Right now I’m terrified. Not just regular, run-of-the-mill scared, but so damn freaked out that I swear something is about to tear apart inside of me – either my heart which is going like a jack hammer, my nerves that are stretched tighter than a violin’s strings, or maybe even my increasingly tenuous grasp on my sanity all together. And to think, it’s all my brother’s fault. Well, admittedly this shitty hotel and that drunk idiot on the highway have contributed to my current predicament in their own ways, but if my brother hadn’t been such a cruel bastard when we were kids I’d not be sitting here now desperately trying to slow my breathing before I have some kind of fit.
All this stress and the problem is such a little thing. The problem is the spiders.
I can’t have been more than four or five when Steven (that’s my brother, by the way) decided to see just how much he could upset me, for no other reason that I can think of other than his own amusement. He’s five years older than me and we’ve never really shared a fraternal bond of any sort – in fact, I’d swear down that he’s just plain never liked me and still doesn’t to this day. Anyway, he decided to share with me a little story he’d heard in the school-yard. He told me, his tone perfectly grave and serious, that spiders like to come into bedrooms at night and crawl all over the faces of the sleeping occupants so they could drink the moisture from out their eyes. And if that wasn’t bad enough, sometimes the spiders would accidentally slip into a snoring mouth and be swallowed whole. If that happened, Steven continued, the spider wouldn’t die but instead they’d scuttle around inside the person’s body, laying hundreds of eggs that would produce millions of tiny, wriggling spiderlings. Every person swallowed on average eight spiders over the course of their life he added, but then he went on to say that some unlucky people swallowed more than that – and the people who swallowed too many ended up being eaten ever so slowly from the inside out by the billions of tiny arachnids that swarmed under their skin.
Of course, any reasonable person will tell you that the whole story about spiders drinking from your eyes and being swallowed is nothing but an urban myth, and even if one was unlucky enough to find itself disappearing down a human oesophagus it wouldn’t get a chance to lay any eggs anywhere as it would be digested by all the stomach acids in a snap. But when I was five the words of my brother, delivered with all due solemnity, seemed like gospel truth. None of the soothing words of my mother and father could convince me otherwise. Logical arguments that spiders were more scared of me or that they couldn’t hurt me cut any ice. I knew fine well that we didn’t live in the middle of the desert or the Australian outback or any kind of environment where venomous spiders were actually a risk, but that didn’t help at all. For months I barely slept, and when I did it wouldn’t be long before I woke up screaming, having had a vivid nightmare about some bloated, black, eight-legged horror squatting obscenely on my face, lowering its distended fangs to feed from my damp, tear filled eyes.
The sight of anything even slightly creepy or crawly in the yard or house would send me into a mad panic, even if it was just a beetle or a crane fly or similar. And if I did see an actual spider I’d scream the house down, crying and thrashing like a madman for hours. Anyway, visits to child psychologists, hypnotherapy and counselling sessions helped. By the time I was twelve I was only very arachnophobic rather than cripplingly so. These days I can generally manage to get through the day without having panic attacks at the sight of a vaguely spider-shaped piece of lint on the carpet, though I still can’t deal with actual spiders in any way, shape or form. And that’s why I’m so fraught right now.
I would never normally consider staying in a hotel like this one, but after my car was hit by that drunken idiot I had to settle for the first place I could find to stay the night until I can get it fixed. The crash itself, the aftermath and how I even found this place is still pretty hazy, which makes me think I should get checked for concussion in the morning, but however I found it I’m stuck here. After I settled into this pokey, dated room I got out my laptop and flopped down on the single bed to try and send a couple of emails to let people know what had happened and to alert my employers I would be late to the conference I was meant to be attending. As I powered it up I heard the scratching in the walls, the furtive rustling sound of small animals moving around in the dry wall. I was cursing my luck to have not only been in a collision with a drunk driver but to have ended up in a rat-infested hotel when I saw the cobweb in the corner of the room and my heart skipped a beat.
I sat paralysed, staring at the gossamer strands clinging to the wall and ceiling, begging my legs to move before I encountered the weaver that had created it, but they wouldn’t respond at first. Eventually I managed to stand up off the bed and tear my gaze away from the cobweb and start towards the door, but I only managed one step before freezing again. I couldn’t help give a strangled cry as I saw what was on the back of the door, mere inches above the handle. A huge wolf spider – a good two inches across – with its brown hairy body, fat abdomen and disproportionately large fangs that looked almost like an extra pair of damn legs. The kind of evil little creature that invades homes all over the world in search of warmth when autumn comes. You might think it’s odd that I know as much as I do about a thing that terrified me, but I’ve invested a good deal of effort in trying to keep them out of home, so I’ve learned a fair bit about them along the way. Know thy enemy, after all.
At that moment I realized that it must have been there as I came into the room but I’d not noticed it. As I thought of how close I’d come to touching it… it was all I could do not to break down in a crying heap right there in the middle of the floor, but then another thought occurred to me. As I said, I know a bit about spiders such as these – though the fact I knew they were harmless still offered no comfort – and I knew fine well that this was a hunting spider. They didn’t spin webs. That meant that something else must be responsible for the cobweb in the corner. Right on cue, a massive cardinal spider leisurely crept out from behind the web, it’s bizarrely long and fragile legs rippling in perfect rhythm. As the panic built up I me I knew I had to get out of the room. I tried to recall all the mantras about how they were more scared of me than I was of them, and tried to force myself breathe right as the counsellors had taught me so I could focus on opening the door and getting the hell out of this damn room.
I’d just convinced myself to take that first step towards the door in spite of the wolf spider lurking lazily over the handle when I caught another movement out of the corner of my eye. Another eight-legged horror was crawling around inside of the shade of the lamp on the battered dresser. Looking around the room I saw more and more – a swarm of tiny, blood-red money spiders no bigger than a grain of rice scampered around the frame of the door that led to the bathroom. A yellow garden spider, an inch-wide striped thing with brittle, bald-looking limbs sat on the light switch… and there were so many others. They were everywhere. No breathing exercises, visualization techniques or logical arguments about how every last one of the disgusting, alien bastards was harmless could help me know. I simply couldn’t move.
In the end I decided to try and fight the terror that was building up in me like steam in a pressure cooker by focussing on something else. I sat on the bed, which seemed to be mercifully spider-free, picked up the laptop and started to type. Desperate to put my mind elsewhere I tried to finish composing the email to my boss, whilst listening to the soft scratching of the rats in the walls. The presence of the rats had seemed disgusting at first, but I decided it was infinitely preferable to thinking about the arachnids coating the walls.
Of course, my plan failed. As I sit here now this email is still mostly unwritten and instead I’ve just obsessively typed this account of what’s led me to this point. It felt like the right thing to do, and not just because while I’m typing I can’t dig my fingernails into my palms till the blood comes. I’ve written it because the longer I’ve sat here I’ve become more and surer that I’m never going to leave this room. It’s all slowly become clear to me, as the horde of spiders has shifted all around the walls none have come any closer.
It’s almost like they’re waiting. I think they know as well as I do that try as I might I can’t stay awake forever.
And I’m now convinced that the ‘rats’ scrabbling around in the dry wall aren’t any kind of rodent at all, no matter how much I wish they were.
I understand it all now. I know that somehow, for some reason, in this place the urban myths Steven told me are much more than that. Sooner or later, I’ll have to sleep and then they’ll emerge and join their diminutive kin. And then, just like Steven said all those years ago, then they will drink.
Ben Stewart is a writer and inveterate geek who dwells in the grim frozen wasteland that is northern England. Ben’s varied interests include wargaming, comics, Japanese monster movies and early 20th century pulp fantasy and yet somehow he’s actually married with two kids. It just goes to show that there’s someone out there for everyone.