Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Daddy Long Legs of the Evening

It was said that when he was a small child, asleep in his bed one end-of-summer night, a spider crawled into his ear, traversed a maze of canals, eating slowly through membrane and organ, to discover the cavern of the skull. Then that spider burrowed in a spiral pattern through the electric gray cake of the brain to the very center of it all, where it hollowed out a large nest for itself and reattached neural pathways with the thread of its web. It played the boy like a zither, plucking the silver strings of its own design, creating a music that directed both will and desire.

Before the invasion of his cranium, the child was said to have been quite a little cherub—big green eyes and a wave of golden hair, rosy cheeks, an infectious laugh. His parents couldn’t help showing him off at every opportunity and regaling passersby with a litany of his startling attributes, not the least of which was the ability to recite verbatim the bedtime stories read to him each night. Many a neighbor had been subjected to an oration of the entirety of “The Three Rum Runtkins.”

A change inside wrought a change outside, though, and over the course of a few months the boy’s eyes bulged and drained of all color to become million-faceted buds of gleaming onyx. His legs and arms grew long and willowy, but his body stayed short with a small but pronounced potbelly, like an Adam’s apple in the otherwise slender throat that was his form. Although a fine down of thistle grew in patches across his back, arms, and thighs, he went bald, losing even brows and lashes. His flesh turned a pale gray, hinting at violet; his incisors grew to curving points and needed to be clipped and filed back like fingernails.

Horrified at the earliest of these changes, the boy’s parents had taken him, first, to the doctor’s, but when the medicine he was given did nothing but make him vomit and the symptoms became more bizarre, they took him to the clinic. The doctors there subjected him to a head scan. Photos from the process showed the intruder in negative, a tiny eight-legged phantom perched at the center of a dark, intricate web. It was determined that were they to remove the arachnid, the boy could very possibly die. The creature had, for all intents and purposes, become his brain. The parents, confessing they feared for their lives, pleaded with the physicians to operate, but the ethical code forbade it, and the family was sent home.

Not long after the trip to the clinic, the boy’s mother opened his bedroom door one morning and beheld him suspended in the eye of a silver web that filled the room from floor to ceiling. She meant to scream but the beautiful gleaming symmetry of what he’d made stunned her. She watched as he turned slowly round to face away, and then from a neat hole cut in the back of his trousers that she’d never noticed before came a sudden blast of webbing that smacked her in the face and covered half her body. The door slammed shut as she reeled backward, and this time she did scream, tearing madly at the shroud whose sticky threads seemed spun from marshmallow.

Unable to bear the boy’s presence any longer, his parents took him for a hike out into the forest. “I know a place where there are flies as big as poodles,” his father said, and the boy drooled. They took him deep into the trees, marking the trail as they went, and somewhere miles in, next to a lake, they bedded down on pine needles. While he slept, they quietly rose, tiptoed away, and then, once out of earshot, ran for their lives. They never saw the boy again. Although no one in town could blame them, including the constable, and they faced no charges for their actions, the memory of their fear burrowed in a spiral pattern to the center of their minds and played them like zithers for the rest of their days.

Fifteen years later and a hundred miles from where he’d been born, the boy appeared one evening at the height of summer, not a man but something else. A woman living in an apartment of an otherwise empty building on the east side of the city of Grindly woke suddenly and looked up.

“There was enough moonlight to see him clearly,” she said. “He hung above me, upside down, his hands and knees on the ceiling. He wore a jacket with short tails, and the long legs of his satin trousers were striped blue and red. I don’t know how that hat—a stovepipe style—stayed on, as it had no chin strap. His feet were in slippers. The moment I saw him, he looked directly into my eyes. It didn’t matter that he wore round, rose-colored glasses. Those evil blackberries that lurked behind still dazzled me. I screamed, he shrieked, and then he scuttled across the ceiling and out the open window. I heard him on the roof, and then everything was silent.” The woman told her friends, and her friends told their friends, and word that something bizarre had come to Grindly spread like disease.

The Gazette put out a double edition, a whole four pages, its entirety devoted to speculation concerning “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening,” a moniker invented by the editor in chief. The name stuck, and over the course of a few more days was shortened by the populace, first to “Daddy Longlegs” and then to simply “Daddy.” “Watch out for Daddy,” neighbors said as a salutation when they parted. Before people bedded down at night, they practiced a ritual of checking closets and basements, the dark corners of attics, and under beds, latching all windows and gathering crude weapons on their nightstands—a mallet, a wrench, a carving knife, a club.

After a few more sightings that he had scrupulously arranged, allowing himself to be spotted, crawling to the top of and then into a silent mill’s crumbling smokestack, or traversing the soot-ridden mosaic of God’s face on the inner dome of the railway station as the midnight train passed through, he was in their hearts and minds, and what was even more important to him, in their dreams. Of course, he meant to drain the citizenry of Grindly of their bodily fluids, but first, to enhance nourishment, it needed to be filtered, flavored, by nightmare.

When there wasn’t a soul within the confines of the city wall who did not, in their dreams, flee slow, heavy, and naked before him, or writhe in the coil of their blankets, mistaken in sleep for his web, he struck. It was deepest night when he entered the home of the haberdasher, Fremin, through the unlocked coal chute. The hinges on the iron door creaked a warning, but that noise was transformed, by the dreams of the sleeping husband and wife, into the triumphant laughter of Daddy Longlegs. They never woke when he bit them at the base of the skull. They never cried out as their fear-laden essence left them.

“Like old worn luggage,” the newspaper said, describing the condition of the corpses discovered two days later. When the medics tried to move the haberdasher’s body to a stretcher, it split with a whisper like a dry husk and out of it poured thousands of tiny spiders. Police Inspector Kaufmann, the medics, the Fremins’ neighbors who were present, all ran out of the building, and the inspector gave orders for the place to be torched at once. As the fire raged, the crowd that had gathered belabored the inspector, Grindly’s sole lawman, with inquiries as to what he was prepared to do.

What Kaufmann was prepared to do was run, take the next train out of town for some shining new place free of rot and nightmares. The only thing preventing him was the fact that the train rarely stopped, but sped right through as if there really was no platform or station or city. “If I wait for that,” he thought, “we might all be dead by the time it arrives.” He turned to the citizens and said, “I’m going to hunt Daddy down and put a bullet in him.” Only the inspector knew that it would necessarily have to be “a bullet” as he only had one left. Government supplies from the capitol had dried up over a year earlier.

That night, Kaufmann slept slumped over his desk, pistol in hand, and dreamt of a time before the politicians in the capitol had succumbed to a disease of avarice and sapped all of Grindly’s resources for themselves. Once known far and wide as the “Nexus of Manufacture,” a gleaming machine of commerce, where traffic filled the streets, faces filled the windows, and nobody ate cabbage who didn’t want to, the inspector had a police force, enough bullets, and a paycheck. Again, in his sleep, he watched the city slowly rot from the inside out and eventually stood on the platform at the station waving forlornly as even the petty criminals left town.

While Kaufmann dozed, Daddy was busy slipping silently through the shadows. He could smell the terror of the populace, a sweet flower scent that drove his hunger. The music played on the strands of web behind his eyes directed his purpose, negating distraction, as he shuffled up a wall, found an unlocked window, and let the breeze in.

His first victim of that night: The pale and beautiful actress Monique LeDar, who still performed nightly, one-woman shows of the classics, although the stage was lit by candles and squirrels scampered amid the rafters. She awoke in the midst of Daddy’s feeding, and he saw her seeing herself in the myriad reflections of his eyes. He stopped, tipped his hat, and continued. She put her wrist to her forehead and perished.

The Gazette had the story in its late-morning edition the next day: DADDY’S DOZEN, read the headline. At the end of the lead article that gave a list of the drained and the grisly condition in which each was found, there was printed a formal plea from Inspector Kaufmann for volunteers to help track the killer. That evening, he stood on the sidewalk in front of the Hall of Justice, a mausoleum of an old marble structure, dark and empty inside save for his office. The last set of batteries in the flashlight had died, so, instead, he held like a torch out in front of him a small candelabra of three burning tapers. He’d been waiting for over an hour for the mob of volunteers to form in order to begin the hunt, but, as it was, he stood alone. Taking the gun from his shoulder holster, he was about to strike out on his own when an old woman in a kerchief and a long camelhair winter coat trundled slowly up to him.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” asked the inspector.

“I volunteer,” she said.

He laughed. “This is dangerous work, my dear. We’re after a cold-blooded killer.”

The old woman opened her pocketbook and took out a blackjack. She waggled the tube of stitched leather with lead in the tip at Kaufmann’s face.

“That’s an illegal weapon,” he said.

“Arrest me,” she said, and spat on the sidewalk.

The avenues and side streets of Grindly were empty. Even the drunks stayed home in fear of being drunk themselves. It was slow going and just as lonely for Kaufmann with Mrs. Frey in tow. He’d barely gotten the woman’s name out of her. She followed five steps behind, not so much his posse as a haunting spirit. He respected her courage, her sense of civic duty, but found her quiet wheezing and the rhythmic squish of her galoshes incredibly annoying, and wondered how long it would be before he used his last bullet on either her or himself.

It was dinnertime in the city that never woke; the scent of boiled cabbage, the skittering of rats along the gutters. Occasionally, there was a lighted window and the distant, muffled sound of a radio or a child’s glee or an argument, but for the most part Kaufmann and his deputy passed down empty streets of boarded storefronts and burned-out brownstones, where the echo of the wind sounded like laughter in the shadows.

It was dinnertime for Daddy as well, and he moved along the rooftops, keenly aware of the warm spots in the cold buildings beneath, heat signatures of those who might find themselves on his menu. He was hunting for the essence of the young. His last kill of the previous night had been Tharshmon the watchmaker, a man made old by lack of work and self-respect. No one cared any longer to know the time in Grindly. It was better left unmentioned when the future arrived. As dozens of pocket watches chimed in Tharshmon’s studio at 3:00 a.m., Daddy interceded without a struggle. The bereft watchmaker’s fluid was overripe, though, insipidly sweet and watery. It gave no energy but bruised the will and loosened the bowels.

Daddy skittered down the side of a four-story apartment building. At the lighted window on the third floor, he settled upon the fire escape. With his face to the glass, he saw two young children dressed in their pajamas, playing in a bedroom. He tried the window, but it was locked. He tapped at the glass with one long nail. Their big pink faces drew close to see him, and even before they undid the latch, his system was creating the chemical needed to digest their juices. He had learned it wasn’t helpful to let them see him drool.

At the same moment, three blocks away, Inspector Kaufmann was passing the Waterworks. He turned and peered back up the sidewalk to see Mrs. Frey’s bent form inching along through the weak glow of the block’s one working streetlight. He set the candelabra on the ground, holstered his gun, and took out his last cigarette. He’d traded a pair of official police handcuffs, with key, for the pack it came from. Leaning down, he lit it on the flame of the center candle. He was cold and tired, and every scrap of newspaper that rolled in the wind or bat that darted out of a blasted window momentarily paralyzed him with fear. He took a drag and heard Mrs. Frey’s galoshes drawing closer.

The old woman had nearly caught up and there was still a good half of a cigarette left when he heard a desperate scream come from off to his right. “Shit,” he said, flicked the unfinished butt into the gutter, drew his pistol, and ran across the street. There he entered an alley and ran through the dark, avoiding piles of broken furniture and old garbage. The alley gave way to another street and then another alley, and when he was almost winded, there was again a shrill scream, and he saw a woman at an open window three stories up.

“My babies,” she wailed. Kaufmann scanned the sides of the buildings for Daddy. He heard something move amidst the trash and caught a darker spot in the darkness out of the corner of his eye. As he lifted the gun, something wet and sticky smacked him in the face. He fired blindly.

By the time Kaufmann had wiped the web from his eyes, Daddy was gone, the distraught mother above had spotted the inspector and was yelling for his assistance, and behind him, Mrs. Frey, pocketbook on her wrist, the candelabra in her right hand, the blackjack in her left, shuffled inexorably closer. The inspector dropped the gun and ran away.

Daddy sat atop the smokestack of the abandoned Harris Electric Loom Mill, nursing the wound to his leg where the bullet had grazed his calf. The spider in his head unhooked the strings that sent pain, and then nestled back into the center of things, half high from the effects of the rich essence of youth. His imagination took off, and he plucked the silver strands, composing as he played, spinning a web of an idea. “Herd them,” Daddy said in a voice that cracked and clicked. The spare, scattered pattern of the lights of Grindly required design.

Exhausted from running, Inspector Kaufmann leaned against the coral facade at the entrance to Grindly Station. His own thoughts were as scattered as Daddy’s were inspired. Against what would have normally been his better judgment, he chose to believe that for some reason the train would, that night, stop at the platform and take him aboard. He hurried on so as not to miss it. His quick footsteps echoed across the wide rotunda, and he passed through another set of doors into the dome that held the station platform. He was surprised to find himself the only passenger.

Kaufmann cupped his hand behind his ear and cocked his head toward the track in order to check for vibrations of the coming train. He thought he felt the merest rumble deep in his chest. After listening for a long time, all he really heard was the sound of water dripping. It interfered with the anticipation of escape. Then he realized it wasn’t water dripping but more a tapping. It stopped and then started again. He looked up at the inner dome and froze.

In an eyeblink, Daddy leaped down on a forty-foot thread of web and stood before Kaufmann. Mandibles clicked together, and Daddy did a bad job of hiding the drool. From some forgotten byway of his brain, the inspector’s years of experience on the streets of Grindly engaged. He made a fist and swung with everything he had. The punch hit the mark, cracking the left lens of Daddy’s rose-colored glasses and sending him stumbling backward a few feet. The inspector didn’t know whether to flee or continue to attack, and in the empty moment of his indecision, he definitely heard the train coming.

He made a move toward Daddy with fists in the air, but his nemesis twirled with insect precision and speed and clipped Kaufmann under the chin with a foot that struck like the tip of a bullwhip. The inspector was almost brought to his knees by the blow, but instead of going down, he righted himself and backed off. Blood trickled from the side of his mouth. The train was louder now, and a faint light could be seen filling the tunnel. He looked down and saw that the backs of his heels were off the edge of the platform. He put his fists up and kept them moving.

When Daddy took one long-legged step to the left, Kaufmann saw salvation. The roar of the approaching train filled the tunnel and set the entire platform to vibrating so that it was impossible to hear the squish of Mrs. Frey’s galoshes. She inched up upon him from behind, the candelabra glimmering, the blackjack waggling in her grip. Kaufmann threw a flurry of jabs to distract the arachnid, and the old woman lifted the leather club as high as she could. The locomotive entered the station but didn’t slow.

In the reflection of rushing windows, Daddy detected treachery. He spun in a blur, his mandibles severing Mrs. Frey’s neck with a swift clip, like cutting a rose. From the hole in his trousers, he shot a blast of web at Kaufmann. It happened so quickly that the inspector could only stand motionless as the strand of sticky thread wrapped twice around his neck. The web’s long tail was pulled in by the rush of the passing train and affixed itself to the handle on the back door of the caboose. Kaufmann was jerked off the platform by the neck, and flew behind the train. The last thing he saw in Grindly was the mosaic face of God. Mrs. Frey’s head hit the platform then and spat.

The next evening, in an abandoned warehouse by the docks, Daddy stood in total darkness, emitting high-pitched squeals that called all the natural spiders of Grindly to him. When he felt their delicate heaving presence surrounding him, he clicked and blzz’d out his plan. He gave instructions on rethreading the human brain. He spoke of the ear and the path to take, warning of cul-de-sacs. “A quarter pound of fly meat for every human restrung,” he promised. Spirits were high. Later, when they returned to him for payment, he crushed them beneath his slipper.

By the time he got done with Grindly, the city shone and ran like one of Tharshmon’s pocket watches. Everything moved as if to music. It became for Daddy a web of human thread. “Purpose without a point,” he often reminded his human electorate, and they tacitly nodded. He continued to feed at night, roaming the rooftops and alleyways, leaving old luggage indiscriminately in his wake. People showed him smiles during the day, but, still, no one wanted to meet him in the dark. The reconfiguration of their brain patterns didn’t eliminate terror, only their ability to react to it. “Fear and Industry” was Daddy’s motto, and it took him far.

After the train was again making scheduled stops at the station, Daddy boarded with a ticket to the capital one evening. He never returned to Grindly, but instead bit into the larger politics of the Realm and kept eating in a spiral pattern until he reached the center of everything. There, he made a nest for himself.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, The Shadow Year. His story collections are The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, Crackpot Palace, and A Natural History of Hell. His fiction has won the Nebula Award, World Fantasy Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award, Shirley Jackson Award, etc. His latest novel, Ahab’s Return, or The Last Voyage, comes out in spring 2018, (Morrow/Harper Collins) He lives in Ohio in a hundred plus year old farm house, surrounded by corn and wheat fields, and teaches part-time at Ohio Wesleyan University.