The rickety screen door slaps shut behind me as I enter the party house.
Although I could hear the music from the street, once inside, the bass line batters into me, muffling reality. I push against the waves of sound and people, trying to look cool, collected, purposeful. Eyes glaze over me, concluding I should be here, in my short skirt and sleek black tank top. They accept me into the fold of sweaty bodies and smeared make up and bad breath. Some even smile and nod, like we’re old friends with lots of inside secrets.
The truth is I’m a stranger to this house and the people in it.
I came for one thing, and it isn’t a drink or a hit or a one-night stand. The ring my mother always wore around her neck on a silver chain flashes in my mind. That ring is here, inside this house, because the man who lives here stole it from her. From us. I live in a world where everything is taken from my mom and me. First her job, then our house. Later, our pride.
They can take, take, take, but not this.
My feet guide me to the stairs, not far from the door I came in. I know the ring is up there. In his room.
He keeps all the jewelry he hasn’t pawned yet up in his bedroom. There’s a hollowed out skull he throws it all in. A local punk I’d softened up with some heavy-handed flirting told me this about the man who broke into our apartment three days ago and assaulted my mother.
My mother. My five-foot-three, one-hundred-and-twenty pound, cries-when-she-watches-baby commercials mother. Anger rolls off of me like heat off of asphalt in the summer, and I have to breathe deep to prepare for my ascension to the second floor.
I begin to climb, making sure to yell out every few steps, “Bathroom? It’s up here, right? Gotta break the seal sometime!” It rakes my insides to be chummy with people who’d party with such a scumbag, but it’s necessary, so I do it.
Once upstairs, my heart beats faster than the racing remix song that just started. The humid air hangs heavy around me, and sweat prickles my skin, making me shiver. I push open the first door and find the actual bathroom, so I move on. The next door is locked, and I curse myself for not bringing a hairpin.
The third and final door is also shut, but when I twist the knob, it doesn’t take from me.
Light from the hallway snakes into the room through the opening. From the doorway, this man’s gluttony is evident. The king-sized bed overwhelms the room, garnished by a floor littered with dirty clothes and dishes. A rank smell winds itself around me, a combination of musty weed and rotting food. Clenching my stomach, I step inside and flip the lights on.
Immediately, my eyes are drawn to it. It’s the only thing sitting on the elegant nightstand near the bed, egg white and wicked.
I approach the skull bowl cautiously, fearing that it can’t be this easy to get my mother’s ring back. Bending over so I’m eye-to-eye-socket with the skull, I reach my hands out to reveal the treasure inside. But before my victory can be claimed, a big, horrid spider crawls out of an eye hole, and everything in me recoils. My determination, my dignity, my stomach.
I didn’t think this mission would be easy, but I never imagined I’d be faced with one of my greatest fears to complete it. And that fear rages through me, setting off a panic alarm throughout my body. I’m breathing too fast and my intestines feel as though I’m trying to twist them into balloon animals.
My survival mode wages war inside of me, disagreeing at every molecule level on whether fight or flight is the best solution to the problem. But I need my mother’s ring, so my heart pulses with fight.
Before I can reconsider, I snatch a bowl and plate off the floor and approach the eight-legged terror.
This is what’s happening, I coach myself. I’m going to take from my fear.
I take its power and its strength, and I harness it as I move toward the one thing that’s made my skin crawl since I was little. Because if I have a fear greater than my one of spiders, it’s the fear of never knowing what it’s like to claim something as my own.
The spider scuttles near the edge of the nightstand, and I freeze. I’m a rubber band pulled taut, and all I want is to snap back to my comfortable shape. A shape that drops these disgusting plates and runs out of this dump of a house. A shape that leaves the ring behind so we don’t have to worry about someone taking it again. A shape that doesn’t face off with spiders that crawl out of skull eyes. (I mean, come on?!)
Slowly, I raise the plate up to the lip of the nightstand, training my eyes on the spider. It’s as black as coffee grinds and something I wish I could throw out in the trash like them, but I have another fate planned for it.
Taking one final, steadying breath, I kick the nightstand and watch in horror as the spider crawls right onto the plate. With all the calmness I can muster, I slide the bowl over the spider, trapping it between the two. Holding in a shriek, I place the dishes at the top of the bed and cover them haphazardly with pillows.
With my hands safely pulled back, I now pray it’s a spider that doesn’t like to be disturbed. Maybe it even has biting on its Top Favorite Things to Do in the Dark. This thought cracks a smile on my face, and my muscles sigh with relief from the tension.
With the nightmare restrained, I dump the contents of the skull onto the nightstand. My mother’s ring winks at me from the top of the pile, like it had known I was coming to rescue it. I grab it, leaving the stolen dreams of others splayed across the exquisite wood finish.
Once I’m far away from the house and the music and the fear, I risk a peek at the ring once more. It shimmers in the flooded streetlight. Like a star just waking up, it stretches and yawns, smiling in the shadows of my cupped hands.
The clasp is broken, but that can be fixed. My mother’s vase in the kitchen is shattered from the altercation, but that doesn’t matter. Her face is bruised, but it will heal just fine.
I close my hands around it, and walk toward the bus stop that will take me back to my waiting mother. She doesn’t know what I left to do, and she’ll be upset when she finds out. But then she’ll take the ring into her hands, and she’ll remember. She’ll remember what it represents: commitment, perseverance, sacrifice. And of course, love, the thing that cements all the other good things together.
There will be a time again when we will have more than enough to live. We will have more than a one-bedroom apartment with a leaky roof and broken windows. We will have more than stale cereal for breakfast and ramen noodles for dinner. We will have more than thieves for neighbors and poverty banging on our door.
Until then, we have a ring. A ring that I’ll give back to her. A smile that she’ll hand to me. A hug that I’ll offer to her. And on and on it will go until we are rich with things that can’t be taken away.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
THOUGHT PROCESS: I considered the three elements of the story and tried to think how I could put them all together: a stolen ring, a sinister stranger, and a fear of spiders. I first focused on the stranger, and thought it would be someone who is a stranger to the MC, but what if the MC is the stranger in the story? From there, I considered the MC regaining back a stolen ring and being faced with a fear of spiders to finally retrieve it. At first, I imagined her sneaking into a house of the person who stole it, but that didn’t seem like her being a stranger if no one was around…so I decided something needed to be happening at the house for there to be people in it, but an event where she wouldn’t be noticed or singled out much…so I thought a crowded house party fit this well. Lastly, I just needed to figure out the backstory behind the ring (as the fear of spiders doesn’t really need explaining). Since I usually write YA, my thoughts went to the MC being a teen, so it made sense that she’d risk something to get a ring back that meant a lot to her…or maybe her mother. Maybe it’s cliché, but my thoughts went to a single mom trying to raise her kid without much income, and some punks rob her, stealing one of the only valuable and meaningful thing she has…and the MC must ask around the neighborhood to find out who the perps were and decides to go in and get the ring back herself. Luckily, it was only the spider that caught her 🙂