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Spider Girl
by Susan Henderson

originally published in Alsop Review


Ban Roll-On sucks for two reasons. One, it takes forever to dry. Two, it makes me smell like my dad.

While I'm standing at the bus stop with my arms out like chicken wings and my biology book between my knees, I figure something out: The bus left before I even got here.

I keep my arms out so the wind can blow through my sleeves and dry my armpits on the way to school. I'm following the bus route. It's the long way, but it beats getting lost. I hear the house key tapping against the bottle of suntan lotion in my purse, and the strap keeps slipping to my elbow. Actually, it's my mom's purse. I spilled rum in mine and it's drying behind our shed. Mom dumped the pill bottles and wads of Kleenex from her purse and said I could borrow it until I find mine. I reminded her to take her pills then booked it to the bus stop, apparently not fast enough. I stick out my thumb, but not very high.

I don't exactly like getting into a stranger's car or talking to people, but it's easier than getting up on time. It's also easier than telling Dad I missed the bus again. He's a very busy man, and he likes things to be done right. Some things, he says, are like math problems. There's a right answer and a wrong answer. Setting the alarm, standing up, marching out the door on time -- those are things a person really can't get wrong if they're paying attention.

You can't prepare for everything. Once some jerk said he'd give me a ride home, asked about my day and acted all interested. Then he leaned over and touched my mouth with his fingers. They smelled like gasoline. He missed the turn to my house and kept driving. I told him my dad works for the CIA and holds grudges and to let me out. He did, but I had no idea where I was. And after he drove off I realized I'd kicked my Dr. Scholl's off in the car. I got home just after my Dad did. He freaked out when I came home without my shoes. People don't just lose their shoes, he said.

The cars are passing fast where I need to cross the street. I close my eyes and run hard to the median strip. My heart's pounding as I trip onto the curb and look back at the cars. I look each driver in the eye and let out my first grin of the day.

The white Buick is pulling over. I can't see the driver, but some lady's got her big tattooed arm hanging out the passenger-side window, and her hand is strangling the side view mirror.

"Spider Girl!" she yells.


"Spider Girl!" She says it in a low voice then laughs like a smoker. Her eyes are pulled tight like her hair's in a high ponytail, but it isn't. She just has a weird looking face.

I speak to the driver. "Are you going past the junior high?"

"Hop in," he says. He looks pretty ordinary. Baseball cap, freckled skin, gut. Younger than my dad, I think. He looks me in the eye but not too much. I throw my purse and my book in back, and climb in.

The car gets moving. I open my book right away and skim the part about kidneys again, but it isn't sinking in. Reading about science is not my favorite thing, but my dad would like me to be good at it. It was my idea to get a subscription to Scientific American. I thought my dad would be impressed, but mostly he's annoyed that I don't understand the articles.

I keep peeking out the window over my book. Maybe we'll catch up to the bus and I can see if anyone's sitting in my seat. I scratched LUCY into one of the bus seats so everyone will know it's mine. I always stretch my legs across the seat so it looks like that's the reason no one will sit next to me. There are words scratched on top of my name: Reject. Stuck Up. Babe. I wrote that last one myself. I wrote it in boy's handwriting so the others would wonder which boy has a crush on me. It's a stretch to think someone would be hot for a skinny girl who looks like Mick Jagger. The boys on the bus say things like, "Hey, fish lips" and "Don't blow away." In the cold weather, there are tricks to making yourself look thicker. I wear thermal underwear under my pants and roll my socks down to my ankles. I usually have on two shirts.

"Are we boring you, Spider Girl?" Tattoo Woman is staring between the seats, tracing her finger around the tattoos on her arm. They look like she drew them on herself.

"Why do you call me that?"

"Don't know your name," she says.

I'm starting to believe only weirdos will ever give me a ride.

"I killed my father," she says.

"Oh? How?"

"I know karate," she says, kneeling on her seat. "I just got sick of him one day. Stuck my hand in right here and pulled his throat out." She raises her thick fingers over the headrest. She's got no fingernails.

"Why aren't you in jail?"

"I made it look like an accident," she says. "I poured alcohol in his mouth to look like he was drunk. I'm not stupid."

"I didn't call you stupid," I say.

"I'd do it again if I could. I went upstairs and told my mom 'Dad's dead.' She started crying, so I went out and played basketball."

"You're kidding. You really did it?"

"I got no reason to lie," she says. "I could kill you right now. Same way." She turns back in her seat and looks out the window. "Stop here, Hammer." She straightens up. "Right here."

Tattoo Woman opens the door. "Wait here," she says. She stomps toward the Mini Mart. Her sweat pants are hiked above her tube socks and she's really swinging her arms. I wonder if she's going to rob the store. Or maybe she's going to buy a bag of Cheetos to eat after she kills me.

"I'm Hammer," says the driver. He offers his hand for a shake.

"Hi. I'm Spider Girl," I say, taking his hand. "Was that your girlfriend?"

"Nah. I drive her to St. Elizabeth's for appointments."

"She's not all right?"

"Not completely," he says. "Don't let her scare you."

"I wasn't scared."

"Of course not. You're too tough for that."

"Don't tease me."

"You're the tough kid who goes home and cries every night."

"You don't know me."

I look out the window. He doesn't know I'd rather sit here with him than drive in with someone I know.

"Hey, I didn't mean to offend. Really." He pulls a white pill from his shirt pocket. "Want one?"

"Sure," I say, and swallow it.

"Ever ask people what they're giving you before you take it?"

"Not really."

"Shouldn't roll your eyes at people. It's rude."

"Maybe you shouldn't give advice to someone you don't know," I say. "You'll sound stupid. And I like the black pills best."

I had one on Saturday. That's the night a bunch of us snuck into a horror movie and a girl was selling them for two dollars. Everyone was laughing and screaming in the dark. They passed a bottle of Jim Beam around and we all drank and got warm. Almost everyone was kissing and the guys were winking at each other whenever they got their hand in a good spot.

Sometimes I get kissed, but mostly not. That night, Charlie Hilt asked if he could kiss me.

No one ever asked before. It never occurred to me I could say no. I fell in love with him right there. I said, "No" before I could even think. He was my hero.

I ended up kissing the one who didn't ask. Ronnie Dolgin. He shook the ice out of his soda then put his tongue in my mouth. It was cold, and I held my breath and waited till he took it out. After a while he went for another soda. I saw Charlie look over and then he looked back at the movie screen.

"I think you're going to get a kick out of school today." It's Hammer.


"School? I think it'll be a good day for you."

"You're still planning to take me there? That's good. I wasn't in the mood to get abducted or anything."

Getting kidnapped can't feel much worse than getting stranded. After the horror movie, my friends ran off. I stood outside the building, staring into headlights in the parking lot. Finally a car pulled up and honked. I walked up to the locked doors, looked into the faces of my friends. I jiggled the handle of the front door and then the back door. I could see them laughing. Then they sped off.

I waited a long time for them to come back. Finally, I called my mom for a ride. She's always up at night. "Just come and get me," I said. "Just please come and get me."

My mom's not supposed to drive unless my dad's in the car with her, which means never anymore.

"I'll be right there," she said. "You're my best friend."

Mom hit the curb twice trying to pull up to the theater. She rolled down the window.

"I'm so glad you called, Lucy. It reminded me to take my pills. Proud of me?"

Mom hit the wipers instead of the blinkers, and we were off.

"You're doing great, Mom," I said.

Dad's always in bed by 10, so I didn't have to hear how I disappointed him again. Mom and I headed for the den, where she usually sleeps. The TV was still on. I brushed her hair until she fell asleep. She was nervous from the drive, and her medication makes her tired. I almost told Mom about the boy I like, but we just talked about her. She calls me her little therapist because she can tell me anything and I don't say she's dumb. At some point my dad looked in and said, "Thanks for looking after her, Lucy. But time for bed."

Hammer laughs, and I try to remember what I said that was so funny. His laugh is friendly. Maybe I trust him. Anyway, the worst these two can do is kill me.

"Did your mother name you Hammer?"

"Nah. My real name's Jack."

"Anyone ever call you Hammie?"

"Girls I like, sometimes." Hammer smiles. "Hey, you got a boyfriend?"

"Charlie." I say it real fast so he doesn't kiss me. I know he probably won't talk to me today. On the weekend, guys will take what they can get, but during school, they only like the pretty girls with boobs and curling irons and Papagala purses with interchangeable cloth covers. Girls whose pants can stay up without a belt. "He can twirl his gun like a baton," I say, unzipping my purse. "He's pretty crazy about me." I pull the bottle of suntan lotion from my bag. "Want some rum?"

"Ladies first," he says. He pulls off his baseball cap, holds it over his heart and makes a little bow.

It makes me laugh. He laughs, too. He looks better with his hat on. I open the pink top and squirt a stream of rum into my mouth. And then another. The sun is on my face and I feel good. I can taste some lotion mixed in.

Charlie doesn't seem like the type who would laugh at my mom for always being in her pajamas with dirty plates stacked on her bookshelf. He seems like the type who'd just read the titles of the books and think we're all smart. Too bad I can't invite people over. Dad says people don't understand how to deal with Mom and not to complicate things.

"You going to pass me some or not?" Hammer says.

I pass him the bottle and lean against the door.

The car is so comfortable, I don't know if I ever want to stand up again.

Tattoo Woman returns with a pencil and a handful of paper napkins with mashed edges. "Watch me draw," she says and turns to me. "I'm an artist. What do you want me to draw?"

Hammer pulls the Buick back onto the main road.

"Draw me," I say.

"I can draw you easy. I can draw anything," she says, smoothing out the paper. "I could draw you but I don't like to stare. I'm not gay." She licks the lead tip of her pencil, then grips it near the point. The pencil tears through the napkin and she breaks her pencil in half.

"Here." I hand her my felt tip pen. "So why'd you call me Spider Girl?"

"You got that long hair," she says. "You could wrap flies in it."

Why was I thinking she'd say spiders are puny but powerful?

I look out the window. She sees what all the kids at my school see. A skinny freak with messy hair. "Hey, you better slow down. This is where I get out."

She balls up the napkin and throws it at me. I try to unfold it, but my fingers feel like sausages.

"Want us to wait here to see if you get in okay?" Hammer asks.

"You don't have to," I say. I grab the handle of the door and turn toward Tattoo Woman. "You probably ought to hang low for a while. Seeing as you just pulled your dad's throat out."

She reaches into the back seat and slaps me on the arm. "You're a cool bitch," she smiles.

Going down the empty halls of my school, I don't have a clue which door has my class behind it. I don't even remember what classes I'm taking. Only the bathroom door looks familiar.

I've got a good buzz going. My head feels way above my body, like it's going to bump the top of the door frame. The door feels so heavy it takes my whole body pressing against it to open. There's a sweaty napkin in my hand.

The air is stuffy in the bathroom. The heat's always on way too high. I go straight to the window, grab the latch and give the glass a push. My mom's purse slides off my arm. My soggy palmprint turns up on the trees and the parking lot outside. Finger by finger, my handprint disappears until all that's left is the parking lot.

Then I hear all the honking.

Hammer's standing beside the white Buick looking at the school. Tattoo Woman puts the top half of her body out the window and is flipping the pages of some big book.

But wait a minute, it's my book.

If they keep up the noise, someone will go over there to shut them up and they'll read my name in the book. I know they were nice to me, but the only thing worse than someone catching Tattoo Woman studying the larynx with my book would be someone thinking she's my friend.

My head feels hot. I just think, "Go away. Go away. Take my book and leave me alone." Dad will freak when I tell him I lost my book, but I don't care this time. I know I blew it.

I hear my forehead tap the corner of the window frame.

"Go to class, Moron," someone shouts into the bathroom, then lets the door swing closed again. It's all blurry.

I stumble into one of the stalls and try to lock the door but I can't get it to hold, and the sweaty napkin is hanging off my hand like it's glued on.

My mom would say, "If you feel sick, just come home and watch TV with me."

The seat has a crack in it but no drops of pee. On the stall wall is scribbled: Babe. I sit on the floor beside the toilet bowl-- me, some shredded toilet paper and a coin. Normally, I wouldn't even sit on the seat, I kind of squat over it, but my head feels heavy and I go ahead and rest my face against it. The cold feels good.

My hair slips into the toilet bowl but doesn't touch the water. I hold my hair back with one hand and lose the napkin in the toilet. I watch it unfold.

I can hardly focus my eyes. The toilet water soaks the napkin, smearing the ink even more and tearing it apart until you can't tell there was even a picture. My teeth are chattering, making my face shake against the seat. I can't tell if I'm crying or just about to puke.

I'm sweating and I smell Dad here beside me. I know it's only my deodorant, but I pretend he's here ready to take me home.


About the Author

Susan Henderson's work has appeared in Oakland Review's 25th Anniversary Anthology, Zoetrope: All-Story Extra, here and here, Today's Parent, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Happy, The MacGuffin, Eyeshot, Alsop Review, Opium Magazine, Carve Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and Hobart, as well as in a number of pamphlets and training manuals used at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. New fiction will appear in an upcoming issue of Word Riot.