It smelled weird.
That was the first thing that Peter noticed. The moment he stepped over the threshold, he noticed the smell of the house. It was . . . it was antiseptic, somehow. Not that young Peter, standing there so neatly attired in his blue shorts, white shirt, and yellow sweater vest, would have known the word "antiseptic." That was a big, important word. Most four-year-olds hadn't heard the word, couldn't use it in context, couldn't even come close to spelling it. In this regard, Peter Parker, who had celebrated his birthday the previous August at a big and splendid party where his parents had made a marvelous fuss over him, was no different. By age five, however, he would be able to correctly define and spell it . . . along with "microbiology," "cellular," and "mitosis." On the other hand, he would continue to stumble over "photosynthesis" and "paleontologist" until he reached the ripe old age of six.
Peter, however, wasn't looking that far ahead. Five and six were an eternity away. All that concerned Peter at that moment was the here and now. And what was here, and what wasn't.
He was here. These strange people whom he had supposedly met once, when he was a baby--but he sure couldn't remember--were here. That weird smell was here.
His parents were not.
The living room in which he was standing didn't seem even remotely inviting. The cushions of the couch were covered in plastic. He'd tried to sit on one and hadn't liked the way it had stuck to the underside of his legs. So he'd slid off it, but it had made this really weird squeaky "ripping" sound, and he hadn't liked that either.
The man and woman who were bringing the last of his things into the house, who were speaking in hushed whispers to the woman named Miss Hemmings--the "social worker," she'd been called--those people weren't paying any attention to him. That suited him fine. Perhaps he could simply reside there like a ghost, no one noticing him. When he was hungry, he could snitch food from the kitchen, presuming they had one, and otherwise be left alone.
He wanted that more than anything . . . particularly to be left alone by the man, who reminded him a little of his father. Except it wasn't him, and that made him feel all the more uneasy.
The door closed, shutting out the outside world. The smell of the plastic cushions threatened to suffocate him. He would have screamed if he could have worked up the energy to do so, but he felt wrung out, like a sponge.
The carpet was weird, too. It felt slightly moist under his feet, as if it had been just washed. Just to add to the assault, there was a lemony smell coming from all the wood furniture. He stared down at his reflection on the coffee table. There were flowers arranged neatly on a small lacy thing in the middle of it. He leaned forward to smell the flowers. The flowers, he realized belatedly, were fake. They were the only things in the whole living room that didn't smell.
"Well, Peter," said the man, coming into the room. He clapped his hands once and rubbed them briskly together. The magician at Peter's birthday party had done something similar, right before he'd produced coins from out of nowhere. He'd pretended he'd pulled them from thin air, but Peter had spotted the sleight-of-hand. In a loud voice he'd explained every single one of the magician's tricks, to the irritation of the conjurer and the endless amusement of his parents. His mother's laugh still rang in his ears. He hadn't yet been able to grasp the notion that he would never hear that laughter again.
"Well, Peter," the man said again, "would you like to sit down?"
"No, sir," Peter said politely, addressing the older man as "sir," just as his parents had always taught him.
"Land sakes, child," the woman said. "You can't just plan to stand there forever. Why won't you sit?"
He saw no reason to lie. "I don't like the plastic."
"The plastic protects the cushions," she said reasonably. "You understand that, don't you, Peter?"
"Oh." She seemed vaguely disappointed. He felt as if he'd let her down in some way.
"Peter . . ." And the man got down on one knee. Closer up, the resemblance between this man and Peter's father was more striking. He had that same square jaw, that same laughter in his eyes. His hair was a different color, more red in it, and his eyebrows were bushier. Peter's nostrils flared. The man smelled funny, too.
"Why are you sniffing me, Peter? Are you part cocker spaniel?"
"You have a funny smell, sir."
"That would be my aftershave."
"It was his Christmas present," the woman said proudly. She sat down on the couch, her hands neatly folded in her lap. The couch made that same weird plastic-creaking sound when she sat on it. "Do you like it?"
"Smells like poop, ma'am," Peter said.
Her mouth immediately stretched to a thin line, while the man guffawed heartily. "He has his father's tact," the man said . . . and then immediately looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Peter. I spoke without thinking."
Peter's eyebrows knit. "You have to think to speak, don't you, sir?"
"Less often than you've been led to believe. And please, Peter, call me Uncle Ben. Have you ever heard of your Uncle Ben?" Encouraged by the boy's prompt nod, he said, "What have you heard?"
"That you make . . ." He frowned, trying to recall the word. ". . . perverted rice."
Now it was the woman's turn to laugh, as Uncle Ben's cheeks reddened slightly. "Different Uncle Ben, Peter. And I think you mean 'converted' rice."
"Oh." He was studying the woman now, comparing her automatically to the only woman who'd had a major place in his life. Her face was narrower, her eyes a bit more sunken. Her hair, which was brown with gray streaks, was tied back in a severe bun. She had a long neck and her hands tended to flutter toward it, as if she was trying to cool down waves of heat. "Okay," he added, to fill the silence.
"I'm your Aunt May," she told him. She said this with a great deal of gravity, as if she were revealing one of the great secrets of the universe.
"Okay," he said again.
The man clapped his hands together again. Peter waited for a dove to appear or a coin to drop out of the air. None was forthcoming. "Would you like to see your room, Peter?"
Finally something he understood. He nodded eagerly. "Do you wanna see where I drew some cowboys on the wall?" he asked.
Ben and May exchanged puzzled glances. "What do you mean, Peter?" Ben asked.
"Where I drew some cowboys. When I was little. Mommy yelled at me, and tried to wash them off, but you can still see them, 'cause I used markers."
"Ohhh," Ben said, and it sounded a little like a moan when he said it. "Peter, I mean your new room. Here."
"Can't I go back to my old room?"
"Peter, dear," said May, and she took his hand in hers. Her hand felt cold, but smooth, as if she'd put some sort of lotion on it. He noticed a few brown spots on the back of her hand and wondered what it would be like to connect them. "Your old room is back in Wisconsin. I thought the social worker explained it. . . . You'll be staying here, in New York. With us."
"Can't we stay at my house?"
"But Peter, this is where we live. And this is where you're going to live now," Ben told him, trying desperately to sound upbeat about it. "We'll make a good home here for you."
Obviously this Uncle Ben and Aunt May weren't getting it. "I have a home," Peter explained, politely but firmly.
"Peter . . ."
"You know what you need?" Aunt May suddenly said briskly. She didn't clap and rub her hands. Instead she patted them on her knees. "Some nice, freshly baked cookies. Why don't you go upstairs and get your things unpacked, and I'll whip up some cookies. Do you like chocolate chip?" When Peter nodded eagerly, she flicked a finger across the end of his nose in a playful manner. "I thought you might." She rose as she asked, "Is there anything else you'd like?"
"And what would that be?" She leaned over, hands resting on her knees. "What would you like?"
"My mommy and daddy."
She winced at that, and Ben, trying to sound kindly but firm, said, "Peter . . . you have to understand, you're going to live with us now."
"I don't want to," Peter told him firmly. He wasn't rude, wasn't whining or crying. He couldn't have been more polite if he'd been ordering a meal in a restaurant. "I want my mommy and daddy. Please," he put in almost as an afterthought.
"They're not here, Peter . . ." Ben began.
"Can I talk to them at least? Can you call them?"
"Peter," and Ben took him firmly by the shoulders. "Your parents . . . they're with God now."
"When are they coming back?"
Ben's lower lip was quivering. Peter had never seen a grown-up cry, and the feeling made his stomach queasy. He didn't think it was something that grown-ups did. Ben coughed loudly, took a deep breath, and said, "They're not coming back, Peter."
"I want to talk to them."
"You can't. They . . . they went away. . . ."
"I want to talk to them. Make them come back."
"Peter . . ."
"Make them come back!" And the sound and agony that ripped from Peter's throat terrified the child himself, because he couldn't believe that it was his own voice sounding like that. His eyes went wide, pupils tiny and swimming in a sea of white, and without another word he turned and bolted up the nearby steps.
Looking a lot older than he had a few minutes earlier, Ben turned to May and sighed dryly, "Well, that went well."
Peter sat on the floor in the middle of the room, his knees drawn up to just under his chin. He could have been a statue; he was that immobile. The room itself wasn't terrible, but it didn't feel especially warm. In Peter's room--his real room--all the furniture kind of looked like it went together. Here it seemed as if some random stuff had been stuck together in one place. At least none of it was covered in plastic.
Uncle Ben had brought up the last of his suitcases some time ago. Peter hadn't spoken to him. The truth was, he was embarrassed about his outburst and was quite certain that Uncle Ben was angry with him. So he had felt it wisest not to say anything and hope that, eventually, Uncle Ben would forget that he had shouted in such an inappropriate manner. That's what his mother would have said. "In-ap-pro-pri-ate, young man," with her finger waggling one quick downward stroke on every syllable.
Uncle Ben didn't try to strike up a conversation with him; he didn't seem to know what to say. For his part, Peter was busy focusing all his attention on the spider that was up in the corner of his room. It was quite big, hanging in the middle of an intricately designed web that stretched from the edge of the ceiling down to the upper portion of the wall. He had never seen anything so morbidly curious. On the one hand, it was incredibly ugly; on the other, it possessed such an elegant beauty that he couldn't look away. So Uncle Ben would come and go from the room, grunting slightly and wondering out loud why Peter was packing anvils in his suitcases--which puzzled Peter, who couldn't remember bringing any--while Peter sat there and watched the spider. The sun moved across the sky, the shadows lengthened, Uncle Ben stopped coming in and out, and Peter and the spider stared at each other until time ceased to have any meaning.
The smell of fresh-baked cookies wafted upstairs, seeping in through the doorway and wrapping the tempting fingers of their aroma around him. For a moment he was sorely tempted to abandon his vigil, which had boiled down to waiting for the spider to move. He resisted, however, although he did shift his posture so that he was sitting cross-legged.
Finally he heard footsteps again. He recognized them as belonging to Uncle Ben, but he didn't bother to turn around. Then he heard his uncle chuckling softly, and that distracted him. He swiveled his head and regarded his uncle, who was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, his arms folded. He was holding a small, wirebound book tucked under his right arm. "What's funny?" asked Peter.
"You just remind me so much of Ricky, that's all," said Uncle Ben. "Same serious face. I'll show you pictures of him at your age, if you want."
"Ricky. Richard. Your dad."
Peter blinked in confusion. "How come you know my dad?"
Uncle Ben's jaw dropped. "How come I . . . ? Peter!" he said in astonishment. And then he sat down on the floor with Peter, just like his mom and dad used to. "Peter, your dad . . . he was my little brother! Didn't you understand that?"
Peter shook his head. "I thought you were my uncle."
"I am! An uncle or an aunt is what you call someone who is a brother or sister of a parent . . . in this case, your father."
Peter frowned, digesting that bit of information. "So . . . so Aunt May is my dad's sister?"
Ben made that odd sound that was a combination of laughter and a cough. "Peter, Aunt May is my wife!"
"You married your sister?" Peter was by now hopelessly confused.
"No, Peter." Rubbing the bridge of his nose between beefy fingers, Ben said, "We call her your aunt because she's married to me, which is the other way someone can be an aunt or uncle. By marriage. Understand?"
"I guess so," said Peter, who thought he did but wasn't 100 percent sure. Then he took a deep breath and let it out unsteadily. "My mom and dad aren't coming back, are they?"
"No, Peter," Ben told him, as gently as he could. "They were killed in an airplane crash. It was an accident."
"No," Peter said flatly. "It wasn't."
"It wasn't?" said Ben curiously.
Peter shoved his hand into one of the bags and extracted a stack of comic books. "They were secret heroes. Like . . . spies. And they were helping their country, and a bad guy, like the Red Skull, killed them." He held up an old issue of a comic, spine-rolled and tattered.
Excerpted from Spider-Man by Peter David. Copyright © 2002 by Peter David. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.