k. marvin bruce
The skeletons in this enormous pile gleamed in the unrelenting sunshine. Bleached milky white after the scavengers had gnawed away every bit of digestible flesh, they sometimes made even Dieter Bons shiver. Everyone ought to have a private stash, he inwardly sneered. It ’d solve most of the world ’s problems.
His Chevy Cavalier was old and rusted, but dependable. He didn ’t require much storage space. Not for long, anyway.
The drive back to Breck was always peaceful. Like coming out of a deep meditation to find that you ’re on vacation. Like awakening on Saturday morning to remember you’re on sabbatical. The winding country roads bloomed luxuriant with maples, aspens, and chestnuts, dappling the asphalt with lazy patches of lethargic yellow sunshine. At times like this he almost didn ’t mind that he no longer held his dream job. Thing about dreams is you always have to wake up. Besides, that was years ago now.
Breck, New Hampshire was a fine place to settle. Low stress, low demand. Once a religious Mecca, judging from the street names and all the steeples, now it was just the kind of place that let you be yourself. Make your own faith.
I ’m no snob, Dieter mused as he did nearly every day. In fact, I ’m the opposite of a snob, a regular guy. But a doctorate changes the way you think. And there ’s no going back.
By now he was negotiating the traffic of Breck and pulling into the lot behind Three Chairs. Selling furniture. Before he started this business he knew, as anyone did, that furniture mark-ups were among the most criminal. Well, those and electronics.
But Three Chairs was different. It truly was quality work. Since Breck University was right across the river, overpaid professors would walk in self-importantly and purchase the finest items he could requisition. The professorate preferred overstuffed chairs and all the trappings of comfort. There was nothing like being satisfied with your lot in life to vanquish cares of all else from your head. They never even mentioned the markup. None of them recognized him as a former colleague at the university. To them he was just a salesman. Thus the bone pile.
To be fair, few were brave enough to wander into the department of arachnology. Even behind glass, large, hairy spiders could provide the most hardened rationalist with an excuse to meet in more neutral territory. Most of the specimens were mounted, but the true prizes were those that could be kept alive. With the money from a National Science Foundation grant, he’d had an entire wall covered in a glass terrarium. There were ornithologists who didn’t even believe some spiders ate birds. They would usually follow up the conversation with assured remarks about ostriches. Some of the cleaning staff refused to enter his office after hours. Of course, some of his more common arachnids were free to roam as they pleased, not improving anyone ’s mood but his own.
Dieter caught his reflection in a bureau-top mirror. He ’d had the kind of sleep that is less restful than lying awake all night. His once bright eyes lay sunken and dark under a prominent brow. He straightened his tie and turned toward the sound of the bell warning him of a customer.
“Hello?” inquired a familiar voice.
“Good morning! Welcome to Three Chairs. Is there something I might help you find?”
This man he knew. Yes, a former colleague from the department. “Dieter? Dr. Bons? Is that you? I thought you ’d taken a job at Greathouse State. You ’re selling furniture?”
“It ’s a living, Ray. No, don ’t be self-conscious. If you won ’t buy from an old friend, who can you trust?”
Ray clasped his hands behind his back and began looking over the wares like he was about to start a lecture. Tall and enviously thin, he looked at the world through myopic glasses that spoke of his lack of survival skills. “So, what really happened to you, Dieter?”
“I don ’t usually go into my personal life with customers.”
“Come on, Dieter! We were colleagues. How many departmental meetings and commencements did we endure together? You can tell me.”
There was nobody else in the shop. “Don ’t you ever think it odd that faculty have to sign a statement of belief? Doesn ’t the pursuit of truth mean that belief is always a subject up for debate?”
“I suppose it ’s a little odd, yes. But these days when there are so few jobs a guy ’ll sign anything just to get a teaching post.”
“You mean lie to tell the truth? You know, don’t you, that you can ’t mention evolution anywhere? If you were to say it here in this store, and I were to report it to Dean Senior you could lose your job? The job you spent years and thousands of dollars preparing for? Just in an unguarded instant, your career could be over?”
Ray gasped. “You used the ‘e word ’ ?”
“I wasn ’t even on campus. I ’d stopped in to The Final Chapter—you know, the used book store? That odd bird—McWygand, I think it is—got to talking about bugs. He ’s got an insane phobia of insects. Well, he asked me a question that led to an honest answer. The bastard didn ’t tell me Dean Senior was there in the store looking for a used Bible. The next day I was summoned into his office. His sign reads his full name, you know: Dean Dean Senior, Junior, Ph.D. A lawyer was present. That ’s enough about that. What might I help you find today?”
Ray blinked down at him from behind his metal-rim glasses. “Remarkable. Well, I ’m sure I ’ll never use the ‘e word.’ I ’ve erected this mental barrier, you see.”
Dieter ’s red face didn ’t seem to register with him. It was a pity he was going to have to kill Ray. He ’d really kind of liked him. “What might I help you find?”
“Your replacement, you know, holds a doctorate from Liberty University. He believes the statement of faith through and through. Special creation all the way.”
Dieter led him to a back room. “Here ’s a chair I think you should try. I only show it to special customers.” He gestured to an easy chair that looked so ordinary that it would easily go unnoticed.
“I didn’t even see it there,” Ray muttered.
“It ’s one of a kind. But try it out. It is the most comfortable chair in which you ’ll ever sit. You ’ll never want to get up again.”
The professor unclasped his hands and eased himself down. “You really should ’ve been more careful with the ‘e word.’ I say! This is remarkably comfortable.” Ray wriggled down into it. “Astonishing! It is truly transcendent. I can actually feel my muscles relaxing. Say, what was that research project that you were working on? The one before you got the axe?”
Dieter grimaced. “Do you recall when I had that grant to explore Amazonian spiders, back when Amazon was still mainly a river in Brazil?” Ray nodded lazily, eyes closed. “I came across an incredible species. In fact, I was just writing up the results for Nature when the Dean fired me. This was a new species of spider. That ’s not noteworthy in itself, as you know, since there are thousands of new species undiscovered in the rain forest. This particular arachnid, however, displayed unusual intelligence. Yes! Smart spiders. Not the mindless, web-building scavengers we ’ve come to expect. I observed them, working cooperatively. They release a sleep-inducing chemical when their prey falls into their nest.”
Ray had his eyes closed now. “Interesting. So what is their prey?”
“That ’s just it—these spiders trap creatures much larger than themselves. Working together they can strip a carcass down to bone in an amazingly short time. You see, they recognize the regular breathing patterns of sleep. Softly they let themselves down, barely touching your skin. Their silk is strong enough to hold a grown man. They truly are remarkable.”
Ray was dropping off to sleep. “I ’ll take this chair,” he mumbled groggily.
“No, the chair will take you.” A spider slipped up from between the cushions, trailing a shimmering web, gently crawling over Ray ’s sleeve. It was followed by another. And another. Soon the sleeping professor was strapped down with threads as the stealthy spiders crept all over him, roping him down. Dieter slipped out the the room and shut the door.
He would make another trip to his bone pile tomorrow.
Despite the loss of the occasional customer, business at Three Chairs was booming. It was clear that he required some assistance. The easy chair, however, would have to remain secret.
Students from the religion department at the university often needed jobs after graduation. So Claude Garrett appeared.
“It ’s a fairly simple business,” Dieter explained. “You ’ve run a cash register before? The difference here is that we often have to write up purchase orders and arrange for deliveries. You ’ll get to know the pieces we carry, and we try to match the piece to the customer.”
“What about the pieces in the back room?”
“Those are not to be shown. In fact, don ’t sit in any of the chairs back there. That one that ’s impossible to describe? It’s very expensive. No markdowns. Don ’t ever take customers back there and never sit on any of the chairs, even on your break.”
“Yeah, I ’d noticed that weird chair when you showed me around. Where ’d you come across a chair like that?”
“That chair ’s mine! Stay away from it. It ’s for me only. Custom made.” Claude’s mouth was open. “My back,” he added, placing a hand on his lumbar region. “It’s almost impossible to sleep.”
Dean Dean Senior, Junior, Ph.D., was a busy man. As Dean of Arts, Sciences, and Sexuality Studies, he had the usual issues to handle and he couldn ’t abide the annual academic migration. Faculty members that he ’d discovered, that he ’d hired, were snatched up by more prestigious institutions and fall ’s class schedule had already been set. He ’d have to do some hiring quickly. Adjuncts could fill most gaps, but some of the more specialized topics—arachnology, for example—were hard to cover. “Ray Hightower apparently left without bothering to tender his resignation,” he complained to Associate Dean Kris Bean.
“His office hasn ’t even been cleared out. Maybe he ’s on an unannounced sabbatical.”
This brought a smile to Dean Senior ’s immaculately shaven face. “No matter what his scheme may be, we need to have someone to cover his classes. He hasn ’t answered his cell or his emails for weeks.” No matter how efficient she was, Dean Bean was distractingly pretty for an academic. Movie star beautiful.
“According to the faculty handbook, if he doesn ’t respond within a week of a final notice, even tenure can ’t protect him. Unless, of course, he ’s on an approved sabbatical where there ’s no possibility of contact whatsoever.”
“Is he?” Dean Senior asked, his eyes lingering over the chiffon of her summer blouse.
“No. He hasn’t been in touch with the department at all.”
“What are our options?”
“We have countless options,” she smiled with a toss of her head, cascading honey brown hair over her back. “The most convenient one would be to have Dr. Bons return.”
“Bons. Bons. Oh yes, he ’s the one that was yammering about evolution in public. The university rules about that are non-negotiable. Aren ’t they?”
“Come now, Dean Senior, you know everything ’s negotiable.” Her smile just stopped his heart. Concentrate. The fall semester.
“I ’m listening.”
“You were the only one who heard him use the word, according to his records. Under the circumstances, perhaps a retraction is in order?”
“I don’t like the sound of that. I don’t retract.”
“But we need an arachnologist, and we don’t have time to advertise for one, let alone find one who will agree to our statement of faith.” The way she whispered those last three words hitched his breath.
“If I were to agree—and that ’s only hypothetically—what would we need to do?”
“Well, the politically correct thing would be to restore his tenure. And appoint him to a chair. You know, avoid any hard feelings.” Was that a wink?
“Is he even still available? I mean, he might ’ve found a new position. We can ’t afford to offer him a ton of money.”
“He runs a furniture shop here in town, I ’m sure his demands can ’t be too great. After all, we would be offering him his life back.” Dean Bean was a practical woman. “Maybe we could offer an inexpensive enhancement. Redecorate?”
Claude had had some amazing dreams about Dean Bean. When she walked into the store he stood at attention. She wouldn ’t know who he was, of course. A nameless undergrad in a department that was an embarrassment. She sauntered up to him in a backdrop of sunshine, as if descending straight from heaven. “Good afternoon. Is Dr. Bons here?”
“No,” Claude swallowed. “He had an errand to run.” He ’d been working the store for a few weeks now, and it was surprising how often the former professor ran errands.
“Good. I wanted to ask you something.” He was glowing with the feeling that comes from having a beautiful woman look at you. She smiled. “You ’re from the university. I should know your name, but please remind me.”
“Claude Garrett. I graduated from the religion department in the spring.”
“Ah,” she said knowingly. “Do you know, Claude, when Dr. Bons will be in?”
“Soon, Dean Bean.” Too soon.
“Well, I’d better ask my question, then.”
Although he ’d built Three Chairs from a petty revenge parlor into a real business, Dieter Bons was still a teacher at heart. The offer had hit him like an unexpected ostrich peck. It was an offer he couldn ’t refuse. He would have to find a new place for the easy chair with its deadly spiders. He didn’t have to to handle that just now. Dean Senior had wanted to see him right away. Dieter hadn ’t stepped onto campus since he ’d lost his job. His life.
“You ’ll see your old office has been left pretty much untouched,” the Dean smiled. “Don ’t know how well the spiders in your, um, terrarium have survived.”
“Spiders are remarkably resilient,” Dieter said, fondly placing a hand on the glass wall. Pressing his face to it. His beloved spiders!
“Well, we left it virtually unchanged. Cleaning staff don ’t even want to come in here. We spruced up the trappings a bit, otherwise, it ’s untouched.”
Dieter’s eyes were wide with wonder. There was Mary, the peacock spider, Maratus volans, and David, the Goliath bird-eating spider, Theraphosa blondi. They were beautiful. Still alive. He took a step back, bumping into a chair. Knees weak with joy, he dropped into it. The Dean unctuously bowed. “I ’ll give you some time alone to think about it. I ’ll be in my office, awaiting your decision.”
Dieter could now rest peacefully. He had his life back. In fact, he would take a little nap right now. He couldn ’t keep his eyes open, this new chair was so comfortable.
K. Marvin Bruce has published over twenty stories in a variety of online venues. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Write Well Award (Silver Pen Writers Association), and the Best of the Web Award, and won honorable mention in Typehouse Literary Magazine’s 2019 Short Fiction Contest.