“You have spider legs. You have fangs and venom. And you’ve never thought your own obscurity odd?”
Sixteen-year-old Spinneretta Warren doesn’t just have a bizarre name. She’s got eight spider legs to back it up, along with fangs, venom, and a pair of siblings just as unusual as she is. Not that any of that has stopped her from leading a normal, mundane life in Grantwood, California. In fact, aside from the odd stare, nobody even seems to care that she’s half-spider. Even her mysterious ninth cousin Mark—who claims to wield magic—can’t quite convince her that she’s all that unusual.
But when somebody tries to kidnap Spinneretta’s younger sister, that normal life begins crumbling around her. With Mark intent on exposing the dark secrets surrounding Grantwood, and an obscure legend that’s just a bit too compelling to ignore, Spinneretta will finally have to confront the truth of her origins. A mysterious corporation, the cult of an eldritch spider god, and the dark legacy of the Warren bloodline tangle in a web of magic, love, and conspiracy.
Just what are the spider children? And can Spinneretta and Mark uncover the truth before it destroys them?
A slow burn YA/crossover Lovecraftian urban fantasy about spider people.
Check out the first three chapters for free below!
— Chapter 1 —
A Goddamn Miracle
“I’m not going to white-wash this, Mr. Warren,” Doctor Morton said. “You are genetically spider.”
Ralph stared at the doctor, stricken by the illogical remark. “Excuse me?”
“It’s really quite extraordinary,” Morton said, leaning forward across his narrow oak desk. “The lab wasn’t able to give any insight as to the cause, much less the exact mechanics, of your disorder. However, it seems you are a carrier for certain traits common in arachnid species—which is why you yourself show no signs of abnormality. I suppose using the word spider might be a little misleading.”
Ralph was in no state to consider semantics. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, telling me that bullshit.” He glanced over his shoulder, half-believing a hidden camera crew had snuck into Morton’s office. “The fuck does genetically spider mean?”
Morton raised his palms in a calming gesture. “I understand this must be difficult to hear. I’ve had to deliver a lot of bad news in my time—”
“Bad news?! How stupid do you think I am? I’m going to sue your ass for malpractice if you don’t stop fucking with me!”
Morton sighed and shook his head. “You’re welcome to look at the results yourself.” He slid a four-page lab report covered in cryptic medical jargon across the desk. “Like I said, genetically spider is a massive oversimplification of a miraculous rarity in your genetic makeup.” He paused for just a moment, and Ralph felt his lips curling into a sneer. Morton gave a nervous little laugh. “Honestly, I’m as baffled as you are.”
Ralph looked up from the papers he held. The slanting rays of evening light from the blinds fell across the doctor, giving him a vaguely sinister appearance. The goofy car-salesman grin beneath Morton’s glasses made Ralph want to lay him flat. His hands wound into trembling fists. He’d hated that grin ever since they’d first come to his damn office. “And you expect me to believe something like that?”
Morton’s smile vanished. Though his gaze was steady, a hint of fear now crept across the blind-cast shadows of his face. “I don’t have anything to gain by lying to you. Besides, can you really dismiss it so easily after seeing your daughter?”
Ralph grew quiet. He adjusted his glasses and again tried to read over the meaningless streams of measurements in the charts. Somewhere outside the office, someone was making copies. He wondered if those copies, too, leapt to ridiculous conclusions. Was the expectant mother in the next room genetically rhinoceros? Probably, since the entire universe had apparently gone mad around him. “I want another test,” Ralph said at last. “At a different clinic. You guys must have screwed up, because this is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard of.”
It was denial. He was just pushing back against the universe’s unilateral edict. Somewhere in the shaking innards of his mind, he knew Morton was right. As insane as being genetically spider may have been, what else could have explained the miracle of his daughter’s birth three weeks earlier?
May Warren found out she was pregnant a year after she and Ralph moved to Grantwood, California. It was a shocking development. She never wanted kids, never even liked them. Not that she hated the idea of raising a family with her beloved husband. When asked, she’d always said it was financially irresponsible to have children so young. But that point held little water anymore; they’d moved because of an unbelievable job offer, and Ralph’s salary was now more than sufficient to comfortably start the family she knew he wanted.
May was thus forced to admit the real reason for her apprehension: she doubted she could really feel that unbreakable motherly bond with a child. Evolutionary mechanism or not, she didn’t believe that unconditional love for slimy, placenta-covered little brats could actually happen to her. It was a sick, rotten feeling that she hated to even acknowledge. And when Doctor Morton informed them that the ultrasound showed signs of abnormal growth, her guilt only deepened. Though he assured her there was little chance of a life-threatening condition, it did little to quell her malaise.
For weeks following that appointment, May found herself in the study, listlessly poring over encyclopedias and browsing the then-nascent internet for information on what to expect. The breadth of birth defects and developmental disabilities was staggering. A child with high-functioning autism would have been one thing, but raising a child with progeria? Cystic fibrosis? Treacher Collins syndrome? She didn’t even know if she could handle a perfectly normal child, and the more she thought about it the worse she felt as a human being. Selfish, unworthy. If only that clown Morton wasn’t so hard to get a straight answer out of, she could have found some peace amidst her worry. But Ralph’s uncharacteristic optimism gave her a fragile hope that everything would work out. It was too late to change her mind about starting a family. She could only expect the worst and pray for the best.
May Warren gave birth to her daughter on the evening of June twenty-seventh, 1996.
If the clock by the side of the bed was to be believed, May had been unconscious for just under four hours. Night had fallen long ago, but it was impossible to tell in the windowless cubicle they were trying to pass off as a recovery room. Her head throbbed, and her still-blurry vision made her dizzy all over again. The sterile lights pressed against her temples, and a twinge of panic raced toward her heart. “Ralph?” she said, throat dry.
“Right here,” came a soft voice.
She turned her head, not without a tremendous effort. Ralph still held her hand as though he’d never left. Despite her pounding forehead, she smiled up at her husband. Her memory was a blur. Her other hand drifted instinctually to her lower abdomen, and a mild soreness jump-started her recollection of the birth.
The cesarean. The scuttle of doctors moving about the delivery room. A glimpse of her daughter before falling unconscious.
“Where is she?” This time it was a little harder to speak. It felt like she’d swallowed broken glass.
Ralph nodded his head toward the door to his left, eyes distant. “They have her in special care right now, I think.” He cleared his throat and made a visible effort to brighten his somber tone. “But Doctor Morton said he wanted to talk to us about it once you were awake.” He showed her a weak smile, but his brown eyes held no joy. “I’m sure everything’s fine. I hear all babies go there after a C-section.”
May’s stomach turned as he spoke. Ralph had always been a terrible liar.
Fifteen minutes later, Doctor Morton poked his head into the room. Drowsy and dizzy as she was, May still noticed the slight frown creeping across his lips. That meant bad news. The doctor hadn’t even opened his mouth, but tears were already washing away her vision.
“Ahh, you’re awake,” Morton said, his voice bright. “That’s good, that’s good.” He at last stepped across the threshold, holding a clipboard with a fat stack of papers.
May’s heart continued to sink. Through the tears welling in her eyes, she saw him pass a nervous glance over them both. Ralph’s grip on her hand tightened.
“Well, you’ll be happy to know that your daughter is perfectly healthy.” Morton broke out with his goofy smile. “Which, given the circumstances, is a goddamn miracle if you ask me.”
May felt a weight lift from her shoulders, but another squeeze from Ralph’s hand cast doubt over her relief.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Ralph said in a calm, measured tone. It was the tone he used when his temper was just below boiling. “Given what circumstances, exactly?”
Doctor Morton’s eyes lit up and he gave Ralph a puzzled look. “Really? Nobody’s told you? I figured one of the nurses must have said something about it by now.”
May didn’t find his word choice very reassuring. What circumstances made a healthy baby a goddamn miracle? How healthy was healthy? What the hell was wrong with her child?
“The nurses wouldn’t say a damn thing to me,” Ralph said, his voice wavering.
Morton scratched his forehead. “Huh. Well, that makes things a tad awkward, then. Now, before I say anything else, I want to reaffirm that your baby is perfectly healthy, all things considered. However, I’m sure it would come as no surprise if I were to say that your little girl is rather special.”
Ralph nodded, his anger fading. “We’ve had four months of ultrasounds,” he muttered. “No surprise there.”
This time May squeezed his hand. As she did, a flare of pain ripped its way through her temples and made her wince; was it the drugs? Or maybe the blood loss? She suspected both, and a healthy dose of stress to top it all off. “What’s wrong with her?”
The doctor lowered his voice. “To be honest, I’m not sure. That is to say, I’ve frankly never seen anything like this before. Ahh! That probably didn’t sound very good, did it? But no, we won’t be naming a disease after her, if that makes you feel any better.” A nervous chuckle sputtered from his grin like water from an old, rusty sprinkler. “I’ll have Molly bring your daughter in. I shouldn’t have to explain anything after that.” He turned and, with a purposeful haste, exited the recovery room, leaving a rigid and palpable silence behind.
May kept repeating those words, though they made no sense to her. Perfectly healthy, he’d said. All things considered, he’d said. A goddamn miracle.
Those incompatible thoughts continued running in their own separate directions, growing and spreading. Whatever was wrong with her child must have been wrong on a fundamental level; it didn’t matter how healthy she was at the moment because soon nature would take its savage and unapologetic course.
Her mind flashed to images she’d seen of a baby born with his heart outside his body. How healthy had that baby been? How long had he lived? And even if that poor miracle survived, could she have cared for it? Could she have been the loving mother he deserved? Doctor Morton’s words stabbed over and over: nothing short of a goddamn miracle . . . given the circumstances. A goddamn miracle.
May doubled over, grabbing at her abdomen with her free hand. A numbed soreness again radiated from the incision. She wanted to throw up. Her head pounded and her eyes ached. What God could condone such cruelty?
God is dead, she decided. Dead and buried, two thousand years or more. No more resurrections, no more healing. This is Satan’s world now. All hail your new god, him and his goddamn miracles.
Footsteps entered from the hall. When Ralph squeezed her hand again to signal the nurse’s arrival, she was still trapped in her own world of hopeless vacuity. Then she heard a brief, almost inaudible cooing. The panicked voices and thoughts ceased. Her universe was empty of all existence except for her and her daughter. Time stopped. Silence. Though her eyes were clenched shut, she thought she felt the tiny heart beating not ten feet from her. She cracked her eyes. The breath went out of her husband—it was a sound that gave her no comfort. She focused her blurry vision upon the maternity nurse.
The nurse stood nervously just inside the doorway, her face filled with a mixture of revulsion and apprehension. A bundle of blankets sat in her arms, held farther from her body than May thought appropriate for a maternity ward. And then she noticed what rested within the bundle. May held her breath. The baby was beautiful, her sleeping face the portrait of peace and tranquility. Her face was round, her cheeks full and rosy, her tiny nose upturned, her ears small and flat. Strands of dark, wispy hair crowned her perfect head.
But there was something wrong. Something out of the ordinary. Something none of May’s research could have prepared her for. What stood out about this child, the clear cause of the nurse’s discomfort, was a pair of dark structures which bent down over her shoulders. Their presence defied everything May understood about anatomy; what could they have been? They weren’t tumors, for they were far too well-formed, too purposeful. Yet it didn’t matter what they were. The despair and anguish that had consumed her mind vanished. In their place was a sudden and overpowering need to hold her child.
She reached out toward the nurse, ignoring the crippling weight of her arms. For a moment the nurse didn’t move, her expression perplexed, but then she glided to May’s bedside and lowered the Warrens’ firstborn into her mother’s embrace.
May cradled her daughter, and truly saw her for the first time. The newborn girl, indeed, seemed healthy. May could now see the strange structures clearly. They were two long, thin, finger-like appendages that curled over her shoulders from the back. The structures gleamed with a glossy, deep brown color. The appendage on the left flicked upwards lethargically, as if reaching for something an inch above her face. It was the most precious gesture May had ever seen. “These . . . These are . . . ”
“Legs,” the nurse said. “There’s more. Under the blanket. Six of ’em.”
Six more? Six plus two made eight of those beautiful appendages. May reached down and grasped one of the legs between her thumb and forefinger. She raised and lowered it in a handshake, feeling its texture against her skin. It was smooth and just a little hard, like plastic mixed with eggshell.
“Ma’am, are you alright?”
“I’m . . . ” A chuckle rolled out of her mouth. “I’m great.” She turned to Ralph, who had all but vanished from her awareness. “Ralph, look at her.” Her voice wavered as she started to laugh again.
But Ralph’s expression was one of silent disbelief. Had he breathed at all since the nurse entered the room? His eyes were locked on the bundle May held. He was at a complete loss for words. “The hell’s the matter with you?” he said after a moment.
The question made her laugh. Perhaps it was the drugs again, or perhaps it was the euphoria of motherhood. “What do you mean?”
Ralph looked at the nurse incredulously before returning his gaze to May. “After all that talk before? You’re just okay with this?”
She heard a very different question, and another laugh bubbled out of her. “She’s more than okay.”
Again Ralph glanced at the nurse, but his eyes came right back. Concern filled his features. “Is she alright?”
May wasn’t sure what he meant. Is she healthy? Is she stable? Is she acceptably normal? Is she here? Is she ours? Is she perfect? It didn’t matter. “Yes,” she said between spasms of laughter. “Look at her.”
Ralph slid closer and put out a hand. He caressed his daughter’s cheek, and the dark appendages twitched in response. Ralph quickly withdrew his finger, as if afraid of being bitten. Though his perplexed expression lingered, May didn’t care. She was on top of the world.
“What do you think? Way better than just a description, eh?” Doctor Morton said, once again walking into the room. He showed May a bright smile and turned to the nurse. “You can go back to the nursery now.”
Thankful for permission to leave the miracle behind, the nurse turned and retreated from the room without a word.
“Now then, I’m glad to see you two are getting acquainted,” he said, ignoring Ralph’s clear discomfort. “I’m sure you must be wondering what this little bundle of joy’s miraculous malformation is.”
“I’d sure like to hear the answer to that,” Ralph said. “Nurse said she has six more, so that’s, what, eight of these weird little legs? The fuck does that make her, a spider?”
May snapped her head toward him. “Ralph! How could you say that about her? She’s not a spider. She’s an angel.” She cradled their daughter closer and again began gushing over her.
Ralph stared at Morton in disbelief. “Are you seeing this? Either I’ve lost it or I’m the last sane person in this hospital!”
Morton wiped his brow. “Now, Mr. Warren, please, calm down. We are all quite sane here. Just because something doesn’t turn out the way you expect doesn’t mean you have to shout about it, you see?” A nervous tick started in the corner of his mouth. “As I mentioned before, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what those extra legs are about. But rest assured, Mr. Warren, we are checking into it. That is to say,” he said, flipping back the top sheet on his clipboard, “we would like you to come in for a blood test as soon as possible.”
“A blood test?”
“Yes. You came in this April for a physical at the request of the Golmont Corporation. Remember that?”
Ralph snarled. “Don’t patronize me, Morton.”
“Sorry, sorry. Although it’s a bit early, I was wondering if perhaps you’d let us do some more blood work in light of your daughter’s, well, abnormality. Specifically, we’d like to do some genetic testing to see if we can’t find something out of the ordinary that might explain this. Fused chromosomes or what-have-you. We’d like Mom to participate as well, of course.”
“Fine with me,” Ralph said. He appeared helpless, lost.
“Great. We can work out the scheduling later. It might not even be necessary depending on how the screening test comes out, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.”
Ralph didn’t respond.
The doctor stood there a moment, basking in the awkward silence. “Well, at any rate, you three take it easy. If you need anything, you have the button. But don’t get too comfortable, you still have some paperwork to do. Now’s your last chance to bicker over names, after all.”
May looked up, the thought having slipped her mind. They had, of course, considered names before. They’d settled on Layla if it was a girl and Jackson if it was a boy. Those names, however, no longer fit such a miraculously unique child. What name could befit such a miracle? When the tiny creature in her arms stirred, May once again forgot the matter altogether and resumed speaking in tongues to their half-awake daughter. Beside her, Ralph sat in silence, staring off into space.
In another part of the state, the angry shriek of a telephone broke the silence of the Friday morning.
Good God, Kyle Rogers thought. Who could be calling at this hour? Sitting in the black leather chair in his study, feet resting on the surface of his desk, he had almost fallen asleep while looking over the latest revision of an article from the JOA. The enthralling piece of literature in question was entitled Salticidae of the Pacific Islands. Distribution of Nine Genera, With Descriptions of Eleven New Species by James Berry, Joseph Scatty, and Jerzy Proszynski. The article, while mercifully short, was no less mind-numbing than any other he’d been arm-cranked into the peer review process for.
The lamp of his desk clock told him it was almost one in the morning. And the phone was ringing. He had half a mind to ignore it. There wasn’t anyone on the planet he liked enough to talk to at this time of night. On the other hand, the phone was an excuse that led away from Berry et al. He pulled his legs off their desk-bound perch and answered right before the fourth ring. “Hello?”
“Kyyyyle!” came a woman’s singing voice.
His heart sank. “Hi, May,” he said through his teeth. Good ol’ May Wolf, the Wolf of Chamberlain, The Hound of the Commons. But no, not anymore. She was May Warren, now. What an appropriate name, he thought bitterly. The wolf in the warren, ravens overhead.
As always, he’d been on the verge of forgetting May and their time at Chamberlain when out came the shining sun to burn away the fog he yearned to hide beneath. If there was one person in the whole world he had no interest in talking to right now—or ever—it was her.
“How’ve you beeeen?” the woman said. She sounded drunk.
“Same as always.” He didn’t bother to return the question. “What do you want?”
“Oh, don’t be so distant! Maybe I just wanted to call and catch up!”
“At one in the morning.”
She giggled, filling Kyle with a cocktail of loathing and longing. “You’re still a night owl, aren’t you? Some things never change.”
“If you only called for small talk then I don’t have time for it. I have work to do.”
“At one in the morning.”
“Yeah. I’m busy.” This had to be God’s way of punishing him for his sloth. Passive-aggressive bastard.
“Well, I’m sure you’re not so busy that you can’t take a short break! How long has it been, anyway? Oh hey, hey, question: are you still doing your spiderography?”
He didn’t even know where to start correcting her. Forsaking that option, he drew a razor-thin breath through his teeth. “Yeah, I’m still in arachnology. What are you doing?” Hypothetical question; she was probably still writing poems for pamphlets or some other crap while Ralph supported her with his corporate programmer’s salary.
May, however, must have misunderstood the question. “I’m at the hospital. Ralph and I just had our little girl!”
Despite his disconnection, Kyle couldn’t stop himself from biting his tongue. Well congratu-fucking-lations, he wanted to growl. I’m so happy for you. Did you call just to mock me?
May giggled again. “But there’s this teensy little detail. She has these, like, spider legs, or something like that.”
Kyle was quiet, listening for the punchline.
“You there, Kyle?”
“I’m here, but I don’t know why. What’s the joke?”
“Joke?” Another small fit of laughter on the other side. “No joke, just a bundle of love and joy!”
Maybe she really is drunk, he thought.
“So, here’s what I want from you, Ky-uhl.” The way she rolled his name brought back memories he’d buried under twelve years of ambivalent gravel. “We need a clever name for her.”
Kyle sighed. What the hell is this? Spider legs? Clever name? And then the light went on, and her intent was obvious: she was trying to get a name for another of her stupid stories or something-or-others that she was writing. She’d sometimes come to him for ideas back at Chamberlain. Some things never change, his mind echoed.
His stomach rolled. He didn’t want to talk to her at all, and helping with her projects was only going to encourage her to keep bothering him. Or worse yet, encourage her to continue thinking of him as a friend. But if he didn’t help her, she was going to keep hounding him and badgering him until he gave in and she got what she wanted anyway. That had, after all, been the origin of the appellation the Wolf of Chamberlain.
“So you just want a name?” he asked, his better judgment telling him to give in and hope she’d leave him alone once and for all.
“Yuh-huh, if it does ya.”
The simpler the better, he thought, again recalling the couplet her voice had summoned: Three miles in bedlam, Arachne weaves her thread. If there was a god of irony, it was laughing at him. “Name her Arachne.”
“Arachne?” came May’s response. “Explain.”
Christ, are you serious? he thought in disbelief. “Old Greek legend, arrogant mortal woman challenges Athena to a weaving contest, insults her, gets turned into a spider.”
“Ohh, oh, oh, oh, oh, yeah! I remember you telling me about that before.” She took a deep, contemplative breath. “I don’t like it,” she said in a bored tone. “It’s too obvious. Not pretty enough.”
“Fine, fine, let me see.” He drummed his fingernails over the hard wood of his desk. “You want a girl’s name?”
“Well, ideally.” She giggled. Unthinkable though it was, he thought he detected a sense of humor in her voice. But it was probably his imagination. Or the gin.
“Name her . . . ” He let his mind drift along the web of word associations, and after a moment it hit him. Clever names about spiders? Didn’t get any more fitting than the catalyst of his childhood love of arachnids: his uncle’s pet tarantula. “Name her Spinnerette,” he said.
Another airy breath. “Explain?”
“Web-spinning spiders use things called spinnerets to produce silk. Ette–E, T, T, E–is a common ending for girls’ names: Babette, Annette, Nanette, and so on.”
“I hate all of those names. Pretty names don’t end in consonant sounds.”
His jaw clenched. So why didn’t you complain before I explained it, then? Another sigh to calm his blood. “Then tack on an extra A. Spinneretta. Problem solved.”
May hummed. “Spinneretta. Yeah, that has a nice, pretty taste to it. How do you spell that?”
“Spin. Spinner. E, T, T, A. Got it?”
“Uhh, I think so?”
“So are we done then?” Under normal circumstances, he’d feel bad for being so curt. The trip down memory lane, however, made him want to vomit in fury.
May laughed that infectious, bubbly laugh again, making his stomach turn bitter somersaults. “You must really want to get back to work, huh?”
“I have a lot to do.”
Another giggle. “Well, I’ll let ya go then. We’ll need to catch up soon, though!”
“Yeah. Sooner or later.”
“We’ll have to visit sometime so you can meet our little girl!”
“Yeah. Definitely.” He had no intention of meeting her, sooner or later. Come to think of it, did she really just have a kid? She shouldn’t be working so soon. The nostalgic pain of worry came over him, stilling his anger toward the woman.
“Thanks again, Ky-uhl! Bye-bye!”
“Bye. Take care of yourself.” He clicked the receiver onto its charger and sighed. May always found a way to claw her way back into his mind. Why did he even bother trying to fight it?
Because I have to, his brain answered. He turned his eyes back to the eighth page of Berry, Scatty, and Proszynski, but found himself unable to focus. Thanks to the ever-present shadow of May Wolf, memories of a happier time assaulted his mind.
Chamberlain. The smell of the dormitories. The night sky stretching above those hills nestled far from the rest of the world. There was no hatred then, nor had there been any omens of a future alone. Only friendship and hope—hope for himself and for the girl they called the Hound. The aggressive, the wild, the overdue. Concerts on the green, library from dusk until dawn. The taste of coffee she’d poisoned with artificial sweetener. Those draft poems he’d find taped to the edge of his desk when he got back from his night classes. They were always works in progress that never failed to read like personal messages to him.
Now, he had nothing. A bag of broken dreams, a tentative teaching position at Marlin Community College, peer reviewing the Journal of Arachnology. And the letter from earlier that year. That damned letter. It had been a job offer, an enormous research grant. A grant from Grantwood. What were the freaking odds? Where the hell else would a petty, vindictive God choose than the town Ralph and May had picked to lay their roots? Now, that letter sat unforgotten and sealed in the top drawer of his desk, an eternal memento of all Ralph had taken from him.
Trying to shake the memories away, Kyle focused on reading the stark words of the article. To his dismay, he found those words sounded different in his head. They were familiar words, horrible and echoing. They were the last lines of the last poem written by the Wolf before she changed—before she was stolen from him.
Three miles in bedlam, Arachne weaves her thread
Ralph excused himself as soon as May reached for the bedside phone to call Kyle. Leaving the semi-private room felt like coming up for air. He’d breached the surface of his dream-ocean. Out of sight, out of mind. But it wasn’t out of mind. The sight of his daughter’s legs wouldn’t leave his thoughts. What the hell was going on with this hospital? Not just the hospital, but May. She’d been given to such despair during the pregnancy that he’d thought even a common congenital disorder would’ve crushed her. She’s not a spider, he heard her saying again. She’s an angel. Nauseous and dizzy, he turned left down the corridor. Morton had gone left, and he needed to talk to that halfwit. Now.
The halls were deserted. Last time he’d been out of the room, nurses and orderlies had been bustling about. That was hours ago. Now the staff was down to a skeleton crew, and the dim lighting of the corridor made everything feel imaginary. He made his way down the hall, eyes darting left and right at each intersection. Morton had probably gone back to his office. Even if he hadn’t, it was a sound place to begin searching.
But he did indeed find the doctor in his office. Sidling past the empty reception area, Ralph’s eyes were fixed on the yellow-tinted light shining beyond Morton’s half-open door. The doctor sat at his desk, phone in hand, speaking in a hushed tone. Baring his teeth, Ralph marched right up to the door and barged in. Morton jumped in surprise, tongue frozen in mid-sentence. “Morton,” Ralph said, failing to mask his unease. “We need to talk. Now.”
Doctor Morton looked like he’d seen a ghost. After a moment, his lips began to move again. “I’ll call you back in a moment, Mr. Clearwater.” He clacked the phone down into its cradle and took a shaky breath. “You’ll give me a heart attack if you make stomping into my office a habit, Mr. Warren.” He laughed a nervous laugh. A forced laugh.
Ralph glared at him. “What am I supposed to do about her?”
The doctor flashed him a pearly smile, also forced. “Oh, don’t worry. She’ll mostly recover in a few days. For a few weeks, you should make sure she doesn’t do anything too strenuous until—”
“I’m talking about my daughter, you jackass!”
He’d expected Morton to laugh that asinine little chuckle. Instead, his eyes hardened to distant beads of coal. “What is the problem, exactly?”
Ralph’s tongue flapped as he tried to form words. He leaned over Morton’s desk and planted his fists on its surface. “I swear to God, you’re all lunatics. Do I have to spell this out for you? My daughter has spider legs! How am I supposed to . . . What’s normal about that? How is she going to live a normal life?” That’s it. He had to make it about her. He couldn’t let on that those legs creeped him out of his skin. “It’s just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve—”
Morton’s teeth flashed again, but this time in a scowl. “And what do you expect me to do about it?”
The anger in the doctor’s tone gave Ralph pause. He shook his head, the question throwing him off guard. “I don’t . . . I mean, there has to be something you can do, Morton. Couldn’t you, I don’t know, surgically remove them, or . . . ?”
The cradled phone began to ring, but neither of the men moved or acknowledged it. It sounded like the cries of a bluejay being burned alive. Morton was silent for a moment. The look in his eyes grew more distant. When he spoke, his tone was low and measured. “I’m afraid that would be impossible. You’ve seen her move her legs, yes? Beneath her flesh, those legs connect directly to her spinal cord. If we were to remove them—a procedure I’m uncertain you could afford—we would cause irreparable damage to her nervous system. Would you really paralyze your daughter for life just to be rid of some unsightly growths?”
Ralph sputtered, alarmed at the quiet indignation pointed at him. “It’s got nothing to do with unsightly! Do you think people are going to just accept her like this?”
“Your wife seems to have accepted her. I thought she was the one with all these petty little reservations.”
The cavern in Ralph’s gut deepened. That new vacancy began to seethe, and the incessant death-chirping of the phone put his teeth on edge. “I swear to God, Morton, if you’re trying to suggest that I’m being shallow about this . . . ”
“I recommend you accept your daughter the way she is,” Morton said. “Don’t worry about what others think. You’d be surprised how far the definition of normal can stretch these days.”
Ralph chewed his lip. Morton’s gaze held his, and the doctor’s rare sternness drained him of all hope. He turned around and stormed out of the office without a word of parting, leaving Morton to his damned phone call.
Unsure where he was going, Ralph wandered the twilit hallways. He was lost, in a daze. Before he even realized it, he found himself heading to the bathroom to throw up or scream or something. He felt like he was going nuts. It was a dream—a nightmare. But as he laid his hand upon the men’s room door, he paused. The screaming thoughts in his head receded to a mere whisper. No. Not a nightmare. It felt suspiciously like a curse. He trembled as his lips formed the word, thoughts reignited into a black firestorm. A curse. Was it possible?
He shook his head, unable to dispel the thought. Those born of the line of Golgotha are invariably cursed. He’d never believed a damn word his grandfather had told him before that very moment. The man had been a skeletal wreck from a lifetime of vice and loss, and whenever he spoke it was in riddles or eschatonic fragments. Ralph leaned against the door, feeling the cool wood against his forehead. Could the legendary curse of Golgotha, which had allegedly taken his sister and two brothers, really have existed? What were the chances the old man had actually predicted this? Slim to shit, Ralph thought with a poisonous hiss. Nothing but fairy tales and delirium. Fairy tales. Delirium. He didn’t know if he was describing his grandfather or his own life. With a low sigh, he pushed open the bathroom door.
The next week, the Warrens returned to the hospital for blood work and genetic testing. May’s test came back perfectly normal. Ralph’s came back genetically spider.
May and Ralph went on to have two more children, just as miraculous as their first. As a result, the man named Kyle Rogers would, unknowingly, contribute two more names to the Warren family. To the boy born eighteen months after Spinneretta he gave the name Arthr, an amalgamation of the common name Arthur, whose pronunciation was preserved, and the word arthropod. Four and a half years thereafter, a stumped Kyle suggested Kara, which was not a pun besides its vague resemblance to the word carapace. Never failing to be impressed by his names, May thanked him each time and left him to wonder what she was using them for.
With the birth of May and Ralph’s third child, the Warren brood was complete. Time moved on in its unerring march. And to the dead stars sleeping within A’vavel, the next ten years would pass in the blink of an eye.
— Chapter 2 —
The Warren Brood
Spinneretta always thought of the attic as a graveyard. It was dusty, crammed full of forgotten trinkets, and likely to be haunted. And as she stood at the end of the second-floor hallway, staring up the ladder into the trapdoor’s even surface, she felt a pang of unease. With a small sigh, she climbed up to the trapdoor and wrestled with the handle. Though the door was sticky from disuse, it sprang open with a loud pop. A flurry of dust billowed down from above, filling her sinuses and spiracles with the smell of wood. With a cough that almost became a sneeze, she stretched out the eight spider legs that grew from her back. They were slender, each an arm and a half in length when fully extended. Each bent along five articulated joints and was covered in lustrous black chitin plates. As the dust settled, she grappled the higher rungs of the ladder with her spider legs and resumed her climb.
She’d nearly reached the top when her knee smashed into the corner of a maliciously aligned beam. She cursed as one hand and half of her extra appendages went to her throbbing kneecap. Cause of unease identified. She’d been up in the attic fewer than ten times in her sixteen years, but that damn beam got her every time. When she could move again, she grabbed the edge with her foremost appendages and leapt nimbly up to the floor, allowing the trapdoor to fall closed behind her with a thunk. The electric light of the house below vanished, leaving only a dull glow from outside.
The setting sun out the faux-crystal window gleamed, painting the surrounding forests in brilliant greens and golds, but the attic was as dark as a grotto. Spinneretta found the chain to the light and gave it a quick tug. The hanging bulb flickered to life, banishing the Halloween palette with an ancient yellow glow. Eyes adjusting to the new hue, she glanced around, scanning the chests and boxes that sat in uneven stacks along the slanting walls. Now, where would I be if I was a family tree?
She approached one of the chests at random and undid its latches. The lid creaked as she lifted it, and a fresh swirl of dust billowed up from its depths. She fought the urge to sneeze, and when the cloud dispersed she turned her attention back to the trove of papers and folders within.
“Did you find it?” came a muffled voice from below the hatch in the floor.
“Not yet,” Spinneretta called back.
The jarring sound of creaking wood came, and the trapdoor popped open again. Pushing the hatch into its upright position, her mother climbed up onto the floor, wobbling as she found her footing. Spinneretta noted bitterly that she’d avoided the damned beam.
“Did you check the memento chest?” May asked.
“Which one? They’re all memento chests.”
“The one with all the old papers.”
Spinneretta gestured quizzically to the mouth of the open trunk.
“No, no, not that one.”
“Well, then which?”
May hummed a low note and looked about the room. “Let’s see. If memory serves me, then . . . ” She gave another musical hum and set about rummaging through a stack of boxes against the other wall. Spinneretta watched, half-mesmerized by her mother’s certainty, as May grabbed a small chest and heaved it several feet out from the wall, leaving a trail of angry dust in its wake. “Ta-da! This should be it.” In triumph, she unfastened the rusted latches and pulled the lid open.
To Spinneretta’s untrained eye, the contents were identical to the first footlocker she’d opened, but a high note her mother sang dispelled her doubts.
May began to sift through the folders and files with a guided purpose. “Let’s see, I believe this’ll be a good starting point for my family.” She pulled a thick file from the document prison, checked the first few sheets, and passed them into Spinneretta’s waiting hands. “And if I’m not mistaken, your dad’s tree should be . . . Huh. It should be here. Right here, between family recipes and . . . That’s weird.”
Spinneretta glanced over the aged surface of the folder in her hands. Her fingers felt filthy having touched it. “Is it missing?”
Her mother clicked her tongue in frustration. “Somebody probably misplaced it. God, I came up with this organization system for a reason! Who was even up here?”
Spinneretta ignored her. She bent in close to examine the packed contents of the chest. How could anyone call such rampant paper-smashing organization? Her mother must have had ESP to find anything. As her eyes navigated the labyrinth of faded manila walls, something paper-clipped to one of the files caught her attention. She reached out and pulled it from the box. It was a flexible rectangular magnet with a light blue printing on one side. The printed side had a border resembling a set of intertwined ribbons framing a couplet in the center:
Three miles in bedlam, Arachne weaves her thread
Spinneretta gazed at the magnet, unable to make heads or tails of what it was trying to convey. “What’s this?”
Her mother gave a surprised laugh. “That,” she said, “is something I haven’t seen in forever. They’re the last lines from a poem I wrote a long time ago in college.” Her tone fell, and a nostalgic sigh seeped from between her lips. “It was probably the last good thing I ever wrote. After that, I just didn’t have the same inspiration. I was so proud of it at the time that I immortalized it in magnet form. Don’t remember why I put it away up here, though.”
Spinneretta turned the magnet over in her hand and ran the tip of one of her spider legs over the back, feeling the age in its slick, rubbery surface. “What does it mean?”
May shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just some pseudo-intellectual garbage I threw together for a contest.”
The response made Spinneretta pause. She didn’t often doubt her mother, but the answer rang with insincerity. She didn’t find it likely that the occurrence of her surname in the text was just a coincidence.
May leaned in close and chuckled. “Hey, you want to know a little secret?”
A profound sense of dread began to solidify in Spinneretta’s stomach. “Secret? What secret?”
“Because of that poem,” May whispered, “we almost named you Arachne.”
“Wh-what?” Spinneretta stared at her mother. Her lips trembled as she processed the words. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
May smiled. “Nope! Lucky for you, we came up with something better, huh?”
Spinneretta shook her head, but the heat was building. “Wait. Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that you were going to give me a name from Greek mythology—a name that people would at least understand—but instead settled on a pun on a spider’s ass?”
Her mother beamed. “You bet we did! We couldn’t have named you Arachne because there was no imagination in it. Spinneretta just has such a cute ring to it, you know?”
The anger shook her fingers until they threatened to crumple the stack of papers within the age-stiffened envelope. “No, it doesn’t! It’s not even a name, it’s a misspelled noun! You gave Arthr and Kara normal names. Mostly. How is that fair? Why did only I get stuck with a fake name? You couldn’t even give me a reasonable middle name, what the hell is up with that?”
May giggled. “You’re our special little girl and I love you very much.” She bent over to kiss Spinneretta’s forehead, leaving her stunned. And when her mother stood back up, she let out a long sigh. “Now where the hell are those records? I swear I’ll crucify whoever moved them. I guess I’m going to stay up here and look a bit harder. Is that enough to get started on your project?”
Spinneretta grumbled. “Yeah.” She returned to the open hatch in the floor. Fighting with her mom was useless, but hearing how close she’d been to having a half-reasonable name made her want to scream. Folder and papers heavy in her hands, she lowered herself through the trapdoor, spider legs grappling the edges as her feet scrambled for the rungs of the ladder. The dust-smell of the attic started to fade as she rappelled downward, and that transition alone made her feel a little better.
Just a year and a half to go, she thought. Sarah Warren, here I come.
Spinneretta made her way to the study, a small but cozy room beside the stairs leading up to the second floor. Three of the study’s walls were lined with bookshelves housing countless assorted volumes. One end of the room was home to a wide hardwood desk where her father used to work when deadlines drew near. The times when he had the luxury of crunch-time debugging at home, however, were far in the past. Spinneretta was now the only member of the family who used the room with any regularity.
She flopped onto the small faux-leather couch and opened the file containing the archived history of the Wolf family. The folder was thick enough that, with a little luck, she wouldn’t even need the Warren side to write a C-grade essay with minimal effort. She began to sift through the unorganized evidence of generations past, finding the inelegant, type-written font offensive to the eye.
A few minutes later, the door flew open with a bang. Spinneretta was too used to the intrusion to be startled by it, and didn’t bother looking up when Arthr pushed his way into the room.
“It’s Friday night,” her brother said in mock disbelief. “And you’re studying. I knew you were lame, Spins, but I didn’t think you were that lame.”
“That joke gets funnier every single time you use it.” She hoped against all hope that he’d just leave.
Arthr, the only male among the Warren children, had grown taller and faster than Spinneretta; at fifteen, he now towered above her by half a head. Like her, he had their father’s russet eyes and their mother’s lean figure.
As if satisfied by her remark, Arthr’s snide expression vanished. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe, his biceps flexing. His messy brown hair flopped into his eyes. “What are you studying, anyway?”
“Grade project. Thought I’d get a head start on it.”
He stretched his spider legs outward, the joints rattling and popping. “Can’t blame ya. Not like you’ve got anything better to do.”
“Mm.” Experience said that the only way to get her brother off her back was to deprive him of the reaction he sought. The hypothesis held, and after a few moments of ignoring his latest prod he sighed in resignation.
“Well, whatever. I’m outta here. Tell Mom I’m out with the guys,” he said, turning around.
“Wait a second, I thought you were still grounded for punching that kid in the nose.”
He gave an arrogant shrug. “Oh well.”
She snickered. “Would you prefer I just tell her you’re out bird-watching?” The way he froze in the doorway confirmed her suspicion.
“Tell her what you want. If you must know, we’re going to do some sprints. Gotta keep in shape for the meet in Hedera next month.” He gave a smug grin over his shoulder and left the room. Despite his freshman status, Arthr was already making waves on the track team. The student body knew him not only as that guy with the spider legs who runs really fast but also as an unbeatable fighter hungry for glory. The twin reputations swelled his head like an oozing cyst.
As usual, Spinneretta just let his bland elitism roll off her back. Though she loved running as well, Arthr always gloated about his competitive edge. But she didn’t care. She preferred to run at night, when there was nobody around to stare when she let her legs out to drink the night air. She couldn’t say why, but it was cathartic, and Arthr’s incessant superiority was a reasonable price for that.
With a small huff, she turned back to her documents. Sprints. Like I’d believe that. She was certain he was going bird-watching, which was Arthrspeak for hitting on hot babes at the mall.
To her chagrin, Arthr was bafflingly popular with the girls at school. She supposed he was reasonably attractive and all, but how shallow did they have to be to tolerate his attitude? And why did Arthr’s legs seem to attract girls instead of repelling them? Statistics made it clear that girls, in particular, were petrified of spiders. At first she’d assumed the girls chasing after him were doing so out of pity, mistaking his extra appendages for some terminal illness. But she believed that less and less as time went on and his fan club grew in size.
A short while later, after reading an account of an ancestor by the name of Jeremiah Wolf, Spinneretta grew weary of her research. Setting aside the old documents, she gave her arms and spider legs a thorough stretch before heading out into the hall. The door creaked shut behind her just as her mother, now covered in a thin layer of dust, descended the stairs with a frown.
“I swear to God I’m going to murder whoever moved those papers,” May said. “I can’t find them anywhere.”
Spinneretta stretched her arms again and yawned. “Thanks for looking, but don’t burn yourself out over it. I’m pretty sure I can fake the parts I don’t have.” She tried to hide her genuine disappointment. She’d always wanted a closer look at her father’s bloodline, though she doubted any answers awaited her.
Her mother sighed. “You can fake whatever you want, but now I have to find them just for the sake of it.” She started toward the kitchen, then turned on her heel. “Oh, I almost forgot, will you go find Kara for me? She’s not in her room and it’s about dinner time. I’m afraid she’s out spoiling her appetite again.”
“Yeah, fine.” Spinneretta gave her legs another wide stretch in anticipation for the coming exercise. Knowing Kara, there was only one place she would be so close to dinner.
People always commented that Spinneretta was every bit her mother’s child, and Arthr got the gender-swapped equivalent half as often. But Kara, with her blond hair and striking blue eyes, resembled neither parent to any meaningful degree. Without her slender build and arachnid qualities, she could have passed for a member of a totally different family.
Now, Kara sat perched on one of the branches of her favorite tree, waiting with the patience of a chiseled gargoyle. Her six-segmented spider legs were planted at regular intervals across the bough, their tips sinking just beneath the bark. The smell of pine needles and the taste of sap on her legs reminded her of Christmas. She often found herself gravitating toward this tree in particular. Sitting in one of the upper branches above the house, she’d sometimes read and sometimes gaze off at the horizon with fanciful thoughts stirring in her head. Sometimes she’d do nothing at all, except close her eyes and bask in the wind.
But now wasn’t one of those times.
Teeth pressed together, two of her legs outstretched and tense, she waited for the moment she’d strike. Her line vibrated, and the air shifted subtly. Her lips parted in a vicious smile. Resin-like precursor began to flow from her second pair of fangs, the ones she alone had been born with. As the thick fluid pooled on her tongue, she couldn’t hold back a small shudder. It was the consistency of honey but tasted harsh and acrid.
As her prey approach, her muscles tensed. Even her spindly arms and legs prepared themselves. A moment later, her line shook from the impact. Now! With an explosive exhalation, her loaded muscles sprang and launched her off the branch. In mid-pounce, she seized the feathered creature trapped in her taut net. As she tore it from the trap, her unoccupied legs spread and prepared to absorb the impact of landing. Her bones rattled as she touched down upon the roof, and then her legs went to work.
While four of her pointed legs held the screech owl fast, her others began to hook and pull the thick substance from her mouth, stretching each captured gob into a silvery, amber-tinted wire of silk. Her legs danced around the owl, wrapping it until the feverish beating of its wings stopped. Once its wings were restrained and its legs bound, she began to apply the second layer of wrapping. She gave each new strand a second tug to stretch it into a finer and more aesthetically appealing coating for her new friend.
Though Arthr and Spinneretta, too, were born with concealed fangs capable of secreting venom and digestive enzymes, only Kara was gifted with the second set further back in her mouth. While they may not have been true fangs, it was from these glands that she secreted a protein-rich precursor which she had, at a young age, learned to form into silk.
As she finished her task, she admired her work and smiled that same devilish grin. She didn’t like eating owls. Not because they didn’t taste good, but because they were so cute. The feathery mess that was always left over didn’t help, either. But food was food, and at least it wasn’t a possum. She opened her mouth, preparing to sink her fangs into the owl.
But before she could inject her acidic enzymes, a warning boomed from behind her. “Let the bird go, Kara.”
She turned and found Spinneretta hanging from a pine branch by two pairs of her spider legs. The look on her face was not as reproachful as their mother’s would have been, but the firmness of her voice was a mood killer.
“How did you find me?” Kara asked.
Spinneretta gave a half-hearted shrug. “I hope you didn’t think you could be sneaky while jumping onto the roof from nine feet up. Let the bird go.”
“Oh, come on! I just caught it!”
“It’s dinner time.” Spinneretta pulled herself up to sit upon the branch. “And Mom will probably do something awful to you if she finds another feather-pie in the gutter.”
Kara sighed. “What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti, I think.” Kara groaned, making Spinneretta laugh. “But I’m sure there’s some meat for you, too.”
Kara sat for a moment, and then made a high-pitched whine in her throat. She swiped two of her anterior legs, splitting the pristine silk cocoon. The screech owl, hooting in a wild panic, stumbled free from the webbing. It made a short series of hops, trying to beat its bound wings, and then fumbled and rolled off the edge of the roof.
“Poor thing,” Spinneretta said. She turned around and began to climb back toward the ground, probably to set the panicking bird free. “Be sure not to leave any silk up there or Mom will scream.”
Kara grunted and stared at the pile of wasted silk. Yeah, like I’m cleaning anything up on an empty stomach. She pulled a stray strand of web from her blond hair before crawling to the eaves and rappelling down the side of the house.
May, Spinneretta, and Kara were already at the dinner table when Ralph arrived home from work. May greeted him as usual, and he received her warmth with equal parts exhaustion and comfort.
“How was work?” May asked, kissing him on the cheek.
He glanced at his watch, and a defeated look came over his face. “Long as hell. You guys didn’t really wait for me, did you?”
May smiled. “Of course!”
Kara tapped the tips of her spider legs on the table in an impatient gesture, eying the red slab of raw beef on her plate. Spinneretta shot her a warning glare, but Kara didn’t see it.
Ralph smiled over at the table, a sad glint in his eyes. “You really shouldn’t have. I ended up eating a while ago as we were tying up some loose ends.”
“What? Why didn’t you call?” May said.
He held up his cellphone. “Forgot to charge. Would’ve called from the office phone but I couldn’t find time. Barely had time to eat. The new guy may as well be illiterate. Fucking burden is what he is. Spins, I’d put money on you being able to code circles around him.”
Spinneretta shook her head, ignoring the praise. “Yeah, right. I’m terrible and you know it.”
“I had to teach him how to dereference a pointer.”
A laugh turned to a half-cough in her throat. “What? And you guys are paying him?”
“Not for long, if I can help it. Swear to God, I need to get you an internship in our department. Get you some experience beyond the basics, and you’ll be a real life saver in crunch time.”
She sighed and looked down at the cold spaghetti on her plate. “Just keep saying that.”
“Well, I’m going to take a shower. Eat without me. Really sorry to keep you all waiting.”
At that, Kara snatched the hunk of meat from her plate and dug her concealed fangs into it, making a high-pitched noise of glee. With a detached nostalgia, Spinneretta watched her sister envenom the meat. She waited until May returned to the table before she began to eat her naked spaghetti.
“Oh,” May called as she sat down. “Ralph? Do you know anything about the records for the Warren family tree?”
There was a brief interlude of silence, wherein Ralph’s footfalls from the hall ceased. “What about them?”
“They’re not in the attic where they should be. You haven’t seen them lately, have you?”
A longer pause drew Spinneretta’s ears right to the source. “No,” Ralph said. “I have no idea. Sorry.” With that, he ascended the stairs, leaving the rest of them to eat in peace.
“So, did you start the grade project?” Chelsea asked the next Monday at lunch. As she set her tray of food on the mesh table and sat down beside Spinneretta, the sunlight from the full-wall windows made her fair skin glow.
“Yep,” Spinneretta replied, prodding the shriveled sausage on her tray with a plastic fork. “I’m about halfway done with it.”
Amanda gave her a surprised look. “Jesus. I thought you were kidding when you said you were going to get started on it.”
She shrugged. “I figured, why the hell not. I was kind of interested in my family history anyways. Not anymore.” The thought just made her more bitter about the missing Warren documents, which her interest had been chiefly concerned with.
“Find any radioactive spiders in there?”
“Nah, Grandpa Parker would be on my dad’s side if he existed.” Spinneretta smiled. “I found an antiquarian, though. Apparently he found some really boring things that nobody in their right mind cared about.”
“That would excite you,” Chelsea said. “You could at least lie about it when you give your presentation so you don’t kill me with boredom.”
Spinneretta smirked at her. “I’m going to talk about pottery shards for forty minutes and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” Chelsea’s apparent earnestness caused Amanda to roll her eyes. “And yes, I know you’re kidding, but that doesn’t make it alright to say things like that.”
Amanda chuckled through a bite of her salad. “If Spins gives her presentation on pottery, I’ll do one better and give mine on sand.”
“You’re awful.” Chelsea propped her chin up with her hand and pretended to pout. She glanced off toward a table on the other side of the hall, where Arthr and his track friends were flinging bits of corn at each other.
“How about you guys?” Spinneretta asked. “Don’t suppose you’ve done anything on it.”
Chelsea pulled at her black ponytail, as she often did when distracted. “My family’s boring all the way back to France.”
“Not looking forward to that project,” Amanda said.
Chelsea barely seemed to hear her. “Why’s that?”
“Because of my grandfather?”
Chelsea gasped. “Oh! Right. Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” Amanda brushed her wavy auburn bangs out of her eyes. “It’s just annoying having to deal with all the artificial pity whenever someone finds out he was one of the Norwegian Killer’s victims. And I think Mr. Worth would just fail me right then and there if I didn’t mention Grandpa.” She paused. “Not to mention the only question anyone’s gonna ask afterward is hey, Amanda, is it true San Solano is haunted? I mean, obviously you’d be the person to know, in a six degrees of separation kind of way.”
Spinneretta’s smirk returned. “I’m going to ask you that verbatim no matter what you give your presentation on.”
Amanda sighed. She buried her head in her hands, her fingers digging into her hair and along her scalp. “Wish whoever’s in charge of Parson’s Grove these days would just take down that fence. Put an end to all the urban legends. I’m just so sick of people expecting me to know anything about it!”
Chelsea’s gaze drifted away again. “Do you think it’s true the Roswell wreckage ended up there?”
Amanda’s perpetually sleepy-looking eyes flashed with irritation. She looked like she wanted to punch Chelsea in the mouth. “I think it’s a dismantled prison. And the Roswell wreckage ended up at Wright-Patterson.”
Chelsea leveled her gaze at Amanda with an exasperated sigh. “Okay, look. Don’t tell me you really think that’s all San Solano is. There’s gotta be something—”
“Why would I know?! What part of not having a grandpa makes me an authority on abandoned prisons?”
Stirred by laughter, Spinneretta stretched her arms over her head and flexed her cramped spider legs beneath her olive-colored jacket. They couldn’t breathe under the heavy fabric. She planted her elbows on the table and smiled at her bickering friends. She’d met them at a young age when she’d transferred to the Mount Hedera Montessori Academy in Widow’s Creek. They’d been the first kids to overcome their revulsion of the spider-girl, and they’d quickly become fast friends. They were the only people who truly understood her, and that was a fact she would be forever grateful for.
“Oh, Spins,” Chelsea said, breaking away from her squabble. “Amanda and I were going to go to the mall after school. Want to go?”
Spinneretta groaned. “Is this going to be anything like the last time I went shopping with you?”
“Okay, okay, I said I was sorry about that. If I promise not to even look at a swimsuit would you come?”
She thought about it a moment, discarding the bleak memory in good humor. “I guess. Wait, is Chad going?”
Chelsea shuddered. “No. He has soccer practice.”
“Oh, thank God.” She didn’t think she could take any more of Chelsea’s twin brother’s scumbucketry so soon after Arthr’s sleepover back in December. “I don’t really need anything at the mall, though.”
“Oh, who cares?” Chelsea said with a laugh. “It can’t be worse than choking on the grade project.”
“Two hours in the changing room begs to differ.”
“I said I was sorry!”
“My dad said he’d take us after he gets off work,” Amanda said through a bite of corn. “Would it be cool if we picked you up around five-ish?”
Spinneretta considered it a moment. “It’s fine with me, but Mom’ll probably be expecting me to be home for dinner.”
Amanda frowned. “So no sushi?”
She wrinkled her nose. “No sushi. But we should have at least a couple hours since Dad’s been getting home late anyways.”
Chelsea sighed. “You really are no fun.”
Spinneretta answered with a shrug. “Too bad.”
Spinneretta arrived home just after 4:10. The warmth of the new spring made the journey to their secluded home in the sylvan outskirts of Grantwood a recurring test of her resolve. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, Grantwood was heavily forested, and their neighborhood—if such a word could be used—was built deep in the pine groves that hugged the border with Widow’s Creek. Their nearest neighbors were separated from them by a half-mile of woods, and the walk to and from school took the better part of an hour. No sooner had she made it through the front door than she threw her jacket off and freed her spider legs. She cracked her leg-joints, flexing her sub-plate muscles and inviting a euphoric release of restricted blood flow.
Dizzy with relief, she strolled into the kitchen and drew a glass of water that she downed in a single gulp. She refilled the glass, her spider legs shivering from the cold injection into her overheated core. With the glass refilled, she headed back into the living room. Thoughts of homework hung like a specter above her head. The grade project, trigonometry, that stupid poetry unit in English. She didn’t have much time before she’d be leaving again, so there wasn’t much point in getting started. Instead, she dropped her bag and jacket beside the couch and flopped down into its cushions, skillfully keeping her glass of water upright between a pair of appendages. Stretching her arms above her, she set the water upon the end table at her head and let her eyes drift shut.
May arrived home from picking up Kara not long thereafter. The sound of the door opening and her sister’s voice jarred Spinneretta’s mind out of its half-asleep state. “Welcome home,” she said to neither of them in particular, waving her hands and anterior legs in the direction of the door.
“Hey there,” May said with a smile, setting Kara free to scurry up the stairs. “How was school?”
She stretched again. “Fine.”
“Fine? How boring. Are you going to be around for a while?”
“I’m going to the mall with Amanda and Chelsea in a bit.” She eyed the clock. 4:45. What the hell? Felt like I was asleep for at least an hour.
Her mother vanished into the kitchen. “Ahh, alright. Will you be home for dinner this time?”
“Yep. Made sure of that one for you.”
“Good. Have you seen your brother?”
“No. He’s probably bird-watching.”
“Oh, God. Are you serious?” May sighed. “What am I going to do with him?”
Spinneretta hummed. “You could try nailing him in a coffin.”
“No, he’d just break out,” she said in a hopeless tone. She drummed the tile countertop with her keys. “I think I’m going to start giving him a negative allowance until he learns to respect groundings. Want to make some extra money policing him when I’m not around?”
She considered the offer for less than a second. “Nah. Pass.”
May continued tapping her keys in thought. “Figured you’d say that.”
Spinneretta rolled over onto her side and let her eyes fall closed again. The nap had been entirely unsatisfactory. She folded her spider legs around her like a chitin blanket. “What’s for dinner?”
“Well, would you like me to just give you a slab of meat instead? We still have beef.”
Spinneretta shuddered. It felt a lot like being asked if she wanted to drink formula out of a bottle. “No, thanks.”
“Then don’t complain about my meatloaf,” May said with a chuckle.
“Just try and stop me.”
A few minutes later, there was a knock at the front door. Jolted again from her comfort, Spinneretta took another look at the clock. 4:51. They were early. She hadn’t even rebrushed her hair yet. She snatched the brush from her bag and leapt to her feet, checking her phone to make sure she hadn’t dozed through a message of we’re here, get outside, stupid. But her inbox was empty, so she just threw her jacket back on. “That’ll be for me,” she called toward the kitchen. “I’ll call when I’m on the way back. Probably won’t be too long.”
“Have fun. If you see your brother there, tell him that he’s in a lot of trouble.”
Walking toward the door, Spinneretta ran her brush through her hair. Her legs, still extended from beneath her jacket, twitched as she worked out the few lingering kinks. She threw the door open dramatically and made an accusatory gesture with half of her legs. “You’re early!” But she froze, realizing a moment too late that the person at the door was neither Chelsea nor Amanda, nor was it any member of their families.
Waiting on the other side of the door was a young man, somewhere in his early twenties. He was tall—taller than Arthr—with short, shaggy brown hair. He wore a pair of lightly faded jeans and a dark brown T-shirt with no discernible marks or patterns. In one hand he held a duffel bag that looked older than he did. On first glance, there was nothing distinct about him besides the color of his eyes—an odd color somewhere between faded tan and pale amber.
Those eyes. Something about them bothered her. She couldn’t quite figure out what it was, and she didn’t have time to contemplate it. A wave of embarrassment struck her. She quickly drew her exposed spider legs beneath her jacket. But even as she did so, the man didn’t seem to notice the oddity before him. His eyes shone with surprise, but with neither revulsion nor fear. A mild curiosity, but otherwise no reaction stirred those strange, pale irises.
After a moment of awkward silence, the man offered her a smile. He raised his hand in a gesture of greeting as warm as the coming spring. “Well met.”
— Chapter 3 —
“Forgive me for intruding,” the man at the door said. “But would this be the Warren residence?”
When Spinneretta found herself unable to speak, her mother came to her rescue with a characteristic cheer. “It sure is. I’m May. How can we help you?”
He returned a smile as Spinneretta slunk back inside, still embarrassed. “I came looking for Ralph Warren. Might he be around?”
May shook her head. “I’m afraid he’s at work right now. He’s been getting home pretty late, these days.”
“I see. In that case, I shall return later. Forgive me for—”
“Oh, nonsense!” May said. “Come in! Any friend of Ralph’s is welcome here.”
The man hesitated. “I really do not want to intrude.”
“It’s not intruding, I’m inviting you!”
Spinneretta looked at his face from the safety of the living room couch. He appeared baffled at her mother’s aggressive display of hospitality. What are you doing, Mom? Don’t just invite random people in. After a moment, the man gave a cautious nod and entered at May’s request.
May closed the door and beckoned him toward the couch. “Please, make yourself at home.”
Nervously, Spinneretta watched him from one side of the couch as he took a seat on the other end. His demeanor was aloof, distant. He looked as though he wanted to apologize for even taking a seat.
“So, what’s your name?” May asked, entering the living room with a jubilant step.
“Mark,” he replied.
“Mark. Hmm, don’t think I’ve heard Ralph mention any Marks. Last name?”
He was quiet a moment. “Warren.”
An inexplicable chill worked its way through Spinneretta’s legs. Silence buzzed between her and her mother.
May bubbled with excited laughter. “Warren? You’re related to my husband, then?”
“That is correct.” He seemed quite uncomfortable with the woman’s exuberance.
A wide grin came to May’s face. “That’s great! I didn’t know he had any family left these days.”
He gave a cautious nod. “It would seem he does. Your husband and I are quite far removed, however. It took a long while to find your family here. I didn’t know you even existed until just recently.”
May hummed a note of playful consideration where she stood. “So, what did you want with my husband? Are you planning on staying a while? Did you come to ask for money to get back on your feet? What’s up?”
“No, nothing like that.”
She tilted her head suspiciously. “I noticed you brought your bag.”
“It was a long trip.” He fidgeted. “Perhaps you would like to sit down? You’re making me quite nervous just standing there.”
“Ahh, right, sorry.” She flopped down on the couch between Mark and Spinneretta, apparently oblivious to her daughter’s unease. She crossed her legs and half-leaned against the backrest. “So, you’re not from around here, then. Where are you from?”
He shifted where he sat, clearly just as uncomfortable as Spinneretta herself was. “I am from the family seat, back East.”
Hearing that, Spinneretta gave a sharp, incredulous laugh that took her malaise with it. She leaned out from behind her mother to address him. “Family seat? Who uses that expression these days? What, are we nobility now?”
May snapped her head around and glared at her. “Spins, that’s not how you speak to a guest.”
Mark blinked, his pale eyes expressionless. “Forgive me, miss, but what was your name?”
She started. Now in the spotlight, she was unable to force a reply. Her mom, however, had no problem answering for her. “Oh, I’m so sorry, where are my manners? This is our oldest daughter, Spinneretta.”
Spinneretta hissed in embarrassment. “Mom!” Hearing her full name spoken aloud was worse than going to the dentist.
“If you do not mind me asking, Miss Spinneretta,” Mark said, not giving a second thought to the monstrosity of a name, “has your father told you much of the Warren family?”
Mouth dry, she just shook her head.
“I see. Suffice it to say, you wouldn’t think the usage of the phrase so odd if he had.” His tone was flat and measured, with barely any hint of inflection. While his voice sounded gentle, Spinneretta couldn’t help but imagine a stronger rebuke beneath it. She shut her mouth, wishing she hadn’t said anything.
May crooned a low note and nodded. “Just as I thought. Not from around here at all. Kind of strange. I don’t think Ralph ever mentioned anything about his family being from the East.” A note of suspicion rang in her voice. “How distantly related are you, exactly?”
Mark drummed his fingers on his knee and looked down in thought. “Well, Ralph’s father, whose name I believe was George, was my ninth cousin.”
May gasped. “Ninth? Well, yeah, that’s pretty far removed, I guess.” She rested her chin on her knuckles and her lips formed into a mischievous grin. “Sell me on it.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“Sell me on the fact that you’re really related to Ralph. Prove you’re not just some drifter who knows how to use a phone book and a genealogy website.”
Mark’s pale eyes narrowed. “Well, I am confident I can prove it. Though I believe it would only convince Ralph.”
May frowned. “Well. You’re no fun.” She leaned back against the couch, thinking. For a moment she was quiet, and then she clapped her hands, beaming again. “Fine. We’ll let Ralph be the judge of it.”
“Thank you for your understanding,” he said. “I shall be out of your hair once I’ve spoken to him.”
May shook her head. “You’re at least staying for dinner.”
“What?” Mark and Spinneretta asked in unison.
“Family is family, and you’re awfully far from home,” May said. “Besides, what kind of hostess would I be if I sent you back on the road without giving you a good meal?”
Spinneretta cringed when she heard the word good applied to her mother’s meatloaf.
Mark, meanwhile, shook his head in disbelief. “Forgive me, but did you not moments ago accuse me of being a drifter? Why would you allow me to remain longer than absolutely necessary?”
May giggled. “Oh, that’s all just a formality. I have to assume the worst, you know, for my kids. Between you and me, my motherly instinct tells me you’re safe.”
He gave an unsure smile. “Well, I thank you.”
Spinneretta rushed out the door a few moments later when she got a text reading we’re here, get outside, stupid. She was relieved to get away from Mark. There was something unsettling about him. She didn’t know if it was his dated manner of speaking or the weird way he seemed to disregard her spider legs. More than that suspicion, and more than the familiar embarrassment of being seen by a complete stranger, there was something else that gnawed at the back of her mind for the duration of her shopping adventure.
While she still found his use of the term family seat laughable, there was something about it that made her shiver. Her father never spoke about his family; whenever the topic came up, he brushed it aside as though it were a mental plague. That made the vague implication of a family seat seem sinister when she thought about it. The amorphous implications would continue to weigh on her throughout her trip to the Centerpoint Mall.
After the girl with the queer appendages retreated from the home, the woman calling herself May excused herself and made her way into the kitchen. For a short while, Mark sat on the pleather couch, his eyes sweeping over the full-wall window that dominated the living room. He’d expected a far more modest dwelling, like Aunt Sylvia’s back in Arbordale. Apparently, Ralph Warren was quite affluent. Despite the clan’s wealth, his family had always been miserly, with no interest in the material. I suppose some behaviors are learned and not inherited, he thought. Growing listless, he got to his feet and wandered toward the kitchen, where the sound of banging pots rang. As soon as he drew near the doorway, May looked over her shoulder at him. He showed her a smile. “Anything I can help with?” he asked.
The woman’s own smile only grew warmer and more welcoming. “Oh, don’t you dare. I’m the chef around here. No offense, sweetie, but I think you’d just get in my way.” As she spoke, she expertly cracked an egg into a bowl without looking.
“Sweetie?” It had been a long time since somebody had called him that.
May giggled and dumped a smaller bowl of finely chopped onions into the mix. “But if you really want, I’ll give you something meaningless to do.”
He shook his head, not daring to step over the threshold into the holy ground of the kitchen. “No, that is fine. I shall stay out of your way, then.”
“You know, whenever Kara wanted to help out with cooking, I used to have her balance an egg on a spoon for as long as she could. I told her it warms them up so they mix better.”
He gave her a puzzled look. “Is Kara another of your children?”
“Mmhmm. We’ve got three of them: two angels and one Arthr.”
He nodded, thinking. Dared he to ask? He didn’t want to be rude, but he was getting a very ominous vibe from the home and its residents. His struggle was short-lived, and he decided to address the kangaroo in the room, as Annika would have said. “Mrs. Warren—”
“May. Call me May.”
“Forgive me. May. I really hope this does not come off as insensitive, but I noticed that your daughter . . . ”
She started to nod as she whisked the eggs. “Yep, she’s half-spider. You don’t need to walk on eggshells around me, it’s tedious.” She giggled, seeming to find the incidental wordplay amusing.
Half-spider? A chill ran down his arms and he stepped into the kitchen, sacred ground be damned. “Forgive me, but when you say half-spider, what does that entail, precisely? If you don’t mind me asking.”
She hummed in consideration, and her voice fluttered as though on the cusp of song. “No need to apologize. You’re not from around here, so of course you don’t know. We didn’t really know either, at first. After some genetic testing, it turned out Ralph has some rare genetic disorder that causes his DNA to match that of a spider in some places. I started jokingly calling our kids half-spiders, and it sort of stuck between him and I.”
Jokingly? “Wait a moment. What genetic disorder can make one’s DNA resemble a spider’s?”
May shrugged. “I dunno. He might be able to tell you, but I’m afraid that’s all I ever found out. It’s an uncomfortable subject for him even now. Anyway, the doctor told him he was genetically spider. Quite a world we live in these days, isn’t it? Never heard of such a thing before we moved to California.”
He took a deep breath, and the smell of lemon cleaner stung his nostrils. “You know, it’s strange,” he said in a measured tone. “When I finally found out about Ralph, the only names to come up in the records were yours and his. There was nothing suggesting you two had any children.”
She stopped stirring. “Hmm, that’s unusual. Maybe you were looking at out-of-date records? That or you didn’t look hard enough.”
The confusion in her voice sounded genuine, so he did not pursue the issue. “Mayhap.”
“Hey, what do you think of her?”
He was for a moment certain he’d heard her wrong. “Your daughter?”
“Mmhmm.” She shook some pepper into the meaty mixture in the bowl.
“I’m afraid I have no idea how to answer that question.”
She groaned a little. “Well, I thought you must’ve been from around here what with how calm you were around her. Most people are a little more surprised when they see one of our kids for the first time. Takes them quite a while to get used to us. Or at least it seems that way.”
“I can imagine that.” Surprise was a good word for it. Which brought up a queer point: why was it a surprise? Even he should have heard something if a family of half-spiders existed. A secret like that couldn’t have been kept for long. And yet surprise seemed to be the norm in this family.
May began to hum once more as she stirred. This woman must have despised the silence, for she seemed to fill every moment of it with a cheerful melody. Mark crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe. Half-spider? Genetically spider? Long-dormant memories of the Repton Scriptures came flooding back to him. That old, out-of-place book from the Vigil’s library that he’d read as a child . . . Was it a mere coincidence? He shook his head. Alhazred’s Razor deemed it unlikely. And coincidence or not, there was definitely something strange going on. Regardless, he had to remember his priorities. He needed to find Lily. Whatever mysteries this family of semi-spiders held could wait until he’d spoken to Ralph himself.
A crisp pitter-pattering came down the stairs a while later.
“Kara,” May called out at the sound, “do you want to try meatloaf tonight? Or do you just want meat?”
“Meat,” a girl’s voice answered.
Mark looked up from the lemons he was chopping and saw a young blond-haired girl poking her head into the kitchen. Like the elder daughter of the Ralph Warren family, this girl had eight spider legs growing from her back. She was hunched over, legs frozen in mid-scuttle, staring at Mark with big, blue eyes.
“Mom,” the girl said, indicating him with one of her appendages, “who’s he?”
“Kara, don’t point! It’s rude!”
Unbothered, Mark turned completely from the work May had finally allowed him to do and raised one hand in greeting. “Well met,” he said warmly to the girl. “I’m Mark. You must be Kara.”
She smiled at the mention of her own name. “That’s me!” She raised two of her legs alongside her own hand, mimicking his gesture with all three limbs.
“He’s a relative,” May said. “From your dad’s side.”
She gave her mother a confused look. “But I thought Dad’s family was all gone.”
“He’s a distant relative. He was cousins with your grandfather. Sorry, ninth cousins. Ninth, right?”
Kara raised her hand and legs again, repeating the same gesture from before. “Nice to meet you!”
“Right, you said you wanted meat,” May said as though reminding herself. She opened the refrigerator door, pulled open a clear plastic compartment, and began looking through it. “What do you want? We have beef or pork.”
Kara frowned. “No buffalo?”
“All out. I’ll pick some up next time I get out to Lalo’s.”
“I guess beef,” Kara said, turning and beginning to scuttle away. “Thankees!”
May pulled a wrapped package from the drawer and carried it back to the counter. Mark watched as she unwrapped the red slab of raw meat and placed it on a dinner plate. She reached over and took one of the lemon halves that Mark had cut, and squeezed it until cloudy juice drizzled out upon the surface of the meat.
“It turns out half-spiders have some trouble digesting solid food,” she said, as though detecting his curiosity. “Spinneretta and Arthr weren’t able to eat normally until they were seven or so. Kara’s taking a bit longer. Maybe I spoil her too much.”
Mark nodded, eyes on the plate of bright meat. “How does she eat that, then?”
She gave a mischievous smile. “Oh, you’ll see.” She garnished the raw steak with a dash of pepper from the shaker and pushed the plate to the clear end of the counter. Still confused, Mark returned to chopping the lemons that were destined to become salad dressing.
When Mark heard the front door open, he read May’s excitement as a sign the promised hour had come.
“That’ll be Ralph,” she said with a smile.
The door clattered shut, and then a man’s voice called out. “That smells great.”
Mark wiped his hands on the towel, setting the dish he was washing off to the side to dry. “Please excuse me,” he said to May, “but I must speak with him. I will finish washing these after.”
“Oh, hush,” she said, making her way into the living room. “I couldn’t ask you to do any more than you already have.”
“Someone else here?” Ralph called toward the kitchen.
“You have a guest,” May said as she kissed him on the cheek.
At that, Mark emerged from the kitchen. Ralph stood by the door, briefcase in hand, tie loosened and hanging. He was shorter than Mark had imagined. He was thin, with a build he could only think of as wiry. Genetic drift had erased most of the Warren clan’s most prominent traits—though he still had the clan’s distinct russet eyes that Mark himself failed to inherit. Tellingly, he saw nothing indicating that this man was in any way spider.
Catching sight of him, Ralph straightened his posture and puffed his chest out a little. “Ahh, hello.”
Mark raised his hand in salutation. “Well met. Ralph Warren, I presume.” He held his hand out toward Ralph.
“Yeah, that’s me,” he said, smiling a little at the archaic greeting. He took Mark’s hand and shook it. “And you are?” Their eyes met, and Ralph swallowed hard.
“Pleased to finally meet you, Ralph. My name is Ma—”
Ralph ripped his hand out of the handshake, as though he’d been struck by a baseball bat in the shins. “Mark!”
Mark recoiled in surprise, his hand still suspended in the air. “You know me?”
Ralph’s face flashed red. His eyes were wide and aghast, like he was witnessing a murder.
“Ralph?” Mark said. “Is something the matter?”
He shook his head, feet shuffling backward until his back pressed against the door. “What are you doing here?” His voice was little more than a feeble whisper.
May probed him with a steady gaze. “Ralph? What’s wrong? Do you know this man?”
“Oh, I know him alright,” he said with a small choke. His eyes darted to May’s face, and again back to Mark’s. “I mean . . . no, I . . . ”
May glanced over at Mark. Then she studied Ralph’s expression. A frown tugged the edges of her lips downward. “Ralph, what’s the matter with you? Do you know him or not?”
Ralph’s mouth drifted open and he shook his head no. “I’ve never . . . I haven’t . . . ”
Mark saw fear in the man’s eyes—a fear that didn’t quite make any sense. And the man’s contradictory statements gave him even less to go off of. He gave an uncomfortable shrug. “Well, forgive me for barging in like this, but—”
The fear in Ralph’s eyes flashed into anger and he jerked his head toward the hallway. “You. Meet me in the study. Right now.” Before Mark could answer, the man pushed past the two of them and headed down the hall. Mark watched him go, utterly confused by his behavior.
When Ralph had vanished from sight into the first door, May turned to him. Her good humor was gone. “I’m so sorry,” she said in a low tone. “Usually he doesn’t act so strangely. I wonder what’s gotten into him.” Her eyes narrowed and she seemed to snarl the last bit. Mark thought it sounded like an accusation.
He shrugged, unsure if her anger was pointed at him, but nervous nonetheless. “I suppose I shouldn’t keep him waiting.”
The door to the study clicked shut. Ralph peered at Mark, his hands coiled into trembling fists. “What the hell are you doing here?” he said, barely above a gravelly whisper. Mark gave him that same confused look, and so Ralph bared his teeth in as menacing a scowl as he could summon. “Don’t give me that face. I know exactly why you’re here and I won’t have it. So get out of my house, you and your goddamn curse.”
A hint of understanding shone in Mark’s face and then vanished. He considered Ralph with a probing glance that made his skin crawl. “Forgive me, but have the two of us actually met before? Because if we have, you’re going to have to remind me.”
Ralph shook his head, trying to conceal his fear. “Don’t think for a second I don’t recognize you, Mark.” His lips quivered in fury. “That’s right, Mark the-motherfucking-Chosen Warren. It’s been a long time, but I still recognize your goddamn eyes. Whatever Golgotha sent you here for, I want no fucking part of it. So get out of my house before I call the police.”
Mark grew silent, that hint of comprehension returning. “Your line still knows of Golgotha, then. Good. That will make things easier.”
An icy chill bloomed in Ralph’s stomach as he remembered the last time he’d seen those tan eyes. “No. It will not make anything easier. Leave. Get out of here.”
The young man crossed his arms. “Listen closely, Ralph. I’m not here because Golgotha sent me. I’m here because I’m looking for someone. And I need your help to—”
Ralph blew a hot breath through his teeth. “Bullshit! It all goes back to Golgotha. I’m not interested in rejoining the Vigil. First Golgotha, then that shithead Victor, and now you come along to strong-arm me? Listen to me, Mark Warren,” he said, taking a menacing step forward that failed to impress anyone. “I don’t give a damn if you are the motherfucking Chosen, I have no business with that clan. Now just stop talking, turn around, and—”
Mark’s head rocked to the side, his expression bored. “Surely you must know, Ralph. Golgotha’s dead. So is Victor.”
Ralph fell silent in disbelief, his tongue hanging in mid-sentence. “Bullshit.”
The young man closed his eyes and shrugged. “Your blood still runs from the line of the first Golgotha. That means that you should be well equipped to tell for yourself.” He opened his eyes again, and their severity startled Ralph. “The clan died six years ago. If you don’t believe me, then check your Sight.”
Ralph stared at him, mouth kneading syllables he could not vocalize. “I can’t. Equipment’s rusty.”
The corner of Mark’s mouth twitched. “Rusty?”
“When you don’t use something it tends to not work right. I haven’t used the Sight in ages. Not since . . . ” He swallowed hard. That wasn’t a particularly welcome thought, either.
“Then scrape the rust off your Sight and try it. I’m telling you now, you won’t find them. Even as diluted as your Sight should be, it’s true enough to find Golgotha. That is the point of it, after all.”
Ralph shook his head dismissively. “Well, if you’re telling the truth then what the hell happened to them all? Typhoon come and blow them away?”
Mark narrowed his eyes. “Something like that.”
A bead of sweat caressed the back of Ralph’s neck, and he fell back the step he’d advanced. “Well, d-don’t act like that changes anything. I want you out of my house. I’m not going to—”
An impatient sigh interrupted Ralph’s tirade. “Let me ask you something,” Mark said. “I didn’t even know you existed until recently, after a long while of searching. So, would you mind telling me how you know of me? With how distant our lines have grown, I find it unlikely that we’ve chanced to meet before.”
Ralph glared at him. Of course Mark didn’t remember. He kicked at the carpet, pacing in place. “About twelve years ago, I paid a little visit to Arbordale. Was lured back by all the old stories my grandfather used to tell me. And I might’ve gotten sucked back into that death-town, were it not for Golgotha’s pride and joy—exalted Chosen, you little bastard. So proud was the old man that he personally invited me to witness some bullshit ritual of the Gate by you, so adept was your talent supposed to be. Golgotha’s favorite child, the Chosen, faithful shepherd to us lost children of the Gate . . . !” A violent tremor racked his body as his mind flashed back to that night. On occasion he still awoke from dreams filled with tormented wails, unable to imagine the shadows coating the walls as anything other than blood.
For a moment Mark just stood there, lost in thought. Then, he began to nod. “It is quite rare that one of the branches returns to Golgotha,” he said. “I suppose I never considered the possibility. I now understand your anger.”
Ralph’s clenched jaw muscles quivered. “Good. Then get out.”
“If you want me to leave, then give me what I came for.”
A couple deep breaths chilled Ralph’s lungs as he tried to temper the panic frothing in his veins. “What do you want?” His shaking lips struggled to make out the words.
“As I mentioned, I’m looking for someone. Truth be told, there is one more true Warren who survived the end six years ago. And I need to find her.”
Ralph laughed a cynical chortle to hide the dread those words evoked. “So there’s another witch running around? Unbelievable. I bet you want me to help you find her so you can restart the cult and become the next fucking Golgotha.”
Mark cringed, and for the first time Ralph saw anger flash in his pale eyes. “She’s twelve years old, Ralph. I don’t care if you hate me, but she’s done nothing to deserve your ire. She was only six when the family fell apart, and as far as I know she’s been homeless since then.”
Ralph said nothing and dropped his eyes. Was it possible that Mark’s intentions were really so innocent? He didn’t find it likely, and before he knew it the breath hissed between his teeth in uneven gasps. “And why does any of this involve me? If you’re looking for your own blood, then why not use your own damn Sight?”
“I assure you, were that possible I’d have no need for you.”
No matter how many breaths Ralph took, he couldn’t calm his racing heart. Ever-patient, Mark watched him. Ralph was helpless. He hadn’t used the Sight since he’d gone in search of Golgotha, and it was now certainly weaker than it had been at the time. He’d nursed the odd perception since childhood, never understanding it, until that fateful night. That was when he’d sworn off all the relics that came with his cursed blood. How ironic that Mark now wanted him to use that power again. Or if it wasn’t ironic, then it was at least poetically fucked up.
With a deep sigh, Ralph slid to the hard wooden chair behind his desk and lowered himself into it. He planted his elbows on the desk’s glossy surface and rested his chin in his intertwined fingers. He let out another breath, and his eyes rose to meet Mark’s again. “Fine. I’ll give it a try.” Taking in a chestful of air, he closed his eyes and dipped his jaw downward. He exhaled, breathing out the black void behind his eyelids.
In the darkness, he was alone. The silence of the study was a loaded chamber. Another breath pushed against the faded, flickering starbursts that lit the internal night as he tried to force the vacancy outwards. For two minutes, Ralph repeated this shapeless dance in his own mind, first expanding and then contracting that inner field as far as he was able. At last, with a discontent grunt, he opened his eyes again.
“It’s no use,” Ralph said. “It’s too damn rusty. Just been too long, I guess. To be honest, I could barely even feel you, close as you are.” He lowered his head in defeat. “Sorry. I tried.”
Mark maintained his silence a moment longer. “If your Sight really is that rusty, then it can’t be helped.” He turned from Ralph and made his way to the door.
Ralph snapped his head upward, hope welling in his heart. “That’s it? You’re going to leave? Just like that?”
“No. I’m going to wait. Until you can scrape that rust off.” Mark then let himself out, leaving Ralph alone to brood.
Spinneretta returned from the mall with a new teal tank top just before dinner. When she saw the rest of the family—including Arthr—gathered around the table, she hurried upstairs and threw the garment onto her bed, resigned to modifying it for her extra appendages later.
“Sorry I’m late,” Spinneretta said, sliding into her seat at the table between Arthr and her dad.
Her mom smiled at her. “No sorries! You’re just in time.”
At once, Spinneretta could taste the tension in the air. Directly across from her sat Mark, right between Kara and her mother. He still wore that peculiar disarmed expression. His hands fidgeted, as though he didn’t know what to do with himself at a meal. She wondered if anybody had ever invited him into their home before. On either side of her, her father and brother were likewise acting aloof—Ralph with fear, and Arthr with false penance. She imagined that a fiesta of cursing from their mom had greeted him upon his return home.
“So, how many can you eat, Mark?” May asked as she began to carve up the meatloaf. She didn’t seem to notice the silence from Spinneretta’s half of the table.
He started a little, again clearly uncomfortable. “I thank you, but I am not hungry.”
May feigned indignation. “What? After all this work?”
“Forgive me,” he said with genuine-sounding remorse. “I ate before I arrived.”
She smiled back and shook her head. “Alright, but if you change your mind we have plenty of food to go around.” She then proceeded to divide the greatest chunk of loaf between the four plates unoccupied by raw beef.
The meal that followed was unusually quiet for the Warren brood. A conservative silence hung over the dining room like a thick fog. Immune to the tension, Kara leapt into dinner, puncturing her raw steak with her concealed fangs and filling it with her digestive enzymes. Mark observed with a mystified expression as the meat liquefied. Spinneretta saw that it was again curiosity—not revulsion—that was etched in every line of his face.
Spinneretta ate her tasteless loaf silently, stealing a glimpse at the face of their visitor now and then. A couple times, she was startled to find his pale brown eyes looking back at her. Each time she responded by dropping her gaze to her plate. Now that she was not as rattled by embarrassment, she noticed something else peculiar about him aside from his eyes. He had what appeared to be a long, pale scar that ran along the underside of his left forearm. While it was hard to tell from so far away, she thought it resembled an old burn scar.
“So, Mark,” May said after a long silence, “what brings you out here, if you don’t mind me asking?” She glanced in Ralph’s direction as she spoke.
Mark’s mouth fell open a little, and his eyes seemed to follow May’s. “I came looking for someone. I was hoping Ralph would be able to help me find her.”
May nodded. “Hmm. But, you’re a long way from home, aren’t you? Where did you say you’re from again?”
Spinneretta’s heart skipped a beat. The family seat back East. She stared at her food and hoped Mark wasn’t looking in her direction.
“New York,” he answered. “From a town called Arbordale.”
“A New Yorker! Wouldn’t have guessed it. I’d have expected a heavier accent.”
“Forgive me. I have done my best to remedy it since I left.” He paused. “Though the accent spoken in Arbordale was rather different than what you may expect of the state.”
“Where is Arbordale?” May asked.
“In the Catskill mountains,” he replied. “A rather small town.”
“I see, I see. So how long have you been away from home?”
“About six years.”
She started. “Six years?” An awkward moment followed, and the only noise was the erratic scraping of forks on plates. “Where have you been staying all this time?”
That’s what I’d like to know, Spinneretta thought. Is he a drifter after all? Drifter or not, it was certainly suspicious.
Mark just shrugged. “I’ve been all over the place.” He showed no signs of wanting to explain further.
“So,” May said, “where are you staying while you’re in town?”
Spinneretta noticed her father look up sharply, panic on his face. He was staring at May, his eyes pleading, color draining from his cheeks.
Looking down at the table, Mark shrugged his shoulders once more. “I plan to find a motel somewhere.”
“Well, you’re of course welcome to stay here.”
A desperate coughing sound from her father startled Spinneretta. Her mom then flashed a killing look across the table.
“Family is family,” May said. And so ended Ralph’s coughing fit.
The young man gave her a weak smile, again seeming uncomfortable. “That is quite alright. I shall get a room somewhere.”
May rested her hand on her chin. “You know, you’re going to make me a bad hostess if you don’t stay the night, at least. I’m not going to let our first visitor in forever stay at a hotel when there’s plenty of space here.”
Now that you mention it, Spinneretta thought, when was the last time we had a visitor? Have we ever?
Mark seemed as though he was going to fight the proposal again, but after a quiet moment of thought he gave her a cautious nod. “Very well. If it means that you won’t be a bad hostess, then I shall permit myself to stay one night with your blessing.”
Her mother beamed. “Great! And if you’re not in a hurry to head home, you’re welcome to stay for as long as you like.” Another glare silenced Ralph’s rising objection.
“I appreciate the offer,” Mark said. “Truly. But I believe that will be unnecessary.”
What the hell was going on? Why was her dad so jumpy, and why was her mom so eager to welcome this stranger? For being so distantly related, it seemed unusual that anything would bring him here. The only thing she could think of was that the death of an equally distant relative for one reason or another now demanded her father’s attention. Then again, that did nothing to explain his earlier remark about searching for someone. Ninth cousins, she thought, picking at her vegetables. I guess that makes us twice removed, doesn’t it?
As the meal concluded in a heavy silence, Ralph was the first to leave the table. He gave not so much as a goodbye to any of them, and Spinneretta took her own leave shortly after Arthr retired to his room. Had there been more conversation at the table, she’d have liked to stay and see what she could glean about this Mark Warren. However, what conversation there’d been had died. Besides, she still had homework to finish.
With dinner over, Mark offered to help May with the dishes. After she rebuffed him, he went in search of Ralph. It did not take long to find him smoking alone on the back porch. Though he hadn’t expected a warm welcome, the restrained fury in the man’s face was still upsetting. “I’d like to ask you something, Ralph,” Mark said, easing the back door shut behind him.
A scowl answered him. “What now?” Ralph’s lips trembled, and his fear seemed to have given way to a quiet loathing.
Mark took a deep breath. “I was speaking with your wife earlier. She told me about your children.” At the mention of his offspring, Ralph drew a hissing breath between his teeth. “And I was wondering if perhaps you could tell me a little more about them.”
A glint of the same terror from before returned. “Why?”
“I find them . . . well, curious.”
Ralph shook his head, embers kissing the filter of his cigarette. “Do you think you’re the first to find them curious? I don’t know what you expect to hear. I’m sure May told you about my little genetic disorder, and if she did then you know as much as I do. Happy?”
Mark took a step closer. “What genetic disorder is this, exactly?”
Ralph huffed and turned away, trembling. “Can’t say I know.”
Stunned by the claim, Mark could only blink at him. “You don’t know.”
“The most specific I ever heard was when the doctor said I had spider DNA.”
For a long moment, Mark was unable to speak. “That’s what I thought your wife said. But I didn’t give it a second thought because I couldn’t fathom anyone actually believing something like that.”
Ralph grimaced, his teeth flashing out from between his lips. “I didn’t believe it, you jackass!” His sudden anger made Mark jump. “Not until I saw the papers for myself.”
“The results of the genetic tests, you moron. You know, those things you take when people have birth defects and abnormalities.”
Mark considered the development. “Would you mind showing these results to me?”
Ralph dropped what remained of his cigarette to the deck and crushed it under his heel. “Yes, I would mind. You think I’m going to let you of all people sift through my life? My family has nothing what-so-fucking-ever to do with you, you got that? My life isn’t a sideshow, so you can take whatever curiosity you’ve got about my kids and shove it up your fucking ass.” Even as he said it, he failed to hide the fear that shook his shoulders. Even his anger couldn’t broach the wall of residual horror. “Are we clear?”
Mark stood unflinching. “Clear,” he said in a cold tone, before turning back inside and leaving Ralph to his mote of solitude.
There was indeed something very strange going on in this family. The old stories he’d read as a child, those tales from the Repton Scriptures that spoke of the Yellow King and his ambitions . . . it was too much of a coincidence. Whether it was all an accident or something far more sinister, he could not yet say. But as sure as the moon rose, the birth of those miraculous children could not have been the result of some obscure genetic disorder. In a thousand cycles of cosmic birth and entropy, nothing so implausible could have occurred without the presence of some divine hand moving in the background. It all reeked of the death cults who, like the Lunar Vigil, sought the release of powers they could never understand—powers that, if released, could mean the end of everything.
The conflict in Mark’s mind was short-lived. Right now, Ralph was his best shot of finding Lily, and that meant he was sticking around one way or another. But if his hunch was right, then whatever force was acting here in the town of Grantwood was too dangerous to ignore. An unchecked death cult, he knew too well, left only tragedy in its wake. And Mark was in a uniquely blessed position, having witnessed and wielded that horror first-hand. He had a responsibility to act. It was thus with an invincible resolve that Mark walked down the hall and found May washing dishes in the kitchen.
“Excuse me, May,” he said, determination straining every muscle in his body. “I really don’t wish to impose upon you and your family. But if it’s truly alright with you, I think I’d like to take you up on your offer to stay for a while.”
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