Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
  Weaving Threads - Michael Merriam
 
 

When the spider spoke, Cassie McGowen knew she had lost what little was left of her mind.

"W-what?" she stuttered.

I said thank you.  The voice paused.  For the cricket.

Cassie blinked.  This is it, she thought, one too many blows to the head.  She looked around the living room, then at the spider, which stood unmoving inside the aquarium.

"Y-you can't be talking."

Actually, I'm not talking.

"So this is all in my head?"

The spider's voice seemed pleased that she had caught on so quickly.  Of course!

Yeah, she thought to herself, I've gone nuts.  Cassie swallowed.  She came to a decision.  She looked at the spider.

"You're welcome."

#

"Cassie!" her father bellowed from the living room.  "How long is it gonna take you to bring us some dinner?"

"Almost done."  She absent-mindedly brushed her brown hair out of her face and dished up two plates of hamburger casserole, sweet corn, and buttered bread for her father and brother.  She carried both plates to the living room.

Her father sat watching baseball on the television, his tall, thin frame stretched out in the recliner.  Her brother, who had been playing with the spider, threw the poor beast into the aquarium.  She set the plates down and turned toward the kitchen.

Her father grabbed her by the arm as she walked past. "You don't expect us to eat this without something to wash it down, do ya?"

"Sorry."  Cassie went to the fridge and found a beer for her father and a soda for Billy.  They were so engrossed in a good-natured argument about the infield fly rule, they didn't notice her placing the cans in front of them. 

Cassie returned to the kitchen to eat in quiet and clean up.  After setting the skillet in the sink to soak, she brought her father another beer and collected their empty plates.

"I want some ice cream," her brother said.

Cassie gritted her teeth in anticipation of the coming outburst.  "We don't have any."

The room went silent except for the taco commercial on the television.

Finally her father spoke.  "Why don't we have any?"  He sounded too calm for Cassie's liking.

"Because it's all been eaten."

"Then why haven't you gone to the store to get more?"

"I'm out of grocery money," she whispered.

He stood up.  "What happened to all the money I gave you last week?"

"It was two weeks ago."

He loomed over her.  "I gave you money last week!  What did you spend it on?" 

"Nothing, just groceries."

Her father raised his hand.  "Don't you lie to me, girl!"

Cassie flinched away.  Her father was quick to anger, more so since her mother's death.

"I'm not."  She felt tears starting to form and held them back.  She refused to let him see her cry.

After what felt like an eternity to Cassie, her father lowered his hand and reached into his pocket.  Pulling out a moist wad of mixed bills, he thrust them into her hands.  "Go down to the store and get some ice cream."

Cassie took the money and started for the door.  Billy smirked at her as she walked past.  She wanted, for just one instant, to be like her father.  She yearned to reach out with a fist and wipe that smirk off Billy's face.  Then the instant passed and she was sick at herself for even thinking it.

Once out into the summer evening she felt better.  She counted out the money.  It wasn't much, but it would have to keep them in food and other necessities for a week.  She didn't dare ask her father for more before that.

At the store Cassie amused herself with one of her favorite games.  She would look at people and create a story about who they were based on their appearance.

She imagined the old man in the plaid pants to be some kind of mad fairy lord, lost to his realms and doomed to wander the mundane world until he would find a matching jacket so the curse could be lifted.  She thought about him drifting among thrift stores and yard sales, always seeking the jacket.  Finally finding it and slipping it on, he would transform into a strong and powerful Lord, his plaid shifting into breathtaking gold and purple royal raiments as he stepped around an ancient oak and returned to his own world.

Cassie wished she could share her stories with someone.

She took care while shopping, picking out items that would stretch for an entire week.  She did not want her father yelling at her again if she could help it.  Not that she thought she could keep it from happening.  The same argument played out every Sunday.  He would accuse her of stealing the money he allotted for the household, before shoving an indiscriminate wad of cash into her hands.

It was the same argument her mother had suffered through, until the cancer set her free.

Her father and brother didn't notice when Cassie returned home.  Not that this surprised her.  They ignored her so well that her sixteenth birthday passed last Wednesday without a word from either of them.

She put away the groceries, and prepared the ice cream.  As an afterthought she brought another can of beer to her father and a soda to Billy.

She returned to the kitchen and finished the dishes, started some laundry, and fed the dog.  She tossed the towels into the dryer, and decided to shower and go to bed.

She stepped into the living room.  "I'm heading for bed.  Do you want anything else before I go?"

Her father held up his empty can and smiled.  "Could you bring your old man another one?"

Cassie brought him another beer, and then went to take a shower.  Halfway through, someone flushed a toilet in another part of the house, sending scalding water cascading onto her.

She changed into an old T-shirt and shorts and settled into bed.  She picked up the book she'd been reading, another in a long line of fantasies where a small group of rag-tag heroes went out to save the world.  Not for the first time, Cassie wished someone would sweep her off on a grand adventure.  Or even a not-so-grand one.

The books, some clothes, and a few odd bits of jewelry constituted her meager inheritance from her mother.  Her father had thrown away the books after her mother's death, considering them a waste of his hard-earned cash.  Cassie had slipped out her window in the early morning hours and rescued them from the trashcans in the alley, hiding them in her room.  She read them so much that several were hopelessly worn, their pages slowly separating from the binding.

After an hour, she put the book down and turned off the lamp.

Cassie awoke to a floorboard creaking outside her bedroom door.  A light sleeper, she snapped fully awake at the slightest sound.  The room was illuminated a soft orange by the glow from the security light in the alley filtering through her thin curtains.  She watched from half-closed eyes as her doorknob slowly turned.

The door squeaked open and the smell of stale beer and cigarettes hit her nose.  She froze in place.  He had been showing up at her door in the night more often.  She lay still, like the chipmunks in the yard when they first noticed a predator.  Under her breath, she chanted softly so her father could not hear, "There's naught for you in this place. Now go away and leave this space."  She had created the rhyme on the second night he came to her door.  The logical part of her mind knew if he wanted to cross the threshold there was little she could do to stop him.  But another part of her, the part that wondered if the magic of the stories might not be real, found comfort in the belief that her chant could keep him at bay.  After a few minutes he grunted and closed the door.  She let out a nervous breath.

Cassie stretched out on her bed for a half an hour, trying in vain to return to sleep.  Giving up, she slipped out from under her covers and sat up, listening for any sounds of movement.  Satisfied the others were sleeping, she walked to the kitchen.  After pouring herself a glass of milk, she entered the living room and turned on one lamp, giving her just enough light to see by.  She sat in front of the aquarium and watched as the spider wove a delicate web among the plastic reefs.

"It's beautiful," she whispered.

Thank you, came the voice she heard the night before.

"I wasn't sure if I imagined yesterday.  I'm not sure I'm not dreaming right now."

Dreams and imagination are powerful things.  The spider stopped his weaving and walked to the side of the aquarium.

He was large and covered in coarse brown hair.  Long black legs protruded from his body, adding to his overall size.  Cassie had never seen a spider this large.  When Billy first brought it home enclosed in a jar, she had shrieked.  Billy teased her with it for the next three days, placing the jar in the kitchen where she was forced to walk past it, or sneaking up on her and waving the spider in her face.  Two nights ago he left the open and empty jar on her bed.  Her father laughed at her panic before pointing out the spider in the aquarium.  When her father ordered her to catch a cricket for the spider to eat, she almost decided, in her fear, to defy him and suffer the consequences.

Then, when no one was in the room, the spider had thanked her for its meal.

Cassie regarded the creature through the glass separating them.  "It's not like some silly old dream is going to help me out of this place."

After a long pause, the spider's voice returned to her head.  Do you like stories?

Cassie decided to run with the madness.  "Yes, I love stories."

Excellent. Would you like to hear one?

"Please."

Once there was a boy made of twigs.  Now, the Twig-Boy wished only to be left in peace.  But because he was small and fragile the black-headed birds would come and steal his limbs to make their nests, and the wild boys would trip and push him to the ground, laughing as his twig limbs broke.

"That sucks."

Indeed.  One day Twig-Boy was standing near the edge of the mud pit where the First Swine dwelled.  Twig-Boy was so fascinated by First Swine, he did not hear the wild boys creeping up behind him until it was too late.

"So they pushed him in?"

Yes they did, and a wondrous thing happened.

"He came up covered in mud?" 

Yes.  Then the wild boys threw rocks and sticks at him, and these stuck in the mud covering Twig-Boy.  The sticks became his skeleton and the rocks became his muscles.  The mud hardened into clay and Twig-Boy was no longer small and fragile, but large and strong.  Then the First People gathered and named him Clay-Man and the wild boys knew fear and hid under the branches of the great willow until they were forgotten from the world. And Clay-Man, who held no malice, traveled the world and gathered knowledge, which he shared with any who approached him in peace.

"At least someone gets a happy ending."

Our endings are what we make of our lives.

"I suppose."  Cassie sat silently for a minute.  "Thanks for the story."  She stood and turned off the lamp before returning to bed.

You're welcome, the spider whispered into her mind as she walked away.

#

"You watch after your brother," Cassie's father growled as he started out the door to work.  "He was head down in the john all morning.  I don't know what you done to supper last night, but he's awful sick, so you take care of him."

"Yes, Daddy," she replied, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice.  Being cooped up with Billy the Brat and His Fabulous Bellyache was not what she had planned for the day.

After her father left, she checked on Billy, who was retching up the cereal he'd eaten for breakfast.  Cassie searched in the medicine cabinet, but the only thing remotely close to a remedy for stomach problems was an aging bottle of Pepto.  She decided to make him some Jell-O and apple juice.

           Billy demanded she bring him a soda.  Cassie held firm and Billy, now ensconced in front of the television and watching one of the sports channels, gave up and drank the apple juice.

Ten minutes later, he ran into the kitchen where Cassie stood folding laundry on the table and heaved into the sink.  She reached over him to turn on the water and wash the mess down the garbage disposal, but paused at the sight of the sink's contents.  Blood flecked the remains of the green Jell-O.

Cassie settled Billy back on the couch and called the auto parts store where her father worked.  The man who answered said he was out on deliveries and wasn't expected back for at least two hours.  Cassie left him a message.

She decided to call her Aunt Lydia.  She knew her father would not like it; he didn't care for his late wife's older sister, but Cassie couldn't see another choice.  She dialed the number her mother had made her memorize.  Her aunt answered. She explained Billy's condition.  Lydia assured her she would be right over.

Cassie's aunt and uncle arrived in twenty minutes.  Cassie let them in, and after answering a few quick questions, stepped back to allow them room to examine Billy.

           Lydia and Richard Lowery had always struck Cassie as strange, but strange in a way she liked.  Before her mother died, Cassie would sometimes spend weekends with her aunt and uncle.  They lived in an old Victorian house, nestled behind an iron fence and surrounded by a wild, rambling garden.  Cassie had spent hours as a child exploring the various rooms, climbing trees, or lying on her back surrounded by the chaotic jumble of plants and flowers.  At night Richard would tell her stories about fairies, spirit animals, and any number of other exciting things, or Lydia would teach Cassie the rudiments of guitar.  And they never tired of Cassie's stories about the little folk she thought lived under their porch, or the sassy black squirrel who lived in the old oak in the backyard.

To Cassie it felt like living in another world.

Her father complained about Richard and Lydia filling Cassie's head with childish nonsense.  During the last months of her mother's illness, he refused to let Cassie have any contact with them.  She did not see them again until her mother's funeral last year ago, and her father was careful not to leave her alone with either of the Lowerys.  That was the last time she had seen her aunt and uncle.

Cassie watched them closely.  Aunt Lydia spoke soothingly to Billy while her uncle passed his hands over her brother's stomach, mumbling under his breath.  She didn't know what her uncle was trying to accomplish, but after a few minutes he stopped and looked up.

"Cassie, we're going to take Billy to Northwestern Hospital."  Richard's face took on an annoyed expression.  "When your father calls, please try to impress upon him the urgency of the situation."

Aunt Lydia threw him a warning look before turned to Cassie.

"We'll come back for you when your father reaches the hospital."

They scooped up her brother and vanished out the door as if they'd never been.

He won't die, the voice of the spider whispered in her head.

"What?" she asked, approaching the aquarium.

Your brother, he won't die.  He's only suffering from the consequences of his actions.  If he died he wouldn't learn anything, so he'll live and perhaps grow.

Cassie settled next to the aquarium.  "This is some kind of karma thing?"

In a manner of speaking.  One really should wash one's hands before eating.  Especially after handling a strange spider. 

Cassie laughed. "Life lessons through poor hygiene?"

Indeed, the spider's voice sounded tired.

Cassie scrutinized the spider.  He seemed visibly older, his brown fur shot through with grey.  "Are you okay?"

My kind does not do well in captivity.

Cassie chewed her lower lip.  "I'd let you go, but--"  She knew too well the consequences of setting Billy's captured animals free.  She had once released a wild rabbit Billy caught.  Her actions earned her three solid swats across her back from her father's belt.

I understand.  The spider's voice held no reproach.

           The phone rang, saving Cassie from continuing the uncomfortable conversation.  She crossed the room and picked up the receiver.        "Hello."

Her father's angry voice filled her ear.  "I thought I told you not to call me at work."

"Daddy, Billy's really sick."

"Then give him something for his stomach.  For cryin' out loud, girl.  Use your head!"

"Billy's throwing up blood.  I called Aunt Lydia when I couldn't get you, and she took him to Northwestern Hospital."

Her father fell silent for a moment then said, "I'm going over there now and get him.  We'll talk about this when we get home.  You make sure lunch is ready when we get there."

The line went dead before she could reply.

Cassie sat on the sagging old sofa and stared into the spider's aquarium.  She knew she was in serious trouble.  She realized she should get up and make lunch, but it hardly seemed to matter if she gave him one more thing to be angry about.  For a brief instant she considered grabbing a few belongings and running away.  Life on the streets suddenly looked more appealing than facing her father's wrath.  Without realizing it, she began speaking to the spider.

"Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived alone in a house full of family."

How is such a thing possible?

           "They would pretend the girl didn't exist.  As long as they were fed and the house kept clean and the laundry washed and dried, what did they care about her?  After all, she was only a girl, nothing important."

           So why did the girl keep cooking their food and cleaning their home?

"What else could she do?  She had no money of her own and she wouldn't be able to find work.  She was only a girl and hadn't even been allowed to finish school."

Was there nowhere the girl could go?  Could she not seek aid from another member of her family?

"She did have other family, but why would they take her in?  Even if she went to them, her father would only bring her back to the house.  If she just ran away she would have to live on the streets, and everyone knows what happens to girls on the streets.  Besides, to the outside world, she lived in a nice clean home and was well taken care of by her poor widower father.  Who would believe her if she tried to tell them different?  Why should they; she's just a stupid girl.  So she lived alone in a house full of family, and each day looked like the last, until she couldn't remember any other way of living."

What happened to her?

"I think she must have gone mad."  

Cassie sat silently after that, trying not to cry.  She did not hear when her aunt and uncle returned and let themselves in.  They sat on the old couch, one on either side of her, and waited for her to speak.

Cassie threw her arms around her aunt and burst into tears. All the pent up sorrow, anger, hatred, and loss flowed down her cheeks.  She cried for her mother.  She cried for herself.  She cried because for once it was safe to cry.  Finally, she looked up to see Lydia and Richard engaged in a wordless conversation. Cassie wiped her face and smiled weakly at them.

"How's Billy?" she asked.

"He's going to be fine," Lydia told her.  "The doctor is keeping him a couple of days for some tests, just to be safe."

"Thanks for helping me out."  She looked at the floor then asked, "Is daddy mad about me calling you?"

Richard stood and spoke, his voice filled with unconcealed disdain for her father.  "When we left he was busy arguing with the doctor about whether Billy needed to stay at the hospital." 

"He asked us to tell you he would be going back to work, and he would come pick up some clothes for Billy tonight.  You're supposed to make sure there's something for him to eat when he comes home," Lydia said, also rising from the sofa.

Cassie stood up, intending to thank them and walk them out, when she found herself being pushed back onto the couch by the two adults.

Lydia smiled down at her.  "I think you should rest; we'll take care of things today."

Cassie looked apprehensive.  "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

Richard snorted.  "Let us worry about whether or not it's a good idea."

Cassie wanted to protest.  She knew her father would not be happy to come home and find them, but she found herself too tired to care what her father thought.  She thought she would close her eyes for just a second.

#

Cassie awoke to the sounds of pots and pans clanging together in the kitchen.  For a moment she started to panic, thinking her father had come home.  When she sat up she found her aunt sitting near the aquarium, a look of deep concentration on her face, watching the spider weave his web. 

Her uncle appeared from the kitchen.  "Ah, Cassie, good, you're awake.  I seem to need some assistance," he disappeared back into the kitchen.

Giving her aunt a glance, Cassie entered the kitchen to find her uncle trying to prepare something that would pass for dinner.  Richard smiled as she came through the door.  With an exasperated sigh, Cassie took control of the situation, giving him clear and simple commands.

Once she had him sorted out, they exchanged stories to pass the time while they cooked.  Richard explained about a girl who became a cat, and Cassie told her tale of the lost fairy lord in plaid pants.  For the first time in months, Cassie felt happy.  She wished her life could be like this every day.

In a short time they concocted a passable dinner.  They set the food to stay warm, and were most of the way through cleaning up, when her uncle asked her, "How's school?"

Cassie thought quickly.  She didn't want them to know her father had withdrawn her from school the week after her mother's death.  "Um, it's summer."

"Yes, I know it's summer," he persisted, "I meant in general."

"It's okay," Cassie lied.

He seemed unsatisfied with the answer.  "What's your favorite subject?"

"Oh, you know, I like, well, English and--"

"So why did you drop out?" he asked.

"I didn't drop out."

"Then why aren't you in school?" her aunt spoke up from the doorway.  There was no accusation in her voice, just curiosity.

Cassie chewed her lower lip.  "Daddy decided to home school me."

"He's a moron," Richard spat.

Lydia raised an eyebrow at her husband, then turned to Cassie.  "Cassie, if there's anything you'd like to discuss with us, we'd be happy to listen."

           "How did you know I wasn't in school?" Cassie asked.

           "I give guitar lessons to Sandy Wilson.  She asks about you every time she comes over."  

           Cassie paled and nodded in understanding.  Sandy had been her friend in school.

           Richard smiled at her.  "Cassie, we can help you.  Whatever you need, please ask us."

Before Cassie could answer, her father came through the front door and started to bellow.  "Girl!  Bring me some dinner, then go pack some clothes and stuff for your brother."

Cassie automatically started to make her father a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  She had not counted on Lydia and Richard taking it upon themselves to confront her father.

"William," her aunt said, "why is Cassie not in school?"

Cassie set the plate of food and a can of beer in front of her father and retreated down the short hallway to pack Billy's things.  She knew this was going to get ugly and wished they would just drop it.  They weren't the ones who had to live here. 

"That ain't none of your business," Cassie's father replied around a mouthful of food.

"How do you expect her to have a future without an education?" Lydia asked.

"I need her here to take care of the house and stuff."

"So basically you want her to be your little house slave and to hell with whatever she wants for herself?"

"Look, I don't need you coming in here and telling me how to raise my daughter.  If you don't like the way I run my home, why don't you both get out?"

"William, if any harm comes to Cassie--" Lydia sounded calm, but he cut off whatever she was about to say.

"Cassie ain't your concern."

"She's my sister's daughter, and I dislike seeing her treated poorly!" 

William McGowen was not listening anymore.  "And you had no business taking Billy to the hospital over some stupid belly-ache.  You ain't the ones paying for it.  It ain't like the boy was dying; he just ate something funny the stupid girl cooked."

"Just like the lump that killed my sister was nothing to worry about?  Is that why you wouldn't take your own wife to a doctor?  Were you just too cheap to save her life?"

Cassie stepped back into the living room and took in the tense situation.  Her father stood red-faced with his fists clenched; Cassie thought he might hit someone any second.  Aunt Lydia was standing her ground and didn't look the least bit intimidated.  Uncle Richard stood to the right of her aunt. 

"Daddy, here's Billy stuff."  Cassie tried to sound meek and quiet.

He rounded on her so quickly she thought he was about to slap her.  "You go to your room!  And don't come out until I get home, you hear me?"

"Go on Cassie," Lydia said, "it's okay.  I need to speak to your father in private anyway."

Cassie vanished into the kitchen and down the long hallway.  She sat down on her bed and tried to hear the argument going on in the living room, but the voices didn't carry enough for her to make anything out.

After thirty minutes she heard the door open and close, and the sound of two vehicles pulling away.

Cassie waited a few minutes to make sure her father did not immediately return before she went back to the kitchen and finished cleaning.  She returned the clean dishes to the cabinet, poured herself a glass of apple juice, turned off the lights, and sat near the aquarium.

Cassie watched as the spider climbed the plastic coral to reach his web.  She thought he looked like an old man trying to walk up a long set of stairs.  When the spider reached the web, instead of climbing onto it as Cassie expected, he settled in front of it and started to pluck each strand with his long legs. Cassie could hear soft music coming from the aquarium.  The music soothed her tension, calming her after the evening's events. She wondered if a harp would sound like that.

"It's beautiful."

I learned to spin such a web when I first went searching for a mate.  Unfortunately, the spider's voice chuckled ruefully, it did me little good.

"So you've never been in love?"

There was one in my youth whom I paid court to, but she chose to devour another.  Now I spin the web for my own amusement.

Cassie shook her head, thinking about how much simpler her life would be if her parents had been spiders.  "I don't suppose I'll ever find someone, not living like this.  I'm barely allowed out of the house anymore."  She could not keep the touch of bitterness out of her voice.

Once, there was a girl who everyone looked through.  No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried to gain the attention of those around her, their eyes simply passed through her as if she did not exist.  The only time they would see her was if they wanted something from her.

"How did she stand it?" Cassie sniffed back the threatening tears.

For many turnings of the moon she simply endured it.  She would go from day to day being ignored except when they wanted something of her, always hoping they would stop and see her.  But they never would, because they didn't care that she was sad, or lonely, or that she wanted something to call her own, they only saw her as something that could make their lives easier.

"Why did she stay?" Cassie whispered.

Because the girl was convinced there could be only one reason they looked through her; she must be made of glass.  She knew glass would shatter if mishandled.  And if she shattered, it would leave her in a thousand tiny shards no one would pick up.  Then it happened: One day, they came to her wanting something she refused to give.  Angry at her refusal, they tried to break her.

"And did she break?" Cassie asked, really wanting to know.

No, she did not.  When they tried to break her for her insolence, they cut themselves on the girl instead.  And that was when the girl realized she wasn't made of glass, but was a diamond instead.

"She must have been happy."

Yes, and she left those who looked through her, because she realized a diamond was too rare and beautiful a thing to be left in the keeping of such selfish people.  So the diamond girl went to find those who would see her for the precious gift she was.

"Did she live happily ever after?"

I think she lived as happily as she wanted.

"I hope so."

Cassie put her glass in the sink and turned toward the hallway and her bedroom, her mind replaying the evening.

"--they cut themselves on the girl instead."

Standing there in the kitchen, facing the dark hallway leading to her bedroom and her father's room beyond that, Cassie came to a decision.  She pulled a knife from the block and returned to her bedroom.

#

The sound of the truck woke Cassie.  She glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table.  Three thirty-four in the morning.  He must have stopped off for a quick one or five after he left the hospital, she thought to herself.  She reached under her pillow and grasped the handle of the large kitchen knife, comforted by the feeling of the wood in her palm.

She listened to her father move around the darkened house.   She smirked when she heard him bang into something in the kitchen and curse.  She heard his heavy footfalls coming down the hallway and could just make out the soft pop of the opening of a can of beer.  She forced herself to relax as he passed her room, but she didn't loosen her grip on the knife or close her eyes.

She could hear him move into his own room and after a few minutes she heard the toilet flush in his bathroom.  There were a few moments of quiet, then she heard him start down the hallway again.  She turned onto her side and watched as the doorknob slowly turned.  She let out a long, slow breath, took in another, and tensed her muscles.

When her father opened the door, the overpowering stench of stale beer clinging to him, Cassie regarded him with steady, unblinking eyes.  Where before she stayed motionless in an imitation of small animals trying not to attract attention, tonight she kept still in the manner of a stalking cat, alert and vigilant, waiting for its prey to come within striking distance.  Something feral welled up inside her heart.  There would be no protective chant spoken tonight. 

Her father had taken off his belt, but now it hung limp and forgotten in his hand.  His eyes locked on hers.  He seemed afraid to come any closer.

Finally, in an effort to reassert his dominance he snapped, "Get to sleep, girl; I want everything perfect when Billy comes home."

"Oh, I promise, everything will be perfect."

He didn't seem to know how to respond, so he grunted at her and closed the door.

Cassie watched the seconds on the clock tick past.  At a quarter past four, she heard her father start to snore.  She relaxed and waited another thirty minutes before she rose from her bed and switched on her little lamp.

Cassie changed into a clean sweatshirt and jeans.  She pulled the old duffle bag that once served as her luggage for overnight visits to her aunt and uncle from under her bed.  She had packed a few precious personal items: a half dozen books, her mother's jewelry, four complete changes of clothes, something to sleep in, a few necessities from her bathroom, and the grocery money.  She wrapped the kitchen knife in a sock and placed it in a side compartment.  Hefting the bag, she decided she could bear it without trouble.  She turned off the lamp and, carrying her shoes in one hand and the bag in the other, padded down the hall into the living room.

Cassie set the bag and her shoes by the aquarium.  In the kitchen she packed a small meal in a plastic container and filled an empty bottle with water.  She returned to the living room and shoved both items inside the duffle bag.

Cassie looked around the living room.  She took a steadying breath.  She sat down to put her shoes on.  The spider, looking grey and frail, watched through the glass.

"Would you like to hear a story?" she said.

Of course.

"Once there was a girl who lived with her father and brother.  Her mother died, and her father had expectations of the girl that didn't match what she wanted, so he tried to pound the square girl into the round hole he wanted her to fit in."

That sounds terrible.

"It was.  And for a long time the girl just let them keep pounding her and pounding her because she couldn't see any way out.  But they never made her fit that round hole."

How did she survive?

"Stories.  She'd make up stories in bed at night about how she wished her life could be.  She read stories about people going off on great quests and making their own lives.  Stories carried her through."

Stories hold immense power.

Cassie finished putting on her shoes and stood.  "Yes, they do.  So, one day a great storyteller came to the girl's home and brought his tales with him.  The girl, listening to these stories, realized that maybe she didn't need to be pounded on.  She found people who would fight for her, who would be happy to take her under their roof, and teach her how to tell her stories to others.  So the square girl left home to seek her own life."

Cassie lifted the lid of the aquarium and placed her hand inside.  The spider crawled up into her open palm.

What happened to her?

"I don't know yet, her story isn't finished."

Cassie opened the front door, lifted the duffle bag, and stepped outside.  She looked at the spider in her hand.  "Where would you like me to set you down?"

The grass is fine, thank you.

Cassie knelt down and let him crawl from her hand.  He already looked stronger.

I must give you a parting gift.

"You don't have to."

No, I must.  You provided me with food and shelter.  You shared your stories.  Custom demands I give you a parting gift.

"But you weren't a guest; you were a captive."

You treated me as a guest.  Please.

"Okay."

Cassie watched as the spider stood motionless for several seconds.  Suddenly the grass in the yard started to move.  She looked closer.  There were crickets, dozens of them, hopping away from the house.

May fortune's favor forever shun the one who now sleeps in this dwelling, the spider pronounced with the severity of a judge passing sentence on a criminal.  As the last cricket hopped away, the spider spoke to her again.  Your gift.

She smiled at him.  "Please don't get caught again."

I promise.  And you must promise me a thing.  You must tell me the rest of the square girl's story someday.

"I will."

The spider seemed to bow to her on his long legs.  Turning, he disappeared into the tall grass.

Cassie watched the grass for several seconds before she stepped onto the sidewalk.  She smiled as she started toward the street corner.  It was too late in the morning for the hookers and junkies to still be out and too early for the working stiffs.  A short bus ride would deliver her to her aunt and uncle's house, and the next chapter of her life.

She turned the corner without ever looking back at her father's house.

 

 
 

About the Author

 

Like most writers, Michael Merriam has worked a variety of odd jobs, including as a musician, short order cook, and freight logistics manager.  After being declared legally blind, Michael took up writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Michael has sold short fiction to several magazines and anthologies, including Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Fictitious Force, and Three Crows Press. He received an Honorable Mention in The Years Best Fantasy and Horror 2008, and was nominated for the James B. Baker Award in 2007. 

Michael is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association and the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers.  He lives in Hopkins, Minnesota with his wife and an ordained cat.  Visit his homepage at www.michaelmerriam.net.

   
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.