K. F. Hartless
Mrs. Morbin made good use of the dustbin. The corners of her entranceway were clear of cobwebs, the floorboards free of any dirt, the stoop spotless and lacking any of the normal signs that vermin or insects had invaded, but the puzzling facts remained before my eyes: Mrs. Morbin’s limbs were covered with inflamed bites.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Mr. Garrett. Care for some tea?” She swayed as she spoke.
“Thank you, ma’am, but if it’s alright with you, I’ll begin right away.” I placed my tools near the entrance. Exterminators never hesitate. We fill our bags with unusual objects, tinctures, oddly shaped implements, the likes of which outsiders might stumble upon and think the owner mad, but after thirty years, they haven’t seen the horrors that I have.
Mrs. Morbin’s movements were syncopated as she scurried around the space, feather duster in hand, tapping each item as if her brush were an actual wand, and she was blessing each of them. I knelt in the alcove, magnifying glass hovering over the wooden floor.
“Your house is immaculate.” I say to calm her.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Garrett. It’s Tuesday, which means dusting and linens. Tomorrow, floors. Must keep on a schedule now that I’m on my own.” She lifted her glasses up the sharp incline of her nose. “The doctor recommended you. He must have thought we lived in filth. How preposterous!”
I spotted a tiny hole in the space between floorboards, but upon closer inspection, it wasn’t large enough for a pest capable of making the marks on Mr. Morbin’s skin. My next move would be to inspect the area around the beds, the location where the bites occurred. I moved closer to her arm to inspect the bites more closely. They weren’t oozing, but they looked raised.
“Well, doctors treat symptoms, ma’m.” I tap her arm for emphasis. “But exterminators, see, we treat the source. Now, could you kindly show me upstairs? To the main bedroom, perhaps?”
“I can find no cause for any of it. The children mostly bed with me these days, too frightened without their father in the house. Not that he could have protected anyone. He was always hiding from his problems.” Mrs. Morbin paused on the landing where a strange bird perched on a trophy mount. At first glance, it appeared to be a taxidermized owl, but its legs looked scaly, more like those of a Komodo Dragon.
Before I could inquire as to its origins, Mrs. Morbin had regained her breath and resumed. “Then, that nasty Charlie next door went and told the children that spiders crawl into their mouths while they’re sleeping. That little brat told them it was normal to eat eight a year! They had nightmares for weeks.”
At the top of the stairs, Mrs. Morbin checked her reflection in the lone mirror decorating the hallway. Wispy gray hair feathered her temples, and she tucked a few stray strands behind her ears before continuing down the hall.
“I just dunno what to do, Mr. Garrett. If you can’t find the cause of our problems, I fear we will be forced to move.”
That was my cue. From my pocket, I took out my handkerchief. It had been my grandfather’s, and I have found it excessively useful in my career.
“There, there, Mrs. Morbin, nothing is insurmountable.” I watched ash she patted her eyes with the cloth. “And my newest device will ensure a good night’s rest for all.” I handed Mrs. Morbin my whistle. While she inspected the object, I pulled the top sheet off the bed and used my infrared light to scan for biomaterial the elusive pests might have left behind.
“How’s a whistle going to fix anything?”
Damn Mrs. Morbin’s cleaning. The under sheet stayed by hospital corners contained less bio matter than most of the hotels I’d frequented.
“Have you recently changed these?”
“No, I mean… probably sometime last week.” But her eyes turned as she said it.
The posts of the bed and underpinnings showed no signs of animal droppings. I found it odd that a predator capable of creating the sheer number of bites on Mrs. Morbin’s exposed arms would have left no sign of its visits.
“Oscar made messes. He left his socks on the floor and never made the bed. I’ve kept a baseball bat right here by my bed since the day he disappeared.” Ms. Morbin lifted the bat as if it were an exhibit on a museum tour. “I have a right to defend my own home, don’t I, Mr. Garrett?” She rested the object on her shoulders, widened her stance and then took a swing barely missing my arm. “I’m not helpless.”
Not a bad cut, I noted before trying to turn the conversation back to the reason for my visit.
“Blow on the whistle, Mrs. Morbin. Hear anything?”
Mrs. Morbin put the device to her lips. When nothing happened, she blew with more force, tilting her head to the side before shaking the object by her ear. “I don’t hear a thing.”
“Precisely! I clasped my hands together. “I call it the whistler because it plays a noise most pests find terrifying, but you and your children will hear nothing. Complete peace of mind.” I grabbed the string and held the whistler in front of her nose. “Blow this each night before bed, and the space you’re in will remain pest-free.” From the perk in Mrs. Morbin’s brow, it was obvious she needed more proof.
She pressed her lips to the whistle again and gave it a hardy blow. “How much do you want for it?”
“It’s not for sale.” I paused to let my words sink in. “But seeing your distress,” I paused to gauge her reactions, “and given your circumstances and the unknown nature of your intruder, I can let you rent it for a price of say, $199.00 a week?” Seeing her eyes expand, I quickly added, “And it comes with a money-back guarantee.”
She lifted a photograph from the nightstand. A camping photo taken in front of a decaying wood cabin; Mrs. Morbin’s four children crowd out the couple whose heads appeared like swollen tics from behind their growing brood. She pointed to a tiny pinhead. “See there? This one’s Oscar. He never caught anything. Sat around the lake all day but as far as food went, he always came home empty-handed.”
“Terrible misfortune,” I said as inspected the seals around each of the bedroom windows. No breeches.
Mrs. Morbin tried to hand the whistle back, but I held up my hand. “No, hold on to it. I insist. And think on it. And now, can you kindly lead the way to your garage?”
Mrs. Morbin froze. The frame of the picture trembled lightly in her hand. “You don’t need to worry about that space, Mr. Garrett. It’s rarely used. You see, I haven’t been in there since Oscar left.”
“I understand. And I assure you I’m not here to inspect its tidiness.” I patted her shoulder for comfort. “But there’s a high likelihood that any pests invading your house are coming in from that area. All other entrances seem pest free, see.” When she didn’t respond I added, “Garages are notorious dens for such creatures.”
Mrs. Morbin remained frozen.
“Was it… Oscar’s workspace?”
She nodded in reply, then added, “More like his hideout.”
“Well, I assure you that there is nothing at all to fear for disturbing your husband’s private space. What we are going to do will not upset him should he… I mean, when he returns.”
“I’ve never been comfortable with it. The garage, I mean, not these past twenty years.”
I had no idea what she meant, but I let the silence follow us back downstairs and linger in the foyer while I grabbed my bag of tools. Then we headed towards the door that connected the house with the garage. Mrs. Morbin pulled from her waist a retractable key holder, which held far more keys than I expected, but I decided to say nothing, only watched as she put the first key in the top lock.
She spoke before turning it. “Keep it locked for safety reasons. You see…well, Oscar had some unusual hobbies.”
“Like fly-fishing?” I tried to laugh loud enough for the both of us since Mrs. Morbin made no chuckle.
The second lock turned, but then she hesitated with the third one.
“After seeing this, you may wonder why I would marry such a man, Mr. Garrett, but…” She trailed off, the key stretched away from her figure could still be retracted without entrance. “I didn’t know how sick he truly was…”
My interest was now fully piqued. What strange business could Oscar have been employed in to create such strong shame in Mrs. Morbin? What sorts of activities take place behind triple locked doors?
The last lock clicked in silence, and I peered intently into the darkened space, searching for clues to understand the perturbation, the bites, the strange disappearance, all of it.
Her fingers fumbled on the wall in search of a switch. Upon finding it, she turned to me.
“What you’re about to see cannot be spoken of to anyone. Do you agree with that, Mr. Garrett?”
I didn’t know what to say. A professional line crossed, but now my mind raced through the possibilities of far worse. To move forward, I decided it was best to agree.
“Of course, Mrs. Morbin. Not a word. You have my promise.”
A click followed by a sharp intake of breath as the light revealed a spacious garage with four workstations, each mounted with a figure more hideous than the one before. I had to remind myself to breathe.
“I tried to tell you not to come in here.”
Each figure seemed to be a sort of patchwork animal stitched together from parts. On the table closest to us was the head of a chicken sewn onto the body of a gray cat, with the flattened tail of an otter dangling behind it.
“Most foul, I know. I can’t bear to look at them.” Mrs. Morbin covered her nose and turned away. “I swear the children never set foot in here.” Then she kicked at the door. “Oscar, you monster!”
Regaining my composure, I took a few steps down into the space. That’s when I noticed the creature in the farthest corner of the room. Eagle’s wings mounted on a deer’s back with the webbed feet of an American coot.
“He told me he was into taxidermy back before we got married, see, but I didn’t know he had this… this obsession with cutting creatures apart and playing Frankenstein with their parts.”
Close enough to touch appeared to be the long legs of a heron supporting the torso of a bunny. A stake jammed through the pair kept them together during the construction process.
Maybe my mind had missed it on purpose, but the creature farthest from the door had the arms of a human child sewn to the torso of a poodle.
I froze my inspection, pointed at the abomination. “Are those… human?”
Mrs. Morbin’s face went crimson. She hesitated. “Yes, but…”
I turned back toward’s the exit. This was crossing into the criminal, and I needed to get as far as possible from the entire situation.
“Mr. Garret, they are. But….”
I stepped on the bottom stairs. Mrs. Morbin stood in my path.
“Wait! I know what you must be thinking, but this little boy drowned in our neighborhood pool last summer, you see. And my husband… Well, he, he… he paid the man at the crematorium for them. Said he needed them for a scientific experiment, and well, that seemed to satisfy the man.”
I was one swift shove from ending this conversation for good.
“They were headed right for the furnace, anyway, Mr. Garret. No one was injured. I promise you.”
“I know, but…”
“True, but not in a traditional sense. I mean, the boy died in an accident.”
I looked back at the rotted limbs decomposing against the poodle’s walnut curls.
“What’s the harm? Oscar never hurt anybody. He’s no serial killer!”
Mrs. Morbin’s raised voice jolted me. I realized I had completely lost myself in the moment of shock. I remembered the four children in the picture frame. The children were innocent of all of this, and I had not even searched for what living creatures may inhabit this garage of horrors.
As I sat my tools down on the concrete floor, I noticed Oscar had placed a bucket at the base of each workstation. I shuddered to imagine what might be inside, but as I was searching for a formidable pest, I had no choice but to look inside one.
At the poodle station sat the foulest soup of gray bones, matted hair, and tapered teeth I’d ever seen, all floating in a brown broth. I fought back bile and marveled that flies and maggots had not overrun the place. Oscar trimmed spare parts into these chum buckets for later use… or disposal, I couldn’t be sure. The stew was sure to attract rodents, and as I turned to brave the next bucket, I heard Mrs. Morbin scream.
Spinning around, I watched her body be hoisted into the air by two hairy legs, attached to the largest arachnid I had ever seen, or was it one of Oscar’s creations come to life? Based on the orange striated pedipalps, I’d say it was a common house spider, but its massive body stretched the expanse of the doorframe, and a tail bent over it’s frame, it’s venom injecting barb like the scope of a rifle. Could it be possible? A tarantula-spider hybrid? The creature’s wide web latticed ceiling to wall. Mrs. Morbin was brought close to its eight mirror-ball eyes, which reflected in them a million copies of her flailing figure.
“Mr. Garrett. Don’t just stand there! Do something!”
That’s when I spotted it. Rolled in sinewy spider fibers in the crux of the back wall. Bodily fluids trailed down the concrete blocks. A mummy-like corpse in its silk coffin.
Mrs. Morbin had managed to position the whistle in her mouth and began to blow, her face becoming a flame. This did nothing to phase the creatures, which reared up its tail to strikeouts as she spat the device out onto the concrete floor.
“Useless. Both of you.”
I was shocked when the tail didn’t strike but instead Mrs. Morbin’s body began rotating, slowly at first and then more quickly as tiny white threads encircled her abdomen. There was no protocol for how this new species would behave, but her words had shaken me awake.
I pulled the fog machine from the bag and attached the largest nozzle I could find. I needed to sedate this house spider or else it could use its unencumbered back legs to crush me before I could attack.
The fog seemed to slow its rhythmic spin but failed to put the giant to sleep. I wasn’t equipped to handle a pest of this proportion, and there wasn’t time to wait and see if the fog would work fully. Any poison in my possession was out of the question as it would harm Mrs. Morbin in the process.
Frantically, I searched the garage for something to use as a weapon: a spear, a saw, anything. But Oscar wasn’t into power tools, and there was nothing in my bag big enough to handle an arachnid of that size. That’s when I remembered the Heron-Bunny hybrid mounted on a metal stake. I ran for the station taking care to steer clear of the monster’s appendages.
From the corner, I heard Mrs. Morbin’s screams rise in pitch as the sinuous fibers tightened, cutting off circulation to her legs. The time to act was now.
Holding my breath, I used both hands to slide the freakish bunny off the pole so that I could use the exposed shaft to attack the beast head on.
Up the corner, Mrs. Morbin’s eyes were beginning to bulge. There wasn’t time to hesitate.
I set up like a vaulter, taking a deep breath, ready to charge the King Kong arthropod and thrust my homemade spear overhead.
Just before I charged, Mrs. Morbin turned her bulging head towards the corpse. “Roll over, Oscar. You’re hogging the web!” Her arms and limbs writhed in the creature’s clutch, then went still.
I didn’t have time to be horrified. I charged at the spider while it busied itself with Mrs. Morbin’s cocoon, dodging the kicking back legs to thrust the staff full force at its abdomen.
Impact. The spear penetrated the beast’s abdomen clinking against the concrete blocks. The force of the burst knocked me to the garage floor.
A million tiny bodies fled; a tangled solar flare of motion as new life scurried in every direction from the white sac that had been hidden behind its mother’s twitching corpse.
I had killed the beast but unleashed a new infestation.
K.F. Hartless is a free-spirited fiction writer and word trapeze artist. When she’s not juggling her career as a literacy specialist, she’s preparing her latest death-defying act on the keys. Recently, she’s been published by Horns and Rattles Press, 365tomorrows, Luna Station Quarterly, and Last Girl’s Club. Check out her Yard Sale of Thoughts for fresh finds. Follow her on Twitter @hartless_k, and find out more at khartless.com.