fiction by Bethany Holmstrom

The spider looked as big as her clenched fist, its long legs caressing the rough planks of the latrine door. Mandy didn’t notice the spider when she first sat on the plastic seat atop the hole in the wooden bench, breathing through her mouth so she wouldn’t retch at the smell. She was careful not to look into the darkness beneath her. 

“A snake’ll come up and bite your hoo-ha if you look down,” her brother Alex told her earlier at the campsite, while she shifted from one leg to the other in a pee-dance and their parents argued about where to pitch the tents.

She stared instead at the bottom edge of the latrine door, where the late afternoon light showed through a missing chunk of wood. But then she glanced up, and the spider was there — only an arm’s length away. 

Alex hadn’t said anything about spiders. Mandy gasped, the stench sipping up her nose, her body tensing, the pee scared back into her. 

The spider’s legs were thick and hairy, with dark brown bands down its abdomen: nothing like the daddy long-legs her friend Tiffany had caught by the playset in their yard last spring. Mandy couldn’t know the daddy long-legs—with its single plump body—was not, in fact, a spider; she had been told only otherwise. And so Mandy, staring at the spider in the latrine, remembered the gentle tickle of the daddy long-legs’ path as it made its way down her forearm. Alex abandoned the monkey bars to watch. Mandy giggled as she outstretched her palm with the daddy long-legs, returning it to Tiffany. Her brother snatched it by one leg. 

“No!” “Don’t hurt it!” the girls shrieked. Alex stretched the daddy long-legs out, pinched a leg between each of his thumbs and pointers, then snapped his arms wide. The body of the arachnid dropped, and the girls scrambled to find it in the dirt; with two legs plucked, it tottered away from them and the worn path under the bars, into deeper grass.

But this – in the latrine: this was a bristling monster. Mandy held her breath for an eternity of thirty seconds, counting the spider into stillness. Then, finally, she exhaled, letting the last of the urine dribble out, working at the edge of the rough new roll of toilet paper, not looking as she wiped, setting the roll down on the box’s ledge to pull up her bright pink shorts.

She flattened her body along the right wall, reaching for the metal hook that held the door shut, flicking it up and out of the loop. The front left leg of the spider twitched, but otherwise it did not move. Mandy kicked the toe of her Keds, pushing the door open swiftly and darting through before it shut with a hollow smack and the clang of the metal hook. 

She took long heaves of air outside, watching the latrine, waiting to see if the spider was going to open the door and follow her back to camp.

The kids’ tent was nearly set; Mandy’s father worked alone on the last corner, untangling the cables of the rainfly. Her mother and Alex searched for dry branches along the edge of the clearing. Mandy focused on the fire pit, re-stacking the stray rocks that were supposed to form the perimeter. Alex brought over an armful of branches, dumping them beside her and too close to the pit, knocking free another rock. 

“You look down in the latrine?” Alex whispered. Mandy shook her head, scooched over to the stone her brother had loosed. Their mother neared the pit, both hands wrapped around thicker sticks. 

“Mandy, where’s the toilet paper I just gave you?”

“Sorry, I forgot it in there.” Mandy imagined the spider weaving a single-ply web, wrapping and mummifying the interior of the latrine.

“Dammit,” her mother muttered, throwing the sticks onto Alex’s pile. “Which one?”


“Right or left?”

Mandy thought a moment, and almost held up her hands to see which thumb and index finger would form the L: but she knew Alex would call her slow again, because what ten-year-old didn’t know their right from their left and needed their hands to tell them. 

“Right,” Mandy said.

“Well, you best hope no one took it.” Their mother brushed her hands against the thighs of her stonewashed denim shorts, 
then began walking towards the latrine trail.

“You gonna get a spankin’ before we even have dinner,” Alex said. Mandy felt a tightness behind her eyes and nose, her forehead crinkling. 

Their father saw the quick blur of movement from around the corner of the almost-erect tarp: “Where you goin’?” 

“The bathroom.” His wife shouted over her shoulder, not breaking her stride. “Why, I need permission for that too?”

He grunted, returned to the final tarp stake. 

“What’s mom need permission for?” Alex asked.

“Mind your business, son,” he said sharply, and Alex flinched a little. “Go get the lighter fluid and charcoal out of the car.”

“Fuck this trip.” Alex pitched it softly, mostly for himself: but also just loud enough that Mandy could hear and their father wouldn’t.

Four months back, the local paper printed a regional feature: “Antique Carousel Finds a New Home at Dollywood.” The color picture showed carved horses and a tiger, framed in pale blue arches and gilded with mirrors. The article promised a menagerie: rabbits, rams, hounds, a giraffe. “From Amish Country to the Smokies!” the caption read. 

“We going, for our tenth anniversary,” their mother announced over family dinner, the Sunday spread on the carousel already cut and hanging on the refrigerator with magnets—between Alex’s sketch of the abandoned barn down their road for art class, its already-precarious structure rendered even less sound by the boy’s sloppy hand, and Mandy’s A+ report on Little Sorrel after seeing the famous horse’s tanned hide on a class field trip to Lexington. 

Their father looked up from the pork chop and gray-green beans: “Pardon?”

“To Dollywood.”

He snorted. “Spending a bunch of money to ride some rickety shit.”

“We can go camping in the Smokies.” Their mother’s voice didn’t waver. “Article talks about a spot nearby, with a lake for fishing. Save some money on a hotel and bring the kids.”

Their father worked at the gristle on the chop’s edge. 

Alex was heartened by the hesitation: “Can we go to the Dixie Stampede?” 

Their father sawed harder. 

“Jimmy said they got real horses and do all kinds of contests, and he ate better than he ever had, even at Christmas.”

“Well…” Their father paused as he put a piece of freed meat in his mouth, and then smiled benevolently at his wife. “Guess there’ll be somethin’ for us all.” 

As her parents circled the campfire to make dinner, they reminded Mandy of hyenas gathering around a dying wildebeest from one of the National Geographic videos the family rented: wary of each other, with an air of exhausted competition. Mandy couldn’t see any traces of the couple who danced and smiled and kissed in the etched gold frames hanging on their living room walls. Her mother filled out the strapless white dress perfectly, swathed tightly around her hips and waist. Two clamshells held in her chest, a billow of tulle and fabric at the bottom. Her father wore a black suit and a bowtie, stiff and starched and broadly happy.

“What song were y’all dancing to?” Mandy asked her mother once. 

“I Will Always Love You.” Her mother knew all the words to Dolly, and to Emmylou. Her mother didn’t always sing along when she put one of the worn, scratched copies of Jolene or Blue Kentucky Girl on the turntable. Sometimes she just hummed, mouthing a word here and there — doing the dishes, cleaning, setting the table. 

After dinner at the campsite, she hummed “Beneath Still Waters” while the kids dunked the dishes in a bucket of soapy water, then used the lone spigot at the far end of the site to rinse them clean. Their mother dried off the dishes with a towel, putting them back in a brown paper grocery bag on the picnic table, folding over the top, draping the towel over one of the tarp flies. Lightning bugs began to flicker in the woods surrounding their camp site. 

Then, Mandy’s favorite: S’mores. Mandy charred the outside of her marshmallows on a stripped-down end of a stick, the green of the new wood never catching fire. She squished white ooze through the blackened, cracked exterior, pressed between Hershey’s squares and graham crackers. 

“Gross,” Alex said, fingers and lips sticky from his first. 

“I think we should put off Dollywood ’til Sunday,” their father said, pulling strings of marshmallow from his stick, not bothering with any sort of assembly.

“Why?” Their mother stopped nibbling on the corner of a graham cracker.

“Well,” he said it as if it just occurred to him, which they all knew wasn’t the case, “we took Monday off too, can travel back then — traffic’ll be lighter. And radio said tomorrow there’s a chance of storms, and Sunday’s sunny. So we could take the canoe out tomorrow, go fishing if the weather holds. Catch something for dinner.”

Her mother’s head tilted to the left, the way it did when she was considering something. 

“Be a shame if we spend all that money on tickets, and missed any rides cause of storms.” 

The tilt rightened, became a nod. 

Alex narrowed his eyes in concern. “We still goin’ to the Dixie Stampede?”

“Of course.” Their father smiled, put another marshmallow on his stick. “You’ll still get your Stampede, son.”


The lake was quiet the next morning. A slight cool wind hinted at the clouds above. Algae danced along the edges of the water, disappearing into the brackish depths as the family moved down the dock. Mandy and her mother carried the paddles and tackle box and life-vests and fishing rods and small drink cooler. Her brother and father held the upturned bright blue canoe over their heads. Mandy could smell the chemical tang of the DEET and sunscreen her mother had sprayed and smeared on the children over the dank lake water. Her mother set the cooler in the middle of the dock, leaning the rods against it, the life-vests on top —then, not saying anything, walked back down the dock, taking the path into the woods.

“Where’s your mother?” Her father asked, after they flipped the canoe onto the dock and pushed it to the edge. 

“Already headed back to camp,” Mandy said.

Her father glared for a moment at the scraggle of pine trees edging the woods. Alex impatiently toyed with the rope looped through the stern.


“Vests on. Alex, help me get it in the water,” their father said, taking the rope from his son. “Then you’ll get in first. Nearly tipped it over last time you got in, and your mother will murder us if you drown your sister.”

Mandy felt the pull and weight in her arms and shoulders and chest
and sides, outlining the aches she’d have later. Even with the stadium cushion balanced on the carrying yoke under her butt, she could feel
the grooved wood leaving its mark. 

Mandy liked the movement of the boat when no one paddled and the undulations of light and dark seemed to move them along. The bugs skittered on the water’s surface, with a hot buzz of locusts and crickets from the woods. The birds worked the edges of the land, sometimes diving into the water. 

The oars splashed and slapped at her father’s command. Mandy felt the pull and weight in her arms and shoulders and chest and sides, outlining the aches she’d have later. Even with the stadium cushion balanced on the carrying yoke under her butt, she could feel the grooved wood leaving its mark.

Every night after they went fishing, she dreamed of catfish and eels and sunnies churning in the water beneath them. Of Loch Ness Monsters, but smaller, more proportioned for their confines: gentle plant-eating giants calmly grazing along the lake’s floor. She would wake up and feel the outlines filled in, muscles sore and thrumming.

Mandy never cared if she caught anything when they fished. She’d let her line drift, casting only when her father said something.

Alex wanted to catch the biggest fish. Or at least one big enough that their father would get the camera from the car and take a picture of Alex holding the fish before it was cleaned, gutted, and grilled. There were only two such pictures of Alex on their living room wall; the most recent one was from last summer, of Alex and a 10-pound largemouth bass. 
Alex and his father strategized: talked about shadows, and water temperature, and the ways the waves worked, and what colors and sizes of the lures got the most nibbles.

Alex wanted to try out the chunkiest lure he could find in the box: blazed in orange and yellow, treble hooks dangling under its bulging gold belly and tail. The day before, while the family was at the ranger station checking in, a boy waiting to buy a bag of ice told Alex about his large, fat, red lure—how it chugged though the lake water, flashing a gold underside, calling out to the bass. The boy bragged about the two fish he’d caught in only an hour on the lake, adding inches and pounds in the retelling. 

“You sure?” Their father asked. Alex nodded, and their father tied the lure to his son’s line. “You ever cast with anything this big before?”

“Naw. What’s different?”

“Well, get a feel for it first. Do some short casts off the stern for a while.” 

Alex did two short casts about a minute apart, before impatience ended the experiment. 

Alex reared the rod back, and then snapped it forward to make a full cast. The line lunged more quickly than he was used to. Alex jerked the rod back in surprise and the line whipped from its trajectory, drawn back through the air and towards the boat. The lure flew around Mandy, seated in the middle of the canoe, ending its motion only when one of the belly’s barbed hooks slid neatly into her chin.

Mandy felt the thwack of the lure, and then a concentrated sting, and then a rocking heat. It pushed and pulsed beyond the bite of metal and flesh, wanting to fill the canoe, to sink it, to make the lake steam and swell and burst and swallow the woods and the camp and the gravel road that tumbled out onto the rural highway and the mountains, even the mountains.
She dropped the butt of her rod onto the canoe’s floor, her hands drawn towards her chin.

“Don’t!” Her father shouted. “Don’t move!” 

Alex let out a short moan behind her, and Mandy knew that her brother was crying. He made that sound when he did something wrong in front of an adult. He made that sound two years ago when their grandma called him out of her yard where he was playing, and onto the porch. Mandy sat in the porch swing, eyes wide at the sight of her own swollen slug of a finger, twisted and broken.

When grandma went inside for ice, Alex’s tear ducts were corked. The high-pitched weeping and whines stopped as the screen door slammed shut behind their grandmother, and the sound of house slippers shuffling down the hall grew fainter. 
“Tattletale,” he hissed at Mandy, eyes cold, standing on the highest porch step. “You ever do that again, I’ll break more than your finger.” 

Her father directed Alex as they paddled quickly back to the dock. 

“Leave the cooler and the paddles, and get out slowly,” he told his son, handing Alex the rope before the father braced his arm against the dock to steady the canoe. Alex listened, barely upsetting things as he hauled himself onto the ladder. “Take the tackle,” their father said, passing the box of lines and lures up. 

“Now,” he said to Mandy, “careful, turn more to me.” Mandy shifted, offering up the far side of her face to her father. 

“I gotta put the bottom hook in your life jacket, so it can’t stick you — okay?” Mandy forgot and nodded; her vision blurred with the hot red pull.

“Don’t move your head, sweetheart.” He held his breath as he slid the treble hook into the bright red padding, trying to position the other two hooks on the tail-end of the lure outwards, so they wouldn’t land in his daughter’s throat if she tripped or fell. 

“There. Brave girl. Now, I’m gonna hold one arm and — Alex, get her other — so you can get on the dock okay.” Alex’s face was sour, but he obeyed without any pinches or whispers.

“What about the boat?” Alex asked. 

“We’ll tell the ranger. Alex, go get your mother, tell her to meet us at the station with the car.”

As Alex ran up the slope and into the woods, Mandy and her father set out on the path along the lake’s edge, towards the ranger’s station. Mandy focused on the dirt and roots of each step, chin thudding and tethered to her chest.


The ranger’s face was dug with canyons, baked by decades of sun. He chain-smoked Camels, sitting in the office chair he had dragged out on the concrete patio. He waved folks in, hitting the button for the barrier gate when he recognized them or saw the registration papers on the dash. He’d point new guests to one of the parking spots in front of the station and endure the sweltering box of the office to get them registered. New guests were less frequent now in the peak of August humidity, with some schools already open. Soon he’d be just listening to the radio and the birds, reading the latest mystery his wife picked up from him at the library; he’d linger on the patio until the fall chill bothered his arthritis too much, and move in to the boxy warmth of the space heater.

“What can I do y’all for?” The ranger called to the man and child coming up from the lake, still a ways off. Campers didn’t walk up to him, so much; there were no trail heads nearby, the nearest one into the Smokies was a good five miles away.

“Hey there,” the man said. “Damndest thing. You don’t happen to have any heavy-duty wire-cutters, do you?” He gestured at the child, head down so all the ranger could see was a dirty blonde mop above the orange puff of the life-vest, couldn’t even figure if it was a boy or girl. 

“Oh, think I do in the toolbox. Y’all come on in. Everything okay?”

“It’s been a rough morning.” The man pointed at the child again and she lifted her head, so that the ranger could see the lure dangling from her face.

“You okay, darlin’?” The ranger asked. He used the same tone when he cooed to that asshole feral cat that his wife insisted they feed every morning and night. The cat damn well knew the schedule, but wouldn’t show up without a big production, and then the raccoons or possums would waddle into the backyard and help themselves to the neglected food.

“Probably hurts her to talk and all,” the father said. “Y’all been trained for this stuff, right?”

The ranger, having taken only the standard CPR course, nodded. 

“Come on in,” he said, pushing himself up and out of the chair to his full imposing height, trying to make the brown uniform he wore carry the authority of a national park ranger, rather than a hired private hand.


By the time Mandy’s mother arrived with Alex, her daughter was hoisted up onto the station information counter, buttressed by pamphlet displays. An old ranger had some kind of tool to her child’s face. 

“What’s going on?” She couldn’t get close to Mandy, with the ranger’s sharp elbows jutting out.

“Just trying to cut the hook off here, ma’am.” 

“You okay, baby?” 

Mandy felt as if she might explode right there on the ranger’s counter, a mess of blood and organs and hair and bone. She watched the cracks and veins and ridges, the topography of the back of the ranger’s hands, as they hovered just below her eyes. “Mm hm,” she trilled. 

The ranger put the blades of the wire cutter to the hook, and Mandy could feel the tremor of his hands, telegraphed through her lanced skin. The ranger pulled away, and then tried again; this time, her mother saw his shaking hands.

“What’s going on?” Her mother repeated.

“I think I need my glasses,” the ranger said, embarrassed. 

“Give me the cutters,” her mother said. Mandy’s father did not move, or say, or do.

“Ma’am, I don’t know if—”

“Give me the fuckin’ things.” 

The ranger handed the tool over and stepped aside. 

“You okay, baby: now, on the count of three. One, two, —”  and the bottom treble hook snapped off the lure. Her mother plucked the hook out of the life jacket and set it on the counter. 

“Chin up, Mandy. One, two —” and the rest of the lure fell to the floor, and the throb in her chin lessened. Mandy’s mother pulled the keys from the pockets of her shorts, passing them to her husband. 

“You drivin’ us to the hospital.” 

She made Mandy lay down on the backseat, and Many put her head in her mother’s lap. Alex sat in the front passenger seat. Only when they pulled out of the campground and onto the highway and her mother put her hand to Mandy’s forehead did Mandy let the tears come, warm and full and silent, eyes fixed on the pieces of fabric that billowed and bubbled on the car’s ceiling.

That night Mandy saw giant wolf spiders sink into the lake and pull algae out from its floor. Strand by slimy strand, the spiders wove. They floated to the surface with the top edges of the net hooked into their leg hairs, smaller rocks beaded onto the bottom to lend the net weight. The spiders trawled up and down the lake, catching bovine Nessies, flashing yellow-green sunnies, slick swirls of eels.

Mandy clutched her mother in the tetanus-shot-induced fever, gasping in shallow sleep— the net passing through the lake water again and again, sweating into their sleeping bags that were zipped together despite the warm night. 

Mandy’s mother could hear the occasional snores of her husband from across the site, in the tent he shared with Alex for the night. She lay awake and tried to imagine the carousel animals spinning up and against the inner walls of the tent, willing them to push and poke through the fabric, but they were only vague shadows without colors or details, without manes or feathers or fur or horns or scales, without enough mass to rupture anything. Some time between when the cicadas and katydids and frogs gave way to mourning doves, the insides of the green tent began to glow and Mandy’s whimpers ceased. 


Mandy sat at the picnic table, tasked with packing the food things and utensils. Mandy wasn’t sure if her parents were still hyenas, as they stuffed the tent fabric into bags and folded and bound the poles. They were other, more tired animals, more deeply resigned to survival.

The car loaded, the family drove out. Everyone except her mother waved at the old ranger as they passed the station. The ranger would die five years later —his right lung bulging with tumors, never having told his wife about the little girl who got a fishhook stuck in her chin. 

The highway ran beside the Smokies for miles taking them further and further away from the Dixie Stampede, the Blazing Fury, the giraffe and the tiger pumping up and down to the tinkling song of the carousel.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to go to Dollywood, Mom.”

Her mother smiled crisply, and Mandy saw it in the rearview. “It’s okay, baby. It’s not your fault.”

“It’s no one’s fault,” her father added. “An accident.”

Mandy didn’t turn to look at Alex, and instead stared out the car window at the blue mountains that trailed alongside them.

Bethany Holmstrom is a writer and educator. Originally from rural Appalachia, she now lives in Brooklyn. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, and has appeared in Tiny Molecules, MoonPark Review, Appalachian Review, and other places. Find her on Twitter @bdholms.

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