Happily Ever After

Happily Ever After

It lurked, deep inside. A black hairy spider, waiting, patiently biding its time as it wove its invisible nets around her. She knew that if she tried to look directly at it, she wouldn’t see it. In fact, she never had seen it. She had only come across the desiccated, skeletal remains of its long deceased prey. Scattered memories, fragments of former selves, distant relationships sucked dry of their life, their hope, their vitality and left meaningless by its insatiable and destructive drive, its terrible hunger.

She wasn’t unhappy. But she wasn’t happy, either. There had been a time when she was a little girl that she truly believed that if she were good, Prince Charming would come and rescue her, kill the black beast that lurked, endow her life with meaning, and they would ride off into some wondrously pure and nebulous “happily ever after.” But the stories always ended at that point. What came after? Over time and with the strains and stains of adulthood, did Cinderella become the next generation’s Evil Stepmother?

He had done what he could. Like Prince Charming, he had provided a roof over her head, a steady income, regular sex, and he respected and undoubtedly loved her. But he couldn’t do that single most important thing the real Prince Charming had done. He couldn’t kill the monster and give her life its fundamental meaning. She had hoped he could. She wanted him to. She wished he could. But he couldn’t. Instead, he went to work every day, while she cleaned house.

She spent a lot of time cleaning house. Vacuuming up the cat and dog hair gave her particular pleasure because she could see the instant results. She washed the floors, cleaned off appliances, swept the front steps, watered the plants, scrubbed the bathtub, sanitized the toilet, pruned the bushes, made minor home improvements, shopped for groceries, cooked gourmet meals, provided him with a cheery smile when he came home from work each day. But no matter how fast she moved nor how busy she kept herself, she couldn’t avoid feeling the thing lurking, its hairy blackness, its fathomless eyes following her every move, waiting.

Sometimes her body and her actions no longer seemed under her control. She would find herself behaving strangely, consumed by a yawning vast hungriness that was not hunger. She would watch helplessly as her body took on a life of its own. It was almost as if the rational, reasonable person she normally recognized and called herself was suddenly paralyzed. That part of her would watch, helpless, as the body voraciously gulped vast quantities of food, particularly chocolate. At these times, she felt sure that the monster had taken possession of her body and was using it as an instrument for its own designs–much like she imagined demon possessions of the Middle Ages. At these times, the eyes that stared back at her in the mirror were no longer her own. There was something alien lurking behind them–some other consciousness, something feral and mean, vicious and destructive and full of rage.

There were times when she desperately wanted to talk to someone about it. Did other people suffer from it? She remembered a line in Mrs. Dalloway when Virginia Woolf described some horrid beast, rooting in the soil of “some leaf-encumbered forest of the soul.” Woolf had gone crazy, apparently unable to kill the beast. Was Woolf’s beast akin to this? Or, if this were a demon, was there some exorcism that would abolish it, eradicate it, and leave her free from its infernal grasp? But which of her friends could she talk to? And how could she even begin to describe what the thing was, since she herself didn’t know? It so often seemed something from a dream, some phantasm, something that couldn’t be described using the rational, reasonable language of the real world.

That was, however, until one day. Like so many other days, she was conducting her ritual of keeping busy. This day she was vacuuming up the pet hair. She had finished with the living room, the dining room and their bedroom and had gone to open the door to the guest bedroom. They usually kept the guest bedroom door shut, both to keep the animals off the bed and to conserve energy by heating only the rooms they used. As she set the vacuum cleaner down, she turned and opened the door. In the second she glanced into the room, she could have sworn that something large and dark had darted silently under the bed. Without thought, she slammed the door shut.

She found herself standing in front of the door, telling herself she was being foolish. How could there be anything in there? He had just left for work and both the cat and the dog lay peacefully asleep on their beds in the living room. She continued to stand there for a moment. She listened. No sound emanated from the guest bedroom. A dump truck passed by on the street. She could hear the children playing next door. She told herself to go into the room and finish vacuuming. She could not do it. When she passed the hall mirror, the terror in her eyes shocked her.

A day passed. The guest bedroom door stayed shut. But she knew that the fica in there desperately needed watering, so the next day she resolutely approached the door. It had one of those clear glass handles common in early 20th century homes. She seized its smooth cold handle, turned it, and with a deep breath pushed open the door. No strange figure greeted her and she detected no movement. But she did not crouch down to look under the bed. Instead, she rushed forward with the watering can to the fica by the window. There was an eery silence as she watered the plant. She could swear someone or something was there in the room besides herself, holding its breath just as she was. She let out her breath as she finished watering the fica and turned to leave the room. As she passed the bed, something suddenly reached out from under it and grabbed at her left ankle. With a shriek, she flung herself from the room, dropping the watering can and wrenching her foot from the hot, moist grasp of whatever it was under the bed. She slammed the door shut and tore out of the house.

She found herself running up the street, wanting not to think, wanting simply to feel the blood surging through her veins, her breath gasping in her lungs, and to put some distance between herself and it. Finally she could run no more. As her breath slowed, her thoughts began to race. The first worry to plague her was that the spilled water from the watering can would damage the floor in the guest bedroom. But this thought was quickly followed by the utter terror of what she would encounter if she tried going back into the room. She stopped to rub her ankle and try to erase the imprint of that oddly warm grasp on her flesh. What if tonight he were to go into the guest bedroom? Would it attack him? If he didn’t see it and it didn’t attack him, he would undoubtedly ask her about the watering can and spilled water staining the floor. What could she say? And what if, heaven forbid, either the cat or the dog entered the room? Would it attack them? Caught between the fear she had for her family and her own terror of it, she was paralyzed.

That night, he told her he wanted to get some exercise. This would mean that he would have to go into the guest bedroom to get his running clothes. She could not risk that. She would not let him come to harm, not if she could help it. Before he had the chance to open the guest bedroom door, she enveloped him in a big hug and said how much she had been looking forward to a dinner out. She made sure to kiss him with a passion that would overcome his desire to go running. The kiss strengthened as he sensed her urgency, the hard, frantic press of her fear, which he felt as desire. Without breaking the kiss, she moved them toward their own bedroom. They struggled from their clothes and fell naked into bed. She clutched at the solid warm strength of him and in the moment of their union found reassurance.

She could not fall asleep that night. She lay for some time listening to his quiet, rhythmic breathing, feeling his body twitch as he fell into deeper sleep. She pressed her body along the length of him. She felt the full strength and power of her love for him. Then, she thought of what lay lurking across the hall. As the night drew on, she looked up through the skylight over their bed and watched the moon move upwards into the sky. It was a full moon, large, white and radiant. It cast the room in brightness. Suddenly, she heard something, a weird whimpering. Was it the cat or maybe the dog? She crept naked from the bed, careful not to rouse him. In the hallway, she stopped and listened.

At first, all was silent. She was just about to return to bed when she heard it again. She swallowed. It had come from the guest bedroom. The whimpering repeated and began to grow louder. It sounded in terrible pain. What was it? What if it was the cat? What if he was mortally injured? She could not allow that. She had to know. Strangely, as she walked down the hall, the hall seemed to lengthen into a passageway and the guest bedroom door kept receding into the darkness ahead of her. She began to run but the door kept receding. With a final burst of speed, she managed to grasp the glass doorknob, twist and push the door open. Everything stopped.

The door swung silently open into the room. She stood naked on the threshold. The moonlight beamed down through the skylight across the guest bed. Her breath caught in her throat and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. There on the bed lay a large black hairy thing. All but one of its many legs lay limp across the comforter. The one was rubbing what appeared to be its face. It uttered another whimper. When the appendage moved aside, she saw the glisten of its needle-like fangs. She jumped back, catching its attention. It trained two glowing red eyes on her. She prepared herself to do battle but what she saw in those eyes was not rage. Instead, she saw an infinite sadness, a vast emptiness, a desert of despair.

Beyond reason, beyond thought, she entered the room. Her eyes did not break contact with the creature. She knelt by the bed. She extended her hand in a gesture of offering. What was it she offered? Solicitude? Friendship? Understanding? Perhaps all of this as she reached forward to give comfort. It moved its appendage forward. She felt the warm, moist hairiness encircle her hand. She saw its red eyes glow brighter but she felt no fear. Instead, she sensed something vastly significant was about to happen. She brought her other hand up and together her hands enclosed its appendage between them. In that instant, she experienced a complete and total peace. She felt a profound release, followed by a pervasive sense of freedom. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she found herself kneeling, naked, her hands clasped together as if in prayer, alone in the guest bedroom. It had gone.

Originally appeared in Thirteen Stories