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THE GREAT TARANTULA MIGRATION OF 1972 SEANAN MCGUIRE
Seanan McGuire lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest, where she shares her home with several large, fluffy cats and a disturbing number of books. The author of multiple ongoing urban fantasy series, she has appeared on the New York Times best-seller list as both herself and under the pseudonym "Mira Grant." In 2017, she won the Alex, Nebula, and Locus Awards. When not writing, she can be found at conventions around the world, or lurking in the nearest haunted cornfield. She doesn't really sleep.
LIVE IN THE DESERT LONG ENOUGH, THE DESERT LEARNS TO LIVE IN YOU. IT PUTS down roots, draws bluffs across your heart, and sows sticker bushes in your soul. And that's all right, kid, that's all right, because there's worse things to be than a desert daughter, a sandstone son, a canyon child. There's worse things by far.
People think of California, they think of beaches and bright lights and Hollywood. They think of towering redwoods and sea otters frolicking in the surf off Monterey. They forget that when you slice a state too large for a single serving, you don't get that kind of sweet nothing, that sort of sweetness without substance. When the people who chopped up this continent pointed to a piece and called it California, they cut too large. They got more than just the pretty flower at the top of the tree. They got the branches and the roots and the rotten wood and all. They got something real.
Wander California long enough and you'll find about every kind of land there is, from wetland to desert. We have rainforest. We have sub-arctic tundra.
We have it all, and we've filled every inch of it with strangeness and with stories, with the sort of shadows that only appear when the sun is low and the fire is high and the shadows paint their own legends on the walls. California is a legend in the process of being written, and she doesn't forgive easy, and she doesn't suffer fools.
Where we're going is higher than the middle but lower than the top, in a desert region too far from the ocean to be considered coastal, and too close to the shore to be considered inland. It's all oak trees and grasslands, desert and scrubby mountainside. The rattlesnakes keep their court in the tall grass; the deer graze on the mustard flowers and clover. Night belongs to the cougar, to the possum, to the raccoon. People build their homes there, same as they build them most of everywhere in California, but there's always a sense that they're transitory things, sketched out on the landscape rather than nailed down into its bones. That, too, is only natural. The ground here wakes and rises from time to time, shaking off everything that troubles it, reminding the fast, hot specks of life that race across its surface that it is in charge here; it controls whether they live or die, and as long as they're respectful, as long as they tread lightly, it'll come down a little more often on the side of living.
Only a little, though. Earthquake country has a reputation to maintain.
And so we move into the shadow of the mountain everyone here calls Mt. Diablo, and we listen to the whispers from the locals. We hear the stories they never tell their children, the ones that their children always seem to know anyway, pulling them out of the air when the time comes for campfires and supposedly safe terrors under the sweet summer moon. We listen to them speak of phantom hitchhikers trying to escape the mountain's shadow before the sun goes down and the Devil comes to take his due. We listen to them talk about frogs big enough to swallow cats, about rattlesnakes hidden in mattresses, and maybe some of us laugh, thinking we've found credulous children. Maybe some of us write them all off as liars and humbugs, the sort of folk who think that anyone unfamiliar is a rube, ready to be misled.
Someone mentions the tarantula migration. The laughter stops. The anger follows. Spiders don't migrate; don't be ridiculous. Don't be foolish. Don't tell lies.
Don't scare me like that.
Come on. It's time to show you what the truth looks like in California, under a bleached-paper sky that stretches from here unto forever, where the only person lying is the one who says they know what the truth is shaped like.
JULY, 1972: CONCORD, CALIFORNIA. Not the biggest town going, and not the smallest city, but something right in that gap, wedged into the liminal space where growth is possible, and so is stagnation. This is the space where cities die.
The streets are still fresh black tar, by and large, stretched smooth from here to the horizon, slowly curing under the unrelenting sun. Fog clouds them like sheets of cotton in the morning, boiling up until every scrap of moisture has been baked away, leaving them clean and ready for another day. Eucalyptus lines the streets, an opportunistic invader from a sister on the other side of the world, Australia, which burns and drowns by turns, just like California, just like home.
Spiders in the eaves and snakes in the tall grass and it's a miracle anyone grows up here: they should all be dead before they can decide that growing up is a good idea. Black bears in the woods and cougars on the mountains, and still the children run, laughing, into the golden dry-grass meadows, which beckon them as such things have always beckoned to the young.
The people who live here are clever and hard-working, foolish and indolent, just like people everywhere in the world. They want their city to get bigger. They want their town to stay precisely the same. They do not see the contradiction in these two desires. They have children with desires and ideas of their own. Here come two of them now.
Mike is the sort of boy parents hope their daughters will bring home: endlessly polite, scholarly to the point of distraction, with thick glasses and the occasionally scatterbrained aura of someone who has yet to figure out what he wants to do with his overlarge hands, or what he wants to be when he grows up. He is a good boy, in other words, the sort of boy who will never push the issue behind a closed bedroom door, who will not make a grandmother of a woman barely entering middle age.
Angela is the sort of girl parents shake their heads at when they think she isn't looking: scruffy, dressed in thrift store clothing that she had been on the verge of outgrowing even before they had the price tags off. She walks like she expects to be kicked, to have all good things dangled in front of her and ripped away before she can bite into them, a feral dog of a teenager, a coyote in scuffed shoes and a hand-me-down bra. She is a good girl, but no one seems to see that, save for Mike, who walks through a world kinder than her own — kinder, and infinitely more forgiving.
They are Concord children, the high and the low, the sacred and the profane. The first time Angela went to Mike's house, where his mother set a platter of strip steak on the table without admonishing them to eat lightly, what was in front of them had to be a week of lunches and more than a few dinners, she nearly wept from the crushing realization that what she'd always thought of as "normal" was anything but. The first time Mike went to Angela's apartment, down near the train tracks, he looked with wide eyes at the bugs on the walls and the water stains on the ceiling, at the low, dark rooms that seemed to pull everything into them, never letting go, and he nearly ran. His life was an aspiration for her; her life was a punishment for him.
But they get by, they get by. They met in middle school, before height and hormones complicated everything, and they've been best friends ever since, two slowly orbiting moons all too aware that the planet whose gravitational pull holds them in place — a planet called parents, called high school, called Concord, California, home of the Warriors, the Mustangs, the Red Devils — is destined to let them go all too soon.
Let one of them go, anyway. Angela is never getting out of here. She knows that, and Mike knows that, and so they never talk about it. It might have been easier if they'd done what her mother hoped for, what his mother feared: if they'd fallen in love, middle school friends turned high school sweethearts turned young adult spouses, Angela's belly getting hard and round as a late summer apple, Mike tied to her by fatherhood and undeveloped lust. He could have pulled her with him when he ran. But they're friends, not lovers, and friends don't save each other that way. For some reason, friends don't throw that rope.
See them walking down the sun-dappled main street, through the patchwork of sun and shadow created by the eucalyptus trees. The day is hot. The summer sun doesn't mess around in this part of California: it's up and shining when most of the golden coast is still tucked comfortably away in bed, reminding the people who live here that they've chosen the desert for their home. They can talk about oceans some of them will never see, about rolling hills and foggy valleys, but they live in the desert.
School's been out for the better part of a month, and Mike's mother doesn't like it when he brings Angela home more than twice a week — when he does that, she can't help looking past his friendship with the girl from the wrong side of the town's phantom tracks and seeing that full-bellied future that both of them swear will never happen. She's smart enough not to forbid him to see Angela, to know that forbidden fruit is the sweetest of all, that it will spark hungers that would otherwise never have existed, but still, she's nervous, and still, she sets limits. She needs limits, to keep her steady on the precipice of her son's adulthood.
As for going to Angela's place ... that's never a consideration. Her apartment is small, and her mother is desperate, and their landlord is already making noises about property damage and complaints from the neighbors. They'll probably move again before the end of the summer, going from a small place to a smaller one, an endless succession of hovels where the air always smells like smoke and stale laundry and boiled potatoes. Mike has been a good friend to her. They both know their friendship could never survive too much exposure to the way she really lives.
So they walk. Outside, baked by the sun, feeling the moisture sucked from their skins by the air around them, feeling the heat settle into their bones. They were born to this desert: they do not yet feel the discomfort the way adults might, people who traveled here from some far-distant "away" in search of California gold, and found only the simple reliability of stone.
A shopkeeper, broom in hand, pauses in the act of sweeping his stoop to wave to the teens. "Morning," he calls.
They wave back, calling their own mild, mingled greetings. They are good kids, both of them, inclined to seek praise and approval from the adults around them. It is a trait that will serve one of them well and one of them ill, once their own adulthood comes.
"Where are you heading?" asks the shopkeeper. If his eyes are sharp, if his hands are shaking as they hold the broom, it's not enough to notice.
"Just going for a walk, sir," says Mike. They've found that men listen better to him. So do women. So does the world. It would bother him, if he thought about it, and so he never thinks about it.
It bothers Angela. She can't stop thinking about it. The world does what the world wants.
"Up near the mountain?"
Mike and Angela exchange a glance. They'd never discussed anything that far ahead. The base of the mountain is at least a mile away, and there are several places between here and there to stop for a drink, or to sit in the shade and talk. In the normal course of wandering around town, they might have made it as far as the mountain ... but probably not. They don't, usually.
Angela realizes with a start that she can't remember the last time they did.
"Yeah," she says, and her voice is a glass of cold water cast in the face of the conversation: it stops everything where it stands. Mike, who isn't used to her having opinions, even turns to stare at her.
Angela smiles. She's made a choice. That's not a thing that happens often, for her. She'll stand by it.
"We're going to the mountain," she says.
"Beautiful day for it," says the shopkeeper. "You two be careful out there. It's going to be a hot one. The tarantulas will be on the move."
Then he laughs, like this is the funniest thing anyone's ever said, and they laugh, because when adults are laughing, it's best to play along.
He stands and watches as the teens walk away, down the smooth white sidewalk, toward the distant shadow of the mountains. His hands are still upon the broom, and his laughter is gone, one more thing for the sun to swallow.
He could still call them back. He could pull them inside, offer them an ice cream soda — and they're young enough, unformed enough, to accept his generosity without question. Even the girl, who's already developing an edge like biting down on tin foil, would go along with it. She's too hungry to be wary. She'd be a coyote like her mother, that one, if she had the chance.
He doesn't call them back. He watches them go, and he says nothing, and when they're gone — when his duty is done — he turns his face away and goes back to sweeping.
His debts are paid.
So they walk, the children of the town in the shadow of the mountain. The day is hot and the way is hard, but their legs are young and strong, and they still have a thousand inconsequential things to talk about, beating them out in the space they make between them, finding all the places to crack and pry and get at the meat of the thing.
They don't talk about the future.
They don't talk about how he's going to get out and she's not.
They don't talk about how she's smarter than he is, how she could have gone just as far and done just as much if the world didn't insist that where a person came from was just as important — maybe more important — than where they wanted to go.
They don't talk about how he's going to leave her.
Instead, they talk about books and movies and their classmates, who are off having their own adventures, off living their own lives, unaware that they're the topic of discussion for two of their resident outcasts. The time passes quickly, seconds transforming into footsteps, and here they are, two teenagers standing in front of the crude wooden gate that delineates the edge of the parkland around the mountain's base.
Someone has scratched the crude silhouette of a spider into the wood.
Angela rubs her thumb against it, and squeaks as a splinter stabs deep into her skin. She sticks her thumb in her mouth, sucking like a baby, while Mike looks on in bewilderment.
"What happened?" he asks.
"It bit me!" She pulls her thumb out of her mouth and holds it out for him to see. A bright bead of blood has formed at the center of the whorled maze of her thumbprint. It is oddly intimate, the way it hangs there, shining. Mike turns his face away, cheeks blazing red.
"Don't touch spiders," he says.
"Better watch it, or the spiders will touch you," she retorts, and swings the gate open.
The base of the mountain is a low forest of scrub, thorn bushes and blackberry tangles making progress treacherous, even as the sunbaked, broken ground slows them down. They pick through it, not quite sure why they're here, only knowing — with the stubborn single-mindedness of people who have decided on a course of action without thinking it entirely through — that they aren't ready to turn back.
Something moves in the gravel. Angela sees it first. She stops, eyes scanning the ground, before crouching down and pointing.
"Look," she says.
Mike looks. The tarantula, no bigger than a fifty cent piece, raises its front legs off the ground and waves them menacingly. Disgust washes over him.
Before he can consider what he's doing, he stomps on the spider, grinding it to paste beneath his shoe. Angela cries out, surprise and dismay in her voice, and he keeps grinding, grinding, until there's nothing left. Until there's no chance the spider could survive.
"Why did you do that?" Angela demands. "It wasn't hurting you!"
"I hate spiders," Mike says. He feels suddenly silly, like coming here was a mistake — like this whole day was a mistake. He could be home, with a book and a snack and the pool in his backyard, cool and deep and calling to him. He doesn't have those things, and why not? Because Angela wanted to hang out, and his mother doesn't like her.
Maybe his mother is onto something. Maybe he doesn't like her either.
Excerpted from "Strange California"
Copyright © 2017 Jaym Gates and J. Daniel Batt.
Excerpted by permission of StoryJitsu/Falstaff.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Jaym Gates & J. Daniel Batt FOREWORD: TO THE FRONTIER, 11,
Yonatan Zunger & AV Flox INTRODUCTION: WHY CALIFORNIA?, 15,
Seanan McGuire THE GREAT TARANTULA MIGRATION OF 1972, 27,
Armel Dagorn UNSETTLERS OF THE YERBA BUENA, 41,
Natania Barron OF WEBS AND WINDOWS IN PESCADERO, 61,
Loren Rhoads GUARDIAN OF THE GOLDEN GATE, 87,
Marion Deeds MAGPIE'S CURSE, 109,
Laura Anne Gilman VINES DIG DEEP, 127,
Suzanne J. Willis TOMMY BONES AND A PACKET OF EARTH, 141,
Lance Shoeman ALL THIS'LL BE YOURS, 153,
Tim Pratt A SEA MONSTER IN THE BATHTUB, 175,
Nick Mamatas THE KODIAK BELL, 191,
S. Qiouyi Lu FROM SOMETHING EMERGING, 203,
Chaz Brenchley UNCANNY VALLEY, 219,
Laura Blackwell THE ONE THING I CAN NEVER TELL JULIE, 249,
K.A. Rochnik THE PANTHER LADY'S INCREDIBLE TRUE TALE OF HORROR!, 263,
Richard Dansky #WHITEKNIGHT VS. #MEGADISRUPTOR, 283,
James Van Pelt FIVE DOLLARS FOR A TICKET, 301,
Juliette Wade IF IT WERE MEANT TO LAST, 311,
Patricia Lundy THE COFFIN BIRTH, 323,
D. Morgenstern HEARTSONG, 339,
Meg Elison IN LOVING MEMORY, 355,
Nancy Holder DREAMCATCHER, 369,
Spencer Ellsworth FIVE TALES FROM THE AQUEDUCT, 385,
Ezzy G. Languzzi NARANJAS INMORTALES, 397,
E. Catherine Tobler SALT IN HER HOLLOWS, 419,
Melissa Monks THE HANGING TREE'S SHADE, 437,