The yellowed lampshade on the bedside table goes bright, goes dim. It buzzes, threatens death before settling into a weak, cool glow.
Rory says, “I remember when we were eighteen.” She stares at the ceiling, recalling. “We ran through the rain to Meyerhof House because the soda machine was broken in your dorm.” She bites her fingernails, spits splintered bits into the shadows beside the bed. She reminisces whenever they’re here, in this same room, on this same bed. “We were soaked by the time we got back. You ended up sick and missing classes for a week.”
Jake asks, “Have you remembered where we first met?”
Rory’s hair covers her face. It hides the tear Jake knows is struggling free. She doesn’t answer.
She loses a little something each time.
Jake does what he can to work whatever that something is back out, but it’s useless. What’s gone is gone.
Rory lights a cigarette. Her lipstick is more brown than red and it stains the filter.
“It’s a non-smoking room, now,” says Jake. “And you shouldn’t be smoking.”
Rory stands on the bed and reaches for the smoke detector on the ceiling. From where he sits, Jake can see beneath her shirt, to the gray flesh of her stomach and chest, to the protruding indications of her ribs. Thin strands of listless silk flutter along her skin like loose threads from a shirt. Rory twists the base of the smoke detector free and pops out the battery. She pockets it and sits back down, puffs on her cigarette.
“I wish we’d never found him,” she says.
This hangs in the air with them a while, as thick as the smoke from Rory’s cigarette.
“You’d be dead,” Jake says, breaking the silence. “I’d be alone.”
Rory’s looks across the bed at him. The first time, three years ago, they had been in a constant tight embrace, both of them terrified, confused, but excited.
He supposes that he wanted it more than her. Needed it more. Watching the smoke leave her lips and caress the side of her face, tangle with her hair, he wonders if he’ll ever forgive himself.
There’s a knock at the door. Not loud. It could have been nothing.
Rory drops the cigarette into a glass of water. It hisses, dies. “I can’t,” she says. “Jake please, I can’t.”
“I’ll get it,” says Jake.
“Just a minute more alone. Just me and you…”
In the struggling lamp light Jake sees how tired she looks, and, because he must, he leaves the bed and opens the door.
A child looks up at him, a boy no older than nine dressed in overalls. There’s a small messenger bag slung over his shoulder.
The boy steps past Jake over to the round table by the shuttered window. Jake closes the door, shutting out the scream of a motorcycle along deserted city streets, and engages the latch before joining the boy at the table. The boy places the bag down and retrieves from within a lidded mason jar, sets it on the table. The lid is pocked with small holes, and a spider—what Jake has always taken to be a spider—the size of his fist writhes within the jar, filling it completely. Its hairy legs tap audibly against the glass.
The boy looks to Rory; she’s curled her legs onto the mattress, wrapped her arms around her knees and pushed herself against the headboard. He sighs, turns back to Jake. “Is she ready?”
“No,” says Rory. “I’m not.”
The boy snatches the jar from the table and prepares to return it to the bag.
“Wait,” says Jake, seizing the boy’s arm. He’s never touched the boy before. He senses something beneath the surface there, not physical, but something nonetheless. He wants to ask how old are you but fears the boy leaving, never coming back. He releases the boy’s arm. “She’s ready,” he says, glances over to Rory. “She has to be.”
Rory looks from the boy to Jake. Back to the boy. She scoots forward, and lays back.
The boy unscrews the jar’s lid, and the spider skitters up and out, barely fitting through the opening. The boy pinches its bulbous middle between his fingers and holds it away from his body. Its legs flail wildly, jerking the boy’s arm this way and that. He nods to the empty jar. “Bring that.”
Jake takes the jar obediently into his hands and follows the boy to the bed. Looking down at Rory, the way she lies there, he feels strangely like a mourner at a funeral service.
The boy leans over Rory’s face, stares expectantly at her mouth. The spider quivers between his fingers as, with his free hand, he guides Rory’s shirt up, revealing her stone-gray flesh, the indications of her suffocated ribs. He begins to massage her stomach, gently at first, then going deeper, working his fingers over her skin, weaving them to her chest, to her neck. He rubs at her throat until her mouth opens wide and she gasps.
A set of thin legs sprout from between her lips, weakly shivering. The boy deftly lifts from Rory’s mouth a saliva covered spider, this one like a limp, wet rag, and drops it into the jar in Jake’s hand. It twists momentarily, then stills.
Rory’s eyes grow vacant, her chest motionless.
“Hurry!” Jake cries.
The boy places the new, lively spider, still gripped between his fingers, over Rory’s empty mouth. It probes at her lips, at the darkness between her teeth, and then savagely works its way inside. Jake watches, tears in his eyes, as the lump descends down her throat, explores beneath her flesh.
As the boy packs the depleted specimen into his bag and departs without a word, Jake kneels beside the bed, takes hold of her hand, and waits for Rory to breathe.
Cory Cone is a writer from Baltimore, MD, where he works as a Business Analyst at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His short stories have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, most recently Shrieks & Shivers from the Horror Zine and A is for Apocalypse. You can follow him in instagram.com/corycone and twitter: @corycone. He blogs once in a while at www.corycone.com.