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Spider
Author: Ilsa Madden-Mills


BEFORE

Rose

A FLASH OF LIGHTNING CRISSCROSSES the ceiling of my bedroom, and I jerk awake in the darkness. Mama’s been playing loud music all night, but it’s the storm that startles me, its rumble shaking the walls inside our tiny house in a rundown neighborhood outside of Dallas, Texas. Commonly referred to as Tin Town because of its junkyards, recycling centers, and used car lots, it’s a hotbed of poverty and crime. How do I know this if I’m only eleven? Because I watch the news, thank you very much. Sometimes I even see my street on there when someone gets shot or mugged.

Dripping sounds reach my ears, and I watch as a small trickle of water slides down my wall. A big gust of wind blew shingles off the roof last spring, making the ceiling leak in the corner of my room. Mama said she was going to get the landlord to fix it, but she never did.

A man’s deep voice carries over the sound of “Hotel California” by the Eagles, and my heart dips.

All thoughts of going back to sleep vanish.

I know that voice well. It’s Mama’s boyfriend Lyle—or piece of shit, as Granny liked to call him.

He comes around every now and then and gets Mama riled up. They fight like cats and dogs, tearing at each other with their fists and hurling insults, and then just as hurriedly they make up and kiss each other.

From out in the hall, it sounds like they are arguing, and I stiffen, the air crackling with a weird energy. Maybe it’s the storm beating against the house or the dark timbre of his voice, but something is off. I hear Mama cackle like she does when she’s high, and fear prickles over me, sending tingles all the way to my scalp.

Granny always said I had good instincts and that I’d inherited her ability to read people, and I trust it now.

Time to hide.

Scrambling out of my covers, I scoot under my small bed, pushing dust bunnies out of the way. Clutched to my chest is a stuffed teddy Granny gave me before she died.

There’s scuffling at my door.

Whispers.

My fear ratchets up.

“Just let me look at her,” I hear him say to Mama. “I won’t hurt her.”

“She’s asleep. Leave her alone,” Mama says in her sly way, and I picture her running her hands across his chest like she does before they go to the bedroom.

She’s trying to distract him from me, either because she cares about me, or because she’s jealous. I never know her motives; she’s one of the few people I can’t read.

“Come on,” he cajoles in a teasing voice. “Let me see your pretty girl. I want to see how she’s grown.” His tone is light, but there’s darkness there, a quality to it that makes the hair on my arms stand straight up.

I do not want him to come in my room.

I know what men like him want.

I see the way he looks at me.

He says I have legs long enough to wrap around a stripper pole.

Granny warned me that one day he’d come for me too.

The doorknob rattles.

Run!

Scrambling on my hands and knees, I fly out from under the bed and crawl to the window beside it. Jagged streams of lightning flash outside as I shove the glass up and heave myself to the sill, perching for half a second before jumping. I land in a mud puddle at the bottom, streaks of brown splashing up my bare legs.

The wind whips at me as I run, aiming for the skinny pine trees behind the house. Looking over my shoulder, I see a light click on in my bedroom and hear Mama calling my name. I hear his voice, angry and hard, as he shouts at me from the window.

His tone fills my stomach with ice.

I dart behind a log and hunker down, shaking as the storm batters from above.

They never come for me.

 

Hours later, I blink my eyes open as the sun comes up. I want to go back home, but sometimes Lyle stays for days until he gets tired of Mama.

In the low light of morning, I walk along a trail through the woods to the Quickie Mart on the main road. My intent is clear: steal something to eat. I’ve done it before, a bag of chips here, a candy bar there.

I see the rusty green dumpster in the back parking lot and come to a halt, my senses on high alert, watching as a wad of money and a brown package are exchanged between a teenage boy with tousled white hair and a known drug dealer in the neighborhood.

I can’t look away.

The teenager is new to me, beautiful with high cheekbones that perfectly accentuate his straight nose and full lips. He wears a pair of clean jeans that make me envious and a tightly fitted black turtleneck that makes his white hair pop. His hair is so shiny and styled, I imagine he spends more time fixing it than I take in the entire morning when I shower and get ready for school. An expensive looking leather jacket completes the outfit. He looks like a movie star and obviously doesn’t belong in this neighborhood.

I should at least hide in the tall weeds since it’s a drug deal, but I don’t, immobilized by how different he is from anyone I’ve ever met, from his thickly lashed eyes to the way his shoulders shrug effortlessly as he talks.

I analyze him like I do everyone, filing him away in the cabinet of my mind: handsome, arrogant, rich, trouble.

His face turns directly toward me, dark eyes lasering in on my own. Faster than lightning, I drop down in the weeds, heart flying.

Minutes tick by slowly as I crouch in the rain-soaked grass. Finally, I hear a car start and pull away. Relief rushes through me. Last year one of the kids from my school witnessed a drug deal and bragged about it, telling us every single detail down to names. About a week later, he just disappeared, and no one knows what happened to him.

I wait, counting to a hundred before I stand.

I get to fifty when a pair of expensive tennis shoes appear in front of me.

“Hiya. You looking for bugs down there?” the beautiful guy says, his accent weird.

I blink up at him. “I didn’t see a thing.”

He does that shrug thing, the one where your eyes automatically go to his chest. It’s a nice chest as far as I can tell. He isn’t beefed up like a football player—I can take him if I have to.

“Don’t care what you saw. What’s your name?”

“I’m no one important,” I say tersely, daring him to dispute it.

His lips twitch. “Nice to meet you, No One Important. How’s about you stand up and let me see you?”

I maneuver to my feet and face him.

He arches a brow at my bare legs and sleep shirt.

I tug at the hem of the fabric, hoping it covers my butt. It does—barely. I must look like a drowned rat.

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