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The Spindlers

Lauren Oliver


  To Patrick, of course—

  And to my sister,

  who has rescued me many times from the dark,

  and for whom I would gladly go Below.



  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  The Changeling, and the Letters Spelled in Cereal

  Chapter 2

  Several Falsehoods and One Broomstick

  Chapter 3

  The Basement

  Chapter 4

  The Rat

  Chapter 5

  The Troglod Market

  Chapter 6

  The Lumer-Lumpen

  Chapter 7

  The Palace Gate

  Chapter 8

  The Dance of the Nids

  Chapter 9

  The Court of Stones

  Chapter 10

  The Nocturni

  Chapter 11

  The Live Forest

  Chapter 12

  The Seeds of Hope

  Chapter 13

  The Queen’s Spies, and the Way Across the Chasm

  Chapter 14

  The Groaning Table

  Chapter 15

  The River of Knowledge

  Chapter 16

  The Reward

  Chapter 17

  The Queen of the Spindlers

  Chapter 18

  The Choice

  Chapter 19

  The Hall of Mirrors

  Chapter 20

  The Final Test

  Chapter 21

  The Web

  Chapter 22

  The Return

  Chapter 23

  A Bit of Magic


  About the Author

  Other Works



  Back Ad

  About the Publisher

  Chapter 1


  One night when Liza went to bed, Patrick was her chubby, stubby, candy-grubbing and pancake-loving younger brother, who irritated and amused her both, and the next morning, when she woke up, he was not.

  She could not describe the difference. He looked the same, and was wearing the same pair of ratty space-alien pajamas, with the same fat toe sticking out of the hole in the left foot of his red socks, and he came down the stairs exactly the same way the real Patrick would have done: bump, bump, bump, sliding on his rump.

  But he was not the same.

  In fact, he was quite, quite different.

  It was something in the way he looked at her: It was as though someone had reached behind his eyes and wrung away all the sparkle. He walked quietly—too quietly—to the table, sat nicely in his chair, and placed a napkin on his lap.

  The real Patrick never used a napkin.

  Nobody else noticed a thing. Mrs. Elston, Liza’s mother, continued sorting through the stack of bills on the kitchen table, making occasional noises of unhappiness. Liza’s father continued passing in and out of the room, his tie unknotted and wearing only one sock, muttering distractedly to himself.

  The fake-Patrick picked up his spoon and gave Liza a look that chilled her to her very center.

  Then the fake-Patrick began to eat his cereal, methodically, slowly, fishing all the alphabet letters out of his Alpha-Bits one by one and lining them up along the rim of his bowl.

  Liza’s heart sank. She knew, at that moment, what had happened, as well as she knew that the sky was up and the ground was down and if you turned around fast enough in a circle and then stood still, the world would keep turning the circle for you.

  Patrick’s soul had been taken by the spindlers. And they had left this thing, this not-younger-brother, in its place.

  “Mom,” she said, and then, when her mother did not immediately respond, tried again a little louder. “Mom.”

  “Mmm?” Mrs. Elston jumped. She squinted at Liza for a moment, the same way she had looked at the instruction sheet that came along with the Easy-Assemble Coffee Table in Mahogany, the one she had had to return to the store after she could not figure out how to screw the legs on.

  “Patrick’s being weird,” Liza said.

  Mrs. Elston stared blankly at her daughter. Then she whirled around, suddenly, to her husband. “Did you ever pay the electric bill?”

  Mr. Elston didn’t seem to hear her. “Have you seen my glasses?” he asked, lifting the fruit bowl and peering underneath it.

  “They’re on your head.”

  “Not those glasses. My reading glasses.”

  Mrs. Elston sighed. “It says this is our final notice. I don’t remember a first notice. Didn’t we pay the electric bill? I could have sworn …”

  “I can’t go to work without my glasses!” Mr. Elston opened the refrigerator, stared at its contents, closed the refrigerator, and rushed out of the room.

  Across the table, the fake-Patrick began rearranging the cereal letters on the outside of his bowl. He spelled out three words: I H-A-T-E Y-O-U. Then he folded his hands and stared at her with that strangely vacant look, as though the black part of his eyes had eaten up all the color.

  Liza’s insides shivered again. She slid off her chair and went over to her mother. She tugged at the sleeve of her mother’s nightgown, which had a small coffee stain at its elbow. “Mommy.”

  “Yes, princess?” she asked distractedly.

  “Patrick’s freaking me out.”

  “Patrick,” Mrs. Elston said, without looking up from her notepad, on which she was now scribbling various figures. “Stop bothering your sister.”

  Here’s what the real Patrick would have done: He would have stuck out his tongue, or thrown his napkin at Liza in retaliation, or he would have said, “It’s her face that’s the bother.”

  But this impostor did none of those things. The impostor just stared quietly at Liza and smiled. His teeth looked very white.

  “Mom—” Liza insisted, and her mother sighed and threw down her pencil with so much force that it bounced.

  “Please, Liza,” she said, with barely concealed impatience. “Can’t you see that I’m busy? Why don’t you go outside and play for a bit?”

  Liza knew better than to argue with her mother when she was in a mood. So she went outside. It was a hot and hazy morning—far too hot for late April. She was hoping to see one of the neighbors out doing something—watering a plant, walking a dog—but it was very still. Liza almost never saw the neighbors. It was not that kind of neighborhood. She didn’t even know most of their names: only Mrs. Costenblatt, who was so old she looked exactly like a prune.

  Today, as on most days, Mrs. Costenblatt was sitting on her porch, rocking, and fanning herself with one of the Chinese delivery menus that were often stuck—mysteriously, invisibly, in the middle of the night—under the front door.

  “Hello,” she called out to Liza, and waved.

  “Hello,” Liza called back. She liked Mrs. Costenblatt, even though Mrs. Costenblatt hardly ever moved except to rock in her chair, and could not be counted on to do anything interesting.

  “Would you like a glass of lemonade?” Mrs. Costenblatt called out. “Or a cookie?” She offered Liza lemonade and a cookie every time they saw each other, unless it was winter, in which case she offered hot chocolate and a cookie. Mrs. Costenblatt liked to rock even in cold weather, and she would appear on her porch so bundled in blankets and scarves, she looked like an overstuffed coatrack.

  “Not today, thank you,” Liza said regretfully, as she always did. She was not allowed to accept things to eat or drink from Non-Family Members. Liza often wished the rule applied to Family Members instead. She would much rather have had one of Mrs. Costenblatt’s cookies than her au
nt Virginia’s tuna casserole.

  She wondered whether she should tell Mrs. Costenblatt about Patrick, but decided against it. Two weeks earlier, at recess, when she had tried to tell Christina Millicent and Emma Wong about the spindlers and the constant threat they posed, they had laughed at her and called her a liar. Mrs. Costenblatt was a good listener—partly, Liza thought, because she couldn’t hear very well—but Liza didn’t want to risk it.

  There was only one thing that Liza hated more than liars, and that was being accused of being one.

  At one edge of the yard, a pile of pinecones had been neatly stacked. Liza had arranged them this way only yesterday, thinking that she and Patrick might play a round of Pinecone Bowling in the morning. But of course she could not play with the false Patrick; he would no doubt find a way to cheat.

  She had a sudden, wrenching, fierce desire for Anna, her old babysitter, to come home. She would have played Pinecone Bowling. In fact, she had invented it.

  Last fall Anna had gone away to college, which meant that she had moved and couldn’t babysit anymore, and instead Liza and Patrick were left with Mandy, who always chewed her gum too loudly and didn’t like to play games—she didn’t like anything, really, except talking on the phone. Anna had come over to babysit several times during her Christmas vacation, but on her spring break she had gone away with her friends. Liza and Patrick had gotten a water-warped postcard from her, but most of the writing had been too blurry to read.

  In addition to the postcard she had sent from the beach, she had sent two letters from college, and a white sweatshirt with a fierce-looking bear on the front, explaining in the attached note that it was her school’s mascot. Patrick had cried like a baby when it turned out the sweatshirt was in Liza’s size, and she had finally lent it to him. He had promptly spilled tomato sauce on it, and she’d refused to speak to him for an entire day.

  Liza knew it was stupid, but sometimes she fantasized that Anna would turn up again and confess her deepest secret: that Liza and Patrick were, in fact, her siblings, and they had all been torn apart by some horrible event when they were little and forced into different families.

  Liza’s fantasies were a little hazy after that point, but she thought that somehow she, Anna, and Patrick would end up on a long journey together, hunting down some of the magical creatures Anna had always told them about, like gnomes and nimphids (who were beautiful but bad-tempered).

  Liza sighed. Anna would also have known what to do about the spindlers. She was, after all, the person who had first told Liza and Patrick about them. She was the one who had warned them about the strange spider creatures and had told them what they must do to be protected.

  Liza scanned the yard for gnomes, but saw nothing. Only last week, Patrick—the real Patrick—had spotted one scampering into the rhododendron.

  “Look, Liza!” he had cried out, and she had turned just in time to see a hard, brown hide, which was as cracked and weathered as a leather purse.

  It was too hot for the gnomes today, Liza decided. Anna had told Liza they preferred cool climates.

  Liza pressed her face up against the small fir tree that stood next to the birdbath, inhaling deeply. It was easier to see the magic through its branches, she found. The scratchy needles poked deeply into her skin, and she stood and squinted through the layers of green. Looking at the world through the fir tree meant seeing only the essential things: the vivid green of the grass, dew glistening on petals, a robin flicking its tail, a squirrel rustling through the rhododendron, a miracle of life and growth that forever pulsed under the ordinariness.

  And, of course, it was only when looking through the tree that you could make a wish and have it come true—Anna had also told them that.

  Liza spoke a wish quietly into the scratchy branches.

  We will not repeat it. Everyone knows that only wishes that are kept secret will ever come true. But know this: The wish was about Patrick.

  Liza heard a step behind her. She turned and saw the Patrick-who-was-not-Patrick standing on the front porch, watching her.

  Liza sucked in a deep breath, gathered her courage, and said, “You are not my brother.”

  Not-Patrick stared at her with flat blue eyes. “Yes, I am,” he said calmly.

  “You aren’t.”

  “Am too.”

  “Prove it,” Liza said, crossing her arms, and she tried to think of a question whose answer only the real Patrick would know. She was quiet for a bit. At last she asked, “When you are playing hide-and-seek on a rainy day, what is the best hiding space?”

  “Behind the bookcase in the basement,” not-Patrick answered automatically. “In the crawl space that smells like mold.”

  Liza was disappointed. He had gotten it right; this fake-Patrick was obviously smarter than she gave him credit for—smarter, she wouldn’t wonder, than the real Patrick. (Though that wasn’t saying much. Only a week ago the real Patrick had tried to turn the basement into a swimming pool by flooding the sink! Absurd.) Maybe she needed to ask a harder question.

  “What must you do every night before you go to sleep?” Liza said, eyeing the not-Patrick narrowly to see whether there was any hesitation or shiftiness in his answer.

  But he responded promptly, drawing a big X across his chest, “You must cross yourself once from shoulder to hip and say out loud, ‘Sweep, sweep, bring me sleep. Clear the webs from my room with the bristliest broom.’”

  Liza was stunned. She had been sure—positive!—that the question would baffle not-Patrick, but his answer was correct, and he stood looking at her with an expression of triumph. When Anna had first discovered the spindlers, she had invented this rhyme as a way of keeping the spindlers at bay while they slept. Everyone knows there is nothing a spider fears more than a broom, and someone sweeping with it, and the broom charm had, in fact, protected them for years.

  Patrick—the real Patrick—must have forgotten to say the broom charm last night before he went to sleep. He and Liza had been fighting—Patrick had accused her of stealing his favorite socks, which were blue and embroidered with turtles, as though she would ever have worn anything so ridiculous—and Liza called him paranoid, and when he did not know what that meant, he stormed into his room and slammed the door.

  He was distracted; that must be why he had not said the broom charm. Liza felt a heavy rush of guilt. It was her fault, at least partially.

  And so the spindlers had gotten him: They had dropped down from the ceiling on their glistening webs of shadowed darkness and dropped their silken threads in his ear, and extracted his soul slowly, like a fisherman coaxing a trout from the water on a taut nylon fishing line. In its place they deposited their eggs; then they withdrew to their shadowed, dark corners and their underground lairs with his soul bound closely in silver thread.

  And the soulless shell would wake the next morning, and walk, and talk, as not-Patrick was walking and talking.

  But eventually, the soulless shell would crumble to dust, and a thousand spindlers—nested and grown—would burst forth, like a lizard hatching from an egg. And distraught parents would wake up, believing their children to have been kidnapped while they slept, and they would appear tearfully on television, begging for their children’s safe return, when really the spindlers were to blame.

  Liza felt a sudden tightness in her throat.

  “You see!” not-Patrick crowed. “I told you. I am your brother.”

  Then Liza was struck by an idea.

  “Come here,” she said to not-Patrick, and even though she was filled with revulsion by the closeness of this imitation, this cold and cardboard thing, she forced herself to stand still as he approached.

  Suddenly she lunged for him and began tickling his stomach.

  The real Patrick was extraordinarily ticklish and would have screamed with laughter and tried to shove Liza off and begged for mercy. Liza loved the sound of Patrick’s laugh. It came in short, explosive bursts, as though each time he was relearning how to do it.
r />   This Patrick stood still, watching her dully. “What are you doing?” he asked.

  Liza pulled away. She then had the same feeling she’d had several years ago, when she had swung too high and too fast on the swings at the playground, and the world teetered underneath her: a feeling of triumph but also of terror. She knew it. This Patrick was not the real Patrick. And that meant that the soul of the real Patrick had been bound up in silver thread and carried deep underground, and that inside the body of not-Patrick, insects were nesting.

  Liza drew herself up to her full four feet four inches. “I am not afraid of you,” she said to not-Patrick, but she was of course speaking to all those infant spindlers sleeping soundly in their thousands of soft eggs, somewhere deep inside his chest. And of course she was afraid. She was more afraid than she had ever been in her life. “I will find my real brother, and I will bring him back.”

  And then she spun quickly on her heel and stalked off toward the house, so not-Patrick and the tiny monsters he carried inside him would not see that she was shaking.

  Chapter 2


  All afternoon Liza tried to remember what Anna had told her about spindlers. She thought about asking her mother whether she still had Anna’s cell phone number, but at the last minute decided against it. What if Anna was busy doing something Important and got angry when Liza called? Worse, what if she didn’t remember Liza at all?

  Instead she got out a notebook and made a little list for herself: “Everything I Know About Spindlers and Their Habits.”

  Spindlers were not like regular spiders. They had eight legs, of course, but at the end of their legs they had human hands; and they had only two eyes, like a person’s, although their eyes were enormous and crescent-shaped, and they could see perfectly well in even the darkest night. Furthermore, though they were often as small as a pinhead, they could quite easily swell to the size of a house cat or larger. Some of the largest spindlers could grow to the size of a car, and in their large-jawed mouths they had one hundred teeth, each as sharp as a fang.