I can still remember his face, just after I close my eyes and before I fall asleep.
(The important thing to remember is that this story isn’t true)
It was cold one night, colder and darker than it had any right to be, in the town where I grew up. Our house backed on to an area of bushland that scared me enough with its rustles and creaks and whispers during the day; after sunset it became every nightmare I’d ever had.
Until that night, and this nightmare.
Mum and Dad had gone out for the evening, in one of their periodic, faintly desperate attempts at reviving the marriage, leaving me and my older brother Jed at home. Jed was seven years older than me, and had started high school the year before. He was cocky and sure of the world in the way that only a fourteen year old could be, and his greatest joy in the world (besides kissing girls and stealing from Dad’s liquor cabinet) was tormenting me.
In supermarkets, when Mum would leave us with the groceries while she ran back to pick up something she’d forgotten, Jed would pretend he didn’t know me, and say his name was Steve, and lie and lie and lie until I was in tears and screaming on the floor of Woolworths.
And he could get away with it, because he was my hero, no matter what torments he subjected me to. He was my hero because, when my dad would flare up in a rage as black and purple as bruises, my brother Jed was the only one who stood between him and me.
Until that night.
It was past eight, my bedtime, and after the usual little battles that a seven year old thinks is worth fighting, I was lying in bed, half-beneath the covers, with Jed leaning on the doorframe. From down the hall, I could hear the muffled strains of The Bill’s opening theme music.
“Tell me a story,” I’d been insisting, and Jed had rolled his eyes.
“I’m not Mum,” he said. “I don’t have to tell you a story.”
“Please,” I whimpered, changing tack. “I promise I’ll go to sleep if you tell me a story.”
“Okay,” he said, leaning slightly into the room. “But this isn’t a story, right? This is a truth.” His voice dropped. “Do you know why the trees rustle in the night?”
I shook my head.
“They rustle because the Spider Queen is making her way through the branches and the leaves, searching and seeking in the dark.”
“What’s she’s searching and seeking for?” I asked, slowly drawing the doona up to my chin.
“She’s searching and seeking for her favourite food in all the world. Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head.
“The Spider Queen’s favourite food is little boys, little boys that she can snatch and steal in the night, and bind them up in her web of lies before she eats them dry.”
“That’s not true,” I whispered, although I didn’t believe myself.
“If you hear a tap-tap-tap and a scratch-scratch-scratch at your window, it means she’s found you.”
“Stop it,” and by now my cheeks were wet with tears. “It’s not true.”
“And if your window opens in the night,” continued Jed, his eyes wide and bright in the dark, “then you’ll be lost and forgotten forever, just the shadow of a memory of a boy that used to be.”
“That’s not true!” I screamed, and Jed leaned back, grinning.
“Nah, it’s not. The Spider Queen isn’t real, you idiot. I just made her up,” and like that the spell was broken. I sniffled up the snot that was running down my face, and nodded. Jed ruffled my hair, said goodnight, and closed the bedroom door. I could hear him walk down the hall to the loungeroom, and settle into the creaking leather sofa to watch a TV show he definitely wasn’t allowed to watch.
In the darkness, my room was all blue shadows and silver edges of moonlight.
And it was mostly quiet, and I closed my eyes to sleep.
Tap-tap-tap came the sound from the window. I pulled my doona over my head and turned my face away.
Scratch-scratch-scratch went the something at the window. I put my hand in my mouth and bit down to stop myself from screaming, and my teeth almost drew blood on my knuckles.
And then there was a long, slow whisper as the window slowly opened, and I held my breath until my lungs were burning and begging to burst and, unable to to keep it in any longer, I gasped and sucked in a mouthful of hot air, and froze with terror as a long spindle-arm hooked around the edge of my doona and pulled it away.
I couldn’t see her clearly, in the dark and shadows. Occasionally, as she shifted, there was a glimpse or a suggestion of something vast and black and ancient, her branch-like arms twitching and skittering as they felt and explored my room.
Her face, though. Her face was white and perfect, like a porcelain mask floating in the night behind the stars, and she stared down at me with cold eyes.
A little boy, all scared and on his lonesome, she said, and ran her arm down my cheek.
She leaned in close, and her breath smelled like jasmine flowers and rotting meat.
I will feast tonight on your sadness and your fear and I will devour you bones and eyes and all.
“I-I’m not scared of you,” I managed to blurt out.
And why is that, little one? she asked.
“Because you’re not real,” I replied, and the air in the room froze.
Who told you I’m not real? asked the Spider Queen.
Buoyed by a strange confidence I’d not felt before or since, the bravery that comes when you’ve passed through the other side of fear, I sat up.
“My brother Jed. He told me that you’re not real.”
There was a pause, and the Spider Queen smiled. As long as you live, I hope you never see that smile, as dark and as red as a father’s anger.
What a clever, brave boy your brother Jed must be, she said, sweet as anything.
She leaned in closer, still smiling, and then she said your brother isn’t real and then the room was empty, filled only by the sound of a seven-year-old’s breathing and the smell of jasmine.
I started to scream, then, screaming for my brother Jed, and in the darkness there was no answer except the rustling of the trees.