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Summer Stories - The Lost Year: ‘Spider Island’ by Simeon Mills

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
By Simeon Mills For The Spokesman-Review

After three years on the island, I stepped off the ferry, back onto the mainland and was greeted by the cruel sound of children eating ice cream. There had been no such treats on the island. No children. I would see my own son tonight at 8 o’clock, but would I recognize him? The last time I saw Stanley, he was 11. Now he was 14. I could buy him some ice cream, I guessed. Did 14-year-olds still like ice cream?

The dog at my side had to relieve himself, and he pulled me down the pier toward the village. Tuffy was leashed, not something we did back on the island. And all this cement, he wasn’t used to that, either. It burned his paws, making him prance. Through my extra-large sunglasses, I saw a mainlander scowl as Tuffy pissed on a tree. The woman gripped the collar of her shirt and sniffed in disgust.

I wanted to avoid all human interaction until tonight. Back on the island, I’d sent a dozen letters to my wife and son, reminding them of my return. I had the directions to Chums Circle memorized.

They’d promised it would only be a year – a single lost year – before we could leave the island and return to our families. Well, it was three years. This tiny village, anyway, was largely unchanged in that time. There were several new weather instruments on cement platforms. They weren’t windmills or vanes because their blades oscillated and spun much faster than any gust might cause. The small, hollow whir of these motors crept into my shirt; I felt an itch between my skin and my heart. I scratched it away and nodded toward the closest instrument smiling, sweating, urging it to look elsewhere. Tuffy whined – I had wrapped his leash around my fist, and his front paws wheeled in the air. Soon both of us were jogging up a hill, fleeing the village to make our way to Chums Circle, when a voice called out: “Friend!”

An island voice, with that hissing tenor.

“What’s the hurry, fellow?” it said. “Come over and have a bit of cottage cheese.”

The sign read Cheese Shack, and the man inside had forgone sunglasses, allowing the black discs of his eyes to shamelessly dominate his forehead and cheekbones. His eyes had grown even larger than mine, encroaching on his hair line and nearly overlapping at the center of his face, pushing his tiny nose into his upper lip. Those eyes were wrinkled, too, as if he often leaned through his window to stare straight at the sun.

“Cottage cheese,” he said, handing me a plastic tub from beneath the counter. His hand was dark orange, cracked and hardened, with a strip of glowing green skin near his wrist. “Why you’re back on the mainland, it isn’t my business. But I have a stake in this, too. And when I see you stand there on the pier, daydreaming, only to go off sprinting up the hill, I think, how about some cottage cheese first?”

“I ate lunch on the boat,” I lied.

“It isn’t my business,” he said. “I wish more of us would bring dogs like you have. I like that dog. What is it? Black Lab retriever?”

“Golden retriever.” I nodded at his honest mistake.

“Mainlanders like the look of a dog. What it says about a person. It says the right message.”

“This will be my son’s dog. Stanley’s dog. It’s for him.”

“Kids, too. Kids are almost as good as a dog. But I’m going to ask you to slow down when you’re walking places out here. The sunglasses? The gloves? That’s your business. But a smile costs nothing. Please and thank you. I have a stake in what happens. We all have a stake.”

“Thank you for the cottage cheese.”

“Don’t waste your thanks on me. It’s for them. Think of them like your in-laws. Go over the top. Don’t forget to smile.”

I smiled.

“Chums Circle? That where you’re headed?”

I wished I hadn’t told this man about Stanley. And now he knew my destination. I said nothing.

“I saw you sprinting up that hill, and I thought: This man thinks he’ll run the miles to Chums Circle. No, sir. Folks don’t do that sort of thing on the mainland. Chums Circle is 13 miles away. That’s not walking distance, not even with a dog to soften the look of it. There’s a van that comes by daily to pick up islanders heading to Chums. You wait in the back of that parking lot. I’ve arranged the van. The van will take your dog to Chums Circle, too.”

“I don’t mind the walk.”

The man shook his head. “We all have a stake in this together. Some things aren’t for you to decide.”

“Forget what I said about a son. I’m just here for a quick walk, and then I’ll be back on the ferry tomorrow. Thank you, sincerely, for this cottage cheese.”

“Fellow. That cottage cheese you’re holding, I make it fresh every morning. For island folk. Cheese from a friendly face after the ferry. I ask nothing – just a donation of whatever you can spare.” His orange hand brought out a briefcase, which he opened on the counter, revealing a pop-up display inside. “I take Chums Cards or cash. I prefer a Chums Card.”

“I don’t have that.”

“You need a Chums Card, friend, and I can give you one now with a $50 donation to the Cheese Shack. I have the paperwork. And then you’ll have a Chums Card.”

“No, thanks. But I’m going to eat this cottage cheese.” I gave him a dollar donation. “Do you have a spoon for it?”

“No spoon.” His hiss was angry now, vibrating the surface of his eyes. “Just pour it down your throat like you’re used to. And you won’t be catching that van either, I suppose?”

“No.”

“Drink up your cottage cheese then. It’s a long walk to Chums. And what are you going to say when they ask if you’re cured?”

“I’ll say the truth. That I’m cured.”

“Then don’t smile when you say it,” he warned. “You’ll look like you’re lying.”

Up the road, I set the cottage cheese on the gravel for Tuffy. I wanted to remove all memory of the horrible man from my head, but I kept hearing the click of his briefcase. I noticed more weather instruments guarding the roadside. Just as we passed out of view from one, in the distance there would be another. Cars and trucks sped past us, and, just like the man’s puppet, I turned and smiled at each one. The occupants all responded by clutching their shirt collars and lifting them up over their mouths.

A group of bicyclists was taking a break in the shade, their bikes parked near the road, forcing Tuffy and me to walk between these folks and their cycles.

“Howdy, friends,” I said, though I might have done more to fix the hiss in my voice.

Two cyclists dove blindly into the woods while the rest grabbed their riding jerseys and pulled them over their mouths.

“Go!” they said. “Get!”

Then they pulled their shirts completely over their eyes until only their hair was visible.

“Enjoy this beautiful day,” I said.

I began to jog down the road with Tuffy. But I hadn’t passed the next weather instrument before realizing my hunger and rage. I doubled over, my stomach clicking and burning, and I cursed the tub of cottage cheese I had given to the dog.

The purpose of Chums Circle before the spiders was anybody’s guess, a small rectangular parking lot surrounded by woods, nearby to nothing. I sat in the grass, waiting for 8 o’clock, listening to Tuffy’s panting and the whir of a weather instrument.

My wife would not take me back. Our marriage had been lifeless even before the island. Not once had she written me. Stanley would remain living with her. Which was fine. A child belonged with his mother. My goal was to be perfect in my support. Yet my mind kept returning to the island. Specific islanders who, at this very moment, felt my absence keenly. Suddenly, I was pacing the parking lot. Tuffy stopped panting to watch me. I realized I could never mention my island relationships to my son. I gasped, barely stopping myself from weeping. I removed my sunglasses and saw the green sky. The sun was now behind the trees, where they could still see it on the island. I made a promise then to Chums Circle and to Tuffy: “Whatever Stanley needs, I will provide for him.”

Headlights.

I grabbed Tuffy’s collar and waited until the truck came to a rest. “It’s Stanley!” I whispered to the dog. When the passenger door opened, I unclasped his leash: “Go say hi to Stanley!” Tuffy sprang – not toward the truck but into the surrounding woods. Before I could even call after him, he was gone.

Three teenage boys emerged from the truck. The tallest boy, the driver, stretched his arms, and they all scanned the parking lot. The driver said, “He here yet?”

“It’s dark,” said the shortest one, who wore a cowboy hat. “I don’t hear anybody.”

Then the driver gazed in my direction. “Wait a second.” He stepped toward me. “That him?”

The last boy murmured, “I don’t know.”

“Stanley,” I blurted upon hearing this last boy speak, instantly regretting it.

The driver laughed. “It is him.” He called to me directly: “Guy! Come on over!”

I had been mistaken about the last boy. His waist was too thick, his clothing was nothing Stanley would ever wear, and even with the darkness smudging the boy’s expression to a blur, this was not my son.

The driver grinned as I approached. “Got a Chums Card, guy?”

“Not yet.”

“No Chums Card? So there’s no paperwork on you?”

“I’m waiting for my family. My son, Stanley, and my wife.”

The driver nodded. “How much cash you got? Maybe we can get you where you’re headed.”

“I have cash. Their house is where I’m headed, if I can get a ride.”

He took my money. I thought about buying them some ice cream. But I knew better than to suggest it. For one, I had no cash left. Also, what if that boy was Stanley? He appeared to be in agony. There was an unspoken energy between him and the driver who seemed to be waiting for any reason to rain hell down on his smaller friend. I broke the tension by thanking the three of them for not lifting their shirts over their faces when I approached. I asked why people did that since I was obviously cured.

“They’re just superstitious,” the driver said. “You’ll be riding in the back of the truck.”

“OK.”

“And how’d you get infected?”

He asked this like it was someone else’s question, a formality he needed to get out of the way before we could leave Chums Circle. It all rushed back, and I told the story, like I often had on the island, about the tarp and the garage and the fire wood and how the spider had crawled out from the folds, onto my knuckle, and how I just stared at it, almost willing the thing to bite me before it did just that. And yes, I had seen the warnings on TV, heard them on the radio, sprayed poison around the foundation of our home at the insistence of my wife. I even tacked on that tired island punchline: “And that’s why I wear these rubber gloves.”

“Nice,” said the driver, and he guided me into the dog cage in the back of his truck. Even Tuffy would have found the cage snug, and though I had no plan to break out, they padlocked the gate shut. I knew where they were taking me. Not the exact place – it could have been a garage or a clearing farther into these woods or a farm with a secluded barn on the back of someone’s property.

It turned out to be a beach. I wasn’t ready for the sound of waves again. The island was so small, you never really got away from the waves. For half a day I had escaped the sound, and I hated myself, now, for the comfort it brought back. They pulled the cage off the tailgate and let it crash to the sand. My sunglasses fell off, and I wiped the sand from my eyes. The three of them stood with their flashlights and cans of insect repellent.

“Look at those things.”

“Damn it.”

“Jesus, he’s ugly.”

“Shut up.” The driver gripped the shoulder of the boy, worrying at his bottom lip just like Stanley used to, and gave him a gentle shove toward the cage. “Do the honors.”

Whatever he needs, I told myself, and when the sweet boy hesitated, long enough for a dragon fly to cross between us, I nodded for him to proceed, giving them my face until the cans stopped hissing, and all I could hear was their laughter, a sob, the sound of truck tires on the sand, the whir of a weather instrument, the wave.

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