A boy, fourteen or fifteen years old. Great kid, so much potential. Smart as hell, but small for his age. Fragile. Can’t fight to save his life. He’s missed a lot of school, with asthma or whatever. Always going down with whatever’s going round. Charles, he might be called, or maybe Theo. Let’s go with Charles.
One time he’s off school for a whole two weeks with a chest infection. It’s tough being in bed when it’s light outside and you can hear the other kids playing. For two days he’s running a high fever. Lying there on his bed focusing on his breathing and staring up at the ceiling, he notices a big spider-web in the corner. In his fever he sees it in close-up, preternaturally sharp, glistening.
He looks at a web, and marvels at the cruel inhuman precision of the trap. He sees dried-up corpses of winged insects hanging in its threads, one of them still struggling from time to time. He imagines its chest constricted with tight sticky threads like his own lungs.
He doesn’t like spiders. He looks for it, but he doesn’t see a spider anywhere. Where is it? It must be somewhere.
Suddenly it comes to him that there is no spider. The web just is. Maybe it’s always been there, and he’s just never noticed it.
After that he can sleep. In his dream he is caught in the web but not caught, exactly — the web is somehow in him, running through him like silvery veins. He is somehow part of its cruel geometry.
He forgets all about it, but it comes back to him after school one day when he’s at his desk, trying to write a poem for English class, and staring absently around his room looking for inspiration.
He’d missed the essay assignment the rest of the class was second-drafting, so Miss E had told him kindly, ‘Write me a poem instead.’
‘What about?’ he asked.
She’d thought about it for a few seconds. ‘I know,’ she said, ‘The Bus With No Driver.’
Weird, he thought. He was surprised, though. It was different at least. Usually Ms E’s titles and topics were more pedestrian. At the beginning of the year she’d had them all write a composition called ‘My Room’. Miss Eisenstein’s no Einstein, he and his friends like to joke.
Now she says, ‘If you don’t like that one, you can come up with your own idea.’
Miss E is all right though. He likes her. Of course, it’s easy for an English teacher to be liked. She calls him Charlie. At home it’s always Charles.
So he’s staring around his room looking for inspiration. He leans back in his chair so far he’s looking at everything upside down — and then he sees it.
It’s an evil-looking thing at the edge of the web. Long-legged. Completely motionless — as still as stone. Or plastic.
How do I even know it’s real? he thinks.
And then it comes to him. He knows that without the spider there is no web, but at the same time that without the web there is no spider. The spider is in the web, it’s true, but first the web is in the spider.
And he thinks, What if the web somehow creates the spider? Manifests it. Brings it into being.
He likes that. Already at that age he likes to think differently from others, has a taste for cool, counterintuitive ideas.
He starts to write, trying to capture his fever dream in words.
He calls it ‘The Web’. He knows it’s good. Fucking good. Fuck me this is good, he says to himself as he types it up.
When it’s done, he goes online to find an image to go with the poem, and is suddenly struck by the phrase ‘World-Wide Web’.
His hand freezes for a moment above the keyboard and he frowns, a strange image flashing before his mind’s eye. Then he shakes his head and continues his search. In the end he crops an image so that all you see is the strands and angles, and one leg at the edge, barely intruding into the frame, resting lightly on a thread and almost indistinguishable from it.
Miss E loved the poem, of course. He knew she would. A++. But her comment annoyed him for some reason.
Amazing, she wrote, which he already knew, but then she’d added — Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
He rolls his eyes. Which comes first, the decision to become a teacher, or the talent for killing everything stone dead?
Which is your highest skill, he thinks, stating the obvious or completely missing the point?
Reducing everything to cliché.
There are no chickens in his world. Chicken, yes, but chickens? Kids like Charles don’t have a lot to do with chickens.
Chickens are not cool. Everyone knows that. There’s nothing cool about chickens.
And what’s not cool does not exist for Charles.