Things could go wrong at any moment—he’d learned that in Ramadi—but all in all airport security was a hell of a lot more relaxing than patrolling anywhere in Iraq. In the two years that he’d been working for the TSA there had been three instances of people trying to sneak a gun onto a plane and each time it was just some jackass who didn’t feel safe unless he had a gun with him at all times. There had been a handful of drug arrests too, but nothing dangerous.
Still, as the winding line of people made their herky-jerky way through the metal detectors, Phil paced alongside, surreptitiously looking for any suspicious behavior. That was something else Ramadi had taught him: you can’t really tell from suspicious behavior. The businessman about twenty people back in the line. Maybe he’s sweaty and shifty because he’s got an eight ball in his back pocket or maybe it’s just because the blonde shuffling along with him isn’t his wife. No, Phil had learned that it was that hunch, that twinge in your gut that told you when something was really about to go wrong. Until he felt that, he wasn’t going to be pulling anyone out of line. He didn’t need the hassle any more than they did.
As he reached the end of the line he stepped behind the conveyor for the x-ray machine and went to look at the monitor. Sanj was leaning back, crossed arms resting on his paunch, his eyes fluttering like he was trying to stay awake as he watched the procession of bags go through the machine.
“Hey, Sanj,” Phil said, keeping one eye on the monitor, “You want to take your break, grab a cup of coffee?”
Sanj also kept an eye on the monitor as he looked up at Phil. “You don’t mind?”
“Go ahead,” Phil said, already moving to take Sanj’s seat. “See you in fifteen.”
The line moved steadily past him, people passing through the metal detectors, picking up their carry-ons, putting their shoes back on.
The fifteen minutes passed in a blur of carry-on luggage and bored looking travelers. Before he knew it, Sanj was back and moving to take his seat, eyes already on the monitor.
“Enjoy,” Phil said as he stood up, his eyes also still glued to the screen. As he was turning away, something caught his eye and he whipped his head back. The body like a puffed-up cigar, spindly legs poking out in all directions. The x-ray didn’t show its teeth, but Phil knew they were there.
“Hang on!” he blurted. “Sanj, stop the conveyor. I’ve got to check one out.”
People were looking at him, murmuring. They looked more curious than scared, excited even. The conveyor backed up and he gingerly yanked the bag off it and swung it onto the exam table behind him. It was a child’s bag, bright red with green straps. There was some cartoon superhero that he didn’t recognize on the front, all steroid muscles and gleaming teeth. Behind him he heard Cathy—his second in command, his executive officer—assuring people that everything was fine and asking would they please calm down.
Sanj sidled up next to him. “Boss?” he asked, “What’s up?”
“There’s something—” Phil started to say then broke off, “I think there’s something in here. I just got to check the bag.”
“Excuse me?” someone said from behind him. He turned around and saw a woman about his age with a small boy holding her hand. “That’s my son’s bag. Is something wrong?”
“I’m sure everything’s fine, ma’am,” Sanj immediately answered. “We just need to take a quick look in the bag. Something looked funny on the monitor is all.” He gave Phil a look as if to say, What the hell are you doing?
Phil put his left hand on the bag’s zipper. Without thinking, his hand slid toward his gun in its holster.
The woman spoke up, “He’s only five years old.”
“Ma’am, please step back,” he said, taking his hand from his gun and holding it in front of him, palm out. “Sanj, you got my back?”
Sanj nodded, though he was clearly confused. Cathy was still trying to calm the crowd, but they were getting rowdier, some people jockeying to get a better view while others just grumbled about making their flights.
Phil gripped the corner of the bag between his fingers to steady it and pulled back the zipper, fighting the urge to jump back as he did. The bag gawped up at him, revealing a few picture books, a t-shirt and a sandwich bag full of Cheerios. No sign of the spider, but he knew it was there.
“Everyone stand clear!” he shouted. In one quick motion he grabbed the bottom of the bag and upended it. Everything tumbled out and on top of it plopped a smiling spider. Stuffed. His breath left him like he’d been hit in the stomach. Had he forgotten to breathe?
“Boss?” Sanj whispered. “Phil? This what you were looking for?”
“I thought…” Jesus, he thought, What’s wrong with me? He took a wobbly step back. He needed to sit. To catch his breath. For a second he thought he might be sick, but that passed as he gulped ragged lungfuls of air. “Can you…?” he asked Sanj. “I’m sorry ma’am,” he muttered just before he turned and hightailed it to the break room.
He collapsed into one of the flimsy plastic chairs around the flimsy plastic table, the kind you see at church pancake breakfasts. His heart pounded; his mouth felt like it was full of sand, but he wasn’t sure his legs were steady enough to get him to the water cooler. He stood up but didn’t move. He sat back down.
Even though he knew it was a stuffed animal, he kept running worse scenarios over in his mind. Imagine if it had gotten him when he reached into the kid’s bag; he’d probably have ended up losing his whole hand. Or if the spider got loose in the airport. God knew how much damage it could do. The sound of the thing alone would probably send people stampeding for the exits.
He was about to try standing up again when Cathy walked in.
“Jesus, Phil,” she said, “What happened out there? You alright?”
“Fine,” he said. “Who’s supervising?”
“I have Jay watching for a minute. Wanted to make sure you were ok.”
“I’m fine, just give me a minute. And, Cathy, Jay is fine and all, but you’re my XO. I need you out there.”
“Was it the spider?” She smiled. “I can’t handle snakes. Like Indiana Jones.”
“I’ll be five minutes. I need you back out there.”
Phil stared at the floor, his head hanging, the muscles in his neck feeling like they had stopped working. Something just out of his field of vision moved and suddenly the muscles were working again and he snapped his head toward whatever it was. His heart resumed pounding, but slowed when he saw it was just Roger, the break room mouse. It was edging out from under the counter with the coffee pot and sink, keeping close to the wall, stopping to pick up crumbs and cram them in its mouth.
The mouse had been around for years, since before Phil started working at the airport. Since before he went to Iraq, even. As far as Phil knew, no one had ever bothered trying to catch it. There had never been any traps, no one running after it with a broom. People would toss chips or pieces of cereal toward its hole under the counter and watch it as it foraged. It seemed to particularly like Doritos.
Everywhere seemed to have their pet mouse. Every office, every college apartment. The guys even had one in Iraq, at the barracks. They called it Jerry, even though about half the guys insisted that in the cartoon Jerry was the cat and Tom was the mouse. Unlike Roger, which was grey, Jerry was a sandy brown, like every other goddamn thing in that country.
They’d had Jerry in the barracks for months and then one day Mahanna caught it so he could make it fight with the camel spider he’d caught. The spider had snuck up on him when he was on watch one night. He didn’t realize it until the thing bit him on the neck, then he managed to trap it under an empty crate and get it into a box. The rash that flared up on him was disgusting; bright red and green welts, like Mahanna’s neck was a Christmas ornament. At the infirmary they told him it was just heat rash and gave him some ointment. They didn’t believe him about the camel spider. They wouldn’t even come see it.
Of course, Jerry never stood a chance. Anyone who’d seen a camel spider knew a mouse couldn’t do a damn thing to it. Maybe a seriously vicious sewer rat, but not just some little mouse. Some thing that’d been coddled for months. That didn’t even have to look for its own food. It wasn’t a fight; it was a sacrifice.
They had made a ring out of foot-lockers and various debris they’d rounded up and set Jerry the Mouse inside. It darted around the perimeter, looking for a way out, but they had blocked any exits. Then someone—not Mahanna, he wouldn’t go near the thing—lowered the box with the camel spider into the ring. Phil could hear it scratching to get out; the room had gone silent. And then the lid was removed and the spider instantly clambered over the edge and onto the concrete floor.
It was a good foot long, its front and back sections almost equal size. It was pale brown, almost white. In the desert at night, it must have shone in the moonlight, looking like a rock until it struck. Jerry let out a frightened, pitiful squeak at the sight of it. All that did was attract the spider’s attention. It reared up on its four back legs and screamed, a piercing yowl like grinding gears. Or maybe more like some small animal stuck between grinding gears. The sound curdled Phil’s blood and he involuntarily took a step back. The spider’s teeth jutted from its mouth, two sharp fangs. Phil could actually see the poison congealing on their tips. Then it shot forward and caught Jerry’s head between its jaws. Its scream and Jerry’s squeak both cut off and were replaced with a crunch. Then it was over. The mouse’s body dropped to the ground into a quickly spreading pool of blood. Who knew so much could be in such a little thing.
“Jesus,” someone muttered behind him. Then, louder, “Get that thing back in the box.”
No one moved. The spider turned in a circle, the rows of eyes on top of its head taking them in. Phil’s skin crawled and he looked down to make sure nothing was crawling up his legs. The spider was looking right at him. Then it leapt out of the ring and sprinted toward the door. Everyone jumped out of the way as the room erupted into panic. People shouted and Phil saw Mahanna whip out his sidearm and try to get a bead on the thing. Before he got a shot off, it had skittered out the door and into the night. No one left the room for ten minutes. No one spoke above a whisper for those ten minutes. They finally dispersed without cleaning up the mouse’s carcass. Phil went back to clean it an hour later, but someone had beaten him to it. Even weeks later, though, there was still a dull, rust-red stain on the concrete. Probably, Phil thought as he stared at the break room floor, it was still there.
He had taken the day off after the stuffed spider incident and spent it not doing much of anything. It was a sunny day, so he had sat in the backyard for a few hours, slowly killing a six-pack of High Life. There wasn’t much to the yard—more of a plot, really—but he liked the grass, all the green surrounding him. Having the day off also meant that the spider incident would blow over so, or at least he hoped so.
So he spent the morning in his usual routine: coffee, check-in, monitoring the checkpoint, and finally settling in to an empty seat behind Marcy, who was on x-ray duty.
“Hey,” he greeted her. She nodded in return and kept checking the scanner.
“Anything going on?” he asked. She shook her head. “Nothing?” he smiled. “No killer bees?”
Marcy burst out laughing. “No,” she said, “No killer bees today. No bugs at all.”
“Phew!” he said, miming a wipe of sweat off his brow. “Close call the other day. You can’t be too careful.”
Marcy seemed unable to stop giggling as the line of people and bags filed past. A few passengers gave her a look, but most didn’t even slow down.
Ice broken, Phil pushed himself out of the seat. “Let me know if you see anything suspicious,” he said, winking. Marcy gave him one last smile as he walked away.
It had been a good joke, a great release of tension. No one wants to tease the boss, but sometimes, Phil thought, you have to. That the boss can show he knows it is a good quality to have. He’d have to make that joke to some of the others, then let them spread the word: Phil’s fine. Just a bad day. Maybe he hadn’t slept well, maybe he’d had too much coffee or Red Bull. Nothing to worry about at all.
He one-hundred percent did make that joke four more times that morning. Each time with the same reaction as Marcy: laughter and relief. By noon he was feeling good and treated himself to some Chili’s for lunch. And not the take-out, a meal from the actual restaurant.
There were a few minutes to spare when he got back, so Phil headed for the break room for a cup of coffee. Cathy intercepted him on the way.
“Hey, Phil, how’s it going?” she asked. “Fun day off?”
“Better than work,” he answered. The coffee machine was just on the other side of the door, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t be getting to it. “What’s up?”
“I need your sign-off. We got an accidental shipment that we need to watch close till they can get another plane here. It’s army stuff, so they want it especially watched.”
“What do you mean, ‘army stuff?’” Phil asked.
“Duffel bags and foot lockers and stuff,” she said. “It’s for guys who’re coming home.” She snorted. “Poor bastards have to come home without any clothes.” As soon as she finished she tensed and looked at him. Like she was worried she’d offended him.
“Poor bastards, indeed,” he said. Giving up any thoughts of coffee, he added, “Let’s check it out.”
They walked through an empty corridor to an empty room sometimes used for storage. Sanj was already there, holding a clipboard, a pen poking out of his mouth like a cigarette.
“Everything’s here,” Sanj said. “Anything you want to check, boss, or you good to sign?” He pushed the clipboard toward Phil.
Phil looked over the misrouted luggage. The stacks of duffels next to a row of foot lockers. He had ones exactly like them. And then something flashed through the light from the shadow by the lockers to the shadow by the bags.
“Where are these coming from?” he asked, taking the clipboard from Sanj.
“The guys coming home?” Cathy asked. “Iraq, I think. I don’t know where there though.”
Phil took a step toward the bags. A quick patch of white showed near where the bags met the wall, then disappeared.
“Did either of you…?” As soon as he turned, Phil saw the look in their eyes. Worry again, confusion. He grinned and hoped it looked genuine. “Probably just Roger. Maybe he had babies.”
“What, Phil?” Cathy asked, an uncharacteristic hint of shyness, maybe embarrassment creeping into her voice. “What’d you see?”
“Nothing. I’m sure it was just a mouse.”
She looked at Sanj as she spoke. “I read about the spiders. In Iraq. Camel spiders. I googled it.” Phil stared at her, and she went on, “They said it was all a hoax.”
Another flash of white caught the corner of his eye. He fought to keep his head straight, his eyes focused on Cathy and Sanj, cringing behind her. Legs rasped across the floor, under bags, into a hole in the wall. Still, he forced himself not to look.
“Phil,” Cathy said, turning to Sanj again, who looked at the floor, “I’m just saying. If you want to talk or anything…”
There could even be more than one spider. And they could jump. One could be on the back of his neck in seconds; if it bit him quickly enough he wouldn’t even know it was there. Their poison paralyzed that quickly. He clenched his hands into fists to keep from clawing at neck, his pantlegs, from ripping off his tie and slapping his chest. He forced a deep breath into his lungs and exhaled slowly. He scrawled his named on the routing slip and shoved the clipboard into Sanj’s hands.
“Everything’s fine here,” he said as he turned to leave. “And no, of course there aren’t any camel spiders. I’m not crazy, Cathy.” He was gone before she could answer.
Phil’s plan would never have passed muster in the army. It was barely even a plan, though he had lain awake all night mulling it over. That morning, he dug up a ratty old backpack and taken it to work with him. Maybe it wouldn’t even hold the spider, but he wasn’t planning on letting the thing live. Whatever it took. He had a heavy flashlight, but if he had to let the spider bite his hand and then smash the thing against the wall while it tried to eat him, then so be it. At least then people would see it. Hell, they’d probably thank him for keeping the thing away from them, for saving them from the bite and the flesh-eating rash. Anyone who heard one scream even once would be firmly on the side of making them extinct.
Without even saying hello to any of his coworkers, Phil strode to the storage room. The bags were supposed to be gone, but Phil knew they would still be there. And they were. The fluorescent lights cast shadows underneath and all around the duffels and footlockers. Somewhere in there, Phil knew, was the camel spider. Waiting.
He hoisted the flashlight, ready to bring it down on the thing’s exoskeleton, as he opened the bag closest to him. The first bag was full of clothes, mostly army-issue, but along with what seemed to be a collection of concert t-shirts. Just in case the spider had gotten down deep, he slid his hand along the bottom of the bag. Every second he anticipated the sharp jolt of pain that would go with a bite. Unless it paralyzed him right off. Who knew, maybe he’d pull his hand from the bag to see the spider greedily sucking his blood, its many eyes looking into his defiantly. But when he pulled his hand out, it was clean. No spider, no rash, no bite marks. He moved on to the next bag.
By the time he reached the tenth duffel bag—he was working on those before starting on the footlockers—desperation started to set in. He unzipped the bag and dumped its contents on the floor. The same army-issue green pants and tan shirts. A camouflage sleeveless tee-shirt. A few books and maybe a dozen issues of Playboy, but no spider. He moved to the next bag and did the same thing. Then the next.
He was crouched in front of a pile of clothes, methodically shaking them and throwing them out of the way, and didn’t hear Sanj come in. Didn’t even sense him moving closer until Phil felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped up, swinging the flashlight. It hit Sanj square in the gut, making him double over as he let out a grunt of pain and surprise.
“Dammit, Phil!” Sanj exclaimed, gasping for breath. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Where is it, Sanj?” Phil asked. “Have you seen it anywhere? Was anyone bitten?”
Sanj sputtered for a moment, before finally managing, “What?”
Their faces were just inches apart. “The spider is out. Have you seen it?”
“Phil,” Sanj’s face softened, even as he was clearly still fighting to get his wind back, “Phil. There’s no spider. There’s no such thing.”
Phil looked around the room. Clothes were strewn everywhere. Books, magazines, cheap plastic toys. No spider. And he knew. It was gone. It had followed him, hidden in his car, skittered into his house, fed on him while he slept. And that was what it would do. That was what it wanted the whole time. At least, he thought, with a palpable feeling of relief, at least everyone at the airport would be safe. It was just him the thing wanted. Every night, when he slept it would crawl onto him. First his neck, then his arms, his torso, his legs. Every night eating a little bit more, until finally, there would be nothing left.
Timothy Mudie was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, but now lives outside of Boston, where he works as an editor. His fiction has been published in This Mutant Life, The Fifth Di…, State of Horror: Massachusetts, Everyday Weirdness, and several other magazines and anthologies.