a life of leisure and renewed vigor
james w murphy

Harold's breath caught when he saw the Venusian spider in the corner of the bedroom. He blinked in disbelief, wishing he was just seeing things, hoping he was just having a waking nightmare.

In his six months on Venus, he had seen depictions of the dachshund-sized spiders. But never in real life. Even on the few Eldertours he and his wife took through the wilds of Venus. But here was one in his room. At the foot of his damn bed.

Harold slowly backed out of the bedroom, gently shutting the door so as not to agitate it. He worked to calm himself down. Despite their terrifying appearance, the bites from Venusian spiders weren't poisonous. Apparently they weren't even that painful. Something on the order of mosquito. No pain at first but then a large itchy welt -- or at least that's what the encyclopedias said. Something about the delicateness of their mandibles. Still, warnings had been pounded into his head relentlessly during their first orientation on Venus and on subsequent Eldertours: do not kill Venusian spiders.

When killed or hurt, the spiders let out a high frequency shriek and sprayed their attacker with pheromones, drawing several dozens of their friends, which would then dog-pile the attacker. The result was a giant rolling ball layered with angry arachnids. The killer -- usually an idiotic Earthman like himself -- would find themselves suspended at the center, immobilized and screaming until found and released by Venusian police. 

Spiders were also protected by Venusian law. So in addition to living through the horror of occupying the center of a giant ball of spiders, the perpetrator would be heavily fined. Harold didn't recall the exact amount, but knew it to be large enough to wipe out their retirement savings.

He tried to figure out how it got in. It should be impossible. The salesman who had sold them the living unit insisted they were impervious to intrusion by the rich Venusian wildlife churning through rapid cycles of birth, death, and decay outside the unit windows. "Hermetically sealed!" the salesman boasted, over and over throughout the presentation Harold and his wife had attended when back on Earth. The developer obviously cut corners to get the price down for budget-conscious retirees of Earth like himself, resulting in an opening, somewhere.

He went back to the living room, sat on the couch, and considered his options as he worked to slow his breathing down.  Maybe there was a hole in the bedroom, and it would leave on its own accord. If he just waited a bit, maybe it would go. He sat there, thinking about everything that had brought him to this moment.

His wife, Beatrice, had warned him that it all sounded too good to be true. He recalled when he first saw the advertisement in the paper. "Venus! Enjoy Your Retirement in Exotic Climes!" screamed the headline, above a drawing of a comely woman in a pith helmet, her eyes wide and mouth open in orgasmic delight, as if overtaken by the incomparable beauty of the Venusian jungle. Behind her, her handsome, content husband. Squared jawed. Hawaiian shirt revealing toned forearms. Leaning back in a chair without a care in the world. Quietly looking on and enjoying his beer in delicious silence while his wife stood agape and distracted by the wonders of the jungle planet. "Explore a New World! Live a Life of Leisure and Renewed Vigor!" the ad promised.

When he showed Beatrice the advertisement, her enthusiasm failed to match his, but she had been willing to go to an information session. In retrospect it was more of a high pressure sales pitch. The pipsqueak salesman with the slicked-back hair and horrible acne talked non-stop. Just wouldn't shut up, getting more and more and excited as the session went on. The slimeball tried every trick in the book. Even made a pass at his wife.

But it didn't matter. Harold was already sold. A move to Venus would mean he could quit work early, and use their savings to live a nice long retirement thanks to the lower costs of the jungle planet. Ignoring Beatrice's questions and concerns, he signed up for a unit, and they planned their one-way trip to their new life on Venus.

Harold realized ignoring his wife concerns was, perhaps, a mistake. She did her best to acclimate to their new life at first, but her complaints began to pile on with each passing month.

Her dissatisfaction came out in little ways at first. Like derisively naming their walking sphere "the hamster ball"  -- the transparent sphere necessary for walking from the house to the travellator. The sphere kept the more aggressive wildlife at bay and filtered the air. Venus's atmosphere was perfectly breathable, but the smell and feel of Venusian air was highly unpleasant to Earthfolk. Akin to sitting in a sauna next to a pile rotting orchids and a badly decomposed squirrel.

Then there was the food. They had sampled Venusian moss at the information session. "Nature's Pesto!" they called it. It tasted great, provided all necessary nutrients, and a lifetime supply came free with the living unit. What they didn't say was that it pretty much all anybody could afford to eat on Venus. Earth food was ridiculously expensive thanks to the shipping costs. And while a small dollop tasted wonderful on a cracker during the information session on Earth, it became unbearable as the only source of sustenance, meal after meal, day after day, one’s every exhalation rank with the smell of "nature's pesto."

Harold tried to make things easier on Beatrice. One afternoon he managed to procure butter and a box of macaroni and cheese for a princely sum. He almost wept when he received the box from the greasy looking man in the scuffed and soiled walking sphere: partly at the joy at eating something familiar, partly at the thought of making is wife happy for once, but mostly at the idea of spending such a large chunk of his savings on what would considered a peasant's meal back on Earth.

That night he set the table with their fine china and candles. He would never forget the sheer delight on her face as Beatrice brought the cooked macaroni covered with butter and hot milk from the kitchen and set it on the table. He would also never forget what happened next, although he wished he could. From her apron she pulled out the packet of cheese powder with a giddy flourish, poured it in, and began to stir. At that moment, he caught movement out of the side of his eye, and looked out the dining room window. As per the original specs of the unit, the polymer window remained uncovered, so that tenants could "enjoy the rich cycle of Venusian nature right outside your window!"  The view was now overtaken by two Venusian chameleons, copulating. The male was thrusting, staring right at Harold with an unsettling intelligence, each thrust synced perfectly with wet smacking stir of the spoon as Beatrice cycled  through the bowl of macaroni.

He turned to face his wife, relieved to see she hadn't noticed, transfixed as she was by the bright cheese powder finally taking on a milkier shade as it mixed with the butter. As she began to spoon the macaroni and cheese into their bowls, he hoped the chameleons would conclude their business so they could eat their meal in peace. He kept his head fixed forward, not daring to look toward the window, hoping she wouldn't turn to see the obscene display occurring outside. He hadn't bothered to read about Venusian chameleons in the encyclopedias-- a free set came with the unit -- so he had no idea how long they'd be at it.

"Bon Appetit!" his wife said, sitting down and putting a heaping spoon of macaroni into her mouth. It was right at that moment she happened to look out the window. And it was right at that moment that the female chameleon swiveled around and ripped her male partners head off, then latched her mouth around the ragged throat, sucking down her partner's blood in hungry gulps. The female chameleon looked right at Harold's wife, locking eyes with the same eerie intelligence. Harold's wife stopped chewing, her mouth hanging open in disbelief as the body of the chameleon began to bloat from the intake of blood, until finally popping, sending a red squirming mass of quivering tadpole-like offspring squiggling down the glass. Harold's wife screamed, then began sobbing. She sobbed like that through the rest of the meal.

Ever since that night she kept their luggage near the door, like a threat.

He'd have to get the spider out of the house. A large spider gamboling around their living unit would be the last straw. She'd demand to return to Earth. Understandably so, but that wasn't an option. At least financially. He'd have to move fast. She was due return from grocery shopping any minute.

He walked into the kitchen, and looked for something with which to catch it. The bowls were all too small. The trashcan might be just big enough, but it was a little narrow. The spiders were damn fast, so he'd have to bring it down on the thing quickly. If the container proved too narrow, the legs might get chopped off or damaged, the worst of all possible scenarios.

He walked into the pantry and scanned the shelves. There was a large wash basin on the bottom shelf, which they used to let the faucet-water cool the last time the cold water went out. It was a bit shallow, but wide enough. He grabbed it, and walked back in the bedroom, thinking about the fallout if Beatrice got home before he got it out.

She'd scream. Demand they go back to Earth. Their current nest-egg could stretch far beyond the end of their lives on Venus, but would only last a few years back on Earth. They'd have to go back to work. And assuming anybody would hire them, he'd spend the rest of his life at some workstation, his every move and thought in service to pleasing some jerk of a young supervisor. His wife would be excited to go back to work. At first. The excitement would yield to boredom. Then drudgery. Every day leaving just enough energy to get home, scarf down some instant food, and crawl into bed. Day after day. Just like the life they had suffered through before Venus.

He paused at the door. He could hear the spider scuttle a few steps. Harold took in deep breaths, trying to calm his pounding heart.

As he opened the door, the spider darted under the bed, the sickening sound of its rapidly tapping legs suddenly ceasing once it found a good hiding spot. He stepped toward the bed. One step. Two steps. Moving slowly so as not to startle it. He'd have to move the bed.

He felt queasy as he leaned down and reached out to grip the bed frame, imagining the spider's hairy legs brushing the back of his fingers. He grabbed and pulled, moving the bed and inch or two, and then jumped back. He heard movement, but still couldn't see the spider. He placed the basin down, edged back to the bed, and used both hands to move the frame. A droplet of sweat fell off his nose and onto the bedspread.

The spider shot out, running over his bare foot and out into the living room. Harold jumped three feet into the air and shrieked -- a high pitched scream like the young girls in one of the many horror movies of his youth. He let forth a stream of obscenities at the top of his lungs,  and began hitting his pillow with staccato punches until he was winded.

He rose back to his feet, picked up the wash basin and walked to the living room. He could still feel the exact areas of his foot where the spider's legs had touched. A shiver erupted through his body as he wiped his drenched forehead with his sleeve.

The thing was just too fast. This was impossible. He imagined his wife opening the door to the living room. Her screams upon seeing the plump, hairy arachnid next to the coffee table.

Maybe they could find some cheap place to live on Earth. Maybe they could find easier jobs. Although it wouldn't matter much, as they couldn't afford medical care. Another benefit of Venus: cheap herbal medicines that could keep a body going. Of course they were all outlawed on Earth. He pictured him and his wife, living destitute lives in some tent in the middle of nowhere, bodies consumed with disease and shuddering with pain until they died.

The spider was next to his armchair, heaving as if it were out of breath. He took a step toward it, and it moved. He knew he wouldn't be able to get close to it.

He held the basin in one hand, feeling the weight, moving it back and forth. He'd have to throw it like a Frisbee, and hope it landed right. He threw it, careful to let his wrist glide through the air with perfect follow-through.

He watched as the basin spun through the air, landing square around the spider, trapping it. No legs cut or pinched. No legs sticking out. The lip of the basin was flush with the floor. Harold screamed in triumph.

He went over to the door, opened it, and slid the basin over to the door, making sure to keep the sides tight to the ground. He could feel the spider scrambling, the its heavy legs pressing through the sides. He slid it far out on the airlock porch, shutting the door behind him. He sure as hell wasn't going to give the thing an opportunity to turn right around and run back in. 

He then opened the outward airlock door. He lifted one side, the one away from him, and the spider went like a shot into the jungle, disappearing into the thick vegetation.

He went back into the house, rinsed out the basin, and put it back its proper place. He got a beer from the refrigerator, and made his way over to the couch. As he opened the bottle, he could hear Beatrice's walking sphere docking against the airlock porch.

He sat cross-legged, placing one hand on the foot to still its shaking, and then wrapped his arm around the back of the sofa. The perfect picture of relaxation. Much like the man in the original ad.

Beatrice opened the door, and walked in with a shopping bag in hand. Harold took a long swig of his beer, and asked, "So what'd you get, Beadie?"

Her face went white. "What the hell is that!" she screamed, pointing to the wall.

He looked up to see a two-headed Venusian gecko.

He could hear Beatrice walking toward the luggage, and then dragging the them toward the bedroom.

He didn't take his eyes off the gecko. He could probably trap it just like he did the spider. Show her it was all okay. It was all manageable.

It was at that moment one of the gecko's heads turned to looked at him, as if hearing his thoughts.

He could have sworn it was smiling.