by Phil Davies
part 1 of 2
Mary’s parents were arguing again. She had known they would be, even though they had been acting as silly as a barrel of monkeys when she went to bed. The air was thick with the smell of beer and gin, and that was never a good sign. On nights like that always ended up shouting at each other, and these were the bad arguments.
They were not like the arguments that happened during the day about whose turn it was to do the dishes, or clean the bathroom; the kind of disagreements when someone could admit they were wrong and do something to make everything all right again.
These were big black arguments that hung around the house for days, slamming doors and smashing plates. And they made Mary block her ears and hide under the covers. The shouting sometimes grew so loud that Mary feared that either her mother or father would hurt the other one, and the thought of this, which was as vivid as it was vile, was worse that the shouting.
Tonight though, even after the shouting had stopped and the usual tense silence descended on the house, Mary could not sleep. Something in the attic was keeping her awake. It sounded like a dozen small creatures scuttling from one side of the attic to the other, and then back again.
“It’s rats,” Mary said to herself. “Nothing but rats. Dad will get some traps when I tell him, and that will be the end of them.”
And she might very well have believed that, but when the noise finally stopped, and she lay there at the edge of sleep, the world softening with drowsiness, she heard muffled laughter from above her and something calling her name.
* * *
The next day she went down to breakfast and found that her dad was not there. Her mum was there alone, still dressed in her nightie, with big black rings around her eyes.
“Your father went to stay at a friend’s house,” her mother said. The way she said “your father” was so full of venom it made her wince.
“Do you think you should be doing that at this time of the morning, mum?” asked Mary as her mother poured a large measure from a half-empty gin bottle on the kitchen work surface.
“I don’t think it’s for little girls to tell their mothers what they should be doing,” she said, draining the glass. Mary noted that her voice was already slurred.
This was all as predictable as the arguments; of course. When things got really unpleasant in the house, it wasn’t unusual for her father to disappear for the night or maybe a couple of days. When he did, Mary’s world was filled with a new set of worries, ones that swarmed around her mother like flies.
“There is something in the attic by the way,” she said as she made her way to the front door. “I heard something running around last night.
“Probably rats,” said her mother, sinking down onto the kitchen chair and lighting a cigarette.
“That’s what I thought,” said Mary. “But now I think about it, it didn’t sound much like rats.”
“Well, your father will have to go and look when he decides to come back then, won’t he?” her mother snapped.
* * *
When Mary got home from school again, the house stank of stale smoke and sadness, as it always did. There was something else in the air too, lurking beneath the usual smells, but she could not quite put her finger on what it was.
She found her mother asleep on the sofa. There was an empty gin bottle on the coffee table next to an ashtray piled up the remains of what looked about a hundred cigarettes. Mary tried to wake her, but she just grunted in her sleep and turned over. It was that stupid deep sleep she slipped into when she drank that horrible stuff.
With a deep sigh Mary took the empty bottle and the ashtray to the kitchen where she put the bottle in the recycling, and emptied the ashtray into the bin.
Mary was quite capable of cooking for herself. She had taught herself through necessity when she had realised that on some days, on the darkest days, that if she did not cook for herself, then she would not eat. However, she needed ingredients to cook with, and in the kitchen, she found none.
Unfortunately, the jar where they kept the money for food shopping was equally empty, she was left with only two rather sorry-looking pieces of bread. She popped these into the toaster and put the kettle on.
She was standing there enjoying the smell of the cooking toast when the back door rattled open and her father skulked in. He looked as though he hadn’t brushed his hair for days, and he smelt as though he hadn’t showered for even longer. He kissed Mary on the cheek, and the smell of his breath nearly made her retch.
“Hello, Dad,” she said. “Have you had a good day?”
“I didn’t go to work,” he said, taking off his coat and throwing it on the kitchen table, “and I didn’t see your mother. So yes, I’ve had a very good day, thank you for asking.”
“I think there is something in the attic,” she said. “I heard it running around last night. Can you go up and have a look?”
“It will just be rats,” he said. “They won’t hurt you. As long as they stay up in the attic and don’t come out!”
The toast popped up out of the toaster, and Mary scraped what little jam was left in the jar over the surface. “Well it didn’t sound like rats to me.”
“And how would you know what rats sound like?” he said, as he reached around her and picked up the plate of toast. “Always such a good girl, making your old Dad something to eat when he gets home.”
“Dad, that’s mine!” Mary protested, but her dad just slinked out of the kitchen, pausing only to take a can of beer out of the fridge. A moment later she heard the television turn on, and the hiss of the can being opened.
She had a final quick scout around the kitchen, but found nothing that she could eat, so she went upstairs to her bedroom with a deep, stabbing hunger in her belly.
* * *
That night the row was over mercifully quickly. It rose up quickly out of nothing: silence downstairs, then sudden, loud angry shouts, then something smashing, probably a plate. Mary hid under the covers, pretending she was somewhere else as her father bellowed all kinds of insults at her mother. Then, the front door slammed and a pallid silence descended on the house again.
The scuttling started again about an hour later, and this time there was no mistake. Something up there was definitely whispering her name. Mary was wide awake this time, and she heard it very clearly.
She went downstairs and found her mum alone again. “Mum, there is definitely something in the attic,” she said, “and it’s not rats.” But her mum did not answer. She just lit another cigarette and changed the channel on the television.
Mary sighed again. She would have to deal with this, whatever it was, herself. There were enough things in her life conspiring to keep her awake at night, and she most definitely did not need uninvited guests in her attic whispering and scuttling about.
She got the stepladder from the shed and dragged it up the stairs, scuffing the walls in several places as she did, and bashing the paint off a few doors. There was no need to worry about that though, she told herself. No one cared about the walls or the doors in their house any more.
On the landing she positioned the steps carefully beneath the hatch to the attic and climbed up. When she pushed the hatch open, the smell nearly knocked her off the ladder.
It was the smell that she had detected, lingering beneath the usual stale smells of the house: not altogether unpleasant, but earthy to such an extreme that it felt a little like being punched in the face. After a moment getting used to it though, Mary decided she much preferred it to the smells the adults in her house created, and she pushed the hatch to one side completely.
“Whoever is up here,” she said, poking her head up into the gloom, “could you please do me a favour and keep the noise down! I’ve got enough to deal with without you lot keeping me up!”
For a moment there was nothing: no sound, no sight of any movement, not even a breath of air stirred. Then the whispering came again.
“Marrrrrryyyyyyyyyy,” hissed what ever it was.
A normal child might have run away, to hide, to whimper under her bed clothes, but not Mary. Despite how unpleasant her parents made it, this was still her house, her home, and whatever it was that had taken up residence in her attic was most definitely uninvited.
“I think it’s very rude to hide in someone’s attic whispering her name,” she said, sounding very much like one of her teachers scolding an unruly child. “If you don’t show yourself at once I’m going to call the police?”
Mary hoped she wouldn’t have to call the police. If the police came to her house and saw the state of it, and the state of her mother, then they might very well call social services and take her away. Not that the phone had worked for weeks anyway. The bill had not been paid. Neither of her parents were big fans of paying bills, preferring to spend their money on stupid drinks that made them argue.
“Marrrrrryyyyyyyyyy,” hissed the voice again.
In the gloom at the back of the attic, among the piles boxes and old suitcases, a shadow shifted and then lurched forward into view. It was most definitely not a rat.
Mary clamped a hand to her mouth, and a tiny whimper leaked out from between her fingers. It was a spider, a big one, about four feet across from leg to leg, and those legs were bristling with coarse, black hair. When it scuttled forward towards her that earthy odour grew in intensity.
What was especially strange about it though, if a four-foot wide spider was not strange enough, was that it had the bearded face of an old man. Not the kind face of a grandfather, or an old uncle, but one lined with cruelty and wickedness, and it inspected her intelligent, brutish eyes.
“Rude are we?” it hissed. “It is rude to scream at the sight of someone, I think? You are the rude one, yes?”
“I... I’m sorry,” said Mary. “You startled me. What... I mean, who are you?”
There was another movement behind the spider-thing. A second one came forward, this one with the leathery face of an old woman, one just as cruel-looking. Mary should have been disgusted by the sight of these things, but she found it hard to be, for when she looked closely at them, that cruelty looked more like a sharp, concentrated sadness.
“We are Arianthids,” she said. “He is Thain, and I am Mildred.”
“And just how many of you are there living in my attic?” asked Mary.
“Just us two,” said Thain. “We are the last two. There were once many of us, but not any more.”
“That’s very sad,” said Mary, and she meant it. “And why are you in my attic exactly?”
“We’re here to help you,” said Mildred. “It’s what we do. We can make problems disappear.”
Mary eyed them suspiciously. There was something about the way Mildred said the word “disappear” that made her think that this was a word chosen to hide the real meaning of what she was saying.
Mary did not want to offend them though, partly because she did not enjoy offending anyone but also because she feared what they might do to someone who hurt their feelings. She chose her words carefully. “I’m not sure there is anything you can do to help me,” she said, “but thanks all the same.”
Thain reared up exposing its belly, and the pulsing orifice through which it produced the silk to make its webs. It reached forward and prodded her tummy with its long spider-leg.
“Doesn’t need any help, heh?” it said. “Likes being so hungry it hurts, does it? Likes living in a filthy house, yes?”
Mary cringed inside as the thing touched her, but it did, she had to admit, have a point.
“Alright,” she said. “If you want to help me, clean the kitchen and make me something to eat.”
The two Arianthids hopped forward eagerly and squeezed out past her, through the attic entrance. The sensation of their hairs brushing again her skin made Mary shudder. It was nasty, dirty feeling that scratched at her through her clothes, and at her bare legs. It left her feeling like she had just walked into a disgusting garden shed and rolled around on the floor for an hour or two. When they were out of sight she submitted to an urge to brush herself down vigorously, but it did not help much. She wanted a bath, urgently.
Downstairs, she heard the banging of pots and pans, and suddenly felt the prickle of fear run up her spine. What if her mother saw them? She bounded down the stairs two at a time. She need not have worried though. Her mother was unconscious on the sofa again, another empty gin bottle on the table, another ashtray filled to overflowing.
In the kitchen she found Thain doing the washing up. Eight legs it seemed, allowed you to clean dishes very efficiently. He had perched himself over the sink, gripping the sides with four of his legs, while he divided the tasks of scrubbing plates and cups, and drying them between his other four legs with startling prowess. He had a kind of pincer on the end of each leg which he used to hold the crockery, and the dishcloth, and the tea towel. As he finished cleaning one thing, he tossed it into another waiting pincer, and dried it, while starting to clean another cup or plate at the same time.
“Very impressive,” said Mary.
“I know,” said Thain, sounding very pleased with himself.
“I can see that being a spider has its advantages,” Mary said, thinking that maybe it was time to start being pleasant to these odd creatures. It did seem that they may be able to help her after all, at least around the house.
“We are not spiders,” Thain said, glancing back at her, his already lined face creased even more with an angry scowl. “We are Arianthids.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mary. “It’s just that I’ve never heard of Arianthids before. I have books upstairs filled with pictures of every insect in the world, and I’m pretty sure there are no Arianthids in it.”
Thain snorted. It was a noise filled with considerable derision. “You won’t find us in any books,” he said. “We don’t let people photograph us. Very rarely do we let people see us. We can make ourselves very small if we need to, and people don’t notice us. Not unless we want them to.”
The cat flap flapped, and Mildred scuttled through. She was hodling two shopping bags in her front two pincers.
“Dinner,” she said, jumping up onto the table and up ending the two bags so that the contents spilled out al over the table. There were potatoes, carrots, tins of fruit, pasta, chicken breasts, bread, cheese, several jars of cook-in sauce, and even ice cream.
“How did you... I mean where did you get all this?” asked Mary, staring hungrily at the food on the table, and running a finger over the carton of ice cream.
“From the shop, of course!” said Mildred.
“How did you pay for it?”
Mildred laughed. “We don’t pay for things dear. We just take what we need.”
Thain grinned a wicked little grin at her. “Like I said, we have ways of not being noticed.”
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Phil Davies