Band geeks gather in the depths of the performing arts center, huddling for warmth and waiting out a violent spring rain. We start a jam session in the basement because it’s dark outside, and there’s nothing much to do. Those of us who have our instruments unpack them from their cases. We just got out of practice, so it’s a little cumbersome.
Some kids decide to make instruments out of junk they find in the basement—barrels and sticks, old coffee cans, jars, curtain rods, and chairs. We’re stuck here for a while because the rest of the school is locked and empty. It’s too dangerous to drive home in low visibility, heavy wind, and hail.
The storm seems to last longer than anyone expected with the tornado warning, so we figure we need to get comfortable and make music. After several songs, people start fighting. A few of us are off tune, and splinter groups start playing different songs all at once. Predictably, no leader is chosen or embraced by all, so the music, once near harmony, turns to shit before we all stop playing.
Amira puts down her flute and finds a maid’s uniform hanging from a closet full of silver hooks. “Boss me around and tell me what to clean,” she says before ducking behind the white statues near the stairwell to change. “Hey,” she says. “These statues are made of real marble. They’re naked. Big, cold, and naked. But don’t come back here! I’m changing.”
“You’re naked with the naked statues?” I ask, laughing because I want to spy on her and I want to know if she’ll let me. I approach as if it’s a game.
“Stay back,” Amira says, so I go to Hannah.
Hannah just looks out the window, as if staring at the rain.
“What now?” I say because Hannah is too quiet. All the other kids are laughing, shouting for Amira to sweep the floors.
“Maid, maid,” they say, tossing trash on the floor.
Hannah is still standing by the window in silence, waiting, watching for I don’t know what. I’m curious, but also slightly on guard because Hannah is intelligent, logical, and calm. She’s not one for hysterics and false alarms. Gently, I tap Hannah’s shoulder. She doesn’t turn.
“There’s a guy out there, under the streetlight,” she says.
I inch closer to the window to get a look. There is someone out there, alone, staring in at us. It does seem to be a man standing in the rain with no umbrella. I dart back when I think I see his eyes.
“Shut up,” says Amira, straightening the little lace apron as she moves through the white marble nudes, the maid’s uniform too tight, clinging to her ample body. “You’re killing it.”
“No. I’m not kidding,” says Hannah. “He’s just standing there, a creep. The weather is beating the shit out of him.”
“The hail is stoning him,” says Mitchell. “It’s biblical. I wonder what the dude has done to stand there in the hail?”
“His wife is probably punishing him for something,” says Marissa. “All the best marriages involve creative punishments from women. Everyone knows that.”
“Sick,” Jonathan says. Everyone laughs, missing the point.
“Staring?” I ask, staying away from the windows. “What’s he staring at?”
“Us. I guess. The windows, maybe. He seems to be looking right at us, glaring,” says Mitch.
That’s when, against my better judgment, I move toward the windows, again. Now I have to wedge in among the others, crowded around, staring at the man in the rain. The man does indeed seem to be staring back at us. But it’s dark out, so it’s hard to read his true expression, even under streetlight, because of the downpour. The trench coat doesn’t help matters, neither does the hood. That’s for sure.
“Look. He’s probably wondering why we’re in here staring at him. He probably doesn’t even realize he’s staring at us. Let’s just close the curtains and stop looking. Okay? It’s getting weird.”
“Should we let him in?” Julian whispers. “I’d hate to be out there. Besides, I think he can see us in here staring at him. Shannon’s right. It’s weird. We’re being rude. What would Jesus do, and all. Right?”
“Hell, no.” Mona says. “Let the maid do it. He could be a serial killer. He’s already wet and needs to be cleaned. Amira, be a doll and go to the man.”
Thunder booms, and a flash of lightning crashes across the cars in the parking lot.
“Shit,” Jimmy says. “Holy crap.”
“I went to a play here once,” Marissa says to Hannah as Phillip motions to her with his right hand to shut her trap, but she goes on talking. “Back when Mr. Patrick used to teach acting here. Remember Mr. Patrick?” Marissa asks. “Whatever happened to him? Why did he just disappear?”
“He got shit canned,” says Luke.
Jake snickers, “Shit canned with the best of them for telling Drew that he was a fag. Isn’t that right, Drew?”
“Whatever,” says Drew. “I don’t know.”
“Mr. Patrick told Drew that he—Mr. Patrick—was gay? Or that he—Drew—was gay?” Phillip asks.
“Both,” says Drew. “Whatever. He said a lot of things that day. He said that everyone was gay, even my parents and every student in the damn high school but no one knew it. Or something like that. I don’t know. It was just a dumb conversation.”
“Then what?” asks Jake.
“Nothing much. My parents called Mrs. LaTresa, and she got him fired. Or, no, not fired. No. Not fired exactly. They convinced him to fire himself. They sort of just talked to him, or something, and he just left school and no one ever saw him again.”
“Until now,” says Marissa. “That’s him, isn’t it? The psycho waiting in the rain, just standing still in all that hail and staring at us in the windows.”
“Maybe he lives down here,” Hannah says. “Maybe this is his home now. After he got fired? He could have become homeless? It makes sense. He used to work here. He had a key. He knows the place. No one hardly ever goes down here anymore. He probably needed a place to live and couldn’t afford a place, and now we’re invading his home.”
“Shut up,” Jonathan says.
Oddly enough, the man in the rain does resemble Mr. Patrick from afar, but it’s hard to tell if it’s really him. He’s standing across the street under the lamp, with the parking lot between us.
“Stop it! Stop,” says Hannah, screaming. “Stop it, please. You’re scaring me.”
“Me too,” says Phillip.
“I’m not scared,” says Jonathan. “I’m never scared.”
“Yeah. Right,” says Blum.
No one else seems to see what I see. As Blum and Jonathan argue, the basement spider scuttles through curtain shadows, moving like a sea creature under water. I guess this spider is special for living in a performing arts center. It knows how to entertain. I’m so busy watching the spider that I fade out of the conversation, no longer listening to the others. The spider is stunning the way my grandmother’s broaches are stunning, a rare and precious jewel, the emerald body with reddish eyes.
“What are you doing?” Megan asks, inching nearer to me.
“Nothing,” I say. “Just leave me alone.”
“You knew Mr. Patrick, didn’t you?”
“No. Not really.”
“You were his favorite student. Remember?”
Luke starts breaking stuff for no apparent reason. He starts ripping old curtains, snapping thin wooden props, heading toward these globes of silvery blue glass. “Look at these fake chandelier things,” says Luke, and we try to tell him that they’re real chandeliers.
It’s no use.
The sound of shattering is like crystal bells exploding in the thunder. It cuts me deep inside, breaking my heart in ways I’ll likely never understand, at least not in my youth, when I’m always wanting to break things, but never do because I’m told it’s wrong.
“Megan,” I say in my calmest voice. “Go away.”
Phillip starts laughing his ass off, as Megan turns away, probably trying to pretend like she isn’t crying. I don’t care if she is or isn’t crying. I just want her to leave me the hell alone so I can go back to capturing my spider.
The ring box is ready, the lid just up a bit. If I could find a way to shuffle the spider inside, I could close the lid and keep it safe, to take home. The spider is like a friendly jewel. It’s shiny, metallic green, and it has an intelligent goofy face, a face I have never seen on a spider before. It’s a jumping spider, so will be hard to catch and tame.
I know that spiders have lots of eyes and can’t really make facial expressions like people do, but this spider’s face is arranged so that it seems to have all its eyes concentrated into two large eyes on top of its head. It appears to have a face that can see me and communicate with sensitive, inquisitive expressions.
I think that if I can capture it and feed it in my room, I can also tame it and get it to like me. I smile at the thought of carrying the spider secretly with me to every class, keeping it like a hidden friend in my coat pocket.
“What’s so funny, dingus?” Gordon asks.
“Hey, hey, know what would be funny? If Phillip and Marissa took off their shoes and walked on the broken glass, just to see who could make it to the other side,” I say, just to be a jerk and change the subject, to get the heat off of me and my spider dreams.
“No way,” Marissa says, shivering in her parka. “Don’t even waste your time.”
“Why not?” Jonathan says, “It would be cool.”
“Why don’t you do it, then?” Phillips asks Jonathan. “If you think it’s such a great idea.”
“Gross,” Erin says, just as we all realize what’s about to happen.
Jonathan slowly removes his boots and socks, toes wiggling as his sweaty feet drink air. Slowly, he steps onto the blue shards, while singing a song, Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” His toes leave a trail of brilliant blood ebbing over the glass, the concrete slick.
“Should I call 911, or does someone else want to do it this time?” asks Marissa.
“What are you talking about?” Jonathan says, removing shards from his soles and flinging the glass. “It’s just blood. Haven’t any of you sissies ever seen a little blood? Doesn’t even hurt.” He slowly puts back on his socks and his boots, as if nothing ever happened, even though now when he walks he makes a sloshing sound like someone wadding in sandy waters.
“Jesus, Jonathan, you sure you’re all right?” Phillip asks in a slightly guilty voice, as if haunted, even an hour later, when Jonathan is staring out the window.
“Hey, where did that man go?” Jonathan asks, ignoring Phillip’s concern for his bleeding feet.
I wonder, then, if Phillip realizes his mistake as he speaks, or is it only later, perhaps years later, in the sobering winsome of hindsight that he realizes this was what Jonathan wanted all along. For reasons that are just becoming obvious to me, I suddenly care about what is happening to Jonathan and Phillip and the others. Even though I only want to care about the spider, I’m now starting to care about people.
Even people I secretly long to hate, people like Jonathan, are etching their names on my wounded heart, hurting me and scaring me every time they hurt themselves. Even people I never wanted anything to do with are now doing things in this basement that will make me remember them for the rest of my life. Clawing their way through the hidden passages of my mind, they carve tunnels where they hide out forever, so I can never truly ever be alone with my spider.
All I ever wanted was to be alone with my spider, really alone, and to call the spider mine.
The spider is now slowly creeping away, as if seeking safety behind the sofa.
Blum rests on the scarred sofa. He stares at me, farting into cracked leather. “Don’t you dare try to put me in that little box,” he says. Behind the wounded sofa, mortar from the rust-colored bricks breaks, falling on the painted concrete floor. There are scars in the concrete that scare me if I stare too hard, as if something—a person or an animal—was once trapped down here in the dank, clawing at the floor. I think.
“Look, Shannon,” Blum says, “it’s just a scratched floor. Nothing to be worried about. No ghosts down here.” Then, I wonder. Could he be a ghost? Could any one of us, and would none of the others know? Ghosts might walk among us every day disguised as people. These are the thoughts that plague my mind to the point that my mother still says my imagination is a disease.
Chance adjusts the globe of the green lamp, an antique, he claims. He twists it until it flickers. Everyone waits, worried about the darkness that might hide us from each other.
I’m the only one who has seen the man’s shadow and heard the door opening, closing.
Soon, the globe shatters against the wall and the light, once green, is now a brilliant white. Chance shields his eyes, and the rest of us are glad for the brighter light in this room where we are caught, waiting out the rain.
As the rain pelts the dirty windows of the theater basement, the spider’s legs dance. The spider pounces, the reflection of the rain moving through the streetlight.
Outside the windows, the rain becomes sleet, then hail the size of pearls becomes small marbles. The hail awakens the spirit inside the spider. The spider makes me want to dance and sing, but I don’t.
Erin eats from her purse. Her purse is full of edible objects. She licks white sugar from her fine fingers, the delicate dust from the doughnut she devours. I ask her, “Have you ever been bitten by a spider?”
“No,” she says. “Have you?”
“No,” I whisper, thinking how a predator sometimes becomes prey.
To take a book or even a small instrument like a pencil from this room would be stealing from the school, of course. But to take a spider is no crime. A spider belongs to no one, until it is trapped and claimed by a master and called a pet. Mr. Patrick probably thought the same thing about all of us.
Mikayla sits in the old wooden chair beneath the unfinished painting. And still, no one notices the wet man shivering, crouching, just behind my jumping spider on the concrete bench. He’s crawling around the props in the shadows near the darker corners of the walls.
Near the old blue camera, he smiles. He puts his finger to his lips to silence me. I’m almost sure it is Mr. Patrick, but his hair is much longer, and his beard so scraggly. He’s skinny now and his clothes are wet and dirty like his face and hair. His face is streaked with rain, his dark hair slick and heavy.
The spider is constantly stirring. For some reason, I want to steal it and to hold it, the way Mr. Patrick probably wants to steal and hold me. Even though I am afraid, I still want to take the spider with me, but don’t know how. Later, I realize this is probably how he felt. His thoughts were probably very close to my thoughts that night.
I finger the little ring box in my pocket and begin to imagine the spider is mine.
A shadow moves beside the stairs, nearing the statues. The man crawls along the floor, moving closer to my spider in silence. Now, I know I recognize his face. Mr. Patrick is looking at me with that crooked smile. He knows what I’m up to, and that I’ll never tell his secret, which Hannah has already guessed.
Mr. Patrick points to the spider and then to my ring box. He motions for me to follow him. Slowly, with his palms, he herds the spider toward me. I crouch down with my open box and the spider jumps inside, to get away from him. I close the box and feel the spider jumping inside the paper walls.
I’m so happy. The spider is finally mine. I don’t say anything about Mr. Patrick. I never do.
Emily says she is frightened of the white statues, and we all start laughing at the naked bodies. The nudes’ pale marble scares Emily into leaning during a lightning strike. We begin comparing the statues’ bodies to our own bodies, mentally undressing each other with vicious eyes.
“Take off all your clothes and pose,” Amira says. “I dare you.”
The next thing I know, Jonathan and Amira are stripping down, laughing. We all follow their lead. Listening to the falling rain, we pose naked among the statues as if we might become statues. We are so still for so long that I think I’m the only one who notices Mr. Patrick sitting on the stairs. I stare into his prurient eyes. He’s watching and holding my spider box.
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Winner of the first annual Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and the Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review, AIMEE PARKISON has published three books, and her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines. Parkison has received writing fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and the North Carolina Arts Council. Her most recent book is The Petals of Your Eyes. Parkison is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing—Fiction in the English Department of Oklahoma State University. Information about Parkison’s work can be found at www.aimeeparkison.com