“To catch a Houdini spider is pure luck,” said Josh’s grandfather, as agitated as he’d ever been. “And not necessarily the good kind.”
“Houdini spider?” Said Josh, peering into the jelly jar. “Never heard of it.” The eight-legged creature in the jar looked perfectly ordinary to him, a dark brown arachnid with wiry legs, a body like a plump, hairy raisin and a shiny cluster of unblinking eyes.
“They’re rare,” said the old man, easing into his comfy brown chair. “Most scientists don’t even believe they exist, but they do, I assure you.”
Josh narrowed his eyes. Though he was accustomed to his strange behavior, many considered his grandfather to be a complete loon, and Josh suspected there was a nugget of truth to the notion. At dinner, he would occasionally fling his fork across the table without warning, embedding it in the wall like a dart, and curse loudly that he “missed.” Sometimes he would be in a conversation with someone and suddenly seem to look at something behind them, only to walk quickly away when they turned to see what it was. He had a reputation for spinning tall tales, and this was starting to sound like one.
“If they’re so rare, how do you know this is one of them?” he asked, trying not to sound like he was calling his grandfather’s bluff, though he most definitely was.
His grandfather peered down at him over the top of his glasses, as he always did when he disapproved of Josh’s tone. “Because I caught one once,” he said gruffly. “When I was about your age. But if I knew then what I know now about Houdini spiders, I wouldn’t have come near it.”
“Why not?” Said Josh.
“They’re dangerous,” his grandfather said ominously.
Josh was dubious. “We learned all about poisonous spiders in school, grandpa. There wasn’t anything in our books about a Houdini spider.”
“There wouldn’t be would there?” said the old man. “For one thing, they’re not poisonous. And like I said, most people think they’re a myth.”
“So if they’re not poisonous, how can they be dangerous?” Josh asked.
His grandfather leaned forward in his chair. “Did your teachers ever tell you about Harry Houdini?”
Josh shrugged and shook his head. The old man grunted in frustration. “All that time in school and they haven’t taught you about the greatest magician who ever lived? What a waste.”
“What was so great about him?”
“ He could escape from any situation. Locks, chains, boxes, straitjackets—nothing could hold him. To this day, no one’s sure how he did some of his tricks.”
“So why’s the spider named after him?” Josh said.
The old man extended his hand, asking for the jelly jar. Josh handed it to him, but his grandfather held it most gingerly, like it could break at any moment. “A Houdini spider is so quick, so clever, that you can try just about anything to capture or kill it, and it will always get away. If you do catch it, it only makes the spider angry. If it ever gets away it will taunt you for the rest of your life, or until it drives you mad, whichever comes first.”
For a moment, Josh said nothing and waited for the old man to smile and say he was kidding, but it didn’t happen. If what he was saying were true it would explain a lot, but Josh knew better. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore and burst into laughter. “Give me a break, grandpa,” he said. “I’m not that gullible.”
The old man handed the jar back to Josh and nodded slowly. “I didn’t believe it either, when I was young,” he said. “But listen to me very carefully, Joshua.”
His grandfather only called him Joshua when he was in trouble.
“Now that you’ve caught it, you can never let it go. You can’t even open the lid, for any reason,” he said.
“I’m not afraid of a stupid spider,” said Josh as he stood. “This one wasn’t clever enough to get away from me. But if I get bored with it or it looks sick, I’ll probably let it go. I don’t want to kill it.”
“It won’t get sick, and I guarantee you won’t get bored with it. I respect your wish to keep it alive, but you must never, ever let it out of the jar. Do you understand me?”
“Promise me!” His voice stopped Josh cold.
“Alright, I promise. Jeez,” Josh said.
He gave his grandpa a hug and said goodbye, but as he walked away the old man called after him, “If you put Houdini in a jelly jar, he’d find a way to get out, and so will that spider if you’re careless with it.”
But Josh was already gone.
When he got back home he set the jar on the table and made a sandwich. He took it into the living room while he worked at a few PlayStation games, looking over every now and then at the spider. It did nothing; it just sat at the bottom and stared at him with its eight shiny eyes, motionless as could be. After a few hours, Josh began to wonder if it was even alive, but when he gave the jar a nudge, the spider pulled its legs in close but kept looking at Josh. “Do some tricks or something, Houdini,” Josh said after a while. “You know, ta-da?”
The spider didn’t move.
Later that night, after dinner, Josh brought the jar upstairs and set it on his bed stand. Just to see what would happen, he turned the jar around so the spider was facing away from him. As soon as he did, the spider turned around to look at him again with its unnerving stare. “Very impressive,” said Josh sarcastically, and he turned off his lamp.
When he woke the next morning, he rolled out the other side of the bed, showered and brushed his teeth, and was about to put his socks on before he even thought to look over at the dull little spider. When he finally did, he nearly fell off the bed.
It was gone.
It was just like his grandfather had said! The clever little spider found some way out of the jar, and now it would taunt him for the rest of his years. After the initial shock of seeing the jar empty, Josh reached for it with shaking hands. He turned it around, in case it was just a trick of the light, but there was no spider to be seen. As he turned the jar around, though, he noticed something on the white underside of the lid. He inspected the jar more closely, and to his amazement the little Houdini spider had crawled up the side of the jar and was hanging upside-down from under the lid.
“That was pretty cool,” said Josh, a little embarrassed he had been so easily fooled. “Maybe you’re as clever as Grandpa said.”
No sooner did Josh spot the spider that it crawled back down to the bottom of the jar and returned to its usual spot, peering at him eyes to eye.
It was then that Josh had a great idea. He was one of the smartest kids in his class, maybe the smartest, and if he had been tricked by the spider, so too would his friends. People like being tricked, he reasoned. They pay good money to see magicians–maybe they’d pay me to see my spider disappear. It sounded like a good plan, except for one thing: How would he get the spider to disappear on cue? Spiders, as far as he knew, had never been trained to do much of anything. Even if they had, he assumed it would take years to teach a spider to perform even the simplest of tasks. Still, it was too good an idea to pass up.
Josh had only seen magicians a few times in his life, but what he remembered was that there was usually a word of some kind that signaled the “magic” part of the trick. Something like Shazam! or Presto!. He knew those were just silly words, though, so he tried to think of a word a spider might understand. A Houdini spider. That was it! Houdini seemed like as good a word as any other, so he focused on the jar and said, “Houdini!”
As soon as he said it, he blinked. And in the time it took for him to blink, the spider had somehow vaulted itself to the underside of the lid again. He could hardly believe it. After a few moments, the spider returned to the bottom. Josh tried it again.
“Houdini!” he shouted.
He tried not to blink this time, and he thought he succeeded, but still the spider managed to get up under the lid without Josh seeing it. It was the most astonishing thing he’d ever seen, and he couldn’t wait to show his friends the trick–for a small fee, of course.
Dan, Jayson, Mike and Gretchen were down at the end of Cedar Street taking turns on an inline skate ramp Mike’s father built for him. “Hey guys,” said Josh as he walked up to them. “What’s goin’ on?”
Mike shrugged and said they were just hanging out. “Grab your skates,” he said. Jayson says he’s gonna try a 540 later.”
“I’ve got something better than that,” said Josh, grinning.
“Better than watching Jayson land on his head?” laughed Gretchen. “No way.”
Josh moved the jelly jar out from behind his back and held it up for them. “This,” he said grandly, “is a Houdini spider.”
“A what?” asked Dan.
“They’re rare,” said Josh, holding the jar aloft. “It’s called a Houdini spider because it can disappear at will and escape from any situation.”
“Really?” said Jayson, nudging Mike. “Maybe it can teach you how to disappear, too.”
Josh said nothing, and set the jelly jar on top of the ramp. “Watch,” he said.
Everyone looked at the jar, humoring Josh. “I think he’s lost it like his grandfather,” said Gretchen, to no one in particular.
“When I say the magic word and snap my fingers, the spider will disappear,” said Josh. “Are you watching closely?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Jayson, sniggering to himself. “We’re watching.”
Josh paused for a moment, snapped his finger and said, “Houdini!”
He didn’t watch the jar at all; he only needed to see his friends’ reactions to know the spider had done its trick. They were dumbfounded. “Whoa,” said Dan. “No way!”
“Where’d it go?” Asked Mike.
“How’d you do that?” Said Gretchen.
“I told you, it can disappear,” said Josh smugly, taking the jar from the ramp. “Besides, a good magician never reveals his secrets.”
“Do it again,” said Jayson.
“The first show was free,” said Josh, “but if you want to see it again you have to buy a ticket.”
“A ticket?!” said Jayson. “How much?”
“Five dollars,” said Josh. “That’s a friend discount. Everyone else has to pay ten.”
Jayson laughed. “Who’s foolish enough to pay you ten dollars to watch your dumb spider?”
“They’re so rare, no one’s sure they even exist,” Josh explained. “People from all over the world will want to see it because it’s the only one in captivity. You can’t even read about it on the Internet.”
Jayson was about to make another snide comment when Dan pulled a crinkled five-dollar bill from out of his wallet and handed it to Josh. “I think it’s a fair price,” he said. “Plus, if I can see it again I’ll bet I can figure out how it’s done.”
“Thank you Dan,” said Josh, looking at the others. “Come over here and I’ll show you again.”
The others watched Josh and Dan walk behind the fence. Moments later, they heard Josh say, “Houdini!” and Dan exclaim, “Whoa!”
Josh and his Houdini spider became an international phenomenon. Scientists from around the world came to see the Houdini spider and document its existence. Every newspaper and TV show clamored to get an interview with Josh and a shot of the spider. Kids from all over were catching spiders in jelly jars hoping to nab a Houdini spider of their own, but no one could. As news began to travel of its capture and the story was told of its mysterious ways, the public’s desire to see it for themselves grew to a fever pitch.
After extensive negotiations with the Nature Channel, Josh agreed to do a live television special. “Houdini Spider: Myth or Reality” was expected by many to break viewership records for the channel, and Josh agreed that at the end of the show, he would have the spider do its disappearing act right in front of the cameras. If the spider did its thing and fooled viewers, the network agreed to pay Josh a million dollars. He had already planned what he would spend the money on and thought that if the show was successful, it could lead to more fame and fortune.
As predicted, more people watched the Houdini spider special than any other televised event that year. To show how good the spider was at its trick, the jar was set up directly in front of the camera. A randomly selected studio audience was brought in to verify that no trickery was used. Josh knew that once he said the magic word, even super slow motion couldn’t capture its vanishing act. As long as there wasn’t a camera under the jar, no one could see where the spider went. There was a long build-up to the actual trick, of course – experts from various fields talking about how the spider was just a myth or how it was documented once by so-and-so, but it was all meant to keep people watching until the end, which finally came.
After some commercials, Josh got the signal that the cameras were rolling. The spider was in position at the bottom of the jar, looking at Josh as he had always done. “And now,” Josh announced, “you will see the Houdini spider disappear before your very eyes. May I have a drum roll please?”
The drum roll began. Josh pointed dramatically at the spider, took a deep breath, and shouted, “Houdini!”
The spider didn’t move.
Suddenly the lights of the studio felt hotter than before; Josh began to sweat profusely. “Houdini!” he said again, more loudly this time.
This time, the spider moved, but not where it was supposed to. It began crawling in a rapid circle around the bottom of the jar. Josh leaned in closer. “What are you doing?” he said, panic-stricken.
Still, the spider moved in its circle. As Josh looked more closely, though, he saw that the spider was trailing a web behind it. Its white filaments started to coat the inside of the jar. Faster and faster it went, until it whirled around in a blur, making the jar look like a cotton candy machine. They were out of time, but the cameras were ordered to keep rolling. Josh had no idea what the spider was up to, but whatever it was, his only choice was to play along. After only thirty seconds or so, the spider had nearly rendered the entire jar opaque with sticky white web. Finally, Josh watched it disappear entirely.
The studio audience started to boo. Around the world, people were cursing their TVs – they were supposed to see everything replayed in super slow motion, but now all they could see was an opaque white jar. Josh had sweated through his suit; his hands were slippery as he reached in past the cameras and began to take the lid off the jar. After a few shaky turns, it came free. He gulped as he slowly turned it over.
Josh’s contract was very clear that he would only get his big paycheck if everyone could see the spider disappear. When Josh found the jar utterly and completely empty on national television, people felt cheated. The Nature Channel was besieged with angry letters, boycotts were threatened and Josh’s big contract was immediately canceled. He returned to Cedar Street with only his suitcase, some of the money he had saved over the past few years and an empty white jelly jar.
As he walked up to the door of his grandfather’s house, he saw all his old friends ride by on skateboards. He turned and waved eagerly at them, hoping to tell them about his adventures, but they just laughed and sped off down the street. Josh watched them until they disappeared around the corner.
His grandfather was in his old chair, watching TV as he always had. “Hi Grandpa,” said Josh. “I’m back.”
The old man turned the TV off and stood slowly. He shuffled across the floor to Josh, who was expecting a hug. Instead, his grandfather reached for the jar and looked it over closely. “Remember what I told you when you first caught that spider?” He asked.
“Yes,” said Josh, hanging his head. “You said never to open the jar for any reason.”
“And what did I say would happen if you did?”
“That it would drive me crazy,” Josh answered. He couldn’t imagine what this had to do with anything, since it was obviously just a story meant to scare him.
His grandfather just stood there and nodded grimly. Josh wasn’t sure what to do or say. It was at that moment he saw it.
There, on the wall behind his grandfather, was a large gray spider. It definitely hadn’t been there when Josh came in, but it was there now, motionless. Josh brushed past his grandfather and approached the wall to get a closer look. It couldn’t be his spider, he thought, and yet…
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy,” came his grandfather’s voice from behind him, “and they may be right, but now you’ll find out why. That right there is the same spider I caught when I was your age. They live longer than us—did you know that?”
Josh was only a few feet from the spider now. Its eyes were locked with his.
“The last few months have been the happiest in a long, long time, my boy,” he continued. “No on the dinner table, no spider on the mirror when I brush my teeth or sitting on my pillow watching me sleep. I owe you thanks for that, at least.”
Josh was close enough to swat the spider with his hand. He moved as quick as lightning; his hand stung from hitting the wall so hard. When Josh lifted his hand, there was nothing under it. He stared down at his reddened palm in disbelief.
“Even so,” his grandfather said, “you shouldn’t have opened the jar.”
He turned his hand over. There, perched on the back of it, was the Houdini spider, each of its eyes reflecting Josh’s horrified expression. Ta-da, it seemed to say. Ta-da.