It’s almost midnight but I have got to clean out my bedroom closet. It’s packed with junk and has, like, the most vicious spider problem this side of a radioactive-arachno movie. I’m delving into terror. At least I don’t have a big shoe collection, since spiders like to hide in shoes. For a girl who’s supposed to be at her most fashion-conscious age, style is not my middle name.
I haul out blouses, skirts and jeans in armfuls, hangers clinking, dropping, hooking to my cardinal-red wool sweater. Sweater and I are in the middle of a three-day hug. I change underclothes—I’m not a dirtbag. It’s just cold in here.
Shoes next. Shoeboxes would be great. I find a dusty stack beside the Payless-style shelves, behind a spiderweb with no visible owner. I tuck my fist into my bloated sweater and split the icky threads and open the top box.
Oh. Yippee. Pictures.
Here’s a Cortland family photo, from before my parents became zombies. The three of us over-cheesing—you know, when someone goes, “Say cheese” and then takes too long to get the picture, and you’re saying “cheese” for, like, 15 years, and finally it’s not a real smile anymore, if it ever was. Over-cheesing. This was at Niagara Falls, and Mom’s all swollen because it’s right before Miller burst out.
Speak of the devil.
“Be in bed, Miller.”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he says through my door.
Miller is nine years old.
“Then go, twerp.”
Silence. It’s golden. I like that everything I say has been said forever, so everyone knows what I’m talking about. A spider is trying to creep-show skitter up my sleeve, but it’s tangled in the frazzled fabric. I tug the cuff of my other sleeve over the heel of my hand and I don’t scream and I squash the clingy insect.
“Could you take me?” Miller says.
“It’s five feet away. Take yourself.”
“The light’s off.”
He wants a freaking escort to the freaking bathroom.
He looks like a pale-bellied animal in his Boston Celtics warm-up peejays, frozen in the hallway with big, dark eyes. He’s experiencing a thumbsucking revival. He grabs my hand—unnecessary—and I tote him the five steps to the bathroom he’s used by himself a thousand times and I hit the lights.
“Wait right here til I’m done, okay?”
He doesn’t close the door.
The light’s on in his bedroom. It slices the floor at a diagonal, so it looks like…I don’t know. A slasher-fest poster? On one bill, tonight only! Witness the horror of Child’s Play—fear being Alone in the Dark—thrill that I Know What You Did Last Tuesday—all leading up to A Nightmare on Taylor Court.
“To have (a fight) and to hold (a grudge).” Some B-movie tagline.
“Spiderweb on your shirt!” Miller shrieks, actually shrieks, and his face peels back like a Samara victim’s until I gather up the strands and roll them in my palms, way over-cheesing.
“Happy?” I say.
I slam my door in his face. He’s always right on my heels, latching on like an insect. I refuse to coddle him, but he’ll go downstairs and tell my mom blahblahblah the boogieman, and she’ll let him lie on the couch and watch R-rated movies. Then she’ll wonder what his problem is.
I boxtop the photos. Shoes next. I like thick soles. Some of them could do damage. I’m totally pacifist, though. If Gandhi was a chick, he’d be me.
I used to collect comic books. I had tons of boy friends (not boyfriends). They were in it for the spandexed mutant hotties, though—I read romance, mostly. My box ofYoung Romance and True Stories of Romance and Kiss Me Quickly is of course webified. I coil the demon silk around my sweater sleeve and slip it off like a bracelet.
Spider! I flutter my hand like the stupid thing’s on fire. The little demon flips off my thumb to the floor and I grab a sneaker and rain down a fistful of hot rubber. It’s clobberin time, insect.
Mom and Dad’s first Young Romance moment—high school, separate classes, opposite sides of a courtyard. Window seats. Band practice, Mom doesn’t even know what song, but the music was serene and dulcet and stuff and it wafted up through the courtyard, and Mom and Dad spotted each other. Years of pent-up desire blossomed. They raced downstairs and met in the courtyard on springtime grass and they danced a perfect slowdance, while grades nine through twelve tossed torn bits of loose-leaf paper confetti. And they lived happily ever—
“I swear to God and the fiery pits of hell, Miller.”
“My wall’s making scratchy sounds.”
No mood. I’m in no mood for this. My closet’s too hot and I’ll never kill all the spiders, they’ve probably laid eggs. It’s Aliens in there. The young’uns are ready to crack.
“Tell Mom,” I tell Miller.
“She said go to bed.”
“Mom is crying.”
“No, she isn’t.”
“I think I’m having a nightmare.”
Ew. I don’t need a kid telling me that. That’s how Freddy movies start.
I kick the brass plate of my bedroom door.
“Miller Cortland! Bed!”
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
I can’t walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes right now. I think I might break up with my boyfriend, who’s not exactly my boyfriend, but we’re kind of going sort of out. We see other people. Well, I don’t.
I have some heavy-duty shoes.
I don’t want to be a freakin cliché. I don’t want to be sad forever.
I have a music box somewhere in here, a gift from Dad. There’s this ballerina pirouetting or whatever and she’s holding…I forget. Not shoes.
Out, CDs! Out, ratty sweaters! Out, out, soccer cleats! If kicks could kill, if the shoe fits. But they never did.
No end to the webs. I’ll probably find cracks in the walls way in back. Spiders pouring out. I once picked up an orchard apple and turned it over and it was crawling with spiders. I freaked. Mom said spiders don’t eat apples since they’re carnivores so they weren’t spiders. I believe that spiders are carnivores. I hate apples.
I think it was an apple the ballerina was holding. An apple of discord? Does discord have to do with music? It was a pretty tune, though. Here’s what I learned in school, when I was supposed to be dancing in courtyards—a bunch of gods were at a wedding but the goddess of discord, Eros, wasn’t invited, so she crashed with a bad apple.
Wedding’s ruined, everybody’s fighting, Linda’s swallowing the groom’s soul, bride’s swinging heels—how pissed off do you have to be? Never mind. Our garage is Dad’s hotel. Mancave. I bet when he sleeps spiders crawl all over his face.
At my age you don’t say things are like nightmares. Nothing’s safer than sleep, when you can do it.
“Miller, if you aren’t in bed in ten seconds, I’m gonna squash you flat.”
His footsteps shake the whole house. When Miller was born, my dad told me I would always be loved very much. “We both love you very much.” They feed me that cliché like pizza. Amy, my best friend, when it happened to her she withered like a bad apple, she rotted from the inside. She was afraid of her own shadow. “We’ll always love each other,” my parents promised back then. But, I mean, come on: love, war, same thing—passion. They also said that if I ate my apple-a-day—to keep the doctor away—that I could stay up late, but late was only eight o’clock. But I kept believing them.
Forget the music box. Sweat’s squishing in my armpits. It rains, it pours.
She was the apple of his eye. Dad’s. Now I am. This is all word-for-word. Miller was never the apple because Miller practically is Dad—a chip off the old block. In those shoeboxes, I have a picture of Miller age three and one of my dad age three, framed together, and the only way you can tell the difference is the Nintendo DS. They both looked like Damien from The Omen.
All of it’s for you, Damien.
I think that if you can prove your parents are rotten self-infested hypocrites you should be allowed by law to skip school and sleep around and get plastered at fifteen. That’s your reward. Because you’re fucked.
I’ll need a broom for these ceiling webs. Broom’s in the garage. I’ll need shoes. I pick the suede Skechers with the full-inch soles that I haven’t worn in a year, even though they look adorable with flared jeans. They look like hell with my gray sweatpants.
I’m not going out to the garage.
Let them move and I’ll stay, they can pay my bills. I won’t feel guilty. I’m a babe in the woods. Not with these gray sweatpants, though.
I hated Linda right away, I knew something was up, right there in the woods on my dad’s company picnic. Linda. Think Exorcist, pea soup, though she brought egg salad. She shook Mom’s hand and then later, I’m serious, she braided Mom’s hair. At a picnic table.
We used to do family things.
Usually I don’t mind spiders in the woods, that’s where they belong. Not in closets or on apples.
Forget them moving out. I have my sweater which is practically an RV and my shoes which are practically boots, which are made for walking. More hypocrisy—they eloped. I guess Gramp and Pop-pop didn’t buy into courtyard slowdances and plus they didn’t know Mom was seeded. My mom almost had that fruit plucked before it got ripe. She told me this. She said I’m her little redemption.
“Miller, if I open this door, you’re a goner.”
“Can I sleep in your room?”
It’s the dead of night. I can’t figure out if that’s cliché.
“It’s not bedtime for me, Miller.”
“Something’s in the wall.”
“I’m cleaning my closet. Go back to bed.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re lying. Everyone’s lying.”
His bellyaching is making my belly ache. I’ve covered too many miles on too many guilt trips, and I need a broom, or a walk, or maybe I’ll call my boyfriend and have him come get me, so I can dump him. Either way, I’m not my brother’s keeper.
I open the door and he jumps five feet in the air. If I coddle him like they do, everyone in this house will be waking me up in the middle of the night.
“See, twerp? Closet. Disemboweled.”
Miller scoots in. He’s nosy. He has my dad’s nose. People tell me I look like my dad—do they realize I’m a girl? I don’t look like either of my parents.
“You have a big closet,” Miller says.
“You have a big problem.”
“I can hear them fighting.”
Both of their faces ripened-red. Shoes can be a weapon, those heels I’m not allowed to wear or cute sneaker-boots or anything, if you’re angry enough. If you want to hurt somebody.
“I can’t hear anything, Miller.”
“You could build great forts in here. No one would be able to get you. Is this for the light?”
He flips the switch, which is outside the closet. The switch glows in the OFF position, to find it in the dark. Like a closet’s the first place you go when the lights are out. He flips it again and again, click-click-click.
Miller has rocks in his head. Miller’s afraid of his own shadow. Mom says that. We all say stuff like that.
“Go to bed go to bed go to bed, Miller.”
“I can help.”
“I’m not your mommy, kiddo. Take it like a man.”
“But I don’t wanna,” he whines. His face ripens, his lips and cheeks and brow swell. “The boogieman’s in my wall.”
See? I knew he’d play that card. The boogieman exactly.
I shove him into the closet and slam the door and I wedge my big sole against the bottom. He pushes, pounds, but the door is made of whatever, some strong wood, and he’s trapped.
“Katy! Katy, let me out! Please!”
Hysterical already. He goes straight below the belt for the jugular, he’s a squeaky wheel and a bad seed.
I shut the light off.
“Katy Katy Katy KATY!”
You can get bored with the wicked teen getting gored by the movie monster, you can say and see that so many times that it doesn’t matter anymore. After a while, you just expect it to happen, monsters killing kids with whatever’s lying around. After a while, you look forward to it.
“Katy, quick, the boogieman Katy quick!”
“Know why I was cleaning my closet, Miller? It’s full of spiders. They’re everywhere, Miller, with skittery legs and razor-sharp pincers, thousands of them. They’re all around you, Miller.”
He gasps the oh-god-a-spider gasp, like he’s about to leap onto a chair and squeal, but there’s nowhere to leap except down a peg, no one to squeal to. The shoe is on the other sibling.
He pounds on the door. It shakes my sweater.
“Please Katy let me out, please I’ll go to bed just please let me out Katy they’re on me Katy please!”
What does it mean that it’s normal to feel things that aren’t there? That’s the kind of stuff you should be able to wake up from.
Miller screams. He screams like a thousand spiders have leapt into his warm-up peejays and torn his skin and filled his ears and eaten his eyes. Now they’re spinning him up in sticky webs, weaving him into a neat little wad, fruit for a carnivore.
“Katy please let me out, let me out I’ll go to bed!“
Mom and Dad will find him shriveled up, crawling with boogiemen. They’ll wonder what our problem was. Then they’ll hold each other tight and cry their eyes out. How’s that for a horror image.
A spider skitters out past my foot and I jump. I forgot I was wearing shoes. I crush it.
The screaming stops.
Art by Kerri Augenstein