Terri Muldoon

Summer Fiction

Your 2020 Summer Reading List: Julia Heaberlin’s ‘Wide Open Spaces’

The breakout single from the band now known as The Chicks serves as the foundation for this short, by author Julia Heaberlin.

Mind you, Daddy said to me, there’s a little serial killer in every boy.

He was striding by on his way to the barn, shaking his head at my brother, who was carefully placing a fly that he’d snatched from midair into a spider’s web. 

The web hung like the spokes of a bicycle wheel in a high corner of the porch. A brown orb sat in the center of his masterpiece, waiting.

Billy yanked me to the floor by my ponytail to watch the drama he’d set in motion. His mouth was always in motion, too.

Spiders can build a web in an hour.

They paralyze their victims.

Flies taste with their legs. 

They love eating shit.

The one that landed on your hot dog yesterday had plenty of it on its feet. 

We sat there, necks crooked up, until the bones in my butt hurt. A few days earlier, I had a fly as a pet. It followed me everywhere. I talked to it. I thought it was my dead grandpa visiting me. 

Billy pinched my thigh and tugged me down every time I tried to get up from the porch floor. Stay. I focused on the intricate lines of the web instead of on the spider wrapping my grandpa like a silk mummy. 

My father, Billy, the farm—always giving me death lessons. 

I was 11 when the spider met the fly. Eight when my grandfather’s face turned red and he dropped off his tractor. Three when I first heard a chicken scream in the night. Ten when I watched a cow’s eyes go slack and sad after delivering a stillborn calf that I named Ginger. Daddy wouldn’t tell me where he buried her or take the fuzzy purple iris I tried to give him to lay on her grave. 

Mind you, he said, it’s the cycle of life. 

The web was gone the next morning. Every wisp of it. The memory was a faint blue streak on my skin from my brother’s fingers. 

That afternoon, I sat down on the porch alone. I waited until the spider returned to build again. Mind you, my father said, slipping up behind me, traps can be beautiful. He was still for once, staring at the wide-open spaces that penned in our house like a Civil War battlefield. 

It was the closest thing to regret I ever heard from his mouth.

Mind you, he’d shouted on the day I started up my car for college, check the oil. He was already halfway to the pasture to inspect a break in a fence. His words spiraled up like the tail of a kite, up and away. I know what he was really saying.

Mind you, be careful.

Mind you, there’s a little bit of serial killer in every boy.

My mother’s face was teary on the other side of the car window, not ready to let me go. My father was trudging away, toward sky and land. My foot was hovering over the gas pedal, itching to be free. 

Mind you

My wrists are wet with blood.

I’m raking the scarf that binds my hands back and forth across a curve of steel. I’m blinded by darkness. By the glitter of stars when I close my eyes. 

Catching something is all in the physics.

So is getting away. 

That’s what Billy said, while he snatched a fly out of the air.

While he pinned me on the ground and let me squirm, his spit dripping on my cheek.

Flies have wings.

Chicks have claws.

You giving up?

The trunk pops.

On my wrists, a spider’s thread left to break. 

The stranger leans down, not as big as I remember back at the gas station. Behind him, wide-open spaces.

I swing the crowbar.

Julia Heaberlin’s favorite song by The Chicks is “Goodbye Earl,” so she figures they will forgive this dark interpretation. She is the author of the international bestseller Black-Eyed Susans, Paper Ghosts, and a new psychological thriller, We Are All the Same in the Dark, coming from Penguin Random House on August 11.


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