Only after she was dead did I learn that Mrs. Cudsup's first name was Lorna. That was months back and in four days they'll let me out of here. Every night I practice what I'll say to the psychiatrists. "Yes, I'm sorry she's dead. I wish I could take it back. . . . of course spiders can't talk. And no, I don't want to kill myself . . . and that's the truth . . . now."
Fact is, I hated Lorna Cudsup and she hated me from the moment I stepped into her fifth-grade class in 1972. It was clear to everyone that she couldn't stand me, as she'd hound me with questions until I'd miss one. "Not a very smart boy, are you?" And then she'd turn to Patty Carson, who always had the answer. I hated Mrs. Cudsup, and when she'd make my mom come for weekly parent-teacher conferences I never knew what she might say, how she'd talk about homework I hadn't done, and how I'd never amount to anything. I'd sit there, my gut twisting, as she'd fill Mom with the extent of my crimes and my stupidity.
I tried to make her like me. I even left an apple on her desk. Maybe if she liked me, she'd stop all the questions, the mean remarks. She took the apple, but she didn't like me.
It got so bad I thought about killing myself. I tried it, too. One day, when my mom had gone for the weekly conference I took the bottle of spray-on oven cleaner and shot it in my mouth. It was salty and it burned; it made me gag and I spit it out. I didn't know how much I'd need to kill myself. Worse, my sister Megan found me, and I made her promise not to tell.
But then came the science contest. Mrs. Cudsup talked about it in class; we could all enter, and whoever won would get prizes and an "A" in science. It's all I could think about; I wanted an "A" and I wanted Mrs. Cudsup to like me. I knew right away what I'd make. I got an old twenty-gallon fish aquarium from the basement, bought a mesh cover and took out a stack of books from the library on how to make a terrarium. I filled the bottom with gravel and charcoal and then poured a bag of soil on top. I dug some grass and stuff from the field behind the playgrounds. Everyone said it was real artistic. But the plants were just the background. It was the spiders and the crickets, and later the two praying mantises, Harold and Sheila that made it perfect. You see, if you go way back behind the school, beyond the baseball fields there's a swamp and meadows that never get cut. If you go in the morning, when the dew clings, you see the webs, thousands of them. I called it Spider Field. I started with a black-and-yellow garden spider that looked like it had a face on the back, and then a big brown one with a body shaped like a mushroom; it had to have been over two inches, maybe more if you count the legs. I caught them live-four big ones--and put them in my terrarium. Within an hour they'd each taken a corner and set up shop, spinning webs over the branches and taking trips to the saucer I'd filled with water, like a pond. Cool as that was, it got better. The crickets came next, like Christians to the lions. Every morning I'd go to Spider Field and catch them. At first, it was just me, but as the terrarium got going, it became an event and Doug Johnson, Kyle Dobson and even Jock Hengran--one of the cool kids--would join the cricket hunts.
We'd catch them live, at first six, then twelve, and finally a couple dozen once we'd added in the praying mantises. It was better than TV, even Batman. The crickets would hop around not certain what was happening, and before you knew it they'd get caught in the webs or trapped in the claws of Harold and Sheila who'd bite their heads off and then eat the rest.
At first the terrarium was set up in the school library because Mrs. Cudsup didn't, "want that ugly thing" in her class. That changed the day of the contest.
I won first prize and had my picture on the cover of the paper with me front and center between Mrs. Cudsup and Mr. Dougherty the principal. Mom was so proud, Dad too, even Mrs. Cudsup seemed to like me a little, although I heard her tell Mom, "I don't think he made it himself; someone must have helped." I didn't care, I was getting an "A" in science, and the terrarium got moved to Mrs. Cudsup's class right in the window with my blue ribbon taped to the side.
I hoped things would change; they didn't. At least now, as she'd ask her questions and tell me how stupid I was, I could look at my spiders and Harold and Sheila and they made me feel better. Sometimes I'd see them watching me, telling me it was going to be okay and that they sure liked me, as they'd suck a bit of blood from a web-wrapped cricket.
Then came winter, and the grass in the terrarium turned brown, and one by one the spiders spun fuzzy white balls and died. Same with Harold and Sheila, only instead of the fuzzy white ball Sheila bit off Harold's head, dug a hole and died. It was sad. I figured it was time to take it out back and dump it in the snow. But as I was grabbing the dolly to do that, Mrs. Cudsup stopped me. She looked at it, and then at me; "It's nice," she said, "like dried flowers. Let's leave it."
For that instant, I think she liked me. So the terrarium stayed through the winter, only now there were no friendly spiders or Harold and Sheila to egg me on and tell me I was okay. They weren't there for the big blow up, the bad one. I was supposed to have done a report-750 words on the capital of Delaware. I didn't do it. This time Mrs. Cudsup called in both my parents. I got spanked and grounded and no TV for a month, not even Batman. It's like the blue ribbon and the "A" in science didn't matter. I thought again about the oven cleaner, but if it didn't work before, it didn't seem like a good idea. My dad had guns but no bullets and I didn't know which pills in the medicine cabinet could do the trick; I'd learned to tie a noose in cub scouts but what if the rope broke or didn't hold? I wanted to die, but didn't know how.
And that's when it happened. It was the Good Friday leading into the Spring break, and because Mrs. Cudsup didn't have family she wasn't found for ten days. The doctors made me look at the pictures to see what I'd done. I was in bad trouble, and I knew enough to look sad and sorry. But it was cool. It seems those fuzzy white things the spiders made before they died were egg cases, and I guess Sheila did something similar. The eggs hatched and the tiny babies-thousands of them-escaped through the mesh cover. Now everybody knows that a spider bite is bad, but unless it's a black widow or trapdoor, it isn't going to kill you. I guess that changes if there are thousands of bites and you're allergic. They say that's what did in Mrs. Cudsup. It wasn't getting wrapped like a mummy and having her blood sucked till she looked like one of them dried-apple dolls; she would have been dead by then. But the neatest thing, the really cool bit, was that all of the baby praying mantises-the little Sheilas and Harolds had chewed her head clean off, and that's how they found her.
I got locked up in this mental institution. Mom told me that Mrs. Cudsup wasn't my fault, but that trying to kill myself--Megan told about the oven cleaner--and hearing spiders talking was more than she could handle. So when they ask me at the discharge meeting I'll tell them, "I'm real sorry that Lorna Cudsup got bit to death and had her head chewed off. I swear that I have no thoughts of wanting to kill myself, and of course spiders can't talk." What I'll be sure to keep to myself is the first thing I plan to do when I get out of here is to buy an even bigger terrarium and take a walk to Spider Field.