Steph's Biggest Fan

P   R   E   V   I   O   U   S   L   Y      I    N 
S   P   I   D   E   R   F   I   N   G   E   R   S
Soon, the distance between himself and Steph's bus was far away enough for him to drop the act.  His face full of success, his hand gripping his Navy blue prize.
From her standing place, squashed among fellow passengers, Steph decided the plan to head three stops in the wrong direction would be sufficient to escape her killer tramp.  She had a classroom to run.  And so, after a brief internal argument, she adjusted her niqab, hoisted her handbag onto her shoulder and swapped the bus for the downpour of rain and hailstones.  She scanned the pavement ahead, peered over tops of hats and umbrellas.  The homeless man with the Superman hoodie and big coat had vanished.
She retraced her steps along Albany Street till she entered the rowdy car horn fanfare, the utter madness of the Gloucester Gate intersection.  She flagged down a black cab, agreed to the absurdity of the fare as she leapt inside messily, pulling the wet folds of blackness in after her.  After all, it was better to spend some silly money on a taxi than head back even further and risk a second encounter – especially in the rainy weather.  I might run straight into him, thought Steph.  There’s no telling what he might do.  Push his thumbs through my eyes perhaps? Just like he had done to the old woman in his story.
Sitting in the back of the taxi, Steph massaged the tenseness in her neck.  The small of her back still ached but the scent of Milo’s Calvin Klein aftershave clung to her hair.  Even her clothes smelt of him.  She closed her eyes harking back to the night before, how thick biceps encircled her waist, pulled her close, much closer still.  Hot breath warm on her bare skin.  For now, Milo’s features were far more appreciable than anything Spiderfingers had to offer.  Lost in her dreamland, Steph hardly noticed the journey at all, as the residential sprawl of North London fell away, only to be replaced by the tall glass peaks of The City.  It took the crescent moon atop the London Central Mosque to catch her eye, to remind her of herself.
She remembered why she wore her Muslim attire.  Her mind flooded with the regret and shame that followed every transgression from her religious path.  But her main preoccupation was Spiderfingers.  No dishonour could distract her from the man.  She felt idiotic for dusting her college Dictaphone; for stupidly returning his polite plaque encrusted grins.  Often she had seen him, the odd hello infusing her with a grand sense of humanity.  Cheaper than buying a Big Issue and definitely more fulfilling.  Those gum-diseased smiles.  This was the way he had sought and gained my trust.  Spiderfingers: a strange, sad character gifted with a great speaking voice, damned with an acute mental imbalance.  Either he was a killer who fantasised about being some sort of demigod, or alternatively – more improbably – Spiderfingers, Rumple – whatever – was a demigod who wanted to be a homeless killer.  Why do the delusional always pick such grandiose alter-egos? Her storyteller spelt bad news.  Still, Steph knew she would return to Camden again soon.  As if on cue, her phone began to flash:
“Hey, how’re you? You won’t believe what I’ve just been through.  Remember that Spider guy?”
“I have to see you,” replied a refined older voice, “I must see you, tonight.”
Inadvertently Steph squeezed her Nokia.  She felt her pulse quicken at the sound of Milo’s voice, a rumbling fatherly wave that washed all the recent mental scum from her forethought, “I need to see you again.  I think we should break our rule.”
Steph smiled in spite of herself, and tried to hide her shortness of breath as she recalled Milo’s fingers lightly caressing her thighs, “Milo, I’ve broken enough rules to last a lifetime.”
“Then one more won’t hurt.”
“Milo –”
“– My kinky little sex ninja.”
“I’d so prefer if you stuck to something more traditional? Honey, perhaps?”
“Cloaked Sexpot?”
“Getting colder”
“I want you, Steph.  I want you.” She giggled at his absurdity.  His words sweeping over hers, rescuing her from the great sea of worry.  No small-talk, no “hey, how’s your morning been?” Just in with that voice, ransacking her baggage, issues she’d promised to resolve, one day.  His voice slinging problematic history into hungry waves.  That day in primary school sunk beneath bottomless waters.  That day eliciting her attention, no matter the distracting activity she employed.  Only Milo’s voice could drown it.  No sister called Margery to be jealous of.  Just his voice.  No crooked nose to hide away from view.  His arms.  No impending class to teach.  Rebelliousness, leading to deep feelings of acceptance, god I’m pathetic.
“How about we lose the Niqab motif? You want original, how about Nursey Wursey?” The silliness that he uses to offset his intelligence.   It’s not just about who he is; it’s the way he sees me. “Well, my hooded harlot of the night?”
“O.K, that’s a step too far, Milo.”
Silence.  Waiting.  I must make him wait before I eventually say:
“The Sex Ninja will see you at six.”
And boy, does she have a story to tell you.
The Cromwell Toy factory had been desolate since nineteen ninety two, arguably, the perfect site for developers to raise a shopping centre, but Camden’s township had successfully campaigned against the renovation.  Cromwell Toy Factory therefore stood deserted, uninhabitable, only the unbelievably desperate would live through the factory’s infestation of rats and stale air.
“Have fun getting out of this one, fucker.” Spiderfingers was busy, squirming alone in the darkness of the factory floor, rust and garbage covered conveyor belts surrounded him.  He was industrious, binding chains tight over himself, not caring about the pain of overzealous wrapping.  Winding these large restraints to him and the radiator would make his morning easier, where inevitably, he’d wake up with snatches of murder cutting through his memory.  He had seen a character do this in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, John Clay’s favourite T.V show.
Oz, a noble college-school kid who chained himself up during the day.  A person taking responsibility for the werewolf he became at night.  But thinking of Oz only made things worse, because Oz had been a practical monster.  Why didn’t I bolt the door as well? Why can’t I be more like Oz? He glared at the failing metallic door sure to rip out of its hinges, courtesy of his night-self and the chain-faced minion that would arrive in the next hour or so.  His sense of impotence passed soon enough, transmuting into a dark resignation.  There was no way any exit could contain the thing he became at night.  Still, he checked and double checked the steadfastness of his metal braces.  He blocked out the futility of the event, reminding himself that suicide was for selfless World War II commandos or conflicted artists unable to handle the chaos of showbiz.  For Spiderfingers, death was certainly not an option: My death seals the fate of billions.  He sought to remind himself that at least with his self-imposed captivity, the bastard he transformed into would have a few moments of frustration before his inevitable break out.
Just a few more nights like this.  He twisted calloused dirty fingers through the silver manacles, his hand diving into his brittle flaking jacket.  The book there held the secret to his sanity.  He scanned the passages scribbled between aquamarine covers.  These were more than words, these were lines for recital.  Specific stage direction for the role his life-play relentlessly demanded: 
Entry Three Hundred and Thirty Eight
John Clay’s love of the superhero genre more than likely affects Spiderfingers’ self-perception.  Spiderfingers is John Clay’s wish fulfilment made flesh.  He only kills as a last resort, never for fun.  He is not a maniac.
Lost in the intricacies of his study, he didn’t notice the girl in the school uniform enter the building.
“Hey Spider.” Vicky leaned over him as he scrambled to nudge his journal back into the crustiness of his pocket. “... Soooo … What’s with the bondage look? Is this how Superman gets off?”
“Just cos you know about my nightlife doesn’t mean I’m ready to talk.  How come you’re always so late?”
“Detention.  Then arguments with mum about detention.  Then screaming that I’m going out, even though I’m grounded for?”
“And the deity indulging in bondage gets a B plus!”
“No A?”
Detention? It’s the insecurity in your answer that fails you, my lord.”
“So, I’m supposed to ask you about school so we’ll start sharing and crying and talking about my chains, and my … night situation.”
“That would be cool.”
“Nice try O.G, but we both know you’ve never had detention in your life.  Being the bad girl was more your sister’s role.  Seriously, O.G, why’re you always so late?”
“You haven’t called me O.G since I was little.”
“Oh no, no problem.  Object Girl to the rescue! Hey, remember how I could never say your name?”
“Ha! The lisp! Spiderzfingers.  Ha, Spazz-face! Can you still call people Spazz-Face?”
“Er, you never could.”
“Oh … Oh, O.K.” Vicky’s high pitched giggling mixed with his raucous pirate cackling, the laughter filling the factory up, making it warmer somehow.
“How did you become who you are?”
“Sorry?” asked Spiderfingers, unable to mask how much the question caught him off guard.
“I'm y’know, like, the sidekick of the great and powerful Spiderfingers.  I ought to be able to get the origin story straight, right?”
“You mean you don't remember?”
“Bits and pieces.  I’d just turned seven.  Like you don't wanna tell me?” she smiled.
“The old puff-up-the-chaos-god’s-ego trick.” He settled back a little, his chains jingled but they may as well have been tied around someone else.  Someone far away.
  “John Clay had this idea, that if he wore a well-known symbol every day, people would sooner associate him with the brand than with the symbol’s original placement.  Being a street fundraiser, playing in a band, writing a music blog, running a YouTube channel, trying his hand at stand-up comedy – you get the picture.”
“That’s why you wore it all the time? That sounds crazy.”
“Well, it was that craziness that brought him to your grandma’s attention.  Stopped him being just a lodger in her daughter’s attic.”
“So she picked an attention seeker to merge with Boleraam.  Figures.”
“Yup, someone with the audacity to think himself above others for a worthy cause.  The perfect martyr, with similar daddy issues to Boleraam.  Wearing a face he couldn't escape ... Yeah.  Don't Florence and Steve ... They don't talk about me at all do they?”
Vicky shook her head with a humourless grin across her face.
“Surely there's a piece of furniture in your house with all the juicy details?”
“Some things make more sense when I hear them out loud.”
“Aren't we the wise one.”
“I'm doing you a favour.”
“How so?”
“What God doesn't like the sound of his own voice?”
“Ha! The really mean ones like to speak through others.” He had a silly thought about doing the place up.  The human in him could be so foolish, till he remembered himself.  He nodded to the Navy blue umbrella beside him:
“There you go.  Get to work, Object Girl.”
“Yeah, about objects, I think I know why you’re losing your powers.  The front door gave me the idea.” Vicky sat on her knees, all her weight resting on her calves, “Your power comes from the Dilf’s bowing down to you in Village Po.  What if Village Po has been attacked?”
“The Dilf’s are the strongest race in all of the Oma.  The only thing they fear –”
“– Is you, I know.  But what if the gods figured out that Village Po is the source of your strength? Surely they’d gang up on the villagers?”
“No, no, no, we sacrificed Village Loha.  The gods thought they destroyed Po an age ago.”
“You should go pay Ungumpo a visit.”
“Too dangerous.”
“Might be worth it?”
“I’ll survive.  So long as my life’s not in any immediate danger, the Dilfs will have to look out for themselves.”       
“What if …”
“No, there was a something in there.”
“... Spider, I know you know what you’re doing but are you sure you’ve thought this through? She’s got a kid and –”
“Their lives for the world, Vicky.  It’s the only way.  Now hurry, it’ll be dark soon.” He watched her kneel before the umbrella, dutifully picking the item apart.  His mind revisited the first evening of the New Year, the night at Steph’s flat, item after item failing Vicky’s approval.  The mission interrupted by the pattering of tiny feet.
Vicky did warn me, thought Spiderfingers, but Gideon being a light sleeper didn’t matter.  Saved us having to wake him up.

That evening, Steph jumped off the bus two stops early.  The skies had cleared and, though her left shoe had taken on water like a sinking dinghy, she didn’t let the squelching sensation of every second step distress her.  All her classes had dragged but finally, at long last, she was free of being Miss Tent.  Once again, Steph, lost in a deranged world, headphones blocking out the city, as recorded stories spewed from her Dictaphone.  She felt relieved to discover Rumple’s voice intact; the recording so crisp and so clear.
“A clash sparked over the proposed emancipation of mortal-kind …” He might have been a dangerously ill man, but Steph had been languishing with writer’s block for six months now.  No, she decided, I’m not going back. She fumbled for keys at her front door.  I’ll take cabs to and from Milo’s.  He can afford it.  She shuffled inside, dumping her coat and bag in the hallway as she did so.  Fatigued and sore, she headed straight for her bedroom, experiencing detachment between herself and her fingers as they punched out a cancellation text to Milo.  She intimated that she was too tired for ‘rule-breaking’.
“Sorry Milo, no Ninja Sex tonight.”  Her face sank into the pillows, her head mere inches away from her automated storyteller.  The smooth comforting feel of her religious garb swallowed up her eager hands, enfolding them as she fought against the slumber.  A swift epiphany snaked between her ears, planting a decision inside.  Enlightenment as a cell, which split, and grew, and grew, the division nurtured by its mother, so consumed with love: 
The Babushka Doll Stories are my invention.  She said the words out loud:
“The Babushka Doll Stories are my invention.” … as if the expression would deliver its unstoppable emergence into the universe.
The Babushka Doll Stories “are my invention.”  
Without her guidance, the genre would die; the stories would limp misshapen across the malnourished tongue of a tramp, a lost soul whose broken mind conjured re-worked Greek myth with all the abandon of a mad scientist.  There was no god of chaos! Spiderfingers would baffle rather than entertain listeners with his pretentious and frankly confusing stories.  She herself was no stranger to smothering creative efforts with ego.  She could still see her last writing effort on the dresser by her bed.  Unthinkingly, she unbound her hands from the folds of her clothes, stopped the Dictaphone, and cradled the stillborn.  Another night’s post mortem commenced:
Steph’s environment reconfigured itself to a whole new level of evil.  All about her lay instruments that didn’t belong on any patch of workplace.  They were eager to be tripped upon, minded, moved from this place and that.  All these fucking leads and monitors, angering Steph.  Machines and whatnot, they swamped the horizon; camera’s and lights and those white umbrellas used to create special lighting for a film shoot, they lay everywhere, devouring valuable space.  The area designated for gym equipment and school gym users – i.e. School children – was sacred.  So Steph waited by the side.
 “I think it’s a bloody disgrace.” voiced Leonie, eyeballs popping out at the preparation,
“But if I’m going to be on television Stephanie, you must, must be honest with me.”  Leonie moved to face Steph square on, her massive hands riding her hips.
“Fab. Very T.V worthy.” nodded Steph, more than a little fatigued that Leonie’s ridiculous floral affair had again, demanded reassessment, it being the fourth and hopefully final change for today’s filming of ‘Skool Daze’.
“And you look cool as ever!” nudged Leonie.
Leonie was a bright beacon of jollity in the foggy sea of Palmer’s Green.  With the mind of a teenage anarchist, Leonie spent her days avoiding her pupils and practicing her incredibly amusing impersonations of the senior staff.  Best of all, she had accepted Steph as a friend almost instantly, with no questions asked.  She never mentioned Steph's clothing either, but once compared it to Batman’s cape.  She was completely tactless despite herself.  And Steph loved her for it.
“So Steph, how long do you think I would go down for if I strangled Henry Thomas?” Leonie whispered, her hand cupping her mouth in mock conspiracy.
“In a sane world you’d be given severance pay for mental anguish and a trip for yourself and a loved one to the Caribbean,”
For Heavens’ Sake! The irritating and cacophonous chit-chattering of children, a sonic disruption Steph had never adapted to, it swelled around her.  What little comfort her headphones afforded her dispersed with the arrival of Charles Stephenson: the world’s most hated T.V presenter surely, decided Steph.
Tall and muscular, good looking in that boring angular faced way, he showed her to the chair she’d answer his questions in.  His knowing elocution and love for unnecessary word choices made her want to gag.  Steph didn’t want to believe most television presenters were self-serving egotists with a slippery clench on the rung of reality, but here was retired footballer Charles Stephenson with his perfect teeth and toothpaste advert smile.  Does he smile like this in his sleep, she wondered.  Steph felt there was something to tell.  A something she wanted to tell everyone, all those in the building and for quite some time too but somehow reckoned the conclusion had no place coming out of her mouth, let alone grow up tall and slender.  An athlete of a thought, a notion going crazy on the laps it ran in her brain.  The mad idea couldn’t stay in and wanted out.  Steph’s lips curled a little before the blurting.  Out shot her track-star: “I quit.”
“Excuse me?” spluttered Charles.
“I don’t want to do this anymore?”
Charles looked about nervously, half smiling.
“I quit.” she repeated.
“Just like that?” asked Charles.
“Yes, just like that.”
“You can’t.”
“Yes, I can and I have.  I quit.  This is me – quitting.” Steph caught the eye of Mr Stickler, whose face was attempting to fire off his beanpole body.  It wanted to rocket to the moon.
“Frankly, Miss Tent, this show needs you.  Think of the children.”
“You need the niqab.”
“The what?”
She pointed to the veil covering her face, “Mr Stephenson, you and your camera people need racial diversity.  You see the niqab on a white woman and you’re thinking ratings, right?”
“I don’t think that’s –”
“– You want viewers and they want Soap Opera and these kids need education and I need –” Steph couldn’t speak.  She held it in for favour of, “– I need to quit.”
Down the stairs Steph sauntered.  In fact, she strutted.  Out into the playground, already texting Leonie, that if she could collect her stuff from the staffroom? Steph would not be returning to Palmers Green.  She would live her life another way.  So, she ran out the school gates believing in freedom and the power to create.
Naturally she wrote herself sassy, combative, but never losing her cool.  Imagining what Milo would say and do had been the basis for her character.  The made-up woman in her prose never chose the same life-bungling options that real-life Steph might.  Her creation handled her damage with Bruce Wayne proficiency.  Parental void transmogrified into a super-heroic opportunity.
Steph returned her notepad to the cabinet and with a huff, she rolled onto the bed’s other half.  She locked eyes with the figurine under the bedside lamp.  There he postured, posing with hands on hips, the perfect rendition of a square-jawed-super-powered-do-gooder: Danger-Man, a seven inch Play-Doh character that Gideon had moulded for her.  Her biggest present yet.  His pointy red hat disproportionate enough to render him susceptible to toppling over, which annoyed her somewhat since the slightest disturbance achieved his fall to the carpet below.  Gideon had worked so hard on him and in such a short space of time too.  The results of his labour would have to be encouraged.
“You have to sleep next to Danger-Man, mummy.” He would say. “The snake in his head gets lonely and he can be your friend in your sleep, mummy.”
I’ll have a snooze before calling him.  She rolled back over.  A mistake.  There lay her bad writing.  Even with a grammar clean-up and a bolstering of the description, Steph could only see the hollowness of her tale.  The promise of a healthy narrative, broken, for the sentences only managed to deliver nothing but a lifeless husk.  No true heart to the story whatsoever. 
Steph briefly considered resurrecting Wigloo but how could she trust him? The creature had failed her all those years ago, to a classroom full of prepubescent critics no less.  Wigloo the Space Monkey was a useless minion to a defaced goddess, one that couldn’t fill the barrenness inside her.  She was forced to make-do with the oft elaborate daydream: Come to life novel-version me.  Come kill the original and take over.  Her attention was drawn once again to the Dictaphone; the charming voice of her crazed storyteller.  She pressed play: “The more followers you have, the greater your power.  And you need to be powerful to protect Mother Nature.”
Spiderfingers had a wild-eyed talent, such a fantasy world far more involving than her own.  She felt her mind open, his words snuggling into the crevice her subconscious provided.  Her eyelids became heavy, absentmindedly pretending that her son’s figurine would slice the bad writing out of her.  Leave it to Danger-Man, thought Steph, lazily, reaching out to stroke the smooth existence of the Plasticine watchman.  Her eyelids closed before rapidly opening.  Closed, then open.  Closing … a slight opening … Danger-Man and his pointy red hat … then … closed.  Shut firmly, her awareness trundling down, down, down into a strange, strange land.
N   E   X   T      T   I   M   E      I    N
S   P   I   D   E   R   F   I   N   G   E   R   S

The bus climbed over hilltops, scaling monolithic mountainsides, splashing silently through forded rivers.  It sped across rocky valleys, through peculiar blue vegetation.  And all the while, Steph could see the shadow of a great dark creature, stalking them through the velvet night.

(N.B The comments posted below pertain to an extended version of this story, truncated due to issues of pace). 

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