Issue 04

Word Count: 1262

Bill Tope

Bill Tope is a retired public assistance caseworker living in Wood River, Illinois, a sleepy hamlet across the river from the city of St. Louis, Missouri (almost in the very shadow of the Gateway Arch). He has been variously published: Children Church and Daddies; Down in the Dirt Magazine; Wordgathering; Rattapallax; Potato Soup Journal; The Avocet, etc.
He has, during his illustrious (misspent) life worked as a construction worker, a cook, a factory worker, even as a nude model for college art classes. He lives with his unflappable cat, Baby.

Grabbing the cast iron doorknob in one gloved hand,
I edge the ancient wooden door open a crack, then
Pull it wide. It opens without a sound, on well-oiled
Hinges. Not knowing at all what to expect, I
Stand stunned on the threshold of the old, small out-
Building. There I behold in the depths of the room
Such a spectacular array of spider webs as I have
Ever seen.

It is an exquisite, minutely detailed architectural
Phenomenon, an enlacement of circles and
Spirals and loops and swirling threads of gossamer that
Truly boggle the mind. But there are no spiders.
Was the fantastic web dormant, inert, abandoned and
No longer utilized by arachnids? What a waste, I
Think somewhat perversely, when in fact I
Thoroughly hate and even fear spiders of every size
and description.

But then I notice something from the corner of my
Eye: there in the farthest reaches of the magnificent
Web, is a rather large, plump rat, completely
Encased in silk. I feel a brief stirring of emotion, of
Pity for a creature so helplessly trapped, but I
Soon overcome it, for I hate rats even more
Than I despise spiders!

I’d come to the farm three days ago, with my two
Cousins, Richard and Dean, intrigued as we were
By the online ads touting the old style midwestern
Autumn get-aways. The site didn’t offer much in
The way of entertainment, but as we were all
Serious antiquers we thought that a survey of
Bellows’ Farms and the environs was a good
Way to spend a week, searching for new pieces
And perhaps some primitive artifacts for our
Shops as well as for our own collections…

Now I felt rather foolish. Locked doors have always
Held an allure for me, and when I took a room in old
Bellows’ Bed and Breakfast on what remained of his
Farm, I was instantly intrigued by the small utility
Shack that was kept locked up tight. “What’s in
There?” I asked him as we toured the property on the
First day. “Ah, but that would be telling,” he answered
Cryptically. And we walked on.

“How much you want for that water pump?” asked
Richard, pointing to a pink-painted hand pump lying
Amidst a score of freshly harvested pumpkins, their
Orange, waxy skins shining in the noonday sun.
“Hunnered thousand dollars,” answered Bellows at
Once. Richard blinked, but said nothing. Dean
Laughed out loud. No more offers were tendered
On our tour.

Whenever we paused to admire something old, such
As the 18kth century farming tools or the well-preserved
Hay wagon, a gem in the rough, Bellows would
Nervously tap the end of his cane on the parched
Turf, as if hurrying us along. It was frankly annoying.
And although he didn’t appear to really need it to
Move about, he kept that cane with him at all times.

That night, at dinner, we pumped the old man for
Information on the neighborhood, asked whether
There were any dealers close by, but we could get
Little out of him. There was only one other guest
At the B & B, an old man in his seventies named
Winters, who kept to himself, always wore a
Bright red sweater, didn’t say much. He did say
He would be leaving soon. For whatever reason,
He seemed anxious to get away. The next night
When he didn’t appear for dinner, we supposed
That he had already left. I asked Bellows about
Him and he replied that Winters was “good and
Gone,” but added that he lived nearby.

All Bellows seemed interested in, unaccountably,
Was spiders! He talked of their mating, their
Breeding, what they ate, how they lived, subjects
I frankly was not too keen on. “The mom spider,”
He said with relish, “likes to eat fresh meat, so she
Stalks her prey when pregnant rather than feeding
Off what she has stored in her web.” Ugh, I
Thought. Who cares?” He seemed fond of rats
Too. In fact, he kept an unnamed pet rat with him at
Dinner and fed him from the table. I shook my head
In dismay, my appetite ruined.

Dean and Richard had likewise explored the
Property, looking as I was for antiques, but on their
Own initiative. We were a competitive bunch. In
Fact, I hadn’t seen either one since dinner the
Evening before. Where had they got to? One
Thing for sure, I’d solved at least one mystery on
The old Bellows farm. I wondered how they had
Fared. Smirking, the two of them had vowed that
They would “skin” the old man and get what they
came for. They were keen traders and negotiators.

After several days of searching the property, I’d found in
Another old garden shed an assortment of huge,
Ancient, cast iron skeleton keys. Surely one of them
Would fit the lock on the mysterious building. And it
Did! Now, back at the door to the shed, I smile in
Satisfaction. Wait a minute, what was that, well
Behind the rat and stretching across the floor?
I peer through the fabulous webbing and into the
Gloomy interior and take stock of what’s there.

Oh, no! I gasp. A human body! No, it’s
Only a flesh-colored manikin, likewise encased in silk.
As an antiquer, it always amazes me how such
Improbable junk turned up in the most unlikely places.
Then I think, what if old Bellows should return and
Find me ransacking his shed? But he won’t find
Me here: I’ll lock up, replace the keys, my curiosity
Satisfied, and the old man none the wiser. I wonder
At the mystery of it all: there is literally nothing here,
Not even a spider..And that’s when the lights fade
to black and a streak of lightning flashes before my
Eyes. The last thing I hear is clicking on the floor
Of the shack.

I’ve been here for hours, or at least so it seems. Bellows
Snatched my wristwatch so I can’t tell the time even if I
Could reach it, but, it’s getting dark outside. I can tell
Because I can see through the crack under the door;
Outside I can hear crickets chirping and somewhere
In the distance, a dog is barking. My head still hurts
From where Bellows clobbered me, probably with
His damn cane. I can feel the blood crusting on the
Back of my head.

At least now I know where Dean and Richard disappeared
To; I am crammed between the two of them. There’s not a
Mark on them that I can see but they are both
Dead. But I’m still alive. Why? Straining my neck to see, I
Spot a bright red swatch of cloth. Winters. He got him too.
We must be in the back of the outbuilding, hidden in shadows.
I can feel the webbing dancing around my face.

The silk of the web is tremendously strong; I can’t move a
Muscle. How do I get out of this? And why am I still alive?
Then I feel something crawling across my shoulder, at the
Same time that I remember what Bellows was talking
About our first night here. The female spider, he said,
When breeding, insists on devouring her prey alive.
Alive? I feel a sharp nip at my side. A bite! Then another
One! Finally, I see the spiders. Thousands of them.
Crawling over my face! And the rats. I hear them chirring
And squealing all around my head. My gagged mouth
Struggles in vain to unleash the anguished scream that’s
Been building inside my brain.