With nothing to work with but pure darkness, my imagination filled in the blanks with the worst images it could conjure: gore-stained walls, mangled bodies, probably a skull or something impaled on a pike. I thought of bugs, too. Every time I heard something skitter and splash, every squeak and growl that echoed off the cave walls, I imagined bugs. Larger than life. Cockroaches the size of dogs. Perhaps a swarm of those flesh-eating scarabs from the Mummy movies.
Under all of that, beneath the smell of death and decay, there was a steady undertone of moaning. Most of my fellow prisoners were perfectly content to wail in agony. But one was, as always, extra talkative.
“Okay, I spy with my little eye, something... black.”
“Jerry,” I said, trying to let him down gently. “I’m not trying to be a jerk, but I don’t think this is really a great time for that game.”
“Okay, how about another round of twenty questions?”
I sighed. His cheerfulness in the face of certain death was relentless. “Okay, sure. Person, place, or thing?”
He was always so bad at this game.
“Is it the spider demons?”
“Damn, dude. Are you sure you’re not psychic anymore?”
“If I were psychic, would I have let you talk me into going on this ghost tour in the first place?”
Another voice cut into our discussion. This one sounded as annoyed as I felt. “Will you two shut up already?!”
“You shut up, Brenda!” Jerry snapped back. “I’m on my vacation, and if I want to play games until the spider demons come back to finish us off, then I’m gonna play got-dang games until the got-dang spider demons come back to finish us off!”
A new voice--this one raspy and old--arose from the other side of the cavern. Up until this point, I didn’t even realize there was anyone left alive over there. “They’re not going to finish us off,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“The monsters. And they’re not demons either, by the way. They’re creatures that evolved from a tragedy in these woods a century ago.”
“Ooooh,” Jerry sang. “Story time! Let’s go, Mr. Creepy Voice!”
“Y’all aren’t from around here,” said Mr. Creepy Voice. “So it makes sense that you’ve never heard the legends. But I grew up with them. Never paid them any mind, until the summer I saw the spider-people myself.”
I couldn’t help but notice that, as he spoke, the incessant wails and moans of the other prisoners seemed to diminish. Almost like everybody was ignoring their pain just a little to listen to the old man’s tale.
“A long time ago, there was a company out this way. Some folk say they made chemicals. Some say it was secretly the government, testing out new poisons. See, this was before the Big War. This was before science had a chance to catch up to humanity’s ambitions. Back then, there were always men looking for… shortcuts.”
Jerry added, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Creepy Voice. He almost sounded impressed. “That’s a really good way to say it.”
“Thanks, I made it up myself.”
“Like you said, they didn’t stop to think. The result of whatever they were doing came in the form of a bunch of children being born with defects. Six eyes. Jawbones shaped like mandibles. Extra limbs. Horrors to behold.”
“Oh my gawd!” exclaimed Brenda. “Those were the things that attacked our bus!”
“What happened to them?” I asked.
“People around here didn’t have much. The corporation offered to buy the kids outright. Turned the factory into an orphanage. But really, it was more like an asylum. Them kids grew up being tested and experimented on by the same damned fools who cursed them to look the way they did in the first place. Until one day…”
Jerry started grunting next to me like he was lifting weights--which would have been impossible considering he was, just like the rest of us, trapped inside a waxy cocoon. In fact, the only parts of our bodies not secured beneath a one-inch thick layer of itchy resin-like material were our heads. I assumed he was just doing something weird (always a safe assumption with him) and ignored the noises while Mr. Creepy Voice continued his story.
“Legend says it was a flash flood what knocked out the power. Backup couldn’t get to the asylum for three days. When they arrived, they found all the doctors and scientists dead. Bites taken out of ‘em. And the kids--they were still kids at that time--were nowhere to be seen. Strangest thing about the bodies left behind… none of ‘em had any fingers left.”
Jerry let out a gasp of relief, then whispered my name like he had an urgent secret to tell but didn’t want to interrupt the story, “Jack!”
Brenda asked, “They never found the kids? But they must be ancient by now.”
“It ain’t the same kids,” Mr. Creepy Voice explained. “See, they grew up in them woods. And malformed or not, they’re still people. And eventually, they did what people do. And when their babies got old enough, they started having babies, too. It’s been generation after generation. Inbreeding. Getting more and more feral. Less and less respect for the laws of man or God.”
“Hey, Jack!” Jerry whispered again.
“What is it?” I whispered back.
“I got my fingers into my pocket and reached the keychain! Had to use some power thrusting to get it into place, but this is why I train every day.”
“Good for you,” I said. The implication of his accomplishment hadn’t settled in for me yet. I was still giving most of my attention to the older man and his story.
“They kept to themselves, content to snack on the occasional camper or lost hiker. But in recent years, the drought’s forced most of the wildlife to leave the mountain. The spider folk can’t find their regular meals, so they come closer to the edges of their domain. They snag a victim or two. And they eat them.”
“How is it that nobody has gone looking for all the victims?” I asked.
“Well, that’s the thing,” he answered. “They don’t kill people.”
Brenda and I asked it at the same time. “What?”
“No, they ain’t never killed no one since the flood. What they do is, they take you, they eat your fingers, and they let you go. People in town, we all just assumed they were stories. You go out near the woods, come back missing a few fingers, probably just an accident. A rock fall or something.”
“A ‘rock fall’?” I asked, incredulously. “What does that even mean?”
“Look,” Mr. Creepy Voice said in a voice that sounded like he was angry or ashamed or both. “It’s complicated, okay? There’s politics involved. And most of us are good people. We don’t like talking politics. We just want life to be nice and quiet. What good is arguing gonna do?”
“I’m confused,” I said. “What kind of ‘politics’ could possibly… you know what, nevermind. Let me back track. Are you saying the spider monsters aren’t going to kill us?”
“No. It’s much worse than that. They’re keeping us in here, in this black-as-night cave, because they want to keep their meat fresh. And when the time comes, when they get hungry, they’re gonna come in here and eat our fingers!”
“Wait,” Jerry said. “They’re going to eat our fingers, and then kill us, right?”
“No,” Mr. Creepy Voice responded. “They’re gonna let us go. But only after they’ve eaten all of our fingers.”
“So…” I was still trying to work it all out in my head. “How is that worse than death? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not thrilled about the idea of getting my fingers eaten. But given the choice between that and death--”
“YATTA!” Jerry cheered with delight. The moans of pain went silent, and in that silence the only noise that could be heard was a soft shick, shick, shick.
“What is that?” I asked.
Jerry could barely contain his excitement. “I got the knife opened on my keychain. Had to rip a hole in my pocket, but-” That’s when I realized the noise I was hearing was Jerry steadily cutting his way out of his cocoon confinement. “-now that I’ve got yet another hole in my pants. I’m able to say…” The sawing noise stopped. There was a jingle of keys moving around, then a click, and then: “Let there be light!!!”
The cave was suddenly illuminated from the beam of light shining forth out of Jerry’s crotch hole. The tiny alien-shaped keychain flashlight he picked from that Roswell gift shop was probably the equivalent light source of a BIC lighter, but after spending hours in the pitch black it may as well have been a spotlight.
In that moment, I realized two things:
First, my imagination actually wasn’t that far off from reality. No skulls on pikes, but there was plenty of dried blood painted on the cave walls. Bugs skittered away from Jerry’s crotch light like it was a radioactive blast. Fortunately, there weren’t any dead bodies--that smell of rotting flesh was coming from the other, still living, victims. And second, Rosa was never going to let us live this down.
It had been a couple months since we began this road trip, and in that time the number of disasters we’d encountered was… well, let’s just call it “above average.” We don’t go looking for trouble, but trouble sure seems to come looking for us. We’d just escaped another fiasco by the skin of our teeth before landing here in this quiet mountain town on our way to visit my friend Clare on the other side of the country.
The plan was to lay low, patch up the bullet holes in our van, and relax for a day or two. Nothing crazy. No sewer explorations. No chasing a ball of light into a graveyard. No following any creepy little girls into any mysterious abandoned farm houses. We’d learned our lesson(s)!
So when Jerry found the flier for “mountain ghost tours” in our motel’s lobby, Rosa thought he would know better than to ask if we felt like taking a little excursion for the evening. The two of them got into a small fight over it. Nothing serious. She rightly pointed out that he was testing his luck. He rightly pointed out that the odds of us encountering another horrifying life-or-death event during the span of a kitschy three-hour-tour was astronomical. As always, I was called upon to be the arbiter. And as always, I made the wrong choice. (Hindsight is such a jerk, isn’t it?) While Rosa went to watch the new Thor movie, Jerry and I bought our tickets and climbed aboard a bus for what was supposed to be a tourist trap. We’d barely made it out of town when the bus was attacked by the spider folk. By the time Rosa got out of the theater, we were already slathered up in viscous booger goo and plopped inside the deep, dark cave.
With Jerry’s alien light illuminating every horrible detail, I tried to focus on the humanity of our situation. There were at least twelve of us in here. Brenda, who we’d already met on the bus, was right next to us. So, too, were the other tourists. And then there were others. A few barely clinging to consciousness. Dirty. Bloody. Tired. The worst of these was the man across from me. Mr. Creepy Voice had an unkempt gray beard and a face full of wrinkles. Unlike the others, his arms weren’t bound by the cocoon any longer. Instead, his scabbed and scarred hands hung limply at his side. One contained nothing but an index finger and a thumb. The other, nothing but a middle finger.
“Jesus,” I said without thinking.
Mr. Creepy Voice cracked a smile. “I haven’t been happy to see the light in a long time.”
Jerry cut the light off instantly. The noise came from the front of the cave and sounded like something between human and animal. It was the same sound those spider creatures made as they crawled into the tour bus through every open window before blasting us all with that webbing goop.
“Oh no!” Brenda yelled. “They’re coming back!”
The darkness didn’t last long. A different kind of light filled the room. Distorted shadows glided over the irregular cavern walls. Squeeee, squeee, squeee. As the hissing noise grew, the shadows came into focus. A creature, walking upright, with six limbs and a giant head.
Then, I saw it. The back-lit silhouette of a spider person. Behind him, another spider person carried a lantern. The same kind of lantern they had when they dragged us down here in the first place.
The chorus of pain and suffering rose to a crescendo. The people in the cave pleaded and begged. Before I knew what was happening, the monsters had made their selections and began eating. They freed their victims’ hands with those disgusting mandibles, then chomped away at fingers like a horse going after sugar cubes. Jerry and I were spared, but not everyone was so lucky.
Mr. Creepy Voice got the worst of it. They ate his last remaining digits, then vomited that white goo onto his wounds. It instantly hardened into the rest of his cocoon. And then, just as suddenly, the creatures turned and walked away, leaving us in darkness once again.
“Well that sucked,” Jerry said, flicking his flashlight back on.
Through gritted teeth, Mr. Creepy Voice said, “It is what it is.”
As pointless as it was to ask, I felt compelled to do so anyway. “Are you okay?”
“I knew it was only a matter of time,” he said. “But now, at least, my suffering is almost over. They’ll be back once the wounds are healed, and then they’ll let me go.”
“Hang on a sec,” Jerry said. The flashlight beam went wild as he began a pelvic thrusting. With each movement, he made a triumphant “Hiya!” noise. It took me a second to realize that his keychain pocket knife was steadily cutting a larger and larger hole into his cocoon. I dared to let myself feel hope.
“Wait!” Old man Creepy Voice said. “Stop that! What are you doing? The spider folk ain’t gonna like that!”
Jerry took a second to catch his breath. His hand was already free up to the wrist, giving him plenty of maneuverability at this point to continue carving the cocoon. “Well,” he said, looking the man dead in the eyes. “I guess they’ll just have to die mad about it.” With that, he began feverishly shaking his knife hand, splitting the cocoon open down the middle, releasing his arm past the elbow, cutting all the way up to his neck. Then, with a loud frack, he pulled himself free and flopped out onto the disgusting, bloody floor--which he then kissed. “Oh, sweet freedom!”
He stood up, wiped the grime off of his face, then turned to look at me and said, “Rosa can not know about this.”
“I won’t say a word if you don’t.”
“Great. Let’s get the heck out of here.”
As he got to work sawing through my cocoon, he tried to offer the rest of the victims some assurance. “Don’t worry. I’m going to get everyone out of here.”
“No!” shouted Creepy Voice. “You can’t. There’s not enough time. Those things will be back soon. Just go. Leave us! Save yourself!”
“What?” Brenda asked.
Creepy Voice continued, “Most of us are too weak to make the walk back down the mountain. We need to stay here.”
“YOWCH!” I shouted as Jerry’s blade tip went a little too deep and scraped a rib.
“Oh, sorry bud. Did I get ya?”
“It’s fine. Just get me out of here.” I would have told him to slow down and be more careful, but I had a bad feeling that something was happening. Something even worse than the spider-monster kidnapping. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but I knew I wanted to leave that cave before whatever was about to happen could happen. He finished his cut and pried open the plaster-like cocoon. It stuck to my skin and clothes like crazy glue, but I eventually managed to tear myself free. As soon as I was out, I started looking for a tool so I could help cut everyone else free.
“Uh, oh.” Jerry said as the light began to dim. “Looks like we’re almost out of juice.”
“I said go!” Creepy Voice shouted angrily. “Take your friend and run away while you still have a chance! You’ve only got enough battery power to reach the opening of the cave. If you stay here, we’ll all die. And all of this will be for nothing!”
Something about that sentence tickled the weird part of my brain that makes me stop everything I’m doing and say, “Hang on. What?”
“Just leave us.”
With a heavy sigh, Jerry said, “Okay. Fine. We’ll go get help, and we’ll be back to rescue all of you.”
A heavy silence fell upon the room.
I looked at everyone’s faces. They were all looking at the old man for an explanation. He huffed, and grit his teeth, and scowled as drool poured out of his mouth into his beard.
“What’s really going on?” I asked.
“It’s… not… FAIR!”
Jerry stepped forward. “What’s not fair?”
“I got captured, same as you. How is it fair that you get rescued with all of your fingers, but I got all ten of mine bitten off?”
“Dude, we’re trying to save your life!” I explained.
“They ain’t gonna kill me!” he responded in a vicious tone. “They already ate my fingers. They’re gonna come back later, once I’m good and healed, and then they’re gonna let me go.”
“How do you know that?” Brenda asked.
“Because it’s what they do. They ate my neighbor Nate’s fingers last year. My cousin Earl got his fingers ate back in high school. Even my first wife, Edna, had her fingers taken when she went camping in ‘04. It sucks, but it’s what happens.”
“Hold up!” I said. The mystery was finally revealing itself to me in the worst way possible. “Are you saying multiple people have already been here, to this cave, and had their fingers eaten? This has been going on for a while now? And what, people just… don’t do anything about it? THEY KNEW WHERE THE CAVE WAS AND THEY STILL LET PEOPLE COME OUT HERE?!”
“Calm down,” he said without a shred of irony. “It’s just the way it is. It’s the way it’s always been.”
“Well that’s going to end now!” I said. “We’re going to get the police and bring them back here.”
“Don’t you fucking dare! The police around here are public servants! My tax dollars pay for that! And I don’t feel like having to pay more in taxes, just so you entitled millennials get to escape with all your fingers.”
“Wait a second,” one of the other voices said. Jerry shined the dying light towards a middle aged man in the corner of the room. He wasn’t from our tour bus, and judging from the bloodstains on his cocoon, he’d probably already lost a digit or two on each hand. “Are you saying we’re going to have to pay more in taxes if they go get a rescue team?”
“No!” I said at exactly the same time that Creepy said, “Yes!”
He was louder than me, and rattled on with his rant. “The police have to come all the way out here, they gotta buy extra gas, rent extra rescue equipment. Probably have to waste a lot of ammo on the spider folk. And just think of all the overtime! Who’s paying for all that wasteful government spending? Huh? Not these assholes over here with their fancy elitist flashlights on their liberal fucking keychains. This is just woke politics run amok!”
“God damn it, dude!” I shouted. “It’s got nothing to do with… why the fuck am I even arguing with you?”
The middle aged man in the corner piped up again, “Now hang on. I don’t want to have to pay more in taxes.”
“You won’t,” I tried to explain. “That argument makes absolutely no sense.”
“I’m just a middle class American. I haul cardboard cubes for a living. I can’t afford a raise in my taxes, and it’s all cause of inflation. Now, I’m not trying to get political or nothing-”
“Then don’t,” I said. “Just shut up. We’re trying to save you.”
A new voice--this one strangely high pitched and muppet-like--joined the conversation:
“You know who really benefits from these two losers bringing back a rescue party, squeeeee, don’t you?”
Jerry shined the light towards the one speaking. The man was sitting on a rock, scratching his mandible with one of his four arms.
“Who the fuck are you?” Jerry asked.
“The name’s Jordan, squeeee. And I think it’s obvious. The only ones who would really benefit are the spider folk. Every one of us normal humans will have to pay the price, squeeeee, while the spider folk reap the benefits.”
“Jordan’s right!” shouted Creepy. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
“Okay,” I said, fighting back a headache. “You know Jordan’s a spider monster, right? I mean, look at him. He has six eyes. He’s not even in a cocoon. He is NOT your friend and does NOT have your best interest in mind so why are you listening to him?!”
“Of course he’s a human,” argued the man in the corner. “Look, he’s wearing a hat.”
I looked back to see that Jordan had, sure enough, put on a backwards ball cap. With the three eyes on the left side of his face, he winked at me.
“This is stupid.” I said.
Jerry whispered, “Yeah, but I kinda want to see where it’s going, though.”
Creepy wasn’t done arguing yet. “You know who else called things stupid?” he asked.
“I swear to God, if you say the Nazi’s-”
“The Nazi’s! The Nazi’s thought people who disagreed with them were stupid. Just like you! So explain to me, how are you not a Nazi?”
Jerry leaned in and said, “Maybe we should just go? My flashlight really doesn’t have that much longer, and I don’t think this conversation is gonna end the way you want it to."
The man in the corner spoke up again, “Hey! What about my son?”
I looked his way. “Sorry, corner-guy. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“My son, Kevin. Say ‘hi,’ Kevin.”
A teenager with jet-black hair in an emo-cut and mascara under his eyes tsked and said, “Whatever.”
“Kevin got his thumb bit off, ain’t that right Kevin?”
“You’re so lame, Dad. Why did you even bring me here?”
“Okay,” I said. “Kevin, do you want us to get you out of here while you still have nine fingers?”
He tsked again and said, “Whatever. I guess.”
“No way,” said his father. “No son of mine is going to take shortcuts. You signed the waiver to go on the bus tour. You have to pay the price. Period!”
“Squeeee… They’re making a lot of good arguments, aren’t they?” asked “Jordan.”
“Shut up, Spider!”
“What’s the matter? Squeeeeeee… You can’t handle when someone destroys you with facts and logic? Typical snowflake.”
Jerry grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me away from the nonsense. “Okay,” he said. “We’re gonna leave now.”
“And we’ll be back!” I said. “With help. To save all of you!”
“NOOO!!!” screamed Creepy. “It’s not fair to those of us who’ve already played by the rules! I did it the right way! I lost my fingers, and now I’m gonna get out. How is it fair for you to let everybody else out for free?!”
Brenda started next. “Can I say something? I’ve been listening to all of you, and I’ve got to say both sides are making strong arguments. And if you really think about it, both sides are the same. Right? But some of us are arguing for fairness, and I think that’s very reasonable. And even though I still have all of my fingers, it wouldn’t be fair to those who came before if I were to just get a free ride. I mean, what message does that send to our kids? Do whatever you want, no need to be careful and take precautions, because the taxpayers will just bail you out whenever you get into trouble? Really? Is this what Joe Biden wants America to be?”
“Tell you what,” I said. “How about we put it to a vote? Who here does not want us to go get help?”
Creepy, the guy in the corner, the spider monster pretending to be human, and Brenda all signaled that they supported that plan.
“Okay, and who here does want us to go get help?”
Everyone else in the room signaled that these idiots may have been the loudest, but they didn’t represent the consensus.
“Well guys, I think you’re outvoted. We’re going to get help.”
“Rigged vote!” shouted Creepy.
“Fake election!” shouted the man in the corner.
“I’m pretty sure we won,” Brenda stated calmly. “Everyone I’ve talked to says they want you to leave the spider folk alone. It’s all about heritage and history, and you can’t just trample all over that. Plus, there’s mathematically no possible way your side won the vote without cheating.”
“Oh shit!” Jerry said. “I just remembered! I have a cell phone!”
The cell phone flashlight filled the cave a thousand times brighter than the weak little alien keychain. Jordan hissed and crawled away, deeper in the cavern, on his eight limbs. “Oh, and would you look at that? I actually have cell service in here. Nice.”
Our conversation with the 911 operator was made slightly more awkward by Creepy’s incessant shouting in the background for them to “Leave us alone!” As Jerry dropped our GPS coordinates, Creepy howled about “big government” taking away his “freedom to be left in the spider cave.”
In a refreshing turn of luck, the police delivered a response in record time. Within thirty minutes, there were helicopters circling the mountain. Search and rescue teams carried those who couldn’t walk to the awaiting ambulances. And some familiar men in suits and black vans rounded up the scattered spider people and hauled them away in the most anticlimactic ending imaginable.
As I stood on the side of the mountain road, watching the containment unit scour the forest below for any errant spider people, Jerry walked up sipping from a mug.
“Hey, they got cocoa at the ambulance. You want any?”
“Is there coffee?”
“I can check.”
Right then, a van pulled up to the police line and stopped. Rosa got out with a smirk on her face, crossed below the police tape, and came up to join us.
“Well?” she said. “How was the ghost tour?”
“Kinda disappointing.” I answered. “How was the new Thor movie?”
“Oh!” Her eyes lit up as she remembered something exciting. “Y’all probably didn’t hear, but while you were trapped in that cave, they passed a bill to cancel a ton of student loan debt!”