And She Looks Up
I am fifteen when I grow my second set of eyes.
At first, they are only little red lumps, sitting just below my actual eyes—the two I was born with, that most everybody has—and just above my cheekbones. I think nothing of them when I first notice. I’m a teenager, after all. I get spots on my face all the time, from a myriad of untraceable sources. Worrying too much would just cause a headache.
On the fourth day after they appear, they turn into scabs. They itch and burn, and my mother slaps my hand away every time she catches me poking at the skin at the dinner table, muttering about how you’ll only make them worse. I swear you can’t go five minutes without picking at your face. You’ll get scars, you know.
I tell her that this is different, and she tells me to eat my broccoli before it gets cold. I shut my mouth and feed the stalks to the dog when she’s not looking.
On day six, I wake up and find the spots crusted with blood. With a kind of unthinking, morbid fascination, I grab a washcloth and scrub off the blood until the skin is raw. Something in that spot hurts, in a new, strange way I’m unfamiliar with, and then the lids peel back, my second set of eyes blinking in time with my primary ones, a light grey to my original brown.
I scream, even as a part of me knows, had known from the first day I could feel the itch below—might have even known long before that—and my mother comes running from two floors down. When she breaks down the bathroom door and finds me sitting on the tile floor, frozen—because God everything looks so different now and the bright, sterile bathroom lights are so much harsher to look at with four eyes that I feel trapped in them—she screams too.
She keeps screaming long after I’ve stopped.
My third pair of eyes comes in two weeks before my seventeenth birthday. Brown, this time, two shades darker than the ones I inherited from my mother. Every color I see gets sharper with their arrival, that much more defined, and I’m almost painfully in love with it all.
My mother is still in mourning, in a way. She never accepts the reality of it, not like I do, though I suppose it’s different for me. It’s always easier to come to terms with your own life.
We develop a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell policy about it. She bought me the patches some girls use, a week after that first set came in, the kind that remind me of the little round band-aids they would stick on splinter wounds in elementary school. Water absorbent, makeup compatible—the commercials promise you’ll never know they’re there! Maybe other people don’t. I do. I feel like I’m half blind, whenever they’re on. I suppose, really, I am.
It’s an unspoken agreement. I wear the patches out of the house, and in exchange, I can do whatever the hell I want when I’m inside. After my fifth and sixth eyes show up, I spend a lot of time peering in bathroom mirrors, thinking about peeling off the four badly-contoured patches dotted in an even row along my cheeks to see what my classmates look like under triple scrutiny.
I never do. It would just upset my mother, and I have enough trouble passing class as is.
My fourth, and final, set appears when I am eighteen, six weeks off from graduation and three days after I tell my mother I’ll attend the college she prefers, but I will be applying for the fine arts program. They’re blue. I always wanted blue eyes as a child, like all my cousins have.
Later that night finds my mother and I on opposite ends of the kitchen counter, a mostly-empty bottle of wine between us. My mother has had three and a half glasses; I’m still holding the original she poured me, of which I’ve taken four sips over the last two hours.
“Natalie,” she half-mumbles, half-slurs into the glass, leaning forward over the counter, head lolling in the crook of her arm. She’s the only one who calls me Natalie, anymore. It’s been Nettle since I was seven and shoved a boy in my class—who had stolen and snapped my favorite drawing pencil—so hard he fell backwards into a patch of the stuff that bordered the playground.
Nettle. Nettle. Nettle. Prickly girl.
“Natalie,” my mother says, peering at me with bloodshot, watery eyes, imploring and sad. “I do love you.”
“I just…” she sighs, eyes slipping shut and face sinking into the pillow of her folded arm. “I should have known. I should never have let your Gran teach you to how to knit. Never.”
I bite my tongue against telling her that I’m pretty sure the knitting has nothing to do with it, and besides, Gran can do it twice as well as I can, and it’s not like she turned out to be a Latrodectus.
“Let’s get you to bed, Mom,” I say instead, and pry the wine bottle from her half-hearted grasp.
She’s not a bad woman. She just never planned on having someone like me for a daughter.
I start work in a coffee shop on the corner of West and Pine a month after I begin school. The place is tiny, cramped, two blocks from campus, always densely populated by students, and owned by this little old woman in her sixties who still has anti-Vietnam War slogans papering the windows of the second-story apartment above the shop, and who doesn’t care what hiring a Latrodectus to work the front counter will do to her profit margin. I make eleven bucks an hour, get an apron with my name embroidered on it, and don’t have to wear the patches. For the first time in years, I can actually see like I’m meant to, and not on a schedule. It’s strangely liberating.
I like it, enough to stay on through the summer and into the next year after that. I didn’t want to go home, anyways. I love my mother, but that doesn’t mean I can live with her.
I have two coworkers, Damian and Ash. I get along fairly well with Ash—they don’t have a gender, I have eight eyes. There’s a kind of kinship there: a bond of being something else.
Damian is technically the lead barista, shift supervisor—as much as that means anything, in a shop that employs only three people—and mostly has the position on the merit of having been here the longest. He’s…I don’t like or dislike him. He’s a man, and he never knows which set of eyes to look me in. But he splits equal time on whose phone gets plugged into the shop speakers, never hurts me or Ash, and makes a mean latte, so he’s got that much going for him.
Vanessa is a regular. She comes in every Tuesday and Thursday morning, orders the largest drip coffee we serve and a blueberry muffin, and spends two hours sitting in the window seat writing in a green notebook with whatever pen she has in her pocket. I fall in love with her the first time she smiles at me, white teeth against a lip that’s been abused from a nervous picking habit and smoothed over with Chapstick. I take over muffin-baking duties the days she comes in, save the best for her, and never say a word. Ash gets it, Damian really doesn’t.
“If you like her,” he says to me on a Thursday, leaning against the counter and eyeing me skeptically, “why don’t you just talk to her? Get her number, or something.”
I stare at him, incredulous, and next to me I can practically feel Ash doing the same. “…You’ve never spoken to a woman in your life, have you?” Ash says after a moment, and I stifle a snort at the offended look on Damian’s face.
“I talk to you and Nettle, don’t I?”
“I’m not a girl.”
“…I talk to Nettle.”
“You know what I meant,” Ash says, voice slightly sour, and Damian rolls his eyes. I fight the urge to roll my own. With eight eyes, it can cause a headache pretty quickly.
“Do you remember that guy who kept coming in and bothering Ash last spring?” I say instead, hip propped against the counter and arms crossed. “He’d hang around for hours, nursing the same coffee, and try to talk to them every time they walked by?”
“I remember Mrs. Taylor banning him from the shop,” Damian says, voice somewhere between confused and skeptical, and I nod.
“He was harassing them. Trying to ask them out in a setting where they couldn’t comfortably tell him to fuck off. This is our workplace, we have a right to do our job without being subject to repeated, unwanted advances. And—“ I dip my head towards Vanessa in her window seat. “This is a place Vanessa can come to get food and chill the fuck out. She has the same right not to be bothered. I’m not going to make her uncomfortable or feel like she can’t come here just because I fancy her.”
Damian’s eyebrows dip together. “But you haven’t even asked once.”
“Call it a preemptive strike,” I say, turning away and grabbing the damp cloth I’d left sitting on the counter, wiping it down. “Besides, I don’t even know if she’s gay, and I’m…” My hand flutters up to my cheek on instinct, brushing just under my eyes, and I force it down.
“It’s different for people like us,” Ash offers, and I incline my head in agreement.
“Ugh,” Damian groans. Clearly still at a loss, he grabs a bag of coffee beans to refill one of the machines and stalks off. “Women.”
“I’m not a woman!” Ash screeches, and throws their own cloth at his head as he walks away. In her corner, Vanessa flinches at the increased volume and looks over wildly, and Ash and I both duck our heads.
“I’m not,” Ash mutters under their breath, and I just grab their hand and squeeze.
“I know you’re not.”
There’s a boy in my watercolors class this semester who stares unabashedly at me every time I walk into the room, eyes glued to my own, and never my primary ones. I don’t pay him much attention—he’s not the first to look at me like that, and he won’t be the last. I am a Latrodectus, I’m a marvel to be admired, or a freak to be objectified. Depends on whom you ask.
Five weeks into the semester, he stops by my station as I’m packing up after class, leaning a casual elbow against the blank side of my canvas. He and I both know it’s for show: if he put any real weight against it, both he and the easel would topple over.
“Aaron,” he says, holding out a hand to shake, casual and confident. I take it reluctantly; it’s sweaty. “Nettle, right? You’re pretty good…for a sophomore.”
I blink coolly at him, watch his eyes track the movement of my own. “Thanks. You’re pretty good, too. For a senior.”
He turns faintly pink and grimaces, and I feel the slightest twitch of a smile curl at the edge of my lips. Never let it be said I can’t deliver a backhanded compliment as well as I can receive one.
“You’re a latro-whatever, right?” His smile is still firmly in place. “I’ve heard your lot can talk to spiders and shit. Is that true?”
“People say a lot of things,” I tell him bluntly, trying to speed up the process of shoving my supplies into my bag. I’m not really in the mood to deal with this. “Some say we’ve got eight fingers.” I hold my hand up and wiggle its plain old five, for emphasis.
“Fair enough,” Aaron says, holding up his hands in easy surrender. “Latrodectus,”—so he does know the word—“you’re all uh…” he makes a gesture with his hand that I suppose is meant to mean something. “Right?”
“We’re all what?” I say tiredly. Gay? That tends to be the first thing people ask, as if it’s some kind of precursor.
Statistically, yes. We prefer women, or no one at all. What can I say? Men see a spider and expect to get their head bitten off.
“Proud,” he says instead, surprising me. “That’s why you’re the way you are…? Story of the weaver woman, or something. She was too prideful, and so a goddess punished her for it.”
I grab the last of my brushes off my table and shove it into my bag, zipping it up and throwing it over my shoulder. “I wouldn’t say pride, no.” With that, I turn to leave, and he yells over my shoulder. There’s a strange lilt to his voice, and I’m not quite sure if it’s amusement or just plain confusion.
“What would you call it, then?”
“Talent,” I say, and the slamming of the door cuts off whatever he was going to say next.
On a Thursday in October, thirty minutes or so after Vanessa has shown up and I have served her a Venti drip coffee and a fresh muffin, Ash grabs my hand and drags me into the back of the shop, to the door of the pantry. “I need your help,” they say firmly, jaw set despite their wide, panicked eyes that keep darting to the pantry. I raise an eyebrow and push the door open. The light is already on, and a misshapen, clearly dropped bag of flour lies on the floor.
Behind me, I feel Ash grab my arm, peering over my shoulder and pointing a shaking finger towards the object of their terror hanging from the ceiling. “Is…is it poisonous?”
I blink. “…It’s a Daddy Longlegs,” I say, fighting to keep the amusement out of my voice. I must fail, because Ash’s foot kicks mine lightly a moment after.
“I don’t care what it is! Just make it go away, please! I know they’re harmless, but god they scare me.”
“Okay, okay,” I brush them off, and step over to the spider, holding my hand out below. It wavers for a moment, and then drops from the strand of silk it’s dangling from, falling into my hand gracefully. I curl my fingers around it, and it brushes up against them, legs tickling my palm. “There’s two more under the shelves,” I say. “Should I get them, too?”
I kneel, placing my spare hand palm-up against the ground, and watch as the other two Daddy Longlegs scurry out from underneath the lowest pantry shelf and into my hand.
“It’s terrifying how you do that,” Ash says, voice awed. They take a large jump out of the way as I approach the door. “Like…cool as hell, don’t get me wrong, but terrifying. No offense.”
I don’t take any. It’s different, coming from Ash.
“Make way for the arachnid-train,” I say dryly, sticking my hand towards them just to hear them screech as I make my way towards the café proper, headed for the front door. Ash follows a careful two steps behind, staring at the spiders in my hands.
“It’s like they just know you,” they mumble, sounding impressed, if mildly petrified, and I snort, turning back to them and holding the closest one up to my face. Its leg brushes my nose.
“Of course. Just look at us, we’re practically cousins.”
Ash hops in front of me, and props the door open. I crouch at the entranceway, holding out my hands, and the spiders move out as one onto the sidewalk.
“Spider evacuation successful!” Ash cheers as they slam the door behind me, and I grin, heading back to the counter before I run near face-first into Vanessa, her nose bumping against mine in a strange, accidental mimicry of the spider’s kiss. I backpedal on instinct, cheeks burning, until I crash into Ash. I had forgotten entirely Vanessa was here.
Vanessa smiles, a little soft, a little shy. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” she says, echoing words I’ve heard before, but there’s nothing condescending in her voice, for a change. “It was really…something. I didn’t know that was a Latrodectus thing.”
“It’s a Nettle thing,” Ash corrects behind me, sounding smug, and I step on their foot.
Vanessa’s eyes flicker down to my name tag, smile widening slightly. “Nettle. If you don’t mind me asking, where’d you pick up a name like that?”
“You don’t want to know, trust me,” I say on instinct, words running monotone, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. This is the first time we’ve spoken, outside of taking her order.
“Okay,” she laughs, and turns to go back to her seat. I swallow and then blurt out—
“Are you a writer?” Vanessa turns back to me, eyes wide, and I gesture frantically to the notebook still in her hand. She blinks, before her face clears in understanding, and she nods.
“Yes, I’m a writer.” She gives me another awkward smile, and I watch her go.
“She’s a writer,” I mumble as I feel Ash come up next to me, and I can sense their grin as they lean into my ear.
“Get some,” they whisper, and then shriek in peeling laughter, running back to the counter, as I try, and fail, to elbow them sharply in the ribs.
As the leaves change and the world rolls into November, my mother begins calling, wanting to know if I’ll be home for Thanksgiving to see the relatives.
I have two aunts, one married, one unmarried, three younger cousins who enjoy pulling my hair and poking my eyes when I’m put on babysitting duty, a grandfather who gives me quarters to buy M&Ms every time I see him, and a grandmother who still says the lesbians and the Latrodectus in the same vein under her breath whenever she thinks I’m not listening.
“I don’t know,” I say when she asks, stalling, and eventually I stop picking up altogether. One night, she calls eight times, the incessant ringing enough to drive me from my apartment.
I go to the studio. Students are allowed there after hours, to work, and right now there’s nothing I need more than to put on some shitty music, grab a brush, and do what I do best.
It’s not until after I’ve already shoved the door open and taken half the steps to my workstation that I realize I’m not alone. It’s the guy from before—Aaron—holed up at the other end of the room in front of his own easel. He stares at me, and I stare back for a moment before shaking my head and continuing to my spot. So he asked a couple rude questions once. A lot of people have, even people I eventually learned to get along with. Doesn’t mean we can’t share a space in silence for a couple hours. We’re both students, after all, and it’s not like he’s bothered me again since last time.
Besides, I can always keep a couple eyes on him, if I feel the need to. Visual multitasking has quickly become my specialty.
I shove my headphones on once I get there. Find some old alt rock album I’ve heard a hundred or two times and lose myself in it. There’s a buzz in my fingers, crawling under the skin and humming with energy, and I know it means I’ll have to rob the supply closet for some good sketch paper after I’m done here—a couple hours of painting won’t be enough to quiet it, this will be one of those nights I’m up and bouncing off the walls, completely forgone to the urge to create. The true mark of a Latrodectus.
After what feels like not even half long enough, a tap on my shoulder interrupts me, and I push my headphones down onto my neck, turning and glaring slightly at Aaron. “What?”
He winces. “I need help getting one of the bigger canvases out of the storage room. I don’t want to drop it.”
I think for a moment, and then sigh. It’s not like we’re not already alone. What difference does this make? “…Fine.” Aaron doesn’t say anything, but he looks relieved as I follow him to the storage room. Between the two of us, there’s no trouble getting the canvas safely off the shelf, and I’m almost feeling kind of steady, calmed—as if maybe I rushed to judge him a little harshly—before he takes that moment to open his stupid goddamned mouth.
“You were wrong, you know.”
I very pointedly do not drop my end of the canvas, but I do quickly put it to the ground. Aaron doesn’t seem deterred, lowering his half of the canvas and propping it against the wall. He won’t stop looking at me, and I cross my arms. “I was what?”
“Wrong. I looked it up.” He pulls out his phone, waving it in the air as if it proves something. “Story of Arachne, the weaver who boasted she was better than Athena. The god punished her for her hubris. Pride.”
“…I didn’t say you were wrong,” I say after a moment, looking away. “I just said it wasn’t the term I’d use. Besides, what’s wrong with a little pride in your work?”
“Enough pride to challenge a god?” He raises an eyebrow, steps closer, crowding me in. I know two steps back will put me against the wall, so I hold my ground. Aaron just comes closer. He’s several inches taller than me, I realize properly for the first time. I don’t much care for it. “Sometimes people ought to know better, ought to know their place.”
I place a hand on his chest, and shove him out of my space, sending him stumbling back. He glares at me, and I glare back, eight eyes worth of fury turned his way. “She won that contest,” I hiss, and neither of us need me to say what I really mean.
I turn to leave, and he grabs my wrist, yanking me back to face him. “Why are you such a bitch? Isn’t the whole point of this—” he waves his spare hand at my face, “to make you ashamed? You’re supposed to be the daughters of Arachne or whatever, but even she knew that.”
“Get off of me!” I screech, and lash out, kicking his shin with all the force I can muster. He yelps, hunching over slightly, and I yank my wrist out of his hold, turning and running. I grab my bag as I dart through the studio, not even bothering to grab the brushes still at my station.
I don’t stop running until I’m halfway to my apartment, breath coming in short pants and tears I can’t make sense of blurring my vision—all eight eyes of it.
I’m not being punished. I’m not.
The next morning at the shop, my hands tremble as I put the muffins for the day on their shelf in the display cabinet. They’re slightly lumpy, and all I can hope, against all reason, is that it doesn’t bother Vanessa.
I just don’t want her to have a bad day. Muffins are important.
“You alright?” Ash asks me as we open shop, staring at my red-rimmed eyes, and I just scowl. When I looked in the bathroom mirror this morning, all I could see was my mother, bent over her wine glass and hating what the world had given her.
“Just angry,” I say, and they nod like they get it. They probably do.
When Vanessa comes in, a curtain of black hair against pale skin, she orders from Ash even more quietly than usual, and instead of going to her window, takes a seat at the coffee bar, elbows on the counter and head slumped in her hands. I stare at her, and then at Ash, who looks back worriedly. Even Damian looks up from the espresso machine, squinting in confusion. After a long moment, he looks to me as well, and I sigh, taking a step closer to Vanessa.
“Are you…doing okay?” I ask quietly, and she looks up, blinking rapidly.
“Oh. Um. Yes, fine. Sorry, Nettle.”
I offer her a lopsided smile. “It’s alright—and it’s alright to not be alright, y’know? It happens.” Vanessa offers me a thin, brittle smile, and shrugs.
“…Relationship trouble?” I guess at random, and she snorts.
“What? No. God, no.”
“Ah.” I scratch awkwardly at the back of my neck, trying to think of the right thing to say to someone who’s clearly not okay, no matter what she says. Just when I think I might have landed on something, the front bell rings as the door opens, and then a loud voice echoes through the shop.
“Oh, God. You work here?”
I look up sharply, and Aaron stands there, scowling in the doorway. Muttering, he slinks over to the nearest table, and I get a vicious satisfaction in recognizing that he’s limping.
“What on Earth is his problem?” Vanessa says quietly, and I shrug, keeping a couple eyes on Aaron’s moping form as he sits down and glares back at me, before grabbing a book out of his bag and pointedly yanking it up high enough to hide his face. In the morning light, he’s wiry and thin, chipped paint caught under his blunt fingernails and a misplaced bruise or a sad love bite on his collarbone, and all kinds of pathetic. I can’t help but wonder how on Earth I have eight perfectly good eyes, but still couldn’t see how small he really is. He’s just a man.
For a moment, I debate the merits of going over there and throwing him out on his ass. After last spring, we all have banning privileges now. I could get Ash to do it, if I didn’t want to. Hell, even Damian would, if I asked. This is our workplace; we have a right to feel safe.
…But I already am safe.
There’s a shiver of movement by my foot, and I glance down, noticing a spider as it crawls across the toe of my boot. On instinct, I stoop, holding out a hand, and it climbs into it. I hold it up to my face, studying it. Of course. These one always have a tendency to find me when I’ve been upset. My mother always found them in the pantry, after we’d argue, and she’d scream bloody murder. She didn’t understand that I wasn’t bringing them in on purpose.
“What is it?” Vanessa asks, and I glance over. Four eyes on her, two on my hand, two still idly keeping watch on Aaron. She doesn’t seem bothered.
“We used to get them in my basement,” she frowns, and to my surprise, leans in a little, rather than away. “Aren’t they poisonous?”
“Only slightly. They’re often thought of as aggressive, but they only bite when threatened.” The spider turns just slightly, in my palm, and I place it down on the counter.
“Want to help?” I ask it, more for Vanessa’s benefit than my own. “Don’t hurt him. Just frighten him a little.” It sets off, legs bustling, and Vanessa watches it go with wide eyes. “…Sorry,” I say after a moment. “I know that’s probably—weird. To watch.”
“No.” Vanessa shakes her head. “I mean—yeah. But it’s fine. I don’t mind.” She hesitates, biting her lip. “Actually—God, sorry, this will sound weird. Could I get your phone number?” I blink, stunned, and she rushes on. “It’s just—I got a call from home this morning. My baby sister just got in her eyes, second set, and my parents are freaking out. You’re the only Latrodectus I know, and I know I don’t really know you but—I don’t know what to do and—“
“Vanessa,” I say softly, cutting her off, and she sinks down in her seat, just a little.
“I thought about ignoring it and hoping they figure it out themselves, but…something like this isn’t just going to go away, is it?”
“…No, it’s not.” I fish an old receipt out of my apron pocket, scrawling my number onto it, and slide it across the counter. “Call me anytime you need, whatever questions you have. You or your sister.”
Vanessa takes it slowly, that small smile back on her face. “…Thank you.”
After Vanessa leaves, giving me an awkward wave as she heads out the door, Damian sidles up to me, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Going to get laid?”
I roll my eyes, all eight of them. “No, going to be a friend.”
“Ah.” He doesn’t sound entirely confused. Maybe he’s learning.
“…Cover for me for ten minutes?” I ask, and he blinks.
I nod to him, and then head to the back, going out the side door that leads into the alley next to the shop. I lean against the wall, head tilted up to watch the sun. There are just enough clouds out to keep its light from blinding me, but the color still dazzles and shimmers in a way I never could have seen as a child. After a moment of hesitation, I slide my hand into my apron pocket, and fish out my phone.
This is my workplace. I am not afraid.
I call my mother.
Clark Lewis is an incoming MFA in Creative Writing student at Columbia University. Their work has been previously featured in the first volume of the VAST Zine, and the Solar Sessions Zine. They are currently hard at work on their first novel about A.I., the art of being nonbinary, the culpability of being compliant in an abusive system, and found family. When not writing, they spend most of their time yelling about demons, goddesses, and, of course, spider-girls. They can be found on Twitter @TheClarkLewis.