Sid’s the guy who called Martin in. He’s wearing a secondhand suit that’s just a bit too tight.
“My phone,” Sid says. “It’s not working. It needs sanitization.”
Martin looks at him. Martin is wearing a snappy blue-black uniform and cynicism shades. There is an official telephone repairman’s knife at his belt.
“What did you do to it?” Martin asks.
Sid looks as if he has no idea what Martin could possibly mean.
Martin reaches for the phone.
Sid says, “Wait.”
Martin raises an eyebrow.
“I want to go with you,” says Sid. He looks a bit nervous. “Just to make sure that you don’t do anything inappropriate.”
“I’m a licensed telephone repairman,” says Martin.
“Aren’t you a bit young?”
“Social security lost my birthdate,” says Martin. “When you don’t have good social security records, you’re only as young as you feel. Sir. I can handle this.”
Martin’s gaze is flat.
“It’s just,” says Sid, “I make a lot of personal calls on this phone.”
“Uh huh,” Martin says.
“So I’d like to come along.”
The clock ticks.
“Fine,” Martin says. He takes Sid by the hand. He picks up the phone. They hook down into the line. Then Sid’s house is empty, then Sid and Martin aren’t there, and the only sound left is the angry buzzing of the untended line.
Sid and Martin are in phonespace.
Inside phonespace the walls are covered with spiders and their webs.
Sid shrinks in on himself.
Martin looks around.
A spider scuttles up the outside of Sid’s pant leg. Sid makes a horrified noise and shakes it off.
“Ring!” says the spider, rattled. “729-8423!”
Little stars and birds circle its head. Then it eats the birds. Spiders like to eat birds, but only if the bird is small relative to the spider.
“Well?” says Sid.
Martin looks around. He starts picking a careful path through the spiders towards a junction.
“Kill them!” says Sid. “You have Raid!”
That shriek isn’t Sid. It’s from the spiders. They’ve seen the commercials. They know what to shriek. They scuttle away from Martin and Sid.
“No Raid,” emphasizes Martin.
The scuttling quiets.
“The spiders aren’t the problem,” Martin explains. “Not unless they get out of hand. You need spiders to maintain a good phonespace.”
The spiders slump, relieved.
Martin reaches out. He seizes a spider’s abdomen between thumb and forefinger. He holds it out to Sid.
“This is the (800) spider,” he says. “Kill this, you can’t make (800) calls.”
He shakes it. Somewhere in the distance, a phone rings.
“Hello?” the spider says.
Martin tosses it aside. It lands with a click and scuttles off into the pack.
“Oh,” says Sid.
“This,” says Martin, holding up another, “is an unsanitized spider.”
He dusts it off with a little feather duster.
“Um,” says Sid. “Er, yes. About that one.”
“I don’t care, sir,” says Martin.
He releases the spider. Martin looks around. He counts spiders.
“All right, guys,” he says. “Who’s missing?”
There is silence.
Martin’s hand falls to the knife at his belt. Very carefully, very deliberately, he wraps his fingers around it.
The spiders are very still.
Martin pulls the knife the first inch from its sheath.
There is a flurry. All the spiders scuttle away in every direction; save for one, an ancient long-legs, who creaks out, “Stop.”
So Martin stops.
“It’s the (888) calls,” says the long-legs. “They’re the best targets. You know that.”
“Targets?” says Martin.
“For the arachnophobe.”
Martin slides the knife back into its sheath.
“Where?” Martin says.
The long-legs mutters numbers to itself. It is shivering with nerves.
Martin goes very still. His head turns, a centimeter at a time. He looks over his shoulder. He looks up at the ceiling.
“What?” Sid says.
“Whisht,” Martin says, harshly.
Sid turns. It’s a clumsy, self-important turn. He looks up.
The ceiling is covered with eyes and colors. They are shifting and moving and twisting. It takes Sid a full second to process the image; he is gasping in fear and falling back onto the floor before he realizes that they are the folding and unfolding wings of butterflies.
“Gack!” he says.
It’s a sharp, terrible sound.
The butterflies swarm down.
Martin is already in motion. He’s grabbing Sid. He’s dragging him back. There are butterflies in Sid’s hair, mouth, and eyes. They’re scraping their antennae along the hair of his arms. He can’t smell anything but nectar.
“Git!” says Martin.
He’s cutting them away from Sid with the blade of the knife. Sid isn’t in a condition to notice that neither his skin or the butterflies are being hurt; he simply curls in on himself and moans, all the more so when he realizes that spiders are hiding behind his back.
“Git!” says Martin again, more sharply. The butterflies scatter. Many of them have bits of Sid’s hair or tiny spiders clutched in their six hands.
Sid collapses backwards against Martin, shuddering and shivering. Martin holds him awkwardly while keeping the knife ready in his other hand.
And Mr. Flutter strolls in.
He’s a calm man, Mr. Flutter. There’s no expression in his eyes and his upper and lower teeth are two uncut sheets of enamel. He’s wearing a white suit and his face is pallid.
And Mr. Flutter says, “Oh, Martin, you shouldn’t bring fresh meat.”
“He insisted,” Martin says.
“It divides your attention,” Mr. Flutter says. His mouth opens and closes a few times. He tilts his head sideways and stares at Martin. “I think I’ll get you this time.”
“As if,” says Martin.
“We’ve gotten a bumper crop of the spiders this time,” says Mr. Flutter.
“Yes,” says Martin. “And this poor idiot here can’t even make his (888) calls because of it.”
Mr. Flutter shrugs gaily. “Nor can he call his aunt Stella, not that he even tries.”
Sid makes a bleary noise of protest.
“It’s all the same to me,” says Mr. Flutter.
“Give them back,” says Martin.
Mr. Flutter hesitates.
“Now, Martin,” he patronizes.
“All of them. I want all of the spiders of this phonespace put back now. Or we’ll see who gets who.”
Mr. Flutter’s teeth grit together.
“They’re mostly transformed already,” he says.
“You’re transforming my phone spiders?” Sid says.
He lurches to his feet. He shakes his fist at Mr. Flutter in outrage.
“I need those for my personal and business calls!”
Mr. Flutter backs away.
Sid advances, tottering a little, one fist whirling.
“Sir,” says Martin. “Please don’t involve yourself in a delicate phone sanitization operation. Verizon can’t be responsible—”
“Shut UP!” says Sid.
That’s when Mr. Flutter catches Sid’s wrists in his cool, delicate hands and spits a viscous fluid full into Sid’s face.
It’s several hours later that Sid wakes up.
He holds his hand to his head dizzily.
“You’re lucky,” says Martin.
“There’s no one monitoring this service call,” Martin explains. “So a lot of my coworkers would have just eaten you while you were unconscious.”
“Oh,” says Sid.
“But I didn’t,” Martin says, unnecessarily.
He’s hoping for a positive customer review.
Sid blinks at Martin. His vision is still a bit fuzzy. “What happened?”
“I sanitized your phone,” Martin says. “I got back as many numbers as I could. There are going to be a few places you can’t call until the next hatching season, though.”
“I didn’t know,” says Sid. “I thought that you just . . .”
“Went in and giggled over the numbers you’ve been calling lately, then sprayed a little Raid around and called it a day, sir?”
“Yes,” says Sid.
“They’re all over,” says Martin. “The arachnophobes, like Mr. Flutter. They’re terrible for phone service. They bring in their army of butterflies and carry number spiders away. But I got him this time. He’s laying in your phone space slowly decaying with a knife through his heart.”
“Oh,” says Sid.
“What happens to the spiders?” he asks, casually.
Martin shrugs. “They turn into butterflies, I suppose.”
Martin stands up, sharply.
“I’d approve,” Martin says. “I think. But I’m a sworn phone repairman. A company man. I have to do what I have to do. You understand?”
“We’ll be sending one or more bills,” Martin says, curtly, and leaves.
That’s a disquieting proposition, but it isn’t what’s bothering Sid right now.
What’s bothering Sid right now is the tiny twitching buds he can feel, under his constrictive suit, growing on his back.