The Web

James Stanger

Sarah stood in front of Jason and held his hands before both of them.

“See, I take the string, run it in and out of your fingers like this, and . . .”

“And then I have a cat’s cradle, right?” Jason interrupted.

Sarah smiled. “That’s right. And then we can make all sorts of shapes out of the string. All I have to do is move my fingers like this, and like this.”

Each time she said “this,” she put her fingers into the web of string and made it take new forms. It was magic to Jason—taking a web like that and then making shapes appear. It tantalized him. Jason smiled and grabbed her hands.

“Ha—now I’ve got you,” he said, planting a kiss on her forehead. “There’s no escaping me now—and your parents aren’t even here to help you,” he said in his best sinister voice.

“Really?” she said, sliding her hands out of his before he could get a tighter grip. “Nice try, guy,” she smiled, and left Jason in the room, alone, staring at the empty web formed in his fingers.

He moved the cradle in front of his face, trying to get a look at each side of it. So many directions, he thought. All conform to some strange equation, some code. He then tried to make it work by imitating the way Sarah moved her fingers. It didn’t work. He stopped and felt the tension of the string as it wound in and out of his fingers, and saw the empty space between the cords.

“Just empty space with a bit of tension,” he said to himself softly.

When Sarah came back to the room, she stood in front of him with her hands behind her.

“You know,” Jason said, “I don’t think I have a heart.” He didn’t stop looking at the cradle the whole time.

Sarah looked at him, a bit puzzled. “What makes you say that?”

Jason looked up, cleared his throat and waited for his eyes to focus on her.

She still had her hands behind her. “Guess what I got.”

“Got handcuffed by your little brother?”

Sarah raised her eyebrows and cocked her head slightly sideways.

“Wrong answer?”

“Wrong answer,” Sarah said, and brought her hands from behind to reveal a camera. She grinned with tight lips, the shutter opened with a menacing click, and Jason and Sarah’s precious moment was captured forever on Kodachrome.

As she put the camera down on the table, Sarah looked over at Jason and frowned. “What do you mean, you have no heart?” she asked, mocking him good-naturedly. He didn’t answer, and as they sat down on the couch, she put her head on his chest. Jason breathed in deeply the strawberry smell from her hair. “Sounds like you got one to me,” she said, laughing a little.

When Jason left to go home, Sarah kissed him on the forehead. “Well, have a good time this weekend. Sorry I can’t be there for all the fun,” she said, and looked down at her feet. “You still going to the ranch and the party tomorrow?” she asked, looking up.

“Yup. Should be fun. Sure you don’t want to go?”

“I’ve got to go to the coast with Mom and Dad this time—it’s one of the last times I’ll be able to go with them before college starts again.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s hard not to do something for the last time—it makes the memories a bit soft if you don’t, know what I mean?”

“No,” she laughed, “but that doesn’t stop me at all. Goodnight, Jason,” she laughed, and closed the door.

As Jason walked to the car, he looked over at where Sarah’s bedroom was. The light was off, and in the darkness he thought he saw a silver web shine from the darkest corner of her window.

 

The phone rang, and Jason groaned. The phone rang some more, and Jason swore. The phone kept ringing, and Jason got up to silence it with an answer.

“Jason? It’s me, Mike. Let’s hit the river, bud.”

“What time is it?” Jason yawned.

“Time for the river.”

That was an answer Jason couldn’t argue with. He rubbed his face and hair, and sighed. “So when do we go?”

They were to meet at the Selma store, the best place to meet because it was just before the cutoff to the ranch. Everyone was going—Dave, Sheryl, Tammi, Tyler. Everyone.

McCaleb ranch was a place too far out of the way to ever get too popular or crowded—except among a few devoted skinny-dippers and, of course, Jason’s friends. It was on the Illinois River, a little mountain runoff that almost went stagnant by the end of the summer but somehow managed to turn into a torrent every winter. Once, it took out all the bridges that crossed it, even threatening a redwood suspension footbridge that spanned its depths—and it was over sixty feet high.

Yet in the summer when the river got so narrow that Mike and Jason could spit across it, the clear waters gathered into pools that turned an emerald green for the depth.

McCaleb ranch, or “the ranch,” was the best place for Jason and his friends to go. It was secluded, but not really that hard to reach, and it was home to the redwood bridge that had resisted destruction so many years ago. and, what’s more, it invited jumpers—jumpers who knew how to do it right. Rumor had it that people who didn’t know how to do it would up with broken backs.

They all sat sunning themselves on the rocks, listening to Mike’s latest obscure musical find, and watching the river.

“It’s a band called ‘Moby Grape.’ Great stuff, eh?” Mike asked, twisting off the cap of his drink.

Some nodded, some laughed and shook their heads.

“So,” Mike said, “who’s going off the bridge with me?”

All of them except Jason looked up and laughed again.

“You mean it?” Jason asked, so seriously that the others looked at Jason, back at Mike, and then at Jason again.

Mike took a big drink and then set it down. “Yup,” he said with a belch.

They climbed the wood stairs to the top of the rock that the bridge was fastened to, taking care that they wouldn’t step on any rattlesnakes that might be sunning themselves.

When Jason and Mike reached the top, Jason looked down at the green waters below. Then he looked at the bridge. Cables stretched from each end of the bridge and wove in and out of the wood. Jason wondered how even all this weaving could hold a bridge against the elements. Wind and water sucked life out of things. He looked back down and saw the bridge’s shadow on the water. It seemed to form a net across the surface, as if it were trying to capture the fluid passing through its shadow. Jason saw the shadows from these cables on his hands, even on his body. As Jason tried to make the shadows wrap around his hands and arms, Mike tapped him on the back.

“Well, bud,” Mike said, “let’s get out there and see what happens.” He looked around himself and then at Jason. “Man, this is a scene right out of Indiana Jones or something, isn’t it?”

Jason rolled his eyes.

The bridge began to sway and moan when they walked on it. As the made it to the middle, it seemed to shiver under their weight. And then Jason began thinking about what he had heard one time—that if a cat walked with a steady step across a suspension bridge, then the rhythmic force of the cat’s stride would bring the whole thing down. Breaking his stride, Jason noticed the shadows of the thick steel cables on his chest. Jason rubbed his heart, and he could smell the creosote the state used to keep the wood from decaying through the years.

Suddenly the blowing wind made him feel cold. Mike was cold too; Jason could tell by the goose bumps on his back. He looked down through the wood slats that formed his floor, watching the river appear intermittently through the spaces—it was almost like watching one of those old movies.

“I don’t know, man,” Jason said. “It’s a long way down, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Mike said, and jumped over the side, just clearing his feet over the rails. He screamed the whole way down. After a couple of seconds, Jason could almost feel Mike’s impact on the water. Then he heard the splash, and the cheers of those down below.

Jason was nervous, so he climbed slowly outside the rail and stood on one of the cross-beams. He could hear the others shouting things at him.

“I don’t have the heart for all this, man,” he whispered to himself. Then he thought about the cat walking, but that didn’t scare him much anymore. the wind began to blow harder, and he could feel his heart straining at itself each time he looked down. As he heard the bridge creak and groan under his weight, he looked at his hands and saw the shadows run across them. The tension in his heart and the groanings of the bridge came together in a sympathetic harmony. His hands were shaking now, and he had lost all thought of seeing the shadows run through them. As the creaking, moaning, and shivering grew more intense, he stretched his leg into the breeze and leant out into nothing.

The wind howled in his ears. He flailed his arms around and around, and finally straightened himself just before he hit the water. All was a wet, white jumble at first, and as he made his way to the surface, he noticed that his right side and chest had gone numb. He could still swim fine, but he didn’t feel the water touch him. Jason swam to the shore, crawled up the bank, and rolled over to watch his friends. They were clapping.

“Nice jump, Jason,” Dave said. “Went in a bit crooked though. You all right?”

Jason groaned and nodded his head and got up.

“Yeah,” said Mike, “first time I ever went in I did the same thing. I’ll bet part of you is all numb, right?”

“So this’ll go away?” Jason asked, sitting down slowly, and then getting up quickly from the heat of the rocks.

More laughter.

“yeah, it will, but just wait until the bruise takes over,” Mike said. “Then you’ll want to be numb all over again.”

“I think I already know what you mean,” Jason said.

As they were talking, they all heard someone walking toward them.

“What’s going on?” Jason said, pointing to two men in brown uniforms.

“Rangers,” Mike said as he stood up. “Hi guys,” he yelled, waving his drink at them.

The two men weren’t smiling. They climbed down from the trail and made their way toward the group. One of them had a pen and a small pad in his hand.

“You jumped off the bridge, didn’t you?” the one with the pad said. He didn’t look up.

“Yeah, is that a problem?” Mike asked in his best good-ole-boy manner. The other ranger just looked at him.

“You did too,” he said, as he turned his head and pointed at Jason.

There was an awkward silence, and Jason looked up to the bridge and saw its shadow on the river. He felt his chest. Still no feeling there, but his heart was beating so hard he could hear its thumping in his ears.

“There’s no problem,” the ranger smiled, “just fifty bucks each. You,” he said, pointing at Mike, “your name?”

As the ranger wrote Mike’s name, Jason noticed some movement next to the ranger’s foot.

It was a spider, a big thing, wet-brown with lots of hair on its legs. It was spinning a web between two rocks. Jason was wondering why a spider would bother making a web in a place so close to the river when a butterfly flew into it even as he watched.

The spider stopped its weaving instantly and went for its prey. As the spider climbed on top of it, the web shook and shivered and the spider went about its work. Then the butterfly fell out of the web and lay shivering on the ground. At first Jason thought that it was free, and that the spider would go back to its weaving, but it dropped to the ground, crawled over to where the butterfly was, and went to finish its job. Then the ranger, as he stepped forward to hand Jason his ticket, crushed the spider and the butterfly beneath his boot. Jason took the ticket in his hand and kept looking at the ranger’s foot. Nothing was left when he took his foot away—just an empty silver web that fluttered in the wind, half torn from its rock.

“Here’s your ticket. You can pay this at the ranger station in town, gentlemen; or, if you wish, mail it in.” They both turned and walked up the trail. Then one of them turned around. “And could you keep that music down? I think you’re scaring the animals.” The ranger sort of smiled, then turned to make his way up the trail after his friend.

On the way back to town, Mike sat in the back seat and kept waving his ticket in front of Jason.

“Well, put it this way,” Mike sighed, “at least we’ll have something to show for the day.” He stopped for a moment and frowned. “They do give receipts, don’t they?”

“Receipts? I’m not sure,” Jason said, rolling his eyes, “but if you write a check, you’ll have that to help you treasure the memory.”

Mike smiled. “Good. I thought it was worth it, anyway. I hate going off that thing alone. It’s nicer to go off with someone else. Makes things more memorable.”

Jason smiled. “I guess so, Mike. Real male-bonding stuff, eh?”

“Male what?” Mike asked, laughing. “You scare me with that talk, bud. Pretty soon you’ll be telling me that I smoke because I have an oral fixation, and am in love with my mother.” He shook his head and turned up the car stereo.

Then Jason couldn’t help thinking about the bridge. He thought about its wires and cables running over and under it, keeping the bridge semi-stable when people walked on it.

Sometimes he thought he wanted to just cut free from people, just drop from it all and crawl away. But then there would be nothing at all. An empty space without even a web of quivering cables and wires to cradle the people he knew. Nothing there that would shiver and grow tense and jump each time a new person tripped over him. He sat up and felt his numb side and chest.

“Hey Mike,” Jason asked, “you sure this numbness goes away?”

 

Mike’s big party was that night. People poured through the doors and over the back fence, and still more people came. It was a festival to Jason. He saw bodies everywhere he looked. The night was humid, and his clothes stuck to him like they were trying to become part of his skin, and whenever he touched anyone, his skin attached itself to them for a fraction of a second too long. Then it would finally release, so perverse and slow that it seemed his body was trying to communicate, to grow into others and attach itself permanently without permission.

Jason left the party early. He was tired after all the day’s sun, and he was still a little annoyed about how much the jump off the bridge had cost him. Besides all that, his side felt like it had turned into one huge sun-burned bruise. He thought that as soon as he got home and took off his clothes, his whole body would look like a huge black-orange blob. He would have to sleep square on his back tonight, or sleep would never come.

He was home watching TV when the phone rang. He answered it, and heard Sarah’s voice. She was whispering, and sounded scared—and a little mad.

“Sarah? Are you calling from the coast?”

“No, Jason, I’m at the party—Mike’s party. Listen . . .”

“I thought you were . . .”

“Jason, the cops are here. They’ve got a huge truck outside, and they’re taking everyone who’s not 21. I guess the party got too loud . . .”

“A truck? How do you know?”

“I can see it out the window—I’m in someone’s bedroom. I ran up here as soon as I saw flashing lights through the windows downstairs. It’s kind of scary up here.”

Jason laughed.

“This is funny? Come get me.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

When Jason arrived at Mike’s house, he saw nothing but red flashing lights and cars driving away as fast as they could. He couldn’t find Sarah anywhere, and as he turned around to go see if Sarah had made it home, he got pulled over.

“Great. This should cost me another fifty for some reason or another,” he said to himself as he turned down the stereo.

The flashing lights and the heat were beginning to bother Jason, but he sat silent as the officer asked him the usual questions and smelled his breath. Not convinced that Jason was coming home from a church social, he kept asking the same questions over and over, asking him what he had done that day, who he had seen, and what he had been doing. Jason listened for a while, and then something snapped inside him.

As the cop was checking the back seat of the car for any drunk minors trying to get away from the party, Jason opened the door a little, reached down, and tried to lift the cop’s shoe like a trainer would a prize horse.

“What are you doing?” he asked, a little startled.

“I’m looking for the sticky remains of a spider and a butterfly all caught in a web,” he said with a wide smile.

“Get out of the car.”

 

Mike laughed when he saw Jason walking into the holding cell. “Hey, what are you doing here?” Mike asked, “You’re not 21.”

“Remember that fake ID you got me last year?” Jason said, sitting on the cot slowly. “It’s really god. Fools everyone.”

“Especially cops who are busy trying to call up the parents of a couple hundred kids?” Mike laughed.

“Especially.”

“You know,” Mike said, his speech slightly blurred from drinking, “I always said that lying gets you nothing but . . .”

Just then Jason started moaning and rocking back and forth in the cot. Mike got up and looked at Jason, a little frightened. “You all right, man?”

Jason stopped writhing, smiled, and looked at Mike. “No problem, Mike. You just sounded too much like my parents just then.”

Mike chuckled a bit. “I’m sorry to hear that, man.”

“So was I.”

Mike sat back down on the cot and they both listened to the din of people’s voices echo down from the other cell blocks. “Just about everyone is here, you know?” he said.

“Yeah,” Jason said, “I saw them on the way in. They were happy to see me.”

“But I didn’t see Sarah,” Mike said. “She must still be hiding at my place somewhere.”

“Yeah. Lucky, eh? Your parents coming to get you out of here, Mike?”

“Nope. Don’t even know about it. Over 21, footloose,” his voice faltered as he looked around himself, “and fancy-free, right?” Mike laughed and then went over and tried to shake the cell bars. “No noise—no rattling. In the movies there’s always rattling. Oh well, it felt good to do it anyway,” he said, shaking his head.

He looked over at Jason and smiled. “Oh, lighten up. Come on over and try it. It’s good for the soul, good for the heart,” he said, flinging his arms up into the air and beating his chest.

Mike stopped flailing his arms, turned around and put his back against the bars. “Man, arrested twice in one day. Not bad, eh? I guess we’re making memories to last,” he said, running his hands up and down the bars.

Jason nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. You don’t suppose there’s another way to come up with them? Maybe a cheaper way?”

“I don’t think it works that way, bud,” Mike said. “Memories cost money, I guess.”

“They cost something, anyway,” Jason chuckled lowly—it was almost a groan. He felt his side again. It hurt to breathe—even the beating of his heart made him wince. He looked at Mike sitting on the floor and noticed the shadows on his face.

Jason got up and sat down next to him, and lulled himself to sleep by moving his hands through the shadows, trying to make them elastic. When he fell asleep, he dreamed of webs turning in his hands, webs that became silver water through his fingers, making his hands ache with cold. And then numbness.

 

Jason and Mike got out of jail on Sunday, the day after the party. They went over to what was left of Mike’s place and found Sarah asleep under the bed. After they cleaned the place a bit, Mike got them to laugh about what had happened.

It was hot that day, so the three of them decided to go back to the ranch and cool off. Jason still felt like a walking bruise, but the trip would be worth it.

When they got there, the sun was in the middle of the sky. They walked to the middle of the bridge, climbed over the rails, and silently dropped into the air one by one.

And as Jason heard the wind in his ears, he couldn’t tell if he was flying or falling.