We were given two ideas to work with. Write a story about EITHER a fear of spiders OR a fake illness. And then the convener said she was sure that somehow I'd manage to produce a story that combined both of those incompatible ideas. Well, I couldn't let her down, could I?
So here's a story about a man who is very afraid of spiders. There's at least one fake illness in here, and possibly even two depending on just how unreliable my narrator is...
Or maybe it's just magic realism.
When Peter was five years old he heard Burl Ives singing a song about an old woman who swallowed a fly. Peter was fine with that flies didn't bother him in the slightest. But then the old woman swallowed a spider to catch the fly, and it wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her. Peter didn't like the sound of that at all. He could all too easily imagine a spider's eight hairy legs vibrating in a blur of movement as it crawled around exploring the nooks and crannies of his interior bits and pieces. His vivid imagination gave him nightmares for weeks, and every time the Burl Ives song came on the radio his parents had to leap up and switch it off before the old lady swallowed the spider, otherwise Peter would melt down into an uncontrollable panic attack.
As it happened, the song was very popular that year, so Peter's parents had to listen very closely to the radio, and they had to do a lot of leaping. Unfortunately they didn't always manage to get to the radio in time, and Peter's terrors reinforced themselves to the point of hysteria whenever he heard the song. Eventually his parents gave up, and they simply didn't bother to turn the radio on at all. Then finally, after far too long, the song fell out fashion, and they could all listen safely to the radio again.
But by then it was far too late. The damage was done. Peter had been completely traumatised by the song, and a terrible fear of spiders remained with him for the rest of his life..
* * * *
When Peter left home to study at university, he decided to go flatting. He considered the merits of sharing a flat with other people but eventually he decided against it. He couldn't help worrying that he might be forced to ask a female flat mate to deal with any spiders that had managed to make their way into the bath, and he wasn't at all certain he'd be able to stand the humiliation of doing that not to mention having to endure the terrible teasing that was sure to follow such a request. So he moved into a flat by himself. It only had a shower, not a bath, and therefore he felt that he was probably quite safe from ablutionary spiders.
One day he awoke in the wee small hours of the morning from a pleasant, though vaguely surreal, dream of sex and stage diving. Feeling disoriented and thirsty, he reached out for the glass of water that he always kept on his bedside table and took a sip. Something tickled his lips as he drank. Puzzled, he put the glass down and turned on his bedside light. To his horror, he saw a spider in the glass. It waved its appalling legs mockingly at him. He recalled the tickling he had felt on his lips. Could there have been two spiders in the glass? Had he inadvertently swallowed one? By now he was perfectly sure that he could feel the spider as it wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside him...
In a fit of panic, he dressed himself hurriedly, jumped on his bicycle and headed for the emergency department of the hospital where he argued his way into the presence of a very tired and very irritated doctor. "I think I've swallowed a spider," explained Peter. "I can feel it crawling round inside me. Quick! Take an X-ray. Find out where the spider is and deal with it. Do it now!"
"X-rays won't work," said the doctor. "In fact we don't have any machines that can pin point a spider inside you. Our only option is to cut you open from top to bottom and rummage around your insides until we find it. Just make yourself comfortable on this bed over here while I go and fetch my scalpel."
Despite the wriggling and the jiggling and the tickling inside him Peter wasn't at all sure that he wanted such drastic action to be taken. "Is there no alternative?" he asked.
The doctor shook his head. "No," he said. "If you've really swallowed a spider we need to deal with it immediately otherwise you might develop a serious case of Arachne Acne."
"What's that?" asked Peter.
"It's a singularly disgusting disease," said the doctor. "Your whole body comes out in oozing, itchy red spots which give off a pheromone that is utterly irresistible to male spiders. Then before you know where you are, every male spider from miles around will have zeroed in on you. They will climb all over your body and start to mate energetically with your pustules. You will become a social pariah! Nobody will have anything to do with you because you are covered from head to toe with fornicating spiders." The doctor seemed to take inordinate pleasure in that thought. "All your facebook friends will unfriend you because you have become so revolting."
Peter had read a lot about spiders in the years since he was five, but he'd never come across any mention of Arachne Acne in any of his reference books. "You're pulling my leg," he said uncertainly. "Aren't you?"
"Yes," said the doctor wearily, "I'm just teasing. All you've got is a perfectly normal case of arachnophobia. I suggest you go back home, get some sleep, and stop bothering me with a syndrome that I really can't do anything to help you with."
"Sorry doctor," said Peter contritely.
"And," continued the doctor as Peter prepared to leave, "just pray that you didn't swallow a female spider who was full of fertilised eggs because if you did, it won't be very long before you have hundreds, possibly even thousands of spiders wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside of you... Now go away. And while you head home, try to decide whether or not I'm pulling your plonker again."
Peter cycled back to his flat, took off his clothes and returned to bed, thinking all the while about what the doctor had said to him. Could he actually have swallowed a female spider full of eggs? Would they really hatch inside him? His heart beat fiercely at the thought, and he was certain that the wriggling, jiggling and tickling were getting worse with every second that passed.
He turned the light on and threw back the sheets. He stared in anguish at his naked body as the wriggling, jiggling and tickling inside him intensified. Waves of darkness flowed over him, pulsing up and down with every wriggle, every jiggle. He was panting harshly now, and terror tightened its nauseating black grip on him. His heart raced harder, pounding ever more fiercely against the walls of his chest as his panic pushed him closer and closer to the thin, crumbling edge of his sanity.
Then he saw a spider crawl out of his belly button. It was quickly followed by another one... And then another... And another... The darkness was completely surrounding him now. He shrieked as he spiralled down into it. And then...
* * * *
After the neighbours complained about the terrible smell, the police broke down the door of Peter's flat. They found Peter dead in the bedroom, his body cocooned in spider silk. There were hundreds of spiders infesting the room, dangling from convenient anchor points around the bed as they busied themselves spinning their webs all over Peter's corpse. "Well," said one of the policemen as he examined the blanket of silk that covered Peter from head to toe, "that pretty much wraps it up for Peter."