Short horror story about Stephen Johnson who was always fascinated by spiders.
At first Johnson thought it was a joke. Speeding down the country road the crude sign was only a blur. But it was that one word. Slowing down, he swung the Lexus onto the paved shoulder. In the rearview mirror, he could see it clearly. The sign was tacked to a stick that was stuck in the ground just beyond the paved shoulder.
Shifting the powerful car into reverse, Johnson jammed the accelerator down. The tires squealed and loose gravel flew as he tore back up the road. Screeching to a halt, Johnson stared at the faded handwriting:
SPIDER PETTING ZOO
5Ms Next RT
Spiders fascinated Johnson. One summer, when he was eight, a large gold and black spider had taken up residence underneath the shingles by the back door. Every morning, Johnson would gather up ants in a jar from a nest in the scrubby woods behind his house. One by one, he would drop the wriggling insects into the web.
With lightning speed, the spider would spring from her hiding place and race towards the victim. Sinking her fangs into the ant, she would retreat, waiting for the poison to take effect. When the ant slowly stopped struggling, she would climb back down and delicately wrap her prey in a white shroud.
This continued until, one day, his mother caught him. “What a cruel little boy you are,” she scolded between clenched teeth as she pummeled his backside. He could still feel the shame of being spanked.
Years later, in a rare moment of remorse, Johnson wondered what it was like for the ant. Trapped…helpless…waiting for the spider to return. Did they know fear or horror? Or was that something only humans experienced? The insect brain was too small he told himself. Or so he hoped.
Five miles, thought Johnson, This side trip might only add another half hour or so to his journey. He would still have time once he got to his motel to have a shower. The dinner meeting with the buyer from the supermarket chain wasn’t until 6 o’clock and it was only 4 now.
Coasting forward, Johnson scanned the road looking for the turnoff. About one hundred yards ahead, he saw a lane that intersected with the highway. Flicking on his turn signal, he shot a quick glance at his watch.
If I don’t find it in fifteen minutes, he promised himself, I’ll turn back.
Accelerating smoothly, he turned onto a well-paved secondary road with deep ditches on either side. Punching the buttons on the CD player, he stretched his arms, settling back into the soft leather seat. As the throbbing beat of Queen filled the Lexus, his mood lightened – an unexpected adventure in an otherwise boring day.
Johnson hated his job. Endless meetings with bad food and balding buyers. Too many drinks and too many hangovers. He was packing on the pounds, too. I have to get back to the gym, he reminded himself.
The only redeeming feature of his job was that he was good at it. Top sales rep for the last three years. I should have been an actor, he told himself. Instead I’m selling toilet paper and tampons to these turkeys.
As the needle on the speedometer crept higher and higher, the neatly kept fields and freshly painted houses became a blur. Mile after mile slipped by. Johnson felt that he and the car had become one, soaring along like a hawk on a summer breeze.
But his mood soon soured. The condition of the road deteriorated. Asphalt gave way to chip-seal, which gave way to gravel; and, finally ended up as dirt.
Johnson jumped on the brakes when a huge pothole emerged in the center of the road. Cursing the delay, he checked his watch again. It was almost 5. The long drive down the country road had dulled his sense of time. I better turn around, he cautioned himself.
As he studied the road ahead looking for a safe place to make a U-turn, he saw it. An old farm house set back from the road. If it hadn’t been for the pothole, he would have missed it completely. By the mailbox, a freshly painted sign read:
SPIDER PETTING ZOO
OPEN YEAR ROUND
ALL VISITORS WELCOME
This must be the place, he concluded. Carefully turning up the heavily rutted lane, Johnson wondered what he would find. Perhaps one of the locals playing a joke on the tourists, he mused.
Tall grass slapped at the bottom of the car and rusted barbed wire clung to rotted posts that ran alongside the lane. In the untilled fields, scrubby bushes had sprung up like mushrooms. Johnson tried to imagine what the farm looked like in better days, but it was impossible.
When he reached the top of the hill, the farmhouse looked even more decrepit. Blistered paint hung from the wooden shingles and there was a disturbing sag in the middle of the roof. What once had been the side garden was now occupied by tall thistles and a mass of tangled timbers indicated the former site of the main barn.
Except for the glass still being intact in the windows, the house looked abandoned. Where is everybody? thought Johnson. In response to his question, an old woman dressed in a black skirt and a woolen sweater stepped out the side door. She was gnarled and withered like the lone apple tree that stood in the yard. Johnson guessed she must have been at least 70, maybe even 80 years old.
“What you want?” she spat.
Turning off the CD player and rolling down the car window, he replied, “Is this the petting zoo?”
“That’s what the sign says, don’t it?”
Ignoring her rudeness, Johnson continued, “Are you open?”
“I’ll git Jake. He out back choppin’ wood.”
He watched as she shuffled down a dirt path and disappeared around a corner of the house. Charming, thought Johnson.
Opening the car door, he stepped out. Despite the poverty, the farm had a certain rustic appeal which reminded him of the house that he grew up in in the country.
But there was something odd. Something missing. Where are the flies? thought Johnson. On most farms the low buzz of the black swarms was constant. But here there was none. Except for the moaning of the wind, it was quiet.
Perhaps it was the lack of animals, he thought. Or maybe it was the stiff breeze at the top of the hill that kept them at bay.
Glancing at his watch, he frowned. It was after 5 o’clock. If he did not get back on the road soon, he would be late for his appointment. Either that or skip his shower. After driving all day, Johnson did not want to skip the soothing ritual.
Taking one last look around, he reached for the handle of the car door. Just then the old woman reappeared and behind her an even more wizened up old man wearing faded blue overalls and a nicotine-stained undershirt.