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I Am Not Charlotte

Eric Witchey has sold a number of novels and more than 140 stories. His stories have appeared under several names, in 12 genres, and on five continents. He has received awards or recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer's Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations. His How-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer's Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.
Birth order determines so much of life, and I was first from the egg.
Certainly, mother loved us all equally. After all, she'd never met any of us. She tucked us in, wrapped in silk swaddling, and glued us to the back corner of the underside of an oak roll-top desk.
We waited through a long, northwest winter. The humidity was perfect. The house temperatures let us grow, and for whatever reason, I was in the perfect place to get just a smidge fatter and stronger than my sibs.
When the days got a little longer, I cut through the silken barriers that protected me and muffled my experience of the outside world.
Eventually, I had a name. Not then. Then, I was just First. Second was a meal. So was Third, Fourth, and Fifth. By Sixth, I was full. Sixth got the luck of the draw.
Sixth and I made it out together before Seventh through Seven hundredth had a chance to swarm us.
Lucky for us, too.
The Gatherer came for all of them. He was huge and hairless. He only had four legs, and two of them he didn't use for walking. He got in under the desk with a long gathering tube that sucked the brothers and sisters up like so much dust and dirt spinning in the wind.
Sixth and I ran as fast as our eight little legs could carry us. We bolted down the inside edge of the desk. I found a slot under the back, a place where cords dangled and slipped under to the space between desk and wall.
The gathering tube came.
I made it. I turned back. Sixth just cleared the slot when the wind from the tube tugged at him, pulled hard. I could see all eight eyes rotating, seeking some purchase. He grabbed a cord with two legs and the edge of the wooden slot with the rest. He held hard, and the wind pulled at his fine, black and orange fur.
I felt a tiny desire to not be alone. I started back, but he was gone. The Gatherer got him. Sucked him up. At least he wasn't alone. He was with the sibs.
That thought gave me a chill. Wherever the sibs were, they would be frantically eating one another. Sixth would arrive exhausted, weak from the run and struggle.
Too bad. I had other problems. The Gatherer wasn't done. It would come for me if I didn't hide well.
I ran along the baseboards, then around into a hallway. The great artifacts of the Gather's kind towered above and around me. I needed a place to rest, to spin, and to feed.
Another hallway, another great arch, and onto a cold linoleum floor. Hard surfaces everywhere. No cover. No place to hide.
But something about that room spoke to a place deep in my heart. It was the breeze, I think. Spring sang on that breeze. There was an open window, and beyond I heard food buzzing about in warming sunlight.
I climbed the wall and found a corner of the window where the screen was torn. It was perfect. I was hidden from the Gatherer by a sash and curtain. My web went up easily. Mother had passed us all the knowing of such things, and I took great pride in doing her justice by spinning out my memory of her skills.
First came a mosquito, then a gnat, then a fly. And so my days went for a week, then two, then a month.
I grew. I fed. I suppose I was happy there tucked into the corner of the bathroom window.
Of course, it didn't last.
The Gatherer came. He found me in my home.
In my home! How rude.
I took a grip on my webbing and I gestured to him, I tried to communicate. It was clear to me by then that he was a creature of consciousness like me. I spun out messages in silk, patterns that any creature of mind could recognize. There were geometries that showed the patterns of the universe I had recognized in my short life: the golden ratio; the relationships between sides and angles in triangle, trapezoid, and cube; the radius and circumference of circles; and finally, even a mimicking of the black squiggles marked on wood pulp sheets that so interested the Gatherer when he sat on the swirling pond.
It was that last that caught his eye. When he came for me, he came not with the gathering hose but with a glass jar.
"I'll get you, my pretty," he said. "I'll be rich."
"No," I cried out. "No!" I ran. But his jar came down and scooped me up, tearing at my web, my beautiful works, my art, my home. Tangled in the ruin of my own work, I became a toy, a creature on display.
Certainly, he was a good keeper, as keepers go. He didn't keep me in the jar. He gave me a large enclosure, a tank made for fish. I had the whole grand expanse to myself, and I suppose that was good. I spun a new web. He tossed me crickets. At first, I loved crickets. Eventually, I became bored with them. Finally, I learned to hate them. I prayed for flies, for mosquitoes with their meals still heavy in their bellies to spice their taste.
I grew. He fed me. I watched him for some mistake, for a chance to escape my prison.
"Spin me new words, Charlotte," he said.
"My name is not Charlotte," I told him.
He didn't understand. He wasn't as smart as I had given him credit for when I'd displayed the secrets of the universe for him.
I learned.
One day, I spun him a message in his own language, the language of the squiggles on wood pulp. "My name is not Charlotte," I said.
He brought me a cockroach.
I feasted. It was glorious. The roach tasted of all kinds of things, of metals and acids and soaps. Anything was better than meal-fed crickets.
He tore my web away. "Say something else," he said.
I spun a new web. "No," I answered.
He tore it away. There were no crickets for a long time.
I spun. He tore.
Finally, I spun a new message. "Feed me," I said.
Another roach and some crickets.
I grew. I spun. He brought a machine into the room with me. It was a great black eye on three silver legs. It watched me all day and all night.
I watched it.
Neither of us moved for a long time.
The Gatherer grew angry. "Spin words or no more food," he said.
In the back of my cage, behind a fern, where the eye couldn't see me, I spun a new message for him. "A little privacy, please?" I said.
He found it, but he was angry. "Spin for the web cam," he said. "Show the world I'm not insane, and I'll bring you anything you want."
"Anything?" I spun in the secret place.
He tore out the fern, leaving me no place to hide from the relentless eye. "Anything," he said.
I spun for the cam. "Bring me a baby mouse, pink, new born."
He did. I feasted.
"A rat."
I feasted.
More Gatherers came. They stared. They watched.
"A cat."
In the dark of the night, he came. The kitten was succulent. He took the cam away while I sat on the carcass for two days, sucking, growing.
My legs touched both walls of my cage, and my belly was so large I could barely turn around. On the glass, I spun a message. "New cage," it said.
So it went for the rest of the summer. When he came to move me to my third new cage, I took him.
I spun a thread around his neck and pulled. He struggled. He looked like Sixth, eyes wide and searching for something to grab, to halt the inexorable pull of my threads. He fought. His mouth worked, but my thread held his screams in his throat.
He was better than cats or dogs. He was nearly as good as the cockroach. So many odd tastes, unnatural, unknown: nicotine, and tar; mercury and lead; irons and alcohol. God, I loved it. It was so good.
I left his withered husk hanging from a thread so his empty eye sockets looked back into his precious cam.
If they were too stupid to see the mysteries of life when I spun them out right in front of the cam, then perhaps they were stupid enough to come and see what had happened to him.
I took his home as my new cage. Just inside the front door, I spun a new web. I suppose it was a joke at first to make it look like the gathering tube that had taken Sixth and all my sibs. Now, I sit and wait for them. They come, stupid, hairless, not using all their legs. They bring toys: things that spit pellets, things that spit fire, things that send electricity into my legs.
Maybe they're trying to communicate. Maybe we just don't understand each other very well. Soon, I'll need a new cage. Maybe when I move, I'll gather a few of them up and spend some time trying to understand them better.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 24th, 2020
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