Girl snarled at Sister when she reached for the can with the spoon in it.
The younger child winced and retreated. She scuttled back behind the emaciated corpse of Mama and stared at Girl from the shadows. In the darkness, the paleness of Sister’s skin shone like a light, and the circles around her eyes put the gloom to shame. The whites of her sclera glinted as she watched Girl take another mouthful.
Mama gave off the odour of an unflushed toilet with a sweet aftertaste. The shape of her body and the features of her face had collapsed into mush. Her skin had turned a shade of blue-green, and something writhed under her shirt. She hadn’t eaten enough of the tins to stay alive; she’d opted to give her food to her daughters. “Kindness saves us,” she said. But it didn’t, and Mama died.
Behind Girl, the last cans stood stacked in a pitiful pyramid. She had eaten two-thirds of this can and gave Sister small spoonfuls between every two of hers. Meanwhile, the body that had birthed them into this world continued to rot in the centre of the room. They’d gotten used to the smell, and even when it had been fresh, it hadn’t quashed the hunger that gnawed from inside.
Papa had plenty of the cans, but he kept them in the lower part of the house. When the mechanical wail split the air, he ushered them down the concrete stairs at the bottom of the garden. He had only a handful of the tins. Papa went back for more, but the Bad Man tried to take them from him. Papa offered the Bad Man half of the cans, but he wanted them all, even as the Fireball lit up the sky. They fought over those little tins with food inside as the air ignited around them. Finally, Mama pulled the door shut. “I had to,” she said between sobs that racked her entire body.
The spoon scraped the bottom of the tin, and Girl paused. She blinked down in the darkness, the overhead bulb a shadow of its former self. Sister’s eyes pulled at the can like a magnet. Girl looked up and sighed, then rolled the tin towards the stairs. Sister let out a small gasp and dashed over Mama for it. She plunged ankle-deep into Mama’s chest but didn’t notice. When her foot came out again with a wet pop, maggots clung between her toes. Sister dropped to her skinned knees and pulled the last morsels out with her fingers. Her untrimmed nails scraped against the insides.
With Sister’s eyes elsewhere, Girl grabbed a can and stuffed it under her shirt. She could no longer call it a pyramid because the two cans that remained formed only a row. If she kept quiet, she could eat it when Sister slept. Girl glanced to Mama, but Mama didn’t say a word. Instead, the larvae fled the spot where Sister’s heel had disturbed them.
Girl caressed the tin under her shirt. It bit into the tender flesh there with its metal teeth. A pool of gunk leaked out from Mama, and Girl’s eyes watered when the smell hit. Sister had scattered maggots in a rough circle. Some floundered on the bare concrete, and others curled around the legs. But the majority crawled up the bloated flesh of Mama’s neck and onto her face. And in the background, Sister continued to gobble, and the sounds of her talons set Girl’s teeth on edge.
Girl furrowed her brow and clutched to can to her belly like a pregnant woman. She turned to Sister, mouth half-open. But she stopped. The command turned to dust in her throat, and the taste of Mama coated her tongue like slime.
Sister sat still, head tilted to one side.
But the urgent rasps persisted.
Girl’s frown deepened, and she squinted up those concrete steps. The ones they’d descended and never used again. At the top stood the closed door, behind which Mama had locked out Papa forever. Could it be the Bad Man, still alive after the sky had burned away his skin? Had he finished the cans he’d stolen from Papa? Did he still hunger for more? Girl’s fingers gripped the tin with a white-knuckle grip.
The scrapes echoed off the walls and became something else — the breaths of a man, desperate to reach them. Wide-eyed and maniacal, he clawed at the dirt and scratched the door. His nails tore off, his fingers sanded down to stumps, and the nubs of the bones grated against the metal.
The sounds died, and silence swept in with a sigh.
Sister turned to face her, fingers still inside the empty can, a question on her lips.
And then the door imploded.
Fire poured down the stairs and flooded the bunker. Girl winced and held up her hands, eyes scrunched shut. Movement flickered behind her closed lids. A flurry of thuds as something rushed down the stairs. Impossible shapes twisted and melted together. An ugly chorus of hisses and gibbers came from a thousand places in the room. Above it all, high-pitched and perfect, Sister screamed. The scream never ended; it went on and on and on.
Girl forced her eyes open.
Her gaze took three uneven heartbeats to focus.
At the top of her brain, confusion swirled about like snowflakes. Girl reeled backwards. A hundred thoughts shoved their way through a bottleneck and jammed. But further down, in the lizard part of the brain, alarm bells sounded: WARNING.
Lots of them.
Too many to count as the microseconds blew away like sand in the palm.
Spiders so big, they’d have struggled to fit into the drum of Mama’s old washing machine. Back when they had a washing machine, before the Bad Man and the Fireball. When Mama and Papa both had heartbeats, back when food didn’t come only in a can. Back when she had a name and people called her—
Sister’s scream reached fever pitch. One of the bigger ones, which clung to the concrete wall with legs thicker than her arm, lunged. It leapt and spiralled midair. It snaked its arms around Sister and enveloped her, knocked her to the floor and pinned her there. The spider’s chelicera mewled, and the pedipalps waggled in the air. Two curved fangs protruded from its mouth, and something pus-yellow dripped from them. The spider jabbed Sister, and her shrieks subsided.
Girl fell to the ground and scrambled backwards, and her head hit the frame of the bed. A roomful of black marbles swivelled in her direction, and a mad white mist twirled within those orbs. Girl grabbed the bed’s leg and pulled herself under with her hands. Her foot collided with the last few tins and scattered them. Several of the arachnids scuttled after the cans and dispersed. They grappled with the objects and punctured the metal with their fangs as she crawled away. Girl retreated under the safety of the bed and tucked her legs to her chest.
Above, the bed’s springs squalled as something fat landed on the poor excuse for a mattress. Girl clasped a hand to her mouth as a gasp tried to whisper past her lips, but she didn’t let it. Thick black legs dangled over the edge, the bristles thick as thorns and sharp as syringes. The snot-yellow substance trickled to the concrete floor. The spider remained there, motionless, as the rest of the chaos unfolded.
Two spiders tried to pick up Mama and bind her in a web, but she’d rotted too much. Her body split open like an overstuffed binbag. Frantic legs shovelled bits of gore into their mouths and then left the remains to the fate of the microbes.
A whimper squeaked from the side.
Girl’s eyes rolled in their too-wide sockets.
The arachnid still had her pinned down, but her struggles had weakened. Sister’s hand reached for Girl, but she remained frozen in her hiding spot. Overhead, the thick black legs twitched once. Sister’s fingers clutched at the space between them. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.
One second fell away, a stone into a pond.
Stillness crept over Sister and sucked the tension away — all except for the eyes. Her eyes continued to plead for Girl to help her, to save her. A silent, paralysed entreaty. Not even Sister’s tear ducts could function to produce a droplet that might trickle down her cheek.
The spider picked Sister up and spun her around with insectoid precision. It wrapped her in a cocoon, over and over again. It rotated her around until none of Sister’s features remained visible. The trap smothered her too-pale skin and the worn black holes of her eyes. Another arachnid helped the first and carried Sister up and away. Their bulbous, hairy bodies writhed as muscles jiggled their exoskeletons.
A fractured heartbeat later, they all filed away, back up the concrete steps.
The ones she’d descended but never ascended.
The thick legs dangled from the edge of the bed a moment longer than the others. The spider made no sounds, not even a rustle of the bedsheets — absolute, perfect silence. Girl’s heartbeats pounded in her eardrums and thrummed in her temples. Girl would explode if she didn’t move her hand and let her breath out soon. But still, the spider remained.
One leg twitched. Another slid backwards, up past the frame of the bed. The spider moved with breathtaking slowness. The bedsheets whispered as the creature moved. The frame’s springs creaked and groaned, and the spider hesitated.
Girl fought against her own need to breathe and all but writhed on the floor.
The spider stepped down from the bed, first with one leg, then two. All eight fell in line, one at a time, each of its own accord. It understood every piece of its anatomy to the point of elegance. Then, the bulbous body dropped to the floor with a gentle thump. It crouched there and waited, coiled.
The details of the spider’s abdomen burned into her mind from this position: every hair, every lump and bump. The fur at the back of its body sprouted out thicker and softer than the spines on the legs. The spiracles and spinnerets protruded and drooled a sticky off-white goop. They twitched like mini versions of the chelicerate appendages in front of its mouth.
The spider scurried across the bunker floor and hopped up the stairs. It moved with grace and speed, even when not on the hunt. Several quiet steps later, the arachnid vanished into the blinding fire.
A single word escaped Girl’s lips.
Girl stared at the zagged patch of brightness that pooled across the floor. It didn’t ripple and lick at the air like fire. So with the level of caution the tarantula had used, she reached forward and pierced it with her spoon. Somehow, she’d held onto it throughout the ordeal.
No, not fire.
Girl almost grinned but stopped herself. Her eyes darted to the ruinous remains of Mama, now unrecognisable as a human being. Her gaze jerked to the corners of the room, the now illuminated shadows, the wasted tins of food. Only one container remained intact, the one she’d hidden under her shirt. The others lay in crumpled heaps, a lazy dribble of the spiders’ poison in a pool around them.
She crawled out from beneath the bed an inch at a time. The bunker, although small, had a few hidden holes. Spiders could have concealed themselves, ready to spring out at the first sign of stimuli. But none did. Girl got to her feet with shakes and trembles and stood there in the empty room, spoon in one hand, can in the other. The only movement came from the motes of dust that floated in the beams.
Girl tilted her head and gazed up the stairs. The ghosts of Mama’s words snaked around the bunker, twisted in and out of the sunshine. Her tongue stuck out the corner of her mouth and remained there. Millimetre by millimetre, the irregular patches of light shifted to the right. Girl frowned and clutched the spoon tighter. But she took a step towards the exit that had only ever been an entrance to her. And another. And another.
Girl had lifted her foot to embark upon the first of the stairs when the dog’s barks cut through the silence.
The snarls and growls bounced down the stairwell like the blasts of a shotgun.
Girl crouched and waited, but the sounds persisted. She crept up the steps, her bare feet silent on the concrete. The barks came over and over and over, without reprieve. Girl’s fingers tightened around the spoon as she stared through the star-shaped hole in the door. Overhead, blue stretched off into infinity. Wisps of white clouds floated across the patch of sky.
She made no sound as she neared the exit. The spiders had pierced the metal and bent it inwards when they ambushed the bunker. She grabbed the latch and gave it a slight tug. A small squeak peeped out of the rusted mechanism, but it would not budge. Girl tensed and gritted her teeth, yet the blue above remained unhindered. Finally, she tightened her grip and yanked at the handle. Corroded metal screeched, and the weight of the door groaned, but still, it remained shut.
Sharp metal edges encircled her like mechanical teeth. With the can and spoon safe in her waistband, she grabbed the lacerated ridge and lifted herself. She managed to pass through without even a minor scrape. As her head poked up from the ground for the first time since the Fireball, a breeze ruffled her hair. Girl gasped and almost lost her grip. The sky might be the same cobalt it had always been, but the fire had incinerated the greens and browns of the world. Only orange desert remained, pockmarked by hills and ruins and rubble. No trees reached for the sky, no grass swayed in the breeze, no soil nurtured plantlife.
And a German Shephard stood a few feet from the bunker, eyes on her.
The dog continued to bark.
Girl hoisted herself up and over the jagged lip and tumbled down the angled door, warm from the sunshine. Dust greeted her as she fell into a pile of black sticks, which waited for her at the bottom. The stakes clattered as she disturbed them, and the dog’s yaps hesitated. Girl froze in a tangled mess amongst the sticks as a cloud of orange puffed up around her.
She reached out and steadied herself as she got to her feet. Her fingers slotted into something with the perfect precision of a seasoned bowler. Something smooth and round — something with holes, something she’d seen in books. Chills prickled her skin as she took in the object, as she took in the entire mess of charred pieces. Far away, the Shephard renewed its bark. Louder, now. More ferocious. Each blast hit her like miniature versions of the shockwaves from the Fireball. Behind her, loose scree skittered down the slope.
Girl had landed in a mound of the blackened bones of Papa and the Bad Man. The skeleton pieces mixed, forever intertwined. Which parts had been Papa? Which fragments had been the Bad Man, and how could she not tell the difference? A shadow clenched Girl’s heart, and tears sprung up at the corners of her eyes. A winded groan sighed out of her. Girl scrambled out of the charred skeletons, pieces scattered in all directions. A skull, teeth still attached, rolled here. A section of spine spun off over there. Something with a hinge here. Something with a balljoint there.
Girl dashed to the side. The Shephard continued to bark and snarl. It looked almost like the picture of a dog she’d held in her mind since the Fireball. The Shephard had a standard size. Some burn scars knotted the dog’s face and added to the ferociousness of the animal. Of course, she and Skye and Mama and Papa had never owned a pet — Papa had allergies. But Girl always stared at these animals, who walked with obedience on leashes.
Now, here one stood, sans lead and human.
And it had a temper problem.
Girl side rolled out of the remains of her father and the man who’d caused his death. Her eyes, wide and red with the dust, stayed locked on the canine. The dog had dashed several steps towards her, and flecks of saliva sprayed from its bared teeth. Girl recoiled, hands in the dirt. The dog had reached biting distance, its odour of fur thick in her nostrils. But the Shephard turned away from her, it—
Something chittered above, and pebbles tumbled down the slope.
Girl twisted her head, and the tendons in her neck creaked. Joints popped. Her eyes lolled in her skull. She kept the Shephard in the corner of her vision as it lunged forward. She threw a hand up to the dog. To the side, more movement made Girl’s stomach clench. Something big, fat and black blurred the air — something with too many legs and too many eyes.
The Shephard tackled the spider before it even reached Girl.
Both spider and dog tumbled to the dirt, a cloud of orange puffed up around them. The dog’s growls buzzed like a chainsaw, and the tarantula’s hisses spat from the mess of its mouth like steam out of a pipe. Girl crouched in the filth, inches away from Papa’s bone scaffolding. Her eyes widened. The spider had identical markings to the one that had lingered after the others. She glanced to the slope above the bunker door, then back to the dog, and all the pieces slotted together.
The monster flipped but landed on its eight legs. It crouched, head down, abdomen raised. The appendages in front of its mouth swished, and the yellow of its fangs glinted in the Sun. Dog grunted and rolled over with less grace. Girl saw why. A fifth limb had grown out of Dog’s side, between her hind leg and stomach. She got to her feet and snarled, hackles raised, like a shield between Girl and the monster.
The tarantula struck first. It scuttled at Girl and Dog with a high-pitched shriek. Its four pairs of legs rolled with hidden muscles. Dog coiled and sprang at the beast and snapped its jaws. Teeth came an inch away from closing over the spider’s marble eyes. And then four of the spider’s arms snaked around her and clawed into her hide. The spider’s gibber drove a shard of ice into Girl’s nervous system, but the dog’s yelps yanked at Girl’s heart.
Girl glanced to the horizon. No sign of the swarm that had attacked. No sign of Skye. No sign of imminent danger lurked anywhere other than right here at the bunker’s exit. She turned back to the fight. Dog’s cries grew more desperate, and the arachnid’s rasps gained a victorious edge. Girl looked back and forth two more times, brain and heart headed in two different directions.
Girl scrambled in the dust and came up with a charred femur bone. Had it belonged to Papa or the Bad Man? It didn’t matter. She rose, weapon in hand. The spider swarmed over Dog, and its feet waggled in frantic circles. The palps and chelicera squirmed. The fangs, lubricated with venom, snapped towards Dog’s neck. Its eight eyes sparkled with mad glee. The milky clouds within swirled like ink in water.
Girl threw herself into the fray and screamed a wordless cry. She wielded the femur — a knight with a sword — and went for the spider’s eyes. Both spider and Dog paused at the sound. Three out of three of the beings present hadn’t expected this. The ten animal eyes took in this stranger in their midst, headed for them with a fragment of its species.
Dog seized this opportunity and twisted around the tarantula’s thorax. It clamped its jaws at the back of the horror’s head. The spider squealed, and its legs spasmed and beat a tattoo against the dust. Dog broke free of the arachnid’s loosened grip and shook the spider back and forth. A low chainsaw growl bubbled out of its throat. Bloodied puncture marks dotted her fur.
Girl plunged the bone through the creature’s face and caved it in. Several of the eyeballs popped and spilled grey jelly into the coarse hairs. The shriek the spider issued pierced her eardrums, but Girl did not relent. She pushed further and further until the bone punctured the devil’s brain.
The spider shrieked and scrunched its legs up into a tight ball. Dog gave it one last shake, and a final growl resounded. She dropped the carcass, and they both stared at this thing that should not be. It did not twitch — the only motion came from the goop that poured from its broken face.
Girl stepped back and pulled the bone with her. It came free with the sound of a boot in the mud, and some gore flecked against her skin. She shook it off and readjusted her grip. Bits of the spider’s brains sprayed across the hardpan and stained the orange. Dog nudged the corpse with her snout. The spider ball rocked back and forth, but no legs unfolded.
Dog and Girl both stared at each other.
Heartbeats thumped in the space between them.
The tension had left neither of the two.
Girl’s jaw worked as her teeth ground against each other, the weapon at the ready.
Dog remained wound up, her wounds not yet licked.
Girl flicked her eyes to the bunker, to the spot where the spider had hidden. The canine’s warning barks echoed in her mind, and in the background, the spider sat curled up like a piece of lint. She gazed into Dog’s brown eyes, so warm and deep. The animal’s one eyebrow twitched in an all-too-human expression, and the knotted scars shifted. Girl crouched down to the floor and dropped her weapon.
She offered Dog her hand.
Dog’s nervous eyes twitched from Girl’s face to her hand, to her face, back to the presented hand. She took a step closer, head down. And another, and another. She raised her nose to Girl’s fingers and took one cautious sniff. Girl’s hand trembled as the animal’s teeth came closer to her flesh, but she did not retreat. After one shaky breath, Dog began to wag her tail, and she licked Girl’s hand. This time, Girl didn’t repress the grin that bloomed on her face.
As Girl stroked Dog, she investigated the animal’s injuries. Burn marks covered half her face and a good part of the side of her body. The collar had fused into the dog’s skin and hair. The metal of a tag glinted at the bottom, and a single word remained legible. She must have found a safe place to shelter from the worst of the Fireball’s damage.
Dog panted and grinned — almost like a person — when Girl scratched under her chin. They both gazed out across the barren wastelands that stretched before them. Utter stillness trembled in ripples of heat. The touch of this animal beneath Girl’s fingers soothed her disquieted heart and let her think. A million different holes and ruins could house the spiders’ nest. They could have burrowed underground themselves.
The idea came to her at once.
Girl lowered herself back down into that shelter, that prison. She had to give Dog reassurances that she’d come back up. So fast had the animal attached herself to Girl, sisters separated by species. The animal had wanted to follow her, but Girl didn’t think she could lift both herself and Dog back out again. She convinced her with, as she’d so often heard that dogs loved, a bone. A part of her hoped it hadn’t been from Papa, and another part hoped that it had. Let him live on at this moment in the brief happiness he gave to an animal that saved his daughter’s life.
Girl found it not too far from the foot of the steps. Somehow, it had avoided the carnage and remained in one piece. Sure enough, a small amount of blood lined the serrated rim of the tin. The sharp metal had cut Skye’s fingers as she dug for whatever nourishment she could get. Tears stung Girl’s eyes once more, and heat rose and reddened her cheeks. She showed the container to Dog, who sniffed it and then turned in the direction in which the Sun had begun to set.
“C’mon, Luna.” Girl grabbed the femur and slung it over her shoulder. She set off, and Luna followed her heel without question. Once the direction became plain, the dog took the lead. She glanced back, now and then, as if to make sure that Girl hadn’t abandoned her. The kindness in Luna’s eyes communicated a message without words.
Let’s go get our sister.