He had been walking, head down, left thumb up and out when he noticed his shadow cast by the approaching headlights moving directly in front of him. For a moment he thought the vehicle wasn't going to stop and veered to his right. Then he heard gravel stopping rubber and weight. He turned to an older model pick-up, carrying a cab-high shell. It was waiting for him. He stepped to the passenger door and opened it.
Leaning in, the warmth of the pick-up truck flushed the hitchhiker's face. The icy drizzle and cold night air had chilled him throughout and he shivered as he climbed into the vehicle, placing his backpack between his feet.
"Thanks for the lift," the hitchhiker offered.
"Close the door," came the driver's curt reply.
The thump of the backpack on the floorboard awoke a sleeping spider under the seat. It moved to investigate. The two inch spider had a long, golden-yellow abdomen and a white body with black patches near the edge where each leg connected. Long, pipe cleaner legs were the same golden-yellow of the abdomen, banded with thick, black hair at the joints, the small leg on the left side broken off near the body. It quickly crawled to the bag.
The driver looked in his sideview mirror, then pulled away from the shoulder and back onto the interstate highway, shifting gears at the steering column.
They were headed west on Interstate 80, just a couple miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Classical pipe organ music played from a CD player set in the dash. The glow from the dash illuminated the driver.
Somewhere in his late thirties and big boned, the driver had black hair that was cut short, with whitewalls over the ears. He wore a beard that was full, neatly trimmed and as black as the hair on top. He wore a safari-like outfit; khaki pants with oversized pockets on the legs, and a khaki shirt with pockets on the sleeves and abdomen. "You headed for Laramie." The driver said, more of a hopeful command than a question.
The hitchhiker could feel the animosity from the driver. He turned from looking out the side window and spoke to the windshield. "Vegas. Or as far as you'll take me."
The driver didn't flinch. "I can take you as far as Laramie."
"That'd be great." The hitchhiker reached over and extended his right hand. "Names Andy. Thanks again for the ride."
The driver just looked at Andy's offer, then turned back to the windshield. "As far as Laramie."
Andy dropped his hand, turning back to the windshield himself and murmured, "Laramie will be fine."
Suddenly Andy didn't want the ride, not with the coldness of his host and the nausea that started when he closed the door. But, he was going to get warmed up before they reached Laramie. He bent forward and unlaced his boots, letting the warmth from the cab soak in. He then unbuttoned several layers of flannel shirts and rested his head against the side window. He was spent. Over the last two days he had slept six hours and walked fifty miles. He closed his eyes.
The driver glanced at his passenger. The front of Andy was soaked from the rain, his collar length hair straightened, strands stuck to his face and a week old beard. Layers of shirts and a pair of jeans was all he had to protect him from the elements. The hiking boots he wore were the only decent item for the weather. He cranked the windshield wipers up another notch.
"Where's your coat?" The driver bluntly asked, wanting to add, but didn't - 'You stupid sandmite.'
Andy raised his head off the window, drowsy from the warmth. "It was in my camper; stolen last week. All of my clothes, all my tools, gone."
"Well, it sure helped in you getting picked up just now. If you had had a coat, I would have kept on going. But I didn't have the heart to let you walk in the rain like that."
"Thanks," Andy muttered, feeling a bit guilty.
The driver then reached over and turned the music up a little.
Andy put his head back on the window, the nausea seeming to increase with the volume. Exhausted from the road, he didn't want to pry, nor bicker. He pushed sleep to escape his suddenly sick stomach.
Andy held on tightly to the thick, silky rope suspended vertically in a void. The void was filled with a fog, a cobweb grey in colour, infinite in depth. A hundred feet below him a web stretched across his vision, the strand in his grasp anchored in the center. The spider of the web, yellow and white and black and large, was off to one side passively watching him. Beneath the web was more fog. Above him was but more white rope that faded into the grey.
Andy climbed hand over hand up the opalesce dragline. He climbed for hours, he climbed through several heartbeats. When he thought he had climbed an eternity, arms aching, hands barely able to grasp the rope, he stopped and looked down. There was nothing but the single strand as far as he could see.
After catching his breath and regaining some feeling in his hands, Andy started to climb again, only to stop after one pull when the rope began to tremble. Andy closed his eyes and held on, legs entangled in the rope as it shook violently, bucking him like a wild horse.
When the movement stopped seconds later, Andy opened his eyes and looked around. Below him was the web and the spider. He closed his eyes again, hard, forcing tears to flow. Then a soft, feminine, determined voice whispered in his mind, "Let go".
Eyes still closed, Andy let go of the rope. He plopped into a cushioned seat as if sitting down. When he opened his eyes he was in the passenger seat of a car, long and low. And it wasn't dark and raining outside, it was bright and sunny, and from the short shadows it was just past noon. Nor was he traveling down the freeway in Wyoming. He was on a dirt road in the middle of a desert. Tall ridges and mountains on the hazy horizon encircled him. Ahead, in the near distance, Andy could see a small, fuzzy building.
Then the driver spoke, a hollow voice peppered with the clicking of wood against wood. "This place is a secret. I don't know why I'm showing it to you."
Andy turned to the driver and blinked. It was the driver that had just picked him up in Wyoming, but he was wooden, a marionette.
"Name's Linus," the driver said. "I'm suppose to take you there." Linus nodded at the approaching building, then backward towards the rear of the car, "She says to."
The clicking Andy had heard was the puppets jaws slapping together. Silk strings, thin and white, were attached to the puppets joints. The strings led to the back window where a yellow and white spider, the size of a small boy, sat with two legs dangling over the back of the seat, the other five legs and the spinnerets were controlling the strings. The small leg on the left broken at the first joint and useless. Andy could see dust roll out behind the car as they sped onward. Then two eyes shifted from watching the puppet to Andy. "We will be there soon," Andy heard in his head. Again the voice was feminine, soft, soothing.
"Where?" Andy heard himself ask. Everything felt unreal, yet real. It was as if he and the world had been encased in a gelatin, or a thick cobweb.
Again the feminine voice spoke into the darkness behind his eyes, "Everything's going to be fine."
The tone caused Andy to relax. He watched the scenery go by as the puppet drove. The land was flat, the surrounding hills tens of miles away. Heat rippled the ground ahead of them, the fuzzy building focusing into a chain-link fence, twenty feet high. And there was something else, something tall. A radio tower. Minutes later the puppet stopped the car near the fence. "Out", the soft voice of the spider commanded.
Andy got out of the car and shut the door, then watched as the puppet exited the car. The spider, normal size on the puppets shoulder, leapt to the roof as the door shut, keeping control of the strings. As the marionette rattled around the front of the car with noisy joints, the two inch spider scurried across the roof of the car and onto Andy's shoulder.
Andy flinched, then apologized. "Sorry."
"Everything's going to be fine, Andrew," the spider whispered into his ear, it's minute breath cool on his skin. "Follow Linus."
As Andy followed the marionette the few yards to the fence, he asked the spider her name.
"Arabella," the spider whispered.
"How do you know my name?"
"I know everything about you."
Andy's eyes flicked to his left shoulder, then back. He stopped walking. They were at the fence, Linus almost touching it, Andy and Arabella several steps to the right of the puppet. The only sounds were the breeze brushing by their ears, the rattle of Linus fidgeting, and a lonely bird somewhere behind them calling to no one. Then a rumbling came from the other side of the fence, directly in front of them. The ground seemed to vibrate beneath his feet, in sympathy with the rumbling. Linus rattled a little louder.
"What's going on?" Andy asked. Andy felt a slight movement on his shoulder, then Linus raised an arm and pointed to movement inside the fence. Andy followed the point and realized he was witnessing a missile silo opening its launch doors.
When three columns of white-grey smoke shot out of the ground from exhaust ports around the open doors, Andy thought he had gone deaf from the jet engine roar. Then Linus jerked and Andy heard the wooden joints rattle. He could also still hear the bird whistling behind them. There was simply no sound of the jet engine roar.
As flames licked at the smoke at the exhaust ports, the nose of the missile slowly rose above the ground. Still, Andy could not hear the engine noise. When the missile left the silo, a caressing wind and the fidgeting puppet was all Andy heard. He watched the silent missile disappear before saying anything.
"Is it an illusion?" Andy asked.
"No," Arabella whispered, then dropped the strings to the marionette and crawled into Andy's shirt pocket.
Linus turned to Andy when the strings touched the ground. He took the few steps to Andy and grabbed Andy firmly by the arm. "Wake up!" the hollow, clicking voice ordered. "Wake up!"
"Wake up. We're at a Rest Area." It was the driver, alive and in the flesh. The passenger door was open and he was shaking Andy awake.
The cold, outside air slapped Andy in the face. He was back. The rain had stopped and the night sky was clear and starry, but another front was on the way. "Hunh? Where?" he mumbled.
"We're at a Rest Area. Fifteen miles this side of Laramie," the driver looked to the freeway, then added, "walking distance. I thought you might like to use the can," he explained.
"I sure could," Andy replied. The driver backed away from the door.
Andy swung his legs out of the car and quickly tied the laces of his boots, his breath visible. The air was thick with pine. He buttoned an inner layer shirt as he stood, the blood rushing to his legs. He grabbed for the car door and held on until his head cleared.
"You okay?" The driver asked.
Andy thought he heard sincere concern, but realized it was annoyance when he looked at the driver. "Yeah, just a little lightheaded. Stood too fast." He stuck a hand in his pants pocket, rustling change. Then, because of the dream, he checked his breast pockets. "Maybe there's vending machines here."
"The sign said there was," the driver said coldly as he backed away a few steps. He watched as Andy headed for the building. He waited until Andy walked around the corner of the building, then walked back to his truck and left.
While Andy stood in front of a urinal, the dream flashed through his mind in clips. As he washed his hands he had a sense, a feeling, that the dream meant something. That he had been shown something. Let in on a secret.
He stuck his head under the electric hand dryer to dry his damp hair, oblivious to how long it was taking to freshen up. Visions of the dream and the spider filled his thoughts.
After leaving the restroom Andy went to the vending machines. From the caged dispensers he purchased a cup of coffee and a candy bar. As he rounded the brick building and into view of the parking lot, he stopped. The parking lot was empty, except for three eighteen wheelers, and his backpack on the sidewalk...