When my daughter was young, she liked to make up silly rules for our household. On Wednesday evenings, we all wore a sock on our right foot, but nothing on our left; if someone sneezed, the only polite response was “Godzilla nights”; if you dropped something you were carrying, you had to leave it on the floor for at least ten seconds to see if the gnomes who lived under our fridge wanted it. They were silly things that made sense only in Melody’s toddler mind.
My husband, Felix, and I thought it was cute and creative and we played along since there was no harm in it.
We always knew when a new rule was coming because she would take us both by the hand regardless of what we were doing and lead us to the couch, where she would sit us down and squeeze herself between us.
“What’s up, Sprout?” Felix asked one evening after our four year old had dragged us to the living room.
“New rule!” She practically shrieked.
We nodded, solemn and expectant.
“No killing spiders,” she said.
“But you don’t like spiders,” I replied, trying to suppress my smile.
“I do!” It was certainly a change of tune from the last time she’d seen one. She had cried for hours, even after Felix disposed of it.
“Oh yeah? Since when?”
“I like them ‘cos they like me,” she glanced up at us, daring us to question such sound logic.
“Ok then,” Felix nodded, “spiders are our friends.”
After we tucked her in, my husband and I shared a quiet laugh.
“They must be covering Charlotte’s Web at daycare or something,” I said.
As far as the rules went, it really wasn’t such a bad one. I didn’t enjoy killing things to begin with, even creepy, eight-legged crawlies, and logically I knew they were good for deterring other pests. Still, I made Felix handle actually removing them from the house. Melody was very careful to oversee all spider extractions (from behind the safety of Daddy’s legs) and made sure they were always placed gently in the bushes at the front and back doors.
She even started naming them.
“The biggest is Buttercup; she’s black and has long legs and big eyes and she likes to sit outside my window. Then there’s Spaghetti and Blue and Tomorrow…” she explained from her booster seat while I drove her to daycare.
“There’s a spider named Tomorrow?”
“Yup, he’s little and stays away from Buttercup ‘cos she’s the queen spider and he’s not allowed near her.”
“Right, right, of course.”
Most little girls played with dolls or begged for a puppy. Mine named spiders and made up a hierarchy for them. Lucky me.
Sometimes I’d find her outside in the fenced in backyard, crouched beside the bushes, talking to Buttercup and all of her loyal subjects. Melody would tell the spiders about her day in a long, rambling monologue and then ask them how their day was and what they’d done. She never tried to touch them, never disturbed the delicate webs that were woven in the depths of the bushes. She just talked to them.
It was such an abrupt change from the wide-eyed terror she used to experience and, about a week after she set the new rule, I had to ask her where her newfound love of arachnid kind had come from.
“Buttercup,” she said.
“Buttercup? The queen spider?”
“Yeah. She’s nice. She protects me.”
“She…what? Protects you?” I couldn’t stop the baffled frown from crossing my face.
“Yup. From the not nice.”
“W-where’d you get that idea, Sprout?”
“She told me. The not nice watch from outside, but they’re scared of Buttercup. She keeps them away.”
“The spider talks to you?”
Melody shrugged nonchalantly. “Sometimes. I wanna go play.”
“Yeah, sure, dinner’s soon though.”
I watched her scamper off down the hall to her room with a chill in my gut. I wasn’t worried about Melody thinking she could talk to animals or even that she’d picked spiders. Kids did weird, goofy stuff like that all the time. What worried me was that she felt like she had something to be afraid of.
“She called them not nice,” I said to Felix after we’d gone to bed that night. “She said they watch her from outside and the spiders keep them away.”
“Kid’s got one hell of an imagination,” Felix replied sleepily.
“Where would she get that kind of idea from, though? Is she scared of something?”
“You’re over thinking it, babe. She’s four, she just…says stuff.”
While Felix drifted off to sleep beside me, I stayed awake, staring off into darkness and wondering how such a young child would even have been able to come up with those kinds of ideas.
Melody didn’t seem phased, though, nor did she seem afraid. She was the same happy wild child she’d always been, just with more spiders. I kept an extremely close eye on her, actively searched for any signs that someone might be watching her from a distance, kept all the doors locked even when we were home. Felix thought I was overreacting, but I couldn’t shake that initial chill I’d gotten.
I started following Melody into the backyard when she went out to play and I’d sit with a book open, but unread, in my lap, and I’d watch her. When she wasn’t talking to the spiders, she’d bring toys over to the row of bushes and busy herself with playing pretend, completely unbothered by the glossy webbing and its inhabitants lurking only feet away.
Sometimes, I’d even catch sight of Buttercup out of the corner of my eye. For how large she was, about the size of my fist, she was an expert at staying hidden.
“Mommy,” Melody said one afternoon while we were sitting in the yard, “Buttercup says you don’t have to be afraid.”
I jumped slightly and looked at my daughter, who was kneeling next to the bushes as usual. Beside her, almost invisible in the shadows, I thought I saw the outline of a very large spider.
“She says that the not nice won’t hurt me while she’s here.”
Melody was back to her games before I had a chance to respond. I swallowed the tight ball of anxious fear in my throat and tried to tell myself that it was just make believe, just my daughter and her crazy imagination. That didn’t stop all the little hairs on my arm from standing on end.
It also didn’t stop me from staring at those bushes and feeling like countless little eyes were staring back.
Felix tried to be understanding when I broached the subject with him again, but I knew he was still convinced it was just a little kid’s nonsense.
“You weren’t there, you didn’t hear her,” I said, struggling to control my frustration.
“I know, I know,” Felix sighed. “Can I be honest, babe?”
I stiffened, but nodded.
“I think you’re stressed out. Between working and being an awesome mom, you’re fried. I think you and I should take a day, just us two, and go out.”
“We’ll call my parents; they’ll be thrilled to watch her.”
“I don’t know…”
“C’mon, Keira, we haven’t had real us time in ages! It’ll help you relax, Melody will get to spend time with Nono and Pop Pop; we all win.”
He playfully poked and prodded and hugged and cajoled until I relented. I still had my doubts, but I also thought that Felix could be on to something. Maybe I’d been letting my anxiety get the best of me. We made plans for an afternoon river boat ride followed up with a nice lunch and a visit to the beach. All nice, stress-free things to help take my mind off of the fact that my daughter was conveying creepy messages from a spider.
We made arrangements with Felix’s parents for the following Saturday and I spent the rest of the week convincing myself that I had nothing to worry about.
“Is it ok if we order a pizza for lunch?” Felix’s dad asked when they arrived to babysit.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Dillon, I brought stuff to make sandwiches!” Felix’s mom replied. “Honestly, a pizza.”
Pop Pop winked at Melody, who giggled, and shrugged. “I tried.”
“Thanks for watching her,” I said, giving them both a hug and kiss. I almost mentioned not letting her go outside by herself and keeping the doors locked and watching for suspicious behavior, but the pleading look from Felix stopped me. He just wanted one nice afternoon; I had to try and give him that.
And I tried, I really did. We sat, hand in hand, on the slow moving river boat, admiring the view, and we talked and laughed over a delicious lunch, but Melody was always in the back of my mind. I could just hear her little voice talking about Buttercup and the not nice.
Felix sensed my continued unease.
“My parents are with her. She’s fine,” he said as we paid the restaurant bill.
“I know, you’re probably right.”
“But you want to skip going to the beach and head right home anyway.”
I thought about denying it, but then sagged in my chair. “Yeah,” I admitted at last.
“At least we got lunch.”
“I’m sorry, babe.”
“Not your fault. I know you can’t turn off Mommy Brain.”
I smiled guilty at him and he rolled his eyes and leaned over to give me a kiss.
“If only I hadn’t encouraged our kid to be so weird,” he said.
I actually did feel a bit better during the drive home. Knowing Felix didn’t hold my concern for Melody, as silly as he might have thought it was, lifted a large weight I hadn’t even realised I’d been carrying. We talked about how we might start to distance Melody from the spiders and make things a little more normal for all of us all the way home. When we pulled into the driveway, we shared another smile, another kiss, and then climbed out of the car.
We could hear Melody screaming long before we got into the house.
We burst through the door, asking over each other what had happened, and found Melody sitting in the middle of the floor, her face red and wet with tears, screaming, while her grandparents tried futilely to comfort her.
“There was a spider near her outside,” Pop Pop said helplessly, “a big one. I thought it might bite her so I-”
“Oh no,” I groaned, “you didn’t.”
While I tried to soothe Melody, Felix explained that the spider Pop Pop had stomped on had been Melody’s kind-of pet that she had been very fond of. Pop Pop and Nono were very apologetic, but Melody was inconsolable. She cried for hours, even after they’d left and Felix had sprayed Buttercup’s remains away with the hose, and only fell asleep when she was too exhausted to continue.
Melody refused to go outside for a good week after that. She would argue and sob if we tried to make her, yelling that the not nice would get her because Buttercup was gone. I didn’t know what to do; she was so upset and nothing we said made a difference, even when we tried to tell her that it was all in her imagination. We were all at our wit’s end.
Until Felix came home with a paper bag. He put it down in front of Melody and told her that Buttercup II was inside. Our daughter eyed him furiously, but reached in. She came out with a large, stuffed spider with a friendly smile and googly eyes.
“She’s going to protect you,” Felix said with a great deal of seriousness. “Just like Buttercup did.”
Melody seemed uncertain, but after a bit more convincing from Felix, she was hugging the stuffed animal and telling it that she was so glad to have her Buttercup back.
“Think you wanna go outside and show her to the other spiders?”
“No,” Melody said, “they all left cos Pop Pop squished the queen.”
“Oh,” Felix said. “Well, what if you bring it out and show them that they have a new queen. Maybe they’ll come back.”
“They will?” The prospect sparked a joyful light I hadn’t seen in Melody’s eyes since Buttercup’s untimely end.
With Buttercup II tucked under her arm, Melody darted outside, calling for Spaghetti and Blue and Tomorrow.
I sank into Felix’s arms and hugged him tight. “Thank you.”
“Sometimes all it takes is a little Daddy Brain to solve a problem,” he grinned.
We laughed and he went to get changed out of his work clothes while I went to start dinner.
I chopped up two potatoes before the silence hit me. No jabbering monologue, no giggles, none of the usual noises I usually heard when Melody was playing in the backyard. I wiped my hands on the front of my shirt and went to the window, expecting to see her crouched in front of the bushes.
She wasn’t there.
My heart skipped a beat and I went to the door, calling for her. “Melody? Melody!”
There was no reply.
I ran out into the yare, still shouting her name, and I dug through the web infested bushes and I tore into her little playhouse, but they were empty. My voice was becoming strangled as I rounded the side of the house, where the gate for the fence was.
It was still closed and locked from the inside, same as always, and Melody wasn’t there, but lying at the foot of the gate, her long legs all askew and her googly eyes fixed on me, was Buttercup II.
“Melody!” I screamed again, but I already knew in my Mommy Heart and my Mommy Brain that I wouldn’t get an answer.
I knew that, without the real Buttercup, something not nice had happened to my daughter.