Monday 19 July 2021

A Neighbourly Act

 by D R Miller

Black Sambuca


I had just placed dinner on the table when everything went black. Inky black. In the few seconds it took for my eyes to re-accustom, all I could see was a swirling kaleidoscope of lights in an infinite darkness, the fading imprints of the last thing my eyes had seen.

But at the same time, I was suddenly fiercely aware of several noises that seemed to amplify; the ticking of the clock on the wall was pounding in my ears; the leaves at the window sounded like claws scratching to get in and a car somewhere down the road was a growling creature of the night. Luckily, my sight and hearing were calmed by my sense of smell as the mixing aromas of hot salmon, pepper, potato, butter and mushroom teased my nostrils.

The moment of sudden alarm quickly passed as my eyes adjusted to the velvet cloak of darkness around me. The table and chairs emerged as darker shadows out of the blackness and the glow of the hot television screen began to win its battle with the surrounding dark.

Power cut.

I walked to the lounge window with assured steps, negotiating my way through the obstacle course of furniture with ease. I peeked round the edge of the curtain into the cul-de-sac beyond. Yellow light from the streetlamps bathed the road and gardens, but none of the other houses had lights on. Oh well, at least it was not just me.

With a sigh, I weighed up the choice of eating my hot dinner in the window by the light of the streetlamp or rummaging around for some candles while it got cold. There was no rush. I drew back the curtains, pulled up the chair, and held the plate up under my chin, picking at it with a fork. While I chewed a mouthful of potato, I watched Fluffy, Frank and Mary’s cat wander lazily across the parking area outside. Not quite as entertaining as television, but I guess it made a change.

There were six houses surrounding three sides of the parking area. Only two cars were parked in the bays this evening. Most were usually garaged at the rear of the properties. Although I said ‘hello’ to my neighbours at times, I had not lived in the area long enough to get to know them well. Actually, that was a lie. Other than Frank and Mary next door, I had not even bothered to try. I did not particularly want to know their names, their pets or what they put on their lawns to make them green. I honestly did not care. I was happy keeping myself to myself. No bother to anyone. The only reason I had gotten to know Frank and Mary was because of the low fence at the back. They are a nice enough couple, though a little strange. They are younger than me and recently married, though I believe they have been together for years. Whatever it is they like to cook, it stinks to high heaven. They seem to like using a slow cooker because the smell grows gradually worse over the day to the point where it seems to seep through the walls and permeate everything. At first, I thought a mouse had died in the wall, that sickly, acrid smell that lasts for days.

I took a mouthful of salmon as I watched Fluffy pause to lift his head and look around, like a king watching over his domain. A grey sentinel. He looked bored. As I ate another potato, Fluffy sat down and began licking his paw. He was a mean looking beast, the size of a bulldog and almost as thick set. Long grey fur made him look bigger still and gave me the impression that he was some kind of grizzled veteran. A flat, grim face certainly told the story that he had seen his fair share of fights.

Personally, I was wary of the beast. Less than a week ago I noticed over the fence that he had brought a dead squirrel to Frank and Mary’s back door. I remember it well because the squirrel was almost as big as Fluffy! What on earth is in the water round here?

As I sat and watched Fluffy, a second shadow caught my eye under one of the nearby cars. Fluffy noticed it too, pausing mid-lick to peer into the shadows before continuing with his ablutions.

I almost dropped my plate as the shadow moved again, then something big and fast scurried from beneath the car and pounced on Fluffy. I squinted through the window as a ball of grey fur and black legs twisted, turned and rolled around the tarmac like a fight scene from a cartoon. Then, as quickly as it had begun, everything was still again.

I blinked in disbelief as I realised Fluffy was lying on his side while the victor, a huge spider, stood over him. The creature’s fat, black abdomen was the size of a large pumpkin. Six legs spread around the fallen Fluffy, I would guess the circumference of an armchair. Meanwhile, its two remaining front legs began to move Fluffy, effortlessly turning him over and over. It took me a few seconds to realise poor Fluffy was being cocooned in thick, sticky silk.

I absently placed my dinner down as I watched in horrified fascination.

It took several minutes for the spider to complete its task before it dragged Fluffy to the nearby car and secured him with more silk to the driver’s door.

How on earth had a spider gotten so big? My mind worked like a 1950’s sci-fi film; no nuclear power stations in the area, no rivers or streams that might be a handy place to deposit toxic waste, no fallen meteorites to my knowledge. I was at a loss.

As I wondered, the spider started to move. To my horror, it started to walk in my direction. It did not hurry, but on it came inexorably, eight thick legs rising and falling in mesmeric rhythm. I almost jumped out of my skin when it triggered the sensor for the front floodlight. Thank God for battery power!

The spider stopped dead.

I held my breath while its long legs rose and fell, one at a time, as though testing the ground beneath it, or deciding whether it was safe to continue. The spider was close and lit well enough by the floodlight that I could see two rows of four black, soulless eyes staring toward me. Small, furry feelers beside its mandible moved constantly, stretching and retracting, rubbing together over and over like a miser with his money. The hair on its head, thorax and legs was long and bristly, a mix of dark, ruddy brown and black. Only the hair on its abdomen had a smooth appearance, like a giant hairy balloon.

When it moved off towards Frank and Mary’s, I exhaled my relief. I watched it as far as I could, pressing my temple to the window as it walked out of sight. Should I call someone? Who? The police? The RSPCA? National Geographic? My mind was a swirl of doubt and uncertainty until a single thought bubbled to the surface:

Frank and Mary have a cat flap.

What if it got in? How poisonous is it? It subdued Fluffy pretty quickly. I had to warn them!

I could have kicked myself for throwing away Frank’s phone number the other week. ‘In case you need it,’ he had said. Pfft! They are right next door; why would I ever need it?

There was only one thing to do.

I rushed to the cupboard in the kitchen and pulled out the broom and a torch, then the biggest carving knife I owned from a drawer. Into the hallway, I pulled on my thickest jacket and was beginning to lace a trainer to my foot when I thought better of it. Instead, I tugged on an old pair of wellington boots.

I took a deep breath and opened the front door.

As I stepped out, the sensor light came on again. My legs were like jelly as I walked the few paces to the edge of the light and shone my torch at Frank and Mary’s front door. Of course, the house was in darkness.

I breathed again when I did not see the spider, but the cat flap on their front door moved ever so slightly.

Was that the wind? There was a breeze…

Broom in one hand, torch and knife precariously held together in the other, I summoned as much steel as I could muster and marched to the door. There was no bell, but I rapped the knocker three times with the handle of the broom.

Footsteps on the other side.

Two muffled thuds.

A scream followed by ‘Fuck! Frank! Get it away from me!’

My stomach dropped to the floor.

Oh no.

With an abandon paradoxical to a lifetime of being careful, I dropped to my knees and pushed my head through the cat flap. When I followed up with the torch as well, I saw Mary on the hallway floor behind a sea of bristling legs and a huge, hairy black abdomen.

The stairs were beside the front door and by luck Frank was coming down them as I shouted.

‘Frank! Use this!’

I pushed the broom through the flap, praying he wouldn’t just trip over it.

‘Phil? Is that you?’

The end of the broom was snatched from my grasp. All I could do was listen with maddening futility at the screams, thumps and grunts from beyond.

Then, suddenly, I remembered they had a larger dog flap on the back door.

Running back through my own house, I dashed into the garden and vaulted the fence with an ease that surprised me. Onto my knees and I pushed headlong through the dog flap, thankful it was not locked.

I was too big!

Thinking quickly, I pulled off the thick jacket and tried again. For a horrible moment, I thought I was going to get stuck as my shoulder caught the edge, but a quick change of angle and I managed to shimmy my way through and into the kitchen. There was that smell again, but I did not have time to think as I ran through the door at the back of the kitchen.

‘I’m coming!’ I shouted breathlessly. I had never been one for exercise.

As I entered the dark hallway, my mouth was dry. My hands trembled with adrenalin as I aimed the torch at the scene. Like an idiot, I had taken it with me and left Frank and Mary in darkness with the spider! Mary was on her back, kicking and flailing like a mad woman. Frank was poking and jabbing with the broom as he tried to dislodge the spider from his wife. Unfortunately, he was being overly cautious about hitting Mary which meant he was having little effect.

I fleetingly caught the spider in a beam of light as I fumbled the knife from one sweaty palm to the other. The glaring brightness made the spider pause and recoil, a thick leg rising towards the source of the light, as though trying to shut it out.

‘Come on, you can do this,’ I muttered under my breath.

My first attack was a slice at that front leg. I did not particularly want to get too close anyway, but I was also acutely aware that I might strike Mary while she flailed and struggled beneath the thing. The resulting swing and a miss almost caused the knife to slip from my slick palm.

Without realising, I was waving the beam of torchlight all over the place, confusing the scene and making it appear like a fight at a rave. I was suddenly overcome by panic as I appreciated just how big the spider was up close. No, appreciated is the wrong word; I certainly didn’t appreciate it.

Then, a hefty smack with the broom from behind propelled the spider towards me so it was nestled over Mary’s face. It was the catalyst which spurred me on. Muffled screams of terror from beneath the spider resonated in the back of my mind as I sliced again, this time catching a leg which retreated quickly. I was surprised how hard the leg was and yet again I almost lost my grip on the knife.

I needed to get closer but dared not. The spider and I faced each other like duellists in a spaghetti western until, from beneath it, Mary managed to push upwards, raising the creature towards me like a sacrificial offering.

‘Now! Kill it!’ Frank shouted.

It was the prompt I needed. Two steps forward and I dropped the torch to bring the point of the blade down on the spider’s head with both hands, pressing and twisting until I felt it go limp.

I stood there in the darkness, wide-eyed and breathing hard as the beam of light rolled in a circle to capture Mary flinging the spider to one side. I absently retrieved the torch as she scuttled backwards, spitting and wiping at her face. Nonsensical sounds of fright were all she could manage as Frank threw aside the broom and hugged her close, telling her it would be alright.

The spider was on its side, unmoving, legs pulled up close to its body.

‘It killed your cat,’ was all I could think of to say.

With all my senses as acute as they had ever been, I became aware of something scratching behind me in the kitchen. I do not think it had registered yet on a conscious level, but it was there all the same as I finally dragged the torchlight away from the dead spider and shone it at Frank and Mary. Frank looked up at me and smiled. It looked more like a guilty smile than a thankful one. Paranoia made me turn back to the kitchen and point the torch at the scratching noise, just as all the lights flicked back on.

There, in three stacks of two on the worktop, were six large glass containers, like home aquariums. In the first one I saw the source of the scratching: a rat. Its body must have measured a foot long at least and its front feet dug furiously at the bottom of the container with claws the size of a child’s hand. In the container above the rat, a bright green frog was the biggest I have ever seen. I walked along the row to see what was in the others, still absently shining the torch at them despite the overhead lights. A cockroach the size of mouse. Above that, was that a sparrow? It looked more like a crow. At the far end, a broken container with strands of white silk on the glass sat atop the sixth, which looked to be empty. Thankfully.

As I turned around, the remains of the large squirrel which Fluffy had brought home last week were pinned to a board, aptly placed atop the butcher’s block.

I looked back at Frank and Mary, absently shining the torch at them in an accusatory fashion. I was well aware that my jaw was hanging open with shock.

‘I can explain,’ Frank said coyly, squinting in the beam of light. ‘I think,’ he added.

He wore the sheepish smile of a man caught red-handed.


About the author 

D R Miller published his first novel, Victorian Gothic: The Uncanny Death of Katherine Kramer in February 2021. The sequel was released on 21st June 2021 and a free novella is available on his website, He loves anything historic or artistic and is a keen photographer. 



No comments:

Post a Comment