The Back Room

The alley was so narrow Ronnie had to lift up the rear of his shopping to follow Big Mac. It was full of large black trash bags, and since they were downtown that meant there was probably some junk worth scrounging. Just the week before, Ronnie came down there with his friend Jake, and found a perfectly fine flat screen TV. Marcus gave each of them ten bucks for it.

Ronnie squeezed around his shopping cart and kicked at a couple of bags. One of them sounded like it had something solid in it, and he squatted down to open it up. Big Mac poked along down the alley, picking up an aquarium, and putting it in the cart.

Big Mac kept moving further down the alley. Experience taught him other guys liked to hide stuff. Stuff they meant to come back for later. Deep in the alley, half buried in black bags of trash and used paper, he found a upside down metal trash can. A cinderblock sat on top of it.

"Hey, look at this, Ronnie," said Big Mac.

Ronnie put an old stereo in the bottom of the cart, next to the aquarium, and headed deeper into the alley. The space was just wide enough for the two of them to stand side by side.

"Huh," he said. "Weird."

"Yeah, sure is," said Big Mac. "Here, help me dig it out. Let's see what's under there."

Ronnie shot a glance over his shoulder. The end of the alley seemed like a long way off.

"Ok, yeah," he said, and bent down to help Big Mac.

The two men lifted wet bags of garbage, and pushed them off to either side of the trashcan. Once they'd cleared all the bags, something inside the can banged against the metal wall. The can jumped an inch or two, the metal rim scraping across the wet concrete.

"Jesus!" said Ronnie. "I don't know if I want to know what's in there, Mac."

"Aww, come on," said Big Mac. "Could be a kid or something. Could be he needs our help."

“Funny way to get rid of a kid,” said Ronnie, under his breath, but he helped Big Mac lift the cinder block anyway. They grabbed the metal handles of the trashcan and lifted. A spider the size of a house cat crouched underneath the can, squeezed against the brick wall of the alley.

“Christ!” said Ronnie, jerking back so hard he dropped the trashcan. The spider’s abdomen was the size of a softball. It shrank away from the men, but a pair of gently curved fangs peeked out of its shiny black head.

“Easy, Ronnie! Look, he ain’t doing nothing,” said Big Mac. “He’s scared of us."

As the men spoke, the sider slowly raised its front legs. As if it wasn’t sure whether to attack or attempt to escape.

“Let’s get out of here, man,” said Ronnie. “I don’t like those things."

“Yeah, ok, ok,” said Big Mac. “Only I bet we could sell it."

“Nah, man, it ain’t worth it,” said Ronnie. “Come on, let’s go."

Ronnie moved back to his cart, pushing from the front to move it out of the alley. Big Mac crouched on the ground, looking at the spider.

“My uncle Steve gave me a tarantula for my birthday when I was ten. My mom had a shit,” he said. “It wasn’t this big, and it looked different, though."

“I don’t give a shit about your pet spider, man,” said Ronnie. “Let’s get away from that thing."

“Look, I bet Marcus will buy it,” said Big Mac. “Probably give us a lot more than he will for that shitty stereo you picked up."

Ronnie stopped wrestling with his shopping cart, considering the old CD player in the bottom of the cart.

“Gimme that aquarium,” said Big Mac, and pointed behind Ronnie. “I’ll keep an eye on him."

Ronnie pulled the aquarium out of the shopping cart free, lifted the plastic top off, and handed it over to Big Mac.

“Here we go, buddy,” said Big Mac. He lowered the aquarium to the ground, with the open top facing the spider. “Bring that lid over here,” he said.

Ronnie picked up the aquarium top, and stood over Big Mac.

“What do you want me to do with it?” he asked, whispering.

“Keep it above the spider, so he don’t try to escape,” said Big Mac. “I’m gonna try to get him."

Ronnie took another look down the alleyway. He wished they were on their way to Marcus now. He’d rather take a chance on the shitty stereo he found. This thing gave him the creeps.

“Ok,” he said. “But if it gets away, I’m the fuck out of here,” he said. “I don’t give a shit how much this thing might be worth."

“Shh,” said Big Mac. “Don’t scare him, now."

He slowly pushed the aquarium toward the spider as Ronnie placed the lid against the wall, blocking the spider’s potential escape.

The spider struck at the glass wall, causing it to shake in Big Mac’s hands.

“Shit!” said Big Mac with a laugh. “He’s stronger than he looks!”

He continued pushing forward. The spider struck again, and tried to climb up the wall behind it. Finding its escape blocked, it finally climbed into the aquarium.

“Ok, got him!” said Big Mac. “Here, put the lid between the wall."

Ronnie felt sick, watching the spider squirm around the aquarium, trying to escape, but he did as Big Mac asked. He pressed the lid in place.

“There!” he said. “Got it."

Big Mac lifted the aquarium with both hands, and put it in back in Ronnie’s shopping cart. He covered it with an old jean jacket lying on the ground, then put the busted stereo on top.

Ronnie let out a long, slow breath. He didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until the spider was out of sight, hidden beneath the old jean jacket.

“Let’s go see Marcus,” said Big Mac. Ronnie pivoted the shopping cart, and the men turned back out onto the street.

A few minutes later, something scraped against the rooftop of the building above where the spider had been captured inside the trash can.

They made their way down the street, Ronnie pushing the battered shopping cart while Big Mac walked along side, crouching down and watching the spider through the aquarium glass.

“Stop it, man,” hissed Ronnie. “People are going to want to know what we got!"

Big Mac straightened up, falling back into step beside Ronnie.

“Ok, all right,” he said. “Only he’s doing something weird."

“Weird how? What do you mean?"

“Like, I dunno, man,” said Big Mac. “He’s like walking back and forth, waving his hands. Like this."

Big Mac stepped in front of the cart, walking back and forth, waving his arms in big, exaggerated circles.

“That is weird,” said Ronnie. “You think he’s trying to get out?"

“Nah, man. He was at first, but now he’s just doing that. Just like, dancing."

They fell into a silence for a while, nothing but the squeak of Ronnie’s shopping cart as the men made their way down the street, heading to Marcus’s pawn shop. He was a snake of a man, but he didn’t give a shit that Ronnie and Big Mac slept in the shelter at night. His son lived with him above the shop, and he’d dropped out of mechanical engineering school. He helped his dad fix up and resell the TVs, radios, cell phones and other gadgets guys like Ronnie and Big Mac brought in.

“What makes you think Marcus will even want to buy this thing?” asked Ronnie.

“He will,” said Big Mac. He leaned over again, looking through the dirty glass at the spider. It had stopped dancing, and just sat with its forelegs pressed against the wall of the aquarium.

“Yeah, ok,” said Ronnie. “But how do you know, man?"

“You remember Franky, right?"

“Big dude, right?”

“Yeah,” said Big Mac. “He found something in that house he used to sleep in. Back in a closet, way in the back of the house. A little bell, or something."

“So what? What’s that got to do with this thing?”

Ronnie kept his eyes pointed forward, checking out other people walking down the street. Keeping an eye out for cops. Looking anywhere but down in the cart at the thing hiding in the aquarium.

“That’s the thing. Franky told me he found it because the bell woke him up. Like, it was ringing by itself. And it was way louder than it should be. So he took it to Marcus, and Marcus gave him fifty bucks for it."

“Fifty! For a bell!"

“Yeah, that’s right. That’s just what I said, man,” said Big Mac. He stopped again, squatting down to grin at the spider.

“Think about how much he’ll give us for this, man."

“Let’s get over there, man,” said Ronnie, pushing his cart faster. “Say, when’s the last time you seen Franky, anyway?"

“Been a while, man,” said Big Mac. “Nobody’s seen that dude lately."

That’s how it went for people in their wide, strange circle. People came and went. Old friends just dropped out. Disappeared. Ronnie’s shopping cart bumped and squeaked along the sidewalk, and rolling over ridges in the sidewalk as the men made their way toward Marcus’s pawn shop.

Something followed them, creeping along the rooftops high above them, the apartments and storefronts lining the busy downtown streets.

Marcus watched Ronnie and Big Mac coming down the sidewalk through the big, dirty plate glass windows lining the front of his pawn shop. His son Andy stopped tinkering with a toaster and stood up, shading his eyes and squinting as the men approached.

“They probably got something for you,” said Marcus. Ronnie and Big Mac worked as a team, and mostly brought him junk. Sometimes they turned up with something Andy could fix. Something Marcus could sell later.

“Yeah, ok, pop,” said Andy. He turned his attention back to the toaster. He’d spent the last two years in his dad’s shop, after dropping out of mechanical engineering school. Andy liked fixing up stuff well enough, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to take over the old man’s shop.

Ronnie and Big Mac had something in the shopping cart Ronnie pushed down the sidewalk. Something under a dirty old jacket. Marcus watched the two homeless approach his store, and his stomach turned over. He thought of the old man who came in sometimes, always looking for something special. The old man who bought the little rusty bell another homeless had sold him a few years back.

“Why don’t you take a break, kid?” he asked.

Andy looked up from the toaster again.

“Nah, I’m all right, pop,” he said. “Almost got this thing fixed."

“I said take a break. Go down the street and get me a coffee."

Andy knew better than to argue with his old man when he stopped asking. He swept a handful of screws and cut wires into a tidy little pile in the corner of the table, pulled on the jacket hanging by the door, and held the door open for the two men.

“Andy, how you doing?” asked Big Mac. Ronnie stood outside, shoving his cart next to the building.

“I’m good, Mac. Real good,” said Andy, and headed down the street to buy a coffee for his old man.

Big Mac walked into the store, huge blue eyes crinkled up at the corner behind his thick black-framed glasses. Like he had a joke for Marcus.

“Mac,” said Marcus. “What do you got today? CD player?” he asked, pointing through the window at Ronnie.

“Yeah,” said Big Mac. “We got a stereo. Got something else, too. Something for the back room, I think."

Marcus sucked on his teeth.

“Ok,” he said. “Get your buddy to bring it in."

Big Mac and Ronnie lifted the aquarium out of the shopping cart, still covered with the blue jean jacket, and carried it inside. Marcus held the heavy glass door open for them, then hung a sign in the door that said he’d be back in 15 minutes, and locked up.

The spider sat in the glass aquarium on a rough wooden table in the cramped back room of Marcus’ pawn shop. The three men squeezed in together, shoulder to shoulder. Still, there wasn’t enough room for all o f them, and Ronnie stood half in the doorway.

Ronnie looked around the room while Marcus and Big Mac jostled each other in front of the table. Marcus’s back room was lined with metal shelves, packed full of odds and ends. A dusty antique globe. An animal skull of some kind. And a lot of other things Ronnie didn’t like looking at. Liquid things in jars. A shotgun rested on a low shelf just inside the door, next to a dusty box half full of shells.

Ronnie reached out and stroked the wooden butt of the gun with one finger. It felt strangely warm, and he put his hand back in the pocket of his old windbreaker.

Marcus leaned forward, peering at the spider through the glass wall of the aquarium. He cocked his head, covering his mouth with his fist, and rocked back on his heels.

“It’s just a tarantula,” said Marcus. “I don’t sell pets, boys."

“Yeah, ok. That’s what I said, too,” said Ronnie. “Come on, let’s just go."

“Shut up, Ronnie,” said Big Mac. "It ain’t a tarantula. I had one when I was a kid, and they don’t get this big. It’s something else."

The front door jingled, and Ronnie nodded a greeting to Andy, then squeezed further into the room with Big Mac and Marcus.

Marcus looked at the black spider, still sucking on his teeth. There was something about it, no question. He thought the old man might be interested.

“All right,” he said. “Could be I know someone who’d buy. What do you boys think it’s worth?"

Big Mac was furthest inside the stuffy little room. Ronnie widened his eyes, mouthed “Twenty” and jerked his head toward the exit.

“Uh, forty,” said Big Mac.

The spider started moving around in the aquarium. Walking back and forth, like it was looking for an escape, waving its front legs in the air.

“Huh,” said Marcus. “He’s dancin’. All right, boys, forty it is—"

Marcus reached for the wallet in his back pocket and was interrupted by a crash of shattering glass from the front of the store. His son Andy started screaming. Screaming like when he was a kid, and shattered his left arm after falling off a trampoline.

“What the fuck? WHAT THE FUCK—“

Ronnie’s eyes widened further, and he tried to squeeze past Marcus into the back room as Marcus muscled past him into the pawn shop.

Marcus saw the spilled coffee first, and his eyes followed the trail of liquid up to his son’s feet, dangling in the air. A monstrous spider the size of a horse held Andy with its front legs, and buried its curved fangs into the young man’s chest as his father watched.

“Dad, it’s—“ said Andy, and his eyes rolled up into the back of his head.

The thing noticed Marcus, and dropped his son. Andy’s skull cracked against the faded tile, and the thing raised its front legs toward Marcus.

The old man stumbled away, shoving past Ronnie into the back room.

“Gimme that gun!” he said, reaching toward the shotgun. He kept one eye on the spider, scurrying toward him across the shop, strangely graceful as it moved over the displays and down the center of the shop toward the back room.

Ronnie fumbled with the gun, picking it up in a clumsy grip and half dropping it on the shelf. The shotgun roared and kicked back into Ronnie’s stomach, discharging into the small room, shattering the glass of the aquarium, and shredding Big Mac’s left arm.

“Aw, fuck!” howled Big Mac as the smaller spider brushed against him as it climbed down the leg of the table and running through the open door.

“Give it to me!” said Marcus, and grabbed the shotgun away from Ronnie. He broke the chamber, and reloaded while keeping an eye on the spider. The thing raised its front legs once more, crouched back and preparing to strike.

“Oh, Mac, man, I’m sorry, sorry,” said Ronnie, rushing to his friend’s side as Marcus left the room, raising the gun and seating it against his shoulder.

“My son, you fuck!” screamed Marcus. He took aim at the giant spider, and fired both barrels of his grandfather’s shotgun. The gun roared once more, the spray of buckshot tearing off one of the spider’s raised front legs. The leg flew through the air, spewing greenish fluid over the displays, and landed in a row of old stereos and MP3 players.

The thing recoiled from Marcus. The old man dropped a handful of shotgun shells as he tried to reload once more. He felt a sting in his left foot, just below his ankle, and blackness crept into his vision. The gun fell from his hand as the smaller spider skittered around him, joining the larger spider in the show room of his pawn shop.

“Hang on, Mac, hang on,” said Ronnie. He cast an eye toward the monstrous spider now and then, but the thing didn’t seem interested in him. The smaller spider reached a foreleg out, touching the larger one gently, almost tenderly. Mac groaned and struggled to sit up. His arm was a ruin, and Ronnie did his best to hold the tattered cloth of his shirt closed. To stem the flow of blood.

From the distance, he heard the rising scream of sirens, and hoped for once in his life that the police were on the way. He looked up from his friend, and the spiders were gone, out of the pawn shop, and out of his life.