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I don't know what is happening to me, but the future looks grim. The doctors know nothing of my condition, nor how to fix it. I can tell by the way they look at me. They are afraid of me too. That almost feels worse than this thing that is happening to me.

Their fear and confusion only add to my own. My thoughts race through dozens of possibilities that lead to only one outcome, much like an animal in a trap whose only thought is to escape. I fear for my sanity as well as my life.

Am I dying? Probably. Most likely. I must be. That's all I can say. It seems the only thing I can tell you for certain, is what's in the past.

I have always been afraid of spiders. Ever since I was a child. Since I was four years old and my parents rented a cottage in Vermont for the first three weeks of the summer season. They packed up my nine-year-old brother, our dog Ishtar, and themselves. The drive was long and boring, as children consider all trips longer than two minutes to be. I probably fell asleep.

The first thing I remember about our arrival was that it must have been after 9 o'clock in the evening when we drove up the rutted lane that led to our summer abode. It was dark, but not pitch black. My adult self would say the sky wore shades of indigo velvet dusted with sparkles of light. I remember seeing the headlights swing along a row of metal trash cans and the gleam of eyes. The cans rattled as the raccoons that were scavenging their dinner there scattered. The lights beamed two bright yellow circles onto the wood-sided five room cottage and then blinked out. We had arrived.

The unpacking took at least an hour. My father was always a stickler for organization. Doesn't matter now. What matters is that he insisted we unpack the car in an orderly fashion. By the time we got everything inside, it was after 10 pm. My mother wanted to put us kids to bed right away, but her inspection of the bedrooms showed a decided lack of cleanliness. Dust was everywhere, as were spider webs.

The more she cleaned, the more webs were discovered. The place was infested. Luckily, my father's obsessive qualities had ensured that we had enough bug spray. Midnight rolled around before my mother was satisfied that the worst infestations had been taken care of. We were put to bed, finally. It was after this that the spiders bit me.

I awoke the next morning late and groggy. My mother had difficulty rousing me. She made a worried inspection of my tiny, feverish body and found two enormous swollen bites on the back of each leg. Both bites were the size of an adult hand. In terror, my folks rushed both me and my brother to the hospital. My brother checked out fine. Me, they gave my parents some penicillin for me to take. When we arrived back, the cottage was scoured from top to bottom in bleach. All the mattresses and cushions were taken outside to be beaten and sprayed. By the time the morning was over the place was as clean as it was going to get. I was allowed back in the house and fussed over. My mother fed us lunch, while my father raged over the phone at the rental agent about the condition of the place. After fifteen minutes, he slammed the phone down and proudly announced that he had obtained a partial refund for our stay. After lunch, I was put down for a nap in the now clean bed. I had trouble sleeping. The bites itched. Eventually, that horrible day ended.

The next morning, I felt great. I stayed great for the rest of our vacation, with the exception of one day. Three days after I was bitten, the itching had come back with a vengeance. I wanted to go swimming in the lake. It helped ease the irritation. I was standing on the dock, waiting for my father. I stood holding his hand while he talked with our nearest rental neighbor. Our dog Ishtar was sniffing around my feet and legs. She was a gentle yellow lab and I had no fear of her. Suddenly, she began to lick the backs of my legs. The itching eased a little so I didn't stop her. This continued until my father finished his talking and turned to take me swimming. He noticed what Ishtar was doing and pushed her away. Checking out the backs of my legs he found that the still swollen bites had broken open and were oozing a yellow fluid. It was back to the hospital for me.

The doctor inspected my wounds and decided he had to drain them. I cried and clung to my father as my legs were squeezed and swabbed with alcohol and hydrogen peroxide. Finally, the ordeal was over and my sore little limbs were bandaged. I was sent home. This little episode earned me two things; all the ice cream I could eat for the rest of the vacation and a sensitivity to spider bites. The rest of the summer was uneventful, or so I recall.

From then on, spiders were a symbol of pain and terror for me. I avoided them like a dog avoids spoiled meat. Whenever I saw one I would go screaming to my father or older brother. Even as an adult, I loathed them on sight. I was sometimes able to kill them myself, but never with my hand or fingers, as some people were able to do. I always used a book or a thick layer of tissues or a shoe; anything to avoid direct contact. Even the sight of their dead carcasses would make me shudder. Needless to say I hated them. I hated everything about them and to do with them. I never read the book 'Charlotte's Web'. I didn't care about the friendly spider. I just wanted to squash her. When that movie 'Arachnophobia' came out, I wouldn't even drive past the theater where it was showing. The horror aisle at the video store soon became anathema to me. I was an arachnophobe and proud of it.

Then I met Michael. He was an entomologist, a scientist that studied insects. Spiders were his specialty. Big ones, small ones, harmless ones and deadly ones. He collected them alive, studied them and then preserved them. I found all this out on our first date when he invited me in after dinner. I remember that he cautioned me about something in his house that might upset me, but that I shouldn't be afraid. Silly me, I thought he was just being coy about having sex. Little did I know the shock I was in for.

He took me into his house. We kissed a little, but that was all. He wanted to 'show me something'. I followed where he led, my curiosity piqued. He took me into a small, dark room. Leading me to the middle of the floor, he then left me standing there. The lights came on and I blinked at my surroundings. It only took a couple of seconds before I realized I was surrounded by spiders. They were in terrariums and glass jars, all along the walls. I was so terrified I couldn't scream. It was that moment that my dinner decided it didn't like where it was and not knowing a shortcut through my digestive system, it went back up the path it had already traveled. I remember wondering what the spiders thought when I coated one of their homes in regurgitated chocolate mousse, a fine wine, chicken Marsala and stuffed mushroom caps. Then I fainted.

I awoke later to find a worried Michael leaning over me and stroking my hair. He wasn't angry, just concerned. I fell in love with him at that precise moment. I know that most people can't pinpoint their burgeoning emotions with such clarity, but in this case, I did. How could I not fall in love with a man who still wanted to be with me after I exhaled forcefully on his pet projects. We were married three months later in June.

Married life was interesting with Michael. He had his spider research and I had my freelance food and travel writing. We were an eccentric mix; we would go to a new place, he would collect specimens and I would visit chefs. We would meet up for dinner at some restaurant I was doing an article on. Later that evening, after making love, he would catalogue and package up his little arachnid friends and I would clack away on my laptop computer. Occasionally he would explain something to me, though I listened only grudgingly. I distinctly remember one occasion where I made exceptional effort into a diatribe on identifying a pregnant spider. He must have felt the same way about my droning on about food and restaurants. Despite our differences, we made a good life.

Three years later, Michael died. The doctors, police and other scientists all said it was a fluke, but I knew better. He had been cataloguing some new specimens that he had received from a friend in New Zealand. They were supposed to be either harmless or de-venomed. He got bit and 48 hours later he was dead. I couldn't help thinking at the time that it was some sort of spider justice. I went a little crazy then, thinking wild things about a spider intelligence system. Strange imaginings filled my head and in my grief, my loathing and terror of the little creepy crawlies overwhelmed me. One night I staggered into my recently deceased husband's home laboratory, while carrying with me several books of matches.

I glared around the room at them, ranting and raving. I could feel their inhuman eyes upon me, despising me as I despised them. With a snarl I began pulling bottles of the preserving fluid from the shelves. I opened or smashed each and every one of those bottles. Then I lit a match. I couldn't contain my glee as I flung my tiny torch into the nearest puddle of liquid. Ecstasy gleamed from my face as I watched it ignited and spread. Smoke rose from the burning tables and other flammable items in the room. As I ran out of the lab and then the house, I could almost hear the tiny spider shrieks as the little monsters perished in the flames. My lungs were filled with smoke, causing me to collapse. And as I slipped into blessed unconsciousness, my thoughts were triumphant. I had vanquished the foe that had so far tormented me and stolen my husband.

I awoke in the hospital, a respirator hissing softly at my bedside. My family were all around me, their faces wearing varying expressions of concern. I smiled at them, thinking back to the previous evening's triumph. They took this as a sign that I was going to be okay. I was released a week later.

Against the wishes of my entire family, my doctor and my therapist, I returned to the site of my home with Michael. I stood and stared at the ashes of my victory and smiled a secret smile. Carefully wending my way through the rubble, I stood on the spot that had been my husband's laboratory. Foothills of ashes and twisted lumps of metal and glass was everywhere. I muttered to myself about the glee I felt at destroying the harbingers of Michael's demise. Finally, satisfied that all the specimens were dead, I turned with a sigh to leave. My foot caught on the melted remains of one of the terrariums and I fell, arms outstretched to break my fall. I landed flat on my stomach on something sharp. Pain lanced through my abdomen and I tried to push myself away.

All my strength seemed to ebb out of me as I struggled. The pain was excruciating while I flailed myself to my knees. Finally, I was able to roll over onto my back and observe what had pierced my flesh.

Sticking out from my lower belly was a long piece of crumbling metal that had been one of the supports of the largest terrarium. One jagged end jabbed into my guts, while the other protruded a foot into the air. I was in agony as I fought to keep my thoughts stable enough to administer first aid. The nearest neighbor was a mile away. Michael had liked the solitude. I remembered that I had my cell phone with me in my purse. I glanced around through tear filled eyes for it and found that it had flown a couple of feet away when I fell. I struggled to reach it, feeling my blood pumping out of me with every wriggle and push of my legs. At last my fingers brushed the strap and with Herculean effort, I pushed myself up on one elbow. A stab of white heat flared through my wounded body, but I pushed aside the nausea that followed it. Searching frantically, while my life slipped away, I finally grasped the phone between two fingers. Pulling it slowly from my purse, I dialed 911. The voice answered and tears of relief blurred my vision. I began to babble to the woman on the other end about where I was and what was wrong. I lay back down at her insistence and as she queried me on my location, my eyes were caught by the metal jutting from my body. I froze at what I saw.

On the tip of the metal support was a spider. A big, fat, juicy, rare, flesh-eating South American specimen. I knew what it was from my husband's delight in teasing me with giant pictures of every spider he kept. I also could tell that she was very pregnant and crawling slowly down the length of metal protruding from my belly. I watched in horrified fascination, while the voice on the phone faded to white noise. I couldn't look away at what had to be some sort of impossible hallucination. An eternity later, she reached my open wound.

I tried to shut my eyes, but I couldn't look away as the little arachnid mother-to-be wriggled her way into my tortured flesh and disappeared. As her last leg tip disappeared inside me, I fainted.

That brings me to where I am today. It's been ten days since that happened and I've been in the hospital ever since. I look the picture of health, for a woman who is nine months pregnant. I'm not though.

Did I mention that the spider I saw was a flesh-eating specimen? My husband's explanation of this charming little bug has surfaced from the depths of my memory. He told me that the female of this species will find a defenseless or sleeping animal, bite its way through their skin, seal up the hole they just made, crawl inside as far as they can, lay their eggs and die. Then, when the babies hatch, they have a plentiful food source. The creature that carries this egg sac inside them will know nothing for days. They might experience a little discomfort and an increased appetite, but unless they know what to look for or that anything has happened at all, they will feel the picture of health. That is until their abdomen begins to distend, their skin will crack and eventually, the baby spiders will crawl all over inside them and under their skin. Until the food source gives out. Usually, the food source is dead long before that occurs.

That's my story. Believe it or don't. It really makes no difference to me. I don't have much time left. By the time you read this I will probably be dead. In fact, I don't feel well all of a sudden. Something is moving again, and I can feel my skin beginning to tear...

©Janet Elizabeth Swainston. Reproduction, adaptation, or translation without prior written permission is prohibited.

This is not for profit. Copies for personal use only must include all copyrights and disclaimers.

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