“This place is going to blow your mind.” I squeezed Bell’s hand as we walked along a rain-choked sidewalk past rundown shops and restaurants. The evening was quiet and most folks hid inside from the rain, but Bell didn’t seem to mind—she sloshed through the puddles and peered up from beneath her hood, dark teal hair falling in piles around her face.
“Honestly, I hope so, because we’re in such a sketchy neighborhood right now.”
“It’s not that bad. You just have to know where to go.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure we passed a dead body back there.”
“Sleeping, not dead. Probably.” I frowned over my shoulder.
She slipped a hand through my arm and leaned against me as we walked, her bright blue eyes smiling at me like I was some kind of idiot, and I felt like I could never do this again—find someone else that would put up with all my idiosyncrasies and flaws like Bell did.
We met online. Most of my relationships started online. It wasn’t that I was bad in person—I could be charming if I wanted to be, but it took me a while to build to it, like a machine that needed priming and a lot of time to warm up. Things clicked with Bell right away, and we spent hours typing back and forth, then texted all that following day, until we finally met up for a nerve-wracking lunch. Now I’m always slightly surprised when she lets me kiss her, and that she doesn’t seem horrified every time I show up at her apartment to pick her up for another date.
“I know soup sounds weird, but trust me,” I said as we got closer to the place. “It’s like the most heavenly stuff in the world, and the owner’s this green-skinned Tabak guy that’s always smoking and he’s really nice. I used to come here a lot and watch baseball with him.” I didn’t add that I was in a bad place back then—depressed and close to giving up.
“I’ll eat whatever at this point,” Bell said, putting a hand on her stomach, “so long as we get there soon. Otherwise I might have to trap a feral cat.”
I looked at her, mock-horrified. “You can’t eat a street cat.”
“Of course not. I’d train it to catch rats for me. I’m not a disgusting freak.”
I laughed and made one final turn. Bell was right about the neighborhood: half the buildings were still bombed out from the war, rotting husks of charred wood and brick, testaments to lost lives, monuments for the missing dead. Most businesses were still boarded up, and I didn’t know if they’d ever come back.
The soup shop was tucked back beneath an awning. The last time I was here, comforting yellow light leaked out from behind two big windows covered with blinds and a shabby red-painted door. The whole place smelled like food, rich and delicious, and warmth radiated onto the sidewalk.
Except now the place was all boarded up.
Bell hesitated, looked at me strangely, then stepped forward. “You’re sure this is the right spot?” She grabbed at the board on the front door. She tugged, but it was stuck tight. “Looks like it’s been shut down for a while. Did you come here before the war?”
“No,” I said softly, shaking my head. I’d eaten there a couple weeks earlier, and I was positive I was in the right place—across the street was an old bank, the facade a crumbled mess. “I don’t understand.”
Bell put her hands on her hips. “Well, you dragged me out into the Melt and now I’m starving, so we’re getting in there and finding something to eat.”
“Hold on,” I said, but Bell leaned into the board. She pried it loose after a short struggle and tossed it onto the ground. She wiped her hands on her jeans and grinned at me.
“Now let’s go see what’s up in this place.”
She pulled at the door. I wanted to shout at her, to make her stop. Something was wrong here, something was very wrong, but she stepped inside and disappeared into the dark.
I forced myself to follow. The smell of a deep, animalistic fungal bloom hit me as soon as I crossed the threshold. Bell pulled her shirt up over her nose and laughed at me as I stood there staring around with my lips pulled back over my gums
It looked like it should, only rotten and ancient. The small counter, the television in the corner, the pots and pans and the stove, everything was covered in dust and mold and a thin layer of rancid moisture.
Bell peered into the dim kitchen. “I have to say, for a fifth date, I’m not very impressed. I hope you’re not giving up already.”
“I think we should get out of here.” The urge to panic and run bubbled up so intensely that I had to grip the doorframe to keep from bolting.
Bell didn’t seem to notice though. “There’s a back room, let’s check it out.”
“Seriously, it’s dangerous and I’m pretty freaked out.”
But Bell climbed over the counter and dropped down on the other side. She turned to me and leaned her elbows on the greasy, stained wood, and waggled her eyebrows. “Hey handsome. Looking for something to eat?”
The knot in my gut loosened a touch at her goofy smile. I stepped closer and glanced over—the same sports posters on the wall, the same stack of crates piled next to an ancient refrigerator—and took a sudden deep breath to try and calm down.
“Come on, let’s get it over with.” I hopped over and landed heavily on the far side. The floorboards creaked and I thought they might flex and snap for one wild moment.
Bell’s hand grabbed my arm again. “Easy there. You look kind of pale.”
“I remember all this stuff. The owner sat over there and we talked about the Phillies. He was a really nice guy.”
Bell frowned at me and shook her head. “A lot of weird stuff happens in Keston. Maybe you’re misremembering or something?”
“I swear it was two weeks ago. This place was open and warm and the soup was incredible and—“
And it saved my life, coming here. For a while, it was the only place that felt like home, but I couldn’t explain that to Bell, couldn’t make her understand how a stupid, run down soup shop in a bad neighborhood with an owner that listened and nodded and smiled and talked to me like an equal kept me from climbing the Canton Bridge and throwing myself down into the black, choppy water.
“Come on.” She grabbed my hand gently and tugged me toward the back. “Let’s see what’s here then go get dinner.”
The back kitchen was even worse than the front. The floor was soaked and soft, and the prep tables, counters, burners, and cooking equipment were covered in a dense layer of black and green slime. Bell pinched her nose, making a face. It was dark, the only light coming from somewhere up above—hole in the roof, most likely.
I stepped forward as if drawn into the space, but Bell hesitated and kept behind me. It was small, almost cramped, and I could imagine the owner cooking in the big pots during better days, before the war left the world a damaged ruin.
I reached out to touch a ladle left cross-wise on a table when I heard the sound.
It was a strange, high-pitched whine, followed by a skittering like multiple legs through garbage. I froze and looked up at the far wall as something black and covered in fine hair descended from the ceiling, suspended on a shimmering gossamer rope.
The spider was bigger than me. Its multitude of eyes blinked out from its impossibly dark body, its legs curled in around the web that sprouted from its lower half. It tilted its head, watching me carefully, mandibles whirring like it wanted to say something.
“I didn’t think you’d come back here.”
I flinched at Bell’s voice. It was her, but it wasn’t her—she sounded flat, emotionless. I looked over my shoulder and she stood there, eyes slack and staring sightless, shoulders rounded and hunched, mouth open and dull. Her head tilted slowly but she didn’t look at me and didn’t move.
“Bell,” I whispered, hissing her name. “Get out of here. Move really slowly. I’m coming.”
But she didn’t move. Her eyes met mine—and nothing was there. It felt like she looked past me, or through me, or wasn’t looking at all.
“You don’t need me anymore,” she said in that flat affect again. “Go home, Jason. You don’t need me.”
“What are you talking about?” I took a step back from the spider, my gut twisted in terror, my hands trembling, my feet tingling and numb. “We need to get out of here.”
“You know it was me, Jason. You know who I am. Look at me.”
I stared at her for one agonizing second—I didn’t want to look, god, please, I didn’t want to—then turned to the spider.
It dangled horribly. It released the web and spread its legs wide—and still hung in the air.
“You don’t need me anymore.” Bell’s voice, close to my neck. “Go home and do not come back here. You know me now, and I know you. I enjoyed our time together, but now our times is done. You don’t need me anymore. Go home, Jason.”
I opened my mouth to scream but Bell’s hand clamped down on my wrist. I stared at the spider as Bell pulled me into the main room. She stumbled, like she’d lost control of her legs, and I had to carry her over the counter. She groaned something horrible, clicking sounds in the back of her throat, and I heard the spider back in that room weaving its web and moving its mandibles, its too-many eyes following, its impossible body too thick and covered in swirling hairs. I kicked the front door until it banged to the side and dragged Bell out onto the sidewalk.
I dragged her along until she began to walk on her own, and it took a few more blocks before she stopped and rubbed at her eyes with both hands.
“Oh man,” she said softly then laughed. “God, I have the biggest headache.”
I looked down at her, on the verge of throwing up in the gutter. “Bell? Are you okay?”
She grinned at me. “Totally fine, just a headache. Why are you looking at me like you’re afraid I might fall over?”
“The spider— you were talking for it, and—“
She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
I clamped my mouth shut. She stared back at me, and it was Bell again, definitely it was her.
“Nothing,” I said softly, and felt the creep of it again my shoulders, moving down my spine. I took her hand in both of mine and held it tight. “Sorry, nothing, just a game.”
“Right. Cool game, but I’m still starving. So where’s this soup shop you keep talking about?”
“Let’s try somewhere else, actually. There’s a pizza place near here that’s not too bad.”
“At this point, I’ll eat anything.” She leaned against my side and we began to walk again.
I didn’t look back toward the bombed-out buildings and their leaking guts, toward the spider and its web, but I knew it was there and watching, could sense it on the edge of my awareness like the feeling of a warm shop after a rainstorm and baseball on TV and good conversation and home.
ps, This grew out of a Reddit comment post I made on my u/speculative--fiction account. The original version’s pretty creepy, but I like this one better. As always, click that heart/like button to let me know you read this far and share it! Have a good week. - DC