White Widows

White Widows
By Andrew Black

First Published in SNM Horror Magazine, June 2010

The trouble began for Donald Ramey when he went to the town planning commission office to file a permit application. He had all the correct forms, in triplicate, and the application fee. What he lacked was the saint-like patience to deal with the other customers in line. Donald was sandwiched between a morbidly obese woman whose profuse sweating left little puddles on the floor and an Asian woman with her infant son, chattering away on a cell phone while her child screamed with all the might his little lungs could muster. Worst of all, Donald had caught sight of a spider web in the corner of the room just above the filing windows, with a big brown recluse lazily crawling about the silken maze. Donald hated spiders, was a full blown arachnophobic, and just being in the same room with the eight-legged monster made his uncomfortable.

It took nearly an hour before Donald finally got to the slotted window and was able to turn in the paperwork. The office wasn’t air-conditioned and he was sweating through his shirt by the time he got to the front of the line. He tried to put on a convincing smile for the cute clerk behind the glass but she paid no attention to his charms. He nervously glanced up at the web swaying a few feet above him and he tried to relax and ignore the voice in his head telling him to run far away from the little pest.

“Sorry,” the girl behind the counter said after typing in his address. “You can’t have a permit.”

“What?” Donald demanded as he looked away from the spider. “Why? All I want to do is build a stupid deck!”

The girl shrugged, “It says here you can’t build anything in your back yard because there’s already a structure there.”

“No, no, there’s some mistake,” Donald replied. Above him, the spider began dangling down on a delicate strand of silk. “There’s nothing in my back yard, not even a swing set!”

“According to this, there’s a… hmm, what’s a B-133? Haven’t seen that code before. Oh! It’s a bomb shelter.”

“A bomb shelter?” he said, astonished. “There’s no bomb shelter there!”

“I’m sorry sir,” she shook her head, “but I can’t accept your application. You’ll have to remove the structure first, which will also take a permit, but that’s form 2074-F, not 3155-S that you used for your deck application. You’ll have to fill out the new forms and submit them. Thank you, next please!”

“Wait a damn minute!” he protested. He didn’t feel the tiny arachnid drop down into his hair. “You need to fix this. This is a mistake!”

“Sorry, sir, but I can’t do that. Please step aside, there are others waiting,” the girl responded with a fake smile. The Asian lady behind him stopped her prattling to give Donald an angry glare. He suddenly felt a tingle on his scalp where the hated pest was crawling through his hair. With a girlish scream, he began furiously brushing the top of his head with his bunched up paperwork, sending the spider flying across the room with the first pass, but Donald didn’t stop slapping himself until everyone in the office was staring.

He sighed then regained his composure, crumpled up his paperwork and stalked angrily to the office door. His booted foot crushed the skittering spider as he left, but he didn’t notice as he thudded sullenly into the hall.

*

By the time Donald returned home his temper was overflowing. His face was as red as his hair and the angry flush had spread down his arms in Irish blotches. Deidre, his lovely wife, noticed the frustration on his face. “Didn’t go well, I take it?” she asked in a bored voice. She was wearing her yoga clothes that clung tightly to her butt, one of Donald’s favorite outfits, but he wasn’t in the mood to notice.

Deidre had wanted to plant a garden in the back yard, but Donald had vetoed that idea and instead went ahead with his plans for an oversized monstrosity of a deck. He said it was so they could entertain, but she knew that they rarely had friends over and Donald was just competing with Alan Spence next door. The Spences had a two tiered deck with a built-in fire pit. Donald’s plans called for three tiers, a fire pit, a fountain and an outdoor barbecue kitchen. He denied that it was a dick measuring contest between him and his neighbor, but Deidre knew better. She also knew from personal experience that he couldn’t measure up to Alan in more ways than one.

“Those assholes at the planning office say there’s a bomb shelter under our back yard, so I can’t build anything there,” Donald fumed. “I told them there isn’t anything back there, but they won’t believe me. And here’s the capper – to get them to change their records, I have to excavate the whole yard and prove there’s nothing there! How stupid can you get?”

Deidre didn’t answer that, though she did roll her eyes. “How is that a bomb shelter? There isn’t any door to it.”

Donald held up a rolled set of blueprints. “I think I know.” He spread the plans out on the dining room table. “Back in the 50’s bomb shelters were all the rage. A couple named Ernie and Florence Shucker lived here then. They actually had the house built in the 30s. Anyway, in 1953, Ernie Shucker filed these plans with the city for building a bomb shelter. He was some kind of scientist, an entomologist or something, and I guess he had the money to build one of these things underground. See here on the plans? There’s a corridor leading from the west basement wall to the shelter. I think he filed the blueprints but never actually had the damn thing built, so now I can’t build my deck!”

Deidre looked at the faded house plans. “Huh. Well there is that section of the basement wall we had to have patched up when we moved in.”

“What section of wall?” Donald asked. He didn’t remember there ever being an addition in the basement.

“That section on the west side. We were moving in and you didn’t want to deal with it, so I had to call a guy and have him come in and spackle it. You were too busy decorating your den,” his wife replied, crossing her arms. She remembered the contractor very well, especially how proficient he was at laying pipes. She smiled to herself at the delicious memory of the handsome man.

Donald’s brow wrinkled in thought. He truly didn’t remember any issues with the basement wall, but he did have to admit he spent a lot of time working on his den. He looked down at the plans and a new idea hatched in his imagination. “Maybe there is a shelter. If there is… ooh, I wonder what’s in there? Maybe we could turn it into, I don’t know, a wine cellar or something. Wouldn’t that be great, our own wine cellar, packed with old bottles! It’s an investment, you know. That’d show the Spences, oh yeah it would. What’s a deck compared to a temperature controlled wine cellar? Hah!”

Deidre sighed and went back to reading her magazine. She saw the mad gleam in Donald’s eye and fifteen years of marriage made her well aware that she wasn’t going to convince him not to tear up the basement. He lumbered off to the garage to gather some tools while she made a mental note to find the contractor’s number…just in case she needed some more plumbing work.

*

An hour later, Donald stood before the western wall of his basement, rubber safety goggles over his eyes, heavy gloves on his hands, and a tool belt loaded down with a hammer, a cordless drill, and assorted devices at his waist. In his hands was a reciprocating saw with a finely serrated concrete cutting blade in its jaws. He examined the patched wall, which had been hidden for years by a metal shelving unit used to store old holiday decorations and assorted junk. Once he had removed the obstruction, it was clear that there was a definite door-like shape in the wall. Roughly four feet wide and as tall as the basement wall itself, the section was plastered over in a heavy coat of sealant.

He flicked the safety switch on the saw and decided to start at the upper left corner of the patched area. Donald pulled the trigger and plunged the humming blade into the thick spackle. It sliced through like a hot knife through butter and he was extremely pleased with himself as he quickly had a mostly straight cut down one side of the wall. He turned to his right and repeated the operation then he sawed along the top. The rapidly oscillating saw chewed through the hardened gray paste with ease.

He couldn’t run the blade along the bottom, but he was sure that was unnecessary. Taking his hammer from the loop on his belt, Donald held a heavy chisel against the top right corner of his newly outlined doorway and struck, breaking a large piece of the spackle free. It fell to the concrete floor and shattered into dust.

It took more than an hour for him to uncover the entire section of wall, but the work wasn’t particularly difficult. He hammered and wedged out pieces, stopping occasionally to sweep the fallen bits of stony plaster into a neat pile. His efforts soon revealed a recessed section of the wall, with a poorly mortared aggregate of rough hewn stones in stark contrast to the cinderblock construction of the rest of the foundation.

Excited by his discovery, he rushed to hammer loose the big stones. He found this part of the job was far harder than it seemed, and he began using the reciprocating saw to cut chunks of age-blackened mortar from between the rocks. The saw blade occasionally caught the edge of one of the stones and threw a shower of sparks as it tried in vain to chew into the hard, crunchy granite.

After another hour of sweaty work, Deidre came down the wooden cellar steps with an ice cold beer and a tuna fish sandwich. Donald thanked her with a kiss, but she wasn’t happy with his demolition plans. “What if you cave in part of the house doing this?” she asked nervously.

“Don’t worry about it, this part of the wall isn’t load bearing,” her husband crooned. “There’s no danger at all.” He patted the wall and one of the larger rocks he’d been working on fell onto his booted foot. The heavy stone bounced off the steel toe and did little more than bruise the top of his foot, but he had to stifle the yelp of pain. His wife chuckled anyway.

After finishing his lunch and shooing his wife upstairs, he returned to his labor. His power drill bored through a thick lump of sandy mortar and he was able to wedge a long screwdriver into place, levering the next rock out. Once a few chunks were loose and others removed, it wasn’t hard to start tearing down the poorly built wall. He yanked away a large hunk of granite and was greeted by the odor of stale, mildewed air. Donald switched on his flashlight and peered through the hole in the wall.

On the other side was a dusty corridor filled with cobwebs. A huge albino spider, almost the size of his hand, skittered towards his face making him jump back in terror. As the white, eight-legged beast disappeared behind some boxes, he tried to shake off the jittery shivers shooting up and down his spine.

He took no chances with the hated arachnid and spent several minutes tracking the spider before ending its life with an old, bent up ski pole. He wondered if he truly wanted to open up the hidden passage if there might be more of those creepy crawlers inside. He scanned around the basement and his eyes lit as he saw the cure for this dilemma. An old bug bomb, purchased two years ago when an infestation of potato bugs swarmed the house, sat on a dusty shelf over the washing machine.

Donald grabbed the small, cylindrical device, tore off the warning label, and yanked the plastic cap free, starting the toxic pest eliminator’s reactive chemicals. He tossed the smoking rod through the gap in the wall and quickly replaced the stone plug. The bomb would take at least three hours to do its work, so he neatly piled his tools, swept up the dust and debris from his demolition, and went upstairs to catch an early afternoon nap.

*

A three hour nap turned into four, then an afternoon trip to the grocery store, dinner, and watching half a season of a new sit-com on the digital recorder while Deidre attended yoga class. He didn’t get back to work on the secret doorway until the next morning. He pulled out the loose stone and set it aside. His flashlight beam lanced through the stale air of the passageway and he couldn’t see any of the albino terrors. Satisfied that his pesticide did its job, Donald got back to work tearing away the remaining stone obstruction.

It took a good hour to make a hole large enough for him to really see inside the secret hallway. It was made of concrete blocks, like the rest of the basement walls with the same cement floor. At the end of the short passage was a corroded metal door with a spoked wheel in its center like the hatches on a submarine. Smiling at his discovery, Donald began smashing free the remaining stones with a heavy sledgehammer he had brought down for the brutish work. A combination of elbow grease and diligence widened the opening and after another hour of pounding, the sweaty man was able to step over the remaining waist high wall into the long forgotten corridor. He saw the curled corpses of dozens of the white spiders littering the floor and the spent cylinder of the bug bomb against the wall not far from the sealed metal door. He saw that there was a shelf running along one wall holding dirty little glass cubes that he assumed were some kind of terrariums. He remembered the man who had built the shelter had been an entomologist, a bug studier, and he wondered if he kept his experiments down here in a secure room.

He used his push broom to sweep up the dead arachnid carcasses and swung the bristly tool about to clean out the cobwebs as well. A large work light stationed at the mouth of a short hallway gave plenty of light as he made his way to the greenish-black door. He examined the hatch, for it was definitely an airtight ship’s bulkhead, and he tried to turn the wheel lock. Despite his best efforts, the spoked ring would not budge. He tried jiggling it and could tell that the mechanism wasn’t seized. Something was blocking the movement of the latch. Until he could determine what was responsible for immobilizing the wheel, he couldn’t get into the room beyond.

“Well son of a bitch,” Donald cursed in frustration. He considered using the reciprocating saw; he had a metal cutting blade that would probably slice through the restraining bars inside the door if he could locate them. However, that wouldn’t necessarily help, as the locks would still be in place, and worse, the hatch mechanism would be completely destroyed, making it impossible to use again. He already had visions of showing Alan Spence his new wine cellar, the metal door polished and gleaming as he spun the vault wheel open. He didn’t want to take any unnecessary drastic measures if there was another answer.

After wiping away some of the grime from the spoked hub, he saw a small keyhole in the center of it. He grinned. The solution to the puzzling entrance was so obvious. He hopped out of the newly opened passage and sprinted up the steps. “Deidre!” he yelled for his wife. “Honey, do you know if there were any old keys we got when we bought the house?”

Deidre sighed and looked up from her crossword puzzle. “No, just the house keys,” she called out.

“Are you sure?” her quick tempered husband shouted back as he rummaged through the kitchen junk drawer.

With a grunting frustration, the trim woman sat up and took a moment to let her anger dissipate. She practiced a calming yoga breath she learned at the gym from the cute instructor who always gave his lessons shirtless. “Yes, dear, I’m sure,” she replied with a serene tone.

Donald grumbled and halted his haphazard search. “Hey, isn’t Jackie Sloan’s husband a locksmith?”

“Larry? Yes, I think he is.”

Donald thumbed open his cell phone and found Jackie’s number. The Sloans lived a few doors over and Jackie often hosted parties at their house. Donald thought she was hot for a woman about ten years his senior, but he’d never really gotten to know her husband. A quick phone call and a promise of a cold beer lured Larry Slone over to the Ramey’s home.

“So what is this?” Larry asked as he sat his heavy steel toolbox on the concrete floor of the short passage.

Donald grinned, “It’s an old bomb shelter. I’m thinking of turning it into a wine cellar.”

“Oh, like the Spences?” Larry inquired.

“What?!”

“Theirs is temperature controlled and I think Alan said he had about three hundred bottles, including some rare stuff,” the locksmith said as he examined the wheel lock. He opened up his tool kit and took two silvery instruments from the top caddy.

Donald willed the burning red anger to fade from his face. “I didn’t know they had a wine cellar.” He watched the other man work, seeing deft fingers wiggling the narrow picks in the keyhole. It took Larry no more than a minute to turn the lock cylinder to the right, an audible click registering when the spoked ring was released.

“There you go,” Mr. Sloan said as he put his tools away and stood up. He picked up the heavy case and began to leave.

“Don’t you want to see what’s inside?” Donald asked curiously.

Larry shook his head, “Nope. One, I don’t like knowing other peoples’ business. Two, I hate bugs, especially spiders, and whatever is on the other side of that door is probably filled with the nasty things. I’ll just say bye to your wife and grab that beer you owe me. You have fun playing with the creepy crawlies.”

Donald shivered at the thought of a room full of spiders and watched the locksmith tromp up the steps. He shook his head, telling himself that with the door sealed, nothing, not even spiders, could still be alive in there. He turned to the hatch, thumbed the switch on his flashlight, and spun the wheel mechanism. It obligingly turned, though not without an earsplitting squeak. With a hardy tug, Donald opened the bomb shelter door, the rusted and corroded hinges balking only a little. A blast of musty air escaped as the seal was broken for the first time in decades. Donald swung the door wide and peered into the hidden room.

*

Upstairs, Larry Sloan flirted with Mrs. Ramey. Larry hadn’t had the pleasure of her company yet, but he knew the woman’s reputation and he tried to be obvious with his insinuations as the two chatted. The flirtations were cut short by a strangled cry coming from the basement. The sheer panic in that short, warbling shriek made both Larry and Deidre snap to attention. The shout cut off almost as quickly as it began, leaving a heavy silence.

Larry chuckled nervously to break the pregnant tension. “I bet he saw a spider,” he joked.

The color had drained from Deidre’s face. “Donald?!” she called out. No answer was forthcoming. “Donald, are you okay?!”

Larry glanced nervously at the cellar door. “He’s fine. Just got spooked or something. Maybe he locked himself in that room down there.” He realized his mistake as soon as it flew from his lips.

“Could you go look and see if he did?” Deidre implored. “Donald is dumb enough to lock himself in and we don’t have a key, you know.” She brushed her long blond hair from her face in an obvious coquettish way and crossed her legs to show off her long, toned calves and thighs.

The locksmith frowned for a brief second then let a false smile light his face as he admired the woman’s shapely form. “Sure, sure, I’ll go check on him. No problem at all. You just wait right here.” He grabbed the two picks he’d used earlier from the tool box, not wanting to carry the heavy thing back down the stairs for no reason, and made his way into the cellar.

“Donald? Donald, are you okay?” he called as he nervously descended the open wooden steps. His imagination recalled old horror movies where some sort of monster would grab its victim through such stairs. He hustled down to the concrete floor and looked around for the missing man, cursing the fool for being such a dullard.

Larry thought he heard something from the half-revealed corridor. It sounded a bit like a wounded dog’s whimper. The bright work lamp shining into the exposed hallway showed nothing peculiar as Larry approached the opening. He did see that the door at the far end was now ajar, but it wasn’t open wide enough for him to peek into the chamber beyond.

He fished out his small pocket light and turned on the brilliant LED beam. There seemed to be something on the floor near the partially open bulkhead, maybe water leaked from some crack in the structure. It was hard to tell with the shadows. He came to the partially excavated entrance and swept his light back and forth. Near the punctured wall the huddled form of Donald shivered with his head in his hands. Larry could see the man’s shoulders quivering as if he were sobbing.

Relieved he had found the idiot, the locksmith focused his light on the crouched figure. “Man, you scared your wife and me. What happened? Did a big hairy spider fall on your head?”

Donald turned toward the light, lowering his hands as he did. Larry saw the terrible visage swim into view and screamed. There was no flesh on Donald’s face, just hideous yellow-white bone and a few strands of gore. He was a living skull, the exposed membranes of his nostrils flaring and his mouth hung open from a lower jaw no longer attached to its mate. The eyes were still in the sockets, the muscles that controlled them contracting as they looked helplessly at the shocked locksmith, and a partially dissolved tongue lolled in the black gulf of his ruined mouth. Donald reached out to Larry, his hands covered in his own blood and viscera.

Larry stumbled backward, sprawling onto his back as he knocked over the work light and sent his little flashlight spinning off behind him. The ghastly skull-face appeared in the stone-lined portal, illuminated by the weak light streaming through the small basement windows. The pleading eyes looked down at the prone man as an arm again reached out for help and the stump of a tongue tried to form words that came out as guttural grunt. Larry scrambled backward, kicking his booted feet to propel him away from the monstrous image looming in the dark passageway. His hand brushed against the cold metal of his flashlight and he instinctively grabbed it and focused its beam on Donald’s cadaverous face.

Something reached out from behind Donald, an inhuman, albino white appendage, chitinous and covered in sparse, bristly hairs. It grabbed the poor man and hauled him backward away from the rocky aperture. Larry didn’t see the owner of that impossibly large, arachnid-like feeler and he didn’t want to.

Sounds came from inside the lightless passageway, sounds that Larry immediately recognized as the slurping scrunch of feeding. He felt vomit rise in this throat and as he pulled himself to his feet, he puked out his lunch of hotdogs and cheap beer.

The frightened locksmith tore up the basement steps. He didn’t bother to grab his tool box, didn’t care about the half empty beer he’d left on the counter. He sprinted past a confused Deidre, reaching the front door and slamming it shut behind him.

Deidre peered cautiously at the basement door, Larry’s panicked escape setting her nerves on end. She timidly descended the old stairs, her eyes darting to and fro for any danger. She saw the fallen work lamp and put it back upright. Only half of the heavy-duty device lit when she flicked the switch, but it was enough to partially illuminate the obscured passage. She tiptoed closer to the opening, glancing fearfully into the tenebrous tunnel beyond. Something moved in the shadows, coming towards her slowly. She thought it might be her husband crawling on hands and knees. When she saw what it really was, her eyes went wide in horror and her screams echoed through the quiet suburban house.

Jackie Sloan called the police an hour later when she found her husband huddled in the shower mumbling about white spiders. A pair of officers entered the Ramey home and called loudly for the occupants. When they received no response the men drew their sidearms and cautiously inspected the house. They checked the upstairs and downstairs, finding no evidence of the owners. Curiously thick cobwebs covered the attic access, but neither officer bothered to examine the obviously little used space. When both of the upper floors were cleared, the pair hesitantly investigated the basement.

The uniformed men found a malfunctioning work light. They took long aluminum flashlights from looped holsters on their black leather belts. Inside the dank hallway, their probing lights caught streaks of crimson leading to the unlocked, partially open metal door. They stepped inside the hallway cautiously and approached. The red trail was definitely blood, and both men flicked the safety buttons off on their weapons. One of the officers stood to the side of the bulkhead door, nodding to his partner. He yanked the hatch open and his partner bellowed a warning as he quickly scanned the room beyond for danger. There was no sign of threat inside, only two desiccated corpses near the door, one of which looked to be missing the skin of his face. As they began searching the bodies for identification, a tiny albino spider dropped onto the shoulder of one, its almost translucent carapace showing a bright red core of freshly devoured blood within.

The End

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