Some houses never have a soul. It’s not their fault. It’s just the way it is. For a soul to be born to a house, almost too many things have to happen. Three or more families have to have lived there. Someone has to die in the house. Blood has to be spilled. And something, even if it’s just an idea, has to be born in the house. You can always tell when a house has a soul because of the small spiders. They’re everywhere, non-obtrusive, and ever watchful. The small spiders are the eyes of the house, watching those who live in it much like a great beast would observe its own fleas.
Like the man in the living room staring at a silver-framed photo of a family of four.
Or the girl in her room, cutting the cream-white skin of her thigh and making tick marks like a prisoner would count the days, using the blood to write on the wall in an alphabet of her own making. Her cuts are small but deep, crimson inkblots of her soul, transferring secrets on the back wall of her closet in a language only she and the house could read. And in those secrets, an idea is born.
“Susan, you up there?”
She looks up, cuts once, writes a bit, then closes her eyes.
“Susan, I asked if you’re up there!”
She brings the razor to her left eye, closes it, and presses it against her eyelid, producing a thin vertical red line evident whenever she blinks.
“Susan! Answer me!”
She sighs. “Dad, I’m here.” The words slip from her mouth like the last breath of the dying.
She slips the razor into her mouth and beings sucking at it. She puts a prepared bandage over her new cut and smooths down her shorts. She stands, steps out of her closet, then arranges her dresses so that it appears as if no one had been there.
Just as she closes the door to the closet, her father appears, plump, short, out of breath and face beet red. “Susan, I—”
“Sorry, Dad. I was taking a nap.”
He glances at the made wrinkle-free bed, then back to her. In a low clear voice, he asks, “Were you in the closet again?”
She stares levelly at him, the razor to the right of her tongue. When it seems that he’s going to ask again, she whispers, “You’re not supposed to ask.”
A pained look radiates from his eyes. He tilts his head sideways. “I can’t help it, dear. I just can’t. Not after—”
“And you’re not supposed to mention her.” She pauses for effect. “Ever.”
He holds out his hand. “I won’t. I promise. But give it to me.”
“Will I get it back?” she asks.
He sighs heavily. “You’ll know where you can steal it again.”
She considers his words, then opens her mouth and spits the razor gently into his hand.
He makes a fist around it. “What is it you’re writing?”
“The same I always do.”
“And can others read it?”
“Only me,” she says, then adds, “mostly.”
He turns to go but pauses in the doorway. Without turning around, he asks, “Then why write it? Why do it at all?”
“So there will be a memory of what she did to us.”
His whole body sags, lessening him to a man twice his age with half the life. “It’s not like we’ll ever forget,” he murmurs, then slips away.
The idea was born seven weeks ago, right after the house fed on the blood of her mother. Dinner had been as unspectacular as every other, more a ritual in the variations of edible cardboard. No one had said a thing. They were a family, so no one had to. Then her mother had said her three last intelligible words, “I’m going, now.” She went to the kitchen. The unmistakable unsheathing of a butcher knife from the block made Susan start, the sound so out of character with post-dinner moments that she’d had trouble parsing the data. So it wasn’t until her mother had pulled open the door and her footsteps had begun to recede down the steps that Susan got to her feet. “Dad,” she’d said, her voice simultaneously cracking uncertain and earnest. “Mother. A knife. Basement.”
Her father had looked up from his nearly empty place. He’d held a fork with the dregs of the tasteless meal—a combination of water, milk, a box of something, and a microwave. He seemed to have heard but not understood, his eyes blank and hollow.
Susan had backed away from the table, arms straight into fists, bent over and screaming. “Mother has a knife and went into the basement!”
He’d looked at her as if for the first time. Then he’d stood and took shambling steps to the top of the basement stairs and ran down.
Susan felt the urge to be present to whatever was happening. Reality slammed into her when she reached the basement with such force she couldn’t move from the bottom step for fear she’d drown in the terrible drama unraveling in the basement before her.
Her father stood unmoving halfway between her and her mother. Her mother hunched atop the dryer, plunging the knife again and again into her stomach, slowing with each plunge. Her face pointed upward, eyes wide, “My fault, my fault,” she repeated over and over.
Then she’d stopped.
Even now, Susan can’t be sure if it was her mother or the knife that hit the ground first, but she did recall the blood and how it seemed to move of its own volition in the concrete cracks along the floor. The last thing she’d remembered for a long time was watching her dad watch her mom and how he never did anything, hadn’t even moved a muscle, until she finally fell. Only then did he seem to resume motion, realizing that he still held his fork in his hand. Blindly, insanely, casually, he’d lifted the bite of food to his mouth, took a bite, and chewed.
Then the spiders had begun to chatter to her in earnest.
• • • •
They tell her things. Ask her for things. They are here to help, they say, but they also need to be fed. For this house has a soul, and to keep it alive, it needs sustenance.
The spiders are almost screaming at her by the time the Seventh Day Adventists come to the door. She’d fed them what she could of herself, but she has nowhere else to cut that won’t show.
They introduce themselves as Daphne Drake and Jonathan Oliver and are rather nice in their earnest need to convince her to discard her beliefs and adopt theirs. She almost feels sorry for them when her father rushes around the corner with the baseball bat. He’d heard the spiders as well, both of them now privy to the house’s communication. She’s been able to deal with it to a greater degree, probably because in the act of feeding it, some nurturing gene in her is satisfied. Her father, on the other hand, has no such gene. He is an accountant or had been. Since he hadn’t shown up for work in weeks, they’d sent a letter officially letting him go. The letter was followed a couple days later with two boxes of his belongings, including a World’s Best Dad coffee cup and a picture of the four of them when life had been so much better. He’d been going slowly insane, sometimes standing in corners and muttering to one spider or another, as if he was at his office water cooler and they were passing the time talking about a Netflix or Amazon Original or a dead wife.
Jonathan never sees it coming. One moment he’s talking about how his church has sponsored doctors to treat children in war-torn Afghanistan, the other his face is slack as the left side of his head caves in. The swing is so hard that one eyeball pops free from the socket and hangs, swaying as the head falls, finding a home in Daphne’s lap.
Daphne opens her mouth to scream but all that comes is a desperate rasp. Her eyes wide, she turns her head stiffly in the direction of father, just in time for the Louisville Slugger logo to catch her in her cheek. Teeth and blood spew across the floor, staining the carpet. Father’s follow-through sends her tumbling over the edge of the couch and onto the floor.
Susan meets his eyes and he meets hers, as he stands, breathing heavily, holding a bat that drips blood on the sofa.
They’ve crossed a line.
They’ve chosen the house over humanity.
Or is it their sanity over humanity and the house is just the beneficiary?
Does it even matter now that it’s done?
The cleanup is awful. While the man’s face—she refuses to call him by his name now that they’ve killed him—is an unreal façade with the dangling eye, every time she glances at the dead woman’s face, she feels shivers spin down her spine. While the jaw and lower face has been destroyed by her father’s attack, her eyes are unblemished, staring at Susan in a constant of blue accusation.
Still, Susan and her father do as the spiders bid.
The evisceration is father’s job. He does it as he’d done mother, releasing the blood on the basement floor, the viscous fluid moving into the cracks, feeding the house and silencing the spiders.
Separation of the bodies is her job. They’d broken the electric carving knife on mother, but had found a serviceable replacement in a Craftsman 19-volt handheld reticulating saw from Home Depot. She wears a disposable poncho, plastic gloves, large yellow goggles, a paper facemask, and yellow rubber galoshes. Putting the pieces in different piles keeps her occupied as she thinks about where she could be instead of destroying evidence of their crime. And as surely as she knows she has to satisfy the house, she knows what they’re doing is wrong, and knowing it makes her want to cut herself if only so that her universe could shrink to a razor, a line of red, and a micro-storm of exquisite pain.
Then the doorbell rings.
She stops what she is doing and stands.
As does father.
They stare at each other, each enshrined in blood-covered plastic.
She is the first one to move. She steps away and silently removes her poncho, mask, goggles, and gloves, dropping them into a pile. She makes her way up the stairs and locks the door to the basement as the doorbell rings again.
If it is the police, they are screwed.
But don’t they deserve to be arrested?
What they’ve done is terrible . . . no, far beyond terrible.
She jumps a little as the doorbell rings a third time. She glances at the blood on the couch and rug and table and floor, then makes her way to the door. She takes a deep breath, then opens it just enough so that she can be seen but no one can see inside.
A young man stands on the porch instead of the police. He’s wearing jeans, Vans, and a Volcom shirt. He has short black hair, shocking blue eyes, and a handsome face. She registers all of this in a second, then peers around him to see if there is anyone else. The spiders are begging her to drag him inside, but she knows better. He looks strong, much stronger than her.
“Hey,” he says
“Hey,” she replies.
He thumbs back over his shoulder. “Moved in across the street. Introducing myself around so folks don’t think I’m a serial killer.” He sticks out a hand.
Susan finds the gesture old-fashioned and quaint, which brings a smile to her face. She accepts the handshake, then says, “My name is Susan. Me and my dad live here.”
“Oh yeah? No mom?” Then his face darkens. “Damn. I’m sorry.” He shakes his head. “It’s none of my business.”
She agrees, but says, “It’s all right. Where are you from?” she asks to change the subject.
“Ah. Much bigger town.”
“A lot bigger, but more rain.” He points at her feet. “Say, are you butchering something in there?”
She glances down and freezes. She’s forgotten to remove her yellow galoshes, now covered in a wet film of red blood. She looks up at him and sees the knitting of his eyebrows. The spiders scream for her to take him out. Her mouth opens but nothing comes.
He laughs darkly. “It’s like that scene in a movie where a neighbor rings the doorbell and it’s answered by a serial killer caught in the act of murder.” He laughs again.
She forces herself to laugh but blinks rapidly as scenes of her in various prisons and finally in the electric chair dazzle through her mind. She needs to say something, but nothing at all comes to her. She is a complete blank, wearing evidence of the murders of the two Seventh Day Adventists on her feet, yellow galoshes meant to jump in puddles, Big Sarah’s Yellow Boots, now the undoing of everything.
He waggles fingers at her and makes a spooky sound. “Whatever,” he says. “I just wanted to introduce myself.” He backs away from the door.
She inhales sharply as the spider cries almost overwhelm her. Then she says, “It’s not blood . . . I mean it is but . . .” She glances left, then right, and says in a low voice, “My dad’s a hunter. We were dressing a deer in the basement.”
He makes a face. “Isn’t deer season in the fall?”
She nods, putting as much reluctance into it as she can. “Yeah. But we need to eat and my dad lost his job.”
He stares at her for a moment, then grins. “We all gotta do what we gotta do,” he says. He turns and begins down the steps.
“Wait,” she hears herself saying. “What’s your name?”
“My friends call me Del.”
“Cool.” She says.
He nods. “Later.”
She nods in return and watches as he goes down the stairs, crosses the street, and into his own house. When she closes the door, she slides to the floor, hyperventilating as she hugs her knees.
Two days later, Del rings the doorbell again. Susan opens it and he makes a joke about her not having any bloody galoshes. She actually laughs and after a moment of thought, lets him in. The spiders are silent now, the house slumbering after a Seventh Day Adventist surfeit. She only allows him into the dining room. She brings sodas and they sit at the table. For a while she feels normal, a teenage girl chatting with a teenage boy about the oddities of friends, family, and the frugalities of being poor, lonely, and Millennial. She learns that Del is alone with his father and in a similar situation as her own, except that his mother is in prison for criminal DUI instead of dead, chopped up, and sunk into the Columbia River. She explains that her mother died from breast cancer and he shakes his head and mumbles the appropriate response. He isn’t going to school either, counting on his smarts to get him a GED.
It turns out they have more in common than not, and she finds herself enjoying his presence despite herself.
Her dad pops his head in for a moment, startled at the idea of someone else in the house. His gaze remains fixed on Del, that of a mouse spying a mouser, worried that any movement he might draw the predator’s attention. A look of relief passes over his face after Susan surreptitiously waves him away, dismissing him from his probable executions.
And then the next day Del comes over again.
And then the next.
She goes from allowing him only to access the dining room to letting him into the kitchen, then the living room, then finally her bedroom. Two weeks of trust building and teasing starts the itchy finger of desire that soon begins its dance along her spine every time she sees him.
Then finally, “Hey, Suz,” he says, a single red rose in his hand, presenting it shyly but with a smile that promises he feels like she does.
The sex is fast. Both times. It isn’t until they try and laughingly fail at a third, that they roll over and begin talking about real things instead of the surface bullshit they’ve been building their relationship on.
She finds out his dad used to beat his mom, which is why she began to drink. She started in the late afternoons, afraid her husband will come home after work on the construction site with the foreman up his ass, only too happy to take out his frustration on his personal punch dummy. Before long she was drinking at noon, then vodka and OJ for breakfast, disguised as plain juice. The drinking and punching would have continued had Del not broken his leg at school and had the nurse not called to tell his mom that before he could be admitted, she had to be at the hospital to sign an insurance form. She almost made it except she couldn’t anticipate an ambulance jetting out of the emergency lot. She hit it broadside at fifty miles an hour, killing both EMTs—one who was new to the job with a wife and baby on the way, and another who was a grandmother two weeks from retirement.
Then Susan tells Del her secret of secrets.
“You know how you keep asking me about the picture of a little boy in the family photo and I always tell you I don’t want to talk about it?”
He nods and strokes her long blonde hair.
“His name was Nathanial. We called him Nate and he is my brother.”
“Something bad happened to him, didn’t it?” he asks, voice barely above a whisper.
“The worst,” she says, acid forming in her mouth from even uttering the words. “It was two years ago. I was fourteen and my brother was six. We were so far apart, I felt more like an aunt than a sister. I really couldn’t play with him . . . maybe if he had been a girl I could have, but trucks and soldiers you know . . . not something I really cared about.”
She pauses and closes her eyes.
The spiders church whisper a collective No!
She ignores them. When she opens her eyes again, her lids glisten with moisture.
“I should have tried harder. I should have tried to be more of a sister. If I had, he might still be alive,” her voice cracks on the last word.
“What happened?” Del asks. “What did he do?”
Don’t tell him.
Never tell him.
Susan sits up and pulls the sheet to her chin. She laughs the laugh a mother might give remembering the quirkiness of a dead child, and says, “Nate was an inventive soul. I was able to stop him from putting the zipline over the highway there where it meets the bridge. I was able to stop him from turning his wagon into a tank using the old square BBQ we had, then running it down the middle of Alameda Avenue. I was able to do a lot of things, but I utterly failed to stop him from becoming an astronaut.”
Del’s blue eyes narrow.
Susan laughs mirthlessly, then gently thumps Del in the middle of his head.
“You mean astronaut as in going to the moon?” he asks.
“Nate wanted to go to Mars and knew he had to practice. So he . . .” She inhales, hoping to get enough fuel to say something she’d never said aloud before, but all it does is lodge in her throat. She swallows, managing to clear it. “So he wrapped himself in tinfoil and saran wrap, put on a football helmet and goggles, climbed into our top-loading washer, and faced upwards, practicing everything he would say to Houston control. All that Houston Control, this is Nate, am I cleared for takeoff crap.”
Del’s face gets serious.
You are going to regret this, the house whispers.
“He’d done it dozens of times. He knew the danger. He knew not to let the top fall down. But it fell. And it locked and he passed out.” Her fingers are dancing along the hem of the sheet like the legs of many daddy longlegs sizzling on a hot surface. “And that would have been fine, except for my mother who—” The last bit comes out as an owl calls, and she can’t continue. Just the sound of it makes her laugh and cry at the same time. “Who,” Susan says again, reveling in the sound of the owl, happy to be away from the memory.
“What did your mother do?” Del asks.
This stops her. She swallows again, then in a carefully controlled-robotic voice says, “My mother came down, put some sheets in the washer, then headed back upstairs. She set the clothes on delicates because that’s what she always did. It wasn’t until we heard the incredibly loud thumping of the out of balance washer that we came down, and by then the washer was halfway across the basement. I think of that thumping and I can’t but wonder if it had been Nate pounding against the sides of the spinning drum, trying to get out of sloshing water, spinning, spinning, spinning—” She pauses because her voice has become strident in the telling. Then in a lower voice says, “But the doctor told us that he’d died of asphyxiation and that there was no water in his lungs, which makes me feel better . . . as if dying that way was better than living and being the weird kid who wanted to be an astronaut and travel to Mars.”
“Oh my God, Suz, that’s horrible!”
She sighs as she says, “He died on delicates,” she says, thinking this will be the last of it.
But the spiders shout in a glee-filled chorus, He died on delicates, and their contribution sends Susan over the edge.
• • • •
Three days pass before she speaks with Del again. Not because she’s mad at him, in fact, it isn’t about him at all. She needs the time to calm herself so she won’t break down again. After he left, she’d become hysterical, screaming to the spiders to shut up, condemning them that it is their fault, that they could have told her Nate was in the washer. They never answer, but she heard them nonetheless, their silence a brash admission of guilt.
Del came by every day, but she had her father tell him that she didn’t want to see him.
On the fourth day, he breaks in and leaves a bouquet of flowers on her bed with a card that says I love you.
Meanwhile, the spiders are beginning to chitter. The house is getting hungry and will need to be fed soon. It still won’t respond to Susan’s condemnation, but it is softening. She can feel it as if at any moment, it will speak to her and let her know why the spiders never told her about Nate.
Then on the fifth day, she lets Del back in. They sit amiably together on the couch. He is quiet, then eventually says, “Your house is sort of weird.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, wondering what the spiders mean.
“Every time I’m here I feel like I’m being watched.” He eyes her speculatively. “Don’t you feel it, too?”
Does he know about the spiders? She wonders. Can they talk to him? “It’s just an old dumb house,” she says.
“I guess you’re right. It’s just a characteristic of older houses,” he says eventually. “Listen,” he says. “I want to—”
She cuts him off. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She’d placed that memory in a box, locked it, and dropped it into the Sea of Forgetfulness. It is still bobbing, but she hopes it will eventually sink forever.
He stares at her like he is about to say something, then nods slightly. “I thought maybe that it’s time . . . time we go out on a date,” he says, as his gaze drifts to the ground. Then he looks up. “That is if you leave the house. When’s the last time you left this firetrap?”
She realizes she’s just been asked on a date and feels heat blossom in her cheeks. Sex is one thing, but a date is a commitment. “I—I don’t know when. Has it been so long? It’s my father. He needs me, you know. After my mother—”
“Died of breast cancer.”
Something bothers her about the way he says that. She can’t put her finger on it, but something seems off.
“Have you had any contact with your mother?” she asks.
He stares at her as if he’s seeing someone else, someone far away. His lips tighten into something near malice. She recognizes it, but somehow doesn’t think it is directed at her, rather . . .
“I’m sorry, Del. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
He shakes his head and blinks, returning to the now. “No,” he says. “No contact.”
She leans over and kisses him on the cheek. “Three months,” she says.
“That’s how long it’s been since I’ve been out of the house. It’s been three months.”
“So long,” he says. “How do you manage?”
Don’t ask us.
We won’t tell.
The spiders are suddenly confusing. Susan doesn’t know what they’re trying to tell her. She fights to ignore them and manages to say, “We live simply. My father goes out a couple of times a week to get things.” She shrugs. “Otherwise,” she gestures with her right hand, “It’s just the two of us.”
The spiders are becoming maddening. How is she to make sense of them? Are they commanding her to kill—or are they talking to each other? They seem disinterested, as if their need is mechanical rather than passionate. Not the way she’s come to know them.
All through the night and the following day, they whisper strange things, responses to questions she never asks, and comments to things she’s never done. Is it the souls of the Seventh Day Adventists? Are they somehow inhabiting the spiders? The funny thing is that she never once doubts her own sanity—that the spiders are real. So, it is her search for another reason that keeps her up most of the night and almost makes her cancel the date when the spiders go silent.
The next night finds her having dinner with Del at the Riverfront Bistro, an upscale restaurant right on the Columbia River. She can actually see the upper window of her house from the restaurant’s front door, which makes her feel a little less nervous. Not having been out of the house in almost a hundred days gives her the occasional shiver. Still, the fried Wallapa Bay oysters are succulent, the salmon from the river is delicate and a treasured replacement from her diet of TV dinners. The crème brûlée is the perfect end to the night. She leaves the table for a moment to use the ladies room, and when she returns, Del has ordered a second dessert of ice cream. She’s full but doesn’t want to turn him down; she eats it, only once noting an acidic tinge to the whole bean vanilla as if it were thawed and refrozen several times.
• • • •
When Susan finally comes to, her hands are tied behind her and her feet are tied to the legs of a chair. She’s naked except for her underwear, her skin cool enough to cultivate goosebumps. She’s in the basement seated halfway between the heater and the washer and dryer. Laid out on the floor beside her is her father, face and head a mass of bloody pulp, his murderous bat lying beside him. By the occasional rise and fall of his back, she can tell he’s alive.
She glances around, but there is no one else . . . nothing else going on in the house. The spiders are still silent. The last thing she remembers is . . . her date with Del. She had dinner with him, then—blank. Whatever happened after is gone now.
A thump comes from upstairs.
She cranes her head to look toward the unfinished stairs. The door at the top opens, shedding more light than what’s coming through the windows.
She starts to yell but bites it back. Instead, she concentrates, sending out thoughts to the house, begging the spiders to tell her what’s happening, but they refuse.
A figure works its way down the stairs, pulling something heavy, each thump, thump, thump, a weight falling on a wooden stair.
When the figure comes into view, she sees who it is and her breath leaves her.
Del pulls a young woman down the stairs, her hands and feet bound, gag over her mouth. She’s alive and her eyes are insane with the need to escape.
He deposits her on the floor on the other side of Susan’s chair, then straightens, facing Susan. “The spiders are mine now.”
The spiders . . . what the . . . can he . . . but that’s impossible. Is that why the spiders won’t talk to her? Is that why they’ve gone silent?
“What have you done?” Susan finally asks.
He grins happily, like a boy who’s just been commended for doing something well. “Yours isn’t the only house with small spiders, you know. They’re everywhere if you know just where to look.”
“Why do you want my spiders?”
He puts his hands on his hips. “Oh, they’re your spiders now, are they?”
She closes her eyes and begs the spiders to respond.
“They won’t listen to you,” he says, as if knowing what she is doing. “You can try, but the spiders and I have come to an agreement.”
She opens her eyes. “What agreement?”
He claps his hands together with delight, then reaches down and picks up the bat. “Now we’re cooking with grease. These old houses hold secrets. Too often they go unknown, the secrets lost to eternity. But if a house has a soul, if a house has small spiders, then it can give up the secrets. It can tell someone who wants to know.” He cocks his head, then chuckles. “I know. I know. For a price.” Then he turns back to her. “It can tell someone who wants to know for a price.”
Susan glances between her father and the newcomer, then back at Del. Whatever fear she feels ebbs away with the tide of anger that follows. “We’re the price. You’re going to feed us to the house.”
“Bingo! Prize for the cute girl tied to the chair. My original idea was to feed it you and your dad, but it seems you’ve had the house on a starvation diet. I couldn’t believe you’ve been feeding the house your own blood like this is some sort of suburban Little Shop of Horrors. Then I saw your legs and your arms when we had sex and when the spiders told me, it all made a certain sick sense. You aren’t a real cutter. You’re a feeder.”
A tear slips down her cheek for the days when all she’d been was a cutter.
“So when I approached them with my proposition, they wanted more than just the pair of you. They wanted a third. They wanted an innocent. In fact, it’s a complicated bargain all around.”
Susan can’t help glancing at the girl. She wonders who she is and how Del knows she’s an innocent. “Why are you doing this to us?”
“Feeding you to the house? Haven’t you been listening?”
“Because you want to know the house’s secret, asshole. I heard you. What fucking secret?”
“Oh, my. Language young lady,” Dell says waggling the bat towards her. “This is old Uniontown, the part of Astoria where the Finns lived. It’s well known that the Finns didn’t trust anyone, much less banks, so they tended to keep their money hidden, often buried. In fact, this is the third house in three months I’ve been able to convince to give up its secrets.” He chuckles. “It’s really rather easy. I know what they want and I give them what they want.”
“Money? You’re doing this for money?” she asks, another tear falling. She wants to push it back, but it leaves an indelible trail down her cheek.
“What else is there?” He grins. “Oh, did you . . . did you think we had something? That what we had was real?” He shakes his head. “You mean the poor agoraphobic girl with a crazy daddy who couldn’t take the fact that he’d hacked up the remains of his wife to feed to his house thinks I really had a thing for her?”
“What about your mother? How’d it feel when she crashed the car?” It isn’t much, but it’s something.
The malice returns to his face. He grips the bat tight as he points it at her. “Let me tell you about my mother and father. Right after my arm healed, my dad began to beat on me because my mother wasn’t available. He did that for two years and then I killed him with a hammer to the head one night when he was passed out drunk in his chair. I dragged his sorry ass into the yard and set him on fire. When the police came, I told them what I’d done, and I was arrested and sent to juvie. I saw tons of shrinks and was finally released when I turned eighteen, the government assured that I was only acting out because of the abuse.” He grins. “Sorry, I lied. I’m not seventeen. When I was seventeen I was trying to keep my fellow inmates from raping me. I was mostly successful. I’m really twenty and about to turn twenty-one next week. Too bad you won’t be around to wish me happy birthday.”
All the while he’d been talking, she’d been begging the spiders to listen to her, but so far nothing. But there is something, as if the house is waking and noticing what is transpiring. She feels an attention now, the same attention she’d felt before when strangers were staring at her, spinning around, only to catch them watching her.
“Where was I? Right!” He snaps his fingers. “When they let my mom out, I was there to meet her. I took her to an old house I’d rented—a dump even older than this one. I made her dinner and added Special K like I gave you. She woke up in the basement and I opened her up and let her bleed as I told her everything my father had done to me because she wasn’t there to protect me. That night the house awoke and the spiders started talking to me. It was that night I realized that houses could have a soul if only they are fed.”
“You killed your father and your mother,” she says flatly.
“Rootin’ tootin’, I did.”
She hears the squeak of a single spider and begins to talk with it.
“According to the spiders, the concrete floor was put in about six years ago. A tin box full of special belongings is buried in the dirt underneath. When I kill your father, it will tell me exactly where.”
“Then why kill the girl?”
“They wanted a cherry on top.”
“Then why kill me?”
He leans back. “Oh! Oh! That’s precious. You think I’m going to kill you. Oh, no. The house won’t let that happen. The house needs you. You’re its provider. You’ll be left to feed it forever. Isn’t that the plan all along anyway?”
In a manner of speaking it is.
“Please, don’t kill my father,” she says.
“Sorry, babe. It’s a done deal.”
Then she begins to speak to the house in earnest.
She speaks to it as Del grabs her father.
She makes promises as he cuts the veins on her father’s arms from wrist to elbow, then follows up by slicing deeply into his jugular vein.
Through the pain of her father’s murder, Susan finally understands. She commands the house to listen to her and invokes her brother Nate, whose death was the inciting incident that created the house’s soul . . . taking Nate’s soul and molding it into its own . . . making the house essentially a different version of her little brother. The boy who wanted to be an astronaut, instead now a house with small spiders who can be his eyes and mouths. Only now, they are also his ears because Susan is speaking directly to her brother, making a promise only a sister can make to a brother.
She feels a spider crawl up her left leg.
Del is too busy to notice.
She watches its tickling journey as it crests her knee, crawls across her thigh, up her stomach, over her bra, then up her neck. She loses sight of it as it climbs into her left ear. But she hears its whisper. She hears and she understands.
Her father’s blood draws into the cracks of the floor at alarming speed, as if the structure is famished.
Del stands, cocking his head this way and that, then grins.
“Ha!” he says. “Ha!” He marches to the southwest corner of the home and lays the bat down on a spot. “Be right back,” he says. “Going to get some tools.” He starts to head to the stairs, then pauses and turns. “Don’t go anywhere,” he says, then giggles as he takes the stairs two at a time.
She waits until after the door is shut and she hears the thumps across the floor before she speaks to the hostage.
“Okay, now, listen to me. We don’t know how long he’s going to be gone so we have to move fast. Are you listening to me?”
The girl’s eyes pin Susan to her seat.
“Are you listening?” Susan says in a steel voice.
The girl nods.
“Behind the washer and dryer, I have a battery-operated reciprocating saw. If you can inchworm over there, you can reach it and bring it to me. Do you think you can do that?”
“I said, do you think you can do that?”
The girl nods.
“Then fucking do it or we’re both going to die!”
It seems to take forever for the girl to get started and figure out how to move on the rough concrete floor, but it’s only sixty seconds. Susan knows because she’s counting. Once the girl gets the hang of it, she moves faster and makes it the dozen feet to the back of the washer and dryer, manages to grab the saw with her hands behind her, then inches her way back.
“Now kick my chair over.”
The girl kicks once and misses. Her second attempt rocks the chair. The third sends Susan over.
Susan goes rigid so her head wouldn’t bounce off the floor and knock her out but she needn’t have worried. She lands on her dead father’s chest, her eyes staring into his eyes. Perhaps it’s better this way. He would have never been able to do what she is going to do. He didn’t have it in him.
The spiders warn her. Del is returning.
“Now hand me the saw.”
She can’t see the girl but hears her moving towards her.
The spiders begin to scream.
“Hurry,” Susan whispers.
Then she feels the hard-composite plastic in her hands. It is backward from how she needs it. She reverses it, then depresses the trigger and cuts through the slip tie holding her wrists together. She bites back a cry of pain as the blade dives into the side of her wrist, but there is nothing to be done about it. As soon as her hands are free, she saws through the tie holding her ankles. Then she rights the chair and returns it where it is, now empty.
The door to the stairs opens and Del comes down, carrying something heavy.
Susan runs to the bat, scoops it up, then creeps to the unfinished stairs. When Del’s feet come into view, she swings the bat right into his ankles. He falls forward in a clatter of equipment. Susan runs around, prepared to finish him, but sees the fall’s knocked him unconscious.
When Del awakes a few minutes later, he’s tied to the chair much like Susan had been, naked down to his classic tightie-whities. He comes to with a grim look, eyes back and blue from the concrete face plant.
Susan stands before him, holding the baseball bat. “I renegotiated the deal. Turns out they don’t need you.”
“But I promised them . . . I promised them everything they wanted.”
Susan shrugs. “They could get everything they wanted anyway. I offered them more.”
“I told them that if they followed you, as soon as you left I’d kill myself and they’d have no one to feed them.”
Del’s eyes widen slightly.
“You didn’t think of that, Jelly Belly, now did you?”
His eyes narrow. “What’s to keep you from doing that anyway? You could kill yourself whenever you wanted. Or just up and leave.” Del turns his face to the ceiling and shouts, “Did you ever fucking think of that?”
“But I’m different. I’m not just anybody.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I’m the sister. I’m the sister of this house.”
“That makes no sense at all,” Del says.
“I realized that my mother had gone crazy because the newborn soul of the house was speaking to her. Nate was speaking to her through the spiders. It really couldn’t communicate what it wanted. It hadn’t the ability. All it knew is it wanted its mother—my mother—his mother.”
“That makes no sense at all,” Del says with little conviction.
“Where do you think souls come from? The soul bank? The spiders told me. For a soul to be born to a house, almost too many things have to happen. Three or more families have to have lived there. Someone has to die in the house. Blood has to be spilled. And something, even if it’s just an idea, has to be born in the house. The idea that was born was Nate. He refused to let the house have his soul. Instead, he gave it to the house with the catch being that he could always be near his family. You’d convinced the spiders to help you, but you hadn’t convinced the house. That’s who I finally talked to. The house. My brother.”
“What are you going to do now? Kill me?”
“Oh, no. You’re going to be its provider.”
Susan moves quickly over to the girl, then holds up the razor Del used to kill her father. She and slices it swiftly across the young woman’s neck. Blood spurts as her eyes frantically beg Susan for help that never is going to come.
“You killed her,” Del says. He sounds surprised.
“It is part of the deal. My brother needs to be fed.”
Then Susan moves to Del. She picks up the reciprocating saw and cuts off his left hand. His blood gushes out for a long moment as he screams, then she quickly applies a tourniquet above the wound until the blood slows to a trickle. He is hyperventilating when she speaks next.
“You’ll feed Nate for as long as I can keep you alive. After that, we’ll find someone else as deserving. This girl is the last innocent killed in this house. Everyone else is going to be like you.”
Then Susan walks up the stairs.
She wants a bath.
She wants something to eat.
Then she needs to go out and buy a model spaceship for her brother, Nate.
What she did had little to do with violence and was more about family. The blood, the evisceration, the killing—none of it has to do with her, but rather her love for her brother, the house, and the small spiders. As she bathes, she realizes the truism of her new existence. Some people are able to live a satisfactory life in a home made of metal and steel. Some can even make do in an apartment. Still others can live their entire life in a raised ranch in a cul-de-sac of an upscale neighborhood in the best suburb. But not one of them will ever know what it’s like to live in a house with a soul, nor will they understand what’s necessary to survive a house of small spiders.