STEVE STIFFENED AS SOON as the spider bit him. His yells stopped dead in his throat, his lips turned blue, his eyes snapped wide open. For what seemed an eternity (though it couldn't have been more than three or four seconds), he tottered on his feet. Then he crumpled to the floor like a scarecrow.
The fall saved him. As with the goat at the Cirque Du Freak show, Madam Octa's first bite knocked Steve out, but didn't kill him right away. I saw her moving along his neck before he fell, searching for the right spot, preparing for the second, killer bite.
The fall disturbed her. She slipped from Steve's neck and it took her a few seconds to climb back up.
Those seconds were all I needed.
I was in a state of shock, but the sight of her emerging over his shoulder like some terrible arachnid sunrise spurred me back to life. I stooped for the flute, jammed it almost through the back of my throat, and blew the loudest note of my entire life.
"STOP!" I screamed inside my head, and Madam Octa leaped about two feet into the air.
"Back inside the cage!" I commanded, and she hopped down from Steve's body and sped across the floor. As soon as she passed the bars of the door, I lunged forward and slammed it shut.
With Madam Octa taken care of, my attention turned to Steve. Annie was still screaming but I couldn't worry about her until I'd seen to my poisoned friend.
"Steve?" I asked, crawling close to his ear, praying for an answer. "Are you okay? Steve?" There was no reply. He was breathing, so I knew he was alive, but that was all. There was nothing else he could do. He couldn't talk or move his arms. He wasn't even able to blink.
I became aware of Annie standing behind me. She'd stopped screaming but I could feel her shaking.
"Is...is he...dead?" she asked in a tiny voice.
"Of course not!" I snapped. "You can see him breathing, can't you? Look at his belly and chest."
"But...why can't he move?" she asked.
"He's paralyzed," I told her. "The spider injected him with poison that stops his limbs. It's like putting him to sleep, except his brain's still active and he can see and hear everything."
I didn't know if this was true. I hoped it was. If the poison had left the heart and lungs alone, it might also have skipped his brain. But if it had gotten into his skull...
The thought was too terrible to consider.
"Steve, I'm going to help you up," I said. "I think if we move you around, the poison will wear off."
I stuck my arms around Steve's waist and hauled him to his feet. He was heavy but I took no notice of the weight. I dragged him around the room, shaking his arms and legs, talking to him as I went, telling him he was going to be all right, there wasn't enough poison in one bite to kill him, he would recover.
After ten minutes of this, there was no change and I was too tired to carry him any longer. I dropped him on the bed, then carefully arranged his body so he would be comfortable. His eyelids were open. His eyes looked weird and were scaring me, so I closed them, but then he looked like a corpse, so I opened them again.
"Will he be all right?" Annie asked.
"Of course he will," I said, trying to sound positive. "The poison will wear off after a while and he'll be fine. It's only a matter of time."
I don't think she believed me but she said nothing, only sat on the edge of the bed and watched Steve's face like a hawk. I began wondering why Mom hadn't been up to investigate. I crept over to the open door and listened at the top of the stairs. I could hear the washing machine rumbling in the kitchen below. That explained it: our washing machine is old and clunky. You can't hear anything over the noise it makes if you're in the kitchen and it's turned on.
Annie was no longer on the bed when I returned. She was down on the floor, studying Madam Octa.
"It's the spider from the freak show, isn't it?" she asked.
"Yes," I admitted.
"The poisonous one?"
"How did you get it?" she asked.
"That's not important," I said, blushing.
"How did she get loose?" Annie asked.
"I let her out," I said.
"It wasn't the first time," I told her. "I've had her for almost two weeks. I've played with her lots of times. It's perfectly safe as long as there are no noises. If you hadn't come barging in when you did, she would have been..."
"No you don't," she growled. "You aren't laying the blame on me. Why didn't you tell me about her? If I'd known, I wouldn't have come busting in."
"I was going to," I said. "I was waiting until I was sure it was safe. Then Steve came and..."I couldn't continue.
I stuck the cage back in the closet, where I wouldn't have to look at Madam Octa. I joined Annie by the bed and studied Steve's motionless form. We sat silently for almost an hour, just watching.
"I don't think he's going to recover," she finally said.
"Give it more time," I pleaded.
"I don't think time will help," she insisted. "If he was going to recover, he should be moving a little by now."
"What do you know about it?" I asked roughly. "You're a child. You know nothing!"
"That's right," she agreed calmly. "But you don't know any more about it than me, do you?" I shook my head unhappily. "So stop pretending you do," she said.
She laid a hand on my arm and smiled bravely to show she wasn't trying to make me feel bad. "We have to tell Mom," she said. "We have to get her up here. She might know what to do."
"And if she doesn't?" I asked.
"Then we have to take him to a hospital," Annie said.
I knew she was right. I'd known it all along. I just didn't want to admit it.
"Let's give it another fifteen minutes," I said. "If he hasn't moved by then, we call her."
"Fifteen minutes?" she asked uncertainly.
"Not a minute more," I promised.
"Okay," she agreed.
We sat in silence again and watched our friend. I thought about Madam Octa and how I was going to explain this to Mom. To the doctors. To the police! Would they believe me when I told them Mr. Crepsley was a vampire? I doubted it. They'd think I was lying. They might throw me in jail. They might say, since the spider was mine, I was to blame. They might charge me with murder and lock me away!
I checked my watch. Three minutes to go. No change in Steve.
"Annie, I need to ask a favor," I said.
She looked at me suspiciously. "What?"
"I don't want you to mention Madam Octa," I said.
"Are you crazy?" she shouted. "How else are you going to explain what happened?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "I'll tell them I was out of the room. The bite marks are tiny. They look like small bee stings and are going down all the time. The doctors might not even notice them."
"We can't do that," Annie said. "They might need to examine the spider. They might..."
"Annie, if Steve dies, I'll be blamed," I said softly. "There are parts to this I can't tell you, that I can't tell anybody. All I can say is, if the worst happens, I'll be left holding the bag. Do you know what they do to murderers?"
"You're too young to be tried for murder," she said, but sounded uncertain.
"No, I'm not," I told her. "I'm too young to go to a real prison but they have special places for children. They'd hold me in one of those until I turned eighteen and then...Please, Annie." I started to cry. "I don't want to go to jail."
She started crying, too. We held on to each other and sobbed like a couple of babies. "I don't want them to take you away," she wept. "I don't want to lose you."
"Then do you promise not to tell?" I asked. "Will you go back to your bedroom and pretend you saw and heard none of this?"
She nodded sadly. "But not if I think the truth can save him," she added. "If the doctors say they can't save him unless they find what bit him, I'm telling. Okay?"
"Okay," I agreed.
She got to her feet and headed for the door. She stopped in the middle of the room, turned, came back, and kissed me on the forehead. "I love you, Darren," she said, "but you were a fool to bring that spider into this house, and if Steve dies, I think you are the one who should be blamed."
Then she ran from the room, sobbing.
I waited a few minutes, holding Steve's hand, begging him to recover, to show some sign of life. When my prayers weren't answered, I got to my feet, opened the window (to explain how the mystery attacker got in), took a deep breath, and then ran downstairs, screaming for my mother.