Alex Reynard

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Pitch blackness stole his vision. Toby was wailing like a siren as gravity spun him around and around. He was a pinball with fur. The walls were soft soil, but every impact shook his bones. And the slime was everywhere. Despite his disorientation, Toby still registered it, viscous and vile, clinging to every part of him.

Then came a short drop through the air, and he landed on something that felt at first like a wet mattress.

For a few moments, all Toby could do was feel his body convulsing with each terrified breath. He realized he hadn't stopped screaming. His eyes were shut tight and his arms were clenched in front of his face. His inner ears sloshed, insisting he was still spinning. He tried to will the dizziness down.

The voice of his worrywart sung gaily; 'I told you so! I told you so!'

He couldn't deny that it had. Despite his fear he found time to feel ashamed of himself. 'I should have stayed in the cave! I should have stayed in the cave! I should have stayed in the cave!' One single trip from its safety had been enough to kill him. Like the complete weakling idiot he was, he'd ignored common sense and gotten himself trapped. Tears leaked through his tightly-closed eyelids. He punched himself in the head for his stupidity. How many days had he spent trying to keep himself alive, only to fail within an instant of leaving his safe space?

'You stupid mouse! Stupid! You're so stupid! This isn't FAIR! I only wanted some food! I was hungry! I'm going to die because I was hungry! I've probably fallen in some giant monster's mouth and any second the jaws are going to close and...'

Another part of his mind said, 'It might actually be helpful for you to open your eyes and have a look around. Maybe you're not actually dead yet.'

'Okay.' He breathed in. 'Okay, I think I can do that.' He breathed out. He really didn't want to open his eyes. If he looked, then he'd know what was waiting for him in this clammy lair. If he didn't look, then maybe he could just die in blissful ignorance.

He compromised and opened one eye. What he saw was about 50% unexpected.

Instead of a mouth, he was somewhere nearly as bad: a web. But like no spiderweb he'd ever seen on any nature show. It was horizontal, for starters, and densely-woven. Like a trampoline that someone had poured several gallons of mucilage onto. When he tried to sit up a little, he immediately slipped back down again with a goosh. He tried again. Same result. It was like trying to stand up on an ice rink in waxed socks. All he could do was continue lying on his back. Suddenly, he understood. This spider's design was not to snare its prey with stickiness, but to make its web escape-proof through extreme slickness.

Toby had to admit, it was a clever trick. This stuff was more frictionless than Teflon. He was in very bad trouble here.

But at least he could see. The web was stretched across the diameter of a roundish burrow about as large as a geodesic dome. Toby couldn't see all the way to the other side, but he could at least make out his immediate surroundings thanks to the thousands of little luminescent rocks embedded in the soil. Each one's glow was faint, but together they produced an effect like a gathering of fireflies.

It actually reminded Toby quite a bit of how his room looked at bedtime. His nightlight's candle-like glow, assisted by all the little LEDs on his various machines. The effect was pretty enough to be calming. And that was extremely helpful.

Toby could feel his panic churning around his stomach, eager to rise up again. (Just like those berries. They didn't seem poisonous, but Toby knew he'd thrown up from fear before. Some nightmares required a change in pillows.) To get out of this, Toby knew his rational mind would have to keep his fear at bay. He also knew he was not very good at that.

'Okay, think,' Toby told himself. Observe. That's what detectives did. They used their senses and sense to assess the situation and make their escape. Toby took some more deep breaths, then closed his eyes and listened. He hadn't heard any sounds of creeping beasties in here so far. And there was nothing but silence now. There was a tiny, thin, beautiful chance that maybe this burrow was abandoned.

If so, then all Toby had to worry about was escaping from an escape-proof web. Toby liked nature shows and watched them often enough to have a good grasp of how natural selection worked. Either you were good at what you did or you died. This meant that every animal's natural defenses and offenses were constantly tested to produce maximum efficiency. Whatever had made this web had probably taken a few million years to perfect its technique.

Toby felt the web beneath him, cringing at its texture. It probably wasn't snot, but his mind refused to believe that. It felt like the kind of drippy, gummy, clear-yellow ooze that wouldn't stop pouring from his nose when his nasal symptoms got bad. At least the web-goop didn't smell. Toby could detect a little bit of a salty ocean odor, but that was it. Still, he was keenly aware that he was covered in the excretions of an unknown species. His lack of pills had somehow miraculously not killed him yet, but there could very well be diseases swimming around in this stuff that would do the job right quick. Escaping from here might mean simply prolonging his death until he crawled outside and croaked from boils and spasms.

'I can not think about that,' Toby told himself firmly. He knew he was not a brave furson, but having a survival instinct going off on full red alert was a decent substitute. Trying to get out of here was better than just staying put and getting lunched. "Half a chance is always better than none." That's what Desmond Belltower had said in one of his detective novels. Toby thought that was good advice. Even if he escaped from here only to die slowly and horribly from toxins, at least he'd die knowing he tried.

'What can I try then?'

Sitting up had proven futile. And his probing around the webbing let him know that there was definitely no hope of him falling through. He could fit his hand through a gap, but that was about it. And despite how gooey this stuff was, it didn't stretch.

Maybe if he couldn't get enough traction to crawl, he could roll?

Worth a try. Toby calmed his breath again, made himself log-shaped, and swung his body weight to one side. He spun like a greased axle. All he accomplished was getting his muzzle mere millimeters from the webbing. He flinched back in revulsion. He did not want this stuff up his nose. He did NOT want this stuff in his MOUTH!

Oh god, that was a horrible thought. If nothing else worked... If nothing else worked, he might be forced to try... chewing himself free.

He threw up a tiny bit in his mouth. He could taste berries and bile. He swallowed it back down and quickly rolled again to get his face away from the webbing.

Wait... Had he actually moved a few inches?

He looked back and forth. It was hard to tell. The web was as big and empty as a gymnasium floor, so gauging precise distances was difficult. The only way to be certain would be to roll again. He winced. He couldn't even cover his muzzle with his hand because it was completely drenched in gookum.

Part of him couldn't bear it. It wasn't fair. All he wanted was to go home. He'd put up with so much already, and now he had to choose between getting his face covered in spider slime or doing nothing and getting eaten. This was not fair. This was supposed to be lunchtime. Mommy was supposed to bring him soup on a tray. And he could eat in bed and hold his stuffed animals and have a ginger ale while he watched her clean the room.

Toby let himself wade around in a kiddie pool of self pity for a few moments, but he knew he was just delaying the inevitable. He tucked his nose into the collar of his pajamas and tried to roll again.

This time he did two full rotations and wound up on his back again. He was sure he'd moved a little! Not far, but anything was better than nothing. He looked all around trying to be sure he wasn't headed in the wrong direction. But it turned out he was. The shortest path to the edge of the web meant he'd have to roll three more times just to get himself back to where he'd been.

Toby never swore, but in that moment he allowed himself to remember some movies where other people did.

It was slow going. He had to be incredibly careful with how he shifted his weight. He had to keep himself perfectly straight, then curl into a banana shape to prevent himself from just sliding back to his starting point. And a few times he did, making him nearly cry in frustration. The whole time, he kept his muzzle tucked in and his eyes shut tight. He could feel the goop mushing against his face. It was moist and cold. Again and again he thanked his luck that it didn't smell.

The edge of the web was definitely getting closer, but it was still so far away. Toby was sweating from the effort, which only made him slipperier. He wanted so badly to just dig in his little claws and pull himself to the finish line. But that was impossible. The web was too slick and-


Oh, you stupid mouse.

All this time he'd been torturing himself by rolling (probably looking like a mentally deranged caterpillar), when a better solution had already presented itself. If he could get one hand through the web, he could get the other through too! He didn't have to grab onto anything. Since the web didn't stretch, he could just stick one arm after the other in each successive gap between strands. He could pull himself along, like going up a rope ladder. And best of all, he could probably do it on his back!

His embarrassment at not figuring this out sooner was swept away by the potential of the idea. He did one last roll to get his face away from the hateful squishy kaka. Then, lying still as a surfboard, he stuck his hand through a gap up to his wrist. Then he did the same on the other side, slightly further up. He imagined the web as a gigantic bolt of cloth. He would attempt to scale it, horizontally, using the spaces between threads.

He gulped. He hoped this would work. He really didn't want to have to go back to rolling. He pushed against the web using his forearm.

And he slid forward a little.

Toby's heart fluttered like a hummingbird. SUCCESS! He tried it again with the other arm, reaching back behind his armpit for a good spot. He pushed. He slid. YES!!! He'd found friction out of frictionlessness! Toby was still too damn scared of being eaten to smile, but he was definitely happier than he'd been a second ago.

Hand over hand, he moved like a bizarre self-propelling toboggan over the syrupy web. He was making much better progress compared to rolling. And he could breathe freely without his shirt covering his snout. He was again surprised that the air down here was so not-terrible. No stench or staleness. Maybe the hole he'd fallen through wasn't nearly as long as his panicked brain had assumed.

He paused to crane his neck back and check how far he'd come. He was almost giddy with the results. He'd halved the distance to the edge of the web already. He kept on going. The little mouse did not allow himself to consider that maybe the fall off the side would break his neck. Or that the owner of the web might be slumbering below. He might land on something warm and living (or several somethings) and be torn to red shreds before he could even start screaming.

'Don't think about that. Half a chance is better than none, right? Staying put is certain death. Therefore uncertain death is mathematically preferable. Right?'

How many more little pushes till he reached the edge? Thirty? A few dozen? Toby didn't let himself fixate on counting them, much as he wanted to. He tried to think of something else. What day of the week was it? That was a puzzler. It'd been a Thursday when he'd last fallen asleep in his own bed. Then the first night in the cave. Then the night where he dreamed about drowning in a bucket of antiseptic floor cleaner. Then the night with the flying staplers outside. Had there been another night in between those two?

Toby was making excellent progress by distracting himself from his task. But then he felt the web start to vibrate. He froze in panic.

He could feel something moving towards him, far faster than he could possibly hope to outpace. He tried anyway. He did not dare scream.

The arachnopus had been watching with amusement as the little treat struggled in its web. He let it get far enough to feel hope. Then it was time to end that hope. It flopslid over and began the cocooning.


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