Janine Ferber was more than angry at Sierra Meyers. She wallowed in a righteous, seething fury towards her co-worker, yet knew it was totally irrational. After all, it wasn’t as if Sierra had gotten sick on purpose, Janine was well aware. But that self-awareness did nothing to diminish the anger itself. As Janine positioned the fingers of a severed zombie hand around the cup of pens at the check-in window, she fantasized about bending back Sierra’s fingers one by one until they snapped and Sierra screamed herself hoarse. When she hauled the old witch’s cauldron from the storage closet down the hall and to its station beside the front door, Janine imagined how it would feel to yank a handful of Sierra’s hair and drag her along, cracking Sierra’s skull against the wooden door frames of every exam room. And while she extricated the leering devil figurine from its aging bubble wrap and carried it to the waiting room’s magazine table, Janine visualized in lurid detail jamming its tin pitchfork directly into Sierra’s eye. She felt the lens’s resistance before it popped, saw the shiny mixture of blood and vitreous gel running down Sierra’s cheek. At the very least, it might wipe the permanently perky smile off Sierra’s face.
Janine set the devil figurine down on the tabletop, between fanned issues of Entertainment Weekly and People. She looked around the reception area, taking in her handiwork. Every available surface was decorated, cardboard vampire and mummy cutouts plastering the walls and doors, tombstone tchotchkes on the tables and counters, rubber bats hanging from the window treatments and plastic vampire fangs added to the basket of rewards children could choose from, even throw pillows on the chairs embroidered with dancing skeletons and hissing black cats. The entire office looked like a no-expenses-spared party zone for a child whose birthday fell on October 31st. Dr. Parelli would no doubt be very pleased.
That was the good news. Bad news, it was past 10 p.m., Janine was mentally and physically exhausted, and she wasn’t even done yet. Every knickknack and prop was in its designated place, but one final touch was required, the one that Janine dreaded most yet which by necessity always came last: the cobwebs. They were Janine’s least favorite part of decorating, forever shedding little white fibers that could never be brushed away, like pine needles from Christmas trees, showing up in nooks and crannies months after the holiday had passed. And festooning the office with them in such a way that they looked appropriately spooky, and not just like misplaced medical gauze unraveling from the ceiling, was arduous, tedious work. Yet not for an instant did Janine think that she could skip the cobwebs this year, pleading that the evening had gotten away from her and she’d needed to cut her losses to get home and sleep before returning to work the next day. The cobwebs were Dr. Parelli’s favorite part of the Halloween ambiance.
No one would know, just looking at Dr. Parelli, that he was a Halloween fanatic. Eleven months out of every year, Dominic Parelli, DDS, was straight-laced as could be. He wore the same brown loafers every day, rotated through three pairs of khakis - light beige, medium beige and dark beige - every week, and favored Oxford dress shirts in dark colors like maroon and hunter green, though he would occasionally don stripes for variety. He let his hygienists, like Janine, and his assistants handle most of the routine aspects of the appointments, interacting with his patients rarely and with polite decorum.
But when the calendar turned to October, Dr. Parelli would turn as well. Early in the month, he made a point of lifting his pants cuffs so people could admire his novelty socks, covered with tiny pumpkins or tiny werewolves or reproduced stills of Plan 9 From Outer Space, seemingly a different pair for every day of the month. As the end of October approached, he wore black slacks some days, and bright orange or electric green polo shirts.
The biggest change, though, was Dr. Parelli’s expression of humor. The garish Halloween attire brought out a tendency to indulge in fright gags, none more frequently deployed than his spider puppet, a full glove, covered in furry black bristles like a tarantula. Eight clustered eyes and a disturbingly accurate agglomeration of mouthparts sat atop the middle knuckles, and Dr. Parelli had mastered the art of wiggling his fingers to perfectly mimic the crawling motions of spiders’ legs.
Every September 30th the office decorations would go up, and the ritualized pranks would begin the next day. A patient would come in for their exam or cleaning, all of which would go by with customary professionalism and efficiency, if Janine did say so herself. At the end of the appointment, Dr. Parelli would stop by to chat, asking if the patient had any concerns, making suggestions for future treatments which could only come from the dentist himself. The patient would remain in the examination chair, almost fully reclined, accustomed to lying perfectly still for the better part of thirty minutes. Dr. Parelli would enter with the spider puppet on his hand behind his back, sit near the patient’s head, just barely within the corner of the patient’s peripheral vision. Dr. Parelli would ask, “Notice anything different around the office?” No matter what the patient said, Dr. Parelli would continue, “Yeah, seems like we have a bit of a … I guess you’d say a spider infestation problem? Nothing to worry about, though.” And while the patient was chuckling at his reassurance, Dr. Parelli would slowly bring up the hand puppet and walk the hairy ersatz legs up the patient’s arm. Some combination of screaming, crying and laughing would ensue, with the vast majority of the laughter belonging to Dr. Parelli himself.
As far as Janine knew, the spider gag had never permanently cost them a patient. Dr. Parelli had played the same trick on her, six years earlier, the first Halloween she had worked there. She had been reminded of it viscerally every Halloween ever since, the memory evoked by the cheek-aching smile she forced herself to put on when Dr. Parelli got up to his usual antics, the same expression she had adopted to get through the trick the first time.
Dr. Parelli signed her paychecks, so Dr. Parelli got the smile, while Janine doubted she would ever voluntarily smile at Sierra Meyers again, unless she happened to see Sierra simultaneously electrocute and irradiate herself in a lethal x-ray mishap. The irony was that Sierra had been on the verge of becoming Janine’s favorite co-worker. Sierra had just joined the team as a dental assistant in the spring, and sometime in September had been warned by Mike Holt, the other assistant, about the imminent Halloween madness.
“Oh, wow, I love Halloween, too!” Sierra had gushed. “It’s my favorite, ever since I was little!”
Janine had then casually mentioned that if Sierra wanted to be in charge of decorating the office, she was welcome to it, and Sierra had jumped at the chance. Even after Janine had then explained it required staying late the night of September 30th, Sierra’s enthusiasm had not diminished at all. She had in fact paid out of her own pocket to order more decorations to put out for the overnight transformation. Janine had noticed Dr. Parelli’s subdued approval along the way, but she was far too grateful that she would not have to sacrifice the evening herself to be resentful of Sierra becoming the dentist’s new favorite.
And of course, because it had all been too good to be true, Sierra had contracted mononucleosis in the last week of September. And of course, in Sierra’s absence, Dr. Pirelli had automatically assumed that responsibility for decorating the haunted dentist’s office would revert to Janine, deprived of her idle expectations of spending the night ordering Ethiopian delivery for dinner and eating it on the couch in front of some Netflix stand-up specials, possibly accompanied by dessert of strawberry ice cream and Fuzzy Navels. That alone would have been reason to wish a cruel, painful death upon Sierra Meyers, for raising her hopes and then dashing them altogether. But adding insult to injury was the fact that September 30 had become an even more endless slog because of every new decoration that Sierra had acquired and Dr. Pirelli had begun gleefully looking forward to.
Even now, with nothing left to do but put up the signature cobwebs all around the office, Janine felt a hatred towards Sierra that could reduce the junior dental assistant to a pile of ash quicker than any malfunctioning x-ray meltdown. Because even the cobwebs were new this year, not the same old polyester fibers which were annoying but at least familiar, but some bizarre, custom high-end product from an online company that insisted it did not sell holiday decorations but rather ‘immersive seasonal experiences’, whatever that was supposed to mean. Nevertheless, Janine knew the only way to get home and into her bed was to finish, so she pulled the shipping carton out from underneath Aneesa Broward’s reception desk and tried to pry apart its flaps.
Of course, the box had been wrapped in bands of reinforced shipping tape, with filaments running through it, and it hurt Janine’s hands. Cursing, she shoved the box aside and rummaged through the reception desk for a pair of scissors. The blades made short work of the tape, although there were so many layers that Janine’s frustration mounted. Finally the flaps opened and Janine lifted out the contents.
There was no labeling, no tag, nothing at all to indicate the intended use of the spindle wrapped in irregular white strands. It was unpleasantly sticky beneath Janine’s fingers, but allegedly that was what made it such an appealing upgrade: there was no need to use tape to hold the cobwebs in place, or to position it strategically with a thick bunch of fiber hooked onto a convenient outcropping. These cobwebs were self-adhesive, and once Janine climbed onto a chair in the waiting room and pressed one corner of the cobweb material up above the window, she discovered that much at least was true.
Janine nearly lost her balance getting down, and cursed under her breath for the hundredth time. She stepped up onto another chair to add more cobwebs to the other side of the window. The sticky cobwebs were easier to arrange and situate, but detaching them from the spindle was tough. The tenacious strands wanted to cling together, and there wasn’t even a handle to the spindle to grip while prying the layers apart. Janine hopped down and took a couple of steps back to admire the sight. In the dark silence of the empty office, she grudgingly admitted that they looked amazing. They looked organic, shivering in the recirculated air with just the right unfurling weight, as if she had entered some long-forgotten crypt overrun by creepy-crawlies. It was just oh so typical, the end result impressive enough for Dr. Pirelli to be childishly delighted and to give all the credit to Sierra, while no one would ever know how late Janine had toiled to set it all up.
That thought in particular was intolerable. Janine clawed away more new cobwebs from the spindle and draped them along the front of Aneesa’s desk, scowling at the injustice. Dr. Parelli and Mike and Aneesa would be all sympathy and sunshine with Sierra when she got back from her sick leave, falling over themselves to thank her for organizing the updated decorations. Janine ripped apart more cobwebs, strewing them along the hallway walls, up and around the framed art prints, and fumed at the vision of Sierra eating up the adulation. And even if - especially if! - Sierra tried in any way to spare a thought for her and said something like “well let’s not forget Janine put everything out” that actually would be worse. Because Janine had never been able to take a compliment, never been comfortable with attention, not that much ever came her way, with her brown hair cut in a sensible bob and her glasses and her average pear-shaped body. Nothing like Sierra, who wasn’t just younger, and bubbly and outgoing, but blonde and built like a swimsuit model. If Sierra tried to share the spotlight, Janine would reflexively shy away from it, and everyone would just be that much more enamored of Sierra, so modest and non-self-centered on top of everything else.
Janine’s blood was boiling, her fingers clenched with rage around the spindle of sticky strands, and her fingernails pierced the remaining layers of cobwebs, digging into the hollow core. She rolled her eyes in exasperation, but consoled herself that with so little material left, she would soon be finished. If that wasn’t enough to decorate every exam room doorway, so be it. Maybe Sierra wouldn’t get unlimited glory after all.
Janine felt something inside the bundle of cobwebs tickle her knuckle, and she jerked her fingers out of their poked holes. Not a loose strand of the material, it felt more like the burrs that sometimes clung to her skin when she picked Queen Anne’s lace in her backyard, if the hooks on the burrs were capable of moving on their own.
She stormed out of the hallway, back to the reception area, where the light switches for the entire office were located. She needed a better look at what she was dealing with to put up the remaining cobwebs without injuring herself on whatever was rattling around inside the sticky bundle. Before she could reach the switches, however, she felt the sharp tickling again, this time on her wrist. Reflexively, even as an ice cold tremor ran down her spine, Janine switched the spindle of cobwebs from one hand to the other and shook her hand violently to dislodge whatever had caught there.
Then she felt the same insistent prickling on her opposite wrist, and rather than fling it away she smacked her skin hard. Her palm encountered nothing except her own flesh, but she felt a separate flare of biting pain on the back of her hand.
Janine yelped, and dropped the cobwebs to the floor. She was only a couple steps away from being able to reach the light switches, but on pure instinct she backed away from the bundle. In the gloom, she could just make out small, dark shapes wriggling their way out of the holes she had poked in the cobwebs. Some part of her brain, evolved to recognize danger, shrieked with automatic terror that the shapes were spiders, dozens, maybe hundreds, streaming out of their nest.
The same part of her brain howled at her to run for the door, but as Janine tried to turn herself around her feet tangled and she sprawled facedown on the carpet. A heartbeat later she felt a multitude of legs picking across her bare ankles, and a sharp pain next to her Achilles tendon, another on the opposite shin. Janine scrambled to her hands and knees, rising unsteadily to her feet while swatting at her legs. She could barely reach the tops of her feet with her fingertips, she was too soft in the middle to bend enough, which only made her flail more desperately at the area just below her knees as spiders climbed up her legs, some outside her scrub pants, some inside. The bites on her ankle and shin were beginning to feel like steady drips of acid eating her flesh, and the first bite on her hand was throbbing as it burned, the skin around it tight and swollen.
Janine burst into tears, wailing miserably as she spun in wobbly stomping circles, trying to dislodge and smash as many spiders as she could. Her knee struck the side of a chair and she tumbled into it, throwing her arms wide in a failed attempt to catch herself. Her scrub top rode up and spiders swarmed across the exposed skin of her belly. Janine lost count of how many sharp shocks of pain she felt from the jabbing fangs all over.
She attempted to push herself to her feet, but her leg muscles were curiously numb, even as the corrosive wildfire ran rampant across her nerves. She felt herself settling into the chair, feet resting on the floor like dead weight, arms limp and useless at her sides. Her head lolled back against the wall and her vision went dark. Perhaps she had closed her eyes. Perhaps sleep would take the pain away.
Aneesa Broward and Mike Holt arrived at Dr. Pirelli’s office together the morning of October 1st. They were hooking up, spending nights together, but telling everyone that Aneesa was having car trouble and Mike was helping out a co-worker in need. Aneesa carried their coffees as Mike unlocked the front door to let them in. Aneesa crossed the threshold after him, looked around the reception area and said, “Oh, right, it’s October.”
“Sure is,” Mike said, slipping his keys into his hoodie pocket before accepting his coffee from Aneesa. “Man, over the top this year.”
“Yeah, especially that,” Aneesa said, pointing to a chair in the corner of the waiting room, occupied by a vaguely human shape completely enshrouded in webs. “Hope the patients don’t complain about having to sit next to that.”
“Well, if they do, that sounds like a you-problem,” Mike teased the receptionist. “But you know Doc’s gonna love it.”
The prediction proved to be correct, as Dr. Pirelli arrived a few minutes later and stopped in his tracks to admire the cobwebbed effigy in the corner chair. A tiny smile quirked his lips as his fingers danced in anticipation.
Dale W Glaser is a horror fan and creator of chilling tales but, you know, in a cool, fun way, not an obsessed, psycho, working through his personal demons, disturbing way.
Production by Mjae & Desmond
Music by John Skipp
Image by StockSnap
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