|......The web was huge. It occupied a full quarter of the large window, spanning all of the outside of one bottom pane. The spider must have finished it while Charlie slept, for it was complete now: a miracle of intertwined silken threads radiating from a central hub in a series of equally spaced, progressively greater polygons connected by fanning spokes. So precise and symmetrical was its design and so marvellously mathematical that it had a crystalline appearance, as if it were a cross-section of a fabulous white gemstone.|
......Frost had coated its intricate tracery during the night, enamelling every strand with an even icy layer. The sharp winter sun highlighted its geometric immaculacy, made it shimmer as it was wafted by a soft breeze and caused it to scintillate as if it were powdered with diamond dust. Each and every silken ligature, thickened and spangled by rimy crystals, captured and reflected the sunlight and made the whole gauzy construction incandescent with cold fire.
......Young Charlie couldn't help but wonder at the sheer beauty of the web as he lay gazing at it from his bed facing the window. Its twinkling frozen patina gave it the appearance of being fashioned from fine silver wires; made of it a precious ornament studded with tiny, glittering stones.
......It was a delicate filigree crafted by a master silversmith: an old, old man of long experience and infinite patience completely wedded to his craft. This aged artist's gnarled, skilled fingers must have knotted and twisted and twined for days the precious threads into their complex design. Fragile frame stooped over ordered workbench; his keen eyes squinting through thick spectacles, guiding those painstaking digits with sure precision as they wove and wound, slowly working the shiny filaments into what, surely, must be his final creation. For, the last twist turned, the last knot secured, then the old man must have died.
......All his long life he had striven for perfection, this ancient craftsman, obstinately fighting age and time to produce the one flawless piece that would be his lasting signature on this world. And at last, with this glistening masterpiece, he had achieved it. So, what more had he to cling to existence for?
......Death had hovered at his shoulder for such a long time, waiting ever so patiently to claim what was his. Unusually, full knowing that no one ever escaped his clutches in the end, he had allowed the old man the rare and singular grace of his benevolence. The silversmith's determination to produce the ideal in ornamental art, determination so strong he would even try to postpone his final appointment, had touched Death in that place where living beings had a heart. It had pleased him, for reasons of his own, to let the old man believe he could thwart him, to permit him to struggle on with his fine, hair-thin silver wires until he was finally satisfied there was nothing more he could add - there was no way he could better this, his final work.
......Then, as the old man sat back from his bench to admire his craftsmanship, then too as he suddenly became aware of that hollow emptiness that only comes when one has achieved a long-held ambition and realises that there is nothing left to do - that moment when one begins to wonder what it was all for - so Death touched him.
......It wasn't an aggressive action. Death simply leaned over and put his bony hand on the silversmith's bony hand - he would even have smiled if he knew how. The old man looked up at the dark figure and he did smile, for now he knew what it was all for. Without demurring, without the slightest protestation the old silversmith rose from his chair, gave his masterpiece one last, lingering glance, then, hand-in-hand, he went where Death would lead him.
......It was just at that moment, as the vision of the old silversmith and his companion began to fade from Charlie's mind's eye, that the web jerked with an abruptness too violent to be caused by the gentle breeze. It was a sharp, yanking movement that set the entire structure into quivering motion. The whole network trembled and shook as if it had a life of its own.
......The sudden agitation sent vibrations through the web that made its radiating spokes appear to spin like a wheel. This caused the coating of frost particles on the twirling strands to twist and turn, presenting ever-changing facets to the sun, which light was refracted in tiny, multicoloured flashes. To Charlie this kaleidoscopic effect was hypnotic, compelling. As he stared at the mesmerising rainbow sparkles, the spinning, whirling action seemed to get stronger, faster. The boy's eyes became fixed, unblinking; he was incapable of tearing them away from the entrancing Catherine wheel the web had become. It tugged at him, pulled him.
......He found himself caught up in the rapid spiralling motion, turning with it; felt himself drawn, like an iron filing to a magnet, to the centre of the web. The blankets fell from him, and he was lifted from the bed, twisting like a leaf in the wind. He became smaller and lighter, shrunken to a tiny atom. The room shifted, and he was no longer below the web, but above, looking down on it. The web was a massive spinning wheel, it was the entire universe, and he was being carried spinning and spinning into its heart like water down a drain.
......Larger and larger the web grew, as he was carried closer and closer to it. Falling, falling, end over end, ever nearer the spinning centre. The threads of silk became thick cords, then ropes, then cables, then massive girders, all cartwheeling and corkscrewing madly around him at ever more sickening speed.
......The centre loomed ever nearer and Charlie tried to fight its irresistible pull; struggled and kicked as it grew closer; tried with all the power in his now minute body to reverse his plummeting descent. For he saw that the centre was a deep black hole, so deep, it went down and down forever, and he knew once he fell into it he would never stop falling.
......He was at the very lip of the hole now, and he could see how utterly dark it was, so dark it looked solid, and he began to believe that he would not fall after all, but be smashed to pieces on the unyielding blackness of it.
......Then, when all his vision was filled with dark, when he had ceased his useless fighting and given himself up to it, the web's mad whirl slowed. For a moment he hung suspended above the hole, weightless, floating, a speck of dust over a sea of black. He was nothing, and the darkness was all.
......As abruptly as it had started, the web's mad spinning stopped. It was as if a monstrous foot had slammed down on a brake, or as if the earth had come to a sudden, jolting standstill. For a split second that stretched on for aeons, all was utterly still. The noise of life being lived in the world outside, normally unheard by its very familiarity, became deafening by its silence, as if the whole planet was holding its breath. Even the blood in the boy's veins ceased its noisy rushing, his heart stopped pumping, and his thoughts halted their passage through the folds of his brain.
......And Charlie was flung from the web's core.
......It was just like that. No warning was given. One moment, absolute deathly immobility, the next, hurtling, headlong flight. For, as rapid as his fall into the centre of the web had been, his return was faster. He did not spin and turn this time, but was shot, like a bullet from a gun.
......Headfirst, he sliced through the air, air that whistled in protest at its forced parting. His longish, curly hair was swept back from his head, straightened by the wind, the flesh of his face was stretched and pulled, giving him the look of a clench-toothed, grinning maniac. His body too seemed to stretch, to elongate as if his feet were having difficulty keeping up to his head, as if he was being wrenched apart by the speed.
......He was going to be burned up, he could feel his body getting hotter and hotter. Soon his pyjamas would catch fire and he would blaze like a flaming torch through the air until he fell to the ground, blackened and cindery like a dead matchstick. Either that, or he would be shot through the bedroom wall, across the landing, then through the next wall, and the next, and the next...
......But no. Suddenly he was back in bed. Under the blankets, warm and snug, his body neither tiny nor stretched, and not burned. Charlie looked at himself in bewilderment; at the room that was back the right way up; at the window that was back where it always was - at the web that swayed and sparkled harmlessly in the breeze.
......Just a dream. Just a silly waking-dream. Brought on by his illness, by his fears... by his secret.
......The web did have a sort of Svengali effect, though. When it stirred like that it almost started spinning again; and there were flashes of colour when the light caught it just so - pretty colours, dancing and twirling...
......Charlie tore his eyes away, he could feel them becoming fixed and wide, his head light and floaty - the web was pulling him again. He did so with reluctance. It was such a pleasant sensation: warm and comforting. Yet at the same time it was frightening: demanding and powerful. He shuddered, and as his gaze left the web he recalled the blackness there at its heart; remembered how - just before he was thrown from it... cast out... rejected - he had accepted the dark, wanted to be a part of it, to be as one with it.
......Shaking his head, Charlie sat up in bed and made a determined decision not to look at that spooky old web hanging outside his window again. It was just too scary. Instead, after another surreptitious check of the room to ensure that everything really was as it should be, he switched his attention to his regular morning self-assessment. After a sort of inner self-inventory, consisting of mentally examining and appraising the various parts of his body, he declared himself to be quite well. Certainly better than he'd been for several days - he might even be able to get out of bed today.
......True, he felt a little weak and sick, and a bit shaky too, but then, he usually did; and the dream - or whatever it had been - wouldn't have helped. His chest was clear though, and that was the main thing. He even felt hungry - perhaps he could manage some breakfast.
......Mum would be up soon to give him his morning physio before Val, the home help, came and she, his mother, rushed off to work. Mum would be so pleased to see he was so much better. He couldn't help but notice how ragged she looked lately; he realised how much the strain was getting to her. He had been bedridden more and more this last year, and he knew she suffered as much as he. He felt so sorry for her.
......A sad little smile played on Charlie's thin lips as he recalled how when he was younger he'd felt so proud to know such grown-up sounding words as cystic fibrosis, to not only know the words, but also understand them. Such knowledge had made him somehow superior to his schoolfellows, who were still struggling with their first primers - made him different.
......Now he was older and he was too sick to go to school he didn't feel so superior any more. Now if anything he thought himself a member of a private club. As such, he recognised his illness by its initials, CF - as did the experts who knew everything about it but how it felt to have it. Funny how two little letters sounded less threatening than the full title. As if you could diminish a deadly disease by diminishing its name. If only you could make the words vanish altogether - and the disease with it.
......Charlie realised he was getting bitter and sad. That wouldn't do if he were to cheer up Mum. He would make sure he ate this morning: that would please her more than anything. He had been surviving mostly on his vitamin and protein supplements recently - he'd seen the worry on her face at every untouched plate. She would go off to work happy if she knew he had a full stomach. She'd...
......Was it his imagination, or did he seem a lot thinner? His arms were skin and bone and, though he didn't lift the blankets to look, he was sure his legs were the same. And what about his ribs? They stood out like the divisions on a toast rack. He was wasting away. He couldn't have lost so much weight in the week or so of his current bad spell. It just wasn't possible. It was his eyes playing tricks on him again; like they had when he'd stared too long at that spider's web...
......It was wonderful, despite its eeriness. It was amazing how something so simple could be so complicated. Its closely woven tracery, so exquisitely symmetrical, could only have been designed on a drawing board. The construction was too exact to be the work of a dumb creature. That he knew this last to be in fact the case, Charlie immediately rejected in favour of the earlier more appealing picture he'd painted himself of the venerable old silversmith as the actual creator of the crinoline-like arabesque. Far better, the romantic notion of kindly human hands behind its manufacture than the truth of its real originator - the spider.
......The spider had appeared late yesterday - fat and nasty - as Charlie had been gazing out of the window from his bed at passing clouds. He had been far away, in a land of castles and dragons inspired by the shapes he saw in the rolling grey formations, when it had intruded, rudely and unannounced, upon his fantasies. As if from nowhere, it had suddenly arrived. One moment it wasn't there; the next it was - staring at him like a hairy Peeping Tom. Its eyes - all eight of them - had been locked on his: glittering little beads, shining with an intelligence it had no right to possess.
......All things creepy-crawly revolted Charlie, but spiders in particular gave him the shivers. They were such sneaky creatures: insinuating themselves where they weren't wanted, and evading all attempts to evict them so cunningly. They had such an evil look about them - a sort of demonic quality - with their horns and fangs and their finger-like legs. No wonder they featured in so many horror stories. This one, the builder of the web, was an especially loathsome example of the species. It was enormous, for one thing; quite the largest Charlie had ever seen, and black as sin - he felt glad of the reassuring thickness of glass between it and him. Somehow though, he wished the barrier were stronger, even thicker. To his mind the spider looked quite powerful enough to break its way through, to smash the glass and get in the room... get to him.
......However, the most frightening thing about the spider was the way it had looked at him. Its eyes - those gleaming, knowing eyes - bored into him, penetrated his skull and knew his thoughts, his weaknesses, his fears... his secrets.
......After holding Charlie's gaze for an eternity, the spider had at long last looked away as if dismissing him. It was as though it had learned all it needed to and was finally satisfied. The boy remembered how drained he had felt afterwards, as if something had been taken from him, sucked out of him. He remembered too, how before its eyes left him he'd got the impression it wasn't done with him; that it would return its attention to him later, in its own good time. Meanwhile, it had begun to build its web, and took no further notice of the boy.
......What lured a spider's prey into the sticky net of its web? Charlie found it difficult to understand how an insect, all unknowing, could simply blunder in totally unaware of the risk it was taking. That gave them credit for less sense than they actually possessed. They certainly couldn't be looking for food among the deadly threads; there was none there. Their eyesight was good; so it wasn't that they simply did not see where they were going. Surely they could sense danger there? Yet a spider could always be certain of trapping a tasty morsel in its clever mesh.
......Perhaps it was the same fascination that tempted the unwary fly that also drew Charlie? Was the spider's victim influenced by the web's tantalisingly hypnotic allure as he was? Entranced and beguiled, were they compelled to its heart, only to be snared by the enfolding strands before they ever reached it, a helpless meal for the spider when it chose to take it?
......If you stared hard at it without blinking the web seemed to move even when it was still. It was a steady, in-and-out pulsing, almost like a heartbeat. Charlie felt himself rocking back and forth in sympathy with it. On each breath in, it appeared to come towards him; when he breathed out, it receded, as if it was respiring along with him. Charlie sat up in his bed, his eyes big and staring, swaying to and fro in time to his breathing like a devout at prayer. It was soothing, soporific, relaxing; he enjoyed the sensation and went along willingly with it. It was several minutes before it filtered through to him that what he had assumed an optical illusion was reality. The web really was moving.
......Like one of those spinners he'd often played with - those round, coloured cards attached to string that you pulled to make the disk revolve - that was how the web was behaving. It wasn't the crazy, wild spinning of before though, but gentle, smooth, calm. It did not maintain a steady, continuous speed either, but cycled rhythmically from almost a complete stop to rapid, even circling, then back again, over and over, as if someone was pulling its string regularly and repeatedly with exactly the same force.
......But it wasn't a gaudily coloured circle cut from a cereal box; it was a thing of silk, exquisitely spun with malign purpose. There were no strings attached to it either; only the thin lines that held it to the window frame. Neither was there anyone to produce its metronomic, bewitching revolutions.... no one human that is.
......It was as these thoughts were occurring to Charlie that there was a sudden scuttling at the glass, as from some hidden lair in the brickwork surrounding the window the spider slyly emerged.
......Startled, the boy ceased his swaying and became rigid. He wasn't shocked so much by the sight of the creature, though that was frightening enough, but by it appearing when it did - on the instant he thought of it. A picture of the spider had no sooner formed in his mind, when... there it was: large as life - larger than - and several times uglier, as if summoned by his thoughts, plucked from his imagination and given actuality.
......He watched awe-stricken as, heavily and with some difficulty, the spider secured a perch for itself on the window frame, rested one hair-covered leg on a supporting strand of the web, stopping its spinning dead, and sat, motionless, looking in on him.
......Strange... it looked much bigger than yesterday.... fatter, huger, as if it had grown.
......No! That was ridiculous. It couldn't have grown overnight. It had caught nothing in its web that Charlie knew of. No incautious insect had strayed into its clutches for it to gorge on - he would have seen it if it had. Even if it had eaten, that wouldn't account for such an increase in size...
......Don't be silly... it isn't any bigger. It was just his eyes playing games with him again...
......It did seem to have grown, though.
......Charlie wished the spider would stop looking at him that way. Its eyes were like hot needles burning into his, piercing, scorching. No matter how he tried, he couldn't turn away from them.
......Its eyes had grown with its body. They were the size of buttons. Big, glowing lenses, sucking his... sucking his brain...
......No! It hadn't grown. Neither had its eyes. It was the sun on the glass, magnifying it, making it monstrous.
......Please! Oh please. Stop staring at me!
......But the spider kept on staring, its eyes transfixing Charlie, holding him. It might have been minutes, or hours, or longer, that the two of them remained locked together; there was no sense of the passing of time. Charlie stopped thinking, his mind blank, shut down. There was nothing else on earth but he and the spider. No cars rushing by outside; no people going about their daily business; no streets and houses... no world... no life.
......This might have gone on forever, this nothingness, but then the spider finally made a move. With the leg that had all the time rested on the web-strand, its eyes never once leaving Charlie, it gave a single, sharp downward twang to the fine line.
......The way the web had spun before was as nothing to the way it spun now. It spun with a ferocity that rattled the window - caused the window itself to spin too - caused the entire wall to spin.
......As it spun, the web grew and spread. It was like a live thing: strands of silk, like tentacles reached out, wound about each other, extending an ever-expanding net. The faster it spun, the more it grew. Soon - amazingly soon - it encompassed the whole window, then the whole wall. The wall was the web; the web was the wall.
......Charlie was swept from his blank oblivion into a swirling ocean of hurt and pain. A roaring, howling wind battered around his ears and thundered in his head, steel bands clamped about his chest and tightened, a raging fire burned deep inside him. The enormous, spinning web was sucking the air from the room, from out of his lungs.
......He felt a massive pressure on his breast, as if a giant hand was pushing him back. He tried to resist it but it kept pushing, stronger and stronger. Soon he could fight it no more, and gave in to it, let it push. It pushed harder and harder, down and down. He was flat on his back and it pushed all the more, as if it would drive him through the bed.
......Still he could not drag his eyes from the wall-sized web. It filled his entire vision like a gigantic wheeling disc, rotating so fast it was almost solid white - all that is, except for a large black dot that marked its centre, round which the rest revolved.
......Charlie knew now - if ever he doubted it - that it was the spider that had made the web spin before: as it was spinning it know. He knew too that it had built its web for him, that he was its prey and it meant to capture him and devour him, suck out his insides and leave him a dry, lifeless husk.
......As if this realisation was a signal, there came a change to the web. The dark central dot began to grow. Like a stain it spread, a rapidly expanding circle of the blackest black - the blackness of negativity - in a greater circle of purest white that was the whirling silk mesh.
......The darkly spreading centre grew quickly. Bigger and bigger, it swallowed the web, leaving inky blackness in its wake. Soon it consumed all that had previously been white. And where there had once been wall, there was only deep, black emptiness.
......So dark was this emptiness that every midnight since time started was condensed into it. It was as if the wall had been sliced off, and the terrified boy was lying in a three-sided room containing the only light and life left in the universe, from which he looked out on the fathomless depths of outer space.
......Despite that the spinning white of the web was now gone and the darkness in its place was dense and pitchy black, almost palpably solid, still there was a sense of motion. It was as though the darkness too whirled and swirled and spun. A churning black vortex, its focus a far distant point in the furthermost reaches of remoteness, Charlie could feel it clutch and pull as if it would drag him, his room, the house, and everything into its nucleus. The pressure on his chest still pinning him to the bed, he tightly gripped the mattress at either side of him and waited to be sucked out - bed and all - into the shifting blackness: sucked out like the thinning air he gasped desperately for.
......Then, when he was sure his lungs must explode; when his vision began to blur and his mind cloud over; when he felt certain that now he was going to die, and that nothing more could happen to him, a shape began to emerge from the middle of the dark emptiness, from that place where the darkness was darkest of all. Travelling at impossible speed towards him through the blackness from some incredible distance away, the shape, indistinct and unidentifiable at first, a vague small shadow in the greater darkness, swiftly grew and took form.
......Desperately Charlie tried to back away from the advancing shape, knowing before his failing eyes recognised it what it must be, but his paralysed body refused to obey him. He could only lie and helplessly watch as the darkness coalesced around the tiny but swiftly growing points of light, became still darker as it gathered there in barely discernible outline on the edge of visibility. More of the darkness was drawn on and absorbed, solidifying as it did so and giving substance to the emerging form, as from its amorphous beginnings the shape rapidly resolved itself into that which it could only be.
......Soon, terrifyingly soon, the shape was defined and complete. The spider, much bigger than before for all its apparent distance away, sped out of the dark from which it was born - of which it was made. Formed from such ephemeral stuff, but looking much more powerful and infinitely more menacing, it was the distillation of Charlie's every worst nightmare.
......Still it assimilated more and more of the darkness into itself: feeding on it; taking sustenance from it; growing more monstrous as the distance between it and him lessened. Rushing towards him like a huge, silent express train down an invisible, endless track - vaster, ever vaster, grew the spider as it hurtled towards him, its speed accelerating as it approached.
......Charlie shrank into himself, attempted to make himself smaller just as the spider loomed ever larger. His mouth stretched wide, he tried to scream but could only manage a weak, bubbling noise. Legs and arms flailing, he struggled to get off the bed, but the blankets conspired against him and bound him down as if they had become ropes.
......Still the spider kept coming, and still it kept growing.
......Until, on the very threshold of his room, it stopped. The last of the darkness flowed into it like wisps of smoke, and there it crouched, glowering with eyes like searchlights down on the horrified boy.
......Ridiculously, a scene from an old black and white film he'd once watched on TV played across Charlie's mind. In the film a gigantic gorilla had terrorised an American city while ant-like humans waged war on it. The film had scared him, despite its crude effects and the obvious, unconvincing models that were used to enhance the impression of the ape's size. The part that had scared him most of all was when the giant beast had looked through the window of a skyscraper into a room. This was just like that. Only this was real.
......In the film the oversized monkey had reached an enormous paw into the room and snatched a woman as if she were a doll. Now the spider was going to do the same to him.
......What was it waiting for? Why didn't it get it over with?
......The spider merely poised there, staring at him. He could see his reflection mirrored in its eyes. How pathetic he looked; how small and helpless and insignificant. He must look to it like the spider had to him before their roles were reversed. He wished he could scurry away from it, like it would have scurried from him when things were normal; when his giant foot could have reduced it to a stain on the floor.
......It was as if the spider was savouring its new position. It had no need to hurry. The boy was powerless; it could bide its time. Meanwhile, his fear was delicious; much more substantial than that of its usual prey.
......Charlie could see the spider's enormous sides heaving gently as it breathed; the hairs on its body a dark forest you could get lost in. Its antennae waved in the air, long leathery whips that could flay the skin off you. Two of its legs rested in front of it, ready to propel its towering bulk forward: huge, tree-sized, with pointed, horny tips like wicked claws. Great, beak-like mandibles thrust from its massive head, disgustingly drooling as it greedily eyed him. There was an evil, malignant humour on its face and in its saucer eyes, as if it were enjoying some vast, cosmic joke. Its sadistic pleasure was obvious: it delighted in Charlie's impotence, his defencelessness, his puny frailty.
......Charlie knew how a fly must feel when a creature like this advanced on it, how futile it must feel as it resigned itself to its fate. He wanted to gibber and beg, but knew how useless that would be and merely shivered, fear-struck, like the helpless insect he had become.
......It was then that the spider rose up on its legs, its mammoth head reached into the room, and its jaws opened wide. And, at last, Charlie was able to scream. To scream out loud with every ounce of his soul, as that cavernous, gaping hole of a mouth drew near him and he was hit by a blast of foul, fetid breath, so putrescent he gagged and choked between his cries. Then he screamed anew as he saw the rows of jagged, broken razor blades that were the spider's teeth.
......Time slowed as gradually, inch by inch, the spider's head came down over the bed. It could have snatched him with one quick bite; but no, that would have been too easy - much too fast. It chose to prolong his torment - make him suffer that much longer.
......Charlie writhed on the bed, knowing there was no escape now. The noxious breath of the beast smothered his screams. His eyes were filled with the sight of its tunnel-like throat. He heard laughter - not in his ears, but in his head: deep, echoing laughter, such as might be heard coming from the end of a long, long, tiled corridor in a madhouse.
......Slowly, oh so slowly, the yawning maw descended.
......And then it closed over him. And...
......Gasping. Gasping. Must get some air.
......Darkness. Stifling hot thick suffocating darkness.
......He was buried in enveloping, mushy softness. His face was covered in it. He couldn't breath. His lungs were on fire. His body was shaking to the thud of a giant heartbeat.
......Pounding. Pounding. Pounding.
......"Charlie! Oh, please, Charlie!"
......No... Not a heartbeat... Something else...
......Slapping... His back was being slapped. Hard.
......"Charlie! Turn to the side. Get your head out of the pillow."
......"Please, Charlie. You'll suffocate yourself. Turn your head."
......At last, with gentle force, Charlie's mother managed to tug his head from the pillow into which it had been deeply buried and to turn it to one side.
......She was shocked to see his face. So pale, and his blonde hair dark with sweat. He looked like a negative of himself. It pained her how bad his breathing was this morning. She should have been to him earlier; she'd left it much too late, and now look at him.
......In bed. Not inside the spider. This is my bedroom, and this is my bed, with the Jurassic Park spread I just had to have despite Mum's insistence it would give me nightmares.
......Mum was giving him physio. Alternately kneading and slapping his back like she'd been taught at the hospital. Charlie's chest wheezed and bubbled as if he had just been rescued from the bottom of a muddy river and he was full of thick, dirty water. She renewed her efforts with greater desperation, terrified that she wouldn't be able to get up the muck that clogged his lungs, consumed by guilty fear that her lateness would kill her son.
......By his head was the green plastic bowl that he spent so much time looking at the bottom of. It waited there, empty and accusing, like the offertory plate at a church service, silently demanding its oblation. Gently shaking to the motion of his mother's kneading, the bowl was a mute, insistent thing; it would remain there until Charlie paid it his offering.
......What if he didn't spit into the bowl? What if, just this once, he didn't cough up, so to speak? Would that be the end? Would he drown in all the gunge swimming in his passages and be free at last of these daily rituals?
......However, his mother was as insistent as the bowl. She continued pushing and pounding, and finally she was rewarded. Charlie gave a violent, heart-wrenching cough, the rasping, liquid sound of an old man.
......He could feel it travelling all the way up through his insides, like an oyster refusing to be swallowed, nearly choking him as it passed through his windpipe. Then his mouth was full of it: soft, slimy and disgusting - unbelievably a natural product of his own body.
......It had to be got rid of.
......And, at last, the bowl had its offering: a large globule of sticky grey-white mucus.
......For a moment, a long, silvery strand threaded from his lips to the bowl, reminding him of the web, reawakening his panic. He coughed some more, bringing up yet more of the stuff and snapping the thread that joined him to the bowl, severing the connection between him and its sickening contents.
......It was all over - until next time.
......Charlie lay panting, worn from his exertions, but breathing cleanly and clearly now, no longer rattling and gurgling like before. His mother whisked away the bowl and wiped his lips and forehead. With tears in her eyes she turned him over and took him in her arms.
......"Oh Charlie. I'm so sorry. I should have been up sooner," she said, rocking her son back and forth. "I didn't mean to be so late. Are you alright now, darling? You scared me to death when I came in. I thought you were..."
......"It was the spider, Mum. It... It..."
......"What, love? What do you mean?"
......"The spider... It grew and grew... and it made its web spin and it was going to get me and..."
......"Slow down. What are you saying?"
......"It was this huge spider. It was absolutely enormous. It swallowed me... I couldn't breath... I was inside it..."
......"Sh, sh, sh." She held him closer as he burrowed deeper into her bosom. "You've been dreaming or something, silly. What am I going to do with you? That imagination of yours is too strong for your own good."
......"It wasn't a dream... I was awake all the time..."
......"Shush now. I've told you about those books you read and the films you watch. They're no good for you."
......But Charlie realised that his ever-practical mother would never believe that what had happened, had happened. Was really real. He hadn't been asleep. It hadn't been a dream...
......Perhaps, just perhaps, it had all been a delusion. An illusion brought on by a particularly bad attack. He had had a bad attack, that was for sure. His chest still ached from it - but he had never hallucinated because of one before. Why should he now?
......Was it because he was getting worse?
......Better not to think about it. Cuddled up to his mother, not being able to see the web for her warm breast, it was so easy to believe that nothing had happened. Perhaps she was right: it had all been just his imagination after all.
......How was it that he could still smell the spider's breath, then?
......"Charlie... Charlie?" He hadn't realised she was speaking to him. "Charlie, are you alright? You were trembling."
......He withdrew his head from her softness and looked into her eyes: eyes that so desperately wanted him to be well, eyes so full of care and concern - eyes so tired and frightened. "Yes Mum, I'm alright."
......"Are you sure, love?"
......He had to take the fear from those eyes, the needing, and the pain: "Yes, I'm sure. I just had a bad turn, that's all. I'm fine now."
......The cloud shifted slightly, and her eyes cleared a little - just a little. He supposed they would never clear completely. Not until...
......Charlie put the biggest smile he could find on his face and squeezed her. "Really, Mum, I'm OK."
......"Oh Charlie, I love you. I couldn't bear it if..."
......"I love you too, Mum."
......Mother and son looked at each other, smiling - for a moment the only two people in the world. In that moment Charlie saw the years fall from her, years that he had piled upon her. He saw her as she used to be, before worry and heartache, stress and responsibility, dread and hopelessness, had carved and sculpted her into something else. He saw her as she could be, as she should be, as she would be when...
......So she would not read in his eyes anything she shouldn't know - mustn't know - he adopted his mother's practicality, took her wrist and pointed to her watch. "Shouldn't you be on your way to work?"
......The cloud dropped over her eyes again. The mortgage; the bigger than expected gas bill; the roof that needed fixing before winter really took hold, all resumed vying in her mind, little demons of anxiety whispering and competing with each other to be the one to finally conquer her. Charlie needed more medicines; the groceries had to be got - and how was she going to be able to pay Val this week?
......"Charlie, I can't! Val hasn't come yet. That's why I was late: I was trying to ring her, but there was no answer, and..."
......Oh, the panic in her voice.
......"...I can't leave you on your own."
......Got to calm her.
......"Course you can, Mum. I'll be fine. Val will be here soon. She's probably broken down - I bet she's on her way now."
......"I don't know..."
......He patted her arm. "Go on. I told you, I'll be okay. I feel much better now. I'll get up soon and get something to eat. I might even finish that model I was making. Val will be here by then - she can help me. You go."
......She wasn't reassured. He could tell by her face. But the biggest demon of them all - duty - was nagging at her. Besides that, there were unsettling rumours at the office where she worked: nasty, insinuating rumours of cutbacks and rationalisation and redundancy. She couldn't draw attention to herself by being late; she would never get another job. Then how would they survive? She had to go.
......"Well... If you're sure you'll be alright."
......She felt horribly guilty. If only she hadn't slept in - she could have been with Charlie sooner, given him his treatment before he got so bad - but she got so tired these days. He did seem better now though, and Val would surely arrive soon. She would probably pass her on her way out. She looked at her watch; saw how little time there was... She must go.
......She became a different woman then: gently brusque, businesslike and efficient, the way she always became when she needed to hide how overwhelmed she felt. Going to the bed with short, bustling strides, she smoothed the covers, plumped the pillows and tucked Charlie tightly in.
......"There, love. You stay where you are for a bit, till you feel stronger. When Val comes she'll make you something to eat - I'll leave her a note. Make sure you eat it... the food I mean, not the note," she said with a nervous giggle. She stroked his cheek, surreptitiously reassuring herself that his temperature was as it should be. "If Val doesn't come, I want you to ring me at work - you know the number - or if anything else happens, and I'll be home before you know it."
......Kissing his forehead, she straightened, looked at him, hiding her sadness with a smile. "See you later, love. Take care. I'll try to finish early, then I'll do us something nice for tea, and we can watch telly together."
......All functional again, she glanced about the room to check if there was anything else she could do. '"It's stuffy in here, you'll feel much better for some air."
So saying she went to the window, loosened the catch and slid up the bottom half. "I'll just open it an inch or two. There, that's better. It's lovely out now, nice and fresh. Ooh, look at this spider's web, it looks like one of those doilies my mother used to make. Isn't it beautiful? All twinkly and sparkly."
......Charlie gasped, but she didn't hear. She was already at the door, her hand on the knob, her mind on reaching the stop before the bus left without her.
......Had he seen a furtive little movement just as she raised the window? Something black and hairy scampering to its hiding place? Had his mother disturbed the web and set it into such tantalising motion... Or something else?
......He seems to be dropping off already. Poor little soul, he's tired out. Leave him to sleep. He's sure to be alright till Val comes... If she comes.
......She'll be here - she's never let us down yet. Must go:
......"I'm going now, Charlie. See you later, love."
......No answer. He must be half-asleep. He looks so alone and vulnerable - I wish he was well; able to run and play like other boys... Look at the time!
......"Bye, Charlie." Softly, so as not to disturb him. "I'll be home again soon."
......The door closed behind her. Footsteps on the stairs. A pause while she scribbled a note to Val. Then the front door closed echoingly, and he was alone in a suddenly large and empty house.
......She'd gone! Why hadn't he stopped her? Why hadn't he screamed out for her to stay, to not leave him all alone - just him and the web? The web... spinning so gently and soothingly - so restfully.
......He couldn't take his eyes from it. Didn't want to. How could he have been so afraid of it, such a wonderful thing? It was his - it belonged to him. No one else could see its magic - his mother hadn't; she had only seen its prettiness.
......Yes, it was his. He was the one who had been there at its creation. Yesterday evening, when the spider had appeared as he was gazing out of the window, when it had looked at him for so long in that way, he hadn't understood. Now he did.
......The spider knew him - knew all about him. And it wanted to help him. It wanted to give him something to take away his emptiness; fill it with wonderment and excitement and magic - so it had built the web for him.
......He remembered how he'd watched, fascinated despite his loathing of the creature, as it had first constructed an anchoring framework of strands, a sort of rough outline, then proceeded to fill it with a circular fan of spokes. He recalled too, how it had paused occasionally to look at him in that eerie way that had scared him so much. He hadn't realised then that it wanted his approbation - not his fear.
......So silly to be frightened, when it had spent so much time and effort weaving in and out of the spokes in a circle from the centre, in and out like a little lace maker. He'd been so ungrateful as it had industriously laboured away, its spinnerets churning out shiny new silk as it worked its way outwards leaving behind a slowly expanding network so intricate and beautiful.
......Why, he'd even fallen asleep before it was finished. He ought to have at least given it the consideration of being witness to the end of its work.
......Still, the web had been there for him to appreciate when he woke this morning, in all its final glory. And, hadn't he sensed the spider's eyes in the night, glowing in the dark, watching over him as he slept? So, it hadn't been resentful of his inattention after all, it knew he tired so easily and it had forgiven him.
......Funny now, how he'd been scared speechless when Mum had opened the window. As if the spider was going to charge in and attack him or something. How ridiculous. It meant him no harm.
......How worried Mum had looked; how tired and old and exhausted. She shouldn't be that way - it was all his fault. If she didn't have his burden to carry she could have a life of her own, a life in which she was young again - young and free.
......She was more alone than he: her husband long-gone and forgotten, his, Charlie's, illness the unspoken reason for his departure, had helped make her that way. She only had him now; the stranger who had been his father couldn't endure seeing him slowly dying, he'd run away and left that ordeal to her. Being aware that the only one you love will soon go away is the loneliest thing in the world - better they go quickly and get it over with.
......Oh, he knew he was dying, and that he didn't have long left. He didn't need so-called experts to tell him that; he was the biggest expert of them all. No matter if you diminished his disease to CF, or even more innocuous: cf., it was still fatal. It would still get you in the end. It stopped your lungs from growing, ate cavities in them, rotted them away until breathing was as useless as blowing up a burst balloon. It killed you from the inside out.
......That was his secret - his knowing. The secret that only he and the spider knew. It was a secret because he was glad; he wanted it to end - and soon. Then he wouldn't be tired any more. Then Mum would be free and happy again, able to laugh instead of crying deep inside.
......His only hope was that if he died - when he died - that it would be here, in his bed, where he'd had so many happy dreams, not in hospital. The hospital, where doctors and nurses stalked the long, dead-smelling corridors like ghosts in their white gowns and poked and prodded you as if you were just a thing and fastened tubes and wires to you; connecting you to machines that wouldn't let you rest and die. The hospital, where spiders weren't allowed.
......He wondered where the spider - his spider - was. He hadn't seen it since Mum had come into the room; he hoped she hadn't scared it away. He still had the web though, spinning gently away like it would never stop. It spun just slowly enough for him to make out the individual concentric bands of which it was composed. They rippled and cascaded from the centre to the edge and back again like waves lapping a warm, faraway shore. The frost beads still adhering to it glinted colourfully like tiny discotheque lights; minute prismatic sequins that mingled and merged, making the web look like part of a peacock's tail.
......The whole effect was so peaceful, so entrancing and relaxing, so soporific and somnolent. He couldn't imagine how he'd ever felt menaced by it. He felt warm and sleepy; he was drifting off, not to sleep, but to somewhere beyond sleep; some far-off, happy place.
......However could he have thought that the web had a darkness at its hub, at its heart, that threatened to engulf him and swallow him..?
.........The darkness, when it came, came not from the web, but from inside him. Downstairs, the phone, which had been ringing for some time, unheard by him except in some far-distant place, quieted, and all the house fell silent.
......It was almost lunchtime when Charlie's mother arrived back at the house in a cold panic. Val, the home help, who had been struck by food poisoning; had been up all night, and had been too ill to go and take care of Charlie, had alerted her. She had dragged herself from bed and tried several times to ring the house, but received no answer. Fearing the worst, she had finally contacted Charlie's mother at work.
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