Strung Out

[There’s a slight commotion in the background – sounds like the chattering of an audience.]
[Then a brush of fabric, and the footsteps stop. The bags jingle.]


Ah, hold up. Uh, I, I need to, um…


Now? Seriously? We’re almost out of here.

[The Archivist sighs.]


(kinda breathy) I’m sorry. Not really up to me.



[He sighs.]


If you’re bored, you could always… take in a show.


That’s – That’s not funny, John.


If you say so.


Just – Just give me a shout when you’re done.

[As he speaks, we hear the fabric sounds of the bag and his moving away.]


Good. Right. (inhale) Ticket for one, then, I suppose.

[In the background, some sort of announcer is speaking:]


Ladies and gentlemen, the performance is about to begin. Please take your seats.

[The audience applauds.]


(over applause) The Tragedy of Francis: A comic puppet show in all acts.

[The applause peters out.]
[NOTE: All “stage directions” and “dialog” shown in blockquotes below are “read” by the Archivist, as if he is holding a copy of a script. Francis, the Spider, and the play’s other “characters” all speak only through his narration. Sound effects in brackets like this – including audience laughter and applause – are actual audible sound effects.]

Act Forty-Eight Thousand and Sixty-Seven:

A stage that is a room that remains a stage. The audience watches, drooling, expectant.

A table stands in the middle with a single chair. On that table can be seen a bottle, cigarettes, paraphernalia of all shapes, sizes, and consumptions.

From the space above the stage hang the hooks. They shift, gently, without the breeze, –


– as eager and hungry as the patrons in the seats.

Enter FRANCIS, stage left. They walk slowly, unsteadily. Every limb is shaking.

FRANCIS, softly: “Please. Please god, not again. I don’t want it to happen again.”

[Laughter from the audience, bright and in our faces this time. It sounds almost canned, like you would hear on a sitcom.]

Pause for laughter.

THE SPIDER, offstage: “Then walk away, Francis, just turn and leave. All that is required is a little bit of willpower.”

[The creaking continues, seemingly depicting something, though it’s not quite clear what yet.]

“You have a little bit of willpower, don’t you?”

FRANCIS begins to cry. They turn back towards the wings, keen to make their exit, but where they stood a moment before, there is now a dangling hook.

It lunges at FRANCIS, digging into their leg, pushing through the flesh of their thigh. There is a thin trickle of blood.

There is a thick shot of pain.

FRANCIS’S FATHER, offstage: “Useless piece of shit. You need to grow up!”

[That same audience laughter.]

Pause for laughter.

[The laughter grows louder this time, even culminating in a few claps. The audience really enjoyed that one.]

The hook lifts FRANCIS’s leg off the ground. They hop painfully, trying to escape, but the thread pulls tight, dragging them towards the table.

THE SPIDER, offstage: “What a funny little dance, Francis. Such a funny dance.”

FRANCIS simply screams in response. It is a scream of anger as much as it is of pain, and it cannot hide the dreadful inevitability they feel. The dull terror that this act will end like all the others.

In their thrashing jig they stumble into another hanging hook.

[We hear said hook hit Francis’s flesh with a thwip!]
[From now on, whenever the hooks are directed to do something in the play, we hear them do it as well.]

It burrows into their wrist with a noise of triumph.

FRANCIS’S MOTHER, offstage: “I just worry about you, dear; that’s all. We want what’s best for you, even if you can’t see it. I’m sure you’ll grow out of it.”

Between the two silk strings, FRANCIS dangles, eyes darting wildly about.

FRANCIS: “Why are you doing this?”

THE SPIDER’s giggle echoes around the stage.

[Audience laughter.]

Pause for laughter.

THE SPIDER twists the string, alternating which of the two lines is taut, causing FRANCIS to whirl and pivot towards the table.

Its bulbous, distended abdomen can now begin to be seen protruding from above the curtains that fringe the stage.

FRANCIS goes limp, briefly allowing THE SPIDER to guide their movements smoothly.

THE SPIDER: “Good, Francis. Good.”

Without warning, FRANCIS kicks their free leg against the table. It does not move. It is part of the tableau.

The force of the motion sends them staggering backwards; another hook brushes their cheek and takes its chance, ripping through the corner of their mouth and pulling it up into a grimace.

RYAN, a friend, offstage: “You never smile when you’re clean, did you know that? I mean, what have you got to be so sad about? Honestly. You do make it hard sometimes. I don’t know.”

FRANCIS tries to respond, but the hook in their mouth pulls tight, and their lips curve upwards, distorting the words.

FRANCIS: “Shut up!

[Audience laughter.]

Pause for laughter.

FRANCIS tries to use their free hand to pull the razored metal barb from their mouth, but THE SPIDER reaches down a leg and pulls, hoisting its victim up by their face.

The agonizing motion is too sudden to even give them time to scream, and their free leg kicks out, impotently into the air. It hits against another hook, which penetrates their worn and weary boots with ease, digging up through the sole and out through the back of the ankle.

CHRISTIE, a lover, offstage: “Come on…! Helps me get in the mood, you know? Just a nice thing to do together. Makes me feel close to you.”

As it lowers them back to the ground, FRANCIS tries again to curse at THE SPIDER. To tell it it has no right to these voices, to leave all of them out of this.

But the pain of the hooks travels up and down their veins in thin lines of needling torment and robs them of their voice.

THE SPIDER leans closer. Its grinning face and quivering mandibles can now be seen; its abdomen throbs with anticipation.

THE SPIDER: “Oh, but I did not bring them. I did not write their lines in your little farce. You are the one that brought them. You devised the steps of this dance; I am simply here to… help you through them, when you forget.” (beat) “Oh, watch out!”

THE SPIDER pulls abruptly on the threads hooked into FRANCIS’s legs, and they tumble forward, faceplanting in a nasty-looking pratfall.

[Audience laughter.]

Pause for laughter.

FRANCIS’s free hand hits at the wooden floor of the stage weakly. It is unclear whether they hope to achieve something or if it is just an expression of despair.

The hook in their cheek pulls tight enough to form a grim smile of sorts.

FRANCIS: “What do you want?”

THE SPIDER: “The same thing I always want, Francis, every time we do this dance, every single act of our – hilarious production. I want what you want, deep, deep down in the hidden bit of you you’ve tried so hard to kill. You can’t wait for the dance to conclude.

FRANCIS: “I don’t want that anymore. It’s different now; I’m different now. I’ve worked so hard.”

THE SPIDER: “I don’t care.

The strings all go taut at once, yanking the weakly protesting Francis to their feet.

[The sweet strains of a music box kick in.]

They are dragged, back and forth and around in a series of clumsy motions that, in another time, in another place, might have been a waltz.

But a waltz has a partner. FRANCIS only has a desire, an itch in their bones that flows into them, drip by oily drip, down the glistening strands that suspend them, guide them, hold them. A desire which injects itself through razor-sharp hooks and pools inside their stomach.

They don’t want to want it, but…

[Audience laughter.]

Pause for laughter.

[The music box music ends.]

THE SPIDER: “A fine dance, Francis; that last measure I barely plucked the strings. Now come. Sit down. It’s time for a break. I know how much you’ve been looking forward to it.”

[A creaking twist of the hooks.]

THE SPIDER is almost fully descended now; its bulk eclipses everything above FRANCIS’s head and it swells with joy and amusement.

FRANCIS: “Please. Let me go. Just let me go.”

THE SPIDER: “Oh, Francis. It’s such a shame that I couldn’t do such a thing even if I wanted to. The man in the audience saw to that. (laugh) I am no more free than you are, little puppet. Ah! If only you could see the strings that bind me, that wind together as they pull me along my own path. Perhaps then you would not blame me so. But they are not the tripping threads we are here to watch, no. So sit, Francis. It’s time.”

Another tug of the hooks stretches the skin as FRANCIS staggers towards the table.

The blood flows faster, so dark it is almost black. Their chest rises and falls rapidly as they are lowered into the only seat, the dusty air of the theater scratching their throat and drying their mouth. There is the taste of tin, growing stronger.

The hits are all arranged before them, spread across the table in a cornucopia of promised oblivions, releases, and delights. FRANCIS feels the hooks tighten as they look upon the offering.

That deepest want bubbles up to the surface, but at its core there is still that mute fear, that anticipation of what surrender will bring.

There is no escape to be found here, no respite from the charade that is now found to be the sum of FRANCIS’s existence. By now, FRANCIS knows with utter clarity what falling to the call will bring, the awful crawling fate that they will endure before the next act eventually begins.

The syringe vibrates, almost imperceptibly, as the dark mass of legs and tiny, glittering eyes that sit within it shifts in anticipation. The cork of the bottle moves ever so slightly proud of the top, pushed by the unfurling thing inside. The cigarette scuttles closer, inch by impatient inch. Their longing is awful. And mutual.


FRANCIS: “I don’t want it. Any of it.”

THE SPIDER does not reply.

Staring over the table, a memory now tugs at FRANCIS, the faintest residue of an earlier time, when the things before them would have brought a genuine joy to their heart and even a temporary peace. A time when the hunger was sharp and real, not this dull, unending ache that does nothing but propel them towards one grotesque act of consumption after another, but –

For all their keen awareness of what it might mean to do so, FRANCIS cannot deny the want THE SPIDER has gifted them.

They resist. They sit oh-so-very still and keep their hands held tight to their chest.

FRANCIS: “No. Not this time. I won’t.”

[Audience laughter.]

Pause for laughter.

FRANCIS looks up at THE SPIDER, so close now the thick drippings of its jaws fall onto their shoulders in a sticky stream. It says nothing, but a hook leaps from the darkness backstage, fastening itself into the soft skin at the back of FRANCIS’s free hand.

FRANCIS, offstage: “You don’t get it, like – it’s my decision. I know what I’m doing; just – can we stop talking about it, please? It’s fine, i-it just. Helps. It helps.”

FRANCIS’s whole body shudders at the sound of their own voice, as the hook pulls their arm forward, across the table.

FRANCIS: “No. No!”

Their hand closes on the bottle, which shifts and chitters with delight as FRANCIS, shaking, brings it close.

THE SPIDER’s legs twitch and jerk as it shifts the doomed marionette’s strings. FRANCIS watches as their hand gently uncorks the bottle, and the first of the tiny crawling spiders begins to emerge – just as their mouth is yanked open by its hook and their arm upends the bottle.

As FRANCIS feels the cascade crawl down their tongue and over their throat, they wonder just for a moment, whether this is better or worse than when they scuttle up into their veins, or down into their lungs.

It is an impossible question, and quite, quite pointless.

Above them, their tormentor cries out in exaltation as its abdomen ruptures, and the spiders within are joined by a rain of countless, tiny legs from above, covering them, embracing them. Drowning them.

There is no unconsciousness here, no calm detachment or serene buzz. There is only – the arachnids. Biting. Scurrying. Consuming.

And so it will be until the curtain descends at last and THE SPIDER resets the scene, its belly already beginning to swell once again with replacements for the creatures it so gorily birthed.

[Audience laughter.]

Pause for laughter.

[The audience begins to applaud, with real energy this time – this is performance-ending applause, final encore applause, though still definitely in the range of ‘polite’ and not raucous.]

And so the curtain descends.

[The audience continues applauding. Some members are cheering.]

The Tragedy of Francis: A comic puppet show in all acts.

[The audience quiets. Static begins to kick in.]

Act Forty-Eight Thousand and Sixty-Eight –

[There’s a sort of voice in the background. It sounds kind of like:]


(very faded, almost underwater) John?

– A stage that is a room that remains a stage.


One is enough.

[But the Archivist keeps going.]

– The audience –

[Martin slaps him.]


(wh?) I – Oh – Wh, What?


(breathing heavy) Sorry. You were starting another, and I didn’t want to wait. We should get going.


You – You were listening, I – I, I, I thought that –


No, I – Not for most of it. I just thought I heard – something. Whatever. I went exploring, alright? I don’t know why; I shouldn’t have.


No, y,you shouldn’t have!


You know how many stages there are in this place, how many – little theatres?


Yes. Yes I do.


Right, stupid question.




Well, let’s just say they have a full bill, alright?

[In the background, an announcer repeats the show-starting announcement from earlier.]






Why did you go looking?


(fast) Can we just go, please?


Of course. But… you were safe here. And after everything that’s already happened, I – I, I just don’t understand why you would…


(sudden burst) Me neither, okay!




(emotional) I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? I don’t know! I don’t know why I went exploring.


(carefully) Are you saying you were… compelled?


I’m saying I don’t know, do I? (slight movement) I thought I was just curious; it felt like curiosity, but – given where we are, and with the Web everywhere, and Annabelle Cane still out there playing mind games with payphones, I just – (slight exhale) I mean, how d’you even know if it’s your motivation, you know? Being here – (sigh) I-It just makes me second-guess all of it, and I – I don’t like it, it – really scares me.


I, uh…


Oh, don’t say that’s what it wants; I know.


I – I wasn’t going to.

[In the background, the announcer starts up again.]


Okay. Right.


I was going to suggest that I could… maybe… Know. I could look. Just a quick peek, to, to see if it was just curiosity or – something else. (beat) Well?


I don’t –

[He breaks off, tries again:]


If you look, and I was – influenced, then how can I trust anything else? How can I believe any of my thoughts and feelings are really mine?


(struggles a bit) Uh – Well – I, I’ll still be here to check. I’m not leaving you.


Sure, but you’d be looking through the details of everything that ever crosses my mind? I don’t want that – y,you know I don’t want that.


I know.

[Pause. Some clothing sounds, movement.]


Don’t do this to yourself, Martin. This is what it wants, the, the paranoia. (inhale) Trust me, I, I know.



[A silence.]


(exhale) John, what does the Web want? It’s – I mean, we know it’s got a plan; can’t you just – see what it is?

[The Archivist sighs the sigh of someone who’s got to try and explain something to which they already know the answer’s not satisfactory.]


Knowing… Seeing… i,it’s not the same thing as… understanding. Every time I try to know what the Web’s plan is, if it can even be called a plan, I see a hundred thousand events and causes and links, an impossibly intricate – (announcer starts up again) – pattern of consequences and subtle nudges, but I, I can’t – I can’t hold them all in my head at the same time.

There’s no way to see the whole, the, the point of it all. I can see all the details, but it doesn’t – provide – context or – (small sigh) Intention.

I suppose the Web doesn’t work in Knowledge, not in the same way.


Oh. Right.





And Annabelle?


Still can’t see her. If it wasn’t for the phone call – (sigh) – I’d have said she was probably already dead.


(sigh) Yeah.



So… (inhale) Do you want me to? To tell you, if…?


No. (small sigh) No, I’ll just have to live with it, I guess. Hardly the worst thing I’ll have gone through since – (cutting himself off) I – um. It’s fine.

[Heavy exhale.]


Would you like to leave now?

[A bit of the bags jingle.]
[The audience laughter surges in the background.]


(…decisive) Yeah, screw this place. Never liked the theatre anyway.