I hugged you, and I hugged you again before you stepped out that door. Did I warn enough about the monsters? I didn’t want to make you worry. Maybe I should have. But now you’re gone. Out in the wild world, armed with nothing but laptop and laundry bag, books, and posters. With nothing to defend against the monsters, so many monsters lying in wait.
They look like everyone else, like peers and professors, like study partners and dorm staff. Will you recognize them when you cross their path? Did I, at your age?
In the chasm of your absence, fur sprouts across my body, thick patches shielding my vulnerable skin. I pace the empty hallway. Back and forth. Claws clicking, scratching the old wood floor. Back and forth. The emptiness cackles. My ears twitch. I burrow under a blanket to sleep, but minutes later, I am awake. I perch on your old desk and stare at the wall. It whispers of the horrors, of the dangers, of the sorrows you will face.
I turn away from the wall and smooth my whiskers, remind myself you’ve ventured out before. Onto a bus where you knew no one. Through the wide doors of a new school, again, and again, and again. You never looked back. My brave one. But this absence isn’t just for a day or a weekend. What if it’s forever?
I cradle the phone in clumsy human hands and try not to text you too much. Send a cute meme, link to an op-ed, and wait. I sit until my toes stretch, breaking through my slippers and snaking into the faux kitchen floor. Rooted in this spot, my mind bursts to twist in spindly, aching branches. Arms dense, eyes fastened open as I stare at the screen.
Your words come an eon later to light up my phone. My roots release. I can move again.
I know what it’s like to be alone in a crowd. Alone in a dorm. Alone in a lecture hall teeming with people. Trying to sort friend from foe. How to tell monster from friend? The monster smells sweeter. Smiles brighter. The monster makes you feel like a rock star at first.
Once innocent like you, I now have a scar for each lesson collected. I now know how first impressions deceive. How a handshake leads to conversation, leads to friendship, leads to heartbreak and pain.
I venture out, holding my breath for the three-hour drive, and pick you up at your dorm. You pick leaves from my hair and compliment the color. We go for lunch. You talk about homework, about friends and drama, about mistakes already made. Your smile is genuine. Your shoulders relaxed. You reach for another piece of pizza. Downy fluff falls from the cuff of your flannel to dance airily across the table. I visit your room before I go. Twinkle lights strung under the bunk, new posters on the walls, half-eaten snacks on the shelf. I hug you. I hug you again.
I slip out of your room as spidery legs erupt from my torso and extend.
My senses explode, propelling the world to the far edge of bearable. The dorm air soaks into my pores, a cocktail of anxiety and triumph, of malice and joy. A multitude of eyes see everything behind, see everything ahead. I draw out my silk, fasten one end to the frame of your door.
Gently, deliberately, I walk away.
Barbs on my legs bend with the air as people pass by. I judge the turbulence in their wake. I lay thread along the hallway, out the door, down the cold sidewalk. Leave the car window open and continue unraveling my thread, my connection, my line, all the way to the driveway.
I climb into the house and think of you as I build my web, anchoring it to every corner, to the coat closet and the medicine cabinet, to your bookcase and your old bean bag. The web is imbalanced. Hap-hazard. Too sticky in some places, too thin in others. It’s the best I can do.
I perch in the middle when it’s done, each leg on a different thread. One leg on the thread that extends down the highway, across the state, up a windy, tree-lined road, and all the way to your dorm room door. I ignore the scent of rain outside. Ignore the strobe of the TV and the drone of passing vehicles. Ignore everything but the threads. I wait for them to speak.
I wait, but all is still. My phone is quiet, so I check the socials.
There you are.
In a video with a caption that’s cynical but also funny. Sitting in the grass, drenched from a sudden downpour, textbook in your lap soaked through. Dark clouds hang overhead. Rough winds slap hair into your eyes, pull at fresh feathers, long and sturdy, reaching out from the collar of your shirt. You say you’re fine, and I hope it’s so.
Clambering to the door, I open it and watch the thread that leads to your dorm, to your life. Holding my breath, I reach out and, before fear can dissuade, slice the line. A breeze dives in to grab the broken end, twirling it higher and higher until all that’s left is me. Raw, spent. Human again.
You create your life, I rediscover mine. Still, I’ll keep one eye on the sky, now and always, hoping to someday glimpse the shape of your wings.
An Interview With A. Katherine Black
Intrepidus Ink: You have many literary options when writing a story, yet you chose #magicalrealism to bring the narrator’s struggle to life. Would you share why?
A. Katherine Black: I didn’t plan to write an MR story, but that’s what I love about the writing process – when I start a new piece, I rarely know what shape it’s going to take! All I had in mind when I began writing this piece was a protagonist dealing with powerful emotions. From there, the story emerged with a will of its own, which was really fun.
II: This story is complex on many layers yet relatable. How have you done it?
AKB: I’ve heard people say “write what you know.” In writing this story, I pulled from recent experiences in my own life, which made it easier for me to sink into the narrative voice and explore the character’s experiences. I hope the physical transformations that happen in the story help the reader understand the protagonist’s state of mind, also, in a way that simply telling couldn’t accomplish.
II: Would you share your journey toward becoming a #SFWA & #SFFH writer and how others can, too? Also, what’s next for you?
AKB: It’s never too late! I started writing short fiction when I was 40 years old. I began with an online course, which led to more courses, and then to workshops. My skills and confidence built with each step, until now, eleven years later, I’ve had thirty stories published, with more scheduled for 2024.
I mentioned that my stories sometimes emerge with a will of their own – I recently began writing a short story that didn’t want to end. The words poured out, more characters emerged, and the plot thickened, until I finally realized that this story wanted to be a novel. So, it appears 2024 will be the year I write my first novel. Wish me luck!
II: We do wish you all the very, very best and thank you for sharing your beautiful and emotional words with us!