Sarah Pinborough is the author of five horror novels – including The Hidden, The Reckoning, The Taken and Tower Hill – and various short stories. She has been short-listed twice for the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel and lives in Milton Keynes, England with her cats Peter and Mr Fing. Her next horror novel Feeding Ground (Leisure Books) – a sequel to her popular book Breeding Ground – will out in all good bookshops in the US in October 2009, and below is an exclusive extract from this. Her first thriller A Matter of Blood (Gollancz) will be out in the UK in 2010. Sarah is also a member of the MUSE writing collective with fellow authors Sarah Langan and Alexandra Sokoloff. To find out more about her, visit www.sarahpinborough.com
It was past two when Harry woke, his skin shivering and slick with sweat, the taste of a panicked dream still in his mouth.
'Why not me?' The disembodied voice rang hollow, the words followed by a sorry laugh as they cut invisibly through the window glass and hung in the middle of the room, taunting the boys who slowly sat up, staring at each others' dark outlines in the gloom.
'What the...?' James kicked off his covers as if convinced he was still in a dream, and Harry grabbed his arm.
'Is that a..?' Josh's whispered question was cut off by another outburst from the street.
'Why the fuck not me? Can you tell me that?'
'It's a woman.' Peter's voice was low.
The laughter from outside slurred and drifted, and then a bottle smashed.
'Everyone but me.'
The voice was quieter but closer and Harry crawled over to the window, lifting a tiny edge.
'Don't let them see us. Don't let them...' Peter pulled his knees and covers under his chin as he whispered frantically, until Josh huddled in close, wrapping an arm round the younger boy's shoulder to calm him.
Body heat brushed Harry's back as James peered out through the small crack behind him.
'What's going on out there?'
Harry ignored Mr Green's question and stared. Outside, the street lamps were still working, throwing down pools of light onto the cars and dark tarmac. The woman was walking up the centre of the road, using the broken white line as if it was a balancing beam, her arms spread wide, one foot carefully placing itself in front of the other in that way that children do. A little further back, shards of glass glittered like emerald stars against the midnight of the road. The neck of the wine bottle had rolled further, separated from the rest.
Drunk, of course. She had to be. Why else would she be out wandering the streets in the middle of the night? It was crazy. Maybe she was crazy. Almost directly outside the house the woman paused, and Harry couldn't help but stare, drinking her in. They hadn't seen a woman in almost a week, not so very long a time, but enough to make Harry silently think that perhaps they would never see another again. Her long hair tumbled thick and free in auburn waves around her shoulders, heavy coils falling over her face as her head lolled forward, and with her arms still outstretched she spun round and round in untidy circles, her laugh hiccuping as her feet stumbled on their circular path.
'What's she doing?' James' whisper was harsh in his ear. 'What's she doing out there? Why doesn't she get inside?'
Finally, the spinning stopped and she tilted her head back, letting the rain splash her face and neck. She wasn't young or slim or pretty. Even from the distance Harry could see the lines carved into her neck where the skin was no longer firm. She was blandly ordinary and reaching out for middle -age; maybe in her thirties, perhaps even older. The kind of woman his own mother would call 'attractive when she smiled' which Harry had long ago figured out she said when she didn't want to use the word 'ugly.' Kids were more honest. The woman out on the street wasn't ugly, but there was a nothingness about the way she looked as if life had long ago beaten whatever glow she might have once had out of her. Her hair though, was dramatic, and watching it fall down her back Harry felt the urge to bury his head in its thickness and smell its life and femininity, despite its owner's age and dulled looks. He stiffened slightly in his jeans, the reaction involuntary.
'Should we get her inside?' James whispered again.
'We have to.' Mr Green hissed. 'The poor woman..'
'She's making too much noise.' Harry's breath made shapes on the window. 'Let's wait. See what happens. We can look for her in the morning if it comes to it.'
'She'll be gone by morning.' James cut in, softly. 'One way or another.'
Her laugh had turned to sobs and as her shoulders slumped, she covered her face with her hands. It was eerie hearing her plaintive hitching of breath, out there in the dead street. Harry felt like a voyeur watching her; the curtain making a twisted peepshow out of her distress.
'I wish she'd go away.' Josh sniffed. 'I wish she'd just shut up and go away.'
Watching her, Harry wished it too. For her own sake, if not for theirs. What was she doing? She must know. Surely she must know that it wasn't safe. Out in the street, her sobbing stopped suddenly and her head rose, a sound at the other end of the street catching her attention.
'Oh God.' James' words were dry in his ear.
The next few minutes seemed to last forever, like a car crash with every detail unfolding vividly in slow motion and yet the brain still can't seem to find the will to react, left only to observe with mild surprise as the panels crumple and glass shatters.
Harry watched the woman's expression change with horrified fascination. Her shoulders shook with a couple of last sobs and then she wiped her eyes. Looking up, she sighed and then froze. Her brow furrowed, confused. She stared straight ahead and Harry could almost see her self-pity evaporate into the hot night air as she realised what she was looking at.
'What?' Mr Green was on his feet. 'What is it?'
'What do you think it is? For God's sake keep Josh and Peter quiet.'
'Are they coming? Are they out there?'
Harry listened to the words that flew urgently around him as if they belonged in a different world. He was locked in with the woman outside. He knew he should shut the curtain, get back into bed and tug the covers over his head until it was done, but he couldn't move. His knees ached on the hard floor, but he ignored them.
In the street the woman took two careful steps backwards, no childish arm waving this time. Her mouth fell open. In the corner of his eye, just edging past the tatty paintwork of the windowsill, Harry saw two white spindly legs creep forward. Even through the glass he could hear its inhuman hiss, the emerging pale body trembling slightly as the sound snarled from every surface. It raised itself elegantly up on its rear legs, its front limbs making jerky circles in the air, and it was only when the woman saw the revolting suckers of its underbelly that the true nature of her situation seemed to sink in.
Harry had never seen drunkenness slide away from someone before as easily if it were a discarded coat, but as adrenaline flooded her system, he watched a clear, sober light dawn in her eyes. She glanced from side to side as if she had no idea how she'd come to be out here, how she'd come to do something so stupid. Her feet stumbled backwards with more urgency, her hands rising up in a poor imitation of the creature's legs as if her flabby flesh could somehow ward it off. Her lips moved as she muttered something under her breath, but Harry couldn't make out the words, even though some part of him felt that it was important they were heard, that someone at least would remember them.
The hardness that had been growing in his jeans retracted, disappearing into itself as a chill gripped the pit of his gut. The mutated thing in the street dropped back down and took a few, teasing steps forwards, playing with the woman. Harry had seen enough over the past few days to know that it could easily leap on her from where it currently stood, the distance between them barely a matter of ten feet. The woman and the spider were so fixated on each other, that neither noticed what Harry could see so clearly.
A shudder ran through him and the back of his neck itched. On the front of the house opposite, translucent skin shone in the dark night as the thing emerged from the gloom of the roof tiles, hanging over the gutter for a moment before scuttling half way down the front of the building, its revolting slick surfaces glistening in the reflected glow of the street light. Its myriad of red eyes burned, each tiny beam of light a shard of hungry anger. Harry's throat dried, watching it creep further down until it curled itself round the front window lintel and waited silently for the right moment.
In the middle of the tarmac, still on the white line, but Harry imagined wishing she was anywhere else but, the woman shook her head. 'No..No..No...'
Gripped by fear, her words were clear enough as the spider in front of her advanced and Harry could make out the rise and fall of her chest as she sucked in deep lungfuls of panicking breaths. His eyes burned to squeeze themselves shut but somehow his eyelids refused to comply. He thought of the gun lying next to his mattress and the grenade out in the hallway. Maybe if they went out now they might have a chance of saving her. The idea faded as soon as it had come, the attack on the army truck too clear in his memory. He wouldn't go outside. He couldn't. Not for a stranger. Even if they killed those two, there would be others. It was the woman's own stupid fault that she was in this position. He couldn't let it be their deaths also.
His heart raced, bile rising up in hot, acid waves from his stomach. He just wished they'd do it. Get it over with. Get it...
The creature on the wall of the house sprang forward, on the woman in one easy bound, knocking any scream out of her on impact, her eyes and mouth both widening with shock and complete surprise. As it wrapped itself around her body, Harry watched that long auburn hair fling itself from side to side, only that and her booted feet visible.
The other spider hissed angrily but it was too late. The hunter and its trapped prey disappeared swiftly into the night, the woman finally finding her lungs and letting out a brief wail that echoed back through the street as if it could pull her back to safety on the road.
Finally, Harry let the curtain drop, the dull gloom of the room leaving black shadow residues at the back of his eyes, the shape of the woman and the spider lingering there until his sight adjusted. His breath came hard and rapid, and pushing James out of the way, he scurried onto his mattress and pulled the covers right under his chin, curling up in a ball.
It was only when his trembling eased twenty minutes later that he finally spoke.
'We have to get out of the city. We have to.'
His words were quiet but sank with their own weight. No one answered. But then, he figured, as he straightened out and stared at the ceiling, trying to pretend that the woman in the street had just been part of some awful dream, no one had disagreed either.
(C) Sarah Pinborough 2009
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.