Maria walked through the woods, letting the sounds of her neighborhood fade behind her as she moved deeper into the trees. She stopped as she heard Pedro’s taunting laughter trailing behind her. Probably picking on Wanda, now that I’m not there, she thought as she resumed walking.
Maria knew she was the scapegoat of choice for Pedro and his flock of followers. Wanda would do in a pinch, but only if Maria wasn’t there. It was because she was different, although no one ever called her that, except for the bullies. No, she was special. She hated that word. Adults used it constantly around her, trying to get her to smile and agree with them, as if they would somehow feel better about themselves if only Maria would accept the label. Special.
Today had been worse than normal, from a bullying standpoint. Pedro and Alejandra had knocked her over twice and called her a freak seven times; she had kept count. She had a scraped knee, and her elbow was bruised. She refused to cry at the names they had called her, but she carried the weight of them just the same. Her sundress, pink with white flowers, was torn at the hem and muddy from the wet pavement she had been pushed onto.
When she could no longer hear the neighborhood, or the sounds of cars from the nearby road, she knew she was close. Her place. Where she could go, be all by herself, and not be bothered by anyone. A place where no one tried to make her feel special, or picked on her for being different. Where well-meaning adults, bullies, and annoying little brothers were not welcome.
It was a small glade in the woods. She had found it last year, on her eleventh birthday. Her little brother, Leon, had broken her brand new Nintendo before she had gotten a chance to play with it. With angry tears running down her face, she had run as fast as she could from the house, leaving behind her other presents, her cake, and her friends. After wandering around the woods in anger and hurt for half an hour, she had stumbled upon the glade. And had been coming back at least once a week ever since.
She could walk around the glade in under a minute, if she hurried. The trees outside the glade formed an almost perfect circle as far as she could tell. Inside, the grass and weeds were mostly green, but the brutal sun had turned some of it brown. In the center, a jagged boulder jutted out of the ground and pointed at the sun. She liked to imagine that it was a ancient sundial, or some other astronomical device created by ancient people. Like Stonehenge or the Pyramids in Egypt.
The cracked and jagged boulder pushed ten feet out of the earth and was home to snakes, rodents, and even a field mouse or two. Once, she had spotted an armadillo wandering around the glade. These were her companions at Mount Maria, as she called it.
She placed a hand on the hot stone, reached into a crevasse, and retrieved her notebook and pencils. She always wrote poems when she came here. No one would ever read them, she blushed at the thought, but she wrote them anyway.
She walked around the rock until she found its shadow. Hiking up her dress, she sat in the shade and opened her notebook, flipping to the last poem she had written:
sometimes the difference is in you not me
sometimes the fear is yours not mine
oh how I wish you’d look at me and see
that even though I say it i’m not fine
It was short, and she had liked it until she had read it aloud. It had sounded awful, and she wasn’t sure what she had done wrong. Another bad poem, she sighed as she flipped through the twenty other bad poems in this notebook. It had been more of an experiment than anything. She had read about a poet who never capitalized his words and never used punctuation, and she had tried it herself. It felt like she was doing something wrong when she wrote that way, but it also made her feel powerful, as if she could break any rule if she really wanted to. Maybe the poem wasn’t all that bad, after all.
Feeling a little better about her previous poem, she flipped to a blank page and started a new one. Though she tried for fifteen minutes, she couldn’t get past the first line. After four false starts, and being unable to come up with a good rhyming word for “pretty,” she stopped chewing her pencil and gave up. Setting her notebook down, she walked around the glade a couple of times, looking for poetic inspiration.
It was then that she saw it. It hadn’t been there on her last pass around the glade, but there it was now. A large, furry, unrecognizable, lump was squatting right next to her notebook. It was as large as her pet dog, Bubba, and Bubba weighed at least fifty pounds.
She couldn’t see what it was. A raccoon maybe? Or a groundhog? It was too dark-furred to be an opossum. Whatever it was, it was not moving, and was barely breathing. Only at sporadic intervals did the body of the creature rise and fall with breath.
She slowly walked towards it, intentionally making noise in the hopes of eliciting a response. It didn’t move. As she grew closer, she hesitated. What if it were rabid? Her mom told her that if an animal with rabies ever bit her, she’d have to get a shot in her belly button or die. Both options were terrifying to her.
Maybe I should leave, she thought just as the creature stood up. She froze in fear, feeling an icy coldness run down her legs and into her feet. It was not a dog, a raccoon, a groundhog, or an opossum. It rose on half a dozen hairy legs until it stood as tall as she. It was facing away from her, but she didn’t need to see its face to know what it was. It was a giant spider.
She must have gasped, because the spider whirled around and faced her. Maria lost her balance, and fell onto her backside, in surprise at the sudden movement of the spider. ¡Dios Mío!
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she screamed as she did her own frantic imitation of a spider walk as she shuffled backwards as fast as she could.
The spider came at her, its legs moving in horrifying synchronization. Its eyes, large in its head, reflected her image back at her. There was something so dreadful in seeing her own face reflected back at her as the spider scuttled towards her that she squeezed her eyes shut.
Her arms lost strength and she fell onto her back and curled up in a ball. She saw the light change behind her closed lids, and felt the cooling of the midday sun. She was in a shadow – its shadow. The spider was standing right over her.
I guess this is it – I’m going to get eaten by a spider. That’s what spiders do.
She felt a poke.
But why didn’t it hurt? Had the the spider had merely touched her? She screwed her eyes even tighter and moaned, sick to her stomach. She felt lightheaded and dizzy from breathing so fast.
Spiders eat by sucking out the insides of their prey, like a juice box. She wasn’t supposed to be a snack for a giant spider. Her entire body trembled at the thought and she felt like she would throw up. The spider touched her again; she squealed and rolled away as quickly as she could. She clamored to her feet, with her back to Mount Maria. She picked up a rock, as large as she could comfortably hold, and held it high.
“Go away!” she cried. The spider was just a few feet away, reflecting her image in its terrible eyes. She hefted the rock and yelled again, “Just go away!”
The spider tilted one side of its head slightly downward and just stared at her, not moving. They stood, staring at each other, for a short eternity. Terror has waves, and Maria felt hers ebb as the standoff continued. Her shaking lessened when the spider didn’t move towards her and she began to think coherently Then the spider tilted its head to the opposite side.
Why is the spider just looking at me?
The rock in her hand was getting heavy, so she slowly lowered her arm. When her hand was back at her side, the spider moved forward again.
“Stop! Or I’ll have to . . . smash you!” she commanded, raising the rock again. Her heart began pounding in her ears as a new wave of panic washed over her. The spider stopped and shuffled back into its original position while making a metallic clicking noise.
She slid along Mount Maria, trying to circle away from the spider. It followed, never coming any closer, but neither would it let her get further away. What was it doing? Why was it trapping her here and just staring at her?
A spider had eight legs; she counted six on this one. It also had only three large eyes instead of the dozens she thought a spider was supposed to have. And it had a tool belt around its abdomen, with various small devices dangling from it. Every time the spider moved, the gadgets would make light clinking and clanking noises like a small jar full of change.
Her curiosity grew again, even as her fear lessened in equal measure. As long as it kept its distance, she wasn’t terrified. Watching it move was horrible, though. It evoked fears in her that she hadn’t realized she even possessed when it moved.
How could a spider wear a tool belt? Who was brave enough to approach this gargantuan arachnid and put one on it? She was quietly proud of both the words ‘gargantuan’ and ‘arachnid.’ They would be awesome words in one of her poems.
Her thoughts froze as the spider lifted one of its legs. It held it high, unmoving, as it continued to stare at her. What was it doing? Getting ready to attack? She gripped her stone tighter and raised her arm into better throwing position.
The spider copied her, moving its leg higher in imitation of her arm. She lowered her arm; the spider lowered its leg to the same position. She lifted her other arm. Again, the spider copied the movement with its opposing leg. It was a copycat spider now. She raised both arms; the spider responded in kind.
“You’re not going to hurt me, are you?” Maria asked the spider. “You’re a good spider. You’re a good spider.” She spoke softly and soothingly, like she did to strange dogs and babies. It didn’t matter what you said, as long as you said it in a nice voice. She slowly set the rock down. The spider didn’t move. That’s a good sign, right?
“You’re someone’s pet, aren’t you?” she asked. “Or maybe from the zoo?” She tried to slide away along Mount Maria again. The spider clinked and clanked as it followed. Drat!
“I need to go home,” she explained to the spider. “I wish you could understand me; my mom needs me.”
The spider banged the ground repeatedly with a long leg as she spoke her last sentence. Maria stopped, her fear spiking sharply at the gesture. When the spider made no further move towards her, she relaxed somewhat.
Why had the spider banged its leg on the ground? That was a new behavior. Had she moved in a way that threatened the spider? Was it something she had said?
She looked at the spider with faint hope: “Wait,” she said. “Do you understand me?”
The spider banged its leg on the ground again, more furiously than before. Esto es una locura! It understands me, she thought.
“Count to five,” she said. The spider obediently banged its leg on the ground five times. It really did understand her. This was crazy. She felt her fear fade away completely and she took a hesitant step forward. The spider didn’t move.
“You’re from outer space, aren’t you?” she asked. The spider banged one leg firmly on the ground. Ok, she thought, one bang for yes, I think.
“You’re from here? From Earth?” Two bangs. That wouldn’t work, she still didn’t know which was correct. She’d have to get it to answer “no” to an obvious falsehood, so she could confirm.
She looked at the six legs of the spider and inspiration struck. “You have only three legs, right?” The spider banged the earth twice. Two bangs for no. Maria clapped her hands in delight. They were communicating. She was talking to an alien from outer space!
“Are you going to hurt me?” Two hard taps. She let out a sigh of relief. She had been holding her breath.
The spider approached her again. Maria stiffened in fear, but held still. The eyes of the spider were beautiful, now that she wasn’t so terrified. The giant black pools had tiny swirls running all through them. She raised a hesitant hand as the spider drew close. It responded in kind. Swallowing hard, Maria gingerly took the leg in her hand and shook it. It was soft. She had imagined the fur to be hard and sharp, like bristles, but it was instead smooth and soft.
“This is so cool,” she whispered as she stared into the face of the alien. Now that she knew it wasn’t actually a spider, she could see a lot of differences. It didn’t have fangs, but instead had a short dangly appendage like an elephant’s trunk for a mouth. It had holes on the top of its head that it breathed through. It didn’t have a segmented body, like a spider, but rather a single body with a head attached.
And it was bleeding. “You’re hurt,” she said. On one side of its body, a leg was dangling short. The stump of the leg was dripping large, fat, drops of blood on the ground. She hadn’t noticed the wound in her fear, but it was obvious now.
“What happened to you?” she asked, forgetting all trepidation and stepping close to inspect the leg.
The spider tapped the ground three times slowly. It was complicated, she understood, and not something that could be explained with yes or no questions. Try again, dummy, she thought, and ask the right way.
“Does it hurt?” One tap. Yes, it hurt. Of course it did.
“You can still walk,” she said. “Will it grow back?” Two taps. Maria felt a wave of empathy for the spider-like alien.
“Do you need to see a doctor?” One tap. Yes, it was hurt and needed medical attention.
“But not a human doctor.” One tap. Wait, what did that mean? She took a moment to parse the logic of her question and the answer. She thought she understood; the alien agreed with her. Yes, not a human doctor. It needed an alien doctor. Asking the right question was tricky, but so was interpreting the response.
“Where are your friends?” The alien reached behind her and tapped Mount Maria several times.
“In the rock?” Two taps. That wasn’t it.
“They’re coming here?” One tap. She was getting better at this!
“So we just wait?” One tap.
“Can I wait with you?” One tap. She clapped again in delight. She was going to meet more aliens. What had started out as a bad day had become the best day of her life.
“I wish you could talk,” she said as she slid back down onto the ground. The alien moved closer and slumped down to a resting position next to her. “I look through my uncle’s telescope at the stars sometimes. I wonder which one is yours? What’s your planet like? Why are you even here, on Earth?” She didn’t expect a response, and the alien didn’t try to provide. She was just giddy with excitement. Without realizing what she was doing, she began stroking the soft fur of the alien. It had no eyelids, and no pupils, so she couldn’t tell if it was looking at her or not, but she assumed it was, and spoke to its eyes as she continued to pet it.
“How did you get hurt?” Three taps. Duh; wrong type of question.
“Was it an accident?” Two taps. It wasn’t an accident.
“Something did this to you on purpose?” One tap.
“You were attacked?” One tap; yes. She felt a tremor of excitement in her belly.
“By a human?” Two taps. No, a human hadn’t done this.
“An animal?” Two taps again. She stopped petting the alien as understanding sank in.
“Another alien?” One tap. There was another alien.
“Like you?” Two taps. It was an alien, but not a spider alien. She felt herself tremble all over in growing fear. There were two kinds of aliens here, and one was trying to kill the other.
“Why is it trying to hurt you?” Three taps. It was so frustrating, talking only with yes or no questions.
“Will the other one come here?” Three more hesitant taps. It didn’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.
“You should hide, then,” she said. “If it comes here before your friends do, it could kill you.” One tap. It agreed. She stood and walked to the crevasse where she normally hid her notebook. The alien followed. The crevasse was actually a large, loose, mini-boulder leaning against the main rock face. It had a wide opening at the bottom. It was too small for her to fit in, but maybe it was large enough for the alien.
“Can you squeeze in there?” One tap. The alien maneuvered around her, pulled in its legs to make them shorter, and crawled backwards into the opening with its now stubby legs. Once it was situated inside, it was barely visible. Maria sat in front of it, completely blocking any view from the outside, and pretended to write in her notebook. “There,” she said, impressed with herself for solving the problem and not at all afraid that a spider alien was crouched right behind her, “I’ll protect you.” She felt very brave, but more excited than anything.
They waited. Maria continued questioning the alien. It would respond yes or no by tapping her back. The alien wasn’t boy or girl, but something else. She had no idea what that something else could be, and it kind of grossed her out, so she didn’t pursue that line of questioning. It was an adult. It was an explorer. It came to Earth to study humans. Its home star was very far away. There were many kinds of aliens in the universe. She was getting quite skilled and was beginning to learn a lot about the alien when something entered the glade directly in front of her.
She looked up from her notebook. It was the other alien. It was about half as tall as she, and stood on two legs. It had four arms arranged symmetrically around its torso. It was wearing a space suit of some kind; its features were hidden behind the suit and the visor. It had, in each of its four hands, what was easily recognizable as a gun.
The alien faced her, and she stared at it. Unable to control her fear, she started trembling. The alien touched a device on its chest. Maria gasped as a mechanical voice emanated from the suit.
“Do not be afraid, human adolescent. I require assistance.”
“W-w-what do you want?” Maria didn’t have to fake her fear; those guns scared her.
“I seek a being dissimilar to you and me. It is dangerous.”
“The spider monster, you mean?” Maria felt a sharp poke in her back, hard enough to make her gasp. The alien thought she was giving it up. She pretended to cough to cover up her sudden reaction.
“Affirmative, human adolescent,” said the emotionless voice as the new alien stepped forward. “You have seen it?”
“Why are you hunting it?” asked Maria, ignoring the painful jabs in her back. She had to know. Honestly, whom could she trust? Maybe the spider alien really was the bad guy and had been lying to her the entire time.
“It has come to this sphere to hunt and kill your people for sport. I have been assigned to apprehend it and remove it from this planet.”
“It has weapons like you?” she asked.
“Greater in magnitude. It carries a weapon in every hand that will diffuse the flesh and leave behind only the skeleton as a trophy.”
Maria blanched at the image of flesh disintegrating from a body.
A brief beam of sunlight broke through the forest canopy and reflected off a shiny object on the ground. Distracted, the alien holstered one of its guns and extended the empty arm an extraordinary length to grasp the object. Then the arm retracted in order for the alien to examine the item. Mario looked away in disgust as tongue-like appendage emerged from the chest of its suit and licked the object over and over again.
“I-I think the spider dropped that.” She raised a shaking hand and pointed obliquely into the forest. “I saw it run through here a few minutes ago; it ran that way.”
The alien dropped the object and drew its holstered gun.
“Do not be apprehensive, human adolescent. I will capture the criminal. Your assistance has been viewed favorably.” It turned and ran into the forest in the direction Maria had indicated.
She sat still for a few minutes, until the sound of the alien rushing through the woods faded into the distance. She turned to the spider hiding behind her.
“You didn’t have to poke me so hard,” she complained. “I had to know. When it lied about you having a flesh ray, I knew he was the bad guy.” The alien tapped once, and then rubbed her back gently. It was apologizing.
“It’s ok,” she said. “That was scary.” An affirmative tap.
Half an hour later, a group of four spider aliens emerged from the woods. With a lump of excitement in her throat, Maria stood and made room for her friend to come out of hiding. She watched in silent amusement as the spiders jumped and frolicked in obvious joy at finding their companion. Some form of silent communication occurred between them as they welcomed their comrade back. The spider aliens stopped their jubilant dancing and approached her. As one, they reached out and touched her gently on her chest. She touched each leg in kind.
Maria looked at her new friend, “Will I ever see you again?” Two sad taps. A tear formed and ran down her face. “I understand.” She reached out one last time and petted the body of her friend. The spider aliens turned and entered the forest, her friend trailing the rest. Her last view of her friend was when it turned around and raised its leg in one final farewell. She returned the gesture. Then, they were gone.
She waited a few minutes to compose herself, and then replaced her notebook in the crevasse. She was a little sad now that the excitement and adventure were over. She backtracked through the woods towards her house, wondering if anyone would ever believe her. If only she had proof that to wasn’t just a dream.
I wrote this as a STEM story for young girls in late grade school or middle school and never followed through trying to clean it up and publish it. Enjoy!