Cast of Wonders 207: Millions Times Eight
Millions Times Eight
by Jake Walters
Mick looked at the letter to his parents sitting on the kitchen table. It was from the school. Outside, he heard the sounds of children laughing and a ball bouncing on the street pavement. It was late August, and in just a week, their summer freedom was going to be erased. Mick was starting seventh grade.
The letter had been opened and was sitting unfolded beside a pile of crumbs, likely left by his older brother, Chaz, before he ran outside to meet up with his own high school friends. There was nothing unusual about receiving a letter from the school at about this time in the summer; a welcome back, hope everything is okay and that your summer treated you well and you had a chance to rest for the big year coming up kind of statement from the superintendent.
So Mick read it. And that was what it was, in the dullest, most boring language imaginable. Except for the very last paragraph, which read, “We are looking forward to working with our students this year, and we have some big surprises in store for all of them and all of you! We appreciate your trust in Linwood Schools!” Something about the words did not match the style of the rest of the letter, which had been business-as-usual. Something about the exclamation marks at the ends of the statements sent a little shiver down Mick’s back.
But he soon forgot his misgivings, putting them down to the understandable feelings of dismay any normal kid feels before starting a new year of school. He quickly ate a banana and ran outside to join his friends.
Mick did not have many. He had spent his educational career, to that point, sullenly silent through classes, afraid to speak up. It was after watching his father storm out of the house, promising to never come back, that he decided this year would be different; this year, he was going to stand up to bullies and the world that so unfairly treated him. He had not yet told anyone of his plans for the year, not even Tommy and Glenn, two nerds like himself. The three of them made up “The Mouse Pack,” their collective nickname at school. Today, Mick found them where he always found them on summer days: at the library.
They saw him coming, five minutes late because of the letter, and they waved him over. They were engaged in an intense game of chess. Glenn was playing black, because he always played black, and Glenn was also winning, because he always won. Mick had drawn stalemate against him once, and Glenn had treated him differently for a week after that, avoiding him and looking at him funny, like Mick had quaffed some special smarty-pants juice before playing against him.
Mick had thought to ask them about the letter because, with all their minds working on it, surely they would come to an answer about what it could mean. But Tommy was setting up a Stonewall Attack on the board, and Mick wanted to see how Glenn would defend against it. He watched for a few minutes, but Glenn made all his moves with the robotic certainty of a computer. Tommy’s moves, on the other hand, came slower and slower, until it was clear that Glenn had achieved the advantage. Mick had often teased Glenn about being a robot, and that was his nickname at Chess Club after school on Tuesdays: The Bot. When checkmate was declared, quietly because they were, after all, in a library, Glenn leaned back without much satisfaction. “Nice try,” he said to Tommy.
Tommy nodded, then turned to Mick. “You want to play one?” he asked.
“Okay,” Mick said, smiling. He had already forgotten about the letter. That was a shame, because if he had remembered, perhaps they could have changed something, and the horrible nightmare that awaited them might have been prevented.
The first day of school was dark. Storm clouds sat on the western horizon, and thunder rolled in from a distance, low and rumbling. Mick waited at the bus stop with three other kids, none of whom were his friends. They were in different grades, ranging from third to ninth. Mick’s brother, Chaz, had gotten a ride to school with a friend.
The other kids chattered amongst themselves, and Mick largely ignored them. He was neither the oldest nor the youngest child there, and he kept his face stony as he waited for the big yellow limousine to pick them up and shuttle them to school.
The bus chugged toward them from a few streets down. Mick watched as the driver shifted through sticky gears. The bus shuddered as it approached. It was impossible to see inside because the windows were tinted. The headlights looked like two all-seeing eyes, the front bumper like a stern mouth, ready to bite.
The brakes squealed as the bus came to a stop at the children. The door folded open. One of the third grade students was the first to get on. She placed her hand on the railing and took a step. Mick watched her from behind. When she raised her face toward the driver, she began to scream. The sound fried Mick’s guts. He knew some kids hated the first day of school, but this was a bit much.
Mick heard a sinister whining issuing from the bus, like a walkie talkie searching for a signal. Then he heard the principal’s voice as he said, “Come on, Eileen, it’s okay. This is something new we’re trying.”
But Eileen just continued screaming. The principal took her hand and dragged her onto the bus. None of the other children followed her. The principal came down the stairs and addressed them all: “You are all getting on this bus right now. There will be nobody who refuses.” All the children’s faces were white with fear, but Mick had not been able to get close enough to see why, just yet. Children began filing slowly onto the bus, stammering and stuttering and whelping and sobbing, and then, only then, did Mick see what the commotion was about.
A giant spider was driving the bus.
It had tremendous jaws which pinched open and shut continuously, as if it was smelling the air this way. One hairy arm, of its eight, rested on the gearshift, three on the steering wheel, three on the pedals below, and one simply jutted out toward the door, probably to slap at unruly children. Mick stared up at it, frozen in place. It was a nightmare, he told himself. It was not real. But it was.
Little hairs sprouted from its red, idiot eyes. It made a clicking noise as it waited for Mick to climb the stairs. Zombie-like, he climbed them. He edged his way by the spider, afraid to come too close. It smelled like earth and mold.
The children already on the bus were all staring intently ahead, their faces pale with fear. Nobody spoke. The principal said, “We had to make a change, Mick. Too many fights on the school bus. Too much swearing. Too many people throwing spit balls. Our new drivers don’t put up with that sort of stuff.”
Mick did not respond. He found an empty seat a few seats behind the driver; all the seats in the back of the bus had already filled up. Mick understood why. As soon as Mick was seated, one of the hairy spider arms jammed the transmission into gear and the bus jolted into movement. “Easy, now,” the principal said, putting his hand on one of its—its what? Its shoulders? The spider did not respond. Mick wondered if it was capable of language.
“Okay,” the principal crooned to the arachnid. “Right here,” he said, pointing out the next stop through the window. The same thing repeated: children’s screams, children refusing to enter the bus, then finally coming up the stairs as if at gunpoint. The spider paid them little attention. There were two more stops; Mick remembered them from last year.
At the last stop, the principal said, “Good job. I’m going to give you a bonus for today.” And Mick watched as the principal dug deeply into his suit pocket and pulled out a handful of dead flies. “Here you are,” he said, holding his hand to the spider’s mouth.
The jaws worked. Mick heard a disgusting crunching sound, like a slob eating a handful of peanuts with his mouth open. Then one of the hairy arms pushed the principal out the open bus door. The door slammed closed. The principal rushed up to it and pounded on it. It flexed inward as the principal beat on it, but it did not open. The spider started driving the bus again.
Now the kids were screaming. Some were asking, “Where are you taking us? What are you doing?” In response, the spider let out a shrill cry that Mick thought might shatter the glass. All the kids shut up. The only sound became the rumbling of the bus and one child’s quiet sobs coming from somewhere behind Mick. With a bit of disgusted horror, Mick realized the spider was not breathing, and he tried to remember how arachnid respiration worked. But he couldn’t.
They drove past the school. Mick watched it through the window, and it was the first time in his life he wanted so desperately to go there. Mick glanced behind him and saw the same look on all the children’s faces: longing. For the familiar. For safety. He mused grimly that nobody was bullying anybody else, and so at least that portion of the principal’s plan had worked.
The bus radio crackled and Mick heard a voice. “Hello? Hello? Can anybody hear me?”
The spider only drove the bus. “Hello? Anybody? Driver?” And, after a hesitant pause, “Spider?”
Mick knew he had to act. None of the other children looked capable of even moving, let alone being a hero. This was Mick’s year, and now he knew that this was his moment. Mick crouched down and began walking up the aisle between the seats, hoping the spider would not see him and hoping that all the other kids on the bus would see him. “Hello? Do you read me? Copy? Spider!”
As Mick approached, he looked through the windshield. They had driven to a deserted road only a few minutes outside the city. There was no other traffic, no houses; only trees and, at the side of the road, what looked like an abandoned set of railway tracks, grown-over with tall weeds.
It was what was at the end of the road that made Mick stop his progress for a moment. A giant, silver web, the size of their school. A spider web.
“Oh, my God,” Mick whispered.
He continued climbing toward the radio. The spider had slowed the bus because the road here was dirt, full of potholes. Mick could hear them jumping and striking the bottom of the bus. Near the spider he could feel air being sucked toward the disgusting animal, toward dark slits between the thing’s arms. The breeze this breathing created made Mick’s hair flap ever so gently. He felt like vomiting.
Quickly he grabbed the radio and depressed the transmit button. The spider did not seem to notice him. “Hello, this is Mick,” he said into the mouthpiece. “The spider is taking us somewhere.”
“Oh, no,” came the response, which was not the most encouraging thing Mick could have heard.
“It looks like a huge web,” Mick finished.
The voice that came back was quieter. “Look beneath the driver’s seat,” it said. “There is an orange box. Open it. Use it.”
Mick did not bother saying anything more. He let the radio fall to the floor and he squatted behind the spider’s seat, where the principal had been standing before. Beneath a pile of oily rags there was a metal box, where Mick always thought a fire extinguisher was kept. He flipped open the latches. A green and black aerosol can was inside. A giant drawing of a black spider was on the side of the can, crossed out with a red line. There was a skull and crossbones below the picture of the spider.
The bus began grinding to a stop. Mick picked up the can. It felt cold and heavy. He pulled the plastic lid off and placed his finger on the white nozzle, making sure the little hole from which the poison would shoot was facing away from him. It this stuff could kill that thing, he reasoned, he did not even want to think about what it might do to him.
The bus stopped. Nobody spoke or moved for a moment.
Then Mick jumped up, screaming, and began spraying.
The spider, still ridiculously buckled into its seat, (and all Mick could think were the two words, safety first, safety first, safety first, over and over in his head) started thrashing and screaming, too. The poison sprayed out in a thick mist which congealed as a white foam on the arachnid. Mick sprayed its eyes, its abdomen, the back of its head, before it managed to swipe the bottle out of Mick’s hand. It landed at the bottom of the stairs.
Mick jumped back and fell. He watched the spider writhe and moan from his seated position. The animal moved less and less. The white foam started to bubble. It looked something like a burned marshmallow, boiling in a pot on the stovetop. A strange chemical smell started to fill the bus, mixed with an odor like a pumpkin left out many months after Halloween was over.
And then it was dead. The spider simply stopped moving. To Mick’s amazement, the busload of children started to clap. They were applauding him!
He stood up and looked down the aisle. His heart was still thumping and a sour, spent taste filled his mouth. The taste of adrenaline. “Does anyone know how to drive this old thing?” he joked, and several of the older kids began to laugh. This is what it felt like to be a hero!
But their laughter morphed into an ugly squeal. Mick turned and looked out the windshield. Spiders were crawling over the glass. Millions of them.
Mick could hear their feet pattering over the outside of the bus. Tick, tickety-tick. Millions times eight. The door began to throb in and out, harder and harder. The children cowered together, making themselves as small as possible, avoiding the windows because they, too, were covered with the brown abdomens of all those nasty spiders.
The door crashed in. The spiders fell in as a giant wave, brought out of some dark hole which must have led directly to hell.
Mick looked and looked for the anti-spider can, but it was nowhere to be found. It was buried under that writhing sea of spiders. Soon after, so were they all.
About the Author
Jake Walters has been published in several places. He teaches English in Transylvania, and does a passable impression of Bruce Springsteen.
About the Narrator
J.S. Arquin is a writer, voice actor, audiobook producer and narrator, podcaster, entertainer, and adventurer. He has lived in beautiful, inspiring, and disturbing places all over the world, and currently makes his home in Portland, OR, where he dodges raindrops on his bicycle and sometimes writes about himself in the third person. His fiction has appeared in Plasma Frequency, The Best Vegan SFF of 2016, and Digital SF, among others. He has produced over a dozen independent audiobooks, and his narrations have been featured on Escape Pod, Cast of Wonders, and Starship Sofa. You can catch his ramblings and some breathtaking speculative fiction on his podcast, The Overcast. www.theovercast.libsyn.com. You can also find him on Twitter @JS_Arquin.