Trapped behind the walls of Sunnygrove Wellness Center, a psychiatric hospital whose history refuses to die, Penelope retreats into a world of her creation, but even that is no sanctuary.
Her doctor is possessed by something which can invade dreams and turn them into nightmares, something nourished by fear and pain.
Incorporates lines from The Spider And The Fly by Mary Howitt.
I'm not sick. I'm not.
She straightened the rumples in her starchy blue hospital gown and bit her lip, a defiant look passing like an eclipse which, like all others, eventually deepened into a faraway blankness. Like the face of a doll.
The bed she lay in and the room she stayed in was a prison, but so was the world outside. Or at least that's what they told her. Reality itself was a prison, and there were only two ways to escape.
It was dehumanizing; the constant bed checks and examinations, the prying words, the bar code on her slim, too-pale wrist as if she was just another digit in a sea of numbers, and the lingering sense that something sinister was waiting for its chance. She pretended to still be asleep as nurses began their morning rounds, their shoes making no sound on the checkered floor.
Just like a chess board. I'm a pawn. Who is the king and queen? Who is the knight? Will he come rescue me?
Last night she dreamed of being a spider's dinner.
As she retreated into catatonia to shield against daggers of emotion too sharp to withstand, something else followed her into those most intimate spaces. It had come to wreck the only sanctuary she had left, to corrupt the beauty her mind could still conjure, and all this under the benevolent, ambiguous label of “therapy.” The blanket tucked around her was a gossamer cocoon, the drugs running through her veins was its toxic venom, needle-marks the kiss of fangs, and the orderlies lunging in; well, they were appendages of the spider. Mindless on their own, but controlled by a force that knew what it was doing.
She rolled her eyes back and forth in their sockets, finding interesting patterns in that velvet blackness. Early morning light, pale gray and sickly, filtered through the half-open blinds on the room's only window, and wormy shadows of trees crawled on the floor.
The spider's name was Dr. Thorneburg, and he was very hungry today.
His web was connected with the webs of other spiders; they were all working together now, and it was serving them well. Even now one could almost smell the rot of minds getting sicker and sicker, and the bloated guts of emotional parasites getting their fill. Thorneburg was a fat, well-nourished spider, feeding on nightmares and misery.
Before the fangs robbed her of reason she remembered walking through a sprawling meadow on a warm summer day, searching for wildflowers to bring home to her sick mother.
Oh, where have we heard this before? Don't you know fairy tales were not intended to be narrations of happiness and dreams come true but horror stories to frighten children like you into obedience? Silly girl.
There was a wicker basket strung over her shoulder, and it currently contained no actual flowers, just fake ones, which she discarded.
Would you like something to put in your basket? I'd be happy to oblige, but first, you must do something for me.
The grass was short as if recently mowed and bubble-gum pink, and the cloudless yellow sky reminded her of lemonade. Everything so awash with color, like an over-saturated film, gorgeous but fake. She dared to look directly at the sun and had no difficulty doing so, another sign this was a dream. There were no trees or bushes or mountains or streams in sight; just the endless meadow, the occasional breeze, and the possibility of finding flowers.
It was peaceful. For a while she forgot who she was.
She looked down at herself, no longer a waif but strong and tan and fit, wearing a white sun dress that rippled like a liquid in the breeze, a straw hat, wooden sandals, and a metal charm bracelet that spelled her name.
Penelope. Where are you?
I'm coming. Don't worry, I'm coming home soon. I had a bad fall. Made my head feel funny. The doctors are nice people; they know what they're doing. They'll make me feel better. Just a bad fall, just a--
You lost your mind, kiddo. And you're trying to find it here?
Not too far ahead, there was one flower. Its strange syrupy aroma called silently, and its darkness stood out like an infected wound against the chromatic day.
Don't go, Penelope. I love you. I don't want you to get hurt.
Just a bad fall, just a bump on the head.
Maybe if I find her flowers, she'll be happy again? Do you think she'll ever forget? Will anyone forget? Can't we just go back to the way things were?
She stole a glance behind, pushing her red curls behind her ears. She hurried toward the ominous dot in the distance.
Its been dead forever, doesn't belong.
In seemingly no time at all, she reached it.
A black flower, grotesque and yet alluring, the only splotch of monochrome in a world of color overload. It had the shape of a bloom accustomed to drinking moonlight. The petals were long and velvety, and looked like pursed lips.
Go on. Take it. We won't bite.
Penelope hesitated, wondering why in the world this would cheer up anyone, sick or otherwise. But then a brilliant voice said, if you pick it, it will die and other flowers will grow. Its blocking the way, sucking out their life. You can free them.
The thought of freeing others from this corruption and giving them a chance was so appealing, because Penelope had always cared for others, perhaps too much, and because in the process she might even be able to help herself. She reached down to pick the diseased flower. For a second, she stirred in bed as nurses entered the room, speaking amongst themselves, almost enough to rouse her. The medication put up walls, and so did those who administered them.
As her hand closed around the stem and pulled, she found that it had teeth. That whoever planted this flower, whoever thought removing it from the ground would prevent it from seeding the world with its poison touch, was a liar.
The burning pain reminded her of accidentally touching a hot burner when she was six, suffering third degree burns. She had to go to the hospital and get all fixed up. Just like if dolls get split seams or detached limbs or cracked glass eyes. It can all be repaired and made new again. She wasn't afraid of hospitals then.
And there was something under the flower, something vast and old and needful; a stranger you shouldn't talk to but eventually would have to, one way or another.
In a shattering instant, she realized what it meant, realized what kind of life she was living, that the flower so foolishly picked had been bait.
“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the spider to the fly.
The ground began to quake and crumble. She tried to run away before it caved in but lost her footing, collapsing to her knees. There was no sound, just the shifting beneath her, and somehow appropriate lines of poetry that pelted concentration, fed fear.
“Tis the prettiest little parlour that you ever did spy.”
The flower's suddenly sharp stem coiled and held fast in an impossibly tight grip. Before she fell she saw the lemonade sky darken to a dirty apocalyptic sepia as if some massive force was blocking the sun, and the pink grass was stained red.
“The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've many curious things to shew when you are there.”
No, she thought. Not UP the stairs. Down. It gets worse the further down you go.
Plummeting through a damp, icy chasm, hanging strands of gossamer breaking her fall and sticking to her face--
Trying to sew my mouth shut—
Penelope could not even scream. For one glimpse of what lay below stole any ghost of a voice. She wasn't wearing a sun dress and hat and sandals, but a hospital gown, and a plethora of livid scars stood out hatefully against the flesh of her upper arms. The charm bracelet was gone, replaced with a plastic wristband, with numbers and codes. She was nameless now, forgotten.
She landed, bobbing up and down in the entangling strands, vision blurring and spinning. Beside the bed in waking life, nurses were waiting for Dr. Thorneburg to arrive and give his orders.
Finally she stilled, staring up at the fading sunlit world, so beyond reach and so utterly different from how it was originally imagined to be. How ugly it was now. Something terrible had been freed, and even by being here it had already warped everything in its wake. Even dreams provided no refuge from them.
The web was soft, but strong. Every attempt to break free only increased its hold.
“I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high;
“Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the Spider to the Fly.
Unclear and peripheral, a huge dark lump stretched its limbs in greeting. There were faint vibrations as it tested, strummed the instrument whose tune was madness, descending closer to where its new catch lay.
As Penelope had done all her life, she tried to be invisible, to fool this near-blind creature into believing in false alarms, in telltale vibrations of snared flies turning out to only be the wind, or a trap much more cruel than the one that had taken her.
But unlike the girl whose fairy tale had reverted to its former incarnation, the girl who went within herself to find what the outside denied her, this spider was smart, and could feel more than vibrations, could see more than what an ordinary spider's muddled eyes revealed.
It could see into her, had been goading her this whole time.
He had intruded with the purpose of drawing her out of this once peaceful dream, into harsh reality.
Mushy, half-formed shapes within the web told countless stories. It stunk of rot, of sweet confection, of harsh astringent chemicals. There was no color here, just the blackness of far corners and the whiteness of silk.
“There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest awhile, I'll snugly tuck you in!
Perched above (Dr. Thorneburg: therapy room 6) was the spider; massive, more than twice her size, and if it possessed a human face, would have sported a twisted leer.
Its long pale legs flexed slowly as it drew itself out of the gloom, lowering, a prop in some deranged performance, on a single, ethereal filament. Perhaps the same filament that bound too many people to Sunnygrove and made them dance for unknowable purposes.
Ugly serrated mandibles cracked open, snapped shut. Click click. Click click click.
Its pedipalps twitched, looking oddly like a mustache on the otherwise inhuman countenance.
Something thick and translucent slipped from the spider's mouth, slopped to the web. Steam rose from it, emitting the smell of burning hair and old cologne. His cologne.
Then it spoke. “Well, hello. How are you feeling today? Did you miss me? I sure missed you.”
The voice (his voice) was deep and soothing like milk down a hot, dry throat, and for a moment she forgot about death and looked into those eight black eyes, into their sharp intelligent cores, and wanted to escape into them, be swallowed up into nothing so the pain would be gone.
“Your robes are green and purple -- there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!"
But spiders like him take their time. They save you for a rainy day, milk you of your essence, which makes life worth living, the hope, the joy.
Its lair used to be a hospital but was now a cavern draped in silk like funeral shrouds. The floor had long since decayed and fallen away, revealing the abyss below.
This Hell had no fire and brimstone, no monstrous ex-angel as its leader, but a variety of demons filled its cold spaces, dragging broken souls into their dreamscape. Once bustling with nurses and doctors and orderlies and patients and guests bearing get well gifts and murmured assurances, but now all dead and wrapped up like candies in a dish.
I have within my pantry, good store of all that's nice;
I'm sure you're very welcome -- will you please to take a slice?"
One of them was not dead. He hung from the ceiling a few feet away, the bulky form of a man still moving. His broad chest rose and fell, and beneath the suffocating mask of gossamer his mouth opened and closed. One hand poked from the silken prison (straitjacket), fingers hooked, atrophied from disuse, trembling with muted misery.
“Now, now, Jake. You know it's rude to fidget so much, especially during dinner,” said the spider.
"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "kind Sir, that cannot be,
I've heard what's in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!
She vaguely remembered reading that poem before, perhaps in middle school. It had creeped her out then, but also held a darkly whimsical aspect, like a fairy tale as it was designed to be. But there was nothing whimsical about this. This horror show that tormented whether one was awake or asleep.
Penelope realized that flower was still clenched in her fist. With a cry of disgust, she cast it away, where it caught in the web, shook for a while, then turned to ash and fell into the abyss below. She stared at her hand. The flower's sap had leaked into the tiny pinpricks those inexplicable thorny teeth had made, and was mingling with her blood. There was no way to get it out, no way to ever get clean.
“Are you cold?” The spider asked. Its mottled gray body swayed back and forth.
She tried to escape, knowing it was no use but trying anyway, always. Silk encircled her wrists and ankles, clung to her neck, plastered itself to her hair.
“Poor girl, you're shivering. May I be of some assistance? There are plenty of blankets.” Two limbs outstretched as if in expectation of an embrace. It ambled closer.
“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “for I've often heard it said
They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed.”
She no longer wanted to be lost in those eyes. “Back off.”
A wet chuckle echoed through the cavern like the drip-drip-drip of a leaky faucet.
“I don't think you're in any condition to make demands, little one.”
“You can't control me. I'm not yours. It doesn't matter who you are, you can't do this to people. You can't!”
“Poor Penelope. So small, so weak, and too sweet a morsel for this ravenous world. I'm only here to help you towards, if not a recovery, then a method of coping with your problems. I'm sorry you were dealt such a bad hand in life.”
“Sorry?” she shouted. “No. You're a lie!”
“You better be glad of that. Because people like you can't handle anything but lies. You meander around in pleasant little fantasy worlds like this one.” The spider gestured upward with one leg where fading light still lingered, where the trap had been sprung. “You bow out, avoid responsibility, and then—then, you come to us. Pour your pathetic little hearts out. We put up with your insanity, and we try to help you. So its only fair that we get something in return, something you believe is yours but is actually ours. Ours.”
The eyes twinkled sardonically. “So, let us lie to you so this place can keep on ticking. Let us have what we need.”
Silence permeated the cavern. The words crashed into her, and the truth of them; rather, the untruth, rang with implications she didn't fully understand. She knew on a level you only know in dreams that what she was facing here wasn't just a projection of her troubled psyche, wasn't just a nightmare. The puppeteer behind this demented show was not human, nor was it Dr. Thorneburg or a giant spider, but something pretending to be these things. Something that seemed intent on tearing her mind apart.
“Who are you?” Penelope dared to ask. “No, a better question...what are you?”
“I think you'd rather not know.”
“Tell me.” There was a pleading note in her voice. “Just tell me.”
“We are what's left when the fire is out, when nothing crackles and pops.”
“What does that mean?”
“Patience,” the spider murmured in singsong. “You'll soon understand very well, more than you care to. First, how about a little kiss for me, precious?”
Said the cunning Spider to the Fly, Dear friend what can I do,
To prove the warm affection I've always felt for you?
Gobs of black ooze dripped from the spider's mouth, and where they landed in the web, burned through it like acid. Again came the smell of singed hair, and that familiar aroma that lingered on him as reliably as his smile.
She gagged. “Please, don't do this. J-just let me go!”
“Now, why would I do that? Its not often that little morsels such as yourself wander into my home. What were you thinking when you plucked that flower, hmm? That it would solve all your problems?”
Her resolve broken by mindless terror, Penelope began to thrash violently, only serving to become further ensnared.
The spider laughed with delight, its swollen abdomen pulsating, its mandibles tapping together like clapping hands. Click, click. Click Click. “Oh, I love it when they struggle. So afraid, so alive. Delicious.”
A real spider wouldn't taunt and tease like this. It would be sinking its fangs in with impersonal swiftness.
No, this was a different kind of spider, one which was so sure of her helplessness that it didn't try to make sure its prey wouldn't get away. But even if she could manage to flail loose, what would wait? It went on forever, and if not forever, then long enough for it not to matter.
But maybe the void, the nothing, would be better than this; better than being slowly broken, sucked dry, consumed.
She shook the web, cries bouncing off the walls, and this seemed to encourage the spider. It crept nearer, legs either waving in the air or grasping the strands of its craft, pulling itself languidly along.
She looked into the eyes again, and saw a different death in every one. Some of them slow, others quick and brutal, but all utterly without hope.
“I think I'll keep you here yet awhile, yes. It would be rude to leave so soon!”
Up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour -- but she ne'er came out again!
It loosened some of the strands anchoring its prey to the web, grabbed her as she tried to fall, coarse hairy legs adhering like glue. Spinneret working, it cradled Penelope and angled her belly beneath its long, glassy fangs—
and sank them in deep.
No agony, just the sick, squelching feeling of insides being scrambled and dissolved, and numbness that made one wish for a back door out of this world, a sensation she knew all too well and sought to alleviate with pain, because pain was better than feeling nothing at all.
Not dead yet but dead in all the ways that matter.
“Such a pretty flower,” the spider hissed, its voice moist with blood and satisfaction. One slender limb delicately stroked her face. “Too bad all flowers must wilt.”