DOMAIN OF SPIDERS
“Here’s your meds, Dad.”
Rex knelt before his father, holding out the tiny paper cup of pills with both hands. White-rimmed eyes lowered from the TV set to meet Rex’s, filled with the usual anxiety and suspicion. But his father’s trembling hand took the cup, brought it to his mouth, and tipped it back. Rex reflected that dry swallowing was one of the few new tricks his old dog of a father had learned since the accident.
“That’s real good, Dad.”
One less thing to think about, anyway. Melissa was coming by at ten to drive him to Constanza’s, and with an extra yellow in the mix, his father wouldn’t be causing any trouble between now and well past midnight. Rex didn’t like altering his father’s prescriptions, but left alone in the wee hours, the old guy was more of a danger to himself than one extra sedative would ever be.
“You seen my…? You seen my…?”
“Around here somewhere,” Rex said, rose, and turned away.
In the kitchen Daguerreotype was waiting by his food dish, rubbing his jaw against the corner of the counter.
“Clever Dag,” Rex murmured. The old tom always ran in here when the sound of pill bottles being opened reached his ears. “That’s right. Daddy’s got his meds, now Daggo gets his.”
He wound the key of the sardine can, the dense smell of oil and fish spilling out and sending the cat into an ankle-rubbing frenzy. Rex peeled one slimy sardine from the crush and waggled it by its tail. Daguerreotype lifted a paw halfheartedly, then meowed loudly and looked reproachfully at his bowl.
“Not the time for games, is it, Daggy?”
“Mrrrreeow,” came the reply. Eating was serious business.
Rex flipped the sardine into his own mouth and pulled out six more as he chewed, dropping them into the bowl from knee height with an oily splat. He watched the cat’s ravenous assault for a moment, then wiped his hands, picked up the phone, and dialed.
“Is Dess there?” he asked.
“It’s me, Rex. The beagle has landed.”
Dess sighed. “Jessica’s been here all afternoon. We’ll be ready for you at ten-thirty, all weaponized, like I said. Do you need to talk to Jess? Because we’re busy doing something here.”
“No. That’s fine. See you in…” He turned his wrist to note the exact time.
“See ya, Rexy.”
The line went dead. Rex sighed. This trip to Constanza’s had seemed exciting when he’d gotten the idea—all of them together at midnight for the first time since Jessica had discovered her talent. But now that the evening was upon him, all Rex could contemplate was having to juggle their five personalities all night long, on top of not getting anyone killed.
“Why weren’t you born at midnight, Dag? Then you could do my job.”
The cat paused to look up at him, then dove back into the dish.
The phone call was another thing out of the way. He’d already talked to Melissa, and Rex didn’t see the point in calling Martinez. With Jessica headed into danger, Jonathan would be there on time, if not early.
He went to his room to prepare.
Dess was bringing weapons, so Rex packed light. Into his backpack he stuffed the runway report he’d pinched from Constanza’s father, a compass, extra batteries, a ragged twenty-dollar bill for gas, and a snakebite kit (useless for slithers, but useful for snakes). Finally he stuck an extra flashlight into his coat pocket—mostly for when it got dark, but written on its side in block capitals was the name INTENTIONALLY, just in case Jessica could use it in a pinch.
Forget reading the lore or seeing the marks of midnight, Rex thought. This was his real job: making sure that somebody bothered to be ready for anything. He stuffed a bottle of rubbing alcohol and bandages into the backpack.
The sounds of a car pulling up outside caught his attention. He frowned. It was more than an hour until Melissa was supposed to get here, and what he really didn’t need tonight was one of his mother’s surprise visits. She drove down from Norman sometimes on the weekend to dispense advice (and sometimes money, more usefully) and to convince herself that she hadn’t totally bailed after Dad’s accident.
Rex walked silently down the dark hallway back to the living room. His father wasn’t asleep yet—his milky eyes shone in the restless glow of the TV—but the extra yellow had worked quickly enough that there was no passing mention of spiders. The empty terrarium brushed along Rex’s shoulder in the flickering light, imagined shapes dancing behind its scratched sides. An idea half formed in his mind that it was darker in the living room than usual.
He peered out the window, praying that his mother’s Mary-Kay-pink Cadillac wasn’t occupying the front driveway.
There were two vans in the street, their side doors rolled open and disgorging figures in dark colors. Six or seven of them, moving quickly in the darkness, spreading out across the lawn, surrounding the house.
Rex watched, stupefied. Pointlessly and too late, he realized why the living room was so dark. The stark white rectangles that usually flooded through the front windows were absent. The lonely streetlight that cast them had been broken.
It took an effort of will to turn away from the astonishing sight of the attackers. As Rex retreated down the hall—first walking, then running—his brain admitted only slowly that the things he’d seen out the window were not part of a movie or a dream. They really had come for him.
He should have known it would come to this. Melissa had said that the halfling was sick; the darklings would need to create another before she died or lose their link to their human allies forever. They must have wanted to get rid of Jessica before sending the groupies after him, but Rex had made that tricky by messing with the dominoes. Now they were desperate, with only one course of action left: taking Rex Greene to the desert and changing him there.
In his room he pulled on his coat and grabbed the backpack, turned off the desk light, and took two steps toward the door, then realized he was barefoot. His eyes swept the floor of the unlit room, struggling to pick out his boots from among the piles of papers and books and discarded clothes.
Not here. That was right, they were by the back door.
He ran to the kitchen with soft steps, trying to listen for his attackers. Maddeningly, there was no sound at all, no passing cars, not even the moan of autumn wind in the trees. Rex flicked off the lights in the kitchen and peered over his glasses. Even in darkness the boots stood out with the bright detail of Focus from stomping slithers out at Constanza’s house.
He sat on the floor, back braced against the outside door, and pulled them on.
Finally he was ready to run.
Rex sat there, wondering how far he’d get. He was panting already, and the figures out the window had been so fast, their movements so graceful and confident. He remembered Melisssa’s words: Get some poison. Rex had let himself think she was just being overdramatic. But the realization rose slowly and horribly inside him that maybe he should have listened to her after all…
The house was still silent, the night disturbed only by sounds of a baseball game from the television. At least his father would be almost unconscious by now.
Not a light in the house was on. Rex’s one advantage was his midnighter’s photophobia. He could practically see the dark.
A sound reached his ears, finally. A knock at the door.
Rex closed his eyes. The knock came again, stronger, and his father made a small sound of irritation: Somebody get that.
Why were they knocking? For a moment Rex allowed himself to believe that his paranoia had gotten the better of him. Maybe it was just two vanloads of lost tourists asking for directions. He swallowed, fighting the urge to answer the knock. It would be so much easier to pretend he didn’t know who they were and why they were here. Just go and open the door to them.
No one would ever know he’d just given up.
Rex rose slowly to his feet and peered out the kitchen window. The backyard seemed empty except for its usual heap of junked car parts. But movement caught Rex’s eye. His old tire swing gently swayed from side to side.
They were back there too.
Another knock came at the door. Impatient now.
Rex lifted the telephone from the receiver and held it to his ear. The little shell of plastic was utterly silent; like the streetlight, they’d taken out the phone line.
He crouched again, remembering all the times he’d had to escape his father’s wrath, all the tricks he’d known before the accident. There’d been a way out onto the roof through his bedroom window, but it was blocked now by bookcases. The hiding place under the kitchen sink was still there, but four years’ growing had left him too big to fit.
Then Rex remembered the crawl space under the house, where his dog Magnetosphere had always slunk away to be cool in summer and finally to die. The thought of the damp, cold space made Rex’s skin crawl. And how could he get down there, anyway? He’d have to find a way outside first.
Then he recalled the bathroom window.
Rex had often retreated to the bathroom when his father started to get a head of steam up. It was the only room in the house with a lock on the door, and the window was just the right size for a kid to crawl through. But that was four years ago. Rex wondered if he could still fit.
Would his attackers have stationed someone in the narrow side yard? There was no side door, and no other windows faced that way.
He stood, fighting memories of childhood fears. It was his only chance. And Rex was too old to still be spooked by his father’s lies: he knew damn well that under the house was not where spiders came from.
Rex’s steps were no longer quiet. His boots clumped down the hall to the bathroom and set the boards to creaking. When he’d reached the silence of the tile floor, he paused to listen again. The knocking had stopped.
Then the sound of rattling metal reached his ears from the living room. The doorknob was being jimmied or picked. The sound set his teeth on edge, and Rex almost wished they would simply burst through the door instead of taking their time.
Of course, they had surrounded him, cut him off from any help. Why should they rush?
He unlocked the bathroom window and slowly pushed it open, straining to keep it silent. Shrunken by the autumn cold, the wood slid easily. With one foot on the toilet, Rex pushed himself up and stuck his head out.
The narrow stretch of side yard was empty. The darkling groupies had covered the front and back, not expecting Rex to go under the house. Rex heard the panting of the Guddersons’ dog next door, and smiled. Of course the trespassers would give the mean old rottweiler a wide berth. The animal was always listening for any reason to start up a righteous barking.
He pushed himself farther out and found that his shoulders passed through the window diagonally. If they fit, surely the rest of him would make it? The image of being stuck halfway filled his mind, but Rex shook it out of his head.
He pulled himself in and lifted the backpack through, dropping it softly to the grass. Then, with both feet up on the toilet and his hands on the windowsill, Rex paused…
The dominoes, the lore signs he’d stolen from Darkling Manor—he hadn’t thought of any reason to bring them tonight, so they were sitting on his desk, ready for the taking. Even if he got away, the darkling groupies would recover them. They’d have the symbol for the flame-bringer again, and they’d be able to go after Jessica. She’d always been their real target, after all.
He stood there for another few seconds, trying to hear past the mutterings of the TV. Were they inside yet? Was there time to go back and get the dominoes? The bathroom was next to his room; it wouldn’t take thirty seconds.
Rex sighed. He couldn’t endanger Jessica to save himself. He lowered one foot and then the other softly to the floor.
Out in the dark hall again, he saw nothing. But his father made a soft sound, one he knew from years of interpreting the old man’s grunts and moans: confusion over an unfamiliar face. They were inside.
Rex took the few steps to his room, wincing at the soft thud of his boots against the floor. He scooped up the darkling dominoes from his desk, then paused again. Lying on the desk was Spontaneously Machiavellian Deceitfulness, a letter opener that Melissa had given to him a month ago. As a daylight weapon, it was useless. But if he was captured tonight, it might serve to carry a message…
He grasped the opener and pressed the cool against his forehead, focusing all his terror and anxiety into it. He imagined himself stripped and mutilated, his flesh melded with a darkling’s, his mind enslaved to help is enemies.
Then he placed the blade’s point against the soft wood of the desk and pushed as hard as he could until it stuck upright, quivering like a shot arrow when he pulled his hand away.
A noise came from the living room, a muffled protest from his father. Rex swallowed. They wouldn’t do anything to the old man, would they? Of course, they didn’t know how drugged up he was, how unlikely to raise any sort of alarm.
Rex closed his mind to any thought of his father. If restraining the old bastard was keeping them busy for a few extra moments, so be it.
He slipped out of his room and took two steps down the hall. One stride from the bathroom, his boot connected with a soft and plaintive shape.
Rex halted at the bathroom door. “Dag, shhh,” he whispered.
A footstep sounded behind him, from the far end of the dark hall. Rex didn’t turn. With the window open to moonlight, he knew he was silhouetted against the bathroom door.
“Rex Greene?” a voice called.
The time for silence was over.
He stepped inside and slammed the bathroom door, locked it, then jumped up onto the toilet and threw himself into the window’s maw.
Halfway through Rex reached a sickening point of equilibrium, his front and back halves balanced, the windowsill digging into his belly, blood rushing to his head as he teetered forward. The moment stretched out, unresolved by gravity… His hips were caught.
Then Rex realized: his shoulders had barely fit through diagonally, but now his body was square across the window. He tried to twist himself, to rotate the forty-five degrees he’d need to squeeze on through, but his struggles dislodged the loose window sash, which fell closed, wedging him in even tighter.
A muffled crash reached his ears—the bathroom door bursting in. His attackers had also dispensed with silence.
Rex felt a firm hand grasp his ankle and flailed with his feet while his fingers clawed for purchase at the house’s aluminum siding. One boot connected solidly, and a hideous grunt spilled out through the window. The collision pushed him a critical few inches forward, and his hips were free.
The ground was rushing up at him…
“Uhnn.” His shoulder exploded with pain, his head clouding as the world turned over itself. After a moment of disorientation Rex found himself on his back, the breath knocked out of him. He raised himself painfully on one elbow to look around. No dark figures, no sound save the jingle of the metal tags on the growling beast next door.
Then a voice cried from the window, “He’s in the side yard! This way!”
They couldn’t fit through the window, but they could see him. They would watch him crawl under the house. But maybe it would take too long to drag him out, especially if the whole neighborhood had woken up…
He lashed out with his boots at the fence between his house and the Guddersons’, beating the wood like a drum only inches from the rottweiler’s head. Vicious barking started instantly, as if the animal had been waiting all night for an excuse to start howling.
Rex scrambled the other way, pulling himself through the narrow gap between aluminum siding and earth, his head and upper body plunging into the cold, damp world beneath the house. This had been his father’s constant threat, exiling young Rex into this shadow place where old, sick Magnetosphere had crawled away to die, this place where tarantulas bred and multiplied in the darkness.
He felt naked, as if he were about to grasp a biting, hairy spider with every desperate handful of dirt. Even his midnighter’s vision was useless in the utter blackness. Brittle dead things scratched his face, leaves and branches that had blown here to rot. He was almost all the way under the house. They wouldn’t waste time following him down here with the dog next door going crazy… would they?
Then he felt strong hands take his ankles.
Rex lashed out, trying to connect again. But more hands took hold, two on each foot, pulling him back out so fast that his coat and shirt rode up, his bare stomach sliding across the dirt. His fingernails skittered across the hard earth uselessly. Twisting half around, he reached up to grasp the floor beams of the house, but they were covered in a damp mold, as slick as algae-coated rocks in a stream.
He gave up, thrusting his hands into his pockets to grasp and scatter the darkling dominoes into the blackness.
And then he was out, the sudden moonlight shining on their sweating faces, at least four of them huddled around him, one reaching a hand down toward his face. But the Guddersons’ dog was still barking. Maybe all he needed to bring out the whole neighborhood was a single, bloodcurdling scream.
Rex took a deep breath.
Chemicals filled his lungs—a dentist-office, mortuary smell that overwhelmed him, his cry instantly silenced, his mind set floating. But in the brief transit between wild panic and blank unconsciousness, Rex felt a feathery and drugged satisfaction: they wouldn’t find the dominoes. Jessica was safe. No one else but he would dare crawl into that dark space, still haunted by Magnetosphere’s ghost, the cold and dank and vile domain of spiders…