Fiction

Cobwebs by Richard Hooton | Shortlisted Entry Short Story Competition 2020

What’s the difference between a spider’s web and a cobweb? One’s a sticky trap to catch prey, the other abandoned to dust. Such clean creatures, spiders, their surroundings neat and tidy. Only when they’ve departed does their web degenerate.

You can learn so much when you’ve only your computer for company. She’s gone. Everyone I’ve loved or hated leaves in the end until I’m left with just indifference.

I sit silently in the stale air with cobwebs snarled in my pixie cut and clinging to my ripped tights. The contrasts of an open-plan office are vast: either a crowded, claustrophobic hell or an empty, desolate shell. Around me slouch three drained bodies wrapped in pure white chrysalides they’ll never emerge from. I dragged them from storeroom to exposure while awaiting my capture. Through the translucent material of the nearest, I can make out once glossy blonde locks and a slim face. As the lights flicker then fade, I stare into vacant eyes and contemplate how it came to this.

I remember the scream that first alerted me to her presence. An office is a maelstrom of noise: the clack, clack, clack of keyboards, the printer’s clunk and whirr, the annoying hum of chatter. The scream ripped through it all, reducing the room to silence…

*

 …The scream reverberates. A flash of movement. A chair clatters to the floor. I can’t tell what’s happening from my desk in the corner.

‘Get it away from me.’

Anne’s on her feet, hands shielding her face, one leg slightly raised as if ready to run. Ryan dashes towards her. An urge to investigate bites me. I leave my sanctuary.

‘I can’t stand them.’

Ryan’s holding a glass tumbler in one hand, a cardboard coaster in the other. Something scuttles across Anne’s desk. Peering through bottle bottom glasses, I make out a diminutive creature, its long, elegant legs curving from its spherical body.

‘It’s tiny.’ I shrug. ‘It won’t hurt you.’

Anne looks at me as if I’ve crawled from a cave. In such situations she reminds me of a frowning horse, but it’s the slenderness and attitude that make her attractive. With his oil slick hair and well-nourished cheeks, Ryan’s nothing special, though no-one appears to have told him. He fancies himself way more than any woman ever could.

Anne’s doe eyes widen even further as she gazes at Ryan.

‘Get rid of it…’ Her slight frame trembles, her pouting scarlet lips quiver. ‘…Please.’

Ryan grins then bends forward, glass poised. The spider freezes. Nausea fills me as I imagine being held captive in a transparent prison, magnified to the world. And Ryan acting the big hero for trapping something so small.

I step forward, catching his elbow with mine.

‘Ow.’ Ryan drops the glass. It shatters. The arachnid makes a spindly-legged dash to freedom. ‘What you do that for, Sarah?’

‘Sorry.’ I look down at glinting shards strewn across the beige carpet. ‘It was an accident.’

‘Still.’ Ryan smiles at Anne. ‘It’s gone now.’

‘Better not come back.’ Anne shivers as if she’s talking about Nazis. ‘I’m terrified of them.’

I smile too, as the spider slinks across a wall.

*

Temperatures fluctuate in the office. The stifling heat, bare walls and strip lighting make me feel exposed. Then the air conditioning whines into life and I have to button up my chunky-knit cardigan against the chill. I sit beside a window overlooking a grey car park where I view Fiat Puntos and Renault Clios shuffling between tight spaces. Everything on my single desk is in order: pens and pencils stored in a holder, a ruler aligned alongside, the in tray almost empty.

I maintain a steady tapping on the keyboard. I’ve always enjoyed number crunching. There’s something satisfying about influencing figures; adding and multiplying, dividing and taking away. I clock in, compile spreadsheets, clock out. I do all the dull, functional work that the rest won’t, making me vital. I’m the hidden mechanism keeping this place ticking. Make no mistakes and they won’t get rid of me.

A bluebottle circles my head. Swatting at it with a flailing hand, I miss. It avoids further feeble efforts.

I hear muttering by the water fountain. Ryan’s buzzing around a group of women refilling their bottles. His confidence is a puzzle I can’t calculate. He whispers something to one of them and they glance at me and giggle. I lower my head and get on with my work.

When I first started here, once upon a time, the women invited me on nights out. I didn’t know what to say or how to act, just nodded along as they swapped stories of drunken antics and the inadequacies of men. I cackled to what I presumed were jokes until I hated myself for it. I began to use Mother’s illness as a reason not to go. They’d ask after her the next day with concern, tell me what a burden taking care of her seemed and that I simply must give myself a break and have some fun. Eventually, they stopped inquiring about her health when the answer was always the same. By the time she’d died, I no longer needed her for an excuse. Now I just sit back and watch as colleagues coo over babies brought into the office like pigeons over seed. Work’s an extension of school really, the office a playground I’m no longer welcome in. There are just fewer places to hide. Even the toilets are hostile: too many mirrors.

From the corner of my eye, something sparkles. Turning, I see the silky strands of a web angled between window and sill. Woven into a tightly-bound orb, it’s the creation of a master craftsman, as complex as a labyrinth.

The bluebottle buzzes past again. Veering round me it soars straight into the web, which absorbs the impact, each intricate connection multiplying its strength. The fly struggles to free itself from the sticky surface, writhing in panic. I observe in fascination as the fragile-looking web remains sturdy against writhing legs and beating wings.

Sensing the vibrations, the spider emerges from a dark crack in the wall. Its long limbs move tentatively, as if fearing a trap itself.

‘You clever thing.’ I smile with sincerity for the first time in I don’t know when. ‘Such a beautiful web.’

The fly stops moving. The spider steals back inside its hole, presumably to return for its supper later.

*

I crunch crispbread while reading comments on the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame, occasionally adding acerbic opinions of my own. The others are in coffee shops or cafes or the canteen. I eat lunch at my desk.

Anne totters past, her trail of perfume haunting me.

She nods at the dry snack in my hand. ‘You’re wasting away, Sarah,’ she says, laughing.

Her words drift with the scent.

I study her swaying hips, wasp waist and tumbling hair, blonde to the roots. I look down at my own stout body, shrouded in a dark dress, and wiry legs where bristles poke though the tights. Pipe cleaners, Mother said they reminded her of. My little blackbird, she called me.

Wasting. Something about that word causes me to clench my water bottle, its plastic crumpling. As Anne passes identical rows of desks, computer screens and phones, something brushes my hand. I spot the spider inching towards my wrist. Her brisk legs’ light scatter tickle me.

‘You’re so agile.’

She jumps, landing in the web’s centre with the dexterity of a trapeze artist.

I applaud.

*

In dawn’s renewed glow, I feel a strange lightness. Until I arrive at my desk to find the web’s vanished. The cleaner must have swept it away.

I hammer on my keyboard, inputting endless numbers.

‘Someone’s in a mood.’ I don’t even acknowledge Anne. Instead, I open a drawer to get a pen.

And there she is inside, fashioning the embryonic stages of a beautiful new web.

‘You’ll be safe there. But you won’t catch many flies.’                                                                                

She seems so small and vulnerable. A jumble of joy and sadness makes me ponder. I was fresh once. But Mother kept me all to herself, scared of losing me too. My threads didn’t stretch far. I never made the connections, learning to hide away instead. Can your mother be considered your best friend? Your only friend?

I scatter crispbread crumbs into the drawer. She ignores them.

‘No.’ I nod. ‘You need meat.’

During my lunchbreak I journey into town. Once everyone’s gone home, I hang flypaper around strategic parts of the office: near windows, air vents and doors.

The caretaker inspects me, his mouth wide enough to catch flies himself.

‘Too many bugs around here,’ I mutter. ‘It’s not hygienic.’

He turns his back, having no desire to challenge eccentricity.

*

In work early, I collect my bounty, peeling victims from traps and casting their carcasses into the web. Spider gobbles them up.

A new girl welcomed into the office bags attention. Endless legs. Fluttering eyelashes. More gazelle than human. They fire questions. Where’s she from? What are her hobbies? Does she have a boyfriend? (That was from Ryan.) The distraction gives me an opportunity to feed Spider.

‘Don’t mind her,’ I hear Anne say to New Girl. ‘She’s weird but harmless.’

Sensing a new set of eyes focusing on me, I have an urge to find a hole to crawl into.

‘They’re talking about me,’ I tell Spider, hiding behind my monitor to drop her a fly. ‘They hate me.’ She’s hungry. I toss her another insect. ‘They just don’t understand me.’ Spider bares her fangs. ‘They’re fake anyway.’ And tears off the wings. ‘Smiling to your face then gossiping about you.’ Ravenous, she devours. ‘Take New Girl.’ Spider looks bigger. ‘They only want to know about their new inmate so they can push her down their social hierarchy.’ Spider perches as if listening. Standing on sturdy back legs, she holds up a fly.

‘For me?’ An emotion I don’t recognise overwhelms me. ‘Thanks. But you keep it.’

A shriek freezes me.

‘That’s disgusting, Sarah.’ I look up to see Anne glaring. ‘You’re treating it like a pet.’

I shove the drawer shut.

‘You’re nuts.’ She zips away, shaking her head.

My stomach becomes a bubbling cauldron. Scurrying into the canteen, I gaze at a kitchen knife on the drainage board, then decide to pick up Anne’s favourite “Sex and the City” mug. Before I can stop myself, it’s lying in pieces on a chequered vinyl floor. The sound of it smashing feels satisfying. The cauldron cools.

Returning to my desk, I carefully open the drawer. Spider’s safe on her web. She seems plumper.

‘You’re far superior to a cat or dog,’ I say. ‘You’ve more eyes and legs for a start.’ Spider preens her slick head. ‘And you’re clean, self-sufficient, clever.’ I throw her a dead wasp I’d found on my window box. ‘As well as getting rid of pests.’

I slide the drawer shut as someone approaches.

‘Hi, I’m Charlotte.’ New Girl offers a hand to me. I stare until it drops forlornly. ‘Maybe we could grab a coffee some time.’

I scowl and she hurries away.

*

Spider’s gone. Her web’s empty. I search every corridor and cupboard, every corner and crevice. What if she’s been killed? By duplicitous Anne. Or creepy Ryan. A stiletto to the head or sucked into a vacuum cleaner’s black hole. I can’t type. I can’t calculate. I can barely breathe.

A black shape spirals in front of me; Spider dangling from the ceiling on a strand of the finest fibre.

‘Oh, Spider.’ My heart pounds my ribcage. ‘Thought I’d lost you.’

She spins gracefully, eight legs synchronised, my eyes dancing to her movements.  

I scrunch my hair. ‘You’re such a tease, Spider.’

‘Who you talking to?’

Anne peers over my shoulder.

‘No-one.’

She looks confused, as if she can’t see what I can see.

Ryan sidles over, his beady eyes fixed only on Anne. Smiling, he says something so softly that I can’t hear it. Anne raises her perfectly plucked eyebrows then gives him such a disapproving look that she resembles a headmistress admonishing a naughty schoolboy. She dismisses him with a wave of manicured nails and struts away.

It encapsulates what I most admire about her.

*

I feed Spider daily until she’s the size of a tarantula.

She grows larger still, shedding skin to leave exoskeletons, pale imitations of herself that I hastily clear away. With a body as round and hairy as a coconut shell, she’s too big to live in the drawer. I remember the disused storeroom behind me. Cradling Spider, I carry her inside. White cotton dustsheets line the shelves.

‘You’ll be safe here.’

I check on her constantly as she settles into the dark, dank space, spinning giant webs and continuing to grow.

I keep one eye on the storeroom door.

Anne walks towards it.

Reaches for the handle.

‘No.’ I leap in front of her. ‘You can’t go in.’

She looks startled. Then bemusement cracks through the makeup.

‘I’m just looking for somewhere to store files.’

‘Not in there.’

‘What are you hiding, Sarah?’

Those big eyes narrow. Those plump lips rise. Her hand grips the handle.

I slap it away.

‘Ouch. What’s wrong with you?’

How can you love and hate the same person in the same moment? To want to kiss and kill?

Her eyes meet mine.

She backs away.

I put a sign on the door: OUT OF BOUNDS.

*

I no longer go home to my bedsit. Instead, I snuggle up to Spider in the storeroom, waiting for the caretaker to lock up. No one says anything. They must presume I’m first in, last out. At night I delve through colleague’s belongings to consume e-mails, letters, notes; a window into the lives of others.

Soon Spider towers over me, her abdomen bulbous, her cephalothorax corpulent. Staring into her four pairs of glassy eyes is like looking in a mirror.

‘You’re all seeing,’ I tell her. ‘In the valley of the ignorant, the eight-eyed is king.’

Flies are no longer enough to sustain her.

*

I change my glasses for contact lenses. Tousle my hair. Wriggle into the shortest skirt I possess, a good couple of inches above the knee. Unfasten my red blouse’s top two buttons.

And wait.

I overhear him and another male talking.

‘I’m gonna have a crack at her.’

‘Does she even like men?’

Sniggering.

‘I need a challenge.’

Testosterone churns the air.

‘Getting more desperate you mean.’

‘Hey, she’s almost pretty now she’s ditched those bins.’

‘Bet you don’t get past first base.’

‘Ha. You’re on. She’s so lacking in confidence she’ll be grateful.’

As the minute hand slowly circles, it feels as if CCTV cameras are locked on me.

Eventually, everyone leaves. Except Ryan. He tells colleagues he needs to work late. Once we’re alone, he hovers near me, smiling in the way he smiles at the other girls. Nausea burns my throat.

His fingers are warm and greasy on my arm. I resist the urge to flinch.

‘We should go for a drink.’

Go outside? I shudder. ‘I’d rather stay here.’

Ryan surveys the empty office. ‘Private,’ he breathes. ‘Good thinking.’

I squint at him, struggling to adjust to the contact lenses.

He runs a hand through my hair but, skin crawling, I push it away.

He sneers. ‘You know you need this.’

His face leans towards me, beery breath hot. I’ve never felt such repulsion. I shove him away.

‘Don’t touch me.’

His smile evaporates. ‘You’re frigid.’ He spits the word. ‘You’ll end up a lonely old spinster.’

He grabs my arms, presses against me. Struggling, I wish I’d more limbs to fight him off. Trapped in the corner, he pushes me down until I’m cowering beneath him. I free one arm to reach for something.

‘I’ll show you what you’re missing.’

He doesn’t notice the slow but purposeful movement. Doesn’t sense the looming shadow blocking the incandescent lights. Doesn’t see my delighted expression.

Sharp fangs pierce frail skin. Ryan’s eyes bulge. His mouth gapes.

‘Don’t struggle,’ I say. ‘Just relax and let it happen.’

Gurgling like a fat baby, he collapses. Spider drags the ragdoll body into her lair. I follow, mopping up spilled blood. Webs decorating the storeroom cling to me as I enter. A musky smell torments the air. It takes me a while to adjust to the gloom. A slither of light from the doorway helps me make out Spider, a hulk in the haze, the coarse black hairs on her legs bristling. A green glow of refracted light shining from her eyes draws me to her. She’s weaving a luxurious cocoon of white silk around Ryan, whose glazed eyes and pale skin make him look ethereal; an angel to be preserved in a mummifying layer of the softest material.

I kiss Ryan gently on his blue, icy lips.

‘You look so much prettier.’

Spider works in silence, injecting digestive juices into Ryan’s corpse so that she can later suck up his liquefied innards.

The stench of rotting flesh strikes me. Something else hides in the darkness: a slumped grey husk, drained from the inside out. Despite skin hanging loose over the bones, I recognise it as our former caretaker who stopped attending work a week ago. I hand him back his mop.

*

It’s a stormy morning. Colleagues bustle into the office with windswept hair and limp umbrellas, their frames cracked. Rain drips from trench coats. Chatter circulates like electricity as they brew up and settle into routines.

I scrutinise from the edge. Ballpoint pens are scattered across my desk, fighting for space with shards of snapped rulers and broken pencils. Staples pierce its wooden surface and sheets of paper overwhelm the in tray.

Anne stops by my desk and tuts.

‘Messy table, messy mind,’ she says.

I examine her as she flits around the room.

And wonder who’ll be next.


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