She stumbled in through a dense morning fog at the edge of my family’s property, wearing tattered maroon rags and a haggard look of utmost distress. Her black hair hung limp around her over-thin face, beautiful slate eyes bulging in the cold. She looked about my age, mid-twenties, and alone—a spinster, it seemed, like me. I took her in at once.
It was obvious what she must have been through. The moon had left the sky, but the night before had shown it full and bright in the stars, a beacon marking the continuation of our war on the arachnid plague.
“Elizabeth Gray,” she said, coiled in an under-stuffed armchair before the hearth, hands trembling around a steaming teacup, two moth-eaten quilts around her back.
“Clara Parker,” I replied. “Have you come from far?” A small pile of laundry on the sofa beside me called for embarrassment on my part, but I was too intrigued to care. Anyway, she would be needing new clothes.
“Two towns over.” She didn’t look up as she spoke, but I caught a strange flicker in her eyes. She was regaining composure some as she warmed, settling back a bit in her seat.
I shouldn’t have asked it—it was too direct—but my proclivity toward impropriety never could be helped. Frankly, I had to know. I leaned in, and all but whispered, “How did you survive the night?”
She answered with a humorless laugh, which only fascinated me more. Then she swirled her tea, took a sip; she looked around at the draped and carpeted room, overly furnished when it came down to it. She tilted her head as her gaze returned to mine.
“Who else lives here?”
A stone dropped in my stomach—but of course she should ask. “No one,” I said. “My mother died when I was six, my father in the war, but I’ve been allowed to retain the home on my own. I work, you know. As a tailor.”
“A tailor,” she repeated. Something about that seemed to amuse her.
“Yes,” I said. “And lucky for you, too. I’ll need to add at least six inches to my clothes for you, won’t I? Likely take in the waists as well—”
She stood suddenly, the quilts falling off her bony back, drops of tea escaping to the floor. “You don’t need to do that. I’ve no way to repay you.”
“Please, it’s no burden,” I said too loudly, rising to move deliberately in her way. She glanced quickly to the doorway behind me as she opened her mouth to argue again, but I cut her off. “Besides, truth be told, well—” Did I care to admit it, after all these years alone? What would she read into it? Malicious designs, unreasonable interest? But then again, what did I have to lose? “I would be grateful for the company, really. If you wouldn’t mind.”
Elizabeth as a companion made for a fascination, to my continual delight. She preferred not to have my dresses taken in for her, to wear her clothes loose, as though at any moment she may need to disrobe. She loathed footwear to a baffling degree, and while bathing was no foreign concept to her, she considered clean feet outside of bedtime a pointless endeavor. She spoke little, mainly in observations and questions of the moment, and of the future only on rare occasions.
At first, of course, we tried separate rooms. It was proper. But that grew stale too quickly. What good was it, after all, to have us both subjected to such drafty isolation, now that another option had become available? We may have been two unlucky women adrift, in the broader realm of society, but there was no justification to remain adrift from one another.
The season’s days were darkening. Even the sunlight hours turned cold. But with her strange twisting body against my back at night, spindly arms around my soft chest, mine grew undeniably brighter.
Word had traveled, despite lack of announcement. The paperboy, young Edgar Price, had seen her and reported out. We had a strained visit from Abbess Vera. Where I saw a miracle, she, of course, wrinkled her nose in suspicion. But no matter; it satisfied her that I should have help at home, while taking in a stray, as she so repugnantly framed it.
It was in the third week that our unusual arrangement began to show signs of strain.
She was fidgeting on the sofa in an oversized tunic while I brought in fresh scones from the kitchen. I placed them down with a proud flourish and sat across from her in the armchair, but she barely bothered to nibble at them. I deflated some. She’d favored them so greatly days before, but this evening, her face seemed taut and sickly, her eyes darting out the window at the rising moon, filling up but not yet full.
“You’re looking pale, love,” I said gently.
An expression of restrained terror flashed as she caught me watching her—just an instant of it, before she regained her usual aloof composure.
“It’s almost time again, is all.”
I nodded sympathetically. “True. We all do get nervous this time of month, I think.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. Then, with her eyes narrowed at the floorboards: “I’ve been wondering if I could ask a favor.”
“Of course,” I said, without hesitation.
“Your attic—it’s an empty and windowless one, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is,” I said.
“My nerves—I feel everything’s changed after the last moon, and I don’t know if I could stand to—if I—”
I understood. “You want a bed made up there for the night?”
She exhaled heavily, nodding.
“That won’t be a problem at all. It’s a perfect idea, actually. It will need cleaning up, but I’ll pitch in with it after my errands today. It’s not a large space, but more than enough room for the two of us.”
“No,” she said firmly. I sat back in my seat as though slapped. Then, more gently, she continued. “I’m sorry, Clara. I know it doesn’t make sense, wanting to be alone that night. It’s just something I need, and I can’t explain it—can you allow it? For me?”
The sting of refusal was still fresh and strong, but it ebbed some at her offered salve. She was right; I couldn’t make sense of it at all. The apology in her eyes bore a vulnerability she rarely opted to express, though—my response was tighter, but still warm as I could make it.
The night in question came swiftly. Elizabeth ascended the ladder before sundown, jaw set, shakier than ever. I could hear the preparations in town: the roaring battle cries as pitchforks and torches assembled to defend our perimeter, to slay the creatures cursing our quiet valley now for decades. Elizabeth looked down at me with breathless concern from the attic window.
“I need a promise,” she said.
“Anything.” Sadness from my lonely limbs compelled me toward dramatics.
“Don’t open the door. No matter what, leave me be until morning.”
I sighed. “As you wish.”
And with a solemn nod, Elizabeth shut the trap tigh
An hour later, I understood everything.
I did not sleep.
In the morning, she didn’t come down. Had she the capacity to think what to say? I paced in the sitting room as the sun rose over the horizon, the sky a mattress of orange and purple clouds. I waited, and when that failed, I gathered courage. My heart hurt too much not to.
“Elizabeth?” I called from beneath the attic’s entrance. Nothing. “Elizabeth, I’m coming up now.”
I heard her skitter away from the door, and I paused, heart fluttering in my chest. But no—it wasn’t possible. The sun was up. I gritted my teeth, and with a furious huff, I threw the trap open.
The devastation could not be understated, but the structure remained intact. I pretended not to see the webs, not to notice the smashed furnishings, the dented wood of the beams supporting the roof. I pretended, but after a moment, I didn’t need to. I found her, and she was all I saw.
She was small again. Wound into a tight little ball, spindly arms around her legs, face buried behind her knees. What remained of her sleeping gown clung to her poorly, ripped apart. She acknowledged my approach only by flinching into herself further.
I hesitated, but only for a second. I closed the distance and knelt down, resting a hand on either shoulder. Instead of recoiling, she went extremely still. I steeled myself to proceed the way I knew I had to.
“It’s morning,” I said softly. “It’s over, okay?” She shook her head and gave a terrible groan of unmistakable self-loathing. I took an uneven breath and paused. I knew there would be shame, perhaps even violence, but this was…were they all like this? I doubled down.
“You’re okay,” I said. Her shoulders began to tremble. She was crying, I realized, into her lap. I dropped my voice back to a hush. “I know,” I said. “I know, and it’s—it’s okay. Come here.”
I wrapped my arms around the creature I couldn’t bear to lose.
Months passed. We didn’t discuss it. We had our routine, modified only by our intensified closeness. Passion, at times. But with passion came other extremes. I began to make jokes, about my profession and badge of unsuitability, to ease the tension when Elizabeth wavered in our arrangement. If she couldn’t see that the home of a spinster tailor with an empty attic was perfect for her, she was simply mad.
“And if the town finds out?” she demanded one night—two days until the full moon, so of course more agitated than usual. “You’ll be hanged or worse, for me.”
I forced a laugh. “Good luck to them.”
Abbess Vera got the tip she’d no doubt been praying for nine months later.
Again, it was Edgar Price. The boy, and an underkept roof, and a long spindly leg finding a weak spot in the night. Why he’d been out was anyone’s guess, but all I could think was, bless the boy for coming to my door first, worried for my safety; bless Elizabeth for withdrawing the limb before I stepped out to look at it with the boy, kitchen knife up my sleeve.
I sent him off with a light scolding for his imagination, but I knew it wouldn’t be long.
In the morning, I insisted on a full preparation, to much groaning from Elizabeth—makeup to cover the gaunt aftereffects, a properly tailored dress for a housekeeper, and a task to be in the middle of, together, when the knock came.
And it came.
The abbess’s interrogation was lengthy, and to address a matter this grave, she couldn’t come unsupported. A small guard of men stood behind her, at which I didn’t have to feign distress. Innocent distress was the trick.
“Abbess Vera,” I interrupted at last. “I’m sorry, but this is absurd. Miss Gray is the closest thing to family I have now, my dearest friend. You think I wouldn’t have noticed if she’d been transforming in my own house? Into one of those—those beasts? After everything she’s been through…” I allowed my voice to crack. Then, the start of a snarl. “You call yourself a woman of God, but—”
Vera shot to her feet, as though burned by the deflated velvet of my sofa. “That is quite enough!”
“Oh, I couldn’t agree more!” I warbled, standing as well, too aware by the shifting of the men in the room how close I was to taking it too far. “She and I are both orphans of the war. Did you not wonder why she came to us alone?”
If the abbess’s eyebrows could have arched any higher, they’d have been off her head. She turned to Elizabeth, whom she had been pointedly avoiding up to that moment. “An orphan by what manner?”
I wanted to give her performance some privacy, but I couldn’t help searching her face then either. It was something I hadn’t asked—a horribly insensitive thing to pry about. What if she’d killed them by accident? Or, even if she had been ordinary at the time, what if she’d seen them killed? Elizabeth looked back at me then, answered with our eyes still locked.
“They were taken.”
The abbess huffed. “Speak directly and elaborately.”
Elizabeth’s eyes snapped back to the loathsome old crone. “The arachnids took them, when I was a child,” she replied curtly. “I hid in a cupboard.”
“How convenient,” Vera bristled. “And how have you managed since? It is clear you have not been a child for many years.”
Elizabeth softened then—deliberately, I thought. “Before Clara’s kindness, very poorly,” she said, shifting her tone to a quiet deference quite unlike what I’d seen of her. “Many places, I worked as a field hand, as dispossessed orphans tend to.” She looked to her freshly gloved fingers, unsheathed a hand. Said quietly, to herself. “The calluses are nearly gone.”
I knew she must be putting on an act, at least in part, but a deep ache settled into my chest regardless as I watched her. Abbess Vera, however, seemed far from convinced.
“Many places, you say?”
“Before they were overrun.” Elizabeth let that hang in the air, for just the perfect length of time. When she continued, there was a sudden indignation in her voice. “Abbess, I cannot overstate how much I hate them.”
The old woman perked up at this. “Hate?”
“Do you not hate them?”
“Hatred has no place in my order,” she said, rubbing her fingers together uneasily.
“You’re a far better woman than I.”
The flattery was careful. I couldn’t ask, even after the interrogation, but I wondered how many times she must have done this before. How many lies she’d had to tell to keep herself alive in place after place, alone on the run, all those years. Her performance rang too true, and it lingered. When the ordeal was over, I got to work at once raising her dour spirits. It took nearly an hour to coax out a laugh.
It wasn’t until weeks later that the true consequences of Elizabeth’s nighttime indiscretion became apparent.
“They haven’t moved,” she said, pointing a long thin finger through our gauzy curtains to the cobblestone street beyond. Two men with steel on their waists stood stock still on the other side of the road, facing our home. A watch.
The first night, I shrugged it off. I repaired the attic’s weak spot, and I reinforced the rest of it for good measure.
The second and third nights, their ranks grew.
The fifth night, the guards switched out in the morning, with shifts of day sentries taking their places.
The sixth night, a battering ram was left at the end of the block.
A late-morning overcast sun filtered onto our table’s mess of bread and thinly sliced apples. It was an annoyingly somber breakfast, the kind of thing I’d never had much patience for, and the quiet sent frustrated flutters through my chest. At last, I could stand it no longer.
“You’re going to have to change me,” I said.
Elizabeth dropped her burnt toast, sputtering and coughing on the fragments of it in her throat. When she’d recovered, her voice was hoarse. “Excuse me?”
“If you have a better idea, please—I’d love for there to be another way.” This was only half a lie, but I still had to look away while telling it. As cover, I picked out a wedge of fruit and lifted it for examination. But I awaited her reply before bringing it to my lips—it would be no good to be eating when I needed to be arguing.
“Clara,” she said slowly, “you don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Then enlighten me.”
“I can’t just—”
I huffed. “Love, I am sorry, but you have to. It’s the only way I can—”
“Damn it, Clara, no,” she said, slamming her hand on the table. I dropped my apple slice and sat back. “What I was trying to say is that I can’t—I can’t infect you in this form,” she finished bitterly.
“Oh,” I said. Sobriety struck me silent then as my picture of the evening’s events shifted significantly in my mind. She went back to nibbling her toast, but after a few minutes of thought, I tried again. “Do you know if you have to be changed fully to do it?”
“This is madness,” Elizabeth repeated.
I continued to pull down the material reinforcing the attic. The beams supporting the side closest to the forest, soon to be crawling with the transformed, were down and discarded. A growing hole invisible to the street opened up to the twinkling night sky from two stories up.
“Only madness if we fail. Genius if we live.”
She groaned, but I stood in triumph admiring my work, hands on the hips of my unlaced dress, kept loose like she kept hers. When I turned back, she was wallowing on the floor, dark lank hair hanging over her face. She looked worse than I’d ever seen her, yet somehow more beautiful too. Her hands and feet were bound with lengths of bedsheet, to buy us time. She’d slip the knots easily once the transformation was complete, but the odds were better this way that I wouldn’t be killed before succumbing myself.
“Spiders eat their mates, you know,” she said, the trembling in her voice hampering her sardonic tone.
“I don’t see us doing much mating in that form,” I replied dryly. “I’ve thought about this enough. Your damage to the attic has been almost exclusive to this side. You want to join the packs. You’ll run off, I’ll change, and I’ll be after you. We regroup at the rendezvous point in the morning. If you were all solitary cannibals, you wouldn’t be so much of a problem, would you?”
That almost got a smirk out of her.
Then shouting began in the street, and in the same moment, her body twisted. Her gray eyes went wide, dilating to black—
My breath hitched; I leapt behind her.
The battering ram began at the door downstairs, behind the sofa and dresser and kitchen table piled against it.
Elizabeth’s limbs cracked and elongated. New limbs were sprouting, shredding the loose nightgown around her middle.
I wrapped a bare arm around her shrinking neck as the texture of her flesh shifted. The swelling of her body lifted me off the floorboards, but I held on.
I heard the men below break through, the screeching furniture sliding and toppling into the living room.
With a shriek of courage, I jammed my forearm up over what had been her chin, now tough black chitin, into the infectious saliva of her transformed mouth.
Her bared fangs sliced right through.
My vision blurred and warped as it multiplied its angles.
My insides melted, twisted, contorted. I fell from Elizabeth’s arachnid back with a quivering thud to the floor. As predicted, she ignored this in favor of the yawning exit toward her wood-dwelling kin. The spindles of her legs slipped free of the bedsheets, and she leapt from the opened roof into the night.
I tried to smile, but my mouth had ceased to be capable of that. The pounding pressure in my skull pulled me sharply away from this concern as my middle ballooned, and my legs and arms hardened and warped, and the flesh at my ribs bubbled to emit two more limbs on either side—and the torture of that was when I blacked out.
I awoke on my knees in a dewy glade, eyes wide and gasping in the morning light. My clothes were fragments of tatters. Insides aflame as they resettled my form, hands and feet black with dirt. But I staggered up without shame or delay.
I walked for three hours to find her.
I don’t know what we do when we change. It’s been years, and I don’t want to know. We keep to the countryside, traveling colony to colony, and we aren’t the only bonded pair by far—there’s a tender culture in exile that I’d never have imagined from a distance.
I’ve also stopped wondering whether we’re evil. It may be true that we’re horrible as the townsfolk always said, as I myself had felt for decades from the outside. As Elizabeth had felt from the inside until now. But the fact is, this can’t be undone. We are what we are. And in the morning, when the full moon sets, I always find her arms again.
This story previously appeared in Diet Milk Magazine.
Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba.
Lex Chamberlin (they/she) is a nonbinary and autistic writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. They hold a master’s degree in book publishing and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and they reside in the Pacific Northwest with their husband and quadrupedal heirs. Find them online at lexchamberlin.com