The spider that crawled from its hiding place inside the hanging bull’s skull above Michael’s bed was not a tarantula. It possessed no large, slow-moving, hairy arms. It was small, by comparison. But it was faster. Its venom, too, was significantly more deadly. As the brown recluse hesitated on the edge of crossing under the skull, it suddenly slipped from the base of a bony projection of nasal cartilage on the skull. And it fell.
It landed on Michael’s forehead. Michael opened his eyes, although he wasn’t sure why. Then he felt something twitch on the sensitive skin of his forehead, and he froze in terror. The sudden springy impact and a slight spasm in his forehead had animated the spider into a defensive mode. Now, as he slowly raised his hand, the thing darted onto his eyelid, poised and ready. When his eyelid twitched as well, the insect atop it sent a barb of nerve venom deep enough into the fleshy lid to penetrate and mingle its minuscule cargo of toxin with the eye’s surface liquid. Its offensive reaction complete, the spider now jumped into Michael’s hair. Michael thrashed wildly, hands butterflying across his sweaty scalp. He screamed as he twisted, locking himself into his bed sheet as effectively and as tightly as if into a straight jacket. The spider jumped onto the wall just in time to avoid being crushed, and now it waited there, on the hard, unmoving surface, tense and ready for what was next. The skull’s eye sockets stared down at Michael in the moonlit bedroom as a silent transformation began. He began to go blind. He screamed louder and tossed his pillow away from his head, thinking the pillow had obstructed his view of the twilit room, but it had not. He rubbed his left eye at finding a soreness there--a shooting pain that was almost electrical in nature. He blinked rapidly, rising up in bed, thrashing against his mummy-like wrappings. Once free, he stumbled into the bathroom, and turned on the light. He stared into his reflection. His left eye was open, but he could only see it with his right. A welt appeared on the surface of the eye. It was a milky white color, as if bulging with puss. He splashed water into the eye, braying out in pain. It was no use. The eye was dead. He had a dead man’s eye. His face, too, looked dead in the mirror. His clammy skin was ashen, his curly black hair awry. The wrinkles he’d always tried not to notice were deeper than usual, giving a sunken deathmask pallor to his normally well groomed and handsome appearance. He screamed again, then rushed to dial 911. But the phone was dead now. The line had been cut. He turned to see a figure behind him, now, in the shadows. The glint of a blade. . . He screamed as loudly as he could, and this time it worked. This time the scream woke him.
Only a dream, only a dream, only a--
Breathing heavily, his heart thumping abnormally in his chest, Michael was staring up at the motionless bull’s skull above him. The dark sockets stared down at him like the eyes of a demon. He turned to switch on his nightlamp, and saw his alarm clock. It was 2:18 A.M.. He got up, wrestled the skull off the wall, and took it into the other room, where he laid it on his desk. Then he returned to bed, and cut the light. Now it was 2:20 A.M.. Still hours to dawn.
What would be next? he wondered. What nightmare was coming next? And how bad would it be?
“So anyway,” the nervous but handsome man on her couch continued in a quick wispy voice, “I can’t sleep. I mean I really do sleep, but I try not to. Some people get by with a few hours a night. Mainly old people. That’s all we really need, isn’t it? Couple hours to recoup? It’s the rapid eye movements that get you. I’ve got a loud alarm clock now, to prevent that. Like one of those car alarms, with a high hooting followed by some loud horn blasts that diesel trucks make. Because, you know, I dream in technicolor. They’re panoramic, wide-screen. And horror in a way, like the Hellraiser movies.”
“That right?” Veronica McCord guiltily scratched one word on her note pad. Wacko. Then she added a question mark. “You find that odd, don’t you? That my favorite thing to do when I’m supposed to be sleeping is walking around downtown, and looking into the shop windows.” “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“No, no--you mean from muggers or cops? Muggers are asleep that late, and cops . . . well, you can see them coming, unless they’re in unmarked cars. Got stopped once, but I explained that I’m a photographer.” Veronica rechecked the man’s brief profile in her case folder. “A photographer? Nothing in here about that. Says you work at a restaurant.” She held her pen above her pad, again. She couldn’t help it. Like a magic 8 ball, as she listened to Michael speak, the words popped up, inappropriate though they were to the discipline to which she had been licensed by the state of Arizona. Outwardly, of course, she only nodded or shook her head, anticipating the months years ahead it would take to unravel this particular mystery. In the meantime, she indulged herself with simplistic labels that she secretly hoped other psychologists sometimes indulged as well. A napkin, spoon, and soup tureen shy of a full place setting? “Coffee house, actually. That’s my new job. I used to be a photographer, though, see. For a magazine, and then for myself. Weddings, graduations, you name it. That’s how I can afford talking to you, for now.” “Uh-huh. Which magazine?” “National Geographic.” “You’re kidding.” “Am I? Maybe so. I meant to say RV Life. Although I’ve never owned an RV myself. My dad did, until that time he went down to Big Bend National Park in south Texas, and some two bit drug kingpin waylaid him, figuring a ‘73 Caddy wasn’t as comfortable as having an air bed and an outlet for a satellite linkup. You know, so you could know exactly where you are, and how the Broncos and Raiders are faring.” “You and your dad were close?” Michael looked at her, turning his gaze from the ceiling at last. He resembled an actor named Ray Liota, a man with jet black hair, intense blue eyes, and a kind of mischievous charm that hid a lurking danger beneath. “Not really,” he said. “I did run away from home, if you can call it that, at age eighteen. We’re weren’t rich, either. Dad used the money he might have used for my college education on the RV.” Veronica adjusted her note pad, studied the words there, and then ran a line through one of the tags she’s written. “So tell me about your mother, Michael.” Michael’s lips widened into a thin smile. “That’s what it always comes to, doesn’t it, Doc? Are you sure you don’t want to ask me what I was doing downtown taking photos late at night?” “Okay,” Veronica sighed. “But next session, please don’t drink so much coffee before you come in here.” “No coffee?” His voice sounded fearful again. She shook her head emphatically. “No. Because I’d like to hear from the real you.”