A spider’s web, some freckles and bright yellow hair 

Glenn Forter, Detroit • Runner-up, Fiction

 

He stood in the dark room peering through the dusty window. A spider busied itself in the corner of the pane, carefully weaving a silken web, strand by glistening strand. The early light toyed with the silky threads, dancing shadows across the man’s withered face. He watched as the young man strode proudly around the car and opened the door for his wife and newborn son, gently cradling the infant in his arms, reluctantly surrendering him to the older lady who hurried out to greet them. This was happiness, contentment.

The sun rose higher. He watched the infant take his first steps on the newly built porch. Proud mother and father watched anxiously as the child clumsily walked, fell, gained its chubby legs and walked again, undaunted, afraid of nothing, secure in the love of his world.

A few moments more. The father teaching the child to play catch, throw a ball. The day grew warmer, the sun higher. The boy and his friends playing in the yard, laughing, giggling, sharing the secrets of childhood. A proud protective mother observed discreetly from the kitchen.

The boy caught the ball, then threw it back to his father. They laughed and teased each other, a loving family, almost make-believe. The old man felt the pain as he watched the boy climb the gnarled oak tree behind the house, heard the echo of the branch breaking, the boy’s terrified yell, the snap of the tiny arm as he landed. The spider paused in its work, watching as the old man massaged the bump above his wrist, a permanent reminder. The break was set and mended quickly, the moment forgotten, but the worst pain had yet to visit.

Kindergarten, first, second, third grade, summers at the lake, warm fires in winter. Good times, happy times. The world was in its proper place and life was a tranquil thing, but nothing lasts forever. The sun grew higher, dark clouds appeared on the horizon. The spider completed the base of its web.

The morning light warmed the old man’s face as he watched the boy grow sturdy and strong. The clouds darkened as they carried the old lady from the house, a tear filled his eye. She had been the boy’s best friend, his confidante, his defender. He was not allowed to the funeral, too young they said. The house was empty without her, but still, the worst pain was not yet here.

It was now 10 by ordinary clock, the winter of fifth grade. People filled the street but none noticed the old man, save the spider who watched him curiously. The sky turned black, clouds swirled ominously. Strangers came to the door, the boy opened it then summoned his father. Hiding behind him he heard the awful words, felt a pain unlike any other. His tears wouldn’t come, pouring instead from the sky above. Grief racked his whole being, his perfect world shattered.

No! No! That wasn’t she in that somber box, they were mistaken, this was not his mother! Distant screams still echoed in his mind. His father, aunts, uncles, none would listen. They tried to comfort him but there was none. He cursed them and fled that hellish place.

Sixth grade, a year after his mother had gone. She followed, teased, badgered, and provoked him. He despised her and made no secret of it. She had freckles, pigtails and bright yellow hair. With the persistence of youth, she prevailed, they became friends. After the summer of the seventh grade they were inseparable, sharing the sweet embarrassment of a first kiss and awkward embrace. Each knew then that only death would part them but neither spoke of it for this was a simpler time and it was not yet their season.

The clock struck half past the hour. The old man glanced at the clock, it was 10:30. Rice pelted them, tin cans rattled behind the car. The boy now grown to manhood, his love, his freckled-faced girl with bright yellow hair and white flowing gown stood by his side. His proud father, temples gone gray, waved and smiled, a tear escaped his eye. The spider paused abruptly as if hearing what the old man heard.

The sun neared its apex. The man proudly showed off his infant daughter to all who would look. Another minute in time, his young daughter at his side cooing to her baby brother. Soon the man and his and his love happily displayed their fifth child as the others pushed in for a look.

Twelve chimes, noon. A high school graduation, then another, and yet another. Five in all. Proud parents filled with pride. Yet, the old man felt a dread as he watched, he knew the terrible thing that was to follow. The spider gracefully floated to the bottom of the pane then climbed back up and repeated its flight.

Wedding followed wedding as the children grew and left home. He held his first grandchild as if she were delicate crystal, named after his mother, a reminder of the miracle and tragedy of life. Mere seconds later three more grandchildren followed. The old man knew it was time and could barely stand to look. Storm clouds returned, blacker, more threatening than before.

The unfinished web quivered mysteriously. Hail, thunder, lighting, a hurricane only he could see. The ambulance arrived quickly, but in vain. He cradled her in his arms, her loving heart failed, her face serene in death. Her last words had been of her love for him. The wake was sad, yet joyous, it had been a good life but far too short. Why hadn’t he gone first? A question never answered.

Late afternoon. He didn’t recognize the face reflected in the window. When had he become so ancient? Why was his body so bent? Where had his day gone? The spider finished the web, already it had been rewarded with a fly caught. A buzzing, futile attempt to escape, then silence. The spider moved toward its prey.

Twilight, the first star of evening winked at him, then scurried behind the approaching storm clouds. He studied the pictures carefully arranged on the mantle. Five children, twelve grandchildren, a good life, a very good life! Soon his first great-grandchild would enter the world, he was sad he would have to view it from another window, a far distant one. He sat slowly, painfully, his body had succumbed to the curse of old age. The sun had fled, darkness was entire. The spider rested, its meal concluded. The old man closed his eyes as the clock chimed the hour. Memories of laughter, freckles, pigtails and bright yellow hair lovingly embraced him. Rain tapping on the window, an echo of distant thunder, the last sounds he would hear, his day was complete.

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