Someone had to be the first, Kass thought as she wrapped her arm around her legs, tucking her knees in under her chin. The ring danced through her fingers, winking in the thin light that fell through the stairs above her. They’d fawned over Wolf since he first arrived, listening to every word that came from his mouth as though it were spun of gold instead of bile.
Someone had to be first, and somehow it was her.
Footsteps thundered down the stairs, and Kass flinched. The ring slipped from her fingers, pinging against the floor. She scrambled to silence it; forced it to still. Small, hairy legs brushed against her frantic fingers and skittered away.
She hated spiders. They gravitated toward the same hidden corners that she did. Both liked to stay away from prying eyes, but she’d never been so bold as too stay in any one spot. She understood, in a way that spiders did not, the need to pick up and run at any moment.
She knew what it was to be crushed under the heel of someone bigger and meaner, someone who had an unfortunate dislike for sharing their (unused) space. But spiders never seemed to get the clue.
They like to set up shop, claim their territory, and terrify anyone else who approached. They didn’t care that boots and books could crush their bodies. They didn’t care that webs were fragile. Once a spider found its place in the world it was relentless: spinning webs, catching prey, and forcing all the smaller, younger creatures to bend to its will. And here she was with the ring, trying to disentangle herself from the web like a fool who didn’t know he’d find her, suffocate her, and suck her dry before she could escape.
Kass let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding when the footsteps retreated back upstairs. She was hiding beneath them, forcing a space for herself with the spiders. Kass eased out of her crouch, wincing against the fine, sticky lace of the spider webs she disrupted. They rustled against her breath; broken strands tickling the back of her neck. She was alone.
No one spent time in the basement of this desiccating building. The main floors were withered. Plaster fell from the walls and ceilings as though the house were trying to slough off one last skin before its inevitable death. Every floor was susceptible to violent rains of rotted floorboards and support beams. The basement was the last place anyone wanted to stay, but certainly the place everyone expected to suddenly be one day when the floors gave up on life.
She hadn’t questioned Wolf when he’d shown up three months ago with a bag full of meat and bread and pieces of fruit unbitten and unbruised. She’d flocked to his side, like he was Santa Claus, and pawed through the pile of food. Such wealth of quality and quantity none of them had seen in years.
They had all been stealing long before he arrived, but only scraps. Food. Clothing. They walked into bakeries and ran out with a loaf of bread tucked under their arm. Looked through waste bins. Unattended laundry piles. The police did little because they were young and gaunt, just trying to survive.
And when they came back to their condemned home, they pooled their ill-earned goods, helping the younger and hungrier. Until he came along.
He’d taught them to steal from pockets instead of bread baskets. Collect money, sneak away, clean your face, purchase food. Make people think the money was always yours.
But the police had less sympathy for a clean-faced kid stealing money than lean-faced kid stealing bread. Wolf ranted. He railed about the police, the prisons, and the city. He stormed away and came back with more food. He filled them with warmth and helped them forget whoever was now lost to them. And were they such a loss? If they’d been caught, they’d been clumsy. Foolish. Trying to ruin their whole way of life. Bringing danger to their building.
He’d whittled away the weak of them, the clumsy, the tired, the stupid, carving down their numbers into a lean, hungry group. He cut out the fat, leaving the ones who wanted more than to survive, more than warmth and comfort. The ones who, despite their no-account life, wanted to grow-up and rule. He kept them hungry and taught them, but not enough, not to read, not to grow, not to honor.
He taught them to look for wealth, have quick hands, and bring everything back to him, so he could control it as needed. He sent out the cleanest and prettiest with a morsel of the money and a list of things to purchase. They had trusted Wolf as though they were his pack, and for a while, Kass had too. She thought he was their alpha male. He’d trained them all, sent them off, and sat safe at home while they did his bidding.
He had his web woven throughout the city and didn’t cry when one of the strings got snapped, one of his children got lost. Kass had climbed in Wolf’s web, and now, she was waiting for him to suck her dry.
Except, she hadn’t waited. She’d moved forward, stealing the ring.
It had been so easy. They clustered in the attic where they could feel the wind shifting the house around at night and the sun baking through the clay tiles of the roof in the day. Everyone was asleep, used to the movement and noise of the night. Wolf slept in the cot in the center, with his left hand dangling off the edge.
He’d taught her to take without anyone noticing, and so, that night, she’d taken the ring. The one he twirled around his pinkie finger as he sent them into the city. The one that glinted in the candle light every time he punished them. She’d taken the ring and the money.
He said he was here to watch out for them, but he just got fatter, more powerful, while they stayed hungry. So she had taken his horde to the police.
She waited for their footsteps to thunder through their rotting home, knowing that the others had practice grabbing what they could and disappearing, knowing they could avoid being crushed. They’d clear out in seconds while Wolf tried to find his horde. They’d come back when the danger was gone.
When the noise died down overhead, Kass slipped the ring on the thumb of her left hand, the only finger it would fit on. She climbed past the broken webs, rotting floors, and up to the attic. When the others came back, they’d find her safe with the ring on her finger, the food at her feet, and their home rebuilt without him.