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Sep 10

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The Lotus Eaters by Michelle Muenzler

Night-time, that’s when the spiders come out. At least, that’s what Tony says, and Tony never lies. But Tony isn’t here right now, and neither are the spiders. We are safe on the twenty-first floor and Tony is gone.

“Do you think the spiders ate him?” I ask. Sweat dribbles between my breasts and soaks the belly of my white tank. I leave wet handprints on the door.

Marcella drapes herself over the ripped cushions of the armchair. “Who cares?”

“Angel cares.”

“Fuck Angel.”

We wait for Angel to respond in kind, but she has lain quiet for an hour and seventeen minutes now. Maybe longer, but that is when I started listening to the quiet click of the clock’s hands and counting. Her thin foot hangs over the edge of the bed, white as bone, but the oil lamp’s light ripples it with gold.

“Fuck Angel,” Marcella repeats, quieter this time.

I lean my head against the door and snick the lock back and forth—unlocked, locked. I say, “I think they ate him. I think he isn’t coming back.” Unlocked, locked.

“So?”

“So Angel’s going to die.” Unlocked, locked.

“So?”

Marcella pulls a lotus petal from the tarnished silver box balanced on her stomach and rolls out her tongue to catch it. I should stop her. She’s deep enough in lotus crush already. Waste not, want not, Tony says. Want not, waste not, we reply.

“I’m going after him,” I say instead.

“You can’t. Tony says.”

I grab the worn bat from the umbrella rack and click the lock. Unlocked. “Tony can’t say if Tony’s not here.”

#

Fifteen flights of stairs and my stomach is twisted in a knot, worse than when we gorged ourselves on the moist yellow cakes Tony found. Be careful what you eat, Tony says. Everything is a lesson to be learned—even cake. At least I can breathe, though it comes in scissor-like gasps. At the bottom of the next flight, I lean over and grab my knees until the stabbing dulls. Water dribbles down the wall next to me in its long journey from the rooftop.

Somewhere close below me, a door slams, and the knot in my gut pulls tight. Footsteps echo up the stairwell. It’s the spiders, I know it is. They’re in the building and they’ve come to eat me just like Tony and then they’ll eat Marcella and Angel and the cat lady and the man with guns as well. Another door slams, and the stairwell is quiet, except for my ragged breath and the images of spiders crawling through my skull.

Spiders don’t open doors, Tony says. That’s why we are always safe inside. I tremble all the way down to the next floor, the bat slipping in my sweaty grip. I should just pass the stairwell door by—that’s what Tony would say—but I don’t. Instead I nudge it open, just enough to see the hallway and its cracking yellow paint and a shaggy-haired man shoving a key into a lock and rattling away. His door doesn’t open. He kicks and curses, then moves on to the next and repeats. From here, the shaggy man smells like Angel, wet and dry and stale, all at once. I hope he finds his home before he finds the door of the man with guns. The man with guns is not fond of company.

I leave the cracked-open door and the shaggy man behind and make my way to the bottom floor. Outside, the sky is red streaked with gray and the pavement glistens, sleek and wet. There are no webs strung between the broken walls that line the street. There are no spiders.

“Hey,” calls a voice, sticky like the old newspaper in our room when we pull the damp-dry pages apart.

Nearly beside me, a man huddles against the wall. His trousers are soaked, and his blond-gray hair clings to his scalp in tangled rings. Tony says never to speak to strangers, but Tony isn’t here right now and neither are the spiders and how else am I to know where he has gone?

“Hey,” I say.

“Shouldn’t be out. ‘Em spiders eat you.”

I glance about. “I don’t see any spiders here.”

“Plenty of spiders.” He coughs into his left hand and wipes something on his shirt. “Just ‘cause you don’t see ‘em, don’t mean they don’t eat you.”

“Have you seen Tony?”

“Seen lots of things.”

He scratches his head, checks his fingernails, and gnaws something free. His manner is familiar from Tony’s stories.

“You’re the doorman, aren’t you?”

Always tip the doorman, Tony says. He’s providing a service. I reach for the familiar silver box in my back pocket, but stop. Tony doesn’t like us wasting lotus. It doesn’t grow on trees, he says. What does it grow on, we ask. Tony never answers.

“Is this a good tip?” I hold out the bat. He doesn’t seem to have anything to protect himself with.

He shakes his head and flops his empty right sleeve about. “Ain’t no good for me.”

I wonder if the spiders ate his arm, and if they did, why they didn’t eat the rest of him. Perhaps he was too hard. Hard times make for hard people, Tony says.

I tap the bat against my foot. “Then I have nothing.”

“Got nothing already.”

His gaze falls deliberately to the bulge in my back pocket. I shift away.

“Wait,” I say. “I do have something, but it’s a secret something. I’m not supposed to share it with anyone but Tony. Would that be enough?”

“Could be, could be.” His eyes shine sharp and a slight grin cocks his lips.

I settle by his side in the warm wet puddles of the sidewalk and press his head against my breast. He tries to slide his arm around me, but I push it back. His face turns wary, and his smile compresses into a tight line.

And I sing. First one lullaby, then another, until I have sung every song Tony taught us twice over. When I am done, the doorman’s face is wet with tears. I kiss his forehead, and he tells me what I want to know.

As I set down the street, I imagine somebody watches me from above, but scanning the windows, I see nothing.

#

The sky is dark now, with specks of stars clustered around the shifting clouds—thousands of eyes on an invisible face. An orange-gray slice of moon reflects across the pavement. Between the hospital entrance and me is a parking lot packed with abandoned vehicles and shadowed figures huddling inside them. I have seen no spiders yet.

I stride into the lot and bump my shins on the metal carcasses as I slide between them. One row passed, two rows passed, and nothing but men and cars from here to the entrance. In the third row, an arm darts from an open window and grabs my wrist. I jerk away, but another arm shoots out and yanks me against the car. My breath is a frozen ball in my gut. Something wet slides along the back of my shoulder. The frozen ball explodes and I wrench myself free and stumble from between the cars.

“Just getting a taste,” says a husky voice from inside. The door clicks open and a man emerges, his face hidden behind a curtain of hair.

My footsteps echo too loudly as I parallel the row in search of a wider space to squeeze through. I don’t remember them being this loud before. The man with the curtain of hair mimics my pace. I hug the bat against my chest.

More doors click open, and more footsteps join my own. The hospital entrance is impossibly far now. I stop and turn and level the bat.

“Hey, missy,” says the man with the curtain of hair.

“Hey, missy,” slurs another man. His lower lip is split wide and one hand is missing.

The others murmur and smile and spread out around me. I crouch slightly and bring the bat to my shoulder. I know all about baseball. Tony taught us. Batter up, he says. Batter up, we reply.

One of the men dips into my reach, and I swing. The bat cracks into his arm. The air splinters. Someone grabs me from behind, and then I am buried in a crush of arms and legs and unwashed faces, all smelling of Angel and howling.

A sharp crack snaps through the air, and the crush stops. One by one, the arms and legs slither from my skin. A few feet off, the shaggy man from the hallway stands, his gun raised in the air and trailing a wisp of smoke. Burnt metal singes my throat.

“Hey,” he says. A broken-toothed grin cracks his face. “I’ve been looking for you.”

I reach for the bat, but it is gone. Split-lip man is running his stump down its length a handful of steps away.

“Come on now,” says the shaggy man. “Best we back out of here.”

He holds out his hand. The other men twitch. Somewhere behind me, a car door slams. I scramble up and grab his hand. He leads me down the row, away from the hospital entrance and the shadow men.

“The hospital,” I say. “I have to find Tony.”

“Tony’s dead.” The shaggy man speeds up, though none of the shadow men are following. “Spiders got him.”

“Oh.” My chest crunches like packed snow on the window sill. “What about Angel?”

“Angel?”

“She’ll die without medicine.” I tug against his grip. “We have to go back.”

He stops and glances about, his gaze skittering across the last set of cars. “I have her medicine already. Tony gave it to me. He gave me everything. I was heading up to your rooms when I saw you wandering off. Good thing I noticed, eh?”

Oh. I shouldn’t have left after all. If Tony were alive, he’d be very angry with me. Since he can’t be, I am angry with myself. The shaggy man leads us down partially blocked side streets, small passages that should be bursting with spiders. Still no webs cross our path, though.

“Where are the spiders?”

The shaggy man glances back without breaking his hurried pace. “Out there. Hundreds of them. Best stick with me.”

He laughs and drags me into a more open street. I don’t recognize it at all.

“Where are we going?”

“Roundabout way in case anybody is following us from the lot.”

Clouds slip over the moon and reduce its glow to a hazy halo. We slip down the street in the near-devouring darkness. Then the moon breaks free and light bathes the streets again, just in time to shine across the hundreds of silvery strands crossing the side street we are rushing into. Enough time for me to windmill my arms, teeter, and slip backwards onto the wet pavement. Not enough time for the shaggy man.

“Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck!” He jiggles like a gelatin man in the web.

The strands shake and shiver all the way up to the fourth floor of a crumbling office and from there hurtles a black shape, slick and sleek like the rain. I’ll be back, Tony says, but now Tony’s dead, and the shaggy man soon to follow.

A guttural cry tears my throat, and I hurl the only thing I have at the black beast—my lotus box. The spider rears and bats the box with a razor-thin leg, and the box explodes open. Petals and dust shower the air. The spider scuttles backward along its web, scraping frantically at the lotus petals clinging to its damp flesh. A high-pitched ringing stabs my eardrums.

“Shoot it! Shoot it!” The shaggy man’s eyes are nearly popping from his skull.

The spider shakes the last of the lotus off and bunches like a spring. I leap up and pull the shaggy man’s gun from his belt. The spider launches down the web, and I pull the trigger again and again. With each pull, I fall back a step. The shaggy man’s screams feel like distant echoes in my head. With a wet thump, the spider falls belly-up onto the pavement. Its legs twitch in the air. I keep firing until the gun is empty and the spider no longer moves.

The shaggy man’s screams break through the echoing gun-cracks in my skull. “Get me the fuck off of here!”

I scrape away at the web with bits of concrete rubble. Once his arm is free, he snatches the gun from me, pockets it, then grabs the concrete and continues himself. His wrist bleeds. While he strips the remaining webbing free, I inspect the spider.

It is smaller than I thought at first, now that its legs are curled tight against its abdomen—about the size of the large dog the man with the guns used to own. Nor is it as black as I first thought. Gray peppers its body like a freckling of snow, and the tips of its legs are dipped in white. It was fast, though. Fast enough that Tony would have had no time to give the shaggy man anything as the spiders plummeted from the sky. Something is very wrong, and I am very lost, and I wish I’d saved a bullet and kept the gun.

Now free, the shaggy man scrabbles across the asphalt, picking at the grit-soaked lotus petals. They tear beneath his fingers, but he shoves what he can into a small tin—Tony’s tin—along with whatever is stuck to them.

“Fuck,” he says, pulling out the gun so he can pocket the tin. “There’d better be more at Tony’s place.” He grabs my arm and drags me through the hole his body left in the web. His gun hangs loosely in his other hand like an afterthought.

“We shouldn’t rush anymore,” I say as we speed through the moonlit darkness. “Tony says—”

“Fuck Tony.”

A few streets later, I recognize home at last towering before us. At its foot, the doorman slouches, his head lolled to the side and staring blankly upward. A dark smear stains his shirt around the puckered flesh of a gunshot wound. We slip past him. No more lullabies for the doorman.

The shaggy man pushes me ahead of him and toward the stairs. I balk.

I say, “I want to see Angel’s medicine.”

“I’ll show you when we get to your place.”

“I want to see it now.”

He slams me up against the wall. His forearm crushes my throat.

“I said I’ll fucking show you when we get to your place.” He loosens his hold. “Unless you want Angel to die, of course, because you are too busy screwing around down here.”

I don’t want Angel to die, or Marcella or myself, but we can’t always get what we want, Tony says. “Sorry. Let’s go.”

Climbing up the stairs is worse than going down, but the shaggy man gives no rest. His cracked grin has returned and I imagine spiders teeming through the gaps. It’s a relief when I finally lead him down the hall to a door splintered and scratched along the bottom.

“This it?”

“Yes.”

The shaggy man pulls a key from his pocket and slips it into the lock. He tries to turn it, then tries again, but the lock doesn’t click free. With a growl, he kicks the bottom of the door. It splinters further but does not give.

“This is the wrong room, you stupid drugged-up bitch!”

The hard metal of his gun connects with my cheek, and I crumple to the ground. Behind him, the door erupts open. He spins to find himself facing the man with guns, one of those guns aimed at the shaggy man’s head. A yelp escapes the shaggy man’s lips. The man with guns fires.

The shaggy man falls to the floor. Blood splatter marks the wall behind him. The man with guns aims at me.

“You’re one of Tony’s girls, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You should get home before he finds you out then. It’s not safe.”

I nod.

The man with guns closes his door.

After a minute of deep breathing, I wipe the sweat from my brow and search the shaggy man’s pockets. Nothing but Tony’s tin. I grab the shaggy man’s gun and the key and stumble up the last few flights to my floor. At home, Angel mumbles beneath the covers and I lock myself in the bathroom to cut my hair and quick-stitch Tony’s clothing to fit my smaller frame.

In my new suit, I face Marcella. The back of my neck itches from loose-snipped hairs. “I’ll trade for ammo and medicine when daylight comes,” I say. “The spiders come out at night, you know.”

Marcella nods.

I don’t know where I’ll go for the ammo yet, or what I’ll trade for the medicine, or a million other things, but Marcella and Angel don’t need to know that. All they need to know is that I’m Tony now and I’ll protect them and keep their lotus boxes full. Tony says, and Tony never lies.

END


Michelle Muenzler‘s primary goal in life is to enable the bunny apocalypse and bury the earth with furry-soft goodness. When not working toward this goal, she focuses on other important things like researching the color of spider blood and whether monkeys can throw hand grenades. Her latest publications can be found lurking about at 10Flash Quarterly and Crossed Genres.

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