here, didn’t I? And in one piece.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“Damn straight.” Jack signaled and turned left into the parking lot of Sun Valley Medical Center.
Jack nodded as he trolled for a parking space.
“Let me out and I’ll get a permit.” Bradley waited for the Civic to roll to a stop before getting out. He found a permit machine, inserted his credit card, and punched in some time. A second later a paper permit popped out.
Bradley scanned the parking lot and spotted Jack waving about a hundred feet away. As he ran toward him, Bradley was reminded how lucky he was to have a friend like Jack. A friend who would drop everything for him.
Bradley handed the permit to Jack and he placed it on the dash of the Civic. “You know I’m just fucking with you, right? About the speeding?”
“You do it because you care,” Jack said, closing the passenger side door and locking it. “So do I.” They both trotted toward the main entrance. “Let’s find your Mom.”
As Bradley approached the main entrance of the hospital, he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to see Roy running toward him from the parking lot. He was dressed in a red color-coordinated jogging outfit with a white sweat band around his head. Bradley waved at him but either Roy didn’t see his wave or chose not to respond.
Roy made it to the double sliding doors at the same time as Bradley and Jack. He pushed in front and speed-walked toward the Emergency waiting area.
“What the hell!” Jack stepped back and eyed Roy’s awkward run down the hallway.
“That’s Roy.” Bradley shared Jack’s disapproval.
“What? You know that asshat?”
“Unfortunately, yeah,” Bradley said. “He’s dating my mom. They met while I was in New York.”
“Damn, bro. Sorry. Seems like a douche.”
“That’s accurate, according to my data.” Bradley picked up his pace. Jack matched it. “He probably wants to show me up.”
Bradley didn’t recognize Shari, the nurse behind the Emergency Admitting desk.
“Where can I find Claire Shaw?” Bradley tapped his hands on the countertop.
Jack looked around the emergency area. Behind the curtained bays he could hear cries, pulse meters, and other intense sounds of doctors and nurses saving lives. The smell of antiseptic accosted his nose. “I don’t like hospitals,” he said in a hushed voice to no one in particular.
“You must be Bradley,” Shari said. “Last bay on the right.”
“Thanks. How is she?”
“You better talk to the doctor.”
Bradley and Jack hustled down the hall. The curtains to the last emergency bay were open and Roy was leaning over the bed, holding Claire.
“Mom?” Bradley stepped toward the bed, Jack close behind. Claire’s legs were raised and covered by the bed sheet. Although he couldn’t see it directly, the profile of Claire’s left leg under the sheet looked different than the right.
Roy stiffened and stepped back, his eyes narrowing on Bradley’s approach. Claire raised her arms for a hug.
“I got your text.” Bradley stepped up to the bed and embraced her. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better.”
Bradley sat on the edge of the bed. “What happened?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Roy crossed his arms over his chest. “She was stung.”
“Bitten,” Claire said.
Roy looked confused. “What? But your voice mail said you were stung.”
“Maybe. I was having trouble talking.”
“Bitten by a spider?” Bradley asked.
“How do you know that?” Roy stepped forward, closing the distance between himself and Bradley.
“Mom texted me.”
“And you thought it would be best if you kept that information to yourself?” Roy took another step forward.
Jack could see the makings of a brawl and stepped in to diffuse it. “Easy, man.”
Roy looked down on Jack. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Jack, Brad’s best friend.” Jack extended his hand despite his dislike for the man. Roy ignored the gesture.
“Don’t be a jerk,” Bradley said. “I didn’t text you because I don’t know your phone number.”
“Guys. Please.” Claire looked at the three of them. “I don’t want World War Three breaking out in Emergency.”
An air of guilt floated through the bay.
“It was a spider,” Claire said. “A lot of them. I tried to kill them, but they were too fast.”
Dr. Holbrook emerged from the hallway and presented herself at the foot of the hospital bed. “I’d like to have a word with Claire alone, please.”
“It’s okay, Nikki,” Claire said. “No secrets here.”
“Alright.” Dr. Holbrook cleared her throat. “How’s your pain level?”
“Maybe a seven out of ten.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Dr. Holbrook said. “Your spider bite has caused necrosis in isolated areas. Your allergy to bees didn’t help. And it’s serious. There is a chance that you could lose your foot, or worse, your leg.”
“All that from a spider bite?” Roy shrugged.
“Don’t underestimate a spider’s bite.” Dr. Holbrook focused on Roy before settling on Claire again. “Their venom is largely misunderstood, so treatment may change over time. Presently, we’ve administered an antivenin and antibiotics, and we’ll keep your leg iced, but we’ll need to keep you under observation to make sure the current treatment is working. Surgery may be required if the wound doesn’t heal on its own.”
“Damn,” Jack whispered as he tracked his eyes over Claire’s shrouded legs.
“What kind of spider causes this?” Bradley asked.
“Probably a black widow,” Roy said, self-assured.
“No. Black widow bites are not necrotic.” Dr. Holbrook said. “Usually bites like this come from Brown Recluse spiders.”
“I’m a gardener. I know what those spiders look like.” Claire said. “The spider that bit me… I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Roy, Bradley, Jack, and Dr. Holbrook exchanged looks.
“I’ll arrange for some pain control. And as much as I hate to say it, we’re going to have to wait and see how this develops.” Dr. Holbrook made notes on Claire’s chart. “By the way, your epi-pen probably saved your life.”
“What’s next?” Bradley asked.
“Go home and let your mom rest.”
With Claire out of immediate danger and in good hands, Bradley relaxed and realized he had a real-life candidate for his biology assignment on “most lethal spider.” But he needed more research.
Roy jangled the Leaf’s key fob at Bradley. “Let’s head out. You mom needs her beauty sleep.”
My mom could lose her leg, you fuckwit, Bradley thought. What Claire saw in the guy was anyone’s guess.
“I was going to go with Jack.” Bradley hooked a thumb at Jack, who was standing just outside the main entrance.
Roy shook his head. “No can do. Your mom wanted me to take you.”
Bradley grit his teeth. “Just a second.” He walked over to Jack. “Thanks for the lift. I owe you one.”
“No bigs, bro.” Jack bumped fists with Bradley.
“I got to go home with the douche.” Bradley looked over his shoulder at Roy. His red jogging suit made him look like a bundle of sweaty twizzlers.
“He’s quite a catch.”
“My mom should have thrown him back.”
Laughter caught Roy’s ears. “What’s so funny?” Bradley and Jack stifled their chuckles and looked at him as Roy’s eyes flitted between them.
“Nothing,” Bradley said. “Inside joke.”
“Didn’t your mom ever teach you any manners?”
Bradley let the question slide.
Jack extended his hand again and grinned. “Nice to meet you, Roy.”
Roy eyed Jack with distrust. He grabbed his hand and gave it a limp shake. “Let’s go, Brad.”
“See you at school.”
Bradley followed Roy out toward the parking lot. “Yeah, later.” He raised his middle finger at Jack.
Jack raised his arm and flipped the bird back at Bradley. Roy caught the gestures and poked Bradley in his shoulder.
“Ow. What the hell?”
“What was that?” Roy glared at him.
“Nothing.” Bradley rubbed his shoulder. “What do you care?”
“I don’t.” Roy swept his arm around him like he was in a dealership showroom. “It’s everyone else. That kind of shit sends the wrong message.”
“You better watch yourself, Brad.”
Bradley stopped to face Roy, making sure to look him in the eye. “Don’t touch me again.”
They both shared a tense moment before continuing out into the parking lot. Roy clicked the rear hatch button on the key fob and waited. The Leaf soon identified itself with its hatch raised to the sky. He closed the hatch again and corrected his course.
Once inside the Leaf, Roy turned to Bradley. “Give me your phone.”
“So I can text or call you if I need to.”
“No. Just give me your phone number.”
Roy’s jaw tightened and he grudgingly dictated his number as Bradley dialed. The phone in Roy’s pocket began to ring.
Bradley ended the call. “Happy?”
Roy started the Leaf and drove back to Claire’s house in silence.
Halfway home, Jack zoomed past in his Civic, his middle finger jutted out the driver-side window and a wide grin on his face.
Bradley smiled back.
Thank God for Jack.
Roy pulled into the garage and shut off the Leaf. Bradley unbuckled his seat belt and moved to open the door, but Roy grabbed his shoulder and held him in place.
Bradley looked at Roy’s hand, then at Roy, noting that he had a firm grip when it suited him.
Roy let go and raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to touch you.” He sighed. “I’m on your side, Brad.”
“I think you’re on my mom’s side. Not mine.”
Roy shook his head. “No. You and your mom are a package deal. I knew that going in.”
“Sure doesn’t feel like it.” Bradley looked out the windshield at the work bench, covered in old paint cans, brushes, and assorted tools. He had used that paint to cover his bedroom walls with navy blue. Roy had no idea.
“This is new to me,” Roy said. “Your dad’s got pretty big shoes to fill.”
“You’ll never fill my dad’s shoes.” Bradley opened the car door and crossed the back yard to the house. He was surprised to see the sun dipping toward the horizon. He had spent more time at the hospital than he had realized. Bradley opened the back door, kicked off his shoes, and headed to his room.
He heard the back door open, close, and lock. Bradley found Roy hanging his jacket up in the mud room off the kitchen.
“What are you doing?”
Roy untied his runners. “I’m going to be staying with you until Claire is well enough to come home.”
“Why? I’m almost seventeen. I can take care of myself.”
“I’m done talking.” Roy pulled off his head band and unzipped his jogging suit, revealing a mass of chest hair greased with sweat. “It was your mom’s idea. Take it up with her.” He walked past Bradley and down the hallway to the master bedroom. “I’m going for a quick shower.”
“Good. You stink,” Bradley said under his breath. He opened the pantry and grabbed the bag of Oreos. One left. He jammed it into his mouth, placed the empty bag in the garbage and rummaged through the pantry shelves looking for more snacks. The food would kill his appetite for dinner, but Bradley didn’t care. Anything that Roy could come up with was bound to suck.
Bradley found a box of peanut butter Ritz Bits and shook it. About half full, he thought. He stood at the kitchen sink and popped a couple of the crackers into his mouth. Stale but palatable.
From the kitchen window, Bradley noticed that the door to the shed was still open, just as it had been earlier that afternoon. He sensed movement, but the sun had dipped below the horizon and cast the back yard into growing shadows. He took the box of crackers, slipped on his shoes, not bothering to tie them, and crossed the back yard to the shed.
Something fell inside the shed, clattering onto the planked floor. Bradley slowed his stride over the grass and tried to discern any movement in the shadows.
Failing to see anything, he heard the patter of feet and low chittering emanating from deeper within the shed. Bradley’s first thought was of…
He pulled out his phone and turned on flashlight mode. He directed the light beam across the walls, floors, supplies, and tools within the shed. Bradley caught two red eyes peering back at him.
But the eyes were too big to belong to a rat. Bradley tucked the box of Ritz Bits under the arm holding his phone, so he could grab crackers with a free hand while still holding the light.
He tossed a cracker into the shed. The two halves of the cracker separated and rolled in opposite directions, one further into the shed and one closer to the doors.
The two red reflective eyes stared back at Bradley, blinking occasionally. He moved the light off the opening of the shed and onto the grass in front, but there was enough ambient illumination to see detail where the unidentified eyes sat.
A black nose with quivering whiskers poked through the space between a stack of adobe pots and a collection of work-worn shovels. Two paws reached out and grasped the nearest half of the cracker and pulled it back into the dark. Sounds of chittering and crunching floated back.
It wasn’t a rat, but Bradley would know those paws anywhere. It was a raccoon. His raccoon.
He squatted and tossed another cracker into the shed. With every second, the raccoon’s confidence grew. The animal crawled forward and grabbed the second cracker. This time, the raccoon ate the crunchy treat in full view. Once done, it sniffed for the remaining half of the first cracker, finding it and gobbling it quickly.
The raccoon sat up on its haunches, sniffed the air, and chittered. Bradley had a flash of the white-tailed rats he had encountered back in New York. He grabbed a couple more crackers and tossed them toward the raccoon. One landed at the creature’s feet and it foraged under its tail for the morsel. Bradley focused his phone’s light on the raccoon and its current treat.
The other cracker rolled right, into the shadows of the shed by the raw sunflower seeds, and out of Bradley’s line of sight. It bounced against the woven funnel and bumped against several of the silk trip wires. A large black spider emerged in a defensive stance, advancing with small bursts of speed. It caged the cracker with its oil-black legs and the whisker-like quills on its thorax and abdomen folded down smooth.
Bradley watched the raccoon sniff around for the last cracker. Its nose and whiskers quivering, the animal poked his head near the bag of sunflower seeds.
What happened next both surprised Bradley and horrified him. The raccoon’s contented chittering changed to a shrieking worse than anything he had ever heard in his life.
The raccoon reared back into the shovels, knocking one over. Its head, eyes, and nose were covered in a thick and gauzy white substance.
Bradley lost his balance and fell backward. The crackers spilled on the lawn and he dropped his phone in the grass. Retrieving and retraining the phone’s light revealed a large, black, quilled spider joined by at least a dozen other spiders. The arachnids swarmed the raccoon and burrowed into its fur, creating an inky and lethal necklace. With one coordinated strike, over a dozen pairs of fangs injected poison into the raccoon’s bloodstream.
Bradley stared in horror at the raccoon as it began to convulse. The spiders wasted no time encasing the animal in inescapable webbing.
He dug his heels into the grass and pushed himself backward away from the shed, the intensity of his phone’s light weakening with every step until it was of no use anymore.
He could still hear the final moments of struggle from within the shed as he ran toward the back door of the house, tripping once on his shoelaces along the way. He burst into the house and yelled the first thing that came to mind.
Bradley heard the door to the master bedroom open and heavy footsteps travel down the hall.
Roy entered the kitchen shirtless, wearing jeans and a t-shirt hanging from his back pocket. He held a towel and was drying off his head.
Gross. Chest pubes. The sight of his hairy chest made Bradley want to gag.
“What do you want?” Roy looked Bradley over from head to toe and back. “You hurt or something?” He looked at the phone in Bradley’s hand. “Why is your light on?”
“I just saw a bunch of spiders kill a raccoon.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Out in the shed.” Bradley walked to the back door. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
“Spiders don’t kill raccoons,” Roy said. “They eat other insects.”
“These ones did.”
“See for yourself.” Bradley stepped out into the back yard shadows. He expected Roy to stay in the house, but he followed a moment later.
“You better not be fucking with me.”
The two approached the shed. Bradley held his free hand back as a warning. “Don’t get too close.”
“Or what?” Roy tilted his head and gave Bradley a dubious look. “I’m going to get eaten by spiders?”
“Yeah. It’s possible.”
“Give that to me,” Roy scoffed and grabbed Bradley’s phone out of his hand. He trudged toward the shed aiming the phone’s light toward the entrance. “Spiders, my ass.”
“Wait! Don’t go—”
Roy ducked and stepped into shed, his feet falling firmly on the planked floor. He scanned the floor and walls with the light. He stepped and crouched left, then right, pushing tools and pots around looking for anything out of the ordinary.
“I don’t see any raccoon anywhere.”
Bradley stepped forward to get a closer look. Roy was right. There was no carcass.
“It was just there.” Bradley pointed to the location he last saw the raccoon. “They must have dragged it into their lair.”
“Lair? This is ridiculous. I’m missing the game for this?” Roy slapped the phone into Bradley’s hand and stomped back to the house, slamming the door behind him.
Bradley approached the shed but didn’t go inside. He listened for any strange noises, but all he could hear were crickets in the night.
I know what I saw.
Bradley cast his mind back to his time lapse video experiment with the white-tailed rats in New York over the summer. There was no way he would enter the shed now, but maybe there was another way.
He left the shed doors open, ran back to the house and down the hall to his bedroom. Roy had planted himself in front of the television and was watching football.
“You took your shoes off, right?” Roy called back from the living room. “Don’t want dirt tracked all over the damn house.”
“Fuck you, you douchebag,” Bradley said to himself. He dug through his closet until he found what he was looking for: a selfie stick.
Bradley stood in front of the shed, his phone attached to the selfie stick. The light on the back of the phone cast a blue-white light into the interior of the shed. With every movement and step, shadows grew and shifted. Even with the light, there were dozens of darkened places for nimble spiders to hide.
The sun had completely disappeared below the horizon, leaving an orange-blue cloudless sky that on any other day would have been worth admiring.
Bradley launched his photo app and engaged video mode. He pressed record and stepped onto the leading edge of the shed’s floorboards. He positioned the phone between the earthenware pots and the shovels.
He was flying blind and couldn’t see if the phone was recording anything useful. He wished he had one of the remote cameras they had used to battle the rats in New York, but this would have to do.
Bradley raised the camera out and moved toward the right side of the shed. He crouched and brought the phone’s camera around the pots, over scattered tools on the floor and behind where the sunflower seeds were stored. His movements combined with light from the phone threw shards of illumination on additional tools, bags of seed, and the back walls of the shed.
The light on the phone dimmed.
“Shit.” The phone had had plenty of power the last time he checked. The light didn’t draw that much power, did it?
Bradley guided the phone out from behind the front row of pots. As he retracted the phone, he saw the real reason for the lack of light. A half dozen large black spiders, maybe more, clung to the phone, covering the light and the phone’s display.
He dropped the selfie stick, stood, and backed into the shovels behind him. The phone hit the floor, startling many of the spiders across the floorboards into hiding. The phone no longer obscured, a beam of cool white light illuminated the roof of the shed and blinded Bradley momentarily.
The shovels behind him bounced off the back of his head. But they seemed soft and had a heaviness to them, not like shovel handles at all.
Bradley spun around to find teardrop-shaped cocoons looped and lined up in a neat row, raised to the rafters, just high enough to be hidden by the top front-facing wall of the shed. The first gauzy cocoon terminated with a coal-black snout and whiskers protruding from the bottom. It was his raccoon. Attached to that was another cocoon of similar shape but with a rounder head, perhaps a house cat. Bradley couldn’t be sure. Next in line was his stowaway rat, its tail glued to a cross beam with layer upon layer of webbing. A fourth cocoon enveloped something smaller than a rat, perhaps a bird.
“How the hell…?”
The light on the floor flickered. Bradley looked down and saw large black spiders advancing over the phone across the floor toward his feet, their quills pulsing over their abdomen.
He ducked out of the shed’s entrance and onto the lawn, his heart jackhammering in his throat. He picked up a brick from a nearby flower bed and threw it into the shed, smashing several earthenware pots.
The spiders scattered back into the depths of the shed. Bradley grabbed the selfie stick and adjusted the holder on the end for a better angle. He raised the phone up behind the front wall of the shed so that he could remain outside and recorded video of the hanging cocoons.
A spider three inches across dropped onto his phone and began to crawl down the stick. He shook it off and onto the concrete paving stone pathway at the front of the shed.
Bradley raised his shoe and stomped the spider. It crunched under his foot like he was stepping on a crab, leaving a dark smear on the concrete.
He kicked the doors to the shed closed and locked the latch.
Bradley stood on the lawn, slicked with sweat and breathing heavily.
These were the spiders that had bitten Claire. He was sure of it. He had the evidence.
But these spiders looked like they came straight from a science fiction novel. Quills on their backs? Like a porcupine? He had never seen anything like it.
Tomorrow he would find some answers.
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