(published 12th March 2018)
You are not afraid of spiders.
The one on the bathroom wall has a body as big as your thumbnail; glossy, iridescent. Legs stretching like black wire over white tile.
A bath of steaming clear water waits. Book lies on the side, pages curling in the heat. Mug of tea ready.
You are not afraid but you remove the spider all the same. Fetch a glass from the bedside table, a cardboard coaster. Blue with a silhouette of an orangutan printed on. Souvenir from that trip to the zoo when you held the hand of a love now lost, let yourself dream of returning one day in a wished-for future with your child. Smooth, stubby fingers held in yours. Round eyes staring at the animals. Blink that memory away now.
When you return the spider has not moved. You press the glass to the wall, careful not to crush the legs, and step towards the open window. It squats. Waiting. The coaster is held tight as you reach up yet somehow, inexplicably, the spider runs along the outside of the glass, over your fingers, across your hand, up your arm.
You know it was inside the glass and yet it could not have been. This spider has a body as big as your fist, legs splayed, encasing your arm.
Your heart kicks, one beat, out of rhythm. Involuntary cry. Step backwards, crashing to the floor. Glass clatters against the sink and splinters.
A bite. Searing sting of fangs piercing flesh, the burn as venom seethes through your veins.
You slap but the spider has moved away, resting on your shoulder, under your tee-shirt, against your skin. Standing, you strip with shaking hands, wipe a clear patch on the steamed mirror, turn your shoulder towards it. The reflection shows nothing. Bare skin. You reach back, stretch out your fingers. The mirror shows them hovering above your shoulder, but you feel it; smooth body, wire legs. Recoil.
Twisting, you strain to see. A glimpse of it; black, bristling. Crouched against your flesh. Reach again, grasp and pull. For a moment you have it, you’re sure, you will be free, but somehow, again, it scuttles over your hand and up your arm. It is there when you look at yourself but a glance in the mirror shows nothing. Only two red puncture marks, the flesh surrounding them raised and puckered.
You sit in the bath, knees drawn to chest, arms wrapped around them, eyes closed. Feeling it shift and crawl, across your shoulder, up your neck, into your hair. The bite on your arm throbs. You sit as the water cools and the tea skins over.
A fretful night passes. The spider does not rest and neither can you as the constant creep of it needles around your body. Now chest, now thigh, now foot. The bed clothes ripple and heave to reveal its journey. Tears slip from your closed eyes and trickle down the sides of your face. The spider stops and drinks.
Finally it settles, nestling in the dip between shoulder blade and neck. Plunges in its fangs. Pain spasms through your body. And relief. The spider feeds, pulsing as it suckles and you drift to sleep at last. It has chosen.
In the morning the pillow is marked by a double dent – one made by your head, the second by the weight of your parasite. You are dry, scratchy-eyed and heavy-headed. Ravenous. Shaking with hunger. Toast bread, pour cereal, fry bacon. Eat and eat and eat and the spider on your back feeds and feeds and feeds. Grows. The spread of its body weighing you down. Sated, finally. Replete. It rests and you stop. Exhausted.
Your clothes loosen. Skin greys and peels. Hair breaks. You wash it, occasionally, and it comes away in handfuls. Teeth blacken, fingernails split and flake.
In the corner of your vision, if you look down and back, the black mass pulsates. You turn, show your shoulder to the glass. Reflects only your skin.
Under the pressure of bearing this burden you stoop, shuffle. And you eat. Eat and eat. And it feeds and grows and spreads.
The doctor examines you, concerned at your weight loss and lack of energy. Talks about diet, sleep, stress. The real cause squats on your shoulder.
‘When you look in the mirror,’ the doctor says, ‘what do you see? Someone overweight?’
‘The mirror shows me nothing,’ you reply.
The doctor’s face tweaks into a frown. You reach out, fingers clawing, lean forward until you are almost nose to nose. Spider to shoulder.
‘Can you really not see it?’ you ask.
At home, the deceitful glass shows wax-paper skin stretched tight over jagged cheek bones and hollowing under blood-threaded eyes. You count ribs that were once cushioned by flesh with wizened fingers. Bone against bone.
The hunger snarls. You raid cupboards and fridge, grab handfuls of cereal, eggs in the shell, bacon from the packet, soup from the carton. On and on. You are still hungry. The spider feeds and draws and pulses but cannot be sated. You are dry. Not a tear in you.
The spider is angry. You feel it, the fury, screeching through you. A silken thread of pain spun from the core to the edges of you. A convulsion that lifts you to your feet, sends you reeling off corners and crashing through rooms. Out to the grey street, door left swinging open.
People step aside as you stumble through the rain, pull away as you reach out to steady yourself. Wary eyes focus on your haggard face, patchy hair, wild expression.
Except the child. Firm, fat little cheeks peek out from a yellow hood, smooth, stubby fingers splay from a glistening sleeve. Round eyes. Staring past you, to the weight on your shoulder.
You stop. Step forward. The child sees it. The child with the sweet, soft flesh, standing on the street.
Through the slicing rain you reach out; shaky skeletal hand touching warm skin. Bone against flesh.
As the spider shifts and heaves its great mass off your shoulder, down your arm, across your hand the child cries out and struggles but you hold on. Grab on, squeeze with the last drop of strength in your withered body, digging your bones into yielding flesh, until you are free.
The weight lifts. You break your hold, sink down to the soaked pavement, turn your face to the grieving sky.
The child stares, mouth stretched, tears falling, holds out the back of a plump hand as though it burns.
You look. But you see nothing.
Liz Xifaras lives and writes in Warwickshire. Her work has been selected for Penguin’s WriteNow Live, shortlisted for the Curtis Brown Yesterday Scholarship, awarded Third Prize in the Remastered Words Competition and placed and shortlisted in numerous others. Find her on Twitter @LizXifaras.
“The Weight on Your Shoulder” won third prize in the 2016 Remastered Words Competition and is available as part of an audio anthology.