This story recently won an online competition at www.thewritersarena.com. copyright is held by the author.
“PLEASE TREVOR, I don’t want to go up there it’s freaking me out.”
“Dylan, it’s okay, they won’t hurt you,” Trevor said from the top of the treehouse ladder.
“They hurt dad, and he died.” Dylan stood on the bottom rung with a firm grip on the rails. He’d become prone to anxiety attacks after his father’s death and he struggled around spiders.
“Dad had an allergic reaction,” Trevor said. “You can’t live your life being scared. You have to come up; you won’t believe it.”
“I don’t know Trevor.” Dylan considered climbing, but the anxiety built in his chest. His body felt rigid and his breathing restricted.
“Just come to the top of the ladder and look from there.” Trevor had been taught by his mother to help ease his brother into facing his fears.
“I want to, but —”
“But nothing. Just close your eyes, slow your breathing and take one step up at a time: breathe, step, breathe, step. Get it?”
“Okay, I’ll try.” Dylan closed his eyes, took a breath and brought one foot up on the next rung. Trevor had always made it easy for him to deal with his anxiety, and he could count on his brother to help him. He considered Trevor his best friend. Dylan took another deep breath, then a step, then another.
“Keep your eyes closed, breathe, and I’ll tell you when you reach the top.”
“Am I almost there?”
“Almost. Two more steps.” Dylan took another step and a dog barked at the bottom of the ladder. Dylan was startled. “Ranger!” Trevor scolded their golden retriever.
“Trevor. I can’t do this.” Dylan’s eyes were shut tight and he had a white knuckled grip on the ladder rails.
“It’s okay Dylan. Ranger just wanted to play fetch with his stick. Now just breathe, relax, and take one more step, and then you can open your eyes.” Dylan took a deep breath, exhaled, then took a step. He felt the top of the ladder. “Now open your eyes.”
Dylan opened his eyes. Light seeped into the treehouse between boards and in the far corner of the treehouse was a glimmering thicket of silk. A web mass that resembled a tumbleweed that had blown upward into the corner and stuck.
“Trevor, I don’t like it. I want to get down.”
“Dylan it’s okay. I don’t see any spiders.” Trevor took a few steps across the floor. “It’s so weird. It looks like red silk when the light hits it the right way.”
Dylan liked the sound of those words married together: red silk. The words had rolled off his brother’s tongue with fascination and wonder, and although Dylan feared spiders he still saw the natural beauty in the spun silk.
“C’mon Dylan,” Trevor said. “Come over and see this.” His brother poked the web with his finger.
“I can see it fine from here.” Dylan felt his throat constrict. He was convinced a spider would appear after his brother disturbed the silk, but the web only shimmered and released dew drops that fell to the floor.
“See Dylan, no spiders.” Trevor smiled.
“Yeah, no spiders,” Dylan said, “but I’m still getting down, and I want you to take the web away.” Dylan started down the ladder. He thought, there had to be a spider somewhere in the treehouse to have made that web and likely it was poisonous.
“You know what,” Trevor said following his brother down. “I’m proud of you for going up there. I’ll take the web down, don’t worry.”
Ranger barked and picked up his stick as the boys came off the ladder.
“Hey, I have an idea,” Trevor said. “Give me the stick Ranger.” Ranger let Trevor take the stick from his mouth. The dog barked playfully. “In a minute boy.”
“What are you doing with Ranger’s stick?” Dylan said.
“I’m going to use it to get rid of that web.” Trevor climbed up the ladder into the treehouse. Dylan followed. He felt braver going back up knowing his brother was going to take down the web, and he wanted to ensure he did a good job.
Dylan waited at the top of the ladder. Trevor pushed the stick into the web and twirled it like turning cotton candy onto a stick. The boys descended from the treehouse with the stick. Ranger barked.
“Just a second boy.” Trevor wiped the stick clean of silk in the tall grass. “Ready?” Ranger eagerly barked and Trevor tossed the stick. “Get it boy.” Ranger took off. The dog scooped up the stick and returned.
“Good boy Ranger,” Dylan said. Ranger dropped the stick and panted.
“Dinner time!” Their mother hollered over the farmland’s back two acres.
“Race yah Dylan?” Trevor turned to his brother, but Dylan was already running. Trevor shot forward to catch up while Ranger barked and chased their heels.
The boys swung the back door open and charged into the farmhouse’s kitchen. Dylan and his brother were born in this house. It was his father’s childhood home set on the eastern side of Knowles Island off the coast of Maine. The island had a winding north-south ridge that divided the land, and you could drive from one end to the other in thirty minutes. A single bridge from the mainland town of Trenton brought people out to the island to enjoy the sandy beaches on the south shore.
“Wash your hands boys,” their mother Louise said. Dylan and Trevor headed for the bathroom. They returned to the kitchen and a steaming pan of meatloaf was on the table.
“Yes, meatloaf!” Dylan said.
“Thanks Mom,” Trevor said. The boys dug in.
“Glad you like dinner boys.” Louise sat at the table and dished herself a portion. “So how’s the treehouse?”
“Mom,” Trevor said. “You wouldn’t believe what we found —”
“Wait, can I tell her?” Dylan said.
“Sure.” Trevor smiled.
“We found a huge spider web in the treehouse.” Dylan smiled and shoved a fork load of meatloaf into his mouth.
“Oh,” Louise said. “That’s interesting.” Her eyes turned away. Dylan thought she was going to cry, and although his mother didn’t, Dylan could see he’d tapped raw feelings. He knew she missed dad and talk of the spider web had obviously choked her. Dylan swallowed his food and put his fork down.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” Dylan said. Trevor’s head was down.
“It’s okay son. I just miss your dad.” Louise straightened in her chair. “When you boys are done eating please put your laundry away. Tonight I want you both in bed no later than nine. We have to start getting back on a schedule with school starting next week.”
“Okay Mom,” Dylan said.
“But, Mom,” Trevor said, “can we play some Minecraft before we put laundry away?”
“Yes, that’s fine.” She smiled. “But make sure your chore gets done before bedtime.” The boys nodded, cleaned their plates and raced to the game console.
Dylan awakened in the night. Through a sleepy daze he heard someone being sick down the hall in the bathroom. Downstairs, Ranger whined. His mother’s footsteps were on the stairs, and her voice drifted in his ears. She was up, he thought, she’d take care of things. He rolled over and pulled up his sheets.
Dylan woke again. A sheaf of light beamed between his bedroom curtains. The smell of bacon wafted up from the kitchen. He dressed and went downstairs.
“Good morning sleepy head. Ready for breakfast?”
“Yes please.” Dylan smiled and sat at the table. His mother took a warmed plate from the oven and placed breakfast in front of him. Scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns. He devoured his breakfast while his mother washed dishes.
“Mom, where’s Trevor and Ranger?” Dylan placed his empty plate on the counter. His mother slipped the dishes into the sink’s soapy water.
“I let Ranger out early this morning.” She scrubbed the breakfast plate. “He was whining all night, and your brother was sick. I made him breakfast but he still didn’t feel well. He wanted to go for a walk and get some fresh air.” She glanced at the kitchen clock. “He’s been gone a while, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he found Ranger and went to the treehouse.”
“Bye Mom.” Dylan started for the back door.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“To catch up to Trevor.”
“Okay. But if you two end up spending the morning at the treehouse please make sure to be home for lunch.”
“Will do Mom.”
Dylan slipped on his runners, opened the back door and dashed out of the house. The grass was dewy, the morning air cool and Carl Johnson from the farm next door was walking up the lane way. Carl’s gait seemed staggered, but Dylan didn’t think much of it at the time, except to wonder why Carl hadn’t driven his truck over to visit. Dylan didn’t stick around to see what Carl wanted because all the fun waited for him, a few acres away, up a tree.
Dylan clutched his chest and drew anxious gasps. The treehouse was draped in crimson sheets of webbing.
“Trevor!” No answer. Dylan shut his eyes as crippling thoughts of spiders burrowed in his head. He kept his breathing under control by repeating to himself: there’s nothing bad happening right now, there’s no spiders, just breathe, you’ll be okay.
Sobs. Dylan could hear someone crying.
“Trevor?” He called out.
“He’s dead Dylan!” Trevor’s voice came from behind the tree. Dylan sprinted around the treehouse and found Trevor knelt in the grass. A mound of matted golden fur cocooned in red silk laid before him.
“Ranger?” Dylan’s heart sunk. His dog’s gaped mouth bled and where the tongue had been there was only a gnarled bloody root. Dylan cried. He wanted to hold his pup. He wanted to take the webs off his dog, but he was too scared.
“I found him like this,” Trevor said.
“Did the spiders do this to Ranger?” Dylan’s breathing sped up. Everything sped up.
“I don’t know —”
A thunderous sonic crack and gust of wind sent Dylan to the ground.
He slowly brought his head up. Tinnitus rang in his ears. He blinked his eyes open and noticed Trevor had brought himself to stand. Dylan stood up and followed his brother’s gaze.
Over the eastern portion of the island Dylan saw a billowing cloud of smoke rising above the Vat. But ‘Vat’ wasn’t the building’s real name. Vat was just a word Dylan’s dad had used to describe the Tumult Agricultural Research facility. Dylan hadn’t known what Vat meant, but when he had asked his dad about the word he said a Vat was used to hold liquids and the research facility was nothing more than a big bowl of chemical soup.
“Holy shit,” Trevor said. Dylan didn’t often hear his brother swear, but when he did, he knew it wasn’t good. Dylan watched the smoke plume rise.
“I’m scared Trevor.” Dylan turned away from the mushroom cloud to find his brother curiously hovering over Ranger. Dylan’s eyes shot to the dog.
Ranger had twitched.
“He’s alive!” Dylan said stepping forward.
“No Dylan. Stay back,” Trevor said.
A red spider with a black abdomen skittered from the dog’s mouth into the long grass. Trevor backed away. Dylan’s eyes widened.
“Trevor,” Dylan gasped. His chest tightened. “Did you see that?”
“Yes.” Trevor held his stomach. Dylan noticed his brother’s ashen face. “I feel sick again Dylan. Let’s get out of here. Something’s not right and we have to tell mom.” The boys hurried toward the farmhouse.
Dylan came through the back door into the kitchen and saw his mom first. She was leaning against the counter and was weeping over the kitchen sink. Dylan turned to Trevor for guidance, but his brother had slouched against the wall. His eyes were shut, he held his stomach and groaned. Dylan wanted to help Trevor, but moved his concern to his mother first.
“Mom what’s wrong?” Dylan said.
“Nothing’s wrong.” She wiped tears. “I’m fine, but we have to leave.” She motioned Dylan to move toward the kitchen’s back door. Trevor threw up.
“Dylan help me with Trevor. We have to go.”
“Mom.” Dylan was loud. “We can’t go. Ranger’s dead, Trevor’s sick and the Vat blew up.” Dylan registered a stoic gaze from his mother. “Mom, what’s going on?”
“Shhh . . . please,” she said. “Trust me we can’t stay here.”
Dylan was puzzled by his mother’s behaviour, but then finer details came into scope. His mom’s right knuckle bled, her wrists appeared bruised and her clothes ruffled.
“Dylan,” she said, turning to him. “Your brother’s sick, things are not safe here.”
“What do you mean babe? You’re safe with me.” Across the kitchen Carl Johnson stood shirtless. His buckle was undone on his jeans and he had a cut over his eye. “Your mom likes to play hard to catch, and she packs a mean punch too.”
Dylan noticed Carl’s chest was blemished with yellowed bumps. His tongue appeared swollen in his mouth, making his speech sound like he had a mouthful of food. There was a distinct odour of ammonia wafting from him. This wasn’t the Carl he knew. Carl was their neighbour, his father’s best friend from high school, a kind and respectful man.
“Run boys. Go get help,” Louise said and she drew a blade from the knife block. But Trevor and Dylan didn’t run. Trevor was too sick to move and Dylan had locked in fear.
“C’mon boys run, get out, so I can have your mother all to myself again.” Carl’s callous guffaw twisted in Dylan’s ears but then abruptly waned. Carl’s body convulsed. He choked and in a fluid motion his mouth opened and his tongue dislodged. The muscle fell onto the kitchen floor, flopped and split open to reveal stringy matter that reminded Dylan of pumpkin guts and seeds. But this pumpkin’s seeds writhed.
Louise shrieked and she dropped the knife.
Dylan’s heart pounded in his chest as his brother vomited.
Carl’s body swayed and he fell forward. His face struck the tiled floor with a wet smack and red spiders erupted from the yellow tipped blemishes covering his body. The spiders festered in the meaty tongue and pockmarked wounds that covered Carl, and they appeared to feed.
“Mom . . .” Trevor groaned, slide down the wall and slumped on the floor. Bile-coloured saliva drooled from his mouth and Dylan remained frozen.
“Dylan we have to go!” His mother yelled. Dylan heard her but didn’t move. “Son, snap out of it.”
“Mom, I can’t move. I’m so scared,” Dylan cried.
“Dylan you have to move. We have to get to the truck,” Louise said.
Spiders skittered from Carl’s body.
“Mom the spiders are coming. They’re going kill me like they killed dad.” Louise grabbed Dylan and faced him.
“Dylan, your father would want you to be safe. We can’t stay here, it’s not safe. Your brother is sick, and I know none of this makes sense but something is terribly wrong here. We need to go. You have to move. Your brother needs your help.”
Those words, your brother needs your help, echoed in his mind. Trevor had always been there for him, had always helped him. But now his brother was in trouble and Trevor needed him. A spider crossed near Dylan’s foot, he stepped out and crushed the bug. A glob of red and yellow made a watery pop beneath his foot.
“I can help,” Dylan said into his mother eyes, and together they lugged Trevor out the kitchen’s back door and toward the rust rimmed, white truck parked outside the barn.
“Mom, I don’t understand what’s happening.” Dylan broke into tears. “Carl was such a nice guy.”
“That wasn’t Carl son, and I don’t understand any of this. But we need to keep moving. We need to get your brother to the hospital in Trenton and maybe we’ll find answers there.”
Louise opened the truck door and Dylan helped her lay Trevor down in the Truck’s cab.
“Hop in the front son, hurry,” Louise said. Dylan moved around the back of the truck toward the passenger side when he saw the spiders. A red and black tide of arachnids flowed out through the kitchen’s back door. The spiders scurried toward them. His mother saw them too.
“Dylan get in the truck now!” Dylan scrambled into the truck.
Louise turned the ignition, dropped the transmission into gear and hit the gas. Gravel spat from the rear tires and dust blew behind the truck as they barreled down the lane way. Louise turned left onto the island’s main road. They headed northwest toward Trenton. Dylan heard Trevor moan in the back seat.
“I’m worried about Trevor Mom,” Dylan said. His mother coughed. She looked sick too.
“It’ll be okay Dylan. We’ll get your brother help in Trenton.” She wiped tears from her eyes with her fingers.
“Mom, where did those spiders come from?”
“Please Dylan,” she said. “No more talk about spiders, okay.” Dylan nodded and sat back in his seat. He looked out the windshield. The truck rolled past farmland and an abandoned car in the ditch. On the left a field stretched toward a forested ridge.
“Mom look!” Dylan pointed. Louise looked left along the ridge. People in lab coats had staggered out of the forest and descended the ridge. They ran through the field waving their arms at them.
“Mom I think they need help. We need to stop.”
“We can’t Dylan. We don’t have enough room.” His mother’s tone was wary.
“They can go in the pick up. There’s lots of room back there,” he said.
Dylan noticed more people had appeared at the edge of the forest. They were dressed in black and Dylan saw them raise their arms.
“We’re not stopping. It’s too dangerous.” His mother floored the accelerator and Dylan peered out the back window. He heard pops and the people in the white coats fell.
“Oh my god Mom!” Dylan spun in his seat. “I think they were shot.”
“Dylan, please listen to me.” His mother coughed. She was sweating. “Something is happening around us that isn’t good and I’m not feeling well, so if something happens to me I want you to cross the bridge and find help in Trenton, okay.” A lump formed in Dylan’s throat. “Dylan, do you understand?”
“Yes Mom,” Dylan said, “I understand.”
The truck passed through the four-cornered hamlet of Flesherton. Dylan was spooked by the empty streets. A few miles out of Flesherton Louisa turned onto Trenton Road. Dylan could see the bridge ahead.
“We’re going to make it Mom.” But his mom wasn’t answering. Dylan noticed her eyes appeared tired, but the determination in her face embodied the strength of a mother who’d do anything to save her boys.
Louise drove the truck onto the bridge, and at the far end Dylan saw a white dome behind a cement blockade. Then Dylan caught a glimpse of something shiny pop up in front of the truck, metallic and spiky. Air bursts erupted from beneath the truck. Rubber burned. Dylan shot his hands outward and pressed on the dash. The truck skidded into a fishtail and stopped.
“Mom?” Dylan’s heart raced. She was slumped over the wheel. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t feel well Dylan.” Her voice laboured.
“Mom, I can go get help.” Tears streamed over Dylan’s cheeks.
“Good son. There will be people at the end of this bridge that will help, so don’t be scared.” She turned and look at him. “Now go.” Dylan felt like his mom was letting him go, but her eyes felt like she was holding him tight.
Dylan looked out the windshield. Ahead, people in black and yellow biohazard suits had gathered behind the cement barricade. He checked on Trevor. His brother’s eyes were closed and he wheezed. Blemishes had formed on his face and his lips appeared swollen. He didn’t want to believe the spiders were in him like Ranger and Carl, and he pushed those thoughts from his mind. He’d get help for his brother and mother, he thought, and everything would be okay.
“Don’t worry Mom. I’ll be right back.” Dylan opened the door, stepped out and stood in front of the truck’s grill. He looked back, and his mom wasn’t moving. Her hair hung over the steering wheel like a lifeless wig. He turned toward the people in the biohazard suits and guessed the distance between him and them was half the length between his home and treehouse. He needed to move fast for his family, and he ran.
“You on the bridge, stop.” The voice exploded over the bridge. Dylan stopped, he was halfway. One of the suits had a bullhorn. “Stay there we’ll send someone to you.”
A yellow suit came out from behind the barricade and approached Dylan. Apprehension filled him, but when the suit came near and knelt Dylan saw a smiling man behind the face-shield.
“Hello, my name is Dr. Funston. What’s your name?”
“You’re a brave boy Dylan. I’m glad you’re not scared. How do you feel?”
“Good, but my mom and brother are sick in the truck. There were spiders everywhere at our house.” The man peered briefly over Dylan’s shoulder at the pick-up.
“It’s going to be okay Dylan. There’s been an accident on the island and we’re trying to clean it up. Now can you open your mouth for me? I need to check to see if you’re sick.” Dylan opened his mouth. Dr. Funston produced a pen light. “Stick your tongue out Dylan.” Dylan stuck his tongue out. “Good, looks very good.” Dr. Funston put the light away.
“Am I okay? Can you go check on my mom and brother?”
“Yes, but can you stay here for me?”
“Good. I’ll be right back.” Dr. Funston stood and Dylan watched him walk toward the truck. He opened the passenger door, peered in and backed away slamming the door shut. He turned and walked toward Dylan.
“Come with me Dylan.” Dr. Funston took Dylan’s hand in his and walked toward the white dome. Dylan caught Dr. Funston giving a hand signal. Three black biohazard suits moved out from the barriers and walked toward them.
“What about my mom and brother?”
“Dylan how old are you?”
“Nine years old. I have a son whose 10 years old. He loves to play Minecraft. Do you know that game?”
“I love Minecraft, me and my brother play it all the time.”
The three black suits were close. Dylan scanned them. Two of them carried something small and black in their hands. The third wore a tank like a firefighter and held a long metal rod.
“Red Silk,” Dr. Funston said as the black suits passed. They nodded. Dylan felt Dr. Funston’s tone was cold and clinical, and he didn’t like the sound of those two words anymore: red silk. For Dylan, those words had shed all the natural beauty he once thought they held.
“You know Dylan, I’m glad you like Minecraft. I’ll have to introduce you to my son Jacob,” Dr. Funston said. But Dylan didn’t want to talk about Minecraft anymore.
“Are those people going to help my mom and brother?” Dylan said as they arrived at the dome’s white door.
“Let’s talk in here,” Dr. Funston said and he opened the door. Air pressure released. Dylan looked over his shoulder. The black suits had opened the truck’s doors. Red and black balls tumbled out. Dr. Funston pulled Dylan inside the domed structure and shut the door. Dylan felt the room he’d been ushered into glowed with heaven’s light. Then he heard two loud pops from outside and a sound that reminded him of a hot-air balloon being inflated by burners. Dylan’s eyes met Dr. Funston with torn urgency.
“I’m sorry Dylan, but the world has changed.”