Counting Spiders

fiction by Amy Slack

Counting Spiders

          The child is not asleep, though not quite awake, either. Awake is eyes open, mouth full of words, sitting, standing, running around. The child hasn’t run around in a long time, but she still knows that you can only do it when you’re awake, so this is not awake. She’s somewhere in between asleeping and awaking, because even with her eyes closed and her tongue quiet and her limbs heavy, she hears a beep. Clear, steady, with the slightest echo of itself following in its wake. Elsewhere, in a room that is not this room, rubber soles argue with polished floors and hushed voices carry conversations the child does not understand. She focuses instead on the crinkly, paper-bag pillowcase that holds her cheek, its clean-sour smell curling up in the back of her throat, as she listens to the snores that escape with each breath from her mother’s parted lips, which rest, along with the rest of her mother, on a low cot somewhere beside her hospital bed.

          This isn’t so bad, the child decides, this in-betweenness. No nurses and doctors and parents fussing over her, no medicine to take, not unless you count the needle in the back of her left hand that feeds her blood with a bag full of hard-to-pronounce words that the child’s mother says will make her all better. She says that, but it’s been days and days this time, just like it was days and days the time before and the time before that, and nothing they have given her has made her all better yet. Sometimes it makes her a bit better, for a while, but then she’s back to feeling hot and sticky and she’s throwing up bile into old ice cream tubs that her mother has kept aside for this very purpose, and then she’s back in hospital with a doctor pressing down her tongue with a dry lolly stick. 

          No, this in-betweenness is new and it’s now and it’s different, and different comes along so rarely the child can’t help but enjoy it. The spiders enjoy it too. They unfold their many legs and scurry all helter-skelter around the child’s insides.

          The child is lying flat on her back, the bedsheets tucked up around her chest, leaving her arms exposed. They would be goosepimpled if it weren’t for the thin sleeves of her cotton pyjamas, the ones her mother always keeps washed and pressed and waiting at the bottom of her hospital bag. Only her wrists are cold; the sleeves grow shorter with every overnight stay. 

          She has to sleep with her arms like this so that the needle in her hand can stay safely nestled beneath her skin, undisturbed by the bedcovers. Tonight there’s also an electronic clip gently biting into the middle fingertip of her needle hand. The nurse clipped it on after he helped her shuffle down beneath the covers. The child didn’t tell him how much she was looking forward to her own bed, where she could sleep on her side buried beneath thick quilts.

          Her own bed is a long time away. First, she has to have an operation, or so her mother told her before she said goodnight. The doctor is going to take a look inside her insides and fix whatever it is that’s broken. Her mother promised that she won’t feel a thing. She’ll be asleep through the whole thing and then, when she wakes up, she’ll feel all better.

          The spiders are unsettled by the promise of an operation. They live inside the child, always have done, and just want to be left in peace. It’s bad enough whenever she has to have a scan. She has to climb up onto a hospital bed and take off her top and stuff paper towels around her knickers, then let the nurses smear cold, slip-sloppy jelly all over her belly, so that they can take pictures of her insides through her skin. She hates scans. No matter how many paper towels she uses, the jelly always drips down around her knicker elastic so that she has to have a bath afterwards in the yellow-tiled hospital washroom. 

          The nurses love showing the child her insides, all hollow and black and speckled with white shapes that look like nothing. They never notice the spiders. The child is always able to warn them, while the nurses are busy jellying her belly. She whispers warnings to the spiders so that they have time to scurry up into her ribcage and hide in their little spider-houses and wait until it’s over, but she can’t do anything if she has an operation. Operation doesn’t mean jelly. It means cutting you open with a sharp little knife. The doctors will cut her open and the spiders will see the knife and flee her body, and the child will awaken to a belly full of stitches and nothing much else.

          The machine beeps. Rubber soles squeak. The child is rising, rising out from the in-betweenness and into awaking. She aches to move, but her limbs are so stiff and brittle, like mudcakes left in the summer sun, threatening to crack and shatter if she shifts even slightly. She opens her eyes and they sting with the silt of sleep. A slice of corridor light escapes through a gap in the doorway and stumbles across her mother, who is lying on her back with her blanket tucked beneath her armpits. The child watches the up-down of her mother’s chest, whose breathing matches the beeping almost perfectly. 

          In the child’s belly there lives one spider bigger than the rest. She is the one who spins webs all across the child’s insides, where her tummy is supposed to be, and catches morsels of the child’s dinner. It makes the child feel poorly, but that’s okay. She knows the big spider only does it so that she can feed the baby spiders. 

          Her two cold arms have turned stone-like, and an itch is beetle-creeping up her left hand all ticklish and wrong. The itch brings with it a thought: what if she wakes during the operation? Her mother promises that she’ll be asleep through the whole thing, but what if her asleeping turns into awaking again, and she’s caught in the in-betweenness when the doctors cut her open? What if she can hear her insides, feel the spiders fleeing over her stony cold skin and she’s unable to move, unable to tell the doctors to stop or tell the spiders she’s sorry or–

          Her left hand is alive and free and beeping. No, not beeping, throbbing. It’s the beep that’s beeping, pulsing the air so much louder and faster than before, and there is her mother, her face awake and her body awake and she’s beside the child and she’s crying, her mother’s crying, and there are the nurses squeaking into the room in their squeaky shoes, and they are saying it’s fine, it’s fine, the heart monitor just came off her hand and now now, it’s time to sleep. 

          The child is awake. Awake is eyes open, limbs moving freely, seeking out her mother for a long, careful cuddle, but this awaking won’t last for long. She feels the spiders grow slow. They are tired, and they will sleep, but for now they are rocked by the motion of the mother’s body, the up-down of her chest, the whispered promises into stroked hair: it’s all right, it’s all right, you’ll be all better soon.

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Amy Slack

Amy Slack is a editor of non-fiction and a writer of fiction from the North-East of England, currently living in London. Her work has been published by Milk Candy Review, Flashback Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, and Spelk, among others. You can find her on Twitter @amyizzylou.