Babysitting the neighbour’s kid when I was fourteen was the first job I ever had, and should have been the easiest, by far. I had three younger brothers I’d been left alone with every friday night until the last one entered middle school, and thus had childcare down to a fine art. Even before meeting my new charge I had their routine prepared and ready, step by step: breakfast, watch cartoons, wear them out at the park or an aquarium, have lunch, watch movies at home, eat dinner, gentle playtime then bedtime by eight.
Simple, repetitive, regular. I couldn’t wait to rake in an extra $60 per week on top of my allowance, particularly without straying much further than my own front door. The kid, Janie, lived with her single mother three houses down, meaning that if anything went wrong my folks were literally a minute away. It was any teenage girl’s dream job- or should have been, at least.
Janie turned out to be the weirdest five year old I’d ever encountered; it felt cruel to admit it, but she was strange to the point of unsettling. When I first met her I felt sorry for her, a pudgy, quiet girl with a white patch taped over her left eye to help correct an astigmatism. She got picked on at school, her mother said; having an older girl around every weekend might teach her a little self-assurance. Of course my heart melted, and I turned up to that first shift fully intending to play the Fairy Godmother.
The thing was I ended up hating Janie, and the worst of it was I couldn’t quite say why. She had a habit of staring at me with the one good eye, following me with a grubby finger in her mouth no matter what I said or did. When she did talk it was on only to answer a direct question or to bring up her all time favourite subject: spiders.
I’d never known another child who wasn’t scared of them, let alone one obsessed with them to the extent that Janie was. She kept house spiders in a plastic box under her bed and fed them with dried worms her mother bought from the petstore, cooing as if they were miniature puppy dogs. Worse still, Janie was always wanting to carry them around, her chubby hands bristling with three or four at once.
“Why don’t you play with some of your toys for a little while, huh?” I’d say, trying to distract her. “Put the little guys back in their home, alright?”
She’d always linger in the doorway, reluctant to be parted with the wriggling beasts. But after a minute or so I’d hear her huff out a sigh and trudge upstairs to her room before returning to silently pose her Barbie dolls in a corner. Thinking she was bored I made an effort to bring some of my brother’s old toys over, most notably a system of pop-up tents and play tunnels. Janie had a vivid imagination, always making up stories about her spiders that she’d whisper to them for hours under her breath while I twitched and sweated on the other side of the room. I figured the tunnels could serve as terrain for one of her make-believe games, one she’d have to crawl through on all fours and, therefore, couldn’t carry her spiders with her.
Nevertheless she still tried to. I caught the kid scuttling through a tent flap, one hand crooked over a small, hairy mass. It made me sick to look at, imagining it escaping and running over my socked feet as the critters already had, once or twice.
“If he gets squashed in there you’ll cry, Janie,” I said, putting my hands on my hands the way I thought a responsible adult would. “Put him back in his tank, please.”
Grumbling, Janie backed out of the tunnel and stood up, her uncovered eye resentful.
“Why do you have to carry them everywhere, anyway?” I asked. “And you’re feeding them way too often. I’ve seen you do it. Watch out and they’ll be the size of rottweilers, and then you might not like them so much.”
“I would,” Janie insisted. Then, after a pause, she said, “Do you think a spider that big could eat a human? Or, like, something the same size?”
Even picturing it made my skin itch all over.
“Heck, Janie, I don’t know. Why are you asking me that?”
The girl closed her fist over her struggling pet arachnid and her small, red face suddenly looked serious.
“Just wondering. Maybe if Gregor was that big he could eat the Caterpillar Man.”
“The Caterpillar Man,” I repeated, trying to squash my exasperation. “Who’s that, a superhero or something?”
Janie shook her head so vehemently her pigtails struck her shoulders.
“Nuh uh. A big ugly monster. I see him around the house sometimes. He chases me, but he’s not so fast and when I get the spiders out of their house he goes away. I think he’s scared of them. But he’s started using my tunnels, now, and I don’t always see him to get them in time. So I thought if I took Gregor with me I could play without him bothering me.”
Something about her earnest way of speaking put my teeth on edge. Grimacing, I asked, “So this is one of the bad guys you made up for your games, right? What does he look like?”
If I was going to stick this job out much longer I had to try and put my distaste aside and bond with the kid; apart from her weird habits she wasn’t difficult to watch over, after all. But when Janie spoke again I had to turn away to stop her seeing the look on my face, the spasm of disgust uncontrollable.
“I didn’t make him up. I’ve really seen him. Maybe you will too, sometime. You won’t like him. He’s big, bigger than the spiders, bigger than me, bigger than you, and he doesn’t look like a caterpillar much, not really. They don’t have faces, and he does.”
With that Janie headed for the stairs, thumping up them one hop at a time. The pet spider had crawled onto the back of her t-shirt, its front legs waving as if it knew I was observing it.
The next few weekends passed without event, although I didn’t warm to Janie any more than she did to me. We tolerated each other with the understanding that I was there to get paid and she could do pretty much whatever she wanted throughout the day as long as a) it wasn’t dangerous and b) she was in bed by eight, the spiders locked away in their plastic tub. She still brought up the Caterpillar Man, once or twice, as if trying to spark a reaction out of me, but when I ignored her she quickly abandoned it.
I was at least pleased to see how much Janie used the tunnels; it meant that she was entertaining herself and I could just read a book or play games on my phone without having to talk to her. I’d hear her chuntering under her breath, the odd plasticky rustle of the play tunnels moving, that was all.
Veritable bliss, all things considered.
Then one day around dinnertime Janie didn’t come when I called her. I shouted for her three or four times with no response,and I hadn’t heard the grunt of her emerging the tunnels even once over the past few hours, I was sure of it. Frowning, I circled the tunnels, which spanned from the living room, through the dining room and into her mother’s study, shaking them from time to time and poking my head in wherever the tunnels opened out. I couldn’t see Janie in any of them, and even when I wandered the house yelling her name there was no sign of her.
Wondering if she’d sneaked out of the house without me noticing I began to sweat, not keen on the idea of calling her mother, who spent her Saturdays in a love nest with her new boyfriend and would not be pleased at being disturbed. I decided to do one last round of the rooms before assuming the worst, even squeezing under the beds to make sure that Janie wasn’t pranking me by hiding somewhere. It struck me to check the spider box; there was no way she’d run away or even go on what she considered ‘an adventure’ without them.
Moaning aloud I dragged the container out into the daylight, squinting into the tub to count the skittering shapes within. Although they all looked more or less the same to me I knew how many of them there were, and found myself muttering their names under my breath.
“Gregor, Maximus, Bertrum, Dexter, Kiki, Fredrick. Shit. That’s all of you.”
Shoving the box back under Janie’s bed I wiped dust off my pants legs and headed back downstairs, utterly nonplussed. I returned to the tunnels again, staring at them with narrowed eyes.
Was there a part of them I’d forgotten to check, where Janie had lain in hiding, quivering with laughter? She didn’t have much of a sense of humour or playfulness, but there was a first time for everything. Sure enough, as I watched one of the tunnels began to quiver and bulge outwards, a bulbous a shape making slow progress towards the dining room.
“Very funny, Janie,” I said. “I swear, I thought you’d run off on me. Your mom would have thrown a fit if you had, and that’d be me without a Saturday job. Then you’d get some boring old babysitter who’d be mean to you, or something. Now come on, I wanna start making dinner. Mac and cheese alright?”
The shape stopped moving, and it occured to me that it looked a lot bigger than Janie, filling out the entire width of the tunnel. I kicked at it a free metres further up, wondering if the fabric had come free of the metal wiring holding the tunnels together and bent out of shape. As if provoked by the assault the shape moved rapidly downwards and entered another tunnel, the silky rainbow material stretching around it. This tunnel curled around to where I was standing, and with a small, embarrassed laugh I crouched down to peer into the entrance.
Immediately I fell back on my hands and knees and hurried to pull myself up again, friction burning my palms on the carpet. The face that had stared back at me from inside the tunnel had not been Janie’s. It looked like a man’s, broad and almost cartoonish, the mouth gaped in a Mickey Mouse grin. Behind it an armless neck and shoulders swelled like raising dough, filling out the tunnel, and as it slid along on its belly its back humped and waved, inching its mutant body along.
Like a caterpillar.
Releasing small, whimpering cries I scrambled up over the couch behind me and into the space between it and the wall, clawing the home telephone off the wall. It struck me I had no idea who to call or what to say, how to explain what I was seeing. I thought about making a dash for the front door instead and pelted down the street to my own house, but my legs were shaking so much that I could barely put weight on them, let alone outrun the thing rapidly forcing itself down the play tunnel.
Phoning for help it would have to be. Still, I had to at least be sure of what I’d clapped eyes on before I humiliated myself to Janie’s mother, or the police. Slowly I poked my head over the top of the couch and watched in dry-mouthed horror as the man-faced fleshy thing dragged itself out of the play tunnel entrance, its beaming face swinging around to survey the room.
Its body was like flesh-coloured Play-Dough squeezed through a plastic tube, the only remnant of humanness about it besides the head being a hundred scrabbling fingers, growing like insectoid linbs from the creature’s side. They wriggled and grasped at the floor, the horrible, jerking concertina of the creature’s body being the main force of driving it forward.
As it edged across the floor a slick of redness and torn fabric stuck to the linoleum, the white eyepatch I’d seen attached to Janie’s face every day for months clinging to the thing’s flank. Slowly it peeled away and struck the floor with a wet pock, and I had to cram my hand against my mouth to stop myself whimpering again.
Janie’s flat little monotone voice rung through my head again and again.
Caterpillar Man. Caterpillar Man.
The creature stared around once more, its face still fixed in a jolly rictus. Its jaws worked slowly around something, and I realised it was still chewing even as it looked for me, although chewing what I didn’t let myself consider. Then it turned its cumbersome form around and began to squeeze back into the play tunnel, humping and straightening, humping and straightening until the tunnel was still again.
My grip on the telephone loosened, and with my free hand still pressed against my mouth I began to cry.