Phil surveyed the hazard area left by the previous tenants.
They’d made the place a rat’s nest of freshly used women’s hygiene products, kitty litter, and dirty dishes. The house was no more than a spider hole: one room for living and cooking, one for showering and sleeping. Phil tried renting to single occupants, but the kind of trash that answered his ads weren’t the kind to follow rules. They’d move their families in, or their friends’ visits would turn into extended stays. The last tenant let a woman and her two kids live with him. How they fit without sleeping on top of each other, Phil couldn’t imagine. The guy hadn’t paid rent for the last two months. Phil used everything but a crowbar to get them out of there.
“They suck you dry,” he said to his friend, Gus. “Drain you until you’ve got no option but kick’em out.”
“Yep,” Gus said, studying a section of the wall where someone’s fist had broken through. Frayed fibers fringed the dark hole. A piece of sheetrock dangled from a strip of wallpaper. He tried folding it back in place, but it didn’t fit. “Told you this landlord business was no fun.”
“It ain’t so bad,” Phil said. “Every year or two I got to do some renovations, but it’s a monthly supplement to my Social check.” Phil amended, “When the trash pays.”
Gus let the chunk of sheetrock drop, and it crumbled at his feet. “You ever have one leave without having to kick’em out for not paying?”
“Not in awhile,” Phil said. Carolyn, his late wife, used to handle the interviewing. She read people. Tenants weren’t as much trouble when she was making the calls.
He turned in the doorway, scanned the yard, all mud holes and tire trenches, and beyond that acres of woods. That’s why he’d bought the place as a young man. Cheap land, and he just needed enough room to rest when he got off work. The square-footage provided plenty of space until he met Carolyn.
“I’ll just raise the rent this time. Get somebody that’ll take care of the place,” Phil said.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” Gus said and began tearing down the battered wall. “You’re going to have to replace at least two panels.”
Once Phil got the place clean and protected from the weather, he placed an ad. 1br/1ba, Single Occupant Only NO MORE, Private Property, No Neighbors, 800mo. The ad cost more than others he’d run, but it got his point across. He more than doubled the rent, and two months passed before he got the first call.
“I’m calling about the place for rent,” the caller said. He had a raspy, high-pitched voice, thin, not effeminate.
“Yes, sir, got some questions for you,” Phil said. “Got a wife or girlfriend?”
“What about family members?”
“We haven’t seen each other in a long time. Our kind likes to keep our own territory.”
That stuck a tack in Phil’s nose. “You ain’t part of a gang or something?”
“No, I just need a place to sleep and eat.”
“No long term visitors?”
“I get a lot of visitors, but you will never know they were there.”
“Well, we might be able to do business,” Phil said. “What’s your name?”
They made an appointment, the caller asked for landmarks instead of street directions. “It’s west, a few miles outside of town. Look for the rusted-out blue water tower. There’s a narrow gravel road shrouded by trees that runs right behind it.”
Phil though of calling Gus, but didn’t want to jinx it. Gus and him had been friends since Carolyn had begun her decline. Her dementia took hold fast, and Phil resorted to placing her in a home. He visited twice a day. In the mornings he’d stop at the breakfast diner in town where all the old men and utility guys began their day. That’s where he met Gus.
He’d kept Phil company through Carolyn’s last years, checked-in on him, and helped him with the property and new tenants. Having a young person around sure made things easier, even being alone, but there was no replacing his Carolyn.
That night, he laid his hand on her empty pillow, the way he’d done every night for the past five years. “Might have a good one this time,” he said. “Wish you were here to tell me for sure.” He stroked the coarse, threadbare pillowcase, and it pulled him down into sleep.
Phil sat on a desk chair the last tenants had tossed in the yard. The wind blew just enough to make it chilly. It was quiet. The only car he could hear from this spot would be coming down the gravel road. He listened for one, but it was twenty minutes late.
A noise came from deep in the woods. Something was approaching. He figured a deer galloped by, but the noise was getting louder, like a storm kicking-up. The sky looked mostly clear. The treetops in the distance moved in a single line toward him. He stood and headed for his truck. Something moved in the darkness on the threshold of the forest.
Two tallow trees bent forward and a giant spider emerged. Phil clenched up like a crimp on a pipe.
“Mr. Kemp,” the spider said in the same raspy, high-pitched voice from the phone.
Phil’s hose crimp failed and filled his pants. He backed against the door to the house, and felt for the knob. Locked. The spider’s deep red body absorbed the light around it. Thick grey hairs sprouted down its legs and back.
“Don’t be afraid,” it said and crawled forward until it’s full size was out of the woods. “I won’t hurt you, as long as you work with me on this place.”
Phil could see his reflection in the beast’s eight black orbs, each as big as his head. He thought about reaching for his keys. If it was anything like the spiders he’d killed in his kitchen sink, it would move too fast for him to get in the house.
“What do you want?” Phil said.
“Just a place to sleep and eat,” the spider said. Its pincers twitched just a few feet from Phil’s head. It sank its fat abdomen to the ground.
“You’ll get your rent every month. Just have to keep the ad running.”
“What if I say no?”
“I could eat you,” it said, its pincers moving rapidly. “I would prefer to keep you involved, though.”
When it came to saying no, Phil couldn’t even fight humans. He always felt powerless, weak. Tenants seemed bigger, more important, like Phil should feel bad for owning the property. How dare he charge someone money to live there? But the spider added on that last bit. Involved.
Phil didn’t want to be involved with anything the spider had going on. Bullied again. He couldn’t do much about it. Maybe he’d be able to get rid of the spider later. Killing seemed as impossible as the creature’s existence had five minutes ago. There wasn’t a shoe big enough for the job.
“Why do I have to keep running the ad?”
Clicking came from somewhere in the darkness under the spider’s eyes.
“You’ll never have to know or worry about it.”
Phil thought about Carolyn, how she could see through people’s ruse: dressed in their best, wearing a sincere smile, making promises about keeping the place clean, and never being any trouble. “Rent will never be a problem.” Until it was. “I’ll always be on time.” Until they weren’t. Carolyn knew the lies under the surface. She could pick out their sales tags stuck under collars or up sleeves so clothes could be returned later. But here was this beast, no Sunday-best or mouth to fake a smile. It had nothing to hide behind. Phil didn’t have much choice.
For once he was thankful for Carolyn’s absence. She wouldn’t have to watch him make a deal with a monster.
That night, Phil took a long shower while thinking about setting the place on fire, but he figured the creature would escape. Even if he just ignored the place, didn’t keep the ad, he had a feeling the spider would find him. Phil crawled in bed and laid his hand on Carolyn’s pillow. The rough fabric didn’t provide any comfort. “It would have killed me,” he said. “What could I do?”
The following week he called the newspaper to lower the rent and change the contact number. He had to get a phone installed for the spider.
“I’ll handle the calls,” it had said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time.” The less he had to do with it the better, but the thought of it all shook him up. That the spider knew how to approach it all, its confidence it wouldn’t get caught, made Phil wonder what else in the world he didn’t know about. He thought back to their phone conversation. The spider said he had family all over the globe. Phil couldn’t fathom it.
He reconciled with himself that the spider served a purpose. All those people that had come before, the ones who’d taken advantage of him and left him messes to clean up, he was sending that trash for the spider to take care of. It was a public service for other landlords.
For two years Phil kept up with the newspaper ad. Every month, he’d park his truck by the mailbox at the main road. He worried the spider would mistake him for a stranger. He’d cleanout the junk mail posted to tenants who hadn’t lived there in years. The spider left the rent in a web cocoon under the mailbox. He kept the money in a shoebox under his bed. The cocoon’s coarse, sticky sinews, like cotton candy mixed with sand, rubbed his fingers raw. The stain on his skin lasted for days.
Each time it hurt worse, as though wearing down his defenses. He’d long since stopped stroking Carolyn’s pillow. It no longer brought him comfort. The frayed fabric reminded him too much of the web. Carolyn wouldn’t want him touching her anyway.
Only once, Gus called and asked if the place was still available.
“Naw, I gave-up on that place,” Phil said.
“My cousin’s daughter is looking for a place,” Gus said.
“I’m done with it.” Phil said. “Just let it be.”
“I’ll take care of it if she makes a mess.”
“Stay out of it, damn it,” Phil said, getting angry. Gus wouldn’t understand any other way, and he couldn’t tell him the truth. “I’m done worrying about that place.”
“Alright, Phil,” Gus said. His voice had changed, as though Phil could hear their age difference. “Just trying to help.”
“Thank you,” Phil said. He’d never yelled, or even raised his voice to Gus. It hurt. “I’m just getting too old to deal with any of it and I won’t be depending on anyone else to deal with it either.”
“I understand ya, Phil,” Gus said, clearing his throat. “She’ll have to find another place. She’d probably wreck it anyhow.”
After that call, Phil worked on plans to rid himself of the creature.
He’d thought about cutting through the water tower’s legs, let it fall on the house, but the spider would probably hear him working. Sometimes he settled on fire, again, but couldn’t bring himself to try. It was funny, not in any comical way, that he wanted the spider gone. He’d been looking for a single occupant, someone that would pay the rent on time.
The spider never bothered him, paid every month, but the state of the cash worked on Phil the most. Crumpled, tacky, and smelling awful, the bills looked like they’d been decaying: a reminder of why the spider lived there, and what Phil played a part in.
Phil lost track of how long the spider had been there crouched in its hovel, attacking unsuspecting victims. He couldn’t remember what the house looked like anymore. How ever long the spider had been there, what ever amount of time had passed since he’d yelled at Gus, they’d never discussed it again.
Near the end of fall, Gus visited Phil with a friend. They didn’t stay long, and just shot the shit. Phil had heard the man’s name before, but couldn’t remember from where.
Two days later, Gus’s wife called. “You seen Gus, Phil?
“Yeah, he came by yesterday with some fellow.”
“You’re the last person I could think to call. You might be the last one to see him and that real estate guy,” she said.
Phil’s body went limp and cold; he could barely keep a grip on the phone. “I see, did he say what they were doing that day?” he said.
“No, his secretary said his calendar says Kent property, but they don’t have any Kent’s with property on the books.”
He saw the spider first coming from the forest, and remembered how just about everything in his body had evacuated like a flood. Phil knew it should have said Kemp Property. “I’m sorry, Pam,” he said and hung-up the phone.
Right now his best friend hung, wrapped-up in a cocoon, the spider’s fat, hairy body hunched over him, feeding. If only he’d let that fiend take him that first day, he’d be the one in the cocoon being bled dry.
He wondered if the spider kept the people alive, or if they died after one bite. It must be a painful process. Long, drawn-out, like wasting away in a demented state. The way Carolyn had wilted, first her mind, then her body. His time had come.
He gasped for air, fighting to keep his heart pumping. He had one last thing to do.
Without leaving a note, Phil made his way out to the gravel road. He stopped in town for a can of spray paint. His hands shook as he paid the cashier, couldn’t look the kid in the eyes, or return his “Have a good day.”
Phil drove down the dirt road a bit, and parked his truck diagonally across the road. Moving his arms in wide sweeps, he painted KEEP OUT from bumper to bumper.
His feet fought every step. He said, “It’ll be like touching Carolyn’s pillow.”