01 Feb The Forest of a Thousand Legs
Little Lucy Lockhart ran
From her daddy’s frying pan
The Forest of a Thousand Legs
Killed her and then laid their eggs”
That’s a jump rope rhyme my classmates used to sing on the playground in elementary school. It’s really fucked up that they sang that because Lucy Lockhart was a real person we attended school with. She vanished when we were in second grade, so we must’ve been around seven years old. The rhyme was loosely based in truth, in that the official story was that Lucy Lockhart did in fact vanish into the Lockhart Wood fifty yards from her father Robert’s house, but he wasn’t chasing after her brandishing a frying pan to beat her with. I was too young at the time to understand what was happening, and it wasn’t until much later that my mom actually explained it to me. It wasn’t a particularly shocking story, just sad.
I remember the day Lucy went missing—at least, the first day she didn’t come to school. It was Monday; she went missing the Friday before. My mother told me it was a few days before Lucy’s seventh birthday and that Lucy had asked her father if she could have a birthday party at the house. I remembered that—Lucy and I had been in the same group of friends, and I remembered her telling us that she was going to ask her dad about having a birthday sleepover. I especially remember being annoyed that she wanted it to be a sleepover because I was the only boy in the group and was never allowed to sleep over with them. I was still excited at the prospect of a party, though, as we all were, because we knew her father Robert Lockhart Jr. was a retired entomologist (we just called him the bug man) and had lots of pretty preserved specimens like butterflies and beetles in cases that Lucy would sometimes bring in for show-and-tell. Anyway, according to my mother, Lucy asked her father if she could have a sleepover for her birthday, and he said no because she was going to spend her birthday at her mother’s house while their house was being fumigated. It was a normal enough reason for a six-year-old to cry and storm out of the house. But running into the Lockhart Wood was a bad idea for any person of any age without the proper equipment.
Here’s the thing about the Lockhart Wood: some people call it the Forest of a Thousand Legs, presumably to make it sound creepier than it already is. It doesn’t need help. There are roughly 4,000 species of spider in America, and the Lockhart Wood is a phenomenon on its own in that it’s home to all of them. Not only that, but there are documented populations of some spiders previously thought endemic only to certain countries, such as the Goliath birdeater, a couple of funnel-web spiders, and some species of peacock spiders. There’s that myth that says you’re never more than three feet from a spider at any given moment; in this forest, it’s not a myth. It’s filled to the brim with spiders.
I think at this point it goes without saying that if you’re arachnophobic, this story is not for you.
The forest is naturally of great interest to biologists and arachnologists, but Lockhart Wood is private property, and restricted guided access to the forest was hard to come by even before Lucy Lockhart’s disappearance. Afterwards, nobody could go in. Obviously anyone could get into the forest if they wanted to, it’s not fenced off or anything, but there’s a steep fine if you’re caught trespassing, and nobody’s exactly clamoring to delve into a forest full of venomous spiders anyway. You need the right kind of boots, clothes, gloves, first-aid kits, and knowledge of the forest to step past the tree line. The most common spiders at the edges of the forest are jumping spiders, various wandering spiders, and orb-weavers. Most people who emerge from the forest have a number of banana spiders clinging to their hair and jackets, startled by the destruction of their webs. If visitors are allowed deeper into the forest, the spiders get bigger, and they lurk on the ground.
According to my mother, Robert Lockhart Jr. lived with his father in that house for a long time. They were a father/son duo of entomologists from Alabama, but Robert Lockhart Sr. had a focus on arachnology. He had bought the house and the forest specifically for its spider population, which also made it super affordable, and he usually worked from home. Robert Lockhart Jr. did a lot of work at a university three towns over. He married a professor there who taught evolutionary biology, and the three of them lived in the elder Robert Lockhart’s house until Robert Sr.’s sudden passing during a study on tarantula hawks. Lucy Lockhart was born a year later, and Robert Jr. was able to retire from teaching and live as a stay-at-home dad while Lucy’s mother continued teaching at the university. He still worked collecting and preserving specimens, mostly butterflies and moths, and had reports published in the entomology scene, and—very, very rarely—led guided tours around parts of Lockhart Wood, for a price.
My mother only got to know Robert Jr. once Lucy and I became friends. She said he didn’t talk about the forest very much. She got the feeling that he was afraid of it. When he and his wife divorced, my mom suspected part of their irreconcilable differences was Lockhart Wood. She never really pried into it; after all, she and Robert Jr. only spent time together because Lucy and I spent time together (although I remember hoping they would get married so that Lucy and I could be brother and sister). Robert Jr. hated the forest he owned and made sure that anybody who stepped foot in it was dressed and prepared for the occasion, which is part of the reason why my mother never believed he killed Lucy when he was the prime suspect in the investigation. When Lucy ran off into Lockhart Wood that evening, my mom said, Robert Jr. gave chase without hesitation—in socks, sweatpants, and a T-shirt. He must have received a dozen bites of varying severity the second he went in.
He was in there for four hours. My mom was working a night shift at the hospital when he was brought in, delirious and swollen all over. There was no telling how many bites he’d received, and to this day my mother doesn’t know how he survived. He needed antivenom that no hospitals in the United States could offer, and when he had dragged himself back home after desperately searching for Lucy in the forest, he could only self-administer so much. Maybe luck and a developed resistance was what saved him. He lost both legs below the knee, but he lived.
From what my mom could gather in the weeks following Lucy’s disappearance, the investigation was chaotic. Search teams entered the forest, but they never spanned it all. Two officers on the initial search team were bitten by what was most likely a Sydney funnel-web spider and unfortunately both died. After all, the Sydney funnel-web spider is otherwise found only in Australia. We don’t have that antivenom at the ready here in the States. Anyway, the search of the forest lasted maybe a week before branching off elsewhere. My mom says they couldn’t, maybe WOULDN’T search the whole forest. More than one officer who searched Lockhart Wood left the force and subsequently skipped town. Those who didn’t leave might as well have. They don’t get out much anymore. My mom doesn’t want to know what they saw in there.
Lucy never turned up. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on her father before he was even discharged from the hospital. My mom says there was a point where he was handcuffed to his hospital bed, even though both of his legs had been amputated. For a while she couldn’t tell if he was totally lucid because he would spend hours sobbing, “That forest’s got her. Those spiders got my baby girl.” But there was no evidence to convict him of kidnapping or murder. My mom and the parents of Lucy’s other friends and mine were involved in the trial as witnesses, and they all insisted that they never had any reason to believe Robert Jr. was abusive towards Lucy or that he would be driven to hurt her.
I didn’t know any of this at the time, as my mom responsibly sheltered me from the details of Lucy’s disappearance, but obviously some other kids we went to school with got wind of some information, hence the morbid jump rope rhyme. It upset me a lot when I heard kids chanting it during recess. I was young, and I missed Lucy very much.
It’s been 11 years since Lucy went missing. It doesn’t really upset me anymore, it’s just a sad mystery that I still think about sometimes. The group of friends that Lucy and I shared stayed close until middle school and then we all branched out a bit. I don’t think any of us ever forgot about Lucy. I recently graduated high school, and the original group of us got together at a diner to discuss in amazement how we were all finally done with high school forever. At one point I nudged my omelet around my plate and said absently, “It’s been years, but I still wish…man, I wish Lucy could’ve graduated with us, y’know?”
My friend Stella leaned her shoulder into mine and knocked our mortar boards together with an understanding smile. “Same here, bud. But she’d be proud of us for doing it.”
The conversation drifted elsewhere, but that poignant thought of Lucy stuck with me for a long while after that evening. It wasn’t until the day before I went off for my freshman year at college that I told my mom I wanted to stop by the Lockhart house and sort of say goodbye to Lucy, if Robert Jr. would let me.
“Well,” she shrugged over breakfast, “I guess it couldn’t hurt. You don’t ever get over losing a child, but all things considered, he seems to be…okay. He might oblige you.”
So later that afternoon I drove across town towards that dark, looming forest that stretched into the sky on the horizon. I hadn’t been to the Lockhart house in over a decade but the sight of it instantly made me happy. I no longer mourned Lucy, I only cherished the brief time we knew each other as children, and I had lots of fond memories in that house. As I pulled into the gravel driveway, I saw the curtains in one of the front windows shift, so I knew someone was home. He might not want to let me in, but there was no harm in trying.
I went up the front porch steps and found a wooden hanging of a luna moth adorning the front door. It had no sign of grime or weathering, and the pale green paint still had its glossy finish, so I guessed it was fairly new. I don’t know what I expected from Robert Jr., maybe that he was too far gone after the loss of Lucy that he wouldn’t bother decorating anything, but it had been more than ten years, and recovery IS possible. I knocked and he answered a few moments later, frowning curiously at me from the gap in the door.
“Hey! Mr. Lockhart, uh.” I floundered a little, stupidly, because I hadn’t planned on HOW I was going to talk to him. “I’m Aaron [LOVEZINSKI]. You know my mom Jane at the hospital.”
The door eased open a bit more, his face relaxing with recognition. “Jane’s boy, yes. You were one of Lucy’s little friends, weren’tcha? Come in, wipe your feet.”
“I’m surprised you remember we were friends,” I admitted, stepping inside and wiping my feet on the floor mat. It looked like a monarch butterfly.
“I remember all you kids,” Robert Jr. said with a wave of his hand, leading me inside. His prosthetics clicked on the linoleum. “It was Lucy, you, Stella, there was two little girls named Hannah, wasn’t there? You were the one that cried a lot ‘cause you never got to stay for sleepovers.”
“Yes sir, that was me,” I said, embarrassed.
“You gay, son?” It was a startlingly straightforward question, tossed over his shoulder as I followed him into the house. There wasn’t anything accusatory in his tone, though, so I said yes. He grunted, “Knew you’d be fine to sleep over with the girls. Coulda spared you a lotta whinin’ and cryin’.”
He took me past numerous framed bug specimens as we made our way to his living room. It was a big room, cluttered with bookshelves and work benches with papers strewn about. Dozens of terrariums of various sizes dotted the room and lined the walls like trophy cabinets, the only gap where the den opened into a kitchen. A bright desk lamp illuminated the whole room and the light bounced off a magnifying visor headset and a laptop screen. It looked like he had been dissecting a large beetle before I knocked on the door. It was good to see that his passion for bugs hadn’t been destroyed after losing his daughter to the Lockhart Wood.
“So what brings you here, scooter?” he asked, going into the kitchen to retrieve something from the fridge.
“Well, uh, we graduated in May and I’m leaving for school tomorrow,” I explained, “and I just…kind of…I mean, I still think about Lucy a lot, so I was wondering if you had kept any of her things over the years that I could see and sort of, y’know, remember her by. If you’re okay with that. Sir.”
Robert Jr. came back over to me with a shrug and two beers. He said, “Ain’t much a little girl has to her name but Hello Kitty bedsheets and Beanie Babies.”
“Oh man, Beanie Babies.” I couldn’t help but grin at the memory. “That was always my go-to gift. I gave her a bunch of mine.”
“What, you want ‘em back or somethin’?” Off my startled look of chagrin, he chuckled and handed me the second beer. “I’m messin’ with you, boy. Her room’s this way.”
He led me down a long, familiar hallway down which Lucy and our friends and I had sprinted recklessly over a decade ago. I recognized a few framed insect specimens that we had knocked from the walls in our rough-housing fits. We went into Lucy’s bedroom at the end of the hall, and it was virtually unchanged from how I remembered it: the walls were still pale pink and decorated with pastel-colored cross-stitch artwork made by Lucy’s late grandmother; the canopy bed was neatly made, the Hello Kitty bedding crisp and unfaded from years of disuse; the shelves upon shelves of stuffed animals, with an army of Beanie Babies gifted by me populating their own full shelf; and, surprisingly, a long terrarium against the wall with an enormous black spider sitting motionless underneath a blacklight.
I recognized that spider. “No way. That’s not…”
Robert Jr. flipped on the lights, which turned off the terrarium’s blacklight. The massive spider retreated into a hide with a twitch of its long, slender legs. He grunted, “That’s her.”
Lady Legs was a type of huntsman that Robert Lockhart Sr. had discovered in the Lockhart Wood and kept for ten years BEFORE Lucy was born. There were plenty of live specimens in the Lockhart house over the years, but Lady Legs was the only one that Lucy seemed to cherish as a pet. Robert Jr. had said in the past that some tarantulas can live to be 25 years old, but Lady Legs wasn’t a tarantula, and if this was the same Lady Legs from that time, that would make her over 30 years old!
“Do huntsman spiders live that long?” I asked incredulously, moving to the terrarium with a fascination I hadn’t felt in years.
Robert Jr. stood in the doorway with his arms crossed and an expression of distaste creasing his features as he looked at Lady. “None that we know of, ‘sides that one.”
“She’s even bigger than I remember,” I murmured, my breath fogging up the glass as I tried to peer into the spider’s hide at an angle, but I couldn’t see her.
“Far as I can tell, her size depends on her enclosure,” said Robert Jr. “She won’t get no bigger as long as she’s in that tank.”
I saw Lady’s leg move in the hide, then turned my head to look out Lucy’s bedroom window. It faced the deep grey-green mass of Lockhart Wood. I stood, absently tracing my fingers through the condensation on the bottle in my hand. “Lady came from the forest, didn’t she? How big do they get in there?”
Robert Jr. didn’t respond. I looked over at him. He was downing nearly his entire beer. He finished it with an angry-sounding hiss and said, finally, “Ungodly big. Anyway, take your time in here, do what you want, look at what you want. I’ll be down the hall.”
“Okay. Thanks.” As he started to leave, I remembered the drink in my hand and held it out to him awkwardly. “Oh, hey, uh. I’m…not 21.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna snitch on you.” He left the room and I hissed open the beer.
I don’t know how long I spent in there, meandering around fondly. Maybe an hour. I took a spider Beanie Baby off the shelf and held it as I looked around. I stood over the dresser looking at the framed pictures on top of it. Most were of Lucy and her parents, a few of Lucy from toddlerhood to age seven holding the gargantuan Lady Legs in her comparatively tiny hands. I was in a couple of pictures too, group pictures of us and our other friends at birthday parties, our messy little faces smeared with cake. I found an old elementary school binder from the first-grade class Lucy and I had together, where the first activity of every day was to make an entry in our journals following a simple prompt given by the teacher and then draw a picture to go with it. Naturally, lots of Lucy’s entries were about Hello Kitty, play dates with me and our friends, and bugs. Some of them made me laugh, like her outrageously mangled spelling of the word “centaur” in several entries about herself and Lady Legs as spider-lady centaurs. After a while I just stood at Lucy’s window, looking out at the Lockhart Wood as I finished my beer. I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, so I was pretty buzzed. The Forest of a Thousand Legs had never looked so eerie. The angle of the late afternoon sun didn’t penetrate the darkened woods, but it glistened on countless spiderwebs suspended along the treeline, emphasizing how dark the forest was beyond that. It was strangely inviting, in a predatory way, like the lure of an anglerfish, how it had swallowed Lucy up.
Movement outside the window caught my eye. I looked over and saw Robert Jr. standing under the carport facing the forest, downing another beer, a backpack hanging from his shoulder. He was dressed in different clothes from the flannel shirt and cutoffs he’d been wearing when he let me inside. He was wearing a heavy jacket and a hat, with a different set of prosthetics that had shoes. He looked like he was dressed for going into the forest. I left Lucy’s room, crossed to the other end of the house, and through the screen door off the kitchen. Robert Jr. didn’t respond to the wooden rattle of the door banging shut.
“You’re going in.” It wasn’t a question; I was incredulous.
“Ain’t been in there since I lost Lucy,” Robert Jr. said pensively. “Think it’s about time I go back in one last time ‘fore I torch it.”
The sun was hidden behind Lockhart Wood, but not quite set, casting the house and us in shadows, and before I could stop myself I asked, “Can I go with you?”
To this day I’m not sure why I wanted to go with him. Maybe for a sense of adventure, of danger that 18-year-olds are attracted to and think they can survive anything. Maybe I had some stupid notion that we’d find Lucy in there, dead or alive. Maybe I just didn’t want a guy who had lost his daughter the last time he was in those woods to go in for the first time since then alone.
“It’s dangerous in there,” said Robert Jr. It wasn’t a no.
“I’d be with you,” I said, dumb and optimistic. But in my defense, he let me go with him. Neither of us mentioned it, but I know he didn’t want to go into the woods alone either.
“You’ll need to be dressed right,” was all he said, and the next thing I knew he was jamming a hat on my head, layering me in protective clothing a size too big and cramming my hands and feet into gloves and boots a size too small.
“Not a perfect fit, but close enough,” he said, tucking my baggy pant legs into my boots. I had zipped the jacket most of the way, but he yanked the zipper all the way up to my chin. “It was my gear back when I was a little older’n you, when my daddy bought this place.”
He strapped a headlamp to my hat, did the same for himself, and shrugged on a backpack that he had filled with a first aid kit and a cold pack for antivenom. I watched him put it all together, fascinated, as I nursed another beer. It was hard to believe he hadn’t ventured into the forest in more than ten years; the speed and certainty with which he prepared everything was like that of someone who explored Lockhart Wood daily.
He gave me a set of strict, reasonable rules basically telling me not to leave his side and not to thrash around if I walked into a web, and to always watch my step even though I was wearing boots. I could change my mind at any time in the forest, so if I wanted to leave, he would guide me out of the forest.
I sent a quick lie of a text to my mom, telling her that Robert Jr. had invited me to stay for dinner, and then zipped my phone into a breast pocket. By now twilight was fading, the purple sky soon to turn an inky blue, and we set off.
The trail leading into the forest was rough and overgrown from years of seeing no foot traffic, but not completely hidden. The first thing I did when I entered the forest was walk right into a web that Robert Jr. had subtly avoided. I started to flail instinctively, but Robert Jr. caught me with an arm across my chest, saying, “Don’t thrash, I said.” After he assured me the web didn’t belong to anything venomous, I carefully picked the web from my face and hair, following him deeper into the wood.
It was darker than I anticipated beneath the trees. There were a few spots of visible death in the trees, suffocated and deprived of sunlight under thick layers of web wrapped around them, but most of the forest looked healthy, supporting the spider populations symbiotically. Robert Jr. and I switched on our headlamps pretty quickly when the scant moonlight didn’t light our way sufficiently.
I looked down at the ground, casting a wide circle of light at my feet, and immediately froze in place, my skin crawling horribly. Spiders the size of half-dollars were scurrying away from my boots in droves. Not quite a swarm, but enough to be uncountable.
“You’re alright, son. Those ones ain’t gonna hurt you.” Robert Jr. hadn’t looked back at me but he must’ve heard me freeze behind him. “You want me to take you back?”
Pride swelled higher than the fear in my chest, so I said, “No, I’m fine.” One of the spiders crawled slowly over my boot, it’s long legs probing curiously at my laces. I wrenched my eyes away from the ground, shook the spider off violently, and pushed forward. I’ve never been particularly arachnophobic, but it was impossible not to feel itchy all over, imagining hundreds upon hundreds of unseen spiders creeping into my protective clothing, slipping down the collar of my shirt and edging along my scalp into my hair. The tiny spiders became less of a presence, however, when we came to a fork in the trail and Robert Jr. dropped to a sudden crouch, grabbing my sleeve and yanking me down with him.
“Look at this,” he whispered, his headlamp fixed on a spider not two feet away from us. “This here’s a nasty one.”
A spider the size of my hand stood strangely before us with two sets of thick, hairy legs thrown in the air; it might have looked silly if not for the vivid, violently red jaws on display pulsing angrily in our direction. Worse still, the spider continued to move, swaying gently with its rosy chelicerae throbbing almost obscenely, inching infinitesimally closer with its side-to-side motions.
Wide-eyed, I whispered back, “What is it?”
Infuriated at the sound of my voice, the spider lunged closer. This time I could see its fangs protruding from the red, quivering with rage and glinting with wetness.
“Brazilian wandering spider,” said Robert Jr. softly. “P. fera it looks like, but it can be hard to say without a closer look. Only live in South America, ‘cept for this place. Y’know…” he unzipped two pockets and withdrew a larger pair of gloves to slip over the ones he was already wearing, “they might be the deadliest in the world.”
Instinctively I shrank back, but then took hold of Robert Jr.’s jacket sleeve with popping eyes when I saw him reach towards the spider. “Don’t!”
The spider struck at his two fingers with lightning speed and a force that made a sharp snapping sound pierce the dark woods around us. In the blink of an eye it struck twice, a red-brown blur; horrified, I tugged frantically at Robert Jr.’s sleeve.
“Relax,” he said, pulling his hand back and showing me his intact glove, “Hoss can’t quite bite through these.” The spider darted out of our joined headlamp beams and off the trail into the woods. Robert Jr. removed his bulky second pair of gloves and stowed them away. “Can’t do much delicate handling with gloves like that, but anything else and those fangs’ll go right through.”
He stood suddenly, leaving me crouched and trembling. Clenching and unclenching my fists, unpleasantly aware of how thin my gloves were now, I stood slowly. My headlamp slid up the trees in front of me, where the bark seemed to shiver and shift with the traffic of smaller spiders oozing up and down the trunks. I turned my head to see where Robert Jr. was looking, and my light fell on his back several meters away as he moved down the left path in the fork.
“Wait!” I squeaked, rushing after him. I stumbled over tree roots and ran haltingly, skidding awkwardly to step around more than one fat, lumbering tarantula as I made my way back to Robert Jr.’s elbow. Our headlamps bobbed in the darkness, and my gaze was drawn farther up where the lamps’ beams lit up vast labyrinthian webs high overhead, where nothing on the ground could destroy them. Glinting white-gold in our light, they shuddered in an imperceptible breeze.
“Those webs are way better high up there,” I said with a breathless chuckle, trying to shake off the anxiety from the Brazilian wandering spider. “We won’t walk into any down here.”
Robert Jr. walked briskly, barely acknowledging me with a grunt. While I looked all around me, casting my headlamp’s light to and fro, Robert Jr. hardly moved his head, focused steadily on the twisting path down which he led us. Occasionally he would stop so abruptly that I would collide with his back and he would gaze up into the ever thickening treetops at the spiderwebs overhead, which were now so large and thick that massive sections of leaves had suffocated and died. I could see clusters of spiders creeping every which way in the stuff, while more obscured movement shifted on the other side of the web, so thick that I couldn’t see what it was. My depth perception was off in this environment, what with the distance between myself and the webs and the number of different sizes of spiders I could see. Everything looked bigger up there from where I was standing.
“Communal webs,” said Robert Jr., pointing at the massive net of silk. “Most spiders live alone, but some are social. Buncha different spiders taking care of the same babies, sharing the same food.”
“They must catch a lot of prey,” I said, moving my headlamp over the vast web. “It’s HUGE.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if they make a regular meal of birds,” Robert Jr. speculated. “Squirrels too, maybe, if any wander in this far.”
I looked at him, bathing his stubble-shadowed face in yellow light, and said slowly, “That’s…that’s kind of big for a spider, isn’t it?”
“P. blondi in South America has been known to eat birds,” said Robert Jr. “It’s the biggest spider in the world, at least outside of this godforsaken forest. This place ain’t like the rest of the world.” He paused, a muscle jumping in his jaw, then said, “But they don’t make webs, they live in burrows. So watch your step.”
I resisted the urge to clamp onto his arm like a child as I swept my handlamp over the edges of our path. Spiders littered the forest floor, scurrying busily, but the irregularly spaced holes along the path and nestled between tree roots were what made me nervous now. The biggest hole looked like it could swallow my leg.
We continued to walk, uninterrupted by webs for the most part but there were a few low-built ones that I would walk into when I was staring off into the woods and Robert Jr. wouldn’t tell me to duck. Unnerved as I was, I was starting to get used to the sensation, hardly jerking back when the sticky, feather-light strings snuck up on me. My pulse would still spike when it happened, though, pounding loudly in my ears as I carefully brushed the webs from my face. But then Robert Jr. took us down a second fork in the path; when I distractedly collided with two webs of surprising density in a row, I finally focused on Robert Jr. ahead of me to complain about not warning me, and a tangle of silk lit up in my headlamp centimeters away just in time for my face to crash through it.
Even though it was my fault for not watching where I was going, I said testily, “Come on, Mr. Lockhart, at least give me a heads up,” as I dragged my gloved hands down my face, raking the web from my skin. Robert Jr. said nothing. I looked up, over his shoulder in front of me, and saw why.
The trail ahead was entirely choked in web, a glistening haze like morning fog stretching farther ahead. Shapes twitched within it, different from the shifting masses of hundreds of smaller spiders in the first communal webs we saw; these were heavy and singular, with sharp angles plucking at individual lines of silk. I couldn’t quite make sense of what I was seeing.
Something crunched under my boot. I looked down at the wispy, stringy grey floor—brittle old bones of some animal I couldn’t identify lay there. Among the bones lay the aged, empty remains of a huge tarantula, skeleton and exoskeleton locked together in death. Had they fought and died tangled with one another?
“Jesus,” I said loudly, just as Robert Jr. breathed softly, “Jesus.” He wasn’t looking down; he was looking directly up. I looked up too, and froze.
Our headlamps joined and lit up the webs that swallowed the understory, washing over the enormous spiders that moved within them. Things the size of fishbowls, with fat round abdomens and twitching, creeping legs thick as pool cues. Clusters of eyes reflected light back at us and the movement of their heavy bodies made meaty, organic clicking noises.
These things weren’t what Robert Jr. had commented on—the creature slowly descending from the web by a thread was. At first I thought it was a spider with a squirrel or a rat or something in its jaws, but a small logical corner of my mind reminded me that that’s not how spiders eat, not even tarantulas who don’t wrap their prey in silk. The rodent appeared bisected, as I couldn’t see its back legs, with ugly grey skin visible around its midsection like it had mange. Its back half was, impossibly, the swollen bulb of a spider. It looked like some gruesome mockery of a centaur, the limp torso of some parasitic rodent bursting forth from an unwitting host. There was no way that thing could be real, or if it was, it couldn’t be ALIVE.
But the thing’s spinnerets kept pumping a hardy silk line, two spindly back legs touching at delicate tips as it worked its way down, and the rodent’s head twitched, its furry front legs extending, paws grasping. I saw its face—a squirrel with too many beady black eyes extending up the front of its head, blinking gummily down at us. I could see its long yellow teeth as its mouth lolled open.
I was distantly aware of my body moving, weakly grasping Robert Jr.’s jacket sleeve and yanking on it. His voice sounded very far away as he muttered, “What the fuck.”
Movement in the corner of my eye somehow managed to pull my attention from the abomination above us. My eyes were drawn down to the edge of the trail on which we stood, and for a moment I thought the ground had dipped down an embankment and we were simply elevated on the path. But I soon saw that it was a massive hole in the ground—a burrow. I continued to tug mechanically on Robert Jr.’s arm.
“What the FUCK.”
A face peered out of the burrow, ghostly pale against the darkness within, and seemed to drift up and out closer to us. It was a human face with too many eyes clustered across the bridge of its nose, glittering black and blinking slowly; it ducked its head, long dark hair hanging in lank tangles, as a woman’s bare moon-white torso emerged slowly from the hole in the ground. A hulking, hairy mass of a spider’s abdomen the size of a Volkswagen Beetle followed, connected at her waist. Her eight branch-thick legs crunched in the leaf litter, audibly thumping with the weight.
Robert Jr. and I staggered backwards, upsetting more spiderwebs in the underbrush. The creature’s legs were striped with white at their joints, and I thought of Lady Legs back at Robert Jr.’s house, and what he said about her species’ size in the wild—“Ungodly big.”
Robert Jr.’s thoughts were also back in his daughter’s room, because as his hand gripped my arm in return, I heard him say, “Lucy.”
My eyes flew back to the creature’s face, its unnatural addition of eyes surrounding the originals, and as it tilted its head, I recognized her too. Her mouth dropped open, lower lip dripping with something too viscous to be saliva, and her rail-thin arms spasmed once before lifting up, sending a painful jolt of electric fear up my spine. Her white long-fingered hands took hold of the squirrel-spider dangling between the two of us and herself; the thing squeaked and convulsed, its legs thrashing horribly, and Lucy brought it to her mouth.
I thrashed my way blindly through web after web, back the way we came. I heard Robert Jr. call my name, unexpectedly close behind me, and suddenly felt him crash into my back. I hit the ground hard, face-first; I barely had time to register the bright starburst of pain as my nose broke and began to bleed, or the scattering of spiders millimeters in front of my eyes before Robert Jr. yanked me bodily back upright and whirled me around. I thought he was slapping me but realized he was swiping away spiders that I’d picked up as passengers from the ground.
“Don’t you run off in here, boy!” Robert Jr. hissed in my face, shaking me hard. “Something else will kill you before—”
The enormous creature loomed behind him, creeping down the trail after us. I started to yell, but Robert Jr. clapped his hand over my mouth, spinning to face her. He forced us into a sort of half-crouch, his body weighing me down to keep me from running again, and I stared with bulging eyes, struggling to breathe through my bleeding nose, as Lucy bore down upon us.
“It’s okay,” Robert Jr. said, but he wasn’t talking to me. I could feel him shaking against my back. “It’s okay, Lucy, you’re okay.”
She came closer, the precise movements of her vast spider body in stark contrast against the limp, feeble movements of her human torso. Her face seemed alert, even with the 6 bleary eyes that looked infected in their unnaturalness, but her arms hung listlessly at her sides, her posture hunched. Venom, blood, saliva flowed slowly down her chin, all that remained of the squirrel-spider. I could hear her breathing, see her pale throat throb as she swallowed.
“That’s a good girl, baby,” said Robert Jr., his voice low and soothing despite his violent trembling. “Daddy didn’t know you lived here, Lucy, we didn’t know we’d see you here. You did such a good job here all by yourself, didn’t you, baby? Daddy’s proud of you.” He was slowly inching us back as he spoke nonsense to the thing in front of us.
The spider shifted minutely, almost moving after us but not quite. Lucy’s dark, wet mouth drooped open. In a voice that sounded like wind in dead leaves, she hissed, “Daddy.”
Robert Jr. laughed, wild and terrified in my ear, pulling me another step back, the palm of his hand still crushing my lips against my chattering teeth. “That’s right, baby, Daddy’s here. Daddy didn’t think he’d see you all grown up in these woods, huh, baby? Good girl, Lucy.”
She didn’t move after us as we backed away, although her eyes followed us with laser focus. Again, her voice hoarse and vacant: “Lucy.”
“That’s right, baby. Daddy’s gonna take your friend back home, okay? You remember Aaron?”
I groaned behind his hand, sick with fear, as all eight of Lucy’s eyes shifted onto me. She didn’t say my name. Wildly in the back of my head I wondered if she recognized any of the things Robert Jr. was saying to her, certain that she was all spider like this, that the two words she’d said were empty repetitions preceding her final attack. But still she stood motionless, watching our retreat.
“Daddy’s gonna take Aaron home, is that okay, baby?” Robert Jr. said. “Will you let me do that, Lucy?”
She was silent for a long moment. Then: “Okay.”
“Good girl, Lucy. We’re going away. Good girl.”
Another long stretch of silence as we moved steadily away from her. She still didn’t follow, merely watching us. Her voice, unprompted this time, shook me to my core when it next creaked through the night: “Come…see me.”
The noise Robert Jr. made was something of a strangled sob and a laugh. “Yeah, baby, I’ll come see you. I’ll come see you again. Just let me take Aaron home and Daddy will come see you again, baby girl.”
We were several meters away from her by now. I was sure we were nearing the bend and the fork in the trail we had taken. Slowly Robert Jr. lowered his hand from my mouth, and I gulped a deep, shaking breath.
“I can’t get us out of here backwards,” he said, “but I need you watching behind us. You hang onto me and I will walk you out. You tell me if she follows. Can you do that, son?”
Wide-eyed and unable to look away from Lucy’s figure down the trail, I nodded. “Y-yes sir.”
“Okay. Careful, now.” His hand encircled my wrist tightly, and with a firm tug, he took us around the bend. I struggled to walk in reverse, my legs like rubber and my pulse roaring in my ears. Lucy didn’t follow us once I lost sight of her.
Robert Jr. navigated us back through the forest, avoiding all webs this time around. I don’t know how long it took to get out of the woods—for all I knew, it took days. But eventually we broke through the tree line, and the unobstructed moonlight was blinding. I felt separate from my own body as I brushed harmless jumping spiders and orb weavers from my hat and jacket. Distantly I heard Robert Jr. chuckling weakly. I turned around to look at Lockhart Wood; almost casually, I leaned over and threw up on the grass. A few yards away Robert Jr. did just the same, coughing and laughing harder when he was done.
“Fuck,” he gasped, hands on his face. I watched him stagger and fall heavily onto his ass, giggling manically.
Dazed, I went over to him and sat beside him on the grass, staring at the forest. I spat remnants of bile on the ground between my knees. I fumbled with my headlamp, turned it off, and threw my hat aside. I peered at Robert Jr.’s tear-streaked laughing face, vaguely concerned.
“I can’t tell if that’s good laughter or bad laughter.”
“Christ,” he gasped, possibly hyperventilating, “you and me both. Fuck.” He pressed two fingers to his neck, checking his own pulse.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked weakly.
“Shit, scooter, I don’t know. Probably visit my daughter every now and then, damn.” He scrubbed his hands over his face, groaning deeply.
My head swam. I flopped backwards, staring at the night sky. The stars looked like little white spiderlings. I thought suddenly of my mother back at the house, and for whatever reason, all I could think to say was, “Hey, uh, so I was thinking. You should give my mom a call sometime. She’s not seeing anyone.”
I don’t remember getting home that night. I don’t remember getting settled on campus the next day. But I think I’m going to change my major to biology. I’d like to see Lucy again, and I think maybe a study in arachnology might be a good place to start.