Forty-nine means your skin is like pea gravel. When you’re middle-aged, you start to turn to stone—punctured, implausibly, by whiskers, like crabgrass poking up through sidewalk grass. We all love a lush green lawn, but a single rough blade, insisting on its right to be where we know it doesn’t belong, is an outrage. I used to pluck each whisker. I’d grab at it with the tweezers, again and again, somehow just missing—pulling away while the whisker still stood—but I kept at it until I got those suckers; I’d hold them to the light and there they’d be. It wasn’t long before they grew too numerous for plucking to be practical, and I’d reach for the razor instead, my chin raised at the mirror like a man’s.

I’d like to be soft again, somehow.

My son left me two years ago. It was just him and me then, but in the span of a night it was just me, and it was him, separate. He wasn’t yet out of high school. To this day, I don’t know where he lives, or if it’s even indoors. I don’t know what or if he eats. I picture him in the last outfit I saw him in—jeans and an orange pocket tee. He took no other. Sometimes I think maybe he’s dead in it.

I rub my hand along my now-smooth chin. When I was a child, my father would rub his chin against my cheek, hard. How I’d yell—Too rough! Too rough!—even though I kind of liked it. My mom would make him quit. I don’t much like having a beard of my own, but I wouldn’t mind feeling texture against me once more.

Today of all days, I didn’t need to pluck. I lift the panther head over mine and peer out through the screen of the eyes. It instantly feels steamy and it smells like old breath—the combined exhales of a decade of dancing, jumping, running school mascots.

I bought my fursuit in a charity auction at Patterson High. I’m not sure where the furries get them, but I think a lot of them sew. In the pictures, they all look rather similar—flared and stuffed haunches, cartoon eyes. My panther legs go straight up and down, like trousers, and my head is like a globe, not molded and defined. I turn one way, convinced I’ll fit right in, then turn the other and nearly give right up.

My love for Jason was prickly, minus the actual abrasive love scritch. There wasn’t a lot of scritching—the furries’ word for a gentle and affectionate scratch on the back. He never had a dad, if you don’t count whiskered me. He didn’t even have grandparents—my dad long dead, my mom disapproving. She’d suggested an abortion. Maybe she sees a homeless runaway grandson as being like that. If she didn’t want Jason, I didn’t want her—and though Jason’s gone, that still holds.

Now that I’m ready, I don’t know the best way to get to the civic center for the event I’ve been waiting on: FurNature Con, billed as the Midwest’s second-largest furry convention. I could take the bus or train, but would I wear my fursuit or take it in a bag? It’s big. I can fold the bodysuit up and store it in the mask, but the head is huge and heavy, like a prize pumpkin. It’s a lot to carry into rush hour. For now I take it off and hold it at my side.

“I’ll be home late,” I tell my roommate, Belinda. She’s gaming—a buff male avatar gazes around a battered wall with a huge unlikely weapon in his arms. All the gunfire I hear suggests that this is a critical moment, but it doesn’t keep her from staring.

“FurNature,” I say. I shrug, like it’s an everyday thing. It’s clear from looking at her that Belinda doesn’t know what I’m talking about—thinks I’m saying “furniture,” like couches and chairs.

“Great,” she says. “Have a great time.” It’s a very Belinda sentiment, and once again she has risen to the level of her purpose. Skinny Belinda is nonetheless like an old, fat dog in my no-pet apartment building. Curiosity makes her look up, but she doesn’t’ ask questions, and nothing could make her pursue.

I’ve decided to wear my fursuit and grab a ride service. I text the driver that I’m easy to spot, and I stand outside in my black pelt—tap my foot like any late commuter as I wait.

+

The last day I saw Jason, he wore a tail. It was a long, narrow thing, tufted at the end, and gold, like a lion’s, maybe, or a giraffe’s. Jason had always been tall, and kids called him that, and other things, too. Giraffe. Skyscraper. Too-Tall, Totem Pole, Stilts.

It wasn’t like the tails I see in pictures from furry cons. Those are almost always fat and fluffy. My panther tail is like Jason’s was—long and ropy, slim. Runs in the family, I think. I grab it and give it a flick, less like a furry than like Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, wringing his tail in his hands like a handkerchief. I refuse to think of tail as apology, though. That nerve-filled extension of the spine is made to tingle and sense, like an antenna connected to your backside. And didn’t I need to be sharp?

Jason loved animals, and he was always drawing them—the arc of their whiskers, the tufted ears, the angular back limbs. He was good, and he should have been—it’s all he ever wanted to do. Once in an argument I took his journal and threw it in the sinkwater. It was still floating there, bloated, in the morning when I got home from work.

I’ll bet it’s easy being a sweet mom if your kid eats his vegetables, or if he reads more than he games, or if he changes his clothes more than once a week. I was never sweet, and I never had much time. Most days I greeted him with did-you-do-your-homework. Most nights he went to bed without a kiss.

It’s easy to second-guess, after. Some nights I tell myself I did the best I could, and then I can go to sleep.

+

My ride pulls up, a black sedan, and I step into it—sleekly, I think—before the car pulls silently away.

“I’m heading to the civic center,” I tell the driver through my mouth slit.

“Yeah,” she says, and her voice suggests she’s carried a steady stream of housedogs and jungle cats today.

But when I get there, most convention-goers—at least seven out of ten—are in street clothes. A lot of the others, more than half of them, wear ears and tails. As I suspected, the fursuits I see are different than mine—sleek and customized, at both more and less animalistic.

The convention hall has a great foyer just inside the doors, and people are clustered in groups to talk. A man in street clothes wields a red laser, and a group of fully costumed cat furries chase it back and forth as I watch. They jump and bat with their paws, and they race each other to the left and the right to touch the uncatchable light.

The registration line has the usual belt-and-stanchion system with about twenty feet between switchbacks. That means the people in line talk have occasion to talk to the person beside them, and that person changes every time the line moves, until the series of lefts and rights brings the same alignment into play. It’s a friendly group, and no one seems to mind the wait too much.

I’m temporarily beside the lithe, elegant Mona Lisa of furries—a gorgeous lavender sloth with hooded eyes and long, expressive nails—when she turns my way and says hello.

“I’m digging your suit,” the sloth tells me in gruff cigarette tones. “It’s refreshingly old school.”

I’m surprised to hear an older man’s voice coming from the elegant sloth.

“I was admiring yours,” I say back. To my ears, I sound convincingly feline. “You’re way on the other end of the spectrum.”

Elegant Sloth laughs. “Oh, I used to come when everyone looked like a high school mascot,” they say. “We used to meet out at the Ramada Inn by the airport—maybe thirty of us in the early going. Those were the days.”

For a few minutes, Elegant Sloth regales me with memories of a conference so small it had no consecutive sessions—just a big room with a series of panels, one after the other. These days, a lot of people skip the panels entirely, and I can tell this displeases Elegant Sloth, who favors a more refined time. I try to imagine it that way—all those furry legs, one propped on the other to make a knee-desk, and a pencil gripped within a paw, scratch-scratching down some notes.

Elegant Sloth moves ahead. We’re close to the booth, so I don’t know if we’ll talk again. It was a fairly normal conversation, I reflect, and I held my own in it. No real judgment, or at least everything I judged, I judged as positive.

But there’s the matter of the outfit. I knew it wasn’t one of the better ones, but I’d hoped I wouldn’t be immediately pinned as a mascot. I guess I figured when I pulled off the massive football jersey with the Jefferson High initials on it, I might look like any other anthropomorphized beast. But there are costumes—mascot, Halloween, what have you—and there are fursuits, and they are not the same.

Something happens to a person in a fursuit. I don’t know how to describe it. They move differently—they stalk or pace or spring; they jump or wiggle. They don’t pace like a person in fur. Rather, they seem animated by something more primal. Even if the colors are fanciful and the facial expressions look straight of out anime, I sense a realness to the furries—the fursonas, I should say.

I wonder if that’s what Jason was going for in his long, brush-tipped tail. Did he feel like himself, or was he more giraffe? When I snatched at it, only to find it was belted firmly at his waist, did he feel like an animal cornered? I didn’t mean to pull him down, and I still don’t know why there were tears. Maybe I hurt him. It was unintentional.

When I attend the annual conference of nurse managers—the Nurse Management Conference, it’s called, set for Nashville this year—I guess we get into a groove, checking the name tag and then scanning up to the face above it. We’re all on social media and the message boards, and more people know me as Felicity Stanos than as a round-faced woman with eyes like overwashed denim and brown hair going gray.

Like a lot of women my age, my profile picture shows me from an angle. In shadow. Five years ago.

Instead of checking nametags of furries, I scan the room and take in each new person from the bottom, starting with the tail. There are no giraffes in sight. My eyes move from one unmasked face to another. Everyone seems so young, so full of energy. Talking and laughing in the small, roving packs has the atrium sounding like … well, a zoo, actually.

At the registration booth, I pick up my badge and my tote bag, and I pose for a snapshot—everyone does; I figure it’s a security thing. I smile inside my Jaguar head, and that makes me blush in there a bit, too. It’s hot, and my trapped breath smells stale to me. I consider removing it, but I decide against it. I haven’t seen a single face I know, but it’s better not to be recognized.

Word is passed from group to group: Area bars aren’t furry-friendly. If we want a beer, we’re better off at the bar at the attached hotel. Hotel bars don’t see fur; they see two-by-three plastic cards. These can be proffered by hand or paw; it all spends the same.

A first-timer—a Dachshund, I think—is ticked. She wants to mount a protest—to show the proprietors of the Lucky 7 and Doug’s Place and all the rest that we’re all the same under our skin. Her friend, unsuited, tries to calm her. It’s often this way, the friend explains. People don’t welcome what they don’t understand.

And there’s Jason, sprawled on his front in my kitchen, his tail still gripped in my hands. I can’t make that picture go away.

+

The morning after I knocked down my son, I’d just come off working night shift at the women’s hospital. It had been a tough night, much of the staff gone with flu, and I’d spent much of the shift in triage, helping with admissions, comforting a miscarriage best I could. Maybe this just wasn’t your time, I said, to be a mother.

It must not have been mine, either. Jason’s bed was empty. I couldn’t even be sure he’d slept there. Not much was missing—his sketchpads were stacked on his desk, his pencils sharp in their can—and I don’t know how I knew, but I did: He was never coming home.

I looked around for the tail. It wasn’t there.

+

And now I look some more through the black screen of my Jaguar eyes. All of these kids could be Jason, but none of them are.

The opening address is about to begin, and everyone starts to file toward the ballroom, equipped today with hundreds of chairs to accommodate what we’re hearing is a massive crowd—the biggest FurNature on record.

Someone scratches my back, and I turn my whole head to see through my eye screen who it is. I can’t tell, though. The crowd is on the move, and people flow past on each side. I wonder if it was someone I know—but that’s silly. What I see as we’re massing into place is that hands everywhere are stroking, scratching, and petting the backs and arms of others. I think it’s nice.

I’ll admit it. I came here expecting things to be a crazy—an entire convention center of dogs in heat, fursuited strangers mounting each other in the hallways. That’s what people presume, right? But I didn’t see any of that. Maybe people nuzzle a bit more. Maybe they sneak a sniff.

The opening address is all about being true to oneself. It’s given by a very self-assured rabbit with an English accent. His name isn’t Peter, though. It’s Cuniculus. The guy says we can call him Cunny if we see him on the floor. Cunny, I think. Cunny Bunny. Kind of funny. He gives a good speech and everyone seems to like it. We all clap.

I’m seated off to the side, and through all of the speakers, I scan the crowd, row by row, looking for a familiar face—looking for Jason, or even one of his friends I might recognize. Two years is a long time, and people change, but I know I’d recognize my own son, and no one else looks familiar.

What am I doing here, I wonder. I feel suddenly certain that Jason didn’t come—that my shy son wouldn’t, though maybe he’d want to. But isn’t that the whole point—not to be shy for a weekend? You don’t need to have a father or be loved well by your mother to be tall and blue-tongued and beautiful, strange hands scritching your scapula.

An organizer in a horse suit walks us through some of the fun in store for us. There’s a hoofer forum that’s new to FurNature—all of the horses and deer and unicorns and the like are having a whole morning of their own breakout session tomorrow, maybe as a precursor to their own event.

A dance is planned tomorrow, strictly for fursuiters. Street clothes are fursona non grata, the horse jokes, and everyone groans. Tonight, there’s an exhibition basketball game at the arena next door. Apparently, a local group reached the city league championship tournament with all members dressed as kangaroos. The horse says they proved unexpectedly daunting to their opponents (and maybe a little creepy, I add to myself), and this gave them an advantage. They’re playing the G-League basketball team (that’s like the NBA’s minor league, the horse advises) in a charity game, all proceeds going to the Humane Society.

Finally, the horse announces, there are door prizes, and everyone should check the wall outside to see if they got lucky.

           +

We start to file out—no basketball game for me tonight. My head is hot and I’m sure it’s tomato red. As I stand, patient in the bottleneck, a cat paw strokes my sleeve. I crane my neck to see, and a friendly calico is waving. I wave back.

The slow walk out is hard. I have to pee, and the heat is more than I can take. I feel bad about it, like I’ve lost or given up, but I pull off the jaguar head. The ballroom air seems so crisp to me, and it’s cool on my forehead and neck. I’m someone who sweats a lot, but I’m wet at my hairline, and I feel a drop slide down the back of my neck. How I must look, I think. I’m glad no one knows me here.

“Mrs. Stanos?” I hear someone say.

“It’s Ms.,” I reply without thinking, but then I remember my manners. “But please, call me Felicity.”

“What are you doing here?” the young man asks. He seems curious instead of unwelcoming. I notice he’s Jason’s age, maybe a senior or just graduated.

“Oh, same as you, I guess,” I smile, lifting my jaguar head.

“Is that … Jimmy?” the guy asks.

“Is what … who?”

“Jimmy the Jaguar. I went to Jefferson. That looks like Jimmy, our mascot,” the guy explains.

I don’t know why I didn’t think that out of a whole convention of area furries, no one would recognize the Jefferson High mascot. Who knows mascots like a furry? All at once I feel deeply ashamed.

“I’m not much good with a sewing machine,” I say, and ask, “Who are you?”

“Kyle Johnson. I was at your house a few times. I know Jason.”

I recognize Kyle, but it takes me a few seconds to register what he’s just said. He knows, not knew, my son.

With both mitts, I grab Kyle by his freckled, furless arms and clamp down.

“Where is he?” I growl, narrowing my eyes to slits.

“Hey, let go,” Kyle says, wide-eyed as a cornered peccary. He pulls at his arm and starts to back away, then wheels around and runs away.

I wasn’t going to hurt him. I wish I could find him and say so. I just want my cub.

My eyes well up and I pull my round head into place. Shame tears pour from me. They’re distinctive—much hotter than the usual kind. One rolls over my lips. It’s full of salt. I let myself sob a little, since I know the sound will be lost in a thick, hot head inside a noisy room.

The holdup is clear the minute I exit. A temporary wall has been erected, with eight-by-ten shots of the door prize winners the horse had mentioned. Most Catlike. Best Fantasy. Prettiest. There are about twenty categories, and everyone pauses to take them all in. An occasional squeal means someone has spotted themself.

“Hey, Panther, you’re a winner,” someone says, tugging at what is clearly my Jaguar arm.

I look, and there I am, my picture above my name. “Best Old-School.” I remember the Elegant Sloth—how I’d reminded him of the Ramada days. I’m to go to the info booth to claim my prize.

I lean in. Beside my name, I see what appear to be two penciled punctuation marks, but they’re drawn stylized and loopy. It’s possible they suggest a question … but maybe they’re meant to be a heart.

I spin around and look but no one’s watching. While I may be a brand-new predator, I know I’d sense him—know he’s gone. I’m invisible here in the shadows.

I pull the tacks from the corners of my picture, carry it with me to the door.

+

Karen Craigo is the author of two poetry collections, Passing Through Humansville (Sundress, 2018) and No More Milk (Sundress, 2016), and her fiction is included in Best Small Fictions 2018. She is a newspaper editor and teaches writing on the side in Springfield, Missouri.