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S. Joan Popek is an age challenged grandmother tiptoeing through the Twilight Zone while she gazes longingly at Ganymede. She is an instructor for Customized Training at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. A science fiction addict since childhood, she is a graduate of Writer's Digest Short Story and Novel School and until recently was an editor and PR Person for Millennium Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine. In the past, she has also been an editor for The Roswell Literary Review and FYI. She still writes a monthly column, “Ask Dr. WEB-Write” for Millennium Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine.

She has published over 200 fiction, nonfiction and poetry works in various magazines, such as The Roswell Literary Review, Millennium Science Fiction & Fantasy, Eternity, THE EDGE, Exodus, Anotherealm, Chaotic Reflections, Pulp Eternity, The Special Editors' Edition of Goddess of the Bay and others. One of her stories was featured In “The Best of Eternity, Volume 1." She was also published in many anthologies, such as Other Times, Other Places the HI-LO Science Fiction Anthology from The Fiction Works, a free e-book (Yet to be titled) from Crossroadspub.com and How Be The World's Worst Parent from Bookmice.com. Her other publishing accomplishments include the EPPIE 2000 Award winner, THE ADMINISTRATOR from The Fiction Works, SOUND THE RAM'S HORN, at Crossroadspub.com, and a nonfiction, JUMP START YOUR CAREER WITH ELECTRONIC PUBLISHERS will be released from Crossroadspub.com in June, 2001. She is currently authoring a mystery titled, HELL'S HOUNDS and compiling a collection of short stories titled, FAIRY TALES WITH A FREUDIAN FLAIR. For more information about S. Joan Popek and her writing, visit her website http://www.sjoanpopek.com

Here is one of delightful stories, Friendship.

S. Joan Popek

The black widow gracefully spun her gossamer web. Moonlight filtering through the shades on the window cast silver rays to transform her web into kaleidoscopic prisms. She seemed to recognize that she was an artist and paused occasionally as if to admire her creation and to display the ruby hourglass embossed on her glossy, ebony stomach as she clung motionless to her last crystalline filament.

Sylvia watched the spider's performance as she did every night while she sipped coffee from a chipped mug. "My friend," she cooed, leaning closer to the web and making kissing motions at its regal occupant. "I've got a treat for you tonight." She went to the table and retrieved a saucer filled with honey. Three, large houseflies had settled onto it. She cupped her hand over the saucer and shooed the flies carefully into the widow's web where they quickly became enmeshed in the strands. The spider floated effortlessly toward the struggling insects.

Smiling, Sylvia watched the life and death conflict, then turned and dropped food into the tarantula's aquarium.

The four hairy giants inside crouched expectantly against the sand and rocks covering the bottom of their glass world.

She loved her spiders. She felt a certain kinship with them. People thought they were ugly and hated them . . .just like everyone hated her. Turning away from the window, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the cracked mirror above the table. In the dusky glow of moonlight, her limp, black hair hung around her wide shoulders making her already long, thin face seem even longer. Her meager lips pulled tightly against teeth too large for her small mouth as she smiled. On her gaunt face, a smile looked like a grimace of pain.

She ran her fingers through her hair, pulling the loose bangs back and hissed through clenched teeth to her image in the mirror. "Witch girl!"

Echo's of other voices from long ago screamed in her ears, "WITCH GIRL!"

That's what the children had called her in school--first out of innocent cruelty--and later because they had learned about courtesy but didn't understand it--or didn't care. Malicious whispers and smothered giggles had always assaulted her when she entered the classroom. She had learned to ignore the whispers and the loneliness. She had learned to live in an imaginary world where those people didn't exist--a world where she was queen of the spiders.

She looked at Babe, the largest of the tarantulas, and whispered. "You are my only friends. I wish you could talk. I wish I was like you." Settling to read the evening paper, she snapped the small reading lamp on, laid the paper in her lap and rested her head on the back of the ancient chair she had bought at the Salvation Army thrift store. Her head pounded. She had a lot of headaches lately.

She closed her eyes, kneaded her temples with the tips of her skinny fingers and imagined she was an elegant black widow spider swinging gracefully from gossamer silk. Sighing she opened her eyes, picked up her coffee and began to read the newspaper lying in her lap. Her hand stopped half way to her mouth. The cup it held hung suspended by its cracked handle. Heat burned her fingertips through the cup, but she didn't notice. She stared at a picture on the front page of the newspaper.

The man in the picture was Stephen Mason, the secret love of her teenage years. He had laughed in her face when she had finally worked up enough courage to ask him to the Sadie Hawkins dance in her senior year. Stephen and his ever-present entourage of admiring followers had laughed until she ran out of the school. Her sobs echoed in her own ears as she ran. She didn't stop running until she slammed the door to her room in the dingy apartment where she and her mother had lived since her father left.

Her mother pounded her beer can against the chair she was slouched in. Foam sloshed onto the chair. Her mother shouted, "Hey! Don't slam the door. You think I want Mrs. McGurrdy on my case about the noise again? Like I don't have enough to worry about. Working all day at that lousy diner. You could give me a little respect, you know. Always thinking about yourself. Never about your poor old mother. Sylvia! Did you hear me? Shut that stupid blubbering up." Then she held the TV remote like a gun, aimed it at the TV and viciously punched buttons until the volume drowned out her daughter's sobs. *

Tormented shame flared over Sylvia as the photograph recalled that moment so long ago. She closed her eyes and shook her head violently from side to side to chase the memory away. She slammed the coffee cup onto the table next to her chair. Pain seared her hand as the scalding liquid doused her fingers. She ignored the sting as she stared at the newspaper.

Standing at the entrance of the jet, he was older but still had that same haughty smile as he waved to the enthusiastic crowd of voters who had just nominated him to enter the presidential race for his party.

She hurled the paper onto the table overturning the cup. Spilled coffee crawled over the picture until the man's face wrinkled and faded into a blood-brown stain.

She turned the reading light off, lit a candle and carried it over to the widow's web. Her spiders didn't like bright light. She held the candle aloft illuminating the intricate web and its occupant. "My Friend," she whispered. "You are so beautiful, but he would hate you too, you know."

The headache hammered at her brain. She sank into the chair and buried her head in her hands, moaning. Hazy fog swept over her, wrapping her body in its clammy mist. It swirled and caressed her with moist, velvet arms. The throbbing in her head stopped. She couldn't--didn't want to--move. The fog gently lifted and swirled off through the window into the night.

She lowered her hands from her eyes and exhaled in surprise.

Her room was gone.

She was standing beside a bed. On the bed, Stephen Mason reclined upon a scarlet cover. His breath quickened as she gracefully shed a black silk robe. She wore nothing underneath. She watched the robe drape onto the floor and gazed down at her body. She was a human spider, sleek and black. She stroked her glossy thighs with delicate, graceful hands, then gazing mesmerizingly into Stephen's eyes, she traced her slim fingers up onto her abdomen and slowly encircled the pattern embossed there.

He gasped at the elegant, red hourglass design on her gently curving stomach, then impassioned, he reached for her and began hungrily kissing it.

She began spinning her web, wrapping it gently around his body in silken strands until he was enmeshed in its unyielding folds.

He struggled at first--horror and ecstasy radiating from his eyes simultaneously. His struggles slowed until his feeble efforts to escape only entangled him even deeper in gauzy steel.

Her body quivered with excitement as she bent to bury her teeth in his neck. His labored breathing subsided into moans of pain and ecstasy. Warm blood filled her mouth, and she shivered with pleasure. . . .

The sound of her own moans woke her up in her own room. She sat sprawled in the chair for a long while--remembering. Perspiration covered her body, and a sticky sweetness clung to her lips. She fought to regain control of her pounding heart. A dream. That's all. Just a dream, she thought. She turned to gaze at the moon outside her window and realized that she was suddenly full of energy.

She slid out of the chair and turned on the TV. She glanced over at the widow in the window. In the flickering light of the television screen, the web seemed larger--much larger. Silly girl, she thought. She rubbed her eyes and turned up the sound.

". . .interrupt this program for a special announcement. The newly nominated presidential candidate, Stephen Mason, has been found dead in his apartment. His body was completely encased in what appears to be a. . .a spider web!" The announcer paused as if he was not sure he had read the report right. He cleared his throat loudly and continued, "An autopsy revealed that he died from the bite of a rare spider. Where the spider came from and how it got into the ultra-modern, twenty story apartment building remains a mystery. City exterminators are sweeping the building but have uncovered no spiders and no trace of any other insects."

The sad faced announcer went on to elaborate the details of Stephen's career, but Sylvia didn't hear any more thorough her sudden fog of shock. After a few moments, a tight smile spread over her too many teeth.

She stretched sensuously, picked up the candle and lit it. Holding the candle aloft with both hands, she moved to the window and stood before the widow's web almost as if she was poised in an attitude of prayer at an alter. She whispered, "Did you hear that, my friend? What do you think of that?" She turned to the tarantula aquarium. "Weird, huh?"

"Not at all." A small voice trilled behind her.

"Wh--What? Who said that?" She twirled around but nothing had changed.

The web glittered in the moonlight, and the black widow spider hung suspended from a thread.

"Oh God! I must still be dreaming," she said.

The widow turned to look at Sylvia. "No. You are not."

Sylvia dropped the candle and quickly stamped out the flame. She tried to focus her eyes on the web, but in the flickering light from the television, nothing seemed to be stable. The room seemed to shift in and out of focus. "This is impossible. Spiders don't talk."

"Nothing is impossible. Only improbable." The widow gracefully glided to the center of her web and paused, then she turned to face Sylvia again.

Sylvia began to giggle hysterically. "I'm crazy. That's it. I'm hallucinating. You've been my only friend so long. And I've wished you could talk. This can't be real. No more than what I did to Stephen could actually happen."

"Do you want it to be real?" One of the tarantulas, was talking now. His voice was a husky whisper.

She twisted around so fast that she lost her balance and almost fell. Grabbing the edge of the aquarium to steady herself, she stared down to see all four of the huge, brown spiders looking up at her with cold, ebony eyes. Vertigo attacked her brain. Her world spun dizzily in all directions at once. She stumbled to the chair and fell into it as if her body had suddenly lost all of its bones. She glanced at the window and realized that the web had grown to almost cover the entire frame. She hadn't imagined that it was larger--it was. She focused on it until the vertigo lessened. In a whisper, she asked the black jewel in the center of the web, "Is any of this possible? Could I have really become--become. . .?"

"One of us? What do you think?"

"It was so real, but it must have been a dream," she breathed.

"Dreams often become reality," squeaked the widow.

"Perhaps reality is just a madman's dream."

"But how?"

"Does it matter?"

"Yes. No. I guess not," she sighed. "I wanted it to really happen. It felt so good to...to...."

"Yes. I know!" agreed the widow. She began to spin again.

The web grew as Sylvia watched.

"And the newscast...they said he was dead. Did I dream that too?"

"Reality is relative, dear girl," said the largest of the tarantulas as it pressed against the glass wall of its small world.

Sylvia smiled. The dizzy confusion evaporated, and she suddenly felt an irresistible urge to dance. She swayed around the small room to enchanting, soft music that flowed from her own mind. Closing her eyes, she held an imaginary partner in her thin, outstretched arms and let the rapture of her memory of this evening--the crimson spread, the look on Stephen's face as she dropped her silken robe, the ecstasy of his warm blood--overtake her. She began to dance faster and faster, spinning in uncontrolled spirals until finally, spent and exhausted, she collapsed into the worn chair that dominated her living room.

She opened her eyes and gazed around the room. A low cry of exaltation and wonder escaped her lips. A sheer curtain of web covered the entire ceiling.

The widow was floating over the tarantula aquarium. She dropped a silken strand of steel onto its edge, and the hulking creatures inside began to climb up to escape their cage. As they reached the floor, they formed a single line and inched toward Sylvia's chair. The widow hovered above them.

"Yes," Sylvia whispered. "Come to me, my friends. Together we will destroy all of our enemies." She held her hand out, and the one she called Babe scrambled gently onto it.

Sylvia shivered in ecstasy as short, bristly hairs on eight, feather light legs skimmed her arm while the tarantula climbed up to settle on her shoulder. The others followed. One caressed her leg as it maneuvered slowly toward her lap. The other two leapt onto her outstretched hand and quickly ascended to her other shoulder. "Ahhh," she sighed blissfully. "You are my only loves. My only friends."

Babe nuzzled her ear with his furry body. "Are we?" His tiny, husky voice asked.

"Yes," she breathed throatily. Her eyes closed as she reveled in sensual response. "And I am your only friend."

"Are you?" chimed the widow as she spun her web closer to the chair.

"Yes. Tonight I discovered what it feels like to be you. Whether it was a dream or reality, it was wonderful to watch that man struggle and die."

"You enjoyed it. What did you learn, dear Sylvia? Did you learn the truth?" The widow paused in her spinning to gaze at her with glacial eyes while she waited for an answer.

"What truth? That spiders are the kings and queens of the universe? That you are the only ones I can trust? Yes. I learned all that and more." She moaned with pleasure as a silken strand brushed her hair and caressed her face. The widow was above her now, looking down with minuscule, black star eyes, displaying her brilliant hourglass.

Sylvia closed her eyes and relaxed against the cushions as her friends caressed her body with furry legs and down-soft web.

After a while, she realized that the sticky film was clinging to her nose and mouth. She opened her eyes and saw that the widow was still above her. Still spinning her creation.

"Dear friend," Sylvia whispered. I can't breath. Please be more careful."

"Have you learned the true nature of spiders yet, Sylvia?" The widow didn't stop spinning as she talked.

Sylvia's nose and most of her mouth were completely blocked now. "Yes. You're my friend, and I'm yours," she mumbled through lips that could only sluggishly form the words against the silken mask. A chill descended into her womb as she questioned, "I am your friend, aren't I?"

"You feed us well, Dear," whispered one of the tarantulas now crouched on her neck.

She tried to raise her arm. It was enmeshed in web. "But I was one of you. I killed just like you. We're friends. The truth. . . ." She groaned as Babe bit gently--almost lovingly--into her neck. Fear became a tangible entity clutching her heart in its steel fist.

The widow hung suspended over her face and said gently, "I thought you knew when you came back from the man. The truth is, dear girl, that spiders have no friends."

Her beautiful, crimson emblem blocked all else from Sylvia's vision as the widow gracefully descended.


Bonnie Mercure, your Fiction Guide at the dowse Fiction Hub, is a dark fantasy author.
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