The first sign of disturbance in Cecilia O’Connell’s life arrived as a dream.
Like many of her dreams, her remembrance of it was faulty—a hazy series of images—several parts of it lost to the waking world. But she did remember the most arresting fragments of it: seeing herself walking through a heavy mist, the tiny droplets falling on her bare arms while wisps of darkness and light swirled before her. She knew something lay beyond the mist, hidden by its thick white curtain, evoking a familiar anxiety in her body which quickly blossomed into dread. She felt compelled to keep moving blindly through the droplets, through the haze, until she was certain she saw a shape in the mist, the grotesque silhouette of an immense insect—
She woke in her bed breathing heavily, her heart excited by the experience, then lay pulling pieces of her dream from uncertain memories. She told herself that it was only a dream, bordering on frightfulness, but not altogether horrifying. The most affecting detail was the sensation of the mist touching her arms, her face—it felt more like the fabric of an opaque white shroud than a mist. But perhaps she was only embellishing a dubious recollection.
After her dream, Cecilia’s life returned to normal. She continued executing the habits of her solitary existence, peering from time to time through the curtains of the windows and nervously anticipating her weekly visit to the market. The rest of her life could be conducted from within the walls of her house where the outside world rarely intruded.
Cecilia had been a bookkeeper for a large manufacturer before retiring, surviving the effects of her agoraphobia by hiding in a cubicle most of the day and then hurrying home when her workday concluded. Therapy and prescription medication helped her complete her professional career, but by the time she had accumulated enough years to earn a pension, therapy and drugs were no longer useful. She sold her car because driving mortified her as much as walking out of doors did, and she retreated to her house to live vicariously through her television, books, and computer, surrendering any hope of living a typical life.
She’d never married: marrying meant courtship, and courtship meant an endless series of debilitating social exercises. Her appearance often left her unnoticed by most people. Now she was sixty years old, gray hair undyed and plain; she had resigned herself to a friendless existence. People observing her from a distance might have seen her as a pathetic case, but from inside of herself Cecilia knew—with perfect clarity—that this was the only existence possible for her.
The next disturbance in Cecilia’s life, which seemed only an annoyance at the time, was a plague of webs that had begun to settle in the eaves of her house.
She noticed them hanging in the corners of the woodwork, beneath window boxes; they even blanketed the soffits. She turned to right the stubborn wire cart she always rolled with her to the corner market and, once she’d righted the cart, she gazed up at the webs in surprise. They had seemed to materialize from air and were beautiful in their own way, shining with a soft white sheen in the sunlight. But curiously, she couldn’t see any webworms in their silk. Would she have to call someone to clean the woodwork? Cecilia shuddered at the thought of speaking over the telephone. The neighbors might complain if she left the webs unattended to, but never mind. She would address the problem in time.
When she returned from her shopping—dragging the full cart behind herself and wishing it held more so she could wait longer between trips to the market—the webs seemed to have increased in number. At least, she now noticed webs in places that she hadn’t before.
She would have to call someone to brush the webs away and apply pesticide.
But now she only wanted to hurry inside her home. Visiting the market always unnerved her, left her hyperventilating. She hated being affected this way, but she’d been suffering from this throughout her life. And, throughout her life, she’d never found a treatment or approach that might cure her condition.
She’d wanted love, a husband, children. But she felt that having a family would bring a paralyzing amount of apprehension into her life, and so remained alone. Her parents were dead. She had a younger brother, Stephen, but he lived a thousand miles away, and they hadn’t spoken for years. She wondered why she didn’t call him more often. He used to call her regularly, but he likely became weary of being the only one of the two to make an effort to keep in touch. She didn’t blame her brother for ignoring her now.
Cecilia never did call anyone to treat the webs disfiguring her house. Every time she began researching exterminators on her computer, the necessity of having to speak to an actual human being motivated her to quit. She wasn’t irresponsible—only irrationally afraid.
No one complained, however. Perhaps her neighbors knew she wouldn’t answer the door if they had knocked.
A week later, as she sat in her favorite chair in the living room reading a book of old poetry, Cecilia heard a strange noise, as if a soft patter were reverberating from every part of the house. She laid the book on her knee, pulled down her reading glasses to hang on their chain, and listened. Yes, the noise mimicked the sound of snowflakes blowing against a window. But in August, in Springfield, no snowstorms ever blew.
She rose from her chair and walked to the front window, parting the heavy red curtains. To her surprise, small orange butterflies bounced from the glass haphazardly, tapping softly with every collision. Her mouth open in wonder, she studied the neighborhood beyond her window and saw impossible clouds of orange butterflies flowing between the houses like eddying currents of rust-colored water. The insects rained on the window, on the roof, against the walls of her house, against every house in her neighborhood. She smiled then because she found the sight sublime—extraordinarily beautiful. She’d read about butterfly migrations and knew they could appear in massive numbers over selected routes, but she couldn’t identify the species. They weren’t monarchs or swallowtails. An expert could surely identify their species, but she knew no experts.
Cecilia stood watching the magnificent display for nearly an hour before the mysterious population of butterflies dwindled until they ceased haunting the neighborhood altogether. When she opened her front door to look outside, she found a multitude of butterflies covering her lawn like orange snow, their wings twitching in deathly exhaustion. A boy came to mow the lawn every two weeks—she always handed him money through a half-closed door—so they wouldn’t remain on the grass for long. When he came again, the insects would disappear into piles of cut grass.
The sight of the dying butterflies caused a great wave of sorrow to wash over her. She held her arms against her breast to ward away the pain. She knew a million butterflies had survived their journey through the neighborhood, on their way to whatever destination gave their existence meaning. But the butterflies on her lawn—their tiny orange wings twitching like a dying breath—seemed more important to her, if only because they would never fulfill their life’s purpose.
Cecilia closed the front door, sat in her chair again, and cried. She felt foolish for crying, recognizing the paradox, but refused to guard any tears dedicated to the fallen butterflies. Their failure was her failure, too.
Perhaps the oddness of these previous events psychologically prepared Cecilia for the next one. Or perhaps its bizarre dimensions had convinced her that she was going insane and that, if she were, confessing her visions to another person would only lead to her institutionalization.
Once again, she suffered a bewildering dream: She found herself stranded out of doors, unable to return home. The dread of being exposed to the outer world filled her with an inexplicable panic, as if something horrendous were about to happen. Then she suddenly found herself surrounded by butterflies, small ones and large ones, swallowtails, sulphurs, and buckeyes, and even luminous luna moths by the millions, swarming around her, over her, through her. She felt their soft, tiny bodies dabbing her flesh and her face without violence, but in such numbers that she felt as if she were drowning amidst their wings.
In her dream she tried to scream, but butterflies fell into her mouth, silencing her. She felt the familiar sensation of a panic attack rising in her chest, warming her limbs with an expectation of death—
Cecilia woke in darkness then, nauseated. A disturbing fullness in her stomach translated into a soft moan in her throat, and she threw off her blanket thinking she would be sick. She swung her feet onto the floor and managed a single step toward the bathroom before falling to her knees. Waves of nausea paralyzed her—she waited on her hands and knees in the dark for the obscene convulsions in her stomach to turn into retching.
But she didn’t vomit. Instead, she felt something large and solid sliding up her esophagus, the sensation electrifying her neck and shoulders, as if something were slowly crawling from her stomach to her mouth. She couldn’t breathe. She opened her mouth and felt the object rising from her throat, over her tongue, and from her lips. It spilled onto the floor in the darkness. She struggled for breath as the nausea and paralysis faded, then she rose to her feet and stumbled backward to turn on the lamp by the bed.
Cecilia should have screamed when she observed what lay on the floor in the halo of light but, for some strange reason, she didn’t. A green caterpillar with white accents across the undulations of its body stood there, pulsating on the tile—an insect as large as her forearm, its simple brown eyes shining in the lamplight, its mandibles the size of a child’s fingers. Stunned, she realized the monstrosity must have risen from her gut, but the absurdity of the idea prevented her from panicking. She must still be dreaming, or she had fallen ill and was hallucinating. Giant caterpillars didn’t exist, nor did they gestate in human beings.
She sat on the edge of her bed studying the creature. She felt normal again; the nausea had faded completely. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table—3:00 AM. Wasn’t there some significance to that time of night? The enormous caterpillar did nothing for a while but quiver on the tile, and then it raised its thorax as if appraising its environment. For a moment, it angled its tiny eyes at Cecilia, and she and the caterpillar gazed at one another fixedly.
Then it began crawling across the floor toward the doorway of her bedroom.
Cecilia stood and hesitantly began following the impossible insect into the shadows of the sleeping house. She turned on the lights of the rooms they entered, careful to maintain a respectful distance, until they both moved into the kitchen. She turned on the kitchen light and watched as the caterpillar inched its way toward the back door and raised its thorax again. Its formidable legs began scrabbling at the paneling beneath the doorknob. After a few minutes of futile effort, it turned its head toward Cecilia and paused.
She understood but was afraid to approach. Perhaps sensing her fear, the caterpillar retreated from the door and waited.
Cecilia rubbed her cheeks nervously before finally stepping to the back door, turning the doorknob, and pulling it open. She moved away quickly, standing behind the counter by the oven. Once she felt safe, the caterpillar scuttled through the partially opened doorway and vanished into the blackness of the backyard.
She rushed to the door and pushed it shut; she locked it and hurried from the kitchen back to her bedroom.
Cecilia lay in her bed again, unable to provide an explanation for what she’d witnessed. She listened for a long time, fearing the creature might try to scratch its way back into the house, but the house remained silent. She left all the lights burning as she waited for dawn but eventually fell asleep again. She suffered no more strange dreams.
Come morning, Cecilia felt convinced that the events of the previous night were nothing but a waking nightmare.
She dressed, brewed her tea, and sat in her favorite chair while the reporters on the television kept her informed of the latest developments in the world. This continuous exposure to information simulated socialization and sufficiently satisfied her need for companionship. The on-air personalities spoke to her and her alone, though she knew this was only a trick of her perception. She didn’t bother to question it, but simply enjoyed its effect.
Suddenly, as she set her empty teacup on the small table by the chair, the memory of the giant caterpillar came back to her like a shameful confession. Annoyed, she tried to put it out of her mind, but the image of the undulating green larva refused to dissipate. Where had it gone after scrabbling out the kitchen door?
Cecilia rose, ignoring her reservations, and walked into the kitchen. She leaned over the basin and peered from the kitchen window, scanning the dirt and stones comprising the yard. Long ago, she’d had the grass removed and replaced with a layer of graveling so she wouldn’t have to suffer anyone maintaining the lawn. Backyard maintenance would involve unlocking the gate, conversing with others as they rolled in their equipment, observing them as they moved around the yard. This would have required too much involvement for her tastes, so she covered the ground with gravel and never thought about it again.
She couldn’t see anything unusual until she gazed at the small juneberry tree standing in a far corner of the yard: a tree that, despite a lack of care from her, still managed to bloom pretty white flowers during its season. From one of its thicker branches depended an unusually large green chrysalis, much like an unripened gourd.
She stood by the window, staring through the glass, the muscles of her back tightening until a sharp spasm pulled at her shoulders. She moved away from the basin, and a slight nausea warmed her stomach.
Cecilia found a broom and opened the back door. She slowly descended the pair of concrete steps leading to the ground, then traversed the gravel-covered yard, the broom handle angled before her like a lance, her shoes crackling against the small stones. When she reached the juneberry tree, she extended the broom handle and gently prodded the massive chrysalis.
The chrysalis rocked in the air; the branch from which it hung moved with the weight of it. It seemed solid—rigid in construction—and heavy, as if it contained substantial matter. But no insects grew so impossibly large. Should she call someone to examine it?
No. That too was impossible.
More people would come to see it—curious people, news people—and she wished to be left alone. No, she would have to leave it undisturbed, just as she wished to be. She would let it mature, then release whatever creature lay within.
The days passed. Every so often, she peered from the kitchen window, acknowledged the chrysalis still suspended from the juneberry tree, and returned to her chores. After a few weeks, Cecilia wondered if any transformation would occur at all. Subtly, the bright glossy green shell dulled, and brown spots marred its surface. Soon, the entire chrysalis browned, then changed color again to an ashy gray.
Cecilia continued her rituals, rolling her wire cart to the market and noting the ever-increasing contamination of webs upon her house. She read her books and watched her favorite television programs—unaware of the passing of time until the air cooled—and the fall temperatures fell over her house to remind her of the season.
One day, as she stood washing a dish in the basin, she happened to glance at the juneberry tree. Its branches were bare now, and sickly. The large chrysalis still hung from one of its branches, swaying strangely with the chilling wind.
She dried her hands and found the broom again, stepped into the backyard and approached the tree. Now she was certain her imagination was deceiving her—the wind wasn’t yet strong enough to sway the chrysalis so violently. As gently as possible, she raised the broom handle and prodded the surface of the cocoon, opening a small hole. It felt too light to be viable, but it hadn’t been split open.
She pushed it with the broom handle again but, this time, the chrysalis broke away from the branch and fell quietly to the gravel. She reluctantly broke it open with the broom but found only desiccated remains inside, a suggestion of an insect’s legs, possibly a thorax, and the ashy remains of what once could have been wings. She knelt and studied the ruined cocoon. Again, an intense sorrow overwhelmed her. Her tears slipped down her cheeks and fell to the gravel, disappearing.
Cecilia stood and crushed the remains of the chrysalis into the gravel with the broom handle, breaking it apart so she wouldn’t have to see it through the kitchen window and be reminded of the caterpillar’s failure to escape its confinement.
The weather grew colder; the rains came but did little to wash away the webs from her house. The memory of the desiccated cocoon was determined to haunt her waking thoughts. Cecilia sat in her chair and forced herself to think about her agoraphobia.
It wasn’t just the fear of public spaces, or the panic attacks, or the endless episodes of anxiety that shaped her life; she’d endured enough of it all to earn her release from the tyranny of daily suffering. That was the most important consequence of her decisions: the ability to live out the rest of her life without having to agitate the unbearable reflexes of anxiety that shadowed every ordinary act from going to the movies, to seeing the doctor, to exchanging small talk with the cashier at the market. The ordinary actions taken for granted by most people caused her so much psychological pain that she willingly turned away from them, no matter how much of life she was missing. The pain was extraordinary.
So, why should she suffer?
But she was lonely, too—she could deny it, but denying it wouldn’t make it any less true. All her life, she had been trying to find an elixir to cure the effects of it. She had spent all her money on therapists who passed the time drawing out her personal history, hoping to find the seeds of her condition. But her history wasn’t to blame. Her mother and father were decent people, her brother an ordinary boy and man. Her psychological prison was built of hormones and neurons—temporarily eased by pharmaceuticals—but never banished. Her genetic imbalance had pronounced a life sentence for her at birth.
But Cecilia was growing older, ever older, and didn’t have many more years left before she died. Did she really want to die with that loneliness still inside of her? Even as she considered these points, she felt anxiety warming her chest, and she had to breathe carefully to avoid suffering a massive panic attack.
This is my life, she thought. This is my life.
She fell asleep in her chair and, when she woke, she felt angry with herself for being a prisoner of her feelings. And so, for the first time, Cecilia determined on negating their poison.
She rose, found her coat, and stepped to the front door to get some fresh air. But when she opened the door, she found a thick sheet of webbing covering the entirety of the threshold. Daylight glowed softly against the silk, like light shone through a cotton bandage. Amazed, she pressed her palm against the webbing. It responded to the pressure of her hand but did not break, as if it were impossibly thick. She pressed harder, but the material held firm. She stepped back, rubbing her fingers together and feeling the slightly tacky residue.
Cecilia turned and hurried to the back door in the kitchen but, when she opened the door, she found the same thick webbing sealing the portal completely.
She ran from window to window, wiping the frost from the glass but finding only more white webbing obscuring the outside world. When she opened one of the panes, the webbing clung fiercely to the frame, refusing to be brushed away. She ran from room to room, but every portal of the house was covered by the webbing. Frantic, she opened the front door again and flung a book at the web; the web absorbed the book a few inches into itself before flinging it back into the living room. She retrieved a knife from the kitchen and thrust it into the soft white expanse, but the webbing only seemed to absorb the length of the blade without being pierced by it. She dropped the knife, stunned.
Slowly, she pulled off her coat, hung it on a rack by the door and stood in the dull light of the room. I must call someone, she thought, still dazed. Yes, I must call someone to come and remove the awful webbing from my house so I can be free again.
She found her cell phone and sat in her chair.
But who should she call? She would have to find the number of an exterminator on her computer. Or someone who might be able to help her. But who? By then, she noticed that it was 6:00 PM; no business would send an exterminator to her house at this late hour. They would schedule an appointment for the next day, surely. And she was all right, after all. The webs were merely a nuisance, not a threat.
Cecilia sighed, placed her phone on the table by the chair, and rose again.
She walked to her bedroom and changed her clothes. She wouldn’t panic this time: she would take her circumstances in stride, accept the philosophy that life was unpredictable. She would live her life like a normal human being. After dressing for the evening, she watched a few hours of television, then lay in bed reading the last few pages of a book of old poetry—the antiquated rhymes moving across her lips—before closing the book and turning off the light.
I’ll call someone tomorrow, certainly. Tomorrow.
And so, Cecilia slept.
LAWRENCE BUENTELLO has published over 140 science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories in numerous magazines and anthologies. His fiction can also be found in several collections of short stories. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.