Jenny fell. Winter saw it in excruciating detail, how the spiders leapt up at her and moved up her body like sailors up rigging. As she tried to swat at them and pull them away they leapt onto her hands and arms, and then they were on her neck, her head, her face. She went down onto her knees first of all, then onto her front, scrambling and rolling and clawing at them, her voice lost to a single, long scream.
Winter looked at the car, at Mark. He sat there looking dazed, blood flowering from a cut on his head. The doors lay across the bonnet of the vehicle, and there was dust and wood chips and plaster all around.
She ran for it.
She felt little, spindly bodies crushing and splitting and scattering at her feet. Others hurled themselves at her, fastening onto her clothes and scrambling up in a mad flurry of legs. Pincers sank into her ankle, into the vulnerable flesh just above her kneecap. She screamed, in pain and anger and grief and swatted at them, knocking some away, crushing others.
The mother reared up, front legs sawing at the air, and began to back up awkwardly, moving towards the door through which she'd emerged. Winter saw little spiders clinging to the hairs of her legs, riding on her back, dropping from her face like flakes of dry skin. They were closing in, swarming, protecting their queen. But the queen was not her target. She made for the car, ignoring Jenny's screams behind her, ignoring the queen, ignoring Mark's shout of fear as the little monsters started scaling the car and tumbling in through the broken windshield.
She reached the car, found a door and wrenched it open, diving inside. Suddenly there was a spider on her chest, spindly feet scrabbling at the air. It was so close that Winter could see every one of its eyes, could make out every hair on its many legs. She could hear the screeching squeal that extruded from its jaws. She hit it, smearing it sideways across the front of her pyjamas, leaving a trail of blood and blobs and legs behind.
Winter flipped onto her knees and reached over the back seats into the boot, searching frantically. Mark had jumped from the car, swearing loudly, beating spiders from his clothes with both hands. She was alone in the car, a hundred egg-sized horrors struggling through the gaps between the seats, crawling up Winter's calves like eager hands.
"Get off me! Get off!" She kicked at them, losing her balance and falling back to the seats. She pushed herself up again, dived again over the seatbacks and found, almost immediately, what she was looking for.
Her hand closed over the cool smoothness of the petrol can, she wrenched it over the seatbacks and into the car and then, hugging it to her chest, leapt out of the vehicle. The whole procedure had taken only seconds. Mark stood not ten metres away, stamping and smashing and kicking at the massing crawlers, his legs up to the knees coated in red-black slime. Jenny was on her hands and knees now blood flowing freely, no longer screaming, her struggles growing sluggish.
And there was the mother, the queen, stuck absurdly in the doorway, legs scrabbling and pushing as she tried to manoeuvre her way through.
Winter ripped the cap from the petrol can, took two steps, and flung the contents over the queen. There wasn't much in there. Mark had only had cause to use the thing once, when he had run out of petrol last year while driving everyone to London for a daytrip. It had been Christopher who suggested leaving a small amount in the can, in case they should ever run out again.
Now that litre-and-a-half of fuel splashed out over the spider queen, which reared up and screeched in pain or protest. And every one of the little spiders howled and chattered and screamed as well, to hear their mother suffering.
"Mark!" yelled Winter. "Mark, lighter!"
He was already scrabbling in his pocket, and then he had it, the little silver thing, and he was moving for the queen, flicking it, coaxing out a small and yellow flame. The spiders seemed to sense his intention, and suddenly they had shifted and all were flowing towards him, still screaming, fast and deadly as a riptide. He ignored them, not even bothering to swat away the ones that flung up at him, that latched on and scrambled up his body.
The queen was frantic, limbs waving like hairy tentacles. Quite calmly, quite easily, as if he wasn't half-covered in her frantic, biting children, Mark ducked under one waving limb, and touched the yellow flame of his lighter gently against the body of the queen.
The flames caught, easily, quickly, looking to Winter as though they burst in a single rich orange spurt from the queen's body. They licked and wriggled and spread quite happily, and she saw smaller bodies dropping like twitching cinders from their mother, to smoulder on the floorboards, or set alight others that curled black or popped in the heat.
The queen screamed. The spiders screamed. The noise that had come before was nothing to the deafening, tortured sound they gave vent to now. A smell like burned hair, but a hundred times worse reached Winter's nostrils. Fire consumed the queen, and as she thrashed it spread, leaping to the spiders that milled around her, to the doorframe, the carpets in the lounge beyond.
"Time to go," said Mark. He was standing by her side, a hand on her arm. With the other he supported Jenny, who was covered in blood, head lolling on his shoulder, barely conscious. In a dozen places pincers and legs were still attached to her clothes and skin. "Come on," Mark said, and swept her towards the door.
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