Spider's Cradle

by Lydia Matheny
My brother is a spider. He’s broad-bodied and barrel-chested, tall and long-limbed, with slender, grasping fingers and hands bigger than my face. Sometimes I think he has fangs. I’m not sure – he never smiles. One of his hands now wraps around my wrist. His flesh is warm against the cool air, but it’s also dry and I can feel every crack in his weather-beaten skin – every callus, every half-scabbed over sore. He grasps too tightly, fingernails pinching me as my muscles shudder from the strain.

Let go. You’re hurting me.

He leads me up the concrete steps and only releases me once we reach the glass doors. Placing his hand on the brass knob and holding the door open for me, he sidesteps and lightly touches my shoulder as I move past. I twitch away. We approach the man standing at the counter – a lanky guy with pimples on his face who keeps brushing his too-long, stringy blond bangs out of his eyes. But he smiles shyly at me and it makes me want to smile back. So I do.

My older brother must have seen this because he squeezes my arm as he steps in front of me. I try to twist away, but his grip is firm.

“What’ll it be?” the employee says, tilting his head a little as if he is trying to get another look at me. But my brother stands his guard.

“A medium vanilla cone and…” He turns to me, his eyes flitting over my face for a few moments. I open my mouth, but the words stop in my throat. He turns back to the employee and says, “… Actually, make that two vanilla cones.”

I don’t even like vanilla all that much.

My brother also requests a spoon and, after the employee is done preparing our orders and we pay, he grasps them up and leads me to a booth in the far corner of the room. I mouth an apology to the employee as we walk away. We’re now seated right next to a window. Outside, it’s still and cold. Occasionally, cars pass by, but their colors are dulled into various shades of gray by the lingering fog that is spun around the buildings and trees like cobwebs. Inside, the white walls of the ice cream shop are covered with posters – posters with pink and yellow lettering featuring pictures of chocolate-smothered sundaes and candy-coated ice cream cones.

After my brother settles in his seat, he sucks air in through his teeth and says, “That guy was looking at you funny.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“I did. Don’t encourage him.” Frowning and flaring his nostrils, he leans back in his wooden seat and places the ice cream cones on the table, one in front of himself and one in front of me. He stabs his long blue spoon straight down, twists it around and around, and draws it back up. He does this a few more times before he actually begins to eat. “So… you’re not planning on going to the local college?” He says this while peering at his bite of ice cream.

I look down and my long black hair sweeps against the edge of the crimson-topped table as I nod.

“Why?”

I never noticed how many split ends I have. I should probably get those taken care of.

My brother lowers his voice and glances at the employee for half a second. “Is it because of me?” I try not to look, but out of the corner of my eye, I see him press the battered cream to his mouth. When he pulls it away, sticky white contours his lips. It looks like a frost angel has kissed him.

I feel my muscles tense and I let out a trembling breath. I swallow. “It’s b-because of me,” I say, but my voice cracks on the final word and I still can’t meet his eyes.

I glance up again. My brother abandons his spoon entirely and envelops the malformed spiral of ice cream at the top of his cone with his lips. He sucks on it and pulls away. He sticks his tongue deep down and laps it up. Even if I can’t see him clearly, I can hear his wet suckling sounds. I can’t stand to look at him much longer, even out of the corner of my eye, so I force my gaze onto the windowsill. There’s a little black spider there, curled up in death, a couple tiny ants crawling over its legs.

What killed it? Maybe it grasped too much. My brother always grasps, always has grasped. Always takes and takes. Those large hands and spindly fingers always do things they shouldn’t do, go places they shouldn’t go.

“Sara,” he says. My name snaps me back to the present situation. “You should go to the college here. You’re going to go to the college here. It’s not a four-year college, but it’s got decent academics. It’s cheaper too and you won’t have to worry Mom and Dad because you’re in a different city. Everything’s here. I’m here.” He reaches across the table so his callused hand rests on top of mine.

It’s cold in here and his touch scalds, so I snap my hand out of his grasp and I peek up enough to see his eyes widen a little.

“I don’t think… Mom and Dad will worry,” I say as I loop a thin strand of hair around my fingertip, winding and unwinding it until it breaks off. Right now, they’re probably both at work. Maybe Mom is deciding on the best color scheme for somebody’s kitchen; perhaps Dad has a meeting with a client. She won’t come home until he’s already asleep and he’ll leave for work tomorrow before she even wakes up. If I went back home now to pack my bags, nobody would be there to see me leave except the maid.

My brother withdraws and his expression resets. “I’d worry about you. Bad things can happen in the city. Car accidents, burglaries – creeps like that guy at the counter could get their hands on you.”

“He’s not a creep,” I whisper before I can stop myself.

“What’s that?” he says. I look up to see dark eyes fixated on me, framed by hair that is the same inky black as my own.

“He didn’t do anything. It’s… it’s not a big deal.” My voice is a bit louder now. My shoulders are frozen to the back of my seat.

“It’s not a big deal? Sara, you think you can just walk around, looking the way you do, without any problems.” He smiles a little bit and I can see his teeth. They’re normal. “I have a couple years of experience on you. You should listen to me.” Pausing for a moment to lean forward, he continues, “Remember when we were younger – we always went on long walks and you would get so tired I’d have to carry you on my back the rest of the way home. You aren’t that different now from how you were then.”

“That’s not true.”

I glance at the employee. He’s not paying us any attention. He’s leaning back in a chair behind the counter listening to his iPod. I return my attention to my brother, who’s looking at my ice cream, which has long-since begun to melt. There’s a shallow puddle that almost looks like milk around the base of the cone. My brother grabs a napkin and places it underneath; the parts of the napkin touching the cream immediately turn a darker shade of brown.

“Why aren’t you eating it?” he says.

“… I don’t want to.”

“It’s good. Eat it.”

It’s melted and sticky. I don’t want to. I shake my head.

“Eat it,” he says. He sets his own cone down to his left and wraps his long fingers around my cone. He holds it out. “Come on. I paid money for this.”

I shake my head. He thrusts it into my face. Ice cream smears from the corner of my nose to underneath my chin. It’s cold. It’s sticky. It smells sweet. Shaking in my seat, I frown and grit my teeth.

He laughs. “I told you that you should eat it.” He stifles another chuckle and settles on a lopsided grin instead. “Open wide.”

“Stop it.”

He pushes it at my face. I duck and the ice cream lands in my hair before falling on the table with a plop. His expression softens, the smirk flying from his lips. He reaches his hand out and grasps my face.

“You’re so…”

I throw the cone at him. It hits, but it’s not enough. I get out of my seat to slap him. It stings my fingers, but I do it again. And once more. I wish I had something harder to hit him with. I run out, not bothering to see if the employee noticed anything. I only catch a glimpse of my brother as I run past the window. He’s curled up, black hair covering his face. The ants will get him eventually.
Lydia Matheny is an English Education major at Southeast Missouri State University. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri and raised in Farmington, Missouri. Her love for great stories is surpassed only by her desire to write them. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, crocheting, and making silly origami animals.

© 2012, Lydia Matheny